It's 1941 for six minutes longer, going by the pocket watch that's the nicest thing Bucky Barnes owns. An aunt he doesn't remember left it to him when she died, and Bucky's going to leave it with Steve before he does. Steve will swear to safeguard it until Bucky comes home, and Bucky needs to decide whether he'll tell him not to be an idiot, promise me you'll pawn it before you skip on groceries, or smile and swallow because Steve never listens. Nothing's been said yet, but in the Pacific an island is still in mourning, and another ocean away men younger than he is are shooting each other, perhaps even now. Bucky can be stubborn and foolhardy and less than righteous, but he's not stupid. It'll be soon.
For now, though, it's 1941 and Brooklyn is as at much at peace as it ever gets. For now he's home, and Steve is safe, and both of them are too flushed with drink to feel the cold.
"What's the resolution this year?" Bucky asks. Steve is the only person he knows who makes resolutions every year, and keeps them, too. Steve believes that if you're not doing better, you're not doing your best, and if you're not doing your best you may as well pack it up and go home. Sometimes Bucky thinks it's a miracle they're friends.
"To enlist," Steve says, serious even loaded. Bucky wishes he hadn't asked. They've had this fight. He looks out the window, the darkness of night seeming eerily empty. There's been little snow this year. "What about you?"
Every year Steve asks him, and every year it's the same. "Stay alive." It started as a joke, because Steve wouldn't let it go, and Bucky isn't sure when he started to mean it. Maybe the first winter Steve's mother was dead, and Bucky was the only one around to drag him to the hospital. Maybe the year his father died, and he learned you could forget to want to. Or maybe he meant it all along, because even then he knew, didn't he, that his life had always been a fight and always would be. He doesn't remember a time he wasn't fighting. For himself, for the ones he loves—there's never been a difference.
Steve smiles likes Bucky's said something real profound. Bucky is thinking about different kinds of fights, about wavering suspended on a tightrope between years, between battlefields, between the boy he still feels like and the soldier he'll become. He's thinking that he's started a lot of fights and finished more, but he's never killed a man and he isn't looking forward to finding out what it's like.
He shakes his head. I'm turning into Steve, he thinks: all that somber pensiveness. He searches, whiskey-muddled, for the old impulse that used to get him into and out of trouble, a restlessness that keeps him out too late still and makes Steve shake his head and cluck his tongue and, sometimes, grin like he's startled by his own joy, with a spark in his eyes Bucky would do just about anything to keep there forever if he could. He doesn't know where it comes from, the itch that creeps on him when he goes still too long; he doesn't know where it would have led him if Steve hadn't always been along for the ride. So maybe that's why he kisses Steve full on the mouth, sloppy but real, pushing against his stiff lips, propelled by some mess of gratitude and fear and already missing the steadiness of his presence. It's something to do when Bucky has to do something to cool the burn on his skin.
God, but he'll miss the bastard.
Steve sputters and wobbles and when Bucky backs off he says, "What the hell?" Not mad. Just confused.
Bucky smirks, ready to convince them both it was a joke. "Don't pretend you didn't enjoy it."
And he was kidding, but Steve isn't kidding at all when he says, blushing, "I didn't say that."
Somewhere down the block a swell of voices is booming, blurred like sounds from the surface when you're underwater. I'll take a cup of kindness yet. Far away someone's setting off fireworks, and Bucky tries not to think about how much they sound like gunfire. Steve is touching his lip like he's not sure it belongs to him and when he looks up there's a softness in his eyes Bucky hates to and has to tear away from. A new resolution bubbles unbidden beneath his mind and he tries to bargain it shut: maybe if he comes back. When, he amends, trying to believe it. When he comes back, then, maybe—maybe then he can figure out what he's started. If he's started anything. Maybe then he can ask—he leans his head back against the wall, feels himself slumping to the floor under the sudden weight of time stretching out before him. The world is spinning out of control even through eyes falling shut. There are so many things to survive. Stay alive, he reminds himself. One year at a time.
Later they will look back, the both of them, and marvel at how quickly the years bled together, even before they disappeared from sight. After that night, neither of them is counting for a long time.
The thing about running away is that it demands somewhere to run to—a place or a person or a vision, at least, of what better looks like, so that you can recognize when you've reached it. All he has is a name that doesn't feel like his and the shadow of a memory that may as well be a dream. And one more thing that emerged in the after of his breaking, the closest thing to an inner push distinct from the codes a string of someones programmed into him: a drive to keep moving.
He knows he is being chased, possibly by multiple parties. He knows that the surest presence trailing his movements does not want to hurt him. It occurs to him once, early on, that a person should feel sorry for that; then it occurs to him that if he feels sorry about that he'll have to feel sorry for trying to kill him, and if he feels sorry for that he'll have to feel sorry for—
He keeps moving.
The thing about running away is that if you almost never sleep and you almost never eat, eventually you stop thinking even the blunted half-thoughts that were swirling in the circuitry that passes for your brain when you began. No matter how well someone has polished the knife they made your body, you can wear yourself down into a creature of hunger and sore feet and bruises you stumble into faster than they fade. If you can't build yourself into a person, you can disassemble the machine into an animal, at least.
The thing about animals, though, is they get tired. Enough to forget to run. When it gets cold and then colder and there's nothing anymore between him and the ground and sometimes in sleep tactics return to him for changing that without slowing down but then in sleep he remembers all the other things he has done without effort and then he's awake and running with eyes clouded by memories and—and he gets tired. That's all.
In the end he sees some steps and just sits down. Someone will find him, or he'll die. Or both.
He guesses he's lucky it's Rogers that finds him. He wonders what it would be like to care.
He knows the man in front of him and he knows that the man in front of him is Steve Rogers, but he has nothing in him with which to connect those facts. He knows Rogers is talking to him, calling a name that belonged once to someone with a face like his if his knew how to smile. He doesn't know what to say. Animals don't do a lot of talking.
Rogers holds up something long and dark. "I brought you a coat."
He eyes it hungrily, warily. "What do you want?" It comes out voiceless.
"I want to help you." Rogers hesitates. "I'd like you to come with me."
A glass-cased hollowness in him cracks. "I don't have a home."
"My home. Not—you can stay or not. I mean I—I just want to keep you safe. I'd like to."
Cracks, and shatters: broken edges dig under his skin. "I still don't remember Bucky."
Rogers's shoulders droop, but his face stays firm and—kind? Kind. "That's okay."
He must have known kind once if kind is a thing he can name. He would think it was a dream if he ever dreamed things that hadn't happened. Fear stirs in its hiding place, then wilts beneath exhaustion. It's starting to snow.
Rogers says, "Please at least take the coat."
He knows that Rogers doesn't want to hurt him. He knows that warmth is better than cold. He knows the man in front of him was meant to be the latest and the last in a long line of people he had killed, and instead he became the first life he ever saved.
He stands. Takes the coat, puts it on. Rogers doesn't move.
The coat is thick. He says, "So where exactly am I following you?" And Rogers's smile is so sudden and bright and real that he thinks he'd throw up if his body held anything in it.
When a car is in sight Rogers stops. A moment later he realizes he's stopped, too.
"There's someone else in the car," Rogers says, like a warning.
He says, "Okay."
"I just didn't want you to be surprised."
A person would be grateful. He forces the foreign words out anyway: "Thank you."
"His name is Sam," Rogers says. "Sam Wilson." There's no search for recognition in Rogers's eyes, which makes breathing come easier.
Sam Wilson is sitting at the steering wheel wearing gloves without fingertips. He looks at them with impressive and unnerving neutrality. "Sam, this is Bucky," Rogers says, like—a disarming comparison appearing fully phrased—like he's the new guy on the job, not a shivering weapon that would have killed him. Killed them both, he realizes, studying Sam's face; then Rogers looks at him, an abashed question on his face.
It doesn't seem a worthwhile fight. "Yeah."
Rogers looks cautiously relieved. He—Bucky—he lets the name echo in his empty-attic head, wondering if it will ever stick—Bucky looks away. He doesn't want Rogers getting attached to relief.
Sam Wilson nods. "Welcome back." Bucky doesn't know which one of them he's welcoming.
There are blankets in the backseat. Without taking off the coat he wraps himself in them, something even animals know to do. Something machines don't, he registers, and the weight is suddenly stifling but he's been so cold. Blankets and heat from a vent tilted towards him. They planned this for Bucky, he realizes, a thought so chokingly sweet that he pulls the blankets over his head, running or falling into sleep.
When the bomb goes off he's out of the car and tumbling down the road before he knows he's awake. Someone is chasing him, footsteps pounding and a voice calling in his direction, and he blames the disorientation of waking for the way he looks back at the word Bucky, missing a stone and tripping to the ground, snow stinging his face.
"It's me, it's me, it's okay," the figure is saying, walking now, hands up and voice steady like he's approaching a wild animal. "Bucky. It's me. It's okay."
He sits up, leaning on the hand where his skin yields to the grittiness of dirt. Gravity is so hard to resist these days. Weeks. "There was—"
"Fireworks. Just fireworks."
Fireworks is a blank; a bomb wouldn't be. "I got your coat dirty."
"It's your coat. And we can wash it." Rogers holds out a hand. Even now he would never need help to stand, but the weaker arm reaches for it with the unthinkingness of a dream. The contact burns like the snow
He slides back into the car subdued, letting Rogers close the door behind him.
"If you fuck up the car," Sam says from the front, "I swear to God."
"Sam," Rogers chides.
Sam meets Bucky's eyes in the rearview mirror. "I'm kidding. You can destroy all the doors you want. Just try to leave the hubcaps alone. They're custom."
"Sam," Rogers murmurs again, "maybe we shouldn't…"
Something lingers of someone else's touch seeking neither to injure nor to restrain. He presses his hand to his face as if it can make him understand and it's like an unlocking: "Don't worry, he's never had much of a sense of humor." He didn't choose that, exactly; but neither did anyone else. He thinks. He's almost sure.
In the mirror Sam looks delighted. Rogers's face is covered in stunned hope as painful as staring at the sun. Bucky shuts his eyes against it, knowing that sleep is dangerous, feeling that waking is worse.
The next time he wakes it's at the soft jarring stop of the car. Sam and Rogers are getting out, switching places—trading off sleep, Bucky realizes, like they must have been doing in search of him for—for how long, he wonders.
Rogers glances back at him before starting the car again. "How are you feeling?"
The question crumbles against him like waves on the shore, dissolving without the hope of comprehension. He sifts through images fading from a dream that wasn't a nightmare, coins glinting as they disappear into the sea. Pictures he can't stick to anything keep filling his head. The dream existed in senses: the chill of night, a burn in his throat he welcomed, a dizziness he had invited. Somewhere someone was shooting useless lights into the sky. Oh. "Why were there fireworks?"
Surprise flickers on Rogers's face, but his voice is steady. "It's New Year's Eve."
He could not have found the name, but presented with it he knows it like he always has. "What year?"
"2015. As of three hours ago."
He has been severed so completely from time that the number doesn't touch him. He turns toward the window. Tangles of branches blur past in the darkness.
Sam says, "Make any resolutions?" He's speaking to Rogers.
"There was one I had in mind. But I wound up keeping it ahead of schedule."
Rogers means him: Bucky was his resolution. To make a person a resolution is not to make them a mission. A palpable sense of difference rises between them. The seed of ruefulness in a dream: it's a miracle we're friends. In sleep he was surrounded by light and stars and a kind of sanctuary he cannot believe he ever knew, and the man driving was Steve and shone brighter than anything else. He reaches into the glow to pluck out something that he hates to and has to see. "You know mine."
He knows Rogers—and suddenly it's Steve, suddenly there's no other word for someone he can read without even looking—Steve is trying to meet his gaze in mirror, but Bucky can't bring himself to see what new tenderness is lighting up his features now. "Same as ever?"
Bucky swallows. "Stay alive." It scrapes like vomit coming out, and it feels like a gift concealing poison, but perhaps a part of him means it. He can't think of any other reason he got in the car.
Steve moved since Bucky blew into his apartment. A tension he hadn't noticed eases just barely when he realizes he will not be returning to somewhere he has tried to kill anyone. There's a mirror hanging by the coat stand that traps him into stillness. "Jesus.
"What is it?" Steve asks, cautious.
"I look like shit run over by a truck."
He doesn't know why that makes Steve smile. "You can take a shower, if you want. Bathroom's just past that left turn. There's a set of clothes on the towel rack and an extra razor in the medicine cabinet."
"You trust me with a razor?"
"I trust you with my life." Such persistent seriousness.
Like rushing to sculpt something out of sand: "Still not funny, still not smart. What the hell was that stuff they gave you good for?" He turns away while Sam snorts back a laugh.
Bucky pauses at the bathroom door, listening to Sam and Steve exchange goodbyes.
"I'm starting to see what you meant about him."
"I had a feeling you would." Bucky stops himself from saying: don't. Or won't bring himself to do what he should. He can't tell the difference. "Sam, I really can't thank you enough for all you've done."
"Hey, it's not over just because you brought him home. I'll be around."
"I couldn't ask—"
"Don't think you can get rid of me that easy."
A pause. "Thanks again."
Bucky doesn't want to hear any more of Steve talking uncomplicatedly to someone who has never pointed a gun at his head or a knife at his chest. He shuts the door.
In the bathroom he strips, turns on the shower but doesn't get in. Instead he stares at himself in the mirror, the harsh lighting feeling honest. He really does look like shit: filthy beard, hair matted down past his shoulders, skin scraped up like a map of injuries, and that ugly joining of mutilation and metal. Whatever was done to his body made it so he preserves muscle mass beyond all else, so months eating at the threshold of survival have left him a hollowed-out face and a gnarled physique, skin impossibly thin and pale from running under the cover of night, almost translucent. Dark circles ring lifeless eyes. He tries to smile. It makes his head look like a skull.
He looks, he thinks, like what he is: a walking nightmare, a wound carved for wounding, a grotesque amalgamation of machine and monster, grafted onto the body of a dead man to be someone else's weapon. He can't remember ever having been anything else. The mirror starts to fog up and he watches his face disappear into the steam. This is him, too: a ghost.
Bathed in daylight, in a bed. His name is Bucky, he remembers. He thinks. He has no other name but that. In the absence of physical struggle he is confronted with an anesthetized awareness of an emptiness that seems to contradict his embodiment. He could spend hours listing the reasons he shouldn't be alive, yet stubbornly his heart pounds its indifferent beat.
He should probably get out of bed.
In the kitchen Steve is making pancakes, wearing a thin white shirt and soft gray pants. Bucky takes a moment to experience the shock of a body which is the only body he remembers for this man: something behind memory holds—he can't see it. Some lost thing lingers enough to make known the lostness. Something lingered enough to pull this man out of a river.
Steve looks over his shoulder at him and says, with a little wave, "Good morning."
"Morning." An echo: faded and false.
"How're you feeling?"
Bucky flinches. Steve doesn't react, but he goes on without waiting for an answer. "Sleep okay?"
"I slept." Dreamless, memoryless, for once, and now the night stands as a barrier to what preceded it, as though this round wooden table and the cool tiled floor beneath his bare feet are the first things that are real. The animal that could have slipped into its death without whimpering could be a dream, and so could the figure spouting echoes of personhood in the backseat of a car. Now he is an empty basin drained dry. It isn't until Steve tells—invites—him to sit down that he notices he had been waiting for orders.
"I made pancakes," Steve says, all cheer. "I hope that's okay." It takes Bucky a second to realize he's waiting for a response, and he nods, as though he had to weigh in his cleared-out mind whether pancakes were a suitable substitute for whatever he dug out of a garbage can three days ago. "What do you want to drink? We've got milk, orange juice, water, I guess."
Bucky freezes. Something is wrong. This isn't a task he's equipped to handle and a surge of humiliation rises distantly at that, a voice that sounds like his mimicking someone else's taunting, can't even pick a fucking drink, can you, but closer in there's a creeping panic because he doesn't know the answer and he knows Steve would say the correct answer is the answer he wants but he doesn't know—he—he knows and doesn't know all the wrong things and how can—
His teeth are clenching hard enough to hurt his jaw. He forces himself to breathe. "Orange juice is fine."
Steve places a stack of pancakes on the table already set for the two of them. "Help yourself," he says, so gracefully Bucky can't tell whether he means it as subtle permission. Something is nagging at him, some specter only visible out of the corner of his eye. There's something wrong. Tentatively he picks the top pancake off the stack and starts to eat.
Steve doesn't try to make conversation. Bucky allows himself a moment of gratitude before saying, with a tightness in his chest, "Do you really trust me with your life?" If this peace is going to break, he should go ahead and break it.
Steve shrugs like the question isn't worth considering. "Do you want to hurt me?"
"No." It comes out with a vehemence he didn't know he had, which must make it—true?
"But." It's not right. A spectral hand is digging into his shoulder, the wrongness he can't shake. "I never wanted, and I still—I—" He clamps his mouth shut. I never wanted to, it was the last thing I ever would've—out of nowhere like a stealth attack and if it escapes it's too real. He makes himself breathe. He's so tired, and the day's just begun.
Steve sidesteps that conversation. "What do you want?"
He doesn't want—Steve wants an answer and Bucky wants—Steve doesn't want to hear what Bucky wants. He casts around for something he can offer. "I want syrup." Steve passes the bottle with a chuckle. "What's funny?"
"Nothing, just—you always did have a sweet tooth."
Bucky considers, chewing a bite of pancake soaked through with the stuff. This might be something he could believe about himself that would not make him want to bury himself in the ground. "Yeah?" He doesn't know how to ask for more.
Steve knows how to give it, though. "Yeah. When we were kids a nickel wouldn't get warm in your hand before you'd be running down the street to pick out some penny candy."
"Never was much good with money." The words tumble out and it's in the bite behind behind them that he reads a truth.
"Never was much money around to be any good with."
Steve sounds terribly fond. It's like a light turns on, and Bucky can see what this mysterious future he's fallen into could bring—learning pieces of himself like following a trail he doesn't remember making, with Steve as his guide, in a heated kitchen where they can eat four pancakes apiece without money worries scratching at the window. In a way his life is already easier than anything he can remember. A light goes on and he shudders towards it like a moth—
—and then the wrongness catches him, a single word out of Steve's mouth like a bullet through his chest, blowing out the light—we, built on an I he's not convinced exists and a you he doesn't deserve.
He gets up without another word and goes back to bed.
January is a month for forgetting, or he tries to make it so. He peers out at white-sky mornings and closes the curtains against the exhausting emptiness of a world that seems to demand some kind of presence to fill it. He stares at white walls and a white ceiling like if he keeps at it long enough he can dissolve the boundary between them and himself, his self, that fragile, uncertain thing. He eats Steve's food and doesn't meet Steve's eyes and returns to a white room where in the near-peace between sleep and waking he can almost believe he can do it, if he just decides to, he can vanish like so much smoke. He's done so much disappearing in his too-short, too-long life; what's a little more?
Steve filters into his awareness around the edges, blurry wisps of him—soldier, hero, friend—piling together into something more. Steve flickers into his dreams, a firm gentleness Bucky doesn't want to let in, can't keep out. Steve fills the air like a balmy breeze, like a balm, like a warm front, thawing everything in these clean straight rooms. Everything, except Bucky.
If he were Steve, he thinks, he would pull himself out of it on grit and principle, with guilt and a mission and that instinct that seeks nobleness like flowers seek the sun. If he were Steve, whose toughness came from the same roots that made him a hero, he would wake up one morning, filled with regret for wasting so much of this precious century and fueled with determination not to let it go on a moment longer when there were hearts to uplift and lives to change. But if he were Steve, steeped in all those golden ideals, he would never have become this; instead he's Bucky, whose life is and maybe even was cobbled together from the scraps of what he could get, and what he gets now is bored. Silent stillness like an iron chamber to keep out fear is dull as hell after so many hours he can no longer call unwaking. He tries to ride it out with curling toes and tapping fingertips and hours of pacing the length of the bed, but it's like an itch, then a fever, then—intolerable.
He lurches out of bed one afternoon like he's been pushed, thrusts open the curtains and blinks uncertainly at the day: what now?
Steve is sitting on the couch, writing in a notebook. He looks surprised to see Bucky. "Hey. You hungry?"
A reasonable question—Bucky has ventured out of the room exclusively to keep his body barely functioning. A voice like his disturbs his inner silence: Treat your only friend like a goddamn bed and breakfast. Real nice. "No." He hesitates, then: "Can I sit there?"
"Of course." Steve is so obviously delighted by the intrusion that Bucky averts his eyes. Anything more than nothing is—is a lot, for him. He sits at the other end of the couch, curls his knees into his chest. If Steve finds it off-putting, Bucky sitting here flinching away from him like a scared cat, he doesn't show it. "How're you feeling?"
"Can you stop asking me that." Bucky winces. It came out harsh, and he doesn't want to be, when Steve is the opposite. "Please," he tacks on. It doesn't make it better.
"Of course." Steve's voice is, god, all chagrin.
"No, I'm sorry, I should've—"
"Steve." That works. Quickly, like it's worked before. "I'm sorry. I'm not—I'm not mad. It's just—I don't know, okay? I don't—" He runs a finger through his hair, yanking at it to keep himself put. "I don't know how I feel. So I can't—it's hard," he finishes pathetically.
Out of the corner of his eye he can tell Steve is nodding. It's not an argument when he says, "You don't have to be sorry."
Bucky doesn't have any response either of them wants spoken out loud. This is awkward and tense and horrible—but he's not bored. He tries to look in Steve's direction, at least. He's seen that notebook before. "What are you always writing?"
Steve's eyebrows twitch upwards. Bucky realizes this is the first real question he's asked of Steve since he got here. Some friend. "Just, notes. To myself. People kept telling me to check out things I'd missed, and I didn't want to forget, so I started a list to keep track, and it kind of…evolved."
This settles somewhere unexpectedly open. Of course. God forbid Captain America fall through on his promise to investigate some total stranger's favorite book. "Can I see it?"
"I mean, sure. I don't know how interesting it'll be, but." He offers the book. Bucky takes it, avoiding every inch of touch.
He opens the notebook and almost laughs. On the first page, in round open handwriting he knows immediately as something he's seen, there's a list of names he doesn't recognize, although there's a dim resonance to "Berlin Wall (Up & Down)." On the left, though, there's a series of check marks—Steve tallying his process—and on the right are tiny drawings marking his impressions. "I Love Lucy (TV)" gets a happy face, "Nirvana (band)" gets a little frown. "Trouble Man (soundtrack)" gets a series of exclamation point. "Thai food" gets a star and an arrow pointing left. Curious—when did he last feel curious—he turns the page.
Apparently Steve decided to get more organized in his quest to develop an informed opinion about anything anyone has ever asked him to care about. The next page is labeled "Thai Food," with a list of what must be types of it, each with a set of stars next to it. He flips forward: there are pages on music, books (fiction), books (nonfiction and other), "Video Games??", politics (America), politics (world), sports, "Internet Memes," miscellaneous (historical), miscellaneous (cultural)… Bucky stops on a page in different handwriting, narrow and spiked, in jet black ink: "Movies (N. F.)." Under it is a list, he supposes, of titles: Shaft. Pulp Fiction. Die Hard With A Vengeance, and an asterisk next to Other Die Hards optional. None of them familiar, but Bucky lingers on the page. "I remember movies," he murmurs, almost to himself.
"Yeah," he says, frowning at the strangeness of it. "Not any ones in particular. But in general." Movies. Theaters, darkness. Sounds. Bodies seated, turned towards a flickering screen. Like a dream underwater.
"They're all in color now," Steve offers, and it catches Bucky somewhere—somewhere close to the throat. Steve doesn't say it like he's trying to teach Bucky anything. It's just Steve, full of excitement, full of joy over sharing the excitement, so clear it's like sifting through soil and hitting on something that could be buried treasure or could be a bomb.
A goddamn superhero, and Steve is excited about movies.
Bucky closes his eyes and starts to dig.
"They're in color," he says, like if the words are in his own mouth they will reveal the secret he has locked away. Colors that mattered—red shoes, yellow roads, a city all in green—almost like a rainbow—"Holy shit." He opens his eyes, dazed. "I remember The Wizard of Oz." In his shock he lets himself meet Steve's eyes.
Steve looks like Bucky feels. "Really?"
"Yeah. Yeah, really. I mean, all of it. Flying monkeys and—Glinda—and fucking, fucking Toto—" It's pouring into him like film run too quickly through a projector, a blur but all of it's there. "Judy Garland." He gives a hollow laugh. "Figures the first thing I really remember, and it's not even mine, huh?"
Steve shrugs, clearly trying to keep calm, terrible at lying. "When you think about it, movies kind of belong to all of us."
"Maybe," Bucky allows. It's such a Steve thing to say, and that makes it sweet and painful in the same way as the memory. Because he's lying: he remembers the movie, the tornado and the scarecrow and Munchkinland, but what he remembers more is the theater, the certain knowledge of Steve's body next to his. He remembers the way even though they knew it was coming, Steve's eyes lit up like a little kid's when Dorothy woke up and muted browns had blossomed into colors of impossible richness; and he knows he remembers that because he was always looking at Steve in those days, waiting to catch him forgetting not to have fun. He remembers that it felt sometimes like he lived for seeing Steve the way he's looking at Bucky now, spellbound and dazzled, when he felt like the best and most important thing he could do was to make Steve Rogers feel like everything was going to be fine, even when they knew it wouldn't. It's so big—how could he once have contained more life than the expanse of this one moment?
He wants, overwhelmingly, to go back to bed.
He makes himself breathe.
"You know what?" he says, digging up the person in the memory. "Actually I am hungry. Let's go try not to burn down the building making lunch." Steve starts to protest the slight on his cooking skills, but Bucky walks out of the room without looking at his face, because he remembers something else, too: arguing with Steve good-naturedly on the way home, Steve moved almost to tears, not that he'd ever admit it, over Dorothy's homecoming, and him, Bucky, idiot know-nothing punk, scoffing at it, because why would she ever want to leave a land of color and magic and miracles for her shitty Kansas life? He could kick himself in the teeth for it, because he's seen magic and he's been a miracle and he'd give anything, anything he has to go back, only for him it was never just a dream.
Things begin to progress. Or go forward, at least. He guesses. He assumes.
He talks to Steve some days, then more days than he doesn't. About not much, about what to eat for dinner, about modern slang, about Steve's list. They work through parts of it together: movies at night, records during quiet afternoons. These become additional sources of conversation. Bucky forces himself to articulate opinions from the germs of reactions. Steve is happy to hear any opinion he gives, which is probably nice.
They watch something where a gray-haired man is confused about the youth today, with their loud music and their silly clothes, and Bucky teases Steve for sounding like him, even though really Steve likes most of the twenty-first century. Bucky likes bits of it too: Thai food is good, disco is something he suspects the former him could have danced to. He asks Steve if he asks an extra notebook, and Steve doesn't, but he comes home the next day with a spiral-bound black one and a set of pens. Bucky starts his own list: not things he wants to know about the world, but things he knows about himself. His name is James Buchanan Barnes. He has a sweet tooth. He likes pad thai and making fun of Steve.
He's remembering things, too, tossing them out to Steve and waiting for his pleased nod. He writes these in a different list: I wasn't afraid to fight dirty. Steve was always getting sick. Our upstairs neighbors had four kids in two rooms. His lists sprawl across two pages, then three. He waits for them to add up to anything but scraps as unreadable as ash. It has to come eventually, he figures. There are more every day. That has to be good.
He does not write: I am a murderer. He does not write: I have betrayed everyone I ever loved.
Steve is so good—to him, in general. He doesn't volunteer stories of actually helping old ladies cross the street, but Bucky can assume, and sometimes remembers, or remembers obstinately raising his voice at Steve for taking care of someone who needed it less than he did. He's patient and gentle and unceasingly kind. He keeps his promise to stop asking Bucky how he's feeling, and doesn't prod, or punish Bucky for not being the man he remembers; he's said he only wants to help Bucky get better, like Bucky is recovering from a flu or a broken leg, and he's lived by that every day. Sometimes he even makes Bucky smile, and Bucky can tell there's nothing Steve values more. Steve is basically perfect, and Bucky is starting to suspect he always was.
Bucky asks to see pictures of himself from before, thinking maybe it'll trigger more memories, and Steve brings out a thin folder with everything, he explains apologetically, he has. Bucky holds them, like their glossed texture or thin edges could tell him something. He stares at a cheerful young man with a life in his eyes visible even in faded monochrome and tries to picture him—himself, he tries to believe—existing in three dimensions, walking streets that have become shadows, doing the things he knows he liked then: drink, dance, make Steve laugh. It stings.
"I was handsome," he says, surprised. Steve had made reference to his way with girls, but it's strange to be able to believe, without remembering, that once he had a face that could draw people closer.
He's expecting Steve to say something like, you always were vain, because—he hasn't asked Steve about this yet, because he's ashamed—he's pretty sure it's true, pretty sure he remembers spending more than he strictly should on the best cut of a jacket and checking the angle of his hat in shop windows. But Steve just smiles softly and says, "You still are," so sincerely that it makes Bucky's chest hurt.
February is milder here than where they used to be. Sometimes there's a thin dusting of snow, but mostly it's just the skeletons of trees pressing cracks into the sky. Steve is basically perfect, and all the things he is doing are easing Bucky forward, helping him remember and recover. So how fucked up must he be, Bucky wonders, if all of it just makes him want to die?
Other things spill into him. From the outside: since turning his face towards the world, the muchness of it has been crashing over him, the sheer number of categories always in sight, which he can't order. A piece of plastic is an encasing for pieces of metal is a rectangle is a possession that belongs to Steve is a thing shaped by hands operating machines is a communications device is a site for the alchemical production of numbers into colors into shapes into words is a computer. An apple is a fruit is a food is a collection of nutrients is a piece of a tree is a memory is a taste. A table was a tree and at which point could you no longer describe it as alive? When it fell or when it was stripped of its leaves or when the blade first broke in, and is being made into an object the same as dying? Bucky would seem to stand as evidence to the contrary, but he wouldn't swear to it.
And from within: the thoughts he has, shadowed sometimes by the thoughts he used to have, overlaid with things said to him by people he can't identify. Things he doesn't say clashing with things he would have said once which sometimes he says even though it's like dragging a hook out of his throat, because Steve likes it and Bucky owes him so much. Steve never asks him for anything, and this is something he can give. There are other things: he washes dishes and folds laundry, figuring you don't need to be a real person to be a decent roommate. Steve thanks him every time like he's made some big sacrifice, so it's only right to make this small one when he can. He has so little rightness in him.
Steve doesn't thank him for those moments but Bucky can see it. He can see the lightning flash of gratitude on his face, and maybe that's the problem. Steve knows him well enough to read when to wait for a slow-brewing answer and when Bucky needs him to steer, but Bucky knew Steve just as well, once, so deeply in himself that the intricacies of Steve are flooding back faster than his fleeting glimpses of his own past. Without remembering the view from their apartment or how Steve used to dress, he can read the meaning of every tension in Steve's shoulders, every split-second pause or half-hidden glance down, clear and simple as a target. The problem is that Steve never needs to say the words for Bucky to pick up on what he's always broadcasting: I love you. Thank you for coming back. Please don't leave me again.
The other problem—the one that cuts through his stomach like acid and leaves him clammy and shaking in the night—the other problem is that Steve loves him, and Bucky isn't sure he remembers how to love.
When he has nightmares—if memories of crimes he enacted can be called nightmares—he wakes up, a noise he tries not to recognize as his ripping out of his throat, and immediately Steve is standing silhouetted at the threshold of the room. Every time, the entire line of his body is waiting to come in on Bucky's say-so, and every time Bucky pulls it together enough to say It's fine, go to bed, biting his lip bloody in the darkness until Steve leaves in a cloud of disappointment. Every time it's a long effort to uncoil the spring of his body, wound for a fight. They don't mention it in daylight.
When he has other dreams they are also memories, he thinks, too detailed and logical to be anything else. Sometimes in the other dreams he's young again, and whole again, with two flesh arms and a grin he can feel in his cheeks. Steve is there, and they're in a place he knows is Brooklyn, dancing in dark taverns or walking through dirty streets. Sometimes Steve needs help but it's alright because Bucky can always be there. Sometimes he dreams himself into the person Steve remembers, the person he can forget only in sleep he hasn't been for a long time. It's almost like being happy. In the dark spaces left when the dreams clear, he can see that they were happy. They were broke and tired and full of bad ideas. But they were happy. Steve was good to him, and once Bucky knew how to be good right back. He thinks maybe that's how he built any good he ever had: watching Steve for what he did and what he needed, learning to be the best friend Steve deserved. Like letting a partner teach him to dance.
After the first string of three quiet nights, Steve asks, "How've you been sleeping?" Casual, like he's worried about the softness of Bucky's mattress.
Bucky takes a moment to wonder if Steve is as transparent to others as he is to him. Maybe you don't need to know him at all to know he's asking about the nightmares with a cautious hope that this could be a sign that Bucky is inching his way towards—something. He keeps saying that no one is expecting Bucky to "bounce back" to the way he was, but he wants to help Bucky get better and Bucky doesn't know what better looks like, if not like a before he can't reach.
"Okay," he says.
"Glad to hear it," Steve says. The unasked question hangs over the kitchen.
"Less nightmares" is probably better, and if Bucky were better at being a person, he would tell Steve so the two of them could trade smiles. But he can't smile about it because his muscles won't cooperate, and he can't have Steve ask why he's not glad because his brain won't produce any answer but the truth: that the dreams are almost worse, because at least in the instant you wake up from a nightmare you're glad to be alive.
Steve's best friend could have swallowed a lie for him. Bucky can't.
His hands have curled into fists, he notices when a mild pain in his palm reaches his notice. He makes himself breathe. It shouldn't still be this hard."Whatever happened to Sam?"
"Yeah. The guy who was with us when you—found me." They'd seemed close, but that night was a blur even as it happened.
"Um." Steve looks like he's not sure whether he's being tested. Bucky hates that look. He wonders how far into better he'd have to be to make it stop. "He's around."
"Have you seen him lately?"
"We've been pretty busy." With what, Bucky bites back—Steve spends maybe three days a week out of the apartment and is always home by sundown—because he knows: watching over him. Bucky hasn't asked about where he goes. He doesn't want more guilt about keeping Steve from useful things. "Why do you ask?"
Bucky taps his fingers on his lap, counting one-two-three-four-five to keep his hands open. "He seemed nice. I thought maybe he could come over, or something. If that's okay with you."
"Yeah, of course." Steve beams. "He's a great guy, I think you'll like him a lot."
Bucky keeps himself from fleeing to the isolation of a shower by telling himself that maybe if he can see Steve with Sam, and maybe if he can figure out a way to make sure Sam is someone Steve should trust, then—then maybe something will get better. Maybe it will be easier to breathe. "I'm looking forward to it."
Bucky would have expected another person to carry double the pressure, but Sam is preternaturally easygoing, exuding calm. The sight of his grin shakes something loose in Steve, and Bucky feels a tension give way in his back, like an actor settling into a role.
Sam also brings over a six-pack, which helps.
"If you're trying to buy my affections," Bucky says, twisting off a cap, "it's working. But very slowly. Maybe another six of these."
"Yeah, well," Sam says, with a pointed look at Steve, "not all of us are offered freebies at every damn supermarket in the country."
Steve rolls his eyes, like it's so embarrassing to be a national icon. Which, Bucky's pretty sure he was the first to point out, it kind of is. "It's not like I take them."
Sam shakes his head. "All that free beer wasted on a guy who can't even get drunk."
"Wait, you can't get drunk?" Bucky repeats. "Does that mean I can't get drunk?"
Steve frowns, puzzling it over. "I... don't know?"
"Guess we'll find out," Sam says, and raises his own beer in a toast. "To science!"
Bucky doesn't get drunk, but after his second one a buzz sets in. Small mercies: the efficacy of beer, a leftover taste for it to live up the show he put on, a peculiar settledness almost like it wasn't a show but actions of a real person existing in the world. Sam is impossible to dislike, funny and attentive and bright, and Steve is more relaxed around Sam than any time Bucky's seen him since coming here. The bitter dig of jealousy is tempered with relief. Maybe at least one of them isn't destroyed beyond repair.
"So what exactly do you do?" Bucky asks, and Sam talks about his work, sounding well-rehearsed without ringing false. It must be nice, Bucky catches himself thinking, to have something to believe in.
"You should come by sometime," Sam finishes, to Bucky but with a glance at Steve.
Bucky watches them have a conversation with their eyes, wondering if this is how he and Steve used to look to outsiders in the days when the whole world was outsiders to the two of them. He doesn't really plan to go listen to the tragic stories of people caught in wars that stand a non-negligible chance of being his fault, but he catches Steve waiting for his response with silent encouragement in his eyes, so he says, "Maybe I will."
He looks back to Sam just in time to see that Sam was—not looking at him; watching him, and Steve too, taking in the two of them together. Sam is fun and relaxed and also a soldier who now spends his days helping people sift through the wreckage of their brains. Steve trusts him, but if there was ever a time Bucky was more trusting than Steve, it's long since passed. He meets Sam's gaze just deliberately enough to say: I see you. And raises an eyebrow: what now?
Sam nods minutely before grinning at Steve to crack a joke.
When Bucky opens the door, he's expecting to see Steve smiling sheepishly over having once again forgotten his keys. Instead it's Sam, grinning at him like they're friends.
"Oh," he says. "Steve's not home."
"I'm doing great, thanks, nice to see you too," Sam says with a wry smile
Bucky cringes. He doesn't actually want to alienate the only other person he kind of knows. "Hi."
"Hi, yourself. And I didn't come to see Steve."
"Oh," Bucky says again. He doesn't know what to do with that. "Come in." Belatedly he opens the door wide enough to let him. "Do you want, um. A drink, or...?
"I'm good, but thanks."
There's a silence that makes Bucky want to peel off his skin. "I used to be good at this," he blurts out, almost defensive.
"At what?" Sam is watching him again. Bucky studies the floor, embarrassed. It's wood: long smooth slats of dead trees under the white socks Steve bought for him to wear.
"At." He's not sure. He used to know a kind of fearlessness that surfaces now in dreams, that had nothing to do with combat or battlefields and which seems so impossibly distant now. It made him good with girls but there was more to it. He used to walk through the world like someone who belonged in it, even when it couldn't care less if he lived or died, and now he can't ever forget that he doesn't. "People."
"You know," Sam says gently, "no one is expecting you to bounce back from what you've been through."
Bucky doesn't correct him to what you've done. He says, "So that's where Steve got it from."
"He did, huh?" Sam says, eyes briefly unreadable. "At least he listens to some of the things I say."
"It's impossible to make Steve listen," he says automatically, "I should know." His hand clamps over his mouth, jaw tight with the shame of some accidental betrayal.
Sam gives him a moment, then goes on. "I know this kind of thing can be a little in one ear and out the other, so I just wanted to reiterate my invitation to come by and check us out down at the VA, give you a chance to ask any questions you might have."
Bucky doesn't point out he could have given him that chance the other night, or ask why he wants to do this when Steve's not here. He doesn't want to suspect Sam, but it's so hard. "Can I ask you a question about something else?"
"You can ask me whatever you want."
Bucky looks out the window. There hasn't been snow for over a week. "If I tried to hurt Steve."
He stops, trying to find the words, and Sam says, "Bucky, you're not—"
"If I did," he insists. "If I tried to hurt Steve, would you—what would you do?" He makes himself look Sam in the eye.
Sam holds his eyes steady. Bucky remembers with something like gratitude how calm he was that night in the car when he had every reason not to be. "I'd do what needed to be done," he says, "until I didn't have to do it anymore." Not a threat. A promise.
Bucky nods. "Okay." He can feel himself easing up. Probably not a normal response to hearing someone would kill you if it came to that, but he'll take what he can get. "Good."
Sam cocks his head. "But don't you think if you were going to, you would've by now?"
Bucky shrugs. He thinks if he were going to, Steve never would have made it to the shore of the Potomac. But he needed to know if he could trust Sam, and now he does. "Maybe." Then, in a rush: "Can I ask you something else?" Conversation is like a game whose rules he forgot. It's embarrassing.
"How—" Bucky hesitates, because he stopped being a soldier a long time ago and it's not the same. Sam being understanding doesn't mean that Sam understands. But Sam understands some things that—that other people don't, and anyway Bucky's getting—not desperate. He's not—he's getting tired. "How do you not just—" kill yourself, he swallows, "—go crazy?"
Sam considers. "Well, I have a job."
He's smiling like it's a joke, but Bucky senses there's truth in it. "I don't think I'm there yet." There's a shame that creeps into it even before he sees it, something left over from days when you were lucky to have a miserable job that could keep you roughly alive. Everything about him is so shameful.
Sam accepts this, nodding. "Some people get pets."
He tries to picture petting a dog with his metal hand, feeling the animal flinch under the unnatural smoothness of his touch. "Not there either."
"I don't really trust myself to keep anything alive." Sometimes it feels like he's living inside-out and can only recognize truths about himself after they've fallen from his mouth. He wonders if he'll want to write this one down.
Bucky thinks that Sam is watching him again, and then he thinks that Sam is always watching and just decides sometimes to cover it up. He respects that. Sam says, "Is there anything that makes you happy?"
Happy. The word tastes like copper in his mouth. "I don't know."
"Well, finding it's a start."
He bites his cheek. "What if there isn't anything?"
"Then you keep looking." Bucky opens his mouth to protest that it's not that easy, and Sam cuts him off. "I didn't say it wasn't going to be the hardest thing you've ever done."
Sam doesn't know what he's done, or how easy it was at the time and how maybe it means Bucky will doesn't deserve anything that makes him happy, but up against Sam's unshakeable calm, something in him falters. He's so sick of being every way he is, and Sam isn't like anything he knows. "Steve'll be home in a couple of hours, if you want to stay. I don't think I'm very good company," he adds, in the interest of politeness.
Sam grins. "Good enough for me."
A few days later Steve comes home carrying a bucket. "I saw Sam today. He had something for you. He said you'd 'get it?'"
Bucky takes the bucket by the handle. Inside is a little terra cotta pot holding a tiny cactus, squat and painful-looking and green. Underneath it there's a card, which he digs out, careful not to upset the soil, and opens to reveal large friendly letters reading: Even you can't mess this up.
"Well?" Steve says. "What's it mean?"
"It means your friend Sam thinks he's a lot funnier than he is," Bucky says, but he keeps the plant on the windowsill by his bed. He's woken up to worse.
Sam is safe and strong and brave, but Sam is one person, and one person isn't enough. When Bucky things about all the things he can see Steve hoping for and all the things Bucky might never regain the ability to be, he feels it surer than fear: one isn't enough. Steve had one, had him, and then—
So he asks one day, wincing at his own gracelessness: "Do you have any other friends?"
Steve blinks, thinks, smiles; and that's how Bucky meets Natasha.
When Steve lets her in "I know you" falls out of Bucky's out before she gets in a word. He's so unused to certainty that it catches him off guard (because, whispers a rough voice that's been growing louder, you're getting careless here, with Steve, going soft, because it's only a matter of time before you—). He knows that face, that stance, the way if you didn't have any sense you could potentially miss the danger. "Why do I know you?"
She plays her part perfectly, not a beat missed in saying, "I was with Steve when you were tracking him down." A euphemism, but he could have swallowed it coming from her with that calm gaze.
It's Steve who gives it away: in the millisecond before she answers, he glances at her in a tiny panic that clears when he watches her ace the test.
Bucky assess the situation.
There's something else to their history.
Steve doesn't want him to know it.
She won't give it up if Steve's around.
Bucky doesn't like waiting, but he knows how to bide his time. He braces himself against Steve's concerned glances at his silence over a dinner he can barely taste. He makes himself wait. Timing is crucial, he reminds himself, and bites his tongue till he tastes blood remembering where that lesson came from.
When Steve excuses himself to go to the bathroom, Bucky tries to count to five, gets to three, says: "Why do I really know you?"
Natasha's eyebrows twitch just barely. "I told you, I was with Steve when—"
"No," he insists, and when she blanches slightly he changes his question, stomach lurching. "What did I do to you?"
"Well, I was your other target," she says carefully, "so—"
"Don't lie to me." He hates that every plea out of the throat of something like him comes out like a threat when really he just wants to know. So many people have told him so many lies. "Please.
She averts her eyes for a long moment. When she looks at him again she says, without bitterness, "You shot me. To get to someone else."
You shot me. Other sounds recede in a loop of—you shot me—he doesn't know what he expected, he could have guessed, he should have known, but it's different hearing it from someone—it's different seeing someone he—you shot me—like years ago and there are so many—to get to someone else—so many nightmares and how many more—how much has he—
"Natasha." Steve is back, his voice all reproach.
Natasha doesn't look away from Bucky. "I'm sorry, I—"
"I asked," Bucky forces out, because this wasn't her fault and he doesn't want her—he doesn't want Steve to—it wasn't—his heart pounds in his ears like bombs, like drowning—
"Bucky?" Steve's tone is surprised, and sad, and too many gentle things, and too many questions Bucky could never make him hear the answers to—
"I'm sorry," he manages, and then he's gone.
Steve lives on the fifth floor; by the fourth Bucky is jumping steps four at a time; another platform down he's gauging a jump; by the third he's swinging over the railing, steadying his landing with his unbreakable arm, out of the hall—
—and almost into Natasha, who slides into his path like she was waiting the whole time.
Bucky stops, stunned. "You're good." He remembers her now, not blocking a target but straddling his shoulders on the bridge where his life shattered once again, putting him on an unfamiliar defensive. He hates that no one can know this more fully than he can, you're good if you did that to me, hates the instinct in him rising to be impressed that someone has twice matched Hydra's trump card.
"Yeah," she says. Not a boast.
"I'm—" gasping, suffocating, "—sorry, I'm sorry, I'm sorry—" he can't stop, he's going to be sick, he wants to die—
"Barnes," she says, and says, and says again, and somehow it gets through. He stops. Shame burns his skin but he stops.
"Listen to me," she says, like he could do anything else. "I'm not—mad, or—I know what it is to do things you regret. That you would do anything to erase."
He says, hoarse, "You don't know—"
She steps forward so forcefully that he recoils. For a second he has the insane thought that she's going to kiss him.
"Don't assume you know what I know. I'm not talking, okay, about—tactical errors, or hard choices that got good men killed. I'm not talking," and there's something ugly and hard in her voice when she says it, "about not saving your best friend from falling off a train." His mouth is dry. He tries to breathe. "I know what it is to be the best"—she spits the word—"in a very dirty business. I know—" Her eyes go far away, her fingers reaching for something hanging around her neck. "I know what it is to be unmade." Her hand, he notices, is shaking.
He believes her. He doesn't know why. Maybe because when he asked her to stop lying, she did. Maybe because he recognizes her now not as a mark but as distant kin.
"Okay," he says, trying to steady himself.
She looks him up and down. "Okay." She gives him a smile, and he can feel on his face a shaky return.
"How do you—" He cringes. He can't close the question without sounding pathetic.
"How do I what?" she says. "How do I walk around doing my best impression of a decent human being, knowing everything else I've been along the way?"
He swallows. "Something like that, yeah."
Her smile goes wistful. "A lot of practice. A lot of trial and error and trial again. These days I do a lot of baking."
"I find it soothing. I tried out this new scones recipe today. There's a box of them waiting up on Steve's counter, if you want a taste." She cocks an eyebrow, suddenly playful. Natasha is a lot to keep up with.
Bucky taps his fingers on the side of his leg, trying to reset for the situation. One-two-three-four-five. "Scones, huh?"
"Yeah, these called for cinnamon and raspberry? I think they're probably good. I mean, I was the one who made them."
He knew this kind of game once. He gathers everything in him for the next move: "Well, what are we waiting for?" It comes out a little desperate, but a little something else, too.
"Can we take the normal route on the way up, though?" she says. "If I'd known I was going to be pulling this action movie shit, I would've at least worn my boots."
Bucky looks at her shoes. "Shit. You did all that in heels?"
"I'm really fucking good," she says, and this time it's a boast and a well of regrets, a wry bitterness that somehow feels almost like hope.
Steve is horribly glad to see them, and Bucky is horribly glad he doesn't ask questions. The scones are good. He eats four.
Trial and error, Natasha said, and Bucky is trying. He sits through movies he can't bring himself to tell Steve he doesn't have the attention span to pay attention to. He writes I think jogging is stupid and joins Steve on runs around the neighborhood, feeling like his body is an obsolete machine he should try to scrape some clumsy use out of. He asks Steve to ask Natasha for that scones recipe and they ruin a batch before getting it right. His lists accumulate: I like scones. I was good at poker. Sitcoms are my favorite things to watch.
And still every smile he flashes Steve from barely recalled habit burns like a lie, and still acting for Steve's sweet open face like he's built for anything but destruction makes his lungs constrict, and still the only times his life feels real are when he is shaking and sick with guilt and terror deep as a river, dragging him down. Still every step towards recovering feels only like a step closer to falling apart for good, every day his body keeps together another reminder that he has already broken. Trial and error, but what about when the error is that you exist?
"So tomorrow's the sixth."
They're carrying home groceries that Steve mostly picked out because grocery stores are a lot, still, but Bucky stuck it out to spend four minutes picking out grape jelly and Steve beamed at him like a proud parent when he put it in the cart so that must mean something even if secretly Bucky's not sure he likes grape jelly. They're outside and Bucky keeps getting distracted by the leaves that are not quite leaves yet, and thinking about how it can be that something looked like a dead branch and now doesn't, and how that happens every year and would it hurt if trees could feel, life resurrecting itself through their skin, and did he always have these thoughts, he doesn't think so, they're just stupid fucking trees, and now and then a bird or a child or a car makes a noise and he gets distracted and, and, so, it takes him a moment to notice Steve is talking to him and when he does he says: "The sixth what?"
"Oh." He waits. Nothing is forthcoming from Steve or from his own brain. "I don't remember." Somewhere there's some kind of alarm.
Steve's smile almost doesn't tighten. "It's your birthday.
"Oh." There's this house they always pass on a corner where someone is always working in the yard. Not the same person, but always someone. "Thank you for telling me." Sometimes he thinks if he thought about the kinds of conversations he has all the time now he would—"Did you want to do something?" Belatedly he remembers the word celebrate. It doesn't feel right, anyway.
"I mean, if you—we don't—I just thought you might want to know."
"Oh." Mostly when Bucky wants something it's to lie down in the dark for a long time, or sometimes to stop being hungry. Those are the ones he can say, at least. But it would make Steve happy, so he hunts for something. "It would be nice to see Sam and Natasha again." That might even be true. "Not like—not even for that." It's dumb but he can't say birthday. He doesn't feel like a living thing with a birthday. Maybe a date of manufacture. "Just. It'd be nice."
Steve's grin could almost crack his perfect face. Bucky doesn't know what to do about the mix of satisfaction and sickness rising in throat. He tries to go back to thinking about other people's lawns.
They order pizza and Sam brings beer. There's a sports game on television that Bucky can't get it together to follow, and Steve and Sam erupt into sporadic cheers while Natasha affectionately rolls her eyes. Bucky swallows down jealousy at the graceful strength of athletes, who turn their bodily precision into something between celebration and art. It all looks so normal that Bucky feels like he's waiting for someone to come and tell him he's been found out for a fraud and now has to stop bothering these nice people with his presence. If he's being honest, half the time he still feels like that about his own name.
Of course, if he's being honest, some nights he still waits up trying not to make any noise, waiting to be taken back to cryo, or sent to the chair, or ordered back on the road to hunt someone new and—he's not sure about honesty these days.
He'd asked Steve not to tell them, because it didn't matter, but during a lull in their conversation he says, "Apparently it's my birthday." Maybe because a part of him wishes it did. Stupid.
"Well happy birthday," Natasha says, and Sam says, "Apparently?"
Bucky shrugs, uncomfortable. This is already more attention than he bargained for. "I don't remember. And—" He hesitates. He isn't used to people listening to him who aren't Steve. He isn't used to talking about this—just feeling it, just not ever forgetting it for a single second. He can feel their eyes on him like stifling air and realizes that he remembers summer, or something like it. He realizes time is churning towards it. They're staring at him and he's trying not to think about rooftop nights with Steve when he was really Bucky and they were young. He's trying not to think about the fact that he was ever young so he says, "I don't know—I don't know how many days I lost. In between." In between deaths, he doesn't say. He remembers without looking at Natasha: I know what it is to be unmade. "I can't—remember, or even, even count. How many days I've been alive, since. So I don't know how old—I just don't know." None of it matters.
"So pick a new one," Natasha says.
"A new birthday?" says Sam, skeptical.
She shrugs. "Why not? It's what I would do."
"I thought," Steve says, all gentle reproach, "you were done with that kind of thing."
"It's different," Natasha insists. "Listen. Sometimes the truth is clear, and sometimes it's—"
"No. Well," she allows, "yes. But sometimes it's—more. Sometimes there's what's accurate, and then there's what's true, and they don't exactly look the same way. Or sometimes there's more than one way of telling it, and you can't choose based on which one is more true, because they're all as true as each other, so you have to pick the one that's most useful."
Sam is nodding. "You find the story you can live with."
"Exactly," Natasha says.
"But it's still a story," Steve protests.
"Rogers," Natasha says. "It's all stories. Some of them just happen to be real."
Bucky isn't really listening. Bucky is watching the three of them toss the thread of conversation back and forth like children playing catch, all playful ease regardless of what they're saying. They look so happy, in a way he thinks the person who used to own this body once knew how to be, in a way he can't imagine being ever again. He can't imagine a single thing coming to him as easily as everything that passes between them. It's like being trapped behind a glass wall while a sinister voice he doesn't want to remember taunts him, look, this is how the good people live, these are the things you are too far gone to have. He thinks maybe he would want to cry if he hadn't lost that too so instead he fixes on the fervent hope that he will somehow just finally stop breathing.
Sam is watching him, Bucky notices, and looks out the window, digging his thumbnail into his cuticle. A bird hops along a branch, peering side to side like a child preparing to cross the street, and flies off, becoming a graceless speck disappearing into setting sun. By the time Bucky looks back Sam has steered the conversation elsewhere and everyone is pretending not to notice, and he hates that he'll never be able to tell them how grateful that makes him.
It's almost like peace. It is. And not just the no-danger part. Not just that no one's dying and the weather is getting clear and warm. He and Steve have their routines and Bucky is good at fulfilling them. He is better at grocery shopping and making jokes. They see Sam and Natasha more and Bucky does not run away or ask them to kill him. He knows these look like victories like sleeping through the night and remembering his youngest sister look like victories. He knows that it is already more than he had ever hoped for because he had not hoped, still does not hope, for anything at all. He can see in Steve's face gratitude for every half hour, hour, day, of normal conversation, easy and light, and that's how he knows. That's how he knows Steve is wrong.
Because everything is better than it has any right to be and he goes to bed every night in pain like from a fight but it's just the accumulated tension of holding still all his rickety pieces. The fight is in him. And maybe, maybe always was, because—because shouldn't he be glad, shouldn't this be enough, shouldn't he wake up every day ready to kiss the sky in gratitude. No one is holding him here, he knows. It is not a cage. There are no restraints for him to grow restless and ill-tempered against. It is like peace, and his bones are aching with the effort of not breaking it by reaching for something beyond, a strain so deep he thinks maybe it is older than Pierce and Zola and the army. Maybe there is something broken in him that breaks things, and it was only ever being Steve Rogers's friend that got in his way. Maybe the only real difference between back then and now is that that's no longer enough.
It's not precisely that he wants to leave. It's just—Steve looks at him like a blessing, and it's too hard, watching someone that good wait to be let down. Once, he thought he could spend his whole life pretending to be the person Steve thought he was, but that was a long time ago. These days he gets too tired.
So he runs.
He leaves a note.
It takes him a while to figure out what to say. He doesn't write I'm sorry, even though the words sit in his mouth like stones, because if he were truly sorry he wouldn't be leaving. Instead he runs through things Steve would want to know and answers them as best he can: I'm not going to hurt anyone. I'm not taking money from anyone who deserves to have it. It's not your fault I'm going.
He doesn't write, I'll be back, even though there's a small part of him, he's realizing only on the verge of leaving, that wants to believe it. I'll be—he hesitates over safe, writes instead alive. Don't look for me, he writes, and then squeezes in front of it Please.
Bucky tapes the note to the inside front door, during a day Steve is out so Steve doesn't have anything else to fear from the night, and then he's gone.
It's different this time. Bucky remembers, with a vagueness borne not of interference but of exhaustion, how it was in the months before, when he was running only away which meant only running. He doesn't want that—to exist as a body of needs with no name. Bucky's still not sure he deserves his name, but he's gotten used to having one.
He knows that if he has a name, Bucky is it, and not here is not enough to go on. That might be all he knows, but it's more than he had. So he heads not to side roads and concentrations of trees but to Union Station, and when he buys a ticket it's for New York. Not a place he remembers, but a name he knows once belonged to him as much as his own. It's enough to convince himself he isn't going back to nothing.
On the bus he takes his notebook out of the duffel bag of clothes he's planning to mail back to Steve when he doesn't need it anymore. He looks over his meticulous lists, these dim constellations of something approximating humanity, reads them over looking for a single thing that can tell him who he is. In the end he rips out the sheets of favorite candy bars and half-remembered nights out that feel too much like mechanical specifications and not enough like anything he can hold on to. He holds a pencil above a new page, reaching for something that doesn't feel made of glass. There's so little of him to choose from, and so much of it was created or stolen by someone else.
Finally he writes I fucking hate being bored, handwriting shaky as the bus pulls out of the terminal. He's not sure it's what brought him here— he's not sure boredom is the correct name for the scrape under his skin that's pulling him away from he knows is the only good thing in his life—but it feels true. It's not something anyone else would have given him, and not something anyone has managed to take. It's not something he wants to erase, anyway, even if he wishes he did.
Steve had told him about waking up in a bedroom almost like the one he'd known and rushing out into a New York not at all like what he remembered: lights of a kind that had never existed when they lived there, a tall city grown taller and the buildings they had known mostly ghosts no one knew haunted the repaved streets. Even forewarned, though, walking out of Port Authority still brings with it a series of shocks. It's like walking into a brutal kaleidoscope, the world swirling in garish colors that don't stay still, letters melting into pictures, pixellated people impossibly huge on smooth walls. On the corner someone is urging passersby to repent for Jesus, and he doesn't need anyone to stay still to always be speaking to a crowd. The air is a mess of preaching and cursing, one-sided conversations into headsets and children bargaining with their parents. A man complains to a woman about three fucking dollars for a hot dog, pedestrians looks ready to kill or hopelessly confused, and under his feet the sidewalk is different but as filthy as it ever was. Bucky is disoriented and lost and on edge.
For once, he can blame something other than his own defunct brain.
It's not a homecoming. He doesn't think he'll ever have a claim to that word home again. But it's a strange relief, this new kind of unbelonging. He didn't think there was newness left for him. Maybe he can turn that into a start.
Bucky buys an enormous pretzel and after a glance at a map in a souvenir shop wanders loosely southeast, grateful to the name Brooklyn for providing a direction, watching the skyline diminish to subdued red-browns and shoot back up in cliff walls of concrete and glass. Hitting a knot of streets so narrow it makes his hair stand on end, he peels off till his left side is bounded by the river and open air. A few blocks later he feels his breathing ease. He keeps expecting—not an attack, exactly. Not so unsubtly, not in this crowd. Some kind of sudden demand he won't know how to meet. But he keeps his gloved left hand shoved in his pocket and no one looks at him twice.
The sun is starting to set by the time he hits the Brooklyn Bridge. He hesitates for a moment at the start of the footpath, not sure how to think about what he's doing: going back, going forward, running to, running away. Wavering on a tightrope between a lost past and an unseen future, between the man who lived here and the things he became and the unspoken question of what remains. I'm just walking, he tells himself so that he can. And he does.
He finds an empty warehouse not far past the bridge to spend the night in, halfheartedly calculating the risks of sleeping outside but knowing that really this is something else he's gotten used to: walls, a roof. He wasn't expecting, stretching out on a square of moonlight shining through a broken window, to miss a bed, and a clock, and knowing that not far away lay someone else, breathing and dreaming and waiting for the sun. There's something like a different hollowness in his chest, or just behind it, or beneath, like an absence where there should be substance. Not an empty basin but a room with the air sucked out and the walls about to crumble in. He has to dig through the fog of memories that don't feel his to find a word for it, and when he does it's a shock: loneliness. He feels small and sad and terribly, terribly alone.
He's almost fallen asleep by the time it occurs to him that it might be a gift to be able to feel this way, after all this time.
He gets a job with a local moving company, because siphoning off funds from people who'll want him dead if they notice will make him nervous if he's staying in one place, and because it doesn't take long for the freedom of spending all day wandering streets he half-remembers by name and nothing else to start feeling like a new kind of quicksand. The manager looks him up and down skeptically and he remembers, or realizes, that in a sweatshirt and loose jeans he doesn't look like what he is. He takes a moment to savor the surprise of not being known. Then he lifts the armchair in the office above his head and is hired.
It was a job for the same reasons he's ever gotten a job—under, granted, different circumstances—food, shelter, staying alive. Bucky finds, though, that it becomes something more. A schedule that reminds him to eat and keeps him from losing days in the fire of his memory or the airless cold of his heart. A safe struggle that lets some of his nervous energy evaporate like sweat off skin, leaving him some nights with a stillness he had forgotten. A place to go where he feels—not wanted, exactly, but counted on, which is better, simpler, when he's being asked to do things it costs him nothing to do: lift, shove, position, speak only to avoid bumping into corners or dividing tasks. People who have his back not because they care but because there's a job to be done. The rhythms of it call back what he realizes was the only thing he didn't hate about being in the army. On his third day his sleeve snags on the leg of a dining table and he nervously turns to a coworker, who eyes the glint of metal and then turns to Bucky with an unspoken question in his eyes.
Bucky shrugs, trying for nonchalance. "I was in the war." Not technically a lie.
Torres nods. "My cousin, too. Came back blind in one eye."
"I'm sorry," Bucky says, surprised to find he means it.
"At least he came back, right? Watch the door," and that's the end of it.
There's something, too, that draws him to the work itself: making an exhausting day less stressful for the strangers whose lives he shepherds across bridges and through traffic, playing a bit part in the day college graduates or couples expecting their first child start a new chapter of their lives. It feels like one of those inspiring reality television shows Steve likes so much—so much so that it takes Bucky a while to make the connection between the grateful smiles on tired faces and his own presence in the process. It doesn't seem possible, but he guesses he must admit the facts, and recalibrate accordingly. Something sharp and warm starts stirring in him in rare moments walking a couch backwards down four flights of stairs, or crouching with a lamp in his lap in the back of the van: the hesitant thought that his body can be something other than a weapon. And beneath that, brighter and more frightening: the tentative belief that he might care.
Three weeks in Bucky sits on a bench surrounded by tulips just opening, vibrant petals tentatively unconcealing their dark centers, and writes in his notebook: I like to be a nice thing in other people's lives. He forces himself not to add a question mark, telling himself that maybe it doesn't have to be the only truth in order to be true.
His life continues. Or solidifies. Or tilts nearly within his reach.
A client looking for a subletter for the last six months of her lease leads to a studio apartment in Bushwick, with a bed she's leaving behind for her fiance's. He puts the clothes that don't feel his in the closet to convince himself he can stay, even if putting anything in the refrigerator feels like too much of a commitment. Every morning he wakes up and reminds himself I live here, and in the evenings he paces the four flights of stairs and the tiny floor space of the apartment to ingrain here in his sight, in his brain, in his skittish, unsettled body. Here is an ugly carpet with a stain he tries not to wonder about and front door someone keeps jamming open. Here is a beige countertop where once, coming into the kitchen at night for a drink of water, he saw a cockroach larger than he knew cockroaches could be, which didn't even have the decency to run back into whatever crevice it crawled out of when he flicked the light on, so that he went back to bed feeling an unexpected kinship with his ostensible species, kindled by the stirring of some primeval repulsion. Here is a space where Bucky is allowed to exist for now.
Sometimes even that—a small room, a few days at a time—seems too much to grant himself, but to his own surprise, he doesn't want to leave. It's not much to hold on to, except that there's been nowhere else he wanted to stay.
May rolls to a close and next to the counter of his corner deli the cover of the Post reminds him about baseball season. Bucky had known he used to like the sport, but something about grainy pictures on newsprint reignites how much he once cared about a team that's now on the other side of the country. He doesn't know if he can still like it, but he didn't know he could live here until he did, so on a Monday night he slips into a sports bar and orders a beer. Watching an exquisite double play, he tries to take solace in the day's memory of singlehandedly corralling a vanity down a set of stairs that almost definitely broke some kind of safety regulations. He doesn't know if he likes baseball, but there's something soothing in the congenial strangeness of letting himself be swept up in cheers for players he can't name among people who can't name him, like baby steps towards being a part of them. Thursday finds baseball back on the widescreen TV mounted on the far wall, and Bucky back in a corner near the door. He wonders if his old cards have found their way into the archives of some museum. Maybe if he ever manages to talk to Steve again he'll ask him.
An early June heat wave makes him newly aware of the hair that has long since grown well past his shoulders. The idea of a haircut—a chair and a mirror and someone whose face he can't seen pressing scissors against his neck—quickens his heart rate and stops his breath, but sweaty strands clinging to his cheeks in narrow hallways take the issue from inconvenient to unbearable, so he buys a cheap pair of scissors and an electric razor and shaves it all off. It makes a mess that he leaves for a moment, studying his face under the single naked bulb of his bathroom, in a mirror not even large enough to show his shoulders. There are no markings on his bare scalp to hint at what it hides. Just skin over bone and a scar over his ear from—this comes back with startling clarity—a broken bottle in a bar fight when he was nineteen and someone had knocked Steve unconscious.
He makes a list of things to do—buy cups, find a library for when he doesn't want to be in his apartment or around people talking, do something about the goddamn motherfucking roaches because he learned the hard way it's harder to scrape the traces of them out of the grooves of metal fingers than it looks—and every now and then he is able to cross one off. Every morning he wakes up and reminds himself I live here, and some days live feels like the right word after all. His life continues. Or solidifies. Or comes slowly into being.
Something strange has started happening in the shadows of his memory since he left. As the presence of Steve recedes from the center of his everyday awareness, the memory of Steve continues to resurface in quiet flashes while he's showering or walking home. He's remembering Steve again but—differently. Confusingly. Pictures shifting, or filling themselves in, or cast in a different light.
He's remembering how sometimes Steve would get into fights to stick up for someone being wronged, or to stand against something indefensible, and then other times he'd get in the face of some useless lowlife having a bad night for a reason so trivial it was barely a reason at all. How Steve has always been the best person Bucky knows, but sometimes it seemed like his moral code boiled down to a belief that anything that could get Steve hurt was good, and anything that could keep Steve safe was bad, and to hell with anyone unlucky enough to care whether or not Steve made it home in one piece. How he would rather feed on nothing but stubbornness and pride until he had actually collapsed than let Bucky buy him a couple nights' worth of dinners. Bucky remembers that once he lost it and called Steve selfish, always looking for danger without a thought for how anyone else might have felt about it, and Steve just didn't speak to him, for three days, they were living together and Steve gave him the actual silent treatment, like a child, and then woke up on a Saturday morning chatting about the upcoming local elections like it had never happened—but it had, and dammit, Bucky was right.
Bucky remembers this way Steve had of saying "I'm not judging you" that clearly meant "I am definitely judging you," and how he carried around this cloud of self-doubt but wouldn't look any of his actual faults in the face. How for someone so down on himself he had a truly maddening inability to admit he might have been wrong, and his habit of repeating like it had been his own idea an argument Bucky had made at him a week ago. How even when Bucky had a good forty pounds on him, the idiot would insist on matching him drink for drink no matter many times that ended with Bucky rolling his eyes and patting Steve on the back hunched over a trashcan or a toilet or the edge of a fire escape. Bucky remembers that being Steve Rogers's best friend felt the best and most important thing he could be, something worth protecting and being a better man for, and it also felt like an unending roller coaster of fear and frustration and worry so acute it made his stomach hurt.
A month ago, leaving this person he thought was perfect, who cared about him more than Bucky thought he could care about anything, he would have thought that these memories tarnishing Steve's image would sever their tenuous bond for good. Instead, each one makes him miss Steve more. All of him, with all the cracks and weak points and patched-over scars he's been too careful to let Bucky see, and too human to truly hide.
Something else has been brewing underneath this motley collection, something at once so small he feels sure it will disappear and so big it runs through him like an electric current, keeping him staring wide-eyed at the ceiling late into the night. It's terrifying to look at, but it isn't fear. It's the idea that maybe what he is hearing in himself is as true as any truth. That maybe Steve was never perfect. That maybe Bucky never had to be.
In June they move an elderly woman from a tiny apartment in Brooklyn to a tinier apartment in Queens. She's slender and pale and looks, to Bucky, awfully breakable without quite earning the word frail. She insists on carrying what she can lift, and jokes with them about her age, and offers them coffee during the day and scotch at the end of it. The others decline, but Bucky stays. It's not like he has anywhere to be but alone. She smiles warmly when Bucky calls her ma'am out of a habit he didn't know he had.
"Such a polite young man," she says. A moment later Bucky realizes she means him. "But please. Rosemary."
"That's a lovely name, ma'am."
She bats her eyelashes. "That's some lovely flattery."
He sips his scotch and looks around at the apartment. It's crowded with boxes stacked in front of shelves, but there's nothing in it for anyone else. Bucky thinks about the three flights of stairs it's on top of, and how the nearest proper grocery store is at least a half mile off. "Is it just you here?"
"It's been just me just me for years. My husband died at fifty-seven. My children keep trying to convince me to go to one of those homes—there's one that's supposed to be very good near my daughter, in Stamford—but." She shrugs. "I like New York. I like my things. I like my space."
Bucky doesn't have any things, but he likes space. Still, something in him hates the idea of her all alone, at her age. "Do you—" He stops. He doesn't know if this is the kind of thing people offer, or do, if there's some unspoken boundary he's about to cross, but he thinks about the way her hands shook placing the bottle of scotch back on its shelf and says, "I could come by, if you want. Every now and then. To help out, or carry things for you, or—I could come by, not tomorrow, I work tomorrow, but the day after, maybe, and help you put those books away. I mean, if you want." He wants this, he realizes. It is still strange, every time.
Rosemary looks touched. "That's a very generous offer—I'm sorry, what was your name?"
"James," he says—it's what he's been telling people—but after a moment's hesitation he adds, "My friends call me Bucky. And it would be my pleasure."
"Bucky." Out of her mouth it sounds like just a name. She looks over at the boxes of books, the crates of records. "I could use the help. And—to be honest with you—the company."
Bucky swallows. "To be honest, so could I." He tries for a smile.
She smiles. "At my age, you really get to appreciate honesty. Anything else seems like a waste of time, and time's a luxury I don't have." Her eyes go distant, like she's remembering something long gone; then she looks back at him and says, "Alright. I'll see you day after tomorrow, then?"
"Bright and early," he says, and this smile comes effortlessly.
"I'll make coffee," she says.
"I'll bring bagels," he promises. "I know a place that makes them really good."
That night he takes out his notebook and waits for the day's events to coalesce into meaning—why he stayed, why he wants to back. He writes, so quickly it's barely a thought before it's on the page, I do not want to be alone, and looks at his words, marveling at how easy it can be to understand suddenly how wrong you have been.
He writes Steve a letter.
It's a small thing, with a jagged edge where he ripped the paper out of his notebook because it was hard enough to talk himself into buying stamps; one more step and he might not have written it at all. He traces for Steve the bare bones of his bare existence—Brooklyn, the fact that he has a job, the roaches that have become an unexpected and disgusting constant in his world—in sentences that come out halting and stiff.
Reading it over, he's tempted to rewrite it. He knows he could use his scattered memories to mimic the same cadences he'd dragged out of himself to convince Steve he was recovering in himself traces of a dead man Steve called a friend. The letter doesn't sound like the Bucky that Steve used to know, and he worries, for a moment, that Steve won't want to write back, and if Steve doesn't want to write back—
—if Steve doesn't want to write back, there's no one left to resurrect that ghost for. And if Steve does want to write back to this dull correspondent, if Steve wants to learn about this person who is only starting to learn about himself, then—then there's no need to resurrect him anyway.
Either way, the young man who fell from a train in 1945 can finally rest in peace.
Bucky folds the small, jagged document of his small, jagged existence into its envelope and slips it into his sweatshirt pocket to send in the morning, on his way to work; the end of one life and the first stirrings of another, sealed up and ready to be released.
Steve's reply comes so quickly he must have sent it the day Bucky's letter arrived.
Bucky takes this in, holding the envelope in his hands like it might break or explode without warning, his chest tense. He wrote back. Steve wrote back, which means Bucky—which means he can—which means—
—he bites his lip, closes his eyes. Makes himself breathe. He can start by reading it. He can start, and decide later what comes next.
Steve's letter sounds exactly like Steve. He spends as many words responding to Bucky as Bucky spent talking about himself, like Bucky living in a tiny bug-infested apartment is the most exciting news he could receive. Bucky feels a flush of shame that he didn't think to ask Steve any questions, but Steve gives something of himself anyway: he has a new favorite burrito place, he read a book he thinks Bucky would like, he's kept Bucky's cactus alive—this, with a lively illustration of it, perched on a windowsill Bucky thinks he recognizes from Steve's living room. The only hint away from normalcy is a postscript with his phone number in case Bucky needs it.
In Steve's apartment, two months ago, Bucky would have taken this breezy warmth as a cue to bring forward smiles that hurt like blows to the face and the clumsy ventriloquism of a man he might have been, but here he can read it and tuck it in his pocket and go for a long walk and read it again in a pizza place, on the subway, on a park bench, until it's just a letter from someone he knows. He can write his reply on a bench under the trees running down Empire Boulevard, watching a little girl blow bubbles at the woman watching her. He can tell Steve about her, and smile picturing his response, and he can also dare to say, at the end, that the book sounds good but he hasn't really been able to read books lately: the sentences on the pages slip out of his brain faster than he can understand them. He looks at that admission for a long time, growing dimmer as the sun starts to set, and doesn't cross it out.
In his next letter Steve says he's sorry to hear that, and to let him know if it changes—a whole world in the gentle freedom of that if—and then: I can only really do it when I manage to get some sleep, which isn't as often as I'd like.
Bucky traces the lines with his finger, waiting for them to disappear. When they don't he lets out a shaky breath. He can barely read, and Steve can barely sleep, and, well, Bucky also can barely sleep, or remember to eat on days he doesn't have work, or plan anything more than a day in advance, or, still, really imagine ever having a conversation with Steve again—but they wrote these things, which means they can put them down, and let each other see.
They can write to each other.
So they write.
Bucky runs out of real things to tell Steve pretty fast, so he writes I'm afraid of boring you, because honesty is all he has left, and Steve sends back, you couldn't if you tried. The natural thing to do, of course, is to create the most boring letter imaginable, three pages of painstaking detail about weather and food and litter on the sidewalk. Steve sends back this achievement marked up with comments ranging from That's Sam's favorite flavor of gum to LOL! (That stands for "laughing out loud" on the internet). Bucky wraps up his next letter:
P. S. Anyone ever tell you you're a real smartass?
And Steve writes back:
P. S. Yeah. You.
P. P. S. You're one to talk, Mr. 700-Words-About-Clouds-You-Saw.
P. P. P. S. Yes, I counted.
After that Bucky doesn't worry about being boring.
He tosses in any little thing: organizing Rosemary's collection of first editions, the heartbreaks and convictions drunk strangers tell him about on game night, Spanish words he's picking up on the job. Steve puts drawings in every letter: flowers he likes, statues from museums, unusually shaped pastries Natasha made in his kitchen (She let me crack the eggs this time, I think I'm wearing her down). Bucky can't draw for shit—he remembers, actually, admiring the way Steve captured the flickering light of sunrise in black and white, and telling him so, and Steve had said, "Drawing is just looking with patience," and instead of rolling his eyes and asking if Steve could maybe for once just let himself enjoy being good at something Bucky had said, "Steve, when have you ever known me to have patience," and Steve had considered and conceded the point—he can't draw, but he feels like he should return the gesture, so he starts doodling in the margins. Next to a confession of how he keeps forgetting to eat goes a stick-figure self-portrait with a question mark over its head, next to a rectangle labeled REFRIGERATOR. He seals an envelope with a moving van a child might draw. And once, he places a line of cartoonish cockroaches, with oversized antennae, helpfully marked NOT TO SCALE (MUCH BIGGER IN REAL LIFE), marching across the bottom of a page (I don't understand where they keep coming from. Every time I put a trap down they find somewhere else to get in. What do I even have for them? The only food in this apartment is a carton of orange juice).
Little things, easy things, cushioning the harder edges it's becoming more possible to make space for. Steve gets impatient and the letters start overlapping, every other day, four days in a row, and Bucky looks forward to reading them, but also to writing back. It's not like the lists. There isn't anything he's trying to prove to Steve or lock down for himself.
He writes what he wants to say, and then he sets it free.
On the fourth of July, following a tip from Rosemary, Bucky walks the Pulaski Bridge to the Queens border to stand with a crowd of strangers—drunk twentysomethings, parents with their kids—and watch across the water for fireworks flickering in and out of existence next to the Empire State Building shining its patriotic best. The sky is a cool blue, and the lights of midtown light up the skyscrapers like fireflies in a cave. Bucky thinks he wants to tell Steve about this, and then he thinks he doesn't: he wants Steve to see it; he wants them to watch it together. It almost knocks him to his knees to realize that he can imagine, not right now, not tomorrow, but someday, standing next to Steve, drinking in the lights, and wanting to stay.
Walking home, he buys a pack of gum for change and wanders until he finds a pay phone. He dials the number he's memorized since the day Steve's first letter landed in his mailbox.
Hi. You've reached Steve Rogers. I'm so sorry I couldn't pick up the phone. Please leave a message and I'll get in touch as soon as I can. Thank you for your time, and have a great day.
Bucky takes a deep breath. "Hi. It's, um. Me. I was just calling to say happy birthday. I hope you're having fun and not—you know. I'm—" He stops, gripping the phone tight. He makes himself breathe. "I'm sorry I couldn't be there this year. I hope I can make the next one. Well. Bye."
The phone call sticks in his mouth like an aftertaste. When he gets home he replays it in his head, waiting to find what's keeping it there, and when he does he writes it down: I hope. The simplest thing, and the hardest. True only sometimes, but sometimes true.
Late in July the buzzer goes off unexpectedly and when he issues a cautious "Hello?" into the speaker a female voice replies: "It's Natasha, I'll leave right now if you want me to, Steve didn't send me, if you don't want me to tell him I was here I won't."
Bucky blinks. "How did you—"
"It's what I would want to know."
"Oh." There's a long pause in the white-noise fizz of the intercom. "Do you want to come up?"
"If you don't mind," she says, and he lets her in.
Natasha looks—strange. Bucky stares at her, trying to figure out what's different, then notices he's staring and looks away, embarrassed. She's carrying a white box tied with twine.
"How did you find me?" he says, and then: "Hi."
"Hi, yourself," she says, amused. "And Steve keeps your letters on the coffee table. I saw the return address, that's all." She smiles at his frown. "Not everything is all that complicated."
"You're wearing a skirt," he realizes. A skirt, and those thin-strapped shoes women wear, open-toed, open-heeled—she looks so open. He didn't know Natasha could look open.
"It's like ninety degrees out," she says, as if she's never in her life gotten dressed with anything in mind but temperature and taste.
"I've got some fans set up in front of the couch," he says.
He steps back and gestures: four fans, in a line. There are also two in the kitchen area, and three more in the bedroom. The apartment has more fans than floor. "It's been like ninety degrees out for a while." He had to put the fans in the bedroom because the heat of metal against his skin was waking him up in the night whenever he rolled over to his side, which was often—he's a restless sleeper. Even if he remembered everything, he wouldn't remember whether that used to be true, which is an oddly pleasant thought. Not everything is all that complicated. Even for him. "I don't really have any other furniture, anyway."
She nods, looking over the bare white walls and empty counter. "It's a little... sparse."
Bucky shrugs, sits. Looks at his hands while she joins him. He's had weeks of practice talking to people, but it's harder when he can feel his history hanging thickly between them.
"I didn't make these," Natasha says, unknotting the string around the box. "But the baking blogs have been raving about this place, and I was in the area, so..." She opens the box to reveal an array of tiny cupcakes. "Want one? Or six."
"Thanks," he says, picking up one frosted in green. He hasn't eaten today. He forgot, then remembered, then it just seemed—it was a lot. "When you say in the area, do you mean Brooklyn, or New York, or...?"
"The... Northeast. Technically. And the cupcakes are from Queens."
"What brought you up here? Or... wherever."
"Let's say I owed someone a favor." He studies her face, but it doesn't seem to have been a favor she minded. And there is the skirt. Natasha has a history too, he remembers, and his feels less stifling in the air.
"What about—I mean, why'd you come to... see me." His mouth stumbles on the words. It's such a strange idea.
She pops a cupcake in her mouth, chewing while she thinks. "I'm not very good at having friends. I'm kind of... new to the whole thing. So when I find someone I think I can call a friend, I like—I'm trying—to do what I can for them."
"Are you talking about me or Steve?"
She smiles. "I can't be talking about both?"
He shrugs. Part of him wants to point out that she barely knows him, but—but he knows. He knows even without Steve, she'd want to be here for the same reason he's glad to have her here.
Natasha cocks her head, studying him. "Can I ask you a personal question?"
"I don't promise an answer," he says automatically, then reminds himself they are both trying new things for the people they have been. "But you can ask."
"Why did you—" She trails off, hesitating.
"No. I mean. Yes, but—without... telling anyone."
"You mean without telling Steve." Bucky looks her in the eye; Natasha doesn't flinch.
"I mean—you know he wouldn't have tried to stop you, right? I'm not judging you, I just—"
Bucky looks at the floor. "I know." He does. He always did. "I just."
"You don't have to tell me," she says, gentle. "I just wanted to make sure you knew."
"I." He waits; she waits for him. He hasn't thought about leaving since he left, and trying to remember brings on one of the hot flushes of guilt that have started washing over him whenever he spends too long alone. The other day he spent close to an hour paralyzed, every crime he could remember committing running through his head like they were happening again and this time he could only watch and burn. "If I told him—he wouldn't have to say anything for me to—I couldn't." It's frustrating not to be able to explain something so obvious. "I couldn't... look at him looking at me like that, and still do it." He couldn't look at Steve at all, by the end. "I guess I took the coward's way out." Shame sticks in his throat like smoke.
"Hey." Natasha places her fingers gently on his wrist, not to hold; just to touch. He realizes he's making a fist and tries to loosen his fingers, slowly opening his hand. "No one's expecting you to—"
"Bounce back, I know." She startles but doesn't move away. Bucky finds himself hoping she won't. "Do you people just sit around talking about me?"
"Sometimes," she admits. "Nothing bad."
Bucky tries out the idea of himself living in the conversations of people who don't think of him as anything bad. It's weirdly possible. "What kind of person just leaves," he says, voice tight, "someone so—someone who—what kind of person does that to a friend."
"I don't know," Natasha says after a pause. The simplicity of it surprises him into looking at her face for more clues. "I told you. Friendship isn't one of my areas of expertise."
"I thought I didn't care about him," he confesses. He's never put it in those words.
At that she rolls her eyes, not unkindly. "You tried to stay. You've written him like twenty letters in the past month. You left a note instead of saying goodbye because you couldn't stand to see him get sad. What do you think caring about someone means?"
"Not running away from them. Not—I don't know. I don't know." It used to mean so many things he can't do anymore. "What do you think?"
Natasha is quiet a long moment. He waits. Her fingers are still on his wrist, softer than he would have expected, the nails short and painted red. "I think," she says slowly, "that sometimes, we do what we have to do. And sometimes, we do what we can. And life would be a lot simpler if those always looked like the same thing, but." She shrugs. "Being one way doesn't mean you can't someday be another."
Bucky breathes. He used to be so many things he wishes he still could be, but there are things he has stopped being which he wouldn't go back to, too. It's not a balance. But it's something. "Thank you," he says. "For—" He wants to say it right. He wants her to understand. "For always being honest with me."
Natasha stares at him, stunned. Then—the strangest thing in a strange day—she laughs. "You don't know this," she says, "but you just proved my point."
He knows, logically, and remembers, acutely, that his body has collected a great number of experiences more brutal than August in New York; yet hauling the end of a couch backwards up three flights of stairs so narrow and crooked they cannot avoid scraping the walls, humidity sitting like a cloud in his mouth, sweat dripping down his face and neck and back and legs, gathering on his scalp so thickly he is convinced he can feel each individual hair—under those circumstances it becomes curiously difficult to believe.
The heat does strange things to him. He spends entire days riding the subway, basking in the artificial cool. He starts taking two showers a day, sometimes more, and still somehow feels consistently disgusting, the constant coating of sweat filling a void left by the recent truce of the cockroaches. When he comes home in the evening he sits in front of his fans and feels building in him a peculiar restless lethargy, an itch to do something combined with a desire to never, ever, ever move his body again.
His mind unspools in the slackness of his limbs. Its exhausting strains of half-sentences tripping over each other slow down, making a space that leaves him no more at peace. Memories swim behind his eyes, the different iterations of him bleeding into each other like an optical illusion. A teenager with a metal arm boards a ship away from the only life he's known. A soldier sets sights on his prey in the streets of Bern. A something-else wakes on a table where figures are lying to him but he can't remember the truth and he can't—he can't—sometimes the figures become people and the something-else is on a chair and he can't—he has to—
He needs—something. How do you not just go crazy, he'd asked Sam, and everything Sam said seemed impossible, but there are days now when Bucky wouldn't have to steer himself away from admitting he wanted to die. He couldn't have done a job then, but later he could, and it sorts his life into something manageable. He is shaky still on the idea of happiness, but there are things he looks forward to—mornings with Rosemary, Steve's letters, overhearing snatches of conversation he can put in his own—and when he spoke to Sam he could not have imagined looking forward. He could not imagine a future, even in the smallest strokes, even to tomorrow. Tomorrow, he thinks, marveling that that is a word that has meaning for him. He wants to safeguard it.
Sam's been right about most things. Tomorrow, Bucky, decides, he'll take his advice.
The girl at the animal shelter has a ring through her lip, a blue streak in her hair, and an unforced cheerfulness that nevertheless makes Bucky self-conscious as he walks past rows of kittens crawling on each other or pawing the air at him or making curious squeaking noises. They're really cute, he realizes—not a classification he had known he could recognize—and a moment later realizes he likes them. Another thing about himself he learns backwards, but he is starting to think of it as not quite backwards. A baby doesn't know it can walk until it's taking its first shaky steps. By one reckoning, he's barely a year old.
By others, though, he's much older, too old for his body, and so the cage he stops in front of holds a bigger cat, strangely angled with a bald spot on its neck and one eye scarred shut, curled in on itself the back corner.
"What happened to him?" he asks, pointing.
"It's actually a her," the girl—her name tag says Jamie—says. "We get dropoffs sometimes from the animal rescue department —someone called in an investigation on her owner a couple months back. They didn't give us the specifics but it was probably pretty bad." She hesitates. "She's a little shy, but really sweet when she gets to know you."
"She's been here a while?"
Bucky bends over for a closer look. Black, with a white underbelly, and long white whiskers that seem shorter on one side. "Does she have a name?"
"We don't think she did. One of the other volunteers started calling her Robin, and it sort of stuck."
The cat stands up, walks slowly forward, tilting back and forth—there's something wrong with one of her legs. Bucky straightens up. "I'll take her."
Jamie brightens. "That's really—I mean we've all been, like, really rooting for her, I guess. We used to be a no-kill shelter, but since the recession we've been getting more animals and less funding and—you've just made a lot of people's week, so. Thanks."
Bucky shrugs, uncomfortable with praise. "Yeah, well." He looks back at the cat—Robin, he tells himself, a name given to her by people who wanted to help—watching him now with her one good eye. "You don't have to be Captain America to want to save a life."
Rosemary's apartment has been unpacked, sorted, and set up according to her specifications. It's been relaxing the way Bucky's job is relaxing; the complications that make doing things on his own so daunting recede when someone else is telling him what to prioritize. A book is a story is a collection of pages is an antique is a memento of family, but for him it only really needs to be an object to be placed, carefully, on a shelf with its green spine facing out, between the taller red one and the short thick black one. For her, of course, it's more—almost everything she's kept is a repository of memories—and Bucky finds that as long as he knows what he's supposed to do, he likes hearing the stories held in her things which are not just things but a map of her heart: a porcelain figurine her husband brought her back from a business trip to Paris, her brother's favorite record, the picture book she read again and again to her oldest son, who three years later was found trying to read it to his infant sister.
Now when he comes by it's to help tidy up, or carry groceries, or sometimes just to talk. One Sunday morning he's pouring coffee into a matched set of mugs (a twenty-fifth anniversary gift from the children) when he notices, too late, Rosemary's eyes on the space between the edge of his glove and a sleeve that's slipped far enough to reveal a silver flash.
"I was in the war," he says, his usual line, and her face goes soft.
"My husband was a soldier," she says. "Ages ago—he fought in Germany."
Bucky tries to keep his face neutral. "He must have been very brave."
"You all are," says Rosemary. Bucky busies himself pouring cream into his cup, chest tight. "It's funny. I have a granddaughter about your age who's going to school for—I don't remember the name of the degree, but she wants to work with veterans. Back then we didn't—well. If Laura were here she'd remind me that today we don't have enough—resources, or awareness—and of course she'd be right. But…" Bucky forces himself to be present with her for this. "We were so young. I was nineteen when we married, and we wanted to start a family, and he was a hero, and that was supposed to be enough. I never—he never said anything about what it had been like, overseas, and I never asked. I didn't think I was supposed to. But he was never—" It takes everything in him not to look away as her throat works to keep from crying. "I wish I had asked. Once, at least."
Bucky reaches suddenly to place his warm, bare hand over hers, thin and heartbreakingly soft. The impulse stuns him wordless: he can't remember the last time he wanted to touch someone. "You loved him." It comes out more vehemently than he intended, but he's too sincere to be embarrassed.
Rosemary shakes herself as if out of a reverie. "I did. Very much."
"That mattered. I'm—" Bucky doesn't know what he wants to say, and then he does. "I know. I promise. Even if—even if he couldn't tell you, it mattered."
She looks at him for a long, careful moment. Her eyes—he hadn't noticed before—are a pale, clear blue behind rimless glasses. "Thank you," she says. "For telling me."
His heart is pounding. He doesn't want it to stop. "Thank you for listening."
Bucky walks home that day, more than two hours in the oppressive heat. He needs time to unravel his thoughts in a space that can contain them.
It hadn't occurred to him to wonder what his life would have been life if he had just — come back from the war. Before, he's pretty sure, he'd only thought as far ahead as going; in the thick of it, he thought as far as the next mission, the next day, the next shot. Turning over now his scattered memories of it, he's surprised by how many of them have surfaced as nightmares. Bucky's been thinking of his nightmares as a roster of things he's done; mingled with the terror is always a thread of guilt. Sometimes there is no terror; sometimes the guilt is over how calm he was, holding a gun to someone's face and pulling the trigger while they screamed.
But sometimes the gun is pointing at him. Sometimes it's a tank, or a barrage of bullets like a deadly storm. Sometimes it's hands dragging him down a prison hallway in the last minutes he spent as the person who'd left Brooklyn behind.
He's been assuming that person would have been fine if he'd made it home, but maybe he would have had nightmares too. Maybe when Steve wakes up in the middle of the night, it's from a memory like this. Maybe he and Sam have more in common than he thought.
It makes him tired to see another demon crowding his skull. There's no victory in being able to name further loss. But there's something in knowing this is one he shares with Steve, with the guys they fought beside, with Rosemary's husband. With good men. It makes him feel less alone.
Jamie at the animal shelter was not exaggerating about Robin. The first thing she did the day Bucky brought her home was to spring under the couch, folding herself up unexpectedly small to crouch there, tense and wary. She hadn't moved till he went to bed, and when he woke up in the morning the food he'd left out for her was half-gone but she was back under the couch. Most days she won't eat if he's in the room; on others, she'll cry next to her bowl until he sits next to it and watches her, then scurries off as soon as she's done like she's afraid he will suddenly decide to attack her. He needed a way to occupy his evenings, and he got one: trying to entice this small, skittish creature out of her hiding place and into the open air.
It's a challenge. She's only willingly approached him once, jumping onto his bed while he was sleeping, and she bounded off as soon as he lifted his chin to look at her. She seems indifferent to the toys he's bought, although he'll come home sometimes to see them in different places than when he left. Once, from the hall, he heard the soft telltale jingling of a bell, but as soon as he turned the doorknob it stopped, and when he came in he only caught a glimpse of tail disappearing into darkness. He's started to catch himself talking to her, in English, like she can understand him but is being stubborn about it. It makes him feel stupid, although there's a weird comfort in the novelty of that. All of his self-recriminations are so exhaustingly extreme; this is just a tug of embarrassment, an impulse not to scream or disappear but just roll his eyes hearing himself try to sell a small animal on the virtues of the pink felt mouse with the little curly tail.
Waving a fuzzy yellow die allegedly laced with catnip in the direction of her watchful, frightened face, Bucky finds himself thinking about the person who made her this way. He's known strays less afraid of people than this cat. Lately he's been experiencing these unprecedented surges of rage, sourceless and overwhelming, that terrify him, driving him to lock himself in his room for fear of what he might do or spend hours sprinting down narrow streets until he's just breath and pulse and aching limbs, cleaned out until the next round, and when another one starts welling up in him he grabs on to this, pinning it stubbornly down: what kind of person does this? There's a sick satisfaction in finding something worthy of the bottomless wrath in him. Bucky doesn't really want to kill anyone ever again, but he thinks right now he could kill the bastard who messed up his cat, because—because what the fuck. What kind of jacked-up power-tripping hateful piece of shit gets off on fucking with a tiny, helpless being? What an awful way to treat an animal.
What a terrible thing to do to a living creature.
It occurs to Bucky—truly for the first time—that what happened to him is more than just the sum of what he did. He sees himself suddenly as he was, at the mercy of cruel people intent on taking from him something worse than life. Helpless. It hits him—so inconceivable, so brutally clear—that he neither wanted nor deserved any of this. That it was unfair, the things he lived through. That it was wrong. That the body which became such an elegant criminal was first the site of horrific crimes.
The revelation crashes in on him like water at the bottom of the sea, pressure so strong he can't breathe, and he starts to panic, convinced he will surely die rather than live under this weight. He cannot imagine continuing to exist in a world where this knowledge is his. He glimpsed it before, insisting Steve existed to him only as a battle to be won while every nerve in his body screamed that it wasn't true, and he'd run because if he was right—if there was a him that existed to say that was wrong—then what else had he known, and not—what else would he have to believe, if he let himself know what he knew.
He is knowing now, and he wants to stop. He is knowing and it hurts in a way he thought he had lost, hurting like people hurt, like a fever, like a knife, like a grenade behind his ribcage, and for a bitter minute he wants to run, or jump headlong into an easier pain, destroy every piece he has so haltingly assembled of a thing like a life, break back down into a body that knows only the elements and the tilting compass needle of need, back maybe into an object which knows nothing at all—
—except if he hits anything hard enough to hurt, he'll scare the fearful animal he promised to care for; except if he disappears no one will walk Rosemary to her next doctor's appointment; except if he stops being Bucky he can't write any more letters to Steve. Except as desperate as he is to run, he is more desperate not to lose what he has fought for.
He doesn't run. He tries to breathe. He tries to swallow back the impossible tightness in his throat. He tries to loosen his aching shoulders, and at the first shift of tension giving way, the last thing he would have thought himself capable of—he cries. Ugly, hacking sobs that twist his gut and catch his breath, lungs contorting with the pressure of an impossible legacy of things to grieve: full-body memories of horrors he should never have lived through, movie-screen memories of sweetnesses he will never have known, a litany of brutalities dwindling slowly down into one phrase: it wasn't fair. Such a small, childish thought, and he could drown in it, and he thinks it is the only reason he can stay alive—it wasn't fair, it wasn't fair—a weight, and then an anchor, and then a buoy. Something to cling to while tidal waves of sorrow wash over and through him as he gasps for air. It wasn't fair. It wasn't.
Bucky doesn't know how long he sits there, crying. By the time he's done it's almost night, and his shirt is disgusting, and he's given himself a headache. He goes to the bathroom to rinse the snot and tears off his face with cold water and when he's done he stares at his reflection, almost unable to believe it is still there, red-eyed and puffy but in other particulars unchanged from yesterday, or the day before. It seems a miracle to be looking at his face. A face in a crooked mirror in a dim, blue-tiled bathroom like a hundred dim, blue-tiled bathrooms in this city he knew and is learning again. It seems a miracle, but it's just a face.
What happened to him was a terrible thing, and it will always be. The griefs he has caused can never be undone, and they will live in his body like a wound. He will never again be the person he was. He will never recover the things which were stolen from him. Despair will trail him all the days of his life, and he will never be rid of its shadow. He will always know things no person should know. He will always carry an impossible burden. He will always be sad and sorry and broken.
But he will be other things, too.
Something brushes against his ankle and he jumps before looking down to see Robin, cautiously pushing her head against his leg. "Oh, this is what it takes, huh? One of those dames that go for the sensitive type?" Bucky catches himself, then winces, then has the absurd thought that this tendency might be a thing to write down. It makes him laugh like he can't remember laughing, breathless and loud and a little hysterical, picturing himself, with all the things he's done, documenting through gritted teeth: I talk to my cat like she's a human being.
There are worse ways to be.
In the morning he calls Steve from the pay phone two blocks down.
This time Bucky was expecting his voice mail, so when he hears Steve's voice saying, "Hello, this is Steve Rogers," it scrambles his mind long enough that Steve says, "Hello? Can you hear me?"
Bucky takes a deep breath to steady himself. "Steve. It's me."
There's a pause just long enough for Bucky to picture Steve's face going stunned and reforming itself into a semblance of calm. "Bucky, hi. It's great to hear from you. What's up?"
"I got a cat," is what comes out of his dumb mouth. "You should come meet her." Steve doesn't say anything for a long moment, and Bucky gets worried that he's miscalculated. "I just meant—if you wanted to, or if you have a chance. I know you're real busy these—"
"I'll be there tomorrow," Steve says, and Bucky feels himself smiling through eyes blurring with tears.
Bucky wants to see Steve, so truly it aches, but waiting makes him nervous. He doesn't have any practice being around Steve without trying to be what he was. Fears trickle in and keep him worrying at his lip into the night: that he'll never find his way around Steve; that Steve will realize he doesn't like the person walking around with his dead friend's name; that they'll discover whatever held them together is now just one more thing both of them have lost.
When he opens the door to find Steve, though, in jeans and a T-shirt with a trace of anxiety on his own face, standing in the hallway that always smells faintly like paint, because Bucky called him and asked him to come—when he finally sees Steve, his nervousness dissolves into the late summer air. Steve is here, and Bucky's glad. They can figure out the rest from there.
"Hi," says Bucky.
"You cut your hair," says Steve.
Bucky runs a hand along the back of his head self-consciously and wrinkles his nose. "It's too short. I don't like how it makes my forehead look." He noticed that this morning while brushing his teeth, and spent a moment reveling in his newfound ability to have such trivial concerns.
"I think it looks good," says Steve.
Bucky rolls his eyes. "Yeah, but you have terrible taste."
Steve grins. "I'm practical."
"You're sweating," Bucky says. "Come in. Careful with the cat."
Robin, infuriatingly, warms up to Steve right away. Of course. She curls up contentedly onto his lap without a single bribe and looks over at Bucky, the picture of smugness, while Steve scratches behind her ears. Traitor, he thinks, but out loud he says, "It's good to see you," because he wants Steve to know.
"Back at you," Steve says, but he's not meeting Bucky's eyes, eyebrows furrowed like he's got something else to say.
Bucky makes himself wait. He watches Steve play with his cat and taps his bare toes against the floor in sets of five and picks at his cuticle and breathes and waits.
"So Sam had this theory," Steve starts. "Well. Has, I guess." He glances at Bucky.
Tap-tap-tap-tap-tap. "Go on."
"He said—this was around when you, um..." Steve glances at him uncertainly.
"You can say it," Bucky tells him.
Steve nods once, looks back down. "Left. I guess. He said that, maybe, becoming—I think the phrase he used was human lab rat—one of those—and then going to war, and watching your best friend die, but not really, and then dying, but also not really, and then waking up in the future and having to fight a—a really weird army, and joining a dangerous organization that it turns out had been taken over by the same people who turned your best friend, who's actually not dead, into someone who's trying to kill you—sorry—"
"Don't worry about it."
"—anyway, Sam said—he suggested that that's the kind of thing that might get to a person. Might kind of mess with a guy's head."
"You don't say," Bucky deadpans. "Even a guy like Captain America?"
Steve laughs ruefully. "Even him."
"Well. When you put it like that." Bucky pulls his legs up to sit facing Steve. "That was Sam's theory, huh?"
"That was it."
"Sam sounds like a smart guy."
"He is." Steve bites his lip. "I screwed up, Buck.
Bucky holds himself very still. "How do you mean?"
"I thought—it was like if I could just—just do right by you, then everything else would just—I don't know."
There's a darkness coming over the hard set of his jaw that Bucky doesn't like. "Steve—"
"I wasn't thinking, and I fucked up, and—"
"Steve, you can't—"
"I needed you too much, like always—"
"Would you fucking listen to me, please." Bucky clasps his hands over his mouth, shocked at the volume of his own voice; but Steve just stops talking and looks at him, almost meek. "I've yelled at you like this before," he realizes. "I'm sorry."
Steve shrugs. "I usually deserved it."
Bucky shakes his head. "I don't want to yell." It feels too much like violence. He takes a moment to clear his head and tries again. "It's like—you won't let yourself be human. Like the world is gonna fall apart if you admit that you can feel—pain, or sadness, or—"
"If I could maybe finish a sentence—"
"It's just." He covers his face, trying to think. Steve waits for him, and he feels immensely grateful. "You're allowed to be messed up about this, okay? I'm really, really messed up about it. The world fucked us over, Steve. And don't tell me it's different for you, because—it is but that doesn't mean I've got some kind of—pass that you don't. I can deal with you being messed up, okay? What I can't handle is you trying to act like you're indestructible. I used to be able to. But I can't. I can't." He tries to swallow. "I'm sorry."
"Hey." Steve reaches a hand out and then stops, like he's not sure he's allowed to touch Bucky. Bucky wraps Steve's fingers in his palm—an awkward angle, but Steve curls their hands together. "You don't get to make this go one way either, okay?"
Protests rise in his throat, but Bucky knows Steve is right. They're figuring it out, he reminds himself. Together. "Okay."
"Okay." Steve smiles then, soft but real. "So."
"So," Bucky says. "Here we are. A couple of crack-ups." He gives Steve a smile to show he's—well, he's actually not kidding. To show he can be more. "Other than beating yourself up about it, you doing anything with that exciting theory Sam had?"
"Um. Oh! I saw a—therapist," Steve says. "I mean, I'm seeing her. I've seen her twice."
"It's. Weird?" Steve screws up his face. "But good. I think. She said it's pretty normal to think it's weird, so. I like her. She's smart. Didn't make a big deal about the whole—" Steve strikes a cartoonish fighting stance, fist in the air and invisible shield against his chest, rolling his eyes at himself, and Bucky feels a smile flickering onto his face. "You know. Thing."
"Yeah. I think it'll help."
There's a heavy silence. "Say it," Bucky says. "Whatever it is, just say it." They've tried holding their tongues, and it didn't work.
"Have you considered... seeing someone?"
Bucky shakes his head. The idea hadn't occurred to him. "I'll think about it," he promises Steve. "I will." He doesn't have to decide anything today, or tomorrow, or even the day after.
Steve nods, satisfied. Robin climbs clumsily off his lap and slinks back under the couch, apparently worn out for the day. "Is there anything I can—help with, or do?"
"No more best behavior." Steve starts to open his mouth and Bucky adds, "If I can't deal with something, I'll tell you. Before I was—I couldn't—but I will, from now on. That's a promise. I wouldn't—I wouldn't make a promise if I didn't think I could keep it."
He looks at Steve, waiting for confirmation, and Steve says, "I trust you."
Bucky forces himself not to say Don't. It doesn't have to be true for everything. He goes on. "Stop apologizing for being a person. Maybe try to take a moratorium on your lifelong quest to get yourself killed. Other than that?" He thinks. "This is good. You being here. Being my—friend." The word feels foreign in his mouth, but they're both here so—so it must be at least a little right.
"I can do that," Steve says.
"I know," Bucky says. "You've been doing it your whole life, remember?"
Steve's expression goes pained. "I just keep going back to that day—if I had just come though for you, for once, or—then maybe none of this—"
And Bucky wants eventually to listen, but they've covered a lot of rough territory today and and his shoulders are stiff, and if he's bold enough to claim friendship he wants the other parts too, so—"Yeah, okay, Rogers. That one you can save for your shrink." He gets to his feet. "Come on. I'm starving, and there's this Ukrainian place in the Village Rosemary's been telling me I gotta try." Bucky holds out a hand, and Steve would never need help getting to his feet these days, but he takes it, letting Bucky lead.
When they were young they were best friends—this much Bucky has known in himself since before he could match to it a single memory—but still there were things they did not say. Some they didn't need to speak, could communicate with a glance or a raised eyebrow or a shift in posture and know the other would read it right; others they couldn't, or wouldn't, put into words, careful spaces maintained around their deepest aches.
They are not young anymore, and silence is a luxury they can no longer afford. It's hard to push past it—to say straight-out things that will make the other wince, to acknowledge how unprotected they are from the hurts that live with them—and some days it's only the harsh memory of how silence almost collapsed their bond for good that keeps Bucky diligent. It takes enormous will to bend down instincts built from a lifetime of feigning fearlessness enough to meet Steve's eyes and tell him, "No matter how much I try to tell myself nothing's going to happen, a part of me is still scared pretty much all the time."
And Bucky knows it isn't easy for Steve to respond, without breaking his gaze, "I'm scared, too."
Bucky doesn't have enough memories to comb through, but he knows Steve enough by now that there's only half a question in his voice when he says, "You've never said that to me before."
Steve looks startled, searches inside himself. "I don't think I've said that out loud to anyone before."
To watch Steve open a piece of himself and hold it out like it's something to share—Bucky is overwhelmed by a tenderness that almost stops his throat. "Thank you," he manages, and Steve places a warm hand over his.
There's no guide for this in the life Bucky forgot; they are stumbling their way, through visits and phone calls and letters, into something neither of them has seen. An unmapped continent. A new start, he thinks one day, and chokes out a laugh because what they have is the opposite of a clean slate; it's a new start only in the manner of a bombed-out city.
He shares this thought with Steve, who's started coming by close to weekly, spending the night on the couch no matter how often Bucky offers him the bed, and Steve frowns.
"But a bombed-out city is a new start," he says, slowly. "Not one you ever want to happen. And not one that's worth the cost. It just—is, because—what are going to do, just leave it? You can't. So—it's hard, but—I don't know if I'm making sense."
Bucky thinks about how much he hated himself for leaving Steve's apartment all those months ago, and how if he hadn't, they wouldn't be able to sit together on a bench in Prospect Park, surrounded by green and the occasional shout from a children's soccer game nearby, basking in the welcome mildness of early September, talking not like the people they had been, but like the people they are now, with all their raw fears. He thinks about how it's not fair that they need to forge a new kind of courage just to be together, when it was once the only simple thing, but the alternatives are worse. "I get it."
Steve gives him a crooked smile, and it doesn't feel like a mistake, or a reward for a lie, or a reminder of everything he's lost. It feels like something he can count on. Like friendship. Bucky smiles back.
Not everything is hard. There are moments that unfold with the easy grace of a magic trick, leaving him reeling with a wide-eyed shock so complete it's almost like innocence.
Steve, unswayed by Bucky's reassurances about the 24-hour Chinese place two blocks down, loses patience with Bucky's empty cupboards and arrives one day armed with an absurd quantity of nonperishable goods. "Look," Steve says, "you don't even have to eat any of it, okay, just, it'll make me feel better to know it's there," and then, his trump card—"You would do the same for me."
And Bucky says, "Fine, fine, whatever you say," laughing, and then, "thank you," taking from Steve's arms a set of bags filled with probably every can of peaches in the store, because he knows: Steve is right.
Bucky doesn't want a phone—even if he doesn't think he'll be found, his muscles tense at the chance of upping the possibility, however slightly—but Steve knows a guy he thinks can take care of that.
"One of your friends?" Bucky says. Steve has weird friends.
"More of an acquaintance, really. He's—well." Steve rolls his eyes; Bucky decides not to ask. "But he's really good with tech stuff. I think he could do it. And if not, he'd tell me."
Bucky tentatively agrees, and a week later Steve shows up with a phone that—"I'm sorry, I kept trying to explain it wasn't for me, but he thought this was some really hilarious joke about being 'on brand'—"
Bucky turns the phone over: there's a glittering American flag painted on the back. "I like it," he says, not adding: It reminds me of you.
The phone brings unexpected benefits. He can call Rosemary in between visits to make sure she's okay, and it feels good to know she could reach him in an emergency. He can double check which subway lines are running on weekends he's taking the train back from Manhattan. Steve can text him on days off, Remember to eat!!! :)
Sam gets his number from Steve and calls to let Bucky know he's coming up for a cousin's wedding, and would Bucky like to get lunch before he heads back to D. C., and Bucky surprises himself with how simple it is to say yes. Over omelets and coffee, surrounded by families in their Sunday best, Bucky feels stiff and anxious and tries to pretend Sam is a stranger he doesn't need to matter to, and Sam lets him, treading with a light touch until Bucky feels his tension ease and doesn't need to anymore. This can get better with time, he tells himself. He is trying to believe he has time.
During a lull in questions about Sam's family and local restaurant recommendations Bucky feels peculiarly proud to be able to make—it's like he really lives here or something—Sam gives him that familiar keen gaze. "You were never really worried you'd hurt him, were you."
Bucky looks at his plate, shrugs. "I needed to know I could trust you." He's not going to apologize for that.
"Yeah, I put that one together too."
He glances over at the window, where a young couple is seated, their feet touching lightly under the table. "Steve needs someone... looking out for him."
Sam snorts. "You mean, making sure he doesn't get himself killed."
Bucky laughs out loud. "That is exactly what I mean." He makes himself meet Sam's eyes for this. "I'm glad he's got you. I—" He bites at his bottom lip, unsure what the rest of that sentence should be.
"You know," Sam says, suddenly gentle, "it's hard going through life alone, but it's also hard having just one person. And it's really hard being someone's one person. For many people."
Bucky considers this until he realizes he's probably staring and decides to return to it later. "I'm glad he has you," he repeats, and lets himself hope that maybe one day he'll be able to say: I'm glad I have you, too. Or even—maybe, maybe—You've got me.
Steve and Bucky take walks on clear sunny days, familiar routes Bucky mapped out for himself in the months he was scrambling to find something he could call solid ground, new paths neither of them has ventured down before. Sometimes they take turns pointing sights out to each other: unusually shaped buildings, outrageous tabloid headlines, flowers. Sometimes they just walk in silence, side by side.
On a Sunday at the start of October, the first brisk day of the season, leaning against a railing at Battery Park, Bucky asks, "Why did you leave New York?"
Steve doesn't answer right away. Bucky is about to tell him that he doesn't need to when he says, "There were too many memories. It felt like everywhere I went, I was seeing double. What was there, and what had been there before. Who had been there before, and was—gone. So when Nick asked me to join S.H.I.E.L.D, I took it as a good excuse to leave." He turns to look at Bucky. "You like it here."
"I do. It's—" He thinks about New York: the ugly anonymity of it, the pockets of unexpected beauty and startling sweetness. How it is somehow in equal the same city and not at all, unrecognizable and familiar, better, worse, changing still. Filled with ghosts, and endlessly alive. A phrase he half-remembered recently from God knows where, a class or a relative or maybe even Steve, and looked up on his phone: Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me. "Things feel wrong, a lot of the time. I feel wrong. Here it's like—it matters less." He shrugs. "My lease is up soon, though."
"Are you going to renew it?"
"Well, technically it's not my lease. And technically I'm dead. I don't know if I can."
Bucky's expecting Steve to make another bid for letting Steve's weird friends set him up with a legal twenty-first century identity, and he's even thinking he might have convinced himself he exists enough to say yes this time, but Steve just nods. "You know you can always stay with me."
"I know." Some days, lately, he wants to; some days he wants to bottle up what's kindled into being between Steve and him, the sturdy warmth of it, less a matter of memory by the day, all the more precious for how deliberately they are building it, and hold it to his chest. On those days living in Steve's space, spending all his time surrounded by Steve's presence, feels like the easiest thing to want. But then Bucky remembers how precarious the line between them felt when he couldn't locate anything inside himself, and how there are days still when is not convinced he's a thing that could be described as living, and he knows it wouldn't work yet. Maybe not for a long time. "But—"
"You like it here," Steve says evenly. Bucky searches Steve's face for disappointment. When he doesn't find any, he smiles. "Well. If you think there'll be a problem, I can talk to your landlord. People tend to like saying yes to me."
"Can't imagine why."
Steve shakes his head and sighs. "It's real mystery."
"Must be your boyish good looks."
"I prefer to believe it's my dazzling intelligence and cutting wit," Steve says, and Bucky laughs in his face.
Steve just grins at that, somehow both delighted and smug, and it's like a light going on. Not a light. Like the sun rising, gently breathtaking: Steve filling Bucky's view for an expansive, heartstopping moment, every angle of his face and rhythm of his laugh, his courage and solidness and every stupid thing he's ever done, Steve the reckless punk and brave soldier and loyal friend, Steve who cracks him up and reminds him to eat and is working so hard to undo the pieces of himself he has outgrown while holding fast to what he knows he believes, who would never abandon him but let him run when he needed to, and: oh. Oh, Bucky thinks, feeling a knot come loose, flooding his strange body with something he hadn't known it contained. He almost—he wants to—he's not sure, except—he is sure. In every piece of him. He looks out at the river, listening to the pounding of his heart, a drumbeat at once familiar and totally new.
After Steve has left—after Bucky has spent one final moment drinking in the sight of him, marveling at the magnetic pull stirring in his own chest—Bucky takes out his notebook and opens it in his lap, trying to shape this revelation into words that won't shrink it down.
He does not write I am in love with Steve, even though it's true like the sky is true, even though every vein is vibrating with the truth of it. He needs this to be his own.
Finally he writes: I can fall in love—and he had forgotten, he hadn't known, he would have believed it had been cut out of him forever if he had thought of it at all—I can fall in love, and when the soft gray splashes of tears on the page let him know he's crying through a smile he can't subdue, he adds under it: I can feel joy. Another miracle, this time one he would never, ever give back.
A new collection of memories trickles in, like his brain had cordoned them off until he could look at them without turning away: long nights spent huddling under a worn blanket for warmth when Bucky felt like he could have stayed there, Steve's angular body pressed into his side, for the rest of their lives. Summer evenings when someone was playing music that floated through the window with the breeze and Bucky dragged Steve to his feet and tried to teach him to dance, Steve rolling his eyes at his own two left feet until Bucky gave jolted him just right to break through his embarrassment and they wound up tripping over each other, laughing too hard to stand. Saturdays in the months when he was waiting for his orders, pretending to read while watching Steve sketch and trying to memorize every piece of him to take into the war. And, once—so shaky he wouldn't believe it was real if it didn't register somewhere beneath his ribs—a dizzy, messy kiss.
Bucky doesn't need these fragments to tell him how he feels about Steve. What he has is its own truth. He's not even sure if when he was living them, he felt just as he feels now. He doesn't know what love would have looked like to the person he was back then, so much younger, navigating hurts on such a different scale. But he likes having them, now. He'd thought of the memories of his old life as a guide to who he should be, and then as painful reminders of what he'd lost, but he's starting to consider the possibility that he can look at them differently. When all you have left of what you have loved are scraps, it isn't wrong to treasure those scraps—press them under glass or build for them a monument. Like salvaging the ruins of a country laid waste: a way of honoring what can be rebuilt but not revived.
He toys with the idea of keeping this private for a while, letting the secret pleasure of it keep his feet light and his head spinning; but a week later Steve is visiting and at the sight of him, grinning and red-cheeked from the autumn air, Bucky knows he won't make it a day.
Patience has never been his strong suit.
"I brought you something," Steve says, and sits on the couch to dig through his bag. He takes out a weathered brown box and holds it out for Bucky to take. "Here."
Bucky opens the box and rifles through the layers of fabric inside until he finds a gold-colored disc, about the size of his palm. He notices a clasp and opens it gently: a pocket watch.
"It was yours," Steve says, "but you left it with me when you went overseas, so it wound up with my things, which meant it made its way to a museum after—you know. It took some tracking down—I had to go up to Massachusetts to convince them this wasn't some kind of prank—but they let me have it."
Bucky is about to say he's forgotten it, but he lifts the watch out of the box and his hand remembers the weight of it, its cool smoothness. "Tell me about it."
"Your aunt left it to you," Steve says. "Frances, I think."
"I don't remember her."
"You never did. She died when you were a baby."
Bucky frowns. "Then why—?"
"I think," Steve says, "or what you told me, anyway, was—you were named for her husband," Steve says. "Not James—Buchanan. A real charming guy—your whole family loved him, apparently. Anyway, it had been his, and then he died right after the wedding, she gave it to your mother to give to you when you were old enough. It was her way of keeping it with him, I guess."
"Oh." Bucky turns the watch over and over in his hand, looking at its dark shine, the intricacy of its face. A watch is an inheritance is a history is a tool, and a few months ago it would have been a burden, too. Now it is a gift. "Thank you." Steve looks touchingly pleased. Bucky figures this is a good a time as any. "Do you—did you ever—" What he's asking is so big; he needs somewhere to start. "Do you remember the night we kissed?"
Steve's eyes go hugely wide. "Um." He clears his throat, several times. "You mean, do I remember the night you kissed me and then just—never talked about it, ever?"
"If you want to get technical about it." Bucky shrugs. "I think I was planning to. Or thinking about it, at least. If I made it back. But if I didn't—" He hesitates; he's going on guesswork here. "I think I felt like—if I didn't make it back, and we had—or I had—whatever—it would just make it some special kind of tragic."
"Well," Steve says dryly. "Good thing we avoided all that tragedy, you and me."
"Right? I always have the best ideas." Bucky fidgets with his fingers in his lap. "You didn't say anything about it either."
"I didn't think you—meant anything by it. You were pretty drunk."
"Was I really that drunk," Bucky says, even though he's pretty sure the answer is yes.
"You fell asleep ten minutes later."
"I was tired. It had been a long week."
Steve raises an eyebrow. "You fell asleep on the floor."
"Yeah, well." Bucky's toes are tapping the air. "At least I kissed like I meant it. You, if I recall correctly, just kind of stood there—"
Steve sputters. "I was a little caught off guard—"
"—I mean, I know you hadn't had a lot of practice, but—"
"You don't need practice."
"Steve." Bucky looks at him pityingly. "Everyone needs practice."
Steve blushes at that, and Bucky holds back a laugh. "Yeah, well. If you had said something, what would you have said?"
Bucky tries to think. "I don't know. I forget, or else," and this seems not unlikely, "I hadn't really thought that far in advance. Probably I would have just asked if you wanted to do it again." He makes himself meet Steve's eyes for this. "What would you have said?"
Steve looks at him for what feels like a long time. "Yes," he says finally, quiet but steady. "I would have said yes."
"Oh." Bucky allows himself a small smile at that, even as he's trying to tamp down sparks set off by that one small word. A sudden thought: "What about Peggy?" He's not jealous—although he was, he remembers with a twist to the gut, he was to see Steve look at her like she was the only thing in the room—but now he just wants to know.
"When I met Peggy," Steve says, with a fond, sad smile, "I was in awe. She was beautiful, and brilliant, with this incredible strength. She terrified me, and she made me want to be a better man, and when she smiled at me it felt like—like the world had stopped, and just for a moment everything was right. And I realized two things. I realized this must be what people meant when they talked about being in love. And I realized—" Steve takes a long breath. "I realized I could feel that way about someone who wasn't you." Bucky can't speak. Bucky can barely breathe. "So maybe, in another life, she and I could've.... But." He spreads his palms, as if offering that lost life to the universe that claimed it. "What about you? Was there ever anyone?"
It takes Bucky a concentrated effort to get his voice to work. "I don't think so," he manages. "I wasn't—I don't think I was in a rush to settle down, or anything. There were girls I liked. Maybe if I had come back I would've... well." He closes the watch's lid. Looking at it like this, you could think it was a single solid piece, without the dozens of parts that make it what it is. "In another life."
"Yeah," says Steve. "In another life."
In another life, maybe Peggy and Steve had four beautiful children, and the oldest was named after Steve's best friend who was killed fighting for his country, and inherited a pocket watch that had belonged to a man he'd never met; in another life maybe Bucky never fell, and he found a nice girl and took to peacetime in a way he never had before he'd known how precious it was, and Steve's four beautiful children called him their uncle, and maybe he even had some kids of his own; in another life maybe neither of them ever went to war, and they married other people, or they didn't, but either way they spent the decades side by side, and when they died no one revived them to be someone else's sword. And undoubtedly those lives would have been better, cleaner and brighter and less weighed by sorrow, and for a moment they mourn those stillborn worlds together in silence. And yet. And yet, somehow—"Right now this one doesn't seem all bad."
Steve's face goes almost unbearably soft, mouth half-open in the gentlest mix of longing and hope. Bucky thinks he knows this part, and knows Steve will wait for him to take that last step into what they both want, because Bucky has a mind full of craters and Steve is respectful and still a little shy. And eventually Bucky would like to play that part again, but right now, with all the work it is to be a person every day, after all those months he needed to make himself do it alone—right now he wants to be the one leaning into someone else.
He kind of feels like he's earned it.
So he says, "You gonna sit there gawking, Rogers, or are you gonna kiss me like a man?" and blesses his stars that for once in his stupid life, Steve doesn't need to be told twice.
"Bucky, it's 2015, you can't say 'like a man' anymore."
"Is this real? Are you really—"
"I'm just saying, women have made great strides since 1945, and that's been reflected in—"
"Are you fucking with me? You're doing this to fuck with me, right? Because—"
"I mean, take a woman like Natasha. Obviously, she's fully equal in all capabilities to—"
"Okay, well, I'm not kissing Natasha, and neither are you, so—wait. What's that face?"
"What face? I'm not making a face."
"Oh, please. ...Did you and she—?"
"...It was for work?"
"I'll... tell you later? What if we go back to the part where we were kissing? I liked that part."
"Yeah, well, I wasn't the one who—mmph—okay. Okay."
In truth Bucky's mouth feels rusted over with disuse and Steve is clumsy, too, and it's all awkward lips and front teeth bumping against each other, but even that has a sweetness: this is something else they are building together. There's nothing here of excavation—just the soft electric delight of creating something new. Steve tilts his head just right and Bucky opens his mouth like so and they're inching towards a rhythm, like learning a dance step. Like learning what dancing is . His body is a body that can move like this, that can relax into Steve's solid hand tentative and warm at the back of his head. His body is a body with more life ahead of it than behind and for once that feels like joy. Bucky feels giddily, magnificently young, and his body is—he wants—
He breaks away gently, heart pounding. Steve doesn't move his hand, just looks at Bucky like he never wants to look at anything else.
Bucky wants—but it doesn't seem possible. It seems as impossible as the fact that his body contains all the things he has been. It seems as impossible as the fact that he is not dead, that he is maybe even what you could call alive. He feels alive. His life has become a long exercise in proving himself wrong about impossibilities.
Steve's face is so open, haloed by the sunlight from the grimy window.
Bucky reaches out with his right hand, slowly, like if he moves too fast Steve might disappear, or worse, like Bucky might—like his body will—he reaches out. He brushes Steve's cheek with his knuckles, softly, so softly, then spreads his fingers, feeling the bristles of Steve's hair against his fingertips, the warmth of Steve's cheek under his palm. He stares at his own hand tenderly cradling Steve's face. His breath is shaky. Then, his left hand—it doesn't feel Steve's warmth, or the texture of his skin, or the firmness of his jaw. It registers the shape of Steve like it would the shape of any object. But Steve does't flinch, just smiles, dazedly happy, and Bucky stays there, holding Steve's face in his hands. Both hands. All of him moving with a gentleness he was never meant for. Impossible.
There is a long glass-like moment in which Bucky waits for this all to be destroyed.
A shadow lifts and he exhales. This is real. They are here, both of them, surrounded by a goodness they've brought into being. This is theirs. This is real.
Steve's brows suddenly knit in concern. "Bucky, are you okay? What's—"
Bucky's crying, he realizes. "It's fine," he says. He lets the tears fall. He doesn't want to let go. "It's fine. No, Steve, really, it's good. I'm good."
"You're sure?" Steve says, doubtful, wiping under Bucky's eye with the pad of his thumb. Steve is so good, and Bucky is so in love.
"Yeah," he says, "look, I'll prove it to you—" and he pulls Steve close to kiss him again, diving headfirst into uncharted waters, newly and blissfully unafraid.
At first Bucky doesn't remember why there's another body in his bed; but even before he's opened his eyes the smell of Steve grounds him. I live here , he thinks: in a world where he can wake up to the curve of Steve's back and curl tight against him just to be closer.
They're both dressed, in sweatpants and T-shirts they put on to sleep. Last night Bucky hit a weird point where his body wanted something that felt like too much and he froze up and said "I need—I can't—" and sat stone-still trying to get control while Steve watched him, worried but patient. When he could breathe again, Bucky choked out "I'm sorry," and Steve said "Don't you fucking dare," and Bucky said "Okay," and rested his head against Steve's shoulder until it felt slightly less untrue.
Steve stirs next to him and rolls over to face him, and god, Bucky could wake up to that smile every single day until the end of time and never get tired of it. "Hey," Steve says, voice morning-rough. Bucky could have that every single day until the end of time and never get tired of it, too.
"Hi," Bucky says.
"So." Steve brings a hand to Bucky's face and rests it there. "This is still—I mean, we're—you're still—?"
"Yeah," Bucky says. "I'm still. I mean, if you're still."
"I'm still. I'm—I'm really still," Steve says, nodding for emphasis.
"So then, yes," Bucky says. "We're still." He rubs his toes against Steve's ankles. "I might need to—go slowly, with—you know. It's just—it's a lot." Having a body is a lot. Having a body that wants to touch another body is a lot more. Having a body that has done all the things his body has done be seen so completely, unhidden, unprotected—that's maybe the most.
Steve brushes Bucky's hair back. "Whatever you need."
"You're still not going to let me apologize," Bucky says, "are you."
"Not a chance," Steve says. "And listen—it's not like—I mean, it would be okay to go with whatever you want or don't want no matter what—but I'm not—I didn't go to bed last night feeling—deprived, or anything." Steve is blushing. That's magical. "It was all—really good, even just—you know. So—you shouldn't worry about me anyway—but if—I mean—don't worry about me. Okay?"
Bucky believes him. Better: Bucky knows it's true, because he was there to feel the moment when Steve's uncertainty gave way to eagerness, and hear the soft sound that accompanied the shiver that ran through him when Bucky just barely touched a hand to his waist, and see his face each time they broke apart, looking like he couldn't believe his damn luck.
Bucky knows the feeling.
"It was good," he says. "I didn't stop because—I mean do want to—you know—eventually. When I can—I don't know." He's pretty sure he's blushing too. Goddammit.
"So do I," Steve says. "Want to, I mean. To, um."
"I feel like this shouldn't be that hard to talk about," Bucky says.
"I dunno," says Steve. "I think this is something even pretty normal people have trouble with. There are a lot of TV shows about it, at least."
"Maybe," Bucky allows. "Still. After everything we've…"
"Do you want to say it?"
"I—" He does and he doesn't. It feels stupid that he can't say it, but it feels at least as stupid to say I would like to have sex with you someday when I'm less weird about it. "I guess not yet."
"We have time," Steve says, running his thumb up and down Bucky's face.
"We do," Bucky says. We. It's nice to hear and nicer to say. That took time, too.
"I did want—" Steve starts, and stops. Bucky watches a process that has become familiar play out on Steve's face: holding silent, reminding himself they're not doing that anymore, convincing himself to follow through. "I didn't say it in so many words yesterday. And if you don't want me to say it, I understand. But I mean—I do—I am kind of in love with you."
Steve looks apologetic for about half a second. "You're a real asshole in the morning."
"Yeah, well." Bucky traces the edge of Steve's ear with his finger. "If we're going all soft on each other, I love you too. No kind of about it." Steve's smile. God. "Enough chit-chat. I don't keep you around for your brains." Bucky leans in for a lazy kiss and Steve meets his lips, easy as anything.
On a morning in November Bucky makes his way downstairs to buy a cup of coffee and maybe a bagel, or maybe an egg sandwich, maybe a copy of the paper because there's something comforting in the ritual of it and the Daily News at least is in sentences short enough for him to finish, even if they're mostly about people he can't place, and opens the front door to an early frost—
—and is hit across the face by sudden cold—
—and he thought it was morning but the world is so dark—
—and the door closes—opens—closes again—
The world is on its side. No. He is on his side. He is lying down. He is not sure if he is breathing. He is not sure if he wants to. It is not dark but he cannot see. He cannot connect the images in his eyes to anything inside him. He cannot find anything inside him.
His body is shaking.
There are noises nearby: a low thick rattling, something very loud, solid thumps coming closer. A threat? A voice calling. A person. He should get up, get ready. He is shaking. A man is making sounds. Saying: Bucky? Buck—oh, thank God. I thought you were—are you okay? Bucky. Are you—can you hear me?
He tries to hold on to the words. Steve. Familiar. Bucky. He thinks that's him. He thinks he's supposed to be Bucky.
The picture has changed. In front of him is something he can recognize as a face. He knows this face. The face says, "Bucky. It's me, Steve. Can you hear me?"
The face is Steve. He makes his mouth say, "Steve."
Steve nods. "Yeah."
He wants—he tries—he's shaking. He says, "I'm cold."
"Oh," Steve says, and the face changes: "Oh." The face moves away. Footsteps leave the room and come back. The air changes around his body. Something is falling on him, and then another something on top of that, and another. The last one brushes his face, soft. A blanket. He holds on to the word: blanket. And under it, two coats.
Steve looks different now. Steve took his coat off. Steve says, "If I try something, and you want me to stop—would you be able to tell me?"
The question takes a long time to reach him. He has to let the sounds reassemble themselves in his head. He has to remember that you is talking about him. He has to remember how to answer a question.
He says, "Yes."
Steve moves his head up and down. Nods. "Okay. I'll go slow, okay? Just—say anything, and I'll stop." Steve moves. Steve gets onto the bed. He's on a bed, he realizes. It might be his bed. Steve lies down beside him, solid body startlingly gentle. Steve gets under the blanket, shifts the coats so their bodies are aligned. Puts an arm around his. Holding him. Warming him up.
It doesn't work. He's still shaking, like the blankets aren't even there.
"Is this helping?" Steve asks, breath a gust of air that should be warm against his neck.
He's still so cold.
He says, "Stay," and closes his eyes, trying to feel the steady in and out of Steve's chest against his back.
When he opens his eyes the world is solid again. Or he is solid. Solidish. He thinks: I live here. I: this body, the person in this body, Bucky Barnes. Here: an apartment, his apartment, Brooklyn, Steve by his side. Live: apparently. He isn't shaking anymore. His muscles ache. Bucky, he thinks, and moves the fingers of his right hand, just to prove he can. Steve's arm around him is heavy, his breathing slow. Bucky rolls over to see Steve asleep, his hair sticking out in all directions from sweat, mouth half-open, with a tiny drop of spit on the sheet beneath him. He looks so young. Bucky thinks it's the sweetest thing he's ever seen, and he wants to cry because he didn't want this. He wanted to spend the day talking and laughing and kissing the one he loves. Like a person. He'd thought maybe he could have that much, for a little while, at least. Now it feels so far away.
Steve stirs, jerks awake, opens his eyes. Frowns at Bucky, like he's not sure if he's dreaming.
"Hi," Bucky says, throat tight.
Steve's face relaxes into a drowsy smile. "Hey, you," he says warmly. "What's going on?"
"I thought." Bucky swallows. Grits his teeth. "I thought I." Steve has found his hand and laced their fingers together. "I thought I wouldn't have to—do this again." His voice breaks on the last word.
"Oh, Buck," Steve says, so sad and kind Bucky wants to cry. It takes him a moment to remember he can. He presses his face against Steve's chest and lets himself, lets Steve wrap him in his arms, saying his name, saying "I'm here," saying "I've got you." Bucky tries to let himself believe it.
When he wakes up he knows he's been asleep. He isn't sure what he was earlier, but this is a familiar transition. His face is pressed against Steve's side; Steve is sitting up, chewing on a pen with a thin floppy book in his hand.
Steve glances down, smiles softly. "Nah. Crosswords are a lost cause for me. This is Su Doku." He tilts the book so Bucky can see the page: a grid filled with numbers printed and written. "Kind of like a crossword with numbers, I guess. I dunno. I can explain the rules if you want."
"That's okay." Bucky drags a finger along a line of numbers that have been messily crossed out. "Maybe you shouldn't use pen, you lunkhead."
"Yeah, well. Maybe you should mind your business." Steve rests his fingers softly on the back of Bucky's scalp and Bucky closes his eyes, inhaling the warmth of him.
"I was." He waits for the words he can pin to the nothingness to come, and when they don't he waits for Steve to say something, and when he doesn't Bucky sits up, opens his eyes. Steve turned the lamp on; the window is dark. "I'm tired." Of everything, he doesn't add.
Bucky rests his head against Steve's shoulder. When he stepped outside he was an empty basin once more, and now he is something different again, and it hasn't even been a day. He has been so many things which should not all share a body. Trying to make sense of them will take—"I'm really fucking tired."
"Yeah." Steve rests a hand on Bucky's knee. "Do you want to talk?"
Bucky studies his face. "You were scared."
Steve flinches but doesn't look away. "Yeah."
Guilt churns in his stomach. "I'm—"
"Stop. Don't do this. I don't need you comforting me because you—had a bad day."
Bad day. Like he was late to work and the train was delayed and it was raining. But it's not untrue, he guesses. "I don't want to—disappear again." He's not sure he realized that was true until it happened. "But I can't promise."
"I know. I'm not asking you to."
"I know. But I wish—" He wishes a lot of things, none of them possible. "I wish I knew—why. When things were—I wish I knew why."
"Well," Steve says carefully, "it's pretty cold out."
"Yeah." He waits. "And?"
"I mean—maybe that reminded you of some stuff."
"Oh." It's not that he forgot—he never forgets—but he has to remind himself, sometimes, that it mattered. Matters. "I didn't think about that."
Steve nudges him. "Who's the lunkhead now?"
"Still you." Bucky hooks his foot around Steve's, tangling them together. "What if this never stops happening?"
"I don't know." Steve shrugs. "I'll keep being here. If you want me to."
Bucky didn't, once. When he felt like a nothing so that Steve had to be everything. He feels like a nothing sometimes, still, but he had something to come back to. He thinks about earlier, when Steve got in the bed. It didn't help, but then two things were true, where there had been only one. "I do." A thought occurs to him. "How did you get in?"
"Um." Steve clears his throat, sheepish. "We might need to... call for repairs?"
"I'll pay for the damage, okay? I—you weren't answering the door or the phone, and I just got—"
"Oh my God." Laughter bubbles out of him, though he couldn't say why. "Oh my God. Please tell me you're talking about the apartment door."
"What? Oh—downstairs I just followed in a delivery guy. Speaking of which, there's Indian food in the kitchen if you're hungry. I figured you hadn't eaten for a while, so..."
"Thank you." Bucky could spend his entire life saying thank you and it would never measure up to all the thanks he owes. "Maybe in a bit."
In a bit maybe they'll get out of bed. Maybe they'll eat standing up in Bucky's kitchen, or sit on the couch in silence. Maybe Steve will play the latest mix Sam made him on his phone, maybe Bucky will settle into his skin enough to kiss him or, finally, something more, maybe in the morning they'll go to the diner by the train tracks for pancakes and eggs. In the meantime, he makes himself breathe. Again. And again. He makes himself, breathing.
"Hey," says Bucky. He's at Rosemary's apartment. They're baking cinnamon rolls off a recipe he got from Natasha weeks ago and didn't manage to use until he decided they were for Rosemary. He's trying to notice useful patterns, like some things are easier to do when there's another person involved . Or some things are easier to talk about when you're doing something besides talking , such as slicing a roll of dough into inch-thick pieces. "You said one of your granddaughters wants to work with veterans, right?"
"Laura," Rosemary says. "Yes."
"If I—would she be able to—I don't really know how this stuff works," Bucky says, feeling awkward. "If I wanted to—talk to someone—would she know how—or where, or—" He trails off helplessly.
"I'll call her tonight and ask," Rosemary says gently. "I'm sure she'll be able to help."
"Thank you," Bucky says, trying not to cry. Rosemary's granddaughter will pass on information, and then he'll have to use it, go somewhere or call someone, and maybe he'll need to make an appointment and remember the appointment and actually go and talk to a stranger and figure out what he wants to explain and how to explain it, and all the while he has to keep eating and sleeping and acting like a person. There's so much living to do, all the time. "I think these are ready for the oven."
"Fabulous," Rosemary says. "And it's my pleasure."
They agree that Steve will come up on the twenty-third of December, but Bucky has a better idea. It's cold, though, even underneath the sweater and scarf and hat Steve gave him, and the temperatures sink into his marrow and tense every muscle in his body, so he doesn't want to promise. Instead he practices imagining it while exploring new methods for not disappearing.
He's started watching television again on his phone, just to have something that marks the passage of time when he's home alone and it's dark by seven, the illusion of things happening without anything needing to actually happen. He's developing an affection for shows about crime. None of the characters matter, so he doesn't need to remember their names, and someone explains the story every five minutes so if he forgets to pay attention it's okay. There's a soothing sort of rhythm to them that helps lull him to sleep: dead body, scene of the crime, witnesses and neighbors, interrogations, dramatic twist, good guys win. Thunk-thunk. Almost like a fairy tale.
He has Steve explain Su Doku to him, but when he goes to buy a set for himself he comes home instead with a Spanish textbook. A scientist could probably explain to him why he can barely read anything longer than a couple inches of newsprint because he forgets what happened a few paragraphs ago, but memorizing words and conjugations not only comes easily but blocks out, for minutes at a time, the white noise of the rest of his brain, but he's had enough of scientists for a while. Robin starts seeking his company of her own volition more often, although she's still prone to dashing across the room without warning like she's seen a ghost. Every morning he reminds himself I live here, and every night he closes his eyes picturing his idea, until on the morning of the twenty-second he wakes up and it seems wholly possible.
Bucky smiles at the ceiling.
He shoves a few changes of clothes into the bag Steve refused to take back, calling it a gift. Bucky had rolled his eyes, but he's glad enough to have it at hand now. The clothes he wears are still mostly from Steve, too, although he's been toying with the idea of finally replacing them. He's not particularly invested in his appearance, but pretending to be is a nice enough way to occupy the time. A game, sort of.
Steve doesn't get it, but Steve goes jogging for fun so, really, what does he know.
Bucky's hunting for his phone charger behind his bed—he can't remember what outlet he last plugged it into—when his hand brushes against the edge of something thin: his old notebook, fallen some weeks ago. He opens it, looking at the lingering edges of the pages he tore out, his small sole remaining list of things he thought he knew, and thinks about the months he spent hopelessly trying to accumulate himself into being, and the months after, when he labored to draw meaning out of the mess of his life. It felt so important at the time, and now the notebook has been lying out of sight, forgotten.
It was important, Bucky thinks. Not the lists themselves, but making them, with all the fierce desperation he didn't know what to do with, and ripping them up and starting fresh, reaching for something new. Trial and error, he remembers. He was trying so much harder than he knew. It was important to let the notebook collect dust in a corner, and let himself try out other ways for a while.
He brushes the cover clean and places it on his night table. You never know what you'll need later on.
Then he gives the teenager on the second floor money and a spare key to feed his cat, and he's on his way south.
Bucky would have thought it would be hard coming back to D. C. after leaving the way he did, but instead he feels like he's seeing the city for the first time. It's less crowded than New York, with buildings and people alike, cleaner. The snow is stacked less thickly on its stretches of grass, and piled less disgustingly on the curbs he passes. It's a clear deep night and Bucky cautiously lets the cool air into his lungs, nestling his chin into his scarf. Maybe in the spring he can come by and ask Steve to show him around.
Steve isn't home, so Bucky stands for a while in the vestibule of his building, playing chess against his phone. When Steve arrives, carrying a bag of groceries, Bucky lets himself enjoy the stunned surprise on his face—this is enough, he tells himself, even if this winds up being all—before saying, "Merry Christmas."
"It's not Christmas," responds Steve, the beautiful jerk.
"I try to do a nice thing," Bucky starts, except he only gets as far as try before Steve is kissing him, eager and warm.
Upstairs Steve lets Bucky push him playfully into his bedroom, and Bucky realizes he never once stepped into it during the months he stayed here. Later, he'll want to spend time absorbing all the ways Steve has made it his, understanding this other piece of him. Right now, though, he has other plans.
In the weeks since that first messy kiss, they've spent hours learning each other's bodies, how they move and respond, each new touch a thrill. Bucky's body has eased up in its fight against closeness, although there are bad days in that as in everything else, but a profound terror still grips him at the idea of anything approaching nakedness; something in him resists being seen. He needed to start with himself: examining his body in the shower, taking pictures of himself on his phone and forcing himself not to look away, tentatively imagining someone else doing the looking. It was excruciating, and then it made him cry a lot, and then it was a thing he could do, more days than not.
He was, even now, half-expecting to lose his nerve when confronted with the possibility of making it real. But riding on Steve's joy and his own rush of triumph from what he's already been able to do, Bucky is—not unafraid, exactly. Less afraid than he is excited. Wanting to do this more than he wants to hide.
So after he shuts the door behind them, Bucky peels his shirt off, quickly and without prelude, letting Steve look at whatever he wants to look at. Asking Steve to bear witness to all that he is, and everything that means. He gives himself one deep breath spent looking at the floor before lifting his eyes to Steve's face to see the moment of his own unveiling.
Bucky knew Steve wasn't going to flinch or run or push him away, but what he sees is still amazing. It's still a revelation to see Steve gaping at him with desire and awe mingled on his face, like he is so beautiful Steve could not imagine ever wanting to look at anything else.
"Bucky," Steve says, hushed.
"Me," Bucky agrees, smiling, and kisses him.
Bucky doesn't understand how it is that he can know, in every twisted cell of his body, that there is nothing so precious that it can't be stolen, and yet believe with each beat of his living animal heart that this, here, tonight, is his to keep: the press of Steve's bare chest against his with nothing between them, warm and close and alive; the weight of Steve on top of him, and his pleased surprised when Bucky moves to flip them over; the heat of Steve's breath against his ear, his jaw, the crook of his neck, and the soft noise in the back of Steve's throat when Bucky, fingers trembling only slightly, starts to undo his belt; his own body transfigured into something that exists to feel and touch and want; the look on Steve's face, after, dazed and reverent, like what they've done is sacred. Like Bucky is something holy.
Washing up in the bathroom, Bucky studies his reflection in the mirror and thinks back to the night Steve brought him here, to what is not his home but might have made a home possible, thinks about all the hours he spent in this apartment quietly wanting not to exist. He could never have imagined, in those weeks, how glad he would come to be that he decided to follow Steve into that car.
He looks different now: cleaner, with his hair mussed only by sweat and sex, more solid, less deathly pale. He looks, he thinks, like what he is: Bucky Barnes, soldier, assassin, Brooklynite and baseball fan. A monster and a miracle. Steve Rogers's best friend, and the person who gets to go to bed with him, maybe for the rest of his life. A weapon, a ghost, a moving man. Impatient and impossible, impulsive enough to adopt a temperamental cat, loyal enough to make her a home. A scared animal, an unfeeling machine. A young man in love with his sweetheart. A being of bottomless darkness, glistening with the most tenuous, precious hope. Something nameless; some things which don't need to be named. A creature of history and nightmare and exquisite waking dreams, shaped by the things that shattered him and the people who carried him and the moments when he fought to create himself even before he knew he wanted to.
He smiles. Tonight it feels good.
Sliding back under the covers with Steve, Bucky can read the promise kept in the unasked question on his face even through eyes already heavy-lidded. "It's okay," he says. "You can ask."
Steve smiles, sweetly sleepy. "How do you feel?"
"Human," Bucky says, and the word sings on the air.
Bucky wakes up to the sight of Steve watching him sleep, blushing a bit to be caught staring but not looking away. They kiss like their mouths don't taste morning-gross and Bucky thinks he could do this forever, and Bucky knows it won't always be this easy, and Bucky kisses Steve like it could never be enough. It won't be: he will never be satiated; it will never erase what should not have been. How achingly sweet, to do it anyway.
Bucky arranged for three days of cat-sitting, and they make good use of their time by doing absolutely nothing. They don't leave the apartment or put on real clothes. They lie in bed for hours, tracing aimless shapes on each other's skin. They sit snugly against each other on the couch to watch a documentary about some rainforest, and when Bucky gets bored of orange-eyed frogs and giant trees he says "Hey, wanna have sex again?" and Steve says "God yes" and closes the blinds.
Afterwards, while Steve is washing his hair, Bucky opens Steve's laptop and scrolls through his several two-hour Christmas playlists, which all have names like "Fun Christmas" and "Sad Christmas" and "Fun Christmas (Part II)." Bucky picks "Sweet Christmas" and sets about making them lunch. He hums along with snatches of melody that remain from drug store aisles or childhood or what he has started thinking of, sometimes, as the in-between years. Sometimes he finds he knows carols in other languages. Bring a torch, Jeanette, Isabella, a man sings, and Bucky follows in his head, un flambeau, courons au berceau. In the kitchen, while he's cutting peppers, Steve's speakers play a choir singing of a holy infant, so tender and mild, and Bucky sings schlaf in himmlischer ruh, almost choking when Steve says after the high note, "You have a nice voice."
"Jesus! I thought you were in the shower." Bucky grips the knife and breathes in and out on a count of five.
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you. I thought—"
"Just—" In, two, three, four, five. Out, two, three, four, five. And again. "I'm okay." He flashes Steve a grin, and Steve relaxes. Now that he only smiles when he feels like smiling, Bucky reflects, Steve always knows he means it. They've only barely started talking about the months Bucky spent in D. C., but Steve has said enough to know Bucky was never quite as good a liar as he thought himself. "Did I used to sing?"
"When we were kids. I was awful. But you had a great ear, and a really nice tone. Your mom used to show you off. You didn't seem to mind."
"But I stopped?"
"You got older, I think you got embarrassed. Then your voice changed and I didn't even know you could still sing until—" Steve stops himself. "Sorry. I got a little carried away. I know it's weird for you to hear this stuff."
"It's." Bucky pushes his chopped pepper into a little pile with his knife, moving it to the side of a plate. "Can you pass me a tomato from the fridge?" Steve obliges, rinsing it before passing it on. "It is weird. Sometimes I remember things, and sometimes I don't know if I only think I do. Sometimes it just feels like hearing stories about someone else. It used to feel awful, because—none of it felt real, but it still felt more real than I did. And I didn't know which one you were seeing, when you looked at me. But." Slice. Slice. Shove. Steve has already placed another tomato at the edge of the cutting board. "I know who you're seeing now. Because... because I know there's someone to look at. So now it's just... just more, I guess. I dunno. It's weird. But nice. If it stops being nice I'll tell you. How's that?"
"Good." Slice. Slice. Shove. Tomato. "So when'd you learn I could still sing?"
"We were out one night, and you were—maybe not the drunkest I've ever seen you, but I'd guess top five. You were leaning into some complete stranger like he was your long-lost brother, and he was telling you he was new in town, said he'd come to New York to be an actor. You said, 'An actor!'—yelled it, really, and then you said, 'Let's have a song!' And then you just started singing. I have no idea what song it was. I'd never heard it before, and next morning you didn't remember a thing. Some drinking song, maybe. But by the fourth time through you had the whole bar singing along. Even me."
"And you can't sing."
"And I cannot sing."
Bucky ponders this. "That's a nice story." One he apparently forgot as soon as it happened. He forgot the story, and Steve can't remember the song, and most of the people in that bar must be dead. So many things are forgotten in even the most ordinary course of a life, but there are more ways to live on than in memory. He wonders if that guy ever made it big. "Do we have an onion in there?" Steve digs one out for him. "You know they don't make me cry anymore?"
"Is that a metaphor?"
Bucky laughs. "If it is it's a lousy one. I've cried more in the past three months than I'm pretty sure I have in my whole life." Everything makes him cry lately, not just the big things: babies in strollers, his cat looking confused, forgetting where he put his keys, how much he loves Steve, the fact that baseball season is almost half a year away. It's awful. Worth it, he reckons, if it's the price he has to pay for the fluttering warmth he gets at the sight of Steve barefoot and in boxers. But awful.
"Well, Barnes," Steve drawls. "You always knew I was a bad boy. Pickin' fights. Breakin' hearts. Doin'... all those other things bad boys do."
"I am so embarrassed for you right now."
"I do actually ride a motorcycle."
"Shut up and make yourself useful. You can do the lettuce."
Steve opens up the fridge, whistling along to Jingle Bells, terribly. "You sound like a drunk mockingbird," Bucky tells him.
"Merry Christmas to you too, jackass," Steve says, and maybe he has a point.
On New Year's Eve Bucky wakes up and thinks, I live here: in Brooklyn, in his body, in a life he could never have predicted he would want but which, sometimes, he does. Steve is less curled up than sprawled out beside him, the angled bulk of him shoving Bucky almost off the bed. Bucky considers elbowing him back towards the wall, but Steve looks so peaceful he can't bring himself to do it. All things considered, it's a nice problem to have.
Two days ago they were going to put up Christmas lights around the windows in the living room—"It'll be festive," Steve said, with a grin that made Bucky discard protests about how no one was going to see it except the two of them—but two days ago was another bad one and yesterday was spent resting the traces of it off, so by the time Steve ambles out of the bedroom an hour later, Bucky is balancing on the arm of the sofa, adjusting the drape of a strand of narrow glass bulbs, humming Joy to the World under his breath, while Robin watches him warily, perched on the cushions.
"You're in a good mood," says Steve.
"Well, yeah," Bucky says. He eases himself to the floor, affecting a frown. "Don't you remember?"
"Remember what?" Steve says, puzzled.
"It's my birthday." He plugs in the green plastic cord, splashing an array of rainbows on his wall.
It takes Steve a moment, but he gets it, face easing into the sweetest smile. "How could I forget?"
It's past eight and pitch-black outside, with snow falling lightly, when the buzzer goes off.
"Oh—that'll be—" Steve says, and runs off to let whoever it is in before Bucky has a chance to ask. A minute later Natasha and Sam are walking into his apartment.
"Sorry we're so late," Natasha says. "Parking was a nightmare. And someone didn't want to ask for directions in Jersey—"
"I told you, I'm from the area, okay, I know my way around here."
"You're from Harlem. You couldn't drive until you were nineteen."
"Well, I'm sorry not all of us got our licenses at Top Secret Spies Drivers' Academy when we were fifteen."
"Fourteen, and they don't really issue licenses."
"What are you guys doing here?" Bucky says, stunned.
"Don't be ridiculous," Natasha says. "We wouldn't miss your birthday. Unless Sam were to accidentally drive us to the Jersey Shore instead."
"This is slander," Sam says. "Anyway, we brought cookies. They're seasonal. Birthday boy gets first choice."
Reaching into a box of cookies shaped like ornaments and Christmas trees and snowflakes, feeling the unbearable cruelties of his life recede just for a moment in the soft glow of the kindnesses visited upon him, which he can never repay, which he would never be asked to repay, which he wants to spend his life repaying not out of obligation but out of love, Bucky manages not to cry, but it's a close thing. "Thank you," he says. He picks a cookie frosted to look like a gift-wrapped box.
Sam and Natasha bicker more about their relative driving skills. Steve attempts to mediate and gives up almost immediately. They trade driving stories, complaints about weather conditions, idle plans to buy new boots or a nicer scarf. Nothing interesting, unless you're lucky enough to care about these people. Bucky didn't think he could, but he does. How strange. How lovely.
Natasha doesn't believe in New Year's resolutions—"My life is a New Year's resolution," she says, rolling her eyes—but Steve has a list he's been whittling down to three because he read on a self-help blog that three is the optimal number for maximizing your chances of success, and Sam's tossing around a few ideas. "Thinking of maybe going back to school, getting certified in this counseling thing."
"You'd be great," Steve says.
"Oh—" Sam laughs "—I know. But deadlines for starting in the fall are coming up quick, and I'm a busy guy. That one might have to wait. If I decide to do it. Maybe I'll just start learning French." He glances at Bucky. "What about you, Barnes? You make resolutions?"
Steve, his arm around Bucky's shoulders, presses against his side. "Planning to stay alive this year?"
It's 2015 for another six minutes, according to the phone made for him by a friend of Steve's he's never met, in a future he could never have known he'd see. A year ago Bucky said he'd stick around this long at least, not knowing that he wanted to, and he's just about convinced himself it wasn't a mistake. Robin nudges his leg with her head, and he thinks about all the people he has been this year, and all the people he can't imagine yet but will someday be. His life is a fight, and it will never not be. His life is a lot of things. Sometimes it even feels his. He shakes his head. "Planning to live."
Steve squeezes his hand.
Sam pulls up a video feed of Times Square on his phone and some band Bucky can't name is singing a song he might have heard on the radio to a crowd that looks alternately thrilled and underwhelmed to be there. Natasha makes Steve let her take a picture of him wearing a red-and-blue party hat and he grumbles about it but doesn't take the hat off. They don't count down, but when the clock hits zero Sam kisses Natasha on the cheek and Steve kisses Bucky on the mouth and Bucky feels like Dorothy, knowing he's finally home, knowing he had it in him all along.