Chapter 1: 1917
The wind is blowing harshly, making sharp, invisible cuts on his face, and he can see nothing but snow. Yet through the heavy snow there were those blue eyes, dark and piercing and pained. And a hand is reaching out to him, desperate, like that person is drowning, in need of saving.
But he’s the one in need of saving, right?
He’s holding on to something metal, something cold. He can see now, they’re on a train. The man is calling his name, like it’s the last time.
Then he’s falling, or maybe he’s flying, he doesn’t know which. The man is disappearing before him and those eyes — those heavenly blue eyes — dim in a heartbeat.
He hits the ground, he thinks. But he barely has time to feel the pain reverberating through his body before everything’s gone.
He wakes up at around 2 a.m., cold sweat dripping down his back and a name on his lips.
It’s the 15th time that month. Or maybe the 16th. He’s not quite sure.
James Buchanan Barnes.
Born on March 10th 1985 at the Brooklyn Hospital Center, he was named after Sergeant Barnes, Captain America’s childhood best friend, who died when he fell off a train in the Swiss Alps.
It was definitely the best idea his parents ever had.
Bucky — yes, his nickname is also Bucky — actually means this with all his heart. It isn’t so bad to be named after a war hero, especially not one who’s featured in all sorts of comic books. It’s actually the only reason he had any friends in middle school. But there’s also a price that comes with it.
He’s had dreams about Steve Rogers for as long as he can remember. Of course, it’s probably just the result of the buildup of information from stories, movies, comic books, the long-ass WWII chapter in his history textbook, and the Buy War Bonds poster on his wall. Just a weird perk of his otherwise extremely uninteresting life, if you ask him.
He’s learned to live with it, quite well actually. That man is the last thing he sees every night before he drifts to sleep, and is all he knows before he wakes up in the morning light.
Blond, blue eyed, an angel almost. Sometimes he’s muscular, strong, Adonis in mortal form, but sometimes he’s scrawny, his spine fragile like a thin branch that might snap any second. He’s coughing up his lungs, face all beaten up, dark circles around his eyes and bruises on his cheeks. But either way he’s there.
In half of his dreams they’re in this tiny apartment. In Brooklyn, he guesses. They never have enough food, so he always pretends to dislike something and tips it onto Steve’s plate. He steals, sometimes, mostly just medicine from the drug store a block away, but once in a while some paint and paintbrushes from the art supply shop down the avenue. He tells Steve he got paid extra for his hard work. Steve believes him. Or he pretends to anyway.
When winter comes, there’s barely any heat going in the room. So they curl up together underneath the pile of battered blankets, hands linked and legs tangled.
They keep each other warm.
“Stevie.” He whispers, nose buried in his soft hair, “Warm enough for ya?”
“Yeah.” Steve nods, voice trembling.
“Christ, why you always gotta be such a stubborn asshole?” He shifts the blankets so they form a cocoon-like shell that traps all the heat in, before he can turn Steve over and press his head to his chest.
“Is this helping?” He asks rather nervously.
“You’re always helping, Buck.” Steve chuckles and nuzzles even closer, “You help me breathe.”
In the other half they’re in the War. Those dreams are swallowed up in smoke and drowned in the blasting of gunshots. He sees Steve in his brand new military uniform, his hair golden like rays of sunlight. He sees him at the head of the table, giving command like he’s born for it.
But there are others around him now, new friends and followers. There are dames too. Because of course, who doesn’t want to put their hands on that gorgeous body?
So he watches, but doesn’t try to get close.
Not as close as he used to anyway.
“You like her, don’t you?” He asks once they’re in their tent, alone, because he simply can’t stand it anymore.
“Who?” Steve looks genuinely confused.
“Carter, that’s who.”
“Oh.” Steve hesitates for a second, “Peggy’s — nice. When we first met, she didn’t look down on me just because of how I looked. That was unusual, I suppose.”
“She someone you think you wanna marry?”
“Bucky!” Now Steve blushes, “We’re still fighting a war.”
“Well, never too early to think about it, right?” He shrugs, turning away so Steve can’t see his face. “Maybe we can live right next to each other, white picket fence and everything. It’d be real nice.”
Steve’s face falls all of a sudden, and he doesn’t want to think about why.
“Yeah. It would be.”
The thing about these dreams, when Bucky studies them in details, is that they feel way too real. The sounds of bombs going off, the thrill that runs down his spine when he puts his finger against the trigger. And the outburst of visceral pain when he sees Steve standing together with Peggy Carter.
It’s a feeling more intense than a blow to his stomach or a bullet through his shoulder. It’s as if someone has just ripped his heart out of his ribcage so fast and merciless he doesn’t even get to think. Then his chest is empty, the pain is overwhelming, but the heart is still throbbing in his hand, dripping blood, struggling to stay alive.
Like it beats only for him.
A fucking depressing thought, is what it is.
And that’s why Bucky doesn’t quite understand Sergeant Barnes. He doesn’t quite understand how through all those fucked up, foggy feelings he remains at Steve’s side. But in those dreams he is Sergeant Barnes. And he chooses to stay, every time, by Steve’s hospital bed, in the alleys Steve got beat up in, in their twin-sized bed that squeaks at night, at his six on the battlefield.
It never made sense to him: the overwhelming urge to defend Steve Rogers, in every way possible, in dreams or reality. He punched a football jock back in high school for saying ‘Captain America was a big fat lie’ in his US history class. Call it an obsession, because there sure ain’t any other word for it. All he’s had were broken images of him that vanishes at the break of dawn. It’s not real but he swears to God he can feel it deep inside his bones. The warmth that radiates off of his body when Bucky stands close is like gravity, and it pulls on him so he can’t break free.
Untouchable, yet he’s more real than anything Bucky’s ever touched.
His mother used to say, “Steve Rogers was a real hero.”
He remembers disagreeing with it ever since he knew what the statement meant. He doesn’t know why exactly, but something in him instinctively sees the wrong in that idea, as if it’s a personal offense to him.
“No mom, Captain America was the hero. Steve Rogers was just a man.”
…Created solely for political purposes, ‘Captain America’ was more of an abstract, all-encompassing idea rather than an actual person. After his original missions—solidifying wartime national identity and encouraging financial contributions from the American public—were more than successfully accomplished, it seemed that ‘Captain America’ would be remembered by posterity for no more than a war bonds advertisement. However, after Steve G. Rogers single handedly rescued the 107th Infantry Regiment in Azzano, the expectation for ‘Captain America’ had risen from ‘a morale booster’ to ‘an all-American hero’. At this point, the reality behind the pretense of glory and altruism became grossly overlooked: Steve G. Rogers was a flawed, flesh-and-blood human being. The complex dimensions of his personality and spirit were inevitably lost in the OWI’s and the U.S. Army’s attempt to craft the image of a perfect soldier. Indeed, in the face of ‘The Greater Good’, the sacrifice of one man’s freedom and individuality would’ve seemed like no sacrifice at all. But the irony it reflects remains evident, not just for America, but also for the world as a whole: If liberty for most is achieved through the oppression of some, if peace for one generation is gained through bloodshed of the previous, how blurred is the line between good and evil?
(Barnes, James Buchanan. The Price of Freedom: Captain America in the Age of Media. New York University. 20 Apr 2007. )
When he steps into that small bookstore on Princes St. for the first time in three month, the heady smell of coffee envelops him like a warm blanket, welcoming him back.
First thought: Fucking senior thesis is finally fucking over.
So he grabs a few new arrivals from the shelf, and heads over to the coffee section to order his coffee. The barista, Liam, looks up at him, pleasantly surprised.
“Hey Barnes! Haven't seen you around in a while!”
Well, if you have to bring it up. He’s about to go on this rant about the thesis, before a familiar voice cuts in.
"He's been busy with his thesis. Am I right, James?"
Bucky turns back to find his WWII honors seminar professor, Peggy Carter, standing right behind him.
Yes. That Peggy Carter.
"Professor! I wasn't expecting you here." He pulls on his best gentleman smile, because she deserves nothing less. Bucky doesn’t dislike her at all. In fact, time has shown that Peggy Carter is one hell of a kickass lady.
"Well, I had no idea this place existed until a couple days ago. My niece is quite fond of it. " Peggy smiles back before turning to the barista, "I'll have some earl grey please. What about you, James?"
"Oh, professor, you don't have to."
"I want to. Hurry, make up your mind."
Seeing that it would be rude to refuse, Bucky orders an almond latte. Liam presses a few buttons to type in the orders, and Peggy takes out her wallet to pay.
"You’re welcome. Sit with me for a bit, will you?"
"Of course, professor."
"Oh don't ‘professor’ me, Barnes. It's the end of the year already, and you know I’m leaving for D.C. very soon.” She picks a table by the window and walks over, her steps unsteady but graceful nonetheless, “Just Peggy, please.”
“Alright then,” Bucky nods as he pulls out the chair for her, “Peggy it is.”
“I read your paper, James.”
They’ve been sipping their drinks in a surprisingly comfortable silence for a few minutes. Bucky’s thoughts have drifted to someplace far before Peggy’s words pull him right back.
“Oh?” His head snaps up and he almost spills his latte. “Uh, what did you think?”
“It was very interesting.” She replies calmly, the look on her face hard to decipher.
“Uh, yeah, it wasn’t my best work I will say. I kind of crammed last minute and the topic itself was a hell lot deeper than I’d expected — ” He rambles for a bit before he hears Peggy’s chuckles, “Um...?”
“Relax, young man. ” Peggy is still smiling as she stirs her tea gently, and the spoon makes a clinking sound. “It was very well done. It’s simply different. In a good way. Excellent way.”
“Wait, are you serious?”
“Absolutely, James. What made you choose that topic?”
“I, well, I grew up reading comic books and watching cartoons that portrayed him as some saint.” He pauses and frowns, “But all along I felt that there’s something inherently wrong with that image. So I guess I wanted to prove a point.”
Peggy nods, looking down at her teacup. “It’s rare to see someone distinguish Steve from Captain America. The last time I saw anyone making that distinction with such absolute certainty...Well, that was 1944.”
Bucky has an idea about who that person is, which actually makes him feel braver. “Do you think that’s right?”
“I think it’s very close to the truth. I agree with everything you said in your paper about media representation. It is indeed dehumanizing, to an extent. That’s unavoidable in politics. However, if anything, your opinion is the opposite extreme of the idea that Steve and Cap are one entity. Do you understand? ” She’s looking at him straight in the eye now, with every bit of seriousness.
“Care to elaborate?”
“You see, maybe they were never truly one person, but that does not mean they didn’t have a heavy impact on each other. Steve made Captain America, and Captain America changed Steve.”
“And you know that how?” Bucky tries to sound nonaggressive, even though he may never buy into the idea. But Peggy stills abruptly, and Bucky sees something resembling pain flashing in her usually fierce eyes before she opens her mouth to speak again.
“Think about it: If Cap never influenced Steve, he wouldn’t have saved New York — ”
Bucky frowns, before her next words shake him from the core.
“He would’ve already jumped after Sergeant Barnes in the Swiss Alps.”
He walks her back to her apartment later that afternoon, knowing that it’d be a while before he would see this great mentor again. Before they part, Peggy studies his face closely for a moment, a dazed look in her usually piercing eyes.
“You look so much like him sometimes it messes with my mind.”
Bucky doesn’t tell her that it messes with his own mind too.
He leaves for work early that day. He got the job as a curator at the New York Historical Society after graduation last year, and so far it’s treating him well. When he gets there, the guard hasn’t opened the doors. So he sits on the front steps and sips his warm coffee to fight off the shivers.
The dream is still bothering him.
It’s a puzzle, and he knows for sure there are pieces missing, pieces that if ever found can make him whole again, fill the gut-wrenching emptiness inside him, except he might never know what they are.
There’s one thing he does know though. The dream of the fall doesn’t just come at random times. It’s almost always a sign.
At noon, it finally comes.
He’s paying for his sandwich in the café across the street when his phone rings. He fishes it out of his coat pocket immediately. The number on the screen is unfamiliar, but the location display suggests it’s from D.C.
“Mr. Barnes? This is Sharon Carter. I’m calling on behalf of my aunt Peggy. Do you have a moment?”
“Yes, yes of course, Miss Carter. Did...did something happen?” He sits down at a table in the corner, bracing himself for some bad news.
“No, not exactly. She’s fine, but her memory is getting worse and worse.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
“Well, here’s the thing. My aunt was in possession of some belongings of Captain Rogers, among them are some very personal letters. She was instructed by him to publicize them when she sees fit. And now, well, she thinks she won’t be able to keep them for him for much longer. She’s donated them to the Smithsonian Captain America exhibition, which opens tomorrow.” Sharon pauses, and Bucky waits nervously.
“She said you’d want to go read them as soon as possible.”
He takes the train to D.C. later that night, gets a room at a hotel right by the Smithsonian, and lies on the bed awake until 1 a.m.
Whatever it is, Bucky realizes, he doesn’t have the patience to wait until morning.
He pulls some strings.
“Barnes, what the fuck? You better have something really important right now.” Darcy sounds very pissed on the other end.
He met Darcy Lewis in his junior year, when they did a research together in summer. She was a polisci, incredibly smart and outrageously hilarious, so they grew close naturally. A few months ago, she told him in an email that she got a job at the Smithsonian.
“Yes, I do actually. Can you get me into the Captain America exhibition?”
“Tomorrow? Just get a fucking ticket, Barnes. You’re not that broke.” Darcy whines, her voice muffled, probably by a pillow.
“No, right now.”
And he adds after a beat of utter silence, “It’s urgent.”
“Jeez, Miss Darcy, you never mess up on the display labels, and definitely not right before it opens.”
Darcy meets him at the museum gate half an hour later, and somehow manages to find the museum guard.
“This’ll open the staff entrance. Just give it back to me tomorrow. ” The guard takes a key off of his keychain and hands it to Darcy before glancing at Bucky, “Who’s this young man?”
“Uh, he’s, uh, my boyfriend! Right, he was worried about my safety, so he’ll stay with me while I work. ” Darcy grabs Bucky’s hand and pulls him in the direction of the staff entrance, “Thanks Stan, I promise it won’t happen again!”
And as Darcy opens the door, she turns to glare at Bucky.
“You owe me one, Barnes.”
“Tell me again, why did you need to do this?” Darcy stares, bewildered, at Bucky who is currently gazing at the section dedicated to Sergeant Barnes. The TV screen is playing a video footage of him and Captain Rogers laughing together, so carefree as if they weren’t in the middle of a deadly war.
“Dude, you really do look like him. It’s not just the name.” Darcy turns to look at the screen as well, her eyes wide, “That’s fucking creepy.”
Bucky smiles wryly before he remembers, “Where are the letters?”
“Letters?” Darcy yawns, distracted, before she snaps back to reality, “Oh, letters! OH MY GOD THOSE LETTERS JESUS CHRIST YOU HAVE TO READ THEM —”
She drags him over to the glass display cases behind Sergeant Barnes’ section. There are seven, and pieces of worn paper are laid out in order. The neat cursive in black ink has faded over time, but recognizable still.
“It’s the most fucked-up tragedy. I swear to God, I started sobbing two sentences into the first one. Nobody would’ve thought that...”
“Darcy.” He interrupts.
“I need a minute. I’ll explain everything to you later, okay?”
Darcy stares at him for a second before nodding without a word. And when she steps back, Bucky steps forward.
I almost got shot on the back of my left shoulder last week. You’d probably yell at me for this, and give me that long lecture of yours. But the thing is, Buck, I turned around after the bullet went by me. It only grazed my uniform I swear. I turned around and looked for you, looked for you everywhere because it didn’t make sense to me how you would let that slip. But then I saw Falsworth staring right at me with a really sad look in his eyes.
And I remembered.
I did it the next day too. I was telling them over dinner about how you used to say that the fireworks on the Fourth of July were for my birthday, and all of a sudden I couldn’t recall how I found out you had lied. So I turned to my left, opened my mouth to ask you about it before I found Peggy sitting there instead of you.
Everyone was so quiet, Bucky, you’d laugh if you’d seen their faces.
July 4th 1936
“Here you go. From the best bakery in town.” Bucky puts the slice of cheesecake on the only white china plate they have, and brings it over to their tiny dining table. He’s been saving for that slice for two months.
But then Steve looks at him, mixed emotions in those blue eyes, before reaching over to hug him, “Thanks, Buck.”
He knows Steve isn’t just talking about the cake, and in that moment Bucky thinks he’ll do anything for him. He’ll give him the sun, if that’s what he wants. He doesn’t say that though. Instead, he says, “The fireworks should start soon.”
But Steve throws his head back and laughs, “I’ve known since I was twelve that those fireworks ain’t for me, Jerk.”
“So what? That shouldn’t stop you from thinking that they are.” Bucky grins cheekily, grabbing Steve’s hand and trying to pull him up, “That asshole who told you? Should’ve made him pay for that.”
Steve follows him over to the window, their fingers laced together. “You stabbed holes in his bike tires. Wasn't that enough?”
The fireworks shoot up into the night sky then, bursting into vibrant colors that can light up the entire city. But when Bucky turns to look at Steve’s face, the smile he sees is brighter than any kind of firework that’ll ever exist on earth.
And when Steve falls asleep later leaning against Bucky’s shoulder, he kisses his forehead and whispers —
It’s like this.
Remember that one time in physics class in high school, when Mr. Richards told us that there are thousands of other galaxies, thousands of other suns in space, and that our sun, in the end, isn’t that special at all? And remember how I got inexplicably angry at his words, stood up like the stubborn punk that I was and told him it ain’t true? Later you laughed the whole way home because you thought it was funny that I took it so seriously. But you didn’t know what I was thinking then, Bucky.
You’re my sun. You’re all I know of this universe, my only constancy. You keep me in my orbit, and no matter how much everything else changes I just keep on going, keep on revolving around you. I don’t give a damn about how many other suns there are in space, or if they burn hotter and shine brighter, because there’ll never be another one for me. You hear me, Barnes? Never another.
“The sun is a star, because stars are the only ones that glow and give off heat. There are millions other stars like the sun out in space, so the sun is really not as special as we make it out to be.”
Steve stands up all of a sudden, and Bucky turns to look at him.
“Mr. Rogers. You got something to say about that?”
“Yes, sir. I think...I think you shouldn’t say it’s not special. I mean, every star’s gotta be special to the planets surrounding it, right? The sun is important, and the earth relies on it for survival. All the other stars out there — well, they ain’t gonna matter.”
“Good point, Mr. Rogers.” Mr. Richards nods after a moment, “But watch your manners.”
Then I thought, what if the sun dies? What if it disappears and never comes back? I worried about it so much that I went and found this monstrosity of an encyclopedia at our library. All the jargons were Greek to me, but I understood the basics. It’s said that one day the sun would run out of fuel and stop glowing, and it’d take all life on earth with it.
And here’s the interesting part: Whatever happens to the sun, the effects won’t be felt on Earth until eight minutes after.
It sounds short, perhaps, but I tell you now, it feels like eternity. I think those eight minutes haven’t passed and might never pass for me. ‘Cause here’s the thing: You’re the light I’ll see even at the end of the world. And the gravity that pulls me toward you, that makes me revolve around you all day and all night — Well, maybe it’s against the laws of the universe but I think it’ll always be there, even after you’re gone.
Tell me that ain’t pathetic, Buck. Tell me that ain’t just fucking pathetic.
Bucky reads and reads, from one glass case to another. He sees it, too, sees all the way back to 1944, through more than six decades of separation. He sees Steve in bed at night after an entire day of strategy debriefing, paper on his lap, writing down words in that fucking beautiful handwriting of his like there’d be someone he can send it to.
And those images hit him fast and hard—flashbacks he’s never seen in dreams, puzzle pieces that fill up the holes in his memory, his soul. Bucky feels like crying, but his tears are dried up. The only thing left is the feeling of a rock pressing down on his chest, and the weight of it is making him tremble. He wants to open his mouth, to cry for help because it was all too much, too much.
Then he gets to the seventh letter.
This is the last one. I’m going against Schmidt, the way I’ve been hoping to since you fell. And I’m not going to come back, Bucky. I know because I don’t want to. I want to be where you are, and if crossing that threshold is the only way I’ll get there, it’s fine by me. I’ve lived twice as long as my ma had expected me to anyway.
You see, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn, not the hero they made me out to be. But I tried so hard to be him, to fit into the suit, to fight and never back down. And I thought in that way I’d be able to protect the world. And maybe I did, maybe I protected the world, but I lost you.
And a world without you, Bucky, a world without you is no good to me at all.
I wonder sometimes, what if there wasn’t a war in the first place? What if we kept on living our lives, and maybe get those two houses right next to each other, white picket fence and all? But I guess we’ll never know now. This war has swallowed us whole. And this — this is my only way out.
I don’t know how this world will remember me, and I don’t really give a damn anymore. But there’s one thing they need to get right, one thing I want written in history books because there’s simply no way they can ignore it. It’s the first thing I’ll say to you when I get to the other side.
I love you, James Buchanan Barnes, and I think I’ve loved you since before I learned how to breathe.
I know you don’t. I know. But God do I dream. I dream of those summer nights when we would lie awake in bed, my arms around you, your head on my chest like you’re checking if my heart is still beating. I dream of the way we fit together perfectly like two halves of a whole. Skin against skin, my fingers laced with yours. I dream of the way my body burns under your touch like it caught a fever, the way you breathe hot against my neck, the way your eyelashes flutter when you look up at me, lips inches away from mine. And you’d say my name, one syllable rolling slowly off your tongue, tugging the corner of your mouth into a lopsided smile that lights a fire inside me. It’d get way too warm but you’d only pull me closer — And that, was all I know of heaven on this earth.
So maybe you’re a stone tied around my neck, maybe you’ll drag me down and make me sink. But I’ll drown gladly. I won’t even put up a fight.
Just wait for me, Buck, wait for me. I’m coming home.
This is it, Bucky realizes then as he finally collapses to the floor, his breathing heavy, back leaning against the glass. This is the whole truth.
I think I’ve loved you since before I learned how to breathe.
“Darcy,” He says to the girl who’s still standing a few feet away from him with the look of concern on her face, “I think I’m him.”
“No, I know. I know I’m him. I’m Sergeant Barnes.”
“It’s the only explanation that makes sense, really.” Darcy pauses for a long moment, her expression torn. “Did you love him?”
And the sudden struck of pain, like a stab to his heart catches him off guard. Outside the windows, he can almost see the break of dawn.
“I did.” He tells the truth eventually, “I loved him. I loved him. And I think I still love him.”
He’s known. He’s always known subconsciously that he’s loved Steve since way before his memory starts, since before he’s learned what love is. But he’s never quite understood how.
He understands now.
He belonged to him decades ago, in another body, in another world. And he still belongs to him. It's the same heart that's beating loudly at the thought of his electric blue eyes and it's the same soul, he knows, that’s living inside his flesh and blood. He hears that scream now, through space and time, through the snow falling heavily in the Swiss Alps, he hears it loud and clear, not in a dream, but in his own memory. But it’s fire burning through his spine, it's water filling up his lungs, it's sharp claws of a beast digging into the tender flesh of his heart — it's a slow death, to know the one he's meant to love is long gone.
He's the air, Bucky thinks, squeezing his eyes shut.
The Smithsonian @thesmithsonian
“After the Fall”, a collection of seven letters written by Captain Rogers
to Sergeant James Barnes featured exclusively at today’s exhibit,
reveals astonishing truth about the national icon.
pic.Smths/2KS20 #afterthefall #CaptainAmericaExhibition
New York Times @nytimes
BREAKING: Captain America’s letters to Sergeant James Barnes:
“I’ve loved you since before I learned how to breathe.”
Fox News @fox
Captain America: The American icon, destroyed.
Phil Coulson @hailcaptainamerica
I can’t believe…Oh my God, how did we not know
about this for so long. NO I’M NOT CRYING NOT AT ALL.
“I’ve loved you since before I learned how to breathe.”
I’m a sobbing mess right now HELP #afterthefall
Agent 14 @girlnextdoor
Cap wrote them AFTER Bucky died!!!!! I need to go cuddle
with my bucky bear right now I’M NOT OKAY #afterthefall
Tony Stark @iamironman
I remember hearing my father talk about them when
I was younger. But I never thought it was as sad as this.
Jar, stop handing me tissues I don’t need them. #afterthefall
@iamironman Sure you don’t, Sir. #afterthefall
Sam Wilson @ibelieveicanfly
Man that’s some tragic romance. I wish Barnes
had felt the same for him. But I guess we’ll never know.
Peggy Carter @agentcarter
I would like everyone to remember: This is not about Captain America
and his sniper. This is about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.
Bucky decides to stay at Darcy’s place for a break, having been exhausted from emotions.
The letters take over the Internet that afternoon, #afterthefall is trending on Twitter, but Bucky soon stops himself from reading them. He does print out the scanned copies of the letters from the NYT website, however, and puts them on his bedside table.
He dreams that night, as usual. But the dream itself is new.
“We can pull out the couch cushions like we did when we were kids. I’d be fun.”
“Thanks Buck. But I can get by on my own.
Steve’s looking for his keys but he can’t seem to find them. Then Bucky kicks the brick on the side, and picks up the spare key from underneath, handing it to him.
“The thing is, you don’t have to.” And when Steve looks back up at him, he puts a hand on his frail shoulder.
“I’m with you till the end of the line, pal.”
He wakes up again at 2 a.m., staring into the dark. Then he turns on the bedside lamp and rereads Steve’s last letter.
This time Bucky finally bursts into tears.
Darcy hears him, a few minutes later, and brings in an extra blanket and warm tea. She wraps her arms around him, but he’s still trembling violently.
“I didn’t even say it — ” The words come out choked, and his breathing heavy and jagged like he’s got pneumonia, “He thought I didn’t, I didn’t —”
“Oh, Bucky.” Darcy sighs, on the brink of tears now. “I’m sure he’ll find out somehow.”
“Those flowers are lovely, James.” When he puts the lily bouquet into vase on her living room table, Peggy sighs, “You’ve always been such a gentleman.”
She looks exhausted, her back barely holding up that she has to lean against back of the chair. But she’s wearing a red dress today, she goddamn glows in it, the way Bucky remembers her. Yet she’s also subtly different from the woman she was six decades ago. Her grace shines through the wisdom she’s found throughout the years, and it makes her all the more beautiful. In that moment, he wishes Steve’s here to see it.
“You deserve nothing less, Peggy.” He smiles, a tired one, but a smile nonetheless.
“I assume you’ve read the letters?”
He nods. And the English woman looks at him expectantly, even though she doesn’t pose a question.
“Peggy,” he sighs, “I love Steve.”
“I know.” She says lightly as she pours him some tea.
“No I mean,” Bucky swallows hard, his hands shaking a bit, “Do you believe in reincarnation?”
Peggy doesn’t look surprised. In fact, she doesn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“I did the moment I saw you for the first time.”
Bucky gapes. “You knew?”
“I trust my intuition, James.” She smiles, “Or should I call you Sergeant Barnes now?”
But Bucky winces at that, shaking his head.
“I feel like two people at once. I have his memories, but I don’t think I can ever be him completely.”
“Then don’t.” Shrugging, she doesn’t look bothered, “You’re not just Sergeant Barnes, James, you’re the continuation of him. You don’t have to try to be him. You already are. Just more, that’s all.”
“Do you really believe that?”
Peggy chuckles, “I do. And I think you will, too.”
“I have something else, though.” He stops and looks down, almost afraid to meet her eyes, “How did you...How do you get over losing him?”
Peggy’s hand stills then, she puts her teacup down, her brows furrowed in thought.
“I got used to it.” She says eventually, biting her lips, “But that’s different. What you had with him — it’s always been different. So I’m afraid I don’t know, James.”
He just nods, his throat dry. It hurts again.
“But there’s one thing I will say,” Peggy adds, as if reading his mind, “Don’t fight it, James. Don’t fight the pain.”
“I’m worried about you.”
Darcy takes him to a bar later that night. They sit in a dark corner. He gulps down his vodka on the rocks while she sips at her tequila sunrise. The jazz band on the small stage is playing a 40s song. The intro sounds familiar, but he can’t put a name to it.
“Why? I’m an adult. I can worry about myself.” Bucky slams his vodka glass on the bar counter a bit too hard, “Besides, there’s nothing to worry about.”
“Bucky.” She sighs, “Stop being so stubborn. What did Peggy tell you? Don’t fight the pain. Let it hurt, man. It’s the only way it’ll heal.”
“But what if I don’t want it to heal?” He doesn’t look at her. Instead he stares at the saxophone player on stage, his blond hair reminding him of Steve, “What if I want to remember the way it hurts?”
Darcy frowns, and it’s a look that says ‘I don’t know what the fuck is wrong with you but this is making me sad’. Then her brows unfurrow, a dawning expression on her face, and she gets so excited that she spills some of her drink on her white chiffon shirt. It leaves an orange stain.
“You should write it down.” She downs the rest of her glass.
“You should write a novel. About the two of you, about the war. Everything you know now, write it down, and let the words remember the pain for you.”
The band is still playing that 40s jazz song, and a young woman is singing now, her voice soft like silk, soaked in melancholia.
“You don’t know how many dreams I’ve dreamed about you,
And just how empty they all seemed without you.”
“It’s been a long, long time.”
When they get back to Darcy’s apartment that night, he pulls out his phone and checks Twitter for the first time in three days. A new tweet from a guy named Sam Wilson pops up on the #afterthefall hastag page. Bucky vaguely remembers seeing his post the day the letters were released.
Sam Wilson @ibelieveicanfly
You know how Cap and Bucky’s remains were never found?
When I was a kid I used to believe that they didn’t actually die.
And now I wish it’s real, more than ever. #afterthefall
The tweet must’ve sparked something in him.
He falls into a new dream that night, a long and bizarre one. There was snow, ice, guns, blood, and he was an assassin with a metal arm. And there was pain, a tremendous amount of pain, not just from the heavy arm or the bloody wounds, but also from that emptiness inside him. He wanders the world like a lone ghost, without memory, without a purpose other than killing, before they find Captain America in the arctic ice.
They’re fighting. The world is burning and they’re fighting each other on a helicarrier in midair. He doesn’t really know who the man is until he says —
“’Cause I’m with you till the end of the line.”
His raised fist doesn’t punch this time. The assassin watches him fall into the river, and Bucky startles awake, sweat soaking his shirt, a name on his lips.
He knows exactly what to write now.
When he looks up, still disoriented from whatever fucked-up experiment the Germans just did on him, he sees those familiar blue eyes, wry and scared like they’ve never been before. He doesn’t think it’s real at first, especially when he reaches out to him and feels the firm muscles on his arm that he knows he’s never had.
“Steve?” He calls his name, tentatively.
“Bucky.” The man breaks into a smile of relief, “I thought you were dead.”
“I thought you were smaller.” He frowns, getting dizzy as he scrambles to stand up. But Steve holds on to him, with a firm grip he recognizes all too well.
“What happened?” He asks the now taller man, over the sounds of bombs going off in a distance.
“I joined the army.”
Writing, as it turns out, was the best idea Darcy’s ever had.
It becomes a routine: He goes to work every day, gets home, makes himself coffee, sits at his desk, and types away on his laptop. And when Bucky lies in bed later, he falls asleep thinking about him.
He writes about how they met when they were ten: In one of the alleys in their neighborhood, on a cold rainy day. Steve was lying face down in a puddle, and the bakery owner’s son who’d just knocked him out was about to leave. Bucky walked up and punched the older boy without a word, took Steve back to his house and warmed him up.
Then, the really-sweet-but-always-sick Steve Rogers and the won’t-amount-to-anything Bucky Barnes became Steve and Bucky. And there it goes.
He writes about their teenage years, too, about Steve’s asthma, the nights he sat by his bed sleepless, the winters they spent without much food, and the fireworks in Coney Island. He chooses to be honest about everything: the War, Azzano, the Commandos, and Peggy Carter. And as the length of the document grows, the more his memory emerges from the fog that separates him from his former life.
After his fall, though, the story becomes completely reliant on that dream, on fantasy.
The Winter Soldier, as Bucky named him, grows stronger and stronger in personality the more Bucky writes about him. He’s someone Bucky can relate to, a dark side to the glorious image of the “self-sacrificing best friend”. In fact, he hates that portrayal just as much as he hates equating Steve with Captain America. Because here’s the thing: He wasn’t a great man, and he probably wasn’t even a good man. He was in love with Steve, that’s all. Love, as most people know, makes one do stupid, stupid things. And he must be so in love now still, because he doesn’t regret doing those things, not even a little bit.
Bucky’s always believed that happy endings only exist in fairy tales, and this sure isn’t one. But as the story goes on, he starts to understand why people are obsessed with happy endings. It’s exactly because they don’t happen in real life, people seek comfort in finding them in fiction. And isn’t that what he’s doing, seeking comfort in fiction? He knows he and Steve won’t have their own happy ending now, so why not make one in the story? It’s not real, but it’s enough for him to fool himself.
Bucky finishes the story three months after the day he read the letters. He goes over it briefly, prints a copy and mails it to Darcy, like turning in an assignment, like finishing therapy.
Five days later he gets a voice message.
“Mr. Barnes. I’m an editor from Random House. We’re interested in publishing your manuscript. If you’re interested, please call me back so we can discuss this in more details. Have a nice day.”
What the fuck?
“Darcy Lewis.” He almost yells into his phone, “What the fuck did you do with my story?”
“Oh, the manuscript?” Darcy sounds nonchalant, and Bucky can hear her chewing gum, “I read it. It’s damn good, Barnes. I sent it to a friend who works at Random House.”
“Well, that explains why I got a voice message from Random House today.” He tries to sound less menacing but fails.
“Oh, Jesse called you? Do they want to publish it?!” Darcy is getting excited, completely unaware of Bucky’s boiling anger.
“Yes!” He really yells this time, hoping that she'd pick up on the cue.
“Oh my God, that’s great!”
“No, it’s not. Fuck.” He just about facepalms, “Darcy, I don’t want to publish it!”
“Wait, no? Why not? It could be a bestseller!”
“It’s too...It’s too honest, too blatant.” And he doesn't say ‘It makes me feel exposed’.
“But they’ll think it’s only fiction, and part of is, really.” Bucky can almost hear her shrugging on the other end, “Remember, though, Steve wanted the world to see who he really is. Let’s face it, who can do it better than you?”
That shuts Bucky up.
A few hours later, he calls the editor back.
Barnes & Noble Staff Picks
#1 The End of the Line by J. B. Barnes
An exceptional first novel, The End of the Line became the New York Times Bestseller within days of its release. Loosely based on the real Sgt. James Barnes, best friend of Captain America, this is a heart-wrenching story that follows the journey of a POW through seven decades of never-ending war. It captures beautifully the toil of war, the dark and light of humanity, and most importantly, the power of love.
Genre: Historical Fiction, Romance Recommended by: Jemma
J. B. Barnes @thewintersoldier
Alright Twitter, let’s get the Q&A started. #TheEndofTheLine
Agent 14 @girlnextdoor
@thewintersoldier OMG YES! Is your name really James Buchanan
Barnes?!! Like Bucky’s?!! And is that part of your inspiration for
the novel? #TheEndofTheLine
J. B. Barnes @thewintersoldier
@girlnextdoor Yes to all of those questions. Let’s just say, my parents
were fans of the comic books. Turned out to be a happy coincident
(and some confusion). #TheEndofTheLine
Hail Captain @rogerthat
@thewintersoldier What’s your main inspiration for the novel?
Also, you look a bit like Sgt. Barnes too! #TheEndofTheLine
J. B. Barnes @thewintersoldier
@rogerthat The #afterthefall letters, mainly. And yes, so I’ve been told.
Life is weird. #TheEndofTheLine
Sebastian Evans @aroamingromanian
@thewintersoldier I used up a box of Kleenex reading your book, but
the ending fixed it for me! Do you really think Bucky loved Steve back?
J. B. Barnes @thewintersoldier
@aroamingromanian I’m glad it you liked it! And no, I don’t think. I know.
Last month, a team of hikers who ventured into the Swiss Alps discovered the dog tags that belonged to Capt. Steve Rogers during WWII.
The discovery took the Internet by storm. The most acknowledged theory, after a series of heated online debates, suggests that Sgt. James Barnes was wearing Rogers’ dog tags at the time of his fatal fall from a train in 1944. This theory, when juxtaposed with the collection of letters donated to the Smithsonian in 2009, casts another shade of mystery on the nature of the relationship between Capt. Rogers and Sgt. Barnes.
Ever since the 2010 historical novel, The End of the Line, rocked the publishing industry, the academia, and most crucially the Internet, the debate about Captain America demise in 1944 has been at the center of the spotlight. Rock climbers, hikers, and campers around the world have been avid in seeking signs of Rogers and his plane in the Arctic Circle — the last location shown on the radar before the plane crashed. The discovery of Rogers’ dog tags has encouraged another wave of adventurers heading to the Arctic, funded by Tony Stark, CEO of Stark Industries. His father, Howard Stark, was the weapon supplier during WWII as well as the maker of Rogers’ famous vibranium shield.
The End of the Line describes that the super-soldier serum, developed by Dr. Abraham Erskine in 1943 to enhance Rogers’ physical capabilities as well as moral character, preserved Rogers’ life while he slept under the ice. After learning about the recent discovery as well as the new wave of search teams, the author of the novel, J. B. Barnes (coincidentally named after Sgt. Barnes), expressed mixed feelings in an interview.
“I’m glad that people care about him so much, and I’m surprised that they took the story so seriously.” Barnes said, “Look, maybe I’m pessimistic, but I don’t think they’ll find anything. After all, I’m not a prophet.”
“I wish though,” He adds, after a moment of thought, “I wish.”
(“The All-American Search Team”. The New Yorker. 22 Mar 2012. Print.)
Nothing prepares Bucky for his wish coming true.
From: Darcy Lewis
OMFG TURN ON YOUR FUCKIN TV
From: Darcy Lewis
THIS IS FUCKING UNREAL OMG I CAN'T BELIEVE YOU WERE RIGHT
@thewintersoldier HOLY SHIT ARE YOU WATCHING THE NEWS RIGHT NOW OMG
Phil Coulson @hailcaptainamerica
WHAT IS HAPPENING OMG IS THIS REAL SOMEONE PINCH ME
Sam Wilson @ibelieveicanfly
YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME @thewintersoldier #capsback
Bucky’s at home when his phone suddenly begins buzzing nonstop with notifications. He opens up Twitter, stares at the hastag for three seconds before dropping his phone on the floor.
His hand is trembling when he picks his phone back up. And before he even knows it, he’s reaching for the TV remote. On the screen is Time Square, NYPD cars, and —
Lost and confused but alive.
“So here’s what you do: You find out where he lives. Go knock on his door and say hi.” Darcy takes a gulp of her coffee, “Why do you have to make this so hard?”
“Because it is hard.” Bucky sighs, running a hand through his hair, frustrated, “Because I can’t just go up and say ‘Hey Stevie I died in 1944 but I’m alive again.’”
“Yes you can. He died in 1944 and he’s alive again. What’s wrong with that?”
“Ugh, fuck. I’m done with you. Your logic doesn’t work well with mine.”
“Barnes, you’re just reluctant to admit that I’m right.”
“It’s not that hard, James.” Peggy says on the phone, “Just go see him.”
“But Pegs, I can’t.”
“Yes, you can. You’re just scared.” She sighs, though sounding slightly amused, “Don’t be a coward, Barnes.”
“I’m not! I’m just...not ready. It can wait. ”
“It really can’t. The two of you have already waited seventy years, how much longer do you want?”
She hangs up on him.
July 3rd 2012
“What’s your name? Ah, Sharon. I have a friend named Sharon.” He signs the book the girl passes to him, “There you go. You’re welcome. Thank you for coming. Have a nice day.”
He’s doing a book signing at the Barnes & Noble in Midtown when it happens. It’s close to 6pm, and the last of the readers are leaving now. He’s packing up his backpack and the remaining books when he sees the man standing in the corner.
Those blue eyes of his dreams.
He’s been waiting for this moment for so long, and this isn’t how he imagined it. Seeing him alive and well right in front of him — It takes his breath away. The name is on his lips, but Bucky can’t find his voice. So he’s just standing there with his mouth hanging open, eyes staring straight at him, feet fixed to the ground.
Steve looks like he might burst into tears any second now. He walks toward Bucky then, slow and deliberate like he might fall otherwise. It’s a long walk, almost too long for Bucky to bear. But then he’s right there, through seventy years of separation, through war, death, and seemingly irreversible fate, right there within the reach of Bucky’s hand. And Bucky almost laughs because of course.
Of course it’s Steve who finds him. Steve always finds him, in games of hide-and-seek when they were kids, at the Hydra base in Azzano, and now. Bucky’s never been crazy about religion before, but in that moment he thanks every god, every deity in every faith for bringing him back to him. Bringing him home.
He finds his voice then, and the first thing he says isn’t any of the ones he’s rehearsed before.
“I wasn’t born in 1917.” Bucky says, eyes still fixed on him, “But I am who you think I am.”
“I know.” Steve’s tearing up now, his voice comes out choked, his hands trembling at his sides.
So Bucky finally reaches out and takes his left hand, lacing their fingers together like they used to.
“And I love you, Stevie.” He says it then, and it feels like the sun coming out of the dark clouds, “I love you so much I came back to life for you.”
When Steve drifts to sleep that night, his strong arms wrapped around his waist, Bucky watches like he wants to keep this sight forever. He wants to carve Steve’s name into his bones, infuse it into his blood, and brand it onto the flesh of his heart so he’ll never forget him again, not even in the next life. But he knows now, knows that nothing can stop him from being right here by Steve’s side. He’ll always fight his way back to him because if there’s any true logic to this universe, it’s that James Barnes is destined to love Steve Rogers. And if that means he has to come back from the grave, crawl through the tundra of Siberia, bathe in blood for seven decades or even burn down heaven and rip apart hell, so be it. He’ll fight anything and everything that stands in his way until he gets to him — his sun, his north, his reason for existing.
“Till the end of the line, punk.” He whispers, lips against his skin, “In every goddamned life.”
(Barnes, J. B. The End of the Line. Random House. New York. 2010. Print)
Chapter 2: Extra: Reader Reaction
Peggy Carter reacts to the novel in the best way possible.
“Pegs, a shooting range? Are you crazy?”
“I’m most certainly not, Barnes.” All the staff members at the range look scared as hell when they walk by, mostly because Peggy fucking Carter is over 90 years old and she wants to practice shooting.
With real guns. Bullets.
“That book was way too depressing. I need to take it out on something.” Peggy loads her gun as she walks toward an empty spot on the far end of the range. She turns to glare at Bucky, “You’re responsible.”
Bucky almost shudders. “Should I be glad that you’re shooting at a target and not at me?”
“Probably.” She tries to suppress a smile, “Should’ve seen Steve’s face when I shot at him that one time.”
“Wait, what?” Bucky pulls back, horrified, “When the fuck did this happen?”
“Trust me, you don’t want to know.” She’s laughing out loud now, shaking her head, “You would’ve done the same.”
It surprises Bucky how fast he picks up on handling guns. Or more precisely, how quickly it all comes back to him.
They sit down to take a break. Peggy’s hands had been shaking during the shoot, even though she tried hard to control them, it still affected the results.
“You’re just as good as you used to be.” She sighs, dreamily, “His best sniper.”
“It feels right. It puts me back into myself.”
She glances at him, amused, “I should get Nick to recruit you for SHIELD.”
“Nah.” Bucky shakes his head, “Spandex is for Steve.”
“Maybe you can get a suit like the one you have in the book.”
Bucky is not tempted.
When he joins the Avengers at Stark Tower three years later, his hand clasped with Steve's as they walk in, the first thing he says to Tony Stark is—
“I have some ideas about the uniform.”
Chapter 3: Author's Notes
I slipped some personal details into this fic, mostly to give nods to some superheros/characters that aren’t explicitly mentioned, as well as fics that have influenced me. I don’t know how much you guys caught, but I’m gonna list them now, including some other side notes and inspirations.
-Reincarnation: I’m also a Arthur/Merlin shipper, and reincarnation is a very common concept in the merthur fandom, but I’ve never really seen any in the stucky fandom. So there it goes.
-“that small bookstore on Princes St”: McNally Jackson. My favorite bookstore in NYC, within a few blocks of NYU.
-Stan the Guard: Of course, cameo of Mr. Stan Lee, as well as a tribute to one of my favorite Stucky fics ‘The Smithsonian Guard’
-“Whatever happens to the sun, the effects won’t be felt on Earth until eight minutes after.”: This is due to the speed of light. I’ve always loved this concept. The whole extended metaphor of the sun is also a vague reference to Icarus.
-“But there’s one thing they need to get right, one thing I want written in history books.”: An idea derived from my favorite Regina Spektor song, Samson.
-“I loved him. I loved him. And I think I—I still love him.” Inspired by Lana Del Rey’s National Anthem.
-Agent 14 @girlnextdoor: play off of Agent 13/Sharon Carter
-“I remember hearing my father talk about them when I was younger.”: Headcanon is that Howard’s always known about their mutual pining.
- Tony Stark @iamironman and J.A.R.V.I.S @propertyoftonystark: this one’s pretty obvious.
- Sam Wilson @ibelieveicanfly: His twitter handle. I really hope people got that.
- “You don’t know how many dreams I’ve dreamed about you, And just how empty they all seemed without you.”“It’s been a long, long time.”: The song playing in the bar is the song Fury played in Cap’s apartment in CATWS before Bucky shoots him. It’s written in 1945 about a soldier coming home from the war to his lover. These two lines seemed particularaly fit for Stucky.
- Jesse the editor from Random House: Tribute to my favorite Jewnicorn fic “The Giraffe Notes”
- Barnes & Noble: Because that is actually a ship-nickname for Stucky.
- Sebastian Evans @aroamingromanian: Slipping some Evanstan in here.
- “If there’s any true logic to this universe, it’s that James Barnes is destined to love Steve Rogers.”: A nod to a deleted line in Star Trek XI, from Kirk to Spock. “If there’s any true logic to this universe, we’ll end up on that bridge again some day.”
I hope they find each other in every life, in every universe. Thanks to all of you who read it and left me all those kind comments. It’s been a wild ride.
Update: As of June 2018, the fic has gone through edits and reformatting and has been separated into a three-part series with the Steve POV extra and the future extra being their own works following this one.