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Breathe Underwater

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On Mondays, Steve played poker at Sam’s with a couple of guys from his new VA group in Brooklyn.

On Tuesdays, Steve visited with Peggy from one to three pm.

On Wednesdays, Steve trained with Natasha at the ostentatious Avengers Tower.

On Thursdays, Steve took the subway to Central Park and spent some time sketching.

On Fridays, Steve went to the retro movie theater two blocks away from his apartment that never played anything released after 1960.

On Saturdays, Steve stayed in, had a quiet day at home.

On Sundays, Steve visited the ghosts that haunted his waking life, winding his way among headstones worn down by seventy years of wind and rain.

XxXxXx

It was Monday night, Steve arrived at Sam’s with a case of beer and a nervous hand pressing to the back of his neck. “Hey,” he greeted, forcing a smile he didn’t quite feel.

Sam returned the smile with genuine affection. “Nice to see you, man.”

“Yeah,” Steve answered, as if they didn’t have this exact exchange like clockwork every Monday night.

Sam’s gaze slipped for a second, moving past Steve’s shoulder as if to check for any accompanying friends Steve might have brought along. He never brought anyone, today wasn’t different. “Come on in.” Sam held the door open wide and let Steve pass him.

The other three vets were already spaced around the table, chips lined up neatly in front of them, open beers at their right hands, and a bowl of pretzels gracing the corner of the round table. They greeted Steve warmly as he took his customary seat.

The night ticked by as they played their hands out, chips amounting steadily then disappearing rapidly between them. It was fun. Steve thought it was fun.

At ten o’clock, he left, the guys cajoling him to stay and Steve deferring like he always did. He was back to his place by ten fifteen, seated on the couch, hands clasped firmly between his knees, staring uncertainly as his spotless coffee table.

The clock in the kitchen mocked each minute that Steve spent motionless. Or at least his body wasn’t in motion. His mind, though, was caught up in a torrent of memories and confusion, never sticking on one thing, always whisking away with another.

The clock kept count, time slid by. At eleven, Steve stood up. He crossed to the bathroom, brushed his teeth. He dropped his clothes in the hamper and crawled into his bed in his boxers. Rolling over onto his left side, he stared out the sliding glass door of his balcony.

It was Monday night and he could still hear the kitchen clock.

XxXxXx

It was Tuesday. Steve sat in the corner of Peggy’s room, reading For Whom the Bell Tolls. It wasn’t an uplifting read. He didn’t think it would fall into Sam’s idea of what fun reading should be. Still. Someone had left it in Peggy’s room and Steve had picked it up last week. Now he was just finishing it.

Peggy was asleep in her bed, fingers clenched around her blankets, white hair soft around her features. Steve watched her for a moment, listening to the peaceful pattern of her breathing. She was still beautiful, he thought. It wasn’t something that had passed her by with age, it was something she had always carried with her. More than physical beauty, she was a beautiful person, one who was tough as nails, and Steve missed her every day with a fierce ache that didn’t ebb even when they were in the same room.

She didn’t remember him. Well, she didn’t remember that he had come back. That he visited her every week. That was the dementia. She remember Steve from the war, it helped that he looked exactly the same. Sometimes she was upbeat, reliving memories with him that made him feel more alive than anything else. Other times, she was sad, trodden down by all the time that had passed and how very long he had been gone.

Today she was sleeping, Steve didn’t want to bother her. He liked being here even if they weren’t talking. It was comforting to be near her if nothing else. He had loved Peggy in 1945 and he loved her now. Time couldn’t erode that.

A rustling of sheets from the bed drew his attention. Peggy frowned as she woke up, eyes blinking rapidly as she took in her room and tried to place herself. Steve waited a moment before setting his book down and approaching.

“Hey, Peggy,” he said softly, smile practiced and easy.

“Steve?” Wonder filled the question. “You’re alive!”

It was Tuesday and Peggy Carter had just met Steve Rogers for the first time since 1945, again.

XxXxXx

It was Wednesday and Steve was getting his ass handed to him by Natasha. He tilted his head as he brushed himself off, frowning in her direction.

“What’s wrong?”

Natasha pursed her lips. This meant she expected him to know already.

He shrugged. “Really, I’ve got nothing.”

An exasperated sigh left her. “Why is Bucky Barnes living next door to Maria Hill?”

Steve tensed, shoulders going tight. He forced his jaw to unlock, fingers flexing as he worked out his agitation. “Bucky wanted a place of his own, SHEILD wanted a place they could keep their eye on him for the time being.”

She blinked, unimpressed. “That doesn’t answer my question.”

Looking skyward, Steve tipped his head back. “He likes her.”

“She’s Maria Hill. Who doesn’t like her?” Natasha asked as if she was legitimately going to beat up anyone who had a negative word to say about Maria.

“No, I mean, he feels comfortable with her. She’s helping him adjust – or so I’ve heard.” Steve’s jaw clamped back up. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, wishing they were still fighting instead of standing still.

“And you make him . . . what?” she posed, eyes locking with his. “Uncomfortable?”

There was a beat of silence. Steve didn’t know what to say. Or he did, but he didn’t want to. Bucky had shown up at Avengers Tower out of nowhere two months back, memories iffily intact, and looking to turn himself in. That hadn’t worked out.

First of all, because Steve had given a dramatic speech about anyone who wanted to take Bucky in was going to have to go through him first. Second of all, because there was no exact authority for Bucky to turn himself into. SHIELD was barely operational and they were the only ones who knew of Bucky’s existence and that of the Winter Solider to begin with. And last of all, because no one considered what had been done by the Winter Solider as acts of Bucky’s choosing. He was a prisoner of war if nothing else.

Steve had thought this was it. Bucky coming back, Bucky remembering. The big moment. The one where Steve’s life finally took a turn for the good. Except that hadn’t happened. Bucky had looked at him with hollow eyes when Steve offered to let him stay at his place.

“No thanks, Steve,” he said, as if they were strangers, “I can make it on my own.”

And that was that. Steve had tried to seek Bucky out, had shown up at his new apartment, except Bucky had kept shutting him out. After a few weeks, Steve stopped trying. It seemed obvious that Bucky didn’t want him around. And that was fine, it was dandy, as long as Bucky was doing better, that was all that mattered.

Now it was two months later and Bucky was still –

“He’s had it tough,” Steve forced himself to say. “Stuff like that changes you. I think – I think for him I’m just a bad memory now.”

It was gutting to say out loud. He could admit it to the other vets, they understood, had experienced similar things themselves. But saying it to Natasha was like admitting a defeat. Admitting that it was never going to get better between them.

Bucky was the only person Steve wanted to talk to and Steve was the only person Bucky never said a word to. It was Wednesday and Steve was miserable.

Natasha studied Steve for a moment, the way she studied a tactical mission. Finally she shook her head. “That sucks.”

Steve’s shoulders dropped, invisible weights pooling at his feet. “Yeah, yeah it does. A lot. It sucks a lot. I hate it.”

It was Wednesday and Steve was blindsided by how much he appreciated Natasha Romanoff’s friendship.

XxXxXx

It was Thursday and Steve was sitting in Central Park. He was sitting in Central Park glaring absolute daggers at Bucky fucking Barnes who was jogging the sidewalk like he didn’t have a care in the freaking world. Jogging with his hair pulled back in neat bun, in a tank top that left his metal arm shiny in the sun, in scuffed red Converse on his feet like he did this often.

Steve waited for the earth to open up beneath him and swallow him whole. This was his punishment, wasn’t it? For letting his best friend fall from the train? This is what he got. A lifetime of seeing how much better off Bucky would have been without him. A lifetime of knowing Bucky could come back from the darkest, bleakest time any man could ever know and turn over a leaf so new and so green no one would guess he had ever suffered. A lifetime of knowing that while Bucky could accomplish the seemingly impossible, Steve could never move past having been peacefully asleep for seventy years.

The pencil snapped between Steve’s fingers, held so tightly and with so much anguish that it couldn’t bear the weight. Steve dropped it into his rucksack, fishing out a new one and forcing his eyes back to the half finished portrait of Natasha. He stared fiercely at her straight hair, only partially shaded.

Someone laughed. No. Not someone, Bucky. Steve forced himself not to look up. He didn’t want to see what or who was making Bucky laugh. He didn’t want to be here at all. And he didn’t have to be.

It was Thursday and Steve was running away because his best friend was dead, even if he was ten feet away laughing in Central Park.

XxXxXx

It was Friday and Steve was in the center of the back row of the Golden Theater, slouched down in his seat, eating popcorn kernel by kernel as he watched The Best Years of Our Lives. It was Friday and Steve felt like someone was ripping his heart out of his chest.

This was his movie. This was his life played out on screen by actors he didn’t know the names of. It was his movie and he never got to see it because it came out in 1946. It was his movie and the movie of every veteran of World War II. It was his movie and for one horribly brief moment, he wondered if Bucky had ever seen it.

He shoved that thought away so quickly it left him feeling off balance. But it came back just as quickly, because everyone he knew was up on that screen, pouring their hearts out and sharing secrets only Steve thought he knew.

Steve was Fred Derry, he saw himself clearly in the decorated Army Air Forces captain. In his inability to adjust to civilian life, in his helpless urge to still be at war, because anywhere else, he was adrift. And there was Howard Stark in Al Stephenson, hiding behind barbed remarks and endless alcohol all the while wishing he could do anything to improve the lives of the veterans who served their country. There was Peggy in the character of the same name, so fearless, seeing the potential in Fred even when he couldn’t see it himself.

And of course there was Bucky. There was Bucky in Homer Parrish, a veteran who lost both hands from the elbows down when his aircraft carrier sunk. Except, that wasn’t exactly right. Homer was Bucky from before. Bucky after escaping Zola’s lab. Lost just like Homer in what he was now, in who he was after having survived but not fully intact.

The door to the theater opened. Steve couldn’t help the reflexive act of turning around to see who had entered. There was hardly more than twelve people total watching the movie to begin with.

He blinked. He blinked again. Because that was Bucky with a baseball cap shoved down low over his face. That was Bucky, and he was looking directly at Steve. Steve jerked back around, staring straight at the screen while trying to convince himself to breathe slowly. To be unaffected that Bucky was in a place he shouldn’t be at all.

Steve had come here every Friday for the past six months. He had come here every Friday since Bucky showed up at Avengers Tower. And not once, in all that time, did he ever see Bucky. Why now?

Steve pretended to be riveted on the film as Bucky quietly edged down the aisle towards Steve. He paused one seat away to ask, “Anyone sitting here?”

Steve shook his head stiffly, jaw clenched so hard it was starting to ache. His mom used to say his dad clamped his jaw so tight she could see the tendons straining. He’d never been able to imagine that as a kid, but he could emulate it perfectly now.

The movie droned on, but Steve couldn’t focus. He couldn’t focus on the damn movie even though it was the best thing that had happened to him in a while. And it was all Bucky’s fault.

Steve wanted to stand up, move an aisle or two closer to the screen, away from Bucky’s looming presence. He wanted to lose himself in the movie again, forget that Bucky wasn’t actually Homer, pretend that Bucky would come back to Steve the same way Homer came back to Wilma. But Steve couldn’t because Bucky was sitting right next to him and he wasn’t someone Steve knew anymore.

The tension seemed to only be on Steve’s side, with Bucky relaxed into his seat, metal fingers playing with the cuff of his zip up jacket, eyes reflecting the lights of the screen. Steve clutched the popcorn box harder than was necessary. Just like the pencil the day before, it broke, cardboard sides bending inward and spilling kernels all over his legs and floor.

Beside him, Bucky twitched with something Steve recognized as silent laughter. Steve held the ruined popcorn box in his hand as he hastily stood and walked out the aisle. The theater door swung open at his push and hushed shut behind him, blocking out the cottony sounds of the movie.

Steve chucked the popcorn box into the trash and crammed his hands into his pockets. He’d have to change up his routine. Maybe Central Park on Fridays and the Golden Theater on Thursdays.

On the sidewalk outside the glow of the theater, he called Sam. “Did you tell Bucky about the Golden Theater?” he asked harshly as soon as Sam answered.

There was a beat of silence on the other end before Sam said, “I didn’t, but I take it someone else did.”

“Who else even knows?” Steve kicked in aggravation at a sizable chunk of cement that had dislodged itself from the sidewalk. It was cool out, autumn settling in, and the street lamps made everything look like fallen leaves.

“Uh, hate to break it to you, Steve, but just about everybody does,” Sam said, tone purposefully gentle.

Steve kicked harder at the cement chunk and it went skittering into the street. He felt instantly bad, worried it would pop some poor unsuspecting guy’s tire. Jogging into the street, he picked it up and chucked it back onto the sidewalk for someone else to kick at.

“How does everyone know?”

“You do the same thing every week, man. Didn’t think it was top secret. Was it supposed to be top secret?” Sam asked like he was just now getting that Steve didn’t want everyone to know his weekly routine.

Steve’s shoulders slumped. “No . . . no, it wasn’t top secret, I just, I didn’t think anyone cared to know my routine. Doesn’t affect anybody but me.”

“Sure thing, but, Steve, people are going to care because it’s you.” Sam emphasized the last word like Steve was missing something important.

Whatever it was, he didn’t pick up on it. “Gonna have to change my routine now, though,” he said glumly. Thanks to Bucky, he missed the end of the movie. Now he was going to have to find some other way to watch it. He wasn’t good at that stuff. Finding stuff now. Everyone acted like it was so simple, but Steve didn’t get it.

Maybe he’d ask Darcy Lewis. She was always pleasant enough when he asked her for help. She was doing some work for SHIELD. Her and her intern, Ian? He was British, whatever his name was. Thor said Darcy was a great friend of Jane’s. Steve hadn’t met Jane, but he liked Darcy.

“You, uh, you two talk?” Sam prodded.

Steve wished he hadn’t left the cement chunk behind. “He asked if anyone was sitting next to me.”

“Did you answer?”

“Nonverbal cues,” Steve said vaguely.

“Right,” Sam said, after an awkward pause. It was a pause meant to reprimand Steve without actually saying he’d done anything wrong.

“The guy hasn’t said more than five words to me combined in over two months, Sam. I think I’m allowed one lack of verbal response.” Steve jammed his fingers through his hair, rucking up the gel he’d stiffened it with that morning.

He didn’t know why he bothered with the gel. Natasha said it looked nice that way, that it was how people wore their hair now. She helped him with weird things like that. Little tips on how to survive seventy years after you were supposed to.

“You want me to come hang?” Sam asked, dropping the topic of Bucky altogether.

“No, I’m – it’s fine, I just. I was frustrated. I shouldn’t have been.” Steve sagged, slowing his walk to something resembling dragging his feet.

He felt stupid now. Chased off by Bucky from the movie theater. It wasn’t Bucky’s fault for showing up, he hadn’t done anything wrong. Steve had gone and made a mess out of it just the same though. Because Bucky was adjusting and Steve couldn’t get a grip on anything. He felt like crap.

He came to a standstill at the corner of his block, peering down the dark sidewalk splattered with light from the lamp posts. What the hell was he doing?

It was Friday and Steve wished he hadn’t gotten out of bed that morning.

XxXxXx

It was Saturday and Steve was on his balcony sketching out the skyline for at least the fifteenth time. Of course, there was something very wrong with his skyline versus the one he was looking out over. His had pillars of smoke rising from crumbled buildings, rotund metal airplanes low in the sky. Alright, his was a Europe in World War II skyline, not Brooklyn in 2015. Semantics.

Sam had shown up last night, even though Steve had insisted there was no reason to. He’d shown up, helped Steve find The Best Years of Our Lives on Netflix and they’d watched it together. Sam had cried. Quiet tears snuffled into the crook of his elbow that Steve pretended not to see. Steve had wanted to cry too, but found that he couldn’t, that his tears were locked up tight in his chest and he didn’t know what key to use to release them.

“We should – we should share it with the guys, if you think?” Steve had hedged uncertainly as the credits rolled, thinking of the other guys in Sam’s VA group.

Sam had nodded seriously. “Yeah, I’ll talk to them about it. Lot of touchy stuff in there. Lot of good stuff too.”

Then he’d left with a firm pat to Steve’s shoulder. “Day by day, man, day by day,” he said.

Steve wasn’t sure what Sam meant. He was living as day by day as he knew how and it didn’t seem to be getting him any closer to anything that he could see.

Today was good though, bombed out buildings aside, Steve liked drawing just as much as he had before sinking into the ocean. His eyes went unfocused as he touched his gaze up to the blue of the sky. Steve flipped over to a new page in his sketch pad.

He worked on water. On light filtering down through water. On creating space where there was nothing but water and diffused light and silence. Where limbs floated seemingly weightless. Where the water pressed in on all sides like a comfort. Where the light eventually dissipated. Where he thought maybe he was meant to have been. Not once, but twice.

Twice held in that weightless, comforting, silence. Twice ripped back out of it. Twice and he couldn’t think past it.

His pencil froze on the page, one gloved hand floating upwards towards that ephemeral surface with the light and the noise and the people. Was he still in the water? Was he still below the surface? Had anyone ever really dragged him out?

It was Saturday and Steve was worried he might never break the surface, that the water tension might always hold him beneath, that he might let it, that he might prefer it that way, because the surface was too hard and he just wasn’t ready for the light or the noise.

XxXxXx

It was Sunday and Steve was kneeling at an empty grave. He’d been here before, soon after he’d been woken for the first time. He’d come here and knelt in this very spot, fingertips brushing over the engraving.

James Buchanan Barnes
‘Bucky’
1917-1944
Beloved Son & Brother

It was Rebecca who probably had to choose the words. The oldest after Bucky, the responsibility would have fallen to her. Steve vaguely remembered writing to her, a desperate letter of how sorry he was, of how he wished it had been him instead. If she’d ever replied, he never received that letter.

Now there was this empty grave, but it wasn’t really empty. Not truly. Because the Bucky who had been Steve’s best friend, only friend for so long, he was gone. His body might not be beneath the ground, but he was there just as much as Steve wasn’t really in the present.

And it hurt. It hurt so much more than anything else. It hurt more than Peggy having lived her life without Steve. It hurt more than waking up after he had been so sure he had died doing the right thing. It hurt more than walking past all these other gravestones, the ones of his family and friends.

It hurt so much worse because for one single moment, Steve had thought he might get to have Bucky back. That he might not have to be as alone as he was. But Bucky was gone, laid beneath this grave in nothing but his soul and Steve was lying right down there next to him, for all that he was walking around in the same pattern every week.

It was Sunday and Steve’s jeans were getting muddy from the grass and he was begging as he had begged every Sunday for six months to please just make it stop. He wasn’t sure if he meant the world turning, his heart beating, or all of the grief pooling up around him to keep him under the surface.

XxXxXx

It was Monday and Steve went to poker night at Sam’s.

It was Tuesday and Steve visited Peggy in the nursing home.

It was Wednesday and Steve got a bruise that lasted an hour from Natasha.

It was Thursday and Steve sank down into the blissfully empty Golden Theater.

It was Friday and Steve sat beneath the shade of a tree in Central Park to draw a monkey doing the backstroke through murky water.

It was Saturday and Steve thumbed through the last of For Whom the Bell Tolls.

It was Sunday and Steve was kneeling at an empty grave.

Rinse. Wash. Repeat.

It was Monday. It was Tuesday. It was Wednesday. It was Thursday. It was Friday. It was Saturday. It was Sunday - It was Sunday and Steve wasn’t alone in the cemetery.

XxXxXx

Steve stopped, gaping at the hunched figure in front of the row of graves he knew so well. The Barnes’ had bought family plots, just like Steve’s parents, Bucky first and the rest following after. Steve’s parents were three rows back and four over.

He thought about leaving. About coming back later, when Bucky would have left.

Except his feet didn’t move. That was his best friend. He wasn’t sure if he meant the man or the empty grave.

Steve didn’t move. Bucky didn’t move. An autumn breeze blew through the cemetery, ruffling the soft tangle of hair hanging down to Bucky’s shoulders. Steve shifted from one foot to the other. He should leave. He was intruding.

He couldn’t abandon his best friend. The man or the grave?

“Steve?”

The question broke him of his reverie. He glanced up, hands deep in his pockets, uncertainty in every line of his body. “Hey, Buck,” he greeted softly.

Bucky tilted his head to the right, his hair fell across his cheek, shading half of his face. He gestured toward his own gravestone. “You got one of these?”

Steve gave a stilted nod. He tipped his head towards his parents’ graves. “It’s over there.”

Bucky followed the direction then looked back down at his own grave. “Buried a box?”

“Guess so,” Steve agreed.

It felt surreal, talking about their empty graves. Steve never thought about his, maybe because he still felt one foot in it.

“You come here a lot?” Bucky asked.

“Every week,” Steve said.

From Bucky’s frown, it wasn’t the answer he had been hoping to hear. Steve had to assume it was hardly news though. If Sam was right that everyone already knew the sad travels of Captain America’s week, then it could hardly be surprising to Bucky that this was one of the weekly pit stops.

“You the one leaving all the nice flowers?”

Steve bobbed his head. “I have them on automatic order. Darcy helped me set it up,” he found himself explaining.

“Get some for your own grave?” Bucky asked, eyes once again searching out Steve’s headstone.

Steve felt a small shock go through him. It was a morbid question. “No, I don’t.”

Bucky wiped his hands off on his black jeans, crossing carefully over to stand several feet away from Steve. “So you doll everybody else’s grave up, but not your own?”

He seemed mad. Expression tight, eyes bright like they always were when Bucky got his dander up. Steve wasn’t exactly sure what they were fighting about, though.

“Why would I put flowers on my own grave?” he asked, confused.

“Why would you put flowers on mine?” Bucky grit out.

Oh. Understanding dawned. Steve shifted uncomfortably on his feet as his stomach hollowed out. “Didn’t mean nothing by it, Bucky.”

“Sure you did,” Bucky accused. “You’re not putting flowers on your grave but you’re putting them on mine. Or is it his? Do you divide us into two people in your mind?”

The words were bitter, filled with a buildup of anger that Steve hadn’t ever imagined. It had never occurred to him, not once, that Bucky wasn’t talking to him because he was angry at Steve. He’d just assumed Bucky didn’t like him anymore, that Bucky came back with memories of Steve and realized he was better off without him. He’d never thought Bucky felt he was the one being abandoned.

“Bucky,” Steve started hesitantly, “it’s not like that. I just – I miss you,” he finished helplessly.

Bucky was glowering. “I’m right fucking here, Steve.”

“But you haven’t been,” Steve burst out, ashamed of how loud his voice was in the quiet of the cemetery but not able to temper it down. “It’s been months and you haven’t – you haven’t been anywhere! You’ve been gone and I’ve been here and I missed you and – shit, Bucky.” He held out his arms to gesture at the vast empty space Bucky had most certainly not been occupying in his life.

“Living next to Maria Hill is not the same as taking up residence on Mars, Rogers. It is a very breechable distance,” Bucky said coldly.

“Are you kidding me?” Steve eyes were wide with disbelief. “I came to your door every night for three weeks! Three weeks and you shut the door in my face every time. So I got the message. I got it loud and clear. You didn’t want me in your life and that was fine. I didn’t have to be there. I wanted you to be – I wanted you to be happy and if you were happier without me then I could do that.”

“Nobody asked you to!” Bucky shouted, cheeks reddening as they argued.

Steve kept his hands fisted in his pockets to keep from doing something stupid like taking a swing at Bucky. Bucky would probably just clobber him, one right blow to the temple and Steve would be out like a light.

“No,” he said instead, unclenching his jaw, “but you certainly weren’t asking me to stay either. I bowed out gracefully. What more did you want from me, Bucky?”

“I wanted you to wait for me!” Bucky apparently had no such compunction about his hands, as his shot out and twisted tightly into the fabric of Steve’s jacket, yanking him forward.

“I have been waiting,” Steve swore, heart skyrocketing in his chest. “I have been waiting seventy years for you, Bucky. I have been waiting to be where ever you were for seventy years. And when I found you, not at the bottom of the ocean, not in an empty grave, not sunk in the Potomac, you shut me out. You didn’t want me.”

It was horrible that Bucky laughed. That he laughed and it wasn’t filled with any humor. That it was twisted and broken and sliced like shards of glass into Steve’s heart. “But I wasn’t ready to be found yet.”

Steve frowned, brows curving downwards as his heart missed a beat. “But you – you came to the Tower.”

“Yeah, I came to SHIELD. I was ready for SHIELD. I was ready to stop being the Winter Solider, but I wasn’t ready to be me yet.” Bucky’s grip slackened, fingers slipping out of the fabric of Steve’s t-shirt and lolling back to his side.

The sudden separation felt like a punctured lung and Steve quickly made up the distance between them, pressing forward until he could grip Bucky’s jacket in his own hand. “Then who were you ready to be?”

“I was ready to be put back together,” Bucky admitted to the landscape behind Steve, his eyes skittering past any space that held his friend.

“I would have – I wanted to – I would have helped you do that, Bucky, you gotta know that.” Steve tugged lightly on Bucky’s jacket, trying to redirect his gaze.

It worked for half a second, Bucky’s eyes landing on him before haphazardly darting away again. “Didn’t want you to have to.”

“Bucky,” Steve tugged harder this time, “I wanted to help you.”

“Yeah, well,” Bucky shrugged his metal shoulder. “Wasn’t so sure you wanted an ex-assassin as a best friend. Not exactly the same as a war hero, is it?”

“It’s you, Buck,” Steve said earnestly, earning another momentary slice of Bucky’s eyes. “Nothing you could ever be that I wouldn’t want.”

Bucky laughed again, that same horrible sound that wasn’t a laugh at all. “You don’t want a murderer, Steve. A murderer can’t be Captain America’s best friend. Wouldn’t be good for the papers.”

It was like the very earth was shifting beneath Steve’s feet. This wasn’t how he’d thought things were. He’d thought – he’d thought he’d been the one drowning, the one left behind, the one stuck in a past. Except Bucky was right there with him, caught in his own quicksand of the past.

“I don’t give a damn what Captain America can or can’t have. That’s not who we are, Bucky. That’s never been us. It’s always been just you and me. I don’t have to be anybody else for you and you don’t have to be anybody else for me. You just gotta – you gotta be with me, Bucky,” Steve pleaded, fingers tightening on his jacket to reel him in closer, their knees bumping in the scant distance between them. “I don’t think I can do this by myself.”

“What if I’m not who you remember?” The question came out as not much more than a whisper.

Steve heard it all the same and shook his head, negating it instantly. “I barely remember who I was before you fell.”

Bucky took this in, blue eyes slowly making their way to Steve’s and holding this time. It felt like a lifeline. “You still feel like your falling?”

“All the time,” Steve said in a rush.

“Feels awful.” Bucky frowned, corners of his mouth tugging down.

“I keep – “ Steve started then stopped, not entirely sure where they stood with each other right now, but needing to tell someone none the less. “I keep thinking that I’m still underwater, still watching the surface fade away into nothing. And sometimes – sometimes I don’t know if I care.”

Bucky’s fist snared in Steve’s shirt again, as if grounding him. “Ruined my clothes dragging you out, Steve. Wherever you are, it sure as hell isn’t in the water.”

A ghost of a smile flickered on Steve’s lips until he caught sight of perfect white lilies behind Bucky. Shame rolled over his stomach. “I’m sorry about those,” he said, a weak gesture of his hand toward the grave behind them. “I really did just miss you. Felt closer to you here then when I was sitting in the hallway outside your closed apartment door.”

Bucky was quiet for a moment before he jerked Steve closer a step with the fist in his shirt. “We close enough now, Steve? Because I tried chasing after you a few weeks ago and that didn’t work out so good for me.”

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve said softly, “this is plenty close.”

It was Sunday and for the first time in seventy years, Steve Rogers was talking to his best friend.

XxXxXx

It was Monday and Steve was frowning at the five cards in his hand. Sam kept shooting him anxious looks over the stiff tops of his own cards. Beside Steve there was an empty chair. One Steve hadn’t requested.

“Thought he was coming, is all,” Sam muttered as the other guys around them shit talked their hands.

Steve shook his head minutely. “He’s not ready for that yet. I’ll bring him by when he is, okay?”

Sam nodded. “Raise you two.”

Steve smirked. It was Monday and Steve had a Royal Flush.

XxXxXx

It was Tuesday and Bucky was fidgeting endlessly in the chair next to Steve in Peggy’s room. “You don’t have to be here,” Steve offered, looking at Bucky sideways from behind the cover of To Kill a Mocking Bird.

“No, I wanna be here,” Bucky argued quietly, darting a dirty look in Steve’s direction.

Steve lifted his eyebrows in disbelief. “Right. Because you look so comfortable and casual over there, pal.”

Bucky huffed, shifting antsy in the chair. “It’s just – it smells like a hospital in here and – and Peggy Carter is lying there looking her age and you and I are sitting here looking like science experiments gone wrong –“

Steve set down his book, the spine cracked open in a way that would have had his mother tutting in disapproval. He turned in his seat so his knee butted up against Bucky’s. “We are science experiments gone wrong, or right, I guess it depends who you’re asking. And it does smell like a hospital in here because it is one. You don’t have to be okay with that though, Bucky. You can go home, Peggy wouldn’t think less of you for it.”

“I’m not going home,” Bucky said stubbornly, forcing himself into unnatural stillness.

“She’s probably not going to wake up the whole time we’re here. She’s been having a rough few weeks,” Steve pressed, wanting to reassure Bucky that it was fine to take his leave. Steve knew how rough it could be visiting Peggy, looking the past in the face and knowing you were so far from it it wasn’t even close to funny.

“You want me to go?” Bucky asked with a snap to his words that was so out of place in his old friend.

Steve liked it. He liked that sharp edge that Bucky had now, one that he had just been beginning to form after the escape from Zola’s lab. That bite made Bucky somehow more real to Steve, it cut into Steve, sharp and unrelenting.

“No, I don’t want you to go, I’m just saying it’s okay if you want to go,” Steve said, responding to Bucky’s sting with an easy balm the way Bucky had used to do with him.

“Tough shit, Rogers. I wanna be where you are and this is where you are.” Bucky sunk sullenly into his chair, arms crossed over his chest.

A smile edged up the corner of Steve’s mouth. “Alright then.” He reached onto the table next to him and passed the finished copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls to Bucky.

Bucky took a good minute to glare at the cover before opening it. “Next Monday we’re bringing milkshakes.”

It was Tuesday and Steve was laughing.

XxXxXx

It was Wednesday and Steve wasn’t sparring with Natasha. He was sparring with Bucky as Natasha goaded them on from the sidelines.

It was Wednesday and Bucky had just kicked Steve so hard in the ribs he thought one might have cracked. He hit the mat hard, grinning helplessly as he wheezed out a breath. Bucky towered over him, features lost in the shadow the overhead lights made of his face.

“Jesus, Steve, it’s like you’re trying to lose,” Bucky scoffed, prodding him with the heavy toe of his boot.

Steve grimaced as the boot touched his injured ribs. “Just warming you up, jerk.”

Bucky shook his head, lank hair swaying into his shadowed face. “Don’t think I’m the one needs warming up. You still under water, Stevie, or you gonna come fight me like the tough guy you’re always trying to convince me you are?”

When Steve rolled back to his feet, Bucky leaned back, and in the light Steve could see that he was smiling. It was Wednesday and Steve had blood on his teeth from when Bucky socked him good across the face, and Natasha was booing from the bleachers, and Steve took a cheap shot at Bucky’s shoulder. They wrestled to the ground in a tangle of aching limbs and it was good, it was nothing like being under water.

XxXxXx

It was Thursday and Bucky was whispering snide comments to Steve about Some Like it Hot. “Don’t know why everybody’s all up on Marilyn Monroe. It’s Tony Curtis who looks banging.”

Steve choked on his drink and caught Bucky’s smirk in the corner of his eye. “You’re serious?” Steve asked, keeping his voice hushed so as not to disturb the few other people in the theater.

Bucky pulled Steve’s straw around to his side and took a long drink before shrugging. “Guy’s a doll. I call it like I see it.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You like him in the dress get-up or?”

“Or,” Bucky said. “Definitely or.”

Steve kicked at his best friend’s ankle, because this was his best friend. Razzing him in a darkened movie theater while hogging all the popcorn and drinking all of Steve’s Coke after refusing to get one of his own, even after Steve offered to pay for it. “Yeah, well, I think Jack Lemmon looks great. Legs go on for miles.”

Bucky’s burst of laughter was ill timed even for the comedy and Steve slapped a hand over his mouth to muffle it. Bucky's retaliation of licking his palm was expected and therefore ignored. If anything, Steve held on tighter.

“Can you shut it and let us watch the movie?” he pleaded, leaning over so he was fully invading Bucky’s personal space.

Bucky groaned his disinterest in this idea before lashing his tongue across Steve’s palm again. No way was Steve going to be able to eat the popcorn after this, jerk.

“Come on, then,” Steve said, dropping his wet hand to Bucky’s dry one on the arm rest. “We can watch it at my place. Sam went on this personal crusade to get me Netflix knowledgeable. We can put it to the test and you can ramble all you want about Tony Curtis’s eyelashes.”

Bucky grimaced as his own spit smeared into his hand, but he stood up with Steve anyway, half eaten popcorn bowl in his metal hand. “Let’s go, future Mrs. Lemmon.”

It was Thursday and Steve was running home from the movie theater with his best friend in tow.

XxXxXx

It was Friday and Bucky was taking his sweet time choosing a questionable hot dog from the street food stand. “It’s just not sanitary,” Steve said in a whisper, head bobbing over Bucky’s shoulder, looking with distaste at the hot dogs and pretzels.

“Food is food,” Bucky argued, finally jabbing his metal finger at the winning hot dog.

“Not all food was created equal,” Steve disagreed, waiting as Bucky piled his hot dog with an ungodly amount of condiments. “You don’t even know how long that’s been sitting out here. Any of that.” He motioned towards the disaster Bucky was calling his lunch.

“Well, you’re not the one eating it, so stop trying to ruin the mood, punk.” Bucky opened wide and took a disgustingly large bite out of his hot dog. Steve winced. Relish oozed down onto Bucky’s black t-shirt.

“Delicious,” Bucky said through a mouthful of half chewed food.

Steve flipped him off before shoving him hard in the shoulder. Bucky choked on the hot dog as he laughed.

It was Friday and in four hours, Steve would be holding Bucky’s hair back as he hurled his guts and the dodgy hot dog into Steve’s toilet.

XxXxXx

It was Saturday and Bucky was taking in Steve’s apartment with the eye of an appraiser. “You thinking of buying the place, Bucky? Geez, take a seat.” Steve watched his friend make yet another circle through his small living room.

“What do you pay for this place?” Bucky demanded, face still pale from his food poisoning the night before.

“It’s not bad,” Steve said. “Why?”

Bucky shrugged, pausing in his relentless circuit. “Just wondering.”

Steve lifted a brow because Steve knew Bucky and Bucky was deflecting. “Wondering what?”

“Wondering, is all,” Bucky shot back, his new hot temper making an appearance.

Steve leaned back against the couch, picking up To Kill a Mocking Bird from the coffee table. He liked this one. Had taken it back with him from Peggy’s room, hoping the original owner wouldn’t mind. “Alright.”

Another two paces through the whole apartment and Bucky threw himself down next to Steve, jostling his arms and forcing Steve to hold tight to the book or risk losing his place. “Any SHIELD Agents live by you?”

“Not that I know of,” Steve answered. It was the truth as far as he knew, not that he had known Sharon was an agent either when she had been his neighbor.

Bucky huffed, stretching his legs out until they kicked into Steve’s thigh. Steve glanced pointedly from his friend’s feet to his face. Bucky took this as a sign to dig himself in deeper, to dig his toes under Steve’s thigh and rest his head on the arm of the couch.

“You got cable?”

“Yes.”

“Hot water?”

“That too.”

“Your fridge work?”

“No. I’ve been storing all the cold things in the bathtub packed with ice,” Steve deadpanned not entirely understanding where Bucky was going with the barrage of questions but knowing exactly what he hoped it meant.

“Haha, asshole,” Bucky scoffed before continuing on, “Air conditioning?”

“And heat.”

“Two bedrooms?”

Steve looked up from his book, tampering down his hope, because this? This was so close, so close to Steve breaking the surface. “I’ve got a spare room. Filled with my art stuff and the random things Natasha and Sam leave over.”

“You could clear it out,” Bucky prompted.

“I could,” Steve agreed, closing his book and setting it back on the coffee table.

“Right.” Bucky nodded, not looking at Steve at all, pointing his attention out the window instead. “So you’ll have it cleared out by next Friday?”

Steve’s heart took to racing so hard he felt dizzy. “Yeah, yeah, I can do that, Bucky.”

Bucky sniffed as if the conversation was no longer of interest to him, then his eyes slipped shut, and in minutes he was asleep. Steve took his sketch book from the table. He opened it to a new page.

It was Saturday and Steve wasn’t drawing bombed out skylines, he was drawing the angles of Bucky’s face.

XxXxXx

It was Sunday and Steve was watching Bucky frown at the distance between their graves. “I’m just saying, since there’s nothing under them, they could move them closer together.”

Steve stared incredulously at his best friend. “You want them to dig up our gravestones?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said defensively. “Why not?”

“Because they’re gravestones, Bucky, not really meant to be relocated, you know?” Steve said, as gently as he could while still thinking his best friend had taken a slide toward crazy.

“Yeah, well, they’re gravestones and we’re supposed to be under them, but we’re not, are we?” He shot a defiant look at Steve.

“No, we’re not,” Steve agreed.

“So, I’m saying, they could move them,” Bucky said as if Steve had just made his point for him.

Steve was completely bewildered. “Move them where?” He stared around curiously at the overly full cemetery.

“Together, Steve,” Bucky said in exasperation.

“Together?” Steve blinked because he still wasn’t getting it. “We’re only a couple rows apart, Buck.”

Bucky’s eyes hardened like Steve was being purposefully obtuse, like he was missing the most obvious thing in the world. “You still falling, Stevie?”

Steve shook his head. “Drifting maybe.”

Bucky nodded, hands shoved deep in the pockets of his leather jacket he was using to keep the autumn chill at bay. “Why?”

“Why what?” Steve asked, feeling confused and wrong footed.

“Why aren’t you falling anymore?”

“Because you’re here,” Steve said automatically.

“Exactly,” Bucky said. He looked at Steve for a moment, long hair brushing against his cheeks and tickling his eyelashes. “I can’t be me without you and I don’t wanna be buried over here when you’re all the way over there. I’ll get lost. I’ll get lonely.”

It was morbid except Steve knew exactly what Bucky meant. They were halfway in the grave, no matter which way you sliced it. Living men didn’t have graves with no one buried in them. Dead men didn’t have graves with their supposed occupants walking on top of them.

So if they were going to be buried, even just their half selves, they should be buried together. Their past could rest together, in peace finally, side by side, as it should have been seventy years ago.

Steve reached out, fingers of his right hand splayed open and waiting. He didn’t have to wait long. Bucky laced their fingers together seamlessly, closing the space between them until their hips were touching.

That hand had pulled Steve out of the Potomac and now it was pulling him back into life. Steve squeezed hard, the impact negligent against the hard metal of Bucky’s hand. “Think I love you, Bucky.”

“Think I love you too,” Bucky said. “Sorry it took me so long to come back to you.”

“Sorry I didn’t know how to wait.” Steve glanced at his best friend, hesitating for a moment before pressing a soft kiss to his lips.

Bucky grinned into the kiss. “Think you’ve got even nicer eyelashes than Tony Curtis, pal.”

It was Sunday and Steve was in love with his best friend. It was Sunday and Steve breached the surface and found that the light wasn’t as bright nor the sounds as loud as he had feared. It was Sunday and Steve was ready to be in the world again as long as Bucky was there with him.