Once upon a time there were two boys from Brooklyn.
Look, that's how these stories start. Wherever they end up, they always start with once upon a time.
One boy short and scrawny, suffering the kinds of ailments that made death his constant shadow, strolling along in his wake, whistling aimlessly to fill the time, because Steve Rogers was far too stubborn to die from something as simple as sickness. One boy tall and strong, and a good thing, too, since Steve would throw himself into battle as fiercely as any warrior of old, his heart and soul those of a raging lion. Death might soon have found something to do if James Barnes—Bucky—hadn't been there to join his friend in his endless back-alley battles.
Don't get the wrong idea, mind. Steve's battles were rarely, if ever, fought to avenge Steve's own hurts. No, they were almost always fought to avenge the hurts done to others. It drove Bucky a tiny bit mad, but it made him love Steve all the more. Not that he'd ever admit it for one damn second; the little punk didn't need a single scrap of encouragement.
An unlikely pair, some might think, but they were inseparable. Their bond unbreakable. Their arguments, when they happened, incandescent. It's always the way when you fight with someone who truly knows you, who truly loves you, right down to your soul and right down to your bones.
Their love was so great and so fierce in another time and place it would have been the stuff of epic poems, heroic ballads, immortalised in song and verse. It was a love so strong, so unshakeable, they could have been Archimedes' solid place on which to stand and shift the world. But they were just two boys from Brooklyn and what could two boys from Brooklyn ever do to change the world?
Yeah. About that.
War came and covered the globe. Men were fighting and dying in numbers unthinkable. Because the army could see only Steve's body and not the raging fire of his soul, Bucky had to go where Steve couldn't follow. So Steve made a deal with the devil for a chance at what he wanted most: to fight.
The devil turned out to be kind and moral and not a devil at all and transformed him, as if Steve had stepped through a magic mirror that reflected his soul back to the world. He was huge and strong and fast, no longer had death strolling along in his shadow; death wouldn't have been able to keep up.
Even with his body now reflecting the fire in his soul, they still wouldn’t let him fight. Worse, they made him a parody, a mockery of the men who were dying in numbers unthinkable. He went along with it, played at being Captain America for the chance to make some small difference.
Until Bucky was in trouble, and then he let lose all the rage and love inside him and fought his way to Bucky's side. There he found an actual devil and what he'd done to Bucky was devilish indeed. But they were together. They escaped and Bucky would be okay and they were together.
All should have been well.
Bucky got used to being shorter than Steve, though Steve wasn't sure he'd ever quite forgive him for it. Even in the midst of war, they fell back into their old ways. Inseparable, unbreakable. Bucky's calamitous outbursts over Steve's occasional reckless stupidity. A love so fierce it could not be shaken. They fought together like they shared one mind and one body, sometimes.
All should have been well. They couldn’t know that death, who'd once been Steve's constant shadow, was now stalking along in both their wakes.
Because that's the thing about once upon a time stories. At their heart, way down where they all began, they're about blood and death and the things that live in the deep deep dark. The things that we're most afraid of.
Steve led Bucky onto the train and Bucky fell because Steve couldn't reach him. Bucky fell and Steve was alone. Steve let him fall because he wasn't fast enough, wasn't strong enough, wasn't good enough. Wasn't brave enough to jump after him. None of that was true, but it was what Steve believed, was what Steve was most afraid of.
Steve went on and on because there was no choice and at the end of it all only one choice remained: to die. To crash the plane with its payload of bombs. He was alone and he was afraid and there was no other choice. He didn't hesitate. He closed his eyes at the end and saw Bucky as he fell; wondered if he'd see him again. Then there was nothing but the cold and he was so alone.
Even if he had died in that plane, Steve wouldn't have seen Bucky, for what the devil once held he doesn't lightly surrender and Zola was truly a devil. Bucky survived the fall, the mercy of death denied him. They took him and cut at his flesh and his bone and reshaped him to serve their own ends. They scraped Bucky out his mind until he was blank and terrified and compliant, and, like a demon from hell, summoned the Winter Soldier in his place.
A hero asleep under the ice for almost a hundred years, his best beloved companion under the sway of a multi-headed monster, body stolen by a killer. Bucky huddled deep inside his own mind, like a sleeping beauty shredded by thorns, watching, helpless, while they took everything from him.
That's what happens in once upon a time stories.
You know what comes next. While Steve sleeps the Winter Soldier kills and kills and kills again, death his only companion as he shapes the century, and Steve wakes into a world both wondrous and terrible, a world in which he is alone. He once more takes up the mantle of Captain America, because Steve never could resist the siren song of need, and the world, no matter how wondrous and terrible it has grown, is increasingly in need of saving.
He saved the world, again and again. He found Bucky, and he fought Bucky, and he freed Bucky from the Winter Soldier, awoke within him memories of who he'd been and how he'd been loved. Steve fell and Bucky fell after him and saved him and fled, and Steve lost Bucky once more.
Years later, he'd lost all hope of finding him.
But this is a once upon a time story, so of course it has a handsome Prince and a noble King and a terrible murder, laid at the feet of the Winter Soldier. The handsome Prince, who in that moment became the handsome and noble King, was a great warrior and he swore vengeance on the Winter Soldier. But the Winter Solder lived inside Bucky Barnes, who Steve Rogers had set free, and neither the Winter Soldier nor Bucky had done this terrible thing.
It was a terrible thing, but it led Steve to Bucky. In that moment, everything changed, Archimedes planting his feet on Steve's love for Bucky, solid and strong, and heaving with all his might, and Steve's whole world shifted. Steve came for Bucky, to keep him safe, because he would always come for Bucky, would always choose Bucky, even if Bucky might not remember that.
And though Bucky craved peace, once upon a time stories demand their tithe of blood and death and he had to fight or die. They fought together, Steve and Bucky, until the Winter Soldier was summoned forth from Bucky's panicked, torn, and helpless mind.
Again, they fell.
Again, together, they fought. Bucky's terrible grief at what he had done, his terrible fear that his fragile freedom could be stolen at any time, and still he fought. When the man who'd been Steve's friend discovered his parents had fallen victim to the Winter Soldier, he was so blinded by grief and rage he refused to see that Bucky, too, had been a victim. The fight was vicious, savage, merciless.
They won, but at a dreadful cost.
The handsome King, who was kind and wise, came to believe in Bucky's innocence, understood he was a victim, and he offered Steve and Bucky sanctuary in his country. Bucky, who would never again allow the Winter Soldier to be summoned forth, begged a boon of the handsome King, who was good and noble and so very kind. He asked to be put under the ice, to be put into a sleep like death, until the brambles and thorns could be ripped from his mind and the Winter Soldier banished forever.
The King agreed and pledged to find a way to free him. Pledged he would protect him from any who would do him harm.
Almost more than anything, Steve wanted to beg him not to go, not to leave him again, because losing Bucky was like losing a piece of his soul. But it was only almost more than anything. More than anything, he wanted Bucky to be free and safe and happy.
Steve kept his peace even as his heart was breaking.
Somewhere along the line, so gradually he hadn't realised it was happening, his love for Bucky had changed. Part of him wondered if it was new, or if it had always been there and he simply hadn't seen it.
Either way, it didn't matter.
He loved Bucky, he was in love with Bucky, and he wasn't sure there'd ever been a difference, but he hid it away where Bucky couldn't see it. After all Bucky had suffered, all that had been done to him, he didn't need another burden.
The King's people were highly skilled and shared in the wisdom of their King. They cast their nets far and wide and found a way to free Bucky's mind from its cage of brambles and thorns. It wouldn't be easy, but then the path to one's heart's desire rarely ever is.
Steve woke Bucky a year and a day after he went to sleep. Bucky's eyes were wide and he clutched at Steve, eyes begging to know why Steve had woken him. When Steve explained they'd found a way to set him free, Bucky buried his face in Steve's chest and Steve wrapped him tight in his arms and held him.
Freeing Bucky meant speaking the words to summon the Winter Soldier. After each word, a complex series of procedures was to be undertaken, unwinding each thorn and bramble carefully from Bucky's mind. The whites were showing around Bucky's eyes and the scientist in charge hadn't finished asking the question of who Bucky wanted to say the words before he was replying Steve.
Steve was almost as terrified as Bucky as he spoke them, these words the man he loved feared so deeply, and he clutched Bucky's hand tightly.
It was torturous, arduous, hours passing between each word. The scientists studied the monitors, the readouts, conferred among themselves, then gestured Steve to speak the final word. Eyes never leaving Bucky's, which were wide and terrified and filled with a helpless kind of hope, he did.
It had worked. The Winter Soldier would never be summoned again. He was banished back to whatever hell Zola had found him in.
Bucky sagged in the chair and closed his eyes. Steve, heedless of the wires and the monitors and the scientists, hugged him as hard as he could, until Bucky's ribs were almost creaking; held him until his heartbeat slowed, until Bucky pressed his face into Steve's neck and his breathing was slow and steady.
In celebration, the King presented them both with gifts. For Bucky, a new arm, to replace the one he'd lost in that final, desperate fight. For Steve, a new shield, to replace the one he'd dropped for Bucky, that he'd dropped for both of them. Both made from vibranium, that precious metal found in such abundance in this kingdom.
Bucky was content in his life of peace, but as he settled into skin he knew was unquestionably his, that couldn't be taken from him, he found himself restless, anxious, when Steve went out to fight. He didn't know if it was still-hazy memories or the itch under his skin, the strange, sharp ache in his heart, that tipped the scales, but Steve was his everything; he found he could no longer leave him unprotected.
It could have been vibranium that brought the mercenaries to Wakanda, a year and a day after Bucky had been set free. It could have been the bounty on Bucky's head or the bounty on Steve's head or all of those reasons or none of them. Whatever the reason, they were here when the King was away and Steve was suiting up to deal with them. Bucky, who could not let him go alone, suited up to watch his back.
It was a moment that never should have happened. They were Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, with the Wakandan military as back-up: these enemies should have posed no serious threat. But a single pebble can bring down a mountain if it falls in the right place.
It was one moment. Too many guns, too many enemies in too many right places. An RPG. No cover. The shield could only block so much. Bucky's metal arm could stop bullets, not rockets.
Bucky and Steve. Only one of them could survive. Their eyes met. They both moved, fast and certain and deadly, making their choice. The noise was deafening.
The world disappeared in a blinding flash of white.
Death came for them.
An extremely senior Delegate of Death came for them.
Death was very busy; She couldn't be everywhere.
"Well, this is a bit of a problem, isn't it?"
The room was industrial beige, no doors, no windows. It held a very ordinary desk, with a very ordinary desk chair behind it and two straight-backed chairs in front of it. The man sitting in the desk chair was so ordinary he almost defied description. He wore a grey suit with a grey tie and a grey shirt. Middle aged, with silver-rimmed glasses, average brown hair and an average haircut. Everything about him was average.
"What the everloving hell?" Bucky said and balled his hands into fists.
Steve looked around the room in confusion. "I'm gonna have to second that."
They were standing behind the two straight-backed chairs. Bucky looked down at himself then over at Steve. "What are we wearing?" They were barefoot and dressed in soft, flowing linen pants and shirts, the same industrial beige as the walls.
"I don't suppose you want to tell us what's going on?" Steve's voice was mild but his eyes were serious and his chin was high. It was definitely Captain America asking the question, not Steve. Bucky hid a smile, apparently amused at the incongruity of Captain America in flowing linens and bare feet.
"I'm afraid you're dead and causing me no small amount of inconvenience," the man replied, with a small, put-upon sigh.
"Oh, I'm sorry," Bucky said, one hand on his heart. "Imagine how bad we feel, our deaths causing you an inconvenience."
"Bucky," Steve said, with only mild reproach, before fixing the man behind the desk with a stern look. "I'm going to need you to explain that."
"You're both dead. You died. And that's a problem because I'm only supposed to have one of you." He pulled a piece of green paper from the air and held it up. It was impossible to read, but it looked very official, covered in stamps and signatures. He pointed to the bottom corner of the paper, where the numeral one could just be made out. "See? One. Not two. Yet here you are."
"Which one of us is supposed to be dead?" Bucky asked and he drifted closer to the desk.
"This is a green form. Non-specified individual death meeting specified criteria. Blue forms are for specified individual deaths." The green form disappeared. "That means one person who fits the specified criteria is supposed to be dead. You both fit the criteria; as such it could be either of you. But only one of you. Not both."
"I'm calling bullshit on this whole thing." Bucky walked around the room, methodically testing the walls. Steve watched him. "No door." He flexed the fingers of his metal hand. "Think I can make one?"
"Please don't do that," the man behind the desk said wearily. "Technically none of this is real. It's a convenient way of expressing concepts so that your minds can understand them. If you attempt to punch the wall nothing is going to happen."
Bucky stared at him for a heartbeat and, without looking away, punched the wall. Nothing happened. He sighed. Steve tried to hide a smile and failed. "Yeah, all right."
Steve turned his attention back to the man behind the desk. "So you're Death?" he asked, sounding extremely bemused.
"No, but I am Her duly delegated representative. An extremely senior Delegate, I might add," Death's Delegate said, looking over the top of his glasses. "No one else is willing to deal with your cases."
"Death has...representatives." Steve voice was still bemused, but it was starting to sound overly calm, the way people sound when their brain just isn't quite prepared to accept what's going on.
"Tens of thousands. The world has billions of people. Every person is assigned a case number. Most people are considerate enough to be born, live ordinary lives, and die without causing a fuss. Their cases can be handled in the thousands by one of the junior clerks. Then there's people like you two."
"What do you mean, people like us two?" Bucky grabbed one of the straight-backed chairs, spun it around, and straddled it, arms folded over its back, looking expectantly at Death's Delegate.
"Where do I start? Your files alone are a nightmare." A wave of his hand and suddenly there were piles of bulging manila folders on the desk. "These twelve?" He pointed at Steve. "Yours. These eight?" He pointed at Bucky. "Yours."
"How come Steve's got more than me? He spent seventy years asleep while I was a brainwashed assassin. Is it because he's a reckless idiot?"
"Hey," Steve protested and Bucky looked at him, then looked pointedly around the room, before returning his gaze to Steve. "You're here, too," Steve told him. Bucky shrugged.
"Partly yes," Death's Delegate replied when he once more had their attention. "Everyone's files record any action which brings them to the attention of Death or Her duly appointed Delegates. Partly because any of those actions which occurred when you were a 'brainwashed assassin'," Death's Delegate said the words with distaste, nose wrinkling slightly, "are not part of your file. Accurate file keeping is essential. They're not considered to have been your actions so they weren't recorded."
"Oh." Bucky sat up straighter, tensing slightly. Steve curved his hand around the back of his neck, squeezing gently, and Bucky relaxed under his touch.
"And then there's this." Two brightly glowing globes, crudely stuck together—resembling nothing so much as a project undertaken by an inexperienced glass blower—appeared on the table. Steve looked at them quizzically. "This is supposed to be two individual delicate gilded orbs, representing your individual life forces. Individual. Do they look individual to you? We can't separate them. You can't imagine the difficulties it presents with filing them correctly." Irritation was leaking into the voice of Death's Delegate.
"And these." He snapped his fingers. Two golden ropes were suddenly running through the air above them. They were impossibly snarled in spots, inextricably tangled together. There were only two places they were completely clear of each other, where they ran parallel and didn't touch at all: for a short span at the beginning and for a length near the middle. "Your life threads." He cleared his throat and files, globes, and golden ropes disappeared as did any hint of irritation. "As you can see, your cases present some unique difficulties. I've been dealing with them for a significant amount of time. No one else will take them."
"How long have you had them?" Steve asked curiously.
"Time runs somewhat differently for us, but in your time? Since 1930." Steve's eyebrows hit his hairline. It was the year Steve had met Bucky. "If we could get back to the problem at hand?" Death's Delegate asked pointedly. "The problem of there being two of you when I only have authorisation for one."
"I'm not sure what you expect us to do about it," Steve told him.
"It's very simple," Death's Delegate replied, steepling his fingers and eyeing them over the top of his hands. "Choose."
"Excuse me?" Bucky stood up, Steve's hand falling away. His tone was an old one, redolent of Brooklyn, one that used to precede someone getting their teeth knocked down their throat. Automatically, Steve closed his fingers around Bucky's arm.
"Choose. I have authorisation for, and am required to sever, one life thread. Not two. That means I have to send one of you back. I can't choose; that would be tantamount to murder. So, it's up to you to decide who goes back."
They'd spoken simultaneously and were now glaring at each other. Death's Delegate pinched the bridge of his nose. "I see."
* * *
Bucky was glaring at him. "You're going back," he stated, as if it were a universal truth, a fact that could not be disputed.
The corner of Steve's mouth pulled up, because, for just a second, he was short and scrawny and back in Brooklyn and Bucky was getting in his face about whatever stupid thing he'd done now. The moment passed. "You should go back."
"It should be you. If we're working things out, it's fairer if I stay."
"What are you talking about?"
Steve didn't look at Bucky, let his eyes drift to the corner of the room. "I figure it's fair if I stay and you go back. If we're looking back on everything that's happened. Everything that happened to you. None of it would have happened if I hadn't led you onto that train and then let you fall. So this is my chance to make up for it."
The silence was deafening and Steve let his eyes drift back to Bucky's face. His mouth was hanging open. It took him a few tries to reply. "Oh, you bastard," he said softly. "That is low."
"Maybe," Steve conceded. "But it's true."
"Don't tell me you've been hanging onto that all this time." Bucky caught Steve's chin with his right hand, fingers curling firmly to hold him in place, and he searched Steve's face. Steve wanted to lean into it but he held himself still under the touch. "Blaming yourself all this time."
"No, not like you mean. I let the...the guilt go. I had to or I would have drowned under it." Steve's whole body was an apology and Bucky let him go and folded his arms. "But that doesn't mean it's not true. So let me stay."
"Not a chance. You're going to have to come up with something better than that." Before Steve could say anything, Bucky continued, "If it's going to be either of us, it should be me. Everything I've done, maybe it's time. Time to just let go." Something that wasn't quite a smile, that was sad and weighted with pain, ghosted across Bucky's face and was gone. "That's one way to make amends."
The spike of anger caught Steve off-guard. He knew it showed on his face from the way Bucky took a step back. Nostrils flaring, fists curling, he fought it down. "It wasn't you. None of that was you. You don't have to die to make up for things you had no control over."
"It's a better reason than yours for staying here."
"You think so?" he demanded. "Well, what about the fact that you finally have a home. For the first time since we left Brooklyn, you have a damn home. You have a chance at a long, happy peaceful life. You can take up knitting or collect seashells or whatever damn thing you want. Whatever makes you happy."
"Not very convincing when the same goes for you."
"No, it doesn't." Steve reached out to touch him, brushed his fingers lightly against Bucky's collarbone, let his hand fall. "I didn't live through seventy years of hell. I was asleep under the ice and then I was pretty happy. You never had that, not since it was you and me in Brooklyn. Not since before the war. T'Challa's not just the King, he's your friend. Wakanda can be your home."
Bucky's jaw was working, Steve could see it moving, see his hands curling and uncurling, the metal fingers reflecting the light. "It's not home if you're not there."
It was like being kicked in the chest. "Bucky..." He swallowed, searching for something to say. "If I'm gone you won't have to fight anymore. I know the only reason you do it is because you're watching my back."
There was a beat of silence. Two.
"Fuck you, Steve. That's my choice. Mine." Bucky had reached a breaking point. "You are taking your sorry ass back to life and you are going to be happy. I've been hauling you out of trouble since we were kids. I remember that much and I am not." Bucky wrapped his hands around Steve's shoulders and shoved him against the wall. Steve didn't try and fight him. "I am not going to stop now."
Steve stared at him and realised his fingers were clutching Bucky's shirt, like they didn't know whether to shove him away or pull him closer. Bucky's face was so close and his eyes were fierce and deep and Steve could see the love in them, the spark of anger.
For a long time, neither of them spoke, the only sound in the room their harsh breathing.
"This is the end of the line, Bucky," Steve said quietly, a strange calmness settling over him. He freed one hand to lay it against Bucky's cheek. Bucky's eyes widened slightly and Steve watched the anger fade.
Steve knew he shouldn't do this, but he also knew he'd never have another chance. He moved the tiny distance necessary to press his mouth to Bucky's and kissed him, the way he'd wanted to for, he wasn't even sure for how long. It was gentle, almost chaste, because he doubted its welcome, but it was the end of the line, his only chance, and he hoped Bucky would forgive him. He was pulling away when Bucky suddenly returned the kiss and Steve couldn't help brushing his thumb against Bucky's cheek and pressing closer.
Then Bucky was stepping away. His face was blank. "You think that's going to work?" Bucky asked.
"I'll give you points for sneaky. I never thought you'd try something like that, but it's still not going to work."
It took Steve a minute to figure it out. "Bucky, no. That's not." He shook his head, heart sinking. "I shouldn't have done it, but this is it. I'm never going to get another chance. So I took it. I'm sorry."
Bucky stared at him, then sighed and ran his right hand through his hair. "Jesus Christ, Steve, you sure do pick your moments. Maybe you should have said something before we died?"
"I guess I should have. But I didn't think..." Steve's smile was rueful, regretful, and he shrugged one shoulder.
"How long?" Bucky's voice was gentle.
"I don't know. I just woke up one day a couple of years ago and realised it was there, that it'd been there for a while."
Bucky held his gaze steadily then smiled and took a step forward. "That was a pretty tame kiss for your last chance. We can do better."
Steve lifted his hand and Bucky stopped. "It's okay, Bucky. You don't have to," he said, returning Bucky's smile. "I'm just glad I got the chance. Thank you. But you don't have to give me anything else."
His smile faded. "Maybe I want to."
"I'm not gonna argue with you about it, Buck. We've got something a bit more important to figure out."
"Yes, if we could get back to the matter at hand," Death's Delegate interjected, only to be met with identical glares. "Fine, never mind me. I'll just sit here while you to continue to make absolutely no progress whatsoever on reaching a decision."
"You do that," Steve told him.
* * *
They wouldn't shut up. Over the past two hours they'd devolved into yelling. With occasional pushing and shoving.
Death's Delegate had a headache. Which was impressive since he didn't technically have a head. He was an anthropomorphic personification. Correction, he was an extremely senior Delegate of an anthropomorphic personification. He didn't have to put up with this. "ENOUGH!" The word had a resonance that vibrated the air and made the walls shake.
It barely got their attention.
"Enough," he repeated. They paused in their fighting to look at him. He'd been Death's Delegate for millennia, long enough to recognise a hopeless cause. "I may have a compromise position to offer." No one would ever look at these case files. His colleagues ran away from him if he tried to discuss these two cases. No one would ever know. And honestly, at this point, he found he no longer cared. He just wanted them gone.
"One of your life threads must be cut," he said, and paused for the inevitable reaction.
"And it's not going to be yours," Bucky growled at Steve, while Steve's lips pinched together and his eyes narrowed.
"As I said, one of your life threads must be cut." He held up a finger to forestall another outburst. "This is highly irregular and completely outside of standard procedure, but it is possible to send you both back sharing the single remaining life. If you're both willing, the cut thread could be spliced into the intact thread."
Bucky was staring at him like he was an idiot. It was highly offensive. "You couldn’t have said that before? We've been arguing about this for a couple of hours now and all this time you could have just done that?"
At some point even an extremely senior Delegate of Death has to abandon professionalism. "No, I couldn't have just done that. Frankly, it's not easy and it's not simple and it's against the rules, but I'm sick to Her of the sight of both of you and if I don't do something we're still going to be stuck in this room when the world ends."
"Bucky," Steve said and placed a hand on his shoulder. Bucky subsided. "Can you really do that?" he asked Death's Delegate.
"And you're willing to do it?"
"If you're both willing to have it done. You have to understand it's not something to be undertaken lightly. You will be permanently linked together."
"Not sure how that's going to be any different than it is now," Bucky muttered.
"When one of you dies the other one will, too. Instantly, with no warning. If one of you is dying, so will the other be," Death's Delegate told him sharply. "You will literally have only one life between the two of you."
Bucky looked at Steve, smiling faintly. "I'll pay that price if Steve gets to live. What do you say, Steve? Want to share a life with me?"
Steve laughed softly and shook his head at Bucky. "If you get to go back? Sounds good to me." He looked at Death's Delegate. "Do it. Do we get to choose whose...?" He trailed off at the look Death's Delegate was giving him.
"And risk another two hour argument? Given both of you will be alive afterwards I'm comfortable making the decision. It's not murder if you both walk away at the end of it."
"Okay," Steve said. "Bucky?"
"Fine with me."
Death's Delegate stood up. The desk and the chairs disappeared.
"Are we going to remember any of this?" Bucky asked. "Or are you going to wave your magic wand and we'll forget everything?"
"It will all be a bit hazy, but you'll remember. At least, you'll remember the important parts, but you won't be able to speak of it to anyone but each other."
The two golden ropes reappeared and the room was fading away. Death's Delegate was changing. The rustle of wings filled the air, the gleam of light on a blade was blinding and...
...Steve's shield spun at impossible angles and deflected the rocket, deflected the gunfire, as if the laws of physics, as if gravity, no longer applied to it.
The moment passed, the pebble bounced harmlessly down the mountain, and they mopped up the remaining mercenaries with ease.
After the fight, there'd been no chance to talk. When they'd returned to the palace, Steve and Bucky had exchanged a long look and then gone their separate ways to get cleaned up.
Neither had needed medical; they didn't have so much as a scratch.
Steve was sitting on his bed, hair still damp from the shower, staring blankly into space. He looked up when his bedroom door opened and closed. Bucky was standing there, wearing the same expression Steve was pretty sure was on his face. "Did it actually happen?" Bucky asked.
"Since you're asking the question and I know what you're talking about, I'm going to say yes."
"Do you think our lives...our life," he corrected, a trace of bemused laughter in his voice, "will ever be normal?"
"Based on everything that's happened up to this point? It's not looking good." Steve smiled ruefully and stood up, walking towards the door. "You doing okay?"
"Considering how things could have turned out? I'm okay."
"Something I'm wondering though."
Steve looked at him questioningly.
"You kissed me, right? I didn't imagine that? Or the rest of it?"
Steve had been half-expecting the question. He stopped, lifted his chin before answering. "No, you didn't imagine it." He sagged a little. "I'm sorry, I shouldn't have—"
Bucky held up a hand to cut him off. "Don't, Steve. Don't apologise," he said. "You never said anything. Two years and you never said anything. Just tell me: were you ever going to?"
Steve looked away. "Probably not," he admitted.
"Why?" Bucky's voice was steady, calm, and Steve shifted his gaze back to him.
"Two reasons. I don't know how much you remember, but back then, back in Brooklyn, in the war, I don't think you were ever interested in fellas," Steve said. "And I didn't want to be," he paused, searching for the right words, "putting more pressure on you that you didn't need."
"So you decided to suffer in silence," Bucky muttered under his breath before asking, "Were you? Interested in fellas."
"It never mattered to me. It was always about the person inside."
"And now you want me?"
There was something in Bucky's eyes, in his voice, Steve couldn't quite identify. For one moment, he was almost afraid to answer. He squared his shoulders. "Yes," he said after taking a deep breath. "I'm in love with you. I've loved you since we were kids, Bucky. I never stopped. I don't know how to stop. This is just an extra layer on top of it, but it doesn't have to chang—"
It was as far as he got because Bucky closed the distance between them, pulled Steve into his arms, and kissed him. It was deep and fierce, and Steve froze for a second, it was so unexpected. But only for a second and then he was returning it with enthusiasm, arms sliding around Bucky's shoulders to hold him close.
When they broke apart, they were both breathless. "Bucky?"
"Maybe back then I could carve love up into little boxes, some for this and some for that. Not sure I remember well enough to know. Now I've got one box and it's got your name on it." He shrugged. "I just love you, pretty much every way you can love someone. You're my everything."
It took Steve's breath away. "I love you," he said and kissed him, soft and sweet, letting his hands slide up Bucky's back to curl into his hair as Bucky pressed closer, and the kiss was still sweet but not so soft and Steve was smiling against Bucky's mouth. "You didn't say anything either," Steve pointed out when the need to breathe got the better of them, dropping his forehead to rest against Bucky's.
"No." Bucky's smile was small and strange. "No. I wasn't even thinking about that. It was enough that I could feel this." He shoved his right fist against his heart, hard enough to bruise, Steve was sure, and he gently caught Bucky's hand and cradled it between his own. "After everything, I could still feel it. Was more than I ever thought I'd have. Anything else...I wasn't even thinking about anything else."
A tangled mix of guilt and fury slid up his spine. Steve pushed them away, locked them down. Bucky didn't need either one. Bucky needed only every good thing Steve could give him. He lifted Bucky's hand, kissed his knuckles one by one. "You're thinking about it now and you can have anything you want."
"You might regret that."
"No I won't." The silence stretched between them, filled with everything they didn't need to say, and Steve brushed a feather light kiss across Bucky's lips. "So if we were both sitting around not saying anything, does that mean we're both idiots?" Steve asked.
"No, pal, just you," Bucky told him, and grinned.
"Such a sweet talker, Buck. You're gonna turn my head," Steve told him and kissed his forehead.
"I'm gonna turn more than that," he promised, catching Steve's face between his hands. They were gentle, but his eyes were intense, full of love and trust and a kind of joy, and Steve couldn't look away. Bucky held his gaze until Steve couldn't breathe, until he thought his heart would beat its way out of his chest, and then Bucky smiled slowly and kissed him.
Without breaking the kiss Bucky walked him backwards across the room until Steve's knees hit the bed. Grinning against his mouth he gave him a gentle shove. As Steve fell backwards, he snagged Bucky's shirt with one hand and Bucky fell with him.
They fell together, and as they fell their laughter was bright and shining, filled with the long ago echoes of two boys from Brooklyn.
Because that's the other thing about once upon a time stories. Sometimes, they're about love. Sometimes they're about a love so strong and so unshakeable it can carve a path through the blood and the death and the deep deep dark.
Sometimes they're about happily ever after.