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A Short Life and a Merry One, My Buck!

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The sound of singing is what draws him to the building. It's an old wood construction, long abandoned and decades past its prime. It's a boy's voice, untrained but surprisingly strong. He can hear it loud and clear from over a block away. There's a frayed edge to it, and Bucky wonders how long the boy has been singing. Hours, most likely. The floor creaks as he steps inside, and he can tell from the way his voice echoes that the boy's somewhere on the upper floors. The stairs are completely rotted through in places. The climb is slow, arduous, and the boy sings on and on.

Bucky hurries up the rest of the way and stops at the floor landing. There's a blond boy lying sprawled on the floor. His voice falters for a moment, and the boy opens his eyes. Blue. Bucky blinks. "You're—"

"Oh, Bucky!" Steve Rogers says brightly and sits up. The air seems to ring in the sudden silence. Bucky can feel the absence of his singing keenly.

It's been a year, Bucky thinks. Steve's started to grow into his face but not by much. All that blond duck fluff on his head makes him look a bit ridiculous. Normally it would start to darken and straighten out, but he's still just as towheaded as ever. That and the blue, blue eyes always calls to mind drawings of cherubs, rosy-cheeked and grinning slyly.

It's odd being here. Seeing Steve Rogers again—Bucky honestly thought he'd dreamt him up in some feverish nightmare. The sweet-faced boy with Old World power living inside him. New York is enormous and wild and all-consuming, and it's filled to the brim with the ancient European mythos borne over the ocean on the backs of immigrants. Maybe it's not so surprising that New York birthed strange magic in someone like Steve.  

And Steve is smiling at him. Like he's genuinely happy to see him. It softens his whole face, crinkles his eyes at the corners, dimples his cheeks, and even his nose scrunches up a bit. It catches Bucky off guard how nice a smile makes him look. "You're here!" Steve says. "I never thought I'd see you again!"

"Me?"

"Yeah! You, Bucky Barnes. Well, I don't know your real name."

"It's always just been Bucky."

"But that's just a nickname," Steve says, rolling his eyes. "Everyone has a true name. And I always find it eventually. If they won't tell me, there are records. A birth certificate. A family history. A past." He leans forward eagerly, staring at Bucky. "But you're really hard to find. There are thousands of Barnes's in New York, and none of them knew you."

"You—went looking for me?"

"Of course! We're friends, aren't we?"

Bucky stares warily at him. He hadn't exactly thought Steve was the kind of person who even thought of something as mundane as friendship. But Steve is staring at him with such wide bright eyes. That hopeful smile is still on his face. "Maybe," Bucky says.

Steve's smile widens, and he flops back on the floor. "I couldn't find you at all, you know. It's like you appeared out of nowhere. You have nothing. You are nothing."

Bucky stiffens. It'd been said thoughtlessly, carelessly, but Steve's words cut to the bone. A dead family. An empty house three states west. He'd come here alone with nothing but his dad's boots and a childhood nickname. "You're right. I'm nothing," Bucky says quietly. That's always been how Steve was. The way he forms words is so deliberate and significant that the world can't help but move itself to match him. Even when he isn't telling the truth, eventually everything around them shifts around until he is.

In the stories of the nuns and priests, God said there would be light, and there was light. Steve Rogers had once said two people would die, and they did. Some animal instinct in Bucky whispers that it will be this boy's voice that brings his death. He feels the knowledge quaking down to the center of his being.

"I can never learn your name," Steve says, but he doesn't sound upset at the thought. He even giggles a little. It's a giddy sound. "Never ever! It's like you were made just for me. One person in the whole world to be my friend."

"Your friend," Bucky says.

"I've been so lonely, you know. Everyone else is so," Steve frowns and stirs the air with his hand, "flat. They're like paper dolls. Even when I don't want them to, they still do what I say. It just never—turns off."

"And people just obey?"

The happiness on Steve's face fades for a moment when he nods. His shoulders hunch, and he curls in on himself a little. It makes him seem small and very much alone.

Bucky takes a tentative step forward and brushes against his shoulder. The dark mood dissipates at his touch, and Steve unfolds to look up at him brightly. "But it doesn't matter," he says. "You're here! And I don't need to be by myself. Not anymore."

He's just so joyful. No one's ever been so happy simply being in Bucky's presence. Not even his family. They couldn't afford the luxury of simple, thoughtless happiness when their small Indiana town was steadily crumbling under the weight of the Depression. It's strange and disconcerting and intoxicating being the center of someone else's world.

"Yeah," Bucky says. "I guess you're not."

Steve steps closer, his face is radiant. He's close enough that Bucky can almost feel the warmth radiating off of him. "You're not going to leave, right? You'll stay with me?" Bucky looks into his eyes, blue like the thin strip of sky between buildings.

"Alright," he says.

 


 

Bucky groans and pushes himself up from the ground to lean against the wall. His whole body is one mass of pain, but he carefully sorts out each hurt to take stock of his situation. There's blood and dirt gritting between his teeth, and his chest pulls painful every time he draws breath. He presses a hand against his side and winces. Tenderness and some swelling. He hopes his ribs are just bruised and not fractured. Bucky glances down at his chest to check for discoloration and goes pale when he sees his left hand. It's blood and bone and barely recognizable as a palm with five fingers attached. Christ, the sonuvabitch must've stomped on it after Bucky passed out.

He considers trying to stand up and stagger home, but just the thought of it makes him feel dizzy. Black begins to edge his vision. Steve had been telling him to quit his job for months now, and Bucky knew he probably should've. But it'd been too good of a gig to pass up. He works from 3 AM to 9 AM unloading and hauling fish for a vendor at the Fulton Fish Market. The pay was good, it opened up his afternoons for odd jobs around Brooklyn, and he came home smelling only a little bit like fish.

But it's been getting more and more dangerous working in the area recently. The mafia has been steadily staking their claim on the Fulton Market, and they've started pressuring vendors to pay Mob-owned companies to unload their trucks. Mr. Johnson is a stubborn old coot who's rumored to have been around since the Market's founding over a hundred years ago. He and Bucky don't have enough common sense between them to know when to quit. It was only a matter of time before the Mob decided to deal with them more personally. Bucky groans as a fresh wave of pain washes through him. He hopes the old man is still alive.

This is a bad place to be injured, and Bucky's far from home. A trolley ride across the Brooklyn Bridge, four elevated line stops, and three blocks of walking. He lets his head fall back against the alley wall. It'll be hours before the sun rises. He closes his eyes.

Gravel crunches under someone's boot. They pause for a moment after catching sight of him. Not one of the Mob then. Bucky makes a gruesome sight now, but mobsters don't hesitate. He opens his eyes and peers up at the man standing over him. He's scuffed and worn around the edges in a way that suggests he's from the rougher boroughs. Maybe he lives near Bucky's neighborhood. It's hard to see his face in the darkness, but his expression seems oddly composed. Bucky knows he doesn't make much of a pretty picture at the moment.

"Hey," the man says, "You okay?" There's a flat scripted quality to his voice that is disconcerting. It sounds like he's reading a passage out of some dry textbook.

"Doing alright, all things considered."

The man nods. "I should get you home."

"I'd really appreciate that. Thanks," Bucky says. There's something decidedly off about the man, but he really needs the help right now. He won't be able to make it back otherwise. "Not many people wandering around this area at this time of night. Didn't think anyone would find me till the sun was up."

"Guess so." Ambiguous. Noncommittal. He's a hard fellow to read.

The man heaves Bucky up, and for a moment, his vision whites out with pain. He gasps, and they tip over a little. Bucky stumbles a few steps and sags against the wall. "Hey, watch the hand, would ya?"

"Right."

The man pulls Bucky up again, and they make slow hobbling progress to the mouth of the alley and out into the streets. Lower Manhattan had been hit just as hard as everywhere else, but it still has things like electric streetlights and clean-swept streets. There're some guys lugging buckets of fish and ice, but they don't have the slicked back polish of mobsters. Bucky even recognizes one of them. Malone stares wide-eyed and pale at the two of them. Bucky sends him an abashed smile before remembering he's still got blood on his teeth. It doesn't take a genius to figure out what happened to Bucky and why. Malone ducks his head and hurries off.

"So you work around here or something? Usually the only guys you see at this time of day are fish haulers and the Mob. And you don't seem like either."

"I don't work here," the man says and doesn't elaborate further.

They make it all the way to the Brooklyn Bridge trolley before Bucky finally breaks. "You're an odd fella, you know that?"

"I never thought about it."

"What's your name?"

The man's stride stutters before smoothing out. Bucky peers at his expression, which is—complicated to say the least. Reluctant and wary with a dull edge of rage underneath. It's the most amount of emotion the man has displayed so far. He would have an expressive face if he were a friendlier man, Bucky thinks. Thick brows, crows feet at the corners of his eyes, and a mouth that looks like it once smiled easily. This uncanny blankness doesn't match at all.

"Morris," the man says eventually.

He's very careful about it, picking through his syllables in that deliberate way Steve always says names. Not an introduction but rather an invocation. Names hold their own power—Bucky's never forgotten it since meeting Steve, but he's never met anyone else who's just as conscious of this. Bucky studies Morris's face. The trolley clatters around them, and the East River passes by below. He imagines he can feel the cold and damp underneath their feet seeping into his bones.

"How did you know I lived in Brooklyn?"

The man blinks.

"I didn't say where I was from," Bucky continues. "But you knew."

Morris doesn't meet Bucky's eyes. He'd introduced himself with only a first name, deliberately withholding his surname. No one who's ever met Steve is careless with names.

"You know him, don't you?" Bucky says and feels Morris stiffen against his side. "You know Steve."

The trolley pulls to a stop, jostling Bucky's hand. He shudders as the pain rolls through him anew. Morris is much more careful about helping him walk now. They cross over to the elevated line station and board. The streets of Brooklyn are a familiar sight, and he feels the tension in his shoulders begin to release. Bucky breathes out a sigh.

"So that's his name. Steve Rogers." Morris tests out the name, how it feels in his mouth. "I've only known him as Rogers." His voice is strained, his mouth tight. As if he wants to say more, but he can't. Maybe it's impossible.

"He sent you to find me," Bucky says slowly, and he feels horror leech the warmth from his body. "But he didn't ask, did he?"

Morris's jaw clamps down, and the tendons on his neck stand out. He looks incandescently angry for a brief instant, before the emotion is wiped clean. He doesn't say a word. They ride the El in silence.

Steve is a good person, but Bucky remembers how he used to talk about how other people don't quite seem real. It scared the hell out of him. Steve doesn't say those things anymore, but Bucky still thinks about it. He's always wondered where the boundaries lie for Steve. In a way, he's always felt responsible for him. When Steve strays too far, Bucky's the only one who can pull him back.

All the things that Steve could be doing behind his back, and Bucky had just gone on as if nothing was wrong. It's a bitter pill to swallow. Bucky's the only person Steve's got in the world, and in a lot of ways, the reverse is true too. He digs his right hand into his knee and hisses in a breath. Really, he'd just been fooling himself the whole time.

Morris casts a look at him. "You didn't know."

"No."

"You didn't want this."

"Of course not!" Bucky snaps out.

"But he did this for you," Morris says.

Bucky shudders. It's disturbing how easily he can imagine it. Steve is uncompromising in so many ways, but he would bend for Bucky. He always has. If Bucky asked, Steve would kill for him. Everyday Bucky walked into Mob territory, and Steve would drive himself crazy with worry. He would justify it to himself. Borrowing one life for the sake of another's, and to Steve, Bucky has always been much more important in the grand scheme of things.

"Yes. He did."

"I see." Morris slows to a stop, and Bucky looks up at his apartment building. "I would leave you here, but he insisted that I bring you the full way."

"I'm sorry."

Morris sighs and tugs Bucky inside. "It's not like you had a choice. No one does with him."

They both pause to wince at the prospect of climbing two flights of stairs before starting the long arduous climb. Bucky pants and leans heavily into Morris's side. His ribs are aching something fierce, and his left hand has gone completely numb. A bad sign if there ever was one. But they do eventually reach the landing of Bucky's floor.

"He's awfully protective of you. What does he make you do for him?"

"He never learned my name."

" What? "

Bucky shrugs. "It's why he keeps me around. He probably won't ever figure it out."

Morris goes quiet. They're finally in front of Bucky's room, and he wants nothing more than to collapse into bed. He fumbles his key out, but the door swings open before he even gets it into the lock. Steve's face goes white as a sheet when he catches sight of Bucky.

"You're hurt."

Bucky rolls his eyes with a huff and gingerly shoulders past Steve to lie on the couch. "Like you didn't already know that. Isn't that why you sent Morris after me?"

" Bucky, how could I've—"

"You mean you didn't tell Morris to come after me because you heard I got jumped by the Mob. Then how did he—" Bucky looks at Morris standing in the doorway. His hands have started to flex. That anger is back in his expression. "You told him to follow me. How long?"

Steve comes to hover at Bucky's side, his hands fluttering uncertainly over his body. He looks pained, but Bucky is past caring about Steve's comfort. "You gotta understand. I only did it because I was worrie—"

" How long? " Bucky snaps.

Steve closes his mouth and looks away.

The answer comes from Morris. "Almost a year," he says lowly. "Ten months, thirteen days."

Bucky closes his eyes and lets the shudder run through his whole body. Almost a year. "Christ, what the fuck were you thinking, Steve?"

"I was trying to keep you safe!"

"I never wanted this," Bucky snarls. "This is monstrous."

Steve reels back like he'd been hit. His eyes go big, and he almost seems to crumple in on himself. Bucky refuses to be swayed. This is wrong. He can feel it tearing at his skin. The disgust and loathing at what Steve has become for his sake.

"I had no choice," Steve says quietly. "You wouldn't listen to me."

"Well, too bad you can't control me like everyone else."

A shudder runs through Steve, and he slowly sinks to his knees. He looks up at Bucky beseechingly. "I never wanted to control you."

"But you're fine with controlling Morris. Like you said, he doesn't matter. He doesn't need his freedom. You're perfectly happy to tread on everyone in the world because they're not real to you."

Steve's voice is small when he says, "I'm sorry."

"Let him go, Steve." The anger is draining out of Bucky, and all he can feel is exhaustion.

"What?"

"Let Morris go. He's been trapped long enough."

Steve stares at him for a long moment before nodding, tight and sharp. He turns to Morris, who's still standing in the doorway. He's not looking at either of them. Instead, Morris's gaze is trained on the old baseball bat leaning on the wall closest to him. There's so much longing in his expression. "You can go now," Steve says.

The change is slow and subtle. A loosening in his shoulders, and his face relaxes into a more natural expression. He takes a deep breath. "It's been so long," Morris whispers.

He takes a step forward. Bucky says, "I'm sorry. If I'd known…"

"No, I understand," Morris says and takes another step forward. His hand closes on the handle of the bat. Morris lets out a snarl and jumps forward, swinging the bat. Steve falls back and brings his arms up to shield his face. The bones in his right arm snap audibly. He collapses with a cry.

"I've imagined this for months," Morris hisses.

Bucky hauls himself from the couch and staggers over to Steve's side. He's almost nauseous with pain. "Morris," he gasps out. "I understand that he hurt you. But he shouldn't have to die for it."

Morris barks out a laugh. "You would protect him even after hearing what he did? I should've known." He raises the bat over his head, intent on Bucky.

"Morris Davidson." He flinches back at the sound of his name in Steve's voice. His eyes widen with fear. "Stop."

It's a chilling sight. The way every muscle in his body freezes instantly. He doesn't even look like he's breathing. And now Bucky understands why Steve had always been so careful not to do this in front of him. It's horrifying watching the control drain out of a person. That disturbing flatness has returned to Morris's expression. Morris makes a terrified sound when Steve painfully picks himself up. His arm is bent at a sickening angle. He pants heavily as he clutches it close to his chest. Steve walks up to Morris, leans into his space, and murmurs something in his ear.

Morris closes his eyes and sobs out a breath. The bat rises again and swings down, landing with a sickening crunch. The wood snaps. Morris collapses. Bucky gags at the sight of blood and tissue and wooden splinters and shards of skull bone. He turns away, barely tamping down the nausea. Steve watches on, pale-faced but impassive.

"What the hell is wrong with you? "

Steve stares down at Morris's body. His breathing has turned rough and uneven. "He would've killed the both of us. You didn't even do anything, but he didn't care."

"You could've just told him to leave!"

"He would've come back. He would've hunted us down."

"Because of what you did to him," Bucky snarls. "You stole a man from his life. You forced him to obey your whims, and then you killed him."

"It doesn't matter," Steve snaps. "He doesn't matter. I only care about you, Bucky."

"I wish you didn't." Steve stares at him, quivering. "I wish you didn't give a damn about me. I wish you didn't have anyone you cared about enough to kill for."

"You don't want to be with me. You want me to be alone." His cheeks are flushed, and he looks dazed. Almost feverish. There's a glazed light in his eyes. His whole body is wracked with shudders.

"If it keeps you from killing people for my sake, then yes. I wish the only person you had in the world was yourself."

Steve goes cold and very still. The color in his cheeks recedes. That delirious look on his face fades, leaving frigid lucidity. And Bucky understands for the first time why Morris had been so afraid of him. This is a strange and terrible Steve, one that Bucky has never seen before. But it settles into his skin so easily that he can't help but wonder if this is the face he presents to the world when Bucky isn't around.

"Well, what're you waiting for?" Steve hisses. The sound of his voice sends shivers down Bucky's spine. "It'll be so easy. After all, I only need a name."

Bucky falters. "You—want my name?"

"It ties everything up neatly, doesn't it? I'll be alone, and you don't have to worry about what I do anymore. I'll make sure of it."

And for a moment, Bucky considers it. It really would be easy. Surrendering. But the things Steve could make him do. "No."

"No?"

"You can't have my name. Not ever."

Steve studies him for a long moment before smiling, slow and deadly. "Careful, Barnes. I might take that as a challenge."

 


 

Bucky wakes to the sound of his window sliding open. He rolls out of his bed in an instant and tucks himself into the corner by his bedroom door. It was the living room window. The latch is easy to force open, and the fire escape provides easy access from the street level. He shifts his weight to the balls of his feet and drops his center of gravity low. From the next room, he can hear the barest rustle of clothing on skin.

He strikes as a shadow falls over the doorway. The other man drops quickly with a grunt, and Bucky pins his hands to the ground before stopping abruptly. In the streetlight streaming in through the window, he can make out the impression of a too small nose, hooded eyes, and thin lips. His body is similar enough but a little too broad.

Bucky snarls a curse and is just a hair too slow in dodging as a weight slams into him. He stills when the cold press of a knife slides against his neck. Steve is above him, smiling hungrily, his eyes unnaturally bright in the darkness.

"I was in the neighborhood, so I thought I'd drop in."

"Fuck you, Rogers."

"Here I thought I was your oldest friend, and you welcome me like this? I'm hurt. Truly hurt."

The very idea of them being something resembling friends is so absurd, Bucky snorts audibly. "If we're friends, I don't want to know how you treat your enemies."

"Enemies?" Steve cocks his head, smiling with bemusement. "I don't have enemies. There are boring people, and then, there's you and me. That's all there is in the world."

"People aren't your toys."

"But they're always so happy to listen to what I have to say. Isn't that right, Jack?" The man besides them wakes with a low moan. He starts to thrash and howl. "Smile, Jack!" Steve says. The man's mouth stretches back into some horrific facsimile of a smile. It's unsettlingly wide, like looking at a man's face with his skin rotted and peeling back from his teeth. Bucky can see the whites of his eyes at the man stares at him beseechingly. "See? Look how happy he is."

"You're sick, Rogers."

"Don't be like that, Bucky. Jack is a very friendly man. He told me all sorts of things about his life, and I didn't even have to ask for him to give me his name. Jack Duffy." The man convulses at the sound of his name then stiffens, that terrible ghoulish smile still fixed on his face. "I wanted to introduce you two. You'd be such good friends. Introduce yourself."

"I am—Jack Duffy."

"Very good," Steve says.

Bucky glares at him.

"You know, it's only polite to respond when people introduce themselves to you."

"And this game of yours is getting old."

Steve pauses contemplatively and nods. "You're right. It's been so boring recently. I actually came here because I wanted to try something new today."

Bucky stiffens. "Don't—"

In an instant, Steve tosses the knife to the side and adjusts his grip, so he has Bucky thoroughly pinned underneath him. Bucky struggles, but to no avail. Steve may have always been the lighter and thinner of the two of them, but he's long since learned how to leverage his weight to his advantage. "Pick up the knife, Jack Duffy. Let's play a different game."

With slow, jerky movements, the man sits up and reaches to pick up the discarded knife. His breath comes out hiccuping and uneven. He begins to weep silently, and yet, that awful smile is still there.

"I told Jack Duffy about you, you know. We talked all about the people who were most important to us, and I told him about you. My pal, my buddy, my Bucky. Nothing else matters but you. Jack and I are kindred spirits actually. He told me that his wife was the same way to him. When he's with her, everything else simply ceases to exist."

The man chokes out a sob and tries to drive the knife into his own chest. "Stop," Steve says. The blade freezes, pressed into his shirt. A patch of red slowly spreads. "Anyway, it got me thinking. What's the weight of a life—two lives? Surely, it's worth a single measly name."

"Don't you dare—"

"Jack Duffy, ple—" Steve starts to say and cuts off abruptly when Bucky surges up, drives their mouths together. It'd been a desperate reckless action, and Steve's clearly caught just as off guard by it as Bucky is. And it's not often that Bucky manages to get the drop on him. Steve's grip on his arms slackens for a single critical instant, and Bucky exploits it ruthlessly, flipping the both of them over.

Steve stares up at him, blue eyes so wide, the whites flash in the dark. And for a moment, he looks almost—normal. Tousled and flushed and surprised like a boy learning something new about a friend he'd known half his life. He looks young, and so very much like the teenager he should've been. It makes Bucky's chest seize and ache. Perhaps they really would've been friends in some other life.

Then Steve's eyes slide over to the side where the man is still holding the knife poised just above his heart. He opens his mouth. Bucky curses, both of his hands are occupied with restraining Steve. For the second time that night, he pushes their mouths together.

Without the haze of panic to distract him, Bucky slowly begins to register his surroundings. To his right, the man's breathing is loud and erratic as he stares at the bizarre picture the two of them make. But he's still alive, and that's the most important part. Below him, Steve has stopped pressing up against Bucky's grip, his breathing becoming disturbingly soft and even. Bucky opens his eyes, but Steve's face is too close to read his expression. His eyes are narrowed slightly as if he's calculating his options, weighing new previously unforeseen factors.

Bucky can feel Steve's eyelashes brush against his cheek when he blinks. He shivers at the sensation without thinking. An eyebrow raises. His reaction hadn't gone unnoticed. Steve's closed mouth pressed against his slackens minutely, and Bucky registers that his lips are oddly soft. Warm. Surprisingly, it's not—unpleasant. He feels heat creep across his face. Steve smiles, predatory.

He moves slowly, deliberately, pressing his chest flush against Bucky's, sliding a leg down his thigh. The flush is full force and steadily spreading down to his chest, but Bucky bears it resolutely. The press of something warm and wet against his lips is a shock. He exhales, sharp and surprised, and Steve takes the opportunity to push his tongue into his mouth.

A low groan escapes. It's too fast and too much all at once, and Bucky can barely focus enough to keep holding on. Though, Steve seems perfectly content to remain pinned against the floor. He works steadily into Bucky's mouth, methodically dragging new and more embarrassing noises out. A half-formed idea takes shape in the back of his mind. He can't force people to obey if he doesn't have a—Bucky bites down on Steve's tongue hard. There's the sick metallic taste of blood, but Steve simply snarls and bites back.

In that instant, Bucky realizes that he'd miscalculated. Badly. This being his first everything. Not for lack of interest—he's certainly had his fair share of admirers. But he's not an idiot. He's not about to expose some poor dame to Steve's tender mercies just because he needed to blow off some steam. But Steve's clearly had no such qualms experimenting however he pleases. It's clear that he knows what he wants and exactly how to get it.

Another shift of Steve's hips, a flick of his tongue. Bucky closes his eyes and moans. He doesn't know how long it's been, and he doesn't know how long he can withstand this systematic onslaught. He wills his muscles to move, slowly pushing Steve's arms above his head. Bucky carefully gauges his reaction, but Steve almost seems to enjoy the rough scrape of his skin against the floor. Eventually Steve's wrists are close enough together for Bucky to keep them pinned down with one hand.

He pulls back, panting. With a little distance, Steve's expression is—hungry. His eyes are dark, his lips bruised, and blood is smeared across his skin. Bucky presses his hand firmly against Steve's mouth. Only then does he allow himself a moment to catch his breath. He sags forward to gulp in great lungfuls of air and slowly his composure returns.

Bucky straightens up and turns to look to his right. Steve stiffens as the realization hits him. "Unless he specifies a time limit, his control lasts for eight minutes after he gives an order. He doesn't have a hold on you if you can't hear him," Bucky says to the man. "You'll be able to leave once his control releases you. The front door unlocks from the inside."

The man's eyes are wide and filled with animal terror, but he nods mutely. The hand holding the knife is shaking. He looks at Bucky with just as much fear as he does Steve. Perhaps for good reason, he realizes. Blood trickling out of his mouth, down his chin, dripping onto the collar of his shirt. And he just kissed and pinned down the boy who was about to order the man to kill first his wife and then himself. It makes Bucky feel so tired suddenly. Him and Steve—they're quite the pair of monsters.

"I'm sorry," Bucky says. "You might have to leave town. Warn anyone you mentioned to Steve to do the same. He likes to hold grudges."

Steve snarls and thrashes underneath him. But Bucky has always been the larger and heavier and stronger one, even if most of the time, he doesn't feel like it. The minutes trickle by with Steve alternating between brief violent struggle and unnervingly long periods of stillness. Bucky's unspeakably glad that he can't hear the muffled words under his hand.

The moment Steve's control dissipates is dramatic. The man slumps forward abruptly, dropping the knife with a sob. He quickly scrambles to his feet and runs for the door. It slams open on its hinges, and he hesitates to turn back and meet Bucky's eyes. For a bare instant, his face is filled with such gratitude before he's gone. Bucky keeps looking at the open doorway, listening to the sound of footsteps clattering down the stairs and then into the streets. He only turns back when he can't hear anything at all.

Steve is looking up at him with a considering light in his eyes, and Bucky realizes that he's introduced a new dangerous element into this war of theirs.

 


 

He feels the exhaustion creep under his skin even after waking. The ache is in his bones. Bucky stares at the back of Steve's neck, counting the knobs of his spine all the way down to his tailbone. His ribs jut out, and his skin is pulled tight at the peaks and joints of his body. It strikes Bucky as strange that Steve looks so gaunt when he could command the world to feed him. But Bucky supposes that's just how he is. All of New York at his feet, and he’s steadily wasting away. A man starving in front of a feast.

Bucky has given Steve his life, his friendship, his love, his hatred, his body—everything but his name. And yet Steve is still hungry. It's a slow poison. This urge to give more and more when he asks, and Steve never stops asking. He can feel it crawl through his veins as he’s slowly sucked dry. Steve never realized just how much of a hold he has over Bucky even without a name.

So much of himself has been drained out that he feels like pieces of a person. There are few things that he could ever really deny Steve, and he knows one day, even that will dwindle down to nothing. It's only a matter of time before he has Bucky's name.

Steve sighs in his sleep and shifts, and Bucky looks at the paleness of his neck. It's slender, the skin thin enough to see his pulse fluttering. It's easy to forget that he's human most days, but in this moment, Steve is inescapably mortal. Bucky presses a hand against the base of Steve's throat, just above the collarbone. His skin is warm and soft. Bucky can feel his body shift with each breath, a steady rhythm. He slides his hand further up.

It would be easy, he thinks. Killing Steve. All he really needs is pressure against a vulnerable neck. His bones would snap, the breath would leave him, and Bucky would be free. He presses down more firmly, and Steve huffs out a quiet noise. He imagines a life without this incessant paranoia and fear. His heart would beat slow and steady. Nothing would be able to move it to frenzy—a lifetime with Steve has made all other fears blunted.

Without Steve, he has a whole life to live. Without Steve, he has the entirety of New York to witness and feel and taste—and no one to share it with. And isn't that the clincher? Without Steve, Bucky has nothing. He has no one. He truly is nothing.

For a single blinding moment, he despises Steve with every fiber of his being. The Steve who has slowly molded the shapes of their lives until neither can survive without the other. A Bucky without Steve is lesser—a nothing person. And he has no illusions of what a Steve without Bucky would become. He would be too much monster, too much humanity trapped inside his skin. Even now, it's barely contained, a full pitcher slopping water over the rim.

Bucky sighs and releases Steve's throat, letting his hand slide down to his bare chest. He's just so exhausted. As the days draw on, he can feel the edges of his sanity being steadily worn down to nothing. Steve speaks, and the world shifts to match his will. Even Bucky can't resist him forever, and he's taken to wondering if there's any point to enduring any more.

Steve stirs under his hand, but he always wakes slowly. It gives Bucky time to carefully tuck his thoughts into a dark corner of his mind. He can't afford uncertainties with Steve, conscious and alert. A hand slides over the planes of Bucky's stomach. A clear invitation. He shuffles back and slips out of bed, shivering as the early morning air chills his skin. Steve sighs. "You only accept when you're trying to stop me."

"It's not exactly something I enjoy."

Steve huffs out a laugh and rolls onto his back. The fine hairs on his legs shine gold in the sunlight from the window. His hipbones cast sharp shadows. Bucky looks away. "Liar," Steve says. "And don't you know you're not supposed to reward bad behavior? You should try it when I've been good instead."

"I'm not stupid enough to think you'd stop."

Steve juts out his lower lip in a ridiculous imitation of a pout. "You used to actually like me. I miss the days when we were friends."

"And you used to avoid using your voice on other people," Bucky snaps back. "I guess neither of us ended up getting what we wanted."

"Touchy, touchy. I haven't killed anyone since then, you know." Steve sucks on his teeth and slides out of bed, crowding into Bucky's space.

"Not for lack of trying. Don't think I haven't noticed that your control is lasting longer. You've been practicing when I'm not around to stop you."

"Hmm, I'm almost up to ten minutes. You'll just have to keep me distracted longer." Steve grins wolfishly.

Bucky pushes a groping hand away. "You're a sick bastard."

Steve sighs. "You never let me forget it." The warm body pressed into his side draws away, and Bucky studies his face. Steve studiously avoids meeting his gaze. He stares at some point on the wall, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. His shoulders hunch. For an instant, Steve looks almost—vulnerable. "It's not like you'd give a damn about me if I didn't scare you. You would've left a long time ago." His eyes glint with a hard light. "But I'll take what I can get."

"I wouldn't leave if you stopped." Bucky scrubs a hand against his face. "I don't think I could."

"Liar." Steve flashes a bitter smile and steps away.

He picks his way around the bedroom, collecting his clothes from the floor. From this distance, Bucky can pick out every detail. The cold pebbling his skin, the little hairs on the nape of his neck, and the jut of a too-sharp collarbone. He looks up at the flicker of pale lashes to see that Steve is watching him back. He's still fully nude, holding his shirt just away from his body. White cotton against flushed skin. There's that hunger in his eyes again.

"If I asked, would you give me everything?" Steve murmurs, cocking his head to the side. The shirt drops to the floor.

Bucky spreads his hands and gives him a pained smile. "I don't have much more to give."

"No. You know that's not true."

"Everything but that."

"I don't ask for much," Steve says.

He suddenly feels so weary. They've been acting these scenes out for years, and the end still isn't in sight. Steve always asking the same questions, and Bucky will never say anything but no. He feels like the fools of old myths. Too prideful and too stubborn to give in, so they're cursed with endless impossible tasks. The stone will roll back down the mountain. The pool will drain itself before he can fill it. He will never reach water. He will always be hungry.

And over the course of millennia, his resistance will erode ever so slowly until he is nothing but a pair of obedient hands and a willing body. Bucky draws in a breath and feels the weight of it in his lungs. There's a buzzing in his ears. "It won't ever end, will it?"

"Of course, it will." Steve is still looking at him, and Bucky remembers that he is also bare-skinned. He fights down the urge to blush. It would only give Steve another foothold to latch onto, and Bucky's long past the point of modesty anyway. "You will die one day. More importantly, I will be the one to kill you. I won't give anyone else the pleasure."

"I know. I've known since the beginning," Bucky says, closing his eyes then opening them slowly. The buzzing is louder now. He can barely hear himself talk. The edges of his vision have gone soft and staticky, like dead air on the radio. He feels like he's drifting.

"All I ask for is a name. What can I do to you that's worse than death?" Steve says it lightly. A joke with no expectation for a response. Bucky can barely hear it over the murmurs and roars in his ears. Still, he considers it seriously. Because what hasn't Steve already done to him? What difference does one name truly make? He can't remember why he's still resisting.

Steve turns around and finally slips on his shirt. Bucky watches his fingers steadily work their way up the ladder of buttons, and he only feels numbness. He barely registers it when Steve steps in front of him and places a hand on Bucky's cheek, thumb resting just beneath his eye. He's fully clothed now, and Bucky wonders just how much time he's lost.

"You look tired." A voice says, tinny and distant. "When was the last time you slept?"

Years, Bucky thinks. Centuries. He's been trapped here for almost a millennia.

"Come on. Go back to sleep." A warm hand pushes him until he's lying down. He looks up at a blurry impression of gold and spots of blue. "Sleep."

Bucky obeys.

 


 

"One good day," Steve had said. "That's all I ask for. Aren't you tired of fighting?"

Bucky knew better than to think this is simply the end. A temporary ceasefire. Detente. Two foes laying down their weapons to have one peaceful meal together. The brief lull before the storm picks back up and tears through the countryside. But he was too exhausted to say anything but yes.

A few months ago, maybe he would've suspected this was some sort of scheme. Steve is a canny and clever opponent, and Bucky had learned through painful experience to never take his words at face value. But Steve has been almost careful with Bucky recently. He knows Steve's started to notice. He's been losing hours. Sometimes days. He would drift back into the recesses of his mind. And when he opens his eyes again, he realizes he's lost time. It could be the lack of sleep. It could be self-defense. It could be his brain making its final farewells before finally cracking. Maybe he's already cracked up.

So Bucky lets himself enjoy a little, and Steve seems to be making a genuine effort. He bribes the super into letting them go onto the roof. He doesn't once use the super's name, even though they both know he could. It's almost evening by the time they make it up, but it's early enough into fall for the nights to still be warm. Steve brings an old quilt for them to sit on. The sun takes its sweet time sinking below the horizon. All around them the city lights flicker on one by one as people settle in for the night. Soon the street lamps follow suit. Steve shuffles beside him and lets out a small sighed breath.

Bucky looks up at the sky instead of Steve. The moon is a skinny yellow thing hanging just above their heads. He sees some clouds but no stars, and he thinks of home. Not the cramped apartment three floors beneath their feet. The sky was full to the brim in Indiana. He hadn't realized just how much it kept him oriented until he came to New York and found nothing in the sky but smoke and electric light. He's never quite felt grounded since then.

There's a pressure building behind his eyes. He blinks rapidly and focuses his attention elsewhere. While Bucky was looking up, Steve was looking down. He's leaning up against the edge of the roof, peering at the people in the streets. There's the sound of conversation. Pedestrians weave between buildings, and occasionally a shout or a startled laugh rises above the din. A woman leans out her window to air out her sheets, pauses, and waves at the two of them. Steve waves back. When he catches Bucky staring at him, he shrugs and says, "I can be polite sometimes. No point in being rude."

Bucky catches glimpses of people as they walk past their windows, going about their lives. A couple dancing to silent music, a man lighting a cigarette, a little girl peeking through the grate of a fire escape. The night is pleasantly warm and peaceful, but Bucky still can't quite seem to shake his dark mood. He can feel a strange ache coiling in his chest, just under his breastbone.

Steve leans into Bucky's side, and with a happy little smile, he reaches out to press their hands together. Bucky feels the ridges of his knuckles, the dip between his thumb and index finger, his blunt-edged nails, his wrist bone. Steve hums tunelessly, presses a quick kiss into the side of his neck. It's a thoughtless gesture that speaks volumes of intimacy and comfort, and it's too much. Neither of them deserves this tenderness, and Bucky doesn't want it in the first place. Not when tomorrow will come, and they'll be back to how they were before. Only it'll be so much worse because Bucky will have this memory of almost.

He feels it swelling inside him. The longing for something gentler and sweeter swept up into an all-encompassing anger. He knows Steve's game now. Dangle this in front of Bucky, close enough to touch yet always out of reach. Make him yearn for it. And Bucky knows himself well enough to know it would work. He would chase after Steve. He would beg. He would be so pliant—dare he say, obedient.

And Bucky should've known. Steve had used anything and everything against him, but Bucky never thought Steve would use his affection against him. It was slow-growing, unavoidable, but it never went acknowledged. Bucky was perfectly content to silently nurse his disorderly feelings like an infected wound. And then Steve went and dragged them out into the open to take advantage of them. Bucky flexes his hands.

"Bucky." He blinks back into awareness and sees the stained walls of their apartment. They’re back inside, and he doesn’t even remember walking back. He's lost time. Again. "What's wrong?"

Bucky stares at Steve, who has the gall to look concerned. And he can only wonder how long Steve has been working for this. Which touches and glances were staged, which expressions were fabricated. Just how much of this strange emotion locked in Bucky's throat was planted there with the right word at the right time. Steve had always made it clear he wasn't afraid of hurting Bucky to get what he wanted. Always hungering for what he shouldn't have.

Fine.

If Steve wants to be the only one in his cold little world so badly, Bucky isn't going to begrudge him any longer. He doesn't care anymore.

"James."

Steve blinks at him, tilting his head in that infuriatingly appealing way of his. "What?"

"It's James. My name. James Barnes. What the hell, I'll toss in a middle name too. It's Buchanan."

A thrill of sadistic joy runs through him at the sight of the blood draining from Steve's face. His expression when the enormity of Bucky's statement sinks in. "You—why?"

"It's what you always wanted, wasn't it?" Bucky bares his teeth into a smile. Steve flinches back.

"Yes—no. I never thought—"

"Never thought you'd actually get what you wanted, huh? Never considered what it would mean."

"I—" Steve is shaking, the shudders wracking through his entire body. His hands open and close into fists. The color is returning to his face. Red blotches his cheeks.

Bucky leans in close and hisses, "You're on your own now, Stevie. I'm just another paper doll for you to play house with."

"Why? "

"I'm so goddamned tired. I'm tired of you fucking with my head, and I'm tired of being scared shitless all the time." Bucky opens his arms and says, "Congratulations Steve, you won. And now you don't got anyone else left."

The flush is higher in Steve's cheeks. His spine is rigid, and he finally looks like he's working himself up into a fury. "You're leaving me behind. You want this."

"I do," Bucky snarls.

"You—"

"What're you gonna do? Kill me?"

"Don't tempt me."

"Go ahead. Do it. You'll be well and truly alone then."

The rage in Steve—Bucky can almost physically feel it rolling off of him in waves. It makes him seem enormous. He fills the room with the sheer force of his presence, and Bucky can feel the air almost quiver with this all-consuming wrath. And Bucky savors every moment of it. Even now, he feels himself drawn towards Steve. That intensity and brilliance—he's always gotten too drunk too quickly on it. Moths and flames. Wax wings and the sun. It's almost over now anyway. He can see the end. Bucky smiles.

And then Steve goes cold. The oppressive anger evaporates, and Bucky feels a sharp spike of fear. He's only ever seen Steve get like this once before, and that was when—

"Alright. Fine," Steve says. "You want me to use your name. I'll use it then."

Bucky eyes Steve warily. The power balance has shifted abruptly, and Steve holds all the cards now. "James Buchanan Barnes," he says, and Bucky feels every part of his being pull towards Steve. It's like someone grabbed fistfuls of his soul and yanked. Steve's voice curls around him, heady and irresistible. He feels it tug him a step forward, and he would do anything to please that voice, to listen to it lilt with approval.

"Pick up the knife."

Bucky wonders why anyone had ever been afraid of that voice. It spreads calm through his limbs like a warm bath. He's never experienced peace like this. After a lifetime of struggle and fear, surrender tastes so very sweet. He greets it like an old friend, a lover. Bucky's eyelids flutter, and he sighs softly. The heft and weight of the knife in his hand is oddly comforting. Another hand—Steve's hand—touches his and gently guides it up.

"You're staying with me. I won't let you leave. This is my last order to you," Steve murmurs and goes quiet for a long time. Bucky peers at him. The wrinkle in his brow. The downturn of his lips. Before Bucky can ask why, the voice dips back down into that enthralling purr, and he's gone again.

"Cut out my tongue."

And Bucky obeys. Warmth runs down his hand and wrist in rivulets. Steve looks up with those big blue eyes, and Bucky smiles at him. He really is beautiful, and Bucky doesn't know why he never gave himself the luxury of admiring Steve. The blond hair framing his face. The freckles on his forehead. Pale skin, and his lips are so, so red. Eventually, Steve returns Bucky's smile. His teeth are red too. Bucky frowns. The red has spread, trickling down his neck, staining the white of his shirt.

Steve's control snaps.

And Bucky stumbles back, a horrified sound trapped in his throat. "Steve."

Steve's still smiling at him, wide and genuine. It crinkles the corners of his eyes and pulls at his cheeks. Blood on his teeth. His breathing is wet and slightly uneven. He brings his hands up to cradle Bucky's face between them. There's blood everywhere, warm and slick and spreading, and Steve looks so serene. "Why would you—? You're tongue, it's—" He gasps out, and he can't breathe. There's not enough air, he can't breathe, he doesn't understand. He can't breathe.

Steve leans forward and presses his mouth against his, and Bucky tastes blood. He can feel it smearing all over his chin. Steve pulls back. That bizarre contented smile is still on his face. He taps a finger once, twice onto Bucky's cheek. Steve tilts his head, his eyes full of some silent meaning.

And then it clicks.

"You told me to—you can't speak anymore." Steve kisses him again and looks at him with such tenderness. And Bucky aches. "You can't order anyone to do anything. You can't control me."

Steve presses closer, still smiling that terrifyingly affectionate smile. He's an insistent weight against Bucky's side, and he finally understands Steve's silent entreaty. It's the same thing he's asked of Bucky for years. Stay with me. Don't abandon me. Please. I don't want to be alone. Bucky looks into Steve's eyes, and the blue of it consumes him. It always has.

"I won't leave you behind. I'll stay."