There comes a point when you've got to realize that you're at a dead end. When you've lost, and everything would be better if you just looked around and called it quits. Saving more lives by giving up than losing them because you wouldn't give in.
It's ten o'clock in the morning on a Wednesday when Bucky reached that conclusion.
The dust motes were dancing in the light filtering in. He was sitting on one of the beds, his muscles kinda sore. Not really—he didn't think he could feel sore anymore, but he had the memory of it buried deep down. Days of working on the docks just to make ends meet. Coming home tired. Just wanting to listen to the radio.
There was probably a word for what he was experiencing. Psychosomatic or something like that. The woman from the other day would understand. He had a feeling she'd seen a lot more than him in a single lifetime.
And Steve...he was sitting at the table with his head bent down, writing another letter. Bucky didn't need to ask to whom.
Guys in the war used to write every chance they got, even when they weren't much for letters. It was their desperate grab for home, you know? The familiar. Trying to remind themselves that there was something more to life than blood and guts and brains splattered over the ground where your friend used to be.
But you know, you couldn't grab onto nothing. You had to get something back, hold it in your hands. And that didn't happen too often. Mail lines got cut off. Letters never arrived. Hell on earth isn't just watching the people around you die for no fuckin' reason. It was reaching out and hoping someone would be on the other side to grab onto you.
Only sometimes...they never did.
Bucky leaned his head back on the headboard. What did Steve write about? Probably the protest yesterday. Yeah, that had been good. Felt like they were doing something in this shitstorm of a political climate.
Did people even know how bad they were fucking up? Again?
The slide of the pen on paper seemed to go on and on. Steve was probably putting more words on those lines than he'd said to Bucky in the last three weeks.
Steve, sensing a gaze on him, looked up, his eyes meeting Bucky's.
He'd know those eyes anywhere. He had, even deep in HYDRA's goddamned conditioning.
...was that why they were holding on like this? Familiarity?
Bucky turned his head, looking back at the television and not seeing it. He couldn't have even told you what language it was. He just kept thinking about the dame from the other day.
There were moments he felt good. Right. Like he was doing something that mattered. That coming on this trip was what he'd needed to do.
And then there were days like today, when the silence hung so heavy he could close his eyes and drown in it.
All the words on that paper...and none of it between them.
He was getting tired, Bucky realized. The thought came with a cool rush of relief, like he'd finally let himself take a drink of something after days and days of thirst. He was tired. These silences, traveling, this feeling in the pit of his stomach that they were trapped in some kind of hellish loop.
Steve had a life. Well, he could have a life. He could have it with Darcy. Yeah, he knew he was sweet on her. Steve had always been a good letter writer, but he got this frown between his brows when he wrote to Darcy. Every word meant something.
Maybe she was sweet on him too. He didn't know. He wasn't sure he cared. She was a good girl, a nice dame, pretty and good even with that wicked sense of humor. He liked her. Liked her...a lot. More than he probably should.
And he was tired. “You should go back.”
The pen came to a stop. A total stop.
Steve could have taken that one sentence to mean anything. The fact that he didn't meant that he'd known what was on Bucky's mind.
Good. Would make this easier. “Ask that girl out on a date. Stop being dumb.”
“...what the hell are you talking about?”
“C'mon, Steve. It's not hard to figure out.” He sat up, curling a leg for better purchase. “We've been traveling for a while now. You gotta want to go back and sleep in your own bed.”
Steve blinked. Once. Twice. His expression settled. He carefully set down the pen. “We're out here doing something,” he said carefully.
“What? Going to protests? Not talking to each other?”
Steve's nostrils flared. “We talk.”
“Don't bullshit me, Steve. I'm not in the mood for that.”
“What're you in the mood for, then? Picking a fight?”
“You need to go back,” he repeated. It sounded stronger this time. Helped with his conviction. “Stop chasing ghosts and just...move on.”
His jaw ticked. Hell of a looker, Steve was. Always had been. He was a good man too, when he wasn't being stupid and throwing himself into fights he was outnumbered and outgunned in. He'd make Darcy happy. He should make Darcy happy.
“I said fuck. You.” Steve's eyes were blazing. “I don't hafta go anywhere. We're sticking this out. Till the end--”
“Don't.” He didn't want to hear that. Steve was the other half of the person that Bucky used to be. They weren't—hell-- “You are the most stubborn human being I know. When are you going to let go of the past?” They weren't those people anymore. Bucky didn't know who they were now, but it wasn't that.
“Are you trying to sound stupid?” Steve shot back. Oh, he was mad now. “We're fine. We've just gotta—I don't know. Work on it.”
“I don't want to work on it.” The second he said it, Bucky felt like he was falling and flying at the same time. Like he was cutting himself free but had no damn where to go.
Or maybe it was that he was cutting Steve free. At last. At long, long last. Letting him go.
Like he should've done from the start.
Steve didn't need him. He needed to get out there and grab onto a good future. Not hang onto the past. That was all Bucky was. Steve was just too stubborn to see it.
“You ever think that maybe that's your problem?”
Bucky's head snapped up.
Steve didn't look like he could believe what he'd just said either, but if there was one thing he never did, it was back down from a fight. “You ever think that maybe I've been sitting here, just waiting, Buck—waiting for you to open your mouth and tell me something. What the hell am I supposed to do? Make you say it? That's not—That's not what I--” He stopped, all the words leaving him at once. He rubbed at his face. “Hell, I don't know what I'm trying to say.”
And there was that silence again. Only this time it wasn't just loaded with screams; it was primed to explode.
Bucky's hand clenched in his lap. The metal of his arm adjusted. It drew Steve's gaze. For a second—he looked like he hated it.
Did he? Fear wasn't new to Bucky. He'd just thought he'd gotten numb to it.
Turned out he was a fuckin' liar.
When Steve spoke again, his voice was quiet. “I don't want to go.” He took a breath. “But...if you want me to...maybe that's the right choice.”
His heart sank lower.
“I thought time out here in the world would do us good.” Steve shrugged his big shoulders, looking lost for the first time since Bucky had seen him again. “Maybe...maybe it wasn't what you needed.”
That wasn't what he meant.
“Sorry, Buck.” His jaw worked. “I think I should go take a walk.”
“Steve...” Words failed him. You know, words were always fucking failing him lately.
Steve just nodded. “Yeah.”
He got up, smooth but old at the same time, the weight of the world sitting on those enhanced shoulders. He didn't pause. Didn't look back, just went to the door.
It was short. Quick. Easy. He'd almost be impressed.
Finally—real, empty silence. Nothing but the TV to stir it. Nothing unspoken. Nothing that needed to be said.
This was fine, Bucky told himself, swallowing hard. This was what needed to happen. A real friend didn't let his pal hang on well past time to let go.
And for a few minutes, he felt...not good about it, but at peace. Right. Like Joan of Arc or something, sacrificing herself for the good of others. Sure as hell had been a long time since that had happened.
He looked down at his hand, the metal shining in the light against the dull blue of his jeans. More dust motes. More quiet.
Wasn't much different from being in cryo, he reflected. He'd stood there and waited for the cold to swallow him up. For all the thoughts to wipe away.
Get the hell off of me you Nazi son of a bitch!
No, he realized with a frown. Not the first time. The first time he'd been scared shitless. This was the thing that was going to kill him.
No. Wait. He was wrong. That was later, when the programming suddenly failed. Why? Why did it fail?
Hell, he didn't know. That familiar throbbing was starting to build up in his temples. Bucky rubbed at it. Dammit, there were too many gapes and not enough answer in his swiss cheese of a fucking memory--
This is going to hurt.
Bucky froze. That was the first time he'd seen cryo. The programming wasn't complete yet. They needed to literally put him on ice. Right....Hydra had been taking a chance.
And he'd...wanted them to. Bucky blinked, trying to focus, zero in on that feeling. It was kind of like watching your own life in a cinema, the film going blurry at the edges but a lot of stuff still coming through.
Hope it's quick.
He'd wanted them to freeze him. Bucky frowned harder. Why the hell would he want--
Just like that, it was blooming in his mind's eye. The report on Captain America's death. Bucky's breath punched out of his lungs all at once.
Stevie. He'd crashed the goddamn plane. Dove into the ocean like a reckless idiot. HYDRA made him watch it. Over and over and over.
“Why?” he whispered to the empty room, his heart sinking down to his feet like an anchor. God, he wanted to be sick. He hadn't wanted to believe it. Not Stevie. Not him. Out of all the things in this world to take from Bucky, it had to be him? Him?
Bucky shot to his feet, trying to breathe. His heart was racing a thousand miles a minute and he just—he just—he saw it. That newreel. It wasn't faked. Stevie was dead.
No, not dead. He was alive. His pen was still on the damn table. He wasn't dead. Calm down.
Shit, that's why he'd wanted to go into cryo. He was hoping it would kill him.
Bucky stood stock still, staring at the dust motes without seeing them. Just...processing.
He'd wanted to die because Stevie wasn't in the world anymore. The knowledge sank down over him, a lead blanket of certainty. How was he supposed to feel about that? Impressed? Surprised? Horrified?
Nah, not surprised. It made sense, really. There was nothing worth living for anymore if there was no Stevie. No little guy that he'd grown up with, no big guy that had all the little guy's dumb ideas and courage. Wasn't no world right without him.
Bucky laughed a little, mostly because he wanted to cry. God, he'd been a sad dope. He must have stepped into that cryo chamber like a lamb to slaughter, ready for it to be over. Go peacefully for once, let it all be over. Ready to be with Stevie wherever they ended up.
He'd been raised by a good religious Ma. He hadn't believe much in any god by the time HYDRA happened. He sure as hell hadn't believed in any after that. But he'd....he was sure that he'd be with Stevie.
He ducked his head, chest heaving as tears slipped out.
Stop it. That was over. Things had changed. The impossible had happened.
He dashed at his cheeks. Get a hold'a yourself, Barnes.
His gaze fell on the abandoned pen again. All those words laid out in neat lines. He didn't even have to really look at them to know that the handwriting was smooth and pretty.
The world was opening up in front of him again. A future without Steve in it. A long, long road...
...that he didn't want to walk down.
He didn't want to go that way, he suddenly thought. It was like staring at the newsreel all over again. Confronting the truth even when he wanted to turn away.
No, let him go.
“Oh, god,” he whispered to himself, “I don't think I can.”
Cause he was stupid. He was a fool. He had to be stronger than this—but he wasn't. He wasn't.
His feet started taking him toward the door without his permission. The sunlight poured down over him, unhindered by the half-assed awning the motel had put up over this sorry excuse for a balcony--
Steve was on the stairs.
“The front steps?” Bucky burst out before he could stop himself. “That's as far as you got? You big dope.”
Steve scrubbed at his eyes. “Yeah, well, didn't know where else to go.”
Maybe that was part of the truth, but Bucky suddenly remembered the times they used to fight as kids. Steve was a stubborn little punk from day one...but he could never walk away from a bust up...'cause it wasn't in him to give up.
He didn't know where the tears came from, but suddenly they were there, sitting on the ends of his eyelashes and washes Steve out of his sight. “You don't ever learn, do you.”
Steve didn't say anything. Just kept his head down.
Bucky walked over because he had to. He knelt...because he had to. Some things you couldn't fight. He put his hand on Steve's shoulder, bending close. “Sorry,” he told his back in a low voice. “I'm sorry I said that.”
He shook his head. “You're right. You're right, this isn't working. I'm holding you back.”
“You ain't holdin' me down. It's me holding you back.”
Steve scowled. “Would you quit saying that? I'm here because I want to be. Because I lo--” He stopped, paling just a little. But whatever gave him the courage, he reached in deep and pushed through. “I love ya, you dope.” His fingers flexed on his knee. “Love love ya.”
Steve wasn't finished though. “And I've got to tell you now, because if I don't, I don't think I ever will.” He turned on the step, his butt scraping on the concrete.
This wasn't real. This wasn't happening.
But...Bucky searched Steve's face, picking out all the little emotions one by one...maybe that was the point. “You could have anything, Steve. A whole life. You don't need some rock tied on your ankles.”
“I need a rock.” Steve's voice was so quiet only dogs and Bucky could have heard him. He looked over his shoulder, big blue eyes all watery. “I need something to hold onto or I won't ever come back to Earth.”
Steve wouldn't have said this in the thirties. He definitely hadn't during the war. Now, though, was a different time and place. They...could be different too.
“You've gotta tell me what to do,” Steve said, almost pleading. “You want to go back?”
The next step was his.
He breathed in and out, his heart slamming against his ribs. He didn't need to be told that this was the turning point. This was that last chance. Steve had reached out his hand...and he was waiting for Bucky to grab onto it.
He thought about that newsreel. Thought about the cryo chamber, how easy it was to go in. Didn't even resist.
'Cause that had been his way of reaching out to Stevie too.
His hand lifted, slow and hesitant, picking up Steve's from his knee like he was trying not to scare a rabbit or something. Steve watched it all, transfixed. “Don't give up,” Bucky heard himself say.
“...why?” One word. One big, big word.
“Because,” he looked up, “I love you too.” It scared the shit out of him to put it into words. More than anything else but living without Steve ever had.
Steve released a breath that almost shook his frame. He sniffed. “But what about what you were saying before? Me going back?”
He laughed without laughing. “'Cause I love you, stupid. You don't need to waste time on someone who ain't worth it.” Not when he could have something better. Someone better.
“Yeah, well, too late now.”
They sat there looking at each other for a long time. If this was a picture, they would have kissed, all bent back and passionate like the black and whites they used to sneak into the theater to watch.
He couldn't ever remember a picture being like this. Years and years of familiarity stretched out behind them, a lifetime of things they'd never said. In front of them was a whole lot of unknown, with even more words they needed to find a way to say.
Steve bent his head, his face crumbling, putting his mouth to the back of Bucky's hand as the tears finally slipped out of his eyes.
Shit. “Come 'ere.” He dragged him close, wrapping his arms around his back. “We're alright.”
Steve wrapped his arms around him and clung. “Don't leave,” he commanded. The words were muffled against Bucky's shoulder. “You don't leave and I don't leave. Understand?”
It sounded like a directive. They both knew better. “Yeah,” Bucky said. “Deal.”
They sat there for a while, all crouched and strange. Then they went inside, laying in the bed and hanging onto each other. They didn't have sex. For once, the silence was good.
Bucky didn't know who fell asleep first. All he knew was that it was evening when he opened his eyes again. He looked down, expecting to see nothing but blanket, and instead he got Steve's hand clinging to the front of his shirt like he was afraid Bucky would sneak off.
Good thing his left arm was metal, Bucky thought, because he'd been clinging to Steve's back, and Stevie's new size could have crushed a regular man's limb.
He knew Stevie wasn't sleeping anymore. He was just...waiting. Maybe he'd always been waiting.
“I'm scared,” he confessed to the dark. “I think you'll look at me and realize you just want to hang on to what you used to know.”
“...possible.” Steve's lashes slowly lifted. “I'm scared you won't want me for the same reason.”
“Cut it all lose,” Steve explained. “Pretend like nothing ever happened at all.”
Problem was, it did. It happened. All the shit. All the lies, the pain, the fucked up rhetoric and the pricks that had stolen his life away. “I think...” He wet his lips. “I think we gotta get help.”
“You want to go back?”
“...no.” He wanted to see her again. He wouldn't lie about that. But he wasn't ready for all the other stuff. “I want to do what we've been doing, but we should touch base.” Get a real therapist. Learn how to talk again.
“What changed your mind?”
Bucky didn't answer at first. He smoothed Steve's jaw. He loved touching him like this. It was the same, but different. So very different. “I don't know. Maybe I just couldn't imagine...not being this.”
Steve caught him by the wrist. “Don't say that.” The words trembled, but the voice was sure. “You can't hang onto something just because it scares you, Bucky. You ain't going to lose me, even if this...” He trailed off.
“I don't want to lose you,” he confessed. “But—I don't want you to lose me either.”
It was the deepest thing he'd ever admitted. All the blood, all the horror—it didn't compare to this. Letting Steve know what his biggest fear was.
Steve searched his face. “...okay.”
“Yeah.” He tightened his grip some more. “Yeah.” He put a kiss on the palm. “We can do this. We just need a little help.”
He nodded. “Yeah.” His voice was raspy even to his own ears. “We'll do it.”
“But if you tell me to leave again, I'm gonna punch you in the mouth.”
And just like that, Bucky felt that thing in him move, breaking up under the force of a chuckle that bubbled out of his throat. It shook his body—his suddenly relaxed body, no sore muscles—and the bed.
It felt good. It felt real good.
And it tasted like hope.