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They Know God (But I Know You)

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"It ain't no wonder why we lose control
When we're always heart attack away from falling in love
Well, I know that we've been hardly holding on
To tell the truth, I can't believe we got this far
Running near on empty
I wish somebody would've told me

That I'd end up so caught up in need of your demons
That I'd be lost without you leading me astray
Guess that I'm a fool for the way that you caught me
Girl, you make my heart break more every day
But don't fade away"

              -"Fade", Lewis Capaldi 


Steve wakes up slowly, lazily, feeling the heady weight of his cold as soon as his eyes were fully open. His nose was stuffed, his throat ached, but besides that, not much else mattered.

He blinked blearily up at his ceiling, and enjoyed the few blissful seconds where his mind was completely blank, not thinking of anything at all. 

And then he remembered.

Steve shot up in bed like a rocket into a sitting position, mouth gaping as he stared at the soiled towel from last night--proof that what had happened wasn’t just an extension of his dream. 

“Oh, my god.” Steve whispers, a hand coming to cover his mouth. 

He’d really done that--he’d touched himself, in front of Bucky, to thoughts of Bucky. Bucky had seen everything. Had talked him through it.

There was no way things could go back to normal between them now; Steve had ruined everything. 

Bucky wasn’t in his room, which meant he was probably upset about what had happened. In a moment of lust, of weakness, Steve had pushed their fragile hearts into something they weren’t ready to talk about.

“Buck?” Steve called, coughing weakly into his elbow. There was no way he’d make it into work today--he’d have to call in. His vision was blurry even as he pushed his glasses onto his face. “You ‘round?” 

The apartment is silent, and Steve tries not to let the panic settle in. Bucky could just be wanting space after what happened last night, which was normal. Space, Steve could handle. He couldn’t handle absence. 

Steve grabs his phone to check the time, seeing he had 7 missed calls from Nat and 3 from Sam. Clint had texted him twice. They were mostly from last night. Steve had fallen asleep early, needing the rest from his fever, but it probably meant his friends were worried about why he hadn’t gotten back to them yet.

[9:03pm] Clint says: Hey, Sam talked to Nat & I about your ghost situation. We need to talk.

[9:06pm] Clint says: It’s big.

[11:13pm] Clint says: Steve we’re worried. Text me back. 

The group chat also had messages that were demanding Steve’s attention. 

[6:03am] Sam to ‘Pizza Party’: We need to meet up at some point today. If you don’t answer, we’re coming over. Need to check if you’re still alive.

Steve rubs his eyes under his glasses. Dammit, it was too early for this. Not wanting his friends to worry, he types out a quick message in their group chat. 

[8:21am] Steve to ‘Pizza Party: I’m fine guys, relax.

[8:23am] Steve to ‘Pizza Party’: I’m sorry if I worried you i went to bed early--I’m sick. Slept in, too. 

Not even two minutes later, Natasha responds. 

[8:24am] Nat to ‘Pizza Party’: We need to talk. When are you free?

That was never a good message. 

[8:26am] Steve to ‘Pizza Party’:  Sick in bed, called into work. Today isn’t good for me. 

Steve couldn’t deal with the ‘ghost talk’ today. He didn’t want to answer questions or prove himself. The urgency in the text messages wasn’t registering with Steve; he was delirious with his fever and too worried about memories of last night to think about what his friends might want to tell him. 

[8:30am] Sam to ‘Pizza Party’: I did some research on your ghost. I searched his name through Hydra files, and it isn’t good. This is serious, Steve.

[8:33am] Sam to ‘Pizza Party’: There is more going on here than you think. 

Steve blinks at his phone. It was an ominous message, one that leaves him confused and wanting to know more. 

What could they have found out about Bucky that Steve didn’t already know?

He decides not to answer right away. He wanted to talk to Bucky, and apologize for last night, to make sure things were good between them. Then, after that, if Steve was still up to whatever daunting conversation awaited him, he would message them back.

Remembering last night, Steve’s face flushed with heat. Bucky had been so sweet, so kind--he’d talked Steve through it, made sure he cleaned up afterwards...and God, Steve remembered just how badly he wished it could’ve been Bucky’s real hands on him. The desire had been a monster in the pit of his belly, the fire burning him up from the inside out.

Slowly, Steve gets out of bed, his muscles aching as he does so, sore from the sickness that plagued him and the chilly New York Air that wandered in through the old, drafty windows. Looking outside, Steve saw that it had snowed last night. The streets were covered in a thin blanket of white.

“Buck,” He calls, as he gets out, his heart beating loudly in his ears. “Can we please talk?” 

There was still no answer as Steve shuffled his bunny-slippered feet into the kitchen. There was no coffee or tea waiting, there was no handsome soldier lounging around waiting for him. 

Steve’s heart sinks. No.

“Bucky?” He tries, voice small. He already knows, in his heart, that Bucky is not here. He can feel the emptiness, the hollowness. The apartment is void of his presence. Of course, there is no reply. 

Steve is alone.

“Dammit,” Steve exhales slowly with a little cough, staring up at the ceiling. His eyes sting with tears as he tries hard to blink them away. He feels small. Stupid. “Dammit.” 

Bucky was gone, and Steve didn’t know how long he’d be gone for. Steve wasn’t sure where they stood with each other, but he knew that there was something boiling inside him, a static between him and Bucky. 

In Steve’s chest, there was a new kind of warmth for Bucky that had absolutely no right to be there, but wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. 

He scrubs a hand through his hair, and trudges to the shower with slow, shuffling movements, accepting his doomed fate.

 

-------

Post-shower, Steve is curled up on his couch swaddled in two blankets, wearing track pants and a large hoodie. The shower had helped him to feel a little better, but his breath was still wheezing more than he liked and his nose ran freely--he’d have to nurse the cold a little longer before he’d be back to full health. 

He watched Netflix with a blank mind, ignoring his phone which was blaring with text messages from his friends. He didn’t think about what Natasha, Sam and Clint had dug up, or when--if--Bucky would return. He doesn’t think about anything.

He eats frozen pizza and drinks lots of water. He calls it self-care. 

Around noon, there is a knock at his door, at the same time his phone starts ringing. 

Steve blinks sleepily at his phone, unhappily aroused from his Netflix-coma. The call is from Sam. Dread fills Steve to the brim--he knew what this meant. The knock at the door was familiar, and Steve knew his friends were here. 

“Hello,” Steve answers flatly. The knocking at the door stops. He is displeased.

“It’s us. Let us in, please.” 

Steve stares at his door. He blinks again. If he refused them, it was more than likely Natasha would just pick the lock and let herself in. With a dramatic eye-roll that no one else is around to appreciate, Steve stands up. 

“Fine. Coming.” He ends the call.

He shuffles to the door and unlocks it, throwing it open and trudging back to his position on the couch without greeting them. He was annoyed by his friends just showing up when he had told them he didn’t want company today. He was sick and grumpy. He missed Bucky.

He didn’t want to deal with their conspiracy theories. Even his curiosity wasn’t enough to warrent a desire for knowledge. He just wanted to be left alone.

“You’re sick,” Clint says, the first one to speak. “Jeez, Steve, you look like hell.” 

The three of them settled into the living room around Steve. No one gets on the couch beside him. They can sense the tension rolling off of his body.

Steve shoots him a sharp look he knows Clint doesn’t deserve. “Yup.” 

“We needed to speak to you,” Natasha says cooly. It’s a professional tone, one she doesn’t take with him often. It makes Steve’s attention spike, and he sits up a little taller. He had the weird feeling that he was in trouble. 

“I guessed that from the texts, yeah.” 

“Bucky isn’t here, is he?” Natasha says, ignoring Steve’s attitude. She keeps her tone professional, asking the question like a lawyer who already knew the answer but wanted proof for the jury. 

“How did you know he isn’t--”

Natasha cuts him off with a cool expression. “Because he can’t be in two places at once, and we just saw him this morning.” 

Steve squints at her, trying to make sense of what she said, but ultimately fails. They’d seen him? How? “What? What do you mean by that?” 

Sam inhales and exhales loudly. “Okay, so, hear us out.” He and Clint both look extremely uncomfortable, unable to sit still.

“What the hell is going on?” Steve asks tiredly. “Guys, I’m sick, I’m exhausted, and I’m really not in the mood. If you’ve got something to say, just spit it out, or leave me alone.” 

“Steve, we searched James Buchanan Barnes and cross referenced his name with the Hydra records database.” Sam begins, keeping his voice even and factual. “Once you told me about...your ghost situation, I wanted to look into James’s past with Hydra, y’know, for your safety. I had to make sure he wasn’t working with Hydra, or affiliated with them in any way during the war--we couldn’t take the risk.”

Steve bristles at that, but knows he can’t ask any different of his friends. In their line of work, a lack of attention to details causes your friends to die. They were looking out for him in the ways they knew how. 

“Okay,” he says carefully. “Then why are you looking at me like that?” Sam and Clint were eyeing Steve with wide, sympathetic eyes, like they were about to tell Steve his beloved pet had just died, but Natasha was cool and calm. Steve braced himself for bad news, though he had no idea what that bad news could be.

Were they going to tell him Bucky had been working alongside Hydra the entire war? Was he the mastermind behind the whole operation? 

The thought was almost laughable; Steve’s Bucky could never. 

“James Buchanan Barnes of the 107th was experimented on during the Second World War,” Sam says gently. “The trials, are,” he shudders. “They’re horrific. I mean, the things they did--”

“It resulted in him becoming enhanced. Results of the trial show James as being stronger, faster, having accelerated healing rates, and so on.” Natasha cuts in sharply, obviously not wanting to waste time. Or maybe she wanted to spare Steve the details of his friend getting hurt, he couldn’t tell from her voice or poker face. He often found Natasha difficult to read, but especially now in her dark wash jeans and leather jacket. This was the facade Natasha put on for the rest of the world. 

“I knew that,” Steve tells them, rolling his eyes. Relief washes over him. If this was the bad news they were trying to brace him for, then he had nothing to worry about. Peggy had already explained the terrible things that Hydra did to Bucky. “I’m sorry you went through all that trouble, but. I talked to Peggy--she was in the war with Buck--and she told me what they did to him. It’s terrible, but it doesn’t change anything. I know him, and his past.” 

“Anyway, that isn’t the end of the story,” Sam cuts in, keeping his tone gentle. “So, they experimented on him, but he got away. He made it back to his regiment. He continued in the war as a sniper, and a damn good one, until he fell off of a train near the end of the war. He was assumed to be killed in battle, his body was never found. They buried an empty casket.” 

“He fell off a train and died,” Steve corrected. He wasn’t sure where this was heading, nothing sounded like new information, but the worried look on Sam and Clints faces weren’t reassuring, there had to be more. “I knew that, too.” 

Natasha shakes her head. “He didn’t die.” 

Steve blinks dumbly at her. He can’t process the words: he didn’t die. They floated around near the ceiling, out of his reach. “He’s a ghost, Nat. Of course he’s dead.” 

“He’s not a ghost, exactly. Just. Listen,” Clint cuts in nervously. He looks extremely uncomfortable, like he’d rather be exactly anywhere else. His posture is stiff. 

“James didn’t die.” She repeats. “Because of the extreme-cold temperatures, his body was preserved, though his left arm was obliterated from breaking his fall.” Natasha explains, very matter-of-fact. “Other than that, James was mostly intact. His body was found by Hydra, who recognized him from previous experiments; he had been their most resilient subject during the war. They were eager to have him back.” 

Steve is shaking his head. It sounded like Natasha was speaking another language. He squinted at her, trying to follow the trail she was laying out for him, but nothing sounded logical. None of it was making any sense. 

His brain was foggy, both from his cold and from the impossibility of what she was saying. It had to be some kind of prank, a joke. They were trying to get a rise out of him. 

They were just teasing him for believing he lived with a ghost. They were trying to scare Steve away from the apartment. 

She continues. “Hydra took him and injected James with a serum to improve speed, reflexes, strength, and healing time. He is the most successful example of Enhancement we have on record. They amputated James’ left arm and gave him a high-tech prosthetic made out of vibranium alloy, making him extremely strong, and partially bullet-proof.” She spoke as though she were reading off a script. 

“Using electro-shock therapy, they erased the memories that James Buchanan Barnes had, and he became the Winter Soldier, or The Asset, as he is referred to in the files. The Soldier was taught certain commands and phrases in order to ensure his excellent behavior. He was programmed, like a computer, to become the weapon that Hydra had always dreamed of.” 

“No,” Steve says shortly. His mind is empty, trying to make connections between the sentences Natasha was making and the Bucky he knew, the one who sang to him and laughed like everything Steve did was adorable. 

When Steve had said stand down, Bucky had frozen. Become someone else. 

He still doesn’t want to believe what they’re saying. “What?” 

“The Winter Soldier is the most notorious killing machine of our time,” She plows on, shifting her weight from one heeled foot to the other. 

She seems taller than Steve has ever seen her, too large to fit into his apartment, with ideas that didn’t go with the flooring or match the creamy color of the walls.

“He’s killed hundreds of people for Hydra, most of them innocent. He trained me under the nickname Sasha during my time with Hydra, which is where I first recognized him from. He was cold, efficient, and...robotic. They had him programmed perfectly. They send him on missions, he completes them, and then he comes back to the base where he is put into a cryo-chamber that puts him into a mode of suspended animation until he’s needed again. Sometimes it’s weeks. Sometimes it’s many years. That’s why it’s been so hard to find him--because he disappears without a trace, for long periods of time. That’s why he was called the ghost.” Natasha purses her lips. “Only, no one knew just how fitting that title really was.” 

Steve isn’t sure if he’s breathing or not. He can’t think about breathing--he can’t think about anything. His hands curl into small fists, fingernails digging hard into the flesh of his palm. 

“Impossible,” he breathes, but it’s so silent no one reacts, having not heard.  

“Our theory,” Sam says, voice soft compared to Natasha’s clipped tone. “Is that while Bucky is in this cryo-chamber, while he’s in suspended animation, his…spirit comes here. His spirit, which is still Bucky without the Soldier’s programming, for the most part anyway, and then disappears when they wake up him for a mission, and then returning to the apartment when they put him under again. He doesn’t remember his time out of cryo because of the electro-shock therapy. They erase everything, giving them a blank slate.”  

Everything in Steve’s mind clears.

Bucky was alive. Bucky wasn’t dead--he wasn’t a ghost. He wasn’t lost to Steve forever. He was suffering.

“He’s not evil,” Steve finds himself saying, shaking his head slowly. He feels like he’s having an out of body experience, like he’s watching himself do and say these things, but doesn’t know what motivates his actions or words. “You’ve got it all wrong. He is not evil. He’s good. You--you’ve got the wrong guy. ” 

“Bucky is good,” Clint murmurs, looking down. He won’t meet Steve’s eyes. “The Winter Soldier is not. We’ve fought him, Steve. There...there isn’t anything human about him. It’s not like fighting anyone or any thing else. He’s like nothing we’ve ever been up against before.” 

“He’s good,” Steve repeats stubbornly, his brain short-circuiting.His hands begin to shake. “Buck is good--”

“He’s a killer. And we’ve got to stop him, before he hurts someone else,” Natasha quips, no room for empathy in her tone. She shifts her weight, and the floor creaks under her. Silence fills the room, no one daring to speak. “I’m sorry,” She tells him, but nothing in her face or voice makes Steve believe that she really is.

Steve looks up at them with wide, devastated eyes. 

“He’s alive,” Steve breathes, the realization finally dawning on him. His heart races. “He’s--Bucky is alive.” 

“No--” Sam chimes in, but Steve ignores him. 

“He’s alive, but. But he’s in trouble, he’s with Hydra--”

“He is Hydra,” Nat corrects. “He is literally an embodiment of Hydra, Steve. Their personalized weapon, their best experiment. Their child .” 

Steve knew Bucky, and he wasn’t a Nazi, or a killer, or a bad guy at all. He was just a big, handsome dork with an affinity for dancing and a dislike of seafood. He was genuine, and charming, and silly. He was beautiful. Precious.

And he was in the hands of an evil organization--who had, in Sam’s own words, wiped Bucky of everything that made him him. They broke him.

“Hydra programmed him,” Steve says slowly, trying to understand. He can’t feel his heart in his chest, he’s not even sure it’s beating. “Right?” 

Sam nods, seeming relieved that Steve was finally getting on the same page, not just repeating no over and over again. “Yes.” 

“And they took him, against his will, after he’d fallen.” 

Sam looks less enthused. His face is tight, eyes hard.  “Yeah, that’s right.” 

“Did he ever have a choice?” 

Three of them fall quiet again, but Clint pipes up, finally speaking. 

“He was tortured,” Clint murmurs. “Made to do their will. They had to break him before they could program him. The files recount that he resisted for a long time.” 

Steve nods once. That isn’t what he wanted to hear, but at the same time it served to prove what he already knew to be true--that Bucky was good. 

He hadn’t willingly done those things, killed all those people. Hydra had broken him, and then moulded the pieces into whatever they wanted, not caring what the cost would be to Bucky. 

They had created something twisted and terrifying out of the beautiful soul that Steve had fallen in love with.

“So,” Steve says, like he’s coming up with a conclusion for a long, complicated paper. His voice breaks a little when he says, “So, you’re saying Bucky is alive, and Hydra has him,” He doesn’t realize he’s crying until he touches his cheek and feels wetness there. He blinks hard at his hand, astonished, and more tears fall, fat drops that run freely down his face. Once they start, Steve fears they will never stop. “He’s alive.” 

Clint hesitates, but nods once. “That is what we’re saying, but--”

His shoulders shake, and all at once his calm facade falls apart around him. “Oh my god,” He sobs, his hands flying up to cover his mouth. “Oh my god, they have him. We have to get him out. They h-have him.” 

Clint and Sam share a devastated look. Clearly, this is not the reaction they’d wanted or expected from Steve.

“Steve,” Natasha says, and her voice is finally gentle, finally the tone he recognizes, but it’s still disconnected from the situation, like a doctor delivering a fatal diagnosis to a patient; kind, sympathetic, but with a safe detachment. Getting too invested was dangerous and sad for everyone involved, after all. “There isn’t anything left to save.” 

Steve is already shaking his head. He’s trembling like a leaf in the wind, suddenly chilled to the bone. He didn’t pay attention to the temperature drop, too worried about Bucky and the way his heart was breaking.

“No--you know that isn’t true! You just said! You just said Bucky is in there!” Steve cries, his voice getting louder. “You just said that! He’s fucking in there and they are hurting him, they’re making him do things he would never want! He would never hurt anyone-- ” 

Sam comes to sit beside him, tries to pull Steve into his arms, but Steve thrashes hard, fighting him off and getting to his feet with jerky movements. 

“Don’t touch me,” he yells, adrenaline suddenly coursing through his veins. “Don’t you dare try to tell me that he ain’t worth saving-- how dare you, you, you don’t know him!” 

“We’re saying we don’t know what we’re getting into,” Sam says, holding his hands up in surrender. He doesn’t raise his voice, despite Steve’s shouting. “Steve, we’ve faced the Winter Soldier before. He didn’t recognize Nat from their time together, he didn’t know anything about you. We just saw him this morning, that’s how we knew Bucky wasn’t here. When we called him by his name, James, or even Bucky, he didn’t respond. He didn’t know who we were talking about,” Sam reaches out like he wants to rub Steve’s back, but his hands drops between them. Sam wets his lips, and in a quiet, apologetic voice, he whispers: “We’re not sure Bucky is in there anymore.” 

No, Steve didn’t want to hear it. He couldn’t stand to hear it, wouldn’t have those condemning words spoken in his apartment. If Steve didn’t have Bucky, he had to at least have hope. Without either of those things, he would be nothing.

“There is a chance. ” Steve is sobbing so hard his body aches with the force of it ripping through him. He hasn’t cried this openly, this savagely, since his mother’s diagnosis. Not even at her funeral did he let this beastly grief rip through him like this. He felt like the weight of this would tear him apart. 

“There is a chance that Bucky is in there, hurting, and you’re just going to give up? Is that really what you’re going to do?” 

“Steve--” Sam tries to reason, but Steve isn’t going to hear it. 

“If what you’re saying is true,” Steve rasps, “Then Bucky--Bucky’s soul, his goodness-- is in the Winter Soldier. For your theory to work, that has to be true.” 

If, when the Winter Soldier was out of cryo, Bucky’s spirit disappeared from the apartment, that meant the part of Bucky that wanted Steve, that made him tea and sung him to sleep and told him he was perfect...was in the Winter Soldier. 

Which meant there was hope. Steve could at least hold on to that.

Natasha watches him with an even expression, except for her eyes. There is a sadness in her eyes, a regret. 

“Steve,” She says patiently, as though talking to a stubborn child about a concept too complex for their understanding. “The Winter Soldier is a human weapon. And I use the term human very, very loosely.” She pauses, “We’re convinced that after the years of shock-therapy and conditioning that the Soldier has undergone, that he is not in a condition where, even after professional help, he’d be able to function safely and reasonably well in day to day civilian life.” It sounded like she was reading a speech, she sounded like she did at press conferences where she was rehearsed and uncomfortable, putting on a front for the world. Hiding behind a charade. 

“But there’s a chance,” Steve echoes robotically, refusing to process what he was being told. “If you just let me see him, maybe he’ll remember me--”

“Or maybe he’ll kill you,” Sam pipes in dryly. 

Steve swallows.

“It’s not just our choice here, Steve. This is bigger than us. This is US and Russian governments, its international Nazi organizations, its,” Clint shakes his head. Out of the three of them, Clint looks the most wrecked to be delivering this news. “I wish we could try.”

Steve digs his hands into his hair and grips hard, until it hurts, jumping to his feet. “You never give up,” he accuses them all with an angry voice. “You never give up, you never say it’s hopeless.” He walks around the room with agitated movements, unable to keep still. “You can’t sit here and tell me that you’re going to shoot Bucky because he’s too dangerous to try and save. To even try,” He uses a hard fist to wipe at his tears. 

“We follow orders,” Natasha replies. “Our orders are to end the Winter Soldier before he ends us.” 

“But,” He bites down on his bottom lip to keep it from trembling. He wants to yank his hair out, he wants to scream or pass out or do something that would make this nightmare end. 

“There is nothing we can do--”

“No,” Steve begs Natasha to stop there. He couldn’t hear those words. “Please.”

Natasha doesn’t stop. She keeps her professional tone. “--He’s not human. He’s not the man you know. The Winter Soldier is dangerous. He’s highly skilled, highly trained, and he’s unpredictable. He’s too good at what he does.” Natasha clenches her jaw together. Steve sees the muscle in her neck strain. “We’ve got orders to shoot on site.” 

“No,” Steve repeats brokenly. His legs forget how to be legs, and they cave out under him. 

He doesn’t want to look at her anymore, or the apartment, which only reminds him of Bucky. He doesn’t want to be here, or think about these dark things. 

Sobs overtake his body, and Steve manages to find strength enough to sag against the wall behind him and curl his legs into his chest like a child. 

“Oh, my god,” He sobs quietly, the realization finally dawning on him. “Oh my god.” 

“Steve--” Clint tries, but Steve doesn’t register his voice. 

He’s lost in his own head, in thoughts of Bucky’s voice and his smile and that laugh that shuddered right through Steve any time he heard it. Those eyes--so expressive, vulnerable and strong at the same time, his lips--bitten and red from biting back moans last night, when he helped Steve along in his release. Talked him through it in the sweetest way.

Damn. So this is what it felt like.

“I think I love him,” He whispers into his hands, around his painful sobs. “I really think I do.” 

There is a silence in the room as everyone takes that confession in, including Steve himself. 

He wasn’t sure which broken part of him had possessed his mouth to say the words out loud, but it felt good, once he did. Like a weight had been lifted. He didn’t have to pretend anymore. 

He loved Bucky. 

He had never been in love before, but in the movies, it never looked like it hurt this much. He should be breaking into closed ice rinks with his lover, and running through cobble stone streets giggling and kissing desperately, hungrily, in the rain. 

Not this. Never this.

Sam scrubs a hand over his hair, and under his breath, murmurs out a small fuck. 

Clint looks up at the ceiling with his lips pressed together. Even Natasha twitches at that confession. 

“You don’t know him.” She says finally, mostly to pacify herself, Steve is sure. “If you knew Sasha, you wouldn’t love him. If you knew what he was capable of doing without even blinking an eye, you wouldn’t be able to love him, even if you tried as hard as you could. You would hate him. You would be afraid.” 

Steve looks up at her, betrayal and tears in his eyes. Her words stung. “And what about what they did to him?”

Natasha’s eyes narrow slightly. 

“They tortured him,” Clint interrupts, his voice taking a reproachful tone. “They brain-washed him. They made him their weapon. He didn’t choose to become Hydra. He was just a soldier, trying to--to fight for his country. And they took him. Twice. They broke him in, and they made him theirs.” 

“Clint,” Natasha says, warningly. “Enough.”

“What?” Clint snaps. He shifts in his seat, showing his irritation. “Is it really so different than what they did to you, Nat? You weren’t yourself. And you read the file--I mean, they stripped him of everything--” 

Steve covers his face again. He didn’t want to hear about Bucky getting hurt, or hurting people, or any of this. This had to be a dream, nothing else. He’d wake up soon, and Bucky would be there, making him coffee or singing to him, or telling him that he was beautiful. The Winter Soldier would be something of Steve’s dreams. Nothing would hurt. He and Bucky would be safe.

“Steve, we’re sorry.” Sam says softly, barely audible over Steve’s body-wracking sobs. It didn’t matter how sorry they were. Nothing mattered. He was shutting down. He was cold all over, slowly going numb. “But he’s dangerous.”

“This is what he looks like, yes?” Natasha produces a picture from her purse, hovering over him and holding it out for Steve to examine. It’s a restored copy of what is clearly an old picture of Bucky during the war. 

Steve wipes his tears away roughly and goes quiet, getting to his feet to snatch the picture from Nat’s hands. He holds it between his fingers as though it’s made of spun gold. 

His portraits of Bucky could not compare to this picture. Steve runs his fingers along the worn edges carefully, so carefully, lips parting at the site of it. 

There he was--his Bucky, right down to his chiselled jaw and the stubborn set of his brow. He wasn’t smiling in the picture, but there was still a playful something in his round eyes that made Steve want to smile, despite being wracked with grief. Just the sight of Bucky filled him with comfort amidst all the chaos in his living room and his heart 

“That’s him.” Steve mumbles, voice rough from crying. He thumbs the picture gently, as if by staring at it intently enough he could summon Bucky back here from whatever hell he was currently in with Hydra.

“And this,” Natasha pulls out another photograph. It’s a close-up image of the one he’d seen of the Winter Soldier while in her apartment, but it’s been edited to be clearer, without the blurry lines that he’d seen before. “Is the Asset. The Winter Soldier” 

Steve takes that picture, too, ands holds the two side by side. His eyes move from one to the other. 

There were differences. Bucky’s hair was short and curly, the Soldier’s hair was limp and greasy, hanging long to hit just before his shoulders and wild with the wind. Bucky’s eyes were cheery and playful even with his solemn expression, the Soldier’s eyes were dead--the same deadness that Steve had seen in Bucky’s right before he disappeared. 

Which...made sense, if he was going with their theory, it meant that in that moment, Bucky was disappearing to go become the Soldier. The moment when they’d touched--it must have been a glitch in the system, a brief moment of in-between when Bucky was resisting going. 

There were also undeniable similarities between the picture, there was no doubt that it was the same man, just much, much more broken in the second image. 

“Okay,” Steve says. He tries to force himself to stop crying, and manages to get his sobs under control with a wet cough, but his tears fall freely without his consent. “Okay.” 

“Okay,” Sam echoes. 

“Steve, Stark has given us instructions to take down the Asset. Dead or alive.” Natasha murmurs. 

Steve’s eyes flick up to hers, and he doesn’t say anything, though he assumes he must look quite broken, folded in on himself, face red and blotchy from crying, clutching the two pictures of the dead man he was in love with. 

Not dead, Steve corrected himself. But soon would be.

“My hands are tied,” Natasha adds, but something in her voice makes Steve think she’s hesitant. Natasha was always the perfect soldier; she obeyed orders, she got the job done. Steve has never heard her question her orders before. 

“If you kill him,” Steve bites down on each word carefully, making sure he was being clear. He meets the eyes of every person in the room. “If you kill him, you kill me.” 

Natasha is shaking her head. “I don’t think you realize how dangerous he is.” 

“Try,” Steve begs her. He grabs her hand in one of his cold ones, getting to his feet. “Nat, please. Try. I never ask you for-for anything. I’m asking you,” He looks to Sam and Clint, “all of you, to try. Try to bring him in. If I can talk to him, or just--if you can get someone to look at him, maybe there is some kind of therapy, or something you can do, to bring him back. Bucky is in there, or else he wouldn’t be disappearing, right? Which means there is someone vulnerable, and human in there, suffering. You’re the Avengers. Your job is to help people.” 

“Steve--” she begins. 

“So help him,” He cuts her off. As he blinks a few more stray tears fall. “And if not for him, then. Help me.” 

There is a long, pregnant pause between them. The air is thick with tension, and Steve nearly misses it when out of the corner of his eye, he notices Bucky standing still as a statue, mouth open in surprise. 

“Buck,” Steve breathes, stumbling back a few feet in surprise. “You’re here.” 

Bucky blinks. The shock on his face doesn’t leave, and his glassy eyes flick only briefly to Steve, before landing somewhere between the window and the floor, a horrified expression. Steve can see his gears grinding, working through everything he’d heard. Bucky swallows. 

Steve wonders how long he’d been there, if he’d heard his story told to him, or if--if he’d heard Steve scream out that he was in love with him. 

If he’d heard all of his friends calling him a monster.

“Bucky is here?” Clint asks, looking around. He squints in every corner, but he of course comes up empty, looking back helplessly to Steve. 

“You can’t see him,” Sam tells him tiredly, pinching the bridge of his nose. “Hey, Bucky. Nice to see you...again,” Sam says awkwardly, obviously referring to their encounter with the Winter Soldier earlier that day. 

Bucky swallows. He doesn’t greet Sam back. He blinks again. 

Steve tries to get his attention by staring intently at him, but Bucky doesn’t look back. He’s frozen with shock. Horror. 

He had heard, Steve could tell by the look on his face. His heart sinks to his toes.

“I think I need some time,” Steve pleaded, looking from Bucky to his friends. He had a mess to clean up here, a lost soul to soothe.  “I just need some time to think, alone.”

“You shouldn’t be alone right now.” Sam protests, looking for all the world like he was bearing down in his spot in order to not be moved. His eyes are worried. “You’re not well.” 

“No, I’m not,” Steve agrees softly, the fight draining from his body. “But I’m strong enough to deal with this. I’ll deal with it, I just. Want time.”

The words feel false coming from his mouth. He doesn’t feel strong. 

He has no fight left in him, not for this. His bones feel heavy and his skin feels like paper, like the smallest thing could tear him apart, could make him clatter to the floor in large, broken pieces. 

Really, if he thought about it, he felt more like a ghost than he’d ever considered Bucky to be. 

Steve didn’t feel like there was anything real about him in this moment; he hung in the air like a cobweb and none of it mattered.  

“I want to be alone, and. I don’t think I can hear you tell me no again. So just go, for now, and think about it. Please.”  He had to talk to Bucky, see where they stood. He was trying hard not to tremble, to stand strong and not let his voice shake, trying not to show how scared he really was. “I know I’m asking a lot of you. But I don’t know what else to do.” 

Steve had to gather the strength he hoped he had and he needed to deal with this, find a way to save Bucky. 

Clint and Sam get to their feet slowly, watching Steve like he was a bomb that may go off at any minute. To a stranger, Natasha’s face may seem cold and cut-off, but Steve knew her well, and he recognized that sadness and guilt in her eyes. 

She was afraid for Steve, and she was sorry for him. 

Steve didn’t think that would be enough to get her to rebel against direct orders, but a part of him was still hopeful that eventually, she and the others would come around.

“Steve,” Clint murmurs on his way out, throwing an apologetic look over his shoulder at Steve. “For what it’s worth, I want to try.” 

Steve doesn’t smile, but he does give Clint a grateful nod. Having someone on his side would help. Maybe Clint could begin to chip away at the others, especially Natasha. Sam, Steve was pretty sure, could be convinced. He just didn’t have the energy to start just yet. 

He would save Bucky, though. That was the only option, if he had to storm into a Hydra base himself and steal him away, he would do it. 

 

He knew that if the roles were reversed, Bucky would burn the world to ashes to get Steve out. Steve could only do the same.

Natasha hesitates, though. “I’m sorry this happened to you,” She says gently. Steve feels like she means it, but it doesn’t do anything to soothe the hurt. “This is bigger than you. It’s exactly what we feared when we became your friend.” She glances at the other two Avengers, who paused in their slow shuffle towards the door, watching her with a sad expression, like they knew she was right. “We’ve dragged you into something larger than you signed up for.” 

“Me meeting Bucky had nothing to do with you.” Steve tells them all. He realizes that they are hurting, too. Their hearts are aching for him, and it wasn’t fair of him to shut them out cold and pretend like he was the only one suffering. They loved him, after all, and no one liked seeing someone they love go through something terrible. “It was just a strange coincidence, and I don’t regret anything.” 

“Not yet,” Sam murmurs. He won’t look at Steve, he’s staring at the floor, hands shoved into his pockets. “Things haven’t gotten hard yet, but they will. And you might hate us for it.” 

Steve swallows. He didn’t want to think about that. Bucky blinks fast a few times. “Don’t give me a reason to.” 

Sam doesn’t have anything to say to that. He’s not sure when it started, but the snow has turned into rain outside under the heat of the November sun, coming down in heavy sheets. Steve listens to it beat against the windows like prisoners against jail cell bars. 

“James,” Natasha greets, for the first time. She clears her throat, staring at the ground because, of course, she can’t see Bucky. “I’m sorry this happened to you. But I’ll do what I have to to protect Steve, and anyone else I can. I trust you’ll understand.” 

Bucky looks at her with an even gaze, his jaw working. He nods once, but Steve won’t translate that. He doesn’t want his friends to know that Bucky has accepted his fate. He didn’t want to be the only one fighting for this. 

“Please think about what I asked,” Steve begs his friends, as they get ready to head out into the storm. “I’m only asking you to think about it.”

Natasha pulls a thick folder out of her bag, and sets it down on the coffee table with a heavy slap, interrupting the general calm that had overtaken the room since Steve had quieted down some.

Sam and Clint both look like they’re about to protest--Sam even moves to snatch the thing up, but she silences them with a sharp look. 

“Steve,” She says. Her tone has lost the softness from before, her words are biting and harsh. “Take a look at what he’s done and tell me if you still want to save him then.”

With that, Clint and Sam shuffle reluctantly out, with Natasha clipping closely at their heels. 

When his door closes, the echo of the latch sliding into place is the only sound that fills the apartment for a long time, along with the battering rain. 

Steve scrubs at his eyes. They’re dry from crying, and they sting a little. His throat burns, his nose runs, and he is exhausted. He wants this to be a nightmare, wants to wake up in Bucky’s arms

“Bucky,” he whispers. “Please talk to me.” 

“They’re right.” Bucky’s eyes slide over to Steve. “Everything they said, it’s true. I...don’t remember everything, but. If I think about it, I do remember some stuff, I think. I used to think it was all just nightmares or illusions. But I remember them. Hydra,” he shudders visibly. “Programming me.” 

Steve takes a step closer to him, but Bucky recoils like he can’t bear to have Steve one inch closer to him. 

“Don’t,” Bucky demands flatly. “Just, don’t.”

“Buck--”

“I’m glad. That I was here, when they explained. There’s been a lot of holes in my memory, and. It’s good I know why. So, I’m glad.” Bucky takes a deep breath. “But I’m a monster. I know that for sure now. And you shouldn’t be so comfortable around me.” 

The words sting Steve as though he’d been slapped. “Don’t say that.” 

“It’s true.” Bucky laughs without humor. “You heard what your friends said. I’m the Winter Soldier, the most notorious killing machine of our time,” he quotes. “And now I’ve dragged you into this mess with me--”

“What do you mean?” 

“If I had just stayed away, even if I had been a nuisance like I was to everyone else who lived in this damn apartment, you would have left, or at the very least, you wouldn’t have gotten close to me,” Bucky spits bitterly. “But I didn’t stay away. And now look at the position I’ve put you in.”

Steve’s hands clench into fists. Bucky was being an idiot--Steve was so frustrated part of him wanted to punch him in his big dumb head just to make him see some sense. His fear and sadness was shifting into anger, his fiery temper rearing its ugly head once again. “James Buchanan Barnes,” Steve growls. “If you think for one second that I regret meeting you in the slightest, you’ve got an even thicker skull than I thought.”

“Steve,” Bucky begins, but he stops short. His eyes are wild, tortured, his hands clenched into white-knuckled fists. There is a storm brewing in the apartment, in the air between them, and Steve is afraid that he’s going to get his heart broken, that he might lose everything that ever mattered. 

“Unless you regret meeting me because of...what I said,” Steve thinks back to him crying out about his feelings for Bucky, “Then fine. I will give you that. But if you regret meeting me because you think my fuckin’ innocence is going to be corrupted or something, shut up about it.” 

Bucky grunts in frustration, looking at Steve like he was bizzare for not running in the opposite direction. “I’m a killer--”

“Did you hear what Clint said? Hydra makes the Winter Soldier do those things. He’s brainwashed, and--”

“Stop talking about the Winter Soldier like he isn’t me,” Bucky clips, cutting Steve off sharply. He’s never used this biting tone with Steve before. It makes Steve feels like something between them has broken. “ I am the Winter Soldier, Steve. I’m the one who hurt those people. Killed them. I’m the one working with Hydra. Me.” 

“Not with,” Steve shakes his head fast. His vision is blurry, but he can’t tell if its from tears or exhaustion. He can’t be the only one in the fight for Bucky to be saved. If his friends were against him, and if Bucky was...Steve would lose. And losing this fight meant losing everything. “For. Against your will, Buck. You never had a choice.” 

“Your friends are right, I ain’t worth saving.” Bucky’s face is dark, he’s lost in some part of himself that Steve can’t reach. “They need to kill me--the Winter Soldier--so that I can’t hurt anybody anymore. That’s the only option. It’s the one that’ll do the least damage to the least amount of people.” 

Steve was afraid Bucky would ask for this. He was a righteous man, Steve knew, a man who believed in right and wrong. He didn’t see a light at the end of this. In Bucky’s mind, there was no version of this story that ended with him making it out alive.

Steve tries hard not to crumple to the ground, just barely succeeding, hugging his arms around his body. 

“What about me?” Steve asks, voice cracking. “What will happen to me, if you just...give up? If you die?” 

Steve thinks that he may just evaporate into the air like Bucky sometimes does, his particles scattering all over the rooms of this apartment and wandering around, lonely, never find their counterpart again. He felt like that was happening to him at the moment, like he was falling away into nothing.

Bucky’s face stays dark. “It’s not your call to make, Steve.” 

“I get some say!” Steve yells, slamming his fist down on the coffee table. His mug rattles there from the force of it, the little bit of tea still left in the mug rippling. 

There is a sudden, white-hot anger that has replaced his sadness. He takes a step closer to Bucky, muscles coiled with fury. Bucky doesn’t back away this time.

“You don’t get to just--just stand around the apartment and protect me, you don’t get to make me coffee, and call me pet names, and tell me I’m the most p-perfect thing you’ve ever seen or-or slow dance with me, and then tell me I don’t get any say in what h-happens to you!” Steve shouts, not caring who hears, not caring if he was being dramatic. 

Bucky opens his mouth, but Steve isn’t done. “You did this, you made me fall in love with you, so you get to deal with me having a fucking say about what happens when it comes to you. This is bad news, sure, but it also means there is hope. Did you ever think about that? You aren’t dead. You’re alive. That means, if we can get you--the Winter Soldier, if we can you away from Hydra, and keep you out of cryo, then you would have a body,” Steve is crying again, but he ignores it, his hands curling into fists at his side, so tight his nails dig hard into the palms of his hands. “And you could touch me, and hold me, and...we could just be. ” Steve wipes angrily at his tears. “And that is the best thing I can imagine. That is worth fighting for.” 

Bucky stays quiet, but something in his face changes as he watches Steve. The darkest parts of him seem to drift away, letting the light in. His features open up, shock becoming disbelief, becoming amusement, and finally, awe. 

“You love me.” 

“Yes.” Steve didn’t care anymore, nothing mattered except that Bucky was alive. “You fucking idiot. Yes, I love you.” 

Bucky’s lips part, as if hearing Steve say it again made it register for good. “Steve--” He begins, but Steve is afraid to hear what he might say next, so he cuts him off with a hand, shaking his head. 

“I know you may not love me,” Steve whispers, still with anger in his voice, though it’s not accusatory. He knows he can’t expect Bucky to love him, that wasn’t the point of this. The point was that Bucky needed to see that people--mainly Steve--cared about him, and wanted to see him come out of this alive. Bucky was a righteous man, and he wouldn’t want to hurt Steve, no matter if he loved him or not. “And I’m not asking for that. But I know you care about me. You give a damn, and that has to be enough. We don’t need to talk about it, or--or make things strange, we can just focus on getting you--all of you--back to one piece. That’s all I want.” 

Bucky watches him with a small, sad smile playing at his lips. “Steve,” He breathes, like the name is a secret kept just between them. “Stevie…” 

“I said we don’t have to talk about it,” Steve grumbles, looking away. This awe-inspired look on Bucky’s face didn’t match the scenario brewing between them, but it did give Steve some hope.

“Ace,” Bucky says. “Look at me.” 

Reluctantly, Steve’s eyes slide back over to meet Bucky’s. 

“You’re the idiot. You’re a goddamn punk, actually,” Bucky is shaking his head, taking a step closer to Steve. “Stevie, doll--shit. Of course I love you. How could anyone not love you? You’re,” Bucky swallows, eyes raking over Steve slowly, drinking in every inch of him. Steve felt ugly, in that moment, and exposed, all of his crushed bones and open wounds there on his face, in his eyes, in the way his hands were shaking. But Bucky didn’t look at Steve like he was ugly. 

He looked at Steve like Steve was some sort of angel, like a religious man finally seeing the face of something divine, of the only God he had ever believed in, ever prayed to. It was intense, that look, and it made Steve feel a little stronger knowing that he was one of the privileged few to have Bucky Barnes look him up and down and then wet his lips.

Bucky loved him. 

Bucky Barnes loved him. The thing between them, the thing that had been hiding in all the little pet names and the lingering looks and the passion of last night--it was this. Love. 

“Look,” Bucky murmurs, voice low. “I’m, it’s….What I’m trying to say is that yeah. Yeah, I fuckin’ love you.” Bucky isn’t blushing. He’s not hiding his face--he’s perfectly at ease confessing his love to Steve, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. There is no uncertainty, no shame. “I love you, Steve.” 

“Buck,” Steve breathes, forgetting every other word in his vocabulary. 

This was everything; the particles of Steve were bonding back together at those words, his wounds were stitching themselves up, binding to Bucky . He saw a light at the end of what, ten minutes ago, seemed like a very dark tunnel. 

The awe in Bucky’s face fades away slowly, feature by feature. They stare at each other. 

“Doesn’t change anything,” Bucky whispers, like he’s sorry to have to say so. He stares hard at the ground. “It doesn’t. I’m sorry, Steve.” The light in the tunnel goes out. 

Darkness. Steve’s heart rumbles, wanting to break apart again. 

“It changes everything.”

“No, it doesn’t,” Bucky snaps. “I ain’t gonna be the one to suck the light outta you.” 

“What?” Steve blinks, not understanding. 

“Your eyes,” Bucky explains impatiently, like this was a metaphor Steve should automatically understand. He gestures to Steve’s face. “They’re always so full of light. You’ve got so much fight in you, Ace. So much hope.” Bucky tugs on his hair, in a sharp, frustrated movement. “I don’t want to be the one to suck the light out.” 

He really was a goddamn idiot. He was trying to make a martyr out of himself--and Steve wouldn’t let him.

“You’re the one that put the light in them,” Steve murmurs fiercely, jabbing an accusatory finger at Bucky. “You don’t wanna put the light out? Then live.” 

“Read the file.” 

Steve’s eyes move to the file Natasha had dropped on to his coffee table. It was black, with a single red star in the center. It was old and worn, like it had been opened many times. It looked menacing, like Pandora’s box. 

“No.” Steve says simply.

“Because you’re afraid to know what I’ve done.” 

Steve wipes his nose on the sleeve of his sweater unceremoniously. “No. Because nothing in that file is going to change anything for me. You’re still a good man, you’re just a good man who had terrible things done to him,” Steve pulls the sleeves of his sweater down over his hands, and wraps his arms around himself. “If you agree to fight, and...and not let Hydra win, things could be so different, Buck. We could be together. ” 

“It wouldn’t be that simple--”

Steve uncurls again, and moves slowly, deliberately, so that he’s standing right in front of Bucky, just centimeters between his chest and the cold air that should be Bucky’s solid body. 

“We could be together,” He repeats, and brings both of his hands up to hover around Bucky’s face. If Bucky were solid, he’d be holding Bucky’s bewildered face in both of his hands. But now, there is only air.

“We could make each other pancakes,” Steve whispers, his voice so low and quiet he could hardly hear himself over the rush of blood in his ears. He wasn’t fighting fair, and he knew it. But if there ever was a time to fight dirty, this was it, and he refused to feel guilty for doing so. He would use everything he had to convince Bucky that this was a cause worth fighting for.

“You could teach me how to dance, for real, and I could mess up your hair and kiss you on the nose and you could rub my back during an asthma attack or hold me.” Steve’s eyes search Bucky’s, looking for a yearning, a hint that Bucky wants the scene Steve is painting out for them. “You could just hold me, Buck. Don’t you want that?” 

“Of course I do,” Bucky’s says, voice low. Steve can tell, now, with the way he’s looking down at him, that Bucky wants him. It’s written all over his face. His pupils are wide, the same way they were last night, and his lips were slightly parted, pink and waiting. 

“We could fall asleep beside each other. You could--God, Buck, you could touch me. Really touch me, like I’ve been dying for. Like I wanted you to last night.” 

Bucky wets his lips. “I could kiss you,” His voice sounds wrecked, rough and uneven. “I’d kiss you for hours, sweetheart.” 

“Yeah, Buck, you could,” Steve nods eagerly, stretching up on his toes to bring their lips just centimeters apart. It was cruel of him to do, when they both knew they couldn’t kiss, couldn’t touch yet, but Steve was making a point. “You could kiss me and you’d never, ever have to stop.” 

Bucky breathes heavily. There is a pause, and then Bucky steps away, creating space between them. “You’re a goddamn punk.” Bucky side eyes him, but there is no venom in his tone, only tired resolve. 

Steve goes back down on flat foot, folding his arms defensively over his chest. “If you want me to read the file, I will read it. But you need to promise me that when I’m done and when I still feel exactly the same, that you’ll help me get you away from Hydra.” 

“You’re not going anywhere near Hydra--” Bucky sounds like he’s about to go off on a very heated rant/lecture about how vehemently he did not want Steve around the Nazi organization, so Steve rolls his eyes and cuts him off. 

“Easy, Buck. I meant my friends will get you away from Hydra. They’ve got the guns n’stuff.” Steve bats his eyelashes sweetly, although it’s a tense moment between them, both of them too stubborn to want to give up. “So?” Steve prompts. “You in?” 

Bucky lets out a long breath. “I will try,” He says slowly. “To get back to you. But if I hurt anyone, or if I become a risk to you--especially to you--you’ll tell your friends that they need to kill me.” 

Steve shudders. The thing was that he knew Natasha would have no problem with those terms, the problem would be convincing them to not kill Bucky. He didn’t want to argue about that now, so he nodded his head. “Okay. Deal.” 

“Deal,” Bucky murmurs. They couldn’t shake on it, but they nodded together and it felt final. Sealed with Satan’s approval. 

“Okay,” Steve exhales again. “Let me get my glasses.” 

----- 

Steve reads. 

He has to stop twice to throw up, and then after that, once more to dry heave into a bucket, when his stomach is empty of all its contents but still rolling from the gory pictures and accounts in the file. 

The words are too descriptive, Steve’s imagination runs too wild, and he is haunted by all the ways Hydra made Bucky scream.