Bucky is alive.
Even weeks later, Steve still feels like he’s in shock. Not just about Bucky, alive and confused, but the fact that Hydra was still around in the goddamn twenty-first century. Project Insight and the helicarriers, now smoking in ruins in the Potomac. Almost single-handedly dismantling the World Security Council and half the worlds’ governments with the release of Hydra’s files.
But mostly about Bucky. About the fact that Bucky doesn’t know Steve, except Steve’s pretty sure Bucky’s the one who pulled him out of the river, so maybe, maybe he does.
With D.C. in shambles, though―and not exactly thrilled with Steve Rogers or Captain America at the moment―and not knowing what else to do while waiting for new leads on Bucky’s location, Steve’s back in New York. Manhattan this time, though, and currently staying in Stark’s rebuilt tower. Tony’s calling it Avengers Tower now, which Steve thinks is a little on the nose; at the same time, Steve of all people recognizes the value of a symbol.
It’s nice, in a way that living in the army barracks was sometimes nice, when the war outside could be ignored for a little while and instead he could enjoy the camaraderie of his teammates. The Tower felt a little like that, with most of them spending time together between missions in the lounge or gym. Movie nights and sparring, take-out dinners and seeing Tony’s lab experiments.
Over it all, though, is concern for where Bucky is and what he’s up to. How he’s doing, whether he’s hurt or hungry. Why he hasn’t come home.
Even though Steve’s settled into the Tower now, he’s healed from his injuries and he’s restless. Wants to be out doing something, or searching for Bucky, but without any useful leads to go on there’s really no point in running around half the country.
So he goes for a run around Manhattan instead. He’s sunk so far in his thoughts, however, that his feet have taken him on a familiar route before he realizes, and he finds himself in Brooklyn jogging through the gates of Prospect Park.
He slows to a walk, uncertain. Part of him wants the comfort of visiting their tree like he did before D.C., but it’s different now. Different because he knows Bucky’s still alive, but on the run and hiding and hurting. Steve doesn’t know what else to do except keep looking for leads, even though he’s sure he won’t find any sign of Bucky if the guy doesn’t want to be found.
As he approaches the tree―and maybe it’s because the tree is so closely associated with Bucky in his mind―he almost expects Bucky to step from behind the trunk or be sitting at the base. Of course, the tree comes into sight and it’s just the tree, by itself. As always.
Steve deflates a little. “What did you really expect?” he sighs quietly.
Close to the trunk he raises his hand and touches the carved initials, inspects them. JB + SR. They don’t look any more weathered than before he left, and he feels absurdly relieved. This tree has stood here for over a century, and the carvings survived for decades, yet Steve realizes he’s been somehow afraid that they whole thing would have disappeared in the last two years since he left for D.C.
“Hey, Bucky,” Steve says. “I’m back.”
It’s weird at first, and his words come haltingly, with long pauses. Knowing that Bucky’s out there somewhere makes it feel different than when he thought Bucky was gone.
“I didn’t know what else to do, where to look for you after D.C. Came back to Manhattan because at least I still have people here, Stark and the other Avengers. I’ll come looking for you as soon as we get a good lead, though.” He laughs a little, though it sounds sad. “I know I won’t find you unless you want to be found, and that’s...fine. I just want you to be okay.”
He runs out of words and simply stands there quietly for a minute, tracing their initials. He sits down at the base of the tree after a bit. It’s a nice day, sunny and a little cool. By the time his stomach growls at him and he heads back to the Tower, Steve’s feeling more centered. Nothing about the situation has changed, but coming back to this piece of his history―his and Bucky’s―somehow it’s giving him hope that soon he’ll have Bucky back for good.
Coming back to their tree sets Steve back on the pattern he had before D.C. Spending time at the park, under the spreading branches. Talking to Bucky and sketching, as often as he can manage between Avengers missions and following up leads about the Winter Soldier with Sam.
And each visit, before he leaves the park, he presses his hand against the initials carved in the trunk. “I can’t wait until you come home, Buck.”
The Asset―no, Your name is James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. He rolls the name around in his head again, like he seems to do constantly these days. Half-familiar name, half-familiar city. It’s so disorienting.
He thinks he’s been here for a few months, but time is slippery and he’s not entirely certain. The time after the Helicarriers fell into the river is mostly a blur of pain and confusion, of hiding out in alleys and empty buildings. When he finally came back to himself enough to pay attention to things like the news, he learned that Hydra was uncovered, broken open and bared to the world like a wound. But the only way to heal a wound is to clean out the poison, and for a few weeks he went around destroying as many of the old bases as he could dig out of his fractured memories, bringing them to light and to the attention of the authorities.
Said authorities seem to be a group called the Avengers, most of the time, and Bucky isn’t sure what he thinks about them just yet. But one of them is the red-white-blue Captain, the one who knows the Asset―knows Bucky Barnes―and after Bucky stumbles across an exhibit at a museum, he knows why.
Inseparable in schoolyard and battlefield…
That trip to the museum brought back a whole flood of memories. Captain America and the Howling Commandos. The fact that Bucky Barnes died during the War. That apparently he grew up in New York.
He ends up in the city almost before he decides to go, but soon enough he was here. Brooklyn, New York. What followed was weeks of wandering through half-familiar neighbourhoods. Seeing buildings that look old but right, next to buildings he doesn’t recognize, stores that aren’t what he remembers but look like they’ve been there for decades and probably have been.
Tugging the hood of his sweatshirt up over his head, he slips into a coffee shop to get something warm to drink. The weather’s changing as the season slips from summer to fall, and while the days are still warm the evenings are getting chilly. He’s not sure what he plans to do during the winter; continuing to sleep in abandoned buildings and rooftop corners doesn’t hold much appeal when snow and freezing temperatures become a factor.
The barista calls his order― triple espresso for Jimmy ―and he hides a grimace at the name. It must be a good disguise because he hates it, which means no one looking for him would expect him to use that name.
Walking back out to the street, he continues wandering. It’s all he seems to do these days, but without a mission and only jumbled memories, he doesn’t know what else to do besides follow the memories.
By the time his coffee’s gone, Bucky’s found the thread of a familiar memory on Washington Avenue and follows it. He passes the Brooklyn Museum, has a vague recollection of high ceilings and quiet spaces. Must have gone there at some point.
Rounding the corner, he’s faced with a wide open entrance to a park, with green grass and trees flowing behind it. The sign next to the sidewalk reads Prospect Park, and Bucky huffs out a heavy breath at the jolt of memory because yeah, he knows this place. Can tell he’s been here many times before, though the details remain obscured.
But something about the park draws him in. He avoids the open spaces and pathways full of people, instead sticking to the shadows along the more forested sections. Turns out like so many places in this city, it’s both familiar and not, the feeling as though things are shifted slightly to the side compared to the images in his head.
He pauses by a small garden where the path forks. It’s cool and quiet where he’s standing out of sight in the trees, and smells like dirt and green things. Pleasant, and unlike so much of the decades spent as the Soldier.
He just exists for awhile, watching the people who walk past and listening to the mix of natural sounds backgrounded with the distant noise of the city. He’s drifting in his thoughts, sorting through the familiarity he feels from the park, when an approaching voice catches his attention and holds it.
An intensely familiar voice, deep and warm and slightly out of breath in a way that sends shivers right up Bucky’s spine. He straightens and barely has time to step farther back behind the low branches of the trees next to him when a huge blond in running clothes comes jogging past on the path a few meters away, talking into a phone. “Thanks, Sam. There hasn’t been anything new in awhile, so I’m doing my best to keep busy here. When are you coming back to the city? You know we could use your help, and it would be nice to see you face to face, again.”
Bucky feels like he’s been electrified―frozen and stiff―because it’s not just any big blond guy jogging in the park, it’s the blond , the one who knew him on the helicarriers. You’re my friend. Today the guy’s wearing regular running gear and not that obnoxious red, white and blue uniform, but it’s unmistakably him.
Seeing him here, now, Bucky has to admit the truth: that he tried to tell himself he came back to New York because the museum said it’s where he was born in his other life, but that it’s just as much because the news said that Captain America lives here. That Steve lives here.
It’s like the blond― My name is Steve. You’re my friend. ―is a magnet and Bucky is made entirely of metal instead of just the arm. Steve’s barely past him on the path before Bucky’s following, staying hidden in the trees. He’s pulled along as Steve jogs up the path another couple hundred yards before slowing to a stop next to an old-looking stand of trees in a quiet corner of the park.
Bucky settles into a crouch behind the underbrush nearby once it’s clear that Steve’s going to be here for awhile. He watches Steve stretch out from his run, phone call apparently finished, then the guy drops to the ground and starts doing push-ups.
Bucky just watches, memorizing the already-familiar face with its blue eyes and twice broken nose. How does he know it was broken twice? But he does, he can picture it clearly. A tiny child Steve being pushed from the top step of a brownstone’s stoop by ugly laughing children, blood pouring from his nose where it hit the railing on the way down. An adult, but still small Steve in an alley taking a punch of Davey Miller but not falling down even as he bled all over his shirt. It’s like he’s mesmerized; he can’t look away.
Steve eventually finishes his exercises, and Bucky isn’t sure what he’s going to do when Steve leaves. Follow? But instead of leaving, Steve just settles onto the ground at the base of the tree, in a bit of a hollow space between two thick roots. The spot is tucked around the side of the tree facing away from the nearby paths; Steve isn’t hidden, exactly, but it’s the illusion of privacy and an angle that makes it hard to get a good look at his face without deliberately walking around the tree.
It’s not a bad location, security-wise. Steve still has one ear and his peripheral vision angled toward the open space of the park and would notice anyone approaching from that direction, while the trees and brush behind the tree’s location are close enough to provide cover but also grown in enough that someone would have a hard time getting close without making noise.
But Bucky’s a master assassin with excellent eyesight, and he wants to be closer. So he sidles and slinks around behind other trees without a sound until he’s able to scale the trunk of a nearby tree and stretch out on a thick limb until he’s practically on top of Steve’s spot. The spreading branches are thick with leaves, but he’s able to shift around until he’s got a clear line of sight through a gap in the leaves that lets him see Steve’s face.
He’s close enough to hear Steve talking to himself, too.
Except no, it’s not to himself, Bucky realizes as he listens. The way Steve’s talking, it’s directed to someone, but he’s not holding his phone and there’s no one else around except Bucky; if there was, Bucky would have found them on his way through the brush to climb up here in the first place.
Then he hears the name Bucky in Steve’s voice, and it’s painfully familiar. Just like when he heard it in the streets of D.C., when he heard it on the helicarriers, he feels himself almost respond and it’s all he can do to stay silent up in his hiding place and not say Steve’s name in return.
For a moment Bucky’s afraid Steve knows he’s there, but no.Steve hasn’t spotted Bucky stretched out on his branch. The guy’s just talking about his day, but addressing it to Bucky.
The words didn’t matter―Steve wasn’t saying anything useful as intel, just rambling on about the Avengers and something called Twitter―and Bucky eventually decides that Steve really is just talking to himself, sort of. That’s really weird, Rogers.
But listening to the sound of Steve’s voice is comforting. Comfortable, and Bucky finds himself drifting along without paying much attention until he realizes Steve’s fallen silent. Peering through the branches, Bucky sees that Steve’s already standing. He must be ready to leave, except for some reason Steve’s facing the trunk of the tree, instead of the park.
Steve trails his hand across the treebark for a moment. “Good night, Bucky.” He traces a pattern against the treebark again, and then finally turns and begins walking back towards the path.
Bucky’s torn; he wants to follow Steve, to stay close, but his curiosity about what Steve was doing at the base of the tree is stronger. In any case, he already knows Steve’s staying at Stark Tower, so he’ll be easy enough to find if Bucky needs to.
There’s a memory trying to come to the surface, one kindled by the sight of Steve touching the tree so carefully. He knows the feeling of returning memories well enough now, and he knows he won’t be satisfied until his brain figures it out.
Slipping down from his perch, Bucky crouches behind the other tree trunk and watches until Steve’s out of sight down the path. After waiting a bit longer, until he’s sure Steve won’t suddenly return, he leaves his hiding place. Standing in the same spot where Steve had been sitting, Bucky studies the tree trunk in front of him.
He doesn’t see anything at first, just tree bark and dappled sunlight. But he still has that feeling tugging at him. I remember this. He raises his hand and reaches out to touch the bark, like Steve did. Just as his fingertips touch the tree his eyes identify a pattern carved into the bark, at the same spot where Steve had touched the trunk of the tree before walking away.
Initials, cut deep into the wood, but clearly done a long time ago; His brain at first supplies images from old movies, old books, of lovers carving their names into trees in some grand gesture of romance and devotion.
JB + SR
The image of the carvings fresh and bright superimposes itself over his vision, and for a moment Bucky’s lost in himself.
No chance of me forgetting you, Bucky Barnes. You made your choice when we were seven years old, you’re stuck with me now.
Bucky jerks his hand away from the tree, flinching at the overwhelming memory. Steve’s voice, Steve’s words, but a long time ago. Somehow younger and sharper than he sounds now, yet still so familiar.
But I do like the heart. Looks nice.
And Bucky sees it now, arcing above and around the initials, coming to a tight point beneath. A heart carved smooth and deep. Remembers smaller, younger versions of themselves―Steve and Bucky, Bucky and Steve―working on this carving together, standing in the dark with only fading daylight to see by. A small, sharp knife slicing deep into tree bark, down to the pale wood, beneath the force of Bucky’s hand.
He traces his fingers along the letters, along the lines. Remembers Steve’s slender fingers taking the knife and smoothing the edges of the letters, the curves of the heart, adding the little details that take it from a rough-hewn scar to a work of art.
He stands there for a long time, replaying the memory, searching for more and finding bits and pieces of a life with Steve. Children, young men, soldiers.
It gets to be too much. Too many memories, too much information surfacing in waves from the damaged depths of his brain. A headache settles in behind his eyes. It’s hard to pull himself away, but he eventually retreats to the rooftop where he’s been sleeping.
He doesn’t sleep much that night, but instead of broken sleep from nightmares, he rolls the new memories around and around in his mind.
Bucky doesn’t intend to go back. Or he tries to tell himself he won’t return, but it’s barely three days before he finds himself slinking through the trees of the park until he can see Steve’s tree.
Our tree, his memory insists, and it sounds like Steve’s voice.
He lurks in the bushes near the tree but out of sight, but even though he waits for hours, Steve doesn’t show up. Not like the guy can spend every day at the park , he reminds himself. Yet soon enough he’s practically haunting the park, showing up and lurking around for several Steve-less hours, before slipping away again. He still ends up in other parts of Brooklyn, following memories to familiar places. But he always seems to return to the Prospect Park area at some point.
It’s not long before Bucky’s presence in the park coincides with Steve’s reappearance. Bucky slinks around out of sight as soon as he catches a glimpse of Steve’s blond hair coming up the path. Finding what had become his favourite watching spot―good sightlines, lots of brush to hide in―he settled in to listen to Steve talk to his Bucky.
He’s talking to me.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve’s voice floats through the air to Bucky’s hiding spot. Bucky feels something loosen across his shoulders and back, a relaxing of tension that he hadn’t realized was there. Steve touches the carved initials with his fingers, and Bucky finds himself mimicking the motion against the tree he’s tucked in behind.
He stays as Steve talks, telling Bucky about the events of the past week. Talking to him , Bucky realizes, because even though Steve doesn’t know that he’s right there less than a dozen feet away, he so clearly misses his Bucky and just wants―
“Please come home, Bucky.” Steve voice is soft and sad. “But if you can’t come home yet, then I hope wherever you are, you’re safe.”
Steve settles into his usual seat at the base of the tree, pulling out a sketchbook and pencils. Bucky watches for awhile, but Steve’s longing pulls at him. He isn’t sure if he can still be Steve’s Bucky , because he’s not the same guy from those old memories, the one who hauled Steve out of fights and followed him into war. But he can’t deny that hearing the words Come home have made it obvious that the only home he wants is with Steve.
Yet at the same time, he’s not quite ready to just walk up to Steve and say...what, exactly?
The wanting to be closer draws him forward again, and Bucky slips through the trees until he’s standing right on the other side of the tree of where Steve’s sitting. Hands tucked into his pockets and hood pulled up over his head, he leans against the trunk of the tree and drifts on the knowledge that he’s so close to Steve, even though he doesn’t want to reveal himself quite yet.
An hour or so later Bucky hears Steve close his sketchbook and start putting things back in his bag. He ghosts soundlessly back into the trees a few feet away and watches Steve go through his usual goodbye―pressing a kiss to his fingers and then to the carved initials before walking away down the path. Bucky wants to follow, but he’s not ready yet.
At least now he’s pretty sure he soon will be.
It takes longer that he plans, longer than he likes, and nearly a month passes of following Steve around the city, watching news coverage of the Avengers, and lurking out of sight in the park. Steve’s busy, between Avengers missions and whatever he gets up to at the Tower, but he always comes back to the park and their tree eventually.
Bucky’s frustrated with himself, though. He’s able to get so close, but the idea of stepping out from his hiding place to somewhere Steve can see him makes him freeze up every time he thinks about it. He’s not entirely sure why, but has figured out that the worries over being so changed from the boy who first carved those initials into the wood are the primary culprit. He doesn’t really think Steve would turn him away, not with how he continues to talk to Bucky so longingly even though he’s speaking only to a tree or a memory, but the fear that he might...
It’s been enough to make Bucky hesitate the closer he gets to Steve, so he lurks in the bushes or hides mere feet away, and tries to work up the courage.
Except then Steve leaves on a mission with the Avengers and a week goes by, then two weeks, without Steve coming to the park or, as far as Bucky can determine, returning to the Tower. Without any way to contact Steve, or to try and find him, without giving himself away, Bucky doesn’t have much of a choice except to wait.
Except then there’s Steve’s face on the news playing on the television in the diner while Bucky’s eating. Steve’s bruised and beaten and fighting some kind of creature Bucky doesn’t have a name for. Fighting alongside the other Avengers, trying to protect civilians, but even though the news footage is shaky Bucky can see people in street clothes lying unmoving on the ground.
The newscaster keeps talking, and the footage switches to something apparently earlier that morning. Steve’s half limping along, half being carried by Iron Man into the back of a small stealth jet. Blood and other less identifiable substances cover Steve’s suit, and the part of his face showing from beneath the cowl is pale and bruised.
A clip from the press conference follows, Romanov and Stark fielding questions in the lobby of the Tower. Bucky ignores most of what they’re saying until he finally hears Romanov state, “Captain Rogers was injured, but not critically, and is currently recovering at the Tower.”
Breath leaves Bucky in a whoosh, relieve making him slump in the booth seat. With the relief comes restlessness, though, and in moments he’s tossing a handful of cash down and slipping out the door.
He’s heading to the park, to their tree. He pretends he’s not sure why, but he is; he wants the comfort of that shared place, somewhere he feels close to Steve. Worry drives him, and he’s practically running through the afternoon streets and into the shade of the trees on the now-familiar route.
Reaching the tree, he stands in front of it and presses his hand, then his forehead against the rough surface of the trunk. Worry for Steve competes with the relief that he’ll be okay. Standing on this side of the tree feels too exposed, though, so after one more deep breath he pushes away and goes to sit in his usual spot a short distance away. He feels better just being here, but wishes he could see Steve. Make sure he really was okay.
Bucky’s not sure how long he sits there, but the sun’s starting to go down and he’s starting to decide whether to go somewhere else, when Steve shows up. He’s limping a little as he comes up the path, with cuts and bruises on his arms and face, but other than that he looks...not too bad, Bucky thinks.
Steve comes to the tree, touches the carved initials, and slumps down at the base of the tree. He’s still wearing his blue uniform pants and boots from the Cap outfit, and a black compression shirt.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve sighs. He leans his head back against the trunk. It’s a long few minutes before he speaks, and Bucky’s heart clenches at the upset in Steve’s voice. “Sorry I haven’t been by, it’s just...been a long couple of weeks. The Avengers got called out to fight some...well, no idea what they were except big and mean, really. We got them beat, in the end, but…” Steve closes his eyes. Thumps his head gently against the tree. “A bunch of civilians got hurt. We did what we could, I know that, but it still feels like we failed.”
Bucky shifts in place. Steve looks tired, he thinks, and he wants to smooth the frown away from Steve’s face. To bring back the smile he remembers Steve used to have.
Shifting with a pained groan, Steve closes his eyes and sighed. Bucky wants to soothe him, to take away the pain and tiredness, and finds himself moving forward out of the trees before he realizes he’s moving. But he doesn’t want to resist any longer. He ghosts across the space between his hiding place and Steve. He knows he didn’t make any noise, but Steve’s eyes flick open and pin Bucky in place less than two feet away. Steve’s expression goes from sharp and dangerous―prepared for a threat―to something shocked with a growing edge of happiness.
Bucky hunches a little deeper into his hoodie. “Hi, Steve.”
Steve still looks almost disbelieving, but manages to whisper, “Hey, Buck.”
And oh, hearing those words directed to his face and not just within his hearing has Bucky feeling like he’s going to float away.
Steve slowly straightens where he’s sitting, like he’s afraid that moving too quickly will scare Bucky away. But Bucky’s done running; he just wants to be home, with Steve.
He nods at the tree. “Who would’a thought this tree would live so long.” He can’t look away from Steve, though, and it’s clear he’s talking about himself, and about Steve, and not about trees at all.
Steve gestures toward the little sign on the nearby pedestal. “No kidding. Seems this one’s more’n a century old, now.”
Bucky can’t help the tiny smile he feels on his lips. “It ain’t the only one.”
They’re quiet for a few minutes, both of them studying the other. Learning new changes up close, laugh lines and faint scars. Eventually Bucky moves closer, until he’s standing right next to where Steve’s seated. Steve looks up at him from the ground as Bucky stands over him, but doesn’t move to stand.
Bucky reaches out his metal hand and gently traces the lines cut into the bark. “SR and JB, huh?”
Steve sounds a bit teary. “Yeah.”
Bucky traces one finger around the heart. Remembers. “They sound like a couple’a punks.”
And Steve grins and laughs, golden voice in the golden sunset, lighting Bucky up inside.