Chapter 1: Part 1: Before the War
“Come on, Buck,” Steve urges, pushing another branch out of the way before it smacks him in the face. They’d spent that Sunday afternoon at the Brooklyn Museum, but lost track of time until the museum staff started clearing everyone out. “We don’t got time to take the long way through the park, ‘specially when we’re not even following the path.” He jogs a few steps to try and catch up to Bucky’s longer stride. “It’s getting late and Ma’ll tan my hide if I miss dinner.”
Bucky glanced over his shoulder and slowed down enough that Steve could move up to his side. He tosses his arm over Steve’s narrow shoulders. “It’s fine, Stevie! I just wanna show you someplace I found last week, and it’s nicest just before the sun goes down.” He pulls Steve up a small slope and between two thick-trunked trees. “It ain’t far, and it’s on the way to the train station anyhow. ‘Sides, your Ma ain’t gonna give you a swat, she ain’t the type.”
“She’ll give me that ‘I’m disappointed in you, Steven’ look, though. Pretty sure that’s worse,” Steve groans, scuffing his heel against the ground.
Bucky snorts a laugh. “Yeah, I guess that’s fair. Well don’t worry, this’ll be quick and you’ll be home in no time.”
Steve rolls his eyes, but keeps following Bucky through the brush and bracken of the depths of Prospect Park. Yeah he might argue, but he’s never able to resist Bucky’s whims for long. He can see flashes of other people through the trees; couples strolling arm-in-arm and people either on their way home or headed out for the evening’s entertainment. He’s sure none of them would be able to see two boys running through the trees, which sort of makes it feel like a secret adventure.
Turns out Bucky wasn’t exaggerating, and in under a quarter hour they’re deep in the trees somewhere. Steve’s best guess is somewhere between the Nethermead and the slope down into the Ravine. But then Bucky slips between a boulder and some leafy brush and when Steve follows he sees they’re in a little clearing, hidden from the surrounding pathways by some dense bushes and a cluster of tight-knit trees.
“See?” Bucky exclaims, spreading his arms wide. “A perfect secret spot right in the middle of the park.”
And yeah, Steve has to admit that it’s a pretty nice spot, especially with the afternoon sun filtering down through the branches and leaves arching overhead. “Okay, Bucky, this is pretty neat.”
Bucky gives him a satisfied grin. “I knew you’d like it.” He walks over to one of the trees and points to a spot a few feet above the ground. “I even marked it so we can find it again, and we’ll always know we’re in the right place. In case the bushes start to grow in or something.”
When Steve steps closer, he sees that Bucky’s carved their initials into the bark, a little rough and uneven.
JB + SR
He casts a confused look at Bucky. “Ain’t that what people do with whoever they’re stepping out with?”
Bucky just shakes his head. “Nah, Stevie, this is ‘cause we’re best friends, see it ain’t got a heart around it, so it’s just marking this as our secret hideout.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Steve says, but he’s not really sure. Still, Bucky seems real proud of himself, so it’s fine. “Your carving needs some work, though,” he teases.
“Yeah, well, I ain’t the artist here, am I?” Bucky rolls his eyes, but he pulls his little folding knife out of his pocket and hands it to Steve. “If you’re gonna be a critic, then you can fix it up.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Steve grumbles, though he doesn’t really mind. He takes a few minutes with the knife, carefully trimming the edges of the letters and even adding little flourishes at the ends of the lines, until the whole thing looks tidy and actually pretty swell.
Bucky smiles, satisfied, while running his fingers along the letters. “That looks real good, Steve. Thanks. Now it’s really our spot, since we both had a part of marking it.”
Even though Steve thought this was a bit silly at first, he can’t deny the satisfaction he feels seeing his initials permanently etched into the wood of the tree next to Bucky’s.
The sun glints through the trees, one bright gold moment, before the light has set low enough that twilight falls across their little glade.
“You’re right, Buck. It looks real nice.” Steve smiles and passes the penknife back. “But I really do gotta get home.” He reaches out to flick a tiny piece of bark out of the groove of the ‘B’.
“Sure thing, pal, let’s go,” Bucky smiles back. He leads the way out of the trees and when they reach the path again, he smirks at Steve. Shouting, “Race ‘ya!” he takes off running. Steve laughs, and follows behind. He might not beat Bucky in a race, but he knows Bucky won’t leave him behind.
Bucky settles at the base of the tree―their tree, which is how he always thinks of it―and idly whittles away at a stick with his penknife while he waits for Steve to show up. Bucky’s home on furlough for the week, and even though it won’t be the last chance he and Steve have to see each other, it’s unlikely they’ll have another chance to come here.
He’s already let his Ma and Becca know he’d be out for awhile tonight with Steve, and Steve also doesn’t have to work late stocking shelves at the greengrocers. At least for a little while, tonight’s just for the two of them.
The sun’s low in the sky, casting their little glade into twilight shadows. He’s quiet aside from the scratch of the knifeblade against wood, enjoying the softness of the nighttime sounds from the park and trees surrounding him, backgrounded by the low hum of the city.
It’s a nice change after the noise and crowded quarters of the training camp these last few months. Most of the other guys in his training unit are alright fellas, but the barracks have them packed in like sardines, and the days are long and sweaty and loud.
Soft rustling through the trees catches Bucky’s ear a few minutes later, and when he determines it’s headed his way, he’s figures it’s Steve. Sure enough, after another minute the brush at the south end of their little clearing rattles and shifts aside as Steve pushes his way into the little clearing.
“It’s a lot harder to get here when it’s getting dark,” Steve complains, brushing off the knee of his trousers where a smudge of dirt says he must have tripped. Bucky hides a smile as he folds up his penknife and stands.
“You gotta take it easy there, Stevie. I ain’t always gonna be around to mend the tears in your pants,” Bucky teases.
Steve snorts as he straightens. “Bribe Becca to do your mending, you mean?”
“I’m an enterprising man, Steve,” Bucky laughs, spreading his hands in an exaggerated gesture. “Gotta know how to make a deal.”
“I’ll show you a deal,” Steve mutters, but he’s smiling as he steps closer to Bucky. Leaning in, he presses a quick kiss to Bucky’s jaw, but not before he glances around to make sure they’re still safely shielded by nature. Even though they’re safe enough here, hidden by trees around their little clearing, Steve’s still always careful. Always watching that someone isn’t about to stumble across their little shelter in the underbrush.
When Steve pulls back, he gets a glimpse around Bucky’s shoulder at the oak tree―their tree. He smiles. “I see you’ve been busy.”
Around the initials carved years ago, cuts gone dark with the years, Steve can see the bright pale slashes of a newly-carved heart arcing around the letters.
Bucky smiles back, and to anyone other than Steve it would look carefree, but he knows Steve can see the sadness and worry underneath.
“Wasn’t sure when I’d get another chance,” Bucky says. Turning, he runs his fingers along the heart’s edge and then shaves a little more bark off with the small penknife. “And I thought our hideaway could use a bit more decoration. Something permanent, so you don’t forget me when I’m away.”
Steve sighs, sounding equally exasperated and fond. “No chance of me forgetting you, Bucky Barnes. You made your choice when were were seven years old, you’re stuck with me now.” He leans against Bucky’s shoulder. “But I do like the heart. Looks nice.” Then Steve smirks. “But it needs a little work.”
Sliding his hand over Bucky’s, Steve takes the penknife. Leaning forward, he starts trimming and tidying the carved heart. They’re both quiet while Steve works, sharing each other’s space, the soft crunchy scraping sound of the metal blade against bark the only noise.
Finally Steve brushes away the last curls of bark. The heart Bucky’d carved earlier now has smooth edges cut deep through the bark and down into the pale wood beneath. “There.”
“Looks great,” Bucky whispers, slipping the penknife out of Steve’s hand and folding it before tucking it back in his own pocket.
Steve turns around to face Bucky, putting his back against the tree. Reaching out, he slips a hand beneath one of Bucky’s suspenders and tugs him forward until Bucky’s weight presses him against the tree trunk. Through the thin material of his shirt and coat, Steve can faintly feel the dips and ridges of the carving. JB + SR. Rising on his toes and pressing their chests together, Steve slips his other hand up the back of Bucky’s neck and pulls him into a kiss.
They spend long minutes kissing, lips and tongues sliding warm against each other, even as they both know they can’t take this too far. Their little clearing is private enough, but it’s still in the middle of a public park. They can’t get careless.
Finally Steve pulls away, though only far enough that he can rest his head against the stubbled edge of Bucky’s chin. Without the distraction of a kiss, he’s left with the melancholy of their coming separation. “I’m gonna miss you, Buck.”
Bucky’s arms tighten where they’re wrapped around Steve, and Bucky heaves a sigh that ruffles Steve’s hair. “Yeah, I’m gonna miss you too, punk.”
“Any word yet on where you’re going? Or when?” Steve asks, leaning back so he can see Bucky’s face. All the years they’ve been friends, the last couple years they’ve been lovers, and Steve still never tires of the familiar lines and angles, these smiling grey-blue eyes.
Bucky shakes his head. “Not yet. I think after this leave, though. Most of us are through with Basic and starting to earn our ranks.” He gives a cocky tilt of his head and smirks at Steve. “I made Sergeant last month, actually. Started training as a marksman.”
“Well, you always had good aim,” Steve smiles, but he can feel it’s tight with worry. The sharpshooters might stay further back from the action sometimes when compared to the infantry, but that certainly didn’t mean Bucky was going to be safe from danger.
Bucky hauls Steve close again and into another kiss. Steve tries to say with his lips what he feels in his heart―that he loves Bucky, worries for him, misses him when he’s not here. It’s full dark now, though, and Steve reluctantly pulls away. “Guess we oughta get going. Your Ma’ll be expecting you back for dinner with her and the girls.”
Bucky gives him a pouty look, and damn but it shouldn’t look so good on such a masculine face. Steve strokes his hand down Bucky’s cheek before stepping aside. “Come on, Buck. Can’t stand around being sweet on you all night, unfortunately.”
For a moment Bucky stays where he is, eyes on the heart carved into the tree in front of him. JB + SR. He reaches out to touch the letters, then taps his knuckles three times against the wood before following Steve through the brush and out of the clearing.
He wanted this to be a “see you later.”
It feels like a goodbye.
Chapter 2: Part 2: After the Ice
The pounding rhythm of his feet against the pavement keeps Steve from falling too far into thoughts of the last few months―aliens and gods and always, always, the look on Bucky’s face just before he fell from that train. Seventy years for everything except Steve’s heart, which aches with the memory that to him was only months ago.
It’s been less than three months since he came out of the ice, and barely two months and three weeks since fighting actual goddamn aliens during the Chitauri invasion. He thought he’d seen enough during the war to cure him of surprise, but from the moment that helicarrier lifted into the air Steve’s felt more than out of place in this future. Aliens and gods, Hulk and Iron Man.
Every time he goes outside, it’s disorienting, to know that so much of his own history―buildings, people―is changed or gone. He feels almost as alien as Thor, as though he’s here from another planet and living in a culture that reflects the one Steve remembers but isn’t quite the same.
He runs faster, trying to outpace his thoughts. It sort of works, and for a little while he’s able to distract himself. When he eventually tunes into his surroundings again and looks around, he realizes he’s ended up in Brooklyn.
An unconscious desire, maybe. He hasn’t actually been back to Brooklyn since he woke up, telling himself he’s too busy with SHIELD and aliens and missions, but he knows those excuses are only half the truth. Something else has kept him away; not fear, exactly, but a kind of reluctance to return to this place that lives so clearly in his heart and memories only to be faced with all the ways it, too, has changed.
But he’s here now, so he slows to a jog and looks around.
It’s like he expected. So many changes that he’s not able to figure out where he is just at a glance. When he comes up on the next corner he sees he’s at Parkside Avenue and Flatbush, and takes a moment to realign his mental map of Brooklyn with how the buildings look now.
But knowing the street is enough for Steve to know where he is, and sure enough when he comes around the corner he sees the thick green trees of the south-east corner of Prospect Park leaning out over the sidewalk.
As he approaches the park, and maybe it’s because thoughts of Bucky were so close earlier, but he remembers that one of the last times he saw Bucky here in Brooklyn was at their secret base, hidden in the trees.
Some of the paths have moved over the years, and he wanders through the quiet, cool expanse of grass and trees, taking in the differences. Lots of new public fixtures like tables and benches, and smart little signs with maps of the park.
The third little sign he pauses to look at points out the Nethermead with a little plaque about the history, but Steve only remembers pushing through dense brush when the prize at the end was time with Bucky.
He hesitates, because he’s not sure he wants to know the answer, but curiosity and nostalgia win out.
Enough of the pathways and clusters of trees have shifted over the decades that he’s not really sure where to start looking. So he starts wandering through the area, trying not to look too much as though he’s looking for something specific because he doesn’t really want to draw any attention.
Even as he searches, he’s sure it will be gone, either died or cut down or somehow just gone away with one of the many changes to the park over the years. He doesn’t even know what kind of tree it is, and he’s no botanist. He tries to picture what the trunk or leaves looked like, but his brain mostly just supplies, tree .
He’s trying not to get his hopes up, telling himself that it’s okay if the tree is gone because it was just a tree, and there’s been so many changes in his life, what’s one more?
But he comes around a curve of the path and emerges from the treeline and there it is, somehow recognizable even though it’s clearly larger and broader than the last time he saw it.
The landscape has changed a bit, with the brush and trees that used to make one side of their little glade all cleared away and replaced with grass and small bushes in the expanse stretching away beside the path.
For a solid five minutes Steve just hovers, not approaching, and studying the tree in something akin to wonder. The tree looks old, it’s true, but the branches are broad and spreading wide and healthy. The trunk is thicker, and he’s not sure he would be able to get his arms around it, even in his big supersoldier body.
A pair of joggers come up the path behind him, jarring Steve out of his trance and spurring him to move forward. He steps off the path and approaches the tree, skirting around the bushes and a small flowerbed overflowing with blooms.
There’s a nice little plaque near the tree, describing how this tree―which turns out to be a beech tree, so that’s something new he’s learned―is a protected tree because it’s over a century old. The rest of the sign talks about the original design and planting of this section of the park as well as detailing some of the changes to this part of the park and other old things that were preserved through the changes.
Steve can’t help but laugh a little, since he’s almost as old as this tree. Maybe he should be a protected species, too.
Close enough to the tree now to touch it, he runs his hand across the rough, weathered bark. Circles halfway around, and...there. The unmistakable marks from nearly a century ago, stretched and shallowed with time and run through with cracks in the bark.
JB + SR
The cuts have darkened and weathered, but there his and Bucky’s initials are, still visible. With gentle fingers he touches and traces over the shallow gouges and curves. He’s happy, silently overjoyed that this proof of his and Bucky’s existence still exists, even if he’s sad at the same time that he’s the only one still alive to see it.
“Hey, Buck,” he whispers. Traces the “B” and then the curves of the heart. He huffs out a little laugh. He knows he’s not going to get an answer, he’s not delusional, but he’s never gone to see Bucky’s grave at Arlington because he knows it’s just an empty box, and somehow it feels right to say something here, a place that was always just theirs.
“So, you’re never gonna believe it,” Steve starts, and the words start pouring out as though all he needed was the right place to finally say it aloud. “But it’s 2012 and I’m still alive. I don’t...even really know why. It certainly wasn’t the plan, and yeah, I know if you were here you’d punch me for being so stupid and for saying that at all. But I kind of crashed a plane full of bombs into the ocean and whatever’s in the serum to make me heal and be healthy must have preserved me. A group called SHIELD found me in the ice and brought me home, and somehow I...wasn’t dead.”
It sounds so ridiculous, so incredible, when he says it out loud. He can picture Bucky’s face, the expressions he’d make as he shifted from surprised to amused to concerned. Can almost hear his laugh. I thought I told you not to do anything stupid ‘til I got back.
“Yeah, yeah. You’ll remember I never actually agreed to that,” Steve sighs, but he’s smiling. Just a little, but it feels good.
He pulls his phone out of his pocket to check the time―and aren’t phones these days just something?―but he doesn’t have anywhere to be.
Patting the carvings once more, he sits and stretches out on the grass. It’s cool and damp against his back, but feels nice after the exertion of his run. Looking up at the “JB” traced into wood nearly a century ago, his heart aches a little, but for the first time he feels like Brooklyn could once again be home.
“Pal, have I ever got a story for you…”
That first afternoon starts a trend in Steve’s life, a new pattern to his days.
It’s as though he opened the floodgates now that he’s found this connection to his past, and to Bucky. He doesn’t come by every day, but every week or so he finds himself turning his runs toward Prospect Park and taking a break at the base of their tree.
Sometimes he talks quietly, sharing bits and pieces about the life he’s trying to build in New York, with SHIELD and the Avengers. Other times it’s the future things that he knows Bucky would have loved, computers and the internet and all the sweet snacks.
He did make himself visit the small grave for Bucky in the cemetery next to the rest of the Barnes family, but it never felt right. Oh, it was a nice enough space, but Steve didn’t feel any connection there because he knows Bucky’s body was never recovered―he’d checked on that after coming out of the ice―and so he knows there’s no part of Bucky laying here under the dirt. Sitting on the grass beneath their tree, with initials carved by Bucky’s own hand, is the closest Steve feels to their shared past.
Some days Steve doesn’t come on a run, but instead carries his sketchbook and spends hours drawing, creating sketches of the park and the people there, or Peggy and the Commandos, and always, always Bucky’s face.
The summer passes that way, with long runs and full sketchbooks, and sharing stories with the memory of his best guy.
One day coming up on fall, though, Steve finds himself walking slowly though the park toward his and Bucky’s tree. He’s taking his time, meandering more than usual, and he knows it’s reluctance in a way, but he also knows that it’s time for this change.
Doesn’t make it any easier to come here and say what he needs to say.
But inevitably he’s there, standing in the shade of the arching branches, facing those carved initials that hold so much more meaning that anyone else would know just from looking.
“Hey, Bucky,” he says, his usual greeting as he reaching out to touch the carvings. Traces Bucky’s initials.
“So I’ve got some news,” he continues. And it’s harder than he thought to say the words, even just to himself, but he forces them out. “I’m gonna be moving to D.C. Pretty much now, actually; Natasha and I will be flying down there in a couple days.”
Saying the words to Bucky finally makes it feel real, for all that he’s been planning this move for a couple months. “Brooklyn’s still home. You’re still home, for me. But I think for a little while I need a change. And it feels like I can do some good there, working closer with SHIELD at the main headquarters.”
He traces the carvings again, breathes out a heavy sigh and closes his eyes. “It won’t be forever. Just...for a little while.” He’s quiet for a few minutes, just listening to the rustle of the tree’s leaves above him. Opening his eyes, he reaches up and snaps off the end of a slim branch with a few leaves, and presses it between the pages of his sketchbook. So he’ll always have a little piece of this place with him.
He presses a kiss into his palm and then flattens his hand against their initials. “See you later, Buck.”
Chapter 3: Part 3: Coming Home
Check out the awesome art by whoisnivelle in this chapter!
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.