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Burn the Ships

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You burst through the courthouse doors, hanging on Bucky’s arm. Those VA psychologists really came through with their research about shell shock after World War Two and the mental health of Vietnam era POWs. Bucky didn’t want you in the room for Jack’s testimony, but you’d been told it was quite shocking. Of course, the prosecution capitalized on Jack’s disreputable history, but they couldn’t explain why he would want to lie in a way that makes himself into a monster. If anything, he would be downplaying the conditions of Bucky’s detainment. The jury was too horrified to pay any attention to the defense anyway. The talk of court martial was dropped before you even made it out of the courthouse. You understand why Tony had kept these lawyers on a hefty retainer.

Despite spending an extra half hour inside for a debriefing from the attorneys, your legs still shake under your weight. It’s been a long year. Your brain skitters through the memories: late nights preparing, countless death threats, tearful nights wrapped in Bucky’s arms. The idiot just couldn’t run. For the first time in months, you can rest.

Sam bounces down the stairs on your left side, jabbering on about something, presumably the trial. Steve claps Bucky on the shoulder, walking a step behind him. Shouts and bellows rumble ceaselessly from the crowd. Police officers advance several feet in front of you, shoving protesters away. Reporters lean over barricades, reaching microphones as far as they can stretch, shouting questions. Jack waits beside the dark SUV at the curb so you can make a quick getaway. Attorneys, jurors, and witnesses file out behind you.

Bucky grins at you, eyes shining brighter than you’ve ever seen. His walk is lighter; the weight of his past lifted from his shoulders puts a new spring in his step. You grin back at his relieved expression, his smile lines etched so deep, you’re certain they’ll never disappear. You haven’t seen him this cheery since the night he taught you to waltz, and never so calm. Peace settles over his features, as he breathes freely for the first time in decades. Hoping for a future for the first time in decades.

You take a deep breath, letting Bucky guide you to the steps as your eyes fall closed. After spending eight hours a day for the last five days stuck inside that stifling brick building, the air itself smells like freedom. The crisp breeze stings your lungs as you suck in another amazing breath. Your smile widens as Bucky’s scent hits your nose. You slam into his chest, and his lips press into yours.

“It’s over,” he whispers, barely audible.

You pull away, running your tongue over your lips. Your eyes open, focusing immediately on his wholehearted grin. His wheels are turning, and this time, you know why. The little box was missing from its usual spot on his nightstand this morning. It’s over. No more secrets, no more baggage. Just future.

You collapse as a crack cuts Bucky’s enthusiastic chuckle short. Steve, Sam, and Bucky drop not-so-gracefully to the ground, chests slamming into the concrete. The scene erupts into slow motion chaos. Security guards and police officers flood out of the courthouse, rushing in every direction. The crowd scatters, trampling each other in a mad dash. Reporters flee unceremoniously away from the steps, and cameramen back away in a hurry, cameras still pointed toward the action.

A roar of screams and sirens should accompany the mayhem, but all you hear over your breath is Bucky groaning as he turns over. You drag a breath in as he runs his fingers over a spot on his side and pinches his eyebrows together. Warmth spreads over your stomach as blood seeps through his shirt. You force the breath out, reaching for your abdomen. Bucky scans the dispersing crowd, eyes ablaze, face set in stone. A predator scanning for prey.

“Bucky,” you croak, fingers dipping into the hot, sticky puddle on your blouse. Raspy breath in.

His name gets his attention, and he scrambles over to you, stripping his jacket off. His face pales as he looks you over, his hands landing firmly beneath your ribs. Choked breath out. You thought you’d feel more pressure on your stomach.

“Look at me, James.” You lift your other hand weakly, pulling Bucky’s face toward yours. “I’m real.”

He smiles at you before returning his attention to your abdomen. His eyes run over your body in a frenzy. His words slur together as your breaths muddy his voice. You take a deep, jagged breath in.

You pull your hand away from your stomach, turning it over as you examine the deep red liquid. You’d always thought blood was thicker, like syrup. Your breath drowns out all remaining sound. The realization hits you as you gasp in more air, the hand on Bucky’s face slowly dropping. The longer you stare, the tighter your throat closes. Your heartrate climbs along with your breathing. A hand under your chin, turns your face. Bucky’s mouth moves wordlessly. Your name, maybe? He brings your hand back to his face, pressing it into his cheek.

Sam shuffles to your side, across from Bucky, ripping your shirt open. Bucky’s hands settle on either side of your face, and a dull pressure spreads through your stomach as Sam leans over you. A faint metallic smell fills the air, leaving it thick with dread. Your eyes drift between the men, and you scan your entire field of vision for Steve. He’s somewhere close; he wouldn’t run. A tap on your cheek draws your attention back to Bucky as he mouths your name again. Stay with me? Makes sense.

A pat on your thigh turns your focus. Bucky reaches across your body as Sam’s hands slide underneath you. The smell in the air leaves a hint of copper on your tongue as you gulp down another breath. The exhale comes out quickly as they turn you onto your side. Sam’s lips move too quickly for you to read, but his face is tense, eyes wide. A red haze dusts the edges of your vision as Sam presses against your back. You let out a hoarse breath, curling your legs to stabilize yourself.

“I- I can’t-” You inhale a long, wet breath. “Bucky, I can’t move m-” Your thought is cut off by a choked sob. “Why can’t I?”

Sam immediately lowers you to lay flat. You struggle to lift yourself to your elbows. Two strong, mismatched hands land on your shoulders, driving you back to the ground. Sam looks across your chest, meeting Bucky’s eyes. The cords in Bucky’s neck strain, pulling his skin tight as he yells at Sam, who busies himself back at your stomach. Bucky grits his teeth and locks his jaw before turning back to you.

“Look at me,” you plead, gasping, and watch the struggle in his eyes. “I’m real.”

He takes your face between his blood-soaked hands and leans toward you, resting his forehead on yours. Even at this distance, you can barely make out his trembling voice over the rush of blood.

“I know, kitten.”

Searing pain erupts in your abdomen, shooting across your chest and into your fingertips.

***

“I know,” Bucky yells at Sam, pressing you to the ground with one hand. “Just fucking pack it.”

Sam studies Bucky before lifting his own hand from your shoulder and grabbing strips of cloth from the pile near your head. Steve glances over you briefly before returning his attention to ripping apart his jacket. Sam’s suit jacket lays in a heap next to Steve, Bucky’s already torn into pieces.

“I’m real. Look at me,” you gasp quietly.

Bucky’s gaze snaps to you, chest tightening around his pounding heart. “I know, kitten.”

You roll your head back and let out a bloodcurdling scream as Sam reaches into the bullet wound. Tears stream down your pale cheeks, pouring from your clenched eyes. Your back arches with another cry.

“It’s no use,” Sam rocks back and presses a wad of fresh cloths against your stomach. “I can’t find the bleed.”

Bucky runs the back of his hand over your face, gently wiping the tears away. You lean into his touch, gasping for air with short breaths. You can’t speak past your hoarse throat and struggle to breathe past the lump. You turn your head and cough, thick blood spattering the concrete in front of you.

Bucky throws a glare sideways. “No one fucking moves her.”

You roll your head, eyes fluttering uncontrollably. A chorus of sirens crescendos, approaching from every direction. Bucky taps your cheek, making you squint to bring his face into focus.

“Stay with me, kitten,” he begs breathlessly. “You’re fine. I just need you to stay with us.”

“I – don’t –” you choke between breaths, “What’s – hap– Steve – Wh-”

“I need you to calm down.” He smooths down your hair. “Just focus on me.”

Bucky’s fingers trace over the burning gouge in his side as he quiets you. He should have noticed before you even hit the ground, before the round left the chamber. He thought the shooter missed. He hadn’t considered the bullet went through you first. He’s supposed to protect, not throw you into the open.

“I love you,” you breathe, lifting your heavy hand halfway to his face.

“Don’t do that.” He snatches your hand up, pulling it to his cheek. “You’re coming home.”

He’d spent enough time on the battlefield to know when men started rambling, they were really in trouble. Your pulse is barely noticeable in your wrist, and your breaths are coming too fast. You need help now. And more than he and Sam can give you.

Pounding steps yank Bucky from his spiraling thoughts. He hadn’t noticed the ambulance park at the bottom of the stairs in all the pandemonium.

“Where the hell have you been?” Bucky snarls at the approaching EMTs.

Steve tugs at Bucky’s shoulder while he and Sam back away. Bucky shrugs him off but takes a step back. He crouches near your head, taking the hand you reach out for him. The paramedics make quick work of the scene, nodding along as Sam fills them in on the few details he has.

After carefully rolling you onto a board, they carry you down the remaining steps. Bucky stares longingly after them until Steve punches his shoulder. Bucky spins around, growling, and catches a glimpse of a squad car. Two officers shove a young brunette into the back.

“Get the hell in the ambulance, you idiot.” Sam tosses his hand toward the EMTs.

Steve nods. “We’ll meet you there.”

Bucky sprints after you. With a little convincing the EMTs, he climbs into the front of the ambulance. The medics talk in the back and rummage through equipment. He squirms in his seat trying to get a view of you.

“...hypovolemic shock…”

“…neurogenic…blank stare…”

“…weak pulse…”

Most of the conversation is lost among Bucky’s scattered thoughts. Your face is paling quickly, but your chest doesn’t heave with every breath. He doesn’t have the medical knowledge to know if that’s a good sign. He should’ve seen it coming, kept you safe. Instead, he shoved you right out in front. His past will never let him go.

“Do you know her blood type?”

Bucky shakes his head, swallowing the lump in his dry throat. One EMT climbs through the door to the front while the other runs an IV for a blood transfusion and throws a blanket over you. A few moments later, the ambulance pulls back onto the street and speeds toward the hospital. The radio crackles frantically with fresh activity. The driver jerks the handset from the holster and notifies dispatch of the situation.

“GSW to the abdomen, entry and exit, likely a partial spinal cord injury, needs blood.”

Traffic parts in front of the ambulance, and the stopped cars fly past the windows. The siren whines nonstop, driving Bucky deeper into his head. The only grounding sound is your heartbeat monitor beeping slowly, however erratically.

Bucky swallows hard. “How does it look?”

“Too early to tell.” The paramedic glances at Bucky, lifting his shoulders. “I’ve seen worse get better, and I’ve seen better get worse.”

Bucky grits his teeth, nodding absently.

“Our job is to stop the bleeding.” The medic lets out a heavy sigh. “Unfortunately, there’s a lot of it. But that’s what transfusions are for.”

When the beep lengthens into a flat tone, Bucky wrenches around to see through the small window. His muscles twitch as he forces himself to remain seated.

“Tension pneumothorax,” the medic yells to the driver as he pulls a needle from a drawer.

The ambulance slows, making less abrupt movements. In seconds, the medic has the needle placed between your ribs and continues working. Your heartbeat increases slowly, the peaks on the monitor hardly visible. Your eyes flutter, but don’t open. Bucky holds his breath, watching the monitor flat line again.

Plastic crinkles, and the medic places two pads on your chest and steps back. Bucky counts the seconds as he watches your slack face. The electric current in the air makes the hair on his neck prickle. His heart lurches with each of your small convulsions. His muscles tighten with each round of CPR.

When the steady beep returns, he collapses into himself. The hospital is only another two miles away. He drags his hands through his hair and holds his breath, watching the medic return to your wound. When they pull up to the ER, Bucky jumps out before the ambulance is parked. Ignoring shouts from hospital staff, he throws the back doors open, nearly ripping them off the hinges. As the paramedics roll the stretcher out, he takes your hand and follows them inside.

Your eyes open hazily, unable to focus. Bucky brushes hair out of your face and talks soothingly. You look side to side, struggling to keep your attention on him. You try to speak, but each breath is a struggle, and your eyes slip closed.

“You got to stay awake, kitten. Please.” Alcohol and bleach assault his senses as they pass through the sliding doors. “You have to come back. Stay with me, baby. You can’t go.”

A nurse slams her hand into Bucky’s chest, stopping him at another set of double doors. He could push past her. Shove her into the wall and follow you. No one could stop him. Until they do, and he gets thrown out.

“Wait,” he shouts, rushing forward.

“Sir,” the nurse grabs his arm, marveling at the prosthetic, “we don’t have ti-”

“Please.” His voice cracks as he stares at you.

She glances at your blue tinted lips, releasing a breath, and waves Bucky over.

Dashing forward, he quickly brushes your hair back and presses his lips firmly against yours. “I love you.”

You don’t open your eyes, but your lips twitch into a faint smile.

He gives the nurse a jerky nod and steps back. Running a hand over his jaw, he turns around scanning the waiting room. Steve and Sam are nowhere in sight.

When they do arrive, Sam passes Bucky his keys without a word and returns to Steve’s side. Bucky sits alone in the corner of the waiting room, snarling at any nurse who suggests he have the wound on his side looked at. They should be saving you, not trifling with him. He’ll be fine by morning. The bullet hardly took any meat out. He glances up from his hands to watch Steve and Sam talking a few feet away.

“I don’t know, Steve.” Sam faces away from Bucky, whispering behind his hand. “With that much blood-” He trails off, cocking his head to the side.

“You know, I can hear you.” Bucky’s voice is gruff and hollow as he stands. “She’ll be alright.”

Steve slaps a hand on Bucky’s shoulder and squeezes softly. “Did they say anything before we got here?”

Bucky shakes his head, turning his attention to the blank, linoleum floor. “She – she crashed twice in the ambulance.” He clears his throat to hide the crack in his voice.

Sam throws Steve a worried glance and pats Bucky’s shoulder. “It’s alright, man.”

“She’s strong.” Bucky rolls his shoulders, knocking Steve and Sam away. “She’s not just going to give up. She won’t.”

“Buck,” Steve guides Bucky back to his seat with a hand on his elbow, “just sit down. We’re going to be here a while.”

Bucky jerks his arm out of Steve’s grip, and stomps in the opposite direction. “I’m going to get a coffee.”

After he rounds the corner, his shoulders slump and his feet drag over the floor, the soles of his loafers squeaking against the well-trodden surface. His hand presses into the fresh wound in his side, sending stabs of heat up his chest. You shouldn’t be here. None of them should. The shooter didn’t have a shot at killing him anyway. He’d aimed way too low. With the serum in play, Bucky would almost have to take a direct hit to the heart or brain to be fatal. If he hadn’t pulled you in front of him, you’d all be home. He’d have a nasty bruise for a few days, and it’d be a distant memory.

The break area is empty, to Bucky’s relief. He snatches a paper cup from the counter and approaches the machine, digging into his back pocket. He looks down at his wallet and freezes. How many times had he been elbow deep in blood before? How many times had he assured himself he never would be again? He turns his hands over, studying the caked-up blood. Your caked-up blood.

He slowly closes his fists, the blood cracking along his knuckles and drifting to the floor. With a deep breath, he swallows the lump in his throat. He squints his eyes shut as the room swirls around him. This is different than any time before. No rage. No mission. No freezer to numb the guilt. Just panic. But fear makes no distinction. It tugs at the edges of his mind, opening just enough space for memories to creep in. Split knuckles from a fist fight, blood running down his blade and over his wrist, the back of his hand leaving a rusty smudge across his lips.

“Barnes?”

The vending machine snaps into focus, and Bucky’s head swivels toward the door.

“You remember me?”

Bucky nods and crouches to pick his wallet up from the floor. “From the airport.”

“Clint,” his low, gravelly voice is oddly soothing. “Steve said I could find you here.”

“Well, Steve knows everything.” Bucky rolls his eyes, turning back to the machine.

“He’s worried about you.” Clint enters the room and leans against the counter.

Bucky lets out a quiet snicker as he presses the button for an Americano. “It’s about time the tables turned.”

Clint laughs and goes silent. “How are you doing?”

“Look,” Bucky squares his shoulders as he takes the steaming cup, “you’re a good guy. I know you’re just trying to help, but I can’t do this right now. So, just don’t.”

Clint holds his hands up in defeat and takes out his own wallet. The men stand quietly, shuffling their feet and busying their hands as Clint’s coffee trickles into a cup. When he lifts the drink, they proceed slowly back down the hallway.

“She’d be worried about you too, you know.” Clint stops Bucky before they turn the corner to the waiting room. “She’s probably having nightmares about it while she’s under.”

“Clint.” Bucky narrows his eyes and sets his jaw. “I said don’t.”

“I’ve fielded more calls about you than my own children.” Clint throws his hand into Bucky’s chest, keeping him from continuing. “Since the day she met you, her biggest fear has been making a mistake that sets you back.”

Bucky glances away.

“She knew there’d be plenty of setbacks, but she always worried she’d be the reason.” Clint drops his hand, locking eyes with Bucky. “Don’t let her be right.”

Bucky winces imperceptibly and straightens his back. He adjusts his grip on the flimsy cup and rounds the corner, leaving Clint to trail behind. Clint slams into Bucky’s back as his eyes scan the corner of the waiting room.

Rhodes and Happy, he expected. You’d always been close with them. Pepper is a surprise. She had distanced herself from you the moment the news broke about your relationship with Tony. Even Bucky was surprised by that. He’d never pegged Pepper as the jealous type. Then again, he hadn’t been the jealous type either.

With a deep breath, Bucky pushes past the small crowd and takes a chair several seats away. Before anyone can question him, Clint jumps into a reminds-me-of-the-time story. It must be a good one because two minutes later the corner explodes in laughter with Steve defending himself and Rhodey denying involvement. Bucky stares blankly into the deep brown, frothy liquid. He won’t drink it. He knew that when he got it. But you would. And somehow having it makes him feel better. Like you’ll walk out any second and light up when you see it in his hand. Like all it would take to fix this mess is a simple cup of coffee.

His hand tightens around the cup. It takes all his effort not to crush it entirely, slamming it onto the side table instead and making nearly as big a mess. His outburst draws the attention of the full room as he scrambles to clean up the spill, mumbling apologies. Steve ambles over, kneeling next to Bucky, and holds out a towel. How Steve always managed to find the appropriate resources so damn fast always amazed Bucky. Although, it irritated him less in the past. He snatches the towel from Steve’s hand with begrudging thanks and mops up his mess.

“Rollins stopped by the compound and grabbed clean clothes.” Steve rests his hand on Bucky’s shoulder.

Bucky’s gaze darts back to the group. Sam shakes hands with Rollins and slings a backpack over his shoulder before heading down a hallway behind them. Bucky swallows hard and looks himself over. A single glimpse of the maroon staining on his shirt makes his head spin. Why would he put you between himself and a crowd? That was just asking for trouble.

“No,” he gulps. “I’m fine.”

“Buck,” Steve’s voice filters softly through Bucky’s jumbled thoughts, “you look like you-”

“What?” Bucky snarls. “Tried to save a life? Because you don’t.”

“I was there too.” Steve squares his shoulders. “You should change out of that.”

“I don’t need the goddamn clothes.” Bucky shoves past Steve. “I need my girl back.”

Bucky storms to the front door of the emergency room and stops. Of course, the press followed them. Why wouldn’t they? There’s nothing else worth talking about. He locks his jaw and steps through the sliding doors, taking a breath of the fresh air. He can handle it.

Questions flood into his ears from every direction before the doors even shut behind him. The reporters keep their distance, but don’t hold back on their questions. Does he know the victim? Yes. What about the shooter? Not exactly. Does he think it’s his fault? Obviously. Is he going to have a flashback? Probably.

He makes his way to a bench silently and picks at the blood under his nails, making a point to ignore the interrogation. He’d rather listen to them than be inside any longer. At least strangers are too afraid to approach him. His friends won’t leave him alone. Friends may be too strong of a word. Steve and Sam, he could call friends, but not the rest of them. Not that it matters. Everyone is only here for you anyway, even Steve and Sam. Not that he can blame them. You were amazing.

“Are,” he mutters to himself, running his hands through his hair. “You are, goddamn it.”

The doors whoosh open and Pepper steps out, looking around. When she finds Bucky, she sits beside him and pats his knee.

“I have to get back to Morgan.” She tugs at his elbow, urging him to stand with her. “I just wanted to check on you.”

Bucky clears his throat and looks up to meet her bloodshot eyes. “I’m fine.”

She pats his cheek softly and skims her thumb over his jaw, her eyes darting to the horde in the parking lot. “You should stay inside.”

Before she leaves, she pulls him into a gentle hug and kisses his cheek with impossible softness. With a final breath of clean air, Bucky turns back inside. Heat spreads through his chest and his hands shake when he lays eyes on Strange. Stephen reaches a hand toward Bucky’s shoulder preparing to offer what probably would have been a reassurance if Bucky hadn’t cut him off.

“What the hell are you doing?” He swats Strange’s hand away. “I thought you cared about her.”

“Barnes,” Strange sighs.

“You should be back there,” Bucky yells, swinging an arm toward the door labeled Authorized Personnel Only. “Helping.”

“Trust me, Barnes, you don’t want me back there. I’d only get in the way.” Stephen says calmly. “She’s got the best trauma surgeons in the state. When they’re ready for an opinion about her spinal cord, I’ll head back.”

The peaks of Bucky’s lip twitch up, and he returns to his seat with a growl. Sam, now in jeans and a fitted shirt, whispers something to Steve, and Bucky turns back to his hands. The blood has cracked along the creases in his palm and peels off along the seams in his bionic hand. He always knew his past would catch up to him and take everything.

The Winter Soldier will never be gone.

Bucky scrapes at the blood on his hands, unable to stomach looking at it anymore. The lights dim as he chips away at the crust, watching flakes fall onto the clean tile. A thick, mud red dust settles over his fingertips as he works, exposing his stained skin under the coating. His breathing slows and deepens, drowning out the surrounding noise. With a blink, the white tile turns to cold concrete and footsteps echo off the walls.

“Soldat.” A stocky man enters the room.

He doesn’t answer, only looks up, scowling behind his mask.

Metal scrapes as the man toes at the slew of weapons on the ground in front of the Soldier. “Otchet.”

“Target eliminated.” He answers in flawless Russian. “End of report.”

“Do not try me.” The man continues in Russian, grabbing a fistful of the Soldier’s hair and yanking his head up. “Where is the rest of your equipment?”

The knife could have gone unnoticed, maybe even the goggles. They get broken every other mission anyway. But he’d nearly lost the hard drive, and that is unforgivable.

“There was a complication.” He growls dully.

“A child,” the man tosses the Soldier’s head to the side, “does not constitute a complication.”

The soldier returns to scraping filth from his hands. “The child was a witness.”

He’s rewarded with a backhand across his cheek so hard his mask drops to the floor in two pieces.

“You left your equipment in the open.” The man grabs the Soldier by the jaw, squeezing until the Soldier’s teeth scrape against his cheeks. “This is not Moscow. You must be discreet.”

The Soldier silently endures a series of slaps across the face. A punch would be too respectable. An open-handed strike is both humiliating and painful. The sting spreads quickly, extending down the Soldier’s neck. His skin swells with each blow, imprinting a reminder of the mistake on his face. The marks will last long enough for the others to join in the fun.

“How does a child surprise you?”

The unmistakable click of a round being chambered is the only indication that the abuse is over. Cool metal presses against the crown of the Soldier’s head.

“Maybe you weren’t worth the investment after all.”

“Maybe not,” the Soldier whispers back.

“You left the witness alive?”

The Soldier looks out from under his brow, not daring to move his head. “Nyet.”

“Good.” With a smirk, the man lowers his weapon and pats the Soldier’s cheek. “The others will clean up your mess. Your skills are no longer required in this program, not that you’ll remember this anyway.”

Bucky grits his teeth and inhales sharply, willing himself not to break the hand nudging his shoulder.

“Mister Barnes?” A young, brunet fidgets with his hands in front of Bucky. “I’m Peter Par-”

“Jesus, kid,” Bucky breathes, dragging his hand through his hair.

“I’m sorry. I just-” He wrings his hands and bounces on the balls of his feet. “We met at the airport, and I wanted to say I’m sorry. I didn’t want to hurt you and Mister Wilson. I just – Tony said we had to –”

“Look around you.” Bucky’s face softens. “We’re all past the airport.”

Peter glances at Clint grinning at Rhodey and smiles, turning back to Bucky. “I really – you’re like coolest – Man, we learned about you in school, and then you came back. And it was the coolest – And, you’re just – I think you’re awesome.”

“Can I give you some advice, kid?” Bucky leans back and waits for Peter’s breathless answer. “Shut up sometimes.”

Peter opens his mouth and shuts it back, pointing at Bucky.

“There you go,” Bucky grins back at him. “Now, go practice on someone else.”

As Peter leaves to talk with Happy, Sam sits next to Bucky and hands him a cup of coffee. “How you holding up?”

“Why does everyone keep touching me?” Bucky takes the cup and smirks, realizing it’s hot chocolate. “Do I look like I’m in a friendly mood?”

“Come on, man. They’re trying to be supportive.” Sam takes a drink from his own cup and grimaces. “She’s going to be alright. Like you said, she’s a fighter.”

“I really can’t, Sam. Not right now.” Bucky turns away, staring into the swirling, silky, chocolate.

Sam sets his cup on the floor. “You see the twerp from the airport?”

“You’re still holding onto that?” Bucky huffs out a shadow of a laugh. “What’s he doing here?”

“Apparently, Y/N took him on for a while after Germany. Back when she was Stark’s lead counselor.” Sam points to a woman with long, straight hair and big glasses. “That’s his aunt there, May.”

“Happy’s locked onto her like a hawk.” Bucky’s eyebrows knit together as he watches the burly security guard.

“Oh, yeah.” Sam whistles. “They had a summer fling. He says it was mutual.”

“So, she dumped him?” Dating may have changed, but breakups haven’t.

Sam nods. “Come on. Talk with us. It’ll help.”

“No, I-” Bucky shakes his head and struggles to his feet, “I think I’m going to clean up a little.”

They walk into the group together, and Sam passes him the backpack from under a chair. Bucky carries the bag by the top strap and hauls it to the bathroom. When he opens the door, one of the lights flickers, making him rub his eyes. He steps into a stall and strips off his ruined clothes, peeling his shirt away from his skin. The fabric sticks to his stomach where blood seeped through while he was holding you. Realizing his arms are still tacky, he drops his clean shirt back in the backpack.

He pulls on his joggers and steps up to the sink shirtless, tossing his dirty clothes on the counter. His reflection isn’t a sight he’s seen in quite some time. Cracked smears of deep rust coat his cheeks with clean streaks from tears he hadn’t even noticed. The normally white scars on his stomach are a glaring, brick red. His hair, styled so meticulously this morning, falls flat on his head, greasy from sweat. The only volume comes from matted blood and grime off his hands. The stains along his jaw and around his mouth mask the fact that he shaved every morning this week. His red eyes stare back at him, empty.

Dipping his head into the sink, he runs his hands through wet hair until the clumps are gone. Water drips down his face as he lifts his head, eyes squeezed shut. The droplets fall into the sink with a steady plink, and the light in the corner crackles with another flicker. The chill of the sterile building seeps into his bare skin, rooting in his bones. He takes a deep breath, letting the crisp, clean air sting his lungs. When he opens his eyes, a red haze clouds his vision. Thick, sticky globs bleed rusty stains down the sides of the sink, coating the ceramic in gore. He runs his arms absently under the faucet, watching his hands rub the dirty mixture of blood, dirt, and tissue from his skin. The tacky clots tug at the hair and irritate his skin. The sparking light bulb casts the room into an eerie reflection of his past.

Bucky’s fingers curl around the edge of the counter, knuckles going white, struggling against the scratching in his brain. Each flicker of light brings another flash of history. Pink drops from Bucky’s jaw splash onto the counter in diluted blood spatter. His eyes zero in on the filthy, red streams oozing down the drain, and he returns to cleaning his hands.

He snatches a bloody cloth from the pile and dries his face, leaving light smudges behind, before cleaning his neck. The cool fabric is softer than he remembers, but there’s no time to dwell on it now. He sets about the task of cleaning himself up, not thoroughly, just enough to be presentable. As he pulls his shirt over his head, a door slams. He takes a deep breath, staring at his tired, ruddy face in the mirror. The shirt is tighter than usual.

“Soldat.” The man’s voice is unmistakable, Ivanov.

He won’t get away with a nonverbal answer. “Da.”

“Explain yourself.” The harsh Russian rolls crisply off Ivanov’s tongue.

“Your girl wasn’t ready.” The Soldier faces Ivanov. “She compromised the mission and everyone on it.”

“Your job,” Ivanov takes a step into the Soldier’s space, “is to prevent that.”

Ivanov is, by no means, a large man. The Soldier could easily disable him in no more than three moves. But he is powerful. Injuring Ivanov would certainly result in heavy consequences. Killing any handler, or most instructors for that matter, would land him back in the freezer.

“My job is damage control.” The Soldier doesn’t budge.

Ivanov gives a curt nod. “You eliminated the others. Why did you bring her back?”

“She fought,” the Soldier growls.

“We do not salvage compromised assets.” Ivanov squares his shoulders at the Soldier’s show of aggression.

The Soldier eyes Ivanov’s fingers twitching at his sidearm and stands down, taking a step back. “I like her.”

Ivanov snorts, a glimmer jumping into his eyes as he relaxes. “Kill her when you’re done.”

The door slams shut.

“Barnes?”

Bucky’s eyes shut tighter, eyebrows pulling together. “Rollins?”

“You’ve been in here a while.” Rollins gives him an uneasy look, studying his posture.

“We’re not friends.” Bucky growls, shoving his clothes into the backpack.

“I’m not trying to be.” Rollins opens the door for Bucky. “But someone ought to remind you that you weren’t the only one responsible for keeping her safe.”

Bucky’s steps falter. “I’m the only one responsible for getting her shot.”

“I was on that bridge too.” Rollins matches Bucky’s stride. “Giving orders, if memory serves.”

Bucky stops short and squints at Rollins. “Very bold of you to remind me while you’re standing in striking distance.”

Jack lets out a chuckle. “I’ll share the blame if you will.”

Bucky’s lips twitch up, and his shoulders relax. “How do you even know it was because of DC?”

“It’s all over the news.” Rollins glances at Bucky and waves to the TV on the opposite side of the waiting room. “That Williams lady surrendered immediately.”

“The prosecution’s witness?” Bucky shakes his head. “I guess it makes sense.”

“Buck,” Steve sighs, walking up to the two men. “What took you so long?”

Rollins glances between them and steps away.

“I had a lot to clean up,” Bucky snaps and edges around Steve.

Steve grabs Bucky by the elbow and drags him back. “Would you quit running off?”

“Would you quit worrying about me?” Bucky hisses. “You are not my father, so lay off it. I am a fucking adult.”

Steve lets out a breath as Bucky rips his arm away and storms back to his seat. Steve had been giving him orders since the moment he got back from his family. Hell, before that – since the battle with Thanos. All their lives, really. It wasn’t so bad when he was a little guy. During the war, there was a chain of command. Now that he’s a senior citizen, it only feels like nagging. And disappointment.

The chair next to Bucky creaks under Steve’s weight, and Bucky lets out a groan. Steve sighs and lays his hand on Bucky’s back. Bucky’s eyes cut sideways as he leans forward and rests his elbows on his knees. The blond bastard has always been relentless. Always been good.

“Just leave me alone.” Bucky shakes him off.

Steve doesn’t move. “You know that I get it.”

“Don’t.” Bucky grits his teeth and rubs his temples. “Please don’t.”

“You remember. Peg took a bad hit, and we didn’t know if she’d make it. Or that time she went with Tenth Mountain and didn’t come back on time.” Steve leans onto his knees, matching Bucky’s posture. “I know what it’s like to-”

“What, Steve?” Bucky’s head snaps up. “Find your girl? Marry her, raise a family, watch them grow up, raise their families, make a life?”

Steve closes his eyes and opens his mouth slowly.

“Tell me you know how I feel,” Bucky yells before Steve can answer. “Please, tell me you understand. I could use a good excuse to clock somebody.”

As Bucky winds up for another reaming, a doctor enters the waiting room and calls your name. Silence swallows Bucky’s senses. The room falls away, and Bucky’s arms drop to his sides like hundred-pound weights. All that matters is the man in the white coat with a small smudge of blood over his left eyebrow. The man with steady hands and firm footing.

Everyone stares at Bucky as he crosses the room, backing away to give him space. His tongue sticks to the roof of his mouth, and he can’t form a single word. His head swarms with more activity than his brain can process, leaving it empty. His heart slams into his ribs with each step closer, his feet aching to reach the surgeon while the rest of him resists the update. The room stretches forever while the world closes around him, suspending Bucky in an infinite moment of hopeful dread.

Bucky swallows his breath, taking the last step to meet the doctor, and waits. The doctor opens his mouth, and a deafening quiet rushes through the air. The first two words are all Bucky needs. The doctor’s lips continue moving, words drowned in Bucky’s gasping breath. His lungs spasm until they stop altogether, and his knees give out. He doubles over, crouching slowly until he hits the floor. His vision darkens, forcing him to suck in a quick breath. His arms tighten around himself, his hands covering his face and digging into his hair.

The room is still as Steve takes a knee in front of Bucky, silence broken only by a stifled gasp from somewhere behind them. Bucky leans into Steve instinctively, clawing at his back, desperate to find a familiar embrace. A scrap of comfort. A whiff of home. Anything to hold onto.

Anything but “I’m sorry.”