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offer me that deathless death

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It’s February when Bucky dies for the first time.

It’s February and it’s snowing; Steve is standing beside him radiating heat like a blast furnace, while Bucky’s toes freeze in his boots and he pretends his ears aren’t about to fall off.

There’s a train and Bucky gets on it.

Bucky gets on the train, and then he falls off the train, and then he’s very dead. He’s very extremely dead, until he isn’t.

As far as turning points go, this is a big one for Bucky. People’s lives are full of them.

The details of Bucky’s turning point are as follows: it is the 3rd of February, the year is 1945, and they’re chasing Arnim Zola, who’s on a train travelling through the Austrian Alps. A narrow window of time is available to do this. There’s just one chance. They’ve got to get on that train. Bucky goes, because Steve is going, and then, shortly, he falls.

He did promise to follow Steve into the jaws of death. So, he gets on the train, and then he falls off the train.

If Bucky wasn’t so dead, he’d laugh himself sick.

oOo

Bucky wakes with a gasp caught in his throat.

“Bad dream?” Steve isn’t looking at him. He hasn’t even rolled over.

“I’ll say,” mumbles Bucky. His hands shake as he taps out a cigarette. Since Steve’s already awake, he leans up against his broad back and fills his lungs with smoke until the tremor subsides. “Time is it?”

“Early.”

“Oh, thanks," drawls Bucky. "I couldn’t tell that much.”

“Left my pocket watch in my other pants.”

Bucky barks out a laugh that hurts his chest. Steve’s a comfortable lump behind him, generating enough body heat to fill the tent. When Bucky finishes with his cigarette, he stubs it out and tucks the butt back into the carton. “Is it time to get up?”

“No,” says Steve. This time, he rolls over. Bucky fits neatly into his arms, prompting a faint hiss from Steve when Bucky presses his cold nose to the hollow of his throat. It just gets him more soundly cuddled, though. He’ll take any scrap of comfort he can get, so long as Steve doesn’t make him say he needs it.

It’s just that the heartsick feeling won’t go away.

They lie still quietly, long enough that Bucky thinks he might drop off again, but Steve just can’t let comfortable silence be silent.

“Buck—”

Don’t.”

Bucky doesn’t mean it to come out so sharp and he immediately feels bad. Steve’s been dealing with his sharp edges for months. When did we swap places? he thinks suddenly.

It’s a miserable, uncharitable thought, because he doesn’t want to be the one that’s hard, and sharp, and angry. He doesn’t want to wear his sullen defiance like a suit of armor.

“Don’t, what?”

“You were going to ask.”

“Am I not allowed?”

“No.” It comes out petulant. Bucky knows it’s childish. He just doesn’t want to hear it.

“You can tell me, though.”

“They’re just dreams.”

“Still—”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” snaps Bucky.

Steve lets it stew for less than a minute.

“I just worry about you.” Steve’s voice is so absurdly soft that for a second, Bucky sees red.

“Yeah?” he says, completely belligerent. “Well, now you know how it feels.”

Steve stiffens, tension rippling through him. His grip on Bucky doesn’t change, but it’s like hugging a brick wall. “You don’t talk to me anymore.”

“What am I going to say, Steve?” Now that he’s started, he can’t stop. There’s acid in his mouth and ash in his chest. “What do you want to hear? That I can’t sleep? Maybe you’d like to know that when I do manage to nod off, it isn’t long before my brain fills up with nightmares so real I wake up sometimes and I’m convinced you’re dead next to me? I tell you, pal, I’d like nothing more than to unscrew my skull and toss it into the ocean. How’s that, Steve? We good? ”

The brick wall softens and exhales shakily. Steve is wrapped around him like a coat, solid and thick. Like he can somehow protect Bucky from the parade of gruesome imagery his brain conjures to hurt him. “I’m not dead next to you.”

“Not today,” whispers Bucky.

“Not tomorrow, either.” Steve’s lips find his forehead.

He’s right, in a way. Bucky dreamed of his own death, this time.

Later, when he falls, he thinks, Oh.

Honestly, it’s almost a relief to realize he had it all wrong. He can handle a premonition. It’s still Steve he’s worried about. As he loses his grip, he thinks, Steve can’t see this. Steve can’t see me fall, and he doesn’t.

Bucky is alone.

This isn’t how he wanted to go, but who ever gets a say in that? His mother and sisters are safe at home, but Steve—

Steve is here. Bucky didn’t kiss Steve goodbye, or tell him—anything. What were their last real words to each other? He can’t remember. He can’t remember the last thing he said to Steve, or the last thing Steve said to him. This morning, he snapped at Steve, and Steve just held him harder.

There’s no surviving this fall.

A guy could break his neck out h—

oOo

Bucky sits up with a gasp.

Next to him, Steve says, “Bad dream?”

oOo

“You’re shaking.”

“It’s cold.”

“That’s not what I meant.”

“I know that, genius.”

“Jeeze, Buck.” Steve’s mouth curls down at the corners, a perfect moue of disappointment Bucky’s own ma couldn’t rival. It’s still jarring, seeing Steve’s familiar face framed by that unfamiliar jawline. A year of this face and a small, wretched part of Bucky is still mourning the little guy he left behind, while the rest reminds himself that Steve’s the same big personality in any old body. “You’re like a bear with a sore head.”

“Am I threatening your monopoly?” Bucky cups his hands over his mouth and blows into them weakly.

Christ, it’s cold. Like a knife between the ribs every time Bucky breathes in. He’s been lightheaded since he woke up this morning, the thin air at this altitude leaving him struggling to fill his lungs. Meanwhile, Steve’s annoyingly unaffected, hale and hearty as ever with his ruddy nose and pink cheeks.

“Huh?” says Steve. “On what?” At least the little divot between his brows when he scowls is unchanged.

“Bad temper. It’s a joke,” Bucky says at length. “Don’t hurt my feelings by not laughing.”

“Ha, ha,” Steve says deliberately. “You’re a riot.”

“Now you’re just humoring me.”

“That’s exactly what you asked me to do.”

“Since when do you listen to what I say?”

Bucky.” The note of exasperation in Steve’s voice is viscerally satisfying.

It's not particularly mature to do this now, when they're about to try to execute a very delicate operation, and it's definitely not professional. He leans into it anyway. “I’m fine, Steve.”

He’s not expecting Steve to dramatically take a step back from him like Bucky just wound up a punch. "I can tell that you aren't."

There's hurt creasing up Steve’s big dumb face, and guilt sinks like a stone in Bucky's belly. He’s insulted. Bucky’s lie is so obvious that Steve is offended.

"There's nothing to talk about. We have more important things to do today," Bucky says dismissively.

"But—"

"But, nothing. Drop it." For lack of anything better to do, Bucky lights a cigarette and kicks at a clump of snow. Shielding the ember with his hands, Bucky fills his lungs with cold smoke.

Steve looks at him with sharp eyes, his floppy blond hair flat against his forehead from the wind. He looks so stupid. A walking, talking Michaelangelo, a study in muscle and bone. Bucky wants, suddenly, to return to the privacy of their tent, when it was still dark and early and they had time, and Bucky wants to see him naked; to trace the vulnerable crease between his thigh and torso with his tongue. He wants to chase the dejected expression off Steve's face.

Talking about his fears won't quell them. He will still be consumed.

"Fine," says Steve. He follows up his unexpected capitulation by reaching out and plucking the cigarette directly from Bucky's lips.

"You son of a—" Bucky stops, because Sarah Rogers is dead, and no matter how much he wants to sock Steve in the mouth for being a nag, he won't do it like that.

"Did you eat something?" Steve asks mildly. "You seem hungry."

Bucky rounds on him, incredulous, watching Steve stub out the cigarette with his fingertips. "I seem hungry," he repeats flatly.

"Might need a snack."

"You offering to make me a late breakfast, Rogers?"

"I can crack open a can of ham and eggs for you."

Bucky makes a face. "I'd rather not eat at all than eat that."

"You should eat something."

"If we were home," says Bucky. "If we were anywhere but here, and if you could cook worth a damn, Steve, then what would you make for me?"

"Crêpes,” Steve says without hesitation. “With vanilla in the batter and chocolate sauce on top.”

“Fruit?” asks Bucky, if only to mask his shock. Steve’s talking like he’s given this serious thought, which means he’s mused about it before, on his own, before Bucky asked him.

“Strawberries,” says Steve.

“You’re allergic,” protests Bucky.

Steve turns to look at him, expression calm and a little sad. “Not anymore.”

It’s stupid. Why does he look like that? He can’t be sad to miss an allergy. He can eat strawberries in the summer, now, when they’re fat and juicy and sweet, he can eat and eat and eat them and his stomach probably wouldn’t even hurt, just like he couldn’t when they were kids.

“Oh,” is what Bucky says. “Then I want strawberries.”

“That’s why I said it.” Steve’s smiling again, just a little bit. Over whatever hurdle he encountered.

What would he make for Steve? Bucky is embarrassed to admit, to himself, that he doesn’t know. He doesn’t have an answer right on the tip of his tongue, like Steve does. Why was he thinking about it? When they ate breakfast yesterday and Bucky picked at his, appetite absent for weeks, is that why Steve looked at him so closely?

“Too bad, I guess,” Bucky says, glib. It’s a concentrated effort to snap himself out of an unhealthy fantasy. None of that is them, here and now, in the present.

They can think about it later, when there’s more time. Bucky can figure out what he’d make for Steve. He can give it as much care and thought that Steve has, and maybe the sting of shame will fade.

Now, they have a train to catch.

oOo

Bucky sits up and clutches frantically at his neck.

He is breathing—he is—deep and ragged, and the echo of a hard, sharp crack resonates down his trembling spine. A snap, and then—

Nothing.

Next to him, Steve stirs. “Bad dream?”

Bucky opens his mouth to reassure him and chokes on a sob instead.

It fills his throat, thick and suffocating, and he doubles over. He feels like someone punched him in the stomach, kicked the air out of his lungs all at once in a big whoosh, and he is helpless to do anything but desperately try to heave as tears stream down his cheeks.

He can’t move. Not with these debilitating sobs wracking his body.

Steve says something, a frantic edge to his voice, and Bucky just shakes his head, scrubbing snot from his nose with the back of his hand.

In the end, he sits there with his knees tucked up against his face, while Steve rubs aggressively at his back with a big broad hand. He’s not touching Bucky anywhere else, but the pressure and weight of it loosens the hard lump lodged in his throat. Bucky sags like a deflated balloon, wheezing out noisy breaths, still hazy with shock.

“Hey,” says Steve, and Bucky realizes that he’s been talking this entire time, his voice only now penetrating the fog of hysterical terror Bucky was swathed in. “Hey, Buck, you’re okay. Breathe. Easy, pal.”

Bucky makes a noise like a feral cat.

He’s trying. He’s really fucking trying to calm down. His face is wet with tears and mucus and every part of his body aches.

“Sorry,” he says, when he can string together sounds into words again. “Sorry, f-fuck, sorry.”

Mortification begins to creep in. Steve is now practically blanketing Bucky with his bulk, the hand previously rubbing his back migrating up to cup protectively at the nape of his neck. He is so warm. This sweetness from him—the deep well of love he’s drawing on to comfort Bucky—makes Bucky’s face burn.

He likes it. He likes it too much. The most shameful part of him wants to gobble up every bit of it greedily, whisper low in Steve’s ear until he convinces him to abandon all this, to run away together and never be seen or heard from again.

If they never step foot on that train—

Bucky’s lungs hitch with an aftershock of sorrow.

“Are we late?” he whispers. They have a job to do today, after all.

“No,” says Steve. “It’s early. Barely dawn.”

“Sorry,” Bucky says again. He can’t figure out how to stop, stupid with embarrassment now that the dream has slipped away. It was cold, and white, and… Nothing.

There’s nothing.

“Shut up,” Steve says, not unkindly. Steve is never unkind to him anymore. He is present, and steady; he is focused in a way that was never in question but not always consistent. Bucky knew Steve’s moods so well, and now he is being protected from them.

Bucky still hasn’t decided if how softly Steve treats him—has treated him since Azzano—bothers him or not. There are times when Steve’s light touches and doe eyes melt the fragile shards of ice in Bucky’s lungs and heart, when he just can’t get enough of being so privately cherished and adored, and then there are times when—

When he wants to lash out, pound a fist in the middle of Steve’s meaty chest just to get a reaction out of him. Anything to remind himself that what they were, who they were, isn’t gone forever.

God, he’s a miserable sap.

“Don’t tell me to shut up,” Bucky croaks. “I’ll apologize if I want. You should treasure my apologies. Save ‘em for a rainy day.”

Steve laughs. “I’ll get a jar.”

“Put a rock in it every time I apologize. Cash ‘em in never, for nothing at all.”

“The Barnes fund.”

“Not just any old rock, neither.”

“No?”

Bucky scoffs. “No.”

Steve hums softly. His arm is heavy on Bucky’s shoulders, falling away from his neck. “What are the criteria?”

“Just size. Each one’s gotta be no bigger than an American quarter.”

“Pebbles, then.”

“There a real difference between rocks and pebbles?” Bucky shifts in Steve’s arms. He reaches up with a shaky hand and rubs at the phantom ache in his neck.

“I don’t know,” admits Steve.

“Can we get a jar for that?” Bucky asks smartly. He finally brings himself to look at Steve, to take in the wan expression on his pale face. The worry wrinkling the corners of his eyes.

“Buck—”

“A small one. On account of how rarely you ever admit you don’t know something.”

“Rocks are jagged. Pebbles are smooth,” Steve argues stubbornly.

“So am I,” Bucky says with a smirk.

“Worn down.”

“That, too.”

The playful mood unceremoniously fizzles out between them. Steve’s open face shutters. Bucky can’t imagine what his own expression looks like, to do that to Steve. His heart sinks, dragging the rest of him down with it. “Sorry,” he says tiredly.

Steve doesn’t say anything. Doesn’t even make a weak joke about the jar. The moment is dead. Bucky killed it.

“I need to take a leak,” mumbles Bucky, getting shakily to his feet.

Steve looks ready to ask if Bucky needs help, but despite his hangdog face and the clear desire in his eyes to not once, ever, for a single second, let Bucky out of his sight, he accepts the boundary being established here. Bucky doesn’t want this big sad puppy following him out of the tent to hover anxiously while he takes a piss.

“Careful in the snow,” is all Steve says, and Bucky grunts and ducks out into the frigid mountain air.

He looks around for a rock before he comes back in, but the thick blanket of snow doesn’t make it easy and he gives up, hands freezing.

Next time, maybe he’ll remember how to make a joke without murdering the punchline.

oOo

The dreams never coalesce for long.

Bucky wakes with a sick, sour feeling in the pit of his belly, while his throat aches like he’s been screaming. Has he been screaming? Was he just screaming?

Each thread he tries to grasp pulls loose as the memory fades like fog burning away under the morning sun.

“Bucky?” Steve’s a half-buried lump beside him, radiating heat that Bucky can’t seem to absorb.

“Nightmare,” he says, brushing aside Steve’s concern. “I’m fine.”

Steve sits up, knuckling at his eyes sleepily. He’s awake, certainly, senses honed and alert, but he’s endearing about it, feeling safe enough to blink owlishly a few times at Bucky. His hair is mussed, flopping to one side from being slept on, and his soft mouth is slack.

Bucky’s heart hurts to even look at him.

“Go back to sleep,” says Bucky.

Steve does not go back to sleep. Steve pushes himself up, rising smoothly from the bedroll. “You cried out.”

“Sorry I woke you.”

Steve’s brow wrinkles. His shirt is loose, open at the collar. Bucky’s gaze drifts to the sharp jut of his clavicle to avoid looking him in the eye. “Want to talk about it?”

“Can’t you just put a pebble in the jar?” snaps Bucky.

“Hey,” says Steve, jerking Bucky’s attention back up to his face. He sounds annoyed but he doesn’t look it. The tense twist of his mouth instead shows a strain they both feel. “What are you talking about?”

“My jar of apologies,” says Bucky faintly, but before he even finishes talking, he is not secure in what he’s saying. “Yesterday, we—”

But it wasn’t yesterday, was it? It was in the dream. It only felt like yesterday. Now he’s awake and it’s a new day.

“Yesterday?” Steve prompts him.

“No,” says Bucky. He swallows, throat dry. “Never mind. It was just a bad dream.”

“We were talking about pebbles in it?” Steve is pushing, stubbornly chasing a conversation that Bucky doesn’t want to have. “I was there?”

Steve is always there.

“No,” says Bucky. “Let it go, Steve.” He tips his head heavily into the palm of his hand, suddenly dizzy. Maybe he’s getting sick. Does he have a fever? This could be a hallucination. Maybe it’s the altitude. Sometimes it feels like he hasn’t slept in years.

Steve sighs. Again, it’s impatient, in contrast to the remarkably patient expression on his face. He looks like he’s getting ready to have a conversation, so Bucky rolls over, putting his back to Steve and giving his folded up coat a punch before nestling his head against it.

“Bucky.”

“Steve.”

“You cold?”

A big part of Bucky wants to laugh.

This is Steven Grant Rogers trying to be subtle. As subtle as a goddamn brick through a window. Jesus H. Christ.

He wants to talk, he’s clearly gagging for it, but Bucky’s deflecting his direct questions. The tension is palpable, Steve’s eyes burning into the back of Bucky’s skull, but because the last thing Bucky wants to do is start a fight, he just shrugs one shoulder.

Another sigh, breathier, and Steve folds his body back down onto the bedroll behind Bucky. He’s so damn heavy, swinging a thick arm over Bucky’s waist. A little gust of warm breath against the back of Bucky’s neck makes him shiver.

When Bucky’s half-asleep, blanketed in Steve’s warmth, he sometimes wakes with a start, his brain struggling to identify who it is that’s holding him. His body still expects someone smaller. Walloped by a groggy pang of loss when it’s a wall of hot muscle, instead of gangly legs, pointy elbows, and cold fingers.

Now, he takes Steve’s hand and presses it firmly over his belly.

“You should get some more sleep,” Steve murmurs low in his ear.

“I can think of something better,” says Bucky.

Steve’s voice is mild. “Can you?”

“Move your hand a little lower and I’ll show you.”

“That’s what you want?”

“You can’t still want to talk, Steve.” Bucky squeezes his wrist. “Come on.”

“I always want to talk to you.”

Bucky laughs roughly. “That’s a goddamn lie and you know it.”

“It’s not.”

“Even when you’re in a mood?”

“Especially when I’m in a mood.”

“You’re full of shit, Rogers. Wouldn’t you rather fuck me?”

“Hey, sure.” Steve presses a tentative kiss to the back of Bucky’s neck. “I always want to fuck you.”

“Now there’s the truth,” says Bucky. “That, I can believe.”

"That sounds like an insult, Buck."

"I’d never. I’m perfectly sincere." Bucky rocks his hips back against Steve's hips and finds him demonstrably interested. There’s a chance Bucky can get what he wants, here. Maybe he can distract Steve enough to drag him away from this agonizing tenderness.

“So am I,” Steve says, undeterred. The gentle kiss he presses to the underside of Bucky’s jaw is so absurdly soft it threatens to undo him, so Bucky digs his elbow into the firm plane of Steve’s stomach.

“Shut it. Are you gonna fuck me or not?”

Steve exhales, a puff of breath against the back of Bucky’s head. He might be laughing. “I’m thinking about it.”

“Don’t hurt yourself,” mutters Bucky. The cold is creeping in, despite Steve’s arms around him, and his desire sputters and dies like a weak flame. “Forget it. I’m not in the mood anymore.”

Steve doesn’t say anything. He’s practically cradling Bucky in his arms, curled around him like a comma, and if Bucky closes his eyes and ignores the howling mountain wind, he can almost pretend they’re back in Brooklyn.

“What are you in the mood for?” Steve asks.

“Nothing,” says Bucky. He wanted a diversion, but the fleeting pleasure of Steve’s hands on him will only give way to cold daylight. He can’t live from distraction to distraction and if he puts too much pressure on his resolve, it will splinter and crack.

“I might have some chocolate,” offers Steve. “Not much. Couple squares, maybe, but it’s something.”

“That’s not what I want,” says Bucky.

“Then what?”

“Told you,” mumbles Bucky. “Shut up. I’m sleeping.”

Steve sighs. "Oh, sure, now you listen to me."

Bucky can't sleep, though. Steve is awake too, pressed up behind him, and in the quiet safety of early morning with only Steve to hear him, Bucky gives in. "I want you to take me home," he whispers.

Steve inhales sharply. "Bucky—"

"Pack me up. Fold me into your suitcase like a wrinkled shirt, between your pressed pants and your socks. Don't take me out until we're home and you're ready to cook me that fancy breakfast."

Crêpes, he expects Steve to say, like he did—yesterday, or the day before—but instead he slides his hand up over Bucky's heart and tenses up in anticipation. "Bucky," he says, voice rough around the edges. Like he's been crying or about to cry. "You can go home. After what you've been through, no one expects you to stay. I can get you a discharge—"

Bucky extracts himself from Steve's smothering embrace with a hard shove and twists around to face him, livid. "Don't you dare say that to me," he hisses. "You asked what I wanted, not what I could have."

Steve stares at him, face pale in the semidarkness, forehead creased with confusion.

"We either go home together, Steve, or not at all," Bucky chokes out. He reaches out and knocks on Steve's head. "You get that through this thick skull of yours?"

"Yeah, Buck. I get that." His voice is just as unsteady, his eyes a little wild.

Bucky sits up on the bedroll, shivering as the covers fall away. "You asked. Don't ask if you want me to lie about it."

"I don't." Steve reaches for him, but Bucky pushes his hand away. "When this is done, I'll take you home. I'll make you whatever breakfast you want, even though you know I can't cook, Buck."

There's a headache building behind Bucky's eyes. He pinches the bridge of his nose and shakes his head. "You said—"

The words die on his tongue when he can't recover the memory.

"What? What did I say?"

"Nothing."

"You can tell me."

Bucky huffs. "There's nothing to tell. It's just a dumb fantasy, okay? Nothing more. Forget it."

"Sure," says Steve. It's not easy acquiescence. He's frowning, lips pursed.

Unable to stand it, Bucky gets up, ducking his head low as he collects his clothes and starts to dress himself.

"Might all die today anyway," he says, fingers clumsy as he buttons up his jacket. "Scattered like stones at the bottom of that damn ravine."

"Don't talk like that," snaps Steve. His back bows a little as he slumps, rubbing his hand over his face.

"Don't tell me how to talk."

Steve, mercifully, lets that go. "We'll go home soon," he says softly.

Quiet, but with that good ol’ Steve Rogers conviction.

Bucky can only assume that's what carries him through the day, while his own lack of it dooms him.

The universe was listening, he thinks miserably, as he clings to the exposed exterior of the train. Never give voice to real, true desires, even if there's only one sympathetic ear listening. Don't put those thoughts into the world, because then there’s something to lose.

Bucky gave voice to his cowardice and now he's being punished.

He spoke this into being.

Bucky laughs bitterly, but the wind whips it away. Even now, made small by terror and fear of death, he wants to yell for Steve.

If he can just hold on a little longer, then maybe Steve's conviction can carry them both to another day.

He does try, but he's just not strong enough.

oOo

Something is wrong.

Something is very wrong with him.

From the moment Bucky wakes that morning, lurching upright with a gasp as his dream slips through his fingers like fine sand, he can tell that something is wrong.

Steve is beside him. Steve is always beside him, until he’s not. He stirs when Bucky sits up, but Bucky can’t even apologize for waking him, too busy covering his mouth with his hand to stifle his harsh breaths. His body seems to think he’s in physical danger, heart pounding against his sternum, fingers clammy and cold. He can’t stop shaking.

“Hey,” says Steve, voice thick with sleep. He rustles around on the bedroll and a moment later his hand settles on the small of Bucky’s back, rubbing in small circles.

Bucky wants to ask him what day it is, but he’s too afraid of the answer, so instead, he says, “Hey.”

“Okay?”

“Just grand.”

Steve hums. “You look it.”

“Thanks,” croaks Bucky. “I feel it, too.”

“Your heart’s going a million miles an hour.”

“Don’t do that,” huffs Bucky.

“Do what?”

“Don’t listen to my heart beat.”

“I can’t exactly turn it off, Buck.”

“Well, then do me the favor of not acknowledging it,” snaps Bucky. “Ignorance is bliss.”

“Even with my regular senses, I can tell you’re not okay.”

Bucky slides his hand up over his eyes, exhaling shakily. He’s not invested in pretending he’s fine, he just doesn’t want to dwell on it in a meaningful way. He has the very unnerving sense that he’s standing on thin ice and any pressure applied will plunge him into icy waters. “I had a bad dream,” Bucky says evenly.

Even as he says it, exhaustion sweeps through him. He can’t remember the last time he slept well. Slept through the night and didn’t jerk awake with a scream caught in his throat and a jumble of conflicting memories in his head.

How does he tell the difference between a vivid dream and a memory? How can he be sure he’s even awake?

Maybe this is still the dream and he isn’t.

“I keep—dreaming of—” Bucky trails off, consumed with dread.

“Buck?” Steve says gently. His hand is warm and heavy on Bucky’s back. For one wild moment, Bucky imagines that Steve’s touch is the only thing anchoring him in reality. He must be awake, because Steve is holding him in place, and even if Steve was small and now he’s big, he is the only constant that Bucky can cling to.

If Steve wasn’t here as proof, would Bucky cease to exist?

“It doesn’t matter,” says Bucky.

“Sure it does.”

“Steve.”

“You’re shaking. Must have been pretty bad.”

Was it? It’s not like Bucky can remember. The longer he is awake, the more confident he becomes in the solidity of consciousness, and the further away he moves from clear details. All he has is the aftermath; residual terror, the weightless plunge—

“Buck,” says Steve sharply.

What?”

“You’re hyperventilating.”

“Am not,” says Bucky, hysteria bubbling up inside him accompanied by shallow, gasping breaths. “This is just—efficient. More—air, faster.”

Steve makes a rough noise, wrapping his arm around Bucky’s shoulders. He tips his head against Bucky’s, blanketing him with the weight and warmth of his own body. Something about the pressure on his shoulders and Steve’s deep, steady breaths next to his ear drags Bucky back down to earth. “Come on,” says Steve. “Slow down.”

“Got it,” says Bucky, patting absently at Steve’s hand. “I got it, Steve.”

“Prove it.”

“Don’t tell me how to breathe.”

“Then breathe right, Buck.”

“Can you imagine if I ever said that to you?” Bucky laughs, thin and ragged, chest tight. “Just breathe right, Steve. Remember when you fell out of that tree? In the park—you climbed up too high, like a damn fool. When you—hit the ground, it was like someone popped a balloon with a pin. If I had just run up to you—while you flopped around like a fish, suffocating in the grass—”

I’m the damn fool?”

“—And I stood there and said, ‘Hey pal, I see that you’re—having difficulty—with your lungs, but have you tried just doing it right?’”

“Stop talking,” Steve says, exasperated. “Bucky, please.”

“I died,” Bucky whispers, pressing the palm of his hand over his racing heart. He closes his eyes and shuts his mouth, dragging labored breaths through his nose.

“You dreamed that?”

“Sure did.”

“You’re awake. It’s not real.”

“Sure. Or maybe I’m already dead.”

“I can feel your heart. Can’t you?” Steve’s hand covers Bucky’s, tucked over his trembling fingers.

“Doesn’t matter,” rasps Bucky. “You could just be a figment of my imagination. You’re exactly what I would dream up for comfort.”

“You want me to pinch you?”

Bucky laughs roughly. “Can’t hurt.”

Then Steve pinches him and it does hurt. A sharp, stinging pain, so unexpectedly demanding that Bucky instinctively slaps Steve’s hand away.

“Ow! Fuck off.”

“Do you believe you’re awake, at least?”

Bucky can’t tell Steve that what he believes doesn’t matter. Belief isn’t enough. Bucky could believe a lot of things that bear no influence on his circumstances. He can’t simply believe this sense of foreboding is his imagination when every morning, the only thing he can be confident in is that Steve will be beside him.

He believes in Steve. That has to be enough.

“Yeah,” says Bucky, batting at Steve’s teasing hand, which is going in for another pinch. “I believe it, now cut that out.”

Steve’s face spreads into a warm smile. It hits Bucky like a physical thing, a knock of knuckles against his chest. When is the last time Steve smiled? It’s a grim shock to realize he doesn’t know the answer. Not only has he done a poor job maintaining the facade of emotional regulation, he’s been so inwardly focused while doing so that he’s distanced himself from Steve’s well-being.

“Don’t need another one?” asks Steve. He almost sounds playful.

“No.”

“You sure?”

Yes.” Bucky tries to mirror his expression, but his face feels stiff and the resulting grin can’t be natural. He reaches for Steve impulsively, cupping his jaw in his hand. “I can’t stand you,” he murmurs.

Steve raises an eyebrow, keeping still in Bucky’s grip. “Is that so?”

He really is unbearable. It’s hard to look at him directly, to see his smooth, earnest features screwed up with gentle concern. Steve’s mouth is soft and vulnerable and Bucky is helpless to give into the urge to press a kiss to his lips. The shape of him has changed in so many ways, but his eyes and mouth, his crooked nose, all remain achingly familiar.

Still. Sometimes he really misses Steve’s big ears and delicate neck.

“Would I lie to you?” says Bucky, pulling away. He splays his fingers over Steve’s plush lower lip.

“You really want me to answer that?” Steve mumbles against Bucky’s hand.

“Guess not.” It’s not really a blow to his ego for Steve to acknowledge Bucky’s habit of misrepresenting the truth. Little white lies. It’s not a certainty, whether Steve will look at Bucky and see right into the core of him; Bucky relies on Steve to be distracted by bigger issues, to be fooled by Bucky’s performance, but sometimes, when they’re alone, there’s nowhere else for Steve to direct his focus. Bucky is laid bare by him in private, beating heart exposed, and he can’t bring himself to resist. “I can’t stand how much I want you,” he amends.

He owes the world nothing, but he owes Steve everything.

“You already got me, Buck.”

“Sometimes,” says Bucky, swallowing past the lump in his throat. “Sometimes I think I might be going crazy.”

“I believe you,” Steve says quietly.

“You believe I’m going crazy?” says Bucky, barking out a laugh. “Thanks, pal.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “I believe how you feel.”

“You shouldn’t,” says Bucky. He deliberately turns his face away from Steve, closing his eyes to center himself.

“Well, tough.”

“Tell me something.” He can’t be here right now. He needs to be someplace else, but there’s nowhere to go.

“Like what?”

“Dunno. Something. Anything. Tell me something nobody knows.” Bucky fixes his gaze on the side of the tent. There’s a stain on the canvas.

“I sold a sketch of you to a magazine, once,” says Steve.

It’s so unexpected that Bucky immediately snaps his head back around to stare at Steve, mouth dropping open.

“Nobody could tell it was you,” Steve says hurriedly, forehead creasing. “You weren’t facing—I drew you facing away, it was just—”

“Was it one of the dirty ones?” Bucky asks, interrupting Steve before he can sprain something, trying to explain himself.

Steve shrugs one shoulder, letting his gaze drop. “Kinda. You definitely weren’t wearing clothes.”

“Steven Grant Rogers,” drawls Bucky. “You sly dog. Were you ever gonna tell me? Or show me?”

“Maybe,” says Steve. “Someday. I don’t know.”

“You could draw me again now,” says Bucky, coy. “I’ll even take off my clothes for you.”

“I would,” says Steve apologetically. “If we had more time, Buck, I would.”

The mood shifts, then, and some tension seeps back in. Bucky shakes it off, frustrated. “Okay. Ask me something, then.”

Steve cocks his head. “If we weren’t here,” he says quietly. “If this was over. What would you want to do?”

Bucky squints at him. “You mean, for work?”

“I guess. I don’t know. Don’t think too hard about it. If you had your pick of anything, what would you do?”

“Lighthouse keeper, “ says Bucky. He doesn’t even think about it, it just—comes out.

Steve lets out a startled laugh. “Where’d that come from?”

Bucky shrugs. “Dunno. You said not to think too hard.”

It doesn’t seem unappealing, though, if he does think about it. To live and work in one place, perched on the very edge of the world, while the open ocean fills the horizon.

“Sounds lonely,” says Steve.

“Doesn’t have to be,” says Bucky. “Lighting the way for travelers making their way home.”

“Well, when you put it like that.”

“Peace and quiet.”

“Sure.”

“Great sunsets.”

Steve laughs again and it feels like a victory.

Bucky hasn’t had a lot of those with Steve, of late. It’s been hard enough just to keep his head above water.

When silence blankets them again, it’s not as uncomfortable as it was yesterday, or the day before, or—

“When do we have to leave?” Bucky asks quietly, nausea swirling. He rubs the heel of his palm into his eye until colors burst behind his eyelid. He can’t reach the headache that’s settled there, though.

“In half an hour,” says Steve, rising up onto his knees to reach for his pack. He begins to dress with the kind of concise grace that often seems like it should be impossible for a man his size, head ducked low to clear the top of the tent. “We should get something to eat.”

“Not that hungry,” says Bucky. He lies back down, just for a second, and pictures himself at the top of the mountain, next to Steve, and for one disorienting second, it’s like he’s snatched a fading dream from memory. It plays like a movie reel before it evaporates in a puff of smoke.

“What,” says Steve, buckling his belt. His hair hangs down in front of his eyes until he swipes it to the left and raises his head to look at Bucky. “You’re not excited for rations?”

Nothing has sat right inside him for such a long time now.

“Save me some oatmeal,” Bucky says to the roof of the tent. “I’ll be out in just a minute.”

He can tell that Steve’s paused just to look at him, but eventually, he says, “Okay, Buck,” and leaves Bucky alone.

If Bucky stays here, if he digs his heels in and refuses to move, will everything keep moving around him? Or will he get dragged along with it, like a balloon on the end of a string?

He takes two minutes, counting seconds in his head, and then gets up.

Part of him expects everything to be gone when he emerges from the tent, but it’s the same circle of dull green and beige tents, the same fire pit, the same faces.

If none of this is real, he still hasn’t figured out if it’s him or everything else that’s the problem.

Whatever the answer is, the ice still comes up to meet him, and he can’t make it stop.

oOo

Bucky wakes up choking on a throat full of bile.

There’s not much in his stomach, but it doesn’t really matter. He pushes himself over onto both elbows and narrowly misses the edge of the bedroll, coughing and spitting. Throat burning, Bucky lets himself collapse onto his side, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Fuck,” he whispers, flushed and dizzy. “Sorry.”

He knows Steve’s beside him. Steve’s always beside him.

“Here,” says Steve, voice low. “Sit up.”

He doesn’t give Bucky much choice, pulling him up with both hands by the upper arms, turning Bucky away from the mess he made on the canvas floor. His grip is firm and he pushes the canteen into Bucky’s trembling hand.

“Drink that.”

Bucky wants to swish it around in his mouth and spit it out, exorcise that acrid taste, but he’s facing Steve, blinking at him through lashes clumped with tears. He takes a mouthful of stale water and swallows it, breathing steadily through his nose.

Sitting cross-legged, mirroring Bucky’s hunched posture, Steve keeps one hand on Bucky’s shoulder, forehead furrowed as his eyes search Bucky’s face.

What’s he looking for? What does he keep looking for that he just can’t find?

“Okay?” Steve asks, after Bucky’s taken four deliberate sips, water swirling into the sour pit of his belly.

“Fine,” says Bucky. He can’t meet the implicit demand of that steady stare, picking a spot over Steve’s shoulder and hovering there instead. “Something didn’t sit right in my stomach from yesterday.”

Steve hesitates. “You sure?”

“‘Course. What else?”

“I don’t know, Buck.” Steve’s thumb sweeps over the swell of Bucky’s shoulder, back and forth, soothing.

Dull dread settles heavy in his gut. He might as well ask. “What’s the date?”

“February 3rd, Buck,” says Steve.

Of course. His heart can’t sink any lower. He knows. He knows, now.

“You ever think maybe you’re dead?” says Bucky, because he can’t leave anything well enough alone.

The wrinkles in Steve’s forehead deepen. “Me?” he says. “Or you?”

“Anyone,” says Bucky, because he doesn’t want to upset Steve. He doesn’t. Bucky doesn’t want to upset Steve more than he already has, or argue with him, or start a stupid fight, just because there’s an animal clawing its way out of his chest and he doesn’t know how to kill it dead without harming those around him. “Hypothetically, what’s telling us any of this is real?”

Steve exhales slowly and his gaze drops, sweeping the space of the tent. He’s considering it, still discomfited. “Because we wake up,” he says at length. “Our hearts beat. We breathe. We take in everything around us with the senses we got available.”

“And if something could fool our senses,” Bucky presses. “And we still weren’t sure, then what? If we woke up every morning, but it was—” His voice cracks. “If it was the same morning, then… How would we know if it was real? If everything told us it was real, but we knew, deep down, something was wrong?”

It’s purgatory, he thinks. It’s purgatory, and he’s on his way to hell, cycling through the same day until it either stops or it doesn’t.

“Buck,” Steve says quietly.

“Hypothetically,” Bucky repeats. He can’t stand to see that look on Steve’s face directed at him.

“What’s real, then?” Steve counters. “If all of this isn’t real, if you and I aren’t real, then what is? If you could wake up, properly, what would be different?”

“It would actually be tomorrow,” says Bucky. “Whatever that means. It would finally be tomorrow.”

“I don’t understand what you’re trying to tell me,” says Steve. “But I want to. I really want to.”

“It’s okay,” says Bucky. He is exhausted. Steve’s hand on him is like a lead weight, dragging him back down into the rumpled blankets. “We can try again. We can always try again.”

He dies.

He dies, he dies, he dies, and he—

Wakes up.

And they try again.

oOo

When does he get to stay dead? What has he done so wrong to land him here?

Maybe he should already be dead. Bucky should have died strapped to that table in Azzano and when he didn’t, something went wrong. Now he’s being punished for it by never getting to die for good.

Before Bucky even opens his eyes, he knows he’s right back where he started, Steve’s warm weight pressed up against his side a comfort when there’s little else to be found. If he’s going to be trapped in one day, doomed to fall into an icy valley over and over again, at least it’s one where he wakes up next to Steve. He gets to have Steve with him, even if he doesn’t understand.

For the first time, Bucky is calm. There’s no sickness roiling inside him. The dream has already faded, and everything is new again.

He almost feels like the possibilities are endless.

“Steve,” he says, sitting up to look at him.

“Mmm.”

Bucky can’t tell if he was already awake, but he opens his eyes, a residual sleepiness clinging to his expression, softening all the angles of his face. There’s a crease on his cheek from rumpled fabric and he has to reach up to push his hair off his forehead. He blinks a few times, lashes catching the light that’s filtering in through a narrow gap in the tent.

It’s not what he expected to see, somehow. Looking at Steve directly. Every inch of him quivers, just sitting here, looking his fill; something molten hot coils together at his core.

“I missed just looking at you,” Bucky says quietly.

“You have to look at me all the time,” says Steve, voice a little hoarse.

“Not when I want to,” says Bucky. “The way I want to.”

“Oh,” says Steve. That endearing openness of sleep is replaced by hunger. He props himself up on one elbow, watching as Bucky sets a hand at his hip. “Buck—”

“Because I do,” Bucky interrupts. “I want to look at you. I want you, Steve.”

Steve flushes immediately, color staining his freckled nose and cheeks, eyes widening in surprise.

“When’s the last time I told you that out loud?” Bucky says apologetically.

Steve creates an invitation with the spread of his thighs, so Bucky climbs into his lap. He can get what he wants, in this position. There’s not much between them to block the way. There’s time, he knows. There’s enough time for this.

“Bucky,” Steve says. He exhales soundlessly, hands light on Bucky’s hips. “What’s gotten into you?”

They haven’t actually done this in a while. A few weeks ago, they fucked in the dark, rushed and perfunctory. Bucky can’t remember if they even faced each other. If they would have been able to see each other’s faces if they had bothered to look.

“Steve,” Bucky says. He taps his knuckles against Steve’s forehead. “Will you slip it in me, huh?”

“That’s what you want?” Steve licks at his lips, still a little guarded. Bucky doesn’t blame him for the wariness, when the only consistent thing about Bucky lately has been his inconsistency. All of his professional practicality and calm has been saved for the field.

“I want you.” Bucky will say it as many times as it takes for Steve to believe him. “Any which way, Rogers. Always. You and me, we’re it.”

Steve’s eyes go a little wet and they both pretend not to notice.

They’re quiet, as Bucky gets himself ready. It’s not smooth or seamless. They’re in a tent at the foot of a mountain, half-dressed in their clothes from last night, and Bucky can’t just take what he wants without first stumbling through the frustration of physical preparation. Steve is trembling beneath him, frozen in place with big eyes fixed helplessly on Bucky’s face, and his inaction is frankly unnerving.

“Are you going to help me at all, you big lug?” Bucky snaps, a bubble of uncertainty bursting in his chest. “If you don’t want—”

“I do,” Steve interrupts. His big hands cradle Bucky’s hips, sliding fabric down his thighs. “I’m sorry, you just look—”

The expression on his face is one of awe.

“What?” demands Bucky. “I look...?”

Steve sighs, deep and shaky. His eyes flick over Bucky’s face, drinking in whatever expression he’s making that’s rendered Steve inarticulate with desire. It’s not the same look that pierces right through Bucky, leaving him raw, but it still rattles him. “You look good, Buck,” he finally says quietly. “So pretty.”

“Get me the slick,” Bucky says curtly, lowering his gaze to avoid Steve’s. His face is hot and his hands shake as he sits back on Steve’s thighs and opens his pants.

The nearest pack is close enough for Steve to reach, if he twists his upper body and stretches out his arm. Bucky ignores the jostling, focused on Steve’s half-hard cock, hot and heavy in his hand as he cradles him through the thin material of his underwear. Steve sucks in a breath, red-faced as he offers up the jar of vaseline.

“You too,” Bucky mumbles, unscrewing the lid. He can’t look at Steve’s pink skin or wet mouth. He can’t look at the heat in Steve’s eyes, the longing on his face. Bucky feels like he’s being flayed open, but Steve is the one who is visibly wrecked by each halting word that leaves Bucky’s lips.

“Me?” Steve’s shoulders are so broad now, but he looks smaller when Bucky is braced over top of him. He draws himself in, shrinks himself down, and his touch is achingly light.

“You,” Bucky says grimly. “Not bad to look at. Don’t get a swelled head or nothing.” You’re pretty, he thinks desperately. You’re still the prettiest goddamn thing I’ve ever seen.

“Can I—” Steve swallows hard, fingers brushing at the bared skin of Bucky’s hip. “Bucky, can I get you ready?”

Heat rushes through Bucky’s body. “Yeah,” he says roughly. “Go on, then.”

This is a terrible idea.

Bucky thinks it even as pleasure blooms inside him with each slick plunge of Steve’s fingers, but all that escapes his lips are breathless moans. Steve is solid beneath him, his shoulders a sturdy place for Bucky to place his hands. When the way Steve looks at him gets to be too much, Bucky just closes his eyes.

He wants to remember this. He is desperate to hold it inside him, fold it up like a love note and tuck it between his ribs. If he wakes up and it’s gone, then—

Then, nothing. He won’t know.

“Give it to me,” he begs, voice wavering. He is split open, stretched on Steve’s firm fingers, and he wants more. “Steve, come on.”

“You have to be quiet,” Steve whispers.

“Put it in me,” says Bucky. Opening his eyes yields exactly what’s expected; Steve so tangled with desperate yearning that he’s doing as requested despite his warning. There’s no need to keep his voice down, because this isn’t permanent. It won’t stick. He can enjoy this as loudly as he likes, greedily transfixed by the flush that’s staining Steve’s fair skin. “Steve, let me have it.”

They fumble together to arrange their bodies, Steve hissing at chilled air against his cock when he’s exposed. Bucky doesn’t leave him long. Just enough to get a slick hand around him and ease the way, before Bucky loses his patience entirely and rolls his hips back, guiding the head of Steve’s dick against his asshole. Then his knee slips, and he sits down hard, surprising them both at the abrupt shift in depth and angle.

“Oh, fuck,” groans Bucky, the thick pressure filling him up and shocking the thin air right out of his lungs. “Christ almighty, Rogers, you really are big everywhere. I keep forgetting.”

“Sorry,” Steve says thinly, hands squeezing reflexively at Bucky’s hips, smoothing at his skin in helpless apology. “Sorry, I’m sorry, Buck.”

“Shut up,” says Bucky, laughing. “Get that look off your face.”

It doesn’t clear the guilt from Steve’s wide eyes, not entirely. “Take it easy,” he says. “You don’t have to rush.”

“Don’t have a lot of time, do we,” says Bucky. He begins to move in slow circles, riding Steve’s cock with a leisurely restraint he does not feel.

“Lower your voice.” Steve’s fingers twitch, his body stiff with tension. “You’re gonna wake everyone up.”

“Help me, then,” says Bucky, picking up speed. The urgency builds as pleasure spills liquid down his spine. “If you’re so worried.”

A flash of confusion drifts briefly across Steve’s face, but then he picks up the thread of Bucky’s offer. An old game, long abandoned. For a moment, his hands stay heavy on Bucky’s waist, rising and falling with each rough roll of Bucky’s hips. The soft touch that follows at the back of Bucky’s head, then his lips, is tentative, giving him time to complain or redirect, but Bucky does no such thing. He lets Steve cradle his skull in one hand, while he seals the palm of the other firmly over Bucky’s mouth.

Steve doesn’t speak at all.

The crest of his pleasure is evident in his breathing, growing more ragged with each passing second, while Bucky rides his cock with the kind of single minded focus he can only manage these days when he’s peering through the scope of his rifle. Steve’s holding him securely, tenderly, jaw tight as he clenches his teeth to swallow back each sound before he can make it.

Steve’s hand muffles Bucky’s harsh whine when he comes, spilling onto Steve’s rucked up undershirt, and Steve still doesn’t let go until he’s fucked up into Bucky and shuddered to completion with a low, agonized moan.

Then Bucky sags, panting through his nose, and the iron grip Steve has on him loosens immediately.

Exhausted, Bucky pats Steve on the chest while his cock softens inside him. “Thanks. You’re a real pal.”

Somehow, that’s what really makes Steve blush. It’s another thing Bucky can still count on, that indignant flood of color brightening his scandalized face. “You’re welcome, you goddamn jerk.”

Bucky laughs again, loose and easy. “I mean it.”

“So do I. What’s gotten into you?”

“You,” Bucky tosses back, with a sharp, quick grin. He eases himself off Steve, plopping his bare ass down on the bedroll.

Bucky.” Steve’s expression darkens.

“Nothing. Nothing’s gotten into me,” Bucky says quickly. “Just wanted…” He makes an empty gesture between them. “I just wanted something good.”

Steve’s irritation passes like a cloud over the sun. “Will you tell me what’s wrong?”

“Everything,” says Bucky. “All of it. Not you, though.” He tangles their fingers together. He will remember this, on every single morning that sees fit to reset the universe. He won’t lose the best thing he’s got.

Steve squeezes his hand and sets his jaw. He’s unhappy, still, but he doesn’t give voice to that lingering urge to fuss.

“You’re the only thing that’s right,” says Bucky. “Okay? You are, Steve.”

That isn’t the end of it, of course.

The part of Bucky that wished in vain for it to be that easy is naive.

He does remember, though. It’s not just the fragments of a dream.

At least he gets to keep that one precious thing.

oOo

It’s a little like hope.

Each morning that follows is still wrong. Each morning, Bucky asks Steve the date, and it’s always the same.

February 3rd, 1945. They’ve got a train to catch.

One of these days, he’ll get it right. There has to be a way out. He can’t give up. He knows, now. He remembers, and that has to count for something. Maybe he’s supposed to find the one day where he doesn’t die.

And if he does succeed, he’ll need a way to prove that whatever happens afterwards is real.

oOo

Bucky stands on a mountain with Steve solid beside him and knows with cold clarity that to survive this he can’t get on the train.

It’s the one thing he hasn’t tried. He’s exhausted every other possible course of action and it always happens the same way. The wall of the train car crumples with the force of the blast, Bucky with it, and sends him plummeting into the ravine below.

If Bucky doesn’t board the train, it can’t happen. He can end this hellish cycle if he simply refuses to participate in the operation.

He does it anyway.

Over and over and over again, he gets on the train, and he falls, because the alternative is letting Steve get on the train without him, and Bucky can’t do that. It can’t be the answer. Leaving Steve to do this alone can’t be the only way for Bucky to live.

So, he loses count.

Together, they move through the train. Get separated in a thousand different ways, then find each other again, only for it to unfold the exact same way as soon as Steve hits the wall and Bucky snatches up his shield.

The familiar impact, the screech of metal giving way beneath his fingertips as Bucky is thrown clear, and the ice comes up to meet him.

That morning, they talked about breakfast again.

The conversations aren’t always the same. Sometimes they are, and Bucky can recite lines like a script, knowing exactly what Steve will say to him, greedily engineering reassurance and comfort for himself. Often, though, the despair returns, and Bucky is drowned in it, sharp-edged and angry; when he is overcome, he lashes out at Steve like a wounded animal, while Steve absorbs his poor humor and nasty barbs with eminent patience.

It doesn’t matter, in the end. Steve never remembers, and the outcome is always the same.

Whatever breaking point Bucky thought he had, he’s long past that now.

The only thing he can do is treat every day as though it’s his last and hope that means an end will come.

He doesn’t care what that means. If he finally dies, and there are no more mornings, then he’ll be dead. He won’t have to worry about it. His last day will have been spent at Steve’s side.

If he lives, somehow, if he survives—

Then it will finally be tomorrow, and he’ll deal with that when it comes.

oOo

He doesn’t fully understand what alters the pattern.

It must be selfish. Bucky just can’t do this alone anymore. If he is doomed to fall in perpetuity, plunging through the icy ravine until he breaks his neck at the bottom, then he wants to see Steve’s face before he goes, just in case it’s the last time he ever will.

After all, Bucky might wake up tomorrow and start all over again. There’s no telling what Bucky has missed in potentially making this stop. Was it an unconscious desire to save Steve the trauma of witnessing Bucky’s inevitable death when the day would just reset? Was Bucky letting himself die?

But if it is finally the end, and Bucky gets released from this circle of hell, then maybe if he catches himself, holds on long enough for Steve to reach him, then he can have this one last scrap of mercy.

The blast strikes the shield, ricocheting off the surface and blowing out the side of the train. Bucky is thrown off his feet with the force of it, colliding with shredded metal. His shoulder erupts with pain, but in the last second, as he’s about to go ass over teakettle into the ravine, he twists his body and grabs the shattered wall of the train car, clinging desperately to a railing.

He holds on.

It’s barely a second later before Steve appears, poking his head out of the gaping hole in the train, his expression wide open with terror.

God, this was a mistake. Steve shouldn’t have to see this. He shouldn’t have to see Bucky die. This is wrong, this is all wrong. This is going to get them both killed. If Steve falls—

“Bucky!” yells Steve. The idiot begins to inch his body along the shattered remains of the car, clutching at the metal railings. “Hang on! Grab my hand.”

Bucky does reach for him. He does try. None of this has ever happened before. Did he figure it out? Is this it?

Then the railing gives way in his hands, and Bucky falls.

“No!” howls Steve, arm outstretched. They almost had it. Their fingers almost touched. That fact, and that fact alone, rips a scream from Bucky’s lungs.

They almost had it.

Bucky gets on the train, and he falls off the train, and—

oOo

He wakes up.

“Bad dream,” he whispers, teeth chattering.

Bucky wakes up, and Steve’s not beside him. It’s cold, like it is every morning, but it’s a different shade of wrong. The surface he’s lying on is hard, and Bucky can’t move. The left side of his body is numb.

“Bad dream,” he repeats, heart beginning to pound. “It’s just a bad dream. I had a bad dream.”

A dark shape moves into his blurred vision, barking out something in Russian.

“I’m awake,” Bucky chants. “I’m awake, it was a dream, it was a bad dream, I’m awake. I’m awake, I’m awake. Steve? Where’s St—”

The shape presses a cloth over his mouth and nose, and Bucky fades back into darkness.

It’ll take years before he knows enough to understand that it’s finally over. All the tomorrows he never thought would come blend together into a new waking nightmare. It’s not February 3rd, and Bucky isn’t dead anymore, but he’s not really alive, either.

Bucky doesn’t know anything but ice and violence for a long, long time.

***

Mornings are still hard.

Bucky opens his eyes to sunlight and a fresh breeze streaming in through the open window. The off-white ceiling and pale blue walls don’t resemble a military-issue tent, but a bubble of formless dread rises from chest to throat to choke him all the same, because the bed is rumpled beside him, but Steve is absent.

He can hear him downstairs in the kitchen, noisily making breakfast. Bucky listens closely, rolling over to bury his face in Steve’s pillow, breathing slowly until his heart rate slows.

Bucky wakes up each morning, and they’re not all the same.

Sometimes, Steve is beside him. Other times, he’s in the kitchen, out on a run, or singing in the shower.

Occasionally, Bucky stays in bed, and Steve comes to him, with a cup of coffee, or—

“Hey,” says Steve, from the doorway. He’s holding a plate. “Breakfast?”

“What is it?” asks Bucky. The panic is fading, leaving him cold and shivering.

“Crêpes,” says Steve. “Cut up some of those strawberries you picked up yesterday.” There must be something horrible on Bucky’s face, because Steve’s expression falters, and he comes over to sit on the edge of the bed, plate balanced on his thighs. “Bucky?”

Bucky draws in a shaky breath, forcing himself to sit up in their bed.

It’s been such a long, long time.

“Just felt like I was dreaming,” he says. How will he know? When it’s real again, how will he know? There are already so many holes burned into Bucky’s brain, he can’t be relied upon to distinguish between dreams and memories. Did that conversation happen? Does Steve remember it at all?

“Want me to pinch you?”

“No,” says Bucky sharply. Then, more calmly, “What’s the date?”

Steve glances at the calendar by their bed. Lighthouses of the world. He’s never asked about the subject, and Bucky’s never elaborated on it. “March 15th,” says Steve. “Why?”

“No reason,” says Bucky. It was his birthday a few days ago. The weather was mild and warm, and they set up the grill for spring, Steve barbecuing steaks and making baked potatoes in foil with sour cream and shredded cheese.

If this is a dream, then it’s a good one. Steve’s in it, and it changes every day. It’s about as good as it’ll ever get.

“Buck?” Steve says. He still sounds concerned.

“You made those for me?” Bucky asks. He holds his hands out. “You used to be allergic.”

A little bit of tension bleeds out of Steve’s broad shoulders. “Yeah. I did.” He steals a strawberry, popping it into his mouth before relinquishing the plate.

“Thief,” Bucky says mildly. There are three crêpes on the plate, topped with a haphazard pile of strawberries, and everything is drizzled with maple syrup. Steve made him breakfast. He might not remember what this means, but part of him just knows it, somehow. It’s ingrained in him. Time can’t wipe it away.

Bucky reaches out for Steve across the chasm of bedclothes, and Steve takes his hand easily.

They hold on, and don’t let go.

***