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Will you still love me when I've got nothing but my aching soul? (or the Death of Captain America)

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Nothing ever happens the way it’s supposed to. Bucky knows this. He is, himself, a prime example of the cruelties of fate.

He was supposed to live and die in the 1940’s. He was supposed to come back from a terrible war and live with his sweet Stevie for the rest of their natural lives.

He’s got a metal arm. It’s the year 2013 and everything is so goddamn different. He had his brain scrambled and he almost fucking killed his best friend. He was a puppet for some pretty nasty people for close to 70 years. And if that ain’t such a joke compared to how his life was supposed to go then Bucky doesn’t know half the shit he thinks he does.

But he does know some shit. And he knows that this, fucking this, wasn’t the way things were supposed to go.

He’s running alongside Steve’s gurney, metal hand locked around his palm.

“What the fuck?” He’s shouting. He can hear his voice like a distant echo in his ears, but he can’t stop the shout from ripping its way out of his throat, clawing at everything in him until it bursts from his throat with a wild, vicious cry. “WHAT THE FUCK?”

“Calm down, James!” Natasha is beside him, blessed Natasha. Her face is calm, like it always is, but she’s looking at him more than she’s looking at Steve and that feels wrong somehow. Bucky doesn’t want the attention, Steve needs it. He needs the attention. He needs to . . . Jesus.

“Shouting isn’t going to help anything,” she says, snapping him back to his senses.

Maybe not, he thinks. But it sure makes me feel better.

Fury meets them at the Tower. His eyes – eye – is cast down and his expression is grim. We should’ve seen this coming, his expression says, and Bucky agrees.

But he doesn’t say anything. He rushes past him and Tony and Sam and Bruce and all the other Avengers gathered at the entrance. He’s right beside Steve, follows him all the way up to the medical bay. He’s crying, big fat tears that look terrible splashing onto Steve’s pale skin, and he’s still screaming.

“STEVE! STEVE, WAKE UP! WAKE UP!”

He’s not making things easy. For the nurses and doctors and everyone rushing around trying to help Steve. He knows, he knows, he’s making it worse. But he. Can’t. Help. It.

His whole life is a mess and he was kind of thinking it was going to be good because he just got his memory back and he moved in with Steve and everything was going to be good, it was going to be good goddammit! But instead, he’s watching the nurses whisk Steve, death personified, away into Critical Care

A doctor comes up to him and he hears the words Stomach Pump but they mean absolutely nothing to him. He turns away when the doctor does and finds a seat to collapse into. It bends, buckling under his weight and he stands up, looking at it with betrayal written all over his expression.

“You okay?” Somebody comes up to him, but their voice, their face is lost in the anger that wells up, brimming, spilling, overflowing.

He’s still staring at the chair. The goddamn chair is bent in half like Bucky’s weight was too much for it and Bucky can’t – he can’t deal. Why’d it do that? Why’d it bend? Why’d it break? And without so much as a warning. He just collapsed, crumbling, breaking apart. He imploded and Bucky was so wrapped up in his own shit-happiness that he hadn’t even noticed. He hadn’t fucking noticed and now Steve was in the hospital getting his stomach pumped and oh fuck, Steve if you don’t live through this I swear to God –

They’re on the 41st floor. Bucky notes the number as he walks to the window, holding the bent chair high over his head. He chucks it out the window and watches it sail down through the air, spinning end over end over end over end.

It lands in the middle of the street, shattering into a million pieces. He can’t hear the crash, but if he closes his eyes, he can imagine it, a deafening, satisfying crunch he feels deep in his bones. A car swerves around what’s left of the wreckage and Bucky smiles, chaotic and vicious.

Turning around, he feels the eyes of the Avengers on him. They’re all watching him. Him. Staring at him like he’s too fragile to handle. Like he’s a fucking flower and just their gaze is going to bruise his petals. Like he’s some goddamn child and they’re trying to ease his pain.

But he’s not the one who needs help.

Steve. Steve needs help. He’s dead or dying and it’s all Bucky’s fault. It’s his fucking fault and –

He breaks down, right there, in front of all of them.

His metal arm crunches into the tile and he’s crying, heaving dry sobs because goddamn if he’s going to let anyone but Stevie see his tears. Thank the fucking Lord no one moves to comfort him because if they did Bucky is pretty sure he’d have another body on his hands.

And he’s not sure he can take that. Not when Steve’s death is still raw, fresh and burning red-hot on his soul.

*

It started not long after Bucky got his memories back. Steve came to visit him – he was still in the penitentiary wing of the Tower, much to Steve’s chagrin – and in the middle of their visit he started coughing. Big, racking coughs that shook his entire frame. He fell to one knee and Bucky, memories of a little asthmatic Steve fresh in his brain, started screaming, watching helplessly as Steve coughed blood before him.

He broke his handcuffs that day. The metal arm moved of its own accord and the chains were off and he was moving towards Steve before the SHIELD guards outside the door could even process what was happening.

He curled himself around Steve, folding his body around every line of Steve’s. Steve was folded inwards, coughing, shoulders shaking, body shivering. Bucky pressed his forehead to the back of Steve’s neck, running his lips up, up to the shell of Steve’s ear to whisper soothing words.

“Breathe, Stevie. Breathe. Come on, doll. Come on, sweetheart. Breathe. There you go. Breathe. For me. Please, breathe.”

Gradually, the coughing eased until Steve was left, shivering and weak, in Bucky’s arms. It was so weird, so fucking weird, to be holding Steve like that. It felt nice, comfortable to Bucky but there was something so wrong about it. Maybe it had something to do with Steve’s new body size, or his shivering weakness, or the fact that he was a big beefcake and he’d been brought low by something he was supposed to have left behind when he grew out of his shit-skinny body.

“Sorry, Buck.” Steve turned, lips red with his own blood. “Sorry. I’m sorry.”

But it wasn’t his fault. Of course it wasn’t, why are you saying that, Stevie? It ain’t your fault, it ain’t your fault . . .

Fury pulled Bucky out of the cell after that. “We couldn’t keep him here if we tried. He’s here cause he wants to be,” he’d said and Bucky had smiled, finally addressing the man he’d tried to kill with some semblance of respect.

Steve spent some time in the medical ward after that. Bucky was there every day, talking with Steve, catching up, apologizing, making him laugh when he looked like he wanted to murder everything in the room. The doctors let him go after a while, baffled. They couldn’t figure out why Steve had started coughing. His lungs were in perfect condition. Everything was working exactly as it was supposed to. They also couldn’t figure out where the blood had come from and that worried Bucky more than the coughing.

“I’m fine, Buck.” Steve had waved off Bucky’s worry the rest of that week. “I’m fine.”

It had taken another alien attack for the team to realize he really wasn’t.

*

“I couldn’t lift my shield.” Steve stared down at his hands like they weren’t his. He shook his head and blinked, clenching his fists. He looked up at Bucky, shock written all over his face. “It was too heavy, Buck. It was too heavy.”

He was in the medical ward again. After being unable to lift his shield, Steve had taken an alien gut shot that had smoked up his insides and had him vomiting black blood and bile for three hours afterwards. The doctors had managed – somehow – to patch him up back to more or less okay condition, but Fury hadn’t let him back on the field despite Steve’s insistence.

The next day, Steve was lifting everything from his shield to a car parked outside the building. He ran two marathons to prove he was fine and still Fury didn’t give him the clear.

Bucky bought Fury a drink after that and fully apologized, once and for all, for trying to kill him.

“Let me guard him,” Bucky said, tipping his beer back and letting the liquid run down his throat. “Please. I won’t fight. Just let me watch his six. I’m hell with a sniper rifle.”

“So I’ve heard.” Fury was skeptical, but it only took one heart-broken look from Bucky to break him.

So the next mission Bucky tagged along, watching Steve carefully out of the corner of his eye.

“Nice to have another sniper on the team.” Clint made small talk with him and Bucky grinned, watching Steve shift uncomfortably across from him.

“‘Course I don’t know the first thing about a bow and arrow.” Bucky spoke to Clint without looking away from Steve. “I’ll stick to my guns, thank you.”

Bucky was watching Steve through the scope of his rifle when it happened. One minute Steve was in full Captain America mode, hurling enemies and tossing his shield this way and that. Then he was gone. Bucky blinked, metal hand fisting around the barrel of his rifle. It took him a minute to realize Steve wasn’t gone, he’d just shrunk. His head was just barely grazing the bottom of Bucky’s scope until Bucky adjusted, watching the stereotypical bad guy goons grin, circling around him.

Bucky dropped the rifle, flinging himself off the top of the parking deck he was camped on. He fell three stories, landing solidly on reinforced combat boots. He strode down the street with Winter Solider swagger, ignoring the civilians fleeing from him and the darkness that stretched before him like a tangible thing.

He reached Steve as the goons were tying his arms behind him. Steve was struggling, kicking out weakly against the arms that held him. One goon cuffed him, punching him so hard his chin tipped back and he went limp. Blood spilled from a cut on his forehead and there was another gushing wound on his leg and Bucky snapped.

He killed the first goon with his pistol, shooting him through the throat. He stepped over his body, watching him drown in his own blood with a feral smile. He killed the second with a blow to the head, cracking his skull and his spine with his metal fist. The third and fourth died together, a jagged piece of metal thrust through both their hearts. Bucky dropped the metal – a car door he’d ripped off in all his anger – and turned to the last goon, the one who held Steve.

He was looking nervous – rightly so – and kept a gun pressed to Steve’s chin, tipping his head up so Bucky could see his dull, glazed expression.

“Buck?” Steve breathed and Bucky curled his lip up, unsheathing his knife and stretching it out toward the goon.

“Don’t move!” he snapped, shaking like a leaf and Bucky just frowned, patience wearing deadly, dangerously thin.

Bucky was deciding how to kill him – beheading or disembowelment? they both sounded really good to him – when Steve reached back, knocking the gun out of the goon’s hands. He turned quickly, moving with Captain America-swiftness despite his small size, and fired with the gun he’d knocked from the goon’s hands.

A bullet to the chest wasn’t nearly as satisfying as what Bucky had in mind but it did get the job done.

Steve collapsed after that, dropping into Bucky’s arms with the gun falling loosely at his side. Bucky just managed to avoid getting shot by some incoming goons, swooping Steve up into his arms and running off, head down and eyes blazing with determination.

He made it to the Tower in record time, dropping an unconscious Steve off in the medical ward without a word. He was out and back before Steve woke up, recovering from surgery without absolutely zero grace.

Bucky went back out to behead the goon who’d dared hurt Steve Rogers, tossing his head into the thicket of goons still out there. They slunk away after that, tail between their legs. Tony and Thor had managed to snuff them all out, capturing or killing the rest of the lot with minimum damage.

The Avengers team stared at Bucky with newfound respect after that, but he didn’t give two shits. He was too busy watching Steve, tracing his eyes over his skinny frame and resting with his head on Steve’s bony collarbone.

*

He stayed like that for three weeks. Just when he was staring to regain some strength – he had enough to lift his shield, even with those skinny, skinny arms – when everything fell apart and Steve had an asthma attack that rocked the whole tower.

Bucky almost lost him then. He had flashbacks to cold winters in an apartment, to priests coming in and giving Steve his last rights, to shared body heat and whispered words passed between two boys who were lost without each other.

“Don’t you dare leave me,” Bucky said, tasting the memory even as he spoke the words, whispering them into Steve’s ear as he faded in and out of consciousness. “Don’t you leave me, Steve Rogers, or I swear to God, I’m coming after you.”

Slowly, Steve recovered. He was still racked with coughs, his face was still pale, but he got better. So Bucky got better. He stopped throwing things, his dark moods receded and he had a newfound appreciation for everyone in the Tower.

That was about the time he started to realize that this wasn’t just a passing phase. Bucky thought Steve might have realized it too because there were moments when Steve would just stare into the mirror as if he was getting used to looking at that frail body again. But he didn’t let himself believe. He deluded himself into holding on, to hoping that it was just a thing his body was going through. That it would all be better soon and he would back to punching bad guys in no time.

But he knew. Bucky knew. Natasha knew. So did Tony and Sam and Banner and everyone else.

So when Banner came in with the lab results it wasn’t a huge shock to anyone.

*

“It’s permanent.”

His voice wasn’t hard, wasn’t cold or detached or pitying. It was full of emotion, real emotion, unlike the voice of other doctors Bucky had seen in his quest to make Steve better. 

But the fact that he was sorry about, that he wished he could change it, that he wished he could help in some way, any way, didn’t make things better for Steve.

He stared up at Banner with a lost expression, looking so much like the little kid Bucky had fallen in love with. He didn’t breathe for a moment and when he did it was in short bursts that had the heart monitor beside his bed screaming, shrieking out his uneven beat with a terrible noise.

Bucky had to clear the room to work Steve down, rubbing his hand into Steve’s chest and kissing the crown of his head, whispering words of praise each time Steve drew a breath.

“I’m worthless,” Steve coughed, fisting Bucky’s shirt with one small palm. “I’m not Captain America. I’m just a shit. I’m a little shit again.”

“Shhh.” Bucky couldn’t stand that. He hated it, hated it, when Steve talked bad about himself. “You’re not a little shit. You’re still Captain America. I don’t care what you look like.”

But the world did.

Steve was pitied. He was mourned. He was immortalized in time as the greatest war hero there ever was. As a hero unmatched.

There were speeches, television programs, research papers, and ten kinds of other shit-fests dedicated in his honor. Letters flew in with all kinds of sorry’s and we’ll miss you’s and other shit like that. The Death of Captain America was on the front page of every newspaper for months afterwards.

Of course, it wasn’t all like that.

Jon Stewart devoted a whole episode to Steve, calling out everyone on their shit.

“He’s still alive, people!” He said into the camera, his expression devoid of its usual humor. “And I don’t care if he’s no longer your great symbol. He’s still Steve Rogers, he’s still Captain America, so you don’t need to hold a national funeral for him! He’s scarified more for this country than anybody and the minute, the very second, he goes back to being small you guys forget him, turn your back and forget him, just like that?”

Bucky saved the letters that praised Steve; that complimented his small frame and continued to refer to him as Captain America.

“You’re my hero,” one girl from Indiana wrote. “Big or small.”

Steve smiled at that. Then he set the card aside and turned, looking out the window with a blank expression.

Bucky shoved known then. He should’ve seen the signs. But he was too happy.

Yeah, that’s right. He was fucking happy. Happy. Like the sick bastard he was, he was a little happy that Steve was back to his small size. He liked having Steve to himself, heart, body, and soul. He didn’t give a shit if the world saw him as Captain America anymore cause he always had and he always would.

He thought that might have been enough.

But he should’ve known it wouldn’t be.

They moved back into their old apartment. It was difficult for Steve to leave the tower, even more so for Bucky.

“I want you watching him,” Fury said. “He’s not in a good place.”

But even he didn’t know the full extent of Steve’s troubles.

Natasha came to visit. So did Sam and Tony and Thor and Pepper and Bruce and Clint and everyone else. They had a big party when they finally moved in, a house-warming celebration. Bucky loved it. He ate the whole thing up, took their gifts and smiled with his arm flung around Steve.

He should’ve seen Steve’s expression. Should’ve read the sadness, the absolute dread. Bucky could imagine what he was thinking. They’re celebrating my fall, he would’ve thought. Fucking drama queen as he always was.

Bucky felt himself growing angry. He was pulling his memories under a microscope, looking at Steve from every angle, inspecting his every action. He didn’t want to get angry, but he couldn’t help it. Why didn’t he reach out to me? Why didn’t he talk? Why didn’t I notice? Why did he have to be like that?

He was asking himself the same questions over and over. He would learn later that they were the same questions everyone asked when their loved ones suffered so.

Of course, Bucky couldn’t put all the blame on himself. He was just as screwed up as Steve was, in some worse, some better ways. They were an odd pair. An odd, troubled pair, but it had always worked.

Until it didn’t.

*

Bucky became the new Captain America. That must’ve been the tipping point for Steve. Fury tiptoed around the topic for a while, finally bringing it up months after Steve’s smallification. Steve smiled, grinning at Bucky like he thought the world of him. He nodded, said it was a good idea, and told Bucky to watch himself out there.

Bucky was reluctant at first, but Steve was insistent. He buried his feelings, his pain, and his grief under an incessant need to help others and it was so Steve it made Bucky’s heart hurt. In short, Steve guilted Bucky into it.

“You gotta do what I can’t, Buck,” he’d said one night after an argument – and subsequent asthma attack – about the topic.

He should’ve known. He should’ve fucking known after that, but he hadn’t. Or maybe . . . maybe he had, but he was just refusing to believe.

Because Captain America didn’t get depressed. He didn’t anxious or sad or homesick or lonely. And he certainly didn’t get suicidal.

But Steve Rogers.

Steve Rogers did.

He threw himself into fight after fight as a kid, downed a plane in ice after losing his best friend, and went after a god with nothing but his shield to protect him.

Steve Rogers was suicidal. And Captain America wasn’t. But because Bucky refused to separate them – and because Steve already had – he didn’t notice, didn’t even think until it was too late.

*

He hadn’t gone out in public yet. Hadn’t come out as the new face of the Captain America legacy. They hadn’t made the announcement, hadn’t done anything about it but talk in passing. Fury was nervous – as nervous as someone of his disposition could get – about the whole thing, cautious. He wasn’t sure how the public would receive him. He wanted Steve to make some kind of speech, but Steve kept putting it off. Not because he didn’t want Bucky taking his place, but because he wasn’t sure what to say. He approved of Bucky as the new Captain America. He did with all his heart and soul, but he wasn’t sure how to get everyone else to. And after everything Bucky had done as the Winter Solider, he couldn’t exactly blame him.

Bucky was doing some low-key missions, easy stuff that kept him out of the spotlight (he still wore his Winter Solider attire, absolutely refusing to put on anything even remotely resembling the Captain America getup until Steve gave him the all-clear). He was coming back from one such mission, bruised and battered but ultimately satisfied when he got the call.

He was at the Tower in record time, forcing the SHIELD pilot out of the cockpit and gunning it back, zooming through the sky so fast New York was just a blur beneath them.

And that’s how he found himself at Steve’s side, holding onto his gurney and crying into his pale, pale skin.

*

The present snaps back in around him. He’s sitting on another chair by the window, feeling the cold air whisper in through the jagged hole he’s made in the glass. Natasha is holding his flesh-and-blood hand, whispering in Russian with her head resting on his shoulder. Sam is on his other side, cleaning up the glass and tossing it into a wastebasket not far away. Tony is talking to someone – Pepper? – on his phone, snapping at her then whispering sharp apologies.

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry. He just – he tried to kill himself. Yeah, I know. Yes, Steve. Steve Rogers, hero of the century. Yes, Pepper, I know. I know. They’re pumping his stomach now. I don’t know who gave him those sleeping pills but I’m going to make sure they never work in this town again.”

There’s a girl standing off to the side, green eyes wide with seven different kinds of worry. Coulson turns to her and Bucky hears her whispering, looking at Bucky with wide frantic eyes. Coulson gapes at her and then he’s pulling her backward, grip firm on her upper arm. She’s got on a white lab coat and Bucky makes the connection in some dim corner of his brain as the girl breaks away from Coulson, rushing towards him in a flurry of green eyes and curling red hair.

“I’m so sorry!” She throws herself at Bucky’s feet, slicing her knees open on some glass Sam hasn’t cleaned up. Her palms are pressed together under her chin and she’s holding her throat, knuckles white like she wants to wring her own neck. “He told me he couldn’t sleep! I didn’t know he was stock-piling them! I didn’t know, I’m so sorry! I wanted to help, oh my God, I’m so sorry!”

She falls apart, blubbering, and reaches for Bucky. To his surprise, he lets her touch him, folding her hand over his knee and holding it like it’s some glass bubble, a fragile little thing she’s afraid to press too hard on.

The room tenses as he reaches for her, smoothing his metal hand over her hair. The curls spring through his metal fingers, shockingly red against the smooth silver. Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Coulson and Fury reaching for their guns. Natasha’s hand in his is hard and she’s staring at him like she can melt his fury with her very gaze. Sam’s hands have found the back of Bucky’s chair and he’s holding on for dear life, looking like he wants to rip him back away from the fragile girl beneath him.

But to everyone’s surprise – including Bucky’s – he just ruffles her hair, smoothing his hand over her cheek and tipping her chin up.

“It’s not your fault,” he says and he means it.

The girl’s eyes go wide and she flings herself away from him, sobbing and blubbering him and thanking him in a low undertone. Bucky nods, barely holding himself together.

He shakes his hand out of Natasha’s grip and leaves the room, slipping outside for a smoke. But the cigarette tastes like ash in his mouth. The nicotine is terrible and the smoke is clogging his nose, making everything stink. He grinds the cigarette out beneath his boot and heads back in.

Everyone is still there, a new kind of relief blooming on their faces. The doctor stands in the middle of their gathering, talking softly, turning abruptly when he hears Bucky walk in.

“We got it all out,” he says and Bucky’s knees go weak with relief. “He’s resting, but he’ll be fine.”

The rest of the doc’s words fade out, medical mumbo jumbo blending into the background with the smell of antiseptic and the squeak of rubber soles on tile.

He finds Steve’s room easily, standing over him a moment just watching his chest rise and fall softly. Then he slips into the bathroom, stripping out of his uniform and showering. He washes the blood and the smoke off him, brushing his teeth and scrubbing himself down from head to toe. When he steps out of the shower there’s some clothes waiting for him, along with a note from a girl named Joy – the red-head who’d unknowingly helped Steve almost commit suicide.

Bucky takes the clothes, but doesn’t read the note. He tosses it into the trash, resigning himself to paying Joy a visit to clear her of her guilt once and for all. He finds a bar of chocolate under all the clothes and a vintage Bucky Bear. He holds the bear into his chest and splits the chocolate bar down the middle, like he and Steve used to do when they were kids, munching on his half as he waits for Steve to wake.

He falls asleep at some point, waking with the feel of soft fingers running through his hair. He blinks one eye open, watching Steve watching him before he sits up, capturing Steve’s hand in his own. He cages those skinny fingers, circling his thumb and forefinger round his wrist and bringing the whole thing to his mouth and kissing it softly.

Steve doesn’t say anything, just watches Bucky carefully, like he’s trying to judge just how much trouble he’s in. He’s in a lot of trouble – a shitton actually – but Bucky isn’t going to yell at him. He’s not going to make Steve feel bad about it, and he’s definitely not going to scare him. He just meets his gaze, catching Steve’s chin with his metal hand and holding it firmly.

“I love you,” he says and he’s surprised he hasn’t said it before now. “And I’m not gonna let you leave me.”

Steve’s eyes fill with bruise-blue tears and he tries looking away, but Bucky just holds his chin, keeping his eyes forward. He presses the Bucky Bear into Steve’s chest and moves away, pouring him a glass of water and handing him the chocolate bar without a word.

He doesn’t kiss Steve, doesn’t do any of the things he really, really wants to, just sits there quietly, watching Steve puzzle himself back to the world of the living.

He’s upset, at first. Confused, naturally. He really wanted to die and that just kills Bucky on the inside, but gradually, gradually, Steve accepts it.

“It was a moment of weakness,” he says, laughing bitterly. “That’s all I am in this body. Weakness, personified.”

“No.” Bucky shakes his head, pressing his forehead to Steve’s. “You’re strength. A new kind. A different kind. My kind.”

Steve smiles, but Bucky can tell he doesn’t believe him. That’s fine, he thinks. I’ll just keep saying it until you do.

The other Avengers stop by, grateful and incredibly glad. Bucky gets a little worried when Natasha strolls in, followed by a Fury who looks thisclose to breathing fire, but they don’t yell at him. They don’t even scold and Bucky is glad, so fucking glad, he hugs them both.

It’s a while before Steve can talk about it. Before Sam can talk to him, before Bucky can convince him to go to therapy. It’s a while before Natasha can yell at him the way she wants to, before Fury can scold him like he felt he was supposed to. Before Bucky can pull Steve close and kiss him breathless and make him glad he didn’t succeed that terrible awful night.

It’s a while – but still a surprisingly short amount of time – before Bucky can don the Captain America suit and head out into battle in Steve’s name. Eventually, Steve does give a speech, passing the mantle to Bucky with great honor and ceremony. That’s the breaking point for Steve, the good breaking point, and Bucky watches with joy as the world recognizes little Steve as Captain America even without the smoking hot bod.

He’s the guest of honor at several state dinners. The president invites him to talk, asks for advice, and all kinds of political nonsense. He draws up tactics with the best generals, gives his opinions on everything, and helps causes he thinks are right. And although some people – cough, cough those dicks at Fox News – try to paint Steve as a picture of washed up uselessness, Steve is anything but useless and now the whole world knows it.

Jon Stewart has him on the program several times, standing up and saluting him to a full round of applause each time. Steve, good-natured as always, tries to shake it off, but he is, down at his core, Captain America. Now and always.

He’s still an Avenger. He always will be. He and Bucky move back into the Tower and join the rest of the time, two halves of a whole. Clint jokes that Steve is the brains of the operations and Bucky’s the brawns and its scary how accurate that statement is. Steve goes to art school on his days off and when a big-bad rolls into town he hooks himself to a monitor and calls the shots for the team, secure in a bunker beneath the Tower.

He’s not happy all the time. He grumbles about being small and complains about his runt-like body and constant state of sickness. But he’s better. He’s about as happy as he’ll ever get and that’s enough for Bucky, enough for all of them. And he definitely doesn’t complain about being fucked in the bunker after a fight, Bucky high as a kite with leftover adrenaline and in full Captain America attire.

It gets bad again when he comes out. Fox News leads a crusade against him, but they are pretty much the only people hating on him for it. Even Republican Senators can’t say too much cause he’s a fucking war hero and do you really want to go up against that? He walks in a pride parade in New York and kisses Bucky in the middle of a press conference. Still, he wavers a little and Bucky watches him like a hawk for weeks until it gets okay again.

Bucky proposes on the anniversary of the day Steve tried to kill himself. It’s been a year and both of them are quiet when the day rolls around. Bucky thanks God and whoever else is up there that Steve’s still with him and hopes Steve’s doing the same – he is – but the quiet is almost too much for him. So out of nowhere, he drops to one knee and takes Steve’s hand. He doesn’t have a ring and it’s not romantic and it’s in the middle of the Tower with all the Avengers looking on, but it’s okay. It’s okay cause it’s them and they’re in love and holy God, he’s going to marry Steve Rogers. His best friend. His best man. His best fella. His hero. His love. His everything.

They get married that day, a quiet ceremony that drives Tony Stark to tears. It’s only a few weeks later that they realize what a huge mistake they’ve made when Jon Stewart flips his shit, complaining and demanding for a superhero wedding.

Pepper plans the whole thing with everyone giving their input. Tony takes way too much joy in picking out the color scheme and Natasha tries a hundred different cake samples, dragging Clint along with her until they’re both fat and satisfied. Thor and Banner decide on the party favors with Jane supervising and the whole thing is a huge mess in Bucky’s opinion but there’s a secret glow on Steve’s face that means he’s enjoying it.

So he lets the madness continue and on the day he’s stunned, knocked out of his shoes as Steve walks down the aisle in a clean white suit. Sam holds his arm and Natasha, standing at Bucky’s side, elbows him sharply, but he knows. He knows.

Mine, he thinks, accepting Steve gratefully as Sam gives him up, pulling him in for a kiss before he can help himself.

“Buck!” Steve hisses, but he’s smiling and Bucky has to kiss him again just for that.

There’s about a hundred people there, including some Senators – Democrats, obviously – the President – who may or may not be crying tears of joy in the front row – Peggy and her granddaughter, several dozen SHIELD members, the whole Avengers team, and the grandchildren of the Howling Commandos. The press is outside, listening to every word of the ceremony and taking as many pictures as they can. Jon Stewart is in the front row, smiling proudly with half a dozen or so comedians crowding the bench beside him.

They’re in a Catholic church – because fuck you, that’s why – and they get the grandson of the priest who looked after them when they were kids to marry them and he does so gladly, restoring Bucky’s faith in the human race.

The honeymoon is also a big to-do and Bucky has no idea where he’s going but he knows, looking down at Steve as he stands there in his five-foot adorable frame with that king of all grins on his face that he doesn’t care. As long as Steve is with him.

“I love you,” he whispers when it’s over and they’re kissing in front of the audience, in front of the whole world it feels like.

“I know,” he says, and after a moment. “I love you too.”

And Bucky’s never been happier.