“That all your stuff?” Sam asked, nodding at the knapsack slung over Bucky’s shoulder.
Bucky nodded briefly, and held the strap a little tighter. Now that he had things, he was reticent to let go of them for very long, even in the company of friends. They weren’t valuables, not to anyone but him, but they were his, and that was enough. Half a pack of gum. Three black hair ties. A deck of cards with the jokers missing. Lime green shoelaces for his boots. Knit fingerless gloves. An airport novel that he’d only picked up because the cover reminded him of something he couldn’t quite remember. Three dollars in quarters with different states on the backs. A post-it note with Steve’s phone number written hastily on it in blue ink.
The last one was more valuable than the rest, and that was why it lived inside the small zippered pocket inside the bag, framed on either side by two knives. Bucky watched Sam watch him and knew that Sam knew where the knives were. He tried not to let this bother him.
“Steve says you’re welcome to borrow his clothes until we figure out your situation,” Sam continued, holding the door open just long enough for Bucky to slink inside. “But he keeps forgetting that he’s literally enormous, so I figured I’d extend the offer too. Whatever you need, man. I’ve got socks that aren’t built for turbo feet.” Sam nodded him down the hallway, and Bucky followed him cautiously.
“His feet were always huge,” Bucky heard himself saying, but his voice was hoarse from disuse. He coughed once into his fist. “Even before the serum. Just like his nose.”
“That doesn’t really surprise me,” Sam said, smiling.
Does anything? Bucky wanted to say. He managed to bite it back at the last second.
They reached the kitchen, Sam walking to the sink to fill a glass of water while Bucky awkwardly stood in the doorway with his bag’s strap still clutched tightly in his right hand. His left, although not quite twitching, was restless at his side. His hands wanted to be doing something. The something he knew best was killing, but there was nobody here to kill in Sam’s small apartment.
“C’mon, Bucky,” Steve had told him, eyes so kind that they made Bucky’s teeth ache. “Let me take you home. I’ll take care of you.” The hand Steve had had on the back of his neck felt gentle and soft. Bucky had leaned into it when he nodded, meeting Sam’s eyes over Steve’s shoulder.
“Here,” Sam said, handing Bucky the glass and breaking him out of his thoughts. “You want a sandwich?”
The warmth in Sam’s eyes dripped down Bucky’s back like honey, heavy and sweet enough to make him grimace. “Okay,” he said, and automatically raised the glass to his mouth. He wished people would stop offering him things.
“Alright,” Sam said, and went to the refrigerator to pull out thin slices of chicken, lettuce, cucumber. Bucky watched, and leaned against the doorway, and when Sam began to whistle softly to himself, Bucky moved as quietly as he was able to sit down at the table and hold his knapsack carefully in his lap.
He slept that night with his shoes on. He untied them, but discomfort swirled dangerously in his stomach when he tried to toe them off, so he did up the laces again and slept with his legs hanging over the side. He got up twice in the night to check the locks on the door and the window. They were safely shut and locked both times he checked, but the unease crept across the floor toward him like a long, ominous shadow anyway.
Steve called him in the afternoon when Bucky was cleaning his guns and Sam had gone out to stock up on supplies. Bucky had already double checked the perimeter, reluctantly eaten half a sandwich, and cleaned his knives, so he had nothing else to do. There was only waiting, now, until Steve got back.
Stay put. Rest. Get better. Those were the instructions Steve had left him with, just before he handed the car keys to Sam and got on his bike. Steve had sped off with the sunlight glancing off the shield on his back, flashy as always, drawing all attention away from the small brown car with a crooked right wing mirror and Bucky nestled carefully into the back seat. Steve hadn’t looked back. Bucky had wished he’d wear a helmet.
Stay put. Rest. Get better. Bucky only had a vague idea of what ‘better’ looked like, but he was fairly certain it wasn’t this: sitting at the kitchen table, four guns in pieces spread out over a towel, gunpowder smudged over the bridge of his nose where he’d rubbed at it absently. Six knives of various sizes were arranged in front of him like a table setting, blades polished bright enough that his own tired eyes were reflected up at him, sad and blue, but no longer empty. He was almost certain he was glad he was no longer empty.
He was reaching for a new rag when his phone started buzzing, startling him.
“Hey, Buck,” Steve said, relieved in a way he couldn’t hide. “How are you?”
“I’m,” Bucky said, and stopped.
Steve waited patiently on the other end of the line, though Bucky could feel his unease trickling down between them like beads of sweat. He didn’t know how to talk. He knew he was meant to, but the words didn’t sound right when they came out of his mouth, and he was growing tired of trying when he knew he was going to sound like someone he didn’t recognize.
“Bucky,” Steve said softly, imploringly.
Bucky scraped his lower lip between his teeth. “When are you coming back?” he asked. One metal fingertip stroked over the tip of the nearest knife, blocking his reflection before he could meet his own accusatory gaze.
“Soon,” Steve said, with enough guilt that Bucky was almost sorry he asked. “This afternoon, hopefully. I’m running into more red tape than I thought I would.”
Bucky sighed a breath through his teeth. “Okay.”
“Sam taking care of you alright?”
Bucky thought about the small stack of clothes left neatly by his closed bedroom door, the toothbrush, the food. “Yes.”
“No one followed you two home after I left?”
“And you’re remembering things?” Steve sounded somewhat nervous, then, but Steve often sounded nervous when they were talking, so Bucky didn’t waste energy by chasing down the anxiety that weighed down the pit of his stomach as well.
“Yes,” he said, and rubbed the back of his neck with his hand, frowning slightly at the array of weaponry in front of him. But not as much as you want, he thought, which made the frown deepen and his hand tighten around his borrowed cell phone.
Bucky lay on his side in the backseat, knees tucked close to chest. His eyes were half closed. He’d been pretending to be asleep for the past hour, regulating his breathing to be deep and even, keeping his body still. It was difficult to keep himself from checking the windows and door locks. He suspected Steve was grateful for the excuse to stop trying to make awkward conversation, though.
Sam and Steve were talking quietly in the front seats, voices hushed, one of Sam’s hands resting on the nape of Steve’s neck. Bucky watched Sam touch Steve through his eyelashes. It was good, he thought, the way that Sam touched Steve – like it was easy, like putting his hands on Steve was the easiest thing in the world.
The road lights splintered over Steve's face in orange shards that Bucky wanted to trace over with his fingertips, or maybe with his mouth. He watched Steve wet his lips with the tip of his tongue, watched the way his lower lip glistened afterward, and fought down the urge to echo the motion himself. I don’t think he knows how to be a person yet, Sam had told Steve, early on in the journey when he thought Bucky had just fallen asleep, the late afternoon light streaking gold and orange through the car. He’s taking his cues off of you, man.
It was probably true. Bucky watched Sam’s thumb rub circles into the base of Steve’s neck and felt an ache flare up in the pit of his stomach, heavy and bitter. He could taste the longing on the back of his tongue.
“Should we wake him?” Steve murmured. “We’re about an hour out, now.”
“Nah,” Sam said, glancing over his shoulder at Bucky’s silhouette in the dark. Bucky stayed very still under his gaze. “Something tells me he doesn’t get a lot of rest. Let him be till we get there.”
Bucky’s eyes opened to the sight of Steve hovering over him, one hand nervously extended to his shoulder without making contact.
“We there yet?” he asked, sitting up slowly. Steve leaned back to give him room.
“Yeah, we just got here. Sam’s checking in to the hotel for us.” Steve shouldered his bag and Bucky followed suit, retrieving the gun that he’d stashed under the seat in front of him. He raised his eyebrows, daring Steve to say something, but Steve kept his mouth closed as Bucky tucked it into the waistband of his pants.
“Gimme a hand,” Bucky said, reaching out, and let Steve pull him out of the car.
Sam was waiting for them in the lobby, leaning against the wall with his suitcase at his feet. He smiled at Steve, warm and bright, and Bucky looked away before that sunshine-smile could be turned on him.
Sam handed Steve the room keys. “I’m gonna get us some food. You and Barnes get yourselves settled, yeah?”
“Thanks, Sam,” Steve said gratefully. He leaned in to kiss Sam, pressing a smile to Sam’s mouth, and Bucky watched them silently out of the corners of his eyes. The concierge was watching them as well, discomfort obvious, but Bucky shot him a teeth-bared glare over Steve’s shoulder that made him look away quickly. Good.
“C’mon, Steve,” Bucky said quietly, when Steve and Sam didn’t show signs of breaking apart quickly. “Kiss your boyfriend later. We’ve got shit to do.”
Steve’s face had gone pink. “Right. Sorry.”
Sam was still smiling. “I’ll be back soon. With food.”
“And a first aid kit,” Bucky added, which made both Sam and Steve look at him, surprised. Bucky shoved his hands into his pockets with a self-conscious shrug. “I don’t like travelling without one.”
Sam nodded slowly. “That’s a good idea,” he said. “I’ll pick one up while I’m out.”
“Thanks,” Bucky said, and waited until Sam had turned toward the exit before he grabbed Steve’s hand and pulled him toward the elevator. The concierge peeked over his computer screen to watch them leave, but Bucky didn’t pay him any mind this time. Steve’s hand was in his. Nothing else seemed to matter.
Navigating the hotel shower was akin to introducing himself to a feral beast. He checked the lock once – twice – three times before he could convince himself to turn on the water and start taking off his clothes. His shoes, his jacket, his t-shirt and dark jeans – all of them ended up in a pile by the sink, neatly folded with his gun resting on top. He checked the lock one final time before he bit the bullet and stepped into the shower.
The problem with bathing, really, was that it was impossible to ignore his body while he was in close confines with it. He was surrounded on all sides. He washed quickly, efficiently, with army tactics and mounting fear that he would be interrupted. By what, he didn’t know. He supposed with no small edge of bitterness that he’d been designed to live a life guided by dread.
Touching himself in this context was a strange affair. The way the light reflected off his soapy mismatched arms, the way his stomach felt when he ran his fingertips over it, the way the water spray beat down on his shoulders: foreign sensations, all of them, and almost painfully raw. Oversensitive. His skin was not yet used to touch, not even when it was gentle. Not even when it came from him.
At one point, one of his hands drifted between his legs as he was washing. He ran his palm over the soft skin of his inner thigh and shuddered, teeth clicking together painfully. What surprised him was not the existence of his genitals, although they, too, were foreign, but the fact that he had paid them no mind up until that moment. Unnerved, he was struck by the thought – am I supposed to enjoy this? Quickly following it was the thought – would Bucky have enjoyed this?
He tried, for a moment, to imagine how Bucky would touch himself, to try and emulate the movement of Bucky’s hand between his legs. But it felt fake and alarming, he was limp in his own hand, and after a few seconds he gave up completely. It was with relief that he turned off the water and reached for his towel.
Sam and Steve shared one bed and Bucky took the other. It was a fine arrangement – Bucky had his back to the wall instead of the window, and when he tucked himself up against the corner, he could keep watch over both of the others while they slept. It was obvious, Bucky realized, that Sam and Steve had slept in the same bed several times before. Steve had curled up behind Sam immediately without any awkwardness, and the small, private smile that appeared on Sam’s face hadn’t been born out of surprise. Now they were sleeping, Steve’s arm slung around Sam’s waist, and Bucky felt that ache well up in the pit of his stomach again.
He could remember, in wide swaths of color, sharing a bed with Steve back when Steve was small and he was clean and whole. Steve’s breath on his wrist, his spine against Bucky’s sternum – there weren’t many details that stood out to Bucky through the fog of missing decades, but the way Steve’s body fit against his own was a memory that would not leave his head.
He could remember in sharper detail the feeling of the battlefield camp beneath his feet, beneath his body through his thin bedroll. The cold had been so thick that he could smell it. Steve had slept with him then, sometimes, as did Jim and Gabe and the rest of them. They took warmth where they could get it in those days, pushing all their bedrolls together and sleeping in one big pile, Dum Dum’s foot resting on Steve’s hip, Falsworth and Dernier spooning tightly with Gabe’s leg over them both. Bucky had never had to ask for it. It was given to him without question.
“Come on, boys, I’d like to feel my feet in the morning,” Falsworth would say, and then Gabe would tug at Bucky’s coat until he could put his icy hands inside it, and Dum Dum would make Jim yelp by snaking his cold foot up his calf. That was what the ache was for, really: the easy pile of Commandos that kicked in their sleep, took turns squishing each other, breathed on each other's hands to keep them warm.
Bucky wondered if he could stomach anyone touching him now while he slept.
Bucky knew they were taking a risk, running away like this. They weren’t breaking the law, but that was only because there were no laws for them to break, no precedent for them to follow. There was no protocol written for brainwashed century-long prisoners of war, but Bucky knew that someone would come after them eventually. The open road was not always a comfort, not when they were always looking over their shoulders.
But then, Bucky supposed he’d be looking over his shoulder anyway. He still scanned for the exits every time he walked into a room, still searched for potential escapes and objects he could use as improvised weapons. He didn’t think he was going to stop any time soon. He hoped Steve didn’t expect him to. He knew there were things Steve wanted that he was not going to be able to give him.
Even so, he was glad Steve was here. He liked knowing that he could turn to Steve every time he heard the gunshot-sound of a memory blooming inside his head, he liked that he had immediate access to his past, even if he had to hear it secondhand through Steve’s mouth. Steve kept telling him that his head would be his own if he waited long enough. If he was patient. Bucky wasn’t patient, but he was glad that Steve was near him while they waited.
He was glad that Sam was here too, with the sunshine nestled under his skin, white-toothed smile lighting up the darker corners of the room. It was good for Steve to have someone to love, Bucky thought, who could be loved with ease. It was not difficult to love Sam. Bucky looked down at the shirt he was wearing – soft grey, smelling faintly of Sam’s aftershave – and thought it might be nice, wearing proof of Sam’s heartbeat as well as Steve’s.
Wearing Bucky’s skin was easier when the ownership of his body was split neatly between the three of them.
“I think we’re being followed,” Bucky said, watching the bathroom door, eyes snagged on the half of Steve’s body that was visible. The neat, clean motions of Steve shaving were mesmerizing.
“I do too,” Sam admitted. “I was hoping it was just paranoia.”
Bucky met Steve’s eyes in the bathroom mirror and managed to hold his gaze for a couple seconds before he had to look away.
“Who do you think they are?” Steve asked, walking out of the bathroom while he patted his face with a hand towel. “HYDRA?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky said uneasily. “Probably.”
Sam’s hands twitched where they rested over his kneecaps. Bucky caught the motion out of the corner of his eye. He, too, felt the urge to curl his fingers into fists, and it was a small relief to see that Sam was also itching for a fight. None of them had managed to keep the muscles of their back relaxed.
“Well, the devil you know and all that,” Sam said, aiming for light, though he didn't succeed.
Bucky touched the knife that lay in its sheath on his thigh. “We need to leave.”
He watched Steve glance down at their suitcases. They hadn’t even managed to unpack, and Bucky understood that the small twitch at the corner of Steve’s mouth was more out of desperation than anything else. He knew it would be alright, though. The open road hadn’t managed to betray them yet.
Sam told Bucky to take shotgun, so he did, although he made sure Sam had a gun within arm’s reach before he settled into his seat. As for himself, he put a spare knife in the glove compartment. Everything else was kept on his body.
“Getting ready for a fight?” Steve asked him, fastening his seatbelt.
“Better safe than sorry,” Bucky said, unapologetic.
They turned onto the highway, the road rolling like thunder under the wheels, and Bucky held onto the door handle in a vain attempt to comfort himself. He wondered how much of a lead they had on whoever was following them.
“Wanna put some music on?” Sam asked, nodding at the radio.
Bucky reached for the radio dial, flickered through stations until he found one that made Sam’s mouth twitch approvingly, and then sat back with his feet on the dashboard until he felt his anxiety diffuse in him like salt in water.
The files gleaned from HYDRA’s databanks – from SHIELD’s databanks – were expansive, but nowhere was it noted that the Winter Soldier spent his seventy years dreaming. His icy sleep did not allow true dreams (those had been regulated effectively by the mid-fifties) but they were fragments of something that was true. Images. Sounds. Scattered pieces of something just out of reach, although the Winter Soldier kept reaching for them. Through the years, through the decades, he was let out of his cage for an hour or two at a time to kill and eat and settle back into the ice to wait to be called upon once more. And still he kept reaching.
The Winter Soldier slept, and waited, and dreamed of soft blond hair that felt like corn silk when he stroked his fingers through it.
“Shh, Buck, it’s me,” came a soft voice from the dark. Bucky’s eyes snapped open, body tense before he realized it was Steve’s hand that was resting gently between his shoulder blades and not a HYDRA agent’s.
“Uh,” he said, and rubbed the heel of his hand over his eyes. He was completely awake now, and sat up, wondering if he ought to be reaching for the knife under his pillow. “Hey?”
“You were thrashing,” Steve said worriedly, brushing the hair out of Bucky’s face. Bucky managed not to twitch away from his fingertips. “And you were making –”
“– Awful sounds,” Sam finished, eyes shooting concern in beams from the other bed.
Bucky glanced from one of them to the other with wide-eyed bewilderment. “I was sleeping just fine until you woke me up,” he protested, but realized quickly after the words came out of his mouth that he had no idea if they were true. He wasn’t particularly used to sleeping outside of a cryo chamber, still – hotel beds made his spine feel like it was melting into the floor, like his bones were floating away from each other.
“I was worried you were going to hurt yourself,” Steve said. His voice was a soft, bruised thing.
Bucky’s shoulders curled in on themselves, eyes snagged on the half-moon indentations from his fingernails in the crease of his right palm. He was not comfortable with the way Steve and Sam were looking at him, as if he would melt into the air around him if they took their eyes off him for a moment, as if it was only a matter of time.
“Let’s go back to bed,” Sam said, voice thick with sleep. “We’re getting up in a couple hours, we gotta try and get a little more shut-eye before then.”
Steve waited a moment longer – his warm, broad hand still resting ever so gently on Bucky’s spine – and then drew back, retreating to the other bed once more. Bucky watched him leave through his eyelashes.
In the morning, the three of them trooped out to the car and packed away their things. In the light of day, the dark hollows under Steve’s eyes and the tightness between Sam’s shoulder blades were obvious enough to make Bucky’s stomach twist.
“Where are we going?” Bucky asked, sliding into the backseat where he felt more comfortable. He felt best where he was able to watch Steve’s six. “You never told me.”
Sam looked up at Steve briefly before his eyes flickered back to Bucky. “Probably should’ve told you sooner, man, I’m sorry.”
“We’re going to the place you promised to take me,” Steve said, meeting Bucky’s eyes in the rear view mirror. “All those years ago. Do you remember?”
The memory sprung unbidden to his mind: Steve’s cold, small hand cupping his cheek, the low murmur of his own voice in the dark: someday we’ll get outta here, pal, someday I’m gonna take you where you’ll finally feel warm. Steve’s mouth at his jaw, smiling against the skin behind his ear. Bucky’s body aching from being so full of love, enough to split him in two, enough to make his ribs hurt as he pressed Steve’s small body close to him.
“The Grand Canyon,” Bucky said, and wetted his lips with the tip of his tongue. “Right?”
Steve’s face-splitting smile was answer enough on its own.
They stopped at a diner a couple hours into the road. Steve was worried about being spotted, but Sam assured him that as long as he kept his head down, no one was going to recognize Captain America in a t-shirt and blue jeans in the middle of Nebraska. Bucky supposed that was fair. Captain America was supposed to be tall, strong, made of iron. All he saw when he looked at Steve was tired and sad.
“You’re taking care of him, aren’t you?” Bucky asked Sam after Steve left to use the bathroom.
“I’ve been trying,” Sam answered wryly. “Why? Thinking of taking the job over?”
Bucky pushed the remains of his eggs around his plate with the side of his fork. “Think I’ve got my hands full trying to take care of myself.”
“It’s not a one person job, you know.” Sam’s fingertips brushed over the back of Bucky’s right hand, tracing up the green veins that stood out against Bucky’s pale skin. A shiver splintered down his spine, blue eyes wide when they snapped up to meet Sam’s. “We both know that boy needs some serious looking-after,” Sam continued, voice low and serious. “I’d rather do it with you than without you.”
Every centimeter of Bucky’s focus was on the way Sam’s fingers curled around his wrist loosely, careful not to hold him down, just touching him. A soft, grounding presence. Soft contact. Bucky was not used to soft things, especially when they came from somebody who had every right to look at him with sharp distrust.
“But he’s yours,” Bucky said, and was very, very still under Sam’s gaze.
“Bucky," Sam said evenly, matter-of-factly. His eyes didn't waver. "You made sure you were the one sitting in the corner of the booth in this diner, putting Steve nearest to the door and yourself in the least defensible position. You sleep a whole lot less than you say you do so you can stay up and keep watch while Steve and I are vulnerable. You keep weapons in every reachable location so you can protect us at any moment, and man...” He smiled, holding Bucky’s hand a little tighter. “He may be mine, but just look at him. You've gotta know he’s already yours too.”
It wasn’t until Bucky exhaled that he realized he’d been holding his breath. Slowly, carefully, he turned his hand around in Sam’s grip so he could interlock their fingers. “What about you?”
Sam’s smile was his warmest one, the one that felt heavy and sweet when it was shined on Bucky’s face. “I think you and I are gonna figure ourselves out just fine,” he said, and when he squeezed Bucky’s hand, Bucky squeezed back.
Steve brought pie in paper boxes from the diner, so Sam had Bucky try the three different kinds to see which one he liked best while Steve started them back down the road.
“My favorite’s rhubarb,” Sam said, scooping up a bite when Bucky wrinkled his nose at the pecan.
“I thought your favorite was cherry,” Steve interjected, frowning slightly.
“Only when my mom makes it,” Sam said, and licked the spoon before he handed it back to Bucky with a grin.
Steve was still frowning – annoyed to have gotten something wrong about Sam, evidently – so Bucky took a spoonful of apple pie and held it out to him.
“Quit makin’ that face, Rogers,” he said, and smiled when Steve opened his mouth automatically.
Steve seemed to take himself by surprise, though, and shot Bucky a sidelong, wondering glance as he chewed. Bucky looked back at Sam, who nodded at him encouragingly.
“Your ma used to make apple pie,” Bucky said, and broke off a piece of the crust to pop it into his mouth. “Tried to teach you, but you were only good for peelin’ apples.”
“Like you were any better,” Steve shot back, but his voice wavered.
“At least I don’t make it my mission to systematically burn every piece of toast in the country.” Bucky held out another spoonful of apple pie, and Steve allowed himself to be fed with an only somewhat watery smile.
“That hasn’t gotten any better, if you’re wondering,” Sam offered. Bucky turned to look at him, delighted.
“For real? You’re kidding.”
Steve groaned. “Fuck you, Sam. I should never have bought you pie.”
“You’re a pal, Sam,” Bucky said, and twisted around in his seat to hold out the last bite of apple pie to Sam. He expected him to take the spoon for himself, but Sam leaned forward and opened his mouth expectantly. The intimacy of the scenario made Bucky’s mouth go dry as he fed Sam with as much care as possible.
“What’s the verdict, Buck?” Steve asked, eyeing the empty cartons briefly. “We got a winner?”
Bucky looked away from the cartons in his lap and out the front window, looking out at the dizzyingly long stretch of road out in front of them, the glittering mirage of water that hovered always thirty feet before the wheels of their car.
“Apple tastes like home,” he said, and knew it was the right answer not because Steve looked at him like he was punched in the gut, although Steve’s shattered eyes were in his peripheral vision, but because it was true. Rainy Brooklyn Saturdays in Sarah Rogers’ kitchen melded into late Thursday afternoons on the road to Arizona, all of it warm, all of it safe.
“...But we’re getting rhubarb next time, right?” Sam asked after a moment. “Home is good ‘n all, but now I’m in the mood.”
“Sure thing,” Steve said, subtly wiping at his eyes with the end of his sleeve.
“Don’t worry, Sam,” Bucky said, and met his eyes in the rear view mirror. “Steve and I’ll take care of you.”
Bucky supposed he’d expected to feel overwhelmed, standing at the edge of the canyon. He'd expected the bottom of his stomach to fall out, his toes to curl and uncurl in his boots. But he stood at the railing, feet solid on the ledge, and looked out at the view without any winter wind howling in his ears.
He heard Sam give a low whistle somewhere behind him, but he didn’t turn to look. “That sure is some view,” Sam said, voice reverent.
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, hushed.
Bucky felt the wind gently tug at his hair and put his hands in his pockets, breathing out slowly through his teeth. He didn’t know how to feel. The man who’d promised to take Steve here – that man was gone, that man was long dead, and it felt sort of disrespectful, to stand here in his place.
“Hey, Buck, you okay?” Steve asked, putting a hand on Bucky’s shoulder.
Bucky turned to look at him, a small strange smile on his face. “What d’you think?” he asked. “Is it everything you wanted to see?”
Steve’s hand slid up Bucky’s shoulder until it was curled around the back of his neck. “Just about, yeah,” he said. “Seventy years late, but we made it.”
It was the rueful smile on Steve’s face that made the twisting thing in Bucky’s stomach coalesce into determination. He hated it when Steve looked like that, self-deprecating and wounded in the back of his eyes. Still punishing himself for things he didn’t do, still full of self-loathing, and that was what made Bucky reach out and tug him forward with a fistful of his shirt.
It wasn’t a very practiced kiss. It was soft, though, and warm, Steve’s mouth half-open in startled surprise as he started to clumsily kiss back. Bucky heard a celebratory whoop from Sam somewhere behind them, and it made him smile even as he kissed Steve harder. He couldn’t remember the last time he felt so good. One of Steve’s hands was still cupping the back of his neck, anchoring him, but his other hand was shaking at the small of Bucky’s back. Steve was holding him like he was breakable, like he was precious, and Bucky found himself trembling in sympathy.
“Promised you I’d do that, too,” Bucky said softly, after they’d broken apart and Steve’s forehead was resting against his own. “Didn’t I?”
“You remember that?” Steve’s thumb stroked over the soft skin behind Bucky’s left ear. Bucky nodded and kissed Steve again with all the reverence that the moment deserved.
Steve broke off after a long, warm moment, breathing hard. "We should get away from the edge,” he suggested. “That railing won’t hold us if we fall.”
Bucky drew back reluctantly, but he kept his fingers linked with Steve’s. He was meeting Sam’s gaze – flushing slightly when Sam shot him a thumbs up – when he caught a flash of metal out of the corner of his eye. The bottom of his stomach fell out before he realized what he was seeing; his training took over and he shoved Steve away from himself as hard as he could with his left hand before he heard the gunshot whistle through the air and make a sound when it collided with his side. A soft sound, bullet meeting flesh, always softer than what he expected to hear.
Oh, he thought, and stumbled back a step, looking down at his shirt. He was vaguely aware of another shot zinging by his ear, and then he realized he was tipping over the railing behind him.
It took a whole month after the publication date for the first Captain America comics to make their way far enough into the war front to fall into Bucky’s hand. Dum Dum demanded the first read through, and it was through his colorful panel-by-panel reenactment that Bucky first realized the media had turned him into Steve’s sidekick.
“I’m a fucking kid?” he exclaimed, holding the offending page close to his eyes as if he could make it change through force of will. “What the fuck?”
“At least you were included,” Gabe said tersely, and Bucky decided to shut up and count his blessings.
Time slowed to a crawl. There were things he had to tell Steve, important things, like the fact that the sniper had been aiming for Captain America when he hit Bucky instead. Taking out Captain America would require more than one operative, and going by HYDRA regulation, there would be six agents spread out along the rocky terrain. Not much cover in the desert to hide behind, so everyone but the sniper must have only just arrived, most likely in the kind of unmarked van they would usually use for surveillance. Steve and Sam’s weapons were still in the car; the wings were cumbersome and Steve had stopped taking his shield with him everywhere he went.
Bucky would have cursed and yelled at them both for that if he wasn’t falling into the canyon below, wind whipping his hair and limp limbs upward.
The Winter Soldier’s instructions were clear: small targets must not have blond hair or blue eyes or the Asset would become unstable and erratic. Decades of conditioning mitigated the damage, but he remained unreliable for the entirety of his career.
Bucky wasn’t sure how long he fell into the canyon. He could do the math, count the seconds, but his heartbeat clattered too fast in his ears for him to think. It felt like he was falling forever. What kind of nightmare was this? All his life, he was pushed into the abyss, falling over and over from great heights with Steve’s stricken face looking down at him, staring after him as though he could pull Bucky back up to the surface with his eyes.
Bucky’s own eyes were drifting closed when he felt a hand close around his wrist and his body was wrenched upward. He cried out, the pain in his side blooming hot like a lightning strike, but it was with dizzying certainty that he realized the direction he was hurtling had been reversed.
“Sorry, sorry –” Sam was saying, grip tight and sure, and Bucky rallied enough energy to clutch back at Sam’s wrist as well.
Bucky never told Steve that he’d been drafted. When he got his notice, he did his mourning alone, punched a wall and sobbed brokenly for half an hour, and then he scrubbed his face clean to tell Steve that he’d enlisted. The pride and envy that unfolded on Steve’s face had made him sick, but what else was there to do? How was he supposed to tell Steve that nothing short of the draft would tear him from their small Brooklyn home? How was he supposed to tell Steve that he was selfish, that he would willingly sacrifice the needs of his country for his own need to stay at Steve’s side?
Steve was fighting with a mania that Bucky had never seen before when he and Sam crested the top of the canyon. Sam put him down gently behind the car – under cover – and then left him to join the fray. Bucky couldn’t see the battle anymore. All he heard was the clatter of punches and bullets and a low, ragged groaning that he slowly came to realize was coming from him.
His right side was sticky red through his shirt. He was fairly certain the bullet hadn’t hit anything important, but he hoped Sam and Steve would finish up the fight quickly so one of them could help patch him up, because his own hands weren’t obeying him as well as he wanted. Even the left one was slow and shaky.
That was Steve. Bucky let his head fall back to rest on the car behind him, opening his eyes sluggishly just in time to see Steve all but fall to his knees at his side.
“Careful, ‘m injured,” Bucky said stupidly as Steve ripped his shirt open to look at the wound.
“Sam, get the first aid kit!” Steve called over his shoulder, feeling around Bucky’s back for an exit wound. Bucky could see the relief wash over his face when he found one.
“Knew we needed a first aid kit,” Bucky coughed. “Fuckin’ called it.”
“Stop talking,” Steve said, hand pressed to Bucky’s side.
Absently, Bucky found it in him to wish that Steve would stop touching him, stop sullying himself with the blood that pulsed out of him with every beat of his heart. It didn't seem fair that Steve would have to get himself dirty just because Bucky was near him, the dark thing in him spilling out with his blood. Bucky was already tarnished, he'd already done enough bad things over the course of his life to render him unforgivable, but Steve. Steve should stay clean.
Sam arrived quickly, crouching on the hard desert ground with and reaching into the first aid box with a sharp efficiency that spoke eloquently about his time in the military. Bucky watched the motion of his hands as he pulled out gauze and tape from the tin and found that it felt better when both Steve and Sam had their hands on him. The two of them together could handle whatever darkness oozed out of him and into open air.
He let his eyes close again, catching snippets of Steve and Sam’s conversation that was held over his body:
“– hospital, Sam, anyone could track us –”
“– have a choice. He’s bleeding out, man, we gotta –”
“– support his head? Is he –”
He let their voices wash over him in a wave. Nothing seemed pressing enough to keep him present. He stayed inside himself, in the smallest, calmest place in his mind, until he was conscious of being moved. His ribs burned when he was jostled. He made a small noise of protest, forcing his eyes open to see that he was being carried to the car in Steve’s arms, Sam putting direct pressure on his side.
“Where w’goin’?” he mumbled into the crook of Steve’s neck.
“Hospital,” Steve answered tightly, squeezing him closer for a moment.
Bucky glanced over Steve’s shoulder at the carnage behind them. Eight bodies lay in various stages of shattered, bleeding into the red dirt, dead eyes pointing upward at the sky. Except – Bucky caught movement out of the corner of his eye and pulled Steve’s gun out its holster awkwardly with his left hand, firing off three shots over Steve's shoulder at a HYDRA agent that was reaching for his pistol.
“He was moving,” Bucky said to Steve and Sam’s slack-jawed faces. He smiled around a mouthful of blood.
HYDRA didn’t keep him out of cryostasis for very long at any given time, not after a notable incident in one of the early decades where the brainwashing wore off of him enough to send his diseased brain back to Brooklyn. HYDRA found him there, huddled on the front porch of an abandoned apartment building, both arms wrapped around his knees. He did not fight much when they subdued him and brought him back in. He did not even look back.
Bucky didn’t like hospital sounds. The clicks and beeps of the machines put him on edge, and he’d smelled enough antiseptic at the hands of HYDRA doctors to last him a lifetime. He liked waking to Sam and Steve at his bedside, though, waking to both of them keeping watch over him as he slept and healed. He was glad he wasn’t left alone in his little cot, an IV in his right arm and the flimsy door unguarded.
“I heal fast,” he said, not for the first time. Steve looked up from his book, unimpressed, and then looked back down again. “I’ve been here long enough. Sam, tell him I’ve been here long enough, Steve can’t say no to you –”
“Sorry, Buck,” Sam said, sipping at his coffee. “I swore only to use my powers for good.”
Bucky sighed, taking an assessing look at Steve. There was a mottled blue bruise just beneath his left eye, one that Bucky wanted to touch with his fingertips – he’d seen the same or similar images hundreds of times in his life, Steve bruised, Steve beat-up and worn down under hospital lights with Bucky waiting tiredly at his side. Bucky saw him now, but he also saw the echo of every bruise that had ever marred Steve’s features, layered one over each other until the image was too thick to comprehend entirely. It was muscle memory, the urge to protect Steve that bit into Bucky with sharp teeth.
“Hey,” Sam said, and sat at the edge of the bed. Bucky tore his eyes away from the purple-green shadow that smeared up Steve’s cheekbone, and Sam took a deck of cards out of his pocket. “You ever play gin rummy?”
“We were in the army,” Bucky said. “Played it so much I used to get sick at the idea of dealing another hand.”
Steve perked up at the mention of the army the same way he perked up every time Bucky mentioned a memory. It was often easier to talk to Sam instead of Steve when he first remembered something, if only because the stakes, with Steve, were always very high. Bucky liked having the opportunity to try it out on Sam first, just in case he remembered it wrong, just in case he couldn't say it right.
“In the mood?” Sam asked, offering him the deck. “Three-way hands tend to be more fun anyway.”
Bucky snorted. “The joke’s so easy I’m not even gonna make it.”
Sam looked at him blankly for a moment before laughing, startled; Bucky caught Steve’s flush out of the corner of his eye and found himself twitching a smile at the cards as he dealt them.
They couldn’t exchange rings, especially since neither of them knew how to get their hands on something like that way out on the battlefield. They couldn’t exchange rings, but they could exchange dog tags, so that’s what they did, standing in an old, bombed-out church nestled in the forest, surrounded by the rest of the commandos. The sunlight came through the shattered stained-glass windows and their boots crunched shards of glass beneath their feet, icy breath fogging in front of their mouths as they took off their chains and put them around each other’s necks.
Dum Dum, who’d already been married once before he decided he didn’t like it, officiated the impromptu wedding service on a Thursday afternoon the history books would never remember. No one, however, could convince him to take off his hat.
Once Bucky was released from the hospital, the three of them were all on edge as they made their way down to the car. It seemed inevitable that some contingent of HYDRA would spring up and block their way, but they managed to make it into the car and onto the highway without incident.
“Where are we going?” Bucky wanted to know, leaning forward between Steve and Sam’s seats so he could feel less like a taxi passenger.
“Currently?” Sam rubbed a hand over his face. “To a hotel a few miles away so people who aren’t supersoldiers can sleep for a couple uninterrupted hours.”
Bucky felt guilty, suddenly, for relaxing his guard and making Sam the one who had to keep watch for so many hours at a time. He was close to healed – he hadn’t been joking when he said he healed fast – but he could still feel the ache in his side where the bullet had passed through.
Sam looked tired. Bucky leaned back in his seat and resolved to watch over him with both eyes for the next couple of days.
“You don’t have to,” Steve had told him once, watching Bucky pace while he lay in their bed. “Really, Buck, you don’t gotta do anythin’.”
Bucky, undressed except for his underwear and the shirt he’d slipped back on his shoulders unbuttoned, shrugged noncommittally. It seemed impossible that he could kiss Steve just fine, muss up his blond hair and suck bruises into his collar bones, but as soon as he tried to get his guy out of his pants, his heart started hammering panic through his whole body. It was torture, loving Steve so hard and not being able to bring himself to touch him, but he knew this of all things was meant to feel good, and all he felt was alarm.
“Buck,” Steve said softly. “C’mere.”
What Bucky really wanted to do was go out on the balcony and smoke until morning, but Steve was looking at him with all the earnest devotion those blue eyes could muster, and Bucky had never been able to say no to him when he looked like that. So he sat on the edge of the bed and let Steve convince him to lie down, let Steve wrap around him and press a kiss to the nape of his neck.
“I’ve got you,” Steve murmured to the notches of his spine. “Don’t matter how I’ve got you. I’ve got you.”
Sam slept curled up with his back to the wall. Bucky felt so much kinship in looking at him that it felt like lead in the pit of his stomach, weighing him down, sinking him into the floor. Better to sink than to drift, though, he supposed, and turned away from Sam to look at Steve’s silhouette facing the window. What Steve was looking at, Bucky couldn’t tell. There was nothing moving in the dark. The sky was clear, a streetlamp outside cast orange light and strange shadows on the side of Steve’s face that he could see, and Bucky was hit by the familiar urge to run his fingertips over the crisp line of Steve’s cheekbone.
It was not difficult to move silently toward Steve. Shadows always seemed to cling to his bootheels. It was almost more difficult to make sure his footsteps made sound.
“Hey,” he said, quietly, to warn Steve of his presence.
“Hey,” Steve whispered back, smiling as he turned away from the window.
Bucky’s hand met the small of Steve’s back as he leaned forward to kiss the small, familiar smile off Steve’s face. Steve kissed him back, hands coming up to frame Bucky’s face between them, and Bucky was struck to the core of him with the feeling that he was going to bring himself back from the dead with this kiss. That his soul would rise from his body just to touch Steve’s lips.
He didn’t realize why Steve was pulling back, concerned, until he noticed that his eyelashes were wet and his shoulders were trembling under Steve’s hands.
“Sorry,” he said, and gasped a breath of air.
“Hey,” Steve said, voice breaking. He drew Bucky forward, guiding Bucky’s face to the crook of his neck. “I’ve got you.”
Bucky breathed there, feeling Steve’s pulse beneath his damp cheek, and held Steve back as carefully as Steve was holding him.
“I leave you both alone for an hour and you fall apart,” came Sam’s voice from behind them, drowsy and gentle. Bucky could hear the soft fondness in his voice and found himself aching for Sam’s hands to be on him as well, for Steve and Sam to surround him on all sides. So he picked his tear-streaked face up from Steve’s shoulder, reached out a hand, and tugged Sam into the circle of his and Steve’s arms. It seemed important, then, to have Steve’s beating heart at his back as he took Sam’s face between his mismatched hands and kissed him, important to have Steve holding him up while he found out what Sam’s quiet noise of surprise tasted like against his mouth.
The light from the streetlamp outside made the contrast of their skin even sharper. The darkness of Sam’s skin stood out where it met Steve’s, both of their hands intertwined as they rested on Bucky’s stomach. Bucky was fascinated by the way Sam kissed, like he could take his time with it, like he would take Bucky apart with hours of patience if he had the choice. Steve kissed like a drowning man. Steve kissed like he needed it to breathe. Bucky wanted to kiss them both until he was dizzy, until he couldn’t breathe for it, until he was alive and whole again with laughter flowing easily through his veins.
They stood there, the three of them sharing kisses, until dawn crested pink and orange over the outline of the city and illuminated their three hearts beating in tandem.
“So, we made it to the Grand Canyon,” Bucky said, in the front seat with his heels kicked up on the dashboard. Passenger seat meant map duty, and he was doing his best not to seem overwhelmed as he surveyed the map of the US that was spread out over his knees. “What’s next?”
“We could do anything we want,” Steve said, and nudged Bucky with an elbow without looking away from the road. “World’s your oyster, Buck.”
Bucky didn’t know what to do with that, so he looked to Sam. Sam shrugged.
“Pick a place, man,” he suggested. “Close your eyes if it helps.”
Bucky closed his eyes, held his breath, and pointed to a spot on the map.