Bucky’s been home for a month, and in his weakest moments Steve still doesn’t dare believe it.
He’s making a real effort not to smother Bucky with his gratitude, his desperation, his need. He’s mostly successful. He looks instead to Bucky’s boots, kicked off beside the front door. Such a little thing, such a timeless thing - if Steve squints it’s 1942, and they’re both broke but not broken.
Steve doesn’t want an illusion, but proof of Bucky’s presence grounds him in the way few things do, anymore.
Bucky’s nightmares are more frequent, more intense but it’s Steve who wakes up panicked, fumbling in the darkness for reassurance (an answering handclasp).
He’s piecing himself back together again as surely as Bucky is, except Bucky has been courageous enough to face his feelings head-on and Steve neatly and ruthlessly buried them in the years after his thaw. He played at being fine and no one questioned him, not really, and now Steve wonders how long the illusion would have lasted - until, one day, he just wasn't able to drag himself from bed?
Sam, a virtual stranger, had seen through Steve’s bullshit. It was a refreshing change.
Bucky’s recovery has given Steve a purpose, “but that won’t last forever,” Sam cautions. “Barnes is getting better - hell, Barnes is better - and you’re gonna have to carve out your own space in the world, same as him.”
Sam is a frequent visitor. Steve is careful, not to ask more of Sam than the other man should give. But Sam’s company itself is therapeutic in its way - he is, objectively, the most well-adjusted of them. He’s easy and calm and so genuinely good that even Bucky recognizes it, accepts him as a result.
Sam is remarkable in a thousand ways, but in others he’s blessedly normal and that’s what Steve and Bucky both crave - the smallest of glimpses into an everyday life. Sam is a soldier with a day job, and a car payment, and a sister whose boyfriend Sam hates (“Chad,” Sam will say, “who doesn’t know better than to date a guy named Chad -”) and sometimes listening to Sam rant on this subject or another makes Steve feel a little ordinary, too, for a little while.
Tonight Sam has come over for dim sum and a Skype session with Natasha - the first in Bucky’s presence. She knows, of course, but given their history Steve’s not sure how well they’ll each do in the sort-of same room.
He needn’t have worried. Nat takes one look at Bucky, perched on the arm of the couch as if poised for flight, and smiles. The special smile, soft and brief, that Steve knows is her most honest. “James Buchanan Barnes,” she says. “A pleasure to finally meet you.”
Bucky edges back a little, although Natasha is two continents away. As difficult as it is for him to lack so many memories, it’s just as hard to recall people or places without the necessary context. Friend? Enemy? Victim?
Natasha seems to understand this. “Our paths have crossed before,” she explains. She’s eating what look like chocolate-covered potato chips, occasionally pelting one of them offscreen. “And now we have mutual friends.”
“Иногда,” she agrees. “Sometimes, just Natasha.”
“Natasha,” Bucky repeats. Names are important to him, Steve has learned.
Weeks from now, Bucky will scramble up from Sam’s kitchen table, where they are all devouring lasagna, and say to her, shaken: I shot you twice. Steve and Sam will look askance at each other, and Natasha, who has continued to eat placidly, will reply Excellent, I was hoping you’d remember in time. La Sylphide, next month, at the Guggenheim. I’ve already purchased tickets. At Bucky’s befuddlement, she explains: Surely your guilt extends to a night of ballet? And after a lengthy, torturous silence Bucky will ask, forlorn, Can’t you just shoot me back?
Tonight Natasha leans close to the camera, conspiratorial. “Take it from someone who knows: this recovering-your-humanity thing gets easier with time.”
“Yes." Bucky nods emphatically. "Steve showed me - the hot water never runs out.”
“I like that. It’s a metaphor, really.” Natasha laughs and at the sound, a new face pops into view.
“Cap!” Clint grins into the camera.
“There’s chocolate on your teeth,” Natasha informs him, seemingly unimpressed. He makes kissy noises at her. Steve is pretty sure that Sam and Bucky’s eyes widen right along with his.
“Hey, Falcon. And Barnes, right? Looking good.” Bucky frowns as he examines his hoodie (Steve’s) and t-shirt underneath (also Steve’s). He’s got a closet full of his own clothes, with the tags still on. “Let’s you and me get together sometime, talk about mind control and - oh, and also there was this shot you made in Harare -”
Natasha shoos Clint off but her eyes hold a tenderness that Steve recognizes. “Steve’s going to have to get a hobby, now that looking for you doesn’t take up twenty hours of his every day.” Steve grimaces. Bucky looks from him back to Natasha.
“I thought...the tracker.”
“Sure,” she says, “until it stopped working. After that…” She trails off, a lot more meaningfully than a woman on a thirteen-inch screen should be able to.
“After that, what?” Bucky’s irritation is dreadfully familiar. “You just wandered the streets of Brooklyn, hoping you'd find me?” Steve doesn’t squirm but it’s a close thing.
“Because Captain America didn't have anything better to do.”
“I really didn't,” Steve shrugs.
“He really didn't,” Natasha confirms.
Bucky departs a few minutes later - he still can’t handle a lot of human interaction at once - and Steve waits for Natasha’s verdict.
“He’s a threat,” Natasha says.
“He’s a victim.”
“He can be both. Remember that, if not for your sake then for his. Hey.” Her expression gentles. “For what it’s worth, I'm a lot less worried about your well-being with the brainwashed assassin living in your guest room than I was before.” She smiles again. “You've got a little life back in you, Cap.”
But that can’t be right, because Captain America is never anything other than vibrant and alive. It is James Buchanan Barnes who still lies moldering and dead at the bottom of a mountain.
Steve doesn’t know he can overhear. The handlers didn’t, either.
Steve, whose haunted gaze can go as deep as a snowy ravine.
Steve, who’d been so ready to die beneath his best friend’s fists.
"Thanks,” Steve is saying. “Thanks for not trying to talk me out of this.”
James thinks he can hear Natasha shrug. “We both know the truth, Steve - even if he was actively homicidal you’d have taken him in regardless. Since he’s not, I count this as a win.”
James frowns. On the helicarrier Steve had been - emotional. Compromised. Desperate. Would he still, now, offer his life up to the charred remains of Bucky Barnes?
Early the next morning he leaves the apartment. It’s not the first time - Steve has made it clear James is free to come and go as he pleases - but earlier excursions were mostly to test his own boundaries, and Steve’s. Turns out neither of them like to stray far from home.
He’s not totally immune to basic social courtesies; normally he wouldn’t drop by unannounced but -
“It’s important,” he says when Sam opens the front door.
“Should I be surprised that you know my address?” Sam steps aside, gestures Barnes in.
Barnes makes no effort to hide his appraisal of Sam’s place. It’s a little smaller than Steve’s but far homier, despite them being in the city the same length of time: Sam’s kitchen has family pictures stuck to the refrigerator; Sam’s wall has a calendar with dates circled.
“I guess.” Barnes accepts the beer Sam offers, twists off the cap with his left hand which he then holds out. Sam promptly surrenders his own bottle.
After they’ve each drained half, Bucky sets his bottle down. “Pararescue, correct? A jumper?”
“You're skilled, good in battle. Very intuitive, tactically adept.”
“Thanks.” Sam wonders where this is going.
“If I need to be put down, promise you'll be willing to do it.”
Oh, hell. “Oh, hell. Can we back up? What prompted this?”
“Besides everything?” Barnes asks sardonically.
“Besides that.” Sam gestures to the kitchen table, and they sit. “Is this about Steve?”
It’s always about Steve, Barnes clearly wants to answer. But Sam’s not afraid to call out unhealthy codependency when he sees it, a fact Barnes has learned well. “I can’t hurt him again. I won’t.”
“Steve promised to look out for himself, and he’s not one for breaking his word. He’s not gonna just roll over on you.” Again, Sam doesn’t need to add.
“I believe that Steve believes that,” Barnes says carefully. “But when the time comes…When the time comes, I won’t get to make a choice. So I’m making it now. Today, in front of you. I’ll die before I turn on him. At least it’ll be on my own terms.”
Sam aches with anger, suddenly, in a way he thinks Steve must every moment of every day. Here's a guy opting for death before dishonor, begging for it because it'll be his last best act.
“Steve will do what’s right, what he has to,” Sam attempts.
“As long as it’s anyone’s life but his in the balance.”
“If you really believed what we’ve been saying - that what happened to you -”
“What I did -”
“- Was not your fault, you wouldn’t be asking this. You wouldn’t be asking me to kill you if it happened again!”
“I would, though,” Barnes says. “I would.” Sam stares at him. “My culpability - we could debate it for days and never come to a conclusion. But this I do know: I don’t want to live with any more of Steve’s blood on my hands. No matter who puts it there.”
History books called Bucky Barnes a heartbreaker. Sam doesn’t think this is what they meant. He looks away, tosses back the rest of his beer.
“I won't let you go back. I'll do whatever it takes, to prevent it.”
“That is sufficient.” An awkward pause. “Thank you.”
“Oh, anytime,” Sam mutters.
Barnes shocks him by leaning over, clapping a (human) hand on his shoulder lightly. “Let's hope not.”
Lunch with Steve is grilled cheese with tomatoes, and butternut squash soup. They’re working James up to solids and it’s going slower than he’d like. At three p.m. he heads back up north to Madison and 123rd. Some unnameable instinct had kept him in Brooklyn when he first returned but now that both he and Steve have more or less settled there, situational awareness demands that he venture further afield. Therapy is as good a reason as any.
Cecil Joyner’s office is on the first floor of his brownstone across from Marcus Garvey Park. Joyner’s a Vietnam vet with a PhD and a cat that twines arounds James’ legs while they meet.
They’re three sessions in and James is regurgitating his litany of guilt and shame, until Dr. Joyner - who thus far has been remarkably patient with James’ self-loathing - asks: “James, do you consider yourself a logical person?”
“Uh,” James says. “Most days I don’t consider myself a person at all.”
“For argument’s sake let’s assume that you are. Is that person logical?”
James thinks it over. In the heavily-redacted (at his request) Winter Soldier files, there had been notations on his strategic prowess. And Bucky Barnes’ fingerprints were all over the Commandos’ wartime missions, particularly when altering them from Captain America rushes alone headlong into danger into something a little less Steve-icidal.
Logic is a neutral attribute. Neither good nor bad; possessed - or not - by saints and sinners alike.
“I suppose so,” he replies; halting, wary.
“In that case, does it make sense that a man who - by a relatively young age - had demonstrated lifelong loyalty, kindness, and altruism then became, by his own choice, a cold-blooded killer and traitor to the country - the men - he loved? Does that make sense?”
“...No.” James’ voice is barely audible to his own ears.
“And if it wasn’t his own choice, then what?”
This, James cannot bring himself to answer. If it wasn’t his own choice, it was someone else’s. If it wasn’t his own choice, he had no choice. Not from the very first.
Joyner leans forward. “James: it wasn’t enough for them to take everything away from you. They had to take you away from you.”
“You were the braver of us,” Steve tells Bucky, apropos of nothing.
They’re watching Pit Bulls & Parolees. Lately, Steve has seen Bucky furtively scouring Petfinder on his StarkTab. Bucky’s been preoccupied since returning from therapy that afternoon, and Steve wants to augment whatever’s going on in Bucky’s head with a few hard-won truths; truths he’d been too scared to admit until tonight.
Bucky turns, cocks his head slightly in that way that he has, and then mutes the television. He cottons on to technology better than Steve did.
The old Bucky would have scoffed, drowned out Steve’s words with loud ones of his own. This one just asks: “How so?”
Steve takes a moment, to marshal his thoughts. “Nelson Mandela - I’ve got that biography on him -?”
“I read it.”
“What he said - about how bravery was being scared as hell, but conquering that fear and going on. During the run-up to the war, and even once I got 1Aed - I was too single-minded to be scared. Just wanted to get into the fight, no thought to how I’d get out of it. But you - you knew.” Steve, for his part, had been too surly and self-absorbed to understand Bucky’s manic carousing and skirt-chasing for what it was.
“Most accounts state that James Buchanan Barnes enlisted,” Bucky says - recites, more like. “His assigned serial, however…”
“You were drafted. I found out later. It didn’t matter to me and it wasn’t anybody’s business nohow. The fact that you were smart enough to avoid a Goddamn world war as long as you could…? Maybe you didn’t want people knowing. But I never judged you for it. Judged myself, later, for keeping you in the shit when you should have been sent home.”
“They offered,” Bucky murmurs vaguely. “I said no.” Not without you. Steve shudders.
“Walking back, after I’d found you and the others. I couldn’t stop looking over at you, thinking this was the start of something great. Can you even imagine it? God, how fucking -”
“I was...angry.” Bucky appears to think back. “I was angry at you.”
“Yeah, you were.” If Bucky’s expecting recriminations, he won’t get them from Steve.
“Why? Even then, I didn’t understand why.”
“I mean, pick a reason. I was so fucking pleased with myself, Buck. I was smug. I thought I’d seen war. I was wrong. And you’d wanted me well out of it regardless. Instead I turned myself into a lab rat, turned myself into something else entirely. You - you might have been the only person who mourned the old me. I didn’t understand that.” Steve feels his mouth twist into something ugly and pained. After he’d woken up, solitary and bereaved - then, then he’d understood. “So, yes: you were angry. But you swallowed it to stay by my side.”
“Brothers in arms.”
“That’s not all, though,” Bucky grits out. “I was jealous.” He winces and waits, ashen, for Steve’s response.
“Oh. Well, sure.” Bucky blinks at him.
“Did you hear me?”
“I told you, I don’t got that bad left ear anymore -”
“For once in your life you were healthy, and happy, and I resented you for it -”
“I think it was mostly that I was taller than you.”
The attempt at levity falls flat. Bucky has retreated, and Steve must scramble to find the thread of history that binds them.
“Gabe was there, on the train. He didn’t like talking about Azzano, none of you did. And we were a different generation; it wasn’t the done thing, then. To share. After you fell, though...Gabe said you volunteered, for Zola’s experiments. You volunteered.” Steve has to stop, then. Bucky picks up, in a faraway voice:
“Didn’t like the way they were lookin’ at Jones and Morita.” Who were everything that HYDRA didn’t want in its ubermensch. But Steve knew that all the previous test subjects had died and that by then Zola had likely just been looking for his own version of cannon fodder. “Dum-Dum was the biggest,” Bucky goes on, “but I made a ruckus, taunted them. I knew, how to draw attention. How to bring the fight to me instead of…” He trails off.
“Instead of me.”
Bucky makes a terrible, choked sound. “So can’t you see, then? How much I’m not - him? How much I’m - just. Not.”
"I see you,” is all Steve can say.
“Might be the last thing you ever do.”
“If that's the cost – if that's the cost of being with you, every moment that I can – then Buck, I'm happy to pay it.”
“That's the dumbest fucking thing I've ever heard.” The distance is gone, from his words and his gaze. “You'd die to watch me be a Goddamn mess all over your apartment?”
“Yes. My choice. You don't get to take it away from me.” Peggy’s lessons have always stuck.
Bucky looks at once thunderous and stricken; the boy he was interwoven with the man he has, miraculously, become. Steve wonders: was he always this beautiful, was Steve always this devoted? The answer, of course, is yes - only the shape and flavor of his love have changed.
He never before groped for Bucky in the darkness of his bedroom, a shout of grief still on his lips. Bucky never before met him there, he himself trembling and still half-feral as he catches Steve in his arms. Bucky has never before clumsily patted away Steve’s shameless tears, and Steve has never before pressed vows of fealty against Bucky’s exposed collarbone, along the seam where metal meets flesh.
Theirs is a new love and an ancient one, etched so deep into Bucky’s bones that not even the harshest human cruelty could erase it.
Bucky shakes his head, heaves a sigh in Steve’s general direction. “How did you survive this long?”
“Aw, Buck. Haven’t you figured it out?” And Bucky stares and stares and stares at him.
Bucky’s hands, that night, are sure and steady.