If he wasn’t aching from the hit to his ribs earlier in the battle, and currently facing off against three enhanced Hydra/AIM/whoever the hell soldiers, it would almost be funny Steve thinks. The Avengers had faced down aliens and demi gods, yet somehow they were tripped up by a supposedly straight forward recon mission. Last he had seen, Clint had been pinned down and unable to provide the cover they needed, Stark’s suit was badly damaged by a lucky missile shot leaving him grounded, and Natasha was god knows where.
Yeah, things had gone to shit real quick.
The narrow alleyway is the quickest route back to Clint’s position, but Steve is making little headway. He ricochets his shield off a wall into one of the soldiers, runs at another, but even as the soldier crumbles beneath the blow Steve deals, he can see more coming his way, five, no six. Sure he’s faced worse odds, Steve thinks as he grips the shield tight, facing the soldiers with grim determination. Even if these bastards take some putting down.
The sound of three taps in his earpiece is enough to make Steve’s lips twitch into smile.
Steve’s grip on the shield shifts, his enhanced hearing picking up the sound of a supressed sniper shot a second before it hits as he launches himself at the nearest enemy. It’s over in seconds. Four soldiers down with single shots to the head, and two by Steve’s hand.
Steve can’t help the thrill of adrenalin that has little to do with the battle. He doesn’t look for Bucky. The trajectory puts him somewhere high to the left behind Steve, no doubt he is already on the move. Steve doesn’t need to see him to feel that sense of comfort of someone he trusts at his six.
Moving quickly, Steve makes his way to Clint’s position. He counts at least eight more down by Bucky’s precision shooting, as together they take out the soldiers that had Clint pinned down.
A single click on the radio signals Bucky pulling back. Steve hadn’t once caught even a glimpse of the Winter Soldier.
Clint grins at him when Steve re-joins the archer. “Guess the rest of us mere mortals should just stay at home next time, Cap. How’d the hell’d you get our asses out of the fire so damn quick?”
Steve shrugs nonchalantly. “There was a fire?” He asks innocently.
Pointing an arrow at Steve, Clint opens his mouth to say something, before shaking his head and walking away. Natasha had apparently reappeared at some stage, a bruise on her cheek but looking mostly unharmed. She arches an eyebrow, but says nothing. Steve is pretty sure she knows, this is far from the first time Bucky has appeared during a mission, but if she’s not talking about it, Steve certainly isn’t.
They still have a mission to complete after all. There’s likely still a few hostiles lurking, but hopefully the rest of the day will be the cake walk it was supposed to be. Steve can’t help lifting his eyes to the rooftops though, knowing Bucky is still watching.
The first time, Steve isn’t really sure what happened. One moment there were bullets ricocheting around him from an enemy Steve couldn’t see, the next he was in the clear.
The second time, Steve watched as the head of the alien about to take him down exploded in a shower of blue mist right in front of him. Steve knew what a sniper bullet looked like. He searched for the shooter to no avail. Three more aliens went down, before Steve got a bead on the sniper’s position, the unmistakable silhouette of the Winter Soldier staring down at Steve for a handful of seconds before he was gone. Steve had chased his ghost across most of Europe for months without a single sighting, so he knew it was done purposefully.
The Winter Soldier found his own way home in the end.
This comes easy. It is what he was made to do. Maybe even before Zola, Hydra, the Red Room. Before he was unmade and put back together. The click and slide of the bullet into the chamber, the slow breath as fingers, so steady, always sure, wait for the right moment. Pulse a gentle, even beat, as the scope tracks his target.
It feels like he was made to keep watch. To be the shadow, always there at Steve’s six.
Bucky feels a muscle in his jaw twitch as he finally settles in place, finding Steve fighting alone in a narrow alley through the scope. Outnumbered, of course. He signals with three taps on the comm that he is in place. Sees the almost imperceptible change in Steve’s grip on the shield, all the acknowledgment he needs.
One deep breath, let the tension fade from muscles, finger fluid on the trigger. Aim, squeeze, track to the next, squeeze.
This comes easy.
Steve is an idiot, always bodily putting himself in between danger and everybody else. Yet this feels almost right. Bucky feels himself lighten, focus unwavering, it’s like the rest of the world fades away. There is no pain, no screams in the dark. Just the rifle, sure in his hands, and Steve.
The six enemies go down. It’s over in seconds. Steve moves on quickly, so Bucky needs to be even faster. Moving across rooftops, staying out of sight, of not just those they are fighting, but the Avengers too. He moves ahead, spots more soldiers, braces, aims, fires, in one fluid movement, till all is clear.
Steve re-joins Hawkeye and the others, so Bucky taps once on the secure comm to let Steve know he is pulling back. He settles the rifle on his shoulder, watches the others move into the building to continue their recon. Steve looks up for just a moment, he clearly doesn’t know Bucky’s position, but looks anyway.
Bucky’s jaw tightens. As right as it feels to have Steve’s six, he hates that he can’t always follow now. He almost feels an ache in his fingers, from the desire, the need, to fight by Steve’s side. To come out of the shadows, and rush headlong into danger right there next to Steve.
Bucky is deadly with a sniper rifle, but in close combat…the Winter Soldier is all brutal efficiency.
It’d be nice to feel the action up close, Bucky thinks as he waits and watches. He and Steve took down a small Hydra base six weeks ago, but mostly Steve is called to help the Avengers, and Bucky follows at a distance. It’s enough, he tells himself. More than he deserves if others had their way. It is probably only a matter of time before the authorities come for him enforce, probably including more than one of the Avengers. Steve refuses to admit it out loud, but they both know it.
Really, how long does it take for someone to notice the Winter Soldier keeps turning up at these fights? Or Steve’s apartment for that matter. They are living on borrowed time, and Bucky has no idea what to do when it all comes crashing down.
Bucky waits for the all clear signal from Steve before he leaves. He doesn’t bother hurrying, knowing Steve will go through a debrief before heading home himself, so he stows his gear in one of their safe houses before walking for almost an hour along the river, trying to ease the hyper awareness of combat. At least this mission had been in New York. On the end of a bad week with too little sleep and too many memories, Bucky is tired.
It’s not that he doesn’t remember everything, he does. It’s just that there are ninety years’ worth of memories, less the blank spaces from the years on cyro. It’s a lot to keep in order, and seemingly random things will dredge up vivid Technicolor details he can’t get out of his head.
The fighting comes easy, protecting Steve as unthinking as breathing. It’s this that is hard. The quiet, the stillness.
He’s working on it though.
Steve sends a text once he’s back at his apartment. He knows Bucky often needs to clear his head after a mission, so doesn’t bother waiting for a response, just tosses the phone on the bed on his way past. Stripping his suit off pulls at bruised muscles and ribs, it’s an all too familiar feeling he ignores as he adjust the showers so it’s hot before stepping in. Steve scrubs with soap quickly before he leans against the shower wall with one arm, and just lets the water beat down on his shoulders. Warmth seeping into aching muscles that don’t want to relax.
The offhand comment Stark had made on the way out of the debrief playing on repeat in his head.
It wasn’t the first time Tony has said something. He has made it quite clear he believes the Winter Soldier should face justice for the crimes he committed while under Hydra’s control. They had almost come to blows over it a few weeks ago. Tony thinks there should be a trial, let others not personally involved determine the fate of the Winter Soldier. Steve has been arguing that’d been happening for the last 70 years, and Bucky deserves to be left alone, to be given back his autonomy.
Moments like this, when he’s tired and angry, he almost wonders if he should just tell the Avengers about Bucky following him on missions, about how often the Winter Soldier’s aim has saved Steve, and others. Throw it in Tony’s face that the man he wants to condemn to death has saved Tony himself at least once. Because Steve knows chances are high Bucky will not be taken into custody alive, let alone see the inside of a courtroom. He knows it isn’t what Bucky wants though, so he will keep the Winter Soldier’s return under wraps as long as possible. Steve is the last person who would take a choice away from Bucky after all he has been through.
He’s pretty sure Tony is under the impression Steve has stopped looking for Bucky because he would be bringing him home to face treason charges. Not realising Steve stopped looking because Bucky had come home months ago. It’s not a notion Steve is going to dissuade him off any time soon. The only person Steve has told is Sam.
Sooner or later, Steve knows it is all going to come to a head. Sam is always telling him that burying stuff inside is only delaying the fallout, but this is something Steve doesn’t know how to face, how to fix. He is terrified of just how big the fallout will be.
Steve lets the water wash over his aching body till it goes cold, before he drags himself out of the shower. He pulls on a pair of thin sweats before walking back out to see if Bucky has texted back yet, only to pull up short when sees his bed, and Bucky, sound asleep on it.
Steve leans against the door frame, letting himself look for a moment. It is so rare to see Bucky without his guard up, but when he sleeps…Steve’s not sure what it is. It’s not like he looks vulnerable or innocent. Even asleep it is obvious that Bucky is dangerous. The hard metal lines of his arm alone screams of violence. But it’s like the pain and horror he hides away behind a mask while awake is all there to see in the lines of his face, in the way his hand curls beneath the pillow, undoubtedly around a weapon, in the muscle taut and ready even in sleep.
Bucky comes to Steve’s apartment to sleep sometimes, because he knows here Steve has his back, and that he can rest more deeply. He looks at the tense lines of Bucky’s body as he sleeps, and hates to think how vigilant and restless he is when he’s not here with Steve. Hates that Bucky is living the life of a fugitive.
Steve feels a hot spike of anger, and knows he would tear apart everyone who had a hand in making the Winter Soldier if he could. This is what Tony can’t or won’t see. The damage inflicted, the pain and suffering writ in every fibre. It is fading, but that doesn’t undo it. Bucky will never be the same man he was. The Winter Soldier had been crafted from decades of torture. Not one ounce of fault lies with Bucky for Hydra’s atrocities.
Steve honestly has no idea how there was anything of Bucky left to come back. The thought makes his breath catch and throat ache. He would scream, but he’s not sure he would stop.
Instead he steps towards the bed and lies down next his best friend, careful not to wake him. His fingers itch to sooth away the tension in Bucky’s face, to brush back the stray lock of hair on his forehead, as if that could somehow make everything alright. He listens to Bucky’s even breaths and prays to a God he’s not sure he believes in, that Bucky can find peace beyond these stolen moments within the walls of Steve’s apartment.
He deserves so much more, but Steve doesn’t know how to give it to him.
Bucky hears the shower running when he comes in through the bedroom window. He doesn’t call out, even here he’s not really safe, but it’s as close as he gets. He tries to limit his interactions with Steve, it’s stupid and dangerous, and will inevitably end badly when others figure it out. Yet here he is, again.
Standing in the semi dark room, he looks back out through the window. He knows no one saw him, but checks the street again anyway, before sitting on the bed and waiting. Hydra, the new SHIELD, a slew of other government departments, and who knows else all want to bring him in.
He is so damn tired.
He rubs a hand over his face and lets out a huff of mirthless laughter. All those years ago, back before he lost himself, when he lay in his cell shivering from the aftershocks of pain that wouldn’t quit, and dared dream what it would be like to go home…this really wasn’t what he imagined. Though he’s not sure what he actually did think going home would be like. When you’re living through hell, the idea of heaven is only a greater torment when it’s beyond your reach.
Fingers fumble as he loosens his jacket and slips out of it, toeing his boots off as well. Slips a knife beneath the pillow, a pistol and three more knifes within easy reach in his boots and jacket on the floor. A week with little sleep catches up even with a super soldier. But no matter how secure his safe houses are, he finds little rest there. Coming here is stupid, it puts Steve in danger, but he needs to sleep.
The sound of the shower is soothing, the door to the bathroom is ajar and Bucky can see steam billowing. Part of him wants to be annoyed that Steve hasn’t heard him enter the apartment, but the rest of him is too tired to bother telling Steve off.
He closes his eyes, intending to wait till Steve is finished in the shower, maybe glare at him for being stupid.
He falls asleep instead.
The apartment is quiet as he wakes up. He looks at the clock on Steve’s bedside table. He’s been asleep for nearly four hours, not long enough, but more than he usually gets. He can feel warmth coming from the other side of the bed, rolls onto his back gently to see Steve asleep next to him. Hair sticking up everywhere, like it had still been wet from the shower when he lay down. Bucky smiles, rolls onto his side and watches Steve for a while.
For a few minutes, it’s like he’s found his way home after all. Bucky reaches out, fingers hovering in the air above Steve’s cheek. He takes it all in, the strength, the gentleness, the stubbornness, the recklessness. The curve of Steve’s lips, the brush of his lashes. He pulls his hand back without touching. Bucky slips out of bed, pulling on his jacket and boots without a noise. He pauses at the window, turning back for a last look before slipping out into the night.
Heaven is out of his reach, and hell’s still on his heels.