Characters/Pairings: Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson, Bucky Barnes; Steve/Bucky
Word Count: 4015
Summary: There's still a tie between them, a pull that Steve can just barely feel, has felt since he shaped his bruised jaw and split lips around the words I'm with you until the end of the line and watched the Winter Soldier's eyes go round with something not exactly like recognition and more than a little bit like horror.
Warnings: Spoilers for Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. And. Weirdness?
Disclaimer: Named characters and certain plot elements in this story are © Marvel Entertainment and Walt Disney Pictures. All content is fictional and for entertainment purposes only, not for profit.
Notes: A Festivus gift for the incredible lanyon, reposted a little late since I had to be anonymous for a while. I went with her prompts for Steve/Bucky and "matryoshka." Couldn't play it straight, though, could I, nooooo, it must be a ~METAPHOR~.
Un-beta'd and slightly rushed. I am not good at writing to a deadline. But I'm told it turned out okay! :D
Posted to avengers_2k.
This story also available on AO3.
~ ~ ~
There's still a tie between them, a pull that Steve can just barely feel, has felt since he shaped his bruised jaw and split lips around the words I'm with you until the end of the line and watched the Winter Soldier's eyes go round with something not exactly like recognition and more than a little bit like horror. He felt the tug of it for a split second and when he woke up in the hospital the pull was there, quietly burning behind his breastbone. That's how he knows it's Bucky, really Bucky, and not just some fever-dream hallucination cooked up by a mind and a soul bent to breaking.
The pull's not as strong as it used to be, though, and the weakness of it worries Steve, like it's a candle flame that might blow out in a puff of wind at any moment. So he chases it, every hour of his waking life, Sam following along behind him, loyal, gently unquestioning; and when Steve sleeps he chases it through his dreams.
It's led them to limestone peaks and Croatian snow, a line of mountains in a landscape that's been crumpled and folded like a sheet of tissue paper crushed in a tectonic hand. Steve knows that Bucky is in these mountains, in this forest, but he can't pinpoint him; the pull is too weak. It frustrates him. He's been chasing Bucky for so long, and he knows Bucky will just disappear like smoke before Steve can get close to him. It's frustrating, but Steve doesn't know what to do except follow the pull and chase Bucky to the next country, and the next, and the next.
Sam found them shelter, a row of little stone huts pressed up against a cliff, built and abandoned long ago. The walls are built of great limestone blocks that look too big for anyone but Steve to easily handle, rough-hewn but fitting together neatly; the back wall of each hut is the cliff itself. The natural light in the shade of cliff and trees is dim, and very little of it gets into the huts through their tiny doors and windows, but having to make do with candles and LED lanterns is a decent trade for having fewer drafts to stop up with worn-out clothing torn into rags.
They've only been there two days. Steve's out looking for more firewood while Sam cooks a hot lunch. There was a thaw when they arrived, and the snow that remains is patchy on ground that is mostly bare rock, frozen grass, and the shriveled remains of wild herbs. The cold came back last night, and the air is sharp when he breathes it, the way that used to set off his asthma or portend a bout of pneumonia, back when.
Steve's carrying his shield; he tends not to go out without it. He's been attacked more than once—by Bucky, by Hydra, by deeply misguided ruffians looking to mug a stranger for his valuables. He carries a knife as well, in case he spies game; with his aim and strength, a throwing knife is all he needs.
Steve hears nothing but the crack of wood as he breaks off dead branches to be carried, the squeak of his boots on frosted grass or old snow, the sound of his own breathing. He sees nothing but the flick of a frightened jay as it flees from him between the pine trunks. But he can feel that he's being watched. He can feel Bucky's gaze, heavy on the back of his neck. “Bucky?” he calls out once, but gets only the whistle of the wind through pine needles as his reply.
He takes his firewood back to the hut. Sam hands him a bowl of stew and a spoon. Steve sits and takes a bite, rolls it around his mouth, savoring the heat and the taste. The little shreds of meat are a rabbit he snared this morning. He lets it sit on his tongue, imagines he can feel it dissolve into fats and proteins, weaving together to build muscle or stoking the fires of his mitochondria, warming him.
“He knows we're here,” he tells Sam. “I could feel him watching me. He wanted me to know, but he wouldn't come close. He'll probably be gone tomorrow.” He scrubs a hand over his face so he doesn't tear his hair out. “It's wearing me down, Sam. Chasing him like this. How am I supposed to get to him?”
Sam chews his stew. “I dunno, man. I think maybe you're chasing him in the wrong direction.”
Steve stares into his bowl of stew. He stares through the bowl, through his hands, down deep into the black of the earth. He shakes his head, despairing. “I don't know any other way to run.”
Sam nods. He nudges Steve with his knee. “You'll think of something,” he says.
~ ~ ~
When they finish eating, Steve goes out for more wood. Wet, dark clouds are pushing in from the sea, veiling the blue of the sky in soft grays; it will snow soon, probably tonight.
Steve has to go further afield to find deadwood; he's exhausted the supply within a quarter mile of the hut. After hiking for a little while he finds a fallen tree that's maybe only been dead a few months. The wood is dry and solid, and he kneels next to the tree, snapping off branches and throwing them into a pile. Steve catches a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, a dark shape that hadn't been there a minute ago; he reaches for his knife—a deer or a bear is meat they could use—but freezes when he looks up. It's Bucky.
All of the air in Steve's lungs leaves in a rush, and he gasps to get it back. “Bucky!” he exclaims.
Bucky snarls something in Russian. Steve's Russian is improving slowly, and he gleans enough to know that whatever Bucky said, it wasn't complementary. He scrabbles to his feet, hands up imploringly. “Wait! Please....” He trails off. He isn't sure what to beg for.
Bucky's voice is the growl of a wild beast. “You need to stop following me,” he warns, menace in every syllable.
Steve takes a cautious step forward. “You're in pain, and struggling,” he says. He knows it because he can feel it sometimes, like little tugs on the thread that ties them together. (Sometimes Steve is asleep, and he thinks maybe Bucky is sleeping too, and for a few minutes the link flares into solid clarity and Steve wakes with a gasp, sure that he knows exactly where Bucky is, if only he could get to him fast enough. It always disappears before Steve can get close, fading away or blinking out abruptly, leaving Steve adrift once more.) He knows it, now, because he can see the haggard lines of Bucky's face, skin too pale and cheekbones too prominent, the circles under his eyes too dark and too deep. “I want to help,” he begs. “Let me help.”
Bucky stalks forward a few steps. “If you will not stop following me,” he growls, “I will make sure that you can't.” He flexes his metal arm, rolls his fingers into a fist; the metal plates whirr and click.
“I don't want to fight you, Buck.” Steve takes another cautious step forward, hands up, eyes wide. He's ready to move if he has to. “I won't hurt you. You know I won't. Not ever again.”
“Then you will die,” Bucky promises, and hurls himself at Steve like an avalanche.
Steve backpedals to give himself time, but even so he barely gets his shield up before Bucky is on him, Bucky's arm beating against it with a resounding clang. Steve dodges, and spins, and blocks, takes blows that feel like getting hit by a truck, somehow shakes them off because if he doesn't he'll have his throat torn out. Bucky rips the shield away from him; Steve has to let it go before his arm goes with it. Without the shield it's a losing battle, so Steve goes for broke and tackles Bucky to the frozen ground, landing with his full weight on top of him. He tries to get Bucky's arms and legs into a lock, but he knows he's going to lose him in a second.
I think maybe you're chasing him in the wrong direction, Sam had said, and Steve reaches for the pull, the faintest wisp of feeling even though they're this close, breathing the same air; it feels like it will slip from his grasp but Steve holds tight and reaches in and down, down, down. His own voice throbs like a headache at the back of his skull, He knows we're here, it echoes. He'll probably be gone tomorrow. He tastes the memory of silent, empty trees and the feeling of being watched and reaches down, and down, and in. There's something like an electric shock and the world tilts and he loses his grip on the pull, loses his grip on Bucky who struggles free, flips them both so Steve is on his back and breathless, no time to stop Bucky's fist slamming—
~ ~ ~
The hoarse squawk of a crow jerks him back to consciousness, and he sits up with a gasp, his head throbbing in complaint. Bucky is nowhere in sight. Steve pushes himself to his feet and casts about for tracks, but Bucky was careful and skirted the patches of snow, preferring to make his escape over bare stone.
Steve gingerly probes at the side of his head. It's tender, but not very; it will be completely healed soon. The aching in his skull has already faded.
Steve retrieves his shield, then gathers up his bundle of branches and begins the hike back to the hut. The skin on the back of his neck is crawling with the feeling of being watched. He stops and looks around, calls out once, breathlessly, “Bucky?” Wind whistles through the pine branches. The watched feeling doesn't go away.
He squeezes through the narrow doorway of the stone hut and drops his bundle of firewood in the corner. Sam stirs a pot of stew, then fills a bowl and holds it out to Steve. Steve is ravenous; he takes the bowl and sits. The stew is warm and fragrant, and Steve imagines he can feel the shreds of rabbit meat dissolving on his tongue.
“I met Bucky,” he tells Sam. “We fought, and he knocked me out. When I came to, he was gone.” He shakes his head. “He was so angry, Sam. He doesn't want me here. I've been chasing him so long, and it's wearing me down. How am I supposed to get to him?”
Sam chews his stew. “I dunno, man. I think maybe you're chasing him in the wrong direction.”
Steve blinks. “You already said that.”
“Did I?” Sam seems unconcerned. He nudges Steve with his knee. “You'll think of something.”
~ ~ ~
They never seem to have enough firewood. When Steve finishes his stew he goes out for more. The clouds are wet and dark. It will snow soon; probably tonight.
Steve lets his feet take him where they will, and when they shuffle to a stop he's in a familiar clearing. A fallen tree sprawls in front of him. It's been dead for months, and the wood is dry and solid. He remembers breaking its branches for firewood, but no branches are missing. He hesitates, then kneels next to it, snapping off the dead branches one by one. There's a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye, and he freezes, but does not reach for his knife. It's not a deer or a bear. It's something much more dangerous. “Bucky,” he says, and looks up.
Bucky snarls in Russian, and Steve scrambles to his feet, hands up. “Wait! Please....” He isn't sure what to beg for.
“I told you to stop following me.” Bucky's voice is the growl of a wild beast, heavy with menace.
Steve takes a cautious step forward. “I don't know how to do that,” he tells Bucky wearily. “I'm sorry. I can't leave you alone when you're in pain, and struggling.” Through the pull, he has felt Bucky struggle. In his face, he can see Bucky's pain. “Please. I want to help. Let me help.”
“I don't want your help,” Bucky growls. “I don't need it. Back off, or I will make you.” He clenches a metal fist. The plates of his arm whirr and click.
Steve takes another step forward. He can't help it. Bucky is the north arrow on his compass, the guiding star hanging over a dark sea, the lit lantern on a porch calling him home. He can't possibly take a step in the other direction. “I don't want to fight you, Buck. I won't hurt you. I'd rather die.”
“Careful what you wish for,” Bucky snarls, and hurls himself at Steve like a tidal wave.
Steve backpedals to create space, but even so he barely gets his shield up in time. Bucky's arm beats against it with a resounding clang. Steve dodges, and spins, and blocks. They've danced this dance before, and Steve remembers the steps; he pushes himself, tries to get half a second ahead of Bucky. Bucky grabs the shield to rip it away, and Steve throws his weight down, trying to take the shield and Bucky down with him. Bucky lets his hands slip up and over the shield, brings his fists down like a hammer on Steve's back, slamming him face down into the frozen grass. Bucky kicks him in the gut and Steve's vision goes foggy, the breath knocked out of him. Bucky makes as if to kick him again, and—hesitates. Steve swings his legs around to trip him; Bucky hits the ground hard and Steve throws himself on top of him. He goes for a pin, but he knows he won't hold him long. He's going to lose him. He's going to lose him again. “I don't want to lose you,” he gasps out.
He holds on tight, to Bucky, to the pull between them that flickers and tries to slip from his grasp. The world tilts and Bucky wriggles free, flips them to their sides, and his arm is pulled tight across Steve's throat. Steve's vision swims, stars sparking alight in a field of swirling black, Bucky's arm presses down and—
~ ~ ~
The sharp chatter of a squirrel jerks him back to consciousness, and he sits up with a gasp and a coughing fit. Bucky is nowhere in sight. Steve pushes himself to his feet and casts about for tracks, but there are none to be found.
Steve prods gingerly at his throat. It feels like he swallowed a large rock, but he knows his trachea will be completely healed soon. He can already breathe more comfortably.
Steve looks at his pile of wood. He leaves it lying on the ground and hikes back to the hut. He can feel Bucky's gaze heavy on the back of his neck. He doesn't call out.
When Steve steps into the hut, Sam ladles up a bowl of soup, looks confused, and then offers it anyway with a questioning quirk to his eyebrow. Steve nods and takes it; he's still hungry. He takes a bite, lets it sit on his tongue. He imagines he can feel the little shreds of rabbit meat dissolving on his tongue and being absorbed, becoming part of him.
“Took your advice, I guess,” he tells Sam.
“Yeah?” Sam thinks this over. “...How's that going for you?” he asks.
“So far? Painfully.”
Sam nudges Steve with his knee. “You'll figure it out.”
~ ~ ~
Steve goes back to the clearing with the fallen tree. There's no pile of wood. The branches are unbroken.
(The clouds are wet and dark. It will snow soon.)
Steve doesn't bother to collect deadwood. He finds a spot on the downed tree without any branches and sits. He waits. There's a flicker of movement in the corner of his eye. He knows without looking that it is neither a deer nor a bear. “Bucky,” he says.
Bucky starts to snarl in Russian, and cuts himself off abruptly, looking perplexed. He scowls and steps toward Steve, menacing. “How did you do this?”
Steve stays seated on the trunk of his fallen tree. “I don't know what it is I've done,” he admits.
“Self-similar pattern. Repetition, with modification.” Bucky tilts his head. “Matryoshka,” he says. “In and in and in again.” He steps forward again. “Make it stop,” he growls.
“I don't know how!” Steve puts his hands up. “Please, Bucky, can we not fight, this time. Can we just talk. Please.”
Bucky stares at him. He places a hand, flat, on the center of his chest. “This,” he says, and Steve feels a tug on the pull between them, “can you make this stop?”
Steve shakes his head. “That was always between us, Bucky, don't you remember?” Please remember, he wants to beg, but doesn't.
A dark shadow passes over Bucky's face. He clenches his fist; metal plates whirr and click. “I don't remember being Bucky Barnes,” he grits out.
Steve thinks about the nights when their link burned bright. “But you dream about it, don't you,” he says.
Bucky's eyes and nostrils flare wide. “The Winter Soldier does not dream.”
“Bucky Barnes does.”
“I am NOT. BUCKY. BARNES!” Bucky stalks forward. Steve hastily pushes himself to his feet, but Bucky stops a couple of yards away. His chest is heaving. His eyes are wild.
Steve reels with the shock of realization. “What are you afraid of?” he asks.
With a wordless snarl, Bucky throws himself at Steve. There's no time to go for the shield; Steve dodges to the side, but Bucky's on him. They grapple, rough and dirty. Bucky has a knife; Steve tries to take it from him, and faster than he can see, it's in Bucky's other hand and Bucky's got him in a hold and the knife is at his throat.
Steve goes still. He tilts his head back, baring his throat. “You're not going to kill me, Bucky. You could have before, many times before, but you didn't.” He reaches for the pull that connects them, trying to touch something that Bucky will feel. He reaches in, and in, and in. “You know me. You remember me, I know you do. I'm your friend, Bucky. We've always been friends. We'll always be friends. To the end of the line,” he says, and there's something like an electric shock, and the world tilts, and Bucky shoves Steve to the ground and backs away from him. The knife dangles uselessly in his hand. The pull between them throbs and flares.
“Bucky,” Steve says, and there's a small, metallic object on the ground next to him, like a grenade—
~ ~ ~
Steve comes to with a groan he can barely hear past the ringing in his ears, face down in a carpet of last year's pine needles. He pushes himself up to his hands and his knees, blinking to see past the swirling after-image on his retinas. Bucky is nowhere in sight. He bumps a small, metallic object with his knee—a stun grenade.
The delicate hairs in his inner ear and the rods and cones in his eyes recover quickly. He climbs to his feet.
The pull throbs and flares. It doesn't burn strong and steady like he remembers, but it's the strongest it's been this side of 1945. Steve doesn't go back to the hut and Sam and rabbit stew.
He follows the pull.
The pull leads him on a winding path beneath the dark green boughs of pines and the naked, clutching branches of nameless trees, asleep and waiting for spring. It leads him out across a scree slope, exposed and barren, pale beneath the winter sky. In the distance he can see a stone cottage, huddled beneath the sleeping skeleton of a massive chestnut tree. He follows the pull to the tree, to the cottage. Bucky is a black shadow at the door, waiting for him. The clouds above are wet and dark.
Steve stops at the foot of the tree, a few yards from the door and Bucky. Bucky stares at him, his face a cold mask. “Looking for another beating?” he asks.
Steve shrugs. “I'd rather not, but if you insist.”
Bucky's shoulders slump. He looks away. “You're not going to give up, are you.”
“I've always been a stubborn ass, or don't you remember?”
Bucky tenses. “No. I don't.”
“Bucky,” Steve says gently. “What are you afraid of?”
Bucky growls. “I'm not Bucky Barnes.”
“I'm NOT!” The pull flares bright. Bucky pushes away from the cottage and stalks toward Steve, chest heaving. “I'm not him, I know I'm not! Bucky Barnes protected you, he spent his whole life protecting you, he—that was everything that he lived for, keeping you safe from harm! He wouldn't have left you alone, he wouldn't have let you throw yourself to your death in a frozen ocean! He wouldn't have devoted years of his life to burning down everything you've ever worked for, he wouldn't have torn your life apart, hurt the people you care about, Bucky Barnes wouldn't have tried with everything in him to destroy you—!”
“You're right, he wouldn't!” Steve shouts. Bucky's mouth shuts with a clap. They are standing nose to nose, inches and oceans apart. Bucky looks like Steve is twisting a knife in his gut; Steve feels every twist. “Bucky Barnes wouldn't,” Steve tells him. “You didn't.”
“I did,” Bucky insists.
“The Winter Soldier did—no,” Steve says, forestalling Bucky's argument, “be honest, you're not the Winter Soldier anymore, are you.”
Bucky's eyes are wide and wild. He gasps for air like he's been running a marathon. His voice, when it comes, shakes and quavers. “He was supposed to protect you. He failed. He failed you, Steve.”
Steve reaches out with both hands to take Bucky by the shoulders; Bucky shoves at him, then latches on to Steve's jacket and pulls him close again, clinging desperately. Steve holds on tight. “We protect each other. We protect each other, Bucky. You've saved me so many times. It's my turn again. It's my turn to save you.”
There are tears running down Bucky's face. The pull between them burns. “Why?” he whispers. “He's broken. He's lost. Why would you even bother?”
Steve folds a hand over Bucky's where they cling to Steve's jacket. “Do you feel this?” he whispers back. “This pull between us. It's always been there, except for when you didn't know me at all. It's how I know you're really you, really Bucky. It's tied us together for our whole lives. It will keep us together so we never lose each other again. Do you know what it is, Bucky, do you remember?” Bucky's eyes are wide. Tear tracks glisten on his cheeks. “It's love. I love you, Bucky, and I'll never give up on you.”
Bucky sobs, once, and crumples against Steve's chest. The pull is strong and clear; it sings. Tears boil up hot, and Steve closes his eyes against them. He presses a single kiss to Bucky's forehead. The world shifts and settles, like a dislocated joint clicking back into place.
Steve stands still awhile beneath the wan branches of the chestnut tree, holding Bucky tightly to him, Bucky holding tightly back, both of them holding their breath and waiting for a storm to sweep them apart again. There is nothing but the quiet, and the stillness, and the cold.
“Hey,” Steve says. “Let's go on back. Sam's got a pot of stew.”
Bucky pulls away slowly but keeps Steve's hand, tangling their fingers together and holding on. “Yeah,” he says softly. “Let's go.” They walk back together, side by side, the pull warm and bright between them.
The clouds are wet and dark. It starts to snow.