Water Under the Bridge
I can remember days of sun
We knew our lives had just begun
We could do anything we're fearless when we're young
Water under bridge, evening after day
What is left of love here that didn't drift away
Don't give me all your love in pain
Don't sell me New York in the rain
Let's leave our promises behind
Rewind, and try again
-The Pet Shop Boys - The Way It Used To Be
"You know, you guys should take a break and do something nice," Sam said, emerging from a thick sheaf of files. Maria Hill heard Steve was looking into their loose ends, and she had sent him all the old S.H.I.E.L.D intelligence she could lay her hands on. Most of it was decades old; Steve's tiny living room looked like the aftermath of some kind of paperwork avalanche. It was well past midnight, long after they all should have gone to bed. Bucky, surrounded by Cold War-era coded Russian documents that only he could read, didn't even twitch at Sam's comment. But Steve made a little grunt that he'd heard, so Sam pressed on. "Sarge's been out of commission for most of the last 70 years, and Cap, I think this is the closest thing to a vacation you've had in the same amount of time. You two should hit the town, see some sights."
Bucky looked up at last. With something of the Winter Soldier's sooty stare in his up-too-late face, he had never seemed less inclined to see some sights, unless perhaps those sights featured the corpses of his enemies. "We don't have time for that," he said. "Hydra--"
"Hydra's not gonna fall over in a day," Sam said reasonably, and with a little kernel of optimism. Steve had actually peeled himself out of the yellowing dot-matrix printouts in his lap, and he was looking thoughtful. "Listen, you two could use a day of leave. Walk away from this a bit. Clear your heads. Slamming up against it 24-7 is not gonna make Hydra easier to catch."
"And what will?" Bucky argued, belligerently flipping a page in his binder. "Going to the zoo?"
Sam sat back on the sofa, and pages of data, maps, and charts crunched under him. "I dunno, man. You turn up looking like you do right now, they're gonna think you're one of the pandas."
Steve chuckled, but at Bucky's glance, he hurried to turn it into a cough. "You might be right," he said. "Not about the zoo, but about taking a break. You've been through a lot, Buck. Maybe we should--"
"I don't think you took one day off from '43 to '45," Bucky said, a little color in his face now.
"It was a different kind of war--" Steve began, and there was a warning in his tone that anyone but Bucky Barnes would have heeded.
"Maybe. Or maybe you were a different kind of soldier."
"Maybe," Steve said, his eyebrows low and his voice dangerous, "You don't remember enough to even know what the hell you're talking about."
Bucky was half-up out of his chair now, and his glare was a steely match for Steve's. "Maybe I remember plenty, and you're the one pretending nothing happened."
"Maybe," Sam broke in, in an authoritative bark that made both the other two soldiers jump, "You two need to get out of the goddamn house before you kill each other. Jesus! See, this is what I'm talking about! This is four times tonight already." Sam didn't know what exactly was eating those two, but it was ugly, and they weren't going to get it sorted by glowering at each other all night long. They weren't going to get it sorted by taking out all of Hydra, either, or punching their way though their problems. They needed to talk about it, to each other. Of that, Sam was certain. He slapped an envelope down on the coffee table, on top of the files. "Here. The VA gets some of these comped every month. I want you guys out of town and away from this research for at least a day. Call it a soft reset."
Steve blinked at Sam, obviously having trouble winding down from the latest almost-fight. "You giving the orders now, Sam?"
"I'm giving this one." Sam jabbed a finger at the envelope. "And if you won't take it from me as a friend, take it from your counselor. You two need to step back for a while. Before you need more than that."
Steve looked at Bucky, and Bucky looked back, and both of them recoiled in a kind of surrender that made Sam's tense back muscles finally relax. Steve had opened the envelope, and made a little surprised face at the contents. "We driving up to Baltimore?"
"I ain't driving anywhere," Sam said, folding his arms and lifting one eyebrow at Bucky. "Somebody tore my car into chunks and threw it all over the beltway."
Bucky looked serene, as though he had forgotten about that. They all knew he hadn't. He had some of the most convenient amnesia Sam had ever seen.
"Besides," Sam continued, "I've got a meeting tomorrow for my real job. You know, the one that pays me?" He stretched out a crick in his neck. "This field trip is for you guys."
Steve tapped the envelope against his open palm. "All right. If you think we need it."
"I do." Sam raked a scattered confetti of microfilm into a neat pile on the table, and scooped it back in its file pocket. "But really, I don't care what you do tomorrow. You can go moon the Oval Office from the top of the Washington Monument if you want. Just come back with your heads straight."
"Gonna take more than one day off for that," Bucky said, with something like humor, and Sam thought there had never been a better contender for understatement of the year.
They took Steve's bike up to Baltimore. It was less than an hour's ride, and Bucky fit easily behind Steve, his powerful left arm tucked across Steve's abdomen with all the steadfast, indifferent coolness of a roller-coaster's safety bar. Steve thought of the other times they'd ridden together, times when Bucky had to jump on so they could make a clean escape, times when Bucky had held the shield to cover them both, bullets plinking on the vibranium like rain on an old tin roof. Steve remembered careening down a mud-rutted road that threatened to unseat them, Bucky's hard breathing in his ear and one hand wedged into Steve's uniform straps, the other aiming a machine gun between Steve's elbow and his ribs, rattling their teeth with the staccato of gunfire as he cleared a path ahead.
Now, with Bucky leaning mutely against his back and the new blacktop smooth as a ribbon underneath them, Steve wondered if Bucky remembered, too, or if the feeling of sharing a bike roused no familiarity, no fondness. There was no way to ask, not with the wind roaring over them. But halfway to Baltimore Bucky put his cheek to Steve's shoulder, curled his metal fingers into a gun, and squeezed off imaginary bullets at the Mazda slowing down the fast lane in front of them. Steve laughed aloud into the wind, gunned the engine, and swerved them through traffic like they were dodging Nazi gunfire. He couldn't be sure, but he thought he felt Bucky's smile.
Baltimore's inner harbor was bright and crowded, the water dotted with dragon-shaped paddleboats lurching uneasily among the seagulls. Joggers slowed to survey the frozen yogurt stands with a covetous eye, while tourists jostled in line under the Constellation's towering masts. Steve steered them into the cavernous maw of a parking garage, parking beneath the waving claws of a blue crab painted on the wall. (There had been open parking on the octopus level, but Bucky had tensed a little at the sight of the winding tentacles, and Steve kept going.)
"Why Baltimore?" Steve had asked Sam the night before, as Sam was leaving. "There's an aquarium in DC, you can keep the tickets and we'll--"
"Couple of reasons," Sam had answered, ticking them off on his lean fingers. "First of all, I think you guys should get out of town. There's a lot of shit still flying about all the S.H.I.E.L.D. action last month, people in Baltimore won't know you or care the same way. Two, it'll be less crowded and less hot--DC was built on a swamp and it turns back into one every damn summer. But mostly, it's because the DC aquarium sucks." Sam clapped Steve on the shoulder on his way out. "Besides, I used to go up there all the time when I came back from my second tour. Sat and watched the fish for a while. Made me feel a little less like punching my way into a felony charge--thought Sarge might like it, too."
"Thanks, Sam," Steve said, grateful. "Thanks for looking out for us."
"Hey," Sam grinned at him, "I was brought up to respect my elders, you know?"
Elders, nothing, Steve thought. If we don't count our downtime, you're older than both of us.
But when it came to the crowd outside the Aquarium, Steve definitely felt like an exception, age-wise.
"Are they going to let us in if we don't have a kid with us?" Bucky asked, as two boys ran shrieking by them to catch up to their mother. The line was overwhelmingly comprised of young parents and their children.
"It is kinda noisy," Steve admitted. "You gonna be okay?"
Bucky shrugged. It was his first time out in a crowd since he'd come back, and Steve was a little worried. True, he hadn't tried to assassinate Sam for almost a week, but his nightmares were still violent, his emotions still locked up inside a hard carapace of trauma. But he looked all right enough, Steve thought, catching their reflection in the mirrored walls. Bucky had his hair pulled back in a ponytail, his eyes covered with sunglasses. He kept his hands tucked in his hoodie pockets, and seemed unbothered by the fact that he was standing waist-high in kids. They might have been average guys, the two of them, young men at a loose end on a summer Tuesday morning, with all their lives in front of them. Only if someone looked closely--at the tension in Bucky's jaw, the decades of care in Steve's eyes--did the illusion dissipate.
The line was unshaded, and whatever Sam had said, it was still hot. Bucky was starting to look decidedly twitchy and Steve was considering calling the whole thing off when they finally got inside, and were enveloped in a blissfully cool spray of water from a three-story artificial waterfall. The children and their parents rushed on, to the gift shop and the dolphin show, and Steve and Bucky were left alone. Bucky leaned his arms on the clear side of the pool, watching the flickering bluegill beneath the surface.
"Do you remember that summer my dad took us up to the Catskills?" he said.
Steve nodded. "Yeah. How old were we? Ten, maybe?" Steve mostly remembered that the water had been cold, he was allergic to everything, and mosquitos thought his blood was the tastiest thing to be had. He had spent his nights shivery and itchy, and his days sunburnt. Bucky, meanwhile, turned nut-brown and went barefoot, like some forest changeling that had been swapped with the streetwise Brooklyn kid Steve knew.
But Bucky, lifting his face to the spray, had other memories. "I taught you how to swim. And you drew a lot, and you told me all the constellation names. We went fishing, Pop showed us how to clean trout." he tapped one metal fingertip against the side of the tank, and the fish slanted away like a burst of lightning. "I hated it," he admitted. "Gutting the fish, I mean. But I didn't want to look like a pansy in front of Pop, so I stuck it out and did it anyway. And you were so cool about it, I couldn't let you show me up. Got pretty good at it by the end."
"I remember," Steve said, but he was more pleased to see Bucky remembering, talking about the past as though it didn't cut him to pieces on the way out. Tiny droplets of water had caught in his eyebrows, but Steve didn't think that was the reason Bucky's face seemed brighter.
"Sometimes..." Bucky murmured, and Steve had to lean closer to hear over the water, "During the war... it felt like that with you. Like we were just out on an adventure, you and me."
"Yeah." Steve rested his arms on the pool ledge, his shoulder to Bucky's in gentle support. If they went no further inside, if Bucky wanted to stand there and watch the humble little bluegill all day, that was fine with Steve. But it wasn't long before Bucky pushed away and wandered further into the exhibits, his sunglasses shoved back on his hair, something like curiosity on his face.
In their childhood, the depths of the ocean had been something only conjured by plaster models and moody lighting in the Museum of Natural History, or glimpsed in dark little displays of sullen fish in the aquarium down at Battery Park. They had never had the chance to see live sharks gliding by at eye-level, or strange creatures of the deep squidging silently along the black-lit walls of their tanks. They went slowly, letting the crowd wash past them on their way to see this or that just up ahead. Steve bought them overpriced sandwiches at the cafe and Bucky ate his while looking out over the harbor, and Steve doodled jellyfish on the back of his napkin. They waited fifteen minutes for a chance to see the chambered nautilus pass into view, as strange as any alien in their childhood imaginings. The penguins were silly and noisy, and Bucky might have almost smiled at their antics.
It was only when they got to the conservatory on the top floor that everything went wrong.
"It's hot," Bucky said, the minute they stepped out of the airlock into the exhibit, the trees full of the raucous calls of tropical birds. After the cool of the building the top floor was close and humid; Steve's shirt wilted to his back almost instantly.
"Well, it is a rainforest," Steve said, but got no further. Bucky was standing in the shadow of a false boulder, and his face had gone pale. Loose strands of hair clung to his cheeks, his eyes were wide. "Bucky?"
There were kids there, too--there were kids everywhere. But Bucky looked at the knot of jostling children by the piranha pool, and some kind of slow horror crept across his face. "Get me out of here," he whispered. "Now."
"Hang on," Steve said, turning in place. The way they had come in was crowded with the arrival of a new batch of tourists, shoving everyone forward in their eagerness for sloths and egrets. The exit was on the far side of the exhibit, but by the time Steve had located it, Bucky was gone.
Steve searched the whole floor, but Bucky had not remained in the exhibit, and Steve hadn't expected him to. But the texts Steve sent to Bucky's phone remained unanswered; the display of poison frogs just past the rainforest exit was empty. Steve rushed through the Aquarium's finale without seeing it--the corkscrew ramp through the massive coral tank was only a hindrance to his search. He was wondering if he'd have to double back through the whole place when he found Bucky at last, tucked against one of the windows of the reef exhibit at the bottom of the aquarium, his head on his knees.
"I'm sorry," he said, before Steve could even say anything. "Sorry."
"It's all right." Steve made a shield of himself, standing between Bucky and the curious eyes of the visitors getting their last lingering view of the black-tipped sharks, the silent angelic rays. "Do you want to talk about it?"
Bucky shook his head without lifting it. Steve reached out, and after a moment's hesitation, rested his hand on the back of Bucky's neck. He hadn't yet tried to comfort Bucky when he was awake, he hadn't dared to touch him like this in daylight. He felt a shiver of tension pass through Bucky's shoulder and then vanish, felt him lean back into the touch.
"You don't have to," Steve said, and eased down onto the ledge across from Bucky. "We can just sit here a while, if you want."
Bucky took a rickety breath, lifted his head, nodded. He crammed the heel of his hand into one eye, and Steve politely looked away. This was where Sam had spent his time, Steve realized. On the underside of the main reef, in the quiet blue light, with the fish schooling by in a slow, lazy dance. It felt like another world, one far away from war. For Sam, it must have been the opposite of the open skies where he'd lost Riley. Steve lost track of time, sitting there with Bucky in the almost-dark. A heavy kind of peace settled on them, and Steve thought of sinking into the Potomac, leaving everything behind in the deep, watery silence.
"I had a mission go wrong." Bucky's voice was a low murmur, his eyes on the sharks. It could have been an hour later, or only five minutes. "Cuba, maybe. Or Guatemala? Doesn't matter, I guess." He put his hand up against the tank, let it slide back down again. Steve waited, patient and quiet, for him to keep talking. "My...target," he said, as though the word tasted bad, "had me hunting him in the jungle for three days. He'd picked off my team, I was the only one left. And I was tired, and injured, and angry. I just wanted it done." Bucky closed his eyes, and Steve reached out for his hand, caught it, and held it.
"Bucky." There was a lot packed into the way Steve said his name: compassion, understanding, encouragement. It was an invitation to keep speaking, it was permission to keep silent. Bucky swallowed hard, and kept going.
"When he finally broke out of the jungle, he tried to take shelter in a village down in a valley. Maybe he thought he might lose me in a city, maybe he was running out of options, I don't know. I tracked him down to a mission school there. And that's where I took him out." Bucky looked at Steve head-on, his face full of grief. "Him, and everybody else that was there in my way. All the villagers, the kids. Everybody." He closed his eyes, unable to bear the look on Steve's face. "I wiped it off the map. And when I was done with it, I came around just long enough to realize what I'd done...and I...just..."
"It's not your fault, Buck." Steve had both hands around Bucky's now. "None of it was your fault."
Bucky leaned his head back against the viewport wall, and inhaled as though he was coming up from the lagoon just beyond the glass. "I don't know how long it took Hydra to bring me back in. Covered in blood, arm shot to hell, raving. They wiped it--they wiped everything. I didn't remember it at all, and then it hit me all at once up there. Like I was right back there with nowhere to run. Sorry."
Steve tilted his head to the glass, ran his thumb over the valley between Bucky's knuckles. "I lost it once over a pot of spaghetti," he confessed. "Right in front of Tony, too. These things don't care about our dignity, Bucky."
Bucky blinked at him, surprised out of his own reverie. "Spaghetti," he repeated, in tones of disbelief. "Seriously?"
"It was some very poignant spaghetti," Steve retorted, with a bit of heat. But he couldn't help but smile a little at Bucky's expression. "I'm not sure Stark knew what to do with me."
"Like you don't know what to do with me?" Bucky made a face at his own reflection; he knew he looked and sounded pitiful and hated it. "Because I don't know what to do with me either, Steve."
Steve tightened his grip on Bucky's hand. "I know," he said. "I'm going to stay right here with you."
So they stayed, while the world bustled on around them, and watched the rays in silence.
It was dark by the time Steve's bike puttered to a stop back in DC, late summer night already well underway. There were fireflies winking up from the grass. Steve rummaged in his pocket for his keys, but Bucky stood back from the front stoop, his hood pulled up, his eyes on the sidewalk. The question had been on his tongue for hours now, and he finally made himself ask it.
"Why didn't you tell me about the KGB file, Steve?"
Steve didn't turn around, his keys still dangling from the door. His shoulders sank in a kind of surrender. "...Why didn't you tell me you were drafted?" There was no anger in his voice, only a resigned ocean of sadness. Bucky felt its gravity between them, not turbulent, but cold and dark and deep.
These are the lies we tell out of love, Bucky thought, and when Steve turned to look at him, he knew from Steve's face that he might as well have said it out loud. Instead, he said, "How long have you known?"
Steve shook his head. "Ah, hell, Buck," he sighed. "Your Mom let that slip a week after you got your letter. Don't think I don't know why you didn't tell me." Steve smiled like he would rather burst into tears. "So don't act like you don't know why I didn't show you that file. If you've seen it, you know why."
Bucky swallowed a few hard words, and blinked away from Steve's gaze. "So what about that night in London?" He thrust his hands into his pockets and summoned up a challenging glare, which he leveled at Steve. "Why are you pretending like it never happened?"
It was Steve's turn to look away. "For a long time, I thought you were just too drunk to remember it," he said, quietly. "And even after I knew that wasn't true, I tried to pretend it was. I didn't want you to remember the one time in my life I felt like a coward."
"You weren't a coward," Bucky said, and barreled on as though the words were burning and he couldn't shake them off his tongue fast enough. "You just didn't feel that way, and I was too late anyhow. You were already so in love with Peggy--"
"Of course I was in love with Peggy," Steve snapped, and for the first time all day he sounded angry. "So were you, so were all of us. And if we'd had a normal life, I would have married her and had a nice house with a white picket fence, and you and that cute little brunette nurse would have lived next door, and we'd have watched our kids grow up together. But it didn't happen, Bucky. It will never happen. Because we died, and Peggy is dying, and the world left us behind." He took a slow, deep breath in the space made by Bucky's stunned silence, and made a deliberate effort to uncurl his fists. "Peggy moved on. She got married, she had a family, she built S.H.I.E.L.D. And the last time I talked to her she told me that maybe the best thing I could do would be to start over." He confronted Bucky with his open hands, with the raw wounds of loss that were only three years old to him, but decades in the past for everyone else. "So I'm trying to start over. With myself. With you. And maybe this time I won't run away."
It was only a slight gesture; Steve's arms were already outstretched. All he had to do was open them a little wider, in invitation. And with no hesitation Bucky collided into him, in an embrace that was as fierce and desperate as any battle they'd ever fought. It was not a thing of romance; it was something far bigger than desire. Two battered souls found their solace again, a haven in each other that they'd both thought lost forever.
It was a long time before they let go. When they did, it was only to arm's length, to get inside and away from the occasional sweep of turning headlights at the nearby intersection. Steve made them coffee, and they both forgot to drink it as they talked openly about the in-between years. With his fingers laced in Bucky's artificial ones on the tiny kitchen tabletop, Steve related his efforts to make the best of things, to make some use out of the life he'd been forced to keep. He confessed to his moments of doubt and weakness. He talked about how worthwhile he'd felt after the battle in New York, and then his growing doubts and feelings of futility as the glow of that victory faded. He talked about Natasha, and about Nick Fury, and even a little bit about Tony Stark, though Steve was not so confident yet as to go too far down that road. And when he was done, it was Bucky's turn to talk, though it was in halting snips of broken memories, about his life as the Winter Soldier.
He never knew the names of his teammates; they were different every time. Rarely did he eat or sleep alongside them, and there were very few missions that lasted longer than a day. Sometimes, in the slow moments, they would try to be friendly with him, make him offers of vodka or tea or cigarettes or chocolate, as they did with each other. He never accepted. He existed for the mission alone; a murderous cypher, a bullet with no rifling, a man with no identity.
Until the man on the bridge saw him, knew him, and the Winter Soldier knew him back.
"...And they took it away from me again," Bucky choked, his face hardening, then crumbling under the assault of emotions he had long held back. "They took you away from me." He put his head down on the table, his forehead to their joined hands, and the sobs rattled out of him, ugly and honest. Steve picked him up as he had that first night Bucky came to him, carried him to the bed, and held him as the old poison bled away. Bucky had shown so little emotion beyond anger and suspicion, the grief was actually welcome. Steve let it roll over them, let it become part of the past that was out of their reach now.
"You never lost me," Steve said, his hands in the soft tangle of Bucky's hair. "I was there the whole time. They couldn't really take it away. You knew me, at the end."
Bucky's laugh was thick. "Only when I'd beaten you bloody," he said. "I didn't know your face until you had a split lip and a black eye, and I remembered you--I remembered everything. All those stupid fights, all those times I put you back together--"
"Then every single time I got punched was worth it," Steve said firmly, and tightened his arms around Bucky's shoulders. "If it meant you would know me now."
Bucky pressed his face into Steve's shoulder, and the shuddering of his ribs was slowing. "Don't let me go," he said. "Don't let them take me back. Promise me... promise me you'd shoot me first, Steve, I can't--"
"Never," Steve promised, and Bucky was not the only one crying. "Never let them have you, never let you go."
And he didn't, not even when Bucky's grief left him empty and exhausted, not even when they both lay asleep in each other's arms. The sun rose without them, as it had for so many years while they were apart, but there was no space between them now for its light to reach.