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Love, Pandora

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Should have told him.

He should have told him.

Bucky braces himself against the wall, silver arm skidding sidewards with the force of the next heave, no fingernails to dig into the cheap tapestry. Next time, his fingertips break through the surface as a whole.

His legs can't be trusted, and so he crouches in the corner of this godforsaken room, in this godforsaken vault, vomits his godforsaken guts out and curses all of HYDRA plus himself seven times to hell.

(What was he thinking, getting away with that?)

God. He'd laugh – a sarcastic, bitter rasp that has become his second skin as of late – if his throat wasn't so busy bidding its farewells to every last bit of breakfast he's had today, or maybe ever.

There's no one around, it's been just Steve and him to begin with and, as expected, whatever's left of HYDRA had fled in a hurry hours ago. Cold scent, if not –

– if not for the archive.

And now Steve is up there; up there with that dusty box they dragged up from behind piles of documents, a box full of pictures and tapes; explicit and unmistakable, them, him, and the way Steve's eyes – "Bucky, what –?"

He should have learned long ago that there was no mercy for him.

(And even if he'd still deserved it after he's killed all those people, he no longer does for what he's done to Steve. Sins by omission.)

He chokes.

At first, of course, he hadn't been in much of a state to talk. Seems Bucky's homing beacon had always been aimed right at Steve, and that wretched creature that had shed the skin of the Winter Soldier and found there was nothing left to hold it together, well. Even if it knew nothing else, that one dragged itself near Steve time and time again, too.

And Steve, ah. In his heart of hearts, he really was still the same kid from Brooklyn. And Bucky guesses in the end there's not that much difference between rescuing a stray dog whose broken bones don’t keep it from snapping even at gentle hands, and a not-machine-not-person with a mind like the sound of nails against blackboard.

They probably smelled about the same, too.

Steve scrubbed him down and patched him up, fed him and warmed him and he sucked it up like a sponge, this, yesthismore, would have devoured Steve whole to fill the emptiness inside.

Bucky knows he's only got himself to blame for where he’s gotten them – if he'd kept his feelings for Steve at a sane level before all that shit went down, what was left of the Winter Soldier might just have curled up in an alleyway and died.

The way it was though, he played perfectly into HYDRA's hands – a Trojan horse if there ever was one, right into the home of the enemy. It was Bucky's body wrapped in two blankets in Steve's bed, yes, for sure – or at least what was left of it – but it came with an extra; something twisted, tainted, and worse: contagious.

And Steve gave and gave, and he never even mentioned it again, but Bucky remembers. He remembers resting against those impossibly broad shoulders, tucked in between Steve and Steve and Steve, and he remembers warm, and safe.

And what Steve got in return was never knowing if that wet lump of a man – clinging to him for dear life – was whimpering against his chest because it wept, because it feverishly tried to nibble through Steve's shirt or some sick shit, or because it jerkily humped Steve's thigh with a burning erection. (More often than not, it was one or another weird combination. Bucky's mortified when he remembers that later, after the fever breaks.)

In any case, it was all equally desperate. Steve reacted the same, too, wrapped his arms around Bucky tighter, drew him even closer: I've got you, you're safe, I've got you.

Bucky loves Steve so much it hurts.

(Would have been better if he'd loved Steve enough not to hurt him.)

And if he thought he knew how shame felt, well. Now that Steve's going through those files, Bucky's redefining the scale.

(There goes your chance to play things down, to lie through your teeth, now Steve knows exactly what they did to you, how they used you and soiled you and threw you away and how you did not fight and let them and moaned and begged if they told you to and then you crawled into his bed and touched him and allowed him to think you were some kind of lost treasure and instead all you could give him were sloppy seconds and be honest for once you did not tell him so he would not have the choice to turn away you tricked him you let him kiss you all those places even when you knew who'd been there before and did you really think you could wash that away no buddy not even if you skinned yourself –)

His chest hurts from retching and he's empty, empty but for the ugly truth – that he's no better than them. Worse even, because he’d been their enemy, and to hurt your enemies and to hurt your friends are two different things entirely.

Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, Bucky straightens up. Okay Barnes, get it together, you gotta – you can't be a coward, don't prove them right, not any more than you already have.

He's got to face Steve, give him the chance to – to do whatever he needs. Encourage him even, push him, because it's Steve and Bucky's not sure there's anything he could do that would make that stupid sap take revenge on him properly. Bucky will help. It's not pain he fears, not the physical kind, but the look on Steve's face: the betrayal, the disappointment, that turns his blood to ice.

His eyes dart to the door. (Exit escape hide.) Steve's still upstairs, maybe if… no. He can't lose his last bit of –

The explosion almost sweeps him off his feet. His cough rattles in his lungs as he evaluates – oh no.

"Steve! Steve!"

A seemingly empty enemy base, a diversion he'd have to fall for, and he immediately left Steve's back unguarded, no, Steve, he has to –

He's out in the corridor while the dust still blinds him, rifle in hand and taking three stairs at once.

And maybe this is his chance, maybe he can prove something to Steve if he dies for him. Only, if there is a God, please – this time for real.

-

Bucky bursts into the hall without taking any safety precautions, and through the settling smoke he can make out Steve's figure; upright, and relief floods him to the bone.

"Steve, what –"

Bucky only sees his back, broad shoulders angled away from the entrance of the archive. He's not sure if his presence has even been acknowledged, but as he closes in, Steve's forearm comes up, signaling him to stop dead in his tracks. A second later another explosion rattles the walls, and more dust and paper chips blow out of the archive. Bucky wishes he had his mask on, and not only for the sake of breathing.

"I borrowed your grenades," Steve says.

Bucky nods, even though Steve still does not turn to look at him. He readies his rifle and takes position. "How many?" he asks.

"All of them." Steve digs up another, pulls the pin and throws it into the room, leaving the cover of the wall too far for Bucky's liking.

"No, I mean attackers – Jesus, Steve!" He grips a rigid blue and white bicep and pulls Steve back just in time for the next blast wave to hit.

As Steve lets himself be manhandled against the wall, Bucky meets his eyes for a moment, and he knew it'd be bad, but it's worse. He lets go as if he'd been burned. Stupid instinct, he's got no right to touch Steve anymore. (Oh, come on, you never had.) He'd hoped this fight might buy him some time, but –

"No attackers," Steve presses out through gritted teeth, "Just me. And I'm – cleaning – up."

He turns at the last words, and the next grenade explodes by the sheer force with which it hits the wall. Steve's body shakes with barely suppressed rage, from hair to toe speckled with dust.

Oh.

Bucky briefly wonders about the other files in there, the 98% that had nothing to do with him and might contain valuable intel, the ones they were supposed to bring in to SHIELD. He knows better than to mention that, though.

If Bucky's counted right, they're out of explosives at least, and he is not sure if that's a relief or fucking bad news, because he's blown his chance to run, and that means –

"Would you've ever told me?" Steve asks. He supports himself against the door frame, looking just about as done for as Bucky feels.

And Bucky's as ready as he'll ever be; which is not at all, and he hasn't even decided on a strategy yet – try to fill the holes in Steve's knowledge with the most convenient lies he can come up with, or go for a brutal honesty that leaves him raw and exposed, like he feels he owes Steve. But it also might hurt Steve even more.

"No," he says eventually, "Not if I could have helped it." Steve nods sharply, and the door frame creaks under the pressure of his grip.

Bucky searches for that pull inside, tries to stir up the autopilot that makes him wade yet another mile through knee-deep mud, makes his eyes empty and his body pliant because pain is inevitable, but if he hangs on it will pass.

It's just when it comes to Steve fucking Rogers, blocking out reality never really worked, did it? As the dust settles and Bucky is able to see more of Steve's face, he thinks that now would be a damn great time for that to change. Steve wears his heart on his sleeve, and that's swell when he beams at Bucky with that million-watt smile that makes Bucky pinch him because What the hell Steve, people are gonna talk, but it’s paralyzing when his face is distorted in disgust.

Steve's looking at the other wall, or making out things in the smoke, but thank God he's not attempting to lock eyes with Bucky. That expression is worse than he's ever seen on Steve and yes, he expected him to be all kinds of mad and hurt and disappointed… but disgust, that's tough. It's only fair, of course, what was Bucky thinking – Steve has performed enough miracles for two lifetimes already, high time Bucky gave him a break.

"What made you think–"

Bucky squares his shoulders at the acid in Steve's words. (Don't try to soften the blows, this is for Steve, you owe him that much.)

Steve has trouble swallowing and starts again. "What did I do that made you think you had to do that with me, too?"

The question makes no sense and Bucky had not expected to be out of his depth so soon. Does Steve think Bucky sleeps with him because – because what? Because he's used to spreading his legs? Because he thinks he has to?
Surely whatever pictures or clips he has seen (and Bucky itches to know which ones, but asking is the most unthinkable thing in the world right now) made it clear to Steve that there's absolutely no similarity between that fucked up shit and what they're doing.

Or does he mean why Bucky had to cross the line from friendship-but-I-wish to friendship-and-also? Because Bucky could adduce a thousand reasons for that, from the summer Steve was ten and his impossible lopsided smile showed off his tooth gaps, to the whole rotten war with death being an almost physical presence, making him reckless, drunk on survival until he almost, almost

And then. And then when he emerged from seventy years of worse-than-death, everything had changed and everyone was gone – everyone except Steve, and wasn't that a miracle, more than a sign? And Steve held him and touched him gently and told him he was finally home, and they were skin on skin and Bucky’d wanted for so long –

How could he tell Steve any of this without making it sound like he tried to shuffle off part of the blame on him? He wouldn't, and outrage at the mere thought of Steve blaming himself makes him blurt out: "None of this is your fault! I knew what I was doing, and I deliberately tricked you into it."

"Oh God, Bucky, if I'd known, I'd never –"

Yeah, well. There are some blows you can't prepare yourself for, no matter how much you expect them. Bucky nods because he does not trust his voice, but he's unwilling to show any weakness so Steve won't start to hold back. Steve's like that, would never kick anybody who's on the ground, and Bucky has manipulated him enough.

"I didn't notice!" Steve cries out, "What kind of friend gets so close and doesn’t notice?"

Bucky raises an eyebrow. "I guess between me rocking back and forth in the corner at the sound of the neighbor trimming the hedges and trying to crush your windpipe when remains of my orders kicked in, it kinda got lost," he says.

There's nothing to fill the silence but Steve's heavy breathing, and Bucky can see him trembling.

"Look," Bucky says, "I'm not asking for forgiveness, just give me a chance to tell you how fucking sorry I am." He chews his lip. "For deceiving you, 'n making you believe I hadn't – before. You gave me so much and just… dunno. Wanted to have something to give you in return." He makes a helpless gesture. "Something new, something… untainted."

Even as he says it, Bucky realizes how fucking lame and pitiful his excuse sounds, so he falls silent and doesn't even try telling Steve how there had been so many firsts with him still, because it's not like they ever undressed much or rubbed his back or moaned his name when they –

He hears Steve wheel around more than he sees it, fingers suddenly gripping Bucky’s shoulders. "You're a person, Bucky, a human being! And people are not things that start off intact and wear out over time, that's not how it works!"

Bucky smiles sadly because Steve is kind, but he's also biased. It's sentiment, or maybe he's lacking comparisons. But Bucky knows the truth from people who had no reason to sugarcoat it. Not that he'd really understood it then, but he remembered later.

He remembered disgusted faces and For heaven's sake, clean up that mess and get him out of here. He remembered those who voluntarily used condoms and kept their gloves on. He remembered No thank you, I can't unsee what [name varied] did to him last time, I wanna take a shower just thinking about it. And that's what he took from Steve, didn't he? His chance to say No thanks, I know the history of this and I'd rather not.

He also remembered men who looked at him and couldn't get it up at all. He remembered What the fuck, you guys can't really think I'm sticking my fingers in there, and the unyielding objects that were usually forced inside him afterwards. Between that and their rotten parties, no wonder he got all loose and used up, unable to satisfy them without being caused extra pain to make his muscles contract, or being taken two at once. And while some turned to that or lamented and used his mouth instead, others still enjoyed pounding into him, groaning into his ear how they were gonna destroy whatever's left of him as well.

(And he did nothing, he just took it. Why on earth didn't he do anything? He hates them and he's gonna burn them down to nothing but the fucking grime they are.)

He'd been with Steve for a while when all that gradually came back, and from then on he couldn't stop second-guessing himself whenever they had sex, always worrying if he was too selfish; allowing himself too much lube or preparation at Steve's cost. Bucky constantly bit back the question if it felt right for Steve, if he was getting enough out of it. When he finally did ask, Steve's breath hitched against Bucky's neck and without the slightest trace of sarcasm he whispered that he'd never felt anything more exquisite in his whole life. Bucky almost confessed everything right then and there, guilt and shame like bile in his throat.

"Oh, come on," Bucky says, "You wouldn't wanna inherit Rumlow's old toothbrush either."

"Not – a – thing!" Steve repeats desperately, shaking Bucky's shoulders in sync. "Come on, Buck – against all odds, you're alive, you fought your way back to reality, back to me – tooth and nail, don't you think I know how hard that was?" Steve runs a thumb over Bucky’s shoulder. "Listen, that stupid kid I was needed the kid you were, but I, now, I need you, and I'd never trade, okay? Hey, Buck, look at m-"

Bucky shakes off the hand that reaches for his face. "Yeah sure, you love me, you want me. So it's no difference to you if we're having this between us, or if we're having it between us and oh, wait, seventy years' worth of over a hundred perverted HYDRA goons?"

Steve blanches. "Hell," he says, "Sure. The difference being hundred more souls downstairs writhing in fire and me up here being a million times more careful!"

Jesus, Steve. Priorities always upside down, always everyone else first, Bucky thinks and his lungs hurt with the thick air and a burst of tenderness towards Steve so intense it scares him, because it cracks him open from the inside, makes him vulnerable.

"Steve!" Bucky says, "Any more careful and we're landing us in a sex ed picture book. You know, When daddy and daddy love each other very much…"

Steve covers Bucky's mouth with his hand but can't stifle a desperate laugh. Then he slumps against Bucky's shoulder and tips their heads together. He's warm and solid and smells of sweat and smoke and explosives.

"Oh God, Bucky, " he whispers, "I'm so sorry you had to go through this. I –"

"Don't," Bucky cuts him off, "I can't – don't." He feels Steve nod against him and becomes aware of his own body's persistent trembling. Carefully, he raises his arms to rest on Steve's back and the touch shakes something free inside Steve, makes him squeeze Bucky even tighter with a muffled sound.

It doesn’t feel like goodbye.