First, there was the time Steph was nineteen and Bucky was eighteen and he said he wanted to marry her. He said it into the skin of her stomach because that’s where his mouth was at the time and it seemed important to put those words out there. He had imagined her blushing and saying yes and then letting him keep her safe and healthy but especially safe.
She swatted the back of his head and told him not to be such a jerk and to get on with what he was doing.
Later, she wouldn’t stop volunteering at the veteran’s clinic even when he told her, he told her that he mom died doing the same thing and it just ain’t safe to mix with that kind of sick. She stood as tall as she could—somehow taller than the five-feet-tall-in-her-heels—and told him to come back when he wasn’t an ass.
Even later, flames licking up the sides of the only way out as it crashed away from sight, he told her to get outta there and she shouted back that she wouldn’t, not without him.
He was always trying to get her to back down and she said he never listened, that that wasn’t the point anyway. She still let him trail kisses down the space between her breasts, run his hands along her perfect skin. Sometimes, he was sure she used it against him—otherwise he would have sent her packing when she turned up again just outside their next mission with Peggy’s rifle.
(He kept telling her, it’s one thing for Peggy to run with the troops but the Howling Commandos weren’t troops, they were something else. Steph had a scar across her collarbone those days and he wished she didn’t, wished she hadn’t been the one they experimented on in Italy. But Peggy—or someone—kept telling her where they’d be and the rest of the guys weren’t listening when he said that she’d get hurt. Gabe told him one night—halfway through a bottle of whiskey—that they’d been in that cell together in Italy, they felt differently about what Steph could and could not do.)
Steph had been through hell and somehow that just made the clarity with which she saw the world sharper. Bucky was the hero they wrote songs for, but Steph—she’d have been worth a thousand of him any day of the week.
She wasn’t supposed to be in the train either. It was supposed to be him and Gabe and only them, but there she was again. She’d stowed away, he guessed afterward, and waited for them to make their move.
And then she picked up his shield and he swore in one blinding moment that it was a perfect fit, better than he’d ever been. The shield hadn’t come naturally to him, not like it did for her. He always wished she was home and safe, but for one moment he wished with such a perfect, fervent clarity that it had been her they’d made into the hero, not him.
It felt like she fell because he thought that. He was trying to get out from under the weight of being Captain America, even if it was only in the privacy of his own thoughts, and like always it was Steph who felt the pain of it.
Wasn’t that what always happened between them? Steph could have shouldered it all if only God had made her shoulders wider. Bucky had wished a thousand thousand times that it had been him with the bum heart, him with the bad lungs, him getting caught by Hydra, him knowing what it was like to be tortured, him waking up shaking and crying and screaming. And Steph just endured it, one after another.
And every wish, the whole long trail of them leading back to his earliest thoughts and his first dreams, was part of that last wish: he wished it had been him who fell.
What Peggy told him after Gabe pulled him out of the train: he had to live like Steph would be proud of.
He liked the sentiment and Peggy knew him well enough to know it was the only thing that could have gotten him to pick up that shield again, but it wasn’t quite right. Live like Steph would have, that was more like it. She’d be able to carry this weight too, if it had been him. She’d been beaten and broken a thousand times over, he couldn’t do less than her when the worst came his way.
He changed it a few days later, though: live like Steph, die like Steph.
Oh god, this is so good for me.