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“Starbucks?” Steve repeated in disbelief. “That coffee shop that’s everywhere? No.”

“What’s wrong with Starbucks?” Tony asked.

“Nothing,” Steve explained. “I just… I don’t see how I can make a difference by being a bar… bartendista?”

“Barista,” Tony corrected. “And since when have we been talking about making a difference? I thought this was about how you apparently can’t stand living in a custom-built, seaside mansion with an A.I. system built into the walls to satisfy your every desire, and the one and only Tony Stark as your billionaire-roommate-uncle.”

“Technically, Tony,” Pepper said, without looking up, “I think Steve’s closer to being your uncle, not the other way around.”

Pepper had spent the entirety of the conversation unhurriedly flipping through a magazine. When she reached the last page, she’d get in the car that was waiting to take her home. Ever since Steve had recovered enough to keep regular hours, Pepper flipping pages while Tony teased him had become an almost nightly ritual.

It had been four months since Tony had received the out of nowhere phone call that a top-secret search-and-rescue project started and still posthumously funded by Howard Stark had finally located the lost aircraft of Captain America. While keeping the secret to themselves, Tony and Pepper had personally nursed Steve back to health, given him a home, and helped him acclimate somewhat to this new century.

Now that he was better, he was starting to get restless. Hard-wired into Steve’s nature was a need for constant activity, but the last thing he wanted was to insult the only people who’d ever taken the time to care for him.

“I don’t want you two to think…” he tried to explain.

Pepper paused to crease an article about a fundraiser Stark Industries had thrown the previous month for the Getty Institute, because even when she was reading fashion magazines, she was still working. “Tony doesn’t mean it,” she said. “You’re a grown man, Steve. If you want to get a job, we should help you do that.”

“But what can he do?” Tony pressed. “The guy just woke up from a seventy year nap. He can barely use a microwave, has no computer skills—”

“I’m learning. I bought a movie on iTunes yesterday all by myself. And watched it.”

“Silicon Valley, here we come.”

“Maybe a more productive way about this would be to find out what you used to be good at,” Pepper suggested. “Is there anything you did before the war? Or some other non-combat skill you picked up in the army?”

Steve thought, and driven by Pepper’s encouraging nods, he began to talk. He told them about the research he used to do before each Hydra mission, about the investigating he used to do around each new town they captured, the interviews with locals they used to conduct, the reports he used to write for Colonel Phillips.

Some minutes into his stream of consciousness, Pepper looked at Tony. “Journalism? Maybe a newspaper?”

Tony shrugged and slurped down his scotch. “It’s old-school enough. Might work. Gives you a chance to do your thing. You know, fight bullies with your words, not just your fists. Don’t I own a newspaper? I feel like I own a newspaper. JARVIS?” he asked the thin air, in a way Steve still hadn’t gotten used to. “JARVIS, do I own a newspaper?”

“You own the New York Herald, sir.”

“You’re joking.” Steve had gotten all his news as a child by walking past newsstands and reading the headlines on the Herald. As far as he was concerned, it was the greatest paper on earth. “You own The Herald?

“Apparently.”

“You’ve owned it for twenty years, Tony. I’ve been having semi-annual check-ins with the leadership team for five. You should join me sometime. Phil’s a darling.” Pepper turned to Steve. “Does that sound like something you’d like to do?”

“Sure,” he replied, turning the idea over in his mind. He’d never pictured himself as a journalist, but now that Pepper had mentioned it, the idea checked off a lot of things that mattered to him. In a different way, he could still stand up for the little guys. And also… “It’s a hell of a lot more accessible than, say, whatever half the people down at Stark Headquarters do all day. And I’m a quick study.”

“It’s in New York, though.” Pepper had mastered a certain kind of stoicism (she’d had to, being Tony’s assistant for so long), but Steve could tell when her lower lip was trying not to wobble.

She had already become something like a mom to him—or at least, what he imagined a mom might be like. Or perhaps a very young and devoted aunt, if they ran with Tony’s preferred persona as crazy drunk uncle… except for the fact that they weren’t married, or even involved. She was just the extremely competent executive assistant to the CEO of the world’s largest weapons manufacturer.

(Steve had very little idea of what having a family was like—or even normal friendships forged outside of the battlefields—so his analogies were even more jumbled than Tony’s.)

“I’ll be okay. I’m from New York. And you’ve both been out there three times in the past two months. We’ll see each other all the time.”

“If that’s what you want…” Pepper took a deep breath and closed her eyes. By the time she opened them again, she was all business. “Write a resume and send it to me for proofing. I’ll get you some examples. You’ll also need clips—sample news stories. Write a few based on events from over the past couple of years. JARVIS can insert them into websites and make it look like you published them. We’ll say you’ve been a freelancer. We can even say you were in the army before that, so it isn’t all a lie. Tony, I want you to hack into whatever needs to be hacked into to give Steve a hire-able identity. We’re flying to New York next week.” She finished her magazine, and on cue, stood up. “I’m heading home.”

“Night, Pepper.” Tony and Steve watched her sling her heels over her shoulder and walk barefoot out into the night.

Once she was gone, Steve gaped at Tony. “Next week? I was just bringing it up, seeing what you two thought.”

“That’s just Pepper. She’s a bandaid ripper. The more she knows it’ll hurt, the faster she rips it off.”

“Oh.” Now Steve felt terrible on a whole other level.

“Don’t feel bad. She’s a big girl. She knows you’re not her pet golden retriever. I know that.” Tony paused and looked into his swilling scotch. “Hell, even my old man knew that.”

Steve knew better than to linger on that particular topic. He and Tony were friends, but Steve hadn’t missed the self-pitying bitterness that sometimes lurked behind his eyes. The existence of the search party that found Steve all but confirmed that Howard’s own son had meant less to him than some science experiment back during the war. Tony didn’t take his resentment out on Steve, but he also hadn’t found another outlet. Therefore, in the meantime, it sat, a heavy and waiting-to-detonate thing between them.

So, Steve changed the subject. “And what about you? You gonna miss this old man?”

“You have your uses. Where am I going to find another guinea pig as good as you? You’re like my own personal Beaker. Less squeaky, but just as indestructible.”

When he saw Steve’s now-familiar upraised eyebrows of confusion, he pushed himself out of his chair. “Come on, kid,” he said. “Netflix to the rescue.”


New York was… fragile. Steve’s American metropolis, built out of brick and stone, and full of tough, salt of the earth folk, had become a delicate, transparent thing. Too much glass, too many soft new residents concerned with food festivals and bike sharing. Back in his day, people were too busy trying to put food on the table and keep a roof over their heads to care about such luxuries. What Pepper referred to as ‘first-world problems’, Steve called ‘twenty-first century problems’.

What he hated most was the feeling that he was now one of these soft residents. After the isolated tranquility of Malibu, the rush of New York left Steve almost breathless. Here, in his hometown he felt like even more of a foreigner than he had in Europe during the war.

A car took them straight from the airport to Stark Tower, near Grand Central. The 80-story building was mostly an office space, R&D lab hub, and reception center. The top few floors were dedicated to living spaces—a triplex penthouse for Tony, and two floors worth of apartments below that, for visiting friends and people from whom Stark Industries might need to court favors.

Well, there would be that many fewer favors courted, because one of the apartments was now Steve’s permanent residence. JARVIS, all-seeing here as well as back in Malibu, greeted them.

Given that this idea had only come up a week ago, they must have spent a fortune on getting the place ready, because Steve’s apartment was completely finished, kitted out in as close to the low-key but comfortable style he himself would have chosen, while still looking right in this hyper-modern setting.

Tony was right. Pepper wasn’t just ripping the bandaid off the wound of Steve’s departure. In her usual hyper-efficient manner, she had already disinfected it, cauterized it, and hired the country’s best cosmetic surgeon to eradicate the scar.

Steve dropped his tiny duffel of belongings in the vestibule. “This is too much.”

“You like it?” she asked.

“Of course I like it. It’s more than I deserve. I just want you to know, this isn’t about wanting to get away from you or anything like that. I would have stayed in Malibu if there had been something for me to do there.”

“I know. It’s just been nice. Having you. I’ll miss our evenings. Tony will, too, though he’ll never admit it. There’s been a lot less… trash to take out in the mornings, if you know what I mean.”

Steve thought he did, but given the number of ladies he’d seen Pepper showing out of the mansion, he wouldn’t have imagined there could be more.

“He gave me the strangest send-off package,” Steve said. “A box of stationary, a pipe, and a thing… kind of like a glass diamond full of liquid, and when you plug it in, it lights up and blobs of something start… blobbing.”

“Tony’s struggling with this whole situation. I don’t know if he thinks you’re going off to war, college, or an old folk’s home,” she said. After they finished laughing, she turned serious. “Are you sure you’re ready for this?”

Steve hesitated. This would be his first time on his own, and not just since he’d woken up. The army, dangerous by definition, had counter-intuitively been something of a safe zone for him—everything was structured, and friends had come almost ready-made. This would be his first time facing the real world as his new self: Steve, a little guy who was no longer so little. Everything about what awaited him outside the expensive bubble he’d been inhabiting—and still inhabited, if this apartment was any gauge—was bigger and scarier than anything he’d faced since he was last in New York.

“There’s no such thing as ready,” he said. “You just gotta go for things when the opportunity presents itself.”

Pepper rocked herself up on tiptoes to kiss him on the cheek. “You’re ready.”


The Herald building was a straight shot west along 42nd Street from Stark Tower. Steve insisted that he and Pepper walk; it took only fifteen minutes, past the library and Bryant Park (thankfully both little changed), and through Times Square (changed almost beyond recognition).

Editor-In-Chief Phil Coulson himself came to meet them at the elevator bank. Coulson was all bland affability, unflappable but kind. Steve liked him immediately.

“Always happy to see you, Pepper,” he said as he ushered them onto the couch in his corner office. “One of these days, you should bring Mr. Stark. Sometimes I wonder if he even knows he owns a newspaper.”

“It’s a large portfolio,” she replied, not daring to look at Steve for fear of giggling. “Mr. Stark doesn’t always have the time to personally check in on everything as often as he’d like. And it seems as though things are going well.”

“They are. And you must be Steve Rogers,” Coulson said. “I read your clips yesterday. They’re strong: straightforward and readable. Good old-fashioned American journalism, the kind I miss. We somehow lost that after the glory years of WWII.”

“Thanks. That’s… that’s kind of you, sir.”

“Do you think you have anything for him here?” Pepper asked.

And here was the rub, the part Steve had been dreading. He knew that Tony and Pepper had backed Coulson into a corner by even proposing this meeting. He knew he wasn’t qualified. He wasn’t even a real person in the eyes of the world. The only reason he was here right now was because of connections, not because he had done anything to deserve it.

But someone had taken a chance on him once, and Steve had done his best not to let him down. He was hoping, even though it was because Coulson was being forced to give him a chance, that he’d be able to do him proud, too.

“Let’s not pretend I have a choice here,” Coulson said, and while Steve cringed to hear it, he respected the man for his lack of bullshit. “Still, your clips show real talent, and I know Pepper. She wouldn’t recommend anyone for a job unless she thought they were exceptional. Welcome to the team.”

Steve felt as embarrassed as he’d expected to feel, but he couldn’t help also feeling elated. He stood up and shook Coulson’s hand. “Thanks for the chance, sir. I won’t let you down.”

Coulson studied Steve. “No, I don’t think you will. When would you like to start?”

“I’m ready whenever you are. Just give the word.”

Pepper clapped to herself.

Before Coulson could name a date, the door flew open and a handsome explosion burst in.

“Chief, we—”

“I’m in the middle of a meeting. Two meetings, in fact.”

“So?”

Coulson’s shoulders didn’t move, but the slight crease in his forehead spoke louder than any gesture would have.

“Barnes, get out.”

The casually dressed Barnes looked at Pepper and Steve, sitting in their expensive suits. He squinted at Pepper, fingers pointed like a gun.

“You’re Pepper Potts.”

“Do I know—?”

“Nah. I’ve seen pictures of you, standing behind Tony Stark at different parties.” He waggled his eyebrows at her. “I’d never forget meeting a dame like you.”

“Barnes,” Coulson tried again. “Stop flirting with the owner of the paper’s assistant.”

“No, no, it’s perfectly fine,” she said, reddening in a girlish way that made her freckles look even cuter.

Steve would have been scandalized, or at least started plotting how to tease her later, but he was too busy having the same reaction she was. This Barnes guy, with his cocky charm and easy confidence, was impossible to take one’s eyes off.

“There’s been a plane crash,” Barnes, snapping back to business, told Coulson. “Private jet crashed into the East River with the Ruritanian Prime Minister on board. Just heard it on the police scanner. Gonna take a team down to the site. They’re grabbing their equipment right now, so we can hopefully make it before the fucking TV crews—”

“Language,” Coulson interrupted.

“—get there. Just wanted to let you know.”

“Got it. Thanks.”

Steve’s tongue went dry and stuck to the roof of his mouth when Barnes turned his quick eye on him, giving Steve an appraising once-over.

“Who’s the Hitler Youth?” Barnes asked Coulson.

And just like that, Steve’s rising crush popped like a balloon and became nothing but a lot of hot, angry air. “Take that back. Take it back right now.”

“Steve. Steve.” Pepper tugged gently on his sleeve. “He doesn’t mean it like that.”

“Mean what?” Barnes asked.

So many things had become a joke in the past seventy years, ugly things now thrown around as figures of speech. Maybe Pepper was right. Maybe it was just some sort of reference that Steve didn’t get. Barnes had no way of knowing that he’d hit on something visceral, had no way to guess that he was talking to a WWII vet. Steve let Pepper pull him back down onto the couch, but his eyes continued to glare lasers.

Coulson looked between Steve and Barnes, and a small smile played over his features. “James Barnes, meet Steve Rogers. It’s his first day. I was just welcoming him to the team before meeting with Ms. Potts here.”

Steve opened his mouth in surprise, but Coulson pre-empted him. “Steve here has some great clips, good freelance experience, but not quite enough for solo work. I think it would be good if you partnered up with him for a while. Showed him how we do things here.”

The frenzied excitement Coulson’s speech was sending through Steve fizzled at the disgusted look on Barnes’s face.

“No way, Chief. You know I work best on my own.”

“You work fine with Natasha.”

“Yeah, but Natasha’s… Natasha. I don’t do rookies.”

“At least that’ll make one person in this city you aren’t doing.” Without missing a beat, Coulson continued, “And as I told you at last year’s review, learning to work with others is one of the skills that, as your boss, I’m suggesting you develop if you want a promotion. Anyway, you don’t have time to argue, do you? Not if you want to beat the TV crews.”

“Why are you doing this to me?” Barnes whined. “Is this because of last week?”

“Partly. Now, get out of here, you two. And Barnes,” Coulson said to the fuming man at the door, “play nice.”

Pepper gave Steve a thrilled double thumbs up that Barnes thankfully didn’t see.

Barnes’s legs moved so quickly and purposefully that Steve didn’t even have to slow down to walk next to him the way he did with most people.

“What happened last week?” Steve asked.

“None of your goddamn business. Look, here’s how this is going to work. You follow my lead, you keep your head down, and you watch everything I’m not watching. If I have to have someone following me around, I might as well get another set of eyes out of it. Got it?” Barnes jogged ahead to speak to one of the photographers waiting for them at the elevator.

Steve had been here all of ten minutes and already it was an uphill battle.

Just the way he liked it.


The crash site was gruesome. A small private plane in pieces, half on the edge of the runway, and half sinking into the river. Smoke still curling up from various singed pieces of destroyed mechanics. An unattached arm lying on the ground.

This Steve person James had been saddled with was green as hell, but at least he wasn’t squeamish. He took in the horrible scene with unruffled equanimity.

“I’m gonna question the airport staff over there,” James said. “Just keep out of the way, okay?”

Steve hesitated before nodding. James could tell it was taking all of the guy’s considerable-looking strength to keep his shoulders down. Wherever he came from, he wasn’t accustomed to following orders.

Super.

James sidled over to Amanda Mills, the airport’s PR spokeswoman, who was already on the scene, fielding questions from the thin group of early-bird reporters. He jostled his way to the front of the pack and flashed her his most irresistible smile.

She was having none of it.

All he got out of her was what everyone else did: that the private jet carrying the Ruritanian Prime Minister home had been cleared for takeoff when it suddenly nose-dived, slamming into the edge of the runway and then tipping over into the East River. No one yet knew how or why this had happened. The forensic crews were on their way, she explained, and would share information as soon as they deciphered anything. In the meanwhile, the Prime Minister had been helicoptered over to New York Presbyterian in critical condition.

James was good at reading most people, and he could tell she was lying about something; however, he was obliged to take down the official story, at least until he could disprove it.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Steve shuck off his suit jacket and drop into the river. No one else seemed to notice, as his team had ranged themselves at the water’s edge to hide the action. Jumping into a cold, dirty river that was currently—or, at least about to be—the center of a major investigation… that couldn’t be for real, could it? James didn’t know anyone, besides himself, who was stupid or crazy enough to pull that kind of prank.

“What the hell?” he whispered a minute later after he’d walked back to the team.

They all looked sheepishly between him and the still water.

“He said it would be fine,” one of them said, “and to cover for him.”

“Great. Not just a partner, a lunatic.”

“He’s been down there too long,” Hermann, the photographer said.

James, too, started to picture Steve trapped in the wreckage, his lungs filling with water, all the uncomfortable questions that would need to be answered when his bloated body was found.

Soon, thank goodness, Steve reappeared at the surface of the water. The team pretended to take pictures of the wreckage as a way of hiding his (nigh-impossible) one-handed climb back onto the runway. He was wet through, but the jacket they quickly slipped back on him hid it a little. Everyone clustered around him during their hurried exit from the scene.

Before getting into the van, Steve slipped a hunk of equipment into James’s satchel.

“What’s this?”

“This was no accident. That woman you were talking to was lying.”

“No shit.”

“I pulled this out of the cockpit. Should be able to tell us something about what really happened. There have got to be tests and things people do… right?”

Of course there were. For a guy smart enough to swim into an underwater plane and survey the scene, it was a surprisingly dumb question. “This doesn’t look like a black box.”

For a half a second, Steve got a look on his face like he didn’t even know what a black box was, but he kept going. “Should still be useful. I’m pretty sure the pilots crashed that plane on purpose.”

“What are you, some sort of expert on kamikaze missions?”

“…Yes?”

James didn’t know how to respond to that.


During the van ride back to the office, Steve sketched a hyper-detailed visual of what he’d seen underwater. When he handed it to James for discussion, he received a silent, incredulous stare that lasted almost an entire minute before words followed.

“It draws, too?” James asked Steve, speaking about him in a bizarre third person that must have been a new-fangled kind of sarcasm.

Either way, Steve could tell his new partner-boss was pleased, because James asked a million questions before calling someone back at the office to tell them to expect an airplane part and a drawing of the disaster scene to start researching. They weren’t sitting together in the van, but Steve thought he caught him glancing back at him a couple of times, a quizzical and unsettled look on his face.

Once they got back to the office, James slid himself into his desk chair to type up his notes, ignoring Steve, who had already been warned that when James was writing, he was dead to the world. In the meanwhile, the team took it upon themselves to find Steve a temporary desk. Over the next couple of hours, he met too many people to remember, but he did manage to hold onto a few combinations of face-name-position.

First, there was Maria Hill, the managing editor, in charge of fact-checking, copy-editing and all the things that transformed raw material into something publishable.

Next door to Hill was the science editor, Jane Foster. Her office door was open, but she was too wrapped up in her work to hear Steve’s polite knock. She was peering uncomfortably at her computer screen. Steve spotted a pair of glasses dangling on the rim of the trash bin. He picked them up, walked over to her, and waved them in front of her face.

“Hey, you found them! Thanks, Darce,” she said, only looking up at Steve after putting them on. “You’re not Darcy.”

“No, ma’am. I’m Steve. It’s my first day. Miss Hill said to introduce myself.”

“Well, you found my glasses, which makes you a winner in my book. I’m Jane.” Now that she was a bit more present, she remembered to shake his hand. “What department are you in?”

“Investigative reporting at large. I’ve been kind of apprenticed to James Barnes.”

“Good luck with that.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s just that... You’re not the first. The others haven’t lasted very long.”

A new face appeared in the doorway.

“Hey, Clint,” Jane called. “Have you met Steve?”

“No, no I haven’t.”

“Yeah, I thought he looked too sober.” Turning to Steve, she explained, “Clint’s kind of the unofficial welcome committee. I have to finish this article in the next ten minutes, but then I’ll come by and chat, okay?”

She was right. Clint Barton, the sports editor gave Steve his warmest welcome yet. He had a mini fridge in which he kept Corona and limes, specifically for welcoming newbies, he said. Clint was the one who showed him where the bathroom was, where the office supplies could be found, how to jimmy-rig the soda machine to spit out a free Coke.

After their little tour, Clint took Steve around to meet the office manager, Darcy Lewis. Darcy received visitors, scheduled meetings, checked facts, and simultaneously served as friend, mom and collective daughter to everyone on staff. Through some administrative error in her university’s campus job assignment department, Darcy, a political science major, had ended up as Jane’s lab assistant. By the time she graduated, Jane had become so accustomed to her that they’d started at the Herald as a package deal. Now, everyone seemed to share Jane’s affection for the girl.

Darcy’s eyes went wide at the sight of Steve. When he and Clint approached her desk, she spilled her coffee all over herself.

“Holy shit,” she said, without even a pretense of guile. “Are you even for real?”

“My name’s Steve.” He held out his hand and received a couple of mocha-covered fingers to shake.

“It’s his first day,” Clint explained. “We’re all trying to get him settled.”

“Anything you need—coffee, copies, a hug… I’m your girl.”

“Thanks. It’s nice to meet you, too.” He backed away before she leaned so far forward into his space that she fell off her chair.

Next on their tour was Natasha Romanov, editor of the Style & Living section, and, Steve had been told, James’s roommate-maybe-more. Natasha wore her hair in a striking red bob and sported a suit even more understatedly sexy than any of Pepper’s. Actually, her crisp, business-like and meticulous manner reminded Steve very much of Pepper. However, where Pepper was all warmth and vulnerability, Natasha eyed Steve with cool and appraising disinterest, as though he was a very large ant she was perfectly prepared to squash. Her office was empty and impersonal. Clint had told him she’d been at the paper for a few years, but it looked like she’d just moved in.

“Hey, Natasha,” Clint said. “This is Steve, the new guy. I’m taking him around.”

“Nice to meet you, ma’am."

“Don't call me 'ma'am'.”

Natasha stepped past him and pointed across the floor at Jane’s open office door.

“Jane,” Natasha said. She barely even raised her voice, but Jane, who otherwise had been lost to the world all day, looked up at her call.

Clint was still hanging around, feet up in one of Natasha’s guest chairs, so Steve stayed put, too. As Jane made her way over, Natasha opened a closet door to reveal a stash of evening gowns in a variety of colors. She pulled out a heavy mass of purple silk.

“Yes, Natasha?” Jane said as she entered.

“You’re wearing this tonight.”

“Oh, I already have a dress. It’s from—”

Natasha ignored her. “You can pair it with—” She opened a drawer and took out a matching necklace and bracelet set. “—with these. The shoes, I’ll leave to you.”

Jane took the items, cowed. Hell, if Natasha had ordered Steve to wear this purple dress, he’d probably have done it, too. She wasn’t mean or scary about it; just firm. Like Colonel Phillips, in a way.

James appeared in the doorway and surveyed the crowd inside the office. “There's a party in here and no one invited me?”

“You ready to go?” Natasha asked.

“Whenever you are.”

She nodded. “Everybody out.”

Despite their physical differences, James and Natasha walked towards the elevator with the same strong and graceful movements, like a male and female ballerina pair. It was sort of beautiful.

The annoyed grunts Jane was emitting as she struggled with her expensive-looking outfit drew Steve's attention away from the retreating duo. He jogged up beside her and offered to help her carry her burden.

“Why is Natasha forcing ball gowns on you?” he asked as they walked back to her office.

“We’re going to an event tonight. I think Natasha’s still traumatized by what I wore the last time we had one of these… She said I—” and here Jane stiffened her posture and affected a terrible imitation of Natasha’s detached manner “—‘reflected poorly on Coulson and the paper’, and that’s one thing she doesn’t stand for.”

“What did you wear?”

Jane looked away, embarrassed. “A lab coat. I hadn’t read the invitation and Darcy was on vacation, okay?”

“What’s tonight’s event?”

“I don’t really know. No one does. Some billionaire who never makes public appearances is making an announcement? Coulson, James and I were the only ones officially invited, so we’re guessing it’s something science related. Natasha’s going as James’s date so she can cover the scene.”

They reached her office and Steve placed her fineries across the back of a chair.

“Well, have fun tonight,” he said, making ready to leave, until Jane’s downtrodden frown stopped him.

“I hate this sort of thing,” she moaned. “It’ll be even worse alone.”

“If James can bring a date, why don’t you?”

“I was going to, but Donald, my boyfriend, had to go out of town suddenly on business, so.” Then she brightened, looking hopefully up at him. “Hey! Are you doing anything tonight? I already RSVP’ed for a plus one, and it might as well not go to waste.”

Steve was glad to help out a coworker, but he was also a little bit glad for the opportunity to stick it to James, since the guy hadn’t mentioned this big deal shindig to his supposed ‘partner’.

“Where and when should I pick you up?”


There were only two doors on Steve’s floor of Stark Tower. Coming out of the elevator, the one on the left led to Steve’s apartment. Pepper’s was on the right. Even though she was based in LA, she had her own apartment in the building for her frequent business trips.

Steve was about to knock on her door, but JARVIS’s voice came out of a speaker in the hallway.

“You’ll find Ms. Potts upstairs, sir, with Mr. Stark.”

“Tony’s here?” Steve knew Tony had had a board meeting earlier that day in LA, which is why he and Pepper had come to New York without him.

“He flew in this afternoon, sir.”

He found them in the dining room of the penthouse, surrounded by stacks of paper. He was glad to see them, looking just as they had every day in Malibu. It made this new place feel more familiar.

“How’d it go?” Pepper asked.

“What do I wear to a black tie event?”

“You’ve only just had your first day of school,” Tony said. “How are you already going to prom?”

“What black tie event?” Pepper asked, ignoring Tony.

If Jane had only had the vaguest idea of what this event was supposed to be, Steve had no chance. He tried to explain as best he could while Pepper went downstairs to look for the suit in his closet. However, Tony seemed more interested in Steve’s date than in the reason for it.

“Jane Foster, you said?” Tony asked. “Teeny tiny smoking hot astrophysics genius?”

“You know her?”

“I know of her. Published some fascinating theories a few years back. But then she fell off the radar. It was a shame, too. It was promising stuff. Just needed a little more work. So, she’s at the paper now? Man, for a guy with negative game, you sure work fast.”

“It’s not like that. She’s just a work colleague who needed a date because her real boyfriend is out of town.”

“Sure. I know your type. Hustler.”

Pepper returned with a suit, a shirt, cuff links, bowtie, and shoes. As she put them on a chair for Steve, she noticed a bleeding scrape on his hand. “Steve! What happened?”

“It’s nothing. A tourist was about to get hit by a bus near Times Square. I had to push the bus to a halt.”

“Not again. We talked about this.”

“I can’t not help.”

“But you know what will happen if someone sees you. All this—trying to have a job, be a normal person—it’ll be over. You won’t be able to walk down the street and blend in.”

“I know. And I’ve been thinking about that. You two know anybody with a sewing machine?”


No matter how many times he’d been to Lincoln Center, James had never been able to look at the four-story murals of violin-playing goats that flanked the Metropolitan Opera without a wave of depression drowning him. They were so optimistic and whimsical, so full of something James felt he had lost. He preferred walking by in the afternoon, when red velvet curtains kept that shit covered up.

“Stop fidgeting with your suit,” Natasha admonished as they walked up the grand staircase.

“I’m not…” But he looked down at his fingers, and yes, they were playing with the hem of his jacket.

“What’s wrong with you today?” she asked. “You’re off your game. You’re never off your game.”

“I've had a migraine all day. At least, I think it's a migraine.”

She looked up at that, concerned. “Really? You never get migraines. You never get anything.”

“Yeah, I know. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

She didn't look convinced. "Hm. Well, watch it, all right?"

James wriggled in his suit, fidgeting with his tie. “I feel like a trussed up monkey in this thing.”

“You’ve done this a million times before. You’re very good at it and tonight there isn’t even anything at stake.” Natasha had always been so confident in him—confident enough for the both of them.

He forced his fingers to let go of the jacket, flexed them, and then kissed her on the temple. “No, you’re the one who’s good at it. I just tag along and look handsome on your arm.”

Natasha had never been easily distracted; James wasn’t sure why he’d hoped she’d start now.

“You sure it isn’t your new partner?" she asked. "He seems to have gotten under your skin.”

“Rogers? No. You remember what happened the last time Coulson tried to get someone to work with me. This one’ll be gone before I’ve even registered his existence.”

Natasha watched the way his hand involuntarily resumed fidgeting and replied, “You’re a good liar, one of the best. Sometimes you’re even able to lie to yourself, but you’ve never been able to fool me.”

“Hey, guys,” a shy but familiar voice said as they reached the parterre.

James did a double take when he recognized Jane, who wasn’t wearing any make-up and hadn’t done her hair any differently, but who still looked pretty damn sexy in Natasha’s dress.

And beside her was Steve. Steve looking like… a million bucks, he had to admit. Same dorkily earnest, impossibly handsome face. His tux fit him well, looked worth every penny it cost. And from the cut and the finish, James had a feeling there were very many pennies involved. There was no way he could have afforded it on a freelancer’s salary.

James didn’t know if the queasy urges he’d been feeling all day were about wanting to be Steve, hug him, fuck him, or punch him in the face. Steve’s presence tugged and nagged at something long-lost but unnamable, something familiar but forgotten… It was a confusing and overwhelming conflict,and therefore, his response all day had been one of constant annoyance.

“Hey, I see Coulson,” Jane said, touching Steve’s arm. “Let’s go say hi.”

Natasha followed the pair and looked back to see if James was coming, too. He shook his head and waved for her to follow their colleagues. She shrugged and disappeared into the crowd; she knew him well enough to leave him alone when he was in this kind of mood.

He snatched a glass of champagne from a passing waitress and leaned against a wall, out of the way of the throng. He held the flute up in front of his face, watching the partygoers through the never-ending stream of yellow bubbles.

Fake smiles and forced laughter surrounded him. Even choir boy Rogers, on the other side of the room, was pretending to be interested in Jane’s science babble. The fanatical gleam in her eyes made it clear that she was boring the new guy with her fantasy bridge crap.

He hoped the announcement would start soon so he could get the hell out of here, and get the hell out of this suit.

And that’s when James spotted him. The only other person there who seemed as over it as he felt. Someone whose entire aspect suggested he had long ago run out of shits to give.

He was outside, leaning against the terrace railing, the shiny stripe of his tuxedo pants matching the gelled black of his hair, and the crisp white of his shirt matching the pallor of his cheeks. He leaned—posed, really—with the languid grace of the effortlessly posh. Yet, for all his obvious natural and societal advantages, his lips were set in a judgmental, sardonic line that, yep, James could feel a mirror of on his own face. The same boredom, frustration, and loneliness.

He wouldn’t technically be on the clock until the host took the stage to make the announcement. So until then… he figured he could do worse than strike up a conversation with this attractive, like-minded individual. He downed the champagne he was holding, and snatched another two glasses off a passing tray that was headed for someone else.

“You looked like you could use one of these,” he said by way of introduction.

The stranger took his sweet time rolling his head along with his eyes to finally rest his gaze on James. At first, perhaps out of habit, he looked at him in the same way he’d been staring at the rest of the gathering: with utter disdain. But then he took in James’s patented come-hither grin—the one with extra lopsided charm—the twinkle in his eyes, and the champagne in both hands. Boredom changed into something approaching curiosity.

James had been on the receiving end of national awards less gratifying than this guy’s curiosity.

“What gives you the impression that I am in need of libation?” It was a mouthful of syllables, delivered in a deadpan English accent that was almost too textbook to be believed.

“You’re the only person in this room who looks as bored as I feel. And I definitely need a drink, so I figured…”

“I appreciate the empathy.” The man broke his statuesque stillness to take the proffered champagne flute. “Do you know,” he continued wanly after clinking glasses, “that I have been standing here for almost two hours, and yet, you are the first person to address me?”

“It’s not surprising. Not everybody has the peepers I do.”

“What do you mean?”

“The kind of eyes that can look at a full room and see no one. Or, in this case, just one person. The most interesting person in the room.”

At this, the man gave James the most thorough once-over he’d ever received (and that was saying a lot). “Was that what is commonly known as a line?”

“Just because it’s a line doesn’t mean it can’t be true,” James replied.

“Oh, I’m perfectly aware of the statement’s veracity. I merely wished to confirm your intent in voicing it.”

“No intent. Just stating facts.” James pointed at a spot on the railing next to his new friend. “You mind?”

“Not at all.” The man shifted ever so slightly to create space for James to squeeze, a little too close, between him and an older lady engaged in a different conversation. “Perhaps together we can extract some small measure of entertainment in observing this feeding frenzy of peasants.”

That was taking it a little far in James’s mind but, he reminded himself, this guy was British, or some other breed of European. Maybe that sort of classist comment was more common wherever he was from? It rankled, but he brushed it off.

They spent the next few minutes—time flew by so quickly that they could have been two or twenty minutes—drinking and watching the other guests, one-upping one another in pithy comments and back-handed compliments.

“You know anything about what all this is about?” James asked after they’d verbally eviscerated everyone in their environs. “Know who this Loki Laufeyson guy is?”

He thought it a pretty straightforward question, but the piercing stare he received was unnerving. However, as James’s confusion increased, the stare softened.

“I’m sure you know just as little as I do,” was the carefully bland response. “What do you think of our host?”

“Not much. No more than anyone else. I know he came out of nowhere. Recently made billions on hedge funds. Keeps a low profile. This will be his first public appearance since he showed up on the Forbes international most wealthy lists.”

“Ah. Yes. I… have heard a similar summary. But you’ve only told me what you know. What I asked is what you think. If you are indeed capable of thought. It’s a rarer quality than one might imagine.”

“Well, for someone who’s spent his whole life keeping a low profile, he’s got an awful flair for the dramatic. This whole party is pretty over the top. I mean, we’re in the goddamn opera house. I keep waiting for the fat lady with the horns to come out and do the announcement for him. Speaking of which, the invite said the talk was supposed to start…” James checked his watch, and it had indeed been more than twenty minutes since they’d been standing here shooting the shit. “…twenty minutes ago, but he’s making us wait.”

“I’m sure whatever is keeping our host is deservedly compelling.”

“I’m sure it is. But some of us want to get out of here.”

“Am I boring you?” A more dangerous undercurrent crept into the man’s voice.

“Didn’t say I was planning on leaving alone.” James watched as his companion began by looking shocked at this cocksure confidence, only to unclench his shoulders and crack a wry smile, amused despite himself.

Insouciant charm had been helping James get away with murder for as long as he could remember.

For the fifth or sixth time since they started talking, a pretty blonde in a black dress tried to get the man’s attention; and, for the fifth or sixth time, he raised an imperious finger, signaling for her to wait.

“Is that your date?” James asked.

“No. A mere associate. I am solo tonight. You, however… I saw you enter with one of the only reasonably attractive women in the room.”

“Reasonably attractive? She wipes the floor with anybody here. But she’s like a sister to me. You’ve got nothing to worry about.”

“I’ve never worried about anything in my life. It would be ludicrous to begin now.”

They caught one another’s eye and shared another half-smile.

This was fun, easy—dangerously so. After a day spent feeling tied up in inexplicable knots around Steve Rogers, easy yet dangerous was almost relaxing.

The antsy young woman couldn’t take it anymore and started to head in their direction. James’s companion pushed himself off the terrace railing before she could come close enough to speak.

“It seems I can no longer put off my overzealous associate. If you will excuse me.”

“Hey, I didn’t catch your name.” In a gathering this size, James was afraid he’d never find him again. But it was too late; the man had already gone inside.

James was left feeling rejected and confused. That had been going so well, only to end up in a whole lotta nothing. Disappointed, he went in search of people he knew. The only acquaintance he spotted was Steve, standing by himself in a corner, writing something. As he drew closer, he realized Steve wasn’t writing; he was drawing on a cocktail napkin. Drawing the goddamn violin-playing goats.

Typical.

“You into this stuff?” James asked.

“Who isn’t? Look at the use of color in the background of—”

James rolled his eyes. No wonder Steve got along so well with Foster; they could bore one another to death. “Where’s Jane?”

“Introducing Coulson to some academic types. Where’s Natasha?”

“Probably seducing someone for a scoop. She approaches gossip reporting like it’s espionage.”

“That doesn’t… that doesn’t make you jealous?” Steve asked carefully, and with almost painful transparency.

Ah. Now some of his mysterious behavior began to make sense.

“Don’t fall for her,” James warned, pitying the poor sap. “Natasha eats guys like you for lunch. It won’t end well. I can promise you that from now.”

“That… uh... that’s not what I was…”

“Sure it wasn’t,” James replied, but he was too busy watching the sudden commotion to pay further attention to Steve. The guests were asked to go into the auditorium for a few moments, to stand in the aisles, not sit. The blonde who’d stolen his wallflower approached the stage.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” she said, “I give you Loki Laufeyson.”

James’s jaw dropped when the wallflower himself stepped onto the stage.

“Thank you all for attending. Those of you whom I have had the pleasure of meeting have made a most striking impression on me.” He made eye contact with James in the crowd and paused in a way that most people in the room would read as thoughtful; but James knew better.

Laufeyson proceeded to talk about a new initiative he was launching in Ruritania (he sent his regards for the injured Prime Minister). It was an advanced research foundation with the ambitious goal of reversing global warming. On the projector behind him, he presented a model of the facility, the locations planned for digging and research, and simulations of what they hoped to find.

James, professional even when inadvertently picking up billionaires at their own parties, quickly recovered from his surprise. He took out his notepad and wrote throughout the entire talk.

When he was done, Laufeyson opened the floor for questions. James had to give the guy points for sheer cheek, because even though the assistant was in charge of fielding questions, Laufeyson personally pointed to his raised hand before she had a chance to call on anyone.

“I don’t think I caught your name.” Laufeyson managed to flash James a private smile despite standing on a stage in front of hundreds of people. This guy had balls the size of small planets.

“James Buchanan Barnes. You can find me at the New York Herald.”

“Noted.”

He stammered out his question, hoping none of his colleagues could hear his uncharacteristically heavy tongue. “So, can you tell us in a little more detail who else will be funding this initiative, and what your timetable for results will be?”

Laufeyson matched James for professionalism, because he answered the question without missing a beat. His newly established foundation would be footing the entirety of the costs, and he hoped to be able to publish his initial findings within the next year.

Other journalists asked questions (none of them received double-edged little smiles, James smugly observed), and after a few minutes, the Q&A was over. Laufeyson took his leave, disappearing into the heavy velvet folds at the back of the stage.

“That guy isn’t on the level,” Steve grumbled.

“What are you talking about?”

“He’s after something. And it’s not about helping anybody else out. I know his type. Self-important, power-hungry jerks who think they’re above everyone else. Think they don’t need to answer to anyone.”

“It’s a charity, Steve, not an imperialist gesture. He’s a fucking philanthropist, not Hitler.”

“You don’t know that.”

Their argument was interrupted by Coulson and Jane coming up to speak with them.

“That was amazing,” Jane piped up, her eyes bright and dreamy in the way they always were when her mind was whirring. “I think it has huge implications for climate change research worldwide.”

“Does that mean I can expect a thousand words on my desk by 10am?” Coulson asked.

“Oh, absolutely,” she replied.

James excused himself from the group to look for Laufeyson, but all he found was the assistant standing by a heavily guarded door.

“Hey, do you know where—”

“Mr. Laufeyson is taking no further questions from the press.”

“But I’m not…” He stopped himself. He couldn’t very well finish that sentence, given that she knew he was the press. “Can I at least send him a message?”

“I’m sorry, but he’s already left.”

It was the last straw on an already exasperating day. Between the goody-two-shoes new partner who’d been foisted upon him, and now this unsuccessful bout of flirting, James’s mood, long tempestuous, threatened to spill over into full-on antisocial behavior. He knew in times like these that it was best for him to be alone, lest everyone else pay the price.

Plus, he had a story to write. When in doubt, he could always hide in work.

Disappointed and frustrated, he snuck out of the opera house and down into the subway.

Chapter Text

The next morning, James Buchanan Barnes’s take on the plane crash was the talk of the town.

Steve read the story like anyone else, at his dining table, over a bagel and cream cheese. He almost choked upon discovering that, despite having demonstrated nothing but intense irritation at having him around, James had not only given him a byline, but had even called him out in the body of the text as a key contributor.

This unexpected gratification was enough to wake him up, which he needed, since he’d stayed out long past his post-recovery bedtime. Even though the snooty host had disappeared after the announcement, the party had kept going for another couple of hours. Jane had begged Steve to stay and meet a couple of Columbia professors from her doctoral candidate days. Afterwards, slightly tipsy and in a celebratory mood, she’d dragged him a few blocks south to Jazz at Lincoln Center for the late set, where a Glenn Miller cover band had played blessedly familiar tunes for two hours. She said she adored this kind of thing, but Donald hated jazz. Steve promised to accompany her whenever she was next in the mood, to basically do anything she wanted forevermore, because, without knowing anything about him, she had managed to show him a good time on this, his first evening on his own in the 21st century.

He walked to work with a Fred Astaire-like spring in his step, and, thankfully, without any incidents that could worry Pepper.

His first move was to swing by James, who was already hard at work editing a draft of something, not on the computer, but rather with a red pencil, just as Steve used to do in school. It was hopeless and irrational, he knew, but his mood was so cheerful that he decided to take this anachronistic behavior as ‘a sign’.

“Hey,” he said, hovering like a love-struck helicopter, “I read your story this morning and I just wanted to—”

“I’m busy now, Rogers,” James barked without bothering to look up, stormy mood from the previous evening still intact. “How about you go help Jane on the final draft of her Laufeyson story?”

It was enough of a slap to pop his bubble again, but instead of deflating, Steve stood his ground. “Whether you like it or not, Coulson hired me to work with you. I don’t scare off easily, so you might as well get used to it.”

The unconsciously deployed ‘I’m pulling rank on you now’ tone snapped James out of his funk. He thought for a minute, and then pulled over a nearby free chair. “You’re right. Come on. Sit down.”

When he decided to make an effort, James turned out to be a surprisingly thorough teacher—patient, encouraging, hard-working, but also in possession of a wide variety of corner-cutting tricks. As they worked on three more assignments together, Steve started to get not only an idea of what their day-to-day job consisted of, but also a pretty good picture of how and why James had risen through the ranks, from mailroom assistant to Coulson’s favorite reporter, in only a short couple of years; how and why he was allowed free reign as a kind of department of one (now two).

Unlike all the soft New York City dwellers that surrounded them, James personified a rough-and-ready old school Brooklyn attitude that made Steve ache for the home that no longer existed across the river. And for all his gruff cynicism, it was all-too clear that James got a high from doing his job well—for righting wrongs and exposing truths and all the other clichés of journalism. All the awards he’d won (Steve had asked JARVIS to look them up the night before) had been for stories that involved backing up the little guys who were trying to stand up for something.

Together, they worked on a draft of a story on a gang shooting in East New York. In-between teasing him for his old-fashioned vocabulary and making fun of his haircut, James taught Steve self-editing tricks and research skills—skills his haphazard experience and unfamiliarity with the 21st century had left him lacking. By the end of the day, Steve was mentally exhausted, which, after the serum, was almost the only way he could be truly exhausted anymore. He’d missed that feeling.

Then it was drinking time.

On the first Thursday of every month, James informed him, the entire editorial staff went bowling in the Port Authority across the street. They’d tried instituting a system whereby different teams chose a place each time, but no matter how hard they’d tried to diversify, they kept coming back, and eventually had stopped trying to resist Frames’s irresistible lure.

Steve heard the words, but rejected them, telling himself he must have heard wrong. Back in his day, the Port Authority had only been a glimmer in mayor La Guardia’s eye, a hope for more efficient and consolidated bus travel. Steve had only been back for two days, but that was long enough to see what the dream had turned out to be: a dirty transit hub. He didn’t understand why anyone would build a bowling alley in there, much less why any of the respectable people he worked with would choose to frequent it.

With his hands in his khaki’s pockets, he followed the group across the street, up three different directions worth of escalators, around two corners, and past a line of people headed for Paramus. He was about to ask if this was all an elaborate joke on the new guy when he found himself in a fancy bowling alley (well, as fancy as a bowling alley could get).

While everyone changed their shoes, Coulson and Hill charged towers—literal towers—of beer to their corporate cards. Steve noticed how unconsciously James and Natasha sat themselves in the center of the large area that had been cordoned off for the group, with no conception of their king and queen bee status. While James was gregarious and flirtatious, with a quip or a wink for almost everyone, Natasha was the opposite. With everyone except James, she mostly listened, in a gracious, serene way that was just as magnetic; when she did speak, she chose her words carefully, and her deadpan sarcasm took some getting used to.

Then, something unexpected happened. One by one, an intern with black plastic glasses frames here, an editorial assistant wearing those ugly hoof boots there, migrated to where Steve was sitting with Jane in between their turns. He hadn’t yet met these girls, hadn’t even noticed them, but here they were, making doe eyes at him and asking him questions. Jane pointed and laughed at him when they weren’t looking, which only heightened his embarrassment.

Darcy came to talk to him after pouring herself another beer. The next time he ‘happened’ to glance over, Steve felt, rather than saw, the full weight of James’s narrow-eyed stare settle upon him.

He wished he could tell his little cluster of hangers-on to go away, not only because it was awkward, but also because it was a shame to be getting all this attention when it was causing the only person he wanted attention from to fume. Steve extricated himself by lingering at the bar after his next turn. Life with Tony had accustomed him to an extensive variety of wines and liquors, but he’d never before seen this many beer taps lined up. The sheer volume of choice overwhelmed him and left him speechless in front of the impatient waitress. In the end, he ordered a Sam Adams, because although the brand was unfamiliar, at least the name wasn’t.

“You’re gonna regret that,” a voice whispered in his ear.

Steve spun around to see James lurking behind him.

“Why?”

“I know we’re only in a bowling alley in the Port Authority, but Sam Adams is like the baseline of what’s acceptable post-college.” James reached over the bar to stay the waitress’s hand. “He’ll have a Spaten, thanks, Jessica.”

“A German beer?” Steve wrinkled his nose out of habit.

“Trust me,” James said, much more kindly than his face a few minutes ago would have suggested. “This is my nightmare, just so you know.”

“What is?”

“This. Feeling invisible. Do you know, I’ve been putting the moves on Amélie from Business, Media & Marketing for almost a month now, and here she is, practically begging you to take her to bed.”

Steve sputtered on his beer. “She’s not… I’m not…”

“That’s what’s killing me. I already know you’re not. Still pining over Natasha, even though I warned you about that last night. I’ve seen you staring at her the whole time we’ve been here. What, you think I don’t already have you figured out?”

Given that James thought Natasha was the object of Steve’s interest, this was sure to be hilariously wrong. "Oh yeah? What do you think you know about me?”

James downed the shot he’d ordered (his third of the evening, and no, Steve hadn’t been watching him closely enough to count) before answering in his most aggressively laid-back manner. “Six two, 240 pounds. No main areas of weakness except for a ticklish spot under your fourth left rib. You act like a soldier, and from the way you keep rearranging the shit on my desk, you’re OCD like one, too. My money’s on some branch of Special Forces. You must have risen through the ranks quickly—probably through some boneheaded act of valor—because you’re no good at taking orders. Unless you’ve got some disfiguring scars hidden underneath those even more disfiguring plaid shirts and old man pants of yours, you were never injured. Funny thing, though, is that you move like someone who was once badly injured, so maybe it’s more that you were ill, not wounded. Migraines, colitis, something internal like that. You’re better now, but that kind of physical pain leaves a mark. You must have been homeschooled or something, because you don’t know anything about anything. I saw you this morning, looking confused when Darcy was talking about U2, like you’d never even heard of them. Am I right?”

“Wow. Uh.” For a regular-world perspective, James wasn’t too far off. (And he still thought ‘you, too’ was some sort of ‘who’s on first’ routine that he couldn’t quite get.)

“The one thing I’m still working out, though… Ugly as they can be, your clothes—and especially your suits from yesterday—are all very expensive, so you’ve got money. So much money that you don’t need this job. You’re like a bunch of people here: someone who doesn’t need to work, but who has highfalutin ideals about journalism and making a difference and blah blah blah. But what makes you different from the rest of them is the shocked look on your face at the coffee prices in Dean & Deluca. You scream somebody who grew up dirt poor, which means the money’s new. So what is it? Did some unknown relative leave you unexpected millions? Did you win the lotto? A settlement?”

“Telling you would spoil the fun of investigating,” Steve said lightly, and made a mental note to hash out another detail for his cover story with Pepper the next day.

Fitz and Simmons from research walked into the bowling alley, looking around for someone. When their eyes lit on Steve and James, they bolted towards them, ignoring the hostess trying to get their attention.

“We’ve found something,” Simmons said.

Fitz handed Steve a folder. “We analyzed the piece you recovered from the airplane yesterday—”

“—as well as the drawing you made of the crash scene,” Simmons finished for him.

“We think it’s a jammer,” they said together.

“Which means…” Steve said, nodding to pretend he already knew, and was simply trying to get them to say it. He’d had very little idea of what he’d grabbed while he was underwater. It looked like a new-fangled version of something Tony had once explained about the way Schmidt had rigged his plane to blow.

“We think it was meant to block out all communications at a certain time, and may have been linked to a bomb. But when we took it apart, we realized it was broken. A wire had frayed somewhere inside.” Fitz pointed to a detail on Steve’s drawing. “And where it was connected to the rest of the machinery here—”

“—We think it short-circuited the navigation and caused the plane to crash.”

“So, it was an assassination attempt?” James asked.

Simmons nodded. “Looks like it. Judging from Steve’s drawing, the pilots were wearing next-gen parachutes. So small most people wouldn’t know that’s what they were. The pilots were planning to jump before the explosion.”

“In the middle of the ocean?” Steve asked.

“Yeah. Or perhaps over Greenland.”

“They’re pulling the wreckage out of the water right now,” James said, looking up at Steve. “Heard it on the scanner before we left the office. The press was invited. I sent an intern since I didn’t think there was anything more to learn.”

Steve thought he knew where James was going with this. “Which means whoever is behind this won’t have a chance to get the bomb out until later.”

“Exactly. Good work, you two,” James said to the research assistants before darting off to the shoe return.

Steve followed him at a jog.

“Where are you going?”

James had already handed the attendant the token to get his sneakers back. “I think you can guess.”

“Shouldn’t we call the cops?”

“Too much bureaucracy. Too slow.”

“You can’t just break into an airplane hangar and tamper with evidence.”

“Why not?”

Steve couldn’t tell if James didn’t get it, or simply didn’t care. “If this was an organized assassination attempt, those people are going to be back. And if they see you they’re not gonna hesitate to…”

But James had already gone outside; he was extremely quick on his feet, but he hadn’t banked on super-serum. Steve reached over the counter, past the attendant, and grabbed his shoes from the cubbyhole himself. He had them on in a flash and caught up with his quickly retreating partner.

“If you’re going, I’m coming with you.”

“No, you’re not,” James said without turning around or slowing down. “I’ll just end up worrying about you. I don’t need that kind of distraction.”

“I can handle myself.”

“If this is about you looking for a way to prove yourself, you can start by showing me you can handle the copy machine, not this.” James hailed a taxi and scrambled in, telling the driver to step on it all the way to Teterboro Airport. He tried to close the door, but Steve pulled back on it so hard it threatened to come off the hinges (he had to think of Pepper’s sure-to-be horrified face to keep himself in check) and hopped in, too.

“We’ve only just met,” Steve said, “but you should know I don’t take being told to stay home very well.”

James grunted at that, but relented in the face of the same implacable bloody-mindedness that had so infuriated Peggy. “Fine. But if you come, you’re gonna have to answer one of my questions from earlier. Tell me if I was on the right track.”

“Deal.”

“This is probably your first breaking and entering, so I’m gonna—”

“Actually, you might want to follow my lead,” Steve interrupted with his old authority. “Special forces, remember?”


The taxi dropped them off a few minutes’ walk from the airport. From there, they followed the shadows to sneak around to the back of the airplane hangar. James picked the lock on a side door without even trying.

“Where’d you learn how to do that?” Steve whispered.

James shrugged.

They’d already discussed their plan, not only between themselves, but on the phone with Fitz and Simmons on the way. Get into the plane. Look for the bomb, which Fitz had described as best as he could guess. The wreckage was in the back of the small hangar, awaiting a team of forensic investigators set to arrive the next day. Steve hopped inside the moldy cockpit and reached down to pull James up behind him. They were feeling around for the possible locations Fitz had described when a voice belonging to neither of them spoke.

“Where are we supposed to look?”

Beside Steve, James froze in the darkness.

“Hurry up,” a woman’s voice said. Steve recognized it as Amanda Mills, the PR representative who had taken James’s and the other reporters’ questions the day before. “We haven’t got all night.”

By the sound of the heavy footsteps nearby, there were at least ten men with her.

James pushed Steve into a shadowy corner to the rear of the cockpit and then located another spot to hide in. They hid while men boarded the wreckage and began searching.

“Fuck it,” one of the voices said. “There’s nothing here.”

“Keep looking,” Ms. Mills, who appeared to be running this operation, said from outside. “After tomorrow, we cannot have another one of these devices lying around. It will become too obvious.”

“Hey, look here!”

One of the men shone his flashlight at a corner of the control panel, at a spot where something had clearly once been affixed. The outline of the missing piece formed a dry circle in the center of the previously waterlogged dashboard.

“Someone’s been here first.”

“How? Thing was only craned up a couple of hours ago.”

“What else did they take?”

The men now began to shine their lights around. It was only a matter of time before they revealed where…

Yep. There was James, exposed by three simultaneous beams of light.

Steve was unarmed, but he was never defenseless. He jumped out from his corner of shadow and got one in a choke-hold and took down another with his ankles.

James turned out to be no slouch either. He wasn’t that big of a guy, and his wise-cracking ladies-man shtick didn’t prepare one for the cautious yet confident way he punched and kicked his way past the three men who had surrounded him.

Between the two of them, they dropped all the guys in the cockpit with almost no noise.

“What’s going on in there?” a voice from outside asked. “Everything okay?”

“You stay behind me,” Steve whispered. If the ones outside were armed, Steve, with his fast healing abilities, would have a better chance of surviving any injuries.

“No way. I’m going out, and you stay here. I’ll tell them there’s only me. That’ll give you a chance to escape.”

“Are you crazy?”

“Hello in there? We’re coming in!”

“Steve,” James said, lisping the S so that it would not be heard, “before I go, take—”

But Steve had already launched himself out of the cockpit and into the airplane hangar.

There were many more people than he’d expected. But even with the surprisingly agile James at his side, there was only so much Steve could do, unarmed and shieldless, against fifteen guys with guns.

James didn’t seem to share his appraisal of the situation, because, like a crazy person, he threw himself at not one, but two huge men, and held them off, too, until shots from the back of the hangar rang out and grazed his shoe. He hopped with quick reflexes, which changed his trajectory. This probably wouldn’t have been a problem had Steve been one of their opponents, but upon finding himself face to face with a friend, James stopped himself and lost momentum.

That was all that was needed to slow down the fight and have all the guns trained on the two of them.

“On the ground.”

They knelt with their hands behind their heads. Steve glanced around the room, looking for next steps, ways out.

“You’re those reporters from yesterday,” Ms. Mills said. “I think you two know how this goes,” she continued. “If either one of you makes a move, you will watch the other get shot.”

All the remaining fight went out of James after that, so Steve had no choice but to let the men tie them to a pole in the corner of the hangar. Unlike James, though, he hadn’t lost hope. He just needed to play this right.

“Since we didn’t find the bomb, we have to make sure no one else does,” Ms. Mills said as her henchmen opened the gas tank from the airplane and let the liquid spill all over the floor. “The story tomorrow—one you two unfortunately will not write—will be that nosy reporters digging around where they shouldn’t have been accidentally set fire to the wreckage, blowing themselves up in the process. Tragic. Now, just to make sure…”

She pulled out a giant syringe filled with blue liquid and pumped it into James’s neck. She had a second one for Steve. When nothing happened to either of them, she dosed James with even more. Steve didn’t feel anything more than a tingle, but given the way James twitched and sagged after the second injection, he supposed it was a tranquilizer.

He mimicked this reaction; it may not have affected him, but there was no point in getting pumped full of chemicals if he could help it.

“Night, boys,” some of the men snickered on their way out. The last one threw a match.

Steve watched the door click shut. He could feel James slumped behind him, their shirts rubbing together as his back hunched against Steve’s ever-upright spine. The hard plastic stays locking them to the pole wouldn’t be hard to break, but Steve didn’t want to do it while James was still awake to notice. Given the size of the tranquilizer injection they’d given him, Steve wouldn’t have long to wait. The slow slick of flame promised just as long of a delay until the inevitable bonfire.

“All the ways I thought I would die, handcuffed to some nerd in a burning airplane hanger wasn’t one of them,” James mumbled. “I told you not to come. I told you I work alone. Case in point. I woulda had ‘em if I hadn’t had you to worry about.”

“Stop it. You’re not dying tonight.” Steve looked around for an exit, for a non-electrically sealed door, the kind with regular hinges that super strength could rip off.

(Twenty-first century life had made superheroing a more complicated proposition.)

“I don’t hate you, you know.”

“What?” Steve knew he should be focused on getting them out of here, but this—James hopped up on so many drugs that his filter was out of commission—could be good. And they had plenty of time before the door he’d spotted became inaccessible. So, he prodded, “What are you talking about?”

“Didn’t want a partner, especially not one like you. I mean, you’re fucking irritating.”

“You’re not really supporting your initial statement here.”

But James continued to babble, the words coming out slowly and less controlled than usual. “You, just… being there. Gives me this annoying feeling, almost a headache. Like we’ve met before. Have we?”

“No.”

“You sure?”

Steve snorted. “Positive."

"Guess you just have one of those faces. It irritates me that I can’t place it. And when I’m irritated, I act like a jerk. That’s all. Anyway," James continued, "contrary to how I’ve been acting, I like you fine. Just didn’t want to die before making that clear.”

“You’re not going to die,” Steve repeated.

“That’s what you say. We’ve been drugged and tied up and the place is about to blow. It’s no big deal, though. Well, Natasha’ll be cut up about it for awhile, but she’s... She’s Russian. She’ll get over it. But other than that…”

“What are you talking about? You’re the most popular guy I’ve ever met.”

“Hardly. Hey, is there anybody out there who’ll miss you?” James asked suddenly, almost drunkenly. “Realized we’ve been working together, but I don’t know a lick about you except what I tried to guess. You got anyone? Family? A girlfriend back from wherever you came from?”

“Nope,” Steve replied, and decided to go for the truth, at least obliquely. “There’s no one to miss me except a couple of people who live out in California. That’s where the money’s from, by the way.”

“Huh?”

“You said if I tagged along, I’d have to answer one of your questions. So I’m answering it. I spent my whole childhood dreaming of getting adopted. And then, years after I gave up on that, I ended up being kind of grown-up adopted, if that’s a thing. Who knows, maybe it is, these days. By a guy who’s the son of… a friend of my… grandfather’s.”

(The truth didn’t quite make it all the way to the end there.)

“You’re an orphan?” James asked.

“Yeah. Lost my parents so early on I almost don’t remember them.”

Even though this was the kind of heart to heart Steve had been wanting to share with James, the sad chuckle he received in response to his confession almost made him wish they hadn’t started talking.

“Well, look at that,” James said softly. “We actually have something in common.”

He fell over sideways in a way that was too uncomfortable to be sustained while conscious. Now that he was unobserved, Steve snapped their bonds, hoisted James over his shoulder, leaped over the flames that had started to lick the across the floor in earnest now, and ripped open the door to freedom.

He kept to the shadows for as long as possible. He knew what they looked like—dirty Steve carrying an unconscious man across an off-access section of the airport—but he’d gotten out of even stickier scrapes than this. It took ten minutes to get to the regular arrivals area on the other side of the airport. He set James down and kept him upright with an arm around his waist while he hailed a cab.

“Drank too many cocktails on the plane,” he explained to the taxi driver as he bundled his charge into the back seat.

“Where to?” the driver asked, completely unphased.

It wasn’t an easy question. James ought to get checked out, but taking him to a hospital would probably get both of them arrested once questions about how these injuries had been sustained were asked.

“We’re going to Stark Tower,” Steve decided.

As they pulled onto the highway, the hangar exploded.


James’s skin had begun to turn grey and feel clammy to the touch by the time Steve hauled him, caveman style, into the lobby. As his condition worsened, Steve’s guilt deepened; he shouldn’t have selfishly sat around and talked, no matter how confident he’d been about getting them out of there. And maybe he should have gone to the hospital, but they were here now and another trip might make help come too late.

“He’s been poisoned,” Steve yelled, mostly at the ceiling. “Is there anyone around who can help?”

The security guard’s telephone rang. He picked it up, looked confused, and handed it to Steve. “It’s for you?”

“I suggest the 22nd floor, sir,” JARVIS’s voice said through the receiver. “Dr. Green may be able to assist you. He’s getting ready to leave, but I will stall the elevators.”

“That’d be great. Thanks.”

Everyone was gone and most of the lights turned out on the 22nd floor. Dr. Green, a nervous-looking scientist with round glasses and a kind face, was indeed ready to leave, but he one look at James’s limp form and dropped everything to open up the lab again. Had the emergency been any less pressing, Steve would have wondered what was keeping Dr. Green here so much later than anyone else.

Green’s face was trust-worthy, and the danger too immediate for lies; Steve lay James on a lab table and explained what had happened. He didn’t have any details about what they’d been injected with, not enough to help, but the doctor didn’t seem to need it. While listening, he took blood from the crease of James’s elbow and began performing tests.

“These were just run of the mill heavies, you said?” he asked.

“Seemed like it. Why?”

Dr. Green peered into his test tubes. “Strange stuff here.”

“Do you think you can fix him? Reverse it? Something?” Steve unconsciously smoothed the hair out of James’s face as he spoke. “He’s not gonna… Right?”

Dr. Green’s eyes followed the movement, and then looked questioningly back up at Steve.

“We’ll see what we can do.”

Steve drummed his fingers against the walls while Dr. Green mixed various concoctions together.

“The elevators don’t allow civilians on this floor,” Dr. Green noted while he worked.

Steve explained that he was a long-term guest of Mr. Stark’s, and lived upstairs. “I’m just glad you were still here to help us out.”

“It’s a good thing, too. Given whatever’s going on here, I don’t think a hospital would have been able to help. What about you? They injected him but not you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Interesting.” A minute later, the doctor smiled to himself. “Got it.”

He injected James with a new substance. Two minutes later, heavy-lidded and out of it, James started thrashing, almost choking the poor doctor, who reacted with equal, but less understandable, insanity. First he became almost aggressively defensive, his face visibly puffing in his anger. Almost immediately, he ran into a corner, away from his delirious patient, and began doing breathing exercises to calm down.

Meanwhile, Steve ran over and practically straddled James, pinning down his arms and legs while he tried to calm him.

“It’s me, Steve. Steve Rogers. No one is going to hurt you.”

Eventually, James seemed to recognize him.

“Steve?”

“Yeah, it’s me. We’re safe. You’re fine.”

James glared at poor Dr. Green, still doing yoga or something in a corner, not making eye contact.

“He’s the one who helped you,” Steve explained. “Be nice.”

James grunted, and it was all the thanks they were going to get out of him in this state. He sat up, swinging his legs to dangle off the lab table.

“Where the hell are we?”

“I got us out. Took you back to my place.”

“Your place? You live in a lab?” James asked, holding his head and still moaning in pain. Still, a hoarse laugh escaped him. “That explains a lot.”

And they may have only known one another for a couple of days, but this was enough for Steve to breathe a sigh of relief. If James was back to making fun of him, he was going to be okay.

“We’re in Stark Tower,” Steve explained. “This is the R&D wing. My apartment’s upstairs.”

“Stark Tower? That’s an office building. Nobody lives there.”

Steve wound his arm around James’s back and lifted him off the lab bench. “Can I take him upstairs?”

“He’s going to need constant monitoring,” Dr. Green said from his corner. “That was some nasty stuff. It’s going to take at least a few hours until it’s all gone. Lots of fluids and—”

“Yeah, yeah, I got it, doc,” James interrupted. He stretched out a hand. “Thanks, though. Sorry for scaring you.”

Dr. Green hesitated but finally emerged to shake. “Don’t worry about it. I just… I don’t do well with sudden aggression. But it’s fine now. Glad I could help.”

“How’d you get us out?” James asked Steve on their way upstairs.

As usual, Steve tried to keep the story as close to the truth as possible. He said he must have gotten much less of the drug than James did, because he never passed out; he was able to use the Swiss Army Knife in his back pocket to cut their bonds and escape through an unlocked door before it was too late.

James was out of it enough to buy it.

“You didn’t call the cops,” he noted weakly. “And you didn’t take me to a hospital.”

“We weren’t supposed to be there. Didn’t want us to get into trouble.”

“Well, it was good, quick thinking. Thanks… partner.”

The almost nice moment they were sharing dissolved as soon as Steve opened his door, revealing his palatial penthouse with panoramic views.

“This is you?” James asked.

“This is me.”

“When you said you lived here, I thought maybe you were subletting from the super or something. Had the Stark Tower equivalent of a garret. But you… And Pepper Potts. In a meeting together. Your adopted California people. Right. Of course. The number of people lining up to work at that goddamn paper and you’re only here because… And Coulson stuck me with you. I can’t believe this shit.”

“This room is all yours. There are towels and toothbrushes already in there.” Steve dragged James to the guest bedroom. He felt as though he’d been slapped right in the center of his insecurity, but, while it was all true, he could also tell James was lashing out because he hated feeling weak and dependent. “Tomorrow you can tell me all about how under qualified I am, and how I don’t deserve the job, but right now, you’re going to rest. Just talk to the ceiling if you need anything, and I’ll be right over.”

“What?”

“Long story.”

Steve shut the door and was left alone in the living room, still wired from the night’s excitement. He got out his sketchbook and was ready to curl up on the couch and draw the odd expression Dr. Green had made during his little freak-out when he noticed two brown paper packages propped up by the window.

The smaller one was tied up with Pepper’s signature purple string.

Tom Ford owed me a favor! Don’t worry, he’s been sworn to secrecy. Hope you like it.
xoxo
Pepper

Steve reminded himself to thank this Tom Ford, whoever he was, when he opened the package and found an updated version of his Captain America uniform. The stars and stripes, once so bright, were now muted, more somber and modern without losing that old-fashioned aesthetic. Steve could tell from the feel of the fibers across his fingers that the material was infused with a whole lot of something extra—bullet-proof protection, heat resistance… Next-generation fabrics he’d heard Tony proselytizing on calls with Department of Defense buyers; they’d shut him down and told him the stuff sounded too expensive to produce, but apparently Tony had gone and done it anyway.

Next, he turned to the larger package. Given the contents of the first one, he had a pretty good idea of what was inside.

Better than even my old man could do. Who’s your favorite drunk uncle now?!
TS

Steve had no idea what that meant, but that didn’t stop his heart from leaping at the sight of the shield inside the box. Like the suit, the colors had been toned down, but the construction was just as hardy. When he rapped his fist against it, he heard that familiar twang—but with a kick—that after months of confused drifting, finally made him feel at home here, in this deeply uncomfortable now.

He took his gifts into his bedroom and hid them at the back of his closet; he had a guest, after all, and now a secret identity to protect.


The next morning, Steve straightened his shirt, brushed his hair three times, and used extra mouthwash before leaving his bedroom. He grabbed the papers from outside the apartment door and proceeded to read, waiting for James to come out and join him.

When ten minutes had passed without any sound from the guest room, he looked up.

“Hey, is James okay?”

“He left just before you awoke, sir.”

“What?!”

Fat lot of use a built-in AI was if it allowed sick houseguests to escape without any kind of notification.

“Before he left, he asked me to analyze a piece of equipment he had in his pocket,” JARVIS continued.

“What piece of equipment?”

The television screen in front of him turned itself on and showed an image of the kind of thing Fitz and Simmons had described. A black, round thing that would have fit perfectly in the empty space on the cockpit’s control panel.

Son of a bitch had found it after all.

“Wait. Wait a minute. He asked you to analyze it?”

“Yes, sir.”

“How did he even know you were there?”

“You told him to talk to the ceiling if he needed anything. Not the most precise or elucidating of instructions, but I believe Mr. Barnes deduced my presence from that statement. Mr. Stark’s fondness for artificial intelligence is well-known, and your partner has done his research. He is quite the investigator.”

Great. Now the damn AI had a crush on James, too.

“What did you find out?”

“It emits a low-level frequency between itself and the bomb it controls. He asked me to see if there were any other such frequencies being broadcast nearby.”

“And?”

“There is a similar one currently in range. At New York Presbyterian Hospital.”

Where the Ruritanian Prime Minister had been taken after the crash. They were going to finish the job by blowing up the hospital. And James had run into the line of fire. Alone. Again.

“Dammit,” he said, and it could have been about the bother of having to change and put on a mask after having spent all that time getting dressed and brushing his hair, or it could have been because James was a knucklehead. A heartbreaking, reckless hero who hid his bleeding heart underneath a thick layer of bluster and disaffection, but a knucklehead all the same.

It took one to know one.

He ran back into his bedroom and pulled the two packages out from the back of the closet.

“Showtime,” he whispered to himself.


Only when James was running through the front door of the hospital did he stop to consider that he should have asked the floating voice in Steve’s apartment which room the Prime Minister had been assigned. The thing seemed to know everything else, and probably would have been able to find out.

He tried to think from the point of view of these assassins, but it was difficult, because they were so terrible. James’s mind wasn’t accustomed to functioning on such low frequencies. Who uses the same kind of bomb, twice, within a week, on the same target? Who doesn’t search the pockets of their prisoners to see if they’ve stolen the very piece of equipment they were there to steal? Who drugs prisoners whose deaths they intend to pass off as something else?

Fucking amateur hour.

He also didn’t know how to calmly get people to prepare for the explosion. It wouldn’t do to go in yelling, “Bomb!” Pulling that sort of shit got you locked up.

It ultimately didn’t matter, because before he’d even made his way to the reception desk, the entire second floor of the east wing caved in and everything went to hell.

While nurses screamed, a mob pushed to get out of the rotating doors. James ran against the tide of hysterical patients, visitors and medical professionals. Instead of out, he ran further up and further in.

His progress was slowed by that pesky impulse called ‘decency’. He couldn’t just walk by rooms full of sick people without stopping to set right things that the explosion had put awry: a dislodged IV here, a dropped oxygen tube there. Patients were in need, but everyone else was too busy running for their lives to help.

Within a few minutes, though, he made it to the charred disaster of the third floor, the epicenter of the bomb. Patients were moaning but, clearly, these clowns had bombed the reception area, not even any particular room. It took him a few tries before he found the prime minister’s room.

The elderly prime minister was twitching in his bed, trying to press the call button. He looked relieved when James ran in.

“Thank god,” he said in his stiff and snooty but scared accent. “I have been trying—”

“I need to get you out of here. That bomb down the hall was meant for you. And if I know these chuckleheads, they’ll probably come in person to check on their failure.”

“And here I was thinking I simply had the most extraordinary bad luck.”

James helped the man into his slippers and a pair of pants someone had left in the closet.

“How did you know…?” the Prime Minister asked.

“The same gang tried to kill me and my friend when I was investigating the plane crash. I think right now we should go down the back service stairs. Knowing this lot, they’ll walk in the front door and take the elevator.”

They were about to leave the room when James heard the heavy boot tread of the jokers from last night coming down the hall. He pushed the old man under the bed and whispered, “Just hide under here. I got this.”

“You again?” one of the men asked, pointing a gun at James’s head. “I thought we killed you.”

“I didn’t know you thought thoughts.”

“Where’s your friend?”

“Left him at home this time. Seriously, guys, even if you somehow get past me and finish the job, whoever hired you to kill this poor SOB deserves his money back.”

James was satisfied to be able to drop the asshole that had tried to dope Steve the night before with a whack of the IV drip pole to his face. He used chairs and fallen pieces of medical equipment to create a makeshift blockade on the door side of the hospital bed, to protect the Prime Minister from any gunshots that might go under the bed.

He was holding his own, but then the rest of the group came into the room with machine guns (machine guns! to kill a little old man in a hospital bed!). If it had been just him, he probably could still have handled them, but, like last night, there was someone else to worry about, which added a wrinkle of difficulty he didn’t know how to budget for.

He was just thinking about an exit strategy when a large, round metal object crashed through the window and hit two of the men in the neck.

“The hell?” he asked himself.

But the object—a shield—returned like a boomerang to the man who now climbed in through the third story window. A ridiculously jacked masked man wearing a spangled spandex get-up that matched the shield. His appearance was so nonsensical that James stopped to blink a flew times, just to make sure the drugs that were still probably in his system weren’t making him see things.

But no. He was still there, and kicking ass. He tossed the heavy-looking shield around like it weighed no more than a plastic Frisbee, picking people off one by one, while in between throws, he knocked people out with a strength James had never seen before. At first, he thought the man’s fighting style looked ever so slightly familiar to someone else he couldn’t put his finger on right now, but soon he decided he must have imagined it, because, while James had seen a lot in his time, he’d never seen anything quite like this. All superhumanly fast jabs at people’s necks, superhumanly far leaps down the hallway, superhumanly strong arms bending machine guns in half… James felt simultaneously enraptured, impressed, inspired, and yes, a lot turned on.

“Who are you?” the Prime Minister asked when everyone had been knocked out or killed, and only the three of them were left standing in the room.

“I’m Captain America,” he replied, more sheepishly than one would have expected from such a declaration, or from such a person.

The Prime Minister looked at James, the resident American, who shrugged in equal amounts of bafflement.

“I’ve been told it’s a name that still means something to some people. Today’s my first day back on the job.”

He was the most modest superhero James had ever imagined; it somehow made him even more attractive.

“Glad to have you on board," James said, deciding he'd process this all later, when they weren't in a building that threatened to fall down around them. "Let’s get him out to the cops, just in case the B Team here decides to try again.”

Together, they carried the still very sick and weak prime minister down the service stairs. With the mask on, all one could see of the Captain’s face was his mouth and jaw. He kept flashing James these goofy smiles that made his chest warm and his burden feel lighter.

The Captain noticed a gash on James’s sleeve from where one of the bullets had grazed his shoulder. A thin stream of blood mottled the fabric. “You’re hurt!”

“Just a scrape.” James brushed it off. He wasn’t used to anyone, especially good, heroic types, fussing over him. “Don’t worry about it.”

The giant blue eyes came a little too close, looked a little too concerned. That strong hand lingered just a little too long on James’s shoulder. James had maintained a rock-solid wall around himself since he and Natasha had been involved, years ago; but now, twice in one week, he’d found himself experiencing unwanted and unfamiliar tingling feelings, first with his hot snarky wallflower, and now again. His head throbbed with what he assumed was a painful sort of longing.

He was still trying to remember how to breathe as those eyes stared kindly into his, when the Prime Minister cleared his throat.

Both James and the Captain snapped out of it. “Right,” the Captain coughed and started leading the way, more purposefully, again. “Great idea, thanks. Nice working with you…”

“James. James Buchanan Barnes. Hey, do you think… I’m actually a reporter, believe it or not.”

“I know. I read your story yesterday. That’s, uh, that’s how I got wind there might be a situation here this morning.”

“You read my work?” James couldn’t believe it. His story had brought this guy out for his first mission.

“When I have a chance. Don’t you have a partner though?”

For a second, James’s elation fizzled. Of course the Captain was more interested in Steve, without ever having set eyes on him; Steve was more worthy to be in his good graces.

“Yeah. Steve’s great,” he replied honestly, if a little sadly. “Really smart, really good guy, is going to be really good at his job. Hell, he already is. I left him at home, though. Couldn’t live with myself if anything happened to him.”

From what little expression showed through his uncovered jaw, James thought the Captain looked a little taken aback at that, for some reason. “Oh! Oh. Well, my advice is never to refuse back up. Next time, you shouldn’t shut him out.”

“Will do,” James replied as they reached the ground floor. He even saluted.

“Gentlemen…” the Prime Minister chided. “I think I might faint.”

“You go help the rest of the patients. I’ll get him to the cops. Oh, and hey,” James said just before he took his charge outside. “If you happen to see me again when you’re done, I mean, outside…”

“I’ll stop by and give a statement. Exclusive, just for you.”

James’s grin hurt, it spread so wide.


Getting all the patients out of the more damaged areas of the hospital and either into new rooms or transferred to a different facility took a couple of hours. Between helping the doctors and cops, introducing himself to everyone, and keeping his promise to James for a statement, it was past noon by the time Steve made it in to the office.

When he got there, the gang was congregated in Natasha’s office. James was sitting on her couch with his feet on her desk and his laptop on his knees, finishing up a post for the website on his morning with a superhero. It was taking longer than it should have, because everyone kept peppering him with questions.

The warm look James had given him—Cap—earlier was still stamped in Steve’s brain, the only thing he could see when he blinked.

But while James seemed happier to see him than he had so far (and had said much nicer things about him to Cap than he ever had to his face), that look was not in evidence, not for him. Only for… the other him, apparently.

“Steve!” James exclaimed. “I was getting worried. I was about to have Darcy call that doc from last night and make him go upstairs to check on you.”

“Guess those drugs had a delayed effect on me. I overslept.”

“I figured. Sorry for leaving you, pal. I just didn’t want a repeat of last night.”

Steve stuck his hands in his pockets and rocked back and forth. “Seems like I missed a lot of excitement.”

“Captain America and I saved the Prime Minister today.”

“The police scanner is saying the he’s getting an Air Force One ride back to Ruritania,” Coulson popped in to say. “So he’ll be okay. But we still don’t know who hired the killers.”

“Probably never will,” James said. “They were fucking useless, and it was clear when I stuck around for questioning that they didn’t even know who had hired them.”

“Who is Captain America?” Natasha asked irritably, obviously not for the first time today. “Is this a name I’m supposed to know?”

“You’ve never heard of Captain America? The World War II hero?” Darcy set her jaw in open-mouthed disbelief. “What kind of American are you?”

“A Russian one.”

“I’ve never heard of him either,” James added, backing her up. “When he showed up and told me his name, it was all I could do not to call for the men in white coats. But then seeing him in action…”

James looked so impressed that only Natasha’s stiletto on his sneaker seemed to be keeping him from floating away.

“Easy now,” she murmured.

“I think it’s a name only extreme WWII buffs know,” Clint said. “I think Coulson mentioned something about him once, but other than that, this is new to me, too.”

“James thinks there’s some sort of super-soldier serum involved,” Jane piped up. “It’s an interesting theory, don’t you think?”

“Why would you immediately think that?” Steve asked, panicked.

“You got a better explanation? Hey, Steve.” James took him by the arm and led him to the coffee machines for a little privacy. “Last night… I was kind of out of it. I’m not 100% sure what happened.”

Steve could hear the impending apology, but he decided to make James work for it. “Feel free to ask.”

"Did you say you thought getting grown-up adopted was a thing? You meant that metaphorically, right?"

Oh. Yikes. "Sure. Of course. I mean—"

"Because it isn't. That would be... actually crazy."

"Yeah, I knew that. I was being, uh, ironic.”

James paused and Steve knew this was what he’d really been getting at, where the apology was coming. “And speaking of which, did I ream you out about Pepper Potts and how you don’t deserve to work here?”

“Yeah.”

“I didn’t mean it. Blame it on the drugs.”

“It wasn’t the drugs. Since the minute I walked in here, you’ve been kind of a jerk.” Steve shrugged, but smiled to make it clear he wasn’t upset. James’s words to Cap that morning were all the apology he needed. It meant more, since he hadn’t actually been apologizing at all.

James punched him lightly on the shoulder. “I’ll stop. As long as you stop acting like a punk. Deal?”

“Deal.”

“Good. Now let’s go put this baby to bed.”

Chapter Text

Steve, always punctual, snagged one of the last seats around the conference room table. Around him, the staff checked email on their phones, gossiped about their Saturday nights, and generally tried to wake up. Jane floated in, her nose stuck in a science journal and her hand clutching a large coffee from Dean & Deluca that Steve was pretty sure Darcy had picked up for her. He reached out and gently touched her arm, motioning at the seat next to him.

“Hey, Steve,” she said warmly. “Have a good weekend?”

“I did, actually. Some friends from out of town showed me around the city. Pe… Virginia and I went to MoMA.” After James’s reaction, Steve wasn’t yet comfortable openly talking about his connection to Stark. The only problem with this approach was that, except for Jane, to whom he was speaking right now, he hardly had any other friends to talk about.

“I thought you said you grew up here. Why do you need your out-of-town friends to show you around?”

“Things have changed a lot since I was last here.”

“Yeah, it’s become an almost different place since Bloomberg. So many more parks and things than I remember.”

“…Yeah. Bloomberg.”

James slinked in late but repentant; just as muzzy-haired and bleary-eyed as he’d been half an hour ago when Steve had left him grumbling back at the apartment. He shuffled over to where Natasha was perched on a folding table at the back of the room. She looked at the diamond-pattered, obviously grocery store bought to-go coffee cup in his hand and the matching one in front of Steve and rolled her eyes.

Coulson walked in and everyone fell silent, waiting for the meeting to start. As Jane had quickly whispered to Steve, these Monday morning inter-departmental team regroups were designed to set expectations and themes for the week before the section-specific pitch meetings and check-ins.

“So,” Coulson began, as he threw newspaper after newspaper and magazine after magazine onto the conference table. Domestic ones, foreign ones. All of them bearing fuzzy photographs of Captain America on the cover. “Unless aliens invade, this is going to continue to be the biggest story out there. We were the first to break it, thanks to Barnes and Rogers, here. But that was well over a week ago, and since then, we’ve had nothing. The public has questions. I have questions. Who is he? Where did he come from? What is his connection to the original Captain? With whom is he working? From where did he get his abilities? All eye-witnesses confirmed that he was stronger, faster, generally more powerful than a normal human, so it seems like this is a real superhero, not just some crazy, cosplaying vigilante. Does this mean we have a super soldier program on our hands? What does Captain America want? Why has he appeared now? You get the idea. These questions cover all sections of the paper. Local news, US news, international news, science, business, arts, lifestyle. I want the science behind his abilities. I want to know the effects of his appearance on the stock market. I want to know who he is and who his friends are.”

Steve gulped. He should have anticipated this. The newspaper business hadn’t changed that much in seventy years, but the public’s appetite had. If people could be famous just for being famous, he should have expected an actual person of interest to lead to the kind of frenzy Coulson was trying to keep up with.

“You want us to find out everything there is to know about a superhero who basically didn’t exist before last week,” James, the resident big mouth, piped up. “How exactly do you propose we go about that?”

“I’m sure you—all of you—will think of something. That’s it, everyone. Meeting adjourned.”

They all filed out and headed back to their desks. Steve’s formal HR paperwork had gone through a few days before; he had a real desk now, facing James, in a nice, sunny spot near windows overlooking the river.

(“Are you trying to give me a complex, making me look at that mug all day?” James had whined to Coulson when the seat assignment had been made. But despite his complaints, he’d shared his best office supplies and snacks with Steve, and procured him a difficult to requisition wireless keyboard; he'd even shown him how it worked.)

“Thanks for letting me crash last night,” James said as they took their seats. “The L wasn’t running that late and three asshole taxi drivers refused to take me to Brooklyn.”

“Crash whenever you want. I’ll tell security to let you in without having to ring me.”

“You’re a pal.”

“So, what happened?”

“Went home with some chick I met at a bar, but then her boyfriend… yeah, I know, it was a surprise to me, too… came home early from his trip. Funny how she hadn’t mentioned a little thing like that. I hightailed it outta there.”

“Geez.”

“Yeah. Next time you should come with me, though. It was a good place over in Tribeca. We could tag team. But you gotta promise not to hog all the girls.”

“I don’t think that’ll be hard,” Steve said. “Anyway, got any leads on that UN Security Council meeting?”

This assignment had been on their task list for almost a week. Steve had been pleased to learn about the UN; he liked the building, he liked the history, he liked the whole concept and all their little successes over the decades. The fact that it had come out of the end of the war helped to reconfirm that it had indeed been a good war, worth fighting. James’s cynical lack of interest in the story disappointed him.

“What? You heard the chief. We’re all supposed to be on this Captain America case.”

“There’s still other news to be covered. I can pick up the slack while you—”

“Tough luck, buddy, but this is our priority assignment now.”

Steve had been trying to think of a way to get out of this but so far, he was coming up blank. It wasn’t just that he hated the spotlight as much as he had during his touring days. It was also the idea of writing a story no one else had a fair shot at that bothered him. Not that he wanted anyone else writing it either.

“How do you plan on going about it?” he asked. Steve figured that since James was one of the best investigative reporters out there, if he could outwit him, he could outwit anyone. “Digging up information on Captain America, I mean.”

“Coulson.”

“What do you mean?”

“This isn’t just a work thing for him. I know it’s hard to tell, but he’s been quietly losing his shit all week. He’s a huge WWII junkie. Knows all about anyone who ever played a role in the war effort. He even collects trading cards and all sorts of military fanboy crap. I’ll bet he’s in his office right now, wetting his pants over his memorabilia, waiting for me to go in there and ask him about it.”

“You’re joking.” Coulson hadn’t struck Steve as the type of man to get fanatic about anything.

“Ten bucks says I’m right.”

Together, they walked over to Coulson’s office where, yes, indeed, he was sitting with a placid grin on his face, surrounded by stacks of memorabilia. His eyes became almost imperceptibly brighter when he saw them. Despite the reasons behind his hiring, Coulson had treated Steve like any old member of the team since the first day; a lack of distinction that had immediately endeared the Chief to him. But it hadn’t taken more than a couple of days to see why. From what he’d overheard and learned, the Herald’s staff was made up of a hodge-podge of characters, distinctive more for their passion and quirky talents than for their credentials, a team of iconoclasts who shouldn’t have worked together as well as they did. For every Columbia journalism school grad, there was someone like Jane, who had been hired with zero journalism experience but a lot of wild and creative subject knowledge; for every subject specialist, there was someone like Natasha, who didn’t care much about fashion or style, but who ran her section like a Fortune 500 company. The only person on the floor with a standard background was Maria Hill, which made sense, since it was her job to keep the circus from falling out of the ring.

Coulson himself had bounced around various international bureaus throughout his career, from Capetown to Cairo to Sao Paulo to Moscow, before a recommendation from Pepper had landed him with the top job in New York about five years before. Coulson cared for and had developed all the members of his team, but it was no secret that Natasha and James held a special place in his esteem; they’d been his first hires—in entry-level positions with Natasha as a fact-checker and James as mailroom assistant—but they justified their status as favorites by actually being the best, every single day.

“I’m guessing Barnes told you about my hobby,” he said to Steve as they took their seats.

“He mentioned it, yeah. I had no idea…” He gestured at the binder. “May I?”

“Go for it.”

Steve began thumbing through trading cards picturing him in his old Captain America uniform; photographs and reports signed in Colonel Phillips’s reassuringly familiar scrawl. He would have lovingly traced his thumb over everything, but each piece was tucked into a plastic sleeve.

He started to feel like he should be in a plastic sleeve. This was all wrong; sitting here, looking at historical artifacts that to him were only a few months old.

“You’re a WWII buff, too, aren’t you?” Coulson’s soft voice pulled Steve out of his trance. “I can see it in the way you’re looking at those.”

“I know a thing or two about the Western front in 1943.”

“That’s specific,” James said. “You’ve been holding out on me.”

“Didn't see how it was relevant.”

“Of course it’s relevant,” Coulson said. “History coming back to life isn’t interesting without the history.”

“So, tell us, what’s all this history?”

Coulson launched into a succinct tale of Captain America’s known adventures: the medal of valor he was awarded for having saved an entire regiment, but which he never showed up to accept because he was too busy fighting the next thing; his troop of diverse, multi-national troops, the first truly integrated Allied team in the war; secret missions that were still redacted, years after similarly classified operations had been revealed to the public; generalized greatness, heroism and heart. No one knew who he was, what his real name had been, where he came from. But he was a paragon, an idea born fully formed, good old-fashioned values come to life. And now, apparently, back, and ready to bring some of those good old-fashioned values to a time that sorely needed it.

“It’s fifty degrees in here. How are you so warm?” James asked when he happened to look up at Steve’s flushed face at the end of the lecture.

“Steve,” Coulson said, collecting himself after his uncharacteristic flight into something bordering on effusiveness. “Given your interest in the subject, why don’t you work on a profile for the Sunday magazine? A 1940s retrospective. Spin a new angle on Cap’s old exploits, as a companion piece to whatever Barnes digs up on today.”

“I get the impossible task, and all he has to write is a book report,” James groused. “‘Cause that’s fair.”

“If you happen to meet him again, would you have him sign this?” Coulson gave James one of his many cards. “Keep it close.”

“Sure thing, boss. No promises that I’ll see him before anyone else, though.”

When they got back to their desks, James held out his hand.

Steve fished a ten spot out of his wallet and slipped it into the open palm.

“So, basically,” James said, unconsciously flipping his pen around his thumb. “Coulson wants me to get another interview. Hard to do when there’s no way of contacting him, save for trying to kill another politician. It’s not like he’s in the phone book.”

“Which means we can work on the UN story while you wait for Cap to fall in your lap.”

James snorted. “Hah. That would be nice, but unlikely. But fine. Let’s do this. You and the UN…”

Steve felt more comfortable with the assignment now that Coulson had reframed it for him. Focusing on a ‘research project’ felt less unfair than writing about himself today. Anyone with access to a library or Coulson’s collection could have done it almost as well. And if he did a good enough job, he tried to delude himself, maybe James’s half wouldn’t be needed.

He was pulling up his Security Council notes when James’s office phone rang. Both of them stared as if it had started soft-shoeing across the desk. Contrary to what Steve had learned from His Girl Friday, the phones at the newspaper never rang; everyone in the office took their calls on their cell phones, which were all set to silent or vibrate.

“James Buchanan Barnes, New York Herald,” James answered questioningly.

Steve kept his head down and pretended to write an outline—doodle, really—while trying not to listen in. But James was sitting about two feet away, and Steve couldn’t help but notice the way he suddenly sat up straight and began drumming his fingers in an excited wave against his coffee cup.

“Hey! I’d almost given up on you.” Pause. Then, “‘Cause it’s been way more than three days.” Pause. “Right. You’re foreign. Maybe that isn’t how it works where… you know what? Who cares?” Eye roll. “No, obviously, I care. That’s not what I meant… Has anyone ever told you you’re insanely touchy?” Pause. “No? Seriously? Well, they should have.” Mouthing the word ‘what?’ at a staring Steve, who shook his head and quickly looked down again. “Oh! Really?” Suddenly professional again, and this conversation was giving Steve whiplash, it switched gears so often. “No, that sounds great. When are you available?” Hasty scribble. “Uh-huh. Uh-huh. Yeah, no, looking forward to it. See you there. Bye.”

He hung up with a self-satisfied smirk and began clicking erratically on his mouse in a way that proved he wasn’t looking at or reading anything at all.

“What was that all about?” Steve asked.

“I just scored an interview with Laufeyson tomorrow night.”

“Sounded more like you were setting up a date with his assistant.” Steve had seen them talking at the party, right before James had disappeared; to meet up with her, he’d assumed.

“That wasn’t his assistant. That was the man himself.”

“I thought he was a recluse. Why would he call you himself to ask you to interview him?”

“Because I’m the best reporter in town, and if you decide you’re gonna come out into the public eye, I’m the person to do it with,” James said, and managed to keep a straight face while he was at it. “And also because we hit it off at the party last week.”

“You spoke to him? Aside from the Q&A? Why didn’t you say so? You could have contributed notes to Jane’s article.”

“Because we didn’t talk about anything work related. Look, he was just some guy I was trying to pick up. I didn’t figure out who he was until he got up on the stage.”

“What are you talking about? He’s… a he. And you…”

“It’s happened to be a girl-heavy week, but I believe in equal opportunity.”

Steve was pretty sure he knew what James meant, but almost couldn’t believe it, not only that it was true, but that he was talking about it so easily and openly, like it was no big deal. TV and his limited exposure to the world had informed him that it wasn’t a big deal, not anymore, but knowing something wasn’t a big deal didn’t mean immediately being over it. He hadn’t yet talked about all this with anyone who was openly… not entirely straight.

Too bad the first person he could have talked about it with was the one person he definitely wouldn’t.

As James watched Steve process, a disappointed frown spread across his face. “Don’t tell me you’re gonna get all weird with me now.”

“No. No, of course not. I don’t care.”

“Good, ‘cause you’ve got nothing to worry about. We’re partners,” James continued, very seriously, “and I’m a professional.” Then he chucked a paperclip at Steve’s head. “And even if I weren’t, you’re not my type.”

Steve’s stomach clenched. “Good thing you aren’t mine, either,” he lied.

“I already knew that.”

They went back to work after that, but Steve could barely focus on the words on the screen in front of him. He’d been trying to clamp down his odd and confusing fluttery feelings, out of a certainty that they were stupid and hopeless and inappropriate. But this… this either changed everything or made it even worse. The information was still too new to tell which.

They worked in silence for a couple of hours, Steve sneaking surreptitious glances at James. After asking multiple times “What gives?”, James dragged him for a coffee break in the kitchen.

“Hey, I was thinking,” he said as he stirred a surprising amount of sugar into his coffee. He took it almost as sweet as Steve, who, after either almost starving or living on Army rations, doubted he’d ever stop taking all the sugar he could get. “Tony Stark’s dad knew the old Captain America. The one from the 40s. Not only that, but he might have some insight into how or where this new one got his abilities. Do you think you can hit him up for any dirt?”

“No,” Steve barked, a little to quickly.

“Why not?” James had the decency to lower his voice. “He got you the job. Don’t think he’d mind helping you out now that you have it.”

“Like you said, he got me the job. Now it’s up to me to prove I deserve it. Using Tony isn’t the way to do that.”

“You’re already doing great. Nothing to prove. And he’d love it. The guy’s a ham. I interviewed him once, a couple of years ago—he probably wouldn’t remember me—but I couldn’t get him to shut up. He made me miss another meeting.”

Steve laughed. He could picture the whole scene. James was right; Steve had mentioned his new work colleague, and Tony hadn’t seemed to spark at the name. “Don’t take it personally. The reporters he remembers tend to wear bigger bra sizes than you do.”

“Wow, Rogers, that’s the first almost rude thing I think I’ve heard you say. Still pretty G-rated, but one day we’ll get there. Just stick with me, kid.”

“Contrary to popular opinion, I did not walk out of Sesame Street,” Steve said, beaming with pride at his own reference.

“Could’ve fooled me.” James took a big slurp of his coffee and tried again. He was nothing if not persistent. “You really won’t ask him?”

Steve shook his head. “His official stance is ‘no comment’.”

“But you’re not official. You practically his roommate, for crying out loud.”

“I’m official when it comes to this.”

“You enjoy making life harder for yourself, don’t you?”

“It keeps things interesting.”

“It makes you a pain in the ass is what it does.” But James smiled all the same.


James kept referencing the paper upon which he’d written the address for his meeting with Laufeyson. He should have asked for the name of the place in order to spot it more easily. He did a double take when he found himself standing in front of a tiny coffee shop—too tiny to even have seating. Yet he was certain Laufeyson had said something about drinks. Did he mean takeaway lattes? What?

“Can I help you?” the barista asked.

“I don’t know. I think I have the wrong address. I was supposed to meet someone here for a drink, but…”

“James?” she asked.

All his hackles went up. “How do you know my name?”

She pointed at what he had assumed was the door to the supply closet. “You’re in the right place.”

James went through and was stunned to find himself in a Gatsby-style cocktail lounge, complete with Deco paneling and leather trimming. The place was empty except for a solitary bartender mixing a drink and Laufeyson lolling indolently in an overstuffed burgundy armchair.

“Oh,” he said, getting it. James was familiar with most of the city’s silly speakeasies, but this was a new one for him. This wouldn’t have been his pick for either a night out or an interview, but it so perfectly fit what little he knew of Laufeyson that he couldn’t help but appreciate the choice: secret yet opulent, hidden behind a bland façade.

James had been wondering what exactly he’d been invited here for; for the moment, this venue tipped the scale to the side of ‘date’, which is what he had been hoping for. Their flirting the other night had been on the ambiguous side, and Laufeyson’s responses had remained noncommittal throughout, to the point where James wasn’t sure his intentions had been understood. In case he had misread the situation, he didn’t want to jump to conclusions.

Laufeyson welcomed him with a gracious hand gesture. “Order something.”

James asked the bartender for a whiskey neat and then collapsed into a plump chair.

“Looks like you picked a dud place,” he said. “There’s nobody here.”

“That is because I arranged it so. They will open to the public—” Laufeyson’s tongue could not have weighed heavier with scorn than it did as he said the word, “—when we leave.”

“Oh. Right. I thought it was because speakeasies were over. Again.”

“Are they? That would be a pity. I quite like the concept.”

James shook his head and exhaled with amusement. “So, I, uh, I appreciate the opportunity to interview you. I gotta ask, though. Is this part of a new PR push? Deciding to come more into the public eye?”

“No. The event the other night was thrust upon me by those who insisted the initiative would not be considered legitimate without some kind of fanfare. Still, it was not wholly distasteful, as it led me to you. This is the only interview I intend to give.”

“I’m really flattered, Mr. Laufeyson, but—”

“Loki. My name is Loki.”

“Okay.” He still wasn’t sure what was going on here, where they sat on the line between professional and personal.

“Speaking of which…” Loki said lightly, close to shyly. “I inquired about your ‘three day’ comment yesterday, and now understand that you were laboring under a temporal guideline of which I was unaware. I did not know that my prolonged silence suggested apathy about our encounter the other evening.”

“Don’t worry about it,” James replied, once he’d parsed through five layers of syllables to find Loki’s lame yet earnest attempt at an apology. “It all worked out.”

“To my very great satisfaction,” Loki said, and raised his glass.

James regarded snobs with the visceral contempt usually reserved for bullies, bigots and Bolsheviks. And Loki, with his lofty air, ridiculous speech patterns and general air of disdain, was hands down the most disgusting snob he’d ever met. But never before had he met a snob who elevated him above the other objects of their scorn the way Loki did. It was wrong but, as a veteran nobody, he had to admit it was also a little bit intoxicating.

The only person in his life who came close to looking at him the way Loki did—as though he were the most fascinating and wonderful thing he’d ever seen—was Steve. But Steve seemed to see the best in everyone, which made for a less dramatic and flattering contrast between the way he treated James and the way he treated everyone else. Not to mention that Steve’s optimistic hero worship was entirely misguided, and therefore sort of depressing. Whatever Loki seemed to like about him was at least based on aspects of his personality that James felt to be true, something darker and snarkier.

“We’re on high alert at work,” James said, talking for the sake of talking, and trying to break the uncomfortable silence of Loki’s intense stare. “All of us are supposed to be focusing on the Captain America angle. Especially me. But it’s tough, you know, looking for a guy who’s basically a ghost. I’m not getting anywhere.”

For a moment, Loki’s smooth features transformed into something much less handsome, almost fearsome. “Do you regret coming here today? Was my invitation simply a secondary diversion from your primary interest?”

Years of life with Natasha had taught James how to manage pretty much anyone. Loki was difficult, but not beyond his abilities to handle. Most people would have been flustered by this abrupt mood swing, or over-apologized for these imagined slights. But James could tell the correct approach was friendly dismissal.

“‘Course not. I was just trying to make small talk. What did I tell you about being so touchy?” he finished with a well-timed huff.

As expected, this brashness not only unruffled Loki’s feathers, but even cajoled a smirk out of him, and James had to wonder what kind of life the guy had led. Was he spoiled? Ignored? How did someone grow up to be Loki Laufeyson, the overly sensitive recluse billionaire?

The bartender delivered their drinks, and immediately vacated the room. This venue, designed for a capacity of a hundred, now served as an intimate den for two, which added to the overall strange and oddly charged atmosphere. James wasn’t sure whether Loki was waiting for him to start the interview or drag him onto a nearby sofa to screw.

“So, I, uh, prepped a few questions.”

“Of course,” was the unhelpfully non-committal response.

“I did some standard background research on you, but there’s not much beyond a few months ago when people started realizing what a killing you were making.”

“I have ensured that would be the case. My past is not a subject upon which I wish myself or others to dwell. I prefer an existence unfettered by pedestrian biographical ties.”

“Really? That sounds…” James had already found that frankness worked here, so he went with that. “Well to be honest, that sounds like it sucks. You’ve gotta have a family, right?”

“Yes and no.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“I had one, once. We experienced a falling out. I discovered that I was not, as I had previously been led to assume, biologically related to them. They are now as dead to me as I am to them.”

Loki had so firmly and unnervingly shut down this line of questioning that James needed to check the notepad in his back pocket in order to think of another one.

“I researched you, as well.”

“Me?” James froze. “Why?”

“You took an interest in me the other night; I decided to return the favor. I have never before felt the desire to… google anyone. Consider yourself honoured.”

“I’m guessing you found out I don’t have a family either,” James confessed bitterly, intending to shut the topic down just as surely as Loki had his own past. “Not all of us have the luxury of choosing ‘an existence unfettered by pedestrian biological ties’, so stop being so goddamn smug about it.”

For a second, Loki’s face twisted into ugly outrage, and James wondered if no one had ever told him to shut up before. But then his face morphed into an expression as close to embarrassed as Loki could achieve (it wasn’t very far, for the record, but it was something). “I was merely drawing attention to something we have in common. I did not realize your wound was fresher.”

James recognized it as another almost apology. Just as Loki didn’t seem to know about the three-day rule of calling someone who’s given you their number, he also seemed out of touch interacting on a basic social level. He was a huge snob, but he was also lonely.

Now that James had diagnosed the problem, he could start getting somewhere.

“Why me?” he asked.

“I beg your pardon?”

“I’m just some random guy who talked to you at a party. Yet you, a known recluse, called me here for an interview, you bought out a whole bar just for the occasion, and you’re researching me. I don’t get it.”

“Not many people amuse or interest me, but you do. You do not cower but neither do you judge. These are uncommon qualities, especially here. It is not only that you are the only person bold enough to have approached me since I arrived in this city, nor is it only that you are the only one in possession of a tongue that manages not to bore me. There is also something about you that I would like to understand further. A puzzle. A puzzle containing a piece that does not fit at all.”

James didn’t know how to respond to that; the paranoid part of him prepared to bolt, while the dark, lost part of him thought, finally. Finally someone who got it, who made him feel less crazy for thinking that there was something wrong with him; wrong on a level deeper than the obvious, a level that not even Natasha seemed to understand.

Loki appeared to be waiting for a response, for an immediate confession (not fucking likely); when the silence lingered for too long, he frowned and tried to pretend he hadn’t said anything, you know, disturbingly intense. He cradled his drink in long fingers and cleared his throat. “You may continue with your next question.”

But James had already decided this wasn’t the right way to get Loki to open up, either professionally or personally. Instead, he stood up. “Come on.”

“Where are we going?”

James walked over to the bar and easily leaped the four and a half foot high counter to stand in the space left vacated by the bartender. “It’s not every day I get a whole ritzy bar to myself. It would be a shame to let it go to waste. Your drink’s empty. I’m gonna make you a new one.”

He tried to get Loki to hop over, too, but while loosening up a little bit, he was still a stiff son of a bitch who walked around instead. They stood, a little too close, staring at the wealth of options in front of them.

“Any requests?”

“You may serve me whatever you choose,” Loki replied, sounding like he was the one doing James a favor. His tone would have been utterly insufferable if he hadn’t also oozed pleased contentment, like a cat that has finally found someone to pet him; once recognized, his neediness took the edge off his obnoxiousness.

James sucked on his lower lip for a minute as he studied the supplies. “I’m gonna show you how to make an original Molotov Cocktail. My roommate taught me the recipe. You’re gonna love it.”


A few hours later, James staggered into the warm night, after having left Loki inside to settle up with the manager. Although his tolerance was unrivaled (well, Natasha could match him… and now Steve, he’d recently learned… and Loki, too… fine; he was in the top five of tolerance among people he knew), he must have been tipsier than he realized, because almost immediately, he found himself being mowed down by a bike. His spatial awareness was usually more finely tuned than that. Just before the collision, a strong hand closed around his arm and yanked him out of the way. He looked behind him to see…

Oh brother.

James pried himself out of Steve’s firm grasp. “What are you doing here?”

“I was just on my way to the movies.”

“The theatres are on 23rd Street.”

Steve looked at the street signs and grimaced. “Missed my stop?”

The lie was so weak that James couldn’t even get too worked up about it. “Do me a favor and never play poker, okay?”

He dragged Steve northwards, towards the movie theatres he so obviously wasn’t headed to, and away from the coffee shop, in case Loki came out and saw them.

“So, what’s all this about?”

“I was worried,” Steve said. “About you. With him.”

“I’m a big boy. And Loki’s not this evil ogre you seem convinced he is.”

Steve’s eyebrows shot up. “So it wasn’t an interview, was it?”

James had already discovered that he had a hard time lying to Steve, but in this case, the truth proved difficult to articulate, not because he was trying to hide it, but rather because he himself had no idea what it was. He’d shown Loki how to make drink after drink, and all the while, the conversation had hovered over the line between interview and first date; he hadn’t realized how similar the two could be until tonight. And given Loki’s foreign—Norwegian, he guessed—roots, he figured the problem was that the guy wasn’t sure what signals to send. Their conversation had gone back and forth: between Loki’s decision to start the global warming foundation and his recent solo vacation to Easter Island; from James’s recent assassination foiling escapades to his recent discovery of a new biergarten in Fort Greene. Professional to personal, sarcastic jokes to serious discussion.

Loki must have grown up just as privileged as he was now, the product of a childhood that had left him entertainingly helpless. He didn’t know to cut a lemon wedge or pry ice cubes out of a tray or anything. He moved so gracefully and talked a good game, but when asked to perform the simplest tasks, he became clumsy, swearing under his breath in his strange mother tongue. James was aware of the distinction that had been granted him to see this less put-together side of Loki, and he knew enough not to tease.

But ultimately, disappointingly, nothing had happened. As the mixed signals continued, James hadn’t known how to proceed, and therefore, he’d decided to back off. The last thing he needed was to misread the situation, make an unwanted move, and have Loki sue the paper for some sort of gay panic sexual harassment. One never knew.

Which all left Steve’s question of what had just transpired hanging in the air. He knew Steve wouldn’t believe him (and wished he didn’t care) but he was telling the truth when he mumbled, “I don’t really know. It wasn’t not that, but we didn’t get much interviewing done either. We scheduled a follow-up for Thursday.”

“Where’s he taking you this time?” Steve asked darkly. “Dinner and a movie?”

“What’s it to you, anyway?”

“I just don’t see how this is a good idea. Where’s the line between on the record and off? If he tells you something thinking you’re friends, or whatever, then how do you know whether or not to print it?”

“I know what I’m doing.”

The problem was that he didn’t. Steve was right; like a real life Jiminy fucking Cricket. He was a good guy—the best—but life had been less complicated before his arrival.

“Hey,” he said brightly. Where managing Loki had simply been the application of well-practiced skill, knowing how to get Steve off his back when he was in one of his goody-two-shoes spells was more like instinct. “I actually could go for some movie nachos to soak up all this booze. What were you planning to see? I mean, what would you have said if you’d thought out your alibi a little better?”

“I know what you’re doing,” Steve said.

(That didn’t stop it from working like gangbusters, though.)


It was almost midnight when Steve got home, but he had a feeling Tony was probably still up, so he punched in the access code to take him up to the penthouse. After wandering the hallways and staircases calling Tony’s name, JARVIS directed him to the balcony. Tony was sitting cross-legged behind the R in Stark, drinking champagne straight from the bottle and taking notes about a row of multi-colored test tubes. Tiny explosions popped out of the vials.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked, sitting on the ledge so that his feet dangled into the nothingness below.

“Got inspired by the bottle of Dom Perignon I drank earlier. Wanted to see if we could make a weapon that, you know, just keeps on exploding, in tiny, self-sustained bursts. But Pepper and my insurance agents told me I wasn’t allowed to blow things up inside the apartment anymore, so I came out here. Nice night for it, don’t you think?”

Steve would never understand this part of Tony, just as he’d never understood it about his father, either. Tony didn’t just invent deadly weapons for profit—that Steve would have been able to wrap his head around—he genuinely enjoyed it. For example, right now, when he could have been asleep, or out on the town, or doing anything else, he chose to sit out here alone and dream up explosives.

“You’re up late,” Tony noted, glancing at Steve through infrared goggles that made him look even more like the mad scientist he was. “You usually have your flannel jammies on at this hour, if you’re awake at all.”

“I just got back from the movies.”

“What did you see? Must have been a real downer. You’ve got the look of a man who’s just come out of a French art house comedy. The kind that starts with a miscarriage and ends with someone committing suicide by drowning themselves in a lake of fire.”

“Huh?” More often than not, when Pepper wasn’t around to serve as translator, Steve had no idea what Tony was talking about. “I… Do you have a minute? There’s something I could use some advice on.”

They were both distracted by the explosions beginning to go off in an attractively timed sequence, red and blue and purple bubbles frothing in a row. Tony finished scribbling some notes and turned to Steve. “I’m all ears. What’s on your mind?”

“It’s James,” Steve began, and then stopped when he heard Tony’s aborted snort. “What?”

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing. I’m just, uh, trying to warm into my ‘good listener’ persona. Keep going.”

“I think Loki Laufeyson is trying to manipulate James into dating him.”

“So why doesn’t he just say he isn’t interested?”

“That’s the rub. I think he is.”

Tony sat up so quickly that he accidentally knocked over one of his test tubes. “This Barnes guy you won’t shut up about is gay?”

“I’ve barely mentioned him.”

“The word ‘barely’ seems to have taken on an expanded definition since I last looked it up.”

“Anyway, no, I think… I think he just, uh, doesn’t discriminate.”

“It’s called being bisexual.”

“I know. Sorry. I’m still getting used to all the new terminology. Getting used to talking about it at all.”

Tony stared at him, brow furrowed as purple froth from one of the test tubes stained his pant leg. “Yeah… that’s above my pay grade. Let’s table that for when Pepper’s here,” he said, mostly to himself, and then in a more confident tone, “So, the problem is that they maybe are dating and, for some reason, having absolutely nothing to do with you, this is a problem.”

Steve told Tony about the phone call, about the interview that wasn’t, about James’s moony distraction afterwards. “I’m scared Laufeyson’s just using him to further whatever his agenda is. Using the paper, too,” he added, trying to convince both Tony and himself that this wasn’t personal.

“And you told Barnes this?”

“He doesn’t see it. Thinks I’m paranoid.”

“For what it’s worth, I think you’re being a little paranoid, too. I took you seriously the other night, so I looked this Laufeyson guy up myself, but everything was above board. I met him once, I found out, though I don’t remember it. A couple of months ago at a conference. I even dragged up some footage, but I wasn’t missing out. He just seems like a sad little otter on the verge of a temper tantrum. Whatever.”

Steve pulled his knees into his chest and rested his forehead between them. Bitterly, he said, “James chewed me out for following him tonight.”

“Stalking isn’t usually the most effective means of getting people to take you seriously.”

“They’re supposed to meet up again Thursday after work. But if I keep interfering, it’ll only make things worse.”

Tony went back to making notes on his experiment, but Steve could tell he was mulling over the problem.

“You said Barnes was real impressed with Captain America, right?” Tony asked a few minutes later with an evil grin on his face.

“Yeah?”

“And you’re all supposed to be working on the next Captain America story? Tracking down the mysterious, media shy hero? And, big surprise, no one’s getting anything?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, wouldn’t it be convenient if Barnes got his big break on, say, Thursday?”

Sometimes, Tony proved himself to be as smart as he always gave himself credit for.


James had been thinking about what Steve had said. About how this ambiguous situation was causing a professional conflict of interests.

So, tonight, he told himself, he’d get there and immediately lay his cards on the table. James had figured out a way of wording the question so that if the answer was ‘interview only’, Loki probably wouldn’t even know there had been any confusion. If all Loki wanted was press, James would leave and have Darcy book a conference room for himself, Loki, Jane and whoever else might be relevant for a substantive meeting. But if these meetings were Loki’s weird way of asking him out, then they’d go out, with no story to serve as an excuse.

Given that he’d put on the only other expensive shirt he owned (to Natasha’s raised eyebrows that morning), he had his fingers crossed for the latter.

He was strolling the last few blocks to the biergarten he’d picked out (“something less hoity-toity this time,” he’d decreed on the phone that morning, “and I promise you’ll have fun”) when, behind him, he heard a faint whoosh, and then Captain America was walking beside him.

“Hey,” the Captain said.

“You’re a hard guy to find,” James said as lightly as he could with a tongue that suddenly weighed ten pounds.

“Heard there’s a rumor going around that I’m an alien.”

James could sense everyone around them staring. He tried to play it smooth, but, just like the last time, the Captain short-circuited his brain a little; this wasn’t nearly as easy as talking to Loki. “Are you?”

“No. But I can see why people might think that. So, I figured I should find someone to help me set the record straight. And I couldn’t think of anyone better than you. You busy right now?”

Of all the shitty timing… He could hardly say no. This would be quick, James told himself. He could fit both in. And this was definitely work, while the other was… “Nope. Just… just walking.”

“Great. How do you feel about grabbing a cup of coffee?”

“I love coffee.” James momentarily closed his eyes to hide his own wince; that was lame. “There’s a great little place a couple of blocks from here.”


Steve had taken Coulson’s assignment perhaps too strongly to heart; but how could he not? The research had been easy enough; he knew exactly what he was looking for and where to find it. His profile of Captain America’s WWII exploits had turned into an ode to the Howling Commandos, less about Cap’s role as a symbol and leader than about the beauty of teamwork and the individual, unsung, real-life heroism of the regular men who’d followed him.

Coulson’s bland smile had wavered with emotion while reading the draft earlier that morning. “That’s…” he began, and needed to collect himself to finish. “That’s looking really good so far.”

Steve was putting the finishing touches on the piece, just as he’d been when James had left him at his desk a couple of hours earlier. Everyone else had long ago gone home, so, for all anyone knew, he’d been there the whole time.

“Where’s the fire?” he asked when James slid into his chair and feverishly booted up his laptop.

“I just scored another Captain America exclusive. He stopped me on the street and asked me to grab coffee with him.”

“You’re joking,” Steve said with perfectly feigned surprise.

(He had been told numerous times—by the nuns in the orphanage, by his troops, by James himself—how impossibly sincere his entire aspect was. The thing none of them had figured out, though, was that Steve wasn’t quite as nice as everyone gave him credit for.)

“It’s no joke. He just super-ran up next to me and said he wanted to chat. Said he knew people probably had more questions and thought I was the right person to answer them.”

“He must like you something awful to be giving you such special attention.”

“I don’t know if he likes me.” James sounded less self-assured than Steve had ever heard him. Almost bashful. “I happened to be there the last time, and he already knows I’ll write something nice about him, unlike some of the other journalists out there. He’s probably just trying to go with a known quantity.”

“What was he like? I mean, now that you had more of a chance to talk to him.”

James sucked on his lower lip a little, and Steve hummed inside to see the open want on his face—for him, though not really him.

And this had officially become a problem.

“Smart. Kind. Has a surprisingly sarcastic sense of humor. Insanely hot.”

Steve’s stomach tied itself into knots. “He wears a mask. You don’t even know what he looks like.”

“Who needs a face when you have that ass?”

Steve spat out his Dr. Pepper. (One of his favorite things about this century was the wide variety of sugary beverages on offer; he’d made a little ritual of trying a new one every week.)

“No, but really. It’s not like that. It’s not,” James emphasized when Steve turned an incredulous face at him. “I almost prefer no face. It keeps him untouchable. Impossible to ruin. Old WWII hero come back to remind us of a simpler time when good guys punched the bad guys in the face, the end. I almost wish I weren’t the one he kept giving exclusives to. He should be talking to someone better than me. He should be talking to… I don’t know… Someone good. Someone like you.”

“What are you talking about? You’re good.”

“I’m a good reporter,” James replied, but somehow the admission didn’t sound like agreement.

“Sounds like he made quite an impression on you. Again.”

“Yeah, yeah he did. He said a lot of really great stuff.”

The thing was, Steve hadn’t said anything at all. Just a lot of pabulum, the same kind of crap the Senators had told him to say on the road. Things he felt—about doing the right thing and standing up for good old American values—all true but unspecific. James’s palms had been sweating a little too hard to hold the pen, Steve had noticed, and he’d kept nervously brushing back hair that wasn’t even in his face, but he’d tried his best to stay on task and press on the kinds of questions Coulson had laid out in the Monday morning meeting. Steve and Tony had gone over his answers beforehand. He hadn’t said anything about where he lived, what he did in between crises, what his relationship was to the Captain America from WWII. But it didn’t matter, because James had seemed pleased, bowled over, really, and it wasn’t like another paper was going to get a better story, or any story at all.

“He takes his coffee like you,” James added. “Well, like us. With practically a whole bowl of sugar in it. I’ve never met anyone else who does that.”

“You don’t say.” Inside, Steve was punching himself in the gut. What a rookie mistake. He’d have to be more careful about that sort of thing going forward.

“Huge sweet tooth,” James continued to ramble in a dazed glow. “That’s a nice human interest touch to put in the story, don’t you think?”

“Wait,” Steve said, as though he’d just remembered, as a way of changing the subject before James remembered any other slip-ups he may have made. “I thought you were supposed to interview Loki tonight.”

At this, James eyes went wide in horror and he slammed his face into his flexed hands. “Fuck. I completely forgot. I got so caught up with… And he’s the touchiest person I’ve ever met. You don’t even know. He’s gonna flip. Dammit. Well, I guess that’s another bridge burned.”

He looked at his phone and made a motion to pick it up, but then resolutely turned back to his computer and began typing.

“Aren’t you going to call him?” Steve asked.

“It doesn’t matter if I apologize now or later; he’ll be pissed either way. But if I deal with him later, at least I have a shot of getting this into tomorrow morning’s printing. Now, lay off and let me write. In half an hour, I want to swap copy to make sure the stuff you’re writing about Cap in the 40s complements the stuff I’m writing about Cap from tonight.”

“Sounds like a plan.” He remembered something. “Hey, did you get Coulson’s card signed?”

“Shit. I forgot. I’m a mess today.”

“Don’t beat yourself up about it. Something tells me you’ll get another shot.”


Loki stood on his balcony, seething with silent rage.

He picked up his glass tumbler from where it sat on a table beside him and weighed it in his hands. This was his favorite glass, he was reminded as he turned it over and over in his hands, feeling its weight.

He hurled it with considerable force it at the brick wall and watched the red stain of his drink spread across the grout like blood.

He didn’t feel any better. Perhaps he needed to find something bigger to break. Like a skyscraper.

On the drive back to Manhattan, the live television feed installed in his Escalade had shown recent CCTV footage of Captain America sitting in an outdoor café in Fort Greene. His companion’s back was turned to the cameras, but Loki recognized the hair and the set of the shoulders as belonging to James Barnes.

This was the reason Loki had spent two miserable hours alone, a mere two blocks away, in a noisy tavern teeming with Midgardian peons. Rarely had he been treated with such rank disrespect, not only by the human he had foolishly deigned to favor, but by the wait staff and vulgarly intoxicated other patrons.

James had called to apologize, hours later. Indeed, right now inside Loki’s pocket, the phone was vibrating yet again. But no matter how sharply curiosity nettled him, Loki had debased himself enough for one night. He struggled not to answer, and ultimately succeeded.

The hurt was deeper for having resulted from disappointed expectations. With its high ceilings, wooden tables, uncomfortable chairs and churlishly served mead, the tavern had reminded Loki of the kinds of places he’d used to tag along to with Thor and his friends; companions who had barely noticed he was there, and had left him to sit alone and observing in a corner. Tonight had been his chance to finally see what it was that beings across the realms found so intriguing about such places. Someone—a friend, he’d naïvely thought—had invited him, specifically him, had chosen the venue hoping he’d like it, promising an evening dedicated to showing him a good time. Loki had gone, and had an even worse time than usual.

There had been little in his life since falling through infinite chasms and finding himself on Midgard. For so long, he had been invisible in Asgard, the shadow lurking behind Thor’s golden sun, but at least he had been a prince, someone to be accorded respect regardless of how little he was liked. He had thought, as Midgard’s most superior resident, that the inhabitants would worship him instinctively, without even knowing why. Here, however, and stripped of his magic by the fall, he had found himself to be, if possible, even more invisible. No matter how much wealth he accumulated (these silly mortals thought there was magic in the manipulation of funds), they still failed to notice him. James Barnes had been the first to see Loki’s worth, the only one to see at him as he deserved—as the most interesting person in the room, as he’d put it so neatly. Loki had convinced himself that his own preference was born out of something deeper and more practical than quotidian enjoyment of the man’s relaxed conversation or the tilt of his grin. He told himself there was a puzzle to be solved here, potentially of value greater than mindless and irrational attraction.

But like everyone else, James had let him down. He’d gotten distracted, made Loki feel, yet again, like an unworthy runner-up to this odious Captain who apparently possessed greater powers of fascination.

Twice now, this not-quite-human soldier had come between Loki and what he desired. Today, it was the distraction of the one being on this realm in whom Loki had found any pleasure or taken any interest. But before that, it had been the removal of the Ruritanian Prime Minister from power in order to ensure that his foundation, nominally formed to research global warming, but secretly tasked with searching Scandinavia for lost sources of occult power, would be granted unlimited access.

He knew it was a weakness, this continued partiality for a mere human who had dared to slight him. Loki was aware that James was at least as complicit in the derailment of these plans as the Captain, but he found it difficult to hold the actions against him. If anything, James’s conversation the other night had informed him of exactly how incompetent the help he’d hired had been; Midgardian mercenaries were obviously not as effective as those of Vanaheim. In the future, Loki had learned from the story, he would have to manage matters himself—a most valuable lesson, which he had silently thanked James for. It had all turned out all right in the end, though; the foundation’s application had been passed while the Prime Minister had been recovering in a New York hospital. Still, without the interference of the Captain, the matter might have been settled more neatly. And without his inopportune incursion tonight, Loki’s evening might have been one of the few worth enjoying since coming here.

Loki had done nothing personally to Captain America, but the timing could not have been a coincidence. He took the maneuver as it was certainly intended: as a declaration of war.

Chapter Text

“You didn’t finish.” Steve pointed at the plates of lasagna Jane and James were deliberately trying not to look at.

James pushed his plate a couple of inches away from him. “If I eat another bite, you’re gonna have to roll me home.”

“I think I’m going to die,” Jane groaned in agreement.

“Welcome to my world,” Pepper said. “I put on five pounds when he was living in Malibu. It’s hard to resist those puppy dog eyes of his, trying to guilt you into eating more.”

“I was raised to finish everything on my plate,” Steve said, pouting (though secretly warmed) about the way everyone was ganging up on him.

“What are you?” James asked. “Little Orphan Annie?”

“You’re not far off.”

Steve was throwing a dinner party—his first ever. Never before had he lived in a place worth inviting people to, nor had he had anyone to invite.

It was more than a dinner party, though; it was a two-pronged tactical plan.

First, Jane had been having a rough week. Her boyfriend, Donald, had dumped her out of the blue, run off with some uncomplicated yoga instructor. To make matters worse, Darcy was on vacation with the kind of regular, non-work friends the rest of the dysfunctional team seemed to lack. As Jane’s closest remaining confidante, Steve had been doing a lot of heavy lifting in terms of her mood over the past few days.

Second, Pepper was in town, and, almost as much as cheering up Jane, Steve wanted to give her a chance to be in charge, for once. It was none of his business, but he thought she was cut out for a lot more than a life lived in the shadow of Tony’s narcissistic sun, secretly pining over her oblivious boss. It wasn’t anything they’d ever talked about, but her hopeless workplace crush was as obvious to him as his was to her. With Tony away, they were able to throw the kind of party they both preferred—simple and cozy, without armies of caterers and help.

James was already familiar with Steve’s singular position in the Stark household, but Jane was all agog. In a moment of social avoidance, Steve had simply texted her his address without giving her warning of what exactly that address was or who the cohost was. It was a good thing James was running late, because the dinner would have had to start later than planned anyway; Jane had begged Pepper to take her on a tour of the laboratory facilities downstairs. They were holding the party in Pepper’s apartment, but Jane wasn’t stupid; between little things Steve had told her over the past few weeks, she put together pretty quickly to whom the apartment across the hall belonged. She talked and laughed and seemed to be having a good time, but he caught her giving him the stink eye throughout the meal.

Jane finally ended the lasagna standoff by taking her plate and James’s to the kitchen. Steve followed her to get more drinks.

“What the hell?” she whispered hotly by the sink.

“James pretty much spat on me when he first found out. I didn’t want you looking at me like that, too, so I just didn’t say anything.”

“I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but James has issues. Nuclear strength issues. The kind that make him act like an asshole sort of a lot of the time, even though he isn't really. But you have nothing to prove to me, Steve. You never will. But if you ever hold out on me again when it comes to state-of-the-art equipment, I will end you. I’ve been using duct-taped homemade stuff for years, but in just five minutes, Pepper offered me access to the labs downstairs whenever I want. I hope Stark doesn’t mind.”

“He won’t.”

“How do you know?”

“I mentioned you to him, and he’d heard of you. He said you shouldn’t have stopped working on your theories. Said you were onto something.”

Jane’s eyes lit up. “Tony Stark said that? He’s even heard of me? You’re not just trying to cheer me up?”

Steve shook his head. “It’s all true.”

“Thanks. That… that means a lot.”

When they returned to the dining room, James was, unsurprisingly, laying it on thick with Pepper. He had his elbows on the table and his face propped between his hands, all the better to show off his best come-hither smirk. “Has anyone ever told you your freckles are like the daytime version of a star-filled night?”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Jane said, gagging.

“Stop it,” Steve ordered.

“Really, I don’t mind,” Pepper simpered.

“Where is Stark, anyway?” James asked.

“He’s at an aerospace convention in Rotterdam. Which means I can finally get some work done.”

“When the cat is away, what does the mouse like to play?” James asked, leaning lasciviously forward.

Jane hid her face in her shoulder and groaned. “Please dear god make it stop. Like, do you want Steve and me to leave? ‘Cause we can go next door if you need us to. Or downstairs. There was something on the 23rd floor that—”

“He doesn’t mean it,” Steve said, leveling James with a calm stare. “He just likes to see how much he can get away with.”

James shrugged, as if to say, ‘what you want from me?’. He continued addressing Pepper, but eased up on the flirting. “You aren’t the only one with some extra time on their hands. It’s been so slow at work. I’m getting antsy.”

“You, too?” Jane asked. “It’s been pulling teeth trying to get good stories recently. It must be one of those cross-departmental slumps that happens sometimes.”

“I’m sure there’s news out there somewhere,” Pepper said.

“They’re exaggerating,” Steve told her. “It’s really not that bad.”

“Says the Boy Scout. Steve here doesn’t seem to care whether he’s breaking an international cover-up or covering sappy human interest tear-jerkers.”

“People liked my story about the old Brooklyn deli closing,” Steve protested.

“I’m going to have to go with some old faithfuls if nothing turns up,” Jane said. “You know: global warming, time travel theories, weird stuff.”

“I hear ya,” James commiserated. “Me, I’ve got a long-shot thing lined up for this week, but there’s no guarantee it’ll turn into anything.”

“You didn’t tell me about this,” Steve said. “Partner.”

“That’s ‘cause this is a solo op. Something that’s been on my radar for ages, but I’ve never had the time or a way in. Find another sob story to write if you have to, but you’re not getting anywhere near this one.”

Steve couldn’t understand why James was suddenly reverting back to his ‘lone wolf’ status; they’d moved past that weeks ago. “I’m not trying to steal your story.”

“I know. But I’m still not telling you about it.”

Steve knew better than to push, so he pretended to let it drop.

Later—much later—he and Pepper were pressuring Tupperwares full of lasagna onto their departing guests. In a not-so-uncharacteristic gentlemanly move, James promised to see Jane home safely, despite her protests that she was fine on her own.

“If this is some lame attempt to get me to—”

“You made it crystal clear two years ago that it was never gonna happen. You’re still a peach, but I’ve moved on. Believe it or not, chivalry does still exist, and you’re looking at one of its primary defenders.”

The elevator door shut, leaving Steve and Pepper alone in the elevator bank.

“You’re going to find a way to get in on that new case, aren’t you?” Pepper asked as they went back inside to clean up.

“Someone has to save him from himself.”


James practiced an entirely different gait on the way from the subway to the club. He jutted his left shoulder forward as he walked, and affected a looser-limbed aspect that made him seem taller and thinner than he really was. Between the new posture and the blond mop-top with eyebrows dyed to match, not even Natasha would have recognized him.

(Okay, Natasha would probably still have recognized him, but almost no one else.)

James enjoyed this—games of dress-up and storytelling, plotting and playing. It was slightly more Natasha’s wheelhouse than his, but he was no squirt. His first big break at the paper—the reason for his initial promotion from gopher to reporter—had been a job like this. Posing as a prodigal rich kid returned from a year of hippie-ish do-gooding around the world, he’d crashed a party, manipulated a couple of teens into joining him in a high-stakes poker game in Queens, and busted an international gambling syndicate. He’d gotten the kids out, and secretly returned the money later on with no one the wiser. The story had run on the front page, and Coulson himself had led James to his new desk on the main editorial floor.

That had been one of the happiest days of his short life.

Today’s case had been on his radar for almost two years. The Club Nolita, pretentiously nestled not in Nolita, but rather in the no-man’s-land between the Meatpacking District and Chelsea, had screamed ‘mob front’ ever since Natasha had taken him along to cover the opening. Since then, he’d periodically tried to dig up dirt on the place whenever he had a free moment; but those moments were few, and opportunities for an outsider to learn anything even fewer.

But today, during a week when he had nothing else to focus on, an opportunity had arisen. One of his seedier sources had given him a tip that the Nolita was in need of a bartender, and had helped him scrounge up an interview.

Not knowing exactly which international mob he suspected (he’d narrowed it down to the Moldovans, the Ukrainians and the Finns), James tried out the feel of different accents on his tongue as he walked. He pushed open the door and left the sunny daylight of the street for the permanent disco darkness of a popular boîte.

The day-time hostess, whose bare legs in short shorts wrapped around a stool, leaned forward to give him a gum-chewing once-over.

“You are here for job interview?” she asked in a rich Moldovan accent.

Ah. There it was.

James whipped out his trumped-up resume. “Heard you’re in need of a bartender,” he said, in a matching accent—one of the many he and Natasha had rehearsed earlier that morning, just in case.

(“Faint enough so that you sound professional,” she’d said, “but strong enough to sound like home.”)

The girl waved dismissively at his piece of paper and motioned for him to speak to a manager. The Nolita was less of a club than a lounge bar. A central sitting area attractively littered with wingback chairs and plush banquettes led to offshoot private crevices where small groups of the rich and restless could drink themselves into embarrassing stupors. A small stage area was cordoned off to one corner, and there were no fewer than three separate bars for cocktail waitresses to get their orders filled.

It was not the kind of place James would have frequented, even had he been able to afford $23 cocktails.

The interview went smoothly, child’s play. He told the right jokes, presented the right amount of swagger, respected his would-be boss with the right amount of humility, name-dropped a couple of towns in the mother country, and generally aced the part.

“You start tonight,” the weasel-faced goon decreed, and pointed at the bar furthest (thank goodness) from the stage on which who-knows-what horrible act of the evening would be playing. “That will be your station.”

He was already in the clear, but James garnered extra points by asking if he could borrow a copy of the extensive drinks menu so he could familiarize himself before the evening.

The place was empty when he showed up for his shift a few hours later, after a few hours back in Brooklyn to write emails, go for a competitive run with Natasha, and change into work-appropriate attire: skinny black suit, white shirt, even skinnier black tie. The other bartender at his station, Kryštof, greeted him brusquely; no matter how friendly James tried to be, they ended up arranging their workspace in silence. One by one, the other employees trickled in—disgruntled cooks, over-it dishwashers, ass-tastic waitresses, giant beefcake security guys.

One of said security guys drew his attention. He was tall and pale and broad and blond, just as he was every day; the only exception was that he wore a terribly tacky diamond stud in his left ear.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” James mouthed across the room at Steve. But Kryštof happened to ask him a question before Steve could mouth back.

All he could think was, Steve Rogers with an earring, and try not to laugh as he pictured the big lug ambling into a tattoo parlour and asking for a piercing with the same dorky eagerness that he asked for anything.

Such leisurely affection was dangerous, though. In delicate operations such as this, the last thing he needed was someone else to worry about. Steve handled himself well in lots of situations, but the guy was about as covert as a hurricane. Lord love him, but earnest, hokey, true-blue Steve wasn’t good at being anything other than Steve. And James wouldn’t have it any other way.

He was pretty sure Steve had never even been inside a club before, yet here he was posing as a bouncer.

Classic.

James watched the traffic patterns in and out of the men’s bathroom, and made a beeline when he knew it would be empty for a few minutes. Steve took the hint and followed him.

“You really are something else,” James whispered once they were alone and he’d checked for cameras or recording devices. “How did you even—”

“I sneaked a peek at your papers this morning and applied, same as you,” Steve whispered in reply, and then grinned, pleased with himself. “My name is Scott. I put Clint’s number down as a reference from a previous security job. Apparently, I used to be Christina Aguilera’s personal bodyguard.”

“You don’t even know who that is, do you? Now get out of here.”

“Can’t,” Steve said sweetly, knowing exactly how hot he was making James’s blood boil. “I’ve got a job to do. Did you know the last two bartenders died in that fire in Tribeca two weeks ago? Charred almost beyond recognition. Doesn’t that seem—”

“Yes, I know. That’s why I’m here. Investigating. The mob. And that’s why you’ve gotta go.”

“We’ve been through this. You don’t need to worry about me,” Steve said stubbornly, in a way that brooked no further argument. “I’ve been fighting my own fights all my life.”

“So have I. Doesn’t mean I can’t try to have your back, though.”

“Ditto.”

James could have continued scolding, broadening his scope from Steve’s over-developed hero complex to his infuriating cussedness, but he couldn’t help himself. He had to ask. “What’s with the earring?”

“I thought it fit. The hole will heal up when we’re done here.”

“I hope so. You look ridiculous.”

“It’s my disguise.”

“You look exactly the same, except now with extra dumb.”

“No one knows me. It’ll be fine.”

It was sort of true; James had, one bored night, googled Steve Rogers. It was a common enough name that a lot of people had shown up in the search results, but beyond the freelance clips, there was nothing about his Steve anywhere—no mentions, no social media, nothing. He’d questioned him about it obliquely once or twice, but it turned out that growing up an orphan and then going into Special Forces and then living alone didn’t leave a lot of data permanence. If anyone could claim not getting recognized, it was him.

James resigned himself to the fact that his partner was here to stay. “Ears to the ground tonight, okay? We’ll regroup tomorrow. Until then don’t even look at me. We’re strangers. Now get out of here. I gotta take a leak.”

Steve nodded and left before James had unzipped his pants.

The bar opened a few minutes later. It was Tuesday, but the place hopped the way a normal club did on a Thursday. The Nolita was so pretentious that they didn’t even open on weekends, thus keeping the B+T crowd out entirely. James hoped after he published his exposé, the place would burn down in a fire.

Coked-out heiresses and entitled celebrities soon demanded most of his attention. But despite keeping his hands and head busy with shakers and bottles, he managed to keep one eye out for anything that might prove suspicious. On his trips to the downstairs pantry, he noticed a few shady types disappearing into an almost invisible door in the satin wall coverings of the hallway. Like something out of Clue, it seemed to be a secret passage flanked by two enormous bodyguards. Two guys so big that you’d never notice a smaller person squeezing between them.

Not unless you watched with the rigorous attention that James paid. He was not only hyper observant, but also one of the only sober people in the joint, despite having taken two shots to humor a gaggle of girls who were so taken with him that they had actually refused an open table in favor of their seats at the bar.

James flirted easily with all the cocktail waitresses and hostesses in case one of them proved to have a loose tongue. One of the girls—a clear favorite of a certain Moldovan in a suit whom the managers treated like the boss—took a shine to him. James made excellent use of his fifteen-minute break, locking himself with her in a sub-pantry and asking innocent-sounding, ‘new-guy’ questions while sliding his hand up her too-short skirt. From the way she squeezed her legs around his waist and babbled a whole mess of stuff she probably shouldn’t have, James got the distinct impression the boss was not taking care of her the way she deserved. Even had she not been an excellent source of information, he would still have been more than happy to make up for it.

Cleaned up and clothes straightened, they went back onto the floor, she with a customer-pleasing improved mood, and he now armed with combinations of names, faces, and management structures.

He had been a bartender years ago, back before he’d been promoted high enough at the paper to no longer need a night job, so this came easily to him. He was raking in such good tips that, a couple of hours into his shift, he started wondering if perhaps he shouldn’t bust this place after all, or at least, not right away. A week of this, and he’d almost have enough to take Natasha on that heli-skiing trip she dreamed of.

“I’m Alex,” he said with automatic charm before his eyes had focused on the face of a new customer in front of him. “Here’s a menu. I’ll—” To his credit, James managed not to choke on his tongue upon making eye contact. He even managed to finish his sentence. “I’ll be back in a minute to take your order.”

He used another customer who was waving him over as an excuse to vacate and collect himself, but Loki’s questioning eyes followed him. James’s plan was to balls his way through, to will him to write it off as a passing resemblance.

Anyone who had ever spent more than a day with James would have been surprised to hear he’d gone further than the requisite professional apology (he wasn’t known for apologies), but he had left Loki three messages on the night of the aborted interview-date-whatever, and two more over the next few days. That had been almost a month ago, and Loki hadn’t called back, so James had given the whole thing up for loss. And it was too bad, too, because those two ambiguous interactions had been more enjoyable than any actual dates James had ever been on.

Loki had every right to be angry. But it wouldn’t be safe—for either of them, nor for Steve—for him to reveal James’s identity, inadvertently or not. The difficulty was that there was no way for James to ask Loki not to let on without… letting on.

“Alex?” Loki’s soft yet compelling voice called.

“Yeah? You ready to order?”

“Yes. I’d like a Molotov Cocktail.”

Fuck. The drink he’d made three times for Loki on their sort-of-but-not-quite date. Their drink, if two people who barely knew one another could have ‘things’. That was it. He’d been made. Still, he decided to keep trying. You can do this, he repeated to himself. You were made for this.

“That’s a bomb,” he politely replied, “not a drink.”

“Something tells me you know a recipe I would enjoy.”

After that, there was nothing to do but start pouring vodka. James stared boldly at Loki the entire time. He almost considered blinking in Morse code, which might have worked had this been Steve, but Loki probably would have assumed there was some dust in his eye. Loki was a genius, but, like Steve in a way, he had missed out on quite a few pieces of general education; he didn’t even know the NATO phonetic alphabet.

(James’s life had, in the past few weeks, become full of clueless weirdoes.)

“Here you go. This is on me. For making you wait,” he said, sliding the tumbler glass across the marble bar and projecting as much emphatic meaning as he could through his stare.

Loki had only ordered his drink about twenty seconds before, so… He nodded to signify private understanding.

“You had another customer,” he said slowly. “One whom you found more worth your while.”

One of the waitresses came by with an order for an entire round of Manhattans. Just before James retreated to the other end of the bar to make them, he explained, “No, just one my boss told me to look out for, no matter who else I was already helping. You know how bosses can be. And a guy’s gotta eat.”

Which was true, but not entirely honest. If given a choice between Loki and Captain America… James wasn’t sure Loki would come out on top. But Captain America was a spectre, a faceless ideal, not a real life option.

Plus, he thought bitterly, if they ever got to know one another, he doubted good ol’ Cap would—or should—lower himself like that. Loki on the other hand… Loki, before things had gone awry, had seemed to like him in part because of what a messed up bastard he was, which made the threat of disappointing him reassuringly easier to bear.

A few minutes later, as though no time had elapsed in their conversation, Loki, who had been sipping at his drink and watching him thoughtfully said, “I cannot say I know what it is like to have a boss, but I will endeavour to understand.”

James was still busy, but spared a second to grin at him. Loki dignified him with a slight quirk of the lips, the kind of smile that dispelled any uncertainty about what he’d been looking for the previous month.

It turned out Loki had been invited here for some sort of meeting. His business associate arrived during his second drink, and the two of them retired to a booth. However, they continued to ask the waitress to direct their orders to James only, since, she repeated, “Mr. Laufeyson doesn’t tolerate ‘libations prepared by second-rate minions’. Is this guy for real?”

James chuckled in response. “I think he is, believe it or not.”

Loki slid back into his vacated bar seat after his meeting was over. His regal attitude and resolute rejection of social expectations helped him pull off the difficult feat of hanging out at a club by himself without seeming like a loser or a creeper. They spent the rest of the night chatting in clever double entendres that, to anyone else, sounded like a mixology connoisseur simply admiring the skill on display. The mental exertion of trying to keep up with Loki’s increasingly acrobatic word games relieved some of the tedium of mixing drinks.

So far, all the signs were pointing to a night well-spent. He and Loki were definitely going home together, the managers had already said he’d passed the probationary part of his shift with flying colors, he was raking in dough, and he’d even made some progress on the case.

All he had left was to ensure Steve was all right, and the night would be perfect. So far, so good. Even while getting things straightened out with Loki, James hadn’t lost sight of his partner. And from the way Steve glared at them every chance he got, it seemed he hadn’t lost sight of them either.

Shortly after last call, Loki settled his tab and rolled his eyes at the forceful way James crossed out the overly generous tip addition on the credit card receipt.

The bartenders had a few minutes worth of cleanup duties, but the rest of the staff was pointedly dismissed, including Steve. James hoped the guy would have enough sense to just get in a cab and head home. They could talk tomorrow.

No luck. Halfway to the nearby intersection Loki had texted to meet at, Steve and his crazy earring popped out from a darkened doorway.

“Hey.”

“Look, I—” James began to say, but a limo turned the corner and pulled up to the curb beside them.

“I thought you’d never escape,” Loki said lightly through the rolled-down window.

“Come on, Steve,” James said as he climbed inside. Looking pleadingly at Loki he asked, “Do you mind dropping my friend off? He’s on the way.”

Steve remained iron-jawed and implacable on the curb. “I’ll take the train, thanks.”

“It’s 4:30 in the morning.”

Steve hunched his shoulders and barreled down the subway stairs at the end of the block.

Despite having done nothing wrong, James felt like the world’s biggest heel. And he was annoyed, because he’d spent the past month regretting how things had gone down. Now it had all worked out, but Steve just had to go and ruin his fun because of his unsubstantiated and one-sided beef with Loki and his perfectly above board foundation.

(The thing was, James wasn’t an idiot either. Steve was right that there was something off-kilter, not about the foundation, but about Loki himself; however, that was actually part of the reckless, ill-advised appeal. That and the cheekbones.)

“Your friend disapproves of me,” Loki observed as they drove.

James cut off any further conversation by slipping his fingers through the gaps between the buttons of Loki’s shirt and pulling him into a kiss.

By the time the limo turned onto Sixth Avenue to cruise through a string of green lights, they were already on the floor.


Steve had never fully appreciated his blackout shades until today. Even months of life with Tony hadn’t budged him out of his preferred early-to-bed routine; this project was going to be the death of him.

The club was two different train lines from home, but after getting off the L and seeing the wait at 14th Street for the next IRT train, he’d decided to walk the remaining thirty blocks up Park Avenue South home, which meant he hadn’t hit the sack until almost 6am.

It still felt unhealthily early-late when soft pings intruded on his sleep and gently annoyed him into wakefulness.

“What’s that noise?” he grumbled to himself.

However, living with a chatty AI system (it was designed by Tony, for goodness’s sake; of course it was chatty), meant nothing said to oneself ever went unanswered.

“I apologize for waking you, sir, but Mr. Barnes is in the elevator. I thought you would like to know.”

“Oh. Yeah. Send him up,” Steve mumbled unthinkingly, still waking up. He pulled on a tee-shirt on to go with the gym shorts he slept in and headed to the door.

James was wearing the same, now wrinkled, clothes he’d had on last night. The bags under his eyes betrayed even fewer hours of sleep than Steve had gotten. Dirty and sweaty and without careful reapplication of the goop that made it do that… thing… it usually did, his surprisingly flattering dyed blond hair stood up in all sorts of directions. He looked wrecked. Glowing, blissed-out, and irresistibly wrecked.

He looked so relaxed after his… Steve involuntarily closed his eyes to shut out the unwanted image that immediately sprang to mind, but it didn’t help.

It wasn’t the idea of James sleeping with someone else that made Steve’s heart ache and burn in a way it hadn’t since his transformation; it was the little twinkle of something extra that he’d noticed, not just the night before, but a month ago. They’d gone out drinking with Natasha and the other guys from work often enough for Steve to have watched James charm men and women, in almost equal measure, out of the establishments, and, presumably, into bed. Those nights didn’t bother him (much). Steve was okay with the fact that James Barnes had about as much sexual interest in him as he did in a piece of plywood. But casually sleeping with half of New York was one thing. James falling for someone—someone whose smug mug Steve couldn’t look at without his fists clenching—was another. Part of him guiltily decided that this was his fault for having played that (in retrospect) somewhat dirty trick to, as Tony had so classily put it, ‘cockblock’ them. It had had no right to work, and therefore it hadn’t.

“What are you doing here?” Steve asked as he let him in.

“Wanted to make a game plan for tonight.” And then with a quick glance at the ceiling, “Hey, JARVIS.”

JARVIS sounded positively indulgent when he replied, “Good afternoon, sir.”

“Afternoon? What time is it?”

“Three o’clock.” James took in Steve’s absent-minded eye rubbing and pajamas. “Were you still sleeping?” he asked in disbelief.

“Sort of.”

“Lazybones.” He went to the kitchen and began helping himself to the contents of the fridge; as a frequent houseguest, Steve had repeatedly asked him to make himself at home. “Hey, do you have any of that lasagna left? I’m starving.”

“Grueling morning, huh?”

James tried to play it as cool as he played everything, but Steve could detect a faint whiff of embarrassment.

Good.

“Tonight,” James said while the microwave spun a heaping plate of lasagna, enough for both of them. “I wanna take a different tack. Loki’s going to—”

“Loki? He’s in on this now?”

“I filled him in this morning.” James at least had the decency to keep his head down. “He thinks the whole thing’s a scream, you and me pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes. He wants in. Says it’s the best entertainment he’s had in weeks.”

“How come he’s allowed to horn in, but you made such a stink about me? At least this is actually my job.”

“With his money and position, Loki can play angles we can’t. And he’s like me; he doesn’t give a shit if anything happens to him, and there doesn’t seem to be anyone who’d give a shit either. But you…” James cut his food with an intensity he usually reserved for writing. “If I got my partner made or hurt or anything? Potts’d murder me and Coulson’d give me a performance demerit.”

There it was again: one of those inexplicable, self-loathing martyrdom fits James periodically came down with.

Steve didn’t know how to help except to keep reminding him that he had a lot to live for. “I’d care if something happened to you.”

“Yeah yeah.”

Steve rolled his eyes, but all he said was, “So what’s the play?”


Loki was in rare appetite today. He attacked his solitary dinner at Del Posto with more gusto than he’d approached any of his mostly solitary meals so far on Midgard.

Perhaps there was more merit than he had ever given to Volstagg’s often-repeated advice over the years about how a good wenching might improve his spirits.

As he sliced into his veal, he relived choice moments of the past twenty-four hours. Little had he anticipated when he’d made arrangements to meet with his Cayman bank account manager that the evening would end in so very many satisfactory ways. The choice of venue hadn’t made much sense at the time, but now that had been informed of the club’s ties to the Moldovan mob, he understood. His banker probably managed their offshore accounts, too.

Loki had already made peace with his own reconciliation with James. There was no shame in it, he told himself. He himself had never experienced pure penitence, but he was magnanimous enough to recognize and reward it in others; one of the many qualities he would be called upon to exercise when the time came to rule.

(The truth was that he’d dreamt of that smile in the weeks since their last encounter; no one else had granted him a similar one in the meanwhile.)

This was, if not the very first, then at least the first time in a long time since anyone had desired Loki as himself, not as a substitute for Thor, or as an embodiment of Asgardian royalty. It was the first time anyone had gone to bed with him simply for pleasure, without being tricked into it through illusions, or driven by hopes for profit, or surrendering out of a vassal’s sense of duty. The first time anyone had kissed him with his whole self; hands placed firmly on either side of his head, holding him close, corners of his lips curling happily as they sought out his. Loki had watched almost every single patron of that odious nightclub fall under James’s effortless spell—giggling or stammering or leaning pathetically too close—but he alone had been triumphant.

(Well, there was that girl in the basement pantry they’d talked about, but she did not signify. That stolen moment had functioned solely as part of James’s handsomely executed ruse—a ruse worthy of Loki’s approval.)

And even afterwards, back the penthouse, James hadn’t stopped to notice the gilded trappings that, both here and back on Asgard, had always been more interesting to Loki’s lovers than he was. The grandiose duplex overlooking Central Park was as close to royal Asgardian luxury as one could find here, but instead of marveling at the private lift or the antiquities dotted around the many rooms, James had been too busy with his nimble, filthy tongue down Loki’s throat to look around, and the only question he’d asked upon entering the apartment was where the bedroom could be found. Only later in the morning had he seemed to perceive his surroundings, but even then, his interest had lasted only about two minutes before they’d begun plotting for the next night’s activities.

They had napped on and off, not for more than a couple of hours at a time. Loki had dreamed, as he often did, of that unimaginably long fall, of the cold nothingness that had almost splintered his mind. In a new twist, James had seemed to be there with him, reaching for him and shouting his name, which was odd, because at the time, Loki had not even been able to hear his own screams.

He had awoken to find, not company in the fall, but rather, someone in his bed, shaking him awake—a rescuer; too late, but still appreciated.

In the millisecond before he had managed to collect his wakefulness around him like armour, James must have seen the uncharacteristic vulnerability etched on his face. And also the weak gratitude.

Damn.

“Are you okay?”

“It was only a dream,” Loki had asserted.

“Like hell it was.”

“Are you trying to tell me that I momentarily left this plane of existence to experience the events of my nightmare?” Loki had spat; he had grown so unaccustomed to concern—even concern as unpolished and gruff as this—that his instincts had at once moved to reject the efforts, or at least to pretend he despised them.

“No. I’m saying you were dreaming about something that happened to you. I can tell. You should… You should talk it through. It helps.” While stammering out the words, James had nervously rubbed the back of his neck.

The lie had already formed in his mind and prepared to drop mechanically from his lips, but… It was unlikely James could ever guess the true situation, so perhaps he could get away with a modicum of truth. Perhaps it would help.

“Falling,” he had confessed, and it had felt somewhat unburdening to vocalize it. “Endless falling, total blankness, desolation and loss.”

James’s response had not been one Loki could ever have expected. Instead of continuing to console him, James had violently retreated to the other end of the bed and had regarded Loki with a wild, suspicious glint, like a cornered beast of prey. “You made that up. That’s not what your nightmare was about.”

“You’re the one forcing me to talk about it, and then you call me a liar?” Loki had replied, with interest this time, not with anger. “What incentive could I possibly have to invent such a story?”

“I don’t know. I guess you wouldn’t.” James shook his head and inched closer again, replacing some of his suspicion with what looked like wonder.

Loki hadn’t understood why, but he was hardly one to refuse wonder when offered.

“Next time, in the dream,” James had continued, “try to make yourself crash. Grab for anything in the way. Look for ways to make it end faster so you can wake up, you know? I, uh, I read somewhere that that helps with that kind of dream.”

“I will take your advice under consideration. Though, in general, I would prefer someone to wake me. I’d have you, if you cared to continue on in the position.”

James, visibly flustered by Loki’s rare invitation, had replied in a non-sequitor. “I’m starving. And I could use some coffee. Let’s go down to the kitchen.”

“There's nothing there.”

“I’m sure you’ve got something. I’m not picky, you know.”

“As I am hardly inclined to prepare my own food, I don’t keep raw ingredients on hand.”

James had rolled his eyes. “I’ve been trying to figure out how you get away with being so obnoxious. Usually, I punch guys like you in the mouth.”

“I would recommend continuing to fight against such an impulse.”

“I will if you keep making it worth my while.” James pulled Loki to lie on top of him, making it clear how he defined the phrase.

“I will make it worth your while if you continue to calm my nightmares.”

“Deal.”

Loki was not so besotted as to forget a millennium’s worth of caution, however. It was clear that James had no ulterior motives, and was not interested in Loki for anything except the most straightforward pleasure; but there were still tests to be passed, questions to be answered. Despite the perfectly reasonable explanations, that initial rejection in favor of Captain America still rankled. Loki remembered the light in James’s eyes as he’d talked about the man before; he needed to be sure that James had truly chosen him over that masked buffoon, over that irritating parody of optimism. Until he knew for certain that he had won, he would not let himself trust or fall (too far).

Unfortunately, Captain America’s rare appearances made it unlikely that an opportunity for a test would soon arise.

In the meanwhile, Loki had been invited to play a part in this diverting game James had orchestrated. A part that offered him not only entertainment, but also the secret chance to gain a little something for himself as well.

When he arrived at the club for the second night in a row, he saw James’s work colleague, Steve Rogers, standing outside. While discussing the case, James had spoken of him fondly, affectionately, as one spoke of a brother and friend. Something about this blond, brawny Adonis nagged at Loki’s imagination, but he was juggling too many projects right now to pay attention to this relatively dull specimen. He dismissed the odd feeling as displaced irritation for Thor.

Steve made a great show of checking Loki’s identification and looked as though he wanted to reject him. The man was hardly a cipher; every twitch of his prodigious muscles screamed dislike. Steve’s silent infatuation with James was pitiably manifest. He was beneath Loki’s notice as a competitor, but there was no point in alerting James (a perceptive man who seemed uncharacteristically oblivious in this case) to this other option, so he intended to keep his lips sealed.

“Didn’t I see you as part of the interior security last night?” he asked conversationally.

“We rotate, I found out,” Steve grumbled. "One night in, one night out.”

“Pity,” Loki replied, and then whispered, so that no one else would hear, “It is unfair, is it not, how some of us are able to gain entrance to that which we desire, while others remain ever on the periphery?”

Steve’s face, green in the sickly half-light, was priceless. Loki flashed his most winning grin before sauntering inside.

James was at the bar, his skilled hands flipping peelers into the air and catching them before attacking oranges. His disguise was very good, as good as one could achieve without magic or medicine. But a stop to say hello, no matter how pleasant it might have been, was not part of tonight’s charade.

James’s tryst with the waitress the night before had taught him that one of the many illegal activities pursued by the management here was arms dealing. Loki had suggested that since his banker was likely theirs, he could use the connection to establish a measure of trust and ask for a meeting, positioning himself as a potential buyer. He’d feigned shock and dismay at finding himself inadvertently mixed up with a dodgy banker, and had made all sorts of promises to end the financial connection (promises he fully intended to keep, as a few other bankers had recently approached him, offering better rates); but it hadn’t mattered. It wasn’t so much that James had believed the act as that he simply hadn’t cared. His was a selectively diffident morality—yet another attractive quality.

Loki had reached out to his banker that afternoon and followed a subtly probing line of questioning that had lead to an 11pm appointment here to speak to someone. He gave his name to one of the hostesses and was led downstairs. For the good of the project, he submitted himself to a security guard (thankfully not Steve) for a pat down before entering a basement private room, the door to which was hidden in the satin wall covers. A man who refused to give his name was waiting inside, nursing a vodka.

“Olyshenkov tells me you want weapons.”

This wasn’t how Loki had expected this to go: two men at a table in a club, with no visuals or product demonstration tools at hand. To relieve some of the tension he felt, he reminded himself that his ignorance in these matters would never be known beyond the coterie of this man—who was soon to be exposed, arrested, and interred, if Loki’s faith in James’s abilities was valid, and he was sure it was. He could take chances here, be the innocent fool for once, instead of only playing it. And if anyone should ask, the answer would simply be that Loki had of course known nothing about such things, for he was simply helping out his reporter friends, and had no interest in buying weapons.

“I’m not sure what is available,” he began. “Do you have a… perhaps a catalogue? So that I may see the options.”

“This is not Amazon. You tell me what you want and I tell you if I can provide.”

“What if I wanted to, hypothetically mind you—”

“I do not waste time with hypothetical. Do you want weapons or not?”

“Fine. Not so hypothetical. What if I wanted to lay waste to large areas? Or at least the threat of such waste? Achieve destruction, not for destruction’s sake, but rather to force the hands of leaders? To place myself in a position of power.”

Truth as a lie (as far as anyone would know when the story came out). The most delicious type of ruse.

“You want warheads? With codes. Missiles, too, probably,” the man mused to himself, constructing a shopping list without care for the motivation or targets.

Loki had seen videos of these things used. The initial mushroom cloud was indeed remarkable but...

“What about something more… how do I put this?” (The words ‘so that your feeble mind can comprehend’ were implied.) “Something more elegant?”

Elegance in battle was apparently a thing unknown on Midgard, for the arms dealer snorted in derision. “I sell death, sometimes quick and clean, sometimes not so clean. You want elegance, talk to fashion designers.”

Loki ran his eye down the man’s horribly tailored suit, and couldn’t help but respond to this rudeness by saying, “Perhaps you are in need of such a conversation yourself. I can recommend—”

“Ah. Funny man.” He did not look amused. “But I know what you mean. You want something more special. However, for that, you want Stark, not me.”

“Stark?” Loki asked.

As much as such a philistine could express an appreciation for the sublime, the arms dealer did here. He closed his eyes and touched the tips of his fingers to his lips. “Stark Industries. They make beautiful things. Original, imaginative, beautiful means of delivering death—to one person or to millions. If I ever met him, this Tony Stark, I would…”

“…Ask for his autograph?” Loki said, biting back a laugh at the sudden transformation of this greasy Moldovan into a starry-eyed teenage girl.

“Perhaps.” He sighed, but then returned to his business-like demeanor. “But I cannot give you Stark weapons. They do only legitimate business, with governments. You must settle for something else.”

“I see. And what about something… something more?” Loki could not say the word ‘magic’. Much as they longed for and dreamed of magic on Midgard, the mortals for some reason disdained speaking of it openly. “What about… Hydra?”

The man sat back in his chair, more impressed than suspicious. “What do you know of Hydra?”

Loki knew little of Hydra itself, but he knew of the Tesseract, and knew that it, among possible other objects of power, lay hidden somewhere here on Midgard; his research had shown that at some point in the past hundred years, someone or something called Hydra had managed to harness its power into weapons that fit the mold Loki sought.

“It is what I meant when I said I wanted elegance,” he replied. “I know it has been a long time, but are there any of that ilk left?”

“What little is left has scattered around the world. And those who have them are collectors who will not part with them. But I know of a man. A man with whom I have done much business.”

“May I speak with him?”

“He will not part with what he has. I do not even know his name. He uses someone else as an intermediary. I can give you his information, if you would like.”

The conversation continued on in an unexciting fashion after that. The man had nothing more to tell him about Hydra except to confirm that Loki’s research had led him in the right direction, so, for the sake of the case, Loki pretended to be interested in some warheads. If nothing else, at least he was learning about how much such things cost (quite a lot, but not as much as one might think), and how to negotiate for them. He drafted a trade proposal on the back of a cocktail napkin.

The man’s vulgar zeal outpaced his discretion. “I will discuss your proposal at our meeting tomorrow night and let you know what the group agrees. Come back then and I will see you afterwards to let you know what they say.”

“Do you meet here?” Loki inquired casually, looking around the lavishly decorated room with long bar to one side. “It is a lovely space. And you can have drinks while you discuss.”

“Yes, we always get the best of the bartenders to serve us.”

“Sounds wonderful. There’s one upstairs who is quite excellent. I don’t know his name, but I refused to have drinks made by anyone else last night.” And just to throw him off the scent in case the man suspected that their chatting the previous night had been anything other than professional, “I’m thinking of bringing my girlfriend to try his drinks.”

“Oh, new guy. Yes, he is very good.”

Loki left shortly afterwards, sparing a wink for James and a smirk for Steve on his way out. After arriving at home, he sent his driver back downtown to pick up James when he got off his shift.

While he waited, he read some adorable nineteenth century French philosophy. Democracy in America, indeed. Pffft.

Not for long.

He became so absorbed in mocking his reading that he lost track of the time; when he looked up, the clock read almost six—over an hour after he had expected his guest to arrive. He called the driver to see what had happened, and was informed that James had left the club an hour and a half ago but had refused his services.

Loki’s ever-simmering anger and insecurity started to roil again.

Just then, James quietly let himself into the apartment.

“Long time no see,” he said with clear eyes and an easy smile, as though nothing was wrong. “How’d it go?”

“Very well,” Loki seethed. “They most certainly sell arms. And I have arranged so that you may be asked to serve at tomorrow night’s quarterly meeting.”

“Knew you’d come through.” James happily kicked off his shoes, seemingly blind to Loki’s almost palpable displeasure (in all fairness, the apartment was quite dark except for the single reading light).

“I sent a car to fetch you,” Loki said evenly. “You did not avail yourself of it.”

“I walked awhile with Steve. He wanted some fresh air while we debriefed.”

Oh. Of course. Loki felt the tension seep from his body at the words. The correct answers were so often the simplest and least dramatic. The reason James smiled as though nothing was wrong was because nothing was.

“Speaking of which,” James continued, loosening his skinny black tie and untucking his white shirt. “I want to talk about that.”

He walked over to where Loki sat, admittedly petulantly, and pulled him to his feet, with just enough extra strength to pull him a little too close to lips across which played a half-serious, half-naughty smirk. Loki knew that smile; he’d been making it his whole life. He leaned in for a kiss, but James pulled his head back just far enough to stay out of reach.

“I’m not here for all this, you know. For you helping with the case. Or for the limos and the view and the caviar—”

“I will never understand the obsession with dirty fish eggs in this—”

“—or any of it. I’m not interested in money, yours or anyone else’s. I can’t—won’t—be bought. Or owned. Just because you send for me doesn’t mean I have to come.”

“I—”

“I just mean… You don’t have to try so hard. Because, newsflash: when you like someone, you come anyway, because you want to. Got it?”

After all the time Loki had spent plotting how to force the humans to submit, James had found a new and infinitely more satisfying way of succumbing.

“Understood,” he gasped after James had finished kissing him, claiming him as possessively as he himself had just refused to be claimed.

James began unbuttoning Loki’s shirt, inching down with each flick of his fingers until he was on his knees. He looked incredible, with the moonlight from the balcony windows hitting his brow and lips moistened with Loki’s own saliva.

But this was no longer what Loki wanted, at least not from this. He could make an exception, he rationalized weakly to himself, knowing that if he lingered on the thought, the logic would dissolve. One human, of all of the billions of insignificant humans… His desire to see them all kneel could allow for one exception, could it not?

“No… don’t…” he said, stilling James’s hands on his belt.

“Wait, you don’t want me to blow you?”

Loki pulled him up to stand and then led him over to the plush rug in the den. He let himself fall gracefully backwards, pulling James on top of him.

“On the contrary. I simply prefer it like this.”

Chapter Text

James woke to a face-full of fur, because Loki’s endless reserves of eccentricity included a bed covered in luxurious fur pelts, like he was Jon fucking Snow or something. He was too tired to even shake the hair out of his mouth, though. After two nights in a row of the most original and exhausting sex he’d ever had, James’s muscles threatened to go on strike.

Loki was using those long fingers of his to draw a vaguely familiar pattern between James’s shoulder blades.

“Are you…” he mumbled in sleepy disbelief. “Are you tracing your name on my back?”

The fingers stopped. “…No?”

“Of course you aren’t. Because that would be hella creepy.”

“Yes. I agree.”

“And also because we talked about that sort of thing last night.”

“Right.”

“Great. Glad we’re on the same page. You can keep massaging me, though. That feels nice.”

The fingers resumed their gently probing dance between his shoulder blades, but this time in a more reassuringly unrecognizable pattern.

“Did you sleep well?” Loki asked.

“As well as I ever do, though it was hard to find the right temperature. The fur’s kind of sweaty, but you’re an icicle. Has anyone ever told you that?”

“In order to have received such commentary, one would have to assume I allowed numerous others to sleep beside me.”

James’s brain was still revving up, so it took him a second to understand what Loki was saying; as with most of his more endearing statements, the meaning was tightly wrapped in layers of syllables. “You’ve got the weirdest ways of making a guy feel special. I’m like that, too, though. Can never seem to get warm.”

Loki rolled on top of him to test and grinned mischievously down at him. “Your temperature appears normal.”

“What time is it?” James asked lazily, guessing it was only around eleven—definitely early enough for another go; Loki was very obviously up for it.

“It is just after two in the afternoon. We can order some lunch to be delivered us. I have procured menus since yesterday.”

But as soon as James’s brain caught up with the words, he crawled out from under Loki and shot out of bed, limbs crying out in protest. “Two? Shit. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I thought I just did.” Loki sat, pouting and artfully arranged in the furs, with arms crossed. “Why are you fleeing?”

“I have an appointment with Natasha at three.”

“Is that all? Call to say you’ll be late.” He reached out to try to pull James back into bed. “I’m sure she’ll even be amenable to rescheduling.”

“You don’t understand. I can’t be late. I can’t reschedule.”

“You live and work with her. I fail to see the urgency. What is the nature of this appointment?”

“We work out together three times a week.”

Loki’s face twisted into an affronted, ferocious sneer that would have scared most people, but not James. “You are meeting for a jog in the park? Pilates? This is what you are prioritizing right now?”

“In four years, the only times we’ve rescheduled have been when we were traveling for work. It’s less about letting her down than it is about letting myself down. This is how I measure my own self-discipline. Try to understand.”

Loki looked at his hands for a minute and nodded to himself; he reached down to the floor by his side of the bed to grab James’s underwear and throw it at him in a gesture of acquiescence. “Enjoy your exertions. Will I see you later tonight?”

“You’re coming by the club, right? Act two of ‘Loki the prospective terrorist’.” James snorted at the idea.

“Yes, but I meant… later.”

“No, I gotta go home tonight. If I don’t, Natasha’s stuff will start creeping into my parts of the apartment. I hate when that happens.” It was true enough, but not the real reason he was pushing back. James had rarely spent two nights in a row with the same person. Three would be a first, a measure and acceptance of seriousness he wasn’t quite ready to face.

“Tomorrow night, then,” Loki tried again. “You will be free of both your real employment and your pretend one. For once, we could meet at an hour earlier than five AM. Perhaps even do something civilized. Imagine that.”

“Imagine. Unfortunately, no can do. I promised Steve I’d take him to Coney Island tomorrow. If I ditch him… the eyes he’ll give me. Like a sad puppy getting euthanized. Don’t wish those eyes on me, Loki, please.” The glib excuses rolled off James’s tongue with the ease that came from frequent use. Automatically pulling away out of habit, out of fear, out of an ingrained feeling that he should run from anything he enjoyed before it turned to shit, like it always did; rationalizing to himself that it was probably in the other person’s best interest to be rid of him. He finished with that tried-and-true distancing line: “I’ll call you.”

Loki’s version of the puppy eyes was more stormy than sad and gave James his clearest glimpse yet of the almost feral tempest that brewed behind those placid features. Most people would have run from that level of dangerous instability, but for James, it was the one thing that could possibly reverse his knee-jerk attempts at flight. Hidden underneath his gruffly hip disaffection lay a masochistic softie who couldn’t help but attach himself to lost causes; Natasha had once described him, pretty aptly, as a ‘giant bandage desperately seeking a wound’. And Loki was the rawest, barely scabbed over wound James could remember ever having met.

Catnip.

“How about Saturday brunch?” he offered, squashing the instinct that had been driving him to pull away. “I could make you eggs and French toast, right downstairs in the kitchen you never use. And then do you on the balcony. No need to get too civilized.”

Loki’s expression thawed. “I will procure the champagne.”

James finished jumping himself into his too-tight black pants, but his shirt and socks were still somewhere downstairs. “I can’t be the only one who has other stuff to do,” he said. “Don’t you have to work? Do whatever it is you do to afford all this?”

“Only when I choose to.”

“Nice life you’ve got.”

“It can be tolerable. Today, for example.”

James had to force himself out of the room before he lost all willpower.

He was beat and longed for even a few minutes in his own apartment to unwind, but he hadn’t been lying; these workouts with Natasha were mandatory.

He bought some cheap gym shorts and a tee-shirt on his way to the gym and jogged inside at the same time she did: punctually.

“Long time no see,” she said as they exited the changing rooms a few minutes later, also at the same time. “Between all these sleepovers with Steve and Loki, I’m starting to think you’ve abandoned me and Bushwick for your rich new friends’ castles in the sky.”

James had kept Natasha abreast of his whereabouts—they always knew where the other was—and the company he was keeping, but the communication had all been through text message. There hadn’t been time for in-depth explanations. Her phrasing made it clear that she thought he had gotten dazzled, slipped into escapism.

“It isn’t like that,” he said. “I know what I’m doing.”

She studied him before replying. “I guess you do. I’ve just never seen you this happy before. I didn’t recognize it.”

“What does happiness look like on me?”

“Dumb. But cute.”

James chuckled. “How about taekwondo today? Since I don’t have sneakers.”

“Sure. We haven’t done that in forever.”

With his index finger, he drew circles in the air around his head. “But go easy on the face. It’s got important work to do.”

“Mob-busting work or face-sucking work?”

“Hopefully both. And with a side helping of cash.”

“Always an opportunist,” Natasha quipped as they stepped into the ring.

“So.” James assumed his starting stance. “Tell me what’s been going on. Office still standing? Apartment intact?”

“The living room air conditioner broke and flooded the entire floor, so that was fun,” Natasha said with an opening lunge. “And at work, the slump continues. Coulson’s got Clint doing a retrospective on the Dodgers. That’s how bad it is.”

“Steve’ll wet himself in excitement.”

“At least someone’ll happy about it,” she replied. “How’s he doing, by the way? Somehow I can’t quite picture him as an undercover bouncer.”

“He’s got an earring.”

“What?” Natasha’s irrepressible burst of laughter caused her to lean a little too far to the left, putting her shoulder right in the path of James’s fist. “You’re joking.”

“Dead serious. It’s amazing. I think he’s feeling a little left out, though. There hasn’t been much for him to do, other than stand there. And he still has his insane thing about Loki, where he’s convinced he’s the devil, for no apparent reason. I really don’t get what his problem is.”

“For someone so smart, you can be selectively moronic.” But before James could ask what she meant by that, she asked, “What’s going on with your investigation, by the way?”

Between huffs and kicks, grunts and feints, he filled her in.

Natasha pulled a move James knew well—had taught her, even—but his only parrying option was a sharp elbow to her pretty little nose, so he hesitated. He paid for his hesitation by getting kicked full in the chest and flipped onto his back.

“All this sex and easy living is making you soft,” she said with her foot on his neck.

He grabbed her ankle and disrupted her balance, yanking her to the floor and scrambling to cover her body with his own. Inches from her mouth he replied, “Never.”

“You choked just now.”

“I didn’t want to hurt you.”

“You still haven’t learned how to hold back without holding back, have you?”

James rolled off her, angry at having been called out. “Who cares? I don’t get into a lot of fights. Isn’t that the point of all this?”

“Says the guy who keeps throwing himself at Russian mobsters, or into assassination attempts. Sometimes I don’t know if you have a death wish, or the opposite. Maybe both.”

“What are you doing tonight?” he asked, openly trying to change the subject.

She looked away. “Helping Clint with his Dodgers retrospective.”

James had been so wrapped up in his own shit that he hadn’t noticed, but now that he was thinking about it, Natasha had been spending more evenings with Clint lately. All those nights of going to Yankees games, purportedly to cover the celebs in the cushy seats, all those Knicks games…

Natasha didn’t even like sports.

It looked like James wasn’t the only one who’d been making new friends lately. She and Clint weren’t sleeping together (he would have noticed that) but it was the deepening of any dynamic at all that counted. He was happy to see her happy—was happy to be happy himself—but watching their carefully constructed, safely guarded little world of two expanding was a terrifying thing. He didn’t know how this would work. He didn’t know if it could.

“It’s not like that,” she said, a little too quickly, her mind on the same road, her fear and denial even more palpable than his. “It’s not.”

“I’ll believe you for as long as that’s true.”

Natasha liked this subject just as little as James had liked the previous one. She hopped to her feet again, fists clenched.

“Round two,” she said. “And this time, you’re going to hit me.”


Steve was back inside tonight, but, as predicted, Kryštof was alone at his station. The managers had come over to James while he had been setting up and told him to head downstairs to prep there. It had been a unanimous decision to have him tend bar during the big meeting; a dangerous compliment.

There was little for Steve to do, just like the two previous nights. Standing around with no specific task, in a role that precluded him from speaking to anyone or gaining any clues, forced to watch James flirt with everyone, dragging himself through the day like a jet-lagged robot. This was the first truly miserable project he’d worked on so far. He simply waited for the end, for James to get the information they needed so they could expose these people and be done with this place.

And then it happened; the moment when everything fell apart.

He felt the barrel of a gun pointed in the small of his back, and almost instantly another. He had quick reflexes, but he didn’t want to test them here, when innocent drinkers could be hurt.

“Move,” a voice said behind him. The gun barrels nudged him forward, and so, he let them lead him downstairs and along the hallway.

The men on him were two of the other security guards—old hands and well respected, he’d learned. He could have taken them, but they’d already opened the door to the private room; Steve didn’t want James getting made or caught in any potential crossfire. He doubted they would hurt him right now; his plan was to let them do whatever they planned to do with him in order to buy time for James to eavesdrop on their meeting. He wasn’t worried, at least, not about himself.

Inside, about twenty men were clustered around small tables set for three. To the side, behind a long zinc and teak bar, stood James, casually mixing drinks. His quick hands stuttered for a second upon seeing Steve ushered in at gunpoint.

“What is this?” one of owners of the club asked.

“We ran a background check. ID’ed him as a reporter. He somehow thought an earring would be enough of a disguise.”

“Lock him in the fridge. We’ll question him later and then throw him in the river.”

It was all Steve could do not to laugh. He’d heard gangsters talking like that in the movies he’d snuck into when he was younger; today, and in these ridiculous accents, it sounded almost like a joke.

Their faces weren’t joking though. They shoved him towards a steel door he previously hadn’t noticed and pushed him inside a smaller adjoining room. The last thing he saw before the heavy vault door closed was James’s pale face, darkening and twisting with an expression Steve had never seen on it before. He wanted to mouth to him that it would be okay, but he couldn’t take the risk of these people finding out they knew one another. James’s disguise was excellent, and the way he inhabited his role was scarily professional, but dyed hair, a mole and a different way of moving wouldn’t stand up to a side-by-side photo comparison if it came into the Moldovans’ heads to investigate him, too.

The “fridge” as they called it, failed to commit to being any one type of room. It was colder than the rest of the club, for sure, but it had a small window near the ceiling, covered with a grate. A wall as thick as a bank vault’s separated it from the private room in which the meeting was taking place. For the first time, Steve saw the club for what it really was: a hold-out of old Manhattan. An authentic mobster joint, the kind they still made period movies about, with a speakeasy and everything upstairs. This room would have served the same purpose it was serving now: holding prisoners until they could be put on ice.

While waiting patiently for James to listen in on the meeting, he decided to work on removing the grate at the window, just in case. One by one, he worked at the joins until it came loose. He hadn’t mutilated it, though; it could still fit gingerly in place if someone came in and he needed to play innocent.

A faint noise, so muffled that at first he thought he’d imagined it, came through. Something that sounded like faraway shouts and screams.

Steve panicked. Something was going on in there, and James was locked in with them. Screw the story. Screw everything. He had to get out of here. He tried pulling at the door, kicking it, pounding it, but it wouldn’t budge. He would have needed a bomb to get through it.

There was another way in, though: the way he had come, from the body of the club.

He ripped the grate off the window and climbed out. He found himself in the dark alley where he had hidden his shield and mask behind a dumpster, just in case. It took only a second to rip off his clothes, revealing his uniform, and practically fly around the block towards the front door. On his way, he spotted a police car.

“There’s something going on in the Nolita!” he shouted through the rolled-down window at the relaxed cops inside.

“Captain…” they began to sputter.

Steve had no time for their star-struck slowness. “You have to call for back-up now.”

In his rush to get inside, he all but knocked down the very bouncers who’d been his colleagues for the past couple of days. But if the walls between the private room and the cell had been almost too thick to hear through, the architecture between the private room and the upstairs floor of the club was completely impenetrable. Everything was such business as usual in here that Steve almost wondered if he had imagined it. Kryštof was grumpily manning the bar by himself, Andrei and Ethan were standing stoically in Steve’s station from a couple of nights ago. Drunk Europeans flirted with South Americans. Even Loki had arrived and was doing that ‘drinking by himself at a fancy club for the third night in a row’ thing that only he seemed able to pull off.

The party screeched to a halt, though, when more and more people noticed Captain America pushing through the crowd to the stairs that led to the basement. A red, white and blue striped superhero in a nightclub tended to have that effect.

Behind him, Steve heard the cops (good ol’ NYPD, he thought) starting to mill in, but he was moving too fast to stop.

The door to the private room was locked, but bashing the hinges off with his shield took only a moment. The first thing he noticed when he stepped into the room was the quiet. The second thing he noticed was the stickiness under his heel. He looked down and saw blood. Dark, red, oozing blood.

It was everywhere in front of him, too. Bodies piled on top of one another, tables overturned. There were knives in the walls, scarring pictures and exposing the lighter-colored wood underneath varnished benches. Weapons that shouldn’t have been in there—but only a fool wouldn’t have expected a bunch of mobsters to find a way to sneak guns past the checks—were thrown around the room, used and discarded.

The only sound was Steve’s breathing and the footfalls of the cops who had followed him down the stairs.

Everyone was dead. It had been two, three minutes, tops, and everyone was dead.

He didn’t see James. Steve’s stomach lurched at the sight of a pile of corpses in one corner of the room, and a black pant leg sticking out from underneath it.

The blood pounded in his ears so deafeningly that it took a second for the sounds around him to register as words.

“Hey Cap,” a voice was saying. “Cap… Captain America?”

Steve forced himself to turn around. The policeman waving for his attention stood behind the bar and pointed at something out of sight.

Steve walked around the bar to stand with them, and, there, face down on the ground, the only body not nestled in a pool of blood, was James.

Steve believed in miracles. He wanted to believe in this one, too.

“James?” Steve knelt down, trying not to vomit.

“You know him?” one of the cops asked.

“He’s a reporter with the Herald. He interviewed me a couple of times,” Steve explained, while gazing sorrowfully down at the back of that familiar head.

But James wasn’t even unconscious, it turned out. Without warning, he flipped himself over, and ran to the door Steve had been taken through earlier.

“You’ve gotta get Steve out of there,” he shouted, pulling fruitlessly at the handle. “They said it was a fridge. He’ll freeze to death.”

“Slow down, buddy,” one of the cops said. “What are you talking about?”

“They took him,” James babbled, and Steve was almost more terrified by the hysteria in his voice than he’d been a moment ago, when he’d thought him dead. He’d never seen James so uncontrolled before, shaking and sweating and pale. “They took him and they were gonna kill him and I… I couldn’t just… So I… It just… I… For Steve.”

Steve placed his arms slowly around James, trying to still him into calmness. “Steve’s fine.”

“How do you know? How can he possibly be fine?”

“I just saw him. There was a window. He got out.”

“Where is he now?”

“He…” Steve hadn’t thought out a story and struggled to make one up on the fly. “He said he was going to find more cops. Or maybe he’s out getting questioned. But I saw him. I saw him just before I came in here. He’s the one who wanted me to come down and look after you. He’s not here now but he’s fine, I swear.”

With this assurance, the blind terror that had been fueling James ebbed, and he sagged to the floor, deflated. He curled up into a ball and hid his head between his knees, rocking himself in a pool of blood.

Steve had seen this before, during the war. You never knew when it would come on, after which scene of carnage; even the most hardened soldiers could lose themselves in a snap.

James, who had always had such hero worship—kind of a crush—on Captain America, flinched away when Steve bent down to try to massage his shoulder. “Don’t… Just… don’t.”

“Can you tell us anything about what happened?” one of the detectives asked, as kindly as he could of the broken man on the floor.

James looked up with horrible glassy eyes. His voice didn’t sound quite right as he tried to form words. Steve wanted nothing more than to hug him, but James flinched a second time when Steve tried to touch him.

It took a couple of attempts, but eventually, he was able to make coherent phrases. “Steve, my partner at the paper.. he got made. They took him in there and they… they closed the main door behind them. And I… uh. I bent down to get more ice… And... I heard yelling and I looked up and… Didn’t see. Just felt two bullets pass by my ear. So close. So I… I dropped and played dead. Pretended they got me.”

“What about the killer? Killers? Did you see who did this?”

James laughed hoarsely, incongruously. “Nope. It all happened too fast. Just wanted to stay down, stay alive. Next thing I knew, the noise was done and new people came in. I stayed down until I recognized Cap’s voice and knew you were friendlies. … I don’t know who he was. But he had to have already been in the room.”

James was right. They’d locked the entrance behind them while they were opening the fridge for Steve. Whoever he’d been, the killer had to have already been in the room.

Steve looked around for an exit and saw that one of the tiles of the ceiling had been yanked off.

“He could have escaped through there, if he isn’t one of the bodies here. I can go check it out.”

James was making it perfectly clear that he didn’t want him around, so Steve moved away and left him to be questioned. He crawled through the vents in the ceiling, but whoever he was, the killer was long gone. By the time he made his way back, the bodies had been catalogued and the evidence photographed. This was police work, so he asked to be excused, as long as they didn’t have any further use for him.

The police captain came over to shake Steve’s hand. “I think we’ve got it from here, Cap. Thanks for all your help. Without you, we wouldn’t have known to come here at all.”

“It was no problem. Are you done questioning him?”

“We’ll be in touch if we think of anything else, but I doubt it. Poor guy doesn’t seem to have seen anything. We’re just glad someone made it out of this alive.”

“Come on,” Steve said. “Let me help you upstairs.”

The ease that usually existed between them was nowhere to be found. James was limp and withdrawn, and he shrank away from all of Steve’s attempts at friendliness. He wouldn’t even look him in the eye.

“Why are you so nice to me?” James whispered as he reluctantly allowed himself to be hoisted to his feet.

“What do you mean?” Steve couldn’t understand. Why wouldn’t anyone be nice to him, even outside of right now, when he was so obviously traumatized?

“You’re so… you… and you ask me for interviews and you’re looking out for me now…”

“We’re friends. Friends look out for one another.”

James guffawed, but it was a bitter sound. “We aren’t friends. You don’t know anything about me.”

“You should probably go to the hospital and get checked out,” Steve said, attributing James’s ramblings to PTSD.

“I’m fine. Don’t need a hospital. Don’t have a goddamn scratch on me. Just need to go… Just need to find Natasha. She’ll know what to do.”

“Natasha…” Steve didn’t know how much Captain America was supposed to know about James. He supposed the names of the editors of the paper he’d been giving exclusives to should be public knowledge. “Your colleague, Natasha?”

“She’s m’roommate.”

They made it up the stairs, back into the main lounge area, where the now swarming police were questioning patrons one by one before releasing them. Steve spotted Loki perched regally on a high stool by the bar. The poor police officer who appeared to be asking him to leave was getting a whole lotta haughty indignation straight in the face.

“I will not leave this place until I learn what has become of—”

Loki narrowed his gaze upon first spotting Steve’s—Captain America’s—tall frame and what it was supporting. But then James, whose eyes must have followed the loud voice, saw Loki, too; he slipped out from underneath Steve’s arm and staggered, with momentary strength, over to him.

Steve felt his heart crack a little as he was left holding empty air. Meanwhile Loki, who, judging by his stunned and stiff reaction, had never hugged anyone before, flailed his arms in fluttery, uneasy dismay around the bundle of nerves that was currently semi-collapsed against him. He looked back and forth between James and Steve with a sequence of reactions flickering across his face: first, surprise and confusion; then switching over into gratification and a very nasty sort of triumph; before settling into genuine worry and affection. The last set of emotions only appeared for a split second before Loki schooled his face into the bland mask he usually wore, but Steve had seen it all.

Loki tentatively raised his arms and placed them around James… more of an anointing than a gesture of comfort, really. A peculiar reaction, but what little Steve had seen of Loki had all been peculiar.

Looking up at Steve, Loki asked—reluctantly, but still he asked: “You rescued him?”

Steve had been staunchly rejecting that anything honest was happening on Loki’s side, or that there was anything other than lust on James’s side. He’d convinced himself that their incomprehensible dynamic could be busted up as easily as he had used to punch Hitler. However, not even Loki’s creepy gleam of victory could discount the concern that had appeared on his face; nor could Steve ignore the comfort James seemed to be taking from the man’s stiff embrace.

The surrender was plain in his voice when he replied, “He got lucky. No, he was smart. Played possum and was the only one to walk out of there alive. Didn’t need me at all.”

“A simple trick, but one of the most eternally effective.” Loki beamed with an absurd and incongruous sense of pride. “I will take you home now.”

“He needs his roommate, his apartment, not a trip to your place,” Steve said sharply, forgetting himself for a minute in his hurt.

Loki rose and turned the full force of his venom upon Steve. “Who are you to tell me what needs to be done, you self-righteous boor?”

“Loki!” James managed to rouse himself slightly. “What the… Can we just…?”

Loki nodded. “Let’s go.”

On their way out, James turned his head around to nod thin-lipped thanks at Steve.

“You’re positive Steve’s all right?” he asked one more time.

“I’m sure he’ll call you by the time you get home.”

He watched them leave, and then realized he should probably get going, too, since the police didn’t need him and everyone else was staring. He took off at a super run, dashing into the dark, deserted alley where he’d left his clothes. To be on the safe side, he decided to head back in as Steve, in case James or Loki or the cops began asking questions.

Steve was the first civilian to walk in since the police had arrived. While there was a strict procedure for getting out, they didn’t seem to have one for people who casually strolled into a crime scene. He introduced himself to the man in charge.

“You just missed your reporter buddy,” the lieutenant said.

“He’s okay?” Steve asked, and even though he already knew the answer, now that he was out of uniform, it was a relief to wallow in his stress like a normal person. He allowed himself to relive the dread of hearing the killer go on a rampage on the other side of the wall without there being anything he could do about it; the horror of looking at a room of corpses and thinking his friend was one of them.

“Yeah, he’s fine. Left with a friend only a minute or two ago. Hey, can we get your official statement, while we have you?”

Steve told them a simple and mostly true tale: how he’d been made, taken at gunpoint and shoved into the locked room. How he’d escaped and run into Captain America, who for some reason had been nearby (a weak and overly convenient story, but people were too unaccustomed to having superheroes in their midst to question the logic of their movements). How Cap had told him to go round up more cops.

“Yeah, that matches up with what Barnes and Laufeyson told us. It’s lucky you happened to see Cap. You four did good work tonight, but there’s a reason why the NYPD isn’t keen on this sort of unsanctioned civilian detective work. Your friend only survived through a miracle. Next time, leave the investigating to us.”

“Yes, sir,” Steve answered, but had a feeling that they’d probably be back on another equally unsanctioned case next week. “Am I free to go? Just so you know, I’m going to have to write the story tonight.”

“Go ahead.”

On his way out, Steve overheard two other cops taking a smoke break outside.

“This killer is something else,” one of them was saying. “Did you see the body in there, killed with a straw? A straw! Two others killed with the forks they were using to eat their food. No prints on anything. How do you kill someone with a fork and a straw and leave no prints? How do you kill twenty people in two minutes and still have time to get away?”

“You know, I heard about a similar case once,” the other cop replied. “Back when I was working in D.C., the guys on the force used to whisper about this one case that had been hushed up by the feds… it happened maybe ten years ago? Same kind of thing, except that time it was some foreign politician and his entire security force that was slaughtered. Same deal—sealed room, everyone massacred with maximum efficiency. That reporter guy is one lucky SOB to have gotten out of there alive.”

Yes, yes he was, Steve thought to himself with a chill as he hailed a taxi. Behind him, TV news crews rushed into the club, but he knew they would get nothing. The Herald’s dry streak was sure to be over tomorrow, when the paper printed a first-hand exclusive that only Steve had the both the information and mental wherewithal to write.

As soon as he got home, he booted up his laptop and turned on the kettle. The events of the evening had cut his shift mercifully short; however, while his fake job no longer necessitated that he stay up until six in the morning, his real job now did. He planned to spend the rest of the night writing, or at least making notes that James could write up when he felt better.

While the water boiled, he called Natasha to make sure Loki had kept his word. If seeing James practically catatonic had frightened him, the hint of repressed anxiety in her voice as she said hello almost did Steve in. Natasha was never anxious.

“Did he make it home okay?” he asked.

“Yes, a black car dropped him off outside.”

“How’s he doing?”

Natasha’s pause lasted a millisecond too long. “I’ve got him.”

In the background, Steve heard James calling for him. “Is that Steve? Gimme the phone.” There was an indistinct admonishment from Natasha followed by a grunt of impatience from him. Then some jostling and, “Steve?”

“Hey.”

“You’re really okay? Cap told me you were okay, but…”

“It’s just like he must have told you. I got out. Not, uh, not as hopeless as you thought I was, am I?”

James laughed hoarsely. “You’re still pretty hopeless.”

Steve thought back to the crazed look in James’s eyes when he’d thought him in danger. Even after everyone was dead, he’d been freaking out about the idea of Steve being trapped in a cold box, as though that were the worst possible thing that could happen to someone. That kind of intense reaction could only mean he cared about him something fierce. It didn’t matter who he was sleeping with; the only person who elicited even half that amount of naked devotion from James was Natasha.

It was too bad Steve couldn’t let on that he knew; he technically hadn’t seen any of it.

“So, the, uh, the cops told me you were taking it pretty rough. You know, the whole 'sole survivor of a massacre' thing.”

“They did? Overreacting nanny-state. Nah, I’m fine.” James’s easy-going manner was so convincing that if Steve hadn’t seen the truth with his own eyes, he would have believed the flippant response. “Hey. You gonna write the story tonight, right? At least a draft? I can take a look at it in the morning.”

“Sure thing. I’ll check on… I mean, I’ll call you in the morning.”

Steve changed into his pajamas and then carried his coffee and computer to the library, where he pushed an ottoman under the desk and propped his feet up on it.

He opened up a new Word doc and started typing.


James handed the phone back to Natasha. “I hate lying to him. Anyone else, I don't care, but not to him.”

Natasha had no time for his woe. “You're sure they don't suspect you?” she asked, for what must have been the third time.

“No I'm cleared. I got lucky, though. There was already a hole in the ceiling leading to the vents. They think either the killer got out through there or that he died in the carnage.”

“Good.”

“It was awful. They all pitied me, wanted to take care of me... and the whole time...” Hunched over and drowning in unwanted mental replayings of what had happened, James let his head drop between his knees. “I thought it was all done. I thought we ended it, and I'd never have to do that again.”

“You know better than that. Nothing's ever done. That was a stupid thing to think, or even to hope for," Natasha said matter-of-factly, but the soothing hand stroking his back contradicted her words.

Chapter Text

James, as a rule, didn’t do Halloween. The only holiday he and Natasha celebrated in any kind of normal style was New Year’s. That usually involved both of them at some god-awful black tie event she was covering. Completely sober despite having drunk entire bottles of champagne, they waited for the ball to drop and enjoyed their once a year, technically masterful but passion-free make-out session.

Their idea of a good time was President’s Day: federally enforced days of leisure blessedly free of built-in activity expectations. No turkey dinners, no barbeques, no fireworks, no songs, no flags.

Which is why, if left to their own devices, they would have put zero effort into their costumes for the Stark Industries Halloween Gala.

That attitude hadn’t entertained a prayer of flying this year, not with Loki around. And yes, to everyone’s surprise—especially James’s—Loki was still around. He had somehow managed to slip through all of James’s unconsciously deployed relationship evasion techniques. None of the many people James had slept with over the years had cared enough to put up with his shit, or to see that it came from a self-sabotaging place of fear and loneliness. Through sheer obstinacy, or maybe understanding, Loki was the first to have stuck around long enough for James to calm down and start enjoying himself.

Loki had built up a half-proprietary, half-deranged fascination with Halloween. It was as though he’d never heard of the holiday before and was getting an entire lifetime’s worth of celebration out of this year’s activities.

For example, when he found out that kids didn’t trick or treat at heavily secured midtown penthouses, he rented a centrally located, currently unoccupied, five-bay Cobble Hill brownstone for the afternoon. He hired contractors to decorate it in a bizarre style—swords and mountains and monsters, instead of the standard pumpkins and cotton ghosts.

James had heard Loki muttering to himself while planning this over-the-top (even for him) day. Something about how “every Thursday is Thursday, yet I only get one day out of the year.” Neither this nor his unironic commitment made any sense. When James tried to ask why he was so excited, Loki gave the kinds of evasive non-answers that one only realized meant nothing about twenty minutes after the conversation had ended.

James had taken a half-day off work for the occasion. He tagged along, partly out of fond amusement, and partly to keep watch over Loki. Loki’s odd notions were mostly harmless, especially when he was in a good mood, and in the past few weeks, with James around to coax him out of his own head, he’d been in an increasingly good mood. He’d even dialed down his trigger-happy sensitivity a few notches. Still, his pranks did have a tendency to get out of hand. It was unclear how much of that was attributable to his lack of social awareness or to the stone-cold asshole streak that James found attractive despite himself.

Natasha had taken the afternoon off, too. She had refused to believe that even Loki’s eccentricity could go this far, and had to see it for herself.

The poor kids who stopped with hopeful eyes at the overdone mansion were looking for M&Ms and Butterfingers; they weren’t expecting slips of paper wrapped around their candy, like inside-out fortune cookies, with recommendations for tricks they ought to play on the residents of houses further along their route.

(“It’s called trick or treat,” Loki had reminded them earlier that day.)

Confused yuppie parents, assuming that some subset or more interesting configuration of James, Natasha and Loki were their new neighbors, tried to ply them for information as to who they were and what their situation was. Loki told one set of parents that the three of them were siblings who had rented the brownstone for their mother, whose dying wish was to spend her last days in her childhood home. He told another family that Natasha was his wife, and James her adopted brother who had recently inherited a European energy conglomerate.

Eventually, James, and even Natasha, started to play along, to Loki’s great satisfaction. Natasha won the day with an impressive whopper, delivered with irrefutable sincerity, about how Loki had bought the house for his dog, and hired herself and James to live with him as little Sparky’s life coach and personal masseuse, respectively.

The fact that Loki hadn’t done all this specifically on purpose to cheer James up was part of why the zany afternoon was successfully distracting him from his lingering PTSD. It hung over him, stifling and sweat-inducing, ever since The Incident.

“I’m glad I came,” Natasha remarked when Loki went inside their empty house to get more candy.

“Really?” James took advantage of the lack of supervision to give some passing children regular chocolate, without a note. “Since when do you like kids?”

“I don’t. I meant this is the first time I sort of get it. Him. With you. This is fun, in a half-cracked kind of way. The jury’s still out on whether or not he’s completely psychotic, but I get it.”

“I’m not exactly the poster child for mental health myself.”

“Stop it. You’re fine.”

“I’m missing most of my memories, there’s a good chance there are still a bunch of homicidal triggers lodged in my brain, and I killed a room full of people a month ago. In what world is that considered ‘fine’?” James whispered, before unleashing a grin on the latest family to climb their stoop. “Candy, kids?”

“We took care of anyone who could trigger you, and if your life before the Red Room was as shitty as mine, maybe the amnesia’s for the best. And as for last month, you were protecting Steve. There’s nothing wrong with that.”

They’d had this conversation before, many times, but James had not yet been able to make peace with that night, no matter how pragmatic Natasha’s justifications were.

“He didn’t even need saving,” James said.

“You had no way of knowing that. They were terrible people, James. Worse than anyone you ever handled on orders. If we can’t use the training that was forced on us to help the people we care about, then we’ll never be more than just victims. You did what you had to do. I’d have done the same for you.”

“I hope not. I wouldn’t want you to do that, not for me. And that's the thing, too. If Steve knew, he’d say the same. He’d say he wouldn’t have wanted me to kill, to kill all those people, not even for him.”

“We can’t control how much other people care about us. It’s none of Steve’s business what you choose to do for him, just as it wouldn’t be yours if I decided to kill a thousand people to keep you safe.”

Before James could argue, Loki emerged from the house again. “Have I missed any potential new recruits?”

“Just one family. I think it’s winding down,” James replied. Loki’s inexplicable but contagious enthusiasm immediately took some of the tension out of his chest. “Still, it’s a good thing we rented this house under the table. I’m not sure what we’re doing is kosher. Giving kids bad ideas is generally frowned upon.”

Next, they headed, fashionably late, over to the gala, to which Steve’s friends had all been invited. James went on tiptoes in search of the shock of blond hair that should have been towering over the crowd.

“Do you see anyone we know?” he asked Loki over the din of the party.

“I do,” Natasha replied, even though she was the shortest of the three.

She skillfully led James by the hand, weaving through the crowd. James kept a tight grip on Loki’s fingers to lead him, too.

“There you are!” A Renaissance transvestite grabbed his other hand and derailed their little train. It took him a second to look past the strange combination of extravagant period gown and boy’s haircut to recognize who this was. He mostly only guessed because the Sherlock Holmes who followed her was unmistakably Tony.

“I see Brooklyn’s arrived,” Tony said, and then looking up at Loki, “but I didn’t know it was time for Reindeer Games.”

“No, reindeer games take place during the Solstice,” Loki corrected.

Tony raised one eyebrow at James, who shrugged.

“Hey, Potts,” he said. “What are you supposed to be?”

“I’m Viola. From Twelfth Night. I can’t talk, though. There’s been a disaster with the catering. But you’ll find everyone over there.” Pepper gestured to her left, and then disappeared into the crowd again, dragging Tony with her.

While Pepper had completely transformed herself, and Darcy was hot in her café waitress get-up, Coulson looked about the same as he usually did.

“Did you just come from the office?” Natasha asked about his non-descript grey suit.

“I’m a secret agent,” Coulson said, perfectly deadpan.

“So am I,” Clint added, clad in an equally well-tailored suit.

Darcy gaped at Loki’s green and gold armor and elaborate horned headgear. “Whatever you are, you really went all out.”

(She had no idea. James had spent an hour strapping Loki into it, all the while listening to him qvetch under his breath about ‘sub-par Midgardian workmanship’, whatever that meant.)

“I am Loki,” Loki said with regal simplicity.

Natasha mouthed 'oh my god' under her breath; she’d been dealing with this shit all day, too.

“Huh?” Clint asked.

“The god Loki from the Norse traditions. My… namesake.”

“Right.”

Steve and a heavily made up Jane-sized person pushed their way into the group. Steve carried a whip and wore a fedora and brown leather jacket that actually made his old-man khakis look good for once.

“Why Indiana Jones?” James asked.

“Tony and I had a marathon the other day. He said it was perfect. Because we both… hate Nazis.”

“Because there are people who don’t hate Nazis?” Darcy challenged.

“What are you?” Steve asked, pointing at James’s lazy effort of black leather pants, black turtleneck, black boots and—the one ‘costumey’ touch, which Loki had not only insisted upon but actually purchased—a green and gold Carneval mask that covered the top part of his face.

James tilted his head in Loki’s direction, silently letting everyone know that this wasn’t his idea. “Venetian cat burglar?”

“Okay...”

“And you?” Jane asked Natasha, who was decked out in a green ball gown with a string of pearls.

“I’m dressed up,” Natasha said.

“Oh?” Jane sounded confused. “What’s with the wig?”

Natasha shrugged her long black locks and nodded at Loki, too. “I had it lying around, and he nagged me until I put it on.”

“You just happened to have a wig lying around?” Steve asked.

Loki turned to Jane. “I like your costume very much.”

James was shocked. This was, by far, the politest, most genuine interest Loki had ever shown any member of the group. He liked hanging out with everyone, in his own way, but did his best to hide it.

“What is it?” Natasha asked Jane.

“She is queen of an ancient and peaceful realm located at the furthest reaches of the cosmos,” Loki said.

“How did you know that?” James asked, surprised. If possible, Loki was usually even more out of it than Steve. “Even I didn’t know that.”

“Is it not obvious?”

Jane grinned behind her creepy white makeup. “He’s right. I’m the queen from the Star Wars prequels.”

For all that he’d immediately guessed, this new information seemed to stump Loki. “I beg your pardon?”

“My kid goes out with Steve,” Jane said, suppressing a geeky snort at her own reference. “Sort of.”

“Queens do not consort with mere animal trainers.”

“Archaeologist,” Natasha corrected, shaking her head. “He’s an archeologist.”

Loki studied Steve’s costume more closely. “Does the whip assist in unearthing the treasures?”

For the first time ever, Steve looked at Loki with something other than suspicion. He actually laughed. “It’s nice not being the only one who doesn’t get things. Come on, let me get you a drink.”

Clint took advantage of Steve’s and Loki’s departure to elbow James in the ribs. “How come you got a plus one when none of the rest of us did?”

“I didn’t. He got his own invite. Billionaire’s club and all.”

“Nice matching green and gold thing you’ve got going there. Didn’t know you were that whipped.”

“Shut up.” James was still getting used to the idea of being with someone for more than a week. Getting teased about it didn’t help.

“It isn’t a schmoopy couples thing,” Natasha clarified. As someone who was also getting used to the same idea, she understood James’s embarrassment. “He wanted me to go as part of his ‘retinue’. And it’s not like I’m dating him.”

“You’d better not be,” Clint said, sliding his arm around her waist.

Natasha rolled her eyes but leaned against him affectionately, smiling into his shoulder. “He’s just really into this,” she continued. “You’re not going to believe the afternoon we had...”

Having been there, James didn’t need to hear about it, so he left Jane, Darcy and Clint listening in rapt attention and went off to see if there was anyone else he knew.

A hand on his back stopped him.

“James Barnes, right?”

He spun around to find a diffident-looking man with a friendly round face.

“Do I know you?”

“We met once. You were unconscious for most of it.”

It was the scientist who’d fixed him up that night he and Steve had almost been murdered in an airplane hanger by the world’s worst assassins.

“Dr. Green, right?”

“Call me Bruce. How have you been?”

“Right as rain. Thanks again for your help that night.”

“I’ve been wanting to get in touch with you.” Bruce looked uncomfortably around the party, and James noticed he hadn’t bothered to dress up; he was still wearing his lab coat. “Do you have a minute?”

“What’s up?”

“When I took your blood that night, I assumed the anomalies were due to the tranquilizer they’d given you. I thought perhaps they’d created a new, non-standard kind of drug. So, I ran more tests after you left, isolated things, froze some of the samples.”

The blood in James’s veins froze just as surely as whatever was in Bruce’s freezer. Shit. He already knew there was something off about him—something not even Natasha shared. He had no idea what it was, but he knew it was probably dangerous to let anyone find out. Instinctively, his eyes flew to the artery on Bruce’s neck, but he squashed the impulse; he wasn’t going to kill the nice, harmless scientist who had saved his life. Geez. He told himself to get a grip. There must be other ways to handle this.

“Yeah? And?” he asked, as coolly as possible.

“It turned out to be run-of-the-mill tranquilizer. But much more of it than any normal person could have been injected with and lived.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m saying it wasn’t the substance that made me stop and think. It was you. Your blood.”

But James had stopped listening. From across the room, he watched the line of Natasha’s shoulders slant to a seventeen-degree angle. Some guy was talking to her, talking to her in front of Clint and Darcy and Jane. A guy she was handling, but whom she desperately wanted to go away.

“Hey, Bruce, this is fascinating and all, but I gotta run. Can we talk about this some other time?”

Bruce looked taken aback, and also a little sad. A small part of James regretted his rudeness, but not really.

“Sure,” Bruce said. “Another time.”

“Do me a favor, though. Don’t tell anyone about this. Because there’s a perfectly normal explanation. Which, I uh, don’t have time to give you now. But you’re a nice guy and I’d hate to see you make a fool of yourself in the scientific community and everything.”

“Okay. I’ll wait for your call.”

With that, he took off, leaving Bruce deflated behind him, but by the time he reached the others, Natasha and the mystery man had left.

“Who was that?” he asked.

“We thought you would know,” Jane said.

“Nope. Never seen him before."

James excused himself and made his way to the balcony, where he could hopefully get a minute alone to think. It was shaping up to be the first truly cold night of the season, so there was almost no one else outside.

He sat on the concrete floor, with his back to the glass walls of the reception hall. A few minutes later, his phone buzzed in his pocket—not his normal one, but his secret burner phone. The message was from an undisclosed number and in a Bulgarian-based code he and Natasha had created for themselves.

Arms dealer named Osiander. One of my last marks. Opportunist with a grudge.

And almost immediately afterwards:

You can’t come home. Indefinitely.

She meant that someone might be watching her, that she didn’t want anyone finding out she had a roommate who could be used as leverage against her, or looking into the roommate to find out who he was.

He texted her back: Am I made?

A minute later, she replied: No. You were on ice during this job.

And masked tonight. Loki’s insistence on a costume had turned out to be a blessing.

Next, he asked, What does he want?

Will call when time to cash in favor. Probably a hit. Otherwise will expose me.

That was the last text. She’d have thrown out the phone by now.

They’d made plans for these kinds of crises. An apartment in Krakow, a safe house in Lima. A variety of passports and weapons stashed in PO Boxes and bank vaults around the world. Still, there were so many good things here, in this life they’d created for themselves. Every single day here had been so much better than that awful year in Europe, when they’d gone around crossing anyone who might ever find them off their list. The dirty work they’d had to do—blood on their own hands, without anyone else to blame for it.

He didn’t want to run. He’d do almost anything not to have to.

And, he was pretty sure, so would she.

Loki soon came outside.

“There you are,” he said. “I’ve been looking for you.”

“Just needed a little fresh air.”

Loki took one searching look at James and then sat down beside him, drawing his ridiculous green cape around both of them. Anyone else would have asked what was wrong and tried to nag James into talking about it, but Loki seemed to sense that wasn’t what he needed right now, or else he knew it wouldn't work. So, instead, he sat quietly with him for a few minutes, allowing James to press against him, despite the pointy bits of armour that poked uncomfortably into his side.

James felt another pang as he thought of all the things he’d have to give up if he and Natasha ran. Not only this weirdo, but Steve and everyone else inside, too.

Eventually, Loki broke the silence. “I have tampered with the DJ’s light board. At the end of the night, instead of saying ‘Thank you from Stark Industries’, gold lights will thank everyone on behalf of Loki Laufeyson.”

James gaped, speechless.

“A fine prank to end the day, don’t you think?” Loki continued.

“Your mind is a fascinating place,” James choked out, laughing even in the middle of his troubles.

Loki bowed his head, interpreting the sarcastic statement as pure compliment.

James hated the flicker of inspiration that told him to use this cozy, comforting moment to secure his safety. He meant what he was about to ask, and wished ulterior motives didn’t exist to muddy the sentiment. “I was thinking… What would you say to spending more time together? Like, more nights at your place.”

“I would ask why you have continued to withhold for so long. I told you weeks ago that you are always welcome. And now that I have seen your hovel…”

“Jackass.”

Loki kissed James’s palm and then used it to pull him up and towards the door. “Come. You are missing a fine feast.”

James let himself be pulled.


Three Weeks Later…

“He’s out,” Natasha said after checking Osiander’s pulse, and then slapping him for good measure. James rolled himself off the unconscious man’s naked body.

The sedative James had kissed him with had just taken effect.

Osiander had finally called in his favor. He wanted Natasha to fly to Sao Paulo and assassinate a man. To ensure she stayed in line, she wasn’t to receive details on the victim or the mission until she reached Brazil.

As a way to loosen him up and hopefully tease more information out of him, Natasha had suggested they meet up in his hotel room. Osiander had suggested they get a third, for what was apparently old times sake. Natasha had ‘helped’ him ‘find’ the number of an escort service, and pretended not to know the good-looking Hungarian guy who had shown up at their door.

James and Natasha had worked a lot of jobs together back… before. But never with both of them playing the honey pot. And sure, they hadn’t been together like that in years, but the part of him that was still her Yasha thought of her as his Natashenka. They had arranged things so that they wouldn’t actually have to fuck the bastard—the idea was to make him pass out and wake up thinking he’d been too high to remember the sex he’d just (not) had—but even so, James couldn’t bear the thought of some skeeve touching her more than was strictly necessary. So he’d shifted the guy’s attentions to himself and administered the drug a little too soon.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Natasha snapped at him now that they could speak freely. “I had more questions to ask him, but now he’s unconscious. We’re supposed to be a team. This doesn’t work if you treat me like some innocent flower whose honor you need to protect.”

“I know, but I still thought I’d spare you.”

“I don’t need to be spared. There’s not even anything to spare me from. This whole night was my idea. I’m the one who proposed it. I’m the one who got you in here. I’ve done this before. Many times. It’s not a big deal.”

Except it was. He knew the disgust she felt every time she flashed one of those fake smiles; it was part of why she smiled so rarely these days, kept a straight face in situations where others would have dissolved into thoughtless, automatic giggles. Nowadays, if she smiled, it was because she was sure she meant it.

At least they’d gotten something out of the man. They’d learned the reason he was hiring Natasha: his usual employer had commissioned him to handle this Brazil job, but he had been hoping to meet with a new employer this week, too. Double-booked as he was, he figured the woman who had ruined one of his businesses a few years back could handle the assassination for him. Otherwise, he’d expose Natasha as the French spy he thought she was and wreck her cute little civilian life.

“Steve needs to come in the next three minutes if this is going to work,” she said, looking at the clock and stripping off her clothes to make it look like something had happened.

“I just texted him to say we’re ready. I still don’t like dragging him into all this. I don’t want him finding out about us.”

“It’ll be fine. He’ll just think it’s a regular case, albeit a slightly more involved one.”

“Steve isn’t stupid. He’ll know I’m lying.”

“You won’t be lying. You’ll only be leaving out about 75% of what’s actually going on. Like you do, may I remind you, every single day.”

James’s disposable phone lit up with a text from Steve saying he was currently in the elevator. Natasha timed his arrival, quietly pulling open the door to snatch the bag from his hands before shutting it in his face.

But quick as she was, James saw Steve’s eyes go wide as he took in their near-nakedness, the presence of a third person in the room, and drug paraphernalia strewn about.

Within minutes, they had expertly bugged the room, in a way that Osiander would never discover. He’d be awake again in a minute, having slept for too short of a time to suspect them of anything other than having given him the best orgasm of his life. The immediate effects of the compound would linger in his system for a couple of days. He most likely wouldn’t feel up to leaving the hotel’s vicinity for a while.

“So,” Natasha said as they lay back down on the bed, sandwiching Osiander and ready to pretend they’d passed out from afterglow, too. “I can’t risk contacting you while I’m in Brazil. You’ll have to find out from the surveillance how it went and who the mark was. Osiander still thinks my name is Sophie, so Steve shouldn’t notice anything if I’m mentioned. If I fail for whatever reason, you know what you’ll have to do.”

James cringed. However, if Natasha could go through with what she had to do, he could force himself to slit the throat of a terrorist. He’d done worse things.

“And if that doesn’t work, we go for Plan B,” he whispered.

“I’ll meet you in Lima if it comes to that. And we’ll start over. Again.”


Steve sat, stunned and horrified, in the hotel room Natasha and James had given him specific instructions to book.

It wasn’t even a hotel room. It was an honest-to-goodness honeymoon suite.

This was literally the last thing he’d expected when he’d agreed to this very mysterious request. Ever since Halloween, the number of nights James had spent at Loki’s or in Steve’s guest bedroom meant that he couldn’t have set foot in his own apartment more than maybe once. Although they seemed normal enough at the office, everyone assumed James and Natasha had experienced some sort of tragic falling out that they were covering up for the sake of professionalism. Darcy had started a betting pool on when James would formally move out.

But instead of breaking up as friends, it turned out they were having threesomes and doing drugs with strange men in fancy hotels.

Steve unzipped the second bag he’d been told to bring. It looked like gear for surveillance.

There was nothing to do, and he hadn’t been given instructions beyond some text messages instructing him to pack a bag as he would for a boring weekend trip, and to let himself into Natasha’s office and take three bags that he would find in her closet. Then, he’d been told to ask JARVIS to book a room at the Standard Hotel, specifically asking for room #1415, under a pseudonym. So here he was, having delivered the first of the bags, holding the second and third, and sitting in this hyper-modern honeymoon suite.

They hadn’t told him how long to wait or what he was supposed to do, so he put his feet up and pulled out his sketchbook. He desperately wanted to draw the image of brief-clad James that was now and forevermore burned into his brain, but James might walk in at any moment. Instead, Steve opened the curtains and started drawing the view of the river from the floor-to-ceiling window that spanned the entire width of the room.

About an hour later, James walked in, fully clothed, and with a nervous smirk frozen into place.

“What the hell is going on?” Steve demanded.

Instead of answering, James asked, “Where’s the second bag?”

Steve handed it over and James pulled out a remote control. Nodding to himself, he set up two speakers around the room.

“So,” James then said, so casually that if Steve hadn’t seen with his own eyes, he’d never have guessed what had just been going on next door. “New case. Guy next door is Andreas Osiander, 75% legitimate Austrian businessman and 25% illegal arms dealer. Never been caught at that other 25%, but we know it’s there. Nasty piece of work. The two of us will be running a wiretapping operation out of this room, catching anything he might say over the next couple of days. He’s got a meeting or two set up. It’s our job to pin whatever we can on him, take it to the authorities, and write the story. All we have to do is sit around in here and listen. And in the meanwhile, binge on as much premium cable and room service as possible. Capiche?”

“Not capiche. I’m not letting you breeze past what I just saw. Since when do you sleep with terrorists?”

“Natasha met him years ago in Europe, and he always had it bad for her. So she did me a favor and set up the meet. It was the only way to get the surveillance equipment in the room. But there was no way he was gonna let us in there with the stuff in hand, so we needed someone to do the drop after we knocked him out. Thanks for coming through.”

“And by meet,” Steve said, refusing to be eased into this insanity without a fight, “you mean a threesome aided by illegal substances.”

“It was just some coke to make him start flapping his trap. And we didn’t actually fuck him. Calm down.”

“I didn’t sign up for this. This isn’t right and you know it. What’s really going on here?”

“I told you. Get this asshole that Natasha always suspected of being shady. Prove it. Write the story. Send the guy to jail. It’s pretty simple.”

“Why isn’t Natasha in here with you? Why me?”

“She has to go cover the London fashion shows. Her plane leaves in a couple of hours. Like I said, it’s my case. Our case. She was just doing me a favor, helping to get it going.”

Steve didn’t always know what the truth was, but he had learned enough of James’s extremely subtle tells over the past few months to know when he was lying. Today, he could tell James was shaken, scared under the bravado. Direct questioning wasn’t working, so Steve tried a different, though no less earnest, approach.

“I’ll go along with it,” he said.

James looked surprised, like someone who’d won a lot more easily than he’d expected. “Yeah?”

“I’ll go along with it, but you have to tell me one thing. Are you in some kind of trouble? You’re my best friend, James. You can trust me. You don’t have to tell me what it is, but I need you to tell me the truth. This is more than just a case, isn’t it? There’s something wrong.”

James hesitated, but finally nodded, and when he spoke again, Steve knew it was the truth. “Yes. I’m in trouble. But I can’t say why.”

“One day I hope you’ll realize there’s nothing you can’t tell me.”

James snorted. “That’s what you say now.”

This admission was his biggest victory so far, and Steve knew not to push any further. “Just tell me what you need me to do.”

James slowly relaxed into one of his easy grins. “I need you to turn on the TV and figure out how that bathtub works. I hope there’s a Jacuzzi setting, because I need it. All that fake sex really takes it out of you.”

“Not an image I needed to be reminded of,” Steve said, making a face.

“Say what you want about me, but I won’t have you talking about naked Natasha like that.”

Steve shook his head as he handed over the third bag. For such a smart guy, James was an idiot about this one thing. It was probably for the best, though, since his blindness clearly went hand-in-hand with a complete lack of interest.

They relaxed after that, though, and began exploring all the luxurious touches of the suite, like two kids in a candy store.

“When did this become my life?” James asked. “Between you and Loki and now this, it’s like all I do these days is hang out in penthouses.”

Steve picked up his sketchbook again. “Yeah, I was thinking the same thing. It’s a big step up for a poor kid from Brooklyn.”

James shamelessly and without preamble stripped down and climbed into the bathtub that for some reason was sitting near the window, right in the middle of the bedroom.

“Warn a guy, will ya?” Steve protested, shielding his eyes (but peeping through scissored fingers).

“This is really nice,” James marveled as the water filled the tub. He sank down into it so that only his head and the tops of his knees were visible from where Steve sat on the floor on the other side of the room, drawing the view.

“You’re blocking my picture.”

“You mean I’m enhancing it. Look at this profile. It’s begging to be captured.” James turned to look at Steve and grew serious. “You’re always drawing. Why don’t you ever draw me? And why don’t you ever show me the stuff you make?”

“Uh…” The thing was, Steve was always drawing James. He had books filled with his profile and back and eyes and hands.

Which was exactly why he’d never shown him, and had packed a brand-new book for this trip.

“I’ll draw you now, if you want.”

“Sure,” James said, and then stuck his feet out to rest on the edge of the tub.

Steve kept getting distracted, not only by the zombie movie on the television, but also by the knowledge that James was naked in that tub, right there in the room with him. So, by the time James emerged, prune-y and wet, Steve hadn’t gotten much farther than the view of Lower Manhattan that he’d originally been working on.

“You’re good,” James said, inspecting it. “Really good. With skills like that, what’re you doing as a writer? I mean, you’re good at that, too, but this is amazing.”

“There’s not a lot of call for old-fashioned stuff like mine. Not unless I want to sit on the Brooklyn Bridge and do caricatures for tourists. It was either that or working at Starbucks after I, er, left the army. So, I figured I’d try something new.” Steve stopped to sharpen his pencil. “What about you? I don’t think I’ve ever asked how you got into this. Was it a lifelong dream?”

“No. At least, I don’t think it was. I just kind of fell into it after the army, same as you. It wound up fitting, so I stuck with it.”

“How’d it happen?”

James had finished drying himself off. He put his shorts back on and climbed onto the bed. “Coulson. We were… we were in a pretty nasty situation, Natasha and me. Coulson was Editor of a paper in Moscow. He met Natasha and helped her out. Then she got me out, and Natasha and I, um, bummed around Europe for a year. Coulson got the Herald job and invited us to come over. I’d been wanting to move to New York. Brooklyn specifically. Natasha didn’t care where we lived, so we came.”

“So you’re not actually from Brooklyn? I always assumed you were. You sound like somebody who grew up here.” Steve couldn’t believe it. James had the kind of classic accent they didn’t make anymore, that he only heard in old-fashioned barbershops and deli counters, in corners of the city that had been passed over by newcomers. He sometimes took long walks through the borough, listening hopefully for those accents, but James was the only person in his life who consistently delivered. It was one of the reasons why being around him felt like home in a way nothing and no one else did.

“So I’ve been told. I’ve always been good at languages, though. Same must be true for accents.” He shrugged, but looked as though not even he believed his own statement. “Anyway, we’ve been here ever since. Coulson said he saw potential in us, which was nice. He sees potential in places most people don’t usually look. I bet he saw the same in you, too. He would have said no to Potts about hiring you if he hadn’t.”

Steve could tell there was more to this story, but not only was it coming on the heels of James’s earlier admission of being in trouble, but it was also the most he’d ever learned in one go about his life. So, he took what he could get and didn’t push. As someone who didn’t talk about the past in more than the vaguest terms, he was able to recognize the same behavior in others. James wasn’t the only one; Natasha and Loki did it, too.

“Hey, hey, something’s happening,” James whispered, beckoning Steve closer.

Through the microphone, they heard Osiander stumbling around his room, muttering to himself. Then he called someone.

“Yes, I’m on my way,” he slurred. “On my way to the airport right now.”

Steve looked at James. “Sounds like this’ll be a short stake-out.”

But James bit his lip. “Maybe. Let’s see if he actually goes.”

They waited ten minutes, twenty minutes, and hour, but Osiander remained in his room, watching television. Far from leaving, he eventually placed another call.

“I am in the city for the next few days, if you would like to meet.” Pause. “Yes, yes, of course.” Pause. “What about my hotel? The drinks on the roof are quite good.” Pause. “The Standard.” Pause. “Yes. I will see you then.”

Steve and James let out deep breaths when the conversation ended.

“So he lied to the first person about going to the airport," Steve observed. "Why would he do that?”

“Wish he’d said what day the second meeting would be,” James complained.

Steve watched James closely, watching how he flexed his fingers, the way he always did when he was nervous. “Are you sure we shouldn’t just go to the feds? If this guy’s as bad as you say…”

James panicked at the suggestion. “Steve, no.”

“Okay, okay. One of these days, though, you’re going to tell me what this is all about.”

“Like you don’t have your own shit? But you don’t see me bugging you about it.” James changed the subject. “Hey, you hungry?”

Steve swallowed down his sigh. “Starved.”

They called the concierge and asked for a decks of cards, some sandwiches and a bottle of Glenfidditch. The waitress cooed over them, understandably taking them for honeymooners.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world, aren’t I?” James said, hamming it up and playfully planting a wet smooch on Steve’s cheek. Steve got a chill so strong he practically dropped the tip he’d taken out for the waitress, leaving James laughing long after she had gone.

They sat drinking on the floor, settling into round after round of poker. James said Steve’s version had gone out of style in the 60s.

“Where’d you even learn this?” he asked. “A book?”

“The nuns in the orphanage taught me.”

“Why am I not surprised?”

They’d just finished the third Die Hard movie (FX was running a marathon), when James asked for a pause.

“I forgot to cancel my plans with Loki for tonight. Give me ten minutes to call him, okay? Plus, I should tell him about the case. He’ll get a kick out of the whole ‘fake escort service’ con.”

Steve’s jaw dropped. “What? How could he possibly get a kick out of that?”

“Why not?”

Steve couldn’t believe he had to spell this out. “Because people don’t usually take kindly to finding out they’ve been cheated on.”

“It wasn’t cheating. It was a con. And like I said, not much happened. He won’t care.”

“If I were dating you, I’d care.”

“Good thing you’re not then.”

“Yeah. Lucky me.”

James took his phone over to the window and sat with his feet up on the glass and his back against the tub. From where he sat on the other side of the room, all Steve could see was James’s head.

“I’ve got bad news, but a funny story, too…”

Steve tried not to listen, but there was nowhere to go. James began telling Loki all the same facts of the case he’d told Steve, except this time with more sexual details.

He wedged himself into a corner as far away from the window as he could get, and called Pepper so he wouldn’t have to hear. Her stories of LA and dealing with the art collection proved to be exactly the calming distraction he needed.

James finished his call shortly after Steve.

“Like I told you,” he said. “He laughed his ass off. Or, well, the Loki equivalent. I’m starting to think running cons on terrorists turns him on.”

“Pepper says hi,” Steve said. He may have resigned himself to James and Loki’s relationship, but he drew the line at talking about their sex life.

“And how is the lovely Ms. Potts?”

“She’s fine. Running the world. Same as usual.”

“She is so smoking.” James came to sit in front of Steve, and poked him lightly in the center of his chest. “You can tell me, you know. If you and Potts have…”

Steve’s face involuntarily contorted into a grimace.

“Don’t let her see you making that face about her,” James laughed. “And I’ll take that as a no.”

“That’s like asking me if I’ve… with my cousin.”

Is she your cousin?” James asked curiously, as though he’d secretly been wondering.

“No. I only know her through Tony. I’ve told you that.”

“Then what’s the problem? I get that she’s got a thing for Stark, but if he’s not gonna do anything about it, you might as well. I’ve seen you two together. You already look like the perfect couples who come in picture frames. It wouldn’t take much to turn that into something else.”

“No thanks.”

“Still seems a shame. I don’t get it. You could be going home with someone new every night. You should have girls crawling all over you. Guys, too, if… if that’s what you’re into.” James stared at him, questioningly; the idea had clearly only just come into his head. What started as a joke now struck him as a legitimate question.

“I’m waiting for the right person,” Steve answered, pretending he hadn’t heard the implied question. It was safer to let James continue to think he only liked women.

“That’s dumb. It’s a big world. What if you never happen to meet that person? That’s no reason not to get laid from time to time.”

“I’ve already met two. They just keep not quite working out.”

Steve knew he’d said too much when James perked up.

“Who? I mean, there was that chick you told me about. Margaret, right?”

Steve had, late one night when he was feeling down, told James bits and pieces of stories about Peggy, enough of the truth to help him work through having lost her. “Yeah. Margaret.”

“Who’s the other one?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Is it someone I know?” James cracked his knuckles as his brain worked overtime to guess. “It’s someone at work, isn’t it? Hill?”

Steve reacted despite himself. “Hill? Why would you think that?”

“Because she’s hot? Okay,” he said, musing to himself. “Not Hill. Oh. Of course. Jane. You should go for her, man. You’re exactly her type. She likes blond, jacked guys. You already go as her date to half the stuff we get invited to. It wouldn’t be that big of a leap.”

“Er.” Steve was stuck. If he denied it, James would keep asking until he dragged the mortifying truth out of him.

“Ha! I knew it. Just leave it to me. I’ll—”

“Please don’t.”

Steve was saved by activity on the speaker. Osiander’s phone rang.

“Hello?” Pause. “I am disappointed to hear that. We can reschedule.” Pause. “Do you have an idea of when would be a more convenient time?” Pause. “I see. Well, I will be here for a few days, so I will wait for your call.”

Steve assumed he was off the phone by the time he started smashing things and yelling in what sounded like German.

“What’s he saying?” he asked James.

“Nothing polite.”

“Wonder why the person postponed?”

“Beats me.”

They resumed their card game and played until Steve began to nod off between hands.

“I can take the floor tonight,” he said.

“It’s a big bed," James replied. "We can share.”

That was exactly what Steve had been afraid of.

Later, at opposite sides of the king-sized bed, they both lay on their backs under the sheets.

James’s voice sounded out in the darkness, sounding shier than Steve had ever heard him. “About what you said earlier…”

“It's been a long day. You're gonna have to be more specific.”

“You said I was your best friend.”

“Oh.” Steve wondered why he was bringing this up now, and immediately felt embarrassed. He spent so much time repressing his more confused feelings that he'd accidentally let this one slip through. “Yeah?”

“You really meant that? I would’ve thought Tony. Or maybe Potts.”

“Nope. They’re more like extremely unlikely family members. The honors go to you, pal.”

James cleared his throat. “Well, you’re my best friend, too.”

“You don’t have to say it back, you know. We aren’t twelve. I wasn’t fishing for—”

“I know you weren’t. I still wanted to say it.”

Steve wasn't convinced. “What about Natasha?”

“Nah. She’s more of a sister.”

“A sister you have threesomes with.”

“You’re not gonna let that go, are you?”

“No normal person would.”

“I mean it, though. You… I feel better around you. Ever since we started working together, I feel like a version of myself that I like better than the older versions.”

“Wow. That’s…" Steve didn't trust himself to say more than the briefest of acknowledgements. "That means a lot.”

They lay quietly after that. Steve thrummed inside, warmed and happy. He told himself that he'd always wanted this most of all—a friend like this. He didn't need James to want him, too. He wasn't sure he would even know what to do if James ever did show any interest. Steve didn't think he was ready.

So, yes, it was for the best that they were only friends.

He thought James had dropped off, but it turned out he hadn’t.

“Steve?”

“Yeah?”

“I should warn you. I sometimes freak out in my sleep.”

This was worrying. “Freak out how?”

“I have bad dreams most nights. Wake up screaming, thrashing, stuff like that.”

The heck? “How long has this been going on?”

“For as long as I can remember.” James became defensive. “Look, I just wanted to let you know so you don’t worry. Just hit me and I’ll stop.”

“What are the dreams about?”

“Falling, mostly.” And then, “You wanna know something crazy?”

Steve wasn't sure he wanted to know, given that constant night terrors apparently weren't crazy, but he said, "Sure."

“Loki gets the same ones. Since before we started sleeping together. Sometimes we get them at the same time, and our separate freakouts wake each other up. We kind of catch each other.”

Steve was horrified. “Is that supposed to be sweet?”

“…Yeah? I kinda thought it was.”

“Sounds like a match made in nightmares.”

“Har har.”

There was so much running through Steve’s mind that it took him awhile to fall asleep.

The next thing he knew, he was on his side and James had somehow crossed the entire width of the bed to snuggle up behind him. His chest pressed firmly against Steve’s back, his arm was thrown over Steve’s body, and his palm rhythmically rubbed in a circular motion at a spot on Steve’s chest. The spot the nuns in the orphanage infirmary had used to rub during his asthma attacks.

Even though the serum had cured him of everything, Steve now stopped breathing. He kept his eyes shut and guiltily savored the touch. He’d always wished he’d had someone, a friend, to do this back when he’d been sick, with asthma or whooping cough or any of the many illnesses that had laid him up for days at a time, freezing and miserable and alone in the infirmary that had basically been his room for ten years, before he’d moved on to even lonelier boarding houses. The nuns had paid him what scant attention they could spare from their countless other charges, but there had never been anyone to stay with him through those awful nights when he had been too afraid to fall asleep in case he never woke up again.

So he let James rub his chest now, so many years too late. And then he almost choked when he felt something prodding him in the small of his back. Not unwelcome per se, but definitely part of a different set of longings.

He cleared his throat, knowing it was wrong to continue enjoying this. “Er, James? James.”

He repeated the name until James stirred, until the hand froze on his chest.

“Uh, what,” James said, clearly confused as to how and why he’d come into this position. And then, “Ow. Jesus fuck, ow.”

Before Steve could ask what was wrong, James had bolted out of bed and staggered to the bathroom. The door slammed shut and Steve heard the sound of vomiting.

Um. Okay.

He got out of bed and knocked. “You okay in there?”

“What do you think? Go away. Leave me alone.”

Steve opened the door and found James on the floor with his head in the toilet. “Is it something you ate?”

“’s not my stomach. Just came over me when I woke up. This awful headache, like my brain was trying to jump out of my body. Or maybe my body is trying to jump out of my brain. I don't know.”

This wasn’t the first time James had complained about something like this. The most recent instance had been during a team-building paintballing excursion Coulson had organized at a WWII reenactment facility in New Jersey.

Steve sat on the cold tile floor, keeping James company and rubbing his back, just as he’d had his chest rubbed a minute ago.

“How long has this been going on for?” Steve asked once the heaving had slowed down.

“Only the past few months. Kind of around the time you started at the paper, maybe? It's only once in awhile, though. This is the first time the nausea’s been bad enough to make me puke.”

“This isn’t normal. You should get yourself checked out.”

“I’m fine. Don’t need a doctor.”

Steve had learned that James avoided doctors, didn’t trust them for some reason. He got an idea. “Hey, what about Dr. Green? You know, from the lab that time? You didn’t mind him.”

James finally turned to face him, his face pale and splotchy from exertion. He stared suspiciously at Steve. “What made you think of him?”

“He seemed like a nice guy. Smart, too. And not a normal doctor. It’s a compromise.”

“You should go back to the room,” James said after a minute, but Steve knew he was at least thinking about it. “Osiander might wake up and make a late-night call. I’ll be back soon. Might sleep on the floor this time.”

“No, I’ll take the floor. You get in bed when you’re ready.”

Chapter Text

The next morning, James was not only overcome by embarrassment—for the inexplicable spooning, for the nighttime hard-on, for vomiting all over their bathroom, for everything—but also by confusion. He didn’t know how or why he’d ended up on the other side of the bed, why he’d been rubbing Steve’s chest like that, any of it. He’d woken up, registered that he had somehow during the night come to have snuggled up against Steve, and then, almost immediately, his head had practically exploded with pain and nausea. He had no idea why he’d been getting these headaches as of late. It was hardly a surprise, given how scrambled the amnesia and years of brainwashing had probably left his brains, but why this was starting now was the larger question.

All he knew was that this was the first night in memory that he hadn’t suffered from a nightmare, hadn’t woken up in a sweat, muttering and shaking. He’d slept soundly for an unheard-of six straight hours.

He and Steve passed this second day with more of the same. More card games, more movies for Steve’s pop culture education, more room service orders and role-playing for the waitresses, another soak in the tub, Steve drawing everything but James. A push-up competition to keep the blood flowing (Steve won, but only barely).

James had been on many stakeouts in his time, but none of them had been what he would have considered enjoyable. Steve was always easy company, but today James appreciated just how easy. Far from going stir-crazy, he started to think he could get used to this.

He checked the paper’s website on his laptop and skimmed Natasha’s article on the London fashion shows, which she was supposed to be covering. She must have written it on the flight to Brazil and sent it to Hill for review before starting the mission. Even after all these years, James still marveled at her skill. Only Natasha could write a perfect article pretending she had attended an event in Europe while prepping for an assassination in South America. He wondered if she had received her final instructions yet, if she’d been told the name of the person she was supposed to kill. Osiander wasn’t one to waste time, so it would probably be soon, if it hadn’t happened already.

Loki called after lunch, just to chat. James watched as Steve took his phone to the other side of the room and placed his own call, just as he had the previous night.

“You must be bored senseless,” Loki said after filling him in on his lazy day.

“It’s actually not that bad.”

Out of the corner of his eye, James watched Steve cover his mouth, trying to hold back peals laughter. “You’re joking, you’re making it up,” he kept saying.

“What was so funny?” James asked later, once they’d both gotten off their respective calls.

“Tony.” Steve chuckled again, remembering. “He’s on this whirlwind round-the-world marketing tour. He’s in Sao Paulo right now.”

James froze. Very evenly, he asked, “What happened?”

“Happy’s driving him to this expo he has to do, when all of a sudden there’s an explosion in the road. Next thing they know, the car door gets ripped off its hinges and a masked woman in a cat suit rolls in, carrying a pair of knives. She’s straddling him and Happy’s screaming, but Tony is Tony and says, ‘Hey there. Come here often?’ But before anything can happen, she just says his name, like she’s surprised to see him, even though, you know, she just made a grand entrance into his car. She must have been a lunatic. But ultimately a harmless one, because here’s the kicker: she apologizes. Says, ‘Sorry, wrong car.’ In French. And then climbs off him, tells him to be careful, and rolls out again. These things only happen to Tony.”

Shit. “When did this happen?”

“This morning, I think. He’s already on his way to the next leg of his trip.” Steve stared at him. “It was a funny story, James. He’s all right. Stop looking like I just told you a tragedy.”

James could picture the scene exactly. Natasha had seen that the man she’d been hired to kill was an acquaintance of hers. One of Steve’s closest friends. And so she’d made the split-second decision to let him go.

It was a good call. The right call. She knew they had a back-up plan. Even if it meant learning less, it was better for James to kill a terrorist than for Natasha to kill a friend. Better to start over than do that to Steve.

It wouldn’t be long before Osiander found out, hours at most. James knew what he had to do.

As if on cue, Osiander began swearing again, without a prompt. James assumed it must have been a text message or an email informing him of Natasha’s failure. When he finished ranting, he placed a phone call. James waited to see whether it was the employer who had hired him to kill Stark, or if it was the one who had postponed the proposed meeting.

It turned out to be the latter.

“I apologize for the change in my plans, but I will have to leave the city by the morning. I can wait no longer. I would still like to meet, but it must be today, and it must be in my hotel room.” Pause. “Yes. Five o’clock?” Pause. “Refreshments? Fine. I can order everything so that it is here when you arrive. Thank you for being so accommodating.”

It was only three, so they had a couple of hours to wait.

“Here’s how I think we should play this,” Steve said, using his ‘leader of men’ voice. “I’ll go downstairs at around four-thirty. You stay up here and listen in on the meeting. Keep texting me information while they talk so we can ID the contact. I’ll get the cops once the meeting begins so that they’re ready to arrest both of them when they’re done.”

It was exactly what James had hoped he would say, but he took no pleasure in hearing it.

“Aye, aye, sir,” he said, like he always did when Steve got all tactical, but he had to fake the smirk this time.

Steve noticed. “What’s wrong?”

All James could think about were all the ways this could go wrong, the way Steve would look at him if he ever found out what James truly was, or worse, the way Steve would feel when James and Natasha simply disappeared. “Steve, if anything happens…”

“Stop it. Whatever’s going on with you, it’ll be fine. I won’t let anything happen.”

“If something does, though, I want you to know, I meant what I said last night. About having been better around you. I need you to remember that, no matter what.”

Steve sat up straight and turned on his serious pep talk voice this time (James had learned to recognize all of Steve’s voices).

“Look here, James bucky, I mean,” Steve started to say, but James cut him off.

“Wait, what did you say?” James’s head immediately began to pound, but he tried to keep it together.

“I meant to say ‘buddy’, but maybe also Buchanan. Couldn’t decide and got tripped up. Anyway, I want—”

“No. No. Stop. I like that,” James said, even though his head was perhaps trying to tell him otherwise. He closed his eyes and gripped the side of the bed to keep his balance.

“Like what?” Steve asked, confused.

“What you said. Bucky. That’s what you called me.”

“No, I didn’t. It was an accident. Look, what I’m trying to say is—”

“I don’t care if it was an accident,” James persisted, despite the pain. “I like it. Sounds like a nickname. I’ve always wanted a nickname. Not a title. Just a nickname. Makes me feel real.”

“Real? What are you talking about?”

“I mean, do I really seem like a James? Does the name even fit me? I don’t even know anymore. Maybe I’m not even…” He probably shouldn’t have been saying any of this, but he was scared and he was too close to vomiting again to think straight.

Steve looked at him like he was crazy, and James—Bucky, maybe—started to wonder if perhaps he was.

“Are you okay?” Steve asked. “You’re talking nonsense and you look like you’re gonna be sick again.”

“I’m fine.”

Steve didn’t believe him, but he was learning to pick his battles. “You’re saying you want me to call you Bucky?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I think I am.”

Steve squinted at him and then threw his hands in the air, no longer able to argue with what James knew sounded like insanity. “Okay. Bucky.”

Hearing Steve say it again, even sarcastically, made James queasy all over again, but he did like the name, despite whatever was going on with him.

“You know,” Steve continued, “it’s an actual nickname. Kind of old-fashioned. It suits you, actually.”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“Anyway,” Steve continued, “we’ll get through this together. It’s going to be fine.”

“If you say so.”

At about four, they heard Osiander receive the room service delivery he had promised the contact.

At four-thirty, Steve went downstairs, leaving James alone in the room.

This was it. James stretched a bit, psyching himself up. This was different from the night with the mobsters. That had been instinct, an almost unconscious reaction that had resulted in piles of corpses before he even knew what he was doing. This was only one man, but the premeditation of the act was bothering him.

James knew there was a catering cart in the room, so there was sure to be an implement of some sort to use when he got there. He wasn’t the greatest computer hacker—his training had taken place too many years before computers for him to have mastered the skill—but he knew enough to get by, if given enough time. Steve drawing all afternoon had definitely given him all the time he needed to disable the security cameras in the hallway. No one would see him going next door and picking the lock of Osiander’s hotel room.

He expected to find his target sitting at the desk, or relaxing on the bed. He expected him to jump up and grab a weapon at the sound of an intruder. James was prepared for any weapon, any attack.

He was not prepared to find Osiander sprawled on the floor, dead.

James stood for half a second, stunned, and then forced himself to go through the procedure he would have completed had he killed the man himself. He did a sweep of the room. He rummaged through Osiander’s open email account, looking for anything that might lead back to Natasha. There was thankfully nothing in the email, so he pocketed Osiander’s cell phone and used his handkerchief to remove all the bugs from the room, careful not to disturb anything else.

Within a couple of minutes, he was back in his room. He packed up his and Steve’s belongings and went downstairs. As he rode the elevator, he turned everything over in his mind, trying to figure out how Osiander had died. There had to have been something in the room service food. Poison? The only other answer he could think of was that the waiter been paid to kill him by the employer whose assignment Natasha had botched. Or perhaps some wholly other employer whom Osiander had pissed off separately? There was no way for James to know—or for anyone else to ever find out, for that matter—since he was the one who had disabled the security cameras and swept the room clean.

Steve got up when he saw James enter the lobby.

“What are you doing down here?”

“Osiander’s dead.”

“What? Since when?”

“Since a few minutes ago.”

“How do you know?” Steve went white, rigid, and looked at him with the nervous questioning glance James had been dreading, and which reinforced exactly why he could never tell Steve what he was, and had been. “James—”

“Hey, weren’t you supposed to start calling me Bucky?” he replied, trying hopelessly to distract that look off Steve’s face. “I told you I wanted that to be my new nickname.”

“How do you know?” Steve repeated, not side-tracked at all.

“I went back over there. Wanted to get some more information myself, first hand, for… for my thing. So I broke into his room.”

“Why didn’t you say you needed to get into his room before? We had a plan, and you went off the plan as soon as I was out of sight. We’re supposed to be partners.”

The disappointed way Steve was looking at him made James want to kill himself. “I know. And I’m sorry. And anyway, he was dead, so I didn’t get anything. I just took the bugs and ran.”

“I wish you would tell me what’s wrong. All I want to do is help.”

“I can’t. You can’t.”

Steve looked even more depressed as he forcibly relaxed his shoulders and tried to let it go. James knew how almost incapable Steve was of backing off from something that struck him as not right. The knowledge that he was making himself back off now, based solely on a trust in James that wasn’t deserved, made it that much worse.

“So, what about this meeting?” Steve asked flatly. “Even if it doesn’t happen, we should still ID the contact. We should still stick around. Unless it’ll be dangerous for you.”

“No. It should be okay. Let’s wait it out.”

They sat in the lobby, both too tense to speak. Long after the meeting was supposed to have started, the only people who had headed for their elevator bank were families, teenage girls and a celebrity James recognized from a magazine: no one who looked like a possible contact.

At six-thirty, they gave up.

“He’s been stood up. Or maybe the guy had to postpone again,” Steve said. “Maybe he called back and we missed it because the phone’s upstairs in his room and we turned off the surveillance.”

But James knew no one had called, because Osiander’s phone was in his pocket, and hadn’t vibrated once. “Let’s go.”

“You know how you said you were in trouble…” Steve turned those serious blue eyes on him. “Does Osiander turning up dead fix it?”

James nodded. “Yeah, it does. It’s done now. Hopefully for good. But I need you to believe me, Steve. I didn’t kill him. He was already dead, I swear.”

“I know. I don’t know what the danger was, but I know you. You wouldn’t kill someone in cold blood, just to save your own skin. You’re not made like that.”

James gave him a wry smile. No, no he supposed he wasn’t, not anymore. But what Steve didn’t know was that he would have killed Osiander. He would have killed him for Natasha, just as he’d killed all those people in Europe to keep her safe, people who knew nothing about him—just as he’d killed all those mobsters for Steve.

“We’re gonna have a hell of a time expensing this,” Steve said, his way of letting James know they were good again, despite everything.

“Leave it to me. I’ll get Coulson to approve it.”

“He may have been a terrorist, but isn’t right, just leaving Osiander’s body up there,” Steve said. “When I get home, I’ll have JARVIS call in an anonymous tip from an undisclosed number.”

“Look at you, being all crafty and high-tech.”

Steve grinned.

“Also,” James continued, thinking of another wrinkle. “You might want to back-date a check-out time for us, to make it look like we left this morning.”

“Done. Hey,” Steve said almost bashfully. “You wanna… you wanna come over? I’ve got nothing to do tonight. And you’ll have your own bedroom and bathroom, as usual. So if you need to hurl again…”

James wanted to, but… “I promised Loki I’d come over as soon as we got off this job. Anyway, aren’t you sick of my face by now?”

“Your face, yes. You? I never get sick of you.” Steve looked away. “See you Monday.”

“See you.”

James watched Steve head east and then dialed Loki. “The stakeout’s over. I’m out.”

“That was abrupt. Did you learn anything of value?” Loki sounded like he was outside somewhere.

“No, but I don’t think this guy’ll be giving anyone trouble anymore. Are you home? I can come over now.”

“Unfortunately, something has come up. I’m going to be later than expected. I should be home by nine o’clock at the latest.”

“That’s okay. I could use a walk anyway, after being cooped up in that hotel room. I’ll pick something up for dinner and meet you there.”

“I look forward to it.”

James hung up and looked around, trying to decide upon a direction for his walk. The sun was setting over the Hudson, pink and red in front of him. He let that lead him, and headed downtown along the river park.

He took out his new burner phone and called Natasha.

“This is a bad idea,” was the first thing out of her mouth.

“Don’t worry, it’s safe. I heard what happened, that you didn’t go through with it. Tony told Steve over the phone.”

“And Osiander?”

“Dead. We’re all clear.”

“I was hoping we could keep him alive a little longer to see what else he knew, but this is for the best.” She paused. “I’m sorry you had to—”

“That’s the thing. I didn’t. He was already dead when I went in. I’m guessing we weren’t the only people he pissed off.”

“I’m worried about Stark,” Natasha said. “I backed off, but the next person won’t.”

“I was thinking about that, too. I’ll work on Steve, and maybe Pepper, too. Find a way to let them know there’s danger and handle it for him before it’s too late. Where are you?”

“Still in Sao Paulo. But since the coast is clear, I’m going to head to London now. There are still five more days of fashion shows to report on. I’ll see you next week.”

“Natashenka?” James said, allowing his calm cool to slip for a second now that there was no longer a reason to front. “I—”

“I know, dorogoi moy, I know. I’m glad we don’t have to disappear, too.”


When Steve returned to his enormous apartment, he found that he almost missed the hotel room. He’d been used to bunks in the orphanage, and at boarding houses, and in the army. The small room (well, small compared to the giant apartment he lived in) had been comforting, and having James around 24/7 hadn’t hurt.

“Welcome home, sir.”

(JARVIS, while useful, not to mention chatty, did not quite count as company.)

“Thanks. Hey, can I ask you to take care of a couple of things for me?”

While JARVIS left the anonymous tip for the cops and checked them out of the hotel, Steve unpacked and tried to settle in. However, even as he walked around, he couldn’t get James out of his head. James and his night terrors and what had to be stress headaches, brought on by whatever aspect of the case had threatened to touch him personally. He wished James—Bucky? and really, what had that been about?—had trusted him enough to tell him the details, but he knew he didn’t have a leg to stand on, what with keeping a pretty huge secret himself.

Steve had long wondered what was going on with James and Natasha. Something definitely was. After this episode, he thought he had figured it out: Witness Protection Program. It explained why they never talked about the past, and why James had said that thing about not feeling like his name fit him. What if it wasn’t his name? Maybe the reason James wouldn’t tell Steve what was wrong was because he legally couldn’t.

It was a happier alternative than accepting the fact that James didn’t trust him.

Steve had barely finished unpacking when his phone rang. It was Pepper.

She was bawling.

“Pepper?”

“He’s dead,” she sobbed.

“Who’s dead?”

“Tony.” She gasped. “In Afghanistan. On his trip.”

“What?” All the air went out of Steve’s lungs.

“He had just finished a demonstration and he… they attacked the Jeep he was in. They can’t find the body. But everyone’s dead and they’ve found body parts for a huge radius and… Steve? Steve, I can’t…”

He picked up the bag he had just emptied and began putting things right back in it.

“I’m taking the first flight I can get to LA. I’ll be there soon.”

As he sat in the cab to the airport, he left Coulson a voicemail. “I hate to have to do this, sir, but I might not be in on Monday…”


Loki sat at the roof bar of The Standard. He had been there since four o’clock, ever since killing Osiander in his room.

A room service waiter’s uniform and a bottle of instantaneous, untraceable poison were rolled up in a small bag by his feet.

This wasn’t the first time James’s professional interests had collided with Loki’s, but it was the closest call. If he hadn’t been involved with James, he would not have known Osiander was being watched. He would have gone to the original meeting as planned, and been caught. That said, he wouldn’t have cared. He would have found a way to convince the general populace of his innocence and continue on with his plans.

However, James would have looked at him with disappointment and hurt and confusion, and would not have been so easily convinced out of it. Receiving that look from the one person left who cared about him and about whom he cared would have been a crushing blow. Loki knew that one day he would have to reveal more of the truth, but he hoped to do it at the moment of his triumph, when his greatness would overshadow the deceit and unsavoury means he had taken to achieve it.

Loki could see what a dangerous liability this continued liaison had become, but he kept finding reasons not to pull away.

James had inadvertently informed Loki of the laziness and disorganization of Osiander’s organization. It came as no surprise. Every business contact he had so far dealt with on Midgard had disappointed him. In the absence of a reliable mercenary, he had had to murder Osiander himself, not only to eliminate the risk of exposure for his larger plans, but also for personal vengeance. He knew neither James nor Natasha had taken any pleasure in their purely professional sexual encounter—he congratulated them, in fact, for a trick so well-played—but Osiander had dared to lay lustful hands on that which was precious to Loki. And for that, he had to die.

It was evening now, and James had just called to let Loki know that the stakeout was over. He and Steve had vacated the hotel, as expected. They—Steve especially—would, of course, want to alert the authorities. Loki waited for the eventual siren of an ambulance below.

There it was.

He smiled to himself and ordered another drink. A man slid into the seat beside him at the bar.

“Hey, I know you,” the man said. “You’re Loki Laufeyson.”

Loki was not accustomed to being addressed in public, especially not in such a casual, insultingly familiar manner. His circle of acquaintance was very small, limited almost exclusively to James’s friends. He looked up at his unwanted companion and recognized him as Obadiah Stane, Tony Stark’s lieutenant.

“You pulled that prank at Halloween. Switched all the lights to spell out your name. Good gag.”

“Thank you.” Loki curtly bowed his head and then looked away.

“You here alone?” Stane asked, erroneously assuming that one icebreaker meant they were now on informal terms.

Loki suspected the man was a little bit drunk, or rattled, or both.

“Yes,” he replied. “I was meant to have a meeting, but my contact seems to have cancelled without informing me first.”

Stane laughed. “They call it ‘standing you up’. Happened to me, too. But my guy had a good reason. Two, actually. First, he didn’t know I was coming to see him. Second, he’s dead.”

“Excuse me?”

“Did you hear all those ambulances just now? Somebody died in his hotel room today. The person I was coming to see. Good thing, too, because I wasn’t happy with him. Probably would have killed him myself.” When Loki raised an eyebrow, he continued, “Just kidding. Just kidding.”

Except Loki had a feeling he was not kidding at all.

“I hope you can still complete your business,” Loki said.

“Yeah, I got someone else to do the job for me.”

The pieces began to fit into place in his mind. Stane was obviously Osiander’s other employer, the one James had mentioned. The reason Loki himself had wanted to meet with Osiander was in order to get in touch with a collector of Hydra weapons the Moldovans had told him about a couple of months ago. Osiander had said that the owner was one of his main employers, and that he might be able to arrange a transaction.

If Stane was this man, Loki could arrange it himself, without the need of an intermediary.

Fate indeed was smiling on him.

“Since we have met before,” he began, smiling broadly, “would you take a drink with me? Perhaps at a table?”

Stane shrugged. “Sure. Been trying to set something up with you for weeks, but your assistant keeps telling me you’re booked. You’re the only billionaire in the country we don’t do any business with.”

“This is exactly what I hope to remedy.”

They requested a table and were soon seated in a private corner.

“So, what kind of deal are you looking to make?”

“I have reason to believe you are in possession of some antiques I have long hoped to acquire.”

Stane must have been expecting something more directly related to one of Stark Industries’ specialties. “What antiques?”

“Hydra weapons.”

“There aren’t many people who would think to ask me about that. Who told you to talk to me?”

“A Moldovan businessman here in New York. My ex-banker put me in touch with him before the man’s untimely death.”

“Oh, I heard about that. Somebody killed a bunch of mobsters a couple of months ago, right? Even Captain America got involved.”

“The final agreement was that they all killed one another.” Loki almost regretted the fact. The idea of a single, escaped killer intrigued him, as it would have meant there was at least one professional on this planet who was not entirely useless.

“Whoever it was had it right. I’ve got access to ‘em. But I have to ask, why Hydra weapons?” Stane asked. “I wouldn’t be an honest businessman if I didn’t tell you up front that they don’t work.”

A millennium of practice had taught Loki to school his face, but even he needed to hide a laugh at the idea of Stane as an honest anything. “What do you mean?”

“Howard—Tony Stark’s dad—used to talk about them, tell me crazy stories about Captain America and Hydra weapons that vaporized people. But it’s all a load of crap. They look nice and all, but they won’t even shoot.”

Loki had half expected this. Separated for so long from their power source, they of course would have become inert, little more than old toys awaiting a battery.

But that was not what he wanted them for, and neither Stane nor anyone else had any way of knowing what their true value was. Powered once upon a time by the Tesseract, created from it, each piece was sure to still bear a signature, a faint attraction to its object of origin. Taken together, and treated in ways that only Loki knew how, they could serve as homing devices to locate the Tesseract. He may not have had his magic, but Loki had been using his foundation to acquire the science needed for such a process; a rude approximation of what he should have been able to do with a mere wave of his hands, and which, once the Tesseract was in his grasp, he would be able to master again.

“Their efficacy has no bearing on my desire for them,” he told Stane. “I have no need for active weapons. I am driven simply by a collector’s curiosity.”

“And you want to do a deal. I’ve got access to pretty much all that remained after the war. How many do you want?”

“The entire collection.”

“What? The whole set? I can’t. They’re priceless.”

“Everything has a price.”

Stane swilled his drink and looked into the bottom of it, as though a number might be written there. And apparently, it was, because soon he said, “$200 million.”

“Done.”

Loki knew this was only Stane’s opening bid, but he was above haggling with such a man. Besides, it was to his advantage to let Stane think him an innocent, a collector so foolish about his passion that he would pay exorbitant sums for old weapons that did not even work.

“Easiest deal I’ve done all month,” Stane said with a condescending smile, already underestimating him.

“How do you propose finalizing the transaction?”

“That’s the tricky part,” Stane said. “They’re still in the Stark Industries private collection in Florida.”

“If they belong to Stark, then how are you in a position to sell? Have I been misinformed?” Loki’s temper flared. Stane physically repulsed him, and he abhorred the possibility that there was any chance he had wasted a single moment speaking to him.

“No, they told you right. I was always your best contact. Tony never even knew he had them. And in terms of being able to sell… You might not have heard yet. It only just happened. Stark’s dead.”

“What?” This was indeed news. Loki had seen Stark just the other day, with James, at a dinner in Steve’s apartment.

“Yeah. Ambushed by Afghani rebels. I just heard on my way here.”

“I am sorry for your loss,” Loki said, even though Stane did not seem at all distressed. “I knew Stark a little. He was… not entirely insignificant.”

Stane snorted. “Funny way to put it. Anyway, I’m his trustee. Anything he owns will be transferred over to me during the next few weeks. Once all the legal work is done, I can get back to you. Still, we’ll have to keep it all above board for the accountants.”

“Understood. What do you suggest?”

“I’m thinking, maybe we find something else you can buy, legitimately, and then have you overpay by $200 million. Maybe some Stark Industries stock, something like that.”

“I am amenable to this plan.” Loki hated waiting, but he could tell that if Stane could have completed the deal today, he would have. This was a man who lived for money, and wanted it immediately.

“Nice doing business with you. Can’t wait to lock everything down. And you know what? This drink’s on me.”

(One $20 drink in exchange for Loki overpaying by what he was sure was tens of millions of dollars. How generous.)

“Yes. Now, if you’ll—” Loki shifted in his chair.

But to his dismay, Stane settled more comfortably into his seat and began to savour his drink. “Where does this interest in Hydra weapons come from? Are you a WWII hobbyist, or into military lore in general?”

Loki watched this more relaxed body posture with horror. He wanted nothing more than to leave this place, bid farewell to this vulgar, repugnant man and go meet James. But all signs currently pointed to Stane looking for post-business chitchat, and with the deal still incomplete, Loki had to make a show of politeness.

How he longed for the day when he no longer had to humor these ants.

“Weapons lore in general,” Loki replied. “Preferably those with an interesting mythology attached to them.”

“Man after my own heart,” Stane said with what he doubtlessly thought was a friendly grin.

“Indeed?” Loki repressed his displeasure at being compared in any way to Stane.

“Yeah, I live for this stuff. Though I’m more of a Cold War junkie myself. I’ve got the launch codes from the Cuban mission crisis. I’ve got Chinese poison rings and…”

Stane continued to ramble, whilst Loki performed an excellent imitation of rapt attention—all the while dreaming of ways to muzzle the man.

“…I’ve even got activation codes for the Black Widow,” he continued after some time, still gloating over his treasures, one by one. He took Loki’s timed nod as encouragement. “You ever heard of the Black Widow?”

“No,” Loki said, despairing. “I have not had the pleasure, but I am sure you will rectify that.”

“Very small, top secret USSR espionage program. Took kids and brainwashed them into master spies and assassins. The Black Widow was the best of them. Possibly the only one.”

“Fascinating,” Loki said, discreetly checking the time on a passing man’s watch.

“There’s all this lore about her, about this program. They say she was given the most important, most prestigious job of all: handler to the Winter Soldier. You ever heard of the Winter Soldier?”

“No,” Loki said, and this time really was very close to losing his temper.

“That’s because you’ve been stuck on Hydra. There’s a whole world of history that you WWII buffs don’t know about. Anyway, the Winter Soldier was the USSR’s greatest weapon, or so the story goes. Fell out of the sky, they say. Craziest shit I’ve ever heard.”

“Is it?”

(As someone who had fallen out of the sky himself, Loki did not see how this was so unbelievable, but such were the limitations of mortal minds, especially such a one as Stane’s.)

“They’d been trying to create a super soldier, a much more advanced version of the Black Widow project. Russia’s version of Captain America, but without that pesky maverick streak. They’d tried with hundreds of subjects. None of them survived the procedures or the training. None until this guy. The stories are over the top: trained in every type of combat, enhanced reflexes, enhanced metabolism, enhanced healing abilities. Spoke at least twenty languages. Too valuable to let age, so they kept him in cryogenic freezing between missions. Only let him out for a few weeks every couple of years to do jobs. The conspiracy theorists say he was behind every single major assassination of the second half of the twentieth century. Imagine,” Stane cooed, almost aroused by his own tale. “Imagine what it would be like to have a weapon like that. All the intelligence and creativity of a human, but with the guarantees of a machine.”

“And you have the brainwashing activation codes for this miracle?” Loki could tell Stane’s semi-rhetorical statement necessitated a response.

“No, not those. No one’s ever found them, probably because they don’t exist. Because he didn’t exist. It’s just a good story the Ruskies used to scare us Westerners with. But the Black Widow, now, she was a real person. Probably not enhanced or special or any of the extra spin they’ve built the stories up with, but she existed, was a real spy with triggers brainwashed into her. She would do anything—anything—once she was activated with the right phrases, and wouldn’t stop until her mission was complete. She’s got to be long dead by now, but the activation codes are a great artifact. I got them off an old KGB director. Actually, I got most of my collection from him. The Black Widow thing is only the least of it. You wouldn’t believe all the stuff I got. I also have—”

“If you will excuse me,” Loki said, unable to take any more of this man’s odious nattering, and dreading the imminent launch into yet another harangue. Collectors truly were the same across the realms: all unable to shut up about their enthusiasms. “I really must be going. I have another appointment I simply cannot delay.”

“Got a nice piece of tail waiting for you, I bet. I know the look,” Stane laughed, winking lewdly.

Loki knew right then that Stane would die. He would die for daring to speak to him like that, to speak of James like that. Gruesomely, painfully, humiliated, he would die soon after this transaction was complete.

He swallowed his rage enough to lightly reply, “Something like that.”

Stane waved him away, thinking they were sharing a moment. “Go on. Go get it. I’ll be in touch in a few weeks about finalizing the deal.”

Loki heaved a sigh of relief as he got into a taxi. Despite the annoyances of the evening, he was an important step closer to retrieving the Tesseract and his power. In the hands of a less noxious narrator, the modern Midgardian lore might have been fascinating, but Stane was a boor, as well as a bore, and his prattle had been even more difficult to tolerate with the knowledge that James was waiting at home.

Chapter Text

During his trek across the Grand Central main floor, harried commuters practically knocked the duffel bag from Steve’s shoulder in their dash to make the Metro North trains. But after weeks spent searching for Tony in the desolated mountains of Afghanistan, Steve felt relaxed, not frustrated by the city’s hustle and bustle. It was nice to be Steve again, a nobody ripe for jostling, instead of Captain America, revered national icon.

The warm feeling continued all the way to Stark Tower, and he whistled an old Cole Porter tune as he walked into the lobby.

“Hey, Dan,” he greeted his favorite security guard with a broad smile.

“Long time no see,” Dan replied, looking happy to see him, but also uncharacteristically nervous.

“How’s your daughter? She’d just broken her arm last time I saw you. Gymnastics, right?

“Cast comes off next week. Thanks for asking. Can’t believe you remembered that.” But instead of Steve’s thoughtfulness putting him at ease, the usually genial Dan only grew more agitated.

“Is everything all right?” Steve asked, pausing before heading to the elevator bank.

Dan stood and leaned tensely on the high desk. “Goddammit, I wish someone else had been on duty when you came back. I didn’t want to have to do this.”

“Do what?”

“A week or so ago, we got word from high up that your apartment has been, er, repurposed.”

“You mean…” Steve’s happy homecoming blew up like a practical joke. “You mean I’ve been kicked out?”

Dan nodded. “Your stuff’s in a box back here.”

Steve felt numb as they dug through the security closet to find his belongings. For something that held most of his worldly possessions, the box was pretty small. The Spartan habits of a pauper-turned-soldier were hard to break, and his apartment had come fully-furnished.

“I’m so sorry,” Dan kept saying. “The order came from Stane himself. Part of a bunch of changes he’s made since Stark died. There was nothing any of us could do.”

Unpleasant flashbacks to his pre-war life punched Steve in the gut. Illness laying him up in bed for weeks at a time and causing him to lose whatever job he’d managed to snag. Getting better only to be asked to leave his boarding house because he’d missed a rent check. Standing on cold street corners with a small bag in hand, just as he was standing in this lobby now, trying to figure out what to do next. So many things had changed over the years and in his life, but somehow this had remained a constant. Just when a break came along, another setback nullified it.

“Easy come, easy go,” Steve said, trying to keep his voice light and his face stoic for Dan’s sake, even though he felt hollowed out inside.


Bucky snaked an arm out of the fur pelt that covered him. The cold winter wind smarted against his skin. Reaching for his beer without tipping the narrow chaise lounge he and Loki occupied required a delicate maneuver, but Bucky was nimble, and practice had made him a pro.

Like a happily sated otter, Loki lay curved and curled against him, his head wedged between Bucky’s neck and shoulder. Without any clothes to separate them, the knobs of Loki’s thin spine pressed firmly against Bucky’s chest. On one side, the foot of Bucky’s bent leg planted firmly against Loki’s upper inner thigh, and on the other, Loki’s leg wrapped possessively around Bucky’s outstretched one. Their entwined fingers rested lightly on Loki’s stomach.

This had become Bucky’s favorite position.

When this had first started, months ago by this point, each had been pleased to discover that the other preferred hanging out on the balcony to sitting inside. During the perfect fall days of October and early November, the wraparound deck—almost as large as Bucky’s entire apartment—was where they’d eaten all their meals and drunk all their drinks. By the time the first frost had fallen, they’d become too entrenched in their routine to move inside, and anyway, it turned out they were both unusually comfortable in cold temperatures. Almost feeling one another out, testing the other’s limits, they’d spent the evening of the first Nor’easter screwing outside, snowflakes salting their dark hair.

Tonight, as on many nights, they lay curled in a blissed-out afterglow, staring at the skyline while Loki spun a silly, crazy tale for Bucky’s amusement. The tradition had started accidentally, during a traffic-slowed ride back from a weekend on the North Fork. Bucky had been casting around for a way to pass the time, and Loki had simply started talking, spewing surprisingly compelling nonsense. Ever since that day, Bucky had clamored for more. Loki told beautiful stories. He had a flair for narrative tricks and his clever tongue glided smoothly from foreshadowing to plot points.

Perhaps Loki wasn’t quite as crafty as he gave himself credit for, or maybe Bucky was smarter than he let on; either way, Bucky felt almost certain that most, if not all, of Loki’s zany tales were autobiographical. The fantastical scenarios and Tolkien-esque names were meant to throw him off the scent, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to notice that the cast of characters remained constricted to a narrow set.

There were always two guys: one was loud, entitled and kind of a douchebag; the other was quiet, insecure, and a sneaky asshole. Bucky easily recognized the latter of the jerks as Loki. Sometimes the two main characters were princes, sometimes they were soldiers fighting a war, sometimes they were troublesome school kids; sometimes they traveled to magical faraway lands, sometimes they got up to drunken hijinks, and sometimes they just chilled in the house.

Secondary characters came in and out, depending on the story. There were up to four dude-bro hangers-on, friends of the douchebag’s. One of the dude-bros was a girl. Then there were what had to be either parents, or a general and his wife, or the headmaster and headmaster’s wife at the boarding school the boys went to. And then someone else, whose role was difficult to figure out; he was either an overly-invested babysitter, or a nosy neighbor, or everybody’s favorite teacher.

Bucky got the feeling that the other main character was Loki’s brother. At the very least, he must have been his best friend in boarding school—possibly the only real friend he’d ever had before Bucky. Loki’s narratives emphasized the guy’s idiotic arrogance, but whatever real life events had inspired these stories suggested a youth full of real affection. Bucky didn’t understand how Loki could have dropped him the way he had. The fact that he kept telling these stories suggested that some repressed part of him missed the guy.

(Bucky knew better than to say anything, though, either about figuring out that the stories were twisted together from life, or about Loki’s unresolved feelings regarding the other guy. Experience had taught him there was no better way of ensuring the stories would cease.)

Tonight’s adventure was completely insane. It involved something about an eagle that was possibly a witch, and maybe a massacre? Between mentally trying to strip out the crazy to guess what the real story might have been, and also working up the nerve to bring up the topic that he planned to discuss once Loki was done, Bucky’s brain was whirring at too high of a frequency to follow as well as he usually did. But not even his distraction could diminish the calm that Loki’s voice and rhythms provided, or the peace he felt wrapped up together on the chair like this.

“That was a good one,” he said at the end. “Even more cracked out than usual, but good.”

“Was it?” Loki asked in surprise, as though he hadn’t noticed.

“Yeah. Where do you even get this stuff?”

“I piece it together. I’m glad you enjoy them. It’s relaxing for me, as well.” Loki nestled even more closely against Bucky, who took this moment as encouragement to spit it out already.

“So, uh, I was wondering…” Bucky cleared his throat and tried to release his hand to hide his sweaty palm, but Loki refused to let go. “Christmas is coming up—”

“You don’t honestly expect me to celebrate this pagan holiday,” Loki announced with disgust.

“No, I… wait, what?” Bucky’s train of thought spun off and swan-dived over the balcony. Loki was the most articulate person he’d ever met; this misuse of a word was unprecedented. “I don’t think you know what ‘pagan’ means.”

“I’m well aware of the definition. However, I reserve the right to define the default religion against which otherness is measured.”

“Just out of curiosity, what do you think the default religion is?”

“I believe the people of Earth lost their way when they abandoned the Norse traditions.”

“Right.” Chalk up another point on Loki’s ever-expanding list of quirks. Bucky was keeping score in the hope that one day he would figure out where this all came from.

(He was almost certain Loki was keeping a similar running tally on him.)

“What is it you wish to ask me?” Loki prodded.

“Natasha and I usually save up for a big trip instead of doing the whole ho-ho-ho thing. Kind of an Orphans Only Non-Christmas. We look around for last-minute deals to places where it isn’t widely celebrated. Last year we went hiking in India. Year before that we went clubbing in Abu Dhabi. Your, uh, feelings about Christmas work out pretty well, since this year we were thinking it would be great if you and Clint came, too.” Bucky blurted it out as quickly as he could before he lost his nerve. He, who had killed countless people and endured unspeakable torture, was getting all flustered about asking his boyfriend on vacation—or rather, about the fact that going on vacation meant that he actually had a serious boyfriend. He and Natasha had discussed the idea a week before, and decided they wanted to do this, no matter how scary it was. Although she, too, had been nervous, in her own way, she’d already gotten Clint’s acceptance three days before, leaving Bucky as the slacker.

“Are you sure you can be spared at the moment?” Loki asked, his voice dripping with dangerous meaning. “You seem to be in the middle of a large project with Captain America.”

Bucky was glad of the moonless night so that he could roll his eyes unobserved. The list of Loki’s hang-ups was long and varied, but this one was less entertaining than most. For the past few weeks, Bucky had been writing stories about Captain America’s search for Tony Stark in Afghanistan, keeping up a pretty constant and exclusive email correspondence with Cap for the information. Loki didn’t like it.

“I think the search is winding down,” he replied calmly. “Which means the series I’ve been writing will be, too. I should be able to take time off.”

Loki’s twisted around to straddle Bucky’s thighs. His eyes, only inches from Bucky’s, darkened with thoughtfulness.

“This is a significant invitation, isn’t it?” he asked.

“It’s not a big deal,” Bucky lied. “I mean, if you’ve got something else to do…”

“I will accompany you with pleasure,” Loki said. He seemed to understand what a huge move this was for Bucky, but while acknowledging its seriousness, he was thankfully not dwelling on it. “Why don’t you three simply decide where you would most like to visit instead of allowing the price to dictate your choices? I can—”

“We each pay our own way, Loki, which means we can only do what we can afford. You should know that by now.”

“Yes, yes. Your self-sufficiency is admirably annoying.”

Bucky smiled, and allowed himself to relax again as Loki nuzzled on his ear. Now that it was done, he realized this hadn’t been scary at all. It felt only natural, really, and the flash of wonder and satisfaction that Loki had allowed himself to show made it worth it. “I’m glad you’re coming. I think it’ll be fun.”

“I have no doubt of it.” Loki pulled up on the top of the chaise to adjust the angle. Carefully, he lowered the back so that they were completely reclined, with Loki propped up on his forearm and Bucky trapped and anticipative beneath him.

But just as Loki began to slide against him, melodies from Sleeping Beauty played at a garishly tinny pitch sounded from inside. Bucky disentangled himself from Loki and crawled naked out of their cocoon, dragging one of the furs with him.

“Must you?” Loki asked.

“Yeah. Sorry.”

Natasha only called from this number during emergencies, but her voice sounded calmer than expected on the other end. “I need you to come home.”

Bucky walked to the far end of the living room, out of earshot of the balcony. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“Just come now.”

The call clicked to end, leaving Bucky holding a silent device to his ear.

“I gotta go,” he yelled and began pulling on the clothes he had left strewn on the floor of the living room. “Natasha needs me.”

Loki’s pale face appeared in the French doors. “For what?”

“I don’t know. But she only calls from that number when it's an emergency. I’ll call you later, okay?”

“Very well,” Loki said. He’d come to understand, although not quite accept, that emergencies with Natasha trumped all. “Take the car. And if you need any assistance…”

Bucky usually made a point of refusing such offers, but he wasn’t about to jeopardize getting home faster just to satisfy his pride. “Thanks.”

When he got into his building, he unlatched a tile in the corner of the staircase, one of the many places they stored weapons, just in case. A simple handgun would have to do for now. His heart flew into his throat when he reached out to unlock the door and saw that it was already ajar. Low voices were speaking inside.

He slid silently along the walls until he could see around the corner and into the living room to find…

Steve. Steve and Natasha with their feet up, drinking seltzer and listening to her awful Georgian trance music that Bucky knew Steve was too polite to ask to change.

Bucky’s arm dropped to his side, the gun dangling uselessly from his fingers. He automatically shoved it under the server in the foyer before stepping into the room and saying, “What.”

Steve’s eyes lit up like a starving man who’s just caught sight of a well-condimented hamburger. He bounded up and enveloped Bucky in a bear hug.

As he hugged back, Bucky had a feeling his face looked just about as famished. While he hadn’t fallen apart or anything, what with work and the city and Natasha and Loki and all their other friends, Steve’s absence had put into relief exactly how entrenched he had become in Bucky’s life. He’d missed Steve the way a high-functioning amputee would probably still miss a limb.

“What’s going on here?” Bucky asked as soon as Steve had loosened his grasp enough to allow him to speak.

“We thought we’d surprise you,” Natasha said calmly.

“I hate surprises.”

“That’s because you’ve rarely had a nice one.”

“Decided to grace us with your presence again?” Bucky said as teasingly as he could.

“Shut it, James,” Steve replied, also teasing.

“James?” Bucky punched him on the shoulder. “I thought we talked about this. You’re supposed to call me Bucky now.”

“I didn’t know you were serious about that.”

“‘Course I was. I’ve gotten pretty much everyone to call me Bucky—”

“They’re making fun of you,” Natasha said pityingly.

“Natasha and Loki are the only hold-outs.”

“Why?” Steve asked her. “I mean, if that’s what he wants.”

“Because it’s the dumbest name we’ve ever heard of.”

Bucky noticed a duffel bag and a box in the corner of the living room. “You came here straight from the airport?”

“Not exactly.”

“He’s been kicked out of his apartment,” Natasha explained. “He’s going to stay here until he can find a new one.”

“Potts would never kick you out.”

“I’m sure she doesn’t know. They told me it was Stane.”

“Why didn’t you call me?” Bucky asked.

“I figured you’d say yes, so I wanted to make sure it was okay with Natasha first.”

“That’s some assumption you made there, buddy. Who says I would agree to take your sorry ass in?” Bucky went on tiptoes to give Steve a noogie. “Just joking.”

“I know.” Steve closed his eyes and carefully disentangled himself from Bucky’s hand.

“I was just telling Steve,” Natasha said, “that his living situation is part of a pattern that goes with some of the things we’ve been seeing at the paper since Stark died.”

“He isn’t dead,” Steve insisted.

“Fine. Went missing. Ever since Stane assumed control…”

Bucky, now that his scare about Natasha was over, let himself fall onto the couch and enjoy having his best friend back. He let her talk about the past few weeks, watching Steve’s face all the while. He only broke to quickly text Loki to let him know everything was okay. More than okay.

“There’s been a consultant spying around the office for the past few days,” Natasha finished. “Sent by ‘management.’”

“What does Coulson think?” Steve asked.

“You know Coulson. He doesn’t say much. Someone in management hasn’t liked James’s Captain America stories, though. We overheard the consultant telling Coulson to stop publishing them.”

“You never told—” Steve began to say, and then stopped. “Really?”

“Coulson told him to shut up, and printed them anyway,” Bucky said. “Personally, I think it’s nuts, not that I’d ever tell Cap that. The scent’s gone cold, and that Jeep was blowed up but good. Still, ‘Captain America refuses to give up on his old buddy’s missing son’ makes for a great series. Next time I see him, I’m going to have to find a way to thank him for handing me a Pulitzer on a platter. But what’s up with you, pal? How’s Potts? Are you feeling better?”

“Uh, definitely better.” Steve looked at the floor. “Thanks for asking.”

Shortly after flying out to LA on the night of Stark’s death, Steve had emailed to say he had come down with something and was going to be out on disability for a while. He wouldn’t say what with, but Bucky guessed it was whatever had laid him up as a kid. Steve had always been sensitive about his secret past health problems, so he didn’t want to pry. Despite being sick, Steve had contributed occasional articles over the past few weeks, often on the Stark transition.

“Next time, you tell me, okay?” Bucky said, letting some of the hurt he’d been bottling up all this time leak out. “You don’t just run across the country when you get sick. I’d have taken care of you, just as good as Potts. I’m a really good nurse. Great bedside manner.”

“I wouldn’t have expected it either, but it’s true,” Natasha confirmed. “Where he picked that up, even I don’t know.”

A couple of hours later, as he fondly watched Steve begin to nod off, Bucky was reminded—wondered how he’d forgotten—that Steve liked to get his full eight hours. Maybe that’s why he was always in such a goddamn positive mood, especially in the morning.

Ugh. Disgusting.

“Do you have any extra sheets for the couch?” Steve asked, long before the two night owls were ready to turn in.

“I don’t think you can fit on the couch,” Bucky said. “Why don’t you take my room for as long as you’re here? I’ll crash with Natasha.”

“I’m not going to kick you out of your own bed. Or force Natasha to bunk up.”

“Steve, do you have any idea how many times we’ve had sex?” Natasha asked.

Steve, ever bashful, looked everywhere but at the two of them. “Uh…”

“Often enough that sharing a bed is more like second nature than an imposition.”

“And I’m not even here half the time,” Bucky added.

“I’ll split the rent with you, you know.”

“Steve?” Natasha and Bucky said in unison. “Shut up.”


Bucky and Natasha had a morning routine born out of years of practice—a routine Steve didn’t have a prayer of navigating on his first try. He turned beet red upon full-body colliding with a lingerie-clad Natasha. A minute later, Bucky, who had never been particularly pleasant first-thing in the morning, snapped at him when his shower lasted thirty seconds too long.

All was better by the time they got out of the subway. Steve had almost forgotten all the little joys of coming into work. The red lights on the lobby turnstiles. The overheard snippets of conversations in the elevators. The stash of Jolly Ranchers Clint kept in his drawer. Darcy’s deadpan good humour. The constant search for Jane’s belongings.

Guilt tainted his happiness to be back. Tony was still gone. Pepper was stuck in LA, drowning in her grief and trying to pick up the pieces. Steve refused to accept that Tony was dead, but the alternative meant he was still out there somewhere, and Steve had failed him. The guilt of having been forced to give up the search by the army, the government, and too many powers to fight still physically pained him. He didn’t deserve to come back here as though nothing were wrong.

“Steve!” Darcy ran around the welcome desk to launch herself right into his chest. “You’re back! I was just going down for a coffee run. I’ll add you to the list. Same as usual?”

“You still remember?”

“It hasn’t been that long.”

Steve found his desk covered in Bucky’s papers and supplies. The chaos he had daily worked to stem had spread in his absence.

“Looks like I got back not a minute too soon,” he joked. “If I’d stayed away any longer, my seat would have been yours.”

“I was keeping it warm for you. Didn’t want to make it look too hospitable to squatters.”

“So I’m supposed to thank you for this mess?”

“Brat.”

“Where’s Coulson?” Steve asked. “I should go tell him I’m back.”

Bucky craned his head to peer down the hall. “I don’t see his coat hanging outside the door. Weird. He usually gets here before anybody else.”

“Time to head in for the Monday morning meeting, guys,” Darcy sing-songed as she returned with their coffees.

While they waited for Coulson to arrive, Steve caught up with Jane. It turned out he wasn’t the only one who’d been kicked out of Stark Tower. The access privileges and lab space Tony had let her use were no longer available, she’d been informed a few days before.

Fifteen minutes later, a murmur rippled through the conference room as someone who was decidedly not Coulson stalked into the room. He was tall and arrogant and chewing on the end of a cigar at 9:30 in the morning.

“You’re Jonah Jameson,” Bucky blurted out from his usual spot on the folding table at the back of the room, next to Natasha. “Where’s Coulson?”

Steve had heard of Jonah Jameson. He ran The Daily Bugle. He had no business being here.

“Coulson’s been let go. I’m your new Editor-In-Chief.”

An uneasy murmur spread through the room. Under the table, Jane sought out Steve’s hand and squeezed it more tightly that one might have expected from such slender fingers.

“Since when? And on whose orders?” Bucky asked next.

Jameson frowned and peered across the room.

“Barnes, right?”

“James Barnes. You can call me James.”

“What else would I call you? I’ve been appointed by your new publisher and approved by the owner himself. So you’d better get used to the idea. Coulson was running a funny farm, as far as I can tell, and it’s time to clean the barn, if you know what I mean. The only reason we’re having this stupid inter-departmental meeting is to let you know we won’t be having them anymore. Waste of time. Everybody get back to work.”

And that was it. Everyone sat mystified for a minute, and then, when there was nothing to do, they began to funnel out.

At the door, Jameson tapped Steve on the shoulder.

“You’ve gotta be Rogers.”

“Yes, sir.”

“They weren’t joking when they told me to look for someone built like a tank. Come into my office for a sec.”

The corner office, which, under Coulson, had always been sparse yet welcoming, currently existed in a state of disarray. The comfortable couch was taped up with a “To Move” sign pasted on one of the cushions. The only seat in the room was Jameson’s desk chair, so Steve stood.

“I think you know why you’re here,” Jameson said in between puffs of his cigar.

“Can’t say I do, sir. Introducing yourself to all the staff-members?” After almost a month away, Steve itched to get back to work. However, little as he liked it, this was his new boss, and he ought to make at least a show of politeness.

“I’ve been told you just up and left one day after filing up an extravagant hotel expense that didn't even result in a story.”

“I was on disability. But I still contributed while I was away.”

“You don’t look like you’ve been sick a day in your life.”

“Appearances can be deceiving. Coulson approved the time and the expenses, sir.”

“Coulson approved a lot of things around here that he shouldn’t have. Including hiring you in the first place. I looked into the paperwork, and it turns out you were hired before going through any of the standard channels.”

And now Steve had an inkling of where this was going.

“Coulson took a chance on me, and he expressed only positive feedback as to my performance. I’m—”

But Jameson waved Steve’s words away like so much cigar smoke. “You’re fired, is what you are.”


There were even fewer personal effects at Steve’s desk than there had been in his apartment, so ‘packing up’ amounted to grabbing his coat. No one noticed when he quietly left, as though simply going to get a bagel.

He had never had a day off in this new New York City. It was too cold and rainy to go for a walk. He couldn’t go home—he still thought of the Tower as home—and although they’d told him to treat the apartment as his own, he didn’t yet feel comfortable heading back to Bushwick without Bucky or Natasha.

So, after wandering the streets for a few minutes in a numb daze, he did what he’d used to do on bad days, and hadn’t had a chance to since waking up: he went to the movies by himself. MoMA was in the middle of a Fred Astaire retrospective. For a few hours, it was 1942 again. Over three films, Steve allowed himself to forget his troubles in the spectacle, just as he had when Holiday Inn had first come out.

As he left the basement theatre and returned to the ground level, vibrations in his pocket brought him back to reality; the returning cell phone reception delivered a slew of text messages and missed calls all at once.

Bucky: Where the hell are you?

And a few minutes after that:

Clint: I can’t believe this shit.

Natasha: I just heard. If you are being bashful about going to the apartment, STOP.

Followed by:

Bucky: I just quit. Where are you?

Jane: Are you okay?

And…

Bucky: PICK UP YOUR GODDAMN PHONE

Darcy: FUCKERS!

Natasha: You’re watching old movies at MoMA, aren’t you?

When Steve looked up, he spotted Bucky sitting on a bench in the lobby waiting for him.

“How did she know I would be here?”

“The way she knows everything.” Bucky twirled his hands in the air, silently suggesting magic. “I can’t believe you just left like that, without telling anyone. I was walking around the halls, asking for you like some sad little kid. ‘Hey, have you seen Steve? Anyone seen Steve?’ Jameson finally heard me and smiled when he told me. Fucker.”

“At my old jobs, when you got fired, you were expected to walk out, right then. I didn’t know what else to do, and you were in a meeting, so I...”

“You’re having a rough week, pal.”

“Tell me about it.” Steve nudged Bucky farther down the bench with his hip to make room for him. “You really quit?”

“Yeah.”

“Why?”

Bucky looked at him like it was the dumbest question he’d ever been asked. “He treated you like shit.”

“That’s no reason to give up your job. You love that job.”

“We’re a team now, Steve,” Bucky replied matter-of-factly. “I only just got you back. It’s not worth it without you. And Coulson, too.” He calmly picked up his coat from where it lay folded on the bench beside him, blind to the way Steve’s face crumpled, KO’ed by sheer emotion. “Come on. The girls are waiting for us next door.”

Literally out one door and into another, the distance between MoMA’s movie theatre entrance and its restaurant was too short for Steve to ask what girls.

“This is classier than we usually do,” he commented as Bucky led the way through the fancy bar area.

“Darcy’s idea. She said if we were all going to be unemployed, we should live it up for one day.”

“Wait,” Steve said as they sat down next to Darcy and Jane, who had spread their coats and scarves around a cluster of low-slung black leather couches at the back of the bar area, “don’t tell me you quit, too.”

Jane shook her head, which was already heavy from what must have been her second mojito. “Nope. Fired. Jameson said he doesn’t need a quack on the payroll.”

“It’s a good thing I wasn’t still in the building when he said that,” Steve seethed. His fists were already clenched when he turned to Darcy. “What about you?”

“He said he didn’t even know what I did around the office all day. Said looking at cat gifs and getting people coffee wasn’t a real job. Said I was useless.”

“That’s entirely untrue,” Steve replied. “You add a lot of value.”

Darcy’s eyes smiled though her lips pouted. “That’s like, the nicest thing anyone’s ever said about me. Professionally.”

They ordered multiple rounds of drinks, cursing those who had abused them. Clint arrived soon afterwards, with Fitz and Simmons in tow. All three of them had also been given the sack.

“He said he didn’t want people on staff who ‘don’t speak English,’” Fitz explained.

“Except I am English!” Simmons protested.

By the time Natasha and Hill showed up, everyone assumed they had been fired, too, but they assured them that they hadn’t.

“I can’t believe you didn’t quit, too,” Bucky said, wagging an accusatory finger at Natasha. “Out of principle.”

“Principles don’t pay the rent.”

Coulson himself even made an appearance.

“How are you doing?” Steve asked him quietly, at the end of their area. “Are you looking around for a new gig?”

Coulson’s response was cryptic. “I have other avenues of employment open to me.”

Hours and a thousand dollars later, Coulson insisted on picking up the tab, saying he would write it off as a team-building exercise, despite everyone’s protestations that he no longer had a company to expense things to and that they were no longer even a team.

Coulson merely smiled and signed the check, pocketing the receipt.

“We’ll get through this,” Bucky said, slapping Steve across the back. “We’re a dream team. We’ll have job offers coming out of our ears and be all set by New Year’s. You’ll see.”


A week passed and no one had called either of them for interviews.

Natasha thankfully hadn’t asked any questions when Steve had begged her to get a Xerox of his HR paperwork for him. He didn’t ask any questions when she succeeded in procuring it, even though he had a feeling that sort of thing was meant to be confidential. Steve’s application process had all been handled by Tony and JARVIS, neither of whom was available to help him this time. He had long ago memorized the name of the college he hadn’t gone to and the birthdate that wasn’t his, but he didn’t know what social security number Tony had procured for him or any of the other nitty-gritty details he’d never had to learn.

Pepper had been shocked to hear what was going on, not only at the paper, but also at the Tower. She’d immediately proposed bringing it up it with Stane, but Steve had begged her not to. The last thing any of them needed was for her to piss Stane off and get fired, too.

But even as he spent mornings in coffee shops with his friends applying to open recs and poking around this LinkedIn thing Darcy had shown him, Steve wondered what exactly he was doing. Not having had to pay rent or utilities or even buy most of his clothes had left his paychecks from the past few months almost undented, so he had a few months worth of savings until any financial trouble hit. He had the luxury of time to explore what best suited him. Maybe he should try something else, something more considered? Something related to art? Something related to the military? But very little advertising work, which he’d done some of before the war, was still done the old-fashioned way, with watercolors and paper. It seemed even more soulless now than it had before. While Rhodey had made a companionable partner on their Afghanistan mission—almost as good as having a Commando with him—it had become increasingly clear that, while the army liked the idea of Captain America the symbol, wars weren’t fought his way anymore. There wasn't any room for his specific skill set within their organization. Far from encouraging him the way Colonel Philips and his superiors had, they had no-so-subtly threatened Rhodey and Cap into ceasing and desisting with their search.

Although he’d fallen into it accidentally, maybe journalism was the only industry that hadn’t completely left him behind. The funny thing was that the others were all in the same boat. None of them had directly relevant backgrounds, but Coulson had brought them all together, trained them, and turned this team of oddballs into almost a family. They might all find other jobs, jobs for which they were more naturally qualified, but no one had the heart to really look.

Needless to say, no one was feeling particularly fun or cheerful.

Meanwhile, Christmas loomed.

This was Steve’s first twenty-first century Christmas, and he found himself thrust back into those early, post-defrosting weeks in Malibu when nothing had made sense. He prided himself on how well he’d acclimatized; few technical things tripped him up anymore, and if he didn’t know how to use something, chances were someone else didn’t either and was grateful to him for asking. Although the vast majority of pop culture references still went over his head, he found that his lack of knowledge ultimately didn’t hinder his basic grasp of what was going on.

But Christmas, something that had once been the simplest thing of all, had become a complete mystery. He had no idea why people were so constantly concerned that they’d shoot their own eyes out (Steve thought you’d have to be pretty clumsy to manage that), or why sad, scraggly Christmas trees were now deserving of love (growing up poor, he still yearned for the biggest trees you could buy), or what an Island of Misfit Toys was supposed to be (at first he thought it was a reference to that confusing plane crash show, but what that had to with Christmas, he couldn’t say).

At least people were still talking about Zuzu’s petals and going to see the Rockettes.

With Natasha’s paycheck now burdened with more of the household’s expenses, Clint’s and Bucky's savings being tight, and everyone too proud to let Loki foot the bill, the extravagant-sounding holiday evasion trip had had to be cancelled. Steve was glad his travel plans to spend the holidays with Pepper’s family had been booked for months, thus making it a non-starter of an issue for him. However, he still asked himself a few times if they would have otherwise invited him (he was sure they would have), and if so, if he would have gone (this, he was less sure of). On the one hand, he had never been on vacation before, and the idea of going with Bucky and his other friends was tantalizing. But on the other hand, Steve liked Christmas—what was left of it, at any rate—and didn’t share the others’ desire to flee. Not to mention that the idea of playing third wheel to Bucky and Loki made him depressed.

Living in Bushwick was not helping Steve get over the pangs of longing he had always felt around Bucky. Bucky and Natasha had taken their promise to make Steve feel like a natural part of the household a little too much to heart. Pants went along with coats and shoes as things one removed when coming home, and they hadn't changed their habits just because a third person now lived with them. Steve had trouble sleeping at night, knowing that Bucky was still walking around in nothing but boxer briefs, a wife beater and three-day-old stubble. His new roommates also had a different—and much narrower—sense of personal space boundaries than Steve did. It was a small apartment, but not quite small enough to warrant being constantly, literally, on top of one another. Bucky and Natasha, who had already seen and touched all there was of one another to see or touch and were now completely over it, didn't seem cognizant of the fact that Steve wasn't over it. He found it horribly, almost painfully, distracting to spend two hours watching a movie with Bucky squeezed up against him, his arm thrown around Steve’s shoulders along the top of the couch. He knew it meant something, as Bucky wasn't nearly as affectionate with anyone else, except Natasha and Loki, but he knew it didn't mean what it could have meant.

It was a good thing he often found himself alone in the apartment, because otherwise, they probably would have wondered why Steve’s guilt-soaked showers constantly lasted too long.

Even beyond his confused jumble of feelings, living here took some getting used to for other reasons, too. The few occasions when Steve had visited before moving in had all been for parties, which had (or so he’d thought) explained the mess. But no. Despite the effortlessly put-together—and in Natasha’s case, downright immaculate—personas they presented to the world, they were not so secretly the most repulsive slobs Steve had ever encountered. They waded through their mess almost with pride, as though sloth were a hard-fought luxury they had won.

With Natasha usually at work or with Clint, and Bucky spending a lot of time in Manhattan with Loki, Steve had the run of the apartment most days. He was only trying to get through the day, not snoop, but everywhere he turned, he found something mystifying, if not downright fishy, hidden in the mess. A gun under the entryway server while he vacuumed. Kitchen knives in the hamper. Ladies underthings dangling from the armpit of one of the fall jackets on the coat rack (Steve didn’t check to see if they were clean or not). Natasha’s stash of Russian junk food under the couch, with wrappers covered in Cyrillic. Bucky’s valenki boots under the dining table. Other small reminders that his new roommates were not only paranoid, but also much more foreign than their otherwise acclimatized behavior suggested.

Ever since finding out that Bucky wasn’t from Brooklyn after all, Steve had theorized that they were Russians who’d somehow gotten into trouble with the Moscow establishment and been granted international asylum in the US. Living with them only reinforced the idea, but he didn’t want to ask for confirmation in case his questions jeopardized their new identities… or whatever was going on.

“Didn’t have you pegged as such a prissy neurotic,” Bucky had said one day when Steve had finished stacking all the various pieces of old mail that were strewn around the living room into a pile.

“If upholding the basic standards of human decency counts as prissy, then yeah, guilty as charged. And why do you have darts in the silverware drawer?”

“Security.”

“This isn’t a dangerous neighborhood.”

Bucky had shrugged. “You never know.”

The one good thing about the mess was that there was no way either of them would find the box holding Steve’s shield stashed at the back of the bedroom closet. Given that most of Bucky’s clothes lived under the coffee table or hanging out of the dresser drawers, he never ventured in there.

Sometimes Steve considered fessing up, showing the shield to Bucky. All the lying was killing him. But if Bucky knew, then so would Natasha, even without him telling her. And if Natasha knew, he might as well tell the whole gang, too, since he didn’t like the idea of lying to some of them but not others. Every time he imagined it, the secret spread and spread, with someone accidentally slipping up, with the world finding out, with never again being able to walk down the street like a normal person, with being stuck in a lab, with Erskine’s serum getting into the wrong hands… And even worse, the looks on everyone’s faces when they found out he’d been lying to them—Bucky’s especially. The way they’d no longer treat him like just another guy, the way they’d all look at him with the same wide, awe-filled gaze that they looked at Captain America with.

Steve was only Steve because other people thought he was. He couldn’t lose that. So he kept his mouth shut and continued to look for uncluttered places to sit in the apartment.

“What are you listening to?” he asked late one afternoon, lifting Bucky’s legs to make room for himself on the couch, and then dropping them back down to rest across his thighs.

Bucky leaned forward and generously offered him an ear bud. Steve wedged it into his ear and heard what sounded like English people talking.

“It’s The Archers,” Bucky explained, pausing the stream. “BBC radio drama.”

“They still make radio dramas? I love radio dramas.”

“Of course you do.” Bucky shook his head fondly. “I’m really only into this one, though. It’s been going since 1950. 15 minutes every day, and each story takes place on that day.” Bucky closed his eyes for a moment, as though having difficulty explaining, or else picking his words carefully for some other reason. “I used to only get to listen to it every couple of years, here and there. Pretty much my only treat when I was, er, younger, was access to the international broadcast. It was sort of grounding. Years can go by, and the world can have become scarily different since… since the last time you looked. But this is easy to catch up with, not too overwhelming. Now I can listen every day, and it still gives me something to mark the days as they go by. Reminds me that I’m actually alive every single day… I don’t know. It’s stupid.”

“Not stupid. It’s incredible.” It took all of Steve’s resolve not to hug Bucky, who, without having any way of knowing how dislocated from time he felt every day, had given him something to hold onto as well. “You mind if I listen with you going forward?”

Bucky sat up and wedged himself close against Steve’s side so that neither of them had to lean in in order to share the headphones. His surprised smile—too close, too tantalizing close to Steve’s face—dazzled brighter than his eyes. “That’d be really nice, actually. I’ve never had anyone to talk to about how annoying Tom Archer is.”

Chapter Text

Neither Loki nor James possessed what one might call wholeheartedly cheerful natures. Even in their laughter, there was brooding.

But this ongoing melancholy of James’s was causing Loki a great deal of inconvenience. Given that he had come to rely on James for the continuation of his own good spirits, Loki wished to see an end to the moodiness that was starting to catch.

First it had been Steve’s sudden departure and illness that had driven James into semi-despondency. There had been an entire month of fretting over the man, arguments about whether or not to disregard Steve’s request not to be visited during his convalescence. When James’s precious friend had finally returned, Loki had assumed all would be well again. But then, almost immediately, this infinitely more tiresome unemployment drama had surfaced. It was only a job, one that had been beneath James to begin with. He, who was meant for so much more, should have been glad to be rid of it.

They’d had to not only cancel the vacation to which Loki had been looking forward, but also even less costly entertainments and activities. Loki bore these difficulties with what he considered admirable patience, and awaited the day when such petty mortal troubles would no longer cast a pall over his fun. The rest of James’s circle, whom Loki would never openly admit to tolerating as much as he’d come to, languished in equal gloom. They had been planning fewer outings than usual because they had not ‘felt up to it’ or ‘not thought it responsible right now’. Loki found himself almost lonely again, a feeling that had dissipated over the past few months, punctuated as they had been by snatches of genuine enjoyment and inclusion.

Loki sought something he could do something to relieve both James’s sullenness as well as this more general tedium. For the first time in months, he actively missed his magic, instead of passively desiring it as a thing to which he was entitled. Not just the feeling of it—the way it coursed through the air and connected him to larger patterns of the universe—but its ability to create diversions.

But magic was lonely, had long made him lonely, he saw now as he had slowly come to fill its absence with other stimulants. The rocks and stones did not laugh at his discourse, nor did the waters and winds seek his company. They never surprised, and they never inspired. They never asked him what drink from the bar he would like, nor did they play him lewd songs on the piano, nor did they hold him during dark dreams. It was odd how, since falling in with James, the days had become more vibrant. Centuries had passed on Asgard without anything memorable occurring, but here, Loki could immediately name dozens of interesting days, or pleasant evenings, or jokes well told.

Soon, though. Soon everything would fall into place. As soon as he procured the Tesseract, he would have both magic and this newfound connection to others. With both, his power would surely be even greater than it had ever been.

Tonight, they were out to dinner at James’s favorite diner. Loki pretended to pretend to like it (secretly, he loved it, and found eggs for dinner so much more satisfying than the solitary meals at expensive restaurants he’d had before meeting James).

As on most nights when they ate this type of cuisine, they played a silent game. During the course of the conversation, James and Loki would find ways to sneak French fries from one another’s plate without the other noticing. They ranged the stolen fries on their bread plates, to be counted at the end of the meal, with explanations of which tricks had proven most effective. It was a variation of a game Loki had used to play with Thor, except for the fact that Thor had never truly gotten into the spirit of it; James, on the other hand, had immediately embraced the meaningless challenge. Tonight, Loki had already managed to steal two while James had been pouring ketchup on his hamburger. James, a startlingly proficient pickpocket, had somehow pinched three fries while holding Loki’s hand across the table. How he had accomplished this was a mystery, and Loki looked forward to the debrief afterwards.

“Why don’t you come work for me,” he suggested, after patiently listening to James bemoan his continued lack of purpose. “I would have you as my personal attaché.”

“We wouldn’t get any work done. We would just spend most of the day… attached.”

“That is exactly my intent.”

Their eyes locked across the table, and James’s thumb rubbed affectionately against Loki’s palm.

By the time they dragged their gaze from one another, James had somehow added another fry to his pile.

“Anyway,” James continued with a smug grin, “you work by yourself, in your house. You barely even see your assistant. The two of us sitting alone in the apartment all day and then continuing to stay in it all night would be too much.”

“What do you mean?” Loki couldn’t help the lashings of temper that threatened to spill out at the perceived slight.

“Calm down. I just mean it isn’t healthy. It’s the same reason Natasha and I broke up when we moved to New York.”

“What is the reason?” Loki had long wondered why two people so devoted to one another had ended their love affair, and how they had done so without any detriment to their relationship.

“We didn’t have any family, didn’t have any friends, didn’t know or trust anyone else. We were living together, working together, exercising together, and sleeping together. It was easy and it was safe, but it was also getting a little creepy. So we figured if one aspect had to go, it should be the sex, since that was the least important part. We said we’d get back together once we were more settled, but now that it’s happened, well… I guess neither of us want to anymore. I think that’s the way it’s supposed to work, though, right?”

This was a new way of thinking for Loki, who had never considered the need for a wider world before. “I don’t know how it’s supposed to work, but it is in my best interest for you to think as you do.”

“Yeah, I think Clint would have something to say about it, too.” James flashed him a lopsided smile, and then froze. “Wait a minute. How’d you get four more fries?”

After dinner, James requested that they make a stop at the drug store to restock some of the toiletries he kept at Loki’s apartment. They spotted an alley that connected the street they were on to the street with the nearest store. As soon as they were far enough down its dark cobblestones, five men who, upon later reflection, must have been trailing them since the restaurant, ran at them from different ends of the alley, meeting them in the middle.

It was an ambush.

A youth spent training with Thor had left Loki a remarkably dangerous opponent when given the proper weapons, but tonight he was unarmed and each of the men was twice his size.

However, almost before he had a chance to react, James unexpectedly sprang into action, like one of the legendary Vanaheimian mercenaries of old. He lifted his leg almost as high as his head to smash one assailant in the nose; in mid-kick, he reached for his boot and unleashed a dagger from the sole. Another man pulled out a gun, but as soon as he saw it aimed squarely at Loki, James threw himself in front of it. Only one shot was fired before James had grabbed it out of the man’s hands and clocked him in the face with the steel barrel, dropping him like a lead weight. He tossed the gun to Loki, who caught it deftly. But there was no need to fire, because, within seconds, James had dispatched the rest with his knife and his arms. Bodies lay strewn in the alley.

They stared down at the carnage. Or, rather, James stared down at the carnage and Loki stared at James. He had never seen anyone fight like that before, not since Sif and the Warriors Three. He had had no idea his easy-going companion was capable of such elegantly executed bloodshed.

James had become a hundred times more desirable in the past thirty seconds, which, given his already substantial attractions, was impressive.

“Fuck.” James grabbed his face between his hands and pressed inwards, creating deep wrinkles in his forehead. “Fuck fuck fuck.”

“We’ve made something of a mess,” Loki noted.

“Help me pull these guys into place. Make it look like a bar fight. And then we get the hell away. We were never here.”

“Is it not customary to call the police in situations such as this?”

“Those guys had it out for one of us,” James reasoned. “Let’s say they were after you. Are you comfortable with the cops digging into why?”

“One does not amass as much wealth as I have, and as quickly as I have, without sowing understandable bitterness,” Loki admitted. He’d never pretended to be a fully savory character. “Is there any reason why they might have had their sights set on you? Perhaps someone you once wrote unfavorably about?”

“That or something else.”

Despite never having arranged bodies in a Financial District alley before, Loki was no stranger to reimagining a scene to look like something it was not. James was skilled in anticipating every possible Midgardian bureaucratic question that could arise, but Loki was an artist. In less than two minutes, they’d cobbled together a most convincing scene of quadruple homicide and were once again headed towards their original destination.

“You keep daggers in your shoes,” Loki said, questioningly.

“You’ve staged crime scenes before,” James stated, as a way of shutting down the line of inquiry.

Loki couldn’t decide which he would find more gratifying: to solve the mystery of James Barnes on his own, or to gain James’s trust enough to be told.

He tried to congratulate him on his triumph, but James was having none of it. He shrank into himself, and became uncharacteristically morose, frightened, and dejected.

“What is the matter with you?” Loki asked.

James looked at him as though he had three heads. “Did you see what I did back there? I just killed a bunch of people and covered it up. That’s not the kind of thing that happens every day, or should happen every day. Or at all. I’m gonna need a minute. Aren’t you bothered? Disgusted?”

They attacked us, without any warning or provocation. It was a glorious victory on your part. You acted not only in self-defense, but also with honor.”

James snorted. “Honor. That’s a new one.”

A couple of minutes later, under the fluorescent lights of the Duane Reade, Loki noticed that James was walking behind him, more slowly than usual, and his face was sickly white.

Loki looked down and saw that James’s pant leg was sticking unnaturally to his thigh. He reached down to touch it and got sticky, red fluid on his fingers.

“Why didn't you say anything?”

“Looks worse than it is,” James replied through gritted teeth as he regarded the shelf of electric toothbrush head replacements.

Loki rhythmically hovered his hands over the blood-soaked wool. But without magic, the habitual motion was pointless. He replayed the scene in his mind, remembering how James had thrown himself between Loki and a gun about to fire, noticing only now that the gun had gone off. Loki had been too busy fighting his own man to think of where the bullet may have landed. He saw now that James had deliberately risked his own life—happily sacrificed himself for Loki—and hadn’t said a word. He would have pretended nothing had happened if Loki hadn’t had such keen eyes.

“We should get you to a hospital.” He hated having to resort to Midgardian medicine, so imprecise, impersonal and unpredictable. James was his, his to heal, but until he could regain his magic, they would have to settle for the pedestrian efforts of this realm.

“Hospitals are just as bad as cops. Doctors ask just as many questions. There’s nothing wrong with me that vodka and bandages can’t fix. First Aid, next aisle.”

“Why did you—”

“Like I was gonna let anything happen to you? If one of us had to go, better me than you.”

The simplicity of the answer startled Loki, who had never been put first in this way. It was not only the deed that touched him, it was James’s reluctance to acknowledge the enormity of what he’d done or ask for the rewards that were his due.

“I will not forget this,” Loki promised. “I will give you every—”

James hushed Loki’s uncharacteristically free declarations of devotion with a kiss. “I’ll make you a deal. Buy me some ice cream and tell me a story while you bandage me up, and we’ll call it even.”

Loki hailed a taxi, and soon they were settled in his living room. James stretched out on the couch, spooning enormous heaps of hazelnut gelato into his mouth while Loki disinfected and dressed his leg. The wound was much more serious than James had let on, and walking on it had only made it worse. He bled copiously, red dripping off the couch and staining large swaths of the white rug. Having always used magic, Loki had never treated anyone this way, so James had to instruct him, step by step. Loki did as he was told, all while spinning a tale—he almost knew not what of. He was too distracted to put as much care into the dissembling of the names and scenarios as he usually did.

“Wait, what?” James asked at the end, after Loki and Thor had paraded their triumph throughout Asgard. “They only got their revenge five centuries later?”

“They were nigh-immortal,” Loki explained, only now seeing his slip.

“Oh. I guess I missed that part.”

Loki took the question as an invitation to broach a subject that he had for some time been considering, and which, in light of this evening’s events, he now felt certain was the correct course of action. He could think of no further tests James could possibly need to pass, nor what other proofs Loki could ask him to give.

“Would you like that?” he asked quietly.

“Like what?”

“To be nigh-immortal.”

“Huh?”

“If someone offered you the means to extend your life span almost indefinitely,” Loki pressed, “would you take it?”

“Like a vampire?” James asked lazily.

“No, not at all like a vampire. There would be no blood lust or nocturnal limitations involved. You would still age, but slowly. If you lived for ten thousand years, you would spend the same proportion of those years as an old man as you would within your current life span.”

“Oh, I see,” James replied, sounding oddly flippant about such a weighty question. Loki attributed his attitude to the amount of blood he had lost. “Well, I don’t know. To basically stay the same and watch everyone I care about get old and die? Sounds kind of depressing.”

“What if not everyone you care about was subject to the vagaries of mortality? What if one person shared this state with you?”

“Just one, huh?” James asked teasingly. “Like you, for example?”

“For example.”

Finally registering Loki’s intensity, James grew appropriately thoughtful. He let his current spoonful of ice cream melt in his mouth before swallowing it down, watching Loki all the while.

The wait for an answer was torture.

“Sure,” James said, with proper solemnity. “Immortality wouldn’t be so bad if we were together.”

Loki exhaled the breath he had been holding, and was embarrassed to feel the extent of his own relief. Trying to keep his voice as even as James’s, he replied, “I am glad to hear it.”

Although he was immobile, James reached out and affectionately pulled Loki onto the couch for a kiss, smiling against his lips the way he always did, the way that drove Loki mad. “You’re a weird one, you know that?” he said when they broke for air some time later.

An odd coda to such a grave moment, but Loki had become accustomed to James’s diffusive efforts whenever things became what he called ‘mushy’.

Loki went upstairs to change and brought some of the pillows back down with him. He set up a makeshift bed for himself on the least bloody part of the rug. Tomorrow he would send it to be cleaned along with all the furs. James had fallen asleep in the interim, and Loki knew he was asleep, not simply pretending, because he didn’t ask him to ‘quit watching him drool’.

Soon, James began shifting and muttering in his sleep, as he often did.

One of the disadvantages of the All-Speak was an inability to distinguish between different languages. It all sounded the same to Loki: intelligible. He’d had to force himself to listen to James’s nocturnal ramblings, to hear the sounds rather than the meaning, and commit them to memory for research later on. Deciphering the strings of syllables had taken him weeks, longer than expected, for he found that they spanned many languages.

Tonight was no different. A mix of mostly Russian, but also Ukrainian, Portuguese, German and English. Variations and combinations of: ‘please, no’ and ‘mission completed’ and ‘capitalist dogs’ and ‘keep breathing, just keep breathing for me’. (The last was the only one spoken in English.)

Although Loki had felt nothing but impatience at the time, Stane’s story of the legendary polyglot Russian assassin had stayed with him, nagged at the back of his mind. Bored one day, he’d asked his assistant to hunt around for any more details to the story. Even when the file had come back to him, richer and more interesting than he’d expected, he’d considered it little more than a charming legend, the kind Midgardian bards no longer seemed to invent.

Until tonight.

Stane and the other sources had spoken of a living weapon, enhanced in ways that left him better than other humans, with reflexes faster than any mortal’s and abnormally quick healing. Loki had seen many wounds, and even though the one he had just dressed had been deep enough to kill, the scabbing had already begun, much faster than was normal.

The Winter Soldier and his beautiful handler, the Black Widow. Trained in every form of the military arts. Assassins without a past, frozen and reprogrammed through the decades. Brainwashed agents of death, the likes of which no one on Midgard had ever seen, before or since. Assassins whose last rumored assignment had taken place years ago.

Loki had certainly never seen anyone fight like that before, and neither James nor Natasha ever talked about their past, except in the vaguest of terms—but it was enough to indicate something dark. He thought back to the night of the Moldovan massacre. The efficiently dispatched mobsters. James’s ‘miraculous’ survival. His incongruous self-loathing despair during the car ride home and for days afterwards.

The way James’s eyes had flickered dark when the gunshots had begun tonight, the way his body had tightened like a coil, robotic and foreign. The almost unconscious responses. The attractive Natasha, who didn’t even bother to hide her country of origin, and with whom James had engaged in that mysterious assignation with a known terrorist—an assignation that had seemed reasonable, if coincidental, when James had explained at the time, but which now suggested something else entirely.

It was a stretch, but so were many connections Loki had made over the years that had proven to be true—magic had long ago opened his mind to possibilities that were invisible to narrower, more straightforwardly logical minds. But even if Loki was correct, this explanation did not answer all. It did not address the not-quite-right quality that, even without his magic, he could almost taste on James’s skin. The fact that the Winter Soldier project had, as he had read, only been achieved after countless attempts, attempts that had ended in every previous subject’s death. It did not explain why the project had never been successfully duplicated after the first success.

And there was still the matter of a fall, which James had obviously experienced. Another fact in common with the man Stane and other sources of information on the tale had described as ‘found encased in ice and floating along a river at the bottom of a ravine, as though fallen from the sky, like an angel expelled from heaven to take up the work of hell’.

The scattered scraps of information Loki had unearthed on the story all focused on the perfect instrument the Winter Soldier had become. None of them addressed the issue that most intrigued him. Namely, that the man he used to be must have already been special indeed.

And, fittingly, special enough to have earned the affection of Loki himself.

He went out to the balcony and dialed a number buried deep in his contacts.

“Stane,” he said when Obadiah picked up on the other end. “Laufeyson here.”

“Great timing,” the oily voice replied. “I was just thinking today that I’m in a good place now to finish our deal.”

“That is exactly what I have called to discuss. I have decided what legitimate holding I would like to purchase from you to hide the sale of the Hydra weapons. However, it is not stocks, as you suggested. I will overpay for this holding by the amount we discussed. However, there is something else I would like to procure from you as well. Something you mentioned during our meeting.”

James did not need to know the full extent of what Loki was doing for him, not now. Loki would save this gift for the day they left this realm together, as a symbol of all the mortal pain James would be leaving behind. The fact that the brainwashing codes embodied Natasha’s servitude instead of James’s own almost made the gesture more meaningful, since James cared more for her than he did for himself.

And in the meanwhile, they could get back to enjoying themselves and making the most of what few weeks remained of Loki’s powerless interment on this rock.


By Christmas Eve, all that remained of the gunshot wound was a thin, angry red line along Bucky’s thigh. He had been holed up at the penthouse for days, until he could walk straight enough to hang around his other friends without prompting awkward questions.

He tried not to worry, but although Loki was oblivious to many basic facts about how the world worked, even he had to be able to tell that Bucky’s rate of healing was miraculously fast. He’d been prepping explanations to throw Loki off the scent in case he became suspicious—of what, he wasn’t sure, because the truth was too out there for any rational person to ever guess.

Right now, he sat in his favorite chair, with his feet propped up on the coffee table, watching Steve stalk back and forth across the apartment. Steve was methodically checking a mental list of pre-departure to-dos before heading to the airport to meet Pepper and fly to her family’s place for Christmas.

“I think that’s about it,” Steve said to himself.

“You’ve said that five times now, but you keep finding more things to do.”

“I don’t want to forget anything. This isn’t my place. I don’t have everything laid out the way I’m used to.”

“It is your place. How many times do I have to tell you we want you to feel at home here?”

Steve was going through his suitcase for the second time, but he turned to flash a quick smile at Bucky. “Try a few more. I’ve got a thick skull. Sometimes you have to beat stuff into it.”

“I’ve already figured that out.”

“Last thing before I go…” Steve took a large envelope out of his computer case. “This is for you.”

Bucky sighed. “How many times do I have to tell you? I don’t do Christmas. I don’t want—”

“It’s not a Christmas present, jerk. It’s just something that I happened to finish yesterday. If it had taken another three weeks, that’s when you’d have gotten it. So shut up and take it.”

“Yes, sir.”

Bucky took the envelope and opened it. Inside was a stack of thick drawing paper, each sheet in a neat, white cardboard frame. A drawing of Bucky sitting on the folding table at the back of the Herald’s conference room, his thumb brushing Natasha’s hair from her ear so he could whisper whatever was making her smile. A drawing of Bucky and Coulson seated at opposite sides of the Editor In Chief’s desk with their feet up on it. Bucky with Clint, at their most competitive, in front of the dartboard at The Levee in Williamsburg. Bucky with Loki, wearing tuxedoes and identical smirks, and holding hands behind their backs. Bucky with his arms around Jane and Darcy on a water taxi a few months ago. Bucky with Steve, holding their rifles and laughing at the end of that WWII paintballing reenactment team building exercise from awhile back… In all of them, Bucky looking relaxed and happier than he had any right to—especially in the paintballing one, since he remembered having suffered from one of the worst of his migraine-nausea attacks that day.

They were beautiful. More than professional; they were personal. Care flowed from one pen stroke to the next, bled from every curved line, especially the ones that outlined Bucky himself. Every hair of his eyebrows, every shadow in his face, every slight angle of his neck and hands had been perfectly and lovingly rendered. Even in black and white, he almost glowed, better looking than he could possibly have been in real life.

Bucky took a step back as he flipped through the drawings, flipping and flipping until he’d seen each one at least three times.

“Uh, Buck? There’s only six of them. You’re not gonna uncover a new one.”

“What the hell is this?” The question came out more rudely than he intended.

“I know sometimes you get down on yourself,” Steve explained. “I don’t know why, but you do. So I wanted to make you something that reminds you of… I don’t know. That there are a lot of people whose lives are happier having you around.”

Bucky settled on the last one, the one with himself and Steve. Something about the extra care that had been put into this one—even above the already high level of all the others—something about this even more idealized version of Bucky. The way Steve put himself almost into the background so that all the light and focus fell on his friend…

The way Steve looked at him sometimes, both directly and out of the corner of his eye, sometimes hungry and sometimes wistful, like the world was a better place for having him in it; how he’d hated Loki so irrationally when they’d first started dating; the way Steve always looked so hesitant right before they said goodnight; the way Natasha had always said the reason all of humanity wasn’t throwing themselves at Steve was because he put off a ‘taken’ vibe, despite not dating anyone…

Images and memories from the past few months played in flip book style behind his eyes, taking the pictures in front of him and adding so many more.

He was an idiot. A blind fucking idiot who had no business being an investigative reporter when he couldn’t even see what was happening right in front of him.

“You hate it, don’t you?” Steve said when Bucky’s silence went on too long.

“No, no. It’s… thank you,” Bucky replied, his throat closing up around the words. “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever given me. I mean it.”

Steve’s phone rang. “It’s the car service.”

“Have a good trip. See you next week,” Bucky said automatically.

Steve gathered his coat and suitcase, turning back to give Bucky a long—too long—hug goodbye. The kind of hug Bucky had never thought anything of before now.

“Merry Christmas," Steve said, "whether you want it or not.”

As soon as the door closed, Bucky let himself fall to the floor, still drowning in a wave of memories that washed over him, each holding new meaning. He must have sat in the foyer for almost an hour, because he was still there when Natasha and Clint opened the door.

“This is new,” Clint quipped after practically tripping over him.

But Natasha studied him more closely, her eyes traveling to the drawings that were still in his hands.

“Looks like somebody finally figured it out,” she said kindly.

“Figured what out?” Clint asked.

“Steve’s crush,” Natasha told him.

“Ohhhhh,” Clint said. “You seriously didn’t know?”

“Does everyone?”

“Pretty much.”

Bucky looked helplessly up at Natasha. “What am I going to do?”

“What do you want to do?”

“Nothing. We’re pals. I can’t ruin that.”

“You’ve never thought about it, though?” Clint sounded unconvinced.

“I guess I checked him out a few times in the beginning—I’m not blind—but I…” Bucky struggled to articulate something that was hazy, even to him. “Looking at him like that never sat right with me. Kind of made me feel queasy or sad or dirty or something, I don’t know. And it didn’t matter anyway, because then there was Loki, and I haven’t been thinking about anybody else like that. I think we even did the whole mushy ‘I love you’ thing the other day, so—”

“What do you mean, ‘you think’?” Natasha asked. “Shouldn’t you know?”

“Well, it’s Loki, so it was wrapped up in a whole hypothetical mumbo-jumbo about whether or not I’d enjoy being immortal with him or some shit.”

“What, like vampires?” Clint asked. “That would explain so much.”

“No, he said it was specifically not like vampires. But whatever. That part doesn’t matter. I mean, it was obviously just a metaphor. His way of telling me how he feels, letting me know he’s thinking about this in a long-term kind of way, and asking if I am, too. And I said ‘yeah, sure’, because… Yeah. Sure. Of course I am.” Bucky looked at the floor, wishing they’d stop looking at him and wishing he’d never brought any of this up. Even though he wasn’t ashamed of his feelings, talking about them had never been his strong suit. It was why he’d appreciated Loki’s convoluted way of having ‘the talk’; if he’d had that kind of imagination, he’d probably have gone about it that way, too.

“James, that’s huge,” Natasha whispered, and she knew better than most. Sentiment was suicide, love was for children, and trust was for fools. That mantra had served them well even after they’d freed themselves, but somehow, they’d broken all three tenets, not only with one another, but now with new people, too.

“Yeah, it’s huge,” he admitted. “I haven’t felt… Not since you. So that’s great, but it makes this Steve thing even more awkward. I feel like such an asshole. Not only did I not even notice, but all this time, I’ve been practically flaunting the fact that I’m with someone else in his face.”

“Steve’s a big boy, and he’s been fine so far,” Natasha said. “My advice would be to keep ignoring it until it actually becomes an issue. Pretend nothing’s changed. Technically, nothing has. This hasn’t been awkward so far. The only person who will make it so is you.”

Bucky nodded. She was right. She always was. However, he was still trying to process before letting go. “How long do you think he’s felt like this?”

“Kinda since day one,” Clint said.

“All this time I thought he was straight. He never says anything about—”

“I think that’s part of the problem,” Natasha said. “For all that he follows you around with cartoon hearts for eyes, I don’t think even he wants to do anything about it.”

This was an optimistic way of looking at things. “You think maybe it’ll just blow over?”

“I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not.”

Bucky put his head between his knees and groaned.

Clint grabbed his arms and pulled him to his feet. “Come on. If I’m going to have to listen to my girlfriend’s ex-boyfriend whine about how hard his life is because a billionaire, a superhero, and the nicest, best-looking guy any of us have ever met all want to get in his pants… well, I’m going to need a snack first.”

“Captain America doesn’t want to get in my pants,” Bucky protested.

Natasha closed her eyes and sighed. “Trust me, James. Captain America definitely wants to get in your pants.”

Clint tossed Bucky’s coat and boots at him. “Let’s go get provisions before the storm hits. If we’re gonna be stuck here for non-Christmas instead of on our trip, we might as well eat something special.”

“Storm?” Bucky asked. “What storm?”

“The snowstorm that’s starting up tonight,” Clint said. “How did you not know about this? What the hell have you been doing all day?”

“Watching House Hunters International.”

“You need a new job.”

“Tell me about it.”

None of them had had any breakfast or lunch. Wandering around the Co-op half-starved led to a massive amount of over-purchasing—chips and salsa and dip and entire roast chickens and chocolate babkas and more food than could fit in the already full cabinets and fridge.

“We might have gotten too much,” Natasha observed when they had finished unpacking.

“Loki’s coming over, too, right?” Clint asked.

“Yeah, but he eats half a person’s worth.”

They’d barely plopped down on the couch when all three of their phones rang.

It was Jane for Natasha, Darcy for Clint, and Steve for Bucky.

“Looks like you’re not getting rid of me that easy,” Steve shouted into the phone. Something loud and frantic in the background was doing its best to drown him out.

“What are you talking about?”

“Flights are all cancelled. Nothing’s leaving tonight, probably not tomorrow, either. This storm’s apparently brewing up to be bigger and stronger than they anticipated. Is it okay if Pepper comes back to the house with me?”

Bucky heard Clint telling Darcy to hop in a cab and come over. “Wait, is Darcy at JFK, too?” he asked her.

“Yeah,” he replied.

“Jane, too,” Natasha added.

They wrangled their friends to meet one another and all get in a taxi together. Next, the three of them quickly tidied the apartment as best they could (it was already much cleaner than it usually was, what with Steve living there).

“Nothing’s changed. Don’t be awkward,” Natasha whispered in Bucky’s ear when they heard voices in the hallway and Steve’s key in the lock. She gave him a fortifying kiss on the neck as she went to greet everyone.

Despite her pep talk, he spent most of the next couple of hours focused on making Pepper—not only their fanciest guest, but also the only one who had never been over before—feel at home, as a way of not having to talk to Steve.

“There’s no way we’re getting back to Manhattan tonight,” Jane said as she peered out of the living room window. The street was already covered over with snow, with more falling fast. “My phone says they’ve shut down all the bridges.”

“Slumber party!” Darcy cheered.

“Where?” Pepper asked, glancing around at the two bedrooms, and the non-sleeper couch.

“We have sleeping bags and thick blankets,” Natasha said. “And big beds, if people don’t mind sharing.”

Loki arrived a few minutes later. “I just spent half an hour being told that I and everyone else around me is going to hell,” he complained. “Are doomsday proselytizers a fixture in the trains?”

“Yes,” Clint, Natasha and Darcy said in unison.

“How odd.”

“I can’t believe you took the subway,” Bucky said. “You never take the subway.”

“I was forced to give my driver time off for the holiday, and the roads have all been closed because of the snow. I believe I caught the last train before subway service was suspended as well. However, the commute was not a complete waste. I made some phone calls during my walk from the station,” Loki announced loudly. “While it was hardly difficult to convince Coulson to resume his post, I fear Mr. Jameson did not take his dismissal with dignity.”

All the various conversations around the room stopped, and there was a moment of silence in the apartment.

“What are you talking about?” Bucky asked.

“The reason I couldn’t come sooner is because I was finishing some paperwork with Obadiah Stane’s lawyers. You are looking at the new owner of the New York Herald. We didn’t discuss it, but my guess is that Coulson’s first move will be to reinstate his previous team.”

Stunned faces greeted this news.

“Don’t react all at once,” he said.

“But…” Jane asked. “But why?”

“You have all been unacceptably dreary recently. Moaning and loafing and whining about money but too proud to let anyone else pay for things. Cancelling vacations. Refusing to organize anything new. An oppressive funk so thick I couldn’t see through it anymore. This was a small price to pay to restore the status quo.”

“Last time I checked,” Pepper said, “the company was valued at $1.3 billion.”

Loki made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “As I said. A small price.”

Darcy broke the stunned stillness in the room by jumping up and throwing her arms around Loki’s neck. He stiffened, taken aback.

“Thanks, Loki,” she said.

“I did it for my own purposes, I assure you,” he said, but Bucky saw how, for a split second, he allowed himself to look touched.

Darcy’s impetuous move was enough to rouse the rest of them. Jane hugged him, too. Clint tried to fist bump him, but that failed spectacularly.

“A management position will always be available for you, Ms. Potts, should you ever choose to leave Stark Industries.”

“Oh! I… I’ll think about that. Thanks.”

Everyone tried not to look at Bucky, but he could feel their thoughts on him. Loki was graciously making it seem like a group thing, and it was nice to hear that he had come to feel like a part of the gang, but it was no mystery for whom he had really done this. And it was too much. Bucky almost never even let Loki pay for dinner. This was about a million levels above that.

“Can I talk to you for a second?” he whispered, dragging Loki into Natasha’s (currently also his) bedroom and shutting the door behind them.

“You can’t just buy me a company,” he began once they were alone.

“I think you misunderstand the situation,” Loki said with a maddening smirk. “I am the owner. I have no intention of handing it over to you.”

“You know what I mean. You bought it so we could all have our jobs back.”

“Perhaps I wanted to diversify my holdings.”

“You only like intangible investments. The kinds that don’t involve interacting with people. Also, it’s a newspaper. Not the kind of investment with long-term viable prospects.”

“I suppose you are correct in that.” Loki rarely let anyone see him being anything other than cocksure and in control, but as Bucky continued to argue, hurt was increasingly written all over his face. “Are you not pleased?”

“It’s a billion dollars, Loki. There’s no way I can pay that back.”

“If you are still suggesting that I am trying to buy your attentions—”

Bucky remembered having had this conversation when they’d first started seeing one another—it felt so long ago now—but that thought hadn’t even crossed his mind. “No, no, we’re past that.”

Loki smiled. “Good. Because no repayment is required.”

Bucky didn’t know what else to say. And he was touched. Not to mention that, over-the-top as this whole thing was, it did demonstrate how far Loki had come. He was getting along with the others, and actively wanted to do things instead of brooding by himself. Bucky liked to think he had something to do with that progress, and wanted to continue encouraging it. The deal was done. Making a stink about it would accomplish nothing except to poke at Loki’s psychotically sensitive streak—the one that recently had lay happily dormant. So, Bucky decided to roll with it, pushing his reservations to the back of his mind.

“I haven’t actually said thank you yet, have I?” he asked, uncrossing his arms and nudging Loki backwards. He wedged a knee between Loki’s legs and eased him down onto the bed.

This was definitely the right approach, because the cloud on Loki’s brow dissipated. “Not in so many words, no.”

“How about I keep not using words and find another way to get the message across? Not out of any sense of obligation, mind you.”

“I can see the expense was worth it,” Loki said with an almost soft smile, “for you are back to proposing excellent ideas.”

Bucky kissed him hard, realizing how much he had missed this. The gunshot wound had put him out of commission, leaving his recent days in the penthouse full of a lot of frustrated looking but not touching. Today was the first time he felt better enough to climb all over Loki and tangle their limbs together like he usually did.

As if on cue, there was a knock on the door. “I’ve gotta sleep on that bed tonight, so you two had better not be getting any bodily fluids on it!” Clint’s voice called. Faint wolf whistles from Darcy could be heard in the background.

“So sleep in my bed!” Bucky called back, too focused on unbuttoning Loki’s shirt to think straight.

“With Steve? No room.”

Bucky froze. Oh. Right. Loki hadn’t been over since Steve had come to stay with them, so he’d never had to deal with this before—even before it had surfaced as more than a simple logistical problem. Steve, who was right there on the other side of the door, having to listen to this.

God, he was a jerk.

He got up and detached Loki’s nimble fingers from his belt buckle and zipper.

“What…?” Loki asked.

“Rain check? I mean, everybody’s right outside.”

“That has never stopped us before,” Loki said, referencing the time they had done it in one of Stark’s guest bedrooms during a party.

“They’re listening this time. It’s different.”

Loki frowned. “Well, this is a disappointing start to the new era of lightheartedness I had hoped to usher in.”

Bucky leaned over Loki and sucked on his earlobe; he’d learned awhile ago that this maneuver put an end to all disagreements. “I’ll make it up to you. I promise. With interest.”

“I shall hold you to that.”

Loki bounded up and threw the door open. Bucky hadn’t had a chance to rearrange his clothes, and Loki hadn’t bothered to. There was no way to hide that Clint’s suspicions had been correct. Bucky glanced at Steve, who sat at the far end of the living room, talking to Jane with single-minded determination and not looking anywhere but at her face.

Bucky’s heart physically hurt. If there had been a blunt implement around, he probably would have hit himself with it.

“More drinks?” Natasha asked helpfully, seeing the self-loathing that must have been written all over his face.

“God, yes,” Bucky replied.

Things got a little crazy over the next few hours, in direct relation to the size of the bottle recycling pile.

They broke into a nearby park and staged an epic drunken snowball battle, boys versus girls. Between Steve’s straightforwardly clever leadership, Loki’s devious supplementary tactics, and Clint and Bucky playing sniper from hidden corners in the swing sets, they should have won handily. But then Bucky found himself pressed back to back against Steve, pelting Natasha and Darcy with quickly made balls. It was them against the enemy. That’s when Bucky almost passed out, causing Steve to stop and fuss over him, the plan to disintegrate and the girls to win.

Goddamn mystery fucking headaches.

Steve pulled him aside on their raucous way back to the apartment and asked, “Is everything okay?”

“I’m better now. Don’t worry about it.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about. You’ve barely said two words to me all night.”

“Have I?” Bucky asked innocently, but he could see that Steve wasn’t fooled. The only way to fix this was to force himself to act normally. He took a deep breath and walked sideways into Steve, bumping him cheerfully to the side with his shoulder. “Sorry. Everything’s okay. Trust me.”

They could get through this, Bucky decided. Natasha was right. Steve wasn’t making things weird; Bucky shouldn’t either.

For the rest of the night, they played rounds of blackjack and poker, ate vast quantities of junk food, and marveled at the usually repressed Southern accent Pepper had drunkenly let slip out. Loki even shared one of his cracked-out stories with the whole group, who sat just as mesmerized as Bucky did most evenings. For the entire night, the television stayed on a station playing holiday movies, which Loki and Steve intermittently glanced at, mystification hilariously written all over their faces. Bucky wondered how he’d managed to find two such endearingly clueless weirdoes, and what it was about him that seemed to attract them like moths.

Sometime in the middle of the night, everyone began to doze off, one by one.

“Come on, big guy,” Bucky said to Steve, who had fallen asleep in an upright position on the floor, his cards from the last deal still in his hand (a full house, left unplayed). This was as close to drunk and out of it as Steve had ever gotten. Bucky pulled Steve to his feet and dragged him to his room, supporting his impressive weight. “You and Pepper are sleeping in here tonight.”

“This was better than scuba diving in Fiji, wasn’t it?” Steve whispered sleepily as they walked.

“Yeah,” Bucky admitted, and it was true. “Yeah, it is.”

“Merry Christmas, Buck. Glad we got to spend it together.”

“Merry Christmas to you, too, punk.”

Bucky deposited Steve next to a passed-out Pepper, ruffling his hair a bit and smiling ruefully at the way Steve nuzzled into the touch. Bucky knew he didn't deserve Steve—didn't deserve him as a best friend, much less whatever other feelings Steve was harboring. The splitting headache that came as his mind started wondering what it would be like if… Well, that merely reinforced his unworthiness. Waves of fear and depression and dirty, wrong, bad, don’t, stop crashed over him, from some dark place within himself that he’d never encountered before. It was enough to make him glad that the wonderings were purely academic.

He left Steve slumbering and went into the other bedroom. Loki had generously offered to let Jane bunk with them (of all of the rest of the group, she was his favorite, for some reason). The two of them were currently occupying polar opposite sides of the bed. Bucky crawled in between them, curling tightly around the comforting coolness that radiated from Loki’s skin, even through his pajamas.

Bucky didn't deserve Steve—but Loki... Loki was just as much, if not more, of a sketchy, messed up bastard as Bucky. With Loki, he didn’t feel guilty about sullying something with his mere presence the way he did with Steve. In fact, instead of dragging Loki down into the muck, Bucky knew he was helping him in some way, pulling him out of whatever darkness he had been adrift in. Natasha had always said Bucky was the patron saint of lost causes, a big brother complex made manifest. Bucky didn't know what had happened to make Loki such a dangerously wounded bird, but working to make him happier made Bucky feel like he was atoning for some of his many sins. He pressed a kiss to the back of Loki's neck, drinking him in.

“You are not usually this cuddly,” Loki murmured, even as he snuggled in closer, too.

“You gonna complain?” Bucky asked.

“Not a bit.”


Steve was surrounded by confusing stimuli when he woke up.

First was the slim leg draped over his hip and the nuzzling pressure between his shoulder blades.

The next thing to figure out was why his face was lost in a mane of dark brown hair, and why his hand seemed to be clutching perilously close to what felt like a breast. It took a second, but then he recognized Pepper as the one who was—impressively—making him the little spoon, and Jane as the one he was accidentally groping. Jane, who he could have sworn had (bravely) gone to share a bed with Bucky and Loki, leaving Natasha, Clint and Darcy to have a slumber party out in the living room.

However, finding himself as the meat in an inexplicable female sandwich was less worrying than the fact that the room was shaking and there was a noise all around them so loud that it pushed out rational thought.

Before he’d woken up enough to remember where he was or what was going on, the door flew open. Bucky stood shirtless in the doorway, eyes steely, muscles tensed, hair porcupine prickly, and posture coiled. In his hands were a knife and a gun, respectively. He didn’t look like Bucky. He looked like some action hero fantasy version of Bucky.

And it was telling that while waking up pressed between two incredibly attractive women had not affected him, this was what made Steve uncomfortably turned on.

He scooted back—back into Pepper who was still wrapped around him—but Jane couldn’t possibly have missed what had just been pressing insistently against her back. And now Bucky could definitely see what was happening in Steve’s gym shorts.

Great. Just great.

Steve blinked a few times, and so did Bucky.

“I…” Bucky coughed and then reverted to his previous steeliness. “Natasha and I need you as backup. We’re under attack.”

“Attack?” he asked, sitting up, his soldier’s instincts outweighing his embarrassment. But it didn’t make any sense. This was Brooklyn, not the trenches. “From whom?”

The building shook again and the deafening wind outside swallowed any answer Bucky might have hoped to give.

Just as he began to scoot himself down the center of the bed, Steve heard a faraway laugh that sounded like Natasha’s, and the front door opening.

“It’s all right!” Natasha called. “All clear!”

“What the hell is she—” Bucky muttered to himself as he left the room.

Steve was left alone with the ladies.

Jane was doing her very best not to look at Steve’s midsection (he covered himself with a sheet to hide it), but she thankfully didn’t seem to be offended or taking it the wrong way. “Bucky and Loki wouldn’t stop muttering and thrashing and being generally kind of scary, so I came in here. Hope that’s okay.”

"Why did he have a gun?" Pepper asked.

And then the last thing, the very last voice Steve expected to hear wafted in from the hallway.

“Your apartment building was definitely not made for helicopter landings, but I made do. Tell me, has everyone given up on cellular technology while I was gone? No one answers their phones? Woah,” Tony breathed as he appeared in the doorway, taking in the sight in front of him. “I gotta say, Steve, watching you walk around looking clenched all the time was starting to kill me slowly, in my soul. I’m glad you’re finally… But with Pepper? Gross. No offense, Pep.”

“It’s not what it looks like,” Steve said dumbly, even as he stared joyfully at the ghost.

“I know, kid. Hey, Jane. Looking good.”

“Tony?” Pepper whispered.

“Yeah, so… Reports of my death? Greatly exaggerated. I spent some quality time with some rebels, brushed up on my cave geology, and generally—”

He didn’t get to finish, because Pepper launched herself at him, almost knocking him over. At first he was startled, but then his arms came around her.

“It’s okay, I’m okay. I’m back,” he said, dropping the devil-may-care act for a second.

Pepper disentangled just as suddenly as she had jumped him, and smoothed out her tee-shirt, flushed and professional. Using a work voice Steve hadn’t heard in forever, she stood up straight and started speaking almost as fast as Tony. “You are going to have so many appointments, meetings with the press and the lawyers and the board. I’m going to have to—”

Tony put a finger to her lips. “Shhhhhh. I know. I know, it’s okay,” he said. Then looking over at Steve he asked, “How’s my favorite frozen treat?”

Steve chuckled and shook his head. “Glad to have you back, Tony.”

“What happened?” Bucky asked. Everyone had gathered by the doorway.

“Rhodey… and Cap,” Tony said, still looking at Steve. “They left supplies, equipment, maps, cash, phones, at different drop points. It’s the only reason I made it out of there after escaping. They didn’t give up on me. They were the only ones who didn’t.” Tony cleared his throat, his eyes uncharacteristically soft. “And you, of course, Steve. You and Cap.”

“Tony!” Pepper squawked warningly, but Steve didn’t care, because at least she’d snapped out of her near-tears state.

And just like he always did when Pepper yelled at him, Tony listened. “Right. Right. Anyway, the roads are still closed, so I helicoptered over here with champagne. And eggnog. It isn’t Christmas without eggnog.”

“How did you know where we were?” Steve asked.

“JARVIS triangulated your cell phone signals. Why are you all crowded in here? Why aren’t you having this little shindig at Steve's place? It’s much bigger. Come on, there’s room in the chopper. We can all go back to the Tower. You all technically work for me, all except tall dark and emo over here. There’s got to be a code we can expense this to. Employee gathering during a weather emergency or something.”

Pepper glanced at Steve, and then at Loki. “Some things have happened since you’ve been gone…”

“Tony,” Jane asked, “Why is your chest is glowing blue?”

Chapter Text

“I know it’s confusing,” Tony was saying, “but it’s one thing to question the official story, and another thing entirely to make wild accusations or insinuate that I’m a superhero.”

Bucky had been about to jump in and protect Tony from Christine’s take-over of the press conference, but that answer threw even him for a loop.

“I never said you were a superhero,” Christine retorted.

“You didn’t? Well, good. Because that would be outlandish and, uh… fantastic.”

Bucky had to repress a laugh at that, as did most of the rest of the journalists gathered in the Stark Tower ballroom.

He was going to have to consult Tony next time Christine got on his case. For the past two years, ever since he had inadvisably gone home with her after a couple of Condé Nast-sponsored bashes, she’d been pretty consistently out for his blood. He didn’t know why she’d taken his refusal to return her calls so personally; until a few months ago, he’d never called anyone he slept with back. Bucky’s usual strategy (or lack thereof) consisted of lashing out whenever he caught her hostile attention. He’d never encountered anyone who could shut her down the way Stark was shutting her down right now. The look on her face was priceless.

However, Colonel Rhodes and Captain America, who flanked Tony on the podium, didn’t seem nearly as amused by Stark’s comebacks as Bucky was.

“I’m just not the hero type,” Stark was now babbling. “Clearly. With this laundry list of character defects. All the mistakes I’ve made. Largely public…”

Colonel Rhodes leaned in to Tony and whispered, a little too close to the mike, “Just stick to the cards.”

“Right,” Tony muttered. He looked back at Cap, who nodded encouragingly.

But then something shifted—went from contained to pure, unbridled Tony. Pepper, sitting a couple of rows ahead of Bucky, must have seen it happen, too, because the tendons in the back of her neck popped out. Bucky almost felt the words before they were given voice.

“The truth is… I am Iron Man.”

And the crowd went wild.

Cap hung his head sorrowfully. Rhodes audibly groaned, right into a microphone.

It was clear this was the last thing they had meant to happen.

“Let me guess,” Rhodes said. “We’re taking questions, after all.”

“Let ‘em at me.” Now that Tony had officially given up trying to lie, his previously uncharacteristic stammering disappeared and all his natural energy returned. He did a little boxing dance to celebrate the occasion.

Every single hand in the room went up. Even though Rhodes was officially in charge of taking questions, Tony bypassed him and winked right at Bucky.

“Bucky Barnes. Long time no see. Where’s your sidekick?”

Bucky knew Tony was just using him to ham it up. He didn’t mind playing along, especially if it gave him an opportunity to test a hypothesis of his own. Feigning flippancy, he said, “He said he had to go to the dentist. Can you believe?”

“No, actually,” Tony replied with a smirk. “I can’t.”

Interesting. Bucky knew Tony well enough to tell he wasn’t lying. Which meant Steve was.

Captain America made a move towards the podium, but Tony waved him off.

“I’m taking the questions here, Cap.”

With the mask on, Captain America’s face was basically nothing but iron jaw, but his tense shoulders expressed annoyance just as well as a face would have.

Bucky opened his mouth to ask a question, but it turned out Tony wasn’t interested; he had called on him simply to say hello, and to set up another announcement of his own.

“So, I have a feeling all of you are probably sick of Mr. Barnes hogging all the Captain America exclusives.”

A few hearty “Hear, hear!”s greeted this statement.

Bucky had long ago been taught how to repress weak bodily reactions like blushing, but it took considerable focus to succeed right now.

This time Captain America made it to the microphone. “He isn’t hogging. I’m always happy to speak to anyone who—”

“But,” Tony interrupted, snatching the microphone away from Cap, “it does seem like having a pet reporter is the done thing in the superhero circuit. Two makes a circuit, right?” He turned to Cap for validation but got nothing. Tony shrugged and kept going. “Tell your partner, Barnes: anytime I’ve got a statement to make that doesn’t require a whole circus like today, he’s my guy. I mean, assuming he bothers to show up.”

“I’ll let him know when I see him.”

Christine, sitting across the aisle from Bucky, glared lasers. Most everyone else grumbled, too. Of course Tony would pick Steve as his trusted mouthpiece. But given that they both worked for the Herald, Tony making Steve his go-to was pretty much the same as giving the hook-up to Bucky.

Bucky cleared his throat. “But since, uh, Captain America is here… Hey, by the way.”

Cap cracked a small smile and tilted his head forward in an armless salute that made Bucky’s stomach twist and warm. Bucky hadn’t seen Cap in a while, and therefore it had been a while since he’d had to deal with his stupid crush. He wasn’t even technically interested—not like that, not really (well, maybe a little bit). Here was the only person Bucky knew of who had abilities similar to his own. Even if he’d been less smoking hot, that was enough reason for Bucky to be a little bit obsessed with him. But they’d never be able to compare experiences or talk about things they’d noticed about themselves, because there was no way Bucky was ever going to let the Captain find out what a perverted mirror of himself Bucky truly was. That would be a sure-fire way to make sure he never got another exclusive—story or smile—ever again.

“Uh, you got a question, Barnes?” Tony asked after Bucky’s heavy tongue had lolled inside his mouth for a split-second too long.

“Yeah. I… yeah.” Bucky pulled it together. “Just wanted to know what your role was in last night’s events. And given that you’re here today, I wonder what kind of working relationship you envision having with Iron Man. Two does make a superhero circuit, by the way.”

“I arrived on the scene only after everything was over. Iron Man took care of everything on his own. I simply helped the police with the cleanup.”

“And Obadiah Stane?” another reporter asked next.

“Deceased,” Captain America said with firm finality. It was hard to flap the unflappable Captain, but Stane had apparently managed to make him very angry. Hell, he’d made everyone Bucky cared about angry.

Tony took a few more questions, which he answered with cheeky non-answers. Then he, Cap and Pepper made their exit and left Colonel Rhodes to wrap things up.

As Bucky made his way out of the room with the rest of the throng, Christine followed him.

“I’m onto you, you know,” she seethed into his ear once they were almost the only ones left in the elevator bank.

Bucky rolled his eyes before turning to face her. He could not have been less in the mood for her shit. “What now?”

“You’re blowing him,” she whispered.

“Who?”

“Captain America.”

“Take that back. Take that back right now, before I wash your mouth out with soap.”

“You’re blowing Captain America and your partner is blowing Tony Stark.”

“Now I know you’re crazy.”

“It’s the only explanation for why you’re his favorite. You think I haven’t noticed the way you two look at each other? The little nods and smiles? You think I haven’t checked up on Rogers? It’s a little-known secret that he lives here and didn’t have the experience he should have had to get hired. They’re not related and they’ve never been seen together before last year. What other explanation is there other than that he’s Stark’s… I don’t even know. I assume he got his boy toy the job. No wonder Stark only wants to talk to him. He’s a perfectly biddable mouthpiece.”

“You clearly don’t know anything about Steve if you think he's biddable,” Bucky retorted confidently, but inside, he felt sick. “You need to drop this. You keep going down this track, and you’re gonna make a bigger fool of yourself than you will out of any of us. Steve… Steve is definitely not involved with Tony. They’re family friends, that’s all.”

“And what about Laufeyson? Who so conveniently bought the Herald when you and your buddies lost your jobs.”

“How many people do you think I have time to blow?” Bucky asked.

“As many as it takes.”

“I get it. You fucked Stark—yeah, I heard all about it—thinking that would get you access and a story, but it didn’t. Let me guess. You were treated to the famous Pepper Potts morning after goodbye. You’re trying to get back at Stark and back at me. But you’re barking up the wrong tree. Let it go, before you regret it.”

“Is that a threat?”

“No. Just good advice.”

Bucky’s elevator arrived. Unlike everyone else, he was headed up instead of down. Christine’s eyes narrowed as he walked inside.

“We aren’t done.”

“Up yours, Everhart.”

Bucky had played it cool, but he was shaken. It was a dirty, disgusting lie. Well, yes, he was blowing Loki, but that little bit of truth only made the rest of it seem that much more damning.

He reassured himself by remembering that Christine had never managed to scoop him on anything. Her idea of a hard-hitting interview was to throw out offensive statements and see if the recipient got riled up enough to give her an angry reply. This would turn into nothing.

Bucky got out on Steve’s floor and let himself into the apartment.

“Steve?” he called out, but no one was home. Steve must have still been at the ‘dentist’.

Bucky made himself comfortable in his favorite writing spot—the kitchen island—and fired up his laptop.


“That could have gone worse,” Tony said cheerily as he, Steve and Pepper made their way upstairs from the press conference.

“Could it have?” Steve said dryly, using all of his self-control not to lose his temper. “I can’t think of a single way.”

Pepper was not making the same effort. “What were you thinking, Tony? We talked about this. The three of us agreed to the plan. And then you went and threw it all out the window.”

Tony seemed more amused by their rage than anything else. He kicked off his shoes as Steve and Pepper entered the penthouse behind him, and went to pour himself a drink.

“Isn’t it a little early for that?” Steve asked.

“Were you this much of a drag in the 40s, or is Pepper’s worrying rubbing off on you?”

“You just painted a target on all of our heads. I’d say that’s a cause for concern.”

“A target? What, you think people are going to come after you two because of this? Not sure if you’ve noticed, Cap, but you don’t make a very convincing damsel in distress. Luckily, other than you two, and Happy and Rhodey, who can take care of themselves, there isn’t anyone else someone after me would go for. You’re the only four people who’ll give a shit when…”

“When what?” Pepper asked, when Tony trailed off sadly.

“Nothing. Anyway, nothing’s going to happen to you, Pep. You can’t get safer than two superhero bodyguards.”

“There’s that word again.” Everything Tony had said during the press conference had rankled, but this had seemed like more of a pointed jab at Steve. He wanted to understand why.

“What, superhero?” Tony was now double-fisting straight vodka and a glass of that disgusting-looking green juice Steve had noticed him drinking in the past couple of days. “Oh, I get it. You’re not upset about any imaginary targets. You’re pissed off that you’re no longer the only golden boy. Someone’s come in to shake things up and redefine what a superhero is. You want to know why I couldn’t stick to the cards? You really wanna know?”

“You clearly want to tell me.”

“It’s because I looked at you standing next to me and I couldn’t handle the idea of living my life like that.”

“Like what?”

“Lying all the time. And not even very good lies. You don’t have the imagination for what you’re doing. What’s next? You couldn’t make an appointment because you had to pick up your cheese of the month club shipment? I can’t do it. I won’t. It’s not my style. Secret identities are so 20th century.”

“Just because you don’t want to do it yourself doesn’t mean you can treat my life like a big joke. You were deliberately provoking the issue, just for fun. That was cruel, and selfish. Too selfish to be called a superhero. You don’t even know what the word means.”

“Is that how it is?” Tony challenged.

“Tony, Steve,” Pepper interrupted. “Don’t. Just stop.”

Steve knew he should listen to her, but he couldn’t help himself. Tony had been baiting and belligerent for days, and Steve had had enough. “That’s how it is.”

“Since we’re doing this,” Tony snapped after another long swig of his drink, “let me tell you what qualities I think a superhero should have. They include being able to actually get something done on your own steam.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“I had it under control, but yeah, it would have been nice to have a little back-up last night. But where were you? Stuck in traffic on the 59th Street Bridge like everyone else. For all your super-ness, you’re pretty much useless on your own. You can’t get anywhere, you can’t shoot laser beams, you don’t even wear body armor. Sure, you’re fast, but you’re not, like, speeding bullet fast. You’ve got a shield you throw around and you punch people in the face really hard. Big fuckin’ whoop. Me, on the other hand, I can fly. I can take out twenty enemies with one command, no civilians harmed. I can do whatever I want and I don’t need anyone’s help or sanctioning. I’m the kind that gets things done.”

“The suit’s just a weapon, like all your other weapons. A fancy tin can doesn’t make you a hero.”

“What exactly have you accomplished since you woke up? The only reason you got anywhere in the 40s was because the entire government was backing you. But now you don’t want the army, and even if you did, they’re not sure they’d want you. Which leaves me as your only support. Just like my dad. You think us Starks are only good for getting you the gear you need and getting you to the places you need to go.”

“You think I take everything you’ve done for me for granted?” If Steve had been less upset, he would have known something was wrong, that Tony couldn’t possibly mean this. But right now, he was hurt and all he could see was red.

“How can you say that, Tony?” Pepper asked. “What has Steve ever done to make you think—”

She shouldered her way to stand beside Steve in an unmistakable show of solidarity. However, far from quelling the fight, her intrusion only made things worse. Seeing her take Steve’s part so physically made him go back for more.

“What, are you two going to run away together on me?” he asked, bitterly and nonsensically.

“You’re crazy,” Steve said. Was Tony… jealous? Of all the ridiculous…

“You think I don’t see it? How you’ve become this little party of two ever since I got back?”

“What?” Pepper gasped. “What are you even talking about?”

“I don’t think you take anything for granted, Steve. I just think you’re delusional. You think you can tell a few lame lies and be two people. It’s schizo, is what it is. And then coming to me all self-righteous this morning, expecting me to fall in line and live my life the same sad way you do. We might be friends, but I’m not one of your soldiers. You don’t get to give me orders.”

“It’s different for you. You were already famous. You already exist bigger and louder than almost anybody else. But me? I died in 1944. Heck, Captain America died in 1944. Steve Rogers died as soon as he walked out of that lab. He barely existed before the war. He never got to have a life. And now even the life I have is a fake that, yeah, you made for me. I’ve said thanks until I’m blue in the face. I’ll keep saying it if that’s what you want, but I won’t let you treat what little I’ve got as a joke.”

“Smallest violin ever. Are you even listening to yourself? You’re talking about yourself in the third person. Do you know how crazy you sound? It’s not as scary as you think it is, Steve. Nothing bad’s gonna happen if you come out.” Tony took another large gulp of his vodka. He had to be drunk at this point. If he hadn’t been, he never would have continued, “And I don’t just mean as Captain America.”

The room went dangerously still.

“Yeah, I said it.”

“Tony,” Pepper said, low and measured.

There was one thing Tony was not allowed to make fun of. There was one thing they didn’t talk about. Ever. This was it.

“It isn’t 1940 anymore, Steve,” Tony continued, fueled by liquid courage—he must have been to keep going even with Steve standing stricken in front of him, like a electrical cord about to snap. “So what if you don’t only like girls? What are you so afraid of? Maybe I should tell Barnes to write about how Captain America’s a bigger coward than people know. Oh wait, he’s the—”

“You’re drunk. I’m going downstairs.” If he didn’t get out of here, Steve was going to do or say something they’d all regret.

“A thousand apologies, sir,” JARVIS’s polite and almost sheepish voice sounded out. “But I am not sure now is quite the moment. Mr. Barnes is currently in your apartment.”

Steve looked down at his uniform. He couldn’t think of any reason why Captain America would let himself into Steve Rogers’s apartment while Bucky was in there. “What’s he doing?”

“He appears to be typing, sir.”

“This is exactly what I’m talking about.” Tony smugly poured himself another glass of green gunge. This time he mixed vodka into it instead of using a separate glass.

“Steve,” Pepper said firmly. “Take your clothes off.”

“What?” both men asked.

“The shower in your apartment is broken. You came up here to use Tony’s. Take off your clothes, wet your hair under the sink, and wrap yourself in a towel. I’ll bring your uniform and shield down later.”

“You shouldn’t encourage him,” Tony snapped.

“And you shouldn’t bully him.”

A minute later, he was making his way down the fire stairs to his floor. When Tony had returned from Afghanistan a few weeks before, Stane had pretended Steve’s eviction was a simple misunderstanding. Tony was the only one who’d believed that, but there was nothing anyone could say at the time to convince him that his surrogate father figure was shadier than he seemed; it was something Tony had to figure out for himself, and last night, he finally had. Between the sloth and the awkwardness of having to sleep with Natasha whenever Loki stayed over, Steve had wanted out of the Bushwick apartment anyway. But he couldn’t go back to living on charity like he had. It had never sat quite right with him, and had made it easy for Stane to throw him out in the first place.

He’d been planning on finding his own place, but the apartments in his price range were little more than closets with bathrooms—worse than some of the places he’d lived before the war. And then Tony had been insulted and Pepper had threatened to cry, so he'd caved. So, he came back. He’d made Tony draw up a real lease, though. The rent wasn’t anything close to market value, but it was enough to make the place feel like his—to feel like he was finally making it on his own.

But now there was this fight and Steve didn’t know where he stood. They didn’t possess the most easily compatible of temperaments, and Tony’s Howard issues had always threatened to explode in Steve’s direction, but they’d always managed to make it work, until today.

He let himself into the apartment, and found Bucky, as promised, perched on a stool along the kitchen island, typing.

Bucky looked up at Steve, and then immediately back down again, as though disgusted. He hunched over so that from where he was standing, Steve couldn’t see his face.

“Hey,” Bucky said, sounding strangled.

This didn’t bode well. The last thing Steve needed was another fight with a friend.

“Are you writing up the press conference?” he asked conversationally.

“Yeah. I’m guessing you already knew the big news, though. Probably knew since day one. You could’ve told me.”

“It wasn’t my secret to tell.”

“How was the dentist?”

“Fine. No cavities.”

“Yeah, I bet there weren’t.” Bucky’s tone was stonily sarcastic.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s Saturday. Nobody goes to the dentist on Saturday. Especially not in the middle of the biggest story in months, especially not when your benefactor-uncle-roommate-buddy-person is coming out as a superhero and naming you as his go-to contact. Next time you put me in a position where I have to cover for you, try to make the lie a little less lame, okay?”

Steve opened his mouth to reply, but nothing came out. He had no idea how to respond, or how much Bucky suspected.

“You gonna tell me where you really were?” Bucky asked, still staring pointedly at his screen.

“I can’t.”

“Can you at least tell me why you’re naked?”

“The shower down here is broken.” Steve hoped this sounded more believable to Bucky’s already suspicious ears than the dentist story had. “I was using Pepper’s.”

“Right.”

“Well,” Steve said, since it was clear that Bucky didn’t want to talk to him or even look at him, “I’m going to change, I guess.”

He went into his bedroom and shut the door behind him, wondering why everything was blowing up in his face today. He had barely gotten one leg inside his pants when he heard Bucky call out, “See you Tuesday!” just before the door slammed.

This was not his day.


Bucky couldn’t get out of that apartment fast enough.

He had stayed over at the Tower countless times—hell, Steve had even lived with him for a while—but he’d somehow managed never to see his friend in less than a fully-dressed state. And now the sight was burned into his brain. He pounded on the crease between the elevator doors, as though that would help it to come faster.

Steve showing up mostly nude was the last thing Bucky needed right now. He had already been balancing entirely too much on his plate. Ever since Christmas, work had been insanely busy, his boyfriend had been acting like a loon, and the torch he now knew his best friend was carrying for him was becoming not so much an awkward problem as an almost irresistible beacon.

Bucky didn’t believe Steve had been at the dentist, not for a minute. He still hadn’t gotten over that month Steve had spent out in LA with Pepper, sick with some secret illness that he was either too scared or too embarrassed to talk about. Bucky had called it the day they’d met; no matter how healthy he looked now, Steve had had some serious health problems in the past. Was it cancer? Some kind of childhood leukemia come back? He’d tried asking, but had gotten nothing but joking denials that he simply couldn’t believe, not when he could tell something was up. He’d even tried asking Pepper. She had told him not to worry in a panicked confusion that didn’t do much to put him at ease. Both Pepper and Steve were terrible liars.

Part of his paranoia might also have been a projection of his own worry for himself.

Steve wasn’t the only one who was maybe secretly dying.

Ever since Christmas, the headaches had been coming more frequently, and with debilitating intensity. He’d been trying to tough it out, but Natasha had recently sat him down and forced him to deal with it.

They had two options: either they continued to ignore it and took the risk of this turning into something much more dangerous, or they took the risk of divulging some of their secrets in order to seek help.

Natasha had voted for the latter. After some discussion, they had agreed that their best bet was Dr. Green over at Stark Industries. He had helped Bucky out once before, and had already done some research on the odd blood samples he’d taken that first night. He seemed smart and harmless, and there was no point in letting another stranger get their hands on Bucky’s vitals.

After a couple of days of secret surveillance, Natasha had agreed that Bruce seemed like a good pick. She dug up every piece of information should could find on him (“It never hurts to have leverage,” she’d said). The strange thing was that there was very little to find. Suspiciously little, and all of it incredibly thin. A baby could have hacked a better fake identity. Bucky and Natasha had no idea how Bruce had gotten past the Stark Industries HR background check.

They followed a thread of information leading to a physicist named Bruce Banner who was presumed dead. No pictures or info, but Bucky and Natasha were convinced they had to be the same person. But who Bruce Banner was, how he had run afoul of the US Army, and what his story was… well, that had classified far and away beyond their access.

Even without specific details, Natasha had said, that was enough leverage for her to work with.

They waited outside the Tower one night, loitering by the entrance until he left work. Reminding him of their acquaintance (Bruce hadn’t forgotten), Bucky invited him to dinner. Once seated, they gave him a heavily abridged, location-agnostic, murder-free account of amnesia, brainwashing, chemical enhancement and cryogenic freezing.

“Is this a real story?” Bruce asked at the end of their tale.

“Unfortunately, yes,” Natasha replied.

“It was the army, wasn’t it?”

“Why do you think it was the army?” Bucky asked.

Bruce shrank into himself a bit. “They’ve been trying to make another Captain America for decades. This sounds like yet another attempt. More successful than others.”

“And you know this how?” Natasha asked.

Bruce had simply given her one of his sad smiles.

Interesting.

“Will you help me?” Bucky asked.

“You two wouldn’t have told me everything you just did if I was allowed to say no.”

“No, we’re offering you a trade,” Natasha said. “You help my friend, and we’ll keep you safe.”

“What makes you think I need protection?”

“You’ve changed your name from Banner to Green in the most amateurish attempt at identity creation I’ve ever seen,” she said. “You’re on the run from the army. I assume you’re working at Stark Industries in order to have access to the labs. Maybe you’re working on whatever it was that got you in trouble. I don’t know. Honestly, I don’t care. That’s your business. My business is James. He’s sick, and, well, that doesn’t work for me.”

“I thought you were a fashion and lifestyle editor. How did you…” Bruce looked between Bucky and Natasha. “Are you like him?”

“Not exactly. Not nearly as much.” She smiled, but her lips conveyed more menace than mirth. “But enough.”

“You don’t want to threaten me.”

“I’m half your size,” Natasha said sweetly, “and like you said, I’m just a fashion and lifestyle editor.”

“You’ve been cagey about what exactly this brainwashing was for, but I’m going to guess it was for something a little more homicidal than newspaper reporting. And I’m going to guess you’re like him enough to be dangerous.”

“I’m not threatening you,” Natasha said, without answering his insinuation.

“Yes, you are. And trust me. That’s a bad idea.”

At that, Bucky looked at Bruce as if for the first time. The meek, bespectacled nerd in front of him exuded zero obvious danger. Natasha could have taken him down with a strand of her hair. Yet he spoke with authority. And a lot of repressed anger.

Bucky had learned over the years that unexpected reactions were the most telling. And maybe it was yet another sign of how utterly fucked-up they were, but Bruce’s ominous reaction convinced Natasha and Bucky—more than anything else they could have found or heard—that Bruce was to be trusted.

“It’s okay, Natasha,” he said. “He’s okay.”

“Yeah. Yeah,” she agreed, “I think he is.”

Even without the promise of protection, Bucky had known Bruce would take the assignment. For as long as he could remember, scientists had been looking at him hungrily. Bruce’s intentions may have been benevolent, but in this respect he was no different.

Today was his follow-up appointment. Today he’d find out what was wrong with him, and how serious it was.

Bucky made his way from Steve’s apartment down to the 23rd floor. Bruce was huddled behind his desk, peering too close to his computer screen.

“You ready?” Bucky asked.

Bruce gathered a few folders and reached for his coat. “Where are we going?”

“I don’t know about you, but I’m starved. We can go over stuff while we eat lunch.”

They passed Jane in the hallway. Her lab privileges had been reinstated around the same time as Steve’s apartment. Now she was fully back to her old habit of spending all weekend researching her theoretical wormholes or whatever.

She desperately needed a life.

“Hey, Bruce,” she chirped, and then stopped short when she saw who was with him. “Bucky? You two know each other?”

“Yeah, we go way back,” Bucky said, as truthfully as he could. “I uh… Steve introduced us. You know, because he lives upstairs.”

“Oh. Weird. Anyway, I’ll see you tomorrow, right, Bruce?”

“You both come in on Saturdays and Sundays?” Bucky asked him once they were out of earshot.

“Just for fun.”

“Sounds like a blast.”

Shake Shack was only a couple of blocks away. Bruce staked out a corner table while Bucky ordered and waited for their food.

“So, doc, what do you have for me?” he asked once he’d transported the last of the ketchup cups to their table.

Bruce began pointing at things on scans and gesturing at reports.

Bucky didn’t speak science, but he understood stalling tactics.

“So, you’re telling me you have nothing,” he said when it seemed like Bruce was finished.

Bruce’s face fell. “Honestly, I can’t find anything wrong with you.”

“I can’t believe you just said that with a straight face.”

“That’s not what I meant. I’ve never seen a brain tampered with this meticulously. It’s fascinating and… horrible. It’s a miracle you’re functional. I can see the effect whatever chemical compounds they gave you. I can see the effects of the brainwashing, over and over. And I can see…” He took his glasses off and sucked on them a bit until he realized he actually wanted his milkshake straw. “I can see there’s something very strange going on in your temporal lobe, where long-term memory is processed. So, yes, everything about you is wrong. But did I find a physical cause for the symptoms you described? No.”

“Does it look like I’m reverting? I can’t become that thing again. It’s my worst nightmare.”

“I know. That’s why I took the case.” Bruce cleared his throat. “But don’t worry. Whatever is in there is completely dormant. It would have sparked here—” Bruce pointed at one of the scans. “—or here, if that was the case.”

“And you’re sure you haven’t missed anything? Are there other tests you can run? It’s not like I can just go and get a second opinion, you know?”

Bruce sat back, looking uncomfortable. “Well, there is one angle I haven’t explored. As soon as I said yes, we went immediately to the tests. That was my fault. I’m a scientist. I’m not used to human subjects. My, er, bedside manner is probably not the best. I should have asked you about… you.”

“I told you all you needed to know.”

“You told me your background. Some of it, anyway. That was necessary. But you didn’t tell me… I mean, the kinds of diagnostic things doctors usually find out. When you get the headaches, what time of day, how… er, how it makes you feel.”

Bucky had an inkling of where this was going. “You think it’s all in my head. Is that what you’re saying, Dr. Phil?”

“No. Well, maybe. It could be stress.”

“It isn’t fucking stress.”

“You said they started last year, and then got worse recently. Were there any changes in your life at those two points?” Bruce sounded almost as nervous about asking as Bucky felt about replying.

“It started around the time Steve joined the paper. I figured that out awhile ago. Actually, that was right when I met you. Maybe it’s all coming from that poison you cured me of.”

Bruce shook his head. “No, I’ve studied that extensively. There was nothing there that would cause these side effects. And especially not for someone like you.”

Bucky continued to think back. “And I met Loki around that time, too. But nothing happened for awhile, so I don’t think that’s it.”

“So, Steve. And you became friends. That…” Bruce seemed disheartened by his own line of inquiry. “That doesn’t sound very stressful.”

“No, it wasn’t. It was great, honestly.” Bucky could feel his face brightening for a moment, before falling again. “Though that’s turned into a mess, just like everything else.”

“How so?”

“I found out he kinda… wants to be more than friends. I found that out around Christmas, so I’ve been trying not to make things awkward. It’s hard though, because…” Bucky didn’t trust himself to continue. He tried to block out this morning’s irresistible mental image.

“Christmas is when you said the pain started to get worse.”

“Yeah. Yeah, I guess that’s been stressful. Mostly because I don’t want to think about him like that, you know?”

“Not really.” Bruce pointed at Bucky’s onion rings. “Mind if I have one?”

“Nervous eating?”

“Yeah. I told you, I’m not very good at this. But keep going.”

“Well, whenever I catch him looking at me like that, and if I ever then think about any kind of what if, my head just…” Bucky sat up straight. “Oh my god. It’s Steve. I’m allergic to Steve. Is that possible?”

“I don’t… think so?”

“It was like this with my nickname. Bucky. Steve came up with it, and it felt really right, but man it hurt like a bitch the first few times he called me by it. It was like something didn’t want me to be called that. Or… I don’t know. “

“Dr. Foster just called you Bucky a few minutes ago and you were fine.”

“Yeah, but right after he came up with it, Steve went away for awhile. So, it still hurt, but not quite as much when it was everybody else saying it. And by the time he came back, I think I was over it.”

“And you think the same thing is happening when you think about… I didn’t really follow. When you think about his feelings? Or is it when you think about yours?” Bruce cringed at his own question.

“I don’t have any feelings, not like that,” Bucky said, a little too forcefully for anyone to believe.

“This isn’t really my field, but it sounds like you have some unexamined—”

“There’s nothing to examine,” Bucky automatically interrupted. He could hear himself protesting entirely too much. It was pathetic.

Bruce raised a skeptical eyebrow. “Okay.”

Now that they were doing this, Bucky decided might as well go whole hog. It wasn’t like he had anyone else he could open up to about this stuff. Steve, his best friend, was half the problem; and although Bucky and Natasha had long ago transitioned into platonic life mates, they were never going to curl up on the couch and talk about their feelings. This oddly comforting near-stranger was all he had.

“It’s just… The guy I'm dating has been acting off lately,” Bucky said, and it felt good—liberating—to get it off his chest. “If I’m stressed out about anything, it’s that.”

“Off how?”

“Preoccupied. Cranky. He was sort of like this when we first met, but I think he was just lonely or too intense or something. It got a lot better, but all of a sudden, it’s coming back, so much worse. I don’t want to break up or anything. I just want to make it stop. And I definitely don’t want to project any of that onto Steve just because Loki’s going through a rough patch. Talk about a surefire way to fuck everything up with everybody.” Bucky took pity on Bruce, who really hadn’t signed up for this. “I still don’t think any of this is the answer to the headaches, though.”

“I’ll keep working on it. Maybe when you have time, we can rerun the tests and you can, um, think about Steve while we do it. That way I get some readings while you’re actually experiencing the symptoms.”

Bucky wasn’t looking forward to it, but the idea made sense. “Okay. I don’t have time now, but maybe early next week?”

“Sure. In the meantime, can I ask you a question?”

“Shoot.”

“How are you so calm? The things you’ve told me about what happened to you, and the things I saw in the tests… These people made you into the longest-lived guinea pig in history. How do you keep it together?”

Natasha still had not discovered what Bruce’s deal was, but Bucky knew enough to understand that he was asking for personal advice.

“Trust me, I used to be angry. I used to be angry all the time.” Bucky shivered at the thought of that year in Europe when he and Natasha had done nothing but destroy every last vestige of the Red Room. He shivered at the memory of the electrocution machine that had used to wrap around his face and twist his mind. “It took a long time for me to get to this point, but now I have a lot going on, a whole life. Work’s interesting, I have Natasha, I have all my friends. I got promoted, met Steve. I even have a boyfriend. I’m too busy to be angry.”

“Huh.” Bruce slurped thoughtfully.

“Ever think about trying that for yourself?”

“What? Getting a boyfriend?”

“No. More going on. I mean, look at you. You’re the last person to leave the building on weeknights and you work all weekend, too. You need to get out more. More distractions.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. It’s in everyone’s best interest that I keep to myself.”

“That’s what I used to think, too. That I was too dangerous for company. That I shouldn’t inflict myself on other people. But it’s completely wrong, you see.” Bucky got an idea. “Look, next time my friends have a party or something, you’re coming.”

“I don’t think—”

“You already know half the group. I mean, there’s me. And Natasha. And you know Jane. And you’ve met Steve. Yeah, this’ll be great.”

Bucky’s phone rang. It was Coulson.

“Sorry, I have to take this. It’s my boss.”

“Go ahead,” Bruce said.

“Hey, Chief. What’s up?”

“I just sent you a link. I’ll hold while you read it.”

Bucky clicked through to a blog post by Christine Everhart. He skimmed it briefly, his blood growing hot with each word. The general gist was what she had been hissing at him about in the elevator bank. About the Herald’s staff having suspiciously close relationships with the two resident superheroes, about the paper’s ownership structure… She had kept it clean, and the insinuations could have gone either way—either sexual or some kind of blackmail—but the whole thing was written like part one of what was intended to be an ongoing exposé.

“Wow,” Bucky said into the phone when he was done. “I didn’t think she’d actually print this shit.”

“I need you to handle this,” Coulson said. “I want it gone.”

“But it’s a crock. She’s not going to get anything, because there’s nothing to get.”

“It doesn’t matter. Neither of us want her digging into your past. Or Natasha’s. Or Steve’s.”

Natasha had mostly come clean about who she was back when then-Regional Editor Coulson had busted her years ago. They’d been in St. Petersburg, and she’d been assigned to spy on the same ambassador Coulson had been happening to profile. Instead of turning her over to the officials, who would have taken her back to the Red Room in disgrace for her failure, he had offered to help her escape the country. But she’d insisted that they also save a friend of hers. She had described Bucky as a mere trainee, a low-level new recruit she had come to care for. They trusted Coulson—would do anything to repay him—but there was no need to tell him more than he needed to know. And with no evidence to suggest Bucky was anything other than what they said, there was no way Coulson could know.

So, Bucky understood why Coulson was concerned about protecting the two Russian spies he’d rescued, but Steve? Except for the mysterious illness, Steve was an open book.

“I’m on it,” he said. “I’ll call Potts right now. She’ll know what to do.”

“Good. I’m counting on you.”

Bucky hung up and turned back to Bruce. He resolved to make good on his suggestion from a minute ago. Bruce was a nice guy, and exactly the kind of unhappy, lonely stray Bucky specialized in taking under his protection.

“I gotta go. Work crisis. But this was really helpful.”

“How? I didn’t find anything.”

“I mean, this.” Bucky gestured between the two of them. “Talking it out. Maybe we can do this again sometime.”

Bruce cringed. “I’m not that kind of doc—”

Bucky jumped out of his chair and took off before Bruce could say no.


Loki had given himself a callous.

He’d actually had to look on WebMD to diagnose what it was. As a prince of Asgard, he’d never engaged in the kind of menial labour that would cause such maladies. Even here on Midgard, his activities had remained exclusively white-collar.

However, maneuvering the scientific equipment that used these damned antique Hydra weapons to triangulate their old power source required more brute strength than he was used to. For the past three weeks, he alone had stalked the warehouse he’d bought, turning gears and calling the IBM support line (infuriating incompetents who would be the first to suffer under Loki’s reign) and rearranging heavy machinery all by himself.

This experiment was taking so much longer than he’d anticipated. Every day that went by with little more than mere flickers and almost inaudible hums frustrated him. However, he was close now. He could almost taste it. Everything had turned a corner once he’d realized he needed a different transponder. The computers had begun to work. The area of possible location on the screen had shrunk. It was here, somewhere, in this country. Or perhaps Mexico. It would take a few more days to refine the range.

He was so deep in concentration that only after a few rings did he notice his phone vibrating against him.

“Hello, James.”

“Where the hell are you?”

“Working. Why do you ask?”

“That lecture on Italian futurism that you said sounded so hilarious. Remember? I’ve been standing here for twenty minutes.”

Loki had entirely lost track of what day it was.

“I had no idea it was now.”

On the other end of the line, James did not sound pleased. Loki could almost picture him caressing his face and moving his fingers upwards to rifle through his hair.

“Well, I still need to see you. It’s important.”

Loki magnanimously decided to take a break to mollify James. “I can see you at your apartment in a couple of hours.”

“Fine.”

However, he became distracted again, and it was longer than he’d promised before he arrived—four hours instead of two. James was waiting for him with now cold Mexican take-out and a hostile glare.

Loki practically fell into the dining chair James had left cocked at an angle for him. He hadn’t eaten a real meal in almost two days, he now realized. No wonder he’d been feeling light-headed all afternoon.

“This is delicious,” Loki said. But then again, pickled bilgesnipe probably would have tasted good when he was this ravenous.

“Is that grease on your face?” James asked while Loki shoveled enchilada into his mouth in a most undignified manner.

Loki touched himself, and saw black grease come off on his fingers. “I was fixing machinery.”

James’s eyebrows creased in surprise. “Fixing machinery? You?”

“There is no one else I trust with the work I am doing.”

James threw up his hands. “All right. That’s it. I’ve been trying to respect your privacy and everything, but this is getting ridiculous. You’re an investor, not a mechanic. What is this project you’ve been working on? I know it’s somewhere in Queens.”

“How do you know that?”

“Your driver mentioned it the other day when he picked me up. He assumed I knew all about it. Something about how he’s always driving you out to some abandoned warehouse in Queens. You hate Queens. I mean, as you should. Everyone hates Queens. So, what are you doing there? And why didn’t you call me? I’m good at fixing stuff. Or do I count as one of the people you don’t trust?”

“No, of course not. Quite the contrary.” The concept of what Loki was doing required accepting too many things that modern Midgardian life rejected: magic, ancient gods, realms beyond. The only way to make James understand was to show him, which meant that he had to keep James in the dark until the day he could reveal all. “You are, in fact, the only person with whom I intend to share the results. Be patient. It shouldn’t be long now.”

“And then what?”

“And then we will reap rewards you cannot even imagine.”

“We’ve been through this a million times. I don’t care about being rich. I just wish you’d stop,” James said.

“Stop what?”

“This whole thing. Whatever this is about—and I wish you’d drop the dramatic mystery and just fucking tell me, already—there’s no way it’s worth all this work and weirdness. You’ve been all cranky and bitter lately.”

“There is nothing wrong with me.” Now annoyed, he said, “I should go. I have more work to do.”

“Of course you do,” James said angrily. “I have to leave soon, too. There’s something I have to talk to you about first. I have a problem.”

James related a convoluted tale of a female reporter who was making unsubstantiated yet understandable insinuations about James and his friends. Given how close he was to his goals, Loki cared little about some woman’s attempt to tarnish his recently manufactured (and soon to be cast off) reputation. He said as much.

“That’s fine for you,” James replied, “but I can’t have people going around thinking I fuck my sources.”

Loki may have won their little battle for James, but his frustrating research had only rekindled his ire towards Captain America. If only he had taken more care with the precious object he had had the undeserved honor to come across, Loki might not have had to spend his days covered in machine grease. The last insult he needed was to have people coupling James’s name with this buffoon’s. He was pleased to see that James was just as upset at the thought as he was.

“What is it you wish me to do?” he asked.

“I don’t know. Make a statement? Make up a different reason for why you bought the company?”

“I will do you one better. What if I divest of it entirely? What use have I for a newspaper? I will seek out an appropriate buyer. Someone worthy of that which is so obviously—albeit illogically—important to you.”

“Thanks.”

“Did you finish that book I gave you?” Loki asked, now that he had successfully dismissed James’s worry.

“The one about the Norse myths? No, not yet.”

“It is imperative that you finish it.” Loki had spent hours in the library searching for the best introductory text. The academic books had all proven worthlessly inaccurate and biased; however, to his surprise, he’d found a reasonably accurate treatment in an illustrated children’s book by people named d’Aulaire. Loki had written in the margins and around the illustrations—corrections and embellishments and alternate interpretations.

“I’ll make you a deal,” James said. “You give Queens a rest and actually hang out with me for the rest of this long weekend, and I’ll make sure I finish the book by Wednesday. You can even give me a quiz if you want.”

“The quiz was already assumed.”

James laughed, and Loki realized it was the first time in some days that he’d heard the sound or seen the way his eyes crinkled slightly. He really had been spending a lot of time at the warehouse lately.

He felt a feverish pull to get back to his work. However, a pathetically unambitious part of himself yearned to give in to James’s request.

“We have a deal,” he conceded. He told himself he was agreeing in order to guarantee that James finished his preparations, not because he was weak enough to put relaxation before his goals.

James went to the sink and poured two drops of soap on a paper towel. Returning to the table, he rested his knee on one of Loki’s thighs, and leaned in to gently clean the grease spots.

“Don’t go back to work,” he said. “I’m supposed to meet Natasha at the gym, and then I’ve got a meeting over at Tony’s. We’re going to make a plan about how to deal with this Everhart situation, but it shouldn’t take long. Stay here until I get back. Take a nap. Eat some of those leftover latkes. Read something. It’ll be good for you. And then I’ll come back and…”

Loki’s head swam with indecision; purpose battled with peace. The sensation of the cloth along his cheek calmed the agitation that he had half-felt consuming him recently. He remembered feeling like this before, in Asgard, when he had been plotting against Thor and Odin and the Jotun. That feeling had dissipated here in Midgard, during the months when thoughts and dreams of power remained too unattainable to encroach on his day to day. That feeling had diminished almost entirely by the time the delivery of the old Hydra weapons had brought it roaring back. Part of him wanted to run from his plans and hide in this simple life of Mexican take-out and prank calls to the United Nations. But that would be cowardice, he convinced himself; he was meant for more than this, and this time he would succeed.

That said, one night and one weekend could not set him back too far.

“I will be here when you return.”

James had his own victorious facial expression, Loki was learning.

Hopefully, he would soon see it used more often.

Chapter Text

Steve had had bad days before. Plagued by his continued time-displacement isolation. Frustrated that lying to almost everyone he cared about was the only way to manage his life. Discouraged by his continued discomfort in his own skin. Burdened down by his own out-of-date repression. However, today was worse than usual, because Tony had voiced all those nagging frustrations aloud, in a way that made them more real than they had been just in his head.

It was all but impossible to get a real workout—one that actually taxed him—without giving himself away. On previous bad days, he’d tried to exert himself in the gym, and had ended up breaking the treadmills. However, today was so bad that he couldn’t hold back anymore. He spent the entire afternoon in his Captain America uniform, running full-speed marathons around and around Central Park. He was sure the tourists and paparazzi thought he was crazy, and the blogs were probably coming up with rude explanations for what was going on, but he didn’t care.

He ran to a less than motivational internal playlist: choice points from his fight with Tony; the door banging behind Bucky in the morning; Peggy’s brave voice trying to set their hopeless date; gunshots killing Erskine; soldiers heckling him on his tour.

He felt tired by the end, but not much better. His restlessness and overall dissatisfaction remained. The last time he had felt like this had been during his last performance with the girls, hours before all that pent-up restlessness and frustration had made him jump at the chance to do something—anything. In that case, he’d gone after Peggy’s brother’s company, which had been captured behind enemy lines. He wasn’t sure what he could do now. He had set up his life in a way that he generally liked, but which simultaneously resisted rash actions.

Now Steve sat awkwardly at Tony’s dining room table, with hands folded. He felt ridiculous wearing his uniform and mask inside the apartment, with only Pepper and Tony around, but again, this was the life he'd set up.

Tony, sitting across from him, was reading something on his StarkPad while Steve looked out the window. Pepper was setting out cheese and crackers and trying not to poke either of the bears.

“Mr. Barnes is in the lobby,” JARVIS announced.

“This should be quick,” Pepper chirped at her two morose companions. When no one responded, she shook her head and pottered out of the room again.

Tony slurped loudly on one of his disgusting-looking green smoothies.

“What is that stuff made of?” Steve hoped to break the tension before Bucky showed up.

“Why do you want to know?” Tony asked, looking at Steve suspiciously.

Tony was often snappish, but he was never suspicious, not like this, and definitely not of Steve. An afternoon of running hadn’t improved Steve’s mood, but it had cleared his head enough to look past his own anger and see that something bigger was going on with Tony.

The doorbell rang and Pepper glided over to receive the spin and dip greeting that had become a little ritual between her and Bucky. Tony roused himself enough to wave them over to the table.

“Hey,” Bucky said with a friendly nod and the kind of appreciative once-over he always gave Captain America. It was a painfully stark contrast to his behavior with Steve earlier that day. “I heard you went for quite a run today. The whole internet is losing its mind.”

“Sometimes it’s nice to push yourself as hard as you can go. It’s hard to do on a regular basis, though. People stare, like today.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean,” Bucky replied, and then flinched for some reason. “Just maybe next time let the cops know first so people don’t think something’s wrong.”

“Good point.”

Captain America and Bucky were little more than professional acquaintances, but today, they seemed to be on better terms than Steve was with his best friend. He couldn’t believe Bucky had not only called Pepper instead of him when this whole libel issue had arisen, but had even asked her not to invite Steve to this meeting. Steve’s dis-invitation had the benefit of keeping him from having to lie, but it still hurt.

“Just us four?” Tony asked. “What about Loki?”

“He called a couple of hours ago,” Pepper said. “He wanted me to narrow down options for potential buyers of the company.”

“Where did you guys land?” Tony asked.

“It looks like Penelope Widmore might be interested. Loki’s assistant said she would send preliminary paperwork over in the morning.”

“Do we like her?” Steve asked.

“You need someone rich, ethical, and outside our circle,” Pepper said. “I’ve met Penny, and she’s perfect.”

“So, that’s taken care of. What’s next on the list?” Tony asked.

“We need you, Cap, to start giving other reporters the time of day,” Bucky said.

“I need something to talk about first. Stane’s taken care of. Iron Man is the big story of the month. Unless some threat strikes, I’ll be laying low.”

“The government sent me a summons this afternoon,” Tony said. “I’m supposed to report to DC in a couple of days for a hearing. They want to requisition the Iron Man technology.”

“Like hell they can,” Bucky replied.

“Exactly what I said. But I still have to show up. I was thinking having Capsicle here come along might take some of the pressure off. And it would give you a reason to be out there, and talk to people.”

As far as olive branches went, it was more of a twig, but Steve took it.

“I’ll go,” he said.

“Why don’t you also offer yourself up for a New Yorker profile?” Bucky suggested. “Those are twenty pages, fully researched—a much bigger deal than anything I could write. People’ll be talking about that for months. I doubt Condé Nast will let Everhart try to discredit you while another of their magazines is trying to promote a bigger and more profitable story by a more respected writer. And in the meanwhile, you can still call me for more day-to-day stuff, so you don’t give her ammo by making it look like you’re pointedly avoiding me. I mean, if you still want me as your go-to.”

“I’ll always want you as my go-to,” Steve said, ignoring Tony’s stifled gag. “I’m just sorry I got you into this mess. All of us.”

“You didn’t do anything.”

They stared at one another for a long, warm minute before Pepper finally cleared her throat.

“So, to recap,” she said, making little checkmarks on the notepad she’d been scribbling on. “Loki’s selling the company. Cap will give an interview to someone at the New Yorker. Tony and Cap will go down to DC. Iron Man will give juicy interviews to a bunch of people who aren’t Steve. And Steve…”

“Steve doesn’t have to do a thing,” Bucky said firmly. “He’d be mortified to find out this was ever an issue.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t like being kept in the dark,” Steve said.

Bucky squirmed in his seat. “I’ll tell him when it’s over. Just let me do this in my own way and time, okay?”

Tony let his head fall back and groaned.

“I think that’s everything,” Pepper said after not so subtly kicking him under the table.

This all probably could have been handled with a conference call, but Pepper had wanted an excuse to have Bucky over, not only because she liked him, but also to distract Tony from his mood. So far it was working. The three of them shot the breeze for half an hour. Bucky kept glancing quizzically at Steve, who barely spoke. He’d never been in a social situation with the uniform on before; he usually did his thing, made a statement, and left. Even if he hadn’t been in his own funk, he wouldn’t have known what to say.

“I should go,” Bucky said eventually. “I left Loki in the apartment with Natasha and Clint, which is never a good idea. I’ll probably get there and find them gas lighting half the neighbors.”

Tony and Pepper walked Bucky to the door. Steve followed, realizing he probably should make a show of leaving, too. He jogged after him, and stuck his leg between the closing elevator doors.

“Heading home?” Bucky asked with a wink. “You know, a lot of people would pay a lot of money to find out where that is.”

Steve opened his mouth to say something ambiguous, but like Tony during the press conference that morning, something snapped. All the frustrated restlessness and bottled-up discontent that had been consuming him all day refused to stay down, refused to follow the cards.

“I wanted to talk to you,” he blurted out.

“Isn’t that what got us into this mess in the first place?” Bucky replied with a rueful smirk.

“That’s exactly what I want to talk about,” Steve said, feeling almost as scared but also almost as freed as he had the day he’d jumped out of his first plane. “I know we’re trying to keep everyone’s reputations safe, but Christine Everhart is right. She’s right about the reason why you’re the only person I ever talk to. That time I asked you out for coffee… it wasn’t just because I wanted to give an interview.”

Steve took a huge gulp of air after that, puffing himself up a little. He’d actually said it out loud. The weight of an avalanche rolled off his chest. Sure, he’d said it as the wrong person, but he’d said it.

One look at Bucky’s panic-stricken face punctured his momentary sense of accomplishment.

“I’m really flattered, but…”

Nothing good ever came after those words.

Steve retreated to the far corner of the elevator. “Oh.”

“I never would have thought—”

“I shouldn’t have assumed anything,” Steve interrupted. “It’s just that sometimes when you’re looking at me, I think…”

“Everybody looks at you like that.”

“You’re the only one I notice.”

“Well, shit.” Bucky scratched the back of his head and stared at the floor. “Look, you’re not wrong. The signals you're picking up are all definitely there. But I never thought you'd... You’re Captain America. This can't happen. Ever.”

As far as rejections went, this one was very confusing. “Why not?”

“I’m the last person you want. Trust me. It’d be a mockery. The least funny joke in the world.”

“I think I’m allowed to make that decision for myself.”

“Sure you are. But you’re not in possession of all the facts.”

“You’re James Buchanan Barnes. You’re a conscientious worker. You’re a loyal friend. A good person. And your…” Steve cleared his throat and stopped himself from saying something about what Bucky’s laugh did to his insides. “Those are all the facts I need. We all have our secrets, but they don’t define who we are. They aren’t our whole lives.”

He said it, not quite believing it, but needing it to be true.

“They are for some people.” Bucky closed his eyes and shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to have to say thanks, but no thanks. I’m not looking for anything right now—”

Now Steve felt like the world’s biggest jerk. “I knew that. I’m not looking for any—”

But Bucky was only mid-sentence. “—and even if I wasn’t seeing someone, there’d probably be someone else.”

Bucky’s eyes widened a second later, as though he’d heard the words come out of his mouth before he’d quite heard them in his head.

“Oh,” Steve said. “Natasha. Of course.”

“No, not Natasha,” Bucky whispered, more to himself than to Steve. He looked up at the decreasing numbers over the door. “This is the slowest elevator in history.”

“I shouldn’t have said anything. We can pretend this never happened.”

The elevator finally reached the lobby and Bucky practically fell out.

“I just remembered. I left my shield upstairs,” Steve called after him.

“Huh?” Bucky turned around. “Oh. Sure. Do you want me to wait?” he asked, even though it was obvious he didn’t.

“No, you go on. I’ll see you around.”

“Yeah. See ya. Sorry, again. About everything.”

“There’s nothing to be sorry for.”

Steve went back upstairs and straight to Pepper’s apartment, where she was thankfully alone. She took one look at his face and went for the liquor cabinet.

“You know that doesn’t work on me, right?” Steve said as he collapsed on the couch with his face between his hands.

“This is for me. You got to go for a run, but I had to spend all day dealing with Tony.”

“So he isn’t just being like that with me?”

“Not by a long shot. I’m being spared, thank god, but it’s still my job to clean up the messes he’s making with everyone else, while also running his company.” She settled herself on the couch beside Steve with her giant glass of port. “So, what happened?”

Steve told her the whole story and watched her face crumple in compassion.

“Ouch,” she said when he was done. “But you couldn’t have wanted him to… I mean, as far as he knew, it was Captain America, not you. That’s not really viable, is it? Captain America can’t date.”

“I think that’s the only reason I got it out. Because it wasn’t real.”

“It was real enough. It was still you standing there, looking at him, saying it. That counts. Baby steps, Steve. I’m proud of you.”

“The thing I don’t understand, though,” Steve continued after she’d hugged him, “is why he keeps trying to warn me off him. Tonight wasn’t the first time. He does it with me, um, Steve, you know, too.”

“Didn’t you tell me you think he and Natasha are in Witness Protection? It’s probably that.”

“No, it’s more than that. There’s something he did that he must not be proud of. I can’t imagine it was that bad. But even though I keep telling him there’s nothing that would make me look at him differently, I’m pretty sure that’s exactly what he’s afraid of.”

“He could probably say the same thing about you. Or he would, if he knew.”

“Except that I know for a fact that he would look at me differently. I already see it happen every time I change clothes. And here’s the other thing,” Steve said, only now thinking about the ramifications of the end of their conversation. “He said there’s someone else. I mean, other than Loki.”

“Natasha?” Pepper asked just as automatically as Steve had.

“No. He said not Natasha.”

Pepper’s face lit up. “Do you think…?”

“Just because I can’t think of who it would be doesn’t mean anything. For all I know, he has a whole other life I know nothing about and someone special there.”

“There aren’t enough hours in the day for that.”

“I do it. Why not him? Or maybe it’s someone who isn’t around right now. Maybe he has his own Peggy.”

Pepper placed her hand on Steve’s knee. “But you told him. You admitted it out loud to someone other than me. That’s huge, Steve. Maybe even huger that you did it as Captain America. That’s worth celebrating. Think of this as a practice run. Even if it doesn’t work out with him, you took a huge step today. You’ll be okay.”

She clinked her glass against his bottle and smiled so affectionately that Steve forced himself to clink back.


Bucky planted his hand beside Loki’s open-mouthed face. His other hand balanced Loki’s leg in the air, keeping it stretched upright, but resting on Bucky’s shoulder. Bucky pressed a kiss to the knobby knee by his ear.

They’d been at it for almost an hour. Bucky had meticulously employed everything he’d ever learned about what Loki liked in order to reduce him to the desperate, keening mess below him. Every little mewl and bead of sweat he coaxed out soothed a fraction of the gnawing guilt he felt about what had happened in the Stark Tower elevator.

It wasn’t that he’d turned down Captain America (although, really, who did that?). Much as he’d idly fantasized about it, there were loads of reasons why he couldn’t sleep with a national icon. What made it worse was that his reason had been equally about Steve as about his actual boyfriend. Where had that even come from? Between his conversation with Bruce, and now this, Bucky could no longer pretend he had been doing anything other than repressing on a colossal scale.

Having Loki open and wanting in a way he hadn’t been for the past couple of weeks only made him feel like even more of an asshole for having been harboring these inappropriate feelings. Bucky had managed to peel away layer after layer of the tension and obsession that had been getting between them lately; like this, he almost forgot that they’d been having any issues. He leaned down and kissed the weak, panting smirk he’d been missing. Loki was—

“You’ve lost your rhythm,” Loki pointed out when their kissing slowed Bucky’s thrusts.

Okay, Loki was an obnoxious piece of shit. But he was Bucky’s obnoxious piece of shit.

“James,” Loki whined when Bucky slowed down even more, just to mess with him.

The almost-begging did a nice job of balancing out the bossiness.

“Well, since you ask so nicely.”

By the time they were done, Loki was little more than a loose-limbed and immobile puddle on the bed, and Bucky not much better. Loki looked so much like a spoiled, debauched prince that Bucky had half a mind to get the grapes out of the fridge.

“All that, and still you remain distracted,” Loki noted in the mocking yet concerned tone Bucky loved but hadn’t heard in awhile. “How did your meeting fare?”

Bucky hadn’t given himself time to bring Loki up to speed. He’d pounced on him immediately upon opening the door—slightly from guilt but mostly because he’d looked so perfect sitting there on the couch, eating babka with Natasha and Clint and wearing Bucky’s pajama scrubs (which were too short on him).

“I think we’ve got a plan. Pepper says it’s going to be okay. And if Pepper feels good about it…”

“She is not a woman to proclaim optimism lightly.” Loki curled one of his legs around Bucky’s. “But something remains on your mind.”

Loki was being so reassuring, so soothing. Bucky wanted to make it up to him—make up for something he didn’t even know had happened or was an issue. And it wasn’t an issue, not really; there was a huge difference between wanting something and wanting to do anything about it; and Bucky didn’t even want to want, much less act. Bucky was happy now, here; complications were the last thing he needed.

Still, he wanted to push it all away, make it all not matter. He couldn't tell Loki what was bothering him, but he wanted to tell him something, something that would show both of them how much he cared about him, how fully invested he was in this, no matter what else was going on with him. He didn't give himself a chance to think it through or to remind himself of the million reasons why he shouldn't. Before he could stop himself, words were spilling from his lips. “I’m a biologically enhanced, brainwashed, ex-KGB master assassin who has spent most of the past seventy years in cryogenic freezing.”

“I know,” Loki replied.

That wasn’t reassuring or soothing at all.

Bucky disentangled their limbs and jumped out of the bed. “What do you mean you know? You can’t possibly know. That’s not a thing you can just figure out!”

Loki looked up at him, surprised. “It isn’t? Why not?”

“Because it’s the randomest shit I’ve ever heard. And given that I’m talking about my own life here, that’s saying something. How did you know? Tell me right now how you knew.”

Bucky shrank backwards into a corner of the room, like a caged animal looking for an exit. Actually, that was exactly what he was doing. He knew precisely how far he would have to jump to make the window, how hard he’d have to hit it to break the glass, at what angle he’d have to fall to catch the lamppost and swing himself into Natasha’s room to get clothes and weapons.

Was Loki a spy? Was there someone he and Natasha had missed? Had Loki been sent to bring Bucky in? Had he finally shared his biggest secret only to have it turn out to be a trap?

Loki must have smelled the fear on him, because he very slowly crept to the edge of the bed, slowly enough not to trigger Bucky’s fight or flight (mostly fight) reflexes. As if reading Bucky’s mind, he said, “I have not been sent by anyone. I am not here to hurt you.”

Bucky took a couple of shallow breaths and let himself be convinced. If Loki had been a spy, he told himself, his façade would have been a lot less eccentric. They wouldn’t have been having any issues. “I still want you to tell me. How could you possibly have guessed that?”

“Of course, there was no way for me to know so specifically,” Loki said carefully. “But I could tell there was something very strange about you. I know you heal at a faster rate than ordinary humans. I have seen you fight. And you talk in your sleep.”

“Oh.” Bucky supposed that was all true. He let himself be guided back into bed, but kept one eye on the drawer in which he kept a handgun.

“What happened, exactly?” Loki asked.

“It’s a long story.”

“I have nowhere to be tonight.”

Spurred by Loki’s encouraging nods and clarifying questions, Bucky let himself talk for much longer than he ever had about any topic. He talked about his very first memory, which was falling and landing in a freezing river. There had been nothing but infinitely high cliffs above him—no indication of what he might have fallen from. He’d floated too far and for too long to ever figure out the exact spot, even though he had gone back later to investigate. He talked about next waking up in the laboratory with Zola’s monstrous little face hovered over him. He talked about the training and tests. He talked about waking up another time with the ability to speak fifteen different languages and fight in fifteen different styles, but with no memory of having learned any of it. He talked about the missions he’d been sent out on—all the little girls and innocent bystanders he had ruthlessly murdered solely because they had happened to be in his way. He talked about how Natasha had finally broken into the facility, killed the guards, unplugged the freezing tank, and then burned the place to the ground in order to get him out.

“I know what it means that you have shared this with me,” Loki said at the end.

His surprisingly blasé reaction should have set off a series of screeching alarms, but Bucky had spent too long dreading the worst from a moment like this to hear them. He’d constructed his life to avoid letting people in so close that he'd have to watch them back away in horror. To finally get here and have that not happen was too beautiful of a dream to give up, not even for logic.

“I can trust you to keep this to yourself, right?”

“Of course,” Loki said.

“Natasha’s the only other person who knows. Everyone else is dead. As far as the world is concerned, I’m just a ghost story.”

“But surely you were not like this at the time,” Loki said. “A weapon of such calculated destruction could not have functioned with a personality as amiable as yours.”

“I didn’t have a personality at all. I just… I was just a finger on a trigger. But once I got away and stopped being reprogrammed on the regular, I started realizing I liked some things, and didn’t like others. I laughed at certain types of jokes but not others. Muscle memories came back, things I was good at but which the Red Room couldn’t possibly have bothered to teach me. It took awhile, but I stopped being a robot and started being… this. I like to think it’s what I was like before, but I don’t really know.”

“How did you come to be James Barnes?” Loki asked. “Was it simply a name on a passport you bought?”

“No, I picked it. Natalia and I found my original file, the one they made when they found me.” Bucky flinched to hear himself refer to her by a name he hadn’t used in years. It frightened him to discover that simply talking about it could have such an effect on him. “There wasn’t much in it. It said they’d questioned me for days, but I was blank, entirely blank. The perfect subject for reprogramming. There was nothing to identify me except for this.”

Bucky reached for his house keys, which were sitting on the filing cabinet near the bed. He pointed at the dog tag that served as his keychain ornament.

Loki took it and turned it over along his fingers. “All this time, I thought you had this embarrassing tchotchke made for ‘fashion’. At one of those tawdry shops along St. Mark’s Place.”

Bucky chuckled at Loki’s relieved tone. “So, it doesn’t matter how many people I’ve killed, as long as I’m not tacky. Do I have that straight?”

Loki was still mesmerized by the piece of metal. He pointed at the line underneath where it said ‘James Buchanan Barnes’ and ‘Brooklyn, NY’. “What does the ‘C’ mean?”

“Catholic.”

“You assumed the name and moved to the city, but I have never once heard of you attending mass.”

“I did at first. But after awhile, I realized that doing things because a piece of metal told me to wasn’t that different from what I had run away from. I wasn’t feeling it, so I stopped. I like to think I was probably a pretty shitty Catholic before, too. Plus, it turned out it might all mean nothing, anyway.”

“How so?”

“When we got back to the States, I looked myself up. Or, I looked up the information on this tag. There was a James Buchanan Barnes born in 1921 to some Irish Catholics in Brooklyn. So, that all makes sense. But there’s no record of him having ever having joined the army. There’s no record of this serial number being issued. For all I know, the whole dog tag’s a fake. Maybe I was a conman. Or a spy trying to infiltrate the Allied forces. That’s why I jumped on the nickname as soon as Steve gave me the idea. If James Buchanan Barnes isn’t who I am, I’d rather pick my own name and start over.”

“But what happened to the boy from 1921? Surely, he was real.”

“The birth certificate was the only thing I ever found out about him. There's no record of him after that, not even a death certificate. It almost doesn’t matter. Even if I am him, I don’t remember him, and there’s no one left alive who does. That guy died a long, long time ago.”

“You lost something when you fell,” Loki mused, kind of getting off-topic in the way he sometimes did. “Something vital, elemental and defining. So did I. In this we are the same—simply existing as pieces of ourselves.”

Loki looked at him so pityingly, so earnestly, that Bucky felt a kneejerk reaction to tamp down the melodrama. “I’m doing all right. So are you. It’s not as bad as all that.” With a teasing poke to Loki’s too-skinny ribs, he changed the subject. “So, I’ve told you mine. Now you have to tell me yours. Something about some secret you didn’t enjoy finding out, something about your brother, some situation that let you grow up into the snob you are today. Some reason why you know everything and nothing at the same time. I know that fall was more of a suicide attempt than an accident or an assault. And I know there was someone who was always watching you, in a way that sounds creepy as fuck, but I can’t figure out why.”

It wasn’t easy to surprise Loki, but Bucky had managed it. “How did you—”

“I’m an investigative reporter. I’ve been trying to put the clues together for months, but nothing makes sense.”

“It wouldn’t. And I doubt you would believe me if I told you.”

“Try me.”

“If you will trust me a little bit longer, I will do better than that. I will show you,” Loki promised. “The project I’ve been working on, the one that’s given you so much consternation… It is not only for me, but for you, too. It will restore us both.”

“What, you think you can fix my memories? Or fix the headaches?”

“Both. And so much more.”

“There’s not really anything else.”

“You only think that because you have no way of knowing how limitless the possibilities are.”

On the one hand, it was slightly reassuring that Loki’s recent disturbing behavior was rooted in something with a tangible result and end date. But on the other hand, this all sounded insane. The fevered gaze and over-excited trembling in his fingers as he talked about it (or around it, really) didn’t help matters. Whatever Loki was up to, it was doing him no good—bringing back the hair-trigger sensitivity and haughty arrogance that had been much more in evidence when they’d first met.

Bucky reproached himself for having been so slow to see how bad things had gotten. He hoped it wasn’t too late.

“I don’t want limitless possibilities,” he said. “I like my life just fine. I’ve worked pretty hard to get it.”

“Don’t you want to remember who you are?”

“Sometimes, I wonder if it’s for the best that I don’t remember. What if I knew exactly who I was disappointing? How much I’d lost? Had their faces to picture? At least this way, all I know is that I’m a better person than I was before.”

“But don’t you want to be whole again?” Loki insisted. “Don’t you want me to be whole again?”

“When were you more ‘whole’?”

“Before I came here. Before I created this life for myself.”

“It’s pretty clear that your old life made you feel like shit. How could you rather have that than this?”

“A combination would be the ideal state. Some of the advantages I had before, but with you by my side. I want you to come with me.”

“Come where?”

“I am looking for valuable artifact. That is what my work recently has been about. I am looking for something that was stolen from my family during a great war.”

“What, like in WWII?” Bucky asked.

Loki hesitated, but what came out didn’t sound like a lie. “It was lost during WWII, yes. I alone in this world have the right to possess it. My intention is to recover it and then start anew.”

This was not only worrying, but also completely new news. “You want to leave New York? The other day when you said you wanted us to get away, I thought you meant going to the beach for a couple of weeks.”

Bucky hadn’t been interested in a vacation, not so soon after almost a month of unemployment. But given everything going on with Everhart and Cap and Steve and the headaches, he’d spent the entire subway ride back from Tony’s place strongly considering a little break. He needed to get the hell out of here, and if it helped Loki get through this weird spell, then all the better. He could even maybe do a Bruce-style scientific test: if he absented himself from Steve for a couple of weeks, would the headaches go away? Was it really just stress and repression?

“No, this is more than a vacation,” Loki said.

“Where’s this object now?” Bucky asked, stalling while he tried to figure out how big of a break he was ready to take.

“I don’t know yet. When I have located it, I may need your help in retrieving it. I have no idea who has it now, but given its value, it may be heavily guarded.”

This was getting crazier and crazier. “You want me to help you steal something.”

“Repossess.”

“My editor keeps telling me those words mean the same thing.”

Chapter Text

“I still don’t understand where you learned so much about theoretical physics,” Jane said after a big slurp of her gimlet. “I thought you did finance.”

“I have little interest in physics in general,” Loki replied, “but the workings of your Einstein-Rosen bridge are something of a hobby of mine. I take it my notes were helpful.”

Jane had just had an article accepted into her field’s foremost peer-reviewed scientific journal. Loki had long found the mortals’ attempts to explain magical phenomena in the language of science entertaining. Jane had no way of knowing that what she was trying to describe already existed. Loki was, quite frankly, almost impressed with how far she had gotten on her own. It had taken only a couple of dropped hints about new ways of looking at the data to break the yearlong rut in her research.

“Next time,” she said, “I’m going to hit you up way sooner when I’m stuck. We can brainstorm together.”

“Unfortunately, I may not be available. Going forward, my business will most likely leave me very little time in New York.”

“What? Nooo,” she moaned, stumbling forward a little. “You can’t leave.”

Loki quietly took the drink out of her hands and put it on the table before it spilled. Even beyond her slight intoxication, he was surprised to see how genuinely distraught she was.

This was the first party he had ever thrown in this apartment. It was going so well that he almost regretted it would be the last. While most of the guests were James’s friends—now Loki’s, too—there were a few hard-won acquaintances of his own in attendance. There were multiple reasons and people to celebrate: in the past week, Jane’s article, Pepper’s promotion to CEO of Stark Industries, and Clint’s birthday.

These milestones had all been noted on the invitations that Loki’s assistant had handcrafted; now that he was no longer actively managing his wealth, she had a lot of time on her hands. However, the main reason for the party was the only one the invitations had not specified: this was a farewell.

Four days ago, Loki had finished the last of his calculations to locate the Tesseract. There were no towns he could find on the map in that region of Arizona but some well-placed phone calls had informed him of a large NASA facility located in the vicinity.

Once he’d discovered his destination, Loki had gone through dodgy channels and paid exorbitant sums to get his hands on a copy of the blueprints. He and James had worked out a route into the large central chamber where Loki was certain they’d find it.

“You said you were after a long-lost family heirloom,” James had said while they planned. “I was thinking it was, like, jewels, or a Rembrandt or something. What kind of family heirloom winds up in a NASA research facility?”

“One that comes not from this earth.”

“Like a meteorite? You’re after a meteorite?”

“Something like that. Its appearance is that of an enormous sapphire, but it is no mere gem. I can’t imagine NASA knows what to do with it.”

“Well, what do you do with it?”

“Many things. As I have said, it’s impossible to explain in the abstract, but I intend to show you.”

“And you’re sure it’s rightfully yours?” James had asked again, after a few more thwarted attempts to cajole more specific answers.

“Positive.”

After some deliberation and assiduous coaxing, James had requested a leave of absence from his job. Loki was slightly annoyed that he had only put in for a month-long vacation instead of resigning entirely. However, he rationalized that he himself had withheld the full scope of the journey. Loki could never have fallen for someone whose blind faith outstripped his or her reason. No one possessing any kind of sense could be expected to prepare properly for something they knew nothing about.

Loki had stood by while James packed a bag, but had kept silent about the fact that they would most likely not be able to take it with them. The facility was sure to be heavily guarded. While he felt confident enough in James’s combat skills to get them through, Loki doubted even the Winter Soldier could—or would want to—single-handedly infiltrate enemy territory whilst dragging around a Samsonite duffel.

This party was to be their swan song. The next morning, they would be off.

Darcy wobbled into the penthouse wearing high heels and a tight, black cocktail dress. The sight of her in something other than dark pants, multiple dark sweaters and hideous hats was so startling that Loki and Jane’s conversation stuttered to a halt.

“Hey,” Darcy said with a casual nod. She handed Loki a bottle of recognizably cheap champagne.

“No, thank you.”

She put it back in her purse with a pleased pout. “That was kind of the plan. I can take it home and drink your expensive stuff now. You know, the invitation was kind of formal for one of our usual booze-fests. I didn’t know what to wear.”

“This suits you well enough,” Loki said archly. She really did look lovely, but he had little intention of telling her so.

“We’ve got to work on your complimenting skills.”

“And you need to work on your fishing skills. You would do well to make the hook a little less detectible.”

“Did you know he’s moving away?” Jane asked her. “He just told me this.”

Darcy’s response was a repetition of Jane’s a minute before. “What? No. I reject that.”

“Excuse me.” Loki moved away before they launched into questions he didn’t want to answer or entreaties that might weaken his resolve.

He withdrew upstairs to make some final phone calls. When he came out of his bedroom again and looked down from the landing, he saw James on the far side of the room. He was speaking to Steve, Steve’s date, and a man Loki had never seen before.

The interactions between the three men could not have been stranger. James, loose-limbed and fuelled by a nervous energy Loki had never seen, introduced Steve to this new addition. He then proceeded to practically drape himself over Steve, as though for the man’s benefit. While always affectionate with his friend, James had almost never been this physical. As far as Loki knew, James still remained ignorant of Steve’s hopeless attraction; and even if he had recently discovered it, James would never taunt the poor man so. Yet he spent the entire conversation hugging Steve or moving closer and farther and around him. Loki couldn’t even feel jealous, because there was something almost clinical about all the touching, experimental. And anyway, it was only Steve, who had never been a threat. By the time Loki decided to stop watching and come downstairs again, Steve’s obvious discomfort had finally driven him to excuse himself.

As Loki took his drink and plate of bacon-wrapped scallops to the couch, he kept track of James now leading the stranger to Tony.

“Is this spot free?” a voice beside him asked.

Loki looked beside him to see Steve deftly balancing a glass of punch and a heaping plate of food.

“Be my guest. Where is your date?”

“Getting grilled by Pepper. I’m hoping she doesn’t go too hard on Robin. Doubt it, though.”

“She’s very pretty,” Loki offered charitably. “Although Clint described her as ‘disturbingly Canadian’. A description I don’t quite understand.”

“Of course she’s pretty. She’s Hill’s sister. They look exactly alike. I’m just glad they’re not the kind of girls who dress alike. Otherwise I’d probably say something embarrassing to the wrong one.”

“Unlike you, that is exactly the kind of scenario I would court. So many possibilities.”

“Guess I like things a little simpler than you do,” Steve replied.

Loki had—in a slow, almost imperceptible way that had taken him completely unawares—become rather fond of Steve Rogers, just as he had become fond of all the rest of the group. And, after months of tension, even Steve, while sometimes almost visibly simmering with a variety of emotions, had slowly started to warm to Loki.

He had been happy to see Steve bring Hill’s television reporter sister tonight, to see that he was attempting to move on. Although he had no interest in such hypotheticals, Loki could see how, in some other world without his superior presence, Steve and James might have fit rather well together, in a wholesome, humdrum kind of way. He might even have approved. But Loki was doing them both a favor. Not only was he preventing James from going down such a mundane path, but he also recognized that two such hopeless martyrdom complexes would almost surely result in the most maudlin of self-sacrificial tragedies. Steve should have thanked him; by keeping them apart, Loki was keeping his friend alive.

“Where is Coulson?” Loki asked next. “He was invited.”

“He’s on vacation. He went to the Caribbean with his girlfriend.”

“Coulson has a girlfriend?”

“Yeah, it was news to all of us, too. She’s a cellist, it turns out.”

“And who is that?” Loki asked, jutting his chin in the direction of James and the stranger. He watched as Jane excitedly jogged towards them, smiling broadly at the stranger, who smiled shyly back.

“That’s Bruce,” Steve replied. “He helped me and Bucky out of a tight spot once.”

“Ah. The scientist he has been working with. He isn’t what I expected. There is something dark lurking about his eyes, don’t you think?”

“Bucky told me he’s lonely.”

As though spectating at a pantomime, Loki and Steve ate their hors d’oeurves in silence, watching Tony’s increasingly excited gesticulations and Bruce’s diffident engagement. Although they could hear no words, they could see an easy friendship being born. Within minutes, Tony had whipped out a StarkPad and was leading Bruce over to a cluster of chairs in a quiet corner, no doubt to discuss shared research interests. Bruce seemed overwhelmed by the sudden attack of attention.

“If James’s plan was to decrease his loneliness,” Loki commented, “I think we can safely say it is on its way to working.”

“It’ll be good for Tony, too. He’s been drinking way too much. He and Pepper are headed to Monaco tomorrow morning. She’s hoping the trip will shake him out of it, but we’re worried.”

“So she was telling me. However, as I see it, the man has recently survived an assassination attempt, a prolonged captivity, amateur heart surgery, the betrayal of his surrogate father figure, and his own emergence as a superhero to rival Captain America. He can be excused for acting out. Not to mention the fact that—and this is the part I did not tell her—he has recently realized the depth of his feelings for Miss Potts, and has no idea what to do with them.”

“How’d you guess that?”

“Not much escapes my notice.”

Steve snorted softly to himself.

“What?” Loki asked, his voice rising of its own accord.

“Nothing.” Steve changed the subject. “I’ve always wanted to see the Grand Canyon. Remind Bucky to send me lots of pictures.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“The Grand Canyon. Isn’t that where you’re going? Bucky said you’re headed out to Arizona tomorrow.”

Loki had given strict instructions to tell no one of their plans. A flare of panic coursed through him to hear that Steve was privy to at least some portion. “He told you this?”

“What, was it supposed to be a secret?”

“No, of course not,” Loki denied with as bland a face as possible.

“Has anyone ever told you you’re a little too smooth of a liar?”

“Never.” Loki was not accustomed to anyone seeing right through him, especially not someone as ordinary as Steve.

“What’s this really about?” Steve pressed, now suspicious.

“I have some ideas about how to cure his illness. That is part of what I hope to accomplish on this trip.”

“So you think it’s stress, too. He told me that’s what Bruce thinks. Personally, I’m not sure. I know this sounds crazy, but I’m starting to think it’s me. I’ve been thinking about it, and watching him, and it seems like it only happens when I’m around.”

“How could it possibly be about you?” Loki asked. Steve was not usually this self-involved.

“Well, none of it makes sense to begin with, so it didn’t seem like much of a stretch.”

“It makes perfect sense to me. When next you see James, whenever that may be, he will be cured in ways you did not even know needed mending.”

Steve frowned at him and looked as though he were about to ask a lot of sharply pointed questions that Loki had every intention of evading. However, Darcy—after what must have been most of a bottle of Dom Perignon—stumbled over and wedged herself between them. She snapped a picture of the three of them with her phone and then checked the results.

“I have the hottest friends,” she said, right before toppling over.

She would have gone down hard had Steve’s strong arms not quickly reached out to catch her, and had Loki not helped him rebalance her on her treacherous heels.

“You guys are the best. I’m going to miss you when you’re gone.”

“No one’s going anywhere,” Steve said. “At least not for long.”

“I'll take her to one of the guest rooms,” Loki interjected before she could mumble otherwise. “I think a nap would do her good.”

As he left Steve to carry Darcy upstairs, he thought to himself that he might, perhaps, but only in the part of himself that valued diversion, miss her—them—too.


With the loudest mouths either away or nursing hangovers the next morning, a relatively muted silence hung over the office floor. But when Steve slumped into his desk chair, facing Bucky’s empty one, it was unease, not dehydration, that troubled him.

Everything about Bucky’s and Loki’s behavior the night before had been off. That was not the way two guys going on a nice vacation spoke or acted. “When next you see your friend, whenever that may be,” Loki had said. Didn’t they know when they would be back? All that stuff about curing Bucky. If real doctors and scientists couldn’t figure it out, then how did Loki intend to do it?

Even more suspicious was the way Bucky had hugged Steve too tightly, and said goodbye with a little too much finality. Getting all handsy with him around Bruce even though he had to repress how physically nauseous doing so made him (and geez, wasn’t that the reaction every guy wanted to elicit?). Even Robin, with whom Steve had finally let Hill set him up after Bucky had so firmly shut him down, had found it off-putting. The party—their second date—hadn’t gone that well; she’d given up on him about halfway through, and spent the rest of the time talking to an Italian countess Loki had apparently met somewhere. Although he’d promised Pepper to try, Steve almost felt relieved.

He had always been a big believer in respecting everyone’s privacy (“Isn’t that attitude kind of counter-productive to your job?” Tony had once teased), but his gut squirmed with the certainty that something terrible was going on. If so, there was only one person who might be able to help him.

He walked down the hall to the always-calm yet impersonal oasis of Natasha’s office. She immediately opened her drawer, and then closed it again when she saw his expression.

“You’re not looking for painkillers, are you?” she said.

“No, I’m fine. Why?”

“I’ve had a revolving door of requests today. I just gave the last of my stash to Clint.”

“Doesn’t Darcy keep Advil in the supply cabinet?” Steve had never needed any, but could have sworn he’d seen boxes in there while getting pens.

“What I have is a lot stronger than what she’s allowed to give out.”

Steve had become accustomed enough to Natasha neither to be surprised by this nor to ask for further information he was unlikely to get. In some ways, he thought, this reaction—on everyone’s part, not just his—to their Russian friends’ inscrutability was emblematic of a much larger problem that he refused to continue to let slide.

“I wanted to talk to you about—”

“Steve, you need to let it go,” Natasha interrupted, shaking her head.

Steve took her immediate understanding as confirmation. “Letting go’s never been my strong suit. And you’ve just admitted there is a problem. What do you know?”

She got up and closed the door. “James is helping Loki with something. I don’t know what. He’s not entirely sure himself. I think we’re all aware that Loki’s always been a little… eccentric.”

“That’s putting it mildly.”

“Eccentric, with a propensity to dip a little further into unstable. He’s going through a rough patch right now. James is concerned and thinks if he indulges Loki in this one thing, he can snap him out of it before it gets worse.”

“Is that all? That’s the whole story?”

“Not entirely.”

Natasha remained a cipher, but Steve knew her well enough by now to read her tone. “It’s something dangerous. Or illegal.”

“It’s nothing James can’t handle.”

“What the hell is that supposed to mean?”

“It means you need to stop worrying,” Natasha said.

The thing was, Steve had some idea of what that meant. He hadn’t forgotten about the weapons hidden in corners of their apartment. He hadn’t forgotten about Bucky and Natasha’s coolly executed, drugged-up threesome with a known arms dealer, nor Bucky’s admission that he—or maybe he and Natasha—were in some kind of trouble. Steve wasn’t stupid. Bucky and Natasha simultaneously counted among the best but also among shiftiest people he’d ever met. Whatever was going on with them was probably linked to why Bucky was constantly trying to convince all versions of Steve that he wasn’t good enough for him.

Steve had gleaned all this, however fuzzily, since meeting them. But he’d always assumed the issue was limited to their little club of two. The idea that it now somehow extended to Loki but not him was not only hurtful, but also troubling. Steve had accepted Loki into the group just like everyone else, and had grown not to mind him, to even like him most days. But he didn’t fully trust him, especially not when it came to keeping Bucky out of trouble. If anything, Loki invited trouble. He happily rolled around in it. Steve wasn’t sure if, when put to the test, Loki would stay on the right side of the line between trouble and something much worse. He wasn’t sure Loki even knew where the line sat.

Natasha was playing this as close to the chest as she played everything, but her too-straight posture gave her away.

“You don’t like it either,” Steve realized.

“James trusts me when I tell him I have things under control, and he listens when I tell him to back off. I try to show him the same courtesy.”

“What if you’re wrong? What if you know he’s wrong? You just… let it go?”

“If I give you something to look into,” she said after a thoughtful pause, “and it turns out to be nothing, do you promise to drop it?”

“What kind of something?”

“Loki has a place out in Queens.”

“What about it?”

“Before he decided to get on board with this trip, James was concerned that whatever Loki was doing in Queens was the root of the problem. He complained that Loki spent too much time there, that something was off. But he didn’t want to abuse his trust, so he didn’t push. And for the same reasons, neither did I. But… you’re not part of the code, not officially. You can check it out. But if it’s nothing, you have to back off.”

“I promise. But,” Steve asked, even though he hated to acknowledge that this was what bothered him most. “Why didn’t he tell me?”

“Because you’re the only one who could have talked him out of it. And… and because you’re part of the reason he finally agreed to go.”

“Me? How?”

“I’m sorry, Steve. I have a meeting.”

For once, she wasn’t lying. Through the glass walls of her office, he saw Darcy leading someone intimidatingly fabulous down the hallway towards them. Natasha shouldered by Steve to reopen the door.

“Giacomo!” she said with the smile she reserved for people too ridiculous to be taken as seriously as they demanded. They kissed too many times on the cheek and then launched into gesticulatory Italian.

Steve went back to his desk and reached for Bucky’s Rolodex. He knew Bucky had a source over at HUD that he’d cultivated over the years, by buying him drinks and having Natasha get his name added to club VIP lists. Donny wasn’t supposed to divulge addresses of properties purchased by civilians, but “for Barnes’s buddy”, he made an exception.

With the address in his pocket, Steve packed up his laptop and hailed a taxi to Queens. The warehouse blended in with the desolate grid of almost identical buildings that surrounded it. Steve found a weakness in the (deceptively rudimentary) security set-up, and made his way inside.

It was as though he’d walked through a door to the past, because after only a few turns, he found himself in a room full of Hydra weapons. For all that he had accepted his new circumstances and century, he sometimes yearned for the familiarity of his old life. However, this was the last element of the 40s he would have chosen to follow him.

Steve walked through the room, touching the slightly rusty weapons he remembered, and reliving all the other times he’d touched them before—grabbing them and shooting them and burning them. He could tell they were originals, not new models. Wires ran from each piece to a computer terminal in the center of the room. Some of the wires had frayed from multiple failed trials at connection and had been pasted back together with duct tape. It looked as though a child—or someone as ignorant of computer systems as a child—had pieced this terminal together with one of those yellow ‘For Dummies’ manuals. Actually, there were a few of those thrown around the room, as though out of fits of temper. Steve noticed that the word ‘Dummies’ had been crossed out with Sharpies on all the covers. Sheets of notepaper with observations written in increasingly unintelligible scribble—definitely not English—lay on a table nearby.

Steve hunted around for the power switch, and watched as the impractical contraption whirred to life. It asked him for a password; he tried a few haphazard guesses before remembering Loki’s habit of lecturing people about the Golden Ratio (where some people drank too much and got weepy, Loki drank too much and started talking math and magic and madness). As soon as Steve entered the digits a search on his phone gave him, the weapons began to hum—a sweet, barely detectable noise—and glow with the unearthly blue that still sometimes kept him up at nights.

A map appeared on one of the screens. Slowly, the pulsating circle shrank and shrank until it was only a dot in the left side of the screen. Steve zoomed in until he couldn’t zoom any more. The bullseye centered around a spot in Arizona.

Whatever Loki was looking for (and Steve had a pretty good idea) was where they’d pretended to be going on ‘vacation’.

Steve had given up his whole life to destroy this stuff, only to have it end up in Loki’s hands. Loki’s and Bucky’s, if Bucky was in this—whatever this was—with him. The idea that the person Steve felt most connected to might have anything whatsoever to do with Hydra made him sick. He remembered what Natasha had said about Bucky not knowing the details of this venture. He had to hold onto that, or he’d lose his mind.

He ripped apart as much of the machine and wires as limited time and bare hands allowed. He’d come back and finish the job later, but right now, going after them took priority. He let himself out, secured the place again and ran to the closest 7 train stop, back to Grand Central.

“Can you book me a flight to Queen Creek, Arizona?” he asked JARVIS as soon as he entered his apartment. “First one out? No matter how much it costs.”

“There are no commercial flights to Pegasus Airport, sir. But your private jet is standing by. Shall I inform the pilot to ready the plane and collect you via helicopter?”

My private jet?”

“When transferring control of the Stark Industries portfolio to Ms. Potts, Mr. Stark also reallocated some of his other property and holdings to you. One of the spare jets and its crew are now at your permanent disposal. As is the beach house in Amagansett, three of Mr. Stark’s motorcycles, and this apartment. The deed to the Stark Industries warehouse in which the most recent R&D products are stored is also now in your name, the idea being that you can ‘borrow’ anything you need at any time. The paperwork was finalized yesterday. His preparations for Monaco and, dare I say, overall mood as of late, probably delayed him from informing you.”

Steve was speechless, for multiple reasons. First, he and Tony had not yet made up from their fight. Tony had flown back to California the day after the meeting about Christine Everhart without stopping to say goodbye. He hadn’t been sending any of the outrageous text messages that Steve had grown accustomed to receiving as pick-me-ups throughout the day. Pepper had been keeping him updated on Tony’s increasingly out of control behavior.

The second reason this came as a shock was that Tony, before he and Steve had started fighting, had always pushed Steve to play with his toys, romance women—or men, he didn’t care—in his houses, and generally live a luxurious, carefree life that didn’t fit Steve’s personality at all. There was no reason to formally give Steve these things when they had always been at his disposal anyway.

“But why?” he finally asked. “Why’s he giving me all this stuff? People only do that when they…” When they’re dying, Steve thought, but couldn’t bring himself to say out loud.

JARVIS was silent.

“JARVIS?”

“I’m afraid I cannot say, sir.”

“Does Pepper know?”

“No, sir.”

“Something’s wrong, isn’t it? And you think I can help?” It took everything Steve had not to throw his hands up in frustration. Loki had Hydra weapons, Bucky was mixed up in it, something was going on with Tony… With all the secrets and lies he was already drowning in, the last thing he needed was cryptic doublespeak from a computer. “Is that why you’re telling me… or whatever we’re doing here?”

“I’ll inform the crew that you’ll be ready for pick-up from the helipad on the roof in 15 minutes.”

Steve took the change of topic as confirmation.

“Tell them that Captain America needs the ride, not me. Tell them Tony and I approved the use of the plane.” The presence of the Hydra weapons had transformed this from personal paranoia into official Captain America business.

“Of course, sir.”

“I’ll get to the bottom of this Tony thing as soon as I get back.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about, sir.”

“Yeah, yeah, I didn’t hear it from you.”

Steve put on his uniform, got out his shield, and waited upstairs for the helicopter. Half an hour later, he was on the plane. Perhaps, Steve thought as he boarded, this was Tony’s way of apologizing without having to apologize. Generous to a fault despite a big mouth that was desperate to convince people otherwise, Tony had given Steve all the tools he needed to be Captain America, without having to rely on anyone else.

A small part of Steve’s goodwill evaporated when, a few minutes after take-off, disco lights appeared, the stewardess took off her top and a pole emerged from the floor. Of course Tony had given him the stripper plane. Steve had only heard about it, not actually flown in it; Pepper had always been around to spare him that.

“Please put your clothes back on, ma’am,” he said, staring out the window both to look away and also to hide his discomfort. “I’m just looking to get to my destination. Nothing more.”

She poured his drink with a disappointed pout.

He spent the flight drafting a story outline about a potential cover-up between New York’s governor and Senator Stern in DC. Duty may have called Captain America to action, but Steve still had deadlines to meet.

When they landed a few hours later, the stewardess offered to call him a car service, but Steve declined. Despite the fancy plane, he felt in his element in a way he hadn’t since that Afghanistan trip with Rhodey. This wasn’t so different from Howard dropping him off behind enemy lines for a mission. Like in the old days, he took off from the landing point at an impossible sprint.

He had memorized the map showing the way to the dot on Loki’s screen. He didn’t quite know what to expect, but within a few minutes of running in the dusk, he practically ran right into an enormous facility. It reminded him, in all the worst ways, of the original Hydra facility he had destroyed on his first mission. A sign identified it as the ‘NASA Joint Dark Energy Mission – Pegasus Project’. He didn’t know what that meant, but what little he knew of the Tesseract was enough to make ‘dark energy’ a reasonable sounding description.

In the back of his mind while he ran, Steve had tried to work out all the possible explanations for why Loki had Hydra weapons, what he wanted with the Tesseract and what Bucky’s role in all of this was. Seeing NASA’s involvement only complicated the questions. Was Loki involved in the NASA project? Was he a rival? Was he trying to stop someone worse from getting their hands on the cube? Why had he kept Bucky in the dark about what they were doing? Exactly how much did Bucky know? Was he in danger or in cahoots? Whatever was going on, for the first time, Steve desperately wanted Loki to be on the side of ‘good’ (however that could possibly be defined here), if only because it would mean Bucky was, too.

Steve crept unseen around the side of the facility until he saw a grate that had been expertly wrenched off its hinges. He shone his flashlight around it and saw a mess of fresh boot prints. He’d been debating whether to present himself at the front door or sneak in, and this decided it. He swung himself into the hole the other intruders had created, and began to explore a labyrinth of dark, metallic hallways.

Within a couple of minutes, he saw someone lying on the ground, not moving. Steve jogged up and turned the man over. He had a small tranquilizer dark sticking out of his neck.

Steve took off at a run now, hoping he could either find the perpetrator before someone else got hurt, or else call for help. As he ran, he passed another unconscious body, and another. They thickened in some directions, like dropped flies creating a path to the source of poison. He turned each one over, hoping someone would be conscious enough to answer questions, but each one had been shot neatly in a major artery with a dart.

Whoever he was chasing, Steve had to marvel at his—or rather, their, because no one person could have been responsible for all this—spectacular aim.

On his way, he passed by a room with an open door. The sight was so horrifyingly familiar that he stopped and turned back to get a better look. He stepped over the body of a woman in the doorway who, like everyone else, was wearing a black bodysuit and had been shot with a tranquilizer dart. Through the door was a vast storehouse of weapons Steve recognized too well. The designs had been updated but the insignia remained the same: Hydra weapons.

The familiar blue flicker of light shone softly throughout the room, emanating from the weapons themselves. Steve knew they only glowed like this when the cube was near. Although he’d already assumed it, he now knew that someone had found it, just like they’d found him. Someone had fished it out of the ocean and picked up where Red Skull had left off.

Just before he rounded the last corner, Steve heard shouting amidst what sounded like a gunfight.

“I told you to keep the mask on,” Bucky was saying.

“Why should I hide during my moment of triumph?”

Steve ran into the room and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Crouched behind an overturned metal table, Bucky—he was wearing a ski mask, but given that he was with Loki, Steve assumed that’s who it was—was holding his own against heavily armed men. Steve noticed that Bucky was shooting them, very precisely, in the side of the neck. All around the room, defenseless scientists in lab coats had already been knocked out. Bucky’s aim was phenomenal, but he wasn’t aiming to kill. He, all by himself, seemed to be responsible for the bodies along the corridors. Steve’s lover-not-a-fighter partner was some sort of deadly marksman criminal.

At the end of the vast chamber sat the cube, glowing just as creepily bright as it ever had.

“Bucky?” Steve asked, hardly able to process what was happening. “What are you doing?”

As soon as he saw Steve—Captain America—Loki turned on Bucky. “What is he doing here?”

“Don’t ask me,” he snapped back. “I didn’t tell him anything.”’

Bucky had just finished taking down the last gunman. There must have been at least fifty people collapsed in little heaps all around the room. He lowered his guns but refused to meet Steve’s eye. “You’re following me now? I told you last week it wasn’t going to happen.”

What wasn’t going to happen?” Loki asked with an almost feral sneer at Steve.

“Why do you have Hydra weapons stored in Queens?” he asked Loki.

“I don’t answer to you.”

“Bucky?” a new voice asked. “As in James Barnes, the newspaper reporter?”

A bald man with an eye patch staggered to his feet and pulled out the dart Bucky had shot him with. He picked up two guns from some downed agents around him and pointed them at Bucky and Loki.

“How do you know my name?” Bucky asked, his finger quivering on the trigger again.

“I don’t know where you came from,” the man said to Steve. “But you’re just in time to stop your buddy from stealing an object important for international security.”

Steve didn’t care. No one pulled a gun on Bucky, no matter what he was doing, and especially not people who may or may not have been in charge of producing new Hydra weapons. Instead of helping, he tossed his shield and knocked the two guns out of the man’s hands. The shield took out Bucky’s weapons, too, before returning to Steve’s hand.

“Before we get to what these two are doing, how about you tell me who you are and what NASA is doing rebuilding something I dedicated my life to destroying. We took Hydra down seventy years ago for a reason, yet you’re bringing back everything that made them dangerous.”

“This isn’t NASA and it isn’t Hydra. This is SHIELD. I’m Director Fury. As for your other question, that’s above your pay grade.”

“I don’t work for you. Pay grades don’t apply to me.”

“You do work for me. You just don’t know it.” Fury frowned and muttered to himself, “Coulson has let this situation get entirely out of hand.”

“Coulson?” Steve and Bucky gasped at the same time.

“Enough of this farce.” Loki pulled a knife from his belt and hurled it into Fury’s shoulder. Then he picked up one of Bucky’s dropped guns and pumped Fury full of tranquilizer darts.

“Stop! You’ll kill him,” Bucky protested after the third shot. He wrenched the gun from Loki’s hand. “I thought we agreed, no one gets hurt. What the hell are you doing?”

“I tired of his conversation.”

“Look around you, Bucky,” Steve said desperately. “This isn’t you.”

Bucky took off his mask. “I keep trying to tell you. This is me. This is what I’m best at.” He pointed at the cube, sitting snugly in its rigging. “That’s what we came for, right?” he asked Loki bitterly. “Let’s get it and go.”

As he moved to take hold of the cube, both Steve and Loki called out, “No!”

Steve had seen enough Hydra weapons and listened to enough of Red Skull’s rantings to know that people were not meant to touch it. Loki must have known the same thing, because he also reached to stop Bucky from grabbing it.

They were both too late.

Steve prepared himself to watch his best friend disintegrate in front of him.

But nothing happened.

Loki gaped. “I knew it!”

Oblivious to everyone’s shock, Bucky tossed the cube to Loki. Steve flinched, but again, nothing happened. Steve began to wonder if the thing had lost its power over the years. However, the fact that these people were using it to power Hydra weapons suggested otherwise.

“You said if I got us in, you would get us out,” Bucky said sadly to Loki, still not looking at Steve. “So, where’s the exit?”

“Bucky, you don’t have to do this,” Steve said. “You can still walk away. I can help you. We can—”

“I just broke into this SHIELD place and took out all their guards. You think they’re going to let me and Loki just walk out of here? Especially now that this guy knows who I am? I’ve made my bed.” Bucky took a step towards Loki and reached for his outstretched hand.

Loki beamed exultantly, looking paler and sicklier than Steve had ever seen him. No one should have taken Bucky’s fatalistic resignation as a victory, but that’s what seemed to be happening.

“If you see Steve,” Bucky began to say, “tell him—”

His message was swallowed in a blinding flash of light that muted all sound as it crashed and rippled out of the cube and through the chamber.

When the light subsided and Steve looked around, Bucky and Loki were gone.


Bucky didn’t so much tumble as thump—right into what felt like a tree. The impact and sudden searing pain across his face were strong enough to separate his hand from Loki’s and make him forget what he’d been in the middle of saying.

He took a step back to make sure he wasn’t mistaken. To check that it was, indeed, a tree.

Affirmative.

But it was the strangest tree he’d ever seen. The bark was almost purple, and the leaves sprouting from the trunk were red and covered in sharp little nettles. Smashing into them had opened up a number of long gashes across his nose. Blood was already starting to drip down to his lip.

Bucky ignored the pain and the blood; it would heal without a scar within a couple of days. His first question was how an exotic tree had sprung up in the middle of an underground research facility. But once his eyes adjusted to the light, the new question became how he had gotten outside.

When Loki had said he had an escape route all set, Bucky had assumed he knew of a secret exit that could only be accessed from inside the facility.

Something must have gone wrong.

Nearby, he saw Loki staggering to his feet. He still clutched the blue cube to his chest, but the light had dimmed.

Loki took one look at Bucky and practically fell against his side.

“You’re hurt.” He gently wiped Bucky’s face with his sleeve, and seemed baffled to discover that the blood came from the top of Bucky’s nose instead of from his nostrils. “Strange. I have heard of travel between the realms causing hemorrhaging, but I have never encountered a nosebleed that emanated from the outside.”

“It’s just a cut,” Bucky said, while wondering, What? “Are you all right? Did you see who took us?”

Bucky assumed they had been knocked out during the flash and abducted. He couldn’t think of another explanation for that bright light, and then waking up in a different location.

“No one took us.” Loki patted the blue cube. The Cheshire cat grin that was Bucky’s least favorite of all his expressions spread across his face. “It worked.”

“What worked?”

“The Tesseract brought us here. That is one of the properties I promised to show you.” Loki watched Bucky expectantly. “Does this place feel at all familiar? Smell like something you remember? Do the birdsongs stir your mind?”

“No, the birdsong’s not really speaking to me. Loki, what’s going on?”

“Come, let us walk. Perhaps you need a few minutes to reflect, and for your surroundings to become familiar.”

Giddy with inexplicable joy, Loki took Bucky by the hand and began leading him through the forest.

“Through here, if I remember correctly,” he kept muttering to himself. “It’s been centuries since I was last here. New trees have grown and obscured the path.”

“Uh, Loki?” Bucky didn’t even know which questions to begin with, so he let himself be led. Plus, it took all of his concentration to watch their path. There were thorny ferns and hideous spores and bizarre flora trying to trip him at every step.

Within a couple of minutes, they reached the tree line. Bucky found himself up shore from a beach of red sand and sparkling blue water. They stood at the center of a perfect half-moon bay. Towards one end, about a mile away, small thatched huts nestled among the rocks. In the distance, a castle’s spires disappeared into the cloudy sky.

They weren’t in Arizona anymore.

“Now that you have walked across some of the soil, and breathed more of the air, do you feel anything? A sense of belonging?”

“No. I don’t. Loki, where are we? Is this some kind of hallucination?”

“No, this is as real as me and you. We will find out for certain in a moment, but I wished to test my hypothesis beforehand. I think—I have long thought—that you are one of the Vanir.”

It almost pained Bucky to admit that he knew what Loki was talking about. He’d been a good sport and read that kid’s book of Norse myths Loki had annotated with bizarre but endearingly precise notes and corrections. Bucky had assumed Loki was simply trying to share one of his unexpected enthusiasms with him. He hadn’t realized his passion went quite this far—to confuse his sense of reality.

“Loki,” he said, as though speaking to a child. “Vanaheim is a fairy tale. It’s not a real place.”

“My… mother is one of the Vanir,” Loki said quietly. His tongue lingered on the ‘m’ in mother, as though he dared not say the word. He dropped his voice to less than a whisper when he querulously added, “It would be fitting if you were, too.”

The need in Loki’s voice was too plain and too rare for Bucky to give him a piece of his mind as he’d intended. He thought if he could get more information, no matter how insane, he could figure out how to bring Loki back to his senses and get out of here. Nothing so far had gone according to plan: the thing they’d been after had turned out to be this weird blue box; the place had been owned by NASA; they’d outed their identities; Cap had come to bust them, making Bucky see exactly what a mess he had made; and now he was in a place that Loki insisted was fairyland or something. It couldn’t be, but until Bucky gathered enough information to come up with a different explanation, he would have to go with it.

“Why do you think I’m from Vanaheim?” Bucky asked calmly, thinking that if he followed this rabbit hole, maybe he could find an answer on the other side.

“It would explain much. Your warrior’s prowess. The Vanir are renowned fighters. They have provided the deadliest mercenaries for time immemorial. It would explain your looks. As beautiful as an Asgardian, but with a slightly smaller frame. It would explain why you alone survived the procedures designed to create the Winter Soldier. The Vanir are infinitely hardier stock than the fragile mortals of Midgard. It would explain your longevity and youthful appearance even after such a long life. It would explain why you were able to touch the Tesseract just now. Only those with the blood of the gods have the ability to do so and live. It would even explain the fall. There are cracks, you see, between the realms. You must have stumbled into one such portal and fallen between the realms, into the snow-covered landscape where you were found. Depending on the length of your fall, the trauma may well have robbed you of your memories. It took all of my magic to retain my wits when I, too, plummeted through the abyss. I spent it all, extinguished all my power in exchange for the retention of my mind. By the time I found myself in that barren African desert, I was little better than a human myself.”

“…Oh.” Bucky bit hard into his bottom lip in an effort to stifle his reaction in addition to his response.

Meanwhile, a litany of holy shit, he’s lost his mind ran through his head.

Loki, blind to Bucky’s panic, took the monosyllabic answer as encouragement to continue. “Do you see now, James, why it was fated for us to meet? We fell, separately, but still found one another. We were lied to, for all the lives we could remember, about what we truly were. We neither of us are what we appear. And now, now that I have recovered the Tesseract, we can set right all the wrongs that have been done us. We will begin with your restoration before we move onto mine. And after that, we can discuss where and how to begin our quest for power. There is no realm in existence that will not fall into submission before us.”

It was clear that Loki thought he was doing Bucky a giant fucking favor by letting him go first at whatever it was he intended to do.

He took a dramatic step back and held the stupid light box high over his head, tilting it so that one of its edges pointed down at Bucky’s face.

“Remember who you are,” Loki commanded.

The cube’s light grew brighter. It emanated out of the box and make its way towards Bucky, who cringed away. But before it had gone more than a foot, the light began to flicker and fade until it died out entirely.

“Is something supposed to happen?” Bucky asked.

Loki brought it down to eye level to see what was wrong. “This usually works. Perhaps I had the angle wrong. Let me try again.”

“No, it’s really okay if you don’t.”

Loki ignored him and raised it again. “By the power of the Tesseract, I restore you to yourself. James Barnes, remember who you are.”

This time, the cube didn’t even bother to warm up. It simply zapped Loki on the thumb, as though irritated.

Loki sucked on his finger and stared at Bucky with wide, awe-struck, worshipful eyes. Kind of like the eyes he gave Bucky when they were having sex, but with more crazy.

“What are you? It is one thing to hold the Tesseract and live, but another entirely to repel its powers.”

“Maybe it’s broken,” Bucky said flatly. He didn’t give a shit. He just wanted to know what was going on, how it was happening, and make it stop.

Loki apparently expected the cube thing to restore Bucky’s memories. If it was going to do anything, Bucky wanted it to rewind the past two days and put him back in Brooklyn with the good sense to tell Loki no. No, he wouldn’t break into an underground facility and steal scientific artifacts with him. No, he wouldn’t go on the goddamn lam with him.

What the hell had he been thinking?

All he’d wanted was to help Loki through this bad patch, while simultaneously testing out his hypothesis about Steve causing the headaches, and also hopefully drive away his less hypothetical feelings about Steve in general... but mostly for Loki. He’d thought if he gave Loki his way in this one thing, he’d settle down again, realize he was projecting some other kind of unhappiness onto this project, and then get over it. Instead, Bucky had thrown his whole life away only to assist Loki in achieving full-on mental breakdown, and perhaps even something worse. He was trapped in a nightmare—or worse, a terrifying reality—with a man who had bought into it entirely.

A fresh set of light tricks distracted him from his despair. Loki was staring intently at the cube, as though trying to communicate with it (for all Bucky knew, that was exactly what he was trying to do, the loon). As he did so, a light began to envelop him.

Bucky would have said he was seeing things, but he’d been seeing nothing but ‘things’ for the past few minutes. However, if someone had asked him what he next expected to shimmer into existence, Loki’s Halloween costume wouldn’t have made the list. The macramé horns he remembered having spent an hour fastening to Loki’s custom-made bronze helmet grew of their own accord until they were three feet long and sweeping back behind his head. A green cape appeared across his shoulders and draped down, as though being unfolded and shaken out like a sheet. The canvas of Loki’s black Coq Sportifs hardened into leather and began creeping up his shins. Golden epaulets and leather bracings crisscrossed to cover his chest. Bucky was familiar with the outfit, but today, the components seemed better and brighter somehow—more like the real thing.

(The madness must have been catching, Bucky decided, once he caught himself thinking such a thing.)

Once the costume change was complete, the light dimmed. Loki continued to hold the cube in both hands, but stretched backwards, arching his back.

“See? It isn’t broken at all.” He cracked his neck to the right and left and sighed with a comfort Bucky didn’t share. “I had forgotten how this feels. The energy.”

“This is all a bad dream.”

Loki answered with a sharp pinch on Bucky’s forearm.

Okay, not a dream.

“I knew this would be a lot for you to absorb,” Loki said patiently. “I knew there was no way for you to believe unless you saw with your own eyes. You have known me for some time, but now I can present myself to you in my entirety. I am Loki, rightful king of Asgard and Jotunheim, perhaps soon, even, of Vanaheim, should we decide to conquer it. You may remember this ensemble from Halloween. I played a double trick that day, one of my favorites. Truth masquerading as a lie masquerading as the truth. Clever, was it not?”

“So, what you’re telling me is…” Bucky needed an extra-deep breath to get out the words he was about to say. “You’re Loki. Like, from the book. I’m in a place from that book. That book is real?”

“The mortals took artistic liberties when they recorded the tales, but the general outline is true enough.”

Bucky didn’t care about the tales, not when there was something bigger to confirm. “If this is all real, which I’m still on the fence about, by the way… Then, you’re… not human?”

“No. And neither are you. This is why—”

Loki’s impending monologue fizzled when he saw Bucky slump to the ground. Bucky’s legs were capable of running multiple marathons without tiring, but right now, he didn’t have the strength to stand.

“You seem less pleased than I would like.” Loki sat down and drew his cape around both of them, just as he had on Halloween. He hooked the toe of his boot around Bucky’s sneaker to draw their legs closer. “Is it because the Tesseract did not restore you as it did me? I will find a way. I will not rest until we succeed.”

“Why are you so sure it’ll work?” Bucky gestured at the Tesseract. He’d all but given up trying to fight. At first he’d thought maybe they were under the influence of some kind of drug. That maybe the cube was creating some kind of shared hallucination. But with each passing minute, and each fresh instance of weirdness, he was forced to accept this. To accept that he’d actually been transported to some other place. That he’d spent the past few months dating—if he understood this correctly—a Norse god.

“The Tesseract sat in pride of place in Odin’s vault throughout my youth. He told me many tales of its miracles. One such story was of the restoration of lost memories. It was lost during the great war between Asgard and Jotunheim that took place on the fjords of Midgard. And it remained lost for a thousand years until it was found by Hydra. Then that oaf of a Captain let the prize slip from his fingers. I know not how it made its way from the Arctic to the laboratory, but now it is in my hands, where it belongs. I thought, after I betrayed Asgard and attempted to destroy the Jotun race, that I had lost all. I was laid low, but then I found you and now this. Together we have the potential to make entire realms kneel, and to destroy them if they will not.”

“Destroy the Jotun?” Bucky asked hollowly, just trying to keep Loki talking so he would have time to think. “That wasn’t in the book.”

“That happened too recently. What you read was simply a primer, a presentation of some basic concepts I wanted you to learn before we set out together.”

Loki launched into a long story about his idiotic brother and some kind of unjust decision to give him the throne (Bucky didn’t see the injustice; second sons never got the throne, didn’t everyone know that?). Something about the Casket of Ancient Winters (which had made Bucky laugh every time it had come up in the book; he wasn’t laughing now, though). Something about Loki scheming to get Thor banished to Niflheim and…

By the time Loki got on the subject of how he was going to find a realm to make his own, to show his family, to show everyone, to prove something… Bucky had lost the thread. He was still stuck on the Jotunheim thing because it sounded like what Loki was talking about was genocide. Not theft. Not petty crime. Not even murder. Genocide.

Bucky let him keep talking, hoping that later developments in the story would prove he had simply misunderstood.

But then Loki got onto the subject of his time on Earth and his hunt for the Tesseract, and the name ‘Osiander’ came up.

“Osiander?” Bucky asked, startled out of his daze. “What about him?”

“One of the Moldovan arms dealers you sent me to speak with during your infiltration of their night club gave me his contact information. He was supposed to arrange a sale for me, but failed utterly in the endeavor. I was forced to kill him.”

You killed him? Wait, were you the other client he was supposed to meet?” Bucky thought back to his telephone conversations with Loki during the stakeout and felt ill. What he had thought were innocent catch-ups with his boyfriend had in fact been idiotic unprofessional information leaks.

Natasha was going to be so disappointed in him.

That’s when it hit him: what if he never saw Natasha again for her to yell at him? He had been taken—effectively kidnapped—to a place whose distance from home he wasn’t sure could be measured in miles. Kidnapped by a megalomaniacal fictional character who had used their relationship to commit crimes.

“You played me. You were using me for information.”

“The matter was quite coincidental, I assure you. But why should you complain? He would have exposed Natasha, and through her, you as well. You told me this yourself. I snuffed two threats with one vial of poison.”

“But you didn’t know about us at the time. That can’t be why you killed him.”

“He failed to uphold his end of our business arrangement. He failed to put me in touch with Stane.”

“Stane? What did Stane have to do with anything?”

“It was he who sold me the Hydra weapons that I used to locate the Tesseract. Once Tony Stark was dead, or presumed dead, he was able to deliver them to me for the trade of your precious newspaper company. Our meeting coincided with the day Stane’s assassins had successfully—or seemingly successfully—taken Stark out of the picture.”

“You knew? You knew all along that Stane was the one trying to have Tony killed?”

“I had no hand in it. The news was as surprising to me as it was to you.”

“But you didn’t say anything. You knew Stane was behind Afghanistan and you didn’t say anything.”

“He returned with little permanent damage.”

“How can you say that? He’s part of our crew! You went to his birthday party the other day!”

“As far as I knew, he was dead. I mourned him, as did the rest of you. Compromising my goals would not have brought him back.”

Loki still didn’t get it, but Bucky was still riding all the ramifications. “You let Potts keep working for Stane, even though you knew what he was.”

“Stane’s business was with Stark. He meant her no harm.”

“You were behind or profiting from every big story I’ve covered since meeting you. What’s next? You’re going to tell me you were behind the assassination attempts on the Ruritanian Prime Minister?”

“Well…” Loki gave a graceful little shrug.

That was the moment when Bucky’s heart shattered into a million pieces.

“Who are you?”

“I told you. I am Loki of Asgard.” Loki seemed to, against all odds, be taking Bucky’s outrage as some sort of compliment.

“No, who the fuck are you? Because right now, I’m reevaluating every conversation we’ve ever had. I don’t know you at all.”

“I know my true heritage comes as a shock—”

“It’s not that,” Bucky protested. “Okay, well, maybe it’s partly that. But more, it’s what you’ve been doing behind my back.”

“On Asgard, they called me Liesmith. But I have never lied to you, never directly. And I never presented myself as an innocent.”

“Yeah, I knew you were sketchy, but I thought it was that you were doing insider trading or running Ponzi schemes or something. Not poisoning people in their hotel rooms. Or hiring assassins. Or shrugging off the murder of one of our friends. Not fucking genocide.”

“It’s a lot to digest. I understand. You need time. All you need do is come with me, and all will be well. With our combined skills, no one can stand in our way. Together we can rule as gods, never be pawns again.”

Bucky was horrified, but letting go of one of the few people he had ever let himself love about didn’t come easily. He still thought he could save Loki, make it okay somehow. Loki usually came around when Bucky said something was important to him; maybe he could still get through to him. “I don’t want to be a mercenary. Not again. Not even for you. I don’t want to be powerful. I don’t want to take over worlds. I don’t want any of it.”

“But you were made for this!”

“You mean someone else made me for this.”

“You could not have been made into it unless it was what you already were. You simply don’t remember yet.”

It hadn’t been on of the list of things he’d just said he didn’t want, but most of all, Bucky didn’t want to be from Vanaheim. He knew he was a freakshow, but not even being human? That was taking it to a whole other level. Everything about Bucky squirmed at the thought.

“Come back with me,” he said. “Maybe Cap was right. Maybe we can find a way to explain all this away and go back to the way things were.”

Loki snarled. “Why would I do such a thing?”

“Because you were happy.”

“Happy? In that stupid little realm, leading that stupid little life, with those stupid little mortals?”

Bucky gritted his teeth. “Yeah, in that stupid realm with your—crazy, rich and amazing, by the way—life. You were happy. I saw it. I was there. Your nightmares got better. Your stories about your brother got less bitter. You even let yourself laugh at a rerun of Frasier.”

Bucky could see he’d made an impression, if only for a second, because Loki’s eyes softened, before hardening again. “Why would I want that… Why would you want to continue debasing yourself so, when we could have so much more? Live forever, unchallenged?”

“I don’t want to live forever.”

Loki looked as though he’d been slapped. “But you agreed. You cannot go back on your word.”

“Agreed to what?”

“To allowing me to grant you immortality. If you turned out to be a mortal and not of Vanaheim after all, my intention was to pay a stealthy visit to Asgard and retrieve for you one of Idun’s apples.” Loki stamped his foot impatiently. “We discussed this.”

“No, we didn’t.” Everything else Loki had said was so crazy that Bucky assumed he had finally lost it completely, and was now just making shit up.

“I remember it distinctly. It was shortly before Christmas. You had just been shot in the street. I was tending your wound. I…”

Now Bucky remembered. “I thought you were just, I don’t know, making sure we were both feeling really serious about this. Us. I thought it was a fucking metaphor. So I said yes.”

“How could you possibly interpret the question that way, when the words spilling from my lips were indubitably about immortality?”

“Because until ten minutes ago, I didn’t know offering someone immortality was a thing that happened in real life. Maybe you should have given it more of a preface. Like, hey, how about telling me you’re actually… whatever the fuck you are.”

“Would you have said yes under such circumstances?”

“I don’t know. Maybe? Maybe not? Doesn’t matter now, does it? Because the last thing I want is to be stuck with you for eternity.”

The looked at one another, with both sets of fists clenched. It was over. Months together, over in a few psychedelic minutes.

“So this is how we end, is it?” Loki asked.

“I wanna go back. You can do what you want, but let me go home. Send me back to the facility.”

“The facility is most likely imploding as we speak. You would likely not escape with your life.”

“What are you talking about?”

“When it opens a portal, the Tesseract creates a ripple in space that often debilitates the foundations of structures nearby. As soon as we left, it should have begun to crumble. Given that the most of the facility was below ground, it cannot stand.”

“There are hundreds of people in there!”

Loki shrugged. “Every war has its casualties.”

Bucky was paralyzed by the image of bodies piled throughout the hallways and the main chamber. People he had unknowingly condemned to die. In just a few minutes, Bucky had killed almost as many people as he’d killed as the Winter Soldier. Only this time, there was no one to blame but himself.

“I want to go home. I want you to send me home.”

“You mean send you back to Captain America,” Loki said, suddenly ice cold and terrifying. “I see how it is. In the end, you choose him over me.”

“No, I choose trying to save people I didn’t know I was leaving to die over conquering kingdoms I didn’t know existed before today. But if you want to see it as me picking him over you, then sure. Go ahead. I choose him over you, you psychopathic monster.”

The only advantage Winter Soldier had had over Bucky was that he’d been a lot less of a hothead. As soon as he’d said it, he knew he shouldn’t have. But it was out there now, and there was no going back.

“You have one minute to reconsider your words,” Loki said without a trace of the usual affection he reserved for Bucky.

“I call ‘em like I see ‘em.”

“This is fine hypocrisy. You have more blood on your hands than I. And yet I am the monster?”

“It wasn’t me,” he said automatically, channeling every pep talk Natasha had ever given and needing it to be true. It was the first time he’d ever agreed or repeated after her. “I was being controlled. I didn’t have a choice.”

“You’ve killed at least 35 people since we’ve been together. Has someone been controlling you recently?”

“I was protecting you! And Steve. It wasn’t—”

“I don’t care.”

The warm sea breeze grew cold around them. The humidity in the air solidified into tiny fragments of hail that swirled between them. Loki twisted his fingers and the fragments solidified into a cloudy-colored lance that floated, unsupported, in the air. He walked over to where it hovered and took it in hand.

“Has our time meant nothing to you?” Loki asked, pointing the lance directly at Bucky’s heart and paralyzing his movements. “Have you simply been toying with me? Or are you a spy sent by Odin to watch me, to grow close to me, and to ultimately humiliate and betray me? If so, it was well played. A monstrously successful trick. Truth be told, I had been wondering why no one had come to claim me and bring me to justice. Not even Odin’s famous diplomacy could have smoothed over the attempted destruction of an entire race. Surely Heimdall’s great eye should have found me and reported my location?”

Bucky’s last hope was that the person he’d spent all this time with was still in there somewhere, and would one day realize what he was doing. But it was clear by now that continuing to indulge him wouldn’t work. It was something Loki would have to figure out on his own.

Loki raised the lance, and with it, Bucky was lifted off his feet. Despite not actually being pierced, he was stuck, like a fish on a hook.

“What are you going to do? Kill me?” But even as he asked, Bucky didn’t think Loki would. He couldn’t think that, not even now.

“No. You value your life too little for death to be at all satisfying.” Like many of Loki’s lies, it was true, but Bucky could tell from the trembling hesitation in his arms that it wasn’t the real reason. “You will live, never fear. But one day you will learn to regret your existence. If you regret it half as much as I do, that will be punishment enough.”

Loki uttered a word that sounded like a curse, and then a pulse burst from the lance. A cloudy film coated Bucky like a wet summer shower, and then disappeared, dried up.

“What did you just do to me?”

Instead of answering, Loki kept the lance pressed against Bucky’s chest and used his other hand to point the cube at a spot nearby. It lit up again, and a shimmering blue circle appeared in the air beside them.

“It was foolish of me to think this would end any other way.” By the time Loki pushed Bucky through the portal, all the anger in his voice had been replaced by dejection.

Loki had schooled his face throughout their entire conversation, but perhaps he didn’t know exactly how long someone could see the realm they had just left, because he let the mask drop just a split second too soon. The last thing Bucky saw through the portal was a flash of complete devastation renting Loki’s features.

And then he was back in the facility, right where he’d been standing when he left. If not for his still bleeding face and Loki’s absence, Bucky would have written it all off as a bad dream.

As Loki had predicted, the facility was falling down around him. Nearby, a piece of equipment burst into flames. Screeching alarms and emergency light flashes deafened and blinded him. He welcomed the sensual assault—anything that distracted him from having to think about or react to what he’d just been through. He needed to throw himself into immediate action to keep from cracking up.

The victims, he remembered. He needed to get them to safety. Bucky looked around for the people he had incapacitated, but noticed that most of them were gone.

He ran for one of the few scientists still sprawled on the ground, and went to pick up another man with his other hand. If he could get even two people out of here before the place caved in, it would be something.

Captain America ran into the room, but stopped when he saw Bucky.

“You came back,” he said, and, despite everything, a smile spread across the lower half of his face—the only visible part. “Where’s Loki?”

“Gone.” Bucky laughed, a little hysterically. He had no desire to or idea of how to explain what had happened.

“Yeah. I… A long time ago, I saw… something happen.”

Bucky looked helplessly around them. “This is all my fault.”

Cap frowned. Bucky knew he was trying to think of something comforting to say that wouldn’t be a lie. If Bucky let him continue to think, they’d be here all day.

So, he quickly continued, “Let’s get the rest of these guys out of here.”

Together, they took two trips to the facility’s entrance and back, scouring every hallway and room Bucky had plowed through on his way in with Loki.

He was glad they were working too hard and carrying too much weight to talk, because the number of victims was embarrassingly high. With each pass through the facility, Bucky noticed the place falling apart more and more. The mini earthquakes struck with increasing frequency and strength.

“I think that was everyone,” Cap said when they’d deposited yet another four unconscious bodies outside in a truck and told a driver—someone Cap had telephoned for from a nearby town—to drive them as far away as possible.

“I’m going in for one last sweep,” Bucky said. “You head off with the truck and call for help.”

“I’m not letting you go in there alone.”

“And I’m not letting you getting stuck in there when it all collapses. Captain America shouldn’t pay the price for my stupidity.”

“Maybe if we stop arguing about it, we’ll have a better chance of making it out. Together.” Cap took off at a run, leaving Bucky no choice but to follow him, as fast as he could.

Which, he realized too late, was suspiciously fast.

With nothing to carry and nothing else to distract him, Cap couldn’t help but notice.

“How are you—?”

“Let’s split up,” Bucky interrupted. “We’ll cover more ground that way.”

“I’ll take this hallway, you scout the next one. Meet you back in the main chamber. Mind the electrical fire in quadrant 2.”

“I think there are electrical fires in all the quadrants by now. I give this place ten minutes, tops, before complete meltdown.”

“Good thing we’re both fast, then.” Cap shot Bucky a last questioning glance before he disappeared around a corner.

As he checked for lingering victims, Bucky discovered that he’d underestimated the number of fires that had sprouted. There were now at least five in each quadrant, and they were licking so quickly across the floor that they threatened to combine into one giant fireball.

The balcony above one side of the central underground chamber marked the end of his half of the facility. He spotted Cap on the other side’s balcony.

“No one left over here!” he yelled across the empty space between them.

“Nobody on mine, either!” Cap shouted back. “Let’s get out of here.”

Between them, below them, the equipment that had held the Tesseract and monitored its readings exploded. The entire gulf between Bucky and Cap turned into a fiery pit, and the narrow walkway connecting the two sides collapsed into it.

The exit lay via Cap’s side of the balcony. Bucky was trapped.

“Just go!” Bucky said with a wave. “If you don’t go now, you won’t make it out.”

But Cap was a stubborn sonofabitch who, instead of getting the hell out of dodge, started casting about for a solution. He ripped the banister on his side of the balcony off, hinge by hinge.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Bucky muttered when Cap balanced it and positioned it so that it reached all the way to the other side.

“Secure it to something with your shirt and shimmy across,” Cap said. “I’ll hold it on my side.”

“There’s no time for that,” Bucky replied, looking at the thin piece of metal—the diameter of monkey bars at a playground. “Just go, I mean it.”

“I’m not leaving you here.”

Bucky stripped out of his shirt and pants and used them to tie the pole to structural bars in the wall. How long that would hold was anyone’s guess, but it was clear that the only way to get Cap out of here was to do what he wanted. Down to just his underwear, Bucky leaned out over the four-story drop below him and wrapped his body around the extended banister, like he was crawling up a sideways fire pole. He’d inched halfway across when—of course—his head started to throb and waves of nausea, worse than anything he’d experienced so far, almost threw him off balance.

Bucky paused in his journey, trying not to throw up. He’d never experienced pain like this—not even at the hands of Zola, not after having been shot, not ever. It took all of his considerable strength to keep holding on.

“You’re almost there!” Cap yelled, probably assuming the reason Bucky had stopped moving was because he’d gotten scared or something. “You can do this.”

But Bucky wasn’t sure he could. The pain throbbed so hard it threatened to split his skull into marbles. He started seeing double, but a strange sort of double where the first image didn’t quite match the second, and both were blurry. The same voice urging him on was both before and behind him. Bucky couldn’t tell which way was right or left, straight or sideways.

“I’ve done this before,” he muttered to himself, and then more loudly, to Cap, “We’ve done this before, haven’t we?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’ve got to keep going, Bucky. Just a few more feet and I can reach you.”

In this much pain, however, a few feet might as well have been a mile. Bucky’s brain felt like the Hoover Dam, if all the millions of tons of pressure had finally opened up a hair-width crack, just big enough for a single drop of water to squeeze itself painfully through. A single thought wormed its way past a hitherto impenetrable barrier in his mind—a barrier he’d never physically felt before.

He looked up at Cap and croaked, “Steve?”

It wasn’t a question. He knew. It was as though he’d always known. He was more certain of this than he was of his own name.

Steve nodded and ripped off the mask. “Come on, Buck. We’ve got to get out of here.”

Before Bucky could react, the hardest aftershock yet swept through the air in a blinding wave of blue. The facility stopped trembling and instead caved in entirely. Concrete ripped and disintegrated in a rolling tidal wave of self-destruction. The landing Cap—Steve—was standing on buckled and pitched forward, sending him flying. Instinctively, Bucky reached out to grab him, even though it meant letting go of his now unmoored beam. Clutching each other, they fell. The last thing he saw before he passed out was all the other floors of the facility coming to crash down on top of them.

Chapter Text

The first time Steve wandered into wakefulness, he found himself in a bed, on his stomach, and with his face cradled in a plush donut hole. All he could see was a grey carpet, across which a stripe of late-afternoon sunlight stretched. A tentative twitch of his toes sent waves of discomfort rippling through him. A second, stubbornly misguided, attempt to bend his knee resulted in searing, blinding pain, cracking and tearing his flesh. Wherever he was, moving wasn’t an option.

“We should get a doctor,” a nervous female voice pleaded from somewhere on the edge of earshot. “We can’t just—”

“Who exactly are we going to call?”

Through his groggy, barely-tethered consciousness, Steve thought he recognized the voices and the words, as though from a half-remembered dream. He’d overheard this argument before.

Stark—not Howard, though. His son. Stark, and the pretty redhead who kept him in line. Pepper. They’d found him, somehow. Something cold sat on his skin, but at the same time it burned. He healed quickly, though. Even seventy years of defrosting had to heal. Didn’t it?

He was out again before he’d had a chance to remember that it already had.


The next time he came to, Steve found himself listening to a different argument, between a different man and woman.

“Come on, Tasha.”

“No,” Natasha’s almost childishly recalcitrant voice mumbled.

Steve heard her shifting angrily in some sheets; his bed wasn’t moving, so another one must have been set up in the room.

“You can’t sleep here,” Clint said, trying again. “Come to our room. I’ll carry you.”

He must have made a move to touch her, because Steve could hear a violent rustling in the sheets and then Clint swearing under his breath. “Ow.”

Listening to them, Steve decided he had somehow ended up in Brooklyn, at Natasha and Bucky’s apartment. Was he still living with them? No, he’d moved back to the Tower, hadn’t he? Maybe he was just spending the night? But if he was in Bushwick, he should have been able to move, shouldn’t he?

Something very strange was going on. The answer floated just out of memory, out of his limited sight. The grey carpeting that comprised the entirety of his vision gave him no clues, especially this time, in the low lamplight.

“He’s always cold when he comes to,” Natasha protested in her sleep, with a thick, unnaturally slow tongue. “I have to… have to be here. So he knows it’s okay.”

Steve wondered dizzily how she knew that about him, how she knew that he always woke up feeling cold, how even a year later, the chill of the Arctic continued to haunt him. But no, she couldn’t know, she couldn’t have been talking about him. Only one person had the power to reduce Natasha to this stubborn, irrational state—and that person wasn’t Steve.

It started to come flooding back. The facility and the fall and the fire. The choking, scalding heat. If there was a bed beside Steve’s, then Natasha was in it with only one possible patient.

“Let her sleep,” Steve croaked, his voice hoarse and barely audible from disuse. Listening to himself, he tried and failed to calculate how long it had been since he’d last spoken.

He heard quick but quiet footsteps, and a second later Clint was kneeling beside him, looking up through the donut hole with relief written all over his face.

“You gave us a scare there, Steve.”

“I’ve given worse.”

“Let me get Pepper and the doc.”

“No, wait. Talk to me first.” Steve still had only the haziest understanding of where he was and what had happened. His last memories were so jumbled that he needed Clint’s calming, down-to-business presence for a little while longer, before he dealt with anyone more excitable. “Where are we?”

“Tony’s place. Malibu.”

“How long have I been out?”

“A few days. Took a day for us to notice you were gone. Sorry about that. You missed a meeting with Jane, and that’s when we realized no one had seen you since the morning before. When she heard, Tasha freaked out, wouldn’t tell anybody why, but she called Pepper in Monaco. Next thing I knew, she was getting on a plane, and like hell were the rest of us going to sit it out when it was clear something was wrong, so we followed her. I don’t know what happened, but Tony located you—said he had a tracker on something of yours? Hill, of all people, said she had a plan. None of the rest of us did, so we went with it. We flew into New Mexico and then drove a few hours to the middle of nowhere. Hill got me and Tasha these uniforms and said we needed to pretend to be NASA employees in this facility that had collapsed in on itself. We went looking through the wreckage and found you and Bucky, close to where Tony said you’d be, trapped in a little miracle bubble under about a hundred feet of crushed metal. Jane and Darcy had a car waiting, so we ditched the NASA Jeep and all drove the rest of the way here, with you two in the back. By the time we got here, Pepper had already set up this whole hospital room. You’d think she’d done it before, she had it ready so fast. Tasha called Bruce to fly out here and meet us. That was yesterday.”

This was all a lot of very involved information, more than Steve was quite ready to process. The upshot seemed to be that the gang had rescued him.

“To be honest,” Clint was now saying, “I didn’t think you were gonna wake up. When Hill and Tasha put you in the Jeep, you looked like a piece of burned toast. You still do, but Tony says you’re going to make a full recovery. How’s it feel to have a miracle happen to you?”

“Worse than the last times,” Steve said. “How’s Bucky?”

Clint looked away. “Not good.”

“Tell me,” Steve said, steeling himself.

“He’s in a coma. Natasha’s completely lost her shit. I’ve never seen her like this, never. She won’t let anyone near him except Bruce. Pepper had to drug her water just now so she’d get some rest. That took balls not even I have.”

“What does Bruce say? Is he going to wake up?”

“He’s working on it, but… Nothing yet, so far as I can tell. But no one’s telling me anything. Natasha follows Bruce around, like she’s trying to keep him from talking to anybody. And every time Pepper and I reminder her that PhDs and MDs go to different schools for a reason, she just ignores us. Not that Pepper’s got a leg to stand on. She won’t let anybody near you, either. She replaces your bandages and Tony runs tests on you and neither of them will say anything. But they haven’t kicked any of us out yet, so… We’re sticking around, working remotely from the living room here.”

“How bad are his burns?” If Steve, with his super healing ability couldn’t move, he couldn’t imagine how bad of a shape Bucky was in. He couldn’t imagine how he had survived, period.

“That’s the thing. He doesn’t have any. There’s nothing wrong with him that anyone can see.”

“But he was with me,” Steve said. “We fell into a fireball, both of us.”

“I know. That’s what has all of us so weirded out. And here’s the other thing. Your whole back is covered in third—in a lot of places, fourth—degree burns. But not the front. If you fell into a fire, it should have been all of you, not just one side.”

“Is that why I’m on my stomach?” Steve asked.

“Yeah. You both had all your clothes burned off you. When they found you, you were naked as a baby. A really big baby. We’ve been staring at your ass. There’s only one spot on your back where you didn’t get burned.” Clint reached up to draw a broad X across Steve’s back. As promised, it didn’t hurt to touch.

Steve remembered Bucky clutching him as they fell, his arms crossed tightly across his back.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” he said, mostly to himself.

“Has it ever, with the two of them?”

At that, Steve chuckled, or tried to, but only a hoarse, sad sound came out. “True story.”

“So, what happened?” Clint asked. “Anything you can tell me that might help Bruce figure out what’s wrong with him. And if you know where Loki is. We’re worried about him. We searched the entire area but couldn’t find him. In the end, Hill said we couldn’t wait any more, not with the state you guys were in, and not with the place crawling with NASA people. We weren’t supposed to be there, you know?”

“Loki isn’t there. Speaking of which… I don’t know if this’ll help, but for Bucky… Get Jane on the case. Her rainbow bridge theory… I think it’s real. I think she’s right, or close. Bucky… he went somewhere. They vanished, right in front of me. Magical space cube, bright light, and then… they were gone. And then Bucky came back, and said Loki had stayed wherever they went.”

“Slow down, Steve. Magical space cube? What are you talking about?”

“Just tell Jane. She might be able to help Bruce figure it out. Maybe he’s got the, er, those rays she’s always on about. Maybe the… teleportation is the explanation for all this.”

Steve could feel himself losing it again. He shouldn’t have been awake, much less talking this much. There was more he needed to tell Clint, but it escaped him. He could feel himself slipping back into unconsciousness.

“Steve, buddy, you’re not making any sense. Let me get Pepper, yeah?” Clint said in the sugary, accommodating tone one used around sick children.

“Sure,” Steve said, knowing he’d be out again before Clint returned.


The third time he came to, no one was arguing. The room was silent except for some intermittent mechanical beeps. Someone was holding his hand. He rubbed the small palm with his thumb, trying to get a sense of whose fingers these were.

“Steve?” Pepper whispered. “Are you awake?”

Steve lifted his head out of the donut pillow and turned to look at her. Time must have passed because, while moving still sent agony through his body, the amount of pain had lessened somewhat since his last attempt.

“Sorry I missed you the last time,” he said.

“I leave the room for five minutes…”

The room may have been silent, but it was far from empty. Behind Pepper’s chair, Steve could see the other bed. Bucky lay on his back, hooked up to countless tubes and monitors but as outwardly unharmed as Clint had described. Natasha still slept, curled in his armpit, on the far side of the bed. All Steve could see of her was her arm thrown around his torso and her leg hitched up on top of his thighs.

Beyond them, Bruce and Jane had passed out on a small love seat in what couldn’t have been a very comfortable position, but they looked almost as peaceful as Bucky. Bruce had somehow wedged his face between her feet on one side of the seat, while she had her head nuzzled in his lap on the other side. Print-outs and books lay strewn around them. An ink stain ran down the side of Jane’s neck.

Tony appeared in the doorway, looking bleary-eyed.

“He’s awake!” Pepper whispered to him.

“First ice, now fire,” Tony said, with an affected yet relieved roll of his eyes. “What are you going to do to yourself next?”

“Leave him alone,” Pepper said. As soon as he came within reach, Tony knelt behind her chair and dropped a kiss to her neck before resting his chin on her shoulder.

This was new.

Steve couldn’t gesture, but he tried to say as much with his eyebrows as he could.

Pepper blushed. Even Tony looked more bashful than Steve had ever seen him. Trying to hide it under his usual bluster, he said, “Yeah, apparently you being in mortal danger brings out a lot of unresolved feelings. Who knew?”

Steve grinned and wished he could stand up and hug them. “Well, it’s about time. I should get myself almost killed more often. Next time, maybe I’ll wake up at a wedding.”

Tony shivered. “Don’t push it, Rogers.”

“Hey!” Pepper slapped Tony lightly and got a kiss on the hand in response.

“I’m really happy for you both.”

“You wanna sit up?” Tony asked. “I’m glad you’re awake and everything, but it’s a little hard sustaining a conversation with an ass, no matter how nice that ass may be.”

“Not sure sitting up’s possible.”

“I’ve been working on that. Pep, can you get Clint? It’s going to take a few of us to move you.”

The voices had awoken Jane and Bruce, who seemed just as surprised to find themselves entwined on the couch as Steve had been to see them. They both stammered and tried to look away. Bruce searched around on the couch and the floor for his glasses.

“So sorry,” he mumbled after accidentally knocking his forehead against hers.

“Oh, it’s no problem,” she mumbled back, bright red.

Steve chuckled to himself. Unlike the thing with Tony and Pepper, he hadn’t seen this one coming at all.

Jane caught Steve watching and blushed even harder.

“Hey, Steve.” She wobbled towards him on shaky, sleepy legs.

“How’s Bucky?”

“No change. But that tip you gave Clint… It’s true! He’s covered in low-level gamma rays, exactly like Loki helped me figure out might happen if someone used a temporary Einstein-Rosen bridge. Or something similar. Do you know what this means?” Jane’s eyes shone. “This is huge. God, he needs to wake up. I have so many questions. Where did he go, what was it like, how did it work… Steve, did you see anything? Did he tell you anything? Did—”

“Give him a minute,” Tony said as Pepper came back with Clint and Darcy. Then nodding at Bruce he asked, “Can you help us move him?”

While the guys gingerly lifted Steve’s weight off the bed and over to a strange object nearby, Pepper and Jane gently nudged Natasha to wakefulness. Pepper must have given her a horse dose of sleeping pills, because it took a couple of minutes before Natasha, usually a feather-light sleeper, roused herself. She slowly sat up, but remained draped possessively over Bucky’s unconscious body.

“What is this?” Steve asked as they lowered him onto what looked and felt a little like a beanbag chair made of gel. As he adjusted his backless hospital gown over his knees, he felt almost weightless, buoyed up.

“Something I cooked up yesterday,” Tony replied. “You can sit without hurting yourself. The gel is made up of a high component of burn salve.”

Steve sank, almost weightless, into gel that moved to accommodate him. The whole gooey mass was contained within welded together metal slabs. For all that Tony hadn’t been speaking to him recently, he’d gone above and beyond in terms of taking care of Steve. Again.

“Thanks,” he said, and hoped he was conveying the depth of his gratitude despite not having the words to express it.

Tony seemed to understand. “Any time.”

Steve remembered the conversation he’d had with JARVIS before heading off to Arizona and was about to say something, but an unexpected new entrant came into the room. With a swish of his long coat, Director Fury, whom Steve had last seen go down with a knife in his shoulder and about five tranquilizer darts to the chest, swept into their midst. His injured arm rested in a sling, but otherwise he looked unharmed by the adventure in the facility days before.

“Good evening, everybody,” Fury said smoothly, as though he owned the place.

“Pepper? Did you invite someone else to our little house party?” Tony asked, squinting at the newcomer.

“No, no I didn’t.”

“I overrode your security systems. You might want to look into upgrading them.”

“Tony, you have to suit up,” Steve wished he could move, could get up and tackle this stranger to the ground. His helplessness couldn’t have come at a worse time. “He’s dangerous.”

“Not here to hurt anybody.” Fury put his non-sling arm in the air. “I only need a few questions answered.”

“What do you mean, ‘dangerous’?” Tony said. His hand hovered over a briefcase in the corner, presumably with a suit inside.

“He was making Hydra weapons. He and maybe Loki.” It didn’t matter right now that ‘Captain America’ had met Fury. If he was here, then he was here for Bucky, and Steve wasn’t going to let him have him.

“He isn’t Hydra,” a new but familiar voice said. Coulson’s ever-shiny forehead popped from around the corner and into the room. “And Loki wasn’t working with him. That’s why we’re here, and why we need to know what happened.”

“Are there any more visitors I should worry about?” Tony asked the ceiling.

“Not at the moment, sir,” JARVIS replied. “My apologies. They prevented me from announcing their arrival.”

“I mean, it’s always nice to see you, Phil,” Tony said, “but next time, try knocking first. And who the hell are you?”

“I’m Director Fury of the Strategic Homeland Enforcement, Intervention and Logistics Division, a covert branch of the World Security Council. We’re tasked with keeping the planet safe from threats of all kinds. And I do mean all kinds.”

“That’s a mouthful,” Clint muttered.

“We call it SHIELD, for short,” Coulson added.

“We?” Jane asked.

“Agent Coulson here was one of SHIELD’s most decorated agents, before he retired,” Fury explained. “As a favor to me, he’s spent the past few years in charge of a top secret initiative, outside of SHIELD oversight. It was all going fine until a couple of you destroyed one of our research facilities the other day.”

“SHIELD?” Clint asked. “The signs and the uniforms all said NASA.”

“We were using their facilities to cover our own work. The public’s not supposed to know SHIELD exists, you see.”

“What kind of initiative?” Steve asked.

“You’ve been handling us,” Natasha said, low and dangerous, staring at Coulson as though putting together a puzzle none of the rest of them were privy to. “You’ve been handling me. Us.”

“This isn’t just about you, Natalia Romanova,” Fury corrected. “It isn’t even about your boyfriend, though I’m very interested in him right now. This is about everyone in this room.”

I’m her boyfriend,” Clint corrected. “And her name isn’t Natalia.”

“Isn’t it?” Fury asked, looking at her.

“Tasha?” Clint asked, unsure after seconds elapsed without an answer.

She simply blanched and gripped Bucky’s hand even more tightly. Her eyes scanned for exits Steve knew she wouldn’t take, not alone.

“I know Director Fury didn’t make the best impression on you,” Coulson said, nodding at Steve, “but I’m going to ask you—all of you—to trust me, the way you’ve always trusted me. Like he said, I used to work in intelligence. I left five years ago, but I still keep in contact with Director Fury. As does Hill.”

“You’re a spy?” Darcy’s jaw dropped so violently that her glasses slid down her nose. “Hill’s a spy?”

“For what it’s worth, I graduated from Columbia Journalism School, with honors, twenty years ago. Every job in the field I’ve had since then has been legitimate.”

“But you’re also still working for… You want us to be agents again, don’t you?” Natasha asked. Everyone was confused, but she alone looked completely betrayed in a way Steve couldn’t understand. She shook her head and muttered the word ‘stupid’ to herself over and over again. “All this time, I thought meeting you was luck. I thought—we thought—you helped us out of… I should have known better. Altruism doesn’t exist.”

“What are you even talking about?” Clint asked, but Natasha and Coulson ignored him.

“The choice would always have been yours. We’re not the Red Room,” Coulson said quietly. “And we hoped we’d never have to put this plan into action. It was always a back-up, for emergencies. It was always going to be a long-shot, especially if we were going to do it without SHIELD resources. And it’s not exactly spying.”

“What does ‘not exactly spying mean?” Pepper asked, ever attentive to the fine print.

“More like an independently operated strike team.”

“What, like Tony and Captain America?” Bruce said.

“Yes, exactly like that. Specifically an extension of that team.”

“But we don’t even know Captain America. And except for Tony, we’re just a bunch of nerdy newspaper types,” Darcy said.

Fury looked around the room before his gaze settled on Steve and Tony, who were trying not to look at one another. For a second, it looked like he was going to say something, but then he turned back to Bruce.

“Coulson here thought this would have a better chance of functioning if he could teach you how to work together in a normal situation first. There are a lot of volatile personalities in this room. Introducing you to one another in the middle of a crisis situation and asking you to team up would have ended in chaos. And since he was leaving SHIELD to focus on his journalism career anyway, we decided to use that.”

“What exactly did you want this team to do?” Steve asked.

“WWII taught us that we need to prepare ourselves for bigger threats, for a stronger set of forces that could be deployed against us,” Fury said gravely. “SHIELD was created specifically to deal with those threats. I can understand that you might not be ready to trust me just on my word, but you all know Coulson. And even if you don’t believe me, maybe you’ll believe her. She’ll vouch for me.”

Coulson walked over to Steve’s gel throne and handed him a slip of paper. Steve read the name and address written on it, dizzy with a sudden rush of emotions.

“Peggy’s alive?”

“Who’s Peggy?” Darcy asked.

“Old girlfriend of Steve’s,” Tony said. “‘Old’ being the operative word here.”

“She founded SHIELD, along with Stark’s father.” Fury handed Tony a thick file, which, as it changed hands, Steve could see was full of pictures of Howard and Peggy and Colonel Phillips.

“Why didn’t I know about this?” Tony asked.

“It wouldn’t have been a very competent secret agency if the founders went around telling little boys about it.”

“My dad… This is why he was never around? Why he could never have a straight conversation with me?”

Coulson nodded. “He thought more of you than you think he did.”

Tony looked down at Steve. “What do you think?”

“If Peggy and Howard were on board with this…”

“So this is for real?” Clint asked Steve and Tony.

“Seems like it,” Steve said. “If these people we knew really did start this thing, I think it’s got to be okay. Or at least he’s okay.”

“So, you trust them?” Natasha asked. She seemed to be struggling with a more complicated set of emotional negotiations than the others, though why, Steve had no idea.

“I think I have to,” he finally said. He had to believe them. This was Coulson, who, no matter what other agenda he may have had, was still the most solid person he had yet met in this century. And his credentials couldn’t have been more irrefutable. “But this still doesn’t explain why were you using the cube to make Hydra weapons.”

“Guys, you’ve lost me. What’s Hydra?” Darcy asked.

“Hydra was a splinter group of the Nazis in WWII,” he told the group. “But they weren’t working for Germany. They weren’t working for any country. They had their own agenda. They wanted to create a new world order, take advantage of the chaos created by the war in order to topple everyone and rule on their own. They had this… a meteorite or something with special powers that they used to power weapons. It was lost in WWII, but they had it in Arizona.”

“How do you know all this?” Clint asked.

“He did all that research on Captain America for the historical profiles, remember?” Darcy answered.

“Except he didn’t put any of that in the articles,” Natasha pointed out, eyes narrowed suspiciously in Steve’s direction.

“We were just trying to understand the cube,” Fury said, “That’s all. We aren’t trying to topple world orders.”

“But why with the Hydra logo?” Steve pressed. “It’s one thing to make similar weapons, but why not put your own logo on them?”

Fury and Coulson glanced at one another with matching pursed lips.

“That’s part of why we’re here,” Coulson said. “There’s a possibility that SHIELD may be compromised. There have been hints over the years, little things that no one noticed, not big enough to investigate, and even if we tried, everything was shut down.”

“The way the some of my colleagues are reacting to this Arizona episode makes it clear something’s going on,” Fury added. “I knew they were making weapons, but I never saw them up close. And now I’ve been locked out of certain data centers.”

“You’re asking us to investigate your organization, from the outside,” Natasha said slowly.

“Most of you are reporters, after all. And Stark and Potts have access to other avenues of information.”

“What about me?” Bruce asked slowly. “I doubt you want me on your little team.”

“We’ve been keeping our eyes on you,” Coulson said. “We helped ease your amateur attempts at identity creation through the HR screen at Stark Industries.”

“James and I were wondering how that happened,” Natasha said, nodding to herself.

“We need to know what Barnes and Laufeyson were doing at Project Pegasus,” Fury said. “People at SHIELD are asking a lot of questions right now, and if I’m going to protect you—all of you—Coulson and I need to know the real story so we can keep your covers. Right now, I don’t know what happened, which is a position I don’t enjoy being in. I was out between Laufeyson knifing me, and the next thing I knew, I was waking up in a SHIELD hospital.”

“What do you mean, Loki knifed you?” Jane said. “I don’t believe that.”

“Tell that to my arm,” Fury said dryly. “Coulson and I did some digging yesterday and found out that Laufeyson wasn’t just a recluse. He doesn’t exist. The first time he showed up on anyone’s radar was two years ago, when someone saw him crawl out of the desert in Tunisia with no luggage, no water. The locals said they couldn’t figure out where he came from, and he never said. Everything about him—his passport, his money—dates to after that. Yet he knew all about the Tesseract and knew where to find it. You all were the only personal contacts he had, and until Barnes wakes up, you’re the only ones who can tell us anything else about him.”

“It was my mistake for failing to realize Laufeyson posed a threat,” Coulson said. “I trusted Barnes to have better judgment. Unless—”

“Whatever’s going on,” Natasha interrupted, “James didn’t know what he was getting into.”

“She’s right,” Steve said. “He started trying to fix it as soon as he realized what he’d done.”

“That was the impression I got,” Fury said, “but we needed to check.”

“I think Loki did something to him,” Steve told them, hoping it would help.

“What do you mean, ‘did something to him’?” Tony asked.

“He touched the cube. Both of them did.”

“With their bare hands? They touched it?” Even if no one else understood, Fury knew enough to see the enormity of that.

“Yeah. I don’t think Bucky knew what it was, though. It was all Loki.” Steve explained what had happened—the bright light, the disappearance, the earthquake and Bucky’s eventual reappearance. “And when he came back he was fast. Really fast. And strong, too. I’ve been around him every single day for months and have never seen anything like that out of him. Like he’d been enhanced.”

“I still want to know how he not only survived a four-story fall into a fire, but also an entire building falling on top of him, completely unharmed. Because as you and I know, Rogers, that shouldn’t have been possible.”

“He’s in a coma,” Clint corrected. “Not exactly my definition of unharmed.”

“But he doesn’t have any burns or broken bones. How? Why? And how was he able to single-handedly take out hundreds of highly trained agents, rob SHIELD, and bring down a building?”

“Director Fury and I been keeping you both safe for years, from people who weren’t even on your radar,” Coulson said, looking at Natasha. “But we can’t continue to do that if you keep me in the dark.”

Natasha sat quivering for a moment, and Steve could almost see the moment she decided to give it all up—whatever it was—for a chance to save Bucky.

“He’s the Winter Soldier,” she snapped. “He wasn’t fast or strong because of anything this meteor or Loki did. He was able to do it because he’s the Winter Soldier.”

Although the outburst had left the rest of them blank, Fury and Coulson glanced at one another and both took a step back, away from Bucky’s bed, as though they had suddenly discovered it was radioactive.

“Come again?” Fury asked slowly.

“You heard me. If you two are really in Intelligence, then you know what I’m talking about.”

“The Winter Soldier is a fiction.”

“Until today, so were magic space cubes and Einstein-Rosen bridges. No offense, Jane.”

“None taken.”

“You told me the Winter Soldier was an old wives tale and that Barnes was just a new recruit, mostly harmless.”

“I lied.” She shrugged. “Yes, you got me out. You saved me. I owed you the truth about myself for that. But I didn’t owe you the truth about him. That secret was better left forgotten.”

“Honestly, I wouldn’t have believed you if you’d told me,” Coulson said. “He’s too good of a reporter.”

“He wanted to be better at something other than what he was before. It didn’t matter what. If you’d offered him a job washing cars, he’d have set out to become the best damn car washer the world has ever seen.”

The conversation had left the rest of them behind, so Steve finally interrupted to ask, “What’s the Winter Soldier?”

“Yeah,” Clint agreed. “For the kids in the room.”

Coulson briefly told them about a legendary KGB assassin responsible for dozens of jobs over the past sixty-odd years. A man whose lack of a past allowed him to be shaped into a mindless killing machine. “But since no one could ever prove his existence,” he finished, “the cases were either left unsolved, or else other people took the blame.”

Steve, who’d been watching Bucky’s peacefully sleeping form and had a hard time reconciling that face with this information. It was a wild story, sure, but only marginally wilder than his own. And it made a terrifying kind of sense. Finally, he was able to piece together different niggling little episodes and things Bucky had said or done that had never sat quite right. Steve had been thinking and theorizing ever since meeting him—him and Natasha—but he would never had guessed this, not in a million years. He now saw why he had always been so down on himself, so self-loathing for no apparent reason. If Bucky had been awake and if Steve had been allowed to move, Steve would have shaken him for being such a dope; only Bucky would fail to see that he’d been treated worse than any of his victims and blame himself for things that were so obviously not his responsibility.

“Cryogenically frozen?” Pepper repeated, glancing down at Steve, who hadn’t even gotten to processing that last bit. “Bucky was cryogenically frozen?”

“Between 1945 and a few years ago, he didn’t age more than a year or two. That’s how rarely he was let out.”

“What about before 1945?” Steve asked slowly.

“No idea. He has amnesia. He doesn’t remember anything before the Red Room got to him. We used to think it was due to all the brainwashing, but..”

“I’ve done extensive tests. I still don’t understand what it is, but it definitely stems from a separate trauma,” Bruce said.

Steve closed his eyes and tried to remember to breathe. The idea that Bucky was just as out of time as he was, that he, too, was enhanced just like Steve, that they had possibly grown up in the same time—was monumental. All the loneliness and inability to find anyone who got it… the person who could had been right there all along, had already been his best friend.

“Tasha?” Clint asked tentatively, staring at her with wide eyes. “What the hell is going on?”

“I’m a spy. Sorry.”

“Ngo Dinh Diem?” Fury asked.

Natasha nodded.

“Wasfi al-Tal?”

She nodded again.

“These are syllables,” Darcy interrupted after a few more rounds of name and nod. “What are you even saying?”

“They’re names,” Bruce answered. “Victims of assassinations since the 50s.”

“People Bucky killed?” Steve asked.

“So, you’re not actually the secret heir to the Russian throne?” Clint asked.

“What.”

“Look, it’s not as though we haven’t all noticed how shifty you two are. I had this whole theory that you were Princess Anastasia’s secret granddaughter and you were hiding out here in America for fear that the Russian establishment would come after you. And Bucky was your undercover security detail.”

“That’s a good one. More interesting than mine,” Steve said. “I figured they were in Witness Protection.”

“We kind of had a betting pool going,” Darcy said.

Natasha practically snorted. “No. I’m not a princess. Why would you think that?”

“Your last name’s Romanov. I thought maybe you were doing the whole ‘hiding in plain sight’ thing.”

Natasha looked questioningly around the room. “You’re all less upset than I thought you’d be.”

“Upset? Why would anyone be upset?” Clint said. “This is all incredibly hot. Except for the whole ‘joined at the hip with your ex-boyfriend who’s actually your ex-boyfriend, the immortal assassin’ part.”

“So you’re telling me that the fact that I’m responsible for numerous acts of espionage against your country doesn’t faze you, but what you do have a problem with is the fact that I used to sleep with my roommate?”

Clint shrugged. “Not a problem. More just intimidated. If this is all true, then I see why you made sense and… You always looked good together.”

Natasha looked down at the sleeping figure she was still inappropriately tangled with. “Meh,” she said. “He was hotter before he cut his hair.”

“He used to have long hair?” Steve choked out. Like Clint, the only way he could think to respond—could process this at all—was to let himself react to the aspects of the story that didn’t matter. “I can’t picture that.”

“Yeah. Long and kind of dirty and got in his eyes sometimes and… Mmm, so good.”

Darcy grimaced. “It takes all kinds, doesn’t it?”

“Were you brainwashed, too?” Steve asked.

“Some, but not even close to as much. James was able to survive advanced procedures that would have killed a normal person like me.”

A couple of sniggers were heard around the room at the word ‘normal’.

“You don’t understand,” she said, becoming impatient now. “No one is like him. That’s why we needed a scientist, not a doctor, when he got sick. He’s stronger, faster, heals quicker…”

“It’s still too quick,” Steve muttered, feeling his own skin burning right at that moment.

“His body doesn’t work the way a human body should,” Bruce agreed. “Everything about him is wrong, just slightly off. But that doesn’t explain what’s going on right now. Something’s changed. I ran tests on him two weeks ago and he wasn’t giving off gamma rays like he is now.”

“I looked at Bruce’s readings. I think he has a force field around him,” Jane said. “I think that’s why Steve is fine on the front. Bucky’s coated in a limited distance force field that extended to Steve.”

“If that’s true, it’s too bad he didn’t grab your ass,” Darcy said. “You wouldn’t have needed a special chair.”

Pepper and Tony looked pointedly at Steve. They’d been glancing at him throughout this entire conversation, waiting for him to crack up or break or something. But he was mostly numb, too overwhelmed to feel much of anything.

Tony cleared his throat. “I think it’s time for a truth bomb round robin. Yes, Steve, it’s time. Let’s get it all out so there aren’t any more surprises. We’ve already got a KGB spy and an urban legend, both with awesome code names. Jane? How about you first, to get us warmed up?”

“What you see is what you get. No crazy spy stuff in my past.”

“Pity. Darcy?”

“Same.”

“You people are disappointing me. Clint, give me something.”

“I grew up in a circus.”

“The hell?” Darcy asked. “That is, like, the single most random thing I’ve ever heard. And that’s coming after the whole Cold War cryogenically frozen assassin bullshit.”

“And I’m really good at archery.”

“That’s nice, sweetie,” Natasha said, patting his knee.

“No, not just good. Freakishly good. With all projectiles, actually.”

“It’s cool, Clint,” Tony said, just as patronizingly as Natasha. “We still like you. Even with your lame secrets.”

“It’s a little hot in here,” Clint said. He pulled a pin out of Natasha’s hair and flung it across the long room, hitting a tiny button on the already tiny air conditioning controller. The fan immediately switched on.

“Right. Okay,” Tony said as they all gaped. “Freakishly good. Got it.”

Pepper suddenly sat up straight and announced, “I publish murder mysteries under a pseudonym.”

Everyone swerved to look.

She blushed. “They’re really popular in the Danish translation.”

“Not actually what I was looking for or expecting, ever. But that’s great, Pep, really great. Wow. Anything you want to share, Steve?” Tony asked probingly.

“Why don’t you go first?”

“Everyone knows I’m Iron Man. My life’s an open book.”

“How about the fact that you’re sick? And that you’re hiding it and trying to treat it with those green drinks of yours? And that it’s been causing your attitude for the past couple of weeks.”

“Attitude? This is me. I’ve always been full of attitude.”

To help Steve out, Fury grabbed Tony’s shirt and pulled it down to reveal some ugly black veins crawling up his chest. “He’s talking about that. About the fact that your arc reactor is killing you.”

“Killing you?” Each syllable was higher pitched than the last as Pepper rounded on Tony.

“I was planning on telling you.”

“When?” She’d reached full-on squeaking.

“There’s a fix for that,” Fury said. “On the drive in the file I just gave you is some research your dad left. I’m pretty sure you’ll find the answer to your little problem in there.”

“We’ve been trying to subtly get you the information for a couple of weeks now, but you weren’t biting,” Coulson said.

“He’s not very good at seeing subtlety,” Steve explained.

“I can’t believe—” Pepper began.

“I think it’s your turn, son,” Fury said, gazing at Steve.

Steve told himself it would be fine. It had to be fine. Bucky had already figured it out. Steve would have to deal with this anyway if he ever woke up, and he wanted nothing more than for him to wake up. Plus, everyone, including himself, bore Natasha no ill will after her reveal, so maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. Steve took a deep breath.

“I’m Captain America.”

He waited, but other than encouraging nods from Tony and Pepper, nothing happened.

“You mean, the guy in the outfit?” Clint asked.

“Yeah.”

“No,” Clint argued.

“Huh?”

“You’re pretty hokey, Steve, but you’re not that hokey, are you? Please tell me you’re not.”

Natasha was squinting at him with her sartorial professional’s eye. “You can’t be Captain America.”

“Why not?”

“I just don’t see you as someone who’s comfortable running around in tights and primary colors. I don’t even care that Tom Ford designed that suit.”

“Captain America wears Gucci?” Darcy asked. “I would have guessed Ralph Lauren.”

“How did you know Tom Ford designed the suit?” Pepper asked.

“I’m a fashion editor and I’m very good at my job. I’ve been trying to get the scoop out of him for months, but someone had quite the muzzle on him. So, it was you? I’m impressed.”

“Thanks.”

Rather than acting amazed or flabbergasted or betrayed, everyone simply seemed confused or else was missing the point.

“So… all Bucky’s exclusives…” Jane said slowly.

“Are we going to get sued for that?” Darcy asked.“Isn’t that considered collusion? Or unfair something or other?”

“It won’t be if you all keep the secret,” Tony said.

“But it technically is unethical, isn’t it?”

“I’ll handle it if it ever comes up,” Coulson said.

“So, are you some sort of copy-cat?” Clint asked, still not quite understanding. “Taking up the mantle of the old Captain America?”

“No, there’s only been one. Me.”

“But Captain America was in WWII. Seventy years ago. If that was you, then how are you all…” Jane waved vaguely at him. “Hot. Are you like Highlander?”

Steve didn’t know what that was, so he couldn’t comment. “The plane I was in crashed in the Arctic. I was cryogenically frozen until last year when Tony and Pepper brought me back.”

“What, you were also cryogenically frozen?” Darcy said. “Come on, Steve. Everyone else came clean. If you’re going to lie, at least make it original. Don’t copy Bucky’s thing.”

“I’m not!”

“To have both you and Bucky… And neither of you knew about the other?” Jane said.“ You’ve got to admit, it’s a little ridiculous.”

“Doesn’t make it any less true.”

“So,” Bruce asked. “You’re enhanced. In the same way that Bucky’s enhanced?”

“Yes. But we must have gotten different versions. Having seen him go at full tilt, I’d say he’s a little faster, and I’m a little stronger.”

“I’ll have to see both of you in a formal competition before I let you state something like that,” Natasha said possessively, like a coach who refuses to listen to anyone suggest another team might be better than her own.

Steve couldn’t believe this was how this was going. He supposed it was better than everyone hating him for lying to them, or putting him on some sort of impossible pedestal, but at the same time, the universal disbelief had him almost insulted. For the first time ever, he almost wanted to show off, but of course he couldn’t. He couldn’t even move. Somehow Natasha’s ludicrous story had gone over mostly without any quarrel, but the idea of Steve being Captain America was hard for them to take seriously.

In the end, it took Coulson, Fury, Pepper and Tony’s testimony to convince them. They all found out that it had been Fury who’d called Tony that day to say that Steve’s plane had been found; he and Coulson had decided to ensure that the only person who knew about Captain America was Tony, even at the expense of SHIELD getting their hands on such an asset. And given that they now even more strongly suspected something was wrong with SHIELD, that had definitely been the right move.

“I wasn’t even Iron Man then,” Tony said. “There was no way you could have guessed that would happen to me. I don’t see what I had to do with your little project.”

“But you owned the paper. You were already connected, and could have met these guys. And no, there was no way we could have predicted you would become anything more than you were. But Tony Stark was someone special, and we would have wanted you on the team anyway. Iron Man is a happy bonus.”

Tony preened a little at Coulson’s compliment, and then turned to Bruce. “Sorry you have to go after Steve. No one will judge you for having nothing to top that. As long as it’s less lame than archery, you’ll be fine.”

“Boring everyone isn’t what I’m worried about.”

“You’re among friends here,” Coulson said.

Steve remembered what he’d said about keeping tabs on Bruce. He and Fury must have already known, whatever it was.

“Do you remember that story about the accident in New Mexico?” Bruce said. “About the army base that was destroyed by an electrical fire a couple of years ago? Well, it wasn’t a fire. It was me.”

“What was you?” Jane asked.

“The destruction. I did that. Well, not exactly me.”

“Are you a cryogenically frozen enhanced super soldier, too?” Darcy asked. “Because it seems to be going around.”

“No on the freezing. Yes on the enhancement.”

“You’re joking,” Clint said. “Am I seriously the only normal one here?”

“But you’re not very buff,” Jane said, and then rushed to correct herself. “I mean, not that it’s a bad look or anything but—”

“I didn’t get the version Steve got, and I’ve never quite figured out what Bucky had. Mine was botched. When I get going, it’s more powerful but a lot uglier than these two.”

“Do you mind if I show pictures?” Coulson said. “I personally would find this one a little harder to explain than everyone else’s. I brought your file, just in case this truth-sharing session happened.”

Bruce winced. “If you have to.”

Coulson passed around a folder containing a couple of grainy photographs of something huge and terrifying that perhaps if you squinted and got a good angle on it, might resemble Bruce’s face. No one said anything.

Jane held it the longest. She gulped and finally said, “He… It… You… Doesn’t wear glasses. Does your vision improve? Or are you going around blindly?”

“Vision improves.”

“Oh.” She seemed to have run out of comments, and handed the photos back to Coulson.

Bruce slumped even more than usually into himself, shutting down the topic and creating an awkward silence.

“It’s okay, buddy,” Tony said encouragingly. “I told you. As long as it’s less lame than Clint’s, we’ll all be cool. And this… this is definitely not lame.”

“Well, well,” Fury said, staring at Bucky again. “The Winter Soldier. The Winter Soldier, the Black Widow, Iron Man, Captain America, an unstoppable Hulk, and… and an archer.”

“They used to call me Hawkeye in the circus,” Clint said helpfully. “That could be my code name.”

“No one cares,” Tony said.

Fury shook his head and continued his roll call. “Plus an astrophysicist, the CEO of the world’s largest energy company and sometimes weapons manufacturer and…” He frowned at Darcy. “What is it you do again?”

“Logistics. I make sure everyone’s watered, fed, and in relatively good mental health.”

“An underappreciated but key skill set,” Coulson said with an indulgent half-smile at her. Turning to Fury, he added, “We also have Hill. As well as Fitz and Simmons back in New York. I’ve been hoping they could join as support.”

“That’s quite a team you’ve got under you, Coulson.”

“If we’re talking about the paper, then yes, yes I have. But otherwise, they aren’t my team. They’re his.”

Everyone turned to follow Coulson’s finger as he pointed at Steve. One by one, they all nodded—even Tony.

“Really?” Steve asked all of them.

“Sure,” Clint said. “We’re all fans of Cap’s and fans of yours. Why not?”

“So… You aren’t angry with me for lying?”

“My god, Steve,” Natasha replied. “Have you even been listening for the past hour? Everyone's been lying.”

“I told you coming clean wouldn’t be so bad,” Tony said, ruffling Steve’s hair. Clumps of it came out into his hand. “Gross.”

The next couple of hours flew by in the kind of mad rush Steve was used to when the whole gang was together like this. Clint fired off a barrage of questions to Natasha, who answered them efficiently, turning her head gracefully back and forth between him and the group of scientists who were probing her for more information on Bucky’s medical history. Darcy sat by Steve’s side and asked him question after arbitrary question about time travel and super soldier biology and dating habits of the early 20th century. Like Natasha, he tried to follow both her conversation and the larger one nearby. Pepper sat in the corner writing emails on her phone, because even on a night like this, she had a company to run.

“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” she whispered to Steve while everyone was distracted. “But right before we got the call from Natasha that something had happened to you, a madman attacked Tony in Monaco.”

“Who? Why?”

“I don’t know. I made some calls this morning, but it seems he’s already been transferred somewhere else. No one will even tell me his name.”

“As soon as I can move, I’m on it.”

Now that they had cracked the field issue and knew about his enhanced state, Jane, Tony and Bruce could put their combined knowledge to work. They ran more tests and decided that the force field’s exertion in protecting both Bucky and Steve from such extreme heat had taken a toll on Bucky’s body, and left him unable to fight off a completely separate, but simultaneous, mental trauma.

“Was he acting strangely before you fell? Like someone having a kind of breakdown?” Bruce asked Steve.

“It was like the headaches, but worse than usual. He couldn’t move, was talking nonsense. He figured it out about me, right at the last minute.”

The night wore on and Coulson suggested that most of them start heading home.

“It you aren’t back at work soon, there will be questions. You’re all like Steve now. No one can know what you really are.”

Everyone wanted to wait until Bucky had woken up, but as there was no guarantee that would happen any time soon, they eventually let Coulson arrange for Jane, Bruce, Clint and Darcy to take different flights back to New York, under different names so that SHIELD wouldn’t get the wind up. Bruce handed over all his research to Tony, who promised to look after both of the patients. Natasha had looked murderous when anyone tried to move her from Bucky’s side, so she stayed.

“See you in a few days, Steve,” Darcy and the others said on their way out.

“Captain America may heal faster than most people,” Tony said, “but by rights, he should be dead. Fast in this case still means a few weeks.”

“You go on with them, too, Coulson,” Fury said, leaning back on the couch that Bruce and Jane had been napping on earlier. “I’ll be here when Barnes wakes up to hear what he has to say.”

Given how the smallest movements undid even the super the healing that had begun, Steve was going to be stuck in the chair for the foreseeable future. He napped on and off. Tony came in and out, but by necessity had to spend a lot of time downstairs in the lab, working on whatever Fury had said might cure his blood poisoning.

Steve tried to ask Natasha more about Bucky’s past—what he’d been like, what they’d done, how it worked—but she resolutely shook her head at every one of his questions.

“I only told everyone what I did because I’d run out of options. Any further details are his choice to share with you, not mine.”

“It doesn’t take one of these geniuses to figure out that he hated everything about what he used to be. What if he doesn’t want to share?”

“Then he doesn’t.” She relented upon seeing Steve’s discouraged expression. “It’s not going to be easy, Steve. If this works, and he wakes up, he’s not going to be happy with everyone knowing. He’s not going to want to open up. It’ll take time.”

“I’m good at waiting.”


The next day, Steve woke to the noise of hastily whispered Russian. He looked up and saw Bucky propped up on his elbow—propping himself up on his elbow—while Natasha whispered into his ear.

“Archery? What?” he mumbled, interrupting her stream of incomprehensible syllables.

She shrugged. When her eyes flickered over to Steve, Bucky nodded at the accompanying words. They both saw that he was awake, but kept going without acknowledging it. Bucky said something to her—possibly in Russian as well—but Steve couldn’t hear. She stiffened in surprise and turned to stare questioningly at him, as though she could hardly believe what Bucky was telling her.

Sitting here while the two of them yammered on about him at rocket speeds in a language he couldn’t understand was making Steve uncomfortable.

“Hey you,” Steve said.

Bucky simply nodded at him, his face carefully, meticulously blank. When he spoke, his voice was hesitant and unsure. “Hey.”

Tony, Pepper and Fury entered. As part of her little briefing, Natasha must have already filled Bucky in on the fact that Fury meant him no harm, because he reacted calmly.

“Sorry about your arm.”

“You didn’t do it. I assume Romanov has filled you in.”

“Yeah. I’m guessing you want to know what happened back there.”

Bucky launched into his side of the story, in clinical detail. What he told them about where he’d been was… wow. The story itself was wildly, jaw-droppingly horrible (even Tony was stunned into speechlessness—actual speechlessness, not volubly talking about how speechless he’d been rendered).

But what got Steve was Bucky’s flat, expressionless manner, completely devoid of the freewheeling exuberance he’d never been able to keep out of all of his stories, both oral and written. He kept it impersonal, like a classic mission report—sticking to the objective facts of the case and skimming over anything anyone might have thought or felt. Steve knew him well enough to tell that, while Bucky technically wasn’t leaving anything out, he was leaving everything that mattered to him out, and barely getting through this ordeal.

“So what you’re saying,” Fury said at the end, “is that Laufeyson is actually some sort of immortal Norse god psychopath magician?

Bucky closed his eyes, as though trying to block out the very question he was answering. “He's definitely a magician. Hence the force field. He said he'd keep me alive, and I guess he did, huh? I don’t think he’s actually a god. From what I understood, people just assumed that’s what they were. I think they’re aliens.”

“And he was living here, among us, and no one—not a single one of you—had the slightest idea?”

“He was always odd,” Pepper said kindly, having noticed the obvious discomfort and embarrassment Fury’s question had elicited in Bucky, “but who looks at someone and thinks, ‘I know why he’s so strange! He’s a Norse god!’ It’s not really on the menu of possibilities.”

“Speaking of which, I’m curious,” Tony said. “These realms.. Are they other planets? Or is it like Narnia?”

“Does it matter?” And that’s when Bucky cracked—both his robotically flat tone and his strenuously maintained mask of calm. Through the fissure, and the way his head turtled into his chest, Steve momentarily saw the roiling pain beneath. “What’s the difference?”

Tony was too lost inside his own speculations to register Bucky’s gloom. “It’s the difference between space travel and dimension travel. It’s the difference between aliens and elves. Elves aren’t aliens.”

Bucky suddenly looked tired—more tired than someone who’d just gotten days’ worth of sleep should have. Turning to Fury, he said, “He might be right. There’s something about elves in the book he made me read. He marked up for me which myths are true-ish and which are bullshit.”

“I’ll be very interested to read that.” Fury leaned forward and flexed his fingers. “Gotta say, Barnes, this is all a lot worse than even I imagined. The universe just got a lot bigger in the last five minutes. And if I can’t trust SHIELD, then I don’t know who can keep the Earth safe from these threats.”

“I don’t know if Loki’s a threat. He’s just… lost. And he’s gone now. I don’t think you need to worry about him. He’s off seeking vengeance or some shit in places that aren’t here. I don’t know.”

“I don’t think we can discount him fully. He’s got the Tesseract, he knows how to use it in ways we never imagined, and he’s got a few screws loose. Not the kind of person you want to lose track of.” Fury sighed. “And now I don’t know what the hell I’m going to tell SHIELD. I was hoping you’d be able to help me track Laufeyson down and get the cube back to calm everyone down. Hill was able to get Captain America’s shield out before anyone found it, but he was sighted running from a local airport to the spot, and getting people out. They don’t know anything about you or Laufeyson, but they know Cap was there. Whoever or whatever has infiltrated SHIELD isn’t going to let that go.”

“I can take care of myself.”

“Says the man who can’t even sit,” Bucky snapped, addressing Steve for the first time. “You’re basically swimming in that thing.”

The words were rude, and yet Bucky looked even more destroyed than he had before. Steve wouldn’t have thought it possible.

“No one knows Steve is Captain America,” Natasha pointed out. “Even if they declare a vendetta on him, Steve won’t be in any danger.”

Steve, Natasha, Fury and Tony strategized a bit, making plans for what the team should investigate back on the ground, under their reporter personas, as well as what tactical missions might make sense for their skills. They’d have to keep it subtle, they decided, and take it slow. Whatever was going on had been in the works for long enough that a few weeks of playing it safe wasn’t likely to lead to problems.

While everyone else engaged, Bucky sat and stared into space. Pepper eventually took pity on him and led him to Steve’s bedroom on the other side of the house to find him something to wear other than his hospital gown. But the time they got back, Bucky was clad in the kinds of ugly, comfy clothes college kids leave at home for holiday breaks. Padding around barefoot and with his hair sticking out at odd angles, he managed to make a soft white tee-shirt and too-large gym shorts look like a hip outfit.

Tony wanted to show everyone the new element he’d just created in his lab, and which he was confident could serve as a replacement to the palladium in his arc reactor. “Come on, everyone. I’ll show you. It’s going to change the world.”

“I’ll stay with Steve, if that’s okay,” Bucky said.

Tony looked between them. “Sure. We’ll see you downstairs when you’re done.”

When everyone had left, Bucky grabbed a nearby chair. He straddled it backwards, facing Steve.

“How are you feeling?” Bucky asked.

“I’ll be fine. It’s funny. It’s not that different from when I was recovering from being frozen.”

“If you hadn’t followed us in the first place, none of this would have happened.”

“Tony had a tracker on the shield. If I hadn’t followed you, no one would have found you. Look at it this way: you escaped capture and I get a few weeks paid vacation where I get to sit around being spoiled by Pepper and watching Tony Stark try to have a girlfriend.”

“I guess that’s a way to look at it.” Bucky almost cracked a smile, but it was a sad effort. Something seemed to be troubling him—beyond all the reasons he had to be troubled. He looked at Steve expectantly, and by equal turns in disappointment. As though trying to lead him somewhere, he said, “So. Crazy about everybody’s secrets, huh? I mean, Bruce. I knew something was up with him but I never would have guessed.”

“And you and Natasha,” Steve said, assuming this was where he was going. “I had no idea.”

“Didn’t you now?” Bucky asked suspiciously. “You know, I kept waiting for her to cover it in her little roundup. I kept waiting for Tony or Fury to bring it up, but no one has so far.”

“Bring up what?”

“You’re still gonna deny it?”

“Deny what?”

“You lied to me.”

Steve had been bracing himself for this. “I know. I’m sorry. It’s just that you put Cap on this pedestal from day one and I—”

Bucky waved the words away. “I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the fact that you lied about knowing me.”

“Wh—what?”

“I asked you, pretty much the day you started at the paper. I asked you point blank if we had met before. There was something so familiar about you. But you said we never had.”

This could not have been farther from the conversation Steve had prepared himself for. “I told you we’d never met before because we’d never met before.”

“That’s not true.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I didn’t just figure it out, that you’re Captain America. I remembered. I remembered you. Us. In a burning building and you standing there with the shield. Which means we knew each other before and you didn’t let on.”

“You remembered being in a burning building with me? What, like when we were on that Ruritanian Prime Minister case?”

“No, some other time. During the war. Our clothes looked old-fashioned that way. I was walking across something, like a tightrope, just like the other day, and you were behind me and… It was only a flash, but you had the shield. I saw your face. That's how I knew you were Cap.”

Bucky was clearly raving. People coming out of comas sometimes got muddled, didn’t they? Steve had certainly been confused when he’d first woken up.

“Bucky, you’ve had a trauma. Between everything that happened, going off to who knows where, and Loki—”

“Don’t patronize me. I’m not fucking confused. That moment—that one moment—was the only time I’ve ever felt not confused. I thought we were friends, and now it turns out, all this time, you’ve been playing me. I wanna know why.”

“I’m not playing you, Buck. The first time I ever laid eyes on you was the day you barged into Coulson’s office during my interview and started insulting me.”

“You’ve been lying about everything else. Everyone’s been lying about everything else. This is the only thing that’s ever felt real. It was like all this time… all this time I’ve thought I was allergic to you or something—”

“You thought you were allergic to me?”

“The thing that’s wrong with me, you know, the migraines. It only happens around you, or because of you. And then it was like that all culminated and for one second I remembered, and now…” He slumped forwards against the back of the chair he was straddling, resting his forehead on it. “Now you’re telling me you have no idea what I’m talking about.”

This was like some kind of joke. A joke in really terrible taste—worse than the ones Tony told. “Do you know how much I wish you were right? When Natasha said you were the same age in 1945. And I’ve always said you sound like real, old-school Brooklyn. It might have meant there was someone I could talk to. I wish I could tell you I remember you, but I don’t. You’ve got to trust me.”

Bucky scoffed. “Trust you? You think I’m capable of trusting anyone right now? My boss turns out to be a spy who’s running some sort of sociological experiment on everyone I know. My boyfriend turns out to be a power-mad alien wizard prince instead of a mildly shady financier like I thought. Bruce is… I don’t even know what. And Clint… Clint’s in the fucking circus? And, you know, I've actually read one of those books Pepper writes, in the Danish translation. And my best friend has been giving me exclusives and I didn’t even know.”

“I’m so sorry about that, Bucky, I’m—”

“You had your reasons just as I had mine. It’s more that I didn’t even guess. I don’t even trust myself anymore.” And now they were finally coming to the crux of it, the thing Bucky had been dancing around so far. He wasn’t angry with Steve, not really. He wasn’t angry with anyone. He was scared and only now, after he’d worked himself up, pretended that he was furious, could he get to the heart of it. “And now I might not even be human.”

“You’re not an alien, Bucky,” Steve said. He had no proof, but he knew this with everything he had.

“You don’t know that.”

“It’s just a theory. Like Clint’s about you being Princess Natasha’s bodyguard. Just because somebody thinks it doesn’t automatically make true.”

“It makes a hell of a lot more sense than any other theory, especially if you really don’t remember me, too. Or maybe I’m just crazy. You’ve heard what they did to me—what I am. I’m probably making up symptoms just because I wish you and I were…”

Bucky trailed off, and Steve would have given his right hand to have had him continue.

“Were what, Bucky?”

Bucky kneaded his forehead with his knuckles. “Steve?”

“Yeah, Buck?”

“This sucks.”

Steve wasn’t sure what he was talking about. There were too many things right now that sucked. But what he did note was that Bucky hadn’t yet brought up—with anyone—the fact that he'd had to break up with Loki, that he must have been heartbroken. Knowing what they both knew, Steve figured he was the last person Bucky wanted to talk about this with, and he didn’t know how to help.

There was only one way to jostle Bucky out of one of these spells: try to make him laugh. But Steve wasn’t sure it would work today. Bucky was holding on by a string. But he tried. “Look on the bright side. You might be an elf. Darcy tells me elves are all the rage.”

Bucky shook his head. Very seriously, and just as dejectedly, he replied, “No, I’m supposed to be from Vanaheim. Elves are from Alfheim. And the dark ones come from Svartalfheim.”

“That sounds like a belch.”

This time it half-worked. Bucky chuckled through his clenched jaw. “Maybe Loki only had it half right. Maybe I did fall from one of the realms, just not the one he thought. Maybe I’m a dark elf from Belchland.”

“Sounds like the kind of place you’d be from.”

Steve tried to pat Bucky on the back, but remembered too late that he couldn’t. Watching him wince in pain seemed to hurt Bucky even more than it hurt Steve.

“I believe you, Steve,” Bucky finally said. “I can’t help but believe you, no matter how much I wish you were lying.”

“I don’t have the answers for you now, but we’ll look for them together, okay? There’s got to be an explanation somewhere. As soon as I’m better, we’ll figure this out.”

“Sure.” He didn’t sound very hopeful.

Chapter Text

“I’m not kicking you out,” Tony told Bucky the morning after he woke up. “But medically, there’s nothing wrong with you. Weirdest coma I’ve ever heard of.”

Fury had gone back to DC as soon as he and Steve had hashed out a broad plan. Natasha was on her way out, too, and Bucky was trying to decide what to do.

“How long do you think you’ll be here?” he asked Steve when they were alone.

“Tony thinks maybe three weeks, but if it were up to Pepper, I’d be here forever.” He lowered his voice. “Apparently, he keeps buying her these over the top gifts, and it’s driving her crazy. He tried to get her a bouncy castle yesterday.”

“What for?”

“We don’t know. It’s like he’s forgotten how to be smooth.”

“Coulson wants me and Natasha back in the office,” Bucky said, “but just say the word and I’ll—”

“It would be great to have you, but Coulson’s the boss. Tony and Pepper have got it covered. I’ll be okay.”

Bucky was relieved to hear it. He’d meant the offer; there was nothing he wouldn’t do for Steve. But at the same time, he couldn’t handle looking at him like this—stuck in that chair like a giant, tragic, black and white cookie—and knowing it was all his fault.

Unfortunately, heading back to New York didn’t solve anything. Sure, Steve’s face was now out of Bucky’s line of sight, but images of his condition remained branded into his brain. The guilt followed him home.

Clint met Bucky and Natasha back at their apartment. Together, they went grocery shopping to replace the food that had gone off in their absence. The stuff had actually gone off long before, but they cleaned the fridge too rarely (read: never) to notice. However, once in the store, they realized they didn’t need much. Natasha had been tasked with shadowing Justin Hammer in DC. Some sketchy documents that Fury had secretly gotten his hands on suggested Hammer had been granted an under the table contract after Obadiah Stane’s death. A contract that for some reason, someone at SHIELD didn’t want Director Fury to know about. Natasha wouldn’t be around much, which meant Clint wouldn’t either; the grocery trip resulted mostly in booze purchases.

It was an evening like many evenings they had spent together, but Bucky was having a hard time getting comfortable in his favorite chair. He felt listless and twitchy, and couldn’t think of anything to say. He felt like a third wheel in a way he never before had around them; someone who had often made up a fourth was missing.

They were halfway through a terrible 24 rerun (why were they even watching this?) when Clint asked, “So, is this what it’s like?”

Bucky froze. He supposed it would be like this now. People could ask him about it. He knew Natasha had had no choice but to tell; Tony, Bruce and Jane would never have figured out how to wake him up otherwise. Part of him wished they’d left him, though. Even though everyone was being surprisingly cool and understanding, remaining in a coma might have been preferable to dealing with this, in addition to all the other things he was now dealing with.

“No, it isn’t like this at all,” Natasha answered for them both. “I’ll tell you about it later if you want.”

They switched over to another channel, where The Lord of the Rings was on, the second one, if Bucky remembered correctly. Gandalf was shaking his staff at people and magic shit was happening and…

This had been on ‘the list’. The list of movies Loki and Steve had needed to watch. Their lack of pop culture knowledge was part of what Bucky had so enjoyed about being with them. Like a recent transplant to a new city who relishes the opportunity to show off how well he’s learned the place by giving directions to tourists, Bucky had enjoyed explaining and introducing things to them. As someone who had himself just woken up in this century, hanging out with them had let him see how far he had come. Finding out that they were like him in that way shouldn’t have come as such a surprise.

As the images flowed across the screen, Bucky soon found himself shaking, reliving everything that had happened and feeling his heart break all over again.

“So, is that what it was—”

“Clint…” Natasha warned. She switched over to a channel that was on commercials. “James, are you—?”

“I’m gonna go to bed, okay?”

He stood up and started to head for his room, but Natasha and Clint each grabbed one of his arms and yanked him down onto the couch.

“What is it?” Natasha asked.

They clearly weren’t going to let Bucky get up without saying something, so he made an effort. “Do you think I should have stayed?”

“In LA?” Clint asked at the same moment that Natasha asked, “In Vanaheim?”

Bucky took a second to answer. “Yes.”

“Given that you were sitting around Tony’s house looking shell-shocked the same way you are here,” Natasha said, “it’s a good thing you left. It wasn’t doing Steve any good, and you were just in Tony and Pepper’s way. And as for Vanaheim… Look, we all liked Loki, despite the weirdness and moodiness—”

“And snootiness,” Clint added. “Don’t forget the snootiness.”

“He was one of us. But staying wouldn’t have helped him, or you. And if you had stayed, Steve would have died.”

“But—”

“No buts, no multivariate hypotheticals,” Natasha reminded him.

He supposed she was right. Their training, hard as it may have made them, had some merit.

Knowing he’d done the right thing didn’t make him feel any better, though.


As the days passed, Bucky only felt worse.

Between the guest room at Steve’s place and Loki’s apartment, Bucky had spent the past many months living in Brooklyn mostly in name, spending no more than two or three nights a week in his own bed. And usually, for one of those nights, Loki would deign to stay over, using two disdainful fingers to move piles of clothing or paper or plastic wrapping out of his way. Now Bucky was down his most frequent companions. He found himself spending a new and uncomfortable amount of time alone.

He tried (and failed) to keep his mind off things by throwing himself into work. Every night, he stayed at the office as late as was socially acceptable, and then some. He had a viable excuse; with Steve ‘out on sick leave again’, he had double the load of stories on his plate, plus secret investigations into SHIELD and the rest of it.

Not even that could fill all twenty-four sleepless hours, though. One night, after leaving the office hours after everyone else, his feet started walking without his brain giving any directions. Before he knew it, he found himself standing in front of Loki’s building on Fifth Avenue.

A wild, wretched burst of hope urged him to see if anyone was home. To see if maybe Loki had already realized the folly of his dreams and come back. Bucky didn’t know much about break-ups. The only other relationship he’d ever been in, or could remember having been in, had ended almost too amicably, resulting in the cozy cohabitation he currently enjoyed with Natasha. He was pretty sure relationships didn’t usually end like that one, but he was definitely sure they weren’t supposed to end the way he and Loki had.

Bucky was so miserable right now. He was confused and lost and angry and sad and scared out of his wits. He couldn't yell or fight or get any kind of normal closure, but maybe he could revisit something familiar. He snuck inside the building and made his way upstairs.

Everything in the apartment was exactly as they’d left it. Bucky wandered through all the rooms, fingering all the furniture, trying to see how he could have missed all the signs, trying to spot anything that might help it all make sense.

Loki’s apartment had always been as sterile as a high-concept hotel room. Everything in sleek and minimalist white, green or black, with no pictures or knick-knacks or identifying objects anywhere. Loki had always denigrated personal effects as being ‘disgustingly and dangerously sentimental’.

But tonight, while rooting through every corner of the place in search of understanding, Bucky found a stash of memorabilia hidden in a large drawer in Loki’s armoire. It contained every meaningless gift Bucky had ever given him and mementos from every nice day they’d spent together. Print-outs of playlists Bucky had made for him, ticket stubs from movies they’d gone to, little notes Bucky had left on the kitchen counter on weekday mornings when he'd left Loki slumbering. There was a whole stack of neatly organized photographs—who even got photos printed anymore? Photos of the two of them wrestling on Tony’s helipad, Loki teaching Steve slight of hand, Loki and Natasha curled up together on the couch, Bucky slamming down a winner in Cards Against Humanity, the whole gang at a party at Tony's.

Loki had annotated each item, cataloguing not just the date and location of the memory, but also his unique perspective on the occasion.

October 12: Took J to Library Bar at Hudson Hotel for cocktails on strength of the name. Enraged by false advertising; distinct lack of books. Went home and tried my hand at a Manhattan. J said it was superior to the bar’s. While well-meaning, his skills at deception could use some tutelage, which I will provide.

November 24: Thanksgiving with J and N. American feasting day not dissimilar to ‘every day in Asgard’. J and N ordered Chinese but nodded to apparent tradition by procuring for me a pie. J unfortunately defiled his slice with ice cream.

December 31: T’s party rather agreeable, thanks to P’s organization. Will offer her key position in my court. Suffered through J & N’s revolting annual kiss, then charitably allowed S to moon over J for rest of evening. Enjoyed reward for my generosity later.

It went on and on like that—episodes Bucky remembered well, but with an added layer of dickish yet oddly affectionate Asgardian commentary. Bucky’s heart hurt with missing him, missing this weirdness. Most of the whimsy had come into and gone out of his life along with Loki. Everything was so fucking literal again.

Bucky knew ending it had been the right decision. But, indefensible megalomaniacal bastard though Loki had turned out to be, Bucky had cared about him just as much as this box of ‘disgusting sentiment’ proved that Loki had cared about him. He didn’t know how to switch it off just because he’d found out about all the terrible things he’d done. He couldn’t help but worry about him, off in space or something, all alone with no one to keep him from going even more off the deep end.

Bucky meant to leave, really he did. But somehow, he ended up slipping out of his clothes and dragging two of the pelts out onto the balcony. Just as they’d done together countless times, he stared across the vast blackness of the park, watching the lights turn off, one by one, far away on Central Park West. He slept out there—or tried to sleep, shifting fitfully and getting whiffs of Loki as his nose pressed against new sections of the fur.

The next morning, he got a fresh set of clothes from ‘his drawer’ and snuck out again. On his way to work, he stopped by Bruce’s office to drop off a Ziploc bag containing a strand of long black hair he’d found tangled in the white fur. It provided him with a rational reason for having been there. He tried to tell himself that something like that was what he’d gone there looking for in the first place. For science, he told himself. Sure. Science.

“Where did you get this?” Bruce asked.

“My pillow,” Bucky lied.

It hadn’t been meant to happen at all, and even then, Bucky told himself it could only ever be a one-time thing. But a few nights later, he found himself tossing and turning from new nightmares about Norse myths and Steve on fire. He got dressed, rode the subway to Manhattan, and snuck in all over again. And again. And again.

Bucky had spent years faking normality. As Loki probably would have said, the circumstances may have been different, but the principles of deceit remained the same. The only person who could have noticed anything was wrong with him was Natasha, but she was off traveling for work—both kinds of work.

Every day, Bucky went into the office wearing the same half-smile he always did and pretending everything was fine.


Three weeks went by and he was definitely not fine.

Bruce pressed a button on the MRI machine to bring Bucky sliding back into the room.

“So, doc, what’s the verdict?”

“Hard to say.”

Bucky swung his legs down to the ground and went over to where Bruce stood peering at the readings. Over the years, Bucky had spent more time in MRI machines and seen more scans of his brain than anyone should ever have been subjected to. The panic button still hung on a piece of string near the door. Bucky hadn’t needed it. He’d never even been offered it before Bruce. Panic had never been an option.

“This is going to sound funny…” Bruce said.

“My physiognomy has been called a lot of things over the years, but ‘hilarious’ isn’t one of them.”

“I think you’re better.”

At first, Bucky responded with a cocked eyebrow, but Bruce wasn’t looking. So, he tried again, vocally this time. “Define ‘better’, because I’ll tell ya, I feel just about the same.”

“Well, you look a lot worse.” Bruce wordlessly catalogued Bucky’s sunken eyes, unhealthy pallor, the bones protruding unattractively from his face and elbows. But when Bucky failed to accept the invitation to talk, he shook his head and let it go. That was the good thing about Bruce: he didn’t want to talk about shit either, and therefore didn’t give anyone a hard time. “The head trauma has cleared up. Do you see here?” He pointed in short little jabs with the eraser end of a pencil. It was same spot he’d pointed at during their all meetings, even before the fiasco in the SHIELD facility. “That was flaring when you were in a coma a few weeks ago, but the synapses have calmed down.”

“So what you’re saying is…” Bucky prompted, because while Bruce made much more of an effort than Tony or Jane to put things in layman’s terms, he still required a little prompting to get past the academic mumbo-jumbo.

“The episode is over. The symptoms that have been bothering you have worked themselves out. You haven’t had any headaches since you’ve been back, have you?”

“No. But Steve hasn’t been around either. It won’t be conclusive until he gets back. You should test him, too.”

“He doesn’t remember you, Bucky,” Bruce said patiently. “Whatever you thought you remembered, there’s no rational explanation that would allow for—”

“Magic isn’t rational.” Bucky could hear himself growing unnecessarily defensive, but he couldn’t help it. As the days went by without any further information, the confidence he had felt about his memory—or whatever it was—had begun to fade. He didn’t want to accept it, but everyone was probably right; his already-fucked brain had simply crafted an image out of something he had subconsciously guessed. Changing the subject, he asked, “What about that hair strand I got you? What’s the DNA read on that?”

“It’s odd, but not radically so. Not any more different from normal humans than you are. Or Steve. Or me. If he—or you—really are non-humans, I would have expected to see something unreadable. He very well might be an escaped experiment, just like you and me. Loki looks fine, but according to what you said, perhaps his side effect was insanity.”

“He wasn’t crazy. He was…”

If there was a word for what Bucky thought Loki was, it didn’t exist in any of the many languages he knew. Something wild and dangerous and unstable, but ultimately more complicated and rational than pure evil or batshit lunatic absurdity. His first instinct was to snap back, but then he reminded himself that just because he had been blind to months’ worth of issues didn’t mean Bruce was wrong for pointing them out, inadequate vocabulary and all.

“He said he had been stripped of something or other,” Bucky continued. “Reduced to a lowly form or some shit. Maybe while he was here—before he got the cube to restore his clothes and his magic and everything—maybe he was mostly like us, but then after he… Look, I don’t know how it works. But if it happened to him, then maybe it happened to me, too. Maybe I’m all ‘reduced’.”

“The cube restores clothes, too?” Bruce asked skeptically. “I missed that part of the story the first time. It teleports, powers weapons, and doubles as a tailor? Is there anything it can’t do?”

Bucky knew this sounded pathetically made up and exaggerated. It didn’t help that he’d fallen into a coma right after remembering things that he couldn’t explain and which not even Steve could back up. The testimony of a brainwashed amnesiac was easy to dismiss.

“Jane believes me.” Bucky had recently learned this was the best way to get Bruce off his back.

“Jane wants to believe that what you say you saw really happened. But she doesn’t believe ‘magic’ is the explanation.” Bruce carefully filed the readings into his briefcase and asked, not casually at all, “How is she, by the way?”

“Why don’t you call and ask her yourself?” Bucky shot back while he put his clothes back on.

Bruce mumbled something unintelligible. Bucky thought he could make out words like ‘busy’ and ‘deadlines’ and ‘research’, none of which sounded particularly compelling.

Normally—even a month ago—Bucky would have stayed another twenty minutes to give Bruce a pep talk. He’d probably even have concocted a reason for Bruce to swing by the office, or manipulated the two idiots into running into one another at lunch.

But these days, Bucky couldn’t bring himself to give a shit. It wasn’t as though he liked Bruce any less. Quite the contrary. But he almost hoped they would both simply get over it. He understood why Bruce was giving Jane such mixed signals. Things like this never ended well, not for people like him—them. Bruce’s and Jane’s shy, nerdy reticence was a blessing disguised in lab goggles.

“I’ll see you…” Bruce checked his calendar. “Do we have anything set…?”

“Clint’s organizing something for this weekend to celebrate Steve coming back. He’ll send the info on your regular phone, not the bat phone.”

Tony had made them all special phones that were only able to call one another. Bucky needed another secret phone like he needed a hole in the head, but oh wait, he already had plenty of those, too. So far, they hadn’t rung, but that was only because everyone was off working on their own individual pieces of various puzzles, in addition to being swamped with regular work.

Unlike Darcy and Jane and Clint, who had been nothing but tickled to find themselves drafted into some sort of super squad headed up by Captain America, Bucky and Bruce wanted no part of it. People like them weren’t meant to serve on teams with other people, and definitely not with people like Captain America… Steve… whatever. But it would have been the height of assholery to say no.

Bucky hunched his shoulders inside his coat and exited the building onto 42nd Street. They had entered the worst part of winter—the part where it continued to happen despite everyone being long over it.

New Yorkers tended to fall into two camps: those who took the 7 when they wanted to go from Grand Central to Times Square, and those who took the Shuttle. Each not-so-quietly judged the others. There were a scant few who tried to argue that both trains were useful, depending on certain hyper-specific situations you might happen to find yourself in, but no one paid those people any attention. Steve had taken an unheard-of ‘Why is even this an issue? Why isn’t everyone walking?’ position, to which no one knew how to respond. Because of this, Bucky had done the walk from here to the office on countless mornings, clutching the homemade coffee that served as the precursor to his next one, while Steve yammered at him, teased him, and patiently waited for Bucky’s habitual morning monster mood to break.

But today he wasn’t coming from a night spent crashed at Steve’s. Steve hadn’t even been around, and it was all Bucky’s fault.

And deprived of even the paltry two or three-hour snatches of sleep he’d subsisted on for years, he’d been in a non-stop monster mood for almost a month.

Today, he slipped into the subway and took the 7.

He tried to play it cool, like he did every day, but this morning no one was letting him.

First it was Darcy, whose eyes went uncharacteristically wide when he passed by her desk, and whose voice sounded entirely too worried when she asked how he was.

“I’m fine. What?”

“Just checking.”

Then it was Clint, who stopped by while Bucky was still shucking off his coat. He held out a tray of egg burritos that had been catered in for a meeting. “You want one?”

“I already ate. Thanks.” But when Clint hung around a little too long, Bucky gestured impatiently. “You need something?”

“No, man. Just… keep on keeping on.”

“Will do.” Bucky stared after him for a minute before heading over to Jane’s office. They had a standing biweekly meeting to discuss potential new story ideas that didn’t quite fit her team’s skills.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said. “Had a check-up.”

Her eyes lit up. “With Bruce?”

Bucky stifled a groan. “Yeah, with Bruce.”

“How is he?”

“I’m the one who had the check-up, Jane.”

“Right. I mean, how are you?”

“Same as always.”

“That’s good.” She opened and shut her desk drawers, looking for a pen that was right in front of her. “Did he say if he’s coming on Saturday?”

This bullshit had been more than enough the first time. “No. I don’t know.”

“It’s okay, Bucky,” she said patiently. “We all understand.”

“Understand what? Ugh, do you have assignments for me or not?”

“Not this week, no. You’ve been putting in a lot of hours. You’ve gone through the whole backlog.”

“Great. Meeting adjourned then?”

Bucky stomped over to Natasha’s office and slammed the door behind him.

“What is wrong with everybody?”

She looked up from her computer screen, completely blasé. “You’ve been cranky lately. I know you’re dealing with a lot, but even that isn’t a good enough reason for the antisocial behavior you’ve been indulging in. You’re like a bear. Everyone’s more scared of poking you than they are of Banner.”

“I’m nice. I’m pleasant.”

“You snapped at poor Simmons last week for some basic fact-checking on your Senator Stern article. Simmons.”

“No one should be that perky about finding errors. And anyway, that was last week. What’s that got to do with today? Everybody’s acting strange today.”

“They’re acting exactly as they have all month. Maybe you’re the one on edge and that’s why you’re noticing it. Steve’s supposed to come back today, isn’t he?”

“So?”

She shook her head. “That doesn’t work on me. I don’t know why you even try. Anyway, if you’re not going to be straight with me, I’m going to go.”

Natasha’s chic luggage—a limited edition Louis Vuitton roller gifted to her by an adoring Nicolas Ghesquière—sat in a corner, packed and ready for her imminent trip to DC.

“When are you getting back?”

“I don’t know yet. I have to play it by ear.” Natasha softened, only capable of so much tough love towards him. “Do you need me to stay this time? I know I haven’t been around as much as—”

“The job’s more important. How is it, by the way? Getting back into the game.”

She hesitated before replying. “Easier than I wanted it to be.”

This was exactly what Bucky had been afraid to hear.

Natasha was right that Bucky was even more on edge than usual. Steve was coming back. Steve was coming back and Bucky had no idea what he was supposed to do.

It wasn’t as though they hadn’t had contact in the past few weeks. They talked on Skype most days—about cases and edits and a little chit-chat. Things were as normal as they could be. Steve didn’t seem angry, but that meant nothing to Bucky, who still blamed himself for getting him hurt.

Bucky sat at his desk and spent a couple of hours working, trying to distract himself from the ticking time bomb that was Steve’s imminent arrival. Then he heard squeals on the other side of the floor. He glanced up, and there, in the middle of a gaggle of adoring coworkers, stood Steve, wearing the same dumb shirt and bright smile that he had every single day. Bucky felt everything inside him swell—from the swallow caught in his esophagus to the heart that beat so hard it pressed against over-full lungs, to the hot coil of desire that he had desperately been trying to repress for what felt like ages. Maybe it was because he was seeing Steve again after an absence, or maybe it was because he no longer had Loki, but the strength of his own reaction surprised even Bucky.

He watched as Steve lied without lying, smiled and blushed as half the office fawned over his return. No one should have believed the month-long sick leaves Steve kept taking, but his hopelessly sincere aura got him pretty far. It explained why no one—not even Bucky—had guessed the secret he’d been harboring.

Bucky remained in his chair, paralyzed, but Steve kept looking over and between people’s heads, trying to make eye contact. When he finally did, his face lit up; Bucky didn’t deserve to be looked at like that. In between hugs, Steve made a hand signal suggesting they catch lunch downstairs after he’d said hello to everyone else. Half terrified, half bursting with happiness, Bucky nodded and felt himself smile for the first time in weeks.

“So,” Steve said later, downstairs at Schnippers as they picked up their orders and took their trays to one of the corner tables, away from outsiders’ ears. “How does this work?”

“What, the secret team within the editorial team? No one’s got a clue. We were already pretty cliquey. The only difference is now we have some extra meetings. Half the time, I don’t know if I’m off to discuss readership stats or SHIELD firewalls.”

“Yeah, I’ve called into some of those. Didn’t know how it worked when you’re actually in the building, though. And what about you? How are you holding up?”

“I’m fine. Bruce gave me a clean bill of health this morning. As clean as I get, anyway.”

“That’s not really what I meant.”

“I’ll live.”

Bucky’s face must have reflected his pain, because Steve stopped eating.

“Bucky?”

“No, really. I’m fine.”

“What have you been doing with yourself after work?” Steve asked next, after a quizzical look.

“There hasn’t been much ‘after work’ for me. It’s been pretty crazy. I’m glad you’re back.” Bucky had been busying himself with his food and stuffing his face a little too quickly, as a way of avoiding eye contact, but he looked up and met Steve’s concerned stare. He owed him the truth. Even if everything else was a mess, he couldn’t lose their friendship. He needed Steve to know that he meant the world to Bucky, no matter what. He’d been feeling cowardly and horrible, but he’d man up for this—for Steve. “I mean, it. I really am glad you’re back. Not only to help with the workload. Just in general. I… I missed you.”

There, he’d said it. The words hung in the air between them. Bucky waited for it: The Talk. He supposed he couldn’t put it off forever. The talk about Bucky’s past and Steve’s secret identity and Bucky’s feelings and Steve’s feelings and what might but never should happen now that Loki was out of the picture and…

But Steve surprised him.

“I missed you, too,” he replied after a little too long of a pause, and a little too big of a gulp on his soda. “It’s nice to be back.”

Bucky waited for Steve to continue, to go somewhere mushy, but that appeared to be it.

They spent the rest of lunch and the rest of the day talking about work and SHIELD and recent happenings in the city and the million things they’d talked about before any of this had happened.

Steve must have gotten over it.

Bucky couldn’t tell if he was relieved or disappointed.


The train, which had been lurching along much slower than the Acela’s advertised speeds, finally ground to a complete halt in the middle of nowhere, somewhere long past Philadelphia.

Steve, whose heart had remained clenched with apprehension for the entire journey so far, began to rap his fingers against the windowpane. Beside him, Bucky fidgeted in his seat, arranging his legs this way and that, trying to get comfortable without physically pressing up against him.

Despite the awkward shuffling, Steve was relieved to see that, in the few days since his return, they’d recovered as much of their previous dynamic as possible: playing their buddy cop routine with sources; Bucky leaning over Steve’s shoulder to scribble on his drafts; Steve serving as thesaurus whenever Bucky looked up at him from across their desks with his lower lip bitten in thought. Bucky had even been the only one to recognize how nervous Steve was about this visit to Peggy.

But although they were doing as well as could be expected—better, even—Steve could see that Bucky was teetering on the edge of nervous collapse. More casual observers would have missed the signs, but studying Bucky had long been something of a hobby of his. He hadn’t even needed the note Natasha had left asking him to keep an eye out. Pure bravado was holding Bucky together; he’d taken to keeping a tight smile on his face as a way of distracting from his tired eyes. No one could blame him, but it killed Steve to watch and not know how to help.

“Because of a signal malfunction at Baltimore,” the infuriatingly placid voice of the conductor finally droned, “we are experiencing delays in Acela service. We’ll keep you posted on any updates. Sorry for the inconvenience.”

“I can’t be late. Not again, not with her,” Steve said.

“You asked for it,” Bucky said with another aborted stretch. “Tony gave you a plane and a crew whose sole job is to sit around and wait for you to call. Yet here we are, taking the train.”

“I already told you. It doesn’t feel right. Outside of emergencies, I don’t want to use it. Not unless I can fly it myself.”

“That’s kind of a problem for a guy who’s never flown a plane.”

“There was that one time, but it didn’t end very well.” That might have been the first time Steve had ever joked about what had happened to him. There was so much he wanted to ask Bucky and so many new topics they should have been discussing but had hardly broached yet. He hoped laughing about his own problems might help nudge Bucky into loosening up, but he remained stone-faced. Steve repressed a sigh and continued. “I signed up for lessons. My first one’s next week.”

“That’s good.”

“Do you know how to fly a plane?” Steve asked hesitantly.

“It’s been a really long time. The cockpit tech has probably changed since then.”

Steve had only been back for a couple of days, and even though they’d been in pretty regular contact over the past few weeks, he was still getting used to this. Bucky could (not that he did) name-drop decades the way people name-dropped months in a year. But just because Steve now knew about it didn’t mean Bucky wanted to talk about his time as the Winter Soldier.

“I bet the principles are the same, though. Maybe you could teach me the basics.” Steve was still trying all the different ways he could think of to make talking about the past less painful. Today, he was trying to put a positive spin on what little drops of information came out.

“I know what you’re doing,” Bucky said.

“Is it working?”

Bucky smiled sadly. “We could take a course together. I’d rather relearn from scratch. Make the skill my own.”

Yeah, it was working.

“That’d be nice.” Steve tried to sound blasé about it, so that he didn’t push him too far.

Bucky cast a sidelong glance over at Steve. “Yeah. Yeah, it would.”

“Even with the delay, this is still so much faster than the trains used to be,” Steve said, trying to distract himself from the swirling emotions that threatened to choke him about this visit. “I rode this route once, right after the serum.”

He told a story he hadn’t had call to relate since the war. Bucky smiled, asked questions, seemed engaged… Everything was fine until the end, when he caught the unspoken question in Steve’s voice. Then his entire face shut down.

“I don’t remember, Steve,” he said.

“That’s not why I—”

“Yes it was. You told that story, and part of you—a pretty big part, I’m wagering—hoped it would ring a bell. But that’s not how it works. Telling me stories isn’t going to make it happen.”

“One day it mi—”

“From what I can tell, and from what Bruce has been saying, it’s physical, not verbal. I have to be physically doing something to set it off. And so far, those somethings have all been pretty extreme. So unless you want me to fall into another fire…”

“It isn’t always linked to something life threatening,” Steve said without thinking.

The hotel room incident to which Steve referred must have struck Bucky a second later, because he inhaled quickly and looked away. Curled up in bed together with Bucky pressed flush against Steve’s back and his…

No. They weren’t doing this now. They couldn’t. Bucky was in no shape to, and even if he had been, what was the point? It was obvious he wasn’t interested; he’d never been interested. Steve needed to find a way to move past this, past feeling choked all the time. Anyway, today he was on his way to see Peggy, and that was more than enough to deal with.

A minute later, as a kind of apology for having shut him down before, Bucky said, “You can tell me another one if you want. Something else from… before.”

But Steve decided to try something else. “How about you tell me a story? From before.”

“There’s nothing to tell.”

“Sure there is. You weren’t always on ice.”

Bucky grimaced. “Which do you want to hear? About the time I killed a couple while they were on honeymoon? Or the time I shot a world leader in front of his children? I’m not you, Steve. My secret stories aren’t legendary acts of heroism. I’ve already told you everything you ever want to know about me. Trust me.”

“I won’t make you. But I want you to know that I’ll listen, whenever you’re ready.”

“You sure are a glutton for punishment.” Bucky opened his laptop again and went back to work.

“I’m not the only one.”

Bucky looked up. “Huh?”

Steve reached over and picked a piece of white fur from Bucky’s hoodie. And another. And a third.

“You’ve been going over there by yourself, haven’t you?”

Bucky flinched away and shut down all over again. “I’m fine. Haven’t worn this hoodie in awhile. It’s probably just…”

There was no way Steve was getting past that wall right now. He bided his time.

When they finally reached the little townhouse in Georgetown, Bucky wasn’t the only one who was a mess. It had been seventy years for her, only one for Steve. A whole life. He had actually thought she was dead until Fury had handed him that slip of paper. She’d changed her name when she got married and SHIELD had hidden her address so well after she retired that not even JARVIS had been able to find anything about her when Steve had asked months ago.

He was thrown when a nurse answered the door; he didn’t know what he’d expected. Peggy herself, maybe? Of course it made sense that she might need a live-in nurse; she was ninety-five, after all. But in his mind, she was still that beautiful, deadly, energetic British agent he was supposed to go dancing with when the war was over, as a prelude to a lot of other things they’d never said but had understood.

Steve’s hair hadn’t yet regrown past a fuzzy crew. He kept patting it, unsure whether to be rude and leave his cap on or take it off and let her see.

“You look great, Steve,” Bucky said encouragingly. “You always look great. I’ll be waiting down here, okay?”

The nurse led Steve upstairs. Peggy lay in a hospital bed, hooked up to tubes and monitors and all sorts of gadgets. She was still beautiful. But seeing her like this—so different from the locket he still kept on his dresser—made the time shift he’d experienced feel real and permanent in a way it hadn’t before. Even after almost a year, Steve sometimes still thought he was dreaming, that he’d wake up back in 1945. But there was no going back.

He kept a smile plastered on his face as he approached the bed and handed her the flowers he’d bought at the train station.

“You finally made it,” Peggy said. Her voice was lower, scratchier, but hadn’t lost its sheen of sarcasm.

That brought him out of his head and back to himself—back to them.

“Got caught up. Had some things to take care of.”

Peggy pointed to the chair beside the bed. “Sit. I see you’ve cut your hair?”

She made it easier than it should have been. He supposed she’d had seventy years to imagine this impossible moment, whereas he’d only had a few weeks. Peggy had always been one step ahead of him—wiser, wilier, and worldlier. Now she had overtaken him by an entire lifetime. She had somehow become even more amazing than he remembered. Steve was left feeling a little like that skinny kid who didn’t know what fondue was—like a different person entirely.

Efficiently yet entertainingly, she caught him up on what she’d been up to. He couldn’t stop asking questions. He also couldn’t stop—though he tried—to imagine what it would have been like to have been there with her. She’d experienced milestones that he, as a young man, still couldn’t even imagine. She’d not only experienced them; she’d learned from them and gone onto the next thing, and the one after that.

He asked her about everything he could, and listened equally closely to all of her stories, both personal and professional. Steve didn’t know how to tell her that her life’s work might have been poisoned by the very enemy she had started out to destroy, so he let her talk about SHIELD in her own way, asking questions that could be considered understandable chit-chat, hoping to glean anything he could without being obvious about it. Her stories were fascinating enough that he had a hard time focusing on the parts that might matter to his mission. He got lost in her voice and mannerisms and all the million little things he’d missed about her.

“But enough about me,” she finally said, interrupting one of Steve’s countless questions. “I want to know how you’re getting on. I saw the reports on the television, of course. That Captain America was back. At first I dismissed it as an army stunt. But then I watched that press conference on CNN—the one where Howard’s son told everyone he was Iron Man. Even with the mask, I knew it was you—it was your voice, your trick of speech. I called Nicholas straightaway. He said you were doing well. I wanted to call but—”

“If I had known where to find you, I would have come immediately.”

“But are you happy, love? Hearing from Nicholas that you had carved out a life for yourself away from the Army—like you always wanted and had always been fighting for—well, it was everything I ever dreamed of for you.”

“I’m doing really well, and it’s all thanks to you. If you hadn’t insisted that my private name be stripped from anything Captain America related… Steve Rogers is a common enough name, but I don’t think I’d be able to have what I have now if you hadn’t made it possible.”

“It was all perfectly selfish, I assure you. The Army and the country and the world could have Captain America, but when it was all done, I had hoped Steve Rogers and I could quietly disappear.”

Steve didn’t know what to say except that that was what he’d wanted then, too. “Peggy…”

“Some plans are better left thwarted. I’ve led a wonderful life and now I get to know you will, too. Tell me about it. I never thought I would subscribe to a New York paper, but I now get the Herald every morning and have it read to me. You and Howard’s incorrigible son are close, I take it. But what else?”

Steve told her anything he could think of about what he was up to. Living with Tony, how Pepper looked after him, the friends he’d made at the office, his incredibly luxurious apartment he still sometimes felt guilty for liking so much, his mostly successful efforts to acclimate to this new century… “And my best friend is the guy who shares all my bylines. He’s downstairs right now, actually. Made the trip from New York with me.”

Peggy peered at him, as though maybe reading something further into his words. Steve tried to pretend it was no big deal, which probably only gave it away more.

“I’d like to meet him.”

Steve popped into the hallway and called down the stairs. Bucky entered the room a minute later, taking his hat off and holding it shyly.

“Peggy, this is Bucky Barnes.”

“Nice to meet you, ma’am.”

“Don’t ma’am me, young man. Call me Peggy.” She shuffled in the sheets to find a more comfortable gabbing position. “Now, tell me all about what Steve has been getting up to. He’s never been very good at talking about himself, and he always leaves out the best bits.”

“The more embarrassing the better?” Bucky asked with a sly wink.

“Obviously.”

Steve put his head in his hands. “Introducing you two was a terrible idea.”

“What, scared I’ll steal your best girl?”

Bucky began telling Peggy all about Steve’s first days at the paper. But now he had the hindsight of knowing Steve was Captain America, a 40s kid turned defrosted super soldier, which added an affectionate layer of humor that had never come up before. Bucky had been so resistant to talking about anything—not just his own past, but everyone else’s—that Steve had started to wonder if he was angrier about the lies than he had been letting on. However, these stories made it clear that far from making things uncomfortable, the new information had simply given Bucky more context to care about.

“But you’re not just here to rag on Steve, are you?” Peggy asked after they’d shared a long laugh. “Out with it.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore. I already know the answer.”

“I don’t follow.”

“Well, you see, ma’am.” Flustered, Bucky reverted to the formality Peggy had earlier insisted he drop. “I was hoping this wasn’t the first time we’ve met. But it seems that it is. And that’s too bad, because it’s either that you remember me, or I’m crazy, or I’m a space alien.”

Peggy was understandably taken aback. “That’s a little extreme, don’t you think?”

Steve explained in broad strokes about Bucky’s memory loss and longevity, about his flash of memory. Peggy, by virtue of having worked on Hydra, and later with SHIELD, must have been one of the few people on Earth who could have listened to such a story with a straight face.

“I never thought it possible, Steve,” Peggy said when he’d finished, “but you’ve managed to do it.”

“Do what?”

“Find someone even more dramatic than yourself.”

Bucky tried and failed to stifle a laugh at that. “He’s still pretty damn dramatic. I’d call it a draw, actually.”

“All these years, we chased you, the Winter Soldier. I was one of the very few who thought there was something to the tale. And now… here you are. However, this is one case in which I would have preferred not to have been right all along. What they must have done to you. You poor, poor dear.” She squeezed Bucky’s hand. “But as for your original question… Are you certain I should remember? If you two grew up in the same place, perhaps…”

“It could be.” Bucky explained to Peggy about his birth certificate, how everything lined up except for the fact that he couldn’t find documentation of his army enlistment. “But the thing I think I remembered had to have happened after. He looked the way he looks now.”

“That’s an awful lot of pressure to place on an old woman’s memory. Come here, Mr. Barnes. Let me look at you.”

Bucky came closer and she reached up to cup his face, turning it this way and that.

“If you were mad, I think I’d know by now. As they say, one has only to look at a person and talk to them to see that they are not mad. And as for your other possibility… I know my eyes aren’t what they used to be, but you don’t look like a space alien.”

“They aren’t always little green men,” Steve tried to explain. “Sometimes they look completely human.”

“How do you know?”

“We know one—knew one.” Steve refrained from telling her that Bucky had gotten a much closer inspection than the rest of them. “He looked like a regular guy, mostly. None of us suspected anything.”

Peggy looked between Steve and Bucky, her deep brown eyes widening. Then her smile faltered. “I am very sorry, but you don’t look familiar.”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bucky said with a fragile version of his usual charm. “It doesn’t mean I wasn’t there. It could be that we never crossed paths. And even if we did, I’m sure it would be hard to remember someone like me when someone like Steve was around.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that. You’re quite handsome yourself.”

“I meant because he’s such a handful. You probably didn’t have attention to spare anyone else.”

“I like this one, Steve. He seems able to keep you in line. Not many can.”

“I do my best, ma’am,” Bucky replied.

As Steve took a breath to give voice to a comeback, something shifted in Peggy’s face, switched from indulgence to shock.

“Steve?” she asked, as though they hadn’t been talking for hours. “Is it really you? Are you really back? How is it possible?”

The ground Steve had been walking on was ripped from under him. A despairing litany of No no no no no echoed through his brain. He wanted to shake something, punch something, but none of his immediate reactions were relevant here. This wasn’t a situation anyone had taught him how to handle.

Thankfully, Bucky slipped in to hold Peggy’s hand while signaling with his eyes for Steve to ring for the nurse.

“They rescued him from the ice, ma’am,” he said reassuringly. “He survived the crash. Leave it to Steve to save the world and come out on top.”

Peggy seemed to spot her own wrinkled hands for the first time. Glancing between them and Steve’s youthful face, she asked, “What’s going on? What’s wrong with me?”

Bucky’s flirtatious smile would have convinced someone a hell of a lot less confused than Peggy when he replied, “Absolutely nothing, doll.”

The nurse came into the room and settled Peggy back into the sheets. She continued to marvel at Steve’s miraculous appearance for a few minutes, and he attempted to replay a much more painful version of the conversation they’d just had. Bucky sat quietly behind Steve, rubbing his back encouragingly. Then, just as suddenly as it had shifted, Peggy came back again. She shook her head and her eyes cleared.

“Peggy?” Steve asked hopefully.

“Yes, of course.” She looked at their nervous faces. “Oh dear. I’m so sorry.”

“Nothing to be sorry about,” Steve said automatically.

“I know what you were implying before,” she said, picking up the conversation as though there hadn’t just been an incident. “You and Nicholas think SHIELD has been compromised, but you were too worried about my feelings to come out and say it. You needn’t be. We trusted a lot of people over the years that we probably shouldn’t have, and made compromises in the name of a higher cause that may have been damaging. It would bring me nothing but joy to see you weed out any problems. If there’s anyone I trust to look after my legacy, it’s you, Steve.”

“How do you suggest we do this?”

“You’ll want to go back to the beginning. I have records of everything we ever did. You should read them and get a bit of a history. It may help you.”

“Nothing like that was in the files from Howard that Tony has.”

“Of course it wasn’t,” she said. “Howard’s job was scientific development and operations. Mine was spy craft and administration. He retained control of his records, and I retained control of mine.”

“Where are these files?”

“The most and least obvious place. Camp Lehigh. That’s where it all started, isn’t it?”

“It’s still there?”

“It was there twenty years ago when I retired. There’s a secret office in the munitions barracks.”

“There weren’t any munitions barracks there when I trained. That wasn’t allowed.”

“We built it afterwards. Not everyone remembers the rules like you do, Steve, though most people still manage to be better at following them. You’ll need the password to get into my safe.”

“What is it?”

“Your Army serial number.” She smiled weakly. “It was something I could easily remember—had reason to want to remember. And it was symbolic. You were our team’s greatest accomplishment, Steve. You were the high point of the entire endeavor. It all rather went downhill after you. We merely tried to keep what you stood for going. I’m not entirely sure we did a good job.”

Steve squeezed her hand. “You did the best you could, which was always better than anyone else.”

Bucky coughed. “I’m really sorry but…”

“Yeah, we should probably start heading back to the city,” Steve said, hating to leave her again.

“It was nice to meet you, Mr. Barnes.”

“Bucky. You gotta call me Bucky.” He winked at Steve. “I’ll be in the living room. Don’t do anything too scandalous while I’m gone, you two.”

They sat for a few more minutes, reminiscing and making peace with the past.

“You’ll report back what you find, won’t you? And you’ll visit again?”

Steve kissed her hand. “As often as I can.”

A few minutes later, Steve found Bucky downstairs by the fireplace, hands in his pockets, staring thoughtfully at the photographs on the mantelpiece.

“You ready?”

“Yeah.”

“She’s really something,” Bucky said after a few minutes of silence on their walk to the bus stop.

Steve was still a little overwhelmed and numb, so his answer came out more automatic-sounding than he really felt. “She is, isn’t she?”

“And you loved her. Probably still do.”

Steve wasn’t sure where Bucky was going with this, but then stopped to think that perhaps he wasn’t going anywhere at all, was just trying to be a good friend.

“Of course I do. I knew, when I first woke up. My first thought was about Peggy, but Pepper explained to me what had happened… I knew right away that it was over. But waking up one day to find out something’s over doesn’t mean you’re immediately over it.”

“No,” Bucky mumbled. “It doesn’t.”

There was a long pause during which Steve held his breath, wondering if Bucky was going to open up. There were more things Steve wanted to say, too—things that perhaps Bucky hadn’t yet figured out. That finding out something was over didn’t mean everything was over. But he wasn’t sure if Bucky was ready to hear that yet, or to hear it from him.

Almost angrily, Bucky said, “All this time I’ve been feeling sorry for myself about the life I don’t have. I didn’t stop to think that your life was taken from you, too. All those photographs… those should’ve been your kids. That should’ve been your life.”

“I wasn’t there. I made a choice.”

“Letting the world blow up or drown trying to save it isn’t much of a choice.”

“I can’t begrudge her the life she had. I can’t begrudge him that either. She deserved the happiness she got.”

“No, she deserved you.”

“It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m good. I have a whole life. And who knows? It might even turn out to be better than the one I might have had with her.”

Steve wasn’t just trying to cheer himself up; he really meant it, especially looking at Bucky. He wanted to tell him that ever since finding out about his awful history, Bucky had been almost an inspiration in starting over; however, Bucky didn’t want to talk about it, and Steve was learning when not to push.

Changing the subject, he noted, “Hey, you were really good with her back there. How did you know what to do? Is this another thing they teach you in KGB spy school?”

He meant it as a joke, but perhaps it was still too soon because Bucky grimaced. “Personal experience. I was pretty confused when we got out. It took a few weeks for the effects of all that mind-wiping to fade away. Some mornings, I woke up and didn’t know where I was. Some days I didn’t even remember Natasha. She got really good at reintroducing me to the world. It’s not that different, really, from what your Peggy’s got.”

“She isn’t my Peggy, not anymore.”

“Sure she is. Always will be. Just because she married someone else doesn’t mean you don’t matter. People can… Multiple people can call you ‘my’. Hate to break it to you, but you and Natasha are stuck sharing trusteeship of me.”

Maybe Bucky had figured it out, after all.

“You know, just because she didn't remember you doesn't mean...” Steve said. “I mean, given what just happened, her memory...”

“It doesn't matter,” Bucky said. “Don't worry about me. I'm sorry you had to go through that, is all.”

Bucky must have sensed that Steve needed to sit in his own head for awhile, because he quietly took care of the logistics and bus transfers to get back to the train station. They were walking to their platform when a woman with bright, mischievous eyes stopped Bucky with a hand to his chest. She was older than his usual targets but still very attractive.

“Hello, you!” she exclaimed.

The train station was so crowded that her words were swallowed up in the din. Even though he was only standing a foot away, Steve could barely hear them.

“Do I know you?” Bucky shouted.

“Yes and no.”

Without any further explanation, she slipped into the crowd and disappeared.

After a millisecond’s pause, Bucky followed, pushing and shoving past students and suits to follow her. Steve also made an effort, but there were too many people here, just as determined in their commutes as Bucky was in search of his prey.

“I lost her,” Bucky said when they finally gave up. “I never lose people.”

“Who was she?”

“No idea.”

“You know a lot of people. It could have just been someone you met once,” Steve suggested, though he himself didn’t quite believe it. Her manner had implied something else.

“No, I never forget a face. Unless, you know, it was forgotten for me.”

They searched everywhere they could, but having lost her, there was nothing to do but head back to the platform and wait for the train.

A few minutes later, Steve noticed someone else staring at them. Another beautiful woman, but this time her eyes were all for Steve. She had long, dark brown hair, cherry-red lips and a beauty spot tucked sweetly under the corner of her mouth. She dressed like a stylish grad student. She caught him looking and made a slight moue at him, parting her lips and half-smiling. Steve looked away, bashful, but a minute later, she was standing next to him.

“Are you headed to New York?” she asked in a sunny California accent.

“I... Uh…” He had plenty of female friends these days, but Steve had still not really learned how to talk to women, not in these situations. He wasn’t interested, not at all, not with having just seen Peggy and with Bucky standing next to him. He just wished he could figure out how to put her off without being rude.

Bucky interrupted Steve’s discomfort by bursting out into an uncontrollable guffaw. That was enough to break the woman’s concentration. She cracked, too.

“You ruined it, James,” she said, her accent shifting. “I was enjoying that.”

Steve looked more closely and recognized the small smirk. “Natasha?”

“I was wondering how far I’d have to go before you figured it out. My job’s done for the week. James texted me earlier to say you’d probably catch this train.”

Steve marveled. She was good, really good. She was one of his best friends, someone he saw every day, and he hadn't recognized her at all.

“That wasn’t you just now, was it?” Bucky asked.

“What wasn’t me?”

Bucky told her about the incident. Natasha frowned.

“I don’t like it. Maybe we can ask Coulson to get the surveillance tapes from around here and get a better look?”

Bucky nodded. “Okay.”

A few minutes later, they boarded the train. Natasha carefully peeled the hairline of her wig off and plucked the beauty spot from her face.

“Ahhh,” she sighed as her red bob was released. “That’s better. So is being around gentlemen. That Hammer is disgusting.”

“You didn’t…” Steve began to ask, but didn’t know how to finish that question while speaking to a lady.

“No. What the movies tell you is all wrong, you know. Pillow talk is worthless. It’s what they tell you while they’re trying to get you into bed that’s the juicy stuff. The less you give them, the more they give you.”

“You okay?” Bucky asked her.

“Yeah. I’m okay.”

“What did you find out?” Steve asked.

“Well, Hammer’s definitely SHIELD’s new weapons contractor. Or not SHIELD, since Fury’s technically not even supposed to know about it. Someone named Sitwell approached Hammer after Stane exited the picture and gave him a contract for billions, told him it was top secret. The money’s good, but the stress is killing him. They want things above and beyond his capabilities.”

“I’m sure they do,” Steve said, almost automatically. “Hammer tech is crap. Everyone knows that.”

“Look at the little Stark Industries salesman,” Bucky teased. “Tony’s trained you well.”

“It sounds like they know this, and have given him someone new to work with. It was too bad I didn’t know in advance, because it sounds like the person they have is Russian, and also giving him a hard time. I had to change course mid-mission and pretend I had ‘learned’ Russian in college. Spoke it a little, but rusty. If I go back and see him again, that’ll come in handy. Maybe next week. But the key fact here is that some faction within SHIELD has switched to Hammer and started sending him Russian consultants, and hasn’t told Fury a thing.”

“Nice work,” Steve complimented her.

“How was your day?” she asked.

Steve was still processing, so he kept it to business. “Got a lead from Peggy.”

“When do you want to check it out?” she asked.

“No time like the present.”

Bucky threw his head back and groaned. “Ugh. Jersey.”

Chapter Text

They got off at Trenton, took a bus as close as they could, and walked the rest of the way.

Camp Lehigh wasn’t so much frozen in time as gently massaged by it. Ivy had grown over most of the barracks. Weeds had overrun the once-trimmed training ground. While age and lack of tending had weathered and textured it, the various buildings remained unchanged enough for ghosts to run around more freely than they did in the city’s shiny, gentrified streets. However, it was the silence that shattered Steve’s attempts at nostalgia even more than the dilapidation.

“How much of this is like you remember?” Bucky asked.

“A lot, actually. I should be glad the worst that’s happened here is some moss. This is so much more recognizable than Brooklyn.”

“Yeah, what’s moss compared to Lululemon, right?”

“Don’t knock it, James,” Natasha said. “You’re getting me a pair for my birthday, remember?”

Just as Peggy had said, a munitions storage had been built alongside the camp, against regulations. If Steve had had his shield, he probably would have broken the lock on the door. However, not only was he just Steve today, but Captain America was already in trouble with SHIELD. Until they sorted this out, he was lying low, per Fury and Coulson’s advice, and letting Steve Rogers take some heat for a change. So, Bucky picked the lock open so that they could close it again if they needed to. Steve stretched out his arm to signify ‘ladies first’. Natasha rolled her eyes, but stepped forward anyway.

The room was filled with old-fashioned desks and chairs, like that horribly depressing TV show Pepper liked where everyone cheated on everyone else and the sexy secretary ruled the roost.

“Where are we supposed to look for these secret files?” Bucky asked.

“Peggy didn’t say.”

The three of them walked around, trying to put themselves in the mind of a woman from fifty years ago who had known this place when it had been bustling.

Steve walked down a long hallway and around a few corners. The door at the end turned out to be the women’s bathroom.

He jogged back the way he’d come. “Peggy always said the women’s bathroom was every man’s worst nightmare. And given what we know, SHIELD remained pretty male, even though she tried to hire people like her. It would be the safest place, lowest traffic.”

Natasha strode ahead and then looked back when she saw Steve and Bucky hesitating at the door. “You can come in, you know. It’s an abandoned office complex, and I went on the train.”

They searched every stall and behind every sink. Eventually, it was Natasha who discovered a loose tile, and pried it up. Once they’d also pulled up the ones around it, their hands knocked against a large safe buried in the floor. It was made of heavy iron, but Steve was able to pull it out. The lock on it was electronic; Steve set about typing in the number he still remembered as well as he remembered his name.

“You remembered that entire string?” Natasha asked. “Impressive.”

Steve shrugged sheepishly as the safe door unlatched. “It was my serial number.”

“He’s not going to tell you this,” Bucky said, “but it’s because he was SHIELD’s greatest accomplishment. That’s why Peggy made it the password.”

“Of course it is.”

They pulled the files out and began reading.

“We should have picked up a snack,” Natasha said about half an hour in.

“I’m starved, too,” Steve agreed.

Without looking up from his files, Bucky produced, almost by magic, two protein bars, fanned out in his right hand.

“This is why I keep him around,” Natasha told Steve as she took hers.

“How did you do that?” Steve asked.

“Do what?”

“Where do you even keep those in your pants? There isn’t room.”

“I’m packing so much heat right now. Every day, in fact. Guns and granola. You just didn’t know.”

The idea of such a combination, concealed in Bucky’s too-tight pants and schlumpy shearling coats, got Steve a little warm under the collar. He had to unzip his hoodie an inch. Natasha happened to look up and had to bite her lip to stifle a laugh before pouting sympathetically at him. Thankfully Bucky remained wholly absorbed in his reading and didn’t notice.

“I know this guy,” Bucky said a few minutes later. “Don’t know his name, but I know this face.”

“Who?”

Bucky pointed at a photograph—at an ugly mug standing next to Howard. Steve and Natasha crowded next to Bucky and read the personnel file over his shoulder. Anton Vanko had been one of Howard Stark’s chief researchers for a time, until he was caught trying to smuggle sensitive documents out of SHIELD’s secure facilities. Howard had had him deported back to Russia.

“Vanko,” Steve read. “That looks a lot like the guy who came after Tony in Monaco. Someone spirited him out of custody hours later. Pepper and I have been searching, but everything’s a dead end. Nothing beyond some pictures. Beyond having Rhodey follow Tony around everywhere he goes, I haven’t yet figured out what to do. This has to be the father of the same guy. Both of them skilled in weapons design and testing. It can’t be a coincidence.”

“I never knew his name, but I know this face. It says he was sent to the gulag after he got deported, but he wasn’t,” Bucky insisted. “He was there, in the Red Room. He took a… keen scientific interest in me.”

Steve had a decent idea of what that meant. He wished he’d been around at the time to stop it, wished he hadn’t been in the ice so that he could have killed them all, more satisfyingly than old age had probably killed them.

“When do you remember seeing him?” Natasha asked. She must have long ago compartmentalized her anger about what had been done to Bucky; Steve almost hoped he never would.

Bucky scrunched his nose, the way he did when he was being asked to think about something he’d much rather not. “It was a bunch times. He came nosing around me with Zola. Right before the Evanovich job. That was in ‘51? And then again, before the Colombia job, which was ‘53. And another time, later, before some hits I did in Asia in the late ‘60s.”

“This says Vanko was with SHIELD from 1955 to 1960,” Steve said. “If you saw him in the early 50s and late 60s, that means he was with the Red Room both before and after. Are you sure you have the right dates?”

Bucky nodded. “Positive. There weren’t that many dates I was awake to remember.”

Steve felt another pang, but tried to stay on task. “So, Vanko left the Red Room to join SHIELD, and then went back when he was deported.”

“Or he was sent as a spy to SHIELD from the Red Room, and orchestrated his dismissal when it suited him,” Natasha countered. “Classic technique. Just enough cause for suspicion, but misdirected so people don’t go looking in the right places.”

“But what about Hydra?” Bucky asked. “So far, this just looks like the KGB’s secret threat division was infiltrating the US’s secret threat division back in the 60s. But what we came here to find out was if your supernatural fascist cabal was infiltrating SHIELD. An explanation for the weapons you saw in Arizona.”

“What if it’s all the same?” Steve said slowly, hating having to admit that, if he was right, all the work he’d done during the war—everything he’d given up his life to stop—had been for nothing. “What if Hydra is the link between SHIELD and the Red Room? They were always above the governments, or wanted to be. What if they had roots in all of these secret agencies, just like they had roots in multiple powers back in my day?”

Natasha nodded. “It makes sense. It also explains why the Red Room continued even after the USSR was dismantled, almost as though nothing had changed. If they didn’t care about the regime, if they were always in it for their own agenda, then of course the fall of Communism wouldn’t make an iota of difference.”

“Which means Steve’s enemy is also ours.” Bucky sounded like this had just made his life a lot easier.

“I think so,” Steve agreed.

They kept reading, now with an angle to put together what Bucky and Natasha remembered from Russia with what Steve remembered of Red Skull’s operation.

“Do you feel a draft?” Steve asked a little bit later, when he could no longer ignore the faint wind sweeping across the back of his neck.

“What are you? Ninety years old?” Natasha asked.

“Give or take. But I’m serious, there’s some air flow in here that shouldn’t be.”

Steve got up and went exploring in the hallway while Bucky and Natasha stayed in the bathroom, reading in their separate stalls. He spotted a slightly larger gap than usual between two bookcases in a row of them. Steve slipped his fingers into the gap and pulled. The bookcase slid easily away, revealing a much more modern elevator door.

“Hey, you two!” he called.

With the files still in hand, they emerged from the bathroom.

“Did Peggy tell you about this?” Natasha asked.

“No. If she’d known, she would have.”

Steve resolutely refused to look at Bucky, because he didn’t want to see the response that he was sure would have been in his eyes. She might not remember.

“No, she couldn’t have known about this,” Natasha said, reassuring without even knowing what had happened, or that there was any doubt. “Look at the tech on this. It’s pretty new, I’d say last five years. Definitely after she retired. Whatever this is, it was added without her knowledge.”

They punched every potentially relevant number they could think of into the keypad that seemed to control the elevator functions, but nothing worked. Not the year of SHIELD’s founding, not Steve’s serial number, not 1234, nothing.

“We might need to come back,” Steve said. “With reinforcements.”

While Steve and Natasha argued about what kinds of reinforcements might be safest and most effective, Bucky stepped up to the keypad and typed in a string of numbers. He kept his body language casual, as though he was just tossing off a stupid idea at random, but his fingers shook. He seemed more horrified than pleased when the light turned green and the elevator doors slid open to let them in.

There was only one floor option: down.

“How did you do that?” Steve asked as they rode. “What number did you enter?”

“Mine.” With a grimace he explained, “If the people who ran the Red Room somehow got their hooks into SHIELD, well, I figured… same logic.”

That was a chilling thought. Steve had always known, of course, that Zola had been experimenting on people, trying to crack Erskine’s serum. He’d known that such experiments had, in part, been continued in hope of creating someone to defeat Steve, and anyone else who may have followed in his footsteps. But this confirmation put into relief the fact that this weapon was Bucky, and the knowledge that they had perhaps even been saved from destroying one another by the very crash that had cost Steve everything else…

The elevator opened into a dark room. Steve calculated that they were under the training field. Natasha felt around for a light switch, and the room flickered alive with a sickening fluorescent glow. They were brighter, more modern bulbs than the ones upstairs, confirming Natasha’s suspicion that this wing was brand new.

The only thing was… there was nothing to see here. A small room with a bunch of filing cabinets and bookshelves, and a large, very modern printer.

Bucky voiced what they were all thinking. “What’s the point?”

Steve recognized the printer model as the kind they had at the Herald—Darcy’s nemesis. Pages sat in it, as though waiting for someone to pick them up. Steve thumbed through them while Bucky and Natasha investigated the contents of the filing cabinets.

“What is it?” Bucky asked him as he climbed to the top shelf.

“Names,” Steve said. “Names and addresses and phone numbers and factoids. Looks like entries from a database of contact information.”

“What kinds of factoids?” Natasha asked. She read from some of the papers she’d retrieved from the box Bucky had gotten down. “Things like, ‘DOB 1976, IQ 200, political comedian?”

“Yeah,” Steve said, as he read something about a Sarah Berger in Grenoble, who had a PhD in physics from Harvard and was apparently an ‘activist’. A zoologist in San Diego. A campaign manager in Leeds. “What is this stuff?”

“They’re target definitions,” Bucky said after reading a few for himself. “It’s the way a handler briefs his asset before sending him out for the hit. Name, position, home address, contact information, known interests and hobbies so you know how to find them. Succinct reason for why they need to die. All the asset needs to know. Same format they used when they briefed me.”

Between the three of them, they peeked into most of the boxes. It seemed as though all of them contained the same kind of information—sheet after sheet with names of people and information about them. The room served as a glorified and highly secure filing cabinet.

“If each of these boxes is filled with papers like these—and that’s what it looks like—then there must be millions of them. There’s no way any organization could kill that many people,” Natasha said. “You’d need… I don’t even know. No one has that many assets.”

“Do you know what’s missing from these one-sheeters?” Bucky asked. “The ‘do not hit’s. That was always in the briefing. Even if there weren’t any, there’d be a mention. It’d say ‘non-applicable’ or something.”

Steve thought he could guess what Bucky meant. “You mean the people who might be around the target whom we don’t want to get hurt? The people on our side?”

“He’s right,” Natasha agreed. “I always made sure I had that information before I led the Winter Soldier into a mission.”

Steve couldn’t help but notice that Natasha didn’t call him James when talking about what they used to do together. He wondered when things had shifted, when Bucky had become a person to her—a real person worth rescuing and caring about.

“Maybe they’re separated here,” Steve suggested. “But if we can find them… If we know who isn’t a target, we can find out who’s in this organization.”

“Could be.” Natasha kept flipping through papers, stopping only to lick her fingers so she could turn the pages faster. “The way these are being printed looks like they’re showing only a certain view of the database.”

The printer whirred into action. All three trained soldiers jolted to alert. The light turned green and a new piece of paper rolled through the machine. Steve picked it up. It was simply another briefing sheet. A college student in Beijing.

“We need to find the computer that’s sending these print orders,” Steve said. “We need to find out who’s making these files, where they’re located and why. Do either of you know how to trace a printer signal?”

Bucky looked at Natasha. “This is all you.”

She stood in front of the machine and tapped a few exploratory buttons.

“Write this down,” she said a minute later.

Steve took out his phone and opened up a new note. He typed the numbers Natasha called out, and then repeated them back to her for confirmation.

“Are those coordinates?” he asked.

“IP address. We’ll have to take it to Fury. He’ll be able to find out if it’s a computer in the SHIELD network, or if it’s someone outside. In the meanwhile, let’s take Peggy’s files with us. And a few of the old sheets from the boxes, for reference.” Steve placed the print-outs he’d picked up back in the printer. “I’m pretty sure someone comes here from time to time to pick up any new ones and file them. We don’t want them to immediately realize anyone’s been here.”

They replaced the boxes of paper neatly on the shelves, wiped any prints they’d left and rode the elevator up again.

“So, what now?” Bucky asked. “What’s tonight’s mission?”

“Nothing,” Steve said. “We send Tony and Fury the information. Between the two of them, they should be able to figure out where the signal is coming from. Depending on what they find out, we’ll plan a mission.”

“What, we’re just gonna go home and sit on our asses?” Bucky asked.

“That’s how this works. When you’re on your own with nothing to lose, you can go charging into places. But when you have a team, you have to plan. This is what we did the last time, with the Howling Commandoes. It took almost a year to take down Hydra, with a lot of waiting around between missions. But it was worth it. Or at least I thought it was until today.”

“Guess I was always on ice for this part,” Bucky mumbled.

They waited for a bus to take them back to the train station instead of ‘borrowing’ a car like Natasha had at first assumed they should.

“No one’s after us. There’s no reason for that,” Steve said as he stopped her hand about to pick a lock.

She shrugged. “Old habits. I’m not used to this, being half in.”

And that’s what Steve had been worried about, ever since everything had come out and everyone had designated him the team Captain. He’d led men before, but they’d been trained properly, and instilled with the same kinds of basic behavioral expectations he had. But right now, he was supposed to be leading a team comprised of: a femme fatale with a recently revealed lack of moral center who was used to planning her own missions; a depressed assassin who had never learned how to exist in the realm between normal and brainwashed machine; a self-taught circus act; a giant and extremely unstable rage monster that Steve had never actually seen and whose human counterpart didn’t enjoy talking about it; and Tony Stark. Coulson was right that it would have taken something awful to bring these people together. Whatever it may have been probably wasn’t worth it, but even liking one another as they already did hadn’t made things magically come together. It was still going to take work.

Once they got back to Penn Station, Steve assumed Bucky and Natasha would head for the A train, but Natasha headed for the street exit instead.

“Where are you going?” Bucky asked. It seemed he’d expected her to go home with him, too.

“Clint’s got a friend visiting. We’re going for dinner in Chelsea. You two should come.”

Steve wanted to, if only to take his mind off his afternoon with Peggy, but one look at Bucky’s face silenced the assent that had been on his tongue. So, instead he said, “We’ve got to finish some work at my place.”

Natasha didn’t buy it, but neither did she call them out on it. “If you say so. Call me if anything comes up.”

“Thanks, Steve,” Bucky said after she’d gone. “I wasn’t feeling chit chat with strangers. Not today. Keep me posted, okay? I’ll see you on Monday.”

He made as though to head for the subway, but Steve blocked him with his shoulder.

“What are you doing?” Bucky asked.

“I’m turning over a new leaf. No more lying to my friends. I told Natasha you were coming to my place. So, you are.”

“We don’t have any work to do. You caught up with everything you were behind on. And anything else can wait until Monday.”

“This isn’t about you. It’s been a rough day, what with Peggy and… I could use a friend.” Steve looked beatifically off into the middle distance, meaning what he said, yes, but also trying to lay it on even thicker.

Bucky saw right through it.

“You’re a manipulative little shit, you know that, right? If people knew the real Captain America the way I do…” he grumbled, but there was a quirk at the sides of his mouth. “I should write an exposé.”

“Oh yeah? What would you tell the world?”

Bucky struggled with something before finally answering. “That being a punk is part of what makes him great.” He coughed, and added, “If I’m coming over, we’re ordering Hill Country. And you’re paying.”

“Deal.”


With his belly happily full of barbeque, Bucky leaned his head back and relaxed into a good burp.

“I think I needed that.”

“What?” Steve asked. “The food or the burp?”

“All this.” Bucky waved around them. “Just hanging out. Thanks for making me come over. You were right.”

“Can I get that in writing?”

“Not a chance.”

They’d just spent the past couple of hours doing nothing of importance, talking about nothing that mattered. Every minute of it, perfect. Bucky hadn’t realized exactly how much he’d missed it, missed Steve. He’d known, of course, in a clinical, intellectual way, that evenings like this had been an unfortunate absence in his life over the past few weeks, but knowing was different from feeling the fullness that had spread to his chest.

Or maybe it was heartburn. That order of moist brisket had been pretty fucking moist.

Print-outs of the Herald’s March Madness office bracket lay between them, splattered with stains from bourbon mashed potatoes and mac ‘n cheese grease. Steve had never done one of these before. He’d never even heard of March Madness before, much less about the teams.

This wasn’t just Steve’s first bracket. This was Steve’s first March.

Bucky thought back to his first March—the first one he could remember, at any rate. He and Natasha had spent their evenings disposing of the bodies of Red Room leftovers they’d tracked down, and then snuggling together for warmth in the unheated flat they’d been squatting in.

Bucky may have been the cause of the injuries that had kept Steve bedridden for the first part of the month, but Bucky vowed to devote himself to making up for it, and giving Steve a much better first March than he’d had.

“You want more seltzer?” Steve asked, entirely too eagerly.

Bucky chuckled. “Sure. Knock yourself out.”

Steve sprang to his feet and went to the kitchen. Jane had gotten him a SodaStream as a kind of ‘glad you survived your near-death experience’ homecoming gift. He had become obsessed with it, and was probably on his way to hyponatremia, given how much water he had been slurping down as an excuse to keep making more. Bucky listened to the ludicrously loud farting noise coming from the kitchen as Steve pumped the gas in. Even though he couldn’t see it, he could picture the earnest delight on Steve’s face. That picture slipped into gorgeous reality a minute later when Steve came back into view carrying a Maß of water in each hand (‘glad you’re not dead’ presents from Clint) and a huge grin on his face.

No, this wasn’t heartburn.

Bucky loved Steve—in pretty much every way you could love someone. He’d stopped trying to deny that. Steve had been going above and beyond recently, dealing with Bucky’s mood and backing off from the tension between them. The least he could do was make it clear that he didn’t take all this kindness for granted.

“I should have told you the day you got back, but… thanks.”

“Thanks for what?”

“I know I haven’t been a cakewalk lately. Thanks for taking it easy on me. And I’m glad things are, you know, good.”

“You don’t need to thank me. I know you’re going through a rough time. I know you’ve had a number done on you, but you’ve survived worse. You’ll come out of this just fine.”

“That’s not what I mean. I’m talking about… Look, I haven’t intentionally been being an asshole about this. I haven’t forgotten, you know, what we talked about that time.”

Bucky caught the moment when the conversation came into full focus for Steve, because his eyebrows jumped a little, and his fingers skittered over the piece of cornbread he was reaching for.

“It’s okay,” Steve said. “You can’t choose who you fall for. And for you, it happened not to be me. I was trying to move on, even before Arizona. I went on those dates with Hill’s sister, remember? It was even almost nice. I’ve been moving on from Peggy. One day I’ll move on from you. Third time’s a charm, right?”

Steve finished his little speech, nodded to himself in satisfaction, and shyly went back to eating. Bucky watched him wipe the last bit of bacon grease out of the collards in disbelief.

He refused to let this stand. He shouldn’t have been talking about this when he had no intention of doing anything about it, but he was sick to death of lies and misunderstandings and reasonable assumptions that were anything but correct. He refused to allow any new bullshit to spring up between them.

“You are dumbest fuck,” he said, more angrily than he meant. “How did you ever manage to save the world?”

Steve looked up. “What did I do now?”

“I can’t believe I have to spell this out. Look, I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because you’re right. I’m not in a good place right now.”

“So you admit it? Because every other sentence out of your mouth recently has been ‘I’m fine’ when it’s pretty clear you’re not.”

“No, you’re right. I’m not really fine. Though even if I were, I’d probably still stay away. But for the record, you and me… It isn’t one-sided.”

Steve’s jaw slowed to an awkwardly angled halt, in the middle of chewing. His wheels were almost visibly spinning, searching desperately for a road.

“But… It is one-sided. You shot me down. Kind of hard.”

“I shot down a near-stranger in tights who got me in a confined space and declared some kind of uncomfortable crush on me. What was I supposed to do?”

“It just came out. I just needed to get it off my chest.”

“Despite knowing I was with someone. And despite knowing that you wanted me to want you, not Cap. That was the entire point of the whole secret identity, wasn’t it? Wanting people to care about ‘Steve’. Given all that, what exactly did you expect to happen? If I’d said I was into it, would you have ripped off the mask and told me everything? Or kept it on while we fucked? Or been disappointed because I wanted Cap, not Steve?”

“I didn’t expect anything. I knew you didn’t—”

“But that’s what I’m saying. I did—do. But for you, Steve.” Bucky supposed he and Steve were even now, because here he was getting it off his chest, despite knowing he was unable to do anything about it. “I have for awhile, I think. Not so much deep down as off to the side. I don’t know why you’re so surprised. Everyone else seems to have figured it out, long before I did, actually. They all look at me like they’re waiting for me to do something now. Like we’re a done deal. It’s a lot of fucking pressure.”

“I thought it was only me they were looking at like that.”

Bucky shook his head. “Nope. I can’t believe you didn’t figure this out. Hell, I even told you.”

“You told me if Loki hadn’t been in the picture, there would probably still have been someone else, but you didn’t say it was me. I think I’m excused for assuming that someone with as many secrets as you were pretty obviously hiding had someone else lurking. Given that you’d just turned me down, I didn’t see how it could be me. If you didn’t want Captain America, you didn’t want me. I figured some part of you must have known we were the same person.”

“You say this now, but when I try to talk about how some part of me did know, everyone just thinks I’m crazy, or that all the brainwashing left me with an overactive subconscious.”

“But I don’t see how you can… You wouldn’t be beating yourself up half as much as you have been if the thing with Loki hadn’t been serious.”

“You still love Peggy, right? Maybe not like a lovesick dame in a stupid movie, but you’re still sad it went down like that, right? Even though you know it’s over and even though you… with me…”

Steve bit his lip. “Yes. Yes, I do.”

“Well, there you go. Anyway, I assumed you knew, and was just trying to thank you for not making this awkward. Didn’t realize it was going to lead to all this…” He felt almost bashful now, and unsure what to do next. He looked down at the bracket in front of him, and went for that. “So, I don’t think you’re taking Iowa State as seriously as a contender as you should be. They’re practically guaranteed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.”

But instead of following Bucky’s lead, Steve put down the pencil he’d been twirling around his thumb during this entire conversation.

“If we both want… I don’t understand why we’re not…”

Steve turned slightly pink, not from bashfulness, but from heat, real heat that Bucky could almost feel emanating off him. It took everything he had to stay strong with that kind of warmth in the room.

“I’m dangerous. That’s what I was trying to tell you—Cap—that night in the elevator. That’s what I kept trying to tell you for months. America’s greatest hero and its worst enemy? No.”

“But that’s not who we are, not to each other. We’re just Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes, a couple of friends who work together.”

“But that’s exactly the problem. We don’t know if that’s who we are. I don’t know if I’m Bucky Barnes. I almost got you killed, Steve. Not just because you stupidly followed me when I made a stupid decision, but also because I couldn’t keep it together when we were trying to get out. I don’t know what’s wrong with me or when another one of those psycho attacks will strike again. What if the next time it happens, you don’t get as lucky? What if there’s more to it? Some fresh weirdness we can’t even guess at and wouldn’t know how to deal with? For all I know, Loki put some kind of hex on me—it could have been just the force field thing, or it could have been something more, I don’t know. I refuse to let you get caught in my mess ever again. It’s bad enough that we’re friends. If you hadn’t cared about me, you wouldn’t have followed me, and you wouldn’t have gotten hurt. I ought to be staying away from you and everyone else full-stop, but it’s hard. I keep coming back, like tonight. If we were more than this, it’d be so much more dangerous. I know you’re Captain America and everything, but if anything happened to you again, I’m not sure I’d survive it. I can’t take that risk. So,” he finished in a rush, “that’s why I don’t wanna… Anything.”

Bucky considered that a compelling and irrefutable explanation. Steve listened quietly throughout, with unwavering attention and thoughtful little nods after each of Bucky’s most salient points. Steve was a reasonable guy; he understood. It hurt, of course, but they’d get over this and remain friends. One day they’d laugh about it.

With characteristic politeness, Steve waited a few seconds before responding to make sure Bucky had finished.

Then he exploded.

“And you say I’m the dumbest fuck?”

Bucky gaped. He could have counted the number of times he’d heard Steve swear on one hand.

“I thought you were going to say something reasonable,” Steve continued, “like that you wanted to make sure this wasn’t a rebound. Or something about spoiling our friendship. Or something. I still would have fought you on it but at least I would have understood. But telling me it isn’t safe?”

“What? What’s so crazy about that?”

“Everything!”

If Steve was too stupid to look out for himself, Bucky would. He’d keep strong, even with Steve looking at him across the coffee table like that. He radiated more heat and naked hunger than Bucky had ever imagined him capable. All this time, Bucky had thought he was the one who secretly had it bad, and that Steve’s feelings were little more than a confused, very mild crush. But right now, he finally saw this for what it was: a hurricane. The force of it—and the guilt he felt for not being able to throw himself into it, for hurting Steve—almost overpowered him. He had to dig his nails into his palms and control his breathing so he didn’t jump Steve, resolutions be damned. For his part, Steve looked just about ready to jump him, too, but he wouldn’t, not when Bucky had just said he didn’t want to be jumped.

Steve closed his eyes, clearly trying to shove it all back into the bottle. He opened his mouth a few times and Bucky waited for something come out, but eventually, Steve gave up. He stood up in a huff, gathered some of the empty take-out containers and barreled off into the kitchen.

Bucky sat on the floor, certain that he was an asshole, but uncertain about whether he should stay put or follow. On the one hand, he had a pretty good feeling Steve wanted a minute alone to collect himself. But on the other, it was bad manners to sit on his ass while his host cleaned up in the kitchen all by himself.

After a couple of minutes, manners won out over… whatever the other option was. The refrigerator and seltzer maker were on the other side of the kitchen from where Steve stood, furiously inserting plates into the dishwasher. Bucky filled one of the bottles and let the farting noises break the painful silence. When Steve was done, Bucky was ready and waiting with a freshly filled glass and a rueful smile—piss-poor peace offerings, but the best he could manage.

Letting Bucky stand there with his arm holding the heavy glass, Steve took a deep breath and said, “I’m going to tell you this once: everything you said just now is crap. If I want to follow you into danger, that’s my business, not yours. If being with you is a risk, it’s my risk to take. But I’m not… I’m not going to beg you to… I’m not. You know how I feel and you know where to find me. I’ll be right here until…”

When Steve trailed off, Bucky filled in one of the possible answers. “Until you’re not?”

Steve seemed to deflate. For the first time, Bucky could almost picture the scrawny kid he’d used to be. He hated that he was causing this, but at the same time, the thought of doing anything right this minute paralyzed him. The memories of Steve's wounds and the continued presence of his own were too fresh.

“Yeah,” Steve sighed. “Until then, I guess.”

“I’m sorry I said anything. Really I am. The only reason I brought this up in the first place was to thank you for taking it easy on me. For not being frustrated with me the way you are right now. But I can’t… I swear. I want to, but…”

“Fine,” Steve eventually conceded now that it was clear Bucky meant it, and there was no talking him around. “I’ll go easy on you. But only because you’re raw right now from everything that happened. Hell, after today with Peggy, I’m pretty raw, too. But it is not because of any of the crap you were just talking about. I’m not going to let you…” He couldn’t even finish the sentence, just shook his head. “Your room’s all ready. Unless you want to go home—”

Bucky’s heart broke a little more. “You want me to go home?”

“No. Of course not. I’m just… I don’t know what I’m supposed to do now.”

“The same as you’ve always done. Don’t change a thing.”

Steve lifted his arm to give Bucky a friendly punch on the shoulder, like he would have done normally. Tonight, he stopped short, suddenly afraid to actually touch him. To show him it was okay, Bucky leaned into Steve’s fist to complete the punch for him.

“Let’s watch a movie,” he said with false confidence. Bucky didn’t want to go to their separate bedrooms yet, not with… whatever this was… lingering in the air. That never ended well. “That’s what I want to do right now. I mean, if you’re up for it.”

“Okay.”

They sat at opposite ends of the couch and watched in stony silence. Bucky kept glancing at Steve, but this, at least, was one-sided; Steve didn’t look at him once. He watched intently, despite the film not being his kind of thing. However, his shoulders slowly softened and his jaw reluctantly unclenched as the minutes wore on. About an hour in, once Steve had visibly relaxed, Bucky let himself breathe; this would blow over. They’d be okay. Once he caught Steve’s face responding to a joke in the movie, Bucky let himself relax, too, and slipped down to sit on the floor, with his back against the couch.

The next thing he knew, he was pushing himself up to a sitting position. He lay curled on the floor in front of the couch, where he must have passed out from weeks—years—of exhaustion. Steve was still fast asleep and snoring above him, sprawled on a couch that was only long enough to hold him because Pepper’s meticulous organization had planned it that way. His hand rested on Bucky’s head, fingers tangling lightly in his hair. As soon as he felt them, Bucky kept his head still so that Steve wouldn’t wake and so that the fingers would linger.

It was at least 9am, judging from the angle of the sunlight that was streaming through the wall-to-wall windows.

For the first time ever, Bucky Barnes had slept through the night.


There were many proximate causes—an insect bite on the back of his neck, this endless rain—but Loki would later trace the complete collapse of his spirits to a disgusting and depressing dinner on Centauri VI.

Someone jostled his table on his way past, causing some of the contents of Loki’s meal to spill onto the table. Loki glanced up looking for an apology and received only an angry grin and a flash of metal. He yearned to reach for his power and smite this rude creature; but not only could he not afford to draw attention to himself, he also lacked the strength as well as the will.

He picked at his food as he tried and failed in silent, impotent despondency to block out the conversation at the table next to his, in which a woman and her self-appointed council of sycophants discussed recent romantic entanglements.

(At least, he thought it was a woman; it was hard to tell here in the backwater of Centauri IV. Loki’s recent travels had shown him a wider slice of the gamut of fauna the universe had to offer.)

As the women droned on about who was at fault (him), and whether she was better off without him (yes), Loki wondered if a similar scene had played out on Midgard following James’s return. He had no doubt James had emerged from the implosion unscathed; Loki had put in place measures to ensure this. He told himself that he had done so in order to guarantee a future opportunity to wound James as much as he had wounded Loki. However, so far, neither bright nor dark ideas had struck him.

The only question was whether or not Captain America had survived as well. If so, he had probably enacted what he thought was a daring rescue, and declared himself a hero, never knowing that his efforts had been wholly unnecessary. James had probably cooed over him and…

Loki gagged into his gruel. He lacked a precise understanding of what gruel was, having only read about it in a book, but the elemental concept most certainly occupied the metal bowl in front of him.

Captain America had stolen the one thing that had brought Loki any joy. Loki had convinced himself that the only reason James could have renounced him was if he had been ensorcelled. For only by magic could Captain America have returned after 70 years, unchanged and able to best Loki in anything.

Loki tortured himself by imagining episodes from the life he had left behind. In every scene, he was recast—replaced by a brightly colored, Thor-sized figure in a mask. He imagined Natasha welcoming the usurper into the dirty apartment with the same bemused smile that she had always given Loki; he imagined James distracting his new lover during dinner with naughty whispers of all the things he intended to do to him later, all while stealing his fries; he imagined Clint trying (and probably succeeding this time) in chit-chatting about sports with the new household regular; he imagined Steve’s disappointed eyes at coming in second yet again.

Every time he fell into one of these destructive reveries, a different detail would eventually tip him too far into despair. Tonight it was the image of Steve’s stoically clenched jaw. While Loki may have fallen out with James, the others had done nothing to offend him. Despite their differences, Steve—aimiable, uncomplicated Steve—still counted as a friend. And as a friend, Loki alone claimed the right to disappoint him; he would not stand for some hulking champion shouldering the job.

The romantic council beside him grew louder in excitement and outrage. Loki couldn’t take the chatter anymore—either inside his head or out of it. He moved himself and his gruel to another table. However, the company here was hardly improved. The creatures beside him talked of money and sport and the latest developments in high-speed transistors. Apparently, sources of conversation were the same all over the universe.

He wished he could fall all over again—this time never to land.

Nothing had gone according to plan.

The official Nine Realms—the best ones—were closed to him. Word of Loki’s crimes had spread across the more habitable corners of the universe during his time spent on Midgard. The Jotun had promised an enormous prize to anyone who would bring him to them, alive and ready to endure creative torture as recompense for his attempt to destroy their race and home. Meanwhile, Odin had promised an equal prize to anyone who brought Loki back to Asgard to answer for treason. Seeing an easy scapegoat, more accusers raised their voices, pinning millennia’s worth of crimes to his name; Loki was guilty of enough of them that denying the few that had been misattributed seemed hardly worth it.

The result was that every bounty hunter in the universe with a pulse was on the lookout for him.

Normally, magic would have been enough to relegate these threats to mere nuisances. However, some of these bounty hunters wielded more than pulses. Some possessed weak forms of magic themselves. Others had devised or stolen safeguards against it. Because of this, only the backwater planets, where Asgard and Jotunheim were little more than stories to the general populace could Loki hide.

The Tesseract, which had been for so long the center of his ambitions, had brought him little advantage. Loki had known when he set out on his quest that it was an unstable radiator of energy, but he’d had little idea exactly how voracious this energy would prove. Controlling it and keeping it constantly hidden sapped most of his strength. Keeping his face glamoured for those nearby as well as keeping his presence hidden from Heimdall from afar took most of the rest. What little strength remained to him was spent performing the basic and menial tasks of life—breathing, eating, sleeping and manipulating his way out of payments. There was nothing left over for the grand schemes about which he had once dreamed.

The manipulation of space was a diverting concept in theory, but in his current position, Loki found its applications sorely lacking. After a few trial journeys, transporting himself from one beastly planet to another lost its novelty. Stretching his cleverness to seek a more diverting application for its powers, Loki had one day attempted to move an entire city from one realm to another. This reasonably original piece of mischief should have gained him some amusement, as well as an opportunity to claim the city as his own in exchange for relocating it. However, the effort required to accomplish this task was so great that he had spent the next few days passed out in a cave, hiding and shaking and feverish. When he finally emerged, he found that the residents had not even noticed the change of scenery. There was no occasion for him to come to their rescue.

Since that failure, the most Loki had been able to exert himself was to escape a couple of bounty hunters who had seen through his disguise. Gone were his dreams of rule and revenge. Was this to be his life now? Hunted and exhausted and subsisting on bowls of gruel in low taverns? Was it for this that he had left his unhappy but luxurious existence on Asgard? Was it for this that he had left his happy but embarrassing existence on Midgard? For he knew now that James had been correct; Loki had been happy, or something approaching it. But such a life was not for him, and even if it had been, there was no returning now.

If only James had not deserted him. Every time he felt his strength flagging and his spirits falling further into despair, Loki jealously remembered the naively carefree way in which James had held the Tesseract. His complete immunity to the thing. If only James had remained at his side, as he should have—as he’d promised, dammit—then he could have managed the thing. He could have relieved most of Loki’s burden at no cost to himself. Loki would have been free to think, to plot, to create for them a life so glorious that songs would have been sung about them from this day to the Ragnarok.

Loki had thought himself alone before, on Asgard and during that first year on Midgard, but that was nothing compared to how alone he felt now. The brief taste of happiness he’d enjoyed—both in the form of James, but also, secondarily, with the others—only made his current solitude even more unbearable.

He missed Thor, who had been good for laughing at, if nothing else (there was so much else, the truth inside him tried to insist). One of the first things Loki had done with the Tesseract was to pay a visit to his old home. Following him invisibly, he had seen Thor moping around the palace, dragging Mjolnir behind him like a reluctant cow. Thor must have been mourning the loss of some tournament to Sif, Loki told himself, or the friends he had made on Niflheim. Loki could easily have reached out to him, kidnapped Asgard’s crown prince, and thus acquired company once more… But no. Whisking someone away to a different realm had recently ended badly for him; while Thor, unlike James, was under no misapprehension about Loki’s deeds, there was no reason to think absconding with him would result in a different outcome. Loki had burned that bridge, as he had burned all of his previous bridges, thinking that the flames would look pretty.

What good was space? he asked himself. It was time he wanted, he now saw. What he would not have given to trade the Tesseract for something with a similar power over time. He could go back and prevent James from leaving. He could go back and prevent himself from ever having met the man. He could go back and prevent himself from falling. He could go back and let Odin leave him on Jotunheim as a babe, thus sparing himself all this misery. There were so many points he could change if only such a mechanism were available to him. He could even (though he barely dared to think it to himself) go back and throw the damned Tesseract into the ocean instead of leaving Midgard. There, it could have lain for another thousand years while Loki continued to live his relaxing little life, hidden and unmolested by bounty hunters, and with enough energy to have some fun.

One day, remembering Jane’s little theory that time and space were somehow intertwined, Loki had tried to see if the Tesseract could tap into that connection and function as he wished, but alas. It controlled space and space alone. Loki would have to satisfy himself with the limitations and loneliness of space, and continue to regret an increasing number of moments that could not be changed.

Loki finished his dinner and dragged himself wearily to his hotel on the outskirts of town, where the garish lights and constant din would trouble him least. The absence of these impediments would not hasten sleep, but at least it would prevent the further straining of his nerves.

A hooded figure waited for him along the path. As Loki approached, it came to stand in his way.

Taking him for a beggar, Loki said tiredly, “I have nothing to give you, old man.”

“You have yourself.”

*

Loki woke on a barren cliff-face with no memory of how he had gotten there or how much time had passed. His first thought was for the Tesseract. He reached out with his magic to feel for it in the secret crevice between realms where he had stowed it for safekeeping. It remained tied to him, despite his momentary lapse of consciousness and the loss of his disguise. Whoever had taken him had not retrieved it, and likely had no idea it was in his possession. Should he need to, he could conjure it to himself and use its powers to get away. However, not knowing where he was or whom he faced, he decided to leave it where it lay until he learned more.

Now that he knew the Tesseract was secure, he could rail appropriately about the rest of his plight.

“Who dares to lay hand on me?” he roared. He turned his head this way and that, but saw only the hooded figure from the road standing nearby.

The thing was small—smaller than a human, even—and hideous. It pulled the hood down, revealing grey wrinkles instead of actual features. If ever there had been call for a mask, this was it. “You should have a care before you use such language.”

“I will use whatever language I choose, vermin.”

“Only princes possess the arrogance to call others vermin, especially one such as The Other,” a new, and monstrously more threatening voice from somewhere nearby intoned. “And you, miserable, muling child—you are not even a prince of Asgard anymore.”

Loki looked up to see a giant throne floating—without any ceremony whatsoever—in space. What a waste, he lamented. A throne of such a size yearned to be revealed slowly, with its contents shrouded in mist and mystery for at least a few seconds to create suspense. The obviousness of this non-dramatic reveal told Loki everything he needed to know about his kidnapper’s lack of imagination.

In the throne sat a purple giant with a wrinkled chin who looked down at Loki as though he were a gnat to be swatted.

Loki had heard of such a giant and such a chin.

If this was indeed Thanos, the Mad Titan, then Loki was in very serious trouble, indeed. As James might have more colorfully said, ‘screwed six ways from Sunday.’ The sudden appearance of the phrase in the back of Loki’s mind caused a spasm of sadness, but he quickly squashed it; now was not the time.

“Do I have the pleasure of addressing Thanos?” he asked with his most supplicating airs.

“Only fools pretend a visit with me counts as a pleasure. I had expected more from you, Loki Silvertongue.”

“Few expect anything at all of me anymore.”

“Few have need of the specific talents and knowledge that you happen to possess. Consider my protection your salvation. Without me, you are little more than prey—prey for Asgard, prey for Jotunheim, prey for any being clever enough to pin their crimes on a lost and doomed soul.”

“But what use can I possibly serve one so powerful as yourself?” Loki bristled at the insults, but he knew enough not to counter Thanos directly. In his weakened position, Loki could hardly risk overplaying his hand. Thanos seemed to expect some verve from him, but not outright defiance. Loki would provide while he sought an escape.

“There are two objects I seek,” Thanos said.

“Perhaps one of the bounty hunters who roam the universe for my scent would be able to retrieve them for you. I recently evaded one. I could pass along his contact information.”

“I need someone with the ability to move unnoticed on Earth.” Thanos inspected Loki with a critical and dismissive eye. “You have both the appearance and knowledge of the customs needed to blend in and accomplish what I need. You also hail from a race powerful enough to survive an encounter with the objects I desire.”

“Midgard? What could you possibly want from a meaningless little place such as Midgard?” Given the comment about only certain species being able to handle the objects, Loki had some idea. How ironic, that what the Mad Titan most likely sought already lay in Loki’s possession.

“You ought to know one of them well. This is one of the reasons I charge you with the task. I seek a blue cube that once sat in Odin’s treasure vault, but which was lost when your kind—or should I say, the Aesir—waged war there so long ago.”

“I was but a boy then,” Loki said, smirking inside to be proven correct in assuming Thanos wanted the Tesseract. “But I think I remember such a stone.”

“I want you to retrieve it for me.”

“It was lost a thousand years ago. If no one has found it yet, I know not how I may succeed.”

“You will succeed because you must. You may have regained enough of your magic since your fall from Asgard to will yourself away from that planet, but you were never conditioned to survive alone, in the wilds of the universe. The mission I am giving you is your only hope. Earth, cut off from dealings with the rest of its galaxy, is the only place where you are not currently hunted. My protection will keep those who seek you at bay.”

“And how am I to return to Earth?” Loki asked, trying to ascertain how much Thanos knew about him, his abilities and his time spent on the planet. “It took all of my magic to leave.”

Thanos nodded at the shrouded figure who had apparently brought him here. “The Other will provide you with transport.”

“And what is the second object you wish me to retrieve?”

“Look for the Tesseract first. The time when the second will become available quickly approaches. When it arrives, the way will open from Earth.”

This all sounded rather vague to Loki, but knowing Thanos, more instructions would soon follow. He was not one to be undone by a simple thing like insufficient communication.

“And what happens when I retrieve these objects for you?”

“I will let your pitiful life continue.”

“And if I fail?”

“I could deliver you to the Jotun in exchange for a valuable alliance. Or, I can use you as a bargaining chip to acquire something else I have long desired from Asgard. Either way, you would never spend another comfortable moment, I doubt anyone would grant you the pleasure of a quick death. The third option, failing that, would simply be my own amusement.” Thanos leaned forward in his throne and sneered at Loki. “You annoy me. You annoy the entire universe. It would bring me great pleasure to make you squirm. In fact, the pleasure would be so great that I doubt I would ever stop. I have ways of keeping my victims alive to endure ever more. The entire universe is looking for you. So far, you have hid, but I was able to find you with very little trouble. Take this as a warning. If you cross me, there is nowhere you can hide. I will have my revenge. And the only reason relenquish it is if someone proposed a more interesting one.”

None of this sounded particularly pleasant, but not even Loki’s quick wit could think of a way out of this. Thanos’s threats were far from empty; this was the reputation he had gained throughout the universe. If he had set his eye on Loki, he would never take it off. The Tesseract, already in Loki’s possession, could be handed over, but now that he had feigned ignorance of its whereabouts, he doubted he could produce it without provoking Thanos’s wrath. No, he had conscripted himself into at least playing along for as long as it took to pretend he had ‘found’ the Tesseract.

“And what of Midgard once I have acquired for you the treasures hidden there?”

Thanos smiled. “It will burn. The humans will all burn.”

“Give it to me,” Loki said, perhaps too quickly. So that Thanos would not notice, he searched for words that might distract from his inopportune eagerness. “If you have no use for it, give me dominion. Under my rule, it can serve as a central point for any endeavors you have in the future. An eternal ally. An entire planet of willing servitors must certainly be more useful to you than a steaming pile of ash floating through the galaxy.”

Loki told himself that he was proposing this to finally fulfill some of his old ambitions, not because he cared for the safety of those he still—weakly, regrettably—counted as friends. He entertained brief, wild visions of sitting on a throne, of wooing his erstwhile companions to his side, of seeing squirm with regret for the greatness he had spurned. He imagined James supplicating himself, begging to be taken back. And what answer could Loki give but yes?

“You make a point,” Thanos said. “However, I would need assurance that a known trickster such as yourself would remain loyal to me. What use do you have for the place? What do you hope to gain?”

“A kingdom to rule, quite simply. A way to best the All-Father, who likes to think Midgard falls under his protection, like a dim-witted little cousin. I know the place. I know how weak and insignificant its inhabitants are, how easily swayed. With an army, I could quickly force them to kneel to me, and,” Loki added smoothly, “to you.”

Thanos considered the proposal. Even the Other, leaning off in his corner, nodded to himself.

“If you succeed in retrieving the objects I seek, I will give you the Earth. I will send you an army with which to conquer it. And then you will hold it for me, indefinitely.”

This was going much more easily than Loki had anticipated.

“However,” Thanos continued, and here was the catch, “the army will only be available to you upon retrieval of the Tesseract. It will allow you to summon them. Once on Earth, they will help you conquer.”

Loki knew how this worked. The army would help him, but also keep an eye on him. Thanos had not gained his fearsome reputation by being a fool.

“Do you foresee any obstacles in this mission?” Thanos asked. “Are there any who could stop you?”

A single image immediately sprang to mind: a mask, a shield, a preposterous costume.

Logically, Loki’s imagination should have leaped to Iron Man and the impressive arsenal he kept on his person, but Tony was a known quantity—an agreeable and manageable maniac. Captain America, however, was an enigma that loomed in the background of Loki’s life, despoiling him seemingly with little effort. Loki had always most feared riddles that he could not solve.

“Your silence confirms the existence of a challenger,” Thanos said when Loki took too long to respond. “I trust you will ensure that he or she is disposed of and will not impede your mission.”

“There is no need for concern. I will take care of it,” Loki said, trying desperately to hide his internal conflict behind his well-known arrogance.

Thanos hideous chin crinkled even further in thought. “For a frost giant, you reek of sentiment, though for what, I do not and care not to know. With such a weakness, you can never succeed. However, I have the means to cure you of this and ensure you will be able to perform the tasks I have set out for you.”

“You propose to cure me of sentiment?” More than dominion over Midgard or the saving of his own skin, this was an offer that appealed to Loki. It was the surest way to stop feeling the pain that had been crippling him. “How?”

Thanos nodded at the Other, who emerged from the shadows carrying a scepter. Now he could see why Thanos had not been able to perceive Loki’s link to the Tesseract. There was power nearby—a similar power, in both its ancient oddness and intensity.

“What is this?” Loki asked.

“Its identity is none of your concern. This is a mere loan. As soon as you have found the Tesseract, I will arrive on Midgard myself to reclaim them both from you and begin the second half of the project. However, in the meanwhile, you are to use this to vanquish the weakness of your heart with enhanced focus from your mind. Once you have done this, you can vanquish similar weakness in others, bending them to your will. And more importantly, to mine.”

“How does it work?” he asked. Here, finally, was an object more useful than the stupid Tesseract.

The Other pantomimed a demonstration. With his horrible croaking voice he explained, “Point the edge at the heart of your victim, and you will become their master. Your greatest threats and enemies will become your allies and slaves.”

Loki reached for it, but the Other held it away.

“In order to wield the scepter, you must also submit yourself. You submit to your own mind, unfettered by any qualms from your heart. You will belong to it and to us. We will be monitoring your progress, from closer than you may have experienced before.”

The Tesseract had drained Loki already, and this new power source might finish him entirely. Even without that concern, Loki knew better than to accept powerful, magical objects from people like Thanos. He knew better than to give himself over to such a being. However, the idea of vanquishing his own weaknesses could not be resisted. And more importantly, unbeknownst to Thanos, Loki already possessed one of these objects. They were about to give him a second. If he could corral enough strength to master both at once, he would be able to play a long game. He could keep his grasp on the Tesseract while pretending to look for it. He could pretend until Thanos trusted him enough to send this army and give him information about the third object. And then, in possession of two objects of power and an army that would deliver him a realm to rule, Loki would acquire this third mystery piece and claim that for himself, too. He would vanquish Thanos, and all the universe would fall at his feet.

It was a dangerous road, but one with irresistible potential.

And it wasn’t as though he had any other prospects at the moment, or indeed, ever, if he refused. He could not run from Thanos, nor could he hide, nor could he fight. All he could do was follow along for now, to accept Thanos’s protection until such a time as he could manipulate his way to an advantage.

“I accept the charge.”

Loki took the scepter and let its power wash over him. He could feel that it was dangerous, unhealthy magic. He felt pulled in too many directions, between the Tesseract and the thing in his hand. It hurt, but in a way that was at least different from how he had so recently been hurting. Everything that had ever been warm about him struggled for relevance, but Loki consciously let the scepter silence it all. He could feel the fractured and melted pieces of his heart freezing into pointy shards. His calculating, ruthless qualities took shaky dominance over the rest of him. He no longer felt; he only reasoned (even though the muffled voice inside him told him this was no reason at all). But he welcomed it, like ice on a bruise.

Then something else happened. As he communed with the scepter, it began to commune with him, too. He felt invaded. His palms began to sweat with the effort and his head throbbed with pain. He could feel the Other, not just beside him, but almost inside him, trying hard to poke around. It took everything he had to keep part of himself hidden—the part that schemed and held secret the Tesseract and his dreams and everything he cared about.

They had not exaggerated. In choosing to dominate, Loki had let himself be dominated, at least in part. He could not escape, not when they had a link inside his mind. Foolish, it had been foolish to think they would give Loki complete mastery over such a weapon. It still belonged to Thanos; Loki simply held it.

“What have you done to me?” he asked, closing off his heart and the part of his mind that he needed kept secret, before the incursion found its way there. The effort brought him to his knees.

“We have done nothing you did not choose to have done.”

Chapter Text

While waiting for Fury to come back with information that would inform their first mission, Steve began requesting opportunities to assess each team member’s skills. He’d done the same thing with the Howling Commandos. He started with individual sessions in the penthouse gym he shared with Tony, and planned to move onto group training soon.

It wasn't going great.

Everyone needed something different. Clint was extremely fit, and hadn’t been exaggerating about his almost miraculous ocular precision. Steve had never thought about it before, but circus acts required smoothly oiled machines, the same as the army. Clint’s nontraditional background had made him adept in almost every skill Steve could possibly have asked for. They’d been working on basic military procedures and lingo more than anything else.

Natasha… Natasha required an entirely different kind of nutcracker. She truly was the perfect agent: resourceful, quick-witted, thorough and technically proficient with every possible weapon. Her only weakness was her caged attitude. She respected Steve—which was a big deal—but she had trouble trusting anyone other than Bucky. Steve tried not to take it personally.

He made the mistake of going easy on her during their first session and ended up flat on his back for his trouble, with a knife (where had that come from?) pressed dangerously against his neck.

“You leave your left side exposed,” she told him as she helped him up. “You need to watch that.”

For the rest of the hour, it was as though she were the teacher and Steve the asset under her care. She left him alone and bruised on the mat, trying to figure out where he’d gone wrong.

Steve had long been familiar with the various capabilities of the Iron Man technology. The only difficulty was Tony himself. Steve was the only person alive—other than Pepper and Rhodey—from whom Tony would ever have taken orders. He still bristled at the idea of playing second fiddle to anyone, though, and had retaliated, in petulant Tony style, by building Rhodey an Iron Man suit of his own.

“Rhodey’s on my team,” he’d said recently. “A separate team of just us where I’m the leader. It’s a seventies buddy cop movie come to life. I’ve already started shopping the rights around Hollywood. I’m just moonlighting with you freaks.”

“Sure, Tony,” Steve had said. “Whatever you say.”

Unbeknownst to Tony, Steve had already asked Rhodey to join them. However, Rhodey had politely declined, saying that he would be most useful to them as an official, above-board, public-facing liaison between their undercover strike team and the establishment.

Darcy expressed great interest in learning the basics of self-defense (though how much of that involved enjoying having Steve on top of her, he wasn’t sure). However, while Jane and Pepper were good sports, they remained more interested in how they might use their day-to-day talents to help the group.

Bruce outright refused to engage in Steve’s little exercises. Of all of them, he was most in denial about this whole thing. Tony offered to build a custom facility in which he could release the Hulk and learn how to control him. Steve promised to foster a safe environment. But Bruce quietly refused it all. He seemed more interested in using his research on Bucky’s condition to ‘cure’ himself than anything else.

Which left Bucky. Bucky, who still associated missions with life as a machine. All the times he’d unleashed his skills since coming back to himself, he told Steve, had resulted in piles of corpses before he’d even known what he was doing. Bucky didn’t need training; he needed to recalibrate his own headspace, and that was something Steve didn’t know how to help him do.

However, although he expressed little interest in super squad-related activities, Bucky did seem to be doing a lot better in general. The furrow of pain that had been etching his face recently smoothed out. His appetite had picked up again and he’d resumed cracking wise, to the groans of all his co-workers. His natural generosity returned, replacing the uncharacteristic rudeness that everyone had been complaining about. He’d stopped breaking into the Pierre every night. Seeing Bucky come back to himself was more important than any team building, so Steve didn’t push him too hard.

What this meant for them, Steve wasn’t sure. He wasn’t angry about Bucky’s reluctance to act on the feelings they both knew they had. But understanding didn’t make things any easier. Back when he’d thought Bucky simply wasn’t interested, and would never be interested, he had resolved to try to get over it. But now… No matter how hard he tried to pretend, for Bucky’s sake, that letting go was a potential trajectory, there was no way he possibly could. Everything he’d wanted was so close; a little more patience had to be rewarded, didn’t it? He had to believe that, because the alternative hurt too much. The alternative was almost nonsensical. Steve wanted Bucky; Bucky wanted him. They got along better than any two people had a right to get along. They were the same in almost every way that counted. Even without the eerily shared history, where else was Steve going to find someone who made his heart beat faster just with a crooked smile, who was able to give as good as he got, who was already a central part of the life he had made for himself and loved so much? Who else could ever make him as happy—was already making him so happy, every single minute—simply by existing? Bucky was everything Steve had wanted in his old life and had dreamed of for this new one.

Steve could wait for Bucky to be ready. And in the meanwhile, he hoped he’d be ready by then, too. Because Bucky wasn’t the only one who was scared. For all that he longed for more, Steve was terrified that he might be wrong, that it might not work out the way he hoped. He dreaded the possibility that he might get what he wanted only to ruin their friendship, leaving Steve with less than he had now.

In the meanwhile, they carried on as they ever had. The only difference was that Steve now knew the stares he had sometimes felt while his head was down were definitely heated, instead of only hopefully. The only difference was that their friendly pats sometimes went on a millisecond too long, and the accidental brushes of long legs under their desks sparked more coiled electricity than before. As Bucky’s mood stabilized, the tension between them increased—not in their interactions, but in the space where new and enhanced interactions should have been.

Despite his naturally easy manner, Bucky was wound so tight—even tighter than Steve—and had been, long before they’d met. No one could blame him, but Bucky didn’t know how to blow off steam. He didn’t know how to exist outside of two modes: laid-back or Chernobyl.

That was what Steve was trying to overcome in today’s session.

“Come on, Buck,” Steve panted, springing back up off the mat like a yoyo. “You’ve got more than that. Don’t hold back. I can take it.”

Steve socked Bucky with a full-power punch to the solar plexus. For a split second, Bucky forgot who was attached to the menacing fist and simply reacted, which was what Steve was hoping for. He twisted Steve’s arm, practically wrenching the limb out of its socket with superhuman strength. It took a few seconds before the muffled “Mercy!” mumbles got through to him and he realized that he was practically sitting on Steve’s neck.

“That was spectacularly dumb, Steve.” Bucky scrambled to his feet and pulled him up. “You didn’t know what I’d do. Hell, I don’t know what I’d have done.”

“I asked for it,” Steve said cheerfully, even though he was wincing. He rolled his shoulder; he would be feeling that for a few days. When was the last time he could say that?

He went back, with double force this time. The war between Bucky’s conscious brain and his hard-wired defensive reflexes ultimately ended in a draw. He ended up pinned underneath Steve, completely shut down and not fighting back.

This wasn’t working.

“You know,” a voice said, “there are more satisfying ways of getting rid of a little tension. You’d only have to reposition yourselves very slightly, and I think you’d both be much happier. Just as sweaty, though.”

From where they lay on the ground, they turned their heads to see Tony leaning against the wall, watching them with a smug smirk on his face.

“Shut up, Stark,” Bucky said while Steve scrambled off him.

“We’re working here,” Steve said, steely-voiced to cover his embarrassment.

“Is that what you’re calling it now?”

“That’s what it is.”

“Do you have a reason for being here, Tony?” Bucky asked.

“Other than the fact that I live here? Well, yes, actually. There’s a present waiting for you in Steve’s apartment. I was going to wait until duty called, but I got bored. I’m having everyone else’s sent to your office, but since you practically live here now…”

“Guns?” Bucky barked. “Is that what it is? You gave us all guns?”

Steve couldn’t tell if Bucky sounded thrilled or dejected about the prospect.

“Like I’d give Darcy a gun,” Tony said with a snort.

“She’s surprisingly good with a taser,” Steve said. “Don’t underestimate her. She might be a little thing, but she’s got the nerve to take down three of me.”


The next morning, under the guise of a meeting about quarterly readership stats, the group locked themselves in one of the Herald’s conference rooms to discuss updates. Tony, Pepper and Bruce dialed in from their offices across town. The only people missing were Darcy in person and Fury on the phone, so the rest of them unpacked their new uniforms and chatted while they waited.

“Are our uniforms Gucci, too?” Simmons asked hopefully.

“Yes, they are. Hope you like them,” Pepper said. “The only one missing is Bruce’s.”

“Didn’t know your size, big guy,” Tony explained.

“I don’t need one.”

“Now that we have uniforms, we need a name,” Jane said. “For the team.”

“No,” Bucky and Natasha said in unison.

“Why not?” Steve asked.

“We already have code names,” Natasha said.

“Can’t we just be Captain America’s and Iron Man’s back-up squad?” Bucky said. “Does it have to be a whole… thing?

“Stop being such a hipster,” Hill said.

“Where’s Darcy?” Jane asked worriedly. “She’s never late. Even back when she was just my assistant and managed to break every piece of equipment I ever made, she was never late. She isn’t even answering her phone this morning. No one’s been picking up their phone lately. I haven’t been able to get in touch with my old doctoral advisor either, for a whole week. Selvig’s usually just as reliable as Darcy. It’s like everyone’s disappearing on me.”

“I’m asking myself the same about Fury,” Coulson said. “In twenty years, he’s never been late to anything.”

There was a knock on the door. Everyone’s instincts said to ignore it, given that cat suits instead of PowerPoint decks lay strewn about the table. Conference rooms in the building were scarce; it was probably someone from another department looking for a place to hold an actual meeting.

Fitz’s phone beeped.

“It’s Darcy,” he said. “She wants to come in.”

Coulson unlocked the door and Darcy all but fell in. She looked like hell, glasses slipping off her nose and hair sprouting from her ponytail. In her hurry, she must have forgotten to put on a couple of her usual layers; Steve could almost see the hint of a shape on her.

“There you are!” Jane exclaimed.

“One down, one to go,” Coulson said.

“Who’s the last person missing?” Darcy asked. “Is it Fury? If so, I’ve got it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know where he is. Fury spent the night at my place.”

“You didn’t…” Clint choked on the words. “I don’t know whether to give you props or a talking to.”

“Fury’s a fox, but no. He’s been shot. Broke into my apartment at 1am and bled all over my floor. I was up all night playing Florence Nightingale.”

“How was Director Fury when you left him?”

“Fine-ish. I left him curled up on the couch watching TV Land, with a gun on one side and the remote on the other. He’ll live. I’m supposed to patch him through to you guys. He’s got my phone.” She dialed Fury into the conference number. After a few rings, the voicemail kicked in. “Nicky? It’s Darcy. I don’t remember the password. Just pick up, okay?”

Everyone’s eyebrows shot up.

She looked at all of them and grinned. “That’s his payment for crashing with me. I get to call him Nicky.”

“Is everyone there? Coulson?”

Steve wondered how much of Fury’s weary tone was due to the injury and how much was due to a night spent with Darcy.

“What happened, sir?”

“They must have found out I’ve been digging around for information. It was a special hit. I even signed the order. I thought it was for someone else—a real threat. Those fuckers had me approve my own assassination.”

“Who ordered the hit?” Steve asked.

“Not sure yet. Hill, I’m going to need your help.”

“Deep shadow cover, sir?”

“What’s deep shadow cover?” Darcy asked.

“Faking your death,” Bucky said hoarsely.

“Until they get a body, they’ll keep trying and they’ll keep digging. The last thing I want is for them to dig so hard that they find out about you all. As soon as Coulson and Hill have convinced whoever we need to convince that I’m gone, I’ll head back to Lewis’s apartment and hide out until such a time as you all have taken care of this threat.”

“Super,” Darcy muttered.

“I heard that,” Fury grumbled. “This is no treat for me either. Your apartment is disgusting. But I’m not stuck here for nothing. I’m reasonably sure the reason they went after me was because they found out I had finally gotten intel on the knock list you found in New Jersey.”

Fury explained how he had been covertly investigating the IP address Natasha had linked to the printer in Camp Lehigh’s secret basement facility a few weeks before. Getting information took longer when you weren’t supposed to know enough about it to ask. But by using backdoor channels, calling in favors from the handful of people he could trust, and sending Natasha and Pepper out on special intelligence-gathering assignments, he’d finally located it.

There was a ship. A brand-new, next generation aircraft carrier, to be exact. Fury had found out that various parties had covertly funded its construction—from top-secret branches of the US Army and CIA, to black ops intelligence agencies around the world, including SHIELD. Select individuals buried in organizations that should never have been working together had somehow cooperated to create this thing.

In finding the ship, Fury had confirmed the continued existence and enhanced power of Hydra. Its guiding hand was behind all of this underhanded international collaboration. The ship, which had never pulled into a port since setting sail six months before, was Hydra’s only tangible headquarters. Its purpose was unclear; this was what Fury needed Steve and his team to investigate.

“It has some kind of state of the art cloaking mechanism to keep it from being picked up by surveillance. But I’ve found out that two nights from now, its path will take it close to New York Harbor. This is the closest it will have ever come to land since it set sail. This is only opportunity to board, find out what they’re up to and destroy it that we’re likely to get.”

Clint sighed and Natasha frowned.

“What’s the matter?” Steve asked.

“We had plans,” Natasha explained. “But this comes first.”

“Yeah,” Clint agreed. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll figure something else out.”

“Two nights from now?” Tony asked, also annoyed at the timing. “That’s the Expo. I can’t double-book.”

In collaboration with the Army, various energy conglomerates, and other research and manufacturing companies, Tony and Pepper had been planning a huge Expo, a tribute to the kind Howard had used to put on. Tony was to officially announce his clean energy initiative—to unveil the world-changing technology he’d invented and refined based on the files Fury had given him from Howard. Pepper had been tearing her hair out over the details for weeks.

“The Expo’s being held in Liberty State Park, isn’t it?” Steve asked. “Right in the harbor. And we know that Hammer is also presenting. We know that Hammer has gotten Hydra’s weapons contract and that they’ve sent an old Red Room scientist to work with him. All of these things coming together can’t be a coincidence. I don’t think you’re double-booked, Tony. It’s all happening at the same time, and it’s all happening around the Expo for a reason.”

“I’d also be interested to know what’s going on in DC at that time,” Coulson said. “I assume that if SHIELD has been as badly compromised as we fear, most of their resources will be focused on assisting Hydra’s plans.”

“Exactly my thinking,” Fury said. “Rogers, I’m trusting you to come up with a plan of attack.”

“On it, sir.”


“Something tells me we’re the B Team,” Bruce said as he fished a few moth-eaten dollar bills out of his wallet to pay for Jane’s Sprite. “And not just because of our initials.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agreed.

“My initials don’t have a B in them,” Darcy pointed out.

“I don’t think anyone’s the B Team,” Jane said brightly. “Steve doesn’t work like that. If he assigned us here, it’s because he thinks we’re the best people for this job. Plus, we’re here to back up Tony and Rhodey. No one would ever call them the B Team.”

She was right, of course. Looking objectively at everyone’s skill sets and interpersonal dynamics, this was the best subgroup of team members for this part of the night’s activities. Jane and Darcy had never done anything like this before, and had a longer history together than any two people in the group, save Bucky and Natasha. Bruce knew Bucky and Jane best and was most comfortable with them. Stationed as they were to monitor potential problems at the Expo, this mission would probably call for scientific expertise more than anything else. Bucky was on hand to provide muscle if anything went wrong. Tony and Pepper were also here, but they had real-life Stark Industries work to do. All of them were hooked up to one another through comms; Bucky alone had a connection to Fury.

Meanwhile, Coulson and Hill were leading a simultaneous assault on SHIELD headquarters in DC, with Fitz and Simmons in tow. Steve had taken Clint and Natasha to the ship. Although they couldn’t talk to one another, Fury was checking in with all three teams from Darcy’s couch.

It all made sense, everyone’s individual skill sets were being capably deployed and the team structure was perfectly calibrated, but Bucky couldn’t help but feel dejected about it. If anything went wrong, Tony would suit up in an instant, and Rhodey would be by his side. Between the two of them, there was little they couldn’t take care of. Bucky should have been on the ship with Steve, had not his attitude gotten in the way.

Being here had made Bucky see that he wanted nothing more than to be by Steve’s side. Instead, he was here, half monitoring the scene for unknown threats, half making notes on the Expo for an article, all while on the most awkward non-double date of his life.

Jane and Bruce were still dancing around one another. Their frustrated nerd love had become debilitatingly palpable. Everyone knew what the problem was, but no one could find a solution. Bruce was too self-loathing about his condition to make a move; he’d told Bucky that it wasn’t safe, that his last girlfriend had gotten hurt in all his drama. Meanwhile, Jane had been telling Bucky she wasn’t scared and didn’t give a shit; she may not have seen worse, but she was up for it. Until recently, Bucky had automatically taken Bruce’s side. He knew exactly how he felt, and commiserated entirely. But in the past few days, the tension had gotten so bad and Jane had been cranking wider the puppy eyes… Well, maybe, somewhere, there was a compromise, another option. And watching them tonight, he started to actively want there to be a compromise. Bruce, in the moments when he forgot to keep her at arm’s length, seemed happy. Bucky had never seen the Hulk, but he couldn’t be that bad, could he? He couldn’t be bad enough to keep Jane from having what she wanted.

Bucky was still watching them, and trying to muffle the voice that nagged at him to reevaluate his own parallel choices accordingly when the MC took the stage and announced Hammer.

Everyone clapped and the little douchebag came out.

“Ugh,” Darcy groaned. “Natasha’s right. He really is the worst.”

Hammer continued with his little song and dance (emphasis on the dance). The big shock of the night was his presentation of what he called a new and improved Iron Man suit. That had to be Vanko’s work. It all made sense—one-upping the Starks, giving Hammer an advantage, probably sharing the designs with Hydra. This had to be part of the larger plan, but how and why and for what, none of them knew.

He was still watching, listening, trying to see where this was going when the speaker system shorted out and the lights flickered out, both on the stage and on the ground.

“Tony,” Bucky said into his earpiece. “Something’s wrong.”

“We need to get the power back on,” Jane said as she felt for Bucky’s hand in the dark.

“The controls are located in the southwest corner of the park,” Pepper said.

“Where are you now, Pep?” Tony asked.

“Near there.”

Which was nowhere near where Bucky and his crew were; they’d been hanging at the northern end of the park, monitoring the Hammer pavilion. Pepper had been schmoozing in a different area with other CEOs, while Tony and Rhodey prepped for the Stark announcement elsewhere.

“We’re on our way,” Bucky said.

“I’ll work on organizing civilians to the boats to get out of—”

Wherever Pepper was, everyone started screaming.

“Pepper?”

“There’s an army of Iron Man suits coming in from the south. Like a swarm of man-sized bees. Tony, you have to—”

“Yeah, time to suit up,” Tony said, not into the earpiece, but to Rhodey, who must have been standing right next to him. “You all go find Pepper and work on getting the power back on. Rhodey and I will take on these suits.”

“I was thinking if we can get enough power, we might be able to EMP them,” Darcy said. “Like Ocean’s Eleven.

“Or hack into their operating systems and keep them from attacking,” Bruce said, more practically. “What do you think, Jane?”

“I’m a theoretical astrophysicist, not a mechanical engineer. But let’s see what we can do.”

“If you can reprogram them remotely,” Tony said, “I’ll kiss you.”

“No, you won’t,” Pepper said.

Dragging Jane, who in turn dragged Bruce, who in turn dragged Darcy, Bucky led them to a dark spot behind a large tent where no one could see them. The mayhem on Pepper’s side of the park hadn’t yet reached them. People in this area were mostly just wandering around in the semi-darkness, assuming there had just been a slight glitch and that the lights would turn back on in a minute.

“You’ve got your suits on under your clothes, right?” he asked as he stripped out of his shirt and jeans to reveal his Stark tech suit.

“Yeah.” Jane began shucking off her dress.

“Here you go.” Darcy handed Bucky and Jane the high tech ski masks she’d been carrying in her purse and then began removing her sweater, too.

Bruce stood awkwardly, trying not to stare, even though no one was getting naked.

“This is why you should have taken Tony up on his offer of a suit,” Darcy admonished. “Here. Have a mask. I brought it for you just in case.”

“Thanks.” Bruce reluctantly put it on. Thankfully he was wearing dark, generic-looking clothes, but he still looked stupid.

Bucky hotwired a nearby golf cart and they all crowded in. As fast as the thing was able to go, they drove in the direction of the power station.

“Mission report, Barnes?” Fury asked through Bucky’s other earpiece.

Bucky filled him in and asked how everyone else was doing.

“Coulson and his team are in place. SHIELD headquarters are mostly deserted. Which can only mean there weren’t many good ones left. Whatever’s going on tonight, all hands are on Hydra decks. Be careful.”

“Will do, sir. Any word from Steve?”

“Last I heard was a few minutes ago. He was about to board the ship and was going radio silent.”

Bucky could only hope everything was going a lot more calmly there than it was on his end.


Steve, Clint and Natasha cut the engine on their little motorboat. They paddled the rest of the way, careful to time their strokes with the splash of the waves. Using binoculars, Clint scoped out the threat level on the deck. When he signaled the all clear, Steve threw the grappling hooks so they could board.

Steve had already laid out the mission plan, so they didn’t need to discuss once on deck. The plan was to stay unnoticed, while quietly taking out anyone who got in their way. Things to look for included: the Hydra weapons Steve had found in Arizona; terminals or servers where the lists they’d seen in New Jersey might be housed and compiled; any hints of Hydra’s long-term plans. In the meanwhile, they were to set up explosives to blow this ship to smithereens if needed.

With a nod, they split up, Natasha to take the bow, and Clint the stern. Steve headed for the bridge at the center. The idea was to find a way to take control and sail the ship back out to sea. No matter what Hydra’s plan was, having it this close to shore couldn’t be good.

As expected, there were a lot of agents in the vicinity of the bridge. Steve welcomed their assaults with a smile. The shield hadn’t gotten nearly this good of a workout since his time with Rhodey in Afghanistan. They hadn’t found Tony, but they’d rescued a lot of innocent villagers and other POWs from the hands of rebel bands. It had been good work, active work. Much as Steve loved his job at the paper and the good he was able to do every day just with his laptop, it turned out that he needed this, too, and had missed it. Just once in awhile, of course, when necessary. He liked knowing that once Hydra was defeated—for good this time—he could go back to his real life, as Steve.

He had almost everything he’d ever dreamed of. If his skinny, sickly, hopeless self could have seen him now.

He wished Bucky were here, though.

Steve had assigned Bruce and Bucky to the team backing up Tony and Rhodey at the Expo for a few reasons. The first was that Bruce had the technical know-how to help if anything went down with Hammer, and Bucky had the skills to keep everyone else safe while they worked. Everyone on the ground had the potential to work well together; Steve was confident they could take care of anything. He could equally have used Bucky up here on the ship with him, but Steve had long ago learned that the best contributions came from those whose hearts were in the job, and Bucky and Bruce had been nothing but squeamish about the whole thing. With any luck, all the action would be here on the ship, leaving Bruce to awkwardly woo Jane at the science fair in peace, and Bucky to make some useful notes for a story.

After skulking down a few wrong corridors, Steve saw the bridge through a huge glass window. There were at least fifty people inside—a mix of soldiers and tech people. Too many to hit single-handed. He broke the glass with his shield and threw in four of the gas grenades he carried. He waited for them to go off, waited for some of the coughing to stop and then went in to take care of anyone who was still awake.

Within a couple of minutes, he had the room to himself. The wealth of computers to choose from overwhelmed him. A few of the monitors scattered around the room showed a countdown, though to what, Steve had no idea.

Another monitor showed a list of names. He ran around the room until he found the computer that was projecting it. It was the full database of the hit list they’d found in New Jersey. At the computer next to it, and displaying on a screen at the other side of the room, was its opposite—a much, much shorter list of Hydra officials.

While the full files were open, they had filtered the lists down to only those in the Tri-State area. Steve scrolled through the names, pausing when he flashed by James Barnes and Clinton Barton in quick succession. They had both been marked on the hit list, as stubbornly idealistic media threats to Hydra. Interestingly, although Hydra had been in charge of the Red Room, whoever had made this list didn’t seem to have put together that James Barnes was their missing Winter Soldier.

The long list also included droves of other, most likely even more innocent, people. He looked at the sum at the bottom of the database. Almost a million people were listed in this view, a small subset of almost twenty million.

Twenty million would-be victims.

With blaring horns and flashing lights, the mysterious countdown above him reached zero. Underneath him and all around him, Steve felt the ship lurching. Such a huge vessel shouldn’t been subject to waves, and it definitely wasn’t under attack from anyone except his little team, so it couldn’t have been that. Through the window, he noticed that the lights of the city, far in the distance, seemed to be moving. They were moving down.

Which could only mean the lurching was due to the ship itself rising. Steve had seen a lot of strange things in his time, but a flying aircraft carrier hadn’t even occurred to him.

He ran for the controls, looking to stop the motion. But the steering required a password Steve didn’t know.

Meanwhile, a light went on, signaling that the guns on the ship had become armed. The target list moved to the main screen.

They were going to wipe out every single target in the New York City area. And they were going to do it tonight.

A new update popped up on the central screen. The storage doors registered as open, and in the process of unloading the cargo. Through the cameras, he saw an army of Iron Men flying off and towards the land. He struggled with every control he could find, but the order was hard-coded. He didn’t need the monitors to tell him what the plan was; the suits were going to track down the targets and take them out.

Just when he thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, they did.

“Captain America,” a voice sneered even though the room around him was perfectly still. Steve knew this voice; he knew it from 70 years ago. It had no business being here, or now.

“We meet again,” Zola said.


When they finally reached her, Pepper was standing in the middle of absolute pandemonium. Huge, hideous knock-offs of Tony’s Iron Man suit flew overhead, on their way to Manhattan and the rest of the city. Some, however, landed in the park. Instead of generalized rampaging, they seemed to be tracking a few specific individuals.

Bucky got a terrible feeling as he saw one of the things stalking a middle-aged woman across the field. He yelled to the others that he’d catch up with them and jumped out of the golf cart to chase it. He knew that purposeful stalk. It may have been a machine, but it had been programmed just as he himself had once been programmed. He didn’t know what this woman had done or why Hydra wanted her eliminated, but he knew for certain that she was the suit’s mission.

Just as the machine raised its arm, Bucky tackled her to the ground. He timed his forceful rolling of their bodies with the blast of energy that poured out of the suit’s palm, making it look like it had hit them, when in reality, it had just missed.

“Stay down,” he whispered furiously to her, hoping the words would be clear through the muffling of his mask, and also hoping she wouldn’t freak out about the fact that some creepy dude with a mask had jumped her. “Stay down for as long as you need to until they stop—until they all stop. All night if you need to. I don’t know why it’s after you, but it is. As long as it thinks you’re dead, it’ll leave you alone.”

Luckily, she seemed like a smart lady. “I will. Thank you, sir, whoever you are.”

She did as she was told and stayed stock-still. Once the machine had moved on, he got up and chased after it. Tony had shown him a secret failsafe in the Iron Man design, in case something ever went wrong and they needed to depower him. Bucky threw himself at the machine, wrapped his legs around it, and stuck a knife where he knew the spot to be. Unfortunately, Vanko’s design had changed the location, but Bucky hung on, figuring it had to be there, somewhere. The thing was single-minded in its mission, looking for whoever was next on its kill list. It swatted at him a few times, but didn’t unleash any lethal force. After a few experiments, Bucky found where the new spot was, jammed his knife into it and felt the machine slump beneath him.

“Guys!” he yelled, not knowing what to call everyone. When this was over, they’d have to sit down and figure out real code names for everyone who didn’t have one.

“I’m thinking we can take it inside and you can use it to figure out how to deprogram the others remotely,” he said when they ran over.

Everyone took a limb of the machine. They hitched it to the golf cart and drove it to the entrance of the power station, which was guarded. But the guards must have been Hydra or SHIELD or whatever, instead of Park rangers, because they pulled out machine guns and aimed them right at Pepper.

Bucky wasn’t having any of that. He kicked one guard full in the chest, and lunged for his gun. He used it take out the rest of the squad.

This was the first time he’d held a machine gun in his hands since his days in the Red Room. He wasn’t sure how he felt about the comfort with which he wielded it, as though no time had passed. But anything that prevented people from pointing guns at Pepper had to be for the best, right?

Once inside with their hunk of metal, everyone set to work finding the right terminals and getting a grounding in how the park’s systems worked while Bucky did his best to barricade their little workspace. He told Tony and Rhodey what he’d discovered—that the suits were after specific targets, probably the ones from the hit list they’d found at Camp Lehigh. Darcy found the instructions to turn on a back-up generator, Bruce dug into the workings of Vanko’s invention, and Jane tried to locate the suits’ signals. Pepper, meanwhile, got on her phone and started calling every single contact in her impressive database, informing officials of what was going on and barking orders about how to get people to safety.

“Barnes,” Fury’s voice said in his ear.

“Here, sir,” Bucky replied.

“There’s a problem with the ship.”

Bucky’s stomach lurched. “What kind of problem?”

“It’s taken off.”

“What, it’s turned around and sailed back to sea? Isn’t that a good thing?”

“No. It’s taken off. As in floated up into the sky and is headed for the city.”

“What? How? I thought it was an aircraft carrier.”

“It apparently also carries itself.”

“But they’re okay, right?”

“I don’t know. Cap’s team went radio silent as soon as they got near the ship. The mission parameters have changed. This ship, and whatever Hydra intends to do with it… It’s happening now. Barnes, I need you to take a moratorium from your motherfucking melodrama for as long as it takes to provide back-up and give them a new escape route. I’m going to need Banner to do the same in order to relieve you.”

“On it, sir.”

Fury hadn’t needed to tell him. From the first word that his friends were in trouble—hell, from the first sign of trouble here at the Expo—all the confusion and angst and worry that had left Bucky so knotted up and paralyzed had evaporated. None of that mattered anymore. He’d been an idiot, on a million different levels. How someone like Steve had put up with him so patiently, he didn’t know.

“How are you getting along with figuring out how this thing works?” he asked Bruce, who was hunched over the conquered machine.

“I’m close to figuring out how it works and how it’s different from Tony’s design.”

“Great. Tell Jane. Give her all the info. Let her take over.”

“Why?”

“I have to go.”

“But we need you here, too. We need cover to—”

“No, Jane and Darcy and Pepper need cover. There’s more than one person here who can provide that.” Bucky gripped Bruce by the shoulders and refused to let him get squirrelly. “Bruce you can do this. You have to do this. There’s trouble on the ship. But the girls are in trouble here. It’s time for both of us to man up.”

Bruce glanced wistfully at Jane, looking so small and serious by the computer terminal.

“She’ll think it’s cool,” Bucky said to reassure him. “I promise. It’s not like she doesn’t already know about it. Seeing won’t change anything.”

“If the other guy hurts them…”

“He won’t.”

Bucky listened to his own words, listened to Bruce’s, and cringed at the knowledge that he was replaying his conversation with Steve, from the reverse. Listening to Bruce, he now heard how ridiculous his arguments had been.

“But what if…”

“Whatever the other guy does can’t possibly be worse than will happen if Steve, Natasha and Clint don’t get back-up and finish the mission. It can’t possibly be worse than a bunch of Vanko’s drones getting at them.” Bucky tilted his head towards Pepper, Darcy and Jane.

Slowly, Bruce nodded.

Having won, Bucky turned around. “Darcy, I want you to tase the hell out of anyone who tries to get in here. Just make sure they aren’t friendlies first.”

Darcy brandished her favorite toy. “Got it.”

Bucky next went to Pepper. “You’re in charge now.”

“What?” she sputtered. “Why?”

“Because you were born to be in charge.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Where can I steal a plane?”

“There are some Stark helicopter prototypes in the northwest pavilion. Password is Dum-Dum.”

Bucky turned back to Bruce. “Do you want me to stay with you while you…” He wasn’t sure how to put it.

“That would help, if you have the time.”

Bucky had to go. Every minute that he spent lingering here was an agony of uncertainty, but this was important, too.

“Yeah, I’ve got a minute.”

Quickly yet neatly, Bruce took his shirt off and folded it. Bucky expected him to clench or grunt or work himself up, but instead he did quite the opposite. He relaxed. It started slowly at first; if Bucky hadn’t known what was supposed to happen, he probably would have looked around for a bag or a toilet for Bruce to puke in. First it was his face that puffed and turned a greenish grey. Then it was his hands. More and more until all of him was green and bigger, always bigger.

Bucky moved the tables and chairs out of the way to give him room. Pepper and Jane and Darcy tried to stay on task while Bucky coached Bruce through it. He knew how hard this was; Bruce hadn’t let go like this in years.

He finally stopped growing and the room went still.

“Hey, buddy,” Bucky said encouragingly, trying to hide the fear he couldn’t quite stamp out. “It’s okay.”

Bruce—the Hulk—growled.

“Yeah, it’s me, Bucky.” He had no idea how much access the Hulk had to Bruce’s knowledge and thought processes; he didn’t know why he was talking to him like a child, but it felt right in this moment. “I’ve got to go now, but I want you to look after these ladies, okay? They’re doing some really important stuff here and you just need to guard them, and the people in the park that the suits are after. There’s Pepper. She’s running the show while I’m gone. Wave, Pepper.”

More regal than the Queen but twice as friendly, Pepper tilted her hand back and forth a few times.

The Hulk nodded in her direction and grunted.

“And you’ve got Darcy. And Jane.”

“Hey there,” Jane said bravely. “You’re amazing.”

The Hulk beamed. There was no other word for it.

Bucky could already tell this would be okay. Bruce should have given himself more credit.

“You just smash all the big grey suits, okay? But not the ones with Tony and Rhodey. I’ll catch you… and Bruce… later. You’ve got this. I know it.”

Bucky started to go, but an enormous hand stopped him and forcibly turned him back around.

“Cold… smash?”

It took a second, but Bucky figured out what the Hulk, with his limited vocabulary, was asking.

“Yeah, the Winter Soldier’s gonna go bust some heads. Wish me luck.”

“Luck.”

Someone had taken the golf cart, so Bucky took off running towards the pavilion Pepper had told him about.

He had been attending those flying lessons with Steve, but even though he’d gotten comfortable again in a cockpit, he’d never flown a helicopter before. However, he was a quick study, and it wasn’t long before he got the thing off the ground.

The flying aircraft carrier was cloaked in some sort of anti-detection field. No one should have been able to find it, but Coulson had hacked into secret computers at SHIELD headquarters that were monitoring its location. He told the information to Fury, who relayed it on to Bucky. Sure enough, after a few minutes, Bucky saw it in front of him. It was all he could see in front of him. He felt the old skill returning to his fingers as he maneuvered the helicopter away from the guns that began firing. When he landed, he rolled out the side of the helicopter, to draw fire away from it, since he needed it undamaged in order to get the others out. He rolled right onto a Hydra agent, used the sap’s body as a shield, and made his way inside.

While he had to fight a few guards on his way in, the path had been cleared long before his arrival. Bucky passed at least five different bodies, unconscious or with their necks snapped too far backwards.

Good old Natasha.

He made his way to the bridge, figuring that at some point, his friends would gather there, too. The way lay mostly clear, in a path that had diverged from Natasha’s, because instead of snapped necks, he saw bashed noses—more Steve’s style than hers.

He found Steve alone in the bridge, standing over a console. He was pressing buttons and moving levers in an attempt to change course.

“Cavalry’s here,” Bucky said, even as his heart swelled to see him.

Steve spun around, wary. “What are you doing here? You’re supposed to be covering the Expo, covering Bruce and the girls. What—”

“Fury sent me. Told me the ship had taken off and you needed a new escape route. Bruce has it covered on the ground.”

“Wait, do you mean got him to…”

Bucky nodded. “And it was incredible.”

“Wow.” Steve smiled. “That’s great.”

Bucky had a lot more to say. He’d bottled up so much for so long and now it threatened to explode. He was about to launch into everything he’d wanted to tell Steve, but a new voice rang out from somewhere in the room, drowning him out.

“Asset, Codename Winter Soldier.”

Bucky felt every muscle in his body clench. He knew that voice; whatever nightmares he had that weren’t about falling featured that voice.

But Zola was dead, had been dead for decades. He was gone and there was no way for him to hurt Bucky ever again. This was the comforting fact that had kept Bucky sane all this time. He told himself he was hearing things. But then the monitors above his head turned on and fuzzy images of Zola’s nasty little head surrounded him.

“They marked you as dead,” Zola’s equally nasty little voice announced. “But you seem to be even less dead than I am. Not a surprise. Machines do not die. They merely malfunction. With a little care, they can always be restored. Sometimes they simply need new parts, other times they need a program reset. Sometimes they need both. I wonder, hm, which it is that you need?”

Bucky started to shoot. He shot at three different screens before he realized it wasn’t working. The voice simply laughed.

“I tried that already,” Steve said, gesturing at a computer screen he had punched before Bucky’s arrival. “It doesn’t work. He just keeps talking.”

“What the fuck is this?” Bucky asked.

“He’s in the computer,” Steve said.

“How?”

“Beats me. But he won't shut up about how clever he is and Hydra’s eternal might and all that sort of thing. It’s driving me nuts.”

“Ah, you have made the acquaintance of Captain America?” Zola asked. “You were first made to kill him, you know. But he removed himself from the field before you were ready. And now here you both are. You can complete the mission for which you were designed.”

This was Bucky’s worst nightmare—the epitome of every reason that had caused him to run from Steve and everything else.

“We need to mute him,” he said, shoving his fingers in his ears in case Zola’s ghost—or whatever it was—decided to say the words. “Even if we can’t turn it off.”

He and Steve ran around and smashed every speaker in sight while Zola droned on and on about the glory of Hydra and its imminent global dominion and something called Project Insight, which Steve told him was the point of the hit lists. Zola had always been prone to monologuing, but being stuck in a computer seemed to have made the habit worse. Bucky was fine letting him yammer, as long as it distracted him from saying the trigger words.

The voice petered out, not because he’d stopped talking, but because Bucky and Steve had shot up the audio system.

There wasn’t time to feel any kind of relief at having dodged the worst possible bullet, because twenty more guards marched into the room from various entrances. Steve and Bucky spared only a second to glance at one another, almost telepathically divvying up the heavies. The fact that they were able to do so with both of their faces covered was quite a feat. Steve, always an overachiever, claimed the side with twelve guys, leaving Bucky looking like a chump with only eight.

Steve and Bucky knew what they were doing, but the only reason they were getting away with this was because someone had told the goons to subdue and capture, not kill. Their guns remained strapped to their holsters as they attacked. Bucky couldn’t see much of what Steve was doing behind him beyond some red and blue swooshing and kicks, but he could hear the shield whizzing around the room, taking people out, one by one, and sometimes by twos. All of the knives Bucky had brought with him ended up sticking out of bodies that fell in a prettily choreographed dance.

When Bucky had wasted his group, he looked over, mouth already open to congratulate Steve with a sarcastic remark. But instead of standing in the middle of a pile of unconscious bodies, Steve was backed up against a wall, yards away from his shield. He was handcuffed to the wall—magnets, it looked like.

Bucky’s first order of business was to throw the last of his knives right into the heart of the asshole who’d pinned Steve. He went down like a weight. But then, behind him, Bucky heard the click of a gun being cocked.

“You haven’t changed a bit, Soldier.”

Not another one. It was like the night of tortures past.

Bucky had thrown all his knives; he’d fired all his guns. He was empty-handed and Alexander Pierce—his name was Pierce, Bucky remembered, shadow waves of pain rolling through him, as though he were back in the chair, back in the machines—Pierce had a gun pointed at Steve. Pierce had a gun pointed at Steve’s head and there was nothing Bucky could see at the moment to do about it.

“You still move the same. I’d know you anywhere," Pierce continued, his voice placid and chillingly familiar. “Who’s running you these days? Who owns you now?”

“No one’s running him,” Steve said when it was clear that Bucky’s tongue had frozen still. “No one owns him. People aren’t possessions.”

Pierce sneered at Steve and released the safety of the gun. “Captain America. Still so painfully naïve. I always thought there would have been more to you.”

“Put the gun down, Pierce,” Bucky said, searching desperately for either a weapon or a bargaining chip. “Just put the gun down and we can talk.”

“So you do remember me,” Pierce said brightly. He kept his arm raised high and aiming at Steve’s forehead. “I was wondering whether or not you would. Things have been a lot more difficult without you. It was only after we lost you that we started building this ship. We needed something to replace you. It took all this to finally do that.”

“Let him go,” Bucky begged. “I’ll… I’ll come with you if you let him go. I’ll do whatever you want. I’ll be your asset again.”

“What? No!” Steve protested.

“You miss it, don’t you, Soldier?” Pierce asked. “You’re so eager to come back. You miss the freedom of not having to choose. The freedom of having nothing to concern you except following orders. You want to come home. I know. We’ll take you back. We’ll make it so easy for you again.”

There had been moments, sure, in the very beginning, before he and Natasha had come to New York, when thoughts such as these had wisped across Bucky’s consciousness, but they had never lingered.

Bucky was too smart for this shit. Especially tonight, with his head finally clear. He knew exactly what he wanted and was no longer too scared to go for it. The idea that he missed his life with the Red Room, that he would ever voluntarily submit to that kind of sick ownership again was… It was epic, next-level delusion, beyond anything he had thought possible; and coming from someone who had once dated Loki, that was saying a lot.

“I’d like that,” he said. He accompanied the words with slow steps towards Pierce, a perfect imitation of the obedient, confused, dependent creature he’d once been.

Steve had stopped protesting and was simply watching, his gaze flicking between Pierce’s acquisitive gleam and Bucky’s calculated approach. He’d figured out Bucky’s play.

“We’ll take you back,” Pierce continued to say, all fatherly and creepy and wrong. “It’ll be like it was.”

On his way, Bucky passed a desk. Faster than humanly possible—faster, even, than Steve could have done—Bucky grabbed the ballpoint pen on the workstation and launched the tip directly at Pierce’s left cornea. As intended, the pen sank with a quiet squelch. His hand automatically flexed, causing the gun to clatter to the ground. Bucky needed only a split-second to dive for one of the bodies strewn around the floor, reach for a gun, and shoot it up and into Pierce’s skull. He fired the first shot from the ground, but he kept shooting as he stood up again, and didn’t stop. He shot and shot, years of rage puncturing Pierce until his head was little more than a smashed watermelon sat atop a human body.

“I think you can stop now. I think he’s dead,” Steve’s awe-struck voice said, breaking through the song of gunshots and bringing Bucky back to the moment.

“I might have gotten a little carried away,” he said.

“No, not at all,” Steve said, half uncertain and half impressed. “It’s… very useful.”

Bucky had spent all this time terrified of letting Steve see this side of him, but now that it had happened, it was turning out not to be such a big deal. More importantly, Steve was safe and this Hydra bastard was dead. Between the two of them—plus Natasha and Clint, wherever they were, and the others back on the ground—they were going to end this shit, once and for all.

But first things first.

Bucky walked over to Steve and switched off the magnets to free him. He held Steve firmly by the shoulders, bringing their heads close together. “Steve, listen up and listen good. Next time, I’m your back up. I have your six. And you divvy up the goddamn heavies equally. Got it?”

Steve seemed startled by Bucky’s intensity, both in the gravity of his voice and the bruising press of his fingers. “Got it.”

Bucky was coasting on adrenaline. There was just one last lingering element of bullshit left to wrap up here. He leaned boldly forward and smashed his lips against Steve’s partly op—

Something was off.

“What are you doing?” Steve mumbled cautiously, his words muffled by Bucky’s mask pressed against his face.

“Shit.” Bucky had completely forgotten he was wearing it. No wonder his lips had collided with Kevlar instead of Steve. Talk about a mood killer.

Steve stared quizzically at Bucky, from barely an inch away, tempered hope lighting his eyes. “Are you trying to head-butt me or kiss me?”

“Kiss you, you dork. I just forgot I had the mask on.”

Bucky reached to unclasp it and try again, but Steve’s fingers stilled Bucky’s on the clasp.

“Hydra doesn’t know who you are now. In case there are cameras, I don’t want you to spoil that by showing your face. As your commanding officer, I won’t let you put yourself in danger, not for this. Anyway, isn’t that the platform you were running on until about five minutes ago?” Steve broke into a completely evil smile of which no one else would have believed him capable. “How about we finish the mission and then… Think of it as an incentive to get it done in record time.”

The mask blocked all access to his face, but Bucky shivered to feel Steve’s hot breath ghosting across the tendons of his neck. This was the most powerful incentive anyone had ever dangled in front of him.

“Record time,” was all he found himself able to choke out.

The sound of footsteps obliterated the moment. Steve and Bucky sprang apart, but they were a moment too late, because two masked figures in familiar black bodysuits entered the room, escorting a Hydra operative between them.

“What the fuck is this?” the prisoner asked, understandably taken aback having come across Captain America whispering sweet nothings to some dude.

“What are you doing here?” Natasha asked.

“I was told I was needed here more. Got someone to cover for me. Who’s this?”

“This is Rumlow,” Clint said, who was still sputtering in shock. “He’s going to help us sail this ship far, far away from New York. Aren’t you, Rumlow?”

“Go on, enter the codes,” Natasha said with her glock pressing into his skull. “Call this all off.”

Rumlow began typing, but the only thing that happened was that the ship’s speed increased.

“Hail Hydra.”

Natasha pulled the trigger. And then again. And again.

“Wow, you two really did train in the same school, didn’t you?” Steve said with a sigh as Rumlow's dead body fell off the chair and onto the ground.

“I had a bad feeling about that guy. I wanted to make sure he was dead.” Natasha glanced at the corpse by Bucky’s feet. “Who was that?”

“Pierce.”

“I can’t believe you finally got him.”

“And once we take this ship down, Zola will go down with it.”

“Zola?” Natasha asked. “I don’t under—”

“Yeah, he’s still alive or something, in the computer. I don’t know. Just roll with it.”

“How strange.”

“I’m glad you guys got to shoot a lot of people, in the face, repeatedly,” Clint interrupted, “but how are we supposed to stop this airship now that we’ve killed the only operative left who might have been able to land it? Everyone else is dead or severely incapacitated.”

Bucky reminded himself to commend Clint later for his cool head. For a circus act-turned-sports reporter who had never seen active service before, he was taking the hyper-violence around him—perpetrated by his girlfriend and her roommate, no less—shockingly well. He vowed never to let anyone (read: Tony) tease him for being the ‘normal guy’ ever again.

“He wasn’t ever going to land it,” Natasha said. “He ‘hail Hydra’-ed with guns to his head. Also, he saw these two fools pawing each other. He had to die before he talked. Speaking of which, I can’t believe you two. Now? Now is when you choose to deal with this?”

“I have an idea,” Steve said, ignoring the question. His self-control was a thing of beauty. “What’s the one thing a secret organization fears most?”

Bucky could see where Steve was going with this. “Exposure. Publicity.”

“Exactly. Remember that list of ‘do not hits’ we were wondering about in New Jersey? I found it, before all these heavies came in. I found the file with the list of all the Hydra agents around the world, as well as a complete history Hydra’s activities over the past seventy years. What if we broadcast it from here? What if we send it to the Herald, to the Post, to every news outlet in the world? To every country whose government and intelligence organizations have been infiltrated by Hydra. We’ll tell everyone, and then we’ll blow this ship out of the water. I mean, the air. Were you able to plant the C4?”

“Eight positions,” Clint said, “equally spaced throughout the ship. With an extra one in the room with the weapons you saw in Arizona. I found ‘em.”

“I got nine,” Natasha said proudly. “All you have to do is set the timer, and this place is dust.”

“How are we supposed to get out?” Clint asked.

“I brought a helicopter,” Bucky said.

Steve pulled up the files he’d been talking about. Natasha stepped up to the terminal and began typing.

“How do you know the passwords?” Bucky asked as her rapid activity was displayed on the monitors above their heads.

“I didn’t spend all those weeks undercover with Hammer and Stern and the rest of them for nothing. I know what to try, even though I didn’t know what they were for at the time.”

Meanwhile, Steve, Clint and Bucky worked on setting up the timer for the explosives and programming an autopilot plan for the ship that would take it out to sea. It took everything Bucky had not to constantly glance up at Steve. He didn’t manage to succeed. He caught Steve doing the same once or twice.

“Knock it off, you two,” Clint said.

“Done,” Natasha said. “It’s out. Emailed to all the news outlets. I even commandeered a few cable stations to broadcast the list on live TV, scrolling Stars Wars style. And I checked on our Zola situation. Once this thing blows, he’ll blow with it.”

“Good,” Steve said. “Timer’s all set. Autopilot’s all set. Now all we have to do is get out of here. Where’s that helicopter of yours?

They ran through the now quiet ship. The few agents who had started to wake up again after their beat downs got a shield or a foot to the head that took them out again. No one stopped their takeoff. Soon, they were flying back to the mainland, Bucky at the controls.

Now that they were out of Hydra’s airspace, Steve turned back on his radio communication with Fury and filled him in.

“How are things down at the Expo? We’re headed back now to help.”

Bucky couldn’t hear, but from a few glances back to take in Steve’s satisfied face, he figured things had calmed down.

“Good to hear,” Steve said as confirmation. “Sounds like there will be some clean up, but Tony, Rhodey and I can cover it. Let the ones no one’s supposed to know about off the hook.”

“Five, four, three, two, one,” Clint whispered to himself.

On cue, they heard an explosion far in the distance, out of the harbor and well into the ocean. Bucky didn’t have to turn around to see the flash of light brighten the sky as the airship exploded, taking Hydra and Zola and all the rest of it with them.

He heard Clint high-fiving Steve behind him.

“Can you drop us somewhere near JFK?” Natasha asked. “We left our luggage in storage, just in case this wrapped up quickly. Cap, if you don’t need us, I think we’ll be just in time to make our flight. We’ll be in touch, of course, for any follow-ups, and on the first flight back if anything comes up.”

“I think we’re done,” Steve said. “Go on.”

“I’ll look for a place to touch down,” Bucky added.

“There are parachutes back here,” Clint said while rooting around under the seats. “We can jump out. More fun than actually landing.”

Natasha, who had always secretly gotten off on jumping out of planes, lit up in excitement. “You’re up for that? Even when we don’t have to?”

“Sure. Why not?”

Natasha’s mouth flapped open and shut a couple of times before she planted one on poor, confused Clint.

Steve helped them into their parachutes. “Thanks for the good work tonight.”

“This was a pleasure,” Clint said. “Not the double date I expected, but probably the double date we deserve. Looking forward to doing it again sometime.”

“Hopefully not too soon.”

“James,” Natasha said. The kiss she dropped on the back of his neck was full of silent pride and congratulations.

“Natasha,” he replied, keeping his eyes on the sky even as his tilted his head to kiss her back. “Call me when you get there.”

“Always.”

They jumped out and Bucky hovered for a minute so Steve could check their progress. Secure that they were safe, he kept going.

As soon as they were alone, Steve took the spot Natasha had vacated beside him. He leaned in close and placed his hand tentatively on Bucky’s thigh.

“Bucky,” he said happily.

Unfortunately, something more pressing than getting things sorted out with Steve now presented itself. Bucky was still getting the hang of flying this thing, and hadn’t been paying attention to every single dial. However, the one flashing red forced itself into his consciousness. This was the gas meter, and it was falling a lot faster than any vehicle he’d ever driven before.

“So, uh, turns out we’ve only got about five minutes of gas left. They must have shot a hole in the tank on my way in. I’m gonna have to put her down near Rockaway Beach. If I can even make it there.”

Steve frowned, more because they’d been further interrupted than because they were possibly going to crash. “I’ll relay the location to Tony. He’ll come get us.”

While Steve called Tony, the helicopter’s lights started flickering until they finally went out. Bucky was flying blind, with only the scattered lights of suburban-ish Rockaway to guide him.

The gas ran out sooner than he expected, much farther from shore than Bucky had been hoping for.

“To hell with this,” Bucky said, after trying and failing to turn the damn thing off or bring it up again. He and Steve jumped out. Bucky dropped his mask before he hit the water so he could breathe. They tried to avoid the crashing helicopter as they swam. Even though he didn’t need it, Bucky lent Steve a hand to scramble onto the sand.

Steve coughed violently the whole way up the beach and to the covered spot under the boardwalk that Bucky had scoped out. Once they’d collapsed in the sand to rest, Bucky thumped him on the back a few times.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, just got some water down the wrong pipe.”

“You got it out?”

Steve gave one last cough. “Yeah. I’m good.”

“Great.”

Assured that Steve could take it, Bucky tackled him.

And then they were kissing, as though they’d never started and would never stop. This didn’t feel like a first kiss. This was home, the most familiar place Bucky had ever been, and yet also the strangest. Steve’s strong hands were all over him, pushing and pulling in equal measure. They grabbed fistfuls of one another’s sodden uniforms, trying to get inside. But there was no entrance into their bodysuits, no hope to find skin.

Bucky didn’t have it in him to feel frustrated. He had nothing to be frustrated about anymore. Even the tingling tickle of wrong wrong don’t what are you doing in that dreaded space at the back of his brain couldn’t quite make itself heard.

Bucky would never give a goddamn shit what his stupid headaches tried to tell him ever again. He didn’t care if he never found out who he was, as long as he had this.

Steve sank backwards, pulling Bucky down on top of him, wedging his thigh between Bucky’s legs.

Bucky would have liked to claim more of Steve’s face with his lips, but he couldn’t bear the idea of pausing for long enough to remove the mask.

“I’ve been an idiot,” he gasped into Steve’s mouth.

“Tell me something new,” Steve said with a laugh. Suddenly he froze. “Wait, you were an idiot before, or you’re being an idiot now? It had better be the former, because I swear, if you try to go back, to take this back…”

“Before, before,” Bucky reassured him. “I couldn’t take this back if I tried.”

“This is taking roleplaying to a whole new level,” a bored voice nearby commented.

Bucky looked up to see a couple on a late-night walk passing them by. Behind them, he thought he saw a pair of intense, almost menacing, eyes watching them, but he almost immediately wrote it off as his imagination playing tricks on him, because when he tried to look more closely, he saw absolutely no one.

Still, the moment was enough to remind him that they were canoodling in public. The next passerby might take them seriously instead of writing them off as costumed weirdoes. The next passerby might be someone with a camera, who would recognize Captain America’s uniform as the genuine article and broadcast the picture to the world—identifying New York Herald reporter James Barnes dry-humping his most famous subject on a public beach like a horny teenager.

“Hey,” a new voice said.

It was Happy, Tony’s driver. He had crouched down to greet them, but was too embarrassed to make eye contact.

“Tony said I’d find you here,” he said to an invisible spot over his left shoulder. “The, er, the car’s waiting over there if you want to, uh, come along.”

He looked so uncomfortable that even though it wrenched, Bucky disentangled himself from Steve. They followed Happy back up to the road, keeping to the shadows even though no one was on the street.

“We’re not done,” Steve whispered as they walked.

“Oh, I know.”

Tony, Rhodey and Pepper were waiting for them inside the limo.

Pepper was on the phone. She took one look at Steve’s and Bucky’s joined hands and flushed faces and broke into the sweetest grin he’d ever seen.

Tony had already made himself a martini and was trying to offer one to Rhodey, who shook his head in exhausted refusal.

“Well, that took long enough,” Tony said. “Seems like near-death experiences are aphrodisiacs to this group in general. We left Jane and a buck-naked Bruce making out. Darcy was complaining about being the seventh wheel. This long-awaited development will make her the ninth.”

“He did it?” Bucky asked. “Bruce?”

“He took out more Hydra agents and suits than Tony and I did,” Rhodey said.

“Genius scientist and deadly force?” Tony added. “He’s doing double duty in the group.”

“We could have used a little more muscle, though,” Steve said. “Given that we had to split up tonight, I would have liked even one more team member who’s a heavy hitter. I didn’t like sending Coulson’s group out without someone like that.”

“Gotta talk to Fury about that,” Tony said. “He’s HR. Though where on earth he’d find such a person, I’ve got no idea. Weirdoes like us don’t grow on trees.”

“How’d you get to us so fast?” Bucky asked. “We’re nowhere near the Expo.”

“We were already on our way,” Rhodey said. “This actually worked out great.”

“On your way where?”

“We’re going to DC. Taking Cap with us.”

“Aw, come on,” Bucky protested.

“No one wants to see you two knock boots more than I do,” Tony said, more understandingly than people usually gave him credit for. “But we just decimated a major state park, created a massive wreck off New York’s shore and unloaded seventy years’ worth of classified terrorist information onto the public. And even though the team cut it off before it got too far underway, some of those suits did get their targets. People are confused and they’re scared. The questions are already coming in, and Steve, Rhodey and I are the only public faces of this little operation. The White House is calling for explanations and the defense committee is losing its shit. We’ve been subpoenaed. Ordered to appear in DC in the next couple of hours for a briefing. And even if we didn’t, Fury told me to pass on a message to you from Coulson. He wants you and Jane in the office, stat. You just dropped the story of the century, and he wants you writing it while ‘Steve’ ‘covers’ the stuff we’re doing down in DC.”

“I’ll be back,” Steve promised as soon as the others were distracted again. He leaned into Bucky’s ear and whispered, “I’ll be back in the city tomorrow, or as soon as I can. And then… And then I’m going to take you out.”

“What, like on a date?

“Yeah, exactly like a date. I don’t wanna just… I don’t want to be like the people you used to hook up with in bars and take home.”

“We don’t need to go on a date to know this isn’t like that.”

But Steve was firm. “Please, Buck. I don’t care if it’s dumb.”

“But why?”

“Because I’ve never been on a really good first date. And I’m thinking, if this one goes well, I’m not going to have another shot for a really long time.”

“God, Steve.” Leave it to Steve to say the one thing Bucky couldn’t argue with.

“Plus,” Steve said with a wink, “you’ve made me wait all this time. Stands to reason you should wait, too.”

“I hate you,” Bucky said, reaching for Steve’s hand and pulling him closer again.

This was surreal. They were bantering like they’d always bantered, like nothing had changed. But they’d never done it like this before, talking into one another’s mouths, drinking one another in.

“I want you the second you get back to the city. The second you get to be Steve again.”

“I promise. I’ll text you with a plan when I’m on my way back.”

They nuzzled one another’s noses for another couple of minutes until Tony told them to get a room.

Happy agreed to drive Bucky to the office after dropping the rest of them off at the airport. Just before they all got out, Steve stopped to ask, “Hey, where were Clint and Natasha going again? With everything going on, I didn’t get a chance to ask.”

“Natasha’s doing the cover feature for the big travel special coming up and Clint's tagging along to make it a vacation. She’s trying to find a new angle on the classic Central European itinerary—Vienna, Prague and Budapest.”

Chapter Text

Happy stopped at a pizza place on the way back to Manhattan so Bucky could grab a pie for himself and Jane, who had texted him begging for food. After stuffing their faces, they spent the rest of the night chained to their desks writing the story of the year. Of the century. The exposure of an international fascist group’s attempted reign of global terror. Its takedown by Captain America, who had stymied them in WWII and had returned to defeat them once and for all. The assist on the ground by Iron Man and Iron Patriot, as well as a few unnamed and unidentifiable masked helpers. The unveiling of an entirely new aviation technology, which Bucky had dubbed a ‘helicarrier’ (the phrase immediately entered the lexicon). The amount of story to cover was endless, and the number of angles only increased as waves of ramifications rolled in.

Bucky and Jane stopped only to pee, email drafts to Hill and beg Darcy for coffee. And then it was back to more bleary-eyed revisions, more calls with sources, more fact-checking questions yelled to Darcy, who scurried from office to office and finally demanded they both sit in Jane’s office and make her life easier.

Coulson, Fitz, Simmons and Hill joined them by sunrise. Despite more empty coffee cups than usual on their desks, heavy lids that struggled desperately to stay open, and a dark bruise on Fitz’s jaw that someone—presumably Simmons—had covered up with make up, no one could possibly have guessed that they’d enacted a raid on a secret government facility in DC the evening before. Apart from a couple of brief nods and congratulatory shoulder rubs, they all got back to work as if they were outsiders looking at this story from a purely objective angle. And in a lot of ways, they were. Everyone, not just the co-workers who trickled in and began working on the story, too, but the media and population in general. The collective outrage was already leading to a mass reevaluation of the world order to ensure nothing like Hydra ever happened again.

The info dump Natasha had unleashed was only the beginning. By the next afternoon, journalists, both at the Herald and around the world, had used that initial seed and begun to unravel more and more. Arrests were being made almost minutely and further investigations were underway in at least fifty countries.

Bucky was exhausted. Somehow, the real-life work portion of the Hydra crisis was turning out to be harder, and infinitely more effective, than the hands-on superhero team mission portion. Everyone who’d been taken down on the ship or on the ground at the Expo had been a dyed-in-the-wool Hydra fanatic, they’d confirmed, but there were so many more around the world. Bucky was starting to wonder if he’d ever run out of angles, or if the public would ever run out of demand for more insights.

He hoped they wouldn’t. He lived for this.

He now also knew how Steve had felt all this time. To be the story he was writing about. To know the truth but limit himself to details that anyone could have objectively discovered. It was harder than it looked. Bucky had gotten a taste of it back when he'd covered his own Moldovan mobster massacre, but that hadn't been anywhere close to this level, a story with this kind of global scrutiny.

A whole 24 hours went by without any word from Steve. The defense committee had convened and the White House had gone radio silent with the heroes inside. Steve, Tony and Rhodey had left their phones with Happy, in case someone tried to confiscate them and look through the contacts.

What the White House didn’t know was that when Pepper Potts wanted something, no one was going to stop her, not even the President of the United States. She was on the ground down there, demanding that the officials give some update on the situation and release Tony and his friends. Word finally came that there would be a press conference. How she’d harangued it into existence, Bucky didn’t know and was a little scared to ask. It had been days since he’d seen anything closer to a bed than the couch in Natasha’s office, but he’d be damned if he missed this. Coulson expensed him an exorbitant last-minute plane ticket to DC, with a promise that if he come back in the afternoon to wrap up any developments that came out of it, he could have the next three days off.

(Bucky liked him too much to point out that two of those three days were the weekend.)

Bucky napped at the gate and again on the plane. On the ride to the White House, he ended up pushing his taxi driver into the passenger seat and taking the wheel himself in order to make it on time. He slipped into the first free seat he found in the already crowded room. Beside him, of course, sat Christine Everhart.

“I still say you’re blowing him,” she said by way of greeting.

“I still say you’re wrong,” he said, quite truthfully, though hopefully not for long.

“I know you guys think you shut down my investigation but—”

“Shhh, It's starting.”

The officials came out first and told the whole story—or what they thought was the whole story. They fielded questions about the government’s response to the crisis, how they planned to prevent future such threats, and gave lame excuses about how this had been allowed to happen in the first place.

One thing was clear and it was the only one that mattered: Hydra was dead, eradicated. Or was very close to being so. The world’s public nightmare—and Bucky and Natasha’s private one—was over.

Rhodey was there in his army uniform—the one with all the medals—but Iron Man and Captain America hung off to the side, in full uniform, waiting for their turn. Soon enough, they took the podium to field questions.

“What about the people seen helping you?” Christine asked. “People at the Expo spotted what was described as a giant green goblin.”

“No, they’ve got the terminology wrong. It’s a Hulk. H-U-L-K, Hulk,” Tony explained. “Totally different kind of phenomenon.”

“That’s not an explanation,” Christine argued.

“It wasn’t meant to be.”

“So, you have no intention of disclosing the names of your…” The journalist who had spoken up didn’t know how to describe them. “Your back-ups?”

“We’re superheroes, not a boy band.”

“What Stark here means,” Steve added, “is ‘no’. We have a few friends we can count on in a pinch, but they prefer to remain anonymous. While their incredible heroism the other night deserves recognition, we respect their wish for privacy and ask that you do the same.”

Steve had been subtly searching for Bucky in the dense crowed for the entirety of the press conference. He finally spotted his raised hand.

“Mr. Barnes?” he asked, unable to keep his lips from quirking.

Neither could Bucky.

Christine snorted.

“The White House has been keeping you three pretty closely under wraps,” Bucky said, ignoring her. “I wondered if you’re happy with the arrangements and when you think you’ll be free to go?”

“We have a few more meetings after this, but we’ve been assured we’ll be free to go shortly afterwards,” Steve answered.

“I hope you have something fun planned to celebrate your victory.”

“I’m working on it.”


Pepper assured him there was no chance at getting anywhere near the heroes until they were back in the city and in their apartments, so Bucky headed back north, too. He called in the story on his way to the train station so he could nap during the journey. If Steve was heading back that afternoon, that meant they were going out that night.

When he got back to the office, a few people asked where Steve was. Bucky was trying hard to compartmentalize so he could get through the workday; the question got his tongue lolling for a second.

Jane came to the rescue with a smoother lie than Bucky would have expected. “He’s still in DC, with Iron Man, waiting to get more interviews.”

“Thanks,” Bucky whispered after Hermann and Allison had walked away. “Got tripped up for a second.”

“Totally understand.” She smiled knowingly. “Things have been so crazy that I haven’t had a chance to tell you, I’m really glad things worked out for you two. I mean, Loki was great—well, I mean, I guess he wasn’t, but… Anyway, I’m glad.”

Bucky knew exactly what she meant. Remembering the new facts about Loki still took constant effort. Being told an impossible story didn’t wipe out the good, contradictory memories. But that didn’t matter any more. Bucky apparently hadn’t been enough for him. Loki wasn’t and (more hurtfully) hadn’t even wanted to be the person Bucky had thought he was, while Steve… He and Steve wanted exactly the same things. And now that everything had come out, they knew exactly who each other was (well, as much as anyone could know who Bucky was). He would never have expected to feel this way again so soon, to care so much for someone new. But Steve wasn’t new; he’d been there the whole time.

“You and Bruce doing anything later?” Bucky asked. It was his way of saying ‘ditto’ and ‘I know what you mean’ and ‘thanks, me, too’.

“Yeah, we’re going to a lecture at the Cooper Hewitt.”

“Nerds.”

“I know. Isn’t it great?

A couple of years ago, back when they’d first met, Bucky had flirted with Jane pretty hard. She’d flicked him off. She was the first one who ever had, and had made him work to simply be her friend. Back then, he hadn’t known there was more to her than the prettiest face he’d ever seen. But today he knew, and still, the grin on her face was wider and more beautiful than any Bucky had ever seen.

“What about you and Steve?” she asked next. “Doing anything fun when he gets back from DC?”

“I don’t know yet. I’m not sure when he’s getting back.”

Bucky’s phone buzzed on the table.

63rd & Broadway. 6:30 tonight. Don’t forget to wear

The end of the sentence never came. Steve must have been called away and left a follow-up text unsent. However, it wasn’t hard to figure out the logical conclusion. 63rd and Broadway. Lincoln Center. Wear a suit.

“Guess we’re going to some kind of fancy concert,” he told Jane.

She furrowed her brow, just as thrown as Bucky, but recovered quickly. “That sounds really nice.”

She was right, he thought on his way back to his desk. It did sound nice, objectively. But Bucky had to admit to a little disappointment. The symphony or the opera or the ballet… these were all really classic date activities, sure. But they were the kinds of dates he’d gone on with Loki, who’d at least been genuinely into that shit. Bucky had gone along as a good sport, with the knowledge that Loki would return the favor by doing something Bucky liked (though with a little less sportsmanship). But this wasn’t Steve; this wasn’t them.

Bucky hadn’t been all that keen on a date in the first place. He didn’t see the point. When he and Natasha had decided to be just friends, the only change was that they’d stopped sleeping in the same bed. Bucky had expected getting together with Steve to be the opposite. They already did everything together, had been out to dinner or whatever a million times. The only change should be that they’d start fucking, right? What did they need this front of normalcy for? They weren’t normal, never would be. That’s part of why they worked, and why they were here now.

But Steve clearly had his heart set on this, and Bucky was hardly going to make a stink about it. It wasn’t the symphony that worried him; it was the feeling that he and Steve weren’t on the same page the way he’d thought they were. That maybe going out would change their dynamic. That this stodgy evening was merely a harbinger of other weirdness to come.

It didn’t make sense to go all the way back to Bushwick after work only to come back to the Upper West Side. Natasha usually had a suit in his size hanging in her office. Once six rolled around he got changed in there, giving the girls who worked on the corresponding floor of the advertising agency across the street a thrill. He used a Sharpie to write ‘Wish me luck!’ on a piece of scrap paper and held it up to the window. His admirers gave him enthusiastic thumbs up.

That was the little push he needed to get over himself. He worked himself up to it as he walked uptown, fighting his deep-seated expectation of wrist-slitting boredom. It would only last a few hours, he told himself. And he’d be with Steve. It would be fine.

By the time he got to the corner of 63rd and Broadway, Steve was already waiting for him. He was wearing mesh shorts and sneakers under his wool coat and had a gym bag slung over his shoulder.

From ten paces, they stared at one another, confused.

“You need a place to change?” Bucky asked. “I’ll wait while you use the Starbucks bathroom.”

“Me? You mean you need a place to change. What are you so dressed up for?”

“You told me to meet you at Lincoln Center.”

“No, I told you to meet me here on the corner. We’re going rock climbing down the block. Didn’t you get my text?”

They stepped closer and compared phones; the confusion was jarring enough to distract them from everything else that was going on between them.

Sure enough, there was a whole text from Steve that Bucky hadn’t received about rock climbing at the place on this block and remembering to wear gym clothes.

“Oh. See, I saw the address and I assumed…”

“You don’t even like all that,” Steve said, gesturing behind him, across the plaza.

Bucky shrugged. “No, but…”

“But you were gonna go along with it anyway?” Steve finished for him, sounding stunned.

“Sure. Why not? If it’s what you wanted.” The adoration in Steve’s eyes was making Bucky feel self-conscious, so he quickly followed up with, “This is way better, though. Definitely more my speed.”

“You aren’t dressed for it, though. We can do something else, I guess.”

“Nah, we’ll make it work. Come on.”`

They walked half a block to the indoor rock climbing place that Bucky had passed by a million times. Every time, he’d made a mental note to check it out, and every time, that mental note had evaporated, like so many good restaurant ideas.

“We have a two hour reservation,” Steve said. “I was thinking we’d just goof around, try all the equipment.”

“Sounds great,” Bucky said, and he meant it.

He rolled up his sleeves and pant legs while Steve checked them in. They both could have handled falls a lot worse than anything this facility had to offer, but neither of them was enough of a douchebag to refuse the standard equipment or flaunt the establishment’s safety restrictions. Belaying from the ground, Steve shouted encouragement and pointed out helpful hand placements as Bucky made his way up. On his turn, Bucky simply goaded Steve, led him to bad grips and footings, trying to trip him up. After a couple of warm-ups, they started timing each other, making it a race, trash talking all the while.

The other groups slowly stopped their own activities to watch them, jaws hanging low at the speed, skill and strength on display. Steve and Bucky were playing it safe, wanting to have fun without giving themselves away. They apparently weren’t trying hard enough.

“Are you guys pros or something?” the manager asked, after Steve had changed back into street clothes.

“No, we’ve never done this before,” Steve said cheerfully on his way out.

“So, what now?” Bucky asked once they were back out on the street. Now that his heart rate had settled after the rush of exercise, his thoughts returned to the memory of Steve’s hands on his ass two nights before. This was nice and all, but the desire to get back to that moment trumped all other needs. However, he kept his mouth shut. This was Steve’s night.

“Dinner. I’ve got a spot all picked out.”

Bucky’s stomach growled in response. Okay, fine. He could delay a little bit longer for food.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“Not gonna tell you.”

“You’re really annoying.”

“No more than you.”

They walked side by side for a few blocks, a little too close, but not quite touching. The heat simmering between them took up more room than it should have. By around 60th Street, Bucky decided to hell with this awkwardness. He grabbed Steve’s swinging hand and intertwined their fingers.

“I’m having a really good time, by the way,” he said to break the silence.

Steve’s grin was a warm glow on a cool night. “Me, too.”


Steve was having a good time, but he couldn’t help but worry that it was exactly the same kind of good time they always had. He’d picked the rock climbing and the place they were headed to specifically to make this seem like a natural extension of their friendship. But now he wondered if it was working almost too well.

He was also aware that they were stalling.

All Steve had thought about for the interminable 72 hours since their mouths had been separated was getting back to that moment. Even while arguing with senators and speaking up about justice, he’d struggled to keep the memory of those few minutes on the beach from distracting him entirely. Every part of him itched to press against Bucky, kiss him again—along all the little spots he’d stared at for so long—and to say a whole mess of things that had been choking him for months. But he was still choking, still nervous about so many things.

There weren’t a lot of options in this neighborhood that weren’t either overly fancy or overly terrible. He hadn’t wanted to bother Pepper when she was so swamped with the exhausting business of cleaning up the mess they’d made, so Steve had looked all this up on his own.

He led them into the Parker Meridian Hotel, and enjoyed watching Bucky’s face contort in confusion as they made their way through the snooty lobby bar and towards the back where the check-in desk was.

“Are we going to some boring hotel restaurant?” Bucky asked. “Or did you get us a room? ‘Cause I’ve gotta say, neither really seems like your style.”

Instead of answering, Steve led him by the hand around a corner, down the hallway he’d read about, and into a secret old-school hamburger joint that was inexplicably inside but nestled out of sight of the rest of the hotel. There was writing all over the walls, old movie posters, and a nice mix of young and old, tourists and locals just off from work. It was perfect.

“What do you think?” he asked Bucky as they got in line to order.

“I’ll stop doubting you now.”

They astonished the checkout girl by ordering six cheeseburgers with the works, three orders of fries, two pitchers of beer, and two large milkshakes.

“And we’ll split a brownie while we wait,” Bucky said, grabbing one from the pile.

“I’ve got—” Steve tried to say, pulling out his credit card.

But Bucky was quicker on the draw and already had cash out. “We’re splitting it.”

“No way. I asked you out. I’m paying.”

“Nope. You wanna go on a date? These are the terms.”

“Says who?”

“Says the guy you probably want to make it to a second date with.”

This was a point, one Bucky clearly felt strongly about. Money issues had never really come up between them before, but then again, there were probably a lot of things in store that had never come up before.

Steve couldn’t wait.

He was so relieved to hear Bucky referring to this as a date, and even talking about a second one, that he had no argument to make. He gave the girl his card and took the cash Bucky handed him.

They’d arrived at a good time, because a booth opened up only a couple of minutes into their wait.

“So, Steve Rogers,” Bucky whispered, in a mock game show host’s voice, “you’ve just defeated your mortal enemy. What are you going to do now?”

The past few days had been such a whirlwind that Steve hadn’t had a chance to think about it.

“Ideally, nothing,” he replied. “I want a nice, long calm spell. I want to get back to the way things were before… I guess before Arizona, right? I can’t believe that was already a couple of months ago. Between recovering in Malibu and then getting ready for this mission, I put off a lot of projects I had been excited about.”

“What kinds of projects?” Bucky asked.

Steve started listing some pet investigations he’d been working on before everything had gotten so crazy. Human interest stories of the kind Bucky had never exhibited much interest in, and had been happy to foist onto Steve. He brought up the drawing group he’d been on the verge of signing up for, and the 20th century history walking tour series he’d now missed out on, but which would start up again in the fall. Adding another shift to his hospital volunteering, or perhaps doing a night at an old folks home instead. He told Bucky about the ideas he’d floated by Pepper about small changes to the apartment. A museum trip to Florence that he’d originally planned on inviting Jane and Bucky and Loki on.

What started as a simple answer to a simple question quickly grew into a download on everything he enjoyed about his life. Which was a lot, it turned out. Steve’s life had somehow become so full it was happily bursting. As he kept going, and as Bucky nodded and asked more questions, Steve marveled to himself how happy he was. And now… now that trip was possibly going to be with Jane and Bucky and Bruce, which…

Bucky seemed to notice the monumental shift a couple of months could make at the same time Steve did. They both froze, and just like that, the easy camaraderie of the evening dissolved. The want he’d somehow subsumed thus far returned with full force. Steve looked up from his food to find Bucky’s eyes practically boring into him—hungry despite his full belly. Everything shifted. The lights shone just a bit more fluorescent, the music blared a bit more off-key, the temperature of the room inched upwards.

“Hi,” Steve said.

“Hi.”

The greetings fit. It really did feel as though they’d just run into one another, had restarted the evening’s interactions from scratch.

“This is really happening, isn’t it?” Steve asked.

In answer, Bucky’s shoe sought out Steve’s. His foot wound around Steve’s ankle and drew his leg closer to his side of the table.

“Yeah.”

A few minutes later, they left, still slurping their milkshakes. This was the part Steve hadn’t planned for—or had been too nervous to plan for. So far it had only been a workout and dinner. They worked out and ate dinner together all the time. But this…

“So,” he said, sticking his hands in his pockets.

“So,” Bucky replied expectantly.

“You wanna go get a drink somewhere?”

“How about you make me a drink back at your place?”

The coil of want that had sat in Steve’s belly all evening—all year—flamed up and started to throb, so hard that it reached right into his brain. Steve wondered if this was what Bucky’s headaches felt like—dizzy and debilitating and stupid making.

Bucky reached out to take his hand and pull Steve close to him, so close that their foreheads almost touched. Steve wanted to kiss him, melt their bodies together, but he wasn’t sure here, in the middle of the street, was a good idea. He wasn’t sure he’d be able to stop, to keep it decent, not when he’d been wanting this so much and for so long.

“We can take it as slow as you want,” Bucky said. He turned Steve’s hand over and over in his own, raising it to his mouth and blowing hot air on it before kissing the knuckles, drawing a stifled groan from Steve’s throat. “We can just sit and watch TV like we always do. I can go home in an hour. Or I can sleep in the guest room. Or we can…”

Bucky was making every effort to sound flexible, but his tone contradicted that intent entirely. Steve couldn’t think of another reason to continue stalling.

He stepped to the curb and hailed a taxi.

“Stark Tower, Grand Central, please.”

The taxi ride constituted the ten most excruciating minutes of his life, with Bucky staring out the window, and Steve staring at the little TV screen like the NBC local news was telling him new and fascinating information (difficult, given that all the news was about him). Steve only let himself glance over at Bucky a couple of times; he didn’t trust himself for more.

When they entered the lobby, Steve wondered if Dan at security could see it—could read their body language, smell the lust on them—when they walked, a little too quickly to be casual, to the separate penthouse elevator. They were a silent, twitchy mess by the time Steve was fumbling with the keycard to his front door. Of course tonight was the only night it refused to scan properly. The wait was getting to Bucky, too, because he groaned almost imperceptibly behind Steve just before the light finally turned green.

Steve took a deep breath. He was Captain America, dammit. He had run into burning buildings and sacrificed his life for the sake of the world. Surely he ought to be brave enough to do this.

As soon as they were inside, Steve backed Bucky up against the door.

“I’m going to kiss you now,” he said.

Bucky pouted a little, smiling at the same time. With a well-acted little shrug, he replied, “I mean, sure, if you—”

Steve tilted his head and leaned in, muffling the rest of Bucky’s lamely coy banter.

This kiss wasn’t like the first one. That had been impulse and battle fever and breaking dams. Tonight, Steve went slowly, methodically trying to memorize every part of Bucky’s face with his lips. Bucky was having none of it. He took charge, staying Steve’s head with strong hands on either side of his face. He focused the kiss on Steve’s lower lip, sucking and nibbling before slipping his tongue between Steve’s lips. Steve felt like he was drowning—again—but this time was pleasurable enough to finally wipe out the horror he usually associated with that sensation.

His hands flailed a little at his sides, not knowing where to go, before coming to rest tentatively on Bucky’s waist. Bucky must have liked that, because he gasped a little into Steve’s mouth. He curled his arm around to the small of Steve’s back so that they pressed against one another. Like a couple of nights ago, Steve felt Bucky’s leg shift between his own, felt his hip twitching against something hard.

The serum had given Steve the ability to hold his breath for much longer than a normal person, and it seemed that whatever variant Bucky had been given had granted the same ability. He didn’t know how long they stood there, finding new places on one another’s necks to slide their tongues and making aborted snatches at fistfuls of one another’s shirts, but a weakness in his knees—it had to be psychological, super soldiers didn’t get weak knees, for goodness sake—made him stop. He pulled back and away, loving how Bucky’s head and lips tried to follow.

“I think I need to sit down.”

“Yeah,” Bucky panted. “Okay.”

Steve looked up at the ceiling. “JARVIS?”

“Switching into private mode. Congratulations, sir. And goodnight to you, Mr. Barnes.”

“Why am I the one getting congratulated? Why not you?” Steve asked after the reassuring click.

“We all know JARVIS thinks I’m the best. Probably thinks I’m doing you a favor.”

“Tony says JARVIS makes mistakes 0.00001% of the time. You must be that fraction of a percent.”

“Whatever,” Bucky said, wriggling out from between Steve and the door. He nodded his head at the couch. “Come on.”

Steve took a moment to shuck off his coat, hanging it up neatly by the front door. Bucky rolled his eyes, but put his on the hook, too, before following Steve to the couch. Steve sat first, expecting Bucky to collapse beside him. Instead Bucky climbed on top of him, straddling his hips.

“I bet you can’t get a hickey, no matter how hard I suck,” Bucky said, almost sadly, into his ear. “I know I sure can’t.” As if to demonstrate his point, he sucked a pattern along Steve’s neck, pausing on a particularly juice spot and worrying it with his teeth.

Steve gulped, and again, wondered what to do with his hands. Bucky’s were cradled around Steve’s head, fingers massaging his hair. Steve ended up trying something bold, and grabbed Bucky’s ass firmly, one hand on each cheek. Bucky growled—actually growled—as Steve hitched him an inch closer.

So far, his instincts were serving him well.

“Yeah,” Steve remembered to reply, possibly an inappropriately long time later. “I guess I… Little things like that heal up almost instantly.”

“I wish it didn’t, though. Just for this. I wish I could leave a mark on you, let everyone know Captain America’s taken. I wish you could leave a mark on me, not that anyone’d give a shit. I’m nobody.”

“You’re not nobody. You’re…” Steve wanted to say ‘mine’, but wasn’t sure they were there yet, wasn’t sure how Bucky would react to even well intentioned possessiveness. He lost his train of thought when Bucky shifted even closer. The bulge in his pants pressed against Steve’s waist. Bucky had finished using his neck as a dessert course and was now leaning back, gripping even harder with his thighs for balance. He pressed a hand on the front of Steve’s shirt, asking permission with hopeful eyes.

Steve nodded. While Bucky undid the buttons one by one, Steve ghosted his fingers along the top of Bucky’s belt and underneath his shirt. He felt the soft skin there, marveling that Bucky was letting him do this, that this was happening at all.

“Please.” Bucky never begged, but he was begging now.

Steve unfastened Bucky’s belt—a little awkwardly, given how close they were. He tried to pull it out in a long, sexy swoop, but that didn’t quite work out. The belt got stuck at an odd angle halfway through, and Steve’s strong, purposeful yank wound up jerking Bucky off-balance and onto the floor.

“Okay then,” Bucky said, after an oomph and a grunt. “Guess I can take a hint.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to.”

From where he landed, Bucky looked up at Steve and laughed. All the tension that had been in his face on the way home had disappeared, leaving him as easy-going and comfortable as he always was. Steve prickled with jealousy to see it, because he was still worked up—was even more worked up than before, what with Bucky sitting eye-level with his tented hard-on. Bucky was used to this. Bucky had done this a million times, while Steve was still trying to figure out what to do with his hands most of the time.

“Let me guess. Don’t know your own strength?” Bucky asked.

“Very funny.”

It wasn’t nearly as funny when Bucky sat up on his knees and pulled the shirt he’d been unbuttoning out of Steve’s pants and off entirely. Steve felt his abs twitch involuntarily when Bucky leaned forward—chin passing dangerously close to his erection—and planted soft kisses on each square of muscle.

“You okay?” Bucky asked when Steve couldn’t help but let out a soft whine.

“Yeah, I’m okay. It’s just… This is really good.”

“Goddamn right it’s good. You are the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen, you know that, right?” Bucky’s hands now hovered in front of Steve’s belt. “Can I?”

Steve held his breath, but nodded all the same.

But instead of undoing Steve’s belt, Bucky unzipped the pants and reached in to palm Steve through his briefs.

“This okay?” Bucky asked again, when Steve’s hips bucked off the couch in a desperate bid for more pressure.

“The answer’s always gonna be yes.”

“Doesn’t make it any less hot to hear you say it, though.”

“It’d be more than okay if I wasn’t the only one half naked.”

Bucky’s fingers flew faster than Steve had ever seen fingers undo buttons before, and in a flash, his shirt was landing on a stool all the way over by the kitchen.

“Better?” Bucky asked.

“Still doesn’t compare with the view out the window,” Steve teased, hitching his jaw back up and pretending not to care.

“All right, you little punk. You’re gonna get it for that.” With one of his most joyful grins, Bucky put his nimble fingers to work on Steve’s jeans along with his own. In a moment, both pairs were flying to meet their discarded shirts, and Bucky was flinging Steve’s shoes behind him while he toed out of his own. When he was done, both of them were down to just their underwear and socks.

But Bucky’s reaction wasn’t exactly what Steve had expected. He sat back on his heels, pointed at Steve’s feet and burst out laughing. Again. No one had ever told Steve that sex was apparently so hilarious.

“I can’t believe it,” Bucky said, in between guffaws. “Your mom bought you purple polka-dotted socks. And you actually wear them. That’s really… sweet.”

“Pepper got them for me—”

“I know. Hottest non-mom ever.”

“—for my first day outside when I was well enough after the defrosting. That was a big day, and it went okay. Now they’re my good luck socks. I only wear them on days when… On days that matter.”

That shut Bucky up right quick. He opened and shut his mouth a few times, almost blushing with uncharacteristic bashfulness. “Oh.”

That was about all he was able to choke out. His inability to formulate a coherent comeback spoke louder than any words could have.

“Well,” he finally managed to sputter, “I hope Potts doesn’t mind, because these are coming off. I draw the line at socks and handlebar mustaches.”

“Handle—”

“Long story,” Bucky said as he pulled Steve’s socks off one by one and then his own. “Not the time.”

“I’m not sure it’ll ever be the time.”

“Yeah, probably better that way.”

Steve reached out and touched Bucky’s shoulder. It was the first time he’d touched him like this, driven with specific intent and feeling skin under his fingers. When he gingerly began to massage the muscle there, Bucky shivered. Bucky went back to palming Steve’s cock through his now slightly damp underwear, to the same rhythm of Steve’s fingers kneading up and down his arm muscles. Steve’s hand skittered along Bucky’s shoulder when he felt a finger slip through the hole to touch him directly. And when Bucky’s other hand wandered down to his own underwear and began stroking in time, Steve let out a whimper.

“Bucky, I… ought to tell you.”

“Mmm?” Bucky hummed absently, tilting his head to kiss the crease of Steve’s elbow.

“I’ve never done this before.”

“Done what?”

“This.”

Bucky glanced up to meet Steve’s eyes, smiling kindly. “What, with a guy? I kinda figured.”

“No. With anyone.”

Bucky’s hands stopped moving and he looked up, incredulous. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

“Never?”

“Never.”

“What about Peggy?”

“She was a lady and there was a war.”

“Like, never had sex or…?”

“What we’re doing right now is a lot more than I’ve ever gotten close to doing.”

“You’re kidding, right?”

“Are we gonna play twenty questions,” Steve retorted, growing defensive, “or are we gonna get this done?”

“Oh, trust me, we’re going to get this done.” He hooked his thumbs over the top of Steve’s boxer briefs and tugged. “Lift your lazy ass for a second?”

Steve complied, and let Bucky pull off his underwear. Now fully naked, he should have felt nervous, exposed, but Bucky’s appreciative gaze managed to make him feel safe.

“I can’t believe I’m the first person to…” Bucky whistled, rocking back and forth on his heels in excitement that Steve was gratified and relieved to see. “You know, I’ve never thought of myself as a lucky guy before.”

One rock forward led his nose to nudge against Steve’s cock, close but not touching. Steve watched his pink tongue flick out and meet nothing but air. Such a damn tease.

“Bucky, please.” Steve couldn’t even feel ashamed for begging. “Please?”

Bucky licked up the side of his cock and Steve felt his entire body go slack. His whole world reduced to Bucky’s wet, warm mouth, his well-kissed lips, his eyes fluttering shut in concentration. Steve felt out of control, unmoored. He didn’t know what to do with that feeling, and was terrified of what embarrassing gaffe his inexperience might lead him to make. Trying to keep control of himself once his cock disappeared, inch by inch, down Bucky’s throat resulted in a whole lot of uncomfortable clenching in his stomach and thighs.

Steve couldn’t believe this. He couldn’t believe his life or his luck. He’d wanted Bucky almost since the day he’d laid eyes on him, and for so long, he’d lived without any hope of anything happening between them. And now here they were. He was terrified of doing something to mess it up, to destabilize this dream and wake up again.

Bucky began humming, deep melodic rumblings. At first all Steve could think was how good it felt reverberating down the length of his dick. But then the tune started to sound familiar.

“Are you…” It wasn’t fair; Steve was in no position to form words, but the question had to be asked. “Is that the Battle Hymn of the Republic?”

Bucky slurped off Steve’s cock with an innocent, wide-eyed grin. “Good ear.”

Steve felt a little disappointed. Here he was, trying his best to keep it together, and Bucky was being unapologetically flippant. “I don’t think you’re taking this seriously enough.”

“You’re lost in your own head. I’m trying to get you to come back out, relax. Stop trying so hard. It’s just sex.”

“There’s no just about it. This is a big—”

“Just because I don’t take sex super seriously doesn’t mean I don’t take you seriously. This isn’t school. You aren’t being graded. Unless you literally step on my dick, there’s not much you can do wrong.”

“What if we’re…” Steve hesitated, but Bucky was being so reassuring that he decided to go out on a limb and tell him what lay behind all this stress. “What if this doesn’t work? What if we don’t survive this?”

Bucky rolled his eyes and planted a surprisingly gentle kiss to the inside of Steve’s thigh. “Between the two of us, we’ve survived chronic illnesses, old-school Brooklyn orphanages, experimental procedures, World War II, amnesia, Russian assassin brainwashing, undercover aliens, exploding helicarriers, cryogenic freezing and life with Tony Stark. I don’t think a little boning is gonna be what does us in. We’ll be okay, Steve. This is gonna be great.”

Steve made an effort to share that easy confidence. To show that he’d take the advice to heart, he willed some of the tension out of his shoulders and tried to sound equally relaxed when he replied, “Well, when you put it that way…”

“Great. Glad we sorted that out. I’m going to go back to blowing you now, if that’s okay.”

For once, Bucky didn’t wait for Steve’s permission. He pulled Steve, sliding him down the couch so that his back was mostly on the seat cushions. He then picked up Steve’s legs one by one to hitch his thighs over his shoulders. In this position—open and vulnerable—Steve had no choice but to take Bucky’s advice to let himself go. Soon, he was little more than a quivering, mewling mess as Bucky’s head moved up and down his shaft. His sloppy, erratic tongue slid around the top, pressing against what felt like five spots at once. Steve was so gone that he couldn’t even care when he felt a thin stream of saliva dribbling down him to form a slick patch on the leather under his ass.

Slowly, slowly, he relaxed, gave himself to the moment. He eventually reached out to wrap his fingers behind Bucky’s neck, drawing him gently closer. Bucky gazed up at him, pleased.

“Bucky… I can’t,” he soon whispered. “You gotta… I’m gonna…”

He was trying to warn Bucky, give him time to clear out. But instead of moving out of the way, Bucky picked up the pace. Locking his gaze with Steve’s, he winked.

That was it. Steve’s vision blanked out for a minute and he came with a groan and a swear, louder than he intended, spurting into Bucky’s mouth for what felt like a year. When he finally slipped his mouth off Steve’s softening dick, Bucky swallowed with a gulp. It was the hottest thing Steve had ever seen.

Bucky lazily climbed up onto the couch and flung his legs over Steve’s spent thighs. “Mission accomplished, Captain?”

“Excellent work, soldier,” Steve laughed as soon as he’d caught his breath. He leaned in to kiss Bucky, only to find that his mouth tasted differently from how it had a few minutes ago. It took a second for his sex-numbed brain to process why, but when he did, the realization was mind-blowing enough to make him bold again. He slid his hand down Bucky’s chest and into his briefs.

“Mmmh,” Bucky moaned when Steve lifted him off the couch in order to slip them off. But when Steve broke the kiss and began leaning down to return the favor, Bucky stopped him.

“Steve,” he said, his voice low and guttural and almost dangerous in a way that sent ripples through Steve’s spine. “You don’t need to. Not now. There’s plenty of time for that. Later, tomorrow, the next day. A year from now.”

“But I…” Steve, who had spent his entire life wanting only to be useful, began to protest, but the slowly dawning implication of Bucky’s words distracted him into silence.

This was as close to mushy as Bucky got.

“You mean that?” Steve asked.

“Yeah.”

“Me, too.”

They kissed again, and Steve began stroking him softly. He was already starting to learn how to read this new set of tells and needs. All this time, he’d imagined Bucky as some wild man in the sack, but it really did seem that he wanted exactly this right now, and wasn’t just trying to take it slow with Steve.

“Just like that,” Bucky said into Steve’s mouth. “Maybe lick your palm a few more times. I want to know how you’d do it for yourself. Just make it a little… Oh. Yeah, just like that, fuck,” he continued when Steve hastened to do as he instructed.

Steve gathered Bucky’s boneless body into his other arm and held him. They were so close that there almost wasn’t enough room for his hand to maneuver between them, but Steve wouldn’t have traded an extra inch for anything. He was doing this. He was the one causing endearing obscenities to fall from Bucky’s lips. He was the one causing Bucky’s hand to spasm and clench on Steve’s thigh—tight enough that on anyone else, it would have left bruises. He was the one who had reduced Bucky to a state where he could barely even kiss; he was simply breathing hard against Steve’s open mouth.

And then Bucky was coming, spilling into Steve’s hand and mumbling his name over and over. Steve held him through it, and after, until they both sank, exhausted and spent, side-by-side. Steve’s mild OCD urged him to clean the couch, but he couldn’t move.

“That was amazing, Steve.”

“Really?”

“Fuck, yeah. But geez. Look at us,” Bucky said. “We’re pathetic. No one walking in here right now would ever guess we were the world’s greatest super-soldier and the world’s most fearsome assassin.”

“No, they’d just see a couple of newspaper reporters from Brooklyn.”

“Also known as a traitor who moved to Manhattan, and a guy who’s probably an alien.”

“I don’t believe that,” Steve said. “Until you get your memories back and can prove otherwise, I’m going to believe you’re from Brooklyn, just like me. I’m going to believe you’re James Buchanan Barnes, born in 1921, just a few years after me. I feel it.”

“Where do you feel it?” Bucky asked curiously.

It was corny, and he was half-afraid of getting mocked for it, but Steve pointed to his chest. “Here.”

It apparently was the first thing Steve had done all night that wasn’t funny, because instead of laughing, Bucky simply looked disappointed. “Sorry, buddy, but what the heart tells you doesn’t mean shit. Not in this case. If you’d said you felt it here…” Bucky tapped his forehead. “Then I might have believed you.”

“I don’t care. I know I’m right.”

“You might well be. If we’d met, do you think we’d have hit it off? Were you more annoying back then, or less?”

“I don’t think my annoyingness, or lack thereof, would have been the problem. I’ll bet you were a devil child.”

“I was a cherub, I’ll have you know,” Bucky said, with credible conviction.

“Were you?” Steve asked, too busy picturing a young Bucky with perfect black curls to think straight.

Bucky shrugged. “I don’t fucking know. I have amnesia, remember? I was probably a little shit, just like now.”

“Yeah, but you’d have had my back.”

“Yeah, I probably would have.”

They looked at one another and smiled. Within moments, the smiles drew closer and slipped into more kissing.

“Maybe it’s for the best,” Steve said when they next came up for air. “If I’d had you then, I probably wouldn’t have you now. And I’m not sure I’d trade this for anything.”

“Me neither. I… I really want this, Steve. I’m sorry it took so long. I mean, I’m not, because it’s not like I regret—” Bucky shook his head. “I really do want this, want you. So much. I'm all in, with both feet.”

Steve’s heart filled to bursting. He opened his mouth to say the same, and more, probably embarrassingly more, but this seemed to be a little too much, a little more than Bucky was used to or at ease with. Even though he rubbed his nose affectionately against Steve’s, he immediately changed the subject.

“I should probably warn you. I kinda… I’m usually ready again pretty quickly. Metabolism of a fucking teenager, I swear. But I don’t want you to feel pressured or anything. People sometimes get intimidated, thinking I want them to…” In mid-sentence, Bucky’s gaze happened to wander over to Steve, who was already getting hard again just thinking about the implications. “Oh. Right.”

“Similar serum. Similar side effects.”

Bucky’s face lit up like a Christmas tree. “This is gonna be amazing, isn’t it?”

“All signs point to yes.”

Bucky pretty much launched himself on top of Steve, wrestling him into the couch cushions. He wrapped his legs around Steve’s and began sliding their quickly hardening dicks together.

Steve wasn’t sure he would survive the night, or the subsequent ones in their future. He moaned a little as he thought about that. A whole future of nights like this.

“Can I ask you something?” Bucky asked shyly a minute later. “I’ve had this kind of stupid fantasy...”

“You want me to put the suit on so you can take it off, don’t you?”

“That obvious?”

“Yeah.”

Bucky’s phone began to ring, playing a hideously tinny version of Sleeping Beauty. He started to get up.

“You’re not actually going to answer that, are you?” Steve asked.

“I have to. I’m sorry.”

Steve used the opportunity to head into his bedroom and on through to the bathroom. He caught a look at himself in the mirror while he ran a damp cloth over the stickiness on his stomach. His hair was a mess, his face splotchy and red, his lips swollen and chapped.

He should have looked terrible, but his face had never glowed so brightly.

The Captain America uniform was draped over the back of his bedroom chair, still filthy from the activities of the night of the Expo. His spare was in the laundry, sweaty from today’s press conference. Steve couldn’t fill Bucky’s entire fantasy right now, but maybe he could give a little preview with the boots and the shield. And nothing else.

This sexy stuff was turning out to be less complicated than he’d feared.

He stepped into his boots, picked the shield up from where it sat perched by his desk and headed back into the living room.

“The uniform’s in the wash, but we can still…” Steve said as he walked into the room, holding the shield coyly in front of his middle.

Given the silence, Steve had assumed Bucky was off the phone, but he was still standing by the front door, listening intently. His posture had hardened.

“Миссия понял.”

Steve had rarely heard Bucky speak Russian before, not even to Natasha. He sounded like a completely different person; his voice was flat and almost unaccented. Steve wondered if this was simply how the language sounded, or if Bucky’s negative memories affected the tone.

Steve walked over to the couch, intending to figure out a good position for the shield while Bucky wrapped up his conversation. But on his way, he heard a whizzing noise. His quick reflexes made him turn around and hold the shield up just in time to stop a knife from spearing him in the forehead.

“Uh, Buck?” he asked, peeking over the edge of the shield to see Bucky launching three more kitchen knives at him. One was aimed at Steve’s legs, another at his head and a third at his outstretched hand.

It was a good thing the ceilings in the apartment were so high, because Steve needed all the room he could get to jump out of the way. He rolled behind the couch to safety, but not for long, because Bucky soon followed. The shield, which Steve had gotten out for stupid posing purposes, was now called to fulfill its true function, as defense against the fist pummeling his face.

Steve tried to use his thighs to still Bucky’s movements, but he was in the weaker position. He used the shield to push Bucky off him for just a second so he could hop over the couch again and run for the other side of the room.

“Bucky, what…”

That’s when Steve finally got a good, clear look at him.

He had seen a lot of terrifying things in his time, but not even Red Skull ripping off his false human face could compare with the horrible blankness of these icy, dead eyes.

They were both naked and sweaty from a few minutes ago, but there was nothing remotely arousing about the way they wrestled against the walls and floor of the apartment, as Bucky tried to smash the windows and throw Steve out. Steve was slightly stronger, but the fact that he didn’t want to kill Bucky was enough of a disadvantage to level the playing field. It took everything he had to protect his face and his neck and his balls by moving the shield in time with Bucky’s lightning jabs.

Steve used a burst of extra strength to break away for just long enough to make it to the far wall and press the emergency override button on the privacy settings. Immediately, he heard a whirring that meant JARVIS was coming back, but there wasn’t time for relief, because Bucky was already back on him.

“JARVIS! If you can hear me, get Tony to come down!”

“Are you certain you want Mr. Stark here at this moment, sir?” JARVIS asked politely, clearly misinterpreting the situation.

“Yes! Tell him to put on the suit!”

“As you wish, sir.”

The unexpected conversation served to throw Bucky a little off his game. He kept going after Steve with superhuman force, but his single-mindedness was now slightly split between killing Steve and trying to locate the invisible voice.

“Bucky, please,” Steve said as he protected himself. “If you’re in there, it’s me. It’s Steve. Steve Rogers. You don’t want to do this.”

That seemed to accomplish something, because Bucky hesitated. “Steve Rogers,” he repeated.

“Yeah.”

“Steve Rogers is not to be harmed. My job is also to protect him.”

“That’s right. We look out for each other. We’re friends.” More than that, but Bucky didn’t seem to remember.

Bucky was struggling with something. He kept a firm grip on Steve’s neck and limbs, and held him down, but his head sagged, as though weighed down by confusion. “Do I know you?”

“Yeah, yeah you know me. I’m Steve. Your best friend. Bucky, you’ve got to remember.”

“I don’t know who Bucky is, and I don’t have friends. But you are Captain America. You carry the shield.”

Steve had no idea what that had to do with anything, but at least Bucky was talking. “Yeah. You asked me to get it out. We were going to…”

“Then the mission brief had an error. This time, they did not specify, but the ‘do not hit’ list has always been a bonus. Mission trumps all. If Captain America is Steve Rogers, then…”

And with that, he resumed his attack.

Steve had been watching Bucky’s—the Winter Soldier’s—movements and now felt he had at least somewhat of the measure of how he worked. He waited for the right moment and then curled his leg around to trip Bucky over and pin him to the floor.

Bucky was down, but he was still in play. Together, they rolled and skidded across the apartment. Bucky’s focus remained fixed on Steve’s points of weakness, but Steve kept his eyes on his bedroom door. They took a few wrong turns, but by the time they got close to it, Steve had gotten Bucky into a chokehold. He knew he couldn’t knock him out for long—the serum had made both of them too strong for that—but hopefully even two seconds would be enough.

Just as Bucky’s body slumped unconscious, the front door opened and Tony appeared. The mask was raised, but he was wearing the suit.

“Just to be clear, when I said I wanted to see the two of you knock boots, I didn’t mean it liter—” he began to say, but Steve was too busy shoving Bucky into the bedroom and pulling the door closed behind him to listen.

“Quick! Can you lock it from the outside?”

“With what?”

“I don’t know! Technology!”

“I had no idea you were this kinky, Rogers. What’s the safe word?”

“Just keep him from getting out!”

He could already hear Bucky coming to. Within seconds, he felt him pulling on the door. Thank goodness it was made of whatever high-tech Stark material the rest of the walls in the Tower were made of; otherwise, it would have been in splinters with the way Bucky was pounding and yanking on it.

Tony finally got the memo and aimed his weaponized arm at the edges of the doorway. Some kind of glue began to shoot out. He aimed in a precise arch all around, covering the seams like grout. On the other side, Bucky continued to pull on the door, but it wouldn’t budge. He let out a half-petulant, half-terrifying roar of frustration.

“You want to tell me what this is about?” Tony asked when he was done.

“He’s trying to kill me.”

“What, like…” Tony mouthed a curse when the light bulb went off. “How?”

“I don’t know. One minute we were… you know…”

“I think ‘fucking’ is the word you’re looking for. Congrats, by the way.”

“That’s what JARVIS, said, too,” Steve said, annoyed, even in the middle of everything. “And then he got a phone call. I went to the bathroom, and by the time I came out…” Steve gestured at the door and the murderous Russian threats coming from the other side.

“We need to turn him off.”

It killed Steve to hear Bucky spoken about like a machine, but Tony was right. Somehow, Bucky had been ‘turned on’, and they needed to find the off switch. “How?”

“Beats me. I’m an expert in a lot of things, but KGB brainwashing isn’t one of them. In the meanwhile, can you put some clothes on? I’ve seen enough of your junk to last me a lifetime.”

Steve wrenched himself away from the door and went looking for his underwear and pants. He hopped into them and was back at Tony’s side in seconds.

“Is there any way out of there? Ducts or heating pipes?” Steve had lived in this apartment for a while, but he’d never had cause to notice or think about the engineering details of his bedroom.

“I’m offended that you think I’d build a state of the art tower susceptible to basic Die Hard shit. No, there’s no way out of there. Not unless he throws himself out the window. He’s trapped in there until we want to let him out.”

As Tony spoke, a faint humming sound encroached on Steve’s consciousness.

It was coming from the bedroom.

Steve and Tony pressed their ears against the door and heard what sounded like Bucky yelling in Russian again. Then a thud. Scuffling and sliding, and then the strange noise faded away until it had stopped completely. After that, silence.

“What the hell?” Tony asked.

“Something’s wrong,” Steve said. “We have to get in there.”

“There’s a homicidal maniac in there.”

“A homicidal maniac who’s my best friend.”

“‘Friend’? Is that still what you’re going with? I would have thought—”

“Shut up and open the door, Tony.”

“You just made me lock that.”

Steve knew Tony was only acting like this—flippant and combative—because he was just as upset and frightened as he was.

“Please.” Steve tried not to give into heartbreak. Everything had been going so well and now… He should have known it was all too good to be true.

“Fine, but get behind me. Who knows what he’ll do as soon as this door is open. And you still don’t even have a shirt on.”

Instead of complying, Steve held the shield in front of him. He would not hide. Not from anyone, and especially not from Bucky. “Break it, but not so hard that he gets hurt.”

“He’s not the one I’m worried about.”

Tony raised his arm and one of his many weapons geared up. He sent a pulse at the door that broke the seal, shattered the door, and sent the pieces flying.

The room was empty. But the Winter Soldier knew better than to stand right in front of a door. He was more of the ambushing type.

Steve moved cautiously towards the interior bathroom, where Bucky might be lying in wait. He even snatched the shower curtain back, but no one was there. He looked up at the ceiling, half-expecting Bucky to drop down and strangle him with his thighs, but he saw nothing but white-painted beams.

“Do you think he jumped?” Steve asked.

Tony had already checked out the closet and was now inspecting the window. “No, it’s still locked from the inside.”

“JARVIS?” Steve asked. “Did you see what happened in here just now?”

“No, sir. There are no cameras in your bedroom.”

“What kind of a perv do you think I am?” Tony asked with mock dismay.

Steve shrugged. “No idea.”

The both spun around helplessly, aware that there were no possible hiding places they’d overlooked, but also no means of egress.

Bucky was gone.

“You know, for a couple of super-enhanced super soldiers,” Tony said, “the two of you spend an awful lot of time in peril.”

Chapter Text

“Back away from the Bucky,” a voice said, from some distance away.

“I’m dressing him,” came the reply, very close. Too close.

“No, you’ve finished dressing him,” the first voice said. “Now you’re just staring. Cut it out.”

Bucky’s ears had begun working far before the rest of him. He wasn’t sure what had happened, but it felt as though an eighteen-wheeler had run him over. He didn’t know where he was, and struggled to remember where he had been.

Not helping matters were the two nattering voices ping-ponging over his head like a well-honed comedy duo. The oddly comforting cadence of their banter had lulled him into wakefulness, but Bucky was still far too groggy to place the origin of its semi-familiarity. Since he couldn’t move, and his brain was still a swirling drain of mush, he decided to play unconscious for a little while longer and listen in.

“How can you stand over there like that?” the voice beside his ear said. The person's fingers continued to fix and fidget with the clothes that had been dragged onto Bucky’s sleeping form. “Aren’t you curious?”

“I’ll keep my distance, thanks.”

“He isn’t dangerous anymore.”

“You know that’s not what I mean.”

Bucky was in silent agreement with the cranky one; whoever was hovering over him had definitely finished dressing him and was now just petting him. His thigh involuntarily flexed against the fingers that slipped briefly into his pants pocket.

“He’s waking up,” the touchy-feely one said. “Are you ready?”

“Allons-y,” sighed the other.

“No, it’s ‘geronimo’. Attention to detail, please.”

“Like it matters.”

Bucky had almost thought the voices, in addition to the rhythms, were ones that he recognized, but he must have been still waking up, because they sounded different than he’d thought a minute ago. Now, they both spoke with crisp English accents, instead of only one of them, and the voice next to him was higher pitched than it had seemed before.

Bucky took a deep breath and opened his eyes.

An attractive woman in her forties with curly dark blond hair knelt on the floor, cradling his head on top of her thighs. In the center of the room—if this strange place could be called a room—stood a tall, pale man with a distinct lack of eyebrows. He was currently doing something with the levers around a pulsing, glowing contraption.

“How are you feeling?” the woman asked. She helped Bucky into a seated position on the floor. There was something about her…

“Do I know you?” he asked.

“No, you wouldn’t,” she replied.

Bucky was still dizzy, but he held firm, and her face finally locked into place against the backdrop of a well-remembered context. “No, I’ve got it. In the DC train station a month or two ago.”

“I doubt it. I’ve never been to Washington, DC.”

“It was you. I know it was. You came up to me and were all, ‘Hey!’ like we were old friends or something. And then when—”

The woman’s eyes widened. She slapped her hand over Bucky’s mouth. “Spoilers!”

“What?”

“This gets better and better,” the man muttered to himself, shaking his head but smiling. “You’ve just made her day, Buck.”

“How do you know my name?” Bucky asked. “Who are you people? What am I even doing here?”

“That’s classified,” the man said.

“Classified?” Bucky tried to scramble away in panic, but the woman was stronger than she looked, because she held him back with just a hand. “Are you Hydra?”

“No, we are not Hydra,” the lady said. “We’re not here to hurt you. What we need is for—”

“Give him a minute before you start in on him,” her friend told her. “He’s still waking up. I know that look.”

“I suppose you would.”

Well, here he was again, Bucky thought to himself. Either he was hallucinating, or he had somehow been abducted by strangely entertaining lunatics. Again. Some more.

If only he could remember how he’d gotten here and why he felt like this… like he hadn’t felt in years, not since the last time he’d been… Shit.

It came limping, not rushing back, like it always did after being deactivated. In bits and pieces, flashes of events. Locked in an impenetrable and inescapable room, howling against yet another cage, separated from his objective. A bright light. Strange faces appearing out of thin air. Words that he knew well for the way they knocked him out, but which he could never retain—Zola’s clever programming had seen to that.

“Was that you in there? Did you deactivate me?”

The woman nodded. “And we took you with us.”

“Why?” Bucky asked, although ‘how’ had been equally on his lips.

“The last thing any of us wanted was for you to complete that mission,” the man said.

Coming out of that state had always left him dizzy and fuzzy. It would take some time to sort out what had happened and what he’d done. But for now… The phone ringing… a trigger word… Steve raising his shield just in time to block the knife that Bucky had thrown at his head.

The image left him dry-heaving and shaking on the floor.

“I’m sorry.” The woman stroked Bucky’s back through his freak-out. “I know. I’m so very sorry.”

Bucky scrambled to his feet but, yet again, he’d overestimated the stability of his knees. He crumpled back down only a couple of feet from where he started. The floor in this place wasn’t as solid as it looked. The rough texture beneath his fingers didn’t match the smooth surface he was looking at. The whole room wobbled off-kilter, senses at odds with one another, texture battling sight. He almost thought he could hear city traffic, but the sounds dissolved, muffled, before his ears could latch on.

“But how’d you get in?” he asked next, as soon as he could draw in a breath. “The door was locked.”

“We have our ways,” the woman replied brightly, as though she’d been waiting for just such an opening, “you are currently sitting in the—”

“Don’t confuse him,” the man interrupted with a fond eye-roll at his friend (girlfriend? Bucky wasn’t sure, but he was leaning towards friend). “All you need to know is that we can show up anywhere we need to in all of time and space. Even in locked rooms.”

“You’re kidding me, right?” While it wasn’t the most ridiculous thing Bucky had ever heard, it was up there.

“We couldn’t be more serious,” the woman said, though she sounded miffed at having been cut off.

Bucky took in the burnished steampunk fantasy that surrounded him and the two people with him… Logic told him to keep a safe distance, but even though he’d never laid eyes on them before, he felt that he knew them.

Bucky wasn’t sure he really believed this claptrap, but they had shown up out of nowhere and rescued him. That counted for something. Plus, he was still woozy enough that he felt more willing than normal to roll with things. He decided not to fight them, and instead just keep asking questions. Anything that kept them talking might help him understand what was going on.

“If you’ve got a time machine,” he asked, “couldn’t you have come a few minutes earlier?”

“Your attempt on Steve’s life was a fixed point in time,” the woman said. “It had to happen in order for other important events to unfold.”

“Bullshit,” Bucky said.

“That was my first reaction, too,” agreed the man. “I didn’t think it would actually work like that in real life. But we’ve been at this for a little while, and it really does seem to be true. It took us a few tries, but we figured out that, while the attempt was necessary, your success wasn’t, thank god. So we waited for the right moment to pull you out.”

“How’d you deactivate me?” Bucky said, this time trying to pump them for something more real-world and tangible than time travel, because seriously. “How’d you get the codes?”

“Someone gave them to me,” the woman said.

“Who?”

“I can’t tell you that,” the woman said.

“You can’t tell me that. You can’t tell me your names. Come on, guys. I’m grateful for the rescue and all, but you’ve gotta give me something.”

“We don’t know how to reactivate you,” the man said. “So, you don’t need to worry about that. I promise. Even if we could, we’d never do that to you. Never.”

Something about his gravity reassured Bucky despite himself.

“Are you space aliens?” he asked next.

“Possibly?” the woman said, not sounding nearly as certain as she should have.

But Bucky couldn’t blame her. He knew something about having no idea what species he was.

“Yeah,” he said. “I figured you guys were Asgardian if you were anything.”

The two strangers shared an interested look.

“Add it to the list,” the woman said.

“Yep.”

It was as though they had picked Bucky up solely to procure an audience for their private conversations.

“So, now what?” Bucky asked. “What are you gonna do with me?”

“Whatever you like,” the woman said. “You are free to accompany us on our travels. Anywhere you want to go in all of time and space. The entire universe’s time continuum is your oyster.”

“There’s a lot of running involved,” the man said brightly.

“Oh, that’s very good. You’re really getting into the spirit of it,” she said, delighted. She beamed at her friend, who smiled shyly back.

“I am trying, you know,” he said, “even though I still think this is dumb, for the record.”

Bucky had been offered eternity before, by someone he cared a lot about, and he’d said no. Today he was being offered it by complete strangers, but with a twist. If these two weren’t totally insane, if this was actually happening and actually an option… The idea that he could go back, could change his past, could set things right…

“You and we are on the same quest,” the woman earnestly told him. “More than you know.”

And that was all Bucky needed to interrupt his momentary flirtation with escapism. A quest? He wasn’t on any fucking quest.

“We need to make one more stop before any questing can happen,” the man said, with hilarious seriousness. “You promised to bring Peter back more AA batteries, remember? I don’t know when we’ll next be in a time and place to get them.”

“Of course,” she said. “I’d forgotten. There has to be a Duane Reade or similar nearby, yes?”

“Not sure,” the man said. “We might have to head down to Borough Hall for that after we drop him off. There should be one there, if things are... you know.”

Bucky had no idea what was going on and was ready to get out of here. Politely, carefully, he said, “Sorry to rush you, but I have to make sure Steve’s all right. I’m really grateful for the intervention and everything, but I just wanna go home.”

The two of them grinned mischievously at one another. Yet again, it was as though Bucky had triggered some sort of private joke.

“We thought you might say that,” the man said cryptically. “We can get you home.”

This was turning out to be a lot easier than Bucky had expected. “Really? Just like that?”

“Well, it isn’t nearly as simple as you’re going to think,” the woman said smugly, in a way that was somehow so familiar. “You won’t be able to appreciate the sheer amount of work that has gone into making this possible but yes. We can send you home. There are things you need to do, you see. Or at least attempt. If this doesn’t work, well...”

“Well, we’re all screwed, is what,” the man finished. “So let’s hope you figure something out. I have faith in you, though.”

Bucky, barely listening anymore, rose to his still wobbly feet. He started to make his way to the door, but became unsteady along the way.

“Don’t touch anything!” the woman shouted in real panic as he reached out to grab a console for balance.

He must have still been jumbled from the triggering, because even though he was looking right at it, he felt nothing under his fingers.

The strangers grabbed hold of his arms and led him—very determinedly—to the door, ensuring that he had no opportunity to touch anything else.

“Just walk out and you’ll be there,” the woman said. “You’ll be home.”

“Well, uh, thanks,” Bucky said. “Whoever you are, and whatever reason you had for getting me out of there, thanks again.”

“Take care of yourself, okay?” the man said, suddenly hugging Bucky tightly and with more feeling than he had any right to. “And good luck.”

As soon as the man released him, the woman threw her arms around Bucky. She even smelled familiar, but Bucky was still too out of it to place why. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“For what?”

She simply smiled. “I hope we meet again, in more complete circumstances.”

“Huh?”

Instead of answering, she opened the door and abruptly shoved him through it.

While it lasted only a split second, something about exiting managed to set off Bucky’s lingering agoraphobia. He knew this colorful, swirling void. He’d seen it every night in the dreams he clawed to escape.

He landed with a thump on hard pavement in a dark alley. Judging by the duration of the fall and the angle of his landing, he must have been pushed through one of the second-story windows of the abandoned warehouse in front of him. He could even pinpoint which one.

He broke the locks on the front door to investigate. But even though he looked in every single room, including the one corresponding to the window he’d fallen out of, he couldn’t find the funny room with the pulsing light show. The rooms weren’t even the same size.

He eventually gave up and went back outside, figuring they’d knocked him out and then packed up the show. Or something. He didn’t much care right now. He wanted answers, yes—about how they’d gotten him out, how they’d deactivated him—but without any way of tracking them, the strangers faded into the background of the night’s priorities. They faded behind the memory of Steve begging Bucky to stop.

He ran to the corner and read the street signs to get an idea of his location.

For all that they had talked about the great expanse of time and space that they could travel through, they hadn’t gone anywhere at all. It took Bucky only a second to place himself on a quiet tenement block in Boerum Hill.

He’d asked them to send him home, and instead they’d sent him to a random neighborhood he rarely visited. Awesome. Great job, guys.

He took off at a jog to the nearest subway stop. He needed to get back to the Tower, back to Steve.

During the entire subway ride back to Manhattan, his mind torturously replayed everything he could remember about the scene in the Tower. He had so many questions, even beyond his incomprehensible rescue. How had he been activated again, after all this time? Who had the info? Hydra remnants? Someone else? He needed to get back to the Tower, not just to find Steve, but also to call Natasha.

There must have been a shift change in the past hour or so, because a guy Bucky didn’t recognize had replaced Dan at the security desk. Bucky waved as he went by, like he always did, but the turnstile stopped him. He turned back to shoot the security guard an irritated look, only to find the guy shooting him one back.

“Excuse me, sir, but all visitors need to sign in.”

“I’m on the permanent access list. James Barnes.”

The man looked at his computer screen. “I’m sorry, sir, but that name isn’t coming up. Can I see your ID?”

Bucky’s hand was halfway to his pocket when he remembered these weren’t his clothes. Funny, though, how they’d happened to have an outfit on hand that fit him this perfectly.

“I actually don’t have my wallet right now. I, uh, got mugged. But if you call upstairs, they’ll tell you to let me up. I was just here, I swear. I’m here all the time.”

“Whom would you like me to call?”

“Steve Rogers. If not, Pepper Potts or Tony Stark can vouch for me.”

“Friends in high places, huh?” the security guard said, with unappreciated sarcasm.

“Just make the call, please” Bucky snapped.

He was feigning easy confidence in order to get past this gatekeeper, but the timing was too specific for a mere glitch. Anyone with sense—and Steve and Pepper and Tony had a lot of sense—would have put safeguards around the Tower after the stunt Bucky had just pulled. Of course his access had been revoked. Of course he wouldn’t he allowed up.

Bucky could tell the guard had his finger on the emergency alert button, but he dialed.

“Got someone down here. No ID. Says you know him.” Pause. “James Barnes, he said.” Pause. “No, that’s really what he says.” Then to Bucky, “Can you stand in front of this camera? Mr. Rogers needs to verify that it’s you.”

Bucky stood where requested. He tried smiling, as a way to let Steve know he was better, that he was no longer dangerous.

“Send him up? Okay. Thanks.” The guard hung up. “80th floor.”

“Yeah, I know.”

Bucky spent the elevator ride prepping himself for a reckoning. Steve had been relatively unphased by the revelation that Bucky had been a killer in another life, but there was a difference between knowing something and seeing it in action. There was a difference between a list of long-ago victims and getting a knife in your face.

The elevator doors opened to reveal Steve standing in his doorway, trepidation and disbelief etched across his face. He wore plain clothes but held the shield at half-mast, as though unsure whether or not he needed to use it.

“Bucky?” he asked tentatively. “Is it really you?”

“Yeah,” he replied. “It’s me. Really me.”

Steve reached out to poke Bucky with his index finger, as though testing to see if he was real. Upon feeling flesh resisting the touch, he pulled back and then poked again. “I can’t believe… How…?”

“It’s a long story.”

Steve pulled him inside the apartment and straight into a hug. Bucky clutched at Steve like a buoy, burying his nose in his neck and gasping him in. When Steve finally pulled back a little, Bucky lifted his head and began mouthing kisses up along Steve’s chin. Steve stiffened around him, and sputtered backwards in shock when their lips made contact.

“What the hell? Bucky, I’m glad to see you, too, don’t get me wrong, but…”

“Sorry, right. Got a little carried away there,” Bucky mumbled in apology. Of course Steve didn’t want to make out with him right now. Bucky had probably scarred him for life; trying to kill someone in the middle of sex tended to kill the mood.

“I can’t believe… You came back. I thought you were dead, Buck. But after all this time, you came back.”

‘All this time?’ He’d been gone for a couple of hours, tops. It didn’t make sense for Steve to think he was dead. What if… He remembered his rescuers’ ravings. It couldn’t…. could it?

“What’s today’s date?” he asked.

“April 16th.”

Already off, though only by a few days. He hoped.

“What year?”

“2015.”

“You’re joking.”

As an answer, Steve picked up the newspaper sitting on the coffee table and waved it in Bucky’s face, pointing at the date as proof.

“Shit,” Bucky said. Three years later. Three fucking years. No wonder Steve had thought he was dead. No wonder his name had been taken off the security list.

“I actually time traveled,” Bucky muttered to himself. After the initial surprise, he found himself surprisingly unmoved by this information. He was missing the first twenty-odd years of his life; what did another couple matter?

“Time travel?” Steve repeated questioningly, but not that questioningly. The fact that this wasn’t the weirdest thing to have happened to them spoke volumes about their lives. He seemed to be taking the news similarly to Bucky: with resigned acceptance. “That’s how you’re here right now?”

“Yeah. I got picked up by some people with a time machine.” He explained how he’d just woken up a few minutes ago in a strange room. He told Steve about the wacky couple and about landing in Brooklyn.

“Did they say why they picked you up?”

“Not really. Not in any way that made sense.”

“Huh,” Steve said with absent-minded automatism at the end of the story. He seemed barely to be listening, still too busy staring at Bucky as though his presence were the greatest miracle in history, as though he couldn’t give a shit how it had happened or whether or not it made sense, as long as it was true. Steve kept reaching out to touch Bucky, checking every few seconds to make sure he was real. “So all this time I’ve thought you were dead, you’ve been… Nothing.”

“Wish I could say I missed you, too, but it’s only been a few minutes for me. I’m just glad… I’m just glad we’re good,” Bucky said, still marveling at how over their most recent episode Steve seemed to be. He hadn’t even mentioned it, and Bucky wasn’t about to. So, obliquely, he said, “I’m glad that you and me, that we’re good.”

“Of course we are. You’re my best friend, Buck. Always have been, always will be.”

As he got used to the idea of Bucky’s miraculous return, Steve’s face kept switching back and forth between lost, hopeless depression and confused, tentative elation. Bucky had never seen the former expression before and would have happily done anything, anything at all to eradicate it. Bucky didn’t care if Steve never let him kiss him again, as long as that look disappeared.

He glanced around the room, needing a break from that intense, hungry, but not at all amorous stare. For the first time, he registered the low-slung grey fabric sofa they were sitting on, the sunken dining room to the left, the newly tan-colored walls.

“You redecorated,” he noted.

“Me?” Steve’s brow furrowed. “This isn’t my place. I’m just visiting.”

“Where’d you move to?”

“I’ve got a place in DC.”

“DC? You hate DC. You can’t possibly be happy there.”

“I’m not, as it turns out,” Steve said ruefully. Then his face brightened. “But now that you’re back… Unless I’m dreaming.”

“No, I’m here. It’s really me. I’m so sorry, again. I am.”

“You’ve got nothing to be sorry about.”

This was taking forgiveness a mile too far, even for Steve. Feeling bashful, Bucky cast his eyes around the room for a distraction. The newspaper Steve had used to prove the date caught his eye. This time, he noticed something even more disconcertingly off. He picked it up and thrust it out at Steve.

“What the fuck is this?”

“Oh, Yugoslavia? Yeah, it’s—”

“No, not Yugosla—” Bucky stopped to read the headline. “What? That’s not even a… But that’s not what I’m asking. What the hell is The New York Times?”

Steve glanced between Bucky and the paper with one eyebrow raised. “It’s the newspaper?”

“Since when?”

“Since a hundred and fifty years, at least.”

“A hundred and fifty years?”

“I don’t understand,” Steve said. “You just came back from the dead and you want to talk about the Times?”

"What about the Herald?”

“Is that a newspaper?”

“Of course it is, Steve. Stop kidding.” Bucky looked at the paper in his hands and scoffed. “’All the news that’s fit to print.’ What the hell kind of cheesy slogan is that?”

“You’ve been reading the Times your whole life, Bucky,” Steve said gently. “You had a paper route when you were fifteen. Delivered it to all the offices downtown. Sometimes you took me with you, balanced me on the handlebars of your bike. Don’t you remember?”

“Since when do you remember? What happened while I was gone, Steve? What did you find out?” Bucky rushed to continue, too excited at the prospect of finally solving the mystery to fully register Steve’s blank expression. The possibilities here were everything he’d hoped for. He had known Steve. He wasn’t crazy. He wasn’t an alien. He was everything he wanted to be but didn’t think he deserved. “Was it that you had amnesia, too?”

“What are you talking about?” Steve asked slowly.

“You know.” Bucky gestured widely. “The great mystery of me.”

“I thought you said you time traveled,” Steve said, after a long pause.

“Yeah, but it’s only been a couple of years.”

“A couple of years? The last time I saw you was in 1945.”

Bucky had long ago grown accustomed to his own amnesia. But to have Steve now sharing in it, or for him to have traded their recent, shared memories for ones Bucky himself couldn’t remember…

It was like a cruel joke. After so many years of not remembering anything, of months of not wanting to let himself want Steve, now it was Steve who didn’t remember, Steve who didn’t want him.

“You’re telling me you don’t remember?” Bucky asked.

“Remember what?”

“Us.”

“Of course I remember,” Steve said. “What do you think I’ve been talking about?”

“Yeah, but that’s… I mean, what about us working together at the Herald?”

“What, at your made-up newspaper?”

“I didn’t make it up.”

“Where’s the office?” Steve asked patiently.

“42nd and 8th.”

“Across from the Port Authority?”

“Yeah.”

“Crazy people always trying to climb up the side of it?”

“That’s the one,” Bucky said with a laugh, starting to feel relieved. It was just a joke, just a really not at all funny—

“That’s the New York Times building.”

Bucky stared. Steve stared back.

“We’re reporters,” Bucky said, trying again, trying to make Steve remember, just as Steve had hopelessly tried to make him remember the 30s ever since finding out about Bucky’s past. “I trained you. We’re partners. We share most of our bylines.”

“Now I know you’re pulling my leg. I wrote all your essays for you in school. No way you trained me in any kind of writing.” Steve grew worried. “Do you need a nap or something, Buck? I don’t know anything about time travel, but I know I was out of it for a few days when they woke me up. But this… That building’s only been there for a few years. There’s no way you could remember that, but not your paper route. Maybe we should find a doctor, call Stark or something. I can’t believe I didn’t think to—”

“There’s nothing wrong with me. I don’t need a fucking nap. I need you to remember. You started a year before… I guess it would be over three years ago now? Our first case was that assassination attempt on the Ruritanian Prime Minister. Steve, you’ve gotta remember.”

“Ruritania? What’s that?”

“It’s a country,” Bucky said. “You know, kind of between Germany and Poland and the Czech Republic.”

“I’m pretty sure there are just borders there, not a country.”

“You got a computer or something? Pull up a map.” Here was something Bucky could prove, without relying on memories. This would settle it, once and for all. The joke could only go so far. It wasn’t like Steve, this kind of humor. It wasn’t like him to keep going with a joke long after it had ceased to be funny.

Obviously thinking he was just humoring his confused friend, Steve rummaged through his luggage for a StarkPad. After a quick worried look at Bucky, he pulled up a map of Europe. Sure enough, Germany was all that lay to the west of Poland. And Yugoslavia, of all things, taunted him from the right side of the map.

“I don’t understand,” Bucky whispered, touching the screen as though he could will the country back into being.

Steve opened a new tab. “How do you spell it?”

They found a Wikipedia entry saying that Ruritania was the name of a fictional country from some 19th century novel. Bucky didn’t make it past the first sentence; he got up and backed away.

“I’m in a spell,” he muttered to himself, trying to make sense of this. “Someone’s put a spell on me. Or on you. It’s got to be more space magic. It was those loonies who took me. They—”

Steve was also thinking. “Maybe we need to take a step back. I was so bowled over to see you, I didn’t stop to ask… anything. How do you even know what a computer is? Why aren’t you surprised to see me? I should be in the here and now just as little as you should, but you haven’t asked me any questions.”

Bucky had been reeling backwards all this time, right into the front door, which now swung open, practically knocking him off his feet.

Natasha and a guy Bucky had never seen before let themselves into the apartment. She’d grown out her hair and seemed to have been spending more time at the beach. Either that or a tanning salon, which was weird because that had never been her style. She was wearing an arrow necklace, which was weird because Bucky had just gone to the jeweler’s with Clint a week before and had convinced him to get the crossbow one instead.

Her manner was a strange mix of guarded and flirtatious—much more flirtatious than Bucky had ever seen her. She was still giggling at something the guy had said, in a way she never did. She seemed completely different, but even a changed Natasha was still a life jacket.

Just as he opened his mouth to greet her, she drawled, “Hey, Steve. Who’s your friend?”

As she looked him up and down, Bucky couldn’t tell if she was checking him out or assessing his threat level. And that was exactly the problem: he couldn’t tell. He couldn’t tell what Natasha was thinking. There wasn’t even a hint of recognition in her eyes.

That was the clincher. Either Bucky had gone insane, or the entire world had.

“This is—” Steve began to say.

“I’m just here to fix the cable,” Bucky interrupted, flashing Steve a silent signal to play along. If they knew one another—if anything at all still held true—Steve should understand. Bucky didn’t want to talk about what was happening, not yet, not with some stranger around, and not when Natasha didn’t seem to know him.

He strode across the living room and pretended to fiddle with the wires behind the TV. He tried to make himself as unnoticeable as possible, keeping his face in shadow.

“Sam and I are going to grab some drinks,” Natasha said. “You wanna come with?”

Bucky hoped Steve would have the good sense not to tell any outright lies. Natasha may have been off, but she was still Natasha, and would see right through it.

Steve cleared his throat and told what sounded like the truth. “No, I… I’m supposed to meet up with Thor. He wants me to meet his girlfriend before he heads back to Asgard for a visit. She’s a scientist, right? What’s her name? June? Jill?”

“It’s Jane. Jane Foster,” Natasha confirmed.

This startled Bucky enough to cause him to snap one of the wires he was pretending to reorganize. He swore under his breath when he received a little shock from the system. Sam glanced at him.

“You need a hand, man?”

“No, I’ve got it under control.”

But he didn’t. He didn’t have it under control at all.

Thor… They were talking about Thor. It had to be the Thor, right? What were the odds they knew another one?

But everything about this was wrong. Sure, it was possible that in three years, Thor had come to Earth and somehow made friends with Steve… And sure, it was possible that in three years things hadn’t worked out with Bruce, but Jane was Steve’s work wife, his best girl friend. She wasn’t some ‘what’s-her-name’ connected to him solely as Loki’s brother’s girlfriend.

From the ease in his manner, and the comfort Steve seemed to feel in their presence, Bucky could tell that Natasha and this man, this complete fucking stranger, had somehow become Steve’s new go-tos. He could see it in all of their body language.

Maybe it was ungenerous of him, but for a split second, Bucky resented Steve. Resented him for not wanting him anymore, for having replaced him and Jane with this Sam guy, for having replaced him as Natasha’s ambiguously platonic life partner.

“You sure you’re okay, man?” Sam next asked Steve. “You seem a little off.”

“I’m fine, just a little tired,” Steve said.

“You’re still a terrible liar,” Natasha said with a fondly predatory smile. “But go ahead. Have your little secrets. It’s good for you.”

Bucky wanted to tell her to cut the cryptic flirting shtick, but Steve didn’t seem to mind it, which was wholly unlike him. For the first time, Bucky started looking at Steve the way he was looking at Natasha. He hadn’t noticed before, but there was something slightly off about him, too. A variation to some of his mannerisms, a shirt he never would have worn, a listless hunch to his shoulders that Bucky had never seen before and hated immediately.

“You look really familiar,” Sam said, staring at Bucky. “Have we met?”

“No, but I get that a lot. I must have one of those faces.”

“You sure you don’t want to come with us?” Natasha asked Steve again. “Thor’s not exactly the best company for someone who’s tired. You know how he gets.”

“How’s that?” Bucky asked, forgetting himself.

“Boisterous,” she replied. “Haven’t you seen him on TV?”

“Must’ve missed that one,” Bucky mumbled.

“No, I’ll be fine,” Steve repeated. “I’ll see you guys tomorrow, okay?”

“Sure.” Sam smiled at Bucky on his way out. “Good luck with that.”

Bucky forced a half-hearted smile in return. “Yeah.”

Once they were alone again, Bucky collapsed on the couch.

“Why did you lie?” Steve asked. “Those are my friends. I’ve told them all about you. They could have helped with this. We could have figured out what’s going on together.”

Bucky barely heard him. “She didn’t know me.”

“Who? Natasha? Why should she?”

“She didn’t even recognize me. But then that Sam guy said I looked familiar. Why? Why would he recognize me but not her?”

“I took him to the museum with me a couple of times. He probably recognized you from there.”

“What museum?”

A flush crept up the side of Steve’s neck. “There was a Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian awhile ago. There was a whole corner devoted to you, to us. I insisted. I even wrote the copy. There was a video they dredged up from somewhere of us celebrating taking down a Hydra base, the one near Brno, remember? I hadn’t even known there was a cameraman there until I saw the footage last year. It was you and Gabe…”

Bucky bit his lip, and watched rather than listened to Steve tell a long wartime story that he’d already told him a couple of weeks ago. Only this time, the facts and flow were different, and Bucky had been awkwardly inserted into the proceedings. Bucky was too focused on this exhibit thing to pay attention to the details. Steve had apparently dumped the whole secret identity thing and outed not just himself, but Bucky, too. Steve’s worst nightmare had come true, but he didn’t seem all that bothered.

“I don’t remember any of this, Steve. Just like it seems like you don’t remember anything I know about us.”

“Try me.”

“You and me. In this apartment. A couple of hours ago. When we were…” Bucky’s gaze flickered between Steve’s eyes and his lips, which all too recently had been flushed pink and chapped.

Steve must have gotten the idea, because he made a few sputtering facial movements. “No… No, I don’t remember anything like that.”

“You don’t remember me trying to kill you?”

“Oh. For a minute there, I thought you were talking about something else,” Steve said, not knowing—not fucking remembering—that Bucky was talking about both. “But no, that’s not even funny. You’d never hurt me. Not you.”

“You’re right. Steve. I would never hurt you. Not when I’m myself. But that’s the point.”

“You’re not making a lot of sense.”

“Nothing’s making a lot of sense.”

Steve paced up and down the room. “I knew it was too good to be true. I should have known there was some catch. People don’t just show up alive seventy years later like everything’s fine.”

“You did.”

“Yeah, but I was brought back by an army of doctors. I spent weeks, months, adjusting. You… you announced yourself at security and started asking about Google maps. What happened to you, Bucky? Are you a ghost? Something else?”

“I told you. I time-traveled. Though now I’m wondering if maybe that wasn’t quite it. Because nothing’s right.”

“You said a minute ago you thought you were under a spell. I don’t know what’s happened to you but— Ohhhh.”

“What?”

“The scepter,” Steve said.

“Scepter? What scepter?”

“Loki’s scepter. It’s a long story but—”

“Don’t worry about it.”

Bucky didn’t need an explanation. Nothing of what Steve had said so far made any sense; he doubted this would either. And anyway, if there was anything Loki was likely to obtain to complete his crazy get-up, it was a fucking scepter. He could even picture it.

“Fury said it’s back in play,” Steve continued, more to himself than to Bucky. “That someone’s been using it again. Sam, Natasha and I have been trying to track it down. What if they got to you? I don’t know how but… Do you think maybe you’ve been brainwashed?” he asked with a completely straight face. “Is that at all possible?”

Bucky burst out laughing. It was either that or punch the wall in frustration. “Kill me now.”

“Why?”

“So you think I’ve been brainwashed. Sure. Great. Groundbreaking idea there. Of course I’ve been brainwashed! Come on, Steve!”

Steve picked up one of the fire irons from the mantelpiece. “I’m really sorry,” he said.

“For what?”


The next thing Bucky knew, he was waking up on the sofa. Someone must have moved him. There was an ice pack on his temple where a giant bruise was welling up.

“Jesus.” For the second time that night, Bucky struggled to open his eyes through a painful headache—the regular kind, that came from getting whacked on the head with a fucking fire iron.

Steve sat on the floor beside him, leaning his head back to rest on Bucky’s shoulder. Upon hearing his voice, he scooted to his knees and hovered over him. “Hey, hey, you’re awake.”

“Steve,” Bucky said calmly. “What the hell?”

“I was trying to de-brainwash you. A really hard hit to the head usually does the trick. Did it work? Do you—?”

Bucky propped himself up on his elbows and looked around him. The sofa was still grey, that upstart rag with Putin’s face on the front page still sat on the coffee table. Steve’s mannerisms were still slightly off, in a way that once noticed could not be unseen.

The funny thing was that although being off, these small changes in Steve didn’t feel wrong, not in the way Natasha felt wrong. Bucky couldn’t figure it out.

And then there it was—the mystery migraine on top of his fire iron headache. Bucky tried not to retch from the pain.

“It didn’t work,” he said, collapsing again. “I don’t know who taught you how to de-brainwash people, but they ought to be fired.”

“Dammit.”

“And anyway,” Bucky continued, “I wasn’t brainwashed in the first place.”

“You just said you were!”

“Yeah, but not right this minute.”

Steve blinked at him a few times in disbelief. “I can’t take much more of this.”

“You and me both.”

There was a knock on the door. Unlike Natasha and Sam, who were at home enough with Steve to let themselves in, these people waited to be granted access.

“Still the cable guy?” Steve asked.

“Yeah, until we figure out what the hell is going on. Pass me a sweatshirt or something so I look the part.”

Bucky tugged on the hoodie Steve tossed him and made a show of looking interested in the equipment.

Jane and an enormous, ridiculously handsome blond guy—bigger and better looking than Steve, even—swaggered into the room. His jeans and tee shirt fit him well, but they didn’t fit him. There was something very much ‘other’ about him that Bucky wouldn’t have been able to put his finger on if he hadn’t spent so much time with another Asgardian who had fit equally badly into his even more perfectly tailored clothes.

“May I present to you my beloved, the Lady Doctor Jane Foster,” Thor said, making her sound like a gynecologist. “She has heard much of your valor and has long wished to make your acquaintance.” He looked over Steve’s shoulder and saw Bucky standing in the corner. “Ah, but you are not alone I see. Greetings.”

Bucky gurgled out an incomprehensible reply.

No wonder skinny, bookish, introverted Loki had developed such a complex. Thor was larger than life, radiated strength and good-humor and the kind of confidence that comes from never having to worry about whether people like you, because of course they do. Thor was practically casting a shadow on Steve, was making the usually unshameable Bucky feel a little shy. His effect on his surroundings was unbelievable. Bucky was so overwhelmed that for a second, he forgot all about his problems, wanting only to bask in Thor’s presence. He had to pinch himself to stay on track. Having reacted this way himself, he couldn’t imagine what spending thousands of years as this guy’s eccentric little shadow of a brother must have been like. But, to be fair, Thor seemed like a nice guy—the kind of guy who probably would have made an effort to ensure Loki felt included if only Loki had said something, which knowing him, he hadn’t.

“It’s nice to meet you, Jane,” Steve said absently. “Look, Thor, I know we promised to go out tonight, but something’s come up. I—”

“Oh my god,” Jane breathed, looking in Bucky’s direction with the kind of elated recognition Natasha had failed to grant him. “Bucky Barnes?”

“Finally.” Bucky dropped the act and ran to her. He hugged her tight, probably would have kissed her if her boyfriend hadn’t been standing right there. “Finally, someone who recognizes me.”

“Of course I recognize you,” she said, startled. “God, my dad was the biggest fan. His Bucky Barnes trading card was his most prized possession. I’d know your face anywhere.”

“Trading card?” Bucky slowly put her down again and backed away. “You know me from a trading card?”

Steve quietly fished through his wallet and handed Bucky a 1940s-style baseball card with a terrible picture of himself printed on it.

“But it…how are…” Jane tripped over her words. “You died in 1945.”

“Is this true?” Thor asked.

“Tell him, Steve,” Bucky said, getting an idea. “Let’s tell Thor. He might be able to help.”

“He’s known me his whole life,” Steve said, “but doesn’t remember anything about it. Just showed up here talking about stuff he shouldn’t know anything about. Except it’s all wrong, never happened.”

“I think I’m under a spell,” Bucky announced, because the only thing he could think of was that those people had messed with him.

“That is a grave suspicion,” Thor said. “What makes you think so?”

Bucky thought quickly. He could play this. He had to. It wouldn’t do to talk about anything he could remember; it was already clear no one would believe him. In order to convince anyone, he’d have to drop it for now, pretend to play along with Steve’s idea that he’d been brainwashed, maybe by this scepter thing. He’d already accidentally laid the groundwork for a good working story: picked up in 1945 and whisked to the here and now by time travelers who had replaced his memories with dubious details about the modern world.

“The last thing I remember is being picked up by some people with great power. They performed some pretty impressive magic to, er, transport me through time, or at least keep me alive without realizing time had passed. I don’t know what happened, but I don’t seem to remember things the way everyone else does. Steve says there’s a scepter out there that might have brainwashed me.”

“Did you hit him hard on the head?” Thor asked Steve.

Bucky rolled his eyes. Where were they even getting this shit?

“Didn’t work,” Steve replied. “But Bucky’s right. If this is magic, then you’re our best shot at fixing it. And right now, nothing else makes any sense.”

“There’s the Tesseract,” Jane suggested. “Erik said it made him remember all sort of things he’d forgotten.”

“Oh god, not the Tesseract again,” Bucky muttered.

“You have had previous dealings with it?” Thor asked curiously.

“Yeah. Uh, back in the 40s, with Steve here,” Bucky lied, using a story Steve had told him a few weeks ago and hoping it still applied.

Apparently not, because Steve was giving him that look—that reproachful one he always gave when forced to go along with an unnecessary falsehood.

Thor bought it, though, which was all that mattered. “Yes, of course. Jane is right. Perhaps your previous exposure, combined with the experience you described, has addled your mind. We shall go to Asgard and seek answers there. Jane, I would return tonight instead of tomorrow.”

“Sure, that’s fine. I have to leave for Oxford early in the morning anyway.”

“What are you doing there?” Bucky asked curiously.

“Since Thor’s going to be away for a couple of months, I agreed to teach a seminar this semester. On the theories I used during the Convergence.”

“Huh. That’s… that’s great,” Bucky said, mystified.

“Let’s go,” Thor said.

“What, right now?” Bucky asked.

“Of course. Once decided, why should we tarry? It is a good season for you to accompany me. We are about to celebrate the Eternal Unity of the Realms, which marks an anniversary only every thousand years. Once we heal you, we can relax. Never again will you experience festivities such as these.”

Bucky didn’t really think the Tesseract would fix whatever was going on, but anything that got him out of the hell that was this apartment couldn’t be bad. Not to mention the chance to party with Loki’s brother in the place he’d read and (obliquely) heard so much about. He wished he could ask about Loki directly, but if he was going to play this right, he couldn’t let on that they’d ever met. Their relationship seemed to have been wiped away, just like everything else.

“What do we need to pack?” Steve asked.

“You will be my personal guests of honour. Every need, every triviality you may desire, shall be provided upon your arrival. You need bring only yourselves.”

“What do you think, Steve?” Bucky asked.

“If this is our best shot of getting to the bottom of this, I’m in.”

And it was funny: for all that Steve’s and Bucky’s memories were like ships passing in the night, it was as though nothing was wrong. They were still on the same wavelength. No matter what had happened to him—to everyone—Bucky could still count on Steve having his back, no questions asked.

“How do we get to Asgard?” Bucky asked.

“There is a large landing area on the top floor of this building,” Thor said. “We have only to go up there and call for Heimdall.”

Steve sent a quick email to Sam and Natasha saying he had decided to accompany Thor on his holiday, and then called the asshole at security to request entry to Tony’s penthouse.

“What are you calling for? Don’t you have access?” Bucky asked.

“Ms. Potts said I could crash here, but we’re not so close that I can just waltz into their apartment when they aren’t there. Or even when they are.”

So it wasn’t just Jane. Even Tony and Pepper had been, if not erased, then at least smudged out of Steve’s life.

“Don’t mention me to anyone, okay?” Bucky asked Jane on their way upstairs. “Until we get this sorted out, this never happened. You never saw me. I’m still dead.”

“Sure, if you want. I won’t say a word.”

A few minutes later, Steve and Bucky stood awkwardly on the landing strip while Thor and Jane sucked face. Bucky thought of Bruce with a pang of sadness.

When he’d finished saying goodbye, Thor linked arms with Steve and Bucky and looked up at the sky with the same face Bucky and Steve had always used when speaking to JARVIS.

“Heimdall! Open the Bifrost to me!”

It was a little like traveling via a Tesseract portal, but with more hurtling and tumbling and wind. Thor stepped out of the vortex without breaking his stride, but Bucky and Steve face-planted on the dark, shiny floor. Steve’s shield went flying. An enormous man with yellow eyes caught it.

“Friends, this is Heimdall. Heimdall, this is Captain Rogers and his companion, Sergeant Barnes.”

Heimdall turned his golden gaze wonderingly on Bucky, ignoring Steve entirely.

“Impossible…” he murmured, barely audible, so softly that Bucky wasn’t sure he heard the words correctly. In a louder voice he said, with a pensive melancholy, “Welcome. Welcome to Asgard.”

Heimdall kept glancing at Bucky while exchanging a few incomprehensible pleasantries and updates with Thor. Then Thor ushered them out and down the terrifyingly narrow, barrier-free and almost transparent walkway towards the city in front of them. Shimmering in the distance, the palace looked like a cross between the Emerald City and the castle Bucky had seen during his brief time on Vanaheim.

Steve and Bucky hustled to keep up with Thor’s long strides. Once they got closer to civilization, jubilant passersby began stopping Thor right and left, ecstatic to welcome the crown prince home. Bucky and Steve kept close to one another, waiting patiently on the side of the road every time Thor was forced to pause. Slow was the speed of the crown, apparently. Bucky didn’t mind. The delay gave him a chance to drink it all in—this fantasy brought to life made for a nice distraction from the larger questions.

Asgard was shinier than he’d imagined. The snow that they hadn’t dressed for fell in perfectly light and wind-free drifts, like fake Hollywood romcom snow. Every house and shop they passed shone impossibly clean and cozy. Almost everyone they passed was cheerfully, straightforwardly attractive in the way that Thor was. The legends had made Asgard sound beautiful, but they hadn’t done it justice. Bucky could see why Loki had been so miserable here. Pleasant but homogenous Asgard was lovely in all the ways that would have made Loki itch in boredom and insecurity. And forget all the chitchat with commoners Thor was not only being such a good sport about, but genuinely seemed to enjoy. Loki must have hated that shit. No wonder he had loved the rudeness, grittiness and anonymity of New York, the sense of endless possibility and eccentricity to be discovered and appreciated. No wonder he had taken to Bucky’s coterie of rude, sarcastic, secretly fucked-up misfits.

“What’s wrong?” Steve asked, interrupting Bucky’s secret musings. “You’re making the face you always do when you’re thinking. Your hard work face.”

The spell, or whatever it was, had made Steve a hell of a lot more sarcastic. More like a nudgy brother than… than what they’d been before.

Bucky had been focusing his mind on his surroundings, and on musings about Loki, as a way not to have to think about what was really bothering him. He’d been quiet for the whole walk, and not only because he was tired of saying things that no one else believed. What if everyone else was right and he was wrong? What if he’d finally cracked? What if the life he was so firmly convinced he had was nothing but a made-up hallucination?

“What if it doesn’t work?” he asked quietly. “Thor’s plan to help.”

“Then we’ll think of something else,” Steve said. “Or we’ll learn to live with it. We’ve lived through worse.”

“Have we?” Bucky genuinely wanted to know.

Steve shrugged. “All that matters is that you’re back. Even if you never remember, we can start over together. Make new memories.”

They soon reached the palace gates. A thick line of guards parted to make way for Thor and his companions.

“Your Highness,” an over-bowing sycophant servant wheezed. “You have returned earlier than expected. I will send the maids to ready your rooms.”

“And two for my friends,” Thor said.

“We only need one,” Steve said.

Bucky whipped his head around to look at him. Talk about mixed signals. After evincing zero interest in him, Steve suddenly wanted to continue their date? “Really?”

“It’ll be like old times, you and me squished together all winter for body heat.” Pure innocence radiated from Steve’s face.

“The beds here are quite large,” the servant sniffed, offended. “There is no reason to ‘squish’.”

“Sure, sounds great,” Bucky sighed, because that wasn’t at all the sort of heat he had been hoping for when he’d left the office a few hours—or a few years—ago. Though, oddly, his disappointment was a lot less than he’d expected. Maybe something about Steve so obviously not wanting him that way anymore had muffled his own desire, or maybe he just had bigger things to worry about than sex. Whatever the reason, he wasn't feeling amorous anymore.

“We will see my father while you see to our rooms. Where can we find him?”

“He sits in the throne room, sire.”

“Anything we should know before we go in there?” Bucky asked. “I’ve never met a king before. Don’t really know what I’m supposed to do.”

“The All-Father will take you as you are. There is no need for ceremony.”

They walked into a room that made the Hall of Mirrors look like a supply closet. At the far end, on a raised golden dais and in a blindingly bright throne flanked by golden rings, sat an old man with an eye patch. Before him knelt a man in long black robes with a cotton candy-like white pompadour. The room was too long and the visitors from Earth too far away to hear their conversation, but the white-haired guy’s body language screamed apology.

When he saw Thor and his friends approaching, the old man on the throne waved the guy away.

“We will speak of this later. Go.”

The man picked up his furs and left through a side door.

“I bring friends with me on this visit, Father,” Thor said.

“I may have only one eye, but it does see perfectly well. The question is why you have brought these…” Odin cast his piercing eye over Steve and Bucky, who stood somewhat awkwardly behind Thor. “These humans.”

“I bring them here to request a great favor of you. This, Father,” Thor said, dragging Steve by the arm to stand beside him. “This is Captain Rogers, who fought with me during the Chitauri attack, and who on more than one occasion has saved my life. I owe him a debt.”

“Thor has spoken of you,” Odin said curtly. “I thank you for rescuing my… son, from his own foolhardiness, no doubt.”

“Just doing my duty, sir,” Steve said. “And Thor’s a friend.”

“And this favor you so boldly request of me…”

“It isn’t for me,” Steve rushed to explain. “It’s for Bucky here.”

“Father, this is Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, a celebrated warrior from a bygone time.”

“A few mortal years hardly count as a bygone time, Thor. I fear you have spent too long on Midgard if you think so.”

Undeterred by the rudeness that was already making Bucky want to call the whole thing off, Thor continued, “The Sergeant has miraculously returned from death, but his mind is addled. The circumstances surrounding his return provide another cause for concern.”

Thor and Steve took turns explaining the situation as they understood it. As they went on, and especially when they got to the cryptic time-travelers and Bucky’s confusion, Odin began to sit up straighter in his throne, as though interested despite himself.

“We hoped perhaps you could aid us in restoring him to sanity,” Thor finished.

“For the center of all this excitement, you are curiously silent,” Odin said, looking at Bucky. “Have you nothing to say on your own behalf? Or has the journey through time robbed you of your tongue as well as your wits?”

The celestially revered All-Father, Bucky decided, was kind of a dick. Now he saw where Loki got it from. But because of this similarity, Bucky had a feeling he could manage Odin; it would be like flexing a disused muscle.

“My wits are doing just fine,” he said. “Well enough to know what the answer’s gonna be.”

“Oh really, and what is that?”

“You don’t want to use your precious Tesseract on a nobody like me. And it’s fine. I don’t really care.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Bucky could see Thor stiffening in shock and Steve flashing him a startled look.

This unaccustomed rudeness seemed to get Odin’s attention. “You don’t want to regain your right mind?”

“That’s not it. I just don’t think it’ll work.”

“Then why are you here?”

Bucky turned on his full wattage of charm when he replied, “Thor mentioned he was coming for some sort of epic party. I wanted in.”

Odin blinked a few times. “You have strange friends, Thor.”

“So you will let us try?”

“No.” Odin stood up and began making his way down the stairs to where they stood. “But they may stay for the festival. Perhaps they can provide guidance in how to properly celebrate what little culture Midgard possesses. We have never been so… fortunate as to have humans in attendance.”

Steve was about to say something, but Bucky squeezed his hand, silently telling him to keep his trap shut. Like Bucky, Thor seemed to realize there was no arguing with this decision. He slumped into himself. Bucky felt bad for causing his face to go all puppy-dog sad.

“Come, friends,” Thor said sullenly. “Let us find your rooms so you can settle in before dinner.”

They walked with Odin past a troop of guards and through a labyrinth of hallways.

“Who was that before, Father?” Thor asked conversationally. “With whom were you meeting?”

“Taneleer Tivan.”

“The Collector?” Thor sneered in disgust. “What brings him to Asgard? Surely an oddity such as he was not invited to the festivities.”

“I summoned him because of events more important than the festivities. It is fortunate that I am still here to rule, and to keep abreast of news that does not reach your backwater playground.”

An awkward silence hung between the group. Listening to a guy get chewed out by his dad was never fun, no matter what planet you were on or how little you understood the conversation.

“You’ve got an awful lot of empty wings around here,” Bucky noted, to change the subject.

“That is the unfortunate result of losing half of the royal family,” Thor said. “This used to be the wing where the Queen’s guests stayed. It has lain empty since she and Loki passed. But with so many guests arriving for the revels, we have been forced to use these rooms again. This is where you are staying, in fact.”

Bucky’s right foot hitched and caught on his left. He tripped and fell against Steve, who righted him. Thor’s words ricocheted around his brain.

“Passed…?” No, Thor couldn’t be saying what Bucky thought he was saying. He couldn’t.

“Frigga passed about almost two years ago by your counting,” Odin explained.

“My brother as well,” Thor added, just as sadly. “They were both casualties of Malekith’s attacks during the Convergence.”

“You okay, Buck?” Steve asked.

Bucky opened his mouth, but no, he wasn’t okay.

Bucky had moved on but he hadn’t ceased to care. He’d learned to deal with Loki being gone, but only because he knew he was out there somewhere—potentially, even if not probably—okay. But dead? No. No no no. This was worse than Natasha not recognizing him and Steve and Jane remembering all the wrong things. At least they were there. At least they were alive.

“You seem genuinely troubled by my loss,” Thor said. “Such extreme sympathy, for someone you have just met, does you credit.”

“Such extreme sympathy is what kills fools,” Odin snapped, but he studied Bucky with curious surprise. “Yet this man does not have the look of a fool, no matter how addled his mind may be. This is empathy, not sympathy, Thor. A slightly more selfish, and therefore intelligent, desire.”

Bucky finally found his tongue. “How did he… how did they die?”

Odin and Thor slowly, painfully, summarized the events of the Convergence—the same event Jane had mentioned. It was too much information to absorb at once. All Bucky took away was Loki’s death.

“Was it painful?” Bucky asked.

“It was quick,” Thor said. “I have that comfort.”

“He does seem troubled by this tale,” Odin marveled at the end. “By Loki almost more than Frigga. Something unheard of. You are the only person to feel any regret for that traitor’s death.”

“I do, Father.”

“Because you are a sentimental fool,” Odin replied absently, still staring at Bucky. “But this man is not. What do you know of Loki, mortal? Why do you mourn that which no one else does?”

Failing to keep his cool about this had been a mistake, Bucky saw too late. Even Steve was staring now. Bucky’s tongue pressed heavily against his palette, but he knew he had to say something before this escalated further.

“Thor’s right,” he lied. “He’s been so generous so far, offering to bring me here and see what he can do. It’s too bad something like this had to happen to him. And I can imagine. I mean, if I lost Steve, I don’t know what I’d do.”

Odin didn’t seem entirely convinced, but one thing was for sure: Bucky had just made a friend for life; Thor hugged Bucky tightly.

“Is he always like that?” Bucky asked as soon as Odin had left them to head to his part of the palace.

“He is much altered since my mother’s death. Since my brother’s, too, although he refuses to own to any grief. They did not end well, and the bitterness was never resolved the way it was between me and Loki.”

As soon as they found some servants and located the room had been assigned to them, Thor took his leave.

“I will fetch you in two hours and we will eat. You shall meet my oldest friends. And perhaps have another opportunity of convincing my father to help us.”

As soon as they were alone, Steve rounded on Bucky. “What are you playing at? What was all that with Odin? And Loki. You never even met him.”

“He wasn’t going to say yes,” Bucky said. “I have this guy’s number. He’ll only do it if he thinks it’s his idea, not Thor’s, and definitely not yours.”

“And how are you going to make him think fixing you, a complete stranger, is his idea?”

“No idea. Still working on it.”

After they’d finished running around their lavish alien bedroom and pointing at all the neat stuff in it, Bucky took his turn in their massive, hot-spring-fuelled Jacuzzi while Steve sat on a lounge chair nearby. Steve tried to ask more about the time traveling, but Bucky needed a break. So, instead, he insisted that Steve tell him a bit about what had happened (according to him) since 1945. They didn’t have time to really get into the details, but the wild differences between what Bucky knew—or thought he knew—were enough to make clear that nothing Bucky could hope to say would hold water.

Thor had said something about hiring the tailors for a rush job, but at the moment all they had were the clothes on their backs, so Bucky put those back on.

“I’m gonna go explore while you get ready, okay?” he said when Steve went to take his place in the bathroom. He needed a quiet minute to himself to organize his thoughts. And even if he’d so far tamped down his own desire, Steve’s wholly uninterested semi-nudity wasn’t something he needed to be around right now.

“Where are you going?” Steve asked in alarm, looking about ready to follow Bucky out into the hallway with nothing on but his underwear.

“Just for a wander. I’ll be right back.”

“Sorry, guess I’m paranoid that if I let you out of my sight for a second you’ll disappear again.”

Bucky told his worries to take a hike long enough for him to go over and hug Steve, naked and all. “I think we know if anything happens again, I’ll always find you.”

Without anyone to guide him, Bucky quickly lost himself in the tangle of hallways comprising their wing. After awhile, he gave up trying to apply logic to the layout, and let his feet go wherever they wanted.

Before long, he wandered into a section even nicer than the one he and Steve were occupying. It wasn’t closed off, per se, but it felt lonely in a way that all the other empty halls were not. Spotlessly clean, but lacking the sweet smell of cleaning products that faintly permeated the rest of the newly scrubbed rooms. Bucky had a feeling the staff didn’t go in here. Some other force kept it sparkling and bright.

His hand had barely touched one particularly attractive door when it fell open before him, as though silently inviting him into the room behind it. Thousands of books lined the shelves, and piles of them were scattered in clumps on tables and the floor.

He skimmed through a collection of children’s myths about the birth of the universe and the beings that predated it. It was funny to think about these people having myths of their own. Bucky wondered how much of this book was true, and how much was bullshit, just like the Norse myths back home. He wondered if the people in these stories had myths of their own.

He sat cross-legged on the floor, going through a stack of books, one by one. Spying something hidden underneath a low sofa, he fished out a fat little book, impossibly old and turning green. It had been left open and, if Bucky hadn’t known better, he would have thought it was humming to him in the silent room. The language couldn’t have been All-Speak, because it was written in incomprehensible moving swirls of ink and points of lights rather than words. Someone had scribbled all over the margins—precise, tiny notes in a garbled notation that Bucky had to squint to make out, but he could read the language. The notes mentioned Midgard, variables, gems, Loki, Thor, souls, portals, forks in the road of time, and… tree roots?

He kept flipping, trying to make sense of the notes. He stopped on the half-page left at the end of a chapter. Below the last words, someone had drawn a crude but reasonably accurate sketch of Bucky’s face.

He stared at it for a second, and then impulsively slipped the book into one of the many pockets of his cargo pants. This required more in-depth study than he had time for right now. He moved on, hoping to find another book that might shed light on what in the world Bucky’s hand-drawn face was doing in a book here in Asgard.

He leafed through two more piles of books, but didn’t come across anything else directly related to himself.

“What are you doing in here?” a voice asked.

Bucky spun around. Odin was standing in the doorway, looking livid, but, as always, penetratingly interested, as though Bucky were an ongoing behavioral experiment and Odin the researcher observing him.

“Sorry, I got lost. I didn’t mean to disturb anything.”

“It is not a question of disturbance. This room retains a magical shell around it. Not even the servants can find the door. You would not have been allowed to enter had not Frigga expressly permitted it.”

“Permitted me? How? She’s dead.”

“That is the question, is it not? Did you ever meet her?”

“Don’t think so. Don’t even know what she looks like.”

Odin walked to a silvery basin and poured water from a nearby jug into it. He waved his staff over the basin and a life-sized image of a beautiful woman holding a spear appeared.

“Do you recognize this lady?”

Bucky whistled in appreciation. “No, would’ve remembered someone like her.”

Odin cracked his first smile at that. Bucky was totally getting through to him, he could feel it.

“No matter. She may yet have known you.” Odin walked over to where Bucky stood and fingered the page he had been reading. “And so it was this book in particular that caught your attention? A children’s book of myths. I wonder why.”

“There aren’t any pictures in this joint,” Bucky lied, deciding to play as dumb as Odin assumed humans were. “I wanted to see… I wanted to see what everyone’s talking about.”

“You mortals trust your eyes overmuch. You rely on pictures to shape your thoughts, instead of your reason. That said, this failing is common to all races. The truly wise know how to use this weakness to their advantage. But you are different, I think. I would wager you have some experience in this sort of wisdom. Perhaps you’ve learned from previous mistakes. Perhaps you will prove more entertaining a prospect than I first thought.” There was something almost nervous about Odin’s tone, but excited, too.

What a weird guy.

“Not sure anyone would ever call me ‘wise’. I’m just a regular fellow,” Bucky said with convincing American hokum.

“You are clearly much more than that. But what exactly…” Odin mused. “That is something I would dearly like to know. There are secrets about you. What I would not give to pry them out and weave them into truth. Have you not stopped to wonder why you were saved from that fall in such a dramatic manner? Why beings powerful enough to manage time and space chose you for rescue?”

“Probably so someone would be around to watch out for Steve. I’ve always been the best at that.”

“You play your role well, but this false modesty ill becomes yo