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The Ties That Bind

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In the eyes of God, Steve Rogers was dead.

He was still breathing, still walking around, but he was dead.

---
… when a bondmate was killed in battle, the surviving alpha or omega would be given a version of the last rites, colloquially known as bond rites. These were similar to the usual last rites but included swearing that they would continue to ‘fight for God’. The knight would then return to battle or retire to a monastery; in the eyes of the church, they were considered spiritually dead, and they were to live a penitential life until their physical death. The expectation in either case was that they would not live long...

… slow decline in the popularity of bond rites from the mid-eighteenth century. Most Protestant denominations had ceased to endorse their versions of bond rites before the First World War, and the rites were formally removed from Catholic doctrine by the Second Vatican Council. The last notable recipient of the formal bond rites was Captain Steven Rogers (‘Captain America’; see Chapter 20)...

- A. W. Greenfield, Bonded Warriors: A History of Alpha-Omega Fighting Units.

---

Steve had already felt dead when he went to the chaplain in London to ask for the bond rites. The chaplain had nodded sadly, asked if he was sure, and then gave the rites with a practiced fluidity of a man who had performed them many times before.

He promised to fight for God. He silently added ‘and Bucky’.

Now he was walking around a New York that was achingly familiar and yet strange and unsettling at the same time.

He still felt dead.

At first, SHIELD sent him to see one of their therapists. He’d give her credit for being quick enough to see that he had nothing to say to her, at least. She asked if he wanted a priest. He asked for an army chaplain.

Father O'Donnell was just back from Afghanistan, and the first thing he did was look around the room they were in and say, “Come take a walk.”

They’d walked together to the park, the priest not trying to make conversation at all until they got there and found a reasonably quiet bench to sit on.

“SHIELD expects me to tell you that the church doesn’t believe in bond rites anymore, and you should grieve and move on. That’s bullshit, Captain. I’ve given bond rites to a man in the field, and I’ll stand in front of God to say it was the right thing to do for him. But it’s not always right. Whether it was for you, that’s between you and God. I’m not going to try and convince you it wasn’t just because that’s what the higher-ups want.”

Then he offered Steve a cigarette, and smoking with him was the most reassuring thing that had happened since he woke up. Before the serum he’d smoked asthma cigarettes, but only when his chest was bad. He’d come to associate smoking with feeling scared or helpless, so when he was given cigarettes as part of his army ration that’s when he smoked. When he needed to be doing something that wasn’t just staring into space. Now it gave him an excuse to sit and not talk. A little relative peace in a New York that seemed ten times as noisy as the one he left—a little space to think.

After a few minutes Steve said, “It was right. But now—I should have died. And I didn’t. So I have to wonder if that means something.”

“You didn’t promise to die, Captain. You promised to fight. Even if you have taken the bond rites, suicide is still a sin, and the Almighty damn well knows if you’re trying to pull suicide by heroism.”

It felt like an accusation, like putting that plane into the Arctic was just an attempt to kill himself. “I didn’t—I had to—“

“Was there another option? Another way to save the city?”

Steve shook his head. “No. None.”

“What were you thinking of when you made the decision?”

“I was thinking of Brooklyn burning. Of all the places I knew destroyed.”

“Then that was a noble sacrifice. It’s about intent.” He gestured with his cigarette. “Anyone tell you that smoking causes cancer?” Steve shook his head. “Well, it does. But I still smoke. I’m not suicidal, just stupid enough to start when I was a kid, and now I’m addicted. Intent, Captain.” He proffered another cigarette, which Steve took and lit. “Do you want to die?”

Steve coughed on the drag he’d just taken from his cigarette, shocked by the directness of the question. It took him a few minutes to compose himself to reply. “Isn’t that the point? I’m already dead. Just still walking around.”

“Spiritually passed over, yes. But do you want to keep breathing?”

Steve said, very quietly, “I just want it all to end.”

Father O’Donnell nodded and paused for some long moments before saying, “Some people think that the bond rites were just the church trying to put their stamp on surviving bondmates going and getting themselves killed. I think they’re wrong. The bond rites were—are—there to stop bondmates from killing themselves with grief. You didn’t promise to kill yourself; you promised to fight for God. You promised to do something active. Something positive. Did you ever think of that?”

Steve was glad of the cigarette. It gave him something to do with himself as he thought, something to concentrate on that stopped him from crying, even though its presence in his hand made it obvious how badly he was shaking. He took the next cigarette Father O’Donnell offered him as soon as he finished his current one. “I should have bought my own.”

The priest shrugged. “I doubt they’ll give you cancer. Think of it as saving me from myself.”

He smoked his way through that one before answering the question. “I promised—that I wouldn’t stop until all of Hydra were dead or captured. That’s—that’s as close to positive as I got.”

“Nothing wrong with some good Old Testament vengeance, if it’s justified, which that was. The problem is what comes next. Vengeance, justice—they’re the start, not the end.”

Steve nodded. He’d been burning for revenge all the way through that Hydra base, but thinking back on it, there was no satisfaction, no closure, no lessening of his grief. Even without saving New York, it had been the right thing to do—nothing less than Bucky deserved, but it hadn’t made anything better.

They sat in silence for a while before the priest said, “Why did you join up in the first place? You could have avoided the draft.”

“It was the right thing to do. I don’t like bullies, whether they’re on the street or in charge of an army.”

“So there’s still plenty for you to do.”

Steve just looked blankly at the ground in front of him. How could he go out and do things when he was an empty shell, hollowed out so the grief could echo all the more loudly inside him? Dead men weren’t supposed to still be breathing, let alone doing anything more than that.

He felt Father O’Donnell’s hand on his shoulder, but he didn’t look up. “Don’t think anyone’s expecting you to bounce up smiling, son. Give yourself time.”

“Yes, sir.”

“I’ll come back, and we’ll talk again in a few days. Sound about right to you?”

“Yes, sir.”

“As a good Catholic boy, you’d agree with just about anything I said right now, yeah?”

Steve could hear the smile in the priest’s voice; he looked up, smiled back, and said, “Of course, sir.”

As Steve walked back to his apartment, he looked around and saw the people and the buildings; it was like seeing them for the first time since he’d been woken up. People with lives and families and friends and jobs, different from the ones he’d left behind, but people all the same. People worth fighting for.

Do something active. Do something positive. It took him a while to find a gym that was the sort he recognised, with weights and punchbags and a boxing ring, rather than full of machines and thumping music. In the empty gym at night, he hit the punchbag like the punches could kill his demons.

---

… most of us who are alphas or omegas have taken heat suppressants, whether as contraception or just to make that mixed-assignation camping trip a little less awkward. Heat suppressants have a long history in legend. One of the most popular is the story in the Arabian Nights of the alpha woman who drank pregnant goat’s urine until her scent dulled enough to allow her to pass for a beta and thus become a member of the Sultan’s harem to impregnate all of the men and women in it, but the earliest mention is in Sumerian poetry…

…betas were always chosen for stealth operations, even from ancient times, as they didn’t go into heats where their scent could immediately give away their presence. Military experiments into heat suppressants began in the late nineteenth century, but it took until the 1930s for the understanding of hormones to allow the manufacture of effective suppressants. Early suppressants were made from the urine of monks and nuns of the appropriate gender and assignation (so the Arabian Nights were on to something after all)…

…experience in Vietnam led to suppressants being given to all troops in the field, as while beta scent is less pronounced than even the non-heat scent of an alpha or omega, it can still give away one’s position to an experienced tracker…

Mary Roach, A-B-Oh My! A Brief History of Sex.

---

Active and positive meant learning about the world and appreciating the things that had gotten better—like there being vaccines against the diseases that had swept through the orphanage when he was a child. Like the idea of equality, whatever your gender or assignation. That two omegas, or two alphas, or two betas of the same gender could get married. Practical, everyday things as well, like the fact that the suppressants he took (still at eight times the usual dose) were tiny pills that tasted faintly of sugar, rather than huge ones that definitely tasted of piss.

SHIELD’s standing orders to him were the same as the SSR’s: suppressants at all times. The official reason was that he could be needed in the field at short notice.

The real reason was that no one could ever be allowed to catch the scent that would let them know that Captain America was an omega. Equality was all well and good as an idea, but in practice, leaders were still mainly alphas, sometimes betas, but rarely omegas.

Captain America was an alpha, a leader, a giver and not a receiver, whatever century he was in.

Steve was an omega, and the serum hadn’t changed that at all.

He remembered the conversations with Dr. Erskine, who had told him that assignation wasn’t what mattered, but something deeper, something in the soul.

Dr. Erskine had known that he was married when he accepted him into the program, had told him that if he wanted this he would have to give his original surname and take his wedding ring off. The SSR were wary enough of accepting an omega as a test subject, so they certainly wouldn’t accept a bonded one—one who might be pregnant.

Erskine had asked, “You are absolutely sure you are not…in the family way?”

Steve had felt his cheeks color, then looked down and away. “Doctors said that would probably kill me. We’ve always been real careful.”

His wedding ring went onto the chain with his dog tags. If anyone asked, it had belonged to his mother. It was small enough for that to be convincing.

He’d stepped out of the machines the perfect soldier in every regard (as far as the SSR were concerned) except one.

He’d taken his suppressants, just like he was told, gave every impression of being a suppressed alpha, until he’d gone to pull Bucky out of that Hydra camp. He hadn’t brought any suppressants with him, figuring that either he’d be in and out of there, or he’d be dead and wouldn’t need them anyway.

The pair of them walked back into the camp in full heat. When he was a kid he’d heard the dumb fairy tales of the alpha and omegas who were so bonded to each other that they could do nothing while in heat except be in each other’s arms. It wasn’t true. He’d had the most intense heat of his life on that march back from the camp, a combination of it being his first heat since the serum, unexpectedly having come off the suppressants, and finding Bucky in an artificially induced heat. It had made his world circle around Bucky, an incredible awareness of him, feeling like he could read his moods from his scent so clearly it was almost like he could read his mind. He’d wanted to grab Bucky and fuck until they screamed, until they knotted and never come apart ever again. But that was instinct, not something that controlled them. It was all overridden by the more pressing concern of getting everyone back safely to friendly territory, and the most they did on the march was hold hands (wrists rubbing against each other, marking each other, mingling their scents).

Colonel Phillips had pulled both of them into his command tent, dismissed everyone apart from Agent Carter, and said, “You enlisted as single, Captain, and everyone from here to Moscow can smell that you two are bonded. If you two were stupid enough to stop to bond in enemy territory the whole camp would be talking about it, so you were bonded when you enlisted. Care to tell me what else you lied about on your enlistment papers?”

“Only my surname, sir. It should be Steven Barnes.”

The Colonel had stared them both down for a few moments. “Captain America is an alpha, and that’s the end of it. Good thing you can’t smell where one of you ends and the other begins right now. Sergeant, as of now, you are an omega.” Bucky had just stared at the Colonel, still obviously dazed from everything that had happened. “You’re going to tell us when and where you two were married, and that marriage is going to be erased—“

“The hell it is!” Bucky had grabbed Steve’s hand as he blurted that out. “You can’t do that!”

That was one of the many reasons he loved Bucky. Most alphas looked down on omegas, at least a little. Most alphas would have considered pretending to be an omega nothing short of degrading. Most alphas would have spoken up about that, but not Bucky; Bucky was angry about not being married anymore.

“This is war, gentlemen, so yes I can.”

Steve had asked, “Couldn’t you just switch the assignations?”

Peggy had said, “A small fire from an electrical fault which happens to burn some marriage records is a lot less suspicious than an altered record. Sorry, gentlemen.”

Bucky had looked at Steve and said, “Since I’m no longer a married man, permission to marry Captain Rogers, sir.”

He remembered how amused Peggy had sounded when she’d answered, “Traditionally alphas are supposed to propose—“

And Steve had cut her off there. “Permission to marry Sergeant Barnes, sir?”

It had been ridiculous, but it had made Bucky smile the first real smile Steve had seen since they’d walked out of that Hydra camp. After the colonel had given his permission, along with a dire warning against anyone getting pregnant, and they’d been dismissed, they’d practically run from there to Steve’s tent. Steve had had the presence of mind to firmly tie the flap fastenings, to try and avoid anyone finding them in the reverse of the position they should have been in.

They had been all desperation, pulling off each other’s clothes as fast as they could, licking and sucking at each other’s scent glands at the collarbone, unconsciously wiping their wrists over each other to mark each other with their scent. Bucky’s hands had shaken as he’d rolled the condom onto himself, but he’d pushed Steve back onto the bedroll just like he always had, still taking charge.

It was the only time they were off suppressants after the serum, and it was burned into Steve’s memory as the most intense sexual experience of his life. Every sense was heightened, every sensation was exquisite. Everything that had made him hold back in bed before—the pain in his chest, the feeling that he wasn’t as lubricated as he should be, the wheezing—it was all gone. He’d come so hard his vision had gone black, had felt Bucky’s knot inside him swell and had wrapped his arms around him to pull him close, feeling the warm contentment that came as their breathing and heart rates synced together, that feeling of being two parts of one whole. Then he’d felt the hitch in Bucky’s breathing, and he realised that Bucky had started to cry.

“I saw… things… when I was in there. Dreams. Hallucinations. Thought you were there. But you never smelled like you were there. When you—when you first came you didn’t smell of anything, and I thought you were another hallucination.”

The suppressants washed out of his system pretty quickly, but it must have been a couple of hours after he picked Bucky out of the lab that he started smelling like himself again. He’d wanted to ask if Bucky had spent all that time thinking that he wasn’t real, but didn’t dare. “I’m sorry. If I’d known I’d have—”

Bucky had growled into his skin, “You’re a fucking idiot. A one-man mission is dumb enough; a one-man mission where they can smell you from fucking Berlin is suicide.” There had been another couple of hitches, sobs that Bucky couldn’t quite contain, before he’d said, “Don’t fucking apologise for saving my life.”

He’d nuzzled into Bucky’s neck and answered, “You saved me often enough. I still owe you.”

Even though he couldn’t see his face, Steve had known Bucky was still crying when he muttered, “Why’d I agree to marry an idiot like you twice?”

That was all Bucky ever told him about being a prisoner of Hydra. Steve could have looked up Bucky’s debriefing; he’d had clearance with the SSR for just about all documentation about Hydra, but that felt intrusive, wrong.

SHIELD had given him a computer, loaded up with newsreels from the war, pictures, and articles. He wasn’t sure whether to thank them or curse them for it. He’d never seen any of the reels after he went to the front, and it seemed almost sacrilegious to watch them now, with nearly everyone in them dead.

The newsreel cameras had been at their wedding (their second wedding). They’d been married in a bombed-out church in London. There were plenty of intact Catholic churches, but this one had been chosen to be symbolic of business as usual in wartime. That newsreel was the first of the files he’d opened, but he’d stopped it again almost immediately. Steve kept coming back to it, opening it, then stopping it after a couple of seconds. He finally watched it in the small hours of the morning, when he couldn’t sleep but couldn’t cry either.

For some reason the version they’d given him was a Pathé film, all chipper British narration: “Who’s this, fresh from the front lines? It’s Captain America, taking a breather for a weekend in London to get married. No costumes in church either; he’s just plain Captain Steven Rogers here. And here’s Sergeant James Barnes, the lucky omega, just seven days ago a prisoner of the Nazis, now all smiles on his wedding day. Not much of the church left, but a few Luftwaffe bombs won’t stop this wedding going ahead! It’s all right, Captain, you’re a married man now; you can kiss him!”

It showed him chastely kissing Bucky, but the scene ended before Bucky, close to laughing at the ludicrousness of the whole situation, had decided to play the omega to the fullest extent and had jumped on Steve, wrapped his legs around his waist, and made out with him in front of the altar, to the collective whoops of the Howlies.

The newsreel next went to the two of them, arms around each other’s waists, toasting the occasion with wine in chipped enamel cups (another affectation—it wouldn’t have been difficult to find wine glasses). The narration continued, “So it’s best of luck to the captain and the sergeant. But no time for a honeymoon; there is a war on. They’ll be back to the front lines come Monday!”

Steve closed the window and stared at the blank screen for a while. He couldn’t stop himself thinking of that night, when they’d had a room to themselves. Bucky had leapt into his arms and demanded to be carried over the threshold, laughing all the time. When Bucky had stopped laughing and said, “I want you to fuck me. Like an omega.”

“You don’t have to—“

“If we’re gonna do this any place there’s a chance of someone walking in on us, this is how we’re gonna have to do it. And I know it’s the same for me as it is for you when you’re not in heat.”

“There’s other ways—“

Bucky had rolled his eyes. “If that serum made you forget every time I had my mouth on your dick, I’m going to Stark and asking for a refund. Steve, I want to do this. Properly.”

“Are you sure—“

“You saying I can’t take it?”

Steve never had been able to deny Bucky anything,. So he’d found the lube, worked him open, fucked him slowly and gently until Bucky had dug his fingernails into Steve’s sides and said, “Stop fucking teasing me and do me like I know you can.”

He’d bent the bedframe in the process and was sure that Bucky’s swearing could have been heard in France.

“Jesus, Steve, all that time I thought you were getting off on my hand when you weren’t in heat, why’d you never say anything?”

“You looked like you were having enough fun. Prefer it this way?”

Bucky had paused and thought for a moment before saying, “Nah. But it’s nearly as good. You like going alpha?”

“I think—I think I like the other better. But we can’t be caught like that—“

“Yeah, yeah, I know, I’m a good little omega. Gonna say, Bucky Rogers has a better ring to it than Steve Barnes anyway.”

Bucky Rogers. It did roll off the tongue, and Steve couldn’t help the little bloom of possessive warmth whenever someone had called Bucky “Sergeant Rogers”. He wondered if that was what Bucky had felt whenever Steve had been Steve Barnes.

But all Bucky Rogers was now was a name on a death certificate, a face on a newsreel, smiling and laughing and not knowing how short the time he had left really was.

Steve knew he should stop living in the past. From the SHIELD briefings, it was obvious that the world still needed Captain America. It didn’t need Steve Rogers and his grief.

---
... most of what you were taught in school about the evolution of ABO assignments is a lie. No, it does not increase the breeding pool (older theories held that female alphas could become pregnant in stressful circumstances, but this is not true). No, it does not increase successful conception...

… factors which may give an evolutionary advantage. For example, multiple studies have shown that AO bonded pairs are faster and more accurate than non-bonded couples in cooperative tasks. As individuals, they also have increased scores on standardised testing and faster reaction times when in close proximity to each other, compared with couples of other designations or pairs of non-bonded alphas and omegas. The differences are not large, but they are consistent and may be a reason for the reputation of AO bonded fighting units...

Carl Zimmer, Human Evolution.

---

Fury coming to him with something to do was a relief. But he remembered what Father O’Donnell had said, and Steve measured his reaction to it. He still wanted everything to end, and suicide was still a sin, but he had promised to fight, and he was going to fight. Although he knew that he would be slower and less precise than he had been with Bucky at his side, he’d fought without Bucky when Bucky had been on longer-range scouting missions, and Steve was used enough to the difference to compensate. He was going to be Captain America, and he could wear the smile and wear the suit and be that person for as long as SHIELD needed him to be. He could grieve on his own time.

As soon as he stepped onto the helicarrier, he felt better. He had a purpose, something to do.

He couldn’t argue with Loki’s description of him as a ‘lost creature’. He still hadn’t found his footing in the new century, even though the basics of military action were familiar enough, and even though losing a soldier still hurt as badly as it always had.

Afterward, Tony had said to him, “You ready to think about going back on that legally dead thing?”

“Not legally—spiritually. And no.”

“Back me up here, guys; we should update our glorious leader on how things have changed. Your bondmate dies, it’s the same as when a beta’s partner dies. You grieve, you move on. You don’t sign up for some church suicide pact.”

“Why is this important to you?”

Bruce took his glasses off to look at Steve. “Because I got low enough to try and kill myself, and, even through all this, I’m glad I didn’t. I don’t want you to—“

“I’m not suicidal. That’s—that’s not the point.” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He wasn’t sure that he could explain it well enough, but he’d fought through a city with these people, and he owed it to them to try. And they cared enough to ask, to try and talk him out of what they thought he was going to do. “It’s not a suicide pact. It’s a promise to fight. A promise to keep going for something worthwhile, even though half your soul is gone and you’re as good as dead. It’s the opposite of a suicide pact.”

There was an uncomfortable silence. Any time bond rites came up, any time Bucky was mentioned, there ended up being uncomfortable silences.

Clint looked at him and said, “You believe the whole ‘AOs have one soul’ thing?”

“I don’t believe it; I know it.”

There would have been another uncomfortable silence if Tony hadn’t turned to Thor and asked, “You don’t have alphas and omegas on Asgard, do you?”

“No, and it is fascinating. I do not understand how you manage to mate when it is all so complicated.”

“Not complicated at all. You get close to anyone, you can smell their assignation. Unless, like our soldier and our agents, you’re dosed to the eyeballs on suppressants.”

“And,” said Natasha pointedly, “gender and assignation don’t actually matter. You fall for who you fall for, you fuck who you want to.”

“Language, Natasha; there is a delicate pensioner present.”

Steve sighed and said, “Swearing was invented before the war, Tony. As were A-A and O-O and same-gender beta relationships, even if the law didn’t take too kindly to them.”

He wondered if Natasha and Clint were in an infertile relationship (what was the modern term he was supposed to use? Gay? Something like that). On suppressants there was no way to tell, and he wasn’t even sure if they were in a relationship at all. Steve thought that Natasha would be just as vehement in her defence if they weren’t.

“You’re going to burst all my bubbles and tell me that there was pre-marital sex as well.”

Steve knew that Tony was joking, so he just raised an eyebrow and looked at him.

Tony put a hand to his chest and said, “Are you all scandalised? I’m scandalised.”

The orphanage had done its best, segregating them as soon as they differentiated at puberty, having what amounted to a lockdown for any alpha or omega in heat. And there were many long fire-and-brimstone lectures from the priests about the sinfulness of giving in to base animal urges. The lockdown, however, didn’t account for anyone as small and flexible as Steve, or for anyone as big and strong as Bucky.

Steve hit puberty and differentiated late, so even though Bucky was younger, he’d been moved to the alpha wing long before Steve even had a hint that he was an omega. Steve’s first proper heat had hit in the middle of summer, and he was lying alone in one of the isolation rooms with the windows wide open, just about succeeding in being a good Catholic boy and not touching himself, when he’d heard a quiet cough from the window. He’d nearly fallen out of bed at that, because the isolation room was three floors up.

Bucky had been holding on to the bars that covered the outside of the window, far too nonchalantly for someone balanced so precariously over a twenty foot drop. “You doing okay, Stevie?”

Steve had tried for nonchalant as well. “Fine, just kinda bored.”

Bucky had chuckled and reached through the bars to take Steve’s hand. He’d pulled Steve’s arm through them, then licked a stripe across the scent gland at Steve’s wrist. It was so sensitive that he’d had to bite down on his other hand to stop himself from making any noise. He’d never even kissed anyone, let alone shared his scent with them. Bucky had said, “I’ll look after you,” and then he’d mouthed and sucked at his wrist until Steve came, pressed against the bars of the window, trying to get as close to Bucky as possible. Bucky had kissed his hand like the hero in every movie they saw, said, “G’night,” and climbed back down the wall again.

They hadn’t talked about it—hadn’t talked about the fact what Bucky had done meant that their next heats would most likely sync—until Bucky had pulled Steve aside in the dining room, said, “It’s coming. Tomorrow night. Break out and meet me at midnight at the old McBurney’s warehouse.”

Bucky’s heats had always been stronger, so of course he’d had more warning that there was one coming. Steve had wormed his way out through a disintegrating part of the wall and left the orphanage unnoticed. Bucky had been waiting for him at the warehouse, holding a lamp he’d “borrowed”. They’d broken in the way they always did, and Bucky had led him up to the manager’s office, empty and dust-covered. He’d wedged a disintegrating chair under the door handle and had kissed Steve, almost sweeping him off his feet in the process.

“I want you. All of you. Forever, Steve. But not if that’s not what you want.”

“Are you sure? There’s gotta be hundreds of omegas who’d melt for you, Buck—“

“You’re the one I want.”

He hadn’t thought at all, didn’t need to think before answering, “Yes. But only if you got—“

Bucky had grinned, fishing the condoms out of his pocket. “Be prepared.”

It had been rough and rushed, uncomfortable across a dusty abandoned desk. At least Bucky had thought to buy lube as well (Steve would have gone to the druggist himself, but most wouldn’t sell contraceptives to unmarried omegas or female betas); otherwise he wasn’t sure they would have managed it. But all the feelings—the first time he’d had anyone else’s hand on his dick, the first time he’d been screwed, first time he’d been knotted, and on top of that the rush of a bonding—he’d felt almost swept away. It was only the bond itself that kept him grounded, feeling like his heart was beating stronger and his breathing was more free, because Steve was so linked with Bucky.

It had also been monumentally stupid. Never mind the fact that he could have gotten pregnant (it was rare to get pregnant when you first bonded, and they had been careful, but it certainly wasn’t impossible), bonding for life before you were sixteen was just dumb. The AO bond was a one-time thing, something that you only got into after a lot of thought, and definitely only after you were married. You could get divorced, but especially back then, everyone had looked on divorced AOs as… broken, somehow. And usually blamed the omega, whomever’s fault it had actually been. Even if you did divorce, you could never have that bond with anyone else. That awareness, that sync, would be out of your reach forever. That it had all worked out was a testament to how much dumb luck Steve’s life had run on.

They’d slunk back to the orphanage afterwards, washed off the scent of each other, and pretended to everyone else that nothing had happened while simultaneously looking for every opportunity to get enough privacy for them to get their hands on each other. When they were kicked out of the orphanage, they’d ended up living in separate wings of the YMCA, meeting up for desperate, furtive sex whenever they could, in alleys and abandoned buildings.

Bucky hadn’t actually proposed to him, and he didn’t remember even having a conversation about it. They’d just arranged the wedding for as soon past Bucky’s eighteenth birthday as possible. In hindsight, the priest must have guessed that they’d already bonded, from the way he didn’t try and dissuade them from marrying so young, but he did talk a lot about the importance of a full confession before a marriage.

He must have zoned out a little thinking about all that, because Tony said, “Okay, that? That is the smile of someone who had a lot of pre-marital sex—“

Clint said, “Because you’re a moral authority.”

“No one has ever held me up as the model of church-going all-American virtue.”

“I’ve always tried to be a good man,” said Steve, “but I never claimed to be a model of virtue.”

Tony rolled his eyes. “No, you don’t have to because everyone else already does that for you.”

“That’s…not who I am.”

“Oh, I’m getting that, Captain Sex Olympics. How many of those chorus girls did you get to keep you warm on tour?”

Steve just shook his head and didn’t answer. He could actually do this. He could deal with Tony Stark in full flow, he could lead a team, he could still fight (slower than with Bucky, but well enough). He was useful. He was doing what he had promised to do. He almost felt alive. Almost.

He could function, and he could make good on his promise to fight for God. And Bucky.

---

…long observed that bonded AOs with severe dementia were able retain the ability to recognise their partner, whereas unbonded partners with similar levels of cognitive decline could not. However, it was only in the 1980s that the key role of scent in this process was uncovered…

…it is not just recognition of their partner that is increased when bonded AOs are exposed to the scent of their partner, but all recollection. A large study of people with mild to moderate dementia found that for bonded AOs, recollection from both short- and long-term memories was significantly improved when they were exposed to their partners’ scents. Other pleasant scents, or scents of other As or Os, had no effect. The partner did not have to be present, only their scent. Heat scent seems to have an even greater effect, but relatively few individuals with dementia have a partner young enough to still experience heats, so this is not as well-studied…

- Scientific American, Scent and Mind: How smell may be the key to understanding dementia.

---

While he could fight, Steve was less good at dealing with there being nothing to do.

He didn’t fully trust SHIELD. He’d seen the way that Fury was prepared to lie to them, but at the same time, Steve knew that Fury was the one who had tried to countermand the order to bomb New York. And with his skills, it was either them or the Army. He honestly thought he’d be of more use to the world with SHIELD, so he signed up and officially became a SHIELD agent. He’d never just blindly followed orders anyway, and Steve wasn’t about to start now.

It turned out that when there wasn’t an imminent crisis, SHIELD seemed mostly to consist of paperwork. Sure, he’d had paperwork during the war, and he’d dutifully filled in all of it (all of it that had a point and couldn’t be delegated to Bucky or another member of the Commandos, anyway). But there seemed to be a form for literally every circumstance. Like CS7945, in which he had to choose who had power of attorney in the event of him being mind-controlled. He didn’t have many acquaintances, let alone friends, so there wasn’t an obvious choice. In the end, he picked Bruce—who was not part of SHIELD or their agenda, and who seemed basically trustworthy and goodhearted.

He lost track of how many similar forms he filled in, how much testing he went through. The psychological testing included how resistant he was to various forms of manipulation and control, which apparently he passed with flying colors, but they left him cold and shaking. The physical testing was more familiar, as they were obviously comparing his results now with the tests that Howard Stark had run.

“I’m sorry, but I have to ask this, Captain, because we need to know for reference. How many of the tests that were run on you in 1943 were your husband present for?”

He’d smiled; the scientist was only doing her job and seemed genuinely apologetic. “All of them.”

Oh, he’d been there, smirking, making unhelpful comments, or just plainly flirting and ogling. Howard had tried to throw him out, but Bucky had said, voice dripping with innuendo, “But we’re bonded, how can you expect to get any idea ‘bout his performance without me here?” Howard had just thrown his hands up in the air and given up after that.

The SHIELD scientist nodded. “That would account for the average 0.47% poorer test scores across the board. Which means there are no apparent ill effects from being frozen.”

He considered telling her that the impairment was probably slightly greater because Bucky had been very distracting, but Steve ultimately decided against it. He could mention Bucky without tearing up, but actually talking about him—that was completely unpredictable. Steve could end up laughing about something he remembered one minute, then be in floods of tears the next. So far, the only person he trusted to see that was Father O’Donnell, and even then he’d rather not make a habit of it.

So he spent a nine to five at SHIELD, politely cooperating, then went home to an empty apartment. He vaguely felt that he should be getting out, doing something social, but the one time he’d tried just going out to a local bar, he’d felt even more alone surrounded by people talking, laughing, enjoying themselves. Steve stayed home after that. The nearest he got to being social was when he was made to go out to some public relations event. That, at least, was familiar. It was all a lot more polished than what he’d done before, but the principle was the same: appear the way the publicity guys wanted him to appear, smile, don’t go off the script. He hated it now just as much as he had back then.

One of the administrators at SHIELD had, while going through yet more interminable forms with him, told him about internet radio, about how to find radio plays online. Steve listened to those a lot; they were more comforting and familiar than television. A radio had been the first thing that he and Bucky had splurged on after they married, and even though it had taken them months to save up for it, it had been worth every penny. Curling up on the couch with Bucky, letting his eyes drift closed as the radio transported him to different times and places, had been one of Steve’s favourite things to do. Now he felt antsy, needing to be doing something as he listened, usually either chores or drawing.

He still had Peggy’s file on his table. The only other one left. He could call her. She—they’d been good friends. Someone who understood him. After the procedure, after Erskine died, after he’d been told that he was officially alpha and would have to act it and take suppressants, and while he was still reeling from what had happened, she’d come to talk to him.

“You can do this, Steve. You can walk the walk.”

“I don’t know—“

“What’s my assignation?”

“What?”

“Answer the question.”

It was an odd question. Her lack of scent meant she was on suppressants, so she had to be alpha or omega, and everything about her screamed alpha. “You—you’re alpha.”

She smiled and leaned to whisper, “Beta.”

He was shocked, and it must have shown. She continued. “In intelligence, alphas are the leaders; omegas are the wily ones who get the information. Betas are…nothing.”

“You’re not nothing—“

“I know I’m not. But I appear as I have to appear. Do you understand?”

“Yeah. I do. I wish I was coming with you—“

“I don’t believe in wishing. I believe in doing.”

He could probably do with a Peggy Carter “get yourself together” talk. But the time she’d lived—he’d known her for a couple of years, and she’d lived seventy since then. That felt insurmountable.

He’d picked the phone up a couple of times, thumb hovering over the keys, but Steve couldn’t do it. Couldn’t make the call.

Although his grief was still ever present, now Steve mainly felt…bored. Just like in the war, when they had to wait for weather to clear or a transport to be ready. But there was none of Dum Dum’s terrible jokes, none of Monty and Gabe trying to out-erudite each other, none of Morita’s attempts to turn everything into an innuendo. Just the boredom. He tried to keep himself occupied, anything from the gym to reading about the history he’d missed, but somehow the boredom ate into everything.

So it was a relief again when he was called in for a mission briefing.

And then…it wasn’t. Because Hydra was back—had been back for a long time. He kept neutral, but it felt like a kick in the stomach. He thought he’d taken them down, just left a little mopping up for the SSR, and the world was basically rid of them. But the remnants of Hydra had maintained their fanaticism, and Zola had been broken out of US custody in 1946. From there he had slowly rebuilt the organisation. It had neither the reach nor the power it had when Schmidt had been in charge, but was still a danger.

Hydra also had a long memory and a taste for vengeance. They had obtained the services of the Winter Soldier (the name meant nothing to Steve—they’d had to tell him that he was probably the most feared assassin operating in the world today) and were going to use him to kill Captain America.

SHIELD knew all this because Hydra told them—via a letter dropped on top of the dismembered remains of three SHIELD agents in Skopje, politely informing them that the Winter Soldier, acting on the orders of Hydra, had killed the agents, and the Winter Soldier was going to kill Captain America some time in the next four months.

Fury, Natasha, and five other agents, specialists on either Hydra or the Winter Soldier, were giving the briefing to him.

“They want to frighten me.”

“Obviously,” said Natasha. “The Winter Soldier is an excellent sniper. With your reflexes a kill wouldn’t have been a certainty, but I would have expected the first we knew about this to be him trying a headshot on you as you left your apartment. They want to play with you, and they want revenge. That makes them sloppier than they could be, which works to our advantage. It will also be annoying the Winter Soldier, which again could be an advantage. He’s efficient. Toying with people is not his style.”

“You know him.”

“We were both…projects of Department X. He trained me. We worked together. We had a relationship.” Her tone of voice told Steve that asking any more questions about that would not go down well. Natasha continued, “But I was never told much about him. They called him Yasha or the American. He had no memories of his life before Department X. He was kept in cryostasis between missions, so while he looks like he’s maybe thirty, he could have been born as long ago as you. Or longer. The important things to know are that he seems to have some enhancements similar to the serum, the mechanical arm is probably at least as strong as you and almost as fast, and that he has never, ever failed to eliminate a target once given the orders to do so.”

“Why’s he working for Hydra?”

“When General Lukin went rogue from Department X, the Winter Soldier was one of the assets he took with him. Our best guess is that Lukin wants something from Hydra, and this is the payment.”

“You said he was American—“

“They called him the American. He could be American, or it just amused them to call him that.”

“So what do we do?”

Fury spoke this time. “We don’t want to lose you, Captain. But this is about more than you. Hydra and Lukin together are bad news. We want to find out what their play is and stop it.”

“So I’m bait.”

Natasha said, “You’re an active and useful part of this operation.” She quirked a smile. “And bait.”

“Do we have any pictures of this guy?”

“None. He’s very effectively avoided any attempts to get one. I can describe him, but around five-eleven, brown hair, and blue eyes doesn’t exactly narrow the field.” She smiled again. “The metal left arm with the red star is a little distinctive, but it’s usually covered.”

Fury dismissed the five other agents, leaving just Natasha. “There is one other factor, Captain. From what Agent Romanov has told us, the Winter Soldier is an alpha—on suppressants, of course. In extremis, it may be necessary to…get his attention. Agent Romanov has been advised of your assignation. No other members of the operation will be told.”

“What do you mean by getting his attention, sir?” Steve knew damn well what he meant. It meant going into heat to draw the Winter Soldier to him. Even though people weren’t ruled by their impulses, especially if they were on suppressants, an omega in heat was an attractive smell. So the plan if everything went to hell was to artificially trigger a heat and seduce the Winter Soldier. Not quite what he’d envisaged by fighting, but if screwing the Winter Soldier helped them stop Hydra, he’d do it. Hydra was unfinished business as far as Steve was concerned.

“I meant exactly what I said, Captain. I expect my agents to fulfil their mission objectives—by whatever means necessary. The other assigned agents are not as qualified as you in this area.”

“But if he finds out I’m an omega, then other people will find out—“

“Which is why I said in extremis, Captain. When there are no other options. Otherwise, your standing orders remain.”

As they stood up to leave, Natasha came over to him and said, “I don’t like people to know my assignation, but I think we should be even. I’m beta.”

He’d had her pegged as an omega, all wiles and cunning. Steve knew that he of all people should have known not to stereotype, not to assume, but he still did. “Thank you. I…Bucky was an alpha. We really were married. Properly. Legally. I mean, I know, two omegas can now, but not then.”

“That’s important to you.” A statement, not a question.

“Kinda obvious?”

She smiled. “We’re going to have to work on your tells, Steve. If you worry your wedding ring much more, your finger may drop off.”

He dropped his hands to his sides and clenched his fists automatically.

She said, “You’re pretty good, most of the time. Just…certain subjects. Emotive ones. I think I can work with that. Any unexpected emotive subjects I should know about?”

Steve smiled. “Only the Dodgers moving to LA.”

“I will happily change the subject if baseball is ever mentioned.”

---

… potentially any day you have vaginal contact with semen or ovipositium (if you’re a female beta or female omega) or any day you have anal contact with sperm or ovipositum (if you’re an omega of either gender), you can get pregnant. There are times in a fertility cycle when a person is most likely to become pregnant. There is no one safe or one fertile time for everyone…

- Can I get pregnant if I’m an unbonded omega?
You can get pregnant any time after around a week before your first heat. Heats can occur outside their normal cycle, and many omegas experience occasional “silent heats”, where they are in heat but do not have changes in scent or lubrication. This all means an unbonded omega can get pregnant having anal (or, if female, vaginal) intercourse with an alpha or male beta at any time. Bonding also increases fertility, but it’s not necessary for an omega to become pregnant…

Scarleteen, Pregnancy Basics

---
He’d thought that because the SHIELD agents had died in Skopje they’d be heading to Macedonia, but instead they were on their way to Berlin. There were leads about old KGB contacts in east Germany, and even older Hydra links in similar places. It wasn’t a lot, but it was all they had. He didn’t think it actually mattered; if the Winter Soldier was as good as they said he was, he’d find Steve wherever they were.

Steve’s German wasn’t too bad, though a little dated and strongly biased towards questions about the location of installations, but Natasha was fluent.

“I’ll do the talking. I’d tell you to stand around looking pretty and dumb so people underestimate you, but you do that anyway.”

He smiled. “I should have known it wouldn’t work on you.”

They were posing as a married couple, and the only good thing about that was that Steve could keep his wedding ring on. He was told to leave his dog tags off, so he bought a platinum chain for the smaller ring (they hadn’t said he couldn’t keep wearing it).

He really wasn’t sure about the etiquette for this sort of operation. Should he offer to sleep on the floor, or not offer because if someone came into the room, they should be in the same bed? He was also aware that worrying about etiquette when an assassin with a 100% hit rate was on your tail probably counted as denial.

At the hotel they checked into, the guy on the desk was heavily pregnant, and Steve felt his gut twist. He’d managed to avoid seeing many pregnant people since being in the 21st century, probably because he didn’t get out much. It was something he’d wanted so badly, and something he could now never have.

That first winter after they’d been married, he’d been so sick he’d ended up in the hospital. Steve remembered lying there in bed, so weak he could barely move, with Bucky holding his hand and so exhausted from the extra work he was taking to pay the medical bills that he’d flopped onto the bed next to Steve, almost asleep. The doctor had come on his rounds, seeming to Steve’s slightly fevered mind like an avenging angel. He had looked disapprovingly at the two of them wrapped around each other and barked some things at the nurses and students with him, then had spoken to Bucky.

“Mr. Barnes, I hope you realise that you can never impregnate your husband.”

Bucky had just looked at the doctor blankly, too tired to process what he was saying.

The doctor had sighed, and spoken slowly, as if he was talking to a small child. “He is weak, Mr. Barnes. If he becomes pregnant, he will most likely die. Do you understand?”

Steve had felt Bucky’s hand tighten around his own, and Bucky said, “Yeah.”

They’d been being careful anyway. There wasn’t enough money for Steve to miss any work, let alone have a third mouth to feed. But…he’d assumed, in the future, of course there’d be kids.

The doctor had walked away, loudly lecturing his students on “the importance of breeding stock when choosing a husband or wife.”

He remembered practically feeling the eyes of the other patients and visitors on the ward on him, staring at the omega who couldn’t give his alpha children.

His voice had been hoarse and cracked, and not just from being sick, when he said “Bucky, I’m sorry—“

“Shut up, Steve.” Bucky had closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. Then he’d taken a deep breath and looked at Steve. “You’n me both know there’s plenty kids who ain’t got parents.”

He never knew if that was something Bucky had thought about beforehand (Bucky couldn’t have been under any illusions about Steve’s health, even though Steve himself had blithely assumed that however sickly he was, he could still carry a child) or something that he’d come up with on the spot.

He must have smiled stupidly at Bucky, because Bucky had smiled stupidly back and said, “So, we go and adopt kids. How many?”

He hadn’t even needed to think about that. “Baseball team. So we’ve gotta pick the ones who look like they’ll be the best players.”

Bucky had grinned. “We’ll fill the Dodgers with Barneses.” He’d squeezed Steve’s hand again. “So you gotta hurry up and get better, ‘cause we need to start earning enough to feed a baseball team.”

When he’d been Captain America, he knew he was strong enough to carry a child, but there had been work to do. Things only he could do, things that were more important than having babies. He hadn’t talked about it with Bucky at all until they were sat around with the Howlies, just them in a back room of an RAF base, waiting on transport. Steve had been looking over maps again, checking and re-checking, Bucky quiet at his side, while the Howlies had another one of their “after the war” conversations.

Falsworth had said, “We haven’t heard our illustrious captain and husband’s plans yet.”

He’d looked up, and then at Bucky, who’d smiled at him and replied, “A proper house, with a porch and a garden. With our own bathroom, not shared with all the assholes on our floor. White picket fence and kids playing in the garden.”

Steve’s heart had bloomed, because even though they’d not talked about it, that was exactly what he wanted. “Sounds good to me.”

Of course, the Howlies had been in prison with Bucky off suppressants and knew their proper assignations; they’d been subject to the same dire warnings about the consequences about letting anyone else know. Since the world still believed Captain America was an alpha, none of them had said anything after the war either. Steve wondered now if that had been loyalty, or if the threats were the same afterwards.

Gabe had answered, “You’re not making a start on kids and depriving us of our captain before we’re done with Hydra.”

Bucky had grinned as he said, “Nah, but soon as we finish with Hydra, we’re starting. Someone promised me a baseball team, and you gotta get a head start on that.” He’d batted his eyelashes at Steve and said, “So you’d better hope the last Hydra base we take out has a comfortable bed in it somewhere, sweetheart.”

Back in the present, Natasha flicked his ring finger and raised an eyebrow at him. Steve was worrying his wedding ring again. He gave an apologetic look. He was trying, but sometimes things just caught him completely unexpectedly.

As soon as they got to their room, Natasha said, “My side of the bed is the side by the door.”

Steve blushed. “I, er, that is, when I sleep, sometimes—“

“You wrap yourself around the other person in the bed like they’re your teddy bear.”

“How did you—“

“It’s in your file.”

It took Steve far too long to work out that she was messing with him. “No, really—“

“What else could it be? Sleepwalking or talking in your sleep, and you wouldn’t have blushed.”

He did wrap himself round Natasha in his sleep, but her shape was obviously different enough for his half-asleep brain to register and not try anything as he woke up, for which he was eternally grateful. He disentangled himself apologetically.

Natasha rolled over and said, “I read that you ran at a higher baseline temperature, but I hadn’t appreciated it before now. I’m going to put you down as my preferred partner for cold-weather missions.”

“You don’t mind being a teddy bear?”

I am not your teddy bear. You are my hot water bottle.”

“Understood. Ma’am.”

They spent the day following up with contacts, finding some and failing to find others. It wasn’t terribly productive. The rumor mill was very active, everyone seeming to want to tell them that the Winter Soldier was active again, with wild reports of his location and activities. There was less about Hydra or Lukin, which was what they really wanted to know.

They came back to their hotel late at night. Steve was about to put the key into the lock to their room when Natasha put her hand on his and gave him a look as she drew her gun. He had no idea what she’d picked up on, but he trusted her instincts. Steve drew his own gun and switched to unlocking the door with his left hand.

The light was on in the room, and there were two people in the bed.

Two bodies in the bed.

He checked the rest of the room and the bathroom, but Steve knew there would be no one there, because the two bodies, a man and a woman, were posed in the exact position he and Natasha had woken up in that morning. An unwritten message: I watched you sleep, and I could have killed you before you woke.

Natasha looked angry. “SHIELD analysts said it would take him at least twenty four hours to find us. I should never trust them over my instincts. We sleep in shifts from now on.”

Steve nodded. “Are they—?”

“Two of our contacts? Yes.” She paused for a moment, thinking. “He’s good. Very good. But is he this good?”

Steve understood the implication—there could be a leak at SHIELD. “So what’s our play?”

She looked at him critically. “I could be the leak.”

“I don’t think you are. And I’m much better at being a soldier than a spy, so if you are, I’m pretty much sunk, so I’ll assume you’re trustworthy.”

“That sort of thinking can get you killed.”

“He could have me in his sights and be about to pull the trigger, Natasha. I don’t see that I have a lot to lose by trusting you.”

“Let’s go for a walk. And find another hotel.”

They didn’t talk as they walked. Natasha was obviously thinking, planning. This wasn’t his sort of strategizing, but he understood the principle; they had to feed something to SHIELD to flush out the mole, while still going forward looking for Hydra and Lukin. He didn’t factor in the Winter Soldier. From the descriptions and now those bodies, he felt more like a force of nature than a man. Either he was fated to die at his hands, or he wasn’t, and there wasn’t much he could do about that.

---

… considered that AOs were two halves of one whole, and that a bondmate could only normally kill their bonded if they then killed themselves, as an extension of suicide. If a bondmate killed their bonded and did not kill themselves, it was assumed that this meant they were insane…

… case that changed this conception was in 1874, when David Montgomery, the husband and bondmate of a wealthy heiress, killed her by slow poisoning with arsenic. Montgomery was by all accounts a rake and a gambler…

…the premeditated, cold and calculated nature of the killing was shocking. Lawyers, judges, even ministers of religion came together to debate the matter. Montgomery was examined by numerous doctors. Witnesses were called to confirm that the couple were bonded. Finally, the lawyers and doctors came to a conclusion: a sane bondmate had killed his bonded…

Anne Page, Killing Half Your Soul: A History of Bondmate Murder.

---

The next week was frustrating, chasing down dead ends across Germany and Poland, and although he was sure that Natasha was planting something for the possible leak at SHIELD, she didn’t tell him what. He didn’t ask. She had good reason not to tell the guy who couldn’t even stop the most basic of tells. While there were no more messages from the Winter Soldier, Steve spent the whole time with the unpleasant sensation that he was being watched.

They were in Vienna, and there was a contact Natasha wanted to go and see on her own, someone who would likely be more talkative if it was just her there.

“Be careful, Steve. You’re on your own—“

He ignored her. “I’m going to take the morning off, go to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Text me when you’re done.”

He could have happily stayed there all day, but he got the text from Natasha just before lunch, telling him to meet her across town.

He had just turned down a quiet side street when the Winter Soldier jumped him. Steve’s combat reflexes were excellent, and he’d deflected the blow from the Soldier’s left arm, felt the metal under the jacket, and aimed a punch of his own before he registered who he was fighting. Long hair, mask covering most of his face, jacket and glove covering the metal arm. It was a messy fight with no clear advantages. Aside from the arm, Steve was stronger and more able to take blows, but the Soldier was fast and more devious.

They were locked together, and Steve grabbed for the Soldier’s hair, but the Soldier twisted away, so Steve ended up yanking his mask off.

And Steve froze, because he’d know that face anywhere—knew it almost better than his own. “Bucky?”

The Soldier had stopped too, looking almost curious at his reaction. “Who the hell is Bucky?”

The accent was off, slightly, with a touch of the Slavic to it, but the voice was familiar enough to cement his certainty.

“You are.”

“You know who I am. You got my note.”

“You’re the Winter Soldier. And you’re Bucky Rogers.” He released his hold on Bucky, and after a moment, Bucky released his hold as well and took a step back, refastening his mask as he did so.

“And you are a strange man, Captain. My orders are not to kill you today, just to say hello. I consider them fulfilled. Goodbye. For now.”

“Bucky—“

But he had already run around the corner, and by the time Steve followed, he couldn’t see where he had gone at all.

The American. As old as Steve was. Dark hair, blue eyes, a sniper. It seemed so obvious now, but he thought— he knew Bucky was dead.

He leant against the wall, looked up, and bit his lip to stop the tears from coming. Bucky was alive. But he didn’t remember who Steve was.

He’d failed him.

He hadn’t looked for Bucky, because they were miles behind enemy lines, and the fall wasn’t survivable.

He hadn’t looked for Bucky, because he’d thought that all he’d be looking for was a body, and he wasn’t prepared to risk the rest of the Commandos for that.

He hadn’t looked for Bucky, and all the reasons in the world didn’t change the fact that it had been the wrong decision.

Bucky had orders to kill him and a flawless kill record.

Perhaps that was all he deserved—a bullet in the head.

The only problem with that was that then he definitely couldn’t save Bucky. He might be seventy years too late, but he still had to try.

Steve didn’t know how long he took to compose himself, but eventually he pushed himself off the wall and went to meet Natasha. Every step of the way he wondered if Bucky was watching him, wondered what he was thinking.

Steve didn’t look too bad, Bucky hadn’t managed to connect any of his really good swings, but he was ruffled enough for Natasha to raise an eyebrow when he met her. She took his arm and they walked together, he knew to better avoid audio surveillance.

“I met the Winter Soldier. And I have a picture of him.”

He reached into his pocket and took out a picture of Bucky. The original, taken when Bucky had finished Basic, hadn’t survived the ice, but he’d left a copy in his kit, which had been donated to a museum. This was a modern copy, still shiny and only slightly dog-eared around the edges.

Natasha looked at him. “Where did you get this?”

“That’s him, isn’t it?”

“Yes. Where did you get it?”

“That’s Bucky.” He was proud of how even his voice sounded, not even a waver. He took another picture out of his pocket, the one of them at their second wedding, and passed it over to her.

She looked at it, then up at Steve. “Did he recognise you?”

“No.”

“Hmm.” She gave the pictures back. “Yasha was…unstable. The longer they kept him out of cryostasis, the more unpredictable he became. The more likely he was to question orders, or go off mission completely.”

“He was remembering.”

“That’s the optimistic interpretation. Department X wasn’t known for their safety procedures, and there were things they tested on him that were very experimental. You have to be prepared that there’s nothing left of the man you married. Instability could be just that—instability. Steve, I think it’s as likely—more likely—that his unpredictability was a psychosis emerging than him remembering who he was.”

“But he could be remembering—“

“It’s possible. What is definite is that he has killed five people so far just to prove a point. Does that sound like he’s remembering?”

Steve sighed. “No.”

“Tell me about him. If he doesn’t remember, it’s not all that useful intel, but we’re short on breaks at the moment.”

He told her, keeping to the facts like any other briefing and omitting certain details so it became “we were bonded before we were married” instead of “we were a pair of stupid assholes who bonded before we even got kicked out of the orphanage.” Natasha listened and nodded occasionally.

He didn’t cry. It was a briefing, and he didn’t cry at briefings.

When he was finished, Natasha said, “I suspect that Zola remembers the face of that particular experimental subject quite well.”

Steve went cold. He hadn’t thought of that. If Zola knew, then—“It was deliberate. They want me to know who’s going to kill me.”

“Lukin probably knows as well, but I can’t be certain. The most important information was never written down, and if the people who knew were purged, then that information was lost too. Either way, Zola has two possible plays: either he’s confident that there’s nothing left of Bucky, and the Winter Soldier will do his job, or he has a contingency plan for killing you. Or…Hydra and Lukin are not exactly natural allies. The contingency could be to kill both of you.”

Steve knew he wasn’t hiding his reactions well enough, knew there was probably some Hydra goon out there, recording all this, broadcasting his misery back to Zola. But he couldn’t help it.

Natasha at least was still focussed on business. “Do you know what Hydra did to him in 1943?”

“I never asked. I guess the SSR did; he was in debriefings for long enough. It’s probably still in a file somewhere.”

“There could be a weakness in there. Usually I’d ask SHIELD for the records, but right now I’m not sure we want to share the Winter Soldier’s identity.”

“I want to bring him in alive. I want to try—“

“You want to save him, because that’s what you do.” She looked him straight in the eye. “Sometimes the only way you can save someone is to give them a clean death.”

He swallowed, and thought about what he would want in the same circumstances. If someone had turned him into a weapon, if there was no way out, no way to become himself again, Steve would want someone to kill the person he’d become. But they weren’t there yet. He had to believe that Bucky was still in there somewhere. Because he couldn’t watch him die again.

She said, “I don’t want that either. I owe him. He protected me. Showed me there could be good in people, even while we were doing Department X’s dirty work. I hope you’re right, that we can get him back. But I think you’re wrong.”

He didn’t say anything to Natasha, but Steve didn’t take his suppressants that night. While he was on watch, he reviewed everything about the Winter Soldier, trying to find anything that showed Bucky might still be in there. He didn’t find much other than endless lists of confirmed and suspected kills. Just one thing offered a little hope; in the 1970s, the Winter Soldier had gone off the map in the USA and had finally been traced in New York. It could have been memories. He also could have ended up there for any number of other reasons. Either way, it was far too fragile a thread to hang any optimism on.

But he was going to try, and the first thing Steve was going to do was to be direct; it wasn’t like he had anything to lose. He took out the writing paper the hotel had left in the desk, and wrote a note to Bucky—to the Winter Soldier—telling him that he was Bucky Rogers, giving him the basics of Bucky’s life (nothing confidential, nothing that couldn’t already be found on the internet, in case Steve ever needed to confirm that Bucky had remembered). He put the wedding photo in the envelope with the note. He had other copies of the photo at home, and even if he didn’t, it was easy to find on the internet. He neatly wrote “For the Winter Soldier” on the envelope, opened the window, and jammed it securely in the ironwork surrounding it, the address facing outwards.

Perhaps Bucky wasn’t watching tonight. Perhaps one of his handlers would find it first. Perhaps a storm or a bird would take it away. But Steve had to try.

When Natasha woke to switch watches, she looked at him, then took a deep breath through her nose.

“You clear suppressants fast.”

“I clear everything fast.”

“I don’t think it will work. Either to get him to remember or to stop him killing you.”

“I think anything is worth trying.”

“None of this is going to SHIELD until we know who we can trust. But it may go in my final report. So you know.”

“I really don’t give a damn what SHIELD thinks.”

She smiled at that.

It probably didn’t matter that he smelled omega as long as he and Natasha were together. Assumptions went a long way. As a couple they gave off the impression that he was an alpha and she was an omega, so if people smelled omega they’d think it was Natasha, not him.

He knew the power of those assumptions. When he and Bucky had finally walked into the medical tent after rescuing Bucky from the Hydra base, only barely starting to come down from their heat, none of the doctors and nurses had noticed that it was Steve who was the omega, not Bucky. It should have made Bucky have to suppress a laugh. It hadn’t. Instead, at the first glimpse of medical instruments neatly laid out on one of the folding tables he’d gone rigid, wide-eyed and breathing fast. Steve had put his arm around Bucky’s waist, pulled him close, and promised him, swore to him that he would never, ever let anything like that happen to him again. Though Bucky hadn’t relaxed, he’d let the doctors examine him, obviously ready to run at any moment.

He’d promised Bucky, and he’d failed him in the worst way.

After he and Natasha talked to their first contact the next morning, who was quite forthcoming with information about Hydra cells, all of it unfortunately ten years out of date, Natasha said to Steve, “You smell good. Head-turningly good. Have you noticed?”

“No. I mean, people look at me more these days, but I hadn’t noticed a change from yesterday.”

“You really have no idea, do you?” She shrugged. “It’s useful if it gets people to open up to us, less useful if it gets us too much attention.”

He wasn’t even in heat. He hadn’t expected to go into a heat, as without the trigger of the smell of a bondmate, it was supposed to take a few months for heat cycles to reestablish themselves. Steve would guess that for him, that would mean a couple of weeks.

He wanted to believe that would make a difference, would wake something in Bucky. But deep down he was scared that Natasha was right, that there was nothing of Bucky left.

Steve spent the next four days feeling useless. He wanted to find Bucky, to do something, but they were still stuck chasing down information, trying to work out what was going on. They at least were getting clearer as to Lukin’s agenda; after years outside the state, he wanted to get back into Russian politics and was planning something big, something to oust the whole current regime and install himself. How Hydra fitted in there, they didn’t know.

But it was all vague, and Steve wasn’t exactly focussing on the background organisations. Not unless something emerged that might be the key to finding Bucky, to somehow getting him back.

There had been no sign of Bucky, no more threats, no more dead bodies, since they’d fought in that alley. Steve couldn’t shake the thought, what if they’ve already killed him?

---

… familiar with the story of Sleeping Beauty, where the Princess is wakened from her sleep by the scent of the Prince in heat. This in itself raises interesting issues of gender and assignation…

…a much older version of the tale of Sleeping Beauty. In this the Prince is again in heat, but this does not wake the Princess. The Prince rapes her and knots with her, bonds with her, none of these acts waking her. He then leaves her alone in the locked castle, even though they have bonded. The Princess only wakes when, nine months later, she gives birth, still sleeping, and her baby sucks on her finger, dislodging the poisoned thorn. In this version redemption and rescue come not from love, or lust, or even a bonding, but rather from procreation. The core value is, above all, fertility…

I. A. Kasprowicz, Gender, Assignation, and Sexuality in European Folklore.

---

It was the fifth night after he’d fought Bucky, and Steve was sat up in the tiny kitchen/living area of the apartment they were staying in, on watch, the door to the bedroom Natasha was sleeping in left open. He was drawing, but couldn’t settle to it, half-formed figures transforming into falling men.

“We need to talk.”

Steve went for his gun, saw it was Bucky standing by the window, and decided against it. It was almost impossible for anyone to sneak up on Steve since the serum, his hearing and general awareness hyperacute. He’d been warned that the W—that Bucky was very good at what he did, but he suspected it also showed that he was far too distracted.

Bucky was still dressed for combat, all in black, but he had left his mask off and his guns were still holstered. It looked like he really did want to talk.

Then Steve smelled him. It took time for scents to diffuse, but the breeze from the window carried it clearly. Bucky was off suppressants, and Steve wanted nothing more than to hug him, bury his nose above his collarbone, and drink in the scent he never thought he’d smell again. But Bucky’s face was blank, almost expressionless, and Steve knew he had to deal with him as the Winter Soldier.

He forced himself to be calm when he said, “What about?”

Natasha appeared in the doorway of the bedroom, gun held out, but she didn’t say anything.

Bucky acknowledged her with a nod, but didn’t draw his own weapon. He looked at Steve. “I think that Zola knows we were bonded. And that he doesn’t intend for either of us to live. I don’t like being double-crossed.”

Was Steve imagining it, or had the accent changed? Less Slavic, more like the Bucky he knew?

Natasha said, “And Lukin?”

“I don’t know.”

Steve had to ask, had to know. “Do you remember any of it? Before—before you were the Winter Soldier.”

“No. But I got your note. I thought it was worth coming off suppressants to figure out if we really were bonded.”

“Why should we trust you?” asked Natasha.

“Because we need to work together if we want to get out of this alive.”

Steve licked his lips and asked, “What if I don’t want to get out of this alive?”

He wanted to think that he hadn’t imagined the flicker of an expression across Bucky’s blank face. “What?”

“If you really don’t remember, if you can’t remember, then—I don’t care about getting out of this alive. I’ll do what I have to do to keep Natasha safe but—if Bucky really is gone then—no. I just about managed to get through losing you once. Not twice.”

There was a long silence before Bucky finally said, “It doesn’t matter what I remember, because the guy you wrote about is dead. The guy you wrote about didn’t kill the people I did. Didn’t do the things I’ve done.”

“What do you remember?”

“I said it didn’t matter.”

“It matters to me.”

“What matters is finishing up here, so we gotta focus on the present, not the past.”

That was when Steve knew for sure that Bucky was remembering, at least some. That “gotta” was pure Brooklyn, nothing like his speech pattern when they’d met in the alley.

And then he realised: Bucky was having trouble keeping it together and was desperately trying to not show any weakness.

Steve held out his arm, hand flexed, wrist towards Bucky—a gesture so clichéd of AOs that it was in every comedy routine about old bonded couples. “Bucky…it’s okay.”

Bucky was staring at his wrist, and his voice was cracked when he said, “No, it ain’t; it ain’t ever gonna be okay.”

He took a step backwards towards the window, and oh, Steve could not let him go now. “Bucky, please.”

Bucky paused. Steve didn’t stand up, guessing that Bucky would automatically run if he did, but left his wrist out. “Please. Bucky, c’mere.”

There was the longest pause, before Bucky slowly, hesitantly stepped forward until he took Steve’s hand. Steve pulled him in gently, until Bucky was sat on the couch, and pulled him close. Bucky sighed and pressed his face into Steve’s shoulder at the collarbone.

Steve rubbed his thumb over the back of Bucky’s neck and turned to look at Natasha. She hadn’t put her gun down and didn’t look like she was about to. She raised an eyebrow at him.

Steve looked down at Bucky. “Talk to me.”

“It’s all—it’s all breaking up. I don’t know who I am. I know—I know—I can’t hurt you, I gotta keep you safe, but I—“ Then suddenly Bucky’s metal hand was around Steve’s neck, pressing just hard enough to make it difficult to breathe, and Bucky was looking at him wildly. “I should kill you, tell ‘em I had to, then it all ends, it all goes back to being blank and I don’t remember nothing.”

Steve rasped out, “So do it. If that’s what you want.”

Bucky stared at him, not releasing his hold but slackening it very slightly. He’d either forgotten Natasha had a gun aimed at his head, or he didn’t care. “I want it to stop.”

“What do you want to stop?”

Bucky let go of his neck, and dropped back to having his face pressed into Steve’s neck. “Remembering. I want it to stop, ‘cause that guy hates who I am.”

Steve looked back at Natasha. She hadn’t dropped her guard, and he knew why. It still could be a double-cross, however much he wanted to think it wasn’t. Pretending to be conflicted would be much more convincing than pretending to have reverted entirely to the old Bucky. Bucky hadn’t actually said anything that confirmed he was remembering, and there had been enough in the letter Steve had written to come up with this (that they’d grown up together would give the accent, everything else so far had been vague).

Before he could say anything, Natasha said, “You could be tracked. Or bugged.”

Bucky didn’t move, but he mumbled, “Took out all the ones I could find at the start of the mission.”

Natasha nodded at Steve, who pulled his phone out of his pocket and activated the bug sweep. It came up clear, and he showed the readout to Natasha. It wasn’t foolproof, but it was all they had.

Steve said, softly, “I need to know. That this is for real. You really do remember.”

“I don’t—I only got parts—I—“ Bucky looked up at Steve and then closed his eyes, taking a deep breath before speaking. “I remember a warehouse, deserted, full of rotting linoleum. Running through it, chasing you, ‘cept you’re tiny and I gotta slow down ‘cause I want to let you think you can outrun me and I don’t want to start you on an asthma attack again, and you run through a door into an office and let me catch you, ‘gainst the desk, you’re laughing and I gotta kiss you.”

Steve had never been under any illusions back then that he could outrun Bucky. But the chase, the pretending…they’d barely been more than kids, and they’d acted like it.

He looked up and Natasha and nodded. She lowered her gun, but Steve would guess she didn’t fully trust Bucky, not yet.

Bucky was looking at her as well, and he said, “Natalia. I—I’m sorry.”

“What for?”

“I could—I should have tried to stop them, to get you out—you were so young—I should never have—you always were better than that.”

Natasha shrugged. “I don’t have much use for regrets. If you’d tried to get me out then, I’d probably have been killed. And,” she said pointedly, “you were right that we should be focussing on the present, not the past. You need to tell us what you know about what Hydra and Lukin are planning.”

“You know the drill, Natalia. Don’t tell the operatives anything they don’t need to know. I’ve got a phone, they call me or text me, tell me what to do next.”

“And I know you, Yasha. You know more than they’ve told you.”

Bucky blinked a couple of times, like he was trying to clear his head. “Lukin wants to be Putin. He was thinking about sending me to take him out, but then he realised there would be successors and he needed something that would make him seem weak. Make all of them seem weak. Which is where Hydra come in. They’ve got—I guess you’d call it the anti-serum. Doesn’t kill you, but drops your muscle mass, causes disfigurement. That’s the payment.”

Steve said, “So why not use that on me?”

Bucky shrugged. “Could be a lot of reasons. My guess is that Zola wants to fuck with you, then kill both of us. Wait to get us both where he wants us, then use it on both of us.”

“How is it administered?” asked Natasha.

“Ingested or injected.”

“When’s your next check-in?”

“Don’t have one. Keep surveillance on Captain America and wait for the call. Oh, and you got a leak.”

“Anything more than that?”

“I don’t have a name, but from what they fed me, they’re well-informed on the mission, but not decision-making. I’d guess an analyst. They’re with Hydra, not Lukin.”

Natasha nodded, and Steve would guess that Bucky was just confirming what she had already worked out.

“Anything else?”

“Lukin wants me to take you out as well.”

“He never did like rebellious children.” She paused, thinking. “Yasha, when did you last sleep?”

“’Bout thirty hours ago.”

“I’ll take watch, and think this through. Both of you, sleep.”

Bucky opened his mouth, obviously to object, but Natasha cut him off. “Look him in the eye, Yasha. He’d take a bullet for you. In his bed you’re as safe as you are anywhere. And last I checked, I owe you.”

Natasha left one lamp on in the living room, and that was the only light spilling through into the bedroom as they both undressed. Steve pulled his shirt over his head and was about to reach for the t-shirt in his bag when he realised Bucky was staring at the chain around his neck. Bucky took half a step forwards, arm raising as if to touch the ring, but then he seemed to stop himself. Bucky turned away, stripped quickly to his underwear, and slid into the bed. The side near the door, just like Natasha.

Steve thought Bucky was on the verge of cracking, keeping it together as long as he could maintain the Winter Soldier’s professionalism, but starting to go to pieces when he couldn’t. Whether Steve was helping or just making it worse, he had no idea.

They lay there on different sides of the bed, not talking for a few moments, before Steve turned on his side towards Bucky, sliding his hand slowly across to rest on Bucky’s waist. When that didn’t get him any objections, he moved them both to the position they’d always slept in after the serum, and Steve spooned around Bucky’s back.

Bucky said, very quietly, “It’s not the same. It can’t be the same. I’m—you know what I am.”

“I know. But I promised for better or for worse. I meant it.”

“Idiot.” It was said coldly, with no affection in it, but Bucky put his hand over Steve’s.

Steve wanted to kiss Bucky goodnight, just on the cheek, but he didn’t dare. Instead he closed his eyes, satisfied enough that Bucky was safe in his bed for tonight at least.

It was automatic. He woke up with his nose pressed into Bucky’s neck (still mainly asleep, registering the scent and not the longer hair), comfortable and warm and more than half-hard, so he slid his hand into Bucky’s shorts and wrapped it around his dick, lazily jerking him off. Steve was still half-dozing, even as he rubbed himself against Bucky’s ass at the same time. He came, messing up his shorts, and a couple of strokes later Bucky came too.

It was only when Bucky didn’t roll over and kiss him like he always did that reality came crashing in.

Bucky was lying perfectly still, awake, breathing evenly, but he gave no reaction.

Steve belatedly took his hand out of Bucky’s shorts and wiped it on the sheet. He spared a glance towards the open door where he could see Natasha, seemingly engrossed in reading something, but he knew she would know what he’d done. He whispered, “Sorry.”

“Don’t apologise.”

Bucky rolled out of bed and headed for the shower without looking at him.

Steve closed his eyes and rolled onto his back. He hadn’t—if Bucky had really not wanted that, he could have moved away. It still didn’t stop him feeling awful.

The three of them ate breakfast together (things that came in sealed packets, things bought from stores a good distance from the apartment, and things they wouldn’t usually buy, all trying to avoid any Hydra attempts to poison them).

Natasha said, “The anti-serum makes sense of some of the things we’ve been told about Hydra—some of the things they’ve been obtaining, rumours of a production facility in one of the Turkic republics.”

Steve asked, “Do we go after the production, then?”

Natasha nodded. “It’s most likely where Zola is.”

Bucky said, “He always did like to get hands-on.”

Steve’s hand twitched towards Bucky before he could stop himself.

“The question is,” said Natasha, “what do we do about the two of you?”

“I’m fine. Just give me a target.”

“You’re not. You’re dangerously off your game.” She nodded at Steve. “You too.” She sighed. “I’ve a personal safe house. SHIELD doesn’t know about it, and Lukin doesn’t know about it. We get the two of you there unnoticed, and I’ll go flush the mole, while you…sort yourselves out.”

“What if you’re just penning us up somewhere for Hydra to get us?”

“What do you think?”

Bucky put his head to one side. “You were gonna double-cross me, it’d be for a better price than Hydra can offer. But you might be playing them as part of a longer game. You’re asking for a lot of trust.”

“Do you have a better plan? Do you think you can make it on your own in the state you’re in?”

Bucky looked away.

“What if Hydra tries to make contact with him?”

“Give me the phone and a voice-print, and I’ll manage that.”

Steve trusted Natasha completely. Yes, it made him a terrible spy, but he was a soldier, and soldiers had to trust each other, had to fight for each other. He also trusted Bucky. He was sure that would get him some very stern lectures from SHIELD about mind control and deep programming, but he did. Bucky remembered, and it didn’t matter what had happened while he wasn’t himself.

Natasha’s safe house was a tiny apartment in a run-down block. They arrived late at night, swaying and staggering like the rest of the drunks on their way home, and no one spared them a second glance. The décor suggested that some old woman had just moved out, and Steve would guess that was the intent in case anyone broke in or got curious. They brought enough food that they wouldn’t have to leave for two weeks. Natasha told them not to contact her for at least a week and not to leave until they had contacted her.

After she left, they sat on the couch in uncomfortable silence.

Eventually, Bucky said, “It keeps coming back, flashes, disjointed. I’m still trying to fit it all together. And…I remember almost remembering. Just before they put me back into stasis, there were times I knew there was something almost there, something that was changing how I acted.” He ran a hand through his hair. “I can’t do this. I meant it when I said he hates me. Hates what I’ve done.”

“I don’t hate you.”

“Then you’re a bigger idiot than I remember. They not brief you before they send you out?”

“I know what you did when you didn’t remember. When you were trained to be a killer and nothing else. That doesn’t make me hate you.”

“Damn well should.”

“You remember when I punched you? When I was so out of it with a fever I thought you were some mugger?”

Bucky closed his eyes, looking like he was thinking. After a few moments, he said, “You didn’t even connect.”

“But—“

“Don’t. Don’t try and pretend you understand.”

“I wasn’t trying to say I understood. I was trying to say that it’s…it’s not you when it’s not you. That you shouldn’t take the blame for things that you did when you weren’t—“

“When I wasn’t me? But who the fuck am I?”

“You’ll remember—“

“I remember enough to know that I ain’t the idealistic moron who fucking volunteered to fight, and got fucking tortured and experimented on because of it. And now I remember, even though it’s not everything, I ain’t the Soldier either. I’ve lost the—the efficiency that’s him. Not much left when you take all that away.”

“So let yourself remember, and become someone new.”

Bucky looked at him, for the first time since they’d come into the apartment. “That’s not what you want. You want him back.”

“Doesn’t matter what I want. And what I want—what I always wanted—was for you to be happy.”

“Fucking sap.”

Steve smiled. “You should have remembered that, at least.”

Bucky reached out with his right hand and touched Steve’s wrist, rubbing small gentle circles on the inside, over the scent gland. It wasn’t as sensitive as it was when he was in heat, but the touch was still erotic. “It’s easier. When you’re there. Grounding. And I remember more.”

“That’s biology for you.”

Bucky slid closer on the couch, and Steve slid his arm around his back but didn’t pull him into a hug, instead leaving it for Bucky to choose whether or not to hug him. Bucky just sat there for several long minutes before almost falling into Steve.

Steve held him and said, “Tell me what you remember. I mean, if you want to—“

“Shut up and stop trying to be so damn nice, ‘cause I’m not stupid, I know you’re torn up worse than you’ll ever admit. You never say what you want, ‘less it’s something you think you’ve gotta make some moral stand on. You never even joined in with those dumb ‘after the war’ stories.”

Steve closed his eyes, tried to fight back the tears, and failed. He bit his lip to try and get some control and said, “Because I didn’t need to. You’d already said it.”

“Fuck. Jesus, Steve. I—And what do you get? Broken assassin in a shitty apartment in the ass-end of eastern Europe.”

The tears were flowing freely down his face now, and Steve didn’t even try and stop them. “Better than when I thought you were dead.”

“He is dead.”

“Not all of him. I’ll take that.”

Bucky took Steve’s left hand, and ran his fingers over his wedding ring. “Lost the arm, lost the ring.” He looked up at Steve, swiped away some of the tears with the thumb of his metal hand. “You’re Captain America. You could find someone else easy—“

“No. Just you. Always. If you don’t want that, then no one.”

Bucky stood up suddenly, walked a couple of paces away, and looked at the wall. He said quietly, “We were so dumb. All of it. What sort of idiot bonds that young? Marries that young? Enlists before being drafted?”

“I don’t regret any of those, Bucky. Do you?”

“I wish—but most of that coulda happened if I’d waited to be drafted. We’d not gotten together, you wouldn’t have to be here.”

“Even if you were my friend rather than my husband, I’d still be here.”

Bucky dropped his head so his forehead was resting on the wall. “You would, wouldn’t you?”

Bucky stood there for a long time, until Steve got up and gently pulled him away from the wall. Bucky didn’t resist.

“We should—they told me talking makes it better.”

“Does it?”

“A little.”

“What should I talk about? All the people I killed? Perhaps the ones I fucked, though there’s a helluva lot less of those. They messed with my head a lot, but I’m sure for most of the kills I can give you a name and method. Want to know how long it took each of them to die? Or—“

“Bucky.”

Bucky looked like he was on the verge of hysteria. “’Cause that’s all I’ve done for the last seventy years, or at least the parts where I wasn’t frozen. Killed people. Really fucking efficiently. Is talking gonna change that? And I’m remembering being the sort of guy who knew fucking right from wrong, and I’m damn sure 90% of what I did was wrong, and I can talk about that from now until next year and it ain’t gonna change a damn thing, and I think I’m going out of my mind, Steve, and talking ain’t stopping—“

Steve pulled Bucky into a hug as he dissolved into tears. “You did wrong when you didn’t know right from wrong. And—I know you’re gonna say it’s different, but it’s the same as anything. You confess, you make amends.”

Bucky mumbled wetly into Steve’s shirt, “Ain’t enough Hail Marys in the world for what I’ve done.”

“Then do what Natasha’s done. Do it for the good guys instead.”

“You seriously think that SHIELD are the good guys?”

“Least worst option for the world guys. And—we never quite followed orders when we thought of something better, did we?”

“You make it sound real simple.”

“It is simple. It’s hard. Like living up to the promises in the bond rites. It’s simple, but—“

Bucky pushed back out of the hug to look at him, eyes wide. “You took the rites. Fuck, Steve, I—fuck, you could have done something sensible like going out with Agent Carter; she always liked you—“

“I don’t regret it.”

“You don’t regret swearing to die?”

He sighed. “You never did concentrate in Sunday school, did you? I didn’t swear to die. I swore to fight. To carry on, even though I was torn apart. That’s what I meant. Simple, but hard.”

Bucky slumped back against Steve’s chest. “You always were the tough one.”

“I always thought you were the tough one. Still think you are.”

They slept curled together again that night. Steve managed to keep his hands off Bucky in the morning, still not sure what Bucky wanted.

He was fairly certain he was less than forty-eight hours from going into heat, but if scent was one of the things that was keeping Bucky reassured and remembering, then he wasn’t going to go back on suppressants. If…if anything happened, he had condoms in his bag, since he’d had to be prepared to seduce the Winter Soldier.

Funny how things turned out.

Or not funny at all, given the tension and gloom that surrounded Bucky.

They ate breakfast in silence, cleared up in silence, then sat together on the couch again.

Bucky started talking, at first hesitantly and blankly, then faster and faster, a rush to get everything in the open, to confess every kill, every person he’d even injured. It was breathless and Bucky seemed to be almost out of control, words spilling from his mouth like he couldn’t stop. After the first couple of minutes Bucky wept as he spoke, tears flowing down his face, but it didn’t stop the words.

Steve sat and listened. He’d seen enough death that most of it wasn’t shocking. It was wrong that those people had died, people who were often blameless, in the wrong place or just even because they said the wrong thing. But he was a soldier. Bucky’s description showed they were mostly clean kills.

He knew he should not be thinking this way, but it could have been worse. Some of the methods used by Department X had been covered in his briefing, the tortures they’d used—none of which it seemed Bucky had been involved in. Perhaps Bucky would try and keep something like that from him, but Bucky seemed to be so out of control with his confession that he probably couldn’t.

Finally, Bucky came to the two informants he’d killed and left in their hotel bed, and stopped talking, breathing hard like he’d run a marathon, shoulders slumped.

Steve didn’t say anything (what could he say?), just squeezed Bucky’s hand.

Bucky looked up at him. “So what now?”

“The hard part. I’m not going to tell you what to do—“

“What I’m good at is killing people. Might as well try and turn my talents to good.” He wiped his nose on his sleeve.

Steve held out a handkerchief to him, and Bucky smiled, took it, and blew his nose. “You must be the only person left who still carries one.”

“Yeah, you can keep it now.”

They smiled at each other, and Bucky said, “Sorted ourselves out in less than twenty-four hours. Natalia underestimates us.”

Steve didn’t mention the mild tremor that he could still detect, the fact that Bucky still looked hunted and twitchy as hell, or even the fact that he had barely stopped crying. Fronting was half the battle. Convince everyone else that you were okay, then work on convincing yourself. That was how they worked, and if Bucky was doing that, it meant that Bucky was back. Damaged, yes, but they both were. They’d make it.

Bucky stretched and asked, “So what’re we gonna do for the next five days?”

“Review the intel. Work out Hydra’s play, and Lukin’s, and the mole as well.”

Bucky grinned. “Then find out when Natalia comes back that she’s ten steps in front of us.”

“Probably.” He wanted to ask about the two of them, what they had been to each other, but Steve couldn’t make himself. He wasn’t jealous, and knew he was supposed to be, anyone coming between you and your bondmate was supposed to be the object of jealous rage. But—he hadn’t been there for Bucky, and from the little they’d said, Natasha had. For that, he was grateful. Perhaps it had only been a short interlude in a very long time under other people’s control, but it had been there.

---

… male omegas are particularly vulnerable to muscle and joint injury during pregnancy. There is growth in the cartilage around the pelvis throughout the pregnancy, widening the pelvic inlet. There is also a greater increase in laxity of the ligaments around the pelvis than in women. Together, this means that, while gentle exercise is encouraged, any strenuous activity should be avoided by pregnant males. Otherwise, you risk a pelvic dislocation, which in the most extreme cases can lead to you being put on bed rest for the rest of your pregnancy…

…male omegas have more cravings in pregnancy than women, probably due to the greater amount of changes that the male body goes through in pregnancy. There’s some truth that you crave what your body needs, but we’re so removed from our food production that a need for calcium can end up as a craving for chocolate ice cream, when a glass of milk is what your body needs…

- Heidi Murkoff, What to Expect When You’re Expecting: Male Omega Edition.

---

He should have known that everything happened faster with the serum. Steve hit full heat by dinnertime and could smell that Bucky was nearly in full heat too.

What he wanted to do was jump Bucky and rip his clothes off, but what he was actually doing was being evasive, avoiding physical contact, even physical proximity as far as possible in the apartment.

Bucky dropped the dishes in the sink, and rounded on him, “What the fuck do you want, Steve?”

“What?”

“Two days being all nice and soon as a heat hits you don’t even want to be in the same room as me? If you don’t want that, just take your fucking suppressants—“

“No! I want- but I didn’t know if—“

Then Bucky was on him, kissing him hungrily, and Steve was kissing him back. Bucky pushed him against the kitchen counter and pulled at his shirt to get to the scent gland at his collarbone, licking and sucking at it. Steve took hold of Bucky’s right arm, lifted it so he could suck at Bucky’s wrist.

He could feel Bucky was hard, pressing into his hip. He pushed back, rubbing his own erection against Bucky, and was rewarded with a growl. Bucky twisted his arm out of Steve’s grip and started undoing the buttons of Steve’s fly.

The apartment was overheated and thickly carpeted, and they were both barefoot, so Bucky had no trouble pulling Steve’s pants off. Bucky stayed kneeling on the floor and took Steve’s dick into his mouth, wrapping his tongue around it lazily, clearly not intending for Steve to get off like this. Steve slid his fingers into Bucky’s hair, pulling it gently like Bucky always liked. Bucky gave a contented “hmm” as he continued to suck on Steve’s dick.

Bucky pulled back, kissed Steve’s hip, pushed his t-shirt up, and kissed up his torso. Steve pulled his shirt off as Bucky pulled his own shirt off. They kissed again, and Steve’s hands were at Bucky’s fly, unzipping him and wrapping a hand around his dick.

The condoms were in the bedroom.

Steve spread his legs and pulled Bucky closer, both of them now nosing at the other’s scent glands. Bucky’s dick was sliding into the crack of his ass, and Steve shifted against the counter to get the angle right, slid his hand between them and guided Bucky’s dick inside him.

Bucky made an incoherent noise into Steve’s skin and began to thrust, and this—this was everything, when Steve didn’t know where he began and Bucky ended, when every movement of Bucky inside him made his body shake with the sensation, the pleasure of it.

It had been far too long, and he came hard, dick trapped between them. Bucky thrust into him again and came, and he could feel the knot swelling inside him when Bucky said, “Fuck!” and started to pull out.

Steve pulled him close, held him so tight he couldn’t move. Bucky went limp in his arms, and Steve said, “You said I never said what I wanted. I want this.”

“No, God, no, Steve, fuck, I should never—“

Steve adjusted his hold into more of a reassuring hug than an attempt to stop him running. “It was what you wanted too.”

Bucky sounded almost despairing when he said, “We can’t.”

“We’ll work it out. And you don’t know if—“

Bucky huffed a derisive laugh. “You’re a fucking superman. It will.”

Steve wasn’t so sure. Dr Erskine had warned him that infertility might be a side effect of the procedure (though the list of possible terrifying side effects had been long, and he’d missed out on all the ones that would have manifested by now).

Bucky rearranged himself slightly into a more comfortable hug, and Steve wasn’t sure what to make of that. Resignation? Or something more positive?

He focussed on the positive, the here and now. Steve had always loved this, being knotted with Bucky, the slow comedown, the connection, even when they’d ended up in some pretty uncomfortable places doing it. Against a kitchen counter almost counted as luxurious compared to some of the places they’d knotted. He nosed against Bucky’s collarbone again.

Bucky sighed loudly. “You—you—idiot. There ain’t ever gonna be a white picket fence for either of us. You ever think of the number of people who want you dead? It ain’t gonna stop. Ever. Captain America always will be a target, doesn’t matter what you do. And anyone around Captain America. Never relax, never be normal.”

“You seemed relaxed.”

Bucky pulled Steve’s head up with one hand, and held a handgun in front of his face with the other. “Don’t fuck without a gun in reach.”

“You didn’t object when—“

“Yeah, I’m fucking stupid too. And even if you don’t get killed, what the hell do you think’s gonna happen if Captain America turns up in the US pregnant by some Soviet assassin? They pat you on the back and give you a pension?”

“I doesn’t have to be perfect. We always got through—“

“No, no, this ain’t a couple of kids that no one gives a damn about any more. This is Captain America and the Winter Soldier, and we don’t get to make choices, and we don’t get to make it through somehow.”

“We will.”

Bucky made a despairing noise. “You always were fucking impossible to argue with.”

Steve could feel that they weren’t knotted anymore, but Bucky was still holding him, not moving away. He kissed Bucky’s shoulder. “Bed?”

“Yeah. But don’t think that means I ain’t still mad.”

Steve let Bucky push him onto the bed. He’d always loved being bossed around a little when it was just the two of them, and no serum or military rank was going to change that. Bucky rolled him onto his front, nudged his legs apart and slid two fingers inside him. He couldn’t help the noises he made, and Bucky chuckled. “Ain’t ever gonna get over you being the size of a barn and still sounding like some kitten when I finger you.”

Steve was trying to come up with some response to that when Bucky slid another finger into him, and then he was too caught up in the sensation, half-trying to grind into the mattress at the same time. They’d—when he was small, his heats were never strong, and he never produced quite enough natural lubrication. So Bucky would get out the lube and finger Steve until he was incoherent, gripping the covers, so damn close but never quite allowed to come until Bucky decided he was good and ready to screw him.

They’d proved that wasn’t necessary once this evening already, but Bucky was still taking his time, stroking and teasing until Steve was begging.

He fully expected Bucky to use a condom, but he didn’t, didn’t even say anything, just slid himself in. He took it harder this time, pounding Steve into the mattress until Steve didn’t even know what sort of noises he was making. He came hard, wetly, into the sheets, Bucky kept going for a few more moments before Steve felt the knot swell inside him again.

Bucky nuzzled into the back of Steve’s neck. “You’re my idiot. I gotta work out a way of keeping your stupid ass alive.”

“I was doing okay—“

“When the only people trying to kill you were fucking amateurs. I—shit, I got fucking chills about the number of openings when I coulda killed you. Fuck.”

Steve could feel it, the chill and goosebumps across Bucky’s skin. Bucky had dropped his head to press into Steve’s skin, shivering even though the room was warm. The position was all wrong; he couldn’t move to hug Bucky. All he could do was put his right hand over Bucky’s to try and reassure him.

“And—and—shit, Steve, what if I have knocked you up?” But Bucky didn’t make any move away from him, even though the longer the knot held, the more chance there was of pregnancy. “’S what I wanted. But, fuck, this is so stupid, you’ll be slow and vulnerable, and fuck, I might as well have killed you—“

“Super-soldier, remember?”

He rubbed his thumb in reassuring circles over the back of Bucky’s hand. The flicking between the confident, and the rambling anxiety—Bucky was still close to the edge of cracking up. He—had he taken advantage of that? Taken what he wanted, while Bucky wasn’t capable of making proper decisions? It had been something Bucky wanted too—but that was Bucky seventy years ago, not this new person.

Whatever happened, they’d work with it. They always had.

Bucky’s breathing evened out as the knot gradually subsided. Steve turned over and hugged him.

They didn’t talk about the possibility that Steve might be pregnant after that. Not even when Steve’s scent began fading off in a way that strongly suggested that he was pregnant.

Bucky seemed to be getting a little better, less variable. Most of it was just a front, Steve knew that. But if he could keep the façade up, that itself meant that he was improving.

On the fourth day after their heat, Bucky started taking his suppressants again. Steve’s scent was so far gone that he reckoned anyone could only pick up that he wasn’t suppressed if they were standing close enough to touch him. As they cleaned their teeth that morning, Bucky popped one of the pills from Steve’s pack and threw it down the toilet, then looked at him and said, “Eight, right?”

Steve nodded and Bucky threw away another seven pills. That was as close as they got to talking about it. For them, that, at least, was normal.

He was still trying to work out this new Bucky. The affection was still there, the protectiveness, but the cynicism was new. And the—he wasn’t sure whether to call it caution or paranoia. Probably caution. Bucky made sure that he was never out of reach of a weapon, even in bed or in the shower. Some of that was old; Steve himself had worked out all the exits from the apartment as soon as they’d arrived, lines of sight and defence, and was sure the old Bucky would have done the same. It was just more intense, probably a reflection of not having anyone to watch his back for a long time.

Steve only complained when he woke up with a sore head because he’d ended up sleeping on top of the gun under the pillow.

“Don’t move over so much in your sleep, then. It’s not like I want you to sleep on it. Shifting your lunkhead off it takes valuable seconds when I could be shooting someone.”

“I’m sorry I don’t sleep in a way your armory approves of.”

“Apology accepted.” Bucky was smiling, and had put the gun on the nightstand. Steve leaned in and kissed him lazily. “Your head ain’t that sore, then.”

“It is sore. Take my mind off it?”

“You never are gonna learn any good lines, are you?” But Bucky’s hands were already trailing down his body.

Steve was also getting used to the metal arm. Though Bucky had some very basic pressure sensors built into it, he couldn’t really feel anything in the arm. But he’d been trained to use it just like his other, and he did. It looked dangerous, like the weapon it was. But the metal was smooth—warm if they had been curled in bed together, cool if they’d been up and around the apartment. Bucky knew how not to catch his skin in the joints, how to be gentle or firm with it. Both of his hands played over Steve’s skin, one hard and unyielding, the other with the warmth of flesh under the callouses.

After he’d come with Bucky’s metal hand around his dick, Bucky snickered and asked, “Metal fetish?”

“Bucky fetish.”

Bucky made a face, “I don’t care if you mean it, it’s still a terrible line.”

It was all normal enough to pretend that everything was normal. To pretend that Steve couldn’t see that Bucky was haunted by the ghosts of the people he’d killed, to pretend that he couldn’t see that Bucky was holding it together only with extreme effort. To pretend that Bucky’s constant touches to Steve’s wrists and collarbones were just normal affection, and not a desperate need for reassurance. For Steve to pretend that he wasn’t having trouble holding it together either.

They talked about how to take down Hydra. How to get to Lukin. The familiar burn in Steve’s chest, that desire for revenge was back, although not as intense as it had been before. People needed to be made to pay for what they’d done to Bucky.

Taking out a whole Hydra base with just the two of them was certainly possible, but he didn’t want to leave without being in contact with Natasha again.

Bucky was a little more hesitant about that. “She’s—I don’t think she’s your leak, and I don’t think that she’s going to sell us out. But she’s good enough that I wouldn’t expect to know she was going to betray me before she did.”

“If we leave without contacting her, she’ll most likely know where we’ve gone anyway.”

“But we get a head start.”

“Is that what you want to do?”

“You’d do that? Abandon your SHIELD partner because I said so?”

“Not if it meant putting her at risk. But otherwise, yes, of course I would. But I think we should stick with her, because she might have some worthwhile intel.” He shrugged. “You’re both better at this sort of thing than I am. Planning an assault on the base, that I can do. The cloak and dagger business, that’s not me. And if the two of you disagree, I’ll follow you.”

Bucky pinched his nose. “You’re something else. Tomorrow we contact Natasha, and we go from there.”

Natasha was, as he’d expected, ahead of them. She arrived at the apartment around dawn, hair newly dyed and looking annoyed. Steve wasn’t woken by the door opening, but by Bucky shoving him off the bed and onto the floor, gun out, keeping himself between Steve and the threat.

Natasha took in the sight of both of them stark naked on the floor and just said, “Good morning. Coffee?”

When they were dressed and all sat around the table nursing cups of coffee, she said, “I’ve fed SHIELD a line that you think you can get through to the Winter Soldier if you can lure him back to some places you’ve been together.” She smiled. “And that I so thoroughly disapproved of this that I had to report back, but you’d gone off on your own. I’m fairly confident they’ll be looking in France and Italy. So we can go to Hydra’s production base in Turkmenistan.”

“Did Hydra call?” asked Bucky.

“No. They should have done, shouldn’t they? So they know you’re not working for them anymore. The question is—“

“Whether they really don’t know where we are, or whether they’re still playing with us,” finished Bucky. “We could still try and play it. Make them think we think they’re not onto us yet.”

Natasha shot him a harsh look. “You think you can do that? Now?”

Bucky rattled something back at her in Russian, and she answered in the same language. Steve didn’t have to understand the words to get the meaning. Bucky was unimpressed at Natasha’s appraisal of his current abilities, and Natasha was similarly unimpressed with Bucky’s attitude.

He let them argue for a few minutes before saying, “We’re going straight to Turkmenistan. The three of us can take out the Hydra production facility. That might get us Zola too. We’ll work things out from there.” Both Bucky and Natasha were looking at him doubtfully. “Sometimes, straightforward is best.”

Before they left, Bucky let them cut his hair. “Never meant for it to grow long. I just—no one cut it, and it wasn’t important. And everyone knows the Winter Soldier has long hair.”

Bucky had always been a sharp dresser, always checked himself in the mirror one last time before leaving the house, and Steve wondered if that was another thing which had changed. But the way he checked the mirror as they were cutting it, the way he grumbled about neither of them having any idea what they were doing, yeah, that was the old Bucky.

They didn’t do too bad a job (or rather, Natasha did, and Steve passed the scissors).

Then Bucky flicked at something inside a cover at the top of the metal arm, and suddenly it looked like a regular arm.

“Only affects the way it looks. Anyone touches it, they’ll feel the metal.” Bucky seemed to sense Steve’s surprise. “How’d you think a guy with the most recognisable left arm in the world manages to get around without anyone noticing?”

Steve reached out and ran his fingers along Bucky’s hand. The disconnect between the image and the sensation almost made his flesh crawl, and he drew his hand back. But with that and the haircut, Bucky looked like a different man.

Natasha turned to Steve, “Now you need work.”

“What?”

“We weren’t concerned about people recognising you when we were using you as bait. You’re not bait anymore. We need you to not look like Captain America. I have clothes for you. And you, Yasha.”

“Call me Bucky.”

Steve wanted to smile at that, actually he wanted to hug Bucky, but he thought he wouldn’t appreciate it, so he didn’t react.

She gave both of them loose, casual clothes, bordering on the scruffy. Completely different to what Steve would normally wear, and also serving to disguise the bulk of his muscles. There was no hiding that he was a big guy—that both of them were big guys—but the clothes played it down somewhat.

They made their way circuitously to Turkmenistan, doubling back, looking like they were going elsewhere. They didn’t pretend that he and Bucky weren’t bonded. It was a cover, in a way; even if Hydra thought that Bucky’s memories had broken through, Steve doubted that they’d expect playful affection. Though he could feel that Bucky was checking every exit, scrutinising every person in the departure lounge as a potential threat, it was still nice to walk holding hands, to leave his arm around him as they sat waiting for their plane. To kiss him under his ear and see that little quirk of a smile.

As they queued to board the next plane, Bucky hugged him and Steve felt him slip something into the inner pocket of his jacket as he did so, and whispered, “For later.”

His tone had been serious, and Steve worried about what it was. In the bathroom on the plane he took it out. A pregnancy test. Oh. Scent diminished in pregnancy, but there could be other reasons for that as well—Bucky wanted to be certain. Steve read the (fortunately multilingual) instructions, finding that it only worked if it had been at least ten days since conception. He put it back in his pocket.

He’d been in the bathroom for a while, and when Steve came back to his seat, Bucky gave him a pointed look. Steve leaned in, kissed him, and whispered in his ear, “Doesn’t work this soon. You should have read the instructions.”

Bucky just rolled his eyes at him.

The thing about totalitarian states, said Bucky, was that if you convinced them you were an insider, they could actually make your life as an agent incredibly easy. The three of them wouldn’t pass for Turkmen, but they would pass for Hydra (or rather Hydra’s current alias), and Hydra was providing a lot of money to the government of Turkmenistan in exchange for a blind eye being turned away from a large area of desert, and easy access for Hydra personnel and materiel.

It worked like a dream. They switched into suits before getting on the plane and presented themselves at the airport as senior Hydra operatives on a monitoring visit, with the paperwork to match. It wasn’t a difficult act for Steve, either; just pretend it was a military inspection of a unit he’d had bad reports about. In the face of their disapproval (Natasha brought out a clipboard and took notes, writing down people’s names, which he thought was a nice touch), suddenly officials were falling over themselves to be helpful. Not that Steve could understand a word of what was being said, but blind panic in the face of an unexpected visit from a superior was universal. There was a good chance that their warnings that this was a surprise inspection and the facility should not be informed would be ignored, and Hydra would know they were coming. However, getting a (very elderly) military helicopter to bring them right to Hydra’s front door beat several days’ worth of a trek across the desert.

They swept through two layers of Hydra security before one of the operatives was bright enough to realise what was going on. Then the shooting started.

He didn’t like fighting without his shield. Steve had gotten so used to it that he felt somehow naked without it. But there was nothing subtle about the shield, so it was still sitting neatly with the rest of his very unsubtle costume on the helicarrier.

Bucky was…Bucky was something else, the way he fought. He’d seen Natasha fight and was impressed with her tenacity and flexibility. Bucky had some of the same moves, some others which were pure backstreet Brooklyn, and some all of his own. It was almost exhilarating, like being part of some beautiful, brutal choreography. Steve may have lacked their finesse, but he thought he held his own.

They caught up with Zola, running out of a back door of the main building, as the first explosions of the base’s self-destruct system started to trigger. He was old, but not as old as he should have been. Some scars from surgery, some prosthetics—the man obviously experimented on himself as well as other people.

Bucky shoved him against the wall, metal hand around his neck. “Now you’re gonna talk.”

“You’ll still kill me.”

“Probably. So try and persuade them that they should stop me.”

The anger still flamed low in Steve’s chest at everything that Hydra had done to Bucky. He wasn’t going to stop Bucky killing Zola.

“It’s all in my bag. All my recent work, formulas and samples. And I can give you the location of Lukin, if you let me live.”

Bucky didn’t react to that. Steve guessed that he had more anger directed at Zola than Lukin, or perhaps he was just confident that he could find Lukin without help.

Natasha said, “Tell us about the people you have working at SHIELD.”

Zola gave them names, details, what information they’d fed back and forth. Three agents, all working for Hydra.

“Now Lukin,” said Natasha.

“No, not until—“

“Talk or I’ll make you hurt so bad you’ll beg for death.”

Bucky was wild-eyed, dangerous, and Steve had no doubt he was more than capable of carrying out the threat. Zola saw it too, gave an address in Lithuania, and kept talking, babbling Hydra secrets, seeming to think that as long as he was talking then he’d be kept alive. The explosions were getting closer.

Bucky glanced back at Natasha. “Do you need anything else from him?”

“SHIELD want him alive, he’s a usef—“ was as far as she got before Bucky snapped Zola’s neck.

Steve knew that he should have been shocked. There were rules—you didn’t kill prisoners. But you didn’t torture and experiment on prisoners either, and an easy death like that didn’t even come close to an eye for an eye.

Natasha picked up Zola’s bag, and started off in the direction he had been heading in. “He seems like a man who would have an exit.”

It was a very modern jet, similar to the SHIELD ones, equipped for vertical takeoff. Bucky took the pilot seat, and a few minutes after they took off, the whole base erupted in flames behind them.

They had a conversation about radar ceilings, spy satellites, and fuel consumption before deciding that overall it was probably easiest to use their SHIELD credentials to land at the nearest US airbase and take a plane straight out of there before anyone asked too many questions about Bucky.

Steve looked at Natasha. “What are you going to tell SHIELD?”

“Zola resisted. We had to kill him. There was no option.” She held him in her gaze for a few long moments. “But it doesn’t matter what I say, because you’ll back up whatever he says, won’t you?”

“It depends on what he says.”

Natasha raised an eyebrow. “Really?”

Bucky melted into the background pretty effectively once they’d landed at Bagram. The attention that an unexpected visit from Captain America garnered helped a lot, so all eyes were on him and not who he was with. He did what he always did, was polite but firm. Yes, he did understand what a morale boost his being there was, and if it was possible for him to stay, he would. Yes, he realised that getting transport to Europe at no notice wasn’t easy, but it was important, and he would definitely give a good report if it could be arranged as soon as possible. Yes, an autograph for the base commander would be just fine.

He could see Bucky out of the corner of his eye. Steve remembered Bucky’s smirk when people had been all over Captain America in the forties, and there was just the faintest trace of it on his face now. He didn’t do anything to draw attention to Bucky, nothing affectionate, nothing to say that he was anything other than a very minor SHIELD operative who happened to be travelling with Captain America. If they came across anyone who was as much of a fan as Agent Coulson had been, he’d be recognised, but if not they could get away with this.

There were people taking photographs, lots of them, and Steve saw the way that both Bucky and Natasha manoeuvred subtly so that they were always out of frame, yet without ever seeming to move.

It took a little over an hour to get a plane out of there, which was impressive. They didn’t mention Lithuania, for obvious reasons, and were headed to Germany. It was hard, having to almost ignore Bucky. They’d had less than a week to make up on seventy lost years, and Steve itched to touch him, to sit next to him on the flight and hold his hand. Not least because there was a new tension in Bucky, and Steve wanted to know what was going on in his head, to try and help.

They needed to move fast to have even the slightest chance of surprising Lukin, so they all dozed on the plane. Once they landed, they took a cab from the airbase in Germany into town, bought new casual clothes to disguise themselves again, and set off. There wasn’t time or privacy to talk, but at least travelling incognito he could hold Bucky’s hand, kiss him, try and be reassuring. Bucky didn’t relax even a little.

As soon as their plane was in the air, Steve leant over and whispered, “What’s wrong?”

“This ain’t the time, Steve.”

Steve just rested his head on Bucky’s shoulder and closed his eyes. It was the left one, and the seam where metal met flesh was hard under his head. Steve had a sudden thought about whether it hurt, whether it was sore at the joint, or made his shoulders ache, or even if he had phantom pains. It was definitely not the time to ask that now, and given how loath Bucky was to show weakness, it might be a very long time before he could ask.

The address turned out to be a very expensive apartment block, with heavy security to match. Not heavy enough, though, and Bucky and Natasha’s expressions showed that they weren’t particularly impressed with it.

Lukin didn’t blink when they appeared in his bedroom, having taken out his bodyguards in the next room.

“A pity, but always a calculated risk getting the American involved in American affairs.” He looked directly at Bucky. “What do you propose to do now? What do you think SHIELD will let you do?”

Lukin was speaking English, which meant that this was aimed at Steve as much as Bucky. And Steve didn’t know what was going to happen next, but that didn’t change what needed to happen now.

Steve said, “Tell us. About the Winter Soldier.”

“Surely you have worked it out for yourselves by now? Everyone wanted Hydra technology, and everyone was looking for it. You were not the only one following that train, Captain. The retrieval team went looking for anything of interest that may have been blown out of it, and found a man alive who should not have survived. A man with no recollection even of who he was, but whose combat reflexes still injured one of the retrieval team even as his left arm hung from his body by a thread. They took that potential and honed it.” Lukin smiled. “I will admit to my own curiosity, though. Our Soldier is an alpha. So what are you, Captain? Pervert or omega? Neither sits well with what you are supposed to be.”

The rage that Bucky had obviously channeled in order to function in the Hydra base was not there now, and he didn’t react to that at all. Probably because Lukin had used what had been created by someone else, and had not been part of that creation. No one’s neck was being snapped—unless Lukin did something stupid.

Natasha said, “Our accountants have frozen your assets in every country you hold them in. The FSB received an anonymous tip-off an hour ago about all your operations in Russia. You’re coming in, General.”

He made a dismissive noise. “The two of you. Such skill. Such talent. And you will waste it in the service of SHIELD.”

They just stared him down. Lithuania was a happy ally of SHIELD, and right now there would be a SHIELD backup team on their way over. There would be no problem getting Lukin out. What he didn’t know was what SHIELD intended to do with Bucky.

And Lukin knew Bucky was an alpha. He could have told other people that Captain America was either an omega or in an infertile relationship. Hopefully SHIELD would have some ideas as to how to deal with that, because he certainly didn’t.

The agents who arrived took Lukin out to the waiting car, and the senior agent turned to Steve and said, “Sir, we have orders to bring the Winter Soldier into custody.”

“He’s not dangerous—“

“Sorry, sir, he is. Our orders are restraint and custody.”

“Whatever you do to him you’re going to have to do to me as well.”

“Steve, don’t be a damn idiot—”

“Bucky—“

He felt the cold metal around his wrist, and looked down to see that his left wrist had been handcuffed to Bucky’s right wrist. He looked up to see Natasha smiling at both of them.

“There, Agent Novak. Problem solved.”

The agent was looking somewhat shocked (at least as far as SHIELD agents ever openly expressed emotion in the field).

Steve held Bucky’s hand, and Bucky sighed dramatically. “Asshole.”

“Jerk.”

The handcuffs were for show. If Steve wanted to break out of them, he easily could. He’d guess they wouldn’t pose much of a problem to Bucky either. But it was a show for SHIELD as well, show them that he would do anything for Bucky, share anything with him.

---

… attitudes to male AO bonds were, in fact, very similar to those current until recently. There was a choice to be made; either the omega was a warrior or a mother, never both. Alexander, typically, had no time for this choice. Hephaistion remained an integral part of the Companions throughout his pregnancies and was never part of the royal harem. Plutarch says that Hephaistion fought at Alexander’s side until his armour would no longer fasten around his belly, and only then was he relegated to the baggage train…

… Classical authors (and many since) blamed this unusual state of affairs for the fact that he produced only daughters for Alexander, and that only one of these survived infancy…

Robin Lane Fox, Alexander the Great.

---

Bucky had been in SHIELD custody for four weeks, in a tiny windowless room deep within the SHIELD building in New York.

As for sharing everything with him, Bucky had thrown Steve out to “go sleep in a proper bed in a proper apartment with windows, you dumbass” the first night. So Steve came in every day, tried to bring something with him that he thought Bucky would like. Food, usually.

As Bucky finished up the pizza he’d brought in on the third day, he’d said, “It’s an interesting plan you got. Make me so fat that SHIELD don’t think I’m a threat.”

“I’m just trying—“

“I know, but I gotta think of my shape.”

“I don’t care what shape you are.”

“Bet you won’t say that when I’ve got a beer gut.”

Steve had opened his mouth to say something about other causes of swollen bellies, remembered they were under constant surveillance, and shut it again. He hadn’t told SHIELD he was pregnant, didn’t want to until he had to. Bucky had covered for him by raising an eyebrow and saying, “Is this when you tell me you got a thing for chunky guys, and you’ve just been waiting for your moment to start feeding me up?”

He wanted to take Bucky home as soon as SHIELD had done a basic debriefing, but after four days one of the SHIELD doctors had taken him into her office and said, “I need you to see something.”

It was security footage of Bucky, in his room after Steve had left that morning. He was pacing like a caged animal, looking like he was uncomfortable in his own skin. At the end of the room he stopped, looked blankly at the wall for some long moments, then banged his head off the wall with some force. Steve couldn’t help but flinch, and the doctor stopped the recording.

“This is how he is when you’re not there. We can’t let him go until we know he’s stable on his own.”

“I can stay with him—“

“It would need to be twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. That wouldn’t be good for either of you. We think we’re making progress, but I needed you to know why we can’t just send him home.”

He went to see Bucky after that.

“Docs told me you’re not so good when I’m not here.”

“Kinda an understatement.”

“Why didn’t you say anything?”

Bucky sighed. “’Cause you need to see daylight, and I need to work out how to do this on my own.” He leant in to Steve. “It’s nice, when you’re here. Brighter. Easier. But I gotta be able to at least go to the store for milk on my own, and I don’t know…they were talking about pills, and I don’t care that they’re crazy pills, ‘cause I know I’m nuts,” Bucky smiled. “That’s the least of my problems. But they all can slow you down, and I ain’t taking anything that makes me slow.”

Steve kissed Bucky’s forehead. “Whatever you need, I’ll be there. I—er—I know I didn’t ask, and things change, but I found it useful to talk to a chaplain.”

“Is this you asking if I’m still a good Catholic boy? ‘Cause that was you, not me. If you’re asking if I still believe, then yeah, and I’ve got a helluva a lot to confess. But it depends on the chaplain—“

“He’s a good one. Remember Father Doherty?”

“Bulletproof Doherty?” The name had come from those occasions when Father Doherty had gone into the line of fire to give the last rites (and on other occasions to decide that the soldier wasn’t beyond help, sling him over one shoulder, and bring him to the medics), and managed to walk out unscathed each time.

“Yeah. He reminds me of him.”

“In that case, yeah, I want to talk to him.”

It was relatively easy to argue that Father O'Donnell should be given the appropriate clearance and briefed about the Winter Soldier. He thought that SHIELD wanted Bucky back out in the field as soon as possible, and they’d try anything that might make that happen faster.

He walked out to meet Father O'Donnell beforehand, in the park again. The priest offered him a cigarette, but Steve waved it away. The priest looked at it, then looked at him, and then put it back into its packet.

“You live an interesting life, son.”

“Sure do.” He sighed. “Bucky wants to talk to you. He needs—“ He laughed mirthlessly and looked at the ground. “I have no idea what he needs. But they’ve got him locked in a room, and he stays in that room until they think he’s not dangerous.”

“Do you think he’s dangerous?”

“Not while I’m there. When he’s on his own—I think he’s dangerous to himself. Not to anyone else.”

The priest nodded. “How are you?”

“Me? I’m fine, I’m great, I got him back, of course I’m fine.” Even to his own ears, Steve sounded a little desperate.

Father O'Donnell didn’t say anything, just looked at him evenly, waiting for him to say more.

“It was okay until I got back here. Then I realised—I got him back, but everything else is still gone. And he’s hurt, and I was stupid-“ He stopped himself before finishing that sentence. Steve couldn’t bring himself to tell anyone that he was pregnant—that would make it real. He didn’t have any of the symptoms apart from the loss of scent and none of the nausea or hip pain he’d expect. So it didn’t seem real, whatever the pregnancy test had said.

The priest asked, quietly and kindly, “When are you due?”

“What?”

“Some things come up a lot in confession. No one says ‘stupid’ in quite that tone of voice unless they’re talking about getting someone pregnant. And if it was him, not you, you’d have taken the cigarette. You don’t need to tell me that this is seriously classified.”

“I—I haven’t told anyone. He knows. No one else.”

“If I can work it out, your friends at SHIELD probably can.” He gestured to the park. “But this is my open-air confessional, and I’m not going to tell them.”

Steve smiled. “It’s—it’s something I always wanted. But not like this. It’s selfish too. At least three months out of commission. What if I’m needed—“

“The way I see it, the world owes you at least three months. And last I looked, you weren’t out there on your own.”

“No one’s supposed to know. That I’m—that way. I’ll have to find somewhere to stay where people won’t see me.”

“That your idea or theirs?”

“Captain America’s a symbol. He’s more than just me. It doesn’t matter what I am. Captain America’s an alpha.”

“He was in 1944. Does he have to be now?”

“I—I think he does. For all everyone talks up being equal, they still want to follow alphas.”

“I think you’re wrong. But it’s your choice.”

Steve smiled. “Ten dollars says the next President’s an alpha.”

“You got me there. Just keep me in mind for the christening. I don’t get to do enough of them.”

He went with Father O'Donnell to Bucky, to introduce him, and then Steve left them alone. When he came back a few hours later, Bucky was quiet, thoughtful—and Steve wasn’t sure if he was a little more relaxed or if that was just wishful thinking. He didn’t say what they’d talked about, and Steve didn’t ask.

So it had been four weeks, and Bucky, though better, was still in that room, and Steve was walking back to a lonely and empty apartment.

There was a large and flashy car parked outside. The back door opened, and Tony popped out. “Come for a ride, Capsicle.”

“What do you want, Tony?”

“Ride and talk, Captain.”

He got in the car. It was more like a luxury hotel lounge on the inside than a car, all thickly-padded leather.

“So, brush with imminent death. Again. I start thinking, it’s a big tower, room for all the Avengers, perhaps some sort of hero house-share could work, so I may have hacked SHIELD to see what you were up to, and you have your brainwashed Soviet half back and there’s a memo that he doesn’t have to be in his personal bunker if there is somewhere he can be monitored and prevented from leaving if needed. Which I can provide.”

“You’re asking us to move in? But you’ve never even met—“

Tony waved a hand dismissively. “From the file, he’s basically Natasha with a metal arm and less cleavage.”

“He is not—“

“Save the AO bonding romances for someone else.”

Steve deadpanned, “I was going to say he had at least as much cleavage as she did.”

Tony grinned. “You make jokes? You can definitely move in.”

“What does Ms. Potts say about this?” He’d never met her, but knew about her by reputation, and Steve didn’t want to get on the wrong side of her.

“Something about at least it not being stray cats. That’s a yes, isn’t it?”

Steve sighed. “Tony, he’s spent a month in a room that’s twelve feet by twelve feet with no windows. Of course it’s a yes.”

SHIELD was quite happy with the arrangement. Bucky was to remain in the tower, apart from short runs outside that would be supervised by SHIELD medical staff, initially all in the company of Steve—the start of a slow reintroduction to society.

Bucky was happy enough. “I ain’t keen on still being under house arrest, but it ain’t exactly a house, is it? It’s a city block.”

They arrived (after being very unsubtly escorted by a large number of heavily armed agents) to find not just Tony and Pepper, but Bruce, Natasha, and Clint waiting for them as well. There were introductions, there was food, there were discussions about house rules (the main one being, “Do not go into Tony’s workshop without permission, otherwise you will be set on fire/blown up/hit by flying debris”).

“The surveillance in my room is disabled,” said Natasha, pointedly.

“JARVIS?“

“Yes, sir, she has quite effectively removed all the cameras and recording devices from her suite and the rooms of Agent Barton and Dr. Banner. I am currently engaged in replacing—“

Natasha was giving Tony a death-glare.

“How about you leave them, JARVIS. Just keep in place the surveillance on entry and exit points.”

Of course there would be full surveillance on his and Bucky’s rooms. That was the whole point. It made Steve uncomfortable, but this, having a meal around a table with a bunch of people who were well on the way to being his friends, this beat a windowless room any time. And he thought it was doing Bucky good as well, having normal social interaction.

As soon as they were through the door of their bedroom, Bucky was on Steve, kissing him, starting to pull him out of his clothes.

Steve stepped back. “You know we’re—“

“Being watched, yeah, I got that. Hey, JARVIS?”

“Yes, Sergeant Rogers?”

Steve saw the tiny flicker of a flinch. “Don’t call me Sergeant. You put some tag on the next hour or so of footage that if I find anyone has watched it, I’ll find them and hurt them.”

“Very good sir. You’ll find that Mr. Stark arranges it so that the top drawer of every nightstand is well stocked with supplies of a sexual nature.”

“… he would, wouldn’t he.”

Bucky pushed Steve down onto the bed and kissed him again, but Steve couldn’t get away from the idea of being watched. “Bucky, I can’t, even just the AI—“

Bucky groaned and made a face. “Steve, c’mon, it’s not like there’s anywhere else we can do this.” He grinned. “Bet I can make you forget the AI.”

“I—“ He didn’t get much farther than that, because Bucky had undone his fly and wrapped his lips around his dick. It took about ten seconds for Steve to, if not forget about the AI, then to decide that he didn’t give a damn about it. Bucky was giving it his all, suction and tongue, and it had been weeks since he’d done more than chastely kiss him. Steve slid his hands into Bucky’s hair and pushed his hips up as Bucky took his dick all the way to the back of his throat. Then Bucky swallowed around his dick and it was too much and Steve was coming.

Bucky pulled off wetly, and said, voice husky, “Too many clothes, Steve.”

They were out of their clothes in a few moments, and Bucky was back on top of Steve, blindly fishing in the nightstand drawer as he ground his dick into Steve’s hip as they kissed. Bucky ripped open the packet of lube and slicked his fingers, pressing them inside Steve. It was rushed and needy, and Steve was already getting hard again as Bucky pushed his dick inside him.

“Fuck, Steve, hate looking and not touching, wanted to fucking do this for weeks, fuck you feel good—“

Bucky was swearing as he screwed, which was back to normal, which was good, but Bucky was screwing him like there was no tomorrow, which was, oh, he had no words for how good that was. He pushed up with his hips as Bucky thrust in, moved to get a better angle. He wrapped a hand around his own dick and started jerking himself off. Bucky pulled his hand off, replaced it with his own.

Bucky’s came with a final “Fuck!” and half-collapsed onto Steve, hand still stroking at Steve’s dick. Steve wrapped his own hand over Bucky’s, increasing the pressure until he came for the second time.

After a few moments they rearranged themselves, Bucky resting his head on Steve’s shoulder, his right hand resting protectively over Steve’s stomach, apparently not caring about the come smeared there.

“We gotta tell them some time.”

Steve half-smiled. “If we don’t, they’ll work it out eventually. And—and—I don’t want to tell anyone just yet. In case it doesn’t—”

Bucky kissed him on the side of the mouth. “I obviously have a lot more faith in that serum than you do.”

Steve went back to what he’d been doing before, nine to five at SHIELD, but now with some time out with Bucky and someone to come home to. The doctors said positive things about Bucky, and he seemed more positive in himself.

“I gotta believe in redemption, Steve. ‘Cause I got responsibilities, and I ain’t gonna shirk them. I gotta believe I can be a good man again.”

“I believe in you.”

“You’d say that if I was so nuts they had me in a damn straitjacket.”

At the ten-week mark, Bucky was being allowed to go out without overt supervision, and the monitoring was gradually reduced until he wasn’t having any more checks than any other SHIELD operative.

After twelve weeks, Bucky came home, but he didn’t say anything to Steve, just took his shirt off. There was a bandage over his chest.

“Bucky what happened—

Bucky unpeeled the dressing. Under it was a tattoo, a simple design, one familiar even when they’d been kids: a heart with a ribbon across it, lying across Bucky’s heart. The ribbon had a date on it—the date of their first wedding.

He took Steve’s hand, kissed his wedding ring, and quietly said. “I’ve had my wedding ring taken from me twice. I ain’t getting a third for it to be taken again. But I wanted something, something that can’t get taken.”

Steve’s heart was in his mouth. He reached out, fingers not quite brushing the tattoo. “Wish that tattoos would take on me. I’d get one to match.”

At sixteen weeks Bucky said, “Look, that is definitely a bump. You gotta tell them.”

It was a week when all the Avengers were in New York, so getting them all together for their announcement wasn’t difficult. And it must have been pretty obvious what was coming, because Tony said, “So, Capsicle knocked up his husband, congratulations all around—“

“Uh, actually, he knocked me up.” He took in the blank looks of the Avengers, apart from Natasha, who rolled her eyes. “Captain America had to be an alpha. Even if I wasn’t. So Bucky had to be an omega, even if he wasn’t.”

Clint said, “They switched your assignations for propaganda? Jesus. And I thought SHIELD dicked around with my private life.”

“What does SHIELD say?” asked Natasha.

“Haven’t told them yet,” said Steve.

“Though they might have worked it out,” added Bucky.

“Can we come when you tell them? Fury’s going to have kittens, and that’s something I want to watch.”

“No, Tony, this is going to be bad enough as it is.”

“At least let me record it. For posterity. For your—son? Daughter? What’s it look like on the ultrasound?”

“Ultrasound?”

“Tell me you’ve seen an obstetrician.”

“Why would I do that? It’s not even six months yet—“

“You really should see someone for proper antenatal care—“ started Bruce, before being interrupted by Tony.

“JARVIS, prepare a guide for our mom-to-be about modern pregnancy care. You know, with technology and medicine. Not just giving birth in the nearest ditch.”

Steve hadn’t looked anything up on the internet about pregnancy, because he knew that his use was monitored (along with just about anything else). He also hadn’t thought he’d needed to. His mom had been a nurse and used as a source of advice by every pregnant person in their block. Even though he’d only been a kid, he remembered the advice—everything in moderation, including exercise, and don’t get involved in anything too exciting or too strenuous. It seemed sound advice to him now, even though he was well aware that taking out Hydra bases ignored most of it. The only thing he’d mentally added was to avoid smoking. There were ads on the subway telling pregnant people not to smoke, so he guessed it was important.

Fury didn’t have kittens; he just glared at the two of them for a while.

“This doesn’t change your standing orders, Captain, or how classified your status is. You will be provided with medical care. As soon as this becomes obvious, you will be confined to the tower.” Then he turned to Bucky. “Since you caused my problem, now you can solve it.”

---

… in-action shots are hard to come by and pretty blurry, but more and more people are saying it’s not the same guy in the costume. Not an imposter by the way the other Avengers work with him, but a replacement…

… what has happened to our original? He gave a phone interview two weeks ago, and voice analysis confirmed that was him. So—is he injured? (Because if he is, we’ll go round and kiss it better.) Or after defrosting does a Captain America go off like a frozen meal left on the counter?...

Avengez-vous (‘Your premier source for Avengers news, gossip and pictures’), Captain America the Second: Just who is inside that suit?

---

He could hear the argument three turns away along the corridor. Tony had gone off-plan again, done something stupid that, while it had worked, could have endangered the entire team, and Bucky was chewing him out over it. It was a familiar argument, and usually ended up with Bucky (or Steve, as he’d had this argument with Tony as well) saying something along the lines that if they didn’t care about Tony, they wouldn’t be so angry. It was Bucky having the argument, so it was peppered with a lot more swearing than Steve would have used, but the form was the same.

Bucky was standing by the conference table, still mostly in the Captain America combat gear, but his gloves off and the armoured top was lying on the desk in front of him, dirty and sweaty from the fight.

Bucky looked round at him, smiled, and then did the most amazing double-take Steve had ever seen as he saw the tiny bundle in Steve’s arms. Steve couldn’t help grinning.

“Want to say hello?”

He crossed the distance between them, and with his free hand pushed Bucky to sit on the conference table because he looked like he might fall over any minute. Only then did he pass over the bundle—their son, peacefully sleeping, wrapped in a blanket. Bucky took him carefully, cradled him in the crook of his right arm.

Bucky smiled down and whispered, “Hey there.” Steve could see him breathe through his nose to get control and stop himself from crying. Bucky just stared for a long while before whispering, “Jesus, you are so beautiful.” He looked up at Steve, and beamed at him, then looked guilty. “Steve, I’m sorry, I shoulda been there-“

“Not your fault. And it was only a little more painful than getting the serum.” He didn’t add that it had gone on for a good while longer than that had. Or that he’d refused any painkillers, because the doctors weren’t sure what the massively high doses needed to have any effect on him would do to the baby.

“When…?”

“He’s two hours old.”

“Fuck.” Bucky’s eyes widened, and he said, “Shit. Agh. I’m gonna stop swearing, I swear. But you could have told me—”

“And distract you mid-fight? I wanted you to come home, you idiot.”

Bucky looked down. “You hear that? Your poppa thinks I’m an idiot.”

“Your poppa knows he’s an idiot.”

“Oh god, they’ve started with the cutesy arguing-via-the-baby already,” said Clint.

“You thought it was going to be any different?” said Natasha.

“I live in hope.”

“More importantly,” added Tony, “Just look at him. Two hours post-birth and he’s triangular again. Like nothing happened. I hate him for it, and I’m not even an omega.”

“When does the feasting in the babe’s honor begin?” asked Thor.

“I could eat now,” said Bruce.

Steve ignored all of them. He had an arm around Bucky’s waist, and was holding him so close their faces were almost touching. Bucky kept looking down at the baby in his arms, then back up at Steve, as if he couldn’t quite convince himself they both were there.

Bucky kissed Steve gently on the lips. “Still ain’t got you your white picket fence.”

“We’ll make do.”

“The huge, rent-free central New York apartment is a real hardship.”

He nodded over to the rest of the Avengers, who were discussing appropriate dinner options for celebrating a birth. “Roommates.”

“They’re good. Most of the time.”

Steve knew that as soon as the shock wore off Bucky would start worrying about potential threats to him and their son, but right now he was just happy. They’d made it, through everything, and they could cling to their moments of happiness.