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Summer Don't Own Me No More

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Today was bright, beautiful, and complete shit already.

“It’s gonna mess up my arm,” Bucky repeated.

Next to him, his unfortunate client—Josh? Jim?—was still struggling to wake up properly. He seemed to think maybe the cops in his hotel room would disappear if he just managed to blink hard enough. Bucky would have felt sorry for him, but the guy had been kind of a jerk in bed, and he had other things to worry about anyway. In the presence of two men—both disheveled and scantily clad at that—the cop had hesitated for a good two minutes as to which was the prostitute and which was the john. 

“I gotta cuff you, it’s procedure,” he said again, walking around the bed to come and restrain Bucky.

“You don’t get it.” Bucky got up. He’d been badly shaken out of sleep and his heart hadn’t calmed down yet. “I have exposed wires. If you cuff me they’ll connect, and it’ll short-circuit my arm.”

“Afraid that’s not my problem.” The cop seized Bucky and made him face the wall, none too gently. Bucky went, trying to swallow a pang of fear. Unlike his client—Jared? Jace?—he wasn’t nude; experience had made him put his underwear back on before he drifted to sleep. He was glad he’d done it, but he still felt very much naked right now.

“There’s no need to cuff me, I’ll come along,” Bucky repeated, trying to sound steady, reasonable. “C’mon, man, I don’t even have the money for a goddamn silicone shell, if you fry my arm—”

“You have the right to remain silent,” began the cop, tightening the first bracelet around Bucky’s flesh-and-blood wrist.

“Come on,” Buck repeated. His every instinct screamed at him to just deck the guy, but he couldn’t afford resisting arrest. Still, when he felt the cop’s grip on his metal wrist, it was too much—he violently jerked free, knowing right away that it was a mistake.

“Hey!” The cop slammed him face-first into the wall. “Are we gonna have a goddamn problem here?”

“You’re not listening to me,” Bucky yelled against the rough plaster, straining to stay still even as the urge to fight grew. “I told you I can’t—”

“Everett? What’s going on?” said another voice.

The cop holding Bucky gave him another shove, making him scrape his chin against the wall. “Just a grumpy hooker, I’m fine—”

“I can’t be cuffed or it’ll short-circuit my arm!” Bucky yelled, twisting his neck to try and meet the new guy’s gaze. So much for dignity. “I tried to tell him but he won’t listen!”

The newcomer sighed. “Ross, please bring Mr. Barnes’ client to the car. We’ll be down in a minute.”

The hand on Bucky’s shoulder gave a last shove, then went away. He shook free of the metal cuff on his real wrist at once. When he turned around, Everett “Asshole” Ross was leading Bucky’s sheet-wrapped john away—wait, was his name actually John?—and the new cop was right there, getting out a pair of plastic handcuffs.

His nametag said Rogers.

“Will those do?” he asked. He had very blue eyes and looked genuinely concerned with Bucky’s answer.

Bucky was so pathetically grateful he forgot to be angry for a second. “Yeah, that—yeah.”

Rogers cuffed him in the front, which was kind of against procedure. Not that Bucky was planning on grabbing his gun or anything, but still. Maybe this guy was new. Bucky watched grimly as the bracelets tightened around his wrists. Terrific, just fucking great. Busted at work again. He hated being processed, he hated cops, and he hated this fucking self-righteous city.

Rogers tightened the plastic straps, eyeing Bucky’s bare prosthetic. “Are silicone shells that expensive?”

Bucky scoffed. “Hard pass on the small talk, thanks.”

Rogers looked hurt, like he’d expected them to be perfectly good friends now.

“What?” Bucky said. “This ain’t speed dating. You’re arresting me when I’ve done nothing wrong. I have the right to remain fucking pissed off.”

Bucky wasn’t married to the job like other hookers he knew, and he would have gladly given up on it for a less annoying career option. But in his peculiar situation, there wasn’t much else he could do to earn a living, and since he could take care of himself it wasn’t so bad. Most of the time.

“Well, you did break the law,” Rogers pointed out.

“It’s my fucking ass, Boy Scout. I can sell it if I want to.”

Rogers’ expression hardened. “Prostitution is a gateway to human trafficking rings—”

Prostitution is a gateway to human trafficking rings,” mimicked Bucky in a stupid voice. “Look, pal, if you really cared about us whores, you’d make sure we can practice safely. What you really want is for us to disappear.”

“Hey, watch your tone,” Rogers said, incensed now. “Why don’t you show some respect for—”

“Rogers!” came a voice from downstairs. “You guys making out up there? Bring him down, we haven’t got all day!”

Rogers seemed to realize he was about to get in a slap fight with a prostitute and stopped mid-sentence. Bucky half-expected to be charged with insulting behavior, but Rogers just shut his mouth, collected Bucky’s clothes, and took his arm to lead him downstairs.

Bucky shuffled along reluctantly—he was barefoot, for Christ’s sake. As they went down, a dusty ray of sun swiped across Rogers face, lighting him up. Even frowning like that, he was almost impossibly handsome. All smooth skin and golden hair, a shining example of perfection.

More power to him. Bucky’s life wasn’t worth much, but at least he didn’t drag innocent people out of bed at ass o’clock in the morning.

 

*

 

Once he was in the police van, Bucky was uncuffed and finally allowed to dress, which was nice of them and all. They re-cuffed him at once and seat-belted him for the ride. His mind was still blurry with sleep twenty minutes later, when he stumbled blinking out in the daylight, only to be ushered into the station. He’d put on his shirt backwards.

As always, the initial dispatching took over an hour—and he almost got put in metal cuffs again because nobody was paying attention to what he was saying. Rogers intervened once more, but Bucky just scowled at him. He wasn’t going to be grateful for that kind of thing twice.

After that came the long, long, and boring processing. Bucky repeated his name, occupation and security number like a mantra all day. So many people asking him the same fucking things. He got locked in the holding cell, then taken out for more stupid questions, then put back there twenty minutes later because something was wrong with his file, or whatever. Every time he went in, there were different people sitting on the slimy benches, like the world’s saddest game of musical chairs. Some of them nodded wearily at him; but most of them were busy being drunk or high or both. Someone had obviously pissed against the wall, in total ignorance of the toilet in the corner, and despite the cameras.

Bucky rubbed his temples and tried to stave off his headache. The police still hadn’t fed them, but he wouldn’t have eaten their shit anyway. His stomach was growling. Come on, come on. What was taking so long? He tried to meditate, tried to shut it all off, but phones rang and people yelled and mumbled and laughed and cried, and the electric light hurt his eyes.

He’d been right. It was a shit day.

 

*

 

“Alright, you’re free to go.”

Bucky collected his keys and phone with a tired hand. Was his left arm getting heavier? C’mon, he’d just charged it like two days ago. Or was it three?

Shit.

“Your fine will be debited from your bank account within five to eight working days. If you are unable to meet the correct amount, you’ll be liable to—”

“Yeah, yeah, I know the drill,” Bucky said, heading out as soon as the door clanked open.

The night air filled his lungs. He was grateful for the fresh, clean feeling of it, but at the same time he was enraged he’d missed a whole day of sun. The battery in his arm would definitely be empty in the morning.

He thumbed open his phone to distract himself. No messages. He considered telling Nat he’d been arrested again, but on second thought he’d rather wait till he saw her. He would have felt too pathetic writing that kind of text.

With a sigh, he headed down the glowing streets. Here in the heart of town, luminescent panels were everywhere, running like nerves and veins over the walls. They softly poured back the energy they’d stored up during the day, painting people white and gold when they happened to get close. Bucky stepped into the translucent white monorail and rode it downtown with a feeling of numb relief.

As the car zipped down the rail, things stopped being as pretty. The lights fell away one by one, until there was nothing but harsh lamps at every other corner. Same cheap fluorescent kind as in the police station. Bucky got off at his usual stop—people called it the Swamp, which was unfortunately quite accurate. It wasn’t safe, it was wet and dark and depressing, and Bucky had gotten mugged more than once. But even accounting for that, it was cheap.

So far, Bucky had made negative three thousand bucks this month. Cheap was something he couldn’t pass up.

 

*

 

His building was so insalubrious it was actively falling to pieces. The hallways smelled of urine and other questionable fluids, and even though the roof was entirely covered in solar panels as per regulation, it was so narrow the lights tended to die after one measly cloudy day. Unlike the smooth pale buildings of Manhattan, flaring in elegant arches to soak up maximum sunlight, most of the Swamp was still brick and brownstone. It hadn’t been built to accommodate solar panels. As for Bucky’s apartment itself, it was so tiny it barely deserved the name. But he kept it clean, and it was a place of his own.

He just wanted to jerk off and then go to bed. Or even just go to bed, maybe. He decided to take a shower and see if he still had enough energy afterwards—he might not, since wrapping his arm in plastic was a long and tedious affair even on a good day.

He was out of the shower and he’d just finished brushing his teeth when someone knocked on the door.

“Are you kidding me,” Bucky said out loud. And he was in his boxers again! Fucking unbelievable.

There was a second knock, only barely louder than the first. If this was trouble, it was very unassuming. Bucky looked for a shirt to throw on, didn’t find one, let out a curse and made his way to the door regardless. When he opened it, he blinked.

Because it was him. Rogers the self-righteous sunbeam cop.

“Did you get lost?” Bucky asked, incredulous.

No answer.

Bucky squinted at him. “You do realize you already arrested me today, right?”

But Rogers obviously wasn’t here to arrest anyone; he was in civilian garb and looked about a hundred times less confident than he’d been in the morning. For one thing, Bucky’s half-nudity seemed to bother him a lot more. His eyes kept flicking away, then back, then away again.

“I, um—” He cleared his throat. “I just came to say—I wanted to say—”

Bucky watched him fumble for another minute as realization slowly dawned on him.

The nerve of this guy. But actually, Bucky wasn’t that surprised. Cops repressed a lot of shit, and goody-two-shoes like Rogers probably didn’t often get a hooker’s address dropped in their lap. In the Swamp, too. What an adventure.

Rogers was still trying to string his sentence together. “I’ve just come here because I—”

“Yeah, alright, don’t hurt yourself,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. He reached out and grabbed Rogers’ shirt to pull him in, crushing their lips together.

What? He needed the money.

Whatever Rogers was trying to say got lost in a muffled sound. He had a nice mouth for a cop, with soft full lips—and he tasted of apples, which was odd but not unpleasant. Bucky pushed the door shut with his foot and pulled Rogers further in, walking backwards until they stumbled on the bed. Rogers seemed to be trying to kiss back, but he was really terrible at it, so who could tell, really? But well, Bucky was used to doing all the work; and besides, he didn’t often deal with a perfect body like that. So he wasn’t gonna complain.

He slipped his hands under Rogers’ shirt, went up his sides, then his back—and froze when he felt the long, deep scar nestled in the dip of his spine.

Rogers blinked back at him, flushed and out of breath already.

“Uh—”

“Nothing,” Bucky mumbled, kissing him again to shut him up.

Jesus Christ, that scar—he knew what it was. He’d read about it not a month ago. Serum something… Right. Rogers was a goddamn Stark Tech Super-Serum recipient. He must be fucking loaded. Rich boy getting his rocks off in the Swamp? Yeah, a real classic.

Bucky almost sneered. But hey, he wasn’t throwing stones; he would have loved that, too, just getting stitched into a whole new body. With better abs and two whole arms, why not?

Well I’m gonna take that perfect ass of yours for a spin, buddy. He made the kiss deeper, filthier, grabbing Rogers’ ass with both hands. Of course it was firm and round and tight. Rogers gasped and clutched at him—sure enough, he was hard when Bucky pressed a thigh between his legs.

“Already, huh?” Bucky said. He let him go and stepped back. “C’mon, take your pants off. I’m sure I can find a condom here somewhere.”

“Uh,” Rogers repeated, sitting on the bed, looking flushed and somewhat shell-shocked. “Uh—alright.”

He struggled with his clothing while Bucky upturned his mess in search of a condom box. He found one eventually, tucked between two books—it had been ages since he’d last fucked someone in his apartment. He was gonna charge Rogers extra for showing up at Bucky’s private residence, see if he cared.

It was a fair price to pay, anyway, since the whole room was going to smell like the guy for days afterwards. Not that he smelled bad. Just that the apple thing was really persistent, Bucky mused as he took out a strip of condoms. He straightened up and—

Wow.

Rogers had taken the order to heart. He was sitting fully naked on Bucky’s bed, with his perfect cock standing at attention, and a slightly anxious look on his face like he might somehow disappoint.

Bucky was entirely blasé about sex with clients, but—he still had to admit Rogers was something to behold. Almost glowing, like he had the ability to give back his sunlight, too.

Bucky sidled up to him with a sultry grin. “So tell me, officer, how’d you want me?”

His blue eyes went even wider. “I—”

“Wanna cuff me again? We can make it happen, sir.”

Rogers managed a full sentence at last. “My name is Steve. Not—not—”

“Ah, that’s alright, doll, sorry,” Bucky drawled, leaning in to talk right against his mouth. “I’m sure I can find names you’ll like.”

Rogers shivered—from the near-kiss or from the endearment, Bucky wasn’t sure.

Bucky let his real hand settle on Rogers’ strong thigh; the jump he got in answer almost made him laugh. Still some shame there, poor thing. Rogers must be living the biggest, guiltiest adventure of his rich little life.

“Shh,” Bucky said. He slipped his hand down, then wrapped his fingers around Rogers’ length. The strained moan he got in answer was very satisfying. “That feel good, pal?”

“Yes,” Steve gasped.

“I can jerk you off real nice and slow,” Bucky said right into his ear, moving his hand. “See? Just like that.”

Rogers was rolling his hips along with Bucky’s hand, eyes tightly closed, with a look on his face like he was coming already. Despite himself, Bucky felt his scorn fade. He hadn’t had a client so receptive in years. And Rogers was being perfectly nice, doing what he was told and keeping his hands to himself.

“Alright,” Bucky said in a more normal voice, dropping his pornographic routine for a second. “Is that all you want, Steve? Seriously, tell me.”

Rogers shivered at being called by his own name. He cracked his eyes open to look at Bucky. “I don’t know,” he said. “Uh—I think maybe—um, maybe there’s been a—”

Well, this was taking ages. Bucky licked his lips slowly, then grinned with his newly wet mouth. “How’s that for a hint?”

“God,” Rogers said under his breath.

Bucky wanted to laugh again. Ah, what the hell, Rogers had been sort of nice with the whole plastic cuffs thing. And he was being even nicer now, allowing Bucky to get some sort of revenge on his humiliating day. Making a cop fall apart in bed—there was something to be said for role reversal, and catharsis, and all that.

“Yeah, I definitely wanna suck you off,” Bucky said, letting go of Rogers’ gorgeous cock. “Can you put the condom on? I gotta tie my hair.”

“Uh—uh, okay,” Rogers gasped. Clearly his blood flow was being diverted from his brain, but Bucky took it as a compliment.

He tossed the condoms strip on the bed, then carefully gathered his hair. One time it had gotten tangled in the hollow knuckles of his left hand, and he was not keen to renew the experience. By the time he was done tying it in a bun, Rogers was ready and staring at him.

“We don’t have to do this,” he said with utmost gravitas, like Bucky had offered to give him a kidney instead of a blowjob.

“Don’t sweat it,” Bucky answered easily, settling on the floor between his legs. “You okay there, pal?”

Rogers let out a shaky breath. “I mean—yeah—but—”

“Everything’s fine, Steve, just take it easy,” and the magic word worked again; Rogers visibly perked up at the sound of his own name, lines smoothing on his face. Really weird kink.

But hey, whatever. Bucky wasn’t one to judge.

“Feel free to pull my hair,” he said, leaning down. His metal hand braced on Rogers’ thigh; his flesh hand circled the base of his cock.

Rogers didn’t grab his hair—he must be too proper for that—but he did grip the mattress white-knuckled when Bucky deep-throated him.

“Christ—”

Bucky knew he was great at sucking cock, but a little enthusiastic response once in a while was good for his ego. He pulled all his usual tricks, letting his mind wander while he did it—would Rogers have tasted like apples there too, without the condom?—and it wasn’t even two minutes before Rogers’ hips jerked up and he pulsed his orgasm in Bucky’s mouth.

That had been fast. Bucky’s jaw wasn’t even sore.

“There,” he rasped, getting up.

Rogers was shaking, eyes closed, his face still slack with pleasure.

Bucky wiped his mouth, then slipped the condom off to tie it up and throw it in the trash. “Alright, take a minute and then—”

He almost squeaked when Rogers’ solid arm wrapped around his waist to pull him into his lap. Suddenly, Rogers’ breathing was very close to his ear, his big hand slipping over Bucky’s bare abs.

“Can I,” was all he asked, in a hoarse voice.

Bucky was taken off guard, hated himself for it, but the hand roaming over his stomach felt—nice. And the kisses Rogers pressed into his neck didn’t hurt, either. Even his sweat smelled clean and good. His chest was strong against Bucky’s back, his thighs pressed to Bucky’s ass.

You’re paying, pal, was what Bucky opened his mouth to say—but all that came out was a breathy, “Uh, sure.”

Rogers made a noise, burying his face in the crook of Bucky’s neck while he reached down. He fumbled a little drawing Bucky’s cock out of his boxers, then began to move his hand. He was clumsy and inefficient, but Bucky was surprisingly into it. Rogers wasn’t trying to show off. For some reason, he genuinely wanted to do this.

Alright then. Bucky wiggled back against his solid chest, rocking his ass against Rogers’ softening cock to get more comfortable. “Try it tighter, and faster,” he breathed. “Yeah—like that—”

Not many clients liked to be given directions, but Rogers seemed eager to learn. It wasn’t long before he was doing it exactly the way Bucky liked; and by then Rogers himself had gotten hard again, and breathless again. Apparently, the genetically enhanced body came with a genetically enhanced stamina. Figures.

His free arm was hooked under Bucky’s metal shoulder, and they rocked together as Bucky got closer to the edge. The ragged sounds of their breathing overlapped unevenly in the silent room. Rogers was kissing his neck again, the side of his face, and then suddenly his mouth—a deep, wet kiss, and out of nowhere Bucky realized he was about to come.

“Ah—” he arched back against Rogers, grabbing his thighs—“ah, God, fuck!” and when the first hot spurts slicked up Rogers’ fingers, he didn’t stop, just kept going all the way through Bucky’s orgasm.

When it was done, Bucky went limp against Rogers who wrapped both arms around him and pressed their mouths together again. Bucky wouldn’t have pegged him for a passionate guy, but the way he kissed was intense, almost desperate.

“Hey, slow down, pal,” Bucky grinned. He disentangled himself, got up and kicked his wet boxers away. “C’mon.”

Rogers blinked, obviously at sea. “What?”

“My arm’s still wrapped, might as well take advantage of it,” Bucky said. At Rogers’ blank expression, he went on, “Shower sex.”

“Oh—oh,” Rogers said, allowing himself to be pulled up.

He followed Bucky into the tiny stall. The water usually took time to warm up, but Bucky had taken a shower not thirty minutes ago, and the stream was still hot when it splashed over their shoulders. They made out for a while, wet and open-mouthed and messy, till Rogers was all riled up again. Bucky wiggled around in his embrace to face the tiled wall.

“Can’t really fuck me,” he said. Prep took time and he was tired. “But you can just—like that, see.” He backed up, grinding on him so that Rogers’ cock slipped in the tight space between Bucky’s thighs, just underneath his balls.

After a couple of fumbling seconds, Rogers took the hint and started rolling his hips in earnest. Bucky knew he wasn’t getting it up again tonight—no eugenic dick for him, sorry—but the friction still felt great. Rogers wrapped his arms around him again, one around Bucky’s waist, holding him in place, and the other one tilting his head back, so he could kiss him yet again as he thrust between Bucky’s thighs. He was taller, stronger, and in other circumstances Bucky might have tensed up, but Rogers’ behavior hadn’t been threatening until then, and it wasn’t now. He was just driven, shaking as he brought himself close to orgasm for the second time; when it happened, he gasped—the guy wasn’t a screamer, but he was breathless again as he came all over the tiles, painting stripes of come the water washed away.

He leaned against Bucky afterwards, pressing their whole bodies together, breathing deeply against his neck. Bucky realized he was smiling. He shook his head under the spray, turning his face up to the water. C’mon, Barnes. Rogers was still a brothel-busting cop.

But he’d managed to make Bucky’s day a bit less shitty towards the end, so maybe that was alright for now.

 

*

 

The spell couldn’t last forever. After a while, Rogers straightened up, mumbled awkward thanks and ducked out of the shower. Bucky washed for the second time that night, then dried up. When he came out of the tiny bathroom, Rogers was fully dressed and slipping his boots back on.

“I should—I have to get back,” he said without looking up.

Bucky was tired anyway. But when he glanced at the clock, he felt a guilty twinge in his chest. He tried to ignore it, but it wouldn’t let up. Come on. What do I care? He’s a cop. He looked at the clock again—four a.m.—and couldn’t keep his mouth shut anymore.

“You should stay the night.”

Rogers blinked up at him. “What? Because it’s late?” When Bucky nodded, Rogers shook his head, going back to what he was doing. “Thank you, but I can get by on my own.”

His stilted tone pissed Bucky off. “Your funeral, pal. Hydra’s everywhere at this hour.”

Rogers looked up again. “Hydra?”

God, this guy really was new in town. “Yeah, that’s the local mafia. S’why they call it the Swamp. You know? Hydra in a swamp, like the myths and stuff?”

Rogers nodded, but he probably had no clue what Bucky was talking about. He was still poised to put on his other boot.

“Seriously,” Bucky said, getting worked up, and why did he even care—“You’re gonna get mugged or worse. I know this neighborhood, alright? Listen to me when I tell you it’s not safe out there.”

Rogers obviously wasn’t happy, but he seemed bound by something like manners. He gave a tight shrug and took off his boots again. Bucky was both relieved and annoyed.

They weren’t long to go to sleep afterwards. Rogers wordlessly gave Bucky a hand to pull his spare mattress down from the fake ceiling, then lay down fully clothed under the blanket. His eyes were still open when Bucky turned off the light, like he was trying to process something.

 

*

 

Bucky woke up early. Golden light was streaming in through the slanted ceiling window. Next to him, his arm was a dead heavy thing, completely out of juice.

The spare mattress was back in its spot, and Rogers was gone without a trace. Bucky huffed without surprise and rolled on his side to sleep some more. Fucker hadn’t even paid him.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

It was close to noon, and the albedo glare from the white buildings was almost unbearable, hurting Bucky’s eyes through his cheap sunglasses. They didn’t offer much protection against all the people staring at him, either. He wished he could hurry up the process, but there was nothing he could do except stand there and grind his teeth.

The solar booths were pretty popular these days. When you have energy falling out of the sky, why waste it—right? So glittering silver pillars sucked up the sun and opened ports for anyone who needed to charge their fancy phone for free.

Or their prosthetic arm.

Bucky could have charged it at home, but he got so little sun through his one solar cell, it would have taken ages. And he had places to be, people to do, the works. Solar booths took less than an hour—but of course it felt like an eternity when he was hooked to the thing in the middle of a very public place, next to a bunch of phones and laptops neatly stacked inside the hive-patterned lockers. Bucky wasn’t easily embarrassed, and he blithely stared back at those whose gaze lingered too long, but he was getting hot and sweaty and fed up all the same.

And then.

“Um,” said a deep voice behind him.

Bucky turned around and sure enough, there he was. The fucking sunbeam cop. In brightest day, it was almost impossible to look at him directly. His smoothly grained skin looked unreal, his hair glowed like spun gold, his blue eyes were almost translucent.

Bucky looked away. The remanence of Rogers’ silhouette multiplied in his vision every time he blinked, superimposed over everything.

“What?” he said, trying hard to sound bored. “Never seen a guy use a solar booth?”

“It’s not illegal—” Rogers cleared his throat. “You can do what you want. Just—don’t you have a charger at home?”

“Not enough direct sunlight, in case you didn’t notice yesterday. But then, you were busy.”

Bucky couldn’t help glancing at him again to watch his reaction. Yep, Rogers’ cheeks had colored. He was in his windbreaker—wasn’t he boiling in that thing?—but somehow he still looked as unthreatening as he had in civilian clothes. Maybe because he wasn’t here to arrest Bucky this time.

“Can I…” He rubbed the back of his head, then pushed the words out. “Can I buy you lunch?”

“I’m not done charging up,” Bucky said with dignity.

“That’s okay. I, um, I know a place—you can do that while you eat.”

Bucky wasn’t sure what Rogers was playing at, but he was hungry and broke, and he’d had enough of standing there for people to gawk at. So he unhooked his unresponsive arm from the glittering pillar, grabbed his metal hand and managed to slip it in his pocket, so it would look more or less normal.

“Aren’t you working?” Bucky asked as they walked down the bright street together.

“I’m on my lunch break.” Rogers was stiff and stared straight ahead. He was about the only person in the street not wearing sunglasses, but the glare didn’t seem to disturb him, even with his very pale eyes. “I’d like to talk to you, if that’s alright.”

The odd formality in his tone set off alarm bells at the back of Bucky’s head. “Am I in more trouble?”

Rogers looked up. “What? Oh—no. They wouldn’t bother me for one night.”

Then his face pulled into a frown and he was silent again. Bucky wondered if he should point out that he hadn’t answered the question at all. This self-centered response doubly pissed him off, because—was Rogers so privileged that his bosses wouldn’t mind him arresting sex workers by day and doing them by night?

Maybe it wasn’t that uncommon.

Or maybe Rogers meant something else entirely, because his answer was really so strange that Bucky felt like some unspoken implication had flown right by him. Look at him, giving a cop the benefit of doubt. He definitely had heatstroke.

“There,” Rogers said, leading Bucky into a small restaurant.

The grey-haired woman behind the counter grinned and said “Hello, Steve.” Rogers smiled back and probably said something in return, but Bucky didn’t hear any of it, because Rogers smiling was weird. It was the first time Bucky had ever seen him do it.

Rogers caught Bucky’s eyes on him, and his face instantly slipped back into pinched seriousness. He sat in a booth and took a menu.

Bucky sat in front of him. He wasn’t sure what this was all about anymore.

“What did you want to tell me?”

Rogers cleared his throat again, then set the menu aside. “What I came to say yesterday night. I’ve thought about it and—I think you’re right. About protecting voluntary sex workers. Hassling them—hassling you—doesn’t seem to be actually helping anyone. And I’m sorry.”

Bucky stared.

“Uh,” he said eventually. “Okay?”

Rogers blinked uncertainly, apparently waiting for more.

“I don’t know, that’s—thanks, I guess?” Bucky went on. “You’re saying it like it’s this huge momentous thing. Are you secretly the mayor of New York?”

“No, this is just the first time he’s ever admitted to be wrong,” the grey-haired woman said, bringing them menus. She had a coarse voice and a crisp English accent. “Cherish this moment. It won’t happen again.”

“Peggy,” Rogers protested, aghast.

“I just work here, darling.” She smirked at Bucky, then went back behind the bar.

Rogers was flushed and embarrassed and Bucky was surprised by his own urge to laugh.

“Thank you,” he repeated more warmly. “Can’t say that it’ll change my life, but it’s still nice to know that you actually—”

Words suddenly failed him.

“Hold on. Back up.” He had a dreadful feeling all of a sudden. “What do you mean, what I came to say yesterday night?”

Rogers seemed puzzled. “Which word don’t you understand?”

“That’s not what you came for. You came to—” Bucky’s brain was doing a fast-rewind of the night before. Had Rogers come onto him at any point?

Now that he was thinking about it…

Rogers was blushing now. “Actually—well—actually, no. I was really there to talk to you. But, um—then you sorta pulled me in and…” He made a helpless gesture. “Maybe—maybe I should have said something. And I did try, kind of, at first, but then I… didn’t.”

“Oh my God,” Bucky said weakly.

“You—um, I’m just realizing this now.” Rogers was rubbing his face now, probably in an attempt to hide its crimson hue. “You thought I was there as a client.”

“Well, yeah.”

Rogers bravely met Bucky’s eyes. “But I didn’t even pay you.”

“I thought you were a shitty entitled cop client,” Bucky shrugged.

They stared at each other for a second—and then they both collapsed in nervous giggles. Bucky hid behind his menu while Steve just tried to contain himself, and they shook with it for almost two minutes before they finally burst into peals of mortified laughter.

Steve recovered quicker than Bucky, who had to fan himself with his menu while he tried to calm down. “Oh God,” he gasped. “Oh God, I think I’ve developed new abs.”

When he looked up, Steve had lowered his eyes, with a smile still etched in the corner of his mouth, like he was trying to stop but couldn’t. Bucky was distracted again by how profoundly it transformed his face.

“I’m really sorry,” Steve said.

“God, don’t be. Long as you had fun.”

“I can—I can still pay you if you want?”

“I’m gonna pretend you didn't just say that.” Bucky rubbed his face. Beneath the laughter, his chest clenched with guilt. He should have noticed. Except of course Rogers had answered Bucky’s questions, had put on the condom himself and said yes every time, but he’d also looked very confused and Bucky had been angry, so he hadn’t cared.

“You’re crazy, though,” he went on. “Coming down to the Swamp just to talk? My phone number was jotted down by about ten different cops yesterday.”

Steve shrugged. “It felt wrong to use the phone. And I don’t mind the place, it’s where I grew up. For me it’ll always be Brooklyn.”

“You grew up there?” Bucky said, stunned. He knew it had to be true—not many people remembered the true name of the neighborhood—but then he really had Steve Rogers all wrong.

“Yeah. Why not?”

“I don’t know. I thought you were crazy rich, what with your super-serum thing.”

The blood drew back from Steve’s face.

“You know?” He sat up ramrod straight again. “How?”

“I… I read about it,” Bucky said, surprised. “They published a study last year in the Stark Science Reader. I’m kind of a nerd, I like skimming those things. The free abridged versions, anyway.”

Steve’s shoulders did not relax. He was still very pale. “The SSR?”

“Yeah, you’ve got the spine scar.”

“Oh.” He swallowed. “I never thought someone might recognize it from that.”

Bucky looked at him for a minute, mesmerized. What the hell was this guy? Born in the Swamp, walking around in a billion-dollar genetically engineered body, not looking too happy about it, working as a beat cop, and willing to fall into bed with a hooker.

“Is that why you taste like apples?” Bucky couldn’t help asking.

The color abruptly came back to Steve’s face, and he furiously stared at his menu. “We’ve already spent way too much time together.”

“Aw, c’mon! Was it a weird side-effect? Was it on purpose?”

“I don’t know,” Steve confessed, ears turning red. “They wouldn’t tell me—look, can we order?”

Bucky wanted to tease him some more, but he was also starving. He pulled a cord from the wall to hook up his arm and flipped open the menu with his right hand, intent on picking some very expensive food. Still, for a couple of seconds he couldn’t even read what he saw, his mind was so full.

 

*

 

“Enchiladas for our guest,” Peggy said in her rough smoker voice, “and a hamburger for Officer Rogers.”

“Peggy,” Steve whined again. “Don’t call me that. I’m off-duty.”

“No you’re not, darling. Your break ended twenty minutes ago.”

Steve checked his phone and cursed. He looked at Bucky. “Do you have time to walk with me? Or—dammit. I forgot your arm.”

“I can lug it around,” Bucky said, even though he’d rather not.

“No, it’s fine, I—” Steve packed his burger tight in its sulfurized paper, focusing a bit too much on his task. “Look, can I give you my number?”

He didn’t look at Bucky as he said it. Bucky felt a smile tug at his lips.

“Sure,” he said easily. “Actually, take mine.”

Steve nodded, keeping his gaze firmly down as he entered the number Bucky told him. He shot him a text—Bucky felt the answering vibration in his pocket—then pushed his chair back, still without meeting Bucky’s eyes.

“Okay, guess I’ll see you around.”

“Hold on a sec,” Bucky said, reaching out.

“What’s the m—”

Bucky had already pulled him into a kiss, holding firmly onto the rigid lapel of his windbreaker. After a moment of initial shock, Steve stayed, for a time which felt out of time entirely, but in reality couldn’t have lasted more than three intense seconds. He pulled back with a soft gasp.

“I—” He couldn’t stop looking at Bucky now. Obviously, he hadn’t expected anything like that again.

Maybe Bucky had surprised himself, too, but he wasn’t gonna let him see. He smiled, like it was nothing. “You’re gonna be late.”

“Uh,” said Steve. “Um, yeah, I’ll. Yeah.”

He walked out of the tiny restaurant, looking dazed. Bucky watched him go for a moment too long. Why had he done that? Here was a goddamn cop, who was arrogant enough to believe Bucky must know his personal opinion on everything—so why didn’t Bucky feel more annoyed?

“And what’s your name, darling?”

He startled back into the moment. The grey-haired lady was standing right in front of him and fixing him with a piercing stare. Nobody had ever called him darling so sharply.

“Uh,” Bucky said, confused. “James Barnes?”

“All right,” she said, cryptically. “Well, Mr. Barnes. Don’t let those enchiladas go cold.”

“No. Sorry.”

Bucky’s arm pinged and whirred awake just after she was gone.

 

*

 

Bucky spent his afternoon in Hell’s Kitchen, working. Foggy was one of his favorite clients, with a nice sense of humor and a tendency to pay up without being asked. Still, Bucky was exhausted from the previous day—getting arrested by cops and then fucking one of them all night tended to take the wind out of his sails. So he was more than happy to get back to Brooklyn. Or, well, the Swamp.

Rogers didn’t call it the Swamp.

Who cares, Bucky told himself again, like every time he’d thought about Rogers during the day. It wasn’t very efficient, because his thoughts always wandered back to him. In fact, he was intent on going back to the SSR’s website to dig up the whole Super-Serum article. Sue him, he was curious—and it would be ten times more interesting to read that thing, now that he’d actually met a prototype walking around.

He didn’t get around to it for another couple hours, washing his hair, making dinner, but eventually he settled under the covers with his phone and looked it up. Stark Tech, super-serum genetic enhancement. The full article was protected, of course. Bucky could buy it for five bucks. He grumbled to himself for a minute, but Foggy’s money was enough to cover half of his fine, and Bucky had three more clients lined up later that week. So he could afford it. Just barely.

He waited for the full thing to download, and frowned when it announced that it would take over thirty minutes. Why the fuck was it so heavy? Or was his connection on the fritz?

Bucky quickly scrolled back up and groaned. It wasn’t just an article—there were videos and screenshots and PhD-levels interactive diagrams. Yeah, the SSR was a peer-reviewed publication, so Bucky had no business reading their stuff in the first place. He should have expected something like that.

He got up to make tea and flopped back in his bed just as his phone pinged happily at him. Thumbing open the article, Bucky sighed out, then started his read.

Stark Science Reader – Journal of Genetic Syndromes & Gene Therapy – Genetic Mutations in Humans – Triggered Genetic Mutation on Volunteer Human Test Subjects – The “Super-Serum” Stem Cells Spine Graft

That was just the goddamn title. Bucky raised his eyebrows, then pulled them into a frown to focus.

Twenty minutes later, he rubbed a hand over his face to stave off an impending headache. Apparently, the Super-Serum experiment had involved selecting a variety of people from different backgrounds to see how they interacted with an injection that just broke down DNA and recomposed it in live subjects. Somehow without killing them. Successful tests had already been conducted on artificially living meat, which wasn’t much. Animal testing had been illegal for a while. But human testing, if it was on a voluntary basis with full informed consent, was not. The Stark guys were pretty confident their experiment would work, and insisted on it about every third paragraph, which didn’t exactly fill Bucky with trust.

And so they had taken their sixteen volunteers and sliced their spine open to pump their marrow full of foreign stem cells paired with an aggressive virus to implement them. Obviously, all the test subjects had had violent reactions and rejected the stuff one after the other. All, except a volunteer suffering from a preexisting condition, named S.R.

There was a picture.

“You’re kidding me,” Bucky murmured.

It was a small, skinny guy with spindly limbs. Sitting on a metal slab in his boxers. His feet didn’t even touch the floor—it couldn’t be him. But he had the same face, albeit with a weaker jaw and dark circles of exhaustion under his eyes.

Three scientists stood next to him, but they were all talking between each other, making him look peculiarly isolated. The picture had probably been taken at a bad time, but Bucky’s stomach twisted all the same. He scrolled down and felt his eyes widen. This picture was taken from the other side of the room; an impressive array of metal tubes and cables was sticking out of Rogers’ knobbly back.

“Dear Lord,” Bucky mumbled, scrolling down again, but there were no more pictures. The videos and diagrams were too much for his tired brain, so he passed them too and went straight to the end. Apparently, S.R. had integrated the genetic modifier and his body had transformed over a period of three months, “with some temporary discomfort”. The experiment was an isolated success. The article stopped there.

Bucky set his phone down and stared at the ceiling for a while.

 

*

 

It took him three days to open the text Rogers had sent him. He did it on an impulse, without even really thinking about it, lying in bed while his client was in the shower.

Thanks for letting me buy you lunch. You don’t have to text me if you don’t want to. – S.R.

The initials—same as in the article—were what decided him. Try as he might, Bucky could not dredge up any more resentment towards the guy, not after he’d seen those awful pictures of him hooked into the goddamn matrix. And—Bucky wanted to see him again. He bit his lip and wrote his answer quickly, so he couldn’t change his mind.

When’s your next day off? – Bucky

Then he got out of bed, peeking out the window to make sure the police wasn’t downstairs this time. He didn’t like working in hotels, but not all clients wanted to disclose their private address. Some of them had families. Most of them didn’t trust him, which didn’t make much sense. Bucky may not have a lot of morals, but he wasn’t gonna steal something shiny when he might lose his entire clientele over it.

He was sore and mostly wanted to go home, but when he stepped out of his own shower, there was a text lighting up his phone. Two of them, actually.

I thought your name was James?

And I’m not working this Saturday.

Bucky had a strange feeling in the pit of his stomach. He was really doing this, wasn’t he? Seeing that guy again for no particular reason.

Only for clients, he texted back. Then, Okay for Saturday. Meet at noon by the solar booth, you know the one.

 

*

 

“Oh, James. Again?”

Natasha was certainly not a client—in fact, she was Bucky’s landlord—but she was also the closest thing he had to a friend thanks to their shady past, so she called him whatever she wanted.

“I’m getting real tired of getting arrested at work,” Bucky mumbled. “I’m not hurting anyone, dammit.”

Natasha’s little grey cat jumped on his lap. He winced at her claws, but petted her all the same. For some reason, she loved his metal arm, rubbing up against it and bumping her head against the palm.

“Did they treat you okay?”

“Eh.” Bucky schooled his face into blandness, focusing on the cat. “Had worse.”

She sighed. “Well, my timing’s not great here, but I still have to remind you.” She handed him a beer which he opened with his metal fingers. “You cannot bring clients here. I’ll be busted for procuring.”

“I didn’t. I don’t.”

“A handsome blond asked me where James Barnes lived, about a week ago.”

It was harder to stay impassive this time. “Oh, yeah. He’s not a client.”

Natasha peered at him for a second, then sipped her vodka. “Well. As long as the cops don’t show up, I’m happy.”

Bucky almost coughed into his glass. He gently pushed the cat off him and straightened up.

“Do you—um,” he wiped his mouth, “have any news about silicone shells? I’m getting real tired of living with exposed wires.”

“None that fit. You need Kevlar at the very least, James.”

“Too expensive.” He scowled. “And I don’t do that anymore.”

“I’m not talking about using your arm,” she said. “You shouldn’t have pried it apart in the first place.”

“Well, it’s done now.” He washed down the sourness of his words with more beer. “A custom-fitted silicon shell that’s not too expensive. That’s all I need.”

She sighed. “I’ll see what I can find.”

 

*

 

I might be late, Steve texted on Saturday.

And then he proceeded not to show up at all.

After two hours of staring at the stupid solar booth, tucked in what little shadow he could find, Bucky was fuming in more ways than one. Why had he given any credit to that entitled asshole? Why had he hoped for anything more than a quick fuck followed by bullshit apologies? Rogers was what he seemed after all.

You had your laugh, he sent angrily, I’m going home.

Of-fucking-course, the monorail got stuck just before reaching the Swamp, and Bucky had to wait like an idiot while the speakers kept telling all passengers to please be patient in a sickly sweet voice. When he finally got out, the skies were dark and Bucky felt hot and sweaty and angrier than ever.

Which was why he wasn’t pleased at all when he heard a very familiar voice over the crowd.

“Bucky!”

Bucky spun round. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.”

Rogers looked overheated, his face hot and hair dark with sweat. Obviously, he’d been stuck in the same monorail, only a different car.

“I’m sorry about this,” he said. “Please, I can—I can explain…”

His eyes were glassy. Bucky was pissed off, but Steve looked like he was genuinely going to pass out.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“Sorry. I’m sorry. Haven’t eaten,” Steve breathed.

“Hell, in how many days?”

Bucky meant it as sarcasm, obviously, so he absolutely didn’t expect Steve to answer, “Four or five, I think.”

His jaw dropped. “Excuse me?”

“It’s fine. It’s just—I didn’t think we’d get stuck at night.”

“Huh?” Bucky felt a pang of true fear when a doubt seized him. “Steve, look at me.”

He looked into Steve’s unfocused eyes. He was obviously overheated, and he was incoherent. Maybe it was actually heatstroke. And if it was, they needed to get him to a hospital right away.

“Steve, do you know where you are?”

But Steve shook his head. “Yes—yes, I’m sorry. God, I’m doing this all wrong.”

“Come on,” Bucky said. If this was a ploy to bypass his anger, he’d fall for it. Better feel like a fool than let Rogers collapse from exhaustion, or whatever it was that was happening to him. “Let’s go sit somewhere.”

He dragged him to his favorite greasy joint and ordered two burgers, along with a bottle of water.

“You don’t need to do that,” Steve said weakly. He was pale and sweating.

When the food arrived, he let out a noise and inhaled it in record time. Bucky watched him with increasing dismay. Steve was eating like a starving man.

“Feeling better?” Bucky asked tentatively when the food and water were gone. One of the burgers was supposed to be for him, but he wasn’t going to tell him that now.

“Yeah.” Steve exhaled. His cheeks were regaining color already—he must have a hell of a metabolism. “I’m sorry. Could’ve been more dignified.”

“Just tell me what the hell that was all about.”

“I just—I forget to eat sometimes.”

“For four days?” Bucky knew he was being pretty inconsiderate—if the guy had a disorder of some kind, he shouldn’t be rubbing it in—but something here just didn’t make sense.

“Yeah. But usually, it doesn’t make a difference.”

“Steve, what the fuck.

“I thought you’d read the SSR article.” Now Steve was the one looking genuinely confused.

“Fuck, not all of it. I’m not a geneticist.”

“There’s a diagram, it—” Steve shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. I’m, uh—long story short, I photosynthesize.”

Bucky stared.

“And usually that’s enough for calories and vitamins,” Steve went on. “So I don’t really need to eat. Just a bit of protein and fiber once in a while. But I was trapped in that monorail and the sun went down, and I didn’t have much in the way of reserves, so I started feeling a bit—faint.”

“Steve.” Bucky raised a hand to stop him. “You’re solar-powered?”

Steve winced as if to say he knew how it sounded. “Welcome to the future, I guess.”

“You’re a plant?”

“I’m not a plant.”

“You are. You’re a fucking sunflower.”

“I’m not—” Steve suddenly huffed a laugh. “I didn’t think you’d get stuck on that part.”

Bucky’s worry finally started to ebb, allowing his anger to resurface for a second. “None of that explains why you stood me up.”

Steve looked down. He had crazy long eyelashes. Those were all him, too—Bucky had noticed them on the pictures already, before he got pumped full of magic sun potion.

“I’m really sorry,” he said. “I had an emergency meeting with the Stark Tech people. They confiscate my phone every time, for security reasons, and they kept me for hours. I couldn’t tell them I was meeting you.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t want to talk about it,” Steve said, which would have been more abrupt if he hadn’t sounded so exhausted. “They kept me all day already, I’m done with them for now. But—here… ”

He got out his phone and showed it to Bucky: the timestamp showed that his angry text had arrived in the evening, though he’d sent it around 2pm.

“I’m not lying to you. I swear to God. I wanted to make it.”

Bucky considered him. Steve was looking at him with huge, pleading eyes.

“So you thought you’d come apologize in person again?”

“And the rail got stuck.” Steve gave a sheepish wince. “This whole day was kind of a disaster.”

Bucky stared at him some more. Then he cracked a smile.

“At least you brought me flowers.”

“What? I—” Steve’s face went flat. “Bucky, I’m not a plant.”

“I should bring you home,” Bucky cackled, “put you in water. My sunflower cop.”

“Well, at least you’re getting a laugh out of this.”

He was smiling, though, and he was so obviously relieved Bucky could almost feel it roll off him in waves. The whole affair must have worried him a hell of a lot. As if it mattered whether Bucky was pissed at him.

Bucky pushed back his plastic chair. “Can you walk?”

Steve looked up at him. “Yeah, I’m fine now. Why?”

“You do need a shower. And I don’t live that far.”

“Oh, no, I don’t want to intrude again—I really didn’t mean for this to—”

“Steve.” Bucky grabbed his wrist and smiled. “Take a hint.”

“Oh,” Steve said.

He got up and followed him without another word.

 

*

 

Bucky pushed Steve into the shower, then washed his face and changed into fresh clothes. When Steve came out, wearing a washed-out t-shirt and sweatpants, Bucky shot him a grin.

“You scared of heights?”

“Heights? Uh—I don’t think so.”

So they went up on the roof.

It was peculiarly beautiful at night. The city glowed in the distance, but it wasn’t enough to occult the starlight like in the days of old. The moon shone like a great silver eye, lighting up the solar panels littering the roof, so they looked like a field of snow.

“Don’t step on them—careful, come over here.”

Bucky led Steve to his usual spot. A cracked panel had been removed more than three years ago and hadn’t been replaced yet, so they could sit comfortably on the bare patch of concrete. Steve sat next to him and brought up his knees, lacing his arms around them. If Bucky had had reason to doubt before, he didn’t now; this was the subconscious gesture of a much smaller man.

“It’s pretty neat in summer,” Bucky said. “Less so in January.”

“I can imagine.” Steve was more relaxed than Bucky had ever seen him. He was looking at the stars. “Thanks, Bucky.”

“Didn’t want your day to be all shit.”

Bucky’s old t-shirt was strained on Steve’s bulky frame, and his spine scar was clearly visible, peeking from the back, climbing up his neck almost all the way to his hair. Bucky reached out to brush it with his metal fingers, without thinking.

Steve flinched, but didn’t move away.

“Did it hurt?” Bucky asked.

“A little,” Steve answered absently.

He turned to consider Bucky’s arm. He didn’t look freaked out, even though it was really ugly from up close. “How come you have exposed wires?”

It was what he’d wanted to know on the day they’d met. Bucky looked at him for a long while, deciding whether to speak.

In the end, the words left his mouth almost on their own. “It’s a Zima 3255.”

He wasn’t sure it would mean anything to Steve, but his gaping stare answered that question. “It’s military-grade? But—it looks so…”

“Cheap? That’s ‘cause I ripped it apart. Took off the plates.”

Bucky turned his metal hand palm up and watched as Steve’s pale, perfect fingers hesitantly touched his.

“I’m a deserter from the Southwest United,” he went on. “Crossed into the Northeast Federation a coupla years ago.”

“Oh. Wow.”

Bucky remembered who he was talking to and cleared his throat. “And I really shouldn’t have said that. Please don’t extradite me.”

“So your papers are fake?”

“I’ve been arrested so many times, I’ve stopped being afraid you idiots would figure it out.”

“And yet you’ve just told me.” Steve smiled, and Bucky realized he wasn’t scared at all Steve would turn him in.

“Well,” he said a bit hoarsely. “You don’t seem allergic to illegal immigrants.”

“My mother was one.”

Bucky blinked. Steve didn’t notice, though, and just sighed.

“And this division’s stupid anyway. We used to be one country.”

“Well, stuff happened,” Bucky said without much inspiration.

“I thought we were finally building towards a better world,” Steve insisted, looking over the glowing city in the distance and the gulf of shadow at their feet. “But I’ve been a cop for less than a year and I already know that’s not true.”

“Stevie, the world will always be shit. At least now it’s sustainable shit.”

Steve smiled with the corner of his mouth. “Stevie?”

“I’m tryin’ it out. It’s that or sunflower.”

“God forbid.” Steve was still looking at him. His eyes were so soft.

It had been years since Bucky had last kissed someone for himself.

And it was really stupid, he thought as he leaned in imperceptibly, because what could he possibly build with Steve Rogers? The guy was a cop and an advanced science experiment, he was meant to be the figurehead of this brave new world. Doing this was stupid and would lead them nowhere.

When Bucky kissed him, Steve exhaled like he’d been relieved from some invisible weight. It made Bucky press closer, tilting his head to fit their mouths together, parting his lips, a moment before Steve did the same. Just before Bucky could sink into the kiss, though, Steve pulled back.

“I should—I should really try to use my words this time,” he said hoarsely.

“Something urgent you needta share?” Bucky smiled.

“I just—” Steve seemed wrong-footed again. “I’m just not sure why you’re doing this.”

“Well, I must be out of my goddamn mind, but I think I actually like you.” 

Steve didn’t laugh. “You’re not just looking to—” His brow was pinched. “Experiment?”

Bucky reached out to smooth the crease with his thumb. “Pal, I think you had enough experiments for a while.”

Steve swallowed thickly.

“And I’m sorry to break it to you,” Bucky went on, “but your body ain’t all that.”

This time, he got a surprised laugh out of him.

“It’s true,” Bucky went on, smirking. “For one thing, it comes way too soon.”

“You—that’s a goddamn low blow.” Steve’s blush was visible even in the dim light. “Cut me some slack, I did my best. How did your first time go, huh?”

Something got stuck in Bucky’s throat.

“First time in your new body?” he asked, though of course it couldn’t be what he meant.

Steve blinked at him. “No. Ever. I thought that was obvious.”

And it was. Of course it fucking was. Just how many things had Bucky missed? How could he call himself a professional? Steve had been puzzled and clumsy because he was a goddamn fucking virgin, and Bucky had—

“I’m sorry.” His hand was over his mouth. “Christ, I’m so fucking sorry.”

“For what?” asked Steve, looking lost, and it was too much. Bucky got to his feet, stumbled away from him, making his way across the solar panels. He had to get out of here, get back inside, he couldn’t stay here under the stars with him.

“Wait!”

An awful crack made Bucky freeze—Steve didn’t know how to place his feet, and if he split a panel Natasha would have Bucky’s head. Despite himself, he turned around, went back for him and took his arm, showing him how to navigate the thin spaces between the cells.

“Bucky—” Steve grabbed his wrist tight when they got to the stairs, so he couldn’t get away again. “Bucky. Talk to me.”

“I used you,” Bucky blurted. “God. I was angry and I wanted to get back at someone and you were there, so it was you. I didn’t go slow, I wasn’t kind or—and it was your first time, Jesus fucking Christ.”

“That’s it?”

Bucky glanced up, startled from his self-loathing spiral. “What?”

Steve looked unimpressed. “Bucky, I’d literally arrested you that same day. I figured it was about revenge for you, I’m not that dumb. But I didn’t say anything because it tied into my own plans pretty well.”

There was a long silence between them.

“Steve,” Bucky said eventually. “I can’t—I can’t believe you didn’t have a better option than letting an angry hooker fuck you out of spite.”

“You’ve seen the pictures.” Steve sounded tired all of a sudden. “I was born ill, Bucky. So yeah, I was in a bed for most of my life, but nobody ever got in it with me.”

“You—you had a genetic disease?”

“Think AIDS, but targeting the DNA instead of the immune system.” Steve forced a smile. “It’s what killed my mom. And it’s what made the procedure work on me. Most of the deconstructing work was already done.”

Bucky stepped closer. He couldn’t help himself, and he also had no idea what to say. All he could think of was that picture of the machinery sticking out of Steve’s spine. Steve kept talking in a disheartened voice.

“And afterwards, well, I guess some people took interest, but only for the Stark Tech body, you know? People who wanted to take it for a test drive. But then you were there and—and I thought you didn’t know.” He gave a mirthless smile. “Turns out you did, so joke’s on me.”

“Steve.” Bucky waited till he looked up at him, and said seriously, “I promise I did it only out of spite.”

Steve laughed, but he sounded so ashamed of himself something in Bucky broke.

“God, what a fucking mess—just, just come here.”

He pulled Steve close, and Steve went, though very stilted again. He didn’t even know how to hug, just sort of stood there, with his hands awkwardly coming up to rest on Bucky’s hips.

“Try squeezing me a bit,” Bucky instructed, like it was normal. Steve made no comment, but complied after some hesitation, hands moving to the middle of Bucky’s back. Bucky couldn’t stop thinking of the little guy sitting on the metal slab. How come nobody had ever even hugged him? Bucky would have hugged the shit out of him every day. He was going to do it now.

Steve let out a shuddery breath. He was getting the hang of this hug thing. Bucky brought his metal hand up to rub the back of his head, carefully.

“I’m sorry,” he said, because he couldn’t remember if he’d said it yet.

“Don’t apologize.” Steve’s voice was thick and muffled. “’M pretty sure you’ve had a shittier life than me anyway.”

“Pal, it’s not a competition.” Bucky pulled back to look at him, leaving his hands on his shoulders. He definitely wasn’t having sex with Steve tonight, not when he was still reeling from his own stupidity, but he didn’t want to let go of him either. “Wanna spend the night again? We can try this nifty thing called spooning.”

Steve had his stoic face on again. “I’m not looking for pity, Buck.”

“Great, ‘cause I’m all out.” Bucky smirked at him. “Rogers, come on. It’s not like I only just started macking on you after unlocking your tragic backstory.”

He was still hesitant, so Bucky insisted, “I promise I’ll be really mean about it if you want.”

And finally he laughed. “Alright. Okay.” He pulled Bucky close, pressing his face to his neck, and breathed out again, “Alright.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

So Bucky had let a cop sleep at his place for the second time in a week, and this time they were in the same bed.

He was on a slippery slope here, he could just tell.

For such a big guy, Steve wasn’t taking a lot of space. He was still deeply asleep, lying on his stomach, face half-buried in the pillow. He had gone to bed shirtless and Bucky could clearly see the tender pink groove of his spine.

He just watched him sleeping for a while, remembering the night before. God, he really shouldn’t have told him about the defecting thing. The Southeast Union didn’t take kindly to deserters, and Commander Pierce was probably still looking for Bucky after all these years. Served them right for drafting him. As to the Northeast Federation, they were way too concerned with being a perfect little utopia, so they’d kick Bucky back to his native half-country without a second thought if they found him out. Never mind that he’d end up on death row.

He had been so careful protecting himself, changing everything about his identity except for his childhood nickname, which he couldn’t quite let go of. And now he’d just told Steve everything.

The sun was filtering through the slanted ceiling; the solar cell in the wall started humming. Bucky vaguely thought of hooking up his arm, but instead he found himself hypnotized by the light licking up Steve’s back. He was absorbing it. How weird was that?

Without thinking, Bucky reached out to brush the patch of sun-warm skin. When he looked at Steve’s face, his blue eyes were open.

“Sorry,” Bucky whispered. “Didn’t mean to wake you up.”

Steve just looked at him. Bucky could read him a bit better now. Clearly, waking up in bed next to someone was an entirely new experience for him, and he wasn’t sure what to do.

Hopefully Bucky could avoid messing up that first time.

Shifting closer, he reached out to rub Steve’s neck, then drew his fingers through his short golden hair, thumb rubbing at the side of his face. Steve shivered, but closed his eyes to lean into the touch. Bucky closed the last of the space between them and dropped a chaste kiss on his lips.

He pulled back, just to see if Steve would chase after him—and he did, coming closer to kiss him back. Bucky wrapped his arms around him, and Steve rested his head on his shoulder with a sigh. The heat wasn’t too bad yet, so hugging felt real nice, and Steve relaxed after a while.

“Morning,” he mumbled.

“Morning,” Bucky echoed. He kissed his temple, then his jaw.

Steve hummed. Bucky threw a leg over his, hooking it behind his thighs to drag him closer. His body was warm, solid, dense with muscle, and Bucky realized it was morning wood he felt pressed up against his hip.

“Hey,” he said with a slow grin. “How ‘bout a do-over on that virginity loss?”

Steve’s eyes cracked open again, two slivers of blue, and his pink mouth drew a smile. “Give yourself some credit, Buck. You were angry, but it was pretty good.”

“Well I’m not angry now.” Bucky climbed on top of him, rolling him to his back and pressing him down into the mattress. “Imagine just how good it could get.”

Steve laughed and reached up for another kiss. Bucky gave it to him with a smile, and they made out slow and easy for another little while. Steve was rolling his hips, pushing his hard-on against Bucky’s ass.

Then he exhaled and said, without opening his eyes, “I should get to work.”

Bucky hummed. “Are you gonna?”

Steve laced his arms around him. “No,” he said, then breathed out again when Bucky leaned back down, “No.”

The kiss was getting wet and sloppy, and their hips rolled together with more insistency, grinding, pressing, pushing.

“Hey,” Bucky said, going to nose at Steve’s ear, “how d’you feel about actually fucking this time?”

Steve went still. When Bucky looked at him, his eyes were wide, hungry and worried all at once.

“I’d—yeah.” He hesitated. “Me or you?”

“I can enjoy myself both ways, pal. It’s your party.”

Steve slowly but surely went pink. He seemed determined to use his words, though—and see if Bucky’s heart didn’t still clench guiltily about that—and managed to articulate, “I would like to f—to fuck you, if that’s fine.”

If that’s fine.” Bucky grinned. “You’re not much of a dirty talker, are ya?”

“Don’t laugh at me,” Steve mumbled with a small self-deprecating smile.

“I’m not. I’m not.” Bucky bent down to kiss him again. “It’s real nice, actually.”

The idea of Steve fucking him—of seeing his face as he experienced it for the first time—of being that first time for him—it shouldn’t have turned Bucky on so much. His job had put him in a similar situation many times, of course, but it was Steve.

Bucky smiled down at him. “I’m just gonna pop into the shower real quick.”

“Why? Do you—oh,” Steve said, embarrassed.

Bucky left him sprawled on the bed with his hair sticking every which way and went into the shower. He’d cleaned himself up often enough that he could do it without thinking at all, and it didn’t take him more than five minutes, including the time spent deciding if he should put his boxers back on (he did). Still, he half-expected Steve to be gone when he got out, and felt a stupid thrill when he saw him sitting in his bed, fully bathed in the morning sun, glowing like a goddamn Renaissance painting.

But then Steve said, “There’s something you should know,” with that wrinkle between his eyebrows.

Bucky went to sit by him on the bed. “What is it?”

Steve heaved a sigh with those great shoulders of his. This, too, was the little guy—used to exaggerate gestures so they could be seen. The SSR study was barely two years old. It suddenly struck Bucky just how new this all was for him.

“Legally, we shouldn’t be doing this.”

Bucky raised his eyebrows. “I know. That’s how we met.”

“What? No. God, no, I don’t mean you. I mean me. My body, it’s—it’s copyrighted.”

Bucky blinked. “What?”

“I know how that sounds.” Steve swallowed. “But it’s a piece of Stark Tech. I shouldn’t even let you get so close. Since you know—you could be trying to steal my DNA and replicate it. Or, you know, sell it to someone who will.”

“That’s about the stupidest thing I ever heard,” Bucky said. “Why aren’t they keeping you locked in a lab then?”

“Oh, they tried,” Steve said like it was normal. “But I—my mom was friends with this lady, see, that’s how I got into the program in the first place, and she turned out to be the former head of the SSR. And she’s supposed to be retired now, but she still has influence. So I’m allowed to walk around as long as I don’t…”

He didn’t seem to know how to finish that sentence and went silent for a bit.

“Look,” he went on, “they keep a close watch on me. And with what you told me yesterday, you—you don’t wanna attract that kind of attention. So maybe I should just leave.”

A little voice at the back of Bucky’s head tried to chime in. Steve had a point. Actually, as a cop and a Stark Tech prototype, he was double the trouble. Natasha would kill Bucky if he brought attention to her building, and then he’d be kicked out across the border, where they would actually kill him.

There had to be less risky people to fuck. And obviously, everyone around Steve had already come to this logical and reasonable conclusion. So now he had nobody at all.

“Oh well,” Bucky mumbled. “I went on the run once, I can do it again.”

“Bucky—”

Bucky wrapped him in his arms and kissed him. Steve let out a shaky noise against his mouth.

“I can’t let you take that risk,” he said, the stubborn idiot.

“Well, sorry to break it to you, but you’re not the boss of me, officer.”

“Steve,” he corrected in a whisper.

And Bucky suddenly understood why it mattered so much to him. It wasn’t a kink. It was just that Steve literally didn’t know anybody that called him by his first name.

“My God,” he mumbled. “Ain’t that just criminal.”

“What?”

“Nothing. Just thinking out loud. About your ass.” Bucky grasped it with both hands. “You could bounce a quarter off this thing.”

Steve laughed. “Not like I’ve done anything to earn it.”

“You went through the procedure,” Bucky said, “you’ve earned it.” He pressed against him again. “And now let’s talk about something else.”

He straddled him to sit in his lap, putting his arms around his shoulders.

“Like my ass. You still wanna?”

Steve had flagged, but it only took him a few seconds to show interest again. He swallowed and pushed his face into Bucky’s neck. “Yeah,” he managed.

“Well, good, ‘cause you got the all-clear.”

Bucky took off his boxers, letting his own hard cock spring free, then knelt astride Steve’s lap again. He really did enjoy bottoming, though he’d done it for the job a bit too often. But all of that didn’t matter now, what with Steve shuddering when his hands went down Bucky’s hips, cupping his bare ass.

“Yeah.” Bucky had buried his own face in Steve’s neck and spoke close to his ear. No eye contact might help him get started. “Go on, lower. Come say hi.”

Steve huffed a laugh, but it was so breathless and shaky it didn’t really count. His hands went down, his fingers found the cleft of Bucky’s ass, came to rub at his rim. Bucky shivered and reached blindly for his nightstand, groping into the first drawer to get out the lube.

“Here. Just slick up your fingers for now.”

He heard the click when Steve uncapped the tiny bottle, then cursed when he almost let it slip. Bucky hid his smile into Steve’s shoulder, spread his legs further, and bit his lip when Steve’s fingers came back, gliding and slippery.

“C’mon.” He rolled his hips, pushed his erection against Steve’s toned stomach. “Put one in me.”

Steve did, working it in, sounding even more breathless than him. Bucky himself was so riled up he groaned with pleasure, making Steve stop to look at him.

“Does—does it feel that good?”

“We’ll do you next time. See how you like it.” Bucky grinded down. “One more. C’mon.”

They took their sweet time, going up to two fingers, then three, then four. Bucky was hard and leaking, clutching at Steve’s shoulders, and Steve was even more worked up, still trapped in his underwear. When he couldn’t stand it anymore, Bucky leaned back to look at him, grinning. “Alright. You wanna fuck me now, Stevie? Now that you opened me up. Did a pretty good job of it, too. You know you’re just gonna slide right in. Gonna be slick ‘n hot ‘n easy.”

“Christ,” Steve breathed.

“You wanna?” Bucky repeated, low, and Steve gasped, “Yes.”

Bucky moved off him and lay down on his back. He could have gotten on all fours—it would have made it easier for Steve, probably—but he wanted to see Steve’s face, and he had no problem being selfish over this one thing.

“You should take those off,” he said, with a grin at Steve’s tented boxers.

“Yeah—yeah.” Steve stood up to fumble them down, and then he was gloriously naked, all smooth golden skin, shifting muscles, and proud erection.

He climbed back onto the bed, settling over Bucky who handed him a condom again. He was pretty sure they were fine—Steve hadn’t ever had the opportunity to catch anything, and Bucky took good care of himself—but it was just the done thing.

Steve rolled the condom on with some hesitation, but without messing up. He was flushed red, and the first thing he did when leaning down was just lie on top of Bucky to kiss him some more. Their bodies were pressed flush together, skin to skin, and Bucky really wanted it now. He hadn’t been hungry for it like this in a while.

“Come on.” He reached down to help him line up.

Steve went too fast at first—tried to push in but ended up slipping out. He inched back with a stutter and a blush, but then he tried again with Bucky’s encouragements, slow enough to find the right angle before he drove inside, hard and deep and perfect.

“God, Bucky,” he breathed.

“Yes,” Bucky gasped. No matter how pleasant, the sensation was still deeply invasive, and it made him shudder with delight, to have Steve in him. He angled his hips to let him go all the way in, and felt full in the best goddamn way. “Fuck, yes, just like that.”

Steve started moving on instinct and Bucky accompanied him, the way he knew best, clenching when he pulled away, then relaxing to welcome him back in. Steve’s eyes were closed, his face slack, his pink mouth open. He was so beautiful, but it had nothing to do with the body they’d grown for him. Bucky had had handsome clients before; he was pretty much immune. But Steve’s emotions played so intensely on the planes of his face. He looked like he could barely believe it, like they were doing something sacred, almost miraculous.

Bucky was hard, pleasure pulsed in him with every thrust, but watching Steve—that was just fucking priceless.

“Go on, go on,” he encouraged when Steve got closer to the edge. “Go on, I wanna see it on your face, let go. You’re so fucking gorgeous. Just look at you.”

Steve’s eyes opened to look at him, and then he leaned down—burying himself all the way in, making Bucky moan. Eyes closed, he took Bucky in hand, squeezed him tight. This he’d done once before, and of course he knew exactly what Bucky liked, because Bucky had made sure to teach him last time.

“Hey, you don’t have to—you were close, you—”

“Still am,” Steve said hoarsely. He kept working him, twisting his hand on the head—God he was a quick fucking learner—and it wasn’t long before Bucky’s breath started hitching in his chest with every thrust. It was so fucking good—it was all perfect, his weight on top of him, his hand on Bucky, his fat cock deep in him—

“Steve, Steve—“

He came first, which surprised him, arching and pulsing over his own abs, with Steve watching him all the while, and when he was done, chest heaving, Steve picked up the pace again—a few good hard thrusts and he was coming undone as well, soundless like the last time, shaking and holding onto Bucky for dear life.

It all wound back during a few silent, breathless minutes. Steve was weighing over Bucky, who just enjoyed it, disjointed thoughts running through his head, you know this can’t end well, but he didn’t even really care and it made him happy.

“Hey there, pal,” he exhaled at last, ruffling Steve’s hair. “You okay?”

“Y-yeah.” Steve drew himself up on his elbows, flushed and disheveled, blue eyes so clear they seemed almost incandescent.

Bucky smiled, then drew him down for a kiss. Steve was still inside him, and it felt sort of sweet, like they didn’t want to become two separate people again, not right away.

“So,” he said, “out of ten…”

“Oh my God,” Steve laughed.

“You gotta rate me, Steve, it’s good for business.”

They kissed and laughed again, and happiness looked amazing on Steve—he was shining with it, more than he had in direct sunlight. His awkwardness had melted off him; he cuddled close, clung to Bucky, so obviously touch-starved it was hard not to feel angry at all the people who’d let him get this way.

Bucky drew Steve down to kiss him again, and they made out well into the hottest hours of the day, until they were slick with sweat, gliding against each other, and eventually bringing each other to another wet, lazy climax, making even more of a mess of the bed and themselves.

 

*

 

“So,” Steve said.

Showered and dressed, he was back to looking slightly awkward in his body; but he was still smiling in a hopeful sort of way.

“I guess I’ll… see you around.”

“I’ve got clients tomorrow and the day after that,” Bucky said at once, “but I’m free on Friday.”

Despite himself, he was on the lookout for a hint of reticence in Steve’s expression. But there was absolutely none. “Friday,” he said happily. “Alright.”

“You gonna kiss me goodbye, Stevie?” Bucky said with a half-grin.

“I just might.” He leaned in to press their lips together, and Bucky almost wanted to pull him back inside. But they’d literally spent the whole day in bed, and Steve needed to go back home before dark.

“Hope you won’t get in trouble at work,” Bucky remarked.

Steve shrugged. “They can cut me some slack. I’ve never taken a day off or been on sick leave since I started there.”

Bucky kissed him again, then said, “Alright, go.”

Steve went down the stairs and Bucky stayed at the door, listening to his fading footsteps with a faint smile still on his face. God, he felt like a goddamn teenager. He should really be trying to screw his head back on. But he hadn’t been so stupidly smitten in ages, and it felt too good to just let himself float back into his Steve-scented apartment.

It still smelled like apples, but now that just meant it smelled like him.

 

*

 

hey stevie. are we still good for friday?

Bucky sent his text just before the nurse came back into the room. “Mr. James Barnes?”

“Uh, yeah,” and he got up from his chair to follow her. Getting stabbed with a needle wasn’t his favorite pastime, but the newest AIDS vaccine only needed renewal every two years instead of every six months, so he couldn’t complain.

“You guys find one for the common cold yet?”

“Funny,” said the doctor swabbing the crook of his elbow.

It only took fifteen minutes, but Bucky was still disappointed to find that Steve hadn’t answered his text when he left the free clinic.

 

*

 

hey steve, just checking in again. ok for friday?

“Who’re you texting?” asked Luke in his deep voice, keeping his eyes down as he unbuttoned his shirt.

“Just a friend.” Bucky set his phone aside, put on his best filthy smile and reached out. “Lemme take care of that for you, big guy.”

 

*

 

steve? don’t tell me you had battery problems. that’s so last century.

Bucky only had one charger. His arm was running low on juice, but he plugged in his phone instead, telling himself it was important too. For clients and whatnot.

He forgot to put it on silent, but it didn't wake him up during the night.

 

*

 

steve

 

STEVE

 

c’mon pal. look at what you’re making me do. i’ve sent like ten texts in a row. don’t you know i have an image to protect?

 

*

 

look, i’m wor

*worried

 

steve, c'mon

 

just tell me you’re fine.

 

*

 

Bucky’s arm was dead again.

It was entirely his fault. The past two days had been cloudy and yet he hadn’t taken the opportunity to charge it at either of his clients’ apartments, growing more and more concerned with his silent phone instead.

I don’t care. It’s fine. He’s fine. He got what he wanted, he got bored, that’s all.

But Bucky didn’t believe himself. Or maybe it was that he couldn’t believe such a thing of Steve, not anymore. It had worked the first time, when Steve had seemingly stood him up; but then he’d showed up dying from heat and half-starving because he was so worried about Bucky’s opinion of him for some goddamn fucking reason. And then Bucky had had to revive him with crappy burgers from the crappy burger joint because Steve didn’t even have anyone to eat with—

Bucky tried to turn over in his bed and cursed when his arm didn’t follow.

Tomorrow was Friday. There was still a small chance that Steve’s phone had been stolen or broken—in his line of work, it wouldn’t be too surprising. And if he didn’t have an automatic backup of his contacts to the cloud, then he’d lost Bucky’s number. So maybe he’d just show up in person for the third time, like this was the goddamn Middle Ages, with his dumb puppy eyes and a stupid apology. Maybe they’d go get a burger again at that same joint. And maybe they’d get married and move to the fucking moon while they were at it—

Bucky’s body wouldn’t let him sleep; it kept tensing up, and his heartbeat raced ahead no matter how many deep breaths he took. Eventually, he sat up and turned on the light, scowling.

It faded and died almost instantly.

“Oh, fuck me,” Bucky said. He punched the cheap plaster wall, then did it again and again. “Fucking goddamn fucking shit!”

A yowl almost made him jump out of his skin. He staggered to his feet, then bent down to look out his window. Natasha’s cat was on the fire escape, looking decidedly spooked by his outburst. Her eyes glowed in the night.

Bucky sighed, then opened the window. The night air was so hot he could have choked on it.

“Come on,” he mumbled. “Liho, come on. The fuck are you doing out there?”

He couldn’t reach out with his metal arm, which would have been a sure way to draw the cat in. But she did decide to come into his apartment eventually, dropping from the window onto the floor and meowing hopefully at him.

“I don’t have food for you,” Bucky mumbled. “I don’t have anything.”

He sat on his bed and just stared at the ground for a while, trying very hard not to check his phone for the hundredth time in the past two days. Left to her own devices, Liho yawned deeply, then curled into a tight ball on the bed, breathing fast against the heat.

Bucky rubbed his face again. He thought of taking a shower, but he didn’t have the energy to wrap up his fucking arm. Maybe he should just go downstairs and tell Natasha her cat had defected to him.

Maybe he could tell her other things, too.

Stupid. She’d kick him out. But Bucky realized he was already up, and crossing his tiny one-room apartment to get to the door, bumping into things and cursing under his breath. He had to figure out what to do with his dead arm. He didn’t have pockets to tuck the hand in, so it would just sway heavily as he walked, unless he held it close, but that wasn’t ideal to go down some derelict stairs in the dark—

Maybe he should put on some pants.

He grumbled, went back, managed to get dressed after banging his knee on about every available surface, and made such a ruckus in the end that the cat realized he was heading out. She uncoiled herself from the bed and led the way, holding up her tail.

Bucky made his careful way down until he was at Natasha’s door. He wasn’t sure he would have dared to wake her up, but a ray of flickering light was filtering from under her door.

He knocked.

“Nat, it’s me. I’ve got your cat.”

It took a little while, but she opened the door eventually. Liho slipped inside at once, making a beeline for her food bowl. Natasha stood there, raising a calm eyebrow at Bucky.

Her apartment was lit up with actual, honest-to-God candles, illuminating the place behind her and making her look like some kind of dark avenging angel.

“Where d’you find those?” Bucky asked, momentarily distracted.

“You don’t have an emergency stack of your own? I thought you’d learned, after living in this leaky shithole for the past couple of years.” She pointedly leaned on the doorjamb. “What’s up? And don’t try to tell me it’s about Liho.”

“I just—” He felt pathetic all of a sudden. “I couldn’t sleep.”

She considered him for a moment, then went back inside. “Well, come in.”

He followed her. The candlelit apartment looked decidedly strange, like a fairies’ den. Bucky caught himself thinking Steve would probably love that kind of lighting, and maybe he should buy candles for the next time they—

There was a sick feeling of dread in his stomach again. He sat at Natasha’s little table and stared at the clear vodka she poured in two tiny chiseled glasses.

“Why aren’t you sleeping?”

“Maybe I was looking for my cat.” She looked up at him. “Drink and then talk.”

Bucky knocked back his glass. It burned going down, which felt good for a second. One of the candles on the table was dripping wax.

“Is your arm dead?”

“Yeah. Yeah. I’m gonna have to go to a—” He couldn’t quite say solar booth and turned his glass in his hand.

“To that burger joint?” Natasha said casually. “I hear they’ll let you hook up for free.”

Bucky stared at her in silence. She couldn’t mean—

She shrugged. “What? I’m your neighbor. I was getting home, and I saw you guys from across the street.” She put her chin in her hand. “You said he wasn’t a client.”

“He isn’t,” Bucky rasped.

“Oh, James.”

Bucky poked at the trickling wax. It was hot and gooey and stuck to his fingers. “You’re gonna set this place on fire.”

His voice was hoarse now. Natasha didn’t even answer, like it was absurd to suggest anything might go out of control on her watch. And maybe it was.

He suddenly felt the very dumb need to prove her wrong.

“He’s a cop,” he said like he’d poison a well. “He’s actually the one who arrested me that last time.” He took a breath. “And he was kind to me. Apparently that’s all it takes to do me in. Who fucking knew.”

Natasha didn’t blow up like he’d expected. Instead she just said, “My God. We are too sober still for this.”

She poured him another glass.

“Drink or I’ll kick you out here and now.”

He did, and it burned again, like the wax on his fingertips. It was almost liquid at the beginning, shining by the flickering light, then quickly solidifying into something he couldn’t mold anymore. It really did hurt, but he couldn’t get rid of it now.

“So,” Natasha said. “You brought a cop to my apartment building?”

“He wasn’t here as one, if that makes any difference. The first time he came was to apologize to me.”

Natasha didn’t comment, other than partially raising an eyebrow again. “And now he vanished?”

“I don’t know. It’s just that he’s not answering his phone. And I’m not even worried about him,” he lied, “I’m just—why can’t I take my mind off it?”

“Still way too sober,” Natasha mumbled.

Bucky drank.

“I was fine,” he said. “I was doing fine.” He laughed. “My fucking sunflower cop.”

“This is better than holocable,” Natasha decided, sliding another glass his way.

“You’re not taking this seriously.” Bucky pulled himself together with an effort. He hadn’t drunk so much in ages. “Stop—stop and just… listen. He’s… he’s been in some kind of science experiment, alright?”

He sighed.

“M’ not sure why he did that. Well—I know. He was dying. But why did they change everything else, too? He was already great before. Just—wait, I’ve got a picture…” He reached for his phone and remembered he’d left it upstairs. “Fuck.”

“James.” Natasha flicked molten wax at him to get his attention. “What about that experiment?”

“I thought it wasn’t that much of a secret, but apparently it is. He said so—said he might get… get in trouble for… coming to—to see me. And now he’s not answering his phone and I’m fucking scared.” Bucky sighed and rubbed his face. “Why am I so fucking drunk?”

“I make that vodka myself. And maybe you forgot to eat today.”

“Fuck. Yeah. Shit.” Bucky huffed a mirthless laugh. “He’s rubbing off on me. That’s why I took him to the burger joint, you know? ‘Cause he’d forgotten to eat.”

She got up and opened her fridge—she lived a tiny apartment like him, where everything was in the same room. She took out bread and jam and strangely began to make toast.

“Breakfast?” Bucky asked.

“In two hours, yes. Might as well go ahead. Here, drink.”

“No, I’m—I’m too fucking drunk already.”

“It’s water, durak. Drink. And then it’ll be coffee.”

Bucky obeyed, then ate jam and butter on toast, and drank coffee. He still felt miserable, and he now felt very ashamed on top of it. But he also felt marginally better underneath it all, somehow.

“Now.” Natasha sat in front of him. “How long has it been?”

“Two days.”

“Still on the fence. Could be something serious, or could be nothing.”

“You don’t need to tell me,” Bucky stammered, “that he—that maybe he just got tired of me. I know. I hope he did. I hope he’s okay.”

“Stop,” she said quietly. “Finish your coffee.”

She waited until he was done, then said, “Maybe you should just go to his precinct. That’s where you’d been detained the last time, right? It’s easy to make up an excuse, say that the cops handling you lost a cherished item, or shit like that.”

Bucky nodded. Part of him was too proud to cross half the city only to risk being cruelly disappointed. But the worry beating in his heart was spurring him on already.

“Yeah,” he said. “You’re right. I’ll—I’ll go after I charge up. I can’t move around like this.”

“Oh, speaking of which.” Natasha raised a finger at him, then got up to drag out a crate from under her bed. “I may have found you a silicon shell.”

Bucky blinked up at her. “What? Really?”

“Yes. But it’s not custom-made, James. It probably won’t fit that war machine you call an arm.”

“Well let me try it on and see.” He got out his dead hand from his pocket and lay his heavy arm on the table, careful not to touch the running wax. Was wax conductive? He didn’t even know. The exposed wires were on the side, anyway. But still, better take no chances.

Natasha set the crate on her chair and opened it. The silicon shell was there, pale and limp like a dead jellyfish.

“It hardens up when you turn on your arm,” Natasha said. “Okay, splay out your fingers.”

Bucky had to do it manually, separating them with his human hand. Natasha put the soft casing on top of his butchered arm, then tried to fit its edges to the serrated metal ones. Bucky could quickly tell there was no chance in hell it would work.

“Ah, shit.” She took it off. “Sorry, James.”

“Not your fault. You did warn me.” Bucky stared gloomily into the guts of his prosthetic. Maybe he should just get rid of the whole damn piece of junk. But he didn’t have enough for a new one, he couldn’t do his job one-armed, and besides—it was stupid, but that thing was all he had left of home.

“Here,” Natasha said. “Least I can do.”

She handed him a heavy battery, something you’d put in a car. When Bucky hooked it up to his arm, he felt an actual jolt. The tiny red light in the crook of his elbow was blinking like crazy.

“Should be good in an hour or so,” Natasha said.

He didn’t quite manage a smile, but gave it a fair try. “Thanks, Nat. Sorry I bothered you with my shit.”

“Are you kidding? I've never seen you make a single friend in the five years I’ve known you. It’s nice to hear you’re actually capable of liking people.”

“And fuck you, I guess.” He tucked the battery under his flesh-and-blood arm and somehow managed to open the door without dropping it. “See ya.”

She called him back just before he left. “James.” Her eyes were back to their usual calculating sharpness. “If you do find your sunflower cop, whatever the hell that means—bring him here before you let him into your place again. So I can take a good look at him.”

This time he got out a grin. “I will if you call him that to his face.”

She smirked back. “Deal.”

Despite the heavy battery weighing him down, Bucky felt a bit lighter on his way back up. He was going to maybe see if he could sleep a few hours, while his arm charged up. And then he would go to Steve’s precinct. He had to get out of his own head, he had to see for himself.

He shuffled into his apartment, pushed the door shut behind him with his foot, and tried to turn on the lights—only to remember the building was still low on power. Cursing under his breath, he walked blindly to his bed and tried to feel for the space left on the nightstand so he could set the battery down. Maybe if he moved some stuff around—

His phone buzzed and lit up, painting the place blue.

Bucky froze.

Then he sat on the bed and stayed there for almost a whole minute, stomach twisting tighter and tighter. Eventually, he reached out for the cracked screen. A tap and it unlocked.

so sorry, i had a huge problem with my phone and i lost everything! where are we meeting? i hope i’m not too late, i really want to see you again ;)

Bucky stared at his phone like it had turned into a tarantula.

After a long, still while, he took it into his lap and laboriously typed out a message.

meet by the burger joint

The answer came almost at once.

which one? :)

“Jesus,” Bucky said in the dark. “Jesus fucking Christ.”

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

Bucky had been carrying his goddamn battery for almost half an hour by the time Natasha declared they had arrived. He had no idea where they were—somewhere under Brooklyn, that was for sure. They’d kept going further and further down in narrow concrete corridors. The ceiling above him was nothing but steel grating, just like the floor under his feet.

Natasha knocked urgently on a metal door. It opened at once on a tall black man in a discreet dark suit, who seemed undisturbed by the heat that had chased them down into the bowels of the city.

“Hi,” she said abruptly, “do you still have your Faraday cage?”

The man looked at Bucky, then at the phone he was clutching white-knuckled. He stepped back to let them in, without a word.

Despite a general air of darkness around the place, it was well-aired and had working lights, which was a feat all on its own so far from the surface. Bucky had time to catch sight of a few sleeping computers, along with smoothly-edged pieces of tech he didn’t recognize. The man let them into a small room and shut the door.

“Where’s the cage?” Natasha asked, eyes darting around.

“We’re standing in it,” he answered in a smooth, elegant voice.

Bucky took a close look at the dark walls and realized there was a fine gold netting woven into them. His shoulders relaxed by a fraction. There was no tracking his phone now that they were in that room.

Natasha got out the SIM card she’d ripped out not an hour ago, and plucked the phone from Bucky’s hand.

“Ah, good,” her friend said. Bucky couldn’t place his accent. Something West African, in any case. “I was about to ask whether you’d thought to do that.”

“Please, T’Challa, I’m not an amateur,” Natasha mumbled as she fiddled with the phone. “That’s James Barnes, by the way.”

Bucky awkwardly set the heavy battery on the table, wiped his good hand on his jeans and held it towards T’Challa. “Bucky, actually.”

“Hello,” T’Challa said, shaking his hand with slight humor in his dark eyes. “I understand there’s a problem with your phone.”

“He got the hots for a cop and the cop stopped texting him two days ago and now someone else is texting him from the cop’s number and I’m officially never taking in shifty cyborgs again,” Natasha said in one go, clapping the phone shut and turning it on.

Bucky glared at her. “She’s rude but she’s right.”

Natasha handed the phone to T’Challa, who read the full exchange between Bucky and Steve. There was nothing to be embarrassed about; they’d sent each other only functional texts. In the back of his mind, Bucky had always been vaguely paranoid about someone hijacking their conversation. And now it had actually happened.

“There definitely is a tonal shift,” T’Challa remarked as he got to the end of the thread. He went to sit at his computer, hooking the phone into it. “I’ll take a look.”

“The priority is finding out who they’re after,” Natasha said.

Bucky blinked at her. Until now, he hadn’t imagined he might be the target. But of course he had people gunning for him, too. And of course coming into contact with Steve Rogers meant that their respective pursuers might come into contact as well—and exchange intel and resources, maybe join forces.

Bucky exhaled. It came out shaky.

“I understand you’ve served in the Southwest United Army,” T’Challa said with an eloquent look at Bucky’s dead arm. “Illegal immigrant?”

“Yes,” Bucky mumbled, peeved to have been found out so effortlessly.

Of course, T’Challa might know about Natasha, which would make it easy to take an educated guess about Bucky. But still. T’Challa could apparently recognize advanced prosthetics at a glance, and obviously had an independent harnessing system to power his underground lair. Not to mention the Faraday room, and the cutting-edge computers sleeping in the dark, pulsing with a soft golden glow.  

“You’ve got strange friends,” Bucky told Natasha.

“Says you,” she snorted, before turning back to T’Challa. “Are you getting anywhere, your Highness?”

“As a matter of fact,” T’Challa answered, still with faint amusement on his face. He unplugged Bucky’s phone and gave it back to him. “There are no traces of hacking. My guess is that whoever is out there poorly impersonating Officer Rogers just took his phone from him.”

Then Pierce probably hadn’t tracked down Bucky after all. But then it meant Steve was in serious trouble. His stomach tightened again. Steve had warned him, and Bucky had treated the threat carelessly, and now here they were.

“My question is,” T’Challa said, staring at Bucky, “why are they trying to draw you out of hiding?”

“Probably to check I haven’t stolen his DNA.” At T’Challa’s raised eyebrow, Bucky decided to test him. “He’s the patient zero for the Super-Serum Stark Tech experiment.”

T’Challa apparently did know what that meant—but it changed his behavior completely. His features hardened like stone and his back went ramrod straight.

“I’m not fond of eugenics,” he said. “Even less when Stark’s involved.”

“They did save his life—”

“By complete accident. I’ve read that article too, Mr. Barnes.” T’Challa pulled it up in a few clicks, opening the diagrams Bucky had been unable to decipher. “His body mutated over a period of three months. During that time, he regrew all of his bones and muscles. Of course there could be no pain relief, since his cells were in flux. I won’t talk about the period where his stomach and kidneys mutated, making it impossible for him to feed normally. And I’ll let you think about what happened during the two weeks his lungs were inoperant.”

Bucky felt a sudden rise of nausea.

With some temporary discomfort, was how they’d chosen to put in in the article.

The battery beeped and his arm jolted awake, guts shifting and clicking inside to realign plates that weren’t there anymore. He barely noticed it, too shell-shocked with horror. “Why—why are you telling me all that?”

“So you understand why I’m refusing to help you,” T’Challa said flatly. “Stark Tech tends to forget the people behind the experiments. But my real issue with them is that they try to improve on mankind at all. Historically, that kind of effort never ends well.”

He turned his back on Bucky. “Let them think you did steal Rogers’ DNA. I’ll condone anything that sends them in a panic.”

Bucky’s words spilled out on their own volition. “I can do you one better, then.”

T’Challa glanced at him.

“I can go and steal him,” Bucky went on. His heart was beating like mad in his chest. “Help me find where he is.”

“James,” Natasha said.

“What?” He unhooked his arm and closed his metal hand into a creaking fist. “You think I can’t bust someone out of a goddamn lab? I’ve done worse.”

“James,” she snapped, “I don’t mean to be cruel, but I’m not sure he’ll just willingly run away with you.”

Bucky looked at her.

“I think he will,” he said quietly. “He’s always wanted to escape. He doesn’t have to want me.”

He knew it was right. Even what little time they’d had together had made it obvious. Steve had been drawn to Bucky—despite Bucky’s continued unkindness—because he led such an otherwise barren, miserable life. For most of it, he’d simply been dying; and now he was lab property, without any friends or family, ostracized by what they’d made his body into.

“What about you?” T’Challa intervened. His tone was neutral, but his eyes betrayed interest. “You won’t be able to go back home. Are you prepared to abandon everything you’ve built for yourself?”

Bucky swallowed. His life was not all bad; he had some good clients, he was getting by, and he hadn’t had to kill someone in five years. He was doing okay. Even if what he felt for Steve was love, it seemed foolish to throw it all away over someone he’d only known for less than a month.

Yet somehow he couldn’t wait to do it. He’d never had the opportunity to do something so deeply right.

“I am,” was all he said.

T’Challa smiled. Under his smartly polished exterior, he really was one crazy son of a bitch. “Then I might be persuaded to help. But it won’t be for free.”

“I don’t have any money. Like, at all.”

“I have enough of my own, thank you. I will ask for a service.” T’Challa glanced at Natasha. “Before we discuss this further—if Rogers is where I think he is, you’ll need back-up...”

“Buy off my building and I’ll do it,” Natasha said airily.

“Done.”

Bucky decided to ignore everything that last exchange implied, if only for his sanity. He could feel his mind shifting into battle mode, and he didn’t like how easily he fell back into that dark focus.

But he wasn’t going to kill anyone this time. He was doing a mission for himself.

He was going to go get Steve.

“Alright. First, come with me to the workshop,” T’Challa said. “You’ll need proper equipment.”

 

*

 

Coming out of the changing room, Bucky was somehow not surprised to find Natasha dressed in black combat gear and taking her educated pick from an impressive array of slick weapons.

“I knew my landlord was shifty as fuck,” he said.

“We passed the border together, James, you might’ve had an inkling before.”

It was true. He’d helped her get through in exchange for the promise of a place to live in New York, and they’d stayed out of each other’s way till then, for the most part. The occasional post-arrest vodka, maybe.

And now they were going to war again, though he knew they were both bone-weary of being soldiers.

“I can probably manage alone, you know.”

“Nope, I'm coming. If they tracked your phone, my building’s burned.” She loaded a weapon Bucky didn’t even recognize. T’Challa frightened him more and more with every passing hour. “But I’m gonna get a lot of money out of it, so it’s no skin off my back in the end.”

She looked at him.

“You, though? You’re definitely compromised.”

Bucky thought about Steve’s soft skin in the golden sunlight. The raw emotion tightening his throat was all the confirmation he needed. How the fuck had this happened to him, really? He’d locked the door so tight, and Steve had walked in like it wasn’t even there.

“It’ll happen to you one day,” he mumbled, picking a weapon.

Natasha snorted. “I doubt it.”

T’Challa knocked on the doorjamb to get their attention. The lines of his dark suit were as neat as ever, but there was a predatory spark in his eye.

“I’ve found him.”

Bucky looked up sharply.

“As I thought, he’s in Stark Labs. They’re simply holding him in the department where his serum was developed.” T’Challa looked at Bucky. “Mr. Barnes, there’s not much I ask in return for your help. Only that you destroy their research on your way out.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow. “Is that playing fair?”

“You’re assuming I’m playing at all, but Stark is no threat to my business. This is about ethics.” T’Challa looked on, steadily. “Will you do it?”

Bucky looked down at the display of weapons. In truth he couldn’t care less about T’Challa’s motives for asking this. He would have done a lot worse.

 

*

 

“Who are you texting?” Natasha asked.

She was driving fluidly, weaving in and out of traffic. The upcoming mission made her chattier than usual, almost playful. T’Challa had lent them an electric van with a soundless engine, barely more than a thoughtful hum even at full speed.

“My clients,” Bucky said. “They should know I’m retiring.”

He sent the mass text, then looked at the lights dashing past the window. It suddenly hit him that he’d never go back to his tiny apartment. Everything in there was lost.

For the hundredth time, he dug inside himself to see if he could still change his mind before it was too late. And for the hundredth time, he came up empty. He had nothing of value, no significant friendships, nothing he truly minded leaving behind. In some ways his life was as empty as Steve’s, as easy to discard. Maybe he had been getting ready for this for a long time, without realizing it.

“Okay.” Natasha didn’t try to look for a dark street to park in—there were none left. Nowadays in Manhattan, even the pavement glowed at night, and every single nook and cranny was awash with cascading light.

But the underground parking garage was there. She dutifully paid her ticket and slipped inside. There was an elevator leading into the building, for their convenience. It was very convenient indeed.

Bucky pulled up his mask over the bottom half of his face.

 

*

 

The doors opened on an artfully empty atrium. At this hour of the night, nobody was running around the place. There was only a primly dressed, strawberry blond-haired hostess behind the lavish entrance desk, at the far end of the room.

Natasha crouched and opened her tablet. Stark Industries was probably huddled under twelve different kinds of firewalls, but they weren’t after the data. Just the power grid.

The hostess finally looked up to see who wasn’t coming out of the elevator. She probably would have screamed—but Bucky had already taken his shot.

All soldiers nowadays wore helmets to brace against brainwave weapons. But this wasn’t a battlefield. The stunner aimed true, and the hostess reared back like she’d been punched by an invisible fist, dropping limp in her chair. Bucky felt an instinctive pang. But she’d wake up unharmed, just a migraine and muddled memories.

Just then, Natasha gave a final tap at her tablet, and the entire building went dark.

“We’ve got three minutes before the backup generator kicks in,” she said.

He knew. He remembered other missions like this one. As he pulled down his night vision goggles, the world lit up in green.

“Stairs,” he said, voice muffled by his mask.

 

*

 

The labs were on the second floor, but as there were no windows, they might as well have been down in the basement.

“Computer room is that way,” Natasha said after they’d navigated a series of corridors without incident, thanks to T’Challa’s scarily accurate map. “We’re sure to do a lot of damage in there.”

“I don’t care.” Bucky was speaking very low, keeping his weapon down but at the ready. “Steve first.”

He was afraid of what they might have done to him. But there was a deeper fear pooling in his gut—what if they’d done nothing to him? What if he was fine, just mildly upset, having already given up Bucky as a dead loss? The possibility was faint, but it was there. Maybe coming down here in full black ops mode was deeply overkill.

The lights flickered, then came back on.

“Finally!” a woman exclaimed at the turn of the corridor.

Bucky froze. He couldn’t see her, but he knew her voice. Why did he know her voice?

“This has to be city-wide, auntie, you know,” answered a teenager whose voice hadn’t entirely broken yet. “I did virtually all the work on this building, it can’t just blitz out like that.”

“Be a dear and go run that damn check-up. You know we shouldn’t even be here.”

“Fine, fine. Bossy,” the young man grumbled, and walked away until they couldn’t hear his steps.

A door opened, close to them. Natasha checked the digital plan hovering in her glasses and cursed softly. “Surveillance room.”

“Cover me,” Bucky murmured, getting up from his crouch.

He turned the corner. The door to the surveillance room was open, revealing two dozen screens on the far wall; the woman was turning her back to him, and Bucky spotted the exact second when she realized, all at once, that all cameras leading to her current position had been disabled.

Before she could do more than stand still in surprise, Bucky stalked into the room and spun her hard into the wall, bracing his arm against her throat.

She didn’t scream—but Bucky almost did. It was the grey-haired lady from that place Steve liked. Peggy.

Something moved in his mind. My mom was friends with this lady, see, that’s how I got into the program in the first place …

Peggy as in Margaret Carter, former head of the SSR, former COO of Stark Industries, coordinator for Stark Tech. Apparently retired. Apparently selling goddamn enchiladas now. And also—it hit him all at once—she called Steve by his first name.

Bucky blew out a breath under his mask. Carter still hadn’t moved, watching him intensely with wide open eyes, both hands braced on his forearm. He looked at the array of screens on the wall. Most of them were static, thanks to some thorough and gleeful destruction on Natasha’s part. But some were still live.

Steve was there, at the bottom right corner.

He seemed unconscious, wilted and smaller than should have been possible, in blue hospital clothes. Both of his wrists were cuffed to the railings of his medical bed.

Bucky felt a surge of hot rage rise inside him, along with an almost physical pain, like something in his chest was twisting to get out, go ahead and find him, pull him close, shield him from harm. He shoved it all down and looked at Carter again.

“Are you here to break him out?”

She nodded, slowly. He released her without ever looking away.

At that very moment, the teenage boy came back from wherever he’d been. “Hey, auntie, we should probably—what the fuck!”

He took a step away from Bucky’s menacing figure and slammed right into Natasha, who’d come out of the shadows and promptly secured him with a brainwave gun jabbed under his chin.

“Oh my God,” the teen said, talking very fast, “it’s all happening just like the manual said, I’m finally getting kidnapped. I’m warning you, evil guy, I have hostage contingency training for that kind of stuff, so get ready to be fucking negotiated at! Oh, wait, you’re a woman, aren’t you? Is terrorist negotiation gendered? Rats, I can’t remember lesson three—”

“I will stun you,” Natasha said flatly, firming her grip to contain his attempts to get away.

“What are your pronouns? Be honest, this is a matter of national security.”

“Darling, do shut up,” Carter said. Her voice was strained, but she was careful not to make sudden moves. “I believe we may have the same objective.”

“I think so too,” Bucky said. He pulled up his goggles to look into her eyes and spoke very quietly. “Are they hurting him?”

She pulled her lips into an absolutely joyless smile. “You don’t exactly hurt a lab rat, dear.”

Bucky’s gut churned.

“Whoa,” the kid said, frowning at the camera, “we came down here because Dad has a beefy blond dude chained up in the basement? Or—second floor, whatever. That’s way more than I ever wanted to know anyway. I’d rather we go back to the whole kidnapping business, thank you.”

“Tony,” Carter warned.

“Oh, that’s Howard Stark’s son?” Natasha said, sounding much more interested in him. “Hello, retirement plan.”

“Hostage! Ransom!” he yelped. “I knew it!”

“Enough,” Bucky growled.

Natasha just smirked at him under her mask, but the Stark kid seemed scared enough to keep quiet, which was mildly satisfying. Bucky turned back to Carter. The fact that she was also here to break Steve out was the chilling confirmation of his fears.

“What’s your move?” Bucky asked.

She considered him for a moment. Bucky thought of showing his face, letting her see, but he wasn’t keen on it. She might not recognize him, for one. And if she did—she had seen him with Steve only once, and he’d been acting like he was on a honeypot mission. Revealing himself as a trained black-ops soldier wouldn’t exactly increase her trust in him.

“We were simply going to walk in and out,” she said eventually. “But I’m sorry to say you ruined that plan.”

The Stark kid seemed physically unable to shut up for too long. “Yeah, now that the power’s back on, Dad will be here in like, two minutes. Did you guys have to wreck all the cameras? And by the way, what did you do to Pepper? I hope it wasn’t too bad, we’ll have to give her a raise now, so she won’t tell that we have interns doing the night shift—”

Natasha tightened her grip again so he would shut up and gave Bucky an eloquent glance. They should have been out of the building already. All they could do now to salvage the mission was work with those new parameters and split up.

“I’ll go get the target,” Bucky told her. “You take care of the computer room.”

Tony scoffed. “Yeah, that doesn’t sound ominous at all. Also, are you gonna let me go or what?”

“No, you had the right idea.” Natasha dragged him along. “Hostage situation it is.”

“Oh, not a bloody chance—” Carter growled, but Bucky got in her way and grabbed her arm tight.

“She won’t hurt him,” he said. “We’re not here to hurt anyone. Just show me the way.”

She stared at him, eyes fierce, nostrils flaring. Then, against all odds, she smirked.

“You’re James Barnes.”

He didn’t move, but his surprise must have shown on the visible half of his face. Carter looked heavenwards.

“Alzheimer is a very treatable illness these days. And your eyes are striking enough, dear. Keep your goggles on next time.”

“I’m here to help him,” Bucky said pressingly.

“I believe you, God knows why.” She met his gaze head-on. “And I will kill you if Tony gets hurt.”

“I believe you,” Bucky echoed, resisting the urge to tell her she shouldn’t have dragged a teenager into this in the first place. The Stark empire seemed to be a wildly complex affair, and he had no time to catch up on the family tree. “Tell me how to find Steve.”

 

*

 

The Stark kid might have been irritating, but he was also right. Exactly two minutes after Bucky had run away from Carter, a wailing alarm went up and he heard feet stomping overhead. He couldn’t find it in himself to care, though, because he’d just arrived in front of Steve’s hospital room.

He tried to catch his breath, to gather his thoughts, but seeing Steve for real didn’t make it easy. Through the tiny round window, he seemed even paler, lying limp and cuffed on the bed. There was an IV bag hanging over his head, though the line wasn’t in.

Bucky tried the door and found it locked. He took a few steps back, then slammed experimentally into it; it didn’t move an inch, but the noise made Steve stir and blink awake. He looked blankly at the black-clad silhouette on the other side of the crosshatched glass, apparently too dazed to make anything of it.

Bucky moved the fingers of his left hand in the appropriate pattern. Under his long-sleeved jacket, his arm readjusted itself into its most solid setting. Battering mode. T’Challa’s machines had welded the plates back on in record time. No more exposed wires. No soft silicone, either.

But maybe Bucky wasn’t made for soft things.

He brought his arm back, then punched into the door with a sudden whir of gears. Steve’s eyes widened. He made an effort to sit up, but failed. Why was he so weak, Bucky thought with a pang of icy fear even as he unstuck his fist to do it again, what had they done to him—he struck a second time, caving the entire door in, and on the third blow he almost ripped it off its hinges.

Steve had managed to pull himself up, as much as his handcuffs allowed. He was breathing too fast, but even pale and afraid, he seemed determined to fight as much as he could. Bucky’s throat was tight. He couldn’t have spoken, couldn’t have found the words, but he didn’t need to anyway. It was quicker to show him. He pulled up his goggles and took down his mask.

The look on Steve’s face shifted to incredulity. “Bucky?”

“Sweetheart,” Bucky breathed. It had rushed out of him despite himself. He walked closer to the bed, hoping Steve hadn’t heard. “We don’t have much time. I'm here to get you out.”

Bucky’s earpiece sizzled in his ear. “Howard Stark is here and he brought company, we have to go now!”

Steve was gaping at the wrecked-up door. “How, how did you—”

“Fixed this old thing.” Bucky wiggled his metal fingers with a perfunctory smile, then reached for Steve’s handcuffs. “Let me.”

He snapped the chains, then bent the bracelets out of shape till they broke. The metal had cut angry red marks across Steve’s fair skin, and Bucky felt again a rush of rage paired with the intense, almost painful need to make sure no one could ever touch him again.

“But how are you here,” Steve said, still sounding like he was half-convinced to be dreaming.

“You stopped answering my texts. Guess I’m more possessive than I thought.” Even as he talked nonsense, Bucky was trying to get Steve off the bed, but he seemed to have no strength at all. Bucky could carry him if he must; but he couldn’t do it while fighting hostiles. “C’mon, Stevie, please, work with me, we have to get out of here—”

Just then, Natasha’s voice sizzled into his ear again. “James, listen carefully.”

“What’s your status? Are you alright?”

“I got Stark’s kid in tow and the computer room’s on fire, so we’re golden. I’ll bring the car around as soon as I can.” She sounded breathless, but not panicked, and it was all he could do to take her word for it. “But there’s an entire squad between you and the exit.”

His arm realigned on its own. “Do you have a plan?”

“Better, I have blueprints. The other half of this floor is office space, with about fifteen easy ways out. You can reach it if you get through the far wall.”

Bucky had a decent sense of orientation. He knew which way the building faced, and he knew which way they’d come in. The far wall was the one just facing Steve’s door.

“Alright,” he said.

“Got your sunflower with you?”

And then Bucky understood all at once—of course, sunflower, he was such a goddamn idiot. Steve had been locked in a windowless room without any sunlight. And this time, it hadn’t been for a couple of hours, but two whole days.

“We’ll meet you at the car,” was all he answered.

He put his mask and goggles back on.

“Bucky,” Steve murmured. “Jus’ go. I’m fine.”

“Not without you.” Bucky poked his head into the hallway—and reared back in to avoid a stunwave. A dozen men in dark blue gear were pouring in, impeded by the narrow corridor that wouldn’t let more than two of them abreast. He knew those uniforms; it was the aptly-named SHIELD security company.

Alright. Bucky took a deep breath, then fully ripped the door from its hinges and stuck it sideways in the corridor. An explosion of stun rays ricocheted off it without harming him. Brainwave guns were nice, but anything thicker than cardboard stood in their way. Bucky had maybe a minute to get through the wall.

The outer shell of a fifty-story building would have been virtually indestructible, even with Bucky’s monster of an arm. But dividing walls? They were just brick and plaster. There was no reason for them to be reinforced. This wasn’t a combat facility, no one expected a military-grade cyborg to just show up and start wrecking the place.

Bucky swung with all his mass; plaster exploded in his face as he punched a hole clean through. He ripped his fist free, then did it again and again. A huge chunk crumbled down and daylight set his goggles on the fritz. He could see a deserted open space, full of desks and chairs, dawn just rising out the huge windows, freedom so close he could taste it—but just then the ripped-off door was blasted out of the way and a dozen men rushed him.

His arm was still in battering mode; if he swung at them, he’d kill someone. He stepped back, giving ground, shielding himself against the rays. His own stun gun was useless against their thick helmets. There was too many of them; he stumbled back, one step, two steps, someone tackled him to the ground—

And then two hands came out of nowhere and ripped the man off Bucky.

Stunned, he scrambled back to sit up, and right there was Steve goddamn Rogers standing in front of him. The sunlight was flooding him, setting his golden hair aflame and making his skin glow white, in stark contrast with Bucky’s black-clad frame. He had taken off his shirt to soak it up quicker, breathing fast, hands clenched into fists. It was like a piece of sun had taken human form.

“All of you get back!”

A SHIELD guard tried to get past him—he was half-naked and still unsteady on his feet, after all. But despite his glazed eyes and shivering frame, Steve grabbed him at the belt and collar and threw him away like he weighed nothing. The security team retreated to the end of the hallway, puzzled by this development, obviously awaiting orders. In the scuffle, someone had split Steve’s lip.

It was knitting back already.

Stark hadn’t just made him healthy, then. Maybe this was why T’Challa hated eugenics, because they could be weaponized.

Weapons had always been a part of Bucky’s life, and he wasn’t sure he could ever see them as anything other than a symptom; but eugenics also meant Steve hadn’t been allowed to keep his small stature and spindly limbs, as if people needed fixing to be declared perfect. Either way, the lab was on fire. Bucky’s debt was paid.

As if on cue, the sprinklers went off, with enough pressure to blind everyone not wearing goggles. Bucky clicked his arm into regular mode and grabbed Steve’s wrist.

“Come on,” he called, and guided him towards the light.

 

*

 

They were still soaking wet when they got to the street. The van wasn’t there, but Bucky’s earpiece informed him Natasha was just circling the block.

Bucky took off his mask and goggles, then shrugged off his jacket and gave it to Steve whose albedo was off the charts. “Put it on. We need to keep walking.”

Steve complied, but his bare feet and drenched hospital pants still drew a lot of attention, not to mention Bucky’s silver arm shining in the sun. Steve was still swaying on his feet. Sunlight was all well and good, but Bucky wanted to get food in him as soon as possible.

“What—” Steve looked around. He’d been fighting the guards on autopilot; he seemed more aware of his surroundings now, but they obviously confused the hell out of him. “Bucky, what—”

Bucky took his hand to get him moving. Steve blinked like it had never happened to him before.

“Here’s the van,” Bucky said with relief, seeing it turn a corner. “Hurry.”

“Wait,” Steve said, pulling him to a stop.

Bucky turned to look at him. “Steve, we can’t stay here—”

“Who are you really?” Steve asked. He was shivering, skin and clothes damp in the chilly morning air. “Was this—was this your plan from the start?”

Bucky breathed out like he’d been punched in the stomach. “No. God, Stevie, no. There is no plan. I just came to get you out of here.”

The van was getting closer. Steve let go of Bucky’s hand and took several steps back, staring at him. “You seem awfully prepared, Bucky.”

“Steve, please—”

“I’m not climbing in there with you.” Steve’s expression was resolute. “I’m done being passed around.”

Bucky’s throat was closing, his eyes were burning, but he’d known this might happen, and it made sense. There was nothing he could do or say to make Steve believe Bucky just happened to have the skills and equipment necessary to break him out of Stark Labs. Not to mention the motivation. All signs pointed to him being a henchman for a rival organization, which wasn’t even that far from the truth.

Bucky wanted to tell him that he hadn’t been playing a part, wanted to beg to be believed, but there was nothing he could say, not enough time. The priority was getting Steve away, one way or the other.

The van stopped next to him and the door rolled open.

“Hurry up,” Natasha called from the driver’s seat.

“Change of plans. I need some boots,” Bucky said, digging through their stuff.  

“What? What the—”

“He’s not coming with us,” Bucky said, blinking fast. He found a pair of spare boots and slammed the door shut again before she could ask anything. “Please—at least take these,” he told Steve. “You won’t make it far on bare feet.”

Steve was staring at him. He caught the boots Bucky tossed to him, on reflex.

“I know how it looks,” Bucky forced himself to say. “And—and it’s okay. I understand.”

I didn’t do this to keep you, he wanted to add, but that wasn’t true, was it? He did want to keep Steve. Maybe not like Stark Tech wanted it, but in his own way all the same. And Steve was right to be so full of mistrust now, because what Bucky had done was too drastic and too strange. They hadn’t had time to get to know each other, not enough to justify an act so huge.

Something exploded from within the lab—it wasn’t too big, but still enough for flames to burst out of the second-floor windows. Bucky stepped back, groped for the door handle again. He had to leave, or they’d arrest him for good this time.

“Bucky,” Steve called.

Bucky looked up with an awful pang of desperate hope, still holding the door handle.

Steve was still staring at him, naked from the waist up under Bucky’s tactical jacket, blond hair dark with water, hugging the boots to his chest. Conflicting emotions were at war in his eyes.

“What’s your real name?” he asked.

There was a moment where nothing moved. Bucky went through several answers in his head, trying to find one that would make Steve stay, but then he realized he couldn’t allow himself to say any of them, just the truth.

“It’s Bucky,” he said. “James Barnes is fake. But my little sister had this name for me, Bucky, and I kept it. It’s real. It’s mine.”

Steve swallowed, throat moving up and down. In the background, the fire was expanding; sirens were swelling, getting closer.

“When you came into my room,” he said. “You called me something.”

Bucky averted his eyes, with a joyless smile twisting his mouth.

“Sweetheart,” he said. He looked up, and Steve had dropped the boots, was walking towards him and wrapped him in his arms all at once, holding him so tight Bucky couldn’t breathe, stunned.

The door of the van opened again. “Get the fuck in and let’s fucking go!” shouted Natasha.

Bucky didn’t even have time to meet Steve’s eyes, to ask him what this meant—Steve climbed in too quickly, expressionless, and Bucky followed, rolling the door closed behind them as the van finally drove forward, shutting out the sun and the fire.

 

 

 

 

Chapter Text

 

 

 

 

 

“It smells like apples in here,” Natasha said, breaking the long, smooth silence of the road.

They were passing by a field of windmills towering up at three hundred feet, blades sweeping lazily in the breeze. The electric van was soundless, as were the few cars they sometimes drove past. The back roads weren’t very popular these days.

Steve had passed out minutes after climbing into the van, away from the sun once more. The light filtering through the windows wasn’t enough. Bucky had tucked his jacket over him like a blanket and folded a spare under his head; he was sitting next to him, but he kept leaning over to check his forehead, finding him cold and clammy.

“He needs to eat something,” he said, fingers drumming restlessly.

“We can’t stop for another hour at least.”

Bucky looked the other way, making an effort to stop fidgeting. “What happened to Carter and the Stark kid?”

“Oh, I let him go so she wouldn’t bash my head in, and he showed me what to set on fire. Yay, teamwork.”

“He helped you destroy his father’s research?”

“Apparently Howard Stark had been a bit too obsessed with his latest project and also neglected to mention it was a living person. Teenage rebellion is a wonderful thing.”

Bucky was sore and still hyped up from the adrenaline rush, but he knew the crash would come soon. He wanted to go nap in the passenger seat, but he couldn’t bear to leave Steve in the back like cargo. He tried to sit more comfortably on the humming floor.

A bleeping sound had Natasha checking her phone, then smiling. “T’Challa says we can keep the van.”

“What are you going to do now?” Bucky asked.

“I’m rich. I’ll see.” She glanced at Bucky. “What about you?”

Steve was shivering under the tactical jacket, breathing shallow. Bucky wanted to smooth his hair away from his face, but he wasn’t sure he was allowed anymore. “I don’t know.”

 

*

 

By the time they finally arrived at a gas station, Bucky was famished. There was almost nobody there with them—gas was going out of style fast—and it felt safe enough to roll open the door to let the air and sunlight in.

He changed quickly out of his tac gear while Natasha plugged the van into a high-power dock. It felt good to put his civilian clothes back on, like breathing out after too long underwater. Bucky had been afraid of doing this, of going back to his dark habits, like a former alcoholic terrified of a free drink. But he was alright. He had completed his mission. He was back to normal.

Except it wasn’t really true. Steve had seen the soldier he really was. The killing man. Bucky tried not to dwell upon it, but then Steve shifted in his sleep, without quite waking up yet, and his courage suddenly abandoned him.

“I’ll go get some food.”

The parched grass crunched under his boots as he made his way towards the small gas station. Bucky almost wished he hadn’t saved Steve at all. Couldn’t he have waited and fretted another day? Just one day, long enough for Carter to get Steve out herself, and things could have gone on like before…

But of course she hadn’t accounted for Steve’s weakness, she couldn’t have carried Steve out. They would have been caught and Steve would have stayed in a cage all his life. And besides, the Stark people had been circling Bucky already, trying to draw him out of hiding. Now Bucky had gotten the drop on them—they probably hadn’t expected so disproportionate a response—and Steve was out. And that was something Bucky couldn’t regret, no matter what.

He kept thinking of Steve dropping the boots, wrapping him tight in his arms—but too strongly and for too short a time, like he was making a point. Or making a wish. He had climbed into the van, had surrendered his one opportunity for certain freedom, on the off chance Bucky could be trusted.

Bucky was so lost in thought he bought way too much food and water, coming back with four plastic bags. They seemed weightless in his left hand; he’d forgotten what it was, to have a truly functional arm. Of course, he was wearing long sleeves again, but his newly silver hand was shining in the sun. He’d have to buy gloves, and soon. Cyborgs weren’t that common.

As he got closer to the van, he saw that Steve was up. His heart jumped in his chest, though of course he should have expected it. Steve was barefoot on the concrete, standing still in the sun, blinking at his mediocre surroundings like it was a new continent. God, it was probably the first time he’d ever left New York.

Steve had a hand on the van, like he still had trouble holding himself upright. Natasha opened the driver door, making him jump.

“There you are,” she told Bucky. “What took you so long? I’m going to the bathroom, save me some food.”

She climbed down and walked away. Bucky and Steve stood staring at each other.

Eventually, Bucky ducked his head and lifted the plastic bags. “You should eat something. We can…”

“Yeah,” Steve answered, probably since he had to say something. “Sure.”

There was a small picnic table in the middle of the dried-up grass. They sat on the creaky benches, and Bucky got out everything he’d bought—water bottles, jerky, chips, baby carrots, protein bars, dark chocolate—while Steve watched. Eventually, there was nothing left for him to keep his hands busy with, so he sat next to Steve and cracked open a water bottle.

“How, um,” he mumbled. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m still not sure what’s happened.”

“Neither am I,” Bucky said.

“I suppose that’s fair.”

Steve looked away, watching the small gas station across the parking lot, the thirsty patches of grass, the narrow road disappearing into the sparse woods. There were more windmills in the distance, treading clouds.

“The Stark guys found out I was seeing you. They came to arrest me at work.” He peeled the wrapper of a protein bar. “Now I know how you felt when we met, I guess.”

“At work?” Bucky had imagined they’d grabbed him at home, or off the street at night, or something. “In front of everyone?”

“I was never supposed to have a job anyway. They have a right to keep me locked up to protect their tech—it was in the contract.”

“How could you sign something like that?”

“Because I thought the serum wouldn’t work anyway,” Steve said quietly. “I only had a month left to live, Bucky. It didn’t matter what I signed.”

There was no answer Bucky could give. He listened to a bird singing in the distance.

“I texted you,” he said, feeling stupid. “You didn’t answer.”

“And so you decided to come and bomb Stark Labs?”

There was no accusation in Steve’s tone, but somehow it was even worse. He was still wary of Bucky’s actions, still trying to understand what they truly meant.

“No. I was going to show up at your precinct, ask around. But then—look…” Bucky got out his phone and showed him the conversation. “That’s when I really started freaking out.”

With hindsight, he considered it a poor justification at best, but Steve obviously didn’t think so. When he reached the end of the thread, he went dreadfully pale.

“Steve?”

“They told me they would leave you alone.” Steve’s voice was altered with shock. “Jesus Christ.”

“So, yeah—that’s when I knew they had you. And we did stop to think, I swear, but in the end we…”

He trailed off. Steve wasn’t listening, still staring at the unnatural texts. He swallowed, then finally set the phone down.

“I…” He looked at Bucky. “I’m so sorry.”

Bucky groaned out loud. “Take that back.”

“Without me, this would never—”

“I’m not interested in something without you.” Bucky kept his eyes firmly on the wooden table so he wouldn’t have to see Steve’s expression at that. “And this is who I used to be—what I used to do, every day. And I wish you hadn’t seen me like that, but…” He took a deep breath. “It was nice rescuing someone for a change.”

The ensuing silence sounded absolute to his ears, though rationally he knew birds were still singing, leaves still rustling. Steve cleared his throat.

“You didn’t—that wasn’t rescuing. I helped you a lot at the end.”

Bucky looked up at him.

“What,” he said.

“I mean—” Steve’s ears were turning red. “My life wasn’t in danger. Technically. So I guess we could call it jailbreak. Or something more like teamwork.”

“You’re such an asshole,” Bucky marveled. “I almost forgot you were.”

“All I’m trying to say is—”

“I know what you mean.” Bucky made himself smile. “Steve, I’m glad I got you out. I’d do it again.” He swallowed. “And—I didn’t lie to you. I can’t—I won't bring you back to New York, but I’m not taking you anywhere either. If there’s someplace you want to go, we’ll drop you off.”

Steve said nothing. In the end Bucky just pushed a bag of jerky towards him.

“Please eat something.”

 

*

 

They took the back roads. Bucky didn’t think about where they were going, just drove mindlessly, weaving the van through the back roads, following Natasha’s GPS while she sat in the back with Steve.

She was telling him about Carter. Bucky had never seen anyone get past her defenses so fast; but after only a few minutes of Steve’s blushing “ma’am”s and some oblivious comments about his tragic life, she sounded done for. The man was like a two-hundred-pound kitten.

“Hey,” Bucky suddenly said. “What about your cat?”

Natasha looked up. “Liho? It’s fine, my friend will go get her from T'Challa.”

Bucky met her eyes in the rearview mirror. “Sounds like you know what you’re doing next.”

“Some of us have always had contingency plans, yes.” Natasha gave him an unimpressed look. “I am not one to be caught off guard.”

“So what is it? The plan?”

“You can’t piggyback on it,” she said menacingly. “It’d be too risky to live in the same place again. I’m going to DC, my friend owns a building there.”

So that’s where they’d been going. Bucky had been so deep in thought he hadn’t noticed. That was something he’d definitely lost from his black ops days, the hyper-awareness following a mission, and the thought made him smile for a second.

 

*

 

Just before they got to DC, Natasha made Bucky take a right turn towards a cheap neon sign.

“Why are we stopping there?” Steve asked from the back.

“Same reason we didn’t take the highway: we can’t go into DC with that van, they’ll scan the plates automatically at the gate. You guys stay here, I’ll go find someone to change them. And then you can be on your way.”

She changed into a sundress—Steve blushingly averted his eyes—put on dark glasses, and sauntered away to hitch a ride into town. Bucky almost wished she wouldn’t leave, but soon enough she’d be gone for good anyway, and he’d be alone with Steve.

If Steve chose to stay.

“Okay,” Bucky said. “Let’s go get a room.”

Steve followed him wordlessly into the motel. Their room had two little beds; Bucky sat on one of them with a groan.

“Are you going to take a shower?” Steve asked.

“You go first,” Bucky said, lying down. “I need a minute.”

A stray thought crossed his mind—maybe Steve was going to run away—but if he wanted to go, Bucky had no right to stop him. There was nothing he could do, just hope, like he had in front of the burning labs. He closed his eyes and focused on relaxing his aching muscles.

 

*

 

Bucky must have dozed off, because he was woken up some time later by Steve’s voice.

“Shower’s free.”

He blinked, then sat up, rubbing his eyes. Sleepy instinct commanded him to go take a shower as well, and he instinctively looked for some plastic wrapper—then remembered he didn’t need to wrap his arm anymore.

He peered at the plates, opening and closing his hand.

Until now he hadn’t taken the time to really let it sink in; Steve had been at the forefront of his mind. But he had a new arm, one he could use as a heavy-duty weapon. And he had done so, and it hadn’t turned him into a soulless soldier again. He hadn’t realized until then how afraid of himself he was. Although the fact that he had destroyed his old arm just to keep himself from fighting again should have been a clue.

While he flexed his hand, Steve sat next to him—and Bucky became very aware he was still warm and damp from his shower, and wearing only a towel.

“You fixed it,” Steve said quietly.

“Well. Not me, but. Yeah.” Bucky gave him his hand. “Needed it to storm the castle.”

Steve traced the lines in his metal palm, just like he had, five days and an eternity ago, up on the moonlit roof. It was a long time before he managed to speak, and when he did, the stoic divot between his brows was back.

“You didn’t have to come, Bucky. I would have been fine.”

“I wouldn’t,” Bucky said quietly.

Steve looked up at him. He was so close Bucky ached with it. It was too difficult not to know. He was going to just ask him point blank what he wanted to do, consequences be damned.

“Where are you going now?” Steve suddenly said as Bucky was gearing up to speak.

“I …I don’t know,” Bucky said, taken short. “I guess I was thinking maybe—”

“Great, I always wanted to go there,” and Steve pulled him in for a kiss.

Bucky froze, like he could have burst the bubble by moving, and it wasn’t until they’d both caught their breath that he snapped out of it, kissed back, wrapped him in his arms, dazed with overpowering relief, clinging to Steve like he might still change his mind.

“I’m sorry,” Steve breathed, “I doubted you, I'm sorry.”

“Pal, I woulda doubted myself.” Bucky gave a wet laugh and pressed his face against the warm crook of his neck. Relief crashed over him in tidal waves. “God. I’m sorry I scared you so much.”

“No, that’s not... I just… had a hard time believing you’d come back just for me.” Steve let out a self-deprecating laugh. “Every time we met, I kept worrying I was annoying you, you know? Feeling like your patience was bound to run out someday.”

“I’m a jerk.”

“I mean, maybe a little, but you had your reasons.” Steve smiled. “Then you punched through my door and set fire to Stark Labs, so I guess I’m going to have to reconsider some things.”

“The fire was all Nat,” Bucky mumbled. Then he pulled back to look at him. “Did they hurt you?”

“No.”

Bucky frowned. “Steve—”

“They didn’t,” Steve insisted. “Well—sure, I didn’t go quietly, but I heal fast anyway, and they weren’t out to injure me.”

“Steve—” Bucky began again in horror.

“I was fine, Buck. I know I worried you in the labs, but I was just a bit faint, is all. I was trying for a hunger strike.”

“You what?

“It’s okay, they were about to put me on an IV.”

Bucky remembered the IV stand hovering over Steve, the cuffs restraining him to the bed. All the bruises he could never see because they had healed already. He felt more of that roiling anger which had carried him through walls back at Stark Labs, and glared at Steve. “You do annoy me, you fucking punk.”

“I would have been fine,” Steve repeated, steadfast.

Then he hesitated.

“But… they were gonna keep me locked up, that was clear enough. I could never see you again, not even to explain why I was gone. And that…”

He swallowed, then fell quiet for a second. When he spoke again, his voice sounded hoarse. “That—that was about the one thing I felt I couldn’t take.”

“Kiss me again,” Bucky murmured, and Steve surged against him. His towel fell away all too easily. Bucky pushed him back onto the bed, got on top of him and kissed him once more. He was fully clothed, still wearing his goddamn boots, and still smelling of plaster and smoke—but Steve seemed to love it, tangling his fingers in his long hair, pulling him flush against him. His nudity was smooth and golden, every part of him offered to touch, so trusting even under Bucky’s metal fingers, and Bucky wanted him, he was hard, he wanted him now.

“Steve,” he breathed, and now he knew everything about him, he knew exactly why his name in Bucky’s mouth made Steve shiver.

Steve’s fingers drifted up the entire length of his metal arm, then came up in his hair. Bucky’s bun unraveled and his hair fell around his face. Steve seemed dazed already; touch always seemed to send him on a high. He couldn’t get enough of it now, bringing Bucky down to kiss his neck, his jaw, his cheek, his mouth. Bucky splayed both his hands over his chest. From the left he only felt pressure, the resistance of hard muscle against his palm, and from the right he felt goosebumps.

“Are you—are you going to fuck me this time?” Steve asked under his breath.

God, Steve letting go of his inhibitions was a beautiful thing. Bucky leaned down to bite at the lobe of his ear, feeling the minuscule shivers it sent rippling over Steve’s skin.

“Since you’re asking.”

Steve was steadily blushing. He pulled Bucky tight, chest to chest, squeezing him hard, and it occurred to Bucky maybe it was so he wouldn’t see the expression on his face. His heart was so full it almost hurt.

Natasha would be back in a few hours, though, and he very much wanted to make Steve come before then. He grinded on him, rolling his hips hard and steady until he felt interest, then brought down his metal hand to wrap him in a tight grip. Steve sucked in a sharp breath.

“Feels weird?” Bucky asked, suddenly worried.

“No—” Steve looked like he didn’t know what to do with himself. “Uh—the opposite.”

Bucky’s hand was cool and smooth, and when he rubbed his thumb over the tip of Steve’s cock, he actually felt it jerk and fill some more. Steve was so red he could have set fire to the sheets.

“Turn over,” Bucky rasped.

Steve was so obviously relieved to hide his face that he complied at once, gathering a pillow under his chest as he turned on his stomach. Bucky leaned down to kiss the small of his back. His hands followed the low dip of Steve’s spine, the swell of his bare ass. He grabbed it, dug his fingers in, kneaded him, parted him, and felt his own erection strain in his pants at the sight of him, pink and clean and tight. He smelled of nothing but soap.

“Buck.” His deep voice was hoarse already. “Are you gonna…”

“Oh yeah.” Bucky was still holding him open, and let his metal thumb slide into the cleft to push at his rim. Steve clutched his pillow and moaned.

“I’m gonna make you wet, sweetheart.” Bucky was tracing circles around his rim now. “Till all I gotta do is slide right home. You already know you want it, don’t you?”

“Bucky—please—”

“Ah, Stevie, I’m sorry, didn’t mean to make ya beg.” Bucky leaned down, breathed cool air on his rim, then traced it with the tip of his tongue.

Steve let out a shaky noise and held onto his pillow for dear life. When Bucky licked a broad stripe, he moaned louder and pushed against the mattress, rolling his hips to drag his cock against the sheets.

“Nuh-huh, Rogers.” Bucky pinned his hips down. His new hand was unyielding. “Gotta wait for me.”

Steve’s moan sounded like real desperation this time, and it didn’t get any better when Bucky went back to work and thoroughly ate him out. There was a very faint sweet taste to his skin. Like sugar, or honey, or apples. After a while, the ring of muscle gave way for Bucky to push the point of his tongue in, and Steve bucked so hard against his grip the plates on Bucky’s arm realigned.

He surfaced for a second, grinning. “Still havin’ fun over there?”

“Please.” Steve sounded ragged and breathless, hips straining against Bucky’s unyielding hold. “Please, Buck, I need—I need—”

“You sure that’s enough?” Bucky kept him open with his human hand and pushed a metal finger into him. It went in smoothly, and he could feel the tight pressure around it. “You want it already?”

Steve let out a ruined moan, which got louder when Bucky added a second finger.

“What do you know,” Bucky said, trying to sound like he wasn’t half-crazy with need himself, “You do sound ready.”

“I’m ready,” Steve gasped, “I’m ready.”

“Alright, Stevie, you just go on and push up, get on your elbows.” Bucky dug in his bag. Condom and lube, condom and lube, condom and fucking lube, he was absolutely fucking certain he’d packed them—

When he finally found what he needed and looked back up, Steve was waiting on elbows and knees, with his head hanging down, completely on display. For all his detached game, Bucky could have come on the fucking spot.

“God, Steve.” He was still fully clothed but he couldn’t stand to wait, so he just took himself out of his pants, rolled on the condom and slicked up. “Alright—I’m here. You still with me?”

“Dying of old age is what I am,” Steve managed.

Bucky grinned. “Take a deep breath, sweetheart.”

He lined up and started pushing in—he was good at this, had done it enough that he knew how to go slow and make him feel every inch of it. Steve took it gorgeously, panting as Bucky went deeper in him, and he was so tight and hot Bucky wanted to lose himself in it. But he just kept pushing, taking his sweet time; he wanted to bottom out before he started thrusting, make it one long slow slide to make Steve feel fuller and fuller, until he couldn’t take any more.

It seemed to be ages before he got there, hips flush with Steve’s ass, kneading his hips and pressing kisses down his scarred spine.

“Bucky,” Steve said in a ruined voice.

And suddenly it was almost too much. Could Bucky make Steve happy, when he’d torn him away from what little he had? Was he even allowed? He wasn’t always kind, and he hadn’t always been gentle, but Steve seemed to want him all the same, so maybe Bucky owed him a try.  He wanted it too much anyway. He let out a shuddering exhale and pulled out.

“Turn around, on your back—”

Steve complied, fair skin flushed with pleasure, blue eyes almost black, hair darkened with sweat. Bucky pushed his legs further apart, fingers digging in his thighs, and drove home again as deep as he could go, lying on top of him, pressing him into the mattress and kissing him open-mouthed. Steve’s arms came up to wind around him. When they parted, they looked at each other, so close their noses brushed together, both of them breathing hard and shaky. Bucky couldn’t stop staring at him.

Steve combed Bucky’s long hair back. “Are—are you alright?”

Bucky huffed a laugh and ducked his head down. “Yeah. Just…”

It was so stupid, he’d fucked so many people over the past couple of years, but Steve made him feel like this was entirely new for them both. Bucky was scared as hell, still half-thinking he didn’t deserve any of this, but losing it would have terrified him even more.

“Just—” He swallowed, rolling his hips without thinking to drive himself deeper. “Can I stay with you?” he said, and it came out pleading. “Can we stick together? I—”

“Yes.” Steve’s fingers tightened, bunching up Bucky’s black shirt. “Yes, of course, yes, I told you, I’m going with you, Bucky, I want to be with you.”

“We don’t even know where we’re going.”

Steve smiled at him, bright and so damn happy. “That’ll make for a nice change.”

Bucky exhaled and started to move again, thrusting harder and deeper until he had Steve letting out a shuddery noise with every snap of his hips, throwing his head back into the sheets when Bucky wrapped his metal fingers around his straining cock again. They came together a few minutes later, almost inevitably, Steve seizing up tight around Bucky who followed him over the edge with a shaky breath, hips jerking and straining to keep himself deepest into the tight heat of him.

Afterwards they rested against each other, breathing together, coming down, and even Bucky’s nagging fears had to take a back seat.

 

*

 

By the time Natasha came back, they were both showered and Bucky’s arm was dead. Steve somehow seemed to think it was his fault.

“It’s okay, Stevie, it was bound to happen,” Bucky told him patiently.

“Didn’t you charge that thing yesterday?” Natasha asked, closing the door.

“It’s got plates now, it’s heavier. Dies faster.” There was no wire in the motel room, so Bucky was digging into his bag for a portable charger to plug into the old-fashioned outlet. “And I punched through a few walls with it. Battering mode burns a lot of energy.”

She looked them both over and raised an eyebrow. “That and other things.”

Steve blushed, but Bucky wasn’t surprised she could tell, and couldn’t find it in himself to give a shit. He finally found his charger and settled on the floor next to the outlet. His arm gave a whirr to signal it was charging.

“Well, this is gonna take all night,” Bucky sighed. “I’m gonna put the mattress down and sleep on the floor.”

“Me too,” Steve decided.

Bucky almost said he didn’t have to, and then just smiled fondly. Natasha watched Steve wrestle with the mattresses while checking her phone, without lifting a finger to help him.

“My friend is outside changing the plates of the van,” she said absently. “You guys will be good to go in the morning. Do you have a plan?”

“We do not,” Bucky said.

Steve pushed the mattresses together and sat on one. “I’m not worried,” he declared.

Bucky wasn’t worried either, per se. Prostitution was a sure way to bring in money anywhere they went, and he hadn’t minded the job before. But he could already picture Steve’s face when Bucky offered to provide for the both of them in this way, and that thought was somehow unbearable to him.

He just wasn’t sure what else he could do. Any regular job was sure to look into his history and find it lacking. As for Steve—he was on the run too, now. They’d have to be twice as careful.

 

*

 

Bucky had a vague memory of his arm pinging to life in the middle of the night, and turning on his side to bring Steve closer; but now it was morning and he was alone.

He wasn’t worried though, and after a moment he realized it was because he could hear Steve’s muffled voice coming from somewhere. Getting up, he tied his hair into a bun and walked to the window. Steve was right outside, leaning against the van and talking into a brand-new phone. Bucky knocked on the glass; Steve smiled and waved him over.

It was colder out than Bucky expected; outside of town, the air flowed more freely. DC shone silver in the distance and its many windmills made it look like the entire city was about to take off.

“Thank you so much,” Steve was saying into the phone. “I’ll never forget what you did. You were—you were all I had for a long time, you know.”

Bucky knew this had to be Peggy. She must have said something about Bucky, because Steve looked up at him with a smile and said, “You know, I think I’ll be fine.”

He ended the conversation soon after and put his phone away, pulling out its twin to give to Bucky. “Natasha got us those.”

“It’s nice of her,” Bucky said wryly. The phones were sleek and black, made of solar-absorbent material: they would charge just sitting in the sun. Those weren’t sold in either half of America. Bucky turned his over and saw an almost invisible engraving, looking like a stylized panther head.

“She keeps calling me sunflower cop,” Steve added. “Why…?”

Bucky snorted. “Won’t shake that one anytime soon.”

“You know I’m not actually—” Then Steve seemed to decide this wasn’t the hill he wanted to die on. “Anyway. We have to clear the room right about… now, so we might as well take off.”

Bucky swallowed a sudden rush of anxiety and pocketed the phone. “Steve, I…”

Steve looked at him inquiringly, and in that moment he seemed so untouched by life, despite everything, that Bucky didn’t have the heart to go in the details. Instead, he just said lamely, “Life is probably gonna be—tough for a while, you know.”

Steve just shrugged. “Not tough like I had.”

Bucky blinked. Steve went on, “Natasha’s emptying my account now. Peggy helped making it look like someone siphoned it. It’s just a few thousand bucks, really—coupla months of pay—but it’ll keep us going for a bit. I mean… we can sleep in the van and get a hotel room every once in a while, right?”

Now Bucky stared at him in astonishment.

“What?” asked Steve, blinking.

“Nothing. Nothing. Just…”

Bucky realized he hadn’t imagined Steve would be actively figuring things out with him. In the back of his mind he still functioned as though he had ripped a reluctant Steve from his life and must take responsibility for it.

But Steve wanted to be here. And of course he wasn’t the kind to just follow along.

“I was thinking—” Steve looked down. “I don’t know, I’ve been cooped up all my life. And maybe I’m being naive about this, but—right now I just really feel like going on a road trip with you. Can we worry about everything else when we run out of money?”

Bucky was so choked up he almost couldn’t speak.

“You know, I always did want to see the Grand Canyon,” he managed, and Steve’s smile was better than any goddamn sunrise he’d ever seen.

 

*

 

Natasha bid them goodbye with a parting gift of a bag of cash. Bucky squeezed her in his arms, then stuffed the thing under the front seat of the van. They drove into DC to buy camping gear, nonperishable food and as many solar cells as possible. Spread out on the ground, they’d be enough to power up Bucky’s arm, if they weren’t in a hurry.

On the way out of the mall, Bucky caught Steve peering longingly at an array of painting supplies. When he realized Bucky had seen him, he blushed.

“It’s just—I useta draw a lot. I was homebound, too sick to go to school most of the time. Not much else to do.”

Bucky smiled, then added paint and brushes and paper to the cart despite Steve’s spluttering protests.

Throughout the whole thing Bucky kept expecting someone to jump them, constantly looking over his shoulder, watching out for cameras. DC wasn’t that far from New York. And with the mess they’d made—and Steve, so many people must be looking for him—they couldn’t just get away with something like this. Right?

But he’d done it once. And now he was doing it again. Only this time he wasn’t just running away. He was going somewhere, building something. All of a sudden they were outside, loading up the van, and in no time at all they were leaving the city behind.

This far out, magnetic lines with guided assistance ran along the highway if you had the necessary equipment for them, and of course T’Challa’s van was cutting edge. Bucky docked the van into the silvery path, programmed their destination into the GPS and let go of the wheel, nervously at first, then smiling when he realized the damn thing was in fact driving itself. It glided over the magnetic road, hovering just a few inches up, heading west.

Bucky got up and joined Steve in the back. “Can you believe we’ve got a fucking flying car?”

Steve didn’t hear; he’d gotten out his paints and was frowning at a huge piece of drawing paper. When Bucky blocked out his light, he looked up and smiled.

“Buck, hey. What should we name it?” he asked.

“What?”

“The van. We’re gonna live in it for a while, I reckon.”

“Right.” Bucky sat next to him. “I dunno. Solar Bum?”

Steve burst out laughing. Bucky had never seen him so carefree and it spread warmth under his own skin. He breathed out. They were bums, tramps, drifters, however you wanted to call it, but somehow it was the least daunting thought he’d ever had.

“Something that moves around.” Steve looked at him. “Nomad?”

Bucky snapped his fingers. “Captain Nomad.”

“My God,” Steve said with a look of dreaded epiphany. “I’m gonna regret ever meeting you, aren’t I?”

“Within the first three days,” Bucky grinned, leaning in for a kiss. He rested his head on Steve’s shoulder afterward and said quietly, “I love Nomad.”

Steve’s face lit up. “Yeah?”

Bucky looked into his bright blue eyes, feeling like he was answering another great, unspoken question. “Yeah.”

 

*

 

(“What?” mumbled Natasha, rolling out of bed. “I told you not to call me on this number.”

You never gave me another one,” answered T’Challa’s smoothly-grained voice. “Someone has come calling. An Alexander Pierce?”

“Fuck.” She rubbed grit out of her eyes. “Is he looking for me?”

“For Barnes.”

“Ah.”

“They broke down his door in Brooklyn.”

Natasha relaxed. “Oh, well, they were almost in time to get him. Give or take fifteen days.”)

 

(“Think they have any idea where he is?”

“None, I’d wager. The last pingback from the van came from somewhere near the Grand Canyon. Should we warn them all the same?”

Natasha sighed. James wouldn’t be very happy knowing his little pleasure van was bugged. Though maybe he suspected already. Friends like her, right?

“Maybe if Pierce comes within a hundred miles of them,” she allowed. “Which shouldn’t happen since you’re about to rat him out to the Northeast authorities. Correct?”

“You shouldn’t assume,” said T’Challa, but there was a smile in his voice.)

 

(“Do warn me when they run out of money, though; I could use a traveling strike team.”

“Not sure they’ll be that interested in freelancing for a foreign power, your Highness.”

“Miss Romanov, please. I am but an underprivileged American citizen.”

“Whatever you say. I’m going back to sleep.”

Natasha hung up the phone and buried her face in Liho’s fur. The world had changed, but it really hadn’t changed all that much.)