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Make It Up As We Go Along

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Natasha had him nailed: He’s a terrible liar.

So he keeps his mouth mostly shut as he and Sam follow Nat’s leads, intel turned up along with shadows under her eyes or a catch in her words. The price she pays is high--that much is clear, but he figures she thinks she’s got something to settle, and he keeps his mouth shut about that, too.

Left to Steve and Natasha, there are a lot of long silences. Not awkward, but not old-marrieds-comfortable, either. She doesn’t offer up where the leads come from; he doesn’t push it. Cares, sure--cares about the shadows and her cracked voice, but cares more about getting their gear packed up and making the next Stark-supplied car or private plane to wherever ... to that next lead. A city over or two countries away or across an ocean.

Steve keeps his sentences short, his tone military-crisp in those moments of transition. Doesn’t want to waste time.

Sam ... Yeah, thank God for Sam. He is the perfect buffer between them--”got no dog in this hunt,” he says, which is outrageously untrue, but it lets him smooth the edges between Steve’s singleminded focus and Nat’s circumspection. All the words they aren’t saying. Sam tells stories about his childhood--his teenaged years, so they're funny, awkward stories that are maybe a little exaggerated, but it doesn’t matter. His words are meant to put everyone at ease while they’re shoveling down takeout and drinking that sour water that comes out of hotel bathroom taps.

It works in short bursts. Steve laughs and talks a little, tells one tale or another from Brooklyn in words pushed out before the actual memories settle in hard. Natasha offers less. And, for the first time since Steve knew her, she seems shifty in her own skin, aware that her history is just on the other side of the small tablet Sam keeps in his coat pocket and the phone Steve ... doesn’t know what to do with most of the time.

He doesn’t look at the phone, not for that. Doesn’t know if Sam does, but sometimes their eyes meet behind Natasha’s back and Sam kind of shrugs, with an eyebrow that says something, and even if Sam had looked, maybe it doesn’t matter.

Steve reassured Bruce once on that front, at the beginning of this life. He thinks he and Natasha have been through enough, so much since then, that she won’t take his guff anyway--might break his face if he tries comfort. Empathy. She smirks at Sam and nods sharp to Steve, and they pack their gear again and move on.

To the next sighting, a day late. The Winter Soldier was ... they might call him a free agent now; some do call him that. When Sam said it, Natasha’s expression hadn’t changed, but her eyes had blinked and refocused, flickered pretty much, and Steve went from relieved to wound tight in that single moment.

A soldier without orders. Without missions. Without memories. With the wrong kind of memories. A soldier capable of ...

But Steve didn’t talk about what he saw in those files.

They hadn’t found any bodies.

They hadn’t found any bodies.

The Soldier--he had no pattern from what Natasha could tell, which made it all feel like a damn goose chase. Or maybe like they’re following a lure through the water, no idea that the end of the line is a frying pan.

Because, each time, when they drop through a ceiling panel or leap from the back of the van, they absolutely fail to surprise the Winter Soldier. (Sam tells him don’t call that Bucky Barnes, that’s not Bucky, not now, but how can Steve--? Even when the Soldier’s expression is more manic than blank--than too-familiar agonized--oh, hell, it’s him. It is.)

And, each time, Bucky fights like he’s about to get murdered, cornered and wild, even against three--especially against three--but he puts down Natasha or sends Sam after some endangered civilians, and then it’s just Steve and the Soldier, and Bucky--

The Soldier fights him like he wants to murder Steve, metal backhand to the cheek, taking out the hearing in that ear ... grabbing Steve’s head and slamming it into the pavement ...

... knocking an ankle out until it crumples ...

... breaking a rib or three with the unforgiving flat of a ripped-off car door.

(Steve fights like he wants to save Bucky, which is to mean it’s just as enraged, just as merciless, but the flesh and bone and metal opposite him take the punishment Steve would give that snake Zola and monster Pierce, oh, if only he could. Steve believed, yes, and he'll leave most to their divine, earned justice, but not those two. Not if he had the chance. They got off easy.)

Sometimes, especially if Steve is distracted by his own dark thoughts, un-Christian thoughts, the Soldier triumphs, puts a foot on Steve's chest and stares down, panting. That’s when Steve sees the blankness in that face, like he’s waiting for new orders now that Steve’s been put down (but Steve’s still breathing, hey--Steve will get up in a minute, and it’s when he moves that the Soldier snaps out of the fugue and backs away, turning to bolt down an alley as Sam directs law enforcement and Nat comes the fuck back from wherever she was thrown).

When Steve wins, when he pins Bucky like he used to back just horsing around in the camp or ... or after ... When Steve gets Buck under his hands again, the Soldier goes crazy, yeah, every time, and writhes and rends and screams--dear Christ, the screams--until Steve pulls away. Steve had been scared the first time or two it had happened, dropped his grip because he was expecting a poisoned tooth to foam from Bucky’s mouth, but now it just ... he expects it.

Expects more to come. Because there is a ritual now, and Bucky running off doesn’t end it.

They don’t share a room--he, Sam, and Natasha. Even in the roughest circumstances, he makes sure Tony Stark’s arrangements accommodate privacy. Begs off early in the night, after food and debrief, explaining that he needs some quiet time to regroup. To heal whatever the Winter Soldier left on him that time, and Nat looks thoughtfully at him while Sam--Sam knows something is up, but is probably waiting for Steve to confess the inner pain that fuels his nightmares.

Steve’s okay with Sam believing what he believes. Most nights, Steve doesn’t sleep enough to dream. He limps into his own bed after every fight, won or lost--always damaged. He’ll heal, but it’ll take overnight until the marks disappear, the ones Sam and Nat have catalogued. The ones they’ll remember.

By dawn, he’ll have new ones anyway.

The Soldier finds him after each confrontation, won or lost. Slides into the room in ways no one should be able to, not in these sleek, modern hotels Natasha favors. Able to loosen and gape windows that were never designed to open beyond a handspan.

The first couple of times, Steve hadn’t heard him at all.

Now he knows to listen. Now, the nights after those conflicts, when his body aches with cuts and sprains, the twitches of muscle knitting back together, he doesn’t sleep at all. It’s always the same, and his breath catches as he hears the slick slide of glass along metal, a noise anyone else would dismiss as wind or the creaks of a settling building.

Steve never knows whether to make it easy or make it hard. Can't tell if it makes a difference. Either way, he flinches when palms slap down on either side of his head. Looks up and can’t see--the pitch dark of the room by design as well. He’d thought it was a dream at first, before ...

Ritual: Both of Steve’s wrists caught hard in the metal grip, pulled over his head, and the other hand, the one that Steve knew, that knew Steve, before, presses to the skin of his hip, shoves up his t-shirt. Exposes bruised, raw flesh.

What they’d had before wasn’t like this. No, not like this. But then, he was never supposed to have this again. And while he can’t see Bucky’s face--doesn’t know what's in his eyes--

He’s here. And Steve will make it easy for him, he will every time. Won’t fight the hold on his wrists or fingernails digging near to bone, whatever--whatever Bucky wants to do to him, but Steve does have a price. The Soldier knows it, and he comes anyway.

Steve twists away from the fingers brushing over his stomach, just enough for effect. Hisses up into the dark: “Say my name.” Growls when the fingertips still. “No. Bucky. You know my name. Say it.”

And whether Bucky remembers it himself or just ... can parrot what he’s learned ... it hardly matters, does it, when Bucky snarls Steve’s name with hot breath right in his face, and that Steve remembers from the old life.

Buck’s kisses are mauling, another form of fighting, but when Steve shifts down the mattress to trap Bucky in his own legs, for one more damn time, they find themselves fighting on the same side.

In the mornings, he wipes the shower-steam from the mirror and catalogues his own fresh wounds in the mirror. Bite marks and gouges, all to be covered by collar, sleeves, uniform. Sam or Natasha asks him how he’s doing as they debate breakfast and the day’s strategy, and he offers a grim smile and nods once, and then talks about something else.

Steve is a terrible liar. Yeah, Nat had that pegged.

So he makes sure he says nothing at all.

Chapter Text

Natasha shifted her phone to the other ear. “We’re gonna bring him in.”

Tony’s voice was low, tired. “I’ll get things ready.”

***

Steve discovered that four months was the outside limit on wild goose chases.

Widow rolled on him first--with elbows on her knees, frank stare, blunt words. It was the day after a particularly nasty confrontation with the Soldier--Natasha still had a slice across her neck from where he’d tried to sever her jugular and barely missed. However close they got, they still couldn’t take him down, couldn’t slow him down, not while Sam and Nat were in the line of sight, anyway.

And when they weren’t in the line of sight--

Steve considered it a damned miracle that he hadn’t been captured on video watching Bucky retreat without even a cursory fling of his shield. Just scanning him, head to toe. Cataloguing the damage he’d taken to make sure he’d survive until the next time.

They were needed at “home,” Nat told Steve and Sam, elbows on knees, to deal with threats growing in the void left by SHIELD. Only so much Stark’s people could do, only so much Fury could manage even with his team rebuilding daily.

Sam came after, while Steve brooded, and his words were warm, all “I understand” and “honoring Bucky in your own way.” (If only Sam knew, God, but Sam carried pictures on his phone and looked at them sometimes, thumb swiping over the screen and other hand over his mouth, rasping his breath, and maybe he did understand. In his own way.)

Steve had rubbed at his forehead, and Sam had taken that as a cue to pat his shoulder and tell him that Bucky would still be out there, after. He glanced at Natasha, who nodded. And Sam hit him with another metaphor:

Not a door closing--just a "temporary detour."

A detour that dropped them at the front door of Stark’s tower sixteen hours later. It had room, lots of it, and Tony had outlined every benefit as they rode up the hidden, private elevator and Steve got the hard sell. Tony yakked like his old man, always had to be the smartest fellow in the room--that hadn’t changed. Steve pinched down a smile at Nat’s eye roll, but then felt his brows knit together when Natasha threw her duffle into her quarters without question.

Natasha had a different kind of hard sell. While Tony talked like he was selling hair brushes door to door, all patter and false shared jokes, Nat teased out Steve’s fears and weaknesses--his actual damned confessions from those long hours in the truck--in making her argument. She worked on him--they all worked on him, Tony, Bruce, Coulson ... to give up his apartment and take his place with them.

Instead, he went back to the apartment, where all the residents had turned over and his new neighbor had a bulge under his arm and probably Fury’s number in the first slot in his phone contacts. Couldn’t tell the Stark Tower sales team why he had returned, obviously, and so he let Tony’s arrogance peel away into frustrated nitpicking, and Nat fell into a considered silence that still felt too damned perceptive.

Sam had detoured himself to DC, to put that part of his life on hold while he kitted up for the big leagues, and Steve missed him. Knew it would have been another attack on his flank, but could’ve used one person with no agenda but to help him straighten out his head.

Could’ve used one person.

He decided to give the Soldier two weeks, just two weeks to find him in the same damned apartment with the window vulnerable to the next-door roofline. He waited in his room each night, on his back and fists clenched next to his head, for sounds, for movement.

They--he--didn’t come. Bucky had seen this as a retreat, maybe, and Steve knew Buck didn’t think kindly of cowards.

Never had.

And so somewhere around the beginning of the third week, he braced himself for Stark’s smug grin and sharp tongue and moved his belongings to his designated rooms in the tower.

Made nice with Stark--with Tony. Because Steve could make nice. Kinda got the feeling Tony needed it--knew something had gone down to make Tony yank the reactor from his chest after the attempted assassination, and Tony, in a way, looked more haunted now than he had after Coulson’s “death.” His verbal strikes against Steve never really stung--clearly weren’t heartfelt.

Steve wondered if Tony ever had harbored suspicions about how his parents had died, but even if he had, probably knowing it for sure was worse. And now Steve had his own suspicions, after getting the play-by-play of the Soldier’s attack on Fury’s vehicle. Had his own suspicions, but would rather die again than talk about them.

Didn’t make him want Bucky--want Bucky back any less.

Wouldn’t get him back, though, between JARVIS and the terrifying array of defensive systems Stark had obsessively added since the Chitauri attack. But Steve moved in anyway, the doors shut with a pneumatic “pop,” and Steve was like a girl in a twenty-first-century fairy tale. Walled in, protected.

Trapped.

But, if Bucky had decided Steve was being a coward, the Soldier decided to deliver the punishment. And if Bucky couldn’t get to Steve at night, the Soldier would flip a damned car to lure Steve into the street.

That’s how the attacks started, one-man attacks, and New York reclaimed the honor of being the focal point of every ridiculous, vengeance-driven attack on the team. That nobody died was either from the Soldier’s deliberate care or decided lack of caring. He was always gone before anyone showed up, leaving just some shaking witnesses to describe a black mask, a blue gaze, and a red star on a glinting arm.

Steve couldn’t help peering at the rooflines and into shadowed alleys as they stammered out the same description.

No one comments that Steve is always first on the scene.

They comment that maybe he's not being careful enough. Maybe painting too clear a target for a singularly focused assassin.

“You probably should mix up your route a little bit,” Maria had offered, in a perfect tone of not giving a damn, just shooting the breeze, as she lined up photos of Steve running on the exact same corner, the exact same time, on sequential days.

Steve shrugged. “I’m a creature of habit,” and his smile was tight. “Plus, the place on the next block has the best bialys.” Natasha wasn’t around to give him the evil eye, and he didn’t mention that he knew he was being watched. Bialys at 7:20 a.m., library at 2:15 p.m., a corner booth for coffee at 10:07. A cold tingle ever-present on the back of his neck.

It took twenty-seven days of fishing five-spots out of his pocket and buying alibi baked goods and Americanos to catch, out of the corner of his eye, a red star on a glinting arm. That’s how he found himself in a dead-end alley, behind some garbage bins, with the Soldier’s thighs locked around his throat, being flipped onto his back. He stared up at that face, now maskless. It was the first time he’d seen Bucky in the open, completely alone, morning light zigzagging down the walls to settle on that familiar face.

“Are you here to fight?” Steve asked, as if he hadn’t just been planted hard on pavement.

Got no answer, which was an answer in itself. And left Steve an option--something Bucky had never refused and the Soldier had never asked for. Took another look over that familiar face, focused entirely on him, and decided.

Steve levered himself off the ground, held back a grimace at the pungent smells of garbage and dogs and dirty water, the feel of liquid filth skimming his skin. Bucky was nearly a statue in his black military garb--not the uniform, which was long gone, but close enough. Had feet braced and both hands flexing, one with that tinny sound of Tony's workshop, like the Soldier was still thinking of coming at Steve with bone and metal even if he wouldn’t be made to confess it.

Steve raised his hands, telegraphing his intentions, and took small steps toward Bucky--wary of setting him off by pinning him but wanting, God help him, to do nothing but. It took surgical precision, in the end, to crowd him slowly against the rough brick of the alley wall. Those blue eyes were huge and his muscles were even more tensed, ready for whatever Steve was gonna hit him with--

But maybe not this, Steve thought as he dropped to his knees. Felled again. Watched those blue eyes widen, the head turn on that neck as if the Soldier was still preparing for an attack. A trick. Steve used his lowest, calmest voice. “What do you want to do, Buck?” He shuffled closer, still on his knees. “You still wanna fight me?”

His tone suggested the correct answer.

Bucky’s hands turned, his fingers loosened, and he flattened his palms and then his back against the wall. It was as close to capitulation as Steve would get, but then--

“Steve.” Oh, that was as close to--

Steve stopped his hands at the belt, looked up from beneath his lashes, and, exactly as Bucky would remember it, a goad from the past, said, “Oh, Buck. You know just how to sweet-talk the gals, don’t you?”

Got his first actual response--a choke that was half-laugh, half-sob, and Bucky with his own fingers pushed Steve’s hands away and ripped at his buckle himself. Stopped, once he was freed, and grumbled at Steve, as Steve was inching closer, “And your mouth ... ” He touched Steve’s lips lightly with flesh-and-blood finger. “Your mouth always gets you in trouble.”

The words were ground out of him, painful, and Steve's gut flipped and his mouth was trouble, because he couldn’t reply. Couldn’t say Bucky’s name, drill it into him like he did in the pitch-black hotel beds, but could use his mouth to remind Buck how it felt to sneak moments like this, good moments, in the apartment in Brooklyn, in the camps, and finally next door to Sam and Natasha, mortally desperate not to get caught.

Reminded him, even if this was new--if Steve had never actually found himself kneeling in stinking alley water and clustered cigarette butts while Bucky’s hands finally, finally clenched in his hair. Bucky gasped Steve’s name once more, thank God, and then cried out an unholy moan as he curved his shoulders over Steve’s head, his fingers both metal and flesh never giving up their hold on Steve, and Captain America could follow orders, yessir.

Oh, he could follow orders.

Sighed and rested his cheek on Bucky’s palm after, just for a moment, just until Bucky gently pulled him off, redressed, met his eyes for one more moment, closer to something than Steve had seen him yet ...

And then slipped away. Steve felt the thud-thud-thud of his heartbeat in his abused lips, the chill of damp soaking the fabric over his knees and shins--

Knew what it looked like--knew what he looked like with stained knees, a swollen mouth, and finger-rows pulled through his hair, and took a different route home.

Hill was waiting for him. Of course. “How was the bialy?” with that eyebrow, and that flat tone, and ...

“Always good,” which was still the truth.

That night, Bucky scaled the tower. Somehow. Slid in through a vent while Steve’s breath quickened.

That night, Steve caught his arms as those hands slammed into the pillow on either side of his head. Held tight as he thought of JARVIS, the pressurized doors, the hidden elevators.

Keycodes.

Cameras.

He couldn’t hide that he was impressed--probably should, since that was all the Soldier's work, but didn’t wanna. “How?” he asked, pretty much rhetorical and laughing, like when Bucky had left the apartment with empty pockets and a grin and come home with a whole chicken dinner. Like when Bucky had picked off every sniper without one single enemy bullet finding its mark.

“Don’t know,” Buck said. He considered Steve for a minute--the light from the city below let Steve see his face this time. Sounded resigned when he added, “Ask me how I’m gonna get out.”

Steve snorted, then made a sharp, pleased sound as Bucky’s weight settled on him. Dared to tease, “Okay, so, how you gonna, Buck?”

And heard that peculiar choking laugh, fatalistic, that maybe was all Winter Soldier: “Don’t know yet.”

After that, for a little while, they also didn't care.

***

“You know, and appreciate that this is me saying this to someone else right now: There is nothing about this that doesn’t scream ‘bad idea.’” Tony moved around the transparent screen and continued to enter data points.

Natasha didn’t move from her perch on the work table--just cocked her head. “Tony, you don’t know--” She caught his expression and paused, kept it simply to, “You don’t know.”

No, he didn't know, the files hadn’t been explicit, but the number of Pierce-lackey HYDRA agents promoted in the months following his mother’s and father’s deaths kind of ruined the curve, thanks. And, loyalties being what they were now, things were pretty murky on a lot of fronts, but Tony was certain of one thing:

“Steve Rogers needs grief counseling, for real, not just you and Sam Wilson sitcom-parenting your way through it, and the world needs the Winter Soldier in a cage.” He looked away from the screen and crossed his arms, like that was going to make a difference to Natasha. Implored: “You’ve seen the files.”

“Yeah, well--Steve doesn’t see it that way, and right now, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. He's earned that, in my book.” Natasha slid off the table, landed silent on her feet. “Look, Tony--”

“No, don’t do that, Natalie.” He sighed and pushed the screen away. “He’s here, downstairs, probably defiling America's sweetheart as we speak. What happens next?” Tony shrugged. “Kind of up to him.”

“And Steve,” Natasha added, and Tony held a hand up, hoping to close off this particular debate.

“Yeah. We’ll see.”

Chapter Text

He doesn’t sleep next to Steve Rogers.

Dozes--calms enough to rebuild physical energy, but doesn’t allow himself to be fully unconscious next to this man, in this room, in this building.

He’s in the heart of Stark Tower, and he knows enough about the other residents to see the near-literal truth of it from where he rests in Captain America’s bed.

He goes over the route he took into this room. He’s still uncertain how he breached the security, and it’s profoundly unsettling--a jagged disturbance in the back of his mind that registers as static meant to make him uncomfortable, to force him to act. Or perhaps the transmitters in his arm are registering the presence of Stark’s AI.

He shouldn’t have gotten in without alerting that omniscient AI--and Stark, at least. Won’t assume he didn’t. The missions he sent himself on recently were messy, amateurish; he wasn’t that good right now, not as good as he’d been and not without the tools that were at least temporarily lost to him. He could take down terrified HYDRA refugees and make enough noise to keep the Avengers’ focus, but infiltration of this level of stronghold? Pah.

So he’d readied instead for a fight--messy, amateurish, but enough, to step over the fallen afterward and draw Steve to a neutral location.

Draw Steve out and block his way back in.

But from the garage to the service entrance, to the vents and darkened halls that honeycombed the building ... through all of it, his path had been clear.

As though his path had been cleared. As though they wanted him to take Steve Rogers.

Snorted at that, and looked over at the man who, yes, was deeply unconscious next to him. Catalogued what he knew about the target going in: transformation by serum, courageous long beyond the point of foolhardiness, inventive, unwilling to flee a fight unless more than his own life was on the line.

Mortal, but it would take some work to prove. And unpredictable--but always honorable, so not really unpredictable at all to those who lacked it. (Pierce had called him “scrappy,” with a bitter smile.)

These were all the facts he needed for his mission (what he now knew was his final HYDRA mission).

Catalogued what he had learned since taking Rogers to bed: a body, capable of deadly force, yes, but able to turn soft and generous in a moment. More than comfortable on his back or knees despite his persona on the battlefield. And amusingly fastidious. He always felt the need to bathe afterwards, and, now, even after a few hours’ sleep, he smelled of soap and sweet-scented shampoo.

More pliant when kissed, but only willing to give in utterly when called by his given name.

Steve.

That he could do.

James Buchanan Barnes pushed the hair out of his face, tucked the overlong mess behind an ear as he turned onto his side, facing Rogers.

He assumed that, by now, Romanov had found whatever information his handlers had on him, wondered how complete it was since he’d never had the privilege of seeing it himself.

Rogers clearly was pleased when “Bucky” responded to his name.

The captain might be even more pleased to know how, in slow layers of realization, James Buchanan Barnes had regained his name. Discovered it, insubstantial as a shade, behind more important intel and considerations--how to avoid a stiletto to the lower abdomen in hand-to-hand combat, the sound made by sniper’s bullet leaving a rifle from a distant rooftop, how to scavenge enough to eat when his handlers didn’t reclaim him immediately after a mission.

In distant view but mostly irrelevant: that name, along with images of a life before--shabby buildings; sun filtered through smoke; people smiling, angry, sad (family, perhaps, or neighbors). The simple pleasures of a belly full of dinner and a picture show.

In the days since the first confrontation, the shade of Steve Rogers had pushed itself forward, irresistible as the man himself (“scrappy”), and James Barnes got hints of color, sound, a light brush of feeling that hinted at what the man, what the boy once was. To him. He looked different, yeah. Inconsequential in size and form, but--

Brightening by the day. By the hour.

Rogers’ back was to him now. So trusting.

(Foolhardy.)

Barnes claimed the left side of the bed, when he “slept,” so that he could turn his own back on Rogers and tuck the weaponized arm beneath him, keep it as a tease in retribution for the intense way Rogers’ eyes tracked it. Knew the man wanted to understand the sounds it made, the way jointed scales of metal interlocked so tightly they rarely cut, and turned flexible before they met the rent flesh of his shoulder.

No, he wouldn’t give Rogers the satisfaction of a long study. And the shade stepping forward in his mind shouldn’t see it at all.

On his right side now, facing the captain’s back, Barnes had the arm fully exposed, available, for what good it did Rogers. He wondered again if there were cameras on him right now, if Stark himself were studying a screen, but put the thought aside again as temporarily irrelevant. He was here now, secured in the heart of this building until he wormed his way out, and if Stark wanted a show--he’d already gotten one.

He studied the lines of Rogers’ shoulderblades, expanding and shrinking with his breaths. The furrow of his spine. The tuft of hair curled out between his ribs and upper arm. Scars, faint, and not from Rogers’ life as an experiment, but accrued beforehand and preserved--pock marks and indentations from youthful hurts. The man’s early life was mostly irrelevant to the mission, and even Barnes’ memories couldn’t fill in all the details, every conflict in which he was far outmatched and wouldn’t just stay down. (Pierce had said scrappy. Barnes thought, “Foolish.”)

With the weaponized arm, he tugged the sheets away from Rogers’ waist--his hips. The man would wake soon, didn’t sleep beyond those few hours at most, and would probably rouse with a simple touch. So he was touched, the weaker hand settling on Rogers’ lower back, just above the curve of his ass, the metal palm settling on that exposed hip.

Not a caress--more of a grip.

He inched closer. The bed beneath them creaked.

And, yes, there--the body beside him immediately tensed. “Buck?” It was muzzy, the voice, and while Rogers’ reflexes were fine, he still trusted too deeply. His misplaced trust was rewarded with a teasing sweep of the metal fingers over the thin skin covering the jut of his pelvis.

“Yes.” He cupped his hand over the bone.

The lines of that body softened again, and he heard a huff of breath that could have been humor, confirmed by the tone of the next: “Is it time to get up?” Then, face turned toward his shoulder, straining a little to see, “Five more minutes?”

He imagined that was some kind of a joke, meant to be familiar, and he raised himself on his elbow as his other arm curved back over the hip to brush Rogers’ ass. His fingertips finding the split of his buttocks and just tracing it. He kept his tone even and said, “Hand me the bottle,” and, “Steve,” a payment in lieu of a plea, and listened to Rogers’ exhale through his nose slowly, turn his head back even further to finally look him in the eye. Understanding.

Then, of course, he complied.

Predictable. Pliant.

Barnes refused to think of those qualities as anything other than liabilities.

And yet--

Barnes’ native sexual proclivities had been lost in the mists long ago, but the way this body jerked to life, the potency of his response when Rogers rolled onto his back, reaching out his arms and revealing his already-thickened cock, was enough evidence. He did wonder whether they had been lovers, before. Felt as though they had--they must have--but Rogers’ enthusiasm was at odds with his vulnerability, his willingness at odds with his limited experience.

When Barnes was sure he had an answer, it contradicted itself.

The fuck was good, too slow perhaps for his current proclivities, but when he tried to increase the pace, add the promise of violence to his thrusts, Steve’s moans turned into unhappy whimpers, and those enormous hands clamped on his biceps, slowing him down. Gentling him. “Please, Buck,” he said, and angled up to kiss him again, and Barnes kissed him back and immediately complied.

It was better not examined.

Barnes’ body had been changed as well, in a series of memories banished long before and hardly wooed now. He counted on his stamina to send the man back into slumber long enough to allow him to slip free of the building, somehow. As good at this was, as much as he found satisfaction in having the shining hero on his back, panting and helpless, and looking at James Buchanan Barnes as though he had always known him, it was time to--

--time to--

“Put your hand on yourself,” was his order, and he didn’t use Steve’s name, just waited to see if--

No hesitation, and a few quick pulls, and Rogers was tensing underneath him, his thighs jerking up to pin Barnes in place, the vee of an animal trap but with none of the teeth, and Barnes tamped down the urge to push free as he grabbed a thigh with hard, smooth fingers and pressed it even tighter against his hip. Felt the answering groan of his own name down into his bones, and it was possible--possible that Steve’s--that Rogers’ shade brightened that much more.

He rutted silently until he finished, avoiding meeting Rogers’ eyes--his only sound a little choke when his pleasure crested, as fingers and palms stroked his back.

While Rogers kept saying his name.

They lay together after, Barnes still on the left, and he waited as he caught his breath, knowing Rogers would take another shower to wash away the residue of their fuck, sweat, saliva, and come. Restore the hero to mint condition.

He hoped the man could be persuaded to go back to sleep.

The sound system in the room crackled to life: “AVENGERS, ASSEMBLE!” At the same moment, Rogers’ phone sounded an alarm.

Oh. Or that would do the job just as well. Rogers leapt out of bed and ran for the bathroom, snatching up his phone as he did--it was too priceless to imagine him showering with the phone carefully held away from his ear, or, even better, in combat still bearing the Soldier’s marks. He heard a curse as Rogers pushed himself under what must have been frigid shower water.

Fastidious, yeah. Wondered what his allies thought of Captain America needing to scrub down before a battle.

Yeah. Good timing.

Barnes was still smiling when Rogers emerged two minutes later, skin flushed pink and military-clean around the towel that hugged his waist, hair still dripping into his eyes, and apparently caught up with whatever was pulling him away. Rogers misread that smile, and the distinctive Captain’s expression reverted--misread the smile and immediately mirrored it, adding a soft, “Stay, Buck. Please.”

Fool.

Barnes let his smile fade, appreciated the faint uncertainty that took over the man’s own face.

He didn’t say yes, but neither did he say no.

And then Rogers, of course, had to go.

***

So did he. He had to move quickly.

He also had ... all the time in the world?

Both--both felt true, as he moved his way through the same vents and deserted, windowless corridors, retracing his steps to get back out of this building. What had convinced him to try, drawn him in to breach this tower--maybe it was the natural proclivities again, because the lure of Steve Rogers, of his name in that voice, the mouth on his, filled his blood with the same savor as a completed mission.

More likely, he wanted to prove he could, now that he was disowned, forgotten.

A soldier of misfortune.

After a few more turns, and perhaps a third of the way to the ground floor and a dissolve down an alley, his pulse picked up and a prickling alertness spread over his neck. Something--things were different this time. Some doors would still open--some of the vents could be jimmied. Others--not so. And there was a moment, in front of yet another frozen door that earlier had opened effortlessly, when James Barnes knew he was being guided.

It didn’t take long to find his guide. Another door, a new one farther down the wall, slid open; there, in the middle of some sort of surveillance station, was Stark. Whose surgery was well-known and had left him in a support role, which Rumlow had sneered was “sewing uniforms and bringing everyone nonfat chais.”

Yes, well. Damn.

Rumlow, as usual, underestimated his targets. And about six meters away, Stark was surrounded on three sides by translucent panels projecting data, with several levels of audio in the room reporting what was happening on the ground as well as each combatant’s position and condition.

Barnes wouldn’t listen for Captain America’s name. Could find out Steve Rogers’ condition after he got out of ... this.

Unfortunately, his entrance hadn’t gone unnoticed, too much to hope for when Stark was facing the door and the panels obscured absolutely nothing. “Good morning!” the man chirped after pressing something in his headset. A mute, perhaps, if he was as smart as HYDRA intel suggested. He hardly looked the part--hair unwashed and standing up in points; stained, faded t-shirt; unshaven. But the madness in his eyes was focused.

Stark himself spared Barnes just one glance, a head-to-toe evaluation that ended in an unimpressed scowl. Attention returned to the screens, he continued, “Welcome to combat HQ--you’ll fit in just fine, Starbuck.” He paused, considered. “No--too obvious. Two-Buck Chuck? Yeah, okay, that’s good.” Barnes wasn’t sure what exactly was deemed “good” as the sounds of combat continued.

Stark swiped a finger over the middle screen, pressed two squares that immediately caused other sections of the display to illuminate in bursts Barnes would associate with explosives. Weapons control? Neutralizing enemy tech? Those fingers never stopped moving, activating some elements, pushing away and discarding others.

Protecting Steve Rogers and his allies from the most secure vantage point.

Rumlow. He hoped the man was dead.

Stark’s voice drew his attention back. “JARVIS, say hello.”

The AI finally came to life. “Hello, Sergeant Barnes.”

He didn’t think an answer was really expected, had it confirmed when Stark’s tone changed, turned harder. “You don’t want to move, by the way. JARVIS will deploy countermeasures if you even breathe in my direction--same if you backtrack. You and I,” and with that, he raised a finger and pointed it in Barnes’ direction, his eyes still sweeping the displays. “You and I are going to have a conversation.

“About what you're doing with Captain America. And what you did to Howard and Maria Stark.”

Chapter Text

Steve was staring at the back of Natasha’s head.

Couldn’t say why--just an easy, bright target for vacant introspection in his seat on one of the Quinjet’s benches. Natasha had her back to him, piloting the whole group to the location of the nearest--

Lord, whatever this mess was. Dinosaurs. Terrorists armed with dinosaurs. Or maybe they were some kind of mutated present-day reptile.

Or maybe the reptiles were the sentient ones? Whatever--Steve wouldn’t rule out any possibility. Tony would let them know pretty soon, if they didn’t make visual ID first.

Whatever was going on, it was far too close to a primary school, library, and old folks’ home.

AKA the disaster trifecta.

Steve needed to read up on zoning laws, because, in his short modern experience, that configuration pretty much ensured something bad was about to go down.

What he should have been doing, instead of staring at the back of Nat’s head, daydreaming? He should have been going over the plan, nailing it down in these last moments before combat. Made sure he had it inside and out.

He shook his head, trying to dispel the snapshots of poorly-timed memory.

The plan, the plan ...

Okay, they’d land, sprint from the jet--him, Natasha, copilot Cruz. Nguyen and Watson in the back. Circle the enemy and isolate them from the community centers so that kids, elderly, and literate could be evacuated. Take out hostiles with fists and shield.

Make sure Natasha kept her body count low enough that she could sleep a full night after. Make sure Nguyen’s Chitauri flashbacks didn’t slow his response time.

He had this. He’d done his duty, visualized it forward and back--

But, yeah, who was he kidding--he was also thinking about Bucky. Couldn’t help himself.

Thinking about how he’d left Bucky in his bed this time, not the one left. Whether he’d still be there, nosing through Steve’s things, waiting in the living room with a blank expression or behind a door with a kitchen knife.

(Either was possible.)

What they’d say to each other if he were waiting. What would happen to him if he weren’t.

When he would come back.

Bucky had sounded more like himself and less like the Soldier this time, and Steve wondered if it meant anything or was just his ploy. Couldn’t exactly muster up outrage at the deception, if that’s what it was. Hell, he’d been running around himself right under Sam’s and Nat’s noses--

God, had drawn Bucky right into Tony’s tower (and couldn’t exactly deny that wasn’t what he wanted--oh, and how he’d wanted it).

The physical aches of the night’s reunion had faded after a half-hour; Buck hadn’t actually tried to hurt him this time, and Steve had no fresh bruises to show--hide. To hide. Heck, the second time had been downright gentle. But, even though he had washed as thoroughly as he could, given the time constraints, he could still feel the evidence of what had been done to him. Leaving him just a little slick when he--

“Cap?”

Lost in thought--just play it that way. Lost in thought. “Yeah?” Shook himself a little. “Yes.”

“Was just thinking--” Widow hadn’t turned around, still was futzing with the cockpit controls and occasionally glancing at Cruz to verify coordinates and trajectory. Threw too-casually over her shoulder, “Was thinking I might come over later ... you know, get some food, hang out. Like old times.”

Steve looked around--at the back of Cruz’s head, then the other agents farther back. “Old times” being ... what? A few months earlier? It was a strange request, mostly, considering that--

“I could bring a board game,” she continued in that same tone. “You ever play Monopoly as a kid?”

Monopo--? “Uh, yeah. We had that, back then.” Steve leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees. Looked hard at the back of Nat’s head now, on purpose, trying to figure out her play. “Wasn’t all that--wasn’t all that crazy about it. Seemed a little pie in the sky, you know? Playing with money you didn’t have.” Added a note of disapproval to his tone, maybe discourage this line of discussion. “Putting the screws to people to win--I wasn’t a fan.”

“Fair enough.” She tilted her head back, met his eyes briefly before turning forward again. “I suspect you like poker, though.”

And her tone was sending off major warning signals now, like Peggy offering to test the shield. “Yeah? Haven’t really played.”

She made a hum of agreement. “Interesting objective. You have to convince the other players you’re empty-handed, no matter what you’re holding.”

And he had to be real careful how he said this next bit, because, “It seems like a professional spy might have an edge there, huh?” And he said it with just the right note of humor, he hoped, or she’d be testing out his shield before they landed.

“Haven’t you heard? I’ve come clean,” she said lightly, and Cruz was ramrod straight and really not looking over at Widow at all now--smart woman. “So, if we’re looking for someone to put up a convincing front, I think you have a fighting chance.” She didn’t let him respond before continuing, and they were starting to land, thank God. “And, after that, I can help you set up an online dating profile.”

Oh, God, it was getting worse. He glanced at the two agents in the back, who were resolutely not looking at him or each other. Fury’s handpicked people were smart as hell. “Widow, where is this--”

“How does this sound: ‘Upstanding American hero seeks dark-haired, brooding partner. Must love tight uniforms, the New Deal, and the judicious application of deadly force.’”

Oh, dear Jesus in Heaven.

“Now, look, Natasha--”

The jet sank to the ground with hardly a bump. Well, at least Cruz was keeping her composure.

“I’m just saying, Steve,” she turned, and her eyes were like those bullets hitting his shield long ago. “You think your words are what gives you away? Really?” She snorted and briskly unsnapped her harness. “Hm.”

Oh, God, and if Natasha ... “Nat. Does Tony--”

The back ramp began to lower, and Steve tried to convince himself the looks the other agents were giving each other existed only in his imagination. He stepped up behind Natasha quickly--glared down at the top of her head. “Does Tony know--”

And her response was nothing but sweet and amused. “Iron Man is making sure his newest houseguest doesn’t get into any trouble while you two are separated.” She looked him up and down before strutting down the ramp. Yelled over her shoulder, “Guess it’s my job to do the same for you!”

Steve would have contradicted her, defended himself, but that was the cue for their conversation to be interrupted.

***

“Hoo!” Tony couldn’t help but goad as he listened to Steve and Sam start. “Widow is putting the screws to your boy there.”

Stark’s eyes still weren’t on him--fixed on the screens instead, like a good war room strategist--and, despite his words, his tone, his expression remained serious. Suggestion of a real threat. Therefore Barnes allotted him a good measure of attention while continuing to assess the surroundings for vulnerabilities. The AI was formidable, but--

But.

What Stark didn’t know, and what would work in Barnes’ favor, was just how fast the Winter Soldier could cross a room, how few of the surfaces he would need to touch doing so. Just how well his metal arm could absorb. Deflect. Just how much of a mission the Winter Soldier could complete after being gassed.

Stark didn’t know this, but James Buchanan Barnes did.

And Stark was still talking. Because, of course--they always wanted to talk.

“Here’s the thing,” Stark said, and his voice had a practiced casualness that only highlighted how much effort it took to maintain. Another vulnerability. “It’s kind of, you know, ancient history, and Howard wasn’t going to win any awards for being a decent guy. Drunk most of the time by the end, and making a living off his investments. Shaming his only breathing legacy ... “

Ah, yes--this would work in his favor. Get the target rambling, get the target wringing his hands over lost loves and family and home, and they were less interested in killing you.

Less attentive when you went for their throats.

“ ... but all this time I thought--wondered. You know, Sergeant Barnes, Winter Soldier, Bucky--whatever the hell you call yourself--if it was more than an accident. Dad was getting old, you know, you could question his driving skills at that point, which I did. But Mom ... “ A breath. Like a confession, and this was typical, too. “Here’s the thing--she should have been around awhile longer.” Stark was glowering at the screens, still tapping on and swiping across them, falling silent for snippets of audible reporting from the ground.

Still talking, still loving the sound of his own voice: “She should have been around, not some goddamned collateral damage to a revenge hard-on HYDRA had since 1945.”

Barnes understood where this was going, yes. Understood, and knew his ability to maintain a neutral expression was his key asset in the next sixty seconds. He’d heard the whispers, when they thought he wasn’t listening, and they now floated in muddy layers in his mind, but he was closer to them every day. Howard Stark, he remembered in fragments: even now, HYDRA agents venerated the man and everything he had done, if unintentional, to forward the cause. To bring them as close to the dream as they had come.

The leaders had the same love-loathing fascination with Anthony Stark himself.

Who was still talking, even as his agitation grew.

“And, so, I guess I just need to know. You--screwing Captain Fucking America on the down-low, whatever kinky Cold War shit you guys get up to, role-playing interrogations or whipping each other with microfiche--it doesn’t fucking matter to me. He’s a grown man. Hell, he’s a grown man times three, and if he wants to throw away his patriotic virtue being the catcher in your diplomatic overtures, that’s his business.

“And I’m not going to ... If I condemn everyone who has taken a life--a few dozen lives--under circumstances they couldn’t control--well, this building is going to be vacant really fast, and I’m the last fucking hypocrite to pull that shit on someone else--”

Barnes kept his features perfectly still. Didn’t even tilt his head.

“But ... you know, Barnes--Ensign Chekov, whatever--here’s the thing.” And here Stark just pointed at him. “If you’re going to pull Steve Rogers off the job for a back-alley screw or just--” Stark faltered, just a bit, just a furious squeezing shut of his eyes. “If you’re going to come into my goddamned building to rock the fucking vote, and by ‘vote’ I mean the man I thought was the most upstanding person I’ve ever met, the one I would have sworn was incapable of telling a lie ... “

Stark opened his eyes, redder than before, and his glare was fixed on Bucky’s face. “I just really need you to tell me you weren’t the one to kill my mother. And my bastard father.” The hand not on the screen was clenched at his side. “Just need that fucking reassurance, you know? If we’re going to cohabitate in peace.”

And--that was it? Barnes--Barnes could have snorted. Could have outright laughed, because--compared to killing Stark? Compared to disabling the AI? Fleeing the building without triggering alarms?

Compared to any of that, answering Stark’s request was easy.

He opened his mouth, and suddenly heard Steve Rogers’ voice over the comms. Low, but distinctive. Found himself instantly reoriented.

“And ... that’s your cue, buddy,” Stark prodded, half listening to the new voice, but Barnes looked away. He opened his mouth, started to say the words to disarm Stark, and--

“--shit,” Tony jumped in, and, if possible, his fingers moved faster over the screen. One swipe of those fingers, and Rogers’ voice was at full volume over the comms system.

“Iron Man, we’re hemmed in.” And Stark’s sharp eyes were on him as they listened to the report together. “The reptiles are spitting some kind of corrosive substance. Ground combat has proven inadvisable. We need a clear path to get out of here and--” There was a pause, and the next words were calm and focused: “Iron Man: Widow’s down, injured--we need backup. Ground, air--whatever you can send. Give us all you got.”

His voice suddenly cut out.

Bucky kept his expression fixed, rolled his shoulders once as Stark’s rate of breathing increased. Stark spared him one more look, assessing, and Bucky’s gut clenched. His face--maybe he’d fucked up. “Got it, Cap,” Stark said to the air. “Hang tight.”

And that was the cue for Stark to ... forget he was there. The Soldier’s cue to get to Stark before the man--before the AI could deploy any weaponry. Electrical current. Gas.

Dispatch Stark, and then--

And then.

Pictured Stark unconscious on the floor--or dead. Visualized himself fleeing this building without being felled. Saw the yawning void of freedom, a grim future of self-determination. Imagined ... tried to imagine a future in which Rogers would come to him. Join him.

A future in which Rogers would forget the death of an ally who had provided him camaraderie.

Who'd offered him a home.

Knew what forgiveness meant to a man like Steve Rogers, and tried to imagine that forgiveness. After.

“I’ll go.”

They were the first words James Buchanan Barnes had spoken since wandering into this trap.

Wasn't expecting the laugh it elicited. “Oh, that’s rich. Yeah, that’s really rich.” Stark stared at Barnes a long time--too long, as the reports kept coming in, each more dire than the last. “And why, exactly, would I let you do that.”

And words, of course, abandoned him again. They had never been his allies. Stark looked over Barnes’ face, and the Winter Soldier knew he was failing. Again. Had failed. Couldn’t even read the strange look Tony Stark was giving him.

Then, Stark huffed. “Aww, jeez.” He rubbed a hand over his forehead. “Fuck. Fuck-fuck-fuck! Fucking Natasha! She told me--she fucking knew it." He fell silent, but just for a moment. Raged anew, "Why the hell do I ever argue with redheads? It never works out!” Tony looked over at Barnes, visibly steeled himself on an inhale. Let it out: “Just tell me, Sergeant Barnes. Tell me it wasn’t you. And you can go. Back out there. You know--just ... “

He shook his head, then started pounding fingertips against the screens again.

“Just ... lie to me. If you have to.”

Bucky didn’t open his mouth--just willed every muscle in his body to relax. Focused on Rogers in the field, what he’d heard over the comms about location and targets, the distance from here to there, what he could do with makeshift weaponry.

And still expected the AI attack at any minute, if Anthony Stark didn’t like what he heard. What he saw.

“I didn’t do this, Mr. Stark,” he said, with the most neutral accent his handlers had armed him with.

Tony made a noise like a growl behind his teeth. Frustration and impotence and-- The Winter Soldier knew them well. And yet he almost smiled when Tony Stark said, “Go. I hope you choose to help Steve and the others. If you don’t, God help you, because you will have no place to--”

Yes, this conversation was over. Barnes only heard a last “Fuck!,” still infuriated, echoing behind him as he lunged out of the door.

Chapter Text

“So you’ve been--” Sam jerked back just in time to miss a barrage of weapons-fire that chipped off the corner of the building they had ducked behind. “You’ve been boning Enemy Number One, huh, winner of the Nobel War Prize, right under our noses?”

“That’s not--,” and on Cap’s signal they crossed the street in a run, the Falcon shadowing Cap and borrowing protection from the shield. Once they were set, Steve continued, “--not exactly ... uh ... “ Where was he going with this?

And why had he been glad to have Sam back from DC, exactly?

“Yeah?” Falcon silently counted to three on his fingers, and Cap threw the shield at two of the terrorists, concussing both before they fell to the ground.

“Yeah, sure, okay, but--,” and Steve looked away too late to miss the blatant eye-roll Sam gave him. “But,” he insisted, “if it counts for anything, we were doing this before--”

Same pattern, they relocated to a different corner and spotted three more targets. Still human--where were the reptiles? Sam took a breath before cutting Steve off, “Before you were both frozen in time and he became a legendary assassin who doesn’t actually remember you, Cap?” Sam’s voice was as gentle as that message would allow.

Which was not very.

He took pity on Steve’s obvious floundering, even in the middle of taking down the targets, maybe because Steve had better aim when he wasn’t uncomfortable. “Look,” Sam said after a punch, “I’m not your therapist or your preacher, Cap--just a friend-slash-partner-not-sidekick, you know?”

That earned a laugh. Yeah, okay, glad to have him back. Steve rolled on the pavement ahead of Sam--both took shelter behind a car. Was grateful they’d managed to get Natasha out of the line of fire after her injury. The actual line of actual fire, since these damned dinosaur-things could breathe it, apparently. Steve watched as another of Tony’s drones came in, paused, hovering, over two of the men and a pet ... velociraptor or something---something from Jurassic Park--and then released an aerosolized liquid that knocked them out.

Whatever was going on back at the tower, Stark was on top of this, wasn’t gonna leave Steve as bait, as at least. And Sam ... Sam was still talking, even as he unloaded ammo into every nonhuman creature they came across.

Dammit.

“So, not your therapist, but I don’t need a license to tell you that this situation right here? Is fucked up.”

And Steve offered a pinched smile--muttered a “yeah, sure is,” and waved at the streets around them.

Got a sour look. “You know what I mean. You know exactly which situation I mean.” But then Sam said, “Oh, shit, Cap--you--”

And Steve almost didn’t turn in time to see the wall of ... what the hell was it? Eight feet of solid teeth and scales coming up fast, and he lifted up his shield as first defense until they could get it together, and--

Only heard the wet, crunching sound of a cybernetic fist punching through the spine and into the chest cavity of a living fossil.

Steve lowered the shield in time to see Bucky withdraw his arm from the now-dead whatever-it-was, turn, and offer a blank expression to Steve. An expression really not in keeping with the scene around them. But ... the effect was impressive, Steve acknowledged privately--the cold eyes, the tight mouth, even the gore that used to be inside the fallen corpse dripping from that arm. Jesus.

Sam spoke first. “Wow, that was ... “

And Steve jumped in. “Helpful. Thank you.” Tried to imbue his words with everything he couldn’t say in front of Sam. He didn’t have to actually see Sam’s eye-roll that time.

Bucky’s eyes darted between the two of them, and he shifted a little. Turned away to scan the street. “It was either this or keep listening to Stark.”

Sam gaped, for a moment, then looked off himself with a snort and shake of his head. “Look, this is a great reunion and all, says the not-a-sidekick to the guy who tried to kill you, Cap, but ... “ His face turned serious. “We still got work to do.” The last was aimed at Bucky. “So. You gonna help us, or are we about to be fighting on two fronts?”

And Bucky--or maybe he was the Winter Soldier right now, more than anything--looked to Steve for an answer. As if Steve ... as if Steve would have wanted anything else.

“Please,” he said.

And he may have hated it, just a little, but the brutality of Bucky’s skills? Changed the profile of the conflict in an instant. Not only with the extra bodily force and strategic thinking (and, God, Buck had gotten his hands on assault weapons fast, and from where?), but in freeing Steve up to do what he did best.

He had never really forgotten the feeling of Bucky having his back, both in the streets of New York and the battlefields of Europe. The warmth that flooded his skin didn’t slow him down--make him stupid. Didn’t make him any more careless.

But it did make him cocky--cockier. The clear sense of being right--being on the side of righteousness--was something he hadn’t experienced in a long time, and he had missed it.

He’d made the right call about Bucky Barnes, the right call about the Winter Soldier, and no one could tell him otherwise.

Of course, there was after. After, when Fury’s designated team arrived for cleanup, and Bucky was long gone, and there were no forthcoming witnesses to describe the arm, the star. Sam and Steve looked at each other, and ... just didn’t mention it to the agents. Steve hid a small smile as Sam divvied up the Soldier’s takedowns between the two of them--an impossible score, really, but absurdly unquestioned. The younger agents’ eyes were huge as they made notes.

Steve left them to it, Sam’s exaggerations and the youngsters’ adoration. The whole way back to the tower, he looked for the shimmer of sunlight off metal. Sam, if he noticed it, was generous enough not to mention it. Gave him an eyeball a few times, sure--smacked the back of his hand against Steve’s upper arm when no one was looking, yeah. But at least didn’t talk about it.

***

Steve woke up some time in the middle of the night to a disturbance in his room. He braced himself for an attack--

But it never came. Bucky was there, but this time ... this time, he was sprawled next to Steve on the bed, face down on the covers, eyes closed, hair falling sloppily into his face. Shirtless, like Steve, and seemingly comfortable.

Steve’s heart could have pounded out of his chest. He made a soft sound, happy in his discovery, before he stifled the rest, before tamping down everything he wanted to say. But he wouldn’t resist the urge to touch. Knew that he had to make it count--Buck didn’t really sleep here, however much he pretended, and those eyes would snap open at the first move, but Steve had to risk it--

Had to pet while he could.

He reached out to touch the strands spilling over that unlined forehead. Rubbed them between the pads of his fingers. Tangled, yes, and raw at the ends, but soft and thick and still that shining auburn he’d memorized in late-afternoon light when they were young ...

Wondered again how they thought he wouldn’t know--wouldn’t recognize-- If they were that careless, or if they cared that little.

Brought his fingers to his face. Sniffed, and his pulse thudded at the lingering sweet scent--Bucky had used his shampoo. He’d suspected it, sure, but had the confirmation. After Steve had left for the battle, Bucky had made use of Steve’s shower, rubbed that abused bar of soap over his body, and washed the oil from his hair.

It felt intimate. More intimate than everything they’d done up ‘til now.

Yeah, maybe it was a stupid thing to find contentment in, but what were you gonna do. Bucky would tell him he’d always been sentimental. Always foolish.

It had only been a moment, but Bucky was, of course, watching him now. Frowned a little at Steve’s pleasure. Shook his head and began, “The museum exhibit made me out to be some kind of lost hero.” He paused. Pulled his living arm up under his chin to prop it up. “I can see why you would have missed that.”

He teased the loose hair out of Bucky’s eyes with a finger. Took heart in the fact that the man didn’t pull away. “I did miss it. But that isn’t all you were.” This was as close as the Soldier had been to being Bucky, and Steve had to press. “Are you gonna stay?”

He saw the movements of a shrug. Got an answer: “I don’t know where else I’d go. Right now.”

And Steve could live with “no other options,” if the one left was right here. “You’ll always have a place where I am.” He looked around the bedroom--in Stark Tower. “Did you and Tony--” The trailing-off didn’t work out as a prompt--he was only squinted at--so he tried again: “Did Tony talk to you about--”

Bucky moved onto his elbows. “I told him what he wanted to hear,” and that wasn’t--wasn’t ideal, but-- “You still tired?” was all Bucky said next.

He shifted, confused. “No, I could get up--” Made to move from the bed, but he was stopped by a hand on his stomach. He watched as Bucky slid up the sheets and pressed awfully close.

“That wasn’t what I was getting at.”

This time, the approach was slow and telegraphed, and Steve gave a little “oh” to feel the warmth of that body lining up tight with his. They shifted, fumbled, Bucky pulling himself over Steve with strong arms as Steve slithered down the mattress to lie flat on his back. He ended up pinned after all, with Bucky’s remaining hand cradling his face, thumb and fingers caging his ear, as intimate as they’d been, since. Since before.

And the other hand ... the other hand slipped down his stomach, with little scritches up and down, before it slid under his waistband.

Wasn’t expecting--

“Oh, wait--”

The pause was minute, but it was there, and Steve’s whole body heated as his words were considered and then, obviously, discarded. As a slow and by-no-means-kind smile spread over that perfect mouth. Steve’s legs twisted under the sheets, driven by energy and nerves, before they were tangled with Bucky’s and held still.

“Steve,” Bucky said, and that was the password, wasn’t it. Steve’s fingers curled into the sheets. Bucky was watching him carefully, pressed so close, looking for something in him. Recognition, yeah, but also honesty, and ... and he could never lie to Buck about what he wanted, when they were like this.

And, oh, he wanted. His body confessed for him as it immediately roused under those hands, both of them. The soft touch cradling his face, and the harder one making him throb and gasp, until--

Bucky withdrew his other hand to slick it up, spreading a glistening layer of fluid over sleek mechanical fingers. Shouldn’t have found it breathtaking, but his chest hitched anyway, and Bucky’s smile grew wider, maybe even a little warmer, as that hand pushed down his waistband and slid back under his shorts.

“You sure are ... sure are fast,” Steve fake-chided, still breathless, with that metal palm gliding smooth over his cock, and he got back, quick, “That’s only because you’re so easy.” And, God, old times, and he wondered again about the inner workings of the mind, because the words coming out of Buck’s mouth, words that sounded so natural, so right, seemed to just confuse him more.

And yet--

And yet he knew just what he was doing with that hand, now warm and coaxing, settling into a tight grip that made Steve groan. Undeniable, and the last thing Steve Rogers wanted was to fight it. He couldn’t help but arch his back, lift his hips into the movements, and he basked in rapid-fire dirty words, just broken phrases uttered low that fueled his arousal.

“Feels good, don’t it?”

That voice--he still had that voice, and--

“This is what you’ve been waiting for, right? My hands on you?”

If any part of him was gonna to play hard to get, Bucky’s words were tearing that resistance right out of him. Steve grabbed for those wrists, a loose hold on the one touching his face, and a rough one, guiding, holding Bucky’s other hand so he could ride up into it.

Loved the look of determination on the face above him. Couldn’t tear his eyes away even as the talk made him blush harder. “That’s it. That’s good,” Buck said, and, oh, God, Steve wanted to kiss that mouth but wanted him to never stop talking. “Come on. Come on, Steve. You’re so good ... so good ...

So good ... Steve ...

And Steve was pushing himself up now, hard, yes, fucking--sweet God, fucking that hand that squeezed him just right, and not taking his eyes off Buck’s for a second as he did it, could see the rhythm of that shoulder moving up and down as he worked Steve’s cock, but the hand on his face never faltered.

“Come on, Steve--you gonna come for me? You gonna make a mess?”

“Bucky!” And, oh, God, he was. And too soon, so Steve turned into the soft touches along his cheek, his temple, and he moaned out Bucky’s name again and “yes” and “oh, God” and desperately tried to keep his eyes open. Wanted to watch the one doing this to him. The one he had loved almost his whole life.

Wanted--oh, wanted to see real recognition in that look, not just these scant crumbs, this sense memory, but ...

But.

He would live with what he was given. Had to.

“Come on, Steve--Stevie--” and maybe the diminutive came from another latent memory, somewhere in his fractured subconscious, but it was enough, and Steve pressed his face down hard into that palm that touched him as gently as the other took him apart. He came, finally, with a hard shove of his hips into that slick smooth hold, and groaned without shame as his semen spattered thick over metal.

After a surprisingly generous moment, Steve catching his breath, Bucky broke. “Can I-- Let me. Please--” And that was all Bucky, that tone, that “is this gonna hurt you I don’t want to hurt you” insistence that made Steve crazy in the best way.

But, hell, Steve didn’t want to wait either. “God, yes, come on--” Pants and underwear hit the floor, and Bucky climbed back on top of him after, settling between his spread thighs and then--

Looking at him desperately, which was expected, but then:

“I told Stark I didn’t kill his parents.”

Unexpected, and fear spiked, suddenly, like when he’d heard those rending screams in their early fights. But he forced his body still, inhaled even, legs loose where they bracketed Bucky’s hips. “Okay,” he managed, finally, fake-casual, and ... probably had to ask. “What did you--”

The answer came out in a rush. “I don’t actually remember. What I did. Where I was.” He shook his head. “I don’t remember.”

Here's what Steve remembered: Howard and Bucky, together. Just moments, flashes--they didn’t have much in common, and Howard wasn’t all that interested in the regular soldiers, but Steve owed them both. Seeing them together, talking like chums those couple of times--just a few--had made him feel good--

What was the last thing Howard saw?

But that-- No. He dropped his hands to Bucky’s shoulders--both of them--and squeezed in what he hoped was reassurance. “Then you’re not sure. You can’t be sure. And even if you were--”

And the look he got was bitter, killing the rest of the words and reflecting every one of the Soldier’s years, wounds taken, and Steve wondered if he would ever not say the wrong thing. But Bucky continued, at least: “I thought you should know. I thought you would want to know.”

And then he pressed himself into place, Steve’s hands guiding him, short nails digging into the skin over his shoulder blades, and that conversation was over.

When Steve pushed up for a kiss this time, he got one, then more, with no hesitation.

Afterward, Steve turned onto his stomach to look at Buck’s face. His eyes were closed like maybe he was planning on sleeping there. Steve took a breath, took a risk and slid one arm over the other’s waist. Stroked along his ribs gently with a thumb. Not holding down--just holding. Maybe Bucky didn’t notice the touch, or maybe--Steve hoped--he was done fighting it for a little while.

When the words came, they were quiet and small. “I wonder if there’s any hope.” And Steve’s arm settled a little heavier on his stomach. “Is there, Steve, do you think?” The cadence was familiar, but something in the eyes was still wrong.

“Yeah,” Steve said, and he wanted it to be the truth so bad.

He wanted it so bad.

“Yeah, Buck--I do,” he said anyway.

***

On another floor, Natasha wedged herself between Tony and his ever-present work--held up a bottle of shitty, paint-stripping vodka in one hand and two shot glasses in another.

“Talk, or drink?”

Tony looked at the bottle, the glasses clinking together in her wiggling hand, and then gave her the once-over. She was wearing that neutral expression--that “stewardess offering you a pillow” mock-politeness that he goddamned hated, but right now it was just about all he could take.

Tomorrow was for dealing with the lovebirds, his new tenant--whatever the fuck Sergeant Barnes was--and whether he wanted the Winter Soldier to give him any other answer.

Today? He knew Natasha was seeing a pathetic pile of brooding, stink, and sleep deprivation.

So, yeah, fuck it. He reached for the bottle.

“Door number two. Because even I’m getting damn sick of talking.”