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Even When I Had Nothing

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1.

“What’s happened?” Natasha asked a week later, walking into the observation room. On the monitor, a gray-faced Steve was standing in the doorway of the bedroom and speaking to Barnes, who was nodding grimly and putting away folded clothing. A guard was keeping an eye on the monitors while Sam, Clint, Maria and Tony sat around the small coffee table.

“Nothing good,” said Maria. “The HYDRA excuse is officially no longer sufficient.”

Natasha nodded. With Steve's non-statements, they’d been able to make it sound like it was only Steve, Natasha and Sam who were looking for Barnes. Possibly with some technical support from Stark Industries, because of Stark’s desire to atone for having helped SHIELD with the Helicarriers. They’d all known it wouldn’t keep the hounds happy for long without more details, though.

“Justice Department’s ultimatum,” said Sam, sliding a piece of paper over in Natasha’s direction She quickly skimmed over it. Requesting the presence of Steven G. Rogers, Natasha Romanov, Samuel T. Wilson...answer before select committee... confidential hearings... turn over all material pertaining to James Buchanan Barnes...

“We can delay on Sam’s testimony for a while,” said Maria. “And if necessary we’ve got information prepared that will make it sound like we know Barnes is in a safe facility... somewhere, possibly far-off. Possibly taking advantage of Stark security.”

“We’re wavering between that or a goat shack in Tibet,” said Sam.

“The shit is gonna hit the fan when they realize the goat shack is in fucking Manhattan, Sam,” said Clint.

“That’ll take a while,” said Tony confidently. “Pepper’s legal geniuses have them buried so deep in bullshit they don't know what the hell is hitting them.”

“It won’t take forever though.”

“That’s why we’re discussing what to do next,” said Maria. “We’re thinking it’s not just Steve who needs to get out of Dodge; it’s Barnes too.”

“Out of the country? That’ll be awkward when it comes up.”

“We don’t have much of a choice,” said Maria. “Steve needs to leave before he's arrested and forced to answer their questions directly.

We’re pretty sure they’ve been analyzing his movements. And Barnes... well. He needs time, and he’s not going to get it if he stays here. And Clint’s right. The visuals when the American public finds out that they were right next to a lethal weapon for months...”

“This place is safe,” Tony protested. “We worked hard to make it safe.”

“SHIELD safehouses are also safe,” Maria retorted. “Especially the ones the Armed Forces don’t know about, off US soil.”

“So it’s a waiting game?” asked Natasha. “We’re delaying until Barnes is stable enough to release him to the outside world? We still think it’ll happen eventually?”

Sam looked uncomfortable.

“Speaking of which, how's he doing?” asked Maria.

“This couldn't have come at a worse time,” said Sam. “He's getting paranoid.”

“About HYDRA?”

“About everything. But yes, HYDRA in particular. We've tried to tell him that all the ‘HYDRA’s after him’ stuff we’re saying is just to keep the government off our tail, but...”

“How's that going over?” asked Maria.

Clint drew a deep breath, glancing at the observation screen, where Steve and Barnes were standing closer together and Steve was talking earnestly. “Bucky's not an idiot. He's smart enough to know that yeah, we’re probably exaggerating, but...”

And he was Bucky now, not Barnes any more. They'd bonded too. “He’s not an idiot, but he is paranoid,” she pointed out.

“Can't blame him.”

“He’s been moody,” said Sam. “And he keeps checking over his entire apartment. Kind of obsessively.”

“Trying to get out?” asked Maria.

“Not as far as we can tell. Just checking everything. If anything, sometimes it looks like he’s trying to secure himself from outside attack.”

“What's he gonna do?” asked Tony skeptically. “Try and hold out against anyone who comes to get him? Turn that floor into a hidey-hole, in the middle of one of the most recognizable buildings in Manhattan?”

Sam shrugged. “All right, so it wouldn’t work well if the Armed Forces came after him, but maybe he hopes that if HYDRA comes after him he can hold out long enough for the cavalry to come rescue him.”

“What'll we do, if it comes to that?” asked Maria. “Our government, that is. What if they come to get him and he makes it difficult for them?”

“We can sedate him, you know that,” said Sam. “That’s what we did after he attacked Bruce.”

“He won't be taken alive,” said Natasha. “He’s said that already. If he knows they're coming in, he will kill himself.”

“How, exactly?” asked Maria.

“He’ll figure something out,” said Natasha. Maria glanced at the screen again and did an almost comical double-take. Natasha followed her gaze. Steve had put an arm around Barnes and was holding his hand. He brought it to his lips, speaking to him earnestly.

“You have to trust me,” Steve was saying. “If you are moved, you’ll be going somewhere safe. I won’t let anyone take you--”

Barnes was shaking his head, a grim smile on his face. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep,” he said. “I remember thinking you’d come get me for years after they took me.” Steve looked stricken, and Barnes ran a hand through his hair, then leaned in and kissed him. “I know, I know you would’ve come if you’d been able to,” he murmured between kisses. “But you’re only human.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s a thing,” Tony said, with only a slight smirk at Maria. “The lovebirds have been getting cozier.”

“Is that wise?”

Sam shrugged. “Probably not. We’re a little concerned that Barnes may be manipulating Steve.” He sighed. “But there’s not a lot we can do about it.” He cleared his throat, giving the monitor screen a quick glance. “Except, you know, give them some privacy.”

Tony chuckled as the rest of them all turned slightly, deliberately facing away from the screen. “Privacy. With a guard on duty, and every breath and heartbeat being recorded. Sure.”

Maria rolled her eyes at him. “How's he doing, really?” she asked Sam and Natasha. “Would you ever trust him out of here?”

“I don't know,” said Sam. “On the one hand, he's doing better. He's got a lot more of his memory back, and he's still got a lot of crap to work through but he's been able to process a lot of stuff.”

“What about his PTSD?” asked Maria. She glanced around at them. “Pretend I’m a government drone. Convince me that some day he’ll be safe to be out of a maximum security installation.”

“He was out, for months, and only killed HYDRA operatives,” Clint pointed out.

“What's to stop him from killing non-HYDRA people if he decides they're HYDRA?” asked Maria.

“He doesn't do that,” Clint protested. “He’s not some wild animal--”

“Has he been violent to non-HYDRA?”

Clint sat back. “Well... yeah,” he admitted. “Damn it.”

“What if they find out about the attack on the therapist?” asked Natasha.

“That wasn't an attack outta nowhere, though,” said Clint. “He was just trying to get out--”

“He triggered Bruce.”

“You could say the same thing about Bruce,” said Clint. “That he needs to be kept away from anything dangerous. So why don’t we have him locked up?”

Natasha shook her head. “Bruce let himself get triggered rather than let Barnes out, and then he didn't cause damage to anything other than Stark’s property.”

“It’s just hard to tell with Barnes,” said Sam. “Even the, you know, reaching out to Steve.” He gestured vaguely to the screen behind them, where Steve was leaning against the wall of the bedroom and holding Barnes, cupping his cheek and speaking to him gently. “It could be manipulation, or it could be he’s genuinely reaching out. Recovering what he and Steve used to have. Taking back something HYDRA took from him.”

Natasha nodded, remembering how important human touch and human connection could be. “Unfortunately he doesn’t have a lot of impulse control,” she pointed out. “He gets angry and frustrated easily. He spent so long being forced to suppress everything that now that he doesn’t have to... it’s not always a good thing.”

“He’s unpredictable, is what you’re saying,” said Maria. “That isn’t good.”

“Give the guy a break,” said Clint. “Even speaking in complete sentences is a major accomplishment. He remembers a lot of his past, he’s dealing with being cooped up, trying to trust us even though he knows we could turn him over and--”

“It’s not about giving him a break, Clint,” said Maria. “It’s about whether we can reassure anybody that we know what we’re doing. And that Barnes - and the rest of the unsuspecting public - wouldn’t be better off with him in a secure facility.”

“I can’t see a secure facility being any safer for the public than here,” said Sam. “So far our secure facility’s had zero breakouts. How many of the Most Wanted have escaped other secure facilities in the last few months?”

Maria nodded glumly and there was a brief silence, broken by Clint, who cleared his throat.

“Uh, is the, uh, human connection thing supposed to include dry-humping against the wall?”

They all turned to the screen, where Barnes had pulled Steve closer and was now kissing him passionately, one thigh between Steve’s and pressing up against him.

“Bucky, no,” Steve was murmuring, pushing Barnes away weakly. “I - you know we’re not supposed to--”

“I don’t give a shit,” said Barnes, pushing him up against the wall next to the door. “Might be our last chance, right? Before you turn me in?”

“To people who might help you.”

“Like HYDRA helped me?”

“Bucky,” Steve kissed him back, then pulled back slightly. “We’re being watched. You know that.” He stepped back and ran a hand through his hair, straightening his shirt.

Barnes rested a hand against the door handle briefly, then stepped up to Steve again. “I don’t care,” he said, and kissed him again. “I’m watched all the time,” he muttered. “I’ve been watched for seventy fucking years.” Steve flinched, but let Barnes push against him.

“Bucky, please,” he whispered, and Natasha glanced over at the monitor readings. Heartbeat and temperature elevated, both of them, showing signs of stress - more so on Steve than Barnes - and both aroused.

“You can’t protect me,” said Barnes, kissing his way down Steve’s throat, and Steve closed his eyes in pain. “If the government comes after me, they come after me. And if any of them are HYDRA, I’m done for. For all we know, they could come in later today and I’ll never see you again. I’m not gonna just be a good boy and keep my hands to myself because you’re being delicate and prudish.” Steve’s breath hitched. “Steve. Please. I need you.”

“It’s not - I’m not being prudish,” Steve said hoarsely, his fingers carding through Bucky’s hair. “Bucky, no.” Steve gently pushed Barnes away, and Barnes pushed him back. “Stop it!”

Clint blinked and stood up. “Oh shit.”

“You wanna tell me that you don’t want this as much as I do?” Barnes slid a hand down to Steve’s groin and cupped Steve, none too gently. Steve gasped, eyes sliding shut momentarily, and Barnes chuckled and pressed a rough kiss to his throat. “Don’t lie to me.”

“You know I want - Bucky, no. Please, don’t--” Steve pushed Barnes away, more firmly, his eyes darkening, his pulse running higher. “We can’t - I have to be able to say that you’re not a danger to anyone, that you can control yourself--”

“Fuck control,” said Barnes, sliding a hand down to Steve’s fly and unbuttoning the top button. Steve pushed his hand away, backing away from him, and put a hand on the door handle. He turned it, eyes widening as it remained closed.

Natasha felt her heart skip a beat.

“Oh fuck,” Tony whispered, and all of a sudden all of them were standing and Tony was pushing the guard away from the control panel and tapping on a bunch of keys. On the screen Steve and Barnes were frozen, staring at each other.

“I won’t let anyone in,” said Barnes, his voice shaking. “I won’t let them take me again.”

“Buck, nobody’s trying to take you,” said Steve, stepping away from the door and putting a hand on Barnes’s shoulder. “Nobody’s gonna hurt you.”

“I got seventy years tells me you’re wrong,” said Barnes grimly, and pulled Steve closer again. “And I don’t know that you aren’t working for them. Keeping me here so they can take me again.”

“JARVIS, override the locks,” said Tony, giving up on the control panel.

“Wait - he’s got Steve trapped in there?” said Maria. “I thought you said you had security!”

“Sir, I am unable to--”

“We concentrated on making sure he couldn’t get out,” said Tony, going back to the control panel, hands flying over the keys. “We thought that’s what we were fighting against. Damn it, damn it - JARVIS, the sedative gas controls aren’t responding, when the fuck did he--”

“There appears to be a blockage from inside the room, sir--”

“How can I prove it to you?” asked Steve desperately. “How can I prove that I’m on your side?”

Barnes pulled him closer, taking his mouth in a rough kiss. Steve wrenched himself away, shoving Barnes back. Barnes caught himself on the wall, his eyes widening, then narrowing suspiciously.

“Fuck you, then,” said Barnes, shoving Steve toward the bed. Steve’s calf hit the side of the bed and he steadied himself, backing away from Barnes and staring at him, eyes dark with fear, chest heaving.

“I don’t want to fight you,” he said. “Please, please don’t do this--”

“You think you can just keep me in here like some tame pet, following your orders?” Barnes sneered, stalking closer. “Do you have any idea what I’m capable of? Do you have any idea what I live with? What’s one more thing?”

“No!”

Natasha swore. Shit. Shit, shit, shit there was no way this should be happening - with all of their failsafes, they hadn’t thought of this, and Steve was locked in there with him and now Barnes was pushing Steve onto the bed and Steve's heart rate was going into overdrive and he was pushing Barnes off, scrambling out from under him, shouting at him. “Bucky, this isn't - not now, not like this!”

“Fuck you - you trying to protect me? Think I can't ‘meaningfully consent’? Well I might be going away forever, do you understand that? I consent. I consent as much as I'm ever going to!”

“I don't!

“What about Banner--” Maria began.

“The walls are Hulk-proof,” Tony said grimly, sitting back. “Shit, shit shit - the nearest workable suit is going to take at least fifteen minutes to blast through - JARVIS, send the suit--”

“Yes, sir.”

“You’ve been playing me this whole time, haven’t you?” Barnes was raging, and Steve shook his head, struggling and throwing Barnes off him momentarily. “Using the fact that we used to be together - did they bring you in here to control me?”

“Bucky, you don’t want to do this,” said Sam into the intercom, and Barnes gave an ugly laugh and pinned Steve’s chest down with his metal arm, pulling Steve’s shirt from his pants.

Natasha saw the moment Steve realized his position, as he glanced at the door that he’d failed to open and added that to the fact that Sam was talking into the intercom instead of crashing into the room with the team, or raining some sort of sedative down from the vents.

“That’s right,” Barnes sneered, as Steve’s struggles faltered. “I got rid of the sedative gas days ago, I’ve locked the doors, and this entire apartment was built for the Hulk and as far as I know he’s not here.” His eyes were glittering and his chest heaving. “Just you and me in here, pal.”

Steve took a deep, shaking breath and then let it out, and didn’t resist as Barnes pushed him back onto the bed and took his mouth in another brutal kiss. He lay back, breath and heartbeat racing, eyes closed as Barnes bit at the side of his neck.

“That’s better,” growled Barnes, and Steve winced, then raised a hand to touch Barnes’s hair.

“Damn it, shit shit shit, there’s gotta be something here--” Tony said, blasting the wall and doorframe with one of the gauntlets. The wall stayed solidly impassive. “I was so fucking proud of myself for the weave of these fucking doors and the frame reinforcement--”

“Bucky,” Sam was saying into the intercom. “Think about this. He doesn’t want--”

“Seems to be wanting it just fine,” said Barnes, reaching down and quickly removing Steve’s shoes with one hand, then tugging at Steve’s fly. “Off,” he said. Steve swallowed and undid his fly, pulling his pants off.

“The vents,” said Clint. “Tony, can--”

“They’re too small for a person, I’ve got JARVIS sending a bot, but they’re only for cleaning, I’ve never had to - damn it!” Tony said as the wall showed scorch marks and little else. “On the plus side I know I can withstand a siege from the most advanced weaponry on the planet for a while,” he said angrily. “Not that that’s of any fucking use at all.”

“Bucky, we’re coming into the apartment,” said Sam.

“Shut the fuck up,” Barnes said, pushing Steve’s shirt off his shoulders. “If you were, you woulda been here already.” He fumbled at his zipper, biting the side of Steve’s neck again, and Steve was staring up at him, eyes dark and unreadable. “You always did like it rough, didn’t you,” he sneered. Steve swallowed hard and turned his face away.

“Are all the walls in the unit the same material?” Natasha asked Tony, as Sam continued to speak into the intercom.

“Same fucking thing,” Tony said in disgust. “Super-reinforced, I’m so fucking clever.” A chunk of wall fell off. “Not only that but he’s locked the door of the bedroom too, so we’ll have to get through that one too. And the doors are even heavier-duty.” Another chunk came off, and on the screen Barnes had pushed his own pants down. “The ceiling might be better, but by the time we get up there - god damn it...”

On the screen, Barnes was moving over Steve, and Natasha looked away from Steve's pained expression, not wanting to witness. Steve drew in his breath sharply and grasped Barnes by the shoulders, but there was no doubt in Natasha’s mind that he wasn't a full participant.

“Oh my fucking God,” Clint said, “Come on, what the actual fuck did you build these with--” and Tony gave a small cry as another chunk of the wall crumbled, showing the sitting room through the small hole.

On the screen Barnes suddenly pulled away, sitting up. Steve was gazing up at him, chest heaving, and Barnes gaped down at him, then backed off the bed, pulling up his pants. He stood, and the observation room froze as Barnes stared at Steve.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” whispered Clint.

Barnes moved to the door, twisted his hand in a quick motion and opened it, then picked a piece of something Natasha couldn’t identify off the floor next to the bed and threw it at the vent, dislodging something that fell to the floor. Steve slowly sat up, wincing.

“Get up,” Barnes whispered, and crouched down to grab Steve’s clothes. He handed them to Steve, his hands shaking. “You’ll wanna get out of this room,” he said, his voice unsteady. “They’re - they’re probably gonna flood it with sedatives any moment now. The front door’ll open if you tug the handle to the left.”

Steve stood and pulled on his pants, moving out of the room as the gas started to come into it and closing the door behind himself. He hurried to the front door and opened it, and Natasha and Clint rushed in, heading for the bedroom.

“Wait - the gas should knock him out in a moment, then you can open the door,” said Tony. “It’s lethal level for us regular humans right now.”

Natasha went to get the restraints for Barnes as Sam and Maria entered the apartment and Steve mechanically put on the rest of his clothing, his face blank.

“Should be clear,” said Tony, and Natasha and Clint put on masks and headed for the bedroom.

“Don’t hurt him,” said Steve.

Natasha entered the bedroom, where Barnes lay slumped on the floor, unconscious. Clint hauled him up onto the bed, and they slapped the restraints onto his wrists and ankles. Natasha grimaced at the rumpled sheets, then rolled Barnes to his side and tugged them up, making the bed under him before rolling Barnes back over again.

“Air’s clear,” said Tony.

She took off her mask. “Watch him,” she said to the guard, who’d come in behind her, ashen and shocked. “If he moves, shoot--” she snapped her mouth shut, then took a deep breath. “He should be out for about an hour. If he wakes up before then, let somebody know.”

She turned away, unable to stomach being in the same room as Barnes and his peaceful expression, and nearly crashed into Steve.

“Steve?” Sam was saying gently as Steve stared into the room, his lip bleeding and his cheek beginning to purple.

“Yeah,” said Steve. “Yeah, I'm all right.”

“You should go to the infirmary,” said Sam.

“Don’t need to,” said Steve. “No permanent damage.”

“Come on,” said Sam. “Let’s go down to see Bruce.”

Steve shook his head, still staring at Barnes.

“He’ll be out for at least an hour,” said Clint. “Humor us.”

Steve chewed on his lip. Finally he gave a curt nod and headed for the elevator, Natasha and Sam following him.

He was utterly silent in the elevator, completely still, his face expressionless. Natasha reached for calm herself, realizing a part of her was still in disbelief that everything had gone so horribly wrong so quickly.

She wondered if he was asking himself the same questions she was. Such as, when had Barnes locked the door? When Steve had shoved him back, or when he’d first entered the room? When had he lost control? Had he lost control, or had he planned something like this all along? And why had he stopped?

Bruce greeted them at the lab, looking like he was doing deep breathing exercises but seeming relatively calm.

“Did Tony say--” Sam began.

“He called down,” said Bruce. “Told me what happened.”

He motioned Steve to the corner of the lab they’d turned into a medical wing -- they’d all become accustomed to getting checked out after getting hurt in the field, or after one of Barnes’s temper tantrums. Steve automatically took off his shirt, seemingly unconcerned about Natasha and Sam’s presence as Bruce examined him, cataloguing his bruises, checking for a concussion and broken bones. Natasha winced at the vivid handprint on Steve’s upper arm, the scrape down his back from being shoved against the wall.

“Well, there’s nothing broken,” said Bruce. “Your ribs are bruised, though. Possibly a hairline fracture on your right wrist.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, his voice rough. “I’ll heal.”

Natasha frowned and reached out. Steve flinched slightly, and she drew her hand back. “Sorry,” she said, keeping her voice calm. “Bruce, did you--”

Bruce nodded. “I saw it, Nat,” he said. “There are a couple of bite marks on the side of your neck,” he told Steve, who immediately touched his neck. “No broken skin though. We already have samples of his saliva; there are some strange molecules in there, we’ve never been able to figure out if they’re deliberate or a side-effect of the Serum. You haven’t shown any effects from it in the past, so I wouldn’t worry about it.”

Steve stared at him. “What?”

“I thought it would be wise to check after you started becoming more - after you kissed,” Bruce said, and Natasha could feel his wince at almost having called kissing ‘intimate’ considering what had just happened. “I checked your blood and other vital signs discreetly last time you were here, when I told you that you needed a ‘routine’ physical. The molecules in his saliva hadn’t had any effect on you, as far as I could tell.”

“You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.”

“I didn’t want to worry you, but I thought it would be prudent. Bodily fluids can transmit a lot nasty stuff.”

Steve swallowed hard, looking ill.

Bruce cleared his throat. “You should have an internal examination too,” he said. Steve recoiled slightly, and quickly shook his head, opening his mouth to object. “You know what we’ve found so far - the thing in his arm, the poison under his fingernails - they had a lab rat that couldn't fight back for seventy years. Who knows what else they did to him?”

Steve grimaced. “What, so they weaponized his dick?” he said harshly “That would be a little weird even for HYDRA, don’t you think?”

“Maybe not deliberately,” said Bruce. “But my own blood and semen are poisonous. He’s had a version of the Serum too, and we don’t know if they used Gamma--”

“I can't be poisoned.”

Bruce gazed at him steadily, and Steve finally blew out his breath and reached for his belt. Natasha and Sam turned around, giving him what privacy they could. The examination table creaked as Steve got onto it, and she heard a sheet rustle and the snap of latex gloves.

“There’s some bruising here,” said Bruce after a moment, his voice steady. “Not much bleeding, though.”

“I wasn't concerned with going slow.”

“Neither was he,” Sam said quietly.

“Did he climax?” asked Bruce.

“Not sure,” said Steve. “I don’t think so.”

“I’m going to take a swab anyway. There’s probably at least pre-ejaculate.”

Steve’s breath hitched and Bruce made a reassuring sound in his throat, working quickly. “Almost done, Steve,” he said calmly. “At least you don’t need stitches.”

“No.”

Bruce cleared his throat. “Tony said you stopped fighting him.”

Steve gave a slight hiss of pain, then took a quick breath. “I didn’t want him to shove into me with me fighting him with everything I had and begging him to stop,” he said dully. Beside Natasha, Sam shuddered. “I couldn’t live with that.” He paused. “I didn’t want Bucky to live with it either.”

“You probably saved yourself a lot of damage. Still got hurt, though.”

“I’ll heal.”

“Physically, sure,” said Sam, not turning around. “I can get you a counsellor--”

“No.”

“All right, I’m done,” said Bruce, and Natasha heard him taking off his gloves. “You can get down.”

They waited to hear the sound of Steve’s zip before turning around. Bruce was putting swabs in a small glass container and Steve was straightening his clothing. His face was gray, lips pressed together, and a bruise was darkening on his cheek.

“I’d like to keep you under observation,” said Bruce.

Steve shook his head and turned as Maria, Tony and Clint entered the room.

“You OK?” asked Tony, and Natasha had rarely seen him this subdued.

“Who’s with Bucky?” asked Steve.

“The guard,” said Maria. “He’ll give us a call if anything happens. He’s in restraints anyway.”

“I’ll go upstairs and check on him in a moment,” said Bruce. “Steve checks out fine.”

Steve shrugged. “I told you I didn’t need to come here. I’m fine.”

Clint blinked. “You’re not - you’re not gonna make excuses for him--” he began.

“This changes things, obviously,” said Maria. “If he’s capable of attacking you like that, I certainly don’t feel safe having him in the city.”

“What are the alternatives?” asked Steve. “We can’t hand him over to HYDRA.”

“We don’t have many,” said Maria. “We do have some secure facilities in more remote areas,” she continued. “I have access to some fairly high-level SHIELD safehouses and containment facilities.”

“Better than what we have here, safety-wise?” asked Tony.

“You’re welcome to contribute,” Maria said, looking troubled. “I’m not sure what we’ve got is enough...”

“Where are they?”

Maria opened her mouth and Steve put out a hand. “Don’t tell me,” he said. “I shouldn’t know.”

Natasha exchanged a glance with Clint, feeling both relieved that Steve had finally come to his senses about Barnes and annoyingly disappointed that he was finally giving up. And... and sad. Sad that it had taken something this extreme to make him finally give up.

Maria nodded calmly, her eyes filled with compassion. “All right. I understand.” She paused. “You should still leave the country too, even if you won’t be involved in his care any more,” she added gently. “I don’t want you questioned until we have a more solid--”

“Who said I’m not going to be involved?” asked Steve. He looked around at them as Maria faltered. “I’m going with him.”

Silence.

“You have got to be kidding,” said Clint.

“Obviously, it’s going to be a while before he can be released, if ever,” Steve said bleakly. “And I can't be one of his jailers, and I don’t want to be picked up for questioning. Wherever he’s going, I’m going too. I’ll stay with him. I don’t want to know where we are either, so he can’t get information from me if he’s trying to make escape plans.”

“He’s dangerous. To you more than anyone else.”

“I can handle it.”

“Steve. He just sexually assaulted you,” said Clint evenly.

Steve narrowed his eyes. “No he didn’t. I consented.”

Clint’s face darkened. “Listen, I may be a high school dropout but I can tell what's consent and what's not,” he said tightly, “and that wasn't consent by any stretch of the imagination. Don't give me that shit.”

“Clint,” said Sam softly.

“Call it whatever you want,” said Steve, his voice hard. “I’m still going with him. And I want to be there when he wakes up.” He got up and left.

There was a brief silence.

“We’re really gonna let him do this?” said Clint. He looked around at them. “I know what consent is, and that wasn’t it.” Sam opened his mouth and Clint put up a hand to stop him. “OK, I get it, Steve needs to call it that for his own fucked-up reasons. I'm not gonna argue with him. And if he doesn’t blame Barnes or he thinks it’s just another thing he’s done because he was fucked over by HYDRA for seventy years, fine, I’ll play nice and I won’t blame the guy. But that wasn't consent, and excuse me for wanting to puke--”

“Nobody’s asking you to call it anything,” Sam broke in. “But Steve has a right to make his own decisions.”

Clint glared at him. “And excuse me if I don’t wanna enable Steve in his quest to let Bucky Barnes do whatever the hell he wants to him, as payback for Steve having left him to HYDRA.”

“What’s your alternative?” asked Maria after a moment.

“Are we seriously gonna let him go back in there?” Clint looked at each of them in disbelief. “You think if he just lets Barnes do whatever he wants, that'll... what? Make him all better? All he needs is a warm body and he'll be healed?”

“I don't think so,” said Sam. “And I don't think that's what Steve's thinking either.”

“You're letting him go back in there!!” Clint slapped the table in frustration.

“He’s not going alone,” said Natasha, and left the room.

2.

When she reached the apartment, she found the guard standing nervously in the sitting room.

“You let him go in to see Barnes alone?” she asked, and the guard blanched and made a helpless gesture.

“He - he said Mr. Barnes is restrained,” he said, his voice miserable, and Natasha suppressed the urge to use her Widow’s Bites on him. It wasn’t the man’s fault; nobody had planned for any of this, and there was no protocol in place for what a guard should do under these circumstances.

Steve was standing next to the bed where Barnes lay restrained and was starting to stir. He didn’t turn to acknowledge Natasha as she approached, his attention fixed on Barnes, whose eyelids were fluttering as his limbs automatically tensed against the restraints.

Barnes opened his eyes and furrowed his brow for a moment, obviously disoriented. Then he focused on Steve, standing over him, and his breath hitched. Natasha examined him closely, trying to read him.

Fear. Pain.

Sorrow. Shame.

“Do you want me to undo the restraints?” asked Steve, his voice neutral.

“N-no,” said Barnes quickly, shaking his head. He flicked his gaze at Natasha, standing impassively at the door, then bit his lip and fixed his gaze on the ceiling.

He swallowed, staring up at the ceiling for a long moment.

“Why,” he finally whispered. “Why did you let me...”

“I didn’t think I could win if I kept trying to fight you off,” said Steve simply. “I didn’t want either of us to have to live with you actually overpowering me. Actually forcing me. This way neither of us knows if you would’ve gone through with it.”

Barnes stared at him.

“It was a judgment call,” said Steve. “I didn’t know what else to do.”

Silence.

“Did I make the wrong call?”

Barnes looked away. “I didn’t give you any good choices.”

“No, you didn’t.”

Barnes nodded, blinking rapidly. He cleared his throat. “What’s gonna happen now? Am I going back to cryo?”

“I told you that would never happen.”

Barnes looked back at him in disbelief. “Still?”

“Still.”

“What about handing me over?”

Steve shook his head. “We’re probably being moved somewhere else.”

Barnes frowned. “We?”

“I’m coming with you. I don’t know where. It’ll be somewhere far away.”

“Jesus fucking Christ,” said Barnes slowly. “You can’t. You can’t mean that. Not after--”

“I can’t stay here or they’ll question me,” Steve pointed out. “And you can’t stay here either. You’re not safe in the middle of a civilian centre.”

“I’m not safe anywhere,” said Barnes bitterly.

“Not yet. But you’ve improved--”

“You call what just happened improvement?” Barnes caught his breath. “You should be terrified of me.”

“I’m fine. And you stopped--”

Barnes made a sound in his throat. “Don’t-” his voice broke, then he steadied himself and continued. “You - you are not gonna stand there and make me feel better about what I just did to you,” he said, his voice shaking.

“I’m sure as hell not gonna help you feel worse,” Steve snapped back. He paused, then came closer, taking Barnes’s hand. Barnes caught his breath. “I am scared of you,” said Steve, his voice tightly controlled. “You're faster and stronger than I am. What happened was painful and frightening, and I don't want it to happen again.” He took a deep breath. “And it might, because you would never hurt me but you're not always in control.” He paused. “And I accept that. I want to be here. I'll accept the risk.”

Barnes shook his head. “I don't want you to--”

“Well, too bad. I don't like getting hurt in battle either, but I'm a soldier, it's part of the job.”

“I'm not a job.”

“No, but this is a battle. It's a battle for you. And I'm in it, same as you.”

“You gonna lay down your life for me?” Barnes said, his voice hollow.

“If I have to.”

Barnes shook his head, closing his eyes. “Don't. Jesus, don't. That wouldn't help.”

“I’m with you. Til the end of the line.”

Barnes gave a short laugh that sounded almost like a sob. “Christ, first you almost let me kill you. Now you let me...” He took a deep breath and focused on Steve. “Fight me. If this ever happens again, fight me.”

Steve hesitated. “I don’t know if I’d stand a chance--”

“Fight me anyway,” Barnes broke in. “I don't want to live with hurting you again.”

“What if you win?”

“I don't know!” Barnes said, anguish in his voice. “Just don't - I can't...”

Steve gripped his hand tighter. “OK. OK, I promise,” he said quickly. “I'll fight you.”

Barnes’s throat worked. “I’m not worth this,” he whispered.

“You are.”

“Maybe once, I was. Not any more. I don't know who I am any more--”

“The man you were would never have hurt me. You're not him any more.” Steve took Barnes’s hand in both of his, and forced Barnes to look at him. “But I don't care. You're not him because you've been hurt and abused beyond what most people could possibly imagine.” He leaned closer to Barnes, gently moving a lock of dark hair off his forehead. “They tried to destroy you, to turn you into a machine that wouldn't care who he hurt. They failed in that.” Barnes held his gaze, his eyes filling with tears. “I told you I'm here til the end of the line. I don't care that you're not really the Bucky I knew any more - you're enough of him that--”

“What if I'm not?”

“I don't care!”

“I do!” Barnes blinked and the tears spilled over. “What I did as the Winter Soldier, I did because I had to, and because I’d been convinced it was for the best. And I fought against it. They wiped me, over and over, because I fought them.” He bit his lip, a sob forcing itself out. “What I did to you...” He took a deep, shaking breath. “I did that. Just me.”

“No,” said Steve flatly. “Not just you. The person that’s left over after torture and abuse and conditioning. You never would have done it before, and with help you’ll never do it again.” He wiped Barnes’s cheek. “They’re working things out downstairs.”

“There’s nothing to work out,” Barnes said hoarsely.

Natasha cleared her throat. “As far as I can tell our only choices are to put you in cryo, execute you, or keep trying to help you,” she said. “There’s no point in wiping you and starting over. And we can’t turn you over to anybody else, because there’s always a risk that HYDRA will get their hands on you.”

“Cryo and execution, then,” said Barnes. “Those are your only options.” He glanced over Steve’s shoulder, meeting Natasha’s gaze. “Right?”

Natasha hesitated. How many times had she thought the same thing? “I don’t know. I don’t even know what I’ll recommend. We’ll rejoin the discussion once Steve is done talking to you here.”

Steve shook his head, not turning to Natasha. “I can’t be objective. Not even now.”

“If they decide on cryo?” asked Barnes.

Steve sighed wearily. “I’ll argue against it, but if I’m outvoted then I’ll be the last face you’ll see. And I’ll make them research how to help you so we can wake you up eventually.”

“And if they decide a bullet to my head is what’s best?”

They’d have to do it themselves, Natasha realized grimly. They couldn’t trust anybody else. Due process be damned; handing Barnes over for a proper trial would just leave him vulnerable to HYDRA. They’d have to be judge, jury and executioner.

Executioner to a man who, from all appearances, would not even put up a fight.

Steve gently stroked back Barnes’s long, dark hair, and wiped another tear off his cheek. “I was told, when we first found out about you, that you didn’t sound like the kind of person you save, but the kind you stop.”

“You finally convinced?” Barnes whispered, his eyes running over Steve’s bloodied lip and bruised cheek.

Steve closed his eyes and rested his forehead on their clasped hands. “Whatever’s decided, I promise, I’ll be the last face you’ll see.” He gripped the hand in his. “Til the end of the line, Bucky. I promise.”