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our golden age

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Bucky takes the stairs two at a time, reaching into his pocket for his set of keys. The door's unlocked though, which--thank god--meant that Steve was in.

He slips out of his shoes and drops his cufflinks into a shotglass that he'd left here. He loosens his tie and stretches out on the couch, putting his feet up on the coffee table. Steve's left a couple mockups on the couch, five variations of the same typography scattered about on the couch. He's also left his moleskine face down on a ring of dried coffee and Bucky picks it up.

"Hey," Steve says, stepping into the living room as he runs a towel over his wet hair. "I thought you'd be stuck at the gala all night."

"Lord save me from minor nobility telling me all about their eligible daughters," Bucky says, shifting his feet so that Steve can sit on the couch, "Like I don't have enough on my plate." He deposits his ankles in Steve's lap and gets a towel thrown at his face for the trouble.

"Steve," Bucky wheedles, "Come out with me tonight."

The smile on Steve's face fades slightly and he plucks his sketchbook from Bucky's fingers. "Come on Buck, you know that's not my scene."

"I'm shipping out in two days," Bucky argues, "Come on Steve."

"I just took a shower," Steve says, looking over at Bucky. Bucky pulls his best frown.

Steve sighs. "Did you lose your tail then?"

"Halley doesn't care," Bucky says, grinning. "Wear the blue shirt."

_____

True to form, Halley tags them at a half a block's distance (not that Bucky could ever shake them, what with the GPS in his phone and his watch and probably all the ones they don't tell him about). Bucky skips the line with Steve in tow and the bouncer smiles at him as he opens the door. He's got a shot of Patron in his hand before he moves more than five steps and a pretty waitress telling him right this way, your highness.

The people he clubs with are all cut from the same gilded cloth: rich, spoiled, and incredibly bored. Cherie slides over onto Jackson's lap as Bucky approaches and Bucky feels Steve hesitate. He tugs Steve's wrist and pulls him into the booth so that they're sitting next to each other, legs touching in the limited space.

"Have a drink," Bucky says, waving over a waitress, "Loosen up a little. You deserve it."

Steve bends his head close. "You ever have a hard time believing this?"

Bucky slides his eyes from the waitress back towards Steve. He smirks a little. "Every damn day."

_____

Here's the thing: Bucky spent the first eight years of his life as a nobody in some Brooklyn orphanage with nothing to his name except this scrawny little kid who kept stumbling into fights he had no chance of winning. That was Before.

Bucky sometimes imagined what it would have been like if they'd never tracked him down, if the queen hadn't come down with ovarian cancer and still had time to conceive. Still stuck in Brooklyn, no doubt, living a life so different that he couldn't even start to fathom. Maybe he'd have dropped out of high school, maybe he'd follow Steve to whatever city of whatever prestigious school the nerd got himself into and studied auto mechanics at the local trade school. He'd given up the dream of being adopted the moment he realized that no one wanted to adopt an older boy, much less two of them.

It's hard to imagine what life would have been like if his mother never gave him up. In that lifetime, he would have never met Steve.

_____

Cherie jerks her head over at the bar. "Someone's got their eye on your boy."

Bucky lifts his head. The beautiful blonde who's been whispering dirty things in his ear for the last five minutes takes the opportunity to kiss his neck, tongue striping down the tendon. Bucky's only half paying attention, even as she slides the palm of her hand down his thigh.

Steve's smiling at some boy who's gesturing with his hands. There's a hand untucking Bucky's shirt from his dress pants, fingers sliding underneath. Bucky doesn't stop examining the stranger talking to Steve. He's a little on the short side and keeps pushing his glasses up his face like a nervous tic. The hand slides into his pants, smoothing over the silk of his boxers.

"You want me to distract the guy?"

The hair tickling the side of his neck disappears and Bucky's glad for the secluded VIP booth because he's being pulled out out of his boxers. Bucky looks at Steve, and wets his lips.

"No," Bucky says, head tilting back as his hips shift. Steve laughs at something that guy says--Bucky doesn't have to hear it to recognize the shift from smile to grin even at this distance. The guy leans forward, his hand on Steve's arm as he speaks. Bucky licks the back of his own teeth, swallowing hard.

Steve shakes his head. The guy steps away. Steve looks back at Bucky, and Bucky stares right back.

He comes very quietly because he's had a lot of practice at it. The blonde sits up and washes her mouth with a shot of whatever's left on the table. Bucky tucks himself back in and zips up before turning his head to accept the acrid-tasting kiss.

Beside him, he hears the click of a lighter. And Cherie's voice. "You two have a real fucked up relationship, you know."

No, just me, Bucky thinks but what he says aloud is, "Put that cigarette out."

_____

He crashes at Steve's because it's easier to intrude on Steve's space than it is to let Halley drive him back to the palace. Bucky's offered to pay rent more than once based on how many times he crashes here a month. But Steve just smiles patiently and puts clean sheets on the futon and hands over one of the pillows from his own bed.

Bucky likes this moment the best: when he's curled up under sheets that smell like Steve's detergent, nose pressed into the pillow that smells like Steve's hair. For the few minutes that he dozes, before he wakes up fully, he can trick himself into thinking that he's actually in Steve's bed. He'd trade a month's worth of waking up next to strangers, just for a minute of this.

The hangover isn't too bad today but he has to pee like a bitch. Steve's a real pro at making him drink water before he sleeps and he sees a glass of it on the coffee table, next to his cell phone.

It's barely eight in the morning, which means that Steve isn't up yet. Bucky pisses and takes a quick shower, hoping that he doesn't wake Steve. Steve barely got enough sleep as it was, between the advertising and the freelance work.

The fridge is nearly empty but there's enough eggs and milk to make french toast. Bucky gets the coffee going and heats up some butter on the stove. By the time Steve shuffles into the kitchen, Bucky has a neat stack of them on a plate.

Steve takes a cooled slice from the bottom and bites off a piece. Bucky pushes his favorite mug at him and Steve takes it gratefully in the other hand.

"You know your phone's been ringing," Steve says after a moment.

Bucky wipes his hands on the dish towel and heads back into the living room. The phone is lit with a call but doesn't make a sound--he must have accidentally switched it to silent. As soon as he picks it up, the screen darkens. He unlocks it to find five missed calls.

"Did you forget you had something?" Steve's watching him, half piece of toast still in hand.

"Nah," Bucky says, "If it was important, they'd have sent someone to collect me."

He slips the phone in his pocket and picks up his tie from the back of the armchair. He steals the toast from Steve's fingers and takes a bite.

"Jerk," Steve says even as he reaches for another piece. Bucky smiles with his mouth full and relieves Steve of his coffee too.

"You heading out though?" Steve asks, eyeing the way that he's slipping his cufflinks into place with buttery fingers. Bucky's tailor would cry if he knew half the things Bucky put his clothes through.

"Probably should," Bucky says, "You know, apologize for ditching out."

Steve straightens and looks up at him. "You gonna drop by later or should I try coming to you?"

"I'll swing by," Bucky says, and pulls Steve in for a one-armed hug. "Don't stay up though. Charlie's lectures tend to run long."

Steve leans into him and doesn't let go for a moment. But then he pulls back, smiles in a way that doesn't reach his eyes, and says, "See you later then."

_____

He hates coming back to the real world. He hands Halley a thermos of coffee and doesn't speak the entire way back to the palace.

He changes into his officer's uniform, pins on his lieutenant bars and lets one of the PR people fuss with his collar until it's to her liking. Someone touches his face with a dusting of foundation before he's led down the hall to meet the queen for a luncheon with the military brass who are going to become his superiors come tomorrow.

He shakes hands and keeps a polite smile on his face. There are reporters in the room with cameras in hand, so Bucky makes sure that he looks interested in everyone who's speaking.

"You'll bring my boy home safe, won't you?" his mother asks at one point, smiling. Some of the reporters laugh uncomfortably while the officers look at each other.

"We'll try our best, your majesty," one of them says.

"I'm happy to lay down my life," Bucky says, thinking that maybe it's what Steve would have said.

_____

Bucky's not stupid. He knows he's had everything working against him from the start: the bastard prince, plucked from the wrong side of the tracks and thrust into a world he clearly didn't belong in. No amount of military school was able to beat the smartass mouth out of him and he's not winning much at the popularity game with how many nights a month he gets dragged out of a club, wasted. It's surprising that the tabloids never tire of splashing his predilection for alcohol and girls across the front pages--like at this point it's going to shock anybody any more.

Steve's been at him, quietly. Telling him that maybe he should consider taking life a little more seriously so that people will start taking him more seriously as their crown prince. That maybe he should start thinking about settling down.

Hard to tell Steve that he had no interest in settling down with anyone other than him--not that Bucky ever would. He didn't need the full force of the American media pointed at his asthmatic best friend, tearing him down the same way they dug their claws into Bucky.

But maybe Steve was right. Maybe it was time he learned a touch of maturity.

_____

He sits through an excruciatingly boring dinner with several ambassadors from Germany. He knows enough about the financial crisis in Greece to hold a brief discussion with the woman to his left about whether or not Germany had a right to withdraw from the euro before being forced into small talk with the duchess on his right about some television program he didn't even follow.

The queen keeps looking at him like she knows what he's thinking, like she knows he's already halfway out the door. She probably knows him better than he thinks--but after all these years, they've never cultivated the sort of relationship that Bucky once dreamed of. No such things as fairy tales. More often than not, Bucky thinks that she wishes she'd never dragged him up from out of her past.

He doesn't blame her. He kind of wishes the same.

_____

He loops around east DC a couple of times to lose the paparazzi that he'd picked up before heading to Steve's. He's careful to do this every time--didn't need reporters knocking down Steve's front door like they had at Steve's last apartment. Sometimes if security is feeling nice or just bored, they send out a decoy car.

It's nearly midnight by the time that Bucky turns his key and lets himself in. The light in the living room is still on--there's an architectural video playing on Steve's laptop at low volume. Steve's curled up on the futon, under the sheets from this morning. He's asleep and Bucky almost doesn't want to wake him.

"Hey," he murmurs, sitting down. Steve stirs and opens his eyes.

"Wasn't sure if you'd make it," Steve murmurs sleepily, scooting closer and drawing the sheets closer to his face. Bucky shrugs off his jacket. "You look nice."

"You've seen me in military dress a million times," Bucky says, laughing.

"You always look nice then," Steve says, and Bucky's chest tightens. Jesus.

"You gonna be alright?" Bucky says, "Paying for everything I mean."

"Come on Buck," Steve says, opening his eyes. "When was I ever strapped for cash?"

"Your medical coverage still good?" Bucky insists.

"I thought I'd be the one worrying," Steve says, smiling, "I'll be okay."

Bucky doesn't relax though. "I'll have email and I can probably take calls."

"I'll email all the cat videos you're missing."

Bucky shoves at his leg. Steve just grins.

"How was your dinner?" Steve asks.

"Boring," Bucky says and looks at Steve's laptop, "What are you watching?"

"Documentary," Steve says, "Also boring, because apparently I fell asleep."

"You should sleep more," Bucky says.

"Okay, mom," Steve says, rolling his eyes. Bucky shoves him for real this time, and Steve laughs. Bucky flops down onto his back, and half considers taking his pants off so he doesn't crease them. He has to have an old pair of sweatpants lying around here somewhere. And hell--even if he didn't, half of Steve's stuff was way oversized anyway.

"You want to hear something really stupid?" Steve asks.

"Is it different from anything else you say?"

Steve smiles. But then it fades and he says, "You know I tried enlisting when I turned eighteen."

Bucky turns his head so that he's looking at the profile of Steve's face.

"I mean, they didn't want me obviously," Steve says, still staring at the ceiling. "But I kind of figured, that's where you'd be going and I wanted to follow, you know?"

"You're right," Bucky says, "That's pretty stupid."

Steve looks at him.

"I'd rather you stay safe," Bucky says, because there's no way he can articulate the depth of how much he doesn't want Steve in the military. No bullets, no heat seeking missiles, no psychological trauma.

"I'd rather you stay safe too," Steve says, quietly, deliberately.

Bucky closes his eyes and turns his entire body towards Steve. Steve reaches out and runs a hand through Bucky's hair twice before letting it settle in the space between them.

"Can't get rid of me," Bucky says, moving his hand so that it's almost touching Steve's, "Sorry."

_____

He walks out of Steve's apartment for the last time at five in the morning. Addison pulls up to the curb with newly laundered fatigues and a duffel. She hands him his one way ticket to Kuwait.

Bucky tucks the pilfered moleskine into his pocket and climbs into the car.

Chapter Text

June 2006
The Unlikely Prince

The very subject of the prince is intensely polarizing, but few Americans think about the person behind the title. Despite his extended stay under the spotlight, Prince James seems to have grown up no differently than any other seventeen year old boy.

By Olivia Diehl

---

On a hot afternoon in June, Prince James soundly beats me in a pickup game of basketball. Linda, the photographer, and I make a valiant effort at scoring points, but Prince James and his security detail keep hitting nothing but net.

Surprisingly, it's not Justin Halley, the six foot four guard, who's making all the shots. Prince James weaves around us and gets the ball through the hoop with athletic ease. It's clear just by watching him that his abilities transcend the basketball court. It's unsurprising that the seventeen year old has been tapped for various varsity sports teams at Valley Forge during the two years he's studied there.

"You won't write something terrible about me just because I beat you at basketball, right?" he jokes as we take a break for Gatorade.

I tell him that I'm impressed with his basketball skills. He smiles back. "You should tell that to my teammates. I'm always one of the ones picked last for whatever we're playing."

For an afternoon snack, Prince James heads into the palace kitchen. There, two cooks bustle over the stoves, getting food ready for dinner service. They pay the prince no mind as he reaches into one of the cabinets and pulls out a box of strawberry flavored Pop-Tarts.

"You want one?" he asks, holding the box out to me. I shake my head. "Let's make this our little secret," he says, unwrapping the package and tilting one of the pastries into his hand. "I'm not supposed to be eating processed foods. We're on this whole campaign about healthy eating and everything." He saves the other one and puts it back into the box. The box goes back into it's hiding place. He takes a bite and smiles. "Sometimes I can't resist though. It's just so bad it's good."

He wanders over to the cooks and asks if he can taste what they're making. It's obvious that they're affectionate towards him, even as they shoo him out of the kitchen. One of the cooks gives him a small custard that had been cooling on the counter. Prince James offers it to me as we're herded out the door. I shake my head.

"Oh no, you don't understand," he says, splitting it into two and handing half of it to me anyway. "It's really good. You gotta try it."

He's right.

---

Prince James Buchanan Barnes is still growing into his role of a traditional prince, just as it took nearly a decade for Queen Alexandria to accept her own. It's been about nine years since Prince James was brought to court. Journalists have made entire livelihoods trying to detail every moment of his life since; fewer figures have undergone as much public scrutiny.

"I get it," he tells me, "I mean, I was basically some homeless kid that they took off the streets. They put a crown on my head and said I was part of the royal family. It sounds ridiculous, doesn't it?" He looks me in the eye while we talk. "I figure people can approach it a couple of different ways. Maybe I'm the underdog that they're rooting for. I'd like that. But I'm not as naive as I used to be. I know a lot of people are just waiting for me to really screw up somehow. You know, rubberneck at the train wreck."

He speaks with a level of certainty and calmness that doesn't belie the fact that he'd been caught drinking underage just a couple of months ago. Perhaps it's because of the scandal that he can sit here quietly and detail how much he's learned.

"I mean, I still care what the public thinks of me. I want to give off a good impression," he says. He sounds so earnest that I feel bad for thinking that maybe it's a line that public relations has fed him. "But it gets exhausting after a while, to know that everything you do or say might end up broadcast for everyone to dissect."

I ask him how he finds privacy or makes space for himself.

"I play the piano sometimes," he says, "I'm not good at it but it's very easy to lose myself in the music."

There's a baby grand in the corner of his study. I ask him to play me a song and he obliges.

His hands hesitate on the keyboard at first and he makes a few mistakes at the beginning that he replays a couple of times until he gets it right. The longer he plays, the more certain he seems to become. He doesn't have any sheet music in front of him--later I'll identify the beautifully lilting piece as Shostakovich.

It's hard to reconcile this young man with the boy who had been running circles around me in the basketball court. But here, watching him concentrate on the piano keys, he looks very much like the prince that we might collectively imagine him to grow into one day.

---

Six years after the tragedy that struck the royal household and three months after she went public with her diagnosis of ovarian cancer, Queen Alexandria revealed that she was not the last remaining member of the royal family. Prince James was brought to light in a maelstrom of public opinion, ranging from relief that the royal bloodline hadn't run its course to whether or not an illegitimate child could take the title. And of course, whether or not Prince James is even illegitimate is a matter of great debate--his father, the late Duke of Arlington, perished with the rest of the royal family. Despite being born out of wedlock, Prince James is well and truly borne of the Barnes line.

However, many were looking forward to an era where the United States left the outdated institution of the monarchy behind. Constructed hastily in the late 1700s as a last resort to ensure the sovereignty of the newly minted United States, it now plays little to no role in the governance of domestic affairs, nor the handling of any international issues. The royal family does not subsist on taxpayer dollars nor do they have significant influence over the president or Congress. Yet, they command our attention. In years past, they have served as figureheads for pressing issues and as a moral compass in some circumstances. As the world becomes more globalized and problems too complex for any one country to tackle, the role of the monarchy becomes more amorphous and uncertain.

Perhaps Prince James's ascension to his title is a story more reflective of America itself than any other. Even with all of his years of grooming, the prince still slouches when the cameras are pointed away and slips into a Brooklyn accent when he gets excited. He sometimes looks to the public relations officer who sits in on all of our conversations. He doesn't have all the answers and he's messed up spectacularly once or twice when it came to being a role model for his peers. And perhaps our country, too, has been thrust in the spotlight with no instruction manual and too many expectations that we struggle to meet.

---

Amanda Orvitz, his public relations officer, smiles when I ask her if he's a difficult person to work with. "He's not the worst I've ever had," she says, "But he definitely makes you work for it."

It's not surprising that a teenage boy would be interested in partying--but not all teenage boys have access to the type of events that Prince James does. "We keep a hold of most of the invitations we receive," Orvitz confesses, "But he has the knack of finding out anyway."

Prince James has been photographed not only skipping the lines at nightclubs in DC but in Philadelphia too, closer to where he attends school. But since photographs of his underage drinking leaked, he has been much more low key.

"I don't really have time for any girls," he tells me with a wry smile when I ask. "I think I've got enough on my plate. Maybe when the right one comes along." His answer is a bit contrary to his past actions but I don't press. Has he found it difficult to make friends?

"I think I've managed to find a group of buddies who like me for me," he says, glancing over at Orvitz. "And I'll always have my best friend so I guess I'm really fortunate there."

He is, or course, referring to Steve Rogers, who had grown up with him at Brooklyn Orphan Asylum. Little is known about Rogers, who refuses to talk to reporters--but it's obvious that the prince holds him in high regard. The only condition that eight year old Prince James had insisted on before relocating to the palace was that Rogers be taken in by a caring foster family in Arlington.

I ask him if they still keep in contact. "Yeah," he says and lights up. "He's going to have an art show in two weeks. Can you put that in your magazine? Tell people to come to his art show. He's a really good artist, I swear."

I tell him we're not an advertising firm.

He smiles shamelessly and says, "I thought I'd try anyway."

---

Even at seventeen, the prince demonstrates a level of casual charisma and energy that's been sorely missing from the palace. For years, the windows have been draped in dark colors but today there are fresh daffodils in the hallways and the curtains are drawn back to give each room an airy feel. The prince's sneakers and Nike t-shirt clash with the antique furniture and gilded portraits of previous generations of family.

Already, the prince has lent his voice to various causes. He's spoken several times about poverty and started a foundation for homeless youth in DC. "I was lucky not to be in that situation," he says, "But in retrospect, it's pretty scary to think of how easily I could have been."

He talks about his past as a matter of fact. For all of the anti-fans who insist that he uses his past as a means to manipulate sympathy out of the American public, I have a hard time seeing it between the jokes and the quiet seriousness of moments like these.

"It's the Homeless Youth Initiative." He sounds more animated now than he did when he was talking about himself. "The directors do really great work. We're a very small organization but we're blessed to have so many generous donors. We just added another fifteen beds last week and I'm really excited about that."

I ask him about his recent outspokenness about LGBT issues. He laughs a little nervously and says, "I have a close friend who's gay. And I mean, we've come a long way but there's still a ton of prejudice out there. I mean, what's the point of having a loud voice if you don't speak up, right?"

---

As we near the end of the day I ask him if he'd do it again if he had the choice. He flips a tennis racket from hand to hand as he contemplates the question.

"I mean, when you're eight, you don't really have much of a choice," he says, "I mean, I had a hard time trusting adults at the time but when you've got a couple hundred cameras following you around for a few weeks, you tend to stick with people who help make them go away." He's all pent up energy at this point, bouncing a tennis ball against the ground with his racket as he speaks. "I think I would though."

I wait for him to justify his answer but he just tosses me the tennis ball.

His grin is bright. "Your serve."

Chapter Text

"You didn't have to come all the way down," Steve says from where he's lying on the couch with his computer.

"You say that like it's such a hardship," Bucky says, moving Steve's legs so that he can sit down and promptly stealing his laptop. Steve makes a vague noise of protest but doesn't move to get it back. Bucky flips through the windows before settling on a web browser. He opens a tab for Netflix.

"You're a bad influence," Steve says.

"And just a moment ago you were praising my kindness," Bucky says, pressing a hand to his chest in mock hurt before looking back at the computer screen. "Christ, how many episodes of 30 Rock can you watch in a day?"

"I've been sick, asshole," Steve says, kicking him in the thigh, "And I have a response paper due tomorrow."

"I'll get you a doctor's note," Bucky says.

"I don't think so," Steve says, reaching for his computer, "Come on Bucky."

"I'll give it back if you eat the rest of that soup," Bucky says, scrolling through Steve's queue. "I worked real hard on that soup."

"What, like opening the can? Putting it into a bowl? Microwaving it?"

"No laptop for you," Bucky concludes. And there was no way was Steve going to watch half these depressing documentaries he had lined up. Bucky hits the delete button a couple of times.

"Stop deleting shows you don't like.

Bucky looks at him. Steve has the bowl of soup cradled against his chest, scowling at him. Bucky grins and dramatically hits the mousepad to delete another. "Seriously though, what could you possibly learn from a documentary about global warming that you don't already know?"

Steve aggressively eats a spoonful of noodles and chunked chicken. Bucky chalks it up as a win.

_____

Steve moves to his desk to actually get some work done while Bucky thinks about the history reading he's not doing while washing the dishes that have piled up over the course of Steve's illness. It gets real bad every time the seasons change--the headaches get worse and Steve starts running a low-grade fever for a few weeks on end. Bucky's dragged him halfway across the country by now, trying to find a doctor who can help but they always come back with the same answer: we don't know.

He wipes his hands on the dish towel and considers popping out to the 24 hour grocer's on 9th. Maybe the Starbucks across the street was still open and he could grab a coffee to fuel the all nighter he was pretty sure he was on the verge of pulling.

Would it be absolutely ludicrous to walk out into the night with sunglasses on? It'd probably draw more attention.

Of all the times to miss having security around.

"Heading out to pick up a few things," Bucky tells Steve who looks at him with his mouth twisted like he thinks it's a bad idea but doesn't want to say so. "You need anything?"

"I'm good," Steve says, "Don't be too long."

_____

He puts five oranges into his basket. And because he doesn't know if Steve's going to go to the effort of actually peeling the oranges, he puts a carton of orange juice in there too. Adds another four cans of soup and a bag of frozen corn.

"Anyone ever told you you look kind of like the prince?" the cashier asks as Bucky adds a pack of gum to the purchase.

Bucky smiles and flips his collar. "He's not as good looking."

_____

When he gets back, Steve's playing quiet jazz on his computer and repeatedly backspacing the sentences he writes. Bucky sets the bag of groceries on the tiny kitchen counter and takes out his own black coffee. He picks up the remaining cup and moves across the studio apartment in a few steps.

"They didn't have your blend so I just got you lemon."

"Thanks," Steve says taking a careful sip of the hot tea.

"You're missing like, five commas in that sentence," Bucky says, pointing at the computer screen.

"Don't you have your own work to do?" Steve asks, but he goes back and fixes the sentence.

"No problem Rogers, glad to be of help," Bucky says, moving away to rummage through his backpack for the eighty page packet of technical jargon his comparative military systems professor had cheerfully dubbed as light reading.

"Are you taking the last train out?"

"Nah," Bucky says, settling on the couch with a highlighter. He aims the light of the floor lamp onto his reading. "I'll take a morning train."

_____

where r u?? Kyle texts him sometime after eleven, r u reading the bullshit matthis assigned?

nyc, Bucky texts back.

oh u wanted 2 get laid huh

she's sick, you asshole, Bucky texts back. Easier to let them think he'd drop everything to tend to an ailing girlfriend than to try and figure out how to explain his relationship with Steve.

sure sure ok but can u explain pg 596? none of us get it

Bucky looks at the bottom of the page he's on. 578.

haha i'm gonna fail, he texts.

same, Kyle texts. And not even a minute later, at least ur getting some.

Bucky shakes his head at his phone and deletes all the messages.

_____

"This is the worst thing I've ever written," Steve declares half an hour later. Bucky's leg won't stop shaking and his stomach feels like it's in knots--he probably shouldn't have opted for the extra espresso shot.

"Which means that it probably still beats out the best essay I've ever written," Bucky supplies. He sighs and puts the packet back down on the coffee table--he's been reading the same damn paragraph for the last five minutes.

"Wanna go to Union?" Steve asks.

Bucky looks at his phone. "It's midnight. And you're sick."

"I know," Steve says, "But I've just been cooped up inside all day and I think I might go crazy."

Bucky rolls his eyes but he also pushes his feet back into his shoes and says, "Alright then."

_____

There's still people out on the streets because there's always people out on the streets, especially near the sleepless student population of NYU. Bucky stays close to Steve with his hands shoved into his pockets as they head up 5th. An ambulance with flashing lights drives past in the opposite direction.

"You hungry?" Bucky asks, "There's that pizza place around here, I think."

"I'm okay but we could go if you are."

Bucky considers. "Yeah okay," he decides, "I could eat."

Steve turns to the right and Bucky follows.

"Remember that time when we ran away and ended up hiding in central park?" Bucky asks, "What a bunch of dumbass kids."

"I don't remember being scared though," Steve says.

"And you're supposed to be the smart one," Bucky says nudging Steve with his elbow. Steve just smiles.

"But when Sister Ophelia found us," Steve says, "That, I remember being terrified for."

"With good reason," Bucky agrees, then pitches his voice in a high falsetto, "Steven Rogers! Have you cleaned your fingernails? The devil preys on young boys who don't clean their fingernails!"

Steve's laughs hard enough that it turns into a fit of dry coughing. Bucky's smile fades and he puts a hand on Steve's back, between his shoulderblades, murmuring, "Sorry Steve, sorry."

Steve waves him off, fighting off the fit long enough to get his breathing back under control. He pauses for a moment, bent over with his hands on his thighs.

"New York," Bucky says disparagingly.

"Yeah well," Steve says, straightening up, "You're about three years too late for that decision."

"We're definitely heading west after graduation," Bucky says, slinging his arm around Steve's narrow shoulders, "Colorado maybe. They've got nice policies about pot.'

"Which I can definitely partake in."

"You can partake in the fresh mountain air," Bucky says, "I'll partake in everything else."

"How generous," Steve says, but he's smiling.

"It's stupid," Bucky says, "But I kind of wish we could run away again. For real this time."

"Yeah," Steve says, looking at Bucky, "If only."

_____

The pizza is exactly as disgusting greasy as Bucky remembers it being. It pales in comparison to the food at the palace but Bucky's been living off cheap mess hall fare for the last three months.

He gets an order of garlic knots that may or may not be a blatant attempt to get Steve to eat. Steve picks at one of them and stifles a yawn.

"Tired?" Bucky asks around a mouthful of pizza.

Steve shakes his head. "Take your time."

Bucky crams the slice in his face. Steve wrinkles his nose. "Seriously, you don't have to inhale it."

"I'm kind of tired too," Bucky says except with all the pizza in his mouth, it comes out completely indecipherable.

Steve snorts and his attention drifts. He leans forward. "Don't look now but you're on TV."

Bucky looks and makes a low annoyed sound when he sees the picture of himself with Anna Kendrick at a charity dinner for cancer research from last weekend. He slouches, pulling the brim of his Yankees hat low even though no one's looking.

"What's it like dating a famous actress?" Steve asks, grinning.

"I'll tell you when I date one," Bucky says, stealing a garlic knot.

_____

Bucky gives up on trying to finish his reading and resigns himself to not understanding tomorrow's lecture. Steve doesn't have the energy to shower or even brush his teeth and crawls into bed the moment they get back. Bucky pulls his shoes off for him, complaining all the while.

"The couch sags," Steve says, half muffled by his pillow.

"Yeah dumbass, I know," Bucky says, taking off his socks.

"So don't sleep on it," Steve concludes, moving over by the wall so that there's space for Bucky on the full bed. Bucky contemplates it, weighing the probability he's going to wake up spooning Steve with a hard-on against how much he actually hates Steve's couch. He climbs under the covers next to Steve.

"I'm gonna wake you up at ass o'clock," Bucky warns, "In like, three hours actually."

"Okay," Steve agrees.

"Don't bitch at me when I do."

"Would never." Steve's pretty much half asleep.

Bucky turns on his side, away from Steve and keeps a layer of the blankets between them so that Steve's shoulders and back don't get cold in the night. He buries his nose in Steve's pillow and breathes in.

"Hey Buck," Steve murmurs.

"Yeah," Bucky mumbles back.

"Thanks." It's quiet and sleepy and a stupid warmth spreads through Bucky.

"Good night, Steve," he says.

_____

By some miracle, he wakes up before his alarm with his hand against Steve's side, nosing up against the soft hairs at the back of Steve's neck. Steve's sleep-warm and peaceful--Bucky closes his eyes and thinks that he could be happy the rest of his life if he could wake up like this.

But eventually he has to pull away--manages to turn off his alarm two minutes before it's set to go off, and goes to take a shower. He writes Steve a message in the steamed up mirror--don't forget to eat, dumbass--before pulling on the same clothes he wore the day before.

The 5:30 train leaves in forty minutes which means he has enough time to grab a coffee from the 24 hour convenience store around the corner and take the subway up to Grand Central. He steals a pad of post-its from Steve's desk and goes about adding notes to the stuff he's bought. I better be finished by the end of the week or there will be hell to pay, gets put on the orange juice. Don't be lazy, it takes all of thirty seconds to peel me, gets put on the bowl of oranges. Vegetables are good too I guess, for the frozen corn.

He slips his coat on and picks up his backpack. Steve shifts on the bed and Bucky can't help but to move over. He puts his hand lightly on Steve's forehead, feeling for the perpetual fever. He thinks about leaning down to press his lips against Steve's temple, but doesn't indulge himself.

"Feel better," he murmurs, smiling fondly, and heads out.

Chapter Text

Bucky likes to do his own laundry when he comes back from Valley Forge--separate out the darks from the lights as he pulls clothes out of his suitcase and toss them into any of the four laundry machines installed in the basement of the palace. The maids let him do whatever he wants as long as he doesn't break the machines. They probably think it's more eccentric than charming--he's caught them peering over his shoulders at the gently rumbling machines like they're suspicious he put it on the wrong cycle.

Maybe it's nostalgic more than anything else. He remembers afternoons with Sister Marie, sorting things into two piles with her chattering away about her sister and her niece in half English, half Spanish while he and Steve wrinkled their nose at the sweat and sometimes urine smells from the dirtied clothes of the entire orphanage. It's a stupid thing to be nostalgic about.

He always forgets with the stress of studying for his final exams how full his summer schedule is--public relations relentlessly packs in dinners and appearances, giving him barely twenty-four hours to study whatever relevant material before he's put in a suit and told to smile for the cameras. He's pretty sure he spends more time sleeping in hotel beds as he jets around the United States than he does in his own bed at the palace.

It wouldn't be too bad. Except one thing: Steve. Who attends Washington-Lee in Arlington which is exactly 145 miles away from Valley Forge. Who can't jet around to all of the same events that Bucky goes to during the summer, no matter what argument Bucky tries to make.

Which is why the moment the dryer buzzes to signal its complete cycle, all of the clothes go right back into a duffel bag and Bucky's out the door, swinging his car keys on his finger.

_____

They've rented the same tiny cabin in the Poconos every summer for three years straight, half a week every time. It was Halley's idea at first, because Halley was the only sane member of his staff and finally got fed up with putting Bucky through a nonstop schedule of summer league baseball and events supporting youth groups. Either that or he was sick of hearing Bucky whine about not seeing Steve enough.

Susanne, Steve's foster mother opens the door when Bucky knocks. She has her graying hair pulled back into a ponytail, paint-ruined shirt declaring her to have participated in the Friends of Arlington 5k. She pulls Bucky into a hug and waves at Halley's car across the street before ushering Bucky inside. "Steve's still packing upstairs. I'll go make a thermos of coffee you can take to Justin for the drive."

Bucky takes the stairs two at a time. Steve's playing the alternative rock station quietly--Bucky catches the last notes of Muse song before a conversation with the host takes over. The door is half closed and Bucky knocks on it twice as he pushes it open.

"Hi," Steve says, turning as Bucky practically tackles him in a hug. Steve laughs--hugs him back with one arm before pushing Bucky away.

"I've gotta finish packing," Steve says. Bucky sits on Steve's bed and studies him--Steve's hair is longer again, curling slightly around his ears. His growth spurt is coming in slow, still leaving him inches shorter than Bucky.

"Need help?" Bucky asks, flopping down on the bed. Steve zips up his tiny suitcase and moves to put his sketchbook in his backpack all without glancing back at Bucky. Bucky narrows his eyes at Steve's back. "You okay?"

Steve freezes with his hand in his backpack like he'd been caught doing something and Bucky sits up, worried. "Steve?"

"I'm okay," Steve says and he turns around to smile at Bucky but Bucky's not an idiot and he knows Steve too well to be fooled. "It's nothing."

"Are you feeling sick?" Bucky asks, "We can postpone if you're feeling sick."

"No!" Steve says, and then quieter, "I'm okay, I swear. There's nothing wrong. Let's head out."

Bucky looks at him. Steve's grip on his bag is so tight that his knuckles are white and his smile looks painful. He has half a mind to demand to know what's actually wrong but he's had more than enough experience with Steve's stubborn temper to recognize a lost cause.

"Okay then," Bucky says with what he hopes is a bright smile, getting off Steve's bed. "Let's go."

____

Bucky watches Halley change lanes three cars behind them on I-270 and touches the accelerator a little more.

"You're going fifteen over," Steve points out helpfully from the passenger seat.

"I'm not letting Halley beat us there," Bucky says, but eases up a little on the gas. Steve laughs through his nose and keeps clicking through Bucky's iPod.

"Come on, pick a song," Bucky says, "Does it really take this long to judge my taste in music?"

"Britney Spears right next to The Bravery?"

"You're only on the B's?" Bucky groans.

But Steve obliges and Bucky turns up Cake until the entire car is vibrating with it: I want to love you madly, I want to love you now.

Bucky taps the steering wheel, glances over at Steve. Steve's staring at the rearview mirror on his side of the car, unmoving and entirely unlike himself. Hasn't risen to half the baits that Bucky's put out so far and they're already thirty miles outside DC.

Come on, he thinks, come on Steve, come on.

____

A little past Harrisburg they stop for gas because Bucky's a dumbass and didn't bother to fill the tank before leaving DC. Steve goes into the rest stop to take a piss and Halley buys granola bars. He tosses two at Bucky who catches them reflexively and says, "Slow down, Barnes."

They're making good time. Steve comes back from the restroom and Bucky drops one of the granola bars in his lap.

"I'm good," Steve says.

Bucky rolls his eyes as he pulls away from the pump. "Eat it anyway." Halley waits until they're on the on-ramp before following them back onto the highway. Steve unwraps the granola bar and doesn't say anything else.

____

They're merging onto I-80 and they've gone through at least two Coldplay albums before Bucky finally snaps and says, "Steve."

Steve doesn't say anything. Bucky takes his eyes off the road for just a moment to glance at him and sees that he has his eyes closed--is the fucker really trying to pretend that he's asleep? He's trying to think of something wildly inappropriate to yell when Steve says something in such a small voice that Bucky's not even sure if he's heard correctly.

"I'm gay."

"What?" Bucky asks, because, what?

"I'm pretty sure I'm gay," Steve says, louder.

"I--" Bucky starts, then stops. He'd been thinking of Steve being sick and not wanting to tell him, about having trouble with bullies at school or something stupid like that--he wasn't--not this. "Okay," he eases, because what the hell else could he say.

"I wanted to tell you in person," Steve says, "I think I've known for a while."

Bucky doesn't say anything, stares out at the road without seeing it.

"This doesn't change anything though. I'm still me. I'm just more sure about myself," Steve says, stops, looks at Bucky's face, and adds in a smaller voice, "I think."

"Okay," Bucky says because he doesn't know what to say, he feels useless. How many times had he casually used the word faggot while playing Counterstrike? How many times had he been exasperated and deemed something gay? Christ.

"Okay," Steve repeats to himself and looks out the window.

____

Coldplay gets switched out for Foo Fighters. Bucky manages not to swerve into oncoming traffic. He also manages not to say another word the remainder of the trip.

He doesn't know why he's having such a hard time wrapping his head around this. It's not like Steve's changed at all--he's still the stupid kid who doesn't know to stay out of a fight if the healing bruise high up and back on his cheek is anything to go by. His hands are still a canvas for stray pen marks, some more faded with washes than others. He smells like the same detergent Susanne's been using for the last forever.

But he's gone five months without seeing Steve at all and five months can be a long time. It frightens him to think that the Steve sitting next to him in the car isn't the same Steve that he'd convinced into two shots of rum on a palace balcony during New Year's.

He's being stupid, he's being stupid.

____

Halley looks between them as they're in the grocery store three miles away. "Did something come up?"

"No," Bucky says, keeping his voice light. "Why would you think that?"

The look that Halley gives him is withering.

"We'll go get vegetables," Bucky says, grabbing Steve's arm and tugging him towards the produce. "Meet at the checkout."

Steve follows him towards the precut salad and baby carrots.

"We should probably get some onions," Bucky says, for the sake of saying something.

Steve just nods.

"Look, Steve," Bucky says, "I--" He what? "--just need--" He's fumbling, trying to find something comforting to say but all he can think of is how much Steve's going to get shit in the future for his orientation, about the hate crimes that come up every once in a while on the news, gory details first and names like an afterthought.

"Let's get some bell peppers," Bucky finishes lamely, and he can't believe that he is enough of a complete asshole to actually be angry about this, about Steve being gay.

Steve just stares at him blankly.

Bucky turns away to get the goddamn peppers.

____

Halley grills them each a steak and Steve boils some potato chunks to mash with butter. The back patio is sheltered with a roof and screen doors. Bucky rakes a wooden spoon through the salad, dispersing the dressing and keeps his eyes on the spring mix.

Halley sets a beer down in front of him. Bucky looks up. Halley flicks off the cap with a keychain and says, "I won't tell if you don't."

Bucky picks it up, takes a sip of the stuff. It's still disgusting to him, sour and acidic in his mouth, but he drinks it anyway.

____

They sleep in the same room, two twin beds with the window open. Bucky listens to the crickets and Steve's breathing. Bucky knows what it sounds like when Steve falls asleep and it's definitely too light. Steve's staring up at the ceiling, same as him.

The thing that Bucky can't quite figure out is why he's so unsettled by the fact that Steve's gay. It's stupid and he knows that this isn't about him but it's almost feels personal. Like Steve's hidden away this part of his life that Bucky could have never guessed, watching other boys and averting his eyes the moment he might get caught. How did Bucky, of all fucking people, not notice?

Bucky was supposed to be the person who knew things about Steve even before Steve did: the glasses, the big sketchbooks, the comics that he'd buy and ship to Steve's address without warning. And he didn't--not this.

He sighs. To his left, Steve shifts on his bed with a rustle of sheets and the creak of an old mattress. Bucky looks over and sees Steve's hunched shoulders, the back of his head.

Say something. Say something.

He doesn't know what to say.

____

He's the last one to wake. Steve's bed is already made and he doesn't hear anyone else moving in the house. He pulls on a pair of shorts and exchanges his pyjama shirt for an ROTC one.

It's still eight but the sun is already bright and climbing halfway to its zenith. Bucky pushes out of the patio screen door and looks down towards the lake. He spots two figures sitting on shore one of them carrying a fishing pole. It has to be Steve and Halley.

He makes his way across the grass and into the rocky patch that separates the shore from the rest and stops. He can hear the indistinct sound of Steve's voice. What if he's interrupting a private conversation? He's half certain that they're talking about him.

Halley glances back, catches sight of him paused on the rocks, hands shoved into his pockets. He leans in, says something to Steve. Steve nods. Halley stands up and heads immediately towards Bucky.

He leans in low, makes eye contact with Bucky and says, "You fix this." And then he moves past, up towards the house.

He picks his way down until he's close to Steve. He says, "Hey."

Steve quickly wipes his face with the oversized sweater he's wearing "Hey." Bucky pretends not to notice.

"I've been an asshole," Bucky says and drops down next to Steve in the sand. Steve looks at him sideways, legs drawn up to his chest, even smaller than usual. "You're my best friend Steve. Nothing's going to change that."

Steve smiles slightly into his knees, but it fades.

"I should have said something at the very start," Bucky says, "I'm an idiot. I'm a moron."

"Careful," Steve says, muffled, "That's my best friend you're talking about."

"Steve," Bucky says, and gets on his knees. He wraps his arms around Steve's thin shoulders, presses his face into Steve's hair. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

____

They try to roast marshmallows over the fire pit. Halley supervises by reading some John Grisham novel on the patio, in the dim fluorescent lighting. Bucky can already feel the beginnings of mosquito bites on his ankles. There's no need to sit so close to Steve but he feels like he needs to, to make it up to Steve.

"I think I was pissed because I thought I knew everything about you," Bucky confesses after burning three marshmallows in a row. Steve's always come out perfect and Bucky's eaten two of them already. "Is that stupid?"

Steve looks at him in the firelight--they're sitting too close to make it anything other than awkward but he doesn't move away. "I don't think I know everything about you."

But don't you want to? Bucky keeps the words from slipping out, staring into the fire. Maybe this is what unsettled him--not Steve after all, but himself.

"Your marshmallow's burning," Steve tells him. Bucky jerks it away from the fire but it's too late to save.

"That's okay," Bucky says, "I'll just steal yours."

Chapter Text

"I talked to her for maybe five minutes," Bucky says. There's a copy of the National Enquirer on the table in front of him, his face washed out in the newsprint. Amanda's tapping at her legal pad with a pen, just looking at him.

"I didn't say anything, I didn't do anything," Bucky says, getting pissed now, "Come on, I'm not that stupid."

"Is it true though?"

"I don't have a fucking death wish," Bucky growls, "I'm not as dumb as you think I am."

Amanda sighs and Bucky swears that if she's going to reprimand him for his cursing, he's going to walk out the door. Instead she reaches for her phone. "I'm putting Addison on your detail for the next month."

Bucky glowers at the desk but he's had this fight enough times to know better than to argue that this is not his fault, that maybe they should have done a better job screening the press. She's never backed down and would probably just extend Addison's detail for another half month.

"Listen James," she says with her hand over the mouthpiece of her phone, "If you want to cut down on incidents like this, maybe it's time you learned to keep your head down."

How many times has he heard this lecture by now? Fifth time in just as many months? Amanda sounds tired and she's sort of glaring at him, like she's also aware that this is the fifth time in just as many months and she's sick of dealing with his shit. She looks at him, looks at the expression of boredom he's cultivated over the years as a teenager and closes her eyes, taking in a breath. She rubs the bridge of her nose with her fingers and says, "Please leave my office."

Bucky doesn't need to be told twice.

_____

It's not that he doesn't like Amanda. She knows almost everything about him--keeps an eye on his public image, tweets for him, maintains his Facebook page. She drags out every sordid detail of who did what with whom and where and listens to his listless explanations with a clinical detachment. It's awful but he thinks of her as part of the machinery sometimes--Amanda with her hair pinned up and her severe expression, the pencil skirts and blazers rendering her as sexless and personless as the desk she sat at.

She knows almost everything about him and he doesn't even know if she has any siblings or where she goes for Christmas. For more than half of his life, she'd been the one to tell him what he couldn't say on national television, where he couldn't be seen, when to look serious and when to smile. She hovered in the background of every interview, watching him to make sure that everything out of his mouth was diplomatically phrased and articulate, even when all Bucky wanted to do was lock himself in his room and play Green Day too loudly because he was so sick of being so goddamn earnest all the time.

He hates the way that she says his name, James, in that exasperated tone of voice like she can't believe he doesn't get it yet, doesn't get that the media is always looking for a way to take any words out of context, to screw him over for a couple thousand clicks and ad revenue. And maybe he doesn't get it, not just yet when he's sixteen and looking for a reason to be angry, but he will.

_____

The first time he'd kissed a girl was at a garden tea party hosted by the queen to fundraise for some ballet production--he doesn't really remember the details. He doesn't even remember the girl--just that he was twelve and she had a birthmark on her cheek in the shape of a misshapen star. She took his hand and led him through the carefully cultivated gardens until the string quartet was only a faint lilt coming from faraway.

He remembers her hands being sweaty as she took his face in her hands and kissed him. He remembers there being too much spit--he'd pulled back within seconds, nose wrinkled. Gross.

She was hurt, probably. He doesn't remember. He just remembers Halley telling him that Amanda wanted to see him. And he remembers Amanda with her hands on her hips saying, "Girls, already?" in the shrill harpy tones of his distorted memory.

She didn't have anything to worry about. Not for a few years at least.

_____

The day that they sat him down for the talk, it was raining outside. Bucky remembers because the sound of the rain pelting the windows of the palace sounded the same as the click of Amanda's heels as she paced from the table to the armchair and back to the table.

"We'll be vetting anyone you're interested in," Amanda says, pen tucked behind her ear and a checklist of things to go over with him in her hands. "This goes for anyone at any time. If there are any skeletons in her closet, we'll figure out how to deal with them off the bat." She keeps her eyes on her checklist. "This isn't to say you can't date whoever you'd like, but I'd choose carefully."

Maybe she was just trying to be transparent, to coolly deliver him the facts of his life. But Bucky hated everything she was telling him.

"James," she says, "If you ever find yourself in a position where you feel pressured to have sex, I want you to think very carefully about the consequences. In fact, I would strongly advise against it until you turn eighteen, at least. And even then, abstinence is still the best policy to abide by."

Bucky stares out the window.

"Do you know how to use a condom?" Amanda asks. The question is so mortifying that Bucky actually looks at her. She sets her checklist onto the table She opens her bag and takes out a square foil and a dildo. Bucky stares.

She doesn't even look embarrassed as she tears open the foil and coolly demonstrates how to put the condom on. Whatever she's saying is lost on Bucky who's stunned by this new revelation: a personless woman who takes sex toys out of her bag like it's nothing at all. He doesn't learn how to put a condom on until months later, fumbling it down his own dick and being overwhelmingly relieved when he realizes that he did it right.

_____

"She's only trying to help," Halley tells him when they go out for a burger after a quick game of tennis. Halley gives him the fries from his meal because he doesn't actually like McDonald's that much but humors Bucky once in a while. They're hiding out in the car, parked around the corner from the front gates because both of them take a perverse sort of thrill in breaking palace policy on healthy eating.

"I hate being told what to do," Bucky says, sauce from his burger dripping into the palm of his hand.

"She's got years on you," Halley says, watching Bucky wipe up the ketchup-mayo mixture off his hand with a fry. "She used to do PR for your mother. She knows exactly what she's doing."

Bucky doesn't say anything, just chews on his fries.

"She spun your adoption," Halley says, closing up his half eaten burger. "She was the force holding the PR team together after the fire. You don't have to like her, but you have to respect her and what she tells you to do."

Bucky looks out the window. He doesn't want to think about Amanda any more.

"We on the same page?" Halley asks.

Bucky lets out a breath. "Yeah," he says.

_____

The first girl he brings back to Amanda is during his senior year of high school. He meets her on a trip into Philly and there's an instant easy connection between them. Her name is Vanessa and she has dark hair to halfway down her back--she's an artist and paints sprawling landscapes with eerie accuracy in her free time. She's nineteen and lives in the city, he's eighteen and they chat at the bar with their heads bent towards each other. It's like talking to an old friend, kind of like talking to Steve. He's never felt anything like it, entranced by her easy smile.

Amanda gives him the go ahead. The Philadelphia Inquirer picks it up first, followed by gossip columns in the northeast.

They date for four months. Vanessa enjoys the attention until suddenly she doesn't. She breaks up with him over the phone. "I just need some space to myself," she tells him.

The papers report that he broke up with her. The kindest thing she ever did for him was to not correct them.

_____

He dates a girl in his freshman history class at college. Her name is Tanya. They keep it quiet--no handholding, no public kissing--and Bucky doesn't bother to tell Amanda.

Four months in, she tells him that she thinks she's pregnant. Bucky calls Halley and barely gets the words out around the panic welling up in his chest. It takes mere hours before he hears the familiar confident stride of Amanda's heels clicking on the ground. She doesn't even look at Bucky as Halley takes him by the arm and they go for a drive, leaving Amanda and Tanya in Bucky's dorm room by themselves.

"Why didn't you tell Amanda?" Halley asks.

Bucky can't tell if he's angry because he was never good at telling whether or not Halley was angry. But he still can't get past the panic in his chest; he keeps rubbing the palms of his hands over his thighs. "I used a condom every time," he says, more to himself than Halley.

"You're going to be fine," Halley says--and it's true.

Amanda corners him afterwards in a cold fury and says, "Never again."

Tanya transfers away from West Point. Bucky spends months thinking about how he probably ruined her life.

_____

For a year, he doesn't even bother to look. And the year after that, he rides along with his friends on their weekend trips down to the city, hotel rooms under fake names, an eye on his own condoms and a camcorder that fit into his jacket pocket. He has more girls than he can remember on this SD card, plus the one he already sent back to Amanda via Halley. Maybe a hundred of them total, ID held up to the camera, smiling like this was a joke. Giving verbal consent before the camera was tossed to the side, recording white sheets and giggles.

Amanda doesn't send anything back, not even commentary. No directions. Like she'd given up.

_____

It's at the end of his junior year of college--after he has a semi-public fight with his political science professor and nearly fails out of Comparative Politics, after he totals his car on the way home from New York and nearly gets into a fistfight with the asshole who hit him--that he goes to Amanda and asks, "What if I asked you to vet a guy?"

Amanda hasn't slept for days but she still has every hair in place. There's a pen behind her ear and three empty coffee mugs on her desk. She looks at Bucky with that same assessing look she's always had and Bucky fiddles with the hem of his shirt, unable to meet her eyes.

She gets to her feet and goes back to one of the many filing cabinets on the side of her stylish office. She opens it and digs around for only a few moments before returning to the desk. She sets two folders in front of him.

One is labelled, LGBT/Virginia. The other is labelled, Steve Grant Rogers.

"My advice," she says, "Don't."

_____

Bucky learns that Steve's biological mom is still alive, though her last address was updated five years ago to a tiny apartment in Queens. He sees redacted versions of medical records--a huge crossed off list of everything that Steve had been diagnosed with at one point in time. He sees Steve's report cards--mostly A's with a scattering of B's. A perpetual string of C's in physical education. His IB diploma, a copy of his test scores and his extended essay on superhero culture in the United States. There's a copy of every award that Steve has received for academic achievement, programs from every art show that Steve has ever done.

There are articles from when they were just being adopted. There are cross-references here to Susannne's files. Bucky looks at a picture of eight-year-old Steve in faded newsprint. It's a picture taken outside the orphanage, just as they were leaving.

There are more cross references, mixed in with the candids taken at Steve's high school, then at NYU. He recognizes some of the people in the photos as Steve's friends, people he might have been introduced to at some point. Amanda has been thorough.

A selfish unthinking part of him is pleased that she took so much care with looking into Steve--like she recognized how much of Steve was also Bucky.

_____

"It'd be hard," Amanda says when he returns the files. Bucky had barely flipped through the first two pages detailing hate crimes in Viginia before he'd shut the second folder and refused to look at any more of it.

It's not that Amanda doesn't like Steve. She's never expressed an explicit opinion on him but she never lectures him much when he disappears for days to Steve's apartment or drags Steve out for an impromptu summer roadtrip up the New England coastline. When he went fishing with Paul for a week last summer, she gave him an earful about shirking his princely duties for nearly half an hour.

Of all his friends, Bucky's sure she thinks that Steve is the best influence. She doesn't have to know about the multiple times he'd been nearly goaded into a barfight because some guy wouldn't leave a girl alone and Steve was starting to look speculative. She doesn't have to know that Steve sometimes draws pornography on the side for extra cash.

It's not that Amanda doesn't like Steve. So when she says, "It'd be hard on him," Bucky knows that she's serious.

"This would go beyond the normal gossip rags. This would become a national issue. Both of you would be under public scrutiny, him especially. They'll blow every little thing out of proportion. If you're lucky, they'll lose interest in two months. But anything could draw their attention right back."

Bucky doesn't say anything, just stares at the wood grain of her desk.

"Can I speak frankly, James?"

Bucky shrugs.

"I can tell that Steve is very important to you. I've seen publicity ruin more relationships than I care to recall."

She pauses long enough that Bucky lifts his eyes to look at her. She looks very very tired. And maybe a little sad--for him. "Do you really want to risk that?" she asks.

_____

It's kind of a given that they'll go down to the city to celebrate graduation. Bucky changes out of his dress uniform the moment that he gets back from an impromptu post-commencement press conference with his mother. She had told him congratulations and kissed his cheek in front of the cameras. She was probably on her way back down to DC by now.

He takes two shots of whiskey, accepts the truly disgusting Four Loko offered to him by a housemate, and somehow manages to find his way onto a train so he can join the others who have already left. He's vaguely aware that there are more people than usual trying to take discreet photos of him--so he flips his hoodie and jacket collar up and turns up Passion Pit on his iPod. He doesn't think he has any detail today--not when they were expecting him to stay on campus.

He take a picture of someone trying to take a picture of him. The woman goes red with embarrassment and quickly turns away. Bucky sends the picture to Steve.

Asshole, Steve texts back. He opens up Draw Something and tries to invite Steve into a game.

I'm working, Steve texts.

come on, Bucky texts. He takes a picture out the train window and sends it to Steve.

how's work? he texts when he doesn't get a reply.

He takes a picture of his exaggerated frown just to show Steve how displeased he is at being ignored and sends that off too.

His phone vibrates. Bucky opens Draw Something and smiles at the thought of Steve hunched over with his phone under his desk, sketching anatomically correct penguins onto the tiny screen.

He guesses correctly and sends a picture of a crudely drawn dick back.

Why do I keep falling for this? Steve texts. Bucky grins hard at his phone.

Congrats on not fucking college up, by the way, Steve texts, Do you need a place to crash?

see you soon, Bucky texts and wills for the train to go faster.

_____

He loses the group trying to get from the first club to the second and decides fuck it. He doesn't text Steve that he's coming, just takes the subway in the vague direction of Steve's apartment. He has an illegal copy of Steve's keys and lets himself in to the lobby, whistling to himself as he waits for the elevator.

He knocks, at least, but Steve isn't surprised at all to see him. He hugs Bucky though, and says, "I'm proud of you," against Bucky's shoulder and Bucky wasn't expecting that. An affectionate warmth spreads through him. He grins, hugging Steve back tighter, feeling like he might burst with how happy he is in that moment.

"Can we order Chinese?" Bucky asks, taking his shoes off. Steve moves to pull off one of the several takeout menus he has up on his fridge. "I'm in the mood for a mojito. Are you in the mood for a mojito?"

Steve makes a vague gesture at his kitchen that means by all means. Bucky rummages through Steve's fridge and can only find the half handle of tequila that he's pretty sure he put there a few months ago. Margaritas it was then. He pulls out limes and listens to Steve order food.

No margarita mix or frozen limeade. Shots of tequila it was then.

"Bucky," Steve says after watching him mutilate a lime for a whole minute, "I think you might be too drunk to cut that."

"Never too drunk," Bucky declares, licking lime juice off his fingers.

Steve makes a face and grabs his wrist. "You probably touched the entire subway with that hand." He takes the knife away from Bucky and maneuvers him out of the way.

Bucky drops his chin on Steve's shoulder, watching him cut the limes into even wedges. He wipes his sticky fingers onto Steve's shirt, who rolls his eyes but doesn't step away.

"You heading back out?" Steve asks.

"Think I'll stay here," Bucky says. "Celebratory shot?" He goes into the cupboard for the NYC souvenir shotglasses he'd bought way back when he'd first visited Steve in freshman year.

He spills some tequila on the kitchen counter as he pours but it's not too bad, considering. Steve gets out the salt, and licks the web of his thumb. Bucky watches openly, half fascinated.

"To graduating?" Steve asks, lifting his shotglass. Bucky lifts his own shot, grinning in agreement. He forgot the salt but it's not like he has standards at this point. He winces as the shot goes down--whatever tequila past-Bucky bought was truly awful.

"That's disgusting," Steve says after taking the lime out of his mouth.

"Yeah," Bucky says brightly. "Another?"

_____

It's nearly three in the morning. Whatever they were watching--some action flick with explosions and a plot Bucky had a hard time following--is rolling its credits. Steve's curled up against his side--was leaning against his arm until Bucky put his arm around Steve like they were kids again. There are remnants of sesame chicken and crab rangoon and empty beer bottles on the coffee table and Bucky's not sorry at all for clearing a space to prop up his feet.

It's not like they were paying attention to the last thirty minutes anyway--Steve was telling him about running into some actress from the film in Starbucks which somehow lead to a serious discussion about where or not Halley was dating a congresswoman when they were in middle school. The credits give way to a blank black but neither of them want to get up to change the screen. Bucky's drunken buzz has dimmed into a pleasant tipsiness and he can feel the edges of hangover starting to take hold.

"Bucky," Steve says suddenly, "How come you haven't dated anyone since freshman year?"

Bucky shrugs, knowing that Steve will feel the movement.

"You know that Tanya wasn't your fault," Steve says, because Bucky tells Steve everything and Bucky's starting to think that maybe that's dangerous.

"I know," Bucky says.

"There has to have been someone," Steve says, "Anyone at all that you liked." He's dancing around saying the words, not wanting to talk explicitly about Bucky's one night stands, but Bucky knows well enough to know exactly what he means.

"Maybe," Bucky says, "Maybe not."

Steve shifts--and Bucky knows Steve too well to think that this moment would never come. Steve's familiar weight bracketed around his thighs, Steve's hands on his shoulders. It's easy to kiss back, to cradle Steve's jaw, thumb against his cheek, to let himself break quietly under Steve's gentle touch.

He'd been practicing. For this moment.

Because when Steve pulls back, he doesn't take his hand away. Steve's looking at him with his lips parted, waiting. This is the worst part--knowing that Steve knows him so well that Steve knows exactly what he'd say even before he says it. This is the worst part--knowing that there's a script and no way out.

Bucky runs his thumb over Steve's cheek, feels a part of himself slip away when Steve closes his eyes at the touch. But he whispers, "You know I'm not like that, Steve."

Steve opens his eyes and smiles in a way that is not smiling at all. "Yeah," he says, "I know."

_____

On that day after his disastrous junior year when Amanda had put the two folders in front of him, Bucky had stared at Steve's name for a long moment before looking up and asking, "How did you know?"

"I've known you practically your entire life," Amanda had answered, "It really wasn't hard to figure out."

Chapter Text

Bucky spends the half-year after graduation smiling for the presses and wondering when they're going to let him ship out.

He does a brief tour of Africa in the fall when the royal family donates a cool million to combat malaria in the region and feels deeply uncomfortable and useless as his entourage roams through the region, looking for photo opportunities and disrupting hospitals. He goes on a safari and takes a million pictures (for Steve, because who is he kidding, half of the pictures he takes are for Steve) but can't stop thinking about sick children packed together in a small space, overworked nurses pushing him out of the way.

The week after he gets back from Botswana, Amanda hands him a binder about cultural literacy among millenials and tells him that he's going to be campaigning for arts programs in public schooling--which, hell yeah. He doesn't bother to read the binder, just takes a shower and fishes his car keys out of his desk. He nearly runs a red light he's so jetlagged but seeing Steve's face on the other side of the door more than makes up for it.

"Hi," Bucky says, smiling against the side of Steve's head. He breathes in the stupid shampoo that Steve uses, didn't realize how much he missed it.

"Hi," Steve says into Bucky's shoulder before pulling away. Steve's smile is so bright and Bucky must be drunk on exhaustion because he can't stop smiling back.

"You're coming with me," Bucky says, pressing the binder into Steve's chest.

_____

Listen.

It could have happened like this.

_____

They've had too much champagne at the fundraising dinner in Manhattan and Steve's still going on about some high school artist who showcased some typography piece that Steve was in love with. "How do you think of something like that?" Steve asks, but Bucky knows he's not really looking for an answer. "And the eleven year old with the sequined dress? She made that entirely from scratch."

Bucky hums, smiling as he swipes their hotel room open. Steve's swaying a little on his feet, his fingers still sketching out the shapes of the pieces they saw today.

"I wish I was half that good at their age," Steve says, shutting the door behind them as Bucky pulls off his skinny tie. Amanda had laid out a suit and a deep blue tie but Bucky had opted for the leather jacket and converse instead. He was definitely going to pay for that later. Even Steve had made an attempt: trading in his plaid for something not-plaid, even if his navy blazer had been rolled up his arms. Bucky spent half the evening trying to discern the smudge of ink on the jut of Steve's wrist, was seriously tempted to just pick up his hand and look. But you know, some things he couldn't do in public.

"Shut up dumbass," Bucky says, shrugging off his jacket, "You were that good."

Steve laughs. "You gonna tell me I'm a special snowflake next?"

"Can't even take a compliment," Bucky says, trying to trip Steve as Steve moves towards the bed that he threw his backpack on. Steve dodges his foot and aims a kick back that connects solidly with Bucky's ankle.

"Shit," Steve says, "Did that hurt? Sor--" Bucky tackles him on the bed before he can finish the word, mercilessly digging his fingers into Steve's sides.

"I'm crippled for life," Bucky deadpans over Steve's muffled laughter. Steve tries to push him off but Bucky's got a good four inches and twenty pounds on him.

"I'm sorry!" Steve gasps, "I'm sorry!"

Bucky stills, watching Steve's throat bob with the effort of breathing before flopping over to the side, lying on his back next to Steve. They lie there for a long moment before he feels Steve shift to pull off his shoes.

"You going to take a shower?" Steve asks, close to his ear.

"Hmm," Bucky says with his eyes closed.

Steve nudges him with an elbow to the side, "Are you sleeping here then?"

"Hmm," Bucky agrees, eyes still closed.

Steve doesn't move. They breathe together on the bed for a while, listening to someone above them singing very muffled opera in the shower. They cut out after a few minutes. The air conditioning whirs to life. Bucky listens to Steve's breathing, thinking that he should probably finish changing or at least brush his teeth.

Steve shifts. And then he's leaning over Bucky, knees against Bucky's hips, fingers against Bucky's jaw. He bends down, touches his mouth to Bucky's and lets his tongue slide against Bucky's lower lip.

"Steve," Bucky whispers against his mouth, the token protest already forming on his lips.

"Shut up," Steve says back, rough and desperate. "Shut up because I'm the only one who knows you. And I don't believe you."

Bucky opens his mouth but can't think of a single thing to say because Steve's right he's always been right--and Steve takes this as the invitation Bucky must have meant it to be. He puts a hand at the back of Bucky's head, lowers himself so that they're chest to chest. Bucky tangles his fingers into the short hairs at the back of Steve's neck, slides a hand down Steve's ribcage.

Steve breaks away when Bucky's hand slips under Steve's shirt, hand against warm skin. He pants against Bucky's cheek, his voice coming out as a shaky whine, "Please Bucky."

"Anything," Bucky breathes back, fingertips tracing the hair leading from Steve's navel downwards. "Anything you want Steve."

"I want you in me," Steve says, fucking confesses--this whisper that sends a full body shudder running down Bucky's spine. Steve's smiling against the side of his mouth--he must have felt that--and he murmurs, "You'd like that, wouldn't you?"

"Jesus," Bucky manages--because how many times had he thought about this, a guilty secret that he carried from bed to bed--how many times had he--

Steve undoes the buttons on Bucky's shirt, nosing against the hollow of Bucky's throat, soft hair against the bottom of Bucky's jaw. Steve's hot breath on his collarbones--Steve's thumb brushing over his nipple. And then Steve's got his pants down to his ankles, underwear to his knees and before Bucky knows what's happening, Steve's hand is on his already-hard cock, delicately tracing the underside of the head with his tongue.

"Watch me," Steve says, smiling against Bucky's erection, like Bucky's attention could be anywhere else. Steve takes Bucky in his mouth, firm pressure at the base, long eyelashes lowered in concentration. Bucky can't help the stupid noises coming out of his mouth, the half whimpers and aborted groans that ride out on his hitching breath. He can't help but to reach out and run his hands through Steve's hair, can't help but love the way that Steve leans into it, humming around his cock as he tries to take more of Bucky. It's too much--it's nearly too goddamn much when Steve slows down, looks up at Bucky with his cheek bulging and Jesus fucking Christ that's his fucking cock, in Steve's mouth--Bucky can't breathe.

Steve pulls off Bucky's cock, a thin string of saliva connecting his swollen lips with the tip of Bucky's dick and he says, "Don't come." Bucky's hands are clenched so tightly into the sheets and he tries to think of something unsexy--anything other than the sight of Steve's tongue against the gleam of his teeth, licking at the inside of his lower lip, the chaste kiss he gives Bucky's cock as he smiles up at Bucky--fucking. Don't. Come.

"You want to prep me?" Steve asks digging in his backpack for a condom and lube before throwing it off the bed. Bucky immediately leans forward to pull at Steve's belt and to drag him down for a kiss, bite at his dirty mouth. Steve manages to get his pants off without breaking the open-mouthed kiss and Bucky fumbles with the lube--barely manages to unscrew the top before he's squirted way too fucking much in his hand.

"Show me," Bucky murmurs, fingers slick with lube. Steve sits back so that he's leaning against the headboard, draws Bucky down with him. He grabs Bucky's wrist and guides him down, pressing his fingers against his hole.

Bucky leans in, nose against Steve's ear as he slips a finger in--feels Steve clench against it before he relaxes with a tiny sigh. "Come on," Steve goads him, rocking against his hand and Bucky pushes deeper.

"Wish it was your cock," Steve whispers. Bucky lets out a shaky huff of a laugh, his cock leaking so much pre-cum that it's dripping on Steve's thigh. He's never been this turned on in his life.

Steve makes a low whining sound in his throat and Bucky obliges by adding another finger, his thumb running along Steve's balls. Steve turns his head and catches him in a filthy kiss, fucking into his mouth with his tongue until Bucky breaks away and says, "Okay Steve, okay."

He's careful as he aligns himself and pushes in as slowly as he can, his hands around Steve's hips, light enough not to leave bruises. But Steve pushes against him, makes an impatient noise and Bucky's not sure how long he can last with Steve looking at him like that, lips parted but smiling like Bucky's always been the only one worth looking at. It's probably the same on his face--god he's wanted this for so long, wanted Steve for so long.

Steve drags him down for a kiss as Bucky wraps a hand around Steve's cock, thumb brushing over the tip. "You know," Steve murmurs, fond hands on his face, "I'm not going to break."

And he flips them over. Guides himself back down on Bucky's cock with that stupid obscene gasp that Bucky's going to have a hard time forgetting, half lidded look and grinning like he knows exactly what this is doing to Bucky. Steve moves--building up a rhythm until it's all Bucky can do to meet him, to not fly apart at the seams until he watches Steve come.

Steve's got just the right angle, his panting hitches every time he slides down and Bucky helps him move, hands gripping hard enough to bruise this time. Bucky's half lost in his own mounting pleasure when he sees it--the moment that Steve's eyes slip shut and he gives in, coming all over Bucky's stomach with a low groan. Bucky keeps his eyes wide open, the come still warm on his skin as he follows Steve over, like a fire being lit.

_____

You could have had: Steve's skin pressed to yours. Your face in his hair in the morning when you wake up and no need to move away. Steve's tired smile as he took off his glasses and kissed you goodnight. His legs tangled up in yours, warming up his cold feet with your hands.

You could have had all of him.

_____

But this is not the way the story goes.

This is what happened.

_____

They've had too much champagne at the fundraising dinner in Manhattan and Steve's still going on about some high school artist who showcased some typography piece that Steve was in love with. "How do you think of something like that?" Steve asks, but Bucky knows he's not really looking for an answer. "And the eleven year old with the sequined dress? She made that entirely from scratch."

They're on the way out of the reception when someone yells, "Steve!"

Steve turns--sways dangerously enough that Bucky instinctively steadies his elbow. There's some guy wearing a suit and a baseball cap coming towards them.

"Hey," Steve says, suddenly sounding much more sober.

"I thought you might be at this but you didn't answer any of my texts," baseball cap says.

"Yeah, I decided last minute," Steve says--which is a lie, Bucky notes. "Um Bucky, this is Ethan. He's, um."

"We're dating," Ethan supplies, "Kind of. On and off."

Bucky takes a closer look at Ethan. He's admittedly not bad looking, but he can't help but feel like Ethan's a total douchebag. Though Bucky kind of hates most of the people that Steve tries to date, so.

"Yeah," Steve says vaguely. "Ethan, this is--"

"Prince James," Ethan says, smiling, "Real cool to meet you man."

Bucky's not much for formality but he thinks there's a line crossed in addressing royalty as "man."

"Do you want to grab a drink?" Ethan asks, pointing at the two of them, "I know a couple of the local bands playing."

"I think we're just going to head back," Steve says, "Maybe another time."

"Cool," Ethan says, but doesn't leave. He fidgets for a moment and then turns to Bucky, "Hey, I don't want to be rude but I'd feel bad if I didn't ask--could I get an autograph for my sister?"

Bucky looks at Steve who is studiously avoiding his eyes. He's half tempted to tell the guy to fuck off but instead he smiles and says, "Do you have a pen?"

_____

"That guy?" Bucky asks when they're in the car and Halley is pulling away from the curb. "Seriously?"

"It was a favor to another friend," Steve says, "He keeps thinking that we're dating but we've been on a total of one date. I don't actually want to date him."

"Maybe you should tell him then," Bucky says.

"Yeah," Steve says looking out the window. And then he says, "But you know, when you don't want to be alone and you end up taking anything over it."

Bucky stares out his own window, not daring to look at Steve because it takes all of his concentration to fight down the thought: we could be, we could be.

"Yeah," he says.

Chapter Text

He gets up at four. The coffeemaker is already whirring into life the moment that Halley walks in through the kitchen door, fastening the buttons on his cuff. Tie around his neck, quick work of the knot, pour the coffee into a thermos. Gun holstered on his shoulder, arms through the sleeves of his suit jacket.

Out the door.

The morning traffic has yet to start. Halley loves driving during the quiet hours.

_____

As part of his conditions from when he signed on from the secret service, he had asked that he be able keep his own quarters, away from the palace. It wasn't so far away that he couldn't run the half mile on foot if some grim and unexpected situation called for it, but still far enough away that he could feel like he still had a life outside of the royal family. It's not a big place--the rent for the shoebox apartments within a ten block radius of the royal estate cost more than half his monthly paycheck, meaning that the one-bedroom he eventually picked would absolutely be the most expensive thing he'd ever buy. He's got a mortgage on his place and still has a good twenty years to go before he'll own it outright.

The kitchen and bathrooms are all granite and stainless steel. His furniture is minimal--mostly espresso colored pieces offset by grey. A reproduction of Pollock's No. 14 hangs on the wall across from the television he never has time to watch.

He remembers to water the herbs growing on his kitchen counter though.

_____

"Good morning," Halley says as James takes a seat at the table. James grunts a response and reaches for a piece of already buttered toast--scraped thin against the grain. The queen is evidently still on her health kick, even though she's not sitting at the table.

Halley worries about it sometimes, how distant the queen has been. She takes even less of an interest in James than she does in the few causes she makes a halfhearted effort to support these days. He hears from Ordway, the head of palace security, that she spends most of her day shut in her room with the curtains drawn, nibbling on crackers and taking vitamins as some sort of poor substitution for real food.

The physician on retainer had personally vetted hundreds of therapists and whittled it down to two of the best in the country. The palace legal team had spent months procuring signatures on every single nondisclosure agreement they could think of. And she had fired both of them before ever reaching a third session.

"Hey Halley," James says with his mouth half full of toast as he shoves a piece of lined notebook paper towards him "Can you look over my book report?"

Halley takes it. There's a bit of butter smeared in the corner, James's nearly illegible handwriting crawling in slanted angle across the paper, mostly missing the line. His tutor has been trying hard to correct his writing skills, but it's a losing battle with whatever overworked first grade teacher had taught him in Brooklyn.

"I'm not sure Superman is an appropriate choice for a book report," Halley says after a moment.

"I read it," James argues, spraying crumbs over the table. Halley gives him a pointed look and James picks up his napkin to dab at his mouth with exaggerated daintiness.

"When is this due?"

James shrugs. "Today."

Halley shakes his head. He slides the book report back over to the kid. "Best of luck to you."

_____

"I wish I did mine on a comic book," Steve says on the way to Lowell School. Halley can see in the rearview mirror that he's got the book report in his hands, reading the terrible handwriting with far more ease than anyone should be able to.

"She'll probably tell me to redo it," James says, "Just like she did with the last assignments I turned in."

"Maybe you should actually follow directions then," Steve observes.

James groans, sliding down behind his seatbelt.

"We're here," Halley announces, pulling past the field to the front doors of the school.

_____

He has to stay close to the school when James is in attendance but he has a routine of sorts. There's a coffee shop nearby that he frequents to pick up a cappuccino and a Washington Post. He likes to read the Express too, though he generally has to head into DC proper to get a copy of that.

Amanda usually emails him potential PR opportunities for James just before she breaks for lunch. Halley drops by the library to use the computer and spends a dollar on printing her email and whatever else he needs to choose which ones he thought were the best. He takes the information with him to a sandwich shop that always expects him at 12:15, his reuben on the counter and ready to go.

He's only managed to eat half of his sandwich and he's still reading up on rainforest conservation and thinking about the political ramifications of having the prince speak out against Brazilian logging companies when his cell phone rings.

"Hi Justin," the principal says--they're on a first name basis because she's had to call so many times, "Could you please swing by the school?"

_____

James has the beginnings of a black eye and Steve's scraped his knees pretty brutally. James is dabbing at the left one with a piece of wet kleenex and grumbling for Steve to stay still when Halley enters the school office.

James straightens when he sees Halley, trying to look stony. He keeps his eyes down, looking at either the floor or at his own knees. Steve can look him in the face though, and there's a set to his expression that suggests defiance. Halley resists the urge to sigh.

"Again?" he asks.

Steve looks away. James shrugs a little--a lazy flop of his shoulders.

"Hi Justin," the principal (her name is Kathryn, he suddenly remembers) says, poking her head out the door. "You all want to come in?"

_____

"I understand that this is a delicate situation," Kathryn says when they're out in the hallway with the kids still in her office. Her voice is low and she has her arms crossed. "But if we were in a normal situation, I would have probably suspended them by now. This sort of behavior is really getting out of hand."

"I understand your frustration," Halley says, "If it were up to me, I would encourage treating both of them exactly as you would any other student, but I'm not the one making the decisions. Suspension isn't on the table."

"This is the third time this month," she says.

Halley says nothing. He wants to put his hands into his pockets but resists the urge.

"At least--" she shakes her head, "--at least Steve then. Maybe it'll keep the both in line."

"Sure--" he says, "-if you'd like for Prince James to be a complete nightmare for the time that Steve's gone." Halley nods at the office door. "You've seen them. Prince James would probably take it as a personal affront. You're better off suspending both of them--and we can't do that."

Kathryn sighs and rubs at her forehead.

"Detention," she says, "One month."

_____

Halley watches them through the window of the door and thinks about having to stay late for what already feels like an endless month of detention. The teacher sitting at the front is grading papers and not even watching. They're sitting on opposite sides of the room but it clearly doesn't stop them from talking to each other. James taps his finger against the paper that he's supposed to be writing a reflection of why brawling was bad on, silently so the teacher doesn't look up. Halley recognizes it as morse after watching him tap out B-O-R-E-D twice.

Steve's not looking at him, head bent of his paper, but his finger touches the desk too, long stops and short. D-I-N-N-E-R.

W-H-A-T-F-O-O-D.

Steve seems to think for a moment before answering. C-H-I-C-K-E-N.

James grins over his arm, taps out, O-K.

_____

If James spent half the effort he did in learning morse code in writing halfway decent book reports instead, he probably wouldn't be barely scraping by with C's in most of his classes. Halley wouldn't have to sit through parent teacher conferences where teachers keep telling him how Prince James was really a bright young man who was a delight to have in class but how they wished he would try to apply himself a little bit more.

He can always tell who the new teachers are by the way they react to him--this black man assuming responsibility for some white kid, much less the prince. Their strained smile and uncertainty.

It's funny because Halley's pretty certain he's really the only one who really cares. Amanda cares in an abstract sort of way that relates to Prince James's image as a role model and how it might play out for him in the future. But Halley kind of cares about the points taken off for every late assignment, about the graded tests that James brings home and immediately throws into the trash can. The kind of caring that has him worrying irrationally about the kid's self esteem.

Halley never wanted children.

He has twelve years worth of combat experience and five years in the secret service. He carries a gun but in reality he's just a glorified babysitter.

_____

Susanne opens a beer for him which he takes with a smile and a quiet, "Thanks." Steve's laugh drifts from the kitchen where he and James are washing the dishes.

"Another fight, huh?" Susanne asks, taking the seat across from him, pouring herself a generous portion of wine. Halley shakes his head and sighs.

"Yeah that's pretty much how I feel," she says.

"Steve's usually a good kid," he says.

"Yeah, you'd think," Susanne snorts. "But from what I can figure, he's the one getting into fights and dragging Bucky in. I tell him not to do it, to just leave it alone." She gestures with her glass, wine tipping close to the edge. "I didn't think that Lowell had such a big bullying problem either. I mean, you're paying enough just to step foot on campus."

Halley drinks his beer. A bout of laughter emerges from the kitchen and Susanne leans back, calling out, "You boys better be washing dishes back there!"

And to Halley, disparagingly, "Two fights in the last two weeks. Detention sure as hell isn't working."

"Could try to ground them again," Halley says. The last time they'd tried, James had nearly been kidnapped when he tried to sneak out and take a 5AM bus to the Rogers household. The time before then, Halley had managed just in time to stop James from getting into some strange car in effort to hitchhike. They'd avoid Halley after school and he'd have to go track them down somewhere in Rock Creek Park, hiding in the goddamn trees or down by the river. Short of transferring one of them to another school, state, or country--which Amanda had suggested and Halley had seriously considered--it seemed impossible to Halley to separate them if he also had a vested interest in keeping James safe. And even then, Halley wasn't so certain James wasn't crazy enough to try and navigate airports by himself at the age of eleven.

"And have a hunger strike on my hands again?" Susanne asks, hiding a wry smile behind her wineglass. "No thanks."

They lapse into silence, thinking.

"You know," Susanne says, "We might have to be those really obnoxious parents. You know--the ones who think their kids can't do any wrong? See if the school can't get whatever bullying problem under control for real this time."

Halley runs a hand over his head. "I'm not even a parent."

"Yeah, but--" Susanne smiles at him. "--you basically are."

_____

James leans his head against the car window on the passenger side when they head back to the palace for the night. The streetlamps flash over his face as he stares out the glass, quiet. Halley watches him from the corner of his eye.

"You want to tell me why you got into that fight?"

James lifts his head from the window but doesn't stop looking outside. "He was pushing Steve around."

"How's your eye?" They'd iced it on the way to Steve's and then traded the melted ice pack for a bag of peas.

"It's okay," James says, "You think Amanda's going to make me put makeup on it?"

"Maybe," Halley says.

James sighs.

"I don't have to tell you how much people are going to pay attention," Halley says, "You're the prince. You have to set an example."

"Yeah, yeah," James says, disinterested.

"Hey," Halley says, turning to look at the kid. "Standing up for your friend though. I think that's pretty admirable."

James turns his head, looks at Halley. "Really?"

"Yeah," Halley says, "I'd say you're a pretty good friend."

James smiles, bright.

Halley can't help but smile back.

Chapter Text

The first time he meets Peggy he doesn't even know who she is. He sticks to the edges of the tiny room, trying his best to blend in and not get noticed. It helps to have a day or two worth of stubble--makes him look marginally less like the clean shaven photographs that predominate his public existence. He keeps a hold of a glass of wine and stares intensely at the paintings hung on the wall every time he passes by a group of people.

It's not like anyone's expecting him to be here--he took an evening train in after an impulsive decision without bothering to text Steve first. He has an exam tomorrow evening--but there was no way he was going to miss Steve's first showing in New York City. Some gallery had taken an interest in Steve's stuff and given him half a wall. It's a tiny space but more than most still-learning university students can lay claim to.

He can see Steve out of the corner of his eye, back turned towards Bucky. He wanted to surprise Steve, maybe take him out for a drink after the showing.

A woman takes a step back and jostles the hand he'd been using to hold his wineglass. Part of it spills on his wrist, seeping into the sleeve of his jacket..

"Oh, sorry!" she says, pulling out kleenex from her purse. "Here." He barely registers her English accent.

"Thanks," he says. She looks at his face as he wipes his hand and he's half bracing himself for the moment of recognition, the bland, humoring smile he'd have to put on.

"Is it alright?" she asks, gesturing at his sleeve.

"It's fine."

"Sorry again," she says. She smiles and--thank god--moves on.

_____

She doesn't really exist for the next four months. And then she starts creeping into his correspondence with Steve near the start of their junior year.

Getting dinner with Peggy, Steve had texted at first and Bucky hadn't really paid it much mind because Steve maybe wasn't the most extroverted and popular guy he knew but it wasn't like he was lacking a social life. Bucky could try to keep up with the varied cast of Steve's college friends but art students seemed to have their own brand of drama and Bucky had long given up trying to keep track.

Three weeks later, a photograph of some sort of abstract art received at three in the afternoon during his Military Leadership lecture. Check it out, followed shortly by, Peggy says it's tracks left by electron during high energy collisions. Thinking about incorporating it into a piece.

Snuck into a lecture about scientists drawing with quantum dots, Steve answers Bucky sometime in early October, Peggy said she thought it was pretty interesting even though it was geared toward the general public. Sometimes Steve forgets how much he has or hasn't told Bucky about his friends--Bucky's sure he's done the same.

On Halloween, he gets a selfie of Steve and a vaguely familiar looking woman. She's dressed in a vintage military uniform, perfect lipstick, smiling at the camera. Steve's wearing his most hideous plaid shirt and carrying a plastic axe, looking at the camera through thick rimmed prescription glasses Bucky's rarely seen him wear. He's half looking at the woman, grinning.

are u even wearing a costume, Bucky texts.

It's meta, Steve texts back and Bucky hears the self-deprecating deadpan in Steve's voice without even trying.

He can't stop looking at Steve's half-turned, smiling face. The answering wry smile on her face. He'd missed something here, in the months he'd been absent.

_____

He meets her for the first time over Thanksgiving break. He isn't able to beg off Thursday but Steve insists that he be in the city on Wednesday to meet some of his new friends over an early Thanksgiving dinner.

His train runs late, laden down with people trying to get back to their families. Bucky carries an expensive bottle of wine under one arm, GPS on his phone in the other. For the number of Columbia girls he'd run into at clubs, he'd never been this far north.

Someone buzzes him up into the apartment building without bothering to check who he is. He takes the stairs up to the fourth floor and listens to the thump of the electronica playing from two doors down as he waits for someone to answer his knock.

"Hello," the woman from Steve's Halloween photo says as she opens the door. She's wearing an apron over a deep purple dress and her hair is pinned back. She smiles at him. "You must be Bucky."

"Hi," he says, stepping inside and holding out the wine, "I didn't know what would go good with dinner so I just got a white."

"It looks fantastic," she says, taking it. "I'm Peggy." She holds out her hand.

Bucky takes it. Her handshake is firm and she keeps smiling at him as she pulls her hand back. "I put Steve on the potatoes so he's still back in the kitchen if you want to see him."

Steve's peeling potatoes into the kitchen sink--though the space is barely big enough to even be called a kitchen. Bucky's half-heartedly trying to sneak up on him but Steve just sets a peeled potato on the cutting board and says, "I heard your voice already, Barnes. And I'm wielding a pretty sharp potato peeler, just to warn you."

Bucky grins and resists the urge to drop his chin onto Steve's shoulder. Instead he steps up to the sink next to Steve, blatantly ignoring any concept of personal space. "Need help?"

Steve hands him a knife and gestures at the already peeled potatoes. "Chop."

Bucky leans around Steve to wash his hands. He looks at Steve's face and can't help but feel fond. "Hi, by the way."

Steve looks at him, smiles so bright that it crinkles the corners of his eyes. "Hi."

_____

It's a miracle that they can even fit five people around the tiny table. Steve introduces the long-haired hispanic guy as Paul and the Asian girl as Lindsay. They both call him Bucky like Steve had introduced him, smile, and don't give him a second look.

Bucky sometimes wonders what Steve says to them beforehand. He's met so few of Steve's friends, probably with good reason. He'd met more of Steve's high school friends than college ones--maybe they've both learned over time. It's something they don't talk about, the way that Steve gets pushed aside the moment that Bucky's introduced, how many times Steve stops mentioning a name after Bucky's met them. It makes Bucky furious.

But Paul and Lindsay keep chatting about lasers or some machinery or another as they help set the table. The conversation is too technical for Bucky to follow. There are textbooks on the shelves with titles like Elements of Solid State and Relativistic Quantum Physics. A half dissected complicated piece of machinery sits on the desk. There's a framed drawing of a farmer's market above that--all bustling lines in the forefront and the impression of clean skyscrapers behind. Bucky recognizes the style within the first glance.

"Dinner's ready," Peggy calls out.

_____

Peggy sits across the table from him, Steve on his right. Every time Steve passes a dish to the other side of the table, their fingers brush. It's happened the last three times and Bucky feels like a creep for noticing.

And Steve has this perpetual small smile on his face, which isn't exactly new--except that he's looking at Peggy all the time, even when she's not talking.

Bucky's kind of used to being second best: the nation over his own personal life, public appearance over his own wants. He'd been passed over more times than he could count because he carried too much baggage with him, was always the hard option in the grand scheme of things.

But he's not used to this, being second best when it comes to Steve.

_____

It's an irrational dislike that Bucky knows has everything to do with himself and very little to do with Peggy. Steve's become a good judge of character, half out of necessity, and Peggy's no exception. Bucky doesn't need to hear her chime into Paul and Lindsay's conversation to realize that she's about a hundred times more intelligent than he could ever hope to be. And then the way she says, "Alright guys, no more shop talk," and sends a private smile at Bucky over the rim of her wineglass--Bucky feels disarmed.

"We've heard a lot about you from Steve," Peggy says.

"I see," Bucky says, glancing at Steve.

"I haven't said anything bad," Steve says, lifting his hands.

"You don't like Rothko?" Peggy's hiding a smile.

"Nobody's perfect," Steve supplies.

"I can think of worse qualities," Bucky says in good humor.

"What do you study?" Paul asks.

"Uh," Bucky says, "Comparative politics."

"You know, I don't think I know many people who study humanities," Paul says.

"It's a miracle we can drag you out of the lab at all," Peggy answers. "Graduate students," she adds by way of explanation for Bucky. "One track mind."

"How did you meet Steve?" Bucky asks because he's genuinely curious.

"I kept seeing him at art shows and thought I'd introduce myself," Peggy says, "Turns out he's not such a bad guy. His taste is alright but I mostly keep him around because he's pretty."

"Hey," Steve protests.

"I think I spilled wine on you once," Peggy says, looking back at Bucky, "At Steve's show, back in April."

Bucky doesn't really remember. Steve's the one who answers for him, "You didn't tell me this."

"It was kind of mortifying," Peggy says, "And I didn't realize you guys were friends until Bucky showed up an hour ago. I certainly feel a little thick."

Well. He supposes that answers the question of what Steve had told them beforehand. In a way, it makes him relax incrementally--maybe he should hang out with physics graduate students more often.

"In my defense," Peggy adds, "I've only ever heard anyone refer to you as James and Steve's always called you Bucky."

"Yeah," Bucky says, "I went by it, uh, before. Then it wasn't dignified enough so I had to drop it."

Peggy smiles at him. "I think it suits you better."

_____

Bucky helps to clear the table while Peggy starts in on the dishes by hand and Steve dries. He catches snippets of the story that Steve's telling Peggy as he comes in and out with handfuls of dishes--hears Peggy's laughter and the grin in Steve's voice at the threshold between kitchen and main room with his back turned to them.

Bucky would have said it was impossible to feel like the third wheel where Steve was concerned. It's startling how wrong he could be.

_____

Halley drives up to New York to take them back to DC. If he sees anything in Bucky's face, he doesn't say anything. He just nods at them as they climb into the back seat.

"What do you think of Peggy?" Steve asks.

Aren't you supposed to be gay? Bucky wants to ask but it's such a stupid and insensitive and goddamn selfish question. "I like her," he says instead, because it's the answer that Steve wants to hear. And he's surprised to find that it's not exactly dishonest.

Because he does really like her as a person--she's wickedly funny in a way that Bucky can't help but appreciate. But it's hard to separate that out from the way he bristles at the idea that she knows things about Steve that he doesn't, that she's right there in New York City, a brief subway ride away from spontaneous plans that Bucky has no hope of competing with.

"Good," Steve says, looking at Bucky and smiling. Bucky can't muster up a smile of his own so he looks out the window.

_____

She's easy enough to find on Facebook. Two mutual friends--Steve, obviously, but also Tony Stark. Not that it's surprising, really, given her old school beauty and huge potential in the field of physics.

She hasn't posted anything on her own timeline for months. All of her recent posts are photos where her friends have tagged her: posing the same way as a statue, over a dim-lit dinner, on a girls night out. All of her albums are from trips to Europe or the mountains upstate: architecture, landscapes, and flowers. She doesn't like to take selfies but she likes to catch other people in candid moments.

There's nothing under relationship status.

The facebook account that Bucky uses is locked down as best as he can make it. Nobody can search for him and he has under four hundred friends. It's a far cry from the hundreds of thousands of people who follow his official public page and the several imposter accounts that keep popping up faster than they can be deleted.

He sends her a friend request.

_____

If Bucky was really truly honest with himself, if he wanted to face the shittiest version of himself, there was a part of him that had been happy that Steve was gay. Sure, Steve had dated other boys with varying levels of failure, but there was a part of him that believed with wholehearted conviction that Steve was his in a way that absolutely nobody else could touch. A part of him that was absolutely certain that Steve would wait for him until they were both ready to face this unspoken thing suspended between them that Bucky didn't know how to touch.

There had always been reasons not to face it: miles between them, academics and athletics sucking up all his time, periods of weeks where they exchanged only two texts a day. Summers where Bucky felt like he spent more time on a plane or smiling in a suit than he did trying to sleep, too exhausted with cultivating the Barnes image to Amanda's exacting standards to do anything other than open the youtube videos Steve sent him via email and smile drowsily into his pillow, letting the affection of being remembered settle warm and unthinking into his chest.

He can't help but think of Peggy as a closing door that he's trying hard to reach. A face peering out at him, lipstick mouth shaping the words: too late, too late, too late.

_____

He should be happy for Steve but he's not that generous.

_____

The only conclusion that Bucky can really come to in the cold three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas break is that he is a horrible person. Sixteen years he's known Steve and it's not until someone comes along and offers Steve happiness without Bucky that Bucky's motivated to think twice. He had spent so fucking long taking Steve for granted that it makes him sick to think about it.

Steve texts him a painting he'd done of Peggy during reading period, when Bucky's sitting in the library, trying and failing miserably at concentrating on religious minorities in China in the late 20th century. Christmas present. Do you think she'd like it? Steve texts a second later.

The brushstrokes are sweeping, capturing something about the essence of her smile that feels inspired in a way that makes Bucky want to snarl at his phone. He doesn't--but he does slam his laptop shut in a way that's resoundingly loud in the quiet library. He ignores the heads that swivel towards him and shoves everything into his backpack. Fuck this. He needed to go on a run.

Later, he texts back, whoops sry was studying & didn't see this. looks good as always.

_____

He was there first--he was there when Steve nearly died from the flu, he was there when Steve met Susanne for the first time, he was there for a hundred detentions, he was there, he was there. And Peggy--she had known Steve for half a year at most and it wasn't fair that she could turn his head so easily, make Steve forget that Bucky existed with a smile and a well-timed joke.

He hates this, hates that he feels this way, everything coming up angry and frustrated to the point where he wishes he could turn back time to the moment when a strange woman bumped into his wineglass and he had pushed her out the door and closed it with a final click.

_____

He avoids Steve on Christmas--when was the last time they hadn't spent Christmas together?--with the admittedly flimsy excuse that Amanda insisted on him being around for the few film crews that checked in with the royal family once in a while, especially around the holidays. It's flimsy because Bucky's never failed to blow these off and show up at the Rogers household with presents and eggnog. Halley doesn't say anything the entire day but Bucky catches him checking his watch every once in a while.

It's not until New Year's that Steve finds him sitting in a secluded spot on the roof of the palace--a spot that only he, Halley, and Steve know about. There's a tower half-blocking his view of downtown DC but the half he does see is beautiful, all lit up with fireworks going off over the Potomac.

"Hey," Steve says, sliding down next to him. "Hogging the best spot in the house all to yourself?"

"Nah," Bucky says, handing over the pilfered bottle of champagne, "You're here now, aren't you?"

Steve laughs quietly and takes the bottle. He takes a drink and hands it back. "You okay?" he asks.

"Yeah," Bucky says, looking over at Steve and then wishing he hadn't looked. Because it's a hundred times worse when Steve is close, to look at the way the fireworks are reflected in his eyes. Because he'd been on this path for a very long time, hadn't he? It feels stupid to figure it out just now.

"Are you dating Peggy?" Bucky hears himself ask. He looks away, tries to focus on the fireworks but he's really just watching the way that Steve looks at him in his peripheral vision.

"No," Steve says, "She's got a boyfriend. Is this what's got you all worked up?"

"I'm not worked up," Bucky says but it sounds hollow to him too. He takes a drink of champagne and hands the bottle to Steve, proud of how steady his hand is.

They watch the fireworks for a while. Even at this distance, they can still hear the faint crackle of scattered lights.

"Hey," Steve says. Their shoulders are pressed together and Steve hands him the bottle back. "You know we'll always be best friends, right?"

Bucky exhales. "Yeah."

It doesn't make him feel any better.

_____

They still go partying in the city on the weekends when they don't have exams coming up--once with a keg in the backseat but never again because it foams over halfway down the Palisades and makes the entire car smell like cheap beer for months afterward. Bucky tags along because he's always tagged along and it's nice to get away and self-medicate with alcohol even if he'd never admit that's what he was doing.

Bucky tries at first to stick with the girls that are nothing at all like Steve--dark haired, curvy, laughing easily into his ear and pressing up against him like a foregone conclusion. But then he starts to pick girls with a certain jut to their jaw, who don't bullshit him. They get skinnier, their hair pales, until Bucky knows that he keeps picking female proxies of Steve to fuck but can't bring himself to care.

He never texts Steve that he's in town but he shows up hungover on Sunday morning without fail. He has breakfast pastries in one hand and bruises on his neck, the phantom memory of his hands around thin hips chased away by Steve's smile.

_____

Steve stops texting him about Peggy. Bucky's half grateful, half annoyed. Because it's not like they've stopped hanging out or anything--they show up in photographs together on Bucky's facebook feed--it's just that Steve apparently thinks that he ought to spare Bucky the reminder that there are other important people in his life.

The worst part of it is that Steve knows him too well. It's stupid, god it's so stupid, but Bucky can't help being an asshole about this.

_____

He doesn't know when he started thinking about Steve that way. About what it might be like to have Steve's cock in his mouth, to watch Steve come apart and to be the one to do that to him. Because that's all he really wants--to make Steve feel good, to be the one to pull him out of his ill-fitting body for just a few moments.

Or maybe that's just a noble lie. Maybe what Bucky wants is far more terrifying.

_____

The night he lets a guy take him back to the hotel room is the night that he knows he's utterly and completely fucked.

Bucky's hands shake as he records the statement of consent--god, Amanda was going to see this later, this was a terrible idea--and then the guy goes down on him without another word. He's so terrified of the worst case scenario, of all the consequences that it takes him forever to get hard--not until they turn out the light and Bucky tricks himself into thinking that the flat chest against his is Steve's, Steve's stubble rasping against his neck, Steve's cock against his stomach.

He comes harder than he has in a long time, his mouth clenched tight around a name he can't say aloud.

_____

His grades are slipping. He can't focus. He keeps going for long runs up the Hudson until he's half dead with exhaustion.

He's half expecting something in his life to blow up in acknowledgement of what he's done--for Amanda to lecture him or for some tabloid to pick up his gay tryst. Not that the tabloids hadn't run complete bullshit like it before, but it'll be true this time. He thinks about trying to explain it to Steve, fumbling pathetically for the moment when he could just confess.

How long would Peggy still have a boyfriend? Bucky still hadn't seen any evidence of him and he wasn't sure they could last. And how could anyone compete with Steve?

_____

He makes his own drama by storming out of his last exam and totalling his car. Amanda confines him to the palace for a week to him to get his shit sorted out before she put him back on the showdog circuit. He spends most of his time pacing his room and thinking that he has to know if it could work between the two of them, that he can't let Steve slip away because of Bucky's own stupidity.

In the aftermath, he supposes he should have known better than to think that happiness was meant for people like him. Because he had been so fixated on what he wanted, so scared of letting Peggy step in that he hadn't even thought of what it meant in the big picture--what it meant for Steve to be under public scrutiny every day for the rest of his life. Because he had been unerringly selfish.

_____

He doesn't know what makes him do it.

He's in a poorly air-conditioned hotel room in Wyoming, staring at his laptop screen. He opens up a new browser window, types in facebook. Goes to Peggy's profile and opens up a new message.

You've got to be blind not to see that Steve's into you, he types and hits send before he can think twice about it.

He doesn't get an answer until the next day, after he'd spent the day walking around the wildlife preserves and listening to the rangers discuss wolf pack movements through Yellowstone for more hours than he ever cared to. He's sweaty and surprisingly nervous as he opens up the message.

You should hear the way he talks about you.

Chapter Text

His West Point buddies are headed to Nassau for spring break--they've been talking up the Bahamas trip for months by now but Bucky's good at avoiding the topic whenever it comes up. It's not that he's got anything against it. He just doesn't want to deal with four guys trying to wheedle him into seven days straight of getting wasted and wandering around the tropics. He already deals with enough shit from them about ditching them in the city every weekend.

Truth is, he's headed out to Montauk. He'd booked the house without bothering to consult anyone. It's not like he's under the delusion that no one would figure it out--Halley has access to his bank records and tracks his phone via GPS for security reasons. But it felt nice to be able to do something on his own.

He'd used Steve's name for the reservation.

_____

He leaves campus at around four in the morning, before anyone else wakes up. He drives the car he'd asked Halley to bring up a month and a half back on some flimsy excuse that he's forgotten by now. He packs some clothes and grabs his iPod to play post-rock all the way down the deserted highway.

He calls before he crosses the tunnel. Steve's voice is thick with sleep, a barely audible, "Hi," making it across the phone. Bucky's watched him answer the phone this early in the morning before: still curled up underneath his covers, phone slipped between his ear and his pillow.

"Good morning," Bucky says, warm.

"Hi," Steve repeats, sounding more alert. "When are you getting here?"

"Maybe twenty minutes."

"Okay," Steve says, "I'll see you."

_____

It's kind of stupid how much stuff Bucky has at Steve's place even though he lives over an hour upstate. He bought a toothbrush at CVS a while back when he was crashing at Steve's and Steve left it in the medicine cabinet for him. He kind of has his own designated towel but sometimes Steve sucks at doing the laundry so he ends up using Steve's towel anyway. He has his own mug--a white one with a slice of pizza printed on it because he thought it was hilarious and he was possibly shitfaced when he bought it. Steve rolled his eyes but grinned all the same when he'd seen it. And he has the thermos that he periodically forgets at Steve's--the one that Steve's handing him now with freshly brewed coffee inside.

"Hey," Bucky says, taking it as Steve puts his backpack on the backseat. "I would have come up."

Steve slips into the passenger seat, his hair still messy from sleep. Bucky tightens his hold on the thermos so that he doesn't reach over and run his hand through it, try to straighten out the flyaway strands.

"It's cool," Steve says, giving him a faint smile in the streetlamp light. "There's no parking anywhere anyway."

"Thanks for the coffee," Bucky says, lifting the thermos. Steve hums in reply, leaning his head back against the headrest and closing his eyes.

Bucky turns up the heat and lowers the volume on the stereo.

"You don't have to," Steve murmurs, opening his eyes.

"It's pretty early," Bucky says, pulling away from where he'd been idling in front of a fire hydrant. "I'll let you know when we get there."

_____

The key is in a lock-box hanging on the front door. Bucky spins the right combination in and pulls out the key to the house. Steve shivers in the morning air--the sun has only just started to rise.

Inside, it's warmer. It's small but fitted with granite and stainless steel--whoever had done the interior design clearly had an eye for a warmly modern aesthetic.

"Breakfast?" Bucky asks. He drops his backpack in the hallway and pulls off his shoes. He moves into the kitchen and opens the door to the fridge. It comes stocked, just like Bucky had requested. He pulls out the carton of eggs and pokes through the vegetables. Maybe he'd make omelettes.

Steve emerges from the hallway and stands in the living room space looking out. The sunrise is breathtaking through the wall of windows, angled just southeast enough for the pale pink light to flood in over the Atlantic and into all the corners of the room. Bucky stills in the midst of looking for a mixing bowl and just looks at Steve's silhouette: thin shoulders, chin lifted, feet solid against the ground.

Bucky swallows and forces himself to look away, at the ocean outside. He promised himself he could do this, that he could wrest this thing to the ground and shut it away. It was always hardest in the first few hours, when he hadn't seen Steve for a long time. When his body leaned towards Steve of its own accord and he felt a weight lift off his shoulders. Right before the guilt settled in.

The view is beautiful--light catching on water and threading through the thin sea grass waving at the far end of the deck. But for all of it, Bucky can't stop himself from looking back at Steve.

_____

Steve finishes half his eggs and some bananas on toast before he says, "Think I'm gonna take a nap."

He'd texted all week about a piece that he'd been working on for his senior project even though he wouldn't text Bucky pictures of it. I want it to be a surprise, he'd said when Bucky tried to cajole him into a photograph. He's supposed to have his showing at the start of May--barely a month away and Bucky has no idea how far he still has to go. But he can see from the hollowed-out look in Steve's eyes--the slightly feverish brightness--that a break was definitely in order.

He gestures with his fork because his mouth is full. Steve presses a hand to his mouth to stifle a yawn before managing a half-smile at Bucky and saying, "Come wake me in an hour?"

"Sure," Bucky says after swallowing. Steve collects his plate and sets it on the kitchen counter. He doesn't scrape his eggs into the trash--Bucky knows he has a thing about wasting food, always thinking that he'll probably come back to it later. There's a ninety percent chance Bucky'll end up eating it after he's done with his own plate.

"I left you the bigger room," Steve says and disappears down the hallway.

_____

The bigger room has a door to a terrace overlooking part of the rocky beach leading down into the water. Bucky drops his backpack at the foot of the bed and steps out onto the terrace in his bare feet.

It smells like the sea. Bucky thinks briefly that maybe they should have gone into the mountains instead--somewhere with fresh air and a cool dryness instead of salt and seaweed. Maybe it'd been better for Steve's lungs.

_____

It's afternoon by the time that Steve emerges from his room. Bucky had looked in on him, sprawled across the bed with his chest rising and falling shallowly, hair across his forehead. Bucky's fingers twitched of their own volition but Bucky kept his hands in his hoodie pocket and slipped back out the door, towards the main room.

"Hey," Bucky says, looking at Steve from over his PSP. He saves his progress and turns it off because if Steve catches him playing his dumb golf sim again, he'll never live it down. "I made you a sandwich."

"How long have I been out?" Steve asks, scratching absently at his elbow, "I thought I had an alarm."

"I turned it off," Bucky says, putting the gaming console on the glass coffee table. "You looked like you needed the sleep."

Steve opens the fridge and pulls out the turkey club Bucky made maybe half an hour ago, when he realized that Steve wasn't going to wake up at a reasonable time for lunch. He brings it over, sits so that he's trapping Bucky's legs against the back of the sofa, and sets the plate on Bucky's stomach. "Want the other half?"

"You should eat it."

"Not that hungry," Steve says around a mouthful of sandwich. "I was thinking about eating one of those oranges anyway."

Bucky takes the offered half even though he doesn't like his turkey club with as much mayo as Steve does. They chew in silence for a few moments before Steve grins at him and asks, "How's your fantasy anime golf?"

Bucky knees him in the back and doesn't feel bad about it at all.

_____

They head into town on a liquor run but somehow end up in some tourist trap store instead. Steve peruses the postcards for something to send back to Susanne while Bucky picks up one of the fifty thousand lighthouse figurines that line the shelves of this aisle. There are snow globes farther down, and beyond that, shot glasses with lighthouses and cartoon lobsters. It's tacky as hell. Bucky considers buying one to leave at Steve's place.

"No," Steve says, picking the shot glass out of his hands, "We are not adding to that collection."

Bucky trails after Steve to the cash register. "At least let me buy you a lobster puppet," he says plucking the magnetic finger puppet off the spinning display of magnets.

"Absolutely not," Steve says, even without looking at him. The woman behind the cash register makes eye contact with Bucky as she rings up the tasteful postcards that Steve's picked out, and she smiles like she finds them cute.

"He never lets me buy him anything," Bucky says to her because it's not often he can revel in anonymity.

"You just wait, twenty years down the line," she says, putting Steve's postcards into a paper packet.

A dumb sort of misplaced happiness sinks into Bucky's chest because some stranger behind the counter assumed that they were together and would still be in twenty years. He smiles right at Steve, who's trying not to smile at either of them but it's fighting its way on his face anyway.

_____

The liquor store carries Yuengling and god fucking damn if Bucky isn't totally down for indulging in some nostalgia. Steve buys the twelve pack but Bucky carries it up to the counter and the kid at the register says, "I need your ID too, sir," to Bucky which completely defeats the entire purpose of having Steve make the purchase in the first place.

Bucky hands over his driver's license--District of Columbia, James Buchanan Barnes with a terrible shot of him at the DMV wearing a fucking suit because he'd come straight from some formal lunch function. The kid does a double take. Bucky stares woodenly at the Grey Goose behind the counter. He's going to be pissed if some blog speculates on his alcoholism tomorrow, complete with grainy phone picture.

"That'll be $18.29," the kid says and Bucky hands over a twenty before Steve can get his debit card out. He shoves the change into his pocket and picks up the beer, turning around.

"Have a good day, um..." the kid says and trails off. Bucky glances over his shoulder despite his better judgment and yep, the kid's got his phone out and Bucky's had enough experience to know when people are trying discreetly to take pictures of him.

"Let's do takeout for dinner," Steve says as they get back into the car.

Bucky pulls his hood over his head. "Alright."

_____

It's cold outside by the time the sun sets but Bucky doesn't move from where he's sitting on the back porch, overlooking the water. Steve hands him a freshly opened beer before stretching out on his own chair, wrapping a throw blanket around his shoulders. There are lights in the deck, lighting up the pale railing with a warm glow. High tide mutes the scent of sea breeze that dips across the coast, sifting across where they sit. The full moon reflects on the ocean and there's no light pollution to drown out the stars.

"Did you hear back from Spectrum?" Bucky asks, drawing a finger through the condensation on his bottle.

"Not yet," Steve says, looking up at the sky. "I applied to another couple agencies in New York too. A lot of them are asking for experience though and I just have that Spectrum internship."

"They'll see your portfolio," Bucky says, "They'd be stupid not to hire you."

"I'm not that great at design," Steve says, "But thanks Buck."

Bucky takes a drink of his beer and tries to make out where the ocean ended and the sky started. He listens to the clink of Steve's bottle against the deck, the rush of water against shore, the way that Steve lets out a little sigh.

"Think you're going to ship out when you graduate?"

Bucky shrugs. "I guess that depends on what Amanda thinks."

"Do you want to, though?"

And that was the worst part of it, wasn't it? Because he'd spent the last decade of his life hating how Amanda's groomed him so well, the last four years learning what it meant to be a military officer and halfheartedly buying into the culture of machismo. Because he spent every waking moment being reminded of what he owed America, the country who was so kind to pull him out of nothing and gave him everything--

"Not really," Bucky says.

"Then you shouldn't," Steve says. Like it was so simple. Bucky smiles against his beer bottle; they both know better.

"Ever think about what our lives might have been like?" Bucky asks after a moment.

"You would have been adopted," Steve says.

"Like hell," Bucky snorts. "You can't get rid of me that easily, Rogers."

Steve looks back up at the sky. "Then," he says, considering. "Easier."

_____

Bucky would be lying if he said he didn't think about it.

He wakes up late and walks in on Steve making pancakes with fresh blueberries in his boxers and an old shirt that Bucky's pretty sure Steve stole from him back in high school. Bucky thinks about stepping up behind Steve and spreading his hand over Steve's clothed stomach, pressing his face into the back of Steve's neck, saying good morning into Steve's skin. But the moment passes. He takes a seat on a kitchen stool, says, "These are all for me, right?" and steals blueberries to keep his hands from clenching.

Or when Steve lounges on the couch, napping in a square of sunlight with his shirt riding up to expose a sliver of pale skin and Bucky reads the same page in Steve's copy of Dandelion Wine five times because he keeps looking at it, thinking about sliding his hand underneath, waking Steve with a kiss.

But Bucky has some modicum of self-control.

It doesn't even occur to Bucky that they could have had a week the same way that it never occurred to Bucky that they could have kept their relationship secret. It had to be everything or nothing at all. Steve deserves normalcy even if he is extraordinary, deserves the privacy that Bucky has long given up.

_____

There's a midnight storm halfway through the week. Slanting, thick rain that hits the windows with thunder crawling low across the sky. Bucky wakes to the low whistle of the wind and the pounding of water against the roof and can't fall back asleep. He stares up at the ceiling and thinks about going into the kitchen when he hears Steve's quiet voice say, "Hey."

Bucky pushes himself into a sit, looking over at the door. Steve's face is lit up by his laptop screen as he moves from the door to Bucky's bed. "Can't sleep?"

Lightning flares in the distance outside the terrace doors. Bucky scoots a few inches over. There's plenty of space but Steve seems to move instinctively to the middle of the bed, crowding Bucky anyway. He sets his computer down at the foot of the bed, his Netflix queue pull on screen.

"If you make me watch a documentary about fonts again, I swear to god," Bucky says. Steve steals his pillow for the remark and tucks his chin into it, flopping down on his stomach and perusing their choices. He settles on something called Megashark vs. Giant Octopus. The trailer shows a shark biting an airplane in two. Bucky is sold.

Steve's the first one to fall asleep, curled up on his side, turned towards Bucky. The dim light of the laptop screen flickers on his face, catching the curve of his parted lips and long eyelashes.

The thunderstorm recedes, the rain dwindles into a patter. Bucky watches Steve's face and thinks about a different life, maybe. And then he thinks about nothing at all.

Every day he learns something new about resolve. It'll be enough, eventually.

Chapter Text

It takes six whiskey sours and some asshole that he vaguely remembers from Valley Forge for Bucky to be splashed across the front page of the National Enquirer. The photograph they chose had to have been taken years ago--they must have been sitting on the damn thing waiting for the right moment. In it, Bucky looks like he's being manhandled away from some door, glazed expression caught in the vicious flash of paparazzi cameras.

CROWN PRINCE ATTACKS UNSUSPECTING BARGOER, it says, Are drugs to blame? Will he check into rehab for his alcoholism?

And the worst part--the truly dumbest part that Amanda's going to scream at him about later--is that they aren't totally making it up.

_____

It's stupid from the very beginning because Bucky knows better than to have six drinks in an hour and a half. He doesn't even have the normal West Point crew of bad ideas to goad him on--they've all been shipped overseas and only keep in touch with the occasional email joking about Bucky's never-deployment that hits a little too close to home. It's stupid because it's really just the two of them--him and Steve--sitting at the back of this stupid hipster bar that serves drinks with components like "Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and "Great Harvest Organic". Steve probably thinks it's great. Bucky clearly hasn't refined his sense of irony enough.

They're out to celebrate the completion of some project with a few other designers from Steve's agency. Bucky's still jetlagged from his trip to London and he's flying out to Tokyo in the morning which makes the choice to come even more enormously stupid. He actively avoids the way that one of Steve's coworkers is trying to catch his eye and sticks close to Steve without opening his big mouth for once. Not that he has anything interesting to contribute regarding Infinite Jest (movie? book?) or the cinematography choices in The Wire--though he does mouth "what the hell?" at Steve when the others aren't looking. Steve just grins at him. It's possible that this is payback for all the times Steve had to endure heinous numbers of jaegerbombs and dubstep drops.

But it doesn't turn into a full-blown disaster until an hour later, when Steve excuses himself to the restroom and abandons Bucky to his coworkers' increasingly uncomfortable questions (why hadn't the royal family committed to advocating the locavore lifestyle? Would he ever accept a corporate sponsorship?). Bucky excuses himself and heads towards the restroom in search of Steve.

Bucky finds Steve talking to some guy who he vaguely recognizes as someone who used to make his brief adolescent life on the baseball diamond a fucking misery. For all his love of the game, Bucky had been kind of a terrible player and Douchebag Catcher made sure Bucky never forgot during the few weeks he'd spent trying out as a freshman in high school.

He ignores Douchebag Catcher at first as he moves toward Steve and grasps his elbow. Steve's got a smile on his face and it doesn't fade as he tilts his head towards Bucky without taking his eyes off of the guy. Bucky feels a flare of irritation but he manages to keep it together as he leans in close to Steve's ear and asks, "Want to get out of here?"

Steve pauses and looks at Bucky before glancing back at Douchebag Catcher. Bucky's drunk as hell but he can still read Steve like a goddamn book--the assessing look that Steve always gives him to gauge exactly how drunk he is and the slow intake of breath that precedes the half-smiling sigh. Bucky can tell that Steve's about to make up some excuse and follow Bucky away from the asshole. And then--

"Excuse me," Douchebag Catcher says, interrupting--and yeah, Bucky unkindly remembers that nasal pitch. He actually reaches forward and taps Bucky on the shoulder. "We were having a conversation here, buddy."

_____

Really though, it's kind of complicated.

Bucky hasn't actually gotten into a fight outside the context of basic training in years--hell the last time he had actually thrown a punch out of anger had been when some guy called Steve a faggot at some charity event. Amanda had been eerily silent about the entire thing which was way worse than having her yell at him but she had somehow managed to make the entire fiasco so thoroughly boring that Bucky had been forgotten in favor of cataloguing Britney Spears's slow descent into mania.

It's complicated because it's like this:

Bucky's drunk because he hasn't had a drink in nearly two weeks of pasting a smile on for the cameras and trying to come up with insightful commentary about British culture that was sure to offend some internet commenter regardless of how banal it was. Bucky's drunk because he's an actual idiot and can't name five contemporary authors who aren't Stephen King or JK Rowling and doesn't know what to say to Steve's coworkers who all seem to have complex opinions on Bauhaus and Dadaism. He's drunk because the waitress kept coming over with drinks on the house and Bucky kept reflexively flirting back.

It'd be unfair to entirely blame the bourbon because in reality, Bucky is going crazy with the appearance requests and the constant flying and the shows of goodwill. His sleep schedule is fucked six ways to insomnia and he's become a goddamn pro at putting on concealer without a mirror. Half the time he catches himself phrasing things diplomatically in a phone conversation and doesn't even realize until he hears Steve's staticky laughter across the line.

And it's not exactly that he actually holds a grudge against Douchebag Catcher either--he couldn't care less about some mediocre asshole who should have really fallen into the pit of unremembered obscurity. It's just that it's been over a year since he graduated and Amanda's been avoiding his questions on when he's going to deploy with anecdotes about how important domestic affairs are and subtle jabs at how much more of a difference he could make in bringing important issues to light. It's just that he'd been trapped in the crossfire of an email thread where his dumbass friends kept pitting their platoons against each other in perpetual one-upmanship until suddenly they were wishing each other luck and offering condolences in grammatically correct sentences. It's just that Bucky doesn't have any experience in being left behind and he's watching his friends move farther and farther away while he's still frozen in time, standing under the spotlight on the stage where he graduated in a crisp uniform, smiling.

He doesn't care about Douchebag Catcher. The only thing he cares about is the faint smile on Steve's face, the fact that Douchebag Catcher managed to grab and hold on to even a moment of Steve's attention when Bucky was swimming through jetlag and the promise of a killer hangover during an eighteen hour flight just to hear Steve's voice without a screen separating them. He's selfish and lost the self-consciousness about it half a drink back--which means when the guy actually has the fucking gall to tap Bucky on the shoulder--

Well.

_____

Douchebag Catcher tries to punch back. But Bucky plays too much tennis and there's a heavy punching bag in the palace basement whereas Douchebag Catcher has gone soft around the middle.

And he should know better about how strong Steve can be when he's got the proper motivation, but he's still surprised when Steve drags him back, fingers digging into Bucky's upper arm like a vise, his voice sharp as he says Bucky's name. Not so loud because Steve's been his friend for two decades and he knows better than to draw attention but the attention's already here. The entire bar is silent except for the bartender who's talking to the police on the phone.

"You're fucking crazy," Douchebag Catcher says, holding the back of his wrist to his bleeding nose. Bucky licks the inside of his split lip and doesn't say anything back. He turns and makes his way out of the bar, ignoring the waiter who calls after him.

_____

"What the hell?" Steve asks when he catches up, grabbing Bucky's elbow and spinning him around. Bucky nearly falls over but Steve doesn't let go and keeps Bucky standing through what must be sheer force of will. He glares up at Bucky, his jaw tense. Bucky knows that he's angry and disappointed but all Bucky drunkenly thinks is that Steve is magnificent in this moment.

"What were you thinking?" Steve demands, his hand tightening.

It's possible that he wasn't. And he's definitely not thinking now, not with the way that he says the first thing that comes to mind: "He didn't deserve your attention."

Steve's eyes narrow and he lets go of Bucky's arm. "And who are you to judge who does and doesn't deserve my attention?"

There's an explanation here--Douchebag Catcher had certainly earned his name and Bucky should probably try to recount some of their short history. But he doesn't say anything because he's too angry and drunk and maybe part of him doesn't even want to explain--maybe it resents everything about this evening and wants Steve to figure it out.

"I don't understand you sometimes," Steve says, slowly putting his hands up, "I don't know what you want from me."

Bucky exhales through his nose, pushing all the air out of his lungs. He doesn't know what expression is on his face. He wants to lean forward and press his forehead against Steve's. There's a lot of fucking things he wants. He wants to unfuck his life. He wants to be able to slip his hand into Steve's. He wants everything to be okay.

Steve watches him.

"A taxi," Bucky eventually forces out, and watches Steve turn away.

_____

He finds the tabloid at LAX between flights when he slips away from his security to find a breakfast sandwich and Advil. He doesn't even pick the damn thing up, but he does stand in line with the travel sized bottle of pills in his hand, staring at it for a moment too long. It usually takes a while for stuff to cycle in but they must have had an extremely slow day.

He pays with cash. There are enough narcissists in Los Angeles that the cashier doesn't seem to notice that he's wearing sunglasses indoors. If anyone recognizes him, the noise canceling earbuds keeps them from approaching him.

_____

Amanda moves into the seat next to him when the captain turns off the seatbelt sign and hands him her iPad. He braces himself for a lecture, but instead she says, "I'm going to assume this was a joke or you weren't thinking straight when you sent me this."

Bucky tilts the screen towards him and reads, who do I know who would make a good bf/gf for Steve? can u screen? I want a list -J Timestamped 3:08AM.

Bucky stares at the words. He doesn't remember writing them. His first instinct is to laugh it off and claim that yeah, it was a joke because it sounds like the exact opposite of what he really wants and he can't remember the addled logic that brought him to meticulously pick out each word on the tiny keyboard of his phone without any typo.

But didn't Steve deserve better, really? Better than some asshole best friend who couldn't let him go, who unrepentantly tried to sabotage anyone who got too close?

So what he hears himself say instead is, "No. I was serious." It's beautiful the way he says it--a bored nonchalance betrayed only by the flex of his jaw. He hands the iPad back.

"James," Amanda says, "I never took you for a matchmaker."

"You work for me, don't you?"

"I work for the royal family."

Bucky looks at her. "Well," he says, "Since I seem to be the only person in the royal family who gives enough of a shit to execute any of that power, I guess that would be me. And I'd really like a list."

Amanda looks at his face, her expression carefully neutral--but Bucky's known her for long enough to know to watch the side of her temple where a pulse jumps when she gets angry, twitching at her hairline. And she's furious now.

"Very well, your highness," she says and rises out of her seat.

_____

Amanda doesn't get back to him until after he'd spent three days in Japan learning about the education system and how it might help improve public schooling in the US. The convoy takes him away from Tokyo on the third day, into the small towns of rural Japan where mountains frame the roofs of low buildings. Bucky takes pictures and reflexively sends them to Steve when he gets the hotel wifi password. He wanders the clean hallways of a tiny elementary school, trailed by the translator and the local minister of education. The students stare at him when they're assembled together in the courtyard, whispering among themselves. And later on, just before he leaves to catch the train to their next stop, he sees two boys huddled over a notebook that one of them is drawing in, away from the rest of the group.

Amanda forwards him three people who she's vetted and thinks would be a good match. Bucky gets an updated email address for Peggy Carter, who he hasn't heard from or thought about in nearly half a year.

The other two, he hasn't talked to in a couple of months. He likes both of them well enough. He might not, though, if one of them hits it off really well with Steve.

_____

Bucky doesn't remember many of his dreams, but the day after he returns from Japan, he wakes up in his own bed at four in the afternoon, the foggy remnants of a dream clinging to his return to wakefulness. He can only remember snatches of impression: bright sunlight coming in through a big window, Steve curled up against him, his hand in Steve's hair, his lips against Steve's temple. Steve's hand against his chest--the overwhelming warmth of loving unabashedly and without guilt in a way he can't conjure up in real life.

It fades. Bucky focuses on the glow of light reflecting from the polished hardwood onto the ceiling. The maids must have polished it recently because Bucky can still smell the wax. He doesn't text Steve. His fingers curl into the palms of his hands. He doesn't text Steve.

After a long while has passed, he rolls over and picks up his phone. He starts to compose an email.

_____

"She's cool," Bucky says as he pulls into a parking spot at the restaurant. "You'll like her."

"Not so sure about that if she likes you," Steve says, grinning. Bucky shoves at him as he opens the car door. "No accounting for taste."

"I'm too cool for you anyway," Bucky says, purposefully stepping on the back of Steve's shoe.

Diane's seated near a front window and she smiles and gives a tiny wave when she sees Bucky through it. Bucky doesn't bother waiting for the host to show them to their seat--just heads straight for Diane with Steve in tow.

"Barnes," she says, standing up to hug him before turning to Steve and holding out her hand, "And you must be Steve. I'm Diane."

Steve smiles and shakes her hand. Bucky makes him sit across from her--which earns him a confused glance that he ignores.

"How do you two know each other?" Steve asks--Bucky had only mentioned that she was an old friend who was on leave for the week. Bucky had been purposefully vague about her but it wasn't hard to figure out that she was probably from West Point.

"I kicked his ass in track about a million times," Diane says, grinning.

"Let's not talk about that," Bucky says, waving a hand.

"Always a sore loser," Diane adds, leaning in towards Steve.

Steve looks at Bucky and then grins at Diane. "I like you already."

_____

Before their meals even arrive, Steve and Diane have hit it off beautifully. Bucky had no idea that Diane was such a nerd about art history seeing as their previous interactions primarily consisted of trash talking each other at regional meets.

He fabricates a phone call and excuse himself from the table. He has a one-sided conversation on his phone, watching Diane and Steve. Diane says something that makes Steve laugh and Bucky's torn between smiling and turning away.

"Hey," he says, dropping back into his seat, "Something's come up, I've got to run."

"Is everything okay?" Diane asks.

"Yeah, it's just, you know--" he gestures vaguely. Steve is the only person who isn't fooled when he uses princely duties as an excuse to get out of stuff, only because he's seen it a billion times.

"Should we go then?" Steve asks.

"No, you should stay," Bucky says, "I mean, we've already ordered food and Diane's not here for long and you guys should just have fun. Diane, you can give Steve a ride home, right?"

Diane shrugs, smiles, "Sure thing."

"Great!" Bucky says, and it comes out a little too enthusiastic. Steve looks at him. Bucky reins himself in but digs out his wallet. "Dinner's on me. Get me a box, will you Steve?"

"You really shouldn't," Diane says, "I'd feel bad."

"Don't," Bucky says, "I feel bad enough for having to run out on you."

"We can catch up another time," Diane says, "No problem."

Steve's still looking at him. Bucky looks back at him and tries to smile casually as he backs away from the table. "See you guys."

_____

He takes a long drive. Long enough that Halley actually calls him and asks what exactly it is that he's doing. Halley usually doesn't give a shit about this sort of stuff but Bucky has some early lunch function tomorrow in DC.

A few days later. Diane emails him to thank him for covering dinner and hope that she'll see him again soon to catch up. And Steve's great, she adds at the end of the email, You're lucky to have him.

Bucky reads the last line over and over again, not sure what she means. He's too scared to ask.

_____

hey, Bucky texts Steve a few weeks later, i've got a friend who could use some help on his portfolio. could u look at it? favor to me.

_____

Lewis never emails Bucky about how their date went. Bucky assumes the worst and toys with the idea of asking Amanda to vet more people. She'd been giving him the cold shoulder on and off for the last month and a half.

But then Steve finds him while he's swimming laps in the indoor pool at the edge of the estate. Bucky has no idea how long Steve's been leaning against the doorway, watching him butterfly stroke up and down the lane. He heaves himself out of the water and drips at the side of the pool. "Hey."

"Hi," Steve says, keeping his eyes on Bucky's face. Bucky grabs the towel off the diving board and rubs at his hair.

"Listen," Steve says, looking out the window at the garden before looking back at Bucky. "I know what you're doing and I appreciate it but I really don't think it's necessary."

Bucky squints at him.

"I don't want to be in a relationship," Steve says, "And your friends are nice and all but I really just can't handle anything like that right now."

Bucky pulls the towel from his hair. Steve's eyes track a drop of water sliding down his neck before snapping back up to his face. Bucky swallows.

"Okay," Bucky says, "I'm sorry Steve."

Steve pushes off from the doorway and shoves his hands into his pockets, looking down. "There's no need to apologize."

Bucky wraps the towel around his shoulders. He's thinking about something else entirely when he says, "I'm sorry anyway."

_____

He thinks a lot about Steve's hand in his. The half remembered weight, cobbled together from the faint impressions of mostly-forgotten dreams.

He thinks a lot about moving on.

Chapter Text

"Tell me," she says, curled up on the couch under a blanket with a mug of coffee. The snow is coming down hard outside and she's going to have hell of a time getting back uptown later tonight. But for now she smiles at Steve and asks, "How did you two even meet?"

Steve's fiddling with the broken christmas lights that Bucky left in the winter of freshman year, when he'd taped them up around Steve's dorm in a fit of drunken productivity. Steve took it down the next morning but ended up repinning it all back up with thumbtacks. He didn't really even want the lights but Bucky had insisted and had taped up two of Steve's sketches before he'd left on the train to go upstate.

Which version? Because there's the version that the royal biographers put out a year ago, which is true. There's the version that Amanda has tucked away in her file cabinets--that one's also true. There's the version that Steve has told his other friends: the bland smile and the, "I honestly don't even remember," which is true to some extent. And there's the real version, the one that he's carried around with him like a grain of sand next to his heart. He's revised this version so many times that he's not sure which parts are true and which parts are lies he tells himself.

_____

If there was a time before Bucky, Steve doesn't remember it. This is just a sad fact of Steve's life.

There's a vague memory that he fought with Bucky over broken toys before the two of them had learned how to share. There's a fuzzy newsprint photograph of them holding hands at the age of four while crossing the street, caught in the backdrop of some greater moment in history.

Sister Kathryn said that Steve once found a pack of markers and spent an entire day drawing on all the linens he could get his hands on. When it came time to dole out the punishment, Bucky had insisted that he had helped, even though he hadn't touched a single pen.

Steve does not remember this. But it sounds like something Bucky would have done.

But he does remember the day that the reporters came. What seemed like hundreds of them, television vans with their antennae waving into the sky. Steve looked down at them from the third floor bedroom he shared with Bucky and two other boys, watching their heads and shoulders move up and down the street like a Van Gogh painting.

The bedroom door was half open but Steve couldn't make out the quiet conversation that the adults were having outside. Bucky sat hunched on his bed, knees drawn up to his chin. Sister Marie hadn't even shouted at him for putting his shoes on the bed.

Steve moved away from the window and sat on the bed next to Bucky. He scooted close and put his head on Bucky's shoulder.

_____

"What if she hates me?" Bucky asked at the airport, before they both got on an airplane for the first time. There was a man named Halley taking them to Washington DC. Steve always thought that Halley was a girl's name.

"Why would she hate you?" Steve asked, because everybody liked Bucky, even the head cook Elizabeth who insisted on being called by her full name and was stingy with seconds and who Steve would probably never see again.

Neither of them were right, really. Because the queen didn't seem to like Bucky. But then again, she didn't seem to like anything at all.

Reality wasn't kind. They should have learned that early.

_____

Steve is twelve. It's raining and Bucky forgot to bring an umbrella so they end up sharing the tiny one that Susanne packed for Steve. Their heads are dry but the rain keeps falling on their sleeves. "I don't mind the rain," Bucky decides and ducks from under the umbrella, "You keep it."

"You're going to catch a cold," Steve says, because it's something that Sister Ophelia always said when they went out in the rain. He tries to follow Bucky with the umbrella.

"Just keep it," Bucky insists. Steve looks at him, frowning, and then closes the umbrella so that they're both standing in the rain.

When Halley pulls up, he looks at their soaked uniforms and the closed umbrella. He says, "There's a towel in the back."

Bucky wipes his face on the towel before handing it to Steve. Steve does the same before peeling off his soaked jacket. He shivers.

"Can we turn up the heat?" Bucky asks.

Halley looks at them in the rearview mirror before reaching over to adjust the temperature.

_____

Here are a few truths:

The rumor gets out that Steve's been held back, that he's actually thirteen and still in the sixth grade. Some kid cuts ahead of him in the lunch line and when Steve says, "Hey, the end of the line is back there," the kid turns around and smirks.

"I heard you failed second grade reading," he says, "And that you can't do any long division."

And before Steve can reply, Bucky steps forward and punches the kid on the mouth.

_____

Here is another truth:

Steve is fourteen. He is at the beach, wearing a T-shirt and oversized swim trunks that go down to his knees because he doesn't like the way that his legs look--stick thin with kneecaps that jut out. Bucky had spent the afternoon tricking sand on his feet and eventually burying his legs while Steve read The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen out loud, describing the panels as he went. It would have been easier to just look at the book together, but Bucky had rolled over on his towel when Steve suggested that, saying that he'd rather hear Steve read it anyway. They'd finished the first volume before Bucky announced he was going for a swim and tried to drag Steve into the water with him. There was no way Steve was going to take his shirt off.

And later on, when the sun starts to go down and casts a pale orange glow on everything, Steve wakes up to Bucky dripping on him. Bucky's white teeth bared in a grin and hair slicked back with ocean. His entire body is silhouetted against the warm-colored sky and for the first time Steve notices how broad Bucky's shoulders are getting to be.

When a curl of heat settles in his stomach, Steve is half dozing and smiling back at Bucky. Later on, he'll have trouble recognizing this moment for what it is. It will be months before he will come to terms with it, seated deep in his subconscious.

_____

This is the point of divergence.

This is not a love story. Nobody asks to fall in love with their best friend.

_____

Steve remembers getting the news over the phone in the middle of summer. He's standing in the backyard with the sky hitting twilight, watching the fireflies flare up in the bushes.

"What do you mean?" Steve asks, confused because Bucky had taken the IB test and gone with Steve to registration day. Halley had picked up forms for the both of them. The cable news had picked up on the story and spent an entire 24 hour cycle speculating whether or not the crown prince was going to be matriculating at a public school. In retrospect, maybe Steve should have figured from the complete silence on Amanda's end that it wasn't a done deal.

"It's a school in Pennsylvania," Bucky says. Steve can hear the hiss of cicadas in the background and the crunch of Bucky's shoes on loose gravel. "That's not too far away, right? We can still hang out on the weekends."

"Do you even want to go?" Steve asks, "Or is Amanda making you?"

"It's my mom," Bucky says, "The queen really wants me to go."

Screw the queen, Steve thinks with unexpected viciousness, because he can't imagine a school year without Bucky, can't imagine trying to blunder his way through algebra without anyone to laugh at him and pull him through. But if there's one aspect of his life that Steve knows Bucky can be weird about, it's his mom

"She said my dad went there," Bucky adds. The footsteps have stopped. "I dunno Steve, I feel like I should go."

"Do you have to?" Steve asks, and it sounds whiny, even to himself. He wishes he could take it back the moment that he hears it.

"I wish you could come too," Bucky says, and that's the end of that, really.

_____

Maybe it's a good thing.

Ever since coming to DC, Steve's never had the chance to be anyone other than the kid the prince took pity on, or at the best of times, the prince's best friend. As far as everyone else was concerned, Steve's entire being was entirely dependent on his relationship with Bucky, something that overshadowed every other aspect of himself.

This was his chance for a clean slate and to emerge as a full individual without the reputation of the crown prince dogging his every step. He doesn't need to be cool or popular--he just needs to be himself, by himself for once in his life.

_____

On the first day of high school, nobody seems to recognize him. Even though he had resolved to become someone other than Bucky's friend, it still stung a tiny bit.

He screws up half his math worksheet on the second day (no surprise) and does so badly that he ends up having to stay behind so that the teacher can tell him gently that the school had a tutoring center that he should maybe take advantage of. There's no one waiting outside the door to give him shit about being terrible at math. Steve spends his free period in the library with his cell phone hidden behind a book, looking at his text conversation with Bucky. Bucky hadn't replied since that morning but Steve figures it's either because Bucky was too busy or because military schools were stricter about cell phones.

Later on that week, though, he sits next to a pretty dark haired girl in art class. She only notices him when they start sketching out their pointillism projects.

"You're good," she says, eyeing his sketch of a tiger mid-prowl. "I'm Hillary."

"I'm Steve," he says, "I like yours too." Hers is inexpertly drawn, a dog with a snout that's too long and lopsided eyes. Her nails are painted a deep red and her outfit is far too put-together to be casual. She has an oversized purse on the floor next to her rather than a backpack.

He sees her again a few days later in the cafeteria. He's getting a bag of chips out of the vending machine (real chips, not the veggie chips that Susanne likes so much) when he catches her eye. To his surprise, she waves him over.

"Eat lunch with us," she says, scooting down the table to make room for him. The other girls look at him with varying levels of surprise or thinly veiled condescension, but Steve is still too stunned with his own good luck to notice.

_____

"She sounds cute," Bucky says over Skype when Steve tells him about Hillary. It's been nearly a month and a half since their schedules aligned well enough for a Skype call. Bucky's lying on his stomach in bed, an abandoned textbook shoved up against the wall and a couple of pencils hiding in the folds of his comforter. He keeps touching the side of his head where he doesn't have hair to tuck behind his ear any more--Steve had gotten the text fuk it looks worse than i thought it would two whole days before Tiger Beat had eulogized the loss of Bucky's old haircut with excruciating detail and melodrama.

"I don't know if I'm interested in her like that," Steve says.

"Why not?" Bucky asks, "You should ask her out."

"She's way out of my league."

"No one's out of your league," Bucky says grinning hard enough to make the corners of his eyes crinkle. Steve just laughs.

"Meanwhile, I'm never going to get a date if I go out looking like this," Bucky moans dropping face first onto his laptop keyboard. Steve has to stop himself from reaching forward and patting his laptop screen.

"You're joking, right?" Steve says, "Your hair looks fine."

"It looks horrible," Bucky says, muffled.

"I mean, you're still not going to get a date," Steve continues, "But probably because you suck at showering and your face is terrible."

"Thanks pal," Bucky says into his comforter but lifts his head when a knock sounds on his door. "Hold up," he tells Steve and gets off the bed.

Steve looks at the dirty sock at the end of Bucky's bed--just one, hanging off the railing of the footboard. He hears Bucky say something about American History homework and whoever is at the door laughs.

Bucky comes back into frame, leaning over his laptop. "Hey," he says, "I gotta go."

"Okay," Steve says.

"I'll text you later," Bucky says. The camera freezes briefly on his waving hand before it disappears completely.

Steve looks at the empty chat box for a few moments longer before logging off. He shuts his laptop and lies on his bed, looking up at the ceiling.

He closes his eyes and spends a few minutes trying to trick himself into thinking that Bucky's going to show up at his house at any moment, listening to the cars pass under his open bedroom window and waiting for one of them to slow to a stop. A car door opening, a familiar voice.

Steve opens his eyes again. It's getting dim now and he has to turn the light on.

_____

He flunks one math test in October and a second on in November before the math teacher takes him aside again and asks him who he's working with at the tutoring center. He tells her the truth (nobody) and finds himself sitting across from a dark haired boy with slicked back hair who doesn't talk much and looks bored all the time--including when he's working with Steve. He introduces himself as Namor and doesn't even smile when Steve nervously laughs about being bad at math.

Namor says things like, "If this is true and this is true, then what can we conclude about the answer?" which goes completely over Steve's head. There's a lot of awkward pauses as Steve squints at the paper and pathetically wishes that Bucky were here to explain it to him instead because at least they'd be on the same page instead of some luckless junior trying to dumb himself down to Steve's level.

If he's getting any better at math, it sure isn't being reflected in his grades. He feels bad for wasting Namor's time.

_____

"Listen, Steve," Hillary says, not even looking up from where she's coloring in her sky with a yellow pastel. "We're friends right?"

Steve feels a flush of happiness at being called her friend and tries to play it cool as he replies, "Yeah I guess."

"Then," she says with a little smile, "You know, if the prince has a party or anything, you could get me an invite, right?"

"Oh," Steve says. He stares very hard at his own drawing without seeing it. His insides have twisted up and his skin prickles like he's about to break out into a cold sweat. "Yeah," he says, "I think I could do that."

In retrospect, he should have seen it coming earlier. Popular girls like Hillary didn't befriend nerds like Steve without an ulterior motive.

_____

Bucky comes home for Thanksgiving break. Somehow he's grown an entire three inches and can comfortably put his chin on top of Steve's head--something he does at least eight times until Steve swats him away, pretending to be annoyed but secretly pleased that at least Bucky's still his best friend.

Steve barely touches the snacks that Susanne puts out but sits at the kitchen table anyway and listens to Bucky tell Susanne stories about his new school while shoving pita and hummus chips into his mouth. Steve's heard about half of them live through text. He's turned towards the television where he doesn't really care about either the Patriots or the Ravens. Halley's on the couch with his tie over the armrest, beer in hand. He watches the game for a few moments before looking back at Bucky without turning his head. Bucky makes a gesture with his hand, Susanne laughs, and he glances over at Steve. Bucky grins. Something inside Steve twists and he has to clench his jaw to hold it in.

"Hey," Bucky says later, after dinner, after Steve's soundly kicked his ass in Super Smash Bros for the third time in a row, "I want to meet your friends sometime."

Steve looks down at his controller. Bucky's told him a few times over Skype now that he should visit him at Valley Forge, that he'd introduce him around to all of his friends. Steve's not surprised that Bucky's popular and he never thought that he'd ever be as popular as Bucky. It's not like he's ashamed of not being as charismatic as Bucky.

It's just. He wishes he never told Bucky about Hillary or about anyone that he's had to do a group project with because Bucky always seems to think that Steve's got a lot of friends too even though Steve barely made any friends in middle school.

"Maybe," he says, fiddling with the joystick on the controller, unable to look at Bucky's face.

_____

Right before finals week, Steve catches what he thinks is a cold. He makes it through his biology final and manages to get to the front of the room to turn his test in. His teacher peers up at him and asks, "Are you alright? You look a little pale."

"Yeah," he says, just before passing out in front of the entire third period biology.

He wakes up with the school nurse leaning over him (Ms. Baker, he remembers, because Susanne had set up a special appointment before school had even started to go over his list of medication in case anything happened). His biology teacher is on the phone on the other side of the room.

"How are you feeling?" Ms. Baker asks.

"Headache," Steve mumbles.

"Hang in there," she says, squeezing his shoulder.

"I don't want to go to the hospital," Steve says, trying to enunciate clearly but his words keep coming out mumbled. It doesn't matter anyway, because the EMTs show up five minutes later and Steve feels like he's about to throw up. He adamantly refuses to get on the stretcher but follows them when they insist that Steve come into the hospital because he'd hit his head pretty hard on the way down.

He at least waits until they open the ambulance doors when they arrive at the hospital. Then he takes two steps across the asphalt and throws up all over the ground.

_____

Halley joins him at the hospital since Susanne can't get any more time off of work. They've long since wrangled the official paperwork to give him guardianship over Steve--a right rarely acknowledged except in times of emergency.

The doctor doesn't tell Steve anything he doesn't already know and leaves him with a pamphlet on POTS which he's already read before. Halley signs the release forms and listens to the doctor's recommendations while Steve pulls his coat tighter around himself and tries not to think about how he fainted in front of his entire biology class. If he hadn't been branded as the dumb weak nerd yet, he was certainly putting the nails in his own coffin.

The doctor tells him to stay home until his flu-like symptoms get better. Steve panics about being held back a year again until the principal calls Susanne to talk about options for his final grades.

Bucky texts, STOP HAVING TO GO TO THE HOSPITAL before Steve even sends him a message. He texts, r u ok though?? a few minutes after.

I'm ok, Steve texts back. And then he types out, wish you were here. He thinks blearily about whether or not he was about to reveal his own hand too much before hitting send anyway.

The reply is immediate: don't injure urself without me around then dumbass.

And later, when Steve is lying on the couch with the blanket tucked up around his chin and Susanne making soup in the kitchen to make the entire house smell like homemade chicken noodle, Steve's phone buzzes on the coffee table. miss u too, it says.

_____

He takes the intermediate art class in spring semester and meets Toro.

"Don't call me Tammy," she says when she introduces herself, "My foster mom calls me Tammy and I hate it."

"Ok," Steve agrees.

"Do you like Green Day?" she asks. She's drawing in her notebook and Steve recognizes a vaguely anime influence to the face that she's drawing. She has on a studded bracelet and has streaks of bright red in her shoulder length blonde hair. Her hoodie has a pin on it proclaiming her a fan of Bad Religion.

"They're okay," Steve says, "I listen to um, older stuff."

She looks at him like he'd personally insulted her. "Like what? ACDC? Led Zeppelin?"

He wisely decides not to let in on the fact that he mostly listened to whatever Susanne played around the house which consisted mostly of NPR. Bucky sent him CD mixtapes through the mail sometimes but Bucky's favorite genre was terrible house music that Steve had a hard time getting into. "I like jazz," he says eventually, "You know, like Miles Davis."

Toro sighs, and Steve gets the distinct impression that she has no idea who Miles Davis is. "I will have to educate you, Steve Rogers," she concludes, and instead of feeling affronted, Steve actually smiles.

_____

Toro hates mainstream music. Toro hates the popular girls. Toro hates celebrity culture and tells Steve within a month of meeting him that, "The prince looks like a bullfrog. Have you seen his face?"

"Uh," Steve says, torn between jumping to Bucky's defense and finding this entire exchange oddly refreshing after listening to almost everyone around him treat Bucky with some degree of reverence whether they intended to or not. And maybe it was just personal bias but hell no, he definitely disagreed with the idea that Bucky looked like a bullfrog.

"I don't get it," Toro continues as if he hadn't spoken at all, "It's not like any of his fangirls are even going to have a chance. He's probably going to get arranged off to whatever royal princess or duchess or whatever, you know? Fairy tales are stupid."

"Yeah," Steve says because he'd learned that it was easier to just agree with Toro and not take anything she said very seriously.

"Except maybe the Brothers Grimm," she adds, just as they reach the cafeteria, "Their fairy tales are pretty cool."

It's pretty much the only opinion that Toro offers about Bucky. Steve's happy to take it.

_____

It's not until spring semester has almost ended that Steve makes any real progress in understanding algebra. Namor hasn't changed his not-exactly-effective method of pointing things out and trying to make Steve draw his own conclusion but at least he's gotten better at dumbing down his hints for Steve to figure out.

In the meantime, even though they've never had a conversation outside the context of math for the entire half year that they've been meeting, Steve's learned enough about Namor to at least attempt some conversation. He figures out that Namor smelled like chlorine so much because he's captain of the swim team. Namor brings his tennis racket bag to one of their sessions and Steve keeps an ear out in the hallways for how the boys tennis is doing. He congratulates Namor once on beating a rival school and Namor almost smiles before they start in on the math.

Steve doesn't really know why but there's something about Namor that reminds him a little bit of Bucky. Maybe it's the casual way that he seems comfortable in his own body like Bucky's always been. He's got the same lean build--not as big as the football players but still athletic all the same.

Or maybe it's the way he carries himself. Namor's probably more decisive and uptight than Bucky ever was, but he projects a certain level of certainty that Steve only wishes he could obtain.

Or maybe Steve wants so badly for Bucky to be around again that he's just projecting. He wouldn't put it past himself.

_____

Finals leave him exhausted enough to the point where he has to spend the first week of summer break in bed, alternating between sleeping and catching up on television while texting Bucky. Bucky had finished with school earlier and had been in Europe for the last week and a half by that point, seven hours ahead. Steve had never been out of the United States but if there was one thing he had to be good at, it was memorizing time zones for major cities.

Toro stops by with all three seasons of Avatar: the Last Airbender and ends up falling asleep on his shoulder halfway through their marathon of the first season. He waits until the episode is done before gently shaking her to wake her.

She sits up and wipes at her mouth where she had drooled a bit and looks at him. "Sorry," she says, running a hand through her hair, mouth twisting. "At least I've seen all of these before, right?"

"You wouldn't really strike me as a fan," Steve says, gesturing at the television screen where the animated protagonist was chasing an aminated lemur.

"There's a lot you don't know about me, Rogers," she says darkly and grabs a handful of the popcorn Susanne had stopped by with earlier.

_____

He doesn't really like going up to the palace but Bucky's expected at some official lunch and Steve wakes up too late in the morning to do breakfast. Susanne drops him in back where the deliveries are made and chats with one of the cooks named Lorraine about some kale recipe she'd tried earlier that week. Security actually scans in his school ID and gives him a visitor's badge for a change. "Sorry about the inconvenience, Mr. Rogers," the guard says, "We have important heads of state here today."

Steve smiles blandly and pins the visitor's badge on his belt as he's finally waved through. The hallway between the dining room and kitchen is teeming with caterers and the occasional security. Someone is filming the entire thing with a professional looking camera.

Steve heads away from that, towards Bucky's room. Bucky's door is ajar and Steve can hear Bucky's voice: "Can we go lighter on the concealer? I've been having issues with my skin."

"I'll see what I can do," the makeup assistant (Steve's pretty sure her name is Lily but he'd only ever been introduced once) says.

Steve pushes the door open. Bucky turns to look at him and makes a face that's a cross between a grin and a grimace.

"Hi," Steve says, smiling.

"I hate these public lunches," Bucky says, "I'm fifteen. What the hell could I possibly contribute to the conversation? And Amanda insists that I make an appearance."

"I know," Steve says.

"I'm gonna be bored out of my mind," Bucky says, "A maid found my stash of red bull and Halley won't give me any of his coffee. I'm so tired I have no idea how I'm going to stay awake."

"I know," Steve says, smiling and taking a seat on Bucky's bed.

Bucky sighs and looks at himself in the mirror. Lily starts to work on his forehead. Steve doesn't know what the point is--Bucky looks handsome regardless of whether or not she puts weird stuff all over his face.

"I got you something," Bucky says, jerking his head at the duffel bag next to Steve's feet at the foot of the bed.

"Prince James," Lily says, exasperated.

"Sorry," Bucky says, stilling long enough for her to finish priming his face.

Steve digs through Bucky's bag, wrinkling his nose as he encounters all the dirty laundry he'd thrown in with the clean. But he's probably touched worse than Bucky's old socks and eventually he finds a book hidden underneath a giant box of Swiss chocolate.

"The chocolate's for Susanne," Bucky explains. Lily puts the finishing touches on his face and steps back. "The book's yours," he adds, immediately turning to look at Steve.

Steve looks at the book. It's a hard-bound, beautifully illustrated French version of The Little Prince.

"I thought it looked cool," Bucky says, "And you're taking French, so."

Steve smiles down at it. "Thanks Buck."

"But of course now you have to read it out loud to me," Bucky adds, shrugging on his tuxedo jacket.

"You don't even take French," Steve says, still smiling, "You wouldn't know if I was doing it all wrong anyway."

"Je could try," Bucky says. He picks up the cufflinks from his desk and smiles at Steve. Steve holds the book a little tighter, something he doesn't understand swelling in his chest.

"You'll be around when I'm done?"

"I guess I've got something to read now," Steve says.

Bucky checks the time before looking over his shoulder back at Steve. "I'll see you."

_____

He doesn't know how Bucky managed to convince him but a week after his birthday, he flies to Miami sitting next to Bucky in first class. He removes his sunglasses from his face only when the plane takes off and shares a pair earphones with Steve for the in-flight movie. Bucky ends up falling asleep half an hour in, elbow leaning against the armrest between the two of them, cheek to his palm. Steve is half distracted from the movie, wondering when Bucky's elbow would slip off the armrest and his head would tip over onto Steve. But Bucky manages to stay balanced and maybe Steve shouldn't be so impressed that Bucky's such a pro at sleeping anywhere these days.

By the time they land, Bucky's barely awake, half roused by the captain's announcement that they were descending. He leans against Steve, their arms pressed together, pulling on the strings of his hoodie so that it's just his nose and mouth visible. "I guess I missed the entire movie," he says.

"You didn't miss much," Steve assures him, tugging the strings out of Bucky's hands.

Bucky sighs and slumps forward. "Let's take a nap when we get to the hotel," he says.

But by the time Halley rents a car and they get to their rooms, Bucky is wide awake and distracted by his phone. Steve starts to unpack before Bucky suddenly says, "Our ride's here," and drags him out the door without checking in with Halley.

_____

Bucky doesn't seem too concerned about how he has to present at the opening of a marine life institution the royal family donated generously to the next morning. Steve had piled into an already full car after Bucky who had quickly introduced him around to all of his friends from Valley Forge. Steve's forgotten most of their names already except Jason, who owns the house where they're currently sitting around the pool in the backyard.

Bucky's other friends call him Barnes. They drink cheap beer while Steve clutches a can of diet coke that he can't even drink because the artificial sweetener makes his stomach act up. Steve sits close to Bucky and doesn't say much because Bucky's other friends talk over each other and keep referencing things that Steve doesn't know about.

"Barnes," Jason says, "Erica. Hot or not."

Bucky grins easily. Apparently he doesn't even have to answer because the rest of them start laughing. Steve wonders who this Erica is. Jason has his laptop on the table and they're digging through their classmates' Myspace accounts.

"Yeah, you want to do her," one of the other says just as Jason tilts the laptop towards the rest of them. Steve pushes his glasses up his face to look at the mystery girl.

She has curly dark hair and braces. She's pretty cute. It's weird because everyone else seems to know that Bucky likes her while Steve hasn't even heard of her. Steve can't help but feel disappointed.

"Hey Rogers," someone else says, "What's your type?"

"Uh," Steve says, still looking at the computer screen. Bucky's looking at him expectantly and he feels stupid for texting him about Toro because that wasn't what he had meant, not at all.

"I don't really have one," he finishes lamely and excuses himself to the bathroom.

He feels stupid for taking his diet coke with him but at least he can drain some of it down the sink and pretend he had actually drank some of it. When he comes back, just before he rounds the corner, he hears one of them say, "You know Barnes, from all of your stories, I figured Rogers would be a little cooler."

Steve freezes. No one says anything for what feels like forever before there's the quiet clink of a can on glass. "You know I've got an early morning tomorrow," Bucky says, sounding strangely detached, "I'll catch you guys later, yeah?"

Steve panics briefly and backtracks a few steps, pretending that he had just come back from the bathroom. Bucky comes in through the back, already on the phone and catches Steve's eye as Steve rounds the corner for real, desperately trying to look casual.

"Hey," Bucky says, hand over the microphone of his phone, "You ready to go?"

"Thank god," Steve says, putting his drink on the nearest table, not at all feigning the relief.

_____

In the car, Bucky's phone vibrates endlessly with texts before Bucky turns it off without looking at it. He's turned away from Steve, looking out the window. Halley glances at them in the rearview mirror.

"Is something wrong?" Steve asks.

"Nah," Bucky says without looking at him, "Just tired."

They lapse into silence for another two blocks. And then, because Steve can't resist: "Erica, huh? How come you never mentioned her?"

Bucky glances at him this time, shoulders hunching. "I don't actually like her that much. I mean she's alright. But she kissed me and it was easier to just pretend that I liked her back."

"Wait," Steve says, "She kissed you?"

"It wasn't very good," Bucky says, as if that would explain everything.

"She. Kissed you," Steve repeats.

Bucky looks at him, irritated.

"And you didn't tell me," Steve adds.

"It wasn't that great," Bucky reiterates, sounding like Steve's the stupid one here for not getting it, "I didn't like it. I don't see what the big deal is."

Steve tries not to feel hurt. "Okay," he says, and looks out his own window.

When they get back to the hotel, Bucky brushes his teeth and changes into his pyjamas. He turns on the television but puts it on mute with the subtitles on since Steve is reading. Or rather, Steve has his book open and he's looking at the page pretending to read, but instead he's trying not to be annoyed with Bucky for being irritated.

When Bucky starts to snore lightly Steve gets up and turns the television off. He looks at Bucky, sighs, and turns the light off.

_____

He dreams about Bucky kissing the girl from the laptop screen. He dreams about the way that she might grab him by the shoulders and pull him down towards her, noses bumping.

And then suddenly, Steve is in her place. Steve's never kissed anyone in his life but he still dreams about cupping Bucky's cheeks, about opening his mouth and kissing Bucky like he's only seen in movies. Bucky kisses him back and it's perfect in the way that only dreams can be.

He's woken up by Bucky's alarm. He stares at the wall, listening to the alarm get louder and louder before Bucky finally rolls over and turns it off. Steve's lucky that he's sleeping on his side, turned away from Bucky because he very definitely has a boner.

"Ugh," Bucky announces. He doesn't get up. Steve closes his eyes and fights down the panic because he's pretty sure dreaming about Bucky kissing him and then waking up with a hard-on was crossing all sorts of lines that he never knew he was capable of crossing.

The second alarm goes off five minutes after the first. Bucky turns it off faster this time and Steve hears Bucky's feet hit the floor.

"Sorry," Bucky mutters even though Steve has his eyes closed and is pretending to be asleep. He hears the bathroom door close and the shower start up.

Steve debates whether or not to just ignore his hard-on for so long that Bucky finishes showering before he can even shove a hand into his boxers. He keeps his eyes squeezed shut while listening to Bucky go through his suitcase. Bucky's towel hits the bed and Steve wants to pull the covers over his head because he's screwed, he's so so screwed.

Bucky takes a while in getting dressed and Steve barely breathes, trying to think of the worst things in order to get his stupid body under control. Steve hears the door open and close, followed shortly by the buzz of his phone still on the nightstand.

Steve rolls over to look at it. meet u 4 lunch, Bucky had texted.

Steve stares at it until his phone goes dark. He swallows and tries very hard not to cry.

_____

Everything changes, but everything stays the same too.

Steve tries not to touch Bucky and spends a lot of time looking at his phone even though Toro doesn't text and he's standing right next to the only other person who does. He pretends not to notice the confused looks that Bucky gives him, pretends to sleep on the plane ride home. He's pretending to do a lot.

It's not until they get back to DC that Bucky texts, Are you mad at me about not telling you about the kiss? and Steve knows that it's serious because Bucky never texts with proper grammar. It's a wake-up call that Steve's screwing up the best thing in his life and he needs to stop being weird or Bucky's going to finally come to his senses and figure out that his friends are right and that Steve's actually a loser after all.

I think I picked something up in Miami, Steve texts back.

u alright? Bucky asks, and immediately adds, want me 2 come over?

Steve sends, I'd just be sleeping. I don't want you to catch anything anyway.

Bucky doesn't answer for a while and Steve momentarily panics about lying. Eventually, Bucky texts, ok feel better, and Steve tries not to think about how Bucky's leaving by the end of the week to go back to Valley Forge. They won't see each other again until Thanksgiving.

_____

Steve's painfully self-aware of everything he does now. He had never noticed how often he'd let his eyes linger over the jocks table at lunch or how he instinctively leans into Namor every time the now-senior tries to explain anything. He memorizes the pattern of the tiling on the floor and focuses harder on his schoolwork instead of looking around the classroom like he used to.

He stops keeping a notebook to doodle in after realizing that he'd been subconsciously drawing parts of Bucky's face in his old one.

"How come you're so stiff all the time now?" Toro complains at lunch about month into their sophomore year. She looks at him over a ham sandwich with too much mayonnaise. "It's like someone shoved a giant stick up your butt."

"I don't have a stick up my butt," Steve replies, stirring the grain bowl that had been left over from dinner last night. He'd pushed his fork through it for the last five minutes without any appetite at all.

"Are you on a diet?" Toro demands, "Because let me tell you, you are the wrong person to be on a diet."

"I'm not on a diet," Steve says.

"Well then, why the hell are you so sad?"

I don't want to be gay, Steve almost says but it really translates to, I don't want to be in love with Bucky, and what it ultimately means is, I can't lose him.

"I'm not sad," Steve says instead, and ignores the way that Toro rolls her eyes.

_____

He just turned sixteen. What the hell did sixteen year olds know about love anyway?

_____

"Are you feeling alright?" Susanne keeps asking him when she gets home and finds him reading in the living room.

"I'm just tired," Steve keeps replying. He puts down his book and goes to his room where he can close the door and turn on music and scribble through entire sketchbooks: figures sitting by themselves in dark rooms, pianos, storm clouds, trains travelling into the far distance. He draws faces with exaggerated features--a hook nose here, a bulging forehead there--until he thinks he's managed to erase Bucky from his muscle memory.

He starts the process all over again every time he finds himself absently drawing the line of Bucky's shoulders (just three strokes and he recognizes what its supposed to be) or a familiar set of eyes. It's futile, he knows, and maybe he's crazy for trying it over and over again.

It's still better than the alternative.

_____

Bucky's too busy with cross country meets and not failing his English class to have much time to Skype but he keeps sending Steve pictures of Pennsylvania in the fall or selfies in front of mirrors, flexing his left bicep with i've been lifting but idk if it's working???? attached.

Steve is painfully aware of how much he smiles every time he opens a new text. He's also painfully aware of the swell of affection he feels even for Bucky's stupid chatspeak and the guilt that follows quickly on its heels. He tries not to smile so much but it's hard because even if Bucky is the crush he shouldn't have, he's still Steve's best friend.

_____

Toro might not know when to keep her mouth shut all of the time but she usually doesn't run off at the mouth to anyone who doesn't try to strike up a conversation with her first. She's not the type to take any shit either, so when Steve finds the popular girls arranged in a semicircle around Toro's locker with Toro clutching her notebooks to her chest and looking like she's about to burst into tears, Steve doesn't even think twice.

"Hey," he calls out to Toro, striding down the hallway, "What's going on?"

"This doesn't involve you, Rogers," says one of the girls (Josephine?--he'd only ever seen her in AP US History, flipping lazily through pre-made flashcards while the teacher talked). She steps in front of him, blocking him from reaching Toro.

"Excuse me," Steve says, stepping to the side, "I was talking to Toro."

"Why don't you run along?" Josephine suggests, stepping in front of him again, "We're just having a little chat with your girlfriend."

"A real nice chat you're having," Steve observes.

"Listen, you little dweeb," Josephine says, "I don't care who your friends are. In this school, you're a loser and you follow our rules."

"I didn't know you made the rules around here," Steve says at the same time as Toro screams, "You don't get to call him that!" while grabbing a handful of the back of Josephine's hair and pulling hard.

Which is how they all end up sitting outside the principal's office and Steve ends up getting a therapist.

_____

The therapist doesn't make Steve talk so they sit together in silence while Steve doodles on the back of a pamphlet until their thirty minutes are up. But then he feels guilty because Susanne's paying fifty dollars a session and he's read enough books to know that he's supposed to be pouring his heart out so that the doctor can tell him what was wrong with him and so that they can fix him.

But the thing is, he's spent so long being suspicious of anyone asking too many questions because a vast majority of the time, they started asking what he knew about Bucky because that's who they were all really after when it came right down to it. And it's not like he needs a therapist to tell him what was wrong with him anyway--he knew exactly what was wrong with him and it wasn't anything he could tell anyone, ever. No, this was something bigger than himself and he wasn't going to drag Bucky's name into this. Confidentiality agreements could be broken for the right price.

"Are you having trouble making friends, Steve?" the therapist asks him during their second session. Steve shrugs because he's not the most popular kid by a long shot. But it's not like he's lonely except in a very specific way that has only to do with the one person he can't talk about.

In the end, he tells Susanne that he doesn't like going to the sessions and that he's just been feeling more tired than usual. He knows that she just wants him to talk to someone because apparently he can't even tell her what's wrong--but either the therapist tells her or maybe she can tell just by his face that it's not working. After his fourth session, he doesn't have to go any more.

_____

The week before Thanksgiving break, Toro kisses him.

It's nearly five and they're still hanging out in the art room because Mr. Hannigan doesn't care if they want to use the space after school because he does his grading and some of his painting after hours, joking with the weird group of misfit who don't seem to have anywhere else to go. Steve doesn't have an art class this semester but Mr. Hannigan gives him free reign over the gouache as long as he cleans up after himself.

It's after he puts away the brushes and sets his half finished painting on an unused shelf to dry--Toro's finished cleaning her space and she's waiting for him outside the classroom door. The moment that Steve steps into the hallway, Toro leans down towards his face and their teeth clack together as she goes in for the kiss a little too fast. It's a bit painful and they both pull back--saliva that's not his on Steve's lips.

Toro looks a little horrified but she's not running away and when she speaks, she says very clearly, "I really like you Steve."

And this was not the way Steve wanted this story to go, not at all and he doesn't know how to say no without ruining everything. So he goes with some version of the truth because he's not smart enough to lie, and he says, "I can't. I'm sorry. There's someone else."

She stares at him, going red with embarrassment and Steve's ears are burning. "Oh," she says. "Do I know her?" she asks.

"She doesn't go to this school," Steve says because just liking a single boy didn't make him gay, right? "I'm really sorry, Toro."

"Okay," she says. And then she says, "Let's forget this happened."

"Okay," Steve replies--but of course, it's never the same after that.

_____

They go up to the palace for Thanksgiving--Steve in his best button down and slacks; Susanne wearing a dark blue evening dress and a pearl necklace that Steve didn't even know she had. She looks years younger.

It's nothing like that Thanksgivings they have when Bucky ditches out on the royal dinner. But the queen is having a fragile few months--or at least that's what Steve's heard Halley tell Susanne during their weekly Friday beer evening--and Bucky has to be here this year.

Bucky is seated at the table in front, next to the queen. He has his eyes on the door when Steve walks through and he's the first person to catch his eye. He smiles a little and looks away at the woman sitting across from him at the table--distant relatives, maybe. It's possible Steve's met them before at some other dinner.

There's no fighting over the better Gamecube controller here, no smell of homemade stuffing wafting through the living room. Halley isn't yelling at the television when the Cowboys score--he's standing in a tuxedo behind the front table looking impassively out over the hundred or so foreign diplomats invited who don't celebrate Thanksgiving in their home countries.

 

Steve and Susanne aren't important enough to warrant anything other than a corner table with the Barneses who have lost the royal surname and their peerage but the queen still invites out of some misplaced sense of familial obligation. Steve takes a seat and stares down at his plate while Susanne strikes up a conversation.

His phone vibrates. He glances up at the front table but Bucky's nodding and smiling at something that the woman across from him is saying.

Nevertheless, it's still a text from Bucky. their serving goose this year, GOOSE. want 2 ditch in like 15??

When he looks up, Bucky is looking straight at him. Steve grins and gives him a thumbs up.

_____

"Oh my god," Bucky says when they get to the kitchen, "Is that a turkey I see? Lorraine, you are a goddess."

The cook shakes her head at him, smiling. "I just knew you were going to show up. Get over here then, you're blocking the servers. Stay out of the way. You're going to get your clothes all messed up."

They try to find a spot in the kitchen where they're not too much in the way. Lorraine's in the middle of carving a turkey for the staff--the real food for the banquet has all gone out. There's pans of cornbread still cooling, cut into bars with quick swipes--nothing like the carefully constructed, delicate looking corn biscuits that had been served as individual pieces to the guests.

"Can I please?" Bucky asks, staring longingly at the cornbread.

Lorraine just sighs at him but she calls over her shoulder, "Hey Kenny, can you get these two freeloaders some plates?"

_____

He's seen Bucky in formal wear a thousand times but never since the moment he'd realized. So when they get to Bucky's room and Bucky flicks on the light that sends a soft glow against the walls; when he half turns towards Steve already unbuttoning his jacket, Steve knows that he's a lost cause. He's gone so far off the deep end that he might as well be drowning.

Because it's one thing to be in love with the memories of a person or the words that show up on his phone screen--it's another thing entirely to look into Bucky's face and feel something in his chest clench hard, fingernails digging into the palms of his hands.

_____

Maybe it was better that they didn't go to the same school.

Or maybe better's not the word he's looking for.

Easier.

_____

He starts eating lunch alone. Toro's busy with a project or has to study in the library during lunch--but Steve gets it. He doesn't really blame her. They still nod at each other in the hallway but she doesn't stop by his locker any more like she used to.

He spends a lot of time in the art room. He starts bringing his lunch there just so that he can sit with his sketchbook and work on drawing hands. He draws hands for an entire two months and tries not to read too much into it when he draws hands with fingers that are broader than his, the wristbone not as pronounced.

Mr. Hannigan likes the blueberry cookies that Susanne bakes. Steve starts bringing extra and tries not to feel too bad that Susanne probably thinks his appetite is improving. He still barely eats anything.

"I know our school doesn't offer higher level IB art," Mr. Hannigan tells him one afternoon after Steve's filled up an entire page with sketched figures, picking out references from a book of greek statues. "But I'd be happy to sponsor your independent study if you wanted to do it."

Steve looks up at him, eyes wide. He looks back down at the page and asks, "You think I could really do it?"

"I wouldn't suggest it if I didn't think you could," Mr. Hannigan says. He smiles.

Steve breaks out into a smile--it's the happiest he's felt in a while.

_____

It's sometime in April that he actually says it out loud.

Halley takes him up to Pennsylvania to watch Bucky play at all state. He doesn't make it very far because he's playing on an ankle he'd sprained in track a while back but at least it means the paparazzi clear out early. He waves at Steve but sits with the other two players from his school, their heads bent together as they analyze the competition.

Bucky catches him before they make the three hour trip back down to DC. "I'm glad you came," he says, pulling Steve into a hug and Steve freezes up momentarily before hugging Bucky back.

Steve waits until they're pulling up in front of his house. Halley lets the engine idle. Steve swallows even though his mouth is dry. He has his hand on the door handle but he can't leave, not just yet. He'd decided to get it over with that morning and he'd been gathering his resolve the entire ride down, so--

"Is there something else?" Halley asks.

"Yeah," Steve says. He opens the door but doesn't push it all the way open--just in case he wants to make a break for it after he says the words. "Yeah, I uh."

Halley just watches him.

"I think I might be gay," Steve barely manages to say. He can't look at Halley's face so he stares at the windshield instead.

"Okay," Halley says, his deep voice still calm, "I support you, Steve."

Steve lets out a long breath.

"How long have you been keeping this in?" Halley asks.

"I don't know," Steve says, "A while."

"You know we love you Steve," Halley says after a moment. "I may not say it often but I'm always here if you want to talk about anything. And Susanne will support you no matter what you do."

Steve feels guilty that he hasn't told her, not yet. He didn't want to tell anyone, really, because if he didn't say it out loud, maybe he could take it back. But now he'd told Halley and there was no turning back.

"How do you think he'd react?" Steve asks in one fast breath. He still can't look at Halley's face. He looks down at his hands instead.

"You're his best friend," Halley says, "He's a good kid."

It's not like he was expecting Halley to give him definitive answers--that would have been unfair of him. But he still wishes he could know before he said the words to Bucky.

"It's gonna be okay," Halley says and reaches over to put an arm around his shoulders, drawing him in for side hug.

_____

Namor's graduating this year so Steve paints him a gift for the countless hours hours he's spent trying to get Steve to understand how to figure out word problems. Geometry and trig have been easier for Steve than Algebra, but math class has still been a disaster all around and he has no idea how he's even going to pass the standard level test at the end of senior year.

He paints the school swimming pool on an A1 piece of cardstock, the watercolor sinking into the thick paper. He'd been careful to keep his pencil light and relied heavily on a ruler to get all of the straight lines but despite how much he hated his own work on a regular basis, even Steve has to admit that it's a good painting.

He feels stupid, handing it over to Namor though. But the anxiety is short lived when Namor actually, really smiles at the thing and looks up at him, saying, "Thanks Steve," like he really meant it.

_____

He comes out to Bucky. The world doesn't end.

_____

He starts off junior year with a viral infection that leaves him completely drained and nauseous enough to keep him in bed, curled around himself and unmoving. Watching anything worsens his headache so he spends most of his time sleeping and hoping that he'll feel better the next day.

He's a pro at missing classwork by now. By the time he actually starts school, the teachers just hand him his textbook and a list of the readings and assignments he's missed from the first two weeks. It's the first time he hasn't had to defend himself against accusations of making up illnesses and it's the only bright spot for the entire week.

Toro has a boyfriend. He wears a Taproot hoodie to school every day and Steve sees them sharing earbuds. She still nods at Steve in the hallways. But the first time that she'd had her boyfriend with her as they passed each other, she hadn't acknowledged his smile at all.

All the juniors are scheduled to meet with a guidance counselor to talk about college and standardized testing. It's not that Steve hasn't thought about it--it's just that he's not as intense about colleges as most of his classmates are.

"Have you given any thought as to what you want to do after you graduate?" the counselor asks him, and well.

"I'm not really sure," Steve says.

_____

It's not true. Steve knows that he would like be wherever Bucky ends up.

But if he was going to be realistic about it, Bucky was probably going to end up at one of two places: Harvard or West Point. Steve thinks that Bucky's smarter than most people give him credit for, but he doesn't have the numbers to get into Harvard. Steve knows for a fact that Bucky's terrible at taking fill-in-the-bubble tests.

And when he goes to West Point--well.

Steve's not sure if he can follow him there, either to college or whatever comes after.

_____

He doesn't dream much during the academic year when he's tired with school and it's even rarer that he's not too tired to get a hard-on sometime during the night. He knows his sex drive is lower than anyone he knows, including Bucky who makes out with pretty girls on the regular (though maybe not as regularly as Bucky leads everyone else to believe) and then goes into far too much detail about all of it via text.

But he wakes up on a Saturday morning with a raging boner and the faint impression that he'd been dreaming about someone else's hand in his boxers. He's still half asleep when he reaches down and takes his own cock onto his hand, eyes still closed and breathing through his mouth. He grasps for the tail end of his dream but in the end, it's the same thing every time: Bucky's weight pinning him down, his stupid rakish smile, his hand wrapped around Steve's cock and pumping real slow.

Steve makes a stifled noise, arching up into his own hand. He's waking up more but he holds tightly to the thought that Bucky's touching him, that he's watching him and breathing fast too. Steve squeezes his eyes shut, thinks about touching Bucky too--running his hands across Bucky's flat stomach and pushing into Bucky's pants--and he comes all over himself.

Steve slowly opens his eyes and feels guilt settle in alongside the weight of exhaustion. He'd been trying to train himself out of those thoughts, and well.

Fuck.

_____

When it hits late November, the snow is worse than usual. Steve develops a persistent cough that turns out to be pneumonia and ends up having to stay home the week before finals. He turns in his assignments via email and gets handouts dropped off after school by Cathy who sits two seats in front of him in first period English. They exchange a hi, thanks, bye before she's gone and Steve's left standing in the hallway with a review packet on polar coordinates in one hand and absolutely no motivation to do any of it.

He goes to his finals because he'd learned from missing them freshman year that it's easier to just take the damn things while half delirious on prescription strength pain medication than to try and reschedule and push the grading process back. He crashes hard after his last one and sleeps for twenty hours straight.

When he wakes up, Bucky is sitting on the other side of his bed, flipping through his sketchbook.

"What," Steve mumbles. Bucky wasn't even supposed to be back until later that month.

"Good--" Bucky looks at his watch. "--evening, sleeping beauty. Susanne let me in."

"Okay," Steve agrees and closes his eyes again.

_____

When he wakes up for real, he's somehow maneuvered himself to have his head half pillowed on Bucky's thigh. Bucky's hand rests on the pillow behind his head and he's reading one of the sci-fi books that Steve got ages ago and had been meaning to mail off to Bucky but never got around to getting the boxes for.

"Is it any good?" Steve rasps.

Bucky lifts the book and looks down at him. "There's robot tits involved so I can't complain."

"I know what you like," Steve agrees.

Bucky looks back at the book. "Pneumonia, huh?"

"I'll try not to cough on you," Steve says, "Aren't you supposed to be in Canada?"

"It got cancelled last minute and even Amanda can't whip up new plans for me on this short of a notice," Bucky says, setting the book on Steve's nightstand, "Looks like I get Christmas break off for real."

Steve shifts his head off Bucky's leg and back onto his actual pillow. "Sorry I'm sick."

"It's cool," Bucky says, scooting so he's lying down next to Steve. "I kind of want to sleep for a million years at this point anyway."

"How brutal was your physics final?" Steve asks--or at least he tries to ask but the last half of his question is overtaken by coughing. He has to sit up and by the time he gets the fit under control, his eyes are red and streaming and his throat feels like sandpaper. Bucky's hand is on his back.

"Come on," Bucky says, sliding off the bed, "I think Susanne made tea like half an hour ago."

_____

Bucky sometimes leaves to go back to the palace but most nights they're sprawled out on the fold-out couch with a batch of freshly roasted chickpeas or a tub of dried mango since Susanne refuses to shop for junk food. Bucky seems to really like the chickpeas though, and it's probably a step up from the million salads they serve at the palace because that's what the queen seems to be into these days. They watch the first season of Scrubs together--which really means that Bucky's listening and only half watching the screen while he plays Sudoku on his phone and Steve's mostly asleep. He curls up against Bucky's side, too tired and in need of comfort to feel too badly about what he's doing.

Steve's pneumonia is persistent even with the antibiotics and for about a day, Susanne's paranoid that it might be a MRSA infection despite the fact that Steve has thankfully not spent extended periods of time in the hospital this year. But then Steve stops coughing up blood and the fits are easier to get under control and harder to start up as long as Steve doesn't breathe in too far and he's slowly crawling his way to recovery in time before he has to go back to school.

"You could be skiing," Steve points out on Christmas eve, cradling a warm mug of lemon tea in his hands.

"Why?" Bucky asks as he puts a plate of strawberry jam toast on Steve's stomach. "Do you want to go skiing?"

"I don't know how to ski."

"Would you like to learn how to ski?" Bucky asks, settling back on the couch and taking one of the pieces of toast.

"You know I'd just--I don't know--fall over and die, probably," Steve says, "But that's not my point."

"Yeah, I know what your point is," Buckys says, taking a bite. He chews and swallows, and then he says, "But I want to be here so shut up about it already, yeah?"

"Okay," Steve says, trying not to smile too widely.

_____

It's moments like these, moments when Bucky hands him a wrapped moleskine over Christmas and waves away Steve's guilty look with, "Yeah I know, you haven't had the chance because you were too busy coughing your lungs out--don't worry about it Steve." Moments when Bucky takes his empty mug and comes back with a new cup of tea, all without saying a single word. Moments when Steve is half asleep and Bucky laughs at something on the television screen, quiet and low and Steve wants to stretch out and press his face into Bucky's clothed stomach, sleep with his arm against Bucky's side and feel him breathe.

Moments when Steve can't help himself--moments when Steve is completely, terrifying in love with his best friend.

_____

In February he meets with the guidance counselor again to talk about colleges and blurts out, "I think I'd like to study photojournalism. Maybe in New York."

_____

He's in the art room, working on a piece for his portfolio when he hears Marie and Kayla in the corner giggling. He normally ignores them because they take advantage of Mr. Hannigan's lax attitude to gossip about celebrities all class and he's absolutely not interested in whether or not Angelina Jolie or Jennifer Aniston deserved Brad Pitt more. But today they've been giving him weird looks and he could have sworn they said Bucky's name at some point so he pays a little closer attention.

"Wouldn't they make it into a political thing, though?" Marie asks, "Like he does so much awareness raising that I don't buy for a moment that the LGBT groups wouldn't adopt him for their new poster boy."

"Ugh, Marie, don't ruin my daydreaming," Kayla says, cutting out bits of fabric and matching them together. "He's hot. Can you imagine what it'd be like if he was dating one of his jock friends? What do you think they get up to in the locker room?"

Marie swats at her shoulder. "Kayla!"

"I'm just saying," Kayla says, grinning but lowering her voice a little. "Maybe it's like a long day after practice and they're all sweaty and helping each other out in the showers, you know?"

"You're going to get us into trouble," Marie whispers, but she's smiling nonetheless.

Steve stares unseeingly at his own piece. It's been a good two minutes since he last put anything on the page and it takes him another thirty seconds before he shakes himself out of it and tries to continue to draw--even though he's not really paying attention to the lines he's putting down on the paper. He sketches for another ten seconds before realizing that he's not getting anywhere. He packs up because he's in independent study, not the actual class and heads out.

And when he passes the two girls, he says quietly enough so that only they can hear, "He's straight. Sorry. Or congratulations, depending on how you look at it."

He doesn't wait for an answer, just goes out the door.

_____

There was no way--Bucky wasn't--

He would have known. Steve would have been the very first person to know.

Right?

_____

A quick search tells him that some seventeen year old boy had told the National Enquirer earlier that week that he had kissed the crown prince at some club in Philadelphia with the promise to follow up on it later on. The kid was heartbroken when the prince hadn't called--and that was why he'd gone to the Enquirer.

It's quite possibly the stupidest story Steve's ever heard. But it's not like Bucky was supposedly having a gay affair that lasted months and months only to end in some dramatic breakup--which would have been easier to brush off as being completely untrue. Because even though the Enquirer was clearly stretching to fill their pages, it's not a complete stretch to suggest that Bucky might have kissed some boy at a club and not bothered to tell Steve about it.

And there's a part of him that--

He doesn't even want to acknowledge it. Because it's stupid and Bucky's never expressed an interest in boys in his entire life and to even think that--

It would be stupid. Beyond stupid.

So why can't he help himself?

_____

But if it were true, then it meant that Bucky wasn't necessarily not interested in boys, it meant that he was just not interested in Steve.

And he doesn't know which one is worse.

_____

He texts: National Enquirer says you kissed some boy in a club in Philly. You could have come to me for tips, you know.

He puts his phone face down on the table and tries to focus on doing his math homework. But his eyes keep straying to the phone. He struggles through maybe three problems total before reaching for the damn thing.

lol what, Bucky had texted back. Followed by, ur right i should have consulted the expert first, and then, when did u start reading natl enq anyway

Steve doesn't know if he feels relieved or disappointed. He texts, Gossip girls were reading it in art. I haven't sunk that low. And don't worry, I defended your honor.

It's a few minutes before Bucky texts back. lmao what honor. And then: thanks anyway steve :)

_____

Despite his health issues and the dozens of days he's had to miss from school, his GPA is not a complete wreck. The guidance counselor goes over the packet she'd asked him to prepare and says, "I see you've been in a couple of art shows."

Steve nods.

She looks up at him. "You said last time your top choice was NYU?"

Steve nods again.

She flips through the packet before sighing and putting it on her desk. "I'm going to be frank. You don't have a lot of extracurricular activities."

Steve doesn't get angry immediately. It starts off as irritation and slowly snowballs into something bigger. The counselor doesn't seem to notice as she says, "Your grades are decent and your SAT score is great. But there's more to your application than just your numbers, you know."

"I'm sick a lot," Steve says quietly. "I have to study a lot harder to keep my grades up."

"I can tell that school is a lot more difficult for you than for most other people," she says in a tone of voice that suggests she doesn't see it at all. "All I'm suggesting is that maybe you be a little bit more open to schools that are outside of New York. You know, keep all of your options open."

It's true. What she's saying is true. But Steve doesn't want logical.

"Just think about it," she says, handing him his packet back.

_____

"I could teach you how to drive," Bucky says on the way up to the Poconos. He's doing ten over on the highway while Steve goes through his iPod, looking for the playlists that he'd sent to Bucky ages ago.

"My eyes suck too much," Steve replies, giving up and settling for some remix version of a Relient K song because Bucky was weird and actually deleted stuff off his iPod despite having all 160GB worth of space.

"I can't tell if you'd be a really good driver or a really terrifying one," Bucky says, eyeing him.

"A really blind one," Steve suggests, leaning back and putting his hand out the window.

_____

It's sometimes hard for Steve to remember that Bucky's the crown prince and that more often than not, there are thousands if not millions of people interested in what he's up to at any given moment. It's not really something that Steve thinks about until he's watching CNN and a segment comes up about the state of the monarchy or he catches Prince James's face on the front of People praising him for some form of activism or another Amanda had set him up with.

Because Bucky is, in a lot of ways, the same person that Steve's always known. He's charming and knows how to make friends with almost anyone. He hates having to wait for anything, is selfish with his time, and tries his hardest to get away with being lazy with hygiene though he's gotten significantly better over the years. He hates corn flakes but has strong opinions on granola and hits the meanest backhand Steve's ever seen on a real tennis court.

He smiles for the camera--sometimes exaggerated enough to make the corners of his eyes crinkle, other times small and mysterious--but it's not like the way he smiles at Steve when they're doing nothing at all, softly fond and absent like he doesn't have a clue that he's doing it. And sometimes Steve can't look at Bucky's face for too long because how can he look at that smile and not want far too much?

_____

Steve doesn't know where Bucky found the bottle of whiskey or how he managed to get himself talked into drinking half of it. They haven't been measuring out shots or anything--drinking straight from the bottle like real champs and listening for any sign that Halley might be waking up down the hallway. Steve's head is swimming by the fifth time the bottle gets passed over to him. They've definitely snuck alcohol before, but Steve doesn't think he's ever gotten this drunk before.

Bucky's definitely drunk. He keeps laughing and Steve has to keep shushing him, leading to a cycle of laughter and trying not to laugh which was funny all in of itself. They're trying hard to be quiet but Steve has no idea if they're successful at all.

They're on the floor in the dark, Steve sitting with his back to his bed, Steve with his eyes closed and half thinking about maybe turning in for the night when suddenly Bucky grabs his shoulder and he's speaking quietly right into Steve's ear. "Hey," he says, "Steve. How did you know you were gay?"

Steve opens his eyes and turns his head. Bucky's head is turned towards him and he's looking expectantly at Steve like he's got the entire answer to the universe and everything. "I dunno," Steve lies because even when he's drunk he still keeps these cards close to his chest, "I just did."

"Have you ever thought about me that way?" Bucky asks and the worst part is that it's an open, genuine question. Casual, like he didn't realize how much this could rip the fabric of their friendship. Steve hates him a little for it.

"No," he says.

"Why not?" Bucky asks, "I'm pretty hot. I'm good at kissing."

"Sure you are," Steve says, dismissive because he doesn't want to talk about this any more and they were having such a good time before all of this came up. But Bucky must see it as a challenge because he gets to his knees and tilts Steve's face up, bending his head down to kiss Steve. Even in his drunken state, his lips are soft against Steve's, his tongue slipping into Steve's mouth like a thief, his fingertips on Steve's jaw.

Steve makes a low broken noise and pushes Bucky away. Bucky sits back on his heels, his grin immediately fading when he sees the expression on Steve's face.

"Steve," Bucky says, reaching out but Steve ducks out of the way. "I'm sorry--I wasn't think--" He swallows, "--it was a joke."

"It's okay," Steve says, swallowing down the sudden urge to cry, "Forget it, it's okay."

In the morning, Bucky complains that he has the worst hangover of all time and Halley makes them both drink lots of water. They never talk about it again. Steve isn't even sure if Bucky remembers.

_____

It's so so stupid because sometimes he wakes up in the morning thinking about Bucky's fingertips against his jaw and he'll be hard and aching for some form of friction, but instead he'll just stare at the wall until it goes away. Because Bucky had meant for the kiss to be a joke and he can't--he has more respect for himself than that.

Except once when he doesn't and one morning he actually touches himself, actually closes his hand around his own cock and jerks himself a couple of times. He lets himself get into it, tries to keep his mind detached it it wanders away from him like it always does until he's thinking about that fucking kiss again--Bucky's tongue nudging against his, the pressure of his mouth insistent and real.

He's so close but he pulls his hand away, keeps his eyes squeezed shut. His hands are clenched so tightly into fists that his nail dig hard into his palms. "Get it together, Rogers," he says to the empty room.

His hips shift a little of their own accord but he doesn't touch himself, just keeps his fisted hands by his sides until his erection starts to flag and eventually goes away. It's only then that he lets himself open his eyes. He lets out a long breath.

_____

"Did you figure out your final list for places you're applying to?" Bucky asks him over Skype sometime in November.

"Uh," Steve says. He's usually more organized and practical than this but he's so set on one school that he hasn't really given it much more thought. "NYU, mostly. Tisch. Maybe the art school in Philly. University of the Arts?"

Bucky nods.

"Where do you want to go?" Steve asks, because it suddenly occurs to him that he hadn't ever asked--he'd just sort of assumed.

"Amanda says I'd do well at West Point."

Steve's sick of hearing about what other people want for Bucky. "Do you want to go to West Point?"

It's hard to tell through Skype where Bucky is looking. But Bucky smiles in a kind of resigned way and says, "I want you to go to NYU."

_____

By some miracle, his annual winter flu doesn't strike him until after the new year has passed, leaving him enough time to cobble together a decent portfolio and fill out all the paperwork for his applications. Bucky's away on the west coast somewhere--he'd already received his acceptance to West Point a month back--so Steve can ignore his texts a little bit easier than if he had been around to bother Steve in real life.

He'd written his college application essay about struggling with chronic illness. He'd considered writing about Bucky for a long time--about how he's been trying to find his own identity outside of this all consuming relationship. But that was before he'd realize how ironic that particular essay would have been, not to mention melodramatic and awful. And besides, he had serious qualms about using Bucky like that in an admissions essay anyway--it would have probably been perceived as name-dropping.

It does make him think, though. About how much of his high school life, spent apart from Bucky, still revolved around Bucky in some way. If there was some prize he could win for being in love with his unattainable best friend for his entire stupid life, Steve had won it with flying colors.

_____

"New York is going to be a lot different than Arlington," Susanne tells him two weeks after he gets his acceptance letter in the mail. Someone had written him personally to tell him how much his admissions essay had touched them and how much they hoped he would matriculate. Steve had called Bucky the moment he'd opened the envelope.

"It'll probably also be easier to get sick," Susanne adds, chopping bok choy for a stirfry she'd wanted to try. "And it's further up north so the winters are going to be more brutal."

Steve keeps mincing garlic. "I used to live there when I was younger." But he'd had a better immune system back then.

"As long as you wash your hands more," Susanne says. She sighs and smiles sadly at him, "Oh, I'm going to miss you Steve."

Steve smiles back though he keeps his eyes on his chopping board. "Don't worry too much, you get to deal with me for another few months. You'll get sick of me by then."

_____

Near the end of the school year, he runs into Toro. She's not wearing as much eyeliner as she used to and she's wearing a cami under her hoodie rather than a band shirt. He barely even recognizes her when she sits down across from him in the library where he's halfheartedly copying citations for his extended essay bibliography.

"Hi," she says, and then without any other preamble, she says, "Look, it's getting to the end of senior year and I just wanted to say that I'm sorry for being such a shit."

Steve looks up at her.

"I know we said that we'd be friends and then I just stopped talking to you. And I made things awkward and weird and you didn't have any other friends. So, sorry. About that."

"I had other friends," Steve says because he needs another moment to process what was happening.

"Not here," Toro says, "People here think you think you're too cool to make friends with anyone."

"That's not true," Steve says.

Toro shrugs.

"Thanks though," Steve says, after a moment, "I appreciate it."

Toro shrugs again and puts her bag on the table. She rummages around in it before pulling out her own textbook. Steve watches her for a while longer before looking back down at the notecard he was filling out. He'd lost his train of thought.

"You going to prom?" Toro asks.

Steve glances back up at her and something must show on his face because she laughs.

"Relax," she says, "I didn't come here to ask you to prom."

"I'm probably not going to go."

"Why not?" She tilts her head, "Nobody to ask?"

"Not really my sort of thing," Steve says.

"Shouldn't you go at least once, though?" Toro asks, "I mean, you didn't go last year either."

Steve looks up at her--she'd noticed? But she just looks back at him, challenging.

"It's part of the high school experience, isn't it? Making cherished memories and all."

"Toro," Steve says, "You've changed a lot, haven't you?"

Toro bristles a little at that but she doesn't say anything, just shakes her head.

"I haven't really enjoyed the rest of high school. I doubt I'd enjoy prom," Steve says.

They lapse into silence. Toro reads a bit of her book, but she keeps looking up at Steve every once in a while like she wants to say something but doesn't know when the best time to say it would be. Steve copies the citation for another two books before she speaks again.

"Hey," she says, "Whatever happened to that girl?"

Steve looks up at her. "What girl?"

"You know. The one from sophomore year."

If Steve is to embark on the rest of his life, he has to start somewhere. And he'd heard Amanda tell Bucky once that sometimes the easiest thing to do was to pretend at something so that it would come true.

"Nothing," he says, "I moved on."

_____

"How did you two even meet?" Peggy asks.

The truth is that Steve has been trying to get away from that exact question for the last two years.

"I think he saved me," Steve says, "I don't even remember what the fight was about but he picked my side. We couldn't have been older than four."

She smiles at him.

"He's been there ever since, I guess," Steve says, self-consciously picking at the useless Christmas lights.

"He must be really important to you," Peggy says gently. Like she's giving him permission to say all the things he doesn't think he can. Like she can read him as well as Bucky can. He feels a sudden wave of affection for her.

But tonight is not the right night--not when Bucky didn't even know.

"Yeah," Steve says, "He's my best friend."

Chapter Text

It's hot.

Like, really fucking hot. The air is thick and he's sweating in his fatigues. It's not like he doesn't have experience hanging out in full battle gear during the summer--hell he'd just spent the last month at basic in Virginia--but it's not usually over a hundred degrees this late in the afternoon. The sun is nearly down and the warm humidity still sits uncomfortably at the back of his neck, making his skin sticky even with the wind passing in through the open window of the supply truck.

The landscape shouldn't be as strange as Bucky finds it. He's driven through the flat deserts of New Mexico with low growing grasses and cacti framed by mountains in the far distance. But this--the middle east seems to alternate between patches of beautiful greenery and barren dust as far as the eye can see.

"We're almost there, sir," says the corporal driving the truck. He's been sneaking looks at Bucky almost the entire ride but Bucky keeps his rifle out the window, looking for signs of men hiding in the greenery. A convoy had been attacked last week and even though the rules of engagement hadn't necessarily changed, Bucky had caught the tail end of an ass-chewing about getting too lax on the job when he'd reported to the colonel.

Bucky looks through the windshield at the city where he'll be spending the next year of his life. The sweat slides down the back of his neck.

_____

When Major Dominguez pushes open the door to his office, the man seated inside immediately rises to his feet. Bucky follows the major in as he waves between the man and Bucky, saying, "Lieutenant, this is Sergeant Dugan. Sergeant, this is Lieutenant Barnes."

Dugan steps forward, holding out his hand. Bucky shakes it. Dugan's grip is firm--though probably unsurprising considering how big the man is--inches taller than Bucky and a linebacker physique that strains the fabric over the shoulders of his uniform. "Sir," Dugan says.

"Sit," Major Dominguez says, taking a seat behind his desk. Bucky sets his duffel of personal effects on the ground and sits on one of the folding chairs in front of the desk.

"Sergeant Dugan will be your point of contact for familiarizing yourself with this city and our operations. He will also introduce you to your men." Major Dominguez moves a stack of folders to the corner of his desk before looking up at Bucky. Bucky keeps steady eye contact. "The 107th has three companies here in Basrah. Your platoon is stationed on the east side of the city and tasked with securing the Arvand river and maintaining an open route for our supply ships."

"Yes, sir," Bucky says.

"Well then," the major says, "Welcome to Basrah. Sergeant Dugan can fill you in on day to day protocol."

_____

The armored humvee that Dugan drives through the streets of Basrah shudders violently every time they come to a halt or have to start moving again. "That's normal," Dugan says, "I already put in the request for new spark plug wires but we're terminally undersupplied. Kind of funny when you think about how we're stationed in a port."

They turn into a fenced off dirt yard next to a small building that looks like it'd been a half-finished concrete house at some point before the US army took it over. Light spills out from a window onto the dust and weeds in front. Dugan parks next to another humvee and climbs out of the vehicle. Bucky follows him across the open garage and into the lit building.

Bucky can hear the low chatter of men down the hallway long before they get to the room where several men are lounging around, playing cards and cleaning their weapons of the perpetual dust. One two of them get to their feet when Dugan enters with Bucky in tow--the others just look up with varying levels of disinterest.

"Gentlemen," Dugan says, "This is Lieutenant Barnes. He will be replacing Lieutenant Harper for the remainder of this tour."

The rest of the men actually climb to their feet. One of them says, "Well shit."

"Corporal Morita," Dugan warns.

"Apologies sir," the Asian man says, straightening and saluting, "I will not make inappropriate remarks in the presence of officers."

The others seem vaguely like they're holding back laughter but Bucky can't quite tell from their stony faces, standing at attention in front of him in varying levels of undress--only one of them is still dressed in full gear.

"Corporal Morita is our combat medic," Dugan says. He points to each of them in turn. "Corporal Jones, communications specialist. Sergeant Manelli. Private Ralston." He pauses, and asks, "Are Dernier, Juniper, and Koenig still on patrol?"

"Yes sir," Ralston answers.

"I guess you'll meet them later," Dugan says to Bucky before addressing the men again, "I expect you will welcome Lieutenant Barnes with the utmost respect an aid him in his transition to Iraq."

"Yes sir," they answer back.

"I'll show you to your quarters," Dugan says to Bucky and before Bucky knows what's happening, he's following Dugan down the hall again.

_____

For all that Bucky had imagined what meeting the men he would command would be like, he hadn't really expected this. It's not like he actually had a speech prepared or anything but he thought maybe he'd at least be given the chance to say something to his men. And he thinks he knows enough about military culture to get the feeling that he's getting fucked over in some way--that he'd missed out on some opportunity to establish some sort of alpha dog psychological bullshit, that he'd effectively been neutered.

And another part of him thinks about the years he'd spent on camera, at red carpet events and talk shows and usually Amanda, Halley, and Steve are great at crushing the ego out of him with a well placed remark. But he's not stupid enough to think that they don't know who he is. His deployment might have barely made a dent in the twenty-four hour news cycle but he's got a distinctive face and a distinctive last name--hell he was probably fucked from the moment Dugan said the words Lieutenant Barnes.

But it's not like Bucky's inexperienced in dealing with preconceived notions. Just one more fantastic part of Bucky's life.

_____

Corporal Dernier and his patrol show up in the morning, bearing fresh pita for the rest of them. He takes one look at Bucky who's trying his best not to hover uncertainly in the background and project some aura of confidence. He smiles and says, "You must be the new lieutenant. Good to meet you sir." Even though he has a heavy French accent, Bucky is pretty sure that Dernier's cracking a joke that's going right over Bucky's head and landing right on target for the other men.

_____

Patrol consists of getting into one of the armored humvees and driving down through the eastern agricultural sector all the way to Abu Al Khasib where Bucky can get out of the vehicle and shield his eyes against the sun to see Iran over on the other side of the river. And further down the road, the Arvand splits into three, the river thinning out right where it juts up against Khorramshahr. They're supposed to keep an eye on the river all the way south to Faw where it meets the Persian Gulf but nothing's happened in southern Iraq for ages. Three of them are stationed down in Faw every night, camped out uncomfortably in an armored humvee and watching for suspicious inbound ships.

Jones eats skittles as he drives, humming along to a song in his own head that Bucky doesn't recognize. Bucky has his rifle between his knees as they pass plots of cultivated land where farmers don't even look up when they drive past "No one's really fired on anyone in two months," Dugan had told him when they looked at maps of southern Iraq a week before, "It's pretty quiet down here."

Jones crumples the empty packet of skittles and tosses it into the backseat. "Can I ask you a personal question, lieutenant?" he says, looking at Bucky out of the corner of his eye.

"Go ahead," Bucky says.

"Why now?" Jones asks, "Why here? You know we're out in the middle of nowhere, right? Anything that might have happened here happened like, five years ago."

Bucky keeps his voice measured. "I go where the United States army wants me to go."

"Man," Jones says without elaboration. They drive for another half mile stretch in silence. A truck blasting tinny piano music through its open windows speeds past in the opposite direction.

"Can I ask another personal question, lieutenant?" Jones asks.

"Sure," Bucky says, albeit a bit more guarded.

"Anyone ever told you they thought you'd be taller?" Jones asks--but this time he's grinning.

_____

Conversations that Bucky's pretty sure he's not supposed to overhear:

Jones to Dugan. "You think he's going to fuck up as bad as Harper?"

Ralston to Juniper. "Whatever. He can have his cushy position, rack up his medals and head back stateside. As long as we're not getting shot, I don't care."

_____


FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: lol

So I'm having a hard time envisioning a world where ANYONE can hate you after getting to know you. You were telling me about the whole officer-enlisted divide right? So give it a few more weeks and when they figure out that you're actually, you know, not necessarily the biggest dumbass I've ever met--they'll come around.

Btw, gave Susan your address so expect cookies at some point. She made a recipe that shouldn't get moldy if it sits at the post office for too long so if you want to bribe your men with that like an elementary school birthday party…

Miss you.

S

_____

"You know," Dugan says when they're watching the Gulf from their perch on the highest point they can find overlooking the low beaches of Faw. "We don't bite. You don't have to be so quiet all the damn time."

Bucky smiles briefly. "I'm not sure me putting my foot in my mouth would be appreciated." He shifts his rifle to the other knee, glancing over at Dugan. "I've been happy to learn from your experience."

"They give you all those speeches on TV?" Dugan asks as he fiddles with his night vision goggles, "I mean, you got speechwriters and all?"

"I used to," Bucky says, "I improvised most of my speeches for the last couple of years."

"I'm sure you can improvise something," Dugan concludes with a wry smile that Bucky can barely make out in the pale light of their dimmed computer screen. "You don't get to leading without improvising."

_____

"Hey lieutenant," Morita calls, running to catch up with Bucky. Bucky's got a few hours off and wanted to drop by the market for a scarf or something to send back to Susanne. Morita falls into step next to Bucky and asks, "Did you really date Mila Kunis?"

Bucky is startled into a laugh. "No."

"And those rumors about you and Emma Watson…"

"Just rumors," Bucky says, "Are you purposefully picking people out of my league?"

"Man, I could have started with Paris Hilton but I didn't want to insult you."

"Actually, Paris and I…"

Morita actually stops walking mid-step and Bucky looks over his shoulder for the stunned look on Morita's face. Bucky laughs. "I'm kidding, just kidding. I've never met Ms. Hilton. I'm sure she's very--nice."

"Nice," Morita repeats, but he's grinning. "Sure. That's one way to put it."

They continue down the street, past the hospital in relative silence. There are a couple of small boys following them at half a block's distance, who keep disappearing into the alleyways every time Bucky glances back. Morita's got to be aware of them too. They're not carrying any weapons though--just curious kids.

"Hey," Morita says, when they're crossing over one of the various rivers that divide the city. "Who's the most famous person you've ever met?"

_____


FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: lol

Wow you actually recommended a song that wasn't generated entirely on a computer. I'm impressed. Is this what happens when you're forced to listen to BBC Radio 24/7? I should have taken up the practice sooner. And before you even start, don't you dare say a word against NPR; I won't hear of it.

Susanne told me to say thank you for the shawl even though she's planning to send you a thank you package in the mail later this week.

I'm still disappointed in the US military for not having stable internet where you're stationed--I mean, I'm disappointed in the US military for a LOT of reasons, but especially that. Don't do anything stupid so you're not like, I don't know, concussed or missing a limb or something by the time you get back for leave.

Miss you.

S

_____

It's almost three months into Bucky's deployment when shit hits the fan.

Dernier came from Morocco (he only joined the US army so he could expedite his American citizenship, Morita had told Bucky) and beyond being the munitions expert, he was also the only translator for the entire platoon. He spoke both French and Standard Arabic fluently, and Bucky was pretty sure that he was both better at understanding and speaking English than he ever let on.

They're driving back to base when they spot two men run out onto the middle of the road from maybe two hundred yards away. The men don't move and Bucky slows the humvee to a halt when they get close. "What the hell," he says as the men wave at them through the windshield. He brings his rifle with him and he and Dernier get out of the vehicle, leaving Juniper inside.

Dernier addresses the men. Bucky studies them through his sunglasses. Farmers. They sound angry, making wide gestures with their arms as they talk over each other in their haste to get words out.

"They found something," Dernier says to Bucky, "They didn't want to get too close. Could be a landmine but they said it wasn't there a week ago."

Bucky looks at the men. They're looking at Bucky now, sullen. Scared.

"Let's go check it out," Bucky says, turning back towards the Humvee.

_____

They get within fifty feet of the thing when Bucky says, "Stop."

Dernier looks across at him. Juniper glances back at the farmers who have stopped even further away.

"We should call in EOD," Bucky says, not taking his eyes off of where the thing was supposedly located. "Nobody move."

"It looks pretty dead, sir," Juniper says.

Dernier squints, lifts his gun to look through the scope.

"There's some fresh dirt on the other side of those reeds. Not enough footprints where we're standing," Bucky says, "Dernier, call for bomb disposal."

_____

Bucky, Dernier, and Juniper have been escorted back to where they parked their humvee when the explosion goes off. They all dive to the ground but they're far enough away that there's no shrapnel.

"Was that--?" Juniper asks.

"Oh my god," says the private from the EOD team who had accompanied them back. He slowly gets to his feet, staring at the ragged smoke and half-destroyed farmhouse, face pale.

"Call Morita," Bucky tells Dernier and moves quickly down the path that they had just come up, careful to step in the same footprints of broken grass and patterned dust.

Someone screams up ahead and to the right--closer to the farmhouse . It's too high pitched to be a man--and Bucky can see the site of explosion up ahead. There's too much smoke still collected in the area to make out much and he can't hear any cries for help in English. He's so intent on trying to find his way that he almost steps on something--which on closer inspection looks like half a hand. It doesn't quite register except in fleeting recognition.

Whoever was screaming is now crying. He'd have to go through new ground to get to the farmhouse--could be another buried bomb. Bucky clenches his jaw and finds a small path leading towards the farmhouse as he moves further along.

"Charlie two actual, Charlie two one. Over." Dernier says into his earpiece.

The wind is starting to blow smoke his way. "Charlie two one, charlie two actual," he responds, duck his head and turning it away from the wind.

"Medic is on his way," Dernier says and pauses before adding, "Any survivors down there? Over."

"Sounds like civilians in the farmhouse," Bucky says. The crying is getting louder. "Too much smoke to see down at the site of explosion. Didn't hear anything. It looked pretty bad. Over."

"I'll direct the medic to the farmhouse. We'll meet you there. Over and out."

When he opens the door to the blasted out farmhouse, he finds a woman. She's sitting in a pool of her own blood, clutching her leg where her right calf has been torn to bits. She cries, loud and ugly, painful in a way that Bucky knows will resonate in him for the rest of his life as he remembers the little bit of first aid he knows and wraps her leg up, applying pressure until Morita comes in through the door and pushes him out of the way with a tourniquet in hand.

She keeps saying the same thing over and over and Bucky knows, deep down what she's asking for but it doesn't make it any worse when Dernier walks in and says, "Where's her kid?"

_____

To Bucky's credit, he waits until they get back to base before he walks around the back of the house and throws up.

_____

"You all right?" Dugan asks when Bucky joins the rest of the men for dinner. Bucky doesn't say anything, just nods.

"Good call," Dernier says to him. Bucky smiles tightly and then stops smiling. He picks up one of the MREs on the table--no one's cooked tonight thanks to the clusterfuck of the afternoon. He tears it open and starts to eat in silence.

"God bless America," Gabe says after a long moment, "God bless oil. God bless setting off bombs in civilian farmland."

"Aw, shut the fuck up Jones," Ralston says, "It's the same goddamn shit with you every time."

"Yeah okay, except we fucked our way in, pissed all over the entire country and guess what motherfucker? We're still here!"

"We didn't put the fucking bomb in that fucking field," Ralston growls, "Why the fuck are you still in the goddamn army then, you liberal--"

"Everyone shut the fuck up," Dugan half-shouts.

Jones rolls his eyes and gets to his feet. He smiles at Bucky, mocking, and says, "Love America," before leaving.

"Fucking dick," Ralston says.

"That's enough," Manelli says.

Bucky sets his MRE back down. It's not like he was hungry anyway.

_____

On the way back from his debriefing, he stumbles across an internet cafe. Or really--it's three computers set up at three tiny tables in a cramped room next to a coffee machine that looks a couple decades old. Bucky only really pays attention because there's an old school webcam attached to the top of one of the computers even if it looks to be circa late 90's and that suggests--

Bucky pushes open the door and a bell jingles to announce his arrival. The teenager manning the place looks up, first at his face and then at his gun.

"Uh," Bucky says, self conscious about how his mouth wouldn't wrap around the Arabic language no matter how many times Dernier repeated the phrase to him. "Bi-kam?" He pulls out a wad of dinars and holds them out. He points at the computer with the webcam on it.

The boy says something in Arabic that Bucky doesn't understand. Finally, he takes a few of the bills and comes around the corner to turn the computer on. He brings out a chair for Bucky and smiles hesitatingly. Bucky just smiles back and takes a seat.

He doesn't understand any of the words on his screen but he does recognize the Skype icon. He checks the time. Late afternoon in Basrah, almost 9AM in DC.

He signs in, not expecting to see Steve online. But there he is.

He starts a video call without even thinking about it. He watches Steve start typing something into the chatbox before the call is accepted.

He doesn't know why, but the image of Steve on a computer screen in real time, even if it is a little grainy, draws up a well of emotion that he's been trying his hardest to ignore for the last few months. A lump forms in his throat and he can feel tears pricking the back of his eyes and this is quite possibly, the stupidest reaction he's had to anything in his entire stupid life.

"Buck!" Steve says, tinny through the shitty speakers. Bucky can see himself in the corner of the screen, pixelated as hell. "I thought you didn't have stable internet?"

"I don't," Bucky says, voice much steadier than he expected, "I just--found this internet cafe." He looks around--the kid manning the front desk is still watching him trying not to cry during his first video call home. He looks back at Steve, whose movements lag, half the video frozen so badly that Bucky can barely make out Steve's face but it's real and it's Steve in this moment, halfway across the world.

"Did you get my email? I heard about the bomb that went off. That wasn't you, was it? Are you okay?"

Bucky thinks about telling the truth for maybe half a second. And then he says, "Nah man, I'm okay."

_____

The second bomb goes off near the University of Basrah, nearly five miles southwest of base. They're called in to help with the security.

The injured have mostly all been transported across the highway and down the road to the general hospital but signs of them still remain. Blood on the sidewalks, smoke in the air. Five body bags lined up on the lawn.

_____

"I think the question that is on all of our minds," Major Dominguez says, "Is why here? Why now? Basrah has been fairly silent for the last year. This is why our military intelligence suggests that religious extremists from the north have roused their people here, trying to disrupt the peace.

"But make no mistake. Whoever is responsible for these attacks is a clear terrorist and they have chosen to target the United States Army. Our values and our security as a very nation is under attack. We take this threat very seriously. We are getting reinforcements in by the end of the week. We are now changing the rules of engagement. You are now allowed to fire on anyone carrying a weapon, using your best judgment. Remember that even after we root out the terrorists, we are still guests in this city.

"Are there any questions?"

_____

"Well," says Dugan as they exit out of the meeting together and get back into the humvee to head back to base to report to the others. "That was interesting."

_____

"That is the most spectacularly stupid plan I've ever heard of," Jones says after Bucky briefs them on the new ROE. "Bring in a bunch of backup who are coming to a new area for the first time and then tell them they can shoot any seven year old carrying an empty AK?"

"Using your best judgment," Dugan repeats, but it doesn't sound like he's disagreeing.

"Like I said," Jones says, smiling grimly.

"I'd rather not get shot in the face because command's incompetent and needs a fucking decade to get back to me on whether or not I can engage some twenty year old unemployed fuckwit who wants to take down an American soldier," Ralston says, glaring at Jones, "So while you sit on your sanctimonious throne of bullshit--"

"Ralston," Dugan says.

Ralston rounds on him. "You never fucking call Jones on his goddamn hatespeech. Like morale isn't goddamn low enough already?"

"New orders are what they are," Bucky says, cutting in. "Is everyone clear on the new ROE?"

A murmur of "yes sir" sweeps through the room.

"Ralston," Bucky adds, looking the other man in the face. "You're entitled whatever opinion you want but I will never hear you disrespect a senior officer again."

Ralston licks his lips and glances at Dugan before mumbling, "Yes sir."

_____

Bucky catches Jones smoking a cigarette next to the Humvees. He pulls out a carton as Bucky nears and holds it out as an offering but Bucky smiles and holds up his hand.

"I don't smoke."

"Good," Jones says, tucking the carton away in his pocket again, "It's a terrible habit. It'll give you cancer." He takes another drag of his cigarette and exhales another thought, "Goddamn expensive too. Spent my last leave in New York. You know how much a carton costs in New York City?"

"Ten."

"Twelve," Jones says, and sinks into a momentary contemplative silence. But then he says, "You here to tell me off, lieutenant?"

"Maybe," Bucky says.

"Yeah," Jones agrees vaguely.

"Not at debriefs. I don't care what you say in your free time but not at meetings."

"You're worried about morale," Jones says, "I get it." He laughs, just once, through his nose. "You think Corporal Gabe Jones can dampen the collective enthusiasm that the American public has for sucking patriotic dick. Thanks, I guess."

"The American public isn't here," Bucky says, "Juniper's just a kid. He looks up to you. And it doesn't help to rile Ralston up every time you talk about drones."

"Ralston's been fed the white man's propaganda for so long that he can't tell his head from his ass," Jones says, shrugging. He inhales on his cigarette, looks at Bucky, and grins. "I forget myself. Apologies if I've offended you lieutenant."

"I don't get offended that easily."

"No kidding," Jones says, "Harper would have probably threatened to court martial me for half the shit I've said to you." He taps the ash from the end of his cigarette. "You're not waiting until we get back stateside to put me in the guillotine or anything, right?"

"I'm not sure I have that jurisdiction," Bucky says.

"Cool, just checking," Jones says. He drops the spent cigarette on the ground and snuffs it under his boot before bending down to pick up the crumpled remains and pocketing it. "You ever get to see the real America? Like the shitty parts of it, the parts that no one actually gets around to helping 'cause it's too hard? I've always wondered."

Jones is looking off into the distance--not at Bucky. So Bucky doesn't say anything.

"Cause I've seen you on TV and stuff, you know. I remember you talking about some arts program for kids in Harlem once and you've got that homeless kids initiative or whatever named after you." Jones waves a hand and he's looking at Bucky now. "Don't get me wrong. I'm sure you did good work. But I bet you haven't even heard of Macon."

Bucky doesn't know what to say.

"We're too small to be noticed, you know. Half my friends in elementary school went summers without food. Ended up robbing gas stations when they got old enough. We're no Harlem though. State's got no money. We should have gone out into the woods to shoot ourselves some squirrels."

Jones pulls out his carton of cigarettes and gets another one. He holds it between his fingers as he says, "You know the first time I saw a drone strike, I was doing a tour in Afghanistan. It hit the wrong village, but you know. Casualty of war. They might have been harboring bad guys anyway. And no one was gonna know, so." He flips open his lighter and sticks the end of the cigarette in the flame.

"I don't know where Macon is," Bucky says, quietly.

Jones just grins at him. "Sometimes I wonder what other people think about America. What grand ideas they must have about it."

"Why are you even still here?" Bucky hears himself asking even though it's crossing over some barrier he'd set up for himself to keep his distance, to be the lieutenant and not the friend--

"You know that cliche saying," Jones says, with the cigarette next to his face. "Who else is gonna watch the watchmen." He grins. "I guess that's me."

_____


FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: !!!!!!!!!!

Jesus Christ you're telling me your team was at the site of the blast when it happened? Please stay safe. Please don't do anything stupid. Please don't let your superior order you into doing stupid things. Please come home safe.

S

> i'm ok. one of my men wasn't so lucky. thank god the
> hospitals here are good. he'll probably get a well
> deserved purple heart with his discharge.
>
> b

>> Please please please tell me that you are not one of
>> the six soldiers wounded.

_____

Two weeks after Juniper's hospitalized by an IED, Dernier comes back to base with a slouching civilian in tow. "Tell them what you told me," Denier says after he's called everyone outside. He spreads an unmarked map on the hood of a humvee.

"I see the same men crossing the river every night," the civilian says in hesitant English, "They don't use the bridge. They go downstream and cross on a raft." He taps on the map. "Right here. Where the palm groves are."

"Okay," Bucky says.

"Every night they have this box." The civilian holds his hands his hands to demonstrate the size of the box. "Metal box. They transport it across the river."

Bucky looks back down at the map, where the civilian had pointed.

_____

"Command should know," Manelli says when the civilian is escorted back out of the compound and they've retreated back inside.

"We're not at war with Iran," Dugan says.

"Technically we're at war with whoever we want to be as long as we can connect them to 9/11 somehow," Jones says, "And swear to god that's an actual law and not just me railing on anything."

"Major Dominguez won't issue any orders until he gets clearance from higher up. Anything outside of Basrah, especially if it's coming from Iran, is out of his command." Dugan says, "And by the time word comes back down, who knows where those metal boxes might be."

"They've got nukes in Iran," Ralston points out helpfully.

They all look at Bucky.

"We're not a recon team," Bucky says slowly, "You think we could pull it off?"

Dugan exchanges glances with Jones, Dernier, and Morita in quick succession. They'd toured through Afghanistan together though Bucky still doesn't know the full extent of their history.

"You know lieutenant," Morita says, "When it comes down to it, you'd be the one court-martialed."

"Which is why I'm asking you," Bucky says, "Are you confident that you can pull off an intel gathering mission?"

_____

By the time that Bucky gets back from patrol, Dernier and Jones have already returned. It's nearing six in the morning but they're still sitting around an open laptop with Dugan, discussing something quietly. The brewing coffee smells stronger than usual and Dernier is already cradling a cup.

"Lieutenant," Dugan acknowledges.

Bucky pours himself some coffee and comes around the table to look at the laptop screen. The photographs pulled up are grainy at best and green--taken through night vision. Most of them show two figures carrying a large briefcase-looking object. No visible weapons but Bucky's willing to bet that they've got at least a pistol or two concealed.

"Couldn't get a good shot of their faces," Jones says, "They barely even talked. Whatever they were doing, it felt like they'd done it plenty of times before."

Dernier flicks through a few more photographs until he lands on one of a building. It's nondescript--somewhere in the middle of Basrah, no distinguishing landmarks. It could be any other house.

"We waited for them to come out for nearly three hours," Dernier says, "We watched both entrances. No one came out. When we went back to where they crossed the river, the raft was gone."

Dernier flicks through a couple more pictures in quick succession.

"Wait," Bucky says, "Go back."

Dernier glances at him before slowly cycling back through the photographs.

"That one," Bucky says and leans down to get a closer look. It's a picture of the door, dimly lit. He points at a dark spot under the doorknob--maybe a shadow or maybe just a smudge on closer inspection, but at first glance he couldn't have sworn that it was an actual design.

Dernier squints at the spot. He zooms in on the photograph.

The dark spot expanded looks pixelated, a neat circle of shadowy vagueness. Maybe just a smudge of dirt on the door.

"Oh," Bucky says, "Never mind." For a second he thought it'd almost looked like a weird sigil--an octopus or something.

"We could try to bring them in for questioning," Dernier says, "Try to figure out what they're up to."

"Man, we ain't the police," Jones says.

"They're clearly up to something," Dernier argues, "You want another nineteen year old kid to lose his leg?"

Jones looks mad but he keeps his mouth shut. No one has forgotten Juniper's mangled stump of a thigh. Bucky can still remember the exact pitch of his scream.

It's weird that it's only been a few weeks and not half a lifetime.

"ROE says we can engage anyone with weapons," Bucky finally says, "I don't see any weapons."

"There is no way they're not carrying," Dugan says.

"But we don't know that for sure," Bucky says. He rubs at his eye, then thinks better of himself. He can't be tired in front of his men. He pulls more conviction into his voice. "We're already treading in a grey zone here. We can't be picking fights in the middle of night to get them to draw their weapons."

Dernier gestures at the laptop. "Then what was the point of this?"

_____

He and Steve have a standing Skype date every Thursday night after Bucky's report to command. Bucky's pretty sure he's single-handedly funding the entirety of the tiny internet cafe because he never sees anyone else in there.

Except this particular Thursday, the door is closed and locked. Bucky peers into the small room through the warped glass, knocking on the door. The light filters in through a window on the other side of the room, illuminating the dark screens of the few computers. There's no one at the counter.

When Bucky looks down to check his watch, he sees it. A tiny circle underneath the doorknob.

He glances around but the street is mostly deserted. He kneels and looks at the thing.

It's not quite an octopus. The place where the body would be is replaced with a skull. It's been burned into the door with some sort of brand.

A strange sense of familiarity overtakes him. He's seen the symbol somewhere but he has no idea where.

He pulls out the only paper he has--a receipt that's been in his wallet since he was last stateside that he still hasn't thrown out--and a pen. He copies the symbol down as best he can before tucking the worn receipt back into his wallet, right behind his identification, his useless credit cards, and the photo of Steve he pretends he doesn't have in there.

He runs a thumb over it and sighs. "Sorry pal." He'll just have to call later instead.

_____

"What is that even?" Manelli asks, squinting at Bucky's drawing. "A squid?"

Dernier has the laptop open and he's looking at the picture of the door Bucky had stopped him on before. He looks between the symbol and the photo, frowning.

"The thing under that doorknob does look pretty round to me," Jones says.

Dernier makes a quick copy of the skull octopus on a piece of scrap paper. "I'll swing by."

_____

They scour the rest of the city when they're not on patrol. Dugan finds one near the South Oil Company and Jones comes across one near the river on the north side of the city. Morita finds one on the front door of his favorite liquor distributor but brings back a bottle of whiskey anyway.

"Way to fund terrorism," Ralston says, but lets Morita pour him a shot.

Bucky keeps looking at the symbol he'd copied. He'd described it for Steve over the phone to look up on the internet but it'd come back with nothing. Where the hell had he seen it before?

"Want one lieutenant?" Morita holds up the whiskey.

"I'm good," Bucky says.

"You're a changed man, lieutenant," Morita says, setting the bottle down and lifting his mug of whiskey at Bucky in a parody of a toast. "Don't think I've forgotten about you falling out of clubs at four in the morning." He pauses and then adds, "Sir."

Bucky laughs. God. It's only been months but that version of himself feels like something that happened to another person altogether.

"Have you ever had a threesome?" Ralston asks the room at large. Morita immediately looks at Bucky.

"Wow," Bucky says, "That sure is a question."

Morita squints at him. "2010," he suggests, "No wait, 2011."

"Good night," Bucky says, smiling, and leaves.

_____

There's an explosion at the railway station. Bucky's team had been patrolling further north along the river than usual and they're called in to escort out a small group of western businessmen who had just gotten off the train.

"What a great welcome," the guy sitting in the back of their humvee says in perfect American English. He has his own guard with him--a bulked up man who's holding his rifle all wrong. Clearly he'd been bought for intimidation rather than experience. "Didn't think you'd be running a taxi service when you woke up today, did you?" the businessman continues, chuckling at his own joke.

Bucky's fairly sure the man doesn't recognize him, hidden behind sunglasses and an unsmiling expression.

They drop him off at his hotel. The bodyguard lumbers after him.

"Did you see?" Dugan asks, gesturing to his wrist.

"Yeah," Bucky says. The man had cufflinks with the skull octopus symbol in gold and red.

_____

"I think it's about time we tell someone," Manelli says in the silence ensuing the team debrief about the railway explosion.

"The guy was American?" Ralston asks, "Actually American?"

Jones just laughs at that, kind of hysterically. And as quickly as he started, he stops and stares up at the ceiling, lips pressed together tightly.

"Yes, Ralston," Dugan says, wearily.

"There is a lot of profit to be made off of war," Dernier says, shrugging.

"I'll prepare a report," Bucky says.

_____

He leaves off the civilian at the beginning. As far as command was concerned, Dernier and Jones had spotted suspicious activity on the bank and followed the men without engaging them.

"This report is five weeks late," Major Dominguez says.

"An oversight," Bucky replies, "I take full responsibility."

Major Dominguez looks at him, frowning. Bucky's half certain that he's about to be court martialed for keeping intel from command but Major Dominguez just says, "How quickly can you follow up on the other sites you found?"

Bucky tries his best to keep the surprise from his face. "Immediately, sir. We could search them all by the end of the week."

Major Dominguez tosses the report onto his desk. "Make it the end of tomorrow. I'll give you all of Charlie company."

_____

Bucky personally leads the raid on the internet cafe. Dugan kicks in the front door when no one answers the knock.

Inside, the computers are gone. The space has been cleared out, leaving only two tables and the front counter. The phone accessories that used to hang behind the attendant have been cleared away.

"I've always wondered about this rug," Bucky says as he shoves the table away from the wall and off a rug in the corner of the room. "It never really matched anything. I figured it was just here to balance the table." He flips the stained rug up. There's a trapdoor underneath.

In the basement, there are enough explosives to rig an entire city block. Morita whistles as he swings his flashlight around, illuminating the blocks of C4 lined up against the walls.

Bucky picks up an old envelope off the floor that has clearly been trampled on several times. There's no insignia, just the letters HYDRA stamped across the front.

"Oh," Bucky says to himself.

_____

He'd learned about HYDRA in one of his classes. He'd seen the insignia in his textbook.

But it doesn't make sense because HYDRA has long since been disbanded, last active in World War II. They'd become defunct with the last of German surrender.

So why was--?

_____

"Lieutenant Barnes," Major Dominguez says, stopping Bucky just as he's about to turn and leave the Major's office. Major Dominguez touches the top of the after action report Bucky had just put on his desk and looks hard at Bucky.

"Sir?" Bucky asks.

"I'm thinking about recommending you and your platoon for special forces training," Major Dominguez says after a moment, "How do you think your men would take the news?"

Bucky fights to keep the huge smile from his face and salutes. "I think they would be honored, sir."

_____

"Have you seen today's headlines?" Morita asks as Bucky enters the main room to get his cup of morning coffee. "Check it out." He swings the laptop around so that Bucky can see the CNN homepage. "Crown Prince leads raids on terrorist hideouts in Iraq," Morita reads. He taps the screen, "Can't tell if I'm proud or offended that you're getting all the credit."

"I'll be offended on your behalf," Bucky offers, setting water to boil on the stove.

"Oh, and there was a call for you like two hours ago on the sat phone," Morita adds, "I left the number on the counter."

Bucky goes to retrieve the scrap of paper. 202 area code. The name Susan underneath.

He feels the ground drop out from underneath his feet because he knows--he knows--

He picks up the satellite phone and numbly dials the number. He checks his watch and methodically counts back the hours. It's nearly 9PM in DC.

"Hello?" Susanne.

"Hi, it's me," Bucky says. Morita looks up, concerned at whatever must be in his voice, but Bucky barely registers him.

"Bucky," Susanne says and there is a depth of seriousness to her voice that scares him, "I wouldn't call except--"

"Tell me he's okay," Bucky says, "Just tell me he's okay."

There's silence. Susanne takes in a shaky breath and when she speaks, her voice breaks over the words. "They just put him in ICU. I don't know--"

"I'm coming," Bucky says, "He's not allowed to--" He stops, unable to say anything else. He wants to smash everything in the kitchen. "I'm coming," he says again and hangs up.

_____

He has a friend who knows someone in Bahrain who has a private jet. It meets him at Kuwait International Airport.

"You must really need a ride," the pilot comments as Bucky wires all thirty-five thousand dollars from his account. Bucky doesn't say anything, just watches the earth get smaller and smaller.

_____

Halley meets him at Dulles. Bucky feels like he's walking through viscous air, like there are iron bands tight around his lungs. Everything seems so surreal--he'd been in the humid heat of the desert only hours ago and now--

--his best friend--

"How is he?" Bucky asks, still in the army fatigues he'd put on three days ago, unshaven and desperate.

"Alive," Halley says. And Bucky doesn't know if that's better or worse than not having asked the question at all.

Chapter Text

"We're going to Susanne's," Halley tells him when they climb into the car, "They won't let you into the hospital like that. She's still at the hospital."

Bucky barely glances down at himself, belatedly realizing that he's still wearing his dirty uniform. Fine, he'll shower.

"I'll make you some food," Halley continues.

"Whatever," Bucky says tightly, "What happened?"

"I'm not sure on the details," Halley says.

"This is really not a good time to be evasive," Bucky says, straining with effort not to yell.

"I'm going to preface this with the fact that he's much more stable now--" Halley says.

"Fucking tell me!" Bucky shouts, his hands going to his hair and clenching. He swallows as Halley looks at him, calm, silent. He feels like he could roll out the door of the highway and swim across the Potomac to get to Steve if it mean actually fucking doing something.

"Steve's immune system has been getting worse. He spent a few days in the hospital with pneumonia about a month ago."

"He didn't tell me," Bucky says.

"The doctors aren't sure if he caught something at the hospital or what really happened but he ended up developing sepsis and went into shock at the emergency room."

Bucky thinks of the last ten emails they'd exchanged over the period of the last two months. "He didn't say a single fucking word," Bucky says, clenching his hands in front of him.

"He's mostly stabilized now," Halley says.

"Why didn't anyone tell me?" Bucky asks, "Just one tiny fucking email: hey by the way, Steve spent the night in the hospital because he'd gotten sick again."

Halley turns the car off the highway and says, "Wasn't that what Steve was supposed to do?"

_____

His hair is still wet from his shower and he's wearing Steve's oversized clothing as he takes a seat in the corner of the ICU waiting room. It's nearly two in the morning and Halley had to pull strings to get him into the hospital after hours. The security guard who finally signed them in casually said, "You know, I was just reading an article about you," as Bucky scribbled his name down in the visitor's log. He didn't even smile--just nodded and followed Halley down the hall towards the critical care unit.

Halley hands him a styrofoam cup of shitty hospital coffee. Bucky takes it as Halley reaches into his pocket and pulls out the other half of the sandwich Bucky had been too wired to eat, wrapped in Saran. He hands that to Bucky too.

There's a woman on the uncomfortable looking couch, sleeping with her arms crossed over her stomach and a magazine over her face to block out the fluorescent lighting. All of the plants in the waiting area are plastic and the television in the corner is set on closed captioning. CNN is reporting on something in Baghdad. Bucky looks down at his coffee.

"They already contacted me," Halley says, taking a seat next to Bucky, "I told them to hold off on coming after you for at least a few days. But you did just go AWOL and they're considering court-martialing you."

"Can we not talk about this right now?"

Halley falls silent.

"I'm still on his list of immediate family members, right?"

"They know you're here."

"Susanne's still in there?"

"Yeah."

Bucky takes a drink of the coffee even though he doesn't need it. He ends up downing the entire cup. He can't stop his leg from shaking.

Halley puts a hand on his arm and looks at him. "Hey," he says, "Steve's going to be alright."

_____

It's closer to three by the time that Susanne finally comes into the waiting room. Bucky gets to his feet as she nears and hugs her back when she immediately puts her arms around him. Her eyes are puffy and she still has a tissue clutched in her left hand.

"How is he?" Bucky asks against her shoulder, "Can I see him?"

"He's unconscious," Susanne says, pulling away. "They're still monitoring him. I don't know if they'll let you see him until morning. They want him to rest."

He's unconscious, Bucky wants to say but instead he forces himself to smile tightly. Susanne takes a seat and rubs her hands over her face. Halley goes to get her some tea. Bucky holds out the half of the sandwich he still hasn't eaten towards her. She shakes her head.

"Halley couldn't tell me much," Bucky says, taking a seat across from her, "When did Steve get here?"

"God," Susanne says, "I'd stopped by with dinner because he told me he had a fever and wasn't feeling really good--but the moment I stepped through the front door and looked at him, I knew. He looked worse than on his bad days and I had to ask him how he was feeling five times before he finally gave an answer that made any sense."

Halley comes back silently with another styrofoam cup. She takes it, looking across at Bucky. "I knew you'd come if I called. That's why I didn't want to call."

"I'm glad you called," Bucky says.

Susanne keeps talking, her voice breaking, "But he was just crashing and there were all these doctors swarming around him and he wasn't getting any better and I just--what if this was it? What if this was the one?"

She takes a great shuddering breath and wipes furiously at her face with her arm. Bucky doesn't trust himself to speak. Susanne breathes in and out a few times before forcing a shaky smile for Bucky. "He's doing better now."

Halley puts a hand on her shoulder. "You should go home and get some rest. You've been on your feet for over twenty-four hours."

Susanne half nods but she doesn't move out of her chair.

"Yeah," Bucky says, "Halley and I will call if anything happens."

"You promise," Susan asks, not quite phrased as a question.

Bucky leans forward and touches her hand, lets her put her head on his shoulder in some semblance of another hug. "Yeah," he says.

_____

Bucky doesn't know if it's better or worse to stare through the double glass doors at Steve's fragile body hooked up to a million machines in that giant hospital bed.

"If you can be sure to wash your hands before approaching Mr. Rogers," the nurse is saying to him as he keeps staring. "We've got him on antibiotics but he's still immunocompromised."

"Yeah," Bucky says. The nurse opens the door and directs him towards a sink. He washes his hands mechanically, feeling slightly nauseous as the glass doors close behind him.

The monitor next to Steve's bed shows his vitals--but the only number that Bucky really recognizes is his pulse. It spikes a little faster than once a second, hovering around 90 beats a minute. He hasn't been in a hospital room since they were teenagers but Bucky still remembers that's a little fast.

"Hey," he says, looking back down at Steve's face. Steve has his eyes closed and a tube coming out of the side of his mouth. There's an unnatural stillness to his face that isn't there when Steve's just sleeping. Bucky's watched him sleep for more hours of his life than he'd like to admit and Steve looks nothing like that.

He pulls a chair up to the head of Steve's bed. He sits with his back towards the glass and scoots in so that his knees are pressed against the side of the bed. He takes Steve's hand--the one without the IV running out of it--and impulsively presses his dry lips to the back of it. He puts it between his own hands, held out in front of him like a prayer.

"Come on," Bucky says, looking into Steve's face, "Come on Steve."

_____

It was always a possibility, of course. But after surviving the entirety of high school and then college--after Steve had tolerated Bucky crashing his apartment for the two years Bucky had been travelling--

It just didn't make any sense. Because Steve was the one at home with access to the vast repertoire of the best technology health care had to offer and Bucky had watched people lose their limbs, watched them blown up in front of his eyes and bleed out in moments. Had very nearly been blown up himself. And here he was, Steve lying in this hospital bed and possibly dying while Bucky had escaped a warzone without a scratch.

At the very most, it should have happened the other way around. But really, it shouldn't have happened at all.

_____

When the nurse kicks him out of Steve's room to check up on her patient and to evaluate the dosage of his medications, Bucky retreats back to the waiting room. Halley's there--and so is Amanda.

"James," she says.

Bucky takes in a deep breath and nods in greeting.

"We should talk in private," Amanda says, "I've asked to borrow an office."

Bucky looks at Halley but there's no expression on Halley's face. "Alright," he says.

_____

"We have to mitigate this situation before it gets out of control," Amanda says as soon as she shuts the door behind him. "I'm not going to ask you what you were thinking. It's too late for that. Now the facts are the facts and we have to make sure the media runs our narrative before another one gets out there."

Bucky takes a seat in one of the chairs in front of the desk. Amanda sets her files on the desk and takes the other chair in front of the desk instead of where the doctor would sit. She holds out her phone towards him. Bucky looks down at it.

Crown Prince AWOL After Military Victory the headline says. Bucky just keeps looking at it, not really registering the words.

"I know you have a standing ban on mentioning Steve in what we feed the press," Amanda says, "But in this case I think it would be good to be honest. People will be sympathetic to hear that you left to see a dying friend."

"He's not dying," Bucky says.

Amanda continues as if she hadn't heard him. "You need to reach out to your superiors right now and assure them that you will be returning to service. You need to actually fill out the paperwork to request an official leave of absence." She pulls out a list of phone numbers and his civilian cell phone as she talks and sets them on the desk next to him. "Ideally, they would pass judgement on your punishment before the news cycle picks up on this story. This means you need to talk to them immediately."

Bucky doesn't even look at his phone. He runs a hand over his face tiredly and says very quietly, "I don't care."

Amanda's voice takes a sharper edge. "You have to care."

"He could be dead by tomorrow," Bucky says. He swallows against the way that his throat is seizing up, blinking away the pricking at the back of his eyes. "He could never wake up and what do I do then?"

Amanda leans forward and reaches out to put her hand on Bucky's. For once, she doesn't say anything and Bucky stares into her face.

"I'm scared," he says, half choking on the words. "I can't lose him. I'm scared."

He rubs the palms of his hands into his eyes and tries to collect himself, face angled down and away from Amanda. He wishes he hadn't said anything he just did, he wishes he could take it all back. He wishes Steve was okay. His breathing slowly evens out.

"James," Amanda says very quietly, leaning towards him, "I'm afraid you do not have the luxury to not care."

Bucky doesn't take his hands off his face. Amanda keeps talking anyway.

"You are a public figure. The entire hospital staff knows who you are. The other families in the waiting room know what you are. You do not get the luxury of anonymity. Steve will be linked to your absence in very little time. Once this happens, Susanne will also come under fire. If we do not give the public the correct version of the story, they will start speculating."

She puts a hand on his shoulder. Bucky feels very very tired.

"You do not want them to start speculating," she says.

_____

He makes the call to Major Dominguez twenty minutes before CNN breaks the news about his AWOL status. Amanda watches the closed-caption television for thirty seconds after the headline flashes across the bottom before hanging up on the person she'd been talking to on the phone.

"See if he can be isolated," she says to Halley and immediately heads out the door, punching in another number on her phone. Bucky watches the talking heads in the splitscreen, not reading the captions. Thank fucking god they were the only ones in the waiting room.

"Stay here," Halley says, "I'll see if they'll let you extend your stay with Steve."

_____

He's let into Steve's room again. Steve's pillows have been rearranged--maybe by Susanne. They pass each other near the nurses' station and she squeezes his arm as they do. They're both scared for Steve.

"I get it," Bucky tells Steve's still face, "It's the same reason why I didn't tell you about all my stuff. I didn't want you to worry. You didn't want me to worry." He takes Steves hand again, slowly trying to rub warmth into the cold fingers.

He brings the hand up and presses his closed mouth against Steve's knuckles. He can't take his eyes off Steve's face. "I'll tell you everything," Bucky whispers against Steve's fingers, "I promise I'll tell you everything when you wake up. But you gotta wake up."

_____

He sits in the waiting room again, hood drawn over his head, trying to draft a few sentences into a notebook that Amanda can include in her statement to the press. Halley deterred Bucky from following him to the hospital cafeteria. "Too many reporters," he said, "Too public of a space."

But even in the ICU waiting room that's supposed to be patient visitors only--Bucky feels exposed. He's sure that he looks like shit and he doesn't care about that--but the fact that anyone else in the room can approach him and talk to him sets him on edge because he's pretty sure he's going to have a fucking breakdown the moment he opens his mouth.

There's a family visiting their grandpa sitting along the far wall. One of the teenagers has been watching him not write anything into the fucking notebook for the last fifteen minutes. And when the aunt walked into the room with a loud, "Jesus Christ, what's up with all the news vans outside today? Did someone famous have a heart attack or something?" Bucky didn't even need to look up to recognize that the answering silence was because they were all looking at him without trying to draw his attention.

He wants to hide away in a storage closet or something. Somewhere where he could turn the lights off and not have to look at other people or see his face on the television in the corner. Or have to think about what was happening or the fact that Steve still hadn't woken up or that Bucky might have to go on with his life. Someplace where he didn't have to exist for a few hours at a time so that he could fast forward to the moment when Steve opened his eyes.

Halley slides a wrapped sandwich between his face and the notebook he'd been bent over. He looks at it for a long moment before lifting his head to look at Halley.

"You have to eat," Halley says.

_____

Let's run away. I'm serious. I'll change my name. I'll grow a beard. I'll--I don't know--do you think you'd still like my face if I broke my nose? Maybe I'm too much of a vain asshole for that.

We could head west. Maybe go to Oregon. I bet you'd fucking love Portland. Maybe we could go to Canada. Don't they have free health care? We could get really shitty jobs and a really shitty apartment, I don't think I'd mind. We could live together. God you'd get so sick of me within the first month. No--I'll stay out of your way. I'd be the most amazing roommate--we'd be--

No fuck that. I'd do it. We could do it. God, if you still wanted to.

Steve.

I'd be better. I can try to be the person you deserve. Give me a chance Steve. Come on buddy you have to--

_____

The monitor starts to beep. Bucky looks at it, not comprehending. Everything happens all at once.

Two people wearing differently colored scrubs rush into the room. "Let's get that blood pressure up," one of them says, watching the monitor and checking Steve's pulse on the hand that Bucky doesn't have clenched in his grip. The other is moving around the room, preparing something. Someone wheels a crash cart into the room and someone else follows them in.

"What's going on?" Bucky asks, but no one pays any attention to him.

One of the nurses pulls apart Steve's hospital gown. "Where's my epi?" one of them asks, "Let's get another shot of epi lined up--" The monitor keeps beeping, signaling something wrong over and over. More people keep coming in or leaving and Bucky can't let go of Steve's hand.

"Sir," someone says to him, touching his shoulder, "Sir, you need to leave."

_____

He can't go back into the waiting room with the other family. He doesn't even want to walk down the damn hallway, past the nurses' station and the other patient rooms. He opens the single occupancy bathroom door and slips inside, locks it after himself.

And it's only then that he lets himself slide down the wall to a slumped sit on the floor. He looks at his shaking hands for a few long moments before realizing that his eyes are getting blurry with tears.

He takes a deep breath and thinks, Steve is not going to die.

It's like a flood smashing through and he breaks into a shuddering sob, burying his face in his hands.

_____

If his eyes are redder than they were last time Amanda saw him, she doesn't comment. They're sitting in the office of the chaplain who'd told them to stay as long as they needed to. Bucky stares at the cross hung on the wall.

"I tried to convince them to just go with an NJP," Amanda says, "But we got the request in too late and now they feel like they're forced to go through court martial proceedings since it's been splashed all over the media already."

Bucky keeps looking at the cross.

"James."

Bucky looks at her.

"Did you catch what I just said?"

Bucky doesn't care. But he musters up enough energy to ask, "When do I have to appear?"

_____

He and Halley join Susanne in another office. The doctor isn't there yet and Susanne won't look at either of them. Bucky sits down, stares at his hands, and does his best not to throw up.

The doctor is not smiling when she closes the door after herself. She takes a seat behind the desk as she says a quiet hi to all of them as she logs in to the computer. Bucky wants her to tell him how Steve's doing but he doesn't want to go any farther than this moment--her tapping on the keyboard and Susanne reaching out for his hand.

"Let's start with the good news," the doctor says, "We managed to stabilize Steve and stop the internal bleeding before it got really bad. We've replaced almost all of the blood but Steve's still very immunocompromised. We're hopefully flushing out the last of the infection with a more aggressive antibiotic regime."

She pauses. Bucky keeps staring at his hands.

"Unfortunately, we're not sure why Steve is still unconscious," she continues, her voice getting gentler, "It's possible that this might be indicative of a deeper neurological condition. There's no easy way to put this--"

It feels like the breath is getting crushed out of him.

"--want you to be ready for the idea that he might not return the same way as he was--"

Bucky closes his eyes.

"--this part is always hard to hear--"

The sound of his own fast breathing rasps in his ears.

"--possibility that he might not return at all."

He stands up. The chair scrapes back resoundingly loud. "No," he says.

The doctor looks at him before trying on a comforting smile. "Mr. Barnes--your highness--"

"He's going to be okay."

"James." Halley's voice, warning.

"I don't--" Bucky grapples for words around the tightness in his chest, all the anger and panic bundled up and landing heavy in his heart, "--he's going to be--" He's not going to break down in this fucking office in front of this doctor--he's not going to fucking cry because he already did that already and it didn't make anything better--

Steve's--Steve's still--

"He's not going to die," Bucky says.

Halley has a grip on his arm.

"Don't come in here and tell me--" Bucky's voice gets louder because he can't control it, this flood of anger, "--don't fucking tell me that my friend is beyond saving because you fucking incompetent--"

"That's enough," Halley cuts in.

"--assholes don't want to fucking even try to save him. Don't fucking come in here and tell me that he's going to goddamn fucking die."

Silence. Halley's blunt nails are digging painfully into his wrist. He only notices it now.

The doctor just looks at him. She says, "I'm sorry Mr. Barnes."

_____

He stares at the cross in the chaplain's office and thinks anything anything anything anything.

_____

Halley takes Susanne home to rest for a little bit despite her protestations. Amanda's somewhere in the hospital, probably fielding questions from reporters and palace PR alike.

When she'd heard about his outburst in the doctor's office, she'd just looked at Bucky sadly without a single word at all. And that was the absolute worst because under any other situation, she'd have torn into him for how disrespectful he'd been, how they'd taught him to behave better than that, especially in public.

Because it meant--she wasn't sure that Steve would get any better. And that--

It's a reality Bucky absolutely cannot accept.

_____

Someone calls his cell phone--blocked number. Bucky doesn't pick up. But he does listen to the voicemail because there's nothing else to do except stare at the wall in the chaplain's office while Steve was still deemed too sick to take visitors.

"Hi Bucky, this is Peggy Carter," the message begins, "Steve gave me this number a really long time ago just in case he was unreachable otherwise and um, I don't you don't mind me calling your personal phone." There's a pause as she clears her throat slightly and then she continues, "I gather from all the news stories and the fact that he hasn't returned my emails in about a week that Steve's the one who's sick. I'm actually working in the DC area and I know a really good specialist who might be able to help Steve. I was wondering if you and Ms. Rogers would be open to a consult. Entirely free of charge--he owes me a big favor. Anyway, however you decide, you can reach me at 202-555-0172." She pauses again. When she starts again, her voice is heavy. "Steve's a fighter. I know he's going to do just fine." A last pause and then, "Hope to hear from you soon. Bye."

_____

He holds Steve's hand. He must fall asleep at some point because he wakes up with his head on Steve's bed, still holding his hand. He looks first at Steve's face (nothing) and then at the monitor. There's an awful crick in his neck and he tilts his head to crack it.

There's a brief knock and the glass door slides open. "Hey," the nurse says, "There's a shift change coming up soon so if you don't mind heading out for a little bit while we get ourselves situated."

Bucky slowly lets go of Steve's hand and stands up. He looks at Steve's face again before following the nurse out.

_____

They have to go out the service doors because there are still a few news vans camped out in front of the hospital. Bucky doesn't say anything--just looks out the window at the rapidly lightening sky and tries not to think about life without Steve.

A week ago, he'd been standing in front of Major Dominguez, accepting the man's praise for a job well done. And now he had a hearing in two days while the most important person in his life was half dead in a hospital bed.

"Amanda wants you to appear on camera in a couple of hours," Halley says.

She'd told Bucky via text. He hadn't bothered to respond.

"Are you going to be okay?" Halley asks.

"Yeah," Bucky says.

_____

The moment he steps into Amanda's office in his newly pressed military dress uniform, Lily starts towards him with a thing of concealer in her left hand, brush outstretched.

"Hold up," Amanda says without looking up, "We should work around the exhausted look. We're going for authenticity here."

"Very light? Just to dull the glare?" Lily asks tucking the items she has in her hands away and going for another small container.

Amanda looks up as Lily starts to work over his face. "A shade darker, I think."

Lily obliges. Bucky stands still, staring out the window at the gardens beyond. The palace grounds are immaculate--lush green lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs all a bright green that Bucky hasn't seen in months. He thinks about the dusty front courtyard of HQ in Basrah.

"We're done," Lily says, patting his shoulder. She smiles up at him, sadly, "I'm sorry to hear about Steve."

Bucky doesn't smile back but he nods.

"Give us a moment," Amanda says. Lily closes the door after her as she leaves. Amanda comes around her desk to look at him critically.

"You took off your medals," she says, eyeing his chest.

"I didn't earn any of those," Bucky says.

Amanda doesn't say anything but from the way that she looks up at his face before critically examining the rest of him suggests some level of approval. She leans against her desk and looks back up at him. The number of mugs on her desk suggest that she's been up for far too many hours but her hair is still pinned up perfectly.

"You know, none of this is really about you," she says, arms crossing over her chest. Bucky looks at her. "It's about granting special privilege to those who happen to be born into better circumstance. It's about following the rules."

Bucky says, "I know."

"You're going to be fine," Amanda says.

Bucky doesn't respond for a long moment. And then he says, "What would happen? If Steve--?"

Amanda doesn't move. "You will grieve for a very long time," she says, "And then you will keep living."

Bucky closes his eyes and wills himself not to cry. He straightens his shoulders and breathes in deep.

"I believe in Steve," Amanda says softly. She gives him a small smile. "And I believe in you."

_____

He's good at memorizing things and presenting them as if they weren't scripted. He's had years and years of experience. But his delivery today is flat, looking not at the camera but somewhere beyond.

"Convincing," Amanda says but without any of her usual sharpness.

Halley's back at the hospital with Susanne. Bucky barely thinks twice and finds the keys to his car in his desk drawer. He's down the long driveway and headed back into DC within an hour.

_____

A knock on the door before it opens. Bucky looks up from where he's been waiting in the chaplain's office for the last ten minutes after the ICU wouldn't let him in, citing too many visitors.

He recognizes Peggy immediately as she steps into the room and half closes the door behind her. "They told me I might be able to find you in here."

Bucky nods. He's still wearing half his dress uniform from the press conference, the jacket over the back of his chair and his cufflinks undone.

"How are you holding up?" she asks, pulling one of the chairs towards him before sitting down.

Bucky shrugs. He gestures helplessly for a moment before letting his hands drop back down. "Fucking terrified," he finally says.

"Dr. Erskine is examining him right now," Peggy says, "He's one of the most talented pathologists I know."

Bucky manages the semblance of a smile at least because he appreciates it--he really does. "Thank you," he says. The smile slips right back off his face.

"Steve's my friend too," Peggy says, smiling tightly back at him.

They sit in silence for a few moments. And then Bucky says, "You know he didn't even--I had no idea that he was even sick."

"He's very private about his illnesses," Peggy agrees, "I had no idea either."

"But not with me," Bucky says. He swallows. "Or at least I thought."

Peggy reaches out and puts a hand on his shoulder. "Have faith, Bucky."

_____

The last time he sees Steve is on the morning of his hearing. He's fairly certain that he's going to be shipped back out the moment the court decided on his sentence. Maybe the nurses feel bad for him because they let him stay in Steve's room for a good portion of the night, only waking him up for their morning shift change.

Nothing has changed. Steve's eyes are still closed, face slack, the monitor above his head recording a steady pulse. Bucky knows that the nurse is waiting behind him to make sure he leaves but he doesn't care. He brushes Steve's hair from his forehead and leans over to kiss Steve on the cheek and again at the side of his mouth.

"I'll be back," he promises Steve's still body.

The nurse keeps the door open for him as he leaves. She shuts it with a quiet snick and looks over at him. "I won't say anything," she says.

Bucky nods, mustering up the faintest of appreciative smiles for just a moment.

_____

His hearing takes a total of ten minutes.

"Well," the judge says after peering at the documents relevant to Bucky's case. "A compelling argument set forth by the prosecution but Lieutenant Barnes did immediately report back to his commanding officer regarding his intent to return. And although I do condemn Lieutenant Barnes's impulsive behavior, I am compelled to believe that there were extraordinary circumstances driving said behavior." He clears his throat and looks back up at both the administrative colonel who had come to represent the prosecution and Bucky with the palace lawyer he didn't even want there.

"Lieutenant Barnes, please consider yourself officially reprimanded. Your pay will be docked for the number of days you were not present for your duties as well as an additional seven days. Any further improper behavior will result in punitive action of much higher severity."

"Yes sir," Bucky says.

"Good. You are back on active duty as of this moment and need to report to your commanding officer as soon as possible. Case dismissed."

_____

Instead of handing him a plane ticket back to Kuwait City, Halley hands him one to Georgia. "You're already late for training," Halley says.

Special forces, he suddenly remembers. But he can't find the energy to be even slightly excited.

"You'll tell me if anything changes?" Bucky asks, "I don't care if it's three in the morning or whatever. I want to know."

"You'll be the first to know," Halley says.

"I'll do it right this time," Bucky says, "Go through the right channels and everything." He stops and shoves his hands into the pockets of his washed fatigues. It's not like they'd give him leave in the middle of training.

He starts towards the plane he's supposed to take when Halley says, "James."

He turns.

"Steve's going to be okay," Halley says, "Give him some time. Don't worry about him."

Bucky smiles a little even if he doesn't really feel it. Steve's going to be okay, he thinks to himself, Steve's going to be okay.

If he repeats it enough times, maybe it'll come true.

Chapter Text

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers

Let me know what you think of Peggy's candidate now that you've seen him in person. I'm free 2PM tomorrow. Come by my office.
N

_____

FROM: banner@starkindustries.com
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
CC: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Serum test

Hi Abraham,

Until we obtain conclusive evidence from the immunocompromised mice that the cocktail is actually beneficial, I am strongly against using it in an actual human being. Even if the autoimmunity was short lived in the human test, we still couldn't get a precise LD50 much less the optimal dosage and I don't think we can just scale up from the murine model and call it a day.

I understand that the patient is in critical condition and that we only have a limited window of time to act but that time would be better spent looking for an alternative treatment plan because the serum is just not ready.

Best,
Bruce

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
CC: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers

I know you've been collecting files on this guy ever since Erskine told you about his project. Forward me everything you have.
N

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
CC: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers

Director Fury,

I've attached an encrypted version of the files you requested. If you were to give me clearance to approach Amanda Orvitz who works as the PR supervisor in the palace, I could probably supplement the files I've collected with something more substantial.

Steve has been my friend for five years now and I would like to personally attest to his good character and strong moral compass. I realize that he likely does not look like the test subject you might have originally been looking for, but his personality, his humor, and his brand of solemn optimism have always been too big for his body.

Peggy

ATTACHMENT: srogers.rar

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers

The fact that you've been his friend for five years is exactly why I need the files. Forgive me if I'd prefer to make an objective judgement myself, Ms. Carter.
Yes, contact Orvitz.
N

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: (none)

What are your thoughts on Bruce's email?

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: (none)

Nick,
Bruce doesn't have full access to all of the data because not all of it was needed for the Stark Industries collaboration. That being said, his concern about the push forward being premature is valid to a certain extent. After reviewing Mr. Rogers's medical history, I think he would make a suitable candidate from a medical standpoint. After reviewing Ms. Carter's files, I admit that I like Steve quite a bit, but I realize that liking him doesn't mean that he is necessarily the best fit for this program.
Abraham

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: nr138747@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Steve Rogers

See attached. Find out everything else you can about Steve Rogers.
N

ATTACHMENT: rogers15.rar

__

FROM: nr138747@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Steve Rogers

On it.

__

FROM: nr138747@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Steve Rogers

The file we have is pretty comprehensive but there are a few things missing:

- He has about 8 million in a trust fund contingent on 1. James Barnes's death or 2. his asking for the money. Either he doesn't know about its existence or he's very stubborn about accepting money. The trustees are agents of the royal family.

- The address for his biological mother was outdated but I tracked her to an apartment in Salt Lake City. I can get a sample for DNA sequencing if you can lend me a plane.

Last note. My gut feeling tells me that Rogers and James Barnes have a closer relationship than it appears in the documentation. If the project doesn't work out, this might not be the kind of publicity you want.

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: nr138747@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Steve Rogers

Plane's yours. Be back by tomorrow morning.
N

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: (none)

Romanov found Rogers's mother, said she'd be back with a sample for you tomorrow for sequencing.
N

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: meeting

Could use your help. Swing by my office whenever you get this.
N

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers

ATTACHMENT: rogers15.rar

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers

After reviewing the materials you sent, I still think his friendship with Barnes is the biggest concern for your project. On the other hand, that's an external factor and I think an argument could be made for assessing him as he is, without taking whatever relationships he has into account. Evaluating Rogers' character as is, I think he fits the profile you're looking for very strongly. If everything works out, the hardest part will be convincing him to join you.

Maria

_____

FROM: rjackson5@mail.nih.gov
TO: erskine2@mail.nih.gov
SUBJECT: Histology results

Hi Professor Erskine,

I imaged the immunocompromised and control mice samples this afternoon and have attached the histology results to this email. I guess an argument could be made for the control sample exhibiting slight autoimmunity (I circled the relevant parts of the images) but I'm not sure if I'm entire convinced. The immunocompromised mice actually look pretty healthy and Janice told me she gave you the white blood count numbers over time to back this observation up. I'd love to meet to discuss these results but I know you're really busy these days.

Ricky

ATTACHMENT: immunocompromised_vs_control_histology.pptx

__

FROM: erskine2@mail.nih.gov
TO: banner@starkindustries.com
SUBJECT: Fwd: Histology results

See attachment. Have you worked out the last kinks in the delivery system yet?
Abraham

ATTACHMENT: immunocompromised_vs_control_histology.pptx

__

FROM: banner@starkindustries.com
TO: erskine2@mail.nih.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Fwd: Histology results

Hi Abraham,

Those results look promising.

We reconfigured the machine to be more precise with positioning and tested our first human subject today. The nanoparticles went exactly where they were supposed to. We're monitoring him closely over the next few days and we might be able to get another test or two in before Rogers gets clearance.

I'm feeling slightly more optimistic about the project but I still wish we had longer term studies in any model. I don't do a lot of clinical research myself so I feel as if it would be unethical to ask otherwise healthy immunocompromised patients to participate in a trial run--plus the amount of paperwork and screening that would be necessary to even approach them in the first place would probably rule a good number of them out even before we started. I suppose Rogers can be considered a bit of a windfall in that he's in a critical situation where application of the serum to save his life might be one of his very limited options. Yet he's not awake to provide consent and I suppose that's where my hesitation comes into full force. Perhaps my caution is misplaced.

Best,
Bruce

__

FROM: erskine2@mail.nih.gov
TO: banner@starkindustries.com
SUBJECT: Re: Fwd: Histology results

Bruce,
I can see why you think that way and I do not think your caution is misplaced. It is good to have a voice of reasonable doubt as SHIELD is often not scientifically minded enough to rein in progress when it would be prudent to give progress a second look.
Even if we do not have contingency plans for every small detail that might arise, we have enough planned to deal with any of the major issues that might arise and this gives me confidence that we can successfully treat Steve.
Keep me updated.
Abraham

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: nr157347@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers & Barnes

What can you dig up on their relationship that might be useful for us?
N

__

FROM: nr157347@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers & Barnes

Maybe you should ask Carter.

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
CC: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers & Barnes

Can you comment on Rogers's relationship with Prince James Barnes?
N

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
CC: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers & Barnes

Director Fury,

There isn't much to comment on. Steve remains close friends with Prince Barnes. They talk regularly via email now that Prince Barnes has been deployed.

May I ask why this is relevant to Steve's candidacy for the project?

Peggy

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
CC: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers & Barnes

Contingencies for cleanup in case the project doesn't pull through. It doesn't hurt to be thorough.
Close friends. Which is why Barnes decided to go AWOL to come back to see Rogers.
N

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
CC: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers & Barnes

Director Fury,

I am honestly not qualified to speak on the relationship between Rogers and Barnes. If you are genuinely concerned about possible repercussions from the royal house if the project happens to run into a problem, I would suggest you approach not only Steve's mother but also Prince Barnes. However, Prince Barnes is currently at special forces training and has limited contact with the outside world. Steve's condition could easily worsen and it would be foolish to hold back a lifesaving treatment on the off chance that some minor public figure might raise noise if a mishap occurs.

Although I wouldn't dare to call myself an expert in biology or medicine, I have full faith in the serum that Dr. Erskine has developed. The delivery mechanism that Stark Industries has provided is sound, both in principle and in empirical results. I know that Steve is the best candidate you've received for the program and I know that you're likely not going to find anyone more ideal.

I understand that you have a bigger picture to consider, but I implore you to make the right decision.

Peggy

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
CC: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers & Barnes

I'm going to have to agree with Carter. I mean, I'm not sure if I would call Prince Barnes a minor public figure, but I would agree that we're not likely to find a better candidate. We can mitigate whatever fallout occurs if (if!) the circumstances warrant, otherwise we have been given the chance to save this young man's life.

Maria

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
CC: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers & Barnes

Ms. Carter: How quickly can you reach out to Rogers's mother?
Ms. Hill: Expedite Rogers's transfer from GWU to SHIELD facilities.
N

ATTACHMENT: rogers_documents_tosign.pdf, rogers_transfer_documents.pdf

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: nr168241@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers

Steve Rogers has been cleared for the project. I'm pulling you to train him if the serum works and he makes it through PT.
N

__

FROM: nr168241@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers

Sure. Tell me when. Good luck convincing him to join.

_____

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Signed consent

Director Fury,

Attached are the signed consent forms. I didn't know that Justin Halley was one of Steve's legal guardians. Due to the close relationship that Mr. Halley has with Prince James, I think that any repercussions from the royal house that you might have been worried about can be set aside.

Peggy

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Fwd: Signed consent

I underestimated Halley's involvement. I haven't seen his signature on a hospital document for Rogers since 2006.
N

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Fwd: Signed consent

Well, we all have our off days.

Carter's right, this is good for us.

Maria

_____

FROM: banner@starkindustries.com
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov, erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: machine delivery

Hi Nick and Abraham,

I'll be arriving by one of Tony's jets with the machine in about an hour. I brought all of my own moving equipment since some of the parts are extremely delicate but I wouldn't say no to anyone you can spare to carefully move some of the parts into your facility. I can reassemble it in about four hours.

Best,
Bruce

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: When?

How is he doing? When can we get started?
N

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: When?

The trip from GWU didn't help much. I think we should wait another 24 hours to make sure his vitals have stabilized enough before putting him in the machine. It'll give Bruce enough time to do a trial run on a dummy to make sure his reassembled machine is exactly as precise as it was before.
Abraham

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: When?

We're about to move Rogers into the machine. If you'd like to be present, now's the time to come.
Abraham

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: (none)

Clear the NIH servers. Everything is officially SHIELD property now. We can see about recruiting the rest of your lab into SHIELD. Anyone who doesn't come will have to sign an NDA and we'll keep an eye on them. Hill will help you fill out the paperwork and figure out how to move whatever equipment you want to keep.
N

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: (none)

My grad student isn't going to be happy about that. I'll have to find a new faculty member for her.
Otherwise, I'd be happy to leave my equipment behind. There's not much that was there that I can't find in the SHIELD facilities. No custom built lasers or anything--that's more Stark's field anyway.
Abraham.

_____

FROM: banner@starkindustries.com
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Possible problem?

Hi Abraham,

I've been watching Steve under the scanner and the nanoparticle delivery system seems to dissipate faster than we had anticipated. Definitely faster than in the other test subjects--though we only injected the particles and a dummy serum instead of the real deal. On the other hand, Steve's WBC is steadily rising and I've had to recalibrate the machine at least twice now, which means he's growing at a significant rate. What do you think? Something we should be concerned about or should we wait and see what happens first before deciding on a course of action?

Best,
Bruce

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: banner@starkindustries.com
SUBJECT: Re: Possible problem?

Great to know that he's growing. Can you send me the measurements so that we can get a trend going if you haven't already done so? I think the first round has already shown substantial results and that we shouldn't reinject. If we do go that route, we need to wait until he wakes up.
Abraham

_____

FROM: susanne_1959@gmail.com
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: The treatment

Peggy,

I'm having second thoughts about this treatment plan. Between Dr. Erskine and Steve's ICU doctor, I thought we were making the right decision but in retrospect I don't know if it's worth not being able to see Steve for two months! I haven't heard from any of Steve's new doctors in a few days about his condition. Is Steve doing okay? I'm so worried but I haven't heard back from Dr. Erskine or any of the other doctors I've contacted and all I can do is imagine him dying somewhere in some hospital room without anyone there to comfort him

Susanne

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: susanne_1959@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: The treatment

Hi Susanne,

I'm so sorry about the fact that you haven't received any correspondence from Dr. Erskine or anyone else. I've spoken with Dr. Erskine and he said he replied to your email but that it must have been caught by the SHIELD filters before it could leave the facility. As he explained when he met with you, the treatment plan that Steve is undergoing is highly confidential and much of the technology being used is classified. Please be reassured that Steve is still in stable condition and the moment he wakes up (which Dr. Erskine and his team are very optimistic about), we will be in touch and you will be able to speak to Steve over the phone.

Again, I am truly sorry about all of the worry that the delay in correspondence has caused you. Please do not hesitate to contact me in the future with any questions or anything. If you'd like, I can send you a quick daily email about how Steve's doing as I check in on him most evenings before I leave work.

Best,
Peggy

__

FROM: susanne_1959@gmail.com
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: The treatment

Peggy,

I would really really appreciate that!!

Susanne

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers

If you check your email before your voicemail, you need to come now. Rogers just woke up.
N

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov, mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Recruiting Steve

Come by my office 6PM. I need your help in deciding the best way to approach this problem.
N

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov, mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Recruiting Steve

Unfortunately, I'm consulting on a crucial experiment this evening and cannot make it to this meeting. Let me know if you want to reschedule or if you'd like to prepare a plan I can comment on via email.

Peggy

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov, mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Recruiting Steve

Your expertise on Steve Rogers is necessary for this meeting. 10AM tomorrow.
N

_____

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: susanne_1959@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Steve

Hi Susanne,

Steve woke up today but he has been sliding in and out of consciousness for the last twelve hours which is why he hasn't called yet. The doctors hope that he will be awake long enough for a phone call tomorrow so there is a good chance that you might receive word from Steve himself very soon.

Peggy

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov, pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: NDA

Please explain to Rogers as well as possible before allowing him contact with the outside world.
N

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: NDA

Abraham, I'm really sorry about this but would you mind terribly talking to Steve about this? If I receive another email from Fury about Steve, I might actually scream. Between watching Steve deteriorate over the last few weeks and the fact that Fury seems to expect me to be a part of this project while not giving me any leeway on the deadlines on my actual work, I'm ready to admit that I'm at my wit's end.

Peggy

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: NDA

I would be happy to. Please take care of yourself.
Abraham

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: NDA

Thank you. I feel awful because Steve's one of my closest friends and I feel like I owe him this but I'm trying to keep myself from burning out at the same time because I'd be of no help to anyone then. Let me know when you plan to talk to him because I'd like to be there to provide support but I just can't bring myself to convince him to sign.

Peggy

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: NDA

Provided he's still awake, in half an hour.
After he's sufficiently recovered and Fury's managed to recruit him, you deserve a long vacation.
Abraham

_____

FROM: susanne_1959@gmail.com
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Steve

Peggy,

It was good to hear from Steve today. I cried tears of joy when I heard his voice on the phone today. Please tell him to take care and thank the doctors for me.

Susanne

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov, mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Barnes

Rogers wants to contact Barnes. Any guidelines you think we should advise?
N

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Barnes

I'm ready to block Fury's email.

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov, pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Barnes

I don't think Barnes should be treated differently from any of Rogers's family members. Given that Rogers has recovered miraculously well, Barnes will likely be too grateful for Steve's recovery and too busy with special forces training to give it too much thought. He has never courted the media in the past seeing as all of his press releases have been made through Orvitz. Might I note that in Orvitz's files, she wrote that there is a standing ban on any topics relating to Steve Rogers released through the royal house? As for the chances that news of the project might be leaked through Barnes, I think the odds are extremely low. Especially since we've already explained the NDA thoroughly to Rogers.

Maria

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Barnes

Happy hour Friday?

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Barnes

Please.

_____

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: banner@starkindustries.com
SUBJECT: A tentative success?

I think the second round of serum was a good idea. WBC still not as high as we've seen in the previous patients and he's still growing. We will have to move to the stabilization phase soon. What do you think?
Abraham

__

FROM: banner@starkindustries.com
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: A tentative success?

Hi Abraham,

Agreed. I think he's ready for all out physical therapy pretty soon. I think we could also probably release the gastroenterologist on retainer since Steve's not having any more digestive issues but I'll defer to your experience on this matter. Maybe trade her out for another endocrinologist since we weren't expecting Steve's metabolism to be so high.

Tony's wondering when I can be back from what he's been deeming my pet project. I'd love to see this all the way to the end but I suppose there's no set endpoint. I think I want to stay for another two weeks at the least but at some point I'll have to head back to NYC. Pepper's already made the arrangements with Director Fury regarding letting you guys keep the machine.

Best,
Bruce

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: banner@starkindustries.com
SUBJECT: Re: A tentative success?

I'll see if Fury can find another endocrinologist with high enough clearance to work on this project but there's a good chance we're just stuck with the one. I think that Dr. Young is extremely competent at what he does, but I agree with you that a second opinion would be worth seeking.
I'll be sad to see you go as I have had a wonderful time collaborating with you but I understand that your talents are in great demand. Stark certainly lucked out when he hired you on.
Abraham

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov, mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Recruitment plan

See attached.
N

ATTACHMENT: rogers_outline.pdf

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov, mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Recruitment plan

The "you owe us" approach is not one I think would work on anyone. I know I certainly wouldn't appreciate it myself.

Otherwise, I agree that focusing on Steve's natural inclination to give a voice for the underserved and the emphasizing the new opportunities he's been given would be the best course of persuasion if you are intent on recruiting him.

I would prefer not to be present if it's all the same to you. This is a decision that Steve has to make himself and I don't want to play any role in SHIELD's emotional coercion.

Peggy

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov, mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Recruitment plan

Let's hope it doesn't come to that. Your preference has been noted.
N

__

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Recruitment plan

If we can't recruit Rogers the first time around, send Carter in to convince him.
N

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Recruitment plan

Good luck convincing her to do that.

Maria

_____

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: susanne_1959@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Steve

Sorry I haven't written since Thursday; I've been extremely bogged down with work. I don't know how much Steve has been discussing with you over the phone but he's been making really great progress with the physical therapists. There are a few administrative obstacles that we have to clear before we can release Steve or let you visit him. I know how frustrated you must be and I can't apologize enough for how much this must trouble you. Please be assured that the doctors are doing everything they can to make Steve as healthy as possible before he comes home to you.

Peggy

_____

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: (none)

I honestly don't know what to say to him sometimes. God, sometimes I wish I had never even submitted his name for the project. But then I don't know if he would still be in a coma or god help me, dead. But sometimes when he looks at himself I think it might have been better to just leave him as he was. Maybe his doctors could have found some other treatment for him. At least then I wouldn't have played a part in keeping him locked up in what basically amounts to isolation so he'll be more easily persuaded to work for Fury.

I know this is really very personal and I'm sorry to bother you with it but I'm not sure I was ever cut out to be the nurturing type and I honestly just don't know what to do.

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: (none)

The only thing that matters is that he's alive and healthier than ever. You were a good friend to give him this chance. Give him time to adjust and let him make his own choice.

Want me to break into my stash? I can be at your office in 15 if you want to talk in person.

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: (none)

Thanks Maria, writing that email helped. Maybe I just need to go home tonight and have a good cry so I can think about this more rationally.

__

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: (none)

Go. I'll cover for you.

_____

FROM: banner@starkindustries.com
TO: erskine@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Tying up loose ends

Hi Abraham,

I'm glad to be leaving Steve in such good health and I am astounded by the level of success we've achieved with this project. I gave Steve my email and I will definitely stay in touch. In case I haven't said it enough times, it's been an honor working with you.

Best,
Bruce

__

FROM: erskine@shield.us.gov
TO: banner@starkindustries.com
SUBJECT: Re: Tying up loose ends

The honor has been mine entirely. Have a safe flight.
Abraham

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: pcarter@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Rogers

Are you sure you don't want to be there?
N

__

FROM: pcarter@shield.us.gov
TO: nfury@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Rogers

Very certain.

Peggy

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: (none)

I'm about to go in. Where are you?

_____

FROM: nfury@shield.us.gov
TO: nr126385@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Training

Wrap up your alias and report back to DC.
N

_____

FROM: mhill@shield.us.gov
TO: srogers@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Starting out

Hi Steve,

We don't have much of an orientation process at SHIELD seeing as everyone we recruit is highly specialized and requires different levels of clearance which come with their own specific protocols. Regardless, let me be the first to extend you a warm welcome and reiterate our enthusiasm for your decision to join the team.

I've attached a few documents for your perusal to orient you to our general goals as an institution and our organizational structure. If you encounter any problems with the ID you'll be getting in the next few weeks or with your SHIELD account, it.help@shield.us.gov is likely to be your best bet. Until Director Fury pairs you with a trainer, your goal is to recover as fully as possible and get used to the dimensions of your new body. I know you will continue to take your physical training sessions seriously and would highly encourage you to look into counseling with our qualified doctors should you find yourself in need.

Although I am certain you have been reminded many times before, I must take this opportunity to remind you of our non-disclosure agreement. As the technology surrounding your treatment has not yet been patented or made public in any form, we encourage you to minimize any interaction which might put our still evolving research in jeopardy. We are very grateful for your cooperation in this matter as we realize this is not an easy thing to do by any standard.

We are very excited to have you with us and look forward to all you will accomplish.

Best,
Maria Hill

ATTACHMENT: SHIELD_goal_history.pdf, SHIELD_chart.pdf

__

FROM: srogers@shield.us.gov
TO: mhill@shield.us.gov
SUBJECT: Re: Starting out

Thanks Director Hill. I'm very excited to help out.

Steve

Chapter Text

Bucky arrives at Camp Mackall during an end-of-summer thunderstorm that floods half the airfield and soaks his uniform within moments of stepping out of the jet. A disgruntled looking sergeant in a waterproof poncho greets him with a salute and leads him to the main administrative building.

They catch the colonel as he's about to enter his office and Bucky ends up awkwardly dripping all over the hallway linoleum as the colonel eyes eyes him up and down. "Nice of you to join us," he says, not smiling but not angry either.

"Yes sir," Bucky says.

"West Point, is it?" he asks.

"Yes sir."

"They make you take navigation at West Point?"

"Yes sir."

The colonel looks at him for another moment. "I hope you don't think that excuses you, lieutenant," he says. He looks at the sergeant. "Put Lieutenant Barnes wherever we have space left."

The sergeant salutes. Bucky salutes too, but the colonel is already turning around, dismissing them without another word.

_____

Bucky sees Dugan in the mess hall, sitting next to Ralston. He stands with his tray of food for fifteen seconds too long, torn between joining them and knowing he can't bring himself to answer any of their questions on why he went AWOL.

In the end, he sits at a table by himself, avoiding the way that some of the other recruits openly stare. He keeps his eyes on his food, eating mechanically so that he can finish and get back to his quarters to break in his new gear and not have to think about the fact that he was four hundred miles away from where he wanted to be and half terrified of his name being called out to receive a telephone call.

Someone puts their tray down across from him. He looks up. Morita gives him a smile.

"Back huh?" Morita asks.

"Yeah," Bucky says.

He half expects Morita to ask him what had happened--but Morita doesn't say anything else, just tears his bread in half and dunks it into his soup.

"Get a load of this thunderstorm," Morita says after a moment, "I hope it lets up before the trek. I don't wanna march thirty miles in mud."

Some part of Bucky loosens in relief. "Yeah," he agrees.

_____

He's only missed two days of assessment but it means that he's still forty-eight hours behind. They're bending all sorts of rules for him and even if the instructors don't seem to care, it still weighs heavily on Bucky.

He's spent over half a year in deployment, suffering the heat and cycling between boredom and sheer terror in near silence. Between the successful raids that had landed him this opportunity to train--real missions that most of these other recruits couldn't have even thought up. But he finds himself at a disadvantage; he isn't at the peak physical shape he was when he'd gone through basic again before he'd deployed, hasn't rucked cross country in months even though he'd tried to keep in shape.

They run obstacle courses and team exercises. The temperature climbs into the hundreds during the afternoon and Bucky is absurdly grateful for something else to focus on--anything other than a possible phone call, Halley's voice on the other side in quiet apology.

_____

"Hey lieutenant," Jones calls out to him. He's smoking a cigarette next to the mess hall, mostly decked out in full gear though he's set his pack on the ground. The courtyard is still wet from yesterday's thunderstorm but Jones doesn't seem to care.

"How's your friend?" Jones asks as Bucky comes closer. Bucky slows to a stop, maybe a little too far away for conversational distance. Of course they'd already know--it'd been all over the news, hadn't it?

"I don't know," Bucky says. He says it as calmly as he can and maybe he can beat himself out of this--the terror that rises the moment he starts to think about Steve. Something must show on his face no matter how hard he tries to force it down because Jones straightens and looks at him more closely.

"I'm going to--" Bucky jabs a thumb at the door of the mess hall. "I should go."

Jones nods as Bucky turns away. He says, "See you around," but Bucky doesn't stop to answer.

_____

The other recruits seem to know exactly who he is, but they never approach him. Bucky doesn't know why they keep their distance but he's glad they stay away. Morita eats meals with him when they're in the mess hall at the same time and sometimes Jones joins them. They talk mostly about the upcoming navigation courses and how to do better on the obstacle courses, probably because neither of them really know what to say to Bucky about his dying friend.

Bucky doesn't mind. He doesn't want to talk about it either. He spends most of his free time sleeping anyway.

_____

"His condition hasn't changed any," Susanne tells him over the phone, "But Dr. Erskine, you know, Peggy's doctor? He said that he had a really revolutionary treatment for people in Steve's condition. We signed Steve up."

"What treatment?" Bucky asks, "What did they tell you? How will it help him?"

"Well," Susanne says, "You know I'm not good at science, I didn't really quite get what Dr. Erskine was saying. But it's some sort of healing serum. They had to transfer him to another facility because the technology's so new."

"Who else have they tried it on?" Bucky's hands tighten around the receiver. "How many of them got better?"

Susanne doesn't say anything for a long moment. And when she does speak again, she says, "I trust the doctors. They knew what they were doing. Peggy trusts them. Halley said it was the best option we had."

"Who else?" Bucky insists, "Who else has been treated before Steve?"

"Bucky. He's been in a coma for weeks. The longer he's gone, the less of a chance we'll get him back."

"So what?" Bucky feels the edge of hysteria bubbling up. "So Steve gets to be the guinea pig? So some scientists can test their concoctions on him?"

Susanne says quietly, "I think it's better than watching him die."

_____

He's been at Mackall for a week before Morita knocks on the open door of the tiny eight-man quarters Bucky doesn't share with anyone else. He has no idea if it's solely because the other quarters have filled up exactly as needed, or if it's because of who he is. He doesn't know how to feel about his rooming situation: he doesn't really want to talk to anyone but he doesn't want to be alone with his thoughts either.

"Hey lieutenant," Morita says. He's holding a familiar bag in one hand and a notebook in the other. "Sorry I haven't come by earlier with this stuff, I kind of got sidetracked." He steps into the room and drops the bag onto the ground, holding the notebook out.

Bucky gets up and meets him, taking the worn moleskine from Morita. It's the only thing of any real value he'd left behind in his haste to get back to DC.

"Found it in the kitchen when we were clearing out," Morita says.

Bucky opens it to a random page and swallows down the sudden well of emotion that threatens to seize his throat. He'd watched Steve draw some of these, lazily doodling with shitty hotel ballpoints and it suddenly strikes him that it's very possible he will never see Steve pick up a pen ever again. It's very possible that he won't ever look over at Steve ever again when they're sitting in an airport together, Steve watching other people and Bucky watching Steve.

"I didn't know you drew," Morita says, but he sounds very far away.

"I don't," Bucky hears himself answering, trying to sound normal because he is supposed to be a lieutenant first and a grieving friend second. It comes out a little choked up anyway. "My friend does."

Morita looks at him while he looks at the sketches. After a moment he says, "Hey man, do you want to talk about it?"

"I'm fine," Bucky says automatically.

"Uh," Morita says, "Look I don't know if this is out of line or anything but you're clearly not doing well. And I mean, if it's too personal, you don't have to talk about it or anything but I'm here if you want to talk. And I know I say shit about celebrities and all but I would never say anything to anyone. So if you need someone to talk to or anything, I'd like to help."

Bucky wants to say it. He wants to tell someone here in person, make someone understand the gravity of his--this--Steve--

"I mean, the rest of the platoon and all--we all want to help," Morita says, "You're a good guy Barnes."

"I think my best friend is going to die," Bucky says.

"They're that sick?" Morita asks.

"He wasn't even awake when I was there," Bucky says. He's clutching the edges of the notebook now, staring unseeingly at it because he can't meet Morita's eyes. "The last time I saw him before the hospital was before I came to Iraq. The last time I heard from him, I didn't know there was anything wrong."

Morita doesn't say anything. Bucky looks up, catching the sympathetic look on Morita's face before he has to focus on the wall because he's not used to this--all of his emotional vulnerability dragged to the forefront and paraded in front of a near stranger.

"This wasn't supposed to happen," Bucky says, "We were supposed to--" Fall in love for real. Grow old together. Bucky swallows the words down and instead says, "He was supposed to outlive me."

"He's still in the hospital?" Morita asks.

"He's still alive."

There's silence for a moment. Bucky closes the notebook but keeps a hold of it, staring down at the ground. He doesn't feel any better for saying any of this out loud.

"You know, doctors," Morita says after a moment, "They can perform some real miracles sometimes. My grandpa had a stroke once, on top of a bad case of COPD and liver damage. He probably had the healthiest diet of all of us but the cigarettes and alcohol got him in the end." Morita pauses, scratching at the back of his neck. "The stroke happened first. Then his liver gave out. Then his kidneys and lungs and one by one, his systems started shutting down. My mom, she tells the doctors to do everything they can." Morita grins briefly. "Now he only sneaks sake at New Year's. Finally quit smoking too."

Bucky tries to smile but it only makes it halfway to his face.

"What I'm saying, Barnes," Morita says, "Don't give up on your friend."

_____

"We haven't heard back," Halley says.

It's so damn hard, trying to hold on to his optimism. He keeps swinging between despair at the idea of Steve's death and the utter conviction that Steve is going to get better. It's fucking exhausting.

"I'll call back tomorrow," Bucky says.

_____

He'd done some land navigation while going through officer training--though that had been upstate New York in late autumn rather than North Carolina in late summer. His shoulders are sore and his feet are killing him. Sweat collects in the humid pool between his back and the fifty pound pack, the burn in his legs numbed away as he listens to himself breathe, mind thankfully blank except each footfall, stretching one leg in front of the next in a steady rhythm.

_____

At dinner, Dugan sits down across from Bucky, next to Morita. He hasn't approached Bucky in the nearly two weeks since Bucky had come back, only acknowledging Bucky's presence with a small nod before looking elsewhere.

"Look lieutenant," Dugan says, "I don't think that going AWOL for any reason is excusable. You had a responsibility to us and you completely disregarded that responsibility."

"Sergeant--" Morita starts, but Dugan just holds up his hand.

"That said," Dugan continues, "I guess I can see why you left and I still respect you as a commanding officer." He smiles tentatively. "I hope we'll get to keep working together when we finish training."

Some previously unknown weight lifts off of Bucky's shoulders. It doesn't make him feel all tht much better but it's one less thing to worry about. Bucky manages a smile back and says, "Me too."

_____

By some cosmic stroke of irony, Susanne calls on a Saturday evening, right after after Bucky's finished a psychological evaluation for his final assessment. "Steve's awake!" she tells him the moment he answers the phone.

It takes Bucky a few seconds to register her words--the tension inside him cautiously unravelling as he asks, "Are you serious?" and breaks into relieved laughter.

"He sounds good," Susanne tells him, "He said he's going to call you soon but that the doctors are still working with him on his recovery. He wanted to call you right away but they said they don't want to stress him out too much."

Bucky can't stop laughing. It rises out of him, edging into hysteria as he presses the phone against his ear, white-knuckled and suddenly blinking away tears. "Thank you," he manages to choke out between his laughter or his sobs. Maybe it's not his second chance at life but it sure as hell feels that way. "Thank you," he says again because he means it, has never meant it more in his life.

Somewhere in DC, Steve's eyes were open and Bucky would get to hear his voice again.

_____

He doesn't get a phone call from Steve before he leaves on the LRIM. It's fine though because as long as Steve's alive and on the upswing, Bucky can wait some approximation of forever.

He can't stop smiling. The sun has barely touched the eastern horizon as they cram into a line of jeeps to take them to the start of their final thirty mile land navigation. He squeezes in next to Dernier who looks at him.

"Good news?" Dernier asks as Bucky pulls his pack up onto his lap to make room for the other recruits. His question is nearly lost in the noise of ten men trying to all fit into a too-small vehicle.

Bucky just smiles at him. He feels lighter and more ready to take on the march than he has the entire last two and a half weeks of assessment.

Dernier smiles back. "Glad to hear it."

_____

Bucky's always had a talent for thinking spatially and it helps him keep track of his terrain now as he moves through the checkpoints with minimal time wasted pulling out his map and checking it. He can't go too slow but he can't burn himself out too fast either--just keeps a steady pace and finds himself enjoying the slow burn of moving muscle laid on older aches in a distracted sort of way. The faster he finishes the course, the faster he can get back to base and the less of a chance he'll miss Steve's phone call.

He's forced to slow down when the sun sets and the moon doesn't give enough light to navigate the tricky undergrowth with any sort of efficiency. He runs across two other recruits who let him share the fire they've made for the night and are too busy managing the blisters on their own feet and falling asleep to engage him in conversation. For the first time, Bucky wishes that they had. He wants to tell the entire world that Steve is alive and well--climb on one of the hills and shout it to the entire damn sky.

Four hours later, he wakes and eats an MRE, waiting for the sunrise while the other recruits sleep on. He half considers making coffee before discarding the idea--he doesn't want to waste any time retreating behind some trees to take care of any unnecessary bodily functions. He shakes an electrolyte package into his water and downs the entire canteen. When the sky lightens enough for the low-growing foliage to take distinct shape again, he's off. It's nicer to run in the cool morning anyway.

Maybe it's Bucky's new optimism that pushes him to finish with the top ten and bump his previously abysmal times on the shorter courses. But when he comes in sight of the familiar concrete buildings of Camp Mackall, all he knows is that the cadence of his step stretches into a litany of Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve and he feels lighter, a second wind carrying his legs towards the possibility of Steve's voice.

_____

"You don't have a number for him?" Bucky asks.

"It goes to the doctors and they usually tell Susanne he's not up for taking calls," Halley says.

"Wait, you mean Susanne's not with him?"

Halley pauses for a long moment before answering with his own question, "Susanne didn't tell you about the treatment?"

"She said Peggy's doctor proposed it and that it was really new." Unease starts to make its way into Bucky's happiness. "What didn't she tell me?"

"The treatment is sponsored by a government agency. Steve's being cared for by a federal institution called SHIELD and they don't take many visitors on their premises."

Bucky thinks about Steve lying alone in a sterile hospital bed without contact with anyone for days. Trapped, basically. He can barely keep the anger from his voice. "You must have signed off on this."

After the briefest silence, Halley says, "Susanne and I did what we thought was best at the time. We didn't have very many options." Halley sighs and it's possibly the first time that Bucky's heard his voice anything other than clipped over the telephone. "The important thing is that Steve's getting better. I'm sure he'll call you as soon as he gets the chance."

It's been nearly five days since Susanne had first called with the news of Steve's recovery. Bucky glances at his watch and tries to summon up some semblance of patience. "Yeah," he says.

_____

Steve calls at both the best and worst possible moment.

They line everyone up in the courtyard at 1600 on the last day of assessment to name the seventy or so men selected for special forces training. Bucky's lucky that his last name is at the front of the alphabet--by some miracle the instructor calls his name as among those selected despite his mediocre performance up until the last trek. Maybe he'd scored well on his IQ test and psychological evaluation--though he's spent his entire life comparing himself to Steve who he's sure would have blown him out of the water on those fronts. Regardless, he can't bring himself to relax until he's heard about the rest of his team. Dernier, Dugan, Jones, and Morita are selected. Manelli, Pinkerton, and Ralston aren't called.

When the men are dismissed, there's a scramble for the phones. Bucky moves towards Ralston who's still too stunned with disappointment to move from his spot two rows in front of Bucky.

"Next year," Bucky says, hand on Ralston's shoulder. Dugan appears and claps Ralston on the other shoulder.

Ralston smiles a little blandly and says, "Thanks lieutenant," before slipping away from the two of them, "I'm just gonna go start packing up."

Dugan watches Ralston walk away. "Poor kid," he says.

Bucky nods, already looking for the others but can't find them. Dugan's disappeared by the time Bucky looks back so he gives up and heads towards the mess hall so he can tell Halley that he'll be stateside for the foreseeable future.

"Lieutenant Barnes," someone says. Bucky turns towards the voice--it's a private he doesn't recognize. The man holds out a piece of paper towards him that Bucky takes instinctively. "Phone call for you. Left a number for you to call back."

Bucky looks down at it. 202 area code followed by a string of numbers he doesn't recognize. He can't help but hope.

It takes him nearly ten minutes to get a phone but he dials the foreign number first before he calls Halley. "Strategic homeland intervention, enforcement and logistics division," a cool female voice answers.

"Uh," Bucky says, "My name is James Barnes and someone called this number. Possibly Steve Rogers?"

"One moment," she says and transfers him over to hold music. Bucky can't help the smile that breaks out on his face because this was--

"Hello?"

A full week of anticipation couldn't have prepared him for the overwhelming relief and joy he felt at hearing Steve's voice. Bucky ducks his head and struggles to keep his emotions in check.

"Hello?" Steve asks again.

"Steve," Bucky says and it's just so fucking good to say his name to him again.

"Hey," Steve's voice softens. "Hey Bucky."

"You doing okay?"

"Not dead," Steve says, laughing a little. "Feeling a lot better than I used to actually."

"God, it's good to hear your voice again," Bucky says.

"I could say the same for you," Steve says, "You were back in DC and I couldn't even be awake for it, huh?"

"Yeah, what an asshole," Bucky says, smiling into the phone.

"I hope you didn't get in too much trouble," Steve says, quieter.

"It doesn't matter," Bucky says, "Halley said you were in some government treatment program and that they won't let you have visitors?"

"It's uh--" Steve says, "--very confidential, I guess. They haven't patented the technology yet and they don't want to interrupt any part of my recovery. I don't know, they keep saying that it's in my best interest."

"And do you believe them?" Bucky asks. Haven't patented the technology? There was no way the treatment was FDA approved and who the hell knew what side effects would show? Bucky wished he was there, looking Steve in the face so he could see for himself.

"I don't know," Steve says, "But so far they seem to have helped me a lot." He pauses before saying, "Though I uh. I look kind of different now."

Bucky flashes back to the doctor in that chaplain's office. Her face while she calmly told him that Steve might not pull through, might have some neurological condition.

He's seen stroke patients, their faces drooping on one side. Bucky wants to reach through the telephone and touch Steve's face, assure him without saying anything at all that Bucky's there for him, that he'll always be there. But he's not good at putting any of those thoughts into words so he has to settle with a joke, "Can't be any uglier than you were before."

Steve laughs. Bucky wants him to keep laughing. But then he says, "Hold on a second, Buck," and has a muffled conversation with someone on his side of the line.

And if by cue, someone taps Bucky on the shoulder. Bucky looks over his shoulder and sees the guy behind him tap his watch face. The guy says, "Sorry man."

"Hey," Steve says, "I hate to leave when I finally got you on the phone but I'm already really late for physical therapy."

"Yeah," Bucky says.

"I'll call later," Steve says, "Or email me. Susanne dropped off my laptop today."

He wants to say it. He's been thinking about saying it this entire fucking conversation. But it keeps getting stuck in the space between his chest and his mouth, frozen under the scrutiny of the man waiting for the phone behind him.

So he doesn't say I love you. He says, "I'll do that." He says, "I'm glad you're okay, Steve," and eases the words back into his ribcage, tucking it back next to his heart.

Steve is on his way back to health. Bucky has time.

_____


FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: special forces

i forgot to mention that i got selected for special forces training so i'll be stateside for the foreseeable future. i don't know if they give leave during training but i'll see if i can come up sometime.

b

_____

He meets Falsworth for the first time when moves into his new assigned bunk--they've consolidated the men into just a few buildings for their first phase of field training. The man sits on Bucky's foot locker, chatting with Dugan who's remaking his bed. He has a strong British accent, saying something about one of the men who wasn't selected. Bucky pauses in the doorway, trying to decide how polite he wants to be.

Except the British man gets to his feet when he sees Bucky hovering. He says, "Apologies, am I blocking your way?"

Bucky drops his bag on the floor next to his bunk. "No problem."

"Lieutenant, this is Lieutenant Falsworth," Dugan says, "He's part of the British Army but he's over here--remind me why you're here Falsworth?"

Falsworth smiles at Bucky. "On exchange with one of your own officers in effort to mutually improve special forces training."

"How are you enjoying pencil pushing?" Dugan asks with a grin. To Bucky he adds, "We were all deployed in the same city in Afghanistan."

"Should have put off coming here for a year if I'd have to suffer your presence again," Falsworth answers. "It's a pleasure to meet you, lieutenant," he says to Bucky.

"Likewise," Bucky says, slipping momentarily into the official tone he used while talking to foreign dignitaries. He clears his throat and smiles. "Hope you aren't here to sell state secrets."

"I would sooner commit treason," Falsworth assures him. Bucky pulls the sheets on top of his bed closer to him and starts to unfold it. Falsworth watches him for a moment before saying, "You know, I always found it peculiar that my country's military was explicitly tied to the queen whereas across the pond that doesn't seem to be the case."

Bucky thinks momentarily of all the medals that had been pinned on him during his teenage years currently abandoned somewhere at the back of a desk drawer in his room at the palace. He laughs. "I think I'm probably the most thankful of anyone for that."

_____


FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: tomorrow night

Hey will you be free tomorrow night? Maybe like, 6PM? I have 24 hours to make a pretty important decision and I want to know what you think.
S

_____

By the time Bucky gets to the phone, he's exhausted from field exercise and has a good hundred pages of special forces history and strategic theory to get through before coursework started the next morning to start the cycle all over again. It's a little like West Point all over again though it feels slightly more hellish. Or maybe he's just getting old.

"Bucky," Steve says in greeting when the receptionist (some curt-sounding guy this time) transfers Bucky to Steve. Why he can't just get Steve's direct line is both annoying and beyond him--every time he brings it up, the receptionist evasively suggests asking people that Bucky wouldn't know how to get into contact with anyway.

It's stupid but just hearing Steve's voice loosens some of the tension in Bucky's chest. His smile is practically a reflex. "Hey," he says, "What's this important decision you have to make?"

"Okay this is going to sound kind of weird," Steve says, "But SHIELD offered me a job."

Whatever Bucky was expecting, it sure as hell wasn't this. "Don't you already have a job?" he asks because he doesn't even know where to start.

"I don't know if they'd take me back after I've been gone for so long," Steve says.

"This is the same firm we're talking about, right?" Bucky asks, "The nonprofit? Who paid you to make posters on the virtues of accessible healthcare and public housing?"

"Okay, maybe they'd take me back, I don't know," Steve says, "But I think I could do a lot more with SHIELD. Help a lot more people, you know?"

"Okay," Bucky says, "I don't really know anything about SHIELD so you're going to have to fill me in."

"I don't really know either--I mean Peggy works here and she does a lot of analysis, I think codebreaking and stuff? But she mentioned a couple of times that she's been out in the field too. And they developed my treatment which means they have a lot of scientific research going on too." Steve pauses before joking weakly, "I think it's one of those situations where you have to take the job to figure out what you're actually doing."

"And what would you be doing?"

"It's--" Steve starts and then stops. He sighs quietly into the phone. "They kind of described it to me as security, I guess. Like, counter-terrorism stuff."

"Like breaking codes?" Bucky asks, "I thought you got a BFA, not a science degree."

Steve laughs a little at that. It sounds strained to Bucky, even over the phone. "No, not breaking codes."

"Then what?"

"Buck," Steve says, "They made me sign a nondisclosure agreement about everything. About my treatment, about this job. They're probably listening in on us right now. I don't know how much more I can tell you."

It's such a foreign concept to Bucky--Steve keeping secrets from him. And it angers him--the fact that some SHIELD employee was listening in on their conversation without him knowing. He's irritated that Steve didn't tell him immediately--hell, had all of their calls been monitored? He's momentarily paranoid that he let something slip, that they could hear in the very timbre of his voice everything he'd been hiding.

He keeps his voice as neutral as possible as he asks, "Will you be in danger if you take this job?"

It takes Steve a moment to answer the question. He must have noticed the careful shift to blankness in Bucky's voice. "Maybe," he says.

It's not really a fight, Bucky thinks. Even if it was, it'd be far from their first. But Bucky can't summon the smile back, can't bring himself to share his private warmth with a third party. What he really wants to say is don't take the job. What he really wants to confess is that he almost lost Steve once and he will actually go insane if he has to go through that grief again.

But what he says on the phone to Steve and to SHIELD is, "I think you should do what you think is best."

_____


FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: tomorrow night

are they tracking your emails too?

_

FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: tomorrow night

I don't know, maybe? Why?

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: tomorrow night

look i don't know much about SHIELD but it sounds like a weird mix of CIA, FBI, NSA, homeland security, etc. and i mean, i don't want ot be a downer but weren't you the one that told me about the CIA in Chile? and just about abuses of power in general. i don't know, it just doesn't seem like you to want to be a part of something like SHIELD.

_

FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: tomorrow night

Normally I'd say you were right. But I feel like SHIELD is different in a way. I mean I guess that's what all of them say before they become a part of the same system and I could just be an awful cliche. But I feel like this was something I was meant to do. I really feel like I've been given the chance to actually make a difference

I mean, Peggy works here. Everyone I've met seems really genuine. They really seem to believe that global security works only as well as its weakest link so most of the projects are dedicated to improving security in impoverished areas and going into warzones to deliver aid. If I can help with something like that, shouldn't I? It's better than hoping commuters look up long enough from their phones to notice some advertisement on the metro, much less give a shit, isn't it?

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: tomorrow night

did SHIELD switch out your personality or something when they treated you because everything you just typed to me could also be summed up with "SHIELD takes a special interest in areas under civil war in order to institute leaders who are friendly to american interests" aka chile which YOU TOLD ME ABOUT

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: tomorrow night

I'm sorry, that's not fair. Look Steve, I trust you to make the right choice in any situation. Maybe this is you rubbing off on me or something, but I guess I don't always trust the institution. Don't make any fucking jokes about me being in the military--I know what a huge fucking hypocrite I am.

The other thing is that I hate the thought of you being in danger. Maybe this is wholly selfish of me and maybe this isn't my part to say it but I went through a really hard time when I thought you were going to die. I really really don't know if I can do that again. That's the whole fucking truth.

B

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: tomorrow night

Steve seriously though I will support you no matter what you decide. Always. You probably already know that.

B

_____

It must have been funny to some greater being that not even seventy-two hours after Bucky had given Steve shit about the CIA in Chile, he was handed a sniper rifle. And it must have been really fucking hilarious that Bucky happened to be really really good at sniping. It took him until the end of the exercise to get a good feel for the gun but he was consistently hitting fairly small targets at 700 meters with decent accuracy.

"You should consider specializing as a sniper," the instructor tells him as they pack the weapons away. "This is the first time you've handled one of these guns? You've got a real gift for it."

Bucky just smiles blandly. Amanda would definitely be thrilled to run PR for an assassin.

_____

"Something wrong, LT?" Morita asks as he deals another hand for Dernier and Jones. They're on the ground, playing another round of Texas Hold 'em and ignoring the reading they'd been assigned for the next morning. Morita flips over the first card--a five of hearts--before looking up at Bucky who's sitting on his bunk and actually making an effort to get through fifty pages of guerilla tactics. "You seem like you've been down."

"I'm okay," Bucky says.

"Your friend still doing okay?"

"Yeah," Bucky says. He flips to the next page and spends a full minute looking at it before realizing that he's not reading it any more. He runs a hand over his face and asks. "You guys know SHIELD? Kind of like the CIA?"

"Sure," Jones says, "I've got a cousin who works as a scientist there."

"My dumbass friend decided to join their counterterrorism team," Bucky says.

Silence as Dernier decides whether or not to fold. "Sounds like a decent gig," Jones says after a minute.

"This the same friend you went AWOL for?" Morita asks.

"Same friend who still has two sessions of physical therapy a day," Bucky says, "I don't know what he was thinking. He's going to burn himself out."

"He probably knows what his limits are," Morita says. He shuffles the cards. "Right?"

"Yeah, maybe," Bucky mumbles looking back down at his handbook. It's not like any of them really know Steve or get that he's still recovering from near death after a lifetime of chronic illness. It's not like they watched his blood pressure plummet on a monitor or heard the steady way he had said maybe when all Bucky wanted was an emphatic no, an easy no I won't be in danger.

Bucky pulls his focus back to the top of the page again. He'd just read another five paragraphs without taking a single word in.

Maybe he's just overreacting.

_____


FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: hey asshole email me back

I've doing PT with a really intimidating but otherwise nice woman named Natasha. I should introduce you guys sometime, I think you'd get along really well. They've barely started training me for my job really, mostly they want to see how well I can recover with the serum first. Yeah I know it makes me sound like a weird science experiment especially since it's been so long but I'm hopefully going to start the actual job soon so I can stop thinking about how guilty I feel about leaving Outreach without an illustrator for months.

And I know I've said this all before but seriously, I can always quit if I don't want to do it any more. I'm not locked in to a lifelong commitment or anything. It's not like SHIELD can disappear me off the face of the planet if I decide to back out. Well, I'm pretty sure about that at least.

Wish we could talk in person. I miss you.

S

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: hey asshole email me back

and i know i've said all this before but you know you don't owe SHIELD a single thing. you weren't awake you didn't ask for any of this so. just saying.

we moved down the road to fort bragg today. latrines are even worse than at mackall. how is it possible? i'd send you pictures but you know, no cell phone. sorry you're missing out on photos of dubious stains.

let's please skype when you escape from the draconian clutches of SHIELD clearance requirements. it's been too long.

b

_____

Almost half of the class gets assigned to Europe, put on track to join the 10th special forces group, Bucky and his entire team among them. The remainder get divided out between sub-Saharan Africa and the middle east--far fewer for the middle east than Bucky would have expected.

"HYDRA's European in origin," Dernier says at dinner, shrugging. "Maybe they have a shortage of soldiers in the 10th." Even with his Arabic, Dernier had also been handed a book on basic Slavic grammar and a CD player drilling operational phrases like where is the nearest town? or when will the next train arrive?

Bucky hasn't taken a language course since he tested out of his foreign language requirement at West Point. Now he has to learn an entirely new alphabet and how to conjugate verbs in present tense before they reconvene for class tomorrow morning.

"Maybe this can help you mail order a bride," Morita says to Jones who just snorts and gives him the middle finger.

_____

By the end of their first week at Fort Bragg, it's clear that the other guys specialize more in combat thinking and improvisation than staring at a page for hours on end. Jones is struggling to memorize the sheets of Russian verbs they're handed every day and has a hard time getting his mouth around the hard consonants. Neither Morita nor Dernier had ever learned beyond the basic concepts of supply and demand in a sub-par public high school economics course and subsequently have difficulty grasping the subtleties in the policies surrounding Gazprom. Dugan skips most of the cultural exploration pages in his textbook, muttering about how it's a waste of time for soldiers--they're not spies and they're never going to be.

And it's not like Bucky fares all that much better than the rest of them--maybe he had learned how to read a textbook in college but it doesn't take much exposure to the dry text before his mind drifts, sometimes back to the palace where Amanda must be bored out of her mind without new Bucky flavored crises to oversee. Sometimes he thinks about his buddies from West Point, one of whom had emailed to tell Bucky that he'd been assigned to Bucky's old post in Basrah. But mostly he wonders what Steve's probably doing, if he's finally started in his new job. About how he might be doing in PT, if he's back to full health by now.

It's a relief to be let out at the end of the session. He and Jones start a routine of pulling on full gear every day to run a well trodden eight mile path through the woods with earphones in. It's nearly winter but there are still yellow-leaved trees scattered among the old pines. Bucky listens to a man and a woman have a conversation in slowed-down Russian and the tread of his own footfalls as he runs on.

_____


FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Nooooooo

Bad news: I have to work over Thanksgiving. I'm flying out to Johannesburg and won't be back until Sunday morning at the earliest. Maybe we have a bit of overlap? Even just a couple of hours.

S

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Nooooooo

:(

how the tables have turned. now you're on the international flights while i'm the one stuck stateside, pining for your dumb ass.

we'll always have christmas.

b

_

FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Nooooooo

Wow I don't even know where to begin with that implication. But if you enjoy the thought of me lying prone in bed crying over a picture of you I cut out of People magazine rather than reality (me sitting at dinner enjoying the fact that no one is stealing all of my fries), then I would never deny you happiness.

I'm serious about the overlap. I might be gone for a lot of the Christmas/New Years too.

S

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Nooooooo

??????? STEVE WHAT THE HELL?

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: Nooooooo

I can charter a flight back to NC whenever so get the earliest flight out. I TOLD YOU YOUR NEW JOB WAS EVIL

_____

"Maybe you can impress your family," their language instructor had said when they reached the end of their last course before being dismissed for Thanksgiving.

"Russian," Amanda repeats when Bucky tells her what he's been up to at Fort Bragg. He has his bag in one hand as he stands in her office doorway. He hasn't yet showered off the smell of too many young men crammed in a small space which is probably why when Amanda launches into a string of perfectly fluent Russian, Bucky can only catch a couple of words like "clothes" and "wash".

"I'm not actually--" Bucky says, squinting at her and wondering if he'd learned anything at all in the last three weeks. "I still need a lot more practice."

She just smiles at him. "I'll see you at dinner, James."

His room is exactly as he'd left it months ago. Steve's hospitalization already feels so far in the past--but looking at the arrangement of stuff on his desk--the car keys he'd flung into the drawer, the half folded paper where he'd written and then rewritten in shaky handwriting the speech that Amanda had wanted him to deliver to the cameras, scraps of Steve's drawings used as bookmarks in a never-moving pile of books he's been trying to read since he left for college--it brings back viscerally the angry despair he'd felt, thinking that Steve was going to die.

He was going to tell Steve, in a desperate, end-of-the-world sort of way. Maybe he would have even told Steve over this Thanksgiving, if he could have found enough alcohol to fuel his courage. But the thought of Steve--Steve who had spent the last three months undergoing physical therapy after recovering from a major illness--having to face down the paparazzi on top of dealing with the stress of a new job--maybe it was better this way. Maybe the moment had passed.

He sits at his desk and runs a hand through his hair. Special forces of training had certainly kept him too busy to think about what ifs, to think about how his future would play out beyond the next module he had to pass. But now that he's back in DC, sitting in the room where he and Steve had spent so much of their early years--now that he's facing Thanksgiving alone for the first time in his life--

God he misses Steve. Hasn't seen him in months, hasn't spoken to him in person in nearly a year. Hasn't thrown an arm around his shoulder, hasn't looked at his smile.

It should have gotten better with time, shouldn't it? He'd drifted apart from nearly all of his high school friends. The distance should have taken a toll on their friendship, should have stopped this thing, this all consuming, unforgiving thing from closing its fist on his heart and make him miss Steve so much that there was a physical ache, right under his sternum.

A knock on his door. Bucky jumps, swallows the lump in his throat and forces himself to look as impassive as possible as Halley opens the door.

"I hope you're taking a shower," Halley says, "Your mother decided to come to dinner."

Bucky gets to his feet.

Halley regards him for a moment longer before asking, "Are you okay?"

Bucky forces a smile. "Of course."

_____

A snowstorm sweeps in on Friday and doesn't leave. Bucky wanted to visit Susanne on Saturday but the mayor declares a travel ban and he's stuck in the palace, avoiding everyone by staying in his room to study the differences in Russian and Ukranian grammar.

He'd sent Steve a couple of texts but Steve hadn't replied--probably didn't even have his phone on him.

By the time Sunday arrives, the blizzard still hasn't let up and neither has the travel ban. By the time Steve's email comes through (Stuck here for another day, I'm sorry Bucky, wish I was back.), Bucky has already accepted the inevitable.

The sun comes out in the early afternoon. His charter flight back to Raleigh leaves ahead of schedule.

_____

"Hey LT," Morita says, looking up from his book of crosswords as Bucky dropped his bag back on his bunk. "Thought you'd be stranded in DC. How was Thanksgiving?"

A camera crew had come to film. One of them had tried to corner Bucky to ask him about how his men reacted to him after going AWOL but Amanda had thankfully intercepted. Bucky had smiled over dinner and spent most of the evening consciously not looking at the corner where Steve would have sat. A Turkish diplomat had too much to drink and tried to pick a fight with Bucky as if Bucky had any control at all over how the American military was overstepping their boundaries along the Turkish-Syrian border.

"Good," Bucky says because it doesn't matter. He has five days off between Christmas and New Year's and he's going to see Steve even if he has to spend two of the five days flying out to wherever Steve was going to be.

_____

The temperature drops enough that Bucky feels like he's breathing entire clouds every morning when he runs before reveille. He's the only one to do it every day--Jones and Dernier alternate in joining him every other morning whereas Dugan shows up whenever he feels like it. Morita claims he gets enough exercise from their afternoon training--he tends to stay up late to read anyway.

"Morita should have gone to college," Bucky says to Jones as they head down their routine path.

Jones laughs. "I don't know if he should feel insulted or flattered."

"I'm serious," Bucky says, dodging a half-frozen patch of mud, "He'd be a lot better at studying than I ever was. I caught him reading Tolstoy in Russian the other day. I don't think I could even read a travel brochure front to back yet. He'd kick my ass in any class, any day."

Jones makes a sound like an aborted laugh. "You should tell him," he says after a moment.

They run in silence for a few minutes before Bucky hears himself ask, "Did you? Go to college I mean."

The ensuing lack of response for a few long moments makes Bucky think that he's asked the wrong thing--maybe he'd been insensitive about Jones's upbringing. He's about to apologize when Jones says, "Yeah. I dropped out after a semester. My professors didn't like me very much. I didn't see the point of racking up two hundred thousand dollars in debt."

"What did you want to study?" Bucky asks.

"Political science." Jones shoots him a grin over his shoulder. "You'd think that professors at Yale would be as liberal as advertised."

Bucky stumbles a little but catches himself with ease. "Jones," he says, "You've been holding out on me."

Jones laughs flatly. "Not really," he says, "It wasn't really my thing."

They run on in silence for a few more minutes, before Jones adds, "Might be Morita's thing though."

_____


FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: seriously though

we haven't chatted via webcam for ages. for all i know, you could just be a very convincing robot manipulating old recordings of Steve's voice. if you're still stationed at SHIELD, why the hell are you still stationed at SHIELD? please amend, asap. i miss your dumbass face.

b

_

FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: seriously though

I promise I'm not a robot. I'm not living at SHIELD any more though I kind of got evicted since I stopped paying rent at my old place while I was away. This was a recent development, like past couple of days recent. Are you free tomorrow night, maybe 8PM?

I have to warn you that I look kind of different now. The treatment kind of made me grow a lot. Natasha's been training me so I'm not as skinny as I used to be. I'm still the same as I've always been though.

S

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: seriously though

you've been training?? i expect you to whip out your guns, rogers.

8pm, see you

b

_____

The first thing that crosses Bucky's mind when Steve pops up on his computer screen is that Steve doesn't look as different as he'd been making himself out to be. And immediately on the heels of that thought is the sudden release of tension he didn't even know he had built up--relief and joy easing his face into a grin as he takes in Steve's actual, moving, face. Steve's actual, moving, smile.

"When you said you looked different, I was, I don't know, expecting a face tattoo or something," Bucky says.

Steve laughs and Bucky drinks in the sound. "Sorry to disappoint."

"Not too late to fix that," Bucky says, "I'm sure you have a sharpie laying around somewhere."

"If you think I'd write on my own face with sharpie just to make you happy, you are sadly mistaken pal."

There is something different about Steve's face though. It's fuller in a way. The exhausted circles under his eyes have left and he looks more alert. Bucky wishes he was sitting across from Steve for real, to see all of him instead of just his head and shoulders, his face lit up with the washed out glare of his computer screen. But it's better than nothing and Bucky can't help but keep smiling. "You look good."

Steve rubs a hand over his face, still smiling. "Sometimes I'm afraid I'm going to wake up and it turns out that none of this is real. Maybe I'm actually still in that coma."

Bucky wants to reach through the screen. "If that's true, you should dream warmer temperatures for me," he says. "But it's not a dream. You look really healthy Steve. You used to look a lot more tired."

"I was," Steve admits, "I feel a lot less exhausted all the time. It's amazing."

"I'm glad," Bucky says and really means it, "Seriously."

"How are things down south?" Steve asks, "Do they still have you on limited hours of sleep? Say something Russian."

"I'll say something in Russian if you actually show me your guns," Bucky says.

Steve licks his lips as he looks at Bucky for a moment but then he leans off to the side and flexes his bicep. It's--Bucky is pretty sure that is not actually Steve's bicep. Except it's obviously connected to Steve. But it's also bigger than Steve's arm has any right to be unless the treatment SHIELD had given Steve had included pure steroids applied directly to his arm.

"Nichego sebe," Bucky says.

Steve's face reappears on the screen, "What does that mean?"

"I said, you weren't kidding when you said you were training."

"Uh," Steve says, "That's way more syllables."

"Russian's a very succinct language," Bucky says before abruptly switching the topic, "So when you said that SHIELD wanted to hire you, I was thinking like, codebreaking or something--"

"Definitely highly qualified, with my BFA in illustration."

"--and I'm starting to have the feeling that I'm way off the mark."

Silence. Eventually Steve says, "Bucky, I'm sorry but I can't actually talk about it."

"Okay," Bucky says, "I just want to know--when you said that your new job might put you in danger, are we talking about a vague, someone might figure out what you do at work and come after you sort of unlikeliness or are we talking about you flying out to Uganda to talk to warlords in person?"

Steve's no longer smiling. "Bucky," he starts.

"Because if we're talking about the latter, I can't say that I'm on board."

"I don't need your permission!" Steve says, voice rising, "This was my decision to make. This is what I want to do."

This isn't how Bucky expected their first face-to face chat in months would go.

"I haven't lied to you," Steve says, more quietly now. Bucky feels like he's trying more to convince himself than Bucky. "And you can't really talk, Buck. You were deployed. I've watched the news. You think I couldn't read between the lines of all your emails? And now you're at special forces training--you think they're going to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars turning you into some sort of supersoldier and not drop you into the middle of warzones?" He takes a breath and shakes his head. "I've been sitting on the sidelines for far too long. I want to do something. This is my chance to do something."

Bucky swallows. "Steve," he says, "All I want is for you to be safe."

Steve laughs, a disbelieving sound. "You think I don't want the same for you?"

Bucky feels tired. He misses unlocking Steve's front door after a long flight, misses having a phone, misses curling up on the couch with Steve's weight half draped into his side. He could quit. He could fucking quit training, renounce his title, and disappear into the northern wilds of Canada. But looking at Steve now--the set of his jaw and the grim determination on his face--Steve probably wouldn't follow. A strange hollow elation builds in his chest.

"You were doing good things, you know," Bucky says, "You were a talented designer, you really helped."

"I can do better now," Steve says.

He should say it. He wants to say it, wants to get it out but it keeps getting stuck somewhere in his throat, too scared of change and too cowardly to admit it. It's not the right time, he thinks, but the truth is that there will never be a good time.

In the silence, there is the faint sound of a door opening on Steve's side. "Steve," a familiar voice calls out, "Did you pick up Maria's cake?"

Bucky's stomach drops. Steve looks up above his laptop at someone else.

"Oh I'm sorry, I didn't realize you were busy," Peggy says, her voice closer.

"It's on the counter. Carl insisted on giving you a dozen cookies too."

"Is that Bucky?" Peggy asks, voice farther away again. The sound of a sink running. "Tell him I say hi. He's lucky he's missing this snowstorm."

"Hi," Bucky says. And then, "I didn't know you were living with Peggy."

"It's just a temporary thing," Steve says, "Just for a month or so until I can find my own place closer to SHIELD."

Bucky smiles even though he doesn't feel like it. A lot could happen in a month. "I should let you go," he says.

Steve rubs a hand over his face. "Bucky," he says.

"I don't know what they're going to make you do," Bucky says, "But I trust you Steve. I think you're going to be amazing. Just stay safe."

"Bucky," Steve says again, but doesn't follow it up with anything. He says Bucky's name like he wants to say something else and maybe they're both fucked up people who can't tell the truth. "We're going to be okay," he says after a long moment and Bucky wants so badly to touch Steve, put a hand on his arm, anything, that his chest aches.

"I'll be back for Christmas," Bucky says, "Don't do anything stupid until then."

Steve laughs. It's a kindness Bucky will take.

_____

Because Bucky is having the shittiest couple of months in existence, Colonel Medine calls him and his team into his office eight hours before Bucky's supposed to be boarding a plane home.

"My understanding is that you were the men who discovered the HYDRA infiltration in Iraq," Colonel Medine says.

"Yes sir," Bucky replies. Jones exchanges a glance with Dugan and Dernier is already starting to look pissed.

"I hate to do this," the colonel says, "But General Ziegler is flying in on short notice from Baghdad and wanted to meet with y'all. I know you boys were looking forward to a well deserved R&R but these are extenuating circumstances."

Bucky swallows and tries not to think about how much he'd been looking forward to going home, to seeing Steve. "Of course sir," he says, not meeting the eyes of the rest of his men.

_____

He'd been staring at his beginner's Polish textbook for the last fifteen minutes without actually reading a word when Morita cuts into their companionable silence in the otherwise completely empty mess hall. The other three men are down in the gym and it's just the five of them left at Fort Bragg on Christmas Day. "Can I say something that you're not going to like?" Morita asks.

"I have a feeling you're going to tell me anyway," Bucky says.

"I won't if you don't want to hear it," Morita says, "It's about you."

"Go ahead," Bucky says, closing his book.

"Why do you let other people tell you what to do?" Morita asks, "You let other people dictate your life and you don't seem to fight it."

Morita could be unnervingly observant sometimes but Bucky doesn't see it this time around. Of course Bucky was in control of his own life--he'd spent years railing against the rules that Amanda kept setting up. "I don't follow."

"You didn't even argue when Colonel Medine said we had to stay for Christmas. Everyone else was pretty mad," Morita says, "And I mean--maybe it's not really you but you have got to be one of the least controversial celebrities of your generation. You've never given a bad interview. All of your opinions seem bland. And I know you're not a boring person, LT."

Bucky tries to think back to the last interview he had done--must have been from before he was deployed. He was just so used to sticking to the party line that Amanda had circumscribed that he'd come to believe the things she told him were okay to say, the moderate opinions that wouldn't offend anyone but the far radicals.

Jesus. Maybe Morita had a point.

"It's okay to say no, you know," Morita says, "I mean we've all got responsibilities but you don't have to do stuff you don't want to."

Bucky toys with the edge of his book, feeling a little caged in. He didn't expect this conversation and he's not sure how to get out. "I think I have slightly more responsibilities than the average American."

"That's the thing," Morita says, "You don't have to be a role model. You didn't ask to be the crown prince, you know."

Bucky smiles blandly as he opens his book again. "I don't think I can get out of it that easily."

"We don't have to talk about it if you don't want to," Morita says, shrugging, "It's just, I figure it's hard. If you want to talk to anyone about it, I'm here."

Bucky looks back down at his book. It's not like Morita's telling him anything new--he's had the same suffocating problem his entire fucking life and he'd been fantasizing regularly about being somewhere else, being someone else. But the idea that he didn't have to step in the position of a role model--that he could wipe away all the work that Amanda has done in the Barnes name for the last two decades. It's unsettling and viscerally unappealing. And yet.

"Morita," he says after a long moment. Morita looks up again. Bucky manages a real smile. "Thanks."

_____


FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: new year

Congrats on the language interview! I knew you'd kill it. What's the next part? Are you graduating soon?

Back in DC now. I might have found a good 1BR within walking distance for $1600, probably going to sign the lease next week. I've attached a few pics, let me know what you think. Saw Susanne earlier today, she sends her love.

S

ATTACHMENT: IMG_18468.JPG, IMG_18469.JPG, IMG_18470.JPG

_

FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: new year

would def get the tiling in the bathroom checked out but otherwise it looks nice. nice open windows in the bedroom and it looks like a decently sized kitchen though pics can be deceiving. are you going to have a housewarming? send me your new address so i can order you a thing that i guarantee you will love. though ngl, i'm very surprised halley hasn't pulled you aside to convince you that you need a mortgage instead of throwing your money away on rent.

heading out to small unit and SERE then MOS. i'm probably not going to be around much the next few months but i'll try my best to keep in touch. stay safe.

b

_____

Bucky had heard about the controversy around SERE school of course--the allegations of instructors taking it too far, about the waterboarding and the starvation. Jones had been uncharacteristically silent about the entire thing as they left from Fort Bragg for the survival and evasion part of SERE, no commentary on basic human rights or the Geneva Conventions. Nobody wanted to think about it for too long.

No one gets waterboarded. But that's not saying much. Bucky gets beaten every time he moves any more than just trying to breathe, on his knees in a tiny cell with his arms raised for hours, every muscle in his shoulders screaming in pain. They pipe in a droning poem as Bucky's forced to hold the position, Rudyard Kipling's haunting voice repeating over and over again as Bucky retreats into himself and tries to remember that it's just a training exercise. It gets harder when they're all forced to stand outside in the freezing cold in dampened thin clothing, the February chill bringing them within inches of hypothermia and frostbite before they're thrown back into their tiny cells only to be interrogated again. Name, rank, serial number.

It lasts for maybe a week and a half at most but it feels longer. By the time that it's over and they get "rescued", Bucky feels weirdly disassociated from himself, like not all parts of him have come back.

Dugan drags them all out to Fayetteville for a proper steak and beer because they deserve better than mess hall fare. "Jesus," he says, "That was fucking awful."

"Understatement of the fucking century," Dernier mutters.

"I'm going to sleep for twenty hours straight," Morita agrees.

It's utterly outlandish to Bucky that twelve hours ago, he'd been marinating in the stench of his own urine, trying to hold a position that his tired limbs just could not do. The medics that had treated him afterwards told him he had two fractured ribs from how hard he'd been kicked. One of them had pulled him aside and told him to file for workman's compensation. Fucking insane. And now he was sitting in a dimly lit booth with the radio playing softly under the sound of all of the other diners having conversations over their burgers and fries. What the actual hell.

Jones hasn't said anything the entire time though he's looked grimly angry since the moment the entire class had met for a quick group debrief before their individual debriefs the day after tomorrow. Bucky doesn't open his mouth either. He's exhausted to his very core and doesn't know what the hell to say

_____


FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: hey

SERE was fine. it went as expected. thanks for asking.

so i'm officially on the 18A officer track to finish out my training but they want me to think about going to sniper school too because apparently i have a natural talent. fantastic. amanda will love it. i can't wait for that conversation.

saw pics of your housewarming on facebook. is that woman with red hair natasha? say hi to peggy for me. when i get back to dc, i'm gonna have to take her out to dinner or something as a super belated thank you for saving your dumb ass.

b

_

FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: hey

Hey Bucky, you sure you're alright? I know you've already had a lot of combat experience from Iraq and all but I'm here if you want to talk about anything, seriously.

Sniper school, huh? Isn't that pretty badass? I think Amanda would actually have a great time with that, making you out to be some ultracompetent special ops officer when I personally know that you have to make a fifteen point turn every time you parallel park.

Yeah that's Natasha. I'm still excited to introduce you guys some day. Peggy sends her love and the assurance that she doesn't need a thank you dinner but would be happy to have a meal with a friend whenever you're free.

S

_____

It's not like he's been obsessing over the idea or anything but ever since he had that conversation with Morita on Christmas, Bucky keeps on having stray thoughts about how his life might have gone if he'd been more stubborn and less willing to be part of the grand plan to rebrand the Barnes public reputation.

Steve is the obvious one--probably the only one he'd really ever considered before now. But there's other stuff too: he would have had zero interest in becoming a soldier, probably. Maybe he would have been an electrical engineer instead, building robots for college competitions and advocating for greater scientific literacy. A start-up of his own maybe, funded with the seemingly unlimited coffers of the Barnes institution. Maybe he'd have gone to high school and then college with Steve--maybe he would have been comfortable enough with himself from the start instead of letting West Point or Amanda tell him who he needed to be. Maybe he would have found the opportunity to tell Steve years and years ago instead of waiting until Steve nearly died--and then some.

It's counterproductive, he knows, to trace his timeline back. And it's self-indulgent, he knows, to even think of the what-ifs, to feel envious of a life that doesn't even exist. This is his life now: decision making courses and leadership seminars, endless analysis of video footage from Baghdad that's supposed to supplement their thinking about urban warfare.

He needs to do better. Be better than he is now.

_____

They're all on different tracks for their final phase of training which means that they don't see each other during the day during coursework and field exercise but most of their schedules overlap enough during the evening that they see each other during dinner. "Man," Jones says on a day when Bucky's exhaustedly picking at the mess hall spaghetti and meatballs. "Training is so fucking long. I can't believe I'm going to miss my baby sister's wedding."

"I'm sure she'll understand," Dugan says, "Who's the lucky guy?"

"Jane," Jones says, "An accountant on Long Island. I haven't met her yet but my sister assures me that she's far more interesting than her job might make her seem."

Bucky freezes momentarily before staring intently down at his food. It's never come up before--the subject of homosexuality--and Bucky isn't sure he wants to know.

"When's the wedding?" Dugan asks without missing a beat.

"May," Jones says, "Right in the middle of Robin Sage."

"Ouch," Dugan says.

There's a moment of silence as they eat and Bucky considers looking back up when Jones says, "Do you have a problem with my sister, Dernier?"

"You're always so aggressive, Gabe," Dernier says, "I don't have a problem with your sister." He sets his fork down onto his plate. "We're all sinners. We just choose to sin in different ways."

"We don't choose who to fall in love with," Bucky hears himself say. They all look at him. Falsworth looks surprised that Bucky's choosing to join the conversation for once. Bucky hears himself continue, "So I wouldn't say that Jones's sister chose to sin. It's just how God made her."

Dernier raises his hands. "Sure thing, lieutenant," he says, even though no one's fooled.

"Anyone up for a run later?" Dugan asks, just to change the subject.

And later, when Bucky comes back from his night strategy course, he ends up in the latrine at the same time as Morita, brushing their teeth at consecutive sinks. Morita spits his toothpaste into the basin and looks at Bucky in the mirror. "Hey LT," he says, "Can I run a possibly preposterous theory by you?"

Bucky's hand stills for a moment but he shrugs and continues to brush his teeth.

"I think," Morita says, "That if you want to come out as bi, you should."

Bucky freezes for real this time, a full two seconds before he spits his toothpaste out. He rinses his mouth and washes his face before facing Morita. "And how did you come to this conclusion?"

Morita shrugs. "Like I said, it might just be a preposterous theory."

"Is this about what I said to Dernier?" Bucky asks, "Because it's what anyone would have said. My best friend is gay and I don't take kindly to him being called a sinner."

"Your best friend," Morita says, "Who you went AWOL for, whose sketchbook you carried in Iraq for half a year, who you specifically keep out of the press unlike any of your any other friends. Your best friend who went to DC with you from Brooklyn. Someone who you barely see on a regular basis but still consider your best friend."

Bucky narrows his eyes.

Morita raises his hands. "That's how I came to the conclusion."

"What do you want me to say?" Bucky demands, "Do you want a pat on the back for all the detective work you've put into this, all the time you've spent reading celebrity gossip blogs?"

"I don't want you to say anything to me," Morita says, not rising to the bait. "I'm just saying that life for you could be a lot more simple. You don't have to hide any secret relationships that you might think the American public disapproves of because I'm telling you that it literally doesn't matter. You shouldn't care about assholes like me who read celebrity gossip blogs."

Bucky doesn't say anything.

"Dernier isn't going to fight you over it. Dugan doesn't care. Jones has a sister with a girlfriend. This is hardly a haven for liberals and yet no one really cares."

Bucky looks at the mirror and then back at the sink. He can't meet Morita's eyes, much less his own eyes in the mirror when he says, "There's no secret relationship."

"Okay," Morita says after a moment. And then, "Sorry I presumed."

They stand there for another few minutes, Bucky staring into the sink and Morita probably waiting to see if he'd say anything else. After a while, Morita says, "See you LT," and leaves.

Bucky looks up at himself in the mirror. He looks panicked. He looks away.

"God," he mumbles and scrubs a hand towel over his face.

_____


FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: (none)

not looking forward to the approach of summer. spring's the perfect temperature even if there is a fuckton of pollen. let me tell you how much i hate benadryl + 3 hour lectures on communications protocol. not even the strongest coffee can save me.

turns out i might have to skip my green beret ceremony which is fantastic for the brass who don't have to deal with paparazzi and reporters crawling all over fort bragg but not so fantastic for me since i get no leave and have to ship off to germany immediately to take part in a NATO sniper course. i'm actually kind of looking forward to it. i mean, i'm not sure about the whole stone cold killer part but i've always really liked the marksmanship parts of my training. sniper course is only 2 weeks so i'll still be back in dc in july.

i know SHIELD's still got you under lock and key or whatever but i'm seriously dying to know what you've been up to. stay safe.

b

_____

Twelve hours after they come out of isolation to present their final plan to battalion command, they're airdropped into the northeast corner of the 50,000 square miles of North Carolina that they're supposed to regard as enemy territory to find and aid the fictional guerrilla insurrection. For some reason, command had allowed them to stay together while splitting up a lot of the other cliques that had formed during training--maybe because they'd all worked well together in Iraq.

He hadn't realized how much he missed all of them working together as a team until they'd been put back together. Their plan is good. He's sure they're going to pass this final test.

_____

Bucky figures that it's going to be awkward, running into residents who have been paid to be fictional citizens as part of the exercise. But it turns out that almost everyone plays their roles with conviction, this being far from their first Robin Sage. It's easy after a few days to fall into the illusion, to think that they're actually infiltrating an area wracked with political unrest.

They come into contact with their first guerilla force late on the third day. Unlike the residents, the men playing the guerillas speak only Russian and pretend to be puzzled by English. Bucky's okay with some of the more basic questions (How many other guerrilla groups did they know of? Where were they located? Was there any fighting amongst themselves?) but the moment the questions got a little more complicated and the responses more rapid, Morita had to step in.

It doesn't take long for them to readjust to conversing in Russian--three days at most with constant exposure. And at the end of the three days, they've recruited two other groups and secured enough supplies to begin training them in earnest.

_____

"This is all a little bullshit, of course," Jones says, when Bucky comes to relieve his watch. He'd just lit up a cigarette and unwilling to waste it so they both stroll the perimeter of camp, watching for government soldiers who combed through the woods, looking for them.

Jones breathes smoke into the humid night air. "Sure, it's heroic, helping the little guy overthrow the bully who's been fucking him over." The lit end of his cigarette is a glowing point in the near-pitch black darkness. Bucky has half a mind to tell him to put it out, get some sleep before they have to be up in three hours to move out before dawn.

As if reading his mind, Jones puts his cigarette out. By the dim light of the moon, he brushes the ashes from the end and sticks it back in his pocket for later use. "What happens after though?" Jones asks, "I mean, after the little guy's won and there's a government to be seized? Do we let the little guy take over?"

Jones laughs quietly. "See the reason why this is all bullshit is because the little guy turns into the bully most of the time. And as long as we stroke our own boners about being heroic and helping the oppressed, we couldn't really give less of a shit when that happens."

Bucky doesn't say anything. Jones sighs. "Goodnight," he says and retreats back towards camp.

Bucky keeps patrolling, keeping his line of sight to the mid distance. The crickets chirp into the warm summer night, no breeze to stir a single strand of grass. Nothing moves except Bucky around the perimeter of camp and eventually Bucky has to wonder if he'd just imagined all of that, the glow of Jones's cigarette against the unmoving dark.

_____

They do well enough to pass.

Bucky has to fly out the following day but sticks around long enough to celebrate with the rest of the newly minted green berets. He takes too many shots of Hennessey and at the end of the night, Morita drags his drunk ass back to quarters.

"Listen," Bucky says with sudden urgency as Morita's about to dump him on his bunk. He seizes Morita's arm and looks into Morita's face with as much focus as he can muster. "You were right."

Morita looks back at him. He says, "Go to sleep, LT."

_____


FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: (none)

I DID IT. i'll be back in dc in time for your birthday. i have a terrible hangover waiting for this plane to berlin and i might just die on the plane.

_

FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: (none)

BUCKY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! CONGRATS!

_

FROM: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
TO: bubarnes@gmail.com
SUBJECT: Re: (none)

I'll keep my schedule open. I'll take a celebratory shot for you tonight. Do you have your phone back? Text me when you land.

_____

Bucky learns how to break down and reassemble an M107 the first hour he's there. Everything gets harder from there.

Only one of the two instructors speaks English but there's only five of them total to train. There's another newly graduated green beret with him, a weapons sergeant named Moore. The other three are German and keep mostly to themselves. None of them recognize Bucky.

The instructors move quickly from one topic to the next, demonstrating on their own guns and drawing on diagrams in booklets they'd printed out . Bucky quietly panics for an hour while they talk about trajectories and momentum in a way he can't quite follow, rapidly diagramming one shot after another in the booklet. He should have paid better attention in his military physics class. He might not be cut out to be a sniper since he can't quite understand anything that they're showing him.

But before the end of the first day, they get the chance to actually use the weapons. And fitting the rifle against his shoulder, peering through the scope--it comes to him in a rush of instinct, gut feeling directing his movements rather than intellect.

He drops two targets that no one else does. He's going to be fine.

_____

"There must be something big happening," the instructor says to him and Moore when they're on their lunch break. "This is the most accelerated course I've ever taught and I have no idea why they would pay just to train five of you."

Bucky keeps his eyes on his food as he eats. He has a bad feeling.

"They must need you guys really badly," the instructor concludes, "Wouldn't be surprised if you were deployed right away."

_____

True to prediction, Bucky has deployment orders waiting for him the moment he lands in DC. But he still has three days of leave and he's made up his mind--he needs to see Steve.

Steve's phone goes directly to voicemail but doesn't let him leave one as the inbox is already full. He doesn't answer any texts either--not even when Bucky sends him one with full capitalization and punctuation and everything: Steve, can you please text me back? I really need to talk to you.

He wastes half a day waiting before he keys in the SHIELD number he'd memorized from the days immediately after Steve's initial recovery. "Strategic homeland intervention, enforcement and logistics division," a male voice answers.

"Hi, uh," Bucky says, "I'm trying to reach Steve Rogers?"

"May I ask who's calling?"

"James Barnes."

"One moment," the man says and puts him on hold music. Bucky checks his watch--maybe Bucky still has time to steel himself with alcohol before they grabbed dinner--

The phone clicks. "Mr. Rogers is currently unavailable," the man says

"What do you mean unavailable?" Bucky asks, "Like he's in a meeting and can get back to me in an hour?"

A pause. And then, "He's currently out of the country, sir."

Bucky laughs because it's the only reaction he could possibly have. Fuck. Of course. This is what he got for putting it off for so long. He wants to go back to bed and sleep the next thirty six hours before his flight out to Kharkiv. It would be nice if this was all just a horrible dream.

He goes to find Peggy Carter's email instead.

_____

Peggy's ten minutes late but considering it's a workday and Peggy's a busy woman, Bucky doesn't mind waiting. He's sitting at a corner booth of the restaurant Peggy had suggested, angled away from the other patrons with silent earphones in. The lunch rush consists mostly of SHIELD employees--Bucky can tell from their badges. Nobody approaches him, even though he's sitting by himself, even though he knows he's been recognized.

"Hi," Peggy says as she sits across from him. Bucky pulls his earphones out and smiles at her.

"I'm sorry Steve's not here," Peggy says, taking a sip of her water. "There was an emergency and he got called out to deal with it. He'll be back by the end of the week though."

"I'm flying out tonight," Bucky says.

Peggy looks at him. "Oh. That's really--" She sets her water down. "I'm sorry Bucky."

Bucky smiles grimly.

"What was it you wanted to talk about?" Peggy asks.

Bucky should have probably fortified himself with a drink stronger than coffee. But he gets right to the point because they only have an hour to talk. "It's about you and Steve."

Peggy looks surprised for the briefest of moments before she's narrowing her eyes at him. "What about me and Steve?"

"Is there anything going on between you two?" Bucky asks, "A relationship or even a relationship in the making? Are you happy together? Because I need to know."

"Steve is one of my closest friends," Peggy says, "He's one of the best men I know."

"You're avoiding my question," Bucky says.

"Am I?" Peggy asks sharply. They look at each other over their unopened menus. Her expression softens. "You called me once, if you remember. You already tried to push me towards Steve."

Bucky's blocked the event out of his memory. He just stares at Peggy.

"I don't know if you were high or what but you were trying to convince me to marry him." She leans forward and her voice drops to a murmur. "Bucky, what are you trying to prove?"

"I want him to be happy," Bucky says. He can't tell if he feels trapped or relieved because finally, finally someone seems to be on the same page as him. "I want him to be happy and if that means stepping back so he can be with you, I'll do it."

"And what about you?" Peggy asks, "Don't you deserve to be happy too?"

Bucky is not going to fucking cry in the middle of a restaurant with god knows how many paparazzi lurking right outside the entrance. That would be ludicrous. But he has to blink away the sudden welling of tears. Peggy just watches him and thankfully doesn't say anything.

"He deserves better, doesn't he?" Bucky asks, smiling.

"For as long as I've known him," Peggy says, "Steve has been in love with you."

Maybe it should surprise Bucky. But of course it doesn't. The only thing that surprises him is the candid way it comes out of Peggy's mouth.

She reaches out and touches his hand. "If you think anyone else can make him happier, then I don't think you know Steve at all."

_____


FROM: bubarnes@gmail.com
TO: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
SUBJECT: (none)

Steve,

This is simultaneously the hardest and easiest thing I have ever written in my life. I wanted to do this in person but it seems as if the universe hates us and we're fated to never actually be in the same physical space. Maybe I could have waited another month, but I'm afraid I'll lose the courage to tell you this. So I guess, here goes.

I'm not good with words that haven't been given to me by other people. So I guess it's no surprise that I don't know how to articulate everything that I want to say. The gist of it comes down to this: I love you. I think I've always loved you. I want to spend the rest of my life making you laugh and I don't care about the rest. I've known for the last couple of years but I've been too scared to tell you because I didn't want to subject you to public scrutiny and you deserve better than a half assed relationship in the shadows. I've come to realize that none of that matters and who cares about what the rest of the world thinks? I'm late to the game, I'm sorry Steve.

I don't know if this is too late. I don't know if you've moved on and I honestly would not blame you in the least if you have. I'm here, however you want.

I miss you. I'll see you soon.

B

_____

"Last call to board flight 974 to Kharkiv."

Bucky stares at his own words. It's not enough to fully convey everything he wants to say but it's a start.

He hits send.

Chapter Text

Natasha swings at his face. Steve ducks and comes back with a strike at her ribs but she dodges it neatly and springs back a step, making a disgusted noise.

"To the side," she insists, coming at him again--and instead of ducking, Steve dodges off to the side and uses the momentum to come back at her. She's too fast for him--has always been--and uses his weight against him, throwing him onto the ground. Steve blinks up at the ceiling, winded.

Natasha leans over him, holding out a hand. "I warned you," she says as she pulls Steve up. "Watch your feet."

Steve looks down at his feet.

"You know I don't mean it literally," Natasha adds. Steve looks back at her. She readjusts her wrist wrap as she reaches out with her foot and taps the outside of his right ankle. "Your stance is too wide again. You want to be grounded on the defensive, but you have to shift fast when you're attacking."

Steve tries out another stance, feet closer together this time, swaying slightly to test his center of gravity. Natasha puts her fists up again and Steve moves into position, trying to take her advice into account.

"Agent Romanov?"

Steve doesn't recognize the man standing in the doorway even though he's been with SHIELD for over half a year now. It's not like the organization is particularly massive but Steve's found that there's very little crosstalk between departments and an insistence on proper procedure regarding clearance levels that still unnerves him a bit to this day.

"Director Fury wants to see you," the man says.

"Saved by the bell," Natasha says to Steve. She smirks and starts to unwind her wrist wrap. "Or at least by overly demanding SHIELD directors."

"A pity," Steve agrees, grinning, "I've really missed getting beat up on a regular basis."

_____

His skin itches where the tech had peeled the electrode pads off his chest and concluded the session with a, "Have a good weekend Rogers." Steve had smiled back even though he didn't really feel like it and handed over the towel they'd given him to wipe his face. He'd already handed over a urine sample earlier in the day so he didn't have to suffer through that particular indignity again, thank god.

There's no one left in the locker room as he pulls his shirt back over his head. He's down to his last few days of clean laundry--the hoodie he'd to SHIELD this morning had been one he'd stolen from Bucky ages and ages ago. A year ago he would have been swimming in the thing--now the frayed sleeves end a little too high up his wrist and he doesn't bother to engage in the futile effort of zipping it up.

He'd donated most of his closet by the time winter hit and it became increasingly obvious that none of it was ever going to fit again. It was a surprising weight off his chest--the end of some long ritual, maybe, to herald the start of his new life. He couldn't bring himself to put anything he'd stolen from Bucky into the boxes he'd left at Goodwill though, which meant he ended up wearing too-small pieces of clothing near the end of his laundry cycles far more often than he'd like to admit.

He shuts the locker door shut and it beeps to indicate that it's locked. He doesn't have anything worth locking in his locker--just a few books and papers he'd borrowed from Dr. Erskine months ago and had never got around to reading--even though he gets the same biosignature based security as Natasha who certainly has an array of customized rifles and handguns in hers.
Not that he needs a place to store a customized weapon. Not that he has any customized weapons to speak of.

He passes someone heading in as he heads out and catches a glimpse of the blood they've got matted down the front of their uniform. Steve hesitates for a moment but then turns to ask if the group from Latvia is back, but the agent's already disappeared around the corner. A moment later, he hears the shower running.

He pushes his way out the door and pulls out his phone. No new text from Peggy. Must have been another team.

_____

The moment he steps through the apartment door, though, he instantly knows that Peggy's back. Her laptop bag is on the dining room table and she's left her coat across the back of the couch. Her bedroom door is open for the first time in over a week--Peggy's sleeping on top of her covers in her thick bathrobe with still-wet hair.

Steve gently drapes the throw from the couch over her before quietly closing the door. He digs through his training bag for his wallet and debates if he wants to run to the grocery store or just call for delivery from Peggy's favorite Italian place.

Nearly an hour later, the doorbell rings even though Steve had explicitly asked the delivery guy to call him instead. Peggy opens her bedroom door as Steve tries to quietly open the paper bag in the kitchen. Her hair is still damp and sticking up in the back a little as she smiles sleepily at him.

"Hello Steve," she says, "How was your week?"

"A lot of firearms training," Steve says, pulling plastic containers of pesto linguine and calamari out of the bag. He turns to grab plates from the cupboard. "I'd much rather hear about your week, though."

"We hit a dead end up in Estonia," Peggy says, wandering over to take the entire carton of pesto linguine and a fork. She ignores the plate that Steve had brought down for her entirely as she pops the plastic container open but forks out a generous portion of it onto Steve's plate before he can protest. "It wasn't entirely a dud though--Finnegan managed to hit one of the drop points. I suppose Maria will have enough data to keep her team occupied for a while."

"Should we open some wine to celebrate?" Steve asks.

"I'm alright," Peggy says, leaning back against the fridge and twirling her fork in the rest of her pasta. She checks the clock on them microwave. "I have a debrief with Fury in about two hours anyway. I'd hardly want to show up hammered."

"Are you going back to the triskelion then?" Steve holds out the container of calamari for Peggy to steal a few pieces.

"Unfortunately," Peggy says, chewing on a piece of calamari. She gestures at Steve with her fork and adds, "Did you sign the lease for that place near Georgetown yet?"

"I'll be out of your way next week," Steve says, looking at the food on his own plate with a wry smile.

"I'm going to miss you being around," Peggy says, stepping foward to touch his arm. She smiles at him. "I'll miss having someone to come home to in the evenings."

Steve looks at her hand, then her face. It seems like the setup for a moment--like it wouldn't be hard at all to lean foward and kiss her.

Maybe four years ago, Steve would have gathered up his courage and done it. Maybe there's still a part of him that still wants to. But there's four years worth of quietly confided secrets that weighs on them--Peggy deserves better than the spectre of Bucky Barnes hanging over her and both of them know it.

"Surprised you're not sick of me already," Steve says, smiling back. And more quietly: "I'll miss this too."

_____

On the following Sunday, Natasha meets Steve in the R&D branch of the armory. The technicians who keep most of the weapons in working order don't work on the weekends but there are still two scientists on the other side of the long room where the less conventional weapons and those that are still being developed are kept. The scientists don't look up when the door hisses open to let Natasha in.

"I've noticed you're not too fond of guns," Natasha says, looking over her shoulder at Steve as he follows her in. Steve can't quite meet her eyes and instead looks at the assortment of hi-tech knives and electrified sparring sticks on the tables. They'd started training him on a pistol two months back and he'd never quite mustered up any sort of enthusiasm for shooting at man-shaped targets down in the firing range. He hasn't hit the accuracy that he knows Fury has been looking for--not even after the eye surgery that was supposed to fix his eyesight.

"Relax," she says, leaning against one of the tables and picking up one of the knives, "I'm not here on Fury's orders."

"I'm not sure if I'm feeling the knives either," Steve says, picking up a small, sharp looking dagger with a button inlaid to the grip. He presses the button and four needles spring out of the hilt--obviously meant to be loaded with some sort of poison or paralytic. Steve sets it back down carefully.

"Doesn't have to be a knife," Natasha says, watching him. She spins the knife on her thumb, the blade catching the fluorescent light. "Doesn't have to be a gun. It just has to be something that you actually want to train with."

Steve picks up one of the metal sparring sticks, about two feet long. The button inlaid into the grip of this one is less obvious than the one on the knife he'd picked up before. When he presses it, the stick pops with an electric sound before settling into a hum. Steve's curious but not curious enough to touch the stick to another object so he lets go of the button and the hum dies down.

"How is there enough energy in this thing to power it for longer than thirty seconds?" Steve asks, holding up the stick. There's barely enough space for the mechanics, much less for the batteries required.

Natasha looks at it and doesn't stop spinning the knife over her thumb. "I'm not a scientist," she says.

Steve's known Natasha long enough to at least get a sense of when she might be lying--or rather, avoiding answers altogether because it was easier to skirt the truth than have to tell an outright lie. Easier to keep from getting caught that way. And considering she'd spent almost all of her life fighting with weapons that Steve didn't even knew existed six months ago, it's hard to believe that she didn't even have a conjecture as to how the sparring sticks worked.

SHIELD was nine parts secrecy to every straight answer Steve could pry out of any agent. He should really have gotten used to it by now.

He sets the stick back down on the table and continues looking at the other weapons. Prototypes of enhanced electromagnetic grenades--Steve had seen Natasha fling those with unerring accuracy in the simulation training room. A gun of some sort with no chamber for bullets. Steve passes over it and gets to the end of the table.

"What's this?" he asks, sliding a round shield from underneath a pile of papers. It's a darker silver than most of the other weapons on the table and doesn't gleam as much under the light even though it hasn't been burnished.

Natasha looks at him, still spinning the knife. A drawn out pause before Natasha says, "You're serious."

"I'm serious," Steve agrees, still holding the shield.

The knife stills. Natasha puts it down on the table before walking over to where he is and picking up the papers that had been on top of the shield.

"Apparently they're developing a new alloy," Natasha says, "It's supposed to absorb the vibrations of anything that hits it and muffle the impact."

"Does it work?"

Natasha eyes the shield. "Let's go find out."

_____

"You're listing to the left," Natasha says when they take their earmuffs off.

"It still hit the target," Steve counters. A SHIELD robot whirs down the range to retrieve the shield.

"It's the difference between putting an enemy combative down and not crippling them enough to make them stop shooting," Natasha says.

"I don't want to put anyone down," Steve says, a surge of anger rising.

Natasha doesn't say anything to that, just looks down the range where the robot is approaching with the shield in hand. It drops it on the table in front of them before flying back to its homing perch.

The shield has a few dark marks where the bullets had hit, but no deep gouges or craters.

"Looks like it works," Natasha says.

_____

Halley helps him move the last of his stuff from Peggy's place into his new apartment. It's considerably bigger than his last place considering how SHIELD had almost doubled his salary from his design job, but Steve isn't sure he likes it much better.

"Have you heard from Bucky recently?" Steve asks as they pull away from Peggy's building and start heading west.

"Last I heard from him, he was asking for advice about SERE school," Halley says.

"How is it?" Steve asks, "Is he going to be okay?"

"It's not going to kill him," Halley says, which isn't really an answer. They drive in silence for a few minutes, Steve looking out the window.

He hasn't seen Halley in a while--just once when Halley had helped him move all his furniture from his old apartment into storage and then again when he'd dropped by Susanne's unannounced and Halley had been there, watching hockey. It'd been strange then, to realize that life had gone on the same for other people even though Bucky was gone and Steve had changed so much that he didn't even recognize himself in the mirror some days.

Halley's never said anything about it. His treatment. Even though Steve had glimpsed the original consent forms that laid out the treatment and seen Halley's signature at the bottom--both him and Susanne who have never really said a word about it beyond, "You look so much healthier, Steve," and "God, I'm so glad you're okay." He doesn't know if it's better or worse that they treat him exactly as they always have, like nothing's changed at all.

They probably talked about him when he wasn't there. Steve doesn't blame them, really, not when he didn't know how to bring it up himself with the non-disclosure agreement hanging over the entire treatment and his new position with SHIELD.

What Steve really wants to ask is, What do you think Bucky's going to say?
Because Bucky might have seen him through a tiny camera on Skype but a picture on a computer screen can be misleading--because Steve didn't want to admit to himself that he'd been relieved in a particularly cowardly way when Bucky couldn't come home for Christmas. Because he hadn't seen many of his friends since he'd fallen ill for what might have been the very last time but Bucky was the only person he knew he couldn't avoid forever.

"Did all of your furniture arrive already?" Halley asks.

Steve blinks. Whatever words he'd been gathering up the courage to ask vanish in the face of more familiar conversation.

"I think so," Steve says. He'd hired movers because he spent the entire day training on the shield. Natasha still hasn't stopped looking skeptical and he's determined to prove her wrong.

"Do you need to swing by any stores on the way there?" Halley asks.

Steve watches the streetlamps pass, pedestrians on the sidewalk and brightly lit first floor lobbies. "I'm okay." he says.

_____

Later, when Halley leaves, Steve sits on his bare full-sized bed and looks at the single bag of clothing he still has to stow away in his cheap dresser. The movers had reassembled the bed frame for him but he hadn't thought about how he wouldn't quite fit comfortably on it any more.

Hadn't thought about how painful it was going to be to unpack the boxes of a life he wasn't sure he could pick back up.

_____

"See you next month," the tech says after putting a band aid in the crook of his elbow from where they'd done his usual blood draw. Steve rolls his sleeve back down, nodding at her and leaving the clinic to collect his stuff and go home.

Steve has learned from the long months of working at SHIELD that Natasha has the uncanny ability to materialize out of nowhere. "Heading out?" she asks suddenly from behind him.

"Thought maybe I could get a run in before dinner," Steve says, slowing momentarily so that she falls into step next to him.

"Director Hill wants to see us," Natasha tells him, "Looks like I get to babysit you on your first mission."

_____

"How are we supposed to communicate with the natives?" Natasha asks, "I don't think we have any Mongolian translators on hand."

"Some of them might speak Russian," Maria says.

"Maybe in nothern Mongolia," Natasha says, flicking the map onto the hologram table. "But we're going south. We'd have better luck with Korean."

"The bad guys are going to speak English though, right?" Clint Barton asks. He has his arms crossed despite the elbow brace he has on his left arm. Steve had heard of him from various agents, Natasha included, but had never met him in person until twenty minutes ago. He wasn't sure what he had been expecting--maybe someone more put together from all the stories he'd heard. Clint had shaken his hand with a mildly distracted smile, hair sticking up in the back like he'd rolled out of bed two minutes before showing up for the meeting.

"It sounds like this would be more well suited for a diplomatic approach," Natasha says.

"We already tried that," Maria says, "It didn't go over too well."

Steve looks down at the tablet they'd handed him before the meeting--twenty pages and a good hundred photographs of the previously abandoned rare metals mine that HYDRA had apparently restarted near the inner Mongolia border.

"I can't imagine the Chinese would be happy with western military action so close to their territory," Natasha muses out loud.

Clint looks over at Maria and says, "I was supposed to run interference for Coulson--"

"This is supposed to be a short mission," Maria says, "Go in, disable the mine without implicating SHIELD, get out."

"What about the Mongolian government?" Steve asks.

Maria pauses before answering. "They've been informed," she says, "Our priority is to interfere with HYDRA activity. We'll leave the rest to the diplomats."

_____

He hadn't planned for or even wanted a housewarming--especially considering he had to prepare for his first mission--but Peggy shows up at his front door with an expensive bottle of wine and Natasha in tow. As he waves them in, Natasha hands him a gift bag with white tissue paper poking out of the top and says, "Peggy's idea."

The bag is heavier than it looks. "I wasn't expecting--I'll have to order some food," Steve says because even though he'd technically been moved into his new apartment for nearly two weeks, he still hadn't really gone grocery shopping. There are cartons of leftover takeout in his fridge--plus the frozen pasta and meatballs Susanne had dropped off when he was still reassembling his furniture.

Peggy drapes her coat over the back of the couch he'd pulled out of storage. It smells faintly like cigarette smoke now, though Steve could have sworn it didn't when he left it. She circles around to the bookshelf he'd put up--though half his books are still in boxes around the living room.

"I can order," Natasha offers. She pulls her phone out of her jacket. "Pizza alright?"

"Sure," Steve says and goes into the kitchen to rummage through the boxes in hopes of finding the wineglasses he'd collected from all the different vineyards he'd visited over the years. It's possible he'd broken a few of them though and never bothered to replace them. In the end, he ends up washing out the dusty mugs in the sink.

"Wow," Natasha says as she leans against the kitchen doorway, "It's like you made no effort at all to unpack."

"I've been busy," Steve says, unpeeling the top of the bottle only to abandon it to look for the corkscrew.

"No need," Natasha says, pulling out a pocketknife.

"Do you need help unpacking?" Peggy asks from behind Natasha. Steve stops looking for the corkscrew just as Natasha pries the cork out of the wine with a pop.

"I would have done it earlier," Steve says, "Sorry you guys have to see all this mess."

"What I'm saying is I'd love to help you unpack," Peggy says.

"I cherish any opportunity to go through other people's things," Natasha agrees, pouring generous amounts of wine into each of the mugs Steve had washed. She sets the wine down and picks up one of the mugs, looking at it closely. "2010 NIH Cancer Symposium attendee."

"I didn't go to that," Steve says, not quite sure why he's denying it because who cares? But so far all he's pulled out of his kitchen boxes is the microwave and some forks and it's only hitting him now how pathetic this must all seem to someone else.

"I'm serious, Steve," Peggy says, "But of course only if you'd be comfortable with it. Otherwise we can just chat for a bit and be out of your hair soon enough. I hear you two are going to Mongolia?"

"Okay," Steve says, feeling somewhat apprehensive and oddly relieved all at once. "Only if you really don't mind."

"Of course not," Peggy says.

"I vote we start with your books," Natasha says, slanting a grin at Steve.

"You're going to be so disappointed," Steve replies.

_____

They've gone through maybe four of the unpacked boxes--mostly just him and Peggy sitting on the couch drinking wine while Natasha read aloud the names of every book she was pulling out of each box--before they get to the one where Steve had shoved most of his old sketchbooks and the things that had been on his wall. It's the one he wanted to open the least for reasons he's not quite sure of and his stomach flips a little when Natasha pulls the framed 1940s propaganda poster out from the side of the box.

"I've never seen that one before," Peggy says.

"It used to hang in my room, next to my desk," Steve says, "Bucky would kill me if he knew I just shoved them in a box with a bunch of other stuff. Apparently they were pretty expensive."

"It's not broken," Natasha says, pulling the other one out. She lays them on the ground in front of the coffee table, one in French, the other with the union jack fluttering in the background. "They seem to be fine."

"How is he?" Peggy asks.

"Okay, last I heard," Steve says, "He's been off the grid for most of the last month."

He's never really mentioned Bucky to Natasha before--they'd mostly talked about how to improve his fighting technique and discussed SHIELD rumors--but Natasha doesn't ask for any clarification. She's going through one of his sketchbooks, flipping quickly through most of the pages and pausing on some. No surprise or confusion. It only helps to cement Steve's theory that Natasha knew more about him than she ever let on.

"I'm gonna," Steve says, setting his mug of wine down and waving at the hallway.

He locks his bathroom door behind him and sits on the toilet cover. His chest feels a little tight, like a metal vise has suddenly gripped his ribs--and it's getting harder to breathe. He puts his head down and closes his eyes, trying to concentrate on the simple act of breathing.

It's stupid because he has never been healthier in his life--the fog of exhaustion that had dogged his every waking moment lifted away to give him so much energy that he didn't even know how to burn it all off. The full body ache that he he silently endured because he couldn't find a doctor who believed him for longer than four months, the inability to walk up more than two flights of stairs without doubling over--it's gone, everything is gone. And he's never felt more trapped in his entire life.

He doesn't know how long he sits there, focusing on the in-out of his breathing before there's a knock on the door. "Steve?" Peggy's voice, muffled. "Are you alright?"

Steve lets out a breath and unfolds himself. He flushes the toilet and turns on the sink for show, practicing a smile in the mirror.

When he opens the door, Peggy's still outside, leaning on the wall a few feet down. He smiles but it falters in the face of her answering frown. "What's wrong?"

"I'm--" Steve says, and means to follow it up with okay or fine. But instead he hears himself saying, "Can we talk about this later?"

"Of course," Peggy says. She touches his shoulder, still looking into his face. "Do you want us to leave?"

He does and doesn't. He wants to be alone but he wants them to stay with him in this big impersonal apartment.

"Alright," Peggy says, apparently reading his thoughts from his face and his silence. She leans up to kiss his cheek. "Talk to me soon, okay?"

_____

It would be easier if Steve could text Bucky like he always had. But his messages would go nowhere until Bucky stepped foot in DC again to pick up his civilian phone and Steve might have all of this under control by then. No need to worry Bucky in this hypothetical future.

But he still finds himself picking up his phone and sending a short, cryptic text just to see if it'll make him feel better. You might have been right, he writes. He stares at the words for a long moment before scrolling up to their last real conversation via text, nearly two years ago.

It doesn't help.

_____

It isn't until later, when they're nine hours into their flight to Mongolia that Natasha turns to him and asks, "Is Bucky Prince James?"

Clint is halfway down the quinjet with his headphones in, fiddling around with his arrow heads. Natasha hasn't brought up that night in the last half week--they've stuck to the safer topics like how to fling his shield to maximize precision over power or how to better shoot a gun one-handed. It'd be stupid to think that she hadn't noticed though, that she hadn't borne witness to his mortifying panic attack in the midst of having visitors over.

It'd be stupid to not consider the possibility that she'd already reported it to SHIELD. He didn't really think she would, but.

"Yeah," Steve says.

"I don't think I've seen that particular nickname on any documents," she says.

"Huh," Steve replies because he doesn't really want to talk about Bucky--especially not with her.

"It must be hard to have him away for so long," she says.

Steve doesn't know how to interpret that so he says nothing, just nods minutely. Natasha must get the hint because she falls silent and goes back to studying the mission files on her tablet.

_____

The quinjet has no choice but to drop them off in Ulaanbaatar--a full three hundred miles from where they actually want to be. Any closer and it might have seemed suspicious to any observant HYDRA operative seeing as they would have had to land in the unpopulated recesses of the desert. At least in Ulaanbaatar they could attempt to hide among the air traffic of the incoming international flights.

The jeep that their contact manages to find for them is over ten years old and already dusty from desert travel. Clint scratches the back of his neck as he looks at it. Natasha gets on her knees to look at the underside of the vehicle before getting back to her feet and exchanging a glance with Clint.

"I guess we'll see how well it holds up," Clint says.

"Should we be concerned?" Steve asks.

"I'm sure we'll think of something if the need arises," Clint says.

_____

By some miracle, the car makes it all the way past Sainshand and brings them, within a ten mile radius of the mine before giving out with a sputter. Clint stops trying to goad a mostly unresponsive Natasha into setting up a playdate between his dog and her cat as the jeep shudders to a stop. The car stalls. Natasha turns the key in ignition a couple of times but the engine refuses to cooperate.

They get out of the car. Steve stares out across the dry flat land and the faraway hills--he's never seen anything like it in the twenty-seven years of his life. It looks a little like the pictures of the southwestern US that Bucky had sent him years and years ago: cracked earth and dust. Natasha opens the hood of the jeep and smoke billows out.

"Dead," she says, slamming the hood shut. She looks up at the plume of smoke wafting away on the wind and says, "Not worth it to try and restart. We should probably get out of here."

"Not a lot of cover though," Clint says, eyeing the hills a ways off, "Think it'd be worth it to go back to that city we passed? See if we can pick up another car?"

"No," Natasha says. She pulls the hard metal case of the interference device out from the back of the vehicle and slams the door shut. "Come on."

_____

By GPS coordinates, they get within a mile of the mine and wander along the mile radius for a nearly half an hour before finding a rocky outcropping that's mostly hidden by the sheer face of a hill. Nat glances over at Clint who's looking a handheld device. "Here?" she asks.

"Here," Clint agrees. He looks over at Steve. "Keep a lookout will you?"

They haven't run into a single person during their quick trek through the open terrain but Steve tries to keep vigilant in his watch anyway. He can't help but to watch the other two set the device up though--clearly they've done it many times before if their silent practiced movements are anything to go by. Steve looks back at the tops of the other hills again, half wondering how many missions they'd done together in the past.

"Setting off the beacon," Clint says and looks at his watch. "Give it two minutes then we'll set off the interference and go."

"Not exactly the best landing spot," Natasha observes, looking around them.

"Singh's landed worse," Clint says, unperturbed.

Natasha's nose wrinkles. "How do you know Singh's assigned to pick us up?"

"I forgot you don't like him."

"The guy's a creep," Natasha tells Steve, "Doesn't know how to take no for an answer."

"Ready?" Clint asks, finger on the switch. A moment later, there's the faint crackle of static from the transponder in Steve's utility belt before it goes quiet again.

"Try not to get separated," Natasha says, starting off in the direction of the mine.

"If only you'd actually take your own advice," Clint replies, following her and Steve out.

_____

The entrance to the mine is silent--if not for the two guards sitting next to the locked iron gate of the entrance, Steve wouldn't have known the mine was active at all.

"Careful," Natasha warns as Clint peeks around the rock he's hiding behind, two tranquilizer arrows notched to his bow. She's a few feet down, on her front and hidden among a crop of rocks as she watches the guards. "One of them keeps looking up this way."

"I think I got them," Clint says.

Steve knows he's still technically in training and that they don't necessarily expect too much out of these first few missions. But it's still hard to watch Clint and Natasha do almost all of the work without contributing much except an extra pair of eyes.

The next time Clint peeks around the rock, he lets the two thin arrows fly. One pierces one guard in the shoulder--the other hits the other one in the back of the neck. It takes only ten seconds for the paralytic to take effect and for them to slump over onto the ground.

"I'll go first," Natasha says, already moving down the hillside, "Cover me."

_____

It's silent inside the mine. Nobody comes to stop them.

"I'll stay up here," Clint says as they reach the elevator to descend deeper, towards where they think the control room might be. Steve's never been in a mine in his life--he has no idea what they even might be looking for. Natasha just nods and shuts the door after her and Steve. The gears shift and they slowly drop down into the darkness.

"Here," Natasha says when she turns on a small halogen lamp and hands it to him. It illuminates the truly tiny space of the elevator, the rock walls going past barely a foot from his head. Steve has never been particularly claustrophobic but this tips on the edge of uncomfortable.

"I was expecting more of a fight," Natasha says, "But there's barely been any activity. Look at the dust patterns on this door." She gestures at the chicken wire door. "You'd expect there to be less dust at arm level where people grab the door, more dust along the bottom where their shoes kick up the dirt on the floor."

Steve looks but he can barely see anything in the dim light of the lamp.

"There's something wrong here," Natasha says and then falls silent.

_____

They find some semblance of the control room--or at least it's where the quartermaster might have been stationed had the mine actually been active. It's tucked away in a corner, conveniently off the main structure of the tunnels, meaning they can blow it up without compromising the integrity of the whole thing. Natasha rigs up an explosive and they detonate it when they get back to ground level. There's a low rumble beneath their feet.

"Should probably cut the elevator too," Clint says.

"What if there are still people down there? Wouldn't they be trapped?" Steve asks.

"Trust me," Natasha says, pulling her machete out of the holster she carried at the small of her back, "There's nobody down there."

_____

"This was a one person job," Natasha says when they're waiting for the quinjet to pick them up from the rendezvous point. "Or even, nobody should have been sent in the first place. Two senior agents? Even with a rookie on board, that's more than overkill."

"Maybe our intel was off," Clint says.

Natasha makes an unconvinced sound but doesn't say anything else.

_____

Agent Sitwell leads their after-action meeting. Natasha doesn't bring up her misgivings once--strange considering how angry she'd been on the entire flight back--and only gives answers when she's asked direct questions. Clint doesn't say anything either, which means that Steve stays quiet too.

"We're not really chatty today, are we?" Sitwell asks when they've finished, "Cheer up guys, I'd call this one a success."

Natasha catches up with Steve when he leaves to go to the training room. "Steve," she says, touching the back of his arm. Steve slows down and turns his head towards her.

"I'm sorry your first mission was so boring," she says, "Usually they require more skill. I know how hard you've been training."

Steve can't help but to laugh a little. "Natasha," he says seriously, "I think you underestimate how much I don't mind not having to knock anyone out."

Natasha looks at the shield on his arm and the gym bag slung across his shoulder. She smiles faintly. "Mind if I join you?"

_____

On Saturday, Peggy invites him to her apartment for dinner. Steve shows up with a six-pack of pear cider and opens the door to the lingering smell of baked chicken and simmering wine.

"Bread or rice?" Peggy asks by way of greeting, in her apron and holding a wooden spoon. There's still a mess of papers on her dining room table and two laptops running at the same time. "We're having coq au vin," she adds for clarification, "I haven't made it in ages so feel free to tell me if it's awful."

"I really doubt your cooking could be awful." Steve puts the cider in the fridge. "Rice?"

One of the computers starts to beep. "Oh dear," Peggy says, balancing the spoon on the pot lid and brushing past Steve out of the kitchen. "Could you get the rice started?"

Steve finds a pot and the wild rice Peggy keeps in the cupboard next to the fridge.

"Sorry," Peggy calls from the living room, "I thought I'd have all of this done by this morning but the work just keeps multiplying."

"Any way I can help?" Steve calls back.

"Oh no," Peggy says, coming back into the kitchen, "It's just the same old argument about how to weight parameters and setting thresholds--we have it roughly once a quarter." She stirs the pot briefly and peers into it. "I think it'll be good by the time the rice cooks."

"Want a cider?" Steve asks.

Peggy looks towards her computers before smiling and saying, "Oh all right."

Steve pulls two ciders out of the fridge. As he opens the first one, Peggy says, "Steve. About the night Natasha and I came over."

He freezes--but only for a moment. Of course Peggy wouldn't forget.

"I know it's been a while," Peggy continues, "But we haven't hand the chance to talk and I didn't want you to think that I'd forgotten."

Steve holds out the opened cider. She looks at him as she takes it, waiting for him to respond.

Steve takes a deep breath. "I don't know what to say," he says, "About SHIELD. About--" He gestures to himself. "--about all of this. I don't like lying. So I guess it's easier just not to say anything."

Maybe Peggy had noticed. The fact that he'd culled out nearly two-thirds of his facebook friends, the fact that he hasn't taken a single picture of himself since he'd woken up six inches taller than he had been before.

"It's hard," Peggy says. She smiles in a way that doesn't reach her eyes, "That's not even close to adequate, really. It was hard when I first joined. I can't imagine what it must be like for you."

Steve takes a drink of his cider so that he doesn't have to answer.

"You know, I broke up with Michael two weeks into my first position at SHIELD," Peggy says, "That year we stopped talking. Your senior year, I think?"

"I thought you were just really busy," Steve says.

"I was," Peggy agrees. She stirs the rice on the stove. "The job kind of became my life and I couldn't really talk about it. It took me a long time to figure out how to balance it with everything else." She looks at him, head tilting. "At the end, you get a good sense of who you really want in your life."

Steve looks down at his feet. He doesn't even say anything but Peggy must read his mind because she asks, "Heard from Bucky recently?"

"He's doing the final test," Steve says, "Some Robin Sage thing. So he's off the grid again. Oh, he mentioned he wanted to take you out for dinner when he comes back as a thank you for saving me."

Peggy sets the lid back on the pot and says, "Oh, he doesn't have to do that. I'm just glad everything turned out okay."

"I don't think I've ever actually thanked you either," Steve says.

"Steve," Peggy says, giving him look.

"I'm serious," Steve says, "I would have probably died."

Her expression softens a bit before she turns back towards the rice. "Well," she says, "Don't thank me yet."

_____

The third time he flings the shield, he calculates the trajectory just right to smash it into all four enemy holograms before it lands a good five yards away. The training module pulls up another hologram but Steve downs it with a shot to the shoulder--off by a few inches again but to his credit, he was half distracted by retrieving his shield.

It takes him a while to be aware of someone on the observation deck. The module dims and Steve notices Natasha watching him, arms crossed.

"Not bad," she says, "You could impress me yet."

"I doubt I'll ever impress you, Natasha," Steve says, only half joking.

"I have a present for you," Natasha says, coming down the stairs. Steve holsters his shield and undoes his gloves as Natasha approaches. She holds out a wooden case and Steve takes it.

"Clint was clearing out one of the apartments his ex-tenant had abandoned and found this," Natasha says. Steve opens the case and finds himself looking at a lightly used set of Derwent sketching pencils. "I figure you'd make better use out of this than the rest of us would."

Steve exhales. "Natasha, I can't take this."

"You're the only person I know with an ounce of artistic talent," Natasha says, "It seems like a shame to let these pencils go to waste."

Steve stares at the pencils, breathes in, and says more deliberately, "I can't take this."

A moment of silence. Steve closes the case with a soft snap and looks up at Natasha as he hands it back over. Natasha looks back at him, considering. Eventually she takes the case back.

"I'll just keep these for you, then," she says.

_____

He likes running. He likes focusing on the sound of his own breath and imagining all his thoughts falling away behind him.

He's spent the vast vast majority of his life struggling with being tired and lonely. This--this is nothing.

_____

When he stops by Peggy's office to drop off her coffee and croissant, she looks up from her computer screen and says, "The special forces class is graduating soon, isn't it? Do you know when Bucky gets back?"

For a moment, Steve considers pretending he doesn't know. He wouldn't be able to fool Peggy though. "He's going to sniper school after."

"But soon though," Peggy asserts.

"Yeah."

She smiles at him. "I'm sure you're looking forward to seeing him again."

I'm terrified, he thinks, but what he says is, "Of course."

_____

He doesn't get to see Bucky though. Not for a while.

_____

The Tuesday before Bucky's supposed to fly back from Berlin, Fury calls him into his office. Natasha is already there, looking grim-faced. She doesn't lift her eyes from the tablet she's reading when Steve steps in.

"Close the door behind you, Rogers," Fury says, "Have a seat."

"What's going on?" Steve asks, shutting the door.

"A situation has developed in Cameroon," Fury says, "We need to extract our engineers and some refugees who have been granted asylum."

Steve takes the tablet on Fury's desk that was obviously meant for him and pulls up the files that the intelligence team has put together. There's a map detailing the suspected movements of opposition groups circling around the institution that SHIELD had set up near Maroua for biological research reasons.

"Normally I'd send an entire team," Fury continues, "But our teams are currently tied up in Europe right now so we don't have much choice."

"If they shoot the quinjet down, we'd have to fight through nine hundred miles to get to the coast," Natasha says, "And it'd just be me and Rogers."

"We'll send another quinjet," Fury says. For a moment, Steve marvels at how calmly Fury said it and how easily he was taking the idea himself--the necessary casualties of war. But the moment passes and Steve reads on about the terrain--the daily rainfall and the hot climate.

Fury leans over his desk and looks at the two of them. He says, "All I need is for you to keep them alive."

_____

"I hear you'll be missing your birthday," Natasha says as she straps herself in.

"Worse things have happened," Steve says, making sure that the cache of weapons they're bringing is secured before taking the seat across from Natasha. From the front, the pilot calls off the pre-takeoff checklist. Steve snaps his seatbelt shut.

As the engine revs, Natasha raises her voice to be heard above the drone. "Barnes is coming back soon, isn't he?"

Steve doesn't answer as the quinjet rises into the sky. Natasha's already pulled out her tablet but hasn't turned it on when Steve says, "I don't understand why everyone is so intent on talking about Bucky to me."

"Whoa." Natasha holds up her hands. "I think I've mentioned him all of twice?"

"I don't actually want to talk about him."

"Okay," Natasha says, "Sorry."

_____

They're about an hour out from landing in Maroua when Steve suddenly says, "I'm sorry."

Natasha jumps slightly from her lightly dozing state and manages to keep her tablet from sliding out of her fingers entirely at the sudden movement. Steve watches her grab at the tablet and blink at him.

"I didn't mean to snap at you," Steve clarifies, "About Bucky."

"It's fine," Natasha says, "It's not my business to pry."

"I haven't told him," Steve says, looking at his hands. "I don't know how he's going to react."

Natasha doesn't say anything.

"You've read my files," Steve says, "You've probably read whatever files SHIELD has on him too."

"I read what was necessary," Natasha says, evasive as always.

"I'm tired," Steve says and stops, unsure of how to explain. About Bucky--about their relationship. About listening to SHIELD agents argue about clearance levels every single day, about the nondisclosure agreement that cut him off from almost everyone he had ever known. He finally settles with, "I don't want to hide any more."

Natasha just looks at him for a long moment. Steve knows better than to expect any comfort from her, really. But he can't take his words back.

"You can learn, you know," she says, "How to be a better liar. How to not feel bad about it."

Steve smiles without feeling. "That's not me."

"You might have to learn anyway," she says, "Sorry, Steve."

_____

They're hovering close to Maroua when the first anti-aircraft fire forces the quinjet take evasive measures. A steady stream of fire follows them across the sky--at least two guns pinned on them if the lack of pausing for any reloads is anything to go by.

"I'm not going to be able to land," the pilot tells them after the second barrel roll. He pulls the quinjet out of range of the guns, "I can try dropping down again but it might be better if you guys jumped. I'll slow down as much as I can"

Steve's only done this once before--when Fury had offhandedly mentioned paratrooper training and Natasha had taken him up on a quinjet over West Virginia--and certainly never into the prospect of gunfire. Natasha doesn't argue though, just unbuckles her seatbelt and puts a helmet on as the plane levels out. Steve is intensely glad they've had their parachutes on this entire time--he wasn't sure he'd have the nerve to calmly run through the checklist of precautions moments before dropping out of the sky.

"The other guns," Steve says looking at the cache they'd strapped down.

"Leave it," Natasha says, pulling the lever to open the back of the quinjet. She has to yell over the roar of the engine and the passing wind. "It'll probably end up arming someone we don't want armed."

Steve stares out the open door at the dots and patches of trees far below them.

"Ready?" Natasha calls out. Steve gives an OK sign with his hand. She nods once before leaping out of the plane.

Steve takes a deep breath and follows.

_____

It takes them nearly two hours to find the research facility, tucked away in the mostly uninhabited areas between Maroua and Bogo. The satellite map shows dirt roads wide enough to fit one tiny car at a time--certainly not enough space to accommodate the trucks that they encounter the closer they get to the facility. The trees clump closer together, providing shade from the sun but also trapping the heat rising off the earth.

They have three guns between the two of them and not enough bullets to sustain a firefight longer than ten minutes. Steve's confident enough about his close-range combat abilities that he'd easily take on any of the men camped out around the facility, but they're vastly outnumbered, ten to one without any long range cover.

"Looks like they're trying to starve them out," Natasha says after five minutes of circling the facility in attempt to look for an opening.

"Wait for nightfall?" Steve asks.

Natasha looks at him and smirks. "Sounds about right."

_____

There was a tiny naive part of him that hoped that Natasha would somehow manage to pick them all off by herself without drawing any attention. But he really knew better than that.

After the first shot rings out, there's a shouted order that Steve only vaguely recognizes as French and there's no way out of it now--he has to jump into the fray or they'd sniff Natasha out. His only advantage over the men laying siege to the facility is the pair of SHIELD issued night vision goggles he has strapped to his eyes.

His first shot hits a man in the shoulder--the misaim half from nerves, half from shaking adrenaline. But when the man turns around, gun raised, Steve doesn't miss the second time.

A shot grazes the bark of the tree next to his head. Steve doesn't think, just looks in the direction of the trajectory, levels his gun, and squeezes the trigger.

Within fifteen minutes, it's over. Fifteen of the men are on the ground splayed in awkward positions where they had fallen--the other four are coming out of the trucks, hands behind their heads.

They hadn't planned for prisoners, Steve realizes. He's about to call out to Natasha when she emerges from the edge of the trees and shoots the first man. The others realize what's happening and break into a sprint--Natasha manages to down one of them as Steve runs towards her and is aiming at a second when Steve grabs her arm from behind. "What the hell are you doing?"

"Get the hell off, Rogers," Natasha snarls.

"They surrendered!"

"In case you haven't noticed," Natasha says, whirling on him, "We have a total of two people on this team. How the hell are we supposed to take prisoners?"

"They surrendered," Steve repeats, just as forcefully as before. He feels sick to his stomach. Five seconds later, he finds himself on his hands and knees in the dirt, throwing up the MRE he'd halfheartedly eaten on the quinjet.

"Well they got away," Natasha says, surveying the trees, "And now we probably only have a few hours at maximum to take out the anti-aircraft guns and board the quinjet before the reinforcements arrive."

He'd just--

"Come on," Natasha says, sounding calmer, "Let's go check on the scientists."

Through the night vision goggles, the color of the blood pooling in the dust is the same color as the night sky.

"Steve," Natasha says, crouching down next to him to touch his shoulder. "You alright?"

Steve wipes his mouth and gets to his feet. "Let's go check on the scientists."

_____

The facility had been blockaded for a few days, leaving almost everyone inside dehydrated and weak from hunger. There's a child, barely ten years old, who'd been brought in for an experimental treatment, breathing shallowly and most likely dying despite the best efforts of the medical personnel stationed inside the facility. Hardly ideal for boarding a quinjet quickly--but at least there's a field next to the building open and flat enough to accommodate the jet easily.

It takes Natasha and Steve nearly two hours to find and disable the two guns in the area, even with the quinjet occasionally diving low enough as bait to draw fire. By the time the quinjet lands in the field to board the first round of civilians, Steve can see a trail of dust being kicked up on the dirt roads from his position on the roof.

"It's going to be another four hours minimum," the pilot says to them over the radio as he takes off, "I've got to refuel."

"Can't they send another jet?" Natasha asks, looking at the nervous expressions of the civilians still left.

"Sorry Agent Romanov," the pilot says, "I'm all you've got."

_____

"You should sleep," Natasha says, thirty minutes into their four hours of waiting. The trucks have circled back up outside but the facilities are built with thick concrete and SHIELD-standard security. Bulletproof glass. They don't have to worry about anyone getting in--just how they're going to get back out when the quinjet arrives again.

"I really don't think I could sleep even if I tried," Steve says.

"How are you feeling?" Natasha asks.

"I don't want to think about how I'm feeling," Steve says.

Natasha laughs a bit at that. Steve doesn't know himself if it's deeply troublesome or just hilarious but he starts to laugh too. He laughs until his sides ache but he can't stop--not until he's trying to gulp in heaving breaths of air between each laugh and there's a sort of wetness on his face. He turns his head away from Natasha, looking down at the handgun he's been clumsily trying to clean for the last fifteen minutes. He'd learned all the parts a long time ago, before they'd ever handed him one, and he tries to remember them now.

"I'll go check on the civilians," Natasha says, and leaves him alone.

_____

On the way back over the Atlantic Ocean, Steve composes an email to Bucky in his mind that sounds something like:

You were right. I'm not cut out for this. I never was.

_____

He doesn't write it, of course.

There's a cheerful voicemail from Bucky: "Hey, I just got back to the palace. Call me back when you get this."

A series of texts, conversational at first (uh, did halley grow a mustache in my absence? why? and lunch? i'll pay) before reaching the last frantic text (Steve, can you please text me back? I really need to talk to you.).

Just one email. Steve's still got dust in his hair and blood underneath his fingernails as he sits in the SHIELD locker room, scrolling through Bucky's words. He reads it once, goes back to the beginning, and reads it again.

He doesn't know whether to laugh or cry.

He thumbs the reply button and types out a single sentence: Is this a joke?

He stares at the four words until his visions gets blurred and he drops his phone on the ground to put his face in his hands. He breathes in shakily, and exhales. He needs to take a shower. He needs to find Bucky. He needs Bucky to look him in the eye and say the same words he'd written down.

After--god, it feels like lifetimes ago--after that disastrous trip to the Poconos in high school when Bucky had kissed him on a poorly thought out whim, after Bucky had cupped his face and said, You know I'm not like that.

"Fuck you," Steve tells his now-dark phone, hating himself for how he's fucking crying again--second time in twenty-four hours because everything about his life is shifting right under his feet. But he's smiling too--a sort of a furious elation that takes hold of him. He wishes Bucky were here to put an arm around him, so that he could lean into Bucky's shoulder and find comfort in his warmth and his smell.

"I miss you," Steve says aloud, glad to be alone in the locker room at 3 in the morning. "I miss you," he says again because it's true and he hasn't said it out loud in forever--the longing tethered to Steve's very soul, deep enough to make him ache.

Bucky will be back in less than a month. They have the rest of their lives to figure this out.

_____

Steve wakes up after three hours of sleep to the insistent beep of his alarm and stares at the ceiling. His blinds are still open and sunlight pours in through his east-facing window.

I'm not good with words, he remembers.

He rolls over to turn the alarm off and opens the email again. I love you. I think I've always loved you.

He has to prepare for his debrief. Fury will be expecting him in less than an hour.

He sets the phone aside and runs a hand over his face before swinging his legs over the side of the bed. It's still too low these days--it'd been perfect for collapsing into back when he wasn't--

But all of that seems so far away now, like it was something that happened to someone else.

Not when: blood the same color as the night sky--

--I've always loved you.

_____

"How's that arm?" Fury asks, picking up one of the tablets as he enters. Natasha's forearm is in a brace--Steve has no idea if she fractured something or just sprained her wrist and she had hardly offered any details.

"Fine," Natasha says as Fury flicks the standard post-mission summary screen onto the table with a map of the region, their GPS-tracked movements laid out on the satellite images.

"One casualty," Fury says, frowning at his tablet, "What happened there?"

"Civilian ran for the plane before we could secure a route," Natasha says, "We repeated our instructions to stay in the building multiple times. He must have panicked."

Fury doesn't have to say anything or even look at them to convey his disappointment. Natasha presses her lips together, briefly meeting Steve's eyes before looking back down at her own tablet.

"How the hell did you let three of them escape?" Fury demands, "We could have pulled that casualty number down to zero if there hadn't been any reinforcements to arrive at all."

"It was me," Steve says before Natasha can answer. "I was under the mistaken impression that we would be able to take prisoners. In the confusion, they escaped."

"You've had more than enough time to familiarize yourself with protocol, Agent Rogers," Fury says.

"I should have reviewed contingencies before we arrived," Natasha says.

"Fine," Fury says, "If you both want credit for this negligence, that's fine by me."

Steve stares hard at his tablet.

"Any trouble communicating with the pilot?" Fury asks.

"None," Natasha says.

"Anything else we should discuss before I forward your after action reports?"

Neither of them say anything for a moment. But then Steve looks up and says, "The boy. The one who needed the defibrillator."

"They took him down to Atlanta," Fury says, "Last I heard he was stabilized."

Steve nods.

"I don't mean to be a hardass," Fury adds after a moment, "You guys did good. You rescued critical staff for this organization. I'm impressed that a two person team pulled this off, especially with a rookie."

"Thank you sir," Natasha says. Steve murmurs something similar, studying the path they'd taken through the terrain so that he doesn't have to look anyone in the eye.

"Oh and Rogers," Fury says, getting back up and heading towards the door, "I've let the SHIELD counselors know about this mission. They'll be reaching out to you soon." And without a word of dismissal, he exits, leaving the two of them sitting in the conference room alone.

"That was a lot faster than I expected," Steve says.

"Nick's a busy man," Natasha says, "He rarely leads debriefs any more. When he does, it's in and out in five minutes. He writes more when he actually reads the reports." She swings her chair around so that she's facing him. "Steve, listen. The first mission is always the hardest."

"My second," Steve says.

Natasha gives him a look. "You know what I mean."

He breathes in. "I don't know if I really want to talk to a SHIELD therapist."

Natasha shrugs. "You don't have to do anything you don't want to," she says, "But sometimes it helps."

_____

In the hallway before training, he pulls his phone out just to check. I think I've always loved you.

_____

Two days after, Peggy waits for him outside the clinic where he's getting his blood drawn. Steve keeps his eyes averted the entire time, unable to even look at the stuff in brightly capped test tubes.

"Hi," Peggy says, smiling at him. She takes his arm, her briefcase sliding into in the crook of her elbow. "Can I walk you home?"

He hasn't exactly made a secret out of how he runs to and from the triskelion on a daily basis but it's not really a short commute. "Are you sure?"

"It's a nice evening. Maybe we could grab dinner on the way. I'll catch a cab home."

"Alright," Steve says, holding the door open for her. She smiles and steps through.

"I don't mean to pry," Peggy says as they're walking along the bridge connecting the triskelion complex and Arlington, "But how did your mission with Natasha go?"

Steve realizes with a bloom of affection in his chest that she's giving him an opening. It's a door he'd rather shut, though.

"Good," he says, "I'm glad we got the scientists out."

The distant lights of the buildings north across the river start to come on as the sun steadily drops. An airplane takes off, winging over them--a rapidly disappearing silhouette against the pink sky.

"Bucky and I had lunch together when he was in town," Peggy says, "He looked like he was doing pretty well. Much tanner than I remember him being, though I've only met him, what, twice?"

"He emailed me," Steve says.

"Oh?" Peggy says, sounding surprised--and then much quieter, "Oh."

Steve pulls his phone out of his pocket and finds the email. He hands it to her wordlessly. She stops walking to look at the screen and Steve looks out over the edge of the bridge at the glitter of the water.

"Steve," she says, touching the back of his arm.

"I think I've read it so many times by now that I could probably quote the entire thing," Steve says, unable to look at her just yet. "Why the fuck did he have to do it over email?"

Peggy leans on the railing next to him. "How do you feel about it?"

Steve squeezes his eyes shut.

Years of having Bucky on the tip of his tongue in every conversation, the blindingly obvious way he had been in love the two years they had known each other in New York--disastrous attempts at relationships that started without remark and ended in Peggy's cramped living room, sitting on her dissertation notes with cold pizza. Nights high on awful art and too much to drink, nights when the inevitable truth came spilling out in a rush of melodrama that barely encompassed how he felt: I'm ruined, aren't I? And even later--when he'd settled into a day job and the inevitable disappointment of chronic illness, when his life had been folded into something even quieter than it had been with all of his anger at his lot in life barely kept in check--Bucky was the brightest part of it, lighting up his conversations even when he had nothing else to say.

He says. "You know."

Peggy presses her arm against his, leans her head against his arm. "When we met for lunch," she says, "Bucky wanted to talk about you."

Steve opens his eyes. The sky is going dark, pink darkening into purple.

"He wanted to know if we were together," Peggy says, "And if you were happy. Hell, all he cared about was whether or not you were happy."

She pulls away and Steve turns his head to look at her. She smiles at him.

"Steve," she says, "Forget everything else. Won't this make you happy?"

_____

I love you. I think I've always loved you.

I want to spend the rest of my life making you laugh and I don't care about the rest.

_____

He's tried so hard to not think about it because not thinking about it was the easiest way to attempt the futile act of letting go. Not thinking about it meant that it couldn't hurt him.

There have been too many moments that in a parallel world, could have shifted the course of their relationship. Too many moments when Bucky had stepped too close, watched him for too long, that it's altogether too easy for Steve to extrapolate what he wanted so badly: Bucky's hand in his, a hand under his chin to tip his head up for a kiss, Bucky's eyelashes brushing against Steve's cheek as he leaned in. The rare moments when he'd wake up before Bucky did, eyes closed, slow breathing out of his parted mouth while Steve watched in masochistic longing, hand sliding across the sheets towards Bucky but never crossing the unbridgeable half-inch to touch him.

I'm not good with words--

He could. If he wanted to. Cradle Bucky's face, watch the corners of his eyes crinkle, touch his mouth to Bucky's smile. Push his nose against the corner of Bucky's jaw, run his fingers over the faint stubble. Say, "I love you," without being scared.

Bucky pushing him against a mattress with the sunlight highlighting his shoulders but Steve's fixated on the brightness of Bucky's grin. A storm gathering over a late summer beach, Bucky throwing a jacket over their heads as he presses as his lips to Steve's temple. An apartment kitchen, pressing his forehead to the nape of Bucky's neck as he hummed and sliced vegetables. Standing next to him in front of a crowd of thousands, staring straight ahead, maybe a little too close, maybe their fingers touching behind their backs.

--and I don't care about the rest.

It could be real.

_____

In the aftermath, he supposes he should have known better than to think that happiness was meant for people like him.

_____

On the following Monday, Steve's deciding between a turkey sandwich or caesar salad for lunch in the SHIELD cafe when he overhears someone say, "You know that helicopter shot down yesterday? I heard Prince Barnes was on board."

Steve whips around, looking at the nearest table. The woman sitting across from the man who had spoken is picking mushrooms off her pizza. "Isn't that classified?" she asks.

"Excuse me," Steve says, stepping out of line and not caring that he's barging in on their conversation. "A helicopter was shot down?"

The woman looks at him, clearly annoyed. "It's classified," she repeats but Steve's already halfway out the cafe.

_____

The door to Fury's office is open and Steve can see Peggy leaning over his desk. He can't make out what she's saying but it's clear from the rise and fall of her voice that they're arguing over something.

"--it doesn't have to be the Russians," Steve catches Peggy saying as he gets close enough, "I'm saying we should run analysis on HYDRA activity in the area from the last half year at least. I don't even need a full team--just Mackenzie and Roland."

"You know we can't spare anyone," Fury says, "If your algorithm--"

Steve knocks on the open door. "Should have closed the damn door," Fury says as he leans back in his chair to see who it is. "Rogers. Come in and close the door."

"Steve," Peggy says straightening and turning towards him and just that one word--the way that she says it--the look on her face--

"I'd like to lead a rescue mission," Steve hears himself say, "Even if it's just for the body."

"No," Fury says, "You don't have the experience and you have way too much personal investment in this."

"I think out of anyone," Peggy says, turning back towards Fury, "Agent Rogers is the one who most ought to--"

"Agent Carter, you are out of line," Fury says, "Your request for manpower has been denied pending developing circumstances. Come back in six hours. Agent Rogers, you are to report to your regular station. Both of you, please leave my office."

_____

"Is he dead?" Steve asks when it's just him and Peggy in the hallway.

"They've recovered the wreckage but no bodies," Peggy says. She blinks at him, her mouth pressing together, her hands tight around the tablet she's holding. "Steve, I'm so sorry."

"There's no body," Steve repeats. He feels like he's somewhere else, watching all of this happen.

"Listen," Peggy says, stepping closer to him and lowering her voice, "I can get you over there if you really want. But I have to know that I'm not just sending you to your own death because I could never forgive myself if something happened."

Steve breathes in and closes his eyes, trying to clear his head. Bucky could be alive somewhere. There is no force on earth that could stop him. Everything else can wait.

He projects all the confidence he can into his voice: "Nothing will happen. I need to find him."

_____

Halley's waiting for him when he leaves the building three hours earlier than he normally does. He half considers pretending not to see the car because he's torn between hysterical panic and a strange directed calm and he's not sure which way talking to Halley will tip him. But the thought doesn't last for long and he climbs in without even looking at Halley.

Halley says, "I'm going to drive to the palace, alright?"

Steve doesn't answer, just stares out the window. Halley must take his silence for assent because he pulls out of the parking space and drives away from the triskelion. They don't talk. Steve looks down at his hands, the imprints in his palms where he'd dug his fingernails in.

When they pass the palace gates, Halley parks the car in his usual spot. He doesn't get out of the car and neither does Steve. They sit in a long moment of silence before Halley says, "Look, Steve--"

He can't do it. It breaks all at once--the great ugly sobs that shake his entire frame, pressing his hands hard into his face and wishing he were somewhere, sometime, someone else. The gutted sounds and the visceral hurt that drags its way out of him--Bucky was dead a half a world away and Steve wanted so badly to follow

He feels himself being pulled into a hug, Halley's arm around his shoulder. He cries blindly into Halley's shirt as Halley hugs him and says in a shaking voice, "I know, I know."

_____

He wakes up halfway through the middle of the night to the sound of Amanda's voice in the hallway outside. She's shouting something muffled by the thick door and Steve doesn't care--just closes his eyes and sinks back into a blissful sleep of nothing at all.

The next time he wakes, it's to his phone ringing. He doesn't answer it. It's only when it rings again that Steve actually sits up and looks at it.

Peggy.

"Hello?" he asks. His voice is hoarse.

"Thank god I finally reached you," Peggy says, "Listen, I found you your chance but you have to come now. Fury's not happy about it and I'm sure he'll find some reason to shut it down if you don't show up in the next half hour."

Steve's already pulling on his pants. "I'm coming."

_____

"Agent Rogers," Fury says as he opens the door to the conference room Peggy had directed Steve to. Steve nods, not quite trusting himself to speak. He knows he looks passably put together--Peggy had straightened out his collar and given him the once over before letting him leave her office.

"This is Lieutenant Wilson," Fury says as Steve enters the room. The other man sitting at the table stands up and offers his hand with a smile. Steve tries to smile back as he shakes the man's hand.

"Lieutenant Wilson is part of the Air Force Pararescue assigned to finding the whereabouts of Prince Barnes," Fury says to Steve before directing the rest of his statement toward Wilson, "SHIELD was contracted to provide intelligence for this mission but for some reason, Agent Rogers has been asked for by name."

"That's correct, sir," Wilson says, "Wreckage analysis suggests that Lieutenant Barnes was taken alive so we thought we'd need someone to consult on a more covert rescue operation."

"Agent Rogers is hardly experienced enough to provide consultation," Fury says before adding to Steve, "No slight on your character."

Steve doesn't reply, just looks at him.

"Look sir," Wilson says, "I don't have any power here. My superior officers asked me to work with Agent Rogers. You'll have to take it up with them. But our helicopter leaves in twenty minutes and I would really rather prefer we were on it."

_____

Peggy comes to meet him on the helicopter pad. She presses a note into his hand and kisses his cheek. "Be safe," she says, smiling sadly at him.

Steve closes his hand around the note and nods.

"Come on Rogers," Wilson calls, "Helo's gonna start."

Steve turns and climbs in.

Chapter Text

It happens quickly. There's the beating of the helicopter blades, the trees rushing past as a green blur beneath them, the chatter and laughter of the pilot with the other airman seated next to him talking shit about basketball. Bucky's got his sniper rifle case across his lap, looking through tinted lenses at the horizon.

The first hit sends him into the closed door, smashing him painfully against metal. The airman shouts out, "What the hell?" over the sound of the wailing alarm but the pilot doesn't pay them any mind as speaks rapidly into the radio, trying his best to pull them out of the listing flight. Bucky's ears are ringing and the paralysis of stunned helplessness keeps him in his seat. He tries fight his way out of the confusion and disbelief for any useful action--

The second hit sends the helicopter into a tailspin--more alarms going off and the pilot shouting unintelligibly over the sound. "Jump!" he hears someone say, and Bucky pushes open the door--the world spinning beneath them, blue, green, blue, green--

"Jump!" again and Bucky leaps, hand grabbing at the front of his jacket for the tab that would release the chute--

Bucky gauges the distance he has from the top of the trees. The helicopter descends in a haze of smoke the bulk of its momentum carrying it away from Bucky and Bucky watches it as he pulls his chute.

No other parachutes appear.

______

What Bucky would have remembered: landing amongst the trees, his parachute cords getting tangled into the branches. Cutting himself out, landing on his back in the moss and dried pine needles. Looking at the sky through the treetops and running towards the plume of smoke, half leaping, half stumbling over fallen branches and jutting roots. Finding the helicopter, half broken but mostly intact--the tiny figure sitting up against the hull of the plane which spewed acrid smoke smelling like burnt plastic and diesel.

The airman lifts his arm and says, "No--don't," when Bucky first comes into the clearing. But he's bleeding badly from his leg and Bucky's already halfway towards him, pulling off his jacket for a makeshift bandage to staunch the bleeding. "Lieutenant," the man says wetly, when Bucky gets close enough to see the metal that's gone through the man's thigh, gleaming under a smeared coat of blood--when Bucky gets close enough to see that his foot has been severed at the ankle, held on solely by a scrap of unripped fabric, blood pooled in the dirt. "Get out of here."

What Bucky would have remembered: heat and light so bright that he could see it behind closed eyes. Time slowing, the explosion like sunlight on his face and outstretched palm, the breath rushing out of his lungs as he's thrown back then--nothing.

_____

When he drifts into consciousness, there is a light shining on his face. He can't move but he's not sure if he's paralyzed or strapped down. Everything hurts. There is a burning pain in his left arm, like the entire thing has been engulfed in a vat of hot oil.

He's alive. He thinks. He drifts back into unconsciousness.

_____

The second time, the hot oil is gone. It swings between burning pain and a deep ache. There are other hurts on his body too, but this one hurts the most.

He's alive. He can't move. He needs to go home. Steve.

_____

The third time, there are other people there. "Should we fit him with a prosthetic?" someone asks. Bucky turns his head towards the sound but he can't see anything except for the bright light. Is he in an American hospital? Why can't he move? He needs to--he needs to relay a message.

"No," someone else says in Russian. "We will wait and do as we are told."

What's going on? Bucky wants to ask but his mouth won't form the words. He closes his eyes again. He promised Steve.

_____

"Can you tell me who you are?" someone asks in perfect American English. The pain has dulled into an ache. He's still alive.

"Three two," Bucky manages to whisper because he hasn't forgotten the person who spoke Russian before, because he'd been shot down, "Five five seven zero--"

"No good," the Russian man says and this time Bucky can partially see past the glare of the bright light, the silhouette of someone standing next to him on his right side. He finds his eyes slipping shut and then--

_____

"Can you tell me who you are?"

"Three two five--"

"No good."

Darkness.

_____

"Can you tell me who you are?"

He doesn't know where he is. In a hospital somewhere maybe?

"Lieutenant Barnes," he says, "James Barnes."

Silence. The light is too bright to look at.

"No good."

_____

He can barely hear the words. He feels weak with nausea--can't keep his eyes open.

"Can you tell me who you are?"

He snatches at his thoughts, trying to piece something together out of the fog.

"Buck?" he asks. No one answers him so he says it more confidently, "Bucky."

"Keep going," the Russian man says.

_____

He hears the "Can you?" and the "You are?" but his attention wavers. It's frustrating trying to pull a thought together--the words and images slipping like water out of his fingers.

Someone slaps him. The sting hurts for only a moment before it fades. There's noise again, pitch rising at the end and silence.

The light is too bright. Bucky closes his eyes and only gets slapped again. He opens his eyes and stares hard into the light.

"Can you tell me who you are?" he hears as if through water.

He doesn't know how to.

Someone says words that sound Russian.

His stomach lurches as he's tilted back, the persistent nausea making him dry heave for a moment. He's finally tilted away from the light and can see the room he's in for the first time even if it's through the hazy imprint of the lamp on his vision. He catches a glimpse of sterile white walls, surgical tools on a metal holder all swimming in front of his eyes before they put a cloth over his face.

He's drowning. He can't breathe. His lungs are burning more badly than his left shoulder.

"Can you tell me who you are?" he heads from very very far away.

He grasps for a name--any name. The first name he can think of. And when they take the cloth off his face again, he gasps out, "Steve."

Silence. He vomits and nearly chokes before someone pushes a suction into his mouth and nose. His throat burns.

"Who is Steve?"

A flash of gold. The rush of something warm in his chest, that clutches at his heart. "Me," he says.

The Russian voice. Then blessed darkness.

_____

The next time he wakes, his entire body is on fire. He is in a small, dark space, the walls pressing in around him. He can't speak, it hurts so much.

He half hears, "Keep him awake," through the pain. There's clicking next to his head, soft at first but then louder and louder as he focuses on it. He thinks only about the clicking. The pain sweeps through him over and over like white fire.

He wants to die. Click. He wants to die. Click. He wants to die.

Someone is screaming.

_____

"Can you tell me who you are?"

Silence.

The voice is insistent. "Who is Steve?"

A tug at the back of his mind. He keeps it to himself, keeps his breathing steady, keeps his heart slow.

This is what he is now: blood and muscle and bone. White fire, white light so bright that there's nothing left.

The Russian man says, "Good."

Chapter Text

Halfway through their short flight to Annapolis, Lieutenant Wilson turns to him and says, "Call me Sam."

By this point, Steve had spent nearly the entire time aboard the helicopter sitting very still and entirely silent, staring at the emergency release handle of the door for a lack of a better place to look. He didn't want to look anywhere that might invite conversation--but Sam continued on with, "You look like you're ready to jump out of the door there. Should I be worried?"

Steve smiles tightly. "Steve Rogers," he says.

"Well Steve," Sam says, holding his hand out, "I have a feeling we'll be going undercover together for the next few weeks."

Steve shakes it and nods, keeping the tight smile on his face. "Nice to meet you Sam."

_____

Peggy's note is written in all capital letters, each one blocked out like some elementary school child had written it--nothing at all like her usual flowing script.

Memorize this number: 202-555-9283
Get a burner phone in Europe and call that number.
Can't divulge details here but don't trust anyone in SHIELD.
Destroy this note.

_____

They're ushered quickly from the helicopter into an elevator. "Has the news leaked yet?" Sam asks one of the people leading the way but nobody answers him. They leave the two of them in a conference room in a corner of the building, two walls of windows looking over the bay. "You guys have a nice day too," Sam calls after them as they shut the door behind themselves.

There are several televisions on in the room, all muted but headlines under each of the talking heads. Steve reads Crown Prince shot down over Belgorod and US-Russian relations strained over investigation before he has to look away, at the morning sun through the windows and focus on keeping his breathing steady.

"--at least two more teams because Moscow's going to kick our rescue unit out within two weeks--" The conference room door opens again to admit a frazzled looking bald man who keeps flicking his finger at his tablet like a nervous tic and another older man who has his shirtsleeves rolled up and a calm, unsmiling expression. Steve turns around and the older man immediately hones onto him, frowning even deeper.

"I thought we had Rumlow," he says.

"Agent Rumlow was pulled last minute on another mission and Agent Rogers was requested to replace him," the nervous man says.

"Requested by whom?"

"Uh," the nervous man says, "It seems as if he was requested by Colonel Rhodes."

The older man regards Steve another moment and Steve's stomach drops. He couldn't have come all this way to just--

"Apologies," the older man says, "I don't do very well with surprises, Agent Rogers, I hope you'll forgive me. I'm sure you'll perform admirably on this mission." He holds out his hand. "Alexander Pierce. This is Agent Sitwell." After Steve shakes it, he turns towards Sam. "You must be Lieutenant Wilson."

"Yes sir," Sam says, shaking Pierce's hand. Pierce gestures to the table. Steve's the last to take a seat--he's heard of Undersecretary Pierce in passing--a clearance level or two higher than even Fury or Maria. Peggy's note is fresh on his mind. But he slides into a chair and picks up the tablet that's been prepared for them.

"I'll cut to the chase," Pierce says as Sitwell flicks a few images onto the projector: a half burned woodland clearing with the charred metal husk of a helicopter in the center. "We haven't been on the friendliest of terms with the Russians and they're not fully cooperating with our requests. They've denied us a full military investigation, citing their own security concerns. In fact, the special forces team we did drop onto the wreckage site has to withdraw out of Russian territory by the end of next week. They say they'll collaborate on an investigation with the CIA but on their terms."

Steve stares at the photographs and tries to dissociate the burning wreckage from the living, breathing Bucky Barnes he knows. Away from the smell of Bucky's cologne and the warmth of his arm around Steve's shoulder. This is just a rescue mission. He would do the same for anyone who'd been in that helicopter.

"Not surprising that we don't quite trust the Russians to help us conduct a full, unbiased investigation," Pierce says, looking over at Sam and Steve with a smile. Steve pulls his attention away from the photographs to look back. "Especially if we're not certain that the Russians didn't do this themselves."

"What evidence do you have for that?" Sam asks.

"Nothing, just yet," Pierce says, looking at him with that same smile. "But it's good to be skeptical."

Sitwell puts up close-ups of the crash site. It takes a moment for Steve to realize that he's looking at a series of shots of burned corpses and he has to look down at his tablet instead.

"Two bodies when we know there were three up there on the plane," Pierce says. "Dental records show that Lieutenant Barnes is missing. Pararescue has already combed the woods extensively looking for him. No trace of him."

"Was this a kidnapping?" Steve hears himself ask, forcing himself to look up at Pierce again. The projected photos are on the wall behind his head and Steve forces himself to keep his attention to Pierce's face.

"No one's asked us for a ransom just yet," Pierce says, "But we can't rule it out. Hell, we might even hope for it. It'd give us a lead and we'd know that he's actually alive out there somewhere. Hell, the royal family might even have deep enough pockets to bring him home without all of this trouble." He waves his hand at the table before adding, "But let's not get too far ahead of ourselves."

Sitwell flicks new images up onto the screen. Steve's tablet synchronizes briefly to show the same page: a doctored passport and a New York driver's license with the picture he'd taken for his SHIELD ID instead of his old Virginia state identification. Steven Grant and Samuel Thomas.

"You're looking to acquire and secure new pieces for Tony Stark's art collection," Sitwell says, "Mr. Stark has generously allowed us to use his personal wealth as a cover. Stark Industries has expedited your visas so you can fly in to Moscow in two days."

"This won't seem suspicious?" Steve asks. He studies the art specifications that Tony Stark had submitted seemingly in all seriousness with a long addendum by Pepper Potts at the end--they seemed like real enough requests.

Sitwell just laughs. "Money has a way of turning heads in the other direction."

_____

At the end of the three hour meeting, before they're allowed to go check out the weapons that the SHIELD technicians had broken down and hidden into cases meant to carry pieces of art, Pierce turns towards Steve just as he's about to exit and says, "Steve Rogers right?"

Steve stills after pushing his chair in. "Yes sir," he says.

"You were part of Erskine's supersoldier program," Pierce asserts.

"Yes sir."

Pierce looks at him for a moment longer before nodding. He says, "Glad to see it worked," before turning and disappearing down the hallway with Sitwell.

"Supersoldier program," Sam repeats, looking over at Steve. "Do I want to know?"

"Long story," Steve says, "I don't think you do."

_____

They fly first to Rome so that they can match the trajectory of their jet to the itinerary Stark Industries had provided the Russian officials. The Stark jet comes fully equipped with a bar and office--and even if there are no stewardesses on board, Sam still sinks into one of the executive chairs and says, "So this is how Tony Stark lives it up, huh?" He swivels his chair around and leans over to look at the selection of bottles in the wine cooler. "How much you wanna bet each one of these costs more than my monthly salary?"

A cool voice that sounds nothing like their pilot says over the intercom, "Please don't touch the wine, Lieutenant Wilson. Mr. Stark has provided a full bar that you may take advantage of but most of the wine belongs to Ms. Potts."

Steve looks up at the ceiling but can't find anything that looks like a hidden camera.

"Apologies for not introducing myself earlier," the voice says, "My name is Jarvis. I am an AI that Mr. Stark has integrated into all of his living spaces and commonly used vehicles."

"Weird," Sam says, and then as if adding an afterthought, "But cool too."

"Let me know if I can be of any assistance," Jarvis says dryly and falls silent.

"Wonder what Stark is like in person," Sam says, getting up to investigate the bar. Steve thinks back to a renewable energy benefit dinner that he'd attended once with Bucky. Stark had given the keynote speech--and had spent most of that speech talking about how Stark Industries was going to lead the world in an energy revolution. Said revolution had yet to materialize.

"I'd say he's a little self-obsessed," Steve says, though it's not like anyone needed to see the man in person to come to that conclusion. They could have just picked up a newspaper. Even so--they were flying across the Atlantic in Stark's plane, using visas that Stark had procured through bribery. "I've never actually had a personal conversation with him though so I might be wrong."

Sam sets a bottle of expensive looking bourbon on the counter of the bar and grins at Steve. "Is meeting Tony Stark part of your mysterious life before you joined the supersoldier program?"

Steve laughs.

The intercom crackles briefly before the pilot says, "I hope you're seated and strapped down. We're about to hit some turbulence." A pause and then the pilot adds, "ETA five hours to Rome."

_____

SHIELD puts them in a safe house in a somewhat more disreputable part of Moscow. Stark had wanted to put them up in a four star hotel in the Presnensky District, citing that it was out of character for Stark Industries employees to stay anywhere else, but then SHIELD came back with the estimated length of stay and Stark figured he wasn't really that generous after all.

"Three months," Sitwell had said as they briefly went over the specifics of day-to-day living. "Your visa's good for six months but if we haven't found Lieutenant Barnes by the end of three months, we probably won't find him at all. You're the extraction team. You stay put until one of our intel teams comes back with coordinates."

Steve sets his bag on the ratty mattress inside one of the two bedrooms of the safe house. The bookshelf across from the bed has a few Russian books that Steve can't read and a bible. The single light switch on the wall operates the naked light bulb over the wooden desk that's been carved by multiple agents, if the different languages are anything to go by.

"Cheery isn't it?" Sam asks, leaning in Steve's doorway. He looks at the desk. "Think we could pass that desk off as art? Won't even need to pay any rubles for it. Stark probably wouldn't notice the difference."

Steve laughs despite himself.

"We should probably go buy some bedding," Sam says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder at the door, "Maybe grab some dinner while we're out."

Steve looks around the room and lets out a breath. "Yeah," he says, "Let's go."

_____

The sales clerk at the mobile phone store doesn't speak any English but between his miming and his drawing of the US flag, Steve manages to buy a phone and a prepaid international calling card.

He's had to use one a few times while Bucky was out of the country so that he didn't rack up an enormous phone bill for Susanne--and it's clear from the card itself that it works the same way here in Russia too--he's supposed to call a local number which would connect him to the international number that Peggy had given him. But now that he's bought the card and standing on the curb of the street outside of the store looking at it, it seems more and more like a bad idea to use the damn thing. If SHIELD was truly not to be trusted, he couldn't put Peggy into danger by introducing a middleman to their conversation.

He'd put a couple thousand rubles on the burner phone but he has no idea how many minutes that would give him. But it's better than nothing. He glances down the street at the other shoppers walking down the sidewalk and where he'd left Sam in one of the home furnishing stores before typing in the number Peggy had told him to memorize.

Nothing happens for a long moment. Steve eyes the electronics store again, wondering if he should add more money to the phone. He checks his watch--it was still a decent hour in the US. But then the phone rings twice before Peggy picks up and says, "Hello?"

"Hi," Steve says, "I got your note."

"Steve," she says, sounding relieved, "Is this your number? Give me a moment, I'll call you back. It's more secure that way." She hangs up without another word. Steve pulls the phone from his ear and looks at it before it lights up again, what he supposes must be the Russian script for "Unknown number" flashing across the screen.

"You couldn't have left a more cryptic note," Steve says by way of answering.

Peggy laughs though it sounds strained over the phone. "You would not believe the week I've been having. But listen, I don't have much time. Undersecretary Pierce told you guys to stay put in Moscow?"

"Yeah."

"You're outfitted with SHIELD transponders? What weapons did they give you?"

"A couple of handguns, a rifle or two. My shield. Why, what's going on?"

"I'm trying to figure out where they put the GPS trackers," Peggy says, "The transponders definitely have GPS locations. The handguns maybe not, the rifles are debatable. Maybe you can check yourself--see if there are any bugs you can peel off and leave at the safe house."

"Whoa, back up," Steve says, "Don't we want SHIELD to track our whereabouts so they can send in an extraction team if things go south?"

"I have coordinates for you," Peggy says, "These are not SHIELD coordinates. These are coordinates that I think SHIELD is trying to cover up."

Steve looks down the street again. He lowers his voice even more, hand cupping the phone. "You said I shouldn't trust anyone in SHIELD."

Peggy doesn't say anything for a moment. When she does speak again, her voice is low and urgent. "For the last month or so, I've noticed that someone's been bypassing the algorithm we use to identify hotspots of instability. I took raw data from the last five years and run it through the program several times--there's a lot of missing hotspots. Some of them come up later on and we have to send agents in to clean up the messes. Many of them haven't resurfaced at all. But--" She pauses and lets out a breath. "--I have a hypothesis. Many of the missing points from the last half year seem to have something to do with HYDRA."

Steve stares unseeingly down the street--Bucky's voice already at the back of his head: I fucking told you so.

"Whoever it is, they have to be pretty high up," Peggy continues, "And they're certainly not acting alone. It takes a certain amount of deliberate obliviousness to let this pass for half a decade. Longer, even."

"Are you safe?" Steve asks abruptly.

"Steve," Peggy says, sounding fond, "I'm safe. I'm more worried about you. And--" She falters for a moment but comes back, sounding firmer, "I truly believe that Bucky's still alive out there somewhere. If whoever took him really wanted to kill him for who he is, they would have uploaded the video to Youtube already."

Steve can't think about it. "Tell me about the coordinates," he says instead.

"I only have satellite photos but it looks like a factory of some sort," Peggy says, "I'd send them to you but I don't want to eat up too much data on your burner. I don't know if it's still active but it doesn't look too hard to case."

"Okay," Steve says, "Where is it?"

_____

He can't find any trackers on any of the handguns and they haven't touched his shield. He's not familiar with the submachine gun that they added to the arsenal but he finds tiny trackers on the underside of the assault rifles which he peels off and sticks to one of the Russian books on his bookshelf.

He still hasn't decided whether or not to feign irresponsibility and a one-night stand in Moscow to buy himself time alone to check out the coordinates that Peggy had given him or by some miracle, somehow convince Sam to forget everything he knew about their commanding officers and to risk his entire career on a whim of some analyst he had never met before. But as he's putting one of the handguns into a separate bag and preoccupied with rehashing the steps for hotwiring a car, Sam says from behind him, "Planning on going somewhere?"

Steve drops the bag--which, fucking smooth. Not suspicious at all.

"Just checking on the weapons," Steve says.

Sam looks at him. But he just says, "Sure thing man," before turning back towards his own room. "Good night."

_____

It's not that Sam has ever given Steve any reason to distrust him. He likes Sam as much as he can despite the circumstances--the guy is easygoing and doesn't seem to have any interest in adhering strictly to protocol. He thinks that Sam would probably be open to the idea of corruption in their immediate higher ups, but he also can't be sure that Sam won't just turn around immediately report him.

At the same time, Steve is utterly awful at lying. He can't think of a plausible excuse to get a few days off on his own without reporting in or having Sam report him in. Any medical excuse could get him immediately benched and he can't risk leaving Moscow. If he had to fake a hook up--he couldn't even fake it with another man considering the political atmosphere in Russia and he couldn't see himself climbing out of that particular pit of lies with much success.

In the end, he tells a half truth. "Hey," he says to Sam over dinner the next day, "My friend wanted me to check out a suspicious warehouse as a personal favor. She's been working the case for a long time and we just happen to be in the right neighborhood. Off the books because going through the official SHIELD channels will take too long and she doesn't want to lose her lead."

Sam looks at him. "This why you've been acting so shady?"

"I'm a horrible liar," Steve concedes, trying to smile. "I'm wondering--is it crazy for me to ask if you want to tag along?"

Sam stabs his fork at his chicken. "Are you kidding?" he asks, "I've been bored out of my mind. When do we start?"

_____

Steve brings along a handgun and his shield and hopes that he won't have to use either of them. Best case scenario, the factory won't have any guards, but Steve's not naive enough to expect it. Sam tucks a handgun into his jacket and doesn't even blink twice as Steve hotwires a car parked maybe five blocks from where the safe house is. Steve has no idea which cars are likely to carry anti-theft alarms or GPS on them--so he breaks into an older car with a dent in the back door with the intention of leaving a couple thousand rubles in the glove compartment for the trouble.

"Do you mind driving?" Steve asks once the engine is running.

Sam looks at him across the peeling roof of the car with a confused expression, but he says, "Sure man," before coming around the car to the driver's side.

They pull onto a larger street as Steve pulls out the paper map he'd bought solely to navigate to Peggy's coordinates. "I never learned how to drive," Steve says by way of explanation, using his burner phone as a flashlight.

"But you learned how to steal a car," Sam says, sounding more amused than anything.

"I didn't learn that until very recently," Steve says, as if it'd make it any less weird. "And I've always lived in cities for most of my life so I never really had much need. Buses are easier than trying to navigate DC traffic any day."

"SHIELD didn't make you learn?"

"Turn left here," Steve says. Sam does. After a moment of trying to match the symbols on the street signs to that on his map, Steve answers, "SHIELD never asked and I never told them. I guess they just assumed. I should probably learn though."

They get onto a freeway. Steve studies the map more before looking back out the windshield, on alert for the right exit. No doubt it would have been hell of a lot easier just following the GPS.

"You're not going to ask about where we're going? Why we're going there?" Steve asks after the silence has stretched for several minutes, "About any of the specifics?"

"Is it going to endanger our primary objective?" Sam asks.

Steve can only allow himself to think in terms of an abstract rescue operation--none of the specifics. "No."

"Well then," Sam says, looking over at him, "I have a feeling that the less I know, the better."

_____

Peggy's coordinates lead them to a factory just as she said it would. It's not too far out of the range of the city but far enough away that it's in its own complex on the river, a good quarter of a mile away from the next building. It's fenced off with chain link--wouldn't be too difficult to climb over except that there's a guard at the gate if the light inside the booth at the entrance is anything to go by.

They drive the car past the factory only once but it's all Steve needs to get a good idea of the building. He steals a napkin from the cupholder and a ball point pen from the glove department to draw a rough sketch by the light of his phone. "I think the best way in is by river," Steve says.

"I wasn't really planning to go swimming tonight," Sam says.

"You could distract the guard," Steve says, "Buy me some time to get in and out. Neither of us would have to swim that way."

Sam just shakes his head but he's smiling. "Alright Rogers," he says, "I guess we can see how well I can play the lost tourist at two in the morning."

_____

For five whole optimistic minutes before Steve reaches the fence, he genuinely believes that he won't have to wade into the river. But the low hum of the electricity along the chain link is unmistakable, not to the mention the barbed wire along the top that he hadn't seen in the dark from the car. The fence runs halfway down the dock too--a gate at the far end, halfway jutting into the river, seems to be his only way in.

The water is worse when Steve climbs up the wooden pole and heaves himself onto the worn planks of the dock. His dark uniform cools with the night breeze--but at least it's summer. The gate is insulated from the high voltage but there's still a string of barbed wire running along the top. Steve pulls the shield from his back and breaks the lock by hammering it with the edge. So much for not leaving any traces behind.

The door leading into the building is unlocked for some reason--Steve's too relieved to care too much about why. He keeps his head down as he slips into the darkened room, face turned away from the corners where security cameras might be located.

The floor of the warehouse is nearly empty--just a few shipping crates stacked in the corner. The machines are silent and Steve could have called it abandoned if not for the smell of metal and gun oil. He doesn't linger--just closes the door and checks the next door down. It looks like a break room--TV in the corner, couch along the wall and an old table with folding chairs pushed away from it. The third door he opens looks much more promising--an array of desks with a few computers and the smell of stale coffee.

He checks briefly for security cameras before quickly moving towards the only computer that's still turned on. Clearing the screensaver nearly blinds him for a moment--someone had left a spreadsheet open. He pulls out the tiny standard issue SHIELD hard drive and starts to copy the contents of the computer over.

He glances at the time and hopes that Sam is just as charming in broken Russian as he was in English.

_____

"Took you long enough," Sam says when Steve gets back into the car, damp and smelling like river. He'd tried to close the gate and make the break-in seem as unobtrusive as possible but the lock was still in pieces. Sam had left the car idling and he pulls back onto the road the moment Steve slams the door shut.

"Did you get what we came for?" Sam asks.

Steve touches the waterproof compartment on the front of his vest where he'd tucked away the drive containing copies of all three computers and allows himself a moment of satisfaction. "Yeah." He grins over at Sam. "I think we make a pretty good team."

_____

"Natasha's in the area," Peggy says, the next time she calls, "She'll swing by the safe house. You can trust her."

"I'll wait for her," Steve says. He hears the click of Peggy's keyboard for a few moments and takes a breath to steel himself for the question he'd been trying not to think about. "Hey Peggy, before you go. It's been nearly three weeks."

The clicking stops.

Steve presses on, afraid that if he stops, he'll lose momentum and decide not to ask altogether. "No one from SHIELD has told us anything substantial. None of Sam's people have any new information since they pulled out."

Peggy lets out a slow breath. "Nothing at all from Sitwell?"

"They say they're still working on it."

"I thought Fury's team..." Peggy says before trailing off. Steve waits for her to say something else but she's silent for a few moments longer before finally saying, "I thought someone told me that they had a lead but I didn't get any of the details. I'll look into it. I'll let you know the moment I have more information."

"Okay," Steve says, "Thanks."

"How are you holding up?"

Steve smiles reflexively even though she can't see him. "Fine."

There's a drawn out pause, like Peggy wants to press him. But all she ends up saying is, "Natasha will be there in a few days. I'll been in touch again soon."

"Alright," Steve says.

"Take care of yourself, Steve."

"You too," Steve says, and hangs up. He looks at the phone screen go blank, leaving him in the darkness of his room, the streetlamp creating a slanted rectangle of dim light on the far wall. The sun will be up soon. He ought to go to sleep.

He's never felt so helpless in his life.

_____

Hope has always been a luxury for Steve.

What good could hope do for weak lungs and endless exhaustion--when the wonders of modern science couldn't come up with an explanation for the perpetual migraines he spent years of his life powering through? But even after the miracle--what good was hope in the face of realizing that everything came with a price? What good was hope when everyone he worked with kept secrets, kept him in the dark in ways that he no longer knows who's been telling him the truth and who's been feeding him lies?

What good was hope when:

It's been three weeks. There has been no demand for a ransom.

"These things take time," Sitwell had said, as if Bucky wasn't quickly running out of it. "We've been looking everywhere," Sitwell had said, "We'll have a location soon."

It's been three weeks.

Steve can no longer afford to hope but he can't help the fierceness that's taken quiet residence in his chest, the unwavering belief that Bucky was still alive out there somewhere. The stupidly irrational belief that Steve would know if Bucky was dead--some cosmic shift in the universe that would strike his very soul and leave him half a person.

_____

Natasha shows up on a rainy evening with no umbrella and her newly blonde hair plastered to her forehead. She unlocks the door without knocking and steps inside while Steve and Sam are looking at a spread of weapons trafficking data in Kazakhstan across the living room table.

"Boys," she says in greeting, shaking water off her leather jacket. She hangs it up in the tiny closet next to the door and heads into the kitchen without another word.

Sam looks at Steve, "SHIELD?"

The faucet runs in the kitchen. "Yeah," Steve says, "She trained me."

"Natasha," Natasha says, coming back around into the living room with a glass of water. She looks Sam up and down. "I don't think we've ever been introduced."

"Sam," Sam says, straightening from the table and holding out his hand.

Natasha takes it, nodding. "You must be the air force guy."

"Pararescue," Sam says, "Though it doesn't seem like I've been doing much of that lately."

"The Falcon program, if I'm not mistaken?" Natasha asks.

"Haven't flown in months by now," Sam says, smiling. "Not that it'll be a problem. Just like riding a bicycle."

Natasha smiles back faintly. "I don't doubt it." She leans over the table to look at what they've been studying. It takes her less than thirty seconds to tell them, "This information is outdated."

"Great," Sam says.

"Sit down," Natasha says, taking a seat herself and pulling one of the maps towards her. She holds her hand out towards them. "Pen."

Steve hands her one and she begins to mark the map up.

_____

Steve sometimes slips at night to take a quick run around the neighborhood in effort to clear his mind. It's not like there's really much to see: abandoned buildings with broken windows with a mix of graffiti and earnest street art on the walls, young men waiting at bus stops and smoking cigarettes. Sometimes music drifts down from an open window, sometimes he hears the sound of couples fighting in first floor apartments.

He had left Natasha and Sam arguing over tactics in the safe house to pull on a hoodie and go on his run. It was easier like, this when his entire world narrowed down to the sound of his own measured breathing, the strain of his legs and his lungs. Darkened shops with metal grates drawn over the doors pass in his peripheral vision as he looks at the ground in front of his feet.

"You know this neighborhood isn't particularly safe."

He slows in surprise and Natasha comes up alongside him, matching his slowed pace easily. "Wouldn't do for you to get shot."

"I haven't been shot yet," Steve says, sounding slightly more winded than he would have liked.

"First time for everything," Natasha says, "Don't want to draw too much attention to yourself."

"I'm just running," Steve says.

Natasha doesn't say anything to that so they run in silence. Steve wants to ask the question but he doesn't want Natasha to give him that look of pity or ask him if he's okay.

But apparently he doesn't have to ask because Natasha says, "We think Barnes has been taken out west," without any prompting. "I don't know why Sitwell hasn't relocated you guys yet. He's being pretty stingy with the intel though--Nick hasn't been able to get any names or coordinates out of him since he took over the operation."

"Do you think," Steve says, "He has to do with whatever Peggy's trying to figure out?"

"It's not looking too good for him," Natasha says and falls silent again altogether.

Steve tries to focus again on running but it's no use. If Sitwell was working for some other agenda--if he was being bribed by whatever group had infiltrated SHIELD, if that group had been the very one to take Bucky--

"Steve," Natasha says, "Do you want to talk about it?"

--don't trust anyone in SHIELD.

"I get it if you don't," Natasha continues, "But I'm here if you do."

Steve forces himself to smile. "Thanks Natasha," he says. He doesn't say anything else.

_____

A week after Natasha leaves, another SHIELD agent shows up at the safehouse.

"Brock Rumlow," he introduces himself to Steve.

Sam nods his head and says, "Hey man," as if they know each other already.

"Good to see you Wilson," Rumlow says, clapping Sam's shoulder. "I've got coordinates for you guys."

_____

Rumlow's coordinates takes them into Estonia, down a long abandoned stretch of poorly paved road that clearly hadn't undergone maintenance since the existence of the Soviet bloc. "Avoiding any potential checkpoints," Rumlow tells them as he drives, entirely unfazed by the way that the gravel and stone jostles the frame of their armored van.

"We finally caught some satellite imagery of Barnes when he was briefly transported outside and followed it up with some surveillance," Rumlow says, "We think he's still in there since there haven't been any vehicles coming in or out of the complex."

Don't trust anyone in SHIELD.

"How do you know it's him?" Steve asks over the rattle of poorly strapped weapons in the back of the van when they go over a particularly vicious bump. Sam mutters an obscenity under his breath, his grip rather tighter than necessary on the tablet Rumlow had handed him.

"You probably don't want to know about the level of resolution on satellite cameras nowadays," Rumlow says, grinning ,"Let's just say we're not 100% sure but we're pretty certain it was him."

He shouldn't. He really shouldn't. But he can't help but hope anyway.

_____

The plan is simple: the quinjet was stationed a couple miles away and could be called to extract them with an ETA of less than five minutes. Getting Bucky out would be the priority, which meant that Sam would stay on the outside, ready to fly away from the facility the moment Steve and Rumlow handed Bucky off. Steve's sole job was the search for Bucky while Rumlow covered him.

They wait until nightfall to break in. After casing the tiny two-building complex, they decide on the bigger one first. The smaller building looks mostly like it holds supplies. Lights go on inside the bigger building once it gets dark. Sam's dozing quietly in the back of the van and Steve's just finished cleaning his gun for the third time that day when Rumlow breaks into the silence with, "Time to go."

Steve and Rumlow leave Sam at the edge of the trees. "Security camera, two o'clock," Rumlow says and they both veer to the left to avoid the line of sight.

The lock on the back door requires a numerical passcode. Rumlow points a device at it which gives him the top three likely passcodes from finger oil analysis. The first one doesn't work, but the second one produces a click in the door. Steve pulls his gun and nods at Rumlow who opens the door.

The hallway is dark except for a patch of light coming from a doorway at the far end. Steve lets the door fall shut behind him, gun still up as he and Rumlow get to the first door. Steve tries it--unlocked. Runlow nods, pushing it open as Steve steps in, one hand still holding his gun, other hand fumbling for a light switch somewhere.

A row of 90s era computers in this room, all lined up against the far wall, with chairs in front of them. Nothing else. "Clear," Steve murmurs and they move to the next room down the hall.

A bare room. A drain in the center. Nothing else. Steve tries not to think what the room had been used for but it's hard not to notice the rusty discoloration on the concrete floor. "Clear," he says.

A munitions room, the racks that had once held guns empty. Everything looked so empty--if not for the light at the end of the hall, Steve would have assumed that the complex had been abandoned. It wasn't just there there weren't any other people--it was the lack of small details. No discarded cigarette butts on the ground outside. Nothing in the trashcan he'd seen in the first room. No mugs, no lucky charms, and except for the uncomfortable brown stains on the floor in the second room, there was nothing at all to suggest that this place had been used at all.

But in the final room--the one at the end of the hall--

Rumlow goes first--probably impatient. Steve follows and manages to catch a glimpse of two men sitting at a table inside before Rumlow lifts his gun and shoots.

_____

They don't find Bucky or any sign at all that Bucky had ever stepped foot into the complex.

They take no prisoners because Rumlow had shot all seven of the people they'd found in the building without giving any of them a chance to go for their weapons or even speak. Sam doesn't look surprised when he hears, though Steve is quietly furious about it. They could have questioned one of them--they could have got more answers--it was just bad strategy all around even without--without the already crushing gravity of this search--

Rumlow either doesn't notice or choses to ignore it. All he does say on the subject is, "We'll take the data on the computers back."

Dead end. Bucky has been missing for over a month.

_____

The quinjet takes them across the gulf to Helsinki for the night before they make the drive back into Russia towards St. Petersburg. Rumlow puts him and Sam in a room together and gets one for himself. Steve spends a long time staring up at the hotel room ceiling before giving up on trying to sleep altogether and slipping out the door onto the hotel room balcony. The night air is cold, despite it being late summer but Steve doesn't want to go back inside for the combat jacket. He sits on the floor of the balcony. Once upon a time he would have been able to put his legs through the slats and dangle his feet over the side but he's not that small any more. Instead he just leans against the wall and looks at the lights of the city below and the wide expanse of dark water beyond.

He doesn't know how long he sits there before the glass door slides open and Sam steps out. "Hey," he says, and leans against the balcony railing, looking out at the city too. "Great view."

"Yeah," Steve says, and doesn't say anything else.

They look at the city together for a long while before Sam finally says, "I read your SHIELD file when Stark recommended you to Colonel Rhodes. I didn't want to say anything but, you know. I get why this mission is important to you." He turns his head to look at Steve over his shoulder. Steve meets his eyes briefly before looking back through the railings back down at the water.

"I'm sorry it's not going the way you probably wanted," Sam says after a moment.

Steve doesn't say anything.

"I know we're not really, you know, friends," Sam continues, "But if you ever want to talk about it, I'm more than willing to listen. I can't imagine how hard it must be for you right now and I'd be cool with sharing the burden, if you want."

I don't want to talk, Steve thinks. The last thing he wanted to do was talk about it, because it meant he would have to verbalize it. He would have to think about it. And the more he thought about it the more he was sure that Bucky--it's been a month with no real leads and there was a very likely chance that Bucky was--

And he can't say any of that out loud.

"Thanks, Sam," he says instead.

_____

There is no beautiful force in the universe that could tie Steve to Bucky. It didn't matter how much Steve loved him. No tying of their souls together, no matter how intertwined their past, no cosmic shift that tore apart the fabric of Steve's being to announce the departure of the other. Just living flesh one moment, and the unbearable silence of death the next.

A last exhale, quiet. One that Steve couldn't hear, his eyes fixated on the grainy footage. How could anyone have known it would end this way?

_____

In the morning, after Steve's gotten two hours of sleep, Rumlow comes into their room with his tablet and says, "We got something in this morning."

The coffee machine has just finished brewing and Steve pours a styrofoam cup for himself, then Sam. Rumlow puts his tablet on the desk next to the television and Sam comes over to see.

"It's not--" Rumlow looks at Steve, his finger hovering over the play button. "It gets pretty graphic. Rogers, you might want to sit this one out."

Steve's voice is flat. "Play it."

_____

There's no sound. Just a grain color image taken with a low resolution webcam. It glitches up and lags once in a while, like it's a feed that had been streaming at one point and some user was capturing the footage on the other side of an unreliable internet connection. But even with its poor resolution and lag--

There's no mistaking it. Bucky's face, eyes closed, mouth open. Steve would know that face anywhere anywhere, half obscured in blurring pixels.

"His arm," Steve says. It's the only thing he says during the entire video. No one responds.

The video jumps. This time Bucky is awake, saying something to someone offscreen. A hand comes into view with a syringe and they put something into Bucky's IV. Bucky goes slack. Another machine is wheeled into view--the skeleton of a helmet of some sort. They fit it on Bucky's head and step out of view. For a moment, nothing happens--and then Bucky's entire body seizes.

Jump. Bucky's awake again but his eyes are unfocused. It's just footage of his face for a full thirty seconds, his eyes drifting aimlessly. Eventually his mouth moves, his lips pulling back--and Steve has seen him say the word more times than he can remember, calling across the room, looking across the table, from inches away as Bucky turned towards him on his bed--it's unbearable now and he thinks this must be what it's like to have your heart break because he can't breathe and the weight in his chest is crushing him to death. Steve.

Jump. He's in some sort of machine. Steve can barely make out Bucky's eyes through the glass of the machine and poor resolution but they are wide.

Jump. It's the back of Bucky's head. Someone has drilled holes at the back of his skull for some sort of endoscopic surgery. There's a monitor to the side with numbers and a graph that Steve doesn't understand. A mini screen in the corner, showing the view from the camera inside Bucky's head. Steve thinks he might throw up.

Jump. Bucky sits in a chair, looking into space. He's completely naked. Someone brings a flame very close to his thigh. Bucky doesn't even react. Jump. A close up of the burn which has turned into mottled red and white. A hand rubs at the edges of the burn--the still-sensitive first and second degree areas--with a small piece of fine sandpaper before pulling away. The thigh twitches but it can't move away thanks to the restraints. There must be missing audio to the video because the camera lingers on the burn for way too long. Jump. The burn has almost entirely healed, except for a faint scar.

Jump. Bucky's left arm is still bandaged up but he's suspended by his right arm and a harness around his chest, pulled up to his tiptoes. There are electrodes attached to his head--the back of which is bandaged. He's dripping with water and as he slowly revolves, sagging under the weight of his own body, Steve can see the neat series of cuts on his back--some healing faster than others. Someone approaches with a taser. Bucky's face doesn't give any sign of recognition. Steve wants to look away, wants to erase the last fifteen minutes of his life. He can't stop watching. Bucky gets tased. Three times. One and a half minutes between each tazing. The first two times, he jerks and cries out. The third time he doesn't react at all.

Jump. A body bag on a steel table. A motley of instruments on a smaller table next to it.

The video ends.

_____

There is warm coffee seeping into his socks. He'd dropped his cup without realizing it.

He's struggling to breathe. They come fast but his chest has constricted so much that he's not getting much air in at all. The edges of his vision are blurring into black.

He steps back and almost falls. Sam reaches for him but he manages to keep his balance and somehow make the five steps into the bathroom. He shuts the door behind him and throws up all over the tile floor.

Not knowing would have been better than this.

_____

He doesn't feel anything at all because it couldn't be real. None of this could possibly be real. How on earth could he receive some sort of miracle to turn from someone so sick into something like this? He could still be in a coma, dreaming all of this up. Bucky could still be Iraq. None of this ever really happened. How could you grieve for something that never really happened?

_____

He doesn't know how long he sits with his back against the door, next to his cooled pile of vomit. He doesn't know how many times Sam has knocked. He thinks about curling up in the bathtub. He thinks about going to sleep. He thinks about never waking up.

A low voice through the door. Sam is trying to talk to him but Steve doesn't know what he's saying. There are words, a question maybe. None of it touches Steve. If he closes his eyes, it's possible to think that he is no longer tied to this earth. Nothing has any meaning.

_____

The next thing he knows is Natasha's voice next to his ear, her body squeezed into the small space next to the bathroom cabinets next to him. Steve opens his eyes. Her shoe is in the vomit. He should tell her. He doesn't say a word.

"Come on Steve," Natasha says to him, her hand running up and down his shoulder. "I brought you some soup. It's from my favorite restaurant in London. You'll like it."

Steve doesn't say anything. He doesn't move either.

"I think you should have some soup," Natasha continues, still touching his arm, "Thats all. You don't have to do anything else. You don't have to talk to anyone. It's just you and me in this room. You're probably hungry. All you have to do is drink the soup."

He doesn't respond for a long time but Natasha doesn't leave either. Eventually he slowly uncurls and pulls himself to his feet. Natasha looks at him as she rises to her feet too. "It's vegetable soup. I've been trying to cut down on red meat and they didn't have anything chicken based. It's not as good as the ratatouille I got in France last year but it's still pretty good."

He follows her the few steps out of the bathroom, gaze sliding past everything in front of him. Natasha sits him on one of the beds. He happens to look at the reflection of himself in the darkened television screen. He doesn't recognize the face he sees.

"Here," Natasha says, pressing a thermos in his hands. "I can get a spoon if you want but you can just drink it straight too. Careful though, there's chunks that you have to chew in there."

Steve raises it wordlessly to his lips and takes a small sip. Natasha sits on the bed next to him, her arm pressing up against his. "Clint showed me this restaurant," she says, "I think I told Peggy about it once and she just laughed at me. No accounting for her taste, obviously. She eats out of the vending machines at work."

Steve takes another swallow. His body is hungry even if he doesn't care.

"I mean, I do too," Natasha says, "But at least I try for the healthier granola bar options. I once saw Peggy buy a bag of cheetos. You wouldn't believe it with her thousand dollar coats and designer bags."

Steve breathes and drinks the soup.

"Maybe you would," Natasha says, "I forget who I'm talking to. You and Peggy go way back."

He finishes the last of the soup, head tilting back to catch the remaining drops. Natasha takes it from him when he holds it out and gets off the bed to put it away.

"Sorry she couldn't make it," Natasha says, "She really wanted to be here."

Steve looks up at her. Natasha smiles sadly at him, touching his shoulder.

Steve doesn't say anything but maybe Natasha understands anyway.

_____

He wakes up sometime after night has fallen with the sort of serene determination that could only be powered by the sort of fury that existed when consequences no longer mattered. Natasha's sleeping on the other bed--or maybe she's just lying there, pretending to sleep. Steve doesn't care. He slips out of bed and pulls his burner phone out of the inside pocket of his tactical jacket and steps out on the balcony.

"Have you seen this video?" he asks Peggy the moment that she picks up, "It had to be sent from somewhere."

It's probably dinnertime in DC. "Steve," she says, and the way she says it--

"I need to know if you can trace where it came from," Steve says very calmly, cutting her off before she can go any further down that line of conversation. "It would be great to have a name. It would be even better to have coordinates."

"I'm not assigned to that analysis team," Peggy says, "But I looked into myself when I had a moment free. The video was bounced through several addresses. I'm almost certain that the team's been trying to trace back to the original."

"Is there anything in the video?" Steve asks, "Any of the small details that could place the location?"

"According to Fury, forensics had a first go at it but couldn't find anything substantial. A lot of the evidence is too grainy and whoever it is has been careful to stay out of the frame and keep any identifying marks covered up."

"Nothing," Steve says, rather than asks.

"The endoscopic camera. Dr. Erskine recognized the software they were using on the monitor. One of the foreign analysts recognized the taser brand." Peggy's voice is clipped and precise. It's almost as if they weren't talking about the tools that had been used to torture Bucky to death. "The best SHIELD analysts have come up with is still somewhere in Russia. They're professionals. They've likely done this before. There might be other videos out there in the same sort of vein that could help pin their location."

A long silence. Steve looks at the gulf beyond the city. He can't tell where the water ends and the sky starts. "What are you not telling me?" he asks finally, "You say SHIELD like you're not part of it any more."

"I have a hunch," Peggy says, so quietly that Steve almost doesn't catch it over the phone. "It's another point from the algorithm that was dropped. It didn't have anything to do with lack of resources because we had a team in the area. Your first mission--the one with the abandoned mine. Natasha complained about it so I looked into it. There was a six hour gap in the flight records for your pilot. I recovered it and found that he'd flown to Irkutsk and stayed there for two hours before coming back to pick you up. Irkutsk was the dropped point."

Steve drops his forehead onto his hand and breathes out.

"Two weeks prior to that, the SHIELD medical facility down in Atlanta filed a complaint to DC that they still hadn't received the shipment of overflow medical equipment that headquarters had promised last year. They filed it three more times before SHIELD authorized money to buy what was promised because nobody could find the overflow supplies."

Steve breathes in. He breathes out.

"Alexander Pierce signed off on that order," Peggy says, "The surgical tools that were bought to replace the missing shipment were the same brand as in the video."

Neither of them say anything for a long moment. Steve presses the heel of his hand into his eye. He says, "Why would they do this?"

"It could be a coincidence," Peggy says, "All the evidence we have is circumstantial."

"You don't believe that," Steve says.

"No," Peggy agrees.

"Irkutsk," Steve says.

A moment's pause. Peggy says, very softly, "Yes."

_____

In the morning, Rumlow knocks on their door. Natasha's dressed and ready to go, still toweling her wet hair from her shower. Steve is packing his guns away and doesn't look up when Rumlow enters the room.

"There's a jet coming in eight hours," Rumlow announces to the room in general, "Rogers, you're headed back stateside."

Steve looks up. "What?" He straightens and steps towards Rumlow. "Why?"

Rumlow looks Steve in the face. "SHIELD's put you on medical leave."

"I'm not leaving," Steve says, "I don't need medical leave."

Rumlow frowns at him, lifting his tablet up as if looking for an excuse to not meet Steve's eyes. "Agent Rogers," he says, clearly aiming for placating but Steve is so fucking done with this shit. It's obvious that they want him out of the way--whatever SHIELD really was--

"I'm not leaving--" Steve says, voice cold, "--without a body."

Rumlow looks at him again. This time, Steve catches the assessing expression, the way Rumlow glances at Steve's fists and then down at his feet, pausing momentarily on the bag where Steve had just put away his rifle before looking back at Steve's face. Steve's glad his guns are out of immediate reach because he think he might actually be capable of shooting Rumlow point blank.

"Alright," he says, though both of them know that he doesn't mean it, "I'll let command know." He smiles in a way that doesn't reach his eyes and steps back out of the room. Before shutting the door, he looks over his shoulder and says, "I wouldn't be too optimistic though. Sorry Rogers."

After the door closes, Steve turns towards Natasha and asks, "Can you fly a quinjet?"

_____

"Can we trust him?" Natasha asks when Steve suggests that they bring Sam too.

It's not like Steve has much concrete evidence. He gets the feeling that Sam doesn't like Rumlow all that much though he's never been anything less than civil towards the man. He doesn't think that Sam's told Rumlow--or anyone, really--about the coordinates Peggy had given him. He doesn't work for SHIELD and likely wouldn't face the same level of repercussions for hijacking a quinjet to carry out an unauthorized mission. But the strongest argument that Steve has for bringing Sam along is the gut feeling that he can trust Sam.

Natasha considers this for a long moment as she looks at the paper map she's got spread across the desk. She doesn't want to open the satellite map on her tablet, avoiding the very real possibility that SHIELD was tracking their computer activity.

"Alright," she says, looking up at Steve. "We could probably use the manpower."

_____

"We think SHIELD's been compromised," Steve says quietly to Sam, down the hall from their hotel room doors.

"Well," Sam says, "I can't say that I'm really surprised." He glances down the hall. Steve follows his glance but both of the doors are still closed. Whatever Rumlow was thinking, at least he wasn't yet suspicious.

"You guys are planning something," Sam says, matter of fact. "I want in."

_____

They have to leave all of their equipment with tracking devices back in the hotel room--all the tablets, the transponders, and some of the more complicated weaponry that Rumlow had brought. Steve still has a few hundred rubles left on his phone and Natasha, unsurprisingly, has her own burner on her. "Don't get separated," she says to Sam--which was more easily said than done, considering Natasha's natural instinct to disappear or take the most hidden route any time she was on the move. The moment they step out onto the street and look away for a moment, she's gone.

Steve's phone vibrates in his pocket. Cab.

There's a cab pulling up to the curb half a block down. Natasha's already climbing in the front seat.

Sam carries his wings on his lap. Steve's got his shield wrapped up on its holster on his back. Even without all three of them squeezed into the back, it's still a tight fit.

"The airport," Natasha says to the cab driver.

_____

Natasha flashes her SHIELD ID at the airport security and strides through without waiting for anyone to acknowledge it. Steve accidentally makes eye contact with the officer as he tries to project the effortless confidence that Natasha has but he's not exactly practiced at it. The officer waves them through anyway.

The pilot's sitting in the cockpit, reading a book.

Steve knocks the man out with a blunt blow of his shield. He pulls the limp body out of the chair and half-carries, half-drags him out the back to leave him on the asphalt a decent distance from the plane. By the time he gets back in, Natasha's already got the engine up and running.

"Strap in boys," she tells them, "It's gonna be a long flight."

_____

Somewhere over Russia, Steve Rogers tests the edge of his combat knife and thinks about slitting the throat of the man who had killed Bucky Barnes.

It had never occurred to him with such clarity that rage could be this finely honed of a weapon.

_____

He doesn't mean to fall asleep. If he's honest with himself, he would admit that closing his eyes scares him--the unbidden images of Bucky's shoulder with his arm stretched above his head, the way his toes barely dragged against the floor, all of it forcing its way back to the front of his mind. The slackness of Bucky's mouth, the blankness in his eyes. The last seizing breath.

He dreams.

He is in a house with the smell of seaweed. The walls are made of windows and the sun is rising from across the ocean outside.

He'd been here before, years ago.

"Hey," Bucky says, coming up from behind. Steve turns to look at him--whole and smiling. Bucky steps in close, his hands touching Steve's waist. He looks at Steve with a smile on his face, the look in his eyes highlighted with the softness of morning light. He touches Steve's cheek, just smiling at him and Steve has never felt more loved in his life.

I love you, Steve wants to say, but dream logic won't let him speak. He just stands there in the kitchen with the sunrise pouring in and this ghost of Bucky touching his face, the golden warmth of affection spilling from his very being, from his fingertips and wrists, from the space over his heart to pool at his feet. The smell of salt water, the sun through the window, Bucky's hand, soft on his face.

"Steve," someone says, shaking his shoulder. Steve opens his eyes slowly and the dream dissolves, leaving behind only the ache in his chest. He's the closest he's been to crying yet.

"ETA 15 minutes," Sam says, "Natasha says she found the complex but she has to park the jet a mile or two away."

"I don't want to get strafed," Natasha calls out from the cockpit, "Haven't flown enough of these to be good at evasive maneuvers and I don't want to test whether they have anti-aircraft guns."

Steve doesn't reply.

"You awake there, Rogers?" Sam asks, waving a hand in front of his face.

"I'm awake," Steve says. He touches the gun he has holstered at his shoulder. "Fifteen minutes. Got it."

_____

They barely come within sight of the building that Natasha had spotted from the sky when Natasha says, "Guards."

There's only one guard tower but it's located on the roof of the building with a full circle view of the substantial clearing all around it. There's a double fence running along the perimeter, rusted barbed wire lining the space in between.

"I could take the tower out," Sam says, looking at the building. It's two stories high with very few windows--they'll have to find a good door.

"Can you fly us over that fence and go for the guard tower in one go?" Natasha asks. Steve looks at the gate where two heavily armed men actually look alert--watching the trees. "From the back obviously. You might have to break a door down, Steve."

He hasn't done that before. He's not sure he's strong enough to do that. But he says, "Fine," anyway.

They watch the building for another moment--the silhouette of the man in the guard tower in the dim moonlight. "How long until SHIELD catches up?" Steve asks.

Natasha doesn't take her eyes off the building. "Probably another two hours."

"More than enough time," Steve says, "Sam, can you take out any guards that come running out? The more you draw them out, the easier it'll be for me and Natasha to take the building."

"Roger that," Sam says, "I'll be as intrusive as possible."

"Don't get yourself killed," Steve adds.

"Please," Sam says, turning his head to flash Steve a grin. "I am a professional."

_____

He and Natasha hit the ground on their feet while Sam continues upwards towards the guard tower. There's a shout and the sound of shots as Sam makes his presence known--Steve sprints towards the nearest door.

No lock--just a retinal scanner that looks suspiciously familiar. Steve swings his shield at the doorknob and it comes off with the first hit. But the door doesn't unlock, even with all the wiring exposed. Natasha says, "Maybe I should see if--" but doesn't get any further because Steve slams his shield into the door with all the force that he can muster behind it and the thick wood splinters open.

A guard turns, surprised, and even though Steve's still half stunned from throwing himself at the door, he doesn't even hesitate as he lifts his gun and shoots the man between the eyes. He climbs in through the door--there's someone running down the hall away from him. Steve shoots them in the back without thinking about it.

"I'll take this floor," Natasha says, "Looks like stairs are on your left. Regroup here in ten minutes if you don't find anything. Otherwise, come looking."

Steve nods and heads up the stairs. Someone coming down catches sight of him and immediately turns to run back up the stairs but Steve's steadier with his shot than he has ever been before. He climbs past the puddle of blood and brain matter and opens the door to the second floor.

Someone tries to swing something heavy at him but he's too fast--the thing crashes into the door frame above his head. He sweeps his leg out, slamming his foot in the ankle of the woman and she goes down. The metal tank of compressed gas drops from her hands as she lies winded on the floor--clearly untrained. Steve doesn't spare any time at all to study her--he just shoots her in the neck and moves on.

Most of the doors are closed and locked, a mix of English and Russian shouts from behind some of them. Steve methodically breaks his way into each room--thinking this is where they kept Bucky and feeling nothing at all as he takes out the scientist whispering his prayers behind a desk, the one crying with her face in her knees. This is where they cut into him. This is where they burned him. This is where they tasered him to death.

He runs out of bullets in the second room and takes a moment to reload, numb from anger, working more off muscle memory than actual thought. In the third room--

There is a small man with glasses and a scalpel. There is a machine with many wires, hooked up to a human being. There is Bucky, on the table, his eyes closed.

"Don't come any closer," the man says. The scalpel is pressed up against Bucky's throat.

Steve looks at him.

"I'll kill him," the man says.

Funny, Steve thinks distractedly, He's already dead.

Steve is fast. SHIELD gave him that gift.

The man falls back, a neat red hole in the center of his forehead. The scalpel falls from his fingers and clatters on the floor.

_____

There is a machine in in the room. It displays: Pulse: 95, Blood pressure: 115/64, SpO2: 97%.

_____

Bucky isn't dead.

_____

Steve drops his gun onto the ground and clutches Bucky's hand. It's still warm. Bucky's face rapidly falls away behind the blurring of tears and a great shuddering sob shakes Steve's entire body.

He doesn't know how long he's there until he hears Natasha's voice. "Jesus," she says softly, coming into the room.

Steve can't speak or look away from Bucky's face. He holds on to Bucky's hand, half afraid that Bucky will dissolve away into nothingness the moment that Steve lets go.

"I'll find a gurney," Natasha says, "I'll get Sam too."

Steve swallows and bends down to pick up his gun without letting go of Bucky. He nods at Natasha and stares fixedly at the door.

_____

Half of the wires and at least three machines are attached to Bucky by the metal implant in his left shoulder without any clear way to dislodge them. Steve finds a large enough rolling table to accommodate most of them and doesn't even respond when Natasha suggests that they just cut the wires. He and Sam manage to get Bucky and the machines down to the first floor while Natasha runs out for the quinjet.

They've killed most of the agents inside the building. No one comes to stop them. Steve carries a gun in his hand anyway, even if he can't stop looking at Bucky's face.

By the time they manage to get everything strapped in and they're ready to lift off, Natasha says, "Looks like we're about to have company."

"You can take them," Sam says, grinning.

"I'm thinking Seoul," Natasha says, already accelerating away fast enough that Steve's straining against his seat belt. "We've got a medical facility there and we'll want media coverage for this so Pierce can't make us disappear. We don't have enough fuel to make it all the way back to the States."

"Seoul," Steve agrees, not looking away from Bucky.

_____

Bucky doesn't open his eyes but Steve keeps his fingers on Bucky's wrist so that he can feel the pulse there.

Bucky is alive. Steve doesn't care about the rest.

Chapter Text


The Associated Press @AP
American helicopter brought down over Russia by anti-aircraft fire apne.ws/1J3EVh0

_____

Amanda's one and only alarm goes off at 5:30 in the morning. She shuts it off before it's even beeped for three seconds and pulls herself out from under Lydia's arm. Lydia's long used to Amanda's morning routine and barely ever wakes up these days. Still, Amanda carefully slides out from under the covers so not to disturb her anyway.

The pre-dawn chill is more than enough to wake Amanda as she steps out their front door on her two mile long jog to the palace but she's still looking forward to the coffee waiting for her in the kitchens as she puts in her earbuds. These are the only twenty minutes she has to herself all day and she takes pleasure in losing herself to Rachmaninoff while trying not to think about anything at all.

The security guard at the back gate raises his hand in greeting as she runs past and she waves back. It's not until she reaches the kitchen door that she slows down enough to catch her breath. Lorraine's already poured her a huge thermos of coffee--cool enough for her to down half the cup on the way up the stairs to the shower adjoining her office. Her showers take ten minutes max. Her hair is short enough that it barely takes any time at all to blowdry it into some approximation of order while she pulled up the morning's headlines. By the time she's finished pinning her hair up and applying lipstick, her assistant Derrick knocks on her door to poke his head around the door and ask, "What do you think about the helicopter accident in Russia?"

"The royal family should send their condolences to the families of the victim," Amanda says, "And see if you can get Colonel Arnalds on the line. If he's not available, any of James's other commanding officers will do."

Derrick nods and closes the door. Amanda finally sits down behind her desk and takes another drink of her coffee before pulling up the philanthropic budgets she'd been working on before she'd left last night. Accounting had sent over details about the quarterly earnings from the Barnes Institute and she has to figure out how to delegate half a million dollars--

A short knock at her door. It opens before she can respond.

Amanda looks up. Halley stands in her doorway with a strange look on his face.

He says, "James was on that helicopter."

_____

By the time Amanda gets anyone even vaguely relevant at Fort Bragg to answer her calls, she's spent nearly half an hour on hold, most of which she spends sending emails to every single person in her contacts who could potentially know anything about James, even if they were barely affiliated with the military.

"I'm sorry," the captain who finally takes her call says, "We don't know anything. We can't verify whether or not Lieutenant Barnes was on that helicopter."

Amanda would like to throw her phone across the room. Instead she says, very calmly, "Can you please connect me to someone who can?"

"There's no one here who would know," he says, "We have to wait for information, same as you."

"Alright," Amanda says even though she's half convinced that they're just feeding her bullshit because someone at Fort Bragg had the details of James's mission. "If you hear anything, could you please give me a call back?"

"Sure," the captain says. There's a momentary silence before he adds, "You know, I'm probably not supposed to say anything but I wouldn't be too concerned. There are multiple operations happening in that area and we know that Lieutenant Barnes is high profile. We've been careful to keep his identity concealed."

"Let's hope, then," Amanda replies before saying goodbye and hanging up.

She rubs at her right eye with the back of her hand, sighs once and opens up her list of contacts again. Maybe someone in Washington would know.

_____

"Are you sure about your source?" Amanda asks after a hurried lunch when Halley leans in her office door for the second time that day. CNN is muted in the background, some report on pesticide use on corn crops broadcast in the closed captions. There was a passing mention of the helicopter in the headline running across the bottom of the screen earlier but it'd been dropped in favor of news regarding the transfer of some basketball coach from one team to another.

"I don't see why he'd lie to me," Halley says, "No verification from the brass?"

"And barely a mention of it on the news," Amanda says, glancing over at the television screen, "Only the AP picked it up for one article and you'd think that there'd be more on the internet--"

The intercom buzzes. "I have Colonel Arnalds on the line," Derrick says.

She looks at Halley. Halley steps into the room and shuts the door behind him. Amanda pushes the intercom button and says, "Put him through."

"Ms. Orvitz," the colonel says when Amanda picks up and sets the receiver on speakerphone, "I am so sorry."

Amanda meets Halley's eyes, her chest constricting. Halley sits down in the armchair in the corner of her office and looks over her her shoulder at the garden outside.

"Ms. Orvitz?" Colonel Arnalds asks.

Amanda clears her throat. "Yes, I'm here," she says as briskly as she can. "Am I right in that you're telling me Prince James was on that helicopter?"

"Yes ma'am."

Halley drops his forehead into the palm of his hand. Amanda pulls a legal pad and pen towards her and hears herself say, "Thank you for calling me back colonel. What can you tell me about what happened?"

_____

After Halley had gone to pick Steve up, after Amanda had numbly finished the rest of the philanthropic budgets because it was something to do before she had to think about the fact that James was--

--and everything she'd have to--

--because James was--

She knocks on the queen's door and waits for a full minute before knocking again. Alexandria never answered the door on the first knock. The doors are heavy enough that Amanda barely hears the queen's resigned, "Come in."

Despite it being early afternoon, the room is dimly lit. The queen is sitting in a chair next to one of the curtained windows, reading a book across her knees in the filtered light.

"Your majesty," Amanda says by way of greeting. Despite the two and a half decades of knowing the queen, there had always been an aloofness in her manner that prevented Amanda from becoming familiar with her. Halley had been the only person, besides the queen's personal attendant Martha, who had somehow managed to get in her good graces, but Amanda and Halley had agreed without speaking that Steve was the bigger priority at the moment.

"Amanda," the queen replies, looking at her.

Amanda looks at her for a long moment, unable to speak. She'd spent her entire life producing positive spins on bad situations, pushing things under the cover, meticulously wording sentiments just right. She never thought she'd ever have to look the queen in the eyes and tell her--

"James was in a helicopter crash while flying a mission in Russia," she hears herself saying, calm, "They're not sure if there were any survivors yet but they haven't recovered his body yet."

The queen's eyes never leave her face. Amanda swallows, her chest still tight. After a long moment, Alexandria drops her legs onto the ground and shuts her book, leaning forward. "A helicopter crash," she repeats.

"They wouldn't give me any details about the wreckage," Amanda says, "But they were very clear in not having identified him yet."

Alexandria says nothing, her eyes sliding across the room to window on the far wall.

For all Amanda knew about the royal family affairs, she hadn't been sure how Alexandria would have responded. Out of view of cameras, away from the tired performance she put on for the sake of the nation, she just rubs at her wrist and stares at the other side of the room, breathing quietly.

Amanda swallows and is about to excuse herself when the queen looks at her again and says, "Find Martha, will you?"

"Of course," Amanda says.

The queen looks down at her book again even though she doesn't open it. Amanda takes it for the dismissal it is and slips back out the room, closing the door gently behind her.

_____

Derrick meets her halfway down the hall but before she can ask him to find the queen's personal attendant, he says, "Washington Post and the AP already called--I told them that the palace was still trying to verify the situation."

"Has it already hit cable news?" Amanda asks.

"I don't think anyone has any verified information yet," Derrick says, handing her the tablet she'd left in her office before coming to see the queen. "But the rumor's probably already circulated for an hour at least. I'll give it half an hour max before someone decides to just run with it, verification be damned."

Amanda flicks through her email client--practically fifty new emails in the course of the five minutes she'd left to speak to the queen. She hands the tablet back to Derrick to pull out of her pocket the tiny memo pad she usually kept for outlining purposes and says, "I need to prepare a statement. Is Halley back?"

"SHIELD won't let him past the front desk but they said they'd let Steve know," Derrick says, balancing two tablets in one hand and pulling his phone out with the other. "We can call him back if you'd rather he be at the palace."

"No," Amanda decides, turning into the old drawing room where she drafted most of the official palace correspondence with the press without the distractions of her computer or the television. "I need him on Steve. Let me know when they get back."

"Will do," Derrick says.

"Oh and--" Amanda says, half leaning out of the parlor door, "--find Martha and brief her on the situation. The queen wants to see her."

_____

Derrick lets her know that Halley's car has returned nearly twenty minutes before Halley and Steve actually show up in her office. Steve's new size has managed to surprise her every time she's seen him in the last year--but today he looks small, hunched in on himself with his arms crossed over his chest, unable to meet her eyes. He looks like he's been crying. Halley won't take his hand off of his shoulder.

She can't force him to sit through the first iteration of the palace statement, much less the many reiterations after that. And as much as she'd wanted to respond as--in some twisted way, she had come to think of their unit as--James's family, it was clear that Steve wouldn't be up for it in any shape or form.

"Is Susanne coming?" Amanda asks.

"She has to finish her shift but she's coming straight to the palace," Derrick answers. He'd been fielding all her emails for the last hour--she needs to remember to give him a raise.

"Do you know if they've found the body yet?" Steve asks.

"No," Amanda says, "Not yet."

"Do you think," Steve says, looking up, "He could even still be alive?"

She'd watched James grow up for nearly two decades--she'd tried his best to steer him in the direction that would best guarantee his success, both as figurehead and just as a human being. He'd been the little boy kicking his muddy Nikes on the antique furniture, the moody teenager who hated everything she'd ever tried to teach him.

She'd known Steve, of course. It was impossible to raise James without Steve--the other little boy who'd help James steal food from the kitchens, who'd gotten James into more trouble at Lowell School than James ever managed to get into on his own. For some reason Amanda had still found herself charmed by the seriousness with which Steve talked about clean water access in third world countries when he'd barely turned ten. Maybe she like him because she thought he'd be a good influence on James in the long run.

Maybe she liked him because Amanda knew how to leverage visits with Steve as a reward for doing things James didn't really want to do. James always wanted to see Steve, even when he didn't want anything else.

She should have known then. She should have certainly known the day that James walked into her office and asked her about Steve. But she has never felt more regret than in this moment to realize how inevitable and definite it had all been--the look on Steve's face, his hands clutched into white-knuckled fists, his voice half breaking even as he struggled to look uncertainty in the face.

Perhaps this boy--this man--loved James more fiercely than James loved him back.

"I don't know," Amanda says.

She'd made a living on knowing everything, preferably before anyone else did--being the one to draw all the connections to form the best plan. And she had miscalculated this--maybe she was responsible for stealing away so many years of happiness for the both of them, all those years amplified in importance in the face of James's uncertain--

Death.

She can't avoid the word forever.

"I'm sorry, Steve," she says around the tightness in her throat. Useless words for an unbearable situation.

Steve just bows his head.

Amanda feels tears prick at her eyes. She blinks them away and finds herself stepping forward. She puts her arms around Steve, the first and likely last time she'd ever hug him.

"I'm sorry," she murmurs again. This time, for everything.

_____

By the time Susanne gets to the palace, Steve is already asleep.

"How likely do you think it is he's still alive?" Amanda hears her asking Halley as she passes them in the hallway.

What about when James is dead? she wants to turn around and ask, What will you do to help Steve then?

She shuts her office door instead.

_____

Dinner is served at the usual time despite the throng of media that's gathered outside both the front and back gates. The staff draw up an extra seat for Susanne next to Steve's, who doesn't show.

The queen shows up midway through the service, forcing everyone to rise midway through eating. She takes a half eaten serving bowl of salad from the end of the table, where her seat usually stands empty, and asks, "Any news about James then?"

Nobody answers for a moment. Then Halley says, "Unfortunately, no new information, your majesty."

She surveys the rest of the table as if expecting someone to contradict him. Then she walks back out with the bowl of salad, without another word.

_____

It's nearly midnight when Derrick radios her over her bluetooth. "There's a reporter somewhere on premises."

She's still awake, sifting through the responses she'd received from her contacts in Washington, trying to puzzle out how much they actually knew about what had happened to James. She'd called Lydia earlier to let her know she'd be spending the night at the palace.

"Who let the reporter in?" Amanda demands, getting to her feet, "Who's on security tonight?"

"Addison at the front gate," Derrick says, "New guy on the back gate. Most of the team is in the kitchens actually--Halley figured you could use the extra firepower."

Not that it did any good. "Where's the reporter?"

"There's a security team already cornering him on the third floor, north wing."

The wing with James's room. A hallway down from Amanda's office.

She steps out of her office and down the hall, heels clicking on the marble. All she has to do is round the corner and--

"I see her," she growls, the same moment that the woman sees her as well. The woman immediately tries to open the nearest door--James's room, locked during his absence from the palace.

"How dare you," Amanda says, advancing on the trespasser, "How dare you come into this home and intrude on a grieving family? For what? A quote?"

It's not the first time something like this has ever happened--she'd found James cornered in the billiards room once, in animated conversation with a wannabe journalist blogger who had managed to climb over the fourteen foot fence and avoid security long enough to ask the prince his opinions on basketball.

It's been hitting her in small, strange increments all day. Now: the realization that there is no prince left to chat with trespassers. It feels new, every time.

"I will press charges," Amanda continues, "I will do everything in my power to make sure your career is ruined."

The reporter smiles and raises her hands as if to placate Amanda. Something in Amanda snaps--all the stress and the grief manifesting itself in a surge of anger. "Get out," she says, stalking forward with half the intention to slap the woman. Her voice rises, furious, "Get out!"

Someone touches her shoulder. She whirls around--only to find security behind her.

"We can take it from here, Ms. Orvitz," the guard says.

_____

By the time Amanda wakes up in the morning, Steve has already left. He doesn't talk to anyone or even leave a note--the only indication that he'd been at the palace at all being the rumpled sheets on his bed.

SHIELD passes her between multiple apologetic receptionists while MSNBC and CNN share a screen on her television--all of them silently playing the same thirty seconds of blurry helicopter footage of the crash over and over, closed captioning blocking the headlines scrolling past the bottom.

Still no verification of the identities of the soldiers shot down over Belgorod, the captions read, But a source who worked at the airfield where the helicopter took off is certain that Prince James was on board. The investigation into whether this act specifically targeted the prince is under dispute as American intelligence agencies negotiate with Russian authorities for custody of the evidence.

"Ms. Orvitz?" a voice asks, cutting through the hold music. Amanda's attention snaps back to the most pressing matter at hand: an investigation she actually has control over. "We're very sorry to inform you that we have no declassified information on where Steve currently is."

"So he's at SHIELD," Amanda says, "And you can't tell me why."

"Apologies for not being able to be more helpful," the voice says.

"Thank you," Amanda replies, and hangs up. On the television screen, the same blurry footage of smoke rising above the trees, closed captioning arguing about whether Russia has any right to not fully cooperate with the American investigation, about how suspicious this reluctance to cede immediate control to US authorities looks. Quiet pings from her computer speakers every thirty-some seconds alert her to all of the communications Derrick has let through to her email inbox.

Amanda closes her eyes. There's been no body found yet. She lets out a long breath and opens them again.

She presses on the intercom. "Derrick," she says, "Could you get me some more coffee please?"

_____

By lunchtime, Susanne calls.

"Steve left me a voicemail," she says, "He's going to find Bucky. He said Peggy helped him find a way into Russia."

Good, Amanda thinks, surprising herself with the strength of her own vehemence. She can understand, in an abstract sort of way, the anxious tone of Susanne's voice and the possibility of danger for an American in Moscow during these tense times. But she also understands that Russia is the best place for Steve, even if it would end up just being the illusion of doing something to recover James. As long as Steve had something concrete to do, he wouldn't be in so much danger of doing something stupid to himself.

"I wish he had talked with any of us before he left," Susanne says, "Maybe we could have talked some sense into him and let him leave the rescue effort to someone more experienced."

He's exactly where he should be, Amanda doesn't say because Susanne doesn't always respond well to blunt truths. "Maybe this is for the best," she says instead, "I'm sure he'll be working with others who have plenty of experience."

"I just--" Susanne says, her voice quivering slightly, "--I don't want to lose both of them, you know?"

_____


Prince James confirmed to be among missing in helicopter crash

Sources in the military have revealed that Prince James was among the crew on the helicopter which was brought down last Saturday night.

Whether he is among the deceased recovered at the site of the crash or still missing has yet to be determined. American agents are working closely with the Russian authorities in an ongoing investigation to identify the source of the attack and the identities of the known deceased. Whether or not this attack was aimed specifically at the prince is still under question. No details have been released as to the nature of the Prince's mission though it has been noted by the military that it was wholly unrelated to this attack.

The queen would like to send her condolences to the families of the other crew members brought down by this abominable act. She is grateful for your support during these trying times and understandably, would like to remain out of the public eye during this period of grieving.

Amanda Orvitz on behalf of the royal family

_____

It isn't until nearly half a week later that a US intelligence agency finally manages to get their hands on the remains of the charred corpses found in the wreckage. Two bodies--the dental analysis matches the records for the pilot and the airman who had accompanied James. No third body, even after they'd combed everything in the surrounding two mile radius.

Amanda looks at the email that she'd been forwarded from the coroner--half of the words redacted but the conclusion still the same--and thinks with a sort of numb relief that she won't have to hold a closed casket funeral for a charred skeleton.

_____

The queen shows up at dinner unannounced again. The palace staff has always set a place for James, even when he's away, cleared away at the end of dinner service as if he'd been there all along. Amanda thinks they do it with more intent now, as if through their sheer willpower could bring about the miraculous report that Prince James was alive and well after all.

Amanda watches her glance at James's seat before sitting down. She makes it through two bites of risotto before setting her fork down and saying to nobody in particular, "I think I'd like to go to Maine."

It takes Halley less than three hours to organize the security team while Martha pieced together ground transportation for the queen. Maids are flown in advance to air the estate out and prepare the house for the queen's arrival.

Lydia shows up with Amanda's favorite gelato late into the night, long after Amanda should have been home. She puts it on top of an abandoned leather folder containing the resumes of potential assistants Amanda had been thinking about hiring long before the helicopter crash happened. The cup sweats a ring of condensation onto the folder but Amanda's too tired to chide Lydia about it.

"The queen's leaving," Amanda says, leaning into Lydia's hands as Lydia undoes the clip at the back of Amanda's head and starts combing her fingers through Amanda's hair. "Sometimes I wonder if she even cares."

Lydia leans down to kiss the top of Amanda's head. "We all deal with grief in different ways. Eat your gelato."

Later, Lydia falls asleep on the couch in Amanda's office like she's done too many times before while Amanda sits at her desk with her hands folded, not even pretending to work any more. She listens to the quiet rasp of Lydia's breathing and thinks about where Steve might be now, if Steve knew more about James's whereabouts than the speculation running rampant twenty-four hours a day.

She looks at Lydia--who'd always slept in Amanda's office without complaint--at the melted remnants of chocolate gelato, and feels her throat tighten with the emotion she's been putting off for days. It feels like just yesterday now, when James had sat across from her at this very desk, looking at his hands and lap--everything but her face: what if I asked you to vet a guy? Just yesterday when she'd looked at him, found too much volatile temper and uncertainty, and gave him an answer calculated for the long run.

One based on James's immortality, for both the person and the name. Before she'd ever realized how short life could be.

_____


Russian Extremists Responsible for Helicopter Attack on Crown Prince

WASHINGTON -- An investigation carried out in a joint effort by the Central Intelligence Agency and SHIELD has shown that Russian extremists are likely to be responsible for the helicopter attack that brought down an air crew which included Prince Barnes.

"A thorough search of the surrounding area and an investigation of the site of the anti-aircraft gun suggests that the perpetrators of this heinous attack had been entrenched in the area for quite some time," a spokesperson for SHIELD stated in a press conference earlier today. "It seemed as if they were waiting for the helicopter to arrive."

No group has yet stepped forward to claim responsibility for the act, leading to the speculation that the attack did not intentionally target the crown prince. However, Prince James is still missing. "We have been looking for any sign of his being taken alive, up to and including a ransom note," the same SHIELD spokesperson stated, though she also added that no potential message has been uncovered.

Other factors, such as the Russian initial reluctance to cede the investigation to US agencies, have lead to a public outcry in the United States and a storm of backlash against the Russian government.

Officials have tried to quell the suspicion by citing the cooperation of the Russian authorities since learning of Prince James's presence on the helicopter. However, against Prince James's reputation as a beloved public figure, this has had very little effect.

"Our investigation is still ongoing," the SHIELD spokesperson concluded, "We hope to have solid answers soon."

_____

Nearly two and a half weeks after James has gone missing, Halley drops by Amanda's office with a bottle of Kahlua. It's nearly midnight. Amanda sent Derrick home early so that she could sort out the rest of her correspondence and self-imposed deadlines.

"I know you don't usually drink," Halley says, holding up the bottle.

Amanda tilts her mug of coffee towards him. He uncaps the Kahlua and pours her a generous amount. She takes a sip and wrinkles her nose at the tepid mixture.

"Susanne called to say that Steve's doing okay in Russia," Halley says, settling into the chair across from her. "I guess she keeps in contact with Peggy Carter."

"That's more information than SHIELD's been giving me," Amanda says, taking another drink.

"No sign of James though," Halley adds.

Amanda frowns into her cup. Not that it's any new information, both SHIELD and the military included. She learns more from the reporters she keeps in contact with than through any official capacity.

"I've been thinking," Amanda says, "We should start a philanthropic institute under his name. Maybe with a focus on funding programs that help veterans reintegrate into civilian life."

Halley fiddles with the label on the bottle of Kahlua but doesn't say anything.

"Or maybe funding for research into better emergency response on the battlefield," Amanda continues, "Or for better foster care placement. Or for LGBT youth."

Halley says, slowly, "James is not dead."

"Realistically," Amanda says, "How long until we get the news?"

Halley doesn't respond.

"I've started contacting people about the funeral proceedings," Amanda says, "Just to be prepared. We'll have to call the queen back from Maine. She won't have to take part in the televised bit but it'll be cathartic for the rest of the nation. We'll have to shut down quite a few streets so it'll have to take place on a weekend."

"Amanda," Halley says.

"I think we can follow the same path as we did last time," Amanda says, thinking fleetingly about the long procession of coffins that had followed the fire so long ago. Back when Amanda had been the assistant who had too much to do, before the last PR head quit out of exhaustion. "Most of the streets are pretty much the same--barely any construction over the last two decades."

Halley grips her wrist. Amanda's surprised to find her own hands shaking, the mug faintly vibrating.

"There is no body," Halley says, "James is not dead yet."

"You of all people--" Amanda starts, and can't go on because her throat closes around the words. Her vision blurs and she blinks quickly to drive the tears away.

"We have to be prepared," Amanda says, her voice as calm as she can make it.

_____


Proposed Executive Order to Improve Identification of Terrorists

NEW YORK -- In a clear response to the still missing prince, the Department of Defense, in collaboration with SHIELD, has drafted an executive order that would authorize the use of computer software to track down potential terrorists on a global scale and to take immediate action if danger to US homeland security seems imminent.

"We expect that the international community might be concerned," the Department of Defense wrote in a statement released today, "However, we are very careful about the language in the proposal and have outlined very specific scenarios in which action can be undertaken. This order would only come into effect when US security is directly threatened and we expect to use it sparingly."

This proposal which references a long term plan called Project Insight is still under revision and not yet available to the public. Project Insight is spearheaded by SHIELD and its function has not yet been elaborated in detail.

"It is very possible that if Project Insight had been put into play months ago, the prince would have never been taken," a source within SHIELD commented under the condition of anonymity, "We expect that this program will help us greatly in identifying and tracking down the terrorists who shot down his helicopter and kidnapped him."

_____

The first time that Amanda sees the phrase Project Insight, she's reading a summary of headlines relating to James's disappearance that Derrick compiles for her every twelve hours. Despite the reluctance of any one organization to step forward and claim credit for the kidnapping or murder of Prince James, accusations of terrorism and intentional targeting of a US public figure have been taken as fact.

It's not until after the video starts to circulate that Project Insight explodes in the public eye.

_____

A month after James has gone missing, Halley meets her in the kitchen after her morning run to the palace. She slows to a stop, picks up her usual thermos of coffee and turns towards him. "What's wrong?"

"You haven't checked your email," Halley says by way of reply, which is no answer at all.

"Do you want to be more specific?" Amanda asks before taking a drink of coffee and making her way towards her office.

Halley follows her down the hallway. "It's about James," he says, and stops. And while Halley is by no means a particularly talkative person--the following silence is different from his usual silence. Tense and abrupt--like he'd been trying not to think about it.

"He's dead, isn't he?" Amanda says, stopping in the doorway of her office with a hand on the doorknob. The crushing numbness she can deal with. It's the relief that makes her feel awful--the sheer relief of not having to spend another month cultivating false hope, wondering if she was a bad person and even worse guardian for thinking that James was already dead. The perpetual guilt of her practicality.

"There's a video," Halley says, "I don't know who sent it or why they sent it."

Amanda moves towards her desk but Halley grips her elbow. She looks at him.

"I don't think you should watch it," he says.

_____

She does, of course.

It's barely a minute long. Things happening to a body that she doesn't want to recognize. But James's face is unmistakable.

The body bag at the end. The conclusion is unmistakable.

_____

She shuts down her computer after the video ends and looks at Halley. Halley is hunched against one end of the couch, looking at the carpet.

"I don't think I can answer any emails today," Amanda says after a long moment. She feels faintly nauseous.

There are a million things that she has to do, not even counting the backlog of everyday affairs. She should call Martha and tell her to put the Maine estate under lockdown so that no news could travel in or out. They need to figure out how to break this delicately to the queen. And even though Derrick had taken over much of the drafting, she still needs to weigh in on whatever statement they would eventually release to the press. There are a flood of emails headed her way, all of them demanding answers for things she cannot articulate. A funeral to set into motion, an institute to build in James's honor.

This was the moment that Amanda was needed the most. And staring this in the eye, in the wake of the video--Amanda never understood the overwhelming urge to crawl back into bed and hope that everything that had happened had been a bad dream. But she understands it now.

"Can we please--" Amanda breathes in and closes her eyes. "Maybe drive somewhere."

When she opens them again, Halley is standing by the door, wordlessly waiting for her.

_____

There was a time when James had just arrived at the palace, eight years old and scared of doing so much as breathing on a piece of antique furniture. He had insisted that Steve stay with him for that first month, slowly getting used to the palace, familiarity undoing the intimidation of the ornately framed portraits, the expensive rugs and immaculate gardens. It wasn't long before they were running in the hallways, breaking the small, delicate things that had been presents from other heads of state, priceless objects that children couldn't grasp the value of--if they could be assigned some form of worth at all. It used to make Amanda furious--back before she met Lydia, back when she still cared intensely about material objects and completely-unique, only-one-in-the-world.

It all seems so trivial now.

There was a time when James had been unbearable to work with--refusing to answer phone calls or emails and running off to do whatever he wanted with his friends with barely a moment's notice for Halley to round together some semblance of security. Or when he neglected to tell them at all and expected the palace to figure out where he was going and what he was doing based on his cell phone GPS and credit card transactions. It was an absolute wonder he managed to dodge the paparazzi as much as he did--though maybe half of that could have been accounted for by his reckless driving, only his diplomatic plates keeping the police from issuing countless speeding tickets.

The last time she'd seen him, he'd come back from Germany with the sort of calmness and certainty that exceeded all of Amanda's expectations. Maybe it'd taken the threat of loss and the experience of war--maybe it was cruel of Amanda to say so, but she'd finally seen the beginnings of the king and figurehead that James would become, given time.

And now. Well.

_____

Amanda wonders: if she had believed harder, if she hadn't thought after that first week that news of James's death was only a matter of time--would the outcome have been different? If she had been better, if she had been more like Halley who hadn't wavered until he'd seen the facts with his own two eyes.

Was it self-fulfilling to expect the worst out of any given situation? Was it wrong to expect to be disappointed every time, if only to stave the heartbreak?

_____

"Do you think--" Amanda says when they're still on the highway, Halley driving back north along the Virginia coast, the morning sun climbing ever higher in the sky, "Do you think I was too hard on him?"

Halley glances at her. She keeps her eyes fixed on the road ahead of them. She still hasn't felt the need to cry since receiving the news.

They drive on in silence for another few moments before Halley says, "I think we did the best we could with James."

"Do you think he was happy?" Amanda asks.

A gull wheels above the road and flies parallel for a while before swinging away into the trees. Halley doesn't answer for a long moment and Amanda means to take it as an answer in of itself. But then he smiles--or at least tries to--and says, "I'm sure he was, sometimes."

Amanda isn't sure what answer she expected from Halley, who rarely spoke without the intention of simple truth. She knows what answer she wanted to hear even if the lie would have brought her no comfort. But it had been an asinine question in the first place. She wasn't sure why she'd asked.

_____

By the time they get back to the palace, noon has already come and gone. Amanda turns on her phone to nearly a hundred missed calls, surprisingly only three of them from Derrick, who must have seen the note she'd left on her desk for him. Another thirty-some voicemails which she'll spend the afternoon listening to.

The reporters have come back in full force and they throng the car as Halley slows to pull through the back gates of the palace. Amanda keeps her sunglasses on, expression not changing at all as they tap on the windows and shout questions at her through the glass.

"I left you the emails I couldn't answer with something generic," Derrick says as she steps out of the kitchen, handing her a tablet. "The palace website is down. Too many people trying to send their condolences. The PR email got a lot of spillover from that."

"I'm sorry," Amanda says, "I shouldn't have left you to deal with this on your own."

Derrick shrugs but doesn't quite meet her eyes so she knows he's still a little bit angry. "Nothing bad happened. People will be understanding." He licks his lips and actually looks at her face. "I know you were close to him."

It's strange how much that simple statement catches her by surprise. Maybe it's the fact of it--they could have never been friends but Amanda had likely been the closest thing to a mother James had. Maybe it's the past tense. She breathes in and tries to smile.

Derrick says quietly, "I'm sorry for your loss."

_____


The New York Times @nytimes
Congress Voices Concerns over Project Insight nyti.ms/1FmSdFH

George Alfred @alarman22
@nytimes First Prince James, Who Will Be Next?

Jackie @Ricavimp
@nytimes I don't think I would be comfortable putting my trust in a computer program either, I hope this doesn't get signed!!

kaylalee5 @kaylalee5
@nytimes but can it help us find the prince?!!

chili ben @spruceinlondon
wow the US really can't help but police the entire world!! RT: @nytimes Congress Voices Concerns over Project Insight nyti.ms/1FmSdFH

DataView @delta6722
@nytimes Generate more revenue with your website! click to find out dataview.blogspot.com/2015/07/reven...

starstruck @TlNKERTAlLOR
@spruceinlondon @nytimes I CAN'T BELIEVE THIS SHIT IS FOR REAL I KNOW Y'ALL THIRSTY FOR PASTY ROYAL ASS BUT COME ON

chili ben @spruceinlondon
@TlNKERTAlLOR @nytimes ifkr this world is going straight to hell

c lopez @cccecitalks
@nytimes It's obvious that the government is just using Prince James's disappearance as a ruse to sign this ludicrous executive order.

Bertrand West @westbertrand
@cccecitalks @nytimes Would you prefer they did nothing at all?

c lopez @cccecitalks
@westbertrand @nytimes I'd prefer if they responded with something more measured, actually pass something through Congress rather than

c lopez @cccecitalks
@westbertrand @nytimes abuse their powers. Sorry.

Bertrand West @westbertrand
@cccecitalks @nytimes Great and by that time Prince James will definitely be dead

c lopez @cccecitalks
@westbertrand @nytimes I care more about the potential impact on the billion people around the world more than I do about some guy I've

c lopez @cccecitalks
@westbertrand @nytimes never met. I don't think the US government really even cares about him to be honest.

Bertrand West @westbertrand
@cccecitalks @nytimes The entire point of the order is to protect people and if u weren't such an idiot you'd understand that

Eagle Mom @namaste928
@nytimes What are they doing about the prince???

_____

As one of the named executors on James's will, Amanda attends the reading of his will. She'd gone over the final document with him before he'd left for Iraq and remembers now the way he'd looked over the page and said wryly: Just in case, right?

Both the financial team and the palace legal counsel had set aside half-days for an entire week to accommodate the vast number of assets that James had inherited when he'd turned eighteen. Not only stake in the Barnes Institute as promised by his birthright but also several properties that a financial officer invested in on behalf of James: a few high rises scattered across Chicago and Boston, a small commercial office building in San Francisco with land worth more than the building itself, and a series of brownstones in Brooklyn that had been handed down from a previous Barnes--all properties paying for themselves. And there were the heirlooms that had been transferred to him from his grandmother's will: paintings ranging from Caravaggio to Miro on loan to several art museums.

He had proposed splitting seventy percent of his assets to Steve Rogers, five to split between Susanne and Halley as they wanted, with the remaining twenty-five to charity as Amanda saw fit. And as an afterthought, all of his grandmother's paintings to Steve as well.

After James had left, they'd turned to Amanda and asked if he was serious. Why had nothing been left to the queen? But in a follow-up meeting, James had insisted and the will had been drawn--the same one that the lawyer is reading now, awarding Amanda the office building in San Francisco and a neat half million dollars, the majority of James's bank balance.

Amanda knows that between the Barnes Institute and the properties, the majority of James's earnings had been automatically funneled into an external investment account held in trust for Steve Rogers. Amanda had been at that meeting too--when James had tried to argue against the bylaws in the Barnes Institute charter that prevented any non-Barnes from holding stake in the company.

Sitting now, staring at a photograph of the three story brick building and listening to the list of artists Steve had now acquired--it felt surreal. Because Amanda distinctly remembered the unpleasant passing thought that James would have to draw up a new will, when he'd stared wild-eyed at her in a chaplain's office while Steve lay dying in a hospital bed.

And now.

_____

"We need to set a date," Amanda says after calling both Derrick and Halley into her office. "Halley, we'll have to find an overlap of when most of your men would be available. Derrick, I need you to get in touch with the police and see what day and time of day they can spare the most forces. I'll need their help to partition off the route."

"Martha hasn't called for transport security arrangements," Halley says, "Are we to wait for the queen?"

"The queen does as the queen desires," Amanda says shortly. Martha had called earlier to tell her that the queen had no intention of leaving Maine just yet, not when there were still so many reporters knocking on the palace doors.

"And Steve?"

"I'm sure he'll be back sooner rather than later," Amanda says, the image of the bodybag involuntarily coming to mind. "Have you talked to Susanne lately?"

"She hasn't heard back from Peggy since the video came out," Halley says, "No word on Steve. I can work on clearing out the more persistent reporters for the queen."

"Please," Amanda says.

"I'll go contact the MPDC," Derrick says, slipping out the door and leaving Amanda alone in the room with Halley.

"He's her son," Amanda says once the door's shut, "I know they're not close but he's her son."

"Would you have expected any less?" Halley asks, "She's the same person she's always been. You can't pretend to be surprised."

"He's the entire reason she's been out of the spotlight for the last two decades," Amanda says, "He's the only reason this monarchy hasn't been laughed into abdication in today's age."

"Exaggeration doesn't suit you," Halley says, "And you know this isn't a true monarchy. You might as well be conducting public relations for the Kardashians."

Amanda stares, shocked into silence.

"I'm sorry," Halley says, "I spoke out of line."

"No," Amanda says, "Tell me how you really feel about this family."

"Amanda," he says, quieter, "I didn't mean it."

"Tell me," Amanda says because there's no stopping now, "It's been, what, not even three days since the entire world watched James get tortured to death? Tell me how he's nothing but a glorified media puppet. Was all of that for attention too?"

Halley just watches her now--his silence infuriates her.

"Or maybe that was just something I planned," Amanda says, half hysterical, "Set him up as a martyr for the sins of cultural hegemony and American overindulgence. He'll go down in the history books now, won't he?"

"Amanda," Halley says, stepping forward and reaching towards her. She jerks back before she can be touched.

"My legacy," Amanda says, "I killed him, Halley."

Halley reaches for her again but she steps back a second time.

"I know I complained about his behavior," Amanda says, "But ever since he came to the palace, James has done everything I told him to do. All of the big things. All of the things that really mattered."

Halley looks at her but she can't meet his eyes.

"He asked me about starting a relationship with Steve once, back when they were still in college." Amanda says, "And it was right after he'd gotten into that fight with the professor and crashed his car so I was thinking about all the ways the press had been making him out to be having some sort of breakdown and I thought that it didn't make any sense for him to put his most important friendship into jeopardy while he sorted through his issues." She slumps into her desk chair, the words flooding out even though it feels like her chest is clenched tight. "I didn't think it was that serious--just some passing idea that he'd realize wasn't what he wanted after all once he'd settled down."

Halley sits down across from her--just a movement in her peripheral vision as she stared down at the floor.

"But I keep thinking--if I said yes, if I said it was a good idea, would he have been as reckless? If he and Steve--if he had someone waiting for him here."

"You think James loved Steve less just because they weren't involved?" Halley asks, clearly disbelieving.

"I don't know," Amanda says, and it's a relief to say all of this to someone else who could understand, "But he would have been happier. And I took that from him."

That was it, wasn't it? The one turning point around which Amanda's revisionist streak revolved: how it would color the last half decade of James's life.

"Maybe," Halley says, "Then again, maybe not."

Amanda hides her face because it feels like she might finally cry.

"But this is what we've got now," Halley says, always calm, "You know, a wise woman once told me: there's no point in dwelling. Mistakes just teach us to be better."

_____


To: orvitz@palace.us
From: sgrantrogers@gmail.com
Subject: Bucky

Found Bucky badly hurt but alive. Cannot divulge too many details for fear of SHIELD tracking this correspondence. Currently in Seoul. Once Bucky stabilized, requesting airlift to bring him home. Please arrange for hospitalization in DC.

Thank you Amanda.

S

_____

Amanda gets the email right before leaving for the night on the fourth day after news of James's death. 10PM in DC meant that it was maybe sometime in the early afternoon for Seoul if the email was entirely real.

But James couldn't be alive--she'd watched the video. He'd been too still in that last shot, even if it'd only been a brief few moments.

A miracle, perhaps. Something like Steve waking up from the brink of death, transformed.

_____


Prince James Hospitalized After SHIELD Rescue

SEOUL -- In a daring rescue led by his childhood friend Steve Rogers, Prince James was found alive though not well.

He is currently hospitalized at Seoul National University Hospital where he will be stabilized before being transferred to a hospital in the United States.

Details about the rescue mission are still classified, including the location of the rescue and the perpetrators of the crime. Both SHIELD and the US Air Force claim credit for the successful joint effort.

This rescue was nothing short of astonishing in the wake of the video that had circulated earlier this week which showed Prince James's alleged death in graphic detail. How much damage has been sustained from the ordeal has yet to be determined.

Steve Rogers has been notoriously absent from the press despite his close relationship with the crown prince. He was not available for comment.

_____

The jet reserved for royal use is undergoing maintenance at an airfield in Massachusetts with half its parts missing and unable to be replaced in time to pick James back up in any timely manner. But despite the fact that Amanda had specifically stayed away from asking the military for assistance on the matter--Steve's clear suspicion of SHIELD extending to all of the military industrial complex in Amanda's mind--she was hardly able to fend off the offers after the articles about Bucky's survival hit the stands.

James arrives back in the United States on a sleek plane with a red cross on the side. Halley had flown as a chaperone by mutual agreement, and he steps out of the plane now. He waves at her, not bothering with a verbal greeting that wouldn't be heard over the roar of the nearby medivac helicopter.

Steve steps out of the plane next and helps one of the airmen bring the stretcher down. Amanda barely gets a look at him before all of her attention is focused on the body in the stretcher: James's face bruised in contrast to the pale sheets drawn up around his chest, his hair shaved in haphazard patches, the space where his left arm should have been.

The helicopter crew have brought their own stretcher and Steve helps them move the body over, cradling James's head as they gently roll him. There seems to be a brief argument that Amanda can't hear, Steve following them under the whirr of helicopter blades and arguing fiercely before the crew seems to relent. Steve climbs into the helicopter, the door closes, and after a few minutes, they lift off, away from the airfield towards Georgetown.

Halley jogs over to where she is. "I told Steve we'd meet him there."

"James lost an arm?" Amanda asks.

"I warned you that it was going to be bad," Halley says.

"How's Steve holding up?"

"Still relieved, given the circumstances," Halley says, and then adds, "Tense. Won't let James out of his sight."

"And James hasn't woken up yet," Amanda asserts.

Halley shakes his head. Amanda looks at the dot of helicopter in the distance.

"Let's go," she says.

_____

The doctors won't let Amanda into the room, citing the need to stabilize James and to recheck the scans and bloodwork that had been forwarded from Seoul. They'd been given enough prior warning to section off a corner room for his arrival and Halley had immediately established a guard of three--two at James's door and one at the nurse's station, watching the comings and goings of everyone in the wing. Overkill, maybe. Amanda stands off to the side, ignoring them, tablet in hand, watching the nurse draw blood from the crook of James's remaining arm.

"The doctors in Seoul said that they couldn't see anything wrong with his brain scans," Steve says quietly, coming up next to her. He holds out a styrofoam cup of coffee. She takes it with a nod. "Even after I showed them the video. I don't know for sure though because they said a lot of words that the translator turned into a simple sentence. Maybe she was just trying to spare me."

He says everything calmly, eyes fixed on James through the glass wall. Even though his jaw is tense, his shoulders are straight and he looks faintly angry. Amanda can't help but think to a year ago, when it'd been James watching Steve, the devastation written plainly across his face.

Amanda looks back at James's unmoving body.

"He's still alive," Amanda says, "That's the most important part."

_____

James wakes up three days later in the middle of the night. By happenstance, it occurs during Halley's guard shift, while Steve's still in the room. Amanda gets the call at 4AM from Halley who says, by way of greeting, "James has amnesia."

"What?" Amanda asks, still only half awake but already getting out of bed. Lydia murmurs something from behind her and settles into the space that she's left behind.

"He doesn't know what year it is or who the president is. He couldn't recognize me or Steve. He doesn't know his own name."

"Back up," Amanda says, shutting the bedroom door so that she won't disturb Lydia, "How long ago did James wake up?"

"Maybe half an hour."

"He's talking? He's cognizant?"

"He's a little slurred but his speech is okay. Still has all of his English."

"Is this temporary?" Amanda asks, pulling off her pyjama pants to put on a skirt, phone pressed between her ear and her shoulder. The morning rush hasn't started yet--if she takes the car, she can be there in less than twenty minutes. "What do the doctors say?"

"The doctors say it's too early to tell but they've taken him away for other tests."

"Okay," Amanda says, pulling one of Lydia's shirts off the back of a chair and going into the hallway closet for a blazer to hide the fact she wasn't wearing a bra, "How are you and Steve holding up?"

There's a moment's silence before Halley says more quietly, "He hasn't said a single word since the doctors left."

"Keep an eye on him," she says unnecessarily, toeing on her heels, "I'm on my way."

_____

Steve sits where Halley would have sat during his watch, holding an empty cup and staring at the floor in front of him. The curtain inside James's room is half drawn, making it obvious that the bed is gone. Halley is on the phone at the other end of their small corner hallway and he acknowledges Amanda's arrival with a nod.

"He hasn't come back yet?" Amanda asks, looking into the room. Steve shakes his head, not lifting his eyes from the floor.

Amanda opens her mouth; there are about a hundred questions that she wanted answers to. But looking at the slump of Steve's shoulders, the half crushed styrofoam cup in his hands--it's hard for any of her thoughts to solidify into words. So instead she stands, clutching her tablet in front of her and feeling perfectly useless.

"He looked at me and asked me if I was with the Russians," Steve says after a moment, in a voice without inflection, "I told him that it was me, Steve, and he asked me Steve who?"

Amanda doesn't know what to say--not to Steve who she never fully understood, and certainly not at a time like this.

"I hope I didn't kill them," Steve continues, uncharacteristically flat, "Not if it meant a quick death. I hope they're still alive."

"Do you think that's what James would have wanted?"

Steve looks up at her now. "I don't know," he says. He looks over his shoulder at the empty room. "I guess, now, he wouldn't know either."

_____

In less than two weeks from James's arrival back to the states, the doctors clear him for release.

"He's made a remarkably smooth recovery out of that coma, considering," the psychiatrist assigned to James's case tells Amanda, "It'll probably be better for his brain to be in familiar surroundings. See if it jogs any memories. We'll be in contact every day to see how he's doing."

Amanda adds the recommended physical therapist to the short term payroll and half considers getting a nurse as well. Steve helps to fill out the discharge papers, leaving behind only the boxes where Amanda and James would have to sign.

James looks at the papers and visibly hesitates. His room has already been cleared out and he's wearing clothes that Amanda had brought over from the palace, seated in a wheelchair with the left sleeve of his jacket tucked against his side. From where she's standing, it almost doesn't look like James had lost the arm at all.

"Do I just put my name?" James asks, his words still slurring together slightly. According to Halley, it's leaps better than when he'd woken up the first time, but Amanda considers finding a speech therapist anyway, just in case.

"Yep!" the nurse says, smiling and pointing at the box. James starts to write with a shaky hand, letters still a bit wobbly. He pauses after his first name and glances up the form towards where his name had been prefilled on the sheet before writing Barnes.

Amanda looks over at Steve, maybe hoping to catch his eye. But Steve looks fixedly at James's face as James carefully initials the form with the same childlike letters as the nurse slowly explains the statements he's initialing.

By the time that they've finished filling out the paperwork, Halley has texted with the bests route out of the hospital. Almost all of the exits have at least one or two reporters hanging around outside--someone on the hospital staff had leaked earlier in the week that the prince was well enough to be discharged soon--but Halley had brought the most imposing SUV in the security fleet to the loading dock.

The guards accompany them, Steve pushing James along and Amanda trailing behind by two steps. It's hardly inconspicuous but nobody approaches them. The nurses wave as they leave the wing, the stares of the other patients and families following them all the way to the elevator. James seems to be aware of it, shifting slightly in the wheelchair as he hunches into himself.

"Where are we going?" he asks as they leave the elevator towards the loading dock.

Amanda doesn't answer at first, deferring to Steve. But Steve only looks silently down the hallway, knuckles white against the wheelchair push without any indication that he had heard the question at all.

"Home," Amanda says.

Chapter Text

Peggy had heard of Project Insight before.

Of the divisions at SHIELD, the IT people in logistics had always been the most close knit. It was damn near impossible to foster a collaborative environment between the field agents, who worked in terribly specialized roles on their own or within the same small teams, month after month. Even the scientists kept mostly to themselves--the physicists and biochemists essentially speaking completely different languages when it came to their own esoteric fields of study.

But the computer programmers, the software developers? Despite the fact that they couldn't discuss the specifics of what they were trying to achieve, despite the fact that certain projects were buried under layers of nondisclosure agreements and clearance levels--they all shared the same underlying language of math and logic.

Peggy didn't quite consider herself to be in the same clique as the programmers--she'd worked mostly in encryption and analysis and did very little coding herself. Her degree in theoretical physics didn't really lend itself to formal training with any particular language. But occasionally she'd get roped into some discussion or another when a programmer would buy her lunch and pick her brain about setting dynamic thresholds for hits or how to minimize false positives.

Which is why when she reads the name in the the article being handwaved as part of some new potential executive order, she remembers a lackluster reuben sandwich and a two hour conversation with Tian Zheng who was absolutely brilliant but still had some trouble communicating in English after he'd spent the entirety of his graduate studies at Caltech immersed in code. The discourse took place mostly on napkins and a tiny legal pad that Dr. Zheng had brought with him, and it served as a fantastic reminder of how differently she thought about the same problems, and how much she still had to learn. She remembers the questions he'd asked too: the theoretical databases he'd have to integrate and the most accurate methods by which he could fine tune the weights of specific factors.

At the time she thought Project Insight was just an upgraded version of the algorithm they were currently using to predict hotspots of instability across the globe.

Now, she's not so sure.

_____

Twenty minutes after Peggy gives Steve Irkutsk, she finishes clearing three days worth of dishes from her kitchen sink and considers the fact that Project Insight might actually not be under SHIELD control after all.

The timing is suspicious. Peggy knows that Project Insight had been in progress for nearly half a decade and had only reached some form of testing earlier this year. The fact that Bucky's disappearance neatly corresponded with the finishing touches on the project could have been a complete coincidence--but Peggy had enough experience to know that coincidences were almost never left up to chance when it came to SHIELD. As terrible as the video of Bucky's death had been, how convenient that it had circulated just as the date for the president's signature approached. Who could oppose a measure that promised the capture and punishment of those responsible for the murder of Prince James when the vast majority of the American public was screaming for blood?

It's with this mindset that she sits down at her SHIELD issued computer and numbly types in her login credentials.

As expected, Project Insight is above her clearance level. But something on the access restricted page leaves her even more uneasy than before: under the list of directors for the project, next to Nicholas Fury, is the name Alexander Pierce.

_____

It's not until two days later in the early morning hours that Peggy gets validation for her suspicion of Irkutsk. She wakes up to shrill ringing from the burner phone that only Steve, Natasha, and Maria have access to.

"We're safe in Seoul," Natasha says by way of greeting, sounding like she hasn't slept for more than two hours in the last 48. "Barnes is in surgery. Steve and Wilson are on the observation deck."

"How are they?" Peggy asks, pushing herself up out of bed and turning on the light, "How are you?"

"Tired," Natasha says, "The doctors are optimistic that Barnes will pull through. I've got some intel that you might be interested in though."

"Oh?" Peggy reaches towards her bedside table where she kept a notebook for late night ideas.

"Barnes was attached to some machine when we found him," Natasha says, "The doctors are still trying to get it off him without any more damage to his arm but the moment it's free, I can bring it over."

"What kind of machine was it?" Peggy asks, taking notes.

"Couldn't find a schematic," Natasha says, "Looks like it might be some kind of precursor to a brain-controlled prosthetic though. There were lots of anatomy pages diagramming nerves of the arm in that room."

Peggy flashes momentarily to the image of Bucky hanging limply, slowly revolving with the stump of his left arm covered in bandages. She pushes the thought away. "Nothing useful from the computers?"

"I got copies of all the hard drives before we blew everything up," Natasha says, "I haven't had the chance to look at any of them yet though. No access to a powerful enough computer."

Peggy can't remember if there's a SHIELD facility in Seoul. There are certainly enough powerful computers in South Korea but none that she'd trust to be off the grid, away from potential SHIELD surveillance.

"I need a favor," Natasha says after a moment, "If we aren't already, I'm pretty sure that Steve and I are going to be suspended for taking the quinjet against direct orders. I think Steve has a way out through the royal palace and Wilson isn't under SHIELD jurisdiction. But as for me…" She trails off for a moment and Peggy's interacted with her enough to imagine the wry smile that must be crossing her face. "I don't trust SHIELD to bring me back and not lock me up until they decide what to do with me. Think you can wrangle up a ride?"

Peggy doesn't even have to think twice. "I can do that."

_____

"Honestly, it takes a national crisis for you to return my phone calls?" Tony asks, "Is this what you think of our friendship?"

"I'm afraid I need another favor," Peggy says, ignoring him.

"Take, take, take," Tony complains, though he doesn't sound particularly miffed about it, "Alright Carter, what can I do for you?"

"They found Barnes alive," Peggy says, "He was attached to a machine of some sort. I was hoping you'd be interested in assessing the machine for us."

Tony doesn't reply for a few moments though Peggy can hear the sound of JARVIS assembling machinery in the background. "What kind of machine are we talking about?" he asks, sounding purposefully casual.

"Agent Romanov thought it was set up to prepare Barnes for a prosthetic attachment," Peggy says, "You'll have to pick her up too."

"I have to pick this up myself?" Tony says, sounding more amused than affronted, "SHIELD has more planes than they can keep track of. I should know--I designed half of them."

"SHIELD doesn't know we have it," Peggy says, "I think it'd be best if we kept it that way."

"So you're going rogue," Tony comments, before pitching his voice low in an obvious flirt, "I always had the feeling you were a wild card Carter."

"Stuff it, Stark," Peggy says, "Are you going to help or not?"

The sound of JARVIS's voice murmurs something in the background. Peggy hears something whirr not too far from Tony's microphone. "A machine for prosthesis, huh?" he muses, "I might know a thing or two about that, you know, being Iron Man and all."

Peggy just waits silently.

"All right," Tony decides, "Where is it?"

_____

Peggy knocks on Maria's open door with Maria's usual order of a soy latte in hand. Maria looks up from her computer and breaks into a grin as she sees the drink. "Peggy you are an absolute saint."

"Thought you might have worked overtime last night with all that new Polish intel coming in," Peggy says, setting the cup down in front of her.

"Not that it did much good," Maria says, drinking half the latte in one go. "Ow," she says belatedly as she swings her computer monitor towards Peggy, "Burned my tongue."

Already the articles about Bucky's rescue and arrival in Seoul have started circulating. Peggy leans over Maria's shoulder, looking at the headlines all proclaiming the same triumphant news. "So they found him after all," Peggy says, careful to sound vaguely surprised.

"After giving us a hell of a chase," Maria agrees, "And neither of them have touched base either. Not that I blame Steve--" Maria glances at the side of Peggy's face. "--But I would have expected better from Natasha." She sighs and clicks away, back to the document she'd been working on before. "I can tell you already that the entire court martial is going to be an absolute disaster."

Peggy stares unseeingly at the computer screen for a few more moments, considering. And then she moves back around the desk and closes the door before turning back towards Maria.

"Something wong?" Maria asks, looking at her.

"I trust you," Peggy says, "And what I'm about to tell you next could potentially be treasonous so if you don't want me to say it, tell me now."

"I see you're buttering me up with coffee before going straight for the treason," Maria says, though she doesn't sound alarmed, "All right. Tell me."

_____

Fury's assistant tells her that he isn't due to be back in DC for another two days. He was also off the grid, not that Peggy would have wanted to talk to him over SHIELD monitored communications.

Fury's assistant also ends her day exactly at five. Peggy only knows this because she'd overheard Fury complain about his new assistant's unwillingness to work overtime to HR on the phone multiple times. Just to be sure, Peggy waits an extra half hour before slipping out from behind her desk and heading towards Fury's office.

She'd watched Fury forget his keys once and promptly go into his assistant's desk for a spare one, all without breaking his conversation with Peggy. It's these keys that Peggy's looking for now, trying to seem casual even though none of the passing administrative staff seem to even have noticed her. She goes through two drawers before finding it taped to the bottom of the desk, hidden by the keyboard inset.

She relaxes fractionally once she shuts the door of Fury's office behind herself. A quick sweep of the office shows that there's no obvious cameras, but Peggy wouldn't put it past Fury's paranoia to have bugged his own office with recording devices.

She silently moves around to the desk, keeping her face turned towards the window. She moves the mouse of his computer slightly to bring it back from sleep mode only to be faced with a biosignature lock screen. Retina scan or fingerprints.

Reaching into her purse, Peggy pulls out the fingerprint dust and the small scanner she'd dropped in there for just this purpose. There's no coffee mug readily available on the desk but few moments of searching reveals a bottle of scotch and a few glasses in the cabinet next nearest to where she sat.

Within three minutes, Peggy's logged in under Fury's credentials and she starts a stopwatch. If Fury was off grid, it wouldn't be long before someone on the back end would recognize the strangely timed login so she wanted to be gone by the half hour mark.

It takes barely five seconds for Peggy to find the Project Insight overview page. It's under Fury's commonly accessed pages, even though he hasn't checked it in a few months.

What she doesn't expect, however, is for the same access restricted page to pop up on screen.

Peggy looks at it for a long moment before double checking the login credentials. Nicholas Fury. She looks at the list of directors. Nicholas Fury.

There was nothing else to be found here.

Peggy logs out of the computer and carefully rearranges the keyboard and mouse back to the positions she found them. She's careful to keep her head down as she quietly slips back out the door.

_____

+19295552846: at safehouse. apologies to maria -nr

_____

Peggy spends the rest of the evening diagramming the dropped points she's already found, plotting them geographically, separating them out via category of instability--any way she can think of in effort to figure out some sort of pattern. She'd already established that ever since the resurgence of HYDRA, there's significant overlap between her dropped points and HYDRA activity. But the pattern doesn't always hold and she's not sure how to account for the vast number of dropped points that don't seem to correlate with anything at all. False positives that'd been correctly identified as such? Or was there a darker contingent within SHIELD that fed information to those being watched, alerting them of a need to go deeper underground?

The burner phone rings and she jumps. Some unknown number. Usually she wouldn't bother to pick up but all the people who had this number were important.

"Hey Peggy," Steve says, "I'm really sorry I haven't called earlier."

"Steve!" Peggy says, tearing her eyes away from the pins she'd been pushing into her atlas and standing up to get rid of the half eaten slice of pizza she'd heated up an hour ago, "How are you feeling?"

"Tired," Steve says, "Waiting for Bucky to get out of arm surgery. He woke up for a few hours yesterday though, so that was an improvement."

"I'm happy to hear it," Peggy says, scraping the pizza into the trash, "I'm sure he'll be back to himself in no time."

"Yeah," Steve says without any inflection. He pauses for a moment before asking with more warmth, "Are you doing okay? Still safe?"

"Still safe," Peggy affirms, "I told Maria about the dropped points."

"How'd she take it?"

"Apparently she'd been harboring her own suspicions for a while," Peggy says, opening the fridge to get new coffee for the machine. "But hers are more on the personnel side. we haven't had the time to compare notes yet."

"I wanted to ask," Steve says, "What exactly is Project Insight? Is that one of yours?"

"Not mine," Peggy says, "I'm trying to answer the same question for myself."

"The articles about it--it sounds like it's supposed to predict terrorism? But I thought you already worked with that program. They wouldn't need to push another directive through the White House."

"I think it might have more to do with what actions are taken after identifying the hotspots," Peggy says, "Maybe more aggressive policing. I'm not sure. I'm trying to find out as much as I can about it."

"I'm not alone in thinking that there's something else other than SHIELD pulling the strings here."

Peggy lets out a tiny laugh. "No, you certainly aren't."

"I seem to have gotten myself suspended," Steve says with the barest touch of his old humor. It disappears within moments though. "I still want to help uncover this. Whatever it is, however I can."

It's hard not to feel a swell of warmth for Steve and his unwavering support--Peggy wishes she could kiss him on the cheek. "Steve," she says, "Not that I don't appreciate it but I have a feeling you have plenty on your plate already."

"If there's any way I can help," Steve insists.

"Alright," Peggy says, smiling still, "I'll let you know."

_____

A few days later, Peggy spends nearly half an hour casing Pierce's office once everyone had left. She leaves the triskelion at half past ten only to be stopped by a man she doesn't recognize. He approaches her from the front though, hands clearly visible, so even though she's been feeling particularly high alert recently, she doesn't kick him in the face.

"Mr. Stark requests your presence," the man says, gesturing to a parked car.

She'd started to carry a loaded pistol at the bottom of her purse these days, and there's always been a knife stashed in one of the pockets of her laptop bag. It hasn't been sharpened in a few months though. Maybe she should have picked up more ammo on the way out.

"Mr. Stark couldn't call me himself?" Peggy asks, not yet moving towards the car.

"Mr. Stark has unfortunately been very busy," the man answers, "He also doesn't trust your phone line to be secure."

"Mr. Stark found time to come all the way down to DC," Peggy says, disbelieving.

"Ah." The man glances back at the car. "Mr. Stark is actually still in New York."

"That's an eight hour round trip," Peggy says and keeps walking towards the bridge, "I'm very sorry but I happen also to be very busy."

"Mr. Stark sent his private jet," the man calls after her, "You'll be back before breakfast tomorrow morning.

Peggy keeps walking.

"It's about the machine," the man says, "He sends his apologies but he can't find any other way to tell you about it."

Peggy pauses.

"It won't be a waste of your time," the man says.

_____

Peggy remembers Pepper from the first time she'd dropped by the main Stark Industries building. She hadn't been the CEO of the company then--and neither, Peggy suspects, had she been living with Tony Stark at the time. She's wearing a bathrobe and smiling as the rooftop lift opens onto the penthouse suite at nearly one in the morning.

"I hope the flight wasn't too long," Pepper says, taking Peggy's coat to hang up. "I told Tony that maybe he should wait until the weekend and to pick you up during the day, but he insisted on sending for you as soon as possible. Can I get you anything? Some tea maybe?"

"Oh no, I'm fine," Peggy says, "Thank you."

"Tony's still in his workshop," Pepper says, "Just downstairs there on your left. It takes up the entire floor so you can't miss it."

"Thank you," Peggy says. Pepper nods, gives her a final smile, and disappears down the hallway, leaving her to find the way herself.

"Carter," Tony says over the intercom as she knocks on the glass door of his workshop, "Open the door and help me hold this thing together."

Peggy opens the door and sidesteps a slumped robotic arm. Tony's bent over a mechanical arm, though the repulsor in the palm of its hand keeps going off in intermittent sparks so the hand keeps flopping about.

"Loose wire," Tony explains, not taking his eyes off of the thing, "And I accidentally short circuited the lab so I've lost my usual help. Just hold onto the non murder-y end there." He moves his hand from the elbow to the wrist, leaving the forearm open for Peggy to grasp.

"Do you often short circuit your lab?" Peggy asks, pressing down on the elbow. Tony flicks open a panel in the wrist, and starts digging around with a set of tweezers.

"Only when I'm unlucky," Tony says, twisting the wrist of the mechanical arm as it lets out a weak beam of light. The defective laser still leaves a scorch mark on the wall. Peggy thinks twice about keeping her hand on the thing. Tony pulls out a wire from the panel and exchanges his tweezers for a pair of scissors. He cuts the wire and the arm goes limp, repulsor dimming.

"Thanks," Tony says, and immediately abandons the arm to go flip a switch on the wall. An electronic hum starts up again.

"It's good to see you too, Tony," Peggy says dryly.

"Right, the thing attached to Barnes's arm," Tony says, beckoning her to another corner of the workshop.

"The one so important that you had to fly me out," Peggy agrees, following him.

"That's because it's mine," Tony says, all traces of humor gone as he pulls the cover off of a cart sitting between a computer and more discarded Iron Man parts. "Or at least it used to be mine."

It doesn't look particularly impressive even though the casing for the main part of it has been taken off and set to the side to reveal the circuitry inside. Two separate bundles of wires come out of the two sides--one side is tied together while the other hangs loose. There are still traces of dried blood on the bundled wires, brown splatters against the colored plastic.

"What do you mean?"

"I designed this," Tony says, pulling one of the circuit boards from the half-dissected machine, "I wrote code for it. I wouldn't use these low quality alloys in any machine I'd make but it's all hooked up the same way I drew it years and years ago."

Peggy looks from the circuit board to Tony's face. "Who'd you give the design to?" she asks, already knowing the answer.

"Your employer, if I remember correctly," Tony says, dropping the circuit board onto the cart, "Which is why I brought you all the way out here. I was hoping you could answer some questions."

Peggy looks at the machine again. She says, "You and I might have the same questions."

_____

It isn't until nearly a week later that Peggy finally gets all the things she needs to break into Pierce's office.

She thought it would be difficult to get the scan of Pierce's iris from the security database but she'd been able to bluff her way into the server room without too much problem. It was waiting for her old colleague at Columbia to nanoprint the eyeball that had been the problem--she'd told him that it was meant as a last minute anniversary gift for her nonexistent boyfriend and he'd laughed and told her it was kind of weird but cool and that he'd call her when the thing was done.

He'd apparently deprioritized it because he'd sheepishly admitted that he hadn't started on it when Peggy called him half a week later--but the important thing was that she had the eye now. Pierce was out of the office most afternoons to deal with the political aspects regarding Project Insight (namely having meetings and dinners with different state representatives to assure them that the program was in the best interests of the United States), which gave Peggy plenty of time to get in and out, even if Pierce returned at night to tie up loose ends.

She'd wrestled with her conscience about duplicating a set of janitor keycards. She didn't want to foist the probability of losing their job on anyone, but she also couldn't figure out a better way to access the damn place--which is why she opens the door of Pierce's office with some guilt.

She'd seen it from the outside enough times to know that there was a glass dimmer somewhere in the room. Half the time she'd walked past, the glass walls had been opaque and tinted and she certainly didn't need anyone peering in on her now. She cautiously touches the controls next to the door only to have the lights come on, the blinds for the outside windows slowly lower themselves--then finally, for the glass walls to darken.

Careful not to disturb any of the things on his desk, Peggy sits at Pierce's computer and pulls up the login screen. She was personally impressed with the eye that her colleague had made, but it was useless unless it could get her the data she needed. She puts it up against the scanner now and waits.

The computer chimes as it grants her access and Peggy breathes a quiet sigh of relief. It would be easy from here on out--just copying the pertinent information over to the multiple hard drives she'd brought with her in her purse. It'd just require time.

There's no restricted access on the Project Insight page for Pierce--just a handful of urgent messages detailing last minute fixes to the program. A countdown to launch in the corner--a little under two days left. Peggy doesn't waste time looking at it--just attaches the hard drive and starts to download everything in sight. Estimated time remaining: over forty minutes. Door still locked, 3:24PM.

She opens up Pierce's Project Insight inbox. Over a thousand messages, 23 of them unread. Peggy avoids the unread ones and opens the ones Pierce has already looked at.

Once launched to 50k ft, the aiming module not as accurate as in tests. The air density gradient used to model the effects of the atmosphere was not optimized. We have adjusted the module to take into account a more accurate model of the atmosphere and improved targeting ability.

Missiles maybe. Peggy clicks on the next message.

Davidson still convinced that the SAT threshold is too low and that we are getting too many false positives. After making the SAT threshold dynamic based on tester's current age, we increased the experimental results' overlap with past data by a little over 75%, an improvement of nearly 4%. Admittedly this has decreased the likelihood of positives in younger candidates but we think that the reduction in false positives is worth the risk.

Next message.

Almost done running deanonymization program on HSBC records. Karen convinced we should try harder to requisition American banks to find discrepancies with IRS records. Had long discussion with Davidson and decided to lower the weight with tax evasion since most should be high income and more to lose.

Deanonymization program. Was Project Insight supposed to target individuals? Peggy frowns and clicks on the next message.

Targeting has been improved to 1.5ft radius thanks to huge increase in resolution from the new infrared cameras mounted last week. Old software rolled over to new cameras without a hitch. This should significantly reduce proportion of possible crossfire casualties.

Peggy checks the copying process. Still thirty-six minutes to go.

She clicks out of the inbox and tries to find a menu of some sort. From the overview page, she manages to find a link for real time schematics.

A blueprint of a helicarrier fills the entire screen. Quite a few of the dots in the center of the helicarrier are blinking. Peggy hovers the mouse over one. Gun Turret: Infrared camera update.

She slides her mouse along the line of dots as she counts. Thirty-six by twenty--nearly 720 turrets on the helicarrier and she wasn't sure how many guns each turret supported.

A glance at the top of the screen showed the name of the craft, INSIGHT 1-3, with an arrow next to it. And sure enough, when she clicked on the arrows, INSIGHT 2-3 and INSIGHT 3-3 showed up, all with the same number of turrets, in varying numbers of blinking dots.

Peggy sits back, looking at the blinking dots. Fifty thousand feet, at least two thousand guns between the three helicarriers. Precise targeting to a 1.5ft radius and concern over civilians getting caught in the crossfire. It wasn't hard to draw a conclusion.

In the corner of the screen, the timer steadily counts down. TO LAUNCH - 46:42:08

TO LAUNCH - 46:42:07

TO LAUNCH - 46:42:06

_____

She gets back to her desk unaccosted with two hard drives containing copies of the files on Pierce's computer in her purse, hidden under a bunched up cardigan. She spends another hour working at the files from Estonia that she'd inherited from another decryption team--but most of this consisted of running some program in the background to seem like she was being productive while she thought more about more pressing matters.

After reading nearly a hundred of the emails, it became increasingly obvious that there were two separate teams working on Project Insight. There was one team tasked with identifying individual persons who were at risk of posing a threat to society through the use of such factors as high school GPA and phone records. The other team was responsible for the improvement of satellite range gun targeting--so much so that they had essentially created a super long range sniper rifle to be aimed at anyone that stayed still long enough. As far as Peggy could tell, the two teams were kept entirely separate from each other with no overlap in personnel except for Undersecretary Pierce himself. Fury had only ever been CC'ed on the targeting emails and Peggy wasn't sure if he even knew the prediction program even existed.

If there was a corrupt faction working inside SHIELD, it seemed hardly possible that they'd be able to convert all of the raw talent required to make Project Insight possible. It would have been far easier to lie. If Peggy had been in charge, she might have suggested to the targeting team that their program would only ever be used on known criminals, the proven terrorists who couldn't be easily approached by American soldiers or policemen. If she'd been in charge, she might have lead the prediction team to believe that their program would be the starting point for narrowing down lists of suspects, that the algorithm used wouldn't be used as is but would be supplemented with human identification after poring over years worth of individual histories.

Peggy could be wrong. She hopes that she's wrong. But there are thousands of guns with barely seconds between each swivel and reload, amounting to tens of thousands of precisely targeted bullets within minutes. There is something insidious inside SHIELD, something that hid legitimate hotspots and kidnapped American royalty with stolen Stark technology. Something that had managed to pull the wool over the smartest collection of people that Peggy knew.

Something that would soon be given the power to wipe out millions of people across the earth however it saw fit.

_____

At eight, she shuts off her computer and collects her things. She puts her laptop in its bag and slings it over her shoulder before picking up her purse.

She's halfway down the hall towards the entrance when someone says, "Hey," somewhere behind her.

She turns. A man she doesn't recognize steps out from a doorway. "Agent Carter, right?"

He's holding a rifle in his hand and has two more guns holstered at his hip and shoulder. Peggy only has the gun in her purse and almost no cover in this hallway. It'd be funny if she wasn't so tense. She forces herself to smile. "Yes, that's me."

"Agent Rumlow," he says, touching the side of rifle to his own chest to gesture to himself. "You're working on the Estonia files, right?"

"I received them yesterday," Peggy says, "Was that one of yours?"

"Yep. Me and Agent Rogers," he says, eyes trained on her face. She keeps herself calm and doesn't respond at all to Steve's name. "You guys are close, right?"

"I did know Agent Rogers before he joined, yes," Peggy says.

"I'm really sorry to hear about his suspension," Rumlow says, "Though I have no idea what possessed him to take off like that."

"I believe he had a personal investment in finding Prince James," Peggy answers, wondering how quickly she'd be able to sprint down the hallway in her heels if the need arose. There was a doorway halfway down that she could fling herself into, but honestly, the three to one ratio of guns didn't really bode well for her. She adds, "Everything was in his file."

"You know, I was supposed to work with Wilson on the rescue team," Rumlow says as he leans casually against the wall. "I guess it was better for the United States that I didn't. Rogers sure got a lucky break, huh?"

"I'm not sure I would consider it lucky, considering the state that Prince James was found."

"He's still alive though," Rumlow says, smiling at her like they're supposed to be sharing some sort of joke, "What's a couple of lost limbs, right?"

Peggy doesn't smile back. "I'm sorry Agent Rumlow, I'm afraid I have to get home. I'll work on your files as much as I can and get the intel back to you sometime this week."

"Oh don't worry about the files," Rumlow says, straightening, "Sorry to keep you. You work in analysis, right?"

"Yes," Peggy says.

Rumlow just smiles at her again. "Have a good night, Agent Carter."

_____

Two blocks away from her apartment, she tells the cab driver to stop.

"Is this the right address?" he asks while looking at the GPS, but she's not paying attention. There's a strange car parked on the opposite side of the street from her apartment complex.

It could be someone visiting one of her neighbors. There are four units in her apartment building, not to mention the several buildings lining both sides of the street. It's not like she's got the entire street memorized--honestly, she only remembers the Honda that her downstairs neighbor drives because of the sheer number of times she'd heard him call the mechanic by the open window. But after Rumlow had stopped her in the hallway, the way he'd smiled and told her to have a good night...

"Do you mind waiting here for a little while?" Peggy asks the driver.

"I'm on the clock, ma'am," he says.

"It'll take less than ten minutes," Peggy says, pulling out her wallet. She pulls forty dollars out--more than twice her fare--and holds it out to him. "Here. I promise I'll be back in ten minutes."

The driver takes the money. "All right," he says, "Ten minutes."

She gets out of the car and crosses the street to the apartment building.

There's a rock propping the door open. It's not the first time that this has happened--Peggy knows that the couple on the first floor sometimes prop the door open when they're expecting friends over despite the complaints from the other tenants. Peggy kicks the rock from the door and pulls out her gun.

Her apartment door is still locked. She sets her purse down in the hallway--she'd be damned if she put her hard won hard drives in any danger.

She turns her key in the lock and pushes her door in as casually as possible. The tiny piece of string that she'd put on her deadbolt doesn't fall like it usually does--it's already on the floor.

Several things happen at once.

She turns on her lights and slams her elbow in the the face of the person waiting for her behind the door. The woman makes a surprised sound and Peggy only sees the man in her room for a moment before dropping to the ground and sweeping her leg out to send the woman sprawling to the ground on her back, her head cracking on the table with a sickening thud. Two shots--one hits the couch in front of her and the other splinters the wall behind her. She hopes her neighbors have the good sense to stay in their apartments. After the third shot, Peggy springs to her feet and shoots the man in both shoulders, making him cry out and drop his gun. He stumbles backward and falls onto her bed, blood already spreading across his shirt.

She'd be sad for her duvet if she didn't already know that she wouldn't be coming back.

Wasting no time, she grabs the only thing she'd come back to her apartment for: the laptop on her dining room table half covered in takeaway menus and files from work. On her way out, she flips over the identification card attached to the unconscious woman's hip just to confirm--yes, SHIELD agents after all.

She grabs a pair of flats from her shoe shelf before locking her door and shutting it after herself. She picks up her purse from where she'd left it in the hallway and hurries down the stairs and out the front door to the waiting cab.

_____

"This is as far as I can go," the driver says, pulling up to the closed gates. The light in the gatehouse is on though, and Peggy can see someone sitting inside.

"Thank you," she says, handing over a hefty tip before climbing out of the car, laptop in one hand, heels in the other.

The security guard is absorbed in some game on his cell phone when Peggy reaches the gatehouse and taps on the window. He looks up, startled before quickly shoving his phone in his pocket and opening the door.

"Are you lost?" the security guard asks, eyeing the shoes she's carrying, "Can I help you?"

"I was hoping Steve Rogers was here," she says, "Barring that, perhaps Amanda Orvitz."

"It's nearly ten," the security guard says, "If you have official business, you might have better luck during regular hours."

"Please," Peggy says, "I'm afraid this is rather urgent. If you could just contact either Steve or Amanda."

"I'm sorry," the guard says, "Look, if you come back tomorrow between nine and five, I'd be happy to contact whoever you'd like."

Peggy glances down the road. The cab is nowhere in sight--she has nowhere else to retreat to. The security guard must take her moment of inattention as a dismissal because he shuts the gatehouse door on her.

She can't call Steve's normal phone because SHIELD might be monitoring that one. She pulls out her burner phone and looks at it--Steve had called from an unknown 202 number. Maybe? She dials it.

"Hello?" It's a deep man's voice.

"Hello," Peggy says, "My name is Peggy Carter. I'm a friend of Steve Rogers."

"I know who you are," the man says.

"Oh," she says, and shakes off her surprise. "I was hoping you might have some connection with the royal family. I'm afraid I'm in a bit of a bind here."

"I'm the head of security," the man says.

"That's--that's fantastic actually," Peggy says, looking at the gatehouse again. The security guard is back on his phone. "You see, I'm standing outside your north gate and your guard is very clear about not letting anyone in. Just doing his job, I presume."

There's silence on the other end. And then: "I will see what I can do, Ms. Carter," before he hangs up.

Peggy looks at the burner. There's the muted sound of a walkie talkie crackling to life from inside the gatehouse and the security guard jumps. Peggy can't hear the muffled words but the security guard looks out the window at her, clearly surprised. After a moment, the gatehouse door opens again. This time the security guard steps out and holds the door open for her.

"My apologies," he says, "They're expecting you at the palace."

_____

Steve meets her outside the front doors in a light jacket and flip flops. "What happened?" he asks, taking her laptop bag and extra laptop from her.

"I think SHIELD noticed that I was prying into restricted access files," Peggy says as he leads her from the front doors along the side of the palace to another set of doors leading into the kitchen. Most of the windows are dark--only two of them seem to have any light at all coming from behind the curtains. "Got home and two agents were waiting for me. I knocked them out and got away," she says and adds hurriedly at Steve's immediate glance, "I'm fine. Not even a scratch."

The kitchen is spotless stainless steel though she only sees it for a moment. Steve takes her through the palace as if it were his own--and even though she intellectually knows better, it's surreal how easily he finds his way, comfortable among the darkened portraits and vaulted ceilings, priceless antiques lining the tables along the hallways. It was like stepping into a museum after dark.

"We're up on the third floor, in Bucky's wing," Steve says, "I think I know of a nearby room that might suit you. I don't think the maids will mind."

"Getting attacked by my own employer and then coming to stay at the palace," Peggy says, following him up the stairs, "Honestly I think this might be the strangest night of my life."

"Are you sure you're all right?" Steve asks, "Should I bring the first aid kit? Do you want a glass of water?"

"I promise I'm perfectly healthy," Peggy says, "Though I wouldn't say no to a glass of water, I suppose."

"Okay," Steve says, "I'll get one in a second." They turn into a hallway where one of the doors is open, light pouring into the hallway in the shape of a broken triangle. Steve stops a few rooms away and opens one of the doors across the hall. It takes him a moment to find the light switch.

The room is more modern than she expected--sleeker furniture than outside in the hallways with contemporary art hanging on the wall over the desk. Still priceless originals, no doubt. There's a bathroom attached to the side and the bed is made up with crisp white sheets. The curtains are drawn--the only part of the room that hasn't been updated, but only to match the same color as the other rooms, to be seen from the outside.

"I stay in this room a lot," Steve says, "They made it up for me when Bucky came back but I've mostly been sleeping on the couch in Bucky's room." He sets both her laptops on the desk and ducks into the bathroom, presumably to check if he'd left anything behind. He emerges empty handed.

"How is he?" Peggy asks.

"He's doing better," Steve says. He swallows, his eyes dropping to the floor for a moment before looking back at her face again. "Since you're here, I mean--you should know." He stops and a pained look briefly crosses his face before he says, very calmly, "Bucky doesn't um. Have all of his memories right now."

She'd seen the extended video--the full and uncensored version that only the intelligence community had their hands on. She shouldn't be as surprised as she is--not with the number of wires that had been threaded through the back of Bucky's skull and the conditioning they put him through. But the wry smile that Steve tries to keep on his face, the way that he's wringing his own fingers--god.

"He doesn't remember anyone," Steve says, "And he's having a hard time remembering himself. But he's still got all of his language and skills and everything. Sometimes his brain remembers stuff without him even being aware of it." He drops his hands to his sides. "So. He's doing better."

"Oh, Steve," Peggy says. She pulls him in for a hug and he lets her. After a moment, he hugs her back, face tucking against her neck, letting out a shaky breath. She holds on for a few more moment, hand moving in circles against his shoulder before they pull back.

"I--" Steve says, and tries to smile, kind of. "Thanks," he says. And then, "Do you want to see him? Maybe he'll remember you."

"Sure," Peggy says, because how else could she answer that question? Steve lights up though, a little, and he leads her across the hall into the open door.

Even though Peggy didn't know Bucky well, she thought the room suited him. The art in the room mostly depicted cityscapes or different vehicles that Peggy didn't recognize the make or model of--but she did recognize several of Steve's pieces here. And it was both a little surprising and endearing to realize that the crown prince did something as inane as collect postcards from all the places he'd visited--the bulletin board behind his worn-wood desk was overflowing with them. And even though it was obvious that a maid had been through the room to tidy up, the stuff on his desk was still a little haphazard, scattered pens and car keys left untouched where they had fallen last.

Bucky himself had fallen asleep on top of his covers, curled on one side. Cutouts of old newspaper articles are scattered on the bed around him. He looks smaller than Peggy remembered from two months ago when she'd sat across from him at the corner table of a restaurant. His hair is still in patches, some stitches still visible from where she stood in the doorway.

Steve gathers up the scattered newspaper articles and tucks them back into an expanding file folder. He takes the blanket that had been on the couch and drapes it over Bucky, pausing to gently brush Bucky's hair away from his face. He looks at Bucky, eyebrows drawn tightly together with his fingertips barely touching the side of Bucky's face. Peggy steps back out into the hallway, feeling like she's intruded on some private moment.

"Sorry," Steve says as he comes out of the room and shuts the door quietly behind himself. "It's been a long day for him. We looked through a lot of old newspaper articles."

"It must be helpful to have so much of his life well documented," Peggy says for lack of anything better to say.

Steve doesn't say anything in response to that. After a moment, he says, "Let me go get you that water." He turns towards the stairs before looking over his shoulder at her. "Then I want to hear about everything you've found at SHIELD."

_____

Peggy wakes up to an unfamiliar ceiling, on a much softer bed than she's usually accustomed to. It takes a moment for her to remember where she is and how little time they have left, but when she does, she gets off the bed and immediately opens the curtains.

It's about mid morning, maybe. She'd thrown her SHIELD issued phone out the cab window last night so she has to turn on her computer to see what time it actually is.

Someone knocks at the door. Peggy grabs her cardigan to wrap around the cami she'd slept in last night and says, "Come in."

Steve appears, carrying a tray of breakfast. Two teapots, eggs benedict, and a selection of fruit and pastries with a side of yogurt. Considering Peggy mostly ate granola and coffee for breakfast, it's certainly more than she expected.

"I didn't know what you wanted so I asked Lorraine to make you a late breakfast," Steve says, putting the tray onto the desk next to her computer. "The queen hasn't come back from Maine yet but you can thank her for the ridiculously early breakfasts they serve."

"I should have set an alarm," Peggy says, peering into one of the teapots. Tea. She picks up the other and pours herself a cup. "I'm rather pleased I didn't fall asleep at the desk though. That would have been a disaster of a migraine."

"I texted Sam first thing when I woke up," Steve says, stealing a piece of honeydew from the tray, "Apparently he's in touch with Natasha and he can go pick her up."

"I'll ask Maria if she can help us convince Fury," Peggy says, sitting down at her laptop and taking a bite out of one of the pastries.

Steve leans against the table and crosses his arms, looking down at her. "I still don't know if I trust Fury not to contact SHIELD the moment they figure out where you are and what you know."

"You know why I don't think he's corrupt," Peggy says, setting the pastry back down on the tray so she can type in her password.

"The Project Insight separation thing--but you know he doesn't have to be corrupt to be convinced that all the evidence we have is circumstantial at best." Steve cuts one of the eggs benedicts into quarters. "And if he's a director--he might be pretty invested in keeping SHIELD the way it is."

"Maria's a director too," Peggy says, opening up a new email.

"But you've already talked to Maria," Steve says, "And I might have had the same misgivings about Maria if I didn't already know she was on board." He sweeps one of the quarters of the eggs benedict into the hollandaise sauce before stealing it off her plate.

"If he's been kicked out of the Project Insight page, I think he'd be happy to hear what we have to say," Peggy says as she wakes the laptop still categorizing the data she'd pulled off Pierce's computer. She'd left it open on the blueprint of INSIGHT 2-3, none of the turrets blinking any more since it'd been taken off the live feed. "And we need him," she adds, taking the fork that Steve holds out to her and stabbing through a piece of the egg and ham before absently putting it into her mouth. She studies the blueprint as she chews, tapping the fork against her lip as she zooms in on one of the command modules. "He should know this helicarrier inside out and we only have another thirty-six hours max before these things launch."

Steve looks at the window. "All right," he says, "But if he comes for you--if anyone comes for you--" He looks at Peggy, and says with dead seriousness, "I've got your back."

Peggy smiles a little wryly and holds out the fork. "Finish this off for me, will you?" She gestures at the coffee pot. "I'm going to need a lot more of that."

_____

After spending three full hours combing through the blueprints and associated design emails for any obvious weak point on the helicarriers, Peggy steps out of her room for a change of scenery in effort to reboot her brain from working continuously on the same project for so long.

It happens to be the same moment that Bucky steps out of his room.

Despite the choppy hair and the pinned left sleeve of his blazer, Bucky looks more like Peggy remembered than he did last night. He sees her and smiles politely.

"Hello," Peggy says.

"Hello," Bucky says and looks more closely at her. "You'll have to forgive me, my memory is still coming back to me. Have we met?" His voice is stiff--none of the casual charm that Peggy remembered.

"We have," Peggy says, stepping across the hallway to hold out her hand, "I'm Peggy Carter, Steve's friend."

"Peggy, Steve's friend," Bucky repeats, shaking her hand. His polite smile fades somewhat as he studies her face.

"Thank you for letting me stay here," Peggy says, even though she hadn't asked and Bucky hadn't actually granted permission.

"Of course," Bucky says, "Anything for a friend of Steve's."

"Speaking of which, do you know where he is?" Peggy asks. There's something unnerving about the way he's looking at her, something unreadable in his face as he holds himself up rather rigidly.

"I think we're having guests over for lunch," Bucky says, "Although I'm afraid I've forgotten their names already. Steve went down to greet them."

"Sam?" Peggy supplies, "Natasha?"

"Those sound right," Bucky agrees, and holds out his right arm with a faint smile, "Shall we?"

Peggy doesn't realize how tense she is until she relaxes. Even if she didn't know Bucky particularly well, this was certainly more familiar. She takes his arm and lets him lead her down the stairs.

"I'm glad to see that you're doing well," Peggy says.

Bucky doesn't say anything in response, just leads her down the hallway. Peggy can hear Natasha's voice coming from one of the open doors.

"Bucky," Steve says, getting to his feet as they reach the room. "Sorry, I started talking and lost track of time." He looks at Peggy. "Peggy, we didn't want to disturb you."

"Steve was just catching us up," Natasha says, watching Steve go to Bucky for a moment before looking over at Peggy. "I'm not sure if the two of you have met. Peggy, this is Lieutenant Sam Wilson. Sam, this is Agent Peggy Carter."

"We've met," Sam says, shaking her hand anyway, "Rhodey's friend, right? Call me Sam."

"Friend of a friend, actually," Peggy says, smiling, "And Peggy, please."

"SHIELD sponsored genocide, huh?" Natasha says, "Sounds like it could be a problem."

"Not SHIELD," Peggy says, "Just parts of it. Possibly HYDRA."

"The way things are going, what's the difference?"

"Guys," Steve interrupts from the doorway, "Let's move into the other room. Lunch is here."

_____

"You can't just disable it," Natasha argues, flipping through the printouts of the helicarrier blueprints, "It'll take them maybe half an hour to figure out what's wrong and then the launch would go on exactly as planned."

"What if you wiped the prediction software?" Sam suggests.

"If they had all the programmers working around the clock, they could rewrite the program from their notes in less than a month," Peggy says, "Not to mention, if they backed it up on servers we can't touch, it'd be up and running in less than two hours."

She'd moved her work downstairs and Halley--the man who had answered her phone call from the gate of the palace--had provided them with spare palace security laptops and a printer. A member of the palace staff would occasionally drop by with a new pot of coffee and a selection of crackers and expensive cheeses but otherwise they were left alone in this immaculately decorated conference room, long-dead Barneses peering down at them from every wall.

"We have to destroy them," Steve says from where he's standing in front of the windows. He'd been staring out at the ground for the last ten minutes or so. Maybe Bucky was out there--he'd disappeared after lunch with a polite excuse, leaving Steve with the rest of them. Steve looked like he was visibly restraining himself from following Bucky out the door. "Blow them up," he says, glancing over at the table where the rest of them are seated, "It'd take years to rebuild the physical components from scratch and they'd be too busy running from the law by then."

"Blow up the helicarriers and turn the Potomac into a reservoir while we're at it," Natasha says, "Maybe take out half of Arlington just for fun."

"Blow them up in the sky," Sam says, "A couple thousand feet up so the debris doesn't go everywhere."

"What if we did it over the ocean?" Steve asks.

"SHIELD would have to be very lenient to follow us all the way over Delaware without engaging," Natasha points out.

"Could just do it over the bay," Sam says, "Annapolis isn't too far away."

"Alright," Natasha says, "Except for one crucial fact. Where are we going to find the firepower strong enough to blow up three helicarriers?"

"Use them against each other," Peggy says, not looking up from her laptop.

"How?" Natasha demands.

"The helicarriers have to run the prediction program off a physical disk of some sort," Peggy says, "All we have to do is replace that disk with our own disk that targets the other helicarriers instead of people."

"That sounds like it could work," Steve says, "Is there a catch?"

"I don't know where the command module is," Peggy says.

"There are at least three parts to every helicarrier that look like they could be it," Natasha agrees, looking down at the blueprint again, "It's too far apart to case each of them individually within a reasonable amount of time, especially if we're going to be fighting our way through." She looks up. "If we had another twenty agents…"

"I can't name more than five other agents I'd trust," Peggy says.

Natasha smiles wryly.

Someone knocks at the door. A moment later it opens and Halley steps halfway into the room. "Excuse me," he says before looking at Peggy, "Ms. Carter, you have visitors asking for you by name. I've let them into the foyer."

Peggy gets to her feet.

"Nick?" Natasha asks, rising too.

"I hope so," Peggy answers and follows Halley out the door.

_____

"That's the most far-fetched plan I've ever heard," Fury says, tapping his fingers against the blueprints. He frowns. "It might just work. We don't have enough manpower for anything more complicated."

"What teams are we going to split up into?" Natasha asks, assessing each of them in turn.

"I can take care of ground command myself," Peggy says, "All the controls are probably there."

"I can fly," Sam points out, "Sounds like I'd be a natural for one of the helicarriers."

"Natasha and I can take quinjets up," Maria suggests.

"Wait," Steve says, "What are we going to do about SHIELD being corrupt?"

"We could round them up afterwards," Maria says.

"With the six of us?"

"The majority of SHIELD must still be legitimate."

"Right," Steve says, though he sounds dubious, "But how are we going to convince them?"

Silence. Peggy takes a deep breath and is about to start speaking when Natasha beats her to it.

"Put all SHIELD files on the internet," she says.

"Natasha," Fury says, disparaging.

"All of them," Natasha says, "Come clean about what SHIELD has turned into. Whatever the corruption is, if they're HYDRA or someone else--they can't recover from that."

"There are agents still under cover," Maria points out.

"And HYDRA will just go back underground," Steve says.

"HYDRA extends much farther than their faction within SHIELD," Peggy says, "Given enough time, I think they would certainly have the resources to recover from a halfhearted round-up."

"It's everything or nothing," Steve says, grim.

Silence. Fury looks at Sam who just raises his hands somewhat, shrugging. Maria looks at Peggy, biting her lip.

"I'll go," Natasha says, "I've accessed files I shouldn't have enough times by now that it shouldn't be too much trouble for me to scrape everything. All I need is to buy time for all of it to upload."

"You're still suspended," Fury says, "You wouldn't get anywhere close to a secure terminal. I'm coming with you."

Natasha nods in acknowledgement.

Another brief silence before Steve says, "So I guess I need to learn how to fly a quinjet."

"We have less than twenty four hours left," Maria says, "You're talented but not that talented. I can drop you off and pick you up."

"Or me," Sam adds.

"This is the plan then?" Peggy asks nobody in particular.

"God save our souls," Maria murmurs under her breath.

_____

"Steve," Peggy says, catching him outside in the hallway after settling Sam and Natasha in their own rooms for the night. Peggy had been somewhat apprehensive about Maria and Fury leaving, assuaged only somewhat by the fact that SHIELD hadn't caught them digging through restricted files.

Steve pauses, silhouetted in the light coming from the open door of Bucky's room. "Hey," he says as she steps out into the hallway.

"I just wanted to see how you were doing," Peggy says, "How you feel about the plan."

"I'm fine," he says, "It's good. Why are you asking?"

"It's just--" Peggy pauses, wishing she could see Steve's expression better in this dim light. "--if we're taking the helicarriers out over the bay, there's going to be plenty of time to change out the targeting program."

"Peggy--" Steve starts.

"Between Maria and Sam, I have more than enough confidence that we'd be able to pull this off in time," Peggy continues, ignoring him, "And you've already done so much Steve."

"No," Steve says.

"You have other responsibilities," Peggy finishes, "Whether you want to admit it or not."

Steve doesn't respond for a long moment.

"I said that if there was any way I could help, I would," he says, "And I'm not going back on that promise, Peggy."

"It's not just us relying on you," Peggy says.

"I know," Steve says, "But this is important. I wouldn't leave if it wasn't. Besides--" He turns his head towards the open door and Peggy can see the smile on his face. "--I have a feeling we've exhausted all our bad luck already. I'll be fine. We'll all be fine. This will work."

Peggy touches his arm, looking at his face. He looks back at her and takes her hand. He squeezes it and smiles again, looking tired. She tries to smile back, swallowing on the tightness in her throat.

"Good night," she murmurs, still holding his hand.

"See you in the morning," he agrees and kisses her cheek. She lets go.

She steps back into her own room. Across the hallway, the door slowly shuts.

Chapter Text

"James," Amanda says over dinner on the fourth day that they're back at the palace, "Colonel Arnalds wants to know if you would be willing to meet with the military team investigating the helicopter crash."

Steve wants to cut in and tell Amanda just what he thinks of Colonel Arnalds for suggesting that Bucky relive his trauma not even a month after being rescued--but he swallows his own protest. Next to him, Bucky doesn't even look up from his piece of pre-cut chicken and says, "I don't really remember anything about it."

"I tried to tell them that," Amanda says, "But it seems like they'd prefer to hear it from you. They've been asking for a few weeks now."

"Can't they put it off for another month?" Steve says, "Preferably never?"

"If I meet with them, will they stop asking?" Bucky asks.

"I would think so," Amanda says.

Bucky moves the wilted spinach around on his plate. It's more than likely that he's being unreasonable but Steve can't help but glare at Amanda for bringing it up in the first place.

"Okay," Bucky says, "I'll meet with them."

_____

Sometimes Bucky disappears for an hour or two without any prior warning. It takes a considerable amount of Steve's willpower not to hunt him down--the doctors had warned all of them to give Bucky enough space to figure things out by himself so that it'd be easier for linked memories to return. Halley had forcefully cleared out the remaining reporters still skulking around behind the fence and hedges lining the palace grounds, though the few times Steve had watched him from an upstairs window, Bucky mostly seemed to avoid the edges of the grounds anyway.

He's sitting on a bench in the garden now. Steve might have passed by on purpose a few times, but always far enough away that he could just play it off as taking a stroll through the gardens himself. But by the third time, Bucky lifts his head and says, "You can come join me."

Steve is halfway to him before he stops himself. "I'm sorry," he says, "You probably want to be left alone."

"Sit down, Steve," Bucky says, moving over so that he's not sitting in the very middle of the bench. Steve hesitates before taking a seat.

"It looks like it might rain," Bucky says.

Steve lifts his eyes. There are clouds in the west, grey and foreboding.

"We should go inside before it gets close," Bucky says.

"Yeah," Steve says.

A breeze rustles through the bushes, faraway trees swaying. Steve watches a bee lift off from a flower and get caught on a current of air. It tumbles into the bushes but crawls back out once the leaves still.

It was hard, sitting next to Bucky without the slightest clue of what to say. And as painful as the uncertain silence was, it was worse not being near him. It wasn't as if Bucky could be kidnapped from the royal palace. He wouldn't be able to disappear at all with the number of guards and security cameras covering nearly every square foot of the palace grounds, but Steve still found it difficult to let Bucky out of his sight.

"Are you cold?" Steve asks. Bucky's only wearing a light jacket over an old West Point t-shirt and it was getting colder as they reached mid-autumn.

"I'm okay," Bucky says, though the next breeze that slips through the garden causes him to shiver a little. Steve scoots closer and Bucky seems to instinctively lean into his warmth.

They watch the clouds in silence.

_____

"I don't remember this," Bucky says, setting aside another article. Steve picks it up and scans over it--a tiny column in the society pages speculating about a date Bucky have brought to some research charity event.

"She was one of your college friends," Steve says, "You told me she had a grandma with Alzheimer's. That's why you asked her to come."

"You remember all of that from a two paragraph mention?" Bucky asks, taking the article back.

"You were pissed about it at the time," Steve says, "Your friend thought it was hilarious though."

Bucky doesn't reply, just sets the article back down. They'd almost finished going through the last three years of Bucky's life--though there hadn't been very many articles during Bucky's special forces training. Bucky had reread his emails and Skype logs instead--all of the inane bullshit he'd traded with Steve and the advice that Halley had apparently sent him.

If he found the last email he'd sent, he was being quiet about it.

Steve couldn't bring it up himself. Half because it wasn't the right time--not with Bucky still curiously reading old correspondence and commenting on them in the third person--and the other half because he couldn't bear to admit what had been lost. To bring it up would be to make it real and absolute.

"How about this one?" Bucky asks, holding out another article speculating about a brunette on Bucky's arm at some other dinner.

"No idea," Steve says after looking at it. He sets it aside. Bucky looks at him expectantly. "We didn't really ever talk about who or if we were dating," Steve adds in explanation.

Partially because it made Steve feel kind of shitty and jealous even though he thought he'd risen above it--partially because Bucky would respond with long periods of silence or avoid it altogether. In retrospect, it was fucked up how much they avoided talking about this altogether. Maybe if they had confronted it earlier--

--no point in thinking about the possibilities. Only one thing mattered right now and that was bringing Bucky back to himself.

Steve glances over at Bucky, half expecting him to ask Steve to explain. But Bucky doesn't say anything else, just moves on to the next article.

Steve picks up the tablet that Bucky had abandoned in favor of looking at the print articles and pretends to be distracted by it. But he's really looking at Bucky--the way that he itches at the few stitches still left at the back of his head, absently touching them before seeming to think better of it and taking his hand away. The way his eyes flick over the articles, his neutral expression never changing. The way that even though he's lost muscle mass and his complexion, he looks so much like Bucky that Steve still has a hard time believing that he doesn't remember their shared past.

Steve forces himself to look away, down at the three-year-old email that Bucky had been reading before. But then Bucky says, "Why aren't you in any of these?"

"The articles?" Steve asks.

"Yeah," Bucky says, "We were close weren't we?"

The past tense hurts more than Steve expected it to. But he swallows and says, "Yeah. Um. I think it was around the time we were in middle school. Some reporter came out with uh, a less than effusive tabloid article about me and our friendship and you didn't take it too well. You wrote them a really nasty letter which they immediately published." He can't help but smile wryly at the memory. "Amanda was furious. You wanted to write another letter but she convinced you it would be better to just ban anyone in the press from mentioning me in conjunction with you. So." He spreads his hands. "That was that."

"I see," Bucky says. After a moment he asks, "Why would anyone publish an attack on you in middle school?"

"I was probably just a really easy target," Steve says, "I got held back a couple of years thanks to my health. I wasn't strong in any traditional sense. A lot of people were confused as to why you kept me around."

Bucky's eyes narrow as he looks up at Steve. "Why the fuck was it any of their business?"

Steve's taken aback at the sudden anger--then tries to repress a surge of hope. "You were the prince. A lot of people were interested in your life."

Bucky looks down at the next article in his hands. It's few moments before he asks, "Why'd you keep me around?"

"What?"

"It must have been hard being friends with me," Bucky says, meeting Steve's eyes, "So why did you let me stick around?"

"I--" Steve says. Never in any universe could Steve imagine Bucky asking him that question--not when it was such a given, the one steady thing both before and after. Even when everything else was shifting under Steve's feet--meeting Susanne for the first time, nights when he stared at the ceiling in quarter life crisis and wondered if he was going to make it to forty, waking up in a new body when he rightfully should have been dead--the one constant was knowing that he had Bucky Barnes if nothing else. How could he explain how they picked up the threads of conversation after weeks of silence, as if no time had passed at all? When they'd spent years apart yet Bucky was still the last thing he thought about before he went to sleep and the first person he texted when he woke up again?

I love you and I'm in love with you.

"We're best friends," Steve says helplessly, knowing how profoundly inadequate his answer was.

Bucky looks at him for a long time. But he must see something in Steve's face because he says, very quietly, "Okay."

_____

The investigation team shows up on Monday afternoon, a couple of hours after lunch. Halley comes to knock on Bucky's door, interrupting his perusal of photographs from his old college track meets.

"Will you come with me?" Bucky asks, looking at Steve.

Steve doesn't even think about it. "Of course."

There are four men sitting on one side of the table when they enter the conference room. "Captain Bertone," one of the middle ones introduces himself. He leans over and holds his hand out, which Bucky shakes. "Pleasure to meet you, Lieutenant Barnes."

"Likewise, sir," Bucky says.

"This is my team," Bertone says before rapidly introducing each by name. Steve doesn't make an effort to remember then, just keeps his attention on Bucky.

"Steve Rogers," Steve says when he realizes that Bertone's looking expectantly at him.

"It's great to meet you Mr. Rogers," Bertone says, "But unfortunately, this meeting is highly classified--"

"I want him here," Bucky says.

Bertone and the others look at him. Bucky doesn't seem fazed. "He stays or we don't have this meeting."

"Lieutenant Barnes," one of the team starts.

"No, it's fine," Bertone says, cutting him off. He glances at Steve again before clearly deciding that the best course of action was probably just to ignore him.

"We have a few questions for you regarding the helicopter crash and your subsequent abduction," Bertone says, looking down at a sheet of paper he'd brought with him. "It would be best if you answered them as fully and honestly as you could. They will help us capture and punish the people responsible." He pauses, glancing at Steve before maintaining eye contact with Bucky. "Some of these questions revolve around the trauma you sustained while abducted. If at any time you feel overwhelmed by the questions, we can stop. Just let us know."

"Okay," Bucky says.

"Alright," Bertone says, "Let us know when you'd like us to start."

"You can start," Bucky says without missing a beat.

"What can you tell us about what happened during the events before and after your helicopter was shot down?"

Bucky keeps his eyes on Bertone's face. "I don't remember."

"Can you describe the events that occurred leading up to the explosion of the helicopter wreckage?"

"I don't remember."

"Please take a look at this photograph," Bertone says, sliding a tablet across the table. On it is a picture of charred wreckage--the form of broken helicopter rotors barely recognizable.

Bucky looks at it for a few moments before saying, "I don't remember."

"Take another look," Bertone insists.

Bucky does and shakes his head. "Nothing."

"Alright," Bertone says and takes the tablet back. "Do you know how many people abducted you from the scene of the crash?"

Bucky hesitates. "More than one."

"Can you describe your abductors?"

Bucky pauses again and looks at the table. "An American," he says, "And there was a Russian too. I remember their voices."

"Can you describe their voices?"

"I don't know," Bucky says and stops. The silence stretches--Bertone just keeps looking at Bucky. Finally, Bucky says, "The Russian kept saying that I was no good."

"Do you know why that was?"

"No," Bucky says.

"Do you remember if there were any other people during the course of your abduction?"

"No," Bucky says, "I don't remember."

There's another silence, but this time Bucky doesn't offer any more information. Eventually, Bertone continues his list of questions. "Could you estimate the length of time it took for you to travel from the helicopter wreckage to where they kept you hostage?"

"Even if I was conscious," Bucky says, "I don't remember."

"We're going to show you a series of photographs," Bertone says, "If you remember anything about them, even the most insignificant of details, please tell us."

The first picture is of Bucky strapped into the chair with the helmet. Steve doesn't need to look twice to know exactly where it came from. "No," he hears himself saying, "You can't."

"Mr. Rogers," Bertone says, "If you could restrain yourself."

"You're going to show him pictures of himself being tortured, front and center?" Steve demands, rising to his feet with his palms on the table, "How the hell is that going to accomplish anything other than traumatizing him further?"

Bertone turns to the man on his left. "If you would kindly escort Mr. Rogers out--"

"No," Bucky says, tearing his eyes away from the photograph to look at Steve. "Steve, it's okay. I'm okay." He looks at Bertone. "You can show them to me. Steve stays." He looks at Steve again, his voice a little shaky as he asks, "Steve, will you stay?"

Steve swallows and sits down.

"I don't remember anything about this," Bucky says, "I'm sorry."

The next picture they show is Bucky in the pod-like machine that only showed his face through a thick layer of glass. Steve stares somewhere off to the side of the picture, but he reaches out and threads his fingers through Bucky's, not giving a shit what the investigation team thought. Bucky's hand immediately tightens around his.

"I remember screaming a lot," Bucky says, "Though I'm sure that's not helpful."

"Do you remember anything else? What they said to each other during this procedure? What they said to you? Anything to help us possibly identify them?"

"Sorry," Bucky says, "I just remember a lot of pain."

Bertone exchanges a look with the man who's recording Bucky's answers before moving on to the next one. It's a picture of the back of Bucky's head, the surgical tools still inserted.

"Do you remember anything at all about this procedure?"

Bucky studies the photograph. "No," he says, "Though my doctors say that my brain scans are surprisingly normal considering this happened."

"If we could please stick to what you remember, Lieutenant," Bertone says.

"I don't remember anything," Bucky says flatly.

"Here's the next one," Bertone says. It's a picture of whatever burn experiments they were performing on Bucky's thigh, sandpaper still in shot.

Bucky looks at it for a long moment before saying, "Well, I have the scars." He touches their joined hands to the side of his thigh where the scars must have been under his jeans. He takes a deep breath and says without emotion, "After putting me into that machine and doing whatever it was they were doing to my brain, they were trying to see how much pain I could endure and how quickly I could heal. I don't know why, considering they sawed off part of my arm." He pauses and preempts what he thinks the next question will be with, "I don't remember what they said. I still don't remember what they looked like."

"They sawed off your arm?" Bertone asks. The man taking notes is writing faster now, his eyes flicking from his notebook to Bucky's face and back.

"Just part of it," Bucky says.

"That was also a test?"

"No," Bucky says, "It was infected." He pauses and glances down at the photograph. "Aren't you going to show me a picture of that next?"

"We don't have a picture of that," Bertone says.

"Okay," Bucky says, unperturbed. He almost looks bored. But he's still holding on to Steve's hand, tight.

"We have the next picture here," Bertone says. Steve looks away before he can see it. But he still remembers it and sometimes it still haunts his dreams: a limp Bucky hanging by a harness, tased half to death.

"They were very fixated on my ability to heal," Bucky says, "That's all I remember."

Silence. Then Bertone says, "Okay, here's the last one we have. Do you recognize anything in the background? Any of the instruments?"

"I don't think I've ever seen this room before," Bucky says, "But then again, I can't remember anything really well."

Steve tilts his face down and closes his eyes. Of the two of them, it's ridiculous that he's the one reacting like this. He didn't have any right--not when he was supposed to be the strong one. He swallows and takes a breath and drags his eyes back up to Bertone and the others.

Bertone has put the tablet away. The recorder continues to write things down even though Bucky hasn't said anything else. "Thank you, lieutenant," Bertone says, "Is there anything else that you think might help our investigation?"

"That's all," Bucky says.

Steve keeps a hold of Bucky's hand as the military team files out of the door. Neither of them speak for a long moment.

Bucky finally says, "I'm sorry I made you sit through that."

"I'm sorry they made you look at those," Steve replies, "Hell, I'm angry they made you look at those."

"They were just doing their job," Bucky says. His voice gets quieter and he looks at the table as he says, "It was just stuff happening to a body."

Your body, Steve wants to say, but bites down on the words. If this was how Bucky needed to cope, he wasn't going to insist on any other reality. But it didn't make it hurt any less, didn't make the reality of it any less cruel.

Steve lets his grip loosen but he can't let go of Bucky's hand just yet. Or maybe it's the other way around. It doesn't really matter.

"You thought I was dead," Bucky says quietly.

Steve swallows.

"Why would you go to all that effort for a dead body?"

Steve closes his eyes and steadies himself.

When he opens his eyes again, Bucky is looking at him. He can't read the expression on Bucky's face but he wonders if Bucky can see the raw pain on his. Because if he thinks about that thirty-some hour period of his life when Bucky had been dead with no hope of rescue, he won't be able to hold it together and he needs to be strong now, for the both of them.

"You're important to me," Steve says softly, "I would never leave you behind, even if it's just your body."

"That's stupid," Bucky says, his grip tightening on Steve's hand, "That's putting yourself in unnecessary danger."

Steve smiles, a little lopsided. "Sounds like me."

_____

Susanne calls at her usual time after dinner to chat about her day and to see how they're doing. Steve gives her a rather edited version of Bertone's interrogation and listens to her talk about a new memory therapy she'd read about on the internet that maybe Bucky could try before she suddenly says, "Oh, I almost forgot! A couple of big envelopes came for you in the mail a while ago when you were still overseas. I just found them again after cleaning up the kitchen today."

"Who are they from?" Steve asks.

"Not sure," Susanne says, "I didn't want to dig through your mail. Very official looking though."

Steve stops by the house the next morning before the sun is even up, biking from the palace. He goes with the intention of picking the envelopes up and running to his own apartment to drop them off to deal with later if they didn't look urgent--but instead he finds himself standing in his childhood kitchen, staring blankly at the Barnes crest on one and a Merrill Lynch bull on the other.

It's strange to remember that Bucky's death wasn't just intensely personal--that there would be paperwork set into motion and faceless third parties stepping in to sweep up the loose ends of dangling bank accounts and ownerless deeds. Steve opens the envelope with the Barnes crest on it and gets halfway through the first sentence of, "As one of the named executors on the will of Prince James Buchanan Barnes, I am writing to you to inform you…: before he puts it back down on the kitchen counter and leans on his palms, staring out the window where the leaves are turning red and barely visible in the pre-sunrise light. The letter accompanies an entire goddamn binder embossed with another Barnes crest.

The Merrill Lynch letter is no better--"In the event of the death of James Buchanan Barnes, the control of the account in question with total assets worth $10,023,473.51 has been released from trust to the named account holder Steven Grant Rogers"--a number that doesn't even look real, a number that suggests that Bucky had set the account up a long time ago and maintained it for years, a number that Steve wouldn't even care about if Bucky was well and truly dead because he would have been inclined to follow on the next dangerous round of missions.

And wasn't it so much like Bucky to make the grand statements when Steve couldn't reply--this last grand and final statement like Bucky throwing out his hands and saying I love you, with both feet in the grave when all Steve could do was stare dumbly at page after page of financial documents and breakdown of assets thinking it doesn't matter, none of this matters if you're not here.

In the binder, there are photographs of a Picasso from his blue period, a series of Sargent oil paintings, a Degas triptych. Steve flips through a few of the pages without comprehension before going back to the first letter. Halfway down he finds the explanation: "Prince James inherited 56 pieces of art from his grandmother, all 56 of which he is leaving to you."

Steve slams the binder shut. He stuffs both of the letters back into the envelopes they arrived in and puts all of it under the kitchen counter, beneath a stack of outdated advertisements and Susanne's cookie tin sewing kit. It wasn't like any of the letters were even valid anyway, since Bucky was still alive. He'd seen Bucky not even half an hour ago, curled up on his side and sleeping. He'd left Bucky a note that he was going out running and would be back before lunch. They'd go over more of his college years together in the afternoon. Bucky was still alive, still breathing and eating, still smiling once in a while--

Steve would give anything to have Bucky back. The one who understood how fucking awful getting these letters would be--the one who Steve could rightfully grab and shout at--the one who had written I've always loved you, and disappeared.

His phone chimes with a text. Steve pulls it from his pocket to see a new message from Bucky: not that the kitchen isn't great but could you pick up a latte from that one coffeeshop near your old place from before you got sick on your way home?

It's the first time Bucky's asked for anything specific. Steve reads the text twice before regretfully typing in a response. That cafe closed half a year ago while you were at training. Sorry. Somewhere else?

Steve's biked halfway towards the cemetery, heading east towards where he usually met Sam for their morning runs when he gets the text back. oh, it reads, the cinnamon cookie place?

The cinnamon cookie place is a joint cafe and bookshop all the way in Bethesda. Steve knows he'll find the time to go. Hell, Bucky could ask him to stop by a deli in New York for the corned beef sandwich he liked so much during his weekend trips in college and Steve would get on the damn train for six hours.

Ok, he texts back at the next stoplight and tries not to let himself feel too hopeful. Just looking at Bucky's name on his phone makes his heart feel too full.

The light turns green. Steve tucks his phone back into his pocket and cycles on.

_____

"I've really gotta shape up," Sam pants as he slows to a stop next to where Steve's taking a drink from his water bottle. Steve holds it out and Sam takes it, splashing half of it over his face as he aims vaguely for his mouth. "Think I could sign up for some super serum?"

"Only if you want to spend the rest of your life working for some potentially illicit intelligence agency," Steve says, "I'd keep the wings, personally."

"Carter get back to you?" Sam asks, wiping his face with his shirt.

"She's got enough on her plate without having to update me about every little thing," Steve says, taking back the water bottle that Sam's holding out, "They finally approved my extended leave though, so I guess I'm technically not under suspension any longer."

"Well as long as it's technical," Sam says, shaking his head, "Romanov hasn't touched base yet either, huh?"

Steve shakes his head and looks across the reflecting pool.

"You doing alright?" Sam asks.

"Yeah," Steve says, "Bucky's doing alright."

"I mean you," Sam says, "You and not Bucky."

"I'm doing okay too," Steve says, looking back at Sam as if making eye contact would make his words more convincing.

"It's okay to take time for yourself," Sam says, like he'd said every time he'd come to the hospital with food from the outside world and news from Natasha. He'd been the one to mention that Tony Stark had the machine attached to Bucky's arm.

He'd been the one that Steve had talked to first, about Bucky not remembering anything at all. And even though Sam couldn't possibly have understood without the context, without the weight of their entire combined history, he'd been so certain that Bucky would come back to himself that Steve couldn't help but believe too.

"Yeah," Steve says, "I mean, I'm here, right? I like running."

"You like beating me, that's what you like," Sam says.

"I'm biking to Bethesda," Steve says, kneeling to unlock his bicycle. "You want to come with?"

"What, so you can kick my ass at biking too?" Sam asks. But he's pulling the key for his own bike lock out and smiling, so.

_____

Peggy shows up late on a Wednesday night, carrying her shoes in one hand and a revelation about SHIELD on a hard drive in her purse.

_____

Bucky stays out of their way altogether, spending most of his time in his room or walking around the grounds when he wanted fresh air. It's strange how he hasn't asked yet to be taken beyond the neatly trimmed hedges into DC. Or even to Susanne's house, which Steve had mentioned more than a couple times. Standing in the conference room and listening to Natasha argue with Peggy while looking down at Bucky working with his physical therapist--he thinks about climbing behind the wheel of a car he doesn't know how to drive and taking Bucky far away from here.

Bucky stays for lunch, eating very quietly and listening the four of them discussing all the agents they knew associated with Undersecretary Pierce--but he doesn't come to the table for dinner. Steve doesn't see Bucky again until after he's taken Natasha and Sam to their rooms, until after Peggy tries to offer him an out that he could never in good conscience take.

But closing the door to Bucky's room now, with Bucky sitting on his bed with a folder in his lap, looking up at him like he'd been waiting for a long time--it's hard not to think about staying, conscience be damned.

"Sorry to keep you up," Steve says, "Let me just take a quick shower and we can turn out the lights."

Bucky nods and looks back down at the folder.

Steve closes the bathroom door behind him and turns on the shower. He quickly strips out of his clothes and gets under the spray, thinking about the helicarriers the entire time. Insight 3-3 is slightly different than the other two--the controls for steering the aircraft were maybe a hundred yards away from the targeting control rather than being in the same approximate space. Steve would have a five minute period once they hit the bay to get from one control to the other and to replace the targeting program.

He shuts off the shower and runs a towel through his hair. He steals more of Bucky's toothpaste and looks at his fogged reflection in the mirror as he brushes his teeth. Interstate 70 ran all the way west. Maybe Steve could learn how to drive a car through the western half of Maryland--he'd had a permit he'd never used for more than a decade now. Or up the New Jersey turnpike to disappear among the millions of people in New York City, back to semi-familiar streets.

He spits into the sink and pulls on a shirt. Steam briefly follows him out into Bucky's room as Bucky looks up again.

"I remember some of these photographs," Bucky says. Steve moves over to sit at the edge of Bucky's bed, looking at the photographs in Bucky's hand. Several of them are from one of Steve's birthday dinners that Bucky had showed up to with maybe two hours worth of warning. He'd flown in from someplace Steve can't remember now, jetlagged as hell. Someone else must have taken these pictures and Steve has no idea how Amanda had gotten her hands on them.

There's one shot where Carlos and Lucy must have left the table to order more drinks at the bar and Brianne was messing around with her camera. In it, Bucky's saying something to Steve with a smile on his face. Steve's head is bent in his direction, laughing. Everything is half lit with the light over the table, Bucky's arm on the booth backrest barely visible. Even if he doesn't remember this exact moment, Steve can tell from the lowered eyelids, the slight curve of his lips--Bucky was saying something self-deprecating and a second later from this frozen frame, Steve would have probably punched him in the arm.

"I don't remember your growth spurt," Bucky says.

Steve tears his eyes away from the photograph. "That's because--it was kind of an experimental procedure," he says, "Highly classified. I guess I have SHIELD to thank."

"You let them do experiments on you?"

"I was--" Steve starts. Half-dead, seems too dramatic even if it was true. "--in a coma."

Bucky doesn't say anything to that, though the grim line of his mouth suggests that he remembers something about Steve nearly dying from septic shock. Steve takes the photograph from Bucky's fingers and looks at it again. It seems so strange that the two people in this picture could be from the same lifetime.

"Tomorrow sounds like it'll be dangerous," Bucky says.

"We've definitely survived worse," Steve says, trying to keep his tone light.

Bucky doesn't smile. He slips the photographs back into the folder and looks at Steve. Steve reluctantly hands over the picture he's holding, meeting Bucky's eyes.

"We should probably go to sleep," Steve says, "Long day ahead." He slips off the bed and towards the couch where he's been sleeping for the last week or so.

Bucky's hand catches his wrist. Steve turns his head.

"Stay," Bucky says, leaning forward with his eyes fixed on Steve's face. "Please."

Steve doesn't think twice about it. "Okay," he says quietly.

_____

Steve's used to waking up after Bucky does, used to lying under the covers with his eyes closed, pretending that he's not yet awake and drifting back to sleep in the end. It's been years since he'd last woken up next to Bucky's comfortable weight on the mattress, the familiar smell of Bucky's shampoo and clean sweat surrounding him as he pushed his face into the comforter and curled up closer.

So it's a change to wake up and find Bucky still sleeping, eyes closed and the weight of his right shoulder across Steve's chest. His hand is curled loosely in the soft cotton over the side of Steve's ribs. Bucky breathes softly against his neck, the slow in and out of the still asleep. Steve doesn't move except to turn his head a little, the side of his mouth pressing lightly against the soft half-shaved hair at Bucky's temple. There's a crack of pale blue light from between the curtains--still early.

Steve closes his eyes and tries to commit this moment to memory.

When he opens them again, the pale blue light has turned yellow and Bucky is awake. He's lying mostly on the bed now though his shoulder still presses against Steve's. Steve can tell he's awake by the cadence of his breathing. When Steve opens his eyes, Bucky turns his face back into the pillow like he'd been caught.

"Good morning," Steve murmurs.

"It's nearly eight," Bucky tells him, preempting his next question.

"I should go," Steve says, and doesn't move. Bucky presses his shoulder closer, forearm crossing over Steve's. Steve absently runs a thumb over Bucky's wrist.

"Did you have a shitty apartment in New York?" Bucky asks, half muffled by the pillow, "The one with the sagging couch that you refused to replace?"

"It's been seven years since I got rid of that couch," Steve says, putting his left arm over his eyes, "And still the universe won't forgive me."

"I'm pretty sure I offered to replace that couch every time I came over," Bucky says more clearly as he turns on his side, though he doesn't pull his wrist away from Steve's fingers, "So it's your own fault for racking up all this negative karma."

"You wanted to set it on fire in the middle of the street," Steve says, "And I didn't want to face jail time from the City of New York for your terrible decisions.

Bucky ducks his head and smiles against Steve's shoulder. Steve wants to press his face against the top of Bucky's head but he stays still. They lie there for another few minutes before Steve slowly pushes himself up.

"I should go," he says.

"Be careful," Bucky says, looking up at him.

"Yeah," Steve says, thinking about the helicarrier blueprints again. He smiles down at Bucky and brushes the back of his fingers against the side of Bucky's face as he climbs out of bed. "I'll be back soon."

_____

Sam drives them out towards the triskelion in his beat up Mitsubishi, Peggy talking to Maria on her phone from the front passenger seat. Natasha's gone from casual wear back to her SHIELD uniform, staring out the window as they pass the palace gates.

"Hey," Steve says, nudging gently at her arm. She looks over at him. "You feeling alright?"

She smiles wryly. "Shouldn't I be asking you that question?"

"I've only been around for a year and some," Steve says, "You've got a lot of covers to blow.

Natasha looks back out the window. "Yeah Rogers," she says, "I'm feeling alright."

_____

Maria meets them in the tiny parking lot of a nearby Dunkin Donuts. "I could only get three blank disks," she says, handing them over to Peggy for inspection. "You should see the security on these things. Had to pretend my ID needed replacement to even get into the same room. But anyway, the targeting program you sent me is uploaded on all of them."

"Did Nick get a look at these?" Peggy asks, "They look like the same model but I want to be sure before we get on the helicarriers."

"Pierce caught Nick coming in last night and he's been stuck in last minute discussions about the project since then. I don't think they left the conference room."

Steve glances at Natasha but she doesn't seem to even react. She just asks, "Which conference room?"

"The one on the ninth floor. Near Pierce's office."

"Guys," Sam says, poking his head out of the driver side window, "We should get a move on."

_____

The basement levels are restricted to Insight personnel only. The elevator that gets the least amount of traffic at any given time of day is the one located in the southwest corner of the building that passes through human resources and accounting. As long as they hit it in the lull between getting to work and leaving for lunch, it should be nearly abandoned.

As soon as they get an elevator to themselves, Maria helps Peggy pry open the control panel to fry the automatic elevator sensors and set security overrides. Peggy pulls an eyeball out from her purse when the elevator asks for confirmation of identity and holds it up to the retina scan.

"Alexander Pierce, confirmed," the elevator says in a cool voice, and starts to descend.

"How did you even hack into--" Maria starts and then immediately backtracks. "Never mind, the less I know, the better for both of us."

The elevator doors open onto the largest hangar that Steve's ever seen--it's easily the size of the entire island that the triskelion is built on, with some more space jutting out into the Potomac. The helicarriers are bigger than Steve expected--he'd seen video of the one currently in service over the Pacific but he'd never been on it himself. The scale bar on the blueprints did nothing to help visualize this size.

By the time Steve looks back at their tiny team, Maria and Sam are already a few yards away, trying to find the names on the helicarriers. "I'm headed to ground control," Peggy says, "I'll radio when I'm situated."

Steve touches the back of her arm as she turns away. She looks back at him. He says, "Be careful."

She just smiles at him. "Good luck, agent," she says, and disappears around the corner.

"Hey Steve," Sam says from behind him. Steve turns. "3-3's over there," he says, jerking his thumb over his shoulder, "You ready to go?"

"Yeah," Steve says, touching the tarp over the shield on his back.

_____

His uniform is identical to what the engineers are wearing so as long as Steve looked busy and like he belonged, they didn't even look at him twice. Steve climbs into the helicarrier through a supply loading hatch and spends a few minutes carrying crates of instant coffee aboard before managing to slip away down the hall and into the main bulk of the helicarrier.

Despite his uniform, Steve still steps off to the side to hide when he sees agents walking in the opposite direction down the hallway. He finds an abandoned electrical tester and some electrical tape on a console he's pretending to examine and takes them with him. The next time other workers pass, he pretends to be testing wires in the still-exposed wall. He can't be pulled away to do anything--they needed to coordinate the launch of all three helicarriers at the same time and they couldn't afford to be held up by any distractions.

"I'm in position," Peggy says over the radio, sounding out of breath.

Thanks to all of the stops, it takes him nearly twenty minutes to walk the length of the helicarrier. The steering controls are behind the door at the far end of the hall when Steve spots a familiar face.

Rumlow.

He backtracks several steps before ducking into a room where two women are chatting about lunch plans. They look up as Steve barges in on them but Steve just smiles and holds up the electrical tester. "Someone said there was a leaky wire down this hall somewhere that needed to be wrapped up."

"Not here," one of them says, "I thought we'd fixed all of that a month ago. Try next door."

Steve glances down the hallway to see the back of Rumlow's head. He steps out again and hurries the final yards to where the blueprints indicated the steering room and takes a deep breath before opening the door.

Two men inside. One is sitting next to what's obviously the controls to fly the helicarrier, looking at his phone. The other is standing at the other side of the room where they've hooked up an espresso machine, holding a mug.

Steve calculates the trajectory and throws his shield at the man sitting next to the controls while lunging forward at the one holding the coffee. The shield connects with the side of the man's head, glancing off and knocking him out, hits the wall still spinning, and comes back to Steve's new position just in time for Steve to snatch it out of midair and swing it into the face of the second man. Two unconscious men in less than five seconds. Steve backs up to lock the door before touching his headpiece and saying, "I'm in position."

"God, I really thought I was going to beat you this time," Sam says over the radio, sounding a little winded.

Steve finds some rope in one of the cabinets. He ties up the unconscious pilots and tapes their mouths shut with the electrical tape.

"Ok I'm in," Sam says.

"Me too," Maria says, not sounding out of breath at all. Steve drags the men to the corner and considers what he might be able to use to barricade the door for the next fifteen or so minutes while they lifted off and flew out towards the bay.

"Is everyone looking at the control panel?" Peggy asks.

Steve responds in the affirmative. Sam and Maria do too.

"Okay," Peggy says, "I'm going to tell you the startup sequence. Do them exactly in the order I tell you to."

Outside the window of the helicarrier steering room, the ceiling starts to part. Water rushes over the two sides, the sky a bright white and beckoning.

Beneath, all the alarms start to go off.

_____

It takes approximately three minutes for everything to go to hell.

_____

They've barely cleared five thousand feet when the countdown to launch and weaponization in the corner of the control console goes from TO LAUNCH 04:23:19 to TO LAUNCH 00:15:00.

TO LAUNCH 00:14:59.

"Guys," Sam says, sounding shaky.

"Yeah, I see it," Maria says.

"We're not at altitude but we have to go east now," Peggy tells them, sounding kind of far away. There's the brief sound of gunfire on her end before it's cut off. A few moments later, Peggy sounds much closer, "Maria you're going to have to take the lead on this. I'm a little distracted."

"Alright boys," Maria says. The banging on Steve's door has gotten louder, like they've enlisted use of a makeshift battering ram to get through the six inches of reinforced steel. "On your console, in the upper left hand corner, there should be a mode. Are we all on mode two?"

Steve looks. "I'm on mode two."

"Mode three," Sam says, "But I think I can fly this thing on my own. It looks pretty close to an old T-38 I flew back in the day."

"Okay, I guess that leaves you and me Steve," Maria says, "Are you in the seat on the right?"

Steve moves over. "Yes."

"You can turn the steering wheel as much as you want. The autopilot will smooth your actions out," Maria says. "Do you see the radar on your right?"

Steve looks right. "Yes."

"I'm to the back and right of you," Maria says, "Turn your helicarrier around and follow me."

_____

Within another five minutes, they're flanked on both sides by Air Force jets. Seven different pilots all cram into the same communications channel, shouting for Steve to stand down and land the helicarrier.

It doesn't take long for them to start shooting. Steve glances down at the alarms starting to pop up on the image of the helicarrier--someone's strafed the fuel tank though the holes are too tiny for any significant amount of fuel to leak out. He flies on, straight east.

TO LAUNCH 00:06:43

"How do I lock the controls?" Steve asks as they approach the coast, "I need to switch out the targeting program.

"You can cede control to me," Peggy says, "You have to break through the glass under the console and hit the emergency button. I can't see where you're going though so I'm just going to have to keep your settings as they are."

"We're almost there," Maria says.

"I'm cutting it close," Steve says, and grabs the pilot's jacket off the back of the chair to wrap his hand in before smashing the glass. The moment he does, an alarm starts to blare--likely throughout the entire helicarrier.

There are still people trying to get in through the locked door--Steve can hear them. He pulls out a grenade, steels himself, then wrenches the pin off. He unlocks the door, opens it, and tosses the grenade out all in one single smooth motion before slamming the door shut again, thanks only to the element of surprise. He braces himself against the door and waits for the explosion before daring to open it again.

He doesn't look at the aftermath, just hurries down the hall. The mechanical access point for the targeting program is on a platform that he'll probably have to climb to if the bridge for easy access has been removed thanks to the emergency alert. There should be a door to his right--yes--

A gunshot rings out and a sudden piercing pain in his left side. Steve slams down on the door handle and barely keeps himself from staggering into the room. He twists around to find Rumlow advancing on him, gun drawn. Another two shots--but Steve's ready this time and he whips his shield around as fast as he can to stop both of them from going through his neck.

It's slowly getting harder to breathe, like someone's squeezing him. But he doesn't have time--he looks around and sure enough the bridge leading to the access point has slid all the way back to the wall. He'll have to climb up the pole where there are only a few footholds and far too much smooth space and hope that Rumlow doesn't shoot him--or take a running leap across an impossible distance.

"What's the matter, Rogers?" Rumlow calls out. Another shot--Steve moves quickly towards the pole, gauging if he can climb up. "I always knew you'd run from a fight."

If he takes a running leap at the wall, he might be able to use that momentum to leap up and scramble onto the ledge jutting out from the access point that must have connected with the bridge. It's not like he has much choice. Except then Rumlow empties half his cartridge and Steve's forced onto the ground to keep all of himself hidden behind the shield (a shot to the leg would be the premature end to his parkouring idea). When the gunshots clear, Steve lowers his shield only to realize that Rumlow's right there, taking a swing at his face with a wicked looking knife.

Steve parries the attack, knocking his arm away. Rumlow just comes back with a second knife, slashing at Steve's shoulder and hitting muscle--Steve grunts as he slams his shield into Rumlow's face. Rumlow goes down, stunned and bleeding from his nose. Steve turns and is about to run at the wall when Rumlow grabs him from behind, poorly aimed knife digging into Steve's neck, right behind his ear.

Steve smashes his foot into Rumlow's in effort to get him to let go, but Rumlow keeps him in a chokehold. As long as Steve knows where both of Rumlow's hands are, he can't go for his gun--but Steve can. He pulls the gun holstered at Rumlow's hip and pushes it into his right armpit, the muzzle of it lining point blank with Rumlow's chest. He intended to pull the trigger multiple times to empty all of the remaining bullets into Rumlow, but the close-range blast and recoil of the first one causes him to drop the gun.

On the bright side, Rumlow releases his chokehold and staggers back. Steve takes the opportunity to smash his shield into Rumlow's face repeatedly until the other man goes limp. Between the chokehold and the bullet in the chest, it's a struggle to pull air into his lungs. But he still recalculates the distance between wall and ledge and goes for it.

His shoulder screams with pain as he barely catches the ledge with his fingertips. He hauls himself up and reaches into his pocket for the replacement disk--

Three gunshots. Two of them connect--Steve stumbles forward with the force of the impact and stares down at the hole in the front of his shirt where the bullet has exited. How could there be so much blood on his shirt already? He tries to get to his knees. It's getting so hard to breathe and his head is already swimming with blood loss.

Rumlow is still on the ground, his face still beaten in with one eye barely open it's so swollen. But he's still got his gun trained on Steve.

Steve digs into his pocket and pulls out the disk. It's fractured, spidery cracks running right down the middle. Maybe it had happened when he shot Rumlow at point blank range. Maybe it had happened some other time. He doesn't know. He still has to try.

The mechanism looks exactly as Peggy promised it would. Steve jerks the old targeting program out of its perch and gets shot in the shoulder for being so visible above the ledge. He slumps momentarily on the ground, thinking that he doesn't have very much time left, and shoves the new disk into the slot.

Nothing happens. The fractured disk doesn't light up like it should.

Steve slumps against the side of the machine and takes as deep of a breath as he can get. He touches his headset. "Peggy, I broke the disk."

"What?"

"You have to weaponize the other helicarriers now," Steve says, keeping his voice as calm as possible, "This one is defaulting to the Insight targeting program."

"Where are you?" Peggy asks, "I'm not going to weaponize the others until you're close enough to the rendezvous point."

"How much time do we have left?"

"Almost two minutes," Peggy says. Less than two minutes until Insight 3-3 started to take out civilians. There wasn't enough time.

"Weaponize them now," Steve says. He pauses to rasp in a wet breath. It's taking all of his effort to keep his voice steady. "I'm in the hallway now."

"What's wrong?" Peggy asks, "Steve, are you okay?"

"Just a shot to the shoulder," Steve says, "Ran into Rumlow."

"I swear to god Steve, if you're lying to me."

He touches the front of his wet shirt. "I'm not lying." He thinks back to the blueprint of the helicarrier but it's all a lot fuzzier now. "I'm about two hundred yards from the middle ladder with top deck access. You have to weaponize the other helicarriers now or this one is going to start shooting."

"Okay," Peggy says, "Sam, you on your way to pick Steve up?"

"I'm on my way," Sam affirms.

"Hold on tight," Peggy tells Steve. Steve stares at the far end of the control room, wondering if he had it in him to actually make it up to the top deck.

"After this, we should do something to celebrate," Steve says.

"Don't start making plans just yet," Peggy tells him dryly. Steve can hear the faint click of her keyboard. It's not long before he can hear the rumble of the other helicarriers, fourteen hundred guns all turning in one direction.

"We haven't been to the NGA yet," Steve says, keeping his voice as neutral as possible against the pain, "Don't you always complain about how you've lived in DC for ages but never gone to the NGA?"

"And who's promised to take me about a hundred times?" Peggy asks, though she sounds more amused than anything. The guns start up--the individual shots all rolling into a long boom. Insight 3-3 shakes--bullets start to ricochet through the glass room--

"Steve, where are you?" Sam asks.

"This Sunday," Steve says, no longer hiding the shakiness in his voice, "I'll show you my favorite Miro. And I've got a great story about something incredibly stupid that Bucky did."

"Steve," Peggy says, her voice gone quiet, "Where are you?"

The force of so many guns rips the room apart. Glass splinters, shrapnel tearing through metal. Somewhere in the fuzzy distance, Steve thinks he might hear an explosion.

"If you could do me a favor," Steve says, "If you could just tell Bucky I love him."

The fuel tank sits immediately behind the targeting control room. The last thing that Steve sees is fire racing towards him, the machine tearing itself apart with the force of the explosion and shaking him off the ledge.

Steve falls.

Chapter Text

His entire torso hurts.

_____

There's sound that rises up and down in pitch. He feels fuzzy. Nothing hurts.

_____

Everything hurts.

_____

Voices. He can recognize that someone is speaking. He doesn't know who's speaking. It sounds like it's coming from very far away.

It hurts a little. He feels fuzzy.

_____

Everything is a blur. Someone is saying something to him, he thinks.

Still fuzzy. Nothing hurts.

_____

Someone is playing music. Steve wants to say something but he can't move.

_____

More music. Steve opens his eyes and tries very hard to focus on the lyrics. The sounds slowly sharpen into actual words, the light from the window illuminating the grid of the ceiling tiles above his head,

There's something in his mouth. He starts to gag before trying to reach up to pull it out.

Within moments, a nurse runs into the room. "Please try to calm down, Mr. Rogers," she says, pushing something into his IV. "The more you move, the more it's going to hurt."

Steve starts to feel sleepy again. The aches that he'd been somewhat aware of in his torso start to fade away. Eventually, he closes his eyes.

_____

The next time he wakes, he doesn't have the tube in his mouth any more. His throat feels raw, worse than his shoulder but not as bad as his stomach.

"Good morning, sleeping beauty," Sam says from next to him. Steve turns his head a little. Sam's sitting in a visitor's chair, reading a worn copy of The Tipping Point.

"I don't like Malcolm Gladwell," Steve rasps out.

Sam looks at him. "Really?" he says, "You got shot, lied to us about getting shot, fell a couple thousand feet--and that's what you're going to go with?"

"How's--" Steve winces as his words catch painfully in his throat. "--Peggy? Bucky? Everyone?" He swallows and it feels like sandpaper. "Could I get some water?"

"Well, no one's dead or arrested," Sam says, getting up to get him some water. "The government's still sorting through all of the files that got dumped before deciding whether or not to press charges." He holds the foam cup of water to Steve's lips and gently starts to tip the contents into Steve's mouth--Steve's grateful because he can barely lift his arms, much less have enough motor control to really hold the cup. "Bucky spent like, a couple of days here quietly freaking out until you were mostly stabilized. Then some blonde lady dragged him back to the palace. Peggy's visited a couple of times but she's been in depositions and about a million congressional meetings over the last week so she said to call when you woke up so that she could come give you a piece of her mind."

Steve finishes off the water. Sam pulls it away, then looks at the foam cup. "Aw hell, I don't think I was supposed to give you that."

Steve closes his eyes. "I can tell them I begged, I'm not above begging."

"You can practice for when Carter comes," Sam says. He sets the cup down on the rolling table next to Steve's bed. "I'm gonna call in the nurses, alright? Before I fuck something else up."

Steve just nods, eyes still closed.

_____

The doctor tells him that he went through nearly twenty hours of surgery to extract all the bullet fragments and stitch up all the perforations in his gut. She tells him that he sustained massive blood loss and fell nearly a thousand feet before being caught. He probably shouldn't actually be alive.

The next time Sam's allowed back into Steve's room, he's looking at his phone. "Carter says to get ready for a beatdown," he tells Steve, "Well, she didn't actually say that but I can read between the lines. Natasha says hi and that quote, tell Steve I hope his nine bullet holes hurt like hell so it teaches him not to get shot again."

"Thank you Natasha," Steve says.

"But seriously," Sam says, "Don't do that ever again."

Steve touches the bandages over his torso. "Wasn't planning on it." He shuts his eyes and says, "So I heard you caught me at eighteen hundred feet."

"What was I supposed to do?" Sam says, "Let you hit the water and splatter everywhere?"

"Sam," Steve says. He opens his eyes and looks at Sam. "Thank you."

_____

Susanne shows up in the middle of Steve's second CT scan of the day which means that by the time Steve's wheeled back into his room, she's worked herself up.

"I cannot believe you," she says, tears in her eyes. Because no one is allowed to hug Steve yet, she grips his hand so hard that she's cutting off circulation to his fingers.

He smiles tiredly at her and says, "I'm okay, I promise I'm okay."

"Don't you ever," Susanne says and kisses his cheek, face still scrunched up, "Steven do you hear me?"

"I promise," Steve says, gripping her hand back as hard as he can.

_____

Halley shows up too the next day. Sam had dropped by in the morning before he had to go back to DC to give his own testimony in front of some congressional committee. They overlap when Sam opens the door at Halley's knock.

"I'll leave you two be," Sam says, stepping out, "Steve, I'll be back in a few days if they haven't transferred you to another hospital by then."

Then the door closes, leaving Steve to gauge Halley's neutral expression through his painkiller induced hazy state of mind.

"Steven," Halley says.

"Hi Halley," Steve says, "It's good to see you."

"It's good to see you," Halley says, "Alive. Mostly bullet free."

Steve winces. "There wasn't any other option, I had to do--"

"I know," Halley says, "Agent Carter filled me in on the details."

Steve looks at the end of his bed. "I tried to think of another option but there wasn't enough time."

"I think you were brave to do what you did," Halley says. Steve looks up at him, but Halley's expression hasn't changed. "Not many people would have done the same."

"Thanks Halley," Steve says quietly.

Halley sits down in the chair that Sam had vacated. They sit in silence for a while, Steve gathering the courage to ask the question he'd been thinking about since waking up.

"Halley," he finally says, "Does Bucky think I abandoned him?"

Halley tilts his head a little bit and takes a moment to consider his answer. "I think," he says, "Deep down, Bucky knows exactly who you are."

A pause. "That is to say," he continues, "He was angry at you, but more for risking your life than for choosing to save countless lives over him."

Steve wets his lips, trying to think of something to say.

"You can ask him yourself soon," Halley adds, "Amanda said he insisted on driving himself to Baltimore when he heard the news that you were awake."

_____

Steve doesn't mean to doze off but he jerks back into reality the moment that someone knocks lightly on his door. He's wide awake in an instant--the door opens and--

"Bucky," Steve says.

Bucky steps in and closes the door after himself. He has a new haircut with all of his stitches gone, he's clean-shaven, and his eyes look clearer than they have since Steve found him in Russia. His sweater is wrinkled and he looks a little manic like he'd had an entire pot of coffee, but otherwise--

Steve fights back the urge to cry. "I'm sorry," he says, "I'm sorry Bucky, I wouldn't have done it if there was any other option, I wouldn't have done that to you--"

Bucky's next to him in an instant. Steve's shoulder is still in a sling and he still has an ugly criss-cross of surgical wounds under the loosely wrapped bandages across his torso but Bucky pulls him into a gentle hug, pushing his face against the side of Steve's head, arm around the back of Steve's neck. "Shut up," he says, "God, Steve."

"I wouldn't have left you," Steve says, "If there was any other way Buck, I swear to god--"

"I know," Bucky says against Steve's hair, "You fucking idiot, I know."

"I promised I'd be back," Steve says, curling his good arm around Bucky's shoulders.

Bucky breathes shakily against Steve's ear and doesn't let go. "You're okay."

Steve tightens his grip around Bucky even though his stitches pull. "I'm okay."

_____

Steve gets transferred from the ICU to the general wards since he's healing much quicker than any of his doctors expected. If SHIELD had still been around, Steve's fairly sure his hospital records would have been forwarded straight to the team that had worked on his treatment.

Bucky brings along Steve's personal belongings as the orderly wheels Steve down the hallway into the elevator. The remains of Steve's light kevlar uniform are surprisingly intact--bloodstained and burnt but ultimately whole inside the clear plastic bag. And for some reason no one had taken the shield with them so Bucky carries it now, one strap around his right shoulder.

"You used a shield to fight," Bucky says flatly once they get into the elevator.

"I had a gun too," Steve says, "And the shield's specifically made to absorb bullets."

The orderly stares up at the ceiling.

Bucky argues back only in the form of a long exhale. But then he passes his hand over the back of Steve's knuckles, thumb brushing against his wrist.

_____

Peggy shows up late in the evening, when Bucky's out looking for food and a hotel. Steve hears her speaking to the nurse through his open door long before she appears in his doorway.

Steve wants to see her--he really does--but the shame of having blatantly lied to her weighs heavily in his mind. He knows that Sam was only joking, he knows that Peggy would have likely done the same thing in his position--and yet--

"Steve Rogers," Peggy says, looking at him. She's impeccably dressed, wearing heels meant to intimidate, hair pulled back. For a moment, they stare at each other--then Peggy's face crumples, like she's about to cry. But she holds herself together and manages a wavering smile. "You owe me a date."

"Peggy, I'm so sorry," Steve says.

"I'm sorry," Peggy says, coming over to his bed, "I'm sorry that any of this even happened, I'm sorry for putting you into that position--"

"I lied to you," Steve says.

"I pushed the button knowing full well that we hadn't evacuated you," Peggy says, "If there was anyone at fault, it was me."

"That's not true," Steve says.

"I'm sorry Steve," Peggy says.

Silence. Steve takes Peggy's hand. Peggy's trying hard to smile but her eyebrows are drawn together.

"How are you doing?" Peggy asks.

"Good," Steve says, "I'm good. They say I'm healing faster than they expected. I might be discharged before the week's over."

Peggy smiles for real now--the tension in her forehead relaxing. "Natasha wanted to come visit but she's been held up in DC ever since she released all those files. She sends her regards."

Steve thinks briefly back to the text Sam had read off of his phone. He nods, smiling.

"They're going to want to talk to you too, Steve," Peggy says, "We'll hold them off for as long as possible but you're going to have to meet with them eventually."

"I need some time to recover," Steve says, thinking about Bucky, "They can understand that, can't they?"

"We can try," Peggy says, squeezing his hand. "Steve I hate to do this but I have to go. I really wanted to come see how you were doing but I have to go back and sit in on another meeting."

"I'll be home before you know it," Steve promises.

Peggy smiles at him and kisses his cheek as she rises. "I'm so glad you're doing better."

"See you soon," Steve says.

Peggy turns to leave. In the doorway she turns and says, "I almost forgot. Can you tell Bucky to call me? I still have the burner. It's about fitting him with a better prosthetic."

"Okay," Steve says.

"Okay," she echoes, and lingers in the doorway, looking at him. She smiles at him one last time, then disappears.

_____

By the fifth day he's awake, the doctors take a close look at his surgical wounds, take him in for one last CT scan, and declare him fit for discharge. "I've never seen anything like this before," the doctor tells Steve.

Steve considers telling her about the SHIELD file dump for a moment--surely the doctors at Johns Hopkins would be interested in the experimental procedures that had been done on him--but he doesn't want to stay any longer than necessary and he doesn't trust them to keep him for longer if they knew.

So instead he just smiles and shrugs and ends up wearing Bucky's clothes out the door, his colored shield hidden under an old hoodie that Bucky had dug out of the back of his car. Between the SHIELD scandal and Bucky's presence, there are still a few straggling reporters camped out in the parking lot--but Bucky pulls his car up into the ambulance bay where technically only the emergency vehicles are allowed. Steve had started moving around again on the fourth day but he's still not entirely steady on his feet. Bucky runs around the car to help him out of his wheelchair, letting Steve lean on his good shoulder as they move towards the car together.

"What do you want to eat?" Bucky asks when they're heading south towards DC again. Twilight has already dimmed into the night sky, newly lit up with streetlamps and headlights. Bucky's silhouette against the driver's window, his old iPod gleaming in the cupholder behind the shift--it feels almost like they've traveled almost a decade back, nineteen years old and driving to New York for the first time, wondering what the world had in store.

"Anything," Steve says, and looks out the window at the passing suburban lights, the highway stretching out before them like reincarnated opportunities. Because truth be told, Steve's happy to go anywhere, as long as it's with Bucky.

_____

Steve's old room hasn't been touched even though Susanne had been making vague plans to turn it into a studio space for the last six years. At some point, she'd moved some of his old books into the basement and took his bookshelf for her room but otherwise it's very much the same.

"I'm not sure if you'll still fit comfortably," she tells Steve worriedly as she fits a new sheet over the bed, "I put your old comforter in the wash this afternoon and it's just going for an extra spin in the dryer now to make sure it's dry before you use it."

"I don't mind if it's damp," Steve says, leaning against the doorway and holding his old lumpy pillow. Bucky hands Susanne the second sheet and she spreads it over the first one.

"I'm not letting you catch a cold on top of getting surgery," Susanne says, pressing a hand to his cheek before sidling past the two of them to get back to the stairs. "Bucky, I can make up the guest room for you."

"I was planning on going back to the palace," Bucky says. Steve tries not to feel disappointed--or at the very least, tries not to show it.

"It's getting pretty late," Susanne says, "Are you sure? You know what, I'll just make it up anyway in case you change your mind. Steve I'll be right back with the last of your stuff."

"There's spare toothbrushes in the bathroom drawer," Steve says, moving over to his bed to drop his pillow on it.

"I remember," Bucky says, following him in and looking around the room.

Steve sits down on the bed somewhat gingerly--the surgical cuts have mostly healed but the process of regrowing muscle tissue leaves him with a visceral ache.

Susanne reappears with his comforter and sets it down next to Steve. "Do you boys need anything? Water? I stocked up on snacks and frozen fruit if you're hungry. I have a new blender if you guys want to make smoothies."

"We know where the fridge is," Steve says, feeling vaguely like he's a teenager again.

"Okay," Susanne says and kisses his forehead. She steps over to Bucky and kisses the side of his head too. "I'll just be downstairs after I finish making up the guest room. Let me know if you need anything."

Bucky looks after her as she leaves, taking a seat in Steve's old chair. It creaks under his weight--bits of the plastic picked apart and the stuffing coming out of the sides. He pivots it around to look at Steve's desk where a stack of CDs sits in the corner. There's a dried watercolor set with a dead brush on one side, a half filled sketchbook from high school and his early college summers underneath.

Bucky picks up a book from his desk and holds it up.

"That's actually yours," Steve says, touching at the stitches under his shirt and wondering how he's going to take a shower without a bar to hold on to in the bathroom. "I found it at a used book sale, mailed it to you, then you brought it back over winter break and I'm not sure you didn't leave it here on purpose."

"Why does this man have a lighthouse growing out of his head?" Bucky asks, looking at it.

"You're asking the wrong person," Steve says, "And you said it was the weirdest book you ever tried to read."

Bucky sets the book down. "Maybe I'll pick it back up when I can actually turn the pages," he says with a vaguely self-deprecating smile. "Speaking of which," he adds, "Peggy got me in contact with Tony Stark about getting one of their prototype arms."

Steve immediately thinks of the machine he'd found Bucky attached to--hadn't Peggy said that it was some sort of machine for programming for a prosthesis? Hadn't she said that Stark recognized the machine, said it was his own design? Was he going to put Bucky in a machine that he'd already been tortured in?--god, the thought of it makes him viscerally sick.

"You okay?" Bucky asks, looking at him.

"Yeah I--" Steve touches his stomach again. "Did Stark tell you anything about his prototype arm?"

"He said he'd been working on prosthetic limbs with Dr. Banner as a pet project for years," Bucky says, "And he said that he owed me." He licks his lips, settling his palm against his knee and looking away at the old box of comic books in Steve's half opened closet. "Because some of his old prototypes had been used on me by the Russians."

Steve lets out a breath. Bucky looks up at his face. "Are you okay with it?" Steve asks.

"He's offering me a free arm," Bucky says, "One I can control with my brain, that won't just fill out a sleeve." He rubs his palm over the denim, fingers curling like he's remembering what he could do with the other arm. He closes his eyes. "Sometimes I feel like there's an itch on my arm that I can't scratch. Sometimes it feels like my left arm is on fire. But there's nothing there." He opens his eyes and looks at Steve, "I don't have to be okay with anything that happened to me to want this arm, do I?"

"No," Steve says.

"He says the surgical procedure is probably going to take a week up at his lab in New York," Bucky says, "And that I should get started as soon as possible so my brain doesn't permanently reroute the neurons that used to control my arm."

"We can leave tomorrow," Steve says.

"You just got out of the hospital," Bucky says, "No, we can wait."

"Bucky," Steve says, "I can recover just as well in a car or sitting next to you while you get a new arm. Please--" Steve swallows. "Let's go tomorrow morning."

Bucky studies his face for a moment before lifting one corner of his mouth in a smile and saying, "Alright, Steve."

_____

Truth be told, Bucky could have waited another few weeks for his fitting--truth be told they could have taken Tony Stark up on his offer of a private jet to ferry them from Reagan to JFK. They didn't need to cram into Bucky's old car to drive five hours through the worst traffic that the east coast had to offer.

But the northward journey along I-95--how many times had they driven that together? Steve half asleep in the passenger seat with both of their suitcases in the trunk of the car at the start of a new academic year. A late summer thunderstorm sliding across Philadelphia towards the ocean, Bucky with his window rolled down, laughing into the sunlight streaming through the clouds. The chemical taste of a gas station icee shared between the two of them, staining Bucky's mouth blue.

Truth be told, Steve still thinks about that email, I've always loved you superimposed on the smile of this Bucky Barnes, about the probably-invalid will hidden beneath months worth of grocery coupons, about the fleeting desperate moment before the helicarrier shivered him into the waiting bay--and he thinks he has to do something. He thinks about waking up with Bucky's head on his shoulder in the barest glow of dawn and he wants to run somewhere far far away, pulling Bucky behind him.

Because it's only a matter of time before the rest of his life caught up: senatorial aides already leaving him voicemails about hearings scheduled for two weeks away, reporters emailing him daily about how much control he would retain over his own narrative if he did an exclusive with their organization. There was still the question of how much of his professional life he had to salvage because he still has to pay rent and the electric bill for an apartment he hasn't visited in nearly a month. And if he stayed where he was for too long, he knew he'd be caught here forever to fulfill all these different responsibilities, watching this moment he could have had with Bucky slide further and further into the background until there was nothing left but distant regrets and the perpetual ache of what-if.

Truth be told, Steve looks at Bucky's scarred hand, the way he walks deliberately to keep his shoulders straight--truth be told, Steve wants to look in Bucky's eyes and give voice to words unearthed from beneath years of expectations and exhaustion: we deserve to be happy. Look into Bucky's eyes and run, full tilt, into the future.

_____

Susanne stuffs about half the cupboard into a tote when Steve tells her that they're driving up to New York, cutting apples into slices and putting them into ziploc bags. Steve takes a half bath, half shower, sitting in the stoppered bathtub and running soap through his hair while the showerhead sprayed water at him. By the time he gets downstairs, it's nearly seven-thirty and Bucky's leaning on the kitchen table with a cup of coffee, smiling at something that Susanne is saying.

"This is too much food," Steve protests when Susanne hands him the tote. Bucky pretends to be busy with pouring himself more coffee so he doesn't have to join the argument.

"Nonsense," Susanne says, shoving another container of homemade hummus into the bag, "You'll get hungry on the way."

Steve looks over at Bucky. But Bucky just shrugs slightly and says, like a traitor, "I like hummus."

_____

Bucky doesn't mind listening to NPR all the way past Wilmington, flipping between stations as they passed through a new state. At some point, Steve says, "Can I steal some of your coffee?"

"Do you think you should?" Bucky says, glancing at him, "With your surgery and all?"

"What's coffee going to do?" Steve asks. Bucky makes a noncommittal noise and Steve takes that as permission.

It's stupid because they've shared drinks so often in the past that it shouldn't even matter. But for some reason, he thinks about Bucky stopped at a traffic light, taking a sip from this thermos, fitting his lips where Steve is drinking now. And Steve wonders if he can close that distance, foregoing the kiss by proxy by leaning over the shift and kissing Bucky for real.

"Hey," Bucky says, glancing at him. Steve hurriedly looks away, feeling a clench in his chest. It's like he's twenty-one again, reflexively trying to wrestle down his want. Not the right moment. "You okay?" Bucky asks.

"Yeah." Steve keeps his eyes on the car in front of them.

"Want to feed me some apple slices?" Bucky asks, only half joking. He's only got the one arm to drive with, after all.

"Yeah," Steve says, and digs into the bag. He holds a slice up to Bucky's mouth. Bucky bites into it and flicks his head back to get it all the way into his mouth, like a bird.

"You look stupid," Steve tells him.

"Just for that, you can listen to my music then," Bucky tells him around a mouthful of apple, pushing the radio dial until they reach some top forty hit--and Steve finds that he doesn't mind, not at all.

_____

"Don't mind the mess," Tony Stark says as he shows them into the room where he'd been tinkering with the prosthesis technology. There are complicated looking parts strewn across the worktops and at least three computers---though Steve can't really tell because most of the monitors are made of glass and half of the projections are holographic.

Bruce looks up from where he's currently leaning back in a chair, reading an old issue of NEJM. He waves at them and says, "Hi. Long time, Steve. Glad to see you're doing well."

"And this is our hapless victim, James," Tony says, presenting him like a game show prize. "It's okay if I call you James, right?" he adds after a moment.

Bucky stays a little closer to Steve than he normally would, and doesn't respond to Tony's question. Steve's bristling a little at Tony's casual use of the phrase hapless victim though Tony doesn't seem to have noticed the sudden cold silence.

"Bruce Banner," Bruce says, standing up to shake Bucky's hand, "It's a real honor to meet you, Lieutenant Barnes."

"James is fine," Bucky says, shaking his hand.

"We're just going to measure your arm so we can get started on the parts that need custom sizing," Tony says, not at all phased, "If you just want to stand over here and put your right arm on this scanner." He sweeps a bunch of small pieces of machinery off a glass table and into a small trash can. From behind him, Bruce looks momentarily pained but he steps forward to take the trash can from Tony while Bucky takes a seat and puts his arm onto the table. Tony turns around to start typing at the computer while Bruce picks through the trash.

"You guys know this is going to take a week, right?" Tony asks, "I forgot what I said over the phone."

"Yeah, you said," Bucky says.

"Put your entire arm on that table," Tony says, "All the way up to your armpit--yeah that's good. Keep it straight." He taps on the computer for another few moments. "Where are you guys staying?"

"Haven't figured that one out yet," Steve says before adding to Bucky, "Halley will probably have some recommendations for security."

"No, no," Tony says continuing to type as a grid gets projected onto Bucky's arm, scanning in all three dimensions. "I've got a spare apartment somewhere upstairs--JARVIS can you check if the 89th is open?"

"The 89th floor is not in use," says a disembodied British voice.

"Bruce and I work weird hours anyway," Tony says, "It'd be easier for us to come get you to try on new versions of the arm if we can just knock on your door."

"And if the arm malfunctions in any way, we'll be here," Bruce agrees.

Bucky looks over at Steve. Steve just lifts his hands slightly in a shrug.

"Alright," Bucky says.

_____

Bucky spends most of the day letting Tony take measurements of his upper body, even tolerates letting him make a mold of his stump of a left arm. But it's clear from his hunched shoulders and the grim line of his lips that he's slowly getting fed up with being prodded around and trying not to let it show. The moment that Tony says that he's heading out for dinner, Steve suggests quietly to Bucky that they get out of the city to check out Bucky's old college campus. Tony had mentioned that the surgeon would come in tomorrow to start working on Bucky's arm, so they might not get another chance.

"I remember going up this highway a million times," Bucky says as they drive up the Palisades. Steve's never been up it once--it'd always been Bucky coming to him and never the other way around. He looks at Bucky's hand on the steering wheel for a long time, the radio slowly accumulating static.

The sun has set by the time they actually make it to West Point. Hills on one side, the river on the other. Bucky parallel parks the car on a smaller side street and they both climb out of the car.

"The moment your stitches start to hurt, we're coming back," Bucky tells Steve. He tucks the left sleeve of his jacket closer to himself as he heads towards one of the big buildings they had passed on the way. Steve follows him, half a step behind on the narrow sidewalk.

They walk in silence, the wind scattering yellowed leaves into their path. Occasionally Bucky pauses to look up at the night sky, then level his gaze across the buildings in the distance. It's not exactly rural darkness, there are still more stars out here than there ever are in New York or DC.

"It's quiet," Steve says, shoving his hands into his pockets. He should have probably grabbed a jacket on the way out but it's too late now and he's definitely not going to ask to go back to the car. "I didn't realize your alma mater was literally a fortress."

Bucky makes a vague noise of assent. Two students run past on the street, giving them a curious look before disappearing around the corner. Steve normally wouldn't worry about being recognized, but both of them had been featured in the news recently.

They walk a little further. If Bucky remembers anything, he's silent about it.

"Okay," Bucky says, after a moment of standing on a nondescript corner, "We should head back."

_____

Bucky reads the first line of the patient agreement that Tony had handed over to him and immediately says, "No."

"What?" Tony says, obviously surprised.

"I'm not going under general anesthesia," Bucky says.

Tony glances at his arm. "This is a pretty big surgery."

"Use local anaesthesia," Bucky says, "Or don't use any anaesthesia at all--"

"Local anaesthesia," Steve cuts in.

"I need to be awake," Bucky says, "I don't care about the pain."

"This might be better for everyone," Bruce says, "We might be able to get real time confirmation that we're hooking up the right nerves."

"Okay," Tony says, "I'm clearly outgunned. Local anaesthesia it is."

_____

Steve had theoretically understood that a surgeon was going to cut open Bucky's arm again, dig around for the nerve tissue, and attach it up to a chip that would transform and amplify the electrochemical signal of each neuron into something a computer in the arm could read. But it's completely different from watching the procedure from the observation deck of the operating room that Tony had built in the medical bay of his tower. It certainly doesn't help that there's a magnifying camera pointed at Bucky's half mauled shoulder, and there's a large screen television in the observation deck displaying an extremely detailed view of the proceedings. And it's even worse that Tony Stark is sitting next to him, watching the display and occasionally interjecting over the intercom, "No, you didn't let that chip settle in all the way--you have to redo it."

For the most part, Steve sits and watches Bucky's face throughout the entire eight hour surgery. He wishes he could go down and hold Bucky's hand at the very least, but the surgeon had insisted on kicking out all non-medical personnel.

Bucky's expression doesn't change whenever Tony hits the intercom or whenever the surgeon says something to one of the nurses. He stares at the ceiling of the operating bay, not noticing or plain not caring when the nurses walked through his peripheral vision with bloodied gauzes or dirtied tools. He only speaks once, to tell them that the local anaesthetic is wearing off.

Steve grips his own knees hard and keeps his eyes on Bucky's face.

_____

"Don't have more than one every four hours," the surgeon says, talking to Bucky but handing the small prescription bottle to Steve. Bucky sits slumped somewhat in a his wheelchair. His left arm is bandaged, the gauze wrapped around the smooth hypoallergenic plastic they'd stapled to the remaining fragment of Bucky's humerus. The wires now attached to Bucky's nerves are loosely looped into a bundle and taped to the gauze for more work tomorrow.

"Careful you don't rip any of these out," the surgeon adds, indicating the wires, "They should be pretty tightly in there but you don't want to test that out."

"Okay," Bucky says.

Tony had already told Steve to show up with Bucky at the lab tomorrow afternoon before disappearing. The surgeon nods, scribbles a phone number on a piece of paper towel, and hands it over to Steve with the instructions to call if any complications developed.

"Shouldn't have agreed to come here," Bucky says suddenly as Steve wheels him down the hall and into the elevator. Thank god for fast healing--his surgical wounds are nothing more than new scar tissue at this point. Pushing Bucky around only makes his torso twinge a little.

"Are you having second thoughts?" Steve asks. The elevator pings open and Steve pushes the button for the 89th floor.

"I was thinking about how we're both out of commission now," Bucky says, "I could have waited until you were better."

"I talked you into driving up now," Steve says, "And I'm pretty much better already."

Bucky smiles a little wryly. Steve looks at him in the reflection of the elevator door. "I was thinking about--" The door opens on the apartment that Tony had given them for the week. Bucky stops talking and lets his eyes move over the sleek furniture as Steve pushes the chair over by the sofa. "Down there, when I was on the table. I was thinking about how when I first saw you in that hospital bed, all these memories I had of you just suddenly came flooding back." He takes a deep breath. "Is that fucked up?"

Steve pauses, unsure what to think. But he wants to support Bucky so he just says, "No. I mean, I was in the hospital a lot when I was younger. I was sick a lot. Maybe you had the same emotions and it triggered the memories."

"I don't think I see you like that," Bucky says after a moment. Except it's phrased like a half question, the uncertainty evident in the way he fidgets his hand on the armrest.

Steve doesn't quite understand what Bucky's trying to convey. He just puts his hand on one side of Bucky's head and kisses the other. He still smells like sterile hospital room but the surgeon warned against bathing until they'd covered up the wires with the waterproof case of the arm.

"What do you want for dinner?" Steve asks, "We can order in."

Bucky looks out the window at the spread of Manhattan beneath. "I think I'm gonna go to sleep," he says.

_____

Steve wakes in the middle of the night. He stares at the ceiling for a few minutes before he hears it again--a muffled whine--and he's immediately out of bed and down the hallway.

"Bucky?" he asks, knocking on the door of Bucky's room. There's no response. Steve opens it.

Bucky is whispering something under his breath, hunched against one side of the bed. When Steve gets close enough, he realizes that Bucky is whispering, "no, no, please, no," over and over again.

"Bucky," Steve says in as soothing of a voice he can, bending towards him and touching his shoulder.

Bucky's eyes open in the dim light. He grabs Steve's bad shoulder hard but Steve forces down the wince of pain. He keeps his hand on Bucky's shoulder. "It's me, it's Steve."

Bucky squeezes his eyes shut and it's only then that Steve realizes he had been crying. The grip on his shoulder eases. "Sorry to wake you," Bucky says, probably aiming for nonchalance but landing somewhere much shakier.

"Do you need me to get you anything?" Steve asks, "Water?"

Bucky lets go of his shoulder altogether. "I could use another painkiller."

"Okay," Steve says, and goes to get the prescription bottle and a glass of water. He considers bringing a banana or something too--to ease the possibility of nausea--and ends up picking one out of the fruit bowl just in case. He flicks the light on when he gets back to Bucky's room.

"You should take these with food," Steve says, holding the banana and bottle up in one hand. Bucky's settled back into his usual neutral expression, no traces of tears left despite the redness of his eyes. He holds his hand out for the banana though and Steve sets the glass on the nightstand to quickly peel it and hand it over.

Bucky finishes the banana in three efficient bites. There's a circle of sweat around his neck and a bit of red on his bandages. Steve opens the bottle and takes the peel. He hands Bucky a pill, then the water. Bucky wordlessly swallows the pill and drinks all of the water.

Steve takes the glass and the peel back to the kitchen before coming back to Bucky's room. Bucky's lying down again, arm thrown over his eyes against the light. "Are you okay?" Steve asks from the doorway, "Do you need anything else?"

Bucky doesn't answer for a long moment. But when Steve switches off the light, Bucky asks, "Will you stay?"

_____

Steve wakes with his forehead pressed against the back of Bucky's shoulder, hand resting lightly on Bucky's ribcage. It takes a few moments for him to realize that Bucky's actually awake, but he still doesn't move away. "Good morning," he murmurs into Bucky's spine.

Bucky hums in response.

"Do you want another painkiller?" Steve asks, curling his fingers gently into Bucky's soft shirt. Bucky tilts his head back and Steve noses his way up to Bucky's neck and presses his mouth at the clothed crook of it.

"I could use another painkiller," Bucky says, a faint impression of vibration under Steve's fingers. Steve just smiles faintly and pulls away to go to the kitchen for some water.

Bucky's sitting up with his legs off the side of the bed when Steve comes back. He looks up with a tense looking smile as Steve hands him the pill, then the water.

"Are you okay?" Steve asks. Bucky had bled a little bit more onto the bandages overnight but the wires were still in a neat loop. And it wasn't the first time that Steve had sat with him through his nightmares, but it still shook him up.

Bucky sets the emptied glass on the nightstand and says, "I think we should clear the air."

"Bucky--what?"

"I remember," Bucky says, "Sitting in an airport and writing an email."

Steve freezes--he wasn't ready--was this the moment--?

"I don't remember what exactly it was that I wrote in that email but I know I told you that I was in love with you," Bucky smiles at him except it's not a smile at all, "Steve, I think we should forget about that email."

Steve's heart plummets. He feels like he can't breathe.

"I'll still be here," Bucky continues, staring at the hardwood under his feet, "I still want to be your friend. More than anything. You don't have to feel obligated to me."

Steve stares at Bucky, dropping slowly to his knees. Bucky's still staring at the floor. "You've got your entire life in front of you," he says softly.

"Bucky," Steve chokes out.

"You have so many opportunities," Bucky continues.

"Are you still in love with me?" Steve asks.

Bucky looks at him then, his eyes too bright. His smile is lopsided. "Does it matter? Steve, I'm a mess. I know I'm a mess."

"Shut up," Steve says, suddenly furious, "Shut up Bucky, or I swear--"

"Steve--"

Steve jerks him forward and kisses him, his hands clutching the sides of Bucky's face. It's hard and desperate, trying to convey in action what he can't convey in words. He can't lose this now, not when they'd come so far.

He pulls back. Bucky's hand clutches at the back of Steve's neck, his breath shaky against Steve's cheek.

"You stupid asshole," Steve says against Bucky's face, "This isn't out of obligation. I've been in love with you since I was fifteen years old."

Bucky's hand slowly moves from Steve's neck to the side of his cheek. "I want you to be happy."

"You make me happy," Steve says and kisses him again, closed mouthed and sweet.

Bucky inhales shakily and runs his thumb over Steve's mouth. His eyelashes brush against Steve's cheeks when he blinks. "Yeah Steve," he whispers, "I'm still in love with you."

_____

"Tony says that he's sorry he couldn't be here this afternoon. He had a sudden meeting to attend to," Bruce says, opening the door of the lab. Steve's fairly certain Tony didn't apologize at all but he nods anyway.

The arm that Bruce shows them is made of some lightweight metallic alloy that weighs approximately the same as his flesh and blood version did. "Give or take half a pound," Bruce says, demonstrating the minute motor control of the fingers after hooking it up to the computer.

"How are you going to attach that to me?" Bucky asks, watching it pick up a feather.

"We've put together a shoulder harness to take most of the weight for everyday use," Bruce says, "You can put it on in the morning." He unclicks something along the side of the arm and the sculpted casing comes off, leaving behind only the skeleton of the arm but with the hand still functioning, "This is the bare bones, permanent version of this prosthetic. This is getting attached to that extension they added to your humerus."

The hand has pivoted away from Bruce's hands and is now crumbling a cracker into bits. Bucky tears his eyes away from it and looks up at Bruce. "Okay," he says, "When do we start?"

_____

The nurse stops by the lab to redo the dressing on Bucky's arm. He'd bled through half of them, though most of the stains are a pinkish red rather than the deep brown of dried blood. He's not bleeding anymore though--even if he looks at the plastic bit sticking out from the middle of his arm rather weirdly.

Steve holds Bucky's right hand between both of his as Bruce works to hook up the wires that had been surgically implanted into his arm to a tiny processor. If Bruce has noticed or if he even cares, he doesn't say anything. Instead, he alternates between telling Bucky what exactly it is that he's doing and chatting with Steve about another collaboration he's running with Dr. Erskine.

"Though of course, all of those SHIELD files getting released," he says, threading another wire through another part of the circuitry, "Abraham's got a lot on his plate right now. I heard what you did to take out that aircraft." He glances up at Steve as he says this last part.

Steve tightens his fingers around Bucky's hand but Bucky just looks at him with vague amusement. "Uh, yeah," he says.

"Thanks for that," Bruce says, "You definitely saved my life."

"Oh," Steve says, "No problem. I mean. It's probably what anyone would have done."

"No," Bucky interjects, "No, just you."

And Steve's still riding the high of kissing Bucky this morning, on the thought of getting to kiss him again very soon--that he can't help but to grin at Bucky. Bucky smiles back at him and it's very very hard to not lean forward and press their smiles together.

"I'm surprised at how quickly you got out of the hospital though," Bruce says, either oblivious or selectively focused, "I mean, they didn't release any specific details or anything but they said you'd been shot a couple of times. Yet you still survived the aircraft explosion."

"If you want me to ask the doctors at Johns Hopkins--" Steve begins.

"No, no," Bruce says, "I think we should just let that study die. After all, SHIELD doesn't exist any more and you certainly don't owe anyone a thing."

"The world probably owes you," Bucky agrees. He strokes his thumb over Steve's knuckles, his smile fading somewhat but his eyes never leaving Steve's. "I know I do."

_____

Bucky can't stop looking at his new arm. "This is so cool," he says as he curls and uncurls the fingers, "Look at this Steve."

"I know," Steve says, "I've been watching you for the last twenty minutes." Not that he'd minded--Bucky's delight had always been infectious to Steve and this was no different.

"Is it too late to switch career paths?" Bucky says, moving around the kitchen counter to pick up a shaker off the spice rack. "I should have been a scientist."

"You can do whatever you want," Steve says, watching him turn the kitchen sink on and off. A moment later, Bucky opens a drawer of cutlery and picks up a fork with his mechanical hand. There's a pencil in the drawer too, and he picks that up with his left hand, frowning a bit when it slips out of his grasp.

"I'll have to practice that," Bucky says, trying again, only to have it slide down his palm again.

"Should we get dinner or will I just be watching you pick things up for the next hour?" Steve asks, watching him try a third time, "We can go to one of your old favorite ramen places."

Bucky drops the pencil a third time and lets it sit there. He leans across the counter towards Steve on his good arm and grins. "Or we could order in and make some new memories."

Steve's eyes flick down towards the mechanical arm. "I'm not saying that it's a bad idea," he says, "But do you think we really should?"

Bucky's smile turns into a frown as he looks down at Steve's stomach. "Did you pull your stitches?"

"No--I'm okay. I'm healed, I just need to get them out," Steve says, touching the side of Bucky's face with his palm, "I was more worried about your arm."

"Let's see it then," Bucky says, grinning and turning his face into Steve's hand.

"Are you trying to get me out of my shirt?" Steve asks.

"Damn," Bucky says dryly, "My meticulous plan. You saw right through it."

Steve takes the sleeve of his shirt and pulls it over his head. The wounds have healed entirely but the stitches still haven't dissolved. It looks ugly.

But when he looks up at Bucky again, his breath catches in his throat. Bucky is transfixed, staring at Steve with something like awe and adoration all rolled into one. He'd seen shades of the expression before--shuttered moments when he thought Steve wasn't looking, half contained in the tiny affectionate smiles he gave Steve. But Steve hasn't seen it like this--the full force of the naked wanting--and it makes something bright unfurl in his chest, a reckless sort of love too long in the making.

He looks back up at Steve's face and tries to melt some of it away with a smile but Steve just leans against the counter and kisses him. Bucky opens his mouth and Steve slides his tongue against Bucky's, leaning forward so much that the counter digs into his hipbones.

Bucky pulls away--Steve almost crawls onto the counter to chase after him. "That cannot be comfortable," Bucky says, but comes around the counter to kiss him properly, left hand at Steve's waist, right hand spanning Steve's side. His thumb traces over one of the lines of stitches and Steve kisses him harder, hands on Bucky's ass and pulling him closer.

Somehow Bucky manages to maneuver Steve around to the couch and pushes him onto it before bracketing his head with his arms. Bucky winces briefly as his left arm makes a whirring sound and Steve is immediately worried. He touches Bucky's face. "Are you okay?"

"Nothing to worry about," Bucky says curling and uncurling the fingers for a moment before setting it against the back of the couch again. "I'll mention it tomorrow when we go back," he says before pressing a kiss to Steve's mouth, then to his jaw, then his neck.

Steve's head tilts back, eyes wide because he'd only ever thought this would be a fantasy--the top of Bucky's dark hair moving down his body, teeth briefly catching at the skin under his navel, Bucky undoing the button of his fly and looking up at Steve through his eyelashes as he slowly undid the zipper too. Steve's already straining against his briefs and he makes a completely undignified whimper when Bucky touches him through the cotton--just the fucking faintest press of his fingers.

Bucky looks up at him again at the sound, and Steve stares back--all of it written on his face, he's sure of it. Years of wanting Bucky, years of denying himself the idea that any of this could be anything other than a phantom dream--Bucky is breaking him apart in the best way possible.

Bucky licks his lips, making a show of it for Steve and Steve's cock twitches. Bucky presses his mouth to the thin cotton, and Steve tries his hardest not to push up but it's so fucking difficult because it's Bucky doing it. But then Bucky tugs one handedly at Steve's pants and pushes down his briefs too--and this time Bucky gets his mouth on Steve's skin, fingernails scratching lightly through his pubic hair until he has a grip at the base of Steve's cock.

"Bu--" Steve breathes, reflexively half aborted because it'd never been the right name until right this moment. Bucky takes more of Steve in his mouth, squeezing lightly and Steve wants to throw his head back at the sensation. He keeps his eyes on Bucky though, his hands moving uselessly through Bucky's short hair, his breathing coming in short staccato bursts as he edges closer and closer to coming. "Bucky," he groans, shivering and half crying with how good it is from the sole fact that it's Bucky.

"I'm--" Steve says and half tries to push Bucky away, but Bucky just takes more of Steve in his mouth, humming. It's too much--everything is too much, and he comes harder than he can remember with a half muffled sob. Bucky keeps him in his mouth until he's soft again, licking delicately at the sensitive slit as he pulls away and Steve makes a whimpering sound. Bucky leans his head against the inside of Steve's trembling knee for another moment, soft hair against Steve's inner thigh, breathing heavily against Steve's skin. Then he slowly gets back up again to kiss Steve.

"I've been thinking about doing that for a long long time," Bucky murmurs against Steve's mouth, "I always wanted to see how you'd look."

Steve can't trust himself to speak so he just kisses Bucky hard. Two idiots who deserved each other.

_____

Tony has a new shoulder harness waiting for them when they drop by the lab the next morning. "It's a sleeker design," he says holding it up, "Plus it's more lightweight and it's stronger. I wasn't sure if we could synthesize enough of the alloy to fill out the mold but Pepper reminded me we had an extra barrel of the starting material in some warehouse in Jersey."

Bucky takes off his jacket and his shirt. He has some rather spectacular bruises on his collarbone from last night. Steve stares straight ahead at the far wall.

"I'll just disconnect--wow those aren't from the harness are they?"

"No," Bucky says.

"I see," Tony says way too cheerfully. Steve glances back to see him fitting the new shoulder harness on Bucky--nearly identical except a little bit more streamlined.

"It's lighter," Bucky says, tightening the harness strap across his chest.

"It'll be less bulky under your clothing too," Tony says, "Try it out."

Bucky puts his shirt back on and picks up a stylus from Tony's desk. It takes both hands to position it but he manages to hold it like an actual pencil.

"It feels smoother," Bucky says. He glances up at Tony. "Wouldn't happen to have a sniper file lying around, would you?"

"I have to keep all my potentially exploding things upstairs," Tony says, "Pepper says there's less possibility of accidentally blowing out a bunch of these floors. Not sure if I have a sniper rifle lying around though."

Bucky just rotates his shoulder as best as he can without killing half the stitches that the surgeon had put in. "That's alright," he says, "I guess I don't know if I'm going to need one in the future anyway."

_____

By the fifth day that they're in New York, the surgeon takes the bandages off of Bucky's arm and examines it closely. Bucky still doesn't really like to look at it so he keeps his head turned while Steve hovers behind the doctor, peering over his shoulder at the patched up wound.

"I think you're okay to go home," the surgeon says, glancing through the gauze. Bucky hasn't bled on them at all. "You still have my number though, if anything comes up. I can forward all the information to your hospital in DC if you tell your new doctors to contact me."

"Thank you," Bucky says. Steve helps Bucky get back into the shoulder harness and to snap the covers back into place. It'd been tricky at first but Steve thinks he's kind of got the hang of it now.

"Don't put too much weight on that arm for at least a month," the surgeon says, "If you feel any sharp pains in the upper part of your arm, call my number."

"Thanks," Bucky says again, pulling on his shirt.

"Good luck," the surgeon says, clapping Bucky briefly on his right shoulder before leaving.

They'd already said goodbye to Bruce, who apologized for Tony's absence and told them that he'd say bye for them. Which means--

"Home?" Bucky asks, turning towards Steve as he shrugs into his jacket.

"Home," Steve agrees.

_____

They reach Susanne's house a little after eleven--definitely after the time Susanne usually fell asleep--but there's a light on in the kitchen. Steve takes the tote bag with empty containers that used to hold hummus and peanut butter, key scraping into the lock. Bucky follows him in.

"I'm gonna go take a shower and crash," Bucky says. Steve nods and is warmly surprised by the easy way that Bucky catches the front of his shirt for a brief brush of their closed mouths, like they've been doing it for years.

"Hi--oh," Susanne says, coming down the top few stairs, "Did I interrupt something?"

"Nah, I was just about to go take a shower," Bucky says, sounding effortlessly casual. And why wouldn't he?--he'd known Susanne and been part of this family as long as Steve had.

"Is that your new arm?" Susanne asks, sounding more awake than she had been a moment ago.

Bucky lifts the arm and it gleams even in the dim light filtering up from the kitchen. "I'll tell you about it in the morning," he says, kissing her cheek as he passes her on the stairs.

Steve steps into the kitchen and opens the dirty tupperware so he can rinse them and put them in the dishwasher.

"Steve," Susanne says, leaning in the doorway of the kitchen, "You didn't tell me."

"Yeah," Steve says, unable to keep the grin from his face. He turns to face her, "Yeah, it just happened a few days ago. Long time coming."

She's smiles back, eyes crinkling and holds her hands out. He hugs her tight, still grinning.

It seemed like everything was going right with the world for once.

_____

It's a tight fit on the guest bed but at least it's a size up from Steve's old full. Bucky's already asleep on his right side and snoring lightly by the time that Steve finishes up in the kitchen and brushes his teeth, so Steve just moves in behind him, nosing at the back of Bucky's neck and smelling his own shampoo. He curls his arm around Bucky's stomach. Bucky momentarily stops snoring but it's been a hell of a long week. Steve's asleep before he knows it.

He wakes up by himself, sprawled across most of the bed. He tries to find his phone on the nightstand to figure out what time it is and picks up Bucky's instead. 8:44AM, over five hundred unread emails and text messages. Someone is frying bacon downstairs.

Steve lies in bed for another moment before giving up and going to get the phone he'd abandoned in his desk drawer before he'd gone to New York on a whim. He'd texted the important people--Peggy, Sam, Natasha--that he'd be gone for a week, but he's not looking forward to the hundreds of emails about the aftermath of Project Insight and the file dump.

When he finally turns on his phone, there are nearly three thousand emails alone. His texts still haven't loaded. Steve looks blankly at the number before setting his phone back down and deciding he'd rather have breakfast instead.

But when he gets downstairs, Bucky is spreading cream cheese on a bagel and looking at a very familiar binder that Steve was sure had been securely shoved under a bunch of advertisements. Of all the days Susanne decided to clean--

"Hi," Bucky says as he walks into the kitchen, "Did you know you own Van Gogh sketches? That's an artist even I recognize."

"I don't own any Van Gogh," Steve says, taking half a piece of turkey bacon from the cooling pan on the stove and folding it up to put in his mouth all at once.

Bucky flips open the binder to the first page, blatantly ignoring the fact that it has the Barnes crest on it. "It has your name here."

"Bucky," Steve says patiently. He swallows the bacon. "You aren't dead."

"I might still legally be dead though," Bucky says seriously.

Steve really wants to set that entire binder on fire.

"Listen Steve," Bucky says, setting the bagel down and stepping towards him, "What am I going to do with all those pictures? I don't know the first thing about art. You'd be doing me a favor, taking them off my hands and like, I don't know, curating them or whatever. At least you'd have some context." Bucky grasps his wrists gently, unflinching in the face of Steve's glare.

"The investment account was always set up in your name," Bucky adds, "So I mean, there's no dodging that one. But it's not like you can access those funds easily anyway."

"You--" Steve says, angry but helpless.

 

"I'm always going to be able to fall back on my last name," Bucky says, "I guess I've always been set for life." He smiles a little wryly. "I just wish I could give you more."

"Bucky," Steve says, eyes narrowing.

Bucky touches Steve's chest, right over his heart. Steve watches him. He's got a distant look in his eyes.

"Do you think this is it for you?" Bucky asks, looking into Steve's face, "I mean, do you think that we're a done deal? That it's going to be you and me forever?"

Steve doesn't even think twice about answering. "Yes."

Bucky smiles at him, private and fond. "Then what does it matter whose name is on anything?"

_____

Sam swings by when they're clearing the dishes after breakfast. Steve answers the door and asks, "Want some toast?" before Sam can say anything.

"Sure, why not?" Sam says, "You look a lot better. How's your stomach?"

"I'll live," Steve says, "Do you want butter on your toast?"

"Okay," Sam says, and then, "Hi Bucky."

Bucky raises a hand in greeting from where he's still rinsing out the pot in the sink.

"Is that Starktech?" Sam asks.

"It's cool, isn't it?" Bucky says, moving a plate from the sink to the dishwasher with his left hand specifically to show off. Steve rolls his eyes but he can't help the affectionate smile that creeps across his face. He hands Sam his buttered toast.

"I think Peggy might be going crazy," Sam says, looking back at Steve and biting into the piece of bread, "But she said she could carve out some time for lunch if you wanted to meet somewhere close to the Pentagon."

"I feel like I need to read up on the file dump before I give testimony," Steve says, "I haven't read any news at all for the last week."

"I really don't think you missed out on anything," Sam says, "There's still too much information and not enough technically specialized people to translate any of it into understandable English for the general public."

"My files?" Steve asks.

"Your super serum stuff? Still buried. People are mostly still outraged over Project Insight." Sam finishes the last of the toast. "Natasha's over at my place if you want to ask her what's up."

Steve thinks about it for a moment. If there was anyone in the world capable of summarizing hundreds of terabytes of extremely specialized intelligence information, it was probably her.

"Okay," Steve says, "Yeah. I haven't seen her in a while anyway."

"Heading out?" Bucky asks, wiping his hands on the dish towel.

"Yeah, for a little bit."

"I think I'm gonna head back up to the palace," Bucky says, "Need a ride?"

Steve glances at Sam and notices his outfit. "I think we're gonna run."

"Whoa surgery boy," Sam says, "You sure this is a good time to run?"

"You just want to bum a ride," Steve says with the intention of goading Sam into running with him. But in the end, Bucky pulls halfway into an empty spot outside Sam's apartment and idles the car. Steve waits for Sam's door to shut before leaning over the gear shift and kissing Bucky, exactly like he'd wanted to a week ago.

"See you," Steve says, grinning at him.

"Stay safe," Bucky says, smiling back.

Outside Sam slaps his shoulder as the car pulls from the curb. "I am so proud of you guys for pulling your heads out of your asses."

"Yeah well," Steve says, watching Bucky's car turn the corner before his smile fades. "Come on, we've got work to do."

Chapter Text

Steve gets the invitation first: a personalized letter asking if he would like to be a guest of honor.

"I don't think it'd be right," Steve tells Bucky as Bucky takes up too much space on Steve's old couch, sprawled out so that his feet are in Steve's lap. The Celtics are playing the Cavaliers on the large screen television he'd forced onto Steve (entirely fair since he'd basically moved into Steve's apartment in all but lease) and even though he doesn't have all that much investment in either team, he hasn't changed the channel yet. One of Steve's hands is wrapped around his ankle, the other scrolling through the emails on his phone.

"I mean," Steve continues, "I'm sort of responsible for fucking everything up. Why would they invite me as a guest of honor?"

"I dunno," Bucky says, watching the Celtics score a free throw, "Maybe because you saved a couple hundred thousand people from being murdered."

"Bucky," Steve says, displeased.

Bucky leans forward and runs his hand through the hair at the back of Steve's head, smiling. "Honestly," he says, pressing his lips to Steve's temple, "Who wouldn't want to make you a guest of honor?"

Two days later, Bucky gets his own invitation. Amanda calls him while he's driving from Steve's place to the palace, stopped at a red light.

"Do you feel ready for your first public appearance?" Amanda asks by way of greeting.

He's got Steve. He feels like himself most days, even if some patches of his past are still missing. He remembers all the important things anyway. "Sure," he says.

"There's a dinner for the Maryland Environmental Conservation Group coming up in two weeks," Amanda says, "Should I put down a plus one?"

"No," Bucky says after a moment, "Steve's got his own invitation."

_____

"I think you should go as separate guests to this event," Amanda says the afternoon before the dinner.

"Yes," Bucky says slowly, fiddling with his tie and glancing at Steve before looking back at Amanda, "We do each have our own invitation."

"No," Amanda says, "As in you should probably refrain from any form of PDA. Don't put your dating status in question. This isn't the dinner to do that."

"Hold on," Bucky says, eyes narrowing. He'd forgotten how much he'd hated Amanda's micromanaging. "I am absolutely thrilled to be dating Steve and I don't give a fuck what the rest of the world--"

"I think she's got a point," Steve says.

Bucky whips his head around to look at Steve.

"You grope me in public, that's all the newspapers are going to care about for the next week," Steve says, "This is bigger than that. We're trying to help fix something that we--that I destroyed."

"Okay, for one I would never grope you in public," Bucky says--though it's possible that he's lying on that account, he can't remember, "And Steve, you really have to stop beating yourself up over this. Planes go down all the time. Oil tankers end up spilling everywhere. You saved countless lives."

"If you go together," Amanda says, brazenly cutting past Bucky's words, "Steve will probably be seen as your date and not there in his own respect."

"That's a fair point," Bucky says.

"The environment isn't as important as whether or not a bunch of old white politicians think I was invited on my own?" Steve asks.

"I--" Bucky starts, and stops. "Honestly," he says, trying his hardest for lighthearted joking but ending up sounding much more serious than he intended, "The only way I would ever shut up about how infatuated I am with your stupid face is if you asked me to, Steve."

"We can go just one dinner, right?" Steve says, "It's nothing that we haven't done before."

Bucky tries to remember the last charity event they'd attended together. But between the length of time and the memories that he's still missing, he can't remember.

"Okay," Bucky says.

"I'm glad you both agree," Amanda says, "I'll leave you two to finish dressing." She takes a few steps towards the door before turning back around. "Oh and James," she says, "The queen would like to see you before you leave for the night."

"My mother?" Bucky asks. She'd come back to the palace shortly after Bucky had left for New York. Even though it's been nearly two months by now, he'd only seen her in passing as she stayed mostly within her own wing. He doesn't know if his complete lack of knowledge about her stems from memories that he'd lost and hadn't yet replaced--or if they just never existed in the first place. He doesn't even remember the last time she'd called him personally to her room.

"Your mother," Amanda confirms.

"Okay," Bucky says, "I'll go see her as soon as I finish up here."

_____

Being in his mother's room isn't familiar to him at all. The curtains are gauzy and half drawn across some of the windows--the queen has a room on the back side of the castle so it doesn't matter if her curtains match to the rest of the castle. That, or the queen just doesn't care. Bucky half expects there to be a thick layer of dust across the scattered books and paraphernalia on the tables and shelves, but everything is pristine. Bucky gets an image of the maids moving around this frozen room, the queen sitting as still as a statue.

"James," she says. She's curled in a chair by the window, backlit by the remnants of sunset, everything cast in a dim orange glow.

"Hello mother," Bucky says.

"Come closer, will you?" she says, though she doesn't make an effort to turn on the light next to her. Bucky steps forward, watching her uncertainly. He doesn't know what to say or how to act.

She looks at him for a long while. It's strange, really, to see this mysterious part of his life dressed in yoga pants and cotton t-shirt, looking smaller than he could have ever expected. Was this how she looked to the younger version of Bucky too? But despite his spotty memory, he can't ever remember feeling this sort of pity for her that he does now--only ever the apprehension and self-doubt.

"You've grown into a fine young man," she says finally, breaking the prolonged silence.

Bucky makes an attempt to smile. "Thank you, mother."

"Yes," she says, finally setting her feet down onto the floor and leaning forward, towards him, "Yes, I think I'm making the right decision." Bucky watches her smile at him, hands in her lap as she straightens her shoulders.

"James, I thought it right that you should be the first to know," she says, "I've decided to abdicate."

_____

Steve is waiting for him in the car. The moment that Bucky climbs in next to him, he looks at Bucky once and asks, "What's wrong?"

"I uh," Bucky says, still a little stunned, "My mother is abdicating."

"What? When?"

"In three months or so," Bucky says, "There's a formal process and they have to prepare for my coronation."

Steve takes his hand, looking into his face. "Are you okay with it?"

"I don't know," Bucky says, "It was always a possibility, I just didn't think that it'd happen so soon."

"Do you--should we head back?" Steve asks, "This is really big news to deal with."

"No," Bucky says, "It's fine. I'll think about it more after the dinner."

_____

The plan is to drop Steve off first, circle around, then drop Bucky off so they can make separate entrances. Bucky figures that it'll be a fairly low key event--not too many celebrities were drawn to events like this. He expects mostly a crowd of politicians and representatives from companies based primarily in Maryland.

He's entirely wrong.

The paparazzi are already thronging the entrance, Olivia Wilde stopped on the carpet for shots. Steve touches his shoulder as he stares out the tinted glass window at the flashing lights--he'd done this before many many times, hadn't he?

"You going to be okay?" Steve asks.

Bucky puts on his cockiest smile. "Who's the expert here?"

Steve rolls his eyes but leans forward to kiss the smile off his face. He tugs briefly at Bucky's collar as he pulls away, straightening Bucky's tie. Bucky grins and Steve pats the side of his face once before pushing the car door open and stepping out.

Bucky doesn't get to watch him for long before the car moves away from the entrance to loop around the block. Bucky rubs his palms on his knees, gearing himself up.

Maybe ten minutes pass before the car pulls up a second time. Bucky takes a deep breath to steel himself and then he opens the door.

Immediately, the cameras are on him, people yelling, "Prince James, this way!" and, "Prince James, just a moment of your time!" He smiles, momentarily self-conscious about his prosthetic before thinking fuck it and raising his metal hand to wave at the cameras as he moves down the carpet.

But the flashing cameras keep going--the way that it keeps popping into his face--something in his mind is is superimposing the light onto a different time, a different place--the smell of diesel and smoke and charred plastic, his own breathing ragged in his ears. He tries to blink it away, struggling to get back to reality but it doesn't help that his hand is already raised against the white light. In a different time: the heat of an oncoming fire--

"Hey Buck," someone says in his ear, taking his arm and leading him down the carpet. He concentrates on his breathing, a steady in and out until the panic seizing his chest eases away.

He lets himself be led into the coat room, out of view of the other guests. Steve stands close hand on his arm, murmuring, "You okay?"

"Yeah," Bucky says, breathing out, "Yeah I'm okay."

"Do you want some water?" Steve asks, "We can stay in here for a while."

The panic clears away, leaving behind only a vague sense of embarrassment. "No it's okay--I'm okay."

"Let's just stay here for a little bit," Steve says, moving so that he's leaning against the wall next to Bucky with their shoulders pressed together. Bucky listens to the faint cries of the reporters outside the door each time it opens to admit someone new.

"I didn't think this dinner would be that big of a deal," Steve says, "People outside were asking for my signature."

"Did you give it to them?" Bucky asks. He can feel his heart slowing back into his regular cadence.

"I think I was too overwhelmed by all the attention to do anything other than walk by really fast," Steve says.

"You can find time to sign autographs for people on the metro though," Bucky says, grinning.

"That was just once," Steve says, elbowing him, "And I have no idea how that woman recognized me."

"Wearing a baseball cap isn't exactly a disguise," Bucky says, "And your face has been on the twenty four hour news cycle for ages now."

Steve doesn't say anything but he smiles slightly, nudging his hand against Bucky's. They stand in silence for a little while.

"Okay," Bucky says, turning his head towards Steve. "You ready to head in?"

_____

Bucky has been looking at Steve all damn night--eyeing the silhouette of the bespoke suit and watching women purposefully wandering past for the sole purpose of saying something that brought out Steve's shy smile. Bucky assumed they were just admiring how hot Steve was because honestly, who wouldn't?

It's difficult to keep his hands to himself in the car but for the sake of the driver he just contents himself with looking at Steve in the dim light of the streetlights. Steve only notices in the form of asking Bucky if he's tired, which Bucky answers by lacing their fingers together and kissing the back of Steve's hand.

When they get back, Steve sighs and hooks his fingers around his tie to loosen it--but Bucky catches his wrist and licks his lips, glancing up at Steve. "May I?" he murmurs, touching Steve's collar.

Steve swallows, all traces of his previous casualness gone. "Alright," he says, lowering his hands. Bucky pulls the tie slowly, the silk knot unravelling in his hands. He runs his fingers over the silk, looking back up into Steve's face. Steve watches him, mouth slightly parted and perfect for kissing.

Bucky doesn't. Instead he drops the tie and moves on to the jacket, unbuttoning one at a time. Steve's hands move to Bucky's hips--either to steady himself or to hold Bucky close. Either way, Bucky smirks a little, dragging a finger down the expensive fabric of Steve's dress shirt before hooking it in Steve's belt and pulling him closer, lifting his chin to kiss Steve's mouth.

Steve breathes hard against his ear as Bucky looks down again to deftly undo Steve's belt and fly. The ends of Steve's shirt come untucked--Bucky slides his hand underneath, against the warm skin of Steve's hips before moving lower, cupping Steve's half hard cock through the fabric of his boxers. Steve makes a small noise, his breath hitching as he pushes his nose against the side of Bucky's head and tightens his grip on Bucky's hips.

"Take off your jacket," Bucky orders with his hand still on Steve's cock. Steve doesn't move for a moment but then he takes his hands off of Bucky's hips and leans back to pull off his jacket and throw it in the general direction of the couch, staring at Bucky's face the entire time. Bucky tilts his head, and says, "Bed."

Ten seconds later Bucky pushes Steve down on his--no, their--bed, Steve's dress shirt riding up as Bucky crawls onto the bed on top of him. Bucky dips his head to nuzzle at the strip of exposed skin, Steve laughing a little as he runs his fingers through Bucky's hair. "Don't you think you're a little bit overdressed?"

"I'll take my jacket off if you take off your shirt," Bucky says,

"Just the jacket?" Steve asks, though he's already undoing the top button of his shirt. Bucky pushes Steve's boxers down and kisses the crease of his thigh, glancing up at Steve's face all the while. He kisses the side of Steve's cock and Steve lets his head fall back. Bucky licks up the length of Steve's hardening cock, sucking briefly at the head, and Steve's fingers slip, stuttering against the buttons of his shirt.

"Not fair," Steve manages to get out.

"How are you doing on that shirt?" Bucky asks smirking against the side of Steve's cock. He moves to kiss Steve's hip, then his navel, skipping the still clothed stomach to kiss his chest. Steve pulls him up by the tie to kiss him--and Bucky probably should have expected it but it still surprises him to find himself pinned against the bed, Steve smiling against his mouth.

"Just leveling the playing field," Steve tells him, biting briefly at his jaw as he makes quick work of Bucky's already ruined tie knot and shirt. He sucks a bruise at the side of Bucky's neck--the heat of Steve's mouth like a direct connection to his dick as Steve eases off into licking lightly at the skin. Without Bucky to distract him, Steve pulls off his own shirt and manages to push off his pants, both pieces of expensive clothing dropping somewhere over the side of the bed. Bucky's shirt is open but he's still got almost his entire suit on, a little thrilled as Steve's cock drags against the inseam of his pants, very possibly leaving being a streak of saliva and precome he'll have to get dry cleaned.

"What--" Bucky gasps, his hands wrapped around Steve's sides as Steve bites down on his collarbone, "--what were you saying about levelling the playing field?"

Steve doesn't reply, just kisses the curve of skin where Bucky's shoulder harness met his chest and grinds down on his still clothed dick. Bucky's hands move down Steve's sides, until he has a handful of Steve's ass, his own cock straining against the inside of his boxers. He makes a totally undignified whimper as Steve moves against him again, tongue flat against Bucky's nipple.

Steve moves up to kiss him and Bucky can feel the grin against his own mouth. He pulls away, his hair messed up and his mouth red--Bucky wants--god, he wants--

"Why don't you take off the rest of your clothes?" Steve suggests, getting off of him to dig through the nightstand for the lube. Bucky complies as quickly as he can, scooting to the edge of the bed to get his pants off. Steve's still looking when Bucky finishes so Bucky moves behind him, kissing his shoulder and the back of his neck. Steve smiles, turning his head and kissing Bucky over his shoulder as he pulls out the bottle.

They've done this so many times by now but it's amazing how much Bucky can look at Steve's smiling face and feel the same rush of amazed delight that he felt the first time--years of watching Steve but never quite touching built up in his fingertips. Steve pushes him back down on the bed and straddles him, a generous amount of lube slicked over his fingers as he pushes two into himself. Bucky can't help it--he gathers the lube running down Steve's wrist onto his own fingers and nudges Steve's hand aside, pushing into Steve, eyes intent on Steve's face.

Steve lets out a shaky breath and wraps his lubed up hand around Bucky's cock, stroking him a few times as his own cock trails against the skin of Bucky's stomach. "Okay," Steve says, bending down to kiss his mouth. "Okay," he murmurs again and guides Bucky's cock into himself, moving to take all of him in a slow slide. His forehead is pressed against Bucky's collarbone, gasping hotly against Bucky's chest as he takes him, inch by inch.

By the time he's fully seated, he just keeps his head pressed against Bucky's chest, making an effort to control his breathing. Bucky presses his mouth to the top of Steve's head, running his hands up and down Steve's sides though he can barely keep his own breathing from getting erratic. Steve tightens around him briefly as he pushes himself up to look at Bucky and Bucky nearly loses it right then and there.

Steve moves slowly, watching Bucky's face. Bucky whines lowly, panting.

"If you could see yourself," Steve says, sounding dazed.

"Steve--" Bucky begs, his hand clutching at Steve's shoulder as he tries to move with Steve, "--please."

The arc of Steve's body above his, the look in his eyes--Steve is taking him apart in the most loving way possible and it's too much to bear. Steve brackets Bucky's head in with his arms, his face close as he moves faster, whispering a litany of Bucky's name.

When it hits him, it feels like he's drowning in the pleasure, his entire body alight. He's only peripherally aware of Steve kissing away the broken noise that comes out of him, caught up in the intensity of coming. "Love you," Steve whispers in Bucky's ear from far away, "I love you."

_____

In the morning, Steve leaves first to get to the Pentagon where he's still helping Peggy and Natasha sort through all of the SHIELD files as part of their pseudo-probation assigned by Congress. Bucky lies face down on Steve's pillow, putting off getting up to go to the palace for another ten minutes when his phone rings.

Bucky gropes for his phone and glances at the caller ID. He rolls over onto his back and asks, "Miss me already?"

"You probably shouldn't go outside," Steve tells him by way of answering, "There are a ton of photographers out there."

Bucky rolls out of the bed and moves over to the window. He moves the blinds slightly to look at the front of the apartment building and sure enough, there's an entire contingent of people with cameras milling about. Someone is taking pictures of his car.

"Should I be avoiding the internet?" he asks.

"I did a quick search on the train," Steve says, "Apparently someone managed to get a shot of us kissing."

"I don't remember kissing you," Bucky says, moving away from the window.

"It was through a car window," Steve says, "I think it was right before I got out of the car. I didn't think that anyone was going to take a picture of the car."

"Oh," Bucky says.

"I'm sorry Buck," Steve says.

"No," Bucky says, "Don't be sorry. I'm thrilled the world knows you settled for my sorry ass. Or if anyone should apologize, it's me."

"Bucky," Steve says in his warning voice.

"It might get bad from here," Bucky says.

"It's okay," Steve says, "We'll get through it together."

_____

Amanda calls as Bucky digs through the leftover pasta in Steve's fridge.

"What would you like us to release?" she asks by way of greeting.

"Well I'd personally like to tell everyone to fuck off and leave us alone," Bucky says, "But barring that, that yes I'm in a relationship with Steve, we are very happy together, and that we would like for the public to respect our privacy."

"I'll go with the second," Amanda says dryly, "I presume you're not going to make it to the palace today?"

"I'll wait for Steve to get back," Bucky says, "Can you help clear the paparazzi from Steve's apartment? I'll see if I can convince him to come to the palace for a little while."

"It's harder to enforce trespassing laws on public streets but I'll see what I can do," Amanda says and hangs up.

Bucky sets his phone down and resists the urge to check google news. He eats a forkful of cold penne and considers what he's going to do if he's trapped in Steve's apartment without Steve for the next six hours.

There are frozen ribs somewhere in Steve's freezer and arugula that's probably going to go bad soon. Bucky might as well as make himself useful.

_____

By the time Steve gets back, Bucky's left the ribs on the stovetop to cool. The arugula had already gone bad but Bucky finds a carton of cherry tomatoes that doesn't have any mold and a container of mozzarella that Susanne must have given Steve from one of her many many artisanal food friends. Bucky even found time to throw some oil and eggs into an instant brownie mix.

"I think the photographers multiplied," Steve says as he comes through the door, "Smells good."

Bucky's doing sit ups with his feet tucked under the couch. He hears Steve drop his bag on a chair and move into the kitchen to check out the food. Bucky keeps doing sit ups.

"I asked Amanda if she could help clear them out," Bucky says when Steve comes into view. He does a last sit up and then lies on the floor. "But I guess she doesn't have any jurisdiction beyond the palace. I was thinking about us moving there tomorrow morning to ride this out."

Steve sits on the couch right in front of him. "How long would that be?"

"A few days? A few months?" The shoulder harness is digging into his back. The floor is definitely not a comfortable place to lie on. He holds out his hands and Steve pulls him up. "Whenever the press finds something new to obsess over."

"Natasha has been unbearable," Steve says, "I think she normally wouldn't care but we've been going through the longest, most tedious backlog of communications data for the last couple of days so she's been pretending to help by settling up google alerts for HYDRA activity. Which is just a cover for reading as many articles about us as she can and telling me all about them."

"I haven't trusted myself with a phone all day," Bucky says.

"Apparently there are a bunch of men selling interviews about how they hooked up with you when you were in college," Steve says, sounding uncertain like he wanted to phrase it as a joke but couldn't quite make it. Bucky tenses--he would have never--

--but he remembers hard bodies against his, stubble scratching against his stomach. He'd had two rules: no lights, no speaking.

"Bucky?" Steve asks with a touch of disbelief.

"I did," Bucky says, "It was pathetic. I pretended they were you."

Steve doesn't say anything to that. He hasn't moved away either though, just looks at Bucky for a long time. Eventually he says quietly, "Do you remember that time, at the end of college, when I kissed you?"

Bucky does. He swallows.

"Why didn't you let us have this earlier?" Steve asks, in that same soft voice.

Silence. Bucky can hear the clock ticking on the wall above the table. It's easier to focus on that than to dig through the viscera of his own psyche, but he can't leave Steve hanging.

"I was scared, I wasn't sure of myself, I wasn't ready," Bucky says, feeling exposed. It'd been one of the first things he'd remembered--all of the guilt and longing coalesced into a single moment that he'd replayed over and over. "Or, all of the above."

Silence. Bucky can't meet Steve's eyes for fear of what he'll find there.

But Steve just says, "okay," and leans down to press his forehead against Bucky's. "Okay," he says again, fingers linking behind Bucky's neck, "We're here now. That's all that matters, right?"

Bucky closes his eyes and smiles a little, lifting his chin so he can kiss the side of Steve's nose.

_____

Halley comes to pick them up at seven in the morning. Bucky, predictably, had only made a half assed effort at packing before getting distracted with Steve--though he supposes it doesn't really matter since the majority of his clothes are technically still at the palace. Not that it even really mattered for Steve since they had a wider overlap in wardrobe now, not to mention the tailor the palace kept on retainer.

The paparazzi are still outside, taking about a billion pictures a minute and yelling questions like, "Prince James, did you decide to date your friend only now that he's bulked up?" and "Mr. Rogers, are you aware of the multiple affairs he had with men?" Someone keeps shouting, "How long have you been secretly dating?" over and over again, cut off only when Halley shuts the back door. The cameras keep going.

"Want a ride to the Pentagon?" Halley asks as he gets into the driver's seat, glancing back at Steve.

"Yes please," Steve answers and reaches across the seat to take Bucky's hand.

_____

"We've set a date," Amanda says after Bucky sits down across from her, "February first. Far enough from the holidays and the State of the Union address."

It still seems unreal to Bucky. "Okay," he says, for lack of anything better.

Amanda types on her computer. Bucky stares out at the palace grounds where the gardener is raking up leaves. All the ones still left on the trees are dead and greying.

"So," he says, "My CO told me that once I was done with my PT and everything checked out, they'd look into getting me my position back."

Amanda stops typing and looks at him.

"It took a lot of taxpayer money and effort to train me," Bucky continues, "I think it'd be a shame to waste that."

"James," Amanda says, "You and I both know that your coronation will put you in a full time position."

"Okay but what the hell will I actually be doing as a king?" Bucky demands, his gaze moving from the window back to Amanda, "Go to more charity events? Tour the world and have people kissing up to me in hopes that I can somehow convince Congress to lower tariffs on automotive parts? Listen to a mother tell me how her daughter can't safely walk to school because there are too many armed rapists and thieves in their village and realize that I have absolutely no power to make anything better in any permanent way?" He takes a breath. "Then I come back to this palace where servants bring me dinner and you throw money at whatever country was visited and I get a mention for not being a shitty person on whatever blog passes for news these days and people who read the blog can feel satisfied that at least someone is trying to help when in actuality we've achieved a grand total of absolutely zero."

Amanda doesn't have an immediate response for once. Bucky slumps in his chair and says, "And maybe the military isn't better but at least I feel like I'm doing something to help track down the people who want to do this country harm."

"You give voice to the voiceless," Amanda says, "That's what you do. You say something, people pay attention."

Bucky looks out the window again. The horizon is heavy with clouds. It might snow tonight.

"I'm sorry that you feel like what you're doing doesn't contribute much to the causes you've vocally supported in the past," Amanda continues, "It can be hard to see but I assure you that you are absolutely making a difference for these people."

Bucky looks at his hands in his lap. Just two days ago he'd been cornered by politicians who'd spent half the dinner talking about their reelection campaigns and jokingly asked Bucky if he'd publicly support them. Giving voice to the voiceless.

"I know this responsibility fell on you sooner than any of us expected," Amanda says, "But James, I believe that you can elevate this role like no Barnes has done before you."

Bucky looks back up at Amanda's face, left hand closing into a loose fist.

"What choice do I have?" he says expressionlessly.

_____

"Hey," Steve says as he pokes his head around the bathroom door, "I almost forgot about brunch with Peggy tomorrow. Should I cancel?"

"Why?" Bucky asks, looking up from where he'd been staring at the Philip K. Dick he'd stolen back from Steve's room.

"The paparazzi thing?" Steve says, giving Bucky a look.

"There probably won't be any unless they're incredibly dedicated," Bucky says, "We can sit inside. They're not allowed on private property. Do you think Peggy would mind?"

"No?" Steve says, "Probably not? I'd have to ask."

"Do you mind?"

"No," Steve says, "But wasn't the entire point of coming here to avoid them?"

"Only because the palace and your apartment are the two known spots for where we'd be," Bucky says, "Anywhere else and they'd just be lucky."

"Okay," Steve says, and ducks back around the door again before calling out, "I'll tell Peggy we're still on."

Bucky looks back at the book but he'd been reading the same page for the last twenty minutes. February was too close and he wasn't even sure what alternatives he could pursue. He could see the army opting to discharge him or at the very worst, putting him in an administrative position to avoid a repeat opportunity of what had happened to him. This would become especially probable the moment he was crowned. Beyond that, he couldn't see what else he was possibly qualified for, since sniper training didn't exactly help him understand the complexities of international relations or teach him macroeconomics.

Bucky closes the book and puts it on his stomach. He slides down the headboard and shuts his eyes. He could go back to school to learn something new but that feels even more self-indulgent now than it had during the years he'd spent in limbo before he'd been deployed. He knows he has a useful skill set. He just doesn't know how he could use it.

"You still awake?" Steve asks, climbing into bed next to him. Bucky turns towards him, scooting closer and Steve puts his hand on the side of Bucky's head, petting his hair. "How was your meeting with Amanda?"

"The usual voice for the voiceless fare," Bucky mumbles, turning his face into Steve's hand.

"I still think it's true," Steve says, leaning down to press a kiss against his jaw, "I know it's shitty when old rich dudes ask you to plug their companies for them but I don't think you're giving yourself enough credit for all the stuff you've done."

"You know who'd be great for this?" Bucky asks, "You. If I make you my queen or whatever--"

"Hey," Steve protests.

Bucky rolls his eyes. "If I end up being queen and you become my king or whatever, you could totally take over all of this. Remember that time in fifth grade when you made that redheaded boy cry because you made him feel so bad for personally destroying the rainforest by taking too many paper towels?"

Steve is silent for a moment. And then he says, "I swear you selectively remember all the worst things about me as a child."

"Or that time when--"

Steve kisses him to shut him up. Bucky smirks against his mouth and drags Steve closer by the back of his neck.

Steve brushes his thumb against Bucky's cheekbone briefly before pulling away slightly and saying, "But seriously Bucky, if it's not what you want to do, I'll help you find whatever it is that you do."

"Yeah," Bucky says, smiling, "Yeah, I know."

_____

Clink.

Something touches the back of his head. Buck stares straight ahead. He tries to move his hands but his hands are strapped to his sides

"You see," someone is saying, "You have to be more careful cauterizing that part."

"Just do the whole damn thing," someone else says, "Just take everything." The words go dead.

The room is white and squeezing in on him. He can't breathe. Everything is white and they're going to take everything from him. He can't let that happen but his hands are bound so tightly to his side that he can't even try to move.

Clink.

There is an ache at the back of his head. Something moves past him on the ground.

The vision flips--he is looking at himself. Angry red gash for an arm, a hole in the back of his head where something black is coming out. They fall in drops to hit the ground with the same sound as a scalpel hitting a metal tray.

"Bucky."

Clink.

He can't breathe.

"Bucky."

His eyes fly open. It's dark and it smells like Steve. He swallows and clutches at the arm that Steve's got wrapped around his stomach, trying to control his breathing. Steve kisses the back of his neck, murmuring soft words that Bucky's not really listening to, just latching on to the soothing tone.

"You okay?" Steve asks once Bucky's managed to get most of his breathing under control again.

"Yeah, I um," Bucky says and trails off, slowly releasing his death grip on Steve's arm.

"Do you want some water?" Steve asks.

Bucky turns towards him and curls up so that his left leg is between Steve's and his forehead is pressed against Steve's collarbone. "No, I'm okay."

Steve pulls him close and rubs his thumbs in tiny circles against Bucky's shoulder blade. Bucky closes his eyes and focuses on the quiet sound of Steve's breathing until he falls back asleep.

_____

Bucky drives fast enough to lose the only tail that they'd picked up leaving the palace. Steve's clutching the passenger side door by the time they get to the restaurant. "Jesus. I thought I'd experienced the worst of your driving."

"My paparazzi driving is not for everyone," Bucky agrees, opening the door and climbing out. Bucky had specifically requested this restaurant half because of the pancakes and half because of the valet service. No sense in trying to beat a potential mob of paparazzi to a car in the parking lot when the car could be brought to the front door. He hands over the keys to the attendant who obviously recognizes them but doesn't say anything.

Peggy's already seated at a table. The surprise is the slim red-headed woman is sitting next to her. Natasha, he remembers. The one who'd been in the conference room, discussing what to do about Project Insight. Steve's coworker.

"Hi Steve, Bucky," Peggy says when they get close enough, "Sorry to spring Natasha on you. She dropped by this morning and I invited her to come along."

"She means I made my own decision to crash this brunch," Natasha says, looking mostly at Bucky, "And that I should probably be sorry."

"Hi to you too Nat," Steve says, pulling a seat out for Bucky, "And you guys have both met Bucky right?"

"Under much tenser circumstances, yes," Peggy says, smiling at Bucky, "But it's lovely to see you again."

"Likewise," Bucky says, smiling.

"Have you guys ordered yet?" Steve asks, opening the menu.

"No," Peggy says, glancing at Natasha, "We should. But Steve, I really only asked you to brunch to discuss something in particular. We don't really have much time to talk."

Steve slowly closes his menu. "Should I be worried?"

"Oh no," Peggy says, "It's just, I have a feeling you're going to have a lot of questions and I have another meeting at one."

Bucky surreptitiously glances at his phone. One was still almost two hours away.

"Okay," Steve says, "Shoot."

"Maria, Nick, and I have been discussing the vacuum left behind when SHIELD collapsed," Peggy says, "We've been looking at the parts of SHIELD that were affiliated with HYDRA and tracking all of their activities over the last decade. There's a lot of activity that's still ongoing that no other organization that we've contacted can spare the resources or manpower to really stop."

"Even the US military?" Steve asks.

"Too inefficient and bogged down in occupying conflicted areas. What we need are the special ops teams but they're too in-demand to get our hands on." She keeps her eyes on Steve the entire time she says this but Bucky can't help but to lean forward.

"We decided that what we needed was a specialized team dedicated to tracking down and dismantling whatever's left of HYDRA," Peggy says, "We wanted this team to be small enough to strike fast and talented enough to strike hard. We're calling it the Avengers Initiative."

Steve sits back, glancing at Bucky and Natasha before looking back at Peggy. "You want me to join."

"Yes," Peggy says, smiling, "In fact, we'd like you to lead."

_____

Steve is uncharacteristically silent the entire way back to the palace. Bucky turns on the radio in vague effort to goad Steve into getting him to say anything other than a distracted, "Yeah," to anything Bucky says but Steve just stares quietly out the window.

It's not until they're parked in the garage that Steve says, "I'm going to take Peggy up on her offer."

"Are you sure?" Bucky asks, pulling the keys out of ignition, "You don't want to sleep on it?"

"It's something I want to do," Steve says, "Going after HYDRA. I've thought about it every day for the last four months."

"Four months," Bucky repeats, his stomach sinking, "You mean, ever since you found me."

"Ever since I found you," Steve agrees, voice curiously flat.

Bucky closes his hands around the steering wheel again even though he's not driving anywhere. He stares at the white wall in front of the car, trying to figure out why he's so angry about this before he says anything he'll regret.

"Steve," Bucky says slowly, trying to sound calm, "I absolutely cannot be the only reason you want to go after HYDRA."

"Why?" Steve demands, "I watched HYDRA agents torture you on film. HYDRA made me think you were dead. HYDRA beat you and brainwashed you until you were half dead when I found you. And when you woke up, I learned that HYDRA had taken all of your memories. And you tell me I shouldn't go after HYDRA?" As he speaks, his voice gets louder until he's practically shouting--and then as if realizing that he's shouting, cuts himself off abruptly at the end. He swallows and says much more quietly, "HYDRA hurt you, Buck. That's more than enough reason to go."

"I know," Bucky says, "I was there. You forgot the part where they shot down my plane and took my arm."

"How can you be so blase about this?" Steve asks, turning towards Bucky. One hand grips the back of his seat, knuckles white. "You know better than anyone what they did to you and you make it sound like they just cut in front of you in line."

"I know what they did to me," Bucky snaps, "Would you like to hear about the sound that your skull makes when you have a half inch hole drilled into the back of your head? Or maybe how sometimes I wake up scared that someone's flipped a switch in my brain and I'll just go dark and lose everything? Or how about that one time I got so scared about a sudden impulse to steal knives from the kitchen to carve open Amanda's face that I locked myself into a bathroom for three hours?"

Bucky breathes heavily and sets his forehead down against the top of the steering wheel. "I know what they did," he says, staring blindly into his dashboard, "I know what they took. They took my arm. They took my dignity. They took the trust I had in my own mind." He closes his eyes. "I'm still fighting for control, every day. If I look back, it's just letting them win." He's tired. "Steve, I can't let them take you too."

_____

"I know," Bucky says, apropos of nothing when they're heading up the stairs after dinner. It's been a tense afternoon, neither of them saying very much. "I know about my arm."

Steve doesn't say anything but he turns his face towards Bucky.

"It's the same arm HYDRA would have given me," Bucky continues, not quite sure why he's telling Steve this. But it seems very important. "The blueprints looked too similar. Stark was just finishing the job."

"It's okay though," Bucky finishes, "I didn't get this arm from HYDRA. I got it from Tony Stark."

_____

In the morning, Bucky wakes up with his head pillowed on Steve's chest and Steve absently drawing patterns on Bucky's shoulder with his fingertips. "Good morning," Steve murmurs.

"What time is it?" Bucky mumbles.

"Nine forty-ish," Steve says, dropping a kiss into Bucky's hair, "Listen, I think I figured it out."

"Oh yeah?" Bucky asks, looking up at him.

"I don't think I want revenge," Steve says, "I just--I remember how it felt when I saw that video. Like I'd never be happy again. I thought that was my limit. I didn't think it could get any worse than that." He swallows--Bucky watches his Adam's apple bob. "Then I got you back. And when you opened your eyes and didn't recognize me, I realized that it could. Get worse I mean. And if that was how I felt, I can't even begin to imagine what it was like for you."

Steve traces his index finger along Bucky's spine. "HYDRA is good at creating pain, isn't it?" Steve breathes in and Bucky feels his chest expand. "It's not about anger. It's not only about justice. It's about making sure that no one ever has to feel what you felt, ever again."

Silence. Then tentatively: "Does that make sense?"

Bucky lifts his head and kisses Steve on the jaw. "Yeah Steve," he says, "It makes sense."

_____

Later, Steve's spends half an hour pacing in front of a window and talking to Peggy on the phone while Bucky tries to read more of the Philip K. Dick book. He can't help but look up from the book and listen in on the conversation--Steve keeps running his hand over his head and saying, "But the commute time--I mean we could do it by helicopter but that's such a waste--yeah I know but--"

Eventually, he finds himself absorbed in the book so it's a surprise when Steve leans over the back of his chair looking over his shoulder at the book. Bucky turns his head slightly and Steve kisses his cheekbone. "How feasible do you think it is for us to move to New York?" he asks, "Would you even want to?"

"With you?" Bucky asks, "Sure. When do we leave?"

"Just like that?" Steve asks, "Maybe we should consult Amanda?"

"If I have to be king," Bucky says, "Then we're moving wherever you want."

Steve laughs, a warm sound that makes Bucky grin and stretch his arms back to trap Steve against the back of the chair.

"What do you want to do today?" Steve asks, letting himself be trapped.

"Well," Bucky says, "I was just informed that my boyfriend and I are going to start leading incredibly busy lives pretty soon." He kisses Steve at the awkward angle, fingers curling at the back of Steve's neck as Steve bends his head closer to be kissed. He pulls back a tiny bit and says against Steve's mouth, "I was thinking maybe we should take this opportunity to stay in."

He kisses Steve again, biting lightly on his lower lip before pulling back again to say, "Sex. I was talking about sex."

Steve laughs, bright and fond as he touches his nose to Bucky's. "Shut up Bucky," he says, but he sounds delighted, "You're ruining the moment."

Chapter Text

 

115th CONGRESS
1st SESSION

H.R. 2783

__________________________

IN THE HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES

Ms. Pendleton (for herself and Mr. Barnes of Virginia) introduced the following bill: which was referred to the Committee on Government Reform for a period to be subsequently determined by the Speaker.

Additional sponsors: Mr. Lyle, Mr. Gabarro, Mrs. Colantoni, Mr. Mills, Mrs. Harasymiak, Mr. Taplin, Mr. Liber, Mr. Nummi, Mrs. Derman, Mr, Nedzweski, Mr. Darosa, Ms. Menchiari, Mr. Askey, Mr. Sorvillo, Mrs. Haverson, Ms. de Gruttola, and Mr. Tilton

A BILL

To abolish the monarchical institution within the United States

__________________________


Section 1. Short title

This Act may be cited as the "Barnes Act".

Sec. 2. Findings; sense of Congress

(a) Findings.--

Congress finds the following:

(1) The monarchical institution was established in 1777 solely to ensure the recognition of sovereignty for the Unites States among other countries.

(2) As of the Democracy in America bill of 1856, members of the royal family were barred from holding undue influence over any members of Congress, the President of the United States or any Secretaries of the Executive Branch, as well as judges of the Supreme Court.

(3) The United States has had a long tradition of striving towards equal opportunity and social mobility, which is antithetical to the upholding of an institution that glorifies the concept of birthright.

(b) Sense of Congress.--

It is the sense of Congress that--

(1) the monarchical institution has served its purpose in providing recognition for the sovereignty of the United States and

(2) the monarchical institution has become outdated and no longer fits the moral values of the United States.

Sec. 3. Abolition of the monarchy

(a) In general.--

The monarchy within the United States will be dissolved.

(b) Regarding royal property and the Barnes Institute.--

Control of royal property, the Barnes Institute and all investments therein will be ceded to Alexandria Catherine Barnes and James Buchanan Barnes, the last remaining members of the Barnes royal line.

 

 

 

 



 

 

 

 

James Barnes, Steve Rogers

James Barnes and Steve Rogers were married Saturday at the Royal Palace in Arlington, VA, in an interfaith ceremony officiated by Susanne Brenner who was ordained by the Unitarian Universalist Association.

Captain Rogers, 29, is a green beret for the United States Army currently stationed at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn, NY. He graduated cum laude from West Point.

He is the son of Alexandria Barnes of Arlington, VA. She is the former Queen of the United States.

Commander Rogers, 30, leads the anti-terrorist Avengers Initiative based in New York City. He graduated summa cum laude from New York University

He is the son of Susanne Brenner of Arlington, VA. She is an art professor, retired from Northern Virginia Community College.