Steve doesn't even hesitate when Bucky falls. How can he when he has just watched his entire world slip through his fingers and all he can think about is everything that he never got to say?
So he jumps, leaving his shield behind for the Howling Commandos to stumble over when they finally rush through the train car door. Morita sees it first, the shining stars and stripes catching the soldier's eye like a beacon, and none of them want to believe that their Captain could be gone. But their shouts are met with nothing but silence and Zola’s laughing cackle as the scientist calls Captain America a fool of the worst kind. He stands there gloating smugly until Dugan knocks him out with a sock across his jaw.
They return to the base with their prisoner in hand and their hearts bowed with sorrow, the Captain’s shield passed off to Agent Carter solemnly. All of the Commandos know how much Peggy cares about their leader and neither she nor Howard Stark ever truly believes that Steve has died. Indeed Stark searches for Captain America long after a sane man would have given up the quest as hopeless and even as Agent Carter moves on with her life, she never forgets the dreams that she once had.
In all this grief, James Buchanan Barnes becomes something of an afterthought, only the Commandos remembering to toast his sacrifice as well. Though it is Gabe who speaks what all of them are thinking when he raises his last glass.
“At least the pair of them got to die together if they had to go at all. That's how Cap would have wanted it and while I'm sure Bucky would have cursed him out something fierce for his stupidity, I like to think that he'll be there to watch the Captain's back. So here's to the best commander I ever served under and the sniper who kept his naivety in line; boys, we're going to win this war for them.”
And they do, even if the casualties are higher than they might have been otherwise and it is Colonel Phillips who crashes the Red Skull's plane into the Arctic Sea.
But Steve knows nothing of this as he hurtles through the air and even if he could have predicted their reactions, he would have jumped anyway. Because he can see Bucky drawing ever nearer and it is worth the thought of dying to finally take him in his arms.
“What are you doing?!” his friend shouts, the sound lost in the screaming wind around them. Only long familiarity allows Steve to recognize what he is saying, that and the horror on Bucky's face. “You stupid sodding idiot! You're not supposed to die for me!”
His friend has always been more worried about Steve than his own safety, case in point: the last five minutes of their lives. But one of these days he’s going to convince Bucky that his own life has value and now is as good a time as any to have that argument. Because who else would he choose to die for if this moment had to come? Who else would be more worth it than the one man Steve cannot imagine life without?
So he pulls Bucky closer, twisting in the air so that his body will take the brunt of their landing when they finally reach the ground. He doesn’t know if he can survive the impact but he has a better chance than Bucky and maybe Erskine’s serum will grant him one more miracle.
But just in case it doesn’t, there are some secrets that Steve needs to stop hiding before he loses his last chance to speak the words.
“Of course not, you jerk. I’m going to live for you instead,” he whispers, leaning in so that his lips brush the other man’s ear with every syllable. “Because I am ridiculously in love with you and I think that you should know.”
Bucky’s whole body stiffens in his arms for a moment, long enough that Steve starts to wonder if his confession was a mistake after all. He couldn’t bear it if he died knowing that his best friend hated him, though at least the pain of rejection would be over soon enough. However, when Steve pulls back to look at Bucky, what he sees makes his heart skip a beat. For while his friend has always been incredibly expressive, his face is almost incandescent now and the blond’s fingers ache for a pencil to capture the dawning wonder in his eyes.
“And you decided to tell me now?!” Bucky exclaims, before wrapping his fingers in Steve’s collar and jerking him forward almost violently.
As first kisses go, it’s actually pretty awful: their teeth clacking and the angle far from comfortable. But none of that matters because it’s Bucky and Steve would take this over a thousand dames any day, even ones as beautiful and intelligent as Agent Carter. For no matter how much he truly does like Peggy, he would never have been able to love her the way that she deserves.
Not when his heart has been wrapped up in Bucky for as long as he can remember and all Steve can think about now is how many days they wasted with their cowardice. So he kisses Bucky again, trying to make up for every time that he turned away instead of speaking, though in truth a lifetime still wouldn’t be enough. The other man tastes like the dirt that they've been slogging through for months, like smoke and heat and something indescribable.
He kisses Bucky until the ground rushes up to meet them and his world dissolves in pain instead.
“Wake up, Captain. The war is long over but I may still have use for you.”
Steve does not want to. He doesn’t want to move at all since his head is slow and fuzzy and every breath he takes is an agony. But every time he tries to slip back into unconsciousness again something pokes him in the side and he just wants his friend to let him sleep.
“Bucky, quit it,” Steve moans, throwing one arm out to the side and he panics when he all he feels is ice beneath his hand. Because he doesn't remember much but he knows that Bucky should be there.
“Hold him down!” the voice screams as he struggles to sit up, opening his eyes to a blur of black and red. There are men above him, soldiers with weapons in their hands and no mercy in the eyes behind their masks. But Steve doesn't pay any attention to their growled commands even as these men shove at his shoulders because Bucky is lying far too still on the ground nearby.
There is so much blood, the snow and ice around his friend stained crimson, and bile rises in Steve’s throat when he realizes that Bucky’s left arm is gone. It just ends, flesh sheared off in a ragged line of bone and muscle that sends terror through his heart.
No one could lose that much blood and still be breathing even if the other man had survived the fall somehow. No normal man could have lasted out in this frozen winter and his friend must have died only a few feet from his arms.
Which is unthinkable and so Steve lurches forward with a strangled cry, taking one step before his leg buckles into screaming misery. He hadn’t even noticed that it was broken in his panic and even now it barely slows him down. Instead he pulls himself forward on icy fingers, snarling at the soldiers who try to block his path. Bucky may be dead but no one is going to separate them; no one is going to tear his love from him again.
But when he finally drags himself close enough to touch the other’s face, Steve’s hands meet warmth instead of cold. There is life in Bucky’s veins, though he does not understand how this is possible; there is life and there is hope.
So Steve curls around his best friend’s body heedless of the watching soldiers, whispering a prayer of thanks against one frost-tinged cheek. But now that his sorrow is no longer overwhelming everything, a wave of pain and exhaustion washes over him. Without the rush of panic, Steve cannot keep his eyes from closing even though he knows that such lethargy is dangerous amidst enemies.
The darkness tugs at him no matter how he tries to fight it, his body shutting down so that it can rest and heal. For apparently even Erskine’s serum has its limits and he has found them now.
His audience seems to sense this weakness, the men inching closer until they can grab hold of Steve again. Their fingers dig into his shoulders without a hint of kindness, their hands cold and clinical even through the gloves they wear. But Steve manages only a few feeble struggles before one of the soldiers slams a gun into his head, speeding his descent into unconsciousness.
With his last bit of strength he locks his arms around Bucky’s waist, hoping that he can force these strangers to take both of them. The other man may have survived the fall but he won’t last long with his injuries untreated and Steve shoves away the thought that Bucky may not want to live like this.
His friend is stronger than that, too strong to let the loss of his arm defeat him, and Steve will be there to support him every step of the way.
So he holds on tighter even as he loses his battle for consciousness and the last thing that he hears in an odd burst of static is, “Bring them both. If Barnes still lives I can exploit this sort of loyalty.”
The next time that Steve wakes, the sun is shining and the sounds of baseball are playing in his ears. He can hear the announcer shouting about bases loaded and for a moment he almost believes that he’s back in New York again.
Back before the war when he was still short and scrawny and his mornings were often interrupted by Bucky crashing in on him. His friend had never had any respect for personal space where Steve was concerned, working his way into every aspect of his life on the strength of sheer audacity and that stupidly charming grin. Not that Steve had minded the invasion since he missed Bucky desperately whenever he was gone; he only wondered why a guy like that would want to be friends with him.
Though I guess I know why now, don’t I? Steve thinks a little smugly, remembering the feel of Bucky’s lips under his.
That thought opens the floodgates of memory and he jerks upright as he remembers everything that happened afterwards. The fall, their capture, Bucky’s arm… and shouldn’t Steve’s own leg be broken now?
But when he pushes himself to his feet, there isn’t even a hint of pain to show where he was injured and even for him bones take time to heal. When he had snapped a rib assaulting one of Hydra’s bases, Steve had been sore for several weeks, so to be healed this completely means that he has been unconscious far too long.
It’s been a month at least. How could I have slept for weeks? Steve wonders, looking around the strange room that he woke up in. Strange because it looks like something out of a movie – someone else’s idea of the kind of place he used to live. But Steve had never been rich enough to afford such nice furniture or even an apartment without cracks in the walls and this stuff is high-class forties, the sort of thing you’d see in fancy neighborhoods.
So someone has gone to a great deal of trouble to make him feel comfortable, someone who doesn’t actually know the details of Captain America’s history.
Because the room isn’t the only thing that’s wrong, it’s just the one Steve noticed first and now that he’s paying attention to the details, all kinds of errors jump out at him. It's everything: the fabric of his clothes, the view out of his window and the game on the radio that can't possibly be live.
He remembers this game, he and Bucky went to see it when it happened and he's ninety percent positive that this announcer died in the first year of the war. But maybe Steve’s mistaken; maybe the two games are just incredibly similar and he should wait for more concrete evidence before he freaks out. Which shouldn’t take more than a few more minutes, because the seventh inning of the game that he remembers ended with bases loaded after the Dodgers' pitcher struck three batters out, and hearing that again could not be coincidence.
So Steve forces himself to appear relaxed for anyone who’s watching, though that does not stop him from cataloging the exits and the bars behind the window glass. The first batter strikes out just as he remembers and the second has just stepped up to the plate when the door to Steve’s room creaks open quietly. He turns to see a pretty young blonde walking toward him, her clothes belying the strength of her stance.
She's dressed like a secretary, but there is steel beneath her skin and when she calls him Captain Rogers, he can hear a familiar military crispness in her voice.
“Hello, sir. How are you feeling?” the woman asks him with a bland smile, Steve muttering something non-committal as the third batter gets his first strike. By this point his instincts are screaming at him and he's not surprised when the rest of the inning plays out exactly as he thought it would.
Although Steve still can't bring himself to cold clock a woman, even if she’s probably an enemy, so he just runs past her instead. Thankfully, his sudden move catches her off guard and he manages to reach the door before she can draw the gun concealed beneath her coat. Once through, he slams it shut behind him, ripping the handle off for good measure so that she cannot get out.
He finds himself in a sterile hallway, nothing but cold steel and white-washed concrete as far as he can see. The place is obviously a maze, no way to tell which way to the exit and he doesn't have any time to waste. Because Steve isn't leaving without Bucky and the furious cursing behind him soon disappears beneath the clamor of alarms. This shrieking cacophony is joined by the sound of booted feet running toward his location and Steve takes off down the corridor just as a squad of black-clad soldiers rounds the bend.
He slams through them like a freight train, disabling rather than killing until he can discover whether they deserve to die. Along the way he picks up a helmet and a sidearm, his fists leaving a trail of groaning men in his wake.
Steve runs ever deeper into the complex, dodging guards when he can and taking them out when he has no other choice. His Russian is rough, barely more than a smattering of swear words, but it's enough to lead him toward the more secure part of the complex, some deeper instinct telling Steve that he'll find Bucky there.
The soldiers are getting thicker with each floor he descends, filling the halls like some kind of swarming insect, and Steve has to work to keep his momentum up. But despite the opposition that he's facing, these men aren't trying to kill him; their moves are much too constrained for that. They're only trying to capture him and while that should be a relief, the sick feeling in Steve's chest only grows. He remembers the kind of experiments that Hydra conducted on their prisoners during the war, the kind of secrets that his own side had kept, and even if the war is over, this can mean nothing good.
And Steve is right, although he would have given anything to be wrong.
For when he sprints down one last corridor and slams through the doorway at the end of the hall, what he finds there nearly brings him to his knees. It’s a laboratory out of Steve's worst nightmares and in the center of the room is what he seeks.
Bucky is there locked into a frozen prison, his eyes closed in either unconsciousness or sleep, but while his arm had been missing below the elbow when Steve last saw him, that’s not true anymore. Now his entire shoulder seems to have been replaced with some kind of metal prosthesis, the sort of technology that should be impossible. It is impossible by every standard that Steve has ever heard of and yet what he cannot move past is the pain this must have caused.
“Oh my god, Bucky... What did they do to you?” Steve exclaims in horror, rushing forward to free the other man.
“I wouldn't do that, Rogers. Not yet at least,” a voice cautions, crackling out of hidden speakers even as energy sparks beneath Steve's hand. He stumbles back when a web of electricity sizzles into life around the chamber holding Bucky and while the thought of being shocked doesn't scare him, he can't risk unconsciousness.
So Steve starts looking for a way to turn off the power – there must be some switch somewhere, right? – too focused on freeing his friend to care when the lab door hisses shut again. It’s irrelevant since he's not leaving without Bucky, although he pauses in his search when that same voice rings out again.
“Truly, Captain, you should thank me. I saved your friend when my compatriots would have left him there to die and I made him into a soldier who can finally keep up with you. Surely Sergeant Barnes would not have wanted to live out his life as a cripple and now he will not have to suffer such prejudice.”
“He would have wanted to make that choice himself!” Steve growls in response, his hands curling into fists at his sides. But his fury dissolves into confusion when a small movie screen slides down from the ceiling and flickers on.
“Hello, Steven. It has been a long time since we last met; far longer than you know,” Arnim Zola's grinning face stares back at him, his features painted green and black like something from a movie screen. “But while your precious Commandos succeeded in stopping the Red Skull’s triumph, Hydra is not defeated so easily. We are legion; cut off one head and two more will grow back in its place. Indeed the world believes that the war is over, but in truth, the war has just begun.”
“So what do you want from us?” Steve asks, though in truth he already knows what he will hear.
“A war needs soldiers, Captain, and you always were the best,” the scientist replies almost proudly, the covetous look in his false eyes making Steve's skin crawl. “You and Barnes are the only successful examples of Erskine's work; the only successful experiments of this kind in all the world, and I have need of hands now that mine are lost to me.”
“We will never work for you,” the blond swears fiercely, continuing his search for a switch, a weapon, anything more frantically. But Zola does not seem concerned by his efforts, not at all.
“I assure you; you cannot escape and even if you did, you have nowhere to go. There is nowhere you could flee that Hydra would not find you and you have no allies, for you and Barnes were declared dead more than sixty years ago. You are men out of time and I am the only one who will offer you a place in this new world of ours.”
“What are you talking about? That's impossible.”
“This is the age of miracles, Captain. Nothing is impossible and Erskine's serum was stronger than we knew. So you and Barnes froze instead of dying, the serum working to keep you alive beyond all probability. That is why you were still injured when my soldiers found you – your body could not both heal your wounds and maintain core temperature. You were preserved this way for decades, hidden by the crevasse into which you fell and I only managed to discover your location a few years ago.”
“Years?!” Steve exclaims, caught between shock and utter disbelief. Yet that would explain both how they could have transformed Bucky so completely and the gaping holes in his memory.
“Of course. Why would I wake you when you are so much less self-righteous when unconscious and I still had hopes of replicating what you can do? However, Erskine's work has proven difficult to replicate and I have come to the realization that it must be you instead. Admittedly the masquerade upstairs was rather poorly put together but it's so hard to find good minions these days and I was hoping to avoid this sort of rampage through my halls.
“We did try to wake just Barnes, of course, but it seems that he has an annoying tendency toward instability when he finds himself alone. Despite our attempts at conditioning he remains far too stubborn and I am tired of losing scientists.”
The thought that Steve has been sleeping peacefully while Zola tortures Bucky fans the embers of his rage into an inferno and he barely hears the scientist’s next words over the rushing in his ears. He had promised the other man that they would not be separated, even if his friend had not been awake to hear it, and this is not a loss which he can bear again.
“Now, Captain, do try to calm your friend before he hurts himself.” With this final order the screen slides back up into the ceiling, the electricity surrounding Bucky's prison shutting off again. Then the front of the chamber hisses open and the other man falls into Steve's arms.
“I got you, Buck. It's going to be all right,” he murmurs, trying to settle his friend more comfortably. Bucky is disoriented, barely even awake, and his metal arm keeps throwing him off balance whenever he tries to sit up. Honestly, Steve is still kind of freaking out about that but he needs to get his friend out of here before they can deal with his injury and that's not going to be easy to accomplish. Particularly if he has to protect Bucky while trying to fight off Zola's soldiers and he's starting to worry about how long it's taking the other man to come out of it.
The scientist must have given him something and Steve doesn't have time to let him recover naturally. But just as the blond is about to throw Bucky over his shoulder and make a break for it, his friend begins to struggle wildly.
“No! No! No! I don't want it – take it off!” he shouts, pulling away from Steve’s hands. As he stumbles backwards, he starts tearing at the metal arm where it's attached to his left shoulder and the panicked entreaties he keeps muttering claw into Steve's heart.
“Hey, hey. Bucky! You're gonna hurt yourself,” he says, reaching out to grab onto his friend before he can cause himself serious injury. But Bucky just keeps struggling until Steve finally has to wrap him into a straitjacket hold and pull him back against his chest. “Sshh love, ssshhh. It's just Steve, your Stevie; it's going to be all right. Please, you have to calm down for me.”
He keeps murmuring soothing nonsense until Bucky begins to relax and when his friend finally turns to look at him, Steve breathes a sigh of relief.
“Stevie? Where are we? I don't... I don't remember much after the train. Just flashes where everything hurts and there are scientists and... what did they do to my arm?” Bucky's voices rises on the last word, an edge of panic returning to his voice before the blond soothes him down again.
“I'm not sure, Buck. I know you were injured when we fell and Zola captured us, but he was saying all sorts of crazy things so I don't know what's true. We can figure things out once we get out of here.”
“All right,” the other man agrees, pushing himself to his feet with a groan. He's still holding his metal limb away from his body awkwardly but at least he isn't falling over any more and that will have to do for now. Even if Bucky's only got one working hand at the moment there's no one else that Steve wants at his back during a firefight and he has to laugh when his friend adds cockily, “Come on then. Let's blow this joint.”
Though that's easier said than done when they reach the door of the laboratory because it's sealed shut tightly and there's no handle to be seen. So Steve starts looking for a metal bar that he can use to pry the damn thing open since even his fists can't punch through solid steel. Not without his shield at least.
But before he can start pounding on the metal, Bucky lays a firm hand on his arm. “Let me try,” the other man says, taking Steve’s place by the door as his new arm whirs into life. Steve watches with wide eyes as Bucky curls silver fingers into a fist and then slams his body forward, metal meeting steel with a deafening clang. The entire door bows inward, top half ripping straight off its hinges, and that may actually be the hottest thing that Steve has ever seen.
“As much as I hate this thing, it has its uses,” Bucky tells him with a crooked grin and when they get out of here, they're definitely gonna experiment. But when his friend grabs the edge of the door and tears it free, the corridor before them is filled wall-to-wall with soldiers staring back at them.
Steve clenches his fingers around the bar that he’s holding, even as his other hand reaches for the gun in his pocket, and he’s ready to kill everyone if that will get Bucky out of here. But before he can lunge forward to start the carnage, Zola interrupts him once again.
“Impressive, Captain. You reached Barnes far more quickly than I expected and you should consider this audition a success. However, I am afraid that there is one more thing you need to know before you do anything foolish. When we installed your friend's arm, we added some insurance to the mechanism for a situation just like this. So unless you wish to watch Barnes choke to death on cyanide, you will allow my men to take you back into custody.”
Steve turns to look at Bucky helplessly, his friend's mouth twisting in frustration at how's he's being used. But that's exactly the sort of thing that Hydra would have done and he can't risk the other man’s life on the chance that Zola lied.
So he takes off his helmet with a growl, laying the sidearm that he stole down on the floor while Bucky curls his hands into fists next to him. He is obviously furious but he manages not to lash out as the soldiers advance on them, though he flinches when they reach out their hands. Seeing this, Steve has to step between them, glaring at the lead guard until he stops in his tracks.
“We can walk on our own,” the blond growls. “Show us where to go and we'll follow you.”
The guard seems confused by Steve's opposition, pausing awkwardly with his hand in midair while the rest of the men shuffle nervously. They stand in this frozen tableau for a few seconds until the speakers crackle to life again.
“Oh, just do it,” Zola sighs. “It's not like they couldn't break your handcuffs anyway.”
With permission granted, the soldiers fall in around Steve and Bucky and the whole group shuffles slowly down the hall. The guards lead them up a couple levels, their path twisting through a score of nearly identical passageways that Steve can't keep track of no matter how he tries. By the time they come to a halt, he's well and truly lost and he just hopes that Bucky managed to note the turns where he failed.
“In there,” one soldier orders in roughly accented English, gesturing with his gun toward another metal door. Through the opening, Steve can see what looks like a prison cell, if slightly nicer the usual – complete with cot and a toilet in the corner of the room.
However, when he moves to follow Bucky through the doorway, the guards block his way again. “Not you. You're in the next one,” one of them says, pointing toward another door down the hall.
“You can't separate us; I won't let you,” Steve replies, shaking his head in denial even as Bucky turns back to him worriedly. But the door slides shut before he can take more than one step toward the exit, Bucky's face disappearing behind solid steel again. He can hear the other man pounding on the other side of the door and Steve is about to rush forward when the noise cuts off suddenly.
“Bucky! What did you do to him?” he shouts up at the ceiling, glaring the soldiers off until Zola responds.
“Relax, Captain. I simply shut off that fancy arm of his before your friend could do any more damage to our fine facility. Now accept that you have no power here and follow these nice men into your room. We furnished it just for you.”
“How do I know that you won't kill Bucky as soon as I walk in?” Steve protests, fighting the urge to whale on the door frantically.
“So suspicious, Rogers. I am hardly going to kill one of my assets without cause, particularly not when I can use him as leverage over you. But I also cannot have you plotting with each other as I believe that you were hoping to. There is no escape, Captain; the sooner you accept this, the sooner all of us can get along. However, if it makes you more comfortable, I will allow you to see each other through the walls.”
It's not as though Steve has any other options, not as long as Zola has that kill-switch in Bucky's arm. So he allows the soldiers to lead him toward the next cell over, ducking his head through the door first to check whether Zola lied. However, one wall of the room is made of some weird substance, cloudier than glass but clear enough to see Bucky through.
The other man is leaning against the far wall of his room, clutching his metal arm where it's hanging limply at his side. He looks tired, a bone-deep exhaustion that Steve doesn't like to see, but a relieved smile breaks across his face when the blond knocks on the joining wall.
“Steve!” Bucky mouths, rushing over to stand across from him. “Are you all right?”
But whatever the clear substance is, it's obviously soundproof and Bucky leans back with a frown once he realizes.
“Sorry, Captain. I told you – I won't have you planning anything and before you decide to be creative, you should know that I can hear everything,” Zola says smugly and Steve is getting really tired of listening to him. “Now you should sleep because I have a very busy year arranged for you.”
As soon as the scientist falls silent again, the lights cut out and plunge both rooms into darkness, one so absolute that Steve feels like he's gone blind. However, even though he probably should take Zola's advice, he can't bring himself to go lay down on that cot. Instead he slumps back against the joining wall between their cells, the surface trembling slightly when Bucky does the same.
Then Steve lets his head drop onto his chest as the stress of the day washes over him. He may have only been awake for a few hours but he's been running on adrenaline since his eyes opened and it doesn't take long for sleep to pull him down again.
The following months pass by with excruciating slowness, every free minute stolen by training, lessons and Zola's experiments. While Steve never sees the scientist in person, his voice is everywhere – waking them up in the morning, lecturing him on the righteousness of Hydra's mission and always holding Bucky's death over them like an axe about to fall.
But for now Steve just endures it, allowing Zola's scientists to poke and prod him to their hearts' content. Though when it’s Bucky's turn to be examined, no one but Steve can calm him and while the other man’s panic is not entirely feigned, it’s also not as bad as it appears.
However, their captors don’t know Bucky well enough to tell the difference so they allow Steve to sit by his chair whenever Hydra’s tests require his friend to be conscious and he watches as the doctors open up his arm. He watches their movements very carefully and their enemies never seem to realize just what they're teaching him. Admittedly the technology is far beyond anything that he's ever seen before but Steve is a motivated student and these men are incredibly willing to brag about their work.
In fact, when he asks for proof that Zola's kill-switch exists, the technician actually points it out to him and although the five-minute lecture that follows doesn't tell him how to remove it, it's certainly a start. No wonder Zola was complaining about his minions when this is the level of intelligence they show, but Steve will take any advantage that they can get right now.
Meanwhile, Bucky starts mapping out the complex, his reputation for instability a great excuse for flipping out randomly. He has made a habit of darting down unexplored corridors whenever their guards stop paying attention and after the tenth time, they don't even bother to punish him.
Though that may have something to do with the teary-eyed pleading that meets the soldiers every time they catch him and Steve never thought there would be a wartime use for his ability to cry on cue. Not that Bucky is entirely unaffected by everything that has happened, but he's dealing well enough for now. Steve's presence seems to give him comfort and even if they're forbidden from conversing when their guards are with them, the pair has found ways to communicate.
For while the cameras make it difficult, they're both a fair hand at reading lips and they trade bits of Intel whenever they're in the same room. Which is relatively often since Zola seems fascinated by how his experiment stands up against Erskine’s original.
These sparring matches are good practice for their eventual break out, particularly as Bucky becomes more comfortable with what his arm can do. Suddenly the other man can hold his own against Captain America and as soon as they manage to dig out Hydra's fail-safes, Steve knows they'll be unstoppable. Though in all honesty, he often becomes a bit distracted during these sessions since that one kiss they shared is only the beginning of what he wants to do.
It's almost torture to have Bucky beneath his hands, skin slick with sweat and lips close enough to kiss again. It's torture but Steve doesn't dare as long as they've still got their audience.
So he holds himself back instead and it's not like they don't have practice at pretending not to care. He's been doing that for half his life, ever since he realized that he wanted Bucky more than any girl he'd ever seen.
The only time Steve allows himself to think about it is at night when the two of them are talking through the wall. Because even though the barrier is soundproof and the lights always shut off as soon as the doors lock behind them, vibrations travel through the wall quite well.
So they tap out long conversations, spelling out guard routines and weapon caches and sometimes classic poems letter by letter against the wall. Bucky likes listening to the simple rhythms when the need for escape starts buzzing beneath his skin; although sometimes even that isn’t enough to hold the nightmares back. On those nights neither of them sleeps easily and all Steve wants to do his wrap his fellow in his arms again.
When they finally get out of here, the first thing he's doing is buying them a room where they can be together and damn anyone who tries to tell him that it's wrong. Assuming that anyone even cares since Zola had not been lying when he said that this was a brand new century.
Not that the scientist has explicitly mentioned the new laws on homosexuality in any of his dossiers but Steve can read between the lines of media. He actually finds these lessons fascinating despite their situation because he never would have believed that the world could change so much. There's new technology that he never even imagined, new politics, new movements and new heroes, although all that Zola really cares about is teaching him and Bucky to blend in.
He wants them to be invisible, which means they have to know what's normal instead of freaking out whenever they see the price of meat these days. So the scientist introduces them to cell phones, the latest trends and internet, while Steve slowly pieces together an image of Hydra's plan.
Because Zola is no better than his minions if they ask the right questions and Bucky is quite skilled at making him monologue.
“Hydra is everywhere!” the voice exclaims when his friend dismisses the importance of his organization, Zola’s fanaticism ringing in their ears. “We have wormed our way into the governments of every major superpower; I exist within the heart of SHIELD itself and we are almost ready to step into the light again. Indeed you will be instrumental in conquering your precious country as we crush our enemies for good.”
Zola never realizes that each person whom he names as a target is one more ally for Steve to turn to in the future, though in his defense the scientist also seems to be quite mad. He keeps claiming to be dead, his mind preserved within some secret bunker and their communication done through the internet.
While this would explain why neither he nor Bucky have seen the man in person since they were captured, this is one thing that Steve just can't wrap his mind around. Enormous monsters made from failed versions of his serum, fine; tiny little phones that you can fit in your pocket, fine; but machines that can think are where he draws the line.
Yet as insane as the future has become, Steve and Bucky eventually learn everything that Zola has to teach them and this means that their time is running out. Soon the scientist is going to require them to hurt someone in exchange for Bucky's life and this is a choice that neither man can make.
So they spend long nights hashing out their escape plan and long days running mission simulations with Hydra’s soldiers, tests that they do their best to fail. While they cannot delay forever, all Steve and Bucky need is one perfect moment and it arrives in the form of Zola’s crazy laughing glee.
“Wakey, wakey, Captain. I have a gift for you,” the scientist yells as the lights flicker on that morning, Steve rolling over on his cot with a groan. “One of my moles within SHIELD liberated something from the agency's weapon storage; something that you should be pleased to see.”
This time their escort leads them down a different corridor than usual, finally coming to a halt in front of a heavily armored door. They gesture Steve inside and when he enters, his shield is laying on a table in the center of the room. He rushes over to pick it up, the familiar weight in his hands like meeting an old friend again, and he swipes it through the air a few times just because he can. Bucky snorts with amusement at his antics but Steve hadn't realized how bereft he felt without his signature weapon until now. He feels like Captain America again, and Captain America is going to break outta here.
“Consider this a graduation present, Rogers; for I have decided that you and Barnes are ready to begin. You will be given your mission briefing tomorrow morning on your way to the United States and you will fulfill your instructions exactly, unless you wish your friend to die painfully of course... Now take them back to their rooms – I have preparations to make and I do not wish to be disturbed.”
They're never going to get a better chance than this now that Zola is distracted and Steve already armed. So he catches Bucky's eye as their guards close in around them and when the other man nods his willingness, they attack.
The first soldier goes down in seconds, Steve's shield slamming him to the floor with a dull clang, and the rest of their escort isn't far behind. Bucky throws one man through the wall even as the blond grabs another by the neck, the man's spine snapping like a matchstick beneath his hands. They don't have time for mercy at the moment and from what he's learned about the new Hydra, these soldiers don't deserve it anyway.
“Now! Hurry!” Bucky shouts when the last guard falls, ripping the sleeve away from his metal shoulder so that Steve can work on it. They only have a minute or two before someone notices and the first thing that Zola will do is make his threats reality.
Yet despite the fear rising in his throat, Steve's hands are steady as he twists his fingers through a series of complicated catches until the top panel of Bucky's arm pops off. He's not going to try to remove the poison, that kind of delicate maneuvering would take more time than they have, but the remote commands are all heard by the same central switch. If he can get that loose then Bucky's arm will only have one master, assuming, of course, that nothing else goes wrong.
“Just rip it out already,” the other man demands, his body tense as he watches the entrance at Steve's back. But Steve can't just go ripping things apart if he wants the arm to stay functional and he's pretty sure that he'll trigger something if he doesn't do this right.
After all, Hydra is the type of organization to kill anything it can't control and so the blond forces himself to follow each step carefully. The scientists had only removed the switch once in his presence – due to a malfunction that Bucky caused one evening and Steve had smacked him upside the head when he learned of that risk – but no one had died then so he knows it's possible. Of course, he's only about two-thirds of the way through the sequence when the switch suddenly blinks into life and he doesn't have time for caution anymore.
“Shit!” Steve curses, snapping the last few wires as quickly as he can. Then he pulls the mechanism free and stares into the mess of metal as though he could actually tell if something wasn't moving like it should. “How do you feel? I didn't hurt you, did I? Anything feel weird?”
“Well, I'm pretty sure they didn't build my arm to warn me before it kills me, but I don't feel like I'm dying yet. So I guess you managed it, buddy.” Bucky says with a relieved smile, leaning forward to rest his head on Steve's shoulder for a second before they have to fight again. “Now come on, we've got a base to - … Do you hear beeping?”
Steve looks down at the switch in his hand and curses violently because the lights flickering within it can only mean one thing. So he throws it deeper into the vault, grabs Bucky by the waist and leaps through the doorway just as the world explodes. They crash into the floor heavily, the two men curling up beneath the shield as best they can and Steve swears that he feels flames licking at his heels for a moment before the heat recedes.
“I guess they really didn't want you to remove that,” Bucky laughs beneath him, the sort of awkward giggle that comes from the stress of nearly dying yet again. But it makes his eyes crinkle up at the edges and Steve can't resist the urge to kiss him anymore.
So he leans down to press their lips together softly, licking his way into the other man's mouth when Bucky kisses back. He's still the sweetest thing that Steve has ever tasted and he releases those full lips a few moments later with a reluctant sigh.
“All right,” Steve says, shaking his head a bit to clear it as he stands up again. “There'll be time enough for that once we break out of here.”
“Hey, you kissed me, buddy,” Bucky retorts snarkily, though he also accepts Steve's hand to pull himself to his feet. “Now, I can get us most of the way to the surface, but we'll have to improvise from there and I want to take a quick detour along the way. Just remember to watch my six instead of drooling over my ass like I know you want to do.”
Steve moves past him to take point with a smirk and now that Bucky's said it, he can't resist allowing his eyes to roam a bit. In his defense, Bucky's ass is fantastic and his friend is in better shape now than he's been in years.
Three square meals a day probably has something to do with that, he thinks, admiring the muscle that Bucky put on during their imprisonment. Though he can't gawk for too long since alarms are sounding and he soon needs all of his attention in order to stay alive. While Hydra's goons aren't particularly skillful fighters – Zola must really have been counting on Bucky to keep Steve in line – the soldiers have some nasty weapons on their side.
However, the fight gets a little fairer once Bucky swipes some kind of laser off a fallen body and starts wreaking havoc on everything he sees. He seems determined to wipe this base off the map and Steve can't begrudge him his vengeance after everything that happened to them here.
So he just backs his fellow up as they tear through the soldiers like knives through butter and it's almost terrifying how well they fight in sync. Bucky has always known Steve better than anyone and now that their strength is nearly equal, he can follow where his Captain leads.
This is what Steve has always wanted somewhere deep inside his heart. He has wanted someone who can fight at his side instead of in front of or behind him and now that he finally has it, no one is taking this away from him, particularly not Hydra. So his own punches are no less vicious than the ones that Bucky throws.
Things get even more interesting a few minutes later because the detour his friend mentioned passes through the kitchens – which contain technology no less insane than anything else these days but just as flammable as that which Steve remembers – and the explosions start just as they reach the next floor.
“This is as far as I ever made it and your Russian is better than mine; you want to take point now?” Bucky calls back over his shoulder, shooting another guard as he rounds the corner behind Steve.
Then he ducks as the shield flies over his head to take out another group of soldiers, flashing Steve a brilliant feral grin when the other man rushes by. Bucky falls in behind him and they continue down the corridor, Steve stopping at every junction to check the signage on the wall. History isn't the only thing that he's been studying these past months, so their path is a whole lot straighter than his initial rampage was.
Soon they can see daylight in the distance and the pair bursts through one last armored door into a large windowed hall. Or lobby, really, since the décor would look like something from a swank hotel in Paris if not for all the men with guns.
There must be thirty of them, every single weapon trained on Steve and Bucky, but they've come too far to give up now. So they dive behind one of the thick wooden desks as their enemies open fire, bullets and energy beams bouncing off the walls.
“Give it up, Captain. You may have done some damage to my facility, but your escape ends now!” Zola's screams during a pause in the gunfire, the scientist still hoping to keep his experiments.
As if they would ever allow themselves to be used against their country or kill innocents who have done nothing wrong. Fighting soldiers is one thing but Steve will die before he allows Hydra to bring the world to its knees and he sees this same determination in Bucky's eyes.
So he grips his shield tighter when the other man grabs of a chunk of stonework in metal fingers, diving over the desk just as Bucky hurtles it. He follows the missile with a burst of cover fire, a soldier dropping each time his gun goes off. This distraction is enough to get Steve close, the blond sprinting across the marble floor before their enemies can react. By the time they bring their weapons up again, he's in the midst of them and he uses fist and shield to deadly consequence.
Once Bucky joins the fight it's over in a matter of seconds, though Steve is finally breathing hard when he brings the last man down. “I told you Zola. We will never work for you,” he says, spitting blood onto the floor.
He stands there panting as Bucky starts going through the soldiers' pockets, stuffing a mix of bills, IDs and weapons into his fatigues. They'll need whatever they can get to survive in this new century and if they've learned anything from Zola's lessons, it's that money doesn't go far anymore. So Steve leaves Bucky to his scrounging and picks up one of the laser weapons off the floor.
Given the explosions that he's still hearing, their exit did some serious damage, but damage isn't good enough. He wants this place utterly destroyed, nothing left but ghosts and memories, and he fiddles with the weapon's settings until he has something that should work.
Steve waits until Bucky finishes his thieving before switching the laser on, the barrel quickly starting to smoke as it overheats. He hurls this makeshift bomb as deep into the complex as he can and then the two men run toward the outside door.
“There is nowhere that you can go where Hydra will not find you.” Zola screams behind them as they burst into the cool morning air. “I will make it my mission to capture you, to humiliate you as you have done to me, and I will not be so kind next time. Do you hear me, Rogers?! I have going to bathe my circuits in your blood! Rogers! Do you h-”
The scientist keeps ranting even as they run out of earshot, Steve and Bucky hitting the dirt when Hydra's base dissolves into a wall of blue-tinged flame.
“Huh. That worked better than I expected,” Steve says, looking back to see half the mountainside caving in before his eyes. He has no idea where they are and this fight is far from over, but at the moment, he really doesn't care. Because they're free; they're both free and Hydra has no idea what it just unleashed.
Of course, while the blond has always been stubbornly optimistic, Bucky is far more practical and it's he who speaks the obvious. “We can’t go home. That's what Zola will be expecting and they'll be prepared for it.”
“But we also can't run forever, Buck.” Steve argues, the need for action thrumming in his blood. “We have to stop them once and for all so that they can’t keep hurting innocents.”
“I know, Stevie, I know.” Bucky sighs before walking over to place a soft hand on his back. “And we will. But… not yet? Once we start there won’t be any stopping ‘til it’s finished and I’m tired, Steve. I’m tired of fighting all the time. Besides, from what Zola was saying, Hydra won't be prepared to strike for a while and we need to regroup before we do anything.”
How can Steve refuse the other man when he looks so exhausted, covered in dirt and blood and gunpowder residue? To be honest, he doesn't feel much better and there's no point in starting a war when they're in no shape to finish it.
That's just bad strategy, so Steve concedes the argument, looking down at his fellow with a soft smile of his own. “Then we’ll travel. We’ll go somewhere that no one knows us and enjoy our freedom while it lasts. I know I wouldn’t mind having you to myself for a year or two and once we've recovered, we can come up with a plan.”
He knows this was the right answer when the other man leans up to kiss him soundly and he can't stop himself from wrapping his hands round Bucky's waist. Steve pulls them flush together; head already reeling from the feel of his friend pressed against him and his knees wobble when Bucky groans into his mouth. He still can't quite believe that this is happening, that he's allowed to touch and hold and kiss his fill after so many years without. And yet, this must be real because none of his fantasies hold a candle to the feel of Bucky's mouth.
“So, lover, did you have somewhere in mind?” His fellow murmurs when he finally pulls back again, staring up at Steve with lust-blown eyes. “Because I've always wanted to see the Taj Mahal.”
“Then we'll go there, Bucky. We'll go anywhere you want,” Steve promises, tangling their fingers together and pressing his lips to the back of Bucky's hand. The other man flushes at the gesture, cheeks turning rosy under the streaks of grime and a pleased smile dancing on his lips.
“Be careful, Stevie. I might get used to this,” he warns, though if he wanted the blond to take his griping seriously, he should have let go of his hand.
So Steve just smiles and sets off down the hill, figuring that they're bound to run into another person or a town eventually. While they still have far too many obstacles to overcome in the future, it's a beautiful morning and the blond intends to enjoy this second chance. Instead of worrying over things that he can't fix right now, he just tugs on Bucky arm until he's walking at Steve's side where he belongs.
Several Years Later
The outfit is the first thing that Tony notices. It’s even tackier than his armor and since he’s painted red and gold like a walking ad for Gryffindor, that's an impressive feat. But this guy apparently decided that flags were meant to be worn instead of flown above ugly-ass government buildings and he has the go-go boots to match.
Honestly, it kind of looks like he stole one of the replica Captain America suits from the snobby mouthful that is the Museum of the City of New York and if he did, Tony has to applaud the man’s audacity. That's the sort of thing he would have done in his younger days, probably in a booze-fueled drunken stupor, and Tony’s kind of annoyed that he never thought of it. Because this would have been the ultimate revenge against the perfect soldier, that paragon of virtue whom his father could not shut up about.
But audacity or no, New York is an awful place for civilians at the moment so he changes course to get the idiot out of here. Along the way, Tony takes out another group of Chitauri headed toward 38th street and informs the rest of the team about his change of plans.
“You'll need to cover my sector until I get back,” he says to a stream of furious Asgardian curses and Barton's “Roger that.”
Of course, when he gets closer, Tony starts to wonder if this guy actually needs rescuing at all. Because he's taking down Chitauri like he fights aliens for breakfast and that shield of his is breaking the laws of physics on every bounce. No normal metal can channel kinetic force like that and Tony nearly falls out of the sky when Jarvis says the thing's Vibranium.
“All right, then. This is getting weird,” he mutters, flying over to confront the other man. While the guy seems to be on their side at the moment, anti-alien doesn’t necessarily mean pro-Avenger and he’s tired of getting stabbed in the back.
So he hovers a few meters away and targets the stranger with one of his smaller guns as he demands an introduction in his best hero voice. Obviously Tony’s not actually going to shoot the guy if he's a normal human, but he really wants to know what the hell is going on. Not that things become all that clearer when the man replies.
“I'm Captain America. Didn’t you recognize the outfit?” he yells back with a sardonic grin, casually smacking another Chitauri from the air. “What kind of history are they teaching kids these days?”
“You can't be Captain America. Captain America is dead.” Tony retorts even as his mind threatens to derail. Admittedly the man looks the part but he spent months studying Erskine's serum during one of his rebellious college phases and there was nothing about immortality. Which means this guy has to be crazy no matter how sincere he seems.
“I'm afraid the rumors of his death were greatly exaggerated,” a new voice drawls above Tony’s head before another man drops down into the street. He's dark where this fake Captain guy is blond and there's a fancy rifle slung across his back.
But at least he's dressed more sensibly than his partner, wearing the all-black ninja version of the latest combat gear. Tony recognizes the man's body armor as one of his own designs and he's pretty sure that rifle is a limited edition prototype which should have been under lock and key. Not that the guy seems particularly concerned about flaunting a stolen weapon in front of its real owner, grinning up at Tony with a cheerful little wave.
“Long story short, we were frozen and captured and woke up in the twenty-first century a few years ago,” he explains airily, Tony’s jaw threatening to drop at this insane litany. “But that's a conversation for another time, Stevie, 'cause we’ve got a flying whale inbound.”
“All right, Buck. You know the drill,” the fake cap says to his partner, the two men suddenly acting like Tony's not even there. He's actually a bit insulted at how quickly they dismiss him because come on, he's Iron Man. Only these guys are way more interested in their flirty banter than in their audience.
So the pair moves into position in the middle of the street, the dark haired one tossing the blond his rifle with a grin. “Watch my baby for me, will you? I'm rather fond of her.”
“You're ridiculous, you know that,” the other man replies, rolling his eyes but still catching the gun anyway. He tosses a knife back to his partner – well Tony says knife but machete may be more accurate. “Try not to damage your arm any further; you know I'm still shit at maintenance.”
“Hey, you've done pretty well for a fossil,” his friend replies, spinning the blade around his fingers like some kind of circus dude. “Without you I'd have been running around one-handed years ago.”
This may actually be the most surreal moment of Tony's life. Seriously. He’s had some weird encounters but nothing beats sitting in the middle of an alien invasion while watching a guy dressed like Captain America banter with a Special Forces ninja who thinks machetes are a valid throwing knife. Though what really grabs his attention is the flash of metal when hippie hair removes the glove from his left hand.
“Jarvis scan him,” he mutters. “Hell, scan them both.”
“Of course, sir. Shall I focus on the arm or would you like complete identities?” Jarvis asks, before correctly interpreting Tony's impatient grunt. “Never mind. I have facial recognition calculating and if you give me a moment I will gather their DNA from the blood on the ground. While you wait, here are the results of my initial scan. As you can see, the brunet’s arm appears to be a robotic prosthetic, relatively simplistic by our standards but hooked into his spine to allow finer mobility.”
Despite the AI's disparaging remarks, Tony is actually rather impressed by the tech he's seeing here. It's definitely a step above anything on the market, though he can see a few points that obviously need repairs.
Man, I want to get my hands on that, he thinks, drooling over the idea until Jarvis interrupts his happy place.
“Excuse me, sir. You will want to look at this.” Tony switches his display over to the results of the AI’s calculations, sending the prosthetic arm's blueprints back to his lab along the way. Though what he sees quickly pushes all thoughts of tinkering from his mind.
“Are you serious?!” he asks, voice reaching a most unmanly pitch.
“Indeed, sir. That is Steven Grant Rogers, also known as Captain America, confirmed to ninety-eight percent certainty, and the man with him appears to be one Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, formerly of the 107th regiment. Both men were declared missing in action after falling from a train during World War II, but despite the numerous search parties, their bodies were never found. Additionally, sir, Captain America's shield was stolen from SHIELD's special weapons vault just over four years ago by an unknown burglar.”
“Holy shit. That's actually Captain America!”
“What do you mean, Captain America?” Barton cuts in over the comms, which is when Tony realizes that he hasn't muted anything. “Like the Star-Spangled man in tights Captain America? Christ, Coulson would have flipped his shit.”
“Are you kidding? I'm flipping my shit over this,” Tony retorts, caught between a fanboyish glee and the decades' worth of resentment buried beneath his skin. However, at the moment the fanboy is winning as he watches Captain America and his sergeant face off against a Leviathan.
Neither man seems particularly worried about the alien fish bearing down on them and Tony is too awestruck to think about helping as the pair trades a short nod. Then Barnes is running forward, three huge steps taking him to Rogers who catches him on his shield and catapults his partner over the monster's head. Definitely a ninja, Tony thinks as the man does a twisting triple flip through the air, the gears in his arm whirring audibly.
He lands on the Leviathan with the grace of a gymnast, slamming his blade into the creature's eye as he falls, and the combination of momentum and robotics buries the weapon deep. Barnes shoves it in until he hits the brain and twists, before leaping back to the ground as the monster drops out of the sky.
“You still keeping track of our kill count? Because I'm pretty sure I'm winning,” he calls back to Rogers, wiping the blade clean on his leg before strutting back his way. Honestly the man wouldn't look out of place on a high fashion runway – Tony would know – but the blond just matches Barnes' smirk with a smile of his own.
“Sorry, Buck. I got distracted by your ass again,” he jokes, leaning over to plant a kiss on the other man. Like an actual kiss: lips and tongue and obvious familiarity and Tony gets to choke on his spit again.
“Okay. Captain America is gay. I can work with that. Sure. You didn't just break my world or anything,” he mutters a little frantically until Natasha’s voice in his ear snaps him out of it.
She says that she’s figured out how to close the portal, which is the best news that Tony has heard all day. However, before he can even think about celebrating, this good news is followed by much worse news and that’s just not fair at all. Of course, it’s just like those dickwads on the World Security Council to cut their losses but that doesn’t mean Tony’s happy when Fury calls him up to mention that there’s a nuke headed New York’s way.
“Well shit,” is pretty much his response to that announcement and he interrupts Captain America’s little love-fest with a shouted, “We’re not done here by a long shot but I have to go take care of a bomb.”
“Don’t worry. We've got this covered,” Rogers replies, waving Tony off as Barnes pulls out his rifle and starts shooting down the next wave of aliens. “You can ask us questions to your heart’s content once we’re not being invaded anymore.”
“Deal. Shawarma in twenty then,” Tony says before zooming off toward the harbor, Jarvis already calculating missile trajectories.
The final minutes of the battle pass in a blur of cold and darkness, a failed call to Pepper and the sickening sensation of his armor dying piece by piece. But he has to do this, Tony has to prove himself a hero if even he couldn’t have said why, and he holds onto consciousness until he sees the nuke ignite. Only then does he allow himself to fall, bits of the Chitauri fleet raining down around him as the world fades away.
His last thought is an apology – to Pepper, to his father, who fucking knows – and then there is only blankness until the Hulk shocks him back to life again.
Tony comes to on the hard concrete of some New York avenue, the worried faces of his team staring down at him. Natasha and Clint both look exhausted and even Thor’s shining godness has gotten a bit scuffed, but at least everyone seems to have made it through more or less unscathed. Of course, Tony soon discovers that he’s entirely incapable of standing under his own power, but that’s the whole point of having allies and the Hulk has just yanked him to his feet when Captain America jogs up.
“Oh good, you’re all right,” Rogers says and no one should be able to sound so sincere even if part of Tony’s mind squees a bit at the knowledge that he cares. “Did you get the guy who started this? Bucky saw the National Guard headed this way so they can help with clean up but we should probably apprehend this Loki fellow before they arrive.”
“Hulk smash puny god. Smash in tower,” is the answer and Tony definitely never thought that he’d see Captain America looking so nonplussed.
“Well all right then, thank you,” Rogers says when he recovers, reaching back to smack Barnes where he’s snickering. “Do you mind if we join you?”
Like any of the Avengers are going to refuse Captain-freaking-America and so the whole group goes traipsing back to Stark tower to collect their wayward god.
Although as it turns out, the Hulk wasn’t kidding about the smashing and they find Loki embedded a few inches deep in Tony’s floor. His interior decorator is seriously going to have a fit when she sees the damage but he’s just happy that the Asgardian surrenders without a fight and he’s been thinking about remodeling anyway.
So once Thor pulls out some fancy magic handcuffs to lock up his brother, Tony drags the Avengers and Co. off for Shawarma because he wants a meal with his new buddies before everybody leaves. Besides, food is a great excuse to keep Captain America and his boytoy close by until he can get around to the interrogation since Tony still hasn’t ruled out the idea of evil clones, time travel, or insanity just yet.
Well, he’s pretty sure he isn’t crazy since everyone else can see them and Clint looks as close to star-struck as that man ever gets. By which Tony means that he’s staring at Rogers creepily from two feet away.
But hopefully Clint will tone that down a bit once everyone is settled and Tony ushers the group through the door of the restaurant like a triumphant king. The others seem surprised that this place is still open what with the alien invasion and all, but that’s just one of the reasons that Tony loves this town. New Yorkers aren’t phased by nothing and the owners probably would have served the Hulk himself as long as he could pay. Though, given the height restrictions, it’s probably a good thing that Banner has regained control.
So Tony bites his tongue until everyone has ordered, the Avengers and guests sprawled around a cheap Formica table with assorted weapons and armor leaning against the wall. But once Captain America removes his helmet, revealing what Tony is not afraid to admit is a very handsome face if you like that sun-kissed thing, he just can’t hold back the questions anymore.
“Okay,” he says, jabbing his hand in their direction. “Battle’s over and you two walking anachronisms have a lot of explaining to do. How the hell are you still alive? How are you still so freaking young? And why haven’t I heard about this until now?”
“I told you, we were frozen and captured and woke up in the twenty-first century a few years ago. It’s not my fault you didn’t believe me the first time around,” Barnes replies with a stupidly charming grin. Up close he’s also far too attractive for a dead soldier and Natasha isn’t the only one enjoying the view right now.
‘Well, I’m sorry if I’d like a little more detail than that,” Tony snarks back, although he doesn’t have the chance to say anything else before the rest of the Avengers chime in with their thoughts.
“I admit that it does seem a bit far-fetched, but if I were them, I would have picked a better lie.”
“You were frozen and survived? My brother is a frost giant; perhaps you share some of the Jotun magic in your ancestry. You are certainly fine warriors in your own right; some of the best that I have seen on Midgard since I arrived.”
“Come on, Stark. You’re really calling Captain America a liar? The man is a national hero.”
“Actually, given some of my research into Erskine’s serum, it is possible that extremely cold temperatures would have sent his body into a state of hibernation until he thawed out again. But I’ve never heard anything about another successful supersoldier so I’m not sure how his friend could have survived as well.”
“Oh, you know: torture, experiments, the usual war time fun,” Barnes says, his blithe smile belying the shadows in his eyes. But the expression turns genuine when Rogers lays a hand on his shoulder, the two men having an entire conversation without saying a word.
‘To be honest, Banner, you probably have a better idea of how it works than we do,” the blond says, taking over the conversation gracefully. “But Bucky was captured by Hydra back in ’43 and I know their scientists were trying to replicate Erskine’s notes by experimenting on prisoners. Only we never realized that anything was different until we fell off Zola's train.”
“I fell; this idiot jumped after me,” the other man corrects, poking Rogers in the side with a frown. “But ever since we woke up, I’ve been able to keep up with him a whole lot better so maybe it just took nearly dying to kick-start my dose.”
“I suppose extreme trauma could have activated the serum if other methods failed; I assume that’s how you lost your arm?”
“Excuse me; I’m way more interested in the part where Captain America apparently jumped off a moving train.” Clint interrupts before Banner can get too far into this line of questioning. “Why the heck would you do something like that? I assume you didn’t know that you’d survive.”
“Bucky fell so I followed,” Rogers says with a shrug and somehow it sounds like the most reasonable thing in the world when he announces it like that. “It was worth it.”
He reaches over to take Barnes’ right hand, lacing their fingers together and smiling at the other man besottedly. Not that his boyfriend is any better and Tony is having trouble reconciling the badass ninja who killed a Leviathan with the guy in front of him right now.
Barnes actually blushes as he leans over to kiss Rogers on the cheek, though that could have something to do with the pair’s wide-eyed audience. “You’re still an idiot, punk. But I love you anyway.”
“Huh. Okay, I guess that makes sense.” Clint says after a moment of shocked silence. “But this is all getting way too serious for a victory celebration. So tell me… is the outfit like a propaganda thing? Or do you just really like red, white and blue?”
“God, no. This outfit is awful,” Rogers replies sheepishly. “I just figured you would be less likely to shoot us on sight if I were wearing it so I borrowed the suit from a museum on our way into town.”
“I still think you should have picked the version with the cape,” Bucky adds with a chuckle, shoving his chair closer so that he can wrap his free arm round his boyfriend’s neck. “Though I have to admit, I do kind of miss the original. Stark had a way with tights.”
“Stark?” Natasha asks, arching one perfectly curved brow at Tony like she totally believes that he might sew in his spare time.
“Oh, not him. Howard. We met him during the war and while he was kind of a bastard, his inventions were the shit. You know he’s the one who made Steve’s shield and he designed this one rifle that could…” Barnes trails off when Rogers elbows him, the blond jerking his head toward Tony significantly. “Uh, I mean, no offense?”
“None taken. Kind of a bastard sounds about right,” Tony replies, deciding then and there that he rather likes this guy. “How about you let me take a look at that arm of yours sometime and I’ll consider you forgiven; I’ve never seen tech quite like that.”
“I’m pretty sure you’d be doing me a favor there, but whatever floats your boat,” the other man replies with another crooked grin. “Steve’s been keeping me functional since we escaped from Zola but it’s not like either of us really knows what we’re doing with this kind of thing. Just watch for booby traps, will you? We took out a room when Steve removed the radio receiver and I know there’s at least one kill-switch still active – that’s one of the reasons that we haven’t poked around too much.”
“I’m sorry; did you say kill-switch?” Clint asks, scooting his chair back from the table. “You’re not about to blow up right now or anything?”
“Don’t think so,” Barnes says with a shrug. “And I’ve been punching aliens all day so I probably would have died by now if I were going to. But considering that they were trying to threaten Steve into cooperating, they didn’t exactly give us a manual to this thing. I count myself lucky that I can still use it at all.”
“Okay, who is this “they” that you keep talking about? If someone’s going around kidnapping heroes, I want to know about it.”
Rogers glances over at his boyfriend before answering, the two men having another one of their weird silent conversations. They seem to be arguing if Tony is interpreting the sequence of “eyebrow, eyebrow, frown” correctly, probably about how much they should reveal.
However, the Avengers are content to wait until the pair works it out since their Shawarma has just arrived, everyone digging in with a will. Of course, if Rogers and Barnes decide to keep their secrets they might have a problem, but Tony is willing to give them the benefit of the doubt before he starts accusing folks of anything.
Plus it looks like Captain Morality wins the argument because Barnes sits back with a huff as Rogers starts to talk again.
“All right, well, it's kind of a long story,” the blond starts, looking around the table at his rapt audience. “So I guess I better start at the beginning. How much do you know about Hydra?”
What follows would sound like a conspiracy theory if anyone else were saying it and honestly, Tony still has doubts. But Clint and Natasha back up some of Rogers' story and everything that Jarvis can actually find information on checks out. Which means that there probably is a shadow organization running half the world, something which Tony would have been quite happy not to know about.
Of course now that he knows, he can't ignore it, particularly not when Rogers finishes by asking for their help. “We don't want to put you in any unnecessary danger, but we could use allies if we're going to take Hydra down successfully. This is far bigger than the two of us.”
Tony looks around the table to gauge everyone's reactions since he's somehow become the de facto leader of this team. Banner's hooked already – the combination of a sob story and crazy science more than he can resist – and Clint would probably walk through fire if Captain America asked him too. Natasha is more suspicious than the others but she nods once when Tony meets her eyes and Thor is a sucker for any righteous cause.
Which leaves Tony as the lone hold-out before the vote's unanimous and to his surprise, he doesn't want to be. It's not like Stark Tower doesn't have room for a few more strays – or twenty– and Tony likes Barnes; the man has skills, a wicked sense of humor and, of course, that arm.
Even Rogers doesn't seem too bad once you get past that whole Captain Wholesome thing and so there's really only one option here.
Which is why Tony stares across the table with his best shit-eating grin and says, “What the hell, boys. I’m probably going to regret this, but welcome to the team.”