Actions

Work Header

To fill it up with something

Work Text:

“Call off your attack dog,” the target—the mission, he will join HYDRA or he will die—wheezes. The asset's hand is locked around his throat, tight enough to restrict his breathing, but not enough to prevent it.

“Happy to,” Rumlow says—the asset is there to intimidate the target, the agent is there to bring the target in. They both have their roles. “Just as soon as you're ready to see things our way. This isn't personal, doc.”

“But I'm afraid that this is,” the target says, and then he goes quiet, too quiet, and Rumlow's shouting something about snapping his neck, but it's too late, because everything is bathed in warm, amber light, and the asset's hand isn't wrapped around the target's throat, not anymore.

The world looks different and it smells different and he is smaller—and he's not the asset, not anymore—he is something else.

Rumlow grabs for him and curses, but he wiggles free; he is not the asset and Rumlow is not an ally—he smells like a threat. Rumlow smells like a threat and so does everybody else, and he's not the asset, not anymore, and he knows he isn't supposed to, knows it makes him bad, but the only thing that he can do is run.

He runs until his new legs, three of them, won't carry him any longer, and then he hides—in a dark, shadowy place.

The new body is more vulnerable than the old, more susceptible to hunger and the elements; he starts to shake.

He doesn't mean to make sounds—he doesn't, he doesn't. He cannot stop. He presses himself into a corner.

There is somebody coming—footsteps, scent, the sound of even breathing. He should run—it could be them—but he knows that smell (safety, warmth, light, home), and that is completely unfamiliar. He stays.

Steve's on his way home from a run when he hears it. It's just a quiet, little whimper—his serum-sharpened senses are the only reason Steve doesn't miss it—an animal, probably hurt. Steve's stomach plummets the way it always does when anticipating a terrible sight, but he goes into the alley to investigate. He could never leave a helpless thing alone to suffer.

The skinny kid he used to be got himself into a lot of fights defending strays from slingshots. He always had Bucky, though, to pull him out. Bucky couldn't even frown at him too much for fighting—Bucky always had a soft spot for everything small and defenseless. That was, after all, what got him stuck with Steve.

Steve steps into the dark of the alley. It isn't the same city or the same century, but it still brings back memories. It's a seasonable early spring day, crisp enough that shade makes it chilly. The old Steve would have had to tighten a threadbare jacket around his skinny frame. The new him burns too hot to feel much cold, can buy as many jackets as he pleases, but that broke, bony kid had Bucky to throw a companionable arm around his shoulder—he comes out ahead every time.

There is a puppy, huddled up against the chipped, green dumpster. It's some kind of pit bull mix—Natasha sends a lot of pictures, so Steve's familiar with the breed. (“They act the way that people teach them to,” she says, whenever someone questions her allegiance. “They're good, whenever people teach them right.” She volunteers at shelters, sometimes, and Steve has thought about coming with her, but he has never asked). The dog is brown and white, and its eyes are a sort of grey-green, with a hint of puppy-blue. It is too thin, and one of its front legs is missing.

“How'd a little guy like you lose a leg already?” Steve says, his voice pitched low and soothing. He crouches down. The puppy does not move away. Steve reaches out a hand, and the puppy flinches, but does not try to run.

“Easy, little guy,” Steve says. He scritches the dog behind one of its floppy ears. “I'm not gonna do anything to hurt you.”

The puppy doesn't react to the touch. It watches Steve with big, surprised eyes—there's something so expressive, so downright human about them.

“Whoever had you before wasn't very nice, huh?” Steve says. He pets the smooth fur of its head with the tips of his fingers. He is very, very careful; the dog is still frozen in place.

He strokes the puppy's back. It's such a small animal—no more than a few months old. Steve has met a lot of bad people, but he still has trouble comprehending that there are humans that would hurt a creature like this. It makes something inside of him boil. “Whoever had you before was kind of a piece of shit.”

The puppy hasn't bolted yet, and Steve needs to get it out of the alley. He can't help the poor thing here. “What do you say, little guy? You wanna come home with me? I won't let anybody hurt you.”

The puppy doesn't offer much in response, but its ears have started perking up each time Steve speaks. Steve wonders if the dog has heard a kind voice before, in its short and painful life. He takes a chance, and picks the puppy up. It does not try to bite, but that does not matter. It could not hurt Steve, anyway.

The puppy is shaking, and Steve cuddles it against his chest and wraps it in his jacket. He gets a lot of looks on the way home—he's almost gotten used to the attention he gets on a day-to-day basis, since the serum turned him visible, but this—adding a cute animal into the equation, it really takes things to the next level. The leering strangers make him uncomfortable—some of them snap pictures with their phones—and he hopes that the puppy isn't too scared, but it has to be, with so many people staring.

Steve walks fast. He doesn't want the puppy frightened any longer than it has to be.

A cheerful spaniel tugging on a leash held by a fashionably-dressed young woman bounds up to Steve, sniffing and barking, up on its hind legs, eager to greet the puppy.

“Sorry about that,” the woman says, “Matilda loves other dogs. She used to get just like that when she was a puppy—she'd get tired, and I'd have to carry her everywhere.”

Steve smiles, because it's polite, and Sarah Rogers didn't raise a rude son. “It's alright. He's just...not comfortable around people yet.”

She takes in the puppy's breed and his missing leg. “He must have had kind of a rough start. But he's young—you'll have him socialized in no time.”

“Thanks.”

“I'll let you get him home. You have a good one.”

“You, too,” Steve says, and then he's on his way. He'd called the puppy a “he,” but Steve hasn't actually checked. The dog's gonna need a name—Steve already feels strange thinking of the puppy as “it,” and they've only just met.

Steve's already decided that he won't give it back. If the puppy has owners, then they are the ones responsible for whatever happened to leave it scared and too skinny in that alley. The dog stays with him.

Steve brings the puppy inside, into the apartment that doesn't quite feel like home no matter how much he's been trying. He isn't used to being alone. Before the war, he always had Bucky, and his mother until her death. During the war, Bucky was there, too—and the rest of the Howlers, of course—but Bucky always meant home. (And well, maybe Steve's already got a name for the puppy in mind).

Steve comes to the sudden realization that he has never had a pet before. Sure, he and Bucky always fed their scraps to all sorts of strays, but they never had an animal of their own. The puppy's going to need food, and toys, and a leash. It's sort of an absurd concern for someone who's led men into battle, but it's—a lot of responsibility. Steve wonders if this is what normal guys in their twenties feel like—for all the life he's lived, and all the jokes Steve's new team makes about his age, that's what he is. Maybe this, taking on new responsibilities, living on his own—is what it's supposed to be like.

He sets the puppy on the floor. It looks around, wary and slow. It seems so lost and frightened that Steve cannot help but duck down to pet it.

“I guess you should probably get a bath,” Steve says. “Seeing as I found you in an alley, next to a dumpster. And then we'll get you some food.”

The puppy offers nothing in response.

Steve has as little of an idea about how one goes about bathing a dog as he does about any other aspect of pet ownership—but fortunately, he's become accustomed to using the internet to fill the gaps in his knowledge.

The tutorial he watches warns that some dogs aren't fans of the process, and might splash, or make a fuss. This dog—definitely male, and uninjured, as far as Steve can tell—does no such thing. The puppy stands in the tub and lets Steve do as he will. Steve dries him off and then wraps him in the towel, and at least the puppy isn't shivering any longer.

There's no dog food in the house—yet—but Steve's got some leftover roast chicken in the fridge, and that seems like it might do. He puts it out on a little plate, along with a small bowl of water. It's kind of a mess, doing everything with the puppy in one arm, but Steve manages well enough. It doesn't occur to him, until everything is ready, to set the puppy down.

Once he has, the puppy stares at the food and drink for a long, long moment, before descending upon it with all the desperation of a half-starved animal that doesn't know when he'll have the chance to eat again. It breaks Steve's heart, but that will change—it will.

“I know a little bit about not having enough to eat,” Steve says. “I mean—I used to. You get used to having more than enough, after a while. I did, and you will, too.”

The puppy is engrossed, wholly, in the act of consuming his food. Even if he could understand what Steve was saying, Steve does not think the puppy would be able to hear anything at all.

It's an opportune moment as any for Steve to do a bit more research. He figures out which supplies he is going to need, and how to make do until the next morning without them—leaving the puppy alone in the apartment until he's had a bit more time to get used to Steve and his new home seems cruel, and taking him out again without a leash just seems like asking for trouble.

Steve feeds the puppy a little more chicken, and then sets out a folded up newspaper on top of a plastic trash-bag on the tiled kitchen floor—a decent substitute for the pads he's seen online, at least until Steve gets that leash. He's supposed to train the puppy to use the paper, but Steve's not sure how well that's going to work—not with the dog so totally withdrawn. Surely they can make it through one evening; Steve can clean up a mess if he needs.

Steve makes his own dinner, narrating the process to the puppy all the while. It feels a little bit pathetic, but it's nice—having someone to talk to, even if that someone is a small, frightened dog. Steve feeds the puppy scraps—a habit the site he was reading urged him to avoid, but food is the only thing the puppy's reacted to so far, and the awed, hesitant reverence with which the poor thing accepts it means that Steve has no intention of stopping.

After they've both eaten their fill, Steve settles down on the couch and turns on the TV. He sets the puppy down next to him. “You're gonna need a name, little guy,” Steve says.

He's only got one option in mind.

“Would you mind if I named you after a friend of mine?” Steve says. “He was real special, you see. And I loved him very much.”

He swallows—Steve loved Bucky all right—more than he ever said, more than he's ever told anyone. Steve pulls the puppy into his lap. The dog settles there without any complaint. Running his fingers over soft fur is nice—it makes saying things easier.

“It might feel good,” Steve says, “to say his name again. So would you mind if I called you Bucky?”

The puppy presses his cold nose against the palm of Steve's hand—Bucky it is.

Steve isn't sure that it's what he's supposed to do, but he brings Bucky to sleep in his bed that night. Bucky's just a puppy, after all, and frightened and overwhelmed. It will be good for him, to have Steve close. Steve makes him a little nest amid the piles of blankets, and he falls right asleep, exhausted from a long and draining day of change. Steve wonders if he was sleeping next to that dumpster, the night before this one, when he had no name and no one watching out for him.

It takes Steve a long time to get to sleep, in his empty house, in his bed that swallows him up like quicksand. With the small dog curled up warm at his side, sleep finds him faster.

Steve's nightmares never let him sleep too long, the nights when they come. It's almost always the same thing—the scream, the rushing wind, reaching—Bucky's arms stretched out, and if Steve could just—

But he fails. He fails every time. A whole life of Bucky saving him, and when Bucky had needed it most, he couldn't return the favor.

Steve stares at the puppy to whom he has given Bucky's name. His small chest rises and falls in the dark. Steve does not dare touch him. Steve does not try to go back to sleep.

Steve has never thought about animals having nightmares, but he understands the way his dog whimpers, and curls in tight, even in sleep.

Steve pulls Bucky to his chest, and the movement jars the puppy awake. “We've both had a rough go of it, huh?” Steve says. He pets Bucky's soft fur. “But it's alright now, little pup. We're both home safe.”

Steve gets up for his morning run and leaves some deli meat out for the dog. It doesn't seem like the ideal thing to feed him, but Bucky shouldn't be alone and without food. And hey, one of the young agents he talks to sometimes at work has got him buying organic—so at least there's that.

It's an uneventful run—his usual miles in their usual minutes—and when it is done, Steve heads for the pet store. A young girl with a bright, braces-crossed smile and a name-tag that identifies her as 'Rosa' looks at Steve like he's a baby animal when he tells her about the unexpected addition to his household. She helps him get together everything he needs for a new puppy—they pick out food and treats for Bucky to try (Rosa recommends grain-free), and bowls to feed him from; they pick a leash, a harness, and a collar (all in blue); he goes a little overboard with toys. And last of all, Steve gets a little round tag engraved with his phone number and Bucky's name, and thanks every lucky star that's been ignoring him for the last seventy-odd years for the fact that the person operating the machine does not recognize him.

There is a hot flush of humiliation Steve feels at the thought of anybody knowing that he's named his dog after his dead best friend—but it's outweighed by the weight of that name on his tongue. Every time Steve says it, he tastes relief.

When Rosa hears it, she grins, and starts chattering about her history class—and it's no wonder Steve goes unrecognized more often than not—he's a figure on the page of a textbook. It must be like seeing some guy who looks like a dead president—doesn't matter how uncanny the resemblance is, you're not gonna assume that was Lincoln on the street.

“Are you going to the Smithsonian exhibit next month?” Rosa says. “What am I saying—you named your dog after Bucky Barnes. Of course you're going!”

Steve tries very hard not to blush. It had been bad enough, talking to the people from the museum.

It had been bad enough—but he's going to go. They told him about everything they were planning to show—interviews with Peggy (young and healthy and vital, every memory intact, not like the frail version he now visits once a week), and the Commandos—and the most damning thing of all, the thing that Steve would never be able to resist—photos and footage of Bucky Barnes.

By the time Steve gets back to his building, he's been out for almost two hours—the store took longer than he thought it might, and there's a bit of a clench in his chest when he thinks of Bucky, fending for himself alone for so long on his first morning home.

There's no sign at all that a dog is anywhere in the apartment when Steve comes through the door, and Bucky does not come when he calls. He experiences a moment of irrational paranoia that Bucky has somehow gotten out, or that someone has come and snatched him away, but the empty plate where the deli meat Steve left him used to be quiets the worry.

Steve mentally splits his home into quadrants and begins the search. He locates Bucky underneath the bed, in quadrant B. Once Steve sees him—so small and frightened, huddled up in the dark, it's easier, to think of it as a mission. It hurts less, that way. Steve wonders, not for the first time, how that puppy lost his leg. He does not think he wants to know.

The next mission—coaxing Bucky out from under the bed using the new treats—is successful, though it takes a somewhat alarming amount of time.

“It's alright,” Steve says, once Bucky is eating, a vaguely guilty look on his little face, “you and I are both a little fucked up.”

Bucky looks at Steve. Clearly, he is doubting the veracity of Steve's issues—after all, Steve wasn't the one hiding underneath the bed. (And if Steve had ever needed proof that he didn't come back from his war whole, he has found it here, putting complex words in the head of his new puppy).

“I know!” Steve says. “It kind of looks like I've got myself together, right? Well, Captain America's gotta.”

Bucky's eyes are big and expectant. Steve gives him another treat. He's probably going to make Bucky fat. Steve should really read up on how many treats dogs can have in a day. The bag of food says how much Steve should feed him, but the treats offer no such guidelines.

“But I don't have anything together,” says Steve. “I'm not—I named a dog after him. No offense.”

Bucky does not appear offended. Steve scratches his head.

Steve says, “I haven't told anyone, not until you.”

Steve puts the pretty blue collar on Bucky, and he's fiddling with the little, bone-shaped tag engraved with Bucky's name, trying to figure out how it attaches, when he realizes—

“Dog tags,” Steve says, wheezing, when Bucky appears puzzled by the fact that Steve is laughing so hard that he cannot get up off the floor.

“It's just, the other Bucky wore them, too,” he manages, convulsing.

It is the hardest Steve has laughed in seventy years.

Once the last of the laughing fit has died down, Steve clips on Bucky's leash and they set out on what is probably a long-overdue first walk. Rosa and the internet both said that a puppy might not be great at accepting a collar and leash for a while, and that he should be patient and reward good behavior, but Bucky walks at heel straight away.

They run into Steve's neighbor, Kate (who is very, very pretty—tall, with blonde curls, and a warm smile—and even better than all that, a nurse), in the hall.

“You got a dog!” she says, and that smile lights up her beautiful brown eyes.

"Yeah," Steve manages to say. If Steve weren't so hung up on a memory, he would be in a lot of trouble. Bucky hides behind Steve's leg, suspicious of the stranger.

Kate says, "He's a cute little guy. If you ever need someone to watch him, I'm right across the hall."

And she is kind, too—Steve wishes he could be in trouble. "Thanks," he says, "I go away for work sometimes."

"What's his name?" says Kate. She brushes a honeyed wave out of her eyes.

"Bucky."

The thing is, before Bucky died, Steve was dealing with it—or, he was learning.

He'd been in love with Bucky his entire life. That wasn’t going away, but he was getting better at it.

The new, bright, companionable thing he had with Peggy was not the full-body forever-yearning he felt for Bucky Barnes, and that was okay. There was more than one way to love someone, and that was okay, too.

Bucky was the center of his world, his constant companion—his protector, the person who had kept him warm every cold night, whose crooked smile and warm heart had kept him smiling through every dark time. His face, and the precise blue of his eyes were what Steve had used to first define beauty. Steve would jump through fire for Bucky, and he had, moved forward by the magnetic pull that always led wherever Bucky would be.

Falling in love with Peggy wouldn't change that, it just meant loving her, also—and loving her was easy, with her brave recklessness, her determination, her faith in others, in him, and her keen, tactical mind. And that stunning woman—that truly fantastic human being—actually wanted to be with him.

The thing is, Steve had their future all dreamed out—him and Peggy, Bucky and whomever Bucky came to love always close by.

The thing is, he was ready—to start their side-by-side lives.

Before Bucky fell, it was all getting better.

And then that terrible day on the train ground Steve's hopes into ash. There could be no future, not without Bucky.

Steve had not gotten past losing him, then, and he is not past losing Bucky now. If anything, being all alone in this new time has made the ache more raw.

"The future," Bucky had said.

Steve had not meant to wind up there on his own.

He tells Kate that he will surely take her up on that offer, and then he tells her goodbye.

She smiles. In another world, he might already be falling.

It is a bright day outside, and Bucky looks around at the sun-soaked world with wonder. They walk to the park. It warms something in Steve's heart to see Bucky exploring, though he looks at every blade of grass or patch of dirt he sniffs with a sort of caution, like it might hold some unknown danger—or perhaps, like the danger is that at any moment, it might be snatched away. Steve feeds him treats and stops to pet him often. He wishes there were more that he could do.

Bucky seems to have no trouble getting around on his three legs, but he cowers against Steve's leg whenever there are strangers. And he is just a puppy, so before too long, he's tired out and overwhelmed. Steve carries him home.

"It's better with you here," says Steve.

Bucky shoves his head under Steve's hand for petting, and Steve is happy to oblige.

Brock Rumlow is somebody Steve likes—or he's somebody Steve knows, and these days, that is close enough. He's on the team when SHIELD calls Steve in for a mission (his first, since he brought Bucky home), and he is twitchy something awful on the plane.

It isn't the work—the job's a simple rescue for an agent who has been pinned down by enemy combatants—and Steve asks him why.

“Lost something important of my boss's,” Rumlow says. “He's gonna have my ass for it.”

“Fury's bark is worse than his bite,” Steve says. He thinks of Bucky, back home, with Kate-the-pretty-nurse, and hopes his puppy is alright.

“Not Fury,” says Rumlow. “Another higher-up. Don't think you've met yet.”

Steve asks, “What'd you lose, anyway? You requisition a rocket launcher and leave it around somewhere?”

“Something like that,” Rumlow says.

The mission goes off without a hitch. Rumlow is running off the minute their plane touches Washington ground.

Steve says, "I'm in a hurry, too. Gotta pick up my dog."

"You have a dog?" Rumlow asks, eyebrows perked up.

"Yeah," Steve says, "I got a new puppy last week."

"Huh," Rumlow says, and then he is gone.

"Were you a good boy for Kate?" Steve asks.

Bucky does not wag his tail or jump on Steve the way another dog might, but he pads over and settles at Steve's feet like there is no other place on earth, and Steve thinks that might be better.

Kate laughs, and it is clear and bright. "He was! Shy, but so good."

"How can I repay you for watching him?" says Steve.

Kate shakes her head. "Watching him was it's own reward!"

It would be so easy, to tell Kate, 'Well, then let me buy you a cup of coffee.' Maybe she would even say yes—women like the new him well enough, as Natasha so likes to remind him.

He's dreamt about Bucky's namesake every night this week.

"At least let me pick you up a six pack of something nice next time I'm at the store."

"Make it something dark, and we've got a deal," Kate says.

She is smiling, and Steve thinks that maybe—maybe—he could have a new friend.

Natasha calls on a Tuesday. She has been gone for six long weeks, helping Clint with some runaway mission gone terribly wrong, and she has taken a good seventy percent of Steve's non-work social interactions with her.

"You got a dog?!" she says in lieu of hello. She sounds more like an excited teenager than a super-spy.

"You're not in the city. You're not even in the country. Where are you, anyway? How do you know that?" Steve is pathetically glad to hear her voice.

Natasha cackles. "Like you could get a pit bull puppy without me knowing."

"It's good to know you're so focused on the mission. I'm sure you and Barton will be home very soon."

"I'm leaving Clint's dumb ass here in like a week," Natasha says, and then she shouts—not into the receiver. "I'm glad you heard that, Barton! I wanted you to hear it! You'll clean up this mess alone."

"It'll be good to have you on my team again for missions," says Steve.

"Aw, are Rumlow and his backup dancers boring you?" says Natasha.

Steve laughs. "No one else on Strike talks!"

"Admit it," Natasha says, "you miss me."

"Eh," Steve says.

"So, the puppy. Tell me everything about the puppy," she says.

"He's small and white and brown, and he has three legs."

"Very descriptive."

"He's a dog! I like him! I’m petting him right now. What else is there to say?"

Natasha scoffs. "What's he like?"

That gives him pause. Steve thinks about his new pet. Mostly, Bucky is scared; he hides at loud noises, and he doesn’t want to play all the time the way other puppies do; he is the quietest dog that Steve has ever seen, like he is afraid to make a single sound—but he is curious, too, and he likes to cuddle, and he trusts Steve when it seems like he would be well within reason to never trust a person again. "I don't think he's had a very easy life,” Steve says.

"Great, he can join the team next time we have to stop an alien invasion,” Natasha says.

Steve laughs. “I guess he is in good company on that front.”

“Well, he will be once I’m back in DC,” says Natasha. “Clint wants to know if you’ve taken him to the vet yet. I bet you haven’t.”

“...He’s new.”

“Don’t make me steal your dog, Rogers!” Barton yells. There’s some kind of mad struggle for the phone, and it gets hung up in the process.

Steve smiles, but there is a dull sort of ache—emptiness in some space that was, just a second ago, occupied by the warmth of company. He strokes Bucky’s soft fur. “We gonna go to the vet, little guy?”

Bucky is half-asleep, tucked against the side of Steve’s leg.

“Yeah,” Steve says, “I guess we ought to.”

There is a veterinarian’s office a reasonable walk from Steve’s place, and it’s got a good rating on Yelp. Bucky is still hypervigilant around strangers, but surely, his fears are nothing trained professionals will not be able to allay.

In the reception area, everything is fine. The nice young woman at the desk makes small talk, and Bucky sniffs the kittens that are there to be adopted out. Steve snaps a photo of him pressing his nose against their little enclosure. Cute animal pictures are an important form of social currency in this new time, and Steve is perfectly okay with that.

Everything is fine, until they are led into the examination room. Bucky panics before the vet tech has even closed the door. He claws desperately at Steve’s jeans-clad leg, trying to clamber up him, to some kind of safety. He barks—loud and high and frightened. It’s almost the first time that Steve has heard him make a single sound. Apparently, dogs can hyperventilate, too, and Steve’s heart is already broken before the vet tech lifts his thrashing puppy onto the exam table. There, Bucky goes a perfect, panicked still. His eyes are huge. Steve can hear his frantic heartbeat.

“Stop,” Steve says. “Stop, he’s not ready. We’ll come back, when—he’s been through a lot. He’s not ready.”

The vet tech steps away with a sad smile, and Steve picks Bucky up, and carries him out of the office. He doesn’t bother trying to see if Bucky will walk—Steve knows there is no use.

“I’m sorry, little pup,” Steve says. “I’m sorry. I should have known better. I’m sorry I let you get scared so bad.”

The walk home is more of a run.

Bucky is no better when they get inside. He’s like a statuette of a puppy, and no amount of offered treats, petting, or affection helps.

Steve resigns himself to a tough night. He feels so guilty that sleep seems like an unlikely option. The weight of it in his heart is familiar, an anchor dragging him straight down through the ground. Steve has been carrying that anchor for a long, long time—since he let Bucky, his other Bucky, fall.

Letting the helpless animal that depends on him down shouldn’t feel so much like letting his best friend die.

It’s like that until the morning, but sometime around the crack of dawn, Bucky springs back to life. He skitters all around the apartment—too much nervous, terrified energy for such a small creature.

It’s the least helpless Steve has felt since Bucky went still on that table. This—this he knows what to do with. “Bucky, do you wanna come out for my run?”

Bucky is a tiny creature, and Steve fully expects that he will not make it further than a lap. He is prepared to end the run early, and also to try running with Bucky tucked under his arm, but Bucky does not seem to tire. He moves like a little machine, like he never wants to stop running, and Steve understands. He understands Bucky, and he understands the way that people and their animals connect, in a way that he never could have before, when he’d only ever seen that from the outside.

It is a very good run.

Steve is usually one of the only people out so early, and today is no exception. There’s one other runner on the track, a handsome guy in a sweatshirt with a military logo, and Steve and Bucky lap him again and again. It seems awkward not say anything, and Steve tells him, “On your left,” every time—just common courtesy, really, and if it makes him sputter and make desperate attempts to catch up, well, that’s just an added bonus.

Steve stops by to talk to him after the run. Bucky’s looking a good deal better, and the glow of victory, combined with the rush of endorphins, has left Steve feeling giddy. Besides, the guy is slumped under a tree, panting, and it would be rude not to rub it in.

He takes the ribbing in good stride, and ribs Steve right back in return. When Steve introduces himself, he says, “Yeah, I kind of figured when you kicked my ass with a three-legged puppy. Sam Wilson, I work at the VA. That dog of yours have a super-soldier serum, too?”

“Nah, Bucky here is just a regular guy, so you’ve got no excuses.” Steve freezes. He’s never told anybody who recognized him Bucky’s name before, but Sam does not say a thing. He just keeps talking.

Sam doesn’t treat Steve like a legend—he treats Steve like a soldier. When he tells Steve to stop by the VA sometime—an offer cleverly disguised as a request—and that Bucky would be welcome, too, Steve has no intention of turning him down.

Steve gets out of the shower, and finds Natasha sitting on his couch. She’s wearing yoga pants, and her hair is in a bun.

Bucky is half-hidden by the entertainment center, watching her.

"You heard of knocking?" says Steve.

"I knocked," says Natasha, "on the window, before I broke in. I'm not rude, you know."

"This is Bucky," Steve says.

"I introduced myself," Natasha says. She does not comment on the name, either.

“I’ll be right back,” Steve says. “Pants.”

“That’s true, you’re not really dressed for company. Whatever happened to those old-fashioned manners you’re supposed to have?

Steve comes back in sweats, and Bucky hides behind his leg, tentatively peeking out at Natasha. “She’s nicer than she looks, little guy. I promise.”

Bucky doesn’t take Steve’s word for it, but by the end of Natasha’s visit, he’s let her get pretty close.

“So you approve of my taste in friends, huh?” Steve says. “Yeah, the other Bucky would have liked Natasha, too.”

There is a start-of-spring storm, claps of thunder and lightning flashing bright outside Steve’s window. Bucky hides under the bed. Steve cannot shake the vague feeling of unease.

Natasha shows up to get Steve after his run—they’ve got a mission. Sam offers to look after Bucky—he’d had a nice time at the VA when they visited last (when Sam had told Steve about Riley, and Steve had felt less alone)—and Steve thanks him profusely before getting in Natasha’s souped-up car.

The mission does not go off without a hitch.

Natasha has her lies, and Rumlow is distracted. The flight home is a tense mess.

"Still haven't found your boss's rocket launcher?" Steve asks Rumlow. If Steve talks to him, it's an excuse not to talk to Natasha. He doesn't trust himself not to boil over.

It takes Rumlow a second to realize what Steve is referring to. "No, no I haven't," he says.

Natasha throws a paper ball at Steve. "It was my mission. I bet you'll stop being grumpy once you've gone home to play with your dog."

"Oh, that's right," says Rumlow. "You've got a dog."

Before Steve can go get Bucky, he has to stop by the Triskelion to confront one Fury, Nicholas J.

Project Insight is everything that Steve died to prevent.

When someone knocks on his door, Steve is prepared to see a number of people. Rumlow is not one of them.

Steve invites him inside, wary. He’s got no idea how Rumlow even knows where he lives, but it would be rude to leave somebody standing outside. Maybe this is normal now, Steve tells himself. Maybe coworkers just show up at each other’s homes unbidden sometimes. When things in his life get particularly strange, Steve will occasionally try to find comfort by pretending to blame the time.

He knows better, of course. Steve’s is an unusual life, and it stopped being normal long before a century fractured it.

“So, where’s that dog I’ve heard so much about?” Rumlow asks, after a strained and precise amount of small-talk.

Steve takes in his body language. Rumlow is sweaty and fidgeting. He cannot seem to stop running a hand through his hair. Steve has seen men calmer with guns to their heads. Bucky is, in fact, nowhere to be found. Lately, new people have been a source of cautious curiosity for him, but he is not in his customary visitor-greeting post behind Steve’s legs. The gut instinct that has so rarely steered Steve wrong is screaming. There is something amiss.

“He’s not a fan of strangers,” Steve says, his face a careful, passive mask. He is a terrible liar, but his poker face, honed over years of playing with Bucky, can hold up to the scrutiny of people who don’t know him well.

Rumlow forces a smile. It really looks more like he’s showing his teeth. He lets out a dry sound that Steve thinks was supposed to be a laugh. “Well, your buddy Brock’s not a stranger! You think you could coax him out for me? It’s, uh—been a bad week. I hear—furry things help with that sort of thing.”

Steve chases a suspicion and says, “Hold on a sec, I’ll find him.”

Bucky is in the closet, sitting—very still—among Steve’s slacks. “It’s alright, pup,” Steve says. “You know I’m not gonna let anything happen to you.”

Bucky relaxes a little, and Steve picks him up and carries him into the main room, where Rumlow is waiting. The way that Bucky looks when he sees Rumlow—terror, panic, and betrayal, written all over his little body as clearly as a book—tells Steve everything he needs to know. He doesn’t even need the predatory glint in Rumlow’s eyes, but Steve sees that, too.

“This might be a weird question, but where did you get him?” Rumlow says.

Steve is careful, choosing his words. “He’s a rescue.”

“This is gonna sound awkward, but I think that’s my boss’s dog,” Rumlow says. “He got a puppy a few months back—the grandchildren loved it—but he got off his leash on a walk. Boss has been lookin’ all over for him. Three legs, pitbull mix.”

“You’re right,” Steve says, “that is awkward.”

“The boss really wants him back. I bet he’d get you another puppy, no problem. He’s just...gotta have this one.”

“The problem with that,” says Steve, “is that whoever had him before me was a very, very bad person.”

“So I take it that means you’re not gonna wanna return him,” says Rumlow.

“Anyone who wants to take him’s gotta go through me.”

Rumlow shakes his head. “I figured you might be like that. I’ll see you around, Cap.”

The moment Rumlow is gone, Bucky starts shaking.

“You hear that, Bucky?” Steve says. “I told him. Anyone who wants to take you’s gotta go through me. And I don’t know if you know this, but that’s kind of a hard thing to do.”

That doesn’t seem to calm Bucky too much. Steve strokes his fur. “You know how I told you that I named you after my best friend? I was holding out on you.”

He carries Bucky to the couch, and sits down with the puppy on his lap.

“He was my best friend,” Steve says, “but I was also in love with him. I am. I still am in love with him.”

It’s the first time Steve has ever said the words aloud to another living being, and he takes a moment, to let the weight of it sink in.

“I was in love with him for our entire lives, and I never told anyone,” says Steve. “Never anyone until you. See, I’ve gotta protect you. You know all my secrets.”

Bucky is a little bit calmer now, but Steve keeps petting him, and he keeps talking. “It’s a hell of a thing to love someone until they die, and keep loving them after, you know? I wouldn’t have any idea how to stop. I just—I wish he’d known. Maybe he woulda hated me for it—but I don’t think so. He would have been kind. He was always kind.”

Bucky snuggles into Steve’s thigh.

“I named you after the best guy I’ve ever known, and I’m gonna protect you. Like I couldn’t protect him.”

Steve’s got a gut feeling, and he trusts his gut feelings, and so the next day, when he comes back from his run, he leaves a youtube clip of a barking dog playing, and he goes across the hall to Kate’s door.

She answers in sweats, her hair dark from water. “Hey, neighbor,” Kate says, “what brings you to my neck of the woods?”

“I’m out of coffee. Any chance I could talk you into making me a cup?” Steve says.

“Is the café down the street out of coffee, too?”

“Your place is closer, and besides—they don’t like it when I try to bring Bucky in.”

Kate shakes her head and smiles. “I guess I’ll let you in. It’s hard to say no to this little guy.”

Kate makes a good cup of coffee, and they make small talk for a while. It isn’t long before Steve hears the sound—he’s got keen ears—but Kate perks up like she’s heard somebody too.

“Someone’s in your apartment,” Kate says.

“Yeah,” Steve says, “somebody is. Protect Bucky, please.”

Steve charges across the hall, and into his place. He left the shield propped by the door, hidden behind a box—easy to grab, but out of sight—and it’s in his hands before he is all the way into the room.

There are five armed men in Steve’s apartment—more, climbing in through the window. Steve throws the shield. Two of them are down before the shield is back in his hands. He bashes another one of them in the head and is surprised when two others go down from one clean shot each.

Kate stands behind him, a gun in her hands. The perfect stance and the perfect aim tell him that the weapon is not a stranger to her.

“Captain!” Kate says. “I’m Agent 13, SHIELD secret service. I was assigned to protect you.”

“Oh,” Steve says.

Between the two of them, all of the intruders go down in a minute or less. In the bedroom, the dog in the youtube video looping on Steve’s computer is still barking.

Kate-who-is-really-Agent-13, who says her name is actually, really Sharon, shepherds Steve back into her place. Bucky is there, safe, his ears perked up in concern.

“SHIELD will pick those guys up,” Kate-who-is-really-named-Sharon says. “They’ll find out who sent them.”

“No,” Steve says, thinking of Rumlow and his mystery boss, with his lost, mystery weapon. “I don’t think they will.”

Steve’s suspicions about the organization that he has chosen to work for are severely compounded when he and Bucky come home from an exciting day of running errands, and visiting Sam at the VA, to find Nick Fury in his living room, bleeding.

“It isn’t safe,” Steve starts to say. “I’ve been attacked here before.”

The woman who crashes through his window is blonde. She’s got a long ponytail and red lips, the makeup applied haphazardly, like whoever did it hadn’t really known how (and yeah, Steve has spent enough time around showgirls to tell), and she moves like the crack of a whip. She shoots Fury in the chest before Steve has time to take a breath, let alone stop her.

She’s out the window even faster.

Sharon charges in, and Steve goes after Fury’s assailant. He throws the shield at her, but she darts to the side, easy as anything. He loses her off the side of a building—she’s gone like a pale apparition into the night.

When everything is said and done, Steve is in the hospital, Bucky in his arms, and Natasha by his side.

Fury does not make it.

Steve passes Bucky to Natasha when he sees Strike and Rumlow coming (Maria Hill has hardly had time to take Fury’s body away). “Get him out of here. Please, he isn’t safe.” Steve can’t trust her—can’t trust anyone, really; even the pretty not-really-a-nurse from across the hall was a liar—but Natasha is all that he’s got. Bucky needs someone to protect him.

Steve hides Fury’s flash-drive in the vending machine, and then lets Rumlow and his minions lead him away.

When he looks Alexander Pierce in the eye, Steve knows exactly who Rumlow’s mystery boss is.

Steve doesn’t enjoy fighting for his life, but he’s very good at it. It’s something he’s been practicing since he was the skinny kid getting beat to a pulp in every alley in Brooklyn. He’d had Bucky to save his skin then, and now he’s got the serum, and the shield, and every year that he’s managed to survive carved into him like notches on a bedpost.

Punching Rumlow in the face would feel pretty damn good even if Steve wasn’t obligated to do it.

“Nick’s shooter,” Natasha says. She’s got Steve’s dog and Steve’s drive, and it is a question.

“A woman,” Steve says. “Blonde, beautiful. Faster than me.”

“I know her,” Natasha says. Her wide eyes are huge, and they are haunted, like Steve has never seen. “I know her.”

“You know I worked for the KGB,” Natasha says. They are inside of her apartment. Steve has never been inside of her apartment before. “What you don’t know, is—how old I was when I started.”

She is calm, so calm, except for one nervous hand idling in Bucky’s fur.

“I was recruited from an orphanage shortly before my fourth birthday. I was not the only one. They called it ‘the children’s ward.’”

Steve wants to reach out and put a hand on her shoulder. He holds back.

“No one ever suspects a little girl of anything. We were trained, and trained well. They taught us how to lie, and how to fight, and how to spy. Not all of us made it through. They taught us how to kill,” Natasha says.

Steve does not say anything. There is nothing to say.

“I was seven years old the first time I took a human life. Yelena was right by my side. The KGB turned into other organizations. More girls didn’t make it, but Yelena and I always remained. They said we were the best. The year that we turned twelve, they renamed us ‘Operation Black Widow.’ I know her,” Natasha says, “I know Yelena, because we are the same.”

“Except you’re on the right side, and she’s not,” Steve says.

“That’s not her fault,” says Natasha. “I promised. I promised her we’d always stay together—look out for each other, but the minute that I could get out, I did. I left her on her own. After that, I was a merc—had no idea what was right or wrong, ‘cause no one ever taught me. And then I met Clint. But she never got away. She never went out on her own, and she never had anyone teach her. It’s not her fault.”

“Yeah,” Steve tells her. “Yeah.”

They need to know what’s on the drive. Steve takes Bucky to Sam’s, and they go on the road to find out.

Natasha asks him what it’s like to know he died for nothing, but the part that hurts the most is knowing that the man who tortured Bucky (and Steve was there for all the terrified nightmares; he had to muffle Bucky’s screams some nights, when they needed silence to disguise their position) was recruited by Steve’s friends.

He hopes, more than anything, that Peggy didn’t know. He wonders if that is something that she could still tell him—maybe on a good day, but it would be cruel to trouble her like that for his own peace of mind.

Sam’s is still safe, as far as they know, but it is still terrifying to have somebody ring the door while they are regrouping.

Steve’s so relieved to see it’s Sharon that he aches. “I thought you’d be here,” she says. “I want to help.”

She is the second person to say those words within the hour, and sometimes, when the world shows its worst, it also shows its best.

Steve is so grateful for the people around him that he can hardly breathe with it. “The one thing I can’t figure out,” he says, “is what HYDRA wants with my dog.

“He’s a cute dog,” Sam offers. “Now come on, you said you could get me my wings.”

They get Sam his wings, and then Sharon sits them down and tells them, “We need allies.”

She is right, of course; wars are not fought by solitary men, and they are only four people, standing up against a faceless, monstrous machine. “Who can we trust?”

“I think I know one other person that SHIELD—HYDRA—was targeting,” Sharon says. “His name is Stephen Strange.”

“One more thing,” Sharon says. “My last name—“

She’s so much like Peggy, and she is nothing like Peggy at all, and it makes Steve even more relieved to have her fighting at his side.

Dr. Strange went to the finest med schools, and he has worked at the most prestigious hospitals, and everything else about him, everything after one freak accident, is so shrouded in mystery that Natasha cannot find anything, even after she has hacked three separate government databases.

He will only agree to meet on a crowded street, so they have to send Sam.

“What’d you think?” says Sharon.

“What was he like?” says Steve.

“How the hell did he keep me from hacking into his files?” says Natasha.

Sam shakes his head and shrugs. “He’s got this energy. Never met anyone like him before.”

“What, you got a crush?” Sharon says.

She misses the once over Sam gives her; Steve doesn’t.

Their time is precious, so Steve cuts the flirting short. “Is he gonna help?”

“Yeah,” Sam says, “he wants to. Says he’s got to meet all of us first, though.”

It’s not an easy feat, arranging a face-to-face in a brightly-lit public place with two wanted fugitives, but Steve is a tactician, and Sharon and Natasha are both spies.

Steve and Natasha are a couple walking their dog, and Sam and Sharon are two friends they run into unexpectedly.

“You’re going undercover, aren’t you, boy?” Steve says, ruffling Bucky’s fur on their way out the door.

Sam rolls his eyes. “You are ridiculous with that dog, man.”

Steve shrugs, smiling. It’s been too good having something in this new century to love—really love—for him to be anything less than totally impervious to the teasing.

Steve thinks he’s doing better this time than the time in the mall. He thinks he looks less paranoid, but he is not sure that Natasha would agree.

No one seems to be paying them much mind, though, until they’re face-to-face with a tall, slim man with dark, penetrating eyes, and some silver at his temples. Of the four people there—spies and soldiers all—not one of them noticed him approach. Though if the way that Bucky hides behind Steve’s legs is any indication, at least one member of their little group wasn’t caught unawares.

“Dr. Strange,” Steve starts to say. “These are—“

“Please, it’s Stephen,” Strange cuts in, and then he spots the dog at Steve’s feet.

His distraction is instant. Strange crouches down at Steve’s feet, and reaches out to Bucky with an open palm. Bucky sniffs him.

“Hello there, friend,” Strange says. “I was wondering where you’d run off to. Isn’t fate just the most interesting thing?”

Bucky barks, as if in agreement—and it is still so rare to hear him make a single sound.

“I think it’s time to go back to your real life, don’t you?”

Bucky whines, but then he is surrounded by a warm, hazy glow—like dust glittering in a ray of sunshine—and something is changing. When the dust settles, the being curled up at Steve’s feet is no longer his dog. Occupying the very same space as his namesake—wild-eyed and wild haired, one arm made of metal, and naked as the day he was born is Bucky Barnes—the original, the genuine article.

Steve forgets how to breathe. “Bucky,” he says, the name golden and reverent on his tongue.

“What did you do?” he hears Sharon asking.

“Is that—?” Natasha says.

“Bucky,” Steve says again, and for a moment, he does not hear anything at all, sees nothing but the face he lost to the ice an entire lifetime ago.

The first thought that he’s had in months made of words is, “No.” “No, no, no,” but his mouth does not remember how to say it aloud—not at first. He is the asset. He is the asset again, and this is the body that he wears when they make him hurt, and the body that he wears when they make him hurt people. “No,” he says, finally forcing his mouth into the right shape.

“No,” he says, more firmly this time. “Put me back. You have to put me back the way I was.”

The words come easily now, even if his voice sounds like rust. The asset is always punished for speaking out of turn, but if he changes back fast enough, maybe there will not be time. Steve never punishes him. Steve only takes care of him, and makes him feel safe with his words and his smell, and all of his kindness. He has to be Bucky again—he has to be Bucky again, and then he can be safe.

“Change me back,” he says. He is on his knees, and he is begging. The asset is not allowed to beg, not allowed to ask—not for anything—but if he changes back fast enough, no one can hurt him. Steve promised that no one ever would, not if he had the power to stop them.

Steve drops to the ground, next to him. Steve must be so disappointed, now that Bucky is gone, and the asset is in his place. Steve’s eyes are huge, and when Steve speaks, he hangs on to each word.

“Buck, is that really you?” Steve says. His eyes are bright and huge. They are blue and they are shining. Steve looks up at the old target, the one who changed him. “Is this real? Is that really him?”

“This is his true form,” the target says. “I merely undid my own enchantment from several months back.”

“How?” Steve asks. “I watched him die. He—the mountain. How?”

“I might have some ideas,” says the woman with the red hair. She is looking at his arm, the one that is metal. “We’ll figure this out. Right now, we should probably move to a less public venue.”

“Of course,” Steve says. He pulls off his jacket, and wraps it around the asset’s shoulders, and this isn’t right. Steve should be furious. Steve should be disgusted. Steve should be raging to get Bucky back, and none of this is right—not a bit.

“Who am I?” he asks. It's an important question. He has to know. He's wrapped in the skin-warmed leather of Steve's jacket, and Steve is looking at him, eyes brimming with happy tears. He didn't think that men like Steve could cry. “Who am I?”

“You're Bucky Barnes,” Steve says, “and you're the best guy I know.”

“The transformation will have taken a lot out of him, I’m afraid,” Strange says. “He’s going to need some rest.”

Inexplicably, none of the passerby have been staring, and Steve thinks that Strange might be the reason why. He doesn’t have the presence of mind to be anything but grateful. Bucky, Bucky is alive, and doesn’t seem to remember anything. Bucky has been living in Steve’s house—as a dog, that Steve named after him—for months, plural. The rest of their little party is equally dumbfounded. Natasha looks scared.

Steve crouches down to pick Bucky up—he’s clearly in no state to walk anywhere himself. Bucky goes pliant the moment Steve touches him, and when Steve hauls him to his chest and lifts him off the ground, he goes easy.

“Then he’s going to get rest,” Steve says. “Will that shielding trick of yours protect us from HYDRA?”

“Wouldn’t be of much use if it didn’t,” Strange says.

“Great,” Steve says. “In that case, I’m taking Bucky home. You’re all coming with us. That sound alright to you, Buck?” He hopes somebody cleaned Fury’s blood off the floor.

Bucky beams up at him in response—a smile bright enough to break Steve’s heart. Only a moment ago, he was begging, on his knees, to be changed back. Something is very wrong, and there is no part of Steve that should be even a little bit happy. But at the end of the day, Steve’s heart cannot resist—it does what it’s always done at Bucky’s smile—it stops for half a beat.

When they arrive back at the apartment, he is tucked into Steve’s large bed. Bucky—Steve said he was Bucky—the real one, the first one, the one that Steve speaks of with such complete, hopeless and loyal devotion.

“Rest up, Buck,” Steve says.

Bucky closes his eyes, dutiful. He isn’t sure he knows how to rest when he’s the asset, but it seems like it might be a good idea to try.

The sheets smell like Steve. He goes to sleep easy.

Steve sits on the couch. His head is spinning. Bucky is alive. Bucky is alive and in the next room, hopefully sleeping. Bucky does not remember a thing—not a thing—and Steve remembers that there are other people in the room, probably staring at him slumped with his head in his hands, so he sits up straight, and says, “He doesn’t remember. He doesn’t remember anything.”

There’s small talk happening, but everyone goes quiet when Steve speaks. All focus turns to him.

“He was already afflicted when I found him,” Dr. Strange says. “It’s not a secondary effect of the transformation.”

“What happened to him?” Steve asks. There is one thing that has been undeniable in the months since Steve and Bucky’s unknowing reunion—the fact that Bucky had been through something awful. Between the terror, and the begging, the amnesia, and the metal arm—it’s even more apparent now. “Who did this to him? How? Where has he been for seventy years?”

Natasha clears her throat. “I—uh, might have some idea about that last one. And I can probably find out the rest. I’ve got...connections.”

Steve looks up. “What do you know?" It comes out too sharp, but he has always been too sharp where Bucky is concerned—bony elbows curled up in bed together in winter, and rushing off into enemy territory alone.

“He’s been active since the 1950s. The intelligence community knows him as the Winter Soldier,” Natasha says. “At least, the ones that don’t think he’s some sort of boogeyman.”

“But you believed in him,” Steve says.

“Yeah,” says Natasha. “Yeah, I did. I met the Winter Soldier on a mission, once.”

The look on her face says a lot, but Steve still asks. “I take it that didn’t go great.”

Natasha’s scar, and her story, are vicious, and it is strange to think of Bucky—and he wouldn’t have done it willingly; Steve knows that in his bones—who took the girls out dancing, and always showed them a good time, putting a bullet through her without a second thought.

“I’ll get you his files,” Natasha promises. Steve trusts her—they’re sister and brother in arms now. He’d trust her with a whole lot more.

Sam chooses that moment to step back into the conversation. “You should rest, man. Your head’s not in this right now, anyway.”

“Sam’s right,” Sharon says. The two of them will make a good team, Steve thinks. “I know you won’t sleep, but you could go sit with him for a while.”

“We all know that’s where you wanna be,” says Sam, and it is true.

Steve is desperate to see Bucky’s face, to take in the familiar features and to confirm, over and over, that he is real. He gives in to the impulse, and goes into his bedroom, careful to be quiet when shutting the door. There is already a chair by the bed, and Steve has no idea which of his friends brought it there, and when, but he is grateful.

Bucky’s face is slack with sleep, and it is the wrong thing to think, when he is without memories, and exhausted from an actual, physical transformation, but he is beautiful—Steve will always find him beautiful, tangled mess of hair, metal arm, and all.

Steve wishes he could hold Bucky’s hand, the way Bucky did for him, so many nights at Steve’s bedside, but disturbing Bucky is too great a risk to take. Steve settles for just sitting there, quiet at his side.

He wakes up, for just a flicker of a moment, from a deep and dreamless sleep, to the sound of someone settling next to him. Bucky looks up. Steve is there, his face soft, and his eyes a little bit...sad. Steve should never be sad, so Bucky reaches up for him. Touching outside of mission parameters is strictly forbidden—the asset is not a person, and pretending at humanity is a severe offense that comes with severe punishment, but —

He is almost sure that there will be no punishment here—Steve put him in a bed, after all, and that is against the rules, too—and even if there was, making Steve happy would be worth it.

Steve smiles and takes Bucky’s hand, cupping it in both of his own. He goes back to sleep.

Steve can’t remember the last time he felt this much peace. For the first time in this new century, keeping watch over his best friend’s sleep, he feels as though he is exactly where he belongs.

Steve does not know how long he sits there, soaking it in.

After a while, Natasha tiptoes in, light-footed, to see about spare blankets. Steve keeps a mess of them in the closet—an old want left over from the days when there was never enough heat, but never enough money to buy warm things, either.

It serves him well, now, and Natasha leaves the bedroom with enough covers to make up the couch, and build everyone else nests on the living room floor.

“Leave the door open?” Steve whispers. He does not want to miss his new family’s sleepover, but he cannot leave Bucky’s side.

Natasha smiles. Sharon waves at him from the corner where she and Sam are fighting for the cushion off the armchair. It’s a bright flashback to sitting in Bucky’s living room, splitting up the couch cushions as kids. Bucky always gave Steve more—he always gave Steve more of everything, and it never felt like charity, either.

Steve turns the chair, so he can watch them all settle in, and then he watches the rise and fall of Bucky’s chest. He falls asleep with Bucky’s hand still held in his.

He wakes to the sensation of sharp shock, and the acrid smell of burning in his nostrils. He cannot remember the dream, only his hands around Steve’s neck. Bucky sits up in bed, back bolt-straight. Steve is asleep, in the chair still, peaceful and unperturbed. There are no bruises on his neck, and he does not know that Bucky could dream of such dreadful things.

It seems wrong to keep resting beside him. Bucky stumbles to his feet—the door is open, and he could leave, but his body’s response to the strangers (Steve’s friends though they might be) sleeping outside of his door is a quickening of the heart, and a tightening of the chest, and neither of those things is good. They signal that he has done something wrong, and there is punishment or recalibration to follow.

His head aches, skull throbbing. Perhaps the punishment is already here. All he wants is Steve—Steve could make this better somehow—but he is undeserving of that kind of comfort, worthless if he can’t even be loyal to the person to whom he belongs. Steve has been so kind—so, so kind with all his promises and all of his care, and he…

Bucky does not want to be away from him, but cannot be near him, either. The closet—it is not tactically sound, with one exit only, and no view of anything important at all—but the clothes. Steve wears them, and they will wear his scent. Not as good as the sheets, and not as good as sticking close by Steve’s side, but better than he deserves.

He moves, silent, and makes himself small behind Steve’s slacks. It is easy, to hide. His heart pounds in the enclosed space, but that does not matter—the things he feels never have.

Bucky is not there when Steve opens his eyes. All the evening’s peace, which Steve had gathered up and clutched tight to his heart, fades away. He’s up in an instant. Bucky is in no shape to be out on his own—especially not with Rumlow and lackeys out hunting him. Steve knows, what they must have wanted now. Steve eyes the window, and what if they crept in in the night? Could Steve have slept through that?

Natasha is by his side a moment after Steve has stepped into the living room, shadow-quiet and so quick that he never even sees her rise from her cocoon on the floor. “He couldn’t have gotten out without me waking up,” she says. “Relax. He’s gotta be home.”

Sharon sits up, too. “She’s right. We’re not in a field of work that lends itself to heavy sleepers.”

“Check anywhere he might feel safe, and try not to startle him,” says Sam, and Steve does not need to wonder what makes him quick to wake. That, Steve lives every night.

Steve looks twice under the bed, where Bucky would retreat when he was—when Steve didn’t know he was him. He searches every dark, quiet corner, and he calls Bucky’s name, soft and low-pitched. It’s not until he hears a quiet shuffle that Steve thinks to look in the closet, where Bucky had only hidden one, terrible time.

He isn’t supposed to make mistakes, and moving is one. Steve's ears are just as sharp as his, and it is a sound he would not have missed. What a failure he must be—he is supposed to be able to be still-still-still for hours, days if the mission or a handler calls for it. Failure—useless, the worst thing he could ever be.

Steve's knock comes quiet on the closet door. "Buck, you in there?”

His voice is low and hearing it sends Bucky spinning off into a rush of relief, and he does not not know why. Disappointing Steve is far worse than disappointing his handlers, but Steve does not sound disappointed. He sounds—relieved. Bucky makes a tiny, affirmative noise.

“Is it alright if I open the door?” Steve says.

Bucky breathes deep and tries to remember how to make his mouth form words. “Please.”

Bucky is huddled up behind the neat row of Steve’s slacks, so small Steve might have missed him if Steve didn’t know he was there—something that should be impossible for a man who is two-hundred-odd pounds of muscle and deadly steel.

Steve sits down cross-legged on the floor. “Nightmare?”

Bucky looks down.

“It’s alright, I get them, too,” says Steve. He hasn’t talked about the nightmares—he’s sure his friends know all about them, but it’s another thing to say those kinds of things aloud. Bucky is different, though—Bucky is the person to whom Steve could always say anything (except for the one thing).

Doubt flickers across Bucky’s handsome face.

“They were worse,” says Steve, “before I had you back.”

Something like hope colors Bucky’s expression, and he says, “Really?”

“Yes, really,” Steve says, reaching out (he is careful and slow, but he still sees Bucky bite back on a reflexive flinch).

Bucky stares at Steve’s hand for a long while, as if he isn’t quite sure what taking it might mean, but he inches closer a bit at a time. When he grabs on, there is nothing uncertain about his grip. Bucky holds on like Steve is his lifeline.

And if Steve were ever going to learn caution, it would be for him, but caution isn't what's called for—not in this moment. Steve helps Bucky up, and then into his arms. Touching him could only be right. With a whole life spent in each other's pockets, boundaries lacking between them, how could it be anything else?

Bucky stiffens, and Steve panics. His instincts must have steered him wrong, and this isn't like last time, when curling around Bucky's shivering body in the bedrolls they would press together kept Bucky from shaking right into pieces those impossibly long nights after Zola tore him to shreds on that table. This is seventy years of ice and of death, and of who the hell even knows what else, and how could Steve think —

The impossibly long moment passes, and Bucky sags against Steve, every muscle slack with relief. He buries his face in the crook of Steve's neck.

“It’s okay,” Steve tells him. That cannot be true. Bucky’s memories are gone, and someone ripped out all of his light and replaced it with all of this terror. “It’s going to be okay,” Steve amends.

Bucky got Steve through what must have been a dozen cold winters; he saved Steve from what must have been a hundred fights in a hundred alleys and across a hundred battlefields. Steve is going to get him through this.

Steve pulls Bucky closer, and his own pulse quickens at the contact. That isn’t right—Bucky is far too vulnerable for Steve to even think about the kinds of things that once consumed him—but his heart doesn’t know any better. With Bucky so near, it cannot help but beat faster.

Pressed against Steve, Bucky feels like nothing bad could ever possibly happen—a ridiculous delusion whose name and existence he had forgotten up until this very moment. Safe—Bucky feels safe, breathing even, pulse low, like he could just curl up and stay.

He wonders if it’s like this for Steve, too, if Steve feels that same sense of shelter, but when he listens for Steve’s heart, he finds it racing.

The feeling of his own heart sinking is nothing new—pain and disappointment and fear have been his companions for a long time now. Of course Steve is afraid of him. Everyone should be afraid of him.

Bucky thinks of pulling away—that would be right—but Steve’s hand shifts, and runs up and down his back. Bucky makes a sound. He can’t pull away from this, not any more than he could have turned away the food Steve gave him when Steve took him from that alley, small, animal body starving.

This isn’t like disobeying an order, but he still feels wrong—like he should be punished, like he should turn himself in for discipline before someone else does it for him. (The punishments were always less, when he reported the infractions himself).

“You should get more sleep,” Steve says, and Bucky stiffens at the thought of leaving him for an empty bed.

“No, no,” Steve says, “I’ll come to bed with you. We’ll share like we—we always used to share when we were kids—bigger than kids, even, on cold nights.”

Bucky should tell him no. Steve’s heart is like a drum. But he lets Steve lead him back to bed by the hand, lets Steve curl around him, pull him warm and close and wrap him up in the covers that smell like Steve’s skin.

Secure in Steve’s arms, he cannot make his mouth move to take away the feeling. He thinks of one word, drifting into something like a peaceful sleep, ‘Starving.’

Steve wakes up in a warm golden glow, fresh from the best sleep he’s had since he can remember. Bucky is wrapped up in Steve’s arms, and a tangle of blankets, which, in his unconscious state, he has somehow dragged away from Steve while simultaneously burrowing closer. Steve smiles so hard he feels like his face might crack.

Bucky’s eyes are open and alert a moment later, like he sensed the change in Steve’s breathing.

“Morning,” Steve says. He doesn’t recognize the sound of his own voice; after the train, and the ice, and all those lonely days, it has never been so happy.

“Morning,” Bucky echoes. His eyes are somewhere very far away already, but he comes home when Steve strokes his hair, sighing into the sensation. His eyes flutter shut with the pleasure instead.

This is selfish. This is the most selfish thing Steve has ever done. Bucky doesn’t know him, doesn’t know them, can have no idea how Steve feels. They are curled up in bed, morning soft, Steve’s hands tracing sweet patterns in Bucky’s hair, on Bucky’s skin, and Steve is so in love his heart might burst with it. This is everything, and Bucky doesn’t know.

Steve vows, in that moment, light pouring in through the crack in the curtain, the heavy cross of guilt on his back—its sour taste on his tongue ruining all this perfection—that he will tell Bucky. As soon as Bucky is well enough to hear the words and to understand them, Steve will say them, and the consequences are of no consequence at all. He’s carried this too long, and if he could say it to a dog, he can say it to his best friend.

‘I love you,’ he practices mouthing the words, lips just an inch away from Bucky’s temple. This will be the greatest leap Steve’s ever taken, and he’s got to train for it.

Bucky’s stomach growls, and the sound pulls Steve out of his thoughts. His own hunger is suddenly pressing, but nowhere near as important as the idea of Bucky experiencing any trace of hunger at all. Steve allows himself to luxuriate in their bout of morning cuddling for just a minute longer, even seconds ticking in his head.

Steve pulls away.

The forlorn look that Bucky tries to hide—every inch the kicked puppy—almost sends Steve crawling back, but he can hear his friends outside the door, stirring.

“I’m gonna make breakfast,” Steve says.

The hurt on Bucky’s face softens. Steve reaches out to take his hand, curls their fingers together for a quick, comforting squeeze. Now that Steve has started touching him, it is impossible to stop. It’s just as well—this will all be taken away when Steve tells him, and this is the kind of thing a guy’s got to enjoy while it lasts.

“Do you wanna eat outside with everyone, or should I bring you breakfast in bed?” Steve asks him. Either way is good. Either way, Steve can pamper Bucky a little, see him surrounded by warmth. Steve wants that for him, wants every good thing.

Bucky looks at him, blinks like he’s been startled.

Steve realizes he was not expecting a choice. There must have been perilous few of those for him in the last seventy years. It is a morning for promises, because Steve swears then and there that he will do all that he can to fill Bucky's life with little options.

"Here, please," Bucky says, a little bit shy.

Steve pushes a strand of hair out of Bucky's face. "I'll be back soon, okay?"

The smile Steve gets in return is faint, but it is there.

Nothing could compare to that smile, but the vista in the living room is something else sweet. Natasha is curled up small at the prime vantage point—clear view of both the front and the bedroom door, but presently, her face is buried in a decorative throw pillow. Sharon is theatrical when she sleeps, limbs splayed and hair fanned out, messy, and she’s got one eye cracked open, and a foot digging into Sam’s thigh from an inexplicable distance. Sam is out like a log, clearly enjoying his night on the wood floor. Dr. Strange is already awake, laying on the couch, reading.

Steve’s home—and his life—is full of people, new friends and near-strangers, the kind of people willing to set everything aside to fight the good fight. Between all of them, and Bucky resting in his bed, Steve’s got things that he hasn’t even dared to hope for in this new century, and in that moment, it feels like a family might soon be one of them.

Steve has gotten used to cooking in large quantities to appease his own superhuman appetite. It is easy enough to scale that up for a group. As Steve works, the apartment starts filling up with voices.

Sam walks into the kitchen, still bleary-eyes from sleep, and picks up a spatula to start helping without so much as a word. He is more talkative after Sharon takes over manning the coffee machine, and presses a steaming mug into his hands.

Natasha walks in on silent feet and then examines the growing stack of pancakes and the enormous bowl of beaten eggs that are about to go into a sizzling pan, and says, "You're doing it wrong! You want to cook the eggs at a low temperature, so they're creamy," and once she's satisfied that the correct adjustments have been made, she attacks Steve's fruit bowl with a knife.

Dr. Strange comes in and says something about “too many cooks in the kitchen,” and offers to do the washing up after, the picture of politeness.

Once all the food is ready, before he serves himself—before he serves anyone else—Steve puts together a tray for Bucky, portioning it out the way he would for himself, with extra, just in case, and carries it to the bedroom, hoping fervently that there will still be food left when he returns.

Steve finds Bucky laying in bed, exactly as Steve left him, watching the wall. Steve brings the tray over. “You ready for breakfast?”

Bucky looks up, and smiles, beaming, his eyes and his smile so bright that it takes Steve’s breath away, just for a second. “All of that is for me?” Bucky says.

Steve sets the tray on his lap. “Yeah, all for you.”

And it is terrible that Bucky is looking at a large meal like it is a rare gift, but in that moment, all that matters to Steve is that he is happy.

Steve spends longer than he should watching Bucky eat. Bucky looks up at him for approval, every so often, and that breaks his heart, but whenever Steve smiles, Bucky smiles back. It keeps him long enough that Steve is almost certain that he’s going to have to cook himself a fresh batch of food.

But when he finally makes it back to the kitchen, there is a plate piled high with food already made up for him, covered by a pan lid to keep it warm, a bowl of the cut fruit right beside it. Steve feels something uncurl in his chest. He doesn’t know whom to thank, so he thanks everyone.

For what is quite possibly the first time since he forced that plane down into the ice, Steve is truly, completely grateful to be alive.

“So,” Sharon says.

“So,” Sam echoes.

Breakfast has been eaten and digested, and everyone is gathered in the living room.

Natasha is staring at her painted toes, and Dr. Strange looks vaguely pleased with himself. Steve still doesn’t know how one person could have possibly done all the dishes so fast. He’s pretty sure the mug that Strange is sipping tea from used to have a chip.

“I guess we’ve still got an evil organization to take down,” Steve says.

Natasha looks up. “And a murderous version of me on the loose.”

“You might want some help with that,” a new voice says.

Everyone jumps.

Maria Hill climbs in through Steve’s window.

Natasha goes for her gun. Sharon does, too.

“Relax,” Maria says. “With the good doctor’s charms, if I was a baddie, I wouldn’t be able to find you anyway."

The weapons come down.

"Now that we're done with that, there's someone else you might like to see."

Nick Fury’s got a sling on his arm, and contusions all over his face. He’s favoring the left side of his body, and he needs to be helped through the window.

Steve is glad that he’s alive—glad not to have lost yet another person—but nothing he feels is comparable to the emotions playing out across Natasha’s face.

Her eyes are bright with relief and joy and so much sorrow and betrayal that Steve can hardly stand to keep looking. Natasha is always so good at keeping things hidden, and now it’s all there, for anyone to see.

Steve is not nearly good enough of a person to be able to turn away.

Steve and the other people outside are planning. They’re talking about HYDRA, and they’re talking about Pierce.

He knows those names. He knows those things. Those are the things that he belongs to—belonged to, before he was Steve’s.

Bucky looks down at his arm. He could destroy everybody in the next room over, go back for extraction, like he was always supposed to do, in the event of separation from his handlers. Except—that’s not what Bucky wants to do. ‘Want,’ an unheard of concept for living weapon, by all means he should not be able to comprehend it at all, but he does.

Bucky wants to be with Steve. Bucky wants to help.

Some soft clothes are laid out on Steve’s bed, next to him. He puts them on.

He walks outside, into the room.

All of the talking stops, and all eyes turn to him. “I want to help,” he says. “I want to help you.”

It takes Hill a moment to look from Bucky’s hair, to the bright metal of his arm, and then she’s got her gun out and pointed at him. But Steve is faster than she is, and he positions himself between Bucky and the weapon.

“The Winter Soldier is in your house, Captain Rogers. I’m going to have to ask you to step aside,” Hill says. She turns her head towards Fury, one eye still on Bucky, her gun-arm steady. “I thought this guy was a myth.”

“We’re in a room full of living legends,” Fury says.

Hill rolls her eyes. “Captain Rogers, step aside.”

“With all due respect, Deputy Director Hill, I can’t do that,” Steve says. Steve does a quick headcount of the room; all familiar warmth aside, Sam is the only person in the room Steve knows will choose his side over Fury and Hill, if it comes down to that. Steve would really, really prefer that it didn’t come down to that.

Fury raises an eyebrow at that. “What’s more interesting to me, Maria, is the why. Why is Captain America protecting the legendary assassin in his house?”

“Man,” Sam chimes in, “remember your history books, and look at his face.”

“Who is this guy?” Hill asks, giving Sam a sideways glance.

“This is Sam Wilson,” Steve says, “he works at the VA—and that is Bucky Barnes. I’m gonna to have to ask you to put the weapon down, Deputy Director.”

“Be reasonable, Cap,” says Fury. “This could be a HYDRA trick.”

Steve swallows. He looks back over his shoulder for just a heartbeat. Bucky is very still, and his eyes are huge. Steve needs to reassure him, but he can’t do that until the gun is out of the picture. “He isn’t a HYDRA trick. I know Bucky. I know him better than anyone.”

“He’s right, you know,” Dr. Strange chimes in. “Sergeant Barnes has a very distinct aura.”

“Aura?” Hill says, with a scoff. “He was an assassin. A very good one.”

“Are we holding that against people now?” asks Natasha. “Because if we are, I —”

Hill cuts her off. “You’re on our side.”

“And Bucky’s on mine—he always has been,” Steve says.

Hill looks to Fury with a sigh, and he gives her the nod. The gun goes down. Steve waits and watches for a moment, just so he knows its safe, before turning all his focus back to Bucky. Everyone in the room may as well have disappeared, the way people tend to do for Steve, when Bucky needs him.

Bucky’s got misery coming out of every pore—his mouth curled down, and his shoulders hunched in. Seeing him like that, it cuts Steve to the bone.

“They’re right. I’m dangerous,” Bucky says, his voice very small.

Steve puts a hand on his shoulder. “I’m dangerous, too. So’s everybody here.”

Bucky looks down.

“The important part is being dangerous for the right people. You wanted to help. You’re dangerous to HYDRA, to the people we’re after—the people who hurt you,” Steve says.

Bucky’s eyes meet his again. Until that moment, Steve hadn’t realized how close they were standing. Bucky’s expression is pure trust; he is hanging on to Steve’s every word. “Okay,” Bucky says, “okay.”

Steve pulls him into a tight hug, drawing Bucky’s body against his own, protective. Suddenly, he is keenly aware of the five pairs of eyes boring into his back. He doesn’t care. The only thing that matters is the way Bucky melts into the embrace.

“Well, that wasn’t in the history books,” Fury says.

Hill says, “I dunno, the one-man rescue mission sort of tipped me off. When you’re done there, Cap—we’ve got intel.”

Bucky’s face is tucked into the crook of Steve’s neck, and nothing anybody says could ever matter.

Bucky has been briefed before, of that he is certain, but it was never anything like this. The plan forms around him, and he sits silent on the couch, where Steve led him, as has always been expected of him. Except—Steve looks to Bucky for an opinion whenever he speaks; Steve asks Bucky, “What do you think, Buck?” and, “Are you alright with that?” and Bucky can do nothing but nod in stunned silence.

No, this is nothing like before.

Bucky doesn’t hear a word of what anyone else’s role will be—he has not been trained to listen for that. He will go with Steve—of that, there was never any question.

“Are you sure?” Steve asks Natasha. She could go with Sharon, go with Nick. Steve knows, first hand, how hard it is to let someone who you thought you’d lost forever out of your sight. “Bucky and I have gone up against worse odds, and we’ve got Sam this time. You could be on Team Spy.” She could find out how her powers of stealth work with Strange’s...well, powers. She’d fit well in any part of the plan.

Natasha shakes her head. “I have to be where Yelena is,” and that is the end of the discussion.

Steve has felt responsible before. He knows the way that it comes first.

“Three days,” Steve tells her. “You’ll be ready?”

Natasha’s mouth curls into a sideways smile, and she says nothing. People are very rarely ready to face the past, with all its left-behinds, and should-have-beens, all of its guilts and all of its regrets, and Natasha has been running from her past for a very long time.

Steve doesn’t know what that is like. He’s carried his past like a load of bricks on his back since the ice.

At least, Steve thinks, Natasha is the sort of person who must have tried to prepare.

Bucky falls asleep that night with Steve’s arms wrapped around his waist. The nightmares still find him. He wakes up to Steve’s voice, pitched low and soothing; the words are incomprehensible through the static of fear. Everything is slow, like moving under water. It feels like hours before he recognizes a single word—his name.

Later, lying with his head on Steve’s chest, his ear pressed to the drum of Steve’s heart, Steve’s big hands running down his back, Bucky cannot remember the dream.

All he remembers is staring at Steve over the barrel of a gun.

The nightmares are like that, every night, for the next three nights. He spends the time when they are not planning pressed up against Steve’s side, or wrapped up in his arms. Now that the touch, the warmth—all that affection—has been offered to him, Bucky cannot turn it away. He went so long without, and those years of absence press him now.

He can feel Steve’s breath hitch every time Steve pulls him closer. Steve is so kind to give Bucky so much, despite his fear. Bucky does not think that any other person would.

Steve is right to be afraid, and the dreams are just another glaring reminder.

“We ready to go?” Sam asks, the morning of.

Steve tells him, “No, we’re not. Soldiers wear uniforms,” and they go to steal theirs together.

The blue coat is an awkward fit over the metal of his arm. He did not have the arm before, when he wore it, but that’s not what makes it awkward. He’s not the man who it belonged to, not anymore, and part of it feels like a lie, but —

“Are you sure you’re okay with —?” Steve asks. His eyes are very large, and very bright; his mouth, curled into an almost-smile. He looks—he looks like he’s gotten back something precious and lost.

“It goes with yours,” Bucky tells him, and then the sudden thought strikes, “unless you don’t want —” Because why would Steve want the two of them to go together, when Bucky is —

“No,” says Steve, his almost-smile deepening into something blinding. “It’s perfect.”

The thing is, it all starts out going reasonably well.

Maria gets into position, and Sharon infiltrates the building, just the way she and Natasha planned when they were laying on Steve’s living room floor exchanging spy stories.

The first two helicarriers go down easy, new cards locked in place. Natasha and Sam take one; Steve and Bucky take the other. It’s natural, fighting with this team—more natural, still, fighting with Bucky by his side, the way he always was, seventy years and a hundred alley scraps ago.

When Sam drops Natasha on the last helicarrier, Yelena is waiting. Natasha is all calm on the comms when she says Yelena’s name, but Steve knows a call for backup when he hears one.

He radios Sam for a ride, and Sam is airborne, but then Steve hears this static, and Sam’s offline, and for a moment Steve is on a mountain seventy years ago, snow instead of static, hopeless to stop his friend falling.

Except this time Sam’s comm comes back online a moment later. “Bad Widow took out my wings with an EMP. I’m grounded.” Sam is frantic and shaken and sorry, but safe.

“That’s alright, Bucky and I can find our own way,” Steve says, “isn’t that right, Buck?”

Bucky is the one who leaps first, fearless and powerful, and Steve follows. They’re one another’s equal now, enhanced bodies evenly matched the way they never got the chance to be before.

Making his way up the side of the helicarrier, Steve feels like they could be kids climbing a tree again, in a world where climbing a tree didn’t invariably end with Steve wheezing or falling.

To say that Natasha and Yelena are fighting when Steve and Bucky get there would be an understatement, and a terrible disservice.

They’re like two ballerinas locked in gladiatorial combat—graceful and gorgeous, athletic, acrobatic, and deadly as hell. Steve has fought dirty and rough his whole life. Even after he learned all the right ways, he still counted on all those back-alley scraps to guide him. The two of them are all training. No effort is wasted, and every blow is calculated, gunning for the kill.

Steve stops watching. He’s got a card, and they have got a mission. Yelena’s got her hands full with Natasha, and she won’t keep Steve from setting up the helicarriers to fall, not with Bucky watching his back.

The thing is, it starts out going just as well as things could be.

The Widows have their fight, and Bucky’s got one job—helping Steve to finish his. As the asset all he ever was, was loyalty and focus, and he’s got both of those things in spades right now, but they mean a hundred times more than they ever did, those times when he was compelled to give them, no will of his own.

Choice, he is finding, gives everything meaning.

He does not envy the other Widow, the one that is not theirs. Bucky knows what someone looks like when they’ve been twisted up. He wonders if they ever worked together.

Everybody’s got their job, but the other Widow stops hers. She sidesteps a blow from Natasha, and then she looks at him, her expression a sort of predatory pity, like a wild thing stalking prey too vulnerable to leave so much as a scratch in self-defense.

When she presses a button on the small device in her hand, and the recorded voice says the words, Natasha flies at her, and brings her down with a keenly-placed hit, but it’s too late. They cannot be shoved back into the machine. “Возле реки, крассный снег,” the recording says, and it is once, but the phrase echoes over and over in Bucky’s head.

It takes him down to the ground for a moment, vision blurring as his eyes roll back into his head.

Steve follows him down, concerned voice just a muted, underwater echo.

Bucky cannot tell him to get away—get to safety. His mouth will not open, will not form so much as a one-syllable word.

“The Captain is back,” says the automated voice that the asset fears above all the others. The automated voice cannot touch the asset by itself, but it can always make someone else cause the asset pain. That is not reason enough to fear something—plenty of things hurt, but this one is special, and the asset does not know why. The not-knowing scares him, too.

“We’ve got nothing to worry about,” says the man, the one whose voice delivers all the asset’s orders. “Even if they must cross paths, the asset wouldn’t know him. And we both know where the asset’s loyalties lie. Isn’t that right?”

The question is for the asset, but the asset is not supposed to answer. Outside of mission parameters and mission reports, the asset does not speak.

"All the same," says the automated voice, "one can never be too cautious. You have not seen the...depth of their devotion.”

“I’ve read my history books,” the man says.

“But I lived them.”

“What are you proposing?”

“A safety protocol. A means of regaining control of the asset, should the asset..fall into the wrong hands.”

Programming the safety protocol means being strapped into the machine, and it’s like boiling alive, the same as always. He shakes and he froths, and when it is all done, the asset slumps in the restraints, limp and obedient.

“It’s for your own good,” the man—the asset’s handler—says. The asset believes him. There is no other thing to do.

“Bucky,” Steve says. He is frantic. Bucky is on the ground, convulsing, jaw clenched and eyes shut tight, and he’s not responding to anything at all. They need to replace the card—there are lives at risk, and there’s a rogue Black Widow on the premises, and Natasha can only do so much alone—but Steve can’t leave Bucky like this.

“Buck,” Steve says, stroking Bucky’s cheek. He’s cold to the touch, and what did they do—what did they do to him? Steve feels around for Bucky’s pulse. “Come on, Buck. Come on. You’ve gotta wake up for me.”

Bucky’s eyes flash open as if on cue.

“Bucky?”

Bucky does not respond to his name. Steve is still touching him and he does not seem to notice that, either.

What happens next comes in a heartbeat, almost too fast to register, but it feels nightmare-slow. Bucky’s metal hand wraps around Steve’s wrist, moves Steve’s hand away from his face, and then slams it down against the floor, pinning Steve there. He sits up like a creature in a monster flick, purposeful movement without inflection, a marionette being pulled by its strings. His voice is flat and his face shows no emotion when he says, “Who the hell is Bucky?”

“Bucky,” is all Steve can manage to say, and his voice sounds choked and broken-off even to his own ears.

Bucky comes at him like a train, after that. The blows land in rapid succession, each one of them like a ton of bricks—because of the force behind them, but also because these are the hands that cared for Steve and protected him all those years, and they are hitting him now. Steve cannot even bring himself to dodge. The shield is on his back, trapped underneath him.

“Rogers!” he hears Natasha scream. “Steve! You have to fight!” She’s got her fingers wrapped around Yelena’s wrist, desperately pushing to keep the point of a knife away from her neck.

Natasha’s got her own deathmatch and she’s taking time out of it to worry for him, and that snaps Steve out of his haze. Someone’s got to get the card in place, and Natasha is otherwise occupied.

When Bucky throws the next punch, Steve moves out of the way.

Striking metal instead of Steve only enrages him further. Bucky comes back hard, and Steve blocks. He’s gonna have to hit back—there’s no way around it, but the thought of hurting Bucky when so much has already been done to him—“Buck,” Steve says. It’s a plea. “Don’t make me do this.”

“I’m not Bucky,” he spits out, and well, Steve didn’t think that was going to work anyway.

He braces himself, in both senses of the word, and gets ready for a throw. Once the cards are exchanged, he can focus on Bucky. Right now—Steve’s gotta save the world.

Bucky goes down, if only for a beat, and Steve springs to his feet and tries not to wince at the thought of Bucky feeling any pain. They are both of them super-soldiers, and they can take this fight. Steve focuses on his objective. He gets the shield off his back.

Bucky launches himself at Steve the moment he’s back off the ground. The blows rain down fast and unflinching, and Steve realizes that he’s never really fought an equal before. Schmidt was too hopped-up on megalomania to really count, but Bucky is well-trained and vicious. It takes all that he’s got to parry and block.

Bucky always had a knack at hand-to-hand. His dad taught him young, and he honed his skills saving Steve’s ass over and over. The Winter Soldier—because that’s who Steve is fighting here, not Bucky Barnes—is that part of Bucky, condensed and refined, all of his skill and then some, but none of his kindness.

The warm boy Steve loves, who was so willing to trust, even after being held captive for seventy years of who the hell even knows what, is not here, and that fact makes Steve angry enough to put his back into the fight. If Steve doesn’t win, there won’t be anyone left to keep Bucky from falling back into the hands of the people who hurt him, and that’s the only reason Steve can stand to touch him with violence.

In retrospect, Steve should have probably seen the knife coming. As it stands, he notices it quick enough that it doesn’t wind up in his heart—it’s a glancing blow to his shoulder, a sharp prick of pain, and the hot rush of blood that follows.

Steve grabs Bucky’s wrist to try and wrestle the weapon free, and hazards a look at Natasha. She’s got her thighs locked around Yelena’s neck and Yelena is writhing, lashing out and spitting out curses in Russian.

Bucky’s knife clatters to the ground, but Steve gets a metal elbow to the ribs in the process of wedging it loose. The impact is a bit like being struck by a car and Steve is winded for just a moment, which is time enough for Bucky to grab him by the throat.

Bucky’s got the right idea, Steve thinks, as he’s hoisted into the air, clawing at unforgiving metal fingers as they whir into place. Cutting off Bucky’s air for a bit would be a good way of getting him down without hurting him too badly. It’s useful that Steve knows how to stay calm when he cannot breathe—there’s something almost nostalgic about the feeling.

Steve twists to kick Bucky in the stomach, hits the metal arm with the sharp edge of the shield, then uses that moment and that momentum to wrench away the hand around his neck. There is no time to suck down grateful gulps of air. His heart is pounding in his ears.

“I don’t wanna hurt you, Buck,” Steve says—a last hail mary plea. He promised. He promised Bucky that he was safe, that nobody would hurt him again. Steve promised to protect him.

Bucky just surges forward, oblivious to all of Steve’s promises.

Steve turns his momentum back against him, throws him down, and then follows him onto the ground. He presses his knee into Bucky’s chest and his arm against Bucky’s throat. Nothing has ever been harder to do. Bucky fights with everything he’s got, struggling for his life—like Steve would actually take it from him and jesus, that hurts, the way he doesn’t know—Steve does not ease off until Bucky is still.

Leaving Bucky’s side when he is down is hard. Every bone in Steve’s body calls to stay close, to make sure he’s okay. But Steve checks his pulse, checks his breathing, and then goes to do his job. Bucky won’t be out long.

The card clicks into place.

Natasha and Yelena are still fighting, twin forces of nature, still on even ground, but the moment the card goes in, it’s like Natasha kicks into high gear. She tells Yelena something in Russian, and then Yelena throws her head back and laughs.

Natasha plunges a knife into her throat.

Steve watches Natasha shudder as Yelena goes down, quiet and almost imperceptible except to someone who knows her, like she’s in a waking nightmare she’s always known was going to come true.

“Maria,” she says, “we need extraction.”

“Chopper’s coming for you,” Hill says. “Rogers, you ready?”

Steve looks at Bucky, who is rising from the place Steve left him sprawled. “No,” says Steve. “I’m not.”

“Steve, we have to—“

“I know.”

Natasha stops in her tracks. “Steve, you have to get out.”

“Not without him,” Steve says. He wants to laugh, echoing long-ago words that no one but him remembers anymore, but he means it. Steve would rather die with Bucky than keep going and know that he left Bucky to go down alone.

Natasha looks at him, anguished. She does not say anything more at all, and then the chopper is gone, and it’s just Bucky and Steve—the two of them, alone together once again. The helicarriers begin fulfilling their new imperative of taking each other out of the sky, explosions happening in brilliant bursts of sound and color.

Bucky’s got his gun up.

Steve drops the shield. “I’m not gonna go down fighting you, Buck. We’re on the same side.”

“You’re the enemy,” Bucky says. It’s only the second time he’s spoken. His voice is hollow and cold.

Steve shakes his head, standing resolute. This is the most absurd moment in a life that’s been full of them. “You’re my best friend, Bucky. And I’m yours.”

The shot that Bucky takes is clean and steady, even with the world falling down around them. It hits Steve in the flesh of his upper arm. Bucky doesn't miss, and Steve smiles—Bucky doesn't miss, and that means Bucky does not want to kill him.

Bucky looks from Steve to his gun and back, horrified by this revelation. "You're lying!" he screams. It is a raw sound.

The helicarrier is coming down and coming apart with deafening groans, and the crunch of metal on metal. Steve wonders if they can survive this, but at least this time they are falling together.

"You know it's true, Buck. You know me, and you know you don't wanna do this."

Bucky lunges at him, the gun forgotten for the time being. He hits hard, and Steve does not dodge, does not hit back. He takes it, and when Bucky takes him down, sends him flying with a flawless uppercut, he climbs back to his feet.

Steve gets up over and over again. "I won't hurt you," he says, spitting blood. He is somewhat aware of his own pain, but it is a dull and distant roar. In this moment, it does not matter.

"Just stay down!" Bucky says, as Steve stumbles to his feet yet again.

"You know I can't do that, Buck,” Steve says. “You know I’ve never done that in my life.”

Bucky’s arm is shaking when he brings his gun up. “You’re lying. I don’t know you. I have to complete my mission; you’re just trying to stop me from completing my mission.”

He’s so close that Steve can reach out, take Bucky by the wrist, and steady his hand. So Steve does—he takes one small step forward, and then another, until the gun is pressed right up against his heart. “If this is what you need, Buck, pull the trigger.”

Bucky shakes harder.

There’s not much time. The helicarrier is going down, and if in their last moments Steve can give Bucky some peace, it will be worth it. Dying for him will be worth it, of that much, Steve is certain.

“I’m with you till the end of the line, Buck,” Steve says. He thinks that it will be alright, if the end of the line is here.

Bucky’s eyes go huge at those words—his words, from all those years ago. His mouth goes a little bit slack, and the gun falls out of his hands. It slides down and then away with the rest of the rubble. Bucky watches Steve, and watches him, with rapt, fascinated attention, like Steve is holding the key (to what? to everything?). This is it—he’s broken through, and maybe they’ll make it, and Steve will be able to unearth the part of Bucky that remembers.

He’s so absorbed by the moment, that it is a wonder Steve sees the glimmer of movement behind Bucky at all.

Yelena staggers to her feet, pale from blood-loss and unsteady amid the quaking spasms of the burning, breaking metal that was once keeping them in the sky.

“Failure,” she spits, as if it were a dirty word. “Кто послал собаку делать работу человека?”

There’s nothing unsteady about the way she wields her weapon, and Bucky is still staring at Steve, transfixed, as if he doesn’t even register her presence. If Steve pushes Bucky out of the way, he’ll probably fall, and Steve already let him fall once. He will not do it again.

It seems the universe has taken Steve’s willingness to die for Bucky at face value.

He leaps in front of the bullet. It’s the least that he can do.

It’s a high-caliber slug, and it hits Steve right at center mass. Steve knows that Yelena is sure to shoot again, and so he rushes her, bleeding. It turns out to be a waste of his effort—a beam comes down on her, hard, but not before she shoots one more time.

She’s no good with a moving target, and this time, the bullet hits Steve in the meat of his thigh. Steve’s sure it must have missed the artery. If he weren’t already hurt he’d be able to keep going, but blood is gushing from his chest. Steve knows the bullet’s not in his heart—his heart is standing right there, eyes wide, hanging on amid all the wreckage. When Steve falls to what is left of the floor, it crumbles underneath him.

It’s only a fair that he falls, this time around.

He’s been frozen on the spot since his mission, his enemy—no, not his enemy, not his enemy at all—told him those words. But with Steve—Steve, that is Steve, Steve whom he was just hurting, and Steve who just took a bullet that was meant for him, and how could he have ever forgotten—falling, frozen is no longer an option.

He does the only thing there is to do, and jumps down after.

It is not hard to find him in the water. The asset was trained to track prey, but for once, the motivation is his own. Swimming with Steve’s dead weight is harder—many parts of his body are malfunctioning from the fight, and perhaps from the impact of falling with rubble from the sky. It’s hard to register pain again in the wake of...being that—being the asset again. It’s hard to feel anything at all, but nothing he might feel could matter. It couldn’t even come close.

He hurt Steve. None of it matters but Steve. Steve was afraid of him, afraid for him, and Steve was right. Steve was right, because the moment HYDRA got near him he betrayed Steve, betrayed Steve, and allowed Steve to be hurt, when it should have been him. He should be the one bleeding from bullet wounds.

He drags Steve to solid ground and collapses onto the sand by his side. Water sputters from Steve’s mouth. He is breathing, ragged at first, like something old and long-ago, but then steadier. Steve is going to make it.

Steve has been secured, and will surely be discovered by allies. It means he can leave now, get away before he does more harm, but he cannot bring himself to go—not yet.

He sits there for a long time—not because he deserves to, he doesn’t deserve anything—but because Steve deserves better than to lie there alone, and because if Bucky is already bad, he may as well be selfish. This is the last time he will get to be so near to Steve, and he must soak up every breath.

The memories the trigger took from him are coming back, have been coming back—of the months when he knew nothing but a sweet blur of loyalty to this man, when he lived off Steve’s attention, and when Steve’s steadfast care helped push away his clawing fear; of the few, precious days he spent as a man again, always by Steve’s side, basking in Steve’s light and in Steve’s unconditional acceptance. It is a relief. He will need the memories in all the lonely, empty days to come.

Maybe some of the older memories, of being the Bucky from before, might come back, too, in time. He’s got a long road ahead of him, and he’s going to burn HYDRA to the ground. The memories will help. They will remind him why he is fighting.

There is fluid in his lungs. It’s an old sensation, and for just a moment, when Steve wakes up with Bucky sitting at his side, he’s in another time, another place.

The sensation of wet uniform plastered to his skin, and the bullet in his chest jerk him back into the present. “Bucky,” Steve gasps out.

Bucky stumbles to his feet. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry. I’m leaving.”

It’s like being shot all over again. “Why?” says Steve—and speaking is hard; it hurts, but he has to know. “Please.”

“I hurt you,” Bucky says. He sounds shell-shocked, like he can’t quite believe it himself. “I hurt you.”

“Wasn’t you, Buck. They gave you a trigger.” He sounds terrible and too quiet, even to his own ears, but he knows that Bucky will be able to hear.

Bucky shakes his head, pale and frantic. “You were scared of me, and it was—I was so selfish to stay, to keep letting you—you were scared, and then I made it come true, and I hurt you, and then she hurt you because of me. And it’s my fault. I need to go away.”

“What the hell are you talking about, Buck?” Steve says, biting back a wince. He can hardly believe how much Bucky is speaking.

Bucky blinks at him. “The helicarrier, I hurt you instead of helping with our mission. And you saved me anyway, even though I didn’t deserve it. I’m sorry—I’m sorry, and I’m leaving. I’ll be good, I promise. I’ll find HYDRA, and I’ll punish them, and I’ll be away from you, where I can’t hurt you at all—“

“Buck,” Steve says, “what on earth gave you the half-cocked idea that I was afraid of you?”

“Don’t lie,” Bucky tell him. “You were good at pretending, but it was your heart.”

“My heart?”

“Physiological signs of fear and distress,” says Bucky. “Increased heart rate, fast, irregular breathing. I know—I know what being scared is like.”

“Oh, Buck,” Steve says. His heart is beating fast now, and this time it really is because he’s afraid. His treacherous body—a whole lifetime, and a magic procedure, and it’s still finding ways to betray him.

“Goodbye, Steve,” Bucky says. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.”

Bucky’s going to walk away, or he’s going to shatter right in front of Steve’s eyes. Steve does not know which would be worse—either one is more than he could ever stand. There is no way around it, now. Bucky thinks that Steve has been lying, and the only thing that can help him now is telling Bucky the truth.

And well, Steve swore when he got Bucky back that he was going to say it, anyway—once Bucky was doing better, preferably somewhere in Brooklyn, in some way that was romantic without being too much—there would always have been an excuse. Bucky’s not ready, and Steve isn’t ready, but there is one thing that Steve can say to keep him from walking away.

“I love you, Bucky. That’s why my heart beats faster when you’re near me. That’s why I feel like I can’t breathe sometimes, when I look at you. It’s not ‘cause I’m scared—it’s ‘cause I’m in love with you. Have been, ever since we were kids.”

Steve does not expect the weight that saying the words lifts off his chest. Nearly a century of keeping a secret, and now it’s all out in the clear. The relief is shattering. Somewhere, very long ago, the boy who walked around Brooklyn carrying his love like a cross on his back, hiding that huge, boundless thing from the one person he always told everything, can stand up a little bit straighter, even with his crooked spine, and can take a clear breath, even with his weak, asthmatic lungs. That boy thought he’d burst with it, that he’d take it to his early grave, and that past Steve, just like the Steve who is now bleeding on the bank of the river, is free. He’s not carrying that secret another step longer.

The relief is compounded when instead of walking away, instead of running away in disgust, or falling to pieces, Bucky says, “Oh,” and sits down at Steve’s side once again, an unknowable expression on his handsome face.

Neither one of them speaks for a long time. “Thank you, Steve,” Bucky says after a while, “for saving me.”

“Right back atcha, Buck. I still owe you...like a hundred bullets, at least,” Steve says. He feels weightless and giddy—young, and who even knows the last time that happened?—so he throws his head back, and laughs. It hurts like hell, but it feels good, too, and the good outweighs the pain, the way that loving Bucky always has.

Natasha has her congressional hearings, and Sharon’s got the CIA. Fury is still playing dead, and Maria’s in New York. The cemetery is the first time Steve’s seen any of them besides Sam since he got out of the hospital, and it’s a strange place for a reunion. (Strange is nowhere to be seen, though Steve is pretty sure that doesn’t actually mean he isn’t present).

“So how about it,” says Fury. “Hill here’s gonna be my eyes and ears. Anybody wanna come cut off a few more of HYDRA’s heads with me in Europe?”

“We’ve got our own mission,” Steve says.

Bucky nods and gives him a small, sideways smile. He’s getting better a bit at a time, remembering things, but it’s by no means a smooth road. Steve is not about to concentrate on anything besides him.

Fury looks to Sam, who just says, “Nah, I’m their backup.”

It’s true. Sam has been there through everything, been a best friend to both of them, and Steve could spend the rest of his life trying to pay Sam back for it all, but he’d never come close.

Sharon laughs in his face. “One of us needs to stay on the right side of an intelligence agency, and I don’t think the CIA will take too kindly to me running off. Besides, my great aunt’s here.”

Sharon told Steve on the phone about the way that Pierce had tried to use Peggy’s legacy to keep Sharon from releasing the files, the way he asked her if she was willing to let her great aunt’s name be dragged through the mud—if she’d destroy what Peggy Carter had worked so hard building—and they’d laughed about it together. Steve knows, the way that Sharon had known, that releasing those files and burning SHIELD to the ground was proof that Peggy Carter’s legacy was alive and well, and standing right in front of Pierce’s smug face. Steve has been visiting Peggy more often, and one of these days, he thinks Bucky might even come with him.

“They didn’t find Yelena’s body,” Natasha says. “That means she’s alive.”

Now that the hearings are done, everybody knows where she is going.

“I wish I could help,” Steve says.

She just shrugs. “We’ve all got our missions.”

Steve pulls her into a hug. Natasha feigns protest, laughing, and when she wiggles free, she pulls something out of her bag, once again serious.

Natasha presses the folder into Bucky’s hands, and whispers in his ear. Steve hears her anyway, but he knows that she wouldn’t have spoken in English if she had not wanted him to. “It’s hard, seeing what was done to you all spelled out,” she says. “Let him help you through it. I wish I’d let someone help me.”

Bucky nods, solemn like they’re right back in Sunday school. They finish paying their fictitious respects at Fury’s empty grave.

Steve guides him through the museum, a warm and grounding hand on the small of his back. Bucky’s not good at crowds. They overwhelm him, make him want to disappear. But the way that Steve touches him, gentle and full of good things, is what reminds Bucky that he’s got to stay—they’re here for a reason.

He’s very careful not to miss a word, when they come to the exhibit. He gets distracted, sometimes, goes to far-away-and-long-ago places, and loses the present. This is far too important for that. He’s already lost these things before, and if he lets them fly in through one ear and out of the other, he might never have them again.

Steve told him that it was okay, that the recording repeats, and that they can stay as long as they need to, but Bucky wants to get it right. He wants to do it once.

They wind up staying long enough to hear the audio play through eight times, but it’s not because Bucky misses a thing. It’s the faces of all their old friends; it’s his past and his name, real and written-down, where no one can take them away; and most of all, it’s that recording of their young selves—him and Steve, so happy and bright that he can’t even take it, can’t look, but can’t look away. They glow with each other, for one another, and Bucky has never seen himself in love from the outside before, plain and clear as the bright, sunlit day, but he knows that’s what it is—even though he’s been struggling to figure out what love means, and if it is something that he can feel, too.

“What’s being in love like?” he says, in a whisper so quiet that only Steve would be able to hear, walking out of the museum, when he has had time to start processing the things he has seen.

“Well,” Steve says, and the question has made a dark cloud draw over him.

Bucky does not like when that happens—if he had his way, that would never happen again.

“Being in love is hard to explain. It’s—when a person—“ Steve takes a deep, determined breath. They’ve agreed that there’s no point in pretending that he does not know how Steve feels. “When I’m with you, Buck, it’s like a light goes on. I feel warm inside. Happy. When you’re hurt, I hurt, and I never want you to feel that way ever again. It feels like I’d do anything to stop it—you hurting. It feels like I wanna share all the good things with you, and keep you safe from all of the bad ones. But even the bad stuff is better with you.”

Steve looks pained, and for once Bucky still cannot help smiling. It feels like all of the pieces have clicked into place.

“It hurts sometimes, too, but it’s the kind of hurt you wanna keep feeling,” says Steve, “‘that make sense?”

Bucky leans into Steve’s hand, still resting at the small of his back. “Yeah,” he says. “Yeah, I think it does.”

Steve shelters him the whole trip home, and Bucky mulls it all over. It’s a warm day, beautiful and clear—it feels idyllic, the way the past must have been, before flashbacks and nightmares, when it was just him and Steve, unencumbered by years of war and torture and blood, by the heavy weight of all the things in Bucky’s file. It feels like there’s a future, stretched out like a long road in front of him, full of promise, and his for the taking.

The people in the movies they watch always seem to time these things, to say the words in the most dramatic ways and the most meaningful places, but Bucky cannot make himself wait.

He cannot make Steve wait, either.

They’re just outside their apartment building, on an unremarkable patch of sidewalk that Bucky has come to associate with concepts like ‘safety,’ and ‘home.’ Bucky takes a breath, turns to Steve, and says the words he could have spoken the minute he turned back from a dog into something he’d been taught was less than human, if only he’d understood exactly what they meant; he says the the words he could have said two hours or three days ago, or seventy years, if the way he lit up next to Steve in that video was any indication—probably even before that, if what he can cobble together from his scraps of memory holds true, the way those words would always have been.

Bucky turns to Steve, and says, “Hey. Hey, Steve, I love you, too.”