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Lonely for the Future

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The London motel room might as well be from 1944.

Steve might remember the exact wallpaper the war. The bed sags in the middle with a melancholy limpness. The clock on the bedside table, mechanical, not digital, still ticks on loudly but too slow, always the wrong time. Unable to catch up.

He rents it for the night to heal up. It won't take long, just a few hours to fix the bruised ribs, to stop the throb in his shoulder from where Sam slammed it back into place. But six months sleeping in motels and cars takes its toll. Still, they've wrung Europe dry of every bit of information they could. So Sam's got a meeting with Agent Hill who just goes by Maria now. She'll secure transportation and in the morning they'll be headed for the States again.

He hears the bathroom window slip open. It's a knife through the silence.

"I've seen you use doors, Nat. I know you know how," Steve calls out.

His bruised ribs protest against the strain of speech. His shoulder doesn't appreciate it much either. He dislocated it two hours earlier, tangling with some Hydra agents in a warehouse. Afterward, Sam did what he could, but the soreness still lingered.

Her boots click against the tile floor.

"And I'd think you'd know two against twenty's lousy odds, but here we are."

"Sam told you?"

"In embarrassing detail." She drops onto the second bed. "I can only stay until morning."

"You didn't need to come at all," he says, but backs up when she arches an eyebrow at the broken state of his body, "not that I'm not happy to see you. God. You have no idea."

Steve's entire life has been a tidy, terrible ebb and flow. Just as everything comes together for a brief, bright, supernova of a moment, it's all ripped apart with violent enthusiasm. He gains and loses in such rapid succession, it's a shock he hasn't gotten whiplash.

Just like D.C., rebuilding his life. Forging connections. Bucky. Bucky was the high-wire act of it all, the way Steve's life balanced on the fine point of him. The unstoppable relief of seeing him again, so unexpectedly, so alive. The devastation at what he'd been made. The frantic teetering back and forth.

But Steve Rogers is built on a scaffolding of hope and longing. Even as he dropped to his knees on the bridge, allowed himself in to Hydra custody, even then he knew he could save Bucky, save him a second time, and maybe this time it would stick.

Then SHIELD had collapsed.

He clears his throat. "We were close in Prague," he says.

Natasha makes a soft noise of understanding.

"Just two days behind. We thought we might find him here. But the leads brought us to another Hydra cell instead. It was like he wanted us to find it, Nat."

She nods, thoughtful. "He's probably on the other side of the globe by now."

Steve snorts a laugh that tugs at the tender, healing tissue around his ribs. "Comforting. Thanks."

She shrugs and rises from the bed. One step and she is beside him, lowering herself onto the mattress. She rests her head on his good arm. He curls it around her shoulders.

"Come on, Rogers, tell me you don't find that encouraging."

"Enlight me," he says, dragging his fingers through her hair. It's longer now, softly curled.

"He's been avoiding your little dynamic duo for the past eight months without a problem. You and Sam show up a week late, clean up the mess of Hydra bodies before leaving town, only to turn up too late to the station again. But this time, he practically scribbles his number on a bar napkin for you. He might not want you to find him yet, but he's happy share his to-do list with you."

"So, he's using us?"

"Trusting you. Maybe he knows you're his ally, Steve."

"Maybe."

Natasha rests her hand on his chest, but pulls back at the sharp breath hissing past his teeth.

"You are the worst substitute caretaker in the history of ever."

She smiles against his clavicle. "When Sam gets back from his 'not-meeting' with 'not-Agent' Hill, I'll be sure to tell him you
called him your caretaker."

She cranes her neck to press a soft kiss to his jawline. Then his chin. Then his mouth. It lingers for a moment, then she tucks herself
back against his side. "Is this okay for the night?"

Steve nods but doesn't speak.

Since she resurfaced for them two months earlier, they've lain like this, bodies close together for something like stability, something
like 'I've got your back' in this new world of rifle scopes and tripwires. They're not above that, but they've never kissed, not really. Steve's tired. He lets it go.

Sam comes back in the morning, exhausted but toting coffees and a heavy sack of pastries. He greets Steve with a nod, Natasha with a one-armed hug and a kiss on the cheek.

They eat together in the tiny, dated motel room that tricks Steve into smelling sulfur and ash, and then they go their separate ways again: Natasha to wherever she goes when she rebuilds, Steve and Sam back to the States.

They've got a lead in Philadelphia and they haven't run out of hope yet.

 

***

Even now, Steve expects something dramatic in the way he heals. Expects to feel the muscle and bone stitching themselves back
together, the electric sting of nerves rebuilt. The stretch of skin over blood.

Instead healing comes to him smoothly, gradually, the way a headache leaves. One moment the pain is present, consuming; the next, he's forgotten it existed at all.

Sam checks Steve's shoulder, his ribs. He changes bandages on his own wounds. They suit up, as much as two men on the run suit up anymore. Guns, knives, comms. The shield that will always be conspicuous but unavoidable.

Hill arranged a flight for them, one of Stark's jets. She's always been an important ally, even more so now, considering her association with Tony Stark, a man who does nothing in the shadows, so nothing is suspicious. His jet flew from Manhattan to a random London field? Sure. You know Stark. Even after the Battle of New York, even after D.C. and the fall of SHIELD, the man is untouchable.

Steve leads the way across the field, tall grasses damp with rain, bordering on ice. Only a few more weeks and these sorts of excursions will become even less pleasant. The occasional night spent in the woods will remind Steve of Europe, the war, tender and painful.

They find the jet close enough to the treeline to reasonably blend into the terrain if someone were to be paying attention. They load quickly. Steve could fly it, but prefers not to and Sam won't push. They strap in and within minutes, they're in the air.

 

***

Philadelphia's a bust, except for a dossier of information that Steve doesn't know what to do with yet.

So is Boston. Chicago. Des Moines.

Boulder holds a sleeper cell. Steve and Sam have to call in back-up: Natasha, Hill, Coulson sends a couple of agents. But they clear it out, and then it's on to Omaha. This little tour of Americana started being less fun before they even left London.

Natasha sticks around. She helps them clean up the Hydra mess, helps them ditch the car, helps them find another. They settle into another motel. Steve is getting tired of beds that aren't his own.

Sam ducks out for supplies. He doesn't say so, but Steve is pretty sure Sam volunteers for the chance to talk to normals again. Cashiers, gas station attendants, the guy who puts heads of lettuce and bags of carrots into the produce cooler, lines them up into tidy, pleasing arrangements. He can't blame Sam. He lets him go. Appreciates the time alone.

It used to be he'd sleep. He'd take the chance and crash onto the motel bed as soon as Sam was out the door.

But ever since Philly, he stands at the cheap chest of drawers and pores over the dossier. It's more of the same--more Winter Soldier, more photos of blunted limbs, sharp and shining instruments, blood. More blueprints for new cryo tech.

It's not new, and it is. More details. But not details this time of further horrors inflicted on James Barnes. Rather, the bulk of this document focuses on the missions. The targets, the venues, the success rate (100%). Mission reports from the Soldier, dictated to Hydra's record keepers. Where he completed the mission. Collateral damage (low). Where he slept, what he ate, how he survived between the time he was released and the time he was extracted. Hydra wanted to learn his patterns. Learn them and break them. Make him untraceable.

It's as much an apology as it is a confession, left for Steve to find, even if Bucky hadn't meant it that way.

As far as Steve can tell, there are no further leads here. All mentioned Hydra agents are dead. The locations, raided. Equipment, destroyed. There's nothing here for Steve to do, except sit with the terrible, heavy knowledge of what his friend had been made into. Bucky probably led them to it as a warning. Steve tries to take it as a plea for forgiveness.

When he reaches the end again, his fingers clench around the stack of loose leaves of paper. He throws it against the wall. It lands open to a collection of photographs: Bucky, stretched out on a steel slab. Bucky, biting down on a mouth guard. Bucky, bleeding out.

Steve lets his head fall into his hands. He takes the kind of deep, searching lungfuls he remembers reaching for as an asthmatic. He tries not to vomit.

Natasha watches him from the edge of a bed. Her mouth is turned down. Her arms crossed.

"You're not going to find anything in there."

"Nat."

He hears her sigh. Hears her cross the room to stand behind his chair. Her hands are warm when they rest on his shoulders. "You need to stop. You need to stop going through that document like it's going to tell you something you didn't already know. You're smarter than this."

He laughs, but it is without humor. "Am I? Because I've been chasing ghosts for almost a year now, and I just keep finding more graveyards."

"And the graveyards are endless. Stop."

Natasha moves her hands up his neck, into his hair. She presses fingertips to skull, rubs them in small circles. Drags them back down between his shoulder blades. Steve sighs when her lips press into his hair. He knows he shouldn't feel this comfortable with his back to an assassin, especially when he's lashing out like this. But Natasha has always brought him back to the ground. Sometimes violently, if that's what he needed. Between her and Sam, it's felt good to have friends again, especially when everything else is so uncertain.

Steve sucks in a sharp breath as Natasha closes her lips around his earlobe.

"What are you doing?" He doesn't stop her. He's just asking.

Natasha continues to press her lips in a precise line down his neck. "Sam won't be gone for more than an hour, but if you really want to spend this time talking," she scratches her fingers up into his hair, "be my guest."

"So now you're shy?"

"Sam's not like us."

Steve closes his eyes as she unbuttons his shirt. "And what are 'we' like, Nat?"

She moves in front of him and settles into his lap. In the dark, her mouth find his again. Headlights catch the far wall, slide around the
opposite end, disappear. She shrugs, smells like wintergreen.

"You tell me."

 

***

Steve watches Natasha tuck her hair back into place. Slip her boots back on over her pants. Outside, the sound of an engine and car tires over the wet asphalt of the parking lot. Sam is back.

"So, I have a question--"

"Yes." He watches her eyebrows jump up, the corners of her mouth curl. "Yes, it's my first time since 1945. Was it that bad?"

Natasha huffs a laugh and drags a hand through his hair as she passes on her way to the door. "No. You're cute, Rogers."

She opens the door for Sam. He is loaded down with bags of food, clothes, bandages, antiseptic. One look at the tangled sheets of the bed and a quick glance between the two of them and he sighs.

"I'm not gonna ask," he says, "and you're not gonna tell me a goddamn thing."

Steve feels himself flush, but Natasha smiles. "If you want us to wait for you next time," she says and lets the obvious offer trail.

Sam grimaces, but Steve can see the soft light of relief beneath. "You're nasty," he says.

 

***

They follow more leads, take out more Hydra cells. They take the interstates. Steve drives mostly, alert later into the night than the other two, Sam at his side. Natasha sits in the back, but leans forward every few songs to skip ahead on the playlist. She frowns at Sam's taste in music, calls both of them old men, but Steve catches her in the rear-view mirror, her head swaying back and forth, almost imperceptibly, to James Brown so he calls it a victory.

They pick more grimy motels, Sam goes on his supply runs, and Steve pulls Natasha into bed.

It's not...a thing. He doesn't think it is. It's him and Natasha, the sweet release of tension, the way her skin feels against his mouth, his tongue, her hands pressing down on his chest as she rises and falls above him.

It's not a thing. And any other time in his life, he'd say no, wouldn't have let it happen the first time. But he wasn't lying when he said he needed a friend, and and a friend can be a lot of things. So he lets her see the way his face looks when he wants her, lets her see because he's vulnerable and he wants her to know he's not afraid to show her his throat. She teaches him what to do with his hands. He's an eager student.

Natasha shows him things he hadn't imagined in 1945, and he'd been pretty inventive. She guides him into shapes that hide their faces. He doesn't read into it. He lets her lead the way, her hands firm as she shows him how to move, how she wants him. She tries things to make him blush, he knows, he knows, but he doesn't blush, and sometimes if it's been a good day, it becomes a silent competition, unspoken bets placed on how far he might be willing to go. Steve hates to lose.

After, as their breath slows, as he lies there, taking in that wintergreen scent of hers, she asks him about before the war, about who was before her.

"I'm impressed, Rogers," she says as a segue to ease him in. She's good at that.

She has a way of laughing at him that leaves him embarrassed like a boy, but she never makes him feel his trust has been betrayed. It's important to him that she knows he trusts her. It's important, so he tells her everything.

He tells her about the fourth-floor apartment, the way heat rose in the summer. The way it escaped from drafty window casings in the winter. He tells her about keeping voices down. A million things she could have guessed. Things she probably had.

And he tells her about the war, tents and cold weather. The way snow piled up on the canvas and caused it to sag in on the sides. He tells her about fist fights. Smoky bars. Bucky, always Bucky, dancing with girls in London on leave, dancing with his long fingers on the smalls of their backs, hips locked tight in rhythm, but his eyes never left Steve's face, Steve the one he followed back to the fancy Captain's quarters at the end of the night. Steve, his anchor to home.

Natasha lies quietly against his chest and listens. She sweeps her fingers up and down his sternum in a way that makes his eyes close and his voice slow.

Steve doesn't know what this is, but he thinks he wants to keep it.

 

***

Finally, in a small town outside of Knoxville, Tennessee, there's no more hiding.

They check in at the front desk under one of Natasha's aliases and the clerk looks confused. She pushes thick glasses further up the bridge of her nose and tells them they've already booked their room. Their friend must have arrived ahead of schedule.

They find Bucky sitting in a chair in the corner.

He says Steve's name like he's barely spoken in months.

 

***

Bucky remembers, and that's half of the problem.

He has all of the pieces but lacks the context. He remembers what he did for Hydra, the way the world looks through one eye and a rifle scope. He's half wounded animal, half muscle memory. But he remembers Steve: little still life paintings of an apartment above the Brooklyn streets, the funerals of parents, cheap food prepared in a tiny kitchen. He remembers things that cause his brows to pull together over heavy eyes that flick over Steve's features, his mouth unsure if it should speak.

Steve wants to say, "Yes." Wants to say, "What you remember is right." Say, "I missed you so much." He wants Bucky to call him "Stevie," even if he isn't much of a Stevie anymore.

Instead, he settles for, "Sure, Buck," if he's asked. He doesn't know why he always hesitates with the things that matter.

It's months of fanning out the fog in Bucky's head. The first night, he sleeps on the roof. Steve summons his inner Sam, jokes about the softness of mattresses, but Bucky just stares at him. Once, he shoves a notepad under Steve's chin. He orders him to draw something, anything, because he's got this itch in his mind, this blurry little image, and he wants to know if he has it right. Steve draws the view out the window of their first apartment decades ago. Power lines, fire hydrants, the newspaper stand.

"Is this right, " he asks. Bucky seems satisfied.

And that's Steve's world. He tries to find routine again, but mostly fails. He runs with Sam most mornings. Lets himself be encouraged to stop in at the VA. Sometimes, Natasha stops by with take-out and Bucky remembers her, too. When they settle onto the couch together, something too familiar in their body language, and speak to each other in low-voiced Russian, Steve wonders just how far back their companionship reaches. Natasha never mentioned it before, but it's obvious. She doesn't owe him an explanation, but Steve's tired of secrets.

Mostly, he sits with Bucky.

They watch an unhealthy amount of Iron Chef. Sometimes Bucky will roll his eyes at the ridiculous ingredients, but mostly they end up cooking a lot of bad food. Some days, it's like having his friend back almost entirely. Some days, Bucky won't talk to him at all. He just eyes him from a corner of the apartment, looking suspicious and a little scared.

 

***

The thing-that-isn't-a-thing with Natasha somehow continues. He comes to her angry and she lets him be that kind of man.

Sometimes, it's Bucky slipping out for hours on end. Sometimes, it's more uncovered files. It's the twenty-first century holding nothing but fading promises, unfamiliar terrain, the sense of loss when he's expected to hold amazement for just how much more world there is now.

It's any of those things, or a hundred other things, she doesn't ask so he doesn't tell her, but it's any of those things or nothing at all, and he finds his way to her apartment when she's in town and drags her down onto the couch.

He takes off her clothes like every clock in the apartment has stopped and he could be late for something at any moment, but he doesn't know, he never knows, and so he lets speed and strength substitute for finesse.

She rests her palms over his temples and he presses kisses down the hollow below her sternum.

He digs his fingers in too sharp, apologizes.

She takes in a quick breath, says, "It's okay, it's fine, stop ruining it."

He says, "I don't want to hurt you." Says, "I'm tired of hurting people."

Natasha sighs. Steve feels her hands leave him and drop to her sides.

"Steve. Do you need to fuck or do you need to talk? Because there's a difference and you need to figure out what it is."

He doesn't figure it out and refuses to admit that he needs to, so he dresses and leaves. It doesn't feel like the end of anything because it isn't.

 

***

Bucky spends half the day unable to remember Steve's name. Which is a small thing, even if it feels like an exit wound.

He remembers Steve, just not his name and Steve tries to tell him, hey, it's fine, there's good days and bad days, it's all right, but it isn't all right, not to Bucky, and Bucky takes off again.

It's pretty normal this time, really. He doesn't take the fire escape. He doesn't leap from a window half-way up the building. He even remembers to take a coat to ward off the early spring chill, remembers to close the door behind him. He handles it like they had a disagreement. Not like his brain is made of rusted circuitry, the solder chipping away from resistors and capacitors. He handles it like a normal human being. Steve shouldn't want to sink down to the floor and cry. He does it anyway.

After he's done sobbing, he paces. He walks the apartment from one end to the other. He does the perimeter, like Bucky does. He tries to remember the route: starting at the door? Yes, at the door, and then counter-clockwise, run your hands over door frames, window jambs, slip fingers behind furniture, shelving units, into the mess of cables behind the TV, the computer.

He assumes he's looking for listening devices. Or maybe explosive devices. But definitely some sort of device. It's what Bucky does, so he does it too.

Steve doesn't like to think it because it's not true, it isn't, but sometimes, on the bad days, the worst days, it feels a little like he was doing better before Bucky came back.

He'd give a million lifetimes for this, crash a thousand planes, freeze a hundred times to be right here. He'd give everything. He doesn't mind the sacrifice or the suffering. He'd give it all again and again, but he's not coping so well. He remembers what they were, remembers who he was after Bucky fell and he woke up, remembers everything that's gone.

Steve's dealt with "gone" before. Not in any emotionally stable manner, but he's dealt with it.

It's "gone and back" that's the problem. "Gone and back but still kind of gone."

But the door opens, Gone is Back, and Bucky looks at him from the threshold, wild-eyed. Steve looks back, heart a rigid thing, smaller maybe than it used to be.

And Bucky crosses the floor in three steps, presses his hands to sides of Steve's face, breathes, "Steve" like it's breath itself and kisses him.

Kisses him back to 1938, Brooklyn in summer, charcoal dust on his fingers. Bucky smells like wintergreen.

 

***

Steve's not sure what he wants it to mean. Tries to tell Bucky that they should stop. That they should think about this. That Bucky's hands hold too much heat, the way they've rucked up his shirt.

Not that Steve hasn't thought about it. Thought about what a relief it would be, and how terrible. He just thought, he'd be the one to want it, to say something awkward and surrounded by apologies. He thought Bucky would be the one who felt wrong in his own skin, the one who would say no.

But Steve isn't who he used to be. Not in 1938, not in 1945, not even a year ago when they found each other again on the causeway. He's not some small, indignant artist anymore, delicate fingers and blond hair that won't stay out of his eyes. A righteous fighter with a mouth full of blood.

Now he's a mess. He brought down SHIELD, left the world in ruins and it didn't matter to him. 1945-him would have stayed to clean up the aftermath. Now-him? That guy ran. He ran after Bucky because that was all that mattered. He dragged his other friends into this, let one friend follow him around the globe, fucked the other one in a cheap motel outside of Champaign, Illinois, and still does any other chance he gets.

But Bucky shuts him up with lips and tongue and stubble. Hands on his chest, his back, tugging against his hair. Against the kitchen counter and Bucky slides a hand under Steve's thigh, lifts him, his ass pressed against the marble countertop.

"Steve," he says again, more controlled this time, like he's sure, like he wants Steve to think he's sure, "come on."

The last time he told Bucky no, the war almost made sure it was the last thing he told him at all.

So Steve wraps his mouth around "yes" and he means it.

 

***

The thing Steve's learning is, partially healed is still fully human.

Bucky's got his bad days. They eat names and faces and decades. Or they explode with terrible clarity, outlining each of his atrocities in Technicolor. He's got bad days.

So on those days, Steve sits with him on the couch, an arm around his shoulders, if Bucky will allow it. If he won't, they stay in separate rooms until it passes. Bucky tries not to leave too much anymore. When he does, he come back smelling familiar and wrong and Steve doesn't want to pry, doesn't want to ask questions, so he stays quiet all together.

Nobody owes you anything, that's a phrase that lives in his brain a lot these days. Bucky can do what he needs to do. Steve doesn't need to know, as long as Bucky can promise he's safe.

Natasha shows up with food once a week, surprisingly regular and traceable for her, sits between them on the couch. Some nights, she drapes her legs over Steve's lap. Some nights, it's Bucky's. Steve wants to ask questions, but nobody owes him anything, so he doesn't, just lets her pick one of them and doesn't interfere or complain.

One time, she comes over when she knows Bucky is in a PT session. She greets him with a kiss he can't remember if he should resist, scritches her fingers through his hair, tells him he needs a trim, and produces shears out of nowhere.

He trusts her, so he lets her guide him to a bench. He watches her run the faucet, wet her fingers, feels her drag them through his hair to get it wet. He feels her pull sections of it between her fingers, hears the sharp, silver sound of scissors sliding along the length, and then the trimmings are falling into his collar, scratchy and awful.

"Sit still," she says, and she kicks at his foot.

So he sits. Listens to each precise snip. Resists the urge to scratch at his neck. He wonders where she learned this, if it's just another one of those inexplicable spy skills she's always surprising him with, the ones he can't imagine coming in useful ever, but he guesses you never know, and "you never know" is exactly the kind of wheelhouse a spy would need.

Out of nowhere, she says, "You trust me." It's not a question. Just a statement of fact, but he can hear the amused upturn at the end.

"Yes," he says, because he does. Steve thinks there's romantic love, and it's wonderful, and maybe he feels that for her, but there's this kind of love too. The kind where you turn your back on a loaded gun. And that's what he feels for Natasha, more than anything else, but not exclusive of it.

She ruffles a hand through his hair to clear the splinters. "All done," she says. When she walks away, sinks down onto the couch, she keeps talking. "I should have told you before, but I didn't."

Steve stays where he is. Maybe to give her space. Maybe to keep his own. Maybe not for any reason at all.

"I know him," she says, "we worked together before."

Steve's always been amazed at what Nat can do with so few words, that economy of language. She condenses the world down to its most essential syllables. She breaks hearts with a breath.

"We've been--"

"I know," he says. He's not mad. Nobody owes him anything.

"You look like you need to think, Rogers, so I'll leave you to that. But you're no saint either. Don't forget that."

She leaves. Steve sits on the bench until Bucky comes home, wraps his arms around Steve's shoulders, and rests his chin on his head.

"Rough day," Bucky asks.

The role reversal makes Steve want to punch things, or get punched.

 

***

Dinner and a movie night, Nat between them on the couch because Steve forgives broken people even easier than regular people and they're all pretty busted up these days.

They reach past each other to thief bites of pad thai, sate, khao mok, right from the cartons on someone else's lap. No one says anything, just sharing wordlessly because no one goes without. They watch bad sci-fi because Bucky and Nat have fiercely defended the remote control territory and Steve would only want to watch Butch Cassidy again.

Nobody flinches at the gory laboratory scenes. It's a silent victory.

When the credits role, Natasha slips her fingers into Steve's hair, gauging its length, checking for flaws in her work. He closes his eyes and lets her comb through. He opens them when the couch cushions shift.

He watches the way Bucky's hand cups Nat's cheek, the way his fingers move over her face, gentle, evaluating, feels the way his own heart catches, then catches up, beating faster. Nat's hand slides down the back of Steve's neck, rubs the tense muscles, covers him in gooseflesh.

He leans back, closes his eyes. Sighs. "What are we," he asks.

The soft touches beside him stop. Natasha shifts, turns, her bent knees overlapping with his leg. She brushes the short fringe of his bangs off his face.

"Whatever we want," she says.

Steve huffs a laugh. He's tired of twenty-first century reductionism, breaking sums down into their parts, we are what we are because we are what we are. "So what do you want," he asks her.

Natasha shrugs, her fingers still caressing his jaw, sweeping up into his hair, down his neck. "This," she says, with an earnestness that feels awkward on her, ill-fitting but true, "until I don't want this anymore."

And that's fair. That's more than fair. And fitting. Natasha has never promised him anything and she doesn't have to.

He almost doesn't notice her looking him over, frowning, emoting in a way he should feel touched to see but all he can feel is shell-shocked.

"Do you want me to go," she asks, and this time Steve is touched. Since that first strange kiss in London, she's given him all the room he needed to do what he wanted, to figure things out. She's offering it here too. It's more than she's given anyone else, as far as he knows.

When Bucky says, "Don't," Steve flinches. He'd forgotten there were three of them.

And Bucky gets up, moves past Natasha, in front of the TV stuck on the DVD menu screen. Steve's pretty sure that kaeng som's a goner, now that Bucky's hip-checked it into the carpet. Bucky clambers because that's what he does these days when he's not in Soldier mode, and then he's kneeling in front of Steve.

Steve tucks some long, brown hair behind Bucky's ear, looks at him and tries to find the confident boy he used to know, the sharp, funny, young, young thing, but instead he sees the same weariness, the same fear he sees in the mirror so often he's stopped looking altogether.

He takes a breath. He needs it. "What do you want, Bucky?"

Bucky doesn't need breath. Bucky needs to speak. Steve knows. He knows and he wants Bucky to have that.

"Tell me," he says.

Bucky swallows. "All of it. Steve, all of it."

Steve nods. He understands. Or he thinks he does. He knows what it was like to want Natasha, how he still wants her, and how he's always wanted Bucky, how being two boys in 1930s Brooklyn didn't change that, how war didn't change that, death, metal arms and machinery. How nothing would ever change that, that maybe if Steve were reduced down to his parts alone, they would all say, "Bucky Barnes."

"You're who I was," Bucky says, his fingers bunched in the collar behind Steve's neck, "she's who I am."

And isn't that fantastic? He can run laps around anyone, but he's been running for four years and he hasn't caught up. He didn't even know there was a finish line.

But Bucky leans their foreheads together, breathes hot over Steve's chin, says, "You're then and she's now and I need all of it, okay? It's selfish, but I need it."

Steve swallows thickly. He didn't notice the prickling in the corners of his eyes until it was too late and there's Bucky: Bucky clambering up into his lap, wrapping arms around him, whispering things to him in Russian and that should make his hair stand on end but it doesn't, it doesn't, it's Bucky wrapped up in Natasha's history, it's all of them wrapped together when Natasha leans against them, not hugging, not quite, but he feels her weight. He feels things click into place.

"What do you want, Steve," she says, and her lips caress the sensitive skin of his neck as she speaks, but there's nothing sexual in the gesture, "tell us."

"Okay," he says, "okay.