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On The Other Side of a Downward Spiral

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“What’s that?” Bucky asks, the question jerked out of him so unexpectedly that he doesn’t have time to catch it the way he usually does. There’s a shrill, reedy sound coming from the speakers dotted around his room. He doesn’t like it.

Bucky avoids the communal areas as much as he can, but he likes to be able to hear what’s happening in them. Usually, it’s talking (mostly from Stark) or a television playing. It isn’t usually this wailing sound that hurts his ears.

“I believe it is a baby’s cry,” the House tells him. It doesn’t add anything else, because it never does. Bucky’s heard it chat with Stark, but it only ever answers direct questions from Bucky.

“I didn’t know anyone here had a baby,” he says, sitting up from where he’s been lying on the floor. It’s not a direct question, so the House doesn’t answer.

Bucky isn’t a prisoner in his room; he isn’t even a prisoner on his floor (even though he should be, he really should be). He’s curious, so he gets up and walks over to the door.

His knees ache a little, just for a second, which makes him wonder how long he’s been sitting there. He doesn’t usually feel much of anything.

There’s a dresser and two chairs in front of his door today. He doesn’t remember doing that, but it’s better than the time he found a rifle loaded and boobytrapped to fire if the door was opened.

The furniture takes a second to move, and he peers out into the corridor.

There’s no one out there. There usually isn’t, although sometimes there’s Steve.

“Where’s the baby?” Bucky asks. He doesn’t have his knife, he realises, so he doubles back to his room to get it, sliding it carefully into his belt, before heading to the elevators.

“The baby is in the main lounge,” the House says. “Along with all the Avengers and their associates.”

Bucky hesitates. That’s a lot of people; he doesn’t like a lot of people. The baby is screaming though, loud enough that it’s grating on Bucky’s nerves, so he braces himself and squares his shoulders. He isn’t afraid; he’s just cautious.

He can’t actually use elevators, so he just slides the fingers of his metal hand between the doors to the shaft and waits until the building opens them for him. He used to force them open, but they’ve come to an agreement, now.

The doors slide open and Bucky grabs the elevator cables, getting a good grip before he swings his weight across the empty space and braces his feet on the opposite wall. It’s easy to rappel down the shaft until he’s at the right floor, and easier still to slip through the door that conveniently opens to let him out onto the communal floor.

He doesn’t know why Stark’s Tower helps him sometimes, but it would be dumb to turn it down.

Like the House said, pretty much all the Avengers are in the living area, crowded around something in the middle, which they’re all peering at. That’s where the screaming’s coming from, and it’s so much worse this close to it.

“Maybe it needs feeding,” Barton is saying. He’s nearer to it than the others are, but he has his hands behind his back as though to telegraph to everyone that he won’t be touching.

“I did that.” That’s Steve; he sounds stressed.

“... burping?” Barton asks. “That’s a thing people do with babies, right?”

“Is it?” Now Steve sounds alarmed and stressed.

Stark makes an impatient noise. “Weren’t there like, literally hundreds of pictures of you holding babies during your Give Us All Your Money tour?” Something flickers behind Bucky’s eyes, there and gone again, but he doesn’t try to chase it. Chasing his memories never does anything except give him a headache.

“USO Tour,” Steve mutters. “It was about boosting morale, not just selling War Bonds. And their mothers always took them away when they cried.”

“Well, that’s not very helpful,” Natasha says. She’s not with the crowd around the baby. She’s sitting on one of the long, leather couches, her legs crossed in front of her in a very obvious keep it away from me pose.

“We need Thor,” Stark declares. “Thor would know what to do.”

“Why would Thor know what to do?” Steve asks.

Stark shrugs. “He talks to dogs and pigeons and that guy in SHIELD R&D who smells like cloves. He’d definitely know how to talk to a baby.”

“Okay, it really can’t be as hard as we’re making it out to be,” Banner says, approaching for the first time. “Maybe she just wants to be picked up.”

He leans forward and everyone else jumps back, giving Bucky enough space to see a baby, wrapped in a bright yellow blanket, sitting in what he thinks is a car seat. Banner unbuckles her and lifts her into his arms.

There are seven seconds where everything is silent and the baby seems to contemplate Banner. Then the baby shrieks. It’s shrill and sharp and piercing and it cuts straight through Bucky’s ears into the centre of his brain.

He walks forward without meaning to, making no noise until he’s by Banner’s side. “Give her to me,” he says, reaching for her.

Banner doesn’t jump even though Bucky clearly took him by surprise, but he does draw the screaming baby in closer to his chest. “I… I don’t think so,” he says, looking over Bucky’s shoulder at someone, probably Steve.

Bucky doesn’t listen to the no. He slides his hands between Banner’s and the baby’s tiny sides and plucks her out of his arms. There are complaints and cries from all around the room and the baby is still screaming, but Bucky’s holding her now, so he can do something about it.

He doesn’t know how, but he’s sure he can.

“Bucky,” Steve says, suddenly in Bucky’s way. “Give me the baby, Buck.”

Bucky pulls her into the crook of his metal arm and frowns at Steve. “She’s crying,” he says. “I can make it stop.”

“Oh Jesus,” he hears Stark mutter. “Get that kid off him before he eats her or something.” Barton’s coming around on Bucky’s right, and even Natasha is standing up. Bucky doesn’t understand why they’re all reacting like this.

He presses the baby against his chest, looks around quickly, then skirts around Steve, who doesn’t grab for him, and the others who do. He darts toward a corner near the window, tucked in the dark behind one of the many couches.

With his back to the wall, he feels safe enough to sink down into a crouch and do what he’s been wanting to do all along: focus on the baby. She’s flushed from screaming, dark hair matted down across her forehead and grey eyes filmy with tears.

“Shh,” Bucky says. He hears it come out harshly, like an order. “Shush. Don’t cry.”

She hiccups then screams again, one hand flailing out toward his nose.

“It’s okay,” Bucky says, which is a meaningless platitude, and probably not true, since she’s here rather than with her parents, but it seems like the right thing to say.

He knows that everyone is watching them, but he doesn’t look up to check. They didn’t know how to stop her crying; they can’t judge him.

The baby hiccups again, softer this time, and some of the tension seems to go out of her little body. She sags, so Bucky pulls her back in against his chest, rocking her while she sniffles and whimpers.

She’s much quieter, which is really all he wanted, but now she’s falling asleep on him and he’s not sure what to make of that. He’s not completely sure why he took her now, just that it seemed like the only option at the time.

He looks up for Steve, hoping he’ll know, but Steve’s just staring, wearing that awful face he wears, when Bucky’s done something to make him happy. Bucky hates that face, because he always manages to make it go away again.

“Fuck me,” Barton murmurs. “He’s a baby whisperer. Got to admit, I did not see that one coming.”

“He had three little sisters,” Steve says softly, like he’s talking to himself more than to Barton. “He was always the best with them.”

Bucky knows logically that they’re talking about him, but it doesn’t ring any bells. The Smithsonian exhibit said he had sisters, but Steve always just talks about the two of them when he’s feeling nostalgic or he’s trying to jog Bucky’s memory.

Still, the baby in his arms feels slightly familiar; he definitely knows how to hold her, and he’s guessing he didn’t get that from Hydra.

The baby tilts her head toward the voices, tiny eyelids flickering, and Bucky doesn’t want to hear anything else about sisters he doesn’t remember. “Go away,” he says to everyone. “You’ll wake her.”

There’s silence, while he imagines everyone looking at everyone else and trying to decide if leaving a baby with the Winter Soldier is a bad idea. Then, “That doesn’t seem very fair to you,” Banner says tactfully. It’s always Banner who does the tactful stuff, because Steve gets too emotional when he has to say no to Bucky.

“Be even more unfair, if you wake her up,” Bucky says, letting his voice turn a little harsh, a little dangerous, even though he knows that won’t work on this crowd.

“We do need to decide what we’re going to do,” Natasha says. He wonders if she means with the baby, then he wonders whose baby she is, but he doesn’t ask.

“We’ll just be over there,” Steve says. He’s probably pointing, but Bucky still doesn’t look up. “Bucky?”

Now, Bucky looks up. Stark and Barton have already moved over to the far side of the room, where all of Stark’s holographic displays are and, yes, Steve’s pointing that way.

“Okay,” Bucky says. “You’ll be over there. I’ll be over here. I promise not to get scared and cry, if I can’t see you.”

Bucky thinks he’s being a shit and Steve will get sad at him, but the corners of Steve’s lips twitch up, like he’s fighting a smile. It’s impossible to guess what’s going to make him happy.

“Okay,” is all Steve says, then Bucky and the baby are alone.

She’s definitely falling asleep now, little mouth softening from its annoyed pucker, and her head getting heavier against the top of his arm. There’s not a lot Bucky needs to do for her now, other than to be quiet and still, and those are two things he’s very good at.

He settles down so he’s sitting rather than crouching, his back still pressed firmly against the wall, and starts a slow visual sweep of the room, keeping an eye out for any trouble.

***

Whatever the Avengers are debating goes on and on. Bucky doesn’t lose focus, because Bucky doesn’t do that, but it’s harder to keep a watch once the baby starts to wake up, twisting around in his arms and making grabbing motions at his collar with her hands.

“What?” he asks, turning her so she’s the right way up and looking into her face. “What do you need?”

The baby blows a spit bubble toward him and blinks.

Slowly, Bucky stands up, keeping her in front of him so they can carry on their conversation. “I’m thinking we should find you some food,” he says. “What d’you say to that?”

The baby has nothing to say to that, but for some reason, she giggles.

There’s a kitchen down here, just past the council of war going on, but Bucky doesn’t feel up to dealing with that.

“Hey, House,” he says. “If they ask, tell them I’ve taken her upstairs, okay?” He hesitates then adds, “But only if they ask.”

“Certainly, sir,” the House says. “Do let me know if you require any assistance.”

“Yeah, okay,” Bucky says, even though they both know he won’t. He doesn’t like living in a house that can watch him and he doesn’t like having to ask anyone’s help for anything.

The baby seems excited to be going somewhere, cooing and squealing as Bucky walks along. Every now and then she bangs on his stomach with her little feet, but he’s not sure what she’s trying to tell him, so they just keep walking.

When they get to the elevator, Bucky realises they have a problem. He can’t go climbing the elevator shaft with a baby in his arms - well, he’s pretty sure he could, but he’s also sure he shouldn’t.

He presses the call button and waits, switching his weight from his toes to his heels over and over, only partly because the baby seems to like the rocking movement.

The elevator arrives and Bucky takes a deep breath, telling himself to get into it.

“May I remind you,” the House says, totally unprompted for once, “that you do not enjoy the elevator.”

“I remember that,” Bucky says, and makes himself walk inside. He hates the elevator. It’s small and enclosed and there are mirrors everywhere, nowhere for him to look to avoid seeing his own reflection.

He tries closing his eyes, but the baby screams as soon as the elevator starts to rise, so he abandons that plan and focuses on her instead. In the corners of his eyes, he can see his reflections, hundreds of them all mirrored back on themselves: solid metal and emptiness, but the baby in front of him is soft and alive, the complete opposite.

“We’re gonna be fine,” he tells her, breathing in and out slowly, the way Steve’s friend Sam tried to teach him, before Bucky told him to get lost.

The elevator ride feels shorter today than it ever has, and before Bucky knows it, they’re on his floor and he can stumble out, baby clutched protectively, and try to ignore the way his heart is still pounding.

“Well that was just no fun, was it?” he says to the baby, carrying her to the kitchen.

As soon as he gets there, he realises he should have picked up the car seat she came in, since he’s got nowhere to put her down. He also has nothing in his fridge you could feed a baby (he’s got nothing in his fridge at all; he only eats when Steve reminds him to).

“Hey, um,” Bucky says, looking up at the ceiling. “You got any stuff, any…” He knows this word. It’s sparking memories somewhere, of his mother going out to work and leaving Bucky with this stuff to feed a baby.

“Baby formula,” the House says. That’s it. Bucky knew that he knew that fucking word. “I have placed an express order, but we do not currently have any, no. However, may I suggest pureed banana?”

“I don’t have any bananas,” Bucky says. He’s not sure he has any fruit. Or vegetables. Sometimes Steve buys them for him and leaves them on the counter, but they always go bad before Bucky remembers he’s supposed to eat them.

“I took the liberty of having some prepared,” the House says, just before the fridge door slides open in front of Bucky.

There’s a plastic tub of yellow goo in the middle of the middle shelf, which definitely wasn’t there before. Bucky grabs it and a spoon from the drawer and sits down at the kitchen table.

“Thank you, Ceiling Man,” Bucky says, popping the lid one handed.

“I am usually referred to as JARVIS,” he says, while Bucky loads up a spoon and holds it out to the baby.

“Yeah.” Bucky forces his hand to stay steady. “I know that.” The baby ignores the spoon, turning her head away, which gives Bucky something else to focus on.

Bucky shakes some of the banana off the spoon, so it’s less like he’s trying to force a mountain of it into her mouth and tries again.

“Come on,” he says. “Food is good.” He knows what it’s like to be told to eat when you don’t want to, but now he also knows how Steve feels when Bucky refuses.

(Not that Steve has tried to spoon feed him. Yet.)

The baby puts out a hand and smacks it into the side of the spoon, splattering a little banana onto Bucky’s face. Bucky licks it off his lips, surprised to find that it’s not totally disgusting.

“Hey, what are you even complaining about?” he asks her. “This shit’s good.”

She stares at him when he talks, mouth a little open, but it clamps shut again as soon as he tries to sneak the spoon in there.

“You need food to build your body,” Bucky tells her. The words echo in his head and he drops the spoon, jerking away. The baby was sitting in the middle of the table and she falls over backwards, landing on her soft little back and crying out her disgust at that.

You require food to build your body, Sergeant Barnes, he hears, echoing in his head. Zola. He remembers fingers holding his nose closed, someone wrenching his jaw open, food in his mouth that he didn’t want to swallow.

He picks up the baby and they stumble away from the table together.

“Sorry,” he says into her hair. “Sorry, sorry, you don’t have to eat, if you don’t want to.”

She’s still crying, shocked little noises, but they trail off as he mumbles to her, and one of her hands comes up to clutch his collar, her wet cheek sticky against his throat.

Bucky takes her into his bedroom on autopilot, lays her down on the bed, and starts moving all the furniture he can find until it’s in front of the door. Then he crawls onto the bed next to the baby and pulls her over onto his chest.

She coos happily and starts chewing on his collar, while he pats her back and stares blankly up at the ceiling.

***

“Bucky,” Steve says, forty-six minutes later. “Can I come in?”

Bucky blinks, rubs his free hand over his face and says, “Sure.”

There’s some noise and some startled curses that Bucky doesn’t pay much attention to, and then his whole furniture barricade slides four foot to the left.

“Hi,” Steve says, walking into the room like that interruption never happened. He looks at the baby, sleeping peacefully on Bucky’s chest, and smiles.

“Do you need her back?” Bucky asks. He doesn’t want to give her back, but at some point during his forty-six minute contemplation of the ceiling, he realised that she must belong to someone.

“Uh, no,” Steve says, looking awkward about it. He comes over and sits on the bed next to where Bucky’s lying. “I just came to make sure you guys were okay. Do you need anything?”

“You came to see if I’d killed her yet,” Bucky corrects. He waves one of her arms at Steve. “I didn’t.”

“No, Bucky, that’s not what I thought,” Steve says. When Bucky doesn’t answer, he leans forward, eyes serious and pleading. “It’s not.”

Bucky sighs. “Yeah, okay,” he says. The worst part is that he believes Steve; it would never occur to Steve that Bucky could hurt anyone, which is really fucking dangerous. “Bet Stark thought it, though.”

“I have no idea what Tony thought,” Steve says, which is clearly a massive fucking lie. “Do you need anything?”

“I tried giving her dinner earlier; she wasn’t hungry,” Bucky says, and doesn’t let his mind go back to anything else associated with that.

“Okay.” He doesn’t ask if Bucky’s hungry, for once. “Well, JARVIS has gotten the fridge stocked, so there’s plenty in there, if she is, now.”

Bucky nods. He puts his hand over the back of the baby’s head and hopes them talking isn’t going to wake her up. He doesn’t feel strong enough to try feeding her again, yet. “Who does she belong to?”

Steve looks at the baby, rather than at Bucky. “We don’t know,” he says. “We found her all alone at one of the Hydra sites, this morning.”

“Well, she’s not Hydra,” Bucky says, curling his hand tighter around her. “I don’t care how young they start ‘em, there.”

“No, of course not,” Steve says gently. “Maybe her parents were, or maybe she was there for some other reason. Tony’s running tests and we’ve called Director Coulson to see if his team can help us track down her history.”

“Tests?” Bucky asks, sitting up. “What did Stark do to her?” He still has his knife in his belt and he can probably break into the armoury. He’s not going to let anyone do tests on the baby, no matter what it takes to protect her.

Steve looks startled by something, which is when Bucky realises he snarled that. He’d meant to ask. He hadn’t known his heart was going to start pounding like it is now.

“Hey,” Steve says. “Hey, Bucky. Bucky, you’re scaring her.”

Bucky blinks and finds that the baby is squirming, making soft little crying noises, and he lets go of her arms quickly. “Take her,” he says, thrusting her at Steve, and retreating to the corner.

Steve holds the baby awkwardly, half tucked under his arm, like she’s a shopping bag, and watches Bucky warily. “It was a blood test,” he says. “Tony’s going to run her DNA against… well, probably against every database there is. I didn’t want to ask for details.” He stands up, still clutching the baby. “Bucky?”

Bucky shakes his head quickly. “I’m okay,” he says. He turns and fumbles with the window controls until it slides open a crack and cool air blows across his face. “How much d’you think it’d take to convince Stark to let me open my windows all the way?”

“A lot,” Steve says. “Mostly, though, you’d have to convince JARVIS.”

“He loves me,” Bucky says and doesn’t think about how Stark’s AI will let Bucky sneak around the Tower and steal babies, but still thinks he’s a suicide risk.

The cool air is helping Bucky to feel rational again, but he stays where he is, breathing it in for a little while longer, before he turns around and reaches for the baby.

Steve doesn’t hesitate to hand her over, but once he does, he says, “Is it asking too much for you, making you look after her?”

“Making me?” Bucky asks, laughing. He bounces her on his hip, smiling when she laughs. “I think I stole her. Did I steal her? I remember doing that.”

“You did that,” Steve agrees. He leans against the window next to Bucky and elbows him. “I didn’t know you liked babies so much.”

Bucky looks at him sideways. “Do you think I knew?” he asks. He glances away, then back at Steve. “You don’t think I’m gonna hurt her, right?”

“What? No, of course not,” Steve says quickly. “We were just surprised that you took to her, that’s all, no one really thinks - ”

“No,” Bucky interrupts. He looks at the baby, who’s looking up at him, smiling with no teeth. “I’m not gonna hurt her, am I?”

“No.” Steve reaches across and squeezes his arm. “You’re not gonna hurt her.”

Bucky nods. “Yeah,” he says, “that’s what I thought.”

***

They let the baby stay with Bucky for most of the evening (minus dinner time, which Bucky makes Steve do), but just as she’s getting sleepy, Stark appears at his door with an older, grey-haired lady behind him.

“Hey, Nanny McBarnes,” he says, “this is an actual nanny. Pepper found her. You’re relieved of babysitting duties.” He tips his head, looking at Bucky’s haphazardly arranged furniture and clearly completely oblivious to Bucky’s heart sinking. “Have you been building a barricade? Getting a little Victor Hugo, aren’t you?”

“A nanny?” Bucky asks. He can’t help the way he holds onto the baby a little tighter, but she’s clearly gotten used to that during the day, because she doesn’t even wake up.

“Yup.” Stark bounces impatiently. “So chop chop, no, wait, spit spot. Hand the baby over like a good little assass…” He looks at the nanny. “A good little upstanding citizen, not-at-all-a-dubious-choice-for-a-babysitter.”

Bucky wishes Steve was still here. He knows he always comes across crazy when he talks to the others without Steve here to translate. “You don’t need… I can keep her,” he says.

“Why would you want to keep her?” Stark asks, like the idea never occurred to him. “Where would you even put her? She can’t sleep in your knife drawer.”

“What?” the nanny asks faintly, stepping into the room and reaching for the baby.

Bucky wants to growl at her. He possibly lets loose just the tiniest of hisses, before he gets himself under control. He closes his eyes, takes a deep breath, and hands the baby over.

The nanny grabs her and lays her over her shoulder, making soothing noises, like the baby is upset. The baby isn’t upset; Bucky’s been taking good care of her.

“What’s her name?” the nanny asks. She looks at Stark first then at Bucky when Stark goes wide-eyed.

“Sarah,” Bucky says, without thinking about it. He doesn’t know where he finds that name; it just trips off his tongue.

She nods like that, at least, is acceptable. “Good,” she says then hefts the baby - Sarah - higher in her arms. Sarah doesn’t wake up, or cry, which Bucky had been half-hoping she would. “Mr Stark, can you take me to my rooms?”

(She should have said our rooms, Bucky thinks. It’s like the baby’s not there at all.)

He watches Stark lead them out of the room and then turn around and flash Bucky a grin, like he’s done something good. Bucky just sits down, there on the floor, right where he was standing and rubs his hands against his jeans. His hands feel empty. His chest feels cold, where Sarah’s head had been resting.

This is better for her.

Bucky can’t look after himself, let alone a baby.

This is definitely better for her.

He repeats it over and over, but it doesn’t stick.

“Where’s Steve?” he asks the ceiling.

“Captain Rogers is speaking with Director Coulson,” the House says. “Would you like me to interrupt them?”

“Shit, no,” Bucky says. “Never mind. Don’t tell him I asked, okay?” He rolls onto his side on the carpet, knees drawn up. He doesn’t know if he feels worse than he usually does, or if he just felt a little better when Sarah was here, and now that’s gone again.

“Sergeant Barnes,” the House starts.

“Later,” Bucky says and closes his eyes.

***

They’re keeping Sarah on the seventh floor, which is the one above the R&D labs. Bucky has been worried since he discovered that, but now it’s three a.m. and he’s let worry drive him down the elevator shaft.

There are no intruder alarms, even though there should be; there’s a baby on this floor and she needs to be kept safe.

Bucky slips down the corridors until he finds the bedroom where the nanny is sleeping. He’s not interested in that, only in following the sounds from the baby monitor by her bed to the room across the corridor.

Sarah is face down on her belly in a wooden crib, one arm flung out in front of her and the other up over her head.

Bucky twitches all over, wanting to reach in and pick her up, but that would only wake her and then the nanny might hear.

“Hey,” he says instead. “Did you miss me?”

She doesn’t stir when he sits down by the side of her crib, head against the bars.

“Don’t worry,” he tells her anyway, drawing his knees up. “I won’t let anyone come in.”

***

Bucky’s woken by someone shouting, followed by some sort of unearthly screaming.

Still mostly wrapped up in sleep, he jumps to his feet, slips into a defensive position, and pulls the knife out of the back of his belt.

Before he can assess the threat, something hits Bucky in the chest like a battering ram, the world twists and he finds himself on the floor, muscles locked and helpless. He fights it, pain screaming through every muscle, and that makes it worse.

He manages to jerk his head up, clocking it against something hard, and then the world goes fuzzy.

Through half-closed eyes, he hears Steve’s voice, welcome but so confusing, shouting, and then nothing.

***

“Okay, so,” Stark says. He’s definitely laughing, the bastard. “Barnes broke into the nursery, the nanny tasered him, Barnes gave himself a concussion, and everyone’s a little shell-shocked because they heard Captain America swear.”

“I swear,” Steve says, pressing the ice pack down harder on Bucky’s head. Bucky doesn’t complain because he doesn’t really care. “I don’t know why everyone thinks I don’t swear.”

“Maybe it’s because they’ve never heard you,” Natasha tells him. “It doesn’t count, if it’s inside your head, Cap.”

Bucky lets the sounds of them bickering wash over him. His head aches from hitting it on the base of the crib, and his chest stings from the taser, but Sarah is happily gulping down a bottle in his arms, so he doesn’t mind too much.

The door opens and Pepper Potts comes in, arms folded and expression unimpressed. Her hair looks as though she rolled straight out of bed, and there are dark circles under her eyes.

Bucky feels bad for being the reason everyone’s awake so early the day after the Avengers took down a Hydra cell. He knows how long Pepper was awake and worrying while they were gone, because he was awake and worrying too, and he heard her pacing around.

“Well, that’s taken care of,” she says, taking Stark’s coffee mug out of his hands and sipping from it. “And it’s the last time I’m letting you pick a nanny.”

“Wait, she’s gone?” Bucky asks. “Why’s she gone?”

Everyone looks at him like he’s missing something really obvious. They look at him like that a lot, but he hasn’t lost any time, this time, he’s just confused.

“She tasered you, Buck,” Steve says, like Bucky might have forgotten.

Bucky twists so he can look at Steve without moving Sarah. “Because I was lurking creepily in a baby’s nursery.” He knows he lurks creepily; he’s accepted that about himself.

“She tasered you,” Steve repeats in a no-nonsense tone.

Barton is sprawled out on the sofa, his head on his folded arms. Bucky thought he was asleep. “Also, she took a taser into a nursery,” he says without opening his eyes. “Like, she didn’t know you were in there; she just had a taser on her. That’s hinky.”

“Kinky?” Bucky asks, frowning.

Barton cracks open one eye and grins at him. “Hinky. Means weird.” Barton doesn’t treat Bucky like he’s damaged; he just teaches him things he’s missed and otherwise leaves him alone.

“You shouldn’t fire her,” Bucky says, “Who’s going to look after Sarah?”

There’s a pause. “Sarah?” Steve asks, voice weirdly wobbly.

Stark clicks his fingers. “Oh, yeah, Nanny Taser wanted to know the kid’s name last night, so Barnes picked one for her. Is that weird? Should I have stopped that? She does need a name.”

“Yeah,” Steve says faintly. No one else seems bothered, but Steve looks really shaken up.

“What?” Bucky whispers. He can’t see how he messed up, this time, but if he did, he needs Steve to tell him.

Steve shakes his head. “Tell you later,” he promises. He straightens his shoulders and stands up, which is enough to get everyone looking at him. “I was thinking maybe Bucky could look after her... Sarah, while we decide what to do with her permanently.”

Bucky’s expecting an outcry, the same sort of terror and objections he got yesterday afternoon when he first picked her up. Instead, the others look at Steve, look at each other, look confused, then start agreeing.

“It’s not a terrible plan,” Natasha finally says. She stands up and kneels in front of Bucky. “Can you do that?”

Bucky knows he should ask how long, what’ll happen if he goes Winter Soldier again, whether it’s a good idea at all, but he doesn’t want to think about any of that. He wants to be the guy who Sarah can rely on. “I’d like to,” is what he settles on.

“You wouldn’t be on your own,” Pepper says. “Everyone here will help and you’ll have all the resources Stark Industries can offer.”

Bucky just nods and keeps nodding. Sarah has finished her bottle, so he puts it on the floor and gives her one of his human fingers to suck on. She doesn’t seem to care who he is or who he used to be; she just seems happy.

***

They move the crib into Bucky’s spare room, followed by a whole ton of other stuff that someone - probably Stark - has bought for Sarah.

They spread a play mat out of the floor in the living room and Sarah flops around on her belly, pressing buttons and making noises every time something lights up or moves in response.

Bucky watches. He feels bemused and everything is surreal, but it still doesn’t feel wrong.

“You’ll tell me if this is too much, right?” Steve asks. He’s the only one up here with them and he sits down next to Bucky, like sitting on the floor, staring at a baby, is an okay thing to do.

“Yeah,” Bucky promises. “We’ll be okay.”

Steve’s quiet for a while. It’s a thoughtful kind of quiet, which means he’s going to say something at the end of it. Bucky hates that kind of quiet, but he doesn’t press.

“Sarah was my mother’s name,” Steve eventually says, quiet but firm, like he doesn’t want to say it, but he wants Bucky to hear it.

“Huh,” Bucky says. He fiddles with a toy ball that’s rolled over to where they’re sitting. “I… I think that was a coincidence. She asked for a name; I panicked.”

Steve nods quickly. “Yes, sure, I know. I never thought otherwise. I just thought you should know.”

“Okay.” Now Bucky’s nodding, too. He wishes he could remember Steve’s mom, even one tiny memory would be enough to convince him that he had meant to name Sarah after her. He thinks Steve would like that. Hell, he thinks Bucky would like it. “Sorry.”

Steve leans into him. “Don’t apologise,” he says. He must say that a dozen times a day.

“Sorry,” Bucky says again, just to see if it will make Steve smile. It almost does.

***

Taking care of a baby seems pretty easy to Bucky. She cries a lot that first night, and he doesn’t get much sleep, but he never usually sleeps anyway, so it’s nice to have something to do with the endless nighttime hours.

Food appears in his fridge for them both and it’s not like he has to balance a job with looking after her. Maybe it’s not easy to look after a baby; maybe it’s just easy when you’re Bucky and have literally nothing else to do.

As soon as the sun comes up, Sarah is wide awake and happy again, bouncing in the little chair someone bought her, clapping her hands against the sides of the bottle Bucky holds for her.

“What are you going to do with her, today?” Barton asks. He’s unexpectedly arrived at Bucky’s door, a mug of coffee in one of his hands and a pot of it in the other. He deliberates between the two for a second then hands the pot to Bucky.

“Do with her?” Bucky asks, frowning down at the coffee.

Barton comes in and gets a mug down from one of Bucky’s shelves. He makes a face at it then holds it under the faucet to rinse away the build-up of dust. “Sure,” he says, taking the pot back from Bucky and filling the mug. “Kids like doing stuff.”

“She’s a baby,” Bucky says. He’s not sure why Barton is bringing him coffee, but he likes coffee, so he doesn’t mind.

Barton frowns at him. “Yes?”

Bucky jerks his free hand in the air, irritated. Barton waits for him to pull together a sentence, which is something Barton always does, like he’s used to not having the right words to say, either.

“I mean, she’s a really little baby. She probably doesn’t care what we do.” And Bucky doesn’t want to take her outside. It would be harder to keep her safe, outside.

“Probably not, but it’s still good for her.” Barton drops down into a chair at the kitchen table, swinging his legs up onto the table. “Go get dressed, okay? We’re going to do a thing.”

“Thing?” Bucky echoes.

Barton’s attention has drifted to Sarah. “Yup.” He snaps his fingers at Bucky. “Hurry up.”

For all that Bucky finds it hard to go outside, he finds it even harder to resist when someone gives him a direct order. “Okay,” he says and goes to his room.

Bucky doesn’t wear pyjamas, so he just exchanges one pair of jeans for another and pulls on a t-shirt that he finds folded in a drawer. Bucky’s apartment is a mystery to him; things just turn up where he’s sure they weren’t before.

He brings out some clothes for Sarah to wear and carries her out of Barton’s sight before he changes her into them, because the least he can do is make sure she has some privacy. Barton is watching him with a funny, confused little smile when they’re finally ready to leave, but Bucky doesn’t care.

“Don’t forget diapers,” Barton tells him, at the door.

Bucky frowns for a second, then hands Sarah over and goes back to get them. He grabs other stuff too, wipes and a toy and a couple of these soft biscuit things that are sitting with the rest of her stuff. He pushes them all into a tote bag with flowers all over it that Stark probably thought was funny, and slings it over his shoulder.

“Ready,” he says, when he finally is. He takes Sarah back and tries to not to feel too nervous, worried that she’ll pick up on it, too.

“Awesome.” Barton opens the front door and waves him through. “After you, Princess Sarah.”

“Princesses are part of a system of oppression,” Bucky says and doesn’t even try to figure out where he picked that up from.

They’re waiting for the elevator, and Bucky is focusing on his breathing, when it arrives with a ding and Steve steps out. He’s whistling, swinging a plastic bag in his hand, but he stops when he sees the three of them there.

“Oh, hey,” he says. He frowns for a second, before he wipes it away and smiles. “Going out?”

“We’re taking Sarah on an adventure,” Barton says cheerfully. “Wanna come?”

“Yes,” Bucky says, knowing it comes out too quick. “You should come.”

Steve just smiles and shakes his head. “Nah, I don’t want to interrupt.” He lifts the bag. “I’ll just put these in your fridge for later, okay?”

“What are they?” Bucky asks. He wants to tell Barton that he doesn’t want to go out and trail Steve back into his apartment instead, but he doesn’t know if that’d be rude. He doesn’t know how to navigate things like that.

“Breakfast,” Steve says, with a shrug. “It’ll keep for later. You guys have fun, now.”

Bucky nods helplessly and lets Barton lead him into the elevator, since that’s what everyone is expecting him to do. Sarah squeals when the doors close between them and Steve. Bucky knows how she feels.

***

Outside, it’s bright and sunny, and the sidewalks are busy with people. Bucky holds Sarah tighter and sticks to the shadow of the Avengers’ Tower.

“It’s not far,” Barton says, something in his voice that might be an apology, like he’s just realised Bucky might have wanted to stay inside.

“S’fine,” Bucky says awkwardly, even though he knows he’s not giving off that impression.

The place Barton is taking them turns out to be one block over from the Avengers’ Tower, a children’s play area on a patch of green, behind a high metal fence that only opens to let them in once Barton scans his security card.

It’s empty of everyone except them, but Barton just leads them over to a solidly-built picnic table, painted bright purple.

“This place is for Stark Industries people only,” he says, “so it’s pretty safe. All the people he hired from SHIELD are antsy about letting their kids out in public right now. You know, in case they’re like… um.”

“Kidnapped by Hydra,” Bucky says, putting Sarah’s bags down. “You can say it.”

Barton shrugs. “Wasn’t sure if it was a sore subject.”

It’s more a gaping, unhealed wound, but Bucky wouldn’t say that, even if he could. “I wasn’t Hydra,” he says. “I wasn’t anything.”

“Yeah, I know.” Barton turns around, grinning as he takes in the park. “You know, Phil won’t let me hang out in here without a kid? Say it’s weird or something. Thank god you got us one.”

“I didn’t get one,” Bucky says. “You guys got her. I’m just watching her.”

Barton makes an impatient noise. “Whatever,” he says. “Swings!”

***

Sarah loves the swings, and the slide, and the merry-go-round. For some reason, she hates the seesaw, even if one of them sits on it with her, but the brightly coloured horses on springs are her favourite.

She seems happy to be sat on one and gently bounced up and down for hours, which gives Bucky something to do, and leaves Barton free to do things like climb to the top of the swing set and walk along the top of the frame.

“Hey, Barnes, take a picture,” he calls. When Bucky turns around, he pulls his cellphone out of his pocket and throws it.

Bucky catches it one-handed, and looks down at the screen. It’s already open to the camera function which is kind of insulting; Bucky knows how to use modern technology.

He holds it up and snaps a picture of Barton mugging for the camera and looking like he might fall off the swing set at any moment.

“If I send this to Director Coulson, will you get in trouble?” he asks, thumbing through Barton’s picture gallery. There are a lot of posed ones of Stark and candid ones of Natasha and Director Coulson and not nearly enough of Steve.

Barton slides down to the ground and saunters over. “So much trouble,” he says, and sounds almost excited about that. “Yeah, send it.”

Bucky doesn’t, just hands the phone back so Barton can decide to do it for himself. He doesn’t understand how you could love someone and see them as rarely as Barton sees Director Coulson, but then Bucky doesn’t pretend to understand love, at all.

Sarah screams, kicking her feet against Bucky’s metal arm, so he gets back to rocking her on the horse, mumbling apologies for having gotten distracted.

***

After they’ve been in the park a while, two women and a guy let themselves in, each in suits and accompanied by a kid.

The man calls out a greeting to Barton, but no one says anything to Bucky. Sarah babbles happily, waving her arms towards the kids.

“Think she wants to go over and say hi,” Barton says, but Bucky doesn’t move.

“I don’t think she does,” he says, eying them the same way they’re eying him. Which is warily.

Bucky thinks he recognises one of the women. He can’t remember why, exactly, but his brain connects her with his weeks and weeks of mental recalibration, deep inside the bowels of Stark Industries, and it makes his fight or flight response kick in.

“Let’s go back,” he says, standing up and pulling Sarah up and into his arms.

“Woah, you sure?” Barton asks, frowning at him.

“Very sure.” Bucky looks around, knowing he’s forgotten something but too unsettled to remember what.

“Diaper bag,” Barton says, lifting it for him and holding it out so Bucky can fit it over his shoulder. He looks torn, glancing over at the new arrivals. “You wanna go back, we’ll go back, but give me two minutes, okay. I wanna go over and say hi, first.”

“You can stay,” Bucky says. He just wants to get out of here. He doesn’t want to wait while Barton talks to people who saw Bucky screaming and swearing and threatening death on everyone who now matters to him.

“No, seriously, just wait one minute,” Barton begs, but Bucky keeps walking, listening to Barton curse him out for a while, before the sounds get lost to the distance.

***

Sarah doesn’t like the abrupt change of scenery. She started sniffling when Bucky plucked her off the swing and she’s screaming her head off by the time they reach the main entrance to the Avengers Tower.

There are always people milling around the lobby, though some days are worse than others, and today it’s packed. Visitors and people in suits with SI badges clipped to their pockets turn to look at Bucky and the screaming baby.

Bucky doesn’t look anyone in the eye, but he imagines they’re all giving him various levels of judgemental looks. He just bundles Sarah past the security guard to the Avengers-only elevator, and for once, doesn’t feel anything more than relief when they’re inside it.

Bucky’s sure he hits the button for his floor, but the doors still open out onto Steve’s. (“Why?” Bucky asks the ceiling but doesn’t get an answer.)

Steve meets them in the hallway before Bucky can jump back into the elevator, a happy smile spreading across his face.

“Hey,” he says, curling his hand around Bucky’s arm. “Did you have fun at the park?”

Bucky nods dumbly, distracted the way he always is when Steve touches him. “She liked the horse things.”

“Good,” Steve says, even though there’s no way he knows what the horse things are. “What did you like?”

Bucky shrugs. “Her liking the horse things?” he says, because it’s the only thing he can think of. He doesn’t understand why Steve’s smile goes so soft and warm.

“Have you had lunch?” Steve asks. “I was just cooking something.”

“You were?” Bucky asks. He’s aiming for teasing and probably misses, but Steve rolls his eyes, anyway.

Yes, and it’s going to taste amazing, just you wait.”

“Okay,” Bucky says. He looks down at Sarah who miraculously stopped crying as soon as she saw Steve. “Cap thinks he can cook.”

Steve doesn’t respond for a second, then, “I can cook,” he says, sounding scandalised. He tightens his grip on Bucky’s arm and pulls him along toward the kitchen. “Sam taught me how to make fajitas.”

Bucky doesn’t know what a fajita is but the word conjures up memories of something good-tasting, so he must have had one before. “Anything for Sarah?” he asks.

“Of course,” Steve says, like there was never any question about that. “There’s some formula. JARVIS says she doesn’t like fruit puree.”

“Yeah,,” Bucky says, rather than asking why Steve and the House have been talking about what his… what the baby likes to eat. “She’s really not a fan of that.”

“Maybe we could try it again,” Steve says, but Bucky shakes his head.

“The House made up some real nice mushy banana shit and she hated it. I’m not gonna make her eat stuff she hates.”

Steve nods easily. “Fair enough,” he says. “Why don’t you call JARVIS by his name?”

“You don’t wanna know,” Bucky promises him.

He settles down on the couch with Sarah and a bottle, while Steve cooks lunch. The smells coming out of the kitchen make Bucky’s stomach growl, which startles both him and Sarah.

“There,” Steve says, setting a plate of food down within Bucky’s reach.

“Thanks,” Bucky says and then, because it’s weird and unusual and needs recording for posterity, “I think I’m hungry.”

“Good thing there’s food then, huh?” Steve says, sitting down next to him and twisting to face him while they eat.

“No, I mean,” Bucky says, then gives up. He lets Sarah play with the little rubber nipple bit on the empty bottle and shovels fajita into his mouth. It tastes as good as it smells, and he makes a surprised noise around it.

He eats it in maybe four bites, then licks cheese off his fingers, surprised to find that Steve is only one bite into his.

“What?” Bucky asks. “Did you want table manners?”

“No,” Steve says faintly, “no, you’re fine. What did you mean?”

“Hmm?” Bucky asks, then remembers. “Oh, nothing. I guess I forgot what it’s like to feel hungry?” That’s not quite what he meant either. Before Steve found him, he was hungry a lot, but that was a debilitating, gnawing pain. Before that, it was Hydra and he never felt anything human like hunger, there.

“That’s good,” Steve says smiling, and Bucky lets it go. He can’t blame Steve for not understanding; Steve understands him more often than anyone else does, he’s allowed to slip up, sometimes.

“Can I have some more?” Bucky asks Distracting Steve by needing something always works well.

Steve looks ridiculously pleased. “Yeah, there’s more in the pan,” he says.

Bucky starts to stand, then hesitates. He doesn’t want to disturb Sarah, who’s sunk back into the couch cushions, blinking sleepily.

“Leave her with me,” Steve says softly. “Go on, she’ll be fine.”

Bucky nods. “I know,” he says. “I’m not worried.” He forces himself to stand up and doesn’t understand why he’s being weird about this; he let Barton hold her, earlier.

He walks into the kitchen, making himself move at a regular pace, not rushing at all. He loads up another plate for himself and then one for Steve, then makes himself wait ten more seconds, just to prove he can.

Sarah’s asleep when he goes back out to join them, and Steve’s just watching her, lunch abandoned. He’s got a small, crooked smile on his lips as he watches her breathe in and out.

Bucky feels a sharp spike of pain in his chest, which he puts down to the fajitas, and walks forward to hand Steve more food.

***

The next few days pass by in a peaceful sort of routine. No one makes Bucky and Sarah go outside again, which is good, except that he worries that she might be growing bored with him, but Steve comes around to make them lunch every day, and she seems okay with Bucky’s company the rest of the time.

Bucky and Sarah are lying on the floor, one afternoon, making a pink pony fight a Hulk action figure, when the House clears its throat and says, “I’m sorry to interrupt, Sergeant Barnes, but Mr Stark requires your presence in his laboratory.”

“Tell Mr Stark I’m kinda busy,” Bucky says. He makes a face at Sarah, who giggles.

The House doesn’t go away. “I understand that, sir, but I believe this is very important. It concerns the baby.”

“What about her?” Bucky asks, looking up.

“Barnes!” Stark’s voice cuts straight in through the speaker system. “Stop being a homebody freak and bring the kid down. This is important.”

“Tony,” Bucky hears Banner scold, just before the radio clicks off.

Bucky looks at Sarah and seriously considers staying right where they are; let Stark come for them, if he needs them bad enough. But then he remembers the blood he drew from Sarah the other day and worries there might be something wrong with her.

“Okay,” he tells her, standing up. “We’re going downstairs, but there’s nothing to worry about.”

“Ba,” Sarah says, not sounding nearly as worried as Bucky feels.

***

They find Stark and Banner spinning holographic pages back and forth between each other and talking a mile a minute.

Stark spins around when Bucky and Sarah come through the door, points his finger at them, and proclaims, “Aha!” Then he goes back to arguing with Banner.

“What?” Bucky asks, walking toward them. When they don’t answer him fast enough, he raises his voice. “Fucking what?”

Banner jumps, but he’s also the one who finally lets Bucky in on what’s going on. “We got the results back on her DNA,” he says. “We think we found out who her parents are.”

Bucky had been so busy worrying that something might be wrong with Sarah, that it hadn’t occurred to him to worry that they might have found someone to take her away, instead. “Okay,” he says slowly. He can do this. This is fine. “Who are they?”

Stark frowns at him. “What? Oh, we don’t know.”

This is like getting whiplash, but in slow motion. “You just said you’d found out who they are.”

Banner grimaces. “I misspoke. I should have said that we’d found out what they are. We’re no closer to identifying them.”

Bucky sits down on the nearest lab bench and sets Sarah down on her back so she can kick her feet or do that thing where she tries to suck her toes.

“And they’re what, exactly?” Bucky asks. “Hydra?” He has no idea how you could tell that from someone’s DNA, but these guys probably could.

“No,” Banner says at the same time that Stark says, “Yes.”

Bucky gives them what he has heard Barton describes as his Murder Eyes and hopes they get the hell on with it.

“Okay,” Banner says with a quelling look at Stark. "Did you ever hear of anyone who Hydra was experimenting on?"

Bucky raises his eyebrows then pointedly looks down at himself before looking back at Banner.

"Yes, well," Banner says, sounding awkward. "I don't mean that, or the super soldier serum. No, we think that Hydra might have been experimenting on people, trying to create a new..." He looks at Stark as though struggling for the word.

"Race," Stark says flatly. "Because they're creepy Nazi assholes. We're pretty sure they were experimenting with genetics. Along the way, it looks like they accidentally gave people crazy powers instead, and then they switched their research focus over to doing that some more. Because that's always a good idea."

"Superpowers?" Bucky asks. "Like..." He nods at Banner.

Banner ducks his head. "The Hulk isn't a superpower, he's a mutation. But yes, essentially, like that."

Bucky puts his hands over Sarah's ears, even though she's far, far too little to understand. He feels stupid as soon as he does it, and Stark's wide smile doesn't help, but he doesn't take his hands away. "Are you saying they were experimenting on Sarah?" He'll find them and he'll kill them, if they were. All the ones he hasn't already found and killed, anyway.

"No," Banner says. "Probably," Stark says. They really need to work on that.

"We're almost sure they were experimenting on her parents," Banner says. "There's no evidence they were experimenting on her, but there are some markers in her blood that aren't exactly, um, expected."

"Human," Bucky corrects for him. He strokes his hand over the top of Sarah's head. "But she's okay, though?"

"I'm not a pediatrician," Banner says, "but she seems well."

"Yeah, if she starts shooting laser beams out of her eye sockets, we'll reassess that," Stark says.

"Laser beams?" Bucky asks. "Is that likely?"

"It was a joke," Banner promises. He glares at Stark. "Not a funny one. No one wants her to turn into Scott Summers."

"Kitty Pryde though," Stark says thoughtfully. "That'd be pretty cool. Love that girl."

Bucky slides down off the bench and picks up Sarah. "I have no idea what either of you are talking about," he tells them. “Do you actually need us for anything?” He wants to get out of here. So what if Sarah isn’t all the way human? Neither’s he. It makes them slightly more of a match.

"No, wait." Stark makes grabby hands at Sarah, but doesn't actually grab her. "We need to study her some more and see - "

"No." Even one handed and while keeping Sarah tucked safely out of the way, Bucky has Stark pinned to the opposite wall of the lab in point eight seconds. It would have been half that without the baby to consider. "There will be no studying her. Is that clear?"

"Crystal," Stark wheezes. He rubs his throat as soon as Bucky drops his arm. "Jeez, I wasn't going to dissect her, just a bit of harmless blood-taking, maybe a few gentle experiments."

"Tony," Banner says, shaking his head, and Stark subsides.

"None of you are any fun," he's muttering as Bucky stalks angrily out of the room. "And you all have a worryingly low opinion of me."

The lab door is automatic and it slides, so Bucky can't slam it behind himself. He settles for kicking it hard with the back of his foot once it's closed, but the thud it makes isn't nearly as satisfying.

Sarah whimpers, clutching the front of his shirt sadly. She seems unsettled and Bucky feels unsettled, so he does the only thing that he ever does when he feels bad and heads to Steve's quarters.

Except, Steve isn't there. Bucky knocks on his door when Steve doesn't meet them at the elevator, then sticks his head inside, calling Steve's name, but nothing.

"Where is he?" he asks.

"Captain Rogers is having lunch with Agent Romanov and Staff Sergeant Wilson," is the answer. "He left twenty-seven minutes ago."

Great, if Steve is hanging out with Natasha and Sam, he'll be gone hours. Bucky doesn't know what those three talk about, but all the times he's watched them, they've always laughed and joked like they're having a great time. He knows Steve enjoys seeing them; he just wishes Steve didn't have to enjoy seeing them today.

"Thanks," he says and turns to leave. Then he thinks better of it, letting himself back into Steve's apartment.

He does a slow circuit of the apartment, showing Sarah the best way to check a perimeter, then settles down on the couch with her. She curls easily into his chest, making little wet smacking noises with her lips for a while before dropping off to sleep.

Bucky wishes he could fall asleep like that, or at all. He's spent the last four nights on the floor of her nursery, watching her sleep. It hasn't been hard; he really doesn't need much sleep, but all of a sudden, it's catching up with him and his eyes and his limbs feel heavy.

He struggles to keep his eyes open. Even in Steve's apartment, he can't just let his guard down, not when Sarah's relying on him, but it's really hard.

"Did you know that your Uncle Steve is a war hero?" he asks Sarah, who doesn't wake up, let alone answer. "Well, he is. They gave him a whole bunch of shiny medals, but he thinks I don't know about them, and he doesn't talk about them, just because they didn't give me any. Your Uncle Steve is kind of dumb."

She makes a little hiccup noise, which he decides is definitely meant as agreement.

"Yeah," Bucky says, stroking her back. "Totally dumb. He lets us into his apartment unsupervised, even. How stupid is that?" He doesn't continue with that thought. He doesn't want to tell her all the things the Winter Soldier could have done with unrestricted access to Steve's bedroom, all the things Bucky could still do if the mind tricks SHIELD played on his brain ever break down and send him back there again.

He knows he should tell Steve to revoke his access or if (when) Steve refuses, tell Stark to, but he's selfish and he's tired, and he knows he never will.

"I'm not a good man," he tells Sarah, but she doesn't seem concerned. She smiles in her sleep, as though she's not sleeping on a deactivated weapon.

Bucky closes his eyes. They're sore and dry and he'll just rest them for a moment.

***

He wakes up because someone is trying to take Sarah out of his arms. Bucky reacts instinctively, going for the knife at his back and curling defensively around Sarah at the same time.

"Bucky," he hears, "Bucky, sorry, it's me, it's only me."

Bucky sinks back into the sofa and this time, he lets Steve take Sarah. "Goddammit, Steve," he groans. "I need more warning than that."

"Yeah, sorry." Steve sinks into the armchair opposite the sofa, slipping a bottle into Sarah's mouth when she starts to fuss. "You looked sound asleep, though; I didn't wanna wake you."

"I wasn't asleep; I was just resting my eyes," Bucky says. He rubs a hand over his eyes, which feel gummy but less sore. "Fuck, what time is it?"

"Almost four," Steve says. "JARVIS says you've been here a couple of hours."

"Fuck," Bucky says and sits up. His body feels heavy and lethargic, not used to snatching sleep in chunks anymore, or to sleeping during the day. He spies a mug of coffee on the table and looks at Steve hopefully.

"No, that wasn't for you," Steve says, then sighs, "but you can have it."

"You're the best," Bucky says and snatches it up. He drinks exactly half before sliding it back across the table to Steve. "How was your lunch date?"

"It wasn't a lunch date," Steve says. He blushes anyway, which Bucky knows he hates. He always used to complain when they were kids that his face would flush even though he swore up and down he wasn't really embarrassed. Bucky blinks; that's a new memory. "Or if it was, it was Sam and Natasha's lunch date."

"Were you a third wheel?" Bucky asks, grinning. He doesn't know why the idea that Sam and Natasha might be dating each other fills him with something like relief, but it does.

"Only at the end," Steve says. He leans forward, careful of Sarah, and makes an exaggeratedly horrified face. "They shared dessert."

Bucky laughs and doesn't say that that sounds kind of nice. "Shocking," he says. "The morals of young people, today."

Steve laughs, a burst of sound that seems to take him by surprise. "I know," is all he says, but the way he looks at Bucky is soft and fond and delighted. Bucky doesn't know why he's looking at him like that; it's not the first joke he's ever made, or anything.

***

Sarah is fussy all the following morning. Bucky spends an hour standing with her in front of their floor to ceiling window, looking out on the bright, sunny day over Manhattan, and trying to persuade her to cheer up.

“This is dumb,” he tells her, eventually. “There’s nothing scary about going outside.”

The noises she makes back at him seem to say I know, dumbass, so he gets them both dressed and prepares to head out alone.

The elevator stops at Steve’s floor, even though he definitely didn't ask it to, but Bucky shakes his head. “No, thanks,” he says. “We don’t need backup.”

If elevator doors can close reluctantly, then the elevator doors close reluctantly, but the elevator takes him downstairs with no more detours.

The sun hits Bucky dead in the eye as soon as they step out onto the sidewalk, so he pulls back, lurking in the shade with Sarah until he can see again, and he knows he’ll be able to protect her, if anything comes at them.

He’s only planning to go as far as the play area Barton showed them the other day, but he forgot that it’s Stark Industries-only, and Bucky doesn’t have a Stark Industries ID. He could probably get one, if he asked, but he doesn’t like the idea of being on that public a record (at least, of knowing he’s on that public a record; he’s sure Stark’s entered his details on all manner of things without his consent).

“Shit,” he says when the gate won’t budge, even when he hits it with his metal fist. He looks up at the fence, but it’s ten feet tall with no hand grips, and he’s not going to scale it with a baby in his arms. (He could, but he’s trying to be a good role model.)

He’s just about to turn away and see if there’s some kind of public park that won’t be too overwhelming, when someone pushes a stroller off the sidewalk and smiles at him.

“Hi,” she says, raising a hand to shield her eyes from the sun. “You were here the other day, weren’t you? With Agent Barton?”

Bucky doesn’t recognise her, but she must have been in the park when he and Barton were. There’s a little boy staring at him from the stroller, gnawing on the ear of a stuffed rabbit.

“Uh, yeah,” he says. He bounces Sarah a little, then wishes he hadn’t when the woman’s eyes go to her. “That was us.”

“Is it locked?” she asks, finally looking away from Sarah to frown at the door.

“No, I just left my pass at home,” Bucky lies. “We were going to go get it.”

She smiles, shaking her head. “Good thing I’m here then, isn’t it?” She reaches up to pinch Sarah’s cheek and Bucky doesn’t know what to do; he knows he shouldn’t snatch Sarah out of the way then break this woman’s arm, so he freezes and allows it.

“I’m Laura, by the way,” she says, swiping her card through the reader. “Agent Arnold.”

She turns to grab the handles of her stroller, pulling it backward through the gate before Bucky can unstick himself enough to hold it for her. He feels like a dud for letting a lady struggle, but he knows the world doesn’t work like that, anymore.

“James Barnes,” he says then wonders if he should have said Bucky instead - at least he feels like Bucky, Steve’s Bucky, he doesn’t feel anything like James Barnes. He hasn’t had to introduce himself to anyone in a long time; he’s forgotten how to do it.

“Agent?” she asks, closing the door once Bucky and Sarah have followed her through.

Bucky chokes on a laugh. “Not even,” he says. “Just one of Stark’s hangers-on.”

“Now, I don’t believe that,” she says. She kneels down in front of the stroller and unbuckles the little boy. “This is Ryan. He doesn’t believe it, either.”

“Yeah?” Bucky can’t help smiling. “Well, this is Sarah and she knows I’m telling the truth.”

Laura stands up, watching Ryan idly while he stumbles around on the grass, apparently not totally down with walking, yet. “Hi Sarah,” she says, taking one of Sarah’s hands and shaking it carefully. “Don’t let your daddy put words in your mouth.”

“I’m not,” Bucky starts then stops himself. If he says he’s not her dad; he’ll have to explain what he is and what the hell is he? Her half-robot babysitter? “I’m not putting words in her mouth.”

Laura just laughs, like he’s entertaining or something. He knows ladies used to find him entertaining, but he can’t remember what the hell he used to do to make it happen, and he’s pretty sure it wasn’t making up conversations with babies.

They split up while Laura takes Ryan to play on the slide and Bucky and Sarah go back to her favourite bouncing horse thing. Sarah squeals as soon as Bucky puts her on it, smiling wide enough to show her little pink gums, like she remembers being here the other day.

“Looks like she’ll be sitting up by herself, soon,” Laura says, appearing unexpectedly at Bucky’s side.

Bucky looks at Sarah who’s listing precariously to one side, supported by his hand around her side. “Really?” he asks, doubtfully.

“Definitely.” Laura squats down next to him, reaching out to poke Sarah in the tummy, making her laugh. “How old is she?”

“I… I forget,” Bucky says lamely. He rubs the back of his head with his free hand, which just so happens to be the metal one. “I’m not good with that kind of stuff.”

Laura’s eyes track the movement, settling on his arm and widening in sympathy. “It doesn’t matter,” she says. He wonders what she’s thinking when she sees him; she probably thinks he’s a war vet.

“It definitely fucking matters,” Bucky says, because how can he not know how old Sarah is? “Sorry, ma’am, pardon my language.”

Laura stares at him for a moment then laughs. “I work for SHIELD,” she says. “I promise I’m not offended by someone saying ‘fuck.’”

Bucky ducks his head, and hates that he’s blushing. He’s all at sea here, trying to talk to an actual person, not an Avenger or a shrink.

“But it’s sweet that you apologised,” she says, putting a hand on his arm.

Bucky frowns down at her hand, not really sure what to do, and after a moment, she withdraws it, holding it up in the air between them like a peace offering or a surrender.

“Where’s your kid?” he asks, when the silence has stretched long enough that even he can tell it’s awkward.

Laura frowns for a second, then, “Oh,” she says, turning. “Ryan!” He’s sitting on a swing that’s too big for him, legs kicking down towards the ground as he tries to make it swing. “Oops. I should probably - ”

“Yeah,” Bucky says, hating that he’s relieved. “We won’t be staying here much longer.”

“Okay,” she says, then smiles at him. “But we’ll see you tomorrow, right? I bring Ryan here every day on my lunch break.”

“Um, sure,” Bucky agrees and makes himself smile back.

***

“How old is Sarah?” Bucky asks, walking into Stark’s lab. He left Sarah with Natasha (who seemed very unimpressed by the prospect) because it turns out he can’t wait the whole length of her nap to find out the answer to this question.

“How the hell would I know?” Stark asks. He doesn’t look up from the hunk of metal he’s welding, just flicks up his visor so Bucky can see his frown. “Do I look like a baby expert, to you?”

Bucky watches sparks fly up towards Stark’s face and has to admit that no, he doesn’t. “We should know how old she is, though, right? I mean, what if there’s something that’s supposed to happen when she’s six months old and it doesn’t happen and we don’t know?”

Stark finally turns off the blow torch and his frown turns into a glare. One lingering spark settles in his beard, but fizzles out before Bucky has to mention it. “Like what? Are you expecting her to start flying?”

Bucky spreads his hands helplessly. “I don’t know,” he says. “But I still think we should find out.”

Stark sighs like this conversation is exhausting him. “Look, we showed her to Coulson’s bouncy, British duckling before we brought her back here. File’s on my desk, maybe there’s something in there?”

“Thank you,” Bucky says, meaning why the fuck didn’t I know about that? Then he realises that they don’t tell him things; he’s never asked, before.

He turns towards Stark’s desk, stopping when he sees how covered in paper and bits of robot it is. “Where on your desk?” he asks, but Stark’s already turned the blowtorch back on.

The Winter Soldier was good at finding stuff by smashing it up, but it turns out that by himself, Bucky likes to do things systematically. It’s weird what he finds out about himself, when he has something to distract him.

He finds the file in less time than he was expecting, the date written across the front in Agent Simmons’s loopy handwriting. Bucky likes her; she got very excited about his metal arm, but never once seemed to forget he was a person.

The file contains page after page of medical jargon, which he doesn’t expect to understand, but slowly finds that he mostly does. There are tests that he recognises the names of without knowing why, medicines and chemical compounds that he’s sure he’s used and not on himself. He doesn’t really want to go down that path, right now, so he focuses on searching for what he’s looking for.

Child is approximately five months old, Simmons has written and okay, there, that’s what Bucky was looking for, that’s good to know. He keeps reading anyway: Project Miracle. Hydra files mostly destroyed. Effects so far: unknown.

“What’s Project Miracle?” he asks, raising his voice this time, so Stark won’t be able to pretend he can’t hear.

“No idea,” Stark says. “Adam Lambert, Time for Miracles? Grateful Dead, I Need a Miracle? Why?”

“No reason,” Bucky says, and closes the file. “Think some of Simmons’s other notes got caught up in here.”

“You’ll have to tell her,” Stark says. “She can come down here, ogle your shiny arm and your perky pecs, and we’ll see if it gives Cap a coronary. Again.”

“What?” Bucky asks. Maybe he unexpectedly understands medical jargon but he sure as hell doesn’t understand Stark.

“Future talk, don’t worry about it,” Stark says, and goes back to ignoring him.

Shaking his head, Bucky lets himself out of the lab and goes to find Sarah. He doesn’t want to think about what Hydra might have done to her, but at least the GH stuff had done good things for Coulson. That should mean it only did good things to Sarah.

Hopefully.

***

“What did you do today?” Steve asks, when he brings them dinner that night.

Bucky doesn’t know why Steve keeps feeding him, but he’s not complaining. Steve seems to know every food place in town and they all love him enough that he comes home with giant portions of stuff that tastes even better than it smells.

“We went to the park,” Bucky says, trying to get Sarah to finish her bottle, although she’s more interested in the paper bag Steve brought their food in. “Sarah made a friend.”

“To the park?” Steve asks, stopping half way through dolling out Chinese dumplings onto two plates. “With Clint again?”

“Hmm? No. Just went by ourselves.” Bucky tips his chin up, hoping Steve won’t make a big deal out of it. He just went outside; it shouldn’t have to be a thing they talk about.

After a minute, Steve nods, though he still looks a little weird. “And Sarah made a friend?” he prompts.

“Yeah, this woman from SHIELD was there, with her kid.” He gives up on getting Sarah to finish the last dregs of her bottle and gives her an empty takeout box to play with. “Hey, Steve?”

Steve hands him a plate of food and sits down. “Yes?”

Bucky fiddles with his fork, watching Steve eat with chopsticks and wondering why he gets silverware. He’s damn sure he could use chopsticks, if he set his mind to it. “What do I… How.” He stops, tries to put a question in order. “What do I tell people, about me? I’m pretty sure that woman today thought I was a vet.”

“You are a vet,” Steve says, without hesitation.

Bucky makes an impatient noise. “Ugh, you know what I mean. A real one. Not…” He waves his hand; Steve already know what he is and what he was.

Steve doesn’t look happy, but he doesn’t press. “Tell her whatever you want,” he says. “You should get to write your own story, now, if you want to.”

“Okay,” Bucky says, thinking about it. He’d rather not tell any story at all, but people are nosy and they always think they have the right to an answer.

“So, are you going to see her again, then?” Steve asks, concentrating on picking up a spring roll and dipping it in chili sauce.

Bucky shrugs. “Probably. Sarah likes the park and apparently she and her kid go there every day.”

“She told you that?” Steve asks. It seems to be taking him a stupid amount of time to eat his spring roll. If he’s not careful, Bucky’s going to steal it from him.

“Yes,” Bucky says, dragging it out. “Don’t panic, she’s Stark Industries and SHIELD; she’s not a threat.”

“That wasn’t what I was thinking,” Steve says, but then he doesn’t add anything else, so obviously he was.

“You don’t need to worry about me,” Bucky tells him, around the mouthful of rice. “I’m not the one who jumped off Mrs Malarky’s roof because Betty Jordan bet me six apples I wouldn’t.” He stops, frowning. “Wait, did that happen?”

Steve is staring at him, whatever was bugging him before forgotten. “Yes, that happened,” he breathes. “I broke my leg, you yelled at me worse than my mom did, and wouldn’t visit me for a week.”

Bucky tries to pretend his hands aren’t shaking. “Yeah, well,” he says. “You deserved it, being dumb like that.”

Steve’s smile is just as shaky as Bucky’s hands. “Yeah, I guess I did. Mom made pie with those apples, and she gave it to you and your folks, ‘cause she said I didn’t deserve any.” He leans forward, looking eager. “Do you remember that, too?”

Bucky tries, he really does, but as soon as Steve reminds him of something, he can picture it, and then he’s not sure if it’s a real memory or if he’s just building it up from little scraps of other things. “I don’t know,” he says, “sorry.”

“No,” Steve says immediately. “Don’t apologise, Bucky, for heaven’s sake. You remembered the important part.”

“The important part where you’re a dumbass?” Bucky asks.

Steve grins and throws his spring roll at him. Even though it’s soggy now from the extra dipping it got in the sauce, Bucky makes sure to pick it off the front of his shirt and eat it, smirking at Steve the whole time.

***

Bucky wakes up to the sound of smashing glass and high-pitched screaming. He sits up, almost falls on the floor before he realises he was on the couch not in his bed, and throws himself across the room to the kitchen, where the screaming is coming from.

Sarah is sitting on the kitchen counter, half propped against the faucet, the smashed remains of a tall glass scattered all around her.

Bucky skids and slams into the counter, only noticing that there’s also glass on the floor when he feels it slice through the sole of his foot. He grabs Sarah and clutches her to his chest, while she screams and screams as though she’s never been more afraid.

“What the fuck?” he mumbles into the top of her head. “What the fuck? How did you get up there?”

Sarah hiccups and cries and doesn’t give him any clue at all. His feet are definitely bleeding, but he ignores that, bouncing her around in his arms, while he looks around the kitchen, totally confused. The counter is waist height and there’s nothing she could have climbed on to get up there, even if she were crawling, which she’s not.

Plus he’s certain - he’s almost certain - he put her in her crib before he dropped down onto the couch for a rest.

“Did I put you up there?” he asks. He really, really wishes she could answer him, because fuck, what if he did?

He didn’t; he can’t have, why would he have put her up there?

Fuck.

Bucky carries Sarah into the living area and drops down onto the couch. She’s less panicked now, one hand clutched in the side of his t-shirt, and her sobs have turned into quiet sniffles.

Bucky lays her down on the cushion next to him and rubs a shaky hand over his face. He’s used to waking up that hard and that fast after a nightmare, but this was something else. He’s not used to the terror carrying over into reality; he doesn’t know what he would have done if Sarah had been hurt.

Obviously Sarah doesn’t approve of being this far away from Bucky, because she shrieks again, working herself back up.

“No, no, hey, it’s all right,” Bucky says automatically and picks her back up. He twists around so they’re both lying lengthways on the couch and puts Sarah down on his chest. “Let’s just lie here and not tell anyone that happened, okay?”

If he tells, they’re going to take Sarah away, and he can’t let that happen. He’s just going to have to try harder to take care of her.

***

Bucky’s feet hurt like fuck in the morning, because lying awake on the sofa with Sarah all night seemed more important that plucking the bits of glass out of them. Hell, it was more important, but then he goes to stand up in the morning and, yeah, it really hurts.

He’s sitting on the floor, trying to pull little slivers of glass out of his skin with his fingernails, when someone knocks on his door.

“Don’t let him in,” he tells the House, but it’s too late, the door’s already swinging open. It’s not Steve, which is surprising, it’s Natasha, carrying a now-familiar bag in both hands.

“Cap got called into a meeting with Coulson, but he was worried you might starve - ” she starts as she walks around the couch. Then she stops, raising both eyebrows exaggeratedly. “What happened?”

“I dropped a glass,” Bucky says. “Then I stepped on a piece of it.”

“That was stupid,” she says, putting the deli bag on the table and kneeling down beside him. “Where’s the kid?”

“In her play thing,” Bucky says, nodding at the giant plastic thing that is Stark’s latest purchase. Bucky doesn’t know how half of it is supposed to work, but it makes noises when Sarah hits it, so she loves it.

“Let me see that,” Natasha says, knocking Bucky’s metal hand out of her way like it’s nothing. She sucks in a noise that sounds more disapproving than worried. “Don’t walk on glass, James; that’s just stupid.”

He smiles, watching while she slides pieces of glass out of his skin with the kind of skill that comes from experience. “So I’m learning,” he agrees.

“Bandages?” she asks, once she’s done and she’s tipped a tiny pile of bloody glass onto his coffee table.

“Nah,” Bucky says, relieved when she lets it go at that. “Thanks.”

Natasha shrugs. She’s not like Steve, she won’t fuss, and that should be a relief, but it makes him feel weird, for some reason.

She reaches for the bag, handing him a wrapped bagel; then taking one for herself. Bucky would point out that she has his blood on her hands, but from everything he knows about her, he’d guess she knows that and doesn’t care.

“So,” she says, which he also knew was coming. “How’s life as The Pacifier?”

“That’s a movie?” Bucky guesses. Natasha told him once that she spent a year watching every American movie she could find so she’d understand what everyone around her was talking about. He’s going to do that too, one day, mostly just so he understands what Stark’s talking about.

Or some of what Stark’s talking about; he doesn’t want to aim too high.

“It’s a movie,” she agrees. “Big tough Navy SEAL looking after an adorable little kid. It seemed appropriate.”

Bucky wants to tease, ask if she really thinks Sarah’s adorable, when she so clearly doesn’t like kids. What he comes out with though is, “I’m really not a SEAL.”

“It’s a metaphor,” Natasha says, rolling her eyes.

Bucky smiles. He likes that she treats him the same way she treats Barton or Stark, like they’re annoying nuisances who’ve wandered into her life and who she’s prepared to tolerate. It reminds him of something. Maybe the sisters everyone seems so sure he had.

“Sarah and I are fine,” he says, belatedly answering her question. Then, something occurs to him and he tries not to let the panic show on his face. “Why? What’ve you… Did something…?” The House could have told her what happened with the glass, Bucky realises; he could have tattled on him at any time.

“Woah,” Natasha says, holding up her free hand. “I was just making conversation.” Maybe she had been, but her eyes are calculating now. Shit, Bucky fucked up.

“I gotta go out in a minute,” he says, even though he'd been planning to stay here and stare anxiously at Sarah, all day.

“Where?” Natasha asks. “Can I come?”

“To the park with Sarah,” Bucky says blandly. “Sure you can come. Do you wanna push her on the swings or take her down the slide?”

Natasha slowly, gracefully pulls back. “I’ll let you guys do that by yourselves,” she says, rising to her feet and taking the paper from both their bagels to drop in the trash. “Have fun.”

“Thanks,” Bucky says, waving her off and trying not to look like he’s worried about anything. As soon as she’s gone, he rolls over onto his belly and leans his chin on the carpet next to Sarah.

“Wanna go out again, darlin’?” he asks. “We could go see if Ryan and his mom wanna play.”

“Ba ba ba,” Sarah says, and well, who’s Bucky to argue with a lady?

***

It’s colder outside today and Bucky starts to wonder about buying Sarah a winter coat. Then he shakes his head at himself because wow, that’s dumb. He’s not going to get to keep her, he knows he’s not, there’s no sense thinking about winter.

“Wasn’t sure you’d be here today,” Bucky says, when Laura lets them into the playground.

“What?” Laura asks. “Just because it’s a little chilly? I keep telling you, Barnes, I’m a SHIELD agent.”

“Right, right, dumb of me,” Bucky says, laughing. He puts Sarah on a swing next to Ryan, sitting beside her in the sand so he can hold her tight and swing her gently.

“Do you guys live far away?” Laura asks, leaning against the side of the swing set and watching Bucky and Sarah more than she’s watching Ryan.

Bucky’s head snaps up as he frowns at her, trying to work out why anyone would want to know that. She just looks back at him, expression open and calm. “It’s going to rain soon,” she clarifies. “You don’t want to get caught in that without a coat.”

Right. Right, obviously. Shit, Bucky is fucking paranoid. “Not far,” he says and then, to make up for his secret, internal suspicion, adds, “at the Tower.”

“Stark Tower?” she asks, then laughs. “Of course you do. I should have guessed.” When Bucky frowns, she explains, “Your arm. Of course it’s something Tony Stark made.”

Bucky does his best not to flinch. Stark did offer to build him a new one, but this one’s Bucky’s now; for all it was made by Hydra, it almost always feels like his, now.

“You should invite us in some time,” Laura says. “I bet the apartments are nicer than the cubicles Stark has us working in.”

“Stark Industries doesn’t have cubicles,” Bucky says. Stark ranted for an hour once, about how he was going to be better than fucking Google and their fucking slide.

“I know,” Laura says, laughing. “I was joking.”

“Okay.” Bucky nods and tries to look like he gets the joke. Human interaction is exhausting sometimes; he misses the days when he could just lock himself in his bedroom and talk to the ceiling.

***

The Tower is really quiet when Bucky and Sarah get home. Instead of going straight up to his apartment, he decides to go via the Avengers’ common area, maybe say hi for once and try to be sociable, but there’s no one there.

There’s always at least someone there, even if it’s just Barton sleeping on the couch or Thor shouting at the internet.

“Are they on another mission?” Bucky asks the House. He tries to work out why he feels sad about that and fails; he’s never minded being left behind, before.

“I’m afraid so, sir,” the House tells him. “Captain Rogers asked me to ask you to ‘turn your damn cell phone on’ so that next time, he might inform you himself. That is a direct quote, of course.”

“I have a cell phone?” Bucky asks. He’s never needed one; who’s going to call him?

“I believe it is currently under your bed, sir,” the House says, sounding just a little disapproving.

“Lots of things are under my bed,” Bucky says. All the James Barnes stuff Coulson had in his creepy collection, for a start.

The only answer he gets is a very polite, “Indeed, sir.”

He’s just about to head upstairs, after all, when something occurs to him. “Is Ms Potts around?”

“She is,” the House says. “I believe she is currently in a conference call, but I could interrupt her, if you require her urgently?”

“No, no,” Bucky says quickly. This is a really bad idea, but he just keeps talking. “But if she’s lonely later, we could split dinner?”

“I’ll tell her,” the House says, and it’s probably Bucky’s imagination, but he thinks he sounds approving.

***

“Thank you for inviting me,” Pepper Potts says, sitting down at Bucky’s kitchen table. Bucky instantly wishes he’d wiped it down or something, because her pretty white blouse is probably going to end up stained in week old tomato sauce or baby formula.

“That’s, um, yeah,” Bucky says and drops her plate in front of her before he takes the seat opposite. “Sorry it’s not much.”

Pepper twirls spaghetti expertly around her fork and smiles. “It looks delicious,” she says. “I only had time for coffee and an apple, today.”

“Don’t you have people to bring you food?” Bucky asks, stabbing at a meatball. “I thought you business types had a million secretaries or something.”

“PAs,” Pepper says. “Personal assistants. I used to, but they keep turning out to be so efficient that I promote them and then I lose their services.”

Bucky grins. “Tricky.”

“It is,” she agrees, smiling too. “I’ve had to stop telling Tony; he keeps offering to make me a robot PA, instead.”

“He does like robots,” Bucky agrees. He waves his metal fingers. “He has conversations with my arm sometimes that have nothing to do with me.”

“Yes, he does that,” Pepper says, sounding fond. “Do you - ?” She breaks off when a soft, plaintive cry crackles over the baby monitor that Bucky put on the table.

“Sorry,” he says, getting up. “She doesn’t like being on her own.”

“Bring her out here,” Pepper says immediately. “I don’t mind.”

Bucky flashes her a smile, then hurries to Sarah’s bedroom, where Sarah is kicking up a fuss, feet battering against the bars of her crib, hands waving in the air.

“Darlin’,” Bucky says, scooping her up. “Don’t make such a commotion; we got a nice, sophisticated lady sitting down to supper out there.”

He picks her up, holding her against his chest the way he always does, and her arms flail around the way they always do, but this time, they make contact, wrapping around his neck as far as they can reach, like she’s hugging him back.

Bucky’s heart does something fast and bright and kind of painful. He’s not going to do the cliche thing of saying it thaws right then in that moment, but it definitely gets a little bigger.

“Wanna come eat dinner with us?” Bucky asks Sarah, who says “ba ba ba,” enthusiastically in response.

A smile splits Pepper’s face when she sees Sarah, her face tucked under Bucky’s chin and her arms still, somehow, holding onto him.

“Oh there she is. Hi Sarah,” Pepper says. Then, to Bucky, “Is she okay? Should I go?”

“No,” Bucky says, before it occurs to him that maybe she’s just being polite and hanging out with a dude she hardly knows and a crying kid isn’t how she planned to spend her whole evening. “I mean, you can if you want?”

“Not if I’m not in the way.” She smiles and shakes her head, picking up her glass of water and taking a sip. Bucky should have given her wine, he realises. Classy dames like wine.

“You wanna hold her?” Bucky offers, since it seems the thing to say.

Pepper hesitates then wrinkles her nose. “I better not,” she says. “I’m terrible with babies; they always try to jump out of my hands.”

“That can’t be true,” Bucky says, walking around as he talks, since Sarah seems to like the bouncing. “You look after Stark pretty good; you must be great at kids.”

She laughs, even though he knows he could have said it smoother, made it funnier. “Man-children aren’t quite the same,” she says and that fondness is back in her voice. She must really love him, Bucky guesses; lucky Stark.

“You’re very good with her,” Pepper says, watching them closely. “Have you thought about what you’re going to do?”

“Do?” Bucky asks, even though he knows, probably knows, what she’s getting at.

“With Sarah,” Pepper says, undeterred. “I know SHIELD is looking for her parents, but Phil’s stretched thin enough as it is, I doubt they have many resources to spare on that. If they don’t find her, would you like to keep her?”

Bucky makes himself laugh as though that’s the craziest thing he’s ever heard. Hell, it is the craziest, and crazier still is how much he wants it. “No one’s gonna let me have a baby, ma’am,” he says. “They’re still debating whether to let me have US citizenship and I already had that.”

“You already have Sarah, too,” Pepper points out. “I think you’d be surprised how much weight that carries.”

“Ms Potts,” Bucky says. He knows his hands have tightened around Sarah, so he makes a conscious effort to ease up. His metal hand could hurt her, if he’s not careful. “Don’t, please.”

Pepper stands up and crosses the room to him, very carefully laying a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to push. If you don’t want to keep her, then of course that’s different.”

“It ain’t a question of wanting,” Bucky says. “I do… I do want.” He cuts himself off, taking himself and Sarah across the room to the window, where they don’t have to think about impossible things.

“I’m sorry,” Pepper says again, softer this time.

“D’you want dessert?” Bucky asks, abruptly. “There’s ice cream.”

Pepper’s voice lifts like she’s deliberately trying to lighten the mood. “Ice cream would be lovely.”

Bucky nods, but still can’t make himself look at her.

“I’ll get it,” she says. “One scoop or two?”

“Three,” Bucky says and wishes Steve were here. Steve would tell him, if getting his hopes up is as dumb as he think it probably is. But Steve’s not here and now, with Sarah’s weight against his chest, Bucky’s hopes are definitely up.

***

Bucky doesn’t usually sleep well or easily, although it’s been getting better since he’s had Sarah around to wear him out.

Tonight, he stares at the ceiling and struggles with his racing brain for what his internal clock tells him is exactly fifty-one minutes, before he remembers what the House told him about Steve.

He rolls onto his side and fishes around under his bed, ignoring everything he touches until he finds the flat, plastic case of his cell phone.

He’s not sure when he got one, just that Stark kept pressing it on him, telling him he’d left it lying around, until Bucky got the message and remembered to at least keep it in his own apartment. He presses the power button, blinking in the darkness when the screen bursts into brightly lit life.

A shower of missed call and text notifications flood in as soon as it’s found a network, temporarily overwhelming him. Alexander Pierce gave him a cell phone a few times, but those were only ever to be used to feedback intel for missions. There were no chatty text conversations like the ones Bucky knows Barton and Coulson keep up on a pretty regular basis.

A lot of the messages are old: Steve checking in, Stark randomly sending him disconnected thoughts, Natasha or Banner asking about his dinner preferences. There are even some from Thor, mostly pictures of him and a dark-haired woman in front of random parts of London, which Bucky recognises without remembering ever having been there.

The most recent two are from Steve, a couple of hours apart from today:

Did JARVIS give you my message? Sorry to run out on you.

How’s Sarah?

Bucky blows out a breath and rolls out of bed. He’s been a shitty friend; all these people have tried to connect with him and he hasn’t even noticed.

He walks silently through the dark to the other room, where Sarah is sleeping peacefully, wrapped from neck to toe in a Captain America onesie that Barton thought was hilarious, for some reason. Strands of dark hair are stuck to her bedding and her cheek.

Bucky leans in and smooths it back, holding his breath that she won’t wake up. When she doesn’t, just makes a smacking noise with her lips a few times, he lifts his phone and searches for the camera function. The flash seems to light up the room like lightning to Bucky, but Sarah doesn’t stir.

Not wanting to wake her now, Bucky goes back to his own room before sending the picture to Steve.

If anyone asks, the reason he doesn’t add a message is that this newfangled technology goes way over his head, and it has nothing to do with having no idea what to say other than we miss you.

Bucky lies back and closes his eyes, resting his phone on his breastbone. When it vibrates a couple of minutes later, he smiles.

Hey, Sarah, Steve has sent. Then, Can I get one of you, too?

Of me sleeping? Bucky sends back, frowning at his phone.

There’s a longer pause, like maybe Steve’s busy or Bucky completely misunderstood.

Whatever you like.

Bucky laughs. Weirdo, he sends, followed by, Good night.

Good night, Steve sends back.

Bucky keeps holding his phone, reading over their conversation, until the screen goes dim and, finally, goes dark.

***

There’s a soft, warm weight against Bucky’s arm when he swims awake the next morning. His brain feels slow and muzzy as though he slept the whole night through, which he can’t have, since he never does that.

“Steve?” he mumbles, definitely mostly asleep, then he hears what he said and his eyes snap open.

He rolls onto his side, coming face to face with Sarah, who’s curled around his arm and just starting to make her sleepy, morning noises.

“What?” Bucky asks, sitting up in a rush and picking her up. “What are you doing in here?”

She blinks at him twice, then starts to cry, waving her hands at his face.

“Sorry, sorry,” Bucky says, hugging her. “Didn’t mean to wake you up so fast.” He bounces her, making shushing noises until she’s calmed down.

He’s very confused. He doesn’t remember waking up to see to her in the night, let alone bringing her back into bed with him. He’s sure you’re not supposed to do that; he’s been reading up on shit on the internet. He’s got to have a greater chance than a normal person of rolling on her and hurting her, since he’s basically a quarter metal.

“House,” he says, “hey, House.”

“Sir,” the House says, sounding like he’s snapping to attention.

“I ever do anything like bring the baby into bed with me again, I need you to sound every goddamn alarm you have, okay?”

“Certainly, sir,” the House, says. It calms some of Bucky’s panic, since he does trust Stark’s house kind of a lot. “However - ”

“Thanks,” Bucky interrupts him. “Thank you.” He stands up, cuddling Sarah and secretly hoping she’ll put her arms around him again. She doesn’t, too busy taking fistsfull of his shirt and sucking on it.

Bucky’s heart is still pounding so hard that he’d be worried about it, if he had room to worry about things that aren’t Sarah and the glitches in his memory that keep putting her at risk.

He should tell someone, he knows. Steve or Stark or anyone, someone who’s not going to freak out and take her away, but even as he’s thinking it, he knows he’s not going to. This is the first thing he’s had for himself in longer than he can remember; he’s not going to fuck it up. He’s going to do better.

***

“What’s wrong?” Laura asks at lunch time the next day. Bucky had taken Sarah to the park on autopilot, not sure what else to do with their day and not wanting to spend the whole time inside.

“Wrong?” he asks. Sarah’s rolling around in the grass by the picnic table, sticking her nose in the daisies growing by the leg of the bench.

“You’re distracted and broody,” she tells him, then smiles when he frowns at her. “Usually you start off distracted and broody then burst into a ray of sunshine the first time Sarah does something cute.”

Bucky shakes his head. “I do not,” he says. “I’m…” He almost said the Winter Soldier, almost said it like it was a joke.

Laura nudges his knee. “You know you can talk to me?”

“Yeah,” Bucky says slowly. He drums his fingers on his thighs. “I don’t know, I’m just… it’s hard looking after a kid, isn’t it?”

“Tell me about it,” Laura says, laughing. She kicks her heels off and stretches her toes out into the grass. “Especially on your own.”

“I’m not on my own,” Bucky says, surprised to find he means it. “But listen does Ryan ever…”

“Ever what?” Laura prompts.

Bucky tries to think about how to phrase it that won’t make him sound completely unbalanced. “Turn up places you’re not expecting?”

“He’s a toddler; all the time,” Laura says after a pause where she watches him. He wonders what he let slip.

“Right, right.” Bucky keeps drumming his hands. “But before that, before he could crawl?”

“No,” Laura says slowly. “Before he could crawl was the last peaceful time in my life.” She leans forward, hands curled around her thighs. “Why?”

“Nothing,” Bucky says quickly. This was a mistake; he shouldn’t have brought it up.

Laura’s eyes stay wide and sincere and locked on his. It’s hard to look away; Bucky is so used to obeying people who look at him like that. “No, James, it’s clearly something. You can tell me.”

“Nothing,” he says, rubbing his hand over his face. “Sometimes I think she got places without me, but that’s crazy, right? I’m just over tired.”

“What kind of places?” Laura asks, softly.

It’s not that Bucky doesn’t trust her, it’s just that he doesn’t trust the way she’s looking at him. It’s too similar to Alexander Pierce, to the men and women who came before him.

“We’ve gotta go,” he says, standing up and scooping Sarah up. She comes with a daisy in her mouth, and mud on her dress and her knees.

“James,” Laura says. She catches them at the gate, which she shouldn’t be able to do since Bucky was walking at top speed and he knows he’s fast. Her hand is strong on his wrist, fingers pressing into his skin. “Talk to me. Let me help.”

“I’ve really gotta go,” Bucky says, pulling out of her grip.

He takes off down the street, Sarah protesting as he bounces her along. At first, he thinks they’ll just head back to the Tower where he can panic in peace, but then he suddenly can’t stand the idea of being trapped again, back in their apartment where the windows won’t open, and people trust him with everything except for himself.

The streets of New York shift from areas he recognises to ones he doesn’t in the space of a few blocks. He hardly ever ventures far from the Tower and, if he does, it’s only in one of Stark’s cars because someone needs him to be somewhere or do something else.

They find a cafe with outdoor seating, metal chairs around metal tables. No one comes out to serve them immediately, so Bucky just leans back in his seat and breathes, whispering apologies into Sarah’s hair for scaring her. Again. He always seems to scare her.

“What can I get you?” a voice asks and Bucky squints up into the sun to see a cute blonde girl with her hair piled up high on her head and a notepad in her hands.

“Tap water?” Bucky says. “I don’t have any money; I’m sorry.”

“What about for her?” the waitress asks, smiling at Sarah who smiles shyly back.

“The water’s for her,” Bucky says. He breathes in deep and rakes up a smile from somewhere. “We won’t hog your table for too long, ma’am, promise.”

“‘Ma’am’,” she echoes, shaking her head. “Take your time, nobody’s waiting on the table.”

It’s easier to smile at her, this time. Once she’s gone, Bucky digs into the diaper bag and pulls out some wipes. He wants to run and run, but he can’t do that with a baby, so he concentrates on cleaning dry mud off her knees, and grass stains off her hands.

When he hears footsteps by their table, he’s feeling calmer, normal enough that he can look up with a genuine smile on his face for the waitress. Except, it’s not their waitress, it’s a tall, dark-haired woman dressed all in black.

“Sergeant Barnes,” she says, voice clipped.

Bucky doesn’t like her tone, and automatically increases his grip on Sarah, tipping his weight onto his feet without letting her see him move.

“Sergeant,” she says again. “I’m Agent Carmilla Black with SHIELD. The Director has asked me to bring you in.”

“The Director asked you to what?” Bucky asks. He stands now, making sure Sarah is on his far side, nowhere near Agent Black.

“He’s worried about you and the baby,” she says. “Don’t worry, everything will be fine.”

“Fury worries too much,” Bucky says, glancing past her shoulder to the waitress who’s hesitating just behind Agent Black.

“You know how he is,” Agent Black says bruskly. She reaches out her hands from Sarah.

“I do,” Bucky agrees. He settles Sarah tight against his side. “Mostly I know he’s dead.” He reaches into the back of his pants and pulls out his knife, going for her with it instantly.

She twists, arm coming up to the block his and staggering back a step when her flesh and blood arm collides with his metal one.

Bucky is distantly aware that people around them are screaming and scattering, but he’s sinking into a place where he can’t hear any of that, where all he can hear and see and think about is the fight.

Now that she’s recovered from the shock of his arm, Black is coming on strong, hands and arms and legs flying and knocking Bucky back one pace then another. Bucky would almost feel sorry for her and the shitty intel she’s been sent in with, but she’s trying to take his baby, so he doesn’t feel anything but hatred.

“The baby!” Bucky hears over the pounding in his ears, the sound of flesh meeting flesh. “Give me the baby!”

Bucky twists, giving Black his back and earning a punch to his kidneys for his trouble. The waitress is standing behind him with her arms out, eyes wide and face determined.

Bucky takes half a second to assess her, then pushes Sarah into her arms, turning and kicking out at Black when she comes at him again. She gets one foot to the centre of his chest, kicking hard against his sternum and using the momentum to flip in midair, coming down in a crouch just in front of him.

There’s a moment where Bucky considers retreating, snatching Sarah and making a run for it, but his blood’s up and he’s furious. He runs at her, sending them both sprawling through the legs of the chairs and onto the sidewalk. Chairs and a table rain down around them, one smacking Bucky hard on the back of the head.

Black rolls to the side, grabbing the first thing at hand, which is the broken back of a chair, and bringing it down on Bucky’s face. He blinks blood out of his eyes and gropes around on the ground for his knife.

His hand closes around it at the same moment that someone grabs him by the back of his collar, wrenching him to his feet.

He spins, snarling, only to come face to face with Iron Man, who has his faceplate up and an angry look on his face. “What the hell is this?” he demands.

“She tried to take Sarah,” Bucky pants, pulling at Stark’s hands, which aren’t relaxing their hold.

“Yeah, we got that,” Stark says. “Hydra?”

“I don’t know. She’s going to get away,” Bucky shouts, except when he finally manages to get free enough to turn back to Black, she’s pinned to the ground by a furious, pale-faced Steve.

The adrenaline drains out of Bucky so fast that his knees feel weak. He watches Steve drag Black to her feet and give her a shake, demanding answers to questions that Bucky’s ears are ringing too hard to hear.

“How are you here?” he asks Stark. It’s strange not to be alone, to have a team at his back, even if it’s Steve’s team, not his.

“JARVIS was tracking you,” Stark says. Bucky would object to that, he really would, but it was helpful this one time.

Steve hands Black over to Natasha and Barton, who are both grim-looking, then turns to Bucky, hands out.

“Buck?” he asks cautiously and finally, finally Bucky gets it. They’ve never seen him fight without it triggering the Winter Soldier, before.

“Still me,” he promises. He leans back against Stark’s chest plate for a second, before shaking off his slackened grip and looking around. “Where’s the waitress?”

“Why, you want a cup of coffee?” Steve asks, relief making his voice wobble. His eyes widen when Bucky’s waitress steps forward, Sarah in her arms. “Hi, there.”

The waitress does a double-take, smile curling her lips. “Hi,” she breathes. “Good to see you, again.”

Bucky steps in and tugs Sarah out of her arms, burying his face into her hair, while he watches Steve and the waitress smile awkwardly at each other.

“You two know each other?” Stark asks, voice climbing in a way that definitely insinuates things Bucky doesn’t want to think about.

“Sure do, Mr Stark,” the waitress says. “Captain Rogers saved my life during the Battle.”

“I did?” Steve asks, sounding flustered. “I used to come here after I woke up. Beth was always my waitress.”

“I bet she was,” Stark says, still teasing. “And now she’s Barnes’s - ” However he ends that sentence, gets drowned out by Sarah’s quiet cries getting abruptly louder.

Steve twirls toward her like a homing pigeon, hurrying over and gripping Bucky’s arm where it’s holding her. “Is she okay? Did they hurt her?”

Bucky shakes his head. He wants to step into the semi-circle of Steve’s arm, put his head on Steve’s chest and shake apart with relief. “She’s okay.” He looks past Steve, nodding at Beth. “Thank you.”

“No problem,” Beth says, eyes flicking from Bucky to Steve and smile widening. “I’m happy to help.”

Bucky has been really good about not leaning into Steve, but Steve ruins it by wrapping his arm around Bucky’s waist and pulling him in until he can press a kiss to the top of Sarah’s head.

“Come on,” he says, “let’s go back to the Tower and get you both checked out.”

“I’m fine,” Bucky protests, but Steve just laughs, moving his arm from Bucky’s waist to his shoulders.

“You never believed me when I said that; you think I’m going to start believe you?” he asks.

“I’m guessing you were lying though,” Bucky says, letting Steve lead him away.

“Yeah,” he hears Stark say behind them, presumably to Beth. “They’re always like that.”

***

“How is she?” Steve asks from the couch when Bucky gets back from settling Sarah in her crib.

“Finally sleeping,” Bucky says, throwing himself down onto the couch next to Steve. He mistimes the drop and ends up closer to Steve than he meant to, their thighs pressed together, but he’s too wiped out to move.

It’s been a long afternoon of medical checkups and debriefing and not being able to punch the throat of former-Agent-now-definitely-Hydra Black, and Bucky’s as tired as Sarah.

Steve shifts even closer, slinging a heavy arm around Bucky’s shoulders. “And you?”

“Not sleeping, yet,” Bucky says, letting his head fall back against Steve’s arm.

“I meant,” Steve starts impatiently, but Bucky shakes his head.

“I know what you meant,” he says. He closes his eyes, completely done with this day. “Why would Hydra want her? She’s just a baby.”

“Hydra aren’t known for their humanity,” Steve says, with a squeeze of Bucky’s shoulders like Bucky might not have noticed that.

“Will you stay?” Bucky asks, surprising himself. He’d been thinking about it, but hadn’t actually meant to ask.

“Yes,” Steve says immediately. “Yes, of course. You know you’re safe here, though, don’t you? Tony might be Tony, but he’d never let anything happen to any of us.”

Bucky sighs a sigh that almost melts into a groan. “I know,” he says. “But I’m just, I don’t know. I’d feel better if you were here. Is that dumb?” When Steve doesn’t answer, Bucky turns toward him, worried that it actually was dumb. “Steve?”

“No, that’s not dumb,” Steve says quickly. His eyes are shiny, which Bucky doesn’t understand until Steve chokes out, “God, Bucky, you’re so much more… you, lately.”

Bucky freezes, not sure what to say. He’s always pushed back against that, scared that if he isn’t the Bucky Steve remembers, Steve won’t want him around anymore, but the way Steve says it, it sounds like he got an unexpected Christmas present.

“I’ve always been me,” he says. He smiles before Steve can rush in to reassure him. “But yeah, I know what you mean. It’s been good for me, I guess, having someone else to worry about.”

“You’re great with her,” Steve assures him. Then, softer, “Do you think you’d like to keep her?”

Bucky looks away, rubbing his hands over his thighs. “Ms Potts asked that, too,” he says. “You guys in cahoots?”

“No,” Steve says. Then, “Maybe a little. She asked me if I thought you’d want to. She offered us… you a lot of lawyers, if you did want to.”

“Fuck, Steve, course I want to,” Bucky says. “But it’s a shitty idea; what kind of dad would I be to her? I’m a murdering fuckup with holes in my memory and a recurring need to lock myself away from the world.”

Steve’s hand lands on Bucky’s back and slides up until he’s squeezing the back of his neck. “You’d be a great dad,” he says, all unshakable sincerity. “I always thought so.”

Bucky twists to look at him over his shoulder. “Always?” He’s pretty sure the version of him who existed before the war was only interested in a future involving Steve. Not settling down and starting a family.

“Yeah,” Steve says softly. His hand slides up from Bucky’s neck to comb through Bucky’s hair, twisting it around his fingers so Bucky can’t look away, again.

Bucky goes still, completely pinned by Steve’s fingers in his hair and Steve’s stupid blue eyes. He’s pretty sure he’s reading this right, he’s almost certain in fact, but he can’t be sure so he doesn’t do anything about it.

“You hungry?” he asks, deliberately breaking the mood before it stretches on. “I could make dinner.”

Steve’s hand stills, then falls from his hair. He gives Bucky a soft smile like he knows exactly what Bucky’s doing and is trying not to mind. “No, I’m okay,” he says. He rocks back in his seat and yawns in a way that clearly starts out fake then turns real. “Mostly I’m jetlagged.”

It’s probably not much past nine, but Bucky’s just as tired. “Yeah, bed sounds good.” He stands up, stretching. “I’ll take the couch, you take the bed.”

“No,” Steve says immediately. “I’ll take the couch.”

Bucky snorts. “You ain’t short enough for that, anymore.” There’s a picture in his mind of Steve, back when he was tiny, curled into an even smaller ball on Bucky’s mom’s flower-patterned couch and he’s almost sure that’s a real memory.

“Guess we’ll just have to share, then,” Steve says, standing up, too. “That okay with you?”

Bucky’s heart starts pounding, about as bad as it did after the fight this afternoon, but it’s not with fear, this time. At least, not just with fear.

“That okay with you?” he counters.

Steve shrugs. “Sure. We used to do it all the time.”

Right, right. Bucky nods. This isn’t Steve making a move on him, this is just a best friends thing; Bucky can deal with this. “Okay. But you gotta tell me now, if you snore. It wouldn’t be fair to withhold that information.”

“I don’t snore.” Steve laughs. “But you do, something fierce.”

“Bullshit,” Bucky unable to help his own laughter in the face of Steve’s.

Steve’s mouth purses sadly, shaking his head slowly. “It’s the truth, Bucky, you just gotta face it.”

“Asshole,” Bucky says, and shoves him in the shoulder. “Go brush your teeth. You lose all your manners in the future?”

Steve goes into the bathroom, still laughing, which gives Bucky just enough time to race into the bedroom and change into clean boxers and a clean t-shirt. He knows getting naked in front of Steve must be a thing he’s done a hundred times, but it feels charged now and he’d rather not add any more confusion to this day.

After Steve comes out and Bucky takes his turn in the bathroom, Bucky checks on Sarah one last time then crawls into bed. Steve’s already half asleep, head pillowed on his arm, but he watches Bucky through squinted eyes, a smile playing around his lips.

“Why are you so happy?” Bucky asks, settling down next to him.

Steve reaches out and lays a hand on Bucky’s side, curling it around Bucky’s hip. Bucky does his best not to gasp or do anything else that Steve could mock him for for life. “You know why,” he says.

“Stop flirting with me, Rogers,” Bucky says. “Or I’m gonna start taking you seriously.”

Steve’s eyes close like he’s defeated or like he’s in pain. “I wish you would,” he says. Then he shakes his head. “Sorry. I didn’t mean that. I don’t need anything more than what we’ve got.”

He’s so fucking gorgeous, and Bucky doesn’t need a full bank of memories to know he always has been. “This is gonna blow up in your face,” he warns seriously then leans in and brushes a kiss across the corner of Steve’s mouth.

Steve’s eyes snap open, and for a second Bucky thinks he’s misread everything, but then Steve brings a hand up, sliding it around the side of Bucky’s face, and holds Bucky still.

“Really?” he asks, like Bucky’s given him a miracle.

Bucky nods, not trusting himself with words, which he still isn’t good enough at, doesn’t trust himself to tell Steve all the ways he meant that kiss.

Steve presses his mouth to Bucky’s, sealing their lips together, while they breathe and both of them shake more than they probably should. Then Steve parts his lips and Bucky’s not going to resist a temptation like that. He kisses Steve for real, the way he somehow knows a guy like Steve should be kissed, making it wet and slow and good.

Steve drags a harsh breath in through his nose, like a startled gasp and rolls onto his back, bringing Bucky with him, so Bucky’s braced over him, looking down at flushed pink cheeks and pressing in closer when the couple inches between them are too much.

“Do you really mean it?” Steve asks, when they have to pause to breathe. “This isn’t because I want it?”

Bucky’s stomach squirms and it’s definitely a good feeling. “Didn’t know you wanted it,” he admits. “Was it supposed to be obvious?”

“It was so obvious that even Tony noticed,” Steve says. He sounds exasperated and fond, and it’s all for Bucky, it’s Bucky’s own to keep.

“Maybe next time spell it out for me,” Bucky says. The blush on Steve’s cheeks isn’t fading, so there’s not much Bucky can do to stop himself from lifting a hand and tracing a finger along the edge of it. It’s warm and it makes Steve’s eyelashes flutter.

“Like this?” Steve asks, leaning up for another kiss.

“Maybe like that,” Bucky agrees against his mouth. He settles himself against Steve’s side, weight propped on one elbow, while they kiss and kiss and don’t stop kissing.

It’s not like anything Bucky can remember feeling before; it’s something like the warm feelings of home that Steve gives him anyway, but it’s more, bigger, scarier and safer all at once. He wonders if this is all Steve wants, or if Steve would want sex, too. If he’d let Bucky strip him down and kiss him everywhere, not just his mouth.

Almost like he’s reading Bucky’s mind, Steve stops kissing his mouth and starts in on his jaw instead, slow, sucking kisses that make Bucky squirm closer and tip his head back for more. Steve licks and kisses down his throat, all the way to his collarbones, mouthing along the right one first, before switching over to the left.

It takes Bucky a second to realise why that feels different and then he has to pull back, put a hand over Steve’s mouth when he seems to want to follow.

“That part’s not really me,” he says, a picture in his mind of the x-ray Stark took of his body, way back when. It’s not just his arm that’s metal, it’s his collarbone, his shoulderblade, half his goddamn ribs.

“It’s all you,” Steve says seriously, “but if you don’t want me to touch it, that’s fine, too.”

Bucky kind of wants Steve to touch it, but maybe not yet. “Yeah,” he says. “Stick to the non-Hydra bits.”

He’s clearly made Steve sad, somehow, but Steve doesn’t dwell on it, just hitches a grin in place that’s at least a quarter for show and asks, “All the non-Hydra bits?”

“Any you’re interested in, sure,” Bucky says, blood bubbling fizzily under his skin.

Steve lifts his head from Bucky’s neck and kisses his lips, again. “I’m interested in all of it,” he says. “But there’s no rush.”

Bucky nods and tries to act like he agrees. “Right, yeah, sure, no rush.”

There isn’t any rush, he knows Steve’s not going to lose him again, but he still worries that if they don’t do this now, they won’t get another chance. They had all their lives before, but they never did it then.

He puts his hand on Steve’s shoulder and pushes him back down against the sheets. “My turn, okay?”

Steve nods, his answering, “Okay,” swallowed up in a groan when Bucky decides to do what Steve did and see how many kisses can fit on one throat.

It turns out to be a lot and it turns out that Steve really likes the feel of it. He squirms and arches under Bucky’s lips, trying to get closer and trying to act like he’s not impatient all at once. Bucky bites him, just once, just to get him to keep still, and is taken by surprise by how loud Steve moans.

“What?” Bucky asks. “Was that bad?”

“That was so far from bad,” Steve promises, so Bucky does it again.

If anyone had asked before, Bucky would probably have said that there was a limit on how much kissing two people could do, that it’d become boring or repetitive eventually, and they’d need to find some other way to occupy their time. It turns out that that’s completely wrong, because however long they kiss for, Bucky just wants to kiss for longer.

“You know what I said about no rush?” Steve asks, voice coming out hoarse and his chest rising up and down on hard breaths.

“Yeah?” Bucky asks, nosing against Steve’s cheek.

“I was thinking maybe,” Steve starts, then the whole room fills with the sound of angry, just-woken crying.

“Shit,” Bucky mutters and rolls out of bed. He turns back to Steve, who’s half-upright, too. “No, no, you stay there. You stay right there.”

Steve grins and falls back amongst the covers, but Sarah is still crying, so Bucky has to leave him, even though he doesn’t want to.

“You’re turning me into a tease,” he tells her, once he’s reached her room and she’s sobbing wetly into his shirt. “What’s even the matter with you?”

She keeps on crying like her heart’s been broken, so Bucky starts pacing up and down her room, murmuring to her about nothing in particular.

“You know, your Uncle Steve is staying here, tonight,” he says. “He’s probably listening over the baby monitor, right now. Hi, Steve. You like your Uncle Steve, right? You want me to be able to go back and keep him company, don’t you?”

Sarah cries and cries and there’s nothing Bucky seems to be able to do about it. Changing her diaper makes her angry, giving her a bottle makes her sadder.

“Ugh,” Bucky says, sitting down on the couch with her and trying to cuddle her close despite her tiny fists that are trying to push him away. “What’s wrong?”

“If I may suggest something, sir,” the House says out of nowhere. “It is a little warm in her room tonight, perhaps she would enjoy some fresh air.”

Bucky looks across at the window he can only crack open and the balcony door that’s permanently locked. “Gonna let me outside, at last?” he asks.

In answer, the balcony door clicks and then slides open, cooler air and a strong breeze rushing into the apartment. Sarah shrieks, but it’s a less miserable sound than before, so Bucky figures the House might know what it’s talking about.

He carries Sarah out toward the balcony, holding her tighter in case the wind’s too strong this high off the ground, but, of course, this is a Stark building, so the balcony above shields theirs, and the angle of the building makes the wind drop so it’s barely noticeable.

“Better?” Bucky asks Sarah, who slowly relaxes, muscles unclenching and stretching in his arms. She waves her hands out toward the lights over Manhattan, making soft noises that sound much more content.

She blinks slowly, dark eyelashes catching the moonlight. Bucky leans back against the wall, breathing in deep and watching the view. It’s gorgeous out here, and he feels like he’s won something that the House trusts him out here, as stupid as maybe that sounds.

He doesn’t notice immediately when Sarah falls asleep, too busy feeling content himself, but eventually sleepiness and a driving need for Steve send them both back inside.

“Thanks,” he says quietly, when the door closes behind him, and he takes Sarah into her room.

She makes a sleepy grab for his fingers, when he lays her down in her crib, but lets go and slides back into sleep, when he leans over and kisses her cheek.

Bucky lets himself back into his room, and stops at the end of the bed. Steve’s fast asleep, sacked out on his stomach with his mouth slightly open and one corner of Bucky’s pillow squashed under his eye.

“So much for that, then,” Bucky whispers, but he doesn’t really mind. He doesn’t need sex anything like as much as he just needs Steve. He crawls into bed, shivering when Steve’s warmth meets his own chilled skin.

Steve mutters under his breath then slings an arm across Bucky’s waist, dragging him in closer. “You’re cold,” he mumbles into the back of Bucky’s neck.

“Went outside,” Bucky says, tentatively putting his hand on Steve’s arm and then, when Steve doesn’t immediately recoil, lacing their fingers together over Bucky’s stomach.

“Why?” Steve asks. He sounds sleepy and annoyed; it’s more endearing than it has any right to be.

“Sarah,” Bucky tells him. “Now, hush, go to sleep.”

“No,” Steve protests. “We were busy.”

Bucky settles back into Steve’s chest, turning his head and kissing Steve’s arm. “Yeah? Where we were?”

Steve yawns into the back of his neck. “I’m not sure, but I think the young people today call it making out.”

“Yeah.” Bucky laughs. “Those young people and their fancy words. What’d we call it in our day?”

“Necking,” Steve says, kissing Bucky’s hairline. “Petting. Just kissing.”

“We ever do it?” Bucky asks, although he thinks he knows the answer to that one.

Steve goes still then wraps his arm tighter around Bucky. “No, we never did,” he says. “I always wished we had.”

Even though Bucky’s comfortable, he has to roll over then, press his chest to Steve’s chest, and kiss him. “We were dumb not to,” he says, when they’re done. “So dumb. How the fuck did I resist you?”

“I don’t think it was too hard,” Steve says. He puts his hands on Bucky’s hips, holding him while their legs tangle and their kisses get wetter.

Bucky’s leg slips between Steve’s, his breath choking in his throat when Steve’s solid thigh meets his half-hard cock. “Bet it was.”

Steve’s hands slide from his hips and down to his ass, carefully exploring the shape of it through his boxers. Bucky shivers and shudders, overwhelmed by all the sparks shooting through him.

“Too much?” Steve asks, touch easing up. “Am I pushing you?”

Bucky shakes his head fast. “No, fuck no.” He twists his hands in the front of Steve’s t-shirt and arches against him. It pulls his ass away from Steve’s hands, which he didn’t want, but he doesn’t know how to get everything he wants all at once. “Am I pushing you?”

“No,” Steve says, before kissing him, harder and deeper than before.

Neither of them seem to have many moves or to be inclined to pull apart far enough to find any; they just kiss and rock against each other until it’s too much, but even then they don’t stop.

Bucky’s cock is full and his whole body is shaking. He shoves his hands up under the back of Steve’s t-shirt and scratches his back with blunt fingernails, marvelling at the warm, solid lines of Steve’s planes and muscles.

Now that he’s gotten down to skin, Bucky wants more, and he slides one hand down Steve’s back, hooking it in the back of Steve’s boxers, trying to pull them down without stopping the kissing.

Steve hisses between his teeth. “Wait, careful, watch my dick.”

Bucky snorts, stilling his hands but laughing helplessly. “Sorry, sorry, what should I do with your dick?”

“You’re going to pull it off,” Steve says, twisting around under Bucky until his boxers are past his hard-on and Bucky can pull them down the rest of the way.

“Can’t have that,” Bucky says, watching himself wrap his hand around it.

Steve is big and he feels good in Bucky’s hand, fitting nicely against his palm and his fingers. He closes his eyes, panting while Bucky slowly learns how to use his hand on him, warm skin sliding through Bucky’s fist.

It’s probably not a good handjob, but Steve gasps through teeth that have sunk into his bottom lip, and twitches every time Bucky touches him. It’s amazing; Bucky’s never felt like he has this much power, this much control, and like he’s doing so much good with it.

He doesn’t want it to be over, but it is too soon. Steve whispers, “Shit,” and spills over Bucky’s hand, mouth falling open and face going slack.

Bucky crawls over him and kisses the corner of his mouth again, like he did earlier tonight when he started all of this. “That was a great face; you should make that face all the time.”

“Get lost,” Steve laughs hoarsely. “Jerk.” He fumbles with the front of Bucky’s boxers, expression turning stubborn when he stumbles over it the first few times.

Bucky takes pity on both of them and shoves them down for him, holding himself up on his hands so Steve has plenty of room to wrap a hand around him and jerk him off carefully.

“You can, you can do it harder than that,” Bucky says, dropping his head forward. He means please do it harder, but Steve hesitates.

“Last thing I wanna do is hurt you,” he says, rolling his thumb gently over the head of Bucky’s dick.

Bucky groans and thrusts forward into Steve’s hand. “Pretty sure it’d be the good kind of hurt,” he says, but he’s not going to force Steve to do anything he doesn’t want to.

“Right,” Steve says, and squeezes. It’s still not quite what Bucky wants, but it’s good, it’s warm and wet and Steve, and it takes only another couple of minutes before orgasm rushes through him.

He slumps down into Steve’s waiting arms, body still twitching, and Steve’s hand caught between them, sticky and wet against his groin.

“I think we could probably have done that better,” he says thoughtfully, shifting so he can rest his head on Steve’s chest.

Steve wraps his arms around him, nosing at the top of Bucky’s head. “I think we did okay,” he says.

Bucky smiles, wondering when the contentment is going to fade. It doesn’t seem to be doing that, yet. “Long as you liked it. I’m not sure when I last did that.”

Steve laughs. “Well, I’ve never done it, so between us maybe we did more than okay.”

“What, never?” Bucky asks. He twists so he can look up at Steve’s face, fascinated by how he’s blushing, but how he’s still meeting Bucky’s eyes.

“Maybe I was waiting for you,” he says, lifting his chin.

“Maybe that’s a nice thing to say,” Bucky counters, “but I was dead, so that’d make you an idiot.”

“Bucky,” Steve says softly, so Bucky leans in and kisses him, lips brushing together.

“Yeah, I know,” Bucky promises. He pushes Steve’s hair out of his eyes and kisses his forehead. “Wanna sleep, now?”

“God, yes,” Steve says, making Bucky laugh.

The shift around, until they’re face to face, Steve’s arm around Bucky’s waist, and Bucky’s hand on Steve’s chest. Bucky’s not sure he’s ever shared a bed with anyone after sex before, and he’d expect it to be awkward, but it’s hard to be awkward with Steve.

He watches Steve fall asleep, then follows him down between one blink and the next.

***

“Bucky,” he hears, and then a hand shakes his shoulder hard, rocking him straight back into reality.

“What?” Bucky mumbles, opening his eyes to see Steve leaning over him, looking pale and shaken. “What’s wrong?”

“Where’s Sarah?” Steve asks, which is enough to get Bucky upright and out of bed.

“What the hell do you mean, where is she?” Bucky asks, already stalking towards her room.

“She’s not there,” Steve says, trailing behind. “I went to get her so she wouldn’t wake you, but she’s not in her crib.”

It’s not that Bucky doesn’t believe him, it’s just that he still has to check. Sarah’s crib is empty, her mattress creased from where she lay on it, but nothing there now.

Bucky spins around, grabbing Steve’s arm in a grip that he knows is too tight. “Where is she? Where the fuck can she be?”

Steve shakes his head. “I don’t know, JARVIS doesn’t know, I - ”

Bucky shoves away from him and runs out into the main area. He checks the kitchen first, in case she’s found her way to the counter again, but she’s not there and she’s not in the living room, or the bathroom, she’s not on the floor even though he checks every inch.

He’s distantly aware of Steve speaking to someone, of Stark’s voice shouting over the speakers, and then of Steve dropping down beside him, checking under the laundry that Bucky’s left on the floor even though it’s ridiculous, she’s not going to be here, she’s not a lost set of car keys.

“It’s okay, it’s going to be okay,” Steve says, putting his hand on Bucky’s shoulder. “She’s gotta be somewhere. JARVIS says no one’s been in here and it’s not like she can walk.”

“She can get places,” Bucky admits all in a rush. “She… I don’t know what she does, but she gets places by herself.”

“What do you mean?” Steve asks, frowning.

Bucky shakes his head, wishing he hadn’t said anything. Maybe he really has just been carrying Sarah around and forgetting it, but maybe not. He doesn’t know anymore.

“I don’t know what’s happening,” he whispers, sinking down so that he’s sitting on the carpet, and dropping his head forward between his splayed knees.

Steve strokes his thumb up and down the back of Bucky’s neck, soothing the skin under his hair. “If you know something, you need to tell me.”

Before Bucky can decide if he wants to sound crazier than normal, the House interrupts them. “Sirs, Dr Banner has found Sarah.”

Bucky stumbles to his feet, catching Steve’s wrist when he does the same. “Where is she?” he asks. “Is she okay?”

“He found her on the roof,” the House says, which is all Bucky lets him get out before he’s running for the elevator.

They come spilling out onto the roof terrace, where Banner is holding Sarah, who’s wrapped in a silver foil blanket. Bucky’s seen those blankets before; the police used to wrap people in those, if they witnessed the murders the Winter Soldier committed.

“Is she okay?” he asks, pushing past Barton and Natasha, to get to them.

“She’s cold,” Banner says, “but she seems okay. Agent Simmons is going to come here to check on her.”

“Thank god,” Bucky says. He reaches for her, but Banner makes a harsh noise and steps back. “Woah, hey, what. Give her to me, doc.”

Banner looks sorry, but he shakes his head. “I can’t,” he says, “no.”

“Bruce,” Steve says softly from behind Bucky, but Banner stays resolute.

“How did she get up here?” Banner asks, looking at Steve then at Bucky. “Did you bring her up here?”

Bucky rubs a hand over his head. “No. Fuck. Of course not.” They’re all looking at him and it makes his heart pound painfully. “I didn’t.”

“Well, she didn’t climb up here, herself, James,” Natasha says. She sounds sorry, too. Everyone’s being so careful with him.

“I didn’t bring her up here and leave her,” Bucky says, looking around. His eyes land on Steve, who just looks sad. “I didn’t. You believe me, right?”

“Of course,” Steve says, but he doesn’t, it’s obvious he doesn’t. “I know you’d never do something like that deliberately.”

“Deliberately?” Bucky echoes. “I’d never do anything like that. Period.” He’s trying to sound sure, but he’s not sure. He’s not sure at all.

Steve touches his arm. “You said you took her outside. You came to bed cold.”

Bucky wants to scream. “I put her back to bed. I know I did.” He wants to run back to his room, barricade himself in in a way he hasn’t wanted for days, but he can’t leave Sarah. He holds his hands out to her and she grabs his finger, lifting it to her mouth to suck on his knuckle.

“I’d never hurt her,” he says, looking at Sarah not at any of the others. “I love her.” It’s hard to say that; he doesn’t know how love works, not really, but he knows that’s how he feels about her.

“No one’s doubting that,” Steve promises.

Barton’s phone beeps and he glances at it before turning away. “Phil and Jemma are here. Come on, Doc.”

Bucky trails behind them, because he can’t not, and Steve comes too, even though Bucky can’t look at him. He doesn’t blame any of them for not trusting him; mostly he’s confused by how much they have trusted him, but Steve’s different. Steve is supposed to always believe in him, especially when Bucky doesn’t believe in himself.

They find Stark and Agent Simmons in the medical wing, Coulson standing back just far enough to give them space. Barton and Natasha cross to him, Barton’s knuckles grazing Coulson’s, while Simmons walks toward Banner.

“Oh the poor little love,” she says, holding out her arms. “Come here, darling.” She takes Sarah over to one of the benches. No one stops Bucky from following, which is good, since he’s pretty sure he’d have to punch them out if they did, and he doesn’t want to have to do that.

“Is she okay?” Bucky asks. She looks okay; she’s watching her own feet kick up in the air in front of her, and Bucky knows that any second she’s going to try sucking her toes. He reaches out and guides her foot back down. “Don’t do that; you don’t know where you’ve been.”

She probably does,” Simmons says brightly. “It’s the rest of us who don’t know, isn’t it?” She picks Sarah up, talking to her, which Bucky likes. People should talk to babies; it’s shitty when people just decide things for you.

“Sergeant,” Coulson says quietly from behind Bucky, but Bucky holds up his hand.

“In a minute,” he says. “I’ve gotta see that she’s okay, first.” He looks over his shoulder, just far enough that he can still keep Sarah in his line of sight. “Please, sir?”

“Yes, okay,” Coulson says, “of course.” He sounds taken aback, but Bucky doesn’t realise why until it hits him that he doesn’t call Coulson sir, he doesn’t call anyone sir.

It seems like Simmons does extra tests just to drive Bucky to his breaking point, but she’s a nice lady, so she probably doesn’t; it’s probably all in Bucky’s head and the anxious tingling in his chest.

Eventually, she lays Sarah back down on the bench, and smiles. “She’s fine. A little cold, a little dehydrated, but she’ll be fine.”

Bucky’s breath rushes out of him in a gasp. It’s loud enough for the others to hear, but he doesn’t care if they think he’s weak. “Thank you,” he says.

Simmons smiles at him. “Here you go,” she says, holding Sarah out. “She wants her daddy.”

Bucky wants her too, but it’s the daddy that finally breaks him. He’s not her dad. He wants to be, but he’s not. He’s not anyone’s dad, he never will be. She deserves better than him.

“I can’t,” he says, stepping back. Sarah waves her hands for him, reaching out, but he can’t.

“Bucky,” Steve says, sounding worried. “It’s okay. She’s fine. No one blames you.”

“Yeah, come on,” Stark says. “We’ll ask JARVIS to step up security on your rooms. You trust him, right? He’s not going to let you like, permanently break the munchkin or anything.”

Bucky shakes his head. He feels like the walls of his brain are closing in on him and he can’t think. “Coulson,” he gets out.

“Sergeant?” Coulson says. He looks calm and efficient and just slightly incredibly concerned over Bucky’s mental state.

“I think you need to find someone else who can take her,” Bucky says. The words feel like glass blowing through his lungs, but it’s for the best. Sarah’s not safe with him; anything could have happened to her, up there.

“Don’t you think that’s a slight overreaction?” Coulson asks carefully. “I could bring someone in here to help you with Sarah. You don’t need to lose her.”

“We tried that,” Bucky says. “We got her a nanny. It didn’t work out.”

“She tased Barnes,” Stark says. He doesn’t sound as amused by that as he had before.

Steve steps close to Bucky’s side and puts his arm around Bucky’s shoulders, squeezing. “Bucky, you’re not thinking straight. You had a scare, sure, but you’d never hurt Sarah, you said it yourself.”

“And you said you couldn’t be sure I hadn’t,” Bucky counters. He shakes off Steve’s arm, even though he wants to believe Steve, wants to let Steve make this better for him.

“Phil,” Steve says, looking across at Bucky hopelessly, but not making another move to touch him. “Is there someone Sarah could stay with for a few days. Just until Bucky can be sure he’s okay to look after her again?”

“I’ll look into it,” Coulson says. He looks between them then pulls out his phone. “If you’re sure the baby can’t - ”

“Sarah,” Bucky interrupts. He folds his arms across his chest, clutching two handfuls of his own t-shirt to stop his hands from shaking. “Her name’s Sarah.”

“I’ll make sure to remember that,” Coulson promises. He turns and picks up Sarah, smiling at her before he holds her out to Bucky. “Why don’t you take her until I can arrange for an agent to pick her up? Captain Rogers will be there the whole time; nothing will happen to her.”

“Yeah, Buck,” Steve says. “You should take her.”

Bucky doesn’t want to, but at the same time he does want to, so he reaches out for her. He knows they’re just being kind; if he lets her go, he’s not going to get her back again.

“Steve, don’t go anywhere,” Bucky says, distracted by the weight of Sarah in his arms. He’s not completely sure how he’s going to get through tomorrow and every day that comes after, without her. Hell, he’s not sure how he’s going to let her go.

A hand lands on Bucky’s back, warm and heavy and steadying. Just that’s enough to identify it; Bucky doesn’t need to look.

“Come on,” Steve says in Bucky’s ear. “I’ll help you pack a few of her things.”

Bucky nods and lets himself be led out of the room. He doesn’t let himself look at anyone - not wanting to see if they’ll look sorry for him, or if they all secretly know that Sarah will be better off without him.

He can hear Barton whispering something behind him and Coulson answering in a low, steady voice. They sound sad. Sad for him, the Winter Soldier who tried to be a real person and couldn’t manage it.

He makes it into the elevator - the elevator that he’s been riding fine for days now, because he’s had more important things to worry about - and hands Sarah to Steve, and folds down onto the floor.

He can’t breathe.

This isn’t like when his memories are crowding in on him like nightmares, and he forgets to breathe because it’s too overwhelming. This is real and happening now and no amount of deep breathing or Steve’s voice saying, “Bucky, Bucky!” is going to help.

The elevator stops, but the doors don’t open. Steve sinks down onto his knees next to Bucky and carefully puts Sarah in his lap. Bucky takes her and holds her, because it’s instinct now, and he turns his head when Steve leans down to kiss him, because that’s instinct, too.

“Calm down,” Steve says, right against his mouth. “You need to listen to me and breathe.”

Bucky lets his head drop down and shakes it from side to side. “Why the fuck did I think I could keep her?” he asks. “Why did you let me think that?”

Steve leans his forehead against the side of Bucky’s skull. “Because you love her,” he says. “And she loves you.”

To prove his point, Sarah takes hold of a chunk of Bucky’s hair and pulls, sticking in the ends in her mouth.

“No, no, don’t; you don’t know where I’ve been, either,” Bucky tells her, untangling her fingers. Their hair is almost the same colour; she could be his, he could have pretended.

Slowly the elevator starts up again, and Bucky tips his head back, leaning it against the mirrored wall. “You really wanna know why I don’t call the House by its name?” he asks.

“Of course,” Steve says, like there’s never any question that he wants to hear what Bucky’s got to tell him, even if it’s horrifying.

“Howard Stark had a butler named Jarvis,” Bucky says. “I’m pretty sure I killed him.”

“That’s - ” Steve lets the word hang, like he wants to say something reassuring and can’t think of anything. “Oh.”

The elevator reaches the right floor and comes to a stop with a little bounce. “Yeah,” Bucky says, and lets Steve leave ahead of him.

Inside the apartment, Bucky lies down on his back and holds Sarah up so she’s standing on his stomach. Steve is fussing around, packing up things for her, but Bucky can’t watch.

“You’re not gonna remember me,” Bucky tells her, trying to look her in the eye even though she’s more interested in trying to grab his nose. “But hopefully you’re gonna remember someone loved you. I’m sorry I fucked it up.”

It seems like they get hardly any time at all, and then Bucky’s doorbell rings and Steve stops in front of him, hands spread and expression blank.

“I feel like I shouldn’t let them in,” he says, biting his lip.

“Let them in,” Bucky says, heavily. “No, wait.” He stands up and presses a long kiss to Sarah’s cheek, before he takes a deep breath and hands her to Steve. “You do it; I can’t.”

He turns and walks to the bedroom, not caring that this makes him a coward. He can’t be the one who physically hands her over. His bedroom looks starkly empty with Sarah’s stuff packed away. It makes no sense. Sarah had a room of her own; she shouldn’t have taken up this much space in his life.

He can hear Steve’s voice and Coulson’s voice and a woman’s voice, can make out their tones, even if he can’t hear the words.

“Sir,” the House says quietly. “This may not be the time but I had already extrapolated the likelihood of you having been involved in my namesake’s demise. I do not blame you and I believe that neither would he. I would still be honoured, if you were to use my name.”

Bucky swallows, hard. “I… thanks,” he says. “Thank you.” He tells himself that that’s the end of it, but he can never let anything go. “Hey. JARVIS? Can you track her?”

“Not outside the Tower, I’m afraid, sir,” the House, JARVIS says. “Not without a tracking device on her person.”

Bucky’s head snaps up. “Where do I find a tracking device?”

“Sir, I must caution you against this,” JARVIS says. It’s strange, since he doesn’t use a lot of intonation, but somehow Bucky can tell that he’s saying it flat, deadpan, that he doesn’t mean it.

“But if I decided to ignore you?” Bucky presses.

JARVIS clicks as though it has a tongue and is clucking it disapprovingly. “Then there are tracking devices on your boots, your leather jacket, and your cell phone.”

“What the hell?” Bucky asks, but that’s an issue for another time. He grabs his cell phone off the floor, slides off the back, flicks out the battery and quickly locates the tracker that he really should have thought to search for, before.

He looks around the room, eyes landing on a small purple blanket that Barton bought Sarah. They’d been saving it for when her favourite blue blanket had to go in the wash, so she’s never used it and Steve probably didn’t think to pack it.

He grabs it, and slips the tracker into the folds, while hurrying out into the hall. He doesn’t even know why he needs to track Sarah; Coulson will know where his agent is taking her, but he does need it.

“Hold up,” he calls. “Hang on, she needs this too.”

He reaches the group gathered by the door and holds out the blanket, but immediately snatches it back. Next to Coulson, holding the car seat with Sarah in it, with all Sarah’s stuff around her feet, is Laura Arnold, from the park.

“Laura?” Bucky asks. “What are you doing here?”

“You know her?” Coulson asks, while Steve says basically the same thing over him.

Laura just frowns, narrowing her eyes, slightly. “Do we know each other?” she asks, in that politely distant way of total strangers.

“Of… of course.” Bucky frowns back at her, then looks at Steve and Coulson. No one’s helping, so he says, “We spend every lunch time together.”

“I’m sorry,” she says, shaking her head. “You’ve confused me with someone else.”

“I haven’t,” Bucky says. He hasn’t; he knows he hasn’t. “I don’t understand what’s going on.”

“Bucky,” Steve says, touching his arm. “It’s okay, you’ve just mistaken her for someone else. Everyone does that.”

Bucky rounds on him. “Seriously? I don’t know what the fuck’s going on, but I know I’m not that out of touch with reality. Her name is Laura Arnold. She has a kid named Ryan; he’s a little older than Sarah and - ”

Laura gasps, her free hand coming up to cover her mouth. “Director,” she says to Coulson in a shaking voice. “If this is some kind of sick joke, then - ”

“It isn’t, Agent Brown; I’m sorry,” Coulson says, with a narrow-eyed look at Bucky. “Sergeant, I know this is difficult for you, but that was uncalled for.”

Bucky can feel way too many emotions at once scratching at the base of his throat, and he doesn’t know how to put them in any sort of order and how to deal with any of them. “What was?”

“Agent Brown’s son was killed in the Battle of New York,” Coulson says. “I’m not sure how you found that out, but - ”

“No. Wait.” No one’s listening to Bucky. Laura and Coulson are turning away, Coulson still talking consolingly to her. He’s holding a big box full of Sarah’s stuff and she’s still holding Sarah.

Bucky looks at Steve blankly, unsure what to do other than slam someone up against a wall. He holds the blanket out to Steve who says, softly, “Phil. Can you take this, too?”

Coulson takes it with a small smile, tucking it into the box next to Sarah’s Hulk plushie. “It’ll be okay, Sergeant,” he says. “Sarah will come home soon,” and then they’re stepping into the elevator and gone.

Bucky’s mind is reeling.

“I know her,” he says, rounding on Steve, before Steve can say anything. “I swear to God, I do.”

Steve makes a conflicted face like he wants to believe Bucky, but can’t. "Maybe she looks like your friend,” he says. “Maybe - ”

Bucky holds up a hand. “No. No, something is going on and I’ve… I don’t.” He tugs on chunks of his own hair, trying to think. “I know I’m going crazy but I’m not crazy about this. I didn’t imagine her.”

He hopes he didn’t imagine her. Oh god, what if he imagined her? What if he read her file when he was at Hydra and dreamed her up. He could have done that. He put a baby on a roof.

“Okay,” Steve says. “What does that mean, then?”

Bucky’s breath leaves him in a rush. “You believe me?” he asks. “You do?” He’s only half sure he believes himself.

Steve smiles an awkward, self-deprecating smile. “I always believe you; I think it may be a character flaw.”

Bucky tries to laugh, but it comes out hoarse, cracked down the middle. Steve reaches for him.

“Later,” Bucky says, pushing him back with gentle, regretful hands against his chest. “We’ve gotta stop them from taking her.”

They set off for the elevators together, totally in sync. Bucky feels like they’ve done this a million times before, like this won’t go wrong because he’s got Steve by his side.

***

They don’t get further than the underground parking garage before they’re stopped.

“Where’re you going?” Barton asks. He’s sitting on the hood of a black SUV, Natasha at his side.

“We need to stop them from taking Sarah,” Steve says. He looks as though he’s thinking about knocking Barton off the car with his shield, but he settles for heading toward another car in the lot.

Barton and Natasha trail after them. “Did I miss something?” Natasha asks. “It was James who gave her away.”

“There’s something weird going on,” Bucky says. He thinks she’ll believe him, hopes she will anyway. “Something’s not right.”

He explains as quickly as he can, and by the time he’s done, the four of them are in another car. Barton slides into the driver’s seat and ignores Steve’s protests.

“Phil’s in a car with Hydra?” Barton asks. “I’m driving. Tasha, get Stark, maybe?”

“Why me?” Natasha grumbles, but she leans forward and hits a button the dash.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was listening,” Stark’s voice says over the radio. “Just looking up this Laura Arnold woman, now.”

“Look her up faster,” Steve says. He’s drumming his fingers on his thigh, agitated in a way that shouldn’t make Bucky feel better, but does. Steve is reckless about his own safety, but he’ll move mountains to bring Sarah back.

“Ooh very Captainly,” Stark mutters. “I’m shaking in my boots… no, wait, I’m not. I am, however, a certified genius and so without even ruffling a feather, I can tell you that... Aha.”

Bucky has been watching Steve’s fingers drum, but now his attention snaps to Stark’s voice and the smug lilt in it.

“Here,” Stark says, and an image appears on the screen in the middle of the dash. “This is the access card that’s been letting you and the mini human into the park... my park. Looks okay, right? Agent Laura Arnold, SHIELD level 4. Except there is no Laura Arnold, there’s only a Laura Brown, so why does she have a secondary ID card and why isn’t her cover better? This is flimsy as hell.”

“Because she only told me her other name,” Bucky says, slowly. “And she didn’t think any of you would believe me.”

“Well, looks like she was wrong there,” Stark scoffs, like that’s nothing. “Barton, phone your boyfriend.”

“And say what?” Barton asks, but he already has his phone out.

“That I want my fucking baby back,” Bucky snaps.

Barton rolls his eyes. “Duh,” he says, then, “Phil. Where are you?” A pause. “Okay, okay, that’s good, that’s… no, that’s not good. We’re pretty sure Agent Brown is working for someone very bad, so maybe grab the baby and get out of... Phil? Phil, fuck, can you - ” He pulls the phone away from his ear and slams his hands against the wheel. “He got cut off. These phones don’t get cut off.”

“Okay,” Steve says, with the kind of calm that isn’t calm at all. “Now we need to go.”

Bucky leans forward, talking to the screen, because he doesn’t know where exactly Stark’s talking to them from. “The House… JARVIS can track Sarah,” he says. “I stuck a tracer in her blanket.”

“What?” Steve asks, eyebrows shooting up.

“Nice work,” Stark says. “Don’t think I’m jealous that JARVIS loves you best, but I may be jealous that JARVIS loves you best. However, that is very useful. J are you tracking?”

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS says. “I have a bearing on their location, although they are still moving, so I recommend immediate action.”

“Yay, car chase,” Barton says, and starts the car.

***

“You know what I miss most about SHIELD being SHIELD?” Barton asks, from the wheel of the black van he’s currently driving like a crazy person through the Lincoln Tunnel.

“No Hydra?” Natasha asks, bracing one foot on the back of Barton’s seat when they scrape around the edge of a Jeep and everyone’s thrown across the van.

Barton spins the wheel, sending them back into their lane, and ignoring the horns blaring around them. “No, although I’m adding that to my list. I was thinking Quinjets; I really miss my Quinjet.”

“You should have said something,” Stark’s voice comes over the radio. “Now I know what to get you for your birthday. When’s your birthday?”

“June,” Barton says, and slams on the brakes when the car in front of them suddenly switches on its hazards. “Oh, you’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Go around them,” Bucky says. Steve’s in the passenger seat and Bucky’s holding onto the back of his seat so hard that the fingers of both hands have gone straight through the fabric cover.

“What the fuck do you think I’m trying to do?” Barton yells. He finally just swerves into the other lane then back again, and ploughs through traffic, while leaning on the horn.

It’s something.

They burst out of the end of the tunnel into sunlight so bright that it washes out the colour of the road and the nearby trees.

“Fuck, New Jersey,” Barton mutters. It pings something in the back of Bucky’s head, some memory of having said or thought the same thing. Maybe he is still a real New Yorker, under everything else that’s been piled on top.

“Where now, Tony?” Steve asks. He’s got a map spread across his lap, even though the car has GPS and has a direct line to the Iron Man suit.

“They’re on the turnpike,” Stark says. “Heading South. Where the hell are they going?”

“Airport,” Bucky says, brain just spitting out information that he didn’t know he knew. “Probably Linden.”

Steve twists around to look at him. “Yeah,” he says, catching Bucky’s eye and smiling. “Good call. Clint, do you know the way?”

“Do I know the way?” Clint scoffs. “Wait, maybe I don’t. Last time I was in New Jersey, it was under like, ten feet of water.”

“Okay,” Steve says and unfolds his map.

***

“Stop!” Stark’s voice is loud and unexpected when all they’ve heard inside the car for the last half hour is Steve navigating for Barton.

Barton hits the breaks then yells, “What? What?” both out the window and at the radio.

“They’re stopping,” Stark says. “Holy fuck, is Coulson actually a ninja?”

“Yes,” Barton and Natasha say at once. “Where am I going, Stark?” Barton adds.

They follow Stark’s directions and it doesn’t take long before they reach a wide concrete bridge over an expressway, three SUVs parked conspicuously across the middle of the bridge. All the doors are open, and out on the road, what looks like a mass of dark figures are grappling together.

Barton speeds the car as close as they can get, then jumps out, followed by Steve and Natasha. Stark is still up in the air as far as Bucky can tell from the running commentary he’s giving, mostly on Coulson’s fighting style, which he seems quite impressed by.

Bucky thinks about following them, but that’s a group of people who know how to hold their own. They can take on Laura and whoever she’s working with; he’s going for Sarah.

He slides out the other side of the car, down into a crouch, and then darts across the space in front of the nearest SUV. He ducks down behind the open back door, quickly checks the inside and, finding it unguarded, throws himself into the footwell.

Sarah is awake and babbling in her carseat, and she shrieks as soon as she sees Bucky, throwing herself forward as though she can climb straight out of her restraints.

“Hey,” Bucky says, “there you are.” His hands are shaking when he lifts them to unbuckle her, but there’s nothing he can do about that.

He gets one hand on the buckle just before something hard and painful slams into his side and sends him flying out the other side of the car. He lands on his shoulder and the side of his head, scraping the skin off his cheek and his chin with a sharp, stinging pain. He doesn’t remember feeling pain when he’s fought before; he must be getting soft.

He flips over, pulls a knife, and dives back for the car. Laura has swung herself into the driver’s seat, Sarah in her lap and a pistol trained on Bucky.

“You think I’m scared of getting shot?” Bucky scoffs. He dives forward and a bullet flies over his shoulder.

“Are you scared of anything?” Laura asks. “Are you scared of her getting hurt?” The gun stays pointing at Bucky, but it swings slightly, just a little closer to Sarah.

“You’re not going to shoot her; you want her,” Bucky says, hoping he’s right. “Gonna tell me why you want her?”

“No,” Laura scoffs. “You’re a traitor to Hydra; I’m not going to tell you anything.”

“You made friends with me,” Bucky says, inching slowly to the left, trying to find an in. She’s good; he can’t see one. “You could have snatched her, anytime. Why go to the trouble of getting Coulson to give her to you?”

“Because if I’d snatched her, your Avengers buddies would have been on the scene in a second. I sent Black after you to see what they’d do and they were there in less than four minutes. I needed a new plan.” She grins. “Don’t think I don’t know you’re trying to distract me, Barnes.”

“Me?” Bucky asks, innocent as he can.

“You.” Her finger squeezes the trigger again. Bucky throws himself to the side, but somehow she was expecting that and her next shot follows him, then another.

One hits him in his metal shoulder, ricocheting off and into the chassis, but the next hits flesh, and he falls backwards, hand flying out to grab the top of the car before he can fall.

She turns the ignition, slams the car into gear, and spins it around. Bucky’s grip slips but he fights it, ignoring the pain in his chest, the blood pooling wetly at the base of his throat.

The car tears through the fight still happening on the street. Bucky catches sight of Steve, dirty and bruised but upright and whole, just before they swerve again and he loses his grip with his flesh hand. His body swings around and his head hits the windshield. It’s a struggle to get his knees under him, but he manages it, gets a grip on the windshield wipers, and holds on.

Laura shouts something at him through the window, but they’re going too fast for him to catch the words. He can see Sarah still clutched to her lap, her face red and tear-stained, mouth open as she cries.

Bucky’s going to kill everyone who came within twenty feet of her, today, and he’s not sure if Laura will be first or last, but she’ll definitely be slowest.

Someone starts shooting at them from the road, and whether it’s Bucky’s side trying to help or Laura’s side trying to kill him, they all come alarming close. The windscreen shatters, when Bucky ducks, and now Bucky can hear Sarah scream, can hear Laura’s, “Get off the car, get off my fucking car.”

“Just stop the car,” Bucky yells back at her.

A fast, calculating look flashes across her face, and Bucky realises that that was shitty advice just as she slams on the breaks.

The momentum is too much for him to fight one handed, and he flies off the hood, over the roof, and lands on the road with a crash that jars right through him.

He hears someone yell his name, but his attention is on the car, which is restarting, roaring away from him.

“Stark,” he yells as he jumps to his feet, ignoring all the pain that brings.

“On it,” Stark says and Bucky has barely gotten into his run, when Stark lands in front of the SUV. Laura doesn’t brake, just tries to go around him. When he moves to intercept, she spins the car, clearly aiming to sideswipe him and get away.

Bucky sees the danger just before Stark does, and they both yell a warning, but Laura either doesn’t hear or she’s not taking warnings from the guys on their team.

One side of the bridge must have gotten hit during the fighting, because a wall’s crumbled away, nothing but free air behind it. The road drops away under her wheels, and they spin frantically for a second before the whole car tips.

Stark leaps for it and so does Bucky, but neither of them are fast enough. The back of the car hits what’s left of the wall, the car flips, and falls like a stone, face first toward the expressway below.

“No!” Bucky screams and runs to the place where they disappeared. The car is in flames down below.

He jump up onto the wall, about to go over it, doesn’t care about anything except getting to Sarah, but Stark grabs him around the waist, forcing him back.

Bucky kicks him, hard, making metal clang and Stark swear, but he doesn’t let go.

“No one’s getting out of that,” he yells in Bucky’s ear. “Barnes, Bucky, listen to me. Stop fighting me.”

Bucky doesn’t quite process the words, but he understands what they mean all the same. His knees go out from under him and he takes Stark down, both of them teetering closer to the edge than Stark is happy with, because he pulls them both back, sharply.

Bucky lands on his back and stares up at the sky. He’s distantly aware that he’s panting, that he’s bleeding and hurting, but none of it seems real.

“Bucky?” he hears, and then Steve’s there, pressing down hard on the base of Bucky’s neck, right below his collarbone, where Laura shot him.

He drags his gaze down to Steve’s hands, which are stained red and maybe Bucky should worry about that, but he doesn’t.

“Sarah was in the car,” he says, voice coming from a distance.

Steve’s voice comes out thick. “I know, Buck,” he says. He presses down harder on Bucky’s chest and yells at Stark to fetch help.

“I’m okay,” Bucky says. “Stop.”

“You’d better be okay,” Steve tells him. “I’m not losing both of you.”

Bucky’s eyes sting. He turns his face away from whatever Steve’s doing and stares blankly across the road. He can see scattered bodies all across the bridge: unconscious or dead Hydra agents, but it doesn’t bring him any satisfaction.

Barton and Coulson are sitting close together on the hood of Stark’s car. Barton’s laughing softly, and the sound’s incongruous.

Banner is here now that the chance of triggering the Hulk has passed. He’s helping Natasha sew up a cut on her arm, although, Stark's just landed in front of them, so Bucky guesses he'll probably be on his way over here soon, to help Steve.

Bucky doesn’t want to look at the hole that the SUV fell through, but his eyes are drawn there, anyway. He knows he’s cataloguing it, filing it away as a mistake that will need to be rectified next time, except there is no next time, and there is no rectifying this.

He closes his eyes and thinks about nothing. Steve and Banner are talking above him, but it doesn’t sound like anything he needs to worry about. Someone rips open the front of his shirt, applying more pressure, but this time directly against his skin.

He doesn’t worry about it. He knows he’s not going to die from this, after all the shit he’s survived. He’s lucky. He’s not like Sarah, who was innocent and helpless and who he let down completely.

There’s a soft cry, almost too quiet to hear, and Bucky’s eyes snap open.

“Did you hear that?” he asks, talking over whatever Steve’s saying.

“Hear what?” Banner asks. “No, wait, don’t move.”

Bucky pushes them both off him and twists around, looking for whatever made that cry. He hears it again, just a tiny sound on the wind, and staggers to his feet.

“What are you doing?” Steve asks, following him up. He grips Bucky by the elbow, which is helpful in that it keeps Bucky on his feet, but it’s not going to be enough to stop Bucky from investigating.

“Someone’s crying,” Bucky says. “There’s a baby crying.”

“God, Bucky,” Steve whispers, sounding like he’s the one in pain.

Bucky makes it two steps before the blood loss catches up with him and he sways right into Steve. “Fuck,” he mutters, dizzy and nauseous. He grips the front of Steve’s jacket and hangs on tight. “Please, I swear I heard something. You said you always believe me.”

“That’s just a low trick,” Steve says. He wraps his arm around Bucky’s waist and half helps, half carries him in the direction Bucky points. Bucky can hear Banner in the background, softly advising against moving, but it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is definitely a baby crying.

They find her in the grass on the side of the road, maybe fifty feet from the crash site. She’s still clutching her purple blanket and her Black Widow onesie isn’t even singed.

Bucky collapses down onto the ground, crawling to her, but too scared to touch. “Can you see her too?” he asks. If this is it, if he’s finally flipped, he needs to know now before the hope grows too great.

“Yeah,” Steve says. He picks her up and hands her to Bucky. There are tears in his eyes and that, more even than anything, convinces Bucky that this is really happening.

“How?” he asks her, cradling Sarah in his arms, careful not to get her bloody. “How did you do that?”

“It’s not possible,” Steve says. He sits down next to Bucky and leans their heads together, both of them watching Sarah blow spit bubbles as though, now that she’s being held, she doesn’t have a care in the world. “How is that possible?”

“It’s not,” Bucky says. “I saw her fall.”

Steve slides an arm around Bucky’s back, and Bucky leans into him, barely suppressing a gasp, when he takes the pressure off his injury. “I know I should care about how it happened,” Steve says.

“Yeah, I really don’t either,” Bucky promises him. He tries to shift Sarah around, so he’s only supporting her on his good arm, but even that sends bolts of pain through him. “Oh, shit.”

“Are you okay?” Steve asks. “Want me to take her?”

There are black spots at the edge of Bucky’s vision and they’re closing in fast. “This never used to happen,” Bucky mutters, annoyed by the way everything is tunnelling down towards darkness.

“Yeah, you’re getting soft in your old age,” Steve says fondly, then carefully takes Sarah from Bucky, before he can pass out all the way.

***

“Maybe I should move here,” Simmons says thoughtfully. She’s sewing up Bucky’s bullet wound while Sarah plays happily on Steve’s lap.

“Fitz and Stark?” Coulson says. “Together?” He has a bruise over his left eye, which Barton is making him hold ice over, but seems to have gotten out of the fight without a scratch, otherwise.

“Ooh good point,” Simmons says and laughs. “That would be a disaster, wouldn’t it, sir.” She pulls the stitches tight and Bucky hides a wince. “I really am interested in a teleporting baby, though. That’s fascinating.”

“That’s one word for it,” Bucky mutters. Actually, the real word for it is miracle, but he doesn’t say that.

“Is she an 0-8-4?” Simmons asks.

“Technically,” Coulson says, then rolls his eyes when Barton instantly starts to complain. “I didn’t say I was going to treat her like an 0-8-4, but you can’t deny her origins are unknown.”

Bucky knows what an 0-8-4 is, he knows what all of SHIELD’s codes mean - Alexander Pierce made sure of that - but he’s not worried; he’ll fight anyone to keep Sarah, and he’ll win.

“I put a call in to Thor,” Coulson says. “He’ll be here as soon as he can.”

“That’s good,” Steve says, smiling widely. He pokes Sarah in the tummy, making her squirm. “Isn’t that good?”

Bucky has no idea if that’s good or not, so he decides to go along with Steve. “Thanks,” he says.

Coulson looks across at him and smiles, but it fades quickly. “I’m sorry I let Hydra get so close to her,” he says.

Bucky shakes his head. “It’s okay. You didn’t know. Did you find out anything about her?”

“Laura Arnold?” Coulson asks. “Her father was a bigwig in Hydra a long time ago. Director Fury brought her in as a double agent, but it looks as though she was actually a triple agent. Don’t tell Fury, he already has trust issues.”

“What about her son?” Steve asks. He looks across at Bucky, who also wants to know the answer to that question. Ryan was a quiet kid and Bucky didn’t get to know him, really, but he’s still worried.

“We’re looking for him,” Coulson says gravely. “My team’s on it. Our best guess at the moment is that she used the Battle of New York as a cover to say he’d been killed and handed him over to Hydra. You say no one else was around when she brought him to the park?”

“Yeah, it was always just us.” Bucky hadn’t noticed that that was weird until just now.

“So there was little risk of being caught,” Coulson says, nodding, “and I suppose she wanted to spend some time with him.”

“That’s awful,” Simmons says. She pats a bandage over Bucky’s wound and pats his shoulder. “We’ll find him. We have the best hacker in the world on our bus, don’t worry.”

Bucky tries to smile at her and not let on that he feels sick inside at the thought of Hydra doing to other kids whatever they did to Sarah. “Will Thor be able to figure out if she’s okay?” he asks. He knows that’s not a completely logical segue, but they’ll just have to forgive him, for once.

“Of course,” Simmons says. “He’s Thor!”

Coulson opens his mouth like he’s going to argue, then shrugs. “Yeah,” he says. “Pretty much.”

***

Say what you want about Norse gods - and Bucky’s never really had the occasion to say anything about them - but they travel fast when called.

Thor arrives at the Tower about twenty minutes after Bucky finally persuades medical to stop fussing over him, when he’s resigned to just letting Steve fuss over him, instead.

“My friends,” Thor says, pushing his hair back out of his eyes and letting his cloak settle around him. “I hear you have been blessed with a magical child.”

“She’s, uh, she’s Bucky’s,” Steve says awkwardly, then he grins. “Hey, Thor.”

“Captain, it has been too long,” Thor says and hugs him hard.

“She’s definitely Steve’s too,” Bucky says, when the hugging has maybe gone on a little longer than Steve looks comfortable with. “Hi, Thor, we haven’t met.”

Thor releases Steve with a final pat and strides over to Bucky. “We have not,” he says, “although we have communicated.”

Bucky thinks of the picture messages of London that he never replied to and winces. “Yeah, sorry, I haven’t been good at… that, lately.”

Thor nods solemnly then shrugs. “It is of no matter. I am honoured to make your acquaintance now, Sergeant Barnes.”

“Bucky,” he says. “Bucky’ll do.”

Behind Thor, Steve fucking beams, which Bucky pretends not to see.

“I’d shake your hand,” he says, “but.” Sarah’s asleep in his arms. Or, to be more accurate, she’s asleep curled between his good arm and the arm of the couch, but it seems to be working for her, and he’s really not prepared to stop at least trying to hold her.

He may never be okay with letting go. He may still be trying to hold her hand when she goes to high school.

Thor crouches down in front of the couch and looks at Sarah. “How can I assist you with your child?” he asks.

Bucky looks up at Steve, at a loss to explain exactly what they think is happening. Steve’s fought aliens; he’s probably seen weirder shit than Bucky has.

Steve comes over and sits on the arm of the chair, next to Bucky. “We think she might be able to fly,” he says. “Or possibly teleport. Have you ever heard of a teleporting baby?”

“I confess I have not,” Thor says, looking intrigued. “Alas, I do not have the knowledge of magic that my mother or my brother possessed, but I would be happy to share what little I do know, if it would help the Lady Sarah.”

“Thanks,” Bucky says. “We’d really appreciate that. SHIELD has offered to look into it, too, but I don’t want them poking her like she’s a science experiment.”

Steve squeezes his arm. “We won’t let that happen,” he says.

“Indeed,” Thor agrees. “That will not be permitted to happen, while I am here to prevent it. Nor I imagine would Director Coulson allow it. He is a good man.”

“Yeah.” Bucky tells himself to smile and relax, and it’s not as hard as it usually is. Steve strokes the skin at the back of Bucky’s neck with one careful finger, and Bucky leans into it, as subtly as he can.

Thor’s eyes travel to the place where Steve’s hand is resting, so clearly neither of them are being all that subtle. “It will be easier to deduce exactly what assistance the Lady Sarah requires, once she is awake,” Thor says. “If you have no further need of me, my Jane will be arriving this evening, and I wish to ready our rooms.”

“Yes, of course, that’s fine,” Steve says. “Thanks for coming straight here.”

“It is no inconvenience. I have been missing my friends, anyhow,” Thor says. He smiles at them both and bows his head. “Do not get up; I can see myself out.”

Obviously, Steve gets up anyway, and walks him to the door.

“Wait,” Bucky says, before they get all the way there. “Why will it be easier, when Sarah’s awake?” He has a suspicion, but he wants to be sure.

“Well, then we can discuss the matter, of course,” Thor says.

“You and Sarah?” Steve asks slowly.

Thor nods. “Her understanding of language may be rudimentary, as she is very young, but I am confident we can have a productive discussion.”

“Okay, that’s… great,” Steve says, and holds the door open for Thor. Thor leaves with a clap of his hand on Steve’s shoulder, and Steve closes the door before turning back to Bucky. “He’s going to have a chat with Sarah.”

“Yeah,” Bucky agrees. “That’s trippy, huh? I wonder if she likes us.”

Steve rolls his eyes. “She loves us. Well, you. She adores you.”

“You too,” Bucky says. He thinks about saying I adore you but doesn’t, because he doesn’t think it’s something Bucky Barnes would have said. Then he wonders if it’s something that really matters, now. “Hey, Steve.”

“Yeah?” Steve asks. His lips quirk up at one side, a little questioning tilt that stupidly makes Bucky’s heart pound.

“I love you. You know that, right?” Bucky says. It turns out to not even be hard to say.

“I…” Steve’s tiny smile cracks into a massive one. “I suspected,” he says.

Bucky laughs. “Oh yeah? Kinda big headed, aren’t you?”

“No, you’re just really predictable,” Steve says. If his smile gets any wider, his face is going to split.

“Fuck you, I’m a super spy,” Bucky says. “Also, you’re supposed to say it back.”

Steve braces his hand on the back of the couch and leans down over Bucky. Bucky’s half expecting more sass, but what he gets is Steve’s lips, gentle on his and a softly murmured, “I love you, too.”

Bucky closes his eyes. “Shit,” he says, since he can’t think of anything else. “That’s a hell of a thing, huh?”

“Not really.” Steve kisses the corner of his mouth, then his cheek, putting a respectable amount of space between them like he’s just remembered Bucky’s been shot and is holding a baby. “I’ve always loved you.”

“Steve,” Bucky says, shooting out his free hand and catching Steve by the front of his t-shirt. It pulls on his stitches, but he doesn’t care.

“Come on,” Steve says, grabbing Bucky by the arm and bracing him to his feet.

“Where are we going?” Bucky asks, following Steve to the bedroom. Sarah sleeps peacefully on; apparently teleporting away from certain death is exhausting.

“I was thinking about your idea of locking yourself in your room,” Steve says, nodding Bucky toward the bed. “It sounds like a great idea.”

“Yeah?” Bucky says. “I thought it was unhealthy and I wasn’t supposed to do it?” He sits on the bed and lays Sarah down on the comforter. She rolls onto her stomach and reaches out her hand until Bucky gives her his finger to hold.

“Honestly,” Steve says, locking the door and then dragging Bucky’s dresser in front of it. “I just want one night where I know exactly where you and she are. Is that okay?”

“So, okay,” Bucky promises. He lies down on his back, all the exhaustion of the day catching up with him at once. “Come lie down?”

“One minute,” Steve promises. “JARVIS?”

“Sir,” JARVIS says promptly.

“Don’t let anyone disturb us unless there’s a genuine emergency, please?”

“Of course, sir,” JARVIS says. “I’ll update your security to the highest setting for the night.”

“Thanks, JARVIS,” Bucky says. “We appreciate it.” He means that he appreciates every single time JARVIS has looked out for him, since he got here, but he doesn’t want to have that conversation while Steve’s listening in.

“Any time, Sergeant Barnes,” JARVIS says. “Good night.”

“I’m glad you guys are friends,” Steve says. He kicks off his shoes and lies down next to Bucky, propping himself up on one arm so he can look down at Sarah.

“Yeah, well, all machines together, huh?” Bucky asks and grins in the face of Steve’s disapproving frown. He reaches over and touches the scrunched up skin between Steve’s eyes. “The wind’ll change and you’ll get stuck like that.”

Steve’s frown melts away. “My mom used to say that.”

“I remember,” Bucky says. He does or he thinks he does. He can’t remember her face, but he can remember the soft rise and fall of her voice. “I’m glad I named Sarah after her.”

Steve lays his hand carefully over Sarah’s back. “Me too,” he says, staring down at her. He looks like Bucky feels every time he sees her.

“I wanna keep her,” Bucky says softly, even though that’s not going to be a shock to Steve.

“Yeah,” Steve says. “We’ll make that happen.”

Bucky lets his hand brush Steve’s. “I wanna keep you, too.”

Steve’s hand turns, catches with Bucky’s, warm fingers around metal ones. “I can live with that,” he says.

“Yeah?” Bucky asks. He slides down the bed until his head is level with Sarah’s and smiles when Steve does the same.

“Yeah,” Steve says. He catches Bucky’s eye over the top of their sleeping baby, and they grin at each other like saps.

***

“The Lady Sarah says she requires another bottle,” Thor says solemnly, looking up from the floor where he and Sarah have been chatting for the past hour.

Well, Thor has been chatting, Sarah has been making what Bucky would swear are just baby noises, but Thor seems to understand them.

“It’s not dinner time yet,” Steve says. He’s been watching them avidly, clearly fascinated.

“And yet, she is hungry,” Thor says. “This is grueling work.”

“What is, exactly?” Steve asks.

“She is attempting to show me how she is able to travel through space. However, it appears only to work when she is in particular need of something.”

“That’s not true,” Bucky says. “She went on the roof and into the kitchen and hung out with me on the sofa. I don’t think any of those times were particularly needful?”

“I suspect the majority of those times, she was looking for you,” Thor says, then looks thoughtful. “May I suggest you remove yourself from the room?”

“Sure.” Bucky stands up and goes into the bedroom.

As soon as he’s there, he hears Steve say, “Hey, Sarah, hey, where’s Bucky gone?” and immediately feels like shit. But they do have to know what she can do. They do. He tells himself that more firmly when he hears her start to cry.

“Sarah,” he calls. “Sarah, darlin’.”

“Shit,” he hears from the living room, and then Sarah materialises in his arms. He sits down hard on the bed, cradling her against his chest.

“She’s here,” he shouts, but it’s unnecessary, because both Steve and Thor appear in his bedroom doorway, before he gets all the words out.

“Teleporting, then,” Steve says softly.

“It would appear so,” Thor agrees. “You say that it was the disciples of Hydra who gave her this skill?”

Bucky can’t answer that, so he leaves it to Steve. “We think so,” Steve says. “Either she inherited it from her parents, who Hydra experimented on, or Hydra experimented on her…” He stops himself, as though that’s too horrific an idea to think about. It is. Bucky agrees. “No wonder they wanted her back.”

“They can’t have her,” Bucky says, automatically.

“They won’t get her,” Steve promises. He ruffles Bucky’s hair, then Sarah’s. Neither of them object as much as they should. “Thanks, Thor. Do you want to stay for dinner?”

“I would like that very much,” Thor says. “But I cannot leave my Jane alone, so soon.”

“Invite her down,” Steve says then looks at Bucky. “That’s okay, right?”

Bucky rolls his eyes. Like he can say anything else, now. “Sure,” he says. Steve’s just behind him so he leans against him. “Why not.”

Why shouldn’t he have a Norse God and his astrophysicist girlfriend over for dinner, while his supersoldier best friend feeds their teleporting baby?

This isn’t how Bucky thought his life would end up, and he’d bet all his seventy years of back pay that it’s not what Bucky Barnes was planning on back in 1944, either. But it’s his and he’s keeping it, and he’s happy with that.

/End