"So unwilling is the imagination to dwell on genuine—as opposed to fictional or theatrical—horrors that indeed, we shall never know half of the history of these times."—Paul Fussell, Wartime
~ ~ ~
The first time they had sex they were in Italy, and shells were falling and they thought they were going to die. He dragged Bucky down between the roots of a huge tree and pulled the shield up over them, not that he thought it would save them, because they were at the very limits of human sensory experience—ears ringing from the shells, fire coming down in flakes all around, and bits of burning metal, and the ground trembling beneath them, and Bucky on top of him, sooty and strong and terrified, kissing him. His hand found the fly of Bucky's pants, unzipped it, and slid inside, and kissing never seemed to make anybody hard in the movies, but God, he was hard, and Bucky was too, pushing into his hand, and there was a spot just above Bucky's left eyebrow where he liked being kissed; he made whimpering sounds when you kissed him there. And sometimes when things are hot like that, they fuse.
I. The War
When Steve woke up, he was alone in the tent and Bucky's bedroll was empty and it was after 0300 hours and why hadn't anybody woken him for the watch? He groaned as he got to his feet, adjusted his helmet then pushed through the flap of the tent. Several of the Howling Commandos were awake, their glowing cigarette ends bobbing in the dark—all of them, actually. Except for Falsworth. And Bucky.
"Where's..." Steve began, and then stopped at the flash of looks that passed among them.
It was Dum Dum who detached himself from the group. "Sir," he began, and Dum Dum never called called anybody sir, if he could help it; his respect for chain of command was two steps below Bucky's, which was really saying something. "We've got to take the guardhouse by 0900 hours or else the 30th Infantry'll be pinned on the wrong side of the—"
"Yeah," Steve interrupted; he knew; he'd told them that; Gabe had picked up the code yesterday; they had to take the Ponte Dolomiti before the troops got there. "And we'll do that. We've got a plan for doing that."
Dum Dum went on, "And there's a Nazi comm station between us and the—"
"I know," Steve said. "That's part of the—"
"That part of it has to be done by stealth, sir," Dum Dum said implacably. "If we're to have any chance of surprising them at the guardhouse," and before Steve could interrupt again: "Someone has got to go and slaughter them all in their beds." Steve shut up. "And that oughtn't to be you," Dum Dum said, and then added, unnervingly: "Sir. Bad publicity if nothing else. We're all of us agreed on this."
Dum Dum stood there, and for a moment Steve couldn't say anything. They were all waiting for his response: Morita, Gabe. Dernier. "So, Falsworth...?" he prompted. He couldn't say Bucky's name.
"Falsworth, yeah," Dum Dum agreed, momentarily removing his hat and scratching his head before settling his bowler back again. "Falsworth and Barnes went around midnight, left their rifles but took guns and knives, cut the insignias off their uniforms: everything SOP." Dum Dum squinted down at his watch. "Should be back any time now," he said, and then, stretching almost theatrically: "If you're up, Cap, and you want to take over the watch," and the worst of what Dum Dum had to say was over: he'd been downgraded to plain ol' Cap now, "I don't mind. I'll catch some shut-eye before we set out," and Steve understood that for the kindness it was: Don't worry. I'm not worried. I'm going for a nap to show you exactly how not worried I am.
"Yeah," Steve said. "Good idea," but in fact it wasn't long before there was a faint rustling in the brush, and Bucky and Falsworth were there, looking exhausted but giving a firm thumbs up, and then there was backslapping and Falsworth was snagging Morita's cigarette and taking a long, deep drag, and Bucky was standing there, looking at him. Like Falsworth, he'd dirtied his face to stop light reflecting off it, and—Steve smelled the blood before his eyes registered the black sheen on Bucky's blue jacket.
"Sorry," Bucky said, jerking backwards and starting to unbuckle his belt. "I reek, I know," and he turned toward the path to the river. "I'm up, Cap," Gabe said, shrugging and smiling faintly at him. "Can't sleep anyway," and so Steve turned and followed Bucky through the trees. Bucky'd stripped off his jacket and was on his knees at the riverbank, scrubbing at his face and hands. Then he looked at his jacket, spread out on the ground with its arms flung out like a downed soldier, and then up at Steve.
"If you want company, I'm here," Steve said awkwardly. "If you want to be alone, I can—" He jerked a thumb back at camp.
"No, I'm all right. I'm fine. It went well, actually it—"and then Bucky was throwing up violently into the water, and Steve was beside him and gripping his arm, his other hand moving reassuringly between his shoulder blades. "I'm all right," Bucky muttered. "S'just the smell. One of them woke up, panicking, and he was a bleeder, he— "He looked over at his jacket. "I'll just have to let it dry, brush it out later—"
"You shouldn't have done it," Steve said quietly. "That wasn't your mission, you had no right to—"
Bucky's jaw tightened. He jerked his arm out of Steve's grip. "You're not going to give me some chickenshit about chain of command, are you, sir?"
"No, of course not," Steve shot back. "But—"
Bucky looked angry and pleading at the same time. "It can't be you, Steve," he said. "It can't," and Steve figured he knew who was behind this new protective consensus that the Howlers had come to. "Some things," Bucky was saying, trying to explain, to make Steve see reason, "need to be done by smaller units, tactical groups outside the chain of—"
"You don't have to do my dirty work," Steve protested.
Bucky seemed shocked by this. "Of course I do," he said.
Now it was Steve's turn to be angry. "You're concerned about my image?"
"I'm concerned about—" Bucky sucked loudly on his lip. "—a lot of things, but not your image: fuck your image, Rogers." He dropped a hand on Steve's shoulder, and his thumb found the hollow of Steve's throat and stroked over it. Steve shivered and then leaned in to kiss him, greedy for his mouth.
Bucky clutched Steve through his thick canvas jacket and they fell into the matted grass, kissing and rubbing each other through their clothes. Christ, it was good, it felt so good, and Bucky was fumbling with their zippers and they had their hands in each other's pants—smooth, hot skin, hard and warm and—God. Steve was shuddering through his orgasm, feeling Bucky jerk in his hands.
"I worry about you," Steve blurted, gasping. "Your life, what this is doing to you, to us—"
"Don't," Bucky said, he was panting up at the star-filled sky. "This is a good gig. Connoisseur killing," and he was laughing softly even as Steve pushed up to stare down at him. "No, it is," Bucky said, reaching up to stroke his face. "You were never infantry, so you don't understand. Those guys, the guys who've got to cross that bridge tomorrow and take the next bit of territory—5000 of them, and if it's a successful mission, they might lose, I dunno, 1500? And when I say lose I mean—" Bucky stopped, silenced; Steve could see him struggling to put something impossible into words. "We'll go watch it," he said abruptly. "You should know."
Steve frowned. "Watch the battle, you mean?"
"Yeah, if we can get high enough. Like the brass do: vantage point, binoculars. We'll get the fuck out if there's shelling," Bucky replied.
Steve wasn't sure he could do that. "We'll watch but we won't—help?"
"Ain't nothing to help," Bucky said. "That's what I'm trying to tell you. Getting killed's their job, it's the whole job down on the line. You saved me from that," he said, kissing him. "You saved me from everything."
"Steve," and Steve came awake instantly to the sound of his name, senses reaching out for danger—shells, gunfire, voices: had they been detected?—but there was only Bucky beside him, clammy and shivering in the dark. "They did something to me," Bucky said softly, and then his eyes widened to match Steve's shocked expression as he nodded. "Experiments—they gave me injections, radiation. I don't know what they did to me," and Steve's stomach turned as he recalled rumors, Nazi horror stories: torture in the name of science. "Steve, I had the pneumonia when I went in—you know I know what that is—and now I don't. And do you remember—" Bucky shoved back the fraying cuff of his sweater. He'd had a ragged scar on that arm, back from where they were kids: it was gone. "There were other things, things I can't quite — Steve, on the table, I nearly forgot who I was. Don't let me forget who I am. Please. Don't—" and Steve pressed their sticky foreheads together before pressing their mouths together. "I won't," Steve said. "I won't, Buck. I promise."
They organized into teams to take the guardhouse at the Ponte Dolomiti, with Steve sending Bucky up high with a rifle to pick off any outside reinforcements or surprises. They approached by stealth, then went in, taking possession of the bridge in a rush of gunfire and hollering. He installed Gabe on the radio to signal the Allied command and had Morita point the big guns over the river to the other side.
They were relieved by three advance units who came with tanks and Jeeps. Their C.O., a Major Stanley, handed Steve a message wrapped in waterproof oilskin. "For you," he said. "From London," and Steve wryly noted that London had made their escape plan contingent on their success.
"It's just practical," Bucky said later, through a mouthful of apple; weirdly, there were apple orchards tucked up here in the middle of the Alps. He was laying on his belly besides Steve, field glasses pressed to his eyes; they'd retreated far behind the line to an abandoned airfield. The message Maj. Stanley brought told of a pick up at 2200 hours; they'd be hitching a ride with a Wellington bomber, getting a couple of nights of R&R. "No point sending a message to a broken radio."
"What do you see?" Steve asked, and Bucky handed him the binoculars. The line was snaking up toward the bridge; so far the Allied troops were unopposed, but he could see movement on the German side: they'd be moving their own guns down into position, since the Howling Commandos had taken control of their river defenses. "They're not going fast enough," Steve muttered. "The bridge is a bottleneck, they've got to get more men over and set up a defensive line on the other—"
"I came into Italy with the first invasion." Bucky'd rolled onto his back and was staring up at the sky, the apple half-eaten in his hand. "I was in a foxhole for three months. Nonstop shelling. We came onto the beachhead in six waves, me in the fifth. The water—" and Steve let the glasses drop, because Bucky's voice had suddenly broken. "The water was full of body parts," and as if on cue, Steve heard the blasts of mortar fire, and moved to raise the binoculars to his eyes. Bucky's hand shot out.
"Don't," and Steve saw from the agonized look on his face that he wanted to protect him, like he always did. "My fault. It was a bad idea, it was—"
"I want to come with you," Steve said, and it wasn't exactly what he meant but it was the only way he could think to put it. "I need to go where you've been," and was like a punishment when he raised the glasses to his face: the front of the line was being shredded as they came off the bridge, bodies blown to pieces by shrapnel and the men behind them stepping over them to rush forward and set up their own guns. Steve watched as a body took a shell full-force and fell to the ground in five pieces. He took the glasses down; there was water on his face, but he found to his surprise he could speak.
"Isn't there anything we can..." Steve began.
"No," Bucky said. The shelling had gotten louder, and he'd closed his eyes and instinctively curled up on his side, one arm draped over his helmeted head and pressed hard against his ear to dampen the sound. "We can go down and kill some of them once it's over—our guys. That's all we can do."
Three quarters of the 107th was dead by the time the glowing blue tank crested the hill, and Dum Dum had to yank the gun out of Bucky's hand to stop him doing something stupid. "You don't know what's coming," Dum Dum yelled, "and surrender's not always a bad option!" "Bullet's a nice clean death," Bucky shouted back, but then Gabe had come up, looking terrified, and said, "Guys?" and of course Bucky'd had to be strong then, standing up first and raising his hands, getting in front of the others. When the tank's barrel had swiveled round to him, Bucky'd nearly shit his pants; guys shit themselves all the time here, but he hadn't yet. Shells could blow a human body apart, little bits of flesh everywhere—and this tank had left nothing behind: blasted men into atoms, maybe. He gasped for what he was sure were his last few lungfuls of smoky air—and then the top of the tank flipped open and soldiers poured out, Nazis and others with strange insignias he'd never seen before, a skull-headed octopus, and they were on him, dragging him out of the foxhole and binding his hands behind his back, and as he stumbled along in a line of prisoners headed for who-knows-what, he let his mind drift back to Brooklyn, to the dancehalls and whirling skirts, and long summers out on the pier with Steve.
Steve had watched more of the battle than was good for him before Bucky took the binoculars away, gently but firmly, and then they'd just sat there for a while, arms around each other's necks. When they finally rejoined the others near the airstrip they found Monty asleep on Morita's shoulder, and Gabe and Dernier curled up like puppies while Dum Dum kept watch. It was one of the things Steve liked best about the army, that they were all allowed to take comfort in this sort of dumb physical affection, even if what he had with Bucky was something bigger: both more, and more complicated.
But it was dumb physical affection he wanted from Bucky now, so he pretended to sleep in Bucky's arms on the plane, meanwhile trying to focus on Bucky's smell, the hard muscles of his shoulders and arms. Anything not to think about the obscene slaughter he'd just watched: men not merely killed but butchered, falling to the ground like ripped dolls with their faces smashed and their stuffing hanging out. Bucky had served in that kind of war. He instinctively tightened his arms around Bucky and felt his answering squeeze. The longer Steve was at war, the more he understood Bucky's sweats and night-tremors. And that's when his stomach churned with a sick sense of relief: a good gig, Bucky had said, and Bucky was right. The battles the Howling Commandos fought were hard, but they were purposeful, and winnable.
"Captain," and even though it was nearly 3 in the morning, she was waiting for him on the airstrip, grinning and glowing in the passenger seat of the first Jeep; the most beautiful woman he'd ever seen. "Welcome back," Peggy Carter said. "I thought you could do with an escort," and Steve went to her, then stopped, went back, tugged Bucky by the arm, and he and Bucky and Morita and Falsworth piled into the first Jeep, leaving the others to take the one behind. Steve hunched up close so that he could talk to her even through the cold night wind.
"Right. We're putting you up in VIP quarters near the base—real beds there, though you won't get much sleep; there's a briefing scheduled for 0800 hours," Peggy said. "The Generals are keen to have your report—the mission went well, I assume, as you're here—" and even though his head was turned and he was looking out through the night at the scenery, Bucky stiffened slightly. Steve blindly dropped a reassuring hand on his leg, "—but of course they want to know the state of things at the Ponte Dolomiti." She turned back to look at him, her dark brown hair whipping in the wind. "Did you see any of it? We have our own intelligence of course, but—"
"I did," Bucky said, before Steve could answer. "I can give you from the start of the battle to just before we left for the airstrip," and Peggy said, "That would be good." Steve kept his mouth shut.
The VIP quarters were in an old hotel around the corner from the base on Lambeth Road, and Peggy hesitated in the lobby, her hand on Steve's arm. He looked down at her red-lacquered nails. "I thought," she said, suddenly awkward, "that perhaps we might have dinner tomorrow, and then, if you didn't have any other plans, we might..."
Warmth spread through his chest. "Go dancing?" he said.
"There's dancing at the Paramount, it's not far." Her voice was brisk, but she was flushing a little.
"I—yeah, I'd like that," Steve said.
Bucky was waiting for him on the stairs. "You should go," he said, waiting until Steve climbed past him and then trailing after. "You should jump her," he said. "She wants you. It's an engraved invita—"
"Thanks for the pep talk," Steve said.
Bucky grinned at him. "Well, who else is gonna?"
Their rooms were next door to each other, with Steve's at the end of the hall, and they exchanged glances and nods before unlocking their own doors and going inside their own rooms without saying goodnight. Steve's room was stuffy and claustrophobic with the heavy blackout curtains pulled. A single lamp gave off a reddish-brown light and cast strange shadows on the ornate wallpaper, the vined carpets. Still, it was a real bed—piled with pillows and covered with a thick paisley bedspread. The furniture was solid, if worn, and Steve set the iron key down on the bureau.
He hung up his jacket, bagged everything else he was wearing, and went to wash, the hotel having the luxury of en suite bathrooms. He drew a bath of the requisite five inches and got in, knowing that Bucky was doing the same thing—and that Bucky would then get into bed, settling in and messing it up properly, before getting up and coming to him.
The SSR'd left clean fatigues on the chair and a pressed dress uniform in the closet, and he was just pulling on clean shorts when Bucky came in without knocking, wearing a white undershirt and clean pants, his bare feet shoved into boots. He picked up the iron key and locked the door from the inside, then looked ruefully at Steve's reddened, scratched skin, though he had the same boiled, rough-scrubbed look.
"Are you all right?" Bucky asked.
Steve nodded slowly. "Yeah. Tired, though," and Bucky kicked off his boots and dropped his pants before tucking himself into the far side of the bed, where he could roll off or duck down if there was an unexpected intrusion: they'd got the whole thing down to a science. Steve switched off the lamp and got into bed on the other side, and they moved into their usual positions: him on his back, Bucky on his stomach with an arm flung across him. He felt the protection of that arm differently these days; Bucky didn't need to protect him against bullies, or illness, or the cold: not anymore. It was a deeper, more powerful protection now, that Bucky offered him. And if Steve wanted to kiss and touch him, so what? Whose opinion did he care about? Society's? Steve closed his eyes and snugged in closer, already warm and drifting away. Screw that. He wasn't ever going to sleep alone again: not if he could help it.
They'd both been half hysterical by the time he'd gotten Bucky away from Hydra, and Bucky had been exhausted besides, tripping over his own feet and barely able to stand. They fell to the ground, holding each other while the base burned, air hot enough to singe their eyebrows. Steve tried to make himself think clearly. Bucky was holding onto him, babbling about the impossibility of the jump Steve had just made, and Steve didn't want to let Bucky go either, but he had to—He had to think clearly. He had to get help—but he found himself impulsively brushing his lips against Bucky's sweaty forehead, and then giving it all up in a rush, all shame, everything, and pressing intense kisses against his hairline. Bucky looked up, shocked, and Steve cupped his neck and kissed his mouth once, twice, and then said, as if none of it had happened, "We've got to catch up with the others. Can you walk? Hold on to me, I'll carry you," and Bucky shivered and pulled himself together with visible effort. "Okay, Steve. Yes."
Steve was bent over him when he woke up, head full of concrete and arms and legs of lead. "Oh my God," Bucky muttered, trying to lift his head, but Steve just said, "Shh, it's all right. I'll go over first and give them the mission report. You get there as soon as you can. I've gone and got your stuff, your uniform's here—all you've got to do is brush your teeth and suit up." Bucky reached out to clutch gratefully at Steve's uniform sleeve, and Steve bent down to kiss him. That was good: that was rule one: never miss an opportunity to kiss Steve, because fuck, you might be blown to blazes at any time.
He shined himself up best he could, and got to the base to find Steve still in with the brass. Dum Dum was slumped on a bench outside the conference room with his arms crossed and his hat tipped over his eyes. Bucky sat beside him and nudged him with an elbow. "Didn't figure you for a morning person."
"Fuck off, Barnes," Dum Dum muttered, and Bucky smirked.
"That posture, tsk. There's senior officers walking all up and down here," Bucky said with a wave of his hand. "Think of the impression you're making. Think of the unit, Dugan—"
"Think of my hairy asshole," Dum Dum replied, and Bucky barked out a laugh and quickly suppressed it as a Colonel walked by. "I don't take chickenshit from Rogers," Dum Dum said, mock-menacingly, "and I sure as hell don't take it from you, Bucky-boy."
Bucky grinned and pushed his hat back, out of regulation position, and slumped back on the chair beside him. "I don't suppose there's a chance of a cup of coffee," he asked, looking around.
"Only tea," Dum Dum said. "Goddamned infernal Limey tea—" but then the door was opening and Bucky straightened up, got to his feet, and went over, swiping his hat off as Steve came out with Colonel Phillips. Bucky saluted, and Colonel Phillips smirked and returned it wearily: "Well, if it isn't Sergeant Barnes, the light of all our lives," and Bucky bit his lip and pointedly didn't look at Steve: a guy had to expect a little razzing once it got out that Captain America would personally risk his life for you. "I hear you and Falsworth were the heroes of yesterday's little adventure," Colonel Phillips said speculatively. "Killed yourself a bunch of Krauts at the Trentino communications station."
"Yes, sir," Bucky said. "Monty Falsworth's a good soldier, sir."
"So I've been told. You and Captain Rogers saw the start of the fighting at the bridge?"
"I did," Bucky said; he didn't want Steve to have to relive that horror show.
Colonel Phillips squinted at him. "Your immediate assessment?"
Colonel Phillips was a lot of things, but he wasn't full of shit. "Hard to tell," Bucky replied. "A lot more guys are gonna have to die before we know if we've broken through."
Colonel Phillips face hardened and he jerked his head toward the conference room. "You'd better get in here, Sergeant," and then Steve said, "Sir, I'd like a word with him," and Colonel Phillips looked from one to the other of them and then left. Steve drew close and said: "You don't have to do this alone."
Bucky nodded. "I know," he said, and then he leaned in and lowered his voice and said: "I really think that if you can get Agent Carter alone, you should bang her," and Steve rolled his eyes and shoved him away and said: "I've got another meeting, and then believe it or not there's a USO show at 2." Bucky groaned. "I'm expected to go: looks bad if I don't. If I don't see you before, find me there, all right?"
"I hate the USO," Bucky muttered.
"Jane Froman's singing. You like her. And there'll be showgirls and a sing-along," Steve said, and then: "I'll save you a seat and put myself where you can see me."
"You're Captain America," Bucky said. "I'll fuckin' see you," and he went into the briefing room.
The sing-along was in full swing by the time Bucky got there, with an audience of U.S. troops gaily singing with Jane Froman and a group of scantily-clad dames with legs that, brother, could give a guy a thought or two. Roll out the barrel, they sang. We'll have a barrel of fun, and Bucky found that the loud and hearty singing was chasing the nightmares from his head, which he supposed was the point: the tanks, the guns, the dead men piling up at the end of the bridge. We've got the blues on the run!
It wasn't hard to spot Steve: first, because he looked like a fucking movie star in that uniform, and second, because he was sitting with Carter: the prettiest girl in the place, on or off-stage. The singing vibrated through him; he'd at least been able to tell Phillips they were making headway, because he'd seen a couple of Krauts blasted into spots by the—Zing, boom, tararrel!—guns of the 30th infantry. The thought blindsided him for a moment, and he took a breath, then took his hat off and made his way down to where they were, to the open space on the bench that Steve obviously been holding for him.
Peggy Carter smiled up at him as he passed and sank down onto the bench on Steve's other side; she was clapping and mouthing the words with her pretty red lips, her dark curls bobbing. Steve looked at him and then leaned over. "How'd it go?" he asked, then turned his head for Bucky's answer.
Bucky moved his mouth to Steve's ear. "Tell you later," he said. "Do we have a new mission?"
Steve pulled back to meet his eyes and jerked a nod. Right. Of course they did. Bucky turned his head and went away for a while, just drifted off.
It was Steve who pulled him back to earth by murmuring, "Why don't you sing? You have a great voice," and Bucky smiled, put his mouth on Steve's ear, and began singing, soft and strong, "I love to see Mary make water," and Steve flushed hard and laughed and jerked away. Bucky curled his arm around Steve's and yanked him back, hard, against him; fuck, half the guys here were sitting in each other's laps, welcome to the U.S. army. "She can pee such a beautiful stream/ She can pee for a mile and a quarter / And you can't see her ass for the steam," and Steve was deep red and biting his own lip, and then they both lost it, doubling over like schoolboys. Steve had tears in his eyes. Bucky made faces at him to keep him laughing.
He was only a little sorry when the MC suddenly gestured toward them and Steve had to stand up, as Captain America, and say a few words to the troops. Steve was a little red-faced and giddy, and Bucky had to cover his whole mouth with his hand and try to look serious, but Steve did okay: blah blah freedom, blah blah service, blah blah loyalty and sacrifice. Victory, etc. Steve was good at that stuff.
"You're my favorite windbag, you know that?" Bucky said to Steve when he sat down.
"Blow me," Steve said, still waving.
He'd been a mess their first time together in London, with whatever shit Zola'd given him still running through his veins, and Steve suddenly a six foot wall of muscle, and Peggy Carter's eyes sliding over him like he was already dead. He'd been dumb with pain and want, drinking glass after glass of whisky and feeling nothing, and it wasn't until after they were back in Italy, not until they'd fallen into each others arms and made each other come at the base of a tree that should have been their gravesite, that he felt alive again. And then they'd crossed into Yugoslavia and fucked for real, Steve whispering, "Bucky," in sweet agony and then crawling over him and fucking him with heroic sincerity, snugged up behind him and kissing his shoulders and neck while Bucky shuddered and melted beneath him. He'd never known he could want this; how much he would want this. Now it was all he wanted and fuck everything else. Rule 2: never ever miss an opportunity to fuck Steve, because tomorrow, who knows?
The pub was loud and raucous enough that Steve felt safe putting his mouth to Bucky's ear and giving him the gist of the upcoming mission: parachute into Lithuania, take out a Hydra facility there, make their way southwest behind enemy lines into East Prussia. Bucky's face grew grim and his hand tightened on his whisky glass, but he didn't protest; he was in, he was thinking about it, he was strategizing.
"We've got a day or so," Steve concluded, and reached for his pint. "Plane won't leave till Friday."
"Oh, well, that's good," Bucky said, all sarcasm. "You wanna take in a picture?"
"Can't," Steve said, sitting back. "I'm having dinner with Peggy tonight."
"Ohhhh. Right. About that," Bucky said, and slid lazily forward on the table until his head was resting on his outstretched forearm. He waggled his eyebrows. "Let's have a little recitation, all right? Just to ease my mind, make sure you're ready. When she asks you to come up for a drink, what do you say?"
Steve grinned, feeling his face go hot. "Yes. I say yes."
"Right," Bucky said. "And when she says, 'Oh, I've forgotten something, I just need to stop at my flat and pick it up,' you say...?"
"I say, 'Sure, I'll just wait here in the lobby while—'" and Bucky hit him and Steve said, "I say yes. I'll say yes, Buck—" and that's when all the windows of the pub blew out at once, glass flying everywhere. Steve reacted without thinking, grabbing Bucky's arm and dragging him down under the table, and between the screams and shouts of the other patrons he could hear the piercing wail of the air raid siren.
"Where's the shelter around here?" Bucky asked, just as the ground shook—another bomb, close by.
"I don't know," Steve said. "Stay here, I'll find out," and then he was darting up through the smoky air, and he saw the pub's landlord gesturing two weeping women behind the bar toward the cellar door. "Is that your shelter?" Steve called, and the landlord nodded, and Steve began moving patrons in that direction, "Come on, hurry. Down, into the shelter." He saw that Bucky was clearing the back room of the pub in the much the same way, gathering the women together and hurrying them down first.
"Careful," Steve cautioned, as women quickly took the stone steps in heels, and then there was another deafening explosion and the pub's far wall was engulfed in flame. Dust clogged Steve's eyes, nose and mouth; he was coughing. The air was thick. "Move!" he croaked to the other servicemen, "Get down—quickly, hurry," and thankfully he had rank and didn't have to explain about being Captain America. The other soldiers obeyed and followed the women down into the cellar.
Bucky appeared through the smoke, his hair and face white with plaster dust. "Back room's clear," he coughed. "Don't know about upstairs," and as if in answer there was another blast and Steve clasped Buck in his arms and shoved him, turned him, tried to shield him with his body as the wall behind them collapsed into rubble, the ceiling and part of the upper floors coming down with it. Something hard smashed painfully into Steve's back and sent him toppling forward, onto Bucky, who awkwardly wrapped his arms around Steve's head to protect it from falling debris and chunks of masonry.
Steve didn't know whether to laugh or cry when Bucky suddenly leaned forward and took Steve's earlobe between his teeth. "I love you. Asshole. I love you," Bucky said crazily, and Steve's heart clutched and he blurted, "You're the asshole," when what he'd meant was I love you, too.
The air stilled. The air raid siren was still going. "We should get down there," Bucky said, and Steve nodded and sat up and something tumbled into his hands. An arm.
It was warm. That's what Steve would remember, then and for the whole rest of his life. It was a woman's bare arm—neatly manicured nails, two rings on the fourth finger—and it was warm. The other end of it was a bloody mess. Everything stopped, stretched, twisted out of shape; nothing made sense.
Steve felt numb except for a sharp pain in, his head was. "Steve." Bucky's voice, soft, teary, coming from somewhere. "Put it down. Steve, put it down."
That seemed wrong. They should take the arm with them into the shelter. Steve looked up. "Oughtn't we to—"
Bucky, looking stricken, was shaking his head. "No. She won't need it. Put it down," and goddammit, he wanted to, but he wasn't sure where—there wasn't any place to—everything was smashed wood and rubble. "Steve. Stevie," and Steve carefully set the arm down on a shattered stone block, and Bucky was tugging him to his feet and half dragging him behind the bar and down the stone steps to the cellar.
Pale faces lit by lanterns turned to face them. "Is it over?" the landlord asked.
"Not yet," Bucky replied, guiding Steve to the wall. They slid down it together and sat, thigh to thigh, on the cold stone floor. Bucky's hand moved to Steve's leg, and every time Steve thought he was about to throw up, Bucky gave a little distracting squeeze, like he knew. Well, of course he knew.
Across from them, a G.I. with a southern accent suddenly said, to no one in particular, "When this goddamned war is over, I'm going home and I'm going to tell my girl's daddy that I'm done waiting, and then we're moving to Louisville and opening a store like I've always wanted." There was silence for a minute and then an English dame said, softly, "When this war is over, I'm going to California and I'm going to become an actress," and Steve realized his mind was blank: he had no plans for after the war. He'd never in a million years thought he was going home. He swallowed hard, then looked the question at Bucky. Bucky's eyebrows drew together and he shook his head. Bucky didn't think he was going home either—well of course he didn't; Bucky'd nearly died so many goddamned times already, in the trenches, on Zola's table. He suddenly understood why Bucky was always urging him to make it with Peggy Carter, and why he'd been so reluctant to: all their futures were a complete blank.
By the end of the first day of shelling, Bucky thought he'd go mad from the filth and the blood and the noise. By the end of the week, he'd collapsed from terror and exhaustion and fallen asleep against Dum Dum's massive back despite the noise. By the end of his first month in a foxhole, Bucky knew what madness really was, because Teddy Compton had been standing there one minute and the next he was on the ground, just a torso, both legs blown off above the knees. "What the fuck?" Ted had shouted, more outraged than anything, and then, "Oh my God!" and everyone had stood there, stupid and frozen in the distorted stretch of time, until Bucky'd pulled his gun and shot him, three times: very clean.
Steve was in no goddamned mood for pretense when they got back to their hotel, so he just dragged Bucky into his room and locked the door and started running hot water into the bath. He stopped at the regulation five inches and nudged Bucky toward the tub, but Bucky shook his head and turned the tap on again—he wanted to pool their water, which yeah: good idea. They stripped off their filthy uniforms with rough tugs, jerking at their ties, roughly dragging belts out of the loops. They were crusted with plaster and rubble. "You go first," Steve said, but Bucky kissed him and said, "You've got a date."
"Bucky, I—I don't know if I—" but Bucky looked thunderous, so Steve went into the bathroom and got into the tub. Dirt crusted the exposed parts of him—hair, face, neck, hands—but he washed as quickly as possible, so that Bucky'd have some hot water, and so he wouldn't have to think of that arm.
He passed Bucky, shivering, and said, "Water's not cold if you hurry," and Bucky nodded and went in. Steve got dressed mechanically. Underwear. Socks. Clean pants— and as he turned the world suddenly tilted and spun and his guts flipped over and he flung himself into the bathroom and bent over the toilet and threw up. Bucky looked up: he was hunched over in the bath, wet hair slicked back, eyes red-rimmed, and Steve looked helplessly at him and then threw up again.
Afterwards, he panted into the toilet and said, "I keep thinking about her rings."
"Rings?" Bucky asked.
"The hand, it, she—had rings, she— Some guy put those rings on there, and—" Steve was dizzy again, sweating, and he put his head down for a second. "I just wonder if—if he'll see what I—and then I think that he shouldn't see that, it would be so terrible for him to see it, except I saw it and it feels so wrong that I saw it. Like she was undressed or something. I shouldn't have seen something her husband never—" Steve braced himself, closed his eyes, sucked for breath.
"Well." Bucky considered this. "I mean. She looked young, so her guy's probably in the service," Bucky offered. "So he—" and suddenly Steve was laughing so hard that there were tears streaming out of his eyes, and Bucky was laughing too, and crying too, bent over in the bath, eyes reddening again.
"—he's probably dead already!" Steve burst out, like it was the punchline to some joke, and they were both gasping with laughter, wheezing as it echoed off the tiles. "That's what you were going to say, wasn't it? Poor bastard's probably—well, that's just great, then! Perfect! Solves everything, best of all possible—! Thanks for making me feel better!"
"Hey, you're welcome! No problem! Happy to help!" and Jesus Christ, they were a mess, a fucking mess, the two of them. Steve couldn't control his face, so he grabbed a washcloth and dunked it in the bathwater and began to roughly wash Bucky's back and shoulders, ignoring the fact that Bucky was bent over his knees, shaking. "I'll get you a," Steve said, and didn't finish the thought; instead he picked up a thick white towel—say what you liked about the English, they knew how to make towels—and hauled Bucky, dripping, out of the bath and wrapped it around his shoulders.
"You've got to get," Bucky said, waving at him; Steve was still in his undershirt and socks.
"Bucky, I—" Steve began, but Bucky doggedly ignored him and went out of the bathroom, roughly toweling his skin and hair, dragging the towel under his armpits and over his balls. Bucky went to the closet, yanked out a clean shirt, and shoved the hanger at Steve. Steve stood there helplessly as Bucky, naked, glared at him, and then he sighed and threw the shirt on the bed and went to brush the vomit off his teeth.
When he came out, Bucky'd put on his skivvies and an undershirt and collapsed face-down on the bed. He looked pale and miserable, but he made out like he was just tired, which was about about the best possible face you could put on it. Each one of these jagged ugly days stayed with you, and Bucky had gone longer and lugged more things on his back than most guys. Some Steve knew about—Bucky'd told him about Zola's table, the drugs, the torture—and some he refused to speak on—only in sleep yelling something about Teddy and why the fuck didn't somebody do something— but when Steve had tried to press it, Dum Dum of all people had put a hand on Steve's shoulder and shaken his head firmly: let it alone.
Steve reluctantly buttoned his shirt and put on a tie. "Bucky," he said, trying again, and Bucky lifted his head: his face was blotchy but his expression was fierce. "You go," Bucky said. "I want you to go."
Steve said, helplessly, "Bucky, I couldn't get it up if I tried," and then there was a knock on the door.
He bit his lip and went to answer it, opening the door only a crack. It was Peggy, standing there with her coat open and wearing a blue dress with little red rosebuds all over it. She looked lovely, flushed, a little breathless with worry. "I heard you were caught in the bombing," she said.
"Yeah, I—yeah." Steve opened the door another couple of inches, but kept his body firmly wedged in the gap. "I was. We both were, Bucky and me. It was..." His heard his voice quavering and took a breath. "It was bad."
She nodded somberly and then said, after a moment's hesitation, "Do you not want to go out then?" and Steve opened his mouth and nothing came out, because he did and he couldn't, and Bucky was going to be furious and Peggy was going to be hurt, and he'd never felt so lost in his entire goddamned life.
But there was only one answer he could make. "Yeah," he said finally. "Maybe—better not," but that was only half the truth, too, and things were complicated and terrible but lying could only make things worse, and so Steve stepped back and let the door open fully, knowing what it looked like. Letting her see what it was. They'd left the privacy sign on the door that morning so the bed hadn't been made, and Bucky was lying across their rumpled sheets, miserable and desolate, shipwrecked—and sure, you could claim camaraderie or something like that, but he loved all the Howling Commandos like brothers and he'd never had any of them in his bed.
"I can't leave him like this," Steve said. "I—won't leave him."
"Oh," Peggy said. "Yes. I see," and that was the first and last time he ever underestimated her, because she strode past him and went to Bucky and cupped his face and kissed him, and Steve's heart stopped.
Bucky'd struggled upright, shocked, chest tight and gasping, unable to breathe, as Steve—that idiot, fucking idiot—opened the door wide for Agent Carter. She stared at him for a moment, then pushed past Steve and walked purposefully toward him, and normally Bucky thought of himself as a pretty resourceful guy, but this—he was at a complete loss: no idea what to say, no idea what to do when your boss found you in your best pal's bed. She could bring him up on charges, no way to defend himself against—and then she was reaching out for his face with her soft, manicured hands and pulling his open mouth against hers. And Christ, she was all soft lips and the scent of flowers.
Her tongue teased against his and he put his hands on her, shocked by how small she was: her waist, her narrow rib cage. And then she was falling into him, pushing him back down onto the unmade bed, and he felt her breasts pressing between them. He caressed the dark cloud of her hair, pulled her head closer, kissed her more intensely—because, Jesus. She met his intensity and doubled it, then broke off breathlessly and turned her face to be kissed, and he obliged her, sliding his lips across her jaw, her cheek, her forehead, before taking her mouth again. Her arms curved round his head and she kissed him with purpose, sweet-lipsticked lips, tongue sliding into his mouth.
Even through the blood thrumming through his ears, his veins, he could hear Steve's intake of breath—and there was the faint thud of the door shutting and Steve was there, the bed dipping under his weight as he tugged at her, turned her, tumbled down on top of her, shocked and laughing. Steve's hands were on Peggy's waist, sliding down her legs, pushing up her dress, and Bucky turned onto his side beside them, then reached up deftly to undo Steve's tie before the poor bastard strangled himself. Peggy was rapidly undoing the tiny mother of pearl buttons that ran down the front of her dress, and Steve tried to help get her out of it, eagerly sliding his fingers around to unhook her brassiere, tugging the silk from her body. Bucky was staring, real smooth like a green recruit, at her glorious body, when she caught his eye and he realized she was as revved up as Steve was. Bucky bent in to steal another quick kiss from her, and then Steve was there and kissing her deeply, holding her head like he wanted to inhale her.
Peggy's bare arms curved around Steve's shoulders as they kissed and Bucky had to squeeze his eyes shut to stop the tears from coming: he'd been surprised by joy. He was warm and they were safe and little Stevie was going to get laid after all, and tomorrow would be tomorrow, and whatever happened, he would have this here, this now.
He abruptly realized from the sound of Steve's breathing that things were going fast, which he should have—he knew how focused Steve could get when he was horny. And Steve had a good heart but the savoir faire of a chimpanzee, so Bucky gasped, "Wait," and turned, half hanging off the bed, to swipe Steve's jacket off the floor. He knew there were condoms in the pocket. He'd put them there himself. He hauled himself up and handed the packet to Steve, who was panting, barely in control of himself, pants shoved down to his knees.
"Thanks," —and that was Peggy, looking disheveled and amused.
"Don't mention it," Bucky said, and then they were laughing, and Steve grabbed him by the neck and kissed him roughly, and Bucky's face went hot, wondering what Peggy would think of this, though if Steve didn't care, he guessed he didn't either. He glanced across at her when Steve broke away to put the rubber on, but she wasn't looking at him then, she was looking into Steve's eyes and smiling, smiling, and then she was reaching up for Steve and he was lowering himself on top of her, sliding into her, and oh. A lump rose in Bucky's throat as Peggy's hand found his and they laced their fingers together in some kind of handshake: hi, nice to meet you. He closed his eyes and rolled his hips, feeling the bed rock him as Steve and Peggy moved together, hearing the symphony of their little sounds: Steve's familiar, Peggy's new and thrilling, sparking heat in his cock and fire in his belly.
He knew when Steve was going to come and he reached up, grasping blindly, and dragged his hand down Steve's thigh and felt his rhythm speed up, go wilder. He heard Peggy's breath shudder and her grip tightened on his hand and Bucky's whole body tightened in anticipation. It was like they all held their breath together for one long shuddering moment—and then Steve was collapsing on top of her and Peggy was whispering breathy little sweet nothings in Steve's ear and Bucky looked up at the ceiling in amazement. And then the idea became a desire became a compulsion, and he rolled over across Peggy's hips, nudging Steve over, and bent to put his mouth between her legs.
She gasped in surprise, and then moaned and let her thighs fall apart as he moved his tongue against her. Her hand gripped and then tugged at the back of his undershirt, and he pushed in, eager, hungry. She was wet—God, for Steve—and musky and her hands slid up over the back of his head and sank into his hair, and he let her set the rhythm, directing him where she needed him. He licked and sucked and buzzed his lips in that way he knew dames loved, flickering his tongue until he felt her rocking her hips, pushing needily against his face.
"Oh God," and that gasp was Steve. "Bucky. Peg?" and he knew from the way Peggy's soft cries were suddenly muffled that Steve was kissing her, and Bucky groaned and set about making her come, loving the way she trembled and panted beneath him, and caressed his face with her thigh, and got wetter and wetter until she fluttered like a mad thing beneath his tongue. Bucky swiped his forearm across his slick mouth and looked up at her face along the smooth curves and mounds of her body, up at her tousled hair and flushed cheeks—and she'd broken off kissing Steve and was reaching out to him, something imploring in her expression.
"B-Barnes," Peggy said, awkwardly; she was tugging at his shoulders, sitting up, and so he sat up too, ducking his head cheekily to kiss one rosy nipple before meeting her eyes. Her pleading expression tipped into laughter as she said, regretfully, biting her lip, "I'm sorry—I don't think I can call you Bucky."
That was funny. "Yeah. That's another thing Steve did to me," Bucky said. "My name is—" and Steve stopped his mouth by kissing him, tugging him forward and then pushing him back down onto the bed. He was already tenting his shorts something fierce, and Steve pushed a hand into his shorts and stroked him while they kissed. Steve was all long lean hard muscle and fuck, Steve knew just how to do him. His dick felt so good in Steve's hand, and eventually he couldn't kiss, couldn't breathe, just lay there gasping and blind on the edge of it—and then Peggy leaned over and kissed him upside down just as Steve squeezed his cock and that was it, he was coming all over his belly. He drifted, trying to catch his breath, dimly aware of Steve carelessly wiping him off with the sheet and tugging the covers up over them. Peggy was in Steve's arms, and Steve's leg was—and that was his hand, her breast, and he was asleep before he could map it all out in his head.
When he opened his eyes it was nearly pitch-dark with the blackout curtains but they'd left the bathroom light on. Beside him, Steve and Peggy were both asleep—or at least he thought they were until Peggy turned her head and smiled at him. She was stretched out beside him, happy and lazy, her breasts soft against her chest and pointing in opposite directions: she was heavy-breasted, he liked that. He snugged in closer, then ran an affectionate hand up Steve's arm: Steve was out, zonked, face mashed against the pillow. He'd stretched his arm across Peggy and pressed his hand against Bucky's chest, determined, it seemed, to hold on to both of them. Stupid kid; Bucky loved him so much.
He moved his face close to Peggy's and murmured, "I respect your determination."
"It's not much of a hardship," Peggy said wryly, lips curving into a smile. She raised a hand to his face, traced his eyebrow with her thumb, then tenderly stroked her fingers across his jaw. He looked at her frankly and let her do it. "You're lovely, you know," she said finally. "You must know that."
Bucky laughed. "Lov-e-ly," he drawled, amused at the phrase. "That's me, Mister Lovely."
"Or whatever they say in Bah-rooklyn," Peggy said, trying and failing to spin the word with an American accent. "Good looking," she tried. "Hot stuff."
"Now that I hear all the time," Bucky replied, and then said, honestly: "You're a knockout, lady."
"Oh, I like that. Knockout," Peggy mused. "Well, God knows I've tried."
"Side of the head." Bucky pointed. "Front's too hard. Hit the side of the head, knock their brains around," and wow, that was a smile, and she leaned in to kiss him. They kissed a little stupidly, a little drunk off the whole situation, laughing against each other until it all went heated, more urgent, deeper.
"You kiss like Steve," Peggy said when they broke apart. "Did you teach Steve to—" and it must have been all over his face, because she frowned and said: "You're worried about what I think."
"No, I—I don't know, I don't fucking know," Bucky said. "Excuse my French."
"Well, I don't know either. But that's all right," Peggy said sensibly. "I don't need to know what I think. It's a different world, a new world, and thinking—well." She turned and slid her thigh across him, and he firmed up right away, the slide of her skin dragging thrills into him.
He nodded his head at the question on her face: so, do you want to? "Yeah, I—yeah."
"I think you should," she said frankly, and he slid a hand up to cup her breast and rub her nipples, and she laughed and trailed her fingers up under his balls and in the end he barely got the condom on before she was sliding onto him and grinding down, her eyes fluttering closed, and it was so damn good to do something good with his body, something all for the pleasure of it.
When he next woke up it was morning and Steve and Peggy were making love with such desperate sincerity that he immediately pretended to be asleep again. The image burned behind his eyelids: the flush on Steve's long back, in Peggy's cheeks, the way their bodies shook as they thudded together. He was glad for Steve, he really was: Steve deserved this, Steve deserved everything. Steve was the best man in this world: there wasn't a speck of rot in him. He was beautiful and clean all the way through.
When it was all over but the cuddling and the sweet, desperate promises, Bucky made a big show of stirring and stretching before opening his eyes. "Morning, lovebirds," Bucky said, and Peggy dropped a kiss on his cheek. Steve didn't need to kiss him; it was there, everything, all over his face.
"I'm gonna go wash up," Bucky said, and sat up, "but before I do—Carter, you can settle a question for the ages. Which of us is better in—" and he didn't get to finish the question, because Steve shoved him so hard that he nearly fell out of the bed and had to flail and twist to keep himself off the floor.
"Jesus, you're such a pig," Steve said, amused but scandalized; Peggy was laughing outright.
Maybe it was an answer, and maybe it wasn't, but Peggy grabbed Steve's face and gave him a kiss so searingly hot that Bucky was surprised his eyebrows didn't burst into flame. Then she kissed his mouth more softly, twice, and murmured, "You have my heart, Steve. You know that."
"Yeah, yeah: heart, sure, " Bucky groaned, rolling to his feet. "You'd think having an enormous dick would count for something," and then he went into the bathroom to give them a little time alone.
The whole time Steve was with the USO, he had nightmares about Bucky overseas: Bucky bloodied and grime-streaked, Bucky with blood dripping from under his helmet, Bucky with a stump where his arm or his leg used to be. Steve would wake up, panicked, in some shitty hotel room in Cincinnati or Kansas City—a million miles from where the fighting was, from where the men were. It was like even with his enhanced body, his new strength, everyone knew what he was inside: fundamentally unfit, 4F, unworthy even to die with everyone else. Every morning Steve read the paper. The Rock Springs Register: all members of unit killed. The St. Louis Dispatch presents A Gallery of Heroes: a sea of postage stamp pictures, all dead. Steve read, with his morning coffee, the Delaware Post: William Kenyan, local hero, returned from the war, and—at the end, last para, page 8—horribly disfigured by shrapnel to the face. Small print: Pvt. Kenyan will not be attending events in his honor. However, there will be prizes, and the Wilmington H.S. marching band will perform.
"How should we..." Steve asked, waving a hand at the door. He and Peggy and Bucky were all clean and dressed, but he was worried about strategy. He and Bucky had no plan for this.
But Peggy just smiled. "We just leave," she said. "There are three of us. Innocent as lambs," and Bucky smirked and said, "You're dangerous."
Steve grinned. "I told you."
"Up yours, you told me nothing," Bucky replied genially, and it felt like ages since he'd seen Bucky so honestly happy, and he looked gratefully at Peggy, who smiled back at him and seemed to understand.
Their good mood lasted throughout breakfast, through the walk to the war rooms and halfway through the Howling Commandos mission brief, and then someone handed Steve a series of aerial reconnaissance photographs of the area around their second target, in East Prussia. Steve held one up one of the pictures. "What's this, here?"
General Turner glanced up at it. "German labor camp, a prison camp," he said.
Bucky extended a hand, and Steve passed him the photograph. He frowned down at it. "This isn't the target?" Bucky asked, adding the honorific after a short but significant pause. "—Sir?"
"No," General Turner said. "The target's to the northeast, the Hydra base at—"
"But a camp that size," Steve protested, "must have thousands of—"
"It's not a military target, Captain," General Turner said firmly. "We're focused on military targets. Our intelligence indicates that that Hydra facility is the site of military as well as medical experiments. They're trying to develop atomic weaponry and super-soldiers." He smiled fondly at Steve, who determined not to flinch. "We think we're significantly ahead of them on both fronts—"
"Well that makes me feel loads better," Bucky muttered to Steve.
"—but that doesn't mean they pose no threat," Turner finished. "We're sending you and your team instead of a bellyful of bombs, Captain, because we want human eyes over there: you see anything useful or strategically interesting, grab it; or if it's too big or too dangerous, take notes and destroy it."
Peggy looked at Steve and sighed. "Hydra do seem to have a particular talent for inventing or discovering dangerous objects," she admitted. "We've accumulated rather a collection of them. I do think it's better that they be taken out of circulation and locked up where they can't harm anyone."
Bucky didn't look convinced, but he wasn't protesting. "Right," Steve said. "I understand that."
"That tank that captured Barnes, Jones, and me," Dum Dum said. "What the hell powered that thing?"
"We still don't know," Peggy told them. "Howard Stark's working on it."
"The answer might be in one of those bases," General Turner said, and that sent them back to it.
"Buck," Steve said. "Bucky," and Bucky finally heard him and jerked around; he had a faraway look that was worrying. Steve curled his hand around Bucky's arm and said, "C'mon—come to lunch. Peggy knows a place: she says they'll do us some game—rabbit, grouse, I dunno, pheasant or something—with roasted potatoes. Real food, nothing reconstituted. I'll buy you a small dead animal and a beer, what do you say?" and Bucky smiled at him then, but shook his head no.
"Nah, you—you go," Bucky said. "Take her out, get some time alone with her—"
"But," and it was stupid and selfish, because they were leaving late that night, so he should take out a little time for Peggy, just for Peggy—he loved Peggy—but—Steve lowered his voice. "I want you to come," he said, and maybe he was weak, but he needed to keep Bucky close. "I want you," he said.
"You've got me," Bucky said, lowering his voice to match, "but I've gotta—I just need to—" He took a shuddering breath and without thinking, Steve squeezed his arm to distract him. "I wouldn't mind some quiet, I guess," Bucky said finally. "You know: before..." and Steve nodded, because they'd be sleeping the rest of tonight in the thunder of a B-29 bomber and after that it wasn't just that there'd be shelling and gunfire and bombs: it was that silence itself would become terrifying.
"Okay," Steve said. "Yeah," and then: "You'll meet me after? Later?"
Bucky leaned in close, his mouth curving up at the corner. "Oh yeah," he said. "It's Rule 2."
"What's that?" Steve asked.
Bucky laughed. "Never mind," he said. "I'll be there. I will."
But he wasn't.
Steve didn't know it at first—he wasn't in Steve's room when they got back, which Steve took for a message: get some time alone with her. Okay, Steve thought in Bucky's direction. All right, already. He shut and locked the door, and when he turned, Peggy's smile was glorious. The rest of her wasn't bad neither, and they took their time, did it slow—Steve trying to burn every moment into his memory, because he was alive now. This was what it meant to be alive, and whatever happened, he'd been so lucky. It was a miracle he'd lived to be an adult, and everything after that was beyond miraculous.
It was only after, when Bucky still hadn't shown up, that Steve pulled on his pants and went next door to knock. "Buck?" Steve said, after a moment. "Are you there? Are you asleep?" He knocked again but there was no answer, and he twisted the knob a couple of times, fruitlessly, and then banged harder, and he was debating breaking the lock when Peggy appeared, dress hastily pulled on, brassiere strap showing, and held up a black bobby pin. Steve stared at it stupidly, and Peggy rolled her eyes, pushed him aside, and unlocked the door as easily as if she'd had a key.
Bucky wasn't there. The room was dark, the blackout curtains pulled, and Steve switched on the lamp and saw that Bucky's bed had been slept in, though he couldn't tell if it had been slept in or their kind of slept in, where Bucky'd messed it all up and gone out. Steve found himself searching for a sign—the shirt Bucky'd just been wearing, a crumple of dirty shorts, a smear of toothpaste in the—and he hadn't realized that his chest had gone tight and he was breathing in little short breaths like the old days until Peggy grabbed him by the arm and said, gently but firmly, "Sit down. Steve—sit down."
He sat on the side of the bed and realized that he was humiliatingly close to tears. "It wasn't like this before," Steve said shakily. "Before. Back home. Don't get me wrong," he added, looking up at her, trying to pull himself together, "he's my best friend in the world and he always was, always will be, but I didn't—it wasn't so—"
Peggy looked almost angry at him. "Do you think I don't understand? I've been in this war, too. I've gone on missions. I haven't been like Barnes—on the front lines, or captured—but I've done things I never imagined I was capable of: good things and terrible things both. So I'm sorry, but I'm not at all surprised that you and Barnes—"
"When he's more than ten feet away, I feel—panicked," Steve confessed.
"Yes, well," Peggy said briskly, no-nonsense, "he was after all captured and you did in fact rescue him from behind enemy lines—I remind you I was there—not to mention that it's quite likely that he's the only one in the world who gives a damn about you when you're not wearing that silly costume—other than me," Peggy said, and her voice broke a little, but she recovered fast: she was about a hundred times stronger than he was. "So I'm not surprised you've formed this—attachment—to Barnes." She considered. "And of course, he's quite charming. And then there's the matter of the enormous dick," and Steve exploded with laughter just as Bucky said, from the doorway, "You're talking about me?" and then Steve forgot everything and rushed to him and hugged him hard, stupidly, almost angrily.
"Where have you, where the hell have you—" Steve muttered, and Bucky, confused, began to answer the question, "I was just, I went out to—" before realizing that wasn't the question at all, and wrapping his arms around Steve, and saying, soft but firm: "It's okay. Stevie, it's all right. Everything's all right."
"Right, I'm off," Peggy said with a little smile. "I'll be on the runway later to see you go."
Steve nodded; he knew he ought to let go of Bucky and go to her, but he couldn't quite manage it. His arms didn't seem to work. He at least managed, "Thanks, Peg." She left, snicking the door behind her, and Bucky said, "What happened? What—" but Steve was clutching his face and kissing him quiet.
And in the end, Steve thought, bundled up in the vibrating back of the plane, even if everything went to hell he would always have this: his memories of making love to Peggy while emotions flickered across Bucky's face like candlelight; memories of Peggy, blushing and fond, stroking his hair while he brought Bucky off with his hand. Peggy urging him on, flushed and sweaty, strands of dark hair stuck to her face; Bucky gasping beneath him, fucking himself harder than Steve would ever have fucked him, and Steve dragging him half off the bed until there were sounds ripped from Bucky's throat and he melted. Peggy's slightly lost look as she came, smiling, Bucky's face between her thighs; coming awake to see Peggy's red-varnished nails digging into Bucky's shoulders and to hear both of them laughing. Steve laughed too, just thinking about it. "What?" Bucky said, raising his voice to be heard over the noise of the engine. Steve just shook his head and smiled.
The bomber dropped them within ten miles of their first target, and blowing up the Lithuanian base was almost fun, because it was a munitions factory, full of explosives and nearly empty of people once the shift ended, and it was the production capacity that they'd been told to destroy: not the people. And for Dernier, Falsworth, and Bucky, at least, it was also like going shopping: "Ce-la?" Dernier asked, boggling as he held up a canister covered with blinking lights. "C'est quoi, ce truc?"
"Fais gaffe," Gabe muttered and jerking back, but Dernier didn't seem worried; he was fearless with things that went boom. Steve thought that maybe that little canister was more powerful than it looked, and became sure of it when Dernier started packing them into a black canvas bag.
"Look at this," Bucky was saying, hefting a rifle and peering down its sights; it glowed faintly blue around the edges. "I've never seen anything like this," he said, but Morita frowned and said, "Sure you have; that looks like one of the guns that blew those Krauts into powder."
"Yeah, but what's powering it?" Bucky asked.
"Who the fuck cares?" Dum Dum asked.
"I the fuck care," Bucky said, "when it stops working when I'm the fuck using it."
"Take one," Steve told him. "We can't carry much anyway. We'll be on a foot for a while—" He looked to Dum Dum; Dum Dum jerked a nod. "—and we'll need to bring enough explosive to take down the other base." He looked at Dernier. "That won't be a problem, right?"
Dernier smiled as he regarded a wall of incendiary devices. "De rien."
"Bon," Steve said. "On commence."
"I'll get us a truck," Dum Dum said, "but we should ditch it well short of the border, and then we'll be on foot until we reach the abandoned railway line at Weirzno."
"Trop beau. Allons-y—vite!" and Steve sent the other Howlers ahead in the truck and stayed back with Dernier to light the fuses and make sure the first charge went off—and after that, it was an unstoppable chain reaction of explosives igniting explosives, and they were running up the road, heat warming their backs, the sky lit up and all around them the trees like torches, on fire.
East Prussia was another thing entirely. They crossed on foot, then followed the rail line until they found an abandoned hand car, and then they rode with Steve doing the bulk of the pushing and the others taking the opposite handle in shifts, though after a while Bucky just said he'd do it; maybe he and Steve had a special rhythm or something, but Bucky seemed to be better at it than the others. At Weirzno they abandoned the hand car and began to follow the river southeast toward Hydra's research facility. Bucky went from guarded to wary to dangerously still, so focused that it was like he wasn't even there anymore; like he was just an eye and a gun.
"There," Falsworth said quietly, glancing down at his compass and a tiny square of map. "It's going to be just around that next bend of the river." He looked over at Steve and said, "Barnes and I can go ahead, sir—do a little stealth reconnaissance and report back. What do you say, Sergeant?"
But Bucky wasn't listening; he was like stone, gun half-raised, fixated. Steve looked around, expecting to see—hell, he didn't know. But he didn't see anything besides the river, the trees, the dirt trail they were following.
"Do you feel that?" Bucky whispered to him, and yes, Steve felt a faint hum all around, vibrating his skin. Bucky opened his mouth and stuck his tongue out like he was tasting the air, then scraped it against his teeth, and when Steve copied the gesture, he tasted electricity; something nearby was generating a hell of a lot of power.
"I'll go on my own," Bucky was telling Falsworth. "Quieter like that. You stay here."
"I'm coming too," Steve said.
The research facility was much smaller than the weapons factory. A cluster of small brick buildings with paths leading from one to the other, it could have been a college, if not for the electrified barbed wire. Steve crouched down next to Bucky, trying to make himself less conspicuous: Bucky had a real gift for making himself disappear.
Steve licked his lips, put his mouth against Bucky's ear, and muttered, pointing, "Guardhouse. Laboratories. Staff housing. Fence like that, they must have at least a couple of prisoners, right?" and Bucky jerked a nod. "Generators in there," Steve said, pointing at a building with no windows; the hum of transformers was almost unbearable now. "What the hell do they need that much power for, small place like this?"
"Fuck if I know," Bucky whispered back.
They crept back to the other Howling Commandos, and then gathered together to go over the plan: take the guardhouse first, leave Dum Dum manning the guns and then split up and take the rest of the base, grab any research or prototypes that looked interesting, and destroy the rest. They went in, guns blazing, and ended up having to shoot all the guards, though the scientists let themselves be rounded up and penned. Steve, Gabe, and Morita tore through the labs, grabbing or destroying, and it was hard to know what the hell Hydra thought they were doing, exactly: there were vials of diseases, prototype injections, and a black orb that lit up and began to beep frantically when Steve touched it, and which he barely got out the window before it exploded. A gun made of what looked like rubber, another of bakelite: Steve snatched up both of these.
"Cap, you know what this is?" Gabe asked, frowning down at a blueprint, and Steve only spared it a glance before saying, "If you're interested, and it's paper, take—" and then Steve stopped cold.
There'd been sporadic bursts of gunfire from the moment they attacked as they encountered various pockets of resistance, but this was Bucky's gun he was hearing, Bucky's deliberate, measured, firing—Bang. Bang. And then a moment later. Bang. Execution shots.
Steve turned to Gabe and Jim. "You guys finish here," and then he ran into the courtyard just as Bucky stepped out of a building, pulling the door shut behind him. Steve jogged over, and it wasn't until he was close that he saw that Bucky face was hard, his eyes oddly empty. "I heard shots," Steve said, slowing.
"Burn it down," Bucky said. "Blow it up. The whole place, everything."
"What?" Steve asked.
"We've got to burn it down," Bucky said.
Steve was at a loss. "What was it, a lab or—?"
"Yes," Bucky said. "I found the machines."
"Were there prisoners?" Steve asked, and Bucky hesitated and then said, "Yes. Five. Not anymore."
"Jesus," Steve said, and Bucky said, "You don't understand. You don't—Steve, you don't understand—"
Steve sucked in big lungfuls of electrified air, trying to keep himself under control; he'd never felt more like hurting Bucky. "I understand that we were supposed to release the prisoners!"
"We did," Bucky said quietly. "I did," and then he was following Steve, who had turned on his heel and was walking away before he did something he'd really regret. "Steve," Bucky said, grabbing at his jacket; Steve snatched his arm away, "they weren't going anywhere, you didn't see, you—They were experimenting on—"
Steve wheeled on him. "Don't tell me about medical experiments. I know all about them. I was one."
"Well, these didn't fucking work!" Bucky shouted. "Mostly when you get tied down and radiated and injected, you turn into Red Skull, or those poor half-dead bastards in there, or—" He clamped his mouth shut, but Steve knew what he was going to say.
"It could have been you," Steve said, heart hammering so hard his chest hurt. "That could have been me or you in there, if things had been—" He remembered Bucky, sweaty and babbling and strapped to a table; remembered the terrifying clamps of the Vita Ray machine digging into his arms and legs and pulling him back into rows and rows of needles. He'd tasted electricity then, too; the power they had used had blacked out half of Brooklyn.
"Yes," Bucky said. "I know," just as Gabe came running up, a little breathless. "Cap," he said. "We've checked every room, and we've only found one more live prisoner—or, or sort of, she—" He faltered, looked imploringly at Bucky, then back at Steve. "She's in a bad way, Cap," Gabe said finally. "Falsworth wants to know what you..."
Steve steeled himself, then unholstered his gun. "I'm coming," he said, but Bucky stepped between them and said, "No," and then, "Respectfully, no," and then, when Steve still looked like protesting, "Sir, court-martial me if you want, but no," and Steve took a breath and then said, "Fine, Sergeant, but I want it understood that you are following my direct order."
Bucky processed this for a moment and then slowly nodded his head. "Yes, sir," he said, and slowly strode off.
"Gabe," Steve said, turning to him, "that was kerosene I saw in the storehouse, wasn't it?" and when Gabe nodded, Steve said, "Let's go get it—we're going to burn this whole place down to the ground."
"32557038. Barnes. James Buchanan. 32557038. Barnes. James Buchanan. 32557038. Barnes. James Buchanan," and he remembered how hard it had been to hold on to himself, how the meaningless syllables had spilled out over his dry, cracked lips as he lay there, exhausted and nauseous from the radiation. The cracks in the ceiling looked like lightning. The cracks in the ceiling looked like a spider web. The cracks in the ceiling looked like—"Bucky?"—a fingerprint. "32557038. Barnes. James Buchanan." "Bucky, it's me, it's—" and a man was bending over him, face lined with worry. "Steve," and the name had come to his lips so easily, like he'd been saying it the whole time. But this couldn't be Steve. Steve was in Brooklyn. Steve was five foot four and a hundred pounds soaking wet. This was Steve if he was an angel. This was an angel shaped like Steve. "I thought you were dead," the angel said, bending over to unbuckle the thick leather straps. "I was," he wanted to reply. "I am," except now that he was closer, he could see the familiar bump of Steve's nose, the shock of dirty blond hair, the familiar thick eyebrows: it was Steve after all. "I thought you were smaller," he said as Steve helped him up. "What happened to you?" Steve smiled awkwardly at him, "I joined the army. C'mon, Bucky," but who the hell was Bucky?
Dum Dum stole a Kübelwagen and they all crammed into it, Bucky and Falsworth hanging off the back with their guns at the ready, and drove like hell, trying to get as far away from the fire as possible. They drove until they'd used up all the gas in the engine and all the gas they'd brought with him, then hid the car in a ditch and set off through the woods on foot, taking advantage of the darkness. At some point Steve stealthily ran up ahead to do reconnaissance—they had to go to ground before the sun came up—and found them an abandoned barn to sleep in. Steve took first watch and sent the others to sleep, but to his surprise he found Bucky still awake when he finally climbed up into the hayloft to join him.
"Hey," Steve said softly, dropping to his knees and taking his helmet off. "Why the hell aren't you...?" but then Bucky half-sat up and reached out and Steve understood: he didn't like to sleep alone anymore either. Steve lay down beside him and slung an arm across him, and Bucky sighed and relaxed, and Steve thought they would both be asleep in ten seconds except then Bucky whispered, "Please don't leave me alone in this. I'm lost if you leave me alone in this," and Steve whispered back, "Bucky, I won't, I swear I won't, not if I can help it," and Bucky said, in a kind of blank terror, "When you're not with me, I—I don't know who I am," and Steve heard Peggy saying, he's the only one in the world who gives a damn about you when you're not wearing that silly costume, and said, face twisting, "Bucky, I know just what you mean. I really do."
Later, there was a flashlight beam and the sound of a boot on the ladder, and Steve sat up swiftly and silently, poised to spring, before noticing that Bucky's gun was somehow already in his hand. But it was just Gabe, head and shoulders slowly becoming visible over the wooden edge of the loft, and then he stopped and said, "Captain, message from HQ. Another mission. I haven't decoded it all, but based on the coordinates—it's in the Alps, I think."
It was all flashes, light and dark and excruciating pain, snow falling on his face and the same pattern of trees overhead, and being jerked out of the soothing darkness over and over into this agony, and how long was it going to take him to die? He was broken, smashed inside and out, and Christ, he hoped that Steve was all right, that somewhere above him the train was speeding onwards and taking Steve and the others somewhere safe. Sometimes he hallucinated that he was floating through the snowy trees and Steve was crumpled and broken a few yards away from him, with him unable to help. His eyes stung with bitter tears until he had no tears left at the unfairness. He was nearly gone when the men came, but he moved his lips and tried to tell them with his eyes, begged them with his eyes—please, do the right thing—but instead they muttered unintelligibly among themselves and then they came back with an ancient wooden sled and a horse and started dragging him up onto a stretcher, and just before he passed out from the pain he realized his arm was gone.
II. The Trial
Natasha hesitated outside the door to Steve's apartment and frowned before knocking: the hallway outside smelled delicious. Then she knocked twice, and the door opened and Steve, looking surprised, said, "Hi. Come in," and went immediately back to the stove, leaving Natasha to shut and lock the door behind her. There was a big pot on the burner, and on the counter, a cutting board and a knife: Steve was chopping carrots and celery. "That smells...amazing," she said.
Steve smiled; he had a really nice smile, when you saw it, which wasn't often. "It's just soup," he said, picking up the cutting board and scraping the vegetables into the pot. "Like I've told you, boiling things is my specialty. You need vegetables boiled in hot water, I'm your guy. You want to stay for dinner? There's plenty," and honestly, how did a man have eyelashes like that? Steve turned back to the stove, and she let her eyes drift down along the back view of him, which was pretty nice, too, and then smiled and shook her head at herself. It was hard to be around him and not fall to that complicated lure, something between desire and professional excitement. She wanted it, knew how to get it, every step: the impact of the wall behind her shoulders, the thrill of his hips gripped hard and hot between her thighs, the way she'd make him gasp into her mouth. But fucking Steve would break too many things, maybe even him, and she couldn't be responsible for that.
She glanced around his apartment; his apartment unnerved her. It was one thing not to have anything—she knew plenty of people who lived out of a duffle bag for one reason or another; she was one of them—but Steve's apartment was full of unclaimed things, a personality at war with itself. A small sofa and chair were adrift in a room with no other furniture and no rugs. A stack of hardbacks sat in an otherwise empty bookcase. Worst of all, there were pictures, framed but not hung, though the nails for them had been hammered in: they were on the floor, faces turned to the wall. She'd looked at them once, while Steve was in the bathroom—old pictures and posters: Captain America, the Howling Commandos, random sepia photographs of Brooklyn circa 1935, one of the World's Fair. Someone's idea of a gift, obviously, but Steve seemed neither to want them nor not to want them. He neither hung them nor stuck them in a closet. Instead, he left them all around and stared at their brown paper backs and twists of hanging wire. That seemed to her to be everything wrong with Steve.
She pulled out one of the two chairs and sat down. "I'm not sure we'll have time to."
She saw his shoulders tense as he picked up his spoon. "A mission?" he asked, deliberately casual.
"No," and she wondered if she should let him eat first; she wondered when he'd next have a meal in peace. But he was looking at her, expectant, one eyebrow raised, and she'd come because of her loyalty to him, and that had to be total. "I came to tell you that—they have him."
Steve paled as if he'd been shot. "They caught him?"
Natasha shook her head. "He turned himself in," she said, and then fast, like ripping off a band-aid, because this was the worst part: "Seven weeks ago."
"What?" It was barely a sound, and then Steve was flushing red and sucking for air like he only ever did when he was really angry; a holdover, she imagined: an old habit from the days when he'd been asthmatic. But this was when he punched things, smashed things, broke things; this was what Steve Rogers looked like when he was really furious. "Seven weeks?"
She raised her hands. "I found out two hours ago. They called me, they told me they wanted me to come in, make an I.D., see what I could shake loose. They told me not to tell you. I told them I couldn't not tell you and came straight here."
Steve was still sucking for air. "Excuse me," he managed, and then he went into his bedroom and shut the door. Natasha blew out a long sigh, then got up, stirred the soup, turned off the gas.
It was fifteen minutes before Steve came out again, face scrubbed raw and a little water still dripping down his neck. "They had to know you'd tell me," he said, and Natasha didn't mean to laugh, but she couldn't help it.
"No, they didn't," she corrected, and when Steve looked at her, she smiled and said, fondly, "Nobody expects loyalty from me, Rogers. Except you, and you're crazy."
"But you came," Steve said softly, and yeah, he had her there.
"Yeah," Natasha said. "I figured you'd want to go right away."
"You figured right," Steve said; a muscle was jumping in his jaw. "Where are they holding him, Langley?"
"No, it's worse than that," she replied. "Springfield."
He frowned. "There's no base in Springfield."
"That's what you think," Natasha said.
"If I were you," Natasha told Steve, before they left, "I would put on that suit and pick up that shield. Remind them who the fuck they're dealing with," and Steve didn't look happy about it, but he put on the suit and then folded himself into the passenger seat of Natasha's Corvette for the journey south. It was the right call, because there was a pass waiting at the security desk for her but none for him, and the duty guard looked uncomfortably up at Captain Fucking America and said, "Hold on, sir. Let me just..." and then he was swallowing and getting on the phone. The pass arrived a few minutes later.
The Springfield complex looked like nothing on the surface; it was all underground. A guard escorted them down and down, and then out of the elevator and down a corridor and into a second elevator, and hell, even Natasha hadn't known it went down this far. Beside her, Steve was hard faced, his shield tucked behind his shoulders, the pass slung around his neck.
When the elevators doors finally opened, she wasn't surprised to see Phil Coulson standing there along with CIA Director Cooper, General—what was his name?—Whitson, Paul Whitson of the Pentagon and David Harper, Chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Agent Romanov," Coulson said, and then—and really, she gave Coulson credit for not shitting his pants, because Steve's face was chiseled marble, like a god or an avenging angel—"Captain Rogers. It's good to see you."
"Where is he?" Steve asked, and the welcoming committee exchanged nervous glances but deferred to Coulson, who looked at Steve and said, "Captain Rogers, you have to understand—"
"The hell I do," Steve said, and then they scattered to either side as he strode down the bright white fluorescent corridor toward the huge metal door at the end; the one with the armed guards outside. Steve stopped, but it was clear he intended to go in, and the guards looked over at Coulson, guns slung across their bodies. "Sir?" they asked.
Coulson tried again. "Captain, please, what you have to—" but Steve moved toward the guards and their guns came up and Coulson said quickly, "Okay, all right, let him in," and then they were standing aside and Steve was pulling open the enormous metal door and going inside.
The room was huge and white and high-ceilinged, and divided in two by a fifteen-foot wall made of some kind of clear polymer. The Winter Soldier was on the other side, slouched in a chair; the cell had a chair, a cot, a tiny cubicle of a bathroom at the back. His hair was still long, and he had significant beard growth; probably nobody was willing to take responsibility for giving The Winter Soldier a razor. He was wearing scrubs and he didn't move when Steve went in, though at the same time, Natasha saw every inch of him sharpen; his eyes, his attention; every muscle tensed. At the same time he didn't move at all.
Steve moved; Steve went straight to the glass and pressed his hands to it and said, "Bucky. I only just found out," and then he was turning and looking over his shoulder, and saying, "Open the door, let me in there."
A ripple went through the room. "Sir," one of the guards said, "We can't do that."
Steve looked back at the Winter Soldier, and it was only because Natasha was on alert that she saw the way their eyes locked. The Winter Soldier glanced up, then arched an eyebrow—and to her surprise, Steve jerked a nod so subtle that even she wouldn't have seen it if she hadn't had every nerve attuned. Steve turned back to the men and the guards and said, "I'm going in one way or the other: either because you open that door, or because you're going to need to find another cell that can hold us." Coulson stepped forward and began, quietly and reasonably, "Captain," but Steve said, "No. Not this time," and then he gritted his teeth and pulled back his arm like a bowstring and smashed his fist, hard, into the clear polymer wall.
His knuckles left a ridged impression in the plastic, and for a moment, Natasha thought that would be all, but then there was a crackle, and fine lines began to spiderweb out from the point of impact, fracturing and splitting like lightning.
"Oh shit," someone said, and there was a soft huff of laughter; from the Winter Soldier, still slouched in his chair but now looking vastly amused. Steve turned back to look at them as the cracks forked and spread up and up through the clear wall. "He could have gotten out of here at any time," Steve told them. "He's humoring you—but I'm not."
"Jesus fucking Christ," Director Cooper muttered. "Open the door, and someone see about finding a cell that—"
"That holds both of us," Steve said; there was a loud buzz as the door unlocked. "If you think you got such a thing."
Phil Coulson sighed, fingertips rubbing the furrows in his head; he looked like he had a hell of a migraine. "Maybe we ought to rethink the, uh, accommodations," but he'd already lost Steve; Steve was yanking open the clear, hinged door.
The Winter Soldier was pushing up from the chair with both hands and Natasha actually shoved Senator Harper out of the way to see because their body language was crucial information: so far the Winter Soldier had been giving the orders and Steve had been following them—but now, as they came together, the Winter Soldier (Barnes, she thought; she'd better start thinking of him as James Barnes) let his head drop, practically falling against Steve, who clutched him tight—possessive, protective—and that was a relief. Steve was in charge, and it looked like The Winter—Barnes—was willing to fall into line.
Coulson was directing everyone toward the door. "Stay outside," he told the guards, and then he showed Natasha a lopsided smile. "Agent Romanov," he said, "maybe you'd be willing to attend the briefing?"
"Sure," Natasha said, just as Steve reached out and stroked the Winter Soldier's hair, ran fingertips over his dark beard and then kissed him. Coulson followed her eyes and—she didn't think she'd ever seen Phil Coulson really surprised before.
"You've got a problem," Natasha told him. "Cold war's over."
He ran for it—once, maybe—before the arm. He ran, limbless, the bandaged stump hanging from his left shoulder, and they'd told him this was Leningrad but that, like everything, had been a lie; he was in Soviet-occupied Berlin. It was all chaos and rubble, old ladies and children wandering the streets looking for food and fuel, and soldiers everywhere: Russians, British, French. It was nothing to slip into the American zone, and he thought he was free until he found the group of G.I.'s and tapped one on the back and said, "Hey, fellas, can you—" and when they turned he saw the girl: blonde, German, sobbing, blood running down her legs.
Even one-armed, he could take pissant cowards like these—and later, staggering through the streets with blood on his jacket and one arm and nobody even giving him a second look, he was stopped by a blare of newsprint in four languages: Das Shicksal du Captain Amerika, Ou est l'hero américain? Rogers Disappeared, and of course, that explained everything. This was a world with no Steve in it. This was the world without Steve.
When the black car pulled up behind him, he turned and saw the Slavic rat of a doctor getting out, and he was with a bunch of uniforms—Russian, French, American; sure, we're all allies here: V for fucking victory, hip hip hooray! The doc said, nervously, "Sergeant, we have been worried," and the uniforms tightened their hands on their guns. "Please get into the car," the doc said, and so he got into the fucking car because why not? Why the fucking hell not, really?
"Are you saying he's not cooperating?" Natasha asked, frowning.
"No, he's cooperating," Coulson sighed. "We ask him questions and he answers. Or he tries. He doesn't remember everything yet. It's coming in bits and flashes. I believe him when he says that and, uh," Coulson looked uncomfortable, "our neuroscientists confirm it. But it's more that..." Coulson showed empty hands. "We don't know what to ask. "
"What do you mean?" Natasha asked.
"Well, he knows a lot. A lot. But he doesn't—volunteer anything. It's not like we're chatting," Coulson said, looking vaguely disappointed, some fantasy of the Howling Commandos vanishing in the reality of the situation. "We ask him questions and he answers them. So a lot depends on what we ask him. We thought you could help us with that."
"Well, I assume you started with the twenty-five assassinations," Natasha said.
"Hm, actually, no," Coulson said; he pulled a pack of Twizzlers from an inside pocket and offered her one. She refused. "We actually started with the three Hydra bases he destroyed after the Triskaleon," and then he was shoving the manila file folder across the table to her. The pictures were glossy. There was a lot of fire. "Of course, we had to wonder why he was so keen to destroy them. There was a lot of evidence there, not to mention weapons, artifacts; intelligence we might have used. I don't know if it just didn't occur to him that we would want that intel– or if it did." He smiled wearily.
"What did he say about it?" Natasha asked.
Coulson's smile widened. "He said he was quote really fucking mad that they lied to him about Steve unquote."
"Well, that's reasonable," Natasha said.
"Yeah, I thought so, too," Coulson said. "Still, it didn't play so well with the other guys. It would have been better if he'd brought all that stuff back to us. Would have been a show of good faith. It might really have helped him."
She kept her face blank, though it was hard; she was glad Steve wasn't here for this bullshit. "Yeah? You think so?"
Coulson looked away and didn't answer.
Afterwards, a guard took her to find Steve, and she turned a corner and found a guard bringing Steve to her. "Hey," Steve said, and he was already different somehow: younger and older, both; happier and angrier, both. "I'm glad I—"
Natasha towed him down the corridor—away from the guards and at the maximum distance away from the cameras—then reached up and put two fingers on his jaw, gently prodding him to turn his head so his lips weren't readable.
"I need you to help me," Steve said, and then, his face contorting in apology, "I mean, I need you to help me more."
"Steve, it's all right," Natasha said impatiently. "Tell me what's happening."
"They moved us. Different cell—nicer looking, more like a hotel. Still no daylight, but the microphones and cameras are more tastefully hidden, so that's something," Steve said, and it was terrible to hear such bitterness in his voice. "Look, I'm not leaving," he told her. "Not just because I—can't, but also because I don't trust—" He stopped, his throat working; he looked angry, and then on the verge of tears, and then angry again. He tried to speak, couldn't; then shook his head.
She stepped in. "You need clothes?" Natasha asked, knowing the wrong answer would provoke the right one, and sure enough, Steve frowned and shook his head.
"No—I mean, yeah, but," Steve said, "I'll make them—" He stroked nervous fingers over his lips. "What I need is—a partner, a friend who can...We could die here," he said quietly. "Him and me."
"Yes," Natasha said; there was no denying that; it was true.
"Do you think Tony's working with them?" Steve asked.
"I don't know," Natasha replied honestly. "I went straight to you. I'll find out, though."
"Find out," Steve said, and then: "You should get out of here, fast, and don't come back 'til you've told someone you trust."
"I'll tell Clint," Natasha said.
Steve nodded, then glanced up at the cameras and altered the tilt of his shoulders. "Give me your phone," he said, and she did, and he began entering contacts: "This guy's a reporter at the Times—I knew his grandpa in the war," he murmured. "This is Gabe's granddaughter, Martine—she and her brother were in SHIELD. Dum Dum's youngest boy's a Major General now, I think—he should be working around here somewhere—and then..." He stared at her phone; his last contact was already in there. He handed it back to her: the screen flashed AGENT MARGARET CARTER then went back to the home screen. "Before you call any of them," Steve said, "call Peggy. Call Peggy right away."
"Steve," she began; she didn't want to seem ageist, but Peggy Carter was—
He cut her off. "She's ninety-six. She's not dead," Steve said pointedly. "Call her first and tell her everything."
The guard took him back to the new cell. Steve stopped outside the reinforced steel door and said, "I need a shaving kit, towels, and another set of scrubs," and when the guard looked dubious, Steve changed his stance and said, "Corporal, tell Agent Coulson that I want a shaving kit, towels, and another set of prison scrubs," and the guard saluted and said, "Yes, sir," and then put his thumb on the keypad to open the door. It had an electronic lock, but Steve could hear from the clanking and rumbling that there were huge gears behind the riveted metal panels. It opened, and Steve stepped inside.
Like he'd told Natasha, it was a nicer cell for a higher class of political prisoner; and while the furniture was bolted down—no edges, unweaponizable—there at least was furniture: a tiny sofa facing two chairs, an actual bed with a mattress.
Bucky was hunched on the sofa, staring at his hands, and when he stood up, Steve felt a clench of fear at the blank look on his face. Then he realized: Bucky hadn't forgotten him. Bucky just hadn't been sure he was coming back.
Steve went to Bucky and gripped his arms, then stroked the pained, dear face. "I'm not leaving, Buck," he said. "I'm not letting you out of my sight," and Bucky's arms came up around him, tentatively at first, and then more firmly.
"I can't believe you're here," Bucky said finally. "I don't believe it, actually. Nothing seems—real."
"I know what you mean," Steve said, and he did. "What's the last thing that seems—really real to you?"
Bucky went really far away in his head. Then he said: "Do you remember that time you managed to piss off all three of the Scarpaci brothers, and I came to help you and I got distracted because that girl—what was her name—Irene," he said. "Irene Castle—called to me from the other side of Myrtle Avenue, and that idiot Frankie Scarpaci clocked me with a brick, and I went down, bam, lights out, and—" and Bucky was actually laughing now, and Steve, who remembered the fight and the brick and Bucky lying there on the cobbles with his head in a puddle of blood, and his own terror and panic, couldn't think what the hell was so funny, "—and when I came to," Bucky said, grinning, "they were all screaming because you bit him."
"I did?" Steve asked; he hadn't remembered that.
"You did. You fucking did, and Frankie was yelling that he was gonna have like, tetanus or blood poisoning or something, and they were all backing away from you like you were crazy, like you might do anything—which was true I guess."
Bucky stared into space for a moment and then said, softly, "You think maybe I'm still lying there knocked out and everything since has been...?" He shrugged and let Steve see his lopsided smile, and metal plates shifted and whirred all down his metal arm. He turned his metal hand palm up and flexed his fingers. "...some shit I read in Amazing Stories?"
Steve took Bucky's metal hand in his, studied it up close. It was well shaped, and warm. "True Adventure, more like."
"Terror Tales," Bucky said, as Steve squeezed his metal fingers. "The Chamber of Chills," and Steve pulled Bucky's metal hand to the star on his chest, and leaned in slow, and kissed him again.
"32557038. Barnes. James Buchanan. 32557038. Barnes. James Buchanan. 32557038. Barnes. James Buchanan." The cracks in the ice looked like lightning. The cracks in the ice looked like a spiderweb. The cracks in the—"32557038. Barnes. James"—ice looked like a fingerprint, but after a while the syllables dissolved into nonsense. "This is the target," they told him, and they showed him a picture. "This is the location," they told him, and they showed him a map. And then there were injections and electricity, a bit in his mouth and icy spikes through the brain, and he was trying to breathe through the bit in his mouth, through his broken nose, through the ice, through the years; sucking the cold air through his teeth; frozen.
The metal door clanked, and Coulson came in holding a large canvas bag: behind him, Steve saw, were half a dozen armed guards, all trying to look unimpressed. Coulson frowned at Bucky then turned to Steve. "I hear you're planning to stay."
Steve straightened up. "If you've got him, you've got me; if you want me to go, you're going to have to move me by—"
Coulson was already waving his hand. "That won't be necessary. I'm not gonna fight you on this, Captain. Just please understand—we're feeling our way as much as you are. There's no map for this. It's a completely unprecedented situat—"
"You should debrief him and release him," Steve told him. Coulson just stared. Steve pressed on: "He's a soldier in the U.S. Army. James Buchanan Barnes: drafted 1941, captured by Hydra in 1943, recovered and detailed to the SSR's special forces under my command, lost in action in 1944, recaptured by Hydra and pressed into service against his will, unlawfully, by means of physical and mental —" He stopped, suddenly remembering that Bucky was right there, and turned.
"Torture," Bucky said softly. "And orders. Torture and orders and orders and torture." He frowned at nothing for a moment and then said: "I'm done with it. I don't give a shit what happens. I really don't."
Steve forced his feelings down and said to Coulson. "We're not telling you anything you don't know. If I've got his file, you've got it. You know everything that happened as well as I do. You know who we were. And you know who we are—"
"I know who you are," Coulson said to Steve, but then he looked at Bucky. "Believe me, I have nothing but respect for Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes of the Howling Commandos," he said. "But you're also the Winter Soldier. You've killed over two dozen people in the last fifty years," and Steve was suddenly so angry he couldn't breathe properly.
Bucky seemed calm though. "Yeah," he said. "I have."
"Important people," Coulson said.
"Yeah," Bucky agreed. "Not just regular people," and Steve looked away fast just as he saw Coulson's mouth fall open because, Jesus, he'd forgotten how cruelly funny Bucky could be when he was pissed off.
Coulson blanched; he was probably wondering how fast he could unload Bucky's trading card.
"So," Coulson was trying to rally, "it's maybe not possible for you to just—go home to Brooklyn and have a cheese steak."
Bucky rolled his eyes and disengaged; he wasn't even going to talk to someone who thought cheese steak came from Brooklyn. That left it up to him.
"Why not?" Steve asked. "Everyone else did."
After Coulson left, Steve went through the canvas bag and found that Coulson had brought the toiletries he'd requested as well as assorted sweatpants and t-shirts; apparently someone didn't want Captain America wearing prison garb. Steve immediately began the laborious process of stripping off his uniform; suddenly he couldn't wait to get out of it.
Bucky sat back on the small sofa, fiddling with the pack of safety razors. He glanced up. "You're still wearing the outfit?"
"Yeah, I—yeah," Steve said. "When I got back, I didn't know what the hell else to—" He wrenched off the stiff red, white and blue jacket and slung onto a chair, where it kept most of its shape. Whatever technical fabric they were using now, the damn thing was windproof, stabproof, fireproof. "I quit SHIELD after they turned out to be Hydra."
"I'm not judging," Bucky said, and then he looked up and met Steve's eyes. "Believe me."
"I know," Steve said, and then his attention was caught by what Bucky was doing; he'd taken apart one of the blue plastic razors and was pulling out the steel blade. Steve wandered over in his undershirt. "What are you—?"
Bucky held up the narrow blade. "I thought I might fuck with the surveillance equipment," he said. "Just a little."
"Don't do it on my account," Steve said, and unzipped his pants. "I don't care what they see—I don't care if they see us kissing or having sex or any of it," he said, pushing them off. "Put it in the newspaper, for all I care."
Bucky was fighting back a smile. "Oh, and I bet they think they know you," he muttered, getting up. "They're in for such a shock," and then he was gracefully scaling the wall, crouching with a foot on each side of the corner and hauling himself up to the tiny camera set high in the moulding, and then he had the razor blade and began to scratch at the lens. Steve dragged on a pair of blue sweatpants and went to sweep for mikes; he found seven and disabled five of them, then crossed some wires on other two to mess with the sound. Bucky was right; almost broken wasn't quite broken, not in the army anyway.
Bucky scratched up the lenses of two other cameras, then turned to Steve and said, "You got a phone?"
"In my jacket." There was no service this far down, but that wasn't what Bucky wanted it for. He did something to it so that let out out a faint whine, then moved it across the room—over the lights, the furniture, anything 3-dimensional, listening hard. He only stopped once, when there was a faint click near the headboard. Steve found the mike and yanked it out.
"There," Steve said, crushing the tiny black dot between his fingers, "that's about as private as we—" and then Bucky was clutching his face and taking his mouth almost roughly, and muscling him backwards, and Steve let his knees soften as their backs hit the bed. It was on the small side for two—like the beds they'd shared as kids, like the beds they'd shared in Europe. Bucky fell on him heavily, hungrily, mouth on his mouth, his jaw, his throat—and God, it was like falling into the past, and he slid his hands up under Bucky's loose scrubs, felt the hard muscles and the thick ropey scars, the warm metal, the sharp edges of the plates, Jesus. His fingers stuttered over them but didn't stop, and he squeezed Bucky's shoulders and thrust up with his hips, surprised and dizzy at the sudden crackle of sexual feeling: it had been such a long time.
He was suddenly desperate for skin on skin, but they were experts at this from the old days, getting as much and as close as they could with no time in a small space. Steve rolled them onto their sides and tugged at Bucky's clothes. Bucky let out a moan: he was remembering too—and then it was all happening fast, their bodies pressed together wherever they could. Bucky's soft beard against his lips, and the smooth skin of Bucky's hip, Steve's cock dragging against the arrow of hair that led down from Bucky's belly, the rough scrape of his pubic hair—and he was gone, lost in sensation, mind switched off, Bucky's tongue in his mouth, his fingers tangled in Bucky's long hair, which he liked, the smell, and he turned his face into it just as Bucky made a soft, choked noise and forced him back and started rutting against him, and geez, he wanted to come, it had been so long, and Bucky knew—Bucky always knew how, how to make him—
He came, breathing hard, panting and gasping and rubbing himself hard against Bucky to chase every bit of good feeling, and Bucky was sucking for air through his teeth and then he was burying his face in the crook of Steve's neck and coming, shaking with it, and Steve tightened his arms around him because Jesus, if pleasure felt this foreign to him, he couldn't imagine what the hell it felt like to Bucky. They clung to each other like they used to. The bed wasn't so small after all.
Waking up from the ice the pain came in waves. There were strange flashes and half-memories for a long time, lights and voices and heat and pain, and then one day Steve opened his eyes and he was in a hospital bed and a doctor was bent over him, roughly flashing a light into his eyes on and off, and when he scraped out, "...please, stop..." the doctor smiled and said, in heavily-accented English, "Ja, very good," except it was Erskine, and it was probably a dream. I'm dead, Steve thought, moving weightlessly through a world of yellow and gray and pink, strange shapes and colors—and then fear gripped him as he remembered having had this thought before: I'm dead, I'm dying, I'm going to die here, this is what dying feels like, Peggy's voice drowned with him and pressure crushing his chest. Let it be fast. Faster, and he'd never believed in a literal afterlife with pearly gates, God with a beard and all that, but if there was more than one plane of existence than maybe Bucky was on the other side. If there was any mercy, any justice, maybe he was just crossing over, losing Peggy to get Bucky back, and then the agony hit, excruciating and constant—and there was no mercy, no justice after all.
After a while, Bucky whispered, "What happens now, what do we do now?"
"We wait," Steve said. He put his mouth against Bucky's ear. "I told Natasha to call Peggy."
Bucky's head came up; he looked shocked. "Peggy? Our—Carter?"
"Yeah," Steve said. "She's ninety-six, can you believe it?"
"And sharp as a tack?" Bucky asked, and Steve flinched, shrugged.
"Sometimes," Steve said. "She gets...fuzzy."
"Me too," Bucky said. "Who doesn't?"
"She can still help us," Steve said. "She was Director of SHIELD for—"
Bucky pulled out of his arms, then sat up, tugged off his shirt and idly wiped come off his belly before pitching it onto the floor. Steve stared at the articulated metal arm, the ridged scarring along his shoulder and back where it attached: shirtless, Bucky looked powerful and damaged, and Steve pushed himself up and reached out for him, longing and hungry.
Bucky brusquely shook his head and jerked away, off the bed. "God, what I wouldn't give for a cigarette."
"You know, it turns out they're really bad for you," Steve said, but he couldn't keep a straight face. "Ha. Sorry."
Bucky glared at him, then paced the small room a couple of times before coming back and dropping back onto the bed beside Steve. He lowered his voice to a rough whisper. "She was never one of my targets," he said; pain was etched across his face. "At least—I don't remember her being one of my targets. But—Christ, Steve. I would have killed her if she was."
"Bucky." Steve put his hands on Bucky's shoulders, metal and flesh both. "If it makes you feel any better, I'm sure she would have killed you, too, given the chance," and Bucky breathed out a hurt laugh, his head lolling forward like he'd momentarily lost the ability to keep it upright. "Hell, I might have killed you if that mask hadn't come off."
Bucky took a deep breath and then whispered: "You know, they say I killed Howard." Steve clenched his jaw and nodded: he'd heard that, too. Bucky's face contorted. "I don't remember it, but that's what they're telling me. Someone cut the brake lines on his car, which—that doesn't make sense: any idiot could do that, they wouldn't have used me for that."
Steve debated holding his tongue, but he couldn't; you couldn't lie to yourself. "It wasn't— It was that Howard kept the car in a high security facility—you know, Stark-level security. " He sighed. "They said it was impossible for anybody to get in."
"Oh." Bucky's face slackened and went terrible as he turned away. "So maybe it was me."
"Bucky." It was hard to breathe, but Steve managed an edge of command. "When you came out of cryo—"
"'This is the target,'" Bucky said wearily; his voice someone else's. "'This is the location.'"
"And if you said no?" Steve asked, and Bucky's face went sheet-lightning terrified so fast that Steve immediately put his arms around him: he shouldn't have asked. "It wasn't your fault," Steve said, squeezing him and shaking him a little. "It wasn't you, do you hear me? You weren't given a choice, they wouldn't let you say no—"
"Who gets to say no?" Bucky gritted out. "The guys on the line, they didn't—"
"No." Steve shook Bucky harder, trying to get through to him; damn it, this wasn't about the war. "No. Some of them did, conscientious objectors and—" He couldn't really think of anyone else; AWOLs, war criminals, traitors. "That's—Bucky, what they did to you, it was on a whole other level. They took your name, Buck. You didn't even know who you— "
"32557038," Bucky spat at him. "And not to break it to you, but you ain't Captain America neither. Look," he said, swiping angry tears from his face, "all I'm saying is that it wasn't me and that it was. I'm not saying that they—what they did to me, they—" He choked, clammed up, couldn't talk about it. "But there was something of me in it, too. Alexander Pierce said—" but that was more than Steve could take, and now he was up and moving, hands tucked hard into his armpits before he hit something, ripped the place apart. The people who made this room knew what they were about, bolting everything down.
"That bastard," Steve said. "I don't want hear anything he has to say. He's a liar, he's a—"
"He's not a liar," Bucky said. "He's a—sadist." Bucky went quiet then, and Steve just stood there, rooted to the spot, feeling the years like stones on their backs. He was suddenly exhausted.
"C'mere," Steve said. He switched off the lights and collapsed down onto the bed, pulling Bucky down with him and wrapping himself around him like they used to do in the war, arms and legs both, taking cover from incoming shells. "Hold me," Steve said, closing his eyes, and Bucky curled his forearms protectively around Steve's head.
The thing about loyalty, Natasha thought, was that it put you into stupid positions—like this one, where she really needed to be on her way to New York to talk to Clint and Stark, except she'd promised Steve; she'd promised. So instead here she was, late at night, riding up in the elevator after convincing the night nurses that she needed to talk to Peggy Carter right now.
After all that, Peggy was awake—and not only awake, but up: sitting in her wheelchair in front of a desk by the window. Natasha could see the floodlit landscape of D.C. and the Washington Monument, shining white. Peggy was reading, bent over a book spread open on the desk: it was too heavy for her to lift, Natasha realized; god, what was she doing here?
Peggy looked up and smiled pleasantly at her. "Hello," she said, looking up. "Liza, isn't it?"
"Natasha," Natasha said. "Natasha Romanov. I'm a friend of Steve's. Steve Rogers," she added quickly.
Peggy waved her to sit down on the chair beside the desk, and she did. "Is he all right?" Peggy asked.
"Not really, no," Natasha said, and she'd thought of a hundred ways to begin telling this story on the way over here; they all deserted her now. She said, "Did Steve tell you the truth about the Winter Soldier?" and Peggy's attention sharpened.
"James, you mean," Peggy said. "Yes."
"Well, they have him," Natasha said. "He turned himself in—" and Peggy uncapped a fountain pen and dragged over a pad of paper and said, "Sorry, darling, but who has him, and where?"
Where was the easier question. "He's in Springfield," Natasha told her. "There's a base there that—"
"Yes, I know," Peggy said, writing. "They've been fighting over that facility for thirty years now. SHIELD, the C.I.A, the Pentagon. Still," she said, looking down at her notes, "confusion is good. It probably means they're fighting for jurisdiction as well—either to get him," she said, setting her pen down, "or if they've any brains, which they haven't, fighting to get the hell away from this mess." She smiled and said, "We'll have to spell that out for them, I suppose. Where is Steve?"
"He's there, too," Natasha explained, and maybe Steve knew what he was doing, after all. "I think he's afraid that if he turns his back, they'll whisk the Winter—" She stopped, corrected herself. "—they'll whisk Barnes away and we won't find him again. He won't leave him."
"No," Peggy said, and looked out over the window over D.C. "That was always—" She smiled faintly to herself and then said, "He's right not to let James out of his sight: it's entirely possible that someone might decide that it would be easier to dump him in Russia, or a black site in Poland, God," Peggy said violently, and put her head in her hands. She seemed overcome, and Natasha sat still and held her breath. "All right," Peggy said, after a moment; she'd gotten control of herself. "Can you hand me my Rolodex? And the telephone," and then she said, "Can you come back here tomorrow?"
"I'm on my way to New York," Natasha said. "But I can—"
Peggy sat back. "Shall you see Tony? Tony Stark," she added, as if Natasha might not know him.
"Yes," Natasha said.
"Let's ring him first, then, shall we?" Peggy said, and reached for the receiver. Natasha put her hand over it.
Natasha said, "Are you aware that the Winter Soldier probably assassinated Howard Stark?"
"Yes," Peggy said. "And no. James wouldn't have killed Howard. Clearly James wasn't in control of the Winter Soldier," she said, and then she frowned and tilted her head and said, "Now, Steve—Steve might have killed Howard, but that's something else entirely." She pressed her lips together. "Do you know, I might have killed James myself and never known it. I nearly did in...hm, must have been 1962. I had no idea. If I had known, I—" She sighed, reached for the telephone.
"Hello, this is Peggy Carter," she said. "Can you tell Mr. Stark that he's wanted on the telephone?" she said, and then, faster than Natasha would have imagined, she said, "Hello, old thing, it's Peggy. I'm sending this woman to you—" she hesitated, looking at Natasha, and then had it: "—Natasha. She's going to bring you a problem, and you're going to work on it. It's about Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes," and then even Natasha could hear the sound of Tony ranting down the line, but Peggy was implacable. "Yes, I know," she said. "Yes, I'm well aware of that. But we're all of us in it up to the neck, Tony," she said. "All of us. We're all of us in it up to the neck."
"I won't do it," he said. "I won't," and when the first injection came, it wasn't so bad, but the second turned his bones to rubber and they had to clamp him down before he slithered off the chair. "I won't," he said, through numbed lips, and so they shoved the bit in, metal between his teeth and there used to be something he used to think about at times like this, a number maybe, but he couldn't remember what it was or why he'd— He screamed as the first shock hit him ("Won't!") but by the third he was floating facedown in a warm pool of blood and urine: just waiting to forget himself and move on.
It was late by the time Natasha arrived in New York, but Tony was awake and pacing and had obviously been drinking hard ever since Peggy Carter's call. "It's too much," he said, gesturing violently at her with his scotch glass. "She wants too much from me. I could ignore—I could conceivably be able to ignore—the fact that Steve Rogers' best friend ruined my entire fucking life, because God knows we don't have our choice of friends: I sure don't. You know, I could maybe be big enough to keep working with him despite all that." Tony stopped, took a long swig, and then said: "But no. That's not good enough. She wants more: she wants me to help. She wants me to be the backstop: to represent the public good and private industry, put my money behind it—-make noise, alert the media, work out a PR campaign, public pressure—"
"You are good at making noise," Natasha acknowledged.
"—when and if whatever insider horse-trade she's working on fails to get this psychopath released!" Belatedly, he glared at her, then turned to stare daggers at Clint, who was just coming out of the elevator.
"Look, I expected Steve to defend him," Natasha said. "Barnes is his oldest friend, and maybe more—but Carter." She tilted her head, then shook it. "Carter's no fool, Tony, and she says Barnes didn't do it. She says he's not master of himself—"
"I don't care if he's master!" Tony said savagely. "He's still the dog."
"So you want to put him down, is that it?" Natasha asked. "You don't see any irony in that?"
"I see irony everywhere," Tony said. "It's my specialty. Fuck." He turned, then grabbed the neck of the scotch bottle and drifted off to stare angrily out the Tower's massive windows. Clint sidled over to her and said, softly, "And how are you?"
Natasha flashed a smile at him. "I'm all right."
"Was he—what was he like?" Clint asked. "Was he—" He stopped; she was already shaking her head.
"I only saw him for a minute. He's the same and he's different—he didn't try to kill me, if that's what you're asking. It's just—it's so strange knowing he's Bucky Barnes," Natasha said, and then she shook her head and laughed. "It makes everything so much clearer."
Clint shot her a concerned look. "But did he—"
"No," Natasha said, smiling ruefully, "but he wouldn't. He's remembering himself, though—he remembers Steve, he remembers most of his life from before. I don't think he's gone this long without being wiped since the war; a couple of weeks, maybe, that time he escaped to New York. Now it's been months," she said. "Seven weeks in custody and three months before. So he's—coherent. He exists in time in a different way. But—" She shrugged. "He's still who he was."
Clint bit his lip. "And you still want to help him?"
Natasha nodded. "I do, yeah. He had no choice," she explained. "I know that's the truth."
"All right," Clint sighed. "What do you want me to do?"
She looked over at Tony, still standing with his back to them. "Tony's right—this plan needs a backstop. He's got to be plan C—can you stay on him, make sure he's ready with the cavalry?"
"Yeah," Clint said, and Natasha put her arms around him and brought her mouth to his ear.
"And you've got to be plan D," she murmured. "Violence and mayhem, all the stops. This could go bad and get ugly for everyone real fast," and Clint lifted his head and met her eyes and said, "I know. And I'll do everything I can, you know that."
Steve opened his eyes and knew, immediately, that Bucky was awake; it was a quality of quiet familiar to him from nights on the watch. He turned and saw the whites of Bucky's eyes in the darkness. "You're awake," he murmured.
Bucky's voice came to him, low and familiar. "I'm afraid to sleep," he said. "I'm afraid this reality'll be gone."
"S'funny," he said, stretching to drop a kiss on Bucky's check and then yawning, "I feel like I could actually sleep for the first time since I woke up." He closed his eyes and pressed into the warmth of Bucky's body, felt Bucky's hand roughly stroking his hair. Something hurting in him had stopped hurting. He began to drift off again.
"You woke up three years ago, right?" Bucky murmured. "Do you remember anything from the ice?" and Steve's eyes flew open: he was seizing up, gagging, metal flooding his mouth, but Bucky had him, clutching him tight and saying, "Christ, I'm sorry—Steve, I'm—Steve, I'm sorry," and nobody'd ever asked him that question before; nobody.
But Bucky— "It's okay," Steve managed, holding on—Bucky was warm, strong, alive—and trying to banish the memories of the crushing pain, the yellow hallucinations and his chest cavity collapsing. "I'm all right. I just, I wasn't expecting—"
"Those rat bastards," Bucky muttered, low and dangerous, "fucking rat bastards, what they did to you, to me and—" Bucky was taking angry, ragged breaths and pushing him onto his back and pressing his face against Steve's neck and giving him rough, biting kisses; he wasn't entirely in control. "God, I hate them."
"We—it was terrible, but." Steve closed his eyes and grappled for something positive to say; some light. "We wouldn't be alive if they hadn't—"
"We're alive because we're killers," Bucky said. "Don't kid yourself," and then Bucky pulled him close so they were face to face in the darkness. "Do you know," he told Steve, "that after the war they found that most of the guys, in our war and the last—they never even fired a shot. They picked up the bodies and found all their guns and the guns were all loaded—so most guys, they went over the top or out of the foxhole and didn't fire, not even with their lives on the line. And the guys who did?" Bucky made a gun with his finger and thumb and pointed it up into the air, cocked his thumb. "Most of them tried not to hit anything—fired into the sky or the ground or some shit. So the next time out, they tried to fix that—doped 'em up and sent them out high—and yeah, they fired all right, but they still couldn't aim for shit and plus their brains all fucking melted. You missed that clusterfuck, thank God. Vietnam." Bucky swallowed and stared at him, agonized. "But me? I always fired, and I usually hit something, and after a while, I hit exactly. On. The. Dot. And Alexander Pierce said—" and that was where Steve drew the line, and he jerked back and swiped his wrist across his wet face, because he was not going to hear anything that douchebag had to—Bucky grabbed him by the wrists and Steve stared at him, shocked and upset.
"Alexander Pierce said that I was the most valuable soldier in the entire world," Bucky said. "And I am. They would have loved a million of me, same as they would have loved a million of you. But they only got me—and you. And that's why we're still alive. We're too valuable to let go, they will never let us die, and that's the shitty, fuck-ass truth."
A sadist, not a liar. "I know," Steve said finally, brokenly, because it was true, and he kissed Bucky then, closing his eyes and opening his mouth, because Bucky was right, of course: if you were in hell, the first thing you had to do was admit it.
He spent years at a time in cryogenic freeze, packed away in a lab or an armory or a vault, mostly left to rot but sometimes displayed as an exhibit in the House of Horrors, a stop on a tour for some ally or enemy or group of children they wanted to beat into submission: better be good, children, or the boogieman will get you. He'll kill you, he'll eat you, he'll suck on your bones. An endless agony of waiting punctuated only by the torments of being defrosted, upright on the dry block, every cell screaming as the thaw hit, and then the mind-wipe and some guy in a suit saying, "This is the target. This is the location," and it was Arnim Zola, it was Karpov, it was Lukin, Ponthieux, Dittmar, Kemble, Crowder, Andriyenko, it was Alexander Pierce, smiling and bright like the sun.
"I won't lie to you," Pierce said, and he didn't. Pierce never lied—he'd smash you in the face or have you beaten senseless and sometimes he'd arrange to have you tied down for a little friendly private conversation—but he'd always tell you the truth. "Most people won't take any moral responsibility," Pierce explained. "There's an experiment—stop me if I've told you this story before," and Pierce had told him the story, but he was strapped into the chair with the bit in his teeth, and besides, it was a pretty good story. "There's a train, and two people tied on the track, and if you pull a lever, you can divert the train onto a track where there's only one person. But most people won't pull the lever—not even to save a life. They can't kill one to save two, let alone kill a hundred to save two hundred or a million to save two million. They'd rather do nothing: they won't pull a lever, let alone pick up a weapon. But you will," Pierce said fondly, gently scraping the hair from his face, "and I will," and Pierce used him all the time; Pierce used him more than anyone.
Bucky was good enough to stay in bed with him, a warm safety blanket, till Steve groggily opened one eye. "Did you sleep at all?" he asked, and Bucky smiled faintly and said, "A little, I think," and went off to shower and shave.
Natasha turned up around lunchtime, carrying two large bags: "Straight from New York via Quinjet," she said, and set the bags down on the coffee table. "I thought you guys could use a little comfort food."
Bucky was looking warily at her, and so Steve said, carefully, "Bucky, do you remember my friend Natasha?" and Bucky shook his head slowly but came forward and offered his hand to her. She hesitated for the merest fraction of a second before taking it, which was odd in itself, Steve thought, but then Bucky held on to her fingers and stared down at her, his mind visibly working, obviously trying hard to remember something. Steve looked from one to the other of them; waiting.
"You were on the bridge," Bucky said finally.
"Yes," Natasha said. "I tried to garrote you. You shot me in the shoulder. I chased you off with a grenade launcher."
Bucky considered this. "Fair play," he said, and Natasha smiled and took her hand from his. Steve blew out a breath.
"I brought you guys some hot dogs," Natasha said, "straight from Coney Island, and while I was there—" She pulled out a take-out container with a clear top, and Steve had no idea what it was but Bucky obviously did; he frowned at it then looked hard at her. "Whole area around there's gone Russian," Natasha said, locking eyes with him. "I thought you might like..."
"What is it?" Steve asked dubiously; it looked kind of disgusting.
Natasha said something that sounded like, "Goloobsty," and then, "Comfort food, stuffed cabbage, it's—"
"Why are you kissing up to me?" Bucky asked, and Steve jerked to stare at him in surprise.
"Bucky," Steve said softly.
"No, it's—she, that's not a random—" A vein was throbbing on Bucky forehead. "She means something by it."
"It means I know you like it," Natasha replied calmly. "I've read your file."
"That's not in my..." but Bucky looked uncertain now. "They can't know that," he said—and then there was a clanking and the huge metal door was unlocking and opening.
"Captain Rogers," the guard said, finger on the trigger of his gun, "General Whitson asks you to come to his office," and Steve was about to say no, but then Natasha said, "I'm here, I'll stay." Steve looked at Bucky, who hesitated, then nodded.
"All right," Steve said grudgingly, and then he went to the door before turning back and grabbing a hot dog from the bag. "I'll be right back," he told Bucky, and then he gave Natasha a long, searching look before he left.
The Winter Soldier sat on the sofa eating a hotdog and staring up at her. Natasha stood there and let him look.
"The bridge and where else?" he asked finally.
"I've seen you six times," Natasha answered. "But you've only seen me for five. The first time you were in ice."
He nodded thoughtfully, still chewing. "You were in the Red Room?"
"Yes," Natasha said; and she was surprised to find that her heart was pounding, he still excited her. "You were a legend to us."
His mouth curled, something between amusement and disgust. "What did they tell you, that they brought me ballerinas? That I fucked them or ate them or fucked them and ate them?"
"Yes," Natasha said, and she realized that something in her had imprinted on him when she was nine years old: seeing him there, handsome and unconscious, through the icy glass. "Whenever a girl disappeared, they said—"
He was leaning forward now, hands dangling between his knees. "Do you think that's likely? All the money they spent training you, from childhood on up. You think they would have burned an asset like you to keep me happy? You think they cared about keeping me happy?" He smiled sadly, almost pityingly, at her, and shook his head. "In the forties and fifties it was heroin," he told her. "In the sixties and seventies, other drugs, and a lot more electroshock. In the eighties, the machines got elaborate: with magnets, I think. I forgot what it was called; Pierce told me, but... Trans...cranial stimulation? Maybe? And neurochemicals." He smiled at her, more warmly now. "No ballerinas."
"The first time I saw you I was nine," she told him. "They brought us to see you in the freezer." He averted his eyes, his face deep-lined with misery, but she pressed on: she needed him to know. "And then, when I was fourteen, I saw you again. But you were out," and she still remembered how shocking it was to see him in the flesh: a picture stepped out of a book. "You were just sitting there, alone, waiting for something—orders, probably. And I saw you, and I—went to you."
She'd never been a coward, and so she went to him now just as she'd gone to him then, her fingers unbuttoning her leather blazer. He looked up at her, mouth falling open, as she stood in front of him and held her lapels wide apart. He stared.
"Oh," he said, and he reached up to touch the knots in the leather shoulder harness she was wearing, only inadvertently skimming the curve of her breast; the knots changed the angle of the four knives she had on, as well as the attachments for the holsters. "Oh," he said again; and then he was looking into her eyes and nodding seriously—but the lock on the door was clanking and she could hear Steve outside, arguing. "—not acceptable," he was saying, "it's illegal to—" and then the door was opening and Steve looked flushed and exhilarated. "It's Peggy," he declared happily, "and she's brought lawyers."
She hadn't been looking her best, and it hadn't been anywhere special—just a disused corridor between the armory and the garage. He was sitting on a bench in an alcove, looking numb, his long legs splayed apart. But it was him. She pressed against the wall to catch her breath. It could be true, what they said. But she'd thought of him every day since she'd seen his drawn face through the glass, and she'd cataloged every rumor about him. His father had been a cobbler from Kiev, he'd shown extraordinary abilities and so had been kidnapped and raised inside the Kremlin. He was the son of dissidents: born in Siberia and taken when he was four. He had been a principal dancer with the Bolshoi, and when his arm had been crushed they had saved him and trained him to kill. He'd been an assassin before the Revolution, and had executed the Tsars; he'd killed thousands of people over hundreds of years, and they rewarded him by bringing him beautiful girls to fuck—ballerinas, preferably. She wanted to meet him, she wanted to fuck him and she wanted to be him, and so she pulled her hair from its ponytail and shook it over her shoulders. She wasn't looking her best, but even by fourteen she'd known that sex was mostly an attitude, and so she'd lifted her chin and gone to him.
She was in training, so she had weapons—but underneath her jacket and her holsters she was wearing a white buttoned-down shirt and a bra with a front closure—which was good, her breasts were her best feature. He didn't look up until she was quite near, his eyes drawn to the movement of her fingers. She stood in front of him and unhooked her bra and peeled the cups away to show him her breasts, which were smooth and well-shaped, her nipples hard just from being near him. She made herself breathe as he looked at her breasts, and then up at her face, and then he was reaching for her. His wrists brushed her nipples, and there was a soft thrumming between her legs, and then he was—clumsily buttoning her shirt, covering her up, and tugging on the thin leather straps of her holster. She held her breath as his fingers worked—he was making knots, twisting and flipping and tying, moving her knives so they lay differently against her chest. "Like that," he said finally, and then he was taking her wrist and drawing her arm up, and she felt the hilt of the knife and grasped it and when he tugged again, the blade arced out smooth and deadly—and that was like magic.
"How," she said, and he said, "Watch," and did it again, moving her arm and sweeping the knife in a vicious curve. "Like that," he said, and then, low and forceful and kind, "Now go away, little girl," and that was a direct order, so she went.
Peggy Carter had caused a stir by coming to Springfield herself, personally, powering into the room in her motored chair, and Natasha had to work to control her face—because she'd expected this sort of ecstatic reaction from Steve, but not from the Winter—not from James Barnes. "Peggy," he said, seeming suddenly on the verge of tears. "Jesus," and then he was going to her, and she was reaching for him and struggling to get up, but he shook his head and bent down to her, gently holding her shoulders and kissing first her cheek and then her mouth, not like a friend but like a lover.
Natasha stared, and then turned to Steve, who was watching them with every emotion on his face except shock.
"I didn't know," Peggy was saying tearfully, to Barnes, stroking his face and hair with a papery hand. "I would have tried to do something if I'd known," and that tipped Barnes actually into tears, and one of the lawyers was saying, flatly, "Look, can we please give my clients the room?" and then, when the guards hesitated, "Does he look like he's going to kill her?"
Reluctantly the guards trooped out, followed by the lawyers, the last one of whom turned to Steve and said, "We're outside. Call us when you're ready." Natasha moved to follow them, but Steve put a hand on her arm. "Stay," he said.
Barnes kissed Peggy's palm and then pressed her hand to his cheek. "You have to know," he said, "that I didn't—"
"Don't be absurd," Peggy said, and cupped his face almost roughly. "It's all understood. And I still have strings I can pull, and I will pull them—but before I do, I need to know what you want."
"What I—?" Barnes repeated, and he suddenly looked hopeless, his shoulders dropping. "Honey, don't ask me that," he said, pulling away and standing up. "What I want isn't—Anything but prison. Execution is acceptable. Steve knows why."
Peggy was fading fast, so she called in the lawyers and made a round of introductions; Steve tried to focus on their names, and found that he couldn't: he just caught the name of the team leader, Martinelli, a tiny blonde in a blue pantsuit. Then they threw everybody out while they talked to Bucky, and Steve left Natasha standing guard and went to escort Peggy to her car; she was getting fuzzy, and he wanted her safely the hell out of here before any of these bastards saw her vulnerable.
"I'm sorry, darling," Peggy managed, when her chair was safely locked in. She smiled wearily. "I just can't—" and Steve leaned into the car and gently kissed her mouth, and then her cheek. "Thank you," he said softly. "I love you," and then he kissed her once more before shutting the door and thumping the roof twice to let her driver know it was safe to pull away.
Natasha was sitting in the corridor outside the cell, focused and ready to fight, and he felt a blinding affection for her, too—she didn't give much away, but she was as true-blue a friend as could be. Steve dropped down onto the bench beside her. "They're still in there?" he asked, and Natasha nodded grimly. "Natasha, I'm sorry I got you into this mess."
She surprised him by smiling. "Actually, you didn't," she said, and then: "The truth is, I knew him before I knew you," and when he jerked to stare at her, she laughed and said, "I'm Russian, remember? Captain America wasn't my superhero."
It took him a second to understand what she meant. "Oh," Steve said. "Oh," and then, numbly: "Were there trading cards?"
Natasha rolled her eyes. "Capitalist pig," she said, and then she must have seen something on his face because she reached out and patted his hand reassuringly. "It's going to be all right, Rogers," she said seriously. "Carter's smart."
"Tell me," Steve said, smiling faintly.
"Her plans have plans. The lawyers are only part of it," Natasha said. "I've been to New York. I've seen Tony."
"I'm just afraid," Steve began, but then his throat closed up; it was too terrible to say out loud. But Natasha was listening, waiting, and if anyone would understand, she would; Natasha was as tough as they came. Steve stared at the heavily-riveted cell door. "What he said in there, he— I worry he's negotiating a death sentence." He stole a look at her, but she just looked levelly back. "Which I understand," Steve said quietly. "If I'd been through it..."
"If you'd been through it, you'd want it to end, too," Natasha said.
"I might yet," Steve whispered to her, barely audibly. "But not yet, because I'm not there yet, and maybe that's selfish, considering what he's been through, but I just got him back and—" He flinched as Natasha suddenly dug her nails into his hand, but then saw that the guards were getting up, opening the door. He took a breath and pulled himself together.
He saw right away that the head lawyer, Martinelli, looked graver than she had when she'd walked in, though she flashed a smile. "A lot to take in," she said, "but nothing that contradicts our approach. We're going upstairs for a preliminary—"
"I want to come," Steve interrupted, and the lawyers exchanged glances. One of them said to Martinelli, "That's not a good—" just as another said, "It could elevate the—" and a third said, "He's intimidating as all hell." Martinelli herself was staring up at Steve with a ruminative expression. Finally she said: "Captain Rogers, forgive me for being blunt, but can you keep your mouth shut? Agent Carter says you have—difficulty—with cant and hypocrisy, and this is a legal conference." She flashed him another quick smile, but her eyes were serious. "It's going to be cant and hypocrisy wall to wall."
Steve was about to say yes, then thought about it, wanting to be honest. "Yes," he said finally. "If you tell me it's better for Bucky that I stay quiet, I'll stay quiet."
Martinelli nodded. "Come on, then," she said, and Steve turned, pleadingly to Natasha.
"I'll stay with him," Natasha said. "You go."
He—James Barnes, she thought willfully—looked up as Natasha came in to the cell and the huge metal door locked behind her. "They've gone upstairs to open negotiations. Steve's gone with them," she explained.
James Barnes slouched back on the sofa and stared up at her. "You're not stupid. What do you think's going to happen?"
"I don't know," Natasha said, "I really don't." She sat down in one of the chairs and tucked her feet under her. "Tell you this, though: they've already foreclosed a whole bunch of options. The cat's out of the bag where you're concerned—so no secret prisons, no unmarked grave, not with Steve and Peggy and Tony and Clint and me and a whole legal team watching. Also," she added thoughtfully, "they've put you in solitary, so they're not going to be able to claim another prisoner killed you, and now that Steve's more or less moved in here—well, if they want to shoot you during an escape, it's double or nothing."
"So what does that leave?" James Barnes asked.
Natasha shrugged. "A military tribunal: convict you and kill you legally, or keep you locked up as a clear and present danger. Or they could try taking it public: try you for war crimes, or even just murder—twenty-five counts, they could do pretty much anything they wanted to you, especially if you lost the public relations war, which you might." He looked away, nodding slowly, his face impassive. "The other thing is—they could wait. Right now I bet they're arguing about process, hashing out some kind of a 'roadmap to justice', but even with a map it could take forever. It could easily be years before a trial, longer if they drag their feet, and Peggy's not going to live forever. People will have other things to attend to. There could be a long, slow forgetting—you'll have Steve, of course; he won't ever stop fighting for you, and I won't, but—"
"Once in the ice," James Barnes said softly, "and once when you were fourteen. That's twice—the bridge makes three times. Six, you said—so when else?" She stared at him; she could see James Barnes and the Winter Soldier both.
She answered the question slantways. "Steve said you like to dance," she said, and he surprised her by laughing.
"Steve's living in 1936," he said, scornful and amused. "I don't dance. I haven't danced in half a century."
"That's not true," Natasha replied slowly, and then she told him: "You danced with me."
She hadn't known why they'd been called out and lined up, but she stood with the others and lifted her head like it was the dance mistress coming to rate their posture. She heard tiny, frightened gasps moving up the line but steeled her spine and composed her face, let her eyes go distant and cold. So it wasn't until he was quite close that she saw it was the Winter Soldier, and then it was excitement, not fear, she had to tamp down because she was wearing her shoulder harness knotted the way he'd shown her, and he would notice; she was certain he would. And he did, stopping in front of her and fingering the knots she'd so carefully made in the canvas webbing before looking up and studying her face. "This one," he said.
There was both a radio and a television in the cabinet—part of the cell's veneer of civilization—and while Natasha didn't expect either of them to be connected to a live television or radio station, she figured they'd be hooked up to something. She turned the radio on and made a face at the trumpeting blare of big band music. "Bastards," she said automatically, just as James Barnes muttered the same thing, and they looked at each other and then turned away fast, suppressing laughter.
"Well, now I feel at home," he said, rolling his eyes. "I didn't know what was missing—oh, wait: fucking everything."
"Steve'll like it, though," Natasha said, smiling. "He still thinks wireless is the radio," and she twisted the tuner until she found a station playing something with a slow, hypnotic beat, synthetic and industrial.
She went back to him, not dancing so much as just sort of moving to the beat: one and two and... His eyes moved, almost helplessly, to her hips, and she rocked them subtly but suggestively. She'd known he was susceptible to rhythm; she'd known that ever since South Africa. He moved his eyes to her face with an effort. "What was the mission?" he asked.
"You had someone important to kill at a big private party on the Cape, and they decided to send you as a guest, the son of a rich Russian businessman. I was your escort," she explained, "and also your guard, I suppose. You picked me out of the line after seeing my holsters. My job was to distract people from you, and also to fuck and kill the German security minister if I got the chance, which—" and she saw the flash of recognition and nodded rapidly. "Yes. It was supposed to look like—"
"—like an accident," James Barnes finished, and his pupils had dilated; he was lost, remembering. "But he—he was—"
"He was a pig," Natasha said firmly, "and I was still new to that part of the business. So you helped me." She was standing in front of him now, moving her shoulders vaguely to the music, and he'd registered the beat on his body and was gently moving his head from side to side, though he didn't seem to notice it. "It didn't look much like an accident by the time we were through with him," she added wryly, and when she extended her hand to him he took it without thinking, and when she moved back he stepped forward, and when she stepped forward, he slid back.
"It was an estate," Barnes was saying slowly, uncertainly, "on a—vineyard?"
"Yes," she said.
"And you were wearing a silver dress," Barnes said softly. "And we were—" and then he pulled her against his body and turned her, and she drew in a breath and curved her arm around his neck, and they were moving together easily, his hips grinding against hers, the pressure of his metal arm familiar across her back. Natasha let herself fall into the rhythm: she was simultaneous here and on the Cape—on the dance floor with the Winter Soldier, lasers flickering across their bodies, feigning complete indifference to the revolving blue lights of the police cars parked on the other side of the enormous French windows, because rich people never interrupted a party, not even for murder. So she'd kept dancing, awash in adrenaline and endorphins and the feel of his body against hers—and it wasn't until Barnes jerked to a stop that she turned and saw Steve by the door, hand raised to his chin to cover the smile that was spreading across his face.
"Hey, don't stop on my account," Steve said, raising his eyebrows. "He loves to dance, and I've got two left feet."
But they did stop, of course.
He hardly spoke to her before the mission but he played his part when they got there. It was a good cover for him—as the spoiled son of a Russian hotelier he didn't have to bother being charming or even polite, and he dutifully plied her with champagne and smiled at her jokes and stroked his hand up her thigh under the envious watch of every other man at the party—though when they'd finally pretended to stumble drunkenly to their room he'd turned off like a switch, pushing her toward the bed and going to stand, still, by the window with a rifle. She'd thrown off her dress and gotten under the covers in her underwear, and hell, she still wanted him, especially after having had the German security minister's fat hands all over her. "At least come over here and rest," she said finally. "I don't bite," and he turned to her and shook his head slowly, and was she imagining it or did he look a little bit sad? "I can't," he said, and then, inexplicably: "It's all I have."
"What did they say?" Barnes asked, dropping her hand and moving quickly to Steve's side.
Steve showed him a thin, bitter smile. "Bucky, old pal," he said, clapping James Barnes on the shoulder with ironic enthusiasm, "apparently we have to decide if we're the kind of country that puts a man in a box and throws away the key."
"Oh, bite me," Barnes groaned.
"It's not about you and your terrible crimes," Steve said with intense sincerity, obviously channeling some complete bullshit artist from upstairs. "It's about us, and who we are as a nation, and it's about process, and transparency, and—"
"We fought a war for these assholes," Barnes muttered.
"—everything in the damn world aside from the fact that you served your country faithfully and you were captured and forced to fight for the other side," Steve said. "That apparently isn't relevant."
"Well, that might make it about me," Barnes said.
"I swear to God, my tongue is chop meat from biting it," Steve said, falling onto the sofa. "It's a ploy, I guess. Peggy's people seem to be pushing for a public trial. I guess they think we'll have an easier time of it in the court of public opinion."
"They might be right about that," Natasha ventured. "If you get on the stand, tell your side of it—"
"My side of it?" Barnes snarled, and Natasha jerked back as Steve went to him and took him firmly by the arm. "My side of it is that I don't know why they're giving me such grief over twenty-five clean deaths. Twelve guys survived my first company; that's how I made Sergeant, back when Captain America here was still roaming the back alleys of Brooklyn. We lost seven hundred and fifty thousand guys taking Italy, three thousand in one day on the beachfront at Salerno, most of them blown to pieces—shoes all over the place with feet in them; I know because I was there. And that was just the start of it—that was before Azzano, before the Commandos, Lithuania, Poland—And now they're jerking me around over twenty-five clean deaths? Painless deaths, deaths they never even saw coming. I prayed for a death like that; I still pray for a death like that. Bullets are so clean, you can't imagine," James Barnes said, and Steve looked at Natasha and said, "Maybe you'd better..." and she said, "Yes. I'll come back tomorrow," and it had never occurred to her that the one to be scared of was James Barnes.
Steve had his back; Steve always had his back. Steve had been his captain from before there was a war.
He managed to keep it together until Natasha was gone, and then it was just him and Steve, as solid a rock as a guy could want. Steve slung an arm around his neck and dragged him close, and the panic subsided. Steve was his. He'd never had a jacket or a pair of pants that hadn't gone through eight other Barneses until he'd been issued his first uniform, but Steve was his friend—just his, straight off the rack. And Steve had always been a little selfish about him too, like an only child could, almost arrogantly so, expecting him to go along, come with, turn up. So Bucky had gone alone, come with, turned up.
He stared at Steve now and could still see the street rat under the incongruous apple-cheeked good health. "They took you from me three times," he said. "They took me, and then they told me you were dead, and then they made me forget you ever—" He blinked and saw Steve's face, battered and bleeding under his own fists. "Steve," he scraped out. "I never said—"
"Don't insult me," Steve said, and that pissiness was the street rat all over. "Actually I never said," Steve began, and then he dropped his voice to a low rumble: "If you want to run, I'll go with you. We could go underground, start over—"
Bucky smiled hopelessly. "I would," he said, "but Natasha said—she said it'd give them legitimate grounds to kill us."
"I'd do that too," Steve said, low and serious, "if you wanted, but given the choice I'd still rather live than die."
"Yeah," Bucky said, after a moment. "Besides, we're crap at dying," and when Steve smiled in obvious relief, Bucky cupped Steve's jaw and roughly kissed him, liking the way Steve got hard and trembled against him even as he was smiling, liking that he could still do that to Steve even now. Kissing Steve, he felt a strange telescoping through time, and maybe everyone would feel it if they'd lived as long as he had, but all at once he was twenty and drunk. Steve had been drunk, too, and they'd been stumbling home and he'd tried to land a smacker on Steve's cheek and missed and landed on Steve's mouth instead, and another guy would have been ticked, but Steve's eyes just crinkled and he looked sloppy-drunk pleased, like he understood it just meant Bucky loved him: Steve had been love-starved, too. And at the same time, they were in Austria and Steve's mouth was on his, desperate and sooty: the kiss coming back like a message returned, a kiss you gave to Lazarus, back from the dead. And it had gone between them, back and forth, over the greater part of a century, and now he gave it back to Steve, holding his head still, working his mouth open, because Steve still seemed to still love him, even now when he was so broken. Steve had come back from the dead to be here for him.
Bucky pulled Steve down on the bed and managed, still kissing, to drag his sweatpants down, to grasp both their cocks in his warm hand like he'd done so many times in so many different foxholes and bedrolls and ditches. Steve made a low groaning sound as Bucky fumbled to stroke them both together, pressing the heat and pulse of their cocks together, feeling it, rubbing his hand up and down until they were both sweating and gasping into each other's mouths as they kissed— and this was their favorite thing because it was the easiest thing, the failsafe thing, but they had a real bed here and so Rule 2 applied. He wrenched his mouth away and pushed Steve, flushed and shining, onto his back and crawled over him, dragging his cock up along Steve's belly and teasing himself against Steve's dick until Steve got the goddamned idea and rolled over him, shoving him down and taking him with breathless, determined strength.
When Natasha turned up the next morning, she wasn't alone, and Bucky watched with narrowed eyes as Steve smiled and went to greet the man she'd brought with her. "Sam," Steve said, as they briefly clasped arms around each other, and yeah, this guy had been on the bridge, too—and maybe the helicarriers? Steve towed him over to Bucky by the arm, "Sam, I want you to meet Bucky—James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky, this is Sam Wilson," and Sam was looking at him warily but gamely extended a hand, and abruptly Bucky remembered him on the helicarriers; in the air, soaring in flight.
"I thought," Natasha said; she was watching him like he might explode or break something, "that with his experience, Sam might bring us a useful perspective."
"Good idea," Steve said, and then he turned to Bucky and explained, "Sam served as a paratrooper with the 58th rescue. His partner was killed, and now he works at the V.A." and Bucky took his hand, shook it.
Sam Wilson sighed. "This country screws over most of its veterans," he said. "Just you more than most, man."
"—and I thought it also wouldn't hurt to have someone else in rotation," Natasha told Steve. "They're meeting again today, and I thought you'd probably want to—"
"I definitely want to," Steve said grimly.
"—and I'd like to come, too. I had some ideas I wanted to... well. I had some ideas," Natasha said.
It wasn't until Steve was alone out in the corridor with Natasha that she stopped him, angled him away from the cameras, and said, "You've got to start coming to terms with the fact that they're not just going to let him walk out of here. Not unless we start exerting tremendous pressure. I've already told Peggy: if she's got levers, it's time to start pulling them, fast and hard, because—look, I know what they did to him, but he's not going to be sympathetic on the stand. We can't put him on the stand," she repeated, raising her voice to ride over his objection. "He's the 20th century's greatest assassin."
Steve was angrily sucking for air. "This jealousy isn't becoming, Natasha," he said, and she laughed, taken aback. "Look, I'm sorry he worked for Hydra. I'm sorry you and I worked for Hydra. I'm sorry that Fury okayed the production of helicarriers that would have killed millions, and for that matter, I'm sorry that Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima—"
"Okay, we're not putting you on the stand either," Natasha said wearily.
"You're damn right," Steve said, and turned away from her, arms crossed.
"Look, you think I don't know that—I was with him on two of those missions, and while I don't have his body count, mine's nothing to sneeze at. And neither is yours. But he's on the hot seat and we're not. So don't shoot the messenger, Rogers."
"It's not right," Steve gritted out.
"No. It's not."
"We were screwed. You, me—all of us. Him more than—" His throat closed.
"Yes," Natasha agreed. "And he's going to be screwed again unless we play as hard as they do. "
He couldn't stand war movies. There always seemed to be war movies on the television, and sometimes people would give him war movies on DVD, assuming he'd like them, but Steve didn't like them. Most of them seemed to be remakes of older movies based on still older movies based on footage that Steve himself had helped to stage back when he was an actor and before he'd seen real war: they were a picture of a picture of a picture. Everything and everybody so clean, and all wounds shoulder wounds (when in fact you were as likely to get shot in the face or the guts or the testicles.) And nobody in war movies ever asked themselves if that German kid had a family, or averted their eyes when men they loved and respected pissed themselves with fear, or wondered if their best friend was coming apart, or if they themselves were becoming someone they didn't respect or even recognize. Steve hated war movies because they were nothing like the real war, and also because sometimes they were, because there was always an ethnically mixed company where everyone liked and trust each other, and usually only one person died, the hero's best friend, just to show you that the stakes were real.
Coulson was shifting in his chair and saying, uncomfortably, "Ms. Martinelli, I would think that Agent Carter would understand better than most people the sort of compromises that—"
"What we all understand is that you've been holding Sgt. Barnes for seven weeks with no sign of due process, and no indications that you've even begun to sketch a way forward," Martinelli said.
"Begging your pardon," Director Cooper interrupted; it was Coulson and Cooper and Whitson at the table—Senator Harper wasn't there; plausible deniability, Steve supposed, bitterly, "but seven weeks is nothing. A case like this is has obvious administrative complications, starting with what agencies have jurisdiction. Even when the procedure's crystal clear, trials can take—I mean, common criminals are routinely kept in jail for months before any sort of—"
"Are you planning a trial?" Martinelli asked.
They exchanged looks. "We considered a military tribunal," General Whitson ventured.
Martinelli showed them a quick smile. "No," she said. "You want to railroad him into prison? No."
"Your client has no right to—" Whitson began.
"My client has every right: the rights of an American citizen, the rights of a soldier in the U.S. army, the rights of a POW under the 1929 Geneva Convention, and the rights of a national hero, an icon— because gentlemen, you seem to forget that there's a picture of Bucky Barnes in every fifth grade social studies textbook, coast to coast. Besides," Martinelli added, with the air of someone throwing a bone, "my client has already given you enough actionable intelligence to keep everyone in this building busy for ten years. What else do you want?"
"He's already confessed to fourteen murders," Whitson said.
"Missions," Martinelli corrected.
"Assassinations," Cooper said, "with more to come as he remembers; as you know, we suspect him of at least twenty five."
"So are you charging him? Do you even have jurisdiction to charge him?" Again, there was an exchange of glances, but this time Martinelli barreled on. "If you do, I could bring some colorful character witnesses," she mused, and then she added, almost casually, "Unfortunately, of course, I won't be able to control what people say or guarantee what gets out," and Steve saw right away that Coulson was subtly straightening in his chair; whatever innuendo had just passed, he'd caught it where the others had not.
"What was that?" Steve asked her, once they were outside. "Martinelli said something that made Coulson—"
"He's trying to rebuild SHIELD," Natasha explained. "The last thing Coulson wants is a big public trial to remind everybody of everything that went wrong last time."
"They should be reminded! Everyone should be reminded," Steve said. "Why the hell rebuild SHIELD anyway—?"
She stared at him. "Because if you don't, you're just making more space for the CIA, the NSA, and whatever other classified ops they've got going," she said. "It's not like it stops, Rogers. If it's not SHIELD, it's somebody else, and it's their money, their people, and their priorities." She sighed. "I admit, I've considered signing on again myself—"
"Natasha," and she couldn't bear to see that look on his face; she wanted to punch his goddamned lights out.
"You only say that because you have no idea who else is out there," she told him. "The NSA's colonized by right-wing freaks, all they care about is Islamo-terrorism; the CIA's obsessed with China and North Korea. Meanwhile, nobody's paying attention to Hydra, not to mention all the gods and monsters and aliens living among us; they can't grapple with it, so they look away. But the world doesn't go away when you close your eyes, Rogers."
Steve stared at the floor, a muscle jumping in his jaw; he looked deeply unhappy. "So," he said finally. "Can we use it?"
"Of course we can use it," Natasha said. "The question is how. Coulson's the pressure point: SHIELD's in a vulnerable place right now, though it won't be for long. He won't want Peggy as an enemy—well, ever, but especially now. Peggy could do him some real damage if she wanted to; she knows where all the bodies are buried." Natasha frowned. "Or she did. You should go see her—fast, now. Take my car," Natasha said, and gave him her keys. "I'll stay with Barnes till you get back."
When Natasha returned, Sam and Bucky were sitting across from each other, playing cards—and Barnes had cut his hair, with a razor blade, from the looks of it. "Needed a change," he said, rubbing his hand self-consciously over it; his hair stood up, chunky and thick.
"Looks good," Natasha said, and Barnes flushed a little.
Sam's mouth curved in a smile as he put down his hand. "Gin," he said, "and on that note, I think I'd best be getting out of here," and Natasha couldn't help but notice that the parting handshake he shared with Barnes seemed a lot more genuine than their first one.
"Yeah. I'll take it from here," Natasha said. "You should touch base with Clint," and Sam nodded and left.
"He's all right," Barnes said, standing up.
"Yeah," she said, smiling. "He's a good man."
Barnes came to her, studied her face. "I've been thinking," he said. "I think — I remember one. Let me tell you one," he said, and her breath caught.
Target acquired, and he was looking through the scope at Vladimir Onyankin, except he wasn't alone: there were three other people in the room, all of them wearing black and armed to the teeth. Onyankin was strapped to a chair, and the others circled around him, two men and— He peered through the crosshairs; the girl would have stood out to anyone because of her hair, but his attention had been caught by something specific: the angle of her guns, the way she'd altered her holsters. Mine, he thought—but that was meaningless, impossible; the holster wasn't his, and the girl certainly wasn't. But the thought wouldn't leave him. The room was set to blow—all he had to do was fire the shot and trigger the explosives—and he understood immediately that he was meant to kill all of them; whether or not he knew her, the girl was acceptable collateral damage. But those knots...He hooked his rifle over his shoulder, unholstered a grappling hook and fired it, then slid down the wire to the roof below. There was a skylight, and he circled around it silently, peering down; he didn't like to change plans at the last minute, but he felt this like an itch, like a compulsion.
There was really only one way to do it. He slid a different cartridge into his grappling gun, attached the hook to his belt, and crept to the edge; if the girl were stupid, if she didn't do her part—but he already knew she wasn't, that she would. As if she sensed him, she glanced up—and then glanced away, but she moved exactly where she needed to be and put a hand on her gun. He didn't hesitate: he fired the gun upwards and dived down through the skylight, scattering glass everywhere. He reached down for her just as she reached up to grasp his metal hand, and then the cable caught and they were both being jerked upward by the ricochet. "Four o'clock," he said, and she aimed and emptied her clip, and the room exploded into an orange fireball as they flew up, up, back out the skylight and twenty feet into the air, the roaring choking pillar of black smoke chasing them. He grabbed her mid-air and slung her onto his back—she weighed nothing, he'd carried heavier packs—but she immediately found the best angle, gripping his hips with her knees and using her weight to give him direction and momentum as they swung together like they'd done it a thousand times—and who knows, maybe they had. He released the cord and they fell hard onto a neighboring roof and tumbled together, four arms and four legs. He could hear the roar of the fire, and he didn't have to tell her anything: she was up and moving with him, taking her cues without words.
It wasn't until they were lurking in a narrow service corridor waiting for the fire engines to pass that she surprised him by pushing him against the stone wall and kissing him on the mouth. He let her, wondering what they were to each other, and studied her face for answers when she pulled back. She was watching him closely, too, and he realized that she'd ventured something: she was waiting to see his response. He considered and then bent to kiss her, gripping her by the hips. Her hands slid up over his arms and shoulders, strong and caressing, stroking over his face and hair, and these were the nicest feelings he could remember feeling: she was warm and soft and she smelled good, and he felt his dick stirring in his pants.
He kissed her, gently cupping her cheek, and when he pulled back he said, "Tbilisi, is that right?" but something in her face had changed, some protective mask had slipped away, and she was nodding and stretching up to kiss him again, on his mouth and across his face, desperately, earnestly, arms twining around his neck—and it took him a moment to place the taste of salt. He jerked back to stare: she was—her eyes were—but that was wrong, this girl didn't, she should never—
Natasha pressed her hands to her face, covering it from hairline to chin, and when she let them drop the tears were gone and her face was composed. "What they did to you," she said. "It was because you saved me. I saw them start."
"They didn't need a reason," he told her, and bent to kiss her again, then she was sliding her fingers into his hair and pushing her tongue into his mouth and shoving him down onto the sofa and straddling his lap. He let her do it.
He knew he was in trouble the moment they got to the extraction point; knew it from the way they looked at the girl and then at him, the co-pilot's eyes never leaving him as he picked up his radio. There was an armed escort waiting on the helipad for the girl, and he saw the dark flash of understanding cross her face as she twisted to look back at him over her shoulder. He kept his face as blank as he could—the less he gave them, the better. The first blow knocked him to his knees, and the second blow sent him crashing to the floor, and then they were dragging him into the armored car and giving him a few more shocks to the skull for good measure. He drifted, and when they finally dumped him out onto the floor, Alexander Pierce was there, crouching beside him in his gray summer suit and looking at him with a friendly but bemused expression, like he'd just dropped in unexpectedly for coffee. Pierce straightened up and nodded to the guards, and they dragged him up and dumped him unceremoniously in a chair, and then there actually was coffee set in front of him. Milk. Sugar.
"You altered the mission," Pierce said, doctoring his own coffee with milk and sugar, "to save the girl. Who is she?" and he didn't have an answer to that; he didn't know who she was, or even her name. All he had were those knots and maybe a vague memory of a silver dress. But Pierce wanted an answer. "She's mine," he said, returning to that first, insane thought.
Pierce's cup clattered into its saucer. "Oh!" he said, looking delighted; somehow that had been the right thing to say. "Do you want her? Because I can have her brought to you. You deserve a treat," and he should say yes. He should say yes because they would understand that; he should feign lust, rut, have them bring him the girl and—except they would do it.
"No," he said, recoiling from the idea; they would do it: throw her in front of him like meat to a wild animal. "That's not," he said, and then, "I recognized—" and that was the wrong thing to say, because Pierce's eyes went dead and he flashed a quick, grim smile. "—her training," he stammered, trying to recover. "She was obviously a Black Widow."
"That wasn't the mission," Pierce said, standing, "to save a Black Widow," and there was no point in saying anything; there was no arguing, no persuading. "Your usefulness depends on compliance. We need you to do what you're told," and he knew what that meant: they would intensify the brain-wipes and he would lose even this: knots and a silver dress.
He was panting into her mouth and sliding his hands up under her shirt as she ground down against him—but he twisted his head away, because he had to know, and things were moving so fast and he wanted her, but— "Five," he managed, reaching up to cup her face, to get her attention and to still her; she was red-mouthed and pleasure-drunk, looking down at him. "That was five, Tbilisi—what was six? I don't remember six," and he saw right away that six wasn't a good memory for her.
"Odessa," she said. "You—didn't know me," and he followed the slight, instinctive gesture of her hand and tugged her shirt up, ran his fingers over the pucker of the bullet scar. Her pale flesh shivered under his touch. "I'm sorry," he said.
"It wasn't your fault." She smoothed the hair away from his face, and he closed his eyes and concentrated on the warm caress of her fingers; so nice. "It's funny," she said, "but it's like I see two of you now. The Winter Soldier. James Barnes."
He opened his eyes. "I'm the Winter Soldier," he said. "I'm James Barnes."
Steve told Peggy everything that had happened, then started to tell her what Natasha told him about SHIELD, and about Coulson, but Peggy began nodding before he'd half explained. "She's right, of course. That girl's quite the—" and then Peggy was coughing and Steve grabbing her water off the bedside table and helping her sip carefully. Finally the terrible coughing stopped. "I'll ring Jenny," Peggy said, gasping a little. "Give her some ammunition. I don't imagine Coulson can withstand much pressure; he's at such a delicate stage of—"
"You knew they were trying to rebuild SHIELD?" Steve asked.
"Yes. They're going to start over. No choice really," Peggy said, and then she smiled at him and said, "When I was at school, history seemed to me to be a very clear thing. Antiquity, Greek and Roman. The Dark Ages, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, Modernity—all very clearly defined. Everything important was of course marked by reign: Willie, Willie, Harry, Stee / Harry, Dick, John, Harry Three," and Steve hadn't the faintest idea what she was talking about. She laughed and shook her head at him. "Kings, darling. All the big important dates: 1066. 1485. 1688—"
"I don't know those numbers," Steve admitted. "Here, I guess, it was 1492, 1776, 1865—"
"—1914," Peggy finished, and the smile fell off both their faces. "Yes. Well, that's just it. Things started, and things ended—or seemed to. Then I joined the SSR and...well, I never left," she said, and this time her smile was sad. "And history is completely different on the inside. People thought the war ended 1945, but of course it didn't. Hydra was still operating, the Soviet Union wouldn't give up their territory, there was that nightmare in Berlin..." She looked a little frightened now, and Steve reached out and took her hand. "The years passed, I don't quite know how," she said."The point is, Steve, that things don't end. People just stop paying attention. They're rebuilding SHIELD because we still need SHIELD, or something like it; something better, I hope. Nick got the best man he could; there's something to be said for an inside candidate, I suppose."
"I don't understand how Phil Coulson's even alive," Steve muttered, and Peggy sighed and said, "Medical experiments. Oh, those haven't stopped either," she said wearily. "And I assume someone, somewhere, is still trying to make super-soldiers—"
"Well, they should stop," Steve said, gritting his teeth.
"Yes, they should. But they won't. Not unless somebody stops them. And polices them. And doesn't give in to the temptation to initiate a project themselves. The truth is, darling, I'm glad to be old," Peggy said. "I wouldn't take one of their rejuvenating potions for all the tea in China. Death is the only way out of this mess. I'm quite looking forward to it."
"Bucky, too, I think," Steve said, and Peggy squeezed his hand and said, "Well, he's ever so much older than you now."
His first assignment with SHIELD after the Battle of Manhattan had been to lead a strike team against some mercenaries who were holding an international medical corps for ransom in southern Pakistan. That had felt good, and between the success of that mission and finding out that Peggy was actually living close to his new apartment in D.C., Steve felt it had been a good decision, joining SHIELD. That feeling hadn't lasted, though; his second mission had been against militants in North Africa, and his third was on an oil rig outside Venezuela, and his fourth was in....and he began to get disoriented; too many countries, too many languages, and were they actually at war with any of these people? and some of them seemed to have guns that were twenty, thirty, fifty years old, or more, and some of them didn't have guns at all. And yeah, they were good fighters some of them, but it was hard to feel good about yourself when you'd just landed an AH-1Z Viper gunship armed with a 20-mm three-barrel cannon and 16 Hellfire air-to-surface missiles outside a tarpaper shack in the south of Mexico. And sure, he knew that in battle, you didn't want a fair fight, you wanted a fast fight with minimum casualties, but— But.
He was still thinking about Mexico—since when was a drug war a war?—even as the enormous cell door closed behind him and so it took him a moment to process that the white harness on the floor was a brassiere and that Bucky and Natasha were half-out of their clothes. He laughed and turned away, but the heavy door was already locking. "Sorry," Steve told the metal door, but he couldn't keep the happiness out of his voice. His chest hurt; he felt fit to burst with it. He was glad, he was so glad.
Behind him, Steve heard movement and said, quickly, "Don't—I'll get 'em to open this door and then I'll take myself for a walk, a long—" and then he was pressing his palm to his mouth to keep from laughing, because even when things were terrible, maybe especially when things were terrible, good things could still happen; his mother'd told him that, and he'd nearly forgotten it. Steve raised his hand to bang on the door but was stopped by Natasha; she'd buttoned a shirt over her naked chest; she was flushed and shining, hair pushed away from her face; God, she was beautiful.
"You're not mad," Natasha said, lips curving slowly into a smile.
"Christ, no," Steve said, he wanted to hug her, he wanted to swing her around; he wanted everyone to love Bucky the way he did. "You can't begin to understand how happy this makes—" and then Natasha slid an arm around his neck and drew him down for a kiss, and he'd had dreams like this, sometimes anxious ones, where Natasha surprised him sexually and he was left with a pounding heart and an erection he couldn't control. He pulled away to stare at her. He could see on her face a new, open expression of desire, and he bent in to kiss her again, to cup her face and taste her lips, the wet heat of her mouth.
When he looked up, he saw Bucky sprawled on the sofa, lazy-alert, watching them through half-lidded eyes. He stretched out his hand to Steve, but Natasha's arms were still around his neck so Steve lifted her up off the ground, laughing, legs swinging. A few steps brought them to Bucky, and then Natasha flipped herself backwards into Bucky's outstretched arms, thudding against him and letting out a gasp as Bucky rolled her into the couch cushions, covering her with his body. She ground her hips up, up and around in a slow, dirty circle and Steve came two steps closer, dragged forward by the hypnotic motion and then Bucky yanked him down to his knees, mashing their mouths together. He had always been absolutely helpless to resist Bucky's mouth, Bucky's kiss. He fell into it, kneeling on the hard floor with his thighs rubbing against the couch fabric and Bucky's hand on his neck and Steve couldn't do anything but press forward, into the kiss, feel the slide of their tongues and their lips and the swirling pleasure building in him, and then Natasha was sliding her hands through his hair and pulling his mouth to hers, so different and new, so exciting.
"It's been a long strange trip, Rogers," Natasha smiled against his mouth, "but we got here," and Bucky muttered, "You don't know what a long, strange trip is," and then Natasha inhaled sharply and dug her fingers into Steve's shoulders, and Bucky'd slid his hand into the open V of her pants and was stroking her, fingering her, sliding his fingers over and into her.
"Oh my God," Steve breathed, turned on and apologetic both. "He's impossible."
Her eyelashes were fluttering, her head thrown back, and she was panting and running her hands over his body. "Oh, I know," she breathed, "don't I know it," and she was pushing up and tumbling Bucky off the sofa, and Steve's head thunked against the floor as he fell back, too, her hand sliding into the front of his pants and closing around his cock.
"Natasha," Steve managed, voice breaking as she stroked him, and then they were all kissing again, gasping into each others mouths, breaking off to pant and rub their sweaty foreheads against each other. The button on her blouse popped open and her breasts spilled into his greedy hands. Then Bucky made a low impatient grumble, and Steve reached around her to grasp him and Steve felt the velvet heat of Bucky's cock against his palm just as Natasha gripped him hard and all at once they were all pushing against each other and moving eagerly over each other and bumping noses as they twisted for kisses.
"Holy shit," Steve said, low and sincere, and suddenly Natasha was shuddering and Bucky groaned.
"C'mere," Bucky said, breathless, "fuck—I want it so bad I can't—" and then he was pulling his hand out of her fly and peeling her pants down her thighs, and she was gasping and scrambling over him, pushing down onto him even as he tugged the little scrap of white lace she had out of the way and thrust up and let out a shout as Natasha took him into her. Steve lay there with his chest pressed against Bucky's metal shoulder, looking and sliding his palm up and down, a warm pool of feeling building at the base of his cock as he matched his strokes to the thrusts and gasps of the two of them.
He drank in the sight of them, the brutal grace of their bodies, fucking like dancing. He knew the soft desperate sounds that meant Bucky was close to coming, the little cries and muttered curses, and then Natasha was moaning and riding Bucky through it, then slowing, slowing—and then Steve's shoulders hit the floor, and she was slamming him down, rolling onto him and sliding down, warm and so wet—Christ, she had Bucky's come inside her—and he groaned and flipped her onto her back as she jerked their cores together and he began driving into her, her hands tightening on him and urging him on, faster, harder, and she gripped his face and kissed him, kissed the last breath out of him.
His hips stuttered, he was coming with a shout and then Bucky was roughly kissing him, then turning to kiss Nat until they all just collapsed, panting, on top of each other on the hard floor.
"I tried to tell her," Bucky gasped, "how it was with us, but she knew already. She already knew," and Natasha snuggled in close against Steve—Christ, she was rubbing his nipples, sending aftershocks of pleasure zinging through him—and murmured, "I didn't. I had no idea you were with Steve until—" Bucky whuffed out a laugh and said, "Honey, I'm 'with' Steve like I'm 'with' my kidneys—" "Thass'very flattering," Steve yawned, just as Bucky finished: "—there's no living without 'em. There's no life at all," and Steve closed his eyes and pressed his face against Bucky's neck.
If the bed was small for two it was even smaller for three, and the only way to not fall off was to sleep mostly piled on top of each other. Steve ended up on the bottom, with Natasha curled soft and warm against his side and Bucky sprawled face down and half on top of him with his arm across them both. But Bucky wasn't asleep; Steve knew it the moment he opened his eyes, like he'd known it when they were kids, like he'd always known when Bucky's bedroll was empty. Steve saw that Bucky's head was tilted toward him; Bucky was looking at him, and then Bucky smiled and it was like all the years peeled away: he looked young and scared and happy all at once, like he'd been before the war.
"You all right?" Steve whispered, and incredibly, Bucky's smile went briefly brighter.
"Yeah. I was just thinking that...if there's never anything else, there was this," and Steve could remember feeling that way, too: remembered thinking that if even he died tomorrow, he'd been loved, really loved. He found Bucky's hand and laced their fingers together, felt Bucky's warm, answering squeeze. "You and me together," Bucky mused, "and her—I knew her on the other side," he explained, "and somehow she still likes me." Bucky rubbed his cheek, laughed a little. "I don't know why, but it's great," he said, and then his smile tipped over into sadness. "They're not going to let me go, you know."
"Yes, they will," Steve said.
"Steve," Bucky began softly.
"Yes, they will," Steve said.
"We'd like you to start thinking hard about the best offer you can make us," Martinelli said, smiling and hard. "In aid of that goal, Agent Carter asks me to remind you that most classified files weren't computerized until after the Y2K security protocols were regularized; before that, of course, there was paper." She smiled and then pulled a battered brown file out of her briefcase: it looked like all the other classified files Steve had ever seen, from the war and after.
"Of course," Martinelli said, "the Winter Soldier's file wasn't in SHIELD's database either; Agent Romanov had to have it sent to her personally from Kiev. There's just so much information lying around undigitized," Martinelli added, with a tsk and a wave of her hand. "It'll be a hell of an archiving project when some brave historian finally gets around to it."
She slid the brown folder across the table to Coulson and waited until his fingers were on it before removing her own. "Just to show you that we're acting in good faith—Operation Jackal," she said, and now she was addressing herself to Coulson only, directly. "We also want to show you we're serious. That's for starters; there's lots more where that came from."
"Are you implying that," Director Cooper began, but Coulson was standing up and extending his hand to Martinelli over the table, smiling and pleasant. "This has been such an enlightening conversation," Coulson said. "I think we've already got plenty to think and talk about. Please thank Agent Carter on behalf of all of us for giving us so many ideas to consider."
"Operation Jackal," Steve asked Martinelli once they'd left the room. "What was it?"
"It's classified, Captain," Martinelli replied.
"But was it something Peggy—? Something we—" Steve asked.
"It's classified, Captain," Martinelli repeated.
Times Square had been a shock, but at least it was beautiful—vibrant and colorful, like the shiny bullet-shaped rockets on the cover of Amazing Stories—and bustling with people and cars and noise. He remembered looking up for flying cars and not seeing any, though the buildings were—every building seemed as tall as the Empire State.
The shocks that had come after were worse: he remembered the steel and glass table in the briefing room where he found out about the atomic bombs they'd used to end the war—that his side had used. A picture of a mushroom cloud, something about the liberation of camps, the division of Berlin, an Iron Curtain falling across Europe. The Soviets had become our enemies, except now they were Russian again and they weren't, and then in 1962—
"Wait, please, I'm sorry, can you just give me a minute?" and he remembered getting to his feet and stumbling out in search of some air, except it turned out that the windows didn't open in the buildings of the future: they were giant glass coffins. He pressed himself against the glass in an atrium near an elevator bank and stared out over the city, his city—home except for how it wasn't anymore—and the ice had been terrible, but this was worse; this was so much worse.
"What happened?" Bucky asked, when Steve came back.
"I don't know. They're applying pressure, I guess. Martinelli gave Coulson a file—Operation Jackal—"
"Operation Jackal?" Bucky repeated, eyebrows lifting. "Was that you? Or—us, or, whatever, SHIELD?"
"It was SHIELD, I guess," Steve said. "They wouldn't tell me," and Bucky let out a low whistle. "What was it?"
"He," Bucky said, frowning, "or maybe she—I always thought the Jackal was a she. I mean, nobody knows, but there was a girl—Russian actually, a sniper—who disappeared and I always thought she was too good not to be used by somebody," and then he must have seen the look on Steve's face and he stopped and said, "The Jackal was an assassin. Operated for a couple of years in the mid-sixties and then stopped, or somebody got him, or her—not me," he added.
"That's good; that's a good story, simple, the media will like it," Natasha said. "They're finally getting serious—"
"It's more than that; it's a message." Bucky was breathing hard, hand going almost absently to his temple and he was gritting his teeth like his head was splitting open. "You see where this is going, don't you? They'll forgive me for killing if I keep doing it," and then he laughed and said, "They never change," and Steve and Natasha exchanged nervous looks.
Martinelli arrived unexpectedly and found Steve and Natasha asleep and entangled, and she looked from one to the other of them before dragging her eyes over to Bucky and saying, with consummate professionalism: "You've cut your hair. Good, because they want to meet with you." She gave Bucky a suit bag, and Bucky unzipped it only a little before shaking his head, jaw clenched, at the sight of the dress uniform, and slinging the garment bag across the room.
"No," Bucky snapped. "I'm not wearing that. I want my own clothes; bring me my own clothes."
"But," Steve began; he wanted them to see Bucky as an American soldier; wasn't that the whole point? But Bucky turned to him, eyes flashing, and said, "Steve, I won't," and then Martinelli raised her hands and said, "All right, let me see what I can come up with. Meanwhile, Captain—please—your uniform and shield would be helpful today," and Steve nodded.
Martinelli eventually returned with a dark suit and a rumpled white shirt draped over one arm, and Steve could only assume she'd stripped it right off the back of one of the other lawyers: she clearly wanted Bucky wearing something other than the Winter Soldier's tactical gear. Bucky stared at it and then relented, and once he was dressed, Steve had to look away—the tie was oddly blank, plain ties apparently being the fashion these days, but other than that, seeing Bucky in a suit and tie was like transporting back in time: to the days before the war, to the thirties, to Brooklyn. If you ignored the metal hand, Bucky looked just the way he had back then, while he, Steven Rogers, still looked like a 4th of July decoration: Captain America.
"All right." Martinelli circled him and Bucky both and nodded approval. "Now, please: just let me do the talking," but Bucky didn't respond, and Steve knew his playground rules well enough to know that meant he was making no promises.
The other conference rooms they'd been in had been designed to impress, long tables designed to establish power, intimidate. In this room there was only Coulson, sitting at a small round table ringed with empty seats for the rest of them: enforced camaraderie, Steve thought bitterly. Bucky took one look at the table and immediately took the seat furthest away, and Steve sat beside him for support, with Natasha beside him. The others filled in the spaces between.
"I don't mind telling you that I've been working nonstop since our last meeting," Coulson said; he tried addressing himself to Bucky but almost immediately began addressing himself to Steve instead. "It's been decided that SHIELD should have sole jurisdiction over this highly unusual case, unusual cases being kind of our specialty." Coulson flashed a quick smile. "And also, of course, because a number of people who have been central to SHIELD and its history have strong—well, let's call them investments in the outcome. I should also tell you that I had an emergency meeting with the President not two hours ago." Steve saw that Martinelli was biting her lip in anticipation; Bucky's face, on the other hand, revealed nothing.
Coulson reached into a briefcase and pulled out a navy blue envelope embossed with the SHIELD logo. He put it down on the table in front of him, and said, "The President of the United States had empowered me to make you the following—" and Bucky leaned across the table to snatch up the envelope up before Coulson had even finished the sentence. Bucky unwound the red ribbon holding the envelope shut, pulled out the papers, and began to read. Coulson looked taken aback. "I've, uh, been empowered to make certain representations," Coulson began again, and then: "Sergeant Barnes, if you'd—"
"I'm the Winter Soldier," Bucky said, raising his eyes from the papers," and I don't work for anybody."
Martinelli looked like she was about to have a coronary. "I'd like the chance to discuss this offer with my client," she said.
Coulson looked directly at Bucky and said, "This is the new SHIELD, Sergeant Barnes: a duly authorized branch of the U.S. Army's Special Intelligence Operations—"
"Right. You're not like the other boys," Bucky drawled, and threw the papers down. "No," he said. "I don't take orders, not anymore. Not from you, not from the President, not even from Steve." He looked at Steve. "I'm sorry, I can't."
"I understand," Steve said, and then he said, "Director Coulson, can we talk alone for a moment?"
"No," Martinelli said instantly. "Captain, I have to advise you against having any conversation without—" but Coulson was nodding at him, so Steve jerked his head for the others to wait outside. Bucky hesitated, but Natasha got up and took him by the arm and Martinelli and the other lawyers followed. Then it was just him and Phil Coulson.
"You've got to let him go," Steve told Coulson. "You know it and I know it. If you don't, you're coercing his service, and that means the war's still not over for him. It's got to end for him, Phil—it's got to. It's obscene otherwise."
Coulson looked at him with something like desperation in his eyes and threw up his hands. "I know," he said, "but Captain, you're not taking account of the realpolitik of this situation. Do you have any idea what it took to get this deal?"
"Yes," Steve said. "The promise of the world's best soldier working for the United States. Well, I can't get you that," Steve said. "But I can give you the world's second best," and he reached out for the discarded pile of papers.
"What?" Coulson said.
"Take me," Steve said, and picked up a pen. "I'll sign—whatever deal you were offering him, I'll take it." He crossed out JAMES BUCHANAN BARNES at the top of the form and wrote in STEVEN GRANT ROGERS. "It's all right," he said, glancing up at Coulson, who was sitting across from him, obviously taken aback. "This is how it was meant to be. I was the one who wanted to enlist. Bucky was drafted. Seventy years later, this makes things right." Steve licked his middle finger, flipped to the last page, and signed his name. Then he stuffed the papers back into the envelope, and handed it to Coulson.
"You take this to the President. You tell him if he wants me, he can have me. I'll take orders, I'll do anything he says. But Bucky walks." Coulson nodded slowly, frowning. "You know where to find me," Steve said, and left the room.
Outside, Natasha and Bucky were huddled together a little apart from the lawyers and the guards, and they jerked to look at him when he came out. "We're done for today," Steve said, and then he said to the lawyers, "Thanks for all your help."
Bucky wore a familiar expression of half anger, half-terror. "What did you do?" he asked. "Fuckhead, what did you—"
"Nothing," Steve said, shrugging. "I made them a counteroffer. We'll see what they say."
Natasha left them at the door of the cell with a quick smile, one that didn't completely reach her eyes when Steve caught them. "Just sit tight," she said softly, answering the question he didn't ask. "I'll see what you shook loose." Steve let her go.
Back in the cell, Bucky paced the floor. He didn't ask Steve again what he'd done. Finally Steve got up and pulled him down to the bed, into his arms, and held him in silence. He didn't need Natasha to tell him they had their backs to the wall. Bucky had made his position clear now. If someone decided Steve's offer wasn't good enough—if someone decided the Winter Soldier was too dangerous to let go, if someone decided they wanted the Winter Soldier no matter what—
—and then the door was opening and guards were pouring in, and Steve pushed up, braced for a fight, and Bucky came up off the bed ready for one, too, except then some colonel was telling them that they'd been invited to a special meeting, offsite, in D.C., and handing Bucky a clear plastic bag with all his stuff in it—all of it; not just his tactical gear and his gloves and his boots, but his holsters and his knives and his guns.
Bucky looked up sharply at Steve, because if they were ever going to fight, they'd probably never be better armed than now, except maybe this was a set-up, and they were just waiting for Bucky to pick up a gun so they could kill him. They had a quick, intense discussion with their eyes, and then Steve blurted, desperately, "Let it be on them," and Bucky swallowed and nodded. They'd played it straight their whole lives, him and Buck, and if the government fucked them—it was on them.
Steve put on his suit and picked up his shield, and Bucky put on the Winter Soldier's gear, and then they were being marched out, one group of armed soldiers in front of them and one behind them, tensed, guns raised.
"You think this is legit?" Bucky muttered to him as they went down the corridor. "This offsite secret meeting?"
"I don't know," Steve said, and tried to tell himself that there was no way they could just be disappeared, that too many people knew about them—Natasha and Peggy and Tony and Clint and Sam and Martinelli, just for starters—but then again, he imagined that everyone who'd been marched to their own unmarked graves had maintained a similar optimism; it couldn't happen, you thought, even as they were kneeling you down and asking you to put your hands behind your head. Steve tried not to read anything into the fact that they'd chosen a day when Natasha wasn't with them; he tried not to think about the fact that Martinelli hadn't insisted on being present, that Phil Coulson was nowhere to be seen.
The elevator doors opened, and they were shepherded inside, surrounded by guards. They went up and up, and Bucky's hand closed on his arm, and he put his mouth to Steve's ear. "Just give me the word," Bucky murmured, "sir," and Steve's throat closed up painfully, because maybe it would be good for them to die here, together; there were so many worse deaths.
Still, he held his tongue; there would be a better time, a better place. They went out, down a hallway, and into another elevator, and this time when the doors opened, Steve could see light at the end of the corridor. Bucky tensed beside him, but they followed the guards down past the security checkpoint and through the final set of sliding doors until they were finally standing outside, blinking and a little blind. The breeze blew through Bucky's hair, and Steve saw his skin looked sickly pale in the sunlight—and suddenly he did want to fight, he wanted to kill everybody responsible for this.
There were three huge black armored cars at the curb, and they were opening the doors to the second one and waving them in, and this was it: if they were going to make a move, this was the time. Bucky, always attuned to his every thought, put his hand on the butt of his gun—but the guards just stood there, and Steve couldn't make himself act against U.S. servicemen who weren't taking direct action against him. So he got into the van, and Bucky let his hand drop and followed, and then the guards piled in around them, and the engines were starting and they were pulling away and headed for D.C.
They pulled up in front of a large, black glass building near the Hill that Steve had never been in before. As the guards opened the door, Steve saw Natasha striding up to meet them, and blew out a long, relieved breath. "This is for real?"
"Yes." Then Natasha stared up at him and said, in a strange, serious voice, "Steve, don't be mad. Just—hear them out."
"Oh boy," Bucky muttered, and she was escorting them inside. The security here was as tight as in Springfield, but Bucky ignored the guards and strolled across the marble lobby to a wall that read, "THE WALL OF VALOR: In Honor Of The Members Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Who Gave Their Lives In The Service Of Humanity." He was staring at it, and as Steve came up, he saw why: the first name carved on the wall was Dr. Abraham Erskine; the second was Sgt. James "Bucky" Barnes.
"Rogers, come on," Natasha said; they were holding the elevator for them. Steve looked at Bucky and jerked his head.
They went up rather than down this time, and came out into a thickly carpeted hallway. They passed a number of offices as they went, and Steve got the sense of subdued commotion; people were looking up but pretending not to look. Finally, they passed through a giant set of double doors, into a huge L-shaped room with three assistants and then through yet another set of double doors into an enormous office with two sofas and a round mahogany conference table and a desk the size of a small boat, and there, standing by the window, was Phil Coulson, hands jammed in his pockets and looking awkward. Steve frowned at him, and then saw that he wasn't the only one in the room: Peggy was there, too, sitting in her motorized wheelchair, and when he looked up, he saw Nick Fury's face staring back at him from a computer screen hung on the wall.
Behind them, Natasha pulled the double doors closed. "Peggy," Steve said softly, turning to her, "what's all this about?"
She smiled, a little regretfully. "We've sold you out, rather," she said.
"What Agent Carter's trying to say," Nick Fury said, from the wall, "is that the President has accepted your offer," and Steve exhaled and nodded slowly; he'd expected that, even hoped for it.
"What offer?" Bucky said, low and dangerous. "Steve. What—?"
It was Coulson who answered. "Captain Rogers has offered his service to SHIELD in lieu of yours," he said. "But, uh, in a rather unexpected turn of events," he added, coughing, "the President has issued an executive order making you the new head of SHIELD."
"What?" Steve stared as Coulson stepped away from the desk, and gestured toward the chair—which he suddenly understood was meant to be his desk, his chair, as Director of SHIELD. "What? You want me to," and they were all looking at him—hell, they wanted him not just to execute the orders, but to give them; not just to run the ops, but to design them. He looked, pleadingly, at Peggy—I can't, he thought; I can't be implicated in this. But the words didn't come.
"I know," Peggy said, and her eyes were full of sympathy; she loved him, but she'd made that terrible compromise herself: had stepped up to lead and gotten her hands dirty. "But you're the man for it, Steve. You ought to do it." You've got to do it, she didn't say, but he saw it on her face anyway. You've got to: for James, if for no other reason.
"Hell, we named it for you," Fury said, as a million conflicted thoughts raced through Steve's mind: the things he could do, and the things he might have to do as director of SHIELD. He'd seen too much to be naïve about it. He looked up at Bucky and saw a cloud of worry pass over his face; Bucky knew what was involved. Bucky knew, better than anyone.
"We've made our share of mistakes, Captain," Fury said, "and we have done things we regret, but there have been long stretches of time where we were not openly at war and where what killing we had to do was kept to a minimum—"
"Steve," and that was Natasha, quiet, at his elbow. "Just think. You can call the shots. You can call them on everything."
"—which may not sound like much of a victory, but it sure as hell was, and I'd like to say it was because of SHIELD but it wasn't. It was because SHIELD was operating under the direction of Peggy Carter. It matters, who's in charge."
"It's not a job for a romantic," Peggy said softly. "But we're in need of an idealist."
"Can I have a word with him please?" Bucky said, and everyone went quiet. Peggy looked at Steve pleadingly, and Natasha's eyes burned with warning, but Steve just looked at Bucky and nodded. Bucky jerked his chin toward a side door and Steve followed him into the director's small personal study and pulled the heavy door closed behind them.
"It can't be you." Bucky's mouth was tight with rage. "Not you. Let them find someone else, anyone—"
"Bucky—" Steve began.
"This is the dirty work, Steve; this is the dirtiest work there is!"
"Yeah," Steve said. "But dirty work's going to happen, because sometimes it's got to. And someone's going to decide when and where. And that someone's going to be me." He hadn't realized that he'd decided until he heard the words coming out of his mouth. "It's going to be me, Buck, and I swear to God, if you want it you're done, you're out, you don't have to do anything you don't want to do ever, ever again—"
Bucky's face was crumpling, and Steve moved in to hug him, and to hold him up. "Bucky. Bucky. Let me help you for once. This is our way out; let's take it." He kissed him gently, just above his left eyebrow, and murmured, "Besides, come on: this is a good gig. Nice offices, sense of purpose...Connoisseur killing," and suddenly Bucky was laughing and blinking and scrubbing away the wetness at his eyes.
"But," Bucky asked finally, swiping his wrist across his red-rimmed eyes. "What am I gonna do?"
"I don't know," Steve said. "What—what do you want to do?" and he could see the waves of confusion and fear moving across Bucky's face as he thought about it, and then unexpectedly, the first bright glimmer of hope.