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The Murder Ballads

Chapter Text

The first Hydra base that Steve and Sam hit with Natasha's new intel had been completely gutted. Whatever it contained had been blown to cinders, and on the back of its inner door, askew and dangling off its bottom hinge, was written a message in crimson: “STEVIE. NO.”

Steve was positively vibrating with hope and excitement. “That's what he used to say when we were kids and I started a fight I couldn't finish--”

“--which, if I understand correctly, was pretty much all of them,” Sam replied.

Steve Rogers, Captain America, kicked at some soot on the floor of the base, trying to hide his blush. “Well... I started fights. Bucky ended them. He'd shove in, move me aside, say 'Stevie, no', and then hand whoever it was their ass.”

Sam walked back outside and breathed in the cold night air. He was torn. On the one hand, Steve had come so alive, searching for Bucky. From being a figurehead, who smiled and shook hands and punched bad guys and did all the right things then went back to an apartment as bland as a hotel room where he'd listen to the same old records over and over, to this... this grinning, blushing idiot looking at the remains of the Winter Soldier's violent mayhem like it was Christmas at the Ritz.

On the other hand, the longer they kept up this wild goose chase, the more Sam became convinced Bucky Barnes was a person that they'd be better off – hell, the world would be better off – if they never, ever found. “He ever lose a fight?” Sam called back over his shoulder.

“Not really. No, he did, once. Big Italian guy named Gino. He did a little underground boxing before he got drafted. I swear he threw it, though. That guy was big, but he was slow.”

“You want to get back to the jet, head to the next base? Nothing here but wreckage, Cap.”

Steve loped out and corrected Sam in his best Captain America Has Something Important To Tell You voice, complete with the full earnestness of his blue-eyed gaze.

“Sam, he left me a message. That message proves he remembers.”

Sam sighed. “Cap... It was written in blood. I'm guessing it wasn't his blood.”

The second Hydra base was in Siberia, in the forests near Lake Baikal. And still standing. Steve huffed out a quiet “thank God”, as they came over the ridgeline and saw it, a squat ugly concrete thing embedded into a rocky hillside. No visible enemy, but given the number of Hydra facilities the Winter Soldier had already hit (lots) and the number of survivors (zero), desertion rates had to be pretty high among the lower-echelon staff tasked with guarding remote bases.

By the time Sam processed all this, Steve was already sprinting down the hillside towards the base, in a prime example of Steve Rogers Bad Habit #1: Pace And Attitude Is Totally The Same Thing As A Plan. Sam was readying his Falcon wings and muttering under his breath about asshole supersoldiers with oatmeal for brains and cement for bones, when a bullet puffed into the snow barely six inches in front of Steve's foot, causing Captain America to dodge sideways, slip on the fresh powder, and fall on his star-spangled ass.

Steve got his shield up and turned back to yell, “Sam! Down!” just as the entire base sheeted outwards with orange flame in what, Sam later had to admit, was one of the more impressive explosions he'd ever seen. By the time they'd dusted themselves off from the debris and snow, and gotten their hearing back, the Winter Soldier was long gone. It still didn't stop Steve from combing the entire area for tracks, or a note, or anything, for hours, until Sam, shivering and blue in the sub-zero weather, demanded they go home.

. . .

They didn't make it to the third base.

Tony Stark called them back to Avengers Tower on a matter of highest priority. Somewhere over China, Sam punched in new co-ordinates to the jet's autopilot, and thought about the nice hot shower he was going to have in about eight hours. As he went to get some shuteye, he pressed his hand on Steve's shoulder. Steve was muttering, “Can't believe he's pulled Avengers Assemble on me. This is a priority. The Winter Soldier is a priority.”

“And meanwhile your buddy does our work for us, taking down Hydra.” Sam offered. “Let's go see what's got Iron Man's panties in a twist. He pays the bills.”

And lo, judging by the face Tony was wearing when he met Steve and Sam on the rooftop jet-pad, the iron panties were indeed in an almighty bunch. This was the most still and focused Sam had ever seen Tony, who was usually bouncing from idea to sarcastic retort to ridiculous plan like an over-sugared child. Natasha was just behind him, half in shadow, wearing her usual expression of detached amusement. Banner leaned in the doorway, watching Steve thoughtfully as he got out of the jet.

“What's up?” Steve asked, looking from assembled expressions of fury, wry amusement and... pity? Was that pity on Banner's face?, and trying to work out the common thread.

“Go to the conference room, I'll explain there,” Tony responded.

“Oh, um... well, after you,” Steve said, deferring to Tony's ownership of the building and Avengers leadership.

“No,” Tony said, the edge in his voice deepening to a downright surliness, “after you, Steve.”

Sam rolled his eyes as Steve, turning to look at each of his friends, launched into Steve Rogers Bad Habit #2: I Will Disobey Any Direct Order. “What's going on? Tell me. Bruce?” (Bruce was suddenly very interested in his fingernails.) “Tony? Is it--”

And before Steve could say the thing on his mind, the thing that was always on his mind lately, Natasha bumped his shoulder with hers affectionately and said with a dry smirk, “Just go to the conference room, Steve.”

Steve went to the conference room, the rest of the Avengers trailing behind. The conference room was the conference room, boring, bright and white with bulletproof, ceiling-to-floor windows looking over Madison Avenue, papers on a big fancy meeting table--

--oh.

Steve walked over to the table and put his hand on the large crimson letters that stretched across it, letters in a scrawled, all-caps handwriting that was achingly familiar to him. Letters that spelled out, “STOP CHASING ME”.

He sniffed his fingers, then smiled at Sam.

“Sam, it's paint. It's just paint.”

Sam did something akin to wilting, then turned around and pressed his forehead against the wall.

“Paint? As opposed to..?” Banner whispered.

“I'll tell you later,” Sam moaned back.

Then Steve saw what sat on the pile of papers in the centre of the table. His heart felt like it suddenly weighed a hundred pounds. He half-sat, half-fell into the nearest chair and reached out, willing his hand not to shake. Two little pieces of aluminium, a metal cord... BARNES JAMES B, CATHOLIC, a record of a life... underneath, a three-inch pile of photocopied papers, in Russian, in German, the most recent in English... large parts of them blacked out. A record of another life. Hydra files. The complete Winter Soldier operational files, or near as dammit. He couldn't read most of them, but could grab a word here and there.

Steve pushed down an almost unbearable desire to press Bucky's dog tags to his lips. He looked up at Tony, eyes shining with emotion. “He came here,” Steve whispered.

Tony's furious stillness finally broke into storm. “Cap! Cap, yes, he came here. Your Hydra murderbot ex-best friend came here. Into Avengers Tower. Into my home, where I sleep, and where my girlfriend sleeps. The man who, I might remind you, killed my parents. I have feelings about this and none of them are remotely in the realm of okay.”

“He left us a whole lot of classified information, Tony,” Steve said, indicating the papers.

“He destroyed a $60,000 table!” Tony squawked, waving stiff-armed at the mahogany monstrosity now bearing original, one of a kind Winter Soldier graffiti.

Steve tried to look suitably upset on Tony's behalf and failed. It really was an ugly table. Big whale of a thing. And $60,000? For a table? Really? He glanced over at Sam for help. Maybe Sam could bring up how this was the least property damage they'd seen from Bucky, well, anywhere since (and including) DC. But Sam was busy pressing his forehead against a wall.

Tony looked around. “Is anyone else not cool with the Winter Soldier just wandering in here? Because I am not over-reacting here.” Tony pointed at Steve. “I'm not asking you. I'm not talking to you any more. You're insane.”

Natasha sidled into the chair next to Steve's and reached, in a way which was a little too casual, too disinterested, towards the big juicy pile of classified papers. She arched an eyebrow at Tony. “Don't be mad, Tony. Think of it as a security audit. Now you can have fun thinking up improvements.”

“Wait. Wait wait wait,” said Tony, striding towards Steve. “You didn't lose your mind and give him a pass to the tower?”

Steve smiled and held up his Avengers ID card.

“So he broke in, and somehow got around Jarvis.” said Bruce. “No, I'm not good with that either.”

Tony blanched, turned on his heel, and strode out. “If anyone wants me I'm going to be in my lab with a case of Jack Daniels and a prototype plasma cannon.”

Sam slipped after Tony. “Need any help with the Jack?”

Steve could hear their voices fading as they reached the elevator, Tony telling Sam thank god someone sane was making sure Rogers didn't go off the deep end.

“I want to talk to you about all of this, Steve,” said Bruce. “Steve?”

But Steve was looking over Natasha's shoulder, at records in languages he didn't speak. Natasha flicked through them with a practiced, bored air, which didn't fool Steve one bit. He raised his eyebrows.

“Give me a moment,” she said.

She flicked through the files, back and forth, reading a bit here, a bit there. Minutes passed. Her lips pressed together, and her eyes slid away from Steve's imploring gaze. “Natasha?” he prompted.

Natasha stood and tucked the papers under her arm. “I... I can't summarize these. I'll have to translate them. I'll do it as fast as I can.”

Steve reached out to her. “Leave me the English ones--”

Natasha smoothly edged away. “No. You need to read this as a complete package, Steve. It's, um... it's a problem.”

“What kind of problem?” he called out to her retreating back.

Natasha waved her hand in the air as she walked away. “You know. About six feet tall, 250lbs, metal arm, not the person you think he is.”

Steve sighed. Banner was still there, and still looking at him with that damn expression like he pitied Steve.

Steve put his head in his hands. They felt cool on his cheeks. The lights were too bright in here. He mumbled at Bruce, “Please don't say anything to me.”

Bruce, well versed in the psychic landscape of anger and despair, raised his hands in silent acquiescence and made to leave.

“I'm not crazy, Bruce.” Steve mumbled. “I'm not.”

Chapter Text

After a couple days of Natasha dodging his calls and everyone else giving him disapproving looks, Steve badly needed something to punch. Thankfully, salvation arrived in the form of an infestation of giant subterranean lizard-men exploding up through the Los Angeles sewer system.

Steve loved this part of his job. It was simple. There were good guys, there were bad guys, and there was punching. The other stuff, the Natasha stuff, the SHIELD stuff, all the multitudinous shades of grey... he hated how they took things he knew should be simple, should be black and white, and made them confusing, disorienting. But today? Lizards. Lizards and getting out all the goddamn frustration of six months of looking for an old best friend who didn't want to be found, of new friends who suddenly didn't trust his judgement any more.

Steve ran down Sunset and grabbed a lizard by the tail, throwing him into the big pink wall of Guitar Centre, and tossing his shield to knock another couple down before Barton had to deal with them. Barton flipped him off from his perch on top of Guitar Centre, the closest Clint got to saying thanks. He'd been away on the West Coast during the whole Avengers Tower graffiti incident. He was the one Avenger that Steve wished had been there, other than Natasha, because Barton probably would have--

“Cap. Cap Cap Cap Cap. Problem,” staccatoed Tony in his ear. “We have to wrap this up now.”

“What's wrong,” Steve replied.

“Yeah um so this is a diversion.”

“New York?” Steve asked, sucking in breath and thinking, say no. Say no.

“Ding ding ding!” Tony chirped, too loud.

“Who,” Steve said, his voice turning icy.

“Well, if you guessed Dr Doom, in the Morgan Library, with a candlestick, you'd be wrong. Because what kind of crappy weapon is a candlestick? Wait, hang on--”

“What's he doing in the library?”

“Rare manuscript room, up on the top floor. But shut up for a sec, Steve.”

Steve ducked a lizard-man and swept its knees out from under it, konking it out of consciousness with his shield. “Tony! How many doombots? Avengers Tower is right next door--”

“Steve duh I know shut up just shut up for one moment--” punctuated by repulsor blasts from Tony's Iron Man suit, knocking down more lizard-people.

Tony landed. The lizard-men were definitely backing off, heading down into the sewers from whence thy came. “You going to tell me what's going on?” Steve asked, as mildly as he could.

Tony opened his visor and blinked at him. His annoyance was palpable. “Apparently the Doom situation isn't a situation any more.”

“He's gone?” Clint piped in. “Did he get whatever it was he was after?”

“Yes, and I don't think so,” said Tony, weary.

“What happened, Tony?” Steve asked, in the special tone of voice he reserves for Steve Rogers Bad Habit #3: I Am Going To Keep Repeating Myself Until You Give Up And Just Do What I Want.

A lizard-man made a feint forwards and Stark gave him his most bitch-please-make-my-day look. The lizard turned tail and ran.

“See?” said Tony, quietly and helplessly. “Lizard-people who don't understand English comprehend when not to try me with stupid questions. The Avengers, however, my theoretical closest friends and compatriots....”

“Tony,” Steve said.

Tony mumbled something that involved the words “Doom” and “kick”, but that was all Steve could catch.

“Tony.”

Tony threw up his arms. “Oh god fine whatever FINE your psychopathic friend showed up out of nowhere and drop-kicked Dr Doom off the roof of the library also apparently destroyed a lot of doombots.”

Steve felt a flush like the sudden onset of heatstroke. He hadn't gotten heatstroke since 1939.

“Property damage?” Natasha asked, strolling up from La Brea with two smoking uzis.

“Not.... much,” Tony squeaked out. Then Tony pointed at Steve: “We are NOT going to discuss how this means he's actually a nice guy for the entire plane ride back. NO. Also, stop grinning.”

Natasha uncoiled herself into a seat next to Steve on the flight home to New York, and handed him a folder. The folder. The translated files. “Steve, you still need to look at these. Please read them.”

“But--”

Natasha put her small, strong hand on his upper arm. “Steve. Two weeks ago there was a hit on the head of the Albanian mob. It was an impossible shot. Only one person could have made that shot.” She sighed. “I wish I had better news. Bucky's not a good guy. And if you read the files, he never was.”

Steve's blue eyes widened with indignation. “Natasha, he was brainwashed--”

Natasha's mouth quirked, almost flinched. “They didn't start wiping him until Pierce. Until he started going off reservation... until it hit the papers that you had come back.”

Steve felt his chest swelling--

“Before that, Steve, he had been a totally complicit, willing participant in the program--”

“--bullshit!” Steve hissed.

Natasha waved her hand in dismissal. “It's all in the files. The Winter Soldier, Hydra's happy little hooligan. He made suggestions about more effective ways to do missions; about how to upgrade his arm.” She turned her hazel eyes back on him. “Steve, some of it is insane. He was suggesting Zola do things to him that... cutting him open and reinforcing his bones with vibranium... upping dosages of experimental serums and drugs... Steve, not only was he willing, he was, and probably still is, completely crazy.”

“No,” Steve said. “No. It's not true.”

“Think about it, Steve. It makes sense. Hydra had thousands of fanatical soldiers. All of them would have happily gotten shot up with Zola's off-brand super serum, even if it did have a 95% chance of killing them. Zola kept records. He knew what he had done with Bucky. Why not simply reproduce it in a loyal soldier, rather than continually fighting to make it work with a captured enemy? Unless--”

“No,” Steve whispered.

“Read the files. He's not innocent. I'm sorry.” Natasha curled herself up facing away from Steve and shut her eyes; conversation over.

Steve read the files.

He had thought he was done feeling hollowed out, feeling nothing but a pit of misery where his sense of self used to be. But the Winter Soldier operational files, each one cut a little bit more, and there were thousands of them. Someone, presumably Bucky, had blacked out anything related to technical specifications (such as schematics for his left arm) or chemical formulae, but everything else had been left in.

And it wasn't the dry, cumulative weight of reams of proof that caused Steve to feel like he couldn't breathe, like he was that kid with asthma all over again... it was the sharp flashes in that dryness of Bucky, that were so clearly Bucky they couldn't have been made up: a handwritten comment about an off-colour remark the Winter Soldier had made. A note to always have cigarettes around when he gets out of cryo, because he's cranky when he wakes up. The time a junior armourer tried to give him a Walther PPK because that's what James Bond had and he laughed at it and called it a “fucking hairdresser's gun”. A transcription of a mission report from Cuba that turned into a running commentary on the decline of decent blues bars under Castro. His brilliant, quicksilver, smiling friend, so utterly himself, so unmistakeably there: the Winter Soldier.

When they landed in New York, Tony cornered him on the landing pad. His rehearsed apology – I'm sorry, I've never wanted to be wrong more in my entire life – went completely out the window when he saw just how close Steve was to crying. So instead he shifted from foot to foot and looked down at his Adidas sneakers, the red laces all coming undone. He tried to step on them, untie them all the way.

“I, uh, still have most of that case of Jack in my lab,” Tony finally said.

“Doesn't do anything for me. I can't get drunk,” Steve said quietly. “Although God only knows I would like nothing more than to get absolutely paralytic tonight.”

Tony's eyes shone as he reflexively took Steve's arm. “I am a scientist. This is a challenge. Come with me, and we will design custom intoxicants.” Steve followed, docile as a lamb. Docile as someone who had lost all their will to fight, Tony thought.

Steve didn't say anything until they were out of the elevator and walking down the hall to the lab. Then, quietly, it all started tumbling out of him: “B-Bucky was the reason I could be Captain America, in the war, the way everyone thinks of me. He left me free to be the symbol... the one with clean hands. I was the shield...” Steve switched to a whisper: “a-and Bucky was the sword. But, Tony--”

(Tony who was busy crunching himself up and trying not to exist in three-dimensional space because of all this talk of feelings, feelings that men were having about each other, god make it stop)

“--Wars end. I thought it would end. Then Bucky and I would go home and it'd go back to being like it always was--”

“What, me enforcin' for the Irish mob and doing bare-knuckle boxing on the side while you shake hands with Senators? Because that would have worked,” said a rough, sarcastic voice from the lab.

Steve's face tried to hold too many conflicting emotions at once, failed, and settled on something between shock and joy. “Bucky!” he called, throwing his shoulder into the lab doors when they didn't open fast enough.

Chapter Text

“Hey,” said the Winter Soldier, sprawled in Tony Stark's chair with his boots up on Tony's desk and a bottle of Tony's whisky in his right hand. His hair was still somewhat long on the top, longer than it used to be, but the sides and back had been shaved down. He looked like a crusader knight, Steve thought, or a samurai. His left arm – now a matte black – was smashed up, splintered, just hanging. (Steve remembered a note from the files, Asset complains about being a fucking sniper with a fucking shiny arm, Asset will be provided with matte black spray paint before missions or Asset will break everyone's neck in the whole damn op room.) He had a black eye, and a deep but healing cut on his cheekbone. The knuckles of his right hand were scabbed up, and what looked like the remnant of a gunshot wound was bandaged on his right bicep.

Tony began to raise a hand, and the Winter Soldier just waggled the bottle of Jack. “Uh-uh. Do anything I interpret as aggressive and I'll blow every server room in this building. Including the secret one in the sub-basement.”

“Dammit,” Tony whispered, lowering his arm. Then, bolder: “To what do we owe the pleasure of your continued criminal presence?”

The Winter Soldier indicated his shattered left arm. “Fucked my arm up doing your job. Got a spare, but it takes forever to change over by myself. Wanted an extra pair of hands and figured you owed me.” He smirked at Tony. “Plus, I'll let you ask me one question, and I might even tell you the truth.”

Tony looked uncomfortable for a moment, his distrust of the Winter Soldier battling with his desire to get his hands on the crème of Hydra's robotics work. Science won. “Okay fine. I vote for we get to play with the robot arm. Steve? Robot arm? Yes? Okay, we're all agreed. Um, and don't take this the wrong way, but you seem like a guy who's really, really paranoid, and I'm not sure even I'd trust me to look at top secret bits of metal attached to my body.”

A wide grin flashed across Bucky's face. “Try anything, and I'll arrange a Stark family reunion in Hell.”

“That joke isn't as funny as you think it is,” says Tony.

Bucky shrugged. “Okay. Hey, speaking of fun, why don't you go play a game of Find the C4 and give me a minute with Stevie.”

“Are you kicking me out of my own lab?” Tony asked, slightly incredulous.

“Nah. This is asking nicely. In five seconds, when I stand up, then there will be kicking out.”

“I feel a pressing need to go look for explosives,” said Tony. “Don't touch anything, please. Many delicate experiments, most of which you wouldn't understand.”

Bucky's amused glance at Tony's retreating figure suggested he understood a lot more than people gave him credit for.

Steve couldn't take his eyes off Bucky. He looked... he looked great. Steve had been so worried he'd struggle, away from Hydra, without masters... possibly without memories. His eyes kept going to the cut on Bucky's cheek, already pink at the edges with healing... and he was seized with the desire to brush his lips across the wound. Kiss it better. Steve shivered a bit, shocked at himself, at the sudden and wildly inappropriate thoughts. He moved his eyes to the twisted metal of the shattered arm. That was safer territory.

“How are you feeling?” he asked, stepping closer, and suddenly the bottle of Jack in Bucky's hand had been replaced with a pistol.

“Stevie,” Bucky said. “You read the files?”

Steve nodded.

“You gotta get this into your thick head. I'm not broken.

“Bucky--”

“Steve, this is who I am. This is who I always was. You gotta realize: I lied to you for years in Brooklyn. Fuckin' years.”

“Hydra's messed with your head, you never worked for the mob--”

Bucky sighed. “Stevie, remember when the war was good to us back home? When I got a second shift workin' nights down at the Navy Yards loading munitions?”

Steve nodded. It had meant a better apartment, closer to the docks. Always getting his medicines. More food. Warmer clothes. A secondhand easel for Christmas. It wasn't Easy Street but it wasn't constant gnawing hunger and cold any more, either.

“Yeah, well, that was a lie. I was working for Seamus and Big Eoghan. Started with the boxing. Made up the story about the Navy Yards 'cuz I was worried you'd smell the gunpowder on me when I got home, but I shouldn't have bothered.” Bucky smiled a rueful, sad smile. “You didn't know what gunpowder smelled like, then.”

Steve felt like everything he once knew about his life, everything he thought was bedrock, was sand, slipping rapidly out from under his feet. “Dammit, Bucky, I could have gotten a job--”

“Nah, you couldn't have. You could barely walk that winter.” Bucky rested the pistol on the table and ran his hand through his hair. “You never knew anything about money, Steve. Or about human nature. It's my own damn fault. I kept you insulated from all that. The hell you think we would only go to dancehalls half a city away?”

“...Your stupid fixation on blues and bebop?”

“Nah. Any local place, and I'd have Seamus' boys coming up, oh there yez are, Barnes, do us a favor and nip out and take care of this, go see about that, here's a piece, throw it in the river when you're done.”

“You threw the fight with Gino.”

“I threw the fight with Gino. Seamus' orders. I killed Gino a week later,” Bucky said, looking up calmly through his dark lashes to gauge the effect on Steve.

Steve had gone the colour of pale that people usually go just before they pass out.

“He'd gone around town bragging that he could take me, any time. And sayin' that I was a pansy. Now, the people that I was running with, you can't just let an accusation like that go. Or the things Gino was sayin' about you. So I broke a bottle of whiskey over his head and kicked him into oncoming traffic one night after closing time. Coroner assumed he'd just gotten drunk and tried to cross the street without looking.”

Bucky got quieter. “That's the real reason I joined up. I wasn't drafted. That was another lie. The Italians put a hit on me for Gino, and there was only one way a hit on me was ever going down.” Another look up through those long lashes, the blue eyes that had been Steve's world for all the years that mattered to him: “They were gonna come get me through you. You always were my blind spot.”

Steve leaned against a pillar. It was all he could do to stay upright. “W-was Gino the first person you killed?” he asked.

“Aw, Stevie,” Bucky said, and shook his head no.

He idly spun the pistol on Tony's desk. “The recruit James Barnes, gifted natural shot. Hadn't been practicing on half o' Little Italy for years, not at all.”

Steve turned his face in towards the pillar and realised his cheeks were wet with tears. He wished for the cold again. He wished he could will himself back into the ice, into the arctic water, and never wake up again. There was nothing in this world worth waking up for. Nothing at all.

And then: the smell of cigarettes and gunpowder, whisky and hair oil. The spicy, leathery cologne he wore on dates. Close by. Steve hadn't even heard him get up. A strong arm around his shoulders, turning him, pulling him close. The warmth of him. Bucky had always been so fucking warm, so full of life, like he had enough in him that there was extra for Steve too. Steve always felt like he was getting away with something, bunking with his best friend, getting to soak up all that extra heat into his frail body.

“Ssh, Stevie, it's gonna be okay,” said Bucky. “Don't cry.” He wiped Steve's cheeks with his good hand, surprisingly gentle and soft for its strength. “I'm still your friend. I'm here. I'll always be here for you, if you want me to be. I just... I'm not some poor innocent lamb that Hydra mangled.”

Steve moved his arms ineffectually, not knowing where to put them. He managed to choke out one word, as he pressed his face into Bucky's neck: “Why?”

Bucky stroked his hair, and spoke quietly, his lips so close to Steve's ear. “After you crashed... after they told me about that, I just thought, fuck it, what do I have to live for any more? So I decided to commit suicide in the most flamboyant way possible. Tried to get Zola to kill me on the table. That almost worked. Tried to get taken out on missions. That didn't work. Turns out the one thing I'm really bad at doing, is giving up.”

Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky and held him so hard. “I knew you were okay,” he said. “I knew there was a reason.” God, the feeling of Bucky against him, even this new shape of him, broader and fitter than Steve ever remembered, it was undoing the lonely damage of years, filling him with the feeling of things as they were meant to be--

--until Bucky pushed him away, anger flaring in his face. “You're not listening, Stevie,” he growled. “You never listen to a goddamn word I say. You only hear what you want to hear.”

(This is, in fact, Steve Rogers Bad Habit #4: Not Listening To A Goddamn Word James Barnes Says, Even When He Is Right, Which Is Most Of The Time.)

Bucky put his good hand on Steve's cheek. “Stevie. Look at me. Look me in the eyes.”

(Yes, happily. Forever. I've missed those eyes.)

“I still completed every one of those missions. Every. One. I only started screwing up when Pierce got to wiping me. I'm a killer, a thief and a liar, and I've been that way my whole goddamn life. All Hydra did to me was make me harder to kill.”

(And there's another thing, Barnes. Tell him the other thing. The thing you don't even like admitting to yourself. C'mon, dare ya.)

(No shut up don't do it stop breaking all the good things you don't have to break everything you touch--)

(But you always do.)

Steve tried to say something but Bucky put his finger on Steve's lips. “Ssh. Listen. I need you to take me as I am, not as distorted through your Steve Rogers rose-tinted spectacles about how I'm some poor victim. The only people in this mess who get to call themselves victims are all in Hell, and I sent 'em there. Okay?” He said, pressing his forehead against Steve's.

Steve nodded. This was the worst/best day of his life.

“Are you two going to kiss?” said Tony, from the doorway. “Because if not, I'd really like to get back into my lab.”

“I'm going,” Steve said. Going home to a shitty, empty apartment that Bucky would hate because it had no colour in it, to lie in a bed by himself.

(Having been close enough to you I can feel the exact shape of your absence, the space where you should be, but are not, and may never be again.)

As he brushed past Tony, he paused. “Wait. Bucky. How do I get in touch with you?”

Bucky smiled over his shoulder as he hefted the duffel bag with the spare arm in it onto Tony's workbench. “Just have Tony run up an Irish flag underneath the stars and stripes on the helipad flagpole. I'll see it.”

Chapter Text

“You got all the C4 that fast?” the Winter Soldier asked, starting to strip down the plates on his shoulder of his broken arm.

“Natasha's on it. Delegation, the key to successful management, you should try it some time,” said Tony. “Also: what do I call you?”

“James. Buck. Soldier. The Asset. Take your pick. It's all me.” Ping, the first plate into the trash. Klunk, the second one.

“Ugh, I can't call you Soldier. And the Asset sounds like a porn name. It just makes me think of porn.”

That Grin cut across the Winter Soldier's face, and was shortly followed by just about the filthiest laugh Tony had ever heard. “But Mister Stark, I'm just a poor Brooklyn choirboy...” Another plate hit the trash can. “Who's also starving. Gonna order Thai food. Want any?”

“Yeah, hook me up with some spring rolls and those crab things. Where you want me to start on the new arm?” Tony asked, starting to like this guy despite himself.

“That's an old Hydra spare, so you need to strip the silver plates and replace 'em with the black vibranium ones I brought, lose the fucking star, and there are a couple trackers in there that need to come out. They put 'em in the same place every time, because they think I'm a fucking idiot. Then, uh, swap the power supply--”

--KLUNK, as the Soldier's old arm below the shoulder mostly dropped off him, leaving a mess of wires and connections. And a fucking mini arc reactor. Tony stared.

James smirked. “I backwards-engineered it from one on a suit you trashed when you were fighting the Mandarin. Good old black arms market. Oh, and...” He turned and pointed out Tony's other lab projects, one by one: “Plasma cannon, some sort of EMP insulator?, holographic stealth coating for your suit, and, uh, the engine block of a Shelby GTO. Maybe a '68?”

Tony really liked this guy.

“Lemme just make sure you're not going to blow yourself up, kid,” Tony said, reaching for the arc reactor without thinking “My first time with one of these, I nearly--” There was suddenly a lean black fighting knife between him and the arc reactor, and all of the casual good-naturedness of a moment ago had frozen away.

The knife lowered. “Sorry. Old habits die hard.” The Winter Soldier used the knife like a screwdriver to detach a few wires, then handed the arc reactor to Tony.

“I suppose getting a look at the actual neural pathway connections--”

“--not on a first date, Tony. The cybernetics, the uh, the interface is a bit personal.

Tony shrugged and turned the bootleg arc reactor over in his hands. It was smaller than he was used to seeing, but the arm didn't need as much power as his suits. It wasn't a bad job. A little messy, but safe. “What was Hydra using?” Tony asked.

James motioned towards the spare arm with the knife. “Look under the star.”

Tony quickly figured out the opening mechanism, and drew out the small, glowing blue capsule that lay underneath. His face lit up like a kid at Christmas. “Is this--?”

“Yeah. One of the last batteries made from the Cosmic Cube. They're great, but I don't understand them, and it freaks me out to have things I don't understand welded to my body. Also a general aversion to anything related to the Red Skull.”

James unconsciously flipped the knife around in his hand as he talked. A nervous habit, Tony guessed. If nothing else, it was making him nervous just watching it.

“Hey, you have any music?”

“Um, yeah. Jarvis?”

A mellifluous voice filled the room. “Mr Stark's music library has nearly everything, Mr Barnes. Oh, and your takeout has arrived.”

Tony stood up and pocketed the Cosmic battery. “I'll get it. What do you want to listen to?”

Apparently psychopathic Hydra assassins could also do bashful, Tony noted absently, as James blushed and asked, “Um. Li'l Kim? You got Naked Truth?”

James registered Tony's bemused expression. “What did you think I was going to ask for?”

“Shostakovitch. Glenn Miller. Fucked if I know. Not Li'l Kim.”

“Only saps like Glenn Miller.”

“Steve likes Glenn Miller.”

James finally put the knife down and picked up an actual screwdriver, getting to work on the new arm's plates. He looked down and said quietly, “Steve isn't coping very well with the 21st century, is he?”

“He has good days and bad days.” Tony scuffed his feet. “But in general? No.”

“I thought you went home,” Tony said to Steve's back, as Steve slumped in one of the white leather armchairs across from the lab floor's elevator. Chairs that Pepper's interior designer had put there, and that nobody, to Tony's knowledge, had ever used for any purpose.

“Just wanna sit here for a while,” Steve mumbled.

“The lab has chairs. Your friend is in the lab. I am also in the lab, and we are friendly,” Tony explained.

“Want to be alone.”

The elevator swooshed open at that point, revealing one of the assistant doormen and a giant pile of delivery-food bags. Christ, how much food did this guy order?

Tony looked at the bags, read the writing on the front of one of them, and then handed it to Steve. “This is apparently for you,” Tony said.

“Whazzit?” Steve asked, with no evident interest.

“Thai food. Tasty food. Eating is good, Steve.”

“Nnf. Hate spicy food.”

Because of course you do, Steve Fucking Rogers, Tony thought. He looked in the bag, and sniffed. “It's Pad Thai. Noodles. Not spicy at all.”

Tony was only partially sorry for the next thing he said, and the reaction he knew it would provoke. “James ordered it for you. Apparently he's a very considerate paranoid android, and is worried about you not eating.”

Steve took the bag. His eyes looked at Tony, full of questions.

Tony sat down in the other chair. “Okay. He's not what I thought he would be. At all. I'm generally freaked out that the Angel of Death is so, well... so alive. Also, really smart. I mean, he's not as smart as me, but I took him for someone like Barton. Good at shooting things and dreadful at conversation. Especially given the history books say he never finished high school.”

“I was always the one with the book learning,” Steve said, staring out into nothingness past Tony's left ear. “Buck, anything physical or mechanical, that was his department. He could look at things – a dance, someone stripping an engine – all he needed was to see it done once, and then he could figure it out. I envied that, especially the dancing part.”

“I'm now picturing him sitting in Hydra labs for years, playing the dumb weapon, while people talked over his head like he wasn't there, and him just watching and soaking it all in,” said Tony, rooting around in a bag for a spring roll.

“Yeah. He probably did. He always took a perverse delight in people underestimating him.”

“How'd you two really get to be friends?” asked Tony around a mouthful of spring roll. “Because, and don't take this the wrong way, but you two are about as opposite as people can be.”

Steve pulled out a container of Pad Thai and poked at it with a fork. “We were the only two Irish families on an Italian street. My mom worked all the time and my dad had died in the Great War, so Bucky's family sort of adopted me. Bucky's pretty basic, under it all. You're his people or you're not his people, and if you're his, you're his until the end of time, no take-backs, no quitting. Saint James, patron saint of asthmatics and terrible plans.”

“His plans are worse than your plans? That's not possible. Because your plans aren't actually plans, Rogers. Running straight at things is not a plan.” Tony got up. “And speaking of tall, dark and stabby, I should bring him his takeaway before he gets weird and possibly violent about it. Go home, Steve. He's not going to vanish.”

“Penny for your thoughts?” Tony asked, walking back into the lab. The Assassin Club soundtrack had moved on to Illmatic, Tony noted.

The Soldier looked up from the workbench. “Five potential exits. Twelve ways to kill you within the next sixty seconds. Matrix on most efficient kill and fastest exit has me out on the street in less than three minutes.” He blinked at Tony's slightly strangulated expression. “You asked.”

“Christ,” said Tony, putting down the bags of takeout on the workbench. “You always this murderous, or only when you haven't had your carbohydrates?”

The Soldier scooped out a box of green chicken curry. “Murder's pretty much my default setting, Tony.”

Chapter Text

Bucky did vanish, of course.

Steve spent a miserable week loping around New York like he was haunting it, until he finally agreed to Pepper scheduling him for publicity appearances, just to have something to fill his days. He was out opening a new VA hospital, the first time it happened.

(Don't feel. Smile. Shake hands. Be the symbol. Don't think. Ask about them, people love you if you ask about them, get them talking about themselves. Where did you serve? How many tours? Don't feel. Stop all feelings.)

He came home to a giant black and white painting (how had it even fit through the door?) hanging behind his sofa, in his living room. A note taped next to it, in cramped, hurried all-caps, said “Steve your apartment looks like a tomb, and I know from tombs”.

In his bedroom was a different painting, also large, hung opposite a window so it would be the first thing he saw in the morning, two fuzzy orange squares on a bed of yellow. There was another note: “Seriously my cryo tank had better decorations”.

Steve sat on his bed and stared at the Rothko, the painting of the fuzzy squares. He wasn't fond of either that or the Franz Kline that Bucky had unilaterally decided to install in his apartment, and what's more he was 99% sure they were stolen.

(But Bucky was here, in your apartment. He thinks about you. He brought you presents.)

(Don't feel. Stop feeling.)

Steve walked to his laptop and image-searched the two paintings. The Rothko was listed as lost after a fire, and the Kline was theoretically in the collection of Saddam Hussein's family. He sighed, and looked up at the jarring, powerful black lines and fragmentations of the Kline. You could have asked, Buck.

(Don't feel.)

The next morning Steve was sitting on his bed, putting on his running shoes at dawn when the pink morning light off the river hit the Rothko. Steve gasped, and sat and stared at it, as the rising light turned the painting into something transcendental. The sobs came in great shuddering heaves, as he watched the light of early morning pass slowly into day, across the ever-changing face of the canvas. He had forgotten this... forgotten that anything could be so beautiful, so transformative. That there was art, and he used to care so much about it, before everything else got in the way.

(Fuck you, Barnes.)

The second incident happened while he was out for a run. A tiny, perfect little Botticelli annunciation appeared in the hallway. Another note: “From Russia with love. (tbh, Singapore.) By the way saying the security in your bldg sucks would suggest that there was any security at all to begin with.

Steve carefully detached the note from the wall and stuck it in an old sketchbook, with the others.

“Just thought you should know I'm going to run up the Mick signal and call your friend in,” Tony said, on the phone. “Natasha's sure he killed a tycoon in China last week, and there's something else that might have been him in Saudi Arabia.”

Steve tried to keep his voice expressionless. “Okay. It would be nice to see Bucky again. I'll come over.”

Steve thought it would just be him and Tony at the Tower but when he got to the conference room (new table, less ugly than the last one), Clint, Natasha and Bruce were all lounging around, edgy but acting casual, and arguing over coffee and a box of donuts in the middle of the table.

He started to take a seat by the window and then reconsidered, Bucky'd have opinions about him sitting next to the window like an idiot who wanted to get shot, almost sat there anyway because fuck you, Barnes, then slid in the empty seat next to Natasha in hopes that her supreme self-control might wash over onto him, too.

“Brought you a latte,” Natasha smiled, and slid over a tall paper cup.

“Thanks. We still on for dinner tomorrow night?”

“Of course. How are you holding up?”

Steve found it impossible to lie to Natasha. Not that he was a good liar, far from it, but something about her expression said that she already knew what was going on, and was more waiting for your confirmation than anything else. “I'm not great,” Steve admitted. “I'm running around in circles in my head, I don't know what to think, what to feel--”

Then, from the door: “Hey.” Velvet jacket. T-shirt. Scarf. Skinny black jeans with the knees worn out. Combat boots. Gloves on both hands. A coffee. Top of his hair pulled back off his face, even more like a samurai now.

(Don't get up don't go over to him don't just don't)

(But-- this distance. Errors of order--)

Tony made words first. “How's the arm?”

“Quieter. Thanks.” Bucky moved into the room, catlike, but made no move to sit down. He waved the fingers of his left hand at the people he didn't know. “I'm James. I also answer to Soldier. Hi.” He shot a grin at Tony, unexpected, pre-emptive. “Tony, shut up.”

Clint snorted. “I see he's got a fine grasp of our group dynamics already.”

Then, from behind Steve (how did he get there?), “You just invite me over for donuts, or there some sort of greater purpose?” Steve felt the weight of Bucky's right hand on his shoulder as Bucky leaned over to fish a chocolate donut out of the box. Gun oil, cigarettes and cologne... Bucky leaning in close to whisper something to him: “You hate the Kline, love the Rothko and anyone who doesn't like that Mary is a fucking savage. 'miright?”

Steve nodded.

Bucky squeezed his shoulder as he stood up. “You'll understand the Kline, eventually. Let me know when you do,” he said, walking back towards the door.

Natasha raised an eyebrow. “Buying art?”

Bucky smiled at her over his coffee. “I think of it more as finding homes for works orphaned by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, but yeah, someone bought it. Just not me.”

“Did you kill Heung Peng-Li?” she continued, equally mildly.

“I'm a freelancer now. I do what people pay me to do,” Bucky parried back, equally mild. He bit into the donut. “Don't worry. I cost a lot. Even Stark's net worth would feel a dent if he paid my fee.” Bucky switched his gaze over to Tony. “Shit, I should have charged you for Dr Doom.”

Tony blinked. “My consulting rate for robotics, meanwhile, especially custom jobs, is mere pennies. Also I never enforce my patents against unauthorized knock-offs.”

Bucky grinned and saluted Tony with his coffee cup. Touché.

“Would you take a job on an Avenger?” Natasha asked, still cool, still detached.

Bucky thought for a moment. “No,” he answered, finally. “Not out of any fear of difficulty, or any morality. But that one--” and he indicated Steve, eyes flicking briefly up to meet his, blue to blue-- “he'd give me shit about it for the rest of our natural lives.” He shifted his weight slightly, and spoke more quietly. "Don't think that-- I've already catalogued ways to kill all of you. I'm still doing it right now. I can't--  ...not do that.  But I won't... won't come after you. Unless you start something with me."

Steve's heart broke a little more for the carefree, easy Brooklyn boy he once knew. 

“How can you do anything?” Clint asked. “You trashed half of the Beltway. How can you even step outside without being on 800 terrorism watch lists?”

“Hey, Jarvis,” Bucky called out. “How many watchlists and wanted lists can you find me on? Under any name.”

“Let me see. None, Mr Barnes. You are not currently on any wanted lists, nor do you seem to exist at all in electronic record record, in any form.”

“There you go. KIA, 1945. I'm just a ghost.”

“Who'd you do a favor for?” Natasha whispered.

“Langley. They paid me too.” Bucky glanced over at Tony and announced cheerily, “Your tax dollars at work.”

“I don't pay taxes.”

“Course you don't, Tony, you're rich. Anyway, after they took down everyone else's files on me, I used the old Hydra back door to their systems to delete all their files on me.”

“Fury still has a file on you,” Natasha commented.

“Fury offered me a job,” Bucky smiled. “I turned him down. No more masters.”

Bruce now. Bruce, who was always quiet until he put enough pieces together to see the picture start to form. “So why did you get involved with Dr Doom, if nobody was paying you?”

Bucky leaned his head back against the wall and looked at Bruce through narrowed eyes. “Past six months I've been tearing some things down, building other things up. Hydra was a strange organization in that it was run by soldiers who thought they were scientists, but hated actual scientists and kept abusing or killing them before they could transfer over full notes on their research. There were a lot of fiefdoms, and information wasn't shared. Really fucking relevant shit, too. I started off just trying to erase my own history, but then there were... patterns that started to emerge. Tangents that I kept following. The manuscript Doom was after was the end of one of those tangents. And maybe the beginning of another one.”

“Can you be less cryptic?” Steve asked. Bucky was on to something. He had that faraway look he used to get when he'd just come back from recon and was still putting together all the pieces of a complex set of enemy troop movements and terrain variables.

“Not at this time. Right now there's a strong chance it's just me being very paranoid. I hope to Christ it is. But that's the reason I went after Doom. And the reason I keep breaking in here, other than it's fun and I like to annoy Tony.”

“What's the manuscript?” Clint asked.

“I'm done talking about this for now,” Bucky said, tension coiling in his body.

“You're not giving me a lot of reason to trust you, Soldier,” Clint shot back.

“Trust him because he's my friend,” Steve said, quietly, icily.

“You have terrible taste in friends, Steve.”

“I don't actually give a fuck if you trust me or not,” said Bucky. “Point being, you lot of Pollyannas sit up here in your ivory tower and miss about 90% of what goes on until it actually breaks into all-out war. You could do with being friendly with someone like me, who spends most of their time in the underworld. And try not to look like you're sucking on a lemon while you're doing it. Barton, you know those Russians you pissed off in Bed-Stuy?”

Clint looked up, wary. “Yeah.”

“They put a hit on you. The guy lands in the next day or two. Dmitry Andropov. SVR has a file. I don't rate him, but he's one of those oldskool patient assholes who'll sit there for a month and wait until you make a mistake. He'll hit you in the chest first, then go for a head shot. So, mind yourself around open spaces and near windows.”

“Those assholes,” Clint swore.

“Jarvis?” Natasha asked.

“I am pulling the file forthwith, Miss Romanova.”

Bucky looked back at Tony and Bruce. “Also, AIM are hiring any idiot off the street with a gun and dreams of being Tony Montana right now. I don't have time to care because I'm up to my hips in old Hydra shit but you may want to keep an eye on it. Northern California, mostly, though there's something going on around Miami too.”

He crumpled his empty coffee cup and put it on the table. “We done here?”

Natasha kicked Steve hard under the table. He stood up, almost reflexively. “Lemme walk you out, Buck.”

Bucky's expression stayed neutral. “Okay.”

They bumped shoulders a couple times walking down the hall. Bucky leaned on the wall of the otherwise empty elevator right next to him as they went downstairs. They were inches from each other. “You need help?” Steve asked.

“Not yet. I might.” Bucky was uncomfortable, wanting to tell Steve more, and he finally did just as they reached the ground floor. He put his hands around the back of Steve's head, thumbs along his cheeks, pulled him in closer the way he would when something had freaked him out during the war but he didn't want to put a panic through the rest of the Commandos. The words that came out of him were barely a whisper, meant for Steve alone, not Jarvis or whatever other surveillance Tony had in the elevators. “Be careful, Steve. Please. I think we're in the shit. I think we're in the shit real bad.

Then the doors opened into the busy lobby, and Bucky vanished into the crowd. All Steve's mind could do was think about how his metal hand had felt as warm as his flesh hand.

Chapter Text

Natasha called it in first. “Tony. Steve's gone.”

“What? I'm at a cocktail party. Are you sure?”

“I'm in his apartment. We were supposed to have dinner... he was late.”

“He's never late. Which, incredibly annoying, by the way, no respect for those of us who understand fashionable behavior-- Are there signs of a struggle? Do we think this could be something related to James?”

“I-- no, no struggle. I don't trust Barnes, but my gut says now that he's not brain-damaged, he'd never harm Steve. Does Cap have a tracker?”

“Avengers ID and in the sole of his left boot.”

“Damn. Uniform in the closet, wallet on the coffee table.”

“Shield?”

“Gone.”

“I'm calling everyone in. See you at the Tower. No, hi, Senator, delightful to see you too, I have to go--”

Tony, Natasha and Clint hit the tower at the same time. Sam phoned in to say he was on his way. Bruce caught up with them at the elevator. “Jarvis? Anything?” Tony interrogated, as the doors whooshed closed.

“On Captain Rogers, no, but I'm afraid there's been another vandalism incident in the conference area.”

“Fuck, I put temperature sensors in there. How in hell--”

“Our security cameras did get a single image of Mr Barnes leaving the floor.”

“One image, Jarvis?”

The elevator doors whooshed open. Tony could see from where he was down the hall, three words spray-painted crimson on the conference room door:

I GOT THIS.

“Jarvis, show me the image.”

A nearby screen flickered to life and showed the Soldier. His goggles were pushed up into his hair and the mask hung open at his neck. He was looking up at the camera, with two fingers of his metal hand up in a backwards victory salute, and something long in his other hand, leaning against his shoulder. The photo was time-stamped three hours ago. His skin looked unnaturally pale.

“Is that... is that a baseball bat?” Bruce asked.

“Also, Mr Stark, the plasma cannon is missing from your lab.”

“Well,” Natasha breathed. “That's going to be especially ugly.” She sauntered into the conference room and eased herself into a chair. “Jarvis, anything on the police bands?”

“Checking now, Miss Romanova.”

Tony punched a shortcut in his phone. “Natasha, can you call Sam?” then, into his own phone, “Oh hi, Pepper? It looks like I actually have tonight off. Yeah, someone else is working. You still have those ballet tickets? Good. I thought we could do, you know, relationship stuff? No, I feel fine. No, I'm sure. That's not true! I like the ballet a lot. No, I know I said that, but Swan Lake being improved by adding a ninja battle is not an opinion, it is straight-up fact. Pepper! Seriously, babe, I'm trying to be a responsible boyfriend and it may not happen again this year so just say yes, right? Please? Yes. Yes! Okay! Pick you up in ten.”

“Are we really letting the psychopath retrieve Cap on his own?” Clint asked.

“There's a report on I-81 of a tractor-trailer accident involving somebody surfing on the roof of a matte-black Lamborghini going the wrong way down the turnpike at 150 miles per hour, Miss Romanova. Does that sound promising?”

“Ooh! Text me if there's anything about the plasma cannon,” Tony flapped as he dashed out the door.

“Jarvis, get on to the state police from the official Avengers line and tell them under no circumstances to investigate that crash until tomorrow.”

“You're really just going to sit here, aren't you?” Clint said.

“Yup,” said Natasha as she texted Sam.

“Bruce,” Clint appealed.

“Cap might need a doctor when James brings him back. I'll stay here tonight,” Bruce said evenly, before leaving.

“Whaaaat,” Clint said, flopping into a chair and looking aggrieved at Natasha.

“He shot me twice, Clint. Twice.”

“Well, you know what they say, Tash, third time's the charm,” said Clint, turning the conference room TV to a repeat of Teen Moms.

Bucky shifted his weight slightly on the roof of the Lamborghini as it screamed down the highway, the cold night air on his face doing nothing to counteract the burning rage he felt for whoever had been stupid enough to try to kidnap Steve. They were coming up to the vehicle convoy where the signal from the tracker he'd stuck in Steve's shield was emanating from. It was a doozy: a Ghost Train, an armoured eighteen-wheeler and four SUV escort vehicles, armoured too, judging by how low they were riding. Two up, two behind. The sort of rig you used to transport aliens, nuclear warheads, or experimental weapons. Someone wasn't fucking around. But then again, neither was he.

He jammed his boots in the webbing atop the Lambo and wrapped his left arm around the plasma cannon, anchoring it against his hip. 500 yards out and closing fast. Let's see what your toys are made of, Stark.

PHAM. The blast threw the lead SUV a good 60 feet in the air. Recoil nearly knocked him over and he could feel where the exhaust heat was burning through his tac vest. 300 yards. C'mon, recharge, c'mon. Green light. Mash it. PHAM. Second SUV gone.

Declan, the kid driving for him, had been told to hit the handbrake at 100 yards, right in front of the tractor-trailer. He slung the plasma cannon over his back again and pulled out the bat, worked his feet out of the webbing. He stomped his foot. Now, Dec. Now--

Then he was in midair, the screeching of the Lambo's tyres fading behind him, closing on an armoured semi at a combined velocity of well over 200 miles per hour. He wound the baseball bat over his shoulder as he saw the terror and incomprehension in the eyes of the driving team, and above the rage, above the roar of adrenaline, and above the whatthefuckareyoudoingBarnesyouidiot, he felt one overwhelming, pure, undeniable truth: he fucking loved doing this more than anything else in the world.

(And that's why you stay away from Steve no don't mess him up Barnes you know you can't touch anything without destroying it. Not him. Not him--)

He smashed through the reinforced-glass windshield and turned as he hit it, kicking out, pulping the copilot's head against the passenger-side window. He shoved the bat like a pool cue into the driver's eye, levered him out through the windshield as the truck fishtailed down the road, and kicked the emergency brake as he pushed off to flip himself out onto the roof of the truck cab. Elapsed time: 8 seconds. On schedule.

The truck's tyres squealed and shredded as it headed towards the shoulder, starting to jackknife. Bucky knew a bit about how people transported doped-up supersoldiers and he prayed these idiots were pro enough to have strapped Steve the fuck down like they always did with him, because things were about to get rough. He leapt up onto the roof of the trailer as the cab skidded off the road, sparking along a guardrail then smashing through it like it was butter. The truck flipped. Bucky jumped.

He rolled as he hit the dirt. The part of his head that was always calculating noted that one of the following SUVs had gotten sideswiped into the median and flipped into the oncoming lane, but the second one was pulling around, no doubt about to discharge more people for him to kill.

(You have all the time in the world, Soldier.)

The truck was on its side, skidding to a halt in the wet black dirt of the Pennsylvania countryside. He walked towards it and unslung the plasma cannon. PHAM. Bye, back doors. Steve strapped onto a table, still out (thank fuck) twelve hostiles of which six standing or trying to. Uzis and semiautomatics only and a tranq gun get that tranq gun down no more of that ever fucking again knife in his eye he's down buzzing near his ear fuckers in the SUV trying him hi meet the plasma cannon PHAM bye one of the other hostiles in the truck going for the tranq gun nope close enough now to use the bat swing for the bleachers head breaks apart smash the gun blood and hair on the bat which one's the boss that one the older one he's not armed fuck him anyway chick with a glock at three o'clock block it with your arm and the bases are loaded it's Barnes up to bat this is it for the pennant ladies and gentlemen the Dodgers' last best chance he swings it to heaven and the crowd goes wild it's a home run wait they're all laying down their arms well it's too late now assholes that idiot thinks he can hide behind Steve's shield foot on his throat rip his arm off smash the bat down into his face four hostiles left swing crunch three swing two smash just you and me old man grab his neck metal fingers in his mouth grab the cyanide tooth rip it out--

“You know who I am?” His voice harsh, quiet, distorted by the mask.

The old man nodded.

“You're going to die. You can give me the name, and I'll kill you quickly, or I can take you home and nail you to my wall and use you for target practice for a week. And you'll still give me the name. Up to you.”

The old man gave him the name. It was the one Bucky had suspected, but was praying to what gods still listen to him (probably just the Devil) that it wouldn't be. There are times in your life you don't want to be right.

Bucky wound up and smashed the old man with the bat until he was a smear on the wall of the trailer. He checked Steve, ripped the straps holding him down and caught him as he fell off the table into Bucky's arms. “Extraction,” he said into the comm unit in the mask. “Roger,” came back Kev's voice. Another one of his lads.

As he moved Steve's limp body to carry him he heard a quiet “chink”. He looked down at Steve's chest. Metal chain, two aluminium discs. You sentimental asshole, he thought, and it was almost more than he could do to carry Steve out and lay him a safe distance from the truck.

While he waited for the chopper he pulled the vial of tranquiliser out of the smashed gun, once he found it in the blood and intestines and shit and mess on the floor. Stuck it in his pocket. Laid the charges to vaporize the truck. Pulled out his backup Uzi, set it to semi, and walked out into the night to make sure everyone from the SUVs was good and dead. Every shot sounded like the chink of dog tags.

When the black chopper touched down, he had slung Steve over his shoulder like a sack of cement, and carried the shield in his right hand. The bat was stuck in his belt; the cannon bounced against his hip. He had that weird nothing feeling he got at the end of a fight. He should be... happy? Maybe? But it was always a faint feeling of disappointment and just... blankness. A desire for everything to be silent.

Bucky loaded Steve into the back of the chopper, then looked over at Kevin as he eased himself into the shotgun seat. “Dec get out alright?”

“Yeah, he's fine. Wants to do it again,” Kev said. He indicated the blood and viscera all over Bucky's work clothes. “Any of that yours?”

“Don't think so,” he said, and shut his eyes, under the goggles. Kev knew not to ask anything more.

...

An hour later, Jarvis announced that a matte black helicopter was coming in for a landing on the rooftop jetpad. Natasha and Bruce were waiting as the Soldier climbed out, reeking and covered in blood. Cap was slung over his shoulder, completely out. Wth his free hand he still held the baseball bat, and he swung it a bit as he walked.

He pushed the goggles up and unbuckled the mask as he approached Natasha and Bruce. The cleanliness of his face stood out in stark contrast to the gory mess that was the rest of him.

“What's he down with?” asked Bruce, his hands reaching for a pulse check.

“A Hydra neurotoxin/sedative cocktail. They designed it to use on me, when I'd be getting my head back after a wipe. I think that's all. But... check him.”

“Come on. Steve actually has an apartment in the Tower. He never uses it, but we can take him there.” Natasha said.

“Thanks,” the Soldier said. He sounded tired, Natasha thought suddenly. “His shield and Tony's plasma cannon are in the chopper. Can you bring them?” he asked.

They got Steve downstairs and into his bed in his other anonymous, soulless apartment, the one that Pepper's designer had done up for him in the Tower. Bruce checked over him as Bucky flopped down into a nearby chair, the bat still propped under one hand. He dug in a grimy pocket and passed the small vial from the tranq gun over to Bruce. “This is the stuff. Be careful with it; that's full strength, and it's probably fatal to anyone who hasn't been shot up with all sorts of stupid serums.”

“You should take a shower. Stark's got extra clothes in all the closets,” Bruce said.

“Nah.”

Tony materialised in a tuxedo shortly later, shot a “Fuck me, it's Carrie!” in Bucky's general direction and then backed off several steps, fanning his nose. “I'm not sure I can stand the smell. Also, ew. Also also, how was the plasma cannon?”

“They had him on a Ghost Train. Whole thing was armoured. Was glad to have it. Could use a better cooling system and the recycle on the charge isn't fast enough, but it kicked a five-foot hole in steel plate so I can forgive it a lot.” Bucky tried to run his hand through his hair but it got stuck in the tangles and bits of other people.

“What did you mount it on? The car?”

“No. Just shot it from the hip.”

“You're insane. I like you, but you're insane. How's Sleeping Beauty?”

“He'll be out for a while, then wake up with an awful case of the shakes, wishing he were dead,” Bucky said. “But it should be out of his system by tomorrow.”

“That's fairly accurate,” said Bruce, coming in. “I've ran the toxin sample and Cap's blood, and that's all that's in him, but you were right, James. This is nasty stuff.”

Bucky stood up as Natasha came in, struggling slightly under the weight of the plasma cannon and the awkwardness of the shield. He reached over with his metal arm took the cannon off her. “Thanks. Sorry. I forgot it was heavy.”

Then, behind Natasha, a vision in a pale green evening dress, her strawberry-blonde hair piled up. “Is this--”, Pepper began, before her brain fully processed seeing James. “Oh. My.

“I'm sorry, ma'am, I haven't had time to clean up yet.”

“That's all right. Hi. I'm Pepper. You must be James. Tony thinks you're fabulous.” She extended one slim hand.

Bucky looked at her hand, unsure what to do next, and suddenly deeply aware of how savage he looked; how grimy his hands were.

“It's okay,” Pepper smiled. “Remember I live with someone who conspires to get engine grease on every single one of my best dresses.”

Bucky reached out and took her hand up in his flesh one, and pressed it quickly to his lips. “Only clean part of me,” he mumbled.

“Really? I'm disappointed. Steve led me to believe you had the filthiest mouth on the whole Western front,” Pepper deadpanned.

“Fucksake, I can't take him anywhere,” Bucky said, grinning.

“Hey! Tall dark and loathesome! Hands off my girl,” Tony said. “Also, question of the hour: who kidnapped Cap?”

Bucky looked away. “I've had a long night. Can we do this tomorrow? When Steve's okay?”

“Give me a hint? On a scale of one to terrible?”

“Whatever the next step beyond terrible is.”

Bruce started to make shooing motions. “Out, everyone. Let Steve rest.”

Bucky sat back down in his chair and reached for the bat. Bruce paused next to him. “This place is safe, James. You can go clean up; relax--”

Bucky glared.

“--Or just keep sitting there.”

Steve woke up a couple hours later. Bucky was occupying himself cleaning his knives and guns, listening to a Sarah Vaughan album that Jarvis had found for him. He hadn't cleaned himself up yet (that would involve leaving Steve alone and no just no with the enemy out there, not while he's unconscious), but his kit was carefully laid out on cloths and was being seen to. The quiet, methodical noises must have connected to something in Steve's subconscious that lifted him out of the toxin-induced fog he'd been in.

“Buck...”

“I'm right here, Steve.” Bucky quickly reassembled the pistol he'd just cleaned.

“Did you save me?” Steve smiled a loopy smile.

“Yeah, I guess so. Gettin' to be a habit.”

Steve's vision was blurry, and it took him a moment to focus on Bucky. When he did, the smile evaporated. “I hate that mask.”

Bucky took the mask from where it had been hanging at his neck, and threw it in the general direction of the bathroom. The goggles followed shortly afterwards. Then he loaded the pistol and placed it where Steve could reach it. “I'm going to take a shower. If anything happens...” he indicated the pistol.

“Bucky, what the hell is wrong?”

“Tell ya tomorrow,” Bucky said, walking to the shower and starting to peel off tac kit now stiff with dried blood. “I've had enough of everything for tonight. ”

Chapter Text

Bucky stood under the hot shower, his tac kit in a black heap at his feet, until the soapy water running off him went from brown to red to pink and finally to back to clear. He threw a t-shirt back on over the scarred mess that was his upper body, wrapped a towel around his hips and walked back into Steve's bedroom, still dripping a little. Steve was lying on his side, staring at him. He waved, and shambled over to search in the closet for some clothes. There was a pair of black sweatpants that'd do. He dropped the towel off and stretched; had the sweatpants half on when he heard Steve gasp in shock.

Bucky wasn't actually conscious of yanking up the sweatpants and moving to Steve's side but he'd done it. Steve was hugging himself and shuddering, pale as hell. “Bucky, I'm so cold--”

Bucky took Steve's hand in his and crouched down so he could look him in the eye. “Stevie, they used to dope me up with this stuff. You'll have the chills for about six hours. The first hour is the worst, it's like there's no break at all--”

Steve shuddered so hard his hand nearly slipped out from Bucky's. Bucky edged closer, and wrapped his flesh hand over Steve's shoulder, holding Steve against him to brace him against the chills wracking his body. “Stevie, here, count with me. Between the waves of chills. They get further apart. C'mon, after the next one, you'll see--”

Another attack. Steve whimpered.

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight--” Steve dissolved into shivers again.

Bucky counted. He gently pressed into Steve's neck with his thumb on each count. Steve was a ball of tension; Bucky remembered too well how the neurotoxin seized up every muscle in his body, made everything scream like a charlie horse. He made it to nine the next count. “Nine, Stevie. They're spreading out, trust me, you'll get through this.”

“Bucky, God, I'm going to die of the cold--”

“No you won't. Here,” said Bucky, climbing into the bed next to Steve and pressing up against his back, spooning him. “C'mon. You know me. Warm enough for both of us.”

Bucky wrapped his arms around Steve and held him as tightly as he could, bracing him against the shudders that seemed like they were going to shake him apart at the seams. Somewhere around when the count was up to 60, they both fell asleep, exhausted.

Bucky woke first. It was just dawn. He was still wrapped around Steve, who was pressing into him and snuffle-snoring contentedly.

(Get up, Soldier. Get up now.)

All Bucky wanted to do was shut his eyes and stay in this moment forever... especially as everything was going to change, it was all starting again, all the old hell... how many tomorrows would they have? Just this one moment, utterly perfect... but for the small issue of his being hard as hell, his boner pressing against Steve's ass. He was always horny in the mornings and mornings after missions were especially bad.

(Get up. Cold shower. Go.)

He tried to tell himself it was just a morning thing. No big deal. Steve probably had one too. His right hand was lying near Steve's abdomen. He could check... just move his hand down. Like it was an accident, or him just shifting in his sleep.

(THIS IS A TERRIBLE PLAN.)

His fingertips brushed downwards along the bed until they touched the head of Steve's cock, hard as he was. He squeezed his eyes shut and filed the sense memory away in his huge mental locker of things about Steve, and was about to peel himself away when Steve, in his sleep, placed his hand over Bucky's, on the shaft of his cock, and pressed it there.

(SHIT FUCK PANIC)

Bucky's brain screamed into full fight/flight mode instantly. Four viable exits. Six ways to kill the target (no brain shut up no bad stupid brain) New mission: extract self from target without waking target--

“Buck, what's wrong? You got so tense all of a sudden...” Steve mumbled dozily, opening his eyes to see what was happening.

(This is how the world ends.)

Bucky's skin quivered. He rolled over sharply and got up, walking across the room to the window. “Nothing,” he muttered, shoving his hands into the pockets of his sweatpants. “How are you feeling?”

“Still a little hazy... but you were right. The shivers are gone.”

“Good.” Bucky paced, catlike, to the other side of the room, his desire to avoid Steve's gaze clashing with his natural reticence to stand in front of a giant window. Like there weren't people with cameras, or worse, trained all day at the Tower. He was across the room in seemingly no time. The room was too goddamn small, he thought. He felt hemmed in, trapped. The cold voice in his head was informing him of every potential weapon, every escape point, every way he could end the life of the man he'd realised, one awkward rainy day when he was 16, that he loved. He squeezed his eyes shut, tried to stop the almost painful awareness of his proximity to his guns, tried to force his body to loosen up, to move into something that wasn't so obviously the prelude to a fighting stance.

“Bucky...” Steve began. He was sitting up and staring at Bucky, willing him to turn around. “Are you okay?”

“Take a shower. You'll feel better. Once the neurotoxin has burned itself out of your muscles, it's a fast recovery.” Bucky picked up one of his knives from the cleaning cloth and began tossing it across his hand, changing grip, flicking it up and catching it.

Bucky.”

“Gonna go have a cigarette.”

And with that, he was gone.

Steve blushed then. A full-body blush of embarrassment, burning from his cheeks down to his chest down to the hard-on that had unhelpfully refused to go away while staring at his former best friend, at the hard, lean play of muscles across his back and arm as he had played with a small black knife. The hell, Rogers. (He could even hear that in Bucky's voice.) Christ, Bucky was right. He really did need a cold shower.

When he got in the shower, however, the memory of the awful chills from the neurotoxin were too fresh in his mind. Steve turned the water to hot and stepped gratefully into the steam. He shut his eyes and leaned against the shower wall, trying to compose himself. Trying to figure out what the hell had just happened. But as soon as he shut his eyes, his mind's eye started replaying Greatest Hits of Bucky Being Half-Naked In Front of Steve, of which there was quite a lot, and his brain apparently had recorded every single goddamn one in loving detail. Hell, no surprise, he'd sketched half of them. He'd learned anatomy from sketching Bucky, not that Bucky ever modelled for him per se, but Bucky asleep on the sofa, Bucky smoking on the fire escape from the back, Bucky curled up in a chair with a comic book. Bucky in France, cleaning his rifle. He knew Bucky's body better than his own. (Not that anybody would have wanted to know his body.)

Steve's cock twitched. He put his hand on himself and started a slow rhythm, his knees almost buckling with the shot of pleasure that coursed through him. He sped up, rubbing his thumb over the head of his cock, and tried to push his mind towards more appropriate imagery. Peggy. Sharon. The USO girls. Hell, even Natasha. His brain responded by pushing back images of Bucky now at him, the blank-faced Winter Soldier, broad and hard, in his black muzzle... Bucky covered in blood after rescuing him, his blue eyes wild... Bucky's body curled around him while he shivered... The metal hand, warm on his face... Steve's breath hitched and he felt the wave of pleasure build to the point it couldn't be stopped, couldn't be reversed. He suppressed a moan... Christ, what if Bucky was out there? What if he'd come back from his cigarette? And then the mental image of Bucky walking in to the bathroom, of Bucky watching through his long lashes, impassive, as he masturbated in the shower, was what sent Steve over the edge. He came hard, choking back a loud groan, feeling like a flood of stars were coursing through his body, a flood that lit him up and would never stop.

When Steve regained some semblance of self-control he'd been sitting on the floor of the shower, back against the wall, for who knows how long. He ran a hand over his face. What the hell... Maybe it was some weird side-effect of the neurotoxin: excessive and inappropriate horniness. Christ, he'd come so hard. He still felt sparkly.

He pushed himself up and grabbed the smelliest of the soaps that sat on the shelf. He didn't know if Bucky's senses had been as sharpened as his by Zola's off-brand super-serum – oh, who was he kidding. Bucky's were probably even sharper, if nothing else by training and experience. And given how fast Bucky had jumped when Steve had stupidly, sleepily fumbled Bucky's hand against his crotch... yeah, he doesn't really need to know about what happened in the shower.

Steve washed the stink of the past 24 hours off him, while his brain spun out rationalisations. He'd been under a lot of stress. He was having a lot of feelings about Bucky reappearing, and being so goddamn difficult / different / the same. (He'd forgotten quite how maddening Bucky could be. And how much they used to fight.) And harmless masturbatory fantasy is fine, isn't it? It wasn't the first time his brain had thrown up strange imagery as part of a sexual fantasy...

Steve's brain helpfully supplied an image of Bucky stretching, all sleepy in a pile of hay, in a barn the Howling Commandos had crashed out in near Alsace. His thin shirt riding up, exposing the muscles of his side. Thanks, brain.

Steve turned the water off and caught his breath, the very air around him feeling like a caress on his suddenly hyper-sensitive skin.

Or maybe I have a problem, he thought.

 

 

Chapter Text

 

By the time Steve came out of the shower, he half-expected Bucky to be back. But he was gone, and so were all his weapons. Steve sat heavily on the bed as his head continued to spin. Oh God, had he come back while Steve was in the shower? Had he seen?

And more basically, did Steve even fit into his life at all, even as a friend? Bucky felt so familiar, so much the same, like they shared the same skin... yet one wrong move and the walls went up, and Steve found himself looking at a guarded stranger. The vertigo was making Steve sick, and all he wanted to do was reach out and cling to Bucky like a lifeline. But he felt that... that would chase Bucky away forever. He felt he was the same Steve he'd always been... and now somehow that wasn't enough for Bucky any more. 

Steve thought about how long Bucky had been leading a double life. Maybe Steve had never been enough for him. There'd always been something else: running with the Irish mob; the Commandos; Hydra; this new thing of him working as a contract killer. His mom had once said something about Bucky, after some offhand remark of Steve's about how they'd be friends forever: “Mind yourself, Stevie, with that kind of black Irish. There's something in him that'll never settle, and many a good heart will be broken trying to make him.”

(But then why does he have to be so goddamn kind sometimes? That made it so much worse.)

Bruce knocked; only then did Steve realise the door was open. He wiped his face and tried to shove a Cyclone-ride's worth of feelings back under whatever rock they need to stay under.

“How are you feeling?” Bruce asked. Bruce's eyes, always with their quotient of sadness, seemed to see right through Steve. They still held not a small amount of pity for him.

(Dammit stop pitying me, Banner)

(Bucky never pitied me. He just would say “he's stronger than he looks” and “get up, Rogers” and “c'mon, jerk” and sling his arm around me and we'd be off on our next adventure.)

“...Steve?”

“Mhuh? Yeah. I'm fine. Yay Dr Erskine.”

Bruce looked around. “Where's James?”

Steve shrugged listlessly. Damned if he knew.

“You want to talk about it?”

“Not particularly.”

(Yes)

Annoyance flickered across Bruce's face. “Before he left, did he happen to mention who kidnapped you?”

“No.”

“If I may interject--” came Jarvis' voice, “Mr Barnes just smoked a cigarette on the roof, and is headed down towards the conference room at this moment. Mr Stark has asked that all Avengers please assemble there in the next fifteen minutes.”

“Thanks, Jarvis,” said Bruce. “Steve, I'll see you in a few, then?”

Steve nodded. After Bruce left he pulled on a t-shirt and jeans and boots, and headed towards the door, but found himself rooted in the doorway, looking at Bucky's tac kit, thrown over a chair to dry.

He picked up the kevlar-backed leather vest and smelled it, expecting the usual Bucky-smell, maybe a bit muskier. The nausea rose in him fast: it smelled like the back room of a butcher's shop. Iron and salt and the stink of rotting meat. He dropped it.

As he walked out he could see Bucky's Winter Soldier mask and goggles where they'd been thrown the night before, near the door, still caked with blood-splatter. He made a face and brought his heel down on the goggles, pressing on them with all his strength until they finally cracked into pieces.

“Nice of you to show up, Goldilocks,” drawled Tony as Steve finally dragged himself into the conference room half an hour later. “You feeling okay?”

Steve gave him a thumbs-up sign and flopped into a seat next to Natasha. She looked over at him, raised an eyebrow, then took off the pretty knit scarf she had looped around her neck and put it around his. She smiled. “You look a little chilly, Steve,” she said. “I'm sure those drugs took it out of you.” 

"I feel fine now, thanks," he said, knowing even as the words left his mouth that Natasha remained unconvinced.

Steve slid a look out of the side of his eyes towards Bucky, in sweats and combat boots, leaning against the wall near the door. He was idly spinning his baseball bat, looking down at it, and Steve could see the lean shapes of knives and guns where his hoodie hung open and showed the slim black t-shirt he was wearing underneath. Through the shirt he could also see the hard lines of Bucky's muscles, no body fat at all, and Steve shut his eyes as a wave of desire slammed through him: how much he wanted to run his fingers over the cuts of Bucky's waist... bury his lips in that hair on his stomach... in Bucky's years in Hydra's crucible it was like all that was unnecessary had been burned off him, he had shed everything that might slow him down, and God, Steve thought, the blush hitting his cheeks like a slap, he was terrifying, but he was so, so beautiful. 

“Because I can just hang out here all day and wait for Odile or Odette, the two supersoldier swans, to decide when they feel like talking,” snarked Tony.

“Tony, ballet is not--” Natasha snapped, until she noticed a movement out of the corner of her eye.

It was Bucky. He held up three fingers. Still didn't make eye contact with anyone.

“Three... blind mice? We Three Kings of Orient Are? Close Encounters of the Third Kind?” asked Tony.

“No,” said Steve, who had intimate acquaintance from the war of how Bucky delivered bad news (right to your face) and how he delivered really bad news (dancing around it and making you meet him halfway). “Three supersoldiers.”

Tony bowed. “Thank you, closed captioning service for the Howling Commando-impaired.”

“Bucky, you're not saying that--” stuttered Steve. “You don't mean--”

Bucky turned the blue force of his eyes on Steve, his face blank and deadly. “You ever see a body?”

“No, but--”

“Jesus Christ, I dug Pierce up out of his grave because I had to be sure,” snarled Bucky. He shot an accusatory look at Natasha: “He deserved to die a lot more slowly than he did.”

“Hi, we're all here,” said Clint. “You can talk so other people in the room can understand.”

Bucky turned on Clint and snarled. “The Red Skull. The third supersoldier. The gang's all fucking here. All the mistakes and monsters of the war back to play. Happy now? Because I'm fucking thrilled.”

Clint blinked at Bucky, and then hooted with laughter. “You are one crazy--”

KRAK! Bucky whipped his baseball bat down on the table with the full force of his metal arm, splitting the wood of the table with a sound like a thunderclap.

“You need to stop that,” said Bruce, whose breathing was becoming erratic, “or we are all going to have a very severe and immediate green problem.”

“You need to listen to me, princess,” hissed Bucky.

“I'm listening, Buck,” said Steve.

“Course you are, Captain Gaymer-- ow!” cried Clint, as Natasha rearranged herself in her chair, very probably via putting a heel into Barton's foot.

Bucky rubbed the bridge of his nose, tired. “I kept running across strange, occasional reports, filed next to mine, about Red One, all about a sarcophagus, and regrowth. At first I ignored them, figuring it was just Red Room stuff, but then I realised they were in locations that had nothing to do with the Red Room.” Bucky looked up. “And they all had to do with magic relics.”

He unscrewed the bottom of the baseball bat handle. It was hollow, and with his metal hand he took out an old, oddly-shaped piece of vellum that was rolled up inside. “This is what Dr Doom was after. The Morgan Library bought a bunch of manuscripts from a new dig, an old Crusader fort called the Canebrake of the Starlings. Didn't even know they had this. It was stuck onto the back of something else, and appeared blank until it was brought out into the light.”

Bucky laid the vellum out on the table, using only his left hand. “It's human skin. Don't touch it, by the way.” It was... a map of some sort? Steve thought. A spiral in the centre, covered in symbols and words he didn't understand. Symbols that seemed to... crawl away, as he looked at them.

Steve reached for it, to pull it closer. As soon as his hand touched the edge of the vellum, he was hit with a wave of revulsion and nausea so severe that--

“Widow! Trash can,” Bucky said, flinging something silver towards Natasha.

Natasha caught it and grabbed Steve's head. Steve retched bile and water into the trash can for a good few minutes. Bucky (behind him, Jesus, someone needs to tie a bell to him) pushed a handkerchief at him and said, tender and wry and charming, “Told ya not to touch it.”

“You know what it is?” asked Tony.

Bucky shrugged. “Something magic. I'm shit at magic stuff. 'S why I'm here. Other than vast reserves of Irish Catholic superstition, I got nothin'.”

He shifted his feet and looked uncomfortable. “Also I think it's a map of hell. I think... I think the Red Skull is back, or almost back, and he's doing something about opening up the gates of hell. If it's Catholic hell,” Bucky continued, pale as a spooked schoolboy, “That could... that could go quite badly for me.”

“And you think the people who kidnapped Steve were working for the Red Skull?” asked Natasha.

“They told me they were,” answered Bucky.

“People will say anything under torture,” parried Natasha.

“It was solid. Trust me.”

“We should get Thor here. And Stephen Strange,” said Bruce.

“Or we should wait until this doesn't seem like the paranoid delusions of a brain-damaged assassin with a 70-year-long guilt complex,” sighed Clint.

Bucky ran his hand through his hair and knocked the bottom of his bat against his foot. “Look. I'm not going to play this game. This is... this is not my war any more. I'm not doing it again. I don't understand magic. You have people who do. You have--” he continued, motioning around him to the Tower, “--all this.”

Bucky tossed a thumb drive at Tony, and turned to leave. “Go save the world. I got other stuff to do.”

“Bucky! We could use your help,” Steve called out.

Bucky looked back over his shoulder and sighed. “Steve, last night I beat a dozen people to death with a baseball bat. Half were unarmed. And you know what? I fucking loved every minute of it. I'm not what you, or the Avengers, want by your side.”

(Yes you are)

“Told you letting the psychopath rescue Cap was a bad idea,” whispered Clint.

“So just curious here, but what is more pressing in your busy schedule than the Red Skull and potentially impending armageddon?” asked Tony, as Bucky passed.

Bucky slung his bat over his shoulder and called back as he headed to the elevator, “Gonna check on what's left of my unit. Make sure they're safe. Three people alive in this world I give a shit about. I'm leaving one of 'em in your care. Don't fuck it up.”

His unit... Dugan and Morita, Steve thought. Bucky was going to visit the last two Howling Commandos.

Then he had another thought: Bucky was scared as hell.

Chapter Text

“Hey. I'm here to see your, uh, I guess he's your grandpa? Timothy Dugan? Is he in?”

The girl-- no, woman-- looked him up and down. Looked over his shoulder at the flashy black sports car parked nearby, the car she'd heard growling up their quiet Westchester street, disturbing the fall leaves. “Grandpa Tim doesn't know anybody like, like, like you,” she said, starting to shut the prim white Victorian door.

“Wait--”, said the stranger. He pulled a slip of paper out of his biker jacket, and wrote something quickly on it. “Please, give him this?”

She took the folded-up note ("first night of Salerno. you'd only known me a week but you asked me to keep a secret. I did.)", and narrowed her eyes, and shut the door. Bucky leaned against his car and waited; watched the leaves fall. Watched kids playing on tricycles; families unloading from supermarket runs; ladies cutting back their rose bushes for the winter. Ten minutes later the door opened again. He strolled up the flagstone walk, taking his time.

“Can I take your coat?” the woman asked, barely masking her disapproval.

“I'll keep it on, thanks.”

“...Sarge?” came a voice from the second floor, shaky in age and disbelief.

“Hell spat me out. Said I was too mean for 'em,” Bucky called up. “So here I am.”

“Christ... you haven't aged a day. You're like the Captain.”

The woman grabbed his arm. “He tires easily. Don't, don't, don't--”

“Betty, quit your fussin'. This man's the only reason I got home from the War. Sarge, get up here.”

Bucky watched the disbelief and mistrust dance across the granddaughter's visage. He looked her straight in the eye, indicated his own face, and said with a wink and a grin, “It's the clean living, ma'am,” before taking the stairs two at a time, swinging around the stairlift, as Dum Dum Dugan howled with his first good laugh in years from above.

Dugan still had hands like the knots of oak trees, and his brown eyes were still huge and bright, but Lord, the rest of him. Bucky now looked down at him, this once-towering force, whose hands now shook on his cane and whose bent back and parchment skin marked in increments the slow progress to the grave, now almost arrived, a progress Bucky had and maybe would never know. Dugan lifted a quivering hand from his cane and put it on Bucky's cheek. His eyes shone with emotion. “It really... Christ, Sarge. How? When?”

Bucky pulled a flask of whisky out of his pocket. “Long story. Grab a pew?”

Dugan took his arm, conspiratorially. He whispered as he led Bucky down the hall, indicating downstairs with a tilt of his head, “The Enemy won't approve at all. It plays hell with my blood pressure medicine. I recommend a swift and tactical retreat.”

There was a nice, sunny bedroom, that looked over the back yard. A faded chintz recliner, which Dugan lowered himself slowly into. An old wooden Windsor chair, which Bucky turned back to front and sat down on, resting his chin on the rail. He unscrewed the top of the flask, and passed it to Dugan. Dugan grabbed his left hand in both of his, eyes pressed closed with emotion then, gradually, wider with amazement. Dugan rapped on his hand. “It's... metal.”

“Yeah, didn't make it back entirely in mint condition,” said Bucky, sluffing off his leather jacket and peeling off his gloves. He held up his metal arm, for Dugan's inspection. Dugan touched it, hesitant, like the plates would snap his finger if he got too close.

“So what happened to you, Sarge? You get stuck in the ice after the fall, like the Captain? The Captain knows you're back, right?”

“Yeah, he does. I'm not sure he's best pleased with me right now, but... yeah. He knows I'm back. And, I, uh, no.... I've been back for a while. In fact I sorta never went, in a way.”

Dugan looked at him in confusion.

Bucky stared at his feet and spoke quietly. “T-they found me. By the time they were done with me, the war was over. Steve was dead. You were all back home. I haven't been able to come see you before this, because it would have put you in danger. They, uh, they would have killed you.”

“Sarge...?”

Bucky's voice got an edge to it. “The war was over, Dugan. I fought for someone else for a while. Didn't have a ton of choice.”

“Sarge.”

“I was Hydra.”

Bucky heard the flask fall to the ground, and didn't even need to see the cane coming towards his head (grab it with your left hand and twist, break the wrist and shatter the cane; jab the broken end forwards into the throat for the kill--). The cane thunked off the metal of his forearm as Bucky put his hand up to block at the last moment.

"Everything we fought for, Sarge. All those years, everything you saw them do and you go and join them--"

Bucky shook his head and pushed the cane back towards Dugan. “It doesn't fucking matter, Dum Dum. One set of assholes or the other. What was that poem Falsworth was always quoting, when things went to shit?"

Good-morning, good-morning!” the General said
When we met him last week on our way to the line.
Now the soldiers he smiled at are most of 'em dead,
And we're cursing his staff for incompetent swine.
“He's a cheery old card,” grunted Harry to Jack
As they slogged up to Arras with rifle and pack.
But he did for them both by his plan of attack.

"Yes, I killed people for Hydra. Not frightened Friesian schoolboys in Nazi uniforms so new they still had the creases on 'em, but arms dealers, generals, politicians. People who were guilty as fuck. The people who sent us up to Azzano with no air support or artillery because fuck the grunts and maybe slogging through our bodies would slow the enemy down enough to matter but if not? Who cares, more where we came from. Who needs the poor, anyway. And then when I could finally get free of Hydra I went back and burned that fucking organization to the ground. Go to Hydra. Go to them and say 'Winter Soldier', and see how fast they fucking piss themselves. I've personally killed more Hydra than the Commandos did over the entire war.”

Dugan just sat there, his fists gripped around his cane so hard his knuckles were white. “You always liked that, didn't you, Sarge,” Dugan hissed. “The killing.”

“Didn't bother you, when I was pointed at the Krauts. Kinda seems like semantics, getting upset when I'm pointed anywhere else.”

“I should have known. There's a lot in the war I want to forget, but there are one or two things that much as I want to bury them will burn in my mind forever. One of them is your face, that night in London straight after the Captain rescued us, when we were going back to quarters. And we passed that pub where there was that hooley of a fight going on, and Jesus Christ, the way you looked--”

“--you're seriously going to bust my balls about getting in a bar fight 70 years ago?”

“I have never seen bloodlust in someone's eyes before I saw you, that night, diving into a melee of strangers. I'd read about it in stories, but jeez, Sarge. You fought the whole damn bar.”

“There were mitigating fucking circumstances, Dum Dum--”

(Steve looking at Peggy the way he had never looked at you)

(Steve leaving with Peggy)

(THE WHISKY NOT FUCKING WORKING ANY MORE)

“Oh, really, Sarge? I was still awake when you came home. I saw you. What sort of mitigating circumstances involve having blood up to your elbows and grinning like a maniac?”

“Dugan, you know what happens when they make you Sergeant? You don't get to have your own problems any more. Keeping you idiots alive was the only problem I had time to have. Sometimes I cut loose to deal with my own shit. Stone me. Don't care. Like to see how you would have done on Zola's table in Azzano, if I hadn't volunteered to take your place. Because that seems like something you've conveniently forgotten.”

“Get out.”

“No. There's something else you have to hear--”

“GET OUT,” shouted Dugan. “BETTY!”

Bucky's lip twisted as he stood up. “I came to tell you the Red Skull's back. I came here to say I had your back, that I'd protect you. But seeing as you've opted not to be my problem any more--” He pulled a 9mm Sig out from under his jacket and tossed it into Dugan's lap. “--when they come for you, I suggest you use it on yourself. Because you can trust me on this: you don't want them to take you alive.”

“Go to hell, Sarge,” Dugan whispered.

“Already been there, Dum Dum. Oh, and the clip's full, in case you need to put your family down, too,” said Bucky, before turning and shoving past the granddaughter in the doorway.

Dugan could hear him as he stomped down the steps, the fury around him palpable. A few moments later, the roar of a V8 engine dirtying the pleasant Hudson Valley afternoon. Dugan tucked the 9mm down into the chair cushion next to his leg, as his granddaughter fussed. “Who was that, that, that person? He looked like a musician,” sniffed Betty, in the tone of voice middle-class white ladies use for undesirable, not like us, scruffy, probably on drugs, for I better count the silver, in case he pocketed anything.

“He was nobody,” said Dum Dum Dugan. “Someone I thought I knew.” He reached over for the glass of water on his side table, his shaky arm toppling the Howling Commandos photo next to it onto the ground.

“Oh, Grandpa! Your army picture--”, Betty said, leaning down to pick up the silver frame.

“Don't worry about it, Betty.” said Dugan. “Been meaning to replace it with a photo of you and the kids, anyway.”

Natasha propped up the wall in the Tower's gym, arms folded, and watched Steve trying to punch a hole in a specially-reinforced heavy bag. “You know, you never did take me to dinner,” she smiled. “A girl can take that sort of thing personally.”

“Sorry, Natasha. I forgot.”

“Doing anything tonight?” she questioned, with that look that said, other than moping around your quarters like a restless spirit, and watching TCM.

Steve smiled. “We could do tonight. Do I need to change?” he asked, indicating his gym clothes.

“No. Let's go somewhere easy,” Natasha said, walking over to Steve and linking her arm into his. “There's this great local Italian place over on 9th Ave. You mind the walk?”

“Never with as lovely a companion as you,” said Steve.

The place was one of a dying breed in New York, tiny and almost empty because it wasn't trendy enough with its red and white check tablecloths and plastic flowers and wood-panelled walls. Natasha ordered wine (in perfect Italian) and charmed the waiters enough that soon, food was just coming out from the kitchen, no ordering needed. Steve adored this side of Natasha. She might be prickly as anything at times, but when you really needed a friend, she was always there.

Natasha caught Steve's fond gaze and put her hand on his arm, and looked up at him, about to say something. The look in her eye made Steve jerk away. “So help me, if you're about to say 'poor Steve'... I am so tired of being 'poor Steve', out of time, all his friends dead except the crazy one. I'm so tired of being a symbol, and an object of your pity.”

“Steve, I never said that--”

“You don't need to say it. I can see all of you, thinking it.”

Natasha took one of Steve's big hands in hers, and pressed his knuckles against her cheek. “Oh, Steve... it's not us. Somewhere along the line you... you lost yourself. I can tell you all day long what a wonderful person you are, and I don't mean Captain America, forget that guy, but you, Steve Rogers you. But something in you won't believe me. I can't make other people stop pitying you, until you stop feeling sorry for yourself.”

Steve shifted uncomfortably and withdrew his hand.

“Seriously, Steve, when was the last time you were really happy with yourself? The war?”

“No. Oh Lord no. I was a complete fraud during the war. Didn't know what the blazes I was doing. I've... I've never--. But it didn't matter, because--”

“--Because Bucky. And here we are at the crux of the problem,” sighed Natasha.

“You don't like him,” said Steve.

“I have problems with him that are not at all related to who he is. It's about what he is. His tradecraft is so flawless it's almost supernatural. He's come closer to killing me than... anyone. And I can't... I know what it cost me to survive Hydra for 20 years. He survived it for 70. Everything in my nature screams out to get as far away from him as possible, and to keep my friends away from him.”

“And he enjoyed it. He likes murdering,” Steve said, poking at some garlic bread.

“Did you ever talk to him about his years at Hydra? Like, really listen to him?”

“N-no,” Steve said. “I didn't think he'd want to.”

Natasha smiled ruefully. “It's so much to carry, and nobody ever asks. It's not polite. Nobody ever thinks you want to talk about it. But God, you do. If you got me started, I might never stop.”

Steve blushed, apologetic. He realised how much he'd been wrapped up in his own head in the past few months. What a crappy friend he'd been. How much he'd assumed others would give him, without offering anything in return. “What was it like?”

“It's a piranha pit. It's an organization that feeds on its own weak. It's the looking-glass world, where you must run very fast just to stay where you are... and you must run on the bodies of your competitors and superiors.” Natasha tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “I was the only Widow to survive the program. It's taken me years to be able to act like anything normal people might be able to relate to as a human being. Although if you asked me right after I came out, I would have told you with a straight face and utter self-belief how totally fine I was. I know what you mean about being a fraud, Steve. How well I know.”

Steve wanted to hug her so badly at that moment. “You're much better at being a fraud than I am. Heck, you're better at most everything than me.”

Natasha put her hands up in mock surrender. “Oh no. I carried your shield down from Bucky's helicopter. I never want to have to throw that in anger. I'd sprain something.”

Steve smiled. “I'll show you sometime. It's all in the wrist.”

“That's what she said.”

“Who, your momma?

“STEVEN GRANT ROGERS! DID YOU JUST 'YOUR MOMMA' ME?” gasped Natasha in mock horror, as Steve dissolved into a fit of giggles. “Cancel the alarms, Rogers is fine. Pfft. I was actually worried about you for a minute there.”

“God, you're such a tonic, Natasha.”

Natasha took his hand again. “Look. I can see how much you light up around Bucky. And he cares for you. With every fibre of his being he cares for you, it's clear in his face as a summer sky. But Steve, he survived Hydra for 70 years. Whatever he claims, it changed him. He doesn't need you trying to whitewash that, or analyze him, or God forbid, fix him. For now, please take it from me, just hold him close and tell him how glad you are that he's there. Because you have no idea how lucky you are to have him. If you feel up to it, ask him to tell you about his time there, and don't judge him. Please don't judge him. He's already judged himself, and you're just going to make it worse.”

“But.. everything I do seems to make it worse. One wrong word and it's like a wall comes down...”

“Steve, you idiot, he's trying to find a way out of seventy years of hard-wired survival habits toward a position where he can actually have friends, that's why he's being such an almighty tool about it. Let him find his own path. If you push him, he's just going to retreat into being horrible as a method of making everyone leave him alone.”

“You sure you haven't met Bucky Barnes before...?” Steve asked.

Natasha just smiled, Sphynx-like, and poked at the pasta she'd ignored, now growing cold. Finally she pushed it aside and said, “This may be too personal a question, but your feelings for him are... more than platonic, yes?”

Steve froze, his eyes wide in the terror of a man whose innermost secret had been revealed. Natasha was absorbed in looking into her wineglass, but Steve knew that she'd seen, and that she had just received all the answer she needed. He leaned his forehead on his hand as the edge of his panic dulled, and he spoke softly, feeling a rising sense of relief that he could put this into words, that there was someone he trusted that he could share his burden with. “I always loved him, but I never thought about it in a... in a physical way. I mean, I admired him and he was... so beautiful, and funny and warm... and God, maybe I did. But Natasha, you should have seen me. I was all crooked and wrong. Nobody would have wanted me in that way. 'Specially not Buck, he could have had anyone. But since he's been back, since he came back to me...”

Steve ran his hands through his hair. “...Natasha, it's all I can think about.”

Chapter Text

The old man stared out the window at the dingy little courtyard with the drought-dead lawn, where the LNAs in their jaunty scrubs snuck out for cigarettes in between changing Depends and wiping chins and dispensing pills. He didn't turn when he heard footsteps near his door. They were never for him. When you're a young man you think the direct cuts are the worst, that terror is wars and guns, he thought. But an old man knows: terror is the fellow who comes and says they're taking back your home because the bills, they're all in a mess, and the writing is so small and hard to read and had he really fallen behind that much? Terror is the daughter-in-law who moved on to a new husband and another coast, and says “Jim who?” when you finally get up the courage to call, two weeks after they foreclose. Terror is outliving your own children. Two fine boys he'd had. Vietnam got one; cancer got the other. Terror is--

“Morita, what's up, you sonuvabitch.”

Jim looked up, confusion clouding his eyes. A figure in a blue jacket sat down across from him, a gift-wrapped box on his lap. Bobby? No, too tall for Bobby, and this guy was Caucasian...

“I didn't actually bring you a present. Fuckers had a metal detector out front, seriously, what's this world coming to?”, said the man, ripping off the paper from the box and pulling out a series of pistols and knives which quickly vanished under the blue jacket.

The smell of gun oil, and cigarettes...

Jim blinked and smiled. “Sarge, we moving out?”

Bucky's face just about collapsed. He reached out his right hand and put it over Morita's thin, liver-spotted wrist, no more strength to it than a bird's any more. “Yeah, we're moving out tomorrow morning, Jim. But we're good for tonight. Perimeter's secure, the Captain's on watch and we don't have shit to do in this farmhouse but play cards and drink. Tomorrow's gonna be a cakewalk, too. Little base, barely defended.”

“You said that about Azzano, Sarge,” Jim chuckled, as Bucky pulled a pack of cards and a bottle of whiskey out of the box.

“Yeah, well, that's the last time I let anyone else do recon for me,” Bucky snorted, dealing a hand of rummy. “I swear ta God, Jim, I checked this one out myself.”

Jim picked up his cards and stared at them. They danced around in front of him. He tried to think what order they should be in and realised Sarge was watching him, and would think he had a problem if he didn't do something soon, so he tentatively moved the cards around like he had any idea if the picture ones should be on the right or the left.

“How's June doing?” Jim asked.

“Who?”

“Is she doing any better in school, Bobby?”

Bucky swallowed. “Yeah, she, uh, she pulled her grades right up, Jim.”

“Oh, thank heavens. Is she going to go back to Japanese class?”

The Fist of Hydra moved in the little room into which an old man's entire world had shrunk, a linoleum rectangle that smelled of piss and industrial disinfectant, shifted until he was backlit in the Sacramento sunshine, so his old friend wouldn't notice the tears flowing silently down his cheeks. Pride making him sit in front of the window like some idiot who wanted to get shot. This is how smart people die, said the part of his brain that was always calculating.

“...Sarge? You okay?”

The Winter Soldier wiped his face. “Yeah. Fine. Sorry. Away with the fairies for a minute.”

“You weren't thinking about the shapeshifter, were you?”

“Christ, Morita, the hell made you bring that up?” Bucky asked, blindsided. That was... that was a thing that the original lads from the 107th never spoke about. Bucky hadn't even told Steve about that night. It had been a couple weeks before Azzano, when the regiment was bogged down in a valley between Padua and the mountains and the night had broke unexpectedly warm, filling the hollows and pine forests with fog. And in that tenebrous grey, the witch had come for them, wearing the skin of their friends-- Bucky shuddered. That was one of the nights from the war he never, ever wanted to think about again. Horror prickled through him as he wondered what in the tides and eddies of Morita's memories had thrown up that particular carcass.

“Jim, talk to me. Did you see the witch again?”

Jim blinked at him and put down the cards. “Do I have anything?” he asked.

“Aw, lemme see,” Bucky said, sorting through his hand. “Yeah, you won. You got two pair and then a bunch of face cards. We're playing Dugan rules, so it counts, even though they're not all the same suit or in sequence.”

Bucky fished a cigarette out of his pocket and rolled it towards Jim. “There ya go. Don't tell the boys I'm holding.” He was already pulling a battered Zippo out of another pocket, and fitting a cigarette to his own lips. Both men held their cigs tucked under their hands, the better to hide their glow from the enemy lines.

Morita smiled. “You're the best, Sarge. I dunno what we're gonna do after you die.”

Bucky levered forwards, suddenly tense. “...What?”

A shadow flickered at the door. (Get away from the window up in the corner kick the chair if you need to distract the enemy, safeties off and half drawn--)

“Yuh cain't smoke in here,” mumbled a chubby LNA in Snoopy-patterned scrubs, who had no idea how close she had just come to being a homicide statistic.

Bucky leaned nonchalantly against the wall and released the gun behind his back to slide down into its holster again. He took the cigarette out of his mouth. “Sorry, ma'am. We'll go outside.”

The woman looked at him. “It's time for his bath,” she said, in the tired but unswayable voice of a woman holding down two sub-$12/hr jobs at once while raising kids on her own. Bucky knew when he was beat.

He put his hand out for Morita's cigarette, and Jim sighed and gave it to him. He pinched both out between the fingers of his metal hand and dropped the still-viable butts into his pocket. Then he leaned down and hugged Morita.

“Bye, Bobby. Give my love to June and that pretty wife of yours,” Jim said, patting his back. “Let me know when they say I can come home.”

Bucky stalked down the hall, torn between his need to get out of there get out right now and a feeling in his gut that he had to help Morita somehow and that once he stepped out into the dry Northern California sunshine it would be too late.

(He could come home with you--)

(That is a terrible plan. Your loft is basically an arsenal and you are never home and he has Alzheimers. No.)

(You can't leave him here--)

He swivelled on his heel even as the thought came to him: Stevie. The Tower. They can-- And then he froze. The sound was at the other end of the building, where he had just come from, and would have been out of the range of normal hearing. It wouldn't have even registered to someone with enhanced senses, those two little exhalations, unless that person had spent an awful lot of time around silenced weaponry.

Bucky tore down the hallway, a gun in each hand and murder on his face. He assumed people screamed. He didn't even really hear them any more. Morita was lying on the floor, gut-shot, the fuckers gut-shot him and now he was going out slow and he looked up and through the white-hot pain he said “Sarge, why--”. Not the window must have been the door it's someone still in the building--

Then he heard the sirens. That was too fast. Someone must have called the police well before Morita had been hit. Someone was setting him up. He looked over his shoulder. All the witnesses they could want, right there in the hallway (end them don't leave witnesses end them now nobody sees you stay a ghost), watching a known killer stand with drawn guns over a dying man. A frail woman in a wheelchair wept, marooned in the hallway like debris from a flood (softness will be the death of you, Barnes). It was a fucking frame-up and he could either run like a yellow dog and leave Morita to go out the hard way, or shoot Morita and close the trap on himself.

Bucky knelt down and put the gun to Morita's temple, and took Morita's trembling hand in his right one. Morita made an abrupt, tiny nod. He pulled the trigger.

Then he slid the gun from his left hand back into its holster and exploded forwards, straight through the window into the little courtyard. He hit the opposing wall at nearly full speed, barely slowing down as he scaled it, and sprinted across the flat municipal roof. Police chopper, couple minutes away by the sound. Get black before they spot you, get black right fucking now-- behind him, screams, gunshots, but not at him who the hell were they shooting at and why trees ahead off the northeast corner between the building and the freeway, not enough for cover god seriously fuck the suburbs fuck landscaping give me a city any time or proper wilderness and no not Morita he didn't deserve that and pray to what gods look down on hard-luck chancers (probably just the Devil) there's a truck coming down the freeway beyond the trees fuck me this is gonna be a ball of laughs--

He grunted as he flung himself as far off the roof as he could. Grabbed a low-hanging tree branch with his left arm, twigs scratching his face to hell (this is why the mask, Stevie, also scaring the shit out of your enemies is USEFUL), swung out into the road right under the truck, no time to break it with a roll, just land on your back like an idiot and no not Morita try not to get under a tyre then grab the underside of the truck as it races over and hang the fuck on, the freeway going by 70 miles per hour, inches from the back of your head, and try not to drown yourself in paranoid theories that They supplied the truck whoever They are (Hydra it's Hydra it's the fucking Red Skull) like They tried to set the frame and They're going to drive you out in the desert where there is nowhere to run and snap out of it Barnes if they do that you will still cowboy up and kill them all anyway, the fuck is wrong with you these days, and right before you rip their heads off with your bare fucking hands you will look them in the eyes and you will tell them this was for the life of James Morita.

Twenty minutes in and his muscles burned with the effort of hanging on upside down to the truck's undercarriage. He crawled up to the gap between the cab and the trailer and tucked himself into a pocket of shadow for minimum visibility. Pulled his goggles out of his pocket for protection from the wind. They were heading southwest, towards San Francisco. Suited him fine. He had a lockup in Oakland with kit, weapons and a choice of about twelve identities. He pulled out a burner and dialed the number he'd memorised into it.

“Hello?” Steve's voice. Confused. He was on a streetcorner, judging from the background noise.

“Stevie. It's me. We're in the shit. Trust nobody. Don't believe what you see in the news. I'll get to you as soon as I can.” Bucky hung up and tossed the phone under the tyres of a passing car.

“What's wrong?” asked Natasha, as they walked down 37th Street. “You've gone completely pale.”

“Bucky's in trouble,” said Steve.

Natasha looked down at her phone. “Yeah, I'd say he is.”

She tilted the screen towards Steve: CNN was reporting a mass shooting at a retirement home outside Sacramento. 17 dead. There was a cellphone pic of the suspect from the back, standing over a body: combat boots, khaki trousers, blue jacket. Gloves. Two guns. He was looking over his shoulder, in profile, and the blank fury in his face was unmistakeable.

Steve didn't know what cut him more: that Bucky looked so much right then like Sergeant Barnes of the Howling Commandos, or that he was standing over Jim Morita's lifeless body.

Chapter Text

Felipe narrowed his eyes as the stranger stalked down the street. Hood up, but he was white, which meant he was in the wrong fuckin' neighborhood. Walked like a baller, tho. Walked like someone who made trouble. Felipe was of two minds about calling out to him, asking him what he was doing in this part of Oakland, when he realised the guy was staring at him.

“Hey, Felipe. Where'd you get that t-shirt?” The guy spoke to him in Spanish. Colombian accent.

Felipe looked closer at the face under the hood, then stood up. “Tinker! Fuck, man, what are you doin' back?”

The guy he knew as Tinker, high-end car thief and forger, just shrugged as Felipe bounced down the steps. They fistbumped, then Felipe indicated his black t-shirt with the big red design. “You like it? I think it's gangsta. My girl got it for me at the mall.”

Bucky Barnes suppressed a smile of amusement that, within six months of its fall, Hydra had become pop culture. That Hot Topic was flogging t-shirts with its skull and tentacle symbol to goths and street kids. “I might get myself one of those,” he said. “How's Rico? How's things around here?”

“They all right. My girl got arrested.”

“What for?”

“Frontin' to a cop when she got pulled over for a busted taillight.”

Bucky furrowed his brow. “You still with the same girl? The one who's about five foot nothing?” he said, indicating with his hand.

“Yeah, Luz. Cop was bigger than you, too.”

“Ugh.”

“Hey, uh, can you help with it? They still got her in jail.”

“Felipe, I got heat on me. You don't want me anywhere near your shit right now, I'd just make it worse. I'm not going to be around very long.”

“Oh. Man. I'm sorry.”

Bucky pulled some keys out of a pocket as he walked up to the graffiti-covered garage he owned, across from Felipe's house. “Thanks for keeping an eye on the place.” This was a Latin Kings hood, and Bucky had strategically done a few favours for Rico, who ran the gang, and his cousin Felipe – stole Rico a car; forged a couple green cards. In exchange, nobody messed with the garage. Not like it seemed to have anything interesting in it – an old, beat-up Volvo station wagon with COEXIST and OBAMA '08 bumper stickers (the sort of car you'd never look at twice on the street); a cheap Honda motorcycle propped against a wall, and various parts of a Mustang engine, half-restored, the transmission in pieces all over the workbench.

Bucky unlocked the garage door and slipped in, pulling the door down until it was a couple inches from fully closed, to let in some air. He sank down onto the cool, oil-spotted cement floor and stared at the rafter beams. Okay, Barnes. Work it out. Untangle the problem. Let the part of your brain that is always calculating do its job.

He tried shutting his eyes but he just saw Morita no not Morita, motherfuckers and even once he'd pushed that down, a legion of thoughts pushed back up, charging around the inside of his head like wild horses.

Fine. We have to do this the hard way.

He stripped off his hoodie and shirt, and kicked off his boots. Laid his weapons out neatly on the t-shirt. A moment to focus. Then--

--jump, kick-turn off from the workbench and arc backwards, grab the rafters, up--

--land. Bare feet one behind the other on the 6” wide beam. Lean back slowly, the point isn't speed, it's control, flow off your feet onto your hands, extend upwards, remove your left hand from the beam--

Bucky held the one-armed handstand on the beam, 15 feet above the cement floor on his flesh hand, his other arm extended out, legs straight above him, until he felt blankness settle over him. He ignored the screaming that started up in his muscles, complaining of supporting his 250 pounds of flesh and metal on a single arm, and he worked through the problem. When he started to get the shakes, he flowed into a different inversion pose, or threw himself into the air to somersault across to the other rafter beam, eyes closed to force his brain to focus.

Observations:
Trying to kidnap Steve. Why?
Running me. Trying to get me into the open? Or back to New York? They know they can't find me if I go to ground. (Likelihood of another attempt on Steve: very high)
Dr Doom's angle? He's not exactly into sharing, especially with someone like the Red Skull.
Shapeshifter? There are no accidents. Why did Morita bring that up? Also: Morita's likely murderer?
Why now? The discovery of the manuscript? I need to understand what it is/does.
Why mess with Steve and me? Old grudges are not an acceptable tactical reason for engagement this early. Besides, there's a lot stronger/more powerful than us in this world now...
...but very few that heal as fast.
Fuck.
They need a body.
They need the manuscript.
I need a crash course in magic.
And to go protect Steve.

Slick with sweat, Bucky silently dropped back down to the ground. He pushed the Volvo over to the empty garage bay, and dried his hands on his hoodie before grabbing the chain attached to the big cement slab that had been hidden underneath it, and lifting. His muscles strained as the slab grudgingly moved.

He slipped down into the old pit and turned on the work light he'd left in there. Crates of weapons and ammunition. Passports, credit cards, ID for a dozen people, a dozen nationalities. Clothes. Disguises. Phones. Laptops. A suitcase that effectively held all the ingredients of a field hospital. Rations. Water. Cash. Lots of cash. An hour to sunset... enough time for a shower and a change of identity.

When Bucky came out of the back-room shower he was a San Francisco hipster kid with a bleach-blonde fringe poking out from a beanie. Tattoos, a couple earrings, tight jeans, gloves and a vintage flannel completed the look. He opened up a guitar soft-case and fitted various tools of violent mayhem into its re-tailored, specialised interior. With that over his shoulder, he was one Starbucks Venti away from being the sort of guy who would get really boring about Elliott Smith B-sides really fast.

Then he paused in the middle of tucking an extra clip for the assault rifle into the softcase, as a small animal wiggled itself under the garage door and huddled there, whimpering and staring at him with its strangely human brown eyes. It was a little grey and white dog, about 40lbs, most of it head, and one of its front paws was... not there. The little pit bull just held it up, a mess of gristle and filth and visible bone, an old injury that just healed as best it could on the street. She was so skinny her hip-bones poked out.

“Aw, fuck,” muttered the Fist of Hydra.

Felipe was just getting his daughter down to bed when some asshole started banging on his door. He cursed the person and his entire family lineage past and future as he hurried to the front door and flung it open.

Tinker stood there, barely recognizeable in some fucked-up maricón clothes. He had a cigarette in his mouth, a guitar over his shoulder, and he was thrusting a dog at Felipe.

“Dog,” he said, as Felipe took the little messed-up bitch with the bandaged paw.

Tinker then reached in his back pocket and handed Felipe a fat wad of money in an envelope. “Bail money,” he said.

Then another envelope of money. “Dog stuff.”

Tinker spoke around the cigarette. “Dog still alive next time I'm here, you don't have to pay me back for the bail.” Then he turned to go.

“Tinker, wait a sec.” Felipe said, putting the dog down as his daughter came running out of her bedroom.

“Daddy!!! Did we get a doggie?” said the five-year-old, her face lighting up.

“Um, yeah, I guess. Go take her into the kitchen and give her some water and the rest of that hamburger you didn't finish.”

“We're going to name her Rapuuuuunzel!” said the girl. She and the dog disappeared around the corner, to sounds of clapping and “come here Rapunzel, come here girl.”

“...Rapunzel?” Tinker asked, lifting an eyebrow.

“Man, you don't know my Disney pain. I used to know every Tupac lyric and now I can recite all of Tangled. Hey, I gotta ask you something.”

Tinker spread his hands. Ask away.

“This arms-tech company, Advanced Mechanics, they hiring guys like me. Ionno if I should do it, if it's on the level.”

“What are they paying?” Tinker asked.

“Thirty. And benefits.”

Tinker made a thoughtful face, evaluating the money. “That's not bad.”

“Yeah, no shit.”

Tinker came up the stoop and leaned against the doorframe, dropping his voice so he couldn't be overheard on the street. “Okay, here's the deal with a gig like that. If you join, you gotta do it with someone from the neighborhood, someone you can trust. Because otherwise they'll have some guy come up to you early on after you join and act like he's your friend, and I guarantee you he'll be reporting everything you say to the management.”

“Yeah, that's cool, Mikey's thinking of going in too.”

“Don't wear the Hydra shirt to your interview; they get weird about that. Don't volunteer for experiments. Don't let them inject you with shit. Most of all, remember that AIM isn't the Kings. They don't have loyalties. They only have needs. So you do not fuckin' lay down your life for those assholes, got it? The Avengers or some other super team busts in, you put down your rifle, reach for the sky and then you snitch like a motherfucker to the capes. Play your cards right, and afterwards they'll hire you into SHIELD or whatever they're calling it these days and then you will get paid. Those guys pull down like a hundred an hour.”

“It's not what crew's the livest, one that survive's who's the wisest, got it.”

“There's only one exception to the surrender rule. You know who the Winter Soldier is?”

Felipe shook his head.

Tinker held his hand a couple inches over his own head, indicating height. “Big guy. Metal arm. Wears all black, and a mask and goggles. He breaks in, you do not put down your weapon, you just run. Cause he will straight-up murder everyone in there, armed or not. Hell, you run if you even hear he's coming.”

“Coooool,” Felipe said, his expression full of interest. “What does he fight for?”

Tinker looked taken aback for a moment. Confused. At last he gave a sad little shrug. “I dunno.”

He walked back out towards the setting sun; towards the café racer he'd parked outside the locked-up garage, and raised a hand in goodbye.

Stephen Strange made himself a cup of after-dinner tea as he listened to a Bach cello concerto mix with the sounds of the Haight-Ashbury night wafting through the large, ornate round skylight above him. He ignored the presence sitting cross-legged on the roof next to it, as he felt the presence watch him.

“Am I getting sloppy, or do you have, like... wards? Is that the word? On this place,” came the rough voice from the roof.

Dr Strange smiled and continued to stir his tea, without looking up. “You have your ways of ensuring security; I have mine.”

“I guess at this point I'm supposed to ask if you'll let me in?” The voice continued.

Dr Strange's green and gold eyes registered amusement, wrinkling at the edges. “Three times, if you're a demon. Not strictly necessary if you're a human, but politeness is always appreciated. And yes, please, enter.”

“All right, then.” The presence dropped silently into the room.

“So,” said Dr Strange, turning and holding out a second cup of tea to his night visitor. “You've come about the Carta Infernale. Nasty thing, isn't it?”

“I really appreciate this,” said Steve to Natasha and Clint as Clint backed his car into a tight parking space opposite Steve's apartment. “It shouldn't take very long.”

“It's okay. I'm just glad you've agreed to move into the Tower,” smiled Natasha. “Your place has zero security.”

“Ugh, you sound like Bucky.” Steve grabbed his shield from the back seat.

“So there's three paintings and we're moving all of them?” Clint said.

“No, we're leaving the big one. Just taking the two smaller ones. The big one, I'm not sure about it. And it's huge. We'd have to unstretch it and that's a pain,” Steve said as he got out and walked towards his building. “Plus I need to grab some clothes and things.”

When they got to the third floor, Steve was surprised to find his door slightly open. He put a hand up to Natasha and Clint and walked in. Clint had made a small crossbow appear from somewhere and Natasha slipped a bracelet of stingers onto her wrist.

Steve tiptoed in, leading with the shield, then relaxed, lowering his guard as he saw the metal-armed figure sitting on the sofa in front of the Franz Kline painting. “It's okay,” he said, his eyes still fixed on his friend and the artwork behind him and how suddenly the previously difficult painting made sense to him, became utterly clear. He could see the enormous passion and energy in its lines, a sort of fierce purity, the way the black and white fought each other, vibrated off each other, but ultimately balanced. “It's Bucky.”

The figure moved, and it moved... strangely. Too jagged, too self-conscious for Bucky's languid grace, Steve's brain screamed out no no wrong this is wrong--

“Steve,” Natasha whispered simultaneously. “That's not--”

And then the thing wearing Bucky's skin opened fire.

Chapter Text

The creature's first bullets spanged off Steve's shield and ricocheted around the tiny apartment. The thing wearing Bucky's skin was already advancing on him, flowing towards him, its body separating and changing to let Clint's crossbow bolts and Natasha's stingers through. Steve felt sick. What the hell was it? And by God, if it had hurt Bucky in any way--

White-hot rage coursed through Steve. How dare it. “What have you done to him?” he shouted. “What have you done?!”. It grinned at him. He swung the shield in the too-small space like a club, trying to crush the creature against its sharp, narrow edge. The first few missed, the creature flowing around the shield like oil on water, but then Steve cut up counterintuitively after a thrust, instead of down, and caught the creature on the jaw.

Out of the corner of his eye he saw Natasha move behind him, felt her small hands on his shoulder as she used him as a vaulting horse. She had sensed the opening he'd caused, the opponent's momentary openness. She had a stinger in one hand and brought it down towards the creature as she came out of her somersault. The creature flowed away from it – right into the stinger she had hidden in her other hand.

The hard jolt of electricity shattered the creature's form briefly. No longer was it a twisted, increasingly perverse version of Bucky, but a woman, with sickly pale skin and green hair, a scar across her face, and the most soulless eyes Steve had ever seen. It turned, whip-fast, and kicked Natasha across the room, before morphing into something resembling Bucky again. Steve gave Clint a nod as he swung the shield low and Clint unloaded the crossbow high, hoping to catch the creature in a crossfire it couldn't dodge around.

It laughed. It laughed the most horrible laugh Steve had ever heard, a laugh of crypts and death and ancient menace, and stroked his cheek with a finger before it morphed into a large dog, breaking through Steve's window and leaping across to the roof beyond.

Steve ran after it. He knew Clint and Natasha couldn't make the jump across, and it was pure foolishness heading off on his own as this thing seemed to have come especially for him, but at that particular moment he was too damn mad to care. (In his mind, Bucky in his blue jacket rolled his eyes and sighted down his rifle.)

The creature was fast. It was gradually drawing ahead of him, running south and east down towards Williamsburg, leaping from rooftop to rooftop. Steve tried to fling his shield at it but it dodged, costing him precious seconds as he had to then recover the shield. Over the Jay Street subway it finally leapt to the ground, over the edge before Steve could see where it landed. When he arrived, panting, at the corner of the roof moments later, all he could see was the usual Friday evening crowd of hipsters and office workers, milling around in front of the subway entrance. The creature could be any of them, or it could be already gone. Steve slammed his shield into a nearby wall in frustration.

“Now what did that nice wall ever do to you?” called Natasha's voice from below. Steve looked down again. Clint had just backed down a one-way street in his car, and Natasha was sitting on the passenger-side door like she was in Dukes of Hazzard. Steve shook his head wearily and went down to reunite with his friends.

“When did you know?” Natasha asked.

“When he-- when it moved. You?” Steve replied.

Natasha hummed. “The open door. The real thing wouldn't have been that sloppy. To be honest, the real thing probably would have heard Clint and me on the stairs and vanished. But the movement confirmed it.” She looked up at Steve and put an arm on his bicep. “You okay?”

“No. I'm angry and tired and... do you think that was another kidnap attempt?” Steve asked.

Natasha nodded. “The thing had green hair. Makes me think of a Madam Hydra. There hasn't been one for decades. I was sure they were all dead. But they were an early part of the organization. Fanatical female recruits transformed via magic into something else. In some ways, the Black Widow program grew out of their operational legacy. But by then, Hydra had lost all its magic trinkets.”

Steve's hand opened and closed into a fist. It seemed like nothing bad could stay dead, he thought. Maybe it was some karmic trade-off for getting Bucky back. Not that he had Bucky... He shook himself, trying to relax, and then swept Natasha into a hug. “Thank you for being there. Thank you both. I'm not sure what would have happened if--”

“I can tell you what's going to happen, if you don't get your giant mitts off my girl,” Clint joked.

Natasha smirked at Clint as she disengaged a little from Steve. “Relax, Barton. You know Steve's already spoken for.”

Steve blushed, and Natasha flicked her green eyes up to his blue ones again. She spoke softly. “You're worried about him, aren't you?”

Steve nodded.

Natasha took his arm and led him gently to the car. “While there are no certainties in this business, if I were a betting girl? My money would be on him. Both to survive, and to come back to you.”

 

 

“It's not going to poison you.”

Bucky shrugged and swirled the green tea in the small, handmade cup. “Honestly it could be half ricin and I'd survive it. Wouldn't be my best Friday night, but it'd still be a damn sight away from my worst.”

Dr Strange chuckled, and reached for a book on a tall shelf.

Bucky put the tea aside. “So you've seen that thing? The Carta Infernale?”

“No,” said the Doctor, a slim man in his late 40s or early 50s with a touch of grey in his slicked-back dark hair and a neat moustache. “It's been lost for centuries. It's believed that a particularly misguided Knight Templar took it to the Holy Land to unleash hell on the Infidel. Thankfully the Infidel dispatched him to Hell before he could use it.”

Strange looked up from his book and caught Bucky's glance. Caught the undercurrent of discomfort and fear in it. He held Bucky's gaze and waited.

“Um, you might laugh at this question,” Bucky started, dropping his gaze. “But... does Hell exist?”

Strange sat down in a comfortable leather chair and indicated for Bucky to sit as well. “That is a very complicated question, and certainly not one meriting laughter. To which Hell are you referring?”

“The Catholic one. The one... the one the manuscript showed.”

Strange's eyebrows raised. “You could read it?”

Bucky shook his head. “Buncha symbols that didn't make any sense and kept crawling away into the corners of my eyes. But I touched it, and... it told me. Then made me throw up the entire contents of my stomach.”

Dr Strange smiled, empathetic. “And now you're concerned that you are going to Hell, perh-”

Bucky's bitter laugh cut across him. “Doc, I been the Devil's Own since I was 17 years old. I know I'm going to Hell. There's no bullshit about redemption with me. That ship went down in 1945, all hands aboard.”

“And yet.”

Bucky stilled in the silence, seeming to fade into the shadows on his chair. Finally he spoke again.

“Couple people I'd prefer not get dragged down with me. One of them's being targeted by the same people who want the manuscript. He's, uh, he's a science experiment, like me. A more successful one,” Bucky smiled sadly, indicating his metal arm. “Not so patchwork.”

“Hmm.” Dr Strange steepled his fingers and leaned back into his chair, shutting his eyes. The ancient, leather-bound book on his lap opened of its own accord in a clatter of fluttering pages. Without opening his eyes, Dr Strange spoke softly, reassuringly. “Nothing will harm you in this house, ronin. I give you my word as a gentleman sorcerer. You may put away the knife and the gun.”

“If we can reduce the number of inanimate objects that suddenly move on their own, I'd appreciate it. I've had a rough 48 hours.” Bucky stashed the weapons in his hands (though didn't snap them in), but he remained standing.

“My apologies. Sometimes I forget what is normal to me isn't that way to outsiders.” Dr Strange looked down at his book, written from what Bucky could see in a strange, runic script that bore no resemblance to any Earthly language. “Now, to the subject of Hell. It is not so much a place you go when you die, but another dimension, another world in the multiverse. It is a powerful one, and much dangerous magic comes from there. However, unless you have used that magic, borrowed against it, as it were, you do not go there when you die.” Dr Strange smiled. “So sorry to disappoint.”

“Never said I was looking forwards to it. Only that I don't live my life under false pretenses.”

“The Carta Infernale is not so much a map, as it is a travelling portal. It allows you to access that world, and was meant – along with several related magical items – to tempt the powerful of this world and others to buy what the kings of that other world were selling. The symbols you saw were those items. Many of them, thankfully, are locked away safely in this house. Of course, the truly stupid could use it to simply open a gate and allow the demons to invade, but in this world, of costumed heroes and nuclear weapons, that just strikes one as rather quaint, doesn't it?”

Bucky looked distant. “What if they just wanted to bring one person back?”

“If they're dead? Not possible. They are incorporeal; they cannot exist in this world any more.”

“But what if they're, 不生不死, not quite dead? But not able to be fully alive?”

“Hmm.” Dr Strange stroked his moustache. “They'd need a body. And it would be a tricky negotiation with whichever King he has amassed his debt with. But it could be done. Yes, it could be done.” His expression slowly clouded over, going from thoughtful to deep concern. “The consequences could be horrific. Did this person use magic to cause a great deal of misery during their life?”

“Man, you have no idea.”

“Then the vast majority of the kings will look at him as a good investment, and give him more and greater magic. Asmodeus, perhaps not...? He has an exceptionally perverse sense of humour, even for a King of Hell. But even so, he would return the half-living person to this world.”

Great.”

“And you are hoping to stop this from happening?”

Bucky nodded. He felt so tired. He wanted to run, to vanish, to grab Steve and go to the cabin in Siberia he knew, where there was nothing but wolves and wild deer and pine trees and snow and they could cease to exist in the world's eyes for as long as they felt like. For as long as it took for the Avengers to destroy the manuscript and hunt down the witch and whatever was left of the Red Skull.

“Have you ever fought magic before?”

“Stuck a bayonet into a witch, once.”

"Let me guess. You had dipped it in holy water?"

"Yeah."

“Hm. The odds are... not good, for you, ronin. Magic is something that needs to be fought with research; with knowledge. The easiest way for me to impart what you need is a small transference. If you would allow me to touch your forehead, I can--” Dr Strange stepped back as Bucky flowed into a fighting stance, his eyes glinting. 

“No. No touching, nothing in my head. Sorry. Had some bad experiences.”

Dr Strange walked away to rummage in a desk drawer. He placed a small leather-bound notebook on the ground and pushed it across the threadbare oriental carpet towards Bucky.

Bucky picked it up. “It's blank.”

“It's a Book of Queries. Write a question in it, and it will answer to the best of its abilities. And its abilities are my abilities, so...”

“...stick to questions about magic?”

“Quite. Though I also do a fine line in tea and classical music.”

Bucky tucked the little notebook into a pocket. “Um... thank you. Thank you for letting me in, and listening to me. And helping.” He looked at Dr Strange. “I owe you one. If I make it back from this, and there is anything I can do for you...” He spread his hands, one flesh, one metal. “Pretty much all I'm good for is violence. But I am very good at it.”

“And yet...” Dr Strange inclined his head slightly. “You take on this impossible fight, for love.”

Bucky turned his face towards the shadows. “I gotta go,” he muttered, slinging his guitar case of weapons over his shoulder, kicking off the edge of a bookcase to reach the open skylight, levering himself up onto its edge noiselessly.

As he took a moment to compose himself on the far side of Dr Strange's rooftop, he realised that the tenor of the night had changed: somehow he was in New York City. The whole house was in New York City; somewhere in Sutton Place, from the sounds and the smells. He could see the UN buildings just to the south; the park to the northwest. Avengers Tower, about fifteen blocks away.

A wandering house. Huh. Bucky smiled. Just when you thought the world had stopped surprising you... Maybe this was a sign his luck was about to turn.

Then his phone lit up with the alerts that hadn't been able to reach him while he was in the magician's residence.

 

Chapter Text

They'd gone back for the paintings. Perhaps if they hadn't, they would have been in time. As it were, they were stuck in slow traffic on Manhattan Bridge, Clint cursing under his breath, the last orange glimmer of dusk drowning before their eyes under the neon of Midown's strict canyons ahead of them, when Natasha's phone started vibrating.

“Oh shit. Steve--”

“What?!”

“Bucky's blown. Everything's been dumped to Fox News. Oh god. Everything.”

“Oh shit,” Clint said, nearly swerving into a taxi as he ducked to look at Natasha's phone.

“Who did this? How bad is it?” Steve croaked, suddenly unable to find air to breathe.

“Give me a second. I'm doing damage assessment.”

Steve took out his own phone and checked the headlines. “Jesus,” he said, the colour draining out of him. The photo of Bucky standing over Morita from the Sacramento mass shooting. Video from DC. Hydra file photos and reports, from the Pierce era and, damningly, from before.

The ghost, the Winter Soldier, had just become the United States' public enemy number one.

Steve's heart hammered in his chest; he felt numb, unable to do anything but scroll down through headline after headline about Bucky: Traitor. Killer. Criminal. Assassin. Monster. Psychopath. Freak. The words piled up until they didn't even make any sense any more, combinations of letters that seemed wrong, strange. His thumb slipped across the screen, skidding over a sudden wetness, as hot, silent tears fell down Steve's cheeks.

“This is a hell of a hatchet job,” said Natasha softly. “It's clearly Hydra, but what concerns me is I didn't think there was anyone left there high enough to have all this sort of intel in one place.”

“Cut off one head--”

“Shut up, Clint. And let's not forget, Bucky's spent the past six months methodically destroying every copy of this information he could find.”

“Seriously, didn't he say that his files were usually right next to that thing he was hunting down? Red One? Maybe they're getting pissed at him and trying to retaliate. “ Clint's amber eyes flicked up into the rearview to look at Steve. “He is really good at pissing people off, your Bucky.”

“It's one of his many natural talents,” Steve said, his cheeks stiff with drying tears as he stared out the window at all the people on the streets, milling about, having their normal lives. Calling their friends. Meeting up for beers and-- Steve looked away as two men kissed on a Houston St corner, making time until they could cross the road. “I'm never going to see him again. He's going to go to ground so hard nobody will ever find him,” he mumbled.

Natasha leaned back in her seat and smirked. “Steve, that's what they want him to do. Now, I don't know him except through your stories, but do you think he'll do what they want him to do?”

That got a snort of amusement out of Steve and for Natasha, it was victory enough.

“Um, general question, gang. Avengers Tower: supposed to be smoking. Yes or no?” asked Clint, looking up through the windshield at the eight-foot hole in a high floor of the Tower, from which was emitting a thin trail of dark smoke.

“Tony's in Malibu.”

“That'd be a no, then. Shit.”





They were met on the 42nd floor by an exhausted, shaken Bruce, picking his way over wreckage. “We were hit by massive EMP blasts. Knocked the lights off half of Midtown. By the time Jarvis was online again and I'd let the Other Guy out...” He sighed, and ran a hand through his curls, kinked with sweat and breaking off in all directions. “It was Doom again. He knew exactly what he was doing. Who was here, what their weaknesses were. Swarms of tiny robots, too small for the Other Guy to grab; able to flow around the Iron Man suits Jarvis was piloting... I think I did more damage to the building than I did to them.”

“What were they after?” Natasha asked.

Bruce just pointed, at a once-concealed safe hanging open in a now-shattered wall. “Same thing he was before.”

Natasha felt Steve stiffen beside her and darted a look at him. Steve was white with anger, and when he spoke, he was very quiet. “What happened to us fixing this? Where's Thor? Where's Dr Strange?”

“Jesus, Steve, Thor's on his way. They're both on their way. Strange was supposed to be here already but he got hung up in San Francisco. We're asking favours. You can't make them--” but Bruce trailed off, as Steve knelt down and picked up a piece of paper lodged in the rubble under the safe.

Steve stared at the paper. Stared at the Hydra logo on it, the few typed lines recogniseable as the now-familiar closing protocol to an operations report. The paper began to shake in his hand. He stood up and walked back to Natasha, Clint and Bruce. Smiling a barbed-wire smile, he held out the paper. “Where's the rest of the file Bucky gave us?”

The slow, dawning horror on his friends' faces told Steve all he needed to know.

'Oh, fuck.” Clint whispered.

“This was us, wasn't it,” Steve said, tight with controlled emotion. “He's blown because of us.”

He whipped around, smashing his shield against the wall and making Natasha jump. “THIS. WAS. US.”

“I need to leave,” Bruce said. “the Other Guy can't come out again tonight, not without a major disaster--”

Steve remained standing, his back to them, the shield hanging off his arm, every muscle tense. “You all need to leave this floor. Right now,” he growled.

“Steve--” began Natasha.

“GO,” he shouted.

They went, and the sounds of rage and destruction from the 42nd floor didn't abate for a good half hour.





When Steve finally came down to his rooms, coated in cold sweat, dust and minor lacerations, Natasha was waiting outside the door.

“Feel better?”

“Go to hell.”

“Steve, seriously, there have been two kidnap attempts against you in a week, a shapeshifter on the loose and the Tower's security is beyond compromised at the moment.”

“We are isolating the 42nd floor and carrying out repair work, while also running simulations to better counteract such an attack in the future. Mr Stark is on his way here at the moment,” said Jarvis. “They will not be successful with this sort of tactic again.”

“Still,” Natasha said, firmly but gently, “Clint and I are going to do a rotating watch on your door, in case they come after you again.”

“But you were fine to leave me upstairs just then.”

Natasha lifted an eyebrow. “I was kinda hoping they'd try, while you were in that sort of mood.”

Steve snorted.

“Relax, Rogers, it was a compliment. Not sure anything could have taken you down just then.” Natasha traced her foot in an arc on the carpet. “And you have every right to be angry. I'm angry too, and I feel helpless and unsafe in my own home, and very soon in the future there will be hell to pay for this. But in the meantime, I need to be certain you're okay, and with us.”

Steve stared at her for a long moment, considering, then he opened the door to his rooms. “You can stay on the sofa.”

Natasha smiled and followed Steve in, briefing him on code words and confirmations for each Avenger, to be used in case the shapeshifter managed to infiltrate their midst. While Jarvis would be body-scanning anyone who entered the elevators, they'd been made painfully aware that with enough determination and finesse (Bucky) or brute force and firepower (Dr Doom), the Tower was not as secure as they had all assumed.

With Natasha curled up on the sitting-room sofa like a cat, reading a novel, Steve showered off the grime of the day and headed to bed. His mind had been too tired and overwhelmed to offer up thoughts of Bucky in... in that way, and for that small mercy he was grateful. As he lay down and pulled the blankets up around him, however, he realised the bedclothes still smelled of gun oil and cigarettes. Of Bucky. Of home. The scent made him half-hard and made him shake with tears at the same time, for everything he'd lost, for everything he wanted and, by wanting, would lose. For this shitty, horrible day. For the memory of Bucky curled warm against him, holding him while he shivered.

God, he was a mess. The anger had felt good, though. Right. Like he was coming back to something he used to be. Something simpler. He'd felt the same way when he stared at the Rothko painting Bucky had left him. How long had it been since he'd gone to a museum, visited a gallery? Years. When had he last sketched? He didn't remember. Maybe, he thought to himself, I didn't really thaw out all the way. Maybe it took Bucky, maddening and contrary as he is, to burn the last of the ice out of me. Since DC, since the Winter Soldier had blanked him, Steve felt like his life had exploded into all these feelings that he couldn't control, couldn't predict: joy, despair, terror, more joy, lust, anger... at first he'd tried to push them down again, he'd tried so hard... but he was no good as a blank machine for justice, it wasn't tenable, in the same way Bucky was no good as a blank machine for killing. It was their fire that made them. That they loved too easily, and too strong, their fists going up in defence of any stray dog or snot-nosed kid who looked helpless enough. And he was going to let that fire out, and he didn't care if it meant the Avengers thought he was impulsive or a bad leader or had a short fuse. They should have read the damn history books; God knows he had form.

Steve's brain: Hey, glad you're feeling better. Remember that time in London you accidentally walked in on Bucky in the bath? I do! Here, lemme show you. We'll start with the freckles on his shoulder muscles...

Steve groaned and was pulling a pillow over his head when a small electronic noise startled him. Text message alert... at this hour? Who in blazes..?

He padded over to his coat and dug out his phone. The message was from an unlisted number. He opened it and his breath hitched in his throat. It was a photo of the Tower, taken from street level right outside it, the building narrowing sharply upwards into the night. The message just said “Hey.”

“Who is this?” Steve texted back, his heart hammering.

Another photo, a moment later. Abstract. Black plates and seams, a closeup of a metal arm. Then: “I need to see you.” Steve thought he might die with just.. just knowing Bucky was OK. And still being a jerk.

Steve was in the middle of texting “I'll be right down”, when he realised Natasha had materialised in front of him and was giving him a look which communicated great hope in his ability not to do anything suicidally stupid. Well, there's a triumph of hope over experience if I ever saw one, Steve thought. Natasha arched an eyebrow and held out her hand for his phone.

They stared at each other for a moment, and Steve passed it over. Natasha typed. “This is Romanova. ID check. Where did you shoot me?”

A momentary pause, then: “Left shoulder with an M4A1 and hollowpoint; left abdomen with a Dragunov and 7N14. Head with a Glock, if you don't give the phone back to Steve.”

Natasha grinned. “Yup. It's him.”

Steve snatched his phone back and texted. Bucky wrote back: “Tower parking level 3”.

He threw on clothes and headed out, to find Natasha blocking his way. “Natasha,” he began, determination clear in his voice.

“Be careful,” she said. “For both your sakes.” He nodded, and she stepped aside.

As he passed her she called back, “Hey, Steve. Something to think about?”

“What?”

“Telling him the truth.”





The third sub-basement parking area was the motor pool, where Tony kept his sportscars, and the Stark Industries fleet of vehicles were parked. Steve paced around in front of Tony's toys, then leaned against a pillar to wait for Bucky. Of course it would probably take him longer, he had to avoid the crowds and then sneak in here--

“Hey.”

“Jesus, Bucky, you need to stop that!” Steve squawked, turning around to find Bucky right behind him, leaning nonchalantly against another side of the pillar, blonde (what?) and dressed like one of the Willamsburg rocker kids that infested Steve's favorite coffeeshop.

“Why? It's fun.”

Steve tried to regain his composure, to come down off his jumpiness. “You have a perverse concept of fun.”

Bucky held Steve's gaze for an uncomfortably long time before grinning and whispering. “Oh, Steve, you have no idea.”

Steve dropped his gaze and dug his fingernails into his palm, willing himself not to blush. Willing his brain to behave. Unfortunately he dropped his gaze to Bucky's jeans which, Christ, they were skin-tight. You could see everything. Steve jammed his hands in his pockets and turned away to feign interest in some big chrome-and-racing-stripe sportscar of Tony's. “I- I'm sorry, Buck. I'm jumpy. I got attacked by a shapeshifter earlier. It pretended to be you... and then the Tower was hit. We lost the manuscript.”

Bucky glared at him in furious amazement for a moment, before nearly putting his metal fist through one of the cement support pillars. Steve backed up, but Bucky was in his space immediately, pushing Steve back with his chest, his face inches from Steve's, fists balled at his sides. “Fuck, Rogers! You assholes had one job.”

“One job!”. Bucky backed Steve up until there was nowhere left to go, until he was against a wall. “Don't lose the manuscript! That was it!” Then he shoved his palms into either side of the wall, caging Steve, enclosing him, glaring at him. Steve's brain was going haywire, between fear and shame and lust and a desperate need to make everything okay for Bucky, so he'd never look that hunted, that angry, again.

Then, unexpectedly, Bucky's face softened, and a great sadness washed over it. His eyes were huge, and wet with the beginnings of tears, and his lip trembled. Spent, weak, he rested his forehead against Steve's. Steve's hands moved up to circle his waist, but Bucky shivered and lifted himself away, with the ragged breath of a man who was on the edge of a cliff and wanted nothing more than to step off into the void. He shoved Steve's chest, not hard, with his flesh hand and walked off, hiding his face behind the metal one. He shrugged, and said wearily, almost to himself, “well, I guess that's it, then.”

“Bucky?” Steve said. “Are you okay?”

Bucky looked back at him, very clearly far from okay. “I have to go away soon,” he said, softly. He put his hand up, to forestall the words he could feel building inside Steve, Bucky don't go, we can protect you, let me help--. “Steve, will.. will you do something for me?”

“Yes, Christ, Buck, anything--”

“Will you come with me for a few hours? I want to show you something. It's... it's very important to me.”

Steve nodded.

Bucky exhaled, and wiped at his eyes. When he looked up again he'd manage to regain a thin veneer of his usual devilish humour. “So, uh, what car do you want to take?” he asked, indicating the row of sports cars.

“Bucky! Those are Tony's!”

“What do you suggest, with me as the most wanted man in America? A cab? The subway? While I appreciate your faith in my abilities I'd rather just hotwire that Mustang and get on with it.”

Steve frowned at him disapprovingly, then looked away. “Always preferred the Corvette, myself.”

Bucky's huge grin flashed across his face, lighting Steve up with a rush of joy as well. He had the car started in under a minute and he and Steve piled in, giggling like schoolboys, the car screeching out of the Tower and swinging north up Park Ave.

 

Chapter Text

Bucky slowed the Corvette off the Third Avenue Bridge, idling along a line of closed-up chop shops and taxi garages at the scrag end of the South Bronx. It was a wasteland, a stubborn bit of New York City that refused to gentrify. Empty-looking and dangerous at night. “What are we doing here?” Steve asked.

Bucky glanced at him, annoyed, as if he'd failed to understand something utterly obvious, as one of the chop-shop doors opened and he pulled the car inside. “I live here.”

“...not Brooklyn?” There was a note of betrayal in Steve's voice.

“Steve,” Bucky said, pulling the 'Vette in next to a long, low car hidden under a dustcover, “Our old neighborhood is full of rich people now. You know what the thing about rich people is?”

“They drink incredibly expensive coffees?”

“They don't mind their fucking business. People around here, they have enough trouble in their lives. They're not looking to go out and find more.”

“We were poor and we were pretty good at finding trouble, Buck...”

“Yeah, but you wouldn't have strolled into Big Eoghan's and started taking photos of the whisky and the guns, wouldya? Or gone and asked him to keep it down when they had a lock-in. I pull into Vinegar Hill in a car like this, there are going to be 20 pictures of it on Instagram before I get it in the damn garage.”

“Fair point.”

Bucky closed the metal door of the garage and locked it down, then paused to pull off his hat and unclip the fall of blond hair from underneath it. Steve thought he heard a sigh of happiness as bits of his street disguise started to come off, and Bucky was soon standing next to him in just a t-shirt and those skintight jeans, raking his hands through his dark hair.

He smiled as he saw Steve peeking under the dust cover of the Lamborghini, and pointed. “Woulda thought the bike was more your style,” he said.

Steve wandered towards the back of the garage, where a Ducati Panigale, also in matte black, nestled into the shadows. “Oh. Hi.” Steve said to it, running a hand over the cowling, appreciatively. He looked up at Bucky. “How fast?”

Bucky shrugged. “I've broken 200 in it. I'd offer to take you for a ride, but at the present moment that's not the wisest idea.” He turned and climbed the stairs towards the building's next level. “Hey, we have to take the scenic route home. Hope you don't mind.”

“Oh. I thought you lived here-here.”

“Above the garage? Nope.” Bucky led Steve up to the roof, and pointed a few streets away. “See the abandoned warehouse with the clocktower? That's where we're headed.” Then he grinned at Steve and smacked him on the arm. “Tag, you're it.” And he was off, down the row of roofs and building up speed to leap across the first street.

Steve laughed, and sprinted after him. Steve was a little faster, but Bucky had a head start and knew the territory, shinnying up fire escapes to get higher up, picking a route that would take him about a floor above the warehouse. Steve almost had him as they made the final, long jump across Lincoln Avenue to the flat warehouse roof, Bucky's shirt just slipping between his fingers. Christ, there's another thing he'd forgotten. Fun.

Then Bucky reached out an arm and grabbed Steve as he landed, serious. “Hey, stay close to me.”

“...Bucky?”

Bucky eyerolled. “The roof is electrified to fuck, and the grid is programmed to turn off in proximity to my arm, so until I go shut it down completely if you walk too far away from me you'll get fried.”

Then he smiled, slinging his arm over Steve. “But also, stay close to me, because I've missed you.”

They walked in silence towards the clock-tower door, Bucky strutting along loose and happy, and Steve quietly over-analysing everything Bucky had said and done in the past forty minutes, because was Bucky flirting with him sometimes? Or was it just his wishful and feverish imagination?

The door was heavy steel; the sheer strength needed to slide it open would have kept most normal people out. Then, once inside, moonlight filtered down through the old, dirty clock faces above them to a spiral staircase leading downwards. Steve emerged into a loft space that seemed to stretch half the floor of the warehouse, and he blinked as the lights came on. Windows that seemed to have been broken on the outside were in fact perfectly whole when viewed from the inside. The room was double-height, with a loft for sleeping, and rafters where clearly Bucky spent regular time because Steve noticed a blue coffee mug and a pack of cigarettes sitting up on one. A couple old sofas and a TV; on one wall a workbench with some sort of heavy-calibre rifle disassembled on it. A little kitchen, open plan. A door to what must be a bathroom.

And, across the wall that divided the room from the rest of that floor, a huge painting, of a field seemingly just before or just after a storm, pale poppies' leaves almost translucent orange-pink from the wet against rough yellow grasses and grey skies. The brushwork heavy, almost brutal, but somehow the overall work sang with a great delicacy and movement and sense of place. It brought him back so hard to Europe, to the war, it made him gasp.

“Yeah,” Bucky said, standing so close to Steve that their shoulders touched. “I swear I've had the mud from that field on my boots.” He bit his lip, and the back of his hand brushed Steve's. “This is what I wanted to show you.”

“It's unbelievable,” said Steve. Then he looked at Bucky, his brow furrowing. “When did you get into art?”

“Well, y'know, Hydra...”

Buck.”

Bucky shifted uncomfortably, and stared at his feet. Shoved his hands in his jeans pockets until they dragged down and exposed the tops of his hip bones.

“Buck, what is it?” Steve asked softly.

“Growing up I had this scrawny little friend...,” Bucky began. “He taught me to read. I'd actually shown up to school, for once, I think the truant officer'd been on to Mam, and on the way home Tony Luciano was shoving this little kid from down the street and I'd been looking for an excuse to pound Tony anyway. So I did, and the kid taught me how to read in exchange.”

Bucky chewed his lip, then continued. “I was going on twelve and... people had stopped bothering with me. They'd given up. Said I was unteachable. I mean, I was just Brooklyn street trash. Born in a gutter and set to die in one. My type didn't really do a lot of school. And this little fucker threw comic books at me until I could read 'em, he was so goddamn angry about it, like it was some massive slight against the universe, that an ignorant Brooklyn kid was ignorant. Like he was engaged in this tiny, furious war against all the unfairness in the world, and I was his chosen battleground.”

Steve couldn't do anything but stare at Bucky in amazement. He felt like he was cracking open inside, Bucky's words causing this tide of love to well up within him, love that had been buried for so long. Bucky's effect on him was bad enough when he was being arrogant, cold, or weird (as far as Steve could tell, his three default states post-Hydra), but to see him like this, shy, afraid of how Steve would react to his words... it was devastating.

“Christ, then I had to go to school every day because otherwise that stupid little jerk'd get beat up at recess. So I'd sit in the back row and carve shit into my desk, and one day I realised I had actually been listening to the teacher. I can still remember her face when I answered her next question right.” Bucky grinned a little at that, still staring down at some paint on the toe of his combat boots.

“And that still wasn't enough for the little shitbag. He was into art. Like, crazy passionate about it. He dragged me to museums. The hell was someone like me doing in a museum, other than leaving fingerprints on shit because I was so dirty? Anyway, that little punk taught me to look at stuff. Taught me I wasn't stupid. That I could matter. And paintings make me think of him.”

Steve moved hesitantly towards Bucky, who was resolutely looking at the same spot on his boots he'd looked at the whole time he was talking, and refusing to make eye contact. He knew Bucky could hear how fast his heart was beating. And he finally knew what “Get up, Rogers” and “C'mon, punk” and “Stevie, no” meant, they meant “I love you,” and all Steve wanted to say back was--

“He grew up to be kind of an idiot. He tried to punch a tank, once.” Bucky said, flashing a smile and those shy blue eyes at Steve.

“Oh, I'm the idiot,” Steve said, his voice full of mock-hurt. He punched Bucky in the shoulder for emphasis.

“Yeah, idiot, you just punched me in the metal shoulder. How's that hand feeling?”

“Fuck you, Barnes,” said Steve, sticking his knuckles into Bucky's hair to give him a noogie.

“Eat shit, Rogers,” said Bucky, grabbing Steve around the waist and knocking him off balance, twisting it into a suplex.

They both hit the floor in a tangle of limbs, fighting dirty the way only old friends can, pulling hair and tickling and trying to give each other indian burns. Steve tried to pin a wriggling, laughing Bucky with his elbow while he reached back to give him a wedgie, but-- “Buck, you're not wearing any underwear!”

“No shit. It ruins the lines of the jeans,” Bucky grunted, escaping Steve's grip briefly before Steve recovered and grabbed both of his wrists, shoving them over his head. Bucky looked at him wildly, and Steve momentarily wondered if this was going too far, if Bucky didn't have any leftover issues about being restrained from his time at Hydra. But his body language was still relaxed; he wasn't fighting back hard... Steve wasn't sure that he could hold Bucky's metal arm down, even if he wanted to. He decided to make a joke out of it, and brought out his best Captain America Has Something Important To Discuss With You voice: “Also, we need to talk about those jeans. They're... obscene.”

“Says the guy who runs around in a skin-tight flag.” Bucky's eyes were half-lidded, his mouth open, lips wet. Steve's brain was less and less able to cope with this. “Besides, Stevie,” he sighed, “right now my jeans are mostly your fault.”

Steve looked down. Under those sprayed-on jeans, he could clearly see the outline of Bucky's thick cock, moving into hardness.

His brain broke.

Before he could overthink his actions, his hand had already moved onto Bucky's crotch and Bucky had already arched up to meet him, moaning in his ear, “Don't stop.”

Before he could be afraid of what this would do to their still-raw friendship, Bucky had flicked out his tongue and dragged Steve's earlobe into his mouth, biting it gently.

Before he could feel ashamed or guilty or conflicted, a metal hand wrapped itself around the back of his head and dragged him downwards towards his best friend's lips. Not his best friend -- the man his best friend had grown into. Those lips whispered “Don't stop” again, before brushing against his. “This is the end of the line. I'm not going out without this. No fucking way.”

And much later, much too late, Steve would remember those words and realise what Bucky meant by them, but at the time they washed over him, trivial chaff against the tide of sensation rushing up to envelop him. He felt like his whole body was a slow-motion explosion, a supernova. He could feel the goddamn air molecules around him, just contact with the air was driving him out of his mind, he could barely even think of Bucky's hard body under him. He kissed Bucky hard, hungrily, their mouths opening together as if to steal the very breath out of each other's mouths. Bucky tongued him and Steve's whole body jerked like it was hit with electricity. He could feel himself wet with pre-come. Dammit, he nearly had come over that kiss.

Bucky's hands were on Steve's sides now, roughly shoving his shirt over his head. Breathlessly, half-wrecked, Bucky looked up at him. “Can we just agree now that this is only the first of several times we're going to fuck tonight? Because... um... yeah,” he said, his breath coming ragged as he rutted himself against Steve's hip.

Steve grinned. This was so much more easy and comfortable than he'd ever dared hope. “Yeah, Hydra only used you for short-term missions, didn't they,” he said, reaching his hand downwards.

“Oh, you're in trouble now, Rogers,” Bucky growled, before gasping and throwing his head back as Steve unzipped his jeans and circled his hand around Bucky's rock-hard cock. Bucky moaned and made catlike noises as he in return fumbled at Steve's trousers, before muttering “fuck it,” and just used his metal hand to rip Steve's trousers and boxers off him.

Steve's body quivered and his lids dropped with pleasure as Bucky's flesh hand came up to wrap around his hand, and both their cocks, and start moving them in rhythm together. Bucky kissed and bit his way down Steve's neck, his teeth sending little jolts of electricity through Steve until, with a rough little sound in his throat, Bucky bent down and took Steve's left nipple in his mouth. “Christ, Buck--” Steve began, his back arching, his hips moving in short, urgent thrusts. He had to get that mouth back up to kiss, he had to try to hold off coming--

He grabbed Bucky's face in his hand, sticking his thumb into Bucky's mouth. Bucky sucked on it and, combined with what both their hands were doing on their cocks, hell, the feeling of their cocks sliding against each other, Steve lost the ability to form words. His face snarled with the immediacy of his need, he pulled Bucky towards him and sped up what his hand was doing, losing the rhythm, not caring, so close, and he looked at Bucky and saw he was too, his lips and cheeks flushed, eyes shining, and then as Bucky's eyes dropped closed and his head kicked back with the beginnings of orgasm, Steve pressed his lips down on him, and they both came together, shaking, sharing the same breath, making animal sounds into each other's mouths. Steve stroked them both through the aftershocks, until finally he simply collapsed on Bucky, curling up with his face in Bucky's neck, sweaty and sex-wrecked, and so full of love he felt like he could float up to the rafters with only the slightest breeze.

Bucky idly traced the muscles on Steve's back, with a finger of his metal hand. “Christ, but you're beautiful, Steve...”

“Better than that scrawny little kid, at least.”

The metal hand batted him across the back of the head. “Shaddup. I fell in love with the scrawny kid.” Then Steve could feel the smile spreading across Bucky's face, where it nestled into his hair. Bucky gave him a lazy pat on the ass with his flesh hand. “Just think it was pretty decent of Dr Erskine to give the kid all this padding, so I don't have to be so careful with him now.”

Steve pulled his head up at that and glared at Bucky. “Wait, when have you ever been careful with me?” Then Steve looked down, realising something. “Also, how come I'm naked and you're still mostly dressed? That is not fair.”

Steve grabbed the hem of Bucky's t-shirt. He was about to push it upwards when Bucky's hands circled his wrists and tightened, stopping him. His eyes flicked up to Bucky's and caught his wary expression, saw the wall start to come down behind his eyes.

“Steve... Don't. I, uh... I'm all wrong. It's like Frankenstein's monster under there. I'm not... I don't look like the person you remember.”

“Buck,” Steve said, brushing an errant lock of Bucky's hair out of his face, “I've always loved you, but the person I fell in love with? The one that renders me unable to breathe just by being in the same room? It's this one,” he said, stroking his hand up Bucky's metal arm, feeling the plates shift restlessly beneath his fingers. “God help me, it's not the memory I want. It's the monster.”

Bucky blinked up at him, too surprised for words.

Steve ran his hand up the side of Bucky's face, into his hair. “I love this you. The one that came back. The indescribably strong one who pretends to be arrogant but is secretly the biggest goofball in the South Bronx. The one with the baseball bat and the stupid car and the knives. And I will love every scar on you because they are the roadmap of how you found your way to me.”

Steve felt himself being encircled by two heavy, hard arms and squeezed in a tight embrace, and Bucky just held him like that, silently, burying his chin into Steve's neck, for long minutes. Steve kissed the side of Bucky's neck and stroked his hair, the short parts at the sides and back prickly against his palm.

Bucky finally relaxed his arms, and shifted under Steve. Steve moved aside, and Bucky sat up, wiping at his cheeks with the back of his flesh hand. “Um,” he said, chewing on his lip. “You wanna take a bath? I'm kind of sticky.”

“Yeah,” Steve smiled. “I'd love to take a bath with you.”

 

Chapter Text

The Soldier knew fear. And it was different than knowing nothing, and so he felt perhaps that was improvement. He knew fear, so once he'd rolled the man on the riverbank into recovery position, he ran. And as he ran, he realised the thing he was afraid of, the thing he was running from, was himself. The hive of glass and shrapnel in his head and, even worse, the sucking voids between all the sharp pieces. The lacuna of himself. He was not operationally capable, like this, and that was unacceptable.

He smashed his bone shoulder back into its socket against a tree. Sprinted further into the woods and found a big oak, gritted his teeth as he climbed up it. Lay on his stomach like a panther on the highest branch he could, the highest branch that would support his weight, and waited for night to fall. Settled into a sniper's stillness and watched the searchers (civilian / local law enforcement, not Hydra) in the woods; watched them carry out the man from the riverbank. Smiled knowingly as none of them looked up. Considered his options.

Considered his knives. He slid one out of the sheath at his lower back, and looked at the tiny, oiled-over marks he'd noticed on their hilts while cleaning them after his last mission. Almost impossible to see; they needed to be felt first to be identified. Dash dot dot. Dash dash dash. D. O. Do not go back. And on the other side: Dash dash. Dot. M. E. Memory loss lasts two weeks. On another knife, the same message about memory, but on the other side the code said You must survive. Why? Why must he survive? What for? Who put those messages there? Was it a test? No, Hydra tests always had audiences. And were much less subtle.

The Soldier thinks he put them there. It felt like something he would do, although of course he has no memory of it. He knows he used to be clever. That Hydra used to be proud of him, that he would undertake very complex and difficult covert missions and do them easily. He has ghost-memories of those missions, of the skills he used in them. But they were also afraid of him, and he had done something that made them mistrust him (what was it? Nothing but void there- void and rushing wind). And then they had started wiping him. The missions became simple ones of direct violence, and even then he had messed up. Failed to kill his targets. “We need you to do that one last time,” his handler had said, about the mission to kill the man on the riverbank. One last time. He had picked up on that, and its implications. He had been clever, once.

A great, burning rage rose up in him, a rage at the waste, the waste of himself, at his masters taking something that used to be the best in the world, perhaps the best the world had ever seen, and making it blunt and shitty because they were small and fearful people. He ran the thumb of his flesh hand over the little notches on the knife hilt; looked up into the twilight at the smoke from the wrecks of Hydra's grand plan in the Potomac. Fucked if he'd go back. He was going to wait two weeks and see what happened.

Fear and rage. The Soldier could work with those emotions. For now, he didn't need any others. Maybe he never would.

Hunger drove him down from his perch earlier than he wanted: midnight. The arm, the smashed ribs already felt better. Still tender, but he could move now. He loped through the dark woods like an animal, silent, the logical corridors of operational planning settling him, calming the mess in his head. He watched the buildings at the edge of the park, looking for his opportunity. There it was: a university. A frat boy stumbling home from a party, taking a shortcut across a dark lawn, never saw the ghost appear behind him. He startled at the hand on his mouth, but by then it was far too late. The Soldier dragged the kid and propped him up against a tree trunk, made it look like he'd passed out. Relieved him of his hoodie, his hat, his phone and his car keys. It was almost too easy to take things in the city.

He sat in the kid's car and flipped through the maps on the phone, memorising routes, making plans. The car only had a quarter tank of gas, but it was a start. As he pulled out he flicked the phone out the car window into to the grass, near where the unconscious kid lay. They could track him, with a stolen phone.

Down the road, a pizza delivery bike was parked outside a dorm building, the driver taking the top couple pizza boxes out of a stack in the back container and ringing in to the dorm to deliver them. When he returned, he found the container empty; the rest of the stack gone.

The Soldier drove southwest, munching pizza, listening to news radio reports of the disaster in DC. His mind listed the things he needed, things that he no longer had an operational team to procure for him: Money. A different car, not one from so close to his last known location. More and larger weapons (being up in that tree without a rifle had been a hundred kinds of wrong; his stomach twisted at the thought of it.) A safe place to hide. A way to gather intel. He caught a look at himself in the rearview: ugh. A place to shower. More clean clothes. It seemed overwhelming but if he settled himself and didn't think too hard about it, his vast reserves of operational instinct would take over. He just had to not push. The good news was that there seemed to be nothing on the radio reports about him. He smiled as he dug into the next box of pizza. I guess three helicarriers dropping out of the sky trumps a little armed mayhem on the freeway. And the blonde man, the one he knew, was Steve Rogers, Captain America, and he was alive.

He passed an exit for a truck stop, noted it, then drove on another 20 miles to a small town with a train station. He parked the car in the train station parking lot, cleaned it out, ate the last of the pizza, then ran the distance back to the truck stop, overland. It was 4am by then, the world at its sleepiest, and the truck stop was quiet. And, hallefuckinglujah, frat boy had $20 in his hoodie pocket. The Soldier got himself a shower, a t-shirt to cover his tac vest (gross, but kevlar-lined, so not getting taken off any time soon) so he wouldn't have to have the hoodie zipped up so far all the time, and still had enough left over for some coffee. Not that coffee did anything to his metabolism, but leaning againt a wall warming his hands around the paper cup gave him an excuse to hang out in the little 24-hour gas station / convenience store and listen to people as they came and went.

Two truck drivers exchanged greetings, while picking over the variety of plastic-wrapped danishes for sale. The usual politenesses: how ya doin', whatcha haulin', where ya goin'. The Soldier listened as the female said she was taking oranges up to Rochester, and his brain went back to the maps he memorized. That would do. Oranges to Rochester would do fine. He slipped out while she was talking to her friend. It wasn't hard to figure out which truck was hers. Engine still warm; trailer smelled of oranges. It was a refrigerated truck, which he hadn't considered, but... he smirked. Maybe the cold would be relaxing, like cryo. Like he hoped death would be, when he was eventually allowed to have it. He crushed the padlock on the back with his metal hand, and slipped inside, shutting the door behind him. He climbed up on the orange crates and lay down. The oranges smelled... good. Lying there, surrounded by their smell, the truck moving off again and the small vibrations of the road rocking him. He couldn't remember something just being good like this. (Blue eyes blonde hair, hope and anguish on his face). Okay, fine, that was-- we're waiting on that one. That one makes all the shrapnel in his head hurt.

He thinks he used to have a lot of opinions but right now he settles for: Oranges smell good. And he allows himself four hours of sleep.

When he wakes, he opens the bottom of the door an inch and watches the road passing behind them. They are about where he wants to be right now, cutting across a broad, hilly swath of Pennsylvania without much in it other than trees. Too many cars behind the truck right now to slip out, though. He eats an orange and waits. It smelled better than it tasted. Finally, a sharp leftward curve in the freeway, the truck in the slow lane, and he ducks out and flings himself over the guardrail, rolling in the dirt and leaves on the other side. Pain shoots up his flesh arm again and his ribs twinge. But he's out, and free, and nobody has a damn clue where he is. Possibly including himself, he thinks. Or, hey, who he is.

Ha. Oh Christ. That was the wrong thing to think. That set everything in his head off again. No, hush your bedlam, all you broken shards. Not yet. It's not your turn yet. Next objective: Shelter. Food. A means of gathering intel. Better weapons. Up. Go, Soldier.

The Soldier headed northwest for a mile, into the woods, and then began to track once he crossed a stream. He was hoping for fresh deer tracks, but no such luck. Then he realised why: there was a bear nearby. He saw the marks on the trees; the prints; the scat. Very near; now he could smell the oiliness of its fur... and something else. Something that made his nose wrinkle, like... artificial strawberries? And cigarette smoke. He crept up a rocky outcrop and looked over at a small clearing beyond, at the area upwind.

A hunter (the cigarettes) sat in an old, wooden tree stand, some sandwiches in cellophane on his lap, and a rifle tucked next to him. Next to him was a 12 year old girl (the artificial strawberries) in a pink camo hat, with a terrible, cheap rifle. It was also pink. In front of them was a large male black bear. The humans were terrified. The bear was hungry. The Soldier watched. Obviously you throw the sandwiches on the ground near the bear, and then when it bends down to get them you shoot it. Duh.

But no. The girl starts screaming, crying, and she tries to shoot the bear, and Jesus wept, it's at point blank motherfucking range, and she misses, just nicks the bear's shoulder and now the bear is really pissed, and Dad grabs at his gun and then fumbles it and drops it to the ground, eight feet below. The sandwiches are still on his lap. The girl tries to shoot again but forgets to chamber a new round.

Operational stupidity makes the Soldier angry. He sighs, and rests his forehead momentarily on the cool, sharp rock beneath him. Then he settles in to watch the bear kill the people.

The bear swipes at the tree stand, and the people scream some more. The girl just about breaks the bolt off her cheap little Barbie's First .22. The Soldier thinks about cigarettes, and how he'd really like one right now. When had he ever smoked a cigarette? He doesn't remember. But he wants one now. He can see the pack in the breast pocket of the hunter's disgusting camo shirt. Jesus, civilian camo was awful stuff.

The bear roars and rakes at the tree seat again, and it falls apart, sending the people to the ground. The man makes a sharp cry of pain when he lands. The Soldier frowns, hoping the cigarettes didn't get broken in the fall. The bear rears up for a killing blow. The Soldier pulls the Glock out of the holster on his hip, stands up in one smooth motion, and shoots the bear in the back of its head, twice. Its brains splatter over the people. An improvement on that terrible camo, the Soldier thinks. He sits on the rock and waits for the people to stop freaking out, and idly looks over the Glock for any signs of dirt from his swim in the Potomac a day ago.

The people come over and the father is cradling his wrist and just saying thankyouthankyouthankyou over and over and the girl is still sobbing. The Soldier tucks the Glock back in its holster. “Can I have a cigarette?” he asks, jumping down off his rocky perch and landing softly in front of them. His voice is rough, rusty from disuse.

The man thrusts the entire pack at him, and the Soldier surprises himself by taking it, patting it against the back of his hand twice (Why? What purpose does that serve?) and then digging out two cigarettes, one he puts between his lips and the other he flips upside down and puts back in the pack (Why did I do that?). The man offers him a light. He smokes. It's... nice? Familiar in some way. Not as nice as oranges smell, but better than they taste. He tucks the pack into his hoodie.

“That was some impressive shooting,” the man says. (No it wasn't, you oaf, the Soldier thinks). “Are you a vet?”

The Soldier nods, and one of the little fragments in his brain turns over and before he can really process it, he says, “Army. 107th”, and he knows it's true. Or was. At one point. He took another drag of the cigarette. Cigarettes: like coffee cups, useful aids in stalling for conversational time. “I'm a sniper.”

“Oh? Where did you serve?”

Another shrug. “Pretty much everywhere.”

The man sticks his hand out. “Well, I'm Bob and this here is Kayleigh.” He points to the girl, who is finally less hysterical. “It's damn nice to meet you, uh...”

Another shard shifts in his head. Barnes. Sergeant. 32557038.

“Barnes.”

“What are you doing up here in the Susquehanna, Barney?” Christ, this guy asked too many questions.

The Soldier sighed, and took another drag on the cigarette. The best lies are the closest to the truth, some ghost-operations part of his brain informs him. “Couple weeks of R&R,” he said. “My last tour was a mess.”

He looked over at the girl, who was staring up at him now, some sort of strange look in her eyes that he couldn't figure out. “Kayleigh?” he said, around the cigarette. She nodded, eyes wide. “Did you pick that gun out by yourself?” She nodded again. He extinguished his cigarette against the rock, and held out his hand, waiting. After a moment, she figured out what he wanted, and gives him the pink gun. He takes it in both hands and breaks it.

He immediately realised his mistake when he saw their faces. Ugh. Civilians can't snap guns in half, even cheap horrible ones. Stupid. The little girl looks like she is going to cry again. Why are people so difficult?

“Look,” he says, putting his flesh hand on her shoulder and crouching down so he can see into her eyes. “That was a terrible excuse for a rifle and you are better off without it. Trust me. If you want to learn to shoot, get the best gun you can and practice with it until everything is second nature. If you don't want to shoot, then never pick up a gun again. Either way is fine. It's the middle path that'll get you in trouble. Got it?” He looks up at the father. “That goes for you, too.”

The father looks angry. “Why you-- I have been hunting these woods since I was--”

“Don't care. By the way, the bear's mine.” Also, pal, you're not getting your lighter or your cigarettes back.

He glared at them and the father tried to glare back and failed and finally grabbed the girl's arm and stomped off, muttering all sorts of things under his breath. The girl stared at him with a soft expression, over her shoulder, until she couldn't see him any more. (Why?) They had left behind their sandwiches, and the father's awful .22.

The sandwiches were tasty.

The .22 was a miserable excuse for a rifle but it was better than no rifle.

The Soldier dragged the bear's carcass along the rock line until he found a small cave. He ran a quick perimeter check: nobody around for a mile; nothing human visible from up a tree for another five. He was grudgingly happy to have the scope from the Awful Rifle. After he returned to the cave, he stripped off and gutted and cleaned the bear. That night, he cooked bear steaks over a fire and ate until he felt heavy and sleepy, and then had a cigarette. And shortly before he did fall asleep, the Soldier realised he was no longer afraid. That he wanted to survive.

 

 

His memory started to come back, over the next few weeks. First all these seemingly random images and fragments, then electric connections between them, leaps of causation and effect. He mostly stayed in the wilderness, because the sheer amount of daily effort it took to exist off the grid made the operational, calculating part of his mind happy. The more he concentrated on the specifics of existing, the less opportunity there was for the asylum of his memories to pitch fits.

Some days were better than others. The day (and night) of the storm was the worst. Stuck in the cave in torrential rain six days in to his post-Hydra life with nothing but himself for company, and lots of loud bangs and flashes. That was the day he remembered the war, and Steve, and Azzano. The Red Skull, and falling from the train. And that was the day he came as close as he ever thought he would to losing control of all the shards of his mind, of all the bright splinters he'd been trying to catch and assemble just plunging into the howling void and leaving nothing but inchoate madness behind. He tried everything: exercise, singing, shouting, crying and rocking in a corner, standing out in the rain, hell, running in it until he was too exhausted to go any further. None of it worked. Finally he resorted to cutting long, slow gashes in his arm and thighs with a knife, the pain keeping him focused somehow. And then the blood loss making him pass out.

He woke up two days later (he guesses) with nothing but pink welts where the cuts were. Starving. And with no more cigarettes.

Time to find a town.

The Soldier at this point was also starting to become someone called Barnes, or was starting to go back to being him. This other person/self, James Buchanan Barnes, was unspooling in the void in his head, slowly filling it. Tentative, but there. Little islands of self appearing, connecting. It was not a bad thing. Well, parts of it were bad. This Barnes person had some terrible, terrible memories, but the Soldier found he could put them aside and not think about them, and it was his choice to do that, it wasn't a machine and a mouth guard and horrible nausea and searing pain and then no memories for you, bucko. The rage flared briefly inside him again, and part of him hoped Hydra would try to come for him, specifically so he could express his feelings about being wiped to them, using the medium of his bare hands and their small intestines.

Through his hunting and his ever-widening perimeter checks, he knew there was a decent-sized town about 20 miles away. He reached its edges at twilight and, outside a roadhouse, he listened in the shadows to a roughneck, buzzed with the first few after-work beers, as he argued on his cellphone with a long-distance girlfriend. The roughneck misplaced his wallet soon afterwards.

Cigarettes were acquired. A short time later, so were hamburgers and fries. Several orders of them. The diner waitress giggled at him and he glared at her. She outright laughed when, after seeing a kid's hot fudge sundae go past, he ordered one too.

The library had shut for the night so he wandered back towards the blinking neon beer-signs of the roadhouse, thought better of it, then climbed up onto the roof of the library to sleep. It was a dry, clear early-summer night, almost no moon, the milky way in all its glory scattered across the sky above him. The Soldier remembered sleeping on roofs before, hot summer nights in a city, the smell of tar and pigeonshit and exhaust fumes and garbage, smog obscuring the stars, but Steve next to him, and everything right with the world.

The next morning he woke at dawn and hit the diner again: pancakes, bacon, coffee. The waitress was an old lady who didn't laugh at him. Advantage: old lady. His body burned through a huge amount of calories just normally. Add in the healing injuries to his brain and the rest of him, and it could easily double the calories he needed. Today would be an easy day, though. Intel day. He went to the library soon after it opened and got on one of their computers. The SHIELD uploads by then had been thoroughly wiki'd, and he paged through the information quickly, the operational part of his brain memorizing the important data with photographic accuracy. Then the news reports: Pierce dead (a slight feeling of disappointment, there); Steve alive and well. Much of the high-level Hydra faithful arrested and awaiting trial. Very little about him. Presumed dead. Well, there's a fucking change. There wasn't much information on Hydra bases as separate from SHIELD, but his memory, now jostled, was turning up glimmers of names, locations, purposes.

As he headed out, the librarian, a middle-aged woman with a kindly face, smiled at him and asked if he had found everything he wanted. He said yes. She nodded and said a word in Russian, and he felt darkness wash over him and the floor rush up to meet him.

 

 

He woke up in the back of a truck. There was an IV in his arm, presumably more sedative, but his body had started to push the needle out, off the vein, and nobody had noticed yet. He felt like he was made of lead. His metal arm was offline; it was just a dead weight at his side. A shoulder plate was loose; they must have pulled the power source. He knew this wasn't the usual type of truck they would transport him in, nor the usual sedative (which was much stronger, and contained a neurotoxin, and made him feel like death warmed over afterwards). But then, Hydra was a mess right now.

A voice crackled over a comm. “Hey, Reyes. We're crossing the Hudson. How's Sleeping Beauty?”. The guy named Reyes stood up, walked over to the Soldier, pulled out one of his goddamn throwing knives, and poked the Soldier in his flesh arm with it. “Still out cold. Yo, I thought they said this guy was badass? But he went down like a chump.”

“Ehn. He's a relic. But they want him back,” came the voice over the comm. “They think they can lure Captain America with him.”

Oh, do they now.

The Soldier looked through his lashes at his situation: five armed Hydra in seats along the side of the truck. Reyes with his knife. No visible cameras or visual link to the driver. Him on a table, under restraints at chest, waist and calves. One working arm. No weapons. Full of sedatives.

Yeah, no problem.

Reyes turned away, and said something to the rest of the crew, and at the same moment the truck must have entered the bridge because there was the loud noise of tyres on metal gridding. The Soldier bunched his muscles and tore out of the restraints, flinging himself at Reyes. His balance was off because of the dead weight of his metal arm, but he still managed to break Reyes' neck with his flesh hand. He grabbed the knife that fell from Reyes' grip and spun, landing a roundhouse kick that caved in the chest of one of the seated Hydra goons, slicing the throat of the other.

That left the three on the other side. Of them, one was paralysed with fear, the other was about to speak into the comm, and the third was bringing up an assault rifle. Little Miss “I'm going to squeal to the driver” got the knife flung into her eye. The Soldier threw himself at the guy with the assault rifle, rolling over the table and then coming up under the gun, his palm driving upwards to smash the guy's nose back into his brain.

The terrified one wet himself. The Soldier stood over him. He wasn't armed; looked like a scientist. “Trackers. Where.” the Soldier demanded. That was the only way they could have found him. Some chip in the arm that was still reporting back to Hydra. The scientist stuttered. “P-plates A3 and F6. A3 is in the s-shoulder--”

The Soldier rolled his eyes. “Ugh, I know the names and locations of the plates on my own goddamn arm.”

The scientist tried to shrink into a small a space as possible. “I'm sorry! I'm sorry, I didn't know, didn't know you were...”

The Soldier raised an eyebrow at him. “...A person?”

The scientist gulped and nodded.

The Soldier sighed and put out his flesh hand. Hesitantly, the scientist reached out to take it, but the Soldier smacked his hand away. “The power source, idiot. And the hex tool.”

The scientist blanched and pulled the small, glowing blue cylinder out of a pouch at his side, along with a small screwdriver. “Sorry,” he squeaked.

The Soldier sat cross-legged on the table and, quickly, efficiently, opened up specific panels on his arm, re-inserted the power source and removed the two tracking chips. As he closed the arm up and heard it come back online, he smiled. Whole again. He walked slowly, silently, the short distance to the scientist, who began to shake uncontrollably. The Soldier stroked the scientist's face with his metal hand, and the scientist began to cry, a whining, ugly sound. After the dull pop of the scientist's neck breaking, there were no more sounds in the back of the truck.

The Soldier found where they'd stashed his weapons, and grabbed Reyes' comm and an assault rifle with plenty of extra clips. He relieved the dead Hydra mooks of all the cash in their wallets and then settled comfortably on the table to wait out wherever they were going.

The truck began to slow, and the driver's voice came over the communicator. “Hey Reyes, we still good? Just pulling up now.”

“Yeah, the Asset's still unconscious,” the Soldier said, mimicking Reyes' voice.

“Awesome. Can't wait until it's someone else's problem. Specifically, that creepy Russian lady's.”

The Soldier realised he must mean the woman from the library. The woman with shut-down codes for him. The calculating part of his brain started offering suggestions, and he picked the simplest one, finishing his prep just as the truck came to a halt inside a building. They were somewhere in the Hudson Valley, about 45 minutes east of the river. Pierce's country house? He'd find out soon enough. The truck doors were being unlocked.

The doors swung open, and the woman from the library and two guards gaped at him standing there, cheerful and bloody.

“Surprise, motherfuckers,” the Soldier grinned, and started firing. The woman from the library said something, then shouted it, but the Soldier shrugged and indicated his ears, full of wadded-up strips of t-shirt. Then he shot her in the face.

The base was the one at Pierce's country house, three basement levels under an old stone barn at a distant end of the property that likely wasn't even registered to Pierce. It took about half an hour to clear. It only had a skeleton staff and most of them tried to run away rather than fight. Boring work, not much fun, the Soldier thought. Thankfully, the base had extra supplies for him: clean tac gear, mask and goggles. Good weapons, including a nice suppressed VKS that he'd used before and liked. Ammunition. Grenades. Extra parts and plates for his arm. He scanned the most recent few days of communications off the computers (his codes were still good) and combed the server for any files on him, destroying them. Checked for paper files. Then, seeing as he was now in charge of existing by himself, which, he felt, was tiring, complicated and took up way too much time, he stole all the cash he could find.

That night, holed up in an abandoned house with enough Chinese takeaway to feed a family of five, he cleaned his weapons and filed a new message in Morse onto a knife: Trackers in A3 and F6. As he did the slow, meticulous work, he planned his operational imperatives for the near future. It had been only about nine days since the helicarriers fell. Ten days since he'd been last wiped. His brain still wasn't right and he knew it, but the experience with the shut-down code meant he needed to prioritise the removal of any other unexploded ordnance that might be waiting in the wreckage of his mind.

More research, via a stolen phone from one of the Hydra dead. A potential solution, not far away, and there was something in the recent Hydra comms that had bearing on it, that might make it possible. But... he looked at himself in a mirror. Christ, he was a disaster. The fraternity sweatshirt was covered with grime and blood. The t-shirt underneath had strips ripped out of it. He was filthy, unshaven, and his hair was becoming matted. He couldn't execute his plan looking like this. Hell, he was amazed they even let him pick up his takeout looking like this. Operational imperative: get your shit together, Barnes.

...that was new.

Various shards of memory floated up, telling him that he'd once cared a great deal about his appearance. That other people found him attractive. Well, other people who were not Steve, unfortunately. That he'd been known for a certain rakish style.

It still felt like the memories belonged to someone else, that they existed behind a glass wall, only to look at, not to touch. But sometimes when he was tired, like now, he forgot which side of the wall he was on: the Bucky side, looking at the Soldier, or the Soldier side, looking at Bucky. He hoped that past-him was right, with the message on the knives. That in less than a week his head would heal and everything would fit together again. This was almost worse than when everything was a screaming void. He shuddered involuntarily: apparently the void was still there, too. Great.

He ate his takeaway then walked down to where he could observe the main street of the nice little Hudson riverside town. He needed to see what people wore now. What they looked like, when they wanted to look nice and go out. Given the present mess in his head, it felt weird sitting in the shadows looking through a dismounted rifle scope, watching people go dancing. The desire to be on the other side of the glass was almost unbearable.

An all-night drugstore on the way home got him what he needed to tidy himself up to a bare civilised minimum: razor, soap, a comb, a clean undershirt. He washed the sweatshirt and hung it up to dry, then sat down to gather more intel.

The next morning, he found a place that cut hair. It was small, bright and clean, and run by two girls with tattoos and colourful hair like Coney Island carnies. They looked like they'd had misspent youths: his kind of people. And the Soldier was pretty sure Hydra sleeper agents didn't wear little flower-print sundresses that were so low-cut he could see the tops of lacy bras peeking out. (The future: A+, he thought.)

The one with the blue hair and darker skin was sitting at a desk with a laptop and when he asked about getting his hair cut, she called her friend over. The friend was petite and pale and had white-blonde hair that was soft and spiky like a boy's. (Like Steve's when he was young, the Barnes part of him helpfully supplied.)

He explained to the girl with the white-blonde hair that he had bad PTSD, and there were certain things she couldn't do, like move behind him with scissors, and was that OK? Her brown eyes widened in sympathy and no, she was fine, she could totally cut his hair standing in front of him, oh my god though, here, sit down. Yes, the Soldier would love a coffee. How did he want his hair cut?

Um.

Huh.

Finally he just looked up at her and said, “I've been away a long time. I just want to look good again, but I don't know what that is any more.”

The girl patted his shoulder and said in a choked little voice that she was going to put some music on and she'd be right back. Something mellow and bluesy with a female singer filled the air. The girl came back, her eyes a little red. But she stuck out her chin and said, “Don't worry, I've got this.”

Then she ran her fingers through his hair as she looked at it, and said “Wow, your hair is lovely, you know,” and he didn't, words like “lovely” hadn't been used to describe anything about him since... well, no shards of memory were appearing with anything about lovely on them at all. Her hands felt wonderful in his hair. He had to stop himself from leaning in to the touch, from circling her waist with an arm. Christ, he thought he had a handle on this whole faking being a person thing and all it takes is one girl's hands in his hair and he's in pieces again, halfway to blowing it all.

“Are you okay?” she asked. He'd leaned away, he realised.

“Yeah. Uh. Sorry. That was very nice. Just... didn't expect it.”

She smiled, pleased. “Okay, so, I can't cut your hair short. That would be an offence to hair this nice, so I'm going to do a thing.” She showed him the scissors she was going to use. They didn't have pointy ends, which made him feel a lot better. She leaned across him as she cut, and she smelled like pepper and lemons and was wearing a red lacy bra, and once again the Soldier congratulated himself on what was turning out to be a fantastic plan, well executed. She showed him the clippers next. They were noisy, but he expected it, so it was fine.

When she was done his hair was still pretty long on top, much longer than it had been before he fell. But the back and sides were shaved short. It made him look... different. Modern. Like he fit in with this time. She showed him how he could pull it off his face with a bit of elastic, which involved more of her hands in his hair and, yeah, still great. With her hands still enmeshed in his hair, pulling it back, she looked at him, and then at his reflection in the mirror and then she said, “you know, your eyes are... really amazing.”

Once again his patchwork memory had nothing to show him with regards to guidance about compliments, or at least about compliments not involving kill efficiency. So he blushed.

As he got up to pay, he asked where he should go to buy clothes. She grabbed his arm excitedly and then her face changed as she felt the hard metal under the hoodie. “A prosthetic,” he stuttered, finding himself momentarily shy. He indicated the arm. “I lost it, overseas.”

“Ohmigod,” the girl said, “Thank you for your service,” and she hugged him, just threw her arms around his chest and hugged him. And he felt like the biggest fucking fraud in the whole United States. His service. For Hydra. Hey, want to know who killed Kennedy?

The girl gasped and looked up, backing off. Crap, had he spoken out loud? “Is hugging okay?” she asked, nervous.

“No, hugging's also really nice. Still unexpected, though.”

The girl and her friend with the blue hair told him exactly where to go buy clothes, offered extensive opinions on what he should and should not buy, and made him promise to come back afterwards and show off his new things. Their infectious excitement made him laugh, and they wouldn't take his money for the haircut.

Laughing hadn't happened in a while, either.

Future clothes were great. Everything was soft and things could be fitted but also stretch at the same time, so he could fight in them. To be fair, nothing was going to replace his tac kit for an actual mission, but he also knew how much fighting happened outside missions. Now that he had an existence outside missions, he thought to himself, rather than cryo.

He slunk back into the hair place, shyly, in some of the stuff he bought. The rest was in a carrier bag. “Did I do okay?” he asked, raking his hand through his hair.

The blonde girl looked at him in the skinny black jeans and the tight t-shirt, slim dark hoodie and the velvet jacket, made another little choking sound and fanned her hands in the air before swivelling on a heel and saying she had to go change the music. The girl with the blue hair laughed at her, winked at him and said, “I don't even like guys and I'd be tempted. Almost.”

That made him laugh again. He walked up to the blonde girl, who was still messing around with something on her phone, and hugged her, from behind. Startled the hell out of her, too. The phone clattered to the ground. “Sorry,” he muttered. “I walk pretty quietly.”

“It's okay,” she said, in a small voice, relaxing into the hug.

“Thank you. For everything. It's hard to explain, but... thank you.” He kissed her on the top of her head, gave her a final squeeze, and let go.

The blue-haired girl taught him to high-five and fistbump on the way out. This was the best day.

 

 

“Ohmigod,” the blonde girl said. “Can we just have a moment about that?”

Her friend with the blue hair laughed at her. “Laura, you have such a type, it's unbelievable. Tall, damaged, brunette. He was seriously one leather item of clothing away from your next mistake.”

Laura made grabby-hand motions. “Come ooooon, Soledad! You saw those puppy eyes! He needs cuddles so bad, and I am the girl to give them to him! Preferably naked, because hot damn that bod.”

“You said that about Glenn, too.”

“Glenn didn't need cuddles, he needed R-E-H-A-B.”

Then Soledad thought a moment, and started punching something in to the laptop she was sitting at. “You know who he looks like?”

“What,” said Laura, the blonde, peeking over her shoulder.

“Howling bae-mando.”

“Uh,” said Laura.

“Your crush from last week on Hotties from History! On tumblr! You showed him to me.”

“A week in tumblr-time is like 100 years of normal time. I... forget?”

Soledad rolled her eyes. “The one Captain America did the speech about yesterday? The one that died. C'mere.” She pulled up a youtube video and hit play. Soledad and Laura watched as Captain America gave a memorial day talk about how some wars don't end for their combatants, even after they come home, and how he still missed his dead best friend. Soledad pointed excitedly when the video cut away to a clip of Cap and his friend laughing. “See?”

“Hm... Mmmmaybe? But Bae-mando is kinda skinny, and Next Mistake is super jacked.”

“Also, how queer is Cap for his BFF?”

“Ugh, Soledad, Captain America is NOT gay.”

“My gaydar is NEVER wrong, Laura.” Soledad waves her hands in front of the laptop screen as Cap cried a little in the video, doing this thing where he was talking directly to his dead boo. “Coooome to the Out side, Cap. We have cupcakes. Also my dad will have a coronary.”

They cut back to another photo of Bucky Barnes, looking more serious this time. “Hey, actually...” Laura began, leaning in closer.

“Yuh-huh, right?”

“Sole, you think it would be weird and stalkery if I snuck a photo of him next time we see him?”

“Totally stalkery. I'll distract him and you take the picture. Then we'll send it to Captain America and maybe they'll fall in love and I can go home to Texas and watch my pops completely shit a brick when they kiss.”

 

...

 

The Soldier was in a great mood. People smiled at him on the street. The waitress in the diner who laughed at him before was much nicer now that he didn't look quite so homeless, even when he did get seconds of everything. He went back to the abandoned house and found the app he'd seen the blonde girl use on her phone. It had all the music in the world on it, even from back when he was a kid. Even though he technically had a mission early the next morning, he stayed up all night listening to music from right now, from way back then, and everywhen in the middle, his fingers drumming along to the beat of the up-tempo songs. Ugh, future, I think I love you, he thought.

Also, he must be nearly recovered as he didn't feel the need to sleep all the time now. He listened to the rain patter down, the rain that had begun a few hours before midnight, and he began to do mission prep. This mission, and the one it would lead into if it was successful, would be the last ones he'd ever need to do. Then he could go dancing every night, if he wanted to. He could go see Steve. He could do anything.

At 3am he dressed for the mission – not tac gear, he wanted to look non-threatening – and slipped out to drive the 40 minutes to the location. In a lay-by about 10 miles from the target's home, he stilled back into the Soldier's blankness, letting the void take over once more, let that howl and expand again until it filled his entire head. He ran quickly through the woods towards the loc, leaving a duffel bag of gear in a high tree en route. It was still raining (superb noise cover, and limited the likelihood of others being outside) as he slipped silently across the lawn in front of the mansion and accessed the target's bedroom via an easily-unlocked window. Once inside, he found a comfortable place to sit and wait.

While the Soldier was aware that waking up to a legendary assassin sitting on the steamer chest at the end of your bed was not optimal, it was logical to assume that because you actually did wake up that said assassin was not intending to kill you. The Soldier was also aware, however, that civilians did not have as fine a grasp of logic in these circumstances as he did. Besides, there were way too many operational variables for any other way to be worthwhile. So he sat, the stillest thing in the room, and waited for the old man to wake up.

The expression on the old man's face when he did was pretty funny.

The Soldier immediately held up open hands and said, “no harm”.

“Oh,” said the man, running a hand over his bald head. “I can feel you now. Before, there was--”

The Soldier panicked at the gentle prickle at the edge of his consciousness, and mentally shoved the void forwards to encompass the weird prickly feeling. Also pointed a gun at the old man. Eurgh, so much for “no harm”, Barnes.

“Ah. Yes. That.” The man looked angry. “Also, do not point a gun at me in my own home.”

The Soldier lowered the gun. “Don't go in my head without asking.”

The man pushed himself up into a seated position, settling against the back of the bed and arranging his useless legs with his hands. “You're not a mutant. You're something else. Who are you?”

“I'm, uh, a bit of a work in progress, actually. I answer to Soldier, for now.”

“Okay, Soldier. What do you want? Presumably if you were sent here to kill me, you already would have.”

Yes, thank you, FINALLY a civilian that understands basic fucking operational logic.

“I want to trade. Hydra – my former masters – have a young mutant. I will free her and bring her here, if in return you remove any Hydra failsafe codes in my head.”

“We are quite good at handling young mutants in need by ourselves, here at the school.”

Okay, maybe this guy didn't understand operational logic as well as the Soldier hoped. Not only that, he was being condescending at the same time as being an idiot. They'd love you at Hydra, pal. The Soldier furrowed his brow and glared. “Why would you expose yourself to Hydra and make them interested in your school, when you could use me, covertly, instead? And who else do you have with an extensive and recent knowledge of Hydra bases, staff protocols and access codes?”

The man frowned, evaluating. After a few moments he said, “You have a point.”

Duh, baldie.

“Show me some proof about the mutant.”

The Soldier pointed to his head. “It's in here. I memorised it off some Hydra comms relays. I'll... uh, I'll put it in the void. Don't mess around with the other parts of my head. Just the void.” Then he blinked and furrowed his brow again. “Does that make sense? I've had a lot of people mess around in here, and a lot of... electricity, too. It's still, um,” and he pressed his lips together and moved his hand in a circular, indecisive motion, “...still healing.”

“Well, may I say from my professional standpoint you're doing very well indeed. Although I'd feel better if you just lay that frighteningly large pistol out of reach.”

“Ehn,” the Soldier grunted, holstering the gun again. “It has two friends. Also, several knives. And there's this,” he said, holding up the metal arm.

“Hm,” said the man. “Are you sure you won't flip out if I look in your head? I'm quite attached to staying alive, now that we're mentioning it.”

The Soldier frowned. Then he tapped the fingers of his metal hand on the wood of the steamer chest. “If we have a deal, then you can have someone in here to keep me in check, while you work on my head. If, that is, we have a deal.”

“And if you're lying?”

Ugh. Seriously. This guy.

“Then you have your person kill me as soon as you find out.”

“I say, that's a bit draconian.”

The Soldier shrugged. “It's simple logic.”

“We could simply tie your hands?”

“Restrain me while messing with my head and you are guaranteed to see the mother of all flip-outs.”

“Hmm. I must say, I really haven't had enough tea to deal with this problem yet. I do have a secretary and you could have made an appointment.”

The Soldier sighed. “If I make you tea, will you stop whining?”

“I am not whining, and yes, it would improve my mood immeasurably. There's a kettle--”

“--in the other room, on the dresser.” Because logical people do recces in new places. Sigh.

The Soldier made the telepath a pot of tea. English Breakfast: the man was English; this was technically breakfast. “Hey, whoever you get to babysit me when you go in my head... it has to be someone who won't hesitate, won't feel bad about putting me down if that's how it goes. Because they're going to have one shot. If they miss it... it's all over.”

The Soldier put down a tray with the teapot and tea things within reach of the crippled telepath. The telepath blinked in surprise. “Where are you from?”

“Brooklyn.”

“But you understand tea, a thing 99% of your countrymen most certainly do not.”

“Can't stand the stuff, but I had a guy named Falsworth in my unit and he was the biggest tea bore on the planet.”

The telepath gave him a funny look. “Not Monty Falsworth?”

The Soldier nodded.

“He was best friends with my father!” The telepath grinned, then his smile transfomed into an O of amazement as his brain worked through the connections. “Oh, holy cats... that would make you--”

“--a work in progress.” The Soldier lit a cigarette and perched on the steamer chest again. “Look, if we're going to do this, can we do it now before everyone else wakes up? Crowd scenes aren't my thing.”

“Oh, Sergeant Barnes, of course. I'll ask my friend to come and, as you say, babysit. You'll probably hate him.” The telepath touched his right temple, and shut his eyes.

Less than a minute later a short, hairy, muscular man came steaming into the room. He wore stained sweatpants and nothing else, and his dark hair stuck up in two points that was either epic bedhead or the worst hairdo the Soldier had ever seen. “Professor, what--”, the man started. He took one look at the Soldier, who was balanced for a fight with gun and knife at the ready, and snarled. He extended long metal claws from his hands and crouched, ready to spring.

“Boys. BOYS,” the telepath said. “Ugh, I knew this would happen.”

The Soldier circled, watching the short man move, his face curious. The calculating part of his brain said kill shot through the eye to the brain, then decapitate. Other methods have minimal chance of success, because--

“What you starin' at, bub,” said the short man, circling as well.

“You're armoured, underneath... you're too heavy for your size. Metal on your bones. Like me. Which means you heal fast, like me. But you aren't Hydra... because I would have known about you.”

The short man looked like someone had poured cold water on him. For a while he had run X-Force, the black ops wing of the mutant world, and he suddenly knew who he was facing. “Professor, that's the goddamn Winter Soldier. It's just about the evillest thing the last century vomited up and after I've killed it, you can explain to me what it was doing in your bedroom.”

“No, we're fine, Logan, really. We have friends in common.”

“I wouldn't... I wouldn't have let them do it,” the Soldier said, quietly.

The short man, Logan, fixed his brown eyes on the Soldier. What the fuck...?

The Soldier muttered to himself. “That was the point. My life... didn't matter any more, but it stopped them making more. They didn't need more, if they had me.” The Soldier looked up at the Wolverine. “The people that did that to you. Are they dead?”

Logan blinked, trying to recalibrate what he knew about the Winter Soldier from what the man had just said.

“Do you want them dead?” the Soldier offered.

“I... “ the Wolverine withdrew his claws. “They're gone, bub. Long time ago.”

“Yeah,” said the Soldier, putting his own weapons away. “Here's hoping they stay dead.”

“Ironic, your saying that, given--” the Professor began.

“Shut up,” the Soldier said.

“All right, fine. Logan, we're helping our friend here remove some booby-traps in his head. It shouldn't take very long, but--”

“--if I so much as twitch, you need to put me down before shit goes very wrong.”

“Okay, bub. You a mutant?”

“Nope. Science project.”

The Soldier sat down on the steamer chest. Logan put his fist up to the right side of the Soldier's head. Professor Xavier reached out to touch the left.

“I warn you,” said the Soldier. “It's like Dresden in there.”

“They rebuilt Dresden, you know,” the Professor responded. “It's quite beautiful now.”

The Soldier tried to still himself as he felt the prickle of Xavier's presence in his head. Focused on breathing, on pushing down the panic. There were no restraints. No mouth guards. He was sitting in a quiet, wood-panelled room that smelled of cigarettes, tea, cologne, cigars and stale beer.

“Oh, that's very nasty indeed,” muttered the Professor.

“Less commentary, please.”

“Sorry, sorry, wasn't thinking.”

If he makes it through this, he can go see Steve. Ugh, that's not a safe subject to think about with a telepath in your head, Barnes. He thought about the music he'd listened to the night before, tried to recall the songs and their lyrics.

It's not working. He can't remember them. There's someone in his head. Questions are a burden to others, answers are a prison for yourself. What if he tries to fix the Soldier's head and breaks it more? More realistically, what if he sees what is in the Soldier's head and decides that this thing, this fake person full of broken glass and violence shouldn't be walking the earth with actual humans? The wave of panic started to rise.

Don't be paranoid, Barnes.

Yes, yes, be paranoid, it's kept you alive for seventy years. You are letting a stranger into your head when has that ever ended well end it end it now--

“He's shaking, Professor. You gotta wrap it up.”

“Okay, wait, there's one last one. It's a matter of great delicacy to untangle it without messing up anything else. Everything in here is so very fragile, held together with sellotape and hope, really.”

Barnes, seriously, if you fuck this up, when you are so close... don't panic. Think of the boys. They're relying on you. If you flip out they'll all die. Dernier's already halfway to crazy, and Dugan's got too much white around his eyes, nobody's right in the head any more... fake it if you have to... don't panic, you don't get to panic

“There. Done.”

The Soldier slid off the chest and lay down on the faded oriental rug.

“You okay, bub?” asked Logan, backing off to give him some space.

“No. Give me a minute.”

“I say, Soldier, your former masters were exceptionally nasty people.”

Rrreally.”

Logan rummaged in a cupboard and pulled out a bottle of whisky. He put it on the floor near the Soldier. “Here, kid, you earned it.”

“Can't get drunk. Thanks, science.”

“No way.”

“Still gonna drink it, though.” The Soldier uncorked the bottle and took a long pull. “Professor, you find the intel about the mutant project?”

“Yes, I did. And I'm rather looking forwards to you ruining their day.”

“Hey, pal, I'm going to ruin their entire fucking year.”

“Just as soon as you stop having a panic attack on my carpet.”

“Pretty much.”

 

 

The base, such as it was, was in Iraq. A remote compound between Mosul and the Syrian border belonging to a defense contractor that was a front for Hydra. The Soldier had watched it for two days, watched trucks of cheap metal scrap being brought in and then exit a few hours later full of heavy metals or gold headed for Syria. The contractors were armed to the teeth, but lazy. They drank a lot and complained even more. And on Saturday nights, it seemed, they had a party. They brought the little barefoot girl out in her dirty niqab and circled around her, pushing her back and forth, holding out their beer tins so that when she fell, tripping over the heavy chain around her leg, her hand would touch the aluminium and transform it into gold.

It was a shame their generator went out a few minutes later then. The backup one, too. Tsk, local wiring, never very trustworthy. And on a night with a new moon... it was pitch black this far into the hills.

The shooting started immediately after the compound plunged into darkness. The girl screamed, then screamed again a moment later when something large and solid bumped up against her. It was a man, and he reached down with one hand and broke the heavy plastic fetter off her leg. “Get down,” the man said, in passable Arabic, slightly muffled. “I'm here to rescue you. But I'm not done with these assholes yet.”

The girl then realised that nearly all the shooting was coming from the man next to her. A few return shots seemed to bounce off his arm, which made no sense, but then things had stopped making sense when she turned 14 and the mutant curse had fallen upon her. What was one more crazy thing in this life?

She heard the man swear under his breath in what sounded like Russian, and the sound of something being thrown, then a gasp and a thud some distance away. Then, silence.

Again in Arabic: “Miss. Our jeep awaits.” She realised he was holding out his arm to her, to lean on. “How are your feet?” he asked, noticing how tentatively she stood up. “Do you need me to carry you?”

She nodded. She felt sick and weak, her disease was flaring up badly and the men shoving her around earlier had made it even worse.

“Okay, sweetie. But one thing you should know. I got a metal arm and I like the way it is right now. Can you promise me not to transform it into anything else?”

“Y-yes.”

“Here we go, then.” He gathered her up in his arms and started walking, occasionally stepping over bodies. “What's your name?”

“Fatima. What's yours?”

“James.”

“James, who sent you? Who is rescuing me? I have nobody...”

“Well, it's sort of a joint effort. See, I hate those people because they used to treat me like they were treating you. Like a thing. And my friends run a school for mutants, to help them manage their powers, and give them a place where nobody will abuse them or look down on them for what they can do.”

Fatima shifted uncomfortably.

“The man who runs it is very, very rich and he inherited all his money, absolute piles of it. So he doesn't need anyone to make things into gold for him. In fact he'd roll his eyes and say it was vulgar.”

The Soldier carried her a bit further, then whispered mischievously, “But if you transform his toilet into gold I will steal you anything you want in the whole wide world. He'd be so horrified. He's very English.”

Fatima giggled a little. “Are you a good thief?”

“I am the best.” He lowered her gently into the passenger seat of a jeep, put the seat belt on her, and then handed her a small device. “If you press that button, the entire compound will blow up.”

“Oooh,” said Fatima.

They both watched as the compound burst into an earthshaking ball of flame, soot and smoke rising into the air as buildings and walls collapsed in on themselves.

“Too much explosive, ya think?” the Soldier asked.

“No, the right amount,” said Fatima.

“And where did you get your demolitions training then, young lady?”

“I have watched many Michael Bay films with my brothers.”

Fatima looked at her rescuer as he laughed, in the light of the fires from the compound. He looked younger than she expected, and somewhat sad, though he smiled often enough. He had a pair of goggles pushed up into his hair and some sort of mask hanging open at his neck. “Thank you,” she said.

The Soldier pulled the goggles back down over his eyes and adjusted a switch on them. He drove with the jeep lights off, quickly. “You okay with going to this school, then? It's in America. We have a plane waiting. I promise you they are good people.”

“I don't have anywhere else to go,” she said, quietly. “And I am weak. I am tired, always, and there is pain in my muscles and joints... sometimes just a dull pain, sometimes so much I cannot move.”

“You're not weak. Hey, strongest kid I ever met was an asthmatic with a crooked back. Scrawny little blonde kid who couldn't run a city block without falling over, unable to breathe. He was my best friend growing up. Everyone thought I was the strong one because I was big, and... they were so wrong. That kid had to make three times the effort I did just to get through the damn day. One day they'll find a cure for what's wrong with you, Fatima, and then you'll have so much leftover strength that you'll be beyond all walking, and will fly.”

“Did your friend get cured?”

“Yeah. He's totally insufferable now. National icon, would you believe it.” That got him another laugh from her. Making people laugh was nice.

 

 

Fatima adored the school. There was a Moroccan girl there and a Lebanese one, and they immediately made her feel welcome, chattering away to her in Arabic, sweeping her off to show her the dorm rooms.

The Soldier waved goodbye to Fatima, who waved back, her eyes smiling at him through her new niqab.

He made a serious face. “You behave in school, now. Don't do anything I wouldn't.” That got a laugh, high and light and happy.

“Please write,” she called back.

“I'll send you postcards,” he promised. “if there's stuff spilled on them, don't ask what it is.”

“Thank you, Soldier,” said the Professor. “Anytime you want to come back, you're welcome here at the school. Though preferably less early in the morning.”

“Even if I make you tea in bed?” the Soldier grinned.

“Even so.”

They shook hands and the Soldier left, out the front door, like an actual person. His car had been moved, on his instructions, to the school lot so he didn't even have to make a ten-mile hike to leave.

And there was an absolutely stunning blonde woman leaning up against his car. Her mutant power was apparently keeping small amounts of white latex strategically placed over herself, but this had been a Very Good Day and Barnes was not going to end it by complaining about how in the future hot women didn't wear hardly any clothes.

“Hello,” the woman said, her voice like silk. “I've been very keen to meet you.”

Desire shivered through him. Oh, hey, there's another new emotion. Being a person meant having a lot of emotions. Too damn many, if you asked--

Wait--

He knew that prickle at the edge of his consciousness. No. No way. Fuck this.

The Soldier closed the space between him and the woman and put his metal hand around the back of her neck, smiling. “Hi.”

Then he introduced her to the howling void part of his head. It had worked for Xavier. And it worked for the dame, too.

She startled, pulling away in fear, or at least she tried to until she backed into the knife he was holding against her ribs with his other hand. He whispered in her ear: “Don't ever try to get in my head again.”

“I- I can turn to diamond,” she said, “faster than you can stab me.”

“Try. Me.” he said, giving the back of her neck a little squeeze with his metal hand on each word. Just enough to remind her he had options.

He noticed that, now that she had let go of trying to mess with his head, she was a good fifteen years older than she had first appeared, still beautiful but fragile and less confident, the makeup a little heavy to cover roughening skin, the roots of her hair needing a touch-up. Her eyes were red. “I think we've gotten off on the wrong foot,” she said.

He had made his point so he backed off, sheathing the knife and folding his arms. He glared at her.

“I have interests outside the school.,” the woman in white began. “Your, ah, considerable skills would be in very high demand as a freelancer. There are agencies for that sort of thing. This one is the best.” She offered him a folded piece of paper.

He looked at it. There was a phone number; nothing else.

“Tell them the White Queen sent you, with her highest recommendation.”

He crumpled the paper and dropped it into a puddle. Motioned her away from the car.

“No. I'm done.”

“That's what they all say,” sighs the blonde, walking off.

 

 

The blonde makes him so furious, he diverts on the way home to hit another Hydra base. It has a tank and a chair. He is slick with the blood of the guards when he comes out. He grins as he remembers their look of terror when he speaks to them, when they understand that he is a person again, not the blank robot that they knew, and that the person is so much better at his job than the robot was.

Then he drives home.

Home. New York City. He goes there without thinking about it. Stops himself before crossing into Manhattan: too many cameras; too much surveillance. He stands at the tip of the South Bronx, at a street that ends at the water, and gazes across the Harlem River at Manhattan and Queens. Thinks about operational necessities: Shelter. ID. More weapons. He looks around. This place wasn't bad. Quiet. Empty, for New York. Working-class enough that people minded their business. And a number of boarded-up warehouses where a person could stay, unnoticed.

He finds a warehouse he likes in terms of defensability, grabs some takeaway, and settles in for the night. He looks up Steve on his phone. That's the next step, he thinks. Find Steve. Apologize for the whole almost-killing-him thing. Explain about his head.

He finds the video from a few days ago, from the Memorial Day speech Steve made. God, he looked great. Just looking at Steve made James feel all tangled up with desire again, but this was real, not the ersatz fakery of the White Queen. Then he turned on the volume, and started listening to the words Steve was saying. It was all about him. It was a plea, directly to him, to come home. (“Now is the winter of our discontent,” very subtle, Rogers, subtle like a tank.) The Soldier felt his cheeks become wet; his chest and throat catch almost painfully.

(Another emotion. At this point he's lost count. These can't all be necessary.)

And then Steve is describing some angel, some saint, that has no resemblance to him, not even as he was, and sure as hell not as he is now. Rogers, my memory is apparently better than yours and I've had enough electroshock to light up Long Island for a year. Who the hell is this person you're describing? A creeping horror came over him, that maybe Steve had never known him, not really. He had so many secrets. Even before Azzano he was drowning in unsaid things: I had to take a job that kept me out of the house at night, or I was going to put my hands on you. That job was hurting people. I was good at it. Then afterwards, shaking apart with night terrors and battle stress and all the strange things happening to his body, but there were the boys and Steve to take care of and when they make you sergeant you don't get to have your own problems any more.

And then he fell.

The thing is, sometimes the only way to survive is to come out uglier than all the bad things around you. And he'd had 70 years of being the ugliest thing in the worst organisation in the world. And here's Steve describing some choirboy with the name he used to have. Wanting the choirboy back. The poor martyred lamb who fell, and in falling, was miraculously cleansed of sin.

Except.

Except...

He chokes back great, silent sobs as he turns the video off. What he is now is too ugly to ever go back to someone as good as Steve. All that will do is hurt him and still, after all these years, he will do anything to keep Steve from being hurt. The thought of never being close to Steve again burns him, chews at what is left of his heart, but one of them needs to be the realist and it sure as hell was never going to be Steve.

Besides, Steve had other people around him now to protect him. Better people. Ones that weren't sick inside. Ones that, he knows, will show Steve photos of what he did to the people in the last Hydra base; what he will do to the people in the next one.

He calls the number on the paper. Of course he had memorized it.

The conversation was brief. The person on the other end of the line knew his work. She asked what name he wanted to use. He only hesitated a moment before saying, “The Winter Soldier”.

The agency provides him with IDs, passports, under a number of identities.

Three days later he had a job in Zurich, for more money than he imagined possible. Some 'Ndrangheta chief with super-powered guards. Almost like Brooklyn days. The job was easy. He enjoyed it. Clear night, good rifle, clean kills at a respectable distance. Afterwards he took a side trip to Feldkirch, in the Austrian alps, and destroyed a Hydra base near there. It had been the first one they took him to, after he fell from the train. He takes that one slow; makes it last.

With the money from the Zurich job, he buys the building he was squatting in. In the mornings, as he smokes his first cigarette on the roof, he can see the sunrise glimmer off Avengers Tower in the distance.

 

Chapter Text

Nice bathtub,” Steve called out. It was huge and old, claw-footed cast iron, and large enough for not one but two super-soldiers to fit into. He opened the taps and got the water to an acceptable level of almost but not too hot. “You coming in?” Steve called out to the main room.

There was no answer, which was never a good sign with Bucky. Steve went back out to the main room to check on him-- and gasped. Which, seeing as how Bucky immediately tensed, eyes hardening, was absolutely the wrong reaction.

Bucky had finally taken his shirt and jeans off, and had been standing there in a pose which was so familiar, his daring-the-bullies-to-make-a-move stance. Chin up, chest out, hands by his side curled into loose fists. This is me now. Here I am. And part of Steve's reaction had been just seeing him mostly naked, because Christ, Bucky was built like a tank now... a tank that moved like a dancer. That sort of chest-waist ratio should be illegal.

But the other part had been the scars. It was like some petty soul had thrown acid on Michelangelo's David. He'd seen the file photos, of course, but seeing the desecration of Bucky's actual living flesh in front of him... it made him furious and broke his heart at the same time.

Steve stepped forwards, hand out. He wanted to see those blue eyes soften again, undo the damage his surprise had unwittingly caused. He'd show Bucky that--

“Don't touch me,” Bucky said, backing away warily. Then his face hardened further, and he hissed out, “I told you.”

Steve stepped swiftly forwards to circle his arms around Bucky. He'd hold Bucky until Bucky understood, until Bucky knew that he meant what he said about loving his scars as part of him. “Buck, c'mere--”

Bucky slammed the palm of his metal hand into Steve's chest, knocking Steve several feet away, then froze for a moment, his eyes wide with horror at his own actions. Then he fled. He jumped up and kicked off against the loft platform, ending up in the rafters, in the spot Steve had noted earlier with the coffee cup and the pack of cigs.

Steve got up. “Bucky..?” he said.

The Soldier shivered up on the rafter and shook a cigarette out of his pack. The last one. The lucky one. What had he wished on it? Oh yeah, Steve. He'd wished for Steve on it. Well there was Steve down there, everything he wanted, warm and welcoming, and so why the fuck was he having a overwhelming fight or flight response?

“Bucky, can I come up there?”

The Soldier's hand shot out to the rifle holstered on the side of the rafter and it took only the most immense effort not to pull it out. Steve saw the movement, and walked around to see what Bucky had reached for. His face crumpled into sadness and concern as he stepped back, hands up.

The Soldier shivered, dragging on the cigarette, talking through the smoke. “Steve, Stevie, m'sorry... you gotta believe me, I want this so bad, I just... I just need a minute. Up here. By myself.” Then he laughed a hollow little laugh. “I'm Schrodingers fucking Assassin, open the box, you never know what state I'm going to be inside.”

“This, uh, the first time that particular box has been opened?” Steve asked.

The Soldier glared at him for long minutes, smoking, before putting the finished cigarette out against his metal palm. Then exhaled. “A couple people hugged me. And a girl put her hands in my hair. And...” He frowned, clearly not happy to continue, but then a little snarl curled at his lip, the sort of snarl you make when you are deciding to break something. “And Hydra... seriously, would you let any of those people near your dick?”

Steve barked out a short laugh. No, he wouldn't.

Another pack of cigarettes appeared from somewhere, and the Soldier lit up again. Steve could see he was still quivering, bowstring-taut, with tension. He was so much the Bucky of 1944 right then, up on some vantage point where he could watch for the enemy, shaking apart, holding himself and thus the Howling Commandos together through not much more than sheer bloody-mindedness. Steve hadn't known what to say to him then, either, to make it better. “Not like I wasn't offered the chance... or even damn near forced a few times. But I was fighting a war on a lot of fronts, Stevie. Didn't feel like opening up that side of me to Hydra's power games. I'm still... emotions are still...” the Soldier made a vague little gesture.

Steve sighed and sat down on an armchair where he could see Bucky, but not be too close. Bucky had always had walls around him. Even as close as he and Steve had been as teens, Steve could think of so many times when something would happen and Bucky would feel out of his depth or threatened, and then bam, down comes the brick wall of charming, snarky Bucky who doesn't give a damn. And now those walls were... Steve couldn't even imagine how strong they'd become, to keep him alive and mostly sane through seventy years of Hydra. Just.. fighting, for so long. And Steve thought back to the sex they'd just had, and realised ruefully that Bucky had treated it like a fight, too. Like the thing he knew how to control.

Should he let Bucky have that control? A little frisson of electric need stirred in his chest, in his groin... a vision of Bucky, in his tac gear, muzzled, his eyes hidden behing the goggles, forcing him against a wall... lifting him off the ground... fucking him. Bucky could do that. He was strong enough now. The fantasy overwhelmed him, until he was almost shaking with need for it, his cock hardening, his nipples aching for touch. He shook his head. God, that was... he wanted that to happen.

But at the same time, some small, rational part of his brain was saying that enabling Bucky was not healthy, that if he cracked up this easily about things other than being a machine for killing – about basic human things – that letting him continue to try to ignore or bury those issues (or worse, turn everything into a sort of fighting) was going to result in something very, very bad happening down the line. That Bucky had to heal, although trying to make him see that just might kill the both of them.

Bucky spoke again. “This is gonna sound bad but I actually forgot about... about desire, for a while, until I saw a video of that stupid speech you made about me. Or, more accurately, about this fantasy figure in your head who you gave my name to. But, yeah, that was a fun emotion to welcome back.”

Steve smiled up at him. “If it makes you feel any better, I've kissed two girls since 1945. And one was Natasha, for work.”

“Christ, we're a pair,” came the voice from the rafters.

“You ever think maybe we, uh, we should take it slow?” Steve said, getting up to check on the bath. “I mean, we have all the time in the world now.”

“But I want it really bad,” came the quiet, hoarse voice from above.

The bath was nearly full. Steve turned the tap off and stuck his hand in the water, pleased to find the hot water hadn't run out at any point. “Yeah, me too, Buck,” Steve said. “Hey, bath is ready. I'm getting in.”

No answer.

Steve relaxed into the hot water, enjoying the sensation of getting his whole self into the bath, the water up to his chin. At first the water felt so hot he could barely stand it, but it did its work of easing the tension in his muscles. He reached down for the soap and smiled a little as his hand brushed past a throwing knife, taped to the side of the bath. Oh God, he thought. When had Bucky's weapons-OCD started to become charming to him?

“I- I'm sick inside, you know. And currently the most famous mass murderer in the past hundred years. A-and you're Captain America, still.” That, from directly behind him, in a whisper.

Steve didn't turn around, afraid to spook the still-tense presence he could feel behind him. “Bucky, I don't care. I can't turn off what I feel about you. It's out now, I can't shove it back in. And I don't want to. When I came out of the ice, there was nothing here for me. I kept being Captain America out of a sense of obligation, when all I really wanted to do was just... disappear. You want to talk about emotions being taken away, Buck? I did it to myself. Just threw 'em all into a lead box and tossed 'em in a hole. They have all sorts of words for it now. PTSD. Depression. But all I knew was I did things in a costume and then when the costume came off at the end of the day, I didn't want to be the person that was left. There was nothing I cared about. All I was, was Captain America, a hollow shell with a, what did you call it? A skintight flag wrapped around it. And then you came back.”

A warm, flesh hand was stroking Steve's hair. Softly, hesitantly, but there. Steve leaned into the touch, feeling the sparks it sent down through his body, the fluttering it caused in his chest. “You came back, and I- I wanted to be Steve Rogers again. And God, all the emotions I'd buried came roaring out... it was like in The Wizard of Oz when suddenly everything's in technicolour and you never want it to be black and white again.”

“Would this be before or after I shot you four times?”

“Bucky, shut up, I'm having a moment.”

The hand stopped stroking, and suddenly Bucky's face was upside down in front of Steve's. He was doing a handstand, arms on the rolled edges of the bath. “Punk,” Bucky said.

“Show-off,” Steve replied.

“This isn't showing off,” Bucky smiled. He lifted his right hand off the bath until he was balancing just on his left hand. “This is showing off.”

“You still ticklish?” Steve wondered, snaking a hand out of the bathwater and making for Bucky's obliques.

“Steve, I am the goddamn Winter Soldier, I am not-- AAH!

And thus, with a most undignified squawk, did the world's foremost assassin land on his lover's lap in the bath.

Bucky settled into the warm water, fidgeting and adjusting position until he had as much of himself touching Steve as he could manage. Then he huffed and rubbed his stubble against Steve's shoulder. “M'sorry. I wanted this to be an amazing night, and I fucked it up.”

“No, you didn't, Buck. This is... this is the best night I've had... possibly ever.” Steve could still feel the tension in Bucky's muscles (Did he ever relax? Was there anywhere he felt safe?), so he ran his thumbs up the back of Bucky's neck and started carding his fingers through Bucky's hair. Bucky made a little noise of pleasure in his throat and his lashes fluttered closed. Those lashes – long, dark, almost feminine – over those pale blue eyes, it was obscene, Steve thought. There was so much about Bucky that hit him as obscene. He was like walking sex, and the things that should be throwing Steve off, like the metal arm, were somehow just turning him on more, leaving Steve trembling, vibrating like some sort of tuning fork attuned to Bucky's frequency every time they were near each other.

Bucky could feel Steve get hard under him and grinned. He began to turn, to reach a hand down towards Steve's cock, already nudging the corners of Steve's mouth with his lips as a prelude to a kiss. Steve gently circled Bucky's wrist with his fingers and moved his hand back up out of the bath. Incomprehension flickered across Bucky's sky-blue eyes.

Steve rubbed his lips across Bucky's. “Slow,” he said.

Bucky made a little noise of unhappiness, and nudged him more, like a cat.

“I'll make it worth your while,” Steve smiled, spreading his fingertips through Bucky's hair and beginning to massage his scalp. Bucky's eyes just about rolled back into his head and the groan of pleasure that came out of him made Steve grin so hard his cheeks ached.

“M'kay... just keep doing that,” Bucky mumbled.

“Okay, but we're also going to get you clean,” Steve whispered, tracing his hands back down Bucky's back and digging his thumbs into his trapezius muscles. Bucky sank down in the water, going loose with relaxation. “Feel good?” Steve asked, getting Bucky's hair wet.

“Christ, Stevie, you have no idea. I think you've loosened a knot that's been in there since 1944. Keep going.”

Steve reached down beside the bath for the shampoo, his hand tracing past the throwing knife again. “Nice knife, by the way, Buck,” Steve said.

“Nn, which one?” Bucky mumbled.

“Wait, there's more than one?” Steve replied.

Bucky grinned, and suddenly there was a fighting knife in his left hand. Where the hell had that come from? He twirled it around his fingers, the slight clack-clack of metal on metal, and then it vanished again somewhere along the side of the bath. Oh, under the curved rim of the bath, probably, Steve thought.

Bucky looked up at him through his lashes. “It's not paranoia. There really are a lot of people out to get me. Even more now, dammit.”

“Yeah,” Steve said, massaging the shampoo into Bucky's hair. “Tony and Pepper are working on that, as is Natasha. We, uh, we feel terrible, Buck.”

Bucky waved a lazy hand. “S'okay. Was bound to happen sooner or later. I put a-- nnh, Steve, oh god please never stop that – mm, bunch of inaccuracies in the stuff I photocopied. Not, not about my missions or shit, that's all true, but if someone fact-checks the copies against the SHIELD info there's enough inaccuracies to make it look like forgeries. But yeah, any help I can get... There are a couple people from my side are helping out, in return for some free work, but still.”

“Your... side?” Steve tried not to sound alarmed.

“The dark side of the street,” Bucky said, and left it at that.

Steve soaped up his hands and moved them down to Bucky's back and chest, massaging out all the tight spots, running his fingers over the scars. “Can I clean the part right near where the metal starts? Or does it hurt?”

“Nah. Looks like hell but there's so much scar tissue it could stop a bullet and I wouldn't feel anything.”

Steve planted a kiss behind Bucky's ear, and moved his fingers to the ragged, scarred join where metal met flesh. “Okay. Let me know if this gets weird or you stop being good with this.” He pressed the pads of his fingers in little circles, working the muscle that still lay under all that fibrous tissue, then working across Bucky's chest to his flesh arm, running his hands over deltoid and bicep, down to forearm and Bucky's palm and fingers.

Bucky thought he might actually have died and gone to heaven. The water was still warm; Steve was warm and soft (well, still pretty hard actually) beneath him, the two of them curled into each other like yin and yang, and Steve's touch – he had forgotten that being touched could be like this. Slow and long and leisurely and methodically untwisting small parts of him that, while minor issues compared to the vortex of razors that was in his head, still hurt, still kept him on edge nearly all the time.

And Steve was even okay touching the scars, disgusted as he must be by them. Disgusted as anyone would be by the mess his body was in. As ugly on the outside as he was on the inside now, at least. Funny old world: Steve got beautiful, he got ugly. Everyone got the body they deserved.

Now all he had to do was make sure the world stayed that way. He wished he had more time. He wished he could postpone what he had to do, play hooky from the world for a week with Steve. The world owed him that, didn't it? Nah, the world didn't owe him shit, but it was a nice thought.

He came back to himself as Steve patted him on the shoulder. “Bath's done, Buck, out you go.”

Bucky mumbled happily and climbed out, wrapping a towel around himself and grabbing another one for Steve. As Steve got out and the bathwater began to drain, Bucky swung the extra towel around Steve's ass and pulled him close for another nuzzle/kiss. “I am both incredibly relaxed and stupidly horny right now,” he whispered, into Steve's big, soft lips.

“Well, we're not done yet,” Steve whispered back. “Do you have any massage oil?”

“I have gun oil...?”

“No, Buck. NO.” Steve pushed him away gently and rummaged around in Bucky's medicine cabinet. “Okay. This'll do,” he said, pulling out a jar of lotion that, from all appearances, had never been opened. “Bed,” Steve indicated.

Bucky took off his towel and whipped it at Steve, cracking a filthy grin. “Finally. Now you're talkin'.”

Steve watched Bucky cross the room with his loose strut, all casual bravado, and then swing himself up onto the loft platform, a good ten feet off the ground. He smiled to himself. Even at Avengers Tower, his apartment was a normal apartment set up for normal people, and then reinforced or enlarged here and there for his un-normal self. But Bucky had set up his loft for himself and nobody else from the very beginning, with zero compensations for anyone who wasn't a super-soldier. Hell, the loft didn't even have a ladder.

“Hey, what do you do if you're too injured to climb up to the bed?” Steve called up as he walked over.

Bucky peeked out from under a duvet, his hair touselled. “Sleep on the sofa. Or if it's real bad, I have a medical cot over in the work area,” he said, indicating the door next to the painting, which presumably led to the other half of the floor. “Passing out on the roof also happened once. That sucked.”

Steve hopped up next to him and nudged him. “Roll over on your back.”

“...why?”

Steve waggled the jar of lotion. “You have to take care of yourself, Buck. Beyond the bare minimum it takes to pass for human.”

Steve had meant it as a joke but he saw the way Bucky's eyes flared slightly, the way tension twisted through him again, as if his last and biggest secret had been suddenly laid bare. Steve had thought Bucky was doing so well, at first... so well it almost hurt him, like Bucky didn't need anyone, especially Steve. But as this night was increasingly showing him, the artful-dodger façade he'd constructed appeared strong, but when you got close, you could see how riddled with cracks it was. Every part of him ached to make things better for Bucky, but he had no idea how to do that. Hell, like he'd ever even dealt with his own PTSD, despite Sam suggesting therapists.

“You know, Buck,” he said softly, putting the jar down, “there are people you can see, people who can help--”

“Fuck you,” Bucky snarled, turning away. “I'm fine. I'm doing fine.”

“Bucky. You're better than fine. The fact that you came back so fast from... from how you were on the helicarrier is just... amazing. I just... You remember my friend Sam? With the wings? He counsels veterans--”

“Steve, Jesus Christ, I have no time for this. It does not matter how fucked up I am, right now. It really, really doesn't. Please just shut up and--” the rest of the sentence cut off in a great raggedy gasp. Bucky shoved the knuckles of his right hand into his mouth and bit down as tears started to stream down his face. He cried then. Great, ugly, heaving, snotty sobs, an ocean, a lifetime of tears washing down his cheeks, tears for the hells of his yesteryears, tears for the terrors awaiting his tomorrows, and tears for finally getting what he wanted right now and fucking it up so undeniably and completely. For thinking he could have what real humans had. Told you that you'd break it, said one of the many unhelpful parts of his head.

Steve tried to hold him but Bucky backed away against the wall, turning his face away and motioning with his metal arm that violence might ensue if he felt any more cornered. Still the sobs wracked through him, and he was doubled over with them now, as they shook their process through his body. “This is what you get for making me relax,” Bucky hissed, unable to end the night without one nasty little slash at Steve, because he is a cracked thing full of sharp edges and that is what cracked things do, they cut people who try to love them.

Maybe it was for the best, Bucky thought. Maybe he should poison things even a little more between them; it would be better for the plan. But he couldn't. He couldn't bring himself to do that. (Softness will get you killed, Soldier) This all had been so exhausting. He just wanted it to be tomorrow already, when he could slip back into the rigorous bliss of operational planning and execution. Things that made sense to him. Not all this feelings bullshit, this mess of broken glass and butterflies which kept tearing the camouflage tarp he'd thrown across the terrible void of himself.

He closed his eyes and pretended to drift off to sleep, the sobs subsiding as he got them under control and shoved them back inside himself. He felt Steve curl around him and kiss him on the soft hairs at the back of his neck, whispering “I'm so sorry, Buck.”

Steve's breathing had evened out within about 20 minutes as sleep overtook him, and Bucky waited another 40 to be sure that Steve was deep in a sleep cycle before carefully disengaging from his embrace and slipping down and across, through the door to the other half of the floor, the half he never wanted Steve to see.

Many hours later, as the sun began to stream in from across the Harlem River, Steve woke up with his face pressed into a pillow that smelled like Bucky, and a strange ringing sound in his ears. He shook his head blearily, realised that the ringing sound was in fact his phone, still in his jeans from the night before, and rolled over, falling the ten feet to the floor from the sleeping loft. Well, that was one way to wake up. And Bucky seemed to be gone again.

As he stumbled towards his phone, he cursed (in no particular order) cellphones, Bucky in general, Bucky's habit of vanishing in particular, that stupid sleeping loft without a safety rail, Natasha for setting a specific and very annoying ringtone on his phone for when Tony called, and Tony Stark for calling him. As he yanked the phone out of his pocket, a folded-up bit of paper and about 32 cents in change cascaded over the floor.

“What?” he barked into the phone, groaning to himself as he picked up the change and put it away.

“First you get incredibly pissy that Bruce hasn't managed to rustle up Dr Strange and Thor instantly, and then when we do get them here, you don't even show up for the meeting?” Tony demanded.

“I-- oh, Tony, I'm so sorry, I lost track of time. I'll be right over”

“Where are you? I can't get a location off your phone. Something's jamming the GPS. I don't like that.”

“M'at Bucky's.”

“Oh, how is Psycho Killer?”

“Dunno. He's not here right now.” Steve picked up the folded paper. What was it? An old grocery list?

He opened it. Bucky's handwriting, familiar as tobacco and whisky and gun oil and quicksilver, flashing grins.

“-Cap? Cap, can you hear me? You've gone quiet. Quiet is never good. Talk to me, Capsicle.”

Steve stared at the note, his hand shaking. He didn't talk, so much as let out a long, keening wail, as all the colour bled out of his world once again.

 

Chapter Text

Steve.

I know this is a shitty thing to do

I know I'm not handling this well.

I used to be good at a whole bunch of things but last night pretty much demonstrated that now I'm only good at one thing

(I am really fucking good at it though)

and I need you to TRUST ME and let me go do it

DO NOT FUCKING FOLLOW ME, ROGERS

I'm not going to lie and say I'll be fine or I'll be coming home. I just don't know. I'm out of my depth on this one.

I'm going somewhere you can't follow, you're way too good to go there

but if you try to follow you're going to put us in the shit so bad

the Red Skull is back, Steve. Or he is almost, as soon as they find a body for him.

That's the last step now that they have the map 

Guess whose body they want for Schmidt, Steve, you know him and his Aryan perfection kick

hint: it's not the bog-irish one who's missing an arm and has a history of fighting back against mind control

I swear to god if you follow me and they get you and put him in your body I will

please trust me

It's my turn to put the plane down into the

you can't keep me safe where I'm going

I have always loved you.

- B

 

Steve wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand and looked at his teammates, and at the slim, green-eyed man regarding him over templed fingers from the other end of the table. Nobody spoke for a long minute, until Steve re-folded the note and tucked it into a pocket, exhaling a long, ragged breath as he did so.

Natasha reached over and put a hand on Steve's upper arm, rubbing in slow circles.

“So let me get this straight,” Tony said. Of course Tony spoke first. “He's invading Latveria, by himself.”

“That is his likely first stop, though not his primary destination.” Dr Strange tilted his head, and unsteepled his fingers.

All eyes turned to the magician. Tony raised an eyebrow and gestured expansively, do go on.

“He is going to where the unliving part of Schmidt remains trapped. It is not on this world.”

Thor's eyes widened. “He journeys to the Seven Hells?” At Dr Strange's nod, Thor turned to look at Steve. “I would meet this shieldmate of yours, Captain. Many an Asgardian warrior would refuse that quest.”

“You're sure of this?” Bruce asked Dr Strange.

Dr Strange smiled indulgently. “He visited me, in San Francisco. He wanted to know about the map. It's a portal, and a temptation.”

“I'm going after him.” It was almost a whisper, from Steve, who was still staring at his fingers in his lap.

“Steve, no,” said Natasha, her voice sharp. She pulled a small SD card out of a pocket and held it up. “I got handed this in a brush pass on my way back from Starbucks. It's everything Bucky knows. I've read it and, assuming he is right, there is no way in hell I'm letting you get within a thousand miles of Latveria.”

“I want to know where Dr Doom is in all this,” said Bruce. “I can't see either him or Schmidt playing nicely with each other.”

“Bucky thinks Doom is a patsy, that the shapeshifter is playing him and will discard him once Schmidt is back. It's apparently her MO. His notes say that during the war, she preyed on part of the 107th--” Natasha caught Steve's confused look, and continued: “It was before you. Before Azzano. Apparently it was how he made Sergeant.”

Steve was jolted back to a rainy camp on the French border, of a Bucky who behind the mask of smiles and filthy jokes was shut down, almost feral, but trying so hard to pretend everything was fine. Of hearing Dum Dum call him “Sarge” on the walk back from Azzano and Steve innocently asking when he'd been promoted. How he thought Bucky would be proud. But no. A weary shrug, too calculated: “some bad shit happened and they didn't have anyone else,” then the face turned away. “I don't want to talk about it.”

Steve hadn't put much weight on the glance that Dum Dum and Morita exchanged as Bucky said that, or how Dum Dum had immediately launched into a ribald description of what he was going to do when he got back to camp, and if the nurses were cute, and hell, even if they were ugly. There was so much else going on. There always was, then. And Steve never got around to asking Bucky at a better time about what happened. The war would end. They were going to make sure it ended, and then there would be all the time in the world to talk. Steve gripped the arm of his chair so hard that it cracked. Then he shook his head, to clear it.

Steve Rogers shook his head, but a moment later it was Captain America who stood up. “If Doom's a patsy, we have a way in, and a potential ally.” He glanced over at the Black Widow. “Natasha's right. I'm not going after Bucky.” His eyes narrowed in challenge. “We all are.”

“Well hello,” Tony snorted.

Bruce raised a hand to object. “After Sokovia I think another international incident isn't--”

“No. Listen.” His tone firm and in control, Captain America continued. “Doom brought it here first. He trashed a chunk of the Tower. He stole a priceless and incredibly dangerous artifact from us. And if that's not reason enough to take the fight to him, then let's talk a few home truths.” He surveyed the eyes on him, meeting the gaze of every one of his teammates. “You are the closest thing I have to a family. Never have I met a more difficult, broken, infuriating group of people, nor a braver, smarter, funnier or more wonderful one. But Bucky...”

He paused for a moment, choosing his words. Fear prickled against his neck. To say this, out loud...

Oh, damn it all. “...I love him. I am in love with him. I cannot... I will not live without him. And I need your help. The last time we went up against the Red Skull, both of us died. Both of us. I know you may not like him, or... or, approve of us, but I believe with every fibre of my being that the Avengers, that my family, are not the sort of people that will stand by and let that stupid jerk go solo against the reincarnation of the greatest evil my century ever knew. Because, dammit, that's our job.”

"Damn, Steve," muttered Natasha.

Tony wrinkled his nose. “I kinda like the Paranoid Android, actually. And also if you think I'm letting that good a source of dirt on you get lost, you are badly mistaken.”

Thor stood up and clapped Steve on the shoulder. “While we cannot follow him to the Seven Hells, Captain, I would find much glory in wielding my hammer to clear a path for his safe return on earth. The love between shield-brothers is a sacred thing.”

Steve glanced at Natasha. She raised her hands. “Someone has to keep you safe, Rogers. And since Bucky is otherwise occupied, you're going to have to make do with me and Clint.”

“Thanks. I always feel better with a sniper watching my six.” Steve smiled warmly at Clint, who saluted in response.

"I'm not gonna kiss you, though," Clint growled.

“I can't believe we're invading Latveria,” sighed Bruce, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

“Doctor?” Steve arched an eyebrow expectantly at their guest.

“Tomorrow is St Crispin's Day. It would be practically un-English of me to refuse.” Dr Strange rose. “A request, though. The map, if we recover it, must come to me for safekeeping afterwards. Is that acceptable?”

“Oh no, please, I'd love to keep an actual portal to hell in my building,” snarked Tony. “I've been missing a sense of overwhelming Breughelian terror lurking under my home ever since we walled up our direct access to the 6 train.”

“It's all yours,” said Steve. “We're good on science, but we've had trouble with magic in the past.” His eyes carefully didn't rest on Clint as they looked around the room.

Natasha pulled up a schematic on the conference room's screen, from the SD drive. “If Hydra's got a foothold in Doom's castle, it's likely underneath, in the caverns deep below it. The shapeshifter can't be going far from Doom, or he'd notice.”

“We go in from the top. Persuade Doom to see reason, then he can help us access the caverns. Or don't persuade him, and we do it by force, over his inert body.” Steve nodded sharply. “Three hours. Let's get ready, people.”

Everyone rose, drifting out quickly to quarters and laboratories, to assemble their kits. Steve stayed behind a moment, humbled that his friends had seen his hope, and his fear, and unquestioningly rallied around him.

Natasha sidled up to Steve on his way out. “We'll get him back,” she said. Then, more softly, “You at least told each other--”

Steve nodded.

Natasha has many Significant Looks in her arsenal, could hold entire conversations with her eyebrows, but the one she pulled out then left Steve in no doubt what she was wordlessly asking.

“Yes. Yes. But.. it's not easy. He's more of a mess than he lets on.”

“Oh, I don't know anyone else like that,” groaned Natasha. Steve gave her a little shove, but then she turned serious, blinking up at him through her lashes: “It's still a miracle he can function at all. Steve, he's worth it. He's crazy, and he remains one of the few people on Earth I am actively scared of, but as gestures of undying love go, I'm not sure anything is ever going to top what he's just done. If we all get back from this in once piece, promise me you will grab him and hold on and keep fighting to make it work, because I can tell you now, it's not going to be easy. But it will be worth it.”

“You know you're preaching to the choir, Romanoff?”

“Just making sure. Now what's your plan for Latveria? Tell me it's not just running straight at Doom's castle.”

“Nah. Thought I'd start doing it like Bucky does, walking real slow and deliberate.”

Natasha's eyes widened briefly, before she dissolved into giggles.

 

* * *

 

Bucky slung the last weapons cases into the jet and then tossed his car keys to Declan. “Dec, a word.”

“What is it, boss?”

Bucky squinted a bit, into the midmorning light. “I set you up. You and Kev don't have to do this any more, if you like.”

The 23-year-old looked at Bucky in confusion. Dec had been a promising NASCAR driver, until a bar fight shattered a few bones and he became uninsurable to race. He was still a damn good getaway driver, though.

“I mean, you're rich. I transferred some money to you earlier. There's a good chance I'm not coming back from this one. Didn't want to leave you hanging.” Bucky shrugged. “Do whatever you want. Start your own race team. Go to college. Buy an island. I dunno.”

Dec's mouth opened and closed a few times, the expression incongruous with his spiky, scene-kid haircut. “But... you're going to be okay, right?” Dec asked. “Like, seriously, I saw you beat up an armoured truck. How are you not going to be okay?”

Bucky put his hand on Dec's shoulder. “Don't want to talk about it. I'll text you if I get back. Now get outta here.”

Dec half walked to the car then froze, remembering something. He dug into his backpack. “Wait. Kev and I got you something. Don't be mad, cuz it's wicked stupid.” He tossed a crumpled-up ball of heathered-grey cotton at Bucky, who caught it.

Bucky shook out the t-shirt, and a grin spread across his face like morning light as he read the writing on it. He snorted, and then laughed, louder and louder, barely able to control himself, finally having to wipe tears from his eyes. “This is the best thing. I'm wearing it. I'm gonna fuckin' die in this shirt, Dec.”

“Hot Topic, man. They're full of them.”

True to his word, Bucky took off his own t-shirt, tossed it to Dec, and put on the new one. He couldn't help grinning again as he looked down at it. In big, semi-collegiate lettering across its front, the shirt said “PROPERTY OF HYDRA, XXL, ATHLETICS DEPARTMENT”. The shirt was a little tight across his chest (not that there was a t-shirt in existence that was cut for the hard, aggressive V of his super-soldier body), but at least that meant his tac jacket would fit over it cleanly.

“So, how many of 'em you gonna fuck up?” smiled Dec.

“All of 'em, kid.” Bucky held up a fist and Dec bumped it. “The Prodigal Son's coming home.”

Bucky got on the jet, saluted to Kevin in the pilot's seat, and kicked back for the trip to Latveria, pulling a small, leather-bound notebook out of a pocket of his combat trousers.

 

* * *

An hour out of Teterboro. The blank page stared back at Bucky. Not a single mark he'd managed to make on it. 

He tried to think only of the mission, about the things he still desperately needed to ask. But his mind kept spiralling back to last night: Steve underneath him. Steve's reaction to his kiss, the way it was like a wall cracking, barn doors breaking, unleashing everything into warbled sunlight. Steve trying take care of him, like he was worth something beyond his skills as a murder weapon. Steve's hands in his hair, lips against the back of his neck. Bucky shifted his weight, rubbing the heel of his hand against his growing erection. So many memories of Steve. Leaning over him at Azzano, looking like a goddamn angel. I have died, I thought. But no. Death came later. Steve back in Brooklyn, skinny and wet and stripping off his clothes to huddle by the fire after being drenched in a rainstorm on the way back from the Met. Having to go make coffee so he could get control of himself and not just wrap his body around Steve's, stick his face into his shock of wet blonde hair and press his lips there and never stop. Back when he knew how to be a person...

Goddamn, fuck the Red Skull and fuck Hydra and fuck them all for making this happen now, and he knew he'd made the right tactical decision -- think of a plan, execute it violently, do it today -- anything else would be weak and risked ending up on the defensive, rather than bringing the fight to them before they could organise themselves -- but Jesus fucking Christ fuck them all for the way this went down.

For the hurt and confusion in Steve's eyes when he lashed out last night. For the pain Bucky knew the note would have caused him. He wiped a hand over his face. And the thing was, Bucky knew, if he managed to come back from this op, Steve would forgive him, because Steve has some sort of bottomless well of patience and forgiveness and no, Barnes, that is not a challenge. But the problem with loving a weapon is that it will always find its way to pierce your heart. That is what it is designed for: damage. It knows no other way to be.

It was best if he didn't come back from this mission. He had to come back from this mission. 

Hey book, he wrote. What do you do when you think you love someone but you don't know what things like love and trust and friendship are?

The page stayed blank for a long time, then an answer -- such a simple one, four little words -- floated up from the depths of the paper under Bucky's scrawl. Bucky snorted. Touché, book. Touché. 

* * *

Several hours later, Bucky was still thinking about the answer the book had given him, as well as the answers to several more mission-relevant questions he'd managed to write down once his brain had gotten off its carousel of Steve, Steve. He glanced up at Kevin, who had been silent the whole trip. Kid hadn't even put on any music, despite his usually having at least ten aggressively-curated Spotify playlists on his phone that he was always eager to share. One of the reasons Bucky liked Kev was his tendency to express himself through music. As long as he could put on one of his playlists on the way to or from an op, he had no interest in asking annoying questions like “who are you going to kill” or “how did you get that wound” or “what is that great big gun for”. He'd just tap a finger or nod his head or make a little squeak of happiness when the beat dropped on the song, and that was all. It spoke volumes, in any case.

Bucky pulled over a tablet and went over the existing schematics of Doom's castle, schematics he was sure were somewhere between misleading and totally wrong. He had a couple of options for getting to the part that Hydra was most likely lurking: direct assault (avoid if possible); stealth (difficult; slow)... or Option 3. He wasn't going to think about Option 3 for the moment.

A timer chimed on his phone. They were half an hour out; time to get suited up and armed. He glanced over at Kev again as he reached for his tac jacket. “Kev, throw on some music.”

“Can't. Broke my phone,” came the word back.

Bucky looked at the weapons cases. All signs were pointing to Option 3. He pulled out the two new blades, longer than his usual, that he'd treated to the little leather book's specifications, and strapped them to his thighs. Four throwing blades, two more fighting knives. Three pistols, a back-up Uzi. If he played this right, the VKS and the RPG launcher would be excess to requirements, as it would be all close-quarters work. He opened the case and ran his finger along the VKS. Felt wrong to go out without a sniper rifle, though, and it was such a nice one. Especially against an opponent who was likely to be armoured. Fuck it, he'd take it. He could always hide it somewhere on his way in. Add the M4A1 / M203, and a lot of grenades, and he was pretty well set. Goggles, mask, HALO kit.

He stood up, the weight of his arsenal oddly reassuring, calming to him. He felt without turning that Kevin was a few feet behind him. They must be right over the dropzone now, or near as dammit. He turned slowly, arms away from his sides. Option 3 it was.

The thing that wore Kevin's skin smiled a horrible grin at him, a grin that took him back to darkness and bone-chilling rain and terror in the hills of northern Italy. To the night the shapeshifter got the scar crossing her face, and the night Bucky became a sergeant. For the shapeshifter was going back to her own form, a green-haired woman of unsettling, elfin beauty, her milky skin marred only by the red scar across her face.

Bucky's metal hand went for one of the long knives. As he lunged forwards with it, the creature said a phrase in German: a quotation from Goethe. A command code for the Winter Soldier.

Bucky rolled his eyes back and went boneless, collapsing onto the floor. The void in his head howled, expanded, encompassed him until there was nothing left, no thoughts to read, just a vicious, dark emptiness of knives and black velvet.

The Soldier stood up moments later, his eyes blank, his entire body as still as a living thing can be without being dead. “Hail HYDRA”, he said in a flat, rough monotone.

“Sit. Do not move until I command you again.”

The Winter Soldier made a small, abrupt nod, and immediately sat down, settling into a sniper's stillness.

The creature smiled, and went back to the cockpit to land the plane.

 

Chapter Text

There was an airstrip, and then a car, and then a long walk through tunnels, angling ever deeper into the earth. The Soldier obeyed the green-haired woman, who was called “Madam Hydra” by the uniformed guards who met her just inside the tunnel. He was led to a room. There have been so many of such rooms. It has things in it that are familiar, even in the black, howling tornado of broken glass that is the inside of his head. A chair. Small, sweaty men in white lab coats. Larger, nervous men with assault rifles pointed at him.

Madam Hydra pointed at the chair, and he placed his sniper rifle next to it then sat down. The six soldiers with assault rifles, spread out as close to the walls as they could, aimed their guns at him.

A little, bald scientist piped up, his voice quivering. “But what is-- I thought the plan was for Captain America, not--”

“No time. We have the map; Herr Schmidt is waiting. If we manage to capture Captain America later, the process for transferring Herr Schmidt's consciousness from this one is not hard.”

“Okay.” The scientist tugged his lab coat down, calming himself. He turned to his colleagues. “Prep for a wipe.”

“No, you idiot.” The green-haired woman looked at him the way a hawk looks at an insect, and the man visibly cowered. If the Soldier felt emotions, he would have been amused by this. “We are not going to brain-damage the vessel that Herr Schmidt is about to occupy. I already have my doubts that this one's mental capacity will be enough to hold a genius like the Red Skull. We are not going to make it worse.” Then she made a tsk sound as her phone bleeped a notification.

The Soldier blinked at them, his face blank, awaiting his next order.

“Victor wants me. I will return shortly and then we will begin the ceremony. Make him ready.”

The scientist nodded at one of the soldiers, who slowly lowered his assault rifle and then picked up a different sort of gun. A tranq gun.

Madam Hydra looked at the scientist, her pale brow furrowing.

The scientist stuttered his answer, running a hand over the sweat on his bald head. “I'm not-- We're not-- We have to sedate it. Nobody here will stay in the same room with it awake, and these doors aren't built to keep it contained.”

“Your fear disgusts me, herr doktor Gruber. Fear is what has made Hydra weak.”

The scientist swallowed, and continued: “The shot is a neurotoxin / sedative mix. This dose will put it down for about three hours. It will be fully conscious, just unable to move. Please, Madam. Trust me. It's unreliable. The programming isn't holding any more.”

Madam Hydra's phone bleeped again. She threw up a hand in annoyance as she turned to leave. “Fine. Do it. Hail Hydra.”

The scientist thumbed a remote and heavy metal cuffs emerged from the chair to close over the Soldier's arms and lower legs. The Soldier could hear one of the six gunmen mutter, “Shit, whatever she did to it really worked. I was there for one of the sessions back in New York and it flipped out as soon as the restraints went over him. Killed two technicians.”

The Soldier stared at the man with the tranq gun again. Tranq Gun looked over at Scientist, twitched his head in the Soldier's direction. “Where do I hit him? Everything is armoured... Can you...” Tranq Gun mimed undoing the tac jacket.

“Just shoot it in the goddamn face. I want it down and down NOW, Schwartz.”

Tranq Gun exhaled and raised the gun to sight. The Soldier looked right at him with his dead, eerie stare. The Soldier hated getting shot, and it was pretty much inevitable right now.

“FIRE, Schwartz!”

Tranq Gun fired and, just as he pulled the trigger, he swore that the Soldier winked at him.

Then everyone fired because Jesus Christ, the thing moved its head to the side and dodged the dart like how is that possible nothing can move that fast and it's out of the restraints and oh fuck some of those bullets had to have hit home most of them were deflected by the arm but crap it was out of all the restraints now and bleeding it's been hit thank God but who let it have guns--

And Dr Gruber is cowering on the ground just screaming “Kill it! Kill it! Kill it!”--

And the Soldier is rolling out of the chair leaving a trail of blood on the floor and firing, pistols in both hands, one two three four five, every shot a head shot, then the Soldier is aiming at him, aiming at Schwartz and he drops the tranq gun and puts his hands up and begs and the Soldier shoots out both his kneecaps and gets up and walks over to him like he has all the time in the world and a scientist screams in terror and the Soldier just raises his arm and points the gun behind his back doesn't even look and nails the guy in the head and why is he coming over here he's holstering one of the pistols and he picks up the tranq gun on the floor and looks at it and then smiles, the most terrifying goddamn smile Schwartz has ever seen in his life, and also the last thing Schwartz ever sees in his life because then the Soldier shoots him in the goddamn face with the tranq gun and the neurotoxin hits him making every part of him vibrate in pain and his lungs and heart seize up and his lungs can't get air and he suffocates and the Soldier doesn't even stay to watch him die, he turns around to the couple of scientists left and casually, one-handed, with his flesh hand, breaks the neck of one that's begging for mercy you want mercy, don't fucking work for a fascist death cult the Soldier mumbles as he walks past, towards Dr Gruber, who has pissed himself on the ground.

The Soldier picks Gruber up, shoving a hand into his mouth and yanking out the cyanide tooth before Gruber can bite down and then, Gruber's feet kicking helplessly a couple feet above the ground, the Soldier carries him over to the chair and sits him down in it. The Soldier is limping and shivering from blood loss, there is blood all over its tac gear, but it's still moving and Dr Gruber thinks maybe if he punches the Soldier in one of its bullet wounds he could get away? And then the Soldier is leaning over him, hands on his shoulders, metal hand uncomfortably close to his neck, and it smiles and says “You know what I like best about the future? Spotify. You know what I like second best? Cable ties.” Then it pulls some cable ties out of a pocket and ties Dr Gruber to the chair and no, it isn't going to-- it doesn't know how-- It was just a weapon, how could it understand the delicate science involved in--

The Soldier limped over to the control console. “Always wondered what this was like from the other side.” It keyed in the protocols and then leaned against the console, staring at Dr Gruber in what Dr Gruber could only classify as amusement, as the helmet came down. “By the way, it hurts like a sonuvabitch.”

It turns out, as the Soldier somewhat expected, that un-enhanced humans can't survive that much voltage going through their head. The Hydra scientist died of a massive stroke in under 30 seconds. The Soldier shut off the machine, then put his metal fist through it over and over, until it was a pile of scrap.

He assessed his own injuries: four bullet wounds (chest, abdomen, hip and thigh) plus a graze across the right bicep. The chest and abdomen hits had been slowed down enough by his tac gear that they were shallow and hadn't hit anything serious. The thigh one was good and in there, going straight through the lighter kevlar leggings he wore under his combat trousers and embedding deep in muscle. He opened his tac vest, pulled out a fighting knife, put the scabbard between his teeth for the pain, and started digging out the torso bullets. The thigh bullet was just going to have to stay in there until later. He'd bind it up but it still wasn't going to be much fun.

He had to get out of this room, though. The burning, rancid-aluminium smell of the chair, and the blood and the piss and shit from the dead bodies, combined with his own blood loss, wasn't helping him stay within acceptable operational parameters. He finished patching up his wounds, then put on his mask and his goggles. The sniper rifle was tucked out of sight on a ceiling beam, and then... well, there was no real choice, was there? Down further into the mountain.

He pushed open the far doors, slowly, carefully, pistol drawn, and began his silent passage along the damp stone corridor to whatever lay ahead.

 

* * *

 

“Ilse! What kept you?”

“Oh, Victor, the most tedious details,” said the statuesque, willowy blonde as she wafted through the throne room of Castle Doom in her diaphanous emerald dress. “The things I must assemble to make the map work, it is such a bore.”

The stocky man lounging across an old, gilded throne, one armoured leg looped over an armrest, sat up more properly as she approached, arranging his loden-green cape. The armour appeared old-fashioned, but was in fact utterly modern, pulsing with subtle designs in fibre-optic cable against the grey alloy that hugged the man's figure. His face... well, if the shapeshifter could find the Red Skull attractive, it stood to reason she could find Victor von Doom's looks passable.

She smiled at him like this was her east and he her sun, and she saw the briefest flicker of doubt cross his hyper-intelligent and paranoid eyes, wet and mobile behind the prison of stiffened, scarred flesh that was his face. She needed to kiss him, and soon, to re-strengthen the glamour. He was no fool, this Victor, but like so many great men he was lonely and felt constantly under-appreciated, so an easy mark for a girl who knew what pretty girls know.

“Victor, how I have missed you,” she said, snuggling into his lap and tracing her fingers through his hair. “After you, to be around others is such disappointment. Their idle prattle, the froth of their ideas as cheap and predictable as ever... But you, my dashing genius...” The shapeshifter leaned forwards, parting her lips, dragging her full lower lip across what was left of von Doom's lips.

He pulled away, flinching instinctively from touch. “Ilse, the plane you flew in on today--”

She pursued him, making little catlike moans of his name, urging his hands towards her breasts and, at last, he kissed. When they parted, his eyes had calmed, his pupils dilated as he looked at her. “My Ilse,” he said, tracing a finger along her high cheekbone.

“Soon, my love. Soon you and your doombots, and me and my demons, we shall take this world and make it yours.”

“Yes--”

But Victor's words were cut off by a low, insistent alarm. Transparent screens appeared in midair, in Doom's view, showing the incoming Quinjet and two smaller, flying figures.

“They dare--!” hissed Doom. He stood up, evicting Ilse from his lap. “Go below,” he ordered. “I will deal with these costumed annoyances.”

The shapeshifter put her hand on his arm. “Capture them, my dear. Then we can put their humiliation out there for the world to see,” she smiled, all the while thinking to herself, while I find my own use for Captain America.

She ran out of the hall, determined to stop the proceedings down in the caverns deep in the mountain. They could put down the Winter Soldier after all. He was now excess to requirements.

 

* * *

 

The air around the Quinjet was suddenly steely with Doombots, and Doom himself, cape fluttering in the wind, hovering in front of the jet with one hand out, palm facing the windshield.

Inside the Quinjet, Clint Barton started humming to himself in an off-key falsetto, “Stop! In the name of Doom, think it o-o-ver”, until Natasha snickered and threw a shuriken at him to get him to shut up. Barton caught it in midair and blew her a kiss.

“Ugh, get a room,” moaned Steve, checking the strapping on his shield. He looked over to Dr Strange, who tucked away the small leather notebook he'd been writing the odd line in during the trip, and nods. Ready.

Then Iron Man is hovering in front of Doom. Tony's voice is coming through the comms loud and clear, but they can't hear what Doom is saying.

“Dr Doom – by the way, was that PhD honorary, or.... well, never mind. We just want to talk to you. Can we just go hang out in that nice field over there, maybe get Maria von Trapp to come yodel at us, and have a parley?”

“Really with the ultimatum? Are you still into manifestos, too, or did you leave those behind along with your early 20s, like most sensible people? Also, no.”

“Still no. We aren't going to leave until we talk to you. Up to you if you're conscious or not while we do the talk.”

“That's my cue,” said Bruce. Natasha nodded and pushed a button that opened up the roof of the hovering quinjet. Bruce climbed out, looking small and somewhat pathetic and windswept. Steve climbed up next to him, for support.

“Well, we can all chill out and head down onto the lawn and talk, because believe it or not we're trying to keep you from making an ass out of yourself, or my friends here can do amateur architect hour on Castle Doom. We were thinking maybe going from that tired old Neuschwanstein thing you have going to something more Frank Lloyd Wright?”

Tony got slammed in the chest with an energy bolt from Dr Doom's fist.

“Here we go,” sighed Bruce.

“Sorry,” said Steve, as he shoved Bruce off the top of the Quinjet to fall towards the castle below. Steve heard a muttered “by the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!” from Dr Strange as Bruce's limp form fell past the Quinjet window.

Dr Doom was also briefly distracted by the falling body, so missed Mjolnir coming at him from the side. That left a dent.

“Aha! The battle commences!” howled a delighted Thor, merrily beseiged by Doombots.

Far below, the tiny falling science bro has begun to shiver green, quadrupling in size, before smashing a hole through the medieval tiles of a roof turret. A stream of Doombots pursued him, arrowing through the hole. Then, after a small pause, they were flung back out again in lazy arcs, torn into their component parts.

“Doom! Science brother! Fellow person with a thing for armour! Will you just listen to me for one moment--”

“He has a glamour upon him, friend Tony, such as my brother uses. He cannot be accountable for his actions, and I am afraid the more intelligent the man, the more easily he is fooled.”

“Then get it off him, Thor!”

“Alas, I can see it, but I cannot remove it. Such is not my skill,” said the Asgardian prince, catching his hammer and twirling it while Dr Doom directed a pack of Doombots to circle him, watching for an opening. "Perhaps time, or a good blow to the head, would do!"

"Tony, your mission, should you choose to accept it..." Steve started.

"Oh my god. He made a reference! Guys, Capsicle made a reference!" Tony crowed. "Did you Netflix & chill with Barnes?"

"Tony," Steve grunted, annoyed. He flung his shield, taking out four Doombots and slowing down a fifth, then catching it again.

"Fine, fine, Thor and I will play whack-a-Latverian, you go do your thing, Steve. And? Good to have you back, Cap."

Steve saluted, then shouted down into the Quinjet, “Okay, B team! Time to land.” He hopped back inside, but the roof didn't manage to close before a half-dozen Doombots crashed inside and began firing indiscriminately around the Quinjet.

Clint, small crossbows in each hand, fired back, and while much is said about Clint not being a discriminating man (that coffee; that pizza; the aversion to doing laundry) he more than makes up for it by choosing his shots. Small exploding crossbow bolts took down five of the six Doombots, as he muttered “Not ready for robots again. Really not.” Number Six made the mistake of trying to sneak up on Natasha.

Once they touched down in a forecourt of Castle Doom, Steve tried to head out the door almost before the jet had even stopped, but found Clint in front of him, giving him stinkeye. Natasha materialised by his side a moment later. “No running off,” she said, her green eyes locked on Steve's blue ones. “No disappearing on private missions. We stick together. We stay with Dr Strange, because it's highly likely we have neither the intel nor the experience to deal with anything regarding the map. Promise me?”

Steve nodded, and put his hand on Natasha's shoulder. “Promise.” He had a spark in his eyes that Natasha hadn't seen before, or at least hadn't seen in a long time. A sort of fierce determination. She'd never been able to see him before as the history books described him, the scrawny little brawler who got in fights with guys twice his size. There had been a mildness, a lack of... commitment, perhaps, in the Captain America she knew and worked with. A staunch fighter, but not the kind of guy who went out looking for trouble.

“He's going to be okay, Steve.”

“He better be. The big idiot.” Steve nodded again, trying to convince himself of his own words, his mind knowing every tell of Bucky's face, knowing how goddamn scared he's been the past week. Then he smiled at his Avengers. “Let's go. Dr Strange, what are we looking for?”

Dr Strange pursed his lips in amusement. “Facilis descensus Averno,” he whispered. “We look to go down.”

 

* * *

 

Madam Hydra ran all the way down to the secret caverns below Castle Doom, the caverns discovered by the mad and heretic Russian prince who had taken over the castle in the 1700s, that had then been bricked up in the 1800s, and which Hydra had re-opened shortly before the war to use as a repository and testing facility for stolen magical objects. So well hidden that the Americans, their so-called Howling Commandos with their Captain America and his blue-jacketed sniper who seemed to plague her life and who finally she could kill, they never found it. Nor the Soviets, not that they could find their ass with both hands. Nor the Latverian rebels, nor Victor von Doom, who reached for the stars and yet remained ignorant about what lay in the shadowy heart of his own mountain stronghold. This base had been one of Johann's favourites, so secret that it was known only to him and the staff who worked in it, the most loyal and fanatical of all Hydra converts. It was in no file; it had no history.

She calmed herself before entering the reprogramming chamber. It would not do for the lower echelons to see her show emotion. She would wait until Victor's confirmation that Captain America was captured, that they had the more ideal super-soldier, and then she would turn her fingers into knives and embed them into Corporal Barnes' skull, for the wound he had given her.

Her smile of triumph evaporated as she opened the door, and a cold clutch of revulsion grabbed what remained of her heart. The reprogramming chamber was a slaughterhouse. Wrecked equipment; wrecked bodies; blood not just on the floors and walls but on the ceiling.

Or maybe she would cut through his skull now, as soon as she found him. How dare anything come before her and Johann's reunion, how dare this obsolete attack dog screw around with the march of history.

And then: terror. Where was he? Had he found Johann's body? The map? There were guards outside the cavern where the ceremony had been set up... blast doors...

She stalked down the damp stone corridor. Damn Victor and his neediness. Damn the incompetence of the lower echelons. She never should have left at this critical juncture. The ceremony could have been complete by now; Johann could be back with her in a new body. She walked deeper into the mountain, silent in the darkness, her rage at the unfairness of the world around her building into a killing fury as sharp as a diamond knife.

The soldiers guarding the cavern at the heart of the mountain were sprawled in front of the entrance, dead of bullet wounds to the head. The blast doors were open, and the damp, musty odour of the earth, along with the calcium tang of the stalactites, rushed over her heightened senses.

Madam Hydra stood at the entrance. Her eyes saw perfectly in the dim torchlight, saw the figure sprawled against Johann's sarcophagus. The stone lid was off the sarcophagus, and one of Johann's poor withered arms was dangling down. The Soldier was pale, and covered in blood, some of which had pooled beneath him. His flesh hand shook slightly as he saluted her. He was weak. Good. Soon he would be dead.

She screamed, a howl of inchoate rage, and leapt at the Soldier, her hands transforming into long, wicked blades. He lunged forwards too, but not to engage her – merely to close off the circle of salt he had drawn around the sarcophagus and around himself.

Then he leaned back, grabbed Johann's hand in his metal one and slammed his flesh one down on the map. Mein Gott, she thought, how did he know, he cannot know about magic-- almost nobody in this age does--

“I'll be back for you,” the Soldier snarled as he and Johann vanished. Madam Hydra skidded to a halt before her foot touched the salt circle. If she crossed it, if she interrupted it, the Soldier would be stuck in Hell forever. But then, so would Johann.

She backed into the shadows beyond the sarcophagus, still quivering in fury. She could wait. She had waited this long. She fully expected Johann to destroy the mind of this meddlesome sniper while in Hell, but if he did not, she would be waiting on the other side.

 

* * *

 

The waves of nausea rolled over Bucky, his guts feeling like they were trying to turn inside out. But he kept his hand on the map, picturing Johann Schmidt in his mind, picturing the moment he had peeled his mask off and revealed the crimson waste of his visage. Had shown himself to be the Red Skull. Take me to this person, Bucky thought. Take me to his Hell.

The tiny part of him that wasn't full of violent revulsion whispered, maybe his Hell is just a big room full of mirrors. And then Bucky blacked out, the beginnings of a smile on his face.

When he woke who knows how long later (a minute? a century?), he was alone. Apparently his Hell was a hospital waiting room, all linoleum and formica and the smell of cheap disinfectant. The Bucky Barnes of 1938 would have been freaking out, climbing the walls, because a hospital meant one thing, sick sick he's critically sick. But the Soldier merely crossed his legs underneath himself (briefly noting that wounds on Earth didn't seem to translate to wounds in Hell, as he was at optimal functionality once more) and watched the things that were supposed to be nurses, how their edges were strange and indistinct, like tendrils of smoke, and how their faces were not faces at all, just roiling vapour.

He closed his eyes and thought of Steve, small, pre-serum Steve, all long fingers and furious temper and sharp angles. The translucence of his skin. The magnificent summer blue of his eyes. And he smiled to himself, sitting in Hell. I will see this through, he promised his first love. I will see you safe.

The scrape of a metal-clad boot heel caused him to look out from under his lashes. The Red Skull, huge and horrible and so, so much alive, was emerging from the door to his right. The door that led into the doctor's Devil's office.

The Red Skull was a sight for nightmares. As big and broad as Steve but twisted, so twisted and foul, the exact opposite of Steve's golden nobility. The skin of his head burned off by the first, failed iteration of Erskine's super-serum, leaving nothing but the underlying muscle that, despite the serum's healing factor, could never regenerate skin and could never stop the bleeding from those muscles. No nose; no eyelids. How did he sleep? Or maybe he didn't sleep at all, it explained so much; Bucky nearly had gone mad with the not sleeping after Azzano... The suppurating red of the blood and the fleshless lips... but all on the body of a destroyer, a body that had all the raw power of Steve's body and none of the compassion. His and Steve's oldest enemy, and somehow the Devil had decided to hear Schmidt's side first.

Bucky twisted his lip into something between a snarl and a smirk. “Age before beauty, I guess.”

 

Chapter Text

The Red Skull turned at Bucky's words and his eyes skimmed over him dismissively, without recognition, and then back again, pupils flaring in surprise. “Zola's toy..?”

Bucky gave him a lopsided grin and a wink. “Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes, 32557038. At your service.”

The bloody muscle that was what passed for the Red Skull's face twitched in fury. “That idiotic trollop! It was not supposed to be you--”

Bucky flowed smoothly to his feet, full of the murderous cold grace of the Soldier. He gave Schmidt a few moments of empty, still stare, before shrugging and scuffing his way through the door Schmidt had just come out of. “Life is full of little disappointments, Johnny boy,” he said, all Brooklyn street-punk again.

The room he entered was... Christ, it was his and Steve's living room, from about 1938. And there was Steve, sitting on the sofa sketching, smiling at him. It even smelled right: dampness and laundry soap and coffee and sweat.

Bucky sat on the floor with a sigh. His physical body, bleeding and weak, was somewhere between here (wherever here was) and a cavern in Latveria, holding hands with the half-rotten reanimated corpse of the Red Skull. And now he was sitting, presumably, in front of whichever of the Seven Kings of Hell the Red Skull had gotten himself in hock to, and who was playing him with hallucinations of Stevie.

There's a certain point when a man decides he has nothing left to lose. Bucky realised he'd hit that point, and what he was about to say was foolhardy in the extreme. He just couldn't bring himself to care. He was so out of his depth. He tapped a cigarette out onto his palm and lit it, then looked up at the Stevie-creature, who'd put down his sketch pad and was smiling at him. His insides were reacting the way they always did to that smile, and he couldn't go still, couldn't go fully into Soldier mode. The one thing Dr Strange had impressed upon him was this would be about wits, not violence. That it would be the most important chess game he ever played.

So Bucky smiled his best naughty-kid smile at the Stevie-creature. “Aw, really?” he said, taking another drag on the cigarette and making with the big blue eyes. “You mean I've come all the way to Hell and I don't get to see the actual Devil? This is the worst vacation ever.”

Bucky was nervous now, trying to keep his hands from trembling (magic freaked him out; too much like messing with his head), and started muttering. “Almost as bad as when they sent me to fucking Iraq. 'Here you go, Soldier, nice beach vacation! Miles of rolling sand,' they said. Yeah, and no fucking ocean, assholes. Take it from me: never let Hydra plan your holiday destinations.”

The Stevie-creature was watching him intently. Stop talking, Barnes. “A-plus, though,” he said, moving his hand to encompass the room; the illusion. Then, in order to have something to do, he lay his pistols down in front of him and began disassembling them and cleaning them one by one. His hands stopped shaking, midway through the second gun. He idly wondered if the guns even worked down here, as... was this some sort of astral projection? Or another version of him? Was he just hallucinating all of this to keep himself from flipping out? Christ, he hated magic. It made no sense.

He re-assembled his guns with deliberate slowness, and put them away. He then started laying out his knives, checking them for dirt, and for sharpness. Midway through his throwing blades, he felt the room... change around him, vanish, and then they were outside, on a grassy field, the smell of summer all around them. The Stevie-creature was now a heartbreakingly beautiful black man, nearly seven feet tall, skin so dark it was almost blue-black and eyes as golden as the sun. He sat on a director's chair, his legs crossed, in a creamy-white suit.

A large ruby ring sparkled on the man's left hand. The ring was eye level with Bucky, and so he could see the symbol carved into the front of the stone. He smiled. “Asmodeus. Lust and vile revenges. Well, that's me, bang to rights.”

The King of Hell smiled and inclined his head slightly, pleased to have been recognised. His voice, when it came, seemed to come from everywhere, low and finer and more fiery than the mellowest whiskys. “What is it that you want from me, James Buchanan Barnes?”

Bucky wound a blade of grass around a metal finger. “Nothin', really. I'm not here for magic or power or anything like that. I'm sorta... good where I am on that front.”

“Your arm, perhaps?”

“Dunno. Kinda useful being able to stop bullets with it.” Bucky looked up. “I get shot at. A lot. And... it's me, now. Having a flesh arm back would be... not-me.” He scrunched up his face, unsure how to continue. “I'm actually here about what you want.”

An amused expression flickered across Asmodeus' ebony face, and his eyes glittered. “Indeed?”

“I mean, I s'pose Tootsie Pop out there has promised you the world if you return him to Earth and stick him in my body, maybe give him a bit more magic while you're at it. Look, first, are you sure you really want our world? It's a mess. We're a bunch of hairless monkeys with anxiety, and we never listen, and whatever you try to make us do we'll just screw it up and you'll spend all your time running around after us trying to make us behave. Honestly, if there is another side and you want to get revenge on them, let the angels manage the world. And you can sit here and make popcorn and laugh at 'em all having nervous breakdowns.”

Asmodeus was almost smiling now. Maybe? Hopefully that wasn't a snarl. Bucky dropped his voice a little. “And second, strictly between us? Schmidt's a dumbass. My best friend pretty much singlehandedly ruined his plans in 1944, the first time he was going to conquer the world. C'mon, ask Schmidt about Captain America and watch him go even redder. And I worked for his organisation, Hydra, for a good seventy years. These are not the guys you want flashing your name all over town.”

Bucky plucked another blade of grass gently between metal fingers. “So that's it. What do you want? Because if you want an empire on Earth, I can't give you that. Not sure Schmidt can either, though. But if you want something else... I'm listening. In trade for the Red Skull's life.”

Asmodeus was silent for long minutes. Bucky realised he could hear no breathing, no heartbeat from Asmodeus... just the sighing of a light breeze through the clipped grass of the lawn. Even the voice in the back of Bucky's head that was constantly calculating fight and escape matrices had no suggestions what to do about Asmodeus. Which was terrifying in itself. The little voice had been a part of him for so long, had saved his life so many times.

Then, Asmodeus rose, and walked around Bucky, slowly, looking down at him with interest. He stopped in front of Bucky and reached down to touch his face. Bucky moved his head away slightly, and whispered, “Warn me, if you're planning to go into my head. I can react badly to that.”

Asmodeus laughed at him, then. A laugh which, like his voice, seemed to come from everywhere, from the very grass under him. “Child, this is my realm. I have known all your secrets from the moment you stepped through my door. And you have been mine since long before that.” Then the voice dropped to a whisper: "You remember what you asked for, when you fell?"

Bucky turned pale, and rose to his feet with a little less than his usual grace. “Yeah, I do.” He was suddenly relieved the little voice in his head wasn't going on about kneecapping and blade entry points and how many moves, how many seconds to most efficient kill.

Asmodeus looked at Bucky. “There is something I want,” he said, and then his hand was at Bucky's back, giving him a shove. “If you survive.”

The scene changed again. A dirt ring, lined with stone bleachers, like some of the old Roman amphitheatres they had marched past on their way up the Italian peninsula in the 107th. He was in the centre of the ring. His weapons were gone, as were his tac gear. Just the Property of Hydra t-shirt and his combat trousers. And in front of him was Johann Schmidt, coiling and uncoiling a bullwhip. The dead were all around. And... Bucky recognized some of them. A lot of them. An audience of the people he and Schmidt had killed, as well as the strange, smoke-tendril nurse-creatures to keep order. Asmodeus' voice rang out from the very stones: “You want the Soldier's body, Schmidt? Then take it.”

 

* * *

 

“Victor, baby,” said Tony, sending a repulsor blast at Doom, “You're making a big mistake, and I say this as a man who tried to build himself a sexbot in Junior High.”

“I am not the one invading a sovereign country!” shouted Doom, sending back a blast of his own.

“...the way you invaded the US, and stole a map from my home, for your totally-not-a-Hydra-operative girlfriend who loves you for your charming personality and good sense of humour?”

Doom roared and shot Tony in the chest for that one. The shielding on the Iron Man suit took it, but fair enough, Tony thought, he probably deserved that one. “Um, Thor? Hulk?” he whispered over the comms. “Some help here? Or really just aiming at, you know, the guy in the green cape who controls the Doombots.”

Two of the slim, elegant turrets of Castle Doom had their roofs smashed off, and the Hulk had started on the walls. The stones they were constructed from were large, and the perfect size for Hulk to wing overhand at Thor, who batted them with his hammer towards the increasingly cautious ranks of circling Doombots. Tony could feel Thor's amusement over the comms, the smile in his voice. “My apologies, friend Tony! In Asgard we play a game like this as children, but the flying robots make it much more exciting!”

Doom flared out his cape in the breeze, going for the “nobly aggrieved clenched fist” pose. “The map was mine. The Winter Soldier stole it from me!”

“Um, actually, the map belonged to the Morgan Library, which I checked, and which is not owned by you. But please, feel free to take that up directly with the Winter Soldier, just warn me first so I can make popcorn. But we're getting away from the main issue, which is: your girl. Totally Hydra.”

“Ilse is not Hydra!” Doom rocketed towards Tony, armoured fists driving into him as two Doombots grabbed him from behind. At the same time, a large paving stone came whizzing thorugh the air, over Doom's shoulder, narrowly missing Tony's head.

“Sorry!” came Thor's voice over the comms. “Ranging in!”

Tony struggled against the Doombots and was just managing to pry free when more glommed on to him, severely reducing his ability to fly. The suit started to overheat with the effort, and he dropped altitude.

Doom floated down with him, laughing quietly, enjoying watching Iron Man struggle. “Ilse had wonderful ideas what to do with the Avengers,” Doom said.

 

* * *

 

Between Natasha's sixth sense for hidden Hydra / Red Room facilities and Dr Strange's ability to feel even the remnants of magical presence, the entrance to the caverns were discovered without much difficulty. Steve's shield and a couple of Clint's explosive arrows took the door out, and that only left the eight or so Hydra guards looking surprised and a bit deafened on the other side. That was fine; Steve had been spoiling for a fight since he'd gotten Bucky's note.

His shield took out two, and Steve punched a third, cracking his jaw and watching the man crumple like a rag-doll. A few of the guards finally had the sense to loose off their assault rifles. Steve grinned and ducked behind his shield as he threw himself forwards, sliding low along the ground and kicking the feet out from under one, the man's rifle flying upwards and sending a rat-tat-tat of automatic fire across the ceiling. The man's fall knocked him into his companion, and that was all Steve needed to straighten up with pace and attitude and twang his shield off the companion's head. He looked around, and Clint and Natasha had taken down the remaining guards. Hearing the sudden quiet, Dr Strange poked his head around the corner.

“Do you fight?” asked Clint.

“Oh, frequently,” Dr Strange replied, stepping over the body of an unconscious Hydra guard. “Mostly on other planes of existence. It gets quite interesting when it starts happening in four or five dimensions.”

Natasha smirked and whispered to Clint's good ear as she nudged past him, “I think you just got owned.” Then her eyes darted up. “Steve, no, I'm going on point--”

“Natasha, no, you are not. I have this,” Steve replied firmly, setting off down the dim, damp stone hallway. “Bucky is sort of my core competency.”

The briefest flicker of annoyance passed over Natasha's mission face, and she strode after Captain America. Clint shrugged at Dr Strange, and the two of them walked behind, Clint keeping an eye on their six, bow drawn.

“We should have left one of those guards conscious, and questioned him.” Steve said, as they saw a door in the corridor ahead. “We could have confirmed that Bucky was even down here--”

Natasha sighed, and opened the door. She'd already spotted the blood on it, and she just pointed into the room with an exasperated look. “What do you think, Steve.”

Steve was mostly trying not to explode in horror when he saw the charred, dead figure in the remains of the chair, until his brain reminded him that no, that was not Bucky, it was someone much, much smaller. He consciously began to calm his heart rate and ragged breathing when--

“Oh, awesome,” said Clint, stepping past them into the room and taking it in. “The Soldier's left us an actual trail of bodies to follow. Ooh!” he continued, reaching up to the top of a support beam, “and a really nice sniper rifle.” Clint looked down at the VKS in his hands. “Bit heavy for me, but hi, beautiful.”

“By the Dread Dormammu,” Dr Strange whispered under his breath. “Your ronin did mention he was good at violence.”

Steve pressed his lips into a small smile that wasn't a smile at all. He pointed at things in the room: “Chair, for electrocuting his memories out of him. Tranquilisers, for paralyzing him when they can't contain him. They're specially created for his metabolism, and the main ingredient is a ridiculously poisonous neurotoxin.” He raised his eyebrows at Dr Strange, daring him to comment.

Then his eyebrows raised further as he noticed Dr Strange was floating a few inches above the ground. “One doesn't wish to stain one's shoes,” Dr Strange demurred, indicating the blood-soaked floor.

In that moment of quiet, they heard the soft crying from outside far exit of the room, from deeper into the mountain. Steve surged forwards. Hidden behind the door was a young scientist, pale and terrified, a freckled kid who had to be 20 if he was a day, his lab coat covered with blood. He was shivering and could barely speak. Steve put an arm on his shoulder to reassure him, and the boy turned big green eyes up at him. “P-please, I was in the bathroom. It was awful, he killed everyone, Schwartz and Dr Gruber and everyone--”

“It's all over now. Can you get up?” Steve asked. While he loathed Hydra, he knew that people made mistakes, especially young people, rushing into things without thinking. Perhaps this kid could be saved. Perhaps he also knew the layouts of the tunnels further into the mountain...

The boy nodded and finally uncurled a little, starting to pull his hands out of his pockets.

Then suddenly the boy was bathed in a golden light, a light emanating from the eye that had opened on Dr Strange's pendant.

In the light, it was no boy.

And in its hand was a needle.

 

* * *

 

The Red Skull pulled his bloody face into what passed for a smile and began circling Bucky, uncoiling the bullwhip at his side. Bucky waited, still, watchful. This was one man. A man who had terrified him in 1943, and who shouldn't be causing that clutch of cold fear in his stomach now. One. Man. A man who wasn't even dressed for a fight: high, polished parade boots, SS dress jodhpurs, button-down shirt. Some sort of gold necklace.

Take him down, Barnes.

“Ha!” the Red Skull shouted, cracking the whip forwards. Sergeant James Buchanan Barnes 32557038 Prisoner of War would have ended up with the whip wrapped around his neck, dragged to the ground like an animal. The Soldier, however, somewhat leisurely reached up and grabbed the bitter end of the whip with his metal hand, and then it was Schmidt who was off balance. Bucky lunged forwards, faster now, and flipped into a spin-kick of bone-crushing force--

--that never connected, because suddenly then everything was blue fire, and Bucky was floating in midair, back arched in pain, as the Red Skull's laughter echoed in his ears. He forced his eyes open, the world was upside down and then KRAK! he was slammed against one of the stone walls and he heard a couple ribs splinter and looked up and there was the family in Tokyo he'd killed in 1987, there was Rudi and Iakov from Hungary in 1956. There was some girl he didn't even remember. They weren't cheering. They just looked... blank. Too still. Like holograms.

He landed on his feet, more by instinct and years of bloody practice than by design. The Red Skull was clutching the necklace he was wearing – from the gold chain dangled an aqua-blue stone, heavily engraved with runes that seemed to shift and move. A glow from it seeped through the Red Skull's hand, and around his other hand a similar blue shone like a halo.

“Surrender,” said the Red Skull. “It will save you a lot of pain in the very near future.”

“No,” Bucky growled, rushing him, knowing there would be another blast of the blue magic, but needing to test it, figure out how it worked. And there was another blast, and wasn't that the Red Skull all over, why do something yourself when you can find a device or a minion to do it for you, and it hit Bucky hard on the left side and he didn't dodge it and he was praying to any entity that might still be listening to him (probably just Asmodeus) that nobody picked up on his moving a little slow, that he chose not to dodge it. None of them stil had a good handle on how fast he could really move, if he wanted to.

But Bucky's bigger error was assuming the arm would block some of the blast, that the metal would somehow deflect magic like it did with bullets, but instead it drew it in and amplified it and Bucky had known pain let me tell you about pain I could write fucking dissertations on pain they think just because you heal fast that getting wounded doesn't hurt as much but Jesus Christ this was like a whiteout and he could feel himself rising up, the Red Skull was gesturing and lifting him into the air and then he made a fist and drove it down and SLAM, down Bucky went into the dirt. Bucky turned his head and spat out blood and through the wetness in his eyes he could see Asmodeus, sitting in a carved, dark-wood chair, at one end of the amphitheatre.

Asmodeus looked directly at Bucky and tilted his head questioningly. Would you like to even the playing field?

Bucky shook his head, blood scattering from his nose into the dirt, and managed a grunt that would have been “no” if he could have fully gotten his breath, but came out more like a stuttered “n-nnn”. He pushed himself up, staggering a little. Got 'im on the ropes, Stevie--

A sudden realisation clawed at him, chill to his bones: If he loses-- If he loses, and the Red Skull takes him over, Steve won't be able to fight him. Steve will go soft, pull his punches, assume he can be saved-- And that will be the end of Stevie, not even a clean death, but to be polluted by the mind of the Red Skull. And Stevie was a fighter, the best he ever knew other than himself, but he was the wild, heart-on-his-sleeve, throw-everything-at-it fighter, and beating mind control was a vicious sort of cold war, all iron discipline and lies. Stevie was a terrible liar--

The next blast hit him almost immediately, an arcing hit that sent him flying into another wall buncha blond-haired boys, I remember them, not a one over 18, just scared farmhands with guns, all their uniforms too new and too big, there's your nazi menace, that's where the bullet in your best guy's gun goes, we were deep behind enemy lines on a moonlit night and I snuck up behind them and slit their throats because if they called out we'd have had the entire 4th Army on our back that's the thing about war there is no right there's just who's left

And he landed in the dirt again and there was the Devil, still in his view, still with a question in his face. Would you accept help? You could save your friend.

Bucky pushed up from the wall, jaw clenched, and shook his head again. He brought up his guard and glared at the Red Skull. Anytime, motherfucker. Any goddamn time.

The Red Skull was moving without care now towards Bucky, sure of his victory. He saw Bucky's shaky stance and widened his hands in mock dismay. “Still fighting? You merely postpone the inevitable, boy. Give up now, and I'll return you consciousness back to you once I end up in the correct body.”

Bucky snorted a laugh and swept his metal arm out, indicating the dead souls watching them in the bleachers. “Ask your comrades >huff< how well they did with >huff< making me give up.”

The Red Skull glanced up, momentarily distracted as he realised just how many of the dead souls were wearing Hydra uniforms.

That moment was all Bucky needed. He charged forwards, no longer hiding his speed. The Red Skull threw off a blast of magic and Bucky rolled under it, coming up fast and hard and leading with his metal shoulder, bodyslamming into the Red Skull. It was an ugly, messy, street-brawl move, no grace to it, but it did the job: Bucky's metal hand closed around the amulet, ripping it from its chain as both of them crashed to the ground. The Red Skull got in a decent jab to Bucky's already-cracked ribs before Bucky rolled off and stepped back to a defendable distance.

He glanced down at the amulet in his left hand, then slowly crushed it. Tiny shards of aqua stone fell from his metal fingers as he opened his fist. Then he looked up at his opponent again.

“Hey,” Bucky said, idly, thinking out loud. “Hey, Johann. You know the only lasting thing your precious Hydra created in the past 70 years?”

He smiled, a wolf's smile, spreading his arms in the prelude to a bow: “Me.”

The Red Skull glared at him.

“And I wasn't even your idea.”

Schmidt launched himself forwards with a roar of fury, his huge fists flying. Fists that could dent a tank. Of course, first they have to connect with the tank and bruised and bloody as he was, Bucky dodged him easily. The Red Skull was a Prussian junker, not a man who ever had to fight for anything in his life. Not a soldier. In his mind, a revolutionary: but of course, revolutions are created by the middle class. The working class get to die in them, though.

“You were a mistake!” Schmidt screamed, coming in with a real haymaker of a right hook. “A waste of time! The only goal of Hydra should be the quantum leaps in power that magic provides--”

Bucky ducked under the hook, then kicked his foot out hard into the side of Schmidt's knee. “Yeah. I am a mistake.” The KRAK of the knee breaking echoed across the amphitheatre, and as Schmidt staggered under the pain, dropping his guard, Bucky brought his left fist up to meet Schmidt's face. “But so are you, tomato-head.”

Schmidt arched backwards and landed in the dirt, the right side of his face a shattered mess. He rolled onto his front and looked around desperately. Hoarsely, he whispered, “Asmodeus..?” Searching for another shortcut to victory. Another way to win without getting his hands dirty.

But no answer came. At the Bank of Hell, his credit had been cancelled.

Bucky stalked silently over to the Red Skull, seventy years of blood and hate and rage burning within the iron cage of his operational discipline. Seventy years of practice, of honing every move, from the simplest punch to the takedowns, spin kicks and backflips, even honing the opposite of movement, complete stillness, repetitions beyond the point of insanity to become ingrained, hardwired perfection. Force, speed, efficiency, all wrapped up in a terrifying grace. And this ugly asshole swings at him like a drunk longshoreman, because the Red Skull asked Erskine to shoot him up with the serum just out of ego, just to be an übermensch, just because he could.

He kicked the Red Skull over onto his back. Then he dropped onto the Red Skull's chest with his knees, his full weight, metal and bone and dense-packed muscle, smashing down through ribs and cartilage. He pinned the Red Skull's arms and glared into Schmidt's cold grey eyes.

“The only one of us that turned out all right was Stevie. And, motherfucker--”, he snarled, voice dropping low and rough and furious as his fist came up--

“You.” PUNCH

“Will.” BAM

Never.” KRAK

“Have.” WHAM

“Him.” SMASH

A hand touched Bucky's shoulder. He half-turned, eyes wild, ready to rip it off.

Asmodeus looked down at him, then past him to the smashed mess of tissue and bone that used to be the Red Skull. “You're done, Soldier.”

Bucky shook his head, the motion so small it was almost a shiver. “I'm really not.”

“You cannot kill him in this realm; death does not exist here.” Asmodeus indicated the body of the Red Skull, which was already knitting back together, seeming to re-inflate. “There are only souls, in eternal debt to me for loans they took out.”

Bucky stood up, his fists balled loosely at his sides, dripping red. “Then send me back to Earth. I have a job to finish.”

 

Chapter Text

Steve rolled away just in time to miss the hypodermic that the shapeshifter had in her hand. Dr Strange's odd, eye-shaped amulet had forced her back into her original shape: the green-haired woman whose face was marked by a long, angry scar. The first Madam Hydra. Natasha hissed and fired, twice, but Madam Hydra flowed around the bullets as she turned and ran deeper into the catacombs below Castle Doom. Steve hurled the shield after her, the vibranium ringing like a bell as it rebounded from the rough stone walls of the tunnel, but it failed to bring her down.

They gave chase. Dr Strange's eyes were narrow as he kept up with them effortlessly, surfing on thin air, his feet floating a few inches above the ground. He spoke to Natasha: “She bears a fragment of the Opal of Ikonn in her heart. She is a made thing, not a born one. If you get me close enough to her, I can unmake her.”

Natasha smirked back, a hint of sorrow in her eyes. “We're all made things, here. Lucky her, able to be unmade so easily.”

“Hey! Some of us are self-made,” said Clint, sounding mildly aggrieved.

They caught up with Steve at the entrance to a large, underground cavern. He was standing there, looking out into the vast, dark expanse of natural space, at the glitter of stalactites, the dark earth, the strange sheen of phosphorescent lichen. The cavern was low and long, and a small mound of earth near its centre was capped by an ornate stone sarcophagus, encircled by a thin white line in the dirt. Nothing moved.

Steve exhaled wearily as the three Avengers and their magician companion walked slowly into the cavern. “She's gone. Again. And still no sign of Bucky.” He pressed the bridge of his nose with his fingers. He felt like he'd been one step behind for months, reacting a fraction too late to do any good.

Dr Strange stepped forwards, lifting the pendant at his chest. The gold plates on it opened again, lazily, like a person just waking from too short a nap... and an eye, green and gold, peered out, starting to scan around the cavern. “She is still here. And the Eye of Agamotto will ferret her out from her hiding place. Wait here--”

But then there was a stomach-churning, tearing sound, and Steve gasped as a rip appeared in the fabric of reality itself, popping and laddering like a torn stocking, as if all of existence were just so much casual embroidery, papering over a vast and formless void. The air itself seem to vanish, and Steve found himself frozen in place, unable to move even if he wanted to. Time had stuttered to a halt.

Two figures fell out of the void, through the tear. The first – thin, a withered skeleton of a man, or what was left of one - landed in the sarcophagus. The second – metal arm, dark leather tac gear stained with blood, blood that was still flowing from him, hair a black war banner flying over a too-pale face – crashed down next to it, a map falling out of his hand. Steve tried to run, tried to scream, but it was like in a bad dream, when the monster comes for you and you are trapped within the unyielding cage of your own body.

Then with a crackling, snapping sound, the ladder in reality wove itself together again as rapidly as it had appeared, the stale, earthy air of the cavern rushing back in.

Steve pitched forwards onto his hands as the stasis released him, and was getting back onto his feet and moving forwards as he saw Bucky pull himself painfully up the sarcophagus. Bucky shot a glance back at him, his face hard, determined, fighting through pain. “Stevie, no,” he hissed, “stay back.”

Then Steve froze again, in horror this time, as the figure in the sarcophagus rose up and revealed itself. He knew that ruin of a face, the exposed muscles, the coating of wet blood. Schmidt was weak, so very weak, and the rest of its body was withered and torn, muscles tattered and eaten away from his long stay under the ocean. He had fallen from the Valkyrie well before Steve, in waters that were not as cold as the ones that had entombed him.

Yet Schmidt still had fight in him. He reached with his long fingers for Bucky's neck, scratching like an animal, trying for the jugular, as Bucky in turn grabbed for Schmidt. Visceral terror ran like ice through Steve's veins, a horrible sense of history repeating itself. History doomed to repeat itself, over and over, without end.

Not this time, he thought. Not on my watch.

He raced towards the sarcophagus, skidding to a halt as he saw the small, spherical grenade hidden in Bucky's flesh hand, realising why Bucky had wanted him to stay back. As the Red Skull tried to sink his fingers into Bucky's neck for a killing blow, Bucky lunged forwards, shoving the grenade into the Red Skull's mouth, then breaking his jaw over it with a sharp contraction of his metal hand that also sent the Red Skull tipping backwards into the sarcophagus.

It was over in a matter of seconds. Steve grabbed Bucky by the straps around his tac jacket and yanked him backwards, away from the sarcophagus, both of them toppling over into the dirt as the grenade went off. The sound was deafening in the small space, and the light, to their dark-focused eyes, was blinding. Stalactites cracked from the pressure wave and shot down from the ceiling like crystalline knives, and Steve huddled under his shield and hugged Bucky's cold, bloody body to him and prayed like he hadn't prayed in years.

The shattering wail of falling stalactites stopped, and Bucky shifted his weight. Steve realised it was probably hurting Bucky a lot to have him pressing down on Bucky's broken and gunshot body. He rolled off, just lying in the dirt, breathing. It was okay. Everyone was going to be okay. Everyone was breathing. Bucky even pushed himself up into sitting position and poked him, coughing out, “Rogers, you're--”

BANG

Bucky looked down at his chest, or at the crater where part of his chest had been. He looked surprised, and his eyes sagged shut and then there was

only

blackn e s  s --

 

 

Natasha has memories that she never wants to revisit, things that she saw and did that she wishes she could shove out of existence, but at least her one consolation was those days were over and she would make no new memories that would lurk at the edge of her thoughts like sea monsters waiting to drag her back down into the depths she had fought so hard to escape.

That is, until she heard the shapeshifter's laugh and, at the same time, Steve's scream. The noise coming out of Steve, rough and high-pitched, this keening wail of despair like nails scraping at the rusty gates of hell, she would take that to her grave.

She whipped around and saw Clint down, blood from a hard blow to the temple seeping down his face. He was alive, but badly concussed. The heavy sniper rifle of Bucky's that he'd scavenged was being held by the Madam Hydra, whose mouth laughed but whose eyes burned with the fire of a mind that had lost its grip on sanity.

“Hail Hy--”

A streak of blue, red, and white blurred past Natasha and was on the shapeshifter before she could complete her sentence, breaking the rifle and throwing it aside. They tumbled to the ground, Steve and Madam Hydra, fists against hands that had become sharp blades, peals of barking laughter still rolling out of her and the banshee wail still coming out of Steve.

Natasha stalked around, looking for an opening, until Dr Strange put a calm hand on her shoulder. “Please, see to your friend. He's had a nasty crack to the head. I would look at it myself, but--” he smiled warmly, “my skills are more needed here.” Natasha nodded and backed off.

She cradled Clint's head and examined the wound. He'd heal. He always did. He took more damage than perhaps any of them, and he always came back. Her brave little hawk. “Wh-what happened?” he moaned. “Everything stopped then everything started then there were stars.”

She blotted at the wound with the antiseptic pad she had in one of her belt pouches. “Things are bad,” she said.

“R-Red Skull?” Clint said, his voice scratchy and dry.

“Barnes got hit. If he's not dead already, he will be soon. It's not the kind of hit you come back from.”

“Oh. Shit. How's Steve taking it?”

Natasha indicated with her eyes where Madam Hydra and Steve were doing a pretty good job of turning each other into bloody ribbons. Madam Hydra morphed back and forth from her true form through distorted, twisted versions of people that Steve knew: his mother. Bucky. Natasha herself. Tony. Peggy Carter. Sam Wilson. Steve just kept hitting, and the figures got more distorted, and her slashes and body-shifts grew more sluggish.

Dr Strange stood over them, uttering something in a language that Natasha was confident was not of this planet, and holding his hands out with fingers contorted into odd, angular poses. Triangles of orange-red light glowed around his hands and with one final, harsh word, the magician clapped his hands together over his head and then brought them downwards, sharply, as if stabbing Madam Hydra with a sword of orange light.

She arched and screamed and coughed. Dr Strange made a motion with his hands of gathering up thread, pulling something out of her chest. With a final tug, and a small popping sound, a shard of fiery white stone appeared, green and orange highlights glittering through it.

Madam Hydra gasped and went limp, and began to cry. She changed, one last time, under Steve's hands. Steve who had managed to stop pummeling her, after Dr Strange had placed his still-glowing hand on Steve and calmly said his name, and another word from a language Natasha did not recognise. They all watched as Madam Hydra went from the etherially beautiful, green-haired, elfin-faced young woman, to a middle-aged blonde frau, a little red-faced, a little chunky, with eyes too wide-set and a heavy chin.

Dr Strange looked at the shard of opal in his hand. “I have taken from her what Johann Schmidt gave her, at the beginning of the war." He reached down with his other hand and touched her forehead, his fingers glowing yellow where they brushed her skin. “She is mortal now, and time's winged chariot will soon catch up with her.”

“Then stand aside, Dr Strange,” Steve breathed, in the most menacing voice Natasha had ever heard come out of him.

“As you wish,” Dr Strange said. “Although I must register my disapproval.”

Dr Strange lifted his hand off the plain, frumpy woman who had been Madam Hydra. Steve's lip twisted into a snarl and he brought his fist back for a killing blow -- but then he watched in shocked fascination as the woman aged before his eyes, to a tiny, bent, brittle nonagenarian. Who cringed, and raised trembling arms.

Steve's arm sagged, and finally he shook his head and unclenched his fist, bringing it down instead to wipe the tears that were running freely down his face.

“As your charming redheaded colleague noted, we are all made things here,” said Dr Strange. “Think where many of us would be if we had not been allowed the chance to remake ourselves, if we had been judged only on pasts that were not all our own doing." He indicated the shard of gemstone in his gloved hand, as he opened a small bag to put it in. "The Opal of Ikonn is not a thing which can be encompassed by the human mind without insanity; not even in such a fragmentary form as this.”

Steve stood, shaking, great shivering tears falling down his cheeks. Natasha turned away. She couldn't watch this. Couldn't watch their bastion of strength crumbling like this.

“Go to your friend, Captain Rogers. He is a far better man than he thinks he is. And he looks to you – to your actions – for guidance,” said Dr Strange. “Choose your path wisely, for he will follow.”

The magician gestured, and the Carta Infernale that lay forgotten by Bucky's side, rose and flew to his hand. With his other, Dr Strange took the withered hand of the old lady. He bent down to her, solicitously. “What do you want, Ilse?” he asked.

Ilse was herself crying, and the shake in her hand was due to more than her advanced years. “I wish... I wish to see the Spree one last time.” She swallowed, heavily, and looked up at the magician, the first person who had ever taken her interests into consideration. Her eyes were wet with tears. “And then I wish to die.”

Dr Strange squeezed her hand gently. “Shall we go do that, then? I believe the roses in the Tiergarten are still in bloom. I do love a good rose.”

And with that, the mage and the old lady vanished, shimmering out of view in a haze of violet light.

 

* * *

Meanwhile, in the courtyard of the castle, Tony had been immobilised by Doombots. The Iron Man suit was overheating, unable to manage the constantly-shifting weight and damage of Doom's lookalike robot army. Tony was desperately trying to re-route systems and energy to one final blast of power that could shake the Doombots off, but nothing seemed to be enough, not een shutting down respiration support. The fist of Doom edged closer--

“Now, Stark, you will admit that your second-class attempts at robotics have failed compared to the might of D--”

Tony stared at what little of Doom's face was visible through the mask. His brown-red eyes defocused, blinking, and Doom shook his head, as if to clear it.

“Ilse...” Doom whispered. Then another head shake. Doom's armoured body tightened with fury, then he stepped back from Tony's prone form. “What was I doing?” he said.

“Victor! Buddy, Victor, you dated a girl who turned out to be a member of a Nazi magic cult. It happens to all of us,” Tony said, pacifying. “How about you and me grab a nice single malt and talk about crazy ex-girlfriends, eh? And robotics, because strictly between us, the LEDs in that armour are so last year.”

Doom rubbed his helmet with his metal-clad hand. “Yes. I--”

Then the rock hit him in the back of the helmet.

With an almighty KLANG, Victor von Doom, self-appointed ruler of Latveria, fell face-forwards into the cobblestones of his own castle courtyard. Immedately, the Doombots disengaged from attack, and clustered around their prone leader. They lifted Doom up carefully, carrying him back inside the castle.

“On occasions like this, the Lady Darcy is prone to shout, 'Flawless Victory!'” beamed Thor, landing nearby with a grin that showed how pleased with himself he was. Bruce was in his arms, rumpled and shivering with exhaustion. Thor let him down gently to the ground. “I assume our compatriots must have been successful!”

Tony sat up, opening the Iron Man mask. “Looks like it,” he said. He felt angry at Thor then, but quickly suppressed it. He had wanted the chance to talk to Doom more than he liked to admit. The man fascinated him, and his work in some areas was quite neat (if a bit over-engineered and with a disturbing tendency to go retro), but... it wasn't the kind of thing where you both ended up at the same strip bar late-night during Davos and bonded over Jager shots and girls named Tawnaé and then suddenly you were bonding over servos and circuit boards. There were so few people Tony could talk to at his level, he felt the loss of every potential science friendship keenly.

Thor waved a hand, rising into the sky again. “I must be off to London, but this has been good battle! Fare thee well, friend Tony!”

Tony raised an arm in goodbye. Then he dismounted the suit, which was running on 4% anyway, and shambled over to Bruce's side. “Guess we won,” he said.

Bruce nodded, withdrawn and melancholy.

“Why does it never feel like a win, though?” Tony sighed.

Then Natasha's voice came over the comms, abrupt and emotionless. “We have a situation.”

Tony knew what it meant when Natasha sounded so flat, and a cold dread prickled at the back of his neck. “Natasha. Who's down?”

“The Soldier. It's bad. Steve's out of his mind. We have to... we have some decisions to make,” she said. “We're almost up there. Is Banner...?”

“Not really in a fit state to do anything,” said Tony, looking at Bruce, circles under his ever-weary eyes, sitting under a blanket on the ramp of the Quinjet.

Natasha's voice dropped. “We may need containment protocols.”

“For which one?”

“Both of them.”

“Okay. Can we make it back to New York to treat him?”

“Not without a miracle,” Natasha sighed.

“Okay okay. Bruce! You gotta play doctor. Jarvis? Line me up with the nearest secure place to treat a severely wounded supersoldier who-- do we think he is okay in hospitals? Or is he going to wake up, see white coats, freak out and kill everyone? Natasha how is he wounded-- oh wait, I can see you coming out now.”

Tony watched his friends stagger out into the main courtyard of Castle Doom. Steve strode towards them, his face red, cheeks wet with tears that Tony could see even this far away, and eyes that had nothing in them other than the word Why. He cradled Bucky in his arms, Bucky who was completely pale and unconscious, and the blood, there was so much blood. All over Bucky's chest. All over Steve's chest. Natasha, wary and tired, brought up the rear, supporting Clint, whose head was bandaged.

“Where's Banner?” Steve called out.

“Here,” Bruce said. “You know I'm not that sort of doctor, Steve--”

“I don't care! You know more than me. Do anything!” Steve shouted, voice rough with desperation. “Please.”

“You know I will. But shouting at me really won't help,” said Bruce, palms up, pacifying. He indicated a cot he had pulled out, a cot with straps for patient transport. “I can dig out the bullets and dress the wound, if the bullets aren't anywhere too critical.”

Steve slowly lowered Bucky's limp body onto the cot and Bruce began to strap him in, huffing as he had to work around Steve, who managed to be huge and in the way at all times.

Tony circled over. “Don't worry, Steve. I am at this very moment organising the best care money can buy for him. I just need to see the inju-- oh, shit,” Tony said, looking at the gaping chest wound. “I'm getting us out of here. Hold on,” he said, hurrying to the cockpit.

Bruce got out a small field medical kit. “Steve. Cut off his tac gear as best you can, and for god's sake get as many of those weapons off him as you can find.”

Steve fumbled at straps, hands shaking, until he swore at his own uselessness and punched a dent in one of the Quinjet's storage lockers.

“Don't do that,” said Bruce. Then, louder, “Natasha!”

“On my way,” she said, getting Clint settled and glaring at him until he put on his seatbelt and shut his eyes. The Quinjet vibrated into life, then lifted off.

Natasha stripped the Soldier's armour and gear with a rapid, careful efficiency. She eyed Steve, who shifted, feeling useless. “Steve,” she said firmly, “stand by his head. If he wakes up and doesn't know where he is, you are the only thing that's going to calm him down. We can't do this without you.”

Steve nodded and walked over, barely there, an automaton.

“We don't have any sedatives that will work on him. Or painkillers. He'll metabolise them almost instantly,” Bruce muttered.

Natasha looked at Steve, looming awkwardly near Bucky's head. “Okay, Steve. Find somewhere on him that isn't injured and put your hand on it, so he can feel you there.”

Steve's hand hesitated, then, remembering the night at Bucky's loft, the night where his world had exploded into a thousand beautiful pieces, he started stroking Bucky's hair.

“Oh God,” Bruce said, shining a small but very bright light into the wound on Bucky's chest, as he cleaned away blood. “Oh God. I think the bullet is in his heart. I can't move it. The only reason he's not dead is there's metal on his ribs, it slowed the bullet down. It's not all the way through the wall into the ventricle, but I can't risk moving it.”

“Tony, floor it!” yelled Natasha.

Steve muttered, the words tripping over each other. “It may push out on its own. Sometimes they do that, as the muscle heals. It's happened with me. But--”

“But we still don't know the first thing about the Soldier's physical makeup, whether his serum is in any way comparable to yours. I can't do this, not here, not without a lot more advanced analysis than I have.”

“We're 90 minutes out of New York, gang. The best doctor for the situation is waiting there with the best team of nurses. He just has to hang on,” yelled Tony from the cockpit.

“He'll hold on,” said Steve, almost inaudible. “He can't die. He can't.”

A tear dripped down off Steve's eyelashes onto Bucky's hairline and, weak with his fear, weak with the thought of losing Bucky again, he followed it down, kissing where it landed, feeling the salt sting lips raw from shouting.

Bruce sighed and stepped away, towards a storage locker. “The only thing we can do now is get enough nutrition into his body that his metabolism can take over and heal as fast as possible.” He hooked up an IV into Bucky's arm and hung a pouch of thick, clear gel. “Luckily, I am the sort of doctor who bioengineers nutrient gels to keep myself from passing out from the Other Guy burning up every bit of spare energy in my body.” Bruce looked thoughtful for a moment. “We should do oxygen, too.” He ambled to a locker and pulled out a small oxygen apparatus and mask, which he fitted over Bucky's face.

 

* * *

 

Natasha flopped down into the copilot's seat, pale and grim. She crossed her arms.

“How's Cap?” asked Tony.

Natasha shook her head. “Kneeling next to James' head, crying, and patting James' hair like he was a cat.” She frowned. “We need to discuss contingency plans if the Soldier doesn't make it.”

Tony raised his eyebrows at her.

“Plans for Steve. He's... he'll lose his mind, Tony. Suicide is a real possibility.”

“Something tells me you've already thought of the contingency plans,” Tony said, refocusing on the jet's controls, his jaw set.

Natasha sighed. “It's my job.” Then she shifted in her chair. “We also need to think of what to do if the Soldier does make it. You've seen his files, Tony. Bruce has him back there strapped to a gurney, with a mask on and an IV in. it's giving him the best chance of survival, but.... if he wakes up in an unfamiliar place, restrained, masked and in a ton of pain? Friends of ours will die, Tony.”

“You did take all his weapons away, though. Didn't you?”

Natasha sighed and rolled her eyes at Tony.

Tony frowned. “He still out?”

Natasha nodded.

“Take the controls. I'm going to take off his arm.”

 

Chapter Text

Tony walked towards the back, grabbing a toolkit on the way. He passed Clint, out like a light (Barton had a soldier's ability to sleep anywhere, anyplace; Tony envied that), and Bruce, shivering with exhaustion and trying to read a book. A paper book. Like technology hadn't made those irrelevant or anything.

“You look like shit, Bruce. Have one of your disgusting gel things,” Tony said.

Bruce glanced up at him. “James needs them more than I do.”

Tony sighed. “Bruce, you know that whole thing about putting on your own oxygen mask before putting on your kid's? This is like that. Take care of yourself, okay? We're already essentially down Cap. I can't have another team member down.”

“I'll think about it.”

“I'm surrounded by martyrs,” Tony moaned, shuffling towards the back of the plane. “Hey Cap, how's he doing?”

Steve shrugged, weakly. His hair was everywhere, sticking up in tufts, and his eyes were almost glowing blue thanks to the red surrouding them. The expression on his face just about broke Tony; he had never been the best at dealing with emotions in other people but that was the nice thing about Cap, he never really... had them. Or so Tony had thought. Now on top of everything else, Tony was faced with the incontrovertible evidence that Cap was absolutely overflowing with emotions, big and messy and red with them, and that the mild, unflappable team leader he had become friends with bore no relation to the actual man in front of him and maybe never had.

Tony hooked a stool with his ankle and brought it over next to Barnes. He sat down heavily. This is why he preferred engineering. You theorise a process correctly, execute it carefully, and it works. You can reproduce it. It works the same way, each time, until you improve the process. The way the process responds to external stimuli is easy to predict. And you never find out years later that it's been working a totally different way than you expected. Not that Tony was without fault as far as avoiding emotion, but then everyone knew that sass, energy drinks and all-night lab sessions were his coping mechanisms... What had Cap's been? What had he missed? Once a month or so he ruined a punching bag... but what else? Or had he just been tearing himself up inside all these years and none of them had lifted their heads up long enough out of their own messes to notice?

“Those bandages'll need changing soon. Once I'm done I'll ask Bruce to have a look.”

“Thanks,” Cap muttered.

“Hey, we're almost to New York. If he made it this far, he can make it the rest of the way,” Tony said, carefully drawing the screwdriver out of his toolkit.

“Tony... what are you doing?” Cap said, an edge to his voice.

Shit, rumbled, Tony thought. “I'm taking his arm off, Cap.”

“No.”

“Cap, don't do that thing with your jaw. No, listen to me. I am right about this. This isn't about feelings; it's about safety. He lashes out while he's in pain, or dazed, he's going to kill someone. I have a basic duty towards the medical team I called in on zero notice for this that they not be at risk of death while working on him. Also his body will heal faster without the extra weight on his left side, you know, the side where his heart is. Tell me I'm wrong.” Tony raised his eyebrows at Cap, expectantly.

“You can't just take off part of his body--”

“Actually, I can, and while I am fascinated by questions of cyborg identity and Barnes' perception of what is and isn't part of him, it's a conversation I intend to have directly with Barnes once he is recovered. In my lab. Where you are no longer allowed. Because Cap, seriously, my lab is a no-feelings zone. You're going to give the robots anxiety, looking like that. Dum-E is very sensitive. Also, lastly? Sulking is not the same thing as pointing out flaws in my logic.”

Tony was pretty sure that the basilisk stare Cap was giving him could actually kill him in a parallel universe, but in this one he was half past caring o'clock so he just leaned over and started loosening the access point over the arm's power source. Barnes still seemed to be completely out, thank heavens. Right, there was Barnes' little jury-rigged arc reactor. Which, Tony thought, I should totally make him a better one, maybe as a get-well present. While the arm was off, he could even--

--Then things went south very quickly.

Tony's brain only caught up for a brief moment and basically went oh, shit before whiting out with pain as the bones of his forearm shattered where Barnes grabbed him and Barnes' eyes were open but nobody was home--

Natasha appeared and put a gun to Barnes' head and said something in Russian which had zero effect on the crushing going on and jesus that hurt and Cap was yelling at her and had his hand over the gun and had pulled it away and Tony managed to choke out “make him let go, please” and then Natasha said, “kiss him”.

“What?” both Tony and Cap said.

“Steve, kiss him. Physical stimulus not associated with his time with Hydra. Might snap him out of it. Do it now, before he rips Tony's arm off.”

Steve brushed his lips across Bucky's. “Buck,” he whispered. “It's me. You're okay. You're safe. Let go of Tony. You like Tony, and you're hurting him really badly right now.”

The fingers of the metal hand slowly jerked open, as if they weren't functioning correctly.

Steve pressed his lips to Bucky's again. “That's it... please, Buck.”

Barnes let go. Tony fell off the chair onto the ground, cradling his arm and trying not to scream. Natasha watched, grim and uncomfortable, as the metal arm moved stiffly around to the back of Cap's neck. She didn't calm until the arm softened, until she heard Barnes' rough whisper, “shit, Stevie, what did I do...?”

“You, uh, you broke Tony's forearm. He thought it was a good idea to take your arm off--”

“It is a good idea to take my arm off.”

“Told you,” wheezed Tony, from the floor.

“Bruce! Can you grab Tony some painkillers and splint his arm?” Natasha called.

“Stevie, do it. Before I go unconscious again. Tony'll talk you through it. If you don't, this will happen again.”

“But--”

“Stevie, fucksake, for once can you just do what I say?”

Steve sighed and picked up the mini-screwdriver from the floor. Bruce was already leaning over Tony, giving him a shot for the pain, and wrapping his forearm. Steve pretended not to notice the look that Bruce gave him, the look that said he was rapidly becoming done with everyone else's bullshit. “Tony, what am I doing here?” Steve said.

“Step One: Four access pionts tying down the arc reactor. Undo them, then carefully unplug the arc reactor,” Tony said.

Steve got to work. He was never the mechanical one. Pretty much hated mechanical problems and the problem being attached to Bucky didn't help matters one bit. But he could undo screws, so he did, and pulled out the arc reactor. Bucky's arm went dead, and Steve couldn't suppress the feeling of disgust that he'd just caused that. He dumped the arc reactor and its screws into a tray in Tony's toolkit. “Now what,” Steve hissed.

“You don't get to be sassy about this,” Tony said. “Wow, these painkillers are great. Why did I never get addicted to painkillers? I've pretty much tried everything else. Note to self: try more drugs.” He stood up, a bit shaky, like a colt just finding its feet for the first time. “Just gonna lean on you a bit, Cap.” Tony draped himself over Steve and pointed to two screws marked in red, near where the power source was. “These two next.” Then to a different concealed access panel. “Six more here, then the whole thing comes off. That right, James?”

“...yeah.”

“Okay, he's sounding pretty weak. You gotta hurry, Cap.”

The arm came off. With one final, sickening thunk, Bucky's left arm detached from the shoulder socket and lay in Steve's hands. Steve didn't know whether to cry or vomit.

“Put that with my things.”

“Why?” Steve snarled.

“One, it's still pretty useful as a club if Paranoid wakes up. Two, I am going to improve it, because I am a nice man who does not hold grudges. Or I'm too high to care. Right now, the jury's out.”

Steve placed the arm (it was heavy, way more than a flesh arm had to weigh; how did Buck compensate for the extra weight?) in Tony's bag, then stalked up front to have a word with Natasha.

“We're landing in twenty minutes. The medical team's on standby.”

“Never pull a gun on him again.”

Natasha narrowed her eyes at Steve. “I will do whatever I have to, to ensure the safety of my friends.”

“Whatever happened to 'hold him close and never let go?'”

“Look, Steve, today sucks. Clint's concussed; Tony's arm is broken; James is lying there with a wound that would have killed anyone else. I really don't have the energy to enter into unnecessary fights. We got there in the end. Let me just land this plane, 'kay?”

“Okay.” Steve flopped down in the chair next to her. “I just got him back. I can't lose him again.”

“The Valkyrie,” Natasha whispered. “That was suicide, wasn't it?”

Steve didn't answer, which was in itself all the answer Natasha needed.

 

* * *

 

The medical team was waiting on the rooftop when the jet landed. Steve had heard of McCoy, of course, but was still taken aback by how... big and furry and blue he was. Three nurses in scrubs stood by him: a black woman, a redhead, and a blonde. McCoy shook his hand as he took over pushing the gurney Bucky was on. “Hi. Hank McCoy. These are my nurses: Georgia, Christine, and Linda.”

“Steve Rogers. Thanks for being available at such short notice,” Steve said, trying for his best Captain America smile.

“Oh, no problem. Professor X adores James, and I am the only qualified doctor for this sort of--”

“Wait, stop. How do Bucky and Charles Xavier know each other?”

McCoy shrugged. “I didn't get the exact details but the good Professor just about shoved me out the door when the call came, and Logan said he'd cover my classes. Guess we'll have to ask him when he wakes up.” McCoy scrached his chin fur. “Charles likes everyone, though. He's a pushover. I'm a little more interested with Logan's involvement... he usually prefers to be the only tough guy on the block.”

They went down to a space on one of the residential floors that McCoy had set up as a surgery, with a few extra lights and a considerable amount of machinery. Seeing Steve's look of confusion, McCoy confided: “I've worked on a few people who came out of experimentation programs. They seem to do better, the less the environment seems like a lab.”

Between the two of them, they transferred Bucky onto the surgical table. He was so pale... Steve felt like he was going to break down again. He must have zoned out for a moment as McCoy was shaking him gently. “Steve? I need you to wake him up. I need to get consent for the procedure, from the patient. He needs to know what is going to happen, and agree to it.”

“--yeah. Okay. Sorry.”

Steve ran his hand down Bucky's jawline. “Buck, can you wake up for a sec? The doctor's here. He needs to talk to you.”

“mnuh?” mumbled Bucky.

Then something large and fuzzy and blue filled his vision. “Sergeant Barnes? I'm Dr McCoy. I'm a friend of Professor Xavier's, and I've operated on Logan when he's needed it, so I have some experience with patients like you. You have a bullet which has partially penetrated your heart.”

“two more... one in hip, one in thigh. Dinnae get 'em out before...”

“Do you give us permission to operate on you?”

“Huh? Yeah...”

“Okay. Can we sedate you? We have an anaesthetic which works on Logan--”

“No paralysis.”

“Hydra would hit him with a sedative that was mostly just neurotoxin, he's saying don't use any neurotoxins on him,” explained Steve.

“Please, I'm a doctor, not a barbarian. I swear to you, this is just sedation. Sergeant Barnes, do you think you're going to have trouble understanding you aren't being operated on by Hydra?”

“Nah. Hydra never had anyone blue an' fuzzy...”

“Fabulous. My dazzlingly handsome physiognomy for the win, as the kids say. Let's get started.”

Georgia, the black nurse, smiled encouragingly as she held the oxygen mask up. “Here we go.”

The air in the mask smelled like roses. And Bucky began to dream.

 

* * *

 

Bucky was 16. Steve was 15. It was a Saturday afternoon in 1933, the first time they'd ever gone all the way uptown to the Metropolitan Museum. They'd gone up there in the morning and stayed all day, to the point where Bucky's head felt like it was going to burst, overfull of all sorts of new colours and ways of expressing beauty that he didn't know existed. Steve dragged him from gallery to gallery, explaining who was in the paintings (except for the ones of the saints, he knew those, duh) and what they were about. And how they'd both laughed at the little bronze statue near the entrance who was all dark and patina'd except for her ass, which was bright and shiny, because apparently half the museum-goers gave her a little pat on the down-low on the way past. And the guards had glared at them because two filthy Brooklyn kids couldn't be up to any good at all in a nice place like this, and Bucky would glare back but Steve just rolled his eyes and tugged him along to another gallery.

Besides, Bucky was doing good. He was letting Stevie lean against him while he drew, because the stupid benches didn't have backs, and he didn't want Steve to get over-tired. It was fun when the guards would look over at Steve's sketchbook, too, how their opinion changed real fast. Bucky liked that.

It was midafternoon when they started heading home, the October day having turned from bright and clear to pregnant with rain. Bucky bounced nervously, mentally willing the F train to go faster (like that ever worked) and get them home before the rain started, because what they did not need was Steve to get drenched and start getting sick before winter even started. Steve was talking excitedly to him about everything they'd seen and already making plans to go back, but caught on to his nerves and finally dropped his voice in annoyance. “What.”

“I just want to get home before it rains,” Bucky said.

“Ugh, I'm not going to melt, Bucky.”

Bucky punched him in the shoulder. “Never crossed your mind I don't wanna get wet, punk?”

“I thought you liked gettin' drenched. Means you don't have to do laundry.”

“Oh, that's it, Rogers,” he said, smacking Steve up the back of the head.

The slow progress across the bridge towards York St was passed in the sort of shoving and wrestling that they'd used to express their friendship since pretty much the first day they'd become friends. At some point Steve put down his sketchbook in the next seat over to protect it... which was why, as they came out above ground at York St, fat raindrops already starting to come down from the sky, Steve's eyes suddenly went wide. “Buck! My sketchbook--”

“Shit! I'll get it. Go home, Stevie!” Buck could already hear the train leaving below them, so he started sprinting towards Jay St, thankful for once that the F train was the slowest subway line in New York City after the R. He got to Jay Street, lungs and legs burning, and hopped the turnstiles just in time to see the train doors close. As the train began to pull out, he ran down the platform and grabbed onto the back of the train. Not like it was the first time he'd done this; they never locked the back door. He wedged it open and tried to remember how many carriages down they had been sitting. Please let it still be there, please.

And it was. Battered little cardboard thing that it was, probably nobody thought it was worth taking. Shows how much most people knew, Bucky thought, gathering it up and hugging it to his chest. He grabbed some discarded newspapers to wrap it in, and hopped off at the next stop, crossing over to head back towards York St.

By the time he came up above ground at York Street again it was torrenting down. Stevie better have gotten home before this started, Bucky thought. He tucked the sketchbook as best he could against his chest and hunched over to keep it dry, then took the shortcut home, the one he told Steve never to take because it involved a couple alleys that weren't always the safest. He slung himself up on the fire escape to Steve's – his mom was pulling a weekend shift at the hospital and so wouldn't be home until late – and pushed the window open.

Steve was huddled next to the fire, in nothing but his boxers, under a blanket. Wet clothes hung on the backs of all the chairs. When he heard the window open, he stood up, his eyes bright, a smile spreading over his face.

Buck stepped in and smiled, and held up his newspaper-wrapped bundle. “Told ya I'd get it.”

The blanket fell on the ground and Steve was suddenly throwing his arms around him. “Bucky, you're the best.”

“You only say that because I do all the shitty missions for you.” Bucky could handle this. He was going to be okay with this much Steve, this mostly naked, hugging him.

He shoved the notebook between them. “Here. You better check it's okay. I tried to keep it dry... but, y'know...” he gestured to the torrential rain outside.

“I know. I waited for you for a while.”

Steve.” Bucky groaned in exasperation.

“You should hang your clothes by the fire. They're never going to dry otherwise. Besides, mom brought home that new salve that's supposed to keep my lungs clear so I thought it was fine if I got a little wet.”

Bucky glared at him, but the glare was somewhat weakened by the fact that he was so damn wet, water dripping off his hair into his eyes, off his clothes into a growing puddle on the ground. “Ugh. Fine.”

He kicked his shoes off in the vague direction of the fire, then worked his shirt and his undershirt off over his head. Steve was already arranging his shoes closer to the fire, neatly, and dragging a laundry frame over to hang their wet clothes off. His wool trousers felt like they weighed about 10 pounds and it was all water. “I'm going to go wring these out in the bathtub,” Bucky said, heading for the bathroom.

“Okay. Try not to drip everywhere.”

How.”

Was it his imagination, or was Steve watching him as he headed to the bathroom? He looked back. Steve looked away. Subtle, Barnes. Ugh. He squeezed the water out of his trousers then hung them over the laundry frame. Steve scooted over, giving him room next to the fire. “So where's this magic salve, then?”

Steve pushed a jar of evil-looking yellow stuff over to him. Bucky picked it up like it might bite, and levered open the top. He sniffed it suspiciously. “Steve, this stuff stinks.”

“It's supposed to work, and I can't very well put it on my own back, can I?” Steve said, sticking his chin out.

“I never should have fished you out of that fight.”

“Shut up, you love it.”

“Raise your hands up, you colossal pain in the ass. Gonna do your front first.” Bucky scooped some of the stuff out with his fingers and rubbed it over Steve's chest and down over his ribs. He wasn't entirely sure how far he had to go to cover Steve's lungs but he figured better be safe than sorry. Steve had shut his eyes while Bucky put the salve on and that was probably a good thing, because then Bucky could marvel once again at how long Steve's eyelashes are, how fine his features were, and how really not okay any of these feelings were. But when he touched Steve, Steve's breath seemed to catch (your hands are probably just cold, you big idiot) and his lips parted...

“Okay. Turn around. And you can put your arms down.” Steve wiggled up close to him and presented his back. Bucky ran his thumb down Steve's vertebrae, before rubbing the salve in along his back. Over constellations of freckles more familiar to him than the stars he never saw through the New York smog. Steve's eyes fluttered closed again, and Bucky couldn't resist touching his lips to the vertebra closest to them, so quick and gentle that maybe Steve wouldn't notice. “All done. Feel better?”

“Yeah, Buck, I do.”

“I'm going to make us some coffee.” Bucky got up and stalked off to the kitchen. Okay, the kiss could be ignored, but the burgeoning hard-on? Not so much. Luckily he managed to get up before it made its presence known to Steve.

Steve was just staring into the fire, lost in thought.

The salve had to go on every day, so it became a little tradition for a while, Bucky'd put it on him and then press a fast kiss to his back, and say “all done,” until the day that Steve was feeling especially chatty and full of energy and started telling him how Tina Grimaldi had smiled at him during math class and Bucky just said, “aw, she's Italian, what do you want to be messing with her for,” and then didn't kiss him because he was too busy feeling sorry for himself instead. So he just patted Steve's shoulder and said, “All done.”

And then Steve turned around and said, “But... you didn't kiss me. The kiss was the best part of it.”

WAIT NO

THAT IS NOT WHAT HAPPENED

Steve said “Buck...”

And you said “What,” and got up and walked into the other room, because you're a sulky bastard.

And then Steve said, “Nothing,” and that was the end of that.

Who the hell--

“Get out of my dream,” Bucky growled.

“I thought Dr Strange told you that a demon asks three times,” came Asmodeus' voice from Steve's frail body.

“The answer is no. Get out.”

“You owe me for my help in my dimension.”

“I don't owe you shit. I won that fight on my own.”

“This is your final answer?”

“You do not touch this memory. I want nothing from you. You get out now or I will find some way to kill you in my dream, don't put it beyond me.”

“Ah. A shame your doctor removed the main bullet, but missed the secondary fragment.” Asmodeus-Stevie made a flicking motion with his fingers, and Bucky doubled over in pain.

 

* * *

 

“He's seizing. There's got to be shrapnel we missed.” McCoy held out a paw.

Christine groaned, slapping a fresh scalpel into Dr McCoy's hand. “Is anyone surprised? This kid's got more lead in him than the Detroit water system.”

“Too soon, Christine,” said Georgia, holding a portable X-ray machine over Bucky's chest. “Yep, little bastard in the lower left ventricle. Wonder what made that jump in there all of a sudden.”

“Are they always like this?” said Steve, hunched in a corner, trying to shut out the sound of monitoring devices screaming out alarms.

“Only time you should be worried is when my nurses stop making horrible gallows jokes,” said McCoy. “This is a setback. Nothing more.”

Which didn't make anything better as the team worked for another two hours, and the jokes slowly dried up in favor of muttered curses and hands wiping sweaty brows.

Natasha finally came in and marched Steve out of the room and down to the gym. She pointed to a sandbag. “Hit things, Steve.”

Steve hated to admit that Natasha was right, but God, it felt good to hit something.

 

* * *

 

“You ready, hon?” Pepper said, straightening his arm sling.

“Yeah. Would it be wrong of me to say I'm quite looking forwards to this?”

“Tony, come on. You've always loved socking it to the press.”

“Did he pull through?”

“Yeah. He's going to be fine.” She pecked him on the cheek. “Go get 'em.”

Tony smiled and acknowledged the packed audience of reporters as he stepped out into the Stark Industries press room. “Thanks, ladies and gentlemen. So, we just got back from Latveria! That place is cute. Unfortunately it was also where the Red Skull was planning the first stop on his world comeback tour. Seriously, we're thankful that Victor von Doom called for our assistance in his hour of need.”

Tony could just see Pepper in the wings, flapping a hand and making her “you are SO BAD” face. He wrinkled his nose at her, before continuing.

“If you're too young to know who the Red Skull is, and/or slept through history class, I suggest you wiki him real quick before Q&A time.”

Now for the real fun. Tony smiled directly at Christine Everhart, who had written several particularly vitriolic Bucky Barnes hatchet jobs recently. “The Avengers would also like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of the Winter Soldier, who near as dammit laid down his life to stop the Red Skull. Nothing in it for him other than a desire to keep the world safe from the evil he knew firsthand, from the last time he laid down his life for his country. You know, the country currently crucifying him in the press. So, that's it. We came, we saw, we saved the world's ass again. This time with an assist from Bucky Barnes. Questions? Urich, you first.”

“Is Captain America available for comment?”

“Not at the moment. Probably not ever, on this issue. Next? Jamieson?”

“Will Barnes be turned over to the authorities?”

“As far as I know, he is not currently wanted for any crimes on US soil. We all know you think you can make someone a criminal by simply not liking them enough, Jonah, but thankfully in the real world we have warrants and due process. Everhart?”

“How can you turn a blind eye to Barnes' extensive list of murders? Including President Kennedy and, need I remind you, your own parents?”

Tony called over his shoulder. “Pepper! You owe me $100.” Then he turned back to Christine. “Sorry, we had a little pool going on who'd be crass enough to bring that up. You were the odds-on favourite, though. Anyway. I never said I was ignoring his history. It's complicated. What weight do you put in his years with the Howling Commandos? With saving Captain America's life, multiple times during World War II? How much does him having been a prisoner of Hydra affect things? Or that, since getting free of them, he has singlehandedly taken down more of Hydra and its remaining and quite extensive infrastructure than anyone? It's easy to create false moral absolutes from behind a keyboard. Not quite as easy when you're dealing with actual people. And I say that as someone with, as you pointed out so charmingly, much more skin in this game than you. That's all.”

 

* * *

 

It was sunny when Bucky woke up. His head felt fuzzy, but pleasantly so, like he'd had a really good, really long sleep. He didn't know how the rest of him felt, but the answer was probably not good, so he figured he'd not try to move anytime soon.

Steve was sitting in a chair, knees drawn up close, sketching. All was right with the world.

“You're drawing again.”

“Yeah. Got my favourite subject back.” Steve looked down. “It was a little touch and go there, for a while.”

“Told you I was shit at giving up.”

“I'm glad. Hey, you need anything?”

“Um... do you remember when you were about 15 and your mom got that salve for your lungs?”

Steve blushed bright pink. “Yeah,” he said, quietly. “What about it?”

“...Nothing,” Bucky said. “Sometimes my memory is a little weird.”

“I hated the way it smelled. And it didn't seem to help at all. But you would kiss me afterwards, so I was going to make damn sure that salve went on every day. God, I'd completely buried that memory...”

“Why?”

“Not worth pining over what you can never have.”

“Get over here, Rogers. I'd come to you, but McCoy'd probably bite me if I try to move.”

 

* * *

 

Bucky slept for about a week. Dr McCoy kept checking in on him for the first few days, and then explained to both him and Steve how his recovery would probably go, before taking his leave to return to Westchester. “Oh, I almost forgot – Fatima wrote you a get-well card,” he said, fishing a letter out of his jacket pocket. “She's doing really well at the school. Excellent student, and has lots of friends.”

Bucky looked at the note, opening it with his one hand. “It's in English! Good for her!”

“She knew a fair amount when she arrived. She was just more comfortable in Arabic. Now she's pretty much bilingual.”

“Bucky, who is Fatima? Also, how do you know Charles Xavier?” Steve asked.

Dr McCoy swatted Steve gently with a paw. “No interrogating the patient, Steve. Look.”

Steve glanced over and saw Bucky pretty much falling asleep while reading the letter, head in a sunbeam, like a cat.

 

* * *

 

STARK: Cap! Hey, I need you to come up to the lab, as long as you can promise not to emote for five consecutive minutes.

SGR: Kinda busy.

STARK: I need a hand bringing James' arm back down to him. Y'know, because mine is still broken.

SGR: OK. Coming.

STARK: Please don't slow-pitch me lines like that. You have no idea the restraint I'm exercising right now.

While they were riding back down in the elevator, with Tony's work trolley, Steve managed to say, “Thanks for what you said. At the press conference.”

“All part of the service, Cap. They're going to keep asking you, though, and they can be pretty rude, so you may want to give some thought to what you want to say when they do." Tony grinned. ”I find 'fuck you' works pretty well, but I dunno if you can pull that off as well as I can."

"I dunno, Tony. I'm getting there."

Steve pushed the trolley containing the arm and various tools into Bucky's room, then realised too late that he'd left his sketchbook on the chair and of course, Tony had zeroed in on it and was already flipping through. “Steve. These are really good.”

“No, they're not. I'm out of practice. Please, put it down.”

“Ignore him. He's always been a jerk about his sketchbook," Bucky mumbled.

“Oh, hey, sleepy.” Steve pressed a kiss into Bucky's messy hair, because he could, and that was the best part of the future: it had Bucky in it, and they could kiss whenever they wanted. “Tony's made some modifications to your arm.”

“The most obvious one is that I've made you a legitimate, Stark Industries arc reactor because I am a way better engineer than you are. No offense, that's just fact. The rest, well, let's get it on you and I'll show you.”

“How's your arm healing? I'm, uh... I'm really sorry about that, Tony.”

“It's okay. And, I'm out of a sling, thank God. Now, you ready for this?”

“Yes. Want to put on some music?”

“Now we're talking. Metal or rap?”

“I'm going to hate this, aren't I?” groaned Steve.

Ready to Die?”

“Jarvis, you heard the man. I pick next, by the way.”

“It's gonna be Sabbath, isn't it?”

“...All signs point to yes.”

Steve was surprised to find he actually liked the music Bucky and Tony were playing, even though none of it was a genre he thought would appeal to him at all. They played it too loud, but he thought he might want to hear some of it again if it was just a little quieter. Maybe it was just watching Bucky and Tony's easy banter as Tony leaned over and re-attached Bucky's metal arm. It only took them about three songs to get it back on, another song to put in the power source, and Tony waved a hand to get Jarvis to lower the music volume so he could assess Bucky's reaction.

“That thing's a beautiful piece of engineering and design. I'm not entirely convinced all of it is based on technology available on this Earth, but the parts that were, I've been able to improve. The rest, I have schematics, and I'm going to study the blazes out of it.”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, flexing his arm and moving it around. “It's a lot lighter.”

“Still just as strong, if not stronger. Just figured compensating for the extra weight wasn't great for your body in the long term.”

“I was never supposed to be long-term.”

“Yeah, well, you showed them. Also, oh, this is the best part. Hang on. Gonna touch your arm. Don't hit me.” Tony reached over and placed his thumb on a particular plate which, Bucky noticed, was a replacement. There was a flickering, and then... he couldn't see the metal any more. His arm... his arm looked like a flesh arm.

“WHAT. Tony.”

“I'll take that thumbprint reader off, that was just for demo. Pretty neat, huh? Remember that cloaking net I was fooling around with for my suit? I thought of a derivative use for it. Once the arm settles in, you should be able to train the neural networks to cloak it just by thinking about it.”

Bucky didn't appear to have registered any of that. He was just staring at his arm.

When he eventually looked back up at Tony, his eyes were huge with emotion, and so blue, and his voice was barely a whisper. “Why would you do this for me? Do you want something?”

“James. Bucky. I'm like one of the ten richest people in the world. I don't want anything. It's just, you're kinda all right, Paranoid. And in normal life, not everything is transactional.”

Bucky chewed on his lip. “This is really stupid, but... I've wanted to go dancing. I used to, a lot. But after Hydra blew all my history to the press, I thought I never could any more. Y'know, big guy with a metal arm, it's gonna stand out.”

“Oh good. I thought you were going to say something about how this made it easier to sneak up on people and murder them.”

“Well, that too. I wasn't going to lead with it, though.”

“C'mere. Let's swap out that temp plate and you can work on figuring out how to control the cloaking yourself.”

 

* * *

 

Once Tony left, Steve climbed into bed next to Bucky and ran his fingers up and down the metal arm. “I hated it when they took this off.”

“Me too, but it needed to be done.” Bucky ruffled Steve's hair with his metal hand. “Hey. Thanks for dealing with my bullshit.”

“What?”

“Can't believe I managed to tell you I was fine, and keep a straight face. I was just... I was free, and mostly myself, and I was high on the fact that I was functioning at all. I thought I'd come so far, and now all I can see is how much further I still have to go. Being a person is hard.”

Steve ran his hand through Bucky's hair. “And I'm not broken from waking up in the ice. And Tony's not broken from Afghanistan. And Natasha from the Red Room. And Thor from losing Loki. And Clint, well, how long do you have. We're all just very good at faking it. Also, I've known you since forever, and you've always been full of bullshit.”

“Yeah, but... I just want to apologise in advance for all the bullshit still to come. And, we can't ever be... normal. We can't ever be seen together.”

“Bucky...”

Bucky put a finger over his lips and looked in his eyes. It stopped Steve's world, just like it always did. “Listen, Stevie. Forget about the people in the US angry at me. Think of how it looks for Captain America to be seen kissing the guy who killed, for example, an Indian premier. It looks like an act of war.”

“I'm not- I don't represent-”

“Picture's worth a thousand, Stevie, you know that.”

“I'll give it up.”

Bucky groaned and rolled over on his back. “Don't be an ass. First, it wouldn't matter. The photo is still as bad if it's 'former Captain America pals with notorious killer'. Imagine what you'd think if you saw Bill Clinton cuddling with Ratko Mladić. It makes the US government look complicit in every bad thing I did. Which means it starts affecting a lot of innocent people. Besides,” Bucky continued, poking Steve in the ribs, “You love being an Avenger. You have friends. Who take care of you. Better than I can. Besides, I'm not giving it up. The hell else would I do.”

“Buck...”

“It makes me happy.”

“Killing people?”

“No, not that. Just... A perfectly executed move. A clean shot over a long distance. Being better than I was the day before. I trained for years to be the perfect weapon, and now I am, and it makes me happy.”

Bucky ran a hand along Steve's cheek. “And you make me happy. So unbelievably happy. You always have. But we can never go for coffee together. Never go dancing together. Never be seen in public. We're going to have to sneak around. Probably forever. And I can't promise I won't be... weird. Or difficult. And, oh God, I'm going to be a mess at anything intimate, much as I really want it. I'm a fighter. I need to learn how to be a lover.”

And then Steve kissed him, because he was never going to get over being able to just reach out and kiss Bucky. And he knew that maybe what he was about to say was naïve, but he also knew they'd faced worse odds and they'd beaten 'em hollow.

“It's okay. We'll thaw together.”

 

Chapter Text

Steve thought Bucky was sexiest in the morning, all gravelly voice and stubble and messy hair, when he was horny and half-asleep at the same time. Well, except for Bucky after missions, dirty with gunsmoke and muzzled in that mask, and Steve felt a wave of shame even thinking about that, Christ, what was wrong with him. He shuddered a little and then startled as Bucky's teeth sunk gently into his shoulder.

“What's up?” Bucky mumbled into his skin. “Other than me.”

“Nothing. Just had a weird thought, is all.”

They were at Bucky's. The Avengers had just gotten back the day before from a fairly low-key thing in the Savage Land and Bucky had returned from a lengthy freelancing job in Asia and they were both making up for not having seen each other for a few weeks. They'd been making up since about 4pm the day before and by Steve's reckoning they had at least another day to go.

“Tell me,” Bucky said, lifting his chin up and gazing with heavily-lidded eyes at Steve.

No. That was not going to happen. Steve's weird and disturbing mission fantasies were going to stay a state secret for... probably ever, and for once he was glad that Bucky's still-notorious public status (as well as tendency towards excessive bloodshed) meant he wouldn't be doing missions with the Avengers anytime soon. But Bucky was the most stubborn person on the face of the earth, and if Steve didn't say something or was obviously evasive, Bucky would hold on to the subject for grim death, for weeks.

“Well... they're doing a little show of my sketches, in a gallery up in Beacon. It's under a pseudonym, of course.”

“Steve! That's so cool! Did you do more while I was away?” Bucky's eyes were fully open now, and he'd half-crawled on top of Steve. His fingertips were ghosting downwards over Steve's obliques, and Steve was in danger of completely losing his train of thought.

“Yeah, a whole bunch. Um, do you want to come to the opening?”

Bucky rolled off him with a groan, ending up on his back. “Stevie. I can't go to an art gallery opening with you. We can't be seen in the same room in public. I can't even go see the exhibition without you because someone will Instagram it.”

Steve smiled and shoved Bucky's shoulder. “But you can sneak in with me after it closes for a private view? In the dark? Late at night?”

Steve could feel Bucky's grin. “That... could work.” Bucky rolled back over. “Huh. If I didn't know you, I'd say that someday you might even become a half-decent covert agent. But I do know you, and oh fuck, no.”

Steve shoved his shoulder again. Bucky started giggling and shoved back.

“I'll contact the gallery to get a set of keys and an alarm code,” Steve said, goading.

Predictably, he got a heavy metal arm thrown over his chest and 250 pounds of growling super-soldier in his face. “Stevie. No. Do NOT take away my fun.”

Steve managed about two seconds of Bucky's unhappy-face before cracking up.

“That's it, Rogers.” Bucky started nudging and shoving Steve towards the edge of the loft platform, which was still 10' above the floor and still had no safety rail. (“We'd just break it, Steve. Why.”)

Steve laughed and halfheartedly grabbed at Bucky and at the sheets and Bucky just shoulder-checked him harder, and soon Steve and the duvet were on the ground in a mess of white cotton and pink blush and blond hair.

Bucky hung down over the side of the platform. “What's the name of the gallery?”

'The White Room.”

Bucky's brow furrowed for a moment, then his eyes widened. “No way,” he smiled crookedly.

Steve knew that nothing good ever came from that particular grin. “What.”

Bucky rolled back over onto the bed, out of Steve's immediate view. “Nooothing.”

 

* * *

 

SOLEDAD: Laura

 SOLEDAD: LAURA

SOLEDAD: LAURA ANSWER ME

LAURA: WHAT THE LINE IS REALLY LONG I AM STILL WAITING FOR COFFEE

SOLEDAD: guess who just walked in to the salon again guess guess guess

SOLEDAD: guesssssssss

LAURA: IDGAF coffee first

SOLEDAD: hint: really hot, but if I take his picture he might literally kill me

LAURA: !!!

SOLEDAD: also, I am not shitting you, in tight leather trousers and I am having a moment about my sexuality send help or at least emergency Halsey photos

LAURA: omfg

LAURA: ASK HIM WHAT KIND OF COFFEE HE WANTS

SOLEDAD: …

SOLEDAD: Grande black americano.

 

About ten minutes later, Laura pushed the salon door open with her hip as she balanced the cardboard tray of coffees, her bag, and a bag of chocolate croissaints she felt compelled to buy because chocolate, get me through precariously in her hands. “Ugh, that was awful. There are a ton of people in town for some exhibit at The White Room and they all seem to be camping out in Starbucks,” she said, shooting some quick shade at the fancy new art gallery across the street. Then her heart dropped just a little bit as she looked into their salon, past Soledad, to see the waiting area empty. She made big eyes and a little whining sound at Soledad as she deposited her burdens on top of the magazine table.

Soledad reached for her latte, then angled her head slightly towards the back of the salon and raised her eyebrows, trying unsuccessfully not to smile at her friend.

Laura grabbed the cute vet's Americano and wasn't running at all, she was walking calmly towards the main area of the tiny Hudson Valley storefront they shared. But ow fuck, the coffee was really hot, like, burning her hand through the paper cup hot, and she was in the process of swapping hands, hissing “ow ow ow”, when a metal hand reached in and intercepted the cup. A metal hand that luckily had super-fast reflexes because Laura squeaked in surprise and let go which was not mortifyingly embarrassing in the slightest but instead of scalding coffee everywhere it just ended up with a pair of intense blue eyes looking into hers, and a rough, low voice saying, “it's okay, I got it.”

“Um, hi, again,” Laura said, stepping backwards because yeah, one more second and she'd drown in those eyes.

And Soledad was totally right, because it really was Bucky freaking Barnes, and there he was all tall and even more gorgeous than before with the shy smile and the shoulders and the abs and holy crap, his thighs in those leather pants and Laura pretty much lost the power of speech anyway and then he pointed to his hair and was like, “Um, it's getting long again and you're the only person I trust to cut it. Do you have any time today?” and Laura's brain was like r.i.p. I'm done and then Soledad was next to her putting her chai latte in her hand and gently propelling her towards the stereo, whispering “music. now.”

Soledad smiled at Bucky and pointed to Laura's chair. “Sorry. She's had a rough week. Her boyfriend broke up with her for another girl in their dance club. But we totally have time to cut your hair today. Have a seat.”

“Oh, great,” Bucky said, slinking over to the chair like the world's biggest cat, and as he sat down he called back to Laura, “your ex-boyfriend is an idiot.” Soledad mouthed “you have no idea” at Bucky, and he said, “Oh?” in this sexy I-want-details voice and then Laura forgot to be anxious any more because jfc they were teaming up on her and that's it, everybody's going to listen to Panic! At The Disco.

Then Laura walked over next to the chair and glared at Soledad. “You. No details about Brandon. Go.”

Soledad rolled her eyes, sighed “funwrecker,” and scuffed her way back to her post up front.

Laura looked at her client in the mirror. “Um, we never really got introduced last time you were here. I'm Laura.”

“I'm Bucky,” he said, with a wry smile. “But you figured that out.”

Laura blushed, and in a very small voice she said, “yeah, saw the videos.” (Like, a thousand times. And read all the files. And might have followed about a hundred Bucky Barnes tumblrs.)

Bucky's face got serious, and he turned around in the chair to face her. “Look, Laura. One, it's all true. Don't make excuses in your head for me. I'm a killer. It's what I do. Two, you can't tell people that I've been here, or that you know me. Because I'm not the only killer. It's... a lot to ask. I come with... complications. If you're not okay with all this, just shake your head, and I'll ghost out of here. If I were you, I wouldn't be okay with it.”

Laura stared at him, and swallowed, and thought about the pale, thin, nervous vet who had come in six months ago, all dirty and ragged. She pressed her lips together. “How do you want your hair cut?”

He smiled, and God, he had the sort of smile that could electrify a whole room. It wasn't fair.

“I really like what you did before,” he said. “Didn't make me look like a soldier, didn't make me look like the guy in the history books, and didn't make me look like I did when I was with Hydra.”

“Okay! I'll do that again,” she said. “Want me to stay in front of you?”

A more wicked smile now. “Hey, you saw the videos.”

“Oh, God, murder jokes. What is my life,” Laura groaned, running her hands through Bucky's hair. He did the same thing he did last time, his lids getting heavy and his head pressing into her touch. “So tell me about your idiot ex-boyfriend,” he purred. “and what's this dance club?”

Laura reached for her scissors. “I am so going to kill Soledad.”

Those eyes opened again. “Hey, now you're making murder jokes.”

“Murder jokes for everybody,” Soledad called from out front. “Tell him about Brandon, or I will.”

So that was how Laura ended up cutting Bucky Barnes' hair again while telling him all about stupid Brandon the photographer she met on Tinder and how they took dance lessons together so they could go to this retro night, only for her to walk in on him making out with the girl who ran the night like, two months after they started dating, and he'd dumped her right there in front of everybody like yesterday's garbage.

Bucky looked really sweet and unsure (and if Laura hadn't seen the videos, she never would have believed he could have killed anyone) and said, “It's been a really long time since I was any good at the whole boy-girl thing but I feel bad for the club night girl because any guy who treats a dame like that is gonna do it again, and I'm glad you weren't dating him very long before finding out he was a heel.”

And Laura nodded, part of her brain all full of helium, squeaking about he said “dame”.

And then Bucky said, “What's Tinder?” and Laura giggled and called Soledad over and Sole showed him on her phone while Laura used the clippers on his hair and Bucky was like, “wow, so you like girls” as they were totally making fun of people's Tinder profiles and you could tell Sole was praying he wasn't going to be a judgemental asshole because he is from like 1930 and then he looks at her and says “I like boys and girls” and WHAT, and he's looking at them all shy like he's expecting them to get all judgey on him. And Soledad just got this expression on her face, and Laura was like “Soledad, NO” and glared at her until Soledad saw reason. Then Sole glared back at her and said, “Bucky, ask Laura what kind of dancing.”

“I hate you,” whined Laura.

Bucky raised his eyebrows at her.

“Haaaaate,” breathed Laura.

He shook his head, smiling. “You two remind me so much of me and my best friend growing up.”

Laura could see Soledad put up her hand and open her mouth and oh god here it comes, she's going to ask about Captain America and Laura needed to throw herself in front of that train ASAP (or maybe off that train) (oh no that was horrible, stop Laura no) --

“Swing dancing,” Laura said suddenly. “Uh, it's a big thing right now, we all put on dresses and suits and swing dance.”

Soledad casually gave her the finger, but made it look like she was running her hand through her short blue hair.

Bucky snorted. “Seriously?”

“Yeah. It's nice being... feminine, y'know? Wearing a pretty dress. And a change from normal club dancing, with like 800 people bumping up against you and everyone just sort of grinding.”

He wrinkled his nose and looked a little melancholy. “I wouldn't really know.” Then he narrowed his eyes and hell, that was a face full of mischief if she ever saw one, and he asked, “So when's this next swing night?”

“Toniiiight,” Soledad said. “That's why she's so bummed. She can't go, because big bad Brandon's going to be there.”

“Uh-huh,” said Bucky, leaning back in the chair and crossing his arms. And now, the way he was looking at her, Laura could see the calculating, deadly assassin. “I have a proposition for you. Both of you.”

 

* * *

 

They regrouped at dusk. Soledad and Bucky had a bag of clothes, two pizzas and a case of beer. Laura was waiting in the salon with her dress, makeup kit, and binoculars. Soledad flipped the sign on the salon to CLOSED, and they ate pizza in the back until it got dark.

“Oh! It's starting!” Laura said. Bucky turned off the lights and all three of them flopped down on the sofa in the waiting area, which had a clear view of the art gallery across the way and its unusually busy opening. Bucky put on a pair of goggles that looked like really high-tech Oakleys, and adjusted them, then cracked open another beer. “Don't worry,” he mumbled at Laura. “I can't get drunk.”

“Ummm,” Soledad said. “You aren't planning to kill anyone at the gallery opening, are you?”

“What sort of asshole do you take me for? Why the hell would I drag civilians into that? If I wanted to kill someone at the opening I'd be up on the roof with a sniper rifle or I'd fix a car bomb to their vehicle or any of a dozen other ways that did not involve you.”

“So why are we sitting in the dark watching people go look at some kinda boring drawings?” Laura asked.

“One, they're not boring. Two, it's my boyfriend's gallery opening and I can't just go like a normal person because--”

“Because you're not a normal person,” said Soledad.

“Yeah,” Bucky said quietly. “Also because it would start a war. A lot of people, world leaders, are legitimately very angry at me for the triggers I've pulled, and anyone I'm seen with is complicit by association. So, no. It can never happen.”

“That's really sad,” Laura said.

Laura could feel Bucky's shrug. “Better a secret boyfriend than no boyfriend.” Then his shocked realisation. “Oh, shit, Laura, no, I didn't mean it that way. Better no boyfriend than one that's awful to you--”

“Oh my god, Is that Tony Stark?” Soledad said.

“Yeah, and – wow, I'm glad I'm not there. That journalist, Christine something. She hates me.”

“Who's that?”

“Pepper, Tony's girlfriend. Or maybe wife. She's really neat.”

Then Soledad gasped as a motorbike pulled up, grabbing Bucky's metal arm. “Eee! Captain America!”

“Yeahhh,” Bucky said, his voice soft. He got out his phone and shot off a quick text.

Then Captain America swung off his bike and paused, pulling out his phone, and then glanced directly at the salon and flashed a smile at them before going into the gallery. It had been a really quick thing, nobody else noticed, but right at them, even though they were sitting there in the dark and nobody could see them, and then Laura and Soledad both were like, “Bucky, WHAT” and he just sunk down a little on the sofa and said, “yeahhh,” again softly, and they could tell he was smiling.

After a moment, Laura elbowed Bucky. “Um, how's Soledad?”

“Just kind of rocking back and forth and staring at Steve. I think we might have broken her.”

Laura snorted out a giggle. “Yeah, she sort of has a Captain America thing.”

“I understand. I have a Steve Rogers thing.”

“Yeah, about that. Are there drawings of you in that show?”

“Maybe? I was away on an op when he was putting most of it together so I didn't see what went in. I doubt there are any that are obviously me. The whole show is supposedly under a pseudonym but you can see how well that went.”

“I could go and see?”

“You gonna do recce for me, Laura? Damn, I like the future. Cute girls doing my recon, instead of dirty, smelly commandos.”

Laura wondered if her blush was actually emitting light or was just so intense it felt like it.

Bucky patted her on the shoulder. “Go. We have to be at your dance in half an hour, so don't take too long.”

Smiling, he watched Laura slip across the street, with her tufty blonde hair and boyish Topshop coat, and go into the gallery with a whole group of people. Then he looked over at Soledad. “You okay?” he asked. She had stopped rocking.

“Fine,” she said, about an octave higher than her normal voice. “Did that really happen?”

Bucky snorted and found a photo of Steve on his phone, all morning sleepy-face and skew-whiff hair, and showed it to Soledad. She made a little whimpering noise and pushed it away. “You are not helping me be okay.” Then, quieter, she added, “It sucks you two can't just be a couple. Not just for you, but...”

“...the symbolism,” Bucky finished.

“Yeah.”

“Being a symbol sucks,” Bucky said. “It nearly destroyed Steve.”

“Not having a symbol sucks, too. If there was someone gay that my dad respected when I was growing up, if there had been that symbol, things might have been a lot easier.”

“Yeah, well. I'm not the symbol anyone wants.”

Soledad put her hand on Bucky's arm. “Bucky, no...”

He shifted away from her and said softly, “No. I'm pretty toxic. It's best if I don't exist in public life. ”

Laura came trotting back then, going around to the back entrance of the salon like Bucky had suggested. “It's super crowded!” she said, and cheerfully showed them the photos of some of the drawings on her phone. Bucky groaned at the first one: a red-chalk sketch of him asleep, under the sheets, head turned away. “Please tell me that's the only one,” he said.

Laura smiled. “Yeah, it is.” she said, “unless you count all of these.” She paged to a whole series of images: fast, brushed-ink studies of a dark-haired dancer, caught mid-air in a variety of poses. The linework was minimal, lending a feel of anonymity to the figure, but the power and shape of his body came through clearly. “Nice moves, Baryshnikov.”

“Uugh,” Bucky moaned, peering at one of the pictures. “Stevie, did you hafta?”

“Everyone was asking him who the dancer was.”

“What did he say?” said Bucky, looking through Laura's photos. “Crap, my arm position's all wrong in that one.”

“He just blushed a lot, actually.”

“Smooth as ever, Rogers,” Bucky sighed. Then: “What is that?” he said, pointing at a dot in the corner of the photo.

“Oh, that means it's sold.”

What?!”

“They're all sold. All the dancer sketches and nearly all his other drawings, too. People bought them.”

“Huh. People paid money for pictures of me dancing around in my underwear. Funny old world.” He ran his hands through his hair. “I'm glad for Stevie, though. He always wanted to be a professional artist. To have his work in a gallery. I just hope people are buying the drawings because they like them, not because of... because of the symbol.”

Laura sighed, exasperated. “Speaking as the less Captain America-obsessed of the two of us, I swear to you on my father's grave that those drawings are empirically really fucking amazing, Bucky, and if I had a bajillion dollars I'd buy the entire series of you dancing and hang them all around the salon.”

“You can't have 'em,” Bucky muttered, still looking back and forth through Laura's photos. “My form is bad in a couple of them.”

Laura narrowed her eyes and grabbed her phone back.

Soledad's phone bleeped, and she checked the time. “You guys better hurry up and get ready.” She glanced up at the gallery opening, which was still packed but seemed to be winding down, with people wandering out into the street for cigarettes and conversation. Captain America was surrounded by a press of people, all wanting his attention, but the pretty strawberry blonde was helping him manage it, heading off the more obnoxious or insistent. That journalist that Bucky mentioned really got in his face at one point and Pepper was going to step in but Cap motioned for her to wait, and whatever he leaned over and said to the Christine person made her back the heck away, even though she made one final snide comment because her type always does.

You go, Cap, thought Soledad. You and your super-hot secret assassin boyfriend/BFF and why is life not fair and why can't you just come ooooout.

 

* * *

 

Bucky was ready first, and sauntered out in a white button-down shirt that was only half done up over an undershirt, with suspenders and wide trousers. He'd tucked his hair up under a flat cap and.. there was something different about him. Soledad realised what it was and pointed at his left arm, half visible under rolled-up sleeves, because it looked like a real arm.

“Yeah, Stark did it for me. Pretty cool, huh?” he said, holding it up. “It's a hologram. Means I can actually go out in public without the whole long sleeves and glove thing.”

Laura clattered down the stairs a few moments later, in a cherry-print tea dress, low silver heels, and red lipstick.

“Aw! Lookit you!” Bucky beamed. “You're so cute!”

Laura blushed and gave a quick twirl, her dress flaring out. Then she oohed and aahed at Bucky's arm too, which made him really happy.

Soledad made shooing motions. “Okay, you're both adorable and now you need to go forth and wreak romantic vengeance because very soon I'm not going to be able to stop myself taking photos. Bye!”

Bucky rubbed the back of his head with his flesh hand. “Um... before we go, maybe we should do a couple practice turns? I'm, uh, in case I've forgotten how to swing dance. It was a really long time ago, and my memory's... got some problems.”

Laura made a silly face. “What, no rockin' dance parties at Hydra?”

Bucky snorted. “They made me learn ballet as part of my training.” He rose en pointe into an attitude derrière. “It was helpful in terms of making me a lot stronger and more controlled in my movements, and I enjoyed it. So, not all bad. The sketches you liked were me doing a solo from La Bayadère, just messing around one morning, trying to remember it.” His eyes widened. “Laura, show me a swing dancing video. I remember things a lot better when I see them.”

“Oh! Okay,” she said, digging around on youtube on her phone. “Here.”

He peeked over her shoulder while they watched a music video with a couple doing a lindy hop, and nodded along with it. When it was over, he nudged her, pointing to a black-and-white video in the Suggestions and said, “Hey, I loved that movie! I saw it right before I shipped out. Four times. Play that one.”

Then the three of them watched the dance scenes from Hellzapoppin' and Bucky started grinning, his foot tapping. When it was over, he pulled Laura to her feet, biting his lip and smiling. “Okay, we're gonna be fine. I remember enough.”

“You two kids be good!” Soledad waved. “And if you can't be good, be very very bad!”

Bucky saluted, then paused. “You're not coming? You don't want to see us mess this boy up?”

“I could do that, couldn't I?” Soledad mused.

“You could do one better. Go get Stevie. Tell him I'm about to throw down at a dance hall. Just because we can't be seen together doesn't mean he can't sit on the balcony and watch. Um, is there a balcony?”

“Actually, there is.”

“Great. Soledad, make him go in the back. Laura, grab your coat. It's a few blocks to my car.”

“We can just walk? It's only a few blocks to the club, too.”

“We're going to drive up. Trust me.”

“Whatever,” Laura said, without much enthusiasm.

A few minutes later, Laura took one look at the black Lamborghini and nodded. “Hells yes, we are driving up.”

Bucky pouted and opened the door for her. “I can't believe you doubted my expertise regarding a mission of vengeance. C'mon, Laura.”

The low black sportscar prowled up the street and Laura almost regretted having to get out, ever, until they pulled up right in front of the club and she saw the huge line to get in and watched every head turn, including Brandon's (Psych! Motherfuckerrrrr) , and then Bucky just parked the car right in front of the door like he owned the place. As he got out, he whispered, “wait,” then he walked around and opened the door for her and took her hand and helped her out of the car like she was a princess. Then he just walked her straight into the club past the line and nobody stopped him, Arianna the snobby girl on the door smiled and unclipped the rope for them, and she darted a glance over at Brandon who looked like he'd just swallowed a tack. She squeezed Bucky's hand, and whispered, “Already winning.”

He squeezed back. “They ain't seen nothin' yet, kid.”

They got drinks and then Bucky just wanted to lean against the wall and watch for a few songs, while the floor filled up with dancers. Laura looked over at him. His face was predatory, evaluating: another moment when Laura felt like she could see the other side of him, the side that did bloody work. He caught her gaze and concern flickered across his face. “Something wrong?”

“You have Wolf Face on.”

He chuckled. “Good expression.” Then he drained the rest of his drink and held out his hand for her glass. “Shall we?” He pushed off with his shoulders from the wall and sauntered towards the dance floor. “We'll do one song low-key as a warmup, and then if you're game and my memory co-operates, the next one you'll spend a lot of time in the air.”

“I never really got to do the aerial stuff. Brandon wasn't very good at the flips and things.”

“You'll be fine. Just relax and trust me. I won't drop you. Besides,” he said, putting his hands around her waist and lifting her experimentally about six inches off the ground, “you barely weigh anything.”

The DJ put on “Stray Cat Strut” which Laura loved so she was already bouncing as they went out to the floor. And so okay, Bucky totally remembered how to dance and wow, yeah. Brandon had been super concerned about how he looked on the floor, throwing shapes and expecting her to follow along in his orbit like the moon to his sun and be glad of the reflected light. Bucky, in contrast, didn't care at all what anyone thought of him, he was out to have fun and make sure she had fun too, and the song sped by as they swung out and laughed and spun and he threw her up in the air once as a test and god it was amazing and he made sure she ended up on her feet and she thinks he even threw in a sneaky ballet pose to show her off as she landed, making it all about her. When they were finished, Laura was surprised to hear a smattering of applause and even more surprised to realise it was for them.

Bucky slung an arm around her shoulder and grinned. “So, how do you feel about bringing out the big guns for the next song?”

Laura grinned back. “It's on. It's so on.”

Bucky groaned a bit as the first notes of “Bei Mir Bist du Schoen” came on, but then perked up. “I don't know this version, it's new. New is good.” Then they were off, shimmying onto the floor. And before she knew it she was being rolled over his shoulder then they backed away to arms length and in again and his hands on her waist and he tossed her up in the air and then caught her and swung her through his legs and back and holy shit he was not kidding about keeping her in the air for the whole song. He'd always tell her what he was about to do, and whisper things like “keep your arms in” and “I'm going to balance you on my hand,” and for something that seemed to involve her about ten feet up in the air at all times it felt weirdly really safe and secure. One time she lost her balance and even before she realised she was falling, he had an arm around her and had swung her round and made it look like something totally deliberate. Then one final throw and he rocked her down into a dip so low her back was almost touching the ground and the song was over and Laura looked over at the dance floor, upside down, and freaked out a little. “Nobody else is dancing,” she whispered.

Bucky stuck his face down into hers and smiled. “Why would they, when they can watch us instead?”

He swung her back up to standing and walked her over to an empty table, ignoring all the looks they got. “You want a glass of water?”

Laura nodded.

“Okay. Back in a sec.” He pulled out his phone and glanced at it, then grinned and showed the screen to Laura.

SGR: Congrats, you are still the biggest ham in Brooklyn.

“He's just jealous,” explained Bucky. “No rhythm. Even in church he'd clap on the one and the three.”

SGR: Also: I leave you alone for one day and you acquire little sisters. Predictable.

Laura showed him her phone: a blurry photo of Steve and Soledad both holding up napkins with “10” written on them.

SOLEDAD: u 2 were amazing srsly girl not a dry seat in the house

Bucky gave her a smile that was pure mischief, winked, and swung his hips as he stalked over towards to the bar, both totally aware of the effect he was having on the people sitting near them, and not giving a damn.

Laura smiled back, watching him go, coming down off the high of the dance and just kinda glowing with happiness. That is, until Brandon perched himself on the edge of her table, his secondhand suit still smelling faintly of its charity-shop past.

“Didn't know meatheads were your type,” he said, cold and dismissive. “Did you hire him?”

“What?!” Laura said. “I've known Bu-, um, James, longer than I've known you, Brandon. He's an old friend.”

“An old friend whose name you can't remember. Yeah, right. Anyway I just want to say you're fucking pathetic, and you and Magic Mike over there should stop embarrassing yourselves. I mean, please, he can't even get the clothes right.”

Laura figured that Bucky had some sort of sixth sense for trouble, so of course he'd appeared silently behind Brandon, just kinda looming there utterly still and listening to Brandon make an ass out of himself. Until Brandon got to the clothing dig, and then Bucky just snorted, because motherfucker, please. Laura saw the amusement on his face and then she lost it, and then both of them were laughing and Brandon jumped so high when he realised Bucky was behind him that he nearly fell off the table.

Brandon glared at Bucky and said, “Creep.”

Then Bucky glared back and in this cold, soft voice he said, “The passive-aggressive way you sidestep through life is no good here. Apologise to the lady, or we're taking this outside.”

But Brandon was apparently the sort of moron who doubles down on douchebaggery when cornered. “Are you threatening me?” he snipped.

Laura's phone bleeped.

SOLEDAD: “call me Steve” (!!!) sez Bucky's about to start a fight and that would be really really bad

“You should leave. This is my girlfriend's club and you can't threaten me. I will call the police,” huffed Brandon.

Then Bucky somehow mentally turned off the holo on his arm and he pushed his left sleeve up and made the plates rearrange themselves in a particularly sinister fashion so Brandon couldn't miss the whole metal arm thing. He tilted his head and smiled this small, nasty smile.

SOLEDAD: um apparently that head tilt is super bad news

Please call the police,” Bucky said to Brandon, all easy menace. “And when they ask who threatened you, tell them it was the Winter Soldier. They'll send a SWAT team. I have an assault rifle in the car.” His smile widened, predatory now: “It'll be fun.”

And the most horrifying thing about what Bucky said was Laura 1000% believed that Bucky did think it would be fun.

SOLEDAD: help a national icon is having a downlow freak-out on me about his violent BF

Laura slapped the table hard with her hand. Both the boys looked at her, Brandon jumping a little at the sound. “Brandon, seriously. You're a shitty kisser and you have dandruff and all your fucking junk shop clothes stink of mothballs. Also just because your photos are black and white it doesn't make them art. Fuck on off out of my life right now and don't come back.”

“Jeez, Laura, you don't have to be such a b--”, Brandon began, before catching the look on Bucky's face and deciding that discretion was the better part of not becoming a homicide statistic. He slunk off towards the DJ booth, shooting them a couple nasty looks as he left.

Bucky leaned on the table, his arm fading back to holo. “Laura...” he said, eyes darting over in Brandon's direction.

“I knooooow,” she said in a little voice. “He was so sweet and romantic and loved me so much when I first met him, and then I did a bunch of things wrong and he stopped being so into me and I tried so hard to get back to how it was but nothing I could do was right--”

“Stop. Define wrong.”

“Um, I texted him too much and I bugged him and I made the wrong dinner and wore clothes he didn't like--” and then Bucky was looking at her with this really wounded expression in his eyes, so she stopped talking.

“Laura, no. Jesus, no. You dodged a fucking bullet with that one.” He rubbed his hand over the stubble he was starting to get on his cheek, and his eyes went all distant. “My dad was like that,” he said quietly. “It gets so much worse.”

They both were quiet for a long moment.

Then Laura put her hand on his metal one and said, “one more dance and then let's go?”

Bucky nodded and they headed back to the floor. It was “Zoot Suit Riot” and it didn't take either of them long to get loose and silly with it and then Bucky started throwing in these ridiculously high ballet jumps but mixed in with some serious oldskool soul moves and it all somehow worked and was just really fun and she ended the song in his lap and him sliding across the floor James Brown-style and everyone clapped and howled and they both bowed and he kissed her on the top of her head and then they walked out into the cool night and Laura realised how hot and exhausted she was and Bucky didn't look like he'd even broken a sweat.

Laura looked at him out of the side of her eyes. “So, uh... when we were dancing in there, it was really amazing, but you didn't look like you were pushing yourself at all.”

“I wasn't.” He looked at her. “It's important that civilians don't know my real speed or strength. Besides, why would I ruin everyone's nice night in there by freaking them out? Right now, they all think I'm a pro dancer who's slumming it. That's fine.”

“Well, I had the best night out I've ever had, so thank you.”

He smiled. “No, thank you. I've wanted to go dancing again for... an unbelievably long time. I didn't think it would happen.” He ducked his head. “I don't have a lot of friends.”

“Hug?” Laura said.

“Hug,” Bucky responded, wrapping his arms around her and lifting her up.

“I'll totally go dancing with you anytime,” she said, into the side of his neck.

“I'm taking you up on that.”

Then he looked down at his phone. “Okay, Steve and Soledad are coming out and you'll walk back to the gallery with them,” he said.

“What about you?”

Bucky made his mischief face. “I'm going on ahead to break into the gallery so I can let you guys in. We're doing a private view.”

She waved goodbye as the car roared off, and then Soledad was next to her tugging on her arm and introducing her to Captain America Steve Rogers who was blonde and ridiculously, perfectly gorgeous and even bigger than Bucky. He totally remembered her from the gallery opening and asked all about the first time they met Bucky and seriously, this was the best night ever. They walked back down the street towards the gallery and Steve stuck his hands in his pockets and was all blushes about the opening and how many people were there and the reactions to the drawings and then he got quiet and said, “what did Bucky think?”

“He really liked them. He was kinda mad that his positions were off in a few of the dancer series, though. But he was mad at himself, not you.”

“Argh. Bucky.” Steve exhaled in frustration and scuffed his feet along the sidewalk. “Sometimes we listen to classical music in the mornings, you know? I was over at his loft and this piece of music came on and he's in the middle of pouring some orange juice when he gets this look on his face and says, oh this is from a ballet I know. I think he means 'a ballet I've seen' but no, he means 'a ballet I can perform' and then he's flinging himself into this solo – it's a big loft, there's a lot of open space – and I swear to you it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. I've seen ballet on stage a couple times but... yeah. The physical intensity of it was something I didn't understand until I saw Bucky dance. I took photos... I don't think he noticed because his mind was completely somewhere else.” Then he looked up again, all shy. “You really think he liked the sketches?”

Soledad rolled her eyes. “Please, Laura had to pry her phone out of his hands. He liked them.”

“What did I like?” said Bucky, leaning out the half-open door of the dark gallery.

“Nothing,” everyone chorused.

“Sounds accurate,” Bucky muttered, holding the door for them as he stepped back into the gallery.

“Any trouble getting in?” Steve asked.

Bucky gave him his best bitch, please face and then handed him a flashlight. He gave another to Laura. “Ladies,” he said, “lock the door. Look at drawings. Don't come towards the back for ten minutes unless you want to see people from history books kissing each other.” Then he looked at Steve. “Speaking of which. Hi.”

“Hi,” Steve said, putting his hands on Bucky's waist and backing him up into the darkness further into the gallery. “Nice dancing.”

“Thanks, Picasso. Nice drawings.”

“We in the back yet?”

“Don't care. C'mere.”

Both of them were seriously keyed up from having spent a night able to see each other from across rooms, across streets, but not able to get any closer. Plus, Bucky in those 1930s-style clothes was doing things to Steve, dislodging a whole raft of buried sexual feelings from his childhood he hadn't known how to cope with at the time. Seeing Bucky in the suspenders and the flat cap and the white shirt, watching him at a dance hall, Steve realised all he ever wanted as a teenager was to be the lucky girl that got thrown around in his calloused hands for three minutes of swing-beat heaven. Now he was too big for that, but still...

Steve put his hands behind Bucky's neck and pulled him into a hard, hungry kiss, tongue in his mouth almost immediately. Bucky whimpered and dragged Steve's body in close to him, and Steve ground his hips as they moulded into each other. Bucky gasped into his mouth and arched against him, tipping his head back and tugging the soft pillowy mass of Steve's lower lip with his teeth. Steve ran his hands up Bucky's sides and pressed kisses all along his neck and the side of his jaw, then sucked on his earlobe before whispering, “We need to keep this PG. Your friends are about ten feet away.”

“I know,” Bucky pouted, sagging a little against Steve in disappointment. Then Steve gasped as Bucky picked him up, hands cupping Steve's ass, wrapping Steve's legs around his waist and backing him hard into a nearby retaining wall. “You staying up here tonight?” Bucky said between breathy, needy kisses. “Because I think we need to wreck a hotel room. I can't make it back to New York.”

Steve kissed him back, smiling as an idea formed in his mind. He pulled back, deliberately frustrating Bucky by just brushing his lips over Bucky's – he knew how sensitive Bucky's lips were, and how if he dialed things back to just the sensation of lips ghosting over his, a few featherlight flicks of tongue for variation, it would drive Bucky completely wild. Sure enough, he was being shoved harder against the wall, Bucky whining softly, chasing his mouth and starting to grind against him.

“Buck,” he whispered, the air from his words hitting the places on Bucky's lips that he'd licked, and Bucky's eyelashes fluttered down in ecstasy. “Bucky, dance for me and we can get a hotel room.” He ran his fingers along Bucky's scalp, dislodging his hat.

Bucky moaned softly. “I will do anything if you promise never to stop doing that.”

“Dance ballet for me.”

Bucky nuzzled him, catlike, gently easing Steve out of his hands, so he was standing on his own. “Mmkay. But give me a sec. M'way too hard to do anything.”

“Want to look at the drawings?”

“Hell yes.”

The drawings were wonderful. Most were in red chalk, like Old Master sketches, and Steve had captured such a sense of intimacy in the portraits: Pepper beautiful, but soft and concerned and looking so young as she curled up in a chair and waited for news of Tony; Clint exhausted and beat up but really mad about something and clearly not giving an inch; Tony, he must have been looking over at Pepper because his face had so much love in it; Natasha almost on the verge of tears over something; Bruce telling a joke, but with a quiet sadness. Sam Wilson with a thousand-mile stare, desert and blue sky in his eyes. Bucky, lost, dangerous Bucky, his back to the viewer, his body naked and relaxed under a bedsheet, unimaginably vulnerable. Steve's battered little family, caught with all their walls down, as nobody but him ever saw them.

Then some New York street scenes in pencil, a New York that was neither then nor now, some combination of the two, a city haunted by its own bones, its people walking in the footsteps of their own ghosts.

It was an amazingly intimate way to look at the art, in the dark, with a flashlight, one image at a time in perfect isolation. Bucky leaned against Steve's back with his chin on Steve's shoulder. The girls made fun of them for being all over each other, and were legitimately shocked when Steve flipped them off.

“You gotta watch out for him,” Bucky deadpanned to the girls. “He's a terrible influence.”

Then finally they came around to the dancer series, all hung together along a back wall. “Do you like them?” Steve whispered. Bucky was still draped over Steve from behind, and he nodded, his chin digging into Steve's shoulder, but didn't say anything. Then he rubbed his cheek against Steve and Steve could feel the wetness and understood why Bucky didn't want to talk. Halfway through the series, Bucky finally spoke: he wrapped his arms around Steve's waist and whispered, “You made me beautiful.”

“Wait,” Soledad said. “Back up. Steve. Does your secret assassin boyfriend seriously not understand that he's smoking hot?”

“It's true,” Laura said. “I mean, you're both crazy hot, but I'm only maintaining because it's dark in here and if I can't see Bucky, then his eyelashes can't make me lose the power of speech.”

“See, Buck?” Steve said, nudging the super-soldier still draped over him. “I didn't make you anything.”

“You're makin' me blush, punk.”

“You going to do that dance you promised me?”

“Yeah,” Bucky said, pushing off Steve, a smile in his voice as he hip-checked him. “Lemme get ready.”

“What's going on?” Laura asked.

“I've blackmailed him into doing another ballet solo.”

Laura whimpered. “When?”

“Right now,” Steve said. “Help me move these benches.”

They hauled the gallery's minimal seating to the edges of the room and settled down, their backs against the wall. “Is there enough light?” Soledad said, placing the flashlights to shine up onto the ceiling.

“Both of us can see pretty well in the dark. It'll be fine,” Steve said.

Bucky walked over to a corner and slipped out of his suspenders, throwing off his button-down shirt and stepping out of his shoes, socks, and trousers, so he was just in red boxer-briefs and the undershirt. He tugged at the undershirt for a moment, undecided, evaluating how dark the room was. Then a sharp exhalation, and the undershirt landed on the floor too. He stalked loosely to the back of the gallery and turned on the stereo, linking his phone into it. As he paged through playlists to find the right piece of music, he said, “Okay. This is a solo from Le Corsaire.”

The music began, sinuous and triumphant, and Bucky stepped out, his hips swinging with the beat and then flowing into the same starting pose he'd been playing around with in the salon. Almost immediately he turned and spun and pushed off, seemingly effortlessly, into some high jump, his legs up underneath him like a cat as he turned, arms bent in dynamically, impossibly high in the air, almost suspended up there, like he and gravity had simply agreed to disagree for the next 60 seconds.

Laura wondered if this was Bucky not holding back, with the throttle all the way out.

The barely-there light added to the drama of the dance, which was both explosively physical and incredibly sensuous. Bucky unravelled in the air and landed silently in a deep lunge, one leg swept back and opposing arm out, but only holding it for a moment before sweeping up into that first pose again. The dance repeated that series twice more, each time with Bucky getting a little higher in the air, then it flowed into a series of pirouettes and poses which, while less showy than the high jumps, somehow brought out the eroticism of the dance in little things like a looseness in the hips, a particular angle of wrist or sweep of chest.

Then after a pirouette that ended in a particularly swashbuckling arm movement, Bucky was briefly in front of them, one leg out, arms sweeping back, his whole body arched in this louche display, every muscle standing out, and Steve looked like he was going to die right there but before he could, Bucky completed the movement and, with a sinuous roll of his spine, swept away into the final part of the solo, a series of big, aerial barrel turns and sautes de basque that took him in a circle, before they tightened down faster and faster to the more earthbound spinning of châinés, then ending dynamically, outward, in a pose straight out of classical sculpture: en pointe, the left leg raised behind at hip height, right arm pointing up and forwards, and left arm bent over the shoulder.

The pose sounds easy enough to picture in marble or bronze, but it was a different thing indeed to see an actual man holding it, especially six feet of metal-and-muscle supersoldier basically giving a giant “fuck you” to Newtonian physics as he balanced on less than a square inch of floor in a pose that was both completely unnatural and totally beautiful.

Bucky held the pose for a good twenty seconds after the music stopped, then sighed, rolling down onto his foot and gracefully coming out of the pose to a simple first position. He wrinkled his nose. “Sorry. Screwed up the exit from that middle grand pirouette.”

“Oh yeah, that was terrible,” Soledad groaned. “Do it all again.”

“No,” Steve said, suddenly all up in Bucky's space, his voice rough and low, his hands closing around Bucky's hips. “You. Me. Hotel. Now.”

Bucky grinned and brushed Steve's cheekbone with his eyelashes. “Lemme put my clothes back on first. Text me what hotel and room number and I'll be there in a f-”

Steve hauled Bucky in for a kiss before he could finish; a deep, bruising kiss that wasn't so much a kiss but a rough promise, of every piece of hotel furniture they were going to break in the next twelve hours. They came apart, breathless and lightheaded, and Bucky smiled and said, “Y'know, this whole secret thing might actually work.”

Steve glared at him. “It's going to work. I'll fight anyone who says different.”

Bucky laughed, fondly, right in his face, before kissing him again. “Steve Rogers, ladies and gentlemen. Good to have you back.”

 

* * *

 

A couple weeks later, a large, heavy cardboard envelope arrived in the salon's mail. Soledad called Laura over as she opened it.

Inside were three ink sketches of a dark-haired dancer. In pencil at the bottom of each sketch, it said “Le Corsaire. SGR '16.”