“James,” Natasha said as he was standing framed in the doorway of the plane. She pursed her lips, thoughtful and calculating. “Are you ready for this?”
Bucky looked down at the snowy mountains underneath him, heart thudding in his chest.
No way in hell, no, he wasn’t ready.
“Sure,” he said out loud. Natasha came up behind him – he could just barely hear the click-clack of her boots above the icy rush of the wind – and put a hand on his shoulder.
“If you want to back out, you need to tell me now,” she said. He breathed in deep, icy air filling his lungs; the chill spread through his chest, down his arms, to his fingertips. He closed his eyes, just for a second, and he was sure that when he opened them again it wouldn’t be Latveria below him and he’d be on a train, not a plane, and Steve would be reaching for him.
He opened his eyes.
There was a castle far below him and everything that wasn’t snow was green and also probably robots.
“I’m okay,” he told Natasha. “Let’s do it.”
He glanced over his shoulder enough to get a glimpse of her dark eyes and red lips – and then she slapped him on the ass, once, and shoved him out of the plane.
Bucky was pretty sure, he thought while falling, that he was never going to get used to the Avengers.
Bucky woke up when he hit the water. It pulled him under, icy waves against his face, and when he opened his eyes everything was inky darkness. He hung there for a moment, stunned, and then he kicked upwards, arms thrashing until he broke the surface.
The air was even colder against his face, and he gasped, big gulping breaths, as the water threatened to engulf him again.
He clawed his way to the surface once, twice, a third time. That was when he spotted the wreckage, floating a few yards away. He blinked the water from his eyes and took a deep breath, pushing himself forward. He grabbed at it, fingers scrabbling for purpose – the fingers of one hand felt weird, and the wreckage creaked and crunched beneath them – and then he hung on, cheek pressed against the metal.
He floated for what felt like ages.
Someone was speaking to him, but the words were foreign, and they slurred together into a meaningless mass. Bucky tried to lift his head but everything felt so heavy, and when he opened his mouth to reply, no words came out.
There were hands underneath his arms, dragging him up, and Bucky felt himself falling forward.
He was on the train again, with Steve. With Steve’s shield in his hands and they were winning the fight and Steve clasped him on the shoulder warmly and said, “Bucky, don’t scare me like that,” and then Bucky knocked their shoulders together and they made their way into the next train car –
Except. No. That wasn’t right.
He’d slipped, hanging on by the railing, and Steve had reached for him, and --
Bucky blinked, sunlight filtering in softly through the window. He tried to sit up and something started beeping.
Instantly, a woman was by his side. She was wearing strange clothes and she pushed Bucky back onto the bed with one palm, speaking a language he didn’t understand. Her tone came across loud and clear, though: stay in bed.
“I don’t speak – what that is,” Bucky said, eyebrows drawing together.
“Ugh,” the woman said, voice thick with her accent. “English.”
“Where am I?” he asked. His lips were cracked and dry; he ran his tongue across them. The woman tapped at something above his head, dark eyes intent and focused. She wouldn’t look at him.
He was feeling tired again, and he let himself sink back against the bed, the pillow under his head. The strangely dressed nurse cupped a hand to his cheek, briefly.
“Rest now,” she told him.
The room was dark and Bucky’s eyelids were too heavy to open all the way.
Somewhere to his right a man’s voice, deep and heavy, said, “And we are absolutely, one-hundred percent, make no mistake sure that’s him?”
“Yes,” a woman said. Bucky shifted, turning his head to the side, and saw that her hands were resting on the railing of his bed. Her fingers were long and graceful; he had a sudden flash of them wrapped around a gun. “I think so.”
“You’d better do more than that,” the man said. There was a pause, and Bucky’s eyes closed again. He felt so tired and so heavy. Where was he?
Where was Steve?
“He’s the right build. The right – age, somehow,” the woman said. “Though his arm is – sir. It can’t be anyone else.”
Bucky wanted to open his mouth and ask what she meant by that – what about his arm? – but it seemed an impossible task.
“Alright. I’m taking your word on this, agent; don’t make me regret it,” the man said, his voice resigned. “Prep him for transport. We’re taking our boy home.”
The next time Bucky woke up, it was evening and he was in a different room. The walls were steel grey and the light by his bedside was on. The strangely dressed nurse was gone and in her place there was a redheaded woman sitting by the side of his bed. She had something in her hands, her eyes fixed on it like she was reading, but it didn’t look like a book.
She looked familiar.
“Hey, don’t I know you?” he said. She looked up.
“No,” she said after a moment. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”
“You sure?” he said. She quirked an eyebrow, and he smiled. “Pretty girl at my bedside – can’t blame a guy for hoping.”
The eyebrow rose a little higher, and then she climbed to her feet, walking past his bed without another glance. At the door she put two fingers against her right ear and said, “Director Fury, Barnes is awake now.”
She paused for a moment, then lowered her hand.
With one more distinctly unimpressed glance at Bucky, she said, “Wait here,” before stepping through the door.
“Where else would I go?” Bucky called after her as the door swung shut.
Five minutes later the redheaded woman came back, and with her a tall man in a coat and an eyepatch.
“James Buchanan Barnes,” the man said, pulling up a chair. He leaned forward, lone eye intent, and braced his forearms against his thighs, fingers loosely knitted together. “In the flesh. It’s an honor.”
“Wish I could say it was mutual,” Bucky said, tugging sharply at the cuffs that tethered him to the bed. “Where am I? Who are you?”
“I’m Director Nick Fury, of the Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate,” the man said. “Or, SHIELD. This is Agent Romanoff. You’re in our headquarters in New York City. Do you know why you’re here?”
“I – fell,” he said, slowly. Remembering was like slogging through hip-deep sludge. “Someone dragged me out of the water.”
“And before that?” Director Fury asked, raising his eyebrows. Bucky opened his mouth, and then shut it firmly. Too many questions being asked, and not enough of them by him.
“How did I get here?” he said. He jerked against the cuffs again. The metal railing on the left side groaned strangely. “What’s with the cuffs?”
Fury and Romanoff exchanged a glance.
“House telepath did a basic sweep while he was out,” Romanoff said. “Says it’s like he just – woke up.”
Fury grunted. “We’re going to need a new house telepath.”
“Excuse me, what?” Bucky interrupted, frustrated. “House telepath? SHIELD? Will someone just tell me what’s going on?”
“The restraints are for your own protection,” Romanoff said. Bucky shot her a glare.
“Like hell –” he started with another sharp tug when the railing on the left side of the bed gave out. He held up his arm, handcuffs still attached. The railing dangled from the other end. He stared, gaping, at his arm.
It shone in the light, harsh, carefully jointed metal. He flexed his fingers and the metal ones reacted, curling towards the palm.
“What happened to my arm?” he asked at last, dry-mouthed and sick to his stomach. The look Romanoff gave him might have been sympathetic.
Fury’s face was impassive.
“Son,” he said, “that’s what we’d like to know.”
“I want out,” Bucky said, tugging on the other cuff. “Let me out, I’m going to be sick—”
Fury and Romanoff exchanged another long look. She shrugged. Fury rubbed at his forehead.
“Let him out,” he said. “And get him a bucket or something. In return,” he broke off, staring Bucky down with his one eye, “I want answers. Good ones.”
Bucky breathed through his teeth, trying to crush the nausea in his stomach and the phantom tingling at his shoulder. He stared down at the picture.
"Don't know," he said, tracing the flimsy blue shards in the picture with his eyes. "What's it got to do with me?"
Fury's stare was cold. "These were recovered from about the same site you were. Any ideas about that?"
"Ever heard of sea glass?" Bucky asked him. Fury didn't look impressed.
There was a crashing sound and the lights went out. Fury’s head snapped up.
The emergency lights flickered on, flooding the room with a soft red glow. A nervous voice came over the intercom: “Director Fury, sir, we, ah – we seem to be experiencing some technical difficulties. Your presence is requested.”
“Stay here,” he said to Bucky, staring him down. “Agent Romanoff, with me.”
Then Bucky was alone in the room.
After a few minutes, the lights came back on and the distant alarms faded. Fury and Romanoff didn’t return. Bucky shifted his weight from one foot to the other and contemplated his options.
A minute later found him standing on top of a chair, reaching for the grate high up on the wall. It looked like it was nailed down tight but – he flexed the fingers of his mechanical hand – he figured he might be able to pry it loose if he could just reach.
Steve and his freakish growth spurt would have really come in handy. He raised himself up on his toes and his fingers scraped a hold.
The door opened with a creak and the chair nearly tipped over. Bucky steadied himself and glanced, alarmed, over his shoulder.
A SHIELD agent stood in the doorway, one hand on his hip and the other on the door knob. He raised an eyebrow and smirked. Bucky disliked him on sight.
“Don’t stop on my account,” he said. “SHIELD’s air ducts are top notch. Practically the Paris of crawlspaces.”
“I was trying to –”
“Pry the grate loose? I can see that. I’m Agent Barton,” he said. “Director Fury sent me to collect you – through the door, preferably. Need a hand?”
Bucky glowered and climbed down, knocking the hand extended in his direction out of the way.
“Suit yourself,” Agent Barton said with a shrug. “Come on, we don’t have a lot of time.”
The hallways were chaos, agents running up and down amidst the flashing lights. None of them spared Bucky a second glance.
“What’s going on?” Bucky asked, watching one particularly harried agent trip over his own feet, armful of papers flying everywhere. The woman he’d been jogging alongside didn’t stop to help.
“Minor security breach,” Agent Barton said. “Nothing to worry about.”
The hallway that they’d come from was suddenly blocked off by a sliding metal door.
“Minor?” Bucky said.
“Trust me, you wouldn’t want to see a major one,” Barton said, catching Bucky by the elbow. “A Code Green, now, that’s a show – we should probably pick up the pace.”
He tugged Bucky down another hallway, taking a sharp right, and Bucky nearly tripped over an agent who came barreling down the other direction, looking for all the world like there was an army on his heels.
“Where are we going?” he asked. Agent Barton fixed him with a look; his eyes glimmered, amused, but otherwise his face remained impassive.
“Sorry,” he said. “That’s classified.”
Alarms started to blare. Agent Barton looked up, cursed, and broke into a run. He urged Bucky along with his fingers tight around his arm. Bucky hesitated a moment, digging his heels into the ground. Then he thought, what the hell else am I doing here?, and followed Agent Barton. He kept his eyes trained for a gun – any gun – because in the thin shirt and pants he’d been dressed in he didn’t feel terribly secure.
The only weapon he had was himself, which he guessed was better than it used to be, but still not exactly ideal.
There was an announcement overhead, muffled by the ringing footsteps and snatches of shouted conversation.
“What’s a Code AES?” he asked Agent Barton. Agent Barton cocked an eyebrow, the corner of his mouth twitching upwards. He put his hand flat against Bucky’s back and steered him down a corridor.
“It’s short for Anthony Edward Stark,” he said, and then he threw open the door.
Steve was standing in the room, looking lost and uncomfortable and awkward. He was pretty much the best thing Bucky had ever seen. Steve’s fingers twitched at his sides, like he wanted to reach out but wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do, and he said, “Bucky,” and that was all it took for Bucky to throw himself at him.
Steve caught him and held him tight, nose pressed against his hair.
“It’s really you,” Steve said, awed. “I didn’t – when I heard they’d found you, I wasn’t sure –”
“It’s me,” Bucky said gruffly, or as gruffly as he could manage with his face pressed into Steve’s shoulder and his eyes prickling, lip caught between his teeth. “Steve, it’s really me.”
“Yeah,” Steve said. He squeezed once, and then his grip relaxed. Bucky took a step back. Steve was staring over his shoulder at Agent Barton, still standing in the doorway with that smug look on his face. “Clint – thank you.”
“Don’t mention it,” Agent Barton said. “No, really, don’t.”
“C’mon,” Steve said, laughing a little. “This isn’t the craziest thing you’ve ever done.”
“Not by a long shot, Rogers,” Agent Barton said with a salute. “I’ll give Fury the run around as long as I can, but we both know we’re screwed if Nat’s already caught on, so get out of here, would you?”
“I owe you,” Steve said, and then he placed a hand on Bucky’s shoulder and led him down the opposite hallway at a quick jog.
“Steve, wait,” Bucky said when they were half a hallway away. The lights were dimmed and flashing red, and he turned and caught Steve by the upper arm. “You have to tell me what’s going on here.”
Steve stopped abruptly. He turned and looked at Bucky, like he was really seeing him for the first time. It was hard to make out his face properly in the dim light but he looked tired. He twisted out of Bucky’s grip and put one hand on Bucky’s shoulder, then trailed it down his arm, careful pressure against the cool metal. He stopped at his wrist, turning Bucky’s hand over in his own big one, and wasn’t that still a kick in the pants, Steve’s hands bigger than his own.
“Buck,” he said, sounding crushed. “What happened?”
“How the hell should I know?” Bucky said, looking down at his own metal wrist. “I woke up with – it, this. With it.”
Steve swore under his breath. He slid his hand back up, giving Bucky’s elbow a squeeze. There was a shadow of something unsaid flickering at the corners of his mouth.
“What the hell aren’t you telling me, Rogers?” Bucky said. Steve, at least, had the good grace to look faintly guilty.
“What do you know?” he asked. “About where you are?”
“Strategic Hazard Intervention Espionage Logistics Directorate,” Bucky spat out, easy as his name and rank. “Their headquarters, in New York City. Or that’s what the guy with the eyepatch said, anyway.”
“No,” Steve said. “That’s right.”
He fell silent. Bucky frowned.
“What?” he said. He grabbed Steve’s arm again.
“Do you…” Steve started, then stopped. The guilty look was back again. “Do you know when it is?”
Bucky barked out a short laugh, surprised. “What kind of question is that?”
“Just – think about it, Buck,” Steve said. “Please.”
“Alright, fine, don’t get your tights in a twist,” Bucky said. “You mean, what day it is? I don’t – I mean, how am I supposed to tell, trapped in this place? It’s like a completely different world in here.”
“Yeah,” Steve said, quietly, and then he stood there with his mouth sort of open and that look on his face like he was about to say something he desperately didn’t want to have to say. “Bucky--”
He winced, breaking off suddenly, and half-turned, one hand pressed to his right ear. “I – yeah, I’m here. Is this line secure?”
“What?” Bucky said. Steve signaled for him to be quiet.
“Yeah, we’re coming right now. West exit, the one – no, I’m sure it’s not still contaminated – the giant lizards were months ago, we’ll be fine,” he said. Bucky felt his eyebrows rise steadily higher and higher. “Alright.”
He took his hand away from his ear and turned to Bucky.
“We need to go,” he said, and placed a hand flat against Bucky’s back and this time he really did drag him along until they were both running down the hallway, footsteps clattering on the metal floors.
“Where are we going?” Bucky shouted at one point, but Steve wouldn’t answer. They took a sharp left, and then another, running full speed down a hallway that stretched on for what felt like miles. Finally, they came to a door. Steve looked back at Bucky once and hesitated; it was a split-second thing, and anyone who didn’t know Steve like Bucky knew him would never have seen it at all.
Steve threw open the door.
Bucky held an arm up, momentarily blinded by harsh light, and that was all the opportunity Steve needed to pull him towards the sleekest limousine he’d ever seen.
Stark would have loved it, he thought, if only the thing could fly.
The door slid open and Steve pushed him forward, glancing back over his shoulder before he too ducked inside. And speaking of Stark, there he was, lounging against the leather seats in dark glasses. He held a device in his hand, similar to the one the red-headed woman at his bedside had been staring at so intently.
“Tony,” Steve said, relief in his voice as he shut the door. “You really did it.”
Bucky did a doubletake – it wasn’t Howard Stark sitting across from them after all, but a different man, older.
Tony slid his glasses down and gave Steve a look. Then he grinned, wide and roguish, and he must’ve been a relative because that was Howard’s grin through and through.
“You had doubts?” he said, and then rapped at the divider screen with his knuckles. “Hey, Happy, Fury’s dogs’ll be on us any minute, so let’s make like a ski and jet, alright?”
“You got it, boss,” the chauffer replied. The engine revved and the limousine took off; Bucky expected to be thrown back against his seat by the sudden movement, but inside the car was stable and smooth.
“You like it?” Tony said, raising his eyebrows at Bucky. “Stark Tech likes a smooth ride.”
He did something obscene with the corner of his mouth and his eyebrows on smooth ride and beside him Steve made an exasperated noise.
“Stark Tech,” Bucky repeated. “So, what, Howard has a brother?”
There was a moment of silence, tense, and then Steve spoke.
“Happy,” he said. “Can we pull over?”
Tony shot him a look.
“I really don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said. “Fury’s going to be right behind us – we’ve got too narrow a lead already. I’ve got a house out in Jersey – I know it’s Jersey, don’t give me that face – that SHIELD hasn’t sunk their superspy claws into yet, we can maybe get you two a little peace there, but we need to go now. Or we’re not going to make it out of the garage.”
“I know,” Steve said. “But I can’t let him find out the way I did. It’s not right.”
“Find out what?” Bucky demanded. Steve turned to him with that same tired look he’d had before.
“There are some things I think you need to know,” he said.
They didn’t make it far before SHIELD caught up with them. Director Fury stood in the middle of the road with his feet planted far apart and his hands clasped behind his back. Agent Romanoff stood on his left, another woman to his right, and a whole roadblock’s worth of cars behind them.
“Got a plan, captain my captain?” Tony asked, folding his sunglasses and putting them away.
“Armor up, just in case,” Steve replied, swinging the door open. He glanced back at Bucky. “You should stay here.”
“Yeah?” Bucky bit back, already following him. “Remember the last time I told you to stay put? How’d that work out?”
Steve smothered a grin. “Stay behind me or I will put you back in the car myself, got that?”
“Loud and clear,” Bucky said with a mocking salute, stepping out of the car and back into the New York air for the first time in years and years. Far more than he’d ever expected. Then he looked over to his right and let out a low whistle: where Tony had been a moment before now stood a sleek suit of red and gold armor.
“Howard must be spinning in his grave,” he said to Steve.
“Don’t encourage him,” Steve replied, shouldering his shield. He took the front, standing with his feet planted on the ground and his shoulders squared. He greeted Fury with a tight nod.
“Captain Rogers,” Fury said, “with all due respect, what the hell do you think you’re doing? Removing Barnes from SHIELD custody –”
“Director Fury, with all due respect,” Steve interrupted, crossing his arms, “was there any world in which I wouldn’t make a move as soon as I learned you had him?”
Fury’s scowl deepened.
“Rogers, you have been a bee in my goddamn bonnet since they day they defrosted you, but this,” here he cocked an eyebrow at Bucky, standing barefoot in the street in a SHIELD t-shirt and sweatpants, “takes the cake.” He broke off, squaring his jaw. “You would have been properly notified as soon as he checked out.”
Steve arched an eyebrow. “And when was that going to be? Next week? A month? A year? I wasn’t going to leave him. Not again.”
The wind stung his eyes; his fingers slipped -- Bucky blinked and the images fled, leaving him standing by Steve’s side where he belonged.
“Fury,” Tony said, his voice distorted behind his helmet. “Yeah, okay, guy disappears in in the 40s and turns up now -- it’s weird. It’s a weird world! It’s impossible? So is Steve. So is the giant green rage monster. So’s Thor.”
“Thor?” Bucky muttered to Steve.
“Long story,” Steve replied out of the corner of his mouth. “Tell you later.”
“How do you propose we end this stalemate, Captain?” Fury asked, hands locked behind his back, his head tipped to the side in a challenge. Steve, if possible, pulled himself up taller, squared his shoulders a little more.
“We’re taking him into Avengers custody, Fury,” he said.
The corner of Fury’s mouth twitched. “You want to take a time displaced soldier, who freely admits he has no idea how he got to the here and now, let alone how he came by that shiny new accessory of his, and stick him in the middle of one of our greatest defenses?”
“You got a problem with that?” Steve asked.
“For a smart man, Rogers, you come up with some stupid ideas,” Fury replied. He shook his head. “Avengers custody.”
“We take care of our own,” Tony said. “Always have, always will.”
“Stark,” Fury started.
“No,” Tony interrupted. “We had an agreement, Fury. For the Avengers to function, we agreed that we’d need to be separate, have our own jurisdiction –”
“Separate but related,” Fury corrected.
“Like second cousins who made a mistake and now avoid each other at Thanksgiving,” Tony said. “Cap says he’s one of ours. That’s the end of it. You gonna step aside or are we going to have to make you?”
“It’s actually not the worst idea,” Romanoff said to Fury. She smiled at Bucky. “The Avengers definitely know how to deal with the problem children.”
“I will put you on AIM duty for a year, agent,” Fury told her.
“Then I’ll keep her on our rosters instead,” Steve said. He gave Romanoff a grateful smile.
“Here I thought SHIELD created this team to handle the threats no single hero could deal with alone,” Fury said, “turns out it was just to sass me.” He pointed one finger at Steve, then tapped at his eyepatch. “Take Barnes, but I’ll be keeping my eye on you.”
He turned to go, coat flapping against his heels, and the rest of his crew followed in his wake. Only Romanoff stayed, arms crossed and looking at Steve with amused eyes.
“I’ve got a few jobs coming up,” Fury said without looking back. “I expect full cooperation on them.”
He got into a car and gradually the crowd filed out. Steve waited until the last SHIELD agent had turned his back before he let out a sigh of relief, the tension disappearing from his shoulders. He slung an arm around Bucky’s shoulders.
“Is that it?” Bucky said.
“That’s it,” Steve said. He grinned at Tony, who removed his helmet so he could smile back. “I really thought he was going to put up a real fight there for a minute.”
“Or blow a gasket,” Tony said. He rapped his knuckles against Bucky’s metal arm. “Welcome to the team. Love the arm. Hate the hair.”
Steve tugged on one of the longer locks, curling by his jaw. “Might be time for a haircut,” he agreed.
“Something tells me my old guy’s not in business anymore,” Bucky said, brushing it out of his face. “Got any suggestions?”
“I think we can find somebody,” Steve said. “Come on. Let’s go home.”
The walk up to Castle Doom was long and the snow was high. Bucky felt like he was wading in it; his arm ached where he kept it as his side. Natasha shot him looks occasionally, out of the corner of her eye when she thought he couldn’t see.
It was a strangely familiar look.
“Our intel says he’s holding the senator in the dungeons,” she said. “Our job is to play run around with the guards long enough for Cap to spring him.”
“What about the lord of the manor?” Bucky asked, teeth gritting as something in his metal arm jarred painfully. He brought his other hand to massage the joint, but the metal was unyielding.
“We have a Hulk,” Natasha said.
The Hulk took out the castle’s entire western wall. Bucky had to scramble to keep from being crushed underneath the rubble.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Doom demanded, right before the Hulk tried to toss him like a soccer ball.
Bucky threw himself out of the way, fingers catching at the stone wall. It gave way beneath one hand and he grunted, wincing.
A doombot approached; he caught the movement out of the corner of his eye and let the knowledge carry him, spinning around with his gun drawn.
It fell back before he could shoot, one smoking hole where its eye had been and an arrow embedded in the center of its chest.
“You missed,” Natasha’s voice came from behind Bucky.
“Did not,” Hawkeye called out. He was perched on the Hulk’s massive shoulder, twisted around with his bow drawn. “You didn’t specify.”
“Because it went without saying,” she said, never pausing as she took out three more doombots. Bucky caught two hiding in the corner and took aim. His shots were messier than Natasha’s, but they got the job done regardless.
He spared a glance between Natasha and Hawkeye while he scanned the room for more attackers. Natasha was cool and composed as ever, barely a hair out of place, but she was smiling, just the tiniest twitch at the corners of her mouth.
Hawkeye, on the other hand, was grinning like an idiot, standing on the Hulk’s shoulders like there was no place else he’d rather be. His eyes were bright and his face flushed, hair sticking up at all angles. There was a long thin cut across his cheek, blood trickling down his face and staining the collar of his costume.
Bucky didn’t know what to think about him.
“Hey, Robocop! On your left!”
He spun around, instinct taking over, and fired twice. The doombot fell backwards, fizzling.
Bucky glanced up and caught Hawkeye’s gaze.
Hawkeye winked and pinned Doom to the opposite wall with three well-placed arrows.
Steve was waiting outside, cowl pulled over his face and one arm holding the rescued senator up. His shield was slung across his back and there was a splatter of something across it – blood or oil, Bucky couldn’t tell.
“Iron Man’s securing the perimeter,” he said. “Good work, everyone.”
Bucky nodded tightly. Inside the castle it had been warm and his arm had started to feel better, more – normal, he supposed. Whatever that meant now. But outside the same freezing pain set in, the jarring stiffness. He gripped the elbow with his other hand and grit his teeth and tried not to let Steve notice.
“Good work?” the senator said, with something between a hysterical laugh and a cough. His necktie was hanging undone over the collar of his shirt, dirty and torn. He was holding a bloodstained handkerchief to his forehead. “Good work? Is that maniac in there –”
He was cut off when the Hulk reappeared in the gaping hole where the castle’s wall had once been. All the color drained from the senator’s face. He swooned a little and Steve tightened his grip with a barely noticeable frown.
He glanced at Bucky as if to say, can you believe this guy?
Bucky bit back an answering grin even as his eyes stung. It was the cold Latverian wind, he told himself, ducking his head to stop the burning.
“The Hulk has something he wants to say,” Hawkeye said, sitting on one massive green shoulder. He gave the Hulk a comforting pat on the upper arm. The Hulk grumbled under his breath, loud enough to rustle the leaves of the nearby trees. “Don’t you, big guy?”
“Do not push Hulk, tiny arrow man,” the Hulk growled.
“Just shoving you gently in the right direction, buddy,” Hawkeye said. When the Hulk slid him a long, slow, furious look he only settled back, fiddling with an arrow and whistling.
Bucky was surprised, to say the least, when the Hulk knelt in front of him. He had to crane his neck to meet the Hulk’s eyes, superhumanly green. All the hairs on the back of his neck stood up, every instinct screaming predator.
Bucky stood his ground and held his gaze.
“Hulk is sorry,” the giant rumbled, “for pushing new tiny man into the wall.”
From somewhere behind him, Steve cleared his throat.
“That’s – nice?” Bucky said. When the Hulk’s eyebrows furrowed, he quickly added, “Thanks, Hulk. It wasn’t a big deal.”
The Hulk snorted. He tossed his head like a horse trying to shake off a bridle.
“Tiny Arrow Man lied to Hulk,” he said, shooting Hawkeye a narrow-eyed glare. Hawkeye met his gaze evenly; Bucky didn’t know how he did it.
“Tiny Arrow Man is trying to improve your social skills, big guy,” he said. “If someone shoved you into a wall, you’d want them to apologize, right?”
“Hulk would just smash them,” the Hulk grumbled, and then turned and lumbered off in the opposite direction.
Hawkeye glanced over his shoulder. He caught Bucky’s eye and winked.
“Don’t mind Hawkeye,” Natasha said later while they were waiting for Iron Man and their ride home. “He’s always like that.”
“Was he dropped on his head or something?” Bucky asked, massaging at the metal joints again and cringing every time they creaked. If Iron Man saw him doing it he’d want to take another look at the arm, and that wasn’t a pleasant thought at all.
Natasha smirked and didn’t answer.
Tony insisted on checking his arm over on the ride back anyway. Bucky would’ve refused, but Steve took one look at him and gave him that concerned frown and said, “Maybe you should just let him take a look, Bucky.”
“Doesn’t he have a plane to fly?” Bucky grumbled, tightening his fingers around his elbow. Steve’s frown deepened.
“Autopilot,” Tony said at the same time as Thor rallied a winning, “My friends, allow me!”
Steve and Tony exchanged a quick look.
“Autopilot,” Tony insisted.
“I’ll help,” Clint said, getting up from his seat. He clapped Tony on the shoulder on his way past, saying to Thor, "Come on, thunder-and-lightning, let's go over those basics again."
They ended up huddled in the back, Bucky on one side and Tony on the other and Steve in between them with Bucky’s arm braced across his thighs like a makeshift table. Bucky shucked his jacket and then his shirt, leaving him half-naked and gritting his teeth against the chill.
Bruce, recently de-Hulked and sitting across the way, peered over the top of his book curiously. Bucky shot him a look – in retrospect, not his brightest idea – but Bruce seemed to pay him no mind.
“Where does it hurt?”
“It doesn’t,” Bucky said. Steve shot him a look.
“Bucky,” he said.
Tony waved a dismissive hand. He placed a thumb against the inside of Bucky’s elbow and said, “Flex.”
Bucky flexed. Tony made an intrigued noise.
“What is it?” Steve asked him.
“Nothing, it’s nothing, don’t talk to me,” Tony said, eyebrows furrowed. Bucky flexed his hand again, mostly to watch the metal fingers curl towards the palm, to scowl at them in confusion. Sometimes it was easy to forget that they were his. Tony made an alarmed noise. “Hey, hey, hey, stop that! No moving!”
Steve shot him a sympathetic glance. Bucky scowled back.
“Bruce,” Tony said a few minutes later, without looking up. “Want to give me a second opinion here?”
“It’s not really my field,” Bruce said, but he wandered over regardless. Bucky grit his teeth and tried not to feel too much like their science experiment. It didn’t work. Bruce and Tony tossed a bunch of words back and forth, things Bucky didn’t even bother trying to understand, until Bruce went, “But that’s an easy fix, right?”
“Yeah, sure, back in my lab,” Tony agreed. “We’ll head there after we land and I’ll work the kinks out.”
He flashed Bucky that wild, edgy grin. Bucky sort of wanted to punch him right in his smug face. He pulled his arm away with not a small amount of sharp, jarring pain, and tugged his shirt back on.
“Thank you, Tony,” Steve said, relief clear in his face and in his voice. It made the tension in Bucky’s back wind tighter.
“No problem,” Tony said. He glanced up at Bucky. “It’s an easy fix, but an upgrade, that would really –”
“No,” Bucky said. Tony frowned, but covered it up a split second later.
“It’s not a big deal,” he said, waggling his eyebrows. “It’d be over before you know it and then you’d stop having all these issues with it. Hey, I can even paint flames on it, make it go faster.”
“No,” Bucky repeated, sharply. He curled his fingers around his metal elbow. “I don’t want it.”
“Okay,” Steve said at last. He laid his hand over Bucky’s, thumb brushing against the metal. “If you don’t want it, then … okay, Buck.”
Bucky shrugged him off, not wanting to hear it. The motion sent another a jolt of pain up through his shoulder and he grit his teeth, moving towards the other end of the plane.
“It’ll get worse,” Tony said, quietly, like he thought Bucky wouldn’t be able to hear him. “I need to open it up to be able to get a better look at what’s going on but –”
“I’ll talk to him,” Steve replied, equally quiet. His voice was steady and strong; Bucky let it wash over him, trying to stop feeling like he was dangling off the edge of something, like he’d open his eyes and all he’d see would be Steve’s devastated face.
He took a deep breath.
“It’ll definitely get worse,” Tony said.
“He’ll come around,” Steve said, quiet and gentle, and the words lodged themselves in Bucky’s chest. He didn’t have to turn around to see the look on Steve’s face. “Just give him some time.”
Bucky sat down next to Natasha and thought about how he’d need a lot more than time.
Captain America, Iron Man and Black Widow had a date with a suspected HYDRA base.
Hawkeye and Bucky had a date with a pair of cold rooftops. Bucky shifted, trying to get a better view; the wind was biting, and he couldn’t feel the tops of his ears or the tip of his nose. His metal fingers were painfully cold, but at least the arm hadn’t been hurting for a while.
Hawkeye was humming something under his breath. Bucky tried hard to ignore him, but it was like Clint was trying his damndest to be annoying: he kept switching tune mid-hum, going from country to rock and then stopping just long enough for Bucky to exhale, thankful, before starting up again.
“Cap,” Bucky said, a little too sharply, cutting Hawkeye off before he could start another song. “Report. Are you still in those tunnels?”
“Sure are,” Steve’s voice came back, crystal clear through Stark’s tiny little earbuds. “This thing goes deep. Iron Man’s scanning for signs of life, but so far we’re coming up empty. Anything topside?”
“Nada,” Hawkeye said. He caught Bucky’s eye across the roof and gave him a wink. “We’re keeping our eyes peeled.”
“Right,” Natasha said. “And Hawkeye? You know I hate that song.”
“You love this song,” Clint replied, breezy.
“You love Sweet Home Alabama?” Tony said, and then yelped sharply. “That is not fair, I am in the suit, how did you even do that?”
“Children,” Steve intoned. There was a pause, and then he said, “Hold on, I think we’re coming up on a door. Cut the chatter, everyone.”
Hawkeye stopped humming. Bucky’s grip tightened minutely.
He could see Steve in his mind’s eye. He’d be peering around a dark corner, the line of his shoulders tight, and then he’d signal to his team, counting down before they burst through the door, shield raised to protect the others first.
Sure enough, there was the crack of the door giving way, clear as day through the earbuds. He heard Steve’s sharp intake of breath, and then a crackling bang that made him cringe. After that, nothing but static.
Across the rooftop, Hawkeye lowered his bow.
“You getting nothing?” he asked Bucky. Bucky shook his head. Hawkeye swore. “That’s trouble, and I should know,” he stopped and spat on the ground. “Trouble’s my middle name. We going after them, Robocop?”
Bucky was already on his feet. “Call for backup.”
Hawkeye grinned at him, all teeth. “Two steps ahead of you, soldier.”
Backup’s name was Captain Marvel and she was terrifying. Big, blonde and beautiful -- a real American dream girl, except half the time he saw her she had a tank lifted above her head.
(Though Bucky had to admit -- watching her toss Stark into an AIM plane was probably one of the highlights of his stay in the 21st century.)
She arrived together with Thor, looking like some kind of wrestling tag team. Bucky was pretty sure she could break him with one arm.
“Danvers,” Hawkeye said, shouldering his bow. “Thor. Take the perimeter – no one goes in or out without us.”
“Got it,” Danvers said, pushing up off the ground and into the air. “Give ‘em hell.”
“Ready?” Clint asked, giving Bucky that same sharp-eyed look he always got when a mission went south. Bucky nodded.
“Yesterday,” he said.
Later, sitting in a SHIELD medical bay with Steve, Bucky couldn’t help but laugh. It tore itself free from him until his shoulders were shaking and his arms were wrapped around his stomach, sitting by Steve’s bedside with his head thrown back.
Steve frowned at him.
“I don’t think this is very funny,” he said, absently picking at the bandages that covered his chest.
“Maybe not,” Bucky said, grinning at him. He swatted Steve’s hand away. “But it’s pretty nostalgic.”
Steve offered him a tiny smile.
“You know me,” he said. “Always was one to rush headlong into a fight.”
Bucky’s throat felt tight.
“Yeah,” he said. He spread his fingers – his real, flesh and blood ones – over the bandages on Steve’s stomach. “Good thing I’m here to save your sorry ass, huh?”
Steve stared down at the hand on his stomach, smile a little crooked.
“I could’ve taken them,” he said.
There came a knock against the doorframe. Tony Stark was standing in the door with an amused look on his face. His right arm was bandaged and held close to his chest in a sling; there was a plaster stuck across his nose. Bucky’s smile fell.
“Hey there, super soldier,” Tony said. “How’re the ribs?”
“Tony,” Steve said, pulling himself up on his elbows. Bucky let his hand slip back to his side. “Can hardly feel them. I’ll be good as new in a couple of days.”
Bucky hoped that would be enough and that Tony would leave and go back to whatever it was he did when he wasn’t Avenging -- needlessly improving things that didn’t need it in his overgrown mess of a workshop and landing himself on the covers of tabloid rags seemed to be up there. He didn’t, though; instead he toed his way into the room, grin gone a little shy around the edges.
Steve nodded to the empty chair on the other side of him. Tony took it. His eyes traced Steve’s barely covered chest.
Bucky wanted to hit him. With the metal arm.
He pushed his chair back; the legs screeched against the floor.
“Buck?” Steve said, glancing at him.
“I’m getting some coffee,” Bucky said. “Want anything?”
“No, thanks,” Steve said. “I’m good.”
“I could use coffee,” Tony said. “Black, no sugar, no cream and, you know what, if you could just bring the entire pot over here, that’d be great.” When Steve shot him a look, he said, “What? I can’t get it myself. They’ve got a picture of me up in the canteen with Do Not Serve written in red ink. I blame Pepper.”
“Actually, I talked to them about that,” Steve said, chuckling. Tony made an appalled noise.
Bucky left before he could hear any more of the conversation.
The medical bay looked the same as most of the rest of the SHIELD helicarrier: long, stark hallways, even more impossibly clean than the rest of it. The floor hummed softly beneath him, never letting him forget where he was, and the lights threw everything into harsh relief.
There was a door open across the hall, the curtains drawn back. Natasha sat on the edge of the bed, leaning forward with her hands on her knees. Her hair was tucked behind her ear, away from the fresh row of stitches above her eyebrow. Clint sat in a chair across from her, head titled upwards, listening to whatever it was she was saying.
They made a striking picture. Bucky had never been one for drawing, not like Steve, but he thought they would have looked nice on paper.
Natasha looked up first.
“James,” she said, nodding at him. It was an order, not an acknowledgement, so Bucky stepped forward into the room.
Clint glanced at him with a smile and a small wave.
“Hey,” he said.
“I’m getting coffee,” Bucky said, more out of a need to say something than anything else. “Either of you want some?”
“I’ll go with you,” Clint said. He started to get to his feet; Natasha stopped him with a look.
“I’ll go. You,” she said, “will stay here. They still want to get a good look at your ribs.”
“They’re fine,” Clint said. Natasha snorted.
“That’s what you said in Anchorage,” she said. Clint scowled at her but he hunkered back down in his chair. His eyes followed her as she crossed the room, and Bucky could feel his gaze even as they started down the hall.
“How are you feeling?” he asked, when they were out of earshot. She shrugged and shot him a faintly amused look.
“I’ve had worse,” she said.
“That doesn’t mean much,” Bucky said. Natasha gave him a small smile.
“I’m fine,” she said. “It all looks worse than it is.”
“And Clint?” he said as they reached the canteen. He grabbed three paper cups and three cardboard sleeves, carefully pouring out the coffee. He did not grab a fourth for Stark. Natasha didn’t answer right away; she was watching him when he looked up.
“He’s always fine,” she said, corner of her mouth quirking up. She reached out to take one of the cups from him.
“I have a hard time believing that,” he murmured, “about Mister Trouble is My Middle Name.”
Natasha made a faintly amused noise, then covered it up with a cough.
“What?” Bucky asked her, arching an eyebrow.
“Nothing,” she said. She shot him a conspiratorial look. “But maybe you should ask him about his actual middle name sometime.”
On the way back they passed Steve’s room. Tony Stark was still there. They were both asleep, Steve dozing with one hand resting on his bandages, where Bucky’s hand had been before. Tony was asleep in his chair, arms crossed, head tilted back. He was snoring.
Bucky’s metal fingers tightened; the cup crumpled in his hand, coffee sluicing out over the rim and down his knuckles.
Wordlessly, Natasha took the ruined cup from him.
“Come on,” she said with a look that was not unsympathetic. “We shouldn’t wake them.”
Sometimes, in his dreams, it was Steve who reached into the water. Steve’s big, warm hands, so different from when they were kids (skinny fingers, always cold and always losing his gloves, “oh c’mon, Steve, just take ‘em, don’t be an idiot.”), clasped around his wrists.
But it wasn’t him Steve dragged out of the cold, dark water. It looked like him, wore him like a suit, but it was all twisted metal and wire underneath his skin, with blood crusted across its uniform and ice in its dark brows.
There was a gun clutched in its hand. Steve never noticed.
Bucky called for him until his voice was hoarse and his throat was raw, but he hung like a ghost, always one step behind the thing wearing his skin. No matter how much or how loud he shouted, it made no difference – Steve couldn’t hear him.
Then Steve would raise his hand and with his thumb brush away blood and dirt from the thing’s face. He smiled, and the thing smiled, and then the gun was pressed to Steve’s broad chest.
Bucky always woke up with a shout lodged in his throat, shaking and covered in cold sweat. He’d bring his knees up and press his forehead against them and pant and pant until he could close his eyes without seeing the muzzle of the gun pressed flush to that big white star.
He woke Steve up; Steve tried to be quiet about it, but Bucky knew. Normally he’d just go to the kitchen and sit there and wait until Bucky fell back against the pillows, more to make Steve get up and go back to his room than anything else.
One night, he went into the kitchen. Steve was sitting at the small formica table with his hands folded in front of him, as pale as paper in the one overhead light. There was a mug, steaming and untouched, in front of him.
“Hey,” Bucky said, rapping his knuckles against the doorframe. Steve looked up and gave him a tired smile.
“Looks like it’s catching,” he said, taking a seat at the table.
Steve’s smile twitched into something a little more real.
“It wasn’t so much of a big deal at the tower,” he said, glancing at the clock over the tiny stove. “Someone’s always up, pretty much around the clock, so if I woke up cold, I could go spar with Natasha or shoot darts with Clint. Thor tried to challenge me to a drinking contest once.”
“How’d that go?” Bucky asked.
“Badly,” Steve chuckled. “But it passed the time.” He hesitated, staring down at his big hands. “I spent whole nights in Tony’s workshop, just watching him put stuff together, sometimes.”
Steve was waiting for him to say something, so Bucky muttered, “Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, huh?”
Steve huffed a laugh. He tapped a finger against the mug. “But it wasn’t good, leading the team and being up all hours of the night. Nearly fell right asleep on top of a kraken, this one time.”
“A kraken?” Bucky echoed, unable to help a snicker. Steve fixed him with a look.
“You won’t be laughing when it’s your time to have a reunion with our old pal the Sub-Mariner,” he said. “Fury put me in contact with – don’t laugh – this mystic. Lives in the village, gave me this tea.”
Bucky snorted, leaning over and inhaling the quickly fading plumes of steam. It smelled sweet, like fresh grass and sticky summer breezes.
“Sounds like a real snake oil salesman,” he said, eyes drifting closed. “You could go back, y’know.”
“To the village?” Steve said, raising his eyebrows. Bucky aimed a kick at his ankles beneath the table.
“No,” he said. “To the tower. You don’t have to stay with me, alright, Steve? I’m a big boy. I can take care of myself.”
“Buck,” Steve said, “they pulled you out of an ocean, 70 years after you…” he trailed off, unwilling to say what they were both thinking. After you slipped through my fingers. After you fell.
Steve shook his head and said, “I’m not leaving you alone. Drink your damn tea.”
“Fuck you,” Bucky said without heat, and cupped his hands around the mug. It tasted considerably worse than it smelled, like dried twigs and the mouthful of dirt he’d once eaten on a dare back when he and Steve had been kids, but he swallowed it down anyway under Steve’s watchful gaze.
A few odd weeks later found him in a car with Hawkeye, ostensibly on a stakeout and feeling thoroughly useless.
“Does SHIELD really need us on this?” he asked, staring out the windshield at the dark street. “It just doesn’t really seem like their sort of job.”
“SHIELD’s got their fingers in a lot of pies,” Clint said, absently drumming on the steering wheel. “It’s not all glamorous alien invasions. Sometimes we get the boring jobs, just like anyone else.”
“I don’t see Iron Man lining up for the grunt work,” Bucky said. He’d meant it to come out light, and it did, but for a split-second he thought that Clint would be able to hear the bitterness beneath it regardless.
“Tony’s never officially been a SHIELD agent,” he said. “He’s a consultant. Means he can hold that big brain of his over them when they come knockin’ at the Avengers’ door.”
“Sure,” Bucky said, leaning back in his seat and crossing his arms. “And he gets out of all the drudge work. Where do I sign up?”
“You got a billion dollars and a family history of brilliant weapons design?” Clint said. He rummaged around in one of the junk food bags between them, then flicked a stale fry at Bucky. “Besides, are you telling me you’d miss all this?”
Bucky snorted and flicked the fry back, hitting Clint in the shoulder.
“’All this’ is staring down a dark street at pigeons and the occasional pedestrian,” Bucky said. The car was cramped and stuffy and his legs were starting to ache. He tapped his foot against the floor of the car: one-two, one-two, one-two.
“Just be glad we’ve got the car,” Clint told him. “This one time SHIELD had me doing surveillance from a hang glider.”
Bucky was surprised when the mental image made him snicker, grin tugging at his mouth. Clint slid him a look that pretended annoyance.
“Oh, yeah, sure, laugh,” he said. “It wasn’t funny when I was dangling by my ankles, twisted up in tourists’ fishing lines.”
That drew another surprised bark of laughter. Clint grinned, a flash of bright teeth in the darkness, and twisted around in his seat. He propped one leg up on the edge of Bucky’s seat, close to his thigh, and began to undo the laces of his boot.
“It’s no joke,” he said, laughing despite his words, “I got this scar, right here. Fishing line’s a bitch -- the old guy laughed at me, too, right in my face. Let me keep a trout, though.”
“Do you have it mounted on your wall?” Bucky asked.
Clint flicked his eyes downwards and Bucky must have forgotten for a moment that he didn’t really know Clint, that he wasn’t Steve or one of the Howling Commandos, because he’d laid a hand on Clint’s ankle, right over the thin scar. It was the metal hand, too, covered in a thin leather glove that did little to mask it.
“Why?” Clint asked, a smirk curving along the corners of his mouth. “You wanna see it?”
Bucky got the feeling he wasn’t talking about the fish. He took his hand away.
Clint shrugged. He had started doing up his bootlaces when suddenly he froze, quick fingers held mid-loop.
“What is it?” Bucky asked, instantly alert. He pulled himself forward, peering through the dark windshield. Clint held up a hand, eyes focused somewhere on the horizon. Bucky tried to follow his line of sight, squinting and at last giving in and digging out the binoculars.
“Let’s go,” Clint said after a moment, knotting his laces tightly.
A month later found them on mission in Miami. It was summer and sticky hot; five minutes out of the airport found Bucky’s hair curling against his forehead, his shirt stuck to his back with sweat. Clint, in a sleeveless shirt and sunglasses, looked like he barely even noticed the heat. The sunlight glinted off the gold ring on his finger.
Bucky’s own ring, real gold for a fake marriage, hung around his neck on the same chain as his cover’s dog tags.
They climbed into a cab, minimal luggage at their feet where they could keep an eye on it, and Clint rattled off the directions with a friendly smile. The cab driver slid Bucky, dressed in longsleeves and a thin pair of gloves, a suspicious look.
“Skin condition,” he muttered, unhappy to be reminded of the sweat beading uncomfortably between his shoulder blades and the way his sleeves, purposefully too long so they wouldn’t fall back and reveal his metal wrist, kept catching on door handles.
Clint stretched out in the backseat, sliding one arm across the seat behind Bucky’s head.
“Makes summer vacations kind of a pain for him,” he said lightly, “but we make it work, don’t we?”
He lowered his sunglasses just enough to flash Bucky a brilliant grin and a look that said play along.
“Sure,” Bucky said tersely. “Whatever you say.”
“Jetlag,” Clint said. “He’ll feel better once we’re settled in.”
The cabdriver looked less certain.
Initially, Fury had wanted to send Natasha and Bruce on the mission, but Bruce thought Miami during peak vacation season might be too much for his anger management issues, and Natasha had looked up calmly and declared that she had a date.
“Miami?” Tony had said in the meeting room, looking over the mission details. He flicked through the articles on the glowing screen faster than Bucky could keep up with. “I’ll go.”
“It’s a surveillance mission,” Fury said, fixing him with that one-eyed stare. Tony looked up.
“I can survey,” he said. Fury’s jaw twitched.
“I’d sooner send Banner after all,” Fury replied.
Bruce, who spent most mission briefings solving crossword puzzles on his phone, looked up with a brief hint of alarm.
“And Thor,” Fury added as an afterthought.
“So send Cap with me,” Tony said, leaning back in his chair with his arms crossed behind his back. “He’ll keep an eye on me.”
Steve gave him a faintly amused look and said, “Somehow, I don’t think that’s a great idea.”
“Oh c’mon, you, me, sun, sand, a bottle of aloe,” Tony leaned forward, scanning the mission details. “ -- And a creepy apartment complex full of strange noises, lights in the middle of the night and missing SHIELD agents! Sounds like a blast. Still no?” he said, catching sight of Steve’s face. “Even though it’d be fun?”
“Even though it’d be fun,” Steve said. Fury gave them both a look.
“Stark, listen to Captain Rogers for once in your goddamn life,” he said. “There is no way I’m sending two of the world’s most recognizable faces on any mission involving stealth. We’ve lost too many good agents to this thing already. The Avengers – and you have no idea how much I hate saying this – the Avengers are my greatest hope to see this problem solved. Barton, you and Barnes will go.”
Clint, who’d been looking over Bruce’s shoulder and trying without success to get him to mark down ‘pistachio’ for eighteen-down, looked up.
“No complaints here,” he said, shooting Bucky a smile. “Sounds like fun.”
The apartment complex was tall and white and inviting. They were on the tenth floor, the location of the earliest noise complaints. The apartment was midsized but airy and fully furnished with clean white appliances and pale wicker furniture. There was plastic sheeting on the floral sofa. It had been inhabited by an older couple right up until a week ago, at which time they’d mysteriously won an all-expenses paid luxury cruise.
Bucky was to pose as their grandson, Clint as his significant other, under the story that they were taking care of both the apartment and the couple’s prized macaw. (“Agents Sitwell and Drew will be in charge of the actual bird,” Fury said over video conference. Drew, standing next to him, gave the bird on her arm a dubious look. “Frankly I don’t trust Barton not to make a sidekick out of it.”)
Clint dropped his bags at his feet in the hallway and stretched, saying, “Home sweet home. For the next week or so, anyway.”
Bucky, who had so far seen the Avengers Tower and Steve’s small Brooklyn apartment and not much in between, was already investigating the rest of the apartment. Blissfully, it was air-conditioned; he spent a moment standing in front of the vent, pushing his sweat-soaked hair back from his forehead.
“There’s only one bed,” he noted when he reached the bedroom. Clint came up behind him, close enough to make the hairs on the back of Bucky’s arms stand up.
“Guess SHIELD didn’t get the memo,” he hummed. “That, or they don’t care. The couch folds out; I’ll take it.”
“We can flip for it,” Bucky said, rummaging in his pocket for a quarter. Clint shrugged and shook his head.
“Don’t bother,” he said, striding back out into the living room. “I like the view.”
Bucky saw immediately what he meant: behind the couch, the entire outer wall was taken up by windows. They stood floor to ceiling, and behind them Miami spread out beneath their feet. Clint grinned at him, cocking a finger back like a gun and pointing at the lights just starting to spread in the early evening gloom.
Clint settled down on the couch with his face turned towards the windows. Bucky stared at his reflection in them, the set of his jaw and the smirk that still pulled at his mouth.
“Beautiful, huh?” he said. Bucky had to agree.
Once their things had been unpacked – clothes left in the suitcases and weapons stashed where they could be reached in a hurry – there wasn’t much to do in the apartment but wait. Bucky soon grew bored with pacing, and was just compiling a list of possible emergency exits when he heard footsteps in the hallway. They stopped, briefly, just outside their door, then continued down the hall.
Opening the door, Bucky caught sight of a pair of heels just turning the corner, heading towards the elevators. Bucky followed, bare feet silent on the floor, but the elevator doors were just closing when he turned the corner.
Bucky frowned, watching the numbers on the elevator climb steadily down; they stopped at the lobby.
“Any luck?” Clint asked when Bucky returned. He was crouched on the floor in front of the open fridge.
“No,” Bucky said, shutting the front door with a click. He quickly did up the locks. “Probably just someone stopping to tie their shoes.”
Clint made a faint noise of disgust, throwing his hands up.
“We’ll stock the fridge for agents’ convenience,” he muttered, standing and kicking the fridge door closed. He cast an incredulous look at the fruit bowl resting on the table. “Yeah, right. Come on, Robocop, let’s go find someplace to order takeout from.”
Halfway through cartons of Chinese food, a flash of light caught Bucky’s eye. He shifted, twisting on the couch so he could stare out the huge windows. Clint had seen it too, if the way he had lo mein noodles hanging out of the corner of his mouth was anything to go by.
A minute later it happened again, a bright brief starburst of light. Bucky tried to gauge the distance, but it was gone as quick as it came, leaving him blinking bright spots from behind his eyes.
“Huh,” Clint said, summing it up for the both of them.
“We gonna go find it?” Bucky asked, scanning the skyline for another flash. Clint shook his head.
“Not tonight,” he said. “Tonight we just watch.”
Bucky frowned and settled back against the couch cushions. He picked at the remains of his dinner. “How long has this been going on again?”
“A few times a week for about almost a month, give or take, according to SHIELD’s info,” Clint said.
“Right,” Bucky said. “And how’re they explaining this to the civilians?”
“They’re calling it a meteorological event,” Clint said with a hint of smirk. Bucky snorted.
“Right,” he said. “So the number of people who think it’s probably aliens…”
“Oh, yeah, you should see some of the blogs we’ve found,” Clint said. Another brief flash, from a different direction this time, and Bucky knew somehow that it would be the last one of the night.
“Is it?” he said.
“What?” Clint said. “Aliens?”
“Yeah,” Bucky said, bristling a little. There was something searching in Clint’s eyes, and for a moment Bucky expected him to laugh. But Clint only shrugged and set his empty carton down on the coffee table.
“I’m not ruling it out,” he said. “SHIELD doesn’t seem to think so, though, or else they’d have sent the heavier hitters.”
Bucky woke with a jolt a little after 5 AM, and for a moment couldn’t figure out why. The cold dawn light filtered in through the shades and he lay in bed, ears straining for some missing sound. He realized after a moment that normally at this time Steve would be leaving for his morning jog.
He realized that this was the longest he’d spent away from Steve since they’d been reunited. The thought made something strangely guilty churn in his stomach, and he pulled himself from bed, feet padding across the floor.
Clint was still asleep, sprawled like a starfish on the foldout bed. He slept shirtless in boxers, and the sunlight slanted across his face and shoulders. The sheets were tangled in his legs.
Bucky was in the middle of grabbing breakfast when he felt eyes on his back. He looked over his shoulder; Clint still appeared to be asleep. Bucky snorted.
“Morning,” he said, turning his attention back towards the cabinet.
Behind him came the sound of creaking springs and shifting sheets.
“Morning,” Clint replied with a yawn, sitting up and stretching until his shoulders popped. “Can’t get anything past you, huh?”
Bucky made a noncommittal noise and lobbed an apple backwards over his shoulder. Clint caught it easily and tore a bite out of it. “What’s on the schedule for today?”
Clint chewed in silent contemplation for a moment, then said, “Guess we better introduce ourselves to our new neighbors.”
Greeting the neighbors was not the worst thing Bucky had ever done in his life, not by a longshot. Still, standing in a seemingly endless number of tenth floor doorways with Clint’s arm around his waist and Clint’s voice -- “Hi, we’re Charlie and James,” -- in his ear, he reflected that he might rather take another round fighting his way out of a burning ammunitions factory.
If Clint had similar misgivings, they didn’t show. He seemed perfectly content to chat, leaning casually on doorframes with his best smile on.
Most talked to them for a few minutes, a few didn’t answer the door. The man in 10E looked them up and down, mouth twitching into a thin disapproving line when he caught sight of Clint’s fingers casually brushing Bucky’s hip.
10H was owned by an older couple by the name of Mendoza who invited them in for coffee. Bucky sat with his back stiff and straight on their similarly plastic-covered sofa while Clint patiently answered their questions. (You said you had family here? James’ grandparents are lending us their apartment. Are you enjoying it here? Yes, very much. Isn’t the weather so much nicer than in New York? Yes, we’ve been enjoying the sunshine.)
At last the husband sighed and shook his head. His wife shot him a glance as he said, “This is a hell of a time to take a vacation.”
“Don’t frighten them,” the wife chided, bringing out the coffee on a tray.
“Is this about those lights?” Bucky finally spoke up.
Clint shot him a warning look, but the husband brightened immediately, leaning forward. He had thick black hair shot with grey and friendly brown eyes. It was uncomfortable, thinking about how the man in front of him had probably been an infant when Bucky had fallen from that train.
“You’ve seen them?”
“Last night,” Bucky admitted truthfully. “We thought maybe someone set off fireworks.”
“That’s what we were told, the first few times we called it in,” the wife said. She sat down next to her husband and picked up her coffee.
“I don’t like it,” Mr. Mendoza said into his cup. “Not one bit.”
“Neither do I,” Clint replied.
In the hallway, Clint tucked his hands into his pockets and slid Bucky a look that made him bristle.
“What was I supposed to do, pretend we didn’t see anything?” he said. “Little hard, considering the giant windows in this place and a month full of lights in the damn sky, Barton.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Clint said, lifting his hands like a peace offering. “You were right. They liked you.”
There was one apartment left on the floor. Clint raised his hand to the door and knocked, three quick raps. There was no answer; behind the door, they could hear shuffling footsteps. They waited another minute, then left. Bucky made a note of the apartment number.
“Not suspicious at all,” he said.
Clint snorted and hit the button for the elevator. “A little.”
“So,” Bucky said as the doors slid closed. “Where’d you get Charlie from?”
Clint shrugged, hitting the button for their floor. “Why do you want to know?”
“Just curious,” Bucky said. “We’re married for the week, aren’t we? Maybe I want to know all your secrets.”
Clint squinted at him, and then a smirk broke out over his face.
“You’ve been taking to Nat,” he said, eyes glinting.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Bucky asked, but Clint only settled back against the elevator wall with his arms crossed over his chest.
“Okay,” he said. “It’s my middle name. Charles.”
His tone made Bucky narrow his eyes.
“No, it’s not,” he said. Clint shrugged, inclining his head.
“No, it’s not,” he echoed agreeably. The smirk stayed exactly where it was.
Bucky was dreaming about the train when a noise woke him. He lay tense in the dark for a moment, before leaning down and sneaking his fingers beneath the bed. Another noise and a muffled curse made him relax; Clint’s voice.
He grabbed the gun, just in case, and opened his door. There was a narrow concrete balcony just beyond the large living room windows – the sliding glass door was ajar. Clint was standing outside, shirtless and in sweats, staring out over the city.
“Something going on?” Bucky asked, joining him. Clint glanced up briefly, then back out over the city.
“Nah, nothing,” he said. He waved one hand in loose, slow circles. Nightmares. “Sorry, go back to bed.”
Bucky rolled his eyes and elbowed him over, joining him. There were still lights sparkling in the windows of other apartments and that of the imposingly large hotel across the street, streetlights blinking down below. Through the narrow cracks between apartment buildings, he could make out the faint shape of the ocean.
It was a far cry from Steve’s narrow Brooklyn fire escape.
“Still bothering you?” Clint asked after a moment. Bucky glanced at him.
“Your arm,” Clint said, jerking his chin at Bucky’s left shoulder. Bucky brought his right hand up, running his fingers over the metal; it wasn’t cold, but it wasn’t warm either.
“No,” he lied. “It’s not bothering me anymore.”
“Good,” Clint said, and fell silent again. Bucky was just thinking about going back inside and leaving Clint to his silent vigil when he spoke again, saying, “You know, Barnes, you’re really pretty alright.”
“Thanks, I think,” Bucky said. “I’d be lying if I said that wasn’t one of the nicer things that’s been said to me.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Clint said. “Cap told us a few stories about you, back when they first found you, when he wanted to find out if that was really you they had at SHIELD.”
“So you already know all the dirt,” Bucky said, a grin tugging at the corner of his mouth.
“Not all of it, I bet,” Clint said. He hunkered down over the balcony wall, arms crossed and chin resting on them. “I meant – I’ve done a lot assignments like this, two agents in a half-furnished apartment, sitting around waiting for something to happen. And you’re the second person where, two days in, I haven’t wanted to shoot myself through the knee just to escape.”
Bucky blinked, surprised; he could guess who the first person was.
“You’re not so bad to work with, either,” he said.
“I snore,” Clint pointed out with a small grin.
I have screaming nightmares, Bucky didn’t say. He folded his hands in front of him, staring down at the mix of steel and skin knuckles. “Nobody’s perfect.”
The next day, Clint dragged them outside. Bucky briefly resented having to don the gloves and long sleeves again, but Clint slipped him a pair of sunglasses and shoved him into the elevator, saying, “We need supplies and, man, you’ve never seen Miami.”
Outside Bucky was glad for the sunglasses. The sky overhead was so brightly blue it nearly hurt.
Clint led them in what seemed like circles for nearly half an hour before ducking into a small supermarket with a pleased grin. He loaded them both down with food, paid with a credit card Bucky suspected Stark was backing, then led them back to the apartment.
They were eating dinner when they heard it: a low rumbling through the walls, like an approaching train, or an earthquake. It rolled over them and then faded away. Bucky was unable to help a shiver.
“Huh,” Clint said. “Well. That was interesting.”
Maybe it was the rumbling noise that did it, the creeping feeling like one of HYDRA’s giant behemoths was about to bear down on him, but the nightmares were worse that night. The details slipped through his fingers like sand, but one image stuck: a gunshot and the splatter of blood across his face.
He woke up gagging with the warm copper taste in his mouth. He cursed softly, thinking for a moment he must have woken Steve, but then he remembered where he was.
Waking up Clint didn’t leave him with the same sort of guilt, but it wasn’t desired, either. Footsteps creaked in the hall, loud enough that Clint was trying to make noise. They stopped outside his door.
I’m fine, he wanted to say, but the words stuck in his throat. He stayed where he was, sitting in bed with his knees pulled up and the sheets clenched in his metal fist, and waited until Clint’s footsteps faded away.
“I’m okay,” he said, wishing the words would wipe the taste of blood from his tongue. “I’m okay, I’m fine.”
For a second he wanted Steve to be beyond the door, just sitting there at his small kitchen table. He berated himself for it; it was ridiculous, acting like a child wanting his mother. He didn’t need Steve to wait up for him.
He could still hear Clint walking around and he wanted him to go away so badly that it knotted up in his chest and made his throat ache.
“I’m okay,” he said. A lancing pain shot through the metal arm, mocking him.
Everything was quiet for a minute, then Bucky heard the slam of the refrigerator door, followed by a sizzling sound. Annoyance and exhaustion held him in place for a minute, but curiosity won out. He climbed out of bed.
Clint was standing in their narrow kitchenette, frying eggs.
“It’s three –” Bucky glanced at the clock “—fucking twenty-eight in the morning.”
Clint grunted an affirmation, flipping an egg over. “Nobody told you to get out of bed.”
There was water on the table. Bucky grabbed it and gulped it down, then wiped his mouth on the back of his hand. “What are you doing?”
“What does it look like?” Clint replied. “You going to sit down? Because you can do that or you can go back to bed but don’t stand there gaping like you’ve never seen a grown man make eggs at ass o’clock in the morning. I know for a damn fact that Cap’s done it.”
“Steve drinks his morning eggs raw,” Bucky said, but he sat down in the nearest chair and raised his hand to face, rubbing at his eyes.
“Luckily, I’m not Steve,” Clint snorted. “How do you like your eggs?”
They ate in silence. Clint seemed not to mind that Bucky did little more than drag his fork through the fried egg yolk, watching it bleed out over the whites and pool on the plate.
Blood blooming bright on a man’s crisp white shirt, a woman’s pale hand on a tatami mat--
The thought fled as soon as it had come, leaving Bucky with a fork clenched tight in his hand and a dull ache behind his eyes. He was tired, but sitting with Clint stabbing at crispy-edged eggs was better than more nightmares.
“I told you,” Clint said, finally, “that you were the second person I ever had a good time with on one of these things.”
“Gonna take it back?” Bucky muttered, slumping forward with one elbow on the table and his head resting on his palm.
“Shut up,” Clint said. “The last time I played married with someone, it was Natasha.”
Bucky wasn’t surprised. He didn’t really want to hear it, either, but something in Clint’s expression made him keep his mouth shut.
“Let’s get some fresh air,” Clint said, and cleared away Bucky’s murder scene of a plate.
The air on the open stairwell felt heavy, but Bucky took huge gulping breaths of it anyway, hoping it would clear his head. Clint was silent behind him and they both stood there for a moment, watching the city beneath them, before Bucky asked, “Why the eggs?”
Clint sighed, leaning forward with his arms braced on the railing. He stared out over the city for a long, quiet moment.
“The first time Natasha and I went on one of these – we were in Switzerland, and neither of us was doing so hot,” Clint said. “One night I got up and found her rummaging around in our matchbox kitchen, cursing. She’d woken up and wanted – I don’t know, I can’t remember.” He dragged a hand through his hair. “Something Russian. I told her I’d make it for her, just to get her to stop chucking cabbage at the walls.”
He stopped, laughing a little under his breath. “Except I’m not good for making anything except chili, eggs and pancakes. I thought she was going to kill me when I put a pair of eggs with a ketchup face down in front of her.”
Clint was looking at Bucky like he was waiting for him to say something, waiting for him to laugh, but the images the words conjured up left him with a dull empty ache in his stomach. It was too easy to picture Clint, stony-faced and hair sleep-mussed, standing with his arms akimbo and a spatula in one hand while Natasha scowled down at her plate, all her red hair tangled in her face.
“Bet she’s better company than I am,” Bucky said.
“Yes and no,” Clint allowed with a sheepish smile. “Nat’s too good at the long game. Makes me antsy. You and me, we’re both impatient.”
“I guess I can’t argue that,” Bucky said, sliding a hand through his hair. Suddenly there were fingertips pressing against the back of his neck, sliding into his hair, a steady, gentle pressure. It was gone as soon as it came, and then Clint was standing up, arms stretched high above his head.
“Get some sleep, Robocop,” he said. “There’s another long day tomorrow.”
They fell into a pattern after that: easy, synchronized and, true to Clint’s words, a little impatient.
Clint bought groceries and spent hours perfecting a pot of chili that made Bucky’s mouth burn. He shelved the leftovers in the fridge and had them for breakfast the next morning, grinning while Bucky made faces at him over a bowl of cornflakes.
They waited together in the evenings for the lights, and if Bucky felt a certain itch when they didn’t come then he knew Clint felt the same.
Half a week in they had their first check-in with SHIELD.
Clint was the one to give the report, standing with his back to the counter and his arms crossed, phone cradled between his cheek and shoulder. A frown tugged at his mouth as he reported the facts, along with their relative lack of progress.
“Sir, yes, sir,” he said after a pause. “I’ll keep you updated, sir.”
Then he held the phone out to Bucky.
“The Captain crashed the meeting,” he said with a crooked smirk. “Wants to speak to you.”
“No, he hasn’t tried to shoot an apple off my head,” he said to Steve, rolling his eyes in Clint’s direction. “Steve, stop terrorizing SHIELD and get off the phone. I’ll talk to you when I get back.”
The next day Clint came back with his arms laden down with bags and a grin like the sun. The bags contained a game console and more games than Bucky thought they’d be able to get through in a month.
“I’ve got a SHIELD-backed credit card,” Clint said as he set it up, wrangling the TV away from the wall. “And you’ve never gotten your ass kicked at video games, so you’re owed. We’ve got nothing better to do during the day.”
Bucky had half a dozen different arguments for that – they could be out looking harder, working faster – but he had to admit he was curious, so he sat back on his heels and watched as Clint unpacked the system and connected wires.
Despite Clint’s words, Bucky did not get his ass kicked. The controls took him a good few minutes to figure out, but once he got those down it was easy. He had to go a little easy with the metal arm, tongue caught between his teeth as he reminded himself light touch, easy, but his reflexes were good.
“I cannot believe I am losing at Mario Kart to a guy born in the roarin’ twenties,” Clint muttered, hunching forward on the couch.
“You snooze, you lose, Barton,” Bucky shot back, biting down on a whoop as he cut Clint off.
Clint hadn’t bought any war games. Bucky knew they existed, from ads and commercials, but there were none in the bag. Maybe Clint didn’t like them himself, or maybe he’d figured that Bucky had lived that reality, that he wouldn’t want to play a fantasy version.
Bucky was laughing at Clint’s third consecutive loss when he realized that Clint was handsome.
He’d known before, of course, that Clint was good looking, in the way he knew all the Avengers were good looking: Natasha was beautiful and Thor was superhumanly gorgeous and even Bruce was nice-looking in a scruffy, might-turn-into-a-rage-monster-at-any-given-moment sort of way. Tony had a charm that Bucky grudgingly could not deny, and Steve had been hiding a corn-fed handsomeness under skinny wrists and baggy shirts all those years ago. Clint could hold his own with them, so it fell to reason he was good-looking.
But knowing he was handsome and thinking it were two different things. Bucky found himself liking the stubble at his jaw and the twinkle of his eyes, mouth gone a bit dry at the muscles in his arms and shoulders, showing clearly through his plain purple t-shirt.
“One more round,” Clint grumbled. “Beginner’s luck has got to wear off sooner or later.”
“Sure,” Bucky said, looking away. “You keep telling yourself that.”
Bucky was prodding at last night’s frozen lasagna, simultaneously soggy and burnt, when Clint said, “Hey, I’m going down to the basement for a while. I want to look around.”
“Want me to go with you?” Bucky asked, looking up.
“Nah,” Clint said, shrugging on a bag Bucky knew contained his collapsible bow. “Stay here. SHIELD’s due for a check-in and they get antsy when they’re ignored.”
“Throw me under the bus, wouldya?” Bucky said with a roll of his eyes. Clint winked.
“You can handle it,” he said, disappearing out the door.
Ten minutes later there was a knock at the door.
“What, forget your keys?” Bucky called out. His hand was on the doorknob when a woman’s voice answered.
“It’s Mrs. Mendoza, from down the hall,” she said. “Is this a bad time?”
Bucky glanced through the peephole. There she stood on the doorstop in a perfectly put together pantsuit with her handbag held in front of her. The top of her head barely reached the peephole.
“Hello?” she said, and knocked on the door again.
Bucky cursed, springing into action. He couldn’t pretend not to be home – she’d already heard him call out, assuming it was Clint at the door.
“Coming!” he called. “One second!”
He didn’t have his gloves on. There was one lying by the foot of the sofa; he grabbed it and pulled it on, biting the edge to pull it tight while he dug through the couch cushions to find the other. His teeth clinked painfully against his metal wrist.
“Hello, James,” Mrs. Mendoza said pleasantly when he opened the door, like she hadn’t been standing out on his doorstep for nearly two minutes.
“Mrs. Mendoza,” Bucky replied, still hanging in the doorway. It felt strange, being called James. No one but Natasha had called him that in a very long time. “Now is maybe not a good time –”
“Don’t be silly,” she said, shouldering past him far more effectively than her tiny frame should have allowed. “I only came to check in. How’s your husband?”
“He’s actually not home at the moment,” Bucky said, but she was already in the apartment and frowning dismally at the cold half-eaten lasagna sitting on the table. Bucky realized he was trapped, and shut the door with heavy resignation. “Please, make yourself at home.”
Two minutes later she had done just that, puttering around his kitchen making coffee.
“Really, I can do that,” Bucky gave a half-assed protest, sitting at the table and watching her pull their only two cups from the cupboard and frown disapprovingly at their instant coffee.
“Don’t you move,” she said. “If there’s one thing I never trust a man to do, it’s make a good cup of coffee.”
The coffee began to hiss and drip into the pot. Mrs. Mendoza turned to Bucky with a smile on his face, like he was in on her joke. He smiled too, and wished Clint would come back. Charming little old ladies had always been Steve’s forte, not his. He was the one likely to get boxed on the ears for mouthing off.
Her eyes fell on the ring, and then on the dog tags next to it.
“A military man?” she said.
“Oh,” Bucky said. He raised a hand to touch the ring, then dropped it down the neck of his shirt, suddenly self-conscious. “Yes.”
She clucked her tongue, muttering something in Spanish beneath her breath, and poured out two cups of coffee. She set one down in front of Bucky and then took the seat across from him.
“Your husband must be happy to have you back,” she said.
There had been a briefing where a very harassed-looking SHIELD agent had tried to go over the details of their cover, the best answers to common questions, only to give up an hour in and shove a binder at the both of them. Bucky had only glanced at it; he suspected Clint hadn’t read it at all.
I’m happy to be back was a good answer, Bucky knew that, but the words felt wrong and stuck in his throat.
“I don’t know about that,” he said instead, curling his hands around his mug.
Mrs. Mendoza gave him a sharp look.
“Don’t talk like that,” she said. She tapped her temple with one finger. “That boy’s crazy for you. You can see it in his eyes.”
Something inexplicable and warm curled in Bucky’s stomach at the thought. He quashed it mercilessly, then tipped his cup in Mrs. Mendoza’s direction, lifting it to his lips.
Something made him stop. A shift in Mrs. Mendoza’s posture, maybe, or the sudden bright stab of apprehension behind her eyes. He remembered suddenly the way she had rummaged through her purse while making the coffee, her back turned to him.
He set the cup down.
Mrs. Mendoza sucked in a breath.
“You should drink it while it’s hot,” she said. Her own cup lay untouched before her.
“Mrs. Mendoza,” he said. He pushed the cup away and watched as the corner of her mouth twitched downwards. “What did you put in the coffee?”
Her hands flew to her purse. Bucky crossed the table in two long strides and knocked it away from her: it fell to the floor and spilled open, revealing her wallet, a small packet of pills and a handgun.
She grabbed at him, shouting, and her fingers closed around his metal wrist. Her face went ashen.
“Oh,” she said with a shaky exhale after a pause, the two of them in a stone-faced standoff. “The others didn’t have that.”
Bucky was throwing out the coffee when Clint returned; Mrs. Mendoza was sitting silently on the couch, her hands folded in her lap and her jaw set stubbornly.
“You’ve probably already noticed this,” Clint said conversationally, “but there’s a neighbor handcuffed in our living room.”
“She tried to poison me,” Bucky replied.
“Huh,” said Clint. “Here I thought they were the nice neighbors. You want I should go and grab the husband?”
“My husband doesn’t know anything about this,” she said at last. “The others before, the ones in the van – it was me. I confess.”
“You said the others didn’t have one of these,” Bucky said, rolling his sleeve up to his elbow. “The same others that were also in the van? What happened to them?”
She shook her head slowly. “I don’t know. I just – it looked like a normal van. From an electric company, or cable. I didn’t know they were – whatever you are.” She shrugged helplessly. “I drugged the drinks and brought them down. I don’t know what happened after that. I just did what she asked me to.”
Bucky exchanged a glance with Clint.
“I think you need to start from the beginning,” Clint said.
“It’s a long story,” she said. When Clint gestured for her to go on, she looked at her knees and said, “My son got married two years ago. Very smart girl, very smart. She’s an engineer. She said she couldn’t tell us where she worked. She was gone all the time. We used to laugh about, make fun of him for being the one left at home all the time, complaining to his mother on the phone.”
She stopped and exhaled, slow.
“My son, he – he went missing, shortly before all this,” she tried to gesture, but the handcuffs made it difficult, “started. Then my daughter-in-law, she came to me and asked for my help. She said my son was being held hostage and that she was doing her best to get him back. She said she needed my help. He’s my son; what was I supposed to do?”
“Your daughter-in-law,” Clint said, “you think she’s behind the lights and noise, don’t you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe. I know she’s trying to make – something. She won’t tell me.” She took a deep, shuddery breath. “I just want to fix it.”
Clint laid a hand on her shoulder and said, “I promise you, I will do my personal best to find your son, but right now I need you tell us where we can find your daughter-in-law.”
She sucked in a harsh breath. Clint squeezed her shoulder gently.
“You’re not betraying her,” he said. She looked like she wanted to believe him.
“Her uncle runs a nightclub,” she said with a sigh. “She’s been staying there since she found out about you two. I’ll give you the address.”
Bucky had watched a lot of TV and therefore seen a lot of nightclub scenes since he had moved into Steve’s small Brooklyn apartment, more than happy to sit sprawled out on the couch and flip through the seemingly endless amount of channels.
(“I don’t think we need this many,” Steve said, frowning, and Bucky shot him a look.
“If you cancel any of them, I will come after you,” he said, jabbing the remote in Steve’s direction.)
Still, he wasn’t prepared to feel the music pounding up through the soles of his shoes. It set his teeth on edge and made his fingers twitch. Clint settled a hand on the small of his back like he knew and steered him toward the bar.
The bartender, a bored-looking girl with a nose ring and a head full of dark curls, took one look at the photo Clint held up and shrugged.
“Haven’t seen her,” she said. “Can I get you gentlemen a real drink or what?”
Clint ordered and slid the money across the bar. She counted it and flicked her eyes up.
“Still haven’t seen her,” she said, tucking the extra bills down the front of her shirt. “But thanks for the tip.”
“I can get you Tony Stark’s phone number,” Clint grumbled, leaning across the bar. She rolled her eyes.
“Honey, I don’t care if you get me Black Widow’s,” she replied. She slid them their drinks and turned her attention further down the bar.
“That went well,” Bucky said, spinning his bottle around so he could read the label. There was a hawk on it; he wished he could have been surprised. “Think she really didn’t know?”
“Hard to say,” Clint replied, taking a swig from his drink. “It’s the boss’s niece. Nothing to do but stick around for a while and check the place out.”
Bucky took a look at the crowded dance floor and frowned. “Yeah? How’re we supposed to do that?”
Clint gave him an amused glance.
“The lion’s den is waiting,” he said, jerking his thumb at the dance floor.
He stepped back into the throng of dancers, beckoning for Bucky with a challenging grin. Bucky followed, then regretted it; dancing had always come easy to him, always been a good time, but here in the future trapped on the crowded dance floor he just felt awkward.
Clint grabbed his hands and tugged him closer.
“Come on, Barnes, get those knees flexin’ and those arms t-rexin’,” he shouted over the music. His hands settled low on Bucky’s hips and tried to sway him into a rhythm. “I know back in your day they only did the mashed potato and twist, but…”
“Barton,” Bucky growled. “Are you implying I can’t dance?”
“I’m not implying anything,” Clint shouted back, and did something with his hips that was very distracting. Bucky narrowed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to remember the last time he’d been dancing with someone. Decades ago, in another lifetime.
It was a new beat to work with, but he’d always been a good dancer.
“I’ll show you the twist,” he muttered, getting into Clint’s space. Clint whistled.
The song changed and Clint took the opportunity to slide up behind Bucky, strong hands trailing over his hips. “Far left corner,” he whispered in Bucky’s ear. “What do you think?”
Bucky glanced in that direction. “Not our girl,” he said. Clint was warm and solid against his back; Bucky leaned against him. “Hands where I can see ‘em, Barton.”
“Hey,” Clint laughed. “I’m a gentleman. Ask anyone. Well. Ask Nat.”
“I think she lies,” Bucky replied, swaying back and forth with the music.
“Not about my honor,” Clint replied. “There, look. The guy in the hat.”
Bucky saw him, standing in the corner with the brim of his hat pulled down low over his eyes. He was older than most of the crowd, but there was nothing overly strange about that. Bucky reached back and ran a hand across the side of Clint’s neck, thumb catching at the neck of his shirt.
Tilting his head back he said, “Gonna need more to go on than that, Hawkeye.”
“He’s got a briefcase in his hand,” Clint said, mouth against Bucky’s ear. “I don’t like it.”
“That’s your selling point?” Bucky said. “You don’t like it?”
Bucky kept watching though and a few moments later someone tapped the man on the shoulder from behind. They exchanged a few tense words then disappeared together out of the club.
“I’ve got great intuition,” Clint said, smirking in Bucky’s ear.
The night air was cool on Bucky’s face. He breathed deep and let the music’s oppressive beat roll off his back and slip away. His shirt was sticking uncomfortably to his back, sweat prickling across the back of his neck.
“Split up,” he said to Clint. “I’ll take the left, you take the right.”
“Don’t start anything without me, soldier,” Clint replied with a half-assed salute. Bucky watched him leave, then went around the other side of the building. There was nothing unusual – a few young couples making out in or up against their cars, loitering smokers. Nobody who looked like their mark.
“There’s an alley down this way that doesn’t look like a half-bad place to disappear down,” Clint’s voice crackled over the comm.
“Gotcha,” Bucky replied. “Be right there.”
Clint was waiting at the mouth of an alley. Someone whistled as Bucky walked past, and he shot a look over his shoulder. The whistler didn’t seem too bothered, raking his eyes lazily over the line of Bucky’s body. Bucky shot him one last glower and then stomped off to where Clint was busy laughing at him.
“Welcome to the 21st Century, Barnes, you’re equal opportunity eye candy now,” he said. “Hope it’s not too much for you.”
“Well gee whiz and good golly, Miss Molly,” Bucky said, rolling his eyes. “Will my delicate old timey sensibilities ever recover? Shut your face, Barton, I’ve been just fine being married to you this past week.”
“Yeah,” Clint said in a quiet sort of voice. “I guess you have.”
The alleyway was dark and quiet, deserted. It felt good, after all the noise of the crowded club, just to be able to breathe, walking side by side with Clint.
“Dead end up ahead,” Clint sighed after a moment. He looked back, over his shoulder, frowning.
“You think we missed them?” Bucky asked.
“Don’t see how,” Clint replied.
“They could have had a car,” Bucky said. “A driver already sitting in the parking lot.”
“Maybe,” Clint admitted, but he didn’t sound like he believed in the possibility. Maybe he just didn’t like it.
“They didn’t disappear into thin air,” Bucky said. That, at least, earned him a snort.
“Don’t tempt fate. This one time I spent three days tracking a guy who could turn himself into sand so trust me, people disappear into thin air. I think I’m still getting bits of him out of my underwear.”
Bucky shot him a look.
“What? Don’t give me that,” Clint grumbled. “You try shooting at a walking sandstorm and see how pristine you come out –”
“Shut up!” Bucky hissed, closing his hand on Clint’s arm and tugging him backwards. A shadow fell across the mouth of the alley; that was all Bucky could see from his position crouched behind a dumpster, trapped between Clint’s warm solid body and the rough brick wall.
He counted footsteps: two people, one bigger than the other. Heavy shoes. They walked down the alley, stopped a moment. They were talking – low, pleasant conversation. One man and one woman. The woman asked the man for a cigarette. Her voice was thick, like she'd been crying.
Bucky waited, counting down seconds and listening to Clint’s quiet, controlled breathing, warm against his cheek.
The couple wandered off after a few minutes, and Bucky let out a breath. He stood up and caught Clint’s eye when he turned, about to signal that they should move on. The look on Clint’s face stopped him in his tracks.
Clint’s eyes were dark in the alley’s gloom and his mouth had a determined set to it. Bucky had only ever seen him look that way once before, standing on the edge of a rooftop with his bow drawn tight, eyes narrowed in the glare from the Arizona sun and gaze fixed on a creaking monster made up of old car parts as it lumbered its way towards Natasha.
The memory burned dry in the back of Bucky’s throat.
“What?” he said.
Clint curled strong fingers around his left wrist and said, “Hey,” and he was close enough that it would be easy to lean in and kiss him.
There was a shuddering, groaning creak, and then wall behind them slid open.
They tumbled together down a narrow staircase, landing in a heap on a concrete floor with Bucky pinned beneath Clint. His ears rang. The lights on the ceiling swam in out and of focus and –
-- he was in a room, restrained --
(Someone was speaking to him, but he didn’t understand the words.)
-- the world went dim around the edges.
(He was colder than he’d ever been in his life, so cold he felt like he was on fire.)
Then Clint rolled off him and onto his feet and everything seemed to jolt back into place. Bucky’s head felt like he’d gotten into a competition with a battering ram and lost. From somewhere beyond them there came the ominous whir of rusty machinery. He pulled himself to his feet.
The lights clicked off, then on again. The room had a fuzzy, yellow quality to it. There were three figures standing across from them: a dark-haired woman, the man they’d seen in the dark suit and hat, and what looked like a robot with a TV screen in its chest.
“How hard did I hit my head?” Bucky asked. The words came out slurred.
“Don’t worry,” Clint said. “I see it too.”
The briefcase was open on the floor, cash and circuitry spilling out of it. There were vials, too, and one of them had cracked open, lying in a pool of silver-blue liquid. The man in the suit had an iron grip on the woman’s arm.
The robot spread its arms wide; Bucky squinted at the wide face on the screen.
“I do make quite the impression, don’t I?” he said. His static-y voice only made Bucky’s head hurt worse. His fingers twitched for a gun; three shots would do it, straight to the center of that wide, flickering grin.
“Thought we put you down for good last time, Zola,” Clint said.
“Zola?” Bucky said, surprised. The name sparked electric across his tongue: a little man with glasses, cowering in the Red Skull’s shadow. The face on the screen swam before his eyes, unfamiliar – there, maybe, the large forehead and the quivering mouth.
“Ah, yes, the archer,” Zola said, and Bucky looked at Clint, surprised to find his collapsible bow already well in hand. “Captain America’s dog. And another new one, I think, yes?” His eyes flickered over Bucky, disinterested. “Where is your captain?”
“You’re not worth his time, Zola,” Clint said. “So why don’t you save us the time -- let the girl go. Surrender and we won’t rough up your pretty new paint job too bad.”
Zola hissed. “How dare you speak to –”
An arrow struck the robot’s shoulder. It fizzed and sparked; the face on the screen grimaced. Bucky barely caught what happened next: the other man, the one in the hat, drew a gun from seemingly nowhere and shot. Clint grunted and stumbled backwards, face gone chalk white. A second shot knocked his bow from his hand.
Zola made a grab for the woman, but she fought him, trying to tear wires from a gap in the metal plating. He sneered and struck; she went sprawling across the floor. He grabbed the briefcase then turned and ran, bulky robotic body fleeing into the shadows.
And Bucky, well. Bucky had his gun in his hand. He raised it at the same moment the man in the hat did – Bucky’s pointed at him, the man’s pointed at the woman on the floor.
“Bucky,” Clint’s voice came from behind him. There was a ringing in Bucky’s ears; it was hard to hear him. “Careful.”
“Put your gun down,” the man commanded, “or I’ll shoot her.”
Bucky considered it. The woman on the floor had started to drag herself up, palms and knees scraped from the rough concrete floor. Her long brown hair had escaped its neat ponytail and her shoulders quivered with the effort of staying absolutely still. She was looking at him.
“Please,” she said. “Don’t let him shoot me.”
She wasn’t important to the mission.
“Stupid boy,” the man spit with a curse. He had a heavy accent. “Put your hands up! Up! Do you not hear me?”
“No,” Bucky said, and he meant it. The words washed over him like waves.
“What are you doing?” the woman on the floor hissed from between her teeth. She looked at him like he’d betrayed her, a white hot fury in her eyes. The man’s fingers tightened, slightly, as if to say I’ll do it, I’ll shoot, and then the color fled from his face.
Bucky’s sleeve had torn during his fall. The metal shone under the light.
“You’re dead,” the man whispered. “You died.”
Bucky fired before the man had a chance to recover, two quick shots. He remembered his training and stayed his hand: non-fatal, a dead man is no good for answers, boy. The man shot as he fell backwards, grunting, but it went wide and hit the wall. The woman was on her feet and running seconds later, and Bucky knew without looking behind him that Clint was pulling her to safety, back behind him.
Someone was asking him what he was doing, but they weren’t important either. He approached the man on the ground and knelt before him, gripping the man’s shirt in his hand. The man groaned wetly.
(“These, comrade, are the rules of interrogation.”)
“What was in the briefcase?” he said. “What does the traitor Arnim Zola want with it?”
(“Zola has reneged on our deal. We have a new buyer for the merchandise.”)
“I can’t,” the man said weakly. His eyes were fixed on Bucky’s left hand. “I can’t, you’re dead. You’re supposed to be dead.”
Bucky made a noise of disgust. He dropped the man and stood, then placed one foot, heavy boot and all, on his chest. Blood seeped through his thin gloves. They were a hindrance and he couldn’t remember why he was wearing them. He stripped them off.
“Tell me what Zola wanted with the briefcase. What was so important? What was he trying to accomplish?”
“I don’t know, I don’t know,” the man chanted. He squeezed his eyes closed. “Some new energy source, he says. Wanted to – reclaim, what was lost. Always to reclaim what was lost. They said the transport went down. They said you were on it. I didn’t think I would ever see your face again.”
Bucky scowled. He didn’t know anything about a transport going down. He didn’t think he’d been on one.
(His head ached and his vision was clouded, fuzzy. He hunkered down in the farthest corner of the plane with his elbows braced on his knees and his head bent, and behind his eyelids he kept seeing the thing, the damn glowing thing with its eggshell-thin sides.)
Someone from behind him was speaking. Bucky couldn’t make the words out, but they were slow and reasoned. The man beneath his boot answered -- a hostage, in a parking lot not too far away, the trunk of the car parked in space number -- it was too hard to keep track. Bucky’s head spun.
(“Isn’t it beautiful? A pale imitation to be sure, but beautiful all the same.”)
“Is that everything?” he asked. The man on the ground tried to shrug, then winced. “If you don’t have any more information –”
“Yes, I think I know what comes next,” the man cut him off wearily. He looked Bucky in the eye and his lips quirked up, not quite a smirk. “You are going to kill me now, little ghost?”
Anger flared bright and hot in his chest.
“Stop saying that!” he snarled. The man gave another painful-looking half-shrug, but his smile didn’t fade, and Bucky could see it in his eyes, hear it in his head like a chant: ghost ghost ghost ghost ghost you are a ghost. “I am not a ghost!”
The anger bloomed until he could taste it in his mouth, red and heavy on his tongue. He wanted to raise the gun, so he did.
“I wonder how I did not recognize you,” the man beneath his boot said, his face and his voice resigned. “I was very young, like you, the first time I saw your face.”
Bucky made to squeeze the trigger when a noise from behind him startled him. He turned towards it, only to have the world explode in a shower of pain. Everything went dark as he crumpled to the ground.
Bucky came to with a groan and a hand on his shoulder.
“Hey, there you are,” Clint’s voice said. “Come on, up and at ‘em.”
Bucky cracked one eye open and immediately regretted it. The room spun and swam, the light too bright. His head pounded. Several pairs of feet rushed by. One stopped by him, saying something, but Clint waved the owner off.
“Come on, soldier, on your feet,” Clint said again. He took Bucky by the hands and helped haul him to his feet. “Let’s get you some air.”
Bucky willed the world to stop spinning; Clint was still pale, but his arm and shoulder were bandaged up, makeshift and bloodstained. He didn’t seem to pay it any mind. Together they got as far as the stairs, Bucky stumbling and swearing, before they had to move back and wait for two SHIELD agents carrying a gurney to pass.
“Who called in the reinforcements?” he asked.
“I took the liberty,” Clint replied. “Neither of us is exactly intact, and you did a hell of a number on our guy.”
Bucky frowned. “What?”
There were hands on Bucky, leading him to sit down on the edge of an ambulance. Clint was talking to someone, telling them to leave off, and then he was back in Bucky’s field of vision again. He was scraped and bloody but whole.
“How many fingers am I holding up?” he asked, and laughed wearily when Bucky flipped him off. “Okay, you can’t be that bad off.”
“I feel like I got hit with a sack of bricks,” Bucky said.
“Bricks, angry woman, maybe not so much difference,” Clint said. Bucky looked up and over his shoulder: sitting on the edge of another ambulance across the parking lot was the dark-haired woman – the woman in their photo, Nalia, Mrs. Mendoza’s daughter-in-law. She was crying and smiling at the same time, clutching a phone to her ear. There were SHIELD agents stationed on either side of her.
“He told us the location, but – she thought he might be lying. If you killed him, well. She might never get her husband back. She was scared. Hell, I was --” Clint broke off, running a hand through his hair. “I know we haven’t worked together that long but seeing you go off like that… you’re a scary man, Barnes.”
“I don’t,” Bucky started to say, then shook his head. He looked down at his hands and found he wasn’t wearing his gloves. He didn’t remember taking them off. “I -- everything’s hazy.”
Clint gave him a long, hard look. “Okay,” he said, like he didn’t really believe him.
Bucky swallowed hard. His throat was dry. Dread crept into his stomach.
“I think I’m going to lose my lunch all over your shoes,” he said.
“Right,” Clint said cheerfully. “Hospital time it is.”
Hours later, sitting in a room in a hospital, bandaged up and waiting for their ride home, Clint turned to Bucky. He was playing with the gold ring he still wore on his finger, twisting it around, running his thumb across it. He said, “I didn’t know you spoke Russian.”
“What?” Bucky said, frowning. He’d been drugged to the gills and everything was pleasantly floaty, the pounding headache a distant memory. “I don’t.”
“How hard did you get hit in the head?” Clint asked. “You were speaking Russian to our guy. The two of you were arguing in it. I only caught a few words – he called you a ghost.”
Fear crept over Bucky, seeping in through the haze of the drugs.
“You’re wrong,” he said. “I don’t speak Russian.”
Clint frowned. There were footsteps in the hall, Steve and Hill’s voices.
“Guess I was mistaken,” he said as the others entered the room.
For a few weeks after that everything was as close to normal as Bucky had gotten since he was dragged out of the ocean and brought into SHIELD.
He got up and argued with Steve over who made better eggs (the answer was neither of them) and drank coffee made from a machine that was roughly as old as they were and got the paper from outside their door. They went to the movies and to the park and to Jersey, but only to fight mutant lobsters, so that was alright. Steve threatened to cancel their cable and Bucky flipped him off and the other Avengers stopped by at odd hours, holding greasy bags of every kind of fast food imaginable.
He arm-wrestled Thor and lost, played cards with Natasha, watched as Tony and Bruce built a miniature recreation of the SHIELD helicarrier out of toothpicks and plastic utensils. Drank in awful bars and ate in worse restaurants.
The Avengers fought supervillains and monsters and a miniaturized army from another dimension. Bucky was glued against a hotdog cart for two hours after a run-in with a man calling himself the Trapster, and ambushed five days later by a French man who claimed his superpower was leaping.
Clint stared at him when he thought Bucky wasn’t looking and sometimes when he knew he was. His touches, after-battle claps on the shoulder or a hand locked around his wrist, lingered. Bucky’s lingered too.
It was good. It was more than good. It was the most fun he’d had in a long, long time.
So he didn’t say anything about the dreams he had of rooms with bright overhead lights and men speaking to him, of something colder than ice and then snow under his boots and the weight of a gun in his hand. Mission accomplished, followed by put him back on ice. Standing across a long room opposite a familiar woman and her familiar gun.
One night, he dreamed he was falling, but not off the train. There were hands reaching down for him, but they weren’t Steve’s, and Bucky was relieved when they didn’t catch him. He hit the water, hard, and when he woke up the sheets were drenched in cold sweat.
The old air conditioning unit had failed in the night again, and the summer’s heat pressed in on him from all sides. He pulled the sheets up around his shoulders and shivered.
There was a whale in the harbor. Namor was perched on top of it, yelling at the police.
“He’s still wearing that same green speedo,” Bucky stated, trying to look anywhere but the obvious. Steve snorted.
“Some things just don’t change,” he said. Thor offered an arm and Steve took it, letting Thor tow him within speaking distance of Namor. The rest of the Avengers hung back, waiting. A few minutes in, once it was clear that Steve had gotten Namor’s full attention, Clint nudged Bucky.
“Think he can talk him down?” he said. Bucky shrugged.
“Maybe,” he said. “He always seemed to have a way of making ol’ Imperious Rex listen to reason back in the old days.”
“Alright,” Natasha said from Clint’s other side, “but what I’m curious about is the swimsuit. You said he wore it back in World War II?”
“Every day,” Bucky said, smirking. “In the snow.”
Clint whistled. “Personally, it’s the little ankle wings that get me.”
“I don’t know,” Bruce said from behind them. He adjusted his umbrella, peering out at the water. “I sort of like the whole look. The elf ears really pull it together.”
There was a lull in conversation – Bucky was too far away to see for sure, but he didn’t like the way Namor straightened up, pulling himself to his full height – and that was all the warning they got before Namor’s giant beast thrashed.
A wall of water hit the pier hard enough to knock Bucky off his feet. He floundered for a moment, pulled down by heavy boots and weaponry and metal, before hands caught him, dragging forward.
“Alright, c’mon, upsy-daisy,” Clint said, one hand under Bucky’s arm and the other busy pushing his own sodden hair back from his eyes. His sunglasses had been carried off by the water. Natasha had a handful of Clint’s uniform, staggering to her feet with an expression not unlike a wet cat. Altogether they made a very damp superhero human chain.
Bucky spat out a mouthful of harbor water, blinking it from his eyes. He scanned the harbor, looking for Steve and Thor. They were a little bit away, drenched and scowling at the spot where Namor and his giant beast had disappeared beneath the water.
“See anything?” Clint asked him, bow drawn and trained on the smooth expanse of water. Bucky shook his head. Then the water rippled and Namor emerged. He hit the harbor hard enough to shake. Clint and Natasha both took measured steps backwards, pulling Bucky with them.
“Okay, back, everyone get back!” Iron Man said, repulsors at the ready. Namor gave him a disgusted look.
“You will hold your fire,” he said, straightening up. His sharp eyes fell upon Bucky. “Barnes. It is you.”
“In the flesh, Subby,” Bucky said, just to watch Namor’s regal eyebrows twitch. “More or less.”
Namor regarded him for a long moment, arms crossed over his chest, dripping water all over the pier.
“I will pull back for today,” he said at last, “out of respect for our history … and for those no longer with us. It was good to see you again, Barnes.”
He dove back into the water, smooth as a seal, and disappeared into the gloom. Everyone was quiet for a moment.
“Huh,” Bucky said at last. “And here I thought he didn’t like me.”
“That was liking?” Clint asked, sounding dubious.
“From Namor? That was a hug,” Bucky said.
Steve was talking things out with the harbor police, who all seemed particularly distracted by the way Thor was squeezing water from his hair. It was, Bucky had to admit, kind of mesmerizing.
“Anyone else suddenly in the mood for seafood?” asked Tony.
“I could eat,” Natasha admitted.
Which was how they ended up in a ritzy restaurant an hour later, smelling like the harbor, courtesy of Tony Stark’s black card. The hostess offered, faintly, to check their weapons, coats and “your, uh, hammer?” before Tony waved her off.
They ended up clustered around a table not quite big enough for all of them at the back of the restaurant, the closest they were going to get to private. Tony ordered for everyone.
“This seems a bit cruel, somehow,” Steve noted with a glimmer in his eye when the waiters arrived carrying platters of crab and shrimp. When Tony gave him a look of faux innocence he held up his hands and said, “Okay, okay, have your fun.”
Bucky spent fifteen minutes amusing himself by having a shell-cracking competition with Thor (he lost, but he guessed one robotic arm couldn’t exactly measure up against godly biceps) while Natasha refereed. Clint leaned back in his seat, tossing popcorn shrimp into his mouth with peerless aim.
Halfway through the meal, Steve cleared his throat.
“A toast,” he said, raising his glass. He locked eyes with Bucky and smiled. “To new friends and all the old.”
Bucky’s smile wavered a little. He knew who Steve was thinking of: Peggy, Jim, Toro, the Commandos. It didn’t seem fair that he and Steve were sitting there, safe and sound and strong in the future, when so many friends weren’t.
He pushed his chair back from the table.
“I’m going to get some air for a sec,” he said.
Outside the air was as clean as it ever got in the city, heavy and faintly electric. Bucky crossed his arms and propped himself up against a wall, staring uncertainly up at the sky. After a few minutes, someone tapped him on the shoulder.
“Hey,” Clint said, sidling up next to him. He glanced up at the sky and scowled. “Damn, looks like rain. Didn’t we get wet enough today?”
“Came to keep me company?” Bucky asked, sliding him a look.
“Maybe,” Clint said, hiding a grin as he ducked his head. “So I wanted to ask you if you wanted to get dinner sometime.” He glanced over his shoulder, through the restaurant’s window. “Alone.”
Bucky squinted at him. "Are you trying to ask me out on a date?"
"I figure, you're an old-fashioned guy," Clint said, shrugging. "I'll do it the old-fashioned way."
Bucky bit down on a grin. “Yeah? What happened to me being a scary guy, Barton?”
“Scary’s not so bad,” Clint said, tucking his hands into his pockets. “Fury used to threaten to put little spycams in my molars just to keep me on mission goal, and you should’ve seen the gig I worked before SHIELD. Come to think of it, I’m not sure I know how to function without a little scary in my life.”
“Well, if that’s the case,” Bucky said, humming a little under his breath as if in contemplation. “You buying?”
“Spoiled,” Clint said, laughing. Bucky flashed him a grin, hold his hands up.
“Hey, I’m not from around here,” he said. “All your newfangled technology – credit cards are the things you trade the those magic ATM machines in exchange for cash, right?”
Clint groaned, shaking his head. “You think you’re pretty cute, don’t you?”
“No, but you do,” Bucky said, bumping his shoulder against Clint’s. He pushed himself away from the wall, heading back for the restaurant’s entrance. Over his shoulder, he said, “By the way, I'm not that old-fashioned.”
Clint’s grin was blinding.
The first time he kissed Clint it was mid-September and a building had nearly fallen on top of them both.
“I really hate the Wrecking Crew,” he said against Clint’s mouth, tasting dust and the blood from his split lip. Clint made an agreeable noise, keeping him in place with a hand on the back of his neck before he could pull away.
“I don’t know about that,” he said, kissing Bucky between each word. “Me, I’m starting to kind of like them. I’ve been wanting to do that since…”
“Miami?” Bucky filled in, grinning. Clint shook his head.
“Before,” he said, with a look that was like a slap in the face. “Way before.”
“Oh,” Bucky said, simply, recalling the slow rake of Clint’s eyes those first few missions, the way he’d grinned in Latveria and the glint of his eyes in that tiny, crowded car. Something giddy filled his chest and his face hurt, he was smiling so hard. What was there to do but kiss Clint again, hard and openmouthed, slide his tongue against the edge of Clint’s teeth?
Thor’s battle cry rang out from somewhere beyond their wall of rubble, loud and sudden enough that Bucky nearly bit his own tongue and Clint’s to boot.
“There’s a fight going on out there,” Bucky said. “We should probably get back to it.”
“Probably,” Clint agreed.
Two years had passed since the Chitauri invasion, but Bucky knew you could still see the damage it had left behind. It was obvious in the way Steve looked at midtown sometimes and in the whispering of civilians and the flock of news crews every time there was a skirmish in the same area.
The Wrecking Crew, while supremely annoying, were no alien invasion. They were rounded up with moderate property damage, but minor personal injury. Shutters started snapping as one of the Crew strained against his cuffs, trying in vain to cuss out Thor. Another group of photographers were vying for pictures of Captain America and Iron Man.
Someone whistled sharply; Bucky turned, surprised by a camera flash. A lanky teenager grinned at him like they shared a secret.
“Really heroic. Front page of the Bugle for sure,” he called. “Well, okay, maybe page five. I heard Spider-Man mugged a few little old ladies this week and stole, like, forty whole cakes! It was terrible.”
Bucky had been snapped for the Bugle a few times before, candid shots of him in the middle of a fight, always with the arm on display. The going theory on his place with the Avengers was that he was a robot from the future.
The kid waved before running off, ducking and weaving through the crowd like a true New Yorker. At least some things didn’t change, Bucky thought with a shrug.
“What was that about?” Steve asked, coming up behind him.
“Kid wanted a picture,” Bucky said, shooting him a grin. “Next newsrag headline – Mysterious New Avenger Crashes Cap and Widow’s Atlantic City Elopement?”
“I thought it was Luke Cage’s marriage you were ruining,” Steve said, amused.
“Partnership,” Bucky corrected. “Iron Fist likes bionic arms.”
“Bucky,” Steve said, eyebrows pulling together in concern. Bucky elbowed him.
“Leave it, Rogers,” he said. If Steve didn’t want to hear it, well, tough luck. It wasn’t his problem. “I can joke about it if I want to.”
“If you say so,” Steve said. “But I wasn’t actually asking about the kid.”
He jerked a thumb to his left and Bucky followed the motion to find Clint watching him as he collected his arrows. There was dirt in his hair and a smile on his face; Bucky remembered that smile pressed against his own mouth and echoed it.
“Something you want to tell me?” Steve asked. Bucky could hear the raised eyebrow.
“Nope,” Bucky said, sliding him a sly look. “Like I said – I can take care of myself.”
“Call if you’re going to be late!” Steve said, laughing.
“Don’t wait up, Ma,” Bucky threw over his shoulder.
Clint was standing a little ways off, in the shadow of the half-collapsed building, twirling an arrow between his fingers. “Hey,” he said, grinning at Bucky. “You came back.”
“Sure did,” Bucky said. “Any reason I shouldn’t?”
“Depends,” Clint said, grin widening. “I’ve got a shower back at the tower the size of my old SHIELD room. You could come with me.”
“Yeah?” Bucky said, and Clint echoed, “yeah.” “Cap thinks you’re after my virtue.”
“Cap wouldn’t be wrong,” Clint said. “Whaddya say?”
“I say show me this shower, Barton,” Bucky replied, already walking away. “And it better be good.”
Natasha stepped out of the elevator a floor before they did. She fixed them with a look and said, “Don’t break anything,” just as the doors dinged shut.
“You can’t keep anything from her, huh?” Bucky said as the elevator started up again.
“Let’s be fair,” Clint said, crowding Bucky up against the wall. He planted his hands on either side of him and leaned in, nose to nose, “I wasn’t really trying.”
They all but fell out of the elevator, liplocked with Bucky’s hands up the back of Clint’s shirt. He broke off just long enough to get a good look around the place, ignoring Clint’s annoyed huff. The place was spacious but sparse. A longbow hung on the wall and crossbow was sitting on the armchair. There was a pair of boxers lying in a doorway, an empty pizza box and a plate left out on the coffee table next to a scattered stack of files half a foot high.
“Wow,” he said, grinning. “You’re a slob.”
“Shut your face,” Clint said, pressing kisses along Bucky’s jaw, down the line of his throat. Bucky tipped his head back to give him better access. “You any better? Wait, what am I saying. Cap probably gives you the Sentinel of Liberty stare if you don’t fold your socks.”
“Living with Steve now is like living with Steve in the forties, just now the back alley brawls are in our favor,” Bucky said, one hand in Clint’s hair. “He doesn’t fold his socks, in case you were wondering.”
“I can safely say I wasn’t thinking about Captain America’s socks,” Clint answered.
“Speaking of socks, there’s gravel in mine. Come on,” Bucky said, tugging him backward. “Come on, shower.”
Clint hadn’t been kidding about the bathroom. It was huge, with big mirrors and marble countertops. Bucky let out a low whistle.
“You could fit half Steve’s apartment in here,” he said, craning his neck. “Surprised Stark didn’t put in a chandelier.”
“I’d live in it,” Clint agreed, crowding Bucky back against the counter. “But then I’d have to drag the TV all the way over here.”
Bucky wrapped a hand around the back of his neck, pulling him forward. He kissed him, slow at first, then harder, and didn’t even care that he still tasted like dust. It had been a very long time, he realized distantly, since he’d kissed anyone. Clint’s stubble made his lips tingle, electric.
He reached down between them and palmed Clint through his uniform pants, grinning sharply into the corner of Clint’s mouth. “Pants off,” he said. Clint groaned and dropped his head to Bucky’s shoulder. His hands curled around Bucky’s hips, briefly, and then he stepped back.
He shucked his shirt first and Bucky raked his eyes over the muscles in his arms and the scars on his chest. One scored his shoulder, faded white. It reminded Bucky of the scars on what remained of his own shoulder, and he raised his hand to touch it, the metal exposed by his uniform. He swallowed, rough.
“Hey,” Clint said, down to his boxers. They were purple, Bucky noted. Clint’s smile was crooked. “This shower’s gonna be a lot less fun if only one of us is naked.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. He started to undo the clasps of his uniform jacket, feeling clumsy. “Yeah, okay. Don’t have to tell me twice.”
Bucky could say what he wanted about Tony Stark, but the man knew how to build a shower. The water was hot and steam rose up, thick and white. There was more than enough space for two grown men, so of course Bucky wrapped himself around Clint as soon as he could, one hand in his blond hair and the other drifting over his ribs, fingertips tracing another scar.
“Soap,” Clint said, reaching out and fumbling at a built-in alcove. “We need – stuff. Soap. Yeah.”
The water washed away dirt and grit and, stinging, the dried blood from scrapes and scratches. It swirled at their feet, ran down the drain. Bucky, hot and hard and suddenly so happy, laughed into Clint’s mouth.
“What,” he said, arching his back and his eyebrows. “We need to be more slippery?”
“It can’t hurt,” Clint said, one hand at Bucky’s waist again, thumb trailing over his hipbone. He tipped Bucky’s chin up with the other and kissed him, much slower than before. “You’re gorgeous,” he said against Bucky’s mouth. He slid his mouth to Bucky’s jaw, planting brief sucking kisses down his neck and along his collarbone.
He stopped just short of the joint between Bucky’s arm and shoulder, where skin met metal, and looked up at him. It was a question, Bucky realized, and he shrugged his other shoulder then nodded. Clint pressed his lips to it, nothing like the wet openmouthed kisses from before, and Bucky shuddered at the joint sensations of skin and metal.
“Guess it doesn’t bother you,” he said, snaking the metal hand down Clint’s chest. Clint caught it and held it there, palm pressed flat to his chest.
“I like it,” he said, voice low. “I like you.”
Then he put both his big hands around Bucky’s hips and sank down to his knees, grinning up through the shower spray. Bucky’s mouth went dry. His hands went to Clint’s shoulders.
Clint curled a hand around Bucky’s dick, thumb pressed just so, and, with a wink, closed his mouth over him. Bucky’s head hit the shower wall with a thump, eyes falling closed and mouth falling open.
It had been, he thought wryly as Clint hollowed his cheeks, a couple decades too many, give or take.
He came hard, fingers digging deep into Clint’s shoulders, and Clint made a sound Bucky couldn’t decipher before he pulled away. He spat in the direction of the drain.
Bucky let out a ragged breath, then tugged Clint up to his feet and back against him. Clint’s dick pressed hard against his hip. “Come back here,” he said as Clint curled his fingers in Bucky’s wet hair, “I’m not done with you yet.”
Half an hour later, the water hadn’t gone cold. Bucky was never going to tire of the 21st century. Clint grabbed both his hands and kissed his palms, hair plastered to his forehead and grin ridiculously self-satisfied. He made Bucky want to smile until his face hurt.
“Come on,” he said, “tell me. It can’t be worse than Buchanan.”
Clint snorted. “Nope, not saying a word.”
“Bill,” he guessed. Clint shook his head. “Xavier, Eagle, Barney.” Clint cringed at that one, the corner of his mouth curling. Bucky tipped his head in his direction. “I got it – Robin Hood.”
“Give it up, you’re embarrassing yourself,” Clint said, cutting him off with a kiss.
Finally Clint turned the water off and climbed out, leaving handprint-shaped smudges on the steamed up shower door. He held out a hand and Bucky took it, climbing out after him.
“You want to know the best part about my SHIELD training?” Clint asked, tossing a towel Bucky’s way. Bucky caught it and rubbed his hair dry. “Other than how dangerous and sexy it makes me, I mean.”
“What?” he said, rolling his eyes when it appeared Clint was waiting. Clint smirked.
“I,” he said, leaning back against the counter and dragging Bucky toward him, “know how to break into Tony Stark’s fridge. If you want.”
“Clinton Trouble Charlie Birdbrain Sally Jackass Barton,” Bucky said. “I want.”
“Then get your pants,” Clint said, “because naked stealing is a third date kind of thing.”
They made off with a bottle of expensive vodka and half a fridge's worth of leftover takeout. Bucky laughed until he shook with it on the way back down.
Sunlight streamed in through the windows. Bucky stretched like a cat, enjoying the warmth across his bare skin; he could mutter all he wanted about Avengers tower, but the truth was Stark sure knew how to build luxury.
He hadn’t dreamed, either, just slept, and he felt rested in a way he’d forgotten he could, like during the night someone had come and sewn up all his tattered edges.
Clint’s arm was slung across his stomach, warm and heavy. His fingers curled loosely at Bucky’s hip. Bucky shifted, rolling over onto his side; Clint was still asleep, his face mashed against the pillow and his blond hair stuck up at all angles. He was drooling.
Bucky couldn’t help it – he started to laugh. Clint groaned and pressed his face further into the pillow. His arms came up and around Bucky, pulling him in close. Bucky went limp and let Clint grumble as he dragged him forward, then slid one leg over Clint’s, enjoying the slide of Stark’s stupidly expensive sheets.
There was no reason not to kiss him. Bucky cupped Clint’s jaw and pressed their mouths together, slow and lazy. Clint’s thumb traced circles at the small of Bucky’s back and Bucky growled, playful, biting at Clint’s bottom lip. He ran an appreciative hand up Clint’s arm, tracing the hard swell of muscles, and realized belatedly that it was his metal hand. It was warm from sunlight and body heat and Clint didn’t seem to mind.
Clint had morning breath. Bucky didn’t even care.
“Morning,” Bucky sighed against his mouth. Clint chuckled.
“There you go again,” he said. “Don’t speak Russian, my ass.”
It was a pretty great ass, Bucky thought, right before Clint’s words sunk in.
“What?” he said. The word felt unfamiliar in his mouth. He frowned and tried again. “What?”
“Tish! You spoke French!” Clint said, eyes dancing. He grabbed Bucky’s hand and pressed a kiss straight in the middle of his metal palm, then started up his arm. “You know what that does to me!”
Bucky shoved him off roughly and pushed himself off the bed. He grabbed for his boxers, saying, “Stop fucking around! It’s not funny,” as panic seized him tight. The words sounded wrong in his ears, and it was like someone else was saying them, muffled behind glass.
He shoved his underwear on and looked around for his jeans. He needed to get out. He needed to get some air.
There was a balcony attached to the bedroom. Stark had probably built it in so all the inhabitants of his grand tower could survey all the little people going by. Clint probably used it to hang upside down and shoot suction cup arrows at pigeons.
There had been a balcony in Miami too, he thought numbly, and he’d stood on it and looked at Clint, really looked at him for the first time. It seemed like ages ago.
Clint was on the floor where he’d landed when Bucky had shoved him backwards. Bucky walked past him and slid the balcony doors open so hard they shook. He stepped outside and took big, gulping breaths of the hot New York City air.
Clint came after him. He stood in the doorway, staring at Bucky with confusion clear on his face.
“Hey,” he said. He reached for Bucky’s shoulder; Bucky shrugged him off.
“Don’t touch me,” he said. He said it in Russian. He tried again and it came out in French. He tried to breathe deep, but his throat was tight and his chest was tight and he gripped the railing tight. It crumpled beneath his left hand.
Clint frowned, trying to circle him and get a good look at his face.
“What’s going on?” he asked. He tried to touch Bucky’s face, but Bucky took a step back and barked a sharp nyet. “Hey, come on, look at me. What’s wrong?” His hands came up, taking Bucky by the upper arms. There was nowhere to go on the balcony, not without either shoving Clint or some truly impressive acrobatics.
Bucky took a deep breath. He brought a hand up to his throat and said, hoarsely, “I can’t.”
The words were English, but getting them out was like chewing gravel. His whole mouth ached. Clint furrowed his brow.
“Can’t?” he repeated.
Bucky searched for a good way to explain and found none. Fear gripped him tighter. So did Clint.
“No se habla ingles,” he said at last, laughing bitterly at himself. Clint stared.
“Okay,” he said. “Okay. It’s going to be okay. I don’t – that was Russian earlier, and French. I don’t know as much of any of those as I should.” He paused, rubbing his hands up and down Bucky’s bare arms. He said, “I’m getting Natasha.”
He left Bucky standing there on the balcony and returned to his room, shucking on a pair of jeans. He turned and said, “Stay right there, okay? I’ll be right back.”
Bucky nodded, arms crossed over his chest. He watched as Clint left the room and waited a moment, then sprang forward and grabbed his shirt and his shoes from the floor.
The best part about New York City was that you never had to talk to anyone if you didn’t want to. Bucky kept his mouth shut all the way back to Steve’s apartment. A couple times he felt like he was being followed, but when he looked over his shoulder he only found the usual street traffic.
That didn’t stop the prickling feeling across the back of his neck.
The door opened as he slid his key into the lock, and Steve stood there, smiling. He had a phone pressed to his shoulder.
“Welcome back,” he said. He eyed Bucky’s rumpled clothes. “Have fun last night?”
He stood there with his mouth open, willing Steve’s name to come to his lips. It wouldn’t. Steve took a look at his face and concern crept into his features.
“Bucky?” he said.
Bucky mumbled the first thing to come to his lips, heart hammering when they were the wrong words, and pushed past Steve into the apartment. He went to the kitchen and grabbed for the notepad Steve always kept there, next to the wall-mounted phone. There was a pen in the drawer.
“Bucky?” Steve called after him. There were footsteps behind him. He heard the click of a phone and a muffled hold on, I’ll call you back. “What’s going on?”
His hand was shaking and the letters spidered badly, but they were the letters he meant to write. He could have cried with relief. He tore off the note and thrust it at Steve: I woke up this morning and I couldn’t speak English. I don’t know what’s going on.
Steve’s eyebrows climbed steadily higher and higher. He put the note down on the counter and put one hand on Bucky’s shoulder. He squeezed.
“It’s going to be alright,” he said. Then he picked up the phone and pressed a few buttons, putting it to his ear.
“Tony?” he said a moment later. “How many languages do you speak?”
Tony sat in a chair across the table from Bucky. He had his sleek Starkphone resting on the table.
“I’m following him okay so far,” he told Steve, having spoken in low, hushed tones to Bucky when he first came in. “My Japanese is a little rusty, though, and you said he’s been switching languages?”
Bucky shot him a look, even as Steve said, “Yes. It’s not consistent. He’s spoken English a couple of times, but it seems like it just – slips. Like a switch gets flipped.”
Bucky’s face burned and his jaw ached, he was clenching it so tight. He wanted to say, I’m right here, you know, I can hear you, but he didn’t trust the words that might come out of his mouth.
“The first thing he said, when he came in,” Tony said. He had his hands folded in front of him on the table, a business-like look Bucky had never seen before on his face. “What was it?”
“Egy perc,” Bucky said, and was pleased when the words left his mouth as he intended. It was Hungarian. He knew that now.
Tony shook his head and glanced at his phone.
“Hungarian,” he confirmed. He tapped the screen with one finger. “Modern technology for you.”
Steve gave him a tightlipped smile. Tony turned back to Bucky.
“Let’s try sticking to Japanese, huh?” he said. “Can we do that?”
“Yatte miru,” Bucky grumbled. His head was starting to ache. He had one elbow on the table and his face resting on his palm. He was wondering how, hours ago, he’d woken up feeling like everything was wonderful.
“Good, that’s great,” Tony said. “This all started this morning?”
“Un,” Bucky said. He was cheered, briefly, by the fact that the words were still in Japanese, but that did little against the ice cold fear that sat in his chest. This was all wrong. He wanted to go back. He wanted to wake up.
“What were you doing last night?” Tony asked. “Before this started.”
I was with Hawkeye, trying to break all the springs in your tower’s stupid bed, wasn’t something he felt like saying. He locked eyes with Tony and repeated, “Yatte miteru.”
Tony sighed. He pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and forefinger and said, “Steve, I don’t think we’re going to get anywhere like this. I think I need to make a call.”
He got up from his seat, pocketing his cell phone.
“Tony,” Steve said, starting after him. Tony waved him off.
“Don’t worry,” he said, flashing Steve a weary grin. “Be discrete, right? I’m the king of discretion. Discretion pays me yearly taxes.”
He disappeared down their dark hallway.
Bucky muttered an insult under his breath. Steve cuffed him lightly, barely more than a swat.
“He’s trying to help,” he said. Bucky rolled his eyes.
“How are you doing?” he asked. Bucky raised a hand and rocked it back from side to side: so-so. Steve was quiet for a long moment.
“We’ll fix it, Buck,” he said.
The neighbor’s cat, a huge calico monster, was outside on their narrow fire escape again, sunning itself with its belly in the air. Bucky watched as it lazily swished its tail back and forth. Steve caught him staring and pointed to the cat.
Bucky shifted just enough to glare at him. Steve stared back at him, evenly, and Bucky grumbled curses in three different languages under his breath.
“Macska,” he said, watching as the cat lolled over and began to sniff at Steve’s one houseplant. He tried again, sliding from Hungarian into Russian and then from Russian to German, harsh and bitter on his tongue.
Frustration built as Steve just continued to stand there, one hand on Bucky’s shoulder, waiting patiently. Finally, he spit out, “It’s a damn cat, Steve, and it’s chewing on your fucking plant – don’t patronize me!”
His ears rang in the ensuing silence. Steve sucked in a breath and shook Bucky and said, “Knew you could do it.”
“Fuck you,” Bucky said, shoving a hand into Steve’s face. He let out a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding, trying to memorize the taste and feel of English in his mouth. Steve laughed.
“Try and hang onto it,” Steve said. “We’ll fix it, Buck. We will.”
“Right,” Bucky said.
“I’m going to go tell Tony,” Steve said, and that left Bucky alone in the kitchen.
He stayed seated for a minute, testing words in his mouth -- stop chewing on that, cat and every elaborate curse the Howling Commandos had ever taught him – before his phone vibrated against his thigh. He pulled it out and found he had three new messages, all from Clint.
what happened to staying put, the first one said, dated over an hour ago. are you okay, the second one read, followed shortly by stupid question. i'm a jerk. Bucky thumbed at the screen for a moment, remembering the night before when Clint had scrolled through his phone.
(“I’m in here, right?” he asked, holding it out of reach when Bucky made a grab for it.
“All the Avengers are. Look under H,” Bucky admitted. He settled down on top of Clint, placing his chin on his crossed arms. Clint flicked his eyes up, giving a thoughtful hmm.
“For hot, right?” he said. Bucky snorted.
“Try for holy terror,” he replied.)
Bucky shook his head and shoved the phone back into his pocket. He got up and headed for the fridge, mouth parched and jaw aching. He was reaching for the door when he heard voices down the hall, saying his name. He leaned around the doorway, catching a glimpse of Steve and Tony framed in the light of the hallway window. They were watching something down below.
"That's not good," Tony was saying, and Steve's face was grave.
"I don't like it," he said.
"Me neither," Tony confessed. He let go of the curtains and leaned back against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. "I know you don't want to talk about it, but --"
"-- we need to look into what happened," Tony continued, heedless of the warning that had crept into Steve's voice. Bucky narrowed his eyes. "We can't wait any longer. Where was he? How did he get in that ocean, this century? First the arm, and now -- look, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying he's an idiot, but something tells me the guy you knew back in the day didn't exactly have command over at least five different languages. We need to do this now."
"I know," Steve confessed, and it was the naked pain on his face that pushed Bucky forward, out of the kitchen and into the hall.
"Look into what?" he said, frowning. "You're talking about me. Don't do it behind my back."
"It's not like that, Bucky," Steve said, coming forward and catching him by the elbow.
"Save it, Steve," Bucky said, breaking out of his hold. He looked at Tony. "What's going on?"
Tony looked at him for a long moment, thumb moving back and forth over the case of his phone. Then he glanced back over his shoulder, out the window, and pulled a comical grimace.
"Alright, fellows," he said. "I think we need to take a little trip."
Neither Steve nor Tony would say where they were going. Steve tried to keep Bucky talking the entire way there, but when his questions went unanswered he fell silent and no amount of cajoling from Steve could move him.
“The walls have ears,” Tony said with raised eyebrows when Bucky pressed him instead. He wiggled his fingers; Bucky wanted, suddenly, viciously, to break them. He shoved his hands in pockets and counted backwards from a hundred in every language still trapped somewhere down his throat.
Happy met them three blocks and a scattered handful of alleyways from Steve’s apartment, and from there Tony instructed him to take the back roads.
“You got it, Mr. Stark,” Happy said. “We shaking a tail?”
“Not yet,” Tony said, rubbing his goatee. “But we’re prepared for the possibility.”
“Steve,” Bucky hissed, closing his hand over Steve’s wrist. “You need to tell me what’s going on.”
Steve glanced toward the front seat; Happy met his eyes in the mirror and obligingly rolled up the partition. Steve opened his mouth to object, but Tony cut in.
“Happy’s very good at his job,” he said, “and a big part of his job is knowing when not to listen.”
“Steve,” Bucky pressed, not caring about who was listening or about Tony or Tony’s chauffeur or any of it. He tightened his fingers, eyes searching Steve’s face. He looked drawn, but the set of his jaw was as stubborn as ever.
“I wasn’t trying to keep anything from you, Buck,” Steve said. “Tony was the one who found something wrong.”
Tony held up his cell phone with a jaunty wave that did little to mask the concern around his eyes. “JARVIS caught a signal. It was faint, and he shut them down, but it was there. Someone’s been monitoring Steve’s building, and unless I’m wrong and one your nice little Ukranian neighbors has been smuggling MGH out in her pierogis, it’s got to be one of you.”
“It’s a SHIELD signal, we think,” Steve put in. “They’ve had surveillance vans camped outside my place before.”
“You know SHIELD,” Tony said, frowning in earnest now. “There’s nothing they love more than privacy. Hey, Steve, are you sure—”
“It’s fine,” Steve cut him off. “The problem I’m having,” he continued, looking Bucky in the eye, “is why they’ve started up again now. I don’t believe in coincidences, Buck, you know that.”
“No,” Bucky said, throat tight. “What’re you getting at?”
Steve looked like his words were choking him, his mouth a thin pale line and a twitch in his jaw. He put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder.
“Buck,” he said, “Bucky. When I woke up, there was this whole changed world. I had to adjust to it. But you – it’s like nothing surprises you. Like you knew half of it all already, somewhere inside your head. You turn up and it’s like almost nothing’s changed, but where were you?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky said, mouth dry. “Steve, I don’t know, I told you –”
“I know,” Steve said. “I know you don’t, Buck, but we have to find out. You need to let go of my hand now.”
Bucky looked down. With a jolt, he saw his metal fingers wrapped tight around Steve’s wrist, realized how hard he was squeezing. Steve had curled his hand into a fist, knuckles white through his skin. Looking back up at his face, Bucky realized it was pain that was setting Steve’s stubborn jaw.
He peeled his fingers away one by one, face burning and ice in his veins. Steve flexed his fingers, did not rub at his wrist.
“We’re going to fix this,” he told Bucky.
Tony led them to an abandoned brownstone, three stories high and seemingly gutted. The windows were boarded over. Leaving Happy with instructions to keep driving and to keep his phone on, Tony led them through a side door and up the stairs to the top floor.
“Alright, JARVIS,” Tony said, clapping his hands together. The room he led them into was spacious, with whitewashed walls and wooden floors. It looked nothing like what Bucky would have expected from Tony Stark. “Let’s get some light in this place!”
“Very good, sir,” JARVIS’ tinny voice came from Tony’s pocket. Lights flooded the room, set high in discrete corners. Tony turned in a half-circle, frowning at the room: there were a few chairs and an old table in the background, a dozen crates stacked beneath it. Tony dropped to one knee in front of them and started to unpack.
“I thought he’d be here by now,” he said with a frown.
There was a large flatscreen monitor taking up space on the far wall of the room, dusty with disuse. Across the floor cables sprawled like snakes, twisted bundles of wires in every corner.
“I’ll keep a lookout for him,” Steve said. He clapped Bucky on the shoulder. “Why don’t you go sit down?”
Bucky shrugged him off and sat down heavily in the closest chair, resisting the urge to cradle his head in his hands. Tony, elbow-deep in his machines, looked up at him.
“My dad used to talk about you, sometimes,” he said after a moment. “Said you were a good kid – his words, by the way. Trouble, but a good kid. He uh,” Tony broke off, hesitating like he wasn’t sure whether or not to continue. “When I was little, he’d tell me this story, the time he flew Captain America behind enemy lines so he could go rescue his best friend. It was very knight on a white horse.”
“That’s Steve for you,” Bucky said wearily. “Even way back when, he always had to be the hero.”
Tony hummed, noncommittal. “Standing up to bullies in Brooklyn alleys, that’s one thing,” he said. “What he did behind enemy lines, he did that for you, because you needed him.” Another weighted pause. “When he got – when I got older, he didn’t tell me many stories, but he would say what a shame it was, what happened to you. Said it broke the captain’s heart. His words.”
Bucky looked up. Tony had gone back to fidgeting with something technical. His arc reactor glowed beneath his shirt, throwing his face into relief. His mouth was downturned, not quite a frown.
“Steve’s right, you know,” he said. “I can see you don’t believe him, but he is. We’ll fix it. That's what we do.”
He paused, looking up, and pointed a screw driver straight at Bucky.
“And when we do fix it,” he said, “you tell Barton to stay the hell away from my kitchen or I’m going to open a tab. Trust me, he can’t afford it.”
Reed Richards was a tall dark-haired man, going grey at the temples. His wife was a pretty blonde, though the way she kept fading from sight was plenty unnerving. They exchanged brief words with Tony -- hi how are you how’s the family -- before they started to set up, producing computers and machines and endless bundles of stuff seemingly out of nowhere.
“It’s certainly interesting craftsmanship,” Richards said when Bucky rolled his left sleeve up to his elbow. He squinted, tapping one long finger to his chin. “I haven’t seen its like before, at least not this far outside of Latveria. Where was it made?”
“I don’t know,” Bucky ground out.
“That’s sort of part of the problem,” Tony added.
“Well,” Sue said, smiling tightlipped. “We can certainly try to find out.”
Steve, standing like a sentinel behind Bucky’s chair, said, “We’d be grateful.”
Sue’s touch was gentle but sure as she hooked Bucky up to half a dozen different machines. She drew blood, too, apologizing and saying that it was unlikely they’d find anything that way, but better to try than not. She smiled when she was done and said, “You’re younger than I expected. My brother’s a big fan.”
Bucky gave her a wry smile back. “Not a lot to be a fan of right now.”
She put both her gloved hands over his bare flesh-and-blood one.
“It’s going to be okay,” she promised. Bucky nodded, numb, and she squeezed his hand before getting up and joining her husband and Tony by their piles of machines.
It was a while – an hour, maybe two – before fingers stilled on keyboards and lab equipment, and before anyone spoke above a whisper. Steve had long ago given up trying to talk to Bucky, cajoling first with old stories (“Hey, Buck, do you remember the time…”) and then with Avengers tales, and now stood silent, waiting for some news.
It was Richards who spoke, long fingers curled in front of his mouth. “Fascinating,” he said.
“What?” Tony said, leaning over Richards’ shoulder. He blinked. “What am I looking at here?”
Steve was on his feet in a moment, Bucky half a step behind him.
“What is it?” he said, face white as a sheet. Bucky wondered what his own face betrayed, if Steve’s looked so absolutely wrecked. “What did you find?”
Reed tore his eyes away from the screen like he’d only just remembered they were there. His wide mouth was set in a frown.
“There’s evidence of cryogenic stasis,” he said. “Repeated incidents, over long periods of time.”
“He means someone froze him,” Tony said, eyes flickering first to Steve’s face, then to Bucky’s. “You. A lot.”
Bucky opened his mouth, but no sound came out. He worked his jaw for a moment, but it was no good. Steve gripped his shoulder, tight enough to bruise.
“Why?” he said. Tony shook his head.
“That, we’re not going to get from partial scans,” he said, turning back to the screen. “But it does explain a lot.”
“The disparity in your age,” Sue said to Bucky. “If you were frozen for long amounts of time, it would explain why you look so young.”
“So he’s like me,” Steve said, brow furrowed. Tony shook his head.
“No,” he said. “You, my friend – you’re an incredibly lucky freak of nature. What happened to you was an accident. This, someone did on purpose.”
“Why? How did SHIELD miss it?” Steve asked, taking a step forward. “They were running tests on him when they had him in custody, we know they were –”
“With all due respect, Captain Rogers, SHIELD’s technology isn’t exactly up to my standards,” Reed said with a thin smile. “I’d like to run some more in-depth tests, but we’ll need to go back to my own lab. I’d really like to run some particular scans, see if we can pinpoint --”
“No,” Bucky said, finding his words at last. He shook his head.
“Bucky,” Steve said, big warm hands closing around his arms, trapping him. “It could help us figure out what happened to you, where you were –”
“No, Steve,” Bucky said, shoving him back. He was aware he sounded like a child, but panic caught him tight and held him there, phantom fingers tight around his throat. Frozen, he thought, cold all over, and he realized he was shaking. “I’m not going, I’m not, I don’t want it!”
Steve caught him by the shoulders. He squeezed once, holding him in place. “Okay, okay, we won’t. It’s okay. Reed – thank you for the offer. But not today.”
“I understand,” Reed said, though he didn’t sound like he did. “If you change your mind, my lab at the Baxter Building is open to you anytime. Day or night.”
“Thanks, Reed,” Tony said. They shook hands. “Really.”
Reed and Sue left. Sue’s hand drifted gently over Bucky’s shoulder on her way out.
He and Steve stood there for a moment, silent, before Steve let go. Tony was cleaning up, disconnecting wires and putting away machinery.
He leaned back against the table, arms crossed over his chest, and asked, “What now?”
Steve looked at Bucky. “We go home,” he said.
Natasha was waiting in the apartment when they got back; Tony had dropped them off a few blocks away, well out of sight. She sat, straight-backed, in a chair at the end of the hallway, and stared them down as soon as the door opened.
“Close the door,” she said. Steve did as she said.
“I don’t want to fight you, Natasha,” he said. He shouldered himself in front of Bucky and, in a move that belied his words, hefted his shield higher on his arm.
“I didn’t come here to fight,” Natasha said. She leaned forward. “We need to talk.”
“Alright,” Steve said. He didn’t move. “Natasha, if SHIELD sent you –”
“If SHIELD sent me we wouldn’t be talking,” she said. “You can check, if you want. I promise there’s no SWAT team in your bedroom.”
She smiled and a twinge of something that felt like half-fear and half-recognition struck Bucky.
Finally, Steve lowered his shield.
“Let’s move this into the kitchen,” he said. Natasha went willingly.
In the kitchen she sat down at the table and waited patiently for them to join her. She didn’t start to speak until they were all seated.
“I came here to tell you some things,” she said in a low, quiet voice. Her hands were laced together in front of her, resting on the tabletop. “Things I shouldn’t be speaking out loud, let alone sharing with you. But James -- I think you're owed some answers.”
“You followed us today,” Bucky said, catching something in her face. “Right?”
“Yes,” she said. She leaned forward, curls spilling over her shoulders. “But I didn’t learn anything I didn’t already know.”
“Natasha,” Steve said, looking tense and unhappy. His shield rested against his legs under the table. He looked like he wanted to put a hand on her shoulder.
“And you, Steve, you’re going to let me talk,” she said, shooting him a look. She took a deep breath and said, “This would be easier with a drink.”
“I have coffee,” Steve offered, and Natasha smiled and shook her head.
“No, that’s alright,” she said. She breathed out and said, “There’s a story. It’s a ghost story. It went around SHIELD when I was new – they used it to try and scare the recruits. The story goes like this: there’s a Soviet operative named the Winter Soldier. He’s young and handsome and he never ages. Never misses. Maybe he’s not human. He doesn’t move like he is, and what man doesn’t age? What man never makes a mistake? Ergo, he’s not a man. So he’s a machine. He’s a monster. He’s a ghost.”
She stopped, breathing in deep, and Steve said, in a voice like he already knew the answer, “Natasha, what are you getting at?”
“He’s not a ghost,” she said. “He’s not a story or a myth. I worked with him.”
She looked up, straight into Bucky’s eyes.
“James,” she said. She put her small cold hands over his. “You fell from a train in World War II and resurfaced nearly seventy years later, almost unscathed.” She ran a thumb across his metal knuckles and asked, not unkindly, “Did you think it could really be that easy?”
He opened his mouth to say I’m not him but the lie stuck in his throat. Some part of him, he thought, had known what she was going to say since the moment he’d stepped over the threshold.
Steve’s eyes traveled from one face to the other. “If you’re saying Bucky’s this Winter Soldier, then why doesn’t he remember?”
“The Red Room has many ways of making you forget,” Natasha said. The words Red Room lanced through Bucky’s heart, stole the breath from his lungs. “What better way to make a completely loyal agent then to ensure they know nothing but you? The question isn’t why doesn’t he remember them,” she broke off, looking at Steve. “It’s why he remembers you.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Bucky said. Her hands were still covering his; he turned his hands over, slowly, palms up, and she fitted their fingers together. Her hold wasn’t gentle – the pressure was familiar.
“The Winter Soldier I knew had no past,” Natasha told him. “You – there was a point where something changed. In you, I think. They started to store you between your missions, put you away like a toy in an attic. I didn’t see you often after that.”
“When?” Bucky pressed, voice ragged. He gripped her hands. “When did you know me?”
She squeezed his hands once before letting go.
“A long time ago,” she said with a smile.
Something stirred in his memory: a redheaded girl in ballet slippers, then again in her training uniform with a gun in her hand, equally at ease. One more time, dressed in black in a cold alley, wiping blood from her face while he cleaned his blade in the snow. Her lips formed words he couldn’t remember.
“Natalia Alianovna,” he said. “You were getting married.”
“Yes,” she said.
“He was an ass,” he continued, mostly to watch her smile again as she shook her head. He smiled too, his eyes prickling at the corners, wondering how he could have forgotten Natalia.
“A dedicated man,” she corrected.
“Same difference,” he told her, voice thick.
Then Steve said, “Bucky,” rough around the edges, and everything slipped through his fingers, clarity giving away to fog. Natalia’s face in his memories blurred and then it was just Natasha in front of him again. She looked like she knew, right down to the set of her shoulders.
Natasha got up from the table. She looked at Steve and said, “Not too long ago SHIELD discovered foreign agents poking around in their business. They suspect, probably rightfully, that they’re looking for their Winter Soldier. You’ve discovered someone spying on you?”
“Yes,” Steve said, “but Tony thought it was a SHIELD signal, not your … Red Room. How would anyone know to come looking for him?”
Natasha’s look was sharp. “A witness was recovered from Miami,” she said, and Bucky remembered the face of a man pinned beneath his boot in a cold-hot flash. “The way I've heard it, he started to talk to SHIELD earlier in the week, but Fury – he had suspicions before. As for the Red Room – who can say? Another witness, a photo? Maybe they never believed him -- you-- dead.” She shrugged, an elegant roll of her shoulders. “Regardless, if SHIELD feels there’s a risk – from an outside source, from him, it doesn’t matter – then they’ll make the first move and they won’t be gentle. I don’t intend to be here when they do. I’m leaving,” she looked at Bucky, grim, “and, James, if you were to leave afterwards – I would have no way of knowing that.”
“Natasha,” Steve said, getting to his feet. He looked pale. “Thank you.”
“Don’t,” she said. She locked eyes with Bucky and continued, “I know who the Winter Soldier is and what he can do. I can’t help you. But I won’t stop you either. I owe him that much.”
They walked her to the door. She turned back to Bucky, her face unreadable. She cupped a hand to his face and pressed a dry kiss to his cheek. “Do svidanya, James.”
“Do svidanya, Natalia,” he returned, and then she was gone. The door closed silently behind her. Bucky stood there for a long moment.
Steve exhaled sharply and the spell was broken. Bucky turned on his heel and walked back down the hall.
“Buck,” Steve said, following him. “Buck, wait, we need to –”
“What? Talk?” Bucky said, one hand on the door of his room. “Natasha’s right, Steve. I need to get out of here.”
Steve sucked in a harsh breath. “Right,” he said. “We can talk later. I’ll pack a bag and we’ll—”
“You’re not coming with me,” Bucky said. Steve scowled.
“Don’t be stupid, Buck,” he said. “You’re not going alone.”
“Well you’re not coming with me, and that’s the end of it,” Bucky shot back, throwing clothes into a bag and zipping it tight. He grabbed for his gun then bit his lip, weighing it in his hand. “You heard what she said. I feel like I’m losing my mind –”
“That’s exactly why I’m going with you,” Steve said. Bucky shook his head and Steve made a frustrated noise. “Bucky, just stop for a minute –”
“No,” Bucky said, rounding on him. “Stop it, Steve -- for once can’t you just stay put when I ask you to?”
That line was back again between Steve’s brows. “Bucky,” he said. “Put the gun down and we can talk about this.”
He looked down, surprised, at the weapon, then bit off a curse and packed it away. “See?” he said, back to Steve so he wouldn’t have to see the look in his face. “I’m dangerous. I’m dreaming about the worst kinds of things and I can’t trust the words coming out of my mouth. I just pointed a gun at my best friend.”
Steve was silent. When Bucky looked over his shoulder he was still standing there, stone-faced.
“You can’t expect me to back down because you think you might hurt me,” he said. “Besides, I’d like to see you try.”
“Don’t joke,” Bucky told him. “You can’t Captain America your way out of this one.” When Steve just stood there, arms crossed, Bucky exhaled and shook his head. “Steve. Come on. It’s not about hurting you. But if I…” if I hurt someone else, if it stops being me, “if something happens, I – that’s a decision I don’t want you to have to make, okay?”
“So it’s better to let you go alone?” Steve snapped, angry now. “To what, let you slink off and die?”
Bucky threw him a look. “Don’t be so dramatic,” he said. “I’m going to be fine. I’ll get farther away if I don’t have Captain America with me, right?”
He tried to grin but it wouldn’t come out right. Steve didn’t look any less angry.
“There are people here who need you,” Bucky said at last. He shouldered his bag. “Right now I’m not one of them. So do your duty, Cap, and stop pretending like you could ever stop me from doing anything I’d made up my mind about.”
Steve’s shoulders slumped just the slightest bit.
“You won’t be able to contact me,” he said. “SHIELD’ll keep tabs on me as soon as they figure out you’ve gone.”
Bucky glanced at his own phone, lying on the table, and thought suddenly of Clint's messages. His fingers itched; he wondered if there were more, if he should say -- something. But what? Thanks for the great night, but it turns out I'm a brainwashed super assassin? Just a plain sorry and nothing else? Nothing seemed right.
("Just warning you," Clint had said the night before, grin gone a little shy around the edges. "I fall fast and I fall hard."
"That's a-okay with me," Bucky had replied, so sure of himself in that moment.)
He left the phone lying where it was.
"Be careful," Steve said.
“No promises,” Bucky said, smile twitching into something a little more real when Steve snorted. Bucky clapped him on the shoulder. “Thank you.”
“Take my bike,” Steve said, “and don’t you dare scratch her.”
He had just gotten out of the city and onto an empty side road when a car cut him off. Clint was behind the wheel of it. Bucky only just managed to avoid hitting him, skidding to a stop mere feet away.
Clint killed the engine and said, “Get in.”
“Were you following me?” Bucky demanded, staying right where he was.
Clint shoved his sunglasses – it was the middle of the night, Bucky reflected, feeling numb – on top of his head. He looked Bucky square in the eye and said, “What, so Nat’s the only one allowed to be a super ninja? Yes, I was following you. Now get in the car.”
“No,” Bucky said. Clint made a frustrated noise.
“We don’t have time for this,” he said. “You need to get in the car.”
“What if I don’t?” Bucky challenged.
“You’re running away from SHIELD on Captain America’s bike, all on your own,” Clint pointed out. “If I found you, what chance do you think you have against the rest of them and their invisible fucking airship?”
Bucky sucked in a breath through his teeth. He didn’t move. Clint sighed and dragged a hand through his hair, dislodging his stupid sunglasses in the process.
“Bucky, please,” he said. “If anyone knows how to avoid them, it’s me.”
“You’re one of them,” Bucky pointed out.
“Wrong,” Clint said, scowling. “I’m an Avenger.”
Bucky snorted. “That’s the best you can do?”
“I’m also the guy who stole Tony Stark’s vodka out of the tower kitchen specifically so I could lick it off your abs,” he said. “So you know. There's that.”
Bucky felt some of the fight come out of him. He slumped in the motorcycle’s seat.
“I didn't ask you to do that,” he grumbled, hand over his eyes. "Much.”
“You liked it,” Clint said with a leer, and for a second it was like the night they spent in his rooms at the tower again, Bucky laughing uncontrollably as Clint licked a stripe up his stomach. Disgusting and weirdly romantic and in that moment Bucky had never, ever wanted to let anyone else but Clint come near him with a wildly expensive bottle of vodka and that look in their eye ever again.
But it wasn’t that night, and Bucky couldn’t be that person anymore.
“Do you want SHIELD to drag you back?” Clint asked at last. “They’re not going to go easy on you. Not after this.”
“And you think you can help with that?” Bucky said with disbelieving scowl.
“I think I can’t hurt,” Clint said and stared until Bucky blinked first.
“Why do you even want to help?” he asked at last, when it was clear Clint wasn’t planning on backing down.
“Why wouldn’t I want to help you run from an above the government agency?” Clint asked.
“Why wouldn't you,” Bucky repeated with a curse and a pang. “I’m going to need something else.”
Clint kicked the door of the car open and climbed out.
“You want more? Fine, okay, here’s the truth,” he said. “Two years ago someone got in my head. Not for long, I guess – it felt like forever at the time – but I did things and …" He broke off with a curse, staring down the dark road. "I know what it feels like afterwards. And I know you think you have to do this alone.” He locked eyes with Bucky. “But that’s bullshit. If there’s one thing you shouldn’t do alone, it’s this. So I’ll leave, if you want me to, but if it’s all the same to you I think I’d rather stick around.”
Bucky studied him for a long moment. He knew he should tell Clint to get back in the car, turn around and drive, get back to New York and tell everyone he couldn’t find him.
He didn’t want that.
“Help me get this thing off the road,” he said instead.
Together they led the bike off the highway and down in an overgrown grove of trees below on the edges of an abandoned lot. Bucky pocketed the keys and ran a hand over the bike’s body.
“Sorry, Steve,” he said.
“He’s going to be more worried about you than the bike,” Clint said. “Come on. We need to mosey.”
They walked, shoulder to shoulder, back to Clint’s car. Clint knocked his shoulder against Bucky’s and offered him a lopsided grin that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
“Don’t look like that,” he said. “It’s going to be okay.”
There was a brainwashed assassin lurking just under his skin; nothing was going to be okay. Bucky sucked in a breath through his teeth. “I want a guarantee.”
“A what?” Clint said, quirking an eyebrow. “A guarantee of what?”
“That I’m not going to get into that car and have you turn around and tranq my ass back to SHIELD,” Bucky said, scowling. Clint stifled a snort.
“From what Natasha tells me, you’d kick my ass six ways to Sunday before I could get the needle,” he said. Bucky shrugged.
“Maybe,” he allowed. It seemed like the kind of thing the Winter Soldier could do.
Clint leaned back against the car and crossed his arms over his chest. He considered Bucky for a long moment.
“I'll tell you my middle name,” he said.
“What?” Bucky said.
“Once we get out of this,” Clint said. “It’s not exactly a guarantee, but, there you have it. I'll tell you when we're safe.”
Bucky bit back a short laugh. “I doubt that I'm ever going to be safe. Really?”
“Really,” Clint said.
"Better be a hell of a middle name," Bucky said, shaking his head. The corner of Clint's mouth twitched.
He leaned forward, then hesitated just the slightest second before kissing him soundly; his lips were warm and chapped and Bucky didn’t bother stopping himself from kissing back.
“I promise you,” Clint said when he pulled back. “You’re going to be fine.”
Bucky had a hard time believing him, but he wanted to.
“I’m driving,” he said.
“Nice try,” Clint said. He flipped himself into the driver’s seat before Bucky could object and slid the keys into the ignition. He raised his eyebrows. “Coming?”
“How much trouble is this going to land you in with SHIELD?” Bucky asked, circling the car and climbing into the passenger seat. Clint shrugged.
“Depends,” he said. “They could ship me off to some forgotten outpost with a backpack full of protein bars and a broken compass to run surveillance on a nonexistent spy network. Or they could just have me doing grunt work for no pay from here until 2030. Depends on how mad we make them for how long.”
Bucky felt his lips twitch. “You’re off to a good start.”
“What can I say,” Clint said, steering them back onto the road proper. “I’ve always wanted to see Siberia. Alright, it’s 106 miles between here and Chicago--”
“More than that,” Bucky said.
“We got a full tank of gas, half a pack of cigarettes, it’s dark, and we’re wearing sunglasses,” Clint continued.
“You,” Bucky said. “You’re the jerk wearing sunglasses.”
Clint winked at him.
Bucky watched him for a long few moments, the way the occasional streetlamp through his features into sharp relief and the hard-eyed stare he gave the road. Then he settled back against his seat and thought about Steve, back in his Brooklyn apartment. It opened up a fresh ache in his chest, but there was nothing to do about it.
He’d put Steve in enough danger already, and now he was doing the same thing to Clint. He closed his eyes against the beginnings of a headache.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Clint returned. A hand found his, thumb rubbing across his knuckles.
“So,” Bucky said, fighting a smile. He might be running away from one or two secret superspy networks and from his best friend and even from himself, but at least the company wasn’t bad. “This was the least conspicuous car you could find, huh?”
“Shut up,” Clint said. Bucky opened his eyes just in time to see him giving the purple convertible’s door a loving stroke. “It’s the only car Tony’s talking house would let me unlock.”
“Probably revenge for the vodka,” Bucky said, settling back against his seat. “Where are we going, anyway?”
Clint hummed something sweet and off-key.
“Don’t know yet,” he said. “How’s away sound to you?”
“Sounds good,” Bucky said, and let his eyes drift shut.
Clint drove all night, pushing the speed limit half the time and flat-out ignoring it the rest. They ate breakfast at dawn at a tiny 24-hour diner somewhere miles and miles away from where they’d started the night. The eggs were greasy and the bacon was dry and the waitress spent most of her time chain-smoking behind the counter. She called Clint ‘hun’ and he called her ‘doll’ and at the end she brought them two plates of free pie.
“Your turn to drive,” Clint said in the parking lot, tossing him the keys. “My turn to sleep. Wake me up if you see any airships.”
Bucky had no idea where they were going and Clint didn’t seem to care, so he headed west, sticking to back roads and side streets when he could. He’d been a Brooklyn kid and then he’d been in the army and none of that had exactly lent itself well to being the best of drivers.
He glanced at Clint on the quieter roads.
Clint slept sitting up in the passenger seat, his arms crossed over his chest. His bow and quiver sat by his feet. His face wasn’t peaceful, and his shoulders were tight even as he snored softly. His mouth was open just so.
If he was kind or smart or a decent person, Bucky knew, he would leave Clint somewhere, knock him out and drop him off somewhere safe like they’d done with Steve’s motorcycle, off the road and away from danger.
Away from him, at any rate.
But he itched all over, under his skin, and Black Widow’s voice kept repeating Winter Soldier over and over in his ear and above all he didn’t want to be alone. Clint wanted to come, he told himself. It was his decision. He knew what he was getting into. Natasha would have warned him.
He tightened his fingers around the steering wheel, then stopped abruptly when he felt the wheel start to give way beneath his left hand. The car swerved, one moment of lost control, and Clint sat up with a start.
“It’s fine, everything’s fine,” Bucky told him, bringing the car back under control.
Clint gave him a disbelieving look.
“You want me to drive?” he asked. He sounded tired. He looked it, too. Something like guilt clenched beneath Bucky’s ribs.
“No,” he said. “It’s fine. Go back to sleep.”
Clint mumbled an assent and slid back down in the seat, but he didn’t sleep. He watched Bucky from just underneath his eyelids, like he thought Bucky wouldn’t know.
That made it better, somehow.
Clint took over the driving again in the afternoon after a lunch they bought at a 7-11 and ate sitting on the hood of the car.
“How’re you feeling?” Clint asked. Earlier, he’d switched on the radio to an oldies station and smirked at Bucky. Bucky had shot him a look and said, “change it before I hit you,” in Portuguese. They hadn’t talked much since.
“Better,” Bucky said.
“You’ll tell me if you aren’t, right?” Clint said, and when Bucky didn’t reply he sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “Who am I kidding. Of course you won’t.”
They drove for another few hours after that, and twilight was just falling over the horizon when Bucky asked, “Where are we going now?”
“As far away as possible,” Clint said. “As fast as we can. Wherever you want.”
Bucky swallowed hard. “Back in time,” he said. “Don’t suppose you have a time machine in the trunk.”
“Sorry,” Clint replied. “My Stark Tower security clearance cuts off right before those, and SHIELD locked all theirs down after an agent tried to use it to stop Brangelina.”
By late night they were on a long stretch of open road, so Clint pulled the car over and off of it and suggested they get a couple of hours of sleep.
“In the open?” Bucky said, glancing down the road the way they’d come. In the darkness it seemed to stretch on forever, that one road, and he kept expecting to see a flicker of movement or a swarm of SHIELD agents with their guns drawn and at the ready.
“It’s as safe as we are anyplace else,” Clint said, pushing their seats back as far as they would go. “I’ve been on a lot of missions for SHIELD. Hunted a lot of people down.”
Bucky glanced at him. He was looking down the road, too, with his mouth set in a grim line. His eyes were hard and faraway.
“Yeah?” he said. He covered Clint’s hand with his own and realized belatedly that it was his metal one, chilled by the night air. He started to move it, but Clint flipped his own hand palm up and twisted their fingers together, running his thumb across Bucky’s steel knuckles.
“I’ve caught more in cheap motel rooms than I have out in the open,” he said, and flashed Bucky a grin more confident than he thought either of them felt.
“Maybe that’s because none of them were stupid enough to camp outside with SHIELD on their asses?” Bucky challenged, words at odd with the way he tilted his head towards Clint. Clint bit down on a laugh.
“Maybe,” he agreed. He lay down, staring up at the sky, and after a moment Bucky joined him. The night sky above them was vast and clear and Bucky found himself tracing the few constellations he knew and making up some he didn’t. “Don’t you worry. By the time I’d left, Stark was doing his best to be a distraction.”
Bucky closed his eyes at the thought.
“Top up or down?” Clint asked after a moment.
“Leave it down,” Bucky said. Clint whistled.
“Alright,” he said. He held up his free hand, making a gun with his forefinger and thumb and cocking it at some far off constellation. “But if you’re worried about elite SHIELD snipers sneaking up on us in the night…”
Bucky grunted in annoyance. He pushed himself up on his elbows and then swung himself over into the passenger seat, straddling Clint’s lap. He leaned down, arms on either of Clint, until their noses nearly brushed.
“I said leave it down,” he said. Clint smirked. His hands came up, resting at Bucky’s waist and then drifting lower. He grabbed his ass and squeezed. Bucky groaned against Clint’s mouth. “I’m going to ride you like I stole you.”
Clint’s laugh was sharp and delighted.
“I hate to break it to you, but you sort of did,” he said, in between the sloppy openmouthed kisses Bucky pressed against his mouth, drifting across his chin and jaw. “Okay. Worth the risk.”
“The key to being on the run?” Clint said with a grin that looked like a lie. “You got to stop sometimes.”
It was good, for a little while. They holed up in out of the way places, hotels and motels and one time breaking into an empty, for-sale apartment. It was almost fun and almost easy to forget the gaping chasm inside his mind and under his skin.
Bucky dreamed of the cold most nights. It was fuzzy, just the recollection of it, seeping down under his skin. Maybe it was just his own fear, he rationalized in the morning, face pressed up against Clint’s warm shoulder. Natasha’s voice haunted him: They put you away like a toy in an attic.
He only asked Clint about the Winter Soldier once and got an apologetic smile in return.
“Sorry,” he said, shaking his head. “Afraid you’re above my security clearance.”
“Not exactly what I wanted to hear, Special Agent Barton,” Bucky replied. He leaned their foreheads together, eyes searching Clint’s face. His right hand cupped Clint’s neck, thumb against his pulse. It was steady; not a hint of a liar’s fast hard flutter.
(Where had he learned that? Did it matter?)
“I know,” Clint said. “I’d tell you different if I thought it could help.”
They were followed on the fourth day. It started with the familiar prickle along the back of Bucky’s neck and ended in a dingy tiny deli with harsh flickering overhead lights. He angled the metal napkin holder so he could see over his shoulder, eyeballing the couple seated by the door. The man was tall and stern-faced; the blonde woman picked disinterestedly at her plate.
Bucky traced down the line of their bodies and knew where their weapons were concealed.
“Not SHIELD,” Clint said when Bucky looked up. His eyes were focused on the mirrored back wall. “But … someone, definitely.”
“Yeah,” Bucky said. He clenched his left hand under the table. “We need to go.”
They made it back to the hotel just fine, but there were people hanging around the parking lot.
“Grab your gun, boyo,” Clint said as soon as they were in their room. He forced the window open. “I think it’s about to get interesting.”
Hours later they took shifts sleeping in the car in a rest stop, and Bucky dreamed of Natasha’s glittering stare in the darkness, pressing a child’s face against her shoulder while Bucky slit the father’s neck. He started awake at the touch of Clint’s hand. It was just barely dawn; the horizon was a dusty orange-pink through the windshield. He'd lost his gun in the fire fight and caught a half a shouted phrase before Clint's sonic arrow had blocked out any sound, then spent the first leg of their getaway drive dry-heaving in the back seat as half-remembered words rattled around in his head. Stark would have hated to see what they'd done to his car.
“We could go to Westchester,” Clint said at a stoplight, once they were on the road again. “It’s in the opposite direction, but I hear the X-Men have a good couple telepaths. Maybe one of them can check your head out.”
Bucky shivered. Every time he thought of the X-Men he thought of Wolverine and the pale shade in the bloody pink kimono that hung behind Bucky’s eyes every time he looked at him.
“No,” he said.
Clint shrugged. “Your choice.”
They stopped for breakfast at a tiny coffee shop and Bucky bought a copy of every newspaper in the place.
“You looking for something?” Clint asked around a mouthful of bagel as Bucky scanned the personals.
“No,” Bucky said. He hit the end of one and folded it, then reached for a second newspaper. Clint grabbed it and lowered it.
“Hey,” he said. He was frowning.
“Hey,” Bucky returned, puzzled. “What?”
“Stay with me, okay?” Clint said. He let go of the newspaper.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Bucky said.
They drove through Iowa the next day. No one was following them as far as Bucky could see, but there was a tightness to Clint’s shoulders that hadn’t been there earlier. Neither of them wanted to be caught unawares again.
“It’s not that,” Clint said when Bucky asked. “I was born here.”
“Here?” Bucky asked, casting a look around.
“Well,” Clint said with an awkward shrug. “In Iowa.”
“Oh,” Bucky said. He watched as Clint drummed his fingers against the wheel, waiting for a light to change. “We could stop. If you want to.”
Clint made an amused noise. He shook his head.
“Nothing for me here to see,” he said. “I’m a circus kid. You move around a lot.”
“I didn’t know that,” Bucky said, sliding Clint a sidelong look. Clint caught it and raised an eyebrow.
“You juggled, right?” Bucky asked, smirking. Clint gave him a disparaging look.
“Where else do you think I learned to shoot?” The light turned green and Clint sped through it. “Want to go to Vegas?” he asked.
Bucky shrugged. “I don’t know,” he said honestly. He didn’t feel like going anywhere.
Running from SHIELD was one thing, but he’d slipped up half a dozen times between New York and Iowa, mouthing off to some smart remark of Clint’s in Russian or Japanese, and once asking for directions at a gas station in Mandarin. He’d slept while Clint had driven in the early hours, and dreamed of waiting hunched low on a cold rooftop, snow in his hair, his breath rising in misty white clouds. He was waiting, but the wait was nearly over – he heard voices coming towards him, a man’s patient rumble and the laughter of children.
He’d woken up with a start and for a long moment wondered why his hand felt so light – he’d had a gun in it a moment ago. Then everything had come back to him in a rush of stale donuts and Clint’s off-key singing.
He didn’t know how long he and Clint would be able to keep driving. Not long, he thought, curling his metal hand into a fist at his side. He could feel it under his skin, like a cold creeping vine.
“We should go,” Clint decided. “You can be my lucky charm.”
“How’s that?” Bucky asked, sliding him a long look. Clint winked.
“Though,” he said after a pause, “come to think of it, I might be banned from a couple of casinos.”
“Just a couple,” Bucky said. “What, you count cards?”
“No,” Clint admitted. A slow grin spread over his face. “But I do have damn good aim with a pair of dice.”
“Comrade, I really don’t think you should rush the process,” the old man was saying. Bucky was so cold he could hardly hear him, his hair dripping icy wet down the bridge of his nose and the back of his neck. “The first few minutes are very important. That was what I stressed in my notes, even back then. The first few minutes –”
“For one mission we don’t need to be so careful,” the younger of the two scoffed. He closed a hand over Bucky’s arm; it seared. He grit his teeth against the sensation. “One more mission, then you can put him back in his box forever.”
The old man wrung his hands. “You should not skip so many key parts,” he said. “You must be careful. Repetition is the key. Consistency. Don’t you wonder why he was kept in stasis for so long in the first place? Men like you, they think they can rush everything.”
“I think we can skip the finer details for such a simple task,” the other man said disdainfully. He clapped Bucky once more on the shoulder. “Get him some clothes. And some weapons. We have a delivery to make, and I intend it gets there.”
He shook awake, shivering so hard his teeth clacked together. Clint was wrapped around him from behind, whispering into his hair. “Shh, shh, hey, it’s okay. C’mon, hey.”
They’d barely touched in two days, not since Clint had ripped a newspaper out of his hands and growled, “I want you to stop buying those. You’re looking for something and you don’t know what. It’s a – a failsafe, it’s something they put in your head, dammit. Can’t you fucking see?”
They’d burned the lot of them in a parking lot and Bucky had watched the smoke curl up, hands stuck in his pockets.
Bucky twisted around and buried his face in Clint’s neck, waiting the shaking out. Clint, to his credit, didn’t ask him anything, just pressed one hand flat to the small of Bucky’s back, tracing small patterns with his thumb. Bucky snaked cold fingers beneath the waistband of Clint’s boxers, pressing them against warm skin.
Finally Clint tried to press a kiss to his forehead, but the angle was awkward and he ended up with his nose in Bucky’s eye instead.
“Sorry,” Bucky said.
“My fault,” Clint replied and Bucky laughed into his neck.
“Not about that, jackass,” he said.
“That’s my name, don’t wear it out,” Clint laughed, pressing his lips to Bucky’s hair. “Sorry, sorry. I’m sorry, Bucky.”
Bucky was quiet for a moment. “What did you want? You know. In the future.”
“Never really thought about it,” Clint admitted. “Don’t know. A dog, I guess. Teen sidekick. You know, the works. Doesn’t matter. I’ve got you.”
Bucky swallowed around I’m a brainwashed assassin with chunks missing out of my memory and said, instead, “I’m no teen sidekick.”
“Bet you would’ve looked good in the tights. Nah,” Clint said. “S’okay. I’m willing to settle.”
Bucky jabbed a thumb against his hip and kissed his neck.
In the end they didn’t make it to Vegas. They did make it to Colorado, in the middle of the night.
“We need to get out of this car,” Bucky said, hand over his eyes. Clint agreed, so they found a hotel. It was a rickety, old place, off the highway. The purple convertible looked too conspicuous in the parking lot by far, but they were both too tired to care. The woman behind the desk gave them a sour look and the keys and they hiked up the stairs in the open air to a room on the second floor.
The inside wasn’t much better than the outside, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and Bucky, at the very least, had seen much worse. He suspected Clint had too, if the hard set of his mouth and the faint recognition in his eyes said anything at all.
“Home sweet home,” he said, throwing his gear on the ground. There were two twin beds and he sat down on the edge of the one closest to the door and wrestled off his boots. “You want the shower first?”
Bucky had been spoiled by the water pressure in Steve’s apartment. The shower here was as old and rickety as everything else, with a grimy sliding door and a tiny complimentary soap propped up against the sink. At least the water was clean.
He climbed underneath the spray and scrubbed at his body and hair until he was mostly clean, then leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. His breathing sounded loud and ragged in his own ears, echoing in the small shower.
The things he used to see only in dreams were coming to him when he was awake now, images flashing against his closed eyelids. Keeping his eyes closed, Bucky reached up with his right hand and traced the seam of his left shoulder, where the metal arm connected. He dug his fingers in, briefly, until his nails cut into his skin. The metal didn’t so much as scratch.
He thought he heard a woman laugh.
When he opened his eyes, there was blood swirling down the drain. He blinked and it was gone.
He shut the water off and climbed out of the shower, pulling his clothes back on heedless of how they stuck uncomfortably to his damp skin.
Clint was lying flat on his back on the bed closest to the door with his feet dangling off the edge. He had a remote in one hand and was flipping through the static-filled channels idly. He raised his eyebrows when Bucky reappeared.
“Hey,” he said. “Took you long enough. I started to think you’d drowned yourself in there.”
“Not big enough,” Bucky said, and that got him a wry half-smirk. Clint pulled himself to his feet.
“Hey,” he said. He put his hand on Bucky’s shoulder, right over where he’d sunk his nails in minutes before. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” Bucky lied.
Clint’s face said he didn’t believe him, but he only squeezed his shoulder and said, “The beds vibrate if you put a quarter in them,” winked, and disappeared into the bathroom. Bucky waited until he heard the shower turn on, then sank down onto the bed.
Clint kept the keys in his quiver, amidst his myriad of arrows, trick and multipurpose and just plain sharp. Bucky entertained the brief thought of snagging them and leaving while Clint was showering, but the thought of being alone in that ugly car and driving until he hit the coast held no appeal for him. Where would he go after that?
A brief image of Japan floated back to him. In it, he held a dead woman, the same one he’d seen in his mind’s eye when he looked at Wolverine, and he knew without a doubt that her blood was on his hands. Nausea gripped him and he blinked the images away, then lay down on the narrow bed. Clint had left the news on low and Bucky listened with half an ear, drifting in and out of consciousness.
After ten minutes, Clint came back out, looking damp and flushed. He had two day’s worth of stubble on his face, but Bucky knew he didn’t look much better on that front.
He heard Clint hesitate and thought with a pang that he might take the other bed, but after a moment he felt the mattress dip. Clint climbed in beside him, pressed back to back with Clint facing the door.
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Clint said in a rough, tired voice. “Get some sleep.”
Bucky didn’t argue.
The old man knelt before him in the plane. He held something cupped between his cupped palms; it glowed softly, and the light sent shocks of lancing pain behind Bucky’s eyes.
“Ah, the things they do to you,” the old man said in a kind voice. “Is it any wonder you don’t work how they want? A gentle touch, I tell them. In all things gentle. Like with this.”
He opened his hands and revealed the small blue glowing thing. It sang and lit up the old man’s face, catching in the lines of his mouth and his grey beard.
“I’m not supposed to show you,” he said with a conspiratorial wink. “They think you can’t be trusted. They’re probably right. But it reminds me of you – empty, but with limitless potential.”
He placed it in Bucky’s hands; it weighed barely more than a butterfly and its sides were eggshell thin.
“It reminds me of that song,” the old man said. “How does it go? Like a diamond in the sky?”
Bucky closed his eyes and remembered being very small and someone pointing at the dark sky, saying, “make a wish, Jimmy,” and his chest ached worse than his head.
He closed his fingers around the thing and crushed it.
The alarm clock by the side of the bed told him it was 10:35 when he woke up. The other side of the bed was rumpled, but Clint was gone. There was a note on the bedside table, scribbled on a torn piece of paper:
Gone to find an old friend.
Friend’s a strong word. Nothing to worry about.
Be back soon,
Bucky put the note down and went to the window. Pushing the blinds aside, he found the day was sunny and bright. There was a diner across the street and he suddenly realized just how hungry he was.
He scrawled going across the street, won’t be long underneath Clint’s message, just in case Clint got back first, then grabbed his stuff and headed out.
The day was warm and he started to sweat almost as soon as he stepped out, jacket and gloves sticking uncomfortably, but there was nothing to be done about it.
The diner, at least, was nicer than their roadside motel, big and bright with red vinyl booths and forks that looked like they’d been washed sometime recently. He ordered coffee and a burger without looking at the menu and leaned back as soon as the waitress was gone, looking out the window. He half-expected to find the motel parking lot crawling with agents, but everything was how it had been the night before, minus the purple convertible. He sighed and tried to force himself to relax; his head felt filled up with cobwebs and fog, a pale shadow that reminded him of the first few moments after Steve had rescued him from behind enemy lines.
Someone had left a newspaper in the booth. Bucky ran his fingers across the black and white cover page, remembering the desperate look on Clint’s face -- you’re looking for something and you don’t know what--, but it was only a newspaper.
He flipped through it idly while he waited for his order.
Bucky was halfway through his burger, idly scanning the personals, when the world went red and flipped sideways.
“Hey,” someone said to his left. It was the waitress; she was holding a pot of coffee. “You’re not looking too good. Are you alright?”
He didn’t have his gun, his knife, or the length of garrote wire he usually kept on his person. Where had they gone? It was unlikely he'd lost them and allowed himself to be weaponless. The coffee she’d just poured into his cup was scalding hot and there was a knife by the side of his plate. He took note of the other customers, of the placement of the one ancient security camera up behind the counter.
He’d been compromised, knocked off mission course. Nothing to do but get back on it and get back to the rendezvous point. He grabbed the butter knife and looked up with a smile –
-- only to drag himself back, gasping. A cold sweat beaded his forehead as he said, “Fine, I’m fine.”
“You sure?” the waitress said, but Bucky saw her take a step backward. He realized he still had the knife clutched in his hand. He released it with a clatter and gripped the tabletop for support. “You really don’t look so good.”
“It’ll pass,” Bucky mumbled. “It’ll pass, I’m fine, sorry.”
It was late afternoon when Clint returned and Bucky’s head felt like it was going to split open.
Clint was whistling, swinging the hotel key back and forth, and his arms were weighed down with plastic bags.
“Honey, I’m home,” he said.
“Shut the light,” Bucky said. He had his fingers tangled in his hair, sitting on the edge of the bed with his elbows resting on his knees. Clint obeyed. There was the rustle of bags dropping and warm fingers on his face. He peered through his fingers to see Clint kneeling before him.
“You look like shit,” he said. He cautiously trailed his fingertips over Bucky’s scalp, like he was checking for injuries. “What the hell happened?”
“Don’t know. I went to get food and then everything just went sideways,” Bucky hissed through his teeth. “Clint –”
Clint made a shushing noise, stroking one broad palm over Bucky’s head and down his neck, thumb tracing behind his ear. Then the hand was gone and Clint was leaning sideways, towards his quiver. Bucky’s stomach gave a sickening lurch.
He was alone with an armed SHIELD agent and no weaponry of his own, except for what they had given him -- his arm. He narrowed his eyes and watched from beneath his fingers, waiting for an opportunity, a shift in the other man’s stance.
Bucky sprang, and everything narrowed to that point.
A sharp pinprick of pain brought him back. He had Clint up against the wall, metal hand wrapped around his throat. Clint’s eyes were bright and there was an impressive bruise beginning to color along his cheekbone.
He had an arrow shaft clenched in his fist, the head pressed to Bucky’s chest.
“I don’t want to hurt you,” he was saying, “but I can and I will, so this is your last warning.”
“I’m okay, I’m okay,” Bucky gasped, easing his fingers one by one from Clint’s throat. “I’m sorry, Clint, I can’t – I can’t.”
Fingermark bruises ringed Clint’s throat, red and angry. He rubbed at them with one hand. The arrow was still clutched, white-knuckled, in the other.
Bucky drew a great shuddering breath and sank down the wall, hugging his arms to himself like he could keep everything together that way.
“I know,” Clint said, rough-voiced but calm. He sat down next to Bucky, shoulder to shoulder, staring off into the distance. “I know you can’t. Believe me.”
“It’s what they put in my head,” Bucky said, almost laughing. His breath came in short shallow gasps. “They – I can’t, I can’t, I thought I was stronger than it, but I’m not.”
“It’s not your fault,” Clint said. His hand came up, carding Bucky’s hair back from his face. “Come on, deep breaths, calm down.”
Bucky did laugh at that, tipping his head back until it hit the wall. The dull ache was grounding.
“It’s not me anymore,” he said. “I can’t help it, it’s not me anymore, none of this belongs to me. They took it from me and gave it to this – this thing and I don’t want to be that, Clint. I don’t know how to stop it.”
“I know,” Clint said, tilting their heads together. His eyes were closed. “I know, I know. Calm down. You’re no good to either of us like this.”
“How is calming down going to help?” Bucky asked. He raised his metal hand to his own throat, fingers settling into a mirror image of the way he’d held Clint.
“You need to concentrate,” Clint said. “Keep yourself together. I don’t want to fight you, Bucky.”
“I don’t want to fight you either,” Bucky said, forcing himself to breathe. Deeply, in and out, in and out, feeling the motion beneath his metal fingers. He laughed, bitterly, and said, “I don’t think you’d win.”
Clint made a noise that was neither agreement nor disagreement. He stroked Bucky’s hair back again and leaned forward until their foreheads were pressed together. Clint breathed out and Bucky breathed in and Clint said things like, there, that’s it, you got it, and it was enough for a few long, long moments.
Finally, Bucky leaned back and pressed his hands to his face. He took a ragged breath.
“I keep dreaming,” he said, “I keep dreaming I’m on the train, right? Did I ever tell you this?”
“No,” Clint said. “But I’ve read the file.”
“Right, they have a file,” Bucky said numbly. “’Course they do.”
“You’re on the train,” Clint said. He was rubbing his thumb up and down Bucky’s wrist, fingers clasped loosely.
“I keep dreaming I’m on the train,” Bucky said, choking on the words. “And I fall, but Steve, he grabs me. He grabs me and I don’t fall and they don’t do this to me.”
Clint was silent for a long moment.
“If I could hit you really hard and make it all go away, I would,” he said.
That startled a laugh out of him.
“How would that help?” he asked. Clint gave him a sad half-smirk.
“It’s been known to,” he said. He was drawing circles on the inside of Bucky’s wrist, where his pulse would be on a normal flesh and blood hand. “Something tells me we’re not making it to Vegas.”
“No,” Bucky said, shaking his head. “The Red Room had seventy years with me and it just keeps slipping back, and I keep remembering. I don’t know if I’ll be able to come back from it, next time. I killed SHIELD agents, Clint.”
“So have I,” Clint said, softly.
"Women," Bucky continued, heedless. "Maybe children. I don't know what I did."
“It’s not your fault. They took you out, Bucky, they put something else in, I know—”
“It’s not the same,” Bucky said, grabbing Clint’s hand and holding on. “It’s not seventy years.”
Clint watched him, thin-lipped, for a long moment. “What do you want to do?” he said.
Bucky sucked in a breath. He closed his eyes.
“Either SHIELD gets me or the Red Room does,” he said. “I’ll go back to them if I keep going. I know the way, I remember it every time I —every time I slip up.” He licked his lips; they cracked, dry, under his tongue and stung. “It’s better if SHIELD gets me.”
Clint sighed, harsh, and said, “They’re not going to go easy on you. But they’ll help.”
Bucky laughed bitterly. “Sure they will,” he said. “I know what they’ll do, Clint.”
“You think I’m going to let them do anything?” Clint said fiercely. “You think Steve’s going to let them? What they want from you, that’s just information. Facts they think are somewhere down in your head. It’s going to be hard and it’s going to hurt and you’ll hate them for it but they’re going to help. You’re no good to them a half-brainwashed mess. They have enough tools already.”
Bucky opened his eyes.
“If you believe in ‘em so much, why did you help me run?” he asked, searching Clint’s face. Clint grabbed his hand and squeezed.
“Because you wanted to. Because those 70 years, you didn’t get a choice,” he said. “You had to make this one for yourself.”
“What if I’d made the wrong one?” Bucky asked, reading between the lines: the tight set of Clint’s shoulders, the arrow lying on the ground on his far side.
Clint, hard-eyed, didn’t give him an answer. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a cell phone. He pressed it into Bucky’s hand.
“Call Steve,” he said, closing Bucky’s fingers around it.
Steve picked up on the second ring. He was on the street; Bucky could hear the bustle of the crowd through the speaker. “Clint?” he said.
“Hey, Steve,” Bucky said. His throat felt tight.
“Bucky,” Steve said.
“You find your bike?” Bucky asked. “I tried to leave it where you’d get it.”
“Bucky, hang up,” Steve said, voice full of urgency and concern. “This line isn’t safe.”
“It’s okay,” Bucky told him. He was crying now, hot, frustrated tears that slid down his face and wouldn’t stop. He raised one hand to scrub at them, but Clint got there first, rough thumbs swiping at his cheeks. “It’s okay, Steve, I know it’s tapped. That’s why I called.”
“Bucky,” Steve said softly.
Bucky bit his lip until he tasted blood and opened his mouth, but the words wouldn’t come out. He made a choked noise and Clint grabbed his face between his hands. He kissed him, over and over, dry lips on Bucky’s wet cheeks and chin and just under each eye, until Bucky said, “Come get me, Steve,” rattled off the address, and hung up.
Steve arrived in his uniform with a SHIELD escort waiting down below. Nick Fury stood with them.
Bucky met him at the door with Clint at his back. His face was dry and his eyes were hot, but his chest felt lighter, all the aching cagey fight gone out of him. It felt less like surrender than he thought it would.
Steve looked like his heart was breaking.
“Bucky,” he said. He pushed the cowl back from his eyes and Bucky was surprised to find them red. He’d never seen Steve cry, not once in a hundred back alley fights or in the wake of half a dozen army rejections.
Bucky grabbed him up in a hug.
“Don’t make that face, stupid,” he said in Steve’s ear. “This is my decision.”
Steve nodded, embracing back briefly before he let Bucky go.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and Bucky knew he was thinking of one mission and seventy years ago too, one time where he wasn’t fast enough to grab Bucky’s hand. “I should have – I never save you.”
“You saved me once,” Bucky told him. “It’s gotta be my turn now, you hear?”
Steve nodded and stepped back. Bucky walked out of the room and onto the narrow landing. He leaned out over the balcony.
“Director Fury,” he said. Fury gave him a long, hard look.
“Barnes,” he said. His one eye flickered to the side to stare at Clint. “Agent Barton.”
Clint gave him a salute. “Sir.”
“You boys done giving us the runaround?” Fury asked, raising an eyebrow. “Or am I going to have to come up there?”
Bucky traded a look with Clint. Clint tangled their fingers together and squeezed, once, then let go. He put his mouth to Bucky's ear and whispered a name. Bucky turned back to Fury, eyes stinging.
“I think we’re ready to come home,” Bucky said.
epilogue: eighteen months later
Urgent described it about right: a sleepover party hosted by the daughter of a New York billionaire had disappeared in the night, with the only clues to their locations being a familiar radiation signal and a short cell phone call placed by one of the frightened girls. Thirty seconds long, it consisted of her screaming about wizards and dragons before the line went dead. Stark’s satellite network had picked up both the signal and the call, which traced back to a forest in upstate New York. Within the hour, the Avengers were on their way.
Bucky didn’t really know how that had ended up with him and Natasha up a tree, caught by pine needles and anti-gravity disks. He finally managed to get his off his ankle and broke it in two, then scrambled up a branch to try and get at the one on Natasha’s back.
She smacked his hand away.
“I’m fine,” she said. “Get the kids.”
Bucky gave Natasha a look. She gave it right back to him, along with a shove that sent falling backwards. He grabbed a lower branch to stop his fall and scowled up at her.
“Not alright!” he said. She rolled her eyes, pulling some very impressive contortions to reach the disk.
“Get the kids,” she repeated, grabbing the disk and breaking it in two. A smile spread across her face. “I get the Wizard.”
“You get all the fun,” Bucky grumbled, then dropped from the tree and took off at a run through the forest.
The kids – a dozen or so junior high-aged girls still in their pajamas -- were being kept in a cage hauled high up in the trees. Bucky had seen them right before he and Natasha had been nailed from behind; after that, it had just been a battle not to get carried too far off the ground.
Bucky followed the screaming and found the girls again, still safe for the moment and unguarded. Bucky surveyed the cage, trying to figure out the safest way to get the kids down. He didn’t want to risk the chain that tethered the cage in the trees, nor the anti-gravity disks stuck to the bottom of it, for fear of it falling with the kids still inside.
Clint usually had good ideas about those kinds of puzzles, but Clint had been in the Czech Republic with Bruce for the better part of a week, tracking down a suspicious Gamma radiation signal.
“Hold on,” he called up to the kids. “I’m an Avenger, and I’m going to get you guys down!”
The chorus of cheers that erupted made him smile; the fact that one of them had hung onto her cell phone and was now snapping pictures of his climb up the tree did not.
Three-quarters of the way up the tree, the girls all shrieked in unison and Bucky threw himself up onto a higher branch just quick enough to avoid a blast of fire. Looking over his shoulder, he saw a dragon winding its way through the trees.
“Figures,” he grumbled, and reached for his gun.
Before he could fire, the dragon let out an inhuman wail, the frills on its face fanning out. An arrow protruded from its scaly side. Bucky followed its trajectory and found Clint, standing with his feet apart on a nearby tree branch and doing his best impression of Robin Hood.
“Hello, gorgeous,” he said with a wink in Bucky’s direction. “Did you miss me?”
“I’ll miss you more, you don’t look where you’re shooting,” Bucky said, swinging himself onto a higher branch. The dragon was slinking through the trees, its eyes fixed on Clint.
Clint gave him an infuriatingly bright grin and shot backwards over his shoulder; he hit the dragon’s other side.
“Fine, you’re so smart,” Bucky said, finally eye-level with the cage, “how am I supposed to get these kids down in one piece?”
Clint fitted another arrow to his bow. “Don’t worry, help’s coming and he’s pretty angry about his beauty sleep being interrupted.”
“Oh no,” Bucky said, just as the Hulk crashed through the underbrush with a mighty roar. Half the girls screamed; the other half threw up their hands and cheered.
“Hulk not like this forest,” he rumbled. He glanced up at Bucky and narrowed his green eyes. “Arrow Man says Hulk help Robocop.”
From somewhere in the trees, Clint gave a hooting laugh. Bucky grumbled. He grabbed the underside of the nearest disk and it snapped beneath his hands.
“Don’t worry,” he said to the girls as he made for the second and the third. The cage lurched dangerously. “Everything’s going to be okay.”
Finally arriving at the fourth, he said, “Hey, Hulk, catch!”
He crunched the disk in half and the cage gave a shuddering groan, then fell. The girls all screamed and the Hulk roared, leaping to catch it in midair. He cradled the cage in his giant arms with that rare gentleness that still took Bucky by surprise.
“Tiny humans be quiet,” the Hulk said, putting the cage carefully down on the forest floor. “You make Hulk’s ears hurt.”
One of the girls reached through the bars of the cage, her fingertips almost trailing over one massive forearm. Her eyes were shining. She was wearing a Hulk t-shirt over a pair of Hulk pajama pants.
“You’re the strongest,” she said, awed. The Hulk preened.
“Hulk know,” he replied, and then took off the way he’d come back through the trees, leaving Bucky and fifteen starstruck preteens in his wake. Somewhere through the trees, Bucky heard the faint, familiar sound of arrows being fitted to Clint’s bow.
Bucky sighed and knelt down in front of the cage. The Hulk had dented it a bit. Bucky supposed that couldn’t be helped, but now the lock was smashed.
He flexed the fingers of his metal arm.
It was a new model and not Stark-built, something Tony seemed to take as a constant personal offense, but Bucky liked it. He’d picked it out himself, and SHIELD’s engineers had built a holographic function into it; he was enjoying being able to go out as a civilian, no gloves necessary.
He gave the bars of the cage a yank – nothing. Another yank, with his foot braced against the bottom for leverage. Still nothing.
He wiped his forehead with the back of his hand, taking a step back. “What is this made out of…?”
“Want some help?”
Carol swooped down, landing neatly next to him. Her red sash was plastered to her leg with what looked like glue. She caught him looking and rolled her eyes.
“Took out ol’ Paste Pot Pete,” she said. “Spider-Woman’s handling the bitch with the hair.”
She curled her hands around the bars and nodded at him to take the other side. He did.
“Okay, kids,” he said to the girls. “Count to three for us!”
They did, and on three he and Carol both put all their might into it. The bars gave way with a creaking groan. The kids all tumbled out, throwing their arms up in the air. One of them threw her arms around Carol’s middle in a hug.
“You got it from here?” Carol asked him when the girl let go. Before he could reply, she said, “Great, get them to safety,” and took to the skies again.
“How come everyone leaves me with the kids?” Bucky asked under his breath. Louder, he said, “Come on, everybody, hold hands with a friend. If we meet the Hulk again maybe he’ll give you guys a ride back to your parents.”
Which was all well and good until Clint was sent sprawling into the clearing, clutching his side. He hit a tree, hard, and didn’t get up. The dragon came crashing after him.
The girls all scattered, screaming, into the trees despite Bucky’s shouted instructions to stay calm. He was groping for his gun when he saw a streak of purple track pants and black hair fly into the clearing.
Clint’s bow had landed mere feet away from him, and one of the girls grabbed it and a scant handful of arrows. The bow looked comically big in her small hands.
Bucky sucked in a harsh breath and ran headlong at her. He grabbed her and swung her up over his shoulder, ducking behind a tree trunk just as the dragon unleashed another stream of fire. Cursing under his breath and hoping against the creeping icy fear in his chest that, somehow, Clint was okay, Bucky set the girl on her feet.
“Let’s go!” he shouted, and together they took off through the underbrush. The dragon crashed after them, taking out entire trees in its path. Bucky fired over his shoulder, but it didn’t seem to do anything but make the beast angry.
They hit a dead end in the form of a high rock wall.
Bucky knew, given time, he could get himself and the girl over it, but he could hear the dragon behind him. The ground shook beneath his feet.
Suddenly everything went quiet. The only noise he could hear was the girl’s breathing, out of sync with his own.
“Do you think it left?” she asked after a moment, very quietly. Bucky snuck his first real look at her – she was about thirteen, average height, wearing a t-shirt bearing a private school’s logo and purple track pants. Her dark hair was pulled back in a ponytail, away from an intelligent face.
“I don’t know,” he said. He scanned the trees, waiting for a flash movement. He caught one, at out the corner of his eye, but it was too late – a huge tail lashed out and nearly caught him, sending him stumbling backwards.
“Run!” he shouted at the girl, struggling to his feet. She did – only to stop a few feet away.
She nocked one of the arrows to Clint’s bow and took a deep breath, settling into a familiar stance. She drew the bow back and let fire.
The first arrow went off course and hit a tree trunk. The noise drew the dragon’s attention; it spun around. Its huge, fiery eyes caught on the girl’s small figure and it snorted. Smoke furled up from its nostrils.
The girl fitted another arrow. This one struck the dragon, sinking into that huge, muscled throat. It screeched, rearing back, and Bucky saw the girl flinch. He started towards her, prepared to knock her out of the way, but the end of that huge tail lashed out again. It caught him square this time and he hit a tree with a heavy thud, the breath knocked from his lungs, and he blinked the stars away from his eyes before staggering forward.
The girl fitted the last arrow to Clint’s bow and let it fly. It caught the dragon in the eye.
Sparks flew through the air as Bucky tackled the girl, covering her body with his own as the dragon started to fall forward.
It didn’t hit. Bucky looked up to see the Hulk holding the dragon’s bulk against his shoulder. Luke’s massive arms were wrapped around a hind leg and Carol had the huge tail. She winked at him, then nearly went flying when the Hulk flipped the dragon backwards with a roar.
Bucky helped the girl up.
“You okay?” he said. She had leaves in her hair and a dirty scrape on her chin, but otherwise she looked no worse for the wear. She still had Clint’s bow in her small hands.
“Yeah,” she said, wiping her face off on the back of her hand. All she did was spread the dirt around.
“Now that was some fancy shooting,” a familiar voice said.
Bucky looked up to find Clint leaning against a nearby tree, one hand clutched over his ribs. His face was white as a sheet and sweat shone on his forehead, but he was standing. Standing, and not bleeding.
Some of the tension drained out of Bucky’s shoulders.
“I’m guessing that’s not your first time shooting one of those?” Clint said, gesturing to his bow. The girl looked down at it, then gave him a bright grin.
“Every summer at Interlochen National Music Camp,” she said. “I also play the cello.”
The Frightful Four were apprehended and the scattered children rounded up.
“It’s amazing what the promise of a hug from Captain America can do,” Spider-Woman said, picking at a rip in the shoulder of her uniform. Sitting next to her on a rock at the side of the road, Bucky had to agree.
“I’ve never been Instagram’d so much in my life,” Luke muttered. “One of ‘em got glitter all over me.”
The majority of the kids were still flocking around Steve, but a few were listening with rapt attention as Iron Man and Captain Marvel reenacted their takedown of the wizard, and the girl in the Hulk shirt was grinning ear to ear as Bruce, dressed in a bathrobe and the spare pair of pants Tony always kept in the jet, signed the back of her shirt.
“Did we get in touch with all their parents?” Bucky asked. Jessica nodded.
“They’re on their way,” she said. “I think some of them had to stop and pick up their lawyers.”
“Wonderful,” Bucky muttered. Footsteps crunched in the dried leaves behind him, and then Clint was lowering himself down on the rock next to him.
“Hey,” Bucky said.
“Hey,” Clint returned. He slipped his hand none too subtly into Bucky’s back pocket.
“Wow,” Jessica said, getting up. “Look at the time, Luke, would you believe it’s inappropriate PDA o’clock already?”
She tapped her wrist as if to indicate a watch, then got up, going over to help Carol mime her discovery that the dragon was actually a giant robot.
“I gotta go call Jess. Don’t scar nobody,” Luke said, shaking his head at them as he left.
“When did you get back?” Bucky asked, slinging an arm around Clint.
“Few hours ago,” he said. “Bruce and I got the call on the flight home and then I had to insult his crossword prowess to get him to Hulk out.”
Bucky made an agreeable noise.
“How was the Czech Republic?” he asked. Clint shrugged, then winced.
“Same old, same old,” he said. “Fought a guy calling himself the Abomination. Had fried cheese. You?”
“Boring,” Bucky replied. “Didn’t have fried cheese.”
“Shoulda come with me,” Clint said. Bucky shot him a look and he shook his head and said, “I know, I know. Too many memories. Session go okay?”
“As good as they ever do,” Bucky replied, wrinkling his nose at the thought of his by now bi-monthly sessions with the redheaded telepath SHIELD brought in from Westchester. She was kind and more importantly helpful, but having people in his head was far from his favorite thing.
He looked out among the crowd and found Clint’s new protégé, proudly displaying the trick arrow Clint had given her to her friends. Clint caught him looking and laughed.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “It was a test for a fire extinguisher arrow. Got bored on the flight back home, but I didn’t have the right supplies. Worst thing she’s going to do with it is spray shaving cream all over her room.”
“Wow, you fill me with so much confidence, Francis,” Bucky said, and Clint groaned. He pressed a rough kiss to Bucky’s jaw.
“You love it,” he said. “And I should have never told you that.”
“You promised,” Bucky reminded him. Clint laughed, then fell quiet with another wince.
“I think I broke like three ribs,” he confessed.
Bucky laughed under his breath. “You’ll heal,” he said, and kissed Clint.