Steve and Bucky hadn't been rolling in cash, back in the day, and as a result he took the jobs he could get. Sign painting was great, but there wasn't always sign painting to be had. What that meant was yes, he'd illustrated a couple of Tijuana bibles in his day. It wasn't something he was in a hurry to mention to the people of the new century, and fortunately none of them had been signed with his real name or even his initials.
So the first time someone on STRIKE sent him a link to a porn video, he rolled his eyes and deleted the email. The concept of a blue movie wasn't exactly new to him, though the idea that it was legal (and in fact free) was, he had to admit, a little startling. But it was just guys being guys, and being teased about his supposed prudery wasn't new either; hell, the Commandos had been champs at it.
Steve had an excellent visual imagination; it wasn't like he needed porn to get himself off. In fact, one of the drawbacks of his souped-up metabolism—one he doubted Erskine had thought about beforehand—was that he, well, wanted to get off regularly and it was always pretty easy, no matter how low he felt in any other respect. Sure, he could have gotten his ashes hauled by one of the dames who wanted to lay Captain America, but that seemed like the worst possible combination of using her and encouraging her to use him. He ended up discovering that there were much better lubricants than Vaseline in the future and taking care of it himself whenever the need, ahem, arose.
It was fine, right up until the party at Rumlow's place the second autumn after the Chitauri. It wasn't for any particular occasion; Rumlow just hosted people every few months. Steve had mixed feelings about going, because the kind of working relationship where you rag on each other in the locker room after a mission was one thing but he wasn't sure he wanted all these guys to be his friends. Some of them, Rumlow most definitely included, were sort of assholes, though Steve was aware that his reaction to Rumlow wasn't as negative as it might have been if the man hadn't been dark-haired, broad-shouldered, and apparently deeply offended if Steve went into what Rumlow considered unwarranted danger.
But he went to the cookout for the sake of team cohesion. Rumlow set up a grill in his postage-stamp backyard and made hamburgers and frankfurters, there was potato salad, it was fine, and Steve was just thinking about making his excuses for the evening when he heard Mercer. "For God's sake, leave Cap alone," she said, sounding annoyed and like she was trying to keep her voice down. "He doesn't need to see that."
Steve's eyebrows rose and he went over to the door to the room Rumlow kept his computer in. Rumlow probably didn't call it a study, but that was what it was, with a desk and a couple of comfortable chairs and a surprising number of books. Mercer, Rollins and Takahashi were clustered around the computer. They all looked up when he said, "Don't need to see what?"
Mercer looked pissed; Rollins and Takahashi a combination of amused and guilty. "It's stupid internet porn," Mercer said. "These two morons want to try to make you blush."
Steve huffed. "We knew about sex in the 40s," he said mildly. "I even met some guys who'd had it." He rounded the desk and Mercer blocked his view of the screen.
"No, Cap, I really think you'd rather not," she said seriously.
Steve cocked his head to meet Rollins' eyes. "If I look at this, will you guys stop sending me blue links?"
Rollins made a face and said, "We'll do that anyway if it bugs you."
"It only bugs me because you seem to think I can't find it on my own if I want it," Steve said. "OK, lemme see."
"Cap," Mercer said.
"I can handle it," Steve said. She blew out a breath and stood aside.
The video was paused on an image of a man on his knees. From the angle of his shoulders his hands were tied behind his back, which kept him from fending off the standing man whose cock was in his mouth. The recipient's dark hair fell into his face but just enough of the curve of his cheek and the angle of his nose was visible that Steve blurted "Bucky" before he could stop himself.
Takahashi laughed, though it sounded more nervous than anything else. "That's what we thought too," he said. "Doesn't that look just like Bucky Barnes, you know?"
But it was impossible. The image was in color, for one thing, and as far as Steve knew Bucky'd never even had a color photograph taken in his life. The way the shot was framed wasn't right either; if Steve had had to guess, he'd have put its origins in the mid-70s.
"I guess everybody has a double," Steve said. He must have sounded fairly normal because Rollins replied, "There aren't many good shots of his face, but straight on the resemblance isn't as strong."
"Now he's seen it," said Mercer. "Do you feel better about yourselves?"
Rollins sounded grumpy and ashamed, as well he might, when he said, "Yeah, OK, not funny. Sorry, Cap."
Steve never figured out exactly what he said, either accepting the apology or getting the hell out of Rumlow's house, but it couldn't have been too bad because no one looked at him twice the next time he worked with STRIKE. At the time, he was too busy getting behind closed doors to think about it.
He went straight into the shower, turned it on as hot as he could bear, and sat there with the water beating on the top of his head for nearly an hour; when he finally hauled himself out, every inch of his skin was bright red and he was breathing hard, on the edge of heatstroke. He went to bed. He had no trouble sleeping, at least, and if he dreamed of Bucky falling from the train that wasn't anything unusual, even nearly two years (by his memories) later.
But in the morning, he turned on his computer—Natasha liked to tease him about being hopeless with modern technology, but it really wasn't that complicated—went to Google, and typed in "bucky barnes lookalike porn."
By two weeks later he had a folder full of pictures, videos and links, and a case of guilt so huge that Peggy noticed it when he went to see her. She had a very good day, sitting in an armchair and with no lapses in nearly three hours, and Steve thanked God that he'd refrained from looking at any of the (many) places that promised Agent Carter lookalikes. Bucky was dead and beyond caring what Steve did, but he didn't know how he'd have managed to face Peggy if all he could think about was flipping up her skirt.
Peggy, of course, didn't just accept his answer that he'd been "thinking about Bucky a lot lately". She raised her eyebrows at him, and he'd always been helpless in the face of that. "Steve," she said, her voice gentle, "I know it's hard for you, but it wasn't your fault."
"I know," Steve said, and at her skeptical look repeated, "I know, I really do." It wasn't even a lie. He'd gone over every detail so often that he could save Bucky now, given identical circumstances—but not at the time; it had happened too fast. "I just, it's hard to explain?" He could feel a flush rising in his cheeks. He wasn't going to tell Peggy, of all possible people, that every time he'd gotten off in the past week had been with an image of Bucky in his mind's eye.
Peggy looked him over cooly and Steve's blush got deeper. "Steven Rogers, have you spent all this time imagining that I didn't know about you and Barnes?"
Steve's mouth dropped open. He forced it shut. Peggy smiled and took a careful sip of her tea, which had not (to her vocal disgust) been hot even when she was brought it. "I'm English, Steve," she said placidly. "I also had eyes."
Steve fumbled for words. "And...and it didn't—you weren't—"
"Oh, of course not. I'd have been perfectly happy to look for a house with a flat over the coachhouse, if that's what you wanted."
Steve pictured that. Pictured having had them both, instead of neither. Fortunately Peggy's smile turned wicked and she said, "After all, Steve, you have to agree, Barnes was a very attractive man."
Startled, Steve laughed, and it was mostly genuine.
Once he actually started looking it was...a little disturbing how much there was to find. Aside from the anonymous porn, there were websites that made a business of faking famous people, and even an actor who seemed to specialize in playing gay men and who could've been Bucky's brother; Steve had found him by way of a post saying, "Not that Newman wasn't hot stuff back in the day but: best fantasy casting, or best fantasy casting?!" (The side-by-side pictures, from one of their newsreels and one of the actor's television series, were heart-stoppingly similar at first glance, and even at second it wouldn't have taken much makeup to sell the illusion.)
There were also several more film clips of the person Steve thought of as 70s Man. His face was never fully revealed, which Steve found oddly comforting; it let him imagine Bucky better. 70s Man was much more heavily muscled than Bucky had been, and he seemed to have something wrong with his left arm and shoulder that made them stiff and clumsy; old injury, maybe, since the skin was a slightly different shade than on the rest of his body. But his eyes were the right blue and he was more than close enough for Steve's imagination to paper over the gaps, to insert the white chevron of a scar that Bucky'd had on his hip and adjust the tenor of his voice.
70s Man didn't talk. Most of the time there was something in his mouth, either someone's dick or a gag, but even when there wasn't he never produced a whole word. It seemed to be part of the aesthetic, because he wasn't mute; he moaned and whimpered and, in one film clip, screamed. (Steve didn't like that clip very much. Playing rough was all fine and well if everyone involved liked that kind of thing, but Steve had a hard time imagining anyone liking the treatment 70s Man took in that one. Still, he didn't tap out, so it must have been okay.)
Steve found himself watching 70s Man the most; he was the best combination of resemblance and actual sex. Even better, there was another man in his films who was about Steve's height and, from the color of his pubic hair, blond. His face was never shown; none of the men in the films with 70s Man ever had their faces on camera. It made it easy for Steve to pretend it was him, him that the man in the films was sucking off, him who was curled over the man's bent back, fucking into him fiercely. Even him laying open-handed blows on a reddened ass, because Steve did like playing rough sometimes, and Bucky'd liked it too.
The only thing Steve wished was that 70s Man had gotten to be on top once in a while, but from the looks of things he just wasn't interested.
Well, strictly speaking that wasn't the only thing Steve wished; he also wished that his sex drive hadn't decided to get much, much more insistent. Jerking off two or three times a week had been fine; doing it once or even twice a day could get inconvenient, and embarrassing if his libido piped up when he was in the grocery store, or on his motorcycle, or, Heaven help him, once in a post-mission briefing with Hill and Natasha. Not to mention that, most of the time, his orgasms failed to make him feel better to such an extent that they almost made him feel worse. That seemed unfair, somehow.
Steve picked out a few pictures of pretty girls for variety, made sure that he did it without any pornographic accompaniment at least once every few days, and bought lube and tissues with cash. The last thing he needed was SHIELD finding out about his new hobby from his debit card receipts.
"Her father was a CIA operative, though, so she'd understand."
Steve couldn't decide if he thought it was funny or annoying that Natasha kept trying to set him up. "Thanks, but that's not really what I'm looking for," he said.
Natasha threw him a look around the bandage that she held to her cheek. She wasn't going to scar, she'd assured him. "Or she has a brother," she said, like she was offering tea instead of coffee.
Steve sighed. It still got to him, sometimes, that these days he and Bucky could've actually, legally gotten married if they'd wanted to. But then he'd never have let himself look at Peggy, and that didn't bear thinking of. "Natasha," he said, and trailed off.
She waited until it was clear he had no idea where he was going with his sentence and said, "You know it's legal now. Think of the inspiration you'd be."
Steve's jaw set. "Did it ever occur to you that I'm tired of being an inspiration?" he snapped, and got to his feet. It wasn't like there was much room to stalk off into on a Quinjet, but he did his best.
By February he'd stopped actively looking; God knew his collection of pictures, pornographic or otherwise, was enough to keep him going for a while. But in the first flush of enthusiasm he'd joined a few mailing lists.
Saint Valentine's Day wasn't a holiday Steve had paid much attention to back in what he persisted in thinking of as "home"—as if making his way back to Bucky and Peggy and a world that smelled right were a matter of finding the correct subway stop. But in the 21st century it was a much bigger deal. Steve dealt with the deluge of red, pink, lace, chocolate, and jewelry commercials by staying in his apartment as much as possible and watching porn, and therefore on the day itself he was in front of his computer when the free email address he used for these things went absolutely wild.
There were five threads started by five different people within seconds, but they all boiled down to "There are more film clips of 70s Man." Steve thought even as he was following one of the supplied links that he should just leave it alone.
The new film clips were actually shot on videotape, having been made during the 1980s. 70s Man didn't look much older as far as Steve could see, but it was hard to tell because he had a new accessory, a black leather mask that covered the bottom half of his face like a muzzle. It was on him almost all the time; the others in the videos removed it only when they wanted him to suck someone off.
Steve didn't like these videos nearly as much.
The 70s ones had been sex—often rough, but sex. These...well, people still had orgasms, so he supposed they technically counted as porn, but every single one was at least as bad as his least favorite of the originals, and most were worse. In the originals, even in the bad one, it had been possible to tell himself that 70s Man was a willing participant. In these, it simply wasn't.
Steve had done some reading; he'd encountered the word "kinky", which seemed to be the fancy name for "likes to play rough". He still couldn't believe that anyone would volunteer for the things that happened in the new videos.
One of the people on his mailing list used the phrase "torture porn", and Steve agreed wholeheartedly. He didn't need to watch a man scream until his voice gave out, no matter what else was happening at the same time. It restored some of his faith in humanity that everyone who commented said the same thing; the closest anyone got to actual approval was the person who said, "Whatever they're paying that dude, it's not enough."
Steve deleted his copies of the original films and sat before his computer, thinking.
The next morning he woke up hard, stood in a cold shower until he was shivering, and went out running.
His new routine was far less pornographic, but he figured it was probably better for him. Not that he expected to actually go blind or anything so dramatic—every man he'd ever met would need a white cane if that were a real risk—but it wasn't really healthy to spend so much time thinking about sex anyway.
He had to sprint to work up anything resembling a real sweat, which sometimes got him some looks, so he took to varying his route every week or so. By the beginning of April he'd worked his way around to the Reflecting Pool, which was beautiful in the pre-dawn.
The first time, he politely excused himself as he went by. It didn't dawn on him till he heard the grumpy, "Got it" on the second pass that the guy thought he was showing off. The third time, Steve couldn't resist; he sped up just a little and kept his voice totally deadpan as he said, "On your left" again.
Steve went through the window shield-first and landed rolling. The assassin was almost at the edge of the roof and Steve threw his shield; there was a risk the assassin would go over the edge when he (almost certainly a man by the silhouette) collapsed but maybe they'd—
The assassin turned and his left arm (it wasn't a sleeve, wasn't armor, his whole arm was metal) shot out straight and caught the shield. Steve froze where he stood and the assassin just stared at him for a long moment, and there was something in the hunch of his shoulders, the shadow of his lower face that set off a faint ring of familiarity, but there wasn't time to track it down before the man threw the shield back, hurling it harder than anyone but Steve himself should have been able to. He caught it against his stomach, so hard that he was driven back half a step; there'd be bruises on his palms for a few hours.
Steve wasted half a second looking down at the shield in pure disbelief, and by the time he made it to the edge of the roof the assassin was gone, vanished like a ghost.
Steve couldn't figure out what it was about Secretary Pierce's voice that made him uneasy. It niggled at him right away, even before it became clear that Pierce thought he'd been somehow involved in Fury's death.
"All right, I have a question for you, which you do not have to answer," Natasha said. "I feel like, if you don't answer it though, you're kind of answering it, you know."
"All right, all right, what?" Steve said.
"Was that your first kiss since 1945?"
Steve rolled his eyes. "That bad, huh?"
"I didn't say that," Natasha protested.
"Well, it kind of sounds like that's what you're saying."
"No, I didn't..." She sounded a little flustered, and Steve wondered how gullible she thought he was. "I just wanted to know how much practice you have."
"You don't need practice," he said, trying to sound like he thought it was a joke.
"Everybody needs practice," she replied, like it was a truth of the universe.
Steve blew out air and said, "It was not my first kiss since 1945." He'd kissed Peggy, a few times, on very good days when he was sure she knew who he was. "I'm 95, I'm not dead."
Natasha snorted delicately, something he wouldn't have believed possible before he met Peggy. "You act like it."
Steve heard the creaking, but it took him a second to connect it to the tightening of his hands on the wheel. "Believe it or not, it's kind of hard to find someone with shared life experiences," he said, carefully even, and forced himself to loosen his grip. "And I'm not interested in someone who wants Captain America. Men have survived without sex before and will again."
Natasha twisted in her seat to look at him more closely. Steve kept his eyes firmly on the road. Lightly, she said, "Tell me someone at least explained masturbating—"
"Goddamnit!" Steve bellowed, and pulled the truck over with a wrench. Once they were stopped he shoved it into park and put his forehead down on the wheel. "Yes," he said through gritted teeth. "I am familiar with the concept of masturbating."
There was a long pause before Natasha said quietly, "I'm sorry, Steve. I didn't realize quite how bad it was." He turned his head enough to look at her. She didn't look amused anymore. "What the hell happened on Valentine's Day, anyway?" Steve blinked at her and she offered him a small, sincere-looking smile. "I am that good, but even I can't work out every little detail."
Steve sat up. "Last fall some of the STRIKE guys showed me a video. A blue movie. Porn."
"I get it."
"The guy in it," Steve said. She knew he liked men too, of course she did; Natasha could figure out your favorite team from what you had for breakfast and whether you wore suspenders. "He looked a lot like Bucky."
Natasha thought that over for a second and then whistled. "So I'll bet that was awkward back in '42."
"Not so much as you'd think, as long as at least one of you stepped out with dames," Steve said, recovered enough to try to sound dry.
She smirked, but for once it didn't look like she was making fun of him. "I've seen photos, so just, you know, excuse me while I take a moment to picture that. I might need to be alone."
"Take all the time you need," Steve told her, and she let her lips straighten into a smile.
"So...you know you don't need to feel guilty about that, right? He wouldn't mind."
"That part I knew," Steve said, and sighed. "What happened on Valentine's Day was, some more videos of the same man got...posted, discovered, I don't know. But they were, God. They were torture. The things they did to this man, Natasha. No one would agree to it."
Seriously, Natasha said, "You'd be amazed what people will agree to for the right incentives." Steve shook his head and she went on, "But I understand."
"I thought about trying to track him down, help him, but...by now, he's either out of their hands or dead. The most recent video was from 1985."
"So instead you took up running," Natasha said, and Steve forced out a breath of laughter and shook his head.
"Yeah. How's that for a shared life experience?" He put the truck back into gear and glanced over his shoulder. The road behind them was clear.
Natasha leaned back in her seat and tipped her head back to stare at the ceiling as Steve pulled back onto the road. "It's not that complicated, Rogers. Just make something up."
When the Winter Soldier slid down the road ahead of them, metal fingers scraping through the road surface like a kid drawing in the mud, Steve didn't have time to think much, to notice; he had another of those distant moments of recognition, but it was shoved aside in the confusion of trying to keep Sam and Natasha alive.
It wasn't until after the Soldier's metal fist made its staggering contact with his shield that Steve got a really good look at the man's face, as he threw himself away from the kick to his gut to land on his back. It meant he was nearly over the shock of recognition by the time he was on his feet again. Because Steve recognized the black muzzle-like mask, the Bucky-blue eyes that glared over it, even the way the dark hair fell around the sides of his face.
The Winter Soldier, impossibly, was 70s Man. Or his 30-years-younger twin brother, but Steve'd spent enough time watching the way he moved to recognize it. That explains the arm, Steve thought wildly, as the Soldier dropped an empty machine gun, drew a pistol, and fired it empty in turn. Steve closed and they exchanged punches until the Soldier grabbed the shield and flipped him by it, wrenching it out of his hands; Steve rolled away and when he came back up the Winter Soldier was watching him over the edge of it. Steve tensed for another gun to come out but no, the Soldier had the shield on his right arm, not his left, not like Bucky'd held it in that disastrous moment on the train. The Winter Soldier threw the shield at him and Steve dodged it by half an inch as he charged.
The Soldier drew a knife. "Why are you fighting for them?" Steve panted, as he dodged the blade. It was like fighting a machine, methodically trying and discarding ways to kill him in search of the one that would work. "I've seen what Hydra did to you. I can help you get out. I'm Captain America, I can help you." The Soldier's face didn't change. Backhand slash: failed. Upward stab: failed. Steve slammed the heel of his hand into the Soldier's chin, followed it with a gut-kick of his own that sent the Soldier staggering into an abandoned van, used the momentum of three running steps to knee the man so hard the body panel he rested on dented, and he had to be enhanced like Steve because he kept fighting.
They exchanged blows. Steve got a grip and lifted the Soldier off his feet—heavier than he looked, just like Steve—and threw him into the pavement, but the Soldier was back on his feet in an instant and locking the metal hand around Steve's throat. Steve clutched at it, to absolutely no effect, and even he needed blood to his brain but the Winter Soldier shoved him away and Steve went over the van's hood in an uncontrolled fall. He landed on his back only by good fortune, so he saw the Soldier coming in just enough time to dodge the fist that crunched into the pavement. Steve brought his right arm up reflexively as he took more punches, felt only weary resignation when the Soldier produced another knife and stabbed it down at him; he deflected it into the side of the van and slid them down the length of the vehicle, leaving a long slash. But his shield was embedded in the back door of the van.
He threw the Soldier over his shoulder just for the half-second he needed to pull the shield out and turned to meet the next attack just in time, catching another downward stab on the edge of the shield; the Soldier dropped the knife, caught it in his other hand, and tried to open Steve's belly with it. "Stop it!" Steve exclaimed. "Stop it, I can help you." The Soldier gave him no response and he jammed the edge of the shield into the arm, hoping to disable it, but the surface held up to the vibranium so he snapped it up instead, catching the Soldier on the bottom of the chin hard enough to disorient him for a second.
Steve grabbed the Winter Soldier by his mask and his waist and whirled him through the air; the strap that bound the muzzle to the man's face must have taken all it could because it fell away as the Soldier, barely, turned the momentum into a shoulder roll. It was the most uncontrolled Steve had seen him yet, and the mutter of recognition grew to a shriek even before the Winter Soldier turned to face him fully and now, now—
Steve straightened, hardly even noticing that his shield had fallen uselessly to his side. "Bucky?" he said, all but choking on the word.
And the Winter Soldier's voice was pure New York when he replied, in mild confusion, "Who the hell is Bucky?" But the expression fell from his face like a stone and he brought up another gun, and Steve couldn't move, and the Winter Soldier was going to kill him, Bucky was going to kill him—
Which was when Sam swooped out of the sky, feet-first into the Soldier's metal shoulder, and Bucky went staggering; he recovered, straightened, Steve was still trying to remember how to move because he couldn't look away from Bucky's face and that was why he saw it when Bucky's eyes flickered. It was just a moment, lost when he caught sight of something over Steve's shoulder and fired, as an absurdly huge bullet came moaning in response and the van they'd sliced went up in an explosion; Steve turned to see Natasha, rifle in hand, leaning on another car for support and when he looked back Bucky was gone.
All around sirens were wailing; Steve could hear the thump of at least two helicopters and he needed to find Bucky—but Natasha was pale with the first stages of shock and Steve'd never find him if he didn't want to be found, and that was when Steve saw the guns.
It was the STRIKE team, and Steve just...didn't have anything left, and when Rumlow ordered him to he dropped the shield, went to his knees, waited to die.
Natasha was dressed but lying flat with her eyes closed when Steve sat down in the chair next to her camp cot. He'd have insisted on a better bed for her, but the only one they had was Fury's.
"Nice suit," he said.
Without looking, she smiled. "It's a horrible suit, Rogers, but it's the kind of thing she wears." She sounded slow and thoughtful.
"If you don't like it, why do you own it?"
"Because sometimes I need to impersonate the kind of person who'd wear this suit at a moment's notice." She sighed. "That bolthole was a pain in the neck to set up, too. I hated to burn it."
Steve was sure it shouldn't have surprised him that Natasha had multiple properties in the DC area she could go to ground in, only about half of them in SHIELD records. "Are you sure you're going to be okay for this?"
At that she did open her eyes and rolled her head enough to look at him. "They're gonna give me the good drugs. I will be feeling no pain, trust me. If I'm still alive at midnight I'll crash hard, but by then it won't matter." She smiled. "One way or the other."
Steve nodded. Natasha hitched herself up till she was leaning against the wall at the head of the cot. It didn't look comfortable to him. "OK, what's up?"
"My brainwashed best friend tried to kill me yesterday," Steve said, as calmly as he could manage. "Isn't that enough?"
"You'd think," Natasha said. "But that's not it. At least, that's not all."
Steve slouched in his chair, resisting the urge to pull his shield into his lap like a security blanket. "You're too good at this."
Natasha gave him a level look. "Good enough to know when you're trying to distract me, Steve. Now spill."
"I recognized him twice," Steve said in a rush.
Natasha's brow furrowed.
"You remember I told you about the films, of the man who looked like Bucky?"
She started to nod and froze halfway through the motion as the implication hit her. "The...blue movies," she said. "Bozhe moi, Steve, are you sure?"
"I remember thinking that he had something wrong with his left arm," Steve said bitterly. "The skin was a little off-color. In the later ones, they had him wearing the same fucking mask." That mask had turned into a symbol in his mind, somehow even worse than the metal arm. At least the arm was intended to make the Winter Soldier more effective; while the mask did serve the practical purpose of obscuring his identity, there were infinite ways it could have been designed that wouldn't have made it a goddamned muzzle. "So I spent five months watching my best friend be raped, and getting off on it."
"Steve," Natasha said, and he shook his head. There was no forgiveness for this. "There was literally no way you could have known, Steve."
"I should have recognized him sooner," Steve said. The words were like pus from an infected wound, painful to say without relieving any of the pressure. "The whole reason I liked them was because he looked like Bucky!" He laughed, or tried to. "Guess there was a reason for that."
Natasha leaned her head back against the wall and closed her eyes for a second, letting out a long breath. Steve said nothing. Maybe she'd realized how badly he'd failed. But when she turned her attention back to him, her eyes were fierce.
"You thought he was dead," she said flatly, with no hint of the amusement that usually colored her tone. "It was perfectly rational to assume it was just someone who resembled him. Normally people age in thirty years, if nothing else." Steve started to respond but Natasha overrode him ruthlessly. "I know you want to think everything in the world rests on your shoulders, Steve, but this is not the time to indulge your masochistic streak. Right now if you think of him as Bucky, if you pretend you could have done anything differently, a lot of people will die. Right now he's the Winter Soldier. You can worry about saving him when the mission's over."
Steve looked down at his hands.
"Promise me, Rogers," Natasha said, quietly but with force.
"I promise," Steve said.
"But Steve," Hill said, more emotion than he'd ever heard from her.
"Do it," Steve grated. "Do it now." His gut ached, his thigh and arm and shoulder burned, but it was almost done. Once the guns started to fire, Insight would be stopped.
Once the guns started to fire, the mission would be over.
For the first month or so after he got out of the hospital, it wasn't a problem; even Steve's body needed some recovery time after being shot multiple times, stabbed, beaten to a pulp, dropped into the river from a hundred fifty feet, and half-drowned. Between that and the scramble to get things enough in order that he could leave all his responsibilities indefinitely, he didn't have the energy. For a few weeks after that, all he had to do was think of the file, with its dry recitation of horror.
But even horror wears thin, and eventually Steve couldn't ignore the urge anymore. They were in London, and when Sam asked him if he wanted some 'alone time', Steve said yes; Sam had asked before, and it was just now dawning on Steve that exactly this was probably why. His experience with a roommate was limited to Bucky, and they'd never had to discuss it. They'd known each others' schedules well enough, and it hadn't been much of a problem to walk in on each other anyway.
So Sam went out to play tourist for a while, and Steve took to his bed—after making a mental note to leave the room to Sam a little more often.
It didn't take much the first time; Steve barely even got comfortable before he was shaking and groaning. He was a little embarrassed, even though there was no one but him to see it. He gave himself fifteen minutes to calm down and then set out to do it again. And that was where things went bad.
With the edge taken off, he could think, and he did. He thought of Bucky, which should have been fine except that his thoughts veered from actual memories to one of the damned film clips—thankfully, one of the earlier ones, but Steve's artist's memory was hellishly clear.
Now that he knew, it was obvious that 70s Man, Bucky, had not been faking reluctance; he hadn't been acting. He'd hated every minute of it. And then Steve thought of the scar on the blond man's thumb, the same scar that had been barely noticeable, old and faded, on Secretary Pierce's hand when Steve shook it; he thought of the pictures of Pierce as a young man.
He didn't have time to make it to the bathroom but fortunately there was a wastebasket near the bed.
Bucky looked defeated, and Steve felt a sick twist of recognition. How many times had he watched exactly this? Watched Bucky giving up, because he knew fighting wouldn't help.
"Buck—do you remember me?"
"Your mom's name was Sarah," Bucky said. "You used to wear newspapers in your shoes." He smiled, just a little, and Steve wanted to hug him at exactly the same moment he didn't dare. Not like this, not when Bucky was helpless to avoid him. No one was ever going to touch Bucky again without his permission, and that damn well included Steve.
Twice now he'd saved the world and it had cost him Bucky.
This time, the world could find someone else.
He took a deep breath. "You're a wanted man," he said.