At some point after fighting aliens in the streets of New York, Steve decides he has to live. He stops spending his nights hitting punching bags and puts away the files of his dead friends.
SHIELD have given him a number for a therapist. He stares at the leaflet for a while, then shoves it in the kitchen drawer. It’s not as if he has anything to say anyway.
(He keeps Peggy’s file in that same kitchen drawer, for when he’s ready to see her. Maybe he’ll never be ready.)
Steve concentrates on getting up to date with the twenty-first century. He eats Thai food, watches sci-fi boxsets, goes shopping for modern clothes. Cautiously, he seeks out a few history books about the Howling Commandos; they're more accurate than he expected.
He tells himself things are better.
Problem is, Steve still can’t sleep through the night.
The bed in his apartment is big — bigger than any he’s ever had before. His mattress is too soft; the quiet of the room roars in his ears.
Once, he turns on the record player, thinking it’ll help. Instead, he’s reminded of Bucky getting ready for a date, tunelessly humming whatever was popular on the radio that week. Of Dernier, teaching the Commandos his filthy French drinking songs over a campfire.
Steve puts his face in his hands and breathes out shaky breaths, trying not to cry.
He doesn’t listen to records after that.
Instead, he goes running and pushes himself too hard, until his calves are aching and he has to limp home.
The next day, his muscles and ligaments are always good as new. Like the pain was never there at all.
To Steve, the move to D.C. makes a lot of sense.
He explained it to the other Avengers (because they’re not his friends, he thinks, not yet) as wanting to be closer to SHIELD headquarters, more in the centre of things.
It’s Nick Fury who gets the reason right on the money.
“Too many old ghosts, Cap,” Fury surmises when Steve comes to his office to request the transfer. “Wouldn’t blame you.”
Steve sets his jaw and nods stiffly.
“All your mugs are white,” Natasha remarks, packing crockery into a box for the move. “You do know these things come in different colours.”
Steve shrugs. “SHIELD bought them. I didn’t really have much input.”
Natasha looks at him, something like pity in her eyes. “Right. SHIELD.”
Steve doesn't respond. He takes the roll of brown paper from her and starts wrapping a pile of identical white plates.
She shakes her head and says, “Rogers. Seriously. Leave the damn plates here. We’ll go and choose something together.”
Steve pauses. “I’m just gonna eat and drink off ‘em. These are fine, really.” The heavy paper crackles under his fingers as he wraps another plate.
Natasha frowns. “You’re missing the point, Steve.”
Steve furnishes his new D.C. apartment simply: a few pictures on the walls, the same old white crockery.
It’s not like he’s home much anyway.
SHIELD give Captain America plenty of missions. He goes all over the world, fights bad guys and helps keep people safe. It’s a relief for Steve: this at least, he understands.
He thinks maybe he can try to be happy. That might work, but —
Being away from New York doesn’t make as much difference as he thought it would.
The comforter on his bed is patterned with restful blues and greens that remind him of the ocean. But night after night, Steve shivers awake underneath it, same as he did under the crisp white duvet back in his old apartment. He dreams of the creeping chill of ice in his veins, and Bucky, clinging to a loose railing at the side of a train.
While Steve sleeps, Bucky falls. He falls. He falls —
Steve wakes up with tears on his cheeks. He pushes back the covers and gropes around in the dark for his running shoes.
There’s a state-of-the-art gym level at the Triskelion. From squash courts to classes in Zumba and pilates and all these other strange things Steve’s never heard of — you name it, they’ve got it.
He calls Natasha for suggestions.
“Try the martial arts disciplines,” she advises, a hint of amusement in her voice.
So Steve learns krav maga, kickboxing, parkour. He doesn’t find any of them remotely challenging, and they aren’t much of a step up from the brawling he learned in the alleyways and parking lots of Brooklyn.
It doesn’t satisfy the restless itch under his skin.
Steve is assigned to work with Brock Rumlow and his anti-terrorist STRIKE team.
“We go all over the world,” Rumlow says airily. “Busting ass, taking names. Me and my crack team of buddies.” He grins, showing all his teeth. “Think you’re up to it, Cap?”
Steve finds himself smiling. He doesn’t particularly like Rumlow — he’s pegged him for a jackass already — but this soldiers' backtalk is familiar. It’s just what he needs.
“Try me,” he says.
A few days later, he spars with Rumlow in the gym.
At first, Steve makes the mistake of holding back his punches. Then Rumlow’s fist smashes into his solar plexus and he's left swaying on his feet, gasping.
A second later, he finds himself on the mat, pinned under Rumlow’s weight. He could flip him easily, shake his wrist out of Rumlow’s grip. He doesn’t.
"Didn't think you'd go down so easy, Cap," Rumlow says, laughing.
The double entendre isn't lost on Steve. "I don't, usually," he replies, wondering why they're both still on the floor.
Rumlow's knees are digging into Steve's sides. His body is warm and firm against him, with all the lean muscle of a fighter, and Steve becomes aware he’s getting hard.
Blood rises to his cheeks. There isn’t much he can say.
“So that’s how it is,” Rumlow says. It’s a statement, not a question.
And Steve — he shrugs.
It doesn’t come to anything for a few weeks.
Steve goes back to his midnight runs. He carries on working with the STRIKE team — they're professional and efficient in a way Steve appreciates — and when they’ve got time in between missions, he and Rumlow spar. And now and again, they end up at Steve’s apartment and have a beer, watch a movie. They aren’t exactly friends, but they aren’t exactly not, either.
They don’t talk about that day in the gym. Steve wonders, but he’s too awkward to bring it up.
One day, Rumlow says, in his casual way, “You don’t really smile, do you?”
Steve doesn’t know what to say to that. He goes red. “I —”
Rumlow stretches out, puts his feet up on Steve’s coffee table. “Must be weird, ending up in a completely different world to the one you grew up in.”
Steve stares into his beer. “I get so tired sometimes,” he admits. “It’s exhausting, all the stuff I still don’t know. Some days I feel like I’ll never catch up.”
“Wanna talk about it?” Rumlow asks, offhand.
Steve exhales slowly. He shakes his head. “No.”
Rumlow stands up and pulls his shirt off: no warning, no bullshit. “Well, we could do something else instead.” He grins, wide and easy.
If Steve was finding it hard to breathe before, now his chest is tight for an entirely different reason. Rumlow has taut muscles and tanned skin; he’s in great shape for a man in his early forties. A thin white scar bisects his abdomen.
Steve looks, and has to clench his jaw from wanting to touch so badly, to be touched. Slowly, he reaches out to rest a hand on Rumlow’s chest, and smiles at the sharp intake of breath he makes. “I didn’t have talking in mind,” Steve says.
Rumlow stares at him for a long moment. “Don’t tell me nobody’s ever fucked you. Surely your boy from the history books, what was his name — Bucky?”
Steve’s insides twist. “Yeah,” he says. His face feels like it’s on fire with how red he’s going. “We did. But it’s been seventy years.”
“I won’t go easy on you, Cap,” Rumlow warns, running his hands over Steve’s biceps.
“Good.” Steve flicks open the button of Rumlow's pants and starts to unzip them.
Rumlow fucks like he does everything else: precise, focused, and without mercy.
They don’t waste time on anything before he pushes Steve down to the hardwood floor and starts sucking bruises into his neck.
And then it's happening; Steve getting his pants and boxers down his hips while Rumlow fumbles in his jeans pocket for a condom. He feels strangely exposed under Rumlow's gaze, but this is what he needs right now, and he'll take it.
"You got anything?" Rumlow asks abruptly. His eyes are dark, one hand pressed to Steve's hip.
There’s lube in Steve’s bedroom, but he finds himself saying, "No." He spits on his fingers, reaches back to work himself open a little. It’s not enough, and it’ll hurt.
“Christ,” Rumlow breathes. “You sure?” He’s got his jeans open now, and Steve can see his cock, stiff and leaking.
“Do it,” Steve says, in a flat voice.
Rumlow hesitates for a second, and then he's pressing a hand to the back of Steve's neck, and Steve is kneeling on the floor.
He can feel the scratch of denim on the back of his thighs where Rumlow hasn’t even bothered to take his pants off, just undone the zip enough to get his dick out. Steve closes his eyes, hears the tearing of foil and the snap of rubber as Rumlow rolls the condom on.
Then Rumlow is pushing inside of him — hot and thick — and Steve can’t help but make a noise.
It’s been so long since he’s had meaningful physical contact. Maybe Rumlow’s body pressed into his spine has no intentions beyond sex, but Jesus, Steve’s desperate for it anyway. He arches up into Rumlow’s warmth before he can stop himself.
There’s a soft laugh in Steve’s ear. “There ya go, big guy. Not so big now, are we? Knew you’d be a total slut for me.”
Steve’s cheeks burn with shame; nobody has ever spoken to him like this. Still, it’s strangely refreshing, that Rumlow is willing to say these things to sainted Captain America.
He reaches for his own cock with shaking fingers and strokes as Rumlow fucks into him with a brutal pace, muttering in his ear, calling him a pretty-boy and a cockslut and more names that make Steve blush to the tips of his ears.
It’s embarrassing, how quickly he comes that first time.
Finally, Steve gets up the courage to visit Peggy.
The nurse says it’s a good day for her today; she knows him.
“You’re the same, Steve,” Peggy tells him, her eyes soft. She’s still beautiful, her face lined from the full life she lived without him.
Steve laughs. “Sure I am.” Really, he wants to cry.
“I know why you didn’t come before,” she says. “It’s okay.”
Steve chokes off a sob in his throat and holds her thin, papery hand.
There’s so much he regrets. In the war, he’d wanted Peggy, desperately, and was never brave enough to do a thing about it. Steve had thought they’d have plenty of time. And well, there was Bucky to complicate things.
Maybe he never deserved her after all.
Afterwards, Steve sits in his car in the parking lot, struggling to breathe. Then he admits defeat and dials a number in his phone.
“Cap,” drawls Rumlow. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
There’s no ceremony to their encounters. Rumlow comes over, they strip, and he fucks Steve against whatever item of furniture is the most convenient; it’s usually the floor.
Steve is panting, stretched open by Rumlow’s cock, one of his legs thrown over Rumlow’s shoulder, when he mutters, “I want —”
“What?” Rumlow tightens the hand he has on Steve’s thigh. His eyes narrow.
Steve lifts his head from the floor. He sucks in a breath, looks at Rumlow dead on. “I want you to hurt me.”
“You don’t want me to do that, kid,” Rumlow says, and he isn’t smiling; he almost looks a little sad. “Trust me.”
“I’m tough,” Steve insists, pushing back against Rumlow.
He hasn’t got time to see it coming before Rumlow backhands him across the face. It's a sharp sting, but it barely takes the edge off.
“Like that?” Rumlow leers, and in spite of everything, Steve nods.
Rumlow hits him again, managing to split Steve’s lip. Steve gasps through the pain, but it’s good, too. He needs more —
“Please,” Steve begs, voice low. “Hurt me.”
There’s a glint in Rumlow’s eyes. He drops Steve’s leg back to the floor, pulls out of him in a wet, sloppy rush.
“On your knees, soldier!” Rumlow’s voice is commanding.
Steve does as he’s told. He kneels, lets Rumlow grab the back of his neck and grind his face into the dust of the floor.
“You love this, don’t you, you fucking slut,” Rumlow murmurs, almost tender. He holds his palm steady and starts to rain blows down on Steve’s ass with every thrust.
“Yeah, I —” Steve gasps, eyes blurring with the sting.
Like this, Rumlow’s so deep inside him. Steve can feel him everywhere, hot and slick, spreading him apart. It aches, it's too much —
“Tell me what you are,” Rumlow urges, yanking back on Steve’s hair so hard his head snaps upwards. “C’mon.”
He stills his movements. Steve moans, needy and low. He’s shaking, but determined he won’t cry or anything.
“I’m a slut. I like this,” he says in a monotone.
After, Rumlow makes Steve lick his own come off the floor while he watches from the couch, a heavy boot on the back of Steve's neck.
Steve thinks he should feel ashamed. He isn’t feeling anything at all.
“I don’t even know her name,” Steve says, over coffee with Natasha in the Triskelion’s lobby café. “She’s just my neighbour. Don’t see her much anyway, with all the night shifts she works.”
“It’s Kate,” Natasha says. She carefully peels the wrapper off her cupcake and takes a bite. “She’s a nurse.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Romanoff,” Steve admonishes, smiling. He rubs cappuccino foam off his upper lip.
Natasha gives him the finger. “Seriously, how about it?” she presses on. “You really need to get back in the world, Steve. Ask her out for a coffee."
Steve looks up from the table to find Rumlow walking past.
He nods curtly and says, “Cap.”
God help him, Steve starts to blush. Natasha is looking at him now, her eyes wide.
“You knew, didn’t you,” he says pointlessly.
The smile on her lips is a little sad. “Well. Just be careful, Steve.”
Steve doesn't know how to explain it to Natasha, and she doesn't ask.
Really, he's just so tired of not existing, he’ll do anything that makes him feel alive again.
One night, Steve shows Rumlow a page from one of his Howling Commandos biographies.
There’s a black and white photograph of him and Bucky, Steve's hand pressed to Bucky’s shoulder. They are whole and smiling.
"Shame," Rumlow remarks, leaning in closer to look. "Bet he was a nice kid."
“I hate being alone,” Steve admits, his hands gripping the edges of the couch. He hopes Rumlow can’t hear the tremor in his voice.
Rumlow is staring at the picture. There’s a shadow of something on his face; it might be compassion. Then he snaps out of it, and grins.
They don’t fuck that night.
Rumlow kisses Steve softly, then slides down his body and takes him into his mouth.
Steve’s good these days, he thinks.
He’s stopped going for midnight runs, and he’s sleeping better.
His fellow SHIELD agents invite him out, smile when Steve frowns at the loud music and rolls his eyes at the eight-page drinks menu. It's a little like having friends, and of course, there's Natasha, too.
Steve's even started baking again. He used to like helping his ma bake, back in the day, and it’s a pleasant counterpoint to the high stakes of his SHIELD missions. He buys new recipe books, tries out fancier techniques. His homemade baked goods are always in demand at SHIELD HQ. He’s always liked to make people smile.
Sometimes, he thinks about asking out Cindy, the cute receptionist who likes his blueberry muffins. She’s got a nice smile and always has a kind word for him.
But then Steve thinks about Rumlow’s rough hands and coarse words, about how good it feels when he hurts him, and he doesn't say anything to Cindy.
It's fucked up, what he has with Rumlow; Steve knows it, but he's too far gone. He needs it to keep himself together.
Here’s the thing: Rumlow isn’t someone Steve likes. He’s a person Steve has rough sex with — sex he’s ashamed of — when he doesn’t want to be alone.
And Steve’s no idiot; he sees the way Rumlow’s eyes dart over his shoulder whenever he murmurs one of his stupid endearments, and he notices the coldness in Rumlow’s face he tries to hide.
(Of course, he doesn’t know the real reason until much later).
It takes a while for Rumlow to agree to let Steve fuck him.
He knows Rumlow likes control — he certainly does at work, micromanaging every detail of their operations — and he doesn’t seem to be able to step back from his STRIKE persona even in the bedroom.
But Steve’s got a few tricks up his sleeve to convince Rumlow into it. By the time he’s got three fingers inside Rumlow, twisting them just right, Rumlow is cursing, saying: “Do it, okay.”
Steve laughs harshly, shoves Rumlow flat on his back against the mattress with a large hand. He rolls on the condom and drives himself deep into Rumlow’s body, until he’s groaning, “Oh, Cap, fuck. Steve.”
“Now who’s taking it?” Steve murmurs, biting Rumlow’s jaw. His heart is beating fast and he’s blushing, but he keeps going, fucking into Rumlow hard, running his mouth. “Like it, don’t you? Being at Captain America’s mercy.”
He watches Rumlow’s nostrils flare; he’s furious. “Shut the fuck up.”
Of course, Steve never knew when to give up, so he carries on. “Look at you, you’re begging for it.” There’s sweat beading on Rumlow’s skin as Steve slides in and out of him, every thrust sounding slick and obscene.
Then Rumlow’s face changes. He says, “Can you —” and he’s reaching for Steve’s hand, bringing it to his neck.
Steve traces the taut veins on Rumlow’s neck and applies pressure, enough to bruise. “Like that?”
“More,” Rumlow says roughly.
Fighting back a shudder, Steve presses harder, until Rumlow is gasping for breath. He shouldn’t be doing this; he’s strong enough to crush his windpipe.
Another slow, dragging thrust, and Rumlow comes. Steve releases his hand and Rumlow gasps in deep lungfuls of air. It only takes a couple more thrusts for Steve to finish; his head drops to Rumlow's neck, and he's breathing quick and fast.
“Not bad, Cap,” Rumlow says hoarsely. There’s a lazy smile on his face.
Steve rolls off him. He looks away, feeling horrified with himself.
There’s an early-morning STRIKE briefing the next day. Rumlow comes in wearing a scarf.
Out of the corner of his eye, Steve watches Rumlow, a small smile on his face. Overnight, the initial revulsion has faded. He rather likes the idea he’s left marks on someone’s skin. It feels like validation.
In this strange, unfamiliar world where Steve wakes every day feeling like a ghost, it’s proof he exists.
“Ah,” Steve keens, pushing up into the spread of two of Rumlow's fingers. His knees are shaking on the mattress.
“I —can’t,” he manages. Rumlow's digits are scissored wide and Steve feels split, and so, so full; he can't —
Rumlow is leaning over Steve. He kisses his jaw soothingly, whispers, “You can, you can. C’mon, baby, try for me. I bet you can take more.”
Before, Bucky had only ever pressed a couple of fingers inside him before replacing them with his cock. He’d kissed Steve’s jaw, too: heated, needy presses of lips while he fucked him tenderly.
Steve wants to cry; he feels bruised, inside and outside. Instead, he gasps out, “Okay. Okay.”
There’s a throaty laugh against his shoulder. “Mm. Knew you would.”
He hears the pop of the lube cap, and realises Rumlow is squeezing more slick onto his hand. A third finger slides in to join the other two, stretching Steve wider.
“Good?” Rumlow asks, his voice low and heavy.
“More,” Steve insists.
Four fingers, now. This is more than Steve’s ever had before, but he fights the burn, bearing down on Rumlow’s hand.
“You gonna take all of me?” Rumlow breathes. His other hand strokes over the nape of Steve’s neck.
“You know I fucking can,” Steve spits, his blood hot. “So you better get on with it.”
He turns his head to find Rumlow watching him intently. Steve's face flushes; he’s never felt more loose and open, with Rumlow looking at him like this, like he wants to devour him.
Steve can see Rumlow’s cock, hard and leaking against his stomach. Rumlow’s other hand is twitching, like he wants to touch himself.
“Like this, don’t you pal?” Rumlow says, crooking his fingers inside Steve. “Bet you’d take my whole hand.”
Steve grunts, his face finding the pillow. He’s an aching, burning mess of need, and he can’t even speak.
Rumlow slips his hand out a little, and Steve feels the press of his thumb moving to join the rest of his fingers. His hand is warm inside Steve as he slides it in, right up to the wrist.
"Fuck, you're tight," Rumlow murmurs distractedly, and yeah, doesn't Steve know it. He's so full, and it hurts, it hurts, like he's being split apart from the inside out. He isn't sure he can take it.
But then Rumlow rotates his fist, and it turns out Steve can. He whines low, lifting his head to mutter, “Oh, God, God, —”
“Yeah, people have said that about me before,” is Rumlow’s quick reply, but his voice sounds wrecked.
Steve gets out a breathless laugh, then Rumlow twists his hand and he's coming all over his pristine white sheets, feeling like he’s in pieces.
“Jesus,” Rumlow says, his fingers sliding out of Steve with a wet sound.
He’s jerking himself now; Steve can hear it, the soft groans Rumlow makes and the slippery noise of flesh on flesh. He curses, coming in hot spurts all over Steve’s ass and thighs.
“Shh. Shh. You did so great,” Rumlow says, patting Steve on the back.
Steve buries his face in the pillow.
“Steve?” Natasha murmurs. She's flat on her stomach, next to him on the rooftop. They’re staking out an arms dealer, and the target hasn’t showed yet.
Steve is visibly wincing; the position he’s in is putting pressure on his ribs. Under the uniform, his body is scattered with marks from a paddle. Last night, they were bloody welts, but his healing factor takes care of injuries pretty quickly.
Rumlow had protested, saying he hadn’t signed up for this fucked-up shit. But Steve had seen the flicker of feral need in Rumlow’s eyes, and he’d taken full advantage of it. By the time Steve’s skin was purple with bruises, cuts crisscrossing his skin, Rumlow was hard and panting.
He loved this, clearly.
After a while, it hurt so much Steve had cried. Rumlow had sneered, then. He'd called him a sissy, a pathetic, sorry excuse for a soldier before beating him even harder.
Steve had taken it all. He’d wanted it.
“Steve?” Natasha prompts again. "You alright?" Her hand presses to Steve’s shoulder, where there’s a bruise; he grits his teeth against the dull ache.
“I’m fine,” he says.
Steve’s world collapses when HYDRA emerges from the shadows. He fights Rumlow and his former colleagues in an elevator, and he runs for his life.
Then the Winter Soldier’s mask falls onto concrete and Steve finds himself looking into Bucky’s eyes.
Suddenly, the STRIKE team are there and Rumlow is forcing Steve down on the ground, hands behind his back.
It’s achingly familiar, being on his knees for Rumlow. The gun barrel is cold, raising the hairs at the back of Steve’s neck; it makes him shudder.
“Not here,” Rumlow mutters to Rollins.
Steve closes his eyes, and all he sees is Bucky. Or rather, a twisted version of Bucky who doesn't know him at all.
He feels like he's going to break from the pain.
Steve leaves the hospital early, against medical advice.
His body is still a patchwork of bruises, and that feels right. All this time, HYDRA had Bucky. They’d taken him apart and put him back together in their own macabre image, and they still hadn't been able to drive out his humanity.
The worst thing is: Steve's been letting someone hurt him, and all the while, Bucky never had a choice about it. The injuries on his skin don’t even touch the hell Bucky’s been living for seventy years.
Sometimes, he thinks about Rumlow. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, really; he couldn’t have known he was HYDRA. But Steve is disgusted with himself all the same; he shouldn't have been so weak.
Natasha and Sam call, and he lets it go to voicemail.
Steve takes a cold shower, scrubs his skin with a loofah until it’s pink and raw. Like he can scrub away the shame that taints him from head to toe.
He remembers Bucky's scream as he fell from the train, and thinks he should have tried harder. He should have reached for him in time, or else gone back and searched the ravine. Maybe he could have found Bucky before HYDRA did.
He hits his head against the wet tile until his eyes are smarting with the pain.
Steve knows he’s got to stop this. But it’s become such a habit, he can’t imagine how.
Six days after the hospital discharged him, Steve finds Natasha standing at his door.
“I’m alright,” he starts to say, voice thick.
She steps inside, letting the door shut behind her.
“You’re not,” Natasha insists. She gestures to the ugly contusion on Steve's forehead. Her face is pale.
Steve is tired of fighting it. He starts weeping; horrible, gasping sobs that are wrenched from that bruised place deep inside him. Natasha puts an arm around his shoulders and steers them both to the couch.
“None of it’s your fault,” she tells him firmly as he cries. He remembers her saying it before, after they barely escaped the Winter Soldier with their lives. “None of it makes you a bad person.”
It doesn’t make Steve feel better, but he believes her just a little.
“Let’s fire up Netflix,” she says afterwards, as though she hasn’t just been witness to Captain America’s emotional breakdown. “What do you feel like? I’m thinking the West Wing, maybe.”
“You choose,” Steve says. He’s so grateful she’s here, but all he manages is: “Thanks, Natasha.”
She squeezes his hand. “That’s what friends are for, Steve.”
The plane is taxiing down the runway. Next stop: Kraków.
There’s a file on Steve’s lap full of possible leads on the Winter Soldier’s current location. He doesn’t exactly feel happy, but there’s purpose in his life again.
“You ready?” Sam says, with a tight smile (apparently, he doesn’t like flying).
“Yeah,” Steve answers honestly. He looks at Natasha on his other side, strapped into the plane seat. “It’s gonna be okay, isn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” is Natasha’s answer, but her hand rests on top of his, warm and grounding. “But we’re here, Steve.”
Steve doesn’t know if he’ll keep hurting himself. But for the first time in a while, he wants to find a reason not to.
He closes his eyes, letting his head fall back on the seat rest, and he smiles.