Steve supposed it was inevitable that someone on the team was going to be injured, but it seemed immensely unfair that the one who got hit was the one who didn’t have a suit of armor to protect him or accelerated healing to expedite the process of getting him back from the hospital. Bruce hadn’t left Clint’s side. Tony, as far as Steve knew, was still in his lab throwing things at a wall. That left Steve and Natasha to deal with Fury’s poorly-timed power trip.
“We already have a sniper,” Steve said through gritted teeth, not for the first time. “We don’t need another. He’s going to be fine.”
“After weeks of physical therapy,” Fury said smoothly. “And two surgeries. I’m sorry, Captain Rogers. My decision is final.”
“It’s only going to be temporary,” Natasha said, putting her hand on Steve’s shoulder. To the casual onlooker the gesture would have seemed to be one of comfort, but Steve could feel her perfectly manicured red fingernails digging into his collarbone as a warning. “We aren’t replacing Hawkeye.”
“To be perfectly honest, we couldn’t afford his replacement’s rates that long anyway,” Fury sighed. “Even if I wanted to. Which I don’t,” he added, after seeing the combination of Steve and Natasha’s stormy expressions. “I am perfectly satisfied with Agent Barton’s performance.”
“As you should be,” Steve muttered, finally picking up the file from Fury’s desk. “Who are we even hiring?”
“Renting,” Fury corrected. “He’s ex-HYDRA. Gun for hire. Best there is.”
Steve looked up, surprised. “Ex-HYDRA?”
“Very ex.” Fury nodded at the file. “Hates ‘em more than you do, if it’s possible.”
Not fucking likely, Steve thought to himself, fingertips tracing over the blur of redacted information in front of him. “Jesus, Nick, we don’t know anything about him.”
“He’s the best of the best,” Fury said, leaning back in his chair. “That’s all you need to know.”
Steve figured that was all he was going to get, so he scraped a hand through his hair and tossed the file back onto the desk. “Fine,” he said. “When do we get to meet him?”
“Tomorrow.” Fury took the file back, shuffling the papers together. “He’s not a very social guy. Give the rest of the team a heads up to leave him the hell alone, understood?”
Steve met Natasha’s eyes just in time to see her roll hers. He was glad to know they were on the same page, at least. “He wants to be left alone,” he repeated flatly, standing, and grabbed his shield from where he’d leaned it against his chair. “The Winter Soldier will fit right in with the rest of us.”
From the way he was talked about, Steve almost expected the Winter Soldier to fly his own helicopter all the way from Moscow and land on the roof, or maybe outside in the courtyard where all the new recruits huddled together to eat their lunch. Sam told him someone with that cool of a codename could afford to pay someone to fly his helicopter. Tony replied that only weenies would let someone fly a helicopter for them.
Natasha told them both to shut the hell up, and by some miracle, they listened.
In the end, there was no helicopter, which was only a slight disappointment. The Winter Soldier drove up in a motorcycle that managed to be both wickedly fast and nondescript, its rider decked out in enough leather to protect him from more road burn than Steve thought would statistically occur over a decade.
“Not another edgy hero with a leather fetish,” Steve thought he heard Tony mutter under his breath.
The Winter Soldier parked his bike neatly in two parking spaces and hopped off with a liquid ease that reminded Steve for a moment of Natasha. He glanced over her, but her face was stony. She was unreadable.
“I’m Captain Rogers,” Steve said, once the Winter Soldier had joined them and took off his motorcycle helmet, shaking his mane of hair free. “You must be the Winter Soldier.”
“That’s what they call me,” the Winter Soldier replied. His mask took up three quarters of his face and his eyes were hidden behind a pair of goggles, but Steve could still hear the hostility in his voice.
Steve pasted on a smile and stuck out a hand for him to shake. “Welcome to the Avengers.”
“Fair warning,” Tony interjected, and Steve would have cut him off, but the Winter Soldier’s razor-sharp gaze threw him too off-kilter to jump in fast enough. “You’re filling in for a teammate who actually belongs here. We didn’t choose you.”
“Stay out of our way and we’ll stay out of yours, is what Tony’s trying to say,” Natasha said smoothly. “We’ll all try to act like professionals.”
The Winter Soldier looked from one face to another, silently judging each of them individually. He still hadn’t taken Steve’s hand, so Steve lowered it awkwardly and stuffed it into his pocket.
“I knew what I was signing up for,” the Winter Soldier said at last. “I’m not being paid enough to do a good job and care about your feelings at the same time.”
There was silence for a moment before Tony burst into laughter. “I take it back,” he said, grinning. “Can we keep him?”
“No,” Steve and the Winter Soldier said quickly at the same time.
Tony usually flew them on autopilot, but he decided to put it on manual for reasons that he didn’t elaborate on. Steve didn’t blame him. The hushed whispers and meaningful glances back and forth in the belly of the plane didn’t make the travel comfortable; he would’ve gladly taken an excuse to hole up in the cockpit, if he could.
If the Winter Soldier was equally uncomfortable, he didn’t show it. Steve would’ve thought he was asleep if his two mismatched hands weren’t methodically taking apart the gun in his lap and putting it back together over and over. The deft motion of his metal fingers was more eloquent than all the words the Winter Soldier had spoken aloud put together - there was something dangerous and mesmerizing about the history of that metal hand, the way it twisted and unlocked the pieces of the gun.
Cartridge. Muzzle. Silencer. Click.
Cartridge. Muzzle. Silencer. Click.
“We’re ten minutes out,” Tony called out from the cockpit. “Wake Bruce up and tell Natasha to stop glaring at the back of my head.”
“How else am I supposed to amuse myself?” Natasha asked.
“I don’t always fall asleep on planes,” Bruce said plaintively, but no one paid him any mind.
The Winter Soldier assembled his gun one last time with a firm, ominous click, and shouldered the strap attached to another rifle. Steve watched him gather up his ammo and wondered why it made his mouth run dry, observing his ritual of preparing himself for battle. Could it just be the fact that it’d been so long since he’d been around another soldier? All soldiers were the same, really, from their straight backs to their aching feet - they all held their bodies careful and still, they all had the same little routines and superstitions, they all looked brittle in late afternoon light. The Winter Soldier was no different, with the fluorescent lights glancing off his arm like shrapnel. There was something desperately familiar about the way he held his shoulders under the weight of his weaponry.
Steve picked up his shield and pulled his cowl over his eyes. He hoped the Winter Soldier looked at him and saw that he was holding himself under the same weight.
“Here,” the Winter Soldier said, holding out a pack. When Steve didn’t take it, he dropped it into Steve’s lap.
Steve looked at him blankly. “What?”
“A parachute. Put it on.” The Winter Soldier sat back down, and apparently the conversation was over. Steve turned the parachute over in his hands, feeling the nylon between his fingers, and then slowly shouldered the straps.
“Congrats, Frosty, you’ve done the impossible,” Tony said, shooting the Winter Soldier a flash of a grin over his shoulder before turning back to the front. “We’ve been trying to get him to wear one of those for months.”
“Fuck you,” Steve said, flushing. “Fuck all of you.”
“Supersoldier stamina or not, now is not the time.” Sam patted his knee consolingly. “Maybe later, man.”
Steve wasn’t sure, but he thought he might have heard a small huff of laughter come from behind the Winter Soldier’s mask.
The screen in front of Tony started beeping. “Alright, now’s the time, party people,” Tony announced. “Let’s go kick some ass.”
“Kick your ass,” Steve muttered under his breath.
“In your dreams, Spangles,” Tony said cheerfully, putting on his helmet. “You couldn’t afford my rates.”
Then the plane’s doors opened and there was no more time to banter. Steve was the first one out the door, wind slicing at the skin his mask left exposed, and as he plummeted to the ground below, he thought he felt the Winter Soldier’s eyes on him, on the parachute that was strapped reluctantly to his back.
Steve’s feet hit the ground with a heavy thump, impact making his knees ache. Natasha landed a moment later, though she had to duck and roll to avoid being hit by Bruce.
“Careful,” she hissed.
“Sorry, sorry,” Bruce said, wincing as he stood up and brushed dirt off his pants. “At least I didn’t turn green.”
“Just because the worst case scenario didn’t happen didn’t mean it was a success - ”
“Shut up,” the Winter Soldier interrupted, voice quiet, but sharp enough that it cut through the chatter. “Jesus.”
“We’re definitely keeping him,” Tony’s voice crackled over comms. “Just so you know.”
Steve just sighed and nodded them down the path.
The mission was simple enough, compared to Steve’s history. The HYDRA base they were infiltrating wasn’t a huge one, and it’d become routine, almost, to kick the door down with guns blazing. It was familiar, at least. The rage that pulsed through his veins like oil slick the moment the base came into sight was familiar as well.
Hates HYDRA more than I do, Steve scoffed internally, throwing the Winter Soldier a sidelong glance. As if.
“Winter Soldier, can you find a perch in one of these trees?” he asked, gesturing for the other Avengers to slow to a stop a hundred feet from the barbed wire surrounding the HYDRA base. “We need you to cover us when we come out.”
The Winter Soldier looked up at the line of trees, head cocked to the side as if listening to a far away sound. “Yes.”
“Good. Bruce, you stay by the landing site and send Tony in once he’s parked the plane. Stay prepared for a code Green, but I don’t think it’ll come to that, so don’t let Tony rile you up prematurely. Sam, Natasha, with me.” He turned on his heel and strode toward the barbed wire fence, but he let Natasha deal with cutting it and tried to be subtle about watching the Winter Soldier shimmy like a shadow up a sturdy-looking tree. Even with his dozens of weapons and big, clunky boots, he barely made a whisper of sound.
Christ, Steve thought, and let Natasha hold the cut wire hole open for him to clamber through.
“Winter!” Steve yelled over the rattle of gunfire, arms pumping as he sprinted full-tilt out of the HYDRA base. “Coming out hot!”
“Do you have eyes on Nat?” Tony demanded between repulsor blasts, from what Steve could hear over comms. “Never mind, there she is - going in for a spider airlift now.”
“Thought we agreed never to call it that,” Sam panted.
Steve burst out the front door and felt as much as he heard three gunshots zing by his ear in quick succession. He didn’t look behind him. He knew the Winter Soldier hadn’t missed. He kept running, kept his focus on his feet, but he could feel the Winter Soldier’s gaze on him, boring into the top of his head. The gunfire from the treetop kept coming, cutting down the HYDRA agents pooling out of the base before they could fire. Steve kept running.
“Hit it, Tony!” he hollered, diving through the hole in the barbed wire.
“Fucking finally! ” Tony said. “JARVIS, now - ”
The base exploded, sending rubble flying, and Steve was thrown to his stomach by the shockwave that followed. He choked, wind knocked out of him, but two strong hands were grasping at his shoulders and hauling him to his feet before a stray bullet could hit him while he was down.
“Come on, Captain,” the Winter Soldier murmured in his ear, sliding an arm around his waist to help him start to make forward progress once more. “I’ve seen you more dignified.”
“Shut the fuck up,” Steve wheezed. “Got it done, didn’t I?”
“Sure did,” the Winter Soldier said, patting his hip. “Sure did.”
Fury looked from one of their dirt-smudged faces to another, one eyebrow raised as he surveyed the team huddled around the conference table. “Well, y’all need a shower,” he said, “But that was a solid mission. Take the rest of the day. Winter, Captain Rogers, stick around a minute.”
Steve shot Natasha a sidelong glance. Natasha just shrugged. Busted, Sam mouthed, and all Steve could wonder was what on earth he’d been busted for.
Once the rest of the team left, filing out in exhausted pairs, Steve cleared his throat. “Well?”
“As per his contract – ” Fury nodded toward the Winter Soldier. “ – The Winter Soldier won’t be staying in SHIELD HQ. ‘Too many goddamn spies in one building’, I think was his wording.”
“It was,” the Winter Soldier agreed placidly.
“SHIELD already owns the apartment next to yours, Captain, so Agent 13 will be replaced by him.” Fury’s one eye was shrewd as he held Steve’s gaze, and Steve had to carefully hold his body still while a rush of adrenaline kicked his legs out from underneath him.
“And just when Sharon and I were getting used to each other,” Steve said, proud of himself for keeping his voice steady.
“I won’t get in the way,” the Winter Soldier said, and now that they weren’t surrounded by a team of chatterboxes, Steve was uncomfortably aware of the silence that was screaming between them both. “You’ll barely know I’m there.”
Not likely, Steve thought. Not likely at all.
“Are we dismissed?” the Winter Soldier asked, and once he got a nod from Fury, he stood and stretched, sighing. Then he looked at Steve, and for the first time, Steve looked through his goggles hard enough to see the glitter of eyes behind them that were sharp enough to cut glass. “Walk me out, Captain.”
Steve swallowed dryly. “Alright.”
They walked in silence, Steve with his hands in his pockets, the Winter Soldier with his fists tight around the straps of his knapsack. Steve was still thinking about those eyes, veiled once more by the Winter Soldier’s long hair. Dark hair and sparkling eyes: a dangerous combination, if one took data from Steve's track record. Peggy and Bucky both fit into that particular subset, and he didn’t need to add another, especially not one as ruthless as the Winter Soldier. He’d seen him on the battlefield. The Winter Soldier was the kind of ghost that could rip your throat out and disappear, unhindered by rattling chains in his wake.
“We were good on the field today,” Steve said haltingly, shooting the Winter Soldier a furtive glance out of the corner of his eye. “Thanks for the cover.”
If the Winter Soldier was looking back at him, Steve couldn’t tell. “You were easier to cover than most of the people I’ve worked for,” he said in his low, rough voice. Steve thought he might have been smiling. “Easy to predict. Especially when you fell on your face at the end.”
“Oh, shut up,” Steve said. He felt his face grow hot.
“We were good, though. You were right.” The Winter Soldier nudged Steve with his elbow before he reached out to push open the big front glass door, where a nervous SHIELD trainee had ferried his bike around to wait for him. “Want a ride, neighbor?”
Steve blinked. “Uh. Sure. Why not.”
The Winter Soldier straddled his bike and revved the engine, looking over at Steve expectantly. “Hop on.”
Steve tentatively got on the back of the bike, the heavy shield on his back digging into the place between his shoulder blades. The Winter Soldier’s body was solid and warm in front of him. It was strange how much smaller the Soldier felt when Steve had his hands cautiously at his waist, small and almost fragile when he was within touching distance instead of up in the trees wreaking havoc from behind the foliage.
“Hang on tight,” the Winter Soldier said, and twisted around in his seat to hand Steve a motorcycle helmet. “And put this on. Can you direct me to our apartments from here?”
“Sure thing.” Steve put on the helmet and let his arms slide around the Winter Soldier’s waist, let his chest come up to press against his back. He could hear his heartbeat pick up to a kick drum beat beneath his sternum, and wondered briefly if the Winter Soldier could feel it hammering against his spine through his leather jacket.
The motorcycle sped off toward Steve’s apartment building, the roar of the wind and the rumbling engine rattling up and down his back, and Steve stayed leaning forward so he could murmur directions into the Winter Soldier’s ear.
Steve took a long shower as soon as he got home. He was used to the post-mission crash by now, but it never got any easier, standing under the hot spray with his head bowed while he watched the dirt and blood slide off his body in rivulets before they circled down the drain. There weren’t any marks left on his body - the serum took care of that - and once all the blood was washed from his skin, there wasn’t any proof he’d ever been injured. He was a blank slate once more.
Afterwards, he put on his street clothes and looked critically at his costume, which was sitting in a pile on the floor, smoking gently. Well. There was nothing for it, really. He’d gone through a dozen costumes in about as many months, and he knew that he wasn’t going to stop taking risks that left his clothes charred anytime soon. If his costumes were the only collateral damage, he’d consider himself lucky.
He gathered up his costume and headed outside to the trash bin - no need to set off the fire alarm and make everyone on the apartment block miserable - and as he closed the door behind him, he heard the quiet sound of a stereo next door where the Winter Soldier was staying. He paused, cocking his head to the side as he listened. The warble of a ‘40s love ballad was faint at first, but the big band sound expanded as he listened until filled the entire hallway. He stood there for a moment with his eyes closed. His white-knuckled fists clenched tight around the costume in his arms.
He wondered if the Winter Soldier took his mask off while he listened to his music, or if he sat on his couch in his big leather jacket and boots, the goggles and mask shielding his face from the rest of the world.
The Winter Soldier offered Steve another ride in the morning, so Steve got another chance to wrap his arms tight around his waist and listen to the steady beat of his heart. He rested his cheek against the Winter Soldier’s hard left shoulder, eyes half open, but he wasn’t looking at anything in particular. He was just focusing on how good it felt, being close to someone.
Fury called the Winter Soldier into his office before the mission debriefing. That left Steve alone with Tony and the already mostly empty coffee machine.
“Commuting with the commie?” Tony asked, pouring himself the last cup of coffee shamelessly. “Look what the world’s come to.”
“He’s a better driver than you are,” Steve said, and snagged the cup before Tony could drink it, but he made a face when he took a sip. “You put too much sugar in this.”
“Sorry that we didn’t all learn to drink coffee in the fucking trenches.” Tony held out his hand expectantly until Steve relinquished his conquest.
“Morning, boys,” Natasha yawned, running a hand through her hair as she walked through the door. Her clothes were a little rumpled, hair a little out of place, which alarmed Steve for a moment before he remembered that it had been her night to stay with Clint.
“How is he?” he asked.
Natasha shrugged a shoulder and sat down. Tony offered her a sip of his coffee, which she accepted. “No worse than yesterday,” she said, cradling Tony’s cup between her hands. “Not much better, though.”
“He’ll be okay,” Steve said softly.
Natasha’s smile was wan. “I know.”
Sam walked in with a bag of bagels, then, and Steve squeezed Natasha’s shoulder as he passed her to claim the first sesame before the Hulk or Thor arrived and poured the entire bag into their mouths.
The mission went better than the last one. Steve didn’t land on his face, anyway, and although the Winter Soldier stayed in his perch the entire time, Steve could feel his presence near him through the whole battle. Every time he turned his head, the glitter of the Winter Soldier’s stealth rifle glinted at him from the top of the tree, reminding him that someone was watching his six. As the bullets flew faster, blood spraying like paint splatter, he started angling his body as he fought so that the Soldier would have a clearer shot.
“How the fuck are you doing that?” Tony exclaimed as he sped overhead, firing his repulsors. Off in the distance, the Hulk roared angrily.
“Doing what?” Steve bit out, socking a HYDRA agent on the jaw. The agent stumbled back a step and into the Winter Soldier’s line of fire.
It was when he realized he was anticipating the places that the Winter Soldier would shoot next that he realized what Tony was talking about - he and the Winter Soldier were fighting like they were dancing, coordinating their movements unconsciously until they could strike as one person. Steve’s body weaved in between the bullets. He never once was hit.
He turned, once the battle was over, and shot the Winter Soldier a two-fingered salute. The sun winked off his metal hand when the Winter Soldier returned the gesture.
“What do you think he’s hiding under that mask?” Tony wanted to know, mouth full of sandwich. Natasha was looking at him with a mixture of disgust and interest that Steve recognized immediately. Watching Tony eat was like watching a car crash - you just couldn’t look away.
“Probably scars,” Bruce said reasonably.
“Acid could’ve dissolved the entire lower half of his face,” Tony countered. He had mayonnaise in his moustache, but no one pointed it out. “I know I would hide that under a mask.”
“Most likely explanation is that he wants to protect his identity,” Natasha said, and threw a napkin at Tony’s head. Her aim, as always, was impeccable. Tony, as always, squawked without an ounce of dignity when the napkin thwacked his cheek. “So don’t be rude. Secret identities are a valid choice.”
Steve rubbed a hand over the back of his neck and thought about himself, about all the secrets he was hiding that he wasn’t able to cover with a mask. It’d be easier, he thought, if his biggest secret was the way his mouth curved upward when he smiled.
Later, after another mission, Steve and the Winter Soldier ascended the stairs to their apartment building together, and Steve found himself unable to tear his eyes away from the spot where the Winter Soldier’s mask met the sharp angle of his jaw. “Do you ever take off your mask?” he blurted out. “Sorry, I just - was curious.”
“Sometimes,” the Soldier answered without looking at him. “Not often.” There wasn’t any malice in his tone - just the statement of a fact - so Steve felt alright pushing a little harder.
“What about the goggles?”
The Winter Soldier paused in the stairwell, one hand wrapped around the banister. He regarded Steve silently for a moment, head cocked to the side, and then surprised Steve by laughing briefly. “Why?” he asked, amusement coloring his voice. “Wanna see my pretty face that badly?”
Steve turned a little pink, but he valiantly held eye contact. “Maybe. That a crime?”
The Winter Soldier ducked his head, huffing a little breath. “I’d only disappoint you, Captain Rogers.”
“Call me Steve.”
“I’d only disappoint you, Steve,” the Winter Soldier corrected himself, glancing up again. There was something about the way he said it, about the way Steve’s name fit in his mouth, that made adrenaline slide into Steve’s belly unprompted.
“You’ve gone above and beyond all my other expectations,” Steve said softly. “Don’t see why this would be any different.”
The Winter Soldier leaned forward, left hand coming up to curl around the back of Steve’s neck. Steve could feel the cool metal fingertips against the base of his skull, fingerless leather glove smoothing over the juncture where his neck met his jaw. “Do you trust me?”
Steve swallowed. He bet the Winter Soldier could feel it. “That’s a loaded question.”
“Steve.” The Winter Soldier let his metal thumb slide over Steve’s lower lip. “Do you trust me?”
Steve didn’t know what to say. He didn’t want to say anything, in case it would make the Winter Soldier take his hand away again and leave him cold and breathless in the stairwell. All he could do was nod wordlessly, mouth half parted under the smooth flat of the Winter Soldier’s metal thumb.
“Then don’t ask me again,” the Winter Soldier said. “Please.”
“Understood,” Steve said, voice twice as rough as it’d been previously.
It was Steve’s turn to stay with Clint, so he prepared himself for a night of borrowed Star Trek DVDs and blue jello. The nurse didn’t have any other kinds, no matter how many times Clint asked for orange, and it wasn’t that bad, honestly, after Steve got over the fact that ‘blue’ apparently counted as a flavor in the twenty-first century.
“Tell me about my replacement,” Clint rasped, nudging Steve with one polka-dotted sock foot. “Nat won’t tell me shit. Is he better than me? Should I be jealous?”
“Nat probably isn’t telling you shit because there isn’t a whole lot of shit to tell,” Steve said, licking the spoon. “He’s pretty mysterious.”
“Is he cute?” Clint demanded. “Cuter than me? Better arrows?”
“No arrows,” Steve laughed. “Just a whole lot of guns. And no, pal, no one’s as cute as you. Quit worrying.”
Clint settled back grumpily, but he was mollified, so Steve just turned on the television and hoped that’d be the end of it.
“What’s he like, though?” Clint asked as Kirk socked a purple alien on the jaw. “The Winter Motherfucker or whatever.”
Steve wetted his lips with the tip of his tongue. “He’s...a character,” he admitted. “Quiet. Competent. Sort of funny, if you like gallows’ humor.” He looked down at his lap as Kirk kissed the purple alien instead. “Tell you the truth, Clint, I like him,” he sighed, watching the way his fingers laced together over his knee. “I think we work well together. But we all miss the shit out of you, so don’t think you’re off the hook just ‘cause we found a guy that doesn’t completely suck.”
“Absence, fonder, whatever,” Clint said, patting Steve’s knee reassuringly. “Just promise me one thing.”
“If you end up fucking the guy, do it before Tony gets to him.”
Steve choked on his blue jello, coughing, and Clint laughed so hard that a nurse had to come in and check on him. By that point, Kirk and the purple alien were fighting again, and all Steve could do was remember the Winter Soldier’s body pressed next to his on the motorcycle, and how it would feel to press a kiss at the nape of his neck. Beneath his long hair, lips against smooth pale skin, leaving the kiss hidden there where no one else would ever find it.
Steve tossed the Winter Soldier his shield, once, while they were training. He didn’t think much of it while his arm was moving, but the moment his fingers let go, he felt the loss like a kick to the chest. It didn’t help him much that the Winter Soldier caught it easily, effortlessly, as though it was something they’d practiced a thousand times.
“What d’you say, Frosty?” Tony asked, wiping the back of his neck with a towel. All of them were hot and sweaty after the grueling training session - Natasha and Thor had both disappeared for showers the moment they got out of the training room - but the Winter Soldier was barely even flushed, from the parts of his face Steve could see. “Wanna come to the bar with us? Steve’s the designated driver automatically - sorry, Cap - and it’s my turn to pay, so we’re getting the good stuff.”
The Winter Soldier shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “I, uh... don’t really drink.”
Tony’s eyes bounced from Steve’s face back to the Winter Soldier’s. “We’ve got a guy who can’t get drunk at all and a demigod. Don’t sweat it.”
“Alright,” the Winter Soldier said, shrugging a shoulder. “I’ll tag along. But only ‘cause you’re paying.”
Steve looked at him with wide eyes and tried to picture him without a machine gun strapped to his back, but it was impossible. Twenty minutes later, when all the Avengers crowded around one booth in the back of the bar, it still seemed impossible, but there he was. Leather jacket draped over the back of his chair. Shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. Mask still firmly in place, but hair pulled back into a loose knot at the base of his skull. Appearing, for all the world, like any other Avenger that stumbled into the bar at three o’clock in the morning.
Steve and Natasha had to swap drinks when the waitress arrived - her neat double whiskey and his tall pink glass with a little umbrella - but they were used to it. If he couldn’t get drunk anyway, he definitely wasn’t going to drink something awful for the taste.
“This is not what I pictured, I’m gonna be honest with you,” the Winter Soldier said, barely hiding the laughter in his voice.
Steve flipped him off.
Natasha turned, grinning, to whisper something in his ear in Russian. Whatever it was prompted the Winter Soldier to guffaw and give Steve a speculative look that made something both pleasant and uncomfortable squirm in the pit of his stomach. It’d been a long time since he’d seen that look. He hid his discomfort in a long sip of his drink, and when he looked back up, the Winter Soldier was deeply engaged in conversation with Sam about the relative merits of helicopters and drones.
The mission was going well, as far as Steve could tell. Tony was still peeved that Steve and the Winter Soldier were getting better at reading each other’s minds, but the rest of the team was able to ignore him successfully, and that was a victory all in itself. Steve was just glad they were holding themselves together as some semblance of a cohesive unit. Sam had Natasha on his back while they dive-bombed HYDRA stragglers, Hulk and Thor were competing for who could smash the most agents with one punch, Tony was having fun complaining, and it seemed, reassuringly, that the Avengers were evenly matched with their enemy for once. Steve should’ve known he was deluding himself the moment the thought crossed his mind, but he wondered when fighting HYDRA had become boring.
He heard the gunshot before he felt anything. Time slowed down for a heartbeat, just long enough for the loud crack to fill him with dread right before the bullet met flesh.
Oh, Steve thought, looking down at his stomach. Red bloomed like a flower through his costume as he watched. Oh, shit.
His knees hit the ground, but he didn’t really feel the impact. He’d been shot before several times, but never in the gut, and definitely never at so close a range. It felt a little like being kicked in the abdomen by a red-hot poker.
That was Natasha. Steve could tell because it was the same agonized voice that had come out of her when Clint had been shot in the side a month earlier. He felt guilty about that, briefly, but then he was tipping over to the side and it seemed like a good idea to close his eyes before he hit the ground.
He didn’t hit the ground, though. Two strong arms caught him before he ended up face-down in the mud, scooping him up and hauling him close to a chest that felt familiar when Steve’s cheek pressed against it. Steve watched through his eyelashes as the arms picked him up like he weighed nothing, like he was 5’2” and a hundred pounds soaking wet again, and he let his face tip into the crook of a neck that was softer than he anticipated.
“I had ‘em on the ropes,” he murmured, one hand balled up into a fist over his wound.
“If you say so,” the Winter Soldier replied, tense, fingertips stroking briefly through Steve’s hair before he shoved himself to his feet and ran toward the quinjet with Steve cradled close.
The entry wound had already healed over by the time they got to a hospital, so the doctors had to pump him full of their strongest anaesthetic and cut into his body to get the bullet out. Tony asked if he could keep the bullet. Natasha told him that was too morbid, even for him, and Steve had to agree.
“You’re lucky the Winter Soldier was the one closest to you,” Natasha said, clicking the morphine button for him so Steve didn’t have to sit up. “I couldn’t have picked you up like that.”
“Does he have enhanced strength?” Steve asked. “Because it sort of felt like he did.”
“I’m not sure.” Natasha patted his leg. “Get some rest, Cap. I won’t let Tony draw a mustache on you while you’re sleeping.”
“Good,” Steve sighed. He could already feel the medicine tugging him down toward sleep, and he didn’t feel like fighting it, not with the dull pain throbbing ominously in the pit of his stomach. “I don’t look good with a mustache.”
He woke up to the feeling of fingers stroking through his hair, warm fingertips careful and smooth at his scalp. He wondered what time it was, and if Bucky was waking him up before he went to work so he could say goodbye. He always liked it when he could see Bucky’s face before he left, although there were always creases of worry between Bucky’s eyebrows when Steve was sick in bed...
“I’m supposed to wake you to take your medicine,” the Winter Soldier said, voice softer than Steve had ever heard it. “Here, I’ll help you sit up.”
It was jarring, opening his eyes and seeing the Winter Soldier when he expected Bucky. The long decades crashed over his head all at once, and he stopped breathing for a moment while he allowed himself to be pulled into sitting and gently propped up by another pillow. The Winter Soldier was painstakingly careful as he maneuvered Steve’s body into a position in which he could take his medicine.
“Did you pull the short straw?” Steve asked, yawning. He rubbed his eyes, hoping it’d wake him up faster. “Sorry to get you up in the middle of the night.”
The Winter Soldier touched his face, right hand warm against his cheek. “I volunteered. Wanted to see you.”
“Oh,” Steve said, eyes wide.
“I took off my goggles,” The Winter Soldier added, almost apologetically. “Did you notice?”
Steve hadn’t noticed, consumed by the thick, foggy medicine and the veil of the dark. The Winter Soldier’s eyes glittered like cut diamonds from his face, now that Steve was looking at them, blue and sharp and so beautiful that it kicked Steve in the stomach as hard as the bullet had to look at him now. The fluorescent light from the hallway illuminated only a sliver of his face. Steve wanted to spend an hour memorizing the curvature of his cheekbones, the glint of his eyes.
“You were wrong,” Steve said, reaching up to tuck a lock of hair behind the Winter Soldier’s ear. “This isn’t disappointing at all.”
The Winter Soldier was silent, though he didn’t move away from Steve’s touch. He seemed to be debating something internally, brows furrowed, and Steve found himself grateful for the chance to watch the cogs turn in the inner workings of his mind.
“Close your eyes,” the Winter Soldier said finally. “And don’t open them.”
Steve felt his heart jump in his chest, but he complied willingly enough. His heart was beating fast and loud in his ears as he closed his eyes. He could hear the rustle of the hospital sheets, the click of a clasp being undone, and then he felt two hands come up to frame his face. The cool metal of the Winter Soldier’s hand made goosebumps splinter down the backs of his arms. He had to squeeze his eyes shut to keep them closed, had to bite the inside of his cheek not to jump when he felt the Winter Soldier’s weight settle on top of his thighs.
“Winter...” Steve breathed, unsteady.
“Can I...?” the Winter Soldier asked. Steve could feel his breath against his lips.
“Yes,” Steve said. Christ. “Yes. Please.”
“Don’t open your eyes,” the Winter Soldier repeated in a murmur, but before Steve could reply with an indignant I won’t, he bridged the gap between them and pressed their lips together.
Steve hadn’t been kissed since 1945. He’d forgotten how much he liked it. The Winter Soldier kissed him with a slow care that was agonizing, knees on either side of Steve’s hips, mismatched hands holding Steve still as much as they were alerting him to his presence. Steve’s breath froze in his throat as those soft lips moved against his own, so gentle, so careful, and so sweet that it made him shudder. His hands smoothed up the Winter Soldier’s thighs until he was holding his hips, thumbs tucked under his leather jacket so he could feel the warmth of the body beneath his hands.
The Winter Soldier kept the kiss slow, almost chaste, but the feeling of his thighs pressing down on Steve’s hips was anything but. Warmth coiled in his belly, sparks flickering more hotly every time the Winter Soldier shifted slightly in his lap.
“Careful, Captain,” the Winter Soldier laughed quietly against his mouth. “The nurse’ll come in if your heart rate goes up too much.”
“Thought I told you to call me Steve,” Steve said, out of breath. His eyes were still closed, but he could feel the ghost of the kiss on his lips like a lipstick stain.
The Winter Soldier kissed him again briefly, but he pulled away too quickly for Steve’s liking and clambered off of his lap. Steve could hear the mask being picked up again, the click of the clasp a deep disappointment. “You’re injured, Captain,” the Winter Soldier said, but his voice was kind.
“I heal fast,” Steve said, plaintive.
“Well,” the Winter Soldier said, and surprised Steve with a touch to his half-parted lips. “Heal faster, Steve.”
“Can I open my eyes now?” Steve asked. The Winter Soldier withdrew his hand but made no reply. Steve breathed for a second, the sound rough. “Winter?”
Steve’s heartbeat was loud in his ears for ten long, excruciating seconds. When he couldn’t bear it anymore and opened his eyes, the room was empty, with nothing more than the slight dip in the bed where the Winter Soldier had sat to suggest that Steve had ever had company in his pale green hospital room.
Fury put a pause on full-team Avengers missions for a couple days until they got Steve back, and he didn't change his mind after Steve was released from the hospital. Clint hadn’t decided yet if he was offended that he hadn’t been important enough to grind everything to a halt, but Steve suspected he didn’t really mind staying in the hospital with Natasha looking after him. The way she looked at Clint as he lay, sleeping, was the same way Bucky used to look at Steve when he was small and sick and teetering on the brink of death: love and devotion warred with fear in her eyes, pouring out of her face in beams. Steve wanted to take her hands in both of his and tell her not to worry. He and Clint were both going to be fine.
“Sam sent me with soup,” Natasha called from the other side of Steve’s apartment door. “Are you going to let me in, or should I pick the lock?”
Steve winced as he levered himself up off of his couch, stumbling toward the door in his pajamas with one arm curled protectively around his stomach. “Hold your horses,” he muttered and leaned against the door jamb as he let Natasha inside.
“Yikes,” Natasha said succinctly when she looked Steve critically up and down. “You’re a mess.”
“Not dead, though,” Steve countered. He took the thermos of soup from her hands with a small, lopsided smile. “Sam make this himself?”
“He’s been worried about you.” Natasha closed the door behind her, saving Steve the trouble, and steered him backward toward the sofa again. “And he’s not the only one.”
Steve let himself be sat down, sighing. “I’m really fine,” he protested. “I heal fast.”
“You keep saying that,” Natasha said flatly. “Just because you heal quickly doesn’t mean you don’t hurt. Or that it’s okay for you to get shot.”
Steve looked away, down at the carpet, with its coffee stains and footprint indentations. Natasha had his number. She always had, and he suspected she always would.
“I was never in any real danger,” he said, but it sounded fake in his own ears.
“Eat your soup, Rogers,” Natasha replied tiredly, holding out a spoon. Steve shut up and took it.
The light tap to his window that night made him jump, already reaching for his shield by his bedside when he realized it was only the Winter Soldier, bathed in orange streetlight with his arms braced on the windowsill. When Steve nodded him inside, he pushed the window open and perched on the sill.
“You should lock your windows,” the Winter Soldier said critically. Steve watched him, smiling, and wondered if the little thrill that zinged down his spine was something that ought to concern him.
“How else would I invite you in?” he asked, holding out a hand to beckon him closer.
The Winter Soldier complied, swinging his legs over the window ledge and letting his feet hit Steve’s floor with a soft sound. He wasn’t decked out in his leather, which was jarring - he was wearing black jeans that were worn out at the knees, a Dodgers’ baseball cap, a soft blue henley that did nothing to disguise the glitter of his left metal hand. His hair was pulled back into a ponytail. Steve could almost mistake him for casual, if he didn’t know there were a dozen knives hidden on his person.
“How’s the wound?” the Winter Soldier asked, sneakers barely making a sound as he padded over from the window to sit gingerly on the edge of Steve’s bed.
Steve shrugged. “I should be cleared for active duty tomorrow or the next day.”
The Winter Soldier brushed his fingertips over the swath of bandages on Steve’s stomach. “This doesn’t look like active duty condition.”
“You too?” Steve groaned. “Christ, I was in a war. This is nothing.”
“I’m not going to baby you,” the Winter Soldier said with a shrug. “But I did bring your pain meds, and I’d appreciate it if I didn’t have to manhandle you to get you to take them.”
Steve glared at him, but the Winter Soldier’s mild expression didn’t waver. Finally, Steve stuck out a hand, and the Winter Soldier shook two little pink pills from the bottle into his palm like he hadn’t doubted for a moment that Steve would give in. It was with as much defiance as he could muster that Steve threw them into his mouth and chased them with the last sip of lukewarm coffee by his bedside.
“There we go,” the Winter Soldier said, stroking the hair out of Steve’s eyes. “Not so hard, was it?”
“Fuck you,” Steve said.
“Okay,” the Winter Soldier said, cocking an eyebrow.
Steve blinked. “What?”
The Winter Soldier shifted slightly, letting his hand smooth down Steve’s side until his warm right palm was cupped over Steve’s hip. “I mean, if you’re not feeling up to it...”
“Shut up, oh my god,” Steve said, flushing. “I’m up to it. If you are.”
“I am,” the Winter Soldier said, thumb rubbing circles into Steve’s hipbone. “With one stipulation.”
Steve tried to subtly lean into his touch. “What’s that?”
The Winter Soldier reached into his pocket and pulled out a long scrap of black cloth that he lay on Steve’s thigh. Adrenaline slicked down Steve’s spine like oil at the sight of it, and he was suddenly breathless - the Winter Soldier was watching him with warm, anticipatory eyes - and he bit his lip, hard.
“Don’t trust me to keep my eyes closed this time, huh?” he asked, voice rough.
“Kissing’s one thing. Sex is something else,” the Winter Soldier answered, and there was something solemn in his voice that made the adrenaline in Steve’s stomach crystallize into longing. This was something else. He hadn’t been touched since 1945 - since Bucky - and he knew he was starved for it, knew he was ready to soak up touch like a sponge until he was full to overflowing. He looked at the hunger in the Winter Soldier’s eyes and wondered when the last time he’d been touched. Who was it who’d mouthed over those razor-sharp collar bones? Who was it who’d put those metal fingers between their legs?
“Go on, then,” Steve said, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. “Blindfold me.”
“Strip first,” the Winter Soldier said. “So you don’t have to do it blind.”
Steve swallowed hard but did as instructed, grateful he was already out of his shirt so all he had to do was slide out of his pajama pants and toss them to the floor. “These too?” he asked, thumbs tucked under the waistband of his underwear.
The Winter Soldier watched him with dark eyes. “Yes. Please.”
Steve looked away as he took those off, too, acutely aware of the gaze that was on him, pale eyes across the bed tracking his every movement with a sniper’s scrutiny. The Winter Soldier was deliberately slow and careful as he sat up on his knees and tied the blindfold snugly around Steve’s head. There was something intimate about the movement that had nothing to do with his nakedness and everything to do with the trust that was welling up in his throat - he’d seen those metal fingers crush metal, crush bone, and now they were stroking the soft skin beneath his ear with a gentleness that ached.
“Look at you,” the Winter Soldier said, hushed. Steve let the awe in his voice wash over him warmly as he felt two fingers trail down from his collar bones to the top of the bandages on his stomach.
“Like what you see?” Steve asked, only somewhat self-conscious.
The click of the Winter Soldier’s mask being unclasped - by now a familiar sound - was as much an answer as the murmured yes that he kissed into the side of Steve’s neck. Steve’s palms skimmed up the Winter Soldier’s sides blindly, slipping under his shirt to count his ribs with his fingertips. The smooth knots of muscle all along his back were a map, and Steve was the cartographer, marking cities and mountain ranges with the speckled scars littered over his skin like braille. He would learn this body so carefully. He didn’t have to see the slope of the Winter Soldier’s spine to know it, to learn it.
“Gimme a sec,” the Winter Soldier panted against Steve’s jaw. He sat up, bedsprings creaking as he levered himself up and off the bed. The clink of a belt buckle, the rustle of a shirt, the sound of jeans hitting the floor - each sound made the anticipation in the pit of Steve’s stomach a little heavier. Then, when the Soldier returned, bare legs sliding over Steve’s as he moved to straddle him, Steve could barely breathe for the feeling of it. “Give me your hand.”
Steve gave him his hand, inhaling sharply when the Winter Soldier squeezed lube onto two of his fingers. It was cold, but it warmed quickly against his skin. The Winter Soldier guided his hand between his legs, breath going ragged as Steve touched him, trying desperately to be as gentle as the Winter Soldier had been with him.
Steve prepped him slowly, carefully, fingers curling until he knew how to angle them just right to make the Winter Soldier’s knees tremble. It was different from the other times he’d done this, with the blindfold on. He had to pay attention to every inhalation, every tremor of muscle, to feel out what was right and what wasn’t. He’d never been inattentive, per se, but Bucky had always been mouthy as hell and unafraid to boss Steve around when things weren’t exactly as he liked them. The Winter Soldier was silent, aside from those sharp, desperate breaths.
“This okay?” Steve asked, twisting his wrist.
“Christ,” the Winter Soldier hissed, shoving himself down onto Steve’s fingers. “Come on, Steve.”
“You’re the one who can see,” Steve reminded him, breathless. “You want something, get it yourself.”
The cold metal hand on his dick wasn’t what he was expecting, and neither was his involuntary moan at the feeling. The cool slick splattered on his belly as the Winter Soldier stroked him without finesse, quickly scooting a couple inches up Steve’s body so he could guide Steve’s dick between his legs and finally, finally sank down onto it.
They were very, very still for a long moment. Steve still couldn’t see anything through the blindfold, he was at the mercy of sensation - the parts of his body that were warm, the places the Winter Soldier was touching; he knew he would be touching himself again in all those places later, trying to recall the exact way their skin had skidded together. Then the Winter Soldier was moving, little circles of his hips, and Steve felt the groan torn out of him, hands tightening around the Winter Soldier’s hips.
“Come on, ” Steve groaned. “Please - ”
The Soldier moaned and moved faster, harder, with a desperation that Steve had never seen in him before. Steve felt up his body, slid a hand behind the back of his neck, and tangled his fingers in his hair to draw him down into a kiss that felt more like a snarl than anything else. He kissed him and thrust up into him at the same time, feeling the Winter Soldier’s gasping sob against his mouth. He wanted to feel that gasp of breath, that scrape of teeth over his lower lip, over and over again. He wanted to feel the weight of the Winter Soldier’s body on top of his own until he bruised.
“I ain’t gonna last long,” he said through gritted teeth, his old Brooklyn accent slipping out before he could stop it.
The Winter Soldier made a strained noise of pleasure and wormed a hand between their bodies to jerk himself off with quick, sharp strokes. Steve felt around blindly until his fingertips brushed over the curl of the Winter Soldier’s fist, and he laced their fingers together so they were stroking him in tandem.
Steve bit his tongue when he came. At least it wasn’t with Bucky’s name in his mouth, but it was Bucky’s body that he pictured above him all the same, Bucky’s face screwing up in pleasure when the Winter Soldier came all over his stomach.
Steve woke in the morning with an empty bed and an almost illegible note left on his bedside table that read:
Your shower is really hard to figure out. Drank some orange juice. Didn’t wanna wake you, you looked like you could use the rest (active duty condition or no).
Guess I can really say that America screwed me, huh? Gotta figure out a way to work that into conversation. -WS
Steve kept rereading it and smiling foolishly, tracing over the Winter Soldier’s initials with the pad of his thumb.
The tension that crackled between Steve and the Winter Soldier’s bodies now was almost palpable. He could feel it without looking at him, now, could feel the Winter Soldier’s presence at his side through closed eyelids and the veil of other people’s bodies. They trained with the rest of the team, but the other members didn’t matter half as much - all Steve really cared about was the way the Winter Soldier weaved between the SHIELD-programmed robots and countered Steve’s own progression through the room perfectly. He didn’t even notice everyone else had stopped fighting until all the robots were down and he and the Winter Soldier were stood back to back, panting.
“Wow,” Tony said, perturbed, from the sidelines. “What setting were we on, again, Nat?”
“Five,” Natasha replied, eyes narrowed.
Steve glanced at the Winter Soldier. Their usual session, then - tough, but not as strenuous as when they were gearing up for a battle that was more intense than a run of the mill HYDRA base. The Winter Soldier looked back at him, an eyebrow cocked.
“We did good,” Steve said, nudging him with an elbow. The Winter Soldier nodded and clapped Steve on the back, squeezing Steve’s shoulder briefly before pulling away to head to the showers. Steve watched him leave with warmth blooming on his shoulder like a firework.
Natasha was still looking at him with a worryingly somber expression, even for her, so Steve waited until the rest of the Avengers filtered out of the room before he walked up to her. “What’s wrong?” he asked her. “We kicked ass.”
She was looking at him like she was reminding herself to be careful with him, and it made Steve’s hackles rise. “Don’t forget that he’s temporary, Steve.”
He looked away, jaw stiff. “I’m not an idiot.”
“Aren’t you?” she asked flatly. “You’re falling in love with him.”
Steve sighed a breath through his teeth and scrubbed a hand through his hair. It was always hardball with Natasha, always a little too sharp for him to ever relax completely. “It’s not romantic,” he said, shoulders stiff. “Alright? I know what I’m getting into.”
Natasha’s face softened slightly when she reached out and put her hand on his shoulder, just under the place that the Winter Soldier had touched. “Okay,” she said, thumb stroking circles into his collar bone. “I believe you.”
Steve didn’t look at her, but he also didn’t shake off her hand. “You don’t,” he said. “But I appreciate it anyway.”
The Winter Soldier was waiting for him when Steve arrived back at their apartment building, sitting on the front steps in his street clothes. He waved to Steve when he approached, rose to his feet, and held the door open - it was an odd little gesture, almost formal, but Steve appreciated it all the same.
“You look a little worn out,” the Winter Soldier said, closing the door behind them. “Come up to my apartment, I made coffee.”
Steve huffed a little laugh as he followed him up the stairs. “Is that just an excuse to get me into your apartment?”
The Winter Soldier threw him a look over his shoulder, eyes sparkling. “Maybe. That a crime?”
Steve just grinned and walked a little faster.
Steve woke in the morning to the sight of the Winter Soldier getting dressed, first rays of sunlight dripping down the smooth muscles of his back like water. Steve wanted to put his mouth over the notches of his spine. There was a scar beneath his right shoulder blade, just above his ribcage - an old scar, decades old, brown and puckered - in the same place Bucky had a scar, where he’d been cut by a broken bottle in a bar fight in ‘36. Steve wondered what the Winter Soldier had been cut by, when he seemed able to avoid being hit by anything, able to duck and weave and slide out of the way of bullets and blades with equal finesse. He was like oil in a water glass, Steve thought. Just as slippery.
“Why do you wear dog tags that aren’t yours?” the Winter Soldier asked, back still turned to Steve.
“He was my partner,” Steve answered. He watched through his eyelashes as the Winter Soldier put on his shirt. “He died in 1945.”
The Winter Soldier did turn around at that, sitting on the edge of the bed so he could touch the little rectangles of metal that lay over Steve’s sternum. “James Barnes,” he read out. “Sergeant. 32557038.”
“Bucky,” Steve corrected, and was surprised by how much it still hurt, saying that name. “Everyone called him Bucky.”
“Sorry,” the Winter Soldier murmured.
Steve leaned over the bedside, fumbling for his jeans until he could stick his hand into the pocket and retrieve his wallet. From there, it was only a moment before he pulled the picture out of the back, the photograph he kept on him at all times: Bucky dressed up in his uniform for the first time, hat at a jaunty angle, grinning at the camera with a lock of dark hair falling into his eyes. Steve had tucked that lock of hair back into his hat a moment after the picture had been taken.
“Here,” he said, handing it to the Winter Soldier. “That’s him. That’s my Bucky.”
The Winter Soldier looked at the photo for a long time. Steve didn’t know what it was that was unfurling on his face, but he was fairly certain he didn’t like it - the Winter Soldier was as still as a statue, looking at Bucky’s face, metal fingertips resting delicately on the pale slope of Bucky’s throat.
“When was this taken?” the Soldier asked, voice a rough scrape.
Steve wetted his lips with the tip of his tongue. “1940.”
The Winter Soldier nodded, handing the picture back to Steve. “Thank you for telling me,” he said, oddly formal again, and stood up from the bed again to finish getting dressed. Steve put the picture back in his wallet, grateful, as always, to have Bucky’s smiling face at his side whenever he needed to look at it.
“Can I ask you a question?” he asked as the Winter Soldier buttoned his pants.
“Seems fair,” the Soldier replied distractedly as he looked under the bed for one of his shoes.
“How’d you lose your arm?”
The Winter Soldier paused, sitting back on his heels. “It’s gonna sound like bullshit,” he said. “But I don’t remember.”
Steve looked at him, really looked at him, at the place where his metal shoulder met flesh. He could see the outline of the raised scar tissue through his shirt. “Jesus,” he murmured. “How do you forget something like that?”
The Winter Soldier shrugged a shoulder uncomfortably. “HYDRA,” he said, like it explained everything. “Took a lot of things from me. Including my memory.”
Steve supposed it did explain everything. HYDRA had taken a lot of things away from him, too.
Steve wiped dirt from his face, wincing when he scraped over a bloody lip. Tony zoomed overhead, whooping, but his usual victory lap was cut short when Sam knocked into him on purpose and sent them spiraling down into the water.
“Foul play!” Tony yelped before they were submerged.
“More like fowl play,” Natasha said, smirking, and Steve ducked his head when he grinned. The Winter Soldier actually laughed out loud, though, and the sound was so lovely and familiar that it made Steve’s chest ache for a reason he couldn’t quite figure out.
Steve wasn’t really used to having a routine, but it wasn’t long before he realized he and the Winter Soldier had one: they trained and went on missions, during which their quiet solidarity made Steve’s heart swell and Natasha’s eyes narrow, and then they went home and wrestled each other out of their clothing. It was nice, Steve had to admit, but he wished the Soldier would take off that awful mask every once in a while so Steve could kiss him with his eyes open.
Nat hung up the phone very pale, and Steve felt a rush of dread wash over him in a wave. “How bad is it?” he asked, about to reach out to her, but he thought better of it at the last second. “Nat - ”
“He’s coming home today,” she said, eyes shining. “We’ll have to ease him into it, but Clint’s been cleared for duty.”
The sick swoop in Steve’s stomach had nothing to do with relief and everything to do with the fact that the Winter Soldier would be leaving as soon as he heard the news. Fury would pay him and he’d leave and Steve would never see his face -
“You knew this day was coming, Steve,” Natasha said, mouth tight. “The Winter Soldier’s probably already heard. You should go find him before he leaves.”
Steve swallowed over something sharp that had formed in his throat. “Tell Clint I say congratulations,” he said, right before he turned and sprinted for the door.
The SHIELD base had never looked so large and imposing before. The Winter Soldier was nowhere to be found. He wasn’t in any of the usual locations - the training room, Fury’s office, the medbay, the armory - and Steve was beginning to grow desperate when his phone buzzed in his pocket.
Trying to pack. Tempted to steal your patriotic socks for the irony factor. - WS
P.S. I knew you stole my toothpaste, you bastard. - WS
Steve stood still and taught himself how to breathe again. From there, it was only a matter of running to the bay where all the SHIELD vehicles were stored, flashing his keycard at a startled level one operative at the gate, and skidding his borrowed motorcycle out onto the street toward his apartment. His mind was racing just as fast as the wheels, but what did that matter? He missed Clint - god, he missed Clint - but the Winter Soldier had awoken a part of him that he’d thought was dead. He didn’t want to watch him walk away.
“Winter,” he called out, clattering up the stairs. The door was partially open, so he walked inside, breathing a little hard as he watched the Winter Soldier freeze halfway between his closet and his suitcase lying on the bed.
“Hey,” the Winter Soldier said, blinking, arms full of clothes. “Everything okay?”
Steve suddenly felt foolish, standing in the Winter Soldier’s doorway with his heart on his sleeve. “Yeah,” he said, and looked away. “I just - didn’t want you to leave without saying goodbye.”
The Winter Soldier put the clothes down. “Shit, Steve, I’m not that much of an asshole.”
Steve nodded, clinging a little to the doorframe. All he could think about was the Winter Soldier’s mouth on his, their bodies moving in the moonlight, and the scar beneath the Winter Soldier’s right shoulder blade, the scar that he and Bucky shared. All Steve could think about was the redacted information on Fury’s source sheet, the impossibly long list of successful kills, and the way the Winter Soldier and he moved in tandem on the battlefield.
“I need to see your face,” he said, looking up at the Winter Soldier with eyes that were unnaturally bright. “Please. Take off your mask.”
The Winter Soldier held his gaze, but it looked like it pained him. “Don’t ask for that, Steve.”
“Please,” Steve repeated, voice cracking.
“You aren’t gonna like it,” the Winter Soldier said, almost pleading, but Steve’s desperate eyes didn’t waver. “Steve - ”
“I have to know,” Steve interrupted, and he could feel Bucky’s picture burning a hole through his wallet, burning him, making his blood run hot. “I have to. Please.”
The Winter Soldier unclasped the mask with hands that visibly shook. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you,” he said, and slowly lowered it from his face, removing his mask and revealing Bucky Barnes’ face to Steve’s eyes for the first time in seventy years.
In 1943, two years before Bucky Barnes became the first and only Howling Commando to give his life up for his country, the two of them exchanged dog tags in a dirty makeshift campsite somewhere in the woods in France. Steve had never been good with directions; he left that shit to Dernier and Jones, the two of them bickering in at least three languages about whether to turn left or right with their heads bent close together over the map.
“The whole point is that the tags’ll tell whoever finds your body what your name is,” Bucky said, laughing at Steve, who was lying with his head pillowed on Bucky’s thigh. “Why d’you wanna switch?”
“Well, first of all, anyone who finds me will know who I am,” Steve said, poking Bucky in the stomach just to hear him yelp. “Because I’m a household name, thank you very much.”
“Rude,” Bucky said, ruffling his hair.
“And secondly...” Steve paused, biting his lip when he tilted his head to look at Bucky. “I’d much rather be buried with your name on me than anyone else’s.”
Bucky got a funny look on his face, like he was swallowing ice, and he bent to kiss Steve with a desperation that Steve could taste on his tongue.
“Bucky,” Steve said, feeling like he’d been kicked in the stomach, watching the Winter Soldier - Bucky - avoid his eyes. “What - how - ”
“I’m not him,” Bucky snarled, suddenly vicious, baring his teeth as he spoke. “Whatever HYDRA did to me, whoever I was before, it doesn’t matter. I know you were - in love with him - ”
“Bucky,” Steve said again, stepping forward, but stopped when Bucky stepped backward into a defensive stance with his metal arm raised in front of him.
“Leave me alone,” Bucky hissed. “Back the fuck up.”
Steve didn’t back up, but he stayed still, which seemed to be enough. Bucky stuffed the last of his clothes into his bag, shouldering it without zipping it all the way. Steve watched his fingers fumble with the straps.
“Don’t go,” Steve heard himself saying, and stepped forward again, almost against his will. “Bucky - ”
The click of the safety being taken off the gun made Steve’s heart go cold. He froze, staring down the barrel of Bucky’s revolver - the same revolver he’d seen take out HYDRA agents without a second thought, aim as deadly and precise as everything else about him.
“I’m sorry, Steve,” Bucky said. His voice wavered. His aim did not. “But you have to let me go.”
“I did that once,” Steve said. “I’m not prepared to do it again.”
“Doesn’t matter.” Bucky had backed up to the edge of the window at that point, the open window, the street below only fifteen feet away. “Sorry. Really.”
Then he was vaulting himself up and over the windowsill, falling down to the pavement and disappearing into the late afternoon shadows like the ghost that he was.
Natasha found Steve in the same place, sitting in the middle of Bucky’s apartment next door to his own, eyes on the open window. She didn’t speak, but she sat next to him, one hand placed gently between his shoulder blades. When Steve’s body started shaking, eyes stinging, she guided his face to the crook of her neck and held him there until he regained control.
“How’s Clint?” he asked, letting her stroke her fingertips through the hair at the base of his skull.
“Worried about you,” she answered. “Grateful to be eating real food.”
“Pizza, you mean.” He pulled away from her touch, but not too far, just far enough that he could wipe at his eyes and pretend that she didn’t see him do it. “Glad he’s okay.”
Natasha nudged him with her knee. “C’mon, Cap,” she said, voice full of a kindness Steve didn’t think he frankly deserved. “The whole team is waiting for you.”
Steve let her pull him to his feet reluctantly.
Bucky was alive.
Steve congratulated Clint, drank some Asgardian mead at Thor’s behest, waved off Sam’s concern, and then he took the elevator up eleven floors to Fury’s office. His heart was pounding anguish and rage in his chest. Bucky was alive.
So much of his life in the twenty first century had been built around Bucky being dead. He’d spent so much time actively working on thinking about things that weren’t Bucky - he’d built his team, his life, his little rituals and routines to keep himself sane when his best friend and partner was so long dead that he was the only one who remembered him. But Bucky was alive. He’d been alive this whole time, buried in the snow, blinking frost off his eyelashes every morning before he put on that terrible mask. Bucky was out there, somewhere, breathing.
Steve couldn’t stop thinking about him breathing.
“Captain Rogers,” Fury said, looking up from his paperwork when Steve walked in without knocking. “I thought you’d be downstairs with your team.”
“Did you know?” Steve asked. “Did you know the Winter Soldier was Bucky?”
Fury’s eye widened. “What - ?”
Steve looked away, relieved. “Ex-HYDRA,” he said softly. “Best there is.”
“You don’t mean to suggest that he’s...?” Fury trailed off, disbelieving.
“HYDRA did something to him,” Steve said. “They must have found him when he fell from the train in the Alps. They found him and they did something to him and he doesn’t remember who he is.”
Fury cleared his throat. “And you want me to do what, exactly?”
“Contact him,” Steve demanded. “I need to see him.”
Fury’s gaze became shrewd. “And does he want to see you?”
Steve’s hand hit the table with a loud, heavy sound. “Just do it, Nick!" he yelled. "Please.”
Fury looked at him for a long moment before he turned to his computer, tapping in a series of dizzyingly long passcodes that made Steve’s head spin. Steve looked at the desk instead, at the crack in the glass tabletop where his fist had connected.
“Sorry, Captain,” Fury said, frowning. “All his numbers have been disconnected. Email too.”
The hopeless pit in the bottom of Steve’s stomach opened again, yawning wide, threatening to swallow him. “All of them?” he said desperately. “Every one?”
“Every one,” Fury repeated patiently. “Are you absolutely sure he’s Bucky?”
A wave of nausea hit Steve like a slap to the face and he had to sprint to the nearest bathroom.
It was Sam that found him this time, a bottle of water in one hand and some painkillers in the other. “Fury and Natasha told us everything,” he said. “How’s the hand?”
Steve looked at him in confusion, but when he looked down at his hand, he was surprised to find that he was bleeding. Fury’s glass desk must have cut him. “Huh. Look at that.”
“You’re an idiot,” Sam said kindly, taking his hand and pulling a box of bandages from his back pocket. Steve let Sam clean him and bandage him with typical Wilson care and wondered what he’d done to deserve this team, this makeshift family that pulled him up by the lapels every time he sank a little too low. Sam shook a couple tylenol into his uninjured hand. Steve took them obediently.
“I gotta go after him, Sam,” Steve said thickly, feeling the tell-tale heat behind his eyes that meant tears were coming. “I gotta.”
“I don’t know the guy, so you should take what I have to say with a grain of salt,” Sam said carefully, as if speaking to a wild horse, trying not to spook it. “But if he wanted you to find him, wouldn’t he have stayed?”
Steve had been wondering a similar thing, but what was he supposed to do? “He’s my guy, Sam. My Riley. What would you do if you found out Riley was still alive?”
Sam looked away. “Go crazy, I guess.”
Steve flexed his bandaged hand. He’d be healed soon, anyway. “So you understand why I have to go after him?”
“I don’t know, man,” Sam sighed. “Like, hear me out. HYDRA fucked with him big time. Made him forget everything, turned him into a cyborg, probably made him do some messed up shit. Don’t you think he’s gotta figure himself out a little before he can figure out stuff with you?”
“He’s Bucky,” Steve said. “It’s not like I’m - dangerous, Sam. I’m me. He’s Bucky.”
“Is he though?” Sam asked gently. “If I were him, I’d need some time before I could have that name again.”
Steve looked out the window, out into the city with its orange lights sparkling like stars. Bucky was out there somewhere, holed up with Fury’s money in his leather jacket pocket, secondhand sneakers tied unevenly. He was probably under the mask again, deflated, shoulders curling in on themselves. Couldn’t Steve put his arms around him? Wasn’t he allowed to touch him, to be with him, after so many years of missing him? Wasn’t he allowed that?
Deep down, though, he knew Sam was right. He couldn’t go tearing off after Bucky and force his hand. He couldn’t make Bucky remember him through sheer force of will.
“Come inside,” Sam said, offering Steve his hand. “Clint’s teaching Thor how to make spitballs.”
Steve laughed a little and let Sam pull him up to standing. “Shit. That isn’t gonna end well.”
“No, it sure isn’t,” Sam agreed. “But it’s gonna be fun to watch.”
Despite what Fury said, Steve still texted Bucky regularly.
Stole the coffee maker from your apartment because it’s better. Sorry. - SR
You didn’t pack your blue henley and I stole that too. Also sorry. - SR
Please come home, pal. I miss you. - SR
He didn’t know what else to do. He knew he was probably screaming into the void, but he hoped that somewhere, wherever Bucky was, he was reading his texts and reminding himself that Steve cared. That Steve was always in his corner, even when seven decades had shoved them apart.
The weeks went by and it didn’t get any easier. Steve threw himself into his work, taking out his pent up anger and frustration on HYDRA agents that had no idea what hit them; Natasha had to stop him from killing them with his bare hands a couple times, small hands always so much stronger than they looked when they grabbed his shoulder and forced him to stand still.
“For fuck’s sake, Rogers,” she said. Her concern had never been so easy to read before. “Get it together.”
“I’m trying, Nat,” he panted, turning his head to spit blood out the side of his mouth. “Believe me.”
Then, when he got home, he spent hours with his punching bag, beating it to smithereens until he was exhausted enough that he could fall into bed and sleep quickly without effort. He dreamed about Bucky, about blood in Alpine snow, and he woke covered in sweat. It didn’t get any easier.
He took to sleeping in Bucky’s bed because it smelled like him. He was curled on his side, facing the wall, playing tetris on his phone and trying not to count the minutes passing when he heard a tap on his window and very nearly swallowed his own tongue. His head whipped around, and there was Bucky, sitting on his windowsill with his bag over his shoulder. He wasn’t wearing a mask.
“Sorry,” he said sheepishly, rubbing a hand over the back of his neck. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
“It’s fine,” Steve said automatically. He sat up, uncertain whether or not he was allowed to come closer. “I’m sorry too. For scaring you off.”
Bucky smiled tightly, looking down. Steve didn’t know what to say. There was so much left unsaid - all the thousands of things he’d said to Bucky’s grave, all the questions he wanted to ask, all the times he wanted to repeat Bucky’s name until it felt real again. Nothing he could think to say seemed appropriate. Bucky was still looking down.
“How much do you remember?” he asked, worrying his lower lip between his teeth. “Just so we’re on the same page.”
Bucky fiddled with the strap of his bag. “I remember enough,” he answered. “To get by. I know you used to be small. And we were in love. I did some research, went to the Smithsonian, and that helped - ”
Steve made a small, pained noise, thinking of the wall dedicated to Bucky’s death.
“ - But what mostly helped was you, honestly,” Bucky finished. Steve’s heart constricted.
“Being near you,” Bucky explained. “Hearing your voice, seeing your pictures. Guess you weren't something HYDRA put into their equations.”
“Bucky,” Steve said, voice strangled. “If you don’t come here I might spontaneously combust.”
An honest-to-god smile broke out over Bucky’s face, the kind of smile that Steve had been dreaming about ever since he was defrosted. It wasn’t the smile in his photograph - it wasn’t a smile Steve had ever seen before, on Bucky or anyone else - but it was warm and sweet and so breathtakingly beautiful that Steve could feel his heart breaking in his own chest.
“Can’t have that, can we?” Bucky asked, hopping off the windowsill and putting his bag down, crossing the room to sit at the edge of Steve’s bed. “Hey, Steve.”
“Hi, Bucky,” Steve said, mouth trembling as he tried to smile back. “Is that okay? Can I call you Bucky?”
“I like it,” Bucky said, “When you say my name.”
Steve reached out with a slow, shaking hand. “Can I...?”
Bucky leaned his cheek into Steve’s hand, which answered that question. His eyes fluttered closed. He looked older than he had the last time Steve had seen him, creases at the corners of his eyes that hadn’t been there in ‘45, silver hairs that Steve wanted to trace with the pad of his thumb. It was good, he thought. He wasn’t the fresh-faced boy that had left Brooklyn without knowing the terrifying future that awaited him. He was certain he looked older, too.
“You really gotta learn to start locking your windows, pal,” Bucky murmured into the skin at Steve’s wrist.
“How else would I invite you inside?” Steve asked, touching his face, his beautiful face, and pulled him down into a kiss that felt like a victory.
Bucky had come home to him from dance halls when they were young, he’d come home to him from bar fights and street brawls and nights out with women who danced like lightning. And now, Bucky did the impossible: he came home to Steve from the very reaches of death itself, from behind the curtain of frozen time that had buried him for so long.
Bucky had come home, at last, from the war.