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It's Gonna Be A Cold Winter

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Tonight was the last night Leonard Snart would spend casing the First Central Bank. This was a quick check-up, to be sure nothing had changed since he’d put the finishing touches on his plan. If all looked good, he and his crew of Rogues would be hitting the place in an hour.

Quietly he settled himself between two bushes in Main Street Park, tucked out of sight of the jogging paths. Though he was armed, it was with a regular pistol, and he'd left the cold gun and parka behind.

Len wasn't here to call attention to himself. In particular, he didn’t want to draw the notice of any of the unsavoury characters who roamed the area at this time of night. Pimps and drug dealers, petty thieves and the desperate homeless. None of his business and none of his concern, as long as he stayed out of their way.

There were many reasons Len was so successful as a thief. He’d learned quite a few important lessons from his father in what not to do. He’d spent years accumulating a wealth of useful skills and information. He was quick on his feet, both physically and mentally.

Most of all, he planned. He planned every detail, accounted for nearly every contingency.

Sometimes things didn’t go the way he wanted them to, admittedly. With the arrival of the Flash and other metahumans on the Central City scene, nothing seemed to happen quite like it was supposed to anymore. Irritating as that was, Len had to admit it added to the challenge, and often to the fun.

Knowing that things would inevitably go sideways was no excuse for jumping in with no thought, however. He still cased his jobs, sometimes spending weeks watching the building from all angles. Making notes about who went where and when. Listing potential weak points, both in the building itself and the people within it.

As he raised the binoculars for a good look at the bank across the way, the unmistakable click of a safety being flipped sent sudden tension singing through Len’s muscles. He dropped the glasses and reached for his pistol, but before he could get a hand on it he felt cold metal pressed to his head from behind. A gun barrel, undoubtedly.

Len froze. Damn it, he’d gotten sloppy. Nobody should have been able to get that close to him. “Now, now,” he said, trying for conciliatory rather than annoyed. “No need for violence.”

He was positioned awkwardly; there was no way he could whip around and bat the barrel away before whoever it was fired. He needed to play it cool, convince them to back off, make them slip up somehow.

Instead of hesitating, his unknown assailant pulled back the hammer to cock the gun, another unmistakable sound. "I oughtta just blow your head off right here." The voice was low, hardly better than a dog’s growl, but it sounded vaguely familiar.

Len’s mind raced, running through the possibilities of who might be out to kill him. The list was extensive. No help there. He needed more intel, had to keep the guy talking. "I'm sure that won't be necessary. Why don't you tell me what you want, and we can come to some kind of arrangement."

"An arrangement?" The suggestion was met with a harsh, angry laugh. "Why, so you can betray me to your buddy, the Flash? You're an embarrassment, you know that?"

That drew a silent snarl from Len, lip curling in disdain and anger. "The Flash is far from my buddy. Maybe you've confused me with someone else."

"Don't give me that shit, Snart.” The more the man spoke, the more he sounded familiar. "Once, you know, your crew was an outfit to aspire to be in. I thought it was a fucking honour to work with you. But now you've gone soft. If I take you out, I'll be on top."

The information that the man had once been on his crew was the last puzzle piece falling into place. Gary McDonald, one of the men he’d brought in for the Khandaq Diamond job. The asshole had pulled a gun on him then, too. That it happened a second time was very much a ‘fool me twice, shame on me’ situation for Len.

Still, the knowledge gave him a chance to regain the upper hand. McDonald wasn’t the brightest bulb. He was easily unnerved and even more easily distracted. Len could work with that. "Is that so? That's an interesting theory. I think it's more likely that you'll be dead at the hands of my friend, coming up behind you right now."

McDonald jumped, jerking his head around like an idiot. "Huh?" The gun wavered, still aimed at Len but no longer pressed against him, and McDonald's attention was completely diverted.

Unfortunately, Len couldn’t take advantage of the opening as planned, because he was just as startled. Somehow, completely unnoticed by either of them, a third man had appeared seemingly out of thin air. McDonald made a belated attempt to swing the gun around, but the newcomer ducked low and came up inside the asshole’s guard.

A swift movement that hinted at significant fighting expertise twisted McDonald’s arm into a punishing hold. The unknown man’s other hand came up to clamp over the petty thug’s mouth, and a moment later an awful crunch sounded from McDonald’s elbow. His scream was muffled by the man’s hand as the gun fell from nerveless fingers.

"Next move you make, I snap your neck instead of your arm." The new guy’s voice was flat, as cold as the beam from Len’s signature weapon. It wasn’t a threat, just a statement of fact. No remorse, no hesitation.

That was the voice of a stone cold killer. Someone who had ended many lives in the past, and didn’t much care if he ended another tonight. Len’s well-honed survival instinct told him this was a man he definitely didn’t want to cross.

Curiosity threatened to eat him alive. This was clearly not some good Samaritan. This guy knew what he was doing, and was ruthless in his efficiency. Len thought he knew all the major players in Central City, but he’d never seen or heard of this guy.

The man wasn’t especially tall or short, but that was where ‘average’ stopped applying. His muscled build was obvious even through the leather jacket he wore, and his every movement was filled with power, grace, and speed. Dark hair fell to his shoulders, framing a pale face half covered in scruff. At least two knives and a gun were visible, tucked away in various locations on his body, and no doubt there were more out of sight.

Everything about him screamed ‘pro’, which meant he must be in town to work a contract. Why would a high class hitman get involved in a minor scuffle like this? Was he actually helping, or would he turn on Len next?

There had to be a way Len could twist this to his advantage.

For the moment, the stranger seemed willing to play along with the fiction that he was there as Len’s backup. He held McDonald in a tight grip; if the thug’s attempts to squirm free made any impact at all, it didn’t show. His eyes were locked on Len, silently daring him to make the next move.

Hiding his surprise, Len rose to his feet, unhurried. Never let them see you’re ruffled. "Hello Gary. So, you think I'm soft, huh?"

McDonald panted, unable to respond with his mouth covered, his eyes wild with terror. He shook his head slightly, but emphatically.

What the hell was he going to do with this clown? Len had told him that if he ever saw the man again he’d put a bullet in him, but there were layers here, and he needed to play it right. If there were rumours flying around that Len had gone soft, was in bed with the Flash - amusing as that particular thought was to contemplate in the literal sense - he needed to put an end to them.

Bodies could send an effective message, but a terrified, agonized messenger tended to get the point across even better. Besides, there was his deal with the Flash to consider. "If I let you go, you gonna try this again?"

Again, another headshake, even more emphatic. Was that the sharp scent of urine on the air? Len almost thought the guy was sincere, he was so obviously cowed.

"Good. Go tell your friends just how soft Cold really is."

He gave the stranger a nod, a curt and silent order to let him go. Hopefully, the man would actually obey.

Rather to his surprise, the hitman released Len’s would-be killer with a shove that sent the injured man stumbling toward the jogging path, almost falling on his face. The push had been hard enough to force McDonald out of reach, not that he was in any shape to try to jump them. McDonald gave one longing look at his gun, on the ground by the stranger’s foot, but in the end he did the smart thing and bolted.

Len didn't bother to watch the punk go. He knew the idiot would run with his tail between his legs, and wouldn't be back. Probably.

If he was stupid enough to try again, Len would be ready, and he wouldn't be so merciful a third time.

Now it was only him and the stranger, and the full weight of the man’s regard landed on Len. It was almost physical, like the guy was trying to pin him in place. Cut him open and spread out his insides, take a look up close and personal. There was no hint in his expression of what he was thinking, but it was clear Len was being judged.

Never one to be intimidated, Len cocked his hip and arched an eyebrow. He might not have the parka and cold gun, but he was still Captain Cold, and he had a reputation to maintain. “So? What now? If you’re expecting an engraved thank you note, well, I can probably manage to steal something like that for you. But I didn’t ask you to step in, so if you think I’m going to owe you a favour…”

"Do you?" The stranger’s voice was rough, like he maybe hadn’t used it in a while. "Work with the Flash, I mean."

Len’s eyes narrowed at the question. His first instinct was to deny it, because surely a guy like this wouldn’t be any happier about an ally of the Flash than McDonald had been. And yet, if that was the case, why step in to help?

He needed more information. "Why do you want to know?"

"Means I'm less likely to kill you." Again, it sounded like a simple statement of fact. He said the words like they shouldn’t need saying. He stood with unnatural stillness, balanced and ready to move in any direction but motionless until motion was required. A hunter’s stance. "I’ve been watching you all week. You hadn't hurt anyone, so I left you alone. I wanted to see what you would do."

Len didn’t much enjoy feeling like potential prey. He cocked his head, eyes remaining narrowed, now with calculation. It concerned him that the guy had been casing him while Len cased the bank… and Len hadn’t even been aware of him. This was entirely unexpected, and now he was questioning his earlier assessment. Why would a guy like this care that Len hadn’t hurt anyone?

"Then I've been known to help the Flash at times, when it was mutually convenient." He kept his voice dry, almost playful. "Who do you work for? Why were you watching me?"

"I wanted to see what you would do." The words came slower this time, with heavier emphasis, like he thought maybe Len hadn’t heard him. Or was too simple to understand. "I don't work for anyone. I just don't like bullies. If it had turned out you were planning to hurt innocent people, I'd have stopped you."

None of this made any sense. Len hated it when things made no sense. Made it so much harder to plan. "Innocent people might get hurt. But that's not the goal. It's wasteful. And I don’t kill on the job." Should he mention his deal with the Flash? No way to be sure how the man would react. Best to leave it for now, he could always play that card later.

The man nodded, the first time he’d moved since releasing McDonald, like Len had just said something profound. “What is your goal? Why did that guy try to hurt you? Who are you?"

“Who are you?” Len countered, filing away the fact that the guy didn’t recognize him. Not that many people would without his signature outfit, that was part of the point of having a distracting, highly recognizable look.

For some reason, his question caused the man to tense. He glanced away, then back again quickly, like he didn’t trust Len not to try something if he let his guard down for even a moment. “I’m… nobody.”

Interesting. Very interesting. He took a step closer to the strange, nameless man. "I don't get personal about my goals with just anybody - or nobody. You want to know all about me, but won’t share anything about you. Not very fair, wouldn’t you say?"

"Life isn't fair." The flat tone wavered and broke. There was agony in those words, a wealth of painful experience shading his tone. It struck an answering chord deep within Len, the first lesson his father had ever taught him, the one that he’d never forgotten.

Life wasn’t fair, and never would be. Truer words.

Then, as if he’d come to some kind of decision, the man relaxed. Marginally. "You can call me James. You're Snart? I know you were casing that building. You've got a lot of discipline. I was curious."

"Leonard Snart," he allowed, giving him a little more as reward for a name - even if it was probably fake. Give and take. Quid pro quo. "The Flash calls me Captain Cold."

"Captain Cold?" James stared at him. "Christ, and I thought Captain America sounded stupid. I ain't calling you 'Cap', let's get that clear right now."

For a moment as he spoke there was more animation in his voice, life in his expression. He sounded halfway like a man instead of an automaton. There was a slight slur to his words, a hint of Brooklyn if Len wasn’t mistaken. Curiouser and curiouser.

"I didn't say I wanted you to call me that." Len gave him an amused smirk, even as he wondered what had caused the change. "For that, you can call me Cold."

James seemed unimpressed. “Sure thing. Snart.”

The retort drew a chuckle from Len. It had been a bit of a test, to be honest, to see if 'James' would call him by that name. Snart was just fine with him.

"I was casing the building, though now I wonder if all my preparation is worthless." He cocked his head, like an idea had just occurred to him. "Unless you'd like a cut of the action. What do you think, James? Want to rob a bank with me?"

As fast as it had appeared, the animation faded back into the stillness of the killer, though a hint of it remained in James’ eyes as he considered the question. What thoughts were running through his head? What sort of factors did a man like him evaluate? A killer with a conscience.

"I could use some operating capital," James finally said. "It's not something I could tackle on my own. So long as the plan isn't for people to get hurt. You seem competent, at least."

Oh, the possibilities here. Someone with skills like James clearly had would be an invaluable asset to the Rogues in any case. But finding someone with skills like that who would obey the Flash’s rule about killing, without Len having to babysit him every step of the way? Priceless.

In a calculated move he turned his back on James, as if unconcerned by the potential threat the man posed. A show of trust. Frankly, if James wanted him dead, he’d already be dead, that much was clear. "Follow me, then. I have to pick up something from headquarters, and round up the boys for the job. You prove yourself, you get an equal cut to the rest of the crew."

James fell in beside him, just far enough to be out of easy reach, not so far they'd need to raise their voices to talk. "How many on the team? Are you the leader?"

Watching him walk told Len a few more things about his new recruit. He had already noticed that James moved like a powerhouse, and he was big. There was a natural swagger of someone who was used to barrelling through any obstacle with sheer force, but incredible skill and speed as well.

Len would bet his left nut that this man was a metahuman, and probably not just a hitman, but an assassin. God only knew why a guy like this was in Central City, apparently at loose ends. Len wouldn’t hesitate to take advantage of the opportunity. "I'm the leader. You said you don't work with anyone. Is that a new thing?"

"It's complicated.” Yeah, Len didn’t doubt that for a minute. Probably an overwhelming understatement. "I can be a team player when I want to be, if that's what you're worried about."

"If you can be a team player, then you're probably better off than most petty criminals. But there's nothing much petty about you, is there?"

"It's not a word I've ever heard applied, no." James shrugged. "I'm the best at what I do. I just don't want to do that, any more. So I'll find something else to be the best at."

They reached Len’s bike and he swung his leg over the seat. He settled farther forward than usual, leaving room for James to perch behind him, though it would be a close ride. The bike wasn’t meant for two. He didn’t have a helmet for the other man, either - good thing the bike was fast enough to outrun any cops that might try to pull them over.

James stood in the mouth of the alley, blocking a significant amount of light from the street. Len could see his eyes scanning over every detail of the bike, then sweeping back up to meet Len’s. He remained stone-faced, no way to know what he was thinking, but Len was certain there was some kind of risk/threat assessment going on.

Apparently Len passed the test. James swung on behind with no further hesitation, gripping Len’s jacket at the waist and settling with his weight perfectly balanced.

Either he was confident or foolhardy - Len was betting on confident. He gunned the engine and tore out of the alley at an excessive speed. They blew through a red light, weaving between the sparse traffic crossing the intersection. Len pushed the bike to its limits, but he was in total control. He had no intention of crashing. His only goal was to learn something more about this strange man, get an idea of what he might be capable of.

James followed every motion the bike made with ease, shifting his weight appropriately, reflexes apparently more than a match for the reckless driving. If he was nervous, it didn’t show in the least. Unless Len was very much mistaken, the man was gripping mostly with his legs, not his hands on Len. Impressive, to say the least.

Having learned what he needed to know, he eased off the gas. There was no need to be the fastest man in Central City tonight, even if that were possible.

"So what it is you used to do, James?" Len was curious to see how much the man would tell him.

"I'm... I was... an assassin." The words sounded like they’d been dragged out of him, even rougher than usual. His grip went tight for a moment, almost punishing - the left more so than the right. Thankfully, he eased up again immediately. "I'm tired of killing for other people. Now I'm in charge of my own fucking life."

Len smiled. As difficult as the confession had apparently been, he was satisfied that James had told him the truth. "Good. Sounds like you'll fit in in my crew just fine."

"I wouldn't mind having a team again." The words were almost too soft to catch over the wind, and there was a wistful quality to them. He might not work for anyone now, but he clearly had at one time, and he missed it.

Then his voice returned to his usual arctic levels. "Just so we're clear, I won't start anything, but I will finish anything other people try to start with me. Some guys can't seem to resist waving their dicks around to prove theirs are bigger. I don't pull my punches."

Len snorted with amusement as he pulled up in front of the warehouse that they were using as a lair at the moment. "If anyone's stupid enough to start shit with you, they deserve what they get. Just try not to kill anyone. It’s so hard to find good replacements."

“I’ll do my best. No promises.” It was hard to tell in the darkness, but there might have been a smirk accompanying James’ nod.

Len grinned back at him, more than satisfied with the events of the night so far. Even if the heist turned out to be a bust, he’d already made off with one hell of a treasure.

Chapter Text

As they moved into the warehouse Snart’s crew was using as a base of operations, James did a quick visual recon. Not nearly enough to satisfy his paranoia; he'd have to do a thorough patrol and see what was what before he'd be able to relax here. For now, he noted the obvious entrances and exits, potential ambush spots, and possible cover locations.

James was still trying to sort out exactly where he stood on issues like crime and criminals. He was used to working on a worldwide stage, with global threat levels. He could hardly point fingers at petty thieves, considering the way he’d been living since leaving HYDRA. Robbing a bank, though, that was something else.

But it was a big bank. Lots of fat cats sitting at the top, living like parasites. James still hadn’t recovered many memories of his childhood, but he had a fairly strong recollection that banks were bad, untrustworthy. Newer information fed to him by HYDRA suggested the people at the bottom of the heap, the people whose money was actually in the bank, weren’t likely to be adversely affected by the robbery because of insurance.

Hell, a lot of big banks were involved in HYDRA business, or handled HYDRA money. It was spread out all over the place, and most of it was too deeply buried to have been identified and frozen by the government yet. Maybe he’d even get to stick it to them in some small, subtle way.

Good enough. Better than some options.

"So, what should I know?" he asked Snart as they threaded their way through piles of derelict crates and empty shelves. "Specialties? Any Enhanced? What do you call them here, metahumans?"

It seemed like Central City was bursting with them. That was one of the reasons James had come here, hoping that tales of an unusually strong man with a metal arm would get lost among the chatter. Snart had already impressed him with his thorough approach to casing the job, and you didn't get that kind of professionalism with small-time amateurs, so it wouldn't surprise him to find some on a crew like this.

"No metahumans in my crew right now," Snart said, with a significant sidelong glance at James.It was clear he had his suspicions, but he wasn’t asking yet. "I'm the leader. Mick's the muscle. Beyond that, we bring in people as we need them for the particular job. Some of those people could be metas, though."

He stepped through a door into a room that looked as much like a makeshift laboratory as a hideout. Most things were placed on milk crates and boxes instead of furniture, but there was some state-of-the-art engineering equipment as well. Plans and blueprints were spread out over a large table, and James recognized the layout of the bank in question.

Snart clapped his hands, drawing the attention of the three people in the room, two men and a woman. "All right, everyone, it’s show time. This is James, he's gonna help us out with the job. James, this is my sister Lisa, my partner Mick Rory, and our demolitions man Richard Anderson."

A quick glance assessed the risk levels of the new people in the room. James knew far better than to dismiss the girl because she was beautiful, but it was a slender and delicate sort of beauty. No muscle. Likewise the demo guy was tall and broad, but the wrong kind of ‘broad’, the kind brought on by too much rich food and soft living.

Didn’t mean they weren’t dangerous, though. He could take them both in a physical fight with his arms tied behind his back, but they could be packing any number of weapons or tech. His metal arm still tingled with phantom static when he thought about that redhead in D.C. and her unexpected stun disc.

The remaining man was another story altogether. Built like a brick shithouse, with shoulders wide enough to rival James’ and a good four inches on him in height. It was hard to see the guy’s body beneath the oversized jacket, but he carried himself like he had muscle to back up his size.

He was sizing James up as well, head down and glaring like a bull getting ready to charge. “What the hell, Snart. You’re adding someone at the last minute? That ain’t like you. What happened to your precious plan?”

"I got jumped by Gary McDonald tonight - suffering delusions of grandeur and a chip on his shoulder about some dirty rumours that I'm friends with the Flash.” Snart moved toward a weapon rack and picked up a gun unlike anything James had ever seen before. And he’d seen a lot of guns.

There was a sparkle in his eyes and a bounce to his step that hadn’t been there a moment before, a sort of manic excitement. James might have been nervous about the change, but he saw the cool calculation still lingering beneath the new energy.

“James here stepped in to lend a hand, and impressed me. I want to see what else he’s capable of, so tonight’s a trial run.” Snart did something with the gun, and it lit up with a whine like it was charging. “Anyone got anything to say, say it now."

It sounded like he was addressing the group at large, but his eyes were on the big guy. There was a clear challenge that passed between them, a silent power play in a way that suggested they’d been through this routine before. James would bet money they’d worked together often, or knew each other well outside the job.

In the end it was the big guy who broke eye contact first, conceding the victory to Snart. “Are we going, or not? I wanna burn the shit out of something.”

“All in good time, Mick.” Snart sounded like the cat that got the cream, his voice a low, pleased rumble.

The sound teased at something deep inside James, something he didn’t understand. If he’d had less discipline he might have fidgeted, shifting in response to a reaction he couldn’t put a name to. That purr… he’d never heard anything quite like it.

He wanted to hear it again.

Blinking, he dismissed the bizarre thought and forced himself to focus. If this was effectively a job interview, he wanted to blow it out of the water.

Grinning, Snart shrugged into an oversized parka and slung his weapon into a holster on his thigh. Rory and the girl also picked up strange guns from the same rack, each one similar but unique. James wanted very much to know what they did. From the fireproof gear Rory wore and the earlier comment, he could guess one weapon was a modified flamethrower of some kind.

As for Snart, the parka and his ridiculous Captain Cold name made it pretty clear the gun must be some kind of freeze ray. James was skeptical, but he had to admit he’d seen stranger things. There was no hint of what Lisa’s weapon might do.

At least Anderson seemed to have nothing more than a normal pistol, and a bag he was stuffing full of C4 and the equipment needed to use it.

“We’re heading out. Remember the Rogues’ Rules. Nobody gets hurt unless necessary, and nobody gets iced.” Snart swept a significant look across the group. Rory grumbled and shrugged, irritation written in every line of his body, but didn’t argue. Lisa shifted like she was bored, rolling her eyes. Anderson shoved his last detonator into his bag with far more force than was warranted, apparently disgruntled.

“I’ll give you the basics of the plan on the way there, James, but since we don’t have time for the details, you’re just going to shadow Richard on this one, provide cover for him just in case.” Snart stepped in close, much too far into James’ personal space, and he felt his shoulders go tight.

The other man lowered his voice so the others wouldn’t overhear it. “If the plan goes properly you should never see a guard, but in case you do, make sure darling Dick over there doesn’t ‘forget’ the Rules in a moment of panic.”

“Got it.” Interesting. So Snart didn’t entirely trust some of his crew to play nice. James wondered if that meant he wasn’t worried about Rory and his sister, or if he planned to ride herd on them himself.

Reaching out, Snart patted him on the shoulder, telegraphing the move so James would see it coming. Deliberately, he was pretty sure - making sure James had time to realize it wasn’t an attack. Accustomed to dealing with people who had space issues, then. Maybe Rory, or maybe someone James hadn’t yet seen. At least it meant he was less likely to trigger James to lash out at him in a reflexive move, though the touch still made him twitch.

“Good man. You’re going to fit right in. Now let’s see what you can do.”


The plan was simple enough. The bank’s security was decent, with a good alarm system and multiple guards who actually did their rounds instead of lazing at a desk, but they apparently kept to a regular schedule.

Snart was the one who got them past the first line of security, and James watched with silent approval as the man deftly rewired the alarm on a small side door. It was clear Snart knew what he was doing. He paused, hand tilted to let him see his watch. “Twenty seconds… ten… now.”

They slipped silently through the door into a cramped, utilitarian hallway, the kind of back space the public was never meant to see. To the right James heard the echo of footsteps approaching in the distance from around a corner, while to the left there was a soft ‘snick’ as a fire door finished closing behind a guard. Again, James was impressed by Snart’s precision.

Once inside the main area, they split up. Snart and his sister were going to incapacitate the guards, which would have made James nervous if Snart hadn’t emphasized the ‘no killing’ rule to his crew before going in. Rory remained outside, ready to set fire to the building to distract and slow down arriving police once the vault door opening triggered the alarms.

Anderson and James made it to the vault with no problems. As it turned out, the skills HYDRA had given the Winter Soldier to make him a living weapon translated rather well to robbery. This was hardly the first highly secure building James had broken into. Hell, Pierce’s home had been more of a challenge, and he’d been expected there.

While Anderson set up the charges to blow the door, James stood guard facing the hallway, pistol in hand and ready to fire. He didn’t want to have to hurt any guards, but he was accurate enough to be able to incapacitate without doing major damage.

Listening to Anderson working behind him, some instinct sent a warning prickling down James’ spine, raising the hairs on the back of his neck. Something was off. Badly off. He’d noticed something wrong without consciously understanding it, and his hindbrain was trying to warn him.

He’d learned to pay attention to those ‘sixth sense’ warnings a long time ago, and it was part of what had kept him alive and free in the months since HYDRA’s fall. Though he knew taking his attention off his assigned task was unprofessional, James turned his head to check behind him.

What he saw made sweat break out all over his body. The explosive Anderson was using wasn’t the run-of-the-mill C4 James had first thought. The colour was off, faintly yellow, and the consistency was wrong.

It was a cutting edge plastic explosive developed by SHIELD - which was to say, HYDRA. James had used it before on missions, and it looked very much like C4 but was far, far more powerful.

Powerful enough that if this idiot used as much as he had plastered over the vault door, he was going to blow the whole goddamn building.

Whipping around, James dropped the gun and tackled Anderson instead, metal hand clamping down on the moron’s wrist hard enough to grind the bones together. With a sharp cry Anderson dropped the detonator he’d been about to press, and James snatched it out of midair.

Shifting his centre of gravity, James turned his body so his momentum propelled him to his feet instead, leaving Anderson to fall hard to the floor. Swearing in Russian under his breath, he stalked over to the vault door and started yanking the wires free of the explosive to make sure nothing went off by accident.

Footsteps to his left drew his attention long enough to confirm it was Snart and his sister, then James returned to what he was doing. A moment later a sharp whine sliced through the air - the same sound Snart’s strange weapon had made back at the base. Another echoed it, presumably Lisa’s weapon charging as well.

The last of the wires was free, so James turned slowly to face the new threat. Snart aimed his weapon straight at James, a glowing arc of electricity shining where the muzzle of a normal gun would be. He stood too far out of reach for James to be able to get to him before the weapon went off, assuming the charging sound meant it was ready to fire immediately. Lisa was further back and to the side, and her gun was raised as well. Impossible to take them both out at the same time.

“Give me one good reason not to put you on ice.” Snart’s voice had gone cold and hard, his body tense and eyes narrowed. “Figured you could slip in a little sabotage while I wasn’t looking? You working with McDonald, planning the whole thing as a setup?”

Unmoving, expression flat as if he didn’t care what happened in the next few minutes, James stared him down. “Actually, I was saving your neck. Again. Thought Anderson was supposed to be a demo expert? He nearly blew us all to kingdom come.”

“Bullshit, what the hell are you talking about?” Anderson’s voice was a pained wheeze, and he was clutching his wrist as he sat up. “I know what the fuck I’m doing, asshole.”

Neither Snart nor Lisa’s guns had wavered from James. Snart cocked his head, eyes narrowed. “I’ve worked with Anderson before, never had any problems. Set-up looks right to me.”

“You stole this explosive, didn’t you. Or bought it from someone who did.” James cast a contemptuous glance down at the ‘expert’. “Thought it was C4? It’s not. It’s SHIELD tech, and you don’t even need a tenth as much as this.”

Finally Snart lowered his gun, though Lisa didn’t. Moving warily, the other man walked up to James, watching him the whole time. Expecting an attack, undoubtedly. James stepped back, out of reach, and let him get at the vault.

Snart frowned at the explosive, poked at the nearest piece, then leaned in and sniffed it. When he straightened and turned, his shoulders were tight. “I don’t know what it is, but it’s not C4. Well, Dickie? What’ve you got to say for yourself, hmm?”

“You’re all full of shit.” Anderson glowered at them, scrambling to his feet. He’d pulled his pistol with his off hand, and James went tense again. “That bastard broke my wrist, and you’re gonna take his word for it over mine?”

“We don’t have time for this.” The snarl was the opposite of Snart's lazy purr. Faster than James thought possible for an unEnhanced, the man swung his bizarre gun up and fired on Anderson.

Something that looked, impossibly, like liquid ice shot from the weapon, solidifying instantly around Anderson’s hand, freezing it to the gun. The man fell to his knees, whimpering and clawing at the ice.

“Wouldn’t do that if I were you.” Snart’s drawl was sharp. “You could shatter it if you’re not careful.”

He meant the hand, not the ice. James was both awed and horrified, backing up as far as the walls would let him. Cold and ice were the stuff of nightmares for him, much as he hated showing the weakness by reacting.

Moving in, Snart slammed the barrel of his gun against Anderson’s temple, and the man dropped like a rock. His hand landed on his chest, not the floor, or it probably would have cracked. In the sudden silence, Snart jerked his head at the vault, eyes on James. “Can you get it open safely, or are we scrapping the job entirely?”

“I can do it.” Collecting his poise, James returned to the task he’d already started. He stripped most of the charges off the metal door and remoulded the ones left to stretch them out, thin them down and cover more space. He packed the excess explosive back into the bag; no sense wasting a resource like that.

After that it was simple enough. James blew the charges, the door blasted off its hinges and they all scrambled inside to pack whatever they could into their bags. Lisa and Snart had the cash covered, so James wrenched one of the safety deposit boxes open. There was nothing inside, but Snart noticed what he’d done and his eyes lit up. He pointed to several specific doors, and when James got them open, Snart scooped up the contents of each.

“You are handy to have around, aren’t you.” Snart sounded smug, as if having James there was some sort of personal accomplishment.

It was that cat-in-cream sound again, the lazy purr that played up and down James’ spine like a goddamn instrument. He simultaneously wanted him to never stop doing it, and never do it again.

What was the modern phrase? What the actual fuck.

Now wasn’t the time to think about it. James ripped one last door off, then Snart gestured for them all to get out. “Thirty seconds until the heat arrives, people. Move!”

They moved. On the way by, James ducked down and scooped Anderson up, throwing him over his shoulder without much care. No point in leaving the man behind to squeal on them - it was unlikely he’d be feeling kind toward the rest of Snart’s crew at the moment.

Even before Lisa slammed through the door to the outside, James could hear the wail of sirens approaching. That sound always triggered a deep, instinctive fear reaction inside him, muscles going tense as his heart raced and breathing grew ragged.

If he’d had any idea how close they were going to be scraping this, James would never have agreed to come. He could not be arrested, under any circumstances. HYDRA was crumbling but it still had fingers everywhere, and the moment James was booked alerts would flag all over the world.

The cops weren’t quite on scene yet, and as their little group bolted through the back alley they passed Rory, already torching the place with what was definitely a very impressive modified flamethrower.

“What about the guards?” James cast a glance at the flames, then at Snart. If the guards were tied up in the building somewhere, they wouldn’t be able to get out.

“They’re at the front of the building, behind a wall of ice.” Snart smirked and patted the gun on his thigh. “The fire department will arrive in a hundred and thirty seconds, give or take a few. They’ll be fine.”

James had to be content with that, as they reached the getaway van and scrambled in. Lisa drove, Rory sitting up front with her, and James dumped Anderson on the floor before he followed Snart through the rear doors.

Lisa peeled out of the alley, exiting the far end just as police cars passed by the mouth on their way to the bank. For another moment James held his breath, watching out the rear window and waiting for one of the black and whites to follow them.

Only when Lisa turned another corner and the alley was safely out of sight did he breathe out and lean back in his seat. He wanted to close his eyes and try to concentrate on relaxing, but he couldn’t bring himself to let his guard down that much in front of these very dangerous strangers.

Sure enough, Snart was watching him with a cool, calculating gaze. He smirked when he saw James was looking. If James’ return scowl fazed him, it didn’t show.

They made it back to the warehouse without further incident. Anderson was just beginning to stir, curled around his still frozen solid hand, as James hauled him out of the van.

“Fucking amateur. Where did you find this clown?” James hefted the man again, ignoring the pained grunt when metal shoulder met soft flesh. “What the hell kind of demo expert doesn’t realize he’s not holding C4?” It was close enough to fool most people, yes, but an ‘expert’ should be paying more attention than that.

"Doesn't matter where we found him," Snart growled. "He's out. We'll cut him his share and then move house in case he gets uppity when I fire him."

He glanced sidelong at Rory. "Unless you want to do the honours, Mick. He coulda killed us tonight, and I don't like getting blown up by my own goddamn crew."

Rory’s eyes lit up, and his grin was decidedly predatory as he shifted his grip on his flame gun. "No sense leaving loose ends." There was no mistaking the eagerness in Rory’s voice. It wasn’t hard to guess that his version of ‘firing’ was probably far hotter than Snart’s. "Put him down, newbie. I'll take him."

James considered it, torn. He’d made a promise to himself to avoid killing as much as possible - he’d already ended more than his fair share of lives, many of them innocents.

On the other hand, the incompetent asshole had nearly gotten them all killed. Worse, that kind of idiocy could easily result in massive collateral damage down the line, including the potential for many innocent lives lost.

Making his decision, James dumped the man on the ground. “He’s all yours.” Anderson was awake enough now to mumble an incoherent panicked protest, so he gave him a calculated tap on the temple with one boot toe to knock him out again. Killing was one thing. Burning him alive and aware was another.

Rory tried to grab the guy and haul him up like James had, only to stagger under the weight and drop him again. The idiot was heavier than he looked, and that was saying something. James smirked, and Rory scowled up at him.

"Something funny, punk?" Rory’s voice was a growl the same way Snart’s was a purr, but it didn’t have nearly the same kind of pleasant effect. "Don't get uppity just 'cause you did okay tonight. You got a long way to go yet, and you could end up like him, any time."

All traces of amusement fled James' expression, and he stared Rory down. He said nothing, but his stance shifted subtly into a fighter's defensive pose. There were four weapons he could reach in an instant if he needed to, though that flamethrower might pose a challenge if Rory was fast enough to draw it before James took him down.

"Knock it off." Snart sounded amused, almost lazy, and he made no move to get between them or pull out his cold gun. "You both earned your keep, so if either of you takes the other one out, I'm getting the full share of the dead one."

The glare Rory sent Snart suggested he was annoyed his partner wasn’t backing him up against the ‘new guy’. Then he looked back at James, and his hand twitched toward his heat gun. “I oughta drop you where you stand, you little punk. Not like I’d get any less money out of it.”

Watching the aggressive thoughts run through Rory’s expression, James remained balanced and ready to move, his eyes locked on the other man's in a silent challenge. He wouldn't make the first move, but he would make the last one.

Finally Rory snarled and hauled their former teammate up in a fireman’s carry. "Yeah, yeah, fine. You can keep breathing for now. Don't get on my bad side."

"Don't put me there," James replied, relaxing as much as he ever did. "Take out the trash, already."

They split up so that Rory could take their former teammate somewhere to dump and torch the body. Lisa was already inside the warehouse, sacks emptied out on the table that had formerly held the bank blueprints, sorting through the contents of the safety deposit boxes.

Instead of joining her as James had expected, Snart took his gun to one of the machines in the next room, gesturing for James to join him. Apparently he trusted his sister not to pocket more than her fair share.

Setting the gun on a rack in the machine, Snart pulled his goggles back on and opened up one of the panels on the device. "So what do you think?" As he spoke, he applied a microtool to the delicate piece of technology. "You might stick around? You weren't half bad tonight, and I wouldn’t mind having another long-term member of the Rogues to count on. We could make a lot of money together."

Leaning against a nearby wall, James slipped one of his pistols out and started to take apart and clean it. He hadn't needed to fire anything today, but he was obsessive about equipment maintenance and was pleased to see that Snart appeared to be the same.

The movements were so automatic, so deeply ingrained, that he didn't need to look to see what he was doing. His hands flew over the delicate pieces, a sort of meditation as he considered his answer.

If he had his way, the Winter Soldier would vanish quietly and without fanfare, relegated to the pages of the history books. There was no place for him in the world anymore, certainly not out in the light of day. But the dark corners, the shadows, the silent and dangerous places where James lurked when his demons drove him out in the night... those were his places.

This felt like one of those places. Somewhere that, just maybe, he could belong.

He had only vague memories of the Howling Commandos, and his experiences leading teams for HYDRA weren’t exactly a great reference. But that feeling of having someone at his back that he could trust, someone to watch out for him… he remembered enough to miss that.

He was no hero anymore, if he’d ever been one in the first place. He didn’t want to be a villain, either. All these months he’d thought there was no middle ground, no grey area for him to live in. But here was Snart, with his crew that weren’t allowed to kill, who admitted he’d given the city’s resident hero a hand from time to time.

If that wasn’t grey, what the hell was it?

"I don't really care about money," he finally said, shrugging. "I need it to function, that's all. I'm... bored." And lonely, if he was being honest. He missed having a purpose, and a team. Missed it enough to sometimes contemplate letting Rogers find him, even though James could be nothing but a disappointment to him in the end. Hell, he even missed it enough to make him think about returning to HYDRA, on the really bad nights.

Something about his answer seemed to thoroughly amuse Snart. "Well, you won't be bored working with us, I guarantee it.”

"Then I guess I'll stick around for a while." James finished the first pistol and drew his backup gun, breaking it down in turn, watching Snart from the edge of his vision.

Now that his first reflexive reaction had passed, James wasn't sure whether he was impressed or disdainful of a 'cold gun' - sure, it was unique and creative, but it was unwieldy, difficult to carry concealed, and took time to down an opponent.

Then again it also had applications a regular gun didn't, as proved earlier tonight with Anderson and the security guards. Having a weapon that could incapacitate rather than kill was useful.

More importantly, if Snart was that good with fussy electronics, there was a possibility he could help maintain James' bionic arm. He could do a certain amount of basic work himself, but it was already starting to act up as more delicate parts wore out, and he couldn't replace them. He flexed his left hand in a fist, feeling the faint tug of a delay in response.

It would be a while before he trusted the man enough to hand him that kind of vulnerability, though. First he wanted to know if it was even a possibility. "Looks like you know what you're doing, there. Did you design the gun?"

"Nope, I stole it," Snart said with distinct self-satisfaction, as if that was more impressive than designing it from scratch. "I've made some modifications, though."

“What about the other two?” James was genuinely curious at this point. “What does Lisa’s do, anyway?”

“All stolen from STAR Labs, in one fashion or another.” Snart chuckled, as if amused by an inside joke James wasn’t privy to. “Lisa’s turns anything she hits into a lovely golden statue. Not real gold, sadly.”

"You guys seem to have a theme going on." James tilted his head, with a little smirk of his own. There seemed to be a lot of theatrics going on in this crew, and he had a feeling he hadn’t even seen the whole of it yet "You sure I'll fit in? You like it flashy."

"You're pretty flashy yourself." Snart raised an eyebrow at him. "Maybe not in the same way, but you're a hell of a fighter. Frankly I don't care one way or the other, so long as you get the job done."

"I always get the job done." Though the words were nearly a reflex, the images that went through James' mind were of the one mission he hadn't finished.

'I'm with you... to the end of the line.'

Shaking off the dark thoughts, he reassembled the second pistol and slid it back into its holster. "So how does this work? You just call in whoever you need when a job comes up, or do you actually stick around here as a crew the whole time?"

Snart closed up the gun and moved closer to James, taking a seat on a milk crate and leaning against some boxes. He held the gun in his lap, settled casually across his knees like a treasured stuffed animal.

"Depends on who we're talking about. For some people, I bring them in for the job, but Mick and I tend to hang around together to discuss and plan the next job. Lisa inserts herself whenever she decides we haven’t spent enough time together lately. Which do you want to be?"

Which did he want to be? "I'd rather be in on planning. I can tell you're competent, but you don't have my specialized training, either. I can probably spot security weaknesses you'd miss, or ways around guards and alarms."

Also, that way he could have a better idea of what kind of risk he was taking. Whether anyone was likely to get hurt. How likely it was the cops would catch up to them. There was the Flash to consider, as well.

If anything, the difficulty for him would be remembering that he was contributing, not running the team. HYDRA might have controlled him, but he'd still planned and run all his ops. He was a weapon, but not the kind you only aimed and fired.

"That doesn't surprise me." Snart leaned toward him, lacing his hands together over his knee. "But if you want to join my crew, I need to know a few things about you, to understand the risk I might be running letting you in. Specifically, I'd like to know what kind of heat you’re going to be drawing down on us. Who's going to be looking for you?"

James probably should have expected that. Snart was too clever not to start to put things together. The question was, what to tell him?

"The answer depends partially on how much you're planning to share with others," he finally said. "Rory doesn't seem like a guy who's great at keeping his mouth shut. Loose lips don't just sink ships, they could bring Heaven and Hell crashing down on me."

"Oh, I’m all about secrets. For example, I know the Flash's true identity, and no one'll ever hear it from me." He paused significantly. "Unless he gives me a good enough reason to share, anyway. Even Mick and Lisa don’t know."

Interesting. That was the sort of information that could be incredibly valuable to the right people, and yet Snart was keeping it to himself despite his professed interest in money. Even from his own crew and family.

It backed up James' initial assessment, that the guy had at least some level of honour.

Which meant he probably deserved the truth. Some of it, anyway. As much as was safe to give. "I've made a lot of enemies. HYDRA would give anything to get their hands on me. Captain America is looking for me as well, and I have no doubt he’ll round up his hero pals to help."

Snart's eyes widened, his poise shaken by the people James had named. "HYDRA and the Avengers. My assessment of your importance wasn't wrong, but I don't particularly want to attract that kind of attention. Still, I'm glad you were honest with me. You used to work for HYDRA, I'm guessing?"

“ 'Work for' isn't the right term." James’ voice came out as cold as Snart's gun. "I killed for them. Then Rogers tore them to pieces, and I took advantage of the chaos. They trained me to be invisible, untraceable. A ghost. Now they're regretting it, because they can’t find me, either."

"Obviously they aren't happy that you've decided to go out on your own." There was that damn purr again.

"I was the most powerful weapon they ever created. Of course they want me back. I'm their only chance of surviving... and whoever gets control of me wins the struggle among the factions.” A bald statement of truth. “Too bad for them it's never gonna happen."

Snart regarded him for a long moment, a serious look in his eyes that didn’t match his cocky smirk. “Don't bring them down on us. That's all I ask." He stuck out his hand, a clear invitation to seal the deal.

James regarded the offered hand for a moment, then reached out and accepted it. He kept his grip firm, but not testing. Snart had already proven himself, and it wasn't like any normal man could compete with the grip of a supersoldier.

The return grip was an echo of his own. Acknowledging, not measuring. Snart’s smirk widened into a sly smile - cat in cream, once again. "Welcome to the Rogues."

Chapter Text

The weeks between jobs tended to be quiet and uneventful. They cut their shares and any temporary crew members would go their separate ways. Len would start work on planning the next heist, while keeping an eye on Mick to make certain he didn’t go off half cocked somehow. Lisa would drop by whenever she decided he’d gone too long without ‘having his ego deflated’.

Now there was a new variable upsetting the familiar equation. James didn’t spend all his time at the abandoned warehouse they’d set up shop in, but he was there often enough for his presence to be felt. Len had no idea what the man did when he was gone, and didn’t care enough to ask. It was none of his business, any more than he’d want James poking into his private life.

Thing was, when James was there it was often… distracting. Not because he was loud or rude, quite the opposite. The man spoke almost as rarely as Mick, though what he did have to say was observant and intelligent.

No, the problem was the eye-candy factor.

James had set up a kind of makeshift workout space in a corner of the warehouse and spent most of his time there. He had an old, much-patched punching bag and a bunch of mismatched free weights, plus a cracked mirror for shadow-boxing. Len wasn’t sure if his frequent use was a drive to maintain his body as obsessively as all his other weapons, or an outlet for aggression. Quite possibly both.

Whatever the reason, it was far too easy to get lost in watching him work. James moved with lethal grace and stunning precision. No movement wasted, no target missed. His strength was breath-taking; twice Len saw him punch the bag hard enough to tear it free of its hook and burst the seams, which certainly explained all the patches.

Nor was he the only one who’d noticed. Lisa seemed to be underfoot more often than not, now. Supposedly because she wanted to see Len, but she spent an awful lot of time gazing at James in the ‘gym’ and sighing wistfully.

He knew he was right when his sister propped her chin on her hands one day and asked, almost dreamy, “Doesn’t he ever take his shirt off? He must be overheated. It’s gotta be eighty five degrees and he’s still in long sleeves and pants.”

“So am I,” Len pointed out, unable to keep a touch of surliness out of his voice. He hated the heat, and the downside to this location was that they couldn’t cool the place much without drawing enough power to be questionable for a supposedly abandoned warehouse. It hadn’t been a problem until now, but with summer heading into full swing he was going to have to think about changing locations. The floor fans they’d gotten did little but move the humid air around.

Lisa glanced at him, her gaze full of darkness. He hated seeing that, knowing she was thinking about the reason he never stripped down. It wasn’t that the sight of his scars upset him, per se - he’d made his peace with them a long time ago.

It was the looks he got from other people that bothered him. Shock was the best reaction, pity the worst. And then there were the invasive questions some people thought were acceptable. He would rather be a conversation piece for deliberate eccentricity than for something that had been inflicted on him.

When it came to the look on Lisa’s face, it was even worse. She understood better than anyone, but the pain in her eyes was a reminder of her scars, of every time he’d failed to protect her from their monster of a father.

“You think it’s the same reason?” She returned her attention to James, curious and calculating.

“Who knows? Maybe he’s got tattoos he regrets. Maybe there’s an embarrassing amount of hair on his back. Maybe he’s soft around the middle.”

They both paused, watching the man in question doing sit ups. With weights in his hands, and he’d been at it for a while. Lisa snorted softly. “Yeah, right. And no one with a face like that is a bear.”

She sighed yet again, gaze returning to the dreamy look she’d started with. “Oh, well. Maybe someday he’ll at least wear a tight shirt. That leather jacket he wore for the heist was pretty good.”

Len wasn’t sure how he felt about Lisa’s apparent infatuation with the assassin. He’d given serious shovel talks to some of his baby sister’s boyfriends over the years - she had a tendency to pick up bad boys that reminded him uncomfortably of their father. Unfortunately he had an inkling that a talk like that wouldn’t be terribly effective on James. On the other hand, James seemed to be a far more decent guy than most of the lowlifes Lisa usually met through him.

If he was being honest, there might be a twinge of ‘I saw him first’ to his feelings about her lusting over the man, as well.

Len enjoyed sex, but for him it was about the challenge of the pursuit and the thrill of the catch, as much as the physical gratification. He didn’t do relationships, not willing to open himself up like that. He didn’t even seek out repeat performances.

Fantasies and his own hand served him better than the real thing half the time, anyway. People invariably disappointed him in some way sooner or later, and that included in bed.

He also had a rule about not sleeping with his crew. It caused too many problems. People expected him to play favourites with Mick and Lisa, but he didn’t want a piece of ass thinking they’d get special treatment as well.

For James, though… oh, for James he thought he might be willing to make an exception. All that power and grace and danger, like a feral tiger brought to heel for his pleasure, at his command. No cage, no collar, no safety net. If James approached sex with the same intensity he devoted to everything else, it would be a night of pure, unbridled passion.

Biting down on a groan, Len forced his attention back to the blueprints of the art museum he wanted to hit next. If he let his thoughts continue along that track, he was going to pop a boner like a damn teenager. Lisa would never stop teasing him.

Concentration on his work lasted all of two and a half minutes before Lisa interrupted him again. This time her voice was hushed and urgent. “Lenny, we may have a problem.”

Brow furrowed and a scowl already sliding into place, Len raised his head and surveyed the room in a glance. He didn’t know what he expected to find; Mardon showing up to demand answers about the rumours Len was working with the Flash, or maybe the kid in question blowing in to turn his life upside down yet again.

What he saw was Mick stalking toward the makeshift gym, shoulders tight and head down, his strides covering too much ground and feet landing heavy enough to be called a stomp. Why he was in such a bad mood, Len had no idea, but he wished it surprised him more that Mick had decided to take it out on James.

For no reason Len could see, his partner had formed an instant dislike for James and never changed his mind. There was an alpha male posturing aspect to it, certainly. Mick was used to being the biggest, baddest guy in the room. He was physically bigger than James, but it was increasingly clear the former assassin won the badass competition.

That seemed to provoke Mick into trying harder and harder to prove otherwise. So far it had been limited to snide remarks and dirty looks, but Len had a feeling things were about to get physical.

Long before Mick was within range, James set the weights down and flipped to his feet. He used one of those martial arts moves, the ones that made it look so easy to go straight from lying down to standing. Len had to appreciate the sight, even as he winced at the increased scowl on Mick’s face.

“What?” James demanded, taciturn as ever, his expression equally unwelcoming.

Mick just kept going, and it was clear James was readying himself for the man to take a swing at him. Instead Mick marched over to the rest of the weights. “You think you’re the only one who wants to get a workout sometimes? Shove over.”

“You don’t wanna do that,” James warned as Mick reached for a small barbell. “You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

“Fuck you, newbie, I can…” Mick tried to pick up the weight, and it barely rocked in place. He tried again, muscles straining in his arm so hard the veins popped out, and succeeded in getting it off the rack. Barely. He had to grab it with both hands to keep from dropping it. “What the hell is this thing?”

Lisa was on her feet, a hand over her mouth and her eyes wide with astonishment. Len wasn’t faring much better, shock running through him like an electric thrill. Mick was damn strong, and James had been doing sit ups with those things. Smaller ones, but Len didn’t doubt they were disproportionately heavy as well.

“I warned you.” James shrugged. His tone was neutral, but there was a smirk on his lips that clearly infuriated Mick.

Then Mick dropped the weight after all, nearly crushing his foot. James huffed in amusement, not quite a snicker but close. Mick snarled and charged at him.

In a whirlwind of motion James spun. Len couldn’t even see what happened, but Mick went flying. He crashed into the rack of weights, tumbling them to the floor. Several sharp cracking sounds suggested some of them were heavy enough to damage the concrete.

Len jerked his head at Lisa, and was surprised when she ran into the other room without an argument. He wanted her away from this; no telling how far the violence might spread.

“Break it up!” Len shouted, striding toward them. James glanced at him and took a step away, but Mick was back on his feet and didn’t seem to care much what Len wanted.

Mick went in swinging once more, growling. If he’d hoped to take advantage of James’ distraction, it didn’t work. The assassin dodged with contemptuous ease, then came in with his own right-handed punch. It landed square in Mick’s gut, with enough force to make Len lose his breath in sympathy. Mick hit his knees, wheezing.

“I warned you about starting something with me.” James didn’t sound angry. His calm was far more terrifying, as was his stone-faced expression. He closed his left hand around Mick’s throat and squeezed, fingers digging into the flesh.

Wheezing turned to choking gasps as Mick pounded and clawed at James’ arm. If his blows had any effect, it didn’t show.

Normally, Len allowed everyone to work out their own differences, but his indulgence only lasted until one of his crew tried to kill another. The problem was, his cold gun was in the other room. Trying to get physically between those two powerhouses was suicidal - the last thing he wanted was James turning on him instead of Mick.

He had no idea what to do, and he was afraid he was about to watch his partner and friend of thirty years die right in front of him.

Then Lisa came running back in and tossed something in Len’s direction. He caught it reflexively, recognized it as his gun by the familiar feel in his hands. He pulled the trigger the moment he had it steady, strafing the gym area and laying a trail of ice in the wake of the beam.

Releasing Mick, James hit the floor. The beam was aimed high enough to pass over Mick, but it would have hit the assassin if he hadn’t let go to duck. Len eased off the trigger, but aimed the weapon at James’ head.

"All right," he said, casual tone hiding the tension thrumming through him. This could still go so very badly. "That's enough. Now, you might be thinking that if I shoot you with this gun, I'll risk killing my partner - and you're right. But of course, you were about to do that anyway. So how about if you just stay down?"

To his relief, James obeyed and remained on the ground, looking up at him with flat, dead eyes. His hands were splayed against the floor, shoulders tense like he’d been about to push himself to his feet. He still could, and Len had no doubt he would lose the fight if James reached him before the gun iced him in place.

Coughing, Mick staggered to his feet. He aimed a kick at James’ ribs, and nearly got his foot frozen when Len fired again between the two men. “That means you, too, Mick. Playtime is over. He's a freaking metahuman, and he's useful, so get over it.”

“He needs to know his place.” Mick’s voice was a low rumble in his chest, and he was glaring at Len as much as at James. There was a betrayed expression in his eyes, like he couldn’t believe Len wasn’t fully backing him against the new guy.

“Are we done, here?” James sounded bored, like he didn’t care one way or the other. He pushed himself to his feet, once again making it look easy. "I'm not a metahuman. I'm Enhanced. There's a difference."

"Whatever." Len finally lifted the gun, resting it against his shoulder. He didn't power it down, though, or take his eyes off James. The other man shrugged, then turned to start straightening the weights.

Oddly, he gave the ice a wide berth, not just avoiding a slip but like he didn’t want to risk coming into contact with it. Come to think of it, he’d flinched when Len fired the gun at the bank, too. Was he harbouring a deep-seated fear of ice? Or was it an actual weakness of some sort? Len would have to keep it in mind.

Satisfied James wasn’t going to continue to be a problem, he switched most of his attention to Mick. His friend was still glowering at James, and Len sighed. "Mick, don't be an idiot. What's your problem with him, huh? You're a prickly bastard at the best of times, but I’ve never seen you like this."

"That asshole is playing you, Snart, and the pathetic thing is everyone can see it but you," Mick retorted. Lisa looked startled, and Len made a note to ask her why, later.

Right after he got done chewing her out for running back into the danger zone. And thanking her for being smart enough to grab the cold gun, admittedly.

Mick was still ranting. "What the hell do we really know about him, huh? He's not just some random guy off the street, he’s a fucking rogue assassin. He's gonna bring hell down on us, sooner or later."

"Only if you keep drawing attention by making a fuss at me." James turned back to them with a narrow-eyed look. "I'm not playing anyone. I was bored, now I'm not. You're benefiting too. What's the big deal?"

"The big deal is you're going to waltz on out of here like you waltzed in, leave us with the mess. You act like you're one of the gang, but you've got no loyalty to us."

Len sighed, giving them both an impenetrable look. It wasn't that he wasn't listening, he just didn't want to give away what he was feeling until he'd made a decision. If this was going to continue to be a problem, James might be more trouble than he was worth, after all.

On the other hand, it was Mick who was being the dick here. Len didn’t like the thought of giving his partner the boot, but he’d rather keep his shiny new asset, too.

"He's not playing me. We’ve had a few heart-to-heart chats, and I know exactly what he is, and what he's not. You're right, he's not loyal to me. But he's also not the kind of guy who betrays people who've been good to him. I think when James decides to do the tango back out of our lives, he won't leave us holding the bag."

He paused, and switched his gaze fully to James. "Will he?"

The assassin met Len’s flat stare with one of his own. "I clean up my own messes. I don't fuck anyone over unless they fuck with me first."

"Right, then there won't be any more fucking each other," Len growled, tapping the gun against his shoulder as he made his decision. "Or one of you'll be out, and it'll be the one who causes the most trouble to me."

"You'd choose this asswipe over me, after all we've been through together?" Mick shook his head. "Maybe the lack of fucking is the whole problem.”

James glanced at Len, a ‘what the hell?’ kind of expression. Len shrugged. To be honest, he was just as baffled. This wasn’t at all normal behaviour for Mick.

Flipping both of them the bird, Mick turned and stormed off to the exit. “Get it out of your system, maybe you'll come back to your senses. ‘Til then, I'm outta here."

Lost in confusion, Len stared at the door as it swung closed behind his partner. What the hell had just happened?

Chapter Text

While Len and James were still staring at the door, Lisa let out a long, low whistle. “Oooh, somebody’s jealous.”

Len gave his sister a sidelong look with a quirked brow, demanding to know what she was on about. She returned it with an evaluating stare of her own, hands on her hips, and shook her head. “Here I thought you guys worked that out years ago. I’ll go after him. Somebody better talk him down before he sets the place on fire out of spite.”

With that she sashayed off, leaving both men staring after her, now. James’ expression was rapidly shifting from confusion to irritation. "What the hell is she talking about?”

"I have no clue," Len was forced to admit. Worked what out? Oh, people had accused him and Mick of fucking each other plenty of times, all the way back to the very beginning in Juvie. Len had even considered the possibility of trying to start something, before deciding it wasn’t worth the risk of messing up their partnership.

It had turned out to be a smart decision. Things had gone south between them more than once in the past. If sex had gotten mixed up in the issue, they’d probably have had a harder time getting over the bumps. Besides, Mick had never shown much interest in anything but his flames. If he was screwing anybody, Len hadn’t heard about it.

Shrugging, he moved to the other room to return his gun to the charger. "Sounds like he thinks I want to fuck you." Which was certainly true, but he didn’t understand why that was upsetting Mick. He knew Len was bi, had known that for more than twenty years and never seemed to care.

Apparently deep in thought, James followed him. "Do you?"

That was a trickier question. Len had no idea how James felt about gays. His tone was mostly curious, though. No disgust or upset Len could detect. Admitting the attraction probably wouldn’t get Len pounded in entirely the wrong way.

Shame there was no sign of answering interest, though. Len definitely wouldn’t have minded getting pounded the right way.

“I’d do you, given the opportunity. Not why I brought you in, if that’s why you’re asking. I generally don’t sleep around within the Rogues. Bad for business, but I think maybe you could handle it without getting a swelled ego.”

"Huh." James seemed to process that for a minute. "Why does he care? You guys have been friends a long time, right? I'm not here to fuck that up. That kind of thing... it's... really important."

Len cocked his head, recognizing something deeper in the words James spoke. Interesting. Who had James been that close to, and where were they now?

"I don't know why he cares." He also wasn't sure that 'friend' was a proper description of their relationship. It wasn’t the sort of thing you could slap a label on. "He'll be back, once he cools off. Lisa will talk some sense into him."

"Does he ever cool off?"

The question made Len snort with amusement. The difference in their temperaments was part of what Len valued about his partnership with Mick, but it did cause most of their problems. "You let me worry about Mick. If he doesn’t come around, I’ll go kick his ass, and we’ll be good again.”

He paused, eyeing James, and finally decided to take the plunge. Might as well know for sure. "I'm assuming you didn't join up to find out what was under my parka."

To his astonishment, James dissolved into uncertainty and nervousness for the first time since Len had met him. He fidgeted, flexing his left hand in and out of a fist. When he spoke, he sounded tentative and unsure of his own words. "No? You know why I joined. I just... I don't know... I haven't..."

Growling, he ducked his head. Len remained silent, fascinated by the completely out of character reaction. "It hasn't exactly been a priority in a long time," James finally settled on. "I'm not used to thinking about it anymore."

That… was not a rejection of interest. ‘Not used to thinking about it anymore’? What did that even mean? The more Len learned about this man, the deeper he was drawn into the mystery.

He always had loved solving puzzles. The pieces of this one hinted at a truly intriguing picture. "Well. If you want to warm me up sometime, let me know. I’m sure we could have a fun night. No strings, no expectations."

Bad enough he was willing to break his no-crew rule at all. Len had to make it clear it would be a one time thing that changed nothing between them. He certainly couldn’t let it be more than that.

Even if, for the first time in ages, the thought of a repeat was actually appealing. Something told him sex with James was unlikely to get boring any time soon.

James frowned and bit his lip, like he was conflicted. Len was surprised all over again to see a flush come to the man’s cheeks. He always seemed so poised and unemotional, but this was clearly a huge crack in his armour.

Which was nice to see, considering. Seeing him act more human made him all the more tempting. Taking a risk, Len stepped closer, encroaching on James' personal space. "You look like you're getting hot under the collar already."

"I'm... not good at this." It sounded like the words had been all but dragged out of him. "At people."

"The only thing you've fucked up so far is trying to ice your teammate," Len replied, temperature dropping in his voice at the reminder. “If you do that again…”

“I wasn’t going to kill him. I wanted him to know I could, make him think I would really do it if he pushed me again. So he’d stop.” James shook his head. “I don’t kill people, anymore. Not if I can help it.”

That certainly made Len feel better about the mess that had just gone down. "Well, I'm not the usual kind of person when it comes to 'people'. If you want something from me, then tell me. I don't dance around."

"Do I seem like the type to pussyfoot?" James was clearly frustrated, even upset, but it seemed to be self-directed. "If I had any goddamn idea what I wanted, you'd know it."

Len eyed him, his brows rising in disbelief. This sounded like more than ‘I’m confused about whether I’m gay’. "Are you saying you can't decide between the available options, or that you don't actually know what fucking is?"

"I know what it is." Now James was growling, voice rumbling low in his chest, and the flush had spread all the way up to his ears. "I wasn't allowed... I didn't have time to think about that kind of thing."

Not allowed? There was no way Len would miss a slip like that, or the way James had changed what he was saying halfway through. Deeper and deeper, the mystery went. Every layer he peeled away revealed a dozen more beneath.

"You're allowed, now," he said slowly, not at all sure how to handle this. "No one can tell you not to."

"I don't remember what I'm supposed to do." James' fists clenched, the leather of his gloves squeaking a protest at the pressure. "I don't even know how to tell if I want to at all. I don't like feeling incompetent, and I really don't like making an idiot of myself."

Len stared at him. What was he even supposed to say to that? "Well, I can’t tell you what you want. Only you can know that. But the only way to know for sure is to try it, I suppose."

He took a step back, finally giving James some space. "If you're willing to take your shirt off in my presence, come to my pad some night. We'll start slow, and you can pull the plug any time."

As he’d half expected, the mention of nudity brought James up short. He scowled down at his hands, flexing the left one again. Len was starting to think it wasn’t an anger reflex or a fidget, but perhaps the sort of motion meant to stretch out scars and regain mobility. Scarring on his hands would explain why he never took the gloves off, let alone his shirt.

What he didn’t expect was for James to nod like he’d made up his mind about something, and strip the left glove off then and there.

Revealing… another glove? Some kind of armour? Fascinated all over again, Len reached out, a silent request for a closer look. After a moment of hesitation James put his hand in Len’s, letting him examine it.

The articulation of the joints was incredible. He’d expected it to be body temperature, but the mirror-polished metal was cool to the touch. It wasn’t armour… it was the whole hand. Now that he was close enough, Len could hear the faint sound of the mechanism inside when James flexed it.

Come to think of it, there had been a sort of pneumatic whine when James ripped the doors off the safety deposit boxes, too. Pushing back the sleeve, he discovered that the metal continued up the arm.

“How high does it go?” Len had never seen anything like it. Maybe STAR Labs could come up with something like this, or Stark Industries, but it would be absolute top of the line.

“Shoulder.” James sounded wary, and when Len glanced up he found the other man watching him like a hawk. Waiting for the tiniest misstep, any sign that Len intended to… what, hurt him? Damage it? “The arm’s cut off above the elbow, but the metal goes all the way up.”

“And you can feel with it?” Len trailed his fingertips over the metal palm, and sure enough the hand twitched.

“In the fingers, mostly. It’s not perfect, but it’s enough to let me hold stuff and use equipment.”

“So, why are you showing me this now?” To warn him before they stripped down? Len could imagine there might be some ugly scarring around the shoulder, perhaps far worse than his own. Was James ashamed of that?

Sighing, James pulled his hand away, clenching it in a fist. Again Len heard a whisper of sound, like gears or pistons. “It’s acting up. I didn’t mean to grab Rory that hard. I thought, with the way you handle your gun, maybe you could do something.”

Ah. That made more sense. No wonder James was paranoid about letting Len examine it, if he was considering exposing a weakness that big.

"Sure, I'll take a look.” Len gestured him over to the table where he kept his tools and took a seat, hooking a second chair with his foot and dragging it over next to his. “When was the last time you had maintenance done on it?"

"Coupla months. Since HYDRA literally crashed and burned. Got out while I had the chance."

The answer wasn't a surprise. With all the hints that had been dropped, it wasn’t hard to figure out that HYDRA had James under some kind of duress. It made sense that he'd escaped when everything went to shit and those massive helicarriers had fallen into the Potomac.

Unzipping his hoodie, James shrugged it off, then the button up shirt beneath it. Under that he had a long sleeved t-shirt - how the hell did he stand so many layers in the heat?

Not that he had much choice. With the shirts off, Len realized how prominent the moving and shifting plates were. He’d need at least that much fabric to keep the shape of the metal from showing through.

It was a thing of deadly beauty, a work of art in its own way. Probably worth more than anything Len had ever stolen, if it could be evaluated at all. The red star on the shoulder made him curious. He didn’t know much about HYDRA, but he associated stars more with America and Russia than German Nazis.

There was indeed some incredibly nasty scarring where the metal was sealed into James’ flesh. Len had to resist the urge to rub one of his own, the deepest and longest that crossed most of his chest, in a sort of reflexive gesture of sympathy.

The rest of James’ sculpted torso was almost untouched, by scars or hair. Definitely not a bear, and definitely not soft around the middle, Len noted with a sly curve of his lips. Never mind the arm; he was a damn work of art. Scars and all.

Piling the shirts to one side, James settled into the indicated seat. He was still nervous, right hand hovering over a knife strapped to his thigh, like he thought he was going to have to defend himself.

That didn’t exactly make Len feel comfortable, either, but there was no point in asking him to take the knife off. There were probably half a dozen others tucked out of sight. Besides, it wasn’t as if James needed the knife to hurt Len.

Turning so his left side was toward Len, James propped his arm on the table. "It's not moving as smoothly as it should. Sometimes it under- or overreacts, like you saw. I tried oiling it, but nothing happened."

“Well, let's see what I can do."

There was no obvious way to access the inside. Len ran his fingertips up over the plating, searching for seams or hidden screws. When he got to the shoulder, he couldn’t resist leaning in for a closer examination of the joint. There was a supporting plate that looked almost like they’d welded it into him, melding it to his bones. The scarring surrounded that area, covering a good quarter of his chest and back.

Hovering his hand at the edge of the plating, Len glanced at James. “May I?”

The assassin narrowed his eyes, expression cold. “Why?”

“The more I understand how it works, the better I’ll be able to help you.” And if it gave him an excuse to run his hands over that gorgeous body, well, they could call it payment for services rendered.

Besides, it hadn’t escaped his notice that the man was incredibly skittish, and fiercely defensive of his personal space. If there was any chance James would take him up on that offer someday, Len wanted to be sure the man could actually handle being touched, get him used to the idea in a safer environment.

After a long moment of obvious debate, James nodded. Len let his fingers explore off the edge of the plate, over the scarring. He did his best to stay detached and clinical, keeping in mind how much he hated to be gawked at.

Even beneath the thickened flesh, he could feel how tight the muscles were. “Relax, James. I’m not going to hurt you.” He kept his tone light, a soft drawl as he carefully dug his fingers in and stroked over the knot.

The tiny noise that escaped James was impossible to interpret, and the way he shuddered could have been a bad sign. But his shoulders slumped, ever so slightly, and at the second stroke Len was pretty sure he leaned into the touch.

Not averse to skin contact under the right circumstances, then. Good to know. Len would have to take it slow at first, but that was doable. Hell, the seduction was half the game.

Better yet, it was unlikely James would be put off by Len’s scars in turn. Len tended to push for hard and fast sex that wouldn’t leave his partner questioning why he hadn’t gotten around to getting naked. It would be nice to have a chance to take his time for a change, maybe even take off his shirt without risking those pitying looks and questions.

Another little sound escaped James when Len stopped stroking and went back to the arm. This one sounded like a sigh of disappointment, and Len struggled not to let his smirk turn too smug.

When he ran his hand down the arm instead of up, he finally discovered the edge of the access hatch. Picking up his microtool, he examined the interlocking plates more closely. He found the fastenings and carefully undid them, removing the cover to get a look at the guts of the thing.

Ignoring the ravaged, long-scarred over flesh showing through the mechanism, he searched for the connection points. "Let me know if it's uncomfortable. Never worked with tech like this before, so I can't promise I can do anything for you."

"I know. You've got a better shot than I do," James pointed out with a one-armed shrug. "Don't worry about hurting me, I'm used to it."

"Wouldn't want you to accidentally cold-cock me in the head," Len said with a wry smile. "So tell me if it hurts." Maybe there was nothing he could do to prevent it, but he did want to know. If only so he had some warning to duck.

Something else occurred to him. “Shouldn’t this be heavy as hell?” He could feel how solid the metal was, and the piece he’d removed hadn’t been light.

“There’s a hydraulic system that keeps it balanced, or it’d be too heavy to move even for me. That’s why it goes all the way up to the shoulder, so they could fuse it to the bone. The weight’ll tear it right off, otherwise.”

There was a bleakness to his voice that made Len glance up at him, and he shivered at the dark look in the man’s eyes. It sounded like he was speaking from experience. If James had been a prisoner rather than a volunteer, it made sense HYDRA wouldn’t have been all that careful with him.

What Len’s father had done to him and his sister had been monstrous. He was starting to wonder if what HYDRA had done to James might be even worse. Returning his attention to the arm, Len tried to put the haunting thought out of his mind.

Right now, he was still figuring out how it all worked. It wasn't as though the complex mechanism came with a manual. "I will say this for HYDRA - they do good work. I should've hit one of their facilities sometime."

"You say that like it's too late. They're still out there.” James sounded sour, no surprise there. Clearly there was no love lost between him and his former ‘employers’. “I know quite a few of their depots and safe drops. The bases might be too tough a nut for the Rogues to crack, though."

"Hmm," Snart purred. He did like a challenge. James shuddered, presumably at the thought of going back.

He tested a few more connections, causing James' fingers to twitch and move in response. "Did they have specialized equipment for working on your arm? I bet they did. Having something like that here would help us keep you in tip-top shape."

"Yeah, they had all kinds of machines." The last word came out as a growl. "Loved to use 'em on me. Dunno what most of them did, but they all hurt like a bitch. Last place I know of that had the equipment was in DC. Vault of an old, abandoned bank, actually. Probably easy for you to break into."

"Sadly, abandoned banks don't tend to have much money in them. And I've got no interest in torturing you. If you think it might have some information or equipment that'd help your arm, though, then we should look into it."

After another few minutes of work he pulled back, switching the tool to his other hand and flexing his fingers much like James did, working out the cramps. Could a metal hand get cramps? "I think the electrical impulses are out of alignment. Your nerves might be giving the signal, but if they aren't translating into the circuitry at the same frequency, you'll see delays in response."

"Uh... sure. If you say so." James shrugged. Did he not understand, or not care? Either seemed odd. He clearly cared a great deal about maintaining every other piece of equipment he used, and he understood complex alarm systems well enough to disable them. How could he be good with alarms, but not a different type of electronics?

James was still watching him, but there was more curiosity than wariness now. "Where’d you learn to do all this, anyway? You said you stole the guns, but you know what you’re doing.”

"Self-taught." Len was rather proud of that. This much of what he’d learned from his father was useful, at least. "I cut my teeth on security systems and learning to fix my cold gun."

"Damn." James sounded suitably impressed by Len’s cleverness, which was a nice pat to his ego. "Think you could teach me some? Wouldn't mind having an idea how to maintain this damn thing."

"You'd be surprised how much you can learn from the internet." Len got back to work, gritting his teeth as he realigned a stubborn circuit and then tested the signal. That might have hurt a little. Thankfully, James barely twitched. “I'll teach you if you want, but you might have trouble doing this without being able to see what you're doing. This wasn't designed with self-care in mind."

"No shit." As Len continued, James twitched harder, closer to a spasm this time. Growling, he clamped his hands on the seat of his chair and the old wood groaned a protest.

It took a few more adjustments, but finally Len thought he had it. He was sweating, and not only from the worry that James might lash out by accident. This was the most complicated device he had ever worked on. That kid at STAR Labs would probably wet himself with joy if he got his hands on it. Even the cold gun wasn’t nearly this complex and precise.

Well, he did keep saying he enjoyed a challenge. James was nothing if not that, in more than one way. “Try it now.”

Lifting his hand, James flexed it a few times. There was no trace of the noises from before, and Len could see that the movement was smoother. No wonder he kept making the motion. He’d been trying to stop it from freezing up completely. The irony was that he’d probably been making it worse, overworking the already stressed connections.

"Thanks." The gratitude was less grudging than Len had expected. James even gave him a tiny smile, more genuine than his usual smirk.

“Gotta keep my crew in good working order,” Len dared to tease him. The smile grew, not much but it was noticeable. “Now, it’s about time I go hunt down Mick. Before he gets too drunk to be reasoned with. I’ll see you later?”

James was already pulling his shirt back on, but when his head emerged he nodded. “Yeah.”

“Think about that invitation.” Len tilted his head from side to side to crack it, feeling the strain of focusing so hard for so long. “Wouldn’t mind working some tension off. I could finish that massage for you.”

To his delight, James was thoughtful rather than dismissive or frustrated this time. “Maybe I will.”

Counting that as a victory, Len grinned to himself as he swept up his tools. Lisa would have to settle for sighing from a distance. This one was his. He had a feeling it was just a matter of time.

Chapter Text

For days, James dithered over Snart’s invitation, trying to decide how he felt about it. He avoided the hideout, knowing his composure was shot and unable to face the man in question until he had it sorted out in his head.

He couldn’t seem to make up his mind whether he wanted to take Snart up on it, or wanted to run as far and fast as possible in the opposite direction.

No matter what he did, he couldn’t shake the memory of the man’s hand on his shoulder, skin to skin. James was used to being handled by technicians, but this had been something else entirely. Firm, but gentle, every touch sending tingles through his nerves that had made him want to arch his back and demand more.

James literally couldn’t remember the last time he’d been touched by someone and felt pleasure in the act. Apparently, it was addicting.

Brooding about it stirred up all kinds of feelings and thoughts that had been lurking beneath the shattered surface of his mind. That was a good thing, mostly; new memories were something he cherished and actively fought to find. He finished the journal he’d been working on and started another, the pages filled with half-remembered nights spent dancing with women. And sometimes doing other things with them.

It was the ‘other things’ that were driving him crazy. Now that Snart had reminded him about the idea of sexual attraction, his usual nightmares were interspersed with heated dreams that left him drenched in sweat for a different reason entirely.

Oddly, he could find no memories of doing ‘other things’ with men. He got a weird twinge in his chest when he thought about it, a sense of unease that he couldn’t put his finger on. It didn’t really matter why he’d never done it before, though. What mattered was how much he wanted to do it now.

And that was the whole problem. James was afraid it might become another way for someone to control him, manipulate him into being what they wanted him to be. At the same time, he ached for the contact so fiercely it was almost pain.

In the end it was Snart’s ‘no strings, no expectations’ comment that swayed him. If Snart was expecting this to be a one-time experience, he likely wasn’t planning to use it against James in the future somehow. James could try it, probably get still more memories back, and maybe even enjoy himself for one goddamn night.

It would be nice to remember what ‘enjoying himself’ felt like.

He’d tailed all three of the Rogues back to their homes after he’d agreed to join them, so he knew where Snart lived. All the windows were dark, and it was too early for Snart to have gone to sleep, surely. He must be out, probably with Rory or at that bar he liked, but he’d be back sooner or later. Patience was a necessary trait for a sniper. James could wait.

Getting in was child's play. Not that there wasn't security, because Snart was healthily paranoid and damn good with electronics. But it was nothing compared to some of the places James had ghosted his way into.

Once inside, the moonlight through the windows was more than enough for him to see by, so he didn’t bother turning on the lights. Habit drew him to the darkest part of the living room, years of lurking in shadows taking over his instincts, and he settled in to wait.

Some time later, the sound of a key in the lock made him perk up. As Snart came in and turned to shut the door behind him, James rose silently to his feet. "I was starting to think you weren't gonna show, after all."

Whirling around, Snart snatched his cold gun out of the holster on his thigh, already charging as he brought it to bear. Startled, James ducked, and the action saved his life as ice coated the wall where he’d been standing.

“What the fuck, Snart?” James crouched low, ready to move fast if he had to, staring up at the other man.

"James?” Snart sounded incredulous. Keeping the gun steady in one hand, he reached out the other to flip the light on.

The sudden brightness made James blink rapidly, his eyes watering. Snart lowered the gun, but he looked distinctly unhappy as he demanded, “What the hell do you think you’re doing, breaking in here and ambushing me?”

“Ambush?” James shook his head, confused. The anger and aggression in the other man’s body language baffled him. "You told me to come here. What's your problem?"

The reminder didn’t seem to appease Snart at all. If anything, he looked more annoyed. "I told you to come here. I didn't tell you to sneak up on me out of the goddamn darkness."

"I didn't sneak up on you. You just weren't paying enough attention." There was no way in hell James would have come into his place so blindly, especially knowing someone else was going to be coming by at some point.

The darkness, though, he guessed he could give the guy. One of the many downsides to having so few of his memories from before HYDRA was that it was sometimes hard for him to remember what life was like for normal people. He tended to forget how Enhanced he really was.

Len scowled. "I haven’t seen you in days, and I expected you to call first, not break in. That's what a normal person would do."

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to scare you.” It honestly hadn’t occurred to him that it might not be appropriate to let himself in. Snart had told him to meet at his pad, so that was what James was doing. Why should he wait out in the hall or on the rooftop across the way, vulnerable and exposed, when he could make himself comfortable inside?

Snart set his gun on a nearby table, then stripped off his parka and goggles, watching James all the while. “I said you could come by for a specific reason. Is that why you’re here?”

Heart pounding, his mouth suddenly dry, James nodded. All the words seemed to fly out of his head, and he couldn’t think of a thing to say.

Finally, the annoyance seemed to drain away, and Snart smirked. He stepped forward and hooked his finger in James' belt, drawing him close. "Then I guess it’s lucky for you I don't like normal people."

His voice was a soft drawl, that fucking purr that tweaked something inside James every damn time. Now he understood why, felt the heat that flooded through him and knew what it meant. Without thinking about it he grabbed Snart by the shirtfront and hauled him in.

Then he kissed him, fierce and hungry, all but devouring him.

Snart made a soft sound, a muffled gasp that made James’ dick twitch in response. The other man skimmed his hand up over James’ neck and into his hair. Then he wrapped the long strands around his fingers, and yanked.

Hard. Hard enough that the sharp sensation cut through James’ focus on the taste of Snart’s mouth. Growling, he broke the kiss and leaned back, suddenly wary. It didn’t hurt, exactly - James could take far more than that before it would bother him. But he hadn’t expected pain to be involved, at all.

“Easy,” Snart murmured, ragged and gruff. “James, take it easy. If you’re going to be that rough, this is over before it starts. I’m not into that much pain.”

He wasn’t into pain? He was the one who had yanked at James’ hair.

Then James took stock of their position, and realized he’d clamped his left hand onto the other man’s hip, undoubtedly bruising him with the pressure. He’d kissed hard enough to crush Snart’s lip between their teeth, splitting the chapped skin and leaving a tiny trickle of blood at the corner of his mouth.

Releasing him as abruptly as he’d grabbed the man in the first place, James shuddered. “Shit, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean…”

“I figured.” Snart didn’t let him pull away, hand still tangled in James’ hair but not pulling, now. Instead his fingers rubbed over the skull, a soothing motion like the one he’d done on James’ shoulder a few days ago. He brought his other hand up to trail over James’ chest, fingers finding and tweaking a nipple through the layers of fabric.

Now it was James’ turn to give a muffled gasp, shuddering under the unexpected flare of pleasure. Even more so when Snart tugged on his hair again, gently this time, the sensation sending sparks shooting straight down his spine.

“Don’t worry. We’ll both get what we want in the end.” Snart closed the distance between them so he murmured the words while hovering over James’ mouth. “I’ll take good care of you, there’s no need to push it to happen. Okay?”

The almost-kiss left him aching for more, but James forced himself not to lunge in for another taste. The last thing he wanted to do was inflict pain on Snart. Instead he nodded, breathless with anticipation.

“Good. Then get those damn shirts off.” Snart had that cat-in-cream drawl again, and James shuddered in reaction.

If he’d been reluctant to strip down and reveal himself to Snart the first time, now he could hardly get his shirts off fast enough. This time when the other man’s gaze dropped to survey his torso, there was nothing clinical about it. Snart’s blatant appreciation left James more than willing to stand there and let him look, even though he usually hated to be stared at.

Snart did a slow circle around him, admiring from every angle. He kept making little ‘mmm’ sounds of satisfaction, and James could feel the heat of his gaze like the sun against his skin. Finally Snart caught his hand and stepped back toward the couch, tugging James with him step by step.

That wasn't anywhere near fast enough for James. He dropped both hands to Snart's hips, hauled him up, and carried him the last few steps. The other man yelped and squirmed in surprise, but didn’t protest or fight him too hard.

When he tumbled them down, he ended up on top, one leg wedged between Snart's. His instincts and vague memories insisted he was supposed to be the one in control. "This what you wanted?"

Snart smiled, slow and mischievous. "It's a start."

That smile did strange things low in James' body. He knew, in theory, that the tightness in his groin was his cock hardening, but the heat and the pleasure were a reality he didn't quite know what to do with.

He was really looking forward to figuring it out, though.

Dragging his right hand down from Snart's hips, he traced over the man's crotch, curious if Snart was reacting similarly. He was far more careful this time, keeping the touch as gentle as he could. "I kinda think I might like making you scream."

Snart grunted, then moaned as James closed his hand around the rock hard length straining his fly. His hips arched upwards at the touch, and he clutched at James’ back hard enough to dig his fingers into the flesh, but this time it felt more like encouragement than a demand to stop.

"I don't scream," he growled, his eyes flickering with blue flame.

"Oh yeah? That sounds like a challenge." James had no real idea where all this was coming from, but it seemed to be working, so he ran with it. He had a feeling he used to be very good at this sort of thing.

He worked over Snart's length, rough but not hard enough to hurt. The man definitely had nothing to be ashamed of in the size department, and the way it was straining against the zipper had to be agonizing. James’ certainly was. Shifting his grip to get a good hold on the material of the other man's jeans, he pulled sharply and the fly gave way.

The sudden rip of fabric made Snart jerk beneath him, and growl. "Hey, watch it."

Pausing, James looked down at him, uncertain. “Not good?”

Sighing through his nose, Snart stroked his fingers over the tense muscles in James’ neck. “The whole ‘tear each other’s clothes off’ thing isn’t usually literal. I liked these jeans.”

Then he smirked, and slid his other hand down over James’ abs with an obvious southward destination in mind. “Of course, it could be argued I like this even more. So I guess you get a pass, this once.”

The feel of Snart’s hand on his dick, even through his jeans, was absolutely mind-blowing. James made a startled noise, not quite a groan, and his hips jerked into the touch. "Jesus Christ," he muttered, his voice shaky with lust and shock. He'd known it would feel good, but not how good.

In retaliation he slid his hand into the tear in Snart's jeans, determined to give as good as he got. The boxers beneath had a slit in the front, and he was able to slip inside to get skin on skin. The flesh beneath was surprisingly hot, a delicate layer of soft skin over what felt like solid steel.

Snart gave a breathy moan at the contact, then shouted when James stroked over him. His hips rocked into the contact, and he was panting like he’d been running. He was glorious, head thrown back against the arm of the couch, eyes half closed and hazed with pleasure.

Did he look like that, too? Probably. It was hard to focus through the sensations sweeping him away, and James was torn between demanding Snart touch him more, and forcing the other man’s hand away so he could concentrate on what he was doing.

It was so incredibly overwhelming, all of it. What he felt, what Snart looked like, the heat burning between them both… if he’d thought simple touch was addictive, that was nothing compared to how much he already ached for this.

Snart was working at his fly, getting it open the more traditional way. James groaned when the other man’s hand closed around him again, the touch far more intimate now.

"That’s it,” Snart encouraged him, smirk closer to a grin and the light in his eyes a match for the smug satisfaction in his voice. "Now you’re getting the idea.”

God, Snart's purr was so... sexy, that was the word he wanted. Hot as fuck, that worked too. It made James' cock jump against the other man's hand, and he hissed in pleasure.

Shifting, he slid his left hand beneath Snart's ass and lifted, changing the angle to make it easier to get his right hand properly wrapped around the man's cock. The weight was nothing to him, but the action seemed to startle Snart. He clutched at James like he thought he might get dropped, then shuddered and relaxed into it slowly.

"Fuck, you are incredible.” Snart was squeezing James’ cock in a rhythm that felt like the breath was being squeezed right out of him, as well. “Don't go too fast, though. I don't want to come until I get to show you the best parts."

"This isn't the best part?" James wasn't sure he could believe that. This was pretty goddamn good as it was. He slowed his hand but didn't let go, stroking with long, firm movements, exploring the shape of the other man's cock as he went. "What do I do?"

“I can show you, but you’ll have to let me up.” Snart’s expression was half heated promise and half challenging dare.

The suggestion made James narrow his eyes, uncertain he wanted to give up the advantage of his superior position. Tactics and strategy were always at the forefront of his mind, and in a way this seemed like nothing more than a different sort of struggle.

Then again, he really wanted to know what more there might be. Reluctantly he eased Snart back down to the couch, then sat back on his heels, giving the other man more room to move.

To his surprise and dismay, Snart sat up and slid right off the couch, out of reach. “Where are you going?” James protested, not nearly ready for this to end yet.

"Trust me, you'll like this. I haven’t steered you wrong so far, have I?” Snart didn’t go far, shoving the coffee table back to make room and settling on his knees in front of the couch. "Sit up and I'll show you."

Eyes still narrowed, James did a quick up-and-down scan of the other man. "Put the knife out of reach, first," he growled.

He followed his own demand, drawing all three of his knives and his pistol, placing them well out of reach of the sofa before returning to sit. He didn't need a weapon to be able to protect himself from Snart, but he would be letting his guard down enough that Snart might be able to hurt him, first, if he was armed.

Snart arched an eyebrow, then bent and pulled the knife from his boot, setting it on the table where James had placed his. "You realize you could twist my head off before I could even reach that knife, right?" he said wryly, and dropped to his knees in front of James.

"If this is going where I think it is, I might actually be distracted enough for you to get a hit off," James muttered, mouth twisting. "I don't take chances, that's why I'm still alive." If he didn’t trust Snart to at least some extent, he wouldn't be doing this at all, but trust only went so far.

Snart looked up at him from his place on the floor. "It seems to me I'm the one taking chances here, but that's fine. You're paranoid. I can respect that in a man."

He shifted forward and gently pushed James' knees apart. "Besides, pretty sure I’m going to be distracted enough to lose my cool, as well.” Then he leaned in to lick at the taut surface of James' stomach.

"Fuck!" The wet, hot trace of Snart's tongue against his abs made the muscles there go tight enough to quiver. James' dick jumped, and he gasped with pleasure.

He reached out in turn, acting on blind instinct, sliding his hands over Snart’s jaw and throat. If the caress of the deadly metal hand so close to his airway bothered the man, it didn’t show in the least. Snart shivered, but his moan held nothing but enjoyment. "It's cold," he murmured, his tone liquid with appreciation.

He drew James' cock out of his pants and then he bent over the head, mouth hovering just out of reach. Close enough for James to feel his hot breath against the sensitive skin, not enough for him to feel the wetness. Not until Snart licked at him, lapping delicately like the cat James kept comparing him to, tongue stroking over the head in a way that made James shout and tremble.

Then he blew, a stream of cold air over the wetness that sent shocks through his whole body in response.

The curses Snart kept drawing from him were starting to become incoherent. Rational thought was rapidly escaping James' grip, his eyes rolling back as he groaned and arched up into that shivering sensation.

He barely remembered not to tighten his grip in time. Growling again, in frustration this time, he dropped his hands to grip the couch cushions instead. "Just so you know, I'm a very fast learner."

A soft chuckle came from Snart. "Hopefully you're not too fast in other areas. I'm not going to be done with you for a while."

He opened his mouth and dropped down, drawing James' cock into his mouth.

The cushions were in danger of tearing, but James couldn't seem to pry his fingers loose. If he'd thought Snart's tongue felt good, that was nothing to how amazing the rest of his mouth was. Hot, wet, tight... fuck.

Some instinct or lingering memory kept him from thrusting his hips up the way his body wanted him to, wary of choking the man. Or breaking his nose, for that matter.

"Son of a bitch," he breathed out, barely aware of what he was saying. "How the hell did I forget this?"

Snart snorted, but - thank god - didn’t pull away to answer. He bobbed his head up and down, sucking and running his tongue along the shaft, swirling over the head.

There was no way James was going to last long at this rate. The rush of sensation was like a tidal wave bearing down on him, ready to sweep him under and drown him in it. He could feel his balls going tight, pulling up close to his body as the tension in his groin wound to the breaking point... and then past it.

He cried out as it seemed like he exploded, then all the air rushed out of him on a startled groan and he shuddered with the orgasm. Snart kept working him, pushing in close so it felt like he swallowed James whole, his throat working in the most incredible way around the shaft.

When it was over James went limp, panting for air that didn't seem to be there, stunned stupid by the experience. The only thought in his head was that he had no idea how the hell there could still be anything better.

By the time he came back to himself, Snart had released him and sat back on his heels. He had his hands braced on James’ knees, thumbs tracing lazy arcs he could feel even through the denim. He smirked when he saw James was focused on him again. "Good," he purred, rising to his feet and settling onto the sofa. "I liked that."

Words were really not happening for James at the moment. His brain felt scrambled, kind of like what HYDRA’s damn machine had done to him, but in a far more pleasant way. He couldn't really bring himself to object to the phenomenon, not when it felt like that.

Hell, if HYDRA had made the machine feel anywhere near that good, he'd have gone into it eagerly instead of reluctantly. He probably ought to be grateful it had never occurred to them to use anything but pain to motivate him.

Grabbing Snart by the arm, he hauled him in for another heated kiss. Snart growled and kissed back hard enough that their teeth clacked together and James tasted blood from the earlier split. Smirking against Snart’s mouth, James flicked his tongue out to lap up the blood, savouring the rich taste of it. Snart responded by shifting up and climbing into James’ lap, straddling his thighs.

Twisting his hand into the waist of Snart’s boxers, he tugged hard, asking silent permission this time. If Snart intended the way he groaned against James’ mouth to be a protest, he failed miserably. With no effort James ripped through the fabric and elastic, freeing Snart’s straining cock to the air at last.

He wrapped his hand around the other man's hard dick and stroked, using a similar pressure and rhythm to what Snart had just shown him with his mouth. "You want me to suck you, too? Or keep doing this?"

"I like this just fine." Snart squirmed against him, rocking into the touch. He arched his back and shuddered, clinging to James’ shoulders to keep from tumbling over. His voice was deep and rough, hardly more than a groan. "If you want to experiment, though, I won’t say no."

"Mm. Plenty of time for that.” It seemed like Snart was pretty close to losing it, and James really liked the look on the other man's face. If he went downtown, he wouldn't be able to see what Snart looked like when he came.

Brushing his mouth along Snart's jaw, he found the other man's earlobe and licked it once. Then he bit down, not quite hard enough to hurt, and rubbed his thumb over the weeping slit at the head of Snart’s dick.

That seemed to be enough to break Snart’s control. He cried out as his cock jerked in James' hand, spurting hot fluids over his fingers.

"Yessss," James hissed in pleasure, watching Snart shudder in ecstasy. "I like that. You look good."

He milked Snart's dick for a moment more, stroking him through the thrill. Only when it seemed to be over did he lift his hand, studying the cooling, sticky strands.

Curious, he licked one finger, then made a face. "Okay, I don't like that so much."

Snart gave a soft sigh of contentment and slumped forward, resting his head against James' right shoulder and closing his eyes. "Develop a taste for it. It's worth it."

"If you say so." James was doubtful. On the other hand, nothing Snart had suggested so far tonight had been anything but fantastic, so maybe he should take the guy's word for it.

Obediently he licked the rest of his fingers clean rather than wiping them off, but it didn't improve with the second or third taste. "Guess I'll have to arrange for repeat exposure if I want to get used to it."

Snart made a face at the gesture. "Take it from the source. It's not as good cold - probably the only time you'll catch me saying that. You got anywhere to be tonight?"

"Nope.” James was quite content right where he was, for the moment.

Rocking closer, Snart ground down against him - and made a startled noise when he rubbed against James’ hard-on. “You’re recovered already?”

“Recovered?”

The soft laugh Snart gave in response was shaky. “I’m going to have a hell of a time keeping up with you, aren’t I?” Pushing away, he slid off James’ lap and stood, stretching.

He was still fully dressed, except for his cock hanging out of his ruined fly. Once again he looked like the cat that ate the cream, utterly unashamed and far too smug.

James had put that expression on his face, caused the languid movements that spoke of total relaxation and satiation. He wanted to do it again, and again. As many times as he could get away with.

How the fuck was he supposed to be satisfied with one night, now that he remembered what this felt like? James didn’t think he could do what he used to, go out and find someone random to pick up and take home. He’d been so naive back then, so trusting. Now, the idea of making himself this vulnerable with someone he didn’t know was anything but appealing.

There was nothing he could do about it now, because he sure as hell wasn’t stopping. If this was his one chance, he was damn well taking advantage of every minute.

Chapter Text

As good as Len had known sex with James would be, he hadn’t even begun to imagine the reality. The fierce focus was everything he’d expected, but what he hadn’t anticipated was the strength of the man’s reactions. It seemed unlikely that James had never so much as enjoyed himself with his own hand before, yet he responded as if he was completely unfamiliar with pleasure.

Len had never been interested in virginity, had no desire to pop someone’s cherry. Wide-eyed naivete didn’t do anything for him, far from it. James was no innocent, but introducing him to sex turned out to be nearly as much fun for Len as it was for him. Especially since he wasn’t at all hesitant, and seemed to have some idea what he was doing. Best of both worlds.

“Come on,” he said, offering James a hand up. “The couch is okay, but there are better places to enjoy ourselves.”

“There’s still more?” James sounded dazed, and Len chuckled.

“Oh, there’s plenty more. We’ve barely scratched the surface.”

Standing without help, James let his unzipped pants fall from his slender hips, showing off the muscles in his legs. They matched the rest of his body, sleek and powerful and perfect in form. Kicking free, he took Len's offered hand in his right one. His skin seemed even warmer than usual against Len's cool fingers, callus rubbing against callus in an appealing way.

Len smirked and shrugged, heading out of the living room with James’ fingers wrapped around his. The fact that the man had taken his hand after standing up under his own power tickled him, and Len was willing to walk hand in hand that far.

They had to pass through the kitchen on the way to the bedroom, and Len paused as his eyes fell on the freezer. His love of ice had started long before he got his hands on the cold gun. The tingle it left behind on sensitive skin was addictive, and the contrast when followed by warmth was incredible.

It wasn’t something he’d had much chance to play with except by himself, since by necessity it required he strip down. It seemed pretty clear this wasn’t going to be a wham, bam, thank you ma’am sort of encounter, so why not indulge himself?

Excitement licked through him at the thought, leaving heat in its wake. Grinning, Len detoured to the fridge and dropped James’ hand so he could open it. “Since we’re expanding your horizons tonight, might as well run rather than walk.”

The moment Len turned and showed him the ice tray, James jerked back with a grimace that was almost a snarl, fists clenched so hard the sound of metal grinding was audible. When he spoke his voice rumbled through his chest. "No. You're not putting that anywhere fucking near me."

Cursing himself, Len froze. He’d forgotten about the way James reacted to the cold gun. Hell, he hadn’t realized it was this much of an issue. James had avoided stepping on the ice in the warehouse, but hadn’t reacted anywhere near this strongly. "It's just a little ice, it can’t hurt you. What's the problem?"

"No ice." James' eyes were wild, the soul of a stone-cold killer staring back at Len, his growl threatening murder and mayhem. "Swear to God, you touch me with that shit and I'll rip your hand off your arm."

Len’s instincts screamed at him not to do anything that could be perceived as a threat of any kind. Provoking the metahuman assassin into a fight or flight frenzy didn’t seem like a good way to keep on living.

Moving slowly, he stepped deliberately away and set the ice on the counter, then lifted both hands. "No ice. I'm sure it'll turn to water soon, or would you rather I put it back in the freezer?"

Naked as the day he was born James might be, but that made him not one bit less intimidating when he was in a rage. Thankfully the anger eased when Len dropped the tray, and he continued to calm with each step Len took away from the counter. He unclenched his fists, with a soft sound from the left like it had unlocked somehow.

"It's fine there. Just not on me." He worked his jaw a couple of times, like he was trying to loosen the muscles there. "What the fuck would you even want to do with that? Why?"

Heading into the bedroom, Len walked to the bed, and James trailed along behind him. When Len sat it was a deliberate choice to put his head lower than James, conceding the dominant position, letting the other man have the tactical advantage. Staying as unthreatening as possible seemed like a good plan for right now.

"It can be....stimulating, when touched to certain places, in certain ways." He arched a brow. "I wouldn't mind you trying it on me if you prefer."

Glancing back at the kitchen, James narrowed his eyes. After a moment he shook his head. "I knew you liked cold. I didn't realize you liked it that much. I don't."

“Then it’s off the table.” Because Len wasn’t in the least bit suicidal. “Are you going to come join me? Or are we done for the night? Looks like you could use that back rub more than ever.”

The last of the anger and fear was fading from James’ expression, replaced by contemplation and renewed desire. Instead of moving forward, he looked down at his left hand, flexing it a few times. He closed his eyes and frowned, as if he was concentrating hard.

“What are you doing?” Len was wary of the unexpected action. Was James reminding himself that Len had helped him earlier, had already had him vulnerable and hadn’t done anything to hurt him? Or maybe replaying the brief massage Len had given him at the time?

Licking his lips, James opened his eyes again. He moved forward, reaching out with his left hand with the obvious intention of touching Len’s face.

Going still, Len watched him, trying not to show how nervous he was to have that deadly hand on him. His eyes narrowed, but he refused to pull away.

Then the metal brushed over his cheek, and Len gasped. It was cold, not cool like it had been when he’d handled it the other day. He wouldn’t have been surprised to see frost forming on the plates.

Again James touched him, cupping his chin and rubbing his thumb over Len’s lips this time, the tang of steel and a faint hint of oil bursting over his tongue. Shivering in pleasure, Len leaned into the touch, encouraging more, and couldn’t bite back a heartfelt moan. “What did you do?”

“Convinced the coolant system it was overheating.” Hearing the hesitant note in James’ voice, Len forced his eyes open, not realizing until that moment that he’d closed them. The other man was looking down at him uncertainly, as if not sure his gesture would be welcome.

It was. Oh, god, it definitely was. If he couldn't use cold on James, at least Len could feel it himself. That was even better, actually. “Keep moving,” he instructed, hoarse and eager. “If you leave it in one place too long, I’ll go numb. Wouldn’t want to get frostbite.”

Obediently James trailed his hand down over Len’s throat, drawing another strangled gasp from him. The danger was as thrilling as the cold, now that he was no longer worried the assassin was going to retaliate for the ice. James could choke him or even tear his throat out as easily as ripping a piece of paper, yet he was so devoted to giving Len pleasure.

Len was accustomed to being in total control of his sexual encounters, but it seemed clear James wouldn’t want to give up that much power. He’d probably insist on topping, too. Just this once, Len decided he wasn’t going to fight for it.

Much. Giving in too easily would take all the fun out of it.

So when James trailed down over his sweater and planted a hand in the middle of his chest, shoving hard, Len didn’t go easily. He locked his arms around the other man’s neck and pulled him down as well, both of them tumbling into the soft mattress as he yanked James in for a kiss.

Every kiss was better than the last. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d kissed someone and it had been this hot. James was a very fast learner, willing to take direction and improve on instructions.

Between the hot plunge of James’ tongue in his mouth and the contrasting chill of his metal hand tracing down over Len’s chest, it wasn’t long before Len’s cock was swelling again. He felt giddy, like a damn teenager, so caught up in the thrall of ecstasy he could hardly think straight.

So caught up, in fact, that his first reaction when James slid his hands under the sweater was one of gasping pleasure at the stark contrast in temperature between metal and flesh. Len arched his back to press into James’ grip, silently asking for more.

Until the other man’s metal hand hit one of his scars, the one that started above his kidney and curled around his side. Len went cold for an entirely different reason, and this time his gasp had nothing to do with enjoyment.

He grabbed at James’ wrists, pushing hard to stop the upward progress. His sweater had already been inched up enough to reveal a slice of abs above his rock hard cock, dark treasure trail leading beneath the hem.

To Len’s relief James stopped immediately, though he didn’t withdraw. They broke the kiss, James pulling back enough for them to be able to see each other properly. He looked baffled, maybe even hurt, by the sudden change. “What?”

“I…” The words died in Len’s throat. Now that the moment had come, his certainty that he’d be fine with showing this man his body had vanished. Chest heaving as he panted for air, Len struggled with himself.

How long had it been since anyone but Lisa or Mick saw him shirtless? Years, certainly. Maybe decades. It wasn’t as though he couldn’t stand the sight of the scars; he didn’t flinch when he saw his reflection or anything. They were a part of him. It was only the damn pitying looks he got that kept him from letting anyone see them.

Except he knew, he knew he’d get no pity from James, not with the scars the man sported himself. So why couldn’t Len pull the fucking sweater off and let him continue exploring with that amazing hand of his?

“Did I do something wrong?” James sat back on his heels, removing his hands entirely, much to Len’s frustration and disappointment.

“No, it’s not you. I…” Again the words got stuck. Len growled, and forced them out. “Let’s just say, you’re not the only one with scars you don’t like showing.”

“Scars?” James blinked at him, so blatantly confused it would have been adorable if he hadn’t been sitting there naked with the body of a ravaged god. He glanced down at his own shoulder, then back at Len with a frown. “I don’t give a shit about the scars. The arm is too damn identifiable, that’s all. I’m in hiding, remember?”

Dumbfounded, Len stared at him. Too identifiable? It was, obviously. A dead giveaway to anyone looking for the man. But that he didn’t care about the scarring at all...

James met his gaze squarely, unflinching. There was no pity, no judgement, though he did look impatient at the delay. "Scars are a badge of pride. They're something you fucking survived. That's one of the things I like about you. You're a survivor, same as me. Whatever it was, you didn't let it break you. You used it to make you stronger."

Len looked away and was silent for a long moment, before it struck him how ridiculous this was. He was here, with this incredibly attractive, powerful man, naked in his bed. A man with scars and shameful history of his own. A man who clearly wanted him, for all that he was. And Len was worried about turning him off with the marks of what his father had done to him.

Gritting his teeth, he grabbed the hem of his shirt and yanked it up over his head before he could change his mind. For good measure, he shoved the ruined jeans down over his hips and kicked free of them. If he was going to bare it all, he might as well bare it all.

A scattered handful of the scars were injuries he’d accumulated as an adult, living a life of crime. There were knife cuts and even bullet wounds dating back decades. Those, he didn’t care about, might even have worn with pride.

The rest were softened and blurred with time, sometimes warped as his skin grew along with his body, forcing the scars to stretch with it.

Weals on his back and ass and thighs from the belt his father had used to reinforce his ‘lessons’ - usually the leather end, but a few times Lewis had used the buckle to literally drive his point home. Burns, from being knocked against the stove or other hot objects, some from cigarettes put out quite deliberately on his skin. Jagged cuts from thrown objects like plates and bottles crashing into him, or Lewis lashing out with something broken in his hand.

The marks of a childhood spent unable to fight back, locked in helpless terror and endless shame. Unmistakeable, unconcealable, undeniable.

James gave his body a quick glance up and down as he apparently categorized the marks, though most of the worst were out of sight on Len’s back. If there was any trace of pity in the man’s expression, Len couldn’t find it. Likewise there was no hint of derision, no disdain or disappointment.

If anything, there was a touch of respect, maybe even admiration. James gave him a tiny smile, something Len already knew was a rare occurrence.

“Like I said. We’re both survivors.”

Quite frankly, Len had no idea what to do with that. He had expected some shock at least, or simply nothing at all as a best case scenario. Not to be respected for the pockmarks on his skin.

With his eyes still locked on Len’s, James reached out and made contact again, both hands at Len’s waist. He slid them up, cool metal and heated flesh side by side, tracing a path up Len’s chest. He didn’t hesitate over the scars, following them to make abstract patterns, fingers exploring everywhere.

Moaning, Len settled back, letting the man touch him with that deliciously cold, deliciously hard metal hand. He shivered with delight and lost himself in it. His erection had flagged with the tension and nerves, but it came rushing back to full force in moments.

"You really fucking like the cold, don't you." James sounded both repulsed and fascinated by the idea. He ran his hands back down, brushing the back of his knuckles against the head of Len's dick.

Len had closed his eyes again at some point. He yelped and arched his back at the brief contact with the sensitive, swollen head of his cock. To his disappointment, James didn’t follow through, instead heading up over the sharp arches of his hipbones.

"Fucking yes," he groaned, deep and rumbling. Whatever his body issues might be, he wasn’t in the least ashamed of his desires.

"Freak," James muttered, but there was almost a tone of affection in the word.

Then he blew Len’s mind entirely, finally wrapping his chilled fingers around the length of Len’s cock. The first stroke had Len crying out and writhing in his grasp, dick jumping with the overload of sensation.

He could feel every tiny plate, the faint ridges between them rippling over his cock. The metal was cool enough to sting, but not quite enough to numb, leaving Len balanced on a knife edge of too good too much too fucking perfect.

“Thought you said there was more than this?” James flicked his thumb over the slit as he asked the question, and Len gasped.

He was supposed to think, with James doing that? Len drew a breath, tearing his attention away from the delicious cold sensation to try to find an actual answer to James' question.

More, yes, there was definitely more. Len wasn’t entirely sure he could handle more, but he was willing to try. The thought of James stroking him with that metal hand while pounding into him… yeah, Len really didn’t mind giving up the top position, this once.

Groaning, he reached to the side and fumbled in his bedside drawer for supplies. First thing he found was a condom, which he tossed in James’ direction. The assassin snatched it out of the air easily, then frowned down at it for a moment.

Realization dawned, visible in his expression as he looked at the foil packet. Then he glanced up at Len, brow furrowed. “Maybe I’m remembering wrong, but I'm pretty sure you don’t have the right equipment for me to need this.”

“So you do know what to do with it.” Len snorted in soft laughter, extracting the lube as well. “I was starting to wonder. Men do it differently. If you want to fuck me, it’ll be up the ass.”

Again James seemed to turn that over before he figured out what it meant. “Do you want me to do that?”

The question surprised Len. And humbled him, a little. Though James sometimes came across as intimidating and even dominating, he was clearly concerned more about Len’s pleasure than his own.

“Very much so,” Len assured him, husky and soft. “You’re going to have to go slow, and be careful. Lube up your fingers first, stretch me open, don’t just plunge straight in."

Considering the logistics, Len concluded there was only one way he was going to get that little fantasy of his fulfilled. He wanted James’ hand on him during sex more than he disliked the idea of taking what might be viewed as a submissive position, so he scrambled up on his knees and turned away. Crossing his arms beneath the pillows, he dropped his shoulders and head to leave his ass in the air.

Judging by James’ growl, he appreciated the view. Smirking, Len settled himself more comfortably. “Go on, then,” he invited.

Kneeling behind him, James rested both hands on Len’s hips, then dragged them down to squeeze at his ass. Once again he seemed oblivious to the scars, kneading and shaping the flesh. Then he slid his right hand, already slick with lube, between the muscles to probe at the entrance to Len’s body.

Groaning, Len parted his legs farther in invitation. He breathed deeply, concentrating on relaxing for the intrusion, and James worked one finger inside him. Len’s instinct was to pull away, but he pushed back into it instead, his body clenching tight.

For someone who didn’t know what he was doing, the noise James made at Len’s reaction sounded far too smug. "That's more like it. Now you're not trying to hold back."

He worked a second finger in, slow and steady. His metal hand trailed down over Len’s hip, under his body. He ghosted his chilled fingers over the underside of Len’s dick, but didn’t stroke this time. Instead, he went lower still, finding and cupping Len’s balls in his palm.

As he felt the cold and the stimulation increase, Len gasped and swore, squirming helplessly. He couldn't recall the last time he'd bared himself so completely. Maybe later, he'd kick himself for this, but at the moment he was enjoying it far too much to care.

James rocked against Len’s hip, proving he was still hard and ready to go. "Almost too bad I don't have a metal dick, if you like my hand that much. Guess that would be pushing it, though."

"Don't think I'd survive that." Len threw a come-hither look over his shoulder, impatient for more. "Put that metal hand on my cock. Your flesh dick will do just fine inside me."

“Do I gotta put the sleeve on, first?” James tugged lightly at his balls, then rolled them between his hard, cold fingers. "If it matters, I can't catch or carry anything. Ain't like I can knock you up, either."

Len paused. He’d never gone bareback, wary of the consequences, but he’d certainly heard others rave about how much better it was. "Is that bullshit or true?"

"What, that I can’t knock you up?”

For a moment Len thought James was serious, until he caught the hint of a shit-eating grin on the other man’s lips. He huffed, and James chuckled softly before giving a real answer. “Well, I'm sure it's pretty clear I ain't exactly tested it when it comes to shit like this. That's what they told me. Can't get sick."

Before Len could think that through, James twisted his hand, rubbing his fingers against Len’s inside. He hit the prostate with enough force to make Len moan, dick throbbing. Len was so hard his cock was weeping, pre-come trickling down over the skin and dripping to the sheets.

Good sense flew out the window as Len’s eyes threatened to roll up in his head. "J-Just fuck me, then. Do it.” He gave a sharp cry as James released his balls and went back to stroking his cock.

It felt like the metal was colder than ever. Then again, the desire pouring through Len was ramping his internal temperature higher and higher, so maybe that was why. Len shuddered and gave another moan, almost a whine. It was too cold on his overheated skin, and he loved the near-pain of it and the way it made him shiver.

When James pulled his right hand away, it left Len feeling empty and needy, but not for long. James lined himself up and pushed in, doing some groaning of his own. "Fucking Christ, that feels good."

Did it ever. And yet, it felt like James might just be the death of him. The man was big, and it had been a long time since Len had last done this. He was already uncomfortable, with his body bared in a way it hadn’t been in ages, but now there was a level of pain on top of that.

He gritted his teeth, concentrating on breathing evenly and not tensing up. At least the man was going slow. "Fuck... James," he groaned.

"Yeah, that's it." James shuddered against him, hips surging for a moment before he regained control. "Talk to me. God, I fucking love the way you purr. Tell me what you want."

As he sank all the way home, he stroked Len’s cock slowly, firmly, rippling his fingers so Len could feel each one pass over the flesh. Len closed his eyes and exhaled sharply. He was shivering, but not from cold, not completely. They fit together better than he had ever expected, and he’d expected a lot.

"God damn. You think I sound incredible. You barely talk, but when you do..." He drew a breath and gave his deepest, most fervent purr. "I want you to fuck me, James. Fuck me."

"You asked for it." James drew back slowly, making Len hyper aware of the sweet drag of flesh against flesh - but when he slammed back in again there was nothing slow or sweet about it.

Len braced himself, but as James pushed into him, his elbows skidded forward and he nearly face-planted into the pillow. He groaned and pushed back, lips curving in a wild smirk. "Yes, yes, that's it!"

James jerked Len’s cock with rough, quick strokes to match the movements of his hips, pace and strength steadily increasing. "Keep talking."

Now that was a demand Len was willing to fulfill without hesitation. "I've wanted you... since the first moment I saw you. You're the most gorgeous man I've ever had in my crew."

He arched his back, driving himself onto James' cock with abandon, though he felt the place where James held onto his hip starting to bruise. He'd probably have a handprint there tomorrow.

God, he hoped he did. First time in his life he’d wanted a mark on his skin, but it would be a tactile reminder of this pleasure for as long as it lasted.

"Couldn't take my eyes off you that whole week you were casing the bank." James curled over Len, pressing their upper bodies tight. It shifted his angle, and on the next thrust he pushed squarely over Len’s prostate.

Len gasped and panted helplessly as James' hands moved over him and his body was stimulated so powerfully that it was overwhelming. "Is that the real reason you stalked me -- hnnnngh, fuck you feel good -- all that time?"

"Maybe.” James laughed, the sound broken and rough with desire. “Didn’t know it at the time. You realize now you've reminded me about how good this is, you're in deep shit, right?"

The dark threat in the words made Len’s toes curl, and he felt his balls drawing up tight. "Deep shit, am I?" Somehow, he couldn’t bring himself to be worried or regretful. "What will I do?"

"Well, I know what the first thing you're gonna do is," James growled, biting at his shoulder. "Come for me. Fucking scream for me."

Len yelped at the bite, surprised by the feeling of James' teeth sinking into his flesh. It was too much, not enough, just right… all the sensation merged into one massive, overwhelming whole.

It wouldn't have mattered if James wanted to hear him scream or not, because there was no way Len could stop his reaction. He shouted loudly enough to wake the neighbours, arching and spasming in James' grasp as he spattered fluids all over the mattress beneath him.

"Yessss." The word was hardly more than a hiss of air. James released Len’s cock to get a firmer grip on his ass with both hands, thrusts turning short and hard, each stronger than the last until he was truly driving into the other man.

There was nothing Len could do but hold still and try not to let James drive him head first into the headboard. The pounding was brief, but brutal, and when James finally came it was with a cry that was as much shock as ecstasy.

They both collapsed. Len didn’t know about James, but he was boneless with exhaustion and the aftermath of pleasure. It should have bothered him to be pinned down, to have that heavy weight trapping him, but the solid warmth was oddly soothing.

"Fucking hell," he muttered into the pillow. "Getting pounded by a superhero. Who ever thought that was a good idea. I'm not going to be able to sit down for a week."

Something about his comment seemed to upset James, making him go tense and roll to one side. Len turned his head and cracked open an eye, unsure what he’d done wrong, but James settled without going any further.

“I told you. Deep shit." James’ eyes were dark, but he was the very image of sated satisfaction in all other ways. “But I’m nobody’s hero.”

Interesting. Was that what had bothered the man? Not that Len much liked being called a hero, himself. "Supervillain, then. That fits better with me, anyway."

“I ain’t that, either. Not anymore.” In contrast to his words, James relaxed and his expression lightened again. “Still trying to figure out where that leaves me.”

“You’ll get there.” Len’s whole body ached pleasantly. No way was he moving any time soon. If James was the cuddling type he'd have to gather Len up himself. Usually Len refused that sort of after-sex close contact, but this once he thought he might not mind so much.

Then again, the issues the man clearly had with personal space - where ‘personal space’ was defined as ‘within attacking range’ - made that unlikely. Hell, the fact that they were sharing the bed at all was practically cuddling, by both their standards.

James’ eyes were mostly closed as if he was already drifting off. He looked more comfortable and relaxed than Len had ever seen him, and it made him seem years younger. Softer, even.

Though there was still a large difference between ‘soft’ and ‘softer’. A very appealing difference.

"If you're gonna kick me out, better do it in the next ten seconds or I'm not budging," James said, biting back a yawn.

Len grunted faintly at the suggestion of kicking him out. He wasn't inclined to do so, surprising himself yet again. “You can stay. As long as you don’t snore.”

Dredging up energy from somewhere, Len made a great effort and leaned over to grab the extra blanket folded at the foot of the bed. He dragged it over both of them; despite the cool temperature he kept his apartment at, James radiated so much heat the single blanket felt like it would be more than warm enough.

Acting on an impulse he didn’t fully understand, Len reached out as he settled again, ending up with his hand over James’ arm. To his surprise James immediately shifted and turned his hand over so his fingers were curled around Len’s wrist, the touch almost possessive.

If lying in the same bed together was their version of cuddling, what did that make this?

"If I have a nightmare, don't try to wake me up. Just get the fuck out of the room,” James said, his sleepy murmur making the warning sound ridiculous. “I don’t always. I think I might actually feel too good, right now."

If it had been anyone else, Len would have scoffed. Then again, anyone else wouldn’t be a metahuman ex-assassin with paranoia issues. Disturbing him while he was asleep and upset seemed a legitimately bad idea. “I’ll keep it in mind. Now go to sleep and stop worrying."

James sighed, and closed his eyes fully. His next words were all but indistinguishable as he drifted off. "Fucking suicidal lunatic.”

Chuckling to himself, Len closed his eyes as well. For the first time in decades, he voluntarily fell asleep with someone else in reach, naked and vulnerable.

Chapter Text

There was nothing quite like the hush of a museum in the middle of the night. Long after closing time, between rounds of the guards, a blanket of silence fell that was almost reverent. It was a silence that was full of potential.

Especially for cunning thieves.

Len loved that silence, lived in it. Mick longed for roaring fires and raging chaos, but Len was a fan of quiet and order. Not that he didn’t enjoy a little pandemonium, but he prefered it when he was in control of it.

If Len lived in the silence, though, James was born for it. Len had never encountered anyone so impossibly quiet before. It wasn’t as simple as ‘nobody that big should be able move that softly’. Len knew plenty of stealthy people. Hell, he’d been an expert at sneaking around since he was a kid.

No, this was far more than that. It was as if somebody had hit the mute button on the man’s sound settings. Poof, gone, no more noise. Not a breath, not a whisper, not a rustle. Nothing. It was uncanny.

Len couldn’t help but feel a sense of awe as he watched the ex-assassin ghost through the museum. The more he learned about what James was capable of, the more pleased he was to have the man on his crew.

Even Mick seemed to be reluctantly impressed, judging by the somewhat less hateful looks he was throwing at James. Still glaring, of course, but that was almost Mick’s default setting.

They reached the back rooms, where the items not currently on display were kept. There were far more treasures tucked away from public eyes, and sometimes more valuable ones. This was a commissioned job, and the buyer wanted a specific statue that was currently on loan from the Louvre. It was being kept in the back vault, and not many crews would be good enough to get at it.

And if Len helped himself to a few other pieces from the vault after the target was in hand, well, they could call it a bonus.

At a branch in the hallway, he gestured for Mick to stay put and stand guard. His partner nodded and set himself in the junction, heat gun held at the ready and anticipation sparkling in his eyes. The plan tonight didn’t call for Heat Wave’s unique skillset, but Mick lived in eternal hope of getting to burn something. Besides, the money was worth it even without a fire involved.

James stayed at Len’s heels as they took the left path, and finally they reached the vault entrance. It was as impressive as any bank’s safe, and the amount of explosive needed to blow through it by force could potentially damage the treasures inside.

Thankfully, now that Len had an idea of what James could really do, they had a better option. Grinning, Len aimed his gun at the metal door, and turned it on full blast.

Frost spread skeletal fingers over the surface, and the ice that flowed behind it crackled like brittle bones breaking. The metal groaned as it protested the abrupt drop in temperature, but Len kept the pressure on.

Beside him, James finally made a noise, a soft hiss of pneumatic pistons as he pulled back his left arm in preparation for a punch. The look on his face was something Len could only describe as ‘resigned discomfort’ - wary of the ice but ready and willing to do his job despite his distaste.

The moment Len released the trigger, James slammed into the frozen door with all his inhuman strength. Already stressed from the ice, the metal had no hope of holding out. Cracks radiated out from the divot where James’ punch had landed, spreading like a spiderweb and weakening the structure.

Not quite enough to shatter on the first blow. No matter. Len rested his gun against his shoulder and watched with ill-concealed glee as James pulled back for a second strike. This one would go through, no doubt about it.

Except it never landed. Instead of powering forward, James’ arm was jerked straight up over his head, as if an invisible puppetmaster had yanked on equally invisible strings. James snarled and struggled, clawing at the seemingly immobilized arm with his other hand.

Whirling to put his back to a solid wall, Len charged the cold gun and scanned the room, looking for their adversary, but there was no sign of anyone. James’ feet were off the ground, and whatever had hold of him tossed him abruptly to one side like a rag doll.

James slammed into the wall hard enough to shatter the ceramic tiles and dent the concrete beneath. Even he couldn’t shake off a blow like that in an instant, and he slumped to his knees, wheezing for air.

Slow clapping drew his attention to the far side of the hall. Len levelled his gun, but before he could bring it to bear the weapon was ripped right out of his hands. It clattered to the ground with enough impact to make him wince for the fragile components within, though thankfully not as hard as James had been thrown.

The gun went skidding across the marble floor, coming to rest at the ironclad feet of a man who’d appeared in the doorway. He wore a skintight black suit covered in thick metal plates everywhere but the joints, like a sort of modern suit of armour. The metal was sculpted to make it look like the man had muscles to rival James’, though Len’s eye was sharp enough to pick out the perfectly ordinary body shape beneath.

The helmet included a metal mask carved in the same sort of stylized inhuman perfection. The only thing visible of the man in the suit was his watery blue eyes, currently gleaming with smug satisfaction.

“Thanks for opening the door. I’ll be taking my prize now.” The mask muffled and distorted the man’s voice, but he was perfectly understandable.

“The hell you will,” Len growled, incensed. This asshole thought he could waltz in and pluck the fruits of Len’s weeks of labour and planning?

It was clear the man was a metahuman with control over metal. That meant James was probably out of the fight, but thankfully Len didn’t have any metal body parts. And he didn’t need the cold gun to be deadly, something his opponents sometimes forgot.

Pushing himself off the wall, Len charged at the newcomer. “You’ll get in that vault over my cold, dead body. Nobody upstages Captain Cold.”

“As you wish.” The unknown man laughed, and swept a dramatic hand out. Len wasn’t surprised when James was slammed against the wall again.

He was rather surprised to feel himself yanked off his feet as well. His belt buckle, zippers, the rivets and snaps on his parka and clothes, even the steel toes of his boots ripped free, the force of it dumping him unceremoniously on his ass.

Then the metal bits reversed course, and he hastily shielded his face with his arm as the projectiles sliced into him. A dozen cuts bloomed on his body, bloody roses quickly spreading over fabric to mark each one. Nothing fatal, but painful as hell… and a chilling demonstration of what the meta was capable of.

James was back on his feet, though visibly unsteady. He also looked every bit as pissed off at the whole thing as Len was. He snatched a knife from a sheath on his chest and threw it, the tiny blade whistling through the air at impossible speeds.

The meta waved a negligent hand, likely expecting the knife to be knocked off course. Instead the blade continued its flight and buried itself unerringly in the narrow gap between shoulder and chest plates. The man cried out and clutched at the wound, staggering back. James took the opportunity to lunge forward, metal arm tucked behind the bulk of his body, probably hoping it was a line of sight power.

Which it wasn’t, because the meta couldn’t possibly have seen every bit of metal on Len’s body. “James, don’t…” Len tried to warn him, but it was too late.

With a shout of fury, the metahuman thrust out a hand and clenched his fist tight. The sickening crunch of metal echoed through the hall, and Len watched in horror as James’ arm crumpled in on itself.

Worse was the inhuman scream James let loose as he hit the ground, writhing and clutching at his ruined shoulder.

Cold flooded through Len’s veins in a way that held no pleasure whatsoever, a frozen lump forming in his gut. James had hardly made a sound when Len was testing the connections in his robotic limb, despite the pain it had clearly caused him. How much agony would the stoic assassin have to be in to make him scream like that?

Frantic, Len grabbed the pack that held the tools he needed to get through the security systems. Dumping the contents on the floor, he snatched up one object after another and threw them at the meta.

Most had metal content and were quickly deflected, and the ones that didn’t barely made an impact when they hit. It did succeed in distracting the man enough to get his attention off James. The hysterical scream choked off into a moan, but it wasn’t hard to tell James wasn’t going to be back on his feet and fighting any time soon.

Not that there was any point to him trying; the metahuman might rip his arm off entirely if he made another attempt.

Where the fuck was Mick? Surely he’d heard the screaming, if nothing else.

Another sweeping gesture from the meta made the cracked vault door groan. Realizing what was happening, Len rolled up against the wall and huddled around himself, once more protecting his face and neck. The already stressed door gave way under the pressure, chunks exploding out into the hall.

By some miracle nothing hit Len, though when he opened his eyes he found a three inch gouge out of the marble tile next to his face, and a fist-sized piece of metal buried in the wall a few inches above his hip.

Sweating hard, he scrambled up onto his knees and looked around. James was similarly pressed against a wall, bleeding from a wound on his temple but otherwise unharmed.

Other than the wreck of his arm, of course. It looked like he was struggling to get up but couldn’t lift the metal. That hydraulic balancing system he’d mentioned the other day must have fallen victim to the damage.

In other words, they were well and truly fucked. Steeling himself, Len pushed to his feet once more, determined to at least go down fighting.

The streak of yellow and crimson that blasted into the room was an incredibly welcome sight. As much as Len enjoyed bantering with the Flash on previous occasions, he’d never been grateful to the kid like he was in that moment.

The Flash slammed into the metahuman, sending him crashing into the wall and winding him, for a change. Then Barry was standing in front of Len, and there was no mistaking his irritation. “Snart, get the Rogues out of here. You’re no match for Death Metal. We’ll talk later about the robbery.”

"Death Metal?" Despite everything, Snart barked an incredulous laugh. He wasn't about to swoon and thank the Flash for rescuing them, whatever he actually felt about it. Couldn’t let the kid get a swelled head, after all. Or worse, let him think Len owed him something. "Another of Cisco's ridiculous names? That boy needs a hobby."

At least if Cisco had already given the metahuman a name, Team Flash clearly knew exactly what the man was capable of. A chunk of vault door came flying at them, and Len ducked as Barry zipped away and ran for Death Metal again.

More than willing to leave things in the Flash’s hands, Len hastily knotted the ends of his belt together to hold up his zipperless pants and scooped up his cold gun. He cast one longing glance in the direction of the vault, now gaping open with everything in it free for the taking. Flash wouldn’t even be able to stop him, too busy with his opponent.

The thief in Len all but cried, letting such a perfect opportunity go to waste, but his crew was more important. James was still struggling, swearing viciously in English and what sounded like several other languages, on his feet but staggering against the wall with his left arm clutched in his right hand. Remembering what James had said about the weight of the arm being enough to tear it right off his shoulder, Len winced.

Carefully Len slid into place on James’ left side, beneath the arm, so it was draped across his shoulders. The weight of it was enough to make his back ache immediately, and they wouldn’t be able to keep this up for long, but hopefully it would be enough to get them out of the museum. “I’ve got you. C’mon, let’s blow this joint.”

James was trembling against him - from anger and pain, not fear, Len was willing to bet. The ruined electronics inside the arm kept shooting off sparks, some of which singed through the leather sleeve to bite at Len’s neck and face, but the thick parka protected him from most of it.

They finally found Mick, sprawled out on the floor in the intersection where he was supposed to be standing watch, a nasty-looking bump on his head. Death Metal’s doing, no doubt, considering he sported some of the same slices Len did.

And was likewise missing certain key bits of clothing. They’d have to be very careful when picking their gear the next time they went up against this asshole.

Because there damn well would be a reckoning. Len was angrier about what had happened than he’d been in a long time. The heist was ruined, weeks of planning gone to waste. Their buyer was going to be highly displeased, and the Rogues’ reputation would take a bad hit. Worst of all, he’d been forced to retreat with his tail between his legs, rescued by the Flash.

It was fucking humiliating, was what it was. Len had every intention of carving compensation out of Death Metal, preferably in the form of a literal pound of flesh.

Thankfully Mick was stirring, pushing himself up to sit with a groan. “What the fuck happened?” He squinted at Len and James like he was having trouble focusing. “Tell me we at least got the damn statue… what the hell are you two doing?”

“We didn’t get a goddamn thing, and his arm is broken and it’s heavy as hell.” Len kicked at Mick’s ankle as they passed his partner. “Get up and get moving, we can’t afford to sit around cooling our heels. The cops will be here any moment, so stop griping and help, or just stop fucking griping.”

“Heavy? Why is it heavy?” Mick scrambled to his feet, swaying a bit, but followed after them.

James snarled at him. "Keep asking and I'll put some bullets in your joints so that asshole back there can play marionette. Go get the fucking car."

Grumbling, Mick picked up his pace and passed by them, heading for the exit where they’d stashed the getaway vehicle.

There was no doubt in Len’s mind that James had meant the threat quite literally, but surely the man realized the cat was well and truly out of the bag. Honestly, Len hadn’t been all that happy about keeping such an important detail secret from his partner of so many years, but he understood James’ paranoia on the subject.

However, things had just changed drastically. “Unless you want to wait to fix your arm until Mick is done ranting about the failed job and lack of fire, you’re going to have to let him see it. Your choice.”

Unsurprisingly, James’ answer was a frustrated snarl. Len didn’t have the breath to argue about it, not with the weight of the arm trying to force him to his knees, so he let it go for now. If James wanted to hang around in agony for potentially hours, it was his call.

The sirens were sounding in the distance as they reached the getaway van, and they grew rapidly louder as Len helped James inside. “Gun it,” he ordered Mick, even as he slammed the rear door closed.

Turning, he found James had propped himself up in a corner of the back, metal hand braced against the floor. He’d stripped off the glove and was staring at the hand, a furrow of fierce concentration drawing his brows together.

Whatever he was trying to do, it clearly wasn’t working. “Damn it!” James slammed his flesh hand into the side of the van, denting the metal. When he turned to Len, there was a look of desperation in his eyes, and even that was a thin veneer over the threat of outright panic. “Can you fix it?”

“I’ll take a look at it.” Despite his promise, Len was far from optimistic about his chances. He’d been able to figure out enough of the basics to do the maintenance, but from the way the arm was warped beneath the jacket sleeve, it was going to need a lot more than a few adjustments. Len had no way of fabricating new parts for the damn thing, even if he could figure out what parts were needed.

He did, however, have an idea of someone who might be able to handle the job. Glancing down, he stroked his fingers over the side of his cold gun. “If necessary, I can bring in the man who built our guns. I’m sure he’ll be able to figure it out.”

“I thought you said you stole those?” James narrowed his eyes, clearly unhappy at the idea of bringing yet another person in on the secret. Especially someone unknown.

The question made Len grin, despite the seriousness of the situation. “Oh, I did. Don’t worry, we’ll be able to keep it all under wraps.”

The van slowed and made a sharp turn, and a moment later came to a halt. Len flung open the back door and saw the warehouse just a few feet away - Mick had parked close. Which was good, since they still had to lug James inside, and Len’s shoulders already felt bruised and strained.

Somewhat to Len’s surprise, Mick came around the back and was the one to hold out his hand to help James out. The two men still hadn’t worked out their differences, and Len had honestly expected Mick to either ignore James’ injury, or possibly goad him about it.

With obvious reluctance, James allowed Mick to sling the arm over his shoulder and help him inside. Mick grunted at the weight of it, scowling. “Holy fuck, what the hell are you made out of? Lead?”

“Alloys you’ve never heard of,” James replied, apparently giving in on the issue of keeping it secret.

When they got inside he tore his jacket off - literally ripped it off, splitting the seams with contemptuous ease. Len couldn’t deny the spark of heat that coiled in his groin at the demonstration of inhuman strength, remembering how it felt to have all that power focused on him.

Mick grunted as James ripped the tough leather like it was wet tissue. Then he whistled when he got a look at the arm beneath, startled and impressed. “Thought that felt tougher than flesh when you grabbed me the other day.”

"Get him over here," Len ordered, moving to the same chairs where he'd examined James the last time. "Come and sit, and I'll try and see if I can get the hydraulics working again, at least."

He gritted his teeth, setting his gun beside him and pulling out his tools instead. It was entirely likely they would have to get Cisco involved, but he wasn't worried about it because of James' comfort with the idea.

What worried him was the need to throw himself on the mercy of the Flash immediately after being caught in a criminal act.

Mick got him to the table, and once that was supporting his arm, James was able to hitch himself up to sit. It was a good thing the table was sturdy, because he clenched his right hand over the edge until the wood groaned a protest.

Without the jacket in the way, they were all able to get a better look at the damage. Len cursed under his breath, but swearing wasn’t going to fix anything.

Nothing might be fixing anything. The outer shell was dented, but that was easy enough to beat back into shape. It was the crushed mechanics and electronics beneath the dents that were going to be the problem. It looked like the Hulk had grabbed James by the arm and squeezed, hard.

Len didn't hesitate, but dove in to examine the actual damage that went beyond the superficial. Even Mick peered in closely, though he didn't try to touch just yet.

"What a fucking mess," Mick growled after a moment.

“If we have to, the arm can come off, but only if we have to." James might sound resigned, but the potential for panic was still lurking in his eyes.

At all costs, Len needed to keep him calm. As he’d already learned with the ice cube disaster, a panicked metahuman assassin was not conducive to survival for the rest of them. “It can be fixed. It probably doesn’t even need to come off. But we are going to need to bring in an expert.”

He glanced at Mick. “How do you feel about another heist tonight?

Mick's eyebrows rose, and he looked interested. "What do you have in mind?"

Straightening, Len patted James on the human shoulder, trying to reassure him. He reached for his cold gun, resting it on his shoulder, and smirked.

"We need to steal someone from STAR Labs."

Chapter Text

The sound of an unfamiliar voice drew James’ attention long before he spotted the Rogues returning. It was incomprehensible at first, but rose rapidly in volume.

"...going to be in so much trouble, seriously Cold, what are you even thinking..."

Growling, he shifted his grip on the semi-automatic rifle he had cradled in his right arm, making sure it was aimed at the door. Just in case.

He might be unbearably vulnerable right now, but he sure as hell wasn’t helpless. Whoever this tech guy was, better he understood the difference right from the start.

Snart was the first one through the door that led from the rest of the warehouse. He raised an eyebrow and smirked when he saw James with the gun, but said nothing. Behind him, Rory was herding a blindfolded Hispanic man - boy, really - who was still ranting.

"If you think for one second I'm gonna fix your guns, unless you're planning to kidnap mmmfmmmm!"

Rory yanked the blindfold down over the kid’s mouth, turning it into a gag. The supposed tech genius looked like he was barely out of diapers, and the glare he was now directing at Rory and Snart lacked any significant feeling of threat.

"Doesn't he ever shut up?" Rory grumbled, as unimpressed by the glare as he had been by the tirade.

"You know he doesn't." Snart’s smirk was verging on an outright grin. If not for the nerve-rending agony, James might have cracked a smile of his own. Whoever this guy was, Snart and Rory clearly had history with him.

Rory frogmarched the furious kid over to the table James sat on, approaching from the right. Snart stood in front of James, preventing the guy from getting a good look at his mangled left arm. James wasn’t sure whether they’d done it on purpose or not.

He suspected it was intentional, because Snart never seemed to do much of anything without a grand plan of some kind.

"Our guns are fine. You and I both know that we're more than capable of doing all the maintenance we need on them." Snart was doing his satisfied cat thing again, but James was unfortunately in no mood to appreciate the purr. "We need something quite different this time, and I'm sure you're going to be happy to assist us with this particular repair job."

Or else. The last two words might not have been said aloud, but they came through loud and clear.

To the kid’s credit, while there was fear showing in his eyes, it was mostly buried behind anger. He had a pair on him, and a decent spine. Unlike most of the techs who’d ever worked on James.

Of course, the Soldier had a nasty reputation for killing techs who worked on him while he was in an unstable condition, so maybe that was why they’d always been so tentative and fearful.

"Cisco Ramon, meet my friend James.” Snart gestured expansively, like he was introducing royalty or something. “He has the most advanced cybernetic prosthesis I've ever seen. I probably ought to apologize for not letting you bring a fresh pair of pants, because I’m pretty sure you’re going to cream yourself.”

The kid made an outraged noise at that. Rory chuckled, and even James felt a ghost of reluctant amusement.

“I think you might be able to fix it, and it's the Flash's fault that it's broken, so think of this as both a treat and an obligation.” Reaching out, Snart finally tugged Ramon’s gag down to dangle from his neck. “Any questions?"

Ramon opened his mouth to answer, probably to spit out something he thought was scathing, which would make him look like an idiot. James knew the type.

Then Snart moved enough that the kid got a good look at James' arm, and though his mouth stayed open, James was pretty sure Snart was right. If the pants hadn't been so baggy, there'd have been a tent forming.

"Oh, my god, is that Stark tech?" Ramon breathed out, all but rubbing his hands together in glee as he moved forward. He grabbed a multitool from the table and started poking, making James grind his teeth together at the invasion of space. "This is generations beyond anything I've seen before... can you move it? Do you have sensation?"

It took real effort not to shove him away. Preferably with extreme violence. “No. That's the whole fucking problem."

“So you do normally.” Ramon sounded absent, all his focus on the inner workings of James’ arm. "Have you got a villain name yet? You totally need an awesome name. Though, honestly, what's with the star? Are you trying to claim the Winter Soldier rumours for yourself? Because that's really not going to fly."

The shock of hearing his HYDRA designation was rather like the sensation of one of Black Widow’s stun discs slamming into his chest. It felt like his heart was going to pound its way right through his ribs, it was beating so hard. "Don’t ever use that name again. How the hell do you even know it?"

Ramon shrugged. "Conspiracy theory websites. And he's listed in B... in the Flash's 'weird case' database. Though technically, it’s neither a secret conspiracy nor a weird case anymore."

“What exactly are we talking about?” Snart was far too interested for James’ peace of mind. The man was sharp as a well-honed razor, and he already held more information about James’ past than was good for either of them. Giving him more was a very bad idea.

Unfortunately, Ramon truly was in love with the sound of his own voice, and happy to spout off on the subject. “Only the most badass killer the world has ever seen. This guy makes the League of Assassins look like they’re playing in the minors. At least, if you believe even half the stories about him. The Winter Soldier has been credited with killing everyone from JFK to Howard Stark.”

Stop saying that name.” It was unlikely the mere sound of his code name would be enough to trigger a relapse, but James wasn’t willing to take the chance. His gut was churning, a combination of apprehension and the memories being shoved to the fore by Ramon’s words. How the hell did the Fist of HYDRA have fans?

“Why? He’s not Voldemort.” Ramon laughed, Snart smirked, and even Rory grunted, but the reference meant nothing to James. “Oh, and the best part is? Since people have started working on decoding all the HYDRA files Black Widow dumped onto the net, there’s been indications found that the Soldier is legit. So for real, man, you probably don’t want to try to steal his thunder. He might just get pissed off.”

“What makes you so sure this isn’t really him?” Snart’s casual tone made the question seem idle, but James could see the gleam of genuine curiosity in the man’s frosted blue eyes.

“Well for one thing, the Soldier rumours date back over fifty years.” Ramon paused in his work and grinned up at James, as if expecting him to share the joke. “So unless you’re playing the Dread Pirate Roberts angle or you’ve had some seriously impressive work done, sorry dude, you’re not gonna be able to pass as the real thing.”

“Would you fucking get on with it before I rip your throat out?” James at least had the satisfaction of watching Ramon go pale in reaction to his snarl. Finally, the brat was taking him seriously.

Snart moved closer, positioning himself to be able to see what the kid was doing. "All right, I think you’ve had enough fun for one night. Less masturbatory fantasies, more work, Cisco. Can you fix it or not?"

"Mmmm... I need better tools." Ramon returned his attention to the arm, and seemed to be giving it his full focus at last. "I can get the hydraulics working here, but those circuits, I've never seen anything like them. It's actually wired into your nervous system, isn't it? I mean, this is like I'm reaching into you and messing with your muscles. Does it feel like that?"

"There's no nerves inside." James snorted, rolling his eyes. "Why would they bother? The sensors are all on the surface of the hand." Which didn't mean the prodding wasn't utter agony, since every spark and twitch made the feedback slam into his nerves.

"Is this Stark’s work?" Ramon asked again, poking at something that forced James to bite down hard on a gasp. "I heard he's got a suit he can control from a distance through neural impulses, but I don't think even he could actually get sensation back through the link..."

"It's HYDRA tech," James cut him off, because he really didn't want to have to listen to the kid extolling Stark's virtues forever. There were too many bad memories down that path.

Ramon froze, then looked up at him very slowly. If he’d been pale before, now he was absolutely bloodless. “Wait. So you’re a HYDRA member who has a metal arm with a red star on it?” His eyes flicked over James like he was truly seeing anything beyond the arm for the first time, taking in the various killing implements strapped to him, then jerking back up to meet his gaze.

“Oh, my god.” Ramon looked like he was torn between throwing his arms up in victory or puking all over the floor. “Oh my god. You’re… you’re actually him, aren’t you? For real, you’re the fucking Winter Sol…”

Pushed beyond his limits, James snapped his right hand out, wrapping the fingers around the boy's throat. He squeezed, feeling the soft flesh give way. He wasn't gripping tight enough to kill, or even to cause potentially fatal bruising later. But it certainly wouldn't be comfortable.

Leaning in close as Ramon choked and gasped, James growled directly into his face. “I said stop. Using. That. Name.”

"Now, now. If you kill him, he can't fix you." Snart still sounded amused, though there was a note of tension in his voice that hadn’t been there before. He ghosted a touch over the back of James’ hand, then twined their fingers together as if he thought he could pry James loose.

Instead, he rubbed his fingertips along James’ fingers, back and forth over the knuckles. The repetitive motion was oddly soothing, much like when he’d stroked his hand over James’ shoulder. Not sexual at all, but comforting.

James didn’t much want to be soothed, or comforted. He wanted to be pissed the fuck off, at both of them. Snart had been prodding Ramon with his calculated questions, encouraging him to ramble.

Yellow and crimson blasted into the warehouse, a blur of motion too fast even for James to follow. Rory went flying into the far wall, gun vanishing from his hands, and at what seemed to be the same moment Snart was sent crashing against the table away from Ramon, his gun disappearing as well.

The blur resolved itself into the Flash, now holding both weapons. His stance was aggressive, body leaning forward and poised to run again, and the mask did nothing to hide his fury. “Let Cisco go. Now.”

Since he had no desire to get into a battle with the Flash - especially while he was literally unarmed, despite the weapons within reach - James released the kid. Wheezing and clutching at his abused throat, Ramon stumbled back until the Flash was between him and the Rogues.

"Snart! What the hell is going on with you today? Did you think we wouldn't be able to find you this time?" The Flash sounded no less pissed off than James had been at the continued use of his code name. “First the robbery, and now you kidnap Cisco again?”

“Medical emergency,” Snart replied. Despite the indignity of having to pick himself up off the floor, he sounded as unruffled and amused as always. “I wasn’t kidnapping him, just borrowing him.”

“That might be slightly more believable if you’d taken Caitlin instead of Cisco.” Flash was definitely unimpressed by Snart’s response. “You’ve gone way too far this time, Cold.”

"Wait," Ramon croaked, tugging at Flash's arm. He coughed, gasped for air, and tried again in a more coherent tone. "Wait, hang on, it's not what you think. I mean, it is what you think, they totally kidnapped me. Which, dude, not cool, by the way. Next time try like, calling me and asking. But it actually was kind of an emergency, and they really did need me."

Rory stalked back toward them, brandishing the welding torch he’d grabbed off the tool bench. Snart flung out a hand to indicate he should stop. For a moment James thought the pyro was going to ignore the command, but he drew to a halt at the other side of the table.

He didn’t drop the torch, though.

Butter wouldn’t have melted in Snart’s mouth as he smiled, an expression of pure, friendly innocence. "There, you see? My friend was in dire need of Mr. Ramon's particular expertise. No harm done, hmm?” The innocence slipped a bit when he smirked at Cisco. “Call you? What’s the fun in that?”

Finally the Flash sighed and stepped back, dropping his aggressive stance. Though he was no longer an inch from attacking, the hero remained distinctly unhappy with them. "It's the kind of fun where I don't bring the entire police department down on your head, Snart. We had a deal."

That was news to James. The punk in the park had accused Snart of being in bed with the Flash, and Snart had confirmed that he'd worked with the hero on occasion, but this was the first he’d heard that there was an actual deal involved.

It did explain a few things, though. Like the ‘Rogues Rules’, such as the one against killing anyone. Interesting.

"Yeah, we have a deal.” Snart made a rather theatrical gesture in Ramon’s direction. “I didn't hurt anyone, let alone your precious engineer. Now if you don’t mind, he was in the middle of something, and you’re interrupting.”

“In the middle of being choked to death?” Flash shook his head.

“That was a misunderstanding. Won’t happen again. Right, James?” Snart tipped his head in James’ direction.

“I warned him. Twice.” James gave Ramon a flat stare, and the kid shuddered.

“And Cisco’s learned his lesson, hasn’t he?” Snart grinned at Flash and Ramon both, an expression that held too many sharp edges to be purely amusement. “I suggest you pick a better name for him.”

“You were trying to kill him because you didn’t like the nickname he gave you?” Flash was far less intimidated by James’ glare than Ramon was.

“I don’t ‘try’ to kill people. If I wanted him dead, he wouldn’t be breathing.” It wasn’t a boast, or even a threat, just a simple statement of fact.

Ramon, at least, appeared convinced. “Yep. New name, no problem. Uh, how about Strongarm? Sergeant Strongarm, maybe, since Cold’s already a Captain?”

James snorted, reluctantly amused the punk had managed to hit on his actual rank. He flicked a glance at Snart. “I still ain’t calling you ‘Cap’.”

Snart laughed. “Not really my style, anyway. So, Flash, how about you hand over our weapons and let Cisco get back to work?”

“Honestly, there’s not much more I can do here.” Ramon edged forward, glancing back and forth from Snart to James like he wanted to return to what he’d been doing, but was nervous to get near James again. “I need to fabricate some parts, and that means I need the equipment at STAR Labs.”

The mention of a laboratory made James’ chest go tight, panic and horror warring for dominance. Gritting his teeth, he refused to allow either emotion to make it to the surface. “No labs. Bring your equipment here.”

“Uh, we’re talking like an entire room full of heavy machinery and delicate equipment.” Ramon shook his head. “It’s not exactly designed for making house calls.”

“Then go make what you need and bring it back here.” James wasn’t willing to budge on this.

Unfortunately, Ramon wasn’t, either. “I can’t stick a measuring tape inside your arm and get the info I need to manufacture this stuff. I need you there so the computers can scan you, and calibrate the electronics. Hell, we’re probably gonna need Caitlin in on this, there’s as much biology involved in this as engineering.”

The idea of being shoved into a machine to be poked and prodded and scanned was one step short of a nightmare for James. Letting yet another unknown, untrusted person poke and prod at him was even worse.

Problem was, his only other option was to remove the arm entirely, and try to do without. Stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place, James swallowed, struggling with himself.

“Easy, James.” Snart had stepped in close again at some point while James was lost in the internal battle. His voice was low and soft, not quite a purr but definitely reminiscent of the way he’d spoken at certain points during their night together. “I’ll be right there with you.”

He rested his hand on James’ flesh shoulder, fingers stroking along the tense muscles there. The touch helped anchor James, reminded him that he wasn't alone in this fucking mess. He had someone at his back he could count on. He leaned to the side, ever so slightly, increasing the contact between them.

"Jesus fuck, you two, get a goddamn room," Mick grunted, crossing his arms and scowling. "This asshole’s making you go soft, Snart."

“Oh, I don’t know about that.” Now the purr made an appearance, with an undertone of wicked amusement to it. “Sometimes I go pretty hard.”

"Uhhh... wait are you guys actually..." Ramon gulped and trailed off when James narrowed his eyes. "Nope, never mind, none of my business!" Under his breath, probably not intended for anyone else to hear, he muttered, "Wow, that explains a lot."

“Oh, really? And just what does it explain, Ramon?” Any attempt Snart was making at sounding annoyed was diluted by the way he dug his fingers in more, stroking his hand all the way down alongside James’ spine.

The touch was electric, driving nightmare thoughts of the HYDRA labs out of James’ head and replacing them with heated memories of the last time they’d had this sort of contact. It grew easier to breathe as the tension seeped out of him.

"How a guy who likes cold so much could be so incredibly flaming." Ramon side-eyed both Snart and James like he was expecting a blow for the comment.

His nervousness tweaked a different memory inside James, but he couldn’t quite make it surface properly. Something about why the remark might be seen as an insult… it was linked to the odd discomfort he’d felt when first contemplating the idea of being with Snart.

James was starting to get the idea that it maybe wasn’t considered good for two men to sleep together, but he couldn’t figure out why. Or, for that matter, why the issue of who he had sex with was anyone else’s business.

If it bothered Snart at all, the other man showed no sign of it. He only laughed, and didn’t stop rubbing James’ back. “You’re one to talk. You’re awfully pretty for a straight boy.” He slanted a heated look at the Flash. “Both of you. All that leather certainly does suit you, Flash. Come to think of it, I bet Cisco designed it for you, didn’t he? Must have taken some pretty intimate measurements. That thing is skin tight.”

Both Cisco and the Flash turned red and started sputtering.

The banter aggravated James, for no good reason he could determine. Snart teased everyone, so why the hell did he care when it had never bothered him before? Aggravation was really not what he needed right now.

At least contemplating the puzzle helped ease the last of his panic. “Fine, I’ll go to the lab.” He turned his attention to the Flash, scowling. “But Snart keeps the cold gun while we’re there. Give Rory his weapon back, too.”

“Don’t look at me,” Rory snorted, crossing his arms. "You wanna go waltz into a prison cell in STAR Labs of your own free will, go right ahead. I ain't goin' anywhere near that place. You are giving me back the fucking gun, though."

"Hey, you guys kidnapped me, how exactly would I have managed to set up a trap in the lab first?" Ramon demanded, as Flash reluctantly handed the two Rogues back their weapons.

Snart chuckled. "I can handle an excursion to STAR Labs. But if I get captured, Mick, you'll bust me out, won't you?"

"Not a chance, partner." Rory made a rude gesture as he headed for the door, heat gun slung over his shoulder. "I ain’t risking jail time for this bozo. See you in ten to twenty years."

“You’ll miss me long before then,” Snart taunted him, holstering his gun. “I give it five, max, before you run a jail break just to end the boredom.” If the desertion of his partner bothered him, it didn’t show.

"Okay, I can get the hydraulics working at least well enough for him to carry it... I think." Ramon didn’t sound very sure about his declaration. He licked his lips as he gestured at the open panel on James’ arm. “I’m gonna need to get in there again and make a few connections.”

"Do your thing.” At this point, James just wanted it all over with. “Warn me if it's going to be really bad so I don't hit you reflexively."

"Yeah. Absolutely." Ramon wiped sweat from his forehead. "No problem. Uh, so what if it’s gonna hurt like hell? Because it is."

“Then I suggest you work fast.” Snart sounded amused rather than concerned. He was still stroking his hand slowly up and down along James’ spine, agile fingers dancing over the planes of muscle. Despite his tension, it was all James could do not to sway into the touch.

As Ramon warily scooted closer and started work on the arm again, Flash followed. From this range, James could see the hero was about the same age as the tech genius. Neither of them was that much younger than James, if he didn’t count the time spent asleep in the ice, but he sure as hell felt about a hundred years older.

Flash gave him a warning glare. “If you grab him again, or hurt him in any way, this is not going to end well for you. I don’t know who you are, but if you’re mixed up with Captain Cold, I’ll be keeping a close eye on you.”

The smile James gave him was all sharp teeth. "You'd never see me coming. But I don't kill heroes. Better make sure you stay one."

Snart clapped the Flash on the back with his free hand, smirking. “He isn't the one you need to worry about, Scarlet. Unlike me, he's actually got morals. And James, Flash is as good as they come."

"People get jaded. Heroes can fall.” James glanced from Snart to Flash, jaw set. “Don't."

“You hang out with a thief and killer, and you’re worried about me going bad?” Flash scowled. Between the mask obscuring half the expression, and his fresh-faced youth, the frown was almost cute on him.

With a soft huff, James shook his head. "People rely on heroes. Like you said, Snart’s already known for being an asshole. Nobody’s counting on him not to be one."

Ramon snickered under his breath. “Guy’s got a point.”

Snart shrugged and smirked, a kind of unrepentant ‘what do you expect’ expression.

Stepping back at last, Ramon stretched his arms over his head, several vertebrae popping audibly back into place. “Okay. Give it a try.”

Grimacing, James attempted to lift his arm. It made some unhappy grinding noises, but it obeyed his command. He could feel the strain of the supporting plate on his shoulder, threatening to rip free of the skin and leave yet more scars behind, and almost none of the sensory feedback was functioning.

None of that mattered. It moved, and it balanced. For now, that was enough of an improvement to satisfy James.

"You sure you can fix the rest?" he asked, considerably less aggressive and angry than he had been a moment before. Having even this much functionality restored put him in a better frame of mind.

All that petting from Snart hadn’t hurt, either. Though the urge to growl again was definitely present when the other man stopped the soothing gesture and stepped away.

Why the hell did the man have such an effect on him? Their night together had done nothing to get James’ mind off him. If anything, it had turned fascination into obsession. James didn’t understand why they couldn’t repeat the incredible experience. It certainly seemed like Snart wanted him, too - this wasn’t the first time he’d lingered over touching James, though it was the most blatant example.

Oblivious to James’ wildly swinging mood, Ramon nodded and laced his fingers together to crack his knuckles. “Might take an hour or two, to synthesize all the parts and calibrate the circuits, but yeah, I can get it working.”

“Then let’s go, boys.” Snart made a shooing motion at the hero and his friend. “The sooner we get to STAR Labs, the sooner we can all go home for the night.”

“I guess an old man like you needs your sleep, huh?” Ramon started out grinning at Snart, then turned and blinked at James. “Though damn, if you really are the W… uh, the person I think you are… wouldn’t you be older than all of us?”

Older than all of them put together, probably, but he wasn’t about to confirm that. At least the brat hadn’t used the goddamn code name again, though now the Flash was peering at him curiously.

Only a handful of people in the world even knew who the Winter Soldier was. Why did these specific people have to be among that number? And now he could add Snart to the list, too.

Given Snart’s dedication to research and planning, James had a bad feeling the man wasn’t going to be satisfied with Ramon’s half-assed explanations.

“We’ll meet you there,” Flash declared, and stepped in to get a good grip on his buddy. The next instant they were gone, the wind caused by their passing strong enough to blow every paper in the room into the air. Good thing they were already done with those plans.

Now if only James could already be done with the rest of this mess.

Chapter Text

The trip to STAR Labs was both too long and not nearly long enough for James. He wanted this over with, and wanted his arm to be fully functional more than anything else, but he also desperately wanted not to have to set foot in a lab again.

His body ached with the memory of agony, and the echo of his own tortured screams rang in his ears. Every time he blinked he could see Zola leering at him, somehow smug and clinical at the same time. The strain of the dead weight on his shoulder had aggravated the scarring, so that whole section of his body felt like it was on fire, but he knew far worse was yet to come.

Usually he treasured the return of memories, whether they be good, bad, or ugly. These ones he could have lived without… but they’d still go into his journal. Every piece of himself was precious, even the terrible ones.

He probably wouldn’t spend any time reading over them, trying to jog new connected memories, though.

Snart said nothing while they were driving, perhaps sensing it wouldn’t be wise to potentially aggravate James further. After he turned the car off, however, he reached out and patted James’ knee. “They’re trustworthy, I promise.”

Turning his head, James stared at him. “Since when do you trust anyone?”

That drew a soft laugh from the other man. “I don’t. But if I did, it would be these people. C’mon, let’s get that gorgeous work of art fully restored.”

Bemused by the thought of his arm as a work of art, James didn’t protest further as he climbed out of the car and followed Snart into the building.

As James expected, the place set him on edge immediately. Everything was shades of grey, and there were beeping computers and looming machines everywhere. The air was cool, and carried a sharp scent that seemed to be universal to laboratories, one he associated with pain and terror. He had to clench his teeth against a scream of fury and horror, making his jaw ache with the effort.

Ramon and Flash were already setting up equipment in a side room - or rather, Flash was zipping around moving machines at Ramon’s direction. A woman in a lab coat stood nearby, datapad in hand, her expression severe.

She reminded James far too much of every HYDRA tech who’d ever worked on him. At least Ramon, with his baggy jeans and colourful t-shirt, looked nothing like anyone James had ever dealt with before.

Spotting them, Ramon waved them over. “Hey, you’re here! ‘Bout time. I was starting to think you’d changed your mind after all.”

“Are we certain that allowing them in here is a good idea?” the woman asked, her frown deepening. “After what happened with the metahuman transport…”

“Yeah, but they need us this time,” Flash told her. “It’ll be okay, Caitlin.”

“Dr. Snow, are you giving me the cold shoulder?” Len leaned against the wall, propping himself up like he thought the building would collapse if he didn’t provide support. He was grinning, goggles down around his neck and cold gun stowed securely in its holster, unconcerned about any possible threat.

James tried to take his cue from Snart, but it was going to require more than some not-so-friendly banter to calm him down.

“Considering you just kidnapped Cisco again, you’ll excuse me for being concerned I might be next in line for a second visit.” The woman’s tone was as frosty as her name.

Come to think of it, Snart probably enjoyed poking at her for nothing more than the potential for cold puns her name provided.

“I won’t deny Mick would enjoy talking to you again.” Snart was having far too much fun, his purring drawl kicked up to eleven. “But it’s not on my agenda at the moment.”

Impatient, James stalked toward Ramon. “Can we just get on with it? I don’t want to spend one more minute in this place than I have to.”

“Okay, calm down, dude. Put your arm on the table here, we need to scan the systems first.” Ramon gestured him over to one of the machines. Reluctantly, James did as he was told.

The contraption snapped closed over his arm. Alarmed, James jerked away, and was surprised when his arm came free with fairly minor resistance. He’d expected it to be caught securely, like the clamps they’d used to hold him while they wiped his mind.

“Hey,” Ramon protested. “Don’t move, you’ll screw up the results.” He flipped a switch, and the machine opened up again. This time James was less hesitant about putting his arm in place, and he managed not to flinch when it closed around him once more.

Then Snow stepped forward, setting her datapad down and picking up a handful of paper-thin plastic discs, each with a little microchip in the middle. Sensors, the kind meant for monitoring body functions. James recognized those all too well.

“What the fuck do you think you’re doing with those?” he growled at her.

She froze, shoulders coming up in a defensive posture. His tone must have frightened her, but her voice was firm when she replied. “I need to get some baseline biometric measurements, so I can monitor how the restoration process is affecting you. If what Cisco told me about your arm is true, reconnecting the nerves is going to be very difficult and painful, and could stress the rest of your system into overload or shut it down entirely.”

“I can handle it.” Though it was very strange to hear a tech be concerned about how much pain they might be subjecting him to. The only thing HYDRA had ever cared about was finding ways to better improve the efficiency of their processes with him. That always seemed to involve more pain, not less.

“Whether you can handle it or not, I’m still going to be monitoring you. There’s no other way to be certain the neural interface is functioning properly. We’ve never seen anything like what Cisco says you have, so we’re operating mainly on guesswork. I need every scrap of data I can get.”

“That, and the idea of a full sensory artificial nerve connection is pretty much the next thing to porn for you,” Ramon teased her. Snow looked offended, but behind her Snart was smirking, and the Flash stifled a noise that might have been the start of a laugh.

The humour was lost on James. Nothing about this was funny to him. Certainly not the thought of someone making up reasons to poke at him for nothing more than the sake of their scientific curiosity. That was exactly the way Zola had always treated him.

Like a science experiment. A fascinating subject to be studied. Not a human being at all.

Snow held her hand out, palm up, like displaying the devices would somehow reassure him. “They’re not going to hurt you. You won’t even notice they’re present.”

It wasn’t the prospect of further pain that upset James. On the other hand, she might very well be telling the truth that she needed the information. HYDRA had certainly always had him wired up any time they needed to work on the portion of his arm that connected with the rest of his body, rather than the mechanical structure of it.

Relenting, he jerked his head in a motion that might be considered a nod. Snow closed the distance between them and began fastening the sensors across his chest and back. After so many years of similar treatment, James could predict every spot she placed them in down to a hair’s breadth. At least that probably meant she knew what she was doing.

When she reached his ravaged shoulder she hesitated, hand hovering over the worst of the scarring on his front. “Inch to your left,” James told her, resigned to the inevitable. At least these ones didn’t have wires trailing all over the place to get tangled in. “Apparently that’s the only spot where the damage is thin enough to still allow a reading.”

“You’ve done this before?” He’d surprised her, and she looked up at him with wide eyes. James gave her his best flat, dead-eyed stare in return, and she shivered. He was impressed that her hand was steady as she attached the last sensor.

“Scan’s done. The machine is fabricating the first parts now,” Ramon announced, oblivious to the byplay. The device opened up and released James from its clutches, and Ramon gestured for him to sit in a different spot near a rack of tools. “Y’know, I bet I could even improve on a thing or two, if you were willing to let me experiment a little.”

At ‘experiment’ James shuddered, unable to stop the visceral reaction. Both the Flash and Snart noticed, the former frowning in confusion and the latter tapping his fingers on the wall behind him with a thoughtful expression. Snow’s wide-eyed look of surprise and fear turned to something that might have been pity.

With an effort, James forced himself to answer calmly and not rip anyone’s head off. Figuratively or literally. “Get it functioning first. We can talk about upgrades later, after you’ve proved you’re trustworthy.”

“Proved we’re trustworthy?” Flash exclaimed, incredulous. “You’re the one who was robbing a museum, and then kidnapped Cisco.”

“Seriously, Cold, next time use a phone,” Ramon muttered. Most of his attention was on his work as he started soldering new components into place in the arm. The burning scent was another jolt to James’ memories that he didn’t really want.

“You saying you’d actually have come running if I’d asked nicely?” Snart’s smirk suggested he didn’t believe that in the least.

“Well…” Was Ramon blushing? “Maybe if Lisa asked nicely.”

That earned him an outright laugh from Snart. “I’ll keep it in mind. I still think ‘kidnapping’ is an overly strong word. I didn’t hurt you, and barely threatened you. Speaking of tonight’s events, is that freak Death Metal cooling his heels in your very illegal private prison, or did he get away?"

"Your definition of 'barely threatened' is very different from mine," Ramon said, pausing to rub the dark collar of bruises forming around his neck.

"He said he barely even threatened you," James retorted. "He didn't say anything about me, and that had nothing to do with getting you to me in the first place. You have only your own stupidity to blame for that."

"But this guy’s the one I don't have to worry about, huh?" Flash gave first James, then Snart, a very dry look. "Death Metal got away, but it looked like he was hurt. He was favouring one arm, and there was blood on the floor. Was that one of you? How’d you hit him?”

More than willing to think about something other than the machines beeping and whirring around him, James jumped on the change in topic. “Non-metallic throwing knife. Designed to get through security detectors, so I figured there was a chance it wouldn’t be affected by his powers.

“You threw a plastic knife at him?” Ramon sounded like he wasn’t sure if he should be mocking or awed.

The way he said it made the weapon sound like some kind of toy. James snorted. “High grade polycarbon plasteel. SHIELD and Stark Industries developed it together. But yeah, sure, call it plastic if you want.”

“Doesn’t matter what it was. The point is, it worked.” Flash was grudging with the praise, but sincere. “He's going to be licking his wounds for a while. In the meantime, Cisco has been working on a completely metal-free suit for me, but it means no communication."

"Do his powers work on all metals?" James demanded. "Metal-jacketed bullets don't work, but what about pure lead ones? Or, I don’t know, silver ones?"

"Silver? He’s not a werewolf.” Ramon paused, tapping a tool against the edge of the table, and looked thoughtful. “Although you know, a wooden stake to the heart is a totally viable option.”

“We’re not killing anyone,” the Flash insisted, and turned a stern gaze on James.

“Did I say I was planning to?” James gave him a dirty look in return. “I’m exploring options. I don’t kill anymore.” Unless he had to. And some people, quite frankly, needed to die. Usually they were the same people who deserved to die, as well.

As pissed off as he was about tonight’s enormous clusterfuck, James was just about willing to count Death Metal on that list.

“As far as we’ve been able to determine, he can affect all metals,” Snow confirmed, fussing with the readout on her data pad. “We haven’t specifically tested lead, but once I run the blood sample we got tonight, I’ll have a better idea of exactly what his abilities are.”

“What about plastic tranq darts, or ceramic frangible bullets?” James was throwing straws, but sooner or later he had to hit a target. He always hit his targets.

“Dude, he’ll rip your gun apart.” Ramon said the words in an exaggerated fashion, like James was being particularly slow on the uptake.

Unimpressed, James did the same right back to him. “You think HYDRA only made knives out of this stuff? Given enough time, I could probably get my hands on a non-metal gun, but it would take a while. In the meantime, he’s got to have a range limit, and I doubt it’s farther than a regular sniper rifle can shoot. So if you can lead him to a predetermined spot, I can put him down.”

"You're a HYDRA sniper with a metal arm with a star on it," Flash repeated in a tone of disbelief, staring at him pretty much the same way Ramon had when he’d said nearly the same words. Growling, James glared at him, daring him to follow the thought to its logical conclusion.

Ramon shook his head at the hero frantically, then hissed as he burned himself with the soldering iron. "Don't go there, man. Just don't. Not worth it, trust me."

Ignoring the discussion, Snow continued tapping away at her datapad, brows drawn together in a baffled expression. “You know, I’m not sure these sensors are functioning correctly. Maybe I grabbed the ones calibrated for Ba… for Flash’s system. These readings make no sense.”

Of course they didn’t, because she thought she was monitoring an ordinary human. At least in this city full of bizarre metahumans, there was no reason for them to connect his enhancements to the supersoldier serum. “They’re working. Probably. I’m not normal.”

That’s for damn sure,” Ramon snorted. “A normal human walking around with this arm would be dragging it along the ground like a lopsided gorilla. The hydraulics help balance it and take the strain off what’s left of your shoulder, but it’s still heavy.”

“Your metabolism is inhumanly fast,” Snow told him, as if she thought it would be new information to him. “Much less than Flash’s, but enough that you must heal with abnormal rapidity. Your muscle density is off the charts; that would provide incredible resiliency against damage, plus increase your strength and speed...”

“Does it matter?” James cut her off, right fist clenching. “I’m here for you to fix my arm. The rest of me is working just fine.”

“Better than fine.” She shook her head, impressed. “I bet you could almost give Captain America a run for his money.”

There was no ‘almost’ about it. James had nearly killed Rogers - though to be fair, the other man hadn’t been fighting back properly, not wanting to hurt his long-lost best friend. The first time they’d squared off had been a straight up battle, though, and James had held his own.

Not that he was proud of the fact. Thinking about it made him feel sick, especially the memory of how battered and broken Rogers had looked, lying there on the river bank coughing half the Potomac out of his lungs.

“I’m nothing like him.” That much he could say with absolute certainty.

After that it was just a matter of time and pain, as Ramon got the sensors working one by one. Once he had them hooked up, Snow ran them through what she called a ‘recalibration sequence’, and the technical babble was flying thick and fast between the two scientists. Each reactivation sent lances of electric fire spearing through James’ shoulder, shooting down his spine and slicing up into his brain.

Agony was nothing new to James. HYDRA had spent years breaking him down, physically and mentally, and pain was always involved. It had been so intense and so constant that it had become normal, until simply not being in pain felt like ecstasy.

It was one of the reasons the Soldier had been so willing and eager to go out on his missions. When he was working, nobody was hurting him.

And when it came right down to it, no physical pain could ever compare to the torture inflicted directly on his mind by the machine they used to wipe him clean, turn him into a blank slate for them to write their instructions on.

Even so, by the end he was breathing hard and sweating, clutching at the arm of his chair hard enough that he’d warped the metal out of shape. Snow had been making increasingly concerned noises for the past half hour, but he’d refused to stop. The last thing he wanted was to drag this out, or worse, to have to come back.

"Okay, everything's pretty much cleaned up," Ramon finally declared. He leaned back in his chair, stretching his arms up and twisting his neck, nearly as drenched in sweat as James.

Even the Flash was watching with what appeared to be genuine concern. “You gonna be okay, James?”

"I’m fine," James ground out from between clenched teeth. It took a long minute for the last waves of pain to stop cascading through his nervous system, but at last he was able to pry his flesh hand loose and raise the metal one, testing the functionality.

The parts moved smoothly, and when he pulled a small knife and flipped it through his fingers, the dexterity and speed were excellent. He could feel the solid metal of the blade, but the real test was feeling the texture of the material when he rubbed his fingertips against his pants.

Everything was working. Better than it had been before the damage, to be honest. "Thanks." The gratitude was aimed at Ramon and Snow both, and it was only half grudging. He was almost willing to actually think about letting them try those upgrades… though it would be a while before he’d voluntarily set foot in this place again.

“You can thank us by not snatching or hurting any of us again,” Snow replied, peeling the plastic discs off him.

Pushing away from the wall he’d been leaning against, Snart rubbed his hands together. "Which concludes our business here tonight. Thank you, lady and gentlemen. Your help is much appreciated."

He swept his parka off and offered it to James. Surprised, James took it hesitantly, not quite believing he was actually meant to put it on. It was true that he had nothing else to wear to cover his arm on the way out; he hadn’t exactly stopped off at his current bolt hole to grab a hoodie.

But Snart treated that parka and his goggles with damn near as much reverence as the cold gun. Anyone else who touched them had better be prepared to get their hand frozen off.

Pulling it on, James was surprised by how warm it was. Not just from the insulation of the jacket, but from the lingering heat of Snart’s body. The man’s scent was all but ingrained in the fabric, wintergreen and cinnamon, and the effect was like having Snart himself wrapped around him.

Which wasn’t something he was supposed to be thinking about, damn it. Even so, James couldn’t resist tugging the jacket a little tighter around him, basking in the illicit sensation.

"Not so fast, Snart." Flash zipped across the room to block the door, arms folded across his chest.

"Gonna scold us for the robbery after all?" James scoffed. He fell in behind and to one side of Snart, out of the other man's line of fire and perfectly positioned to be his backup. His flesh hand rested on the butt of his pistol, ready to draw in an instant if they had to fight their way out.

He really hoped they didn’t have to fight their way out. Despite everything, Ramon and Snow had been decent to him. They hadn’t hurt him, hadn’t pushed him - at least, not once he’d driven his point home to Ramon - and had genuinely seemed to want to help him.

"Believe me, I'm tempted," Flash said. "Especially after you broke our bargain like that - yes you did, Cold, you kidnapped Cisco. But if you can help us get Death Metal under control, I'll call it even."

"Help you?" Snart’s lip curled upward, more snarl than smirk. "You saw what he did to James' arm. Even worse, he thought he could come in and scoop my score, which I've worked for months planning. That was my robbery he fucked up. I don’t care whether you go after him or not. He will be hearing from the Rogues."

“None of which has anything to do with my actual point.” Flash drew himself up to his full height, his eyes squarely on James’. “If you really are the Winter Soldier… what are you doing in Central City?”

Fuck. This was exactly what James didn’t need to be dealing with. It was clear the kid wasn’t going to let it go, and James supposed he couldn’t blame the guy for that. He was the hero of Central City, after all. And that meant protecting it from exactly the kind of threat James represented.

“Hiding,” he bit out, scowling. “HYDRA will do anything to get their hands on me, and the Avengers will do anything to prevent that from happening. I will do anything to avoid being stuffed in a fucking cage ever again. So if you don’t want Central to end up like New York or D.C., I suggest you make sure rumours about me being here don’t get started.”

“And if I asked you to leave the city?”

Snart stirred at that, taking an aggressive step toward Flash with his hand on his gun. “Hey, now. Who are you to decide who gets to live here and who doesn’t?”

“You can’t hide forever, and you’re right, I don’t want Central to wind up like the other places the Avengers have fought in.” Flash didn’t even glance at Snart, directing his words straight to James. “So?”

Blowing out a hard breath, James lowered his head. “Then I’d go.” At the incredulous and disbelieving sounds that came from everyone else in the room, he huffed and looked up again. “I’m not here to fight. I’m here to avoid fighting. It’s your city, not mine. I wouldn’t blame you.”

He hesitated, glancing at Snart. The tightness in his chest that was something he couldn’t put a name to. Different from the near-panic he’d felt at being brought into a laboratory. Different from the rage brought on by Death Metal’s casual victory over him.

Desperation, maybe. Or longing. “I don’t want to go,” he murmured, to himself more than any of them.

Flash studied him for a moment more, expression unreadable behind the mask. Then, to James’ shock, he nodded and stepped aside, even smiled a little. “All right, then.”

“All right?” Snart sounded bemused, which was pretty much how James felt. “He doesn’t want to go, so it’s all right then?”

“He doesn’t want to hurt anyone, so it’s all right,” the Flash replied. “Besides, at least if you’re here, I can keep an eye on you. We’ll do our best to keep a lid on the rumours as long as possible. So, welcome to Central City, I guess.”

Welcome, indeed. Like so many other normal things in life, James literally couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt welcome somewhere. Honestly, he’d never expected to feel it at all.

First Snart had been more than pleased to welcome James into his Rogues. Now Flash was welcoming him to the city. Knowing who he was and what he’d done, even if the particular details were fuzzy.

Was it actually possible? Could the Winter Soldier dare to hope for somewhere he could call home?

Chapter Text

The overall mood among the Rogues was rather sour the day after what Len was already thinking of as the ‘Death Metal Disaster’. Nor could he point fingers, being one of the worst offenders himself.

He was pissed off about the ruined heist and needing to be rescued, pissed off about the stinging slices covering his limbs and the damage to his parka, pissed off about the trauma James had been forced to endure… he was pretty much pissed off, period.

Len reacted to the anger as he always did, by throwing himself into planning how to extract his pound of flesh from the offending party. His fury ran cold, and people often mistook that for lack of passion, calling him heartless or unfeeling. The opposite couldn’t be any more true. Passion didn’t necessarily mean heat.

Unless you were Mick, of course. His partner’s temper was a volcano always on the edge of blowing - and often quite far over the edge. There had been reports of several particularly vicious fires in the warehouse district late last night, and it wasn’t hard to guess what his friend had been doing while Len and James were at the Lab.

Considering the way Mick was rampaging around destroying shit in the hideout, it was rather terrifying to contemplate how his mood could be worse if he hadn’t let loose and started some fires the night before.

Interestingly, James lay closer to Len’s end of the spectrum than Mick’s. His was a simmering anger, tightly leashed and under control, but unmistakable for anything but fury. He’d spent the past hour taking apart the extremely high end sniper rifle he’d demanded Len acquire for him, examining the pieces in minute detail before reassembling the whole thing.

Each movement was sharp and precise, economical in motion but more forceful than it needed to be. His face was fixed in the flat, expressionless mask Len had come to associate with the assassin side of his newest Rogue, but James’ eyes burned with rage.

And Lisa… well, Lisa had made popcorn. Literally.

Len was pretty sure she must have run out to the store specifically to get it, too.

Didn’t mean she wasn’t annoyed. The reputation of the Rogues was going to drop sharply when they didn’t deliver the promised goods by the end of the month, and that included her. But Len could admit there was a fair bit of injured pride wrapped up in the anger of the male contingent of their crew, and Lisa was missing that factor.

If anything, the part she was pouting about was that she hadn’t gotten to go on the field trip to STAR Labs, and missed out on seeing her pet, Cisco.

A sudden absence of crashing drew Len’s attention from his attempts to figure out a way to find Death Metal. Mick stormed toward the rest of them, brows drawn in tight and fists clenched hard. From the look of him, he’d more likely run out of things to break than calmed down.

“No, we can’t go after him right now and blow him up,” Len interjected the moment his partner opened his mouth. Mick looked disgruntled, annoyed by Len stealing his fire.

“Why the hell not?”

“Because we don’t know where he is?” Lisa pointed out. She flipped a piece of popcorn into the air and caught it with her teeth.

“And we’re not prepared to take him on yet.” Len rubbed his hands together, absently playing with his ring. His instincts were insisting this job wasn’t going to be as easy as it sounded - which, considering it already verged on impossible, made him anxious. “We need to strip everything metal out of our kits. Everything. Including our weapons. Which means we need to find alternatives.”

“Gotta say, I’m sorry I missed out on the sight of you boys shuffling out of there with your flies gaping open.” Lisa’s eyes gleamed. “I wonder if the security cameras got pictures?”

It was a good thing Mick liked Len’s sister so much, because if anyone else had said that, they’d probably have been on fire a minute later. As it was, Mick snarled at her and knocked her bowl off the table, sending popcorn flying everywhere.

“Hey! I’m not cleaning that up.” Lisa gave Mick a practiced pout, which was a look that had won her free of a surprising number of bad situations in the past. That and her come-hither smile were two of her best weapons.

The others being her acting ability and impressive intelligence. And the gold gun, of course.

“I don’t need a heat gun to start a fire,” Mick growled. “I’ve still got plenty of matches around. And I don’t need fire to bring the pain.” He smacked his fist into his palm with a heavy, meaty thud, and smirked at James. “Unlike some people, I don’t need metal to lay a smackdown on someone.”

“Okay, this one guy I can’t walk up to and punch.” James gave Mick a nasty look. “Anyone else I can knock into next week. Including you, so gimme a break.”

Mick's eyes glinted at the challenge. "Don't be a pussy. I'm not even giving you a hard time."

"He's not," Len agreed. "This is how he talks to people he likes." That won him a growl from Mick and James.

Leaning back in her chair, Lisa rested one booted foot on the edge of the table, and crossed the other over her ankle. Len gave her an irritated look, though half his annoyance was knowing she was doing it to annoy him. This was his planning table, and even if there weren’t blueprints spread over it right now, the dirt her boots left behind would smudge the next ones.

She smiled sweetly at him. “There’s still that little matter of being able to find this guy.”

“There’s also the fact that we’re not killing him when we do find him.” Len couldn’t help a small sigh of regret at the fact. Most of the time he enjoyed the challenge presented by Flash’s rules, but occasionally they were a pain in the ass.

There was a moment of stunned silence from Mick. “What the fuck do you mean, not killing him?”

"Not unless you want to bring the Flash down on our heads." James’ voice was as flat as his expression, and it was hard to tell if his buried anger was related to the lack of incipient murder. He’d stated repeatedly that he didn’t kill anymore, but sometimes his actions didn’t quite match his words.

"Are you serious? Are you both fucking serious?" Mick rounded on James. "After what he did to you, you're gonna just let it go?"

"Mick, you know the deal I made with the Flash." Len couldn’t stop his voice from rising with irritation. "I don't know if you noticed, but he caught us robbing the museum yesterday, and didn't arrest us. He didn't even try, despite the fact that we walked right into STAR Labs. Keeping the Flash in check is worth the trouble."

"Leaving someone that dangerous kicking around with the potential to come after us later is stupid." James chambered a round, the sound echoing in the large warehouse. "But Snart's right, keeping the Flash from coming after us is the only smart move. As long as Death Metal’s safely contained, I’ll accept that for now."

“Of course, if he ever gets out, I say that makes him fair game.” Snart raised an eyebrow at both of them.

“Nothing stopping us from teaching him a lesson before we hand him over, either. One he won’t forget any time soon.” James’ eyes gleamed, and the mask finally cracked to reveal a feral smile that promised a wealth of pain.

Normally, the only expression Mick showed James was a glare, but now he returned that smile with a fierce grin of his own. "He'll feel the burn by the time we're done with him."

Oh good. They were finally bonding.

Lisa tilted her head, watching the byplay with a smile of her own. “We really can’t afford to bring our guns anywhere near him, though. If he does get James’ rifle, it can be replaced. Expensive, but expendable. Ours aren’t.”

“Like you’d object to the chance to ‘convince’ Cisco to build you a new one.” Len kicked the leg of his sister’s chair, jarring her and shoving it far enough to knock her feet off the table.

The really annoying thing was, by giving him a lesser but more immediate irritation to focus on, she’d actually succeeded in aggravating him out of the rest of his bad mood. Which in turn made it easier for him to think logically about the whole mess. How the hell did that even work? She knew him disturbingly well.

“Sure, I could manage that.” Lisa was unrepentant, crossing her legs at the knee instead, as if she’d intended to lower her feet all along. “But what would you and Mick do? Batting your baby blues won’t work nearly as well for you as it does for me.” She slid a side-long look at James, then smirked at Len. “Not with Cisco, anyway.”

And now he was just plain annoyed, again. Len wasn’t sure when she’d noticed his attraction to James, or why she’d decided to tease him about it mercilessly, but it didn’t matter. Whether or not batting his eyes would work on James was irrelevant, because they’d already had their fun. It was over.

He didn’t. Sleep. With Rogues.

If he kept repeating that, maybe he’d stop catching himself making excuses to touch the other man. Keeping James calm last night had been a kind of torture for Len. He’d barely slept since then, and it hadn’t been dreams of Death Metal keeping him awake.

Lifting the rifle to his shoulder, James cocked his head and peered through the scope at the far end of the warehouse. "So, how do we draw this guy out? For that matter, how the hell did he know to crash our job in the first place?"

“Good question.” Len wished he had a good answer, but all his efforts to find the asshole had so far come to nothing. He’d reached out to his street contacts first thing, but if anybody knew anything, they weren’t talking.

“It could be that he has a police scanner, or just noticed what was happening and decided to take advantage of it.” Lisa shrugged. “We need to try to figure out who he is and what might attract his attention. It doesn't seem like the Flash knows anything about him, either."

“Problem is, we don't have enough intel. We need to do more recon before we can even start to come up with a real plan.” The barrel of the rifle drifted slowly to the right. At first Len thought James was wavering, and then he realized the man was tracking the motion of something. A rat, probably. Len was impressed by the quality of the scope, if he could see something that small through the gloom.

Impressed by the steadiness of the man’s hands, too, but that was leading back into dangerous territory. With an effort, Len wrenched his attention back where it should be. “My street contacts have given me nothing. Whoever this guy is, he’s staying on the down low. Which doesn’t fit with his theatrics last night.”

“Oh, theatrical, was he? Hang on, does anyone else hear a phone ringing?” Lisa made a show of perking up and straining to hear something. “Must be the kettle calling you back, Lenny.”

Mick snorted, and James looked… well, amused wasn’t quite right. Less murderous, at least.

Len resisted the urge to flip his sister the bird. It would only encourage her. “It means there’s a possibility we were the ones whose attention he wanted. At the moment, the only plan I can come up with is to pull another heist and see if he shows up again. Whether he does or doesn’t, it tells us something."

“That’s a hell of a long shot.” Despite his protest, James seemed to be considering the idea.

“On the other hand…” Lisa propped her chin on her palm, elbow braced on her knee. “He didn’t get anything out of last night’s robbery, either. Right? Flash chased him away. That’s gotta piss him off almost as much as it does us.”

"Definitely strikes me as the type to start sulking if he doesn't get what he wants," James agreed, finally setting the rifle down. "He's lazy, doesn't want to do his own work. Plus there was the sting to his pride at failing his dramatic little coupe. So, yeah. Maybe going back is the right call.”

“True.” Len tapped his pen against the table, thinking out loud. “We’ve got a little over a week left before we promised we’d deliver the statue. If we let it ‘slip’ on the street that we’re planning to go after it again, the temptation might draw him out.”

“They’ll have beefed up security.” Mick sounded anything but displeased by the notion. More security meant more likelihood he’d get to have a fight with someone, if not set them on fire.

“Not if we get the Flash on our side.” The plan began to fall into place in Len’s mind, a beautiful cascade of interlocking cogs and gears that produced an intricate clockwork whole.

Plans inevitably went to hell in one way or another once put into motion, but at the moment of conception, they remained pristine and perfect. These were the moments he lived for.

Along with the thrill of getting his hands on the target, and the even greater rush of getting away clean.

Grinning, he leaned back in his chair and outlined his thoughts for the others. “He’s got connections at the CCPD. Obviously he won’t want people to know he’s actually working with us, but if he tells the cops and museum security that he ‘found out’ we’re trying again, he could convince them to leave security low and let us in. Baiting the trap for Death Metal.”

“And catching two birds with one stone,” Mick rumbled, scowling. “He ain’t gonna let us waltz outta there with the loot.”

“He’ll object to the lesson part of the plan as much as the heist part.” James was utterly still in that unnatural way he had, but Len could see him thinking. The man was nearly as good at coming up with plans as Len was. “We’ll have to keep him distracted, but not so distracted he doesn’t take Death Metal down in the end.”

“We could finish the asshole off ‘by accident’.” Mick’s grin was dangerous, and Len noted he didn’t specify which asshole.

“It’s simple enough. Going for the statue is a part of the plan. Leaving with it will be the difficult bit.” Len chuckled. “As will delivering the lesson, but James already hit on the solution to both problems. We’ll engineer a distraction for the Flash, something we can trigger to draw him away temporarily. Mick, that will be your job.”

His partner’s head came up and he tensed with excitement and anticipation. It was a look Len knew well. “I can set a fire?”

“Or better yet, an explosion.” Len gave him an indulgent smile. “That will keep Flash busy while we deal with Death Metal. We’ll leave him as a nice, wrapped - and yes, unfortunately still breathing - present for Flash, while we get away with the goods.”

“As long as the explosion doesn’t endanger any innocent people.” James stood, as if being on his feet would help make his point. He and Mick squared off across the table, back to glowering at each other once more.

Len sighed. The truce had been nice while it lasted.

“If nobody’s in danger, it won’t work as a diversion for the Flash.” Lisa didn’t appear to notice or care that she was caught between the two growling alphas, but then, she’d never been impressed by posturing. “It has to be urgent enough to force him to leave when he knows perfectly well that we’ll be trying to get away with something, and that means lives at risk.”

The argument apparently didn’t sit well with James, who switched his glare to her instead. Len watched him struggle to come up with a better suggestion, and fail. “Fine,” he ground out at last. “In danger, but in such a way that he can save them. Otherwise we might as well kill Death Metal and have done with it - he’d forgive us for that faster than for killing innocents.”

That was a valid point. "We'll figure out a good spot, where it'll seem like there's danger, but no one will actually get hurt. Agreed?" He looked from James, to Mick, warning his partner with an arched brow that there would be hell to pay if Mick disobeyed him on this.

Mick grunted in disappointment, but nodded. “Fine, whatever. As long as it burns.”

It appeared Len’s silent threat wasn’t enough to satisfy James, however. The ex-assassin was aiming a dangerous look of his own at Mick. "Anyone does get hurt, I'm taking it out of your hide. Flash'll probably be right behind me."

Mick made a rude gesture in James' direction, his other hand braced on the handle of his heat gun. "Go fuck yourself. I said fine."

"He said it was fine," Len repeated sharply, hoping James would take the hint and back off. Mick was unpredictable at the best of times, but there was no point in pushing him even further. The more you pushed him, the more likely he was to do whatever he pleased instead.

Thankfully, James appeared to get the message, and moved on to other issues. "I still need to figure out how to shoot a non-metal bullet at sniper distance. We’re limited by the configuration of the museum, too; there’s only so far I can get without losing line of sight. I wish we had some idea what this asshole's range is."

"No way to know without testing it." If they drew him out using this plan just to test his range, they’d have to come up with something entirely new to catch him again. It wasn’t worth wasting what might be their only opportunity.

"We need to move fast on this, even aside from our buyer’s deadline." Lisa leaned forward, finally discarding her feigned detachment from the whole thing. "Strike while he's still pissed about losing the score, and hasn't moved on to something else. No more than a week."

“Then let’s move,” Len agreed. He stood, bracing his weight on his palms on the table, looking around at his crew. He couldn’t help but feel a hint of proprietary pride at the sight of them, the best in the city at what they did, each in their own ways.

Like a general directing his army, he started snapping out orders. “Mick, get on that diversion. I want at least three possible locations and layouts for the explosion so I can choose the one that fits best. Lisa, reach out to Cisco, see if you can get in with the Flash. He’s still a bit miffed at me after last night, so he’s more likely to listen to you. James, you and I are going over the museum blueprints again, so we can find a spot to tuck you away.”

With a very wry look, James gave him a half-assed salute. Mick snorted, but the promise of an explosion had him in an unusually good mood, so he just waved and headed out.

Casting a glance from Len to James and back again, Lisa arched an eyebrow and let a sly smile play over her lips. Len narrowed his eyes at her in return. “Did I not give you a job to do? What are you waiting for?”

“Oh, nothing.” She turned and sauntered after Mick, and while he couldn’t see her face, he knew she was grinning. “Try not to have so much fun ‘planning’ you forget to actually plan, Lenny.”

He growled, and she laughed as she swept out the door.

Chapter Text

With Lisa and Mick out of the way, Len turned his attention back to the current task. James was already spreading out the blueprints for the museum, but was watching Len with a closed-off expression.

“What?” Len wasn’t sure what to make of the way James was looking at him. Was he offended by Lisa’s teasing? Why not glare after Lisa, then?

James shook his head. Now he was frowning, but it was a thoughtful look, not upset or angry. Most of his expressions seemed to be some kind of scowl, with the occasional smirk thrown in just to shake it up.

Damn, how much time had he spent looking at the guy, to be able to tell the difference between one frown and another?

Annoyed with himself, Len shifted through the plans until he found the one he wanted, that detailed the air ducts throughout the building. Unlike the movies, air ducts rarely worked as an entry method into a building. As a place to stash something, however, they could be very useful.

Like, say, an assassin with a sniper rifle.

“Here’s what I’m thinking.” Len leaned in to point at the relevant area of the plans, and James did the same. The move brought them in close, brushed their shoulders together. Len had to fight off the urge to reach out and touch, and he was all too aware of the unnatural warmth radiating off the man.

Not to mention his scent, dark and heavy with a hint of metal, far more enticing than anyone had a right to be. The heatwave had broken, but there were traces of sweat visible on his neck that made Len lick his lips with the desire to taste it.

If James noticed his distraction, he didn’t comment on it. They spent the better part of an hour hashing things out, tossing suggestions and objections back and forth. James was an excellent partner in this, in a way Mick never could be, and Len was energized by the give and take.

Right up until James abruptly grabbed Len’s wrist, halting him in mid-gesture over the map. Surprised, Len tried to jerk free, affronted by the attack. Flesh hand or not, James’ grip was one of iron, and Len couldn’t budge him.

“What the fuck?” Len demanded, scowling.

Stop it.” There was heat in James’ voice, and the light of frustration in his eyes. The growl was unnervingly similar to the way he’d warned Cisco to quit talking about the Winter Soldier.

“Pointing at things?” What the fuck was he on about? Len had no desire to end up with that deadly hand wrapped around his neck, as seemed to be James’ reflexive reaction to anyone that pushed his limits, but he had no idea what he’d even done wrong.

“Stop touching me.” James glared at him, grip tightening until Len could feel his bones groaning a protest.

With an effort, Len held his ground and glared right back, refusing to be intimidated. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. I can’t help brushing against you. There’s no other way for us both to see the map at the same time.”

“Not just now.” The other man leaned forward aggressively, pushing into Len’s space. “Last night you didn’t even try to disguise it, but you’ve been doing it all fucking week. Hips bumping together. Shoulders or thighs brushing. Hand squeezing my shoulder. You’re all over me.”

Had he been that obvious? Shit. It was clear the other man wasn’t happy about it, and an unpleasant shiver ran down Len’s spine. The last thing he wanted was James truly pissed off at him. He’d seen what the man could do.

Apparently taking his silence as an admission of guilt - which it was, really - James narrowed his eyes. “Quit teasing. You said no more, fine. I ain’t pushing you. But if you keep pushing me, you might not like the results.”

Teasing?

All the air rushed out of Len’s chest. He’d missed it before, but the look in James’ eyes was as much frustrated arousal as frustrated anger. Pupils blown wide, faint flush riding his cheeks, breath coming a little too fast… it was pretty much the same way he’d looked after the first time Len kissed him.

“What if I said I did want more?” Len asked, voice going husky as heat swept through him. He couldn’t help himself. “What if I’d changed my mind?”

If he’d hoped James would jump on the offer, he was doomed to disappointment. The other man looked suspicious, as if he thought it was some sort of trap. “What, one more night? Still no strings?”

“Perhaps more than one.” Len hitched himself closer, trying not to seem too eager. Maybe he could have the best of both worlds. Obviously James could keep work separate from play, he’d proved that over the last week. They could mess around off the job, have a safe outlet for their mutual desire, until they finally got tired of each other.

He reached out with his free hand, this time deliberately sliding his fingers over James’ wrist, drawing abstract patterns over the sensitive flesh.

The reaction was instantaneous, but not at all what Len had hoped for. James snarled at him, as pissed as Len had ever seen him, and jerked on Len’s wrist. He spun them around, too fast and agile for Len to have any hope of countering or escaping the move.

He wound up trapped between James’ solid body and the even more solid table, edge digging into his ass and James pressed against him all the way down his front. Under different circumstances, if he’d invited the aggression, it might have been hot as hell. As it was, the grinding pain in his wrist was a reminder that this was not a position he wanted to be in.

His heart felt like it was trying to crawl up his throat and beat its way out, but he kept his voice even and bared his teeth. “Let me go, James.”

He’d learned early on never to show any sign of weakness, never to let an aggressor realize they had him scared.

Even though it felt like he was twelve years old again, cornered by a monster he had no chance of fighting off or defending against. His body knew what was coming next, instinctively braced for the pain that would leave him with yet another scar.

Except this wasn’t his father, and if James decided to strike out in a temper, Len might not survive the experience.

“Why?” James wrapped his metal hand in the front of Len’s shirt and shoved, forcing him to lean back at an uncomfortable angle. He rocked their hips together, though neither of them was hard. “This is what you want, isn’t it? Straight up sex, nothing but animal instincts.”

“I told you before, I’m not into pain.” Len was proud of the fact that his voice held nothing but anger, not a trace of fear. And oh, there was plenty of anger to show. Nobody treated him like this. Not anymore. The moment he got free, James had better watch his back.

It was what would happen until he got free that was causing the fear.

Glancing down, James appeared to register the punishingly tight grip he had on Len’s wrist. Then, to Len’s utter shock, James cursed and released him, taking a step back. Not nearly far enough, and the barely-leashed rage still burned hot in the man’s eyes. But there was enough space for Len to straighten up and catch his breath.

The move broke every expectation Len had for how something like this would go down, and he didn’t know how to respond.

“Why did you do that?” Len demanded, wary but starting to hope he was getting out of this without any further pain.

“Which part? Grabbing you, or letting go?” Oddly, James seemed equally wary, as if there was some way Len could use this to hurt him.

“Both. Either.” Len still didn’t quite know what to do. “Start with letting go.”

“I ain’t gonna force anyone to do anything. Ever.” There was a vicious edge to the words that spoke of deeper emotion, striking a chord that resonated within Len.

Thus spoke a man who had been forced to do something. Something that damaged him, changed him forever. In Len’s experience, there were two ways people reacted to a trauma like that in their life. Either they turned on someone else to make themselves feel stronger, or they vowed never to allow it to happen again.

James’ words said he was the latter type, but his actions seemed to say he was the former. Up until he’d let go, at least. This wasn’t the first time he’d hurt Len, either… though last time it hadn’t been anger, but arousal that caused the overreaction. Come to think of it, he’d released Len the moment it was pointed out he was gripping too hard then, too.

Len couldn’t make sense of it. “Why grab me in the first place, then?”

Isn’t that what you want?” Anger flashed again in James’ eyes, and beneath that was hurt. Betrayal, even. “I didn’t mean to hurt you, but I warned you that you wouldn’t like what happened if you kept pushing me. You’re still teasing, just doing it another way. All you care about is the sex.”

And yet, despite his anger, James took another step back, putting more distance between them. The space didn’t make it any easier for Len to breathe, though it wasn’t fear clenching his gut now, but confusion. Was James saying he was pissed off because Len wasn’t offering enough seduction as foreplay?

Why did Len spend so much of his time around this man feeling as though he was picking his way through a field of invisible landmines?

Accepting that James truly hadn’t meant to cause him pain, Len relented. “What, you need to be wined and dined? I only do romance when I’m running a con, but if that’s what does it for you...”

“I don’t want you to fake it. And I don’t give a shit about dating. Doesn’t mean I wanna wait around to be available any time you to decide you want a… a booty call.” James said the words like he was quoting them, or didn’t really understand the term. “Either we’re doing this, or we’re not. If we’re not, then you need to back the hell off.”

There was something pained in his voice. Almost tortured. Len didn’t think he’d been teasing that much, considering he hadn’t even known he was doing it half the time. “What the fuck, James?”

Sighing, James rubbed at his face with his right hand. He went from angry to exhausted in the blink of an eye, and it gave Len emotional whiplash. “Look, I’m glad you reminded me about how good sex is. But now that I remember, I can’t turn it on and off. I sure as hell ain’t interested in hanging around on the hook until you decide you’re bored. I’m not a toy. You don’t get to play with me.”

“That’s not what I…” Okay, maybe it was, a little. Len was ashamed to realize he’d only been thinking of his own desires. With a one night stand, he didn’t need to worry about his partner, as long as they both got off.

Maybe James did have some reason to be upset about the way Len had approached this whole thing. Len looked down at the floor, then up again, meeting James’ gaze. “What do you want, then?”

James worked his jaw, as if he was struggling for the words. “To know it’s going to last, and not be yanked out from under me next time I turn around.”

“Commitment, in other words.” Exactly what Len had been hoping to avoid. James looked like he had more on his mind, though. “And?”

Looking away, James gave a half shrug. “To have a say. To not be a thing.”

The words were so soft Len almost missed them. When he did understand, it hit him like a sucker-punch. A thing? That was how James thought Len was treating him? What the hell had he done to deserve that accusation?

Only, it didn’t sound like an accusation. It sounded like a plea. He couldn’t even look at Len as he said it, shoulders hunched as if he expected some kind of retaliation. Was this HYDRA’s impact showing through?

Breathing out, deliberately releasing some of his tension with the breath, Len pinched the bridge of his nose. The way James was holding himself, a passive defense against a coming blow… he’d seen Lisa do it, when they were kids. He knew he’d done it, too.

When he looked up, James was watching him, guarded and nervous. Len spread his hands. “I don’t know if I can promise that. Well, I could, but I respect you enough not to lie about it. Of course you’d have a say, but whether it would last longer than each encounter? I’m not a commitment kind of guy.”

Dropping his eyes, James nodded, resigned. At least his shoulders slumped again, easing out of the defensive posture.

Impulsively, Len offered a compromise. “What if I said we’d be exclusive while it did last? That’s something.” He could stand by that. He rarely sought out companionship anyway, and he’d be more than taking care of his needs with James. He wasn’t the type to stray for variety.

To his disappointment, but not really his surprise, James shook his head. “Not enough.”

“Hell, what are you looking for, a wedding ring? Nobody knows something will last.”

“Not forever. Just… beyond each next time. I need to know you’d at least be trying, not ready to drop it at any moment.” James raked his right hand through his hair, dishevelling it. The result was far too similar to the way he’d looked after sex, heavy-lidded and tousled, but without the accompanying air of satisfaction and pleasure. “I used to do that, I think. The one and done thing. But the whole point of staying here, with you, was so I could stop drifting.”

He thought he used to do that. Every time James revealed another tiny sliver of himself, Len was left all the more fascinated and bewildered.

“That’s fair.” He couldn’t blame James for wanting something more than straight up no strings fuckbuddies. Hell, the guy wasn’t even asking for much. “I’ll… I’ll think about it.”

“Thanks for being honest, at least.” James sighed. “I’ll think about it too, I guess. Maybe it’s worth…”

“Don’t.” Len started to reach out, grip his shoulder, but hesitated halfway there. James had asked him not to tease, and now he didn’t know what counted. He dropped his hand, awkward. “Don’t compromise on that. You deserve a lot more than what you’re asking of me, not less.”

“I don’t deserve anything. At least, nothing good. Doesn’t seem to stop me from wanting it.” Fists clenched, James turned and moved away from him, heading to grab his rifle. “I need to figure out what the hell I’m actually shooting this asshole with. Let me know when we’re ready to put the plan in motion.”

Sighing, Len braced himself with his palms against the tabletop, staring blankly at the blueprints spread out in front of him. He heard the door slam a moment later, and it felt an opportunity being ripped out of his grasp.

This was what he got for breaking his rule, damn it. Only, he’d never expected the one suffering for it would be him.

Chapter Text

Three days into planning the Death Metal takedown, Len was about ready to pitch a fit. If he’d thought it was difficult to concentrate around James before they’d slept together, that was nothing compared to how distracting the man was now.

Especially with the possibility of a repeat taunting Len like the proverbial carrot, dangling from a string that was actually a pretty goddamn reasonable request to have a relationship attached to the sex.

Keeping his hands off the man was absolute torture. James really did have reason to be pissed at him, because Len hadn’t realized how often he reached out until he was making an effort not to. Which said a lot, because Len was big on personal space and didn’t much like being touched himself, so he rarely did it to others.

It didn’t matter what James was doing. Even when he was up to nothing more than sitting in a corner working on his rifle and bullets, or scribbling in that journal he never seemed to be far from, Len still couldn’t keep his eyes to himself. He kept picturing those strong, surprisingly graceful fingers wrapped around something much less innocent than a pen or bullet.

And then there were the times when James worked out, like right now. As he watched the ex-assassin dance through his shadow boxing, all Len could think about was how good it had felt when that impossibly powerful body was draped over his, moving in the oldest dance in the world.

Worse, since the crew knew about his arm, James had started stripping to the waist while he worked. Sweat trickled down his chest, and Len could taste the memory of licking it off that beautiful skin, salty and sharp and hot with passion.

Obviously, he wasn’t going to get a single fucking thing accomplished while he was in the same area as James. Growling, Len gathered his work into a messy pile, scooped it up, and headed for the other side of the warehouse. James glanced at him, a question written on his face, but Len simply scowled and kept going.

Lisa was already at the small table in the second room, tinkering with her gold gun. She glanced up when he dumped his armful of papers beside her, and raised an eyebrow in a sly expression she’d picked up from him. “I thought this table was too small to spread out on? I’m not moving my stuff. There’s too many tiny pieces, and if I get them out of order I’ll forget how to put them back.”

“You don’t have to move.” The words came out as a half snarl, and Len had to consciously throttle back his annoyance. She wasn’t the one he was upset with. It wasn’t even James. He had only himself to blame for this bad mood.

“You know, Mick might have a point.” She flipped a screwdriver back and forth between her fingers. “Maybe if you get it out of your system, he’ll stop being such a distraction. It won’t kill you to break your rule once in your life, Lenny.”

“Tried that. Didn’t work.” The moment the words were out of his mouth, Len kicked himself. He hadn’t meant to admit that he’d already done it.

Lisa’s eyes went wide, and then surprise turned to speculation. “He’s that good between the sheets? Damn. Does he go for women too? I might have to…”

“Don’t. You. Dare.”

Both of them froze. Len was as shocked by the vehemence of his protest as Lisa. He never spoke to his sister like that. Scolding - even furious - sure. But not vicious.

Groaning, he propped his elbows on the table and braced the heels of his palms against his eyes. This was completely out of hand. He needed to get control of himself. “Sorry. Didn’t mean it like that.”

“Oh, yes you did.” Now she sounded downright gleeful, and when he shifted to glance at her there was a huge smile curving her lips. “Don’t try to weasel out of it. Face it, big brother. You’ve got a crush.”

“It’s not a crush,” Len protested, horrified. “I’m not a teenage schoolgirl, Lis.”

“You’d prefer ‘infatuation’? Or maybe ‘obsession’ would be more accurate.” She flipped her hair back over her shoulder, obviously having far too much fun with this. “Not much else describes the way you two have been eye-fucking each other every time the other one isn’t looking.”

At Len’s look of disbelief, she shrugged. “You just haven’t caught him doing it, he’s too fast. Trust me, he wants you. He’s been respecting your boundaries, I guess. Which argues he’ll continue to do so even if you turn it into a thing.”

Eye-fucking? He’d been doing no such thing. Admiring, yes, but… was it really that obvious that he couldn’t stop undressing James in his mind?

Probably.

Which might explain why Mick was hardly around lately, and kept glaring at them both when he was around, if Lisa was right about his partner being jealous.

“It’s not that simple, damn it.” It really wasn’t. There were so many layers to this mess, and most of them Len didn’t particularly want to discuss with his sister.

Not that she’d let a little matter like his comfort level stop her.

“So what’s the problem?” Lisa arched an eyebrow at him. “Your ‘rule’ is because you were worried people would try to take advantage. That doesn’t seem likely with him, if I couldn’t even tell you’d done it already. You want more, he wants more, so go for it.”

“That is the problem. He wants more.” Len ducked his head, concentrating on the plans so she wouldn’t see the flash of annoyance he couldn’t quite hide. “He wants the damn strings attached if we do anything else.”

Immediately he knew he’d made a mistake, because she perked up further. “You’ve talked about it already? You really do want him bad, don’t you.” He growled, but she ignored the wordless warning. “Then why the hell are you holding back, sitting around mooning over him like, as you said, a lovesick teenager?”

“I don’t do relationships, you know that,” he insisted. “Too messy and complicated. I like things simple.”

“Oh, bullshit, Lenny.” He blinked at her, startled by the response, and she flapped a hand at him in a dismissive gesture. “You ‘do relationships’ just fine with me and Mick. And those are pretty damn messy. The truth is, you don’t like the thought of opening up to someone new, letting yourself be vulnerable.”

That might be true, but it wasn’t that easy. “It’s a cost/benefit analysis. He’s an incredibly valuable asset to the Rogues, it’s not worth the risk of…”

“Still calling bullshit~” Lisa interrupted him, singsong. “You’re making excuses, and it’s not because you’re scared it won’t work. It’s because you’re scared it will. Are you afraid he’ll react badly to your scars?”

Gritting his teeth, Len debated whether there was any point in trying to lie. However inscrutable he managed to be to other people, Lisa always seemed able to read him like a book. “Already seen them. Didn’t bother him any.”

“Ooh, you actually got naked?” There was far too much curiosity and interest in that question for Len to be comfortable with from his baby sister, but Lisa never had been great at boundaries.

“He’s frightened of ice.” Len was grasping at straws, but there was a valid objection somewhere, he was certain of it. He just had to figure out what it was, so Lisa would leave him alone.

And so his libido would leave him alone, too. If he could cool it down, surely he’d be able to think rationally again.

“Well, that’s a pity, but hardly a dealbreaker.” Lisa was laughing at him, even if she wasn’t actually laughing. The sparkle in her eyes was a dead giveaway. “Not like you haul it out for all your usual one nighters.”

Also true, though if he was going to have a long term relationship, it was a damn shame he wouldn’t be able to play a bit.

Then again, the chill of that metal hand wrapping around him had been… fuck, he’d never experienced anything like that. Even thinking about it made a shiver of delight run down his spine. What would those hard, cold fingers feel like inside him? God, it would be...

A double snap of fingers inches from his face jerked him out of the mental images. Len felt a flush burn across his cheeks, heat flooding all the way down his neck. Lisa was smirking, and she had good reason. It was hardly the first time he’d gotten lost in his thoughts, even mid-conversation, but it was definitely the first time it had ever happened because of sex.

“You’re never going to have another chance like this, Lenny. He’s actually a decent guy, as far as I can tell, and yet he’s not going to look down on you for being a thief, or try to change you. If it was me you’d be telling me to go for it, you know you would.”

Len barely managed to stop himself from protesting that he’d push her to take the plunge because she deserved to be happy. She’d jump all over the accompanying implication that he thought he didn’t. He could never get her to believe that it wasn’t that he thought less of himself, but that it was his job to see her happy.

Nor was she wrong. James was definitely one of a kind. Who else would understand why Len enjoyed meeting Flash’s challenge not to hurt anyone, while also not viewing that as a sign of weakness? James was a killer who didn’t want to kill. He saw being a thief as a step up.

He also saw Len’s scars as a sign of strength, something to be proud of. A badge of survival. Len had never thought of them that way before, but he found he rather liked the idea. Liked the expression on the other man’s face when he looked at Len’s body. Loved the way James ran his hands over that body as if it was a precious work of art, much the way Len thought of him…

Shit, he was doing it again. He broke himself out of it this time, but Lisa was still smirking at him. When she saw she had his full attention, she shook her head. “Lenny, you’ve got it bad.”

“...Maybe,” he acknowledged, grudging and gruff.

“For once in your life, take the risk, will you?”

Huffing, he leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, glaring at her. “Nag.”

“Loser.” She rolled her eyes. Finished reassembling her gun, she flipped the casing closed and stood to return it to the rack. “Think about it.”

“Seems like that’s all I can do.” He was resentful of the fact, but he didn’t know what to do about it. He literally couldn’t get his mind off the man.

Passing by, she patted him on the shoulder. “I want you to be happy as much as you do me, you know. This is the first time I’ve seen you even pointed in that direction. Dealing with the Flash has loosened you up a lot, and I was glad to see it, but this is different. Life hasn’t given us a whole lot of breaks. Don’t spit on this one.”

“I’ll keep it in mind.” That was all he was willing to give her in the way of promises.

And that was the whole damn problem, wasn’t it? He was never willing to make promises. Never wanted to be tied down, held accountable, to anyone or anything.

Except, that wasn’t really true. He was more than willing to be tied down to Lisa and Mick, as his sister had pointed out. He was happy to take the leadership role in the Rogues - insisted on it, in fact - and that was definitely a position that made him accountable to others.

So what was the real problem?

On the surface of it, James wasn’t asking for romance, or even a relationship. He was asking for what they had to be more than a string of unrelated one-offs, which wasn’t all that much of a commitment.

Only it was, because Len did nothing by halves, and he already knew James didn’t either. It would be far too easy to get sucked in deeper than he wanted to be.

Deep enough that he’d be forced to open up and let James see past the surface of him. Into the cold darkness that lived within, the deep, roiling center of the wreck he truly was. Everyone he’d ever opened up to, everyone he’d ever let close, everyone he’d ever looked up to or depended on had hurt him.

Including Mick and Lisa, but at least with them he knew that when push really came to shove, they’d have his back.

Not that there had been many others. Never let it be said that Leonard Snart needed to be taught a lesson twice. Whatever his father might have believed.

Yet here he was, contemplating putting himself into a situation that would make him vulnerable all over again. For the first time in a long time, he’d have something incredibly precious to lose, and that meant he had the potential to be hurt.

Was Lisa right, and he was afraid it would work, not that it wouldn’t?

If James and Lisa deserved to have more, to be happy... didn’t Len deserve it, too?

There was only one conclusion Len could come to. One way he could hope to make some kind of rational decision about this mess.

He needed a Plan.


A quick trip to Jitters - his new guilty pleasure, discovered during the time he’d spent tailing everyone from STAR Labs to determine their schedules and weaknesses - and Len was settling in at his home computer, iced Americano in hand and ready for an intense information gathering session.

He was no tech genius, and he’d learned about computers the same way he’d learned about electronics. Trial and error, and sheer stubborn determination to master a useful and necessary tool. He might not be able to hack into the Dark Net, but he could use Google with the best of them.

And that, plus patience in sifting through the links that mostly led to garbage, was usually all he needed. It certainly was this time.

Searching for ‘The Winter Soldier’ brought up plenty of results. Too many for the short period of time he could carve out of working on the Death Metal job. Refining the search with terms like ‘HYDRA’ and ‘assassin’ helped narrow it down.

One of the first good leads he found, much to Len’s amusement, was indeed Barry Allen’s ‘Weird Case Database’. Cisco hadn’t been kidding, but it wasn’t that surprising. Stories of a ghost assassin were right up the alley of someone looking to prove that an impossible man had murdered his mother.

Most of it was nothing more than rumours. Unsubstantiated and for the most part highly improbable. Pretty much every unsolved high-profile murder out there was attributed to the guy, and there were plenty that had been solved where people were claiming the arrested suspect was only a patsy.

Though even with all the garbage to wade through, there was enough compiled evidence that Len was starting to believe James really had killed JFK, and Stark’s death certainly fit the Soldier’s MO.

One link led him to a forum where people were slowly decoding and sorting through the absolutely ridiculous amount of SHIELD and HYDRA information that had been dumped onto the internet by the Black Widow. Cisco was right about this as well; there was an entire sub-forum dedicated to the Winter Soldier, and there was a not insignificant fraction of HYDRA’s database related to the man.

Again, unsurprising, since Len knew for a fact the Soldier did exist. There was no other explanation for the way James had reacted to the name. And how many HYDRA assassin snipers with a metal arm could there be out there?

Most of the fragments of files that had been decoded so far were useless. Here and there Len found tantalizing hints; for example, the mission reports really did date back at least several decades.

That seemed impossible for one person, and Len was favouring Cisco’s Dread Pirate Roberts theory, until he found a post where someone cross-linked files being decoded about cryogenic preservation. There was a headshot of a man, apparently frozen inside some kind of container with a glass window covered in frost. The picture wasn’t great quality, but good enough for Len to tell it was James.

Being frozen between missions and stored like a popsicle in a freezer would certainly explain why the Soldier was a complete ghost.

It might also explain James’ aversion to ice, come to think of it. Though the files indicated the Soldier had operated primarily out of Siberia, so how had the man coped with all the ice there?

Well, all the mentions of brainwashing and what amounted to mind programming probably had something to do with it. Again, there were only fragments of records, but what Len read was absolutely chilling. Small wonder James seemed uncertain of his own past, or the basics of social interactions.

Really, the wonder was that there was anything left of the man within the Soldier, at all.

The post topics started repeating, and Len was about ready to conclude there was nothing further to be learned, when he ran across a speculation thread that caught his interest. It didn’t have many replies, which was why it was so far down the forum. All the replies it did have were dog-piling responses of how stupid and impossible the original post was.

Because the original poster speculated that the identity of the Winter Soldier might be a man named Bucky Barnes, and apparently that was simply unthinkable to the rest of the forum users.

Curious, Len clinked on the links offered as proof. The first led to the same photo of the frozen man, but the second was new. It was a grainy, age-damaged headshot of a suave-looking young man in a WWII American Army uniform. He was clean-shaven, slick-haired, and fresh scrubbed, with the sort of dark All-American good looks and charming smile that probably won him a lot of dates.

The man was hardly recognizable as the long-haired, scruffy, brooding ex-assassin Len knew, but it was James. If he’d been in the military in the 1940s, he had to be literally a hundred years old, or damn close to it.

The third ‘proof’ link led to a short black and white video of two men, again in a WWII setting, laughing and joking together. Len was riveted by how much the relaxed, happy expression changed James. His scars ached in sympathy as he thought about how much pain and damage it would require to turn the man in the video into the man in the Rogues.

But when he glanced at the other person in the video, Len choked on his drink. Now he understood why the old video had been preserved - it wasn’t from the HYDRA files on the Winter Soldier. It was a clip being used in the Smithsonian exhibit on Captain America.

Because the second man in the video was none other than Steve fucking Rogers himself.

When Len clicked on the video, it led to the Smithsonian’s official page. There was a smarmy, patriotic blurb about Captain America’s childhood friend, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes, along with another, less damaged and more casual headshot.

Stunned breathless, Len sat staring at the video playing on endless repeat. Captain America’s best fucking friend was a member of Captain Cold’s crew. He felt like laughing as he realized why James kept insisting he wouldn’t call Len ‘Cap’, but there was an edge of darkness to his humour.

James was a legitimate goddamn hero. A sidekick, arguably, but still a hero.

What the hell had HYDRA done to turn the man into who he was today? To make him believe that the best he could hope for was to ‘not be a thing’?

And where the fuck was Steve Rogers when his supposed best friend clearly needed him so badly? James had said the Avengers were hunting him...

Or had he? Thinking back, Len could only remember James saying they were trying to find him, or wanted to stop HYDRA from getting him. Len was the one who’d inferred the negative meaning into the words.

Sighing, Len shut everything down and sat back in his chair, watching the frost patterns of his screensaver creep across the monitor. The beautiful precision of the fractals always helped him think, and he damn well needed the help right now.

What was he supposed to do with this information? What could he do about it? Confront James with it? Not likely. What would he even say?

Hell, James would have every reason to be pissed if he found out Len knew any of this. He’d certainly reacted badly to the information Cisco had shared about the Winter Soldier. He was an incredibly secretive, private man, and having his entire life laid bare like this would likely horrify him.

Len could understand that. God, could he understand that. It would be a lot like having someone pin him down and poke at every scar he had, trying to figure out what had caused each one and how long ago.

Even still, he couldn’t be sorry he’d done it. Len took care of his crew, and that meant knowing as much as he could about each of them. James was one of his people now, not just a guy Len pulled in sometimes.

The question was, how long was that likely to remain the case? It was clear James was struggling to recover from everything that had been done to him, but once he had, surely he’d end up going straight to Rogers. Even if he didn’t, he was the kind of guy who ought to be working with the Flash, not the Rogues.

Except if he’d wanted to be working with Team Flash, he could be. Nothing was stopping him. James had chosen to come with Len, be part of this crew. He’d chosen to stay because, in his own words, he’d wanted to stop drifting, and this was where he’d decided to belong.

Not with Flash. Not with Captain America.

Here. With the Rogues. With Len.

With Len.

For however long it lasted. If only Len would commit to giving him that much. Lisa was right about one thing; a chance like this would never come along again.

Chapter Text

Like any good sniper, James insisted on being in position long before the target was expected to make an appearance. Snart got him a pair of the coveralls used by the company that delivered food to the museum cafe, and that allowed him to slip inside and get to one of the storerooms.

There, he opened the crate of ‘coffee’ he’d carried in, reassembled his rifle, and stowed the box in a stack of similar ones. Somebody would be pissed to discover the empty crate tomorrow, but by then he’d be long gone.

Holding the rifle before him, he eeled his way through the museum’s ventilation system, moving as silently as the ghost some called him. Saying it was a tight fight was an understatement, and spiders lurked everywhere in the dust and dirt that had accumulated, but the close quarters didn’t bother him.

He’d waited in far worse locations for a target. Nothing in here could hurt him, and the closeness of the metal duct might just save him. Thanks to the layout of the hall with the vault door, he wasn’t going to be more than a hundred yards from Death Metal, and that likely wasn’t enough to be out of the meta’s sensing range. He was sure the duct would mask his presence, since he couldn’t exactly rid himself of all metal on his body.

Once he was in place he set up the rifle, checking his aim through the scope and adjusting by tiny increments until he was satisfied. Carefully, he pried the slats of the vent wider where the rifle barrel rested, just enough for the bullet to get through.

Then he settled in to wait, absolutely motionless save for the slow rise and fall of his chest as he breathed.

Now it was up to the others.

Long before the heist was scheduled to start, the earpiece he wore crackled to life. Lisa had convinced Team Flash to work with them, and the STAR Labs crew had provided communicators so they could all coordinate. It meant having a tiny amount of metal on them, but the worst that could happen was Death Metal destroying the comms.

Listening to the banter and irrelevant remarks being tossed across the airwaves by the Flash and his friends, James bit his tongue on an acid comment about professionalism. They acted like Flash was out for a joyride, not running circuits of the city on patrol.

At the same time, it made his chest squeeze painfully. Every bad joke, every snicker and laugh, brought new memories of his time in the Commandos to the fore. James clung fiercely to the echoes, desperate to pull out his journal and record it all but refusing to break discipline by moving.

Sometimes the fragments that came to him stayed permanently, but sometimes they vanished again as quickly as they came. That was why he wrote down everything he could, the bad right along with the good, terrified it would all disappear.

In the back of his mind at all times was the knowledge that HYDRA could steal the memories away from him with one session in the damned machine that wiped his mind clean. He cherished the tiny hope that if the worst happened and he somehow escaped a second time, he could read the journals and not have to start relearning himself from scratch. Again.

At the moment his bag of finished journals was tucked away in a hidden corner of the Rogues’ warehouse. How he’d ever find it if his memories had been erased, he had no idea, but at least the possibility was there.

Finally he heard the check-in he’d been waiting for. Snart’s smooth drawl broke into the middle of a scolding from Snow about the Flash taking too many risks.

“As entertaining as this is, ladies and gentlemen, we have a timetable to keep. Positions?”

“I’m gonna keep running my circuit, but I’ll stay closer to the museum,” Flash answered. “That way I’ll be able to get there faster if he shows.”

“Yeah, ‘cause like, a split second is going to make a difference,” Ramon snorted.

“As a matter of fact, it might.” The smirk in Snart’s voice was audible. “You’re hacked into the museum security cameras?”

“And the CCTV in the area,” Dr. Snow confirmed. “The moment he gets close, we’ll know it.”

“Stop worrying so much, Lenny. It’ll go without a hitch.” Lisa was standing watch in STAR Labs, ostensibly so she could help coordinate since she was familiar with her brother’s methods. In reality, she was there to make sure Team Flash didn’t pull a fast one on them.

Realizing the pun he’d just made in his own thoughts, James rolled his eyes. Between Snart and the Flash, the damn puns were catching.

“What about Jimmy?” Rory’s voice echoed slightly, coming through his mic and Snart’s as well, indicating the two were probably crouched close together outside the museum. James ground his teeth on a snarl. As soon as Rory had realized that James didn’t like the other forms of his given name, the man had started using nothing but.

“James warned us he wasn’t going to check in, remember?” Lisa sounded overly patient in that way that James had learned meant she was exasperated.

Rory grunted. “Stupid. Not like the asshole’s there to hear him. How’re we supposed to know something didn’t go wrong and he ain’t where he’s supposed to be?”

“Because unless someone managed to knock him out without any of us hearing the fight over the comm, he would have told us if he wasn’t able to get into position. Since he wouldn't be in position to give himself away by doing so.” Unlike his sister, Snart sounded amused.

James kept going back and forth on whether he believed Rory was actually as stupid as he seemed, or if he just liked people to think he was. Surely if anyone would know the truth, it would be Snart, but although he was more tolerant of the need to constantly explain things to his partner, he still acted like it was necessary.

If it was an act, Rory had never once dropped it or slipped up, other than the fact that he maintained his heat gun with the same ease the Snart siblings took care of theirs.

“Operation starts in thirty seconds.” The anticipatory glee in Snart’s voice was loud and clear, like a kid being told he had free run of a candy store. “It’s show time!”

The urge to grin in reaction was strong, and James regretted the need for discipline. He didn’t get nearly enough chances to really smile. At least he still felt it on the inside.

The chatter fell quiet - Lisa had apparently impressed the need for silence and concentration during a job on Team Flash - and six and a half minutes later, Captain Cold and Heat Wave appeared at the far end of the hall. They were perfectly lined up in James’ scope, the sights aimed at a point between them.

It was the only entrance to this hall, so when Death Metal showed, he’d be dead to rights in James’ crosshairs.

His focus went from diamond to laser intensity. James slipped his finger into the trigger guard, feathering it slowly closer to the firing point. Death Metal probably wouldn't put in an appearance until they'd weakened the vault door for him again, but he couldn't be sure of that.

Thankfully, Snart and Rory were too good at their jobs to do something stupid like glance up at James. Snart waltzed up to the newly installed vault door and started laying out explosives with careful precision. James felt a little bad for the museum, having to replace the likely expensive piece of equipment twice in one week.

Especially since they were going to be losing some valuable pieces from inside the vault, too, if everything went according to the Rogues’ plan.

With a magnanimous gesture, Snart handed the detonator to Rory. The pyro’s grin was nearly too wide to be human as he took it and hit the button, setting off the charges and blowing the vault door clean off.

Out of nowhere, Death Metal was there. There were no approaching footsteps, no moment when he turned the corner… he just appeared in the middle of the hall, past the point James was aiming at.

Looking straight up at the vent, he gave James a jaunty salute, smirking.

“On your six,” James shouted, hastily adjusting his aim as the two Rogues whirled around. There was still the chance the metal vent would block the meta from being able to affect him, or maybe Snart and Rory could distract him long enough for James to get the shot off.

He didn’t bother with the scope, just lined up the sights and squeezed the trigger the last fraction of an inch. Even as he did, he felt the rifle jerk in his hands, and he had a sick feeling he knew what was coming.

Inhuman reflexes saved his sight and possibly his life; he managed to get his metal arm up to cover his eyes as the gun exploded.

It felt like someone had splashed acid across his face, burning agony everywhere but directly behind his arm. He’d turned his head enough that the left side had taken more impact, and a loud ringing sound in that ear suggested the noise might have been more than his enhanced healing ability could handle.

“He’s here and you didn’t warn us, that’s what’s going on.” Snart’s growl was nearly a match for Rory’s usual surly tones, though his words made no sense. “James, are you all right?”

“I’m…” James’ voice emerged as an unintelligible croak, and he coughed hard. He shifted his arm enough to be able to see past the ruined vent, into the hall, and pulled himself toward the opening. “I’m fine, don’t wor…”

The duct crumpled around him, squeezing punishingly tight, like a giant snake had swallowed him whole and was trying to pulverize his bones on the way down. Had he been a normal human, he’d have been crushed like a car in a compactor.

As it was, he was left gasping for air, feeling his rib muscles straining to lift against the unyielding pressure of the metal. Snarling every curse he knew in any language, James fought back, struggling with all his might to make even the slightest amount of space for himself.

“He’s wiping the floor with us, Scarlet, where the hell are you?” Snart shouted, and James finally realized he was only hearing half the conversation. His communicator must have been a victim of the blast as well.

The vent finished closing around him, leaving him wrapped up in a steel cocoon, completely unable to move, burned and bleeding. At least the bastard hadn't destroyed his arm again, but that wasn't much comfort. James was helpless and trapped, and he was going to end up arrested if Flash wasn't able to keep the police away.

And he'd fucking failed to take his target down. The Winter Soldier did not fail.

Below he could see Snart and Rory getting their asses handed to them. They’d stripped all the metal from their gear, but it didn’t help - Death Metal had brought his own.

Half a dozen steel cables whipped through the hallway, twisting and twining along the floor and through the air like they’d come alive. Two tangled Rory’s legs, and he hit the floor with a painful-sounding crash and an outraged bellow.

The other four were targeting Snart, and not just his feet. They wrapped around him like deadly vines, spiralling up his body, snarling his arms, and finally reaching for his throat.

Golden lightning brightened the hallway, and Flash came blasting in. “Death Metal! Let them go, this is between you and me.”

“That’s exactly where you’re wrong.” Death Metal sent more cables writhing along the hallway, creating obstacles the Flash had to keep dodging, slowly weaving a net that would capture the hero. “You’re the one interfering, here. Did you really think sinking this far would help you beat me, Snart? Calling for help, how pathetic.”

Desperate, James engaged the pneumatic systems in his arm and forced it outward with all its impossible strength. The metal of the duct warped and distorted beneath the pressure, reluctantly expanding and giving him enough space to catch half a breath. Growling, he kept pushing, trying to punch his hand through so he could grip an edge and tear it away.

Rory was on his feet, though visibly unsteady, shaking his head like he was disoriented. Death Metal was fully occupied with the Flash, and all the loose cables were engaged in the battle, so there was nothing to trip Rory up again.

He staggered over to Snart and gripped one of the cables tying him down, hauling until his face turned red with the strain, but he didn't manage to budge the metal. "Ah, fuck this shit," Mick declared. “I ain't getting arrested for a job we've botched twice. You're on your own, partner."

He ducked through the gaping door of the vault, and James heard crashing noises from within. An alarm went off, blaring over the clash of metal cables smashing against the walls, and a moment later Rory came running out. He had a bulging bag slung over his shoulder, and he bulled his way through the reaching cables with sheer strength.

“Goddamnit, Mick!” Snart’s shout was more of a breathless wheeze. Flash had distracted Death Metal in time to keep him from strangling Snart outright, but it sounded like suffocation might not be ruled out entirely.

The Flash was completely immobilized as well, a mass of tangled cables hiding him from view. Pained cries from within suggested he was alive but hurting. Death Metal appeared winded, but victorious, as he strolled toward Snart.

“You know, I think I’ll leave you like this. I doubt the guys in prison will be any more impressed with you turning into a hero’s bootlicker than I am.” He gave a low chuckle, distorted by the mask into a far more sinister sound. “Have fun.”

Pulling his arm in tight against his body, James gave himself a second to just breathe and focus. Then he slammed his fist sideways with as much force and momentum as he could get in the small space he’d created. He shouted in furious triumph as his knuckles crashed through the steel. Wrapping his fingers around the jagged edge, he started prying at the hole, peeling the metal back with agonizing slowness.

Death Metal ducked into the vault, and more crashes sounded. The alarm was still going off, and in the back of his mind James was counting off the seconds, each one bringing them closer and closer to the arrival of the police. If he and Snart weren’t gone by then, they’d be arrested.

That would be bad for Snart, certainly, but it would be an utter disaster for James. And the worst of it was, even if he did manage to free himself, Death Metal would just destroy his arm and leave him helpless again.

The metahuman in question reappeared, a much larger bag than Rory’s slung over his shoulder, also bulging with loot. He gave one last jaunty wave in James’ direction, smirked at Snart… and vanished as abruptly as he’d arrived.

James had enough of the duct side pried away that he was finally able to draw a full breath. Dizzy with the sudden rush of oxygen to his brain, he was forced to pause for a moment to recover and gather his wits. All the movement had aggravated his injuries, but they'd been reduced from agony to mere pain. Easily ignorable for the moment.

Though he was probably going to regret it later, when he had to pick the shrapnel out from beneath the skin trying to heal over it.

Panic was setting in. He could hear Snart gasping like a landed fish, struggling to get air the same way James had been. The Flash was trapped and injured, so there’d be no rescue from that quarter.

At least, so he thought, until he saw Flash force his way through the cables surrounding him. Literally through them, passing to the other side of the net as if they weren’t even there, vibrating so fast he was a blur even though he was standing still.

When he came into focus again, he was panting and there were bloody holes in his uniform, but he was free and moving under his own power, which was more than could be said of James and Snart.

“Well, that went nicely according to plan,” Flash snorted. He zipped over to Snart and James heard metal screech a protest, and then Snart was sucking in deep breaths as his airway was freed. “Where’s the Soldier?”

So much for the supposed other nickname Ramon had given him. James just hoped they weren’t stupid enough to call him the Winter Soldier in front of anyone else, or it would get back to HYDRA sooner rather than later that he was here.

“Up here,” he called, heaving again at the metal encasing him. “I’m…”

A booming crash in the near distance cut him off, followed by a rumble like thunder that didn’t know when to quit. It was audible even over the wail of the alarm, and the whole building shook for a moment.

“Son of a bitch!” James knew exactly what that had been - the explosion they’d set as a distraction for the Flash had just gone off. There was only one person who could have done it, and he damn well knew that Snart and James would be relying on Flash to free them before the cops arrived.

Heat Wave hadn’t just abandoned them. He’d completely fucked them over.

Chapter Text

When the explosion rocked the foundations of the bank, Len’s already shitty night took a dive for the worst cesspool in the sewers. Everything was going sideways in the most spectacular fashion, spiralling out of control, and there was nothing left of his beautiful plan but shattered fragments.

“Don’t you dare,” he snarled at Barry, who was already poised to run out. If the speedster left them here, they’d be caught for sure. Len struggled against the cables wrapped around him. “We had a deal, Flash. We’re here helping you!”

His earpiece crackled. “Looks like a gas main blew in a building under construction half a block away.” Cisco sounded worried. “No workers on site this late, but the fires are spreading to the apartments on either side fast.”

Any doubt that the explosion was Mick’s doing vanished with Cisco’s words. That was exactly where Len had instructed his partner to place the bombs, satisfying James’ insistence that innocents could be endangered, but not harmed outright.

Len was tied up as tight as a present wrapped by an overzealous seven-year-old with far too much tape. If Flash left, only James was going to be able to free Len from this trap… assuming that bastard Death Metal hadn’t trashed the Soldier’s arm again.

Even beneath the mask obscuring his features, Barry looked torn. “I can’t let people die to keep you out of jail, Snart, you know that.”

Over the comm, Lisa cursed. “So much for a hero’s word. Here I thought you lot were supposed to be better than us criminals.”

It took a lot to make Len lose his cool, but he was rapidly approaching that point. Not that it mattered much to him if he ended up back in Iron Heights. It would be annoying, especially having a criminal record again so soon after he’d coerced Flash into erasing the old one, but he’d broken out before and he could do it again.

James, however, was an entirely different story. As the man had warned Barry at STAR Labs, if word got out that the Winter Soldier was here, Central City would become a war zone. And Len was pretty damn sure James wouldn’t let himself be taken quietly, either.

The Rogues were Len’s responsibility, and he refused to let one go down on his watch. “At least get James out.” It was a struggle to make the words a demand, not a plea. “You know what will happen.”

No.” James’ voice was ragged with pain, and though the word was a command, his voice wavered like it cost him to say it. “If anyone dies because you stayed for us, I swear to god I’ll take it out of your hide myself, Flash. Get the fuck out of here and save them.”

Len didn’t even have time to draw breath for a protest before Barry was gone. “Son of a bitch!”

Lisa didn’t sound any more pleased than Len felt. “Next time you need help from the Rogues, remember today before you consider asking.”

Her voice had a dangerous edge in it, like the blade of a well-sharpened knife that had been whipped out of a hidden sheath. Lisa was very good at appearing sweet and entirely harmless, until you pissed her off.

The comms switched off abruptly, leaving Len and James alone with the wail of the alarm. Gritting his teeth, Len heaved at the cables once more, scraping skin and straining muscles as he fought to free himself. The only reason the police weren’t already here was because the Flash had convinced them to stay out of it until Death Metal was dealt with, but that reprieve would be over any second.

The scream of tortured metal sounded from above, and Len’s heart kicked into double time. “James? James!”

With a crash and a cloud of choking plaster dust, part of the ceiling collapsed, carrying James and a mangled section of ductwork with it. He landed hard enough to drive a pained grunt out of him, audible even over the alarm.

The vent was a tangled ruin still half closed around him, and James ripped the rest of the metal away with a violent motion of his left arm. He was visibly unsteady as he pushed to his feet and turned toward Len.

Whatever had happened up there, it was bad. Len’s eyes widened as he saw the ruined mess of James’ face, flesh burned and bleeding everywhere but a strip across his eyes. It looked like a chunk of his left ear had been blown off, too. Small wonder he was wobbling.

Len expected James to immediately make a break for it, and wouldn’t have blamed the man if he had. Unlike Mick, James had damn good reason to refuse to be caught. Yet not even a hint of hesitation crossed James’ expression as he strode toward Len instead of the exit.

“Are you insane? Get the hell out of here,” Len ordered him.

“Not without you.” James grabbed the first cable with his left hand and wrenched it away from Len’s body. This close, Len could see that while there might not be hesitation, there was definitely agonized fear in the man’s expression. The decision not to leave wasn’t easy for him.

“Won’t be my first trip to Iron Heights, and probably not my last,” Len tried to reason with him. “You and the Rogues can break me out later.”

James ignored him, gripping the next cable and unwrapping it as well. Len could move his right arm now, and he grabbed another cable himself, but couldn’t budge it. When James yanked at it, the damn thing moved like it was made of putty.

Finally Len was able to wiggle himself loose enough for James to haul him out, grabbing him under the arms and lifting. More skin was scraped bloody against the rough metal, and when James set him down Len staggered, his ankle giving way beneath him.

Growling, James scooped him up again, bridal style this time. Len didn’t bother to protest the indignity of the position, just wrapped his arms around James’ neck and hung on as the metahuman bolted for the exit.

The alarm cut off abruptly, and Len cursed. “The cops are here.”

“I know.” James didn’t falter, didn’t even slow down. Was he planning to fight his way free, injured and hampered by Len in his arms, both of them completely unarmed?

The main entrance was straight ahead through two open doors, the glass panes giving a clear view of the street beyond. Len saw blue and red lights flashing outside, and the buildings were lit with the hellish glow caused by the nearby fire.

Then James took an abrupt right turn, and Len frowned. “They’ll have the back covered, too.”

“I know.” The ragged, breathless quality to James’ voice told Len the assassin was in worse shape than he was admitting to.

They took another turn and hit the first fire door, but instead of continuing outside, James took the stairs up. Len couldn’t help himself. “There’s no ground access from the roof.”

This time James just growled at him. Chastised, Len hunkered down and let James save his breath for running. He did know what he was doing, and having Len backseat driving couldn’t be helping him concentrate.

God knew how much Len hated it when Lisa and Mick tried to do it to him.

James was taking the stairs three at a time, and even carrying Len he was moving faster than any normal human could hope to. It didn’t matter how many times Len saw evidence of what the man could do, he would always be startled and impressed.

When they burst out onto the roof, the first thing Len saw was the fire. It was well placed, he had to give Mick that. The half-constructed building was going to be a write-off, and the fire was licking eagerly at the apartments on either side. The Flash was zipping through the buildings, evacuating the residents, just as they’d planned.

Too bad nothing else was going according to the plan.

Pausing for a moment, James glanced around the rooftop. Len could almost see the gears turning as he took in and catalogued all their surroundings. As Len had already warned him, there was no way off the roof and no buildings to jump to. Most were higher than the museum by several stories, and the only one that was lower was across the street. Much too far to jump to.

Or so Len thought, until James moved to the opposite side of the roof and then turned, bracing himself like he was about to run. He shot a look at Len, and despite the damage to his face and the dire situation, there was a gleam of shit-eating amusement in his eyes. “You trust me, right?”

Looking from him to the roof across the way, Len felt his chest squeeze. The red and blue flashing lights were all clustered at that side of the building, which meant when they fell, they’d be smack in the middle of the police.

“Are you out of your mi...iiiiiiiind!” The last part came out as a shout - not a scream, thank you very much. Len thought he could be excused for that much, totally justified as James launched himself from the edge of the roof and they flew across the space between.

The red and blue lit them from below, and Len heard cries of astonishment and disbelief as his shout drew the attention of the cops. He clung hard to James, knowing if he slipped free it was going to be a very painful landing.

Gravity was inexorable, and they dropped as they went, until Len thought they weren’t going to make it after all. Splattering against the wall a foot below the roof wouldn’t be a dignified way to go, either. Somehow they cleared it, though James clipped the edge of the roof and fouled the landing badly.

Twisting in midair, James fell so his metal arm hit the ground first, skidding across the tarred gravel of the rooftop with sparks flying. Len’s pants were shredded on one side and he was pretty sure the shoes were going to be a write-off, but James definitely took the brunt of the damage. His back was going to be so much raw meat.

They fetched up against some kind of vent housing with enough impact to make James grunt, but they were alive and across the street. For a long moment Len just lay there in the Soldier’s arms, winded and stunned.

Then he started laughing, an edge of hysteria creeping into otherwise genuine amusement. Len pushed himself to his feet, wobbling on his twisted ankle, and leaned down to offer his newest partner a hand up. “You are one crazy bastard, James Barnes. I’m impressed.”

It was a sign of how badly hurt James was that he actually accepted the offer of help and let Len pull him to his feet, but he froze once he was up. Len yelped as James’ hand nearly crushed his, punishingly tight.

Too late, he realized he’d used the man’s full name. James glared at him with the same half-wild look he’d given Cisco every time the engineer had mentioned the Soldier, and if he squeezed any harder he was going to start breaking bones.

“The cops saw where we landed, they’ll be up here any second,” Len gritted out, hoping the threat of being caught would override the threat of Len knowing who he was.

Sure enough, James cursed under his breath and released Len, looking around and assessing the area. “They’ll be covering the fire escape at the side. We need to go off the back. Gonna carry you again.”

Despite the way James had looked ready to take him out a moment before, Len nodded. With his ankle hurt and the cops just below, the only chance he had of making it out of here was with James’ help. If the man had intended to hurt him, he wouldn’t be helping now.

Unless he was waiting for a chance to grill Len properly, when they were alone in a secure area. Given what had been done to him over the past seven decades, James undoubtedly had a much better idea of how to torture and break a man than most people.

With an effort, Len shoved the thought out of his head. There was no other choice, and nothing he could do about it.

James took the single story jump to the ground like he was hopping off a table, no apparent effort. Then they were running through the twisting alleys towards the street where they’d left the getaway car, a few blocks in the opposite direction from the fire.

Really, Len wished he could say he was surprised when they turned the last corner and discovered the tiny road empty and deserted.

Cursing, James staggered to a halt and set Len down, both of them leaning against the brick wall behind them for support. James’ chest heaved as he struggled for air, and the look in his eyes promised bloody mayhem when he got his hands on Mick. Combined with the ruin of his face, his expression was all but demonic. “That son of a bitch betrayed us.”

“Technically, it would only be a betrayal if I’d expected something else. Mick is loyal, but this isn’t the first time he’s looked after number one first when shit really hit the fan.” Len shrugged, and bent to feel along the side of his leg that had scraped over the roof. The pants were definitely destroyed, but they’d saved him from a far worse injury. There were some bloody scratches, but nothing that wouldn’t heal once he washed it out.

“I’m not talking about him running off.” James’ voice had that dangerous growl to it that Len was learning meant he was truly pissed and ready to do something about it. “I’m talking about him selling us out.”

Len turned his head, staring at James. "You think Mick betrayed us?" he asked, his flat, cold tone a clear indication of what he thought of that. That was impossible, wasn't it? Mick was angry, and unpredictable, but when it came down to it, they were a team. His anger and discontent about James wouldn't make him do that.

Would it?

“Death Metal knew exactly where I was, before he got here.” James appeared undeterred by Len’s attitude toward the suggestion. “He didn't make his showy entrance right at the door where I was aiming, he appeared just far enough into the corridor to be past my ability to shift targets to him quickly, and he fucking saluted me. Then he blew the gun up in my face.”

Well, that certainly explained the damage. And did raise a few interesting questions. Len frowned, his analytical mind picking the situation apart. “Only the four of us and Team Flash knew exactly what the plan was. Nobody else should have known where to look for you. You'd think if he can detect metal, you'd have been hidden by the vent itself."

“Flash’s crew are hero types. They might betray us to catch us, though I doubt it, but they’d never sell us out to a bad guy.” James said the words with absolute conviction, and Len had to agree with him. “Of the three of us in there tonight, only one was able to walk away. Death Metal completely incapacitated you and me, but he only tripped Rory up. Why? Why risk having him still mobile and capable of attacking? He fucking made it out with the loot.”

God damn it, what James was saying made sense, but Len refused to believe it. He and Mick had their ups and downs, and it had certainly been a bit of a down since James joined the Rogues. He actually could imagine Mick setting things up so James would be captured, to get him out of the picture, but not Len.

It was true that his partner was a criminal, and unpredictable at the best of times. There had definitely been jobs when each of them had considered the possibility that the other one had betrayed them. Hell, there had been jobs where they’d each done shit the other one did consider a betrayal.

But this wasn't Len lying about the true plan of a heist to keep Mick from fucking everything up, or Mick going off half-cocked and getting them all caught because he cared more about setting fires than doing his job. This wasn’t even as simple as cutting and running to avoid getting caught.

If Mick had really sold them out to Death Metal, that was a serious, premeditated decision. The kind you could never come back from.

"Mick wouldn't betray me like this." Len’s fists tightened until they were white and trembling. He couldn’t believe it. He couldn’t.

Since they were fourteen years old, he and Mick had been a team, watching each other’s backs. Though Mick was who he was, and they’d been fighting more than usual recently, Len couldn’t believe Mick would go out, meet a metahuman who had cost him a score, and plot with him against his own partner.

Unless… maybe he’d figured he’d break Len out of jail later, no harm done. Wouldn’t be the first time, and probably not the last. Hell, Mick and Lisa could probably coerce the Flash into helping in some way, playing on the hero’s guilt for leaving them to be caught in the first place. Lisa laying the guilt trip on thick made sense in that context…

But she had no reason to want James gone, and plenty to want him to stay. After all her effort to encourage Len to take a chance on the man, there was no way she’d have plotted to get rid of him. Not Lisa, then. But Mick…

Yeah, this was the kind of stupid, short-sighted idiocy he could believe Mick would indulge in. Didn’t mean it was true, but the possibility shouldn’t be ignored.

“Fuck.” Len spat the word out, thumping his fist against the wall behind them. “Fine, I’ll have a little chat with him.” James growled again, and Len pointed a finger at him, scowling. “You stay out of it. This is my crew, and I’ll run it the way I see fit. If he did betray us, I’ll get it out of him, and he’s not going to get off with a slap on the wrist. But he’s been my partner for decades. I’m not jumping to conclusions.”

“Well, I sure as hell didn’t sell us out. Considering you were an inch from suffocating, I know you didn’t, either. The only other explanation is that someone’s been spying on us.” James shook his head. “Between your paranoia and mine, that whole place is a giant trap for anyone who tries to sneak in. It doesn’t seem possible we were overheard.”

“Anything is possible. And we will get to the bottom of it.” Len huffed, and pushed himself off the wall. His ankle throbbed a protest, but it was only twisted, not broken. He couldn’t run, but he could damn well walk, and they needed to get out of here. “In the meantime, cool your damn jets and let’s focus on continuing to not get caught. I’ve got medical supplies back at the warehouse.”

Though clearly unhappy, James nodded and followed him, and didn’t say anything further on the matter.

The problem was, Len couldn’t shut off his own thoughts about it.

Half a block down the road, they found an old sedan that had been left unlocked. It took Len all of about five seconds to hotwire it, and then they were properly mobile again. He’d have to get Lisa to take the car and ditch it somewhere away from the warehouse, because James needed medical attention sooner rather than later.

“Death Metal is breaking the rules,” he said, thinking aloud as much as talking to James. “I don't think any of the other metahumans have shown up with two separate powers as different as metal bending and invisibility.”

"Maybe the invisibility isn't his." At least James sounded contemplative rather than angry now. "Nothing says the guy has to be working alone, right? If his partner had a power like that, no reason we'd ever see him."

“No reason we’d ever see Death Metal, either.” Len’s eyes narrowed, and only part of his attention was on the road. “”Why show himself at all?”

“From what he said to the Flash, it sounds like you’re his target.” James started to rub at his face, then winced and dropped his hand. “Got anyone gunning for you right now?”

“Too many to count. I suppose it’s possible one of the Santorini family has developed metahuman powers, but if that’s the case, I wouldn’t expect him to bother hiding his identity.” Len tapped his fingers against the steering wheel in an irregular pattern.

“If he’s got someone invisible working with him, maybe that person could get into the hideout and spy on us.” James’ tone suggested he still didn’t think the possibility was very likely.

Len had to agree with his tone rather than his words. “Not unless he or she’s invisible to infrared as well. I’ve got a few stolen high-tech toys scattered around that have other methods of spotting an intruder.”

“I could get in,” James pointed out. “I got into your apartment, and it’s locked up tighter than the warehouse. I’m a bit of a special case, but there are others out there as good or better in this particular area.”

“The odds of there being another free agent top level assassin or thief metahuman in the area seem staggeringly low.” Len cocked an eyebrow at him.

“You realize you’re leading us right back to my first theory, right?”

Irritated at the reminder, Len scowled. “I swear, if you quote Arthur Conan Doyle at me…” James looked confused, and Len snorted. “You know. If you eliminate the impossible, whatever’s left, however improbable, must be the truth?”

“You said it, not me.” James leaned back in his seat, closing his eyes. It made the pale stripe across his face, presumably where he’d shielded himself with his arm, all the more obvious against the blackened and bloody skin.

Damage that had been caused by Death Metal, impossibly, knowing exactly where the sniper was. Before he got to the museum, or how did he know not to come through the hall doors? Len ground his teeth, and tried not to let the quote echo in his mind.

If you eliminate the impossible...

Chapter Text

James was quiet for the rest of the drive. That wasn't unusual for him; long silences were something of a default state, especially if he was focused on something. He felt no need to fill a silence with meaningless chatter - never had, though that might surprise people who’d known him as Bucky. It was only that he’d had more to say, back then.

Now, although he was trying to focus, he kept getting lost in a daze of pain. He'd been enhanced to withstand damage and trained to ignore the injuries he did take. The Soldier never allowed anything to distract him on a mission. Sitting quietly in the car now that the job had finished was another matter. James knew he should be thinking, planning for contingencies, but his mind refused to function properly.

Far worse than the pain he felt was the agony his body and mind were convinced was still to come. Tonight’s operation had been nothing if not an unqualified failure, and failure was not an option for the Winter Soldier.

It didn’t matter how many times James reminded himself that he was free of HYDRA and nobody was going to punish him for unsuccessful completion of a mission. Years of conditioning had driven home the lesson that failure led to agony, and he couldn’t shake the conviction that it would be true this time as well.

They pulled in behind the warehouse, the old car’s suspension no match for the rutted gravel that ‘paved’ the area. The bouncing helped jolt James back into focus, though he couldn’t quite stifle a hiss of pain.

The sound, quiet though it was, drew Snart’s attention. The other man’s concern was poorly concealed as he examined him with a critical eye. He opened his mouth with an obvious question, but James shook his head, unwilling to discuss his injuries and weaknesses in front of Lisa, who was already running toward them from the building.

Then he blinked, and swore under his breath as he realized he’d been more lost in the fog of his mind than he’d thought. The factory they were parked outside of was completely unfamiliar. “Where…?”

“Fallback hideout,” Snart told him, throwing open the driver’s door and climbing out. “Or rather, the new one I was already planning to move to. Lisa’s been arranging it, but I hadn’t told you or Mick about it yet. If we’re being watched at the old place, it’s past time to move on. Don’t worry, the plan to change locations was never discussed there.”

If Rory didn’t know about it either, then it was likely a safe location for now. Relaxing marginally, James pushed his door open as well, and climbed out.

Or tried to. He had to grab the roof of the car and haul himself to his feet, dizzy with the imbalance that seemed to be plaguing his inner ear as it healed. He didn't get injured badly very often, and he hated it every time it happened.

Lisa’s sharp eyes flicked over her brother from head to toe, then gave James an equally thorough examination. “I’ve got the medical supplies set up in the basement. Let me help you inside.” Her grim expression promised bloody retribution for every cut and scrape - whether to Death Metal for causing them or team Flash for abandoning them, James couldn’t be sure. Possibly both.

Snart waved her off. “First I need you to ditch the car. I didn’t have time to be circuitous or change vehicles, so make sure you dump it somewhere far. Swing by Saints and Sinners, see if you can find Mick - he’ll head there when he realizes we’re not coming back to the warehouse.”

Wary of the idea of bringing Mick to their new hiding spot, James cut Snart a look. The other man shrugged.

“I’m going to have words with him, as promised. But I’m not going to assume the worst of my partner until I have proof one way or the other. Mick’s a selfish bastard, but he’s never been a rat.”

“You think Mick sold us out?” Lisa looked back and forth between them, wide-eyed.

“No.” The single word from Snart dropped the temperature of the surrounding area by a good few degrees..

“I’m just saying, don’t dismiss the idea out of hand ‘cause you don’t want to believe it.” James still thought it was the only possibility that made any sense, but he had to admit the Snart siblings knew the man better than he did. “Him bolting was bad enough, but he knew damn well blowing the building would prevent the Flash from getting us out of there.”

“Car,” Snart ordered, pointing at Lisa, then swung the finger to James. It was clear he wouldn’t discuss the issue of Rory any further. “Inside. Before someone spots us out here and reports some shady characters loitering around to the cops. We don’t need that kind of heat right now.”

Recognizing the wisdom of the words, James ducked his head and trudged inside without any further argument. Snart limped along beside him, favouring his injured ankle but able to put some weight on it. Not broken, then.

Inside, the old factory was eerily still and quiet. There was a stale, musty quality to the air that James associated with abandoned buildings, and a tang of rust from the old equipment within.

Dust lay like a thick blanket over everything in sight, except where it had been recently disturbed. Tracks of footprints wandered about with no apparent rhyme or reason, as if someone had been casing the place. A wider, cleaner trail led into the warehouse, as if that path had been traced repeatedly.

Snart was far too shrewd and paranoid to allow a sign that obvious pointing to the hideout area. If there was a clear path, that was exactly where James didn’t want to go.

Sweeping his gaze over the floor more carefully, James spotted a set of tracks where the stride length was too short to match the size of the prints. The edges were blurred, as if dust had drifted over them in some spots and then been disturbed a second or third time.

Someone had carefully walked over their own tracks, several times. Probably Lisa first, then Snart matching her prints, explaining the shortened stride. James followed that track, placing his steps where the others had fallen, winding in and out of the remaining equipment and trying not to lose his balance or stagger.

“It disturbs me how easily you found that.” Snart sounded annoyed but resigned, and when James glanced back over his shoulder he found the other man sporting a wry smile. “In the dark, while injured and dizzy, no less. Should I be worried?”

“A normal person would never spot it.” The dust hanging heavy in the air made him sneeze, something that proved to be an unpleasant experience when his face was already throbbing. “I assume you’ve got traps everywhere but the real path?”

“Not as many as I’d like, but we were still getting set up. You can help arrange the rest when you’re back up to a hundred percent.” Snart winced as he set his weight carefully on his sprained ankle, unable to allow himself to limp without disturbing the tracks. “Speaking of which, what do you need?”

“To wash as much of this crap off as possible, as soon as I can.” Getting rid of the gunpowder residue before cutting the shrapnel out of his face would lessen the chance of infection. Likewise cleaning out the gravel and dirt from his back, where that hadn’t started to heal over. His body was resistant to infection, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. It would be a bitch to deal with if it did set in.

The path led to a door set into the back wall, half hidden by a conveyer belt and giving every impression of being rusted shut. James tugged on the handle and nothing budged. He could rip it free, but since this was his hideout, that didn’t seem like a great idea.

Snart pushed past him to reveal a hidden keypad, making no effort to prevent James from seeing the code he punched in. The move brushed their bodies together in a way that brought forbidden desire rushing in, the wintery scent of him sending a shiver of awareness rippling across James’ nerves.

He growled, annoyed with himself for being aware of such frivolous and unnecessary things. At all, let alone while still technically on an op. Annoyed with Snart, too, for initiating the contact. Though James had to admit, since their little ‘discussion’, the man no longer touched him constantly.

Maybe if James kept telling himself often enough that he was grateful, not disappointed, he’d start to believe it.

“Shower’s to the left,” Snart said as he led the way down a staircase so steep and narrow, it might have been better described as a ladder. “Make yourself at home”

“What about you? That ankle needs attention, and you should wash out your leg where the gravel scraped it."

"I'm doing just fine, now." Snart shrugged, apparently unworried about his own health, but there was another not quite buried glimpse of concern in his eyes when he looked at James. “Got some scrapes and bruises, but you look like you're going to collapse on me. There’s a sink in the kitchen, I’ll wash up there."

Satisfied that Snart wasn’t simply ignoring his own wounds, James nodded and headed to the left. There was no doubt he had the more extensive injuries, so it made sense for him to take the shower.

Which was good, because he wanted to wash away the lingering thoughts and memories of the Soldier even more than the blood and grime. In the bathroom, he cranked the water up as hot as it would go, shed his filthy stolen uniform, and stepped under the scalding spray with a groan that was as much pleasure as pain.

HYDRA had never allowed him something as luxurious as a hot shower. Oh, they kept him clean and functioning, and when he’d done well on a mission they often let him take care of that himself, but it was cold water and harsh soap. Anything more might have made him feel like a human instead of a weapon.

Exactly what he was hoping to accomplish right now, because he still couldn’t shake the bone-deep certainty that punishment was coming.

The thought made his chest go tight with panic, until his pulse turned frantic in an attempt to beat free. Acid fingers crept up into his throat to choke him and steal his air. Grinding his teeth, James clung to the feel of the hot water pouring over him as tangible proof that he was free and safe.

Inevitably, the water began to cool. Quickly he wrenched the tap off before it could grow cold and risk plunging him straight into the terrifying memories he was trying to escape. Grabbing a towel, he wiped himself down with a rough hand, hissing as the coarse cloth rubbed over his face and back.

Both of which still needed attention. Sighing, James cleared the fog off the tiny mirror with the towel, then wrapped the cloth around his waist. Slipping a small throwing blade free from his equipment belt on the floor, he stood and regarded the mess of his face in the reflection.

Definitely going to have to dig some shrapnel out from under the inflamed, bumpy areas where his skin had healed over it. His back probably needed the same, and James wasn’t sure how the hell he was going to accomplish that.

For once, he wished for the heavy restraints and delicate hands of HYDRA’s techs. They’d have made short work of the wounds, and while they wouldn’t have taken any care for his comfort, it wasn’t like he had anesthetic now.

This was going to hurt like a royal son of a bitch, even for him.

Blood poured over his chin and dripped into the sink as he set about his grisly task. Dampening a second towel, he used it to wipe the heavy liquid from his skin as it obscured the areas he needed to work on. In moments the towel was spotted and streaked with red and watered-down pink.

A knock on the door startled him, and his hand jerked sideways. He barely avoided slicing into his eye. The near-miss, coupled with embarrassment that he’d allowed himself to stop paying attention to his surroundings, made him surly. “What?”

“Checking to see if you’re still on your feet.” Snart sounded cautious, probably due to James’ angry tone. “I’ve got clean clothes if you’re interested.”

God, yes, he was interested. James had been half afraid he’d have to put the torn, dirty uniform back on until he could get to one of his equipment caches. He yanked open the door and snatched the pile of clothes out of Snart’s hands, then paused as the other man’s eyes went wide in shock and horror.

“What in God’s name are you doing in there?” Snart demanded. Horror turned to anger, and shock morphed into… concern? Worry? Upset?

It took James a moment to realize what had caused the reaction. When he did understand, it was something of a revelation. The fresh, clearly self-inflicted slices on his face had led Snart to the conclusion that James was hurting himself, without understanding the reason why.

Snart cared. Cared that James was hurt, cared that further pain was being caused, cared that there might be something wrong.

This time the vise that clamped down on James’ chest had nothing to do with memories of torture and fear, and everything to do with ones of comfort and… and love. Rogers might have looked at him that way, if it had been him standing there instead of Snart.

Snart didn’t love him, but it was gratifying to know the man counted James as one of his own enough to care.

“There’s shrapnel buried under the skin. Needs to come out, and there’s no other way it’s gonna happen.” James’ voice came out gruffer than he’d have liked. He cleared his throat, and tried to shake off the unsettling thoughts.

Anger faded, but the concern remained and left Snart frowning. He caught James’ chin and tipped his face to the light, and James allowed the touch. Whatever he saw made Snart’s scowl deepen, but there was a hint of awe in his eyes as well. “Fuck, how fast do you heal?”

“Sometimes Enhancements ain’t all they’re cracked up to be.” James shrugged, and pulled away. The discussion reminded him of another issue that needed addressing, however. “You know who I really am.” Now that his initial shock at hearing his full name had passed, James couldn’t quite decide how he felt about Snart knowing it.

Wariness slammed shutters down over Snart’s eyes, hiding any other reaction he might have had to the change in topic. The man was damn good at bluffing, James would give him that. “I did some research. I want to know as much as I can about all of my crew.”

That, James would believe. It wasn’t even the fact that Snart had gone digging that bothered him. The other man’s meticulous nature would have demanded he follow up on the information Ramon had spilled about the Winter Soldier.

What bothered James was that he’d reached the right conclusion so quickly. “You tell anyone else?”

“Not a soul.” Snart was a thief and a liar, and accomplished at both, but for some reason James actually believed him. “Not planning to, either. Frankly, that kind of information is pure gold if sold to the right people, and I wouldn’t trust anyone else on the crew to resist the temptation. Lisa, maybe, but there’s no reason she needs to know.”

“So why are you resisting?” Not that HYDRA would actually pay an informant, no matter what they promised. They’d far more likely kill the person, to ensure the secret couldn’t be sold elsewhere as well.

To his surprise, Snart grinned. “I plan for the long term whenever possible, and you’re worth far more to me on an ongoing basis as one of the Rogues than as a single-punch meal ticket. Besides. I like knowing things nobody else does.”

The smug, satisfied purr in the last words convinced James that Snart meant what he said. Nodding, James turned back to the bathroom, and Snart grunted behind him. Snagging James by the right shoulder, Snart tugged him around again.

“Your back isn’t much better than your face,” he replied to James’ questioning look. “No way you’re going to be able to reach that yourself. Come into the kitchen - that knife ought to be heated sterile anyway.”

“I’ll get blood all over the floor.” More importantly, it would mean allowing Snart to stand at his back with a sharp knife, and trusting the man not to hurt him. The fact that James even allowed himself to contemplate accepting was a warning that he was dropping his guard too far with this man.

“It’s concrete, and there’s a drain in the floor. Not sure what the room was originally built for, but it would make a good horror movie set.” Turning, Snart headed back toward the stairs. The hall must lead to the main room as well. “Put the jeans on if your legs are okay, and meet me there.”

The words were a clear order, and part of James wanted to object and disobey simply to prove nobody ran his life but him, now. The more rational part of him was still stunned by the caring and worry Snart had displayed on his behalf, and knew the man was simply being a good leader.

Rogers had been like that, as a leader. More so, actually. A lot of what Snart did with the Rogues was cold and calculated, which was part of why James was stunned that he’d somehow made it into the inner circle. But Rogers… Steve...

Memories swam to the surface, of Steve poking and prodding the Commandos into taking care of themselves - often while he went dangerously short on rations or pushed through injuries he shouldn’t have ignored. Even before the serum, Steve had always been trying to take care of everyone around him, putting their needs ahead of his own.

God damn it, he needed his journal. He’d tucked the current one away in his knapsack with the completed books, securely hidden in the warehouse hideout while he was on this mission.

The same warehouse hideout that had been compromised by Death Metal and his crew, and which the Rogues weren’t planning to return to.

Cold sweat broke out on James’ body, chilling him to the bone. If he’d been the one in charge of switching the base of operations, he’d have destroyed the old one to ensure nothing was left behind that could be used to track or incriminate him. Snart struck him as having much the same mindset.

Everything he’d fought so hard to regain, all the dreams and memories and pieces of his shattered life he’d so painstakingly reconstructed, might have been destroyed. Again. And this time, he had only himself to blame.

Chapter Text

As quickly as he could, James hauled on the jeans and headed after Snart. Most of the information in the journals was still floating around in his head in some form or another. But having it all written down helped him keep it straight and connect the fragments together to show more of the puzzle picture.

If he had to start from scratch, write it all out again, he’d lose some of those pieces. Drop the connecting links. Maybe even jumble it up further. The whole point of the journals was to not have to start all over from square one.

On the other side of the stairs, the hallway opened out into a single large room. The ‘kitchen’ turned out to be little more than a sink, a small bar fridge, and a two-burner camp stove next to stacks of canned goods and MRE packs. James made absent note of the pile of extra propane canisters as potential incendiary weapons in case of an attack.

Habit and paranoia died hard, and James paused to survey the large room that had been sectioned off into ‘kitchen’, ‘working’, and ‘tech gear’ spaces. There were no windows, no obvious exits except the stairs they’d come down. He frowned. “Tell me there’s another route out of here.”

Already at work heating a knife blade over the camp stove, Snart jerked his thumb toward the opposite wall. “There’s a door behind those crates hiding a tunnel that leads into the next building. The rug over there is covering an opening into the sewer this drain leads to. They’re both bolted from the inside - though I suppose that’s not going to stop Death Metal.”

Satisfied that they weren’t trapped, James returned to his first concern. “Did Lisa do anything to destroy the evidence at the old hideout?”

He tried his best to be casual about the question, but acting was not one of the abilities HYDRA had felt the Soldier required. Snart cocked his head and raised an eyebrow, his curious and evaluating look suggesting James hadn’t fooled him in the least.

“Since we hadn’t planned to move yet, the answer is no. We’ll have to make a run back to the old place to break it down and get the rest of our equipment, and then I’ll let Mick torch it. Worried about somebody tracking you? Or did you leave something important behind?”

James actually felt his knees weaken at the news. Thank God. The journals would still be there. He wasn’t sure how he’d retrieve them without the others noticing, but he’d find a way. Somehow, he managed to keep his voice even. “Nothing you need to worry about. Just don’t burn it before I’ve had a chance to get my stuff.”

He moved over to the large table clearly meant for blueprints and planning, and swung one of the chairs around. He settled into it in reverse position, wrapping his arms around the back and clutching at the edges to anchor his hands.

As when Snart had poked at his arm, James worried that the pain from the makeshift operation might make him lash out - especially with the way fear and memories kept trying to drag him under, tonight.

“Want some painkillers?” Snart offered, probably seeing his tension. “Or maybe some whiskey?”

“Won’t help. They’ll run through my system so fast I won’t even notice them.” James paused, considering. “Antibiotics can’t hurt though, if you’ve got any handy.”

Turning away from the stove, Snart gave him a pained, almost offended look. “Are you saying you can’t get drunk?” When James shook his head, the other man grimaced. “Now that’s what I call inhumane torture.”

“No. It’s not.” Even James could hear the dangerous edge in his flat statement. The gallows humour Snart was so fond of not only missed the mark at the moment, it dug deep like a barb burrowing beneath James’ skin. “You know nothing about torture, if you think an inability to get drunk even lives in the same fucking universe.”

There was a pause while James struggled to get himself under control. Snart was eyeing him like a housecat who’d woken up grumpy from a nap and transformed into a raging tiger. Sighing, James started to rub at the bridge of his nose, aborting the motion when his sliced up skin protested. “Maybe we shouldn’t do this right now.”

“Has to be done, and the sooner, the better. What’s got you wound up so bad?” Snart dragged another chair over and settled in at James’ back, but the lines of tension in his body suggested he was ready to duck and cover at any sign of a problem.

Trouble was, there wouldn’t be a sign, or at least not one early enough for Snart to react to. If James snapped, it would be far too late for Snart to save himself. He had to calm down.

“Nothing. Everything.” James ducked his head, staring at the scarred and pitted surface of the table, focusing on it as something concrete and real. “HYDRA… didn’t tolerate failure real well.”

“Understatement of the century, I’m guessing.” Snart sounded like he was trying for a neutral tone, but some sympathy crept in anyway. “I know a bit about consequences for failing. My old man spent years bitching that I never could learn a lesson right.”

James’ first instinct was to snap at him, repeat his assertion that Snart knew nothing about what real punishment was like. Before he could open his mouth, his fingertips tingled with the remembered sensation of gliding over the multitude of bumps and ridges on the other man’s body.

Maybe Snart did know something about torture and punishment. It wasn’t the sort of thing James ever wanted to have in common with someone, but at the same time, the connection helped to ground him. “Does it ever stop feeling like you’re waiting for the ax to fall?”

There was silence for a long moment, so long that James thought the other man wasn’t going to answer. When he glanced up, he found Snart studying the sterilized knife blade with the same intensity James had been glaring at the table a moment before.

“Not so much an ax. It was usually a belt, in my case.” The gruffness in Snart’s voice gave the lie to his flippant delivery. It clearly wasn’t easy for him to talk about the subject. “Every once in a while I still catch myself looking over my shoulder. Mostly, I only think about it at night.”

In nightmares. James knew about those, all too well. He wished it surprised him to know they would never go away.

Apparently deciding the conversation had grown far too heavy, Snart flipped the knife around to a better grip for precision work. “This is going to hurt.” He was pointing out the obvious, but James suspected it was more to warn that he was about to make contact than anything else.

Sure enough, a moment later a line of fire sliced itself into the muscles of James’ back. He bit down on a grunt and forced himself to stay motionless. Despite the pain, it didn’t bother him to have Snart at his back with a weapon nearly as much as James had expected it to.

God, he really was going too soft for this man. He couldn’t afford to trust anyone implicitly.

The next touch wasn’t the knife, but rather Snart’s thumbs digging into the tense muscle of James’ neck and shoulders, stroking the way he had when he’d been examining the metal arm junction.

Shuddering, James gasped, nearly a yelp, but it wasn’t a pleasant reaction. “Christ, your hands are fucking freezing!”

“Sorry.” A snort of badly muffled laughter made it hard to believe the apology was sincere. The crazy bastard liked being cold. “Occupational hazard.”

“Bullshit. You didn’t even have your freeze ray on you tonight, let alone fire it.”

“Excuse you. It’s a cold gun, not a freeze ray.” Snart stroked again, pushing his thumbs along the muscle, forcing the tension to ease. “Lisa had it and Mick’s gun with her so she could bring them to us after, and she left them here. I was checking on mine when I realized how long you’d been in there.”

Another flare of pain slashed through his flesh as a rock was pried free, and again it was followed by a soothing stroke along less damaged skin. Like a reward for James putting up with the necessary agony, or a reminder that the damage was meant to heal, not hurt.

With each gentle stroke between slices, Snart’s touch grew warmer and firmer. He kept making soft noises, too, hushing James or murmuring ‘easy’. Even though it drew out the whole process, it was the smartest thing he could have done, keeping James anchored in the here and now.

Smart, but also frustrating as hell. It didn’t take long before James was shuddering for another reason entirely. Despite the pain that lashed at him in between, the contact felt good. Too good, and while he appreciated the way it was distracting him from the torture, he didn’t appreciate what it was distracting him with.

Images of Snart running his hands over James’ body like he was worshipping the flesh, searching for the most sensitive spots. Memories of pleasure, overwhelming pleasure like nothing James could remember ever feeling before. He wanted to feel it again, so badly he ached with it.

So badly he’d seriously contemplated the idea of taking Snart up on his no-strings offer. Had even thought about going out and finding a pretty dame to dance with, as his fragmented memories suggested he’d done many times before.

Problem was, trusting a stranger enough to allow himself to show that much vulnerability was unthinkable. Doing it with Snart would only fan the flames, make him want it again even more, coax him to drop his guard even further. That was unappealing for all the reasons he’d already given the other man.

James knew he should tell Snart to knock it off, to concentrate on the job at hand and stop taking the excuse to touch. Knew he should, but couldn’t bring himself to do so. He was enjoying it far too much.

The longing was a weakness he couldn’t afford, like any other sort of weakness or vulnerability. At the same time, as on edge as he already was after the failure of the night, James thought the intermittent reminders of a world beyond the pain might be the only thing keeping him anchored in the here and now.

“All right, I think we’re good.” Snart’s voice was a huskier version of his damn purr, suggesting he wasn’t unaffected by all the touching, either. “Gonna wipe some antiseptic on, so brace yourself.”

Gritting his teeth, James tensed up and hung on tight to the table as Snart slathered his back with what felt like acid. While he rubbed the disinfectant over the wounds with one hand, his other kneaded at James’ nape again, clever fingers dancing over the tight muscles.

“Enough,” James ground out, at his limit and beyond it. If he didn’t put a stop to this now, he wasn’t going to, and he’d regret it bitterly later. He surged to his feet, breaking Snart’s grip on him, and turned to face the other man.

Not surprisingly, Snart looked wary, both hands held up as if to show his only weapon was the rag. “I’m trying to help, James. We still need to do your face.”

“No, you’re trying to push the limits again.” James narrowed his eyes, watching as guilt flickered over Snart’s expression. That pretty much confirmed that the other man had known exactly what he was doing. “Quit. Teasing. Last fucking warning.”

“Technically, it’s only teasing if I’m not planning to follow through.” Snart shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like he couldn’t decide whether to lean in, or away.

His words made James’ heart thud hard against his ribs, then break into double-time. Snart knew the conditions James had laid out on the possibility of them having sex again; had even agreed they were reasonable requests that he shouldn’t budge on.

Did that mean Snart had decided to give in, after all? Unwilling to make any assumptions, James pushed him. “Meaning what, exactly?”

Again Snart shifted, and James realized with a shock that the other man was nervous. Snart hesitated, then visibly steeled himself. Lifting his head, he met James’ gaze squarely. “Meaning, I’m agreeing to your terms. We ride this train together as long and far as it goes. Whether that’s days, months, or… or whatever.”

Or years. He’d almost said ‘or years’, James was sure of it. That Snart was willing to even entertain the possibility of it lasting that long told James the other man truly was serious about this. This wasn’t a ploy to get into his pants, it was a genuine offer.

“I…” James had to clear his throat to continue. Anticipation hummed through his body, tightening his groin and turning his blood to liquid heat. Pain and fear were suddenly distant second to desire. “I can work with that.”

Rather than reassuring Snart, something about James’ response seemed to increase his nerves. “I’m offering commitment, not a relationship. And it changes nothing about our work together.”

“I know.” That was what James had asked for. Hell, he wouldn’t know what to do with a relationship. Taking Snart out for dinner and dancing didn’t quite seem like something the other man would go for.

All he’d ever wanted or needed was the reassurance that this was something real. Something that wouldn’t be snatched away from him just when he started to depend on it. Something he could initiate and have a say in, rather than waiting on Snart to decide he was interested again.

To test that, James reached out to brush his fingers over Snart’s jaw. The metal ones, since he liked that so much. The other man not only permitted the touch, he half closed his eyes and leaned into it with an anticipatory grin.

However, when James tried to move in for a kiss, Snart grimaced and held a hand up between them. “Cool it, hotshot. Let’s take care of the wreck Death Metal made of that pretty face of yours before we get all hot and heavy.”

Oh, right. That. James supposed he could understand why that might put a damper on things. The pain had mostly faded, enough that he’d been able to ignore it, but the mess of raw meat probably wasn’t terribly attractive. “What, you don’t get off on blood and gore? What kinda criminal are you?”

“The fastidious kind, thank you very much.” Snart shoved at James’ shoulder. “Now sit and let me get on with playing doctor for real, so we can start playing it for fun.”

More than willing, James sank into his chair, right way around this time. Unfortunately, when Snart retook his seat as well, a problem became apparent. Even sitting with their knees knocking together, there was too much distance between them for Snart to easily work on James’ face.

Surveying their positions, James frowned. “Shit. This isn’t gonna work. Gimme the knife, I’ll go back to the mirror.”

“Bah. You give up far too easily.” Snart was smirking, but it wasn’t his usual cold, calculating look. This smirk was full of heat, the visual equivalent of that damnable purr, and James recognized it from the night they’d spent together.

Shifting so his knees were on either side of James’, Snart scooted forward until he was practically in James’ lap.Then he kept going until he was in James’ lap, perched on his thighs with their hips mere inches apart.

Reflexively, James caught him around the waist, holding him steady. The move also pulled them closer, grinding against each other in a way that made him achingly aware of the intimacy of the position. The tightness in his groin flared with further heat, making his dick swell to press painfully against the fly of his borrowed jeans.

“See? No problem.” Snart’s breathlessness said he was no less affected by the position than James was, and his smirk widened. “We just have to be inventive.”

“It’ll be a problem if I crush your hips when you cut into my face,” James retorted, rubbing his thumbs nervously along Snart’s waistband. The crisp scent of wintergreen crept over him, fresh and inviting, making him want to taste as well as smell. “But if I don’t hold on, you might wobble and slice my face open if I flinch.”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got steady hands. And you’re not going to hurt me. You’ve already proven your control is better than that. Besides.” Snart brought out the purr to match his smirk. “If nothing else, I trust your desire not to end the fun early, so I know you’ll be careful.”

Trust. It all came down to trust. Snart trusted James to hold on and control his strength. James trusted Snart to put a knife next to his eye and cut deep. Both of them trusted the other not to hurt them, and that was the only reason this insanity could work at all.

James kept his gaze locked on Snart’s face as the other man lifted the blade to make the first incision. Snart’s brow was furrowed in concentration, icy blue eyes somehow burning bright with heated promise.

Instead of soothing touches, this time Snart rocked his hips in between each painful slice. The motion ground their dicks together, offering proof that Snart was looking forward to what would come after no less than James was.

As distractions went, it was the best one Snart had found yet, because James could hardly focus on anything other than how much he resented the obstruction caused by two layers of heavy denim. He remembered how fucking good Snart’s body felt against his with nothing between them but skin, and he wanted to feel it again.

Though he was tempted to simply rip the man’s pants off, James restrained himself only because he had just enough functioning brain left to remember Snart might not have yet another change of clothes here. Instead he slid his left hand up, beneath Snart’s heavy sweater, cool metal tracing the knobs of his spine.

Snart groaned and arched his back, shivering. “Trying to distract me?”

“Thought you were supposed to be distracting me.” James would never be a fan of the cold, but he was rapidly concluding that he could become a very big fan of the effect cold had on Snart.

“Seems to be working in either case.” Snart huffed a laugh, and a moment later the knife clattered onto the table. “Done. Just need to wipe you clean.”

He reached over James’ shoulder, and James was quite certain he leaned much farther than was necessary. The move rubbed their whole bodies together in one slow, sensuous motion, stoking the fire between them all the higher.

In retaliation, James raked his fingers down Snart’s back, dipping low beneath the waistband of his jeans to cup the tight globe of his ass. He wished he had full, true sensation in his left hand, though it was a lack he’d never regretted before he’d discovered the pleasure of touching Snart.

The best he could do was send the right hand trailing after the left, feeling the chill remaining after the touch of the metal, the way it raised tiny bumps all over Snart’s skin. When the acid burn dripped into the cuts on his face, James hardly noticed, too lost in paying attention to far more pleasant sensations.

“I want to be inside you again,” he growled, clenching his hands and forcing Snart to grind harder against him.

The clucking noise Snart made in return was one of amusement as much as scolding. “For a man who spent six hours unmoving in a vent tonight, you show a remarkable lack of patience.”

“I can be patient when I wanna be. Right now, I don’t wanna be.” The moment Snart dropped the rag, James caught him by the back of the neck and hauled him in close for a kiss.

Their tongues tangled, hot and wet and hard. James was half desperate for the taste of him, the sharp, clean bite of snow with the heavy tang of spice threaded through. It made him wonder if Snart tasted the same everywhere. Made him want to find out.

Groaning, Snart broke the kiss and panted for air. “Mmm. Blood and disinfectant, my favourite flavours. Got more where that came from?”

“Plenty.” James growled and leaned in, but didn’t quite make contact. Hooking his fingers in the waist of Snart’s jeans, he tugged sharply. “You got thirty seconds to get outta these, or I’m ripping ‘em off again.”

“You make the sweetest promises.” Instead of closing the distance, Snart diverted to one side, nipping along James’ jaw until he reached the ear.

When he bit down, sharp enough to sting, James arched against him. If he didn’t get out of his damned pants soon, he was going to embarrass himself.

Since Snart didn’t appear to be making any moves toward undressing, James decided that counted as permission to grab and tear. When he fisted his hand in the denim and Snart gave a breathy moan, he knew he was right.

A horrible screech and rattling crash from above jerked them both to their feet, fun and games forgotten. James snatched at where his pistol should have been, and cursed himself soundly when he realized he’d left all his weapons with the dirty coveralls in the bathroom.

No matter. He could be plenty deadly without a gun. If Death Metal had found them already, he was going to be in for a fight. Snart was already across the room, cold gun in hand and aimed at the doorway that led to the entrance ladder.

A roar of fury preceded the intruder, and James growled. He knew that roar, and he was only marginally happier to see its owner than he would have been to see Death Metal. Mick Rory came slamming through the door like a raging demon, semi-automatic in one hand and the other clenched around something James couldn’t see.

“You son of a bitch,” Rory snarled, aiming the gun straight at James. “I’m gonna tear your guts out and set them on fire right in front of you.”

Chapter Text

At the moment, Len wasn’t much happier to see his partner than James appeared to be, and not only because Mick’s appearance interrupted the fun they’d been about to have. At least he hadn’t come a few moments later, when Len would have been conspicuously pantsless.

He’d wanted some time to think about the points James had made, do a little investigating, and then confront Mick on his terms. Alone, without anyone else around to rile the pyro up.

Someone had sure done a damn good job of riling, and James was responding predictably. Len didn’t miss the way the other man grabbed for a gun that - thank god - wasn’t there. Instead James dropped into a fighting crouch, and Len had no illusions about who would win that fight.

With a growl of his own, he fired his cold gun into the air, sending ice racing along the ceiling. “Cool it! Both of you. We’re going to sit down and talk this out like rational goddamned adults.”

Yeah, and maybe Len would turn into a metahuman with ice powers while they were at it. One was as likely as the other. He could dream.

“Do you have any idea what this asshole has been saying about me?” Mick demanded, still waving the gun in James’ direction. “Lisa told me he was trying to convince her I fucking betrayed you.”

Well, that explained what Mick was so upset about. Len silently cursed his meddling sister for sticking her nose into things instead of leaving them to him to handle properly.

James, of course, wasn’t going to let that stand. “You did betray us, you asshole. At the very least, you left us there, you set off the bombs so Flash wouldn't be able to help us either, and then you took the getaway car just to be sure we'd end up caught."

Every time James pointed out all the reasons to believe that Mick had fucked them over, they sounded a little more convincing. Len still wasn’t sure he bought the idea that his partner had deliberately sold them out ahead of time, but there was no arguing the man had looked out for number one at the expense of the rest of the team.

"You’re fucking full of it," Mick snapped. "I didn't set off the fucking bombs. What’re you whining about, anyway? You don’t look caught to me."

In that too-fast-to-be-real way he had, James crossed the room and shoved Mick back before Len could blink. Certainly before Mick could even think about pulling the trigger. James caught Mick’s wrist in his metal grip and smashed the other man’s hand against the wall, hard enough to force him to drop the gun.

"Bullshit," James snarled back, right up in his face. "You had the only detonator. You were the only one who knew where the bombs were."

“James, back off.” The last thing Len could afford was another physical battle between the two men. He certainly understood his… his lover’s fury, but…

God, even thinking that “L” word sent a double thrill of heat and panic racing over Len’s nerves. All the more reason he couldn’t let the two reach the point where Len would be forced to choose between them.

Stepping in to close the last inches of distance, James brought his metal arm up across Mick’s throat. With a minimum of effort he could close off Rory's air completely. His eyes were dark and his voice full of the promise of death. "Regardless, you fucking left us there. Convenient, how the only one who didn't get gift wrapped for the fucking police was you. How did Death Metal know where I was, Rory?"

"I don't...know." Mick scrabbled at the metal arm and kicked hard at James' legs. If the blows had any effect, James didn’t show it. "I don't fucking...know...asshole."

Quite possibly taking his life in his hands, Len waded in and touched James on the flesh arm. "No killing.” He made his voice as cold and hard as the ice he loved, wanting it to be clear there was no room for argument on this. "Back off, and let me handle this."

"I'm not killing him. If I wanted him dead, he'd be dead." Despite his words, James released Mick and took a few steps away, putting Len between them. He didn’t take his eyes off Mick, and it was clear he was ready to leap in again, but it was something.

It was also clear he wasn’t in the least happy about the situation, or being forced to back down. James’ hand twitched at his hip, as if he was wishing for his gun or a knife. "This whole mess is seriously fucked up. Death Metal knew exactly where I was."

"It is fucked up," Leonard agreed, holding Mick's gaze. "So out with it, Mick. You cut and run on us, which isn't unusual, so I won't hold it against you, but you’ve got to know something. Why did the bombs go off when they weren't supposed to? How did Death Metal know where we'd be?"

Mick growled, seeming unimpressed by the arguments. "I don't fuckin’ know anything! I had a chance to get out so I took it. Figured me’n Lisa could break you both out later. No point in all of us getting caught. Hell, I even got the goddamned statue so we can get fucking paid."

"Bullshit," James repeated. "There's only two ways he could have known where I'd be. Either they got a bug into our lair, or somebody told him. Between my paranoia and Snart’s, there’s no way somebody got a bug on us, so that only leaves one option. Betrayal.”

"This is fucking bullshit," Mick snarled back, turning to talk directly to Snart and ignoring James. "Are you kidding me, Snart? You're gonna let this asshole convince you I'm the spy? Who's the new guy in the crew, huh? Who's more likely to be a plant?"

Snart gritted his teeth. Mick's salvo hit home. It was true that things had started to go south the moment James had come along, yet nothing James did was suspicious, and Mick was the one constantly causing problems.

Thing was, he knew what Mick looked like when he was lying - on the rare occasions the hothead even bothered trying. He was telling the truth about not setting off the bombs, Len was certain of it. His reasons for leaving Len and James behind made sense, especially when he considered that Mick hadn’t been present for the conversation about how bad it would be if James was ever captured.

Truly, it was no shock to Len that his partner would prioritize getting their payday over helping Len and James to get free. In some ways it would have been more suspicious if he hadn’t cut and run.

"We'd better sweep the lair for bugs," he said, holding Mick's gaze, brows furrowed. "Maybe we missed something."

"You wanna know how a bug got in without us knowing about it?" Mick's eyes narrowed. "I got a pretty good idea. Let's see what's in here, huh?" He lifted his other hand, the one that he’d been holding behind him, and shook the dusty knapsack clutched in his fist.

Instantly James' body went wire-tight, rage giving way to absolute fury, looking like he was one short second away from launching Armageddon. "Get your fucking hands off that. It’s mine!”

"I’ve seen you go check on this thing after planning meetings," Mick sneered, shaking it again. "Not suspicious at all, right?"

"Drop. It.” There was no mistaking the vicious edge in the words. It wasn’t James speaking; it was the Winter Soldier, and he was Not Happy. "Last fucking warning, asshole."

Len put out a hand, like erecting a wall between James and Mick, a clear command not to advance and try to stop him. His mind was churning furiously, rearranging the pieces and putting them together in an entirely different order.

Of course Len had spotted the pack tucked away inconspicuously on a shelf in the back corner, only a few days after James had joined the Rogues. The man had done a good job of making it look like it belonged there, as dusty and seemingly undisturbed as the crates and sacks around it, but Len knew every inch of the spaces he occupied.

At the time, he hadn’t thought much of it, assuming James had spare equipment or a ‘grab-and-run’ bag that he wanted nearby, but didn’t want anyone else messing with. Hell, Len had a few bags tucked away here and there, full of cash, weapons, clothes, and fake IDs. Anything he might need in an emergency.

Now, in this context, the hidden pack took on a more sinister complexion. Mick must have found it while helping Lisa clear out the old lair, and jumped to the obvious conclusion.

And it was obvious. Once again that damned quote ran through Len’s head. If you eliminate the impossible…

Which was more impossible? That his partner of thirty years had decided to act completely out of character and sell him out to an enemy? Or that the new man in his crew, the man who had wormed his way so unnervingly fast beneath Len’s armour and into his life, had been a plant all along?

Christ, James had admitted to following Len around for days, keeping an eye on him. He’d stepped in at the perfect moment to ingratiate himself to Len, win that coveted invitation to join the Rogues. Len didn’t let just anyone work on his crews, and as Mick had commented that night, he never added someone to the plan on the day of the heist.

"No, I think we have a responsibility to investigate every possibility. You said it yourself, I can’t ignore a possible explanation because I don’t want to hear it." He looked at James, measured him with his eyes. "I understand if it’s private. If you prefer, I’ll look through it without Mick watching, but it is going to be searched.”

"Anybody lays a hand on that buckle and you'll be needing a shiny new arm like mine." James was somewhere past panicked and approaching feral, hands squeezed in tight fists and his snarl more like a frightened animal’s than a human’s.

Len’s heart thudded painfully against the ice that seemed to be creeping through him. For once the cold sensation was unwelcome, because it meant he was accepting the inevitable.

Once more, he’d opened himself up to someone and been betrayed. Maybe his father was right about one thing - some lessons, he couldn’t seem to learn. Well, this time it had been driven home.

Never again.

"Seems like he doesn't want us in there.” Mick sounded smug, even triumphant. Before Len could point out that they needed to restrain James first, Mick grabbed the strap holding the pack closed and tore the buckle right off the fabric.

With a roar James launched himself at Mick, metal arm cocked back and ready to drive his fist right through the other man’s head.

In this position, firing his cold gun would kill Mick or James or both, and might take Len in the backwash as well. Unwilling to take that fatal step, Len threw himself between the two men and twisted to aim at James directly. “Enough!”

The fury in James’ expression shifted back to panic, and his metal arm made a horrible noise as he wrenched himself to the side in mid-lunge. Too late, it occurred to Len that there had to be a fucking shit ton of momentum behind the Winter Soldier’s punch… and it might not be that easy to pull.

There was no pain on impact, only a sense of shock and force. Len’s feet left the ground and he felt himself thrown back as if yanked by a wire in a movie. He struck the wall back first, driving the breath out of him, and was probably lucky his spine hadn’t been smashed. His head smacked into the concrete an instant later, and everything went dark and fuzzy in his vision.

His legs refused to hold him up when his feet hit the ground again, and he slid down the wall to collapse on hands and knees. The world spun around him, nausea hitting him hard enough to make him gag as he struggled desperately for air.

From his left came shouting and growling, followed by the meaty sound of flesh pounding flesh, but Len couldn’t make his eyes focus enough to see what was happening. His mind felt scrambled, the dizziness and pain shattering any attempt he made at coherent thought, and he was clinging to consciousness by sheer force of will.

Something - someone - hit the floor hard. The sound of his name rang in Len’s ears, frantic and fearful, but he still couldn’t draw breath to answer.

Then whoever had survived the battle grabbed him by the shoulders, hauling him upright. The sudden shift was too much for his battered body to take, and he spun down into darkness.

His last thought was that it didn’t matter much who had won… in either case, Len had lost someone important to him.

Chapter Text

Intermittent beeping was the first sound to penetrate the veil of darkness around Len. His initial thought was that it was some kind of hospital equipment - hopefully not a heart monitor, or he was in real trouble with the way it kept stopping.

On the one hand, he was grateful to wake up at all. On the other hand, if he’d been taken to a hospital there was no way he wouldn’t end up arrested, even if they’d used a fake identity to bring him in.

He still couldn’t seem to force his eyes open, but there was no trace of the antiseptic smells he’d have expected from a hospital. About the time Len realized the sound was his phone going off repeatedly, someone gave in and finally answered the incessant calls.

What?

The voice was James’, and Len wasn’t at all sure how he felt about that. If James was alive and with him, it meant Mick was almost certainly dead. Not to mention, all signs now seemed to point to James being the traitor and spy, so why had he taken Len with him?

The phone conversation continued, with frequent pauses for answers Len couldn’t hear. “He’s fine. No, you can’t. Because he’s unconscious.” There was a longer pause, followed by a sigh. “Yeah, okay, I guess that means he’s not fine right now. What d’ya want me to do, take him to a hospital? Lisa, calm down.”

Lisa? James was talking to his sister? With a massive effort, Len forced himself closer to true consciousness, struggling to call out. He had to warn Lisa that he was in trouble, that James couldn’t be trusted.

The best he could manage was a low moan, but he did succeed in forcing his eyes open. He expected to see a bloodbath - Mick dead on the floor, possibly in pieces - but he wasn't even at the hideout. He was in his own bed, covered in blankets, with James perched on the edge of the mattress beside him.

The groan drew James’ attention, and his eyes widened as he saw Len looking back at him. “He’s waking up. I gotta go. I’ll keep you updated.”

Then he shut the phone off, ending Len’s chance to let Lisa know what was really going down.

Growling, Len tried to push himself up to a sitting position. “You son of a bitch…”

“Stay still, idiot.” James grabbed him by the shoulders and applied gentle pressure, forcing Len back to the pillows.

To his shame, Len had to admit he didn’t fight very hard. Everything hurt. His head was pounding, his back ached, and his shoulder felt like someone had decided to practice their jackhammer technique on him.

Cautiously Len flexed his fingers, and was relieved when they moved. It hurt, but his arm and shoulder weren’t damaged beyond repair. There might not even be anything broken.

“Mick?” He was afraid to hear the answer, but he had to know.

“Alive. Hopefully hurting.” James narrowed his eyes, clearly still unhappy with the other Rogue. “I knocked him out, and texted Lisa to go take care of him.”

That was far better than Len had dared to hope for. Assuming anything James told him was the truth, of course. At this point, he couldn’t trust anything the man said. “Why bring me back here? Why stick around?”

“I shouldn’t have moved you, but I didn’t want to risk Rory waking up and starting the fight again. I needed to keep an eye on you. If you’d been out much longer, I was gonna take you to STAR Labs. What the fuck were you thinking, jumping in the way like that? I could've killed you!"

Baffled, Len stared at James as the man berated him for, apparently, getting punched. "I thought you were gonna kill my partner. While he may be alive, somehow I doubt he would have been if that first punch had connected with him instead of me."

"I warned him," James protested, as if that should make it all fine. "Twice. Because I knew you'd be mad if I killed him. Why doesn’t anyone ever listen when I tell them to stop doing shit? What was I supposed to do?"

“You were supposed to not be the damn spy, and be able to prove it.” Len was painfully aware that he was provoking a man who could break him in half, but he’d never backed down from a fight and he needed some damned answers. "What’s in the bag?"

"None of your business. It's personal." James grimaced, as if aware of how weak the excuse sounded, and he couldn’t seem to meet Len’s eyes. "It's personal," he repeated, stressing for emphasis. "He shouldn’t have touched it. But I’m not the spy."

Right. Because the way James flinched and looked away didn't make him look entirely guilty. The only thing was, Len couldn't understand why the man would be sitting here, trying to care for him, if James had stabbed him in the back.

He shifted up again, wincing at the pain but refusing to yield to it a second time. "What's in the fucking bag? Personal or not, I think I've got a right to know what you were hiding."

"Why?" James seemed genuinely confused by the demand, even upset by it. “Why do you have the right? You’re not my owner. I’m not a thing, I have the right to privacy.”

"Because you're asking me to trust you, and trust you, and trust you, but you won't trust me. You could kill me with a flick of your finger - you proved that - but I've gotten down on my knees and been completely vulnerable around you.”

Even now, the memory tried to send a tendril of heat through Len, but he shoved it down with vicious denial. “I've given you everything I have, shown you every scar and shame, let you into my life. But you won't tell me what's in your fucking bag that's so goddamn precious that you'd kill for it.”

James bit his lip, staring intently at the comforter. He was flexing his left hand, making a fist over and over in that nervous habit of his that meant he was conflicted, but he said nothing.

Len’s heart felt like it was being crushed. Somehow, even after everything, he’d half hoped James would be able to provide some rational explanation. “The only conclusion I have left to come to is that Mick is right, and you won’t show me because it will incriminate you. I trusted you, and you fucking betrayed me.”

Standing, James turned away from him, head bowed and shoulders hunched. Len had no idea what internal battle he might be fighting, but it was obviously a fierce one.

"My life." The words were rough and unsteady, as raw as if James had dragged them out of himself by sheer force of will. "My whole life is in there, okay?"

Len rolled his eyes, his head pounding with each beat of his heart. "I always figured that," he growled. "Extra weapons, emergency supplies, in case you want to make a quick getaway. What were you so goddamn worried about letting us see?"

"No. None of that. I can live without clothes and equipment, I'll just steal more. Didn't have anything when I ran from HYDRA, and I managed." He grabbed the damaged knapsack from where it sat on Len’s dresser, and brought it over. When he upended it over Len’s lap, half a dozen notebooks tumbled out. "Just these. My life."

Len stared down at the books, uncomprehending. They looked pretty much the same as the one James carried with him most of the time. Plain journals, the pages worn with much thumbing, little sticky tags and bookmarks everywhere.

“You realize showing me what’s in the bag now, after you’ve had a chance to take out anything incriminating, is hardly going to prove your innocence?”

James settled on the edge of the bed again, just out of reach, and finally met Len’s eyes. "It will if you understand why. You've gotta have figured out by now, I wasn't working for HYDRA willingly. They... did things to me. Broke me. The old fashioned way, at first, torture and deprivation. Later, they had this machine, and it... it could get inside my head. Take away the things they didn't want there, put in the things they did."

His fists clenched, tight enough that the metal creaked a protest. "They took it all away. Everything I was. They erased Bucky Barnes and created the Winter Soldier instead. Everything I can remember about my life, every scrap of memory and faded dream, I write it in these. Sometimes I remember things and then forget them, again. Sometimes, if I read these, new memories will pop up. I can't lose them. I can't."

Len watched James carefully as he spoke, reading every nuance of his body language. Either James was the best actor Len had ever encountered, or he was admitting to a very personal, very painful genuine trauma.

It had been clear from the start that James had memory problems. Len still couldn’t comprehend some of the bizarre things the other man had said, or the way he’d apparently forgotten about sex. Len’s research also backed up the idea that James had been anything but willing as HYDRA’s test subject.

But this… this wasn't something he'd expected.

Curious despite himself, Len picked up one of the books and flipped it open.

Scrawled across the first page, letters large enough to fill the paper, were nine words. ’I’m with you to the end of the line.’ After that the handwriting was cramped, like James was trying to write as fast as possible and cram as much in as he could. There was far too much for Len to read or even skim over.

Picking up a second, he found the same words on the first page. Tilting his head, he raised an eyebrow at James.

The other man shrugged, awkward and nervous. “It’s what Steve said, that woke me up. When I nearly killed him in the helicarrier. I said it to him first, way back when his mom died. I figure… if they do catch and wipe me again, and I get away and somehow find these books, maybe reading it will wake me up again.”

Steve. Captain America. Len tapped his fingers against the book. “Why isn’t he in the picture, anyway? He fucked off when you needed him most?”

“I shot him four times, beat the shit out of him, and nearly drowned him.” The pain in James’ voice matched the wrenching grief in his eyes. It was clear the memory wasn’t a pleasant one. “Even he can’t bounce back from that in a day. I know he’s looking for me now, but I… I’m not ready to face him yet.”

“Oh?”

“I’ve spent seventy years with HYDRA telling me who I’m supposed to be, how I’m supposed to think, and what I’m supposed to do. Even if Steve can forgive me for everything I’ve done, he’ll want to ‘fix’ me, help me get ‘better’. Only, his definition of ‘better’ would be ‘closer to how it used to be’.”

James sighed, and rubbed at his face with both hands. When he looked up, he appeared exhausted, but also resolute. “I need to figure out who I am, who I want to be, first. Before I let anyone else tell me who they think I should be, best of intentions or not.”

Picking up one of the notebooks, James ran his thumb over the pages, flipping through them too rapidly to read anything. “These are my best hope of doing that. Maybe my only hope. They’re everything.”

Len copied the motion, thinking hard as he watched the pages flip by. What would it be like, to be tortured for months or years, until you broke completely? To have your enemies go into your head and carve you out of it, replacing you with their own creation?

How treasured would every hard-won piece of information, every shattered fragment of memory, every scrap of yourself feel, after that? How much of a violation would it be, to have someone you didn’t like or trust root through the containers for those shards? How far would you be willing to go, to protect them?

Would they be worth dying for? Worth killing for? Worth losing the trust of a lover for?

Fuck, yes. And to let Len see them now was a hell of a long way to go for a con.

Sighing, Len set the book he held back onto the pile. Gently, respectful of its value. He knew how to handle rare and precious items. "Okay. Okay, I get it. But you could have avoided all this by letting me look through the bag earlier, and you refused. Why show me now?”

Gathering up the books, James stuffed them back into the ruined bag. “Because when I saw you step in the way and knew I was going to hit you… when I heard you crash into the wall, and the way you went down after…”

He swallowed hard, and his voice dropped to a whisper Len could barely hear. “When I thought that I was gonna lose you, it hurt so bad. I want to stay. I don’t want you to hate me because you think I’m the spy.”

Oh, shit. Len felt a shiver work its way down his spine as James spoke the words. That was way too damn close to a declaration of love. That James would allow Len to rummage around in his most private and cherished belongings rather than lose him… fuck, he wasn’t ready for this.

And yet, he couldn’t deny that the shiver was matched by a thrill of heat that curled around his heart and shot down to his groin. Len didn’t think he’d ever had someone willing to go so far to be with him.

“All right. You’re forgiven. And I believe you.” Len’s voice was nearly as husky as James’, much to his embarrassment. He remained understandably gunshy, but it was impossible to be angry any longer. He sank back into the pillows, and gestured for James to join him. “Come here.”

James stared, unmoving. Impatient, Len gestured again, and that seemed to convince the other man that he meant the invitation. James toed off his boots and crawled onto the bed, above the covers and still fully clothed, settling in beside Len as carefully as if he thought Len might shatter if touched.

"I'm sorry I hurt you," James said. "You're damn lucky I was able to pull the punch as much as I did. Promise you’ll never do something that stupid again."

Len held himself still, afraid James would shy away if startled. The hesitant, uncertain way he acted - and particularly the apology - did a lot to reassure Len that there was no malice in what had happened.

He shook his head. "Since there's a better than even chance that you'll try to kill Mick again, I won't make any promises at this point. Maybe if I nearly get killed a couple of times, the two of you will figure out you have to knock it off."

James hesitated, then reached out slowly and placed his metal hand over Len’s chest. Over his heart. "We're really okay?"

The gesture was ridiculous and overstated and cheesy. Not endearing at all. Len was only indulging the other man when he reached up and covered James’ hand with his. Truly.

Shit, he was getting in so far over his head. And their relationship had barely begun.

"We're okay. Nothing else might be, but as far as I'm concerned, we are. You didn't mean to hurt me, and I can understand that what Mick did hit you hard, but we need to figure all this out. Somehow, we were betrayed."

"It wasn't me," James insisted again, as if Len hadn’t just finished saying he didn’t believe that anymore. "So if it wasn't Rory, I don't know what the fuck. And I don't even know where to start looking."

"I don't know what the fuck, either," Len growled. "But pointing fingers at each other is only screwing us over even more."

The situation was becoming untenable - maybe already had gone so far that it was impossible to recover. He didn't know what to do, but he was going to have to start by talking to Mick on his own, that much he was sure of.

However, that would have to happen later, when his headache was a bit better. Not to mention the one Mick likely had as well, if James had knocked him out.

"One of those books is yours.” ‘Shy’ definitely wasn’t a look Len was used to seeing on James, but there it was. “There's so much I don't want to forget."

"Awww, that's so sweet. If I look in there, will I find doodled hearts with our initials?” Actually, it was really fucking adorable, and for all that Len was making fun of him, there was a warmth to his tone that he couldn't quite suppress.

The teasing earned him an elbow to the ribs, but it was a gentle hit. Relatively gentle. "Doesn't mean you can go digging through it for juicy dirt," James warned him. "Any more than I can look inside your head. Got it?"

"Got it.” The line was clear, and also fair. Len had already seen deeper into James’ heart than the man was probably comfortable with. To pry any further would be a violation, and that was the last thing Len would ever do to someone. "Honestly, I don’t want to read them anyway."

His words seemed to sting, far more than he’d intended. James fisted his hand on Len’s chest, fingers digging into the blanket. “You don’t?”

It seemed rather unreasonable for James to be upset that Len didn’t want to do the thing that James didn’t want him to do. “Should I?”

James was definitely hurt, and doing a bad job of trying to hide it. "What, you don't care enough to even be curious?"

Ah. That made more sense. "Sure, I'm curious as hell. But there's definitely such a thing as too much honesty in a relationship. I'm not sure I want to know absolutely everything you think of me."

That settled James again, and in fact he seemed sheepish. "Probably you wouldn't," he agreed after a moment of thought. "A lot of it would seem random to you. It's not a diary. Just... memories. Good and bad. Everything."

He slipped his left hand under the blankets, down to the hem of Len’s shirt, then back up beneath it. Cool fingers left trails of gooseflesh in the wake of the absent patterns he traced. Shivering would only make the pain in his head and shoulder worse, but Len had to fight not to react.

"I've got to admit, it's nice to know that you want to remember me, if something bad should happen." He shifted to get more comfortable, careful not to make it seem like he was trying to dislodge the hand on him. He’d discovered the last time James stayed the night that it was more pleasant to sleep close than Len had ever believed it could be.

At least, if it was with the right person.

"Hey. Should I be calling you Leonard? Or Len? Something?" James was frowning in that way he had when he knew he was asking something that a normal person would already know the answer to. "We're lovers, right? I shouldn't still be calling you Snart. Or am I remembering wrong?"

The question was oddly endearing, even as it made Len’s heart squeeze at the reminder of how much had been taken from James. "Yeah, sure, it's normal for lovers to call each other by their first names. Only my sister calls me Lenny, but you can call me Len if you want to get more affectionate."

He paused, and chuckled with a hint of mischief. "Be careful, though. If we get too cute, I might start calling you sweetiepie, and then where'll we be."

"Do that and I'll start calling you dollface," James threatened in return, a faint smile hovering on his lips. "You're kinda pretty, it could fit."

Len laughed. "That’s the pot calling the kettle. Let’s agree to avoid descending into pure mush territory, hmm?”

He wasn’t ready for that, yet. He wasn’t sure he’d ever be ready for it. But this…

Yeah. Turned out he was pretty ready for this, after all.

Now he just had to keep hoping he wasn’t going to be forced to choose between James and Mick. Something told him Mick was not going to be happy about Len not only keeping James in the crew, but taking him as a long-term lover.

When Mick got mad, things tended to burn.

Chapter Text

The Winter Soldier could stay awake for a week, if necessary. His functionality would drop in a drastic slide after the first few days, but one night without sleep had a negligible impact. Not everything HYDRA had done to him was terrible.

Well, no, that wasn’t true. The long periods when they’d forced him to stay awake to the point of hallucinating were part of how they’d broken him, and James had to consider that to be terrible. But some of the results of his conditioning were useful even now.

For example, being able to stay alert through the night, watching over Snart - Len - was good. James was still worried about him, about the damage he’d done, and wanted to keep an eye on him.

Len. He repeated it over and over in his mind, trying to get used to the shape and feel of it. They were lovers, and his lover’s name was Len. James had the right to call him that.

It made him wish he had a name to give Len in turn, something more private. But ‘Bucky’ still didn’t feel right, not from Len, and he sure as hell wasn’t going with Jimmy or Jimbo or any of the other stupid nicknames Rory used to try to piss him off.

It didn’t matter. James had given Len something a hell of a lot more precious than the right to use a nickname. He’d given the man a glimpse of his soul, and the trust that went with it.

Len shifted in his sleep, his previously smooth breathing developing a sudden hitch. He shuddered, brow creasing, but didn’t wake. After a moment, James realized the other man was having a nightmare.

Small wonder, as much pain as he had to be in. That was James’ fault, so the least he could do was try to soothe Len out of it.

He stroked cool fingers over the other man’s chest, wishing he could properly feel the skin. He got some tactile feedback from the metal, but not enough for such a delicate texture. What he did feel was the pulse of Len’s heartbeat, strong and steady, reassuring James that the other man was still alive.

To his pleasure, the touch worked to reassure his lover as well. Len settled, lines of tension and pain smoothing from his face. Even so, James kept running his hand over Len’s chest, telling himself it was to make sure the night terrors didn’t have a chance to return.

He wished he’d taken the other man’s clothes off before putting him into the bed, but he’d been wary of jostling Len around. James had already taken a risk by moving him at all, and wanted to minimize any potential for further damage.

Still, now that he’d been given permission to indulge in his desire to touch the other man again, it took all of his patience and will to hold himself back. The gentle petting was a compromise, because he couldn’t make himself back off entirely.

Not that Len seemed to be complaining. He murmured incoherently, shivering like he was cold but arching his back to push up against the touch. Even in sleep, the crazy bastard liked the chill.

Pausing, James closed his eyes and concentrated. He didn’t have conscious control over the autonomous systems in his arm, but the way it was hooked into his nerves meant it did respond somewhat to the signals from his brain.

If he focused very hard on the idea that the mechanism was overheating, the coolant system reacted appropriately. James hated feeling cold, especially to the point where frost crept over the metal; it reminded him too much of the sensation of being frozen in the cryo-tank.

On the flip side, Len’s reactions were definitely worth putting up with that personal discomfort. Hell, Len could almost make him like the cold, or at least not mind it so much.

Len’s breath stuttered again, but there was no sign of discomfort in his expression. On the contrary, whatever dream he was having due to James’ touch, it was anything but a nightmare.

Unable to resist, James trailed his hand lower, skating over the vulnerable abdomen. Len didn’t have the kind of sculpted muscle of the men and women James had worked with in HYDRA, would have been considered ‘soft’ by their standards.

James thought he was just about perfect. Len was no slouch in a fight, but muscle wasn’t the only sign of strength, and certainly not what attracted James to him.

The scars that Len had been so strangely uncomfortable with showing him proved that Len had his own kind of strength. The kind that didn’t break under pressure, the kind that meant he would always plough his own path and say ‘fuck you’ to the world’s expectations that he do otherwise.

Oddly, Len reminded him of Steve in that way. He took the stubborn route further into the darkness than Steve ever would have, but that was exactly what allowed James to feel comfortable with him.

That, and the core of something he could only call ‘honour’, though he knew Len would deny it to his dying breath. Len might play by his own rulebook instead of the one everybody else followed, but he did play by it.

A hand wrapped around his wrist, startling him. James glanced up to find Len looking back at him, eyes half-lidded with sleep but gaze intense. James flushed, embarrassed that he’d been so caught in his own thoughts that he’d missed the fact that Len had woken up.

“Taking advantage of my insensible state? Naughty boy.”

There was a chiding note in Len’s voice, and James’ heart slammed against his ribs. “Is that wrong?” He’d thought their conversation in the safehouse, combined with Len’s assurances that they were okay, meant he was allowed to touch.

But he realized now that nothing had been said about him being allowed without asking first, only that he was now permitted to ask. Yet another social boundary he remembered after he was already on the wrong side of it. “Shit, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean…”

James.” Len was smiling at him, though there was a crooked edge to the expression. “I was teasing. For the record, yes, now that we’ve agreed to be… together… you have my ongoing permission to touch me, unless I say otherwise.”

Tension eased out of James’ shoulders, and he unclenched the fist Len had his hand wrapped around. “Okay. Yeah, okay. You can, too… but don’t startle me.”

“Still not suicidal,” Len replied, echoing his words from when James had warned him not to try to wake him from a nightmare. “I’m jumpy myself, but this… mmh, this is definitely welcome. You can wake me like this any time you want.”

“I didn’t mean to wake you at all. You should be resting.”

“Well then, I guess you’ll have to make it up to me.” Len’s eyes gleamed in the faint light of false dawn. He reached for the hem of his shirt and started to sit up, then made a pained noise and went rigid.

“Don’t.” James flattened his hand against Len’s chest and pushed, gentle but inexorable, forcing him to lay down. “You’re still injured.”

“You caused the bruises. The least you could do is kiss it and make it better.”

“Does that actually work?” The comment puzzled James for a moment, until a sliver of memory flashed through his mind. It was a saying, the sort of thing a mother might tell her child.

It shouldn’t have been sexy, but coming from Len, in this situation… now all James could think about was running his mouth over every bruised inch of skin.

Len was smirking at him, and the heat in his eyes suggested that was exactly what he wanted James to do. “You’ll have to try it and find out.”

“I’ll hurt you. Again.” And God knew he’d hurt this man far too much already.

“Maybe I like it a little rough.”

“Crazy bastard.” James seemed to say that far too often about Len, both out loud and in his own mind. Yet now that the image had been put in his head he was dying to taste the other man, his fingers itching to touch again.

“Yeah, but I’m your crazy bastard.” Len froze again after he said it, though James hadn’t seen him move in a way that should have aggravated his injuries.

Despite his worry, the assertion sent a thrill of warmth spinning through James’ chest, squeezing at his heart. It should have bothered him, the idea of Len somehow belonging to him. James had spent far too long as a possession, and he chafed at the idea of ever inflicting that on someone else.

However, being around Len was teaching him that there was belonging to someone, and there was belonging with them. He would kill anyone who tried to force the former on him again, but he would also kill anyone who tried to take the latter away.

“Guess that makes me your… what, psychotic assassin?” James stroked his hand over Len’s chest again, indulging in his strangely possessive urge. He was Len’s, but Len was his, and that made all the difference in the world.

Len huffed a laugh, relaxing again. Had he been worried that James wouldn’t understand the need to reciprocate, to balance the scales?

Well, that was fair. There were so many things James knew he didn’t get about everyday social interaction. This one, however, seemed burned into him at a gut level.

“That works. So rip my damn clothes off already, psycho.” Len lifted a hand and tangled it in James’ hair, tugging sharply.

James didn’t need a further invitation. Shoving back the blankets, he rose up on his knees so he could get a good grip on the material with both hands. The t-shirt tore like wet paper, revealing skin beneath that immediately dimpled with gooseflesh. Len shuddered and made a muffled sound that might have been a cry, but it didn’t sound much like a protest.

The jeans put up more resistance, but not enough. This time when fabric ripped, Len couldn’t hold back his breathless moan, and the sound went straight to James’ cock.

“You’re going to be so hard on my wardrobe budget.”

“You literally asked for it.” James couldn’t dredge up any sympathy, especially not when Len was stretching like that, tawny flesh all but glowing in the moonlight.

A nasty bruise already mottled Len’s shoulder in an ugly parody of the scarring on James’. It would continue to get worse before it got better, and his back was probably even more battered. Mindful of his task, James shoved his twinge of guilt aside and leaned down to run his mouth over the darkened flesh.

At the same time he ran his metal hand down over Len’s chest, abdomen, and thigh, making the man shiver beneath him. When he came back up he took a more intimate path, brushing by but not properly touching the rapidly hardening cock that lay against Len’s stomach.

“Tease.” The husky word was both an accusation and an entreaty for more.

James smirked against his skin, echoed his lover’s words from before Rory had interrupted them. “It’s only teasing if I ain’t gonna follow through.”

He followed the path of the bruising downward, the edge of which fell just shy of Len’s nipple. Ignoring the boundary of the injury, James covered the last inch and fastened his lips over the flat disk, bringing it to a taut peak in seconds.

It would be so easy to grow addicted to the taste of this man. Like his scent, it seemed to rush through James and set nerves on fire, until it formed a ball of heat in the pit of his stomach. From there the heat trickled to other places, like his cock already straining against the fly of his jeans, but this wasn’t about James’ pleasure.

He owed this to Len, at the very least.

“Turn over,” he commanded. Len made a protesting noise and clenched his hands in James’ hair, trying to hold him in place. Ignoring the sharp tugs, James rose up to provide room and took Len’s hip in a careful grip, urging him to roll over.

Finally Len gave in with a grumble, rearranging himself on his front on the bed. “How are you supposed to reach the good parts from there?”

“Most of the bruising is on your back.” And fuck, there was a lot of it. Again guilt threatened to punch a hole in James’ heart, trying to suck away his sense of desire and replace it with regret. He ran both hands lightly over the area, attempting to distract himself.

“Mmm. I like the contrast when you use them both.” Len wasn’t quite purring, but he was close. “Keep going.”

More than willing, James brought his hands back up and started again from the shoulders. Remembering how good Len’s hands had felt on him, he dug his fingers in the slightest bit, stroking the muscles as well as the skin.

That drew a moan out of Len, so he kept doing it, over and over again, careful not to press so hard he’d aggravate the bruises. It surprised him how much he enjoyed the simple contact, though technically he got nothing out of it for himself.

Except, he did. He took pleasure in giving Len pleasure. It made no logical sense, but in that moment it made all the sense in the world.

After a few minutes of that Len was putty beneath his hands, making humming noises of pleasure with each stroke. James shifted so he was straddling Len’s thighs, giving him a better angle to lean over and retrace the path with his tongue.

Len started squirming, hitching his hips like he was trying to rub up against James’ dick, which kept brushing over the curve of his ass. “More,” he demanded. “Harder. I’m not breakable, James.”

“Yes, you are.” He scraped his teeth over the curve where Len’s neck met his shoulder, a spot that was free of any darkness beneath the skin. “I keep hurting you, but I never mean to.”

“I know. That’s why you’re still breathing.” Len turned his head enough to give him an arch look. “Anyone else pulled even one of your stunts, I’d have iced them where they stood.”

James didn’t bother to point out that while Captain Cold was admittedly a badass, he had no hope against the Winter Soldier. The point stood, and he knew Len was in the right. “I’ll learn. I swear.”

“You’ve never made the same mistake twice, and you’ve always stopped the moment I told you to.” Len shrugged, trying for nonchalant, but James could see genuine gratitude amidst the wariness. “That means a lot.”

“I always will.” James meant the words with everything in him.

“So quit messing around and fuck me already!” Len’s impatience was clear. “I’m telling you, I don’t need all this tender shit.”

The strain in Len’s voice made James’ lips quirk in a smile, helping to draw him out of the dark mood caused by his own guilt. “Nuh-uh. I’m supposed to be making it up to you. I got a long way to go, yet.”

Fact was, he needed this ‘tender shit’, needed the soft touch to convince himself that he’d done no lasting harm. Needed to remember all the facets of being someone’s lover, not just the rough and tumble - though admittedly incredibly hot - style of sex they’d had before.

He skimmed his hands down Len’s sides, skirting the edge of the sore spots, fingers curved around the other man’s rib cage. He could feel the faint bumps of bone beneath muscle and flesh, and the occasional ridge or pucker of a scar.

Despite his protests, Len luxuriated under the petting like the cat that James was increasingly certain must be part of the man’s ancestry. “Mmm, I suppose I can indulge you in a few more minutes of that, if you’re so determined. At least take your clothes off.”

“If I do that, my good intentions are going right out the damn window.” Though he craved skin-to-skin contact, James also didn’t want to rush this, and he knew his impatience would get the best of him. “I’ve still got a lot of bruises left to kiss.”

He returned to his task, running his mouth over the tender flesh and soaking in the taste, scent, and feel of his lover. Had it been this good with the girls, back when? How the hell had HYDRA managed to take it away from him, so completely he didn’t even remember how to want someone?

Or was Len special? Was there something different about him, about this, that drove its way deep under James’ skin and clung to his heart?

All he knew was that he never wanted to stop.

He took his time about it, lavishing attention on Len’s back with mouth and hands. The extra chill had worn off the metal, but it was still cooler than his other hand and that seemed to be enough. For now.

By the time he reached the small of Len’s back, the other man was rocking repeatedly against him, trying to entice James into more contact.

And, James realized belatedly, also driving Len’s stiff cock against the bedsheets, giving him friction.

“Quit it.” James nipped at the curve of Len’s ass, just hard enough to sting. “I got plans for that.”

“Coulda fooled me.” Len sounded both smug and breathless, a combination that had James’ cock violently protesting the hard metal of his zipper.

Catching his lover by the hip once more, James flipped him onto his back, less carefully this time. He realized his mistake a moment later when Len winced at the impact, making a soft sound of pain that wasn’t quite stifled. “Sorry. Maybe we shouldn’t…”

“I can handle it,” Len insisted, digging his fingers into James’ shoulders to hold him in place when he would have pulled away. “You’re not getting out of it that easily, not after all that teasing.”

“Then you’ve gotta let me go to get the lube.”

Sighing, Len released him, his apparent reluctance a thin veneer over the shine of eagerness in his eyes. “Lose the clothes while you’re at it, already.”

Ignoring the command, James stretched out across the bed and fished in the drawer for the little tube he’d used last time. Len took the opportunity to reach for his fly, clever fingers surprisingly clumsy as he fumbled with James’ zipper.

Because his hands were trembling. James pulled back to get a better look at him, heart in his throat. Was it pain? Anger? Fear?

The move won him a frustrated snarl, and Len wrapped a hand around James’ denim-covered cock and squeezed. “Get the hell back here, damn it.”

Lust. There was nothing but pure sexual heat in Len’s expression, and that was what made his hands shake. Releasing the breath that had caught in his throat, James leaned down and kissed him the way Len had taught him the first time, biting and licking and finding the places that made his lover moan.

When he broke away, Len was panting, his hands so tight against James’ back that it might have hurt someone with less resistance to pain. He’d let go of James’ cock, which was good because James didn’t know how much more of that he could take before his resolve would break.

Len tried to haul him back again, but James slithered out of his hold. He earned himself a growl when he moved down Len’s body, out of reach at the end of the bed. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

“There’s still more places that need kissing.”

Len grumbled, but James traced his hands over the much fainter bruises on his lover’s hips… bruises that matched the shape of those hands. Where he’d gripped Len to steady him as the other man dug shrapnel out of James’ face, presumably. “I’m…”

“You say you’re sorry for those and I will hit you.” Len’s tone carried a sharp warning edge that suggested he was half serious about the threat. “Some bruises I don’t mind. Like the ones you left there after our first night together. Drove me crazy because it meant I couldn’t stop thinking about you, every time I looked in a mirror - but damn, it was worth it.”

Faint memories stirred. Then not so faint, the images coming clear quickly for once, and James grinned. Sometimes the girls had liked it when he sucked marks onto their skin in hidden places, or left other signs of his touch for them to remember him by. Apparently Len was the same, even if the marks were a bit more extreme, now.

James leaned down to trail his mouth over the shape of the handprint, starting at the outer thigh and working his way inward. He made a point of letting his cheek brush against Len’s dripping cock, the rasp of stubble over delicate skin making his lover shudder.

At the tip of his thumbprint, right next to the base of Len’s dick, he fastened his mouth on and sucked. Hard.

Len cried out and tried to arch his hips, but had no chance of budging against James’ flesh hand planted on his hipbone. Panting, he reached down to tangle his fingers in James’ hair again, clenching tight. “Marking me, James?”

“You complaining?”

“Not as long as I get to do the same in return.”

It probably wasn’t possible - James would heal too fast to keep such a minor wound beyond the length of the encounter. Never had he imagined he would regret that fact, but the thought of carrying a physical reminder of Len around with him was… yeah, he could really get behind that.

He switched sides and sucked another mark on Len’s other hip, adding a nip at the end that made Len’s cock jump hard.

“For God’s sake, James, just blow me already!”

“Pretty sure I didn’t manage to bruise your cock.” James nuzzled against the length of it again, drawing a strangled cry from Len. “Good thing. But that means I don’t owe you kisses there.”

“The hell you don’t.” Len’s baleful mutter was somewhat undercut by the way he kept trying to rock his hips to force James to make contact.

Dropping his hands, James fumbled the cap of the lube off without looking, keeping Len distracted with his mouth. He got his hand slicked up, then shifted so he could get a better angle on Len’s ass.

When he pressed his finger carefully against the tight pucker of the other man’s ass, Len froze as solid as his precious ice. Because the hand James had pressed against him was his left one.

“No?” James lifted his head to search Len’s face, anxious to be sure he wasn’t overstepping again.

Len’s hands were fisted in James’ hair, muscles quivering with tension. As James was starting to worry that he’d done something very wrong, Len finally found his voice on a gasp. “Fuck yes what the hell are you waiting for, do it.”

Well, he couldn’t get a much more fervent endorsement than that. Chuckling softly, James worked the digit inside. It was slow going and he kept his finger rigid, because the last thing he wanted was to rip delicate skin or pinch it between the articulated plates.

Len was moaning, rocking his hips until James had to brace his right arm across the man’s thighs to hold him down. James growled. “This would go faster if you relaxed, y’know.”

With an obvious effort Len eased the tension in his muscles, loosening his body to better accept James’ intrusion. James was able to get his whole finger inside, then drew it back out as slowly as he’d pushed in.

The reaction to his touch was fascinating, beyond anything he’d managed to wring out of Len in their previous session. And that was saying something, because Len had been damn responsive once he’d relaxed about the scars.

He was still squirming beneath James’ solid grip, spreading his legs to give better access, gasps mixed with moans, interspersed with impatient growls. The hands in James’ hair pulled sharply, trying to spur him on or get him to put his mouth on Len’s hard-on, he wasn’t sure.

And that beautiful dick was so stiff it looked painful, several shades darker than the tan flesh of Len’s stomach where it rested, leaking precum from the tip. It jumped when James pushed back in, faster this time.

“You gonna come just from this?” James was fascinated by the idea.

“You’d better not be planning to find out.” Len’s words were a clear threat, and he followed it up by reaching for his dick with one hand.

James batted it away before he could make contact. “I told you, quit it.”

“If this is ‘making it up to me’, shouldn’t you be doing what I want?” This time the words were less of a growl than a groan.

Deciding he’d probably teased enough, James relented. Shifting his right arm, he licked his way up the length of Len’s dick, then slid the tip into his mouth. The bitter, salty taste of it still wasn’t terribly appealing, though he had to admit it was better from the source.

Especially when accompanied by the strangled, incoherent shout Len gave as he made contact. Len threw his head back, muscles straining again as he fought to force more of himself into James’ mouth.

Keeping him pinned, James refused to change his pace. He remembered what Len had done to him, bobbing up and down the length of his shaft, so he did the same. He matched his timing to what he was doing with his finger, slowly increasing the tempo until Len was writhing beneath him.

“More,” Len gasped, tone caught somewhere between a demand and a plea. “Colder, James. And harder!”

It was hard to concentrate past what he was doing, but James somehow managed to find enough focus to trick his arm into cooling down again. He refused to go any harder, still wary of hurting the other man, but he did carefully add a second finger until he could feel Len’s body straining to accept the girth.

His reward was a desperate whine and a full-body shudder from Len, the other man gasping for air like there was no oxygen left in the room. His hands clenched tight in James’ hair, urging him down, and finally James gave in.

With a quick inhale, he caught his breath, then plunged his mouth down to accept Len’s full length. It meant forcing his gag reflex aside, the muscles of his throat working against the head, and that seemed to tip Len over the edge.

The noise Len made as he shot the works wasn’t quite a scream, but it was pretty damn close. Close enough to satisfy James, though he still wanted to see if he could make the other man scream with pleasure for real.

It was a far more pleasant sound than the memories of screams that plagued him in the dead of the night, and he wanted to hear it enough times that the good version was all he would remember.

As it turned out, the bitterness of Len’s spunk was hardly noticeable when it was so far into his mouth already, and James swallowed the load with ease. That drew another moan from Len, though he’d stopped trying to force his hips up and his hands had relaxed in James’ hair.

“Jesus fucking Christ.” Len sounded wrecked, his voice raw from shouting and trembling with the aftermath of passion. “That was a hell of an apology.”

“All better now? Did the kisses work?” James couldn’t hide his sly, rather smug grin as he looked up at Len. He cleaned his hand off on a corner of the sheet, then pushed up on his knees, intending to crawl up to join Len in sprawling out.

It probably shouldn’t have surprised him when Len grabbed his aching dick through his jeans, though James had honestly thought the other man was too wrung out to move. “Len…”

“Oh, no. I’ve been dreaming about this moment for fucking weeks. And while I admit that was one of my favourite fantasies, it’s not enough.” Len was smirking, too, and the stubborn determination in his eyes was a familiar look. “I want you inside me, James. Right now.”

“You already got off, you won’t…” James’ protest cut off on a gasp as Len squeezed, tight enough that his grip rode the fine edge between pleasure and pain - in a way that was somehow one hundred percent pleasure.

“In. Me. Now.” Another squeeze and Len finally let go, but only so he could grab the zipper and force it down. He was careful not to let it catch on delicate skin, but once it was down his movements were pure impatience as he tugged the jeans off James’ hips.

Giving in, James shed his clothes in record time. And that was despite the fact that Len kept stroking and teasing, throwing James off as he shuddered beneath the touches. He was so hard it ached even without the added pressure caused by the pants.

Somehow Len had gotten hold of the lube, or maybe he had a second tube somewhere. He slicked it over James’ length, paying special attention to the sensitive head, until James could barely see straight.

The last fragile threads of his control snapped when Len rubbed his thumb over the slit. Growling, half mad with lust and want and need, James grabbed him by the hips again and lined him up, then thrust himself home.

He had barely enough presence of mind left not to slam in, drawing it out as much as he could stand it. Len arched beneath him, clutching at his shoulders hard enough to drive his blunt nails into the skin and scrabble against the metal.

“Don’t hold back,” Len insisted, though the words were ragged and breathy. “Don’t you fucking hold back, James. I want you, not the tame, watered-down version of you. You, as you are right here, right now. With me.”

The words turned his blood to molten lava, heat pouring through him in a wave that all but consumed him. James threw himself into it, into Len, into this incredible man who accepted and wanted him for all that he was. Bucky Barnes and the Winter Soldier both.

All the teasing had affected James no less than Len, and it only took minutes before he was trembling on the edge of the peak. Without hesitation he let himself fall, glorying in the ecstasy as he shattered to pieces.

Far too soon it was over, and he collapsed down over Len. A muffled sound of protest from his lover reminded him that he was really damn heavy, and somehow he found the strength to push himself off to one side. After that he lay panting and limp, left arm draped over Len’s chest with his hand over the other man’s heart.

The same position they’d started in. The position James hoped they would have many, many more chances to be in.

“That was…” he shook his head, once again at a loss for words. At least this time, he had a feeling it wasn’t his broken mind causing the problem. Nobody could possibly have words to describe that. “Did you…?”

A glance down showed him that Len’s cock was still mostly limp, though a few faint twitches said he’d enjoyed the pounding. Len stretched against him, lifting his arms over his head and pushing against the headboard, before settling them around James’ neck.

“I may not have super stamina, and I definitely do have a recovery period, but that doesn’t mean I can’t enjoy myself even if I don’t get off.” Len smirked, the expression familiar, but there was a softness around his eyes that was new. “I like making you lose that cool composure, bringing out the heat.”

Then he laughed at his own words. “Never thought I’d hear myself say that. I guess your heat is an exception to my preference to the cold.”

Rubbing his still-cool fingers against Len’s chest, James smiled when the other man shivered. “Pretty sure you like my cold as much as my heat.”

“Best of both worlds.” Len sounded drowsy, and James could see he was fighting to stay awake. Hell, James was half asleep himself, the relaxing effect of the sex drawing him down into the exhaustion he’d successfully evaded most of the night.

Nothing said he couldn’t sleep, though. He shifted enough to grab the blanket, which sadly involved disentangling himself from Len. When he settled back down, Len didn’t wrap his arms around him again… but he did turn so he was the one on his side, his hand against James’ chest this time.

Neither of them said anything further. Nothing more needed to be said. James still couldn’t hope to put any of what he was feeling into words, anyway.

Good things didn’t happen to the Winter Soldier. Pleasure wasn’t permitted to the Winter Soldier. Nobody saw anything more than a tool in the Winter Soldier.

Which meant this, right here and now - Len’s touch, his words about what he wanted from James - was absolute proof that the Winter Soldier no longer existed. Not as he’d been created to be.

Though it was possible he’d been reborn as something different, better. Smiling faintly, James closed his eyes and let sleep drag him down, with the soft sound of Len’s breathing as his lullaby.

Chapter Text

Getting up without disturbing a still-sleeping bedmate was never easy. Not that Len had a habit of allowing any of his flings to stay in his private space for longer than it took to finish fucking. But Lisa used to crawl in with him, when she’d had a nightmare or their father was on the rampage, back when they were young enough to find comfort in closeness, so he had experience.

As it turned out, getting out of bed without disturbing the Winter Soldier was straight up impossible. Len had barely roused, was still trying to figure out why it felt like he’d been hit by a freight train, when he shifted his head and James’ eyes snapped open.

That fast, the other man was awake and fully aware, judging by the alert quality of his gaze. He pushed up on his elbow, doing a quick down-up visual exam of Len, brow creased. “Hey. You okay?”

“Define ‘okay’,” Len drawled back, grimacing as he tried to stretch and abused muscles protested. Vehemently. “I’m alive, which is honestly more than I expected when I realized you weren’t going to be able to pull the punch.”

“I did pull it. As much as I could.” James ran cool metal fingers lightly over Len’s brow and down over his cheek, an unspoken apology. “You’re hurt. Don’t make it worse by trying to ignore the pain and acting like you’re fine.”

Almost despite himself, Len sighed and leaned into the touch. “I am fine. A hot shower will loosen me up, maybe a slug of good whiskey for lubrication.” At James’ skeptical look, Len cocked an eyebrow at him. “I managed the sex just fine, and I didn’t hear you worrying then.”

To his surprise, James flushed deeply, red standing out on his cheeks despite the heavy scruff there. “I shouldn’t’ve done that. You’re too damn tempting.” He raked a hand through his tousled hair, pulling it back from his face, then swung around to push off the bed and get to his feet.

He was gloriously nude, and completely un-self-conscious about it. Not that he had anything to be bashful about, with his toned body, chiselled muscles, and a suitably proportionate package. He was too perfect to be fucking real, and Len still had trouble believing this broken Adonis wanted him.

Realizing he’d been staring at James’ lush mouth moving without actually registering the sounds coming out of it, Len cleared his throat. It was his turn to flush. “Sorry, what was that?”

James fixed him with a Look. The kind that suggested arguing would be far more trouble than it was worth, and disobeying would be a very bad idea. “I said, at least fucking take it easy today, will ya? Please?”

It was the last word that unnerved Len. James meant it, the plea written large in his expression. Len nodded and somehow managed to shuffle to his feet, using the motion as an excuse to break eye contact. He stumbled his aching way into the bathroom, turned the shower on, and stared blankly at the tiled wall as he struggled to process it all.

This was… new. Disturbing. In his awkward and fumbling way, James was trying to take care of Len. When was the last time anyone had done that?

Lisa looked out for him and would always have his back, just as he would always have hers. She fussed at him sometimes to take care of himself, but she never tried to do it for him. He wouldn’t have let her if she did try. He was the big brother, it was his job to take care of her.

Mick was his partner, had patched him up after more than one rough night, but the man was gruff at the best of times. Not exactly a stellar bedside manner. And in his frequently-voiced opinion, anything Len was stupid enough to do to himself, he deserved to suffer for.

The woman who’d contributed half his genes was gone, out of the picture, before he could remember. Lisa’s mom stuck around longer, had been decent to him, and he considered her his mother. But after Lewis got out of the cooler the first time, she’d been too beaten and cowed to stand up to the bastard and take care of her own child, let alone another woman’s.

Now here was this beautiful, shattered, impossible man, simultaneously the strongest and most fragile person Len had ever met, attempting to care for him. A man who barely knew how to take care of himself, for christ’s sake, but he was trying his hardest for Len.

Staying up all night to watch over him. Worrying about potential complications and consequences. Scolding him to take it easy and not push himself too far.

Looking at him with that bruised expression in his eyes, the one that proved it was possible for the words ‘This will hurt me more than it hurts you’ to be absolutely sincere. Who knew?

This was dangerous territory, far over enemy lines. It was also exactly what Len had been afraid of. That James would expect too much from him, more than Len had to give. That it would spiral out of control, divebomb both their lives, and screw everything up.

To put it mildly, Len was spooked. He might even be having a bit of a breakdown. Frankly, he thought he’d earned that much.

And yet when a soft knock heralded James, naked and hesitant in the doorway with a silent question in his eyes, Len didn’t pause for so much as an instant before he jerked his head in equally silent invitation.

For the moments when there was nothing between them but water and slippery soap, when James lifted him effortlessly against the wall and taught him exactly how fucking incredible ‘slow and gentle’ could be, when Len looked into those heartbreakingly blue eyes and saw no trace of manipulation or calculation or any sort of agenda…

For those moments, Len was at peace with himself in a way he wasn’t sure he’d ever been before.


The sense of peace lasted about as long as it took them to get dressed, and then things went south. Since he’d never had a long term lover, Len had also never experienced a lover’s spat. His first one turned out to be a fight with James about whether Len should deal with Mick alone, and it got heated fast.

By ten minutes in they’d started going in circles, each repetition of the arguments increasing in volume and tension. It didn’t surprise Len that James turned out to be a stubborn, opinionated bastard, but it was annoying as hell.

Worse, he apparently didn’t need to breathe all that often, which let him keep trying to steamroller Len. He’d been on this particular breath for what felt like at least two minutes. “...promise I’ll stay out of sight unless something happens but you should not go after him without backup, he’s gonna be fucking pissed that you’re keeping me around and he’s gonna take it out on something...”

Finally, Len put his foot down. “My business with Mick is my business, James. Fucking me does not give you any right to have a say about how I run my Rogues, let alone how I deal with my partner.”

Once again, he was facing exactly the thing he’d always feared. He’d never slept with anyone on his crew because he’d worried that person would get the wrong idea, think they could take over, lead him around by the dick.

Except, to his surprise, James scowled but immediately backed down. “Fine. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. If he hurts you, I’ll kill him. If he kills you, I’ll make him wish he’d never been born.”

Bewildered by the easy capitulation after all that arguing, Len stared at him. James stared back, appearing baffled, before realization seemed to dawn.

“I know how to follow a good leader, Len.” James shook his head, a dark smile tilting the corners of his lips. “I’ll argue with you if I think you’re doing something stupid, ‘cause I’ll never be a yes-man. I had enough of blindly following orders. Doesn’t mean I don’t respect the fact that you’re in charge.”

A ‘good leader’? Had Len just been compared to Captain fucking America and come out, if not on top, at least somewhere on the same playing field?

Would this man ever stop catching him off guard?

Probably not. And that was the most terrifying thing of all, because Len preferred to be in control of himself and his environment, to know what all the variables would be. James, by his very nature, was a chaotic wildcard.

“Don’t think that means you can lay down the law when it ain’t about the Rogues, though.” James’ voice was low, his gaze challenging, and Len saw a flicker of tension in his expression. James had his own demons that haunted him, and the idea of someone trying to control him had to be a personal nightmare.

In a strange way, it eased Len’s distress a fraction to know he wasn’t the only one wary of this mess they were diving headfirst into.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” Len put all of his very real sincerity into the words, and James nodded, appeased.

With that, Len made his escape, telling himself all the while that he wasn’t running away.

His first stop was Lisa’s place. After letting her worry about him all night, he owed his sister more reassurance than a phone call or text message. He knocked, then let himself in with the key she’d given him - and immediately had to duck the spike heeled shoe speeding toward his head.

“You jerk! I was worried you were dead!” Lisa stormed over to him, and Len half expected her to slap him. Instead she wrapped her arms around him in a hug, clinging like a limpet for about five seconds.

Then she pulled back and slugged him in the chest, hard enough to make his injury flare to agonizing life. Len grunted, but she showed no signs of sympathy.

If anything, it only made her madder. “You couldn’t have called me when you woke up? Mick said James nearly killed you both, and all I could get out of James was that you were ‘fine but unconscious’.”

“I had bigger problems to deal with,” Len muttered, rubbing his chest. The gesture was more to assuage the twinge of guilt he felt over making her worry than to soothe his wound. “Like whether or not James was the traitor.”

“What the hell is going on, anyway?” Lisa stepped away, hands on her hips, scowling. “First James accused Mick of betraying us, then Mick found something in the warehouse and stomped off roaring about how it was James all along.”

“It’s neither of them, I’m sure of that much.” Len grimaced and shrugged. “Unfortunately that’s about all I’m sure of, or even have an inkling of. Somebody is spying on us, but the question of how is entirely up in the air.”

“Well, we’d better figure it out fast. At this rate, somebody’s gonna get killed. Hell, maybe that’s what this Death Metal wants, to pit us against each other.”

That possibility had occurred to Len, and seemed rather likely. Problem was, there was nothing he could do about it until he figured out how they were being watched.

“Do you know where Mick is now?” There were reports of a big fire the night before, but no mention that the arsonist had been caught, and nothing currently on the police scanners. Len knew Mick’s favourite haunts, but he’d rather not have to search them all.

Lisa shook her head. “Haven’t seen him since the warehouse. Honestly, he was being kinda scary, I didn’t dare follow him out. He phoned to tell me about the fight.”

“Good call, staying put.” Mick liked Lisa, probably would never hurt her intentionally, but his control wasn’t the best when he was in a rage. And he’d had plenty of things to rage about last night. “I need to find him, put things straight. I’ll give you the full story about last night later.”

With one more hug, because he genuinely was sorry for worrying her, Len headed out to find his partner. It was still morning, but the first place he checked was their favourite bar. Saints and Sinners was open for business, even had a couple of die-hard drunks seated at the bar.

Len heaved a quiet sigh of relief when he spotted Mick brooding in a corner. The impressive spread of empty shot glasses in front of him said he’d been here a while, maybe since they’d opened.

It was either going to be a very good thing if Mick was drunk, or a very bad one. Sometimes it mellowed him out, but sometimes it pissed him off. No way to know which until Len talked to him.

“There you are.” Len strolled across the room to his partner, keeping his motions and body language carefully casual, as if nothing unusual had happened. “Bit early for drinking even by our standards, isn’t it?”

For a long moment Mick glared at him, eyes narrow and jaw tight. The evidence of the beating he’d taken from James was written large in a nasty shiner, badly split lip, and sizable lump on his temple. Finally he downed another shot and belched before speaking. “Ain’t early for me. Still late.”

“Fair enough.” Len slid onto the high stool next to Mick, tapped two fingers on the bar, and the bartender slid two more shots his way. Early or not, he hadn’t been kidding when he’d told James he needed the lubrication.

“So. You’re still alive.” Mick’s expression was as glowering as always, but Len got the impression his partner wasn’t displeased by the fact, at least.

“It seems that way.” He downed both shots, then gestured at the bartender to bring him a cold beer. He’d rather stick with the hard stuff, but this discussion was going to be difficult enough with full use of his brain. “So are you, which I wasn’t sure would be the case when I realized James had won the fight.”

“Can I see the ice statue? I wanna shatter the fucking punk.” Mick’s eyes gleamed. “Not as fun as watching him burn, but I’ll settle.”

Here was where things got tricky. “I didn’t freeze him. He’s still walking around… and he’s not our traitor.”

What?” Mick stood up, looming over him. “You can’t be fucking serious.”

Len refused to give ground, knowing any hint he might be intimidated - whether he actually was or not - would be fuel on the fire. “I know what’s in the bag, and I know why he was willing to fight to defend it. I’d have done the same, in his shoes. At any rate, he had far too much to lose last night. We came within inches of getting caught by the pigs. If he was working with Death Metal, he wouldn’t have put himself at that much risk.”

When Mick opened his mouth, an obvious question on his lips, Len shook his head. “No, I’m not telling you what was in there. It’s private, he was telling the truth about that much. You’ll have to take my word for it.”

“He nearly killed you, Snart!” To his credit, Mick seemed to be genuinely outraged on Len’s behalf, not only angry at James for accusing him of being the traitor. “Since when do you ever let anyone lay a fucking hand on you and live, huh?”

“Funny. I’m fairly certain I remember you punching me on several occasions, but you’re still breathing.” Len cocked an eyebrow at him. “He didn’t even mean to hit me. I got in the way, and that was entirely due to my own breathtaking stupidity. I’m not saying he should have attacked you, but frankly, you’ve been goading him to that from the moment I brought him in.”

“Because he’s been trying to come between us, idiot. Worming his way into the crew, waving his magic fucking dick at you, and now convincing you I might be the spy? I’ve been telling you from the start, he’s fucking with your head.”

“While I admit his dick is pretty magic, he’s not fucking with my head.” Len couldn’t help the smirk that slipped out. “Other parts of me, yes, but that’s not relevant to the discussion.”

Stunned, Mick stared at him. “Christ, you fucked him again, didn’t you?”

“And I plan to keep on doing it until I either get bored of him, or something better comes along.” Len’s smirk faded into a scowl. “What’s with the jealous schoolgirl act, Mick? You’ve never given a shit who I fucked in the past.”

“Because none of them mattered,” Mick growled. “They were toys. You didn’t even know most of their names. Why bother asking? You never went back for a repeat.”

“Frankly, none of the sex before James was worth repeating.” Funny that Mick would echo James’ earlier accusation, that Len had been treating him like a toy when he’d suggested they go a second round. Shrugging it off, he added, “I’ve never had anything long-term before because I’ve never had anyone I both wanted and trusted.”

“You had me, asshole,” Mick roared, uncaring of their audience. “From the fucking start, you’ve always had me. Other people come and go, but in the end it’s me you come back to, every damn time. If I can’t have you, at least nobody else could, either. You’re mine.”

Something cold and hard settled into the pit of Len’s stomach. So Lisa had been right after all, and his joking accusation had hit closer to the mark than he’d ever expected. Mick was jealous. Not just of someone horning in on Len’s time and attention, but actually jealous.

“Why didn’t you say anything, if you wanted me?” Len’s voice came out softer than he’d meant it to, muted by shock and perhaps some regret. “You never showed any interest in me, or I probably would have jumped you, back when we were younger. Hell, Mick, at this point I’d concluded nothing turns you on except fire.”

“There’s only two kinds of people in your life, Snart,” Mick snarled. “The ones you fuck and throw away, and the ones who get to stick around. Your stupid fucking rule makes sure of that. I chose to stick around. Why does he get to be an exception?”

“Rules are made to be broken. Isn’t that the motto we live by?” But he’d never broken his own rule, before. It had taken quite a bit of sharp prodding from Lisa to make him even consider doing it repeatedly. Len could understand why Mick had felt he needed to make the choice he had.

That Mick wanted to stay close to him enough to sacrifice that much… that meant a lot to Len. Maybe, if James had never come into the picture and they’d had this conversation, it would even have meant enough to him that he’d have broken the rule for Mick, instead.

But James was in the picture. “The past is the past, and we can’t change it. What might have been is irrelevant to the present, or the future.” Len tapped his beer on the bar, a rhythmic elegy of lost chances and wrong choices. “James is gonna be around a while, Mick. You need to accept that, and get over it. I’m not giving up the first thing that’s made me feel good in my entire goddamn life, not even for you.”

The declaration seemed to rattle Mick. His expression was a mix of dismay and outright horror. “Shit, you’re already in love with him, aren’t you?”

What?” Len choked on air, his chest seizing up. He had to take a hasty swig of beer to get rid of the knot closing his throat. “Christ, now you’re being melodramatic. Nobody’s in love, and never will be. Not my style.”

Mick snorted. “Keep telling yourself that.”

Uncomfortable with this particular line of idiocy, Len brought the subject back to the actual issue. “Are you going to man up about this, or keep acting like a toddler in a sandbox who doesn’t want to share his favourite shovel? The fact that he’s in the picture doesn’t make you any less important in my life, Mick. You’re my partner. Having a lover doesn’t change that.”

“The hell it doesn’t.” Mick’s growl was a rumble in his chest. “What happened to ‘you and me against the world’, huh buddy? This guy’s nothing but a distraction, a dangerous one. This whole traitor fuckup shows that. He’s turning you against me. I want him gone, before he screws you up any worse.”

“Don’t make me choose between you, Mick.” Len’s voice was hard as steel; a warning, not a plea. No matter how much part of him wanted to make it the latter. “I won’t do it.”

“Fine.”

Despite the seeming capitulation, Len had a bad feeling as he watched his partner snatch up his last shot and knock it back. “Mick…”

“I’ll do it for you.” Mick slammed the glass down on the bar, hard enough that a loud crack whipped through the room, before he turned and headed for the door in a thunderous cloud of rage. “I fucking quit.”

Chapter Text

“How many times are you planning to take that thing apart, anyway?”

James didn’t look up from what he was doing to answer Len. The tiny pieces of the rifle he was cleaning required all of his concentration, and very steady hands. “You say that like you haven’t gone over those floorplans with Lisa three times since lunch.”

“You’re making me nervous that there’s something wrong with the gun.” Len sounded aggravated.

Then again, he’d sounded aggravated in one form or another pretty much constantly since he’d announced that Heat Wave had quit the Rogues. It wasn’t directed at James, exactly, but it did seem like Len had been kind of taking it out on him.

Of course, it was James’ fault that Len’s best friend was gone, so he couldn’t really blame the man for that.

Completing the delicate operation, James snapped the last piece into place and looked up at his lover. “I’m making sure there isn’t something wrong with the gun. You focus on preparing for the mission - the heist - your way, and I’ll do it my way.”

The grunt Len made in response suggested he was unimpressed with James’ scolding. Sighing, James set the gun aside and stood, coming over to where Len was reviewing the alarm wiring diagrams taped to the wall.

Reaching out, he rested his right hand on the back of Len’s neck and kneaded gently, the way he’d learned to do. “We got this in the bag. I know you need to worry and fuss and make everything perfect, but at least quit fretting over it.”

Len leaned into the touch, even made a small noise that was both pain and relief as tense muscles relaxed. James wished he was more surprised when a moment later the man went stiff again and moved away, out of reach.

“Keep your mind on the damn job,” Len snapped, scowling at him. “You’re sure you can make the shot from that distance?”

Clenching his fist, James controlled his temper with an effort. This close to starting a mission, they couldn’t afford to get into a fight. But one had been boiling between them for a while now, and it was going to come to a head sooner rather than later. “For the last time, yes. I’ve made a lot fucking harder kills.”

Not that he was going to be killing Death Metal, but that was what was in the ‘official’ plan. The one he, Lisa, and Len had made here in the hideout, acting as if they were confident they’d shaken any spies.

The Snarts had been dropping subtle hints among their street contacts about their next planned heist - the tactic had worked so well to draw Death Metal out the first time, they’d figured they might as well give it another shot. Worst case scenario, Death Metal didn’t show up and they got away with the loot, so that was hardly a bad outcome.

The target was a high-priced finger painting hanging in some rich asshole’s private collection. James was supposedly going to be on the roof of the next mansion over, ready to kill Death Metal the moment the bastard showed up to scoop the painting from under the Rogues’ noses.

The real plan called for him to be up a tree a quarter mile away from the neighbour’s house, and he’d be firing a tracker, not a bullet. He only had to hit any piece of the ridiculous metal armour, and the tiny plastic device would stick tight. There was a miniscule amount of metal wire in it, but plastered to all that heavy plate mail, surely it wouldn’t be noticeable.

That plan had been made under the influence of James’ deeply ingrained paranoia combined with Len’s single-minded determination to defeat the spy. They’d met up in a wide open space in a big park, and only after all three of them had left irreplaceable personal items behind and separately gone out to buy or swipe new clothes, right down to socks and boxers. There was no way anyone could have planted a bug or crept up on them.

Nobody knew about the real plan but the three of them, so there was no possibility of betrayal. Lisa had her pet engineer on speed dial and a sob story ready to go in case they ended up needing help, but the Flash had no idea they were up to anything.

No, the Rogues had a few messages they wanted to personally convey to Death Metal, before they passed the bastard over to the hero. He’d survive the conversation, largely because they had no interest in having the Flash hunting them down, but it was going to get ugly.

Much uglier than the first time they’d tried this, when they’d only been intending to take a few moments while Flash was distracted to deliver their message. This time, they’d be tracking the bastard back to his lair, finding his accomplice too.

James had decided he was perfectly okay with the idea. Some people deserved roughing up.

What he was less okay with was the way Len had been acting since they’d started fucking. The man went from frigid to passionate and back again with no warning or pattern James could see. It was like he didn’t want to want James, but couldn’t stop himself from taking as much as he could when he did allow himself to give in.

Then again, Len had been upfront about wanting sex, not a relationship. Was that what left James feeling like he was missing something important? Was he subconsciously looking for the relationship part, not finding it, but not understanding what was going on?

Or was he not picking up on some cue Len was giving him, something he fucking well should be spotting if he was a normal person? Maybe he was legitimately pissing Len off in some way. He didn’t know, didn’t have anyone to ask, and it was driving him crazy.

Right now, being distracted was the last thing he could afford. “Y’know what? I’m done with this.” James scooped up his gun, stalking toward the ladder to the ground floor. “I need to get into position. Have fun with the diagrams.”

Len waved him off, still scowling. “Don’t forget to turn your comm on. I know you won’t say anything, but you need to be hooked in to us.”

Pausing in the doorway, James turned back and gave Len a nasty look of his own. When he spoke his voice had a low, hard edge to it that was one hundred percent Winter Soldier. “There’s a difference between reminders, and questioning my ability to do the job. You’re coming awful close to the second one.”

Not bothering to stick around to see how Len reacted, James scrambled up the ladder and through the hidden door. Outside on the main floor of the factory, he took a deliberately meandering route through the machinery, adding to the maze of footsteps that would prevent anyone from tracking them through the dust to the correct entrance.

Passing by a large piece of metal, he snarled and slammed his left hand into it. The equipment was heavy enough not to budge, but he left a serious dent in the solid steel side. The impact was noisy and he knew he shouldn’t have done it, but he needed to punch something and it couldn’t be Len.

A low, impressed whistle from above jerked his attention upward, his gaze followed a split second later by the barrel of his rifle. He froze when he saw Lisa sitting on a catwalk, then cursed under his breath as he lowered the gun.

Fuck, he was getting sloppy, letting his emotions consume and distract him. He damn well knew better than to move out into the open without scanning the area. “Are you outta your fucking mind? Don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“I thought you knew I was here. You usually do.” Lisa shrugged, unrepentant. “I know you’re super strong, but it’s still impressive to see it.”

She jumped down, landing lightly on her feet despite her high-heeled boots. James revised his silent condemnation of her for wearing the impractical things. Clearly, like the Black Widow, she was perfectly capable of moving with no hindrance from them.

Dusting off the seat of her leather pants, she gave him a sympathetic smile. “Lenny being a grouch? Don’t let him get to you. There’s a reason I’m out here instead of down there. He’s always a bear when he and Mick are on the outs, which compounds the fact that he’s already a jerk when we’re about to start a job.”

“This is a normal thing?” James was surprised. Len and Rory had seemed so close, and he got the impression they’d been friends most of their lives.

The question made Lisa laugh, her eyes bright. “Lenny and Mick’s relationship has been on-again, off-again since before I can remember. Sometimes the ‘off’ lasts a few days or weeks, sometimes longer. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other for over a year before the Flash came along and gave Lenny an excuse to say ‘sorry’ without actually saying it.”

The information made something tight in James’ chest ease up, just a little. He’d been blaming himself for the fallout, since it seemed pretty obvious the fight had been over him. Len said he didn’t blame James, but his actions weren’t matching his words.

Except for those times when he ‘gave in’, when he let James touch him and returned the need tenfold, and everything would seem perfect between them for a while. But only for a while. “I never meant to come between them. I told Len that.”

“Oh, sweetie.” Lisa tucked her hand between his right arm and his ribs, leaning against him in a weird sort of half hug. “You’re far too good to be one of us, you know. But we’re keeping you anyway. No take-backs!”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.” The close contact made him uncomfortable, not used to being so near anyone but Len, but at the same time it was nice. Though her breasts brushed against his arm and he was highly aware of the heat of her body against his, there was nothing really sexual about it.

It was the way she sometimes touched Len, he finally realized. He decided not to shake her off, at least partly because he wanted to see where she was going with this.

“Thing is, they’d been stuck in a rut for so long, and gotten so good at pretending they weren’t, they even fooled me into thinking they’d dealt with it.” Lisa huffed a breath, exasperated. With her brother and with herself, James was pretty sure. “Flash got them moving again, at least, but until you came along they were following the same worn out track as always.”

“You’re still not making any sense.” Talking in circles was one of those ‘normal’ things James still had trouble following. He preferred to be direct and blunt, because that caused far less confusion, but talking about things without talking about them seemed to be a Snart family trait.

Apparently she decided to take pity on him, because she met his eyes squarely and laid it out plain. “Lenny doesn’t like it when he feels vulnerable, or when he has something to lose. He’s spent his whole life making sure nobody can ever hurt him again. Not physically, and not emotionally. Mick and I slipped inside his guard before he closed himself off completely, but you’re forcing him to open up and admit you’ve gotten under his shell, too. In short, you’re making him question everything he ever thought he wanted, and that frightens him.”

“That’s not what I want to do,” James objected. He really didn’t like the idea that he was making Len scared. Not of him, if he understood Lisa correctly, but still because of him.

“Of course it is. You’ll never get anywhere with him, otherwise. You’d get jammed into a rut just like he and Mick were, or else kicked out of the wagon entirely. Which is exactly what he’s been trying to do… kick you out. Push you away, because he’s terrified if he doesn’t do it now, it’ll hurt too much when you leave him in the end. He doesn’t think he deserves you.”

That much, at least, James could agree with. “He doesn’t. Fuck, not even close.”

For some reason that made her frown, a pretty feminine version of her brother’s scowl. Her voice went hard as diamonds. “Care to explain that comment?”

Not sure what he’d done to upset her, James hesitated. There was nothing he could think of that he’d said or done wrong, so he finally decided the only answer he could give was the truth.

“I’m… broken. There’s so many things I don’t know how to do, ways I don’t know how to act, lines I don’t know how to see. I’m going to fuck this up, badly, and hurt him. Hell, I already have. He deserves someone who knows what the fuck they’re doing, who can treat him right without needing to have ‘right’ explained, first.”

Thankfully, she softened again, her smile turning wry. “Too good by half. That’s exactly how he feels about you. Well, not exactly. The part where he thinks he’s going to fuck it up because he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That sooner or later, you’re going to see past the brash, confident facade he puts up, get a glimpse of the piping hot mess inside, and run for the hills.”

“What?” Once again James was left feeling adrift in the conversation. “Why the hell would I? He sure can’t be more of a mess inside than I am.”

“It’s what everyone else he’s ever depended on has done, so why not you?” Her smile was still bright, but her eyes were dark with old pain and sadness. “If you hear something often enough, it sinks in deep. Being told over and over again as a kid that you’re a loser and a failure, that you’ll never amount to anything, that you’re no good to anybody… Lenny says he doesn’t believe any of our father’s bullshit, and he doesn’t. In his head. In his heart? That’s another matter.”

James understood the process of conditioning, all too well. At least he’d been an adult when HYDRA had broken him down, and he’d been aware of them as the enemy. If he’d been a kid, and Zola had been someone he was supposed to love and look to for protection and guidance?

He’d never have come back from being the Winter Soldier. There never would have been anything else.

That Len could be as strong as he was, after something like that, said volumes about his character. But, as Lisa said, all the shit would still be lurking there under the surface. Just like the Winter Soldier was still and would always be a part of James, and he could never truly be Bucky again.

“Lenny values loyalty more than anything else in the world, but he’s learned not to expect it.” Lisa shrugged. “Even I’ve let him down. He practically raised me, which means when I went through the rebellious teenage phase, he was the one I was rebelling against. We’ve patched it up as adults, and he trusts me, but it’s only recently that he really let me all the way back into his life. Because of the Flash, in fact.”

She tossed her hair over her shoulder, and looked up at him. “I need you to promise me something. Don’t let him push you away. If he really wanted you gone, you’d know it. He wouldn’t be playing this passive aggressive crap. The harder he pushes, the more it means he wants you to prove him wrong. Can you do that? Can you out-stubborn my big brother?”

Despite himself, James’ lips twitched in a wry grin. “Trust me, Len ain’t got nothing on stubborn.” Bucky Barnes had been the best friend of the most famously stubborn man in America. If he could handle Steve, then James could handle Len.

Using the hand on his arm for leverage, Lisa pushed up on her toes toward him. James froze, wary and uncertain - was she going to kiss him?

She did, but not the way he expected. A soft brush of her lips over his scruffy cheek left him flushed and oddly happy. When she dropped back to her heels, she was smiling fondly. “Then welcome to the family, Jamie.”

The nickname made him twitch. “When Rory does that, it annoys the fuck out of me,” he muttered, frowning down at her. “How the hell do you make it cute?”

“Because I’m just that good.” She winked at him, patted his arm, and finally let go to head for the door. “Now come on, we’ve got a job to do. Lenny’ll be on us any minute for messing around.”

Checking his watch, James nodded. It was well past time for him to be heading for the mansion, but he’d left himself plenty of leeway. He’d be in position long before the op started.

At the doorway, Lisa paused, turning back to him. “Jamie? About those lines you don’t always see… there’s a difference between him pushing you away to see if you’ll come back, and him saying ‘no’. A big one.”

“That one I already know.” That was the reason why, although James had consistently been the one making the first move to initiate things between them lately, he always left it to Len to make the second one. He was well aware he might not see the subtle difference, and he never wanted to force Len.

“Good. I admit you’d make a beautiful statue, but it would be such a waste.”

James didn’t bother to argue that Golden Glider had little chance of getting the drop on the Winter Soldier. The simple truth was, if he ever hurt Len badly enough for her to want to kill him, he’d probably stand there and let her take the shot.


When a long-distance hit was planned and executed well, there was a quiet stretch in the middle of the op - after James got into position, before the target made their appearance. High up in the massive old oak tree, he’d arranged himself lengthwise along a branch with his rifle braced in the ‘V’ of two smaller branches in front of him. He’d been there long enough that the sounds of wildlife in the night had returned all around him.

Another man might have gotten bored, but James had infinite patience where the mission was concerned. He’d been a good sniper long before HYDRA got hold of him, and that patience was one reason the Army had singled him out for special training. He liked the moments of quiet, appreciated the chance to settle his mind and focus on what was coming.

One of the Howling Commandos - Gabe? Morita? - had commented that being the best friend of someone as headstrong as Steve Rogers must require the patience of a saint, so it was no wonder Bucky had plenty of it.

Pausing his train of thought, James ran that moment through his head again and again, trying to burn it into place. On the third play-through, he got a visual glimpse to go with the audio, a flash of white teeth against dark skin as the speaker laughed. Gabe, then. It was a new memory, he was pretty sure. He’d write it in his journal the moment he got home.

Back to Len’s, rather, though the man’s apartment was growing to feel more like ‘home’ with every night James spent there. Even with Len’s unpredictable reactions, James was there more often than not, retreating to his own space only when the demons in his head were loud and he knew the nightmares would be bad.

With an effort, he returned his mind to the job. He had a clear shot through an arched window that lined up beautifully with the painting they were stealing. Death Metal would have to walk in front of James’ crosshairs if he wanted to snatch the prize out from under them again.

At nearly 1400 yards away, James surely had to be out of any sensing range the metahuman might have for metal. It would be a tough shot, Len hadn’t truly been wrong to question his ability to make it, but James was confident.

The payload bullet carrying the tracker was the second one in the magazine, third counting the round in the chamber. The bullet was made of the same plasteel as the knife that had gotten through Death Metal’s guard, though the others were normal.

He’d get the bastard distracted deflecting the first few shots, aim the tracking round low, and go back to firing at the meta’s face as if trying to kill him. It meant losing the element of surprise, but given the way the man had enjoyed grandstanding up until now, James figured he’d be so busy showing off that he couldn’t be shot, he wouldn’t notice the one that was different.

Something stung him on the side of the neck, probably an insect pissed off that James was invading its home. He didn’t twitch, barely noticed the sensation, harshly trained to maintain discipline at all times.

A second bug bit him, then a third. He went tense, concerned he’d accidentally disturbed some kind of nest. If he got swarmed… even the Winter Soldier had limits to his ability to block out pain and concentrate on the shot.

The fourth sting was higher, on his cheek, and this time James felt a sense of impact.

Darts. Somebody was shooting him full of fucking darts with a silenced gun - or maybe Death Metal was doing it with his powers.

Somehow, impossibly, their plan had been betrayed after all.

Furious, James reached up and ripped the tiny needles out of his skin. Death Metal and his flunkies were about to learn exactly why the Winter Soldier was spoken of in hushed and fearful tones by operatives around the world. His Enhanced system and drug desensitization training ensured normal sedatives would barely affect him, no matter how many darts they landed.

Except, when he pushed himself up to look around for the shooter, the tree branch swayed wildly beneath him like a gale wind had hit without him noticing. He struggled to shake it off, but shook himself off the branch instead, tumbling over the side and rushing toward the ground far below.

Halfway down he managed to catch a branch in his left hand, wrenching his arm as his momentum stopped abruptly. The branch creaked and groaned a protest at the sudden weight, but held - for now.

It felt like someone had poured a layer of lead over him, weighing him down until even his Enhanced strength wasn’t enough to overcome it. All he could do was lock his hand around the branch and hope he could push through the effects before whoever it was climbed up to retrieve him.

“Holy shit, it really is him,” he heard someone exclaim in hushed but shocked tones below. “Fuck, I thought the informant was full of it, but that’s really the Soldier!”

“Quiet, idiot. The guy said the asset would have a voice-activated comm system on him. We don’t want whoever’s on the other end to realize something’s wrong.”

Rustling in the bushes indicated his assailants were drawing cautiously closer. James was fighting for breath, each rise and fall of his chest seeming to take all the energy he had left. He couldn’t get enough air to even croak a warning to Len and Lisa.

The world was spinning around him until he couldn’t tell which direction the men were coming from. Heat crept through him, tongues of flame licking along his veins, trying to boil the blood inside them.

Sounds and scents had gone sharp-edged, but his vision was fading and it was hard to concentrate. James knew this drug, recognized it all too well.

It had been developed specifically for his system. It acted as a sedative first, but the secondary effects included heightened sensation and an eventual inability to tell reality from hallucination.

Under its influence even brief minutes of torture seemed to stretch on for hours. The pain repeated over and over again in his head, memory becoming no different from the real thing.

It had been Zola’s favourite way to punish him.

Somehow he found the strength to lift his right hand, groping awkwardly at his back with fingers that had gone numb, trying to find the butt of his pistol. If he could just reach the trigger… he didn’t even need to draw it. The sound of it firing would alert the others to the fact that something was wrong. Shooting himself in the leg would be small payment for a rescue.

“Christ, he’s still moving? There’s enough tranq in one of those fucking darts to put down an elephant!”

A fifth and sixth sting followed the comment. Despite his frantic but increasingly disjointed mental commands, his left hand unlocked and slipped from around the branch. He fell heavily, head hitting the ground with a hard knock that disoriented him further.

There was a crackling noise in his right ear, followed by a voice. “What was that thump? Lenny?”

Another voice, one he knew he should recognize, but couldn’t unscramble his brain long enough to process. “Wasn’t me. James? I’ll assume silence from you means you’re still good to go.”

Desperate, he struggled to say something, anything, loud enough to activate the comm. Nothing came out, his vocal chords as lax as the rest of him. He wouldn’t have had the air to use them anyway, his chest barely moving with each breath.

“...right, let’s get moving…”

The words in his ear stopped making sense, and then the voice faded away entirely. The rest of the world followed, dragging him down into the darkness.

Only one bleak thought remained to keep him company.

HYDRA had found him.

Chapter Text

As he was getting into place outside the fence of the mansion that was tonight’s target, Len heard a strange, dull noise through the communications earpiece. They’d had to risk the tiny amount of metal in the comms in order to coordinate getting into the mansion. He frowned, reaching for the earbud to see if it was a technical issue.

Lisa beat him to it. “What was that thump? Lenny?”

Her voice came through clear as a bell, so it wasn’t a receiving issue on his end. “Wasn’t me. James? I’ll assume silence from you means you’re still good to go.”

Predictably, there was no response. Len really wasn’t sure what the deal was with the man’s insistence that he not speak or move at all for hours before a job even started. Then again, James was the professional sniper, not Len.

Only the best made it into the Rogues, specifically so that Len wouldn’t have to babysit and handhold everyone through their part of his plans. Difficult as it was for him not to be in control, Len had to remember that second-guessing his experts was a stupid waste of time for him and them.

God knew James had reminded him of that earlier tonight. Hell, maybe the man was just flat out refusing to speak to him, after their little exchange back at the warehouse.

Forcibly, Len shoved aside any thoughts about his personal issues. He could worry later about whether James was going to sulk over the insult to his professional pride. “All right, let’s get moving. If Death Metal got our message, he’s probably waiting in the wings for his cue to try to upstage us. Let’s give it to him.”

“Should be entertaining.” Lisa sounded gleeful. She was often like a kid in a candy store while on a job, as if deep inside she was still his bratty baby sister who got super excited because he’d let her tag along. “The fence alarm system is rewired. Your turn.”

“Got it.” Len ducked out of his hiding spot and jumped high, grabbing the top of the wall around the property. It was more of an effort to pull himself up and over than he liked to admit, especially after watching the way James could move.

Not that he had any hope of being able to match the metahuman, no matter how in shape Len might get. But it was the principle of the thing.

Besides, if he wanted to have any hope of continuing to keep up with James in bed, Len was going to have to improve his game. And damn, it was worth the effort.

This job had involved significantly less planning than he would have liked, so he’d chosen a target on the edge of the city, where the owners were away. That mitigated some of the risk factor, and gave them a few extra seconds before even the Flash could get here. Even if disaster struck and they did get caught, at least James was off site and wouldn’t be taken down along with them.

Of course Len had no intention of getting caught, but he always planned for all eventualities.

The house security was top of the line, but Len had worked with this particular alarm system before. Another reason for choosing this job on short notice. It took him a few minutes to work his way through, but finally he was in.

“Lis, you’re clear to enter through the back. James, be ready.” Len kept a sharp eye on his surroundings as he headed for the left wing of the house, where the owner kept his trinkets and pretties on display.

Lisa beat him there, and he found her admiring a yellow diamond necklace sparkling inside a glass case. “It goes with my codename, don’t you think?”

“Target first, shopping after.” Len glanced at the necklace as he passed. “It would look good on you. Check the security on it while I disarm the painting. We’ll grab it on the way out if Death Metal doesn’t show.”

“Mmm, now I have to choose between hoping he shows so we can teach him a lesson, and hoping he doesn’t so I can have the prize. No fair.” Despite her exaggerated pout, she crouched in front of the case and began studying the system protecting it with the competent air of the professional she was.

Len likewise turned his attention to the painting. The system protecting it involved pressure plates and laser sensors. Not the most complex he’d ever defeated by far, but enough to require some focus.

The back of his neck prickled, and it was difficult to concentrate when he knew Death Metal could pop out of nowhere at any moment. He seemed to enjoy making Len do the hard work of disarming alarms and opening vaults before showing up, but there was no guarantee of that. With his apparent ability to teleport, it wasn’t like Death Metal needed to worry about being caught.

Once he had the alarm disabled, Len hesitated with his hands hovering over the frame. Still there was no sign of Death Metal. Even after he lifted it carefully off the hook, the room remained quiet and still around them.

“Huh. Guess he’s not coming.” Lisa grinned and shrugged. “We’ll get him next time, but for right now…” She turned to the case holding the necklace, all but rubbing her hands together in glee.

Metal cables whipped through the room, almost too fast to see. Len shouted a warning, but the cables struck Lisa before the first word left his lips. She cried out as she went flying, crashing into a larger display case and the marble bust inside.

Glass spun through the air, and Len ducked, turning away to protect both the painting and his face. The frame was ripped out of his hands, pulled by the metal wire strung across the back to hang it. Len hissed in pain as the wire sliced through his gloves and into his palms.

Growling, he pulled out two of the plasteel knives James had procured for him, ignoring the pain in his hands as he gripped the hilts. Len launched himself at Death Metal, dodging the metal cables.

Unlike the museum hall, the display room was filled with objects and obstacles. Death Metal couldn’t use his cables as effectively, and Len was able to get in close enough to take a stab. He swore as his blade missed the gap between plates, skidding off the armour instead.

A cable slashed across his chest, throwing him back against the wall hard enough to knock the wind out of him. Alarms were blaring, thanks to the case Lisa had crashed through. With effort Len hauled himself back to his feet, chest heaving as he struggled to draw in air, but he ignored the sense of panic and charged toward Death Metal once more.

At all costs, he had to drive Death Metal in front of the window James was aiming at. That was the entire point of this job, and Len never left a job unfinished.

He ducked one cable, jumped over another, finally drawing in a deep breath as his lungs started working again. Once again he stabbed at Death Metal, this time finding the gap and driving his blade into the man’s shoulder joint.

Death Metal howled in pain and shock. Len wrenched at the knife, twisting and pushing with all his strength, sending the metahuman staggering sideways.

Almost in front of the window.

Swearing, Len tried for another strike with his other blade, but Death Metal had recovered enough to knock his attack aside. A cable snaked around Len’s ankle and yanked, and his ass hit the marble floor hard.

Out of nowhere came Lisa, throwing herself into the metahuman with a strident shout of triumph. She caught him by surprise, and body-checked him right into the target zone.

Len held his breath voluntarily this time, anticipating the hail of bullets that would follow. Hell, maybe James would even get a lucky shot and shoot the asshole in the face.

Nothing happened.

“James, what the hell,” Len shouted. “Are you asleep out there?”

No bullets. The window remained intact, taunting him with its perfection.

“What’s wrong, Snart?” Death Metal’s distorted voice was triumphant and smug. “Something go wrong with your precious plan?”

Len’s attempts to scramble to his feet were foiled by the cable still snarled around his legs. He threw the knife, but he was no assassin, and the blade bounced off the armour without even coming close to the edge of a plate.

Another crash of breaking glass and a scream from his sister told him there would be no attack from that direction, either. “Lisa!”

There was no answer, and Len’s heart clenched in his chest. Death Metal laughed. “Sorry about that. I think I may have broken her.”

“You sonuvabitch,” Len snarled. “I will destroy you, I will rip those plates from your body and tear you apart from the inside out. I don’t care how powerful you are, I will find a way. Fucking nobody hurts my sister.”

To his intense frustration, Death Metal simply laughed again and lifted his hand in an ironic salute. The meta turned, took one step, and vanished as if he’d stepped through an invisible door.

Kicking free of the metal cables, Len staggered to his feet and rushed over to his sister. A soft moan reached him as he fell to his knees beside her, reassuring him that she was at least alive.

She was sliced up and bleeding all over from the broken glass, and some of it was probably still in the wounds. The police were going to be here any moment, and he was surprised the Flash wasn’t here already. There must have been something more important than a single-home robbery that the hero needed to be dealing with.

Small blessings for the Rogues. They needed every bit of luck they could get right now. Swearing, Len slid his arms under her and scooped her up, careful not to jostle her.

There was blood everywhere, most of it hers. He hated leaving evidence behind that would link her to the crime, but there was nothing for it. Getting out of here ahead of the cops and getting her to medical help was his top priority at the moment.

He’d deal with James’ failure to play his part, later.

Thanks to his connections among the various crime families in Central, Len knew of a couple of doctors who were happy to do work for cash up front with no questions asked. He burned rubber to get Lisa to the closest one.

The doctor took one look at the bloody woman in Len’s arms, and waved him in. “Put her on the table over there, then wait in the other room. No,” he added sharply, when Len started to argue. “You can’t stay with her. I don’t care if she’s your wife or your twin or your damn soulmate. You’re filthy and she’s got open wounds, and I can’t work with you hovering.”

Len ground his teeth, but this time he was smart enough not to argue with the expert. If his presence put Lisa at further risk, then he would leave.

But he wouldn’t go far.

He spent the next hour pacing the tiny waiting room, fussing with the cold gun he’d retrieved from the getaway car, and calling James’ burner phone over and over.

There was no answer, just as there had been no answer over the comms. Len kept flipping back and forth between fury and worry.

On the one hand, there should have been no way Death Metal could know about their real plan. No way the meta could have known where James would really be. Surely no way Death Metal could take down the Winter Soldier without a fight, without even giving James a chance to shout for backup.

On the other hand, James was a consummate professional. He’d never have simply walked off a job in the middle. If something had gone wrong - his gun had jammed and his comm had fritzed - he’d have found a way to let the Rogues know. He’d also have either met them at the getaway car, or gone straight back to the hideout where he’d now be answering his damn phone. Something had to have happened to him.

On the other other hand, James had been pretty pissed at Len tonight, and Len knew he’d had it coming. He’d been jerking the other man around since Mick had left, hating himself for being an asshole but equally hating himself for how much he was afraid Mick had been right - he was... okay, not in love, definitely not, but at least starting to have actual feelings for the man. Maybe James really had decided he’d had enough, and was angry enough that he hadn’t cared he’d be leaving them in the lurch.

On the other other other hand, there had been that strange noise just before the job started…

Goddamnit, Len was going in mental circles as uselessly unproductive as the ones he was physically pacing.

When the door to the workroom swung open, Len turned to face the doctor. The man cringed back, startled and dismayed, and Len realized he was snarling in frustration like a madman. With an effort, he calmed himself. “How is she?”

“She’ll have a few new scars and she’s lost a lot of blood, but she’ll be fine.” The doctor recovered from his fright, and gave Len a reassuring smile. “I’d like to keep her overnight, make sure no infection or complications set in. I assure you, this clinic is extremely discreet and secure.”

The thought of leaving Lisa in a stranger’s hands chafed badly at Len, but she wasn’t the only one he had to worry about right now. If James was in trouble and Len ignored the problem, then he’d failed in his job as a leader.

And if James had fucked off, Len was going to make the asshole pay, and pay dearly.

“Anything happens to her while she’s in your care… anything at all…” Len lifted the cold gun and cradled it in his other hand, thumbing the button that made it charge up with a whine. “I’ll freeze those pretty hands of yours so solid, they’ll shatter. Take good care of her, and I’ll double what I paid you up front. Deal?”

The doctor swallowed hard, but nodded. “I understand. No harm will come to her.”

“I want to see her, first.” Len arched an eyebrow, daring the man to tell him he wasn’t allowed.

Proving he was brighter than average, the doctor simply gestured at the door. “I assumed as much. Please don’t touch any of the bandages, you’re still not clean. I’ve got her on a morphine drip to dull the pain and let her sleep. Don’t wake her.”

Making his way across the room to the little cot that had been set up in the corner, Len dropped to one knee beside his sister. She looked pale and wan, unnaturally still, not at all the vivacious woman who frequently blew through his life to turn it upside down, whether he liked it or not.

She looked like she had when they’d been children, when their father lost his temper and Len wasn’t able to draw the man’s attention away from her. Battered and bruised. Delicate. Fragile.

His fault. And all for nothing. He’d either fucked up the plan somehow, or he’d trusted the wrong person.

He touched her hand gently, and was surprised when she cracked her eyes open and gave him a weak smile. “Quit it,” she scolded him, her voice hoarse. “I’ll be okay. What happened to James?”

“Don’t know. But I intend to find out. Right now your job is to rest and recover.” He squeezed her hand. “Sorry you didn’t get the necklace. It really would have looked good on you.”

She smirked, and pulled her other hand out from under the blanket. Even with the lights dimmed, the strand of gems twined around her fingers threw off sparks of golden brilliance. “It was the second case he threw me into.”

Len laughed, his mood brightened for a moment. In a rare show of affection, he leaned close to brush a kiss over her forehead.

“That’s my girl.”


The first place he checked was the hideout, of course. There was no sign of James, and no indication he’d been there since earlier that day. Len’s apartment was equally empty, and he had no idea where James holed up when he wasn’t with Len. The man still wasn’t answering his burner.

Frustrated, Len drove back out toward the mansion. He gave the police now swarming the area a wide berth, which was fine because his target wasn’t the house itself. He pulled up near the forested area James had been planning to set up in.

For nearly an hour Len scoured the woods, not even sure what the hell he was looking for. James was far too good to leave any signs behind. It was too dark to look for tracks, not that Len was any kind of Boy Scout.

With no more information than he’d arrived with, Len drove home stewing in irritation. He ditched the car and took a circuitous route the rest of the way, and there was a tiny part of him that still hoped he would come through the door to find James lurking in the shadows, the way the man had the first time they’d been together.

Predictably, his apartment remained empty. Furious, Len shucked off the metal-free clothes he’d gone to such efforts to find, tossing them at the clothes hamper. The shirt missed, and he snarled as he stormed over to scoop it up.

Beneath it, just peeking out from beneath the dresser, was what looked like a broken strap. Len frowned, confused. He never left things lying around, so how had a broken anything gotten under his dresser?

Kneeling, he grabbed the strap and tugged. Something jammed against the dresser, unable to fit through the narrow gap between the bottom and the floor. How the hell had it gotten under there in the first place?

Completely baffled, Len tried to lift the corner of the dresser, but it was an old, solid oak piece. Even if it had been empty, he didn’t think he’d have been able to budge it. Hell, the only person he knew who could lift the damn thing would be…

James.

Dumbfounded, Len stared at the frayed fabric with new eyes. It was the broken buckle strap from James’ backpack, the one Mick had ripped open. He’d wondered what James had done with his books, but had assumed the man had hidden them again elsewhere.

Instead, it looked like he’d hidden them here, at Len’s. The level of trust in that gesture left Len breathless, but it was the other implication that made his chest go tight with fear.

There was no way, absolutely no fucking way James would leave those books behind.

Wherever he was, he was in serious trouble.

Chapter Text

Getting into STAR Labs without being noticed was so easy, Len’s professional pride refused to let him call it ‘breaking in’. He gave an ironic salute to the camera in the elevator, but there was nobody there to greet him when he emerged.

Surprised, he headed to the room they called the cortex to find Team Flash embroiled in a discussion that had apparently distracted them from noticing what few security alerts they did receive. Barry was in the suit with the cowl down, gesturing emphatically as he argued with Snow and Ramon. They were talking over top of each other until Len could hardly tell who was saying what.

“...I can’t let him keep doing whatever he wants until…”

“...need to listen to reason, you’re exhausting....”

“...build something to neutralize…”

“...Cisco solves this, I have to stop him before he…”

“...his field of effect, so give...”

“...yourself to no purpose and I’m worried about…”

“…me a break I’m working as fast as I…”

Under other circumstances Len might have been amused by the agitated banter, and by the fact that they still hadn’t noticed him. But amused was not something he was capable of feeling, not while the clock in his head was ticking away and every minute could mean further agony for James.

Moving out of the doorway, he raised his voice to be heard over the babble. “You know your security is absolute shit, right?”

There was a stunned second of blessed silence as all three of them turned to stare at him.

Barry looked exhausted, there was no other word for it. They all did, and Len had a pretty good guess they’d been discussing how to handle Death Metal. Clearly, Barry had been running himself ragged, and having no better luck than the Rogues.

Well. Nobody was captured or bleeding, so they were having some better luck.

“Snart.” Barry sighed, and rubbed at his face with one ungloved hand. “This really isn’t a great time.”

“Tough.” Len had no room for pity, not when one of his crew was likely being tortured as they spoke. “I’m calling in a marker, and I need it now, not when you feel like it.”

“You’re seriously going to try to demand a favour for saving my life from someone who wouldn’t have been threatening it if not for your actions?” Barry stared at him, somewhere between incredulous and annoyed.

“That’s arguable,” Len acknowledged. “Since I don’t have time to argue it right now, let’s talk about the one you owe the Rogues for leaving us to be caught after Death Metal wrapped us up nicely for the police.”

“Funny, I’m seeing a distinct lack of jail bars around you right now,” Ramon chimed in, tone not entirely friendly. “Too bad, it would be a good look for you.”

“Cisco.” Barry shook his head at his friend, then met Len’s eyes squarely. “All right, I do owe you for that. But if this isn’t life or death…”

“Well, I consider the Winter Soldier being captured to be pretty urgent, but maybe you don’t feel the same.” Len narrowed his eyes, and had the satisfaction of hearing Snow gasp and seeing Ramon go pale.

“He’s been arrested?” To her credit, Snow sounded distressed and upset on James’ behalf.

“Not exactly.” Len crossed his arms, cocking out a hip. He was trying for a self-assured pose, and attempting to convince himself it wasn’t defensiveness instead. “He vanished in the middle of a job earlier tonight, left me and Lisa hanging and damn near got us killed. Not a peep over the comms, and there’s not many people who could take James down without a fight.”

“I’d have said none,” Barry agreed, brow furrowing. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but have you considered the possibility that he might have just… left? Moved on, or even got spooked by something and ran?”

“He’s not the sort to ditch his team mid-mission.” Len grimaced, knowing it was a weak argument. He wasn’t about to give Barry all of James’ background and personal information, so it would be hard to convince him that Len knew the man well enough to be certain based on personality alone. “He also left behind some personal items that he would never have willingly abandoned.”

“Okay, what was his last known location?” Ramon rolled his chair across the floor to a different computer system. Len told him, and the tech genius started typing furiously.

“That’s the middle of a forest,” Snow observed, surprised. “What kind of job were you working out there?”

Barry peered over Ramon’s shoulder, then frowned at Len. “It’s behind some big mansions, yeah, but that’s too far out for anything but a sniper position. You’re not supposed to be killing anyone!”

“Chill, Barry. For your information, he was firing a tracker. Well, and regular bullets too, but those were a distraction. Since the target was Death Metal, we weren’t too worried about them actually hitting home.” Not that Len would have been upset if one had gotten through. They could even have truthfully said it was an accident.

“Death Metal?” He’d succeeded in startling Barry. “You’re still going after him, without us?”

Twice that bastard cashed in on my hard work and made fools of the Rogues.” Len ground the words out, his jaw tense. “Three times, counting tonight, and he clearly has it out for me in particular. Not to mention he’s got some damn way of spying on us that’s defeating the paranoid mind of the world’s greatest assassin. And now he’s hurt my sister and stolen my… partner.”

It felt strange to call James that, when the word had referred to Mick for decades. But he wasn’t going to use ‘lover’ in front of this crew, and no way in hell was the word ‘boyfriend’ ever escaping him.

“Lisa?” Ramon’s head jerked around, and for all the frost in his tone when he spoke to Len earlier, he sounded genuinely concerned now. “Is she okay?”

“Bandaged up and tucked away in a safe location with a doctor watching over her. She’ll be fine, but it was close.” Len’s hands clenched into fists, and he was glad they were hidden beneath his arms so Barry wouldn’t spot the tell. Lisa was his greatest vulnerability, and it wasn’t a weak spot he wanted to advertise.

“I’m glad she’s okay.” Barry seemed sincere, but then he always seemed sincere.

“Ooh, we’ve got some major MIB action happening here.” Ramon’s eyes went wide, and he gestured at a monitor that flared to life to show the view from a traffic camera of some kind. There was a trio of black SUVs going up a winding road through the same forest James had been in. They’d have been somewhat unobtrusive in an urban setting, but on a quiet gravel road they stuck out like a sore thumb.

Len had seen similar cars before. These weren’t the kind of SUVs that soccer moms used to haul their brats around. Vehicles like these often accompanied valuable convoys, heavily shielded and full of security personnel. “Those are armoured. I guarantee you they’re packing some serious firepower.”

“Government? Military?” Snow speculated. “If they really did manage to take James without a fight, that would imply that some very powerful sedatives were used. His metabolism isn’t anywhere near as fast as Barry’s, but normal drugs wouldn’t be effective on him. Even if whoever took him was aware of that and tried to compensate, they’d be walking a thin line between sedating him enough and overdosing him.”

“It wasn’t just without a fight. It was without a sound,” Len reminded her.

She nodded. “Which means they had to have some kind of tailor-made drug cocktail specifically designed for him.”

“Or some kind of like, implanted mind-control command codes,” Ramon interjected. He looked entirely too excited by the idea.

“C’mon, Cisco, this isn’t a spy thriller movie.” Barry rolled his eyes. “Nobody can control people with command codes. I mean, I guess maybe Grodd could, but I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t fit into one of those trucks.”

Len had no idea who Grodd was and didn’t care enough to find out, if there was no possibility he was involved. The worst part was, he couldn’t discount Ramon’s theory entirely. James had outright told Len that HYDRA had gotten into his head, stolen the pieces of himself and replaced them with the Winter Soldier.

It wasn’t beyond belief that they’d have given themselves a way to control their unwilling creation.

Shaking off the chilling thought, Len forced himself to focus. “Either way, it leads back to one conclusion. HYDRA has him, and I know for a fact he’d consider that a fate worse than death. Can you track that convoy?”

“Mmh. Not that simple.” Ramon tapped his fingers lightly on the keys, looking frustrated. “They’re heading out of the city, which means they leave the CCTV system behind pretty fast. I’m going to need to get into satellite footage, probably military.”

“Can you do it?” That was the only question Len cared about. How it happened wasn’t his problem.

“Yeah, but might take a while.” Ramon blinked, and perked up. “Hey, what if we call in that favour Felicity owes us? She could probably do this in a minute flat, even remotely.”

“Are you serious?” Barry stared at Ramon. “I mean, not that I’m doubting her ability, she totally could. But not only does she have her own HYDRA problems to deal with… we promised James we’d avoid getting the Avengers involved with him.”

“Aaaand she’s kind of got Captain America as a bodyguard right now. Yeah, good point.” Ramon deflated with an expression of chagrin.

“Pass,” Len instantly said. Even if this Felicity could speed things up that much, it wasn’t worth getting Rogers involved. He’d certainly save ‘Bucky’, would probably even help him and not lock him away, but it meant Len would never see James again.

If his choices were that, or leaving James in HYDRA’s tender care, Len would tell Barry to call Rogers in. But he was damn well going to exhaust every other option first.

“Okay, give me a few minutes to see what I can do.” Ramon cracked his knuckles, and set to typing at a furious speed.

Frustrated by having nothing to do but wait, Len perched on the edge of a desk and fought the urge to fidget with his fingers. Barry drifted over to lean against the same desk, close enough for them to have a conversation without the others overhearing.

He had the most adorable earnest expression as he looked at Len. The kid could give puppies a run for their money, honestly. “You know you wasted that favour, right? All you had to do was say that James was in trouble. We’d have helped.”

It wasn’t until that moment that Len realized how badly rattled he’d been by the events of the night. Of course he should have tried manipulating Team Flash into helping him with no cost, first. He was so used to living in a world where everything was give-and-take and nothing came for free, he’d forgotten to account for Barry’s do-gooder nature.

Well, if the kid was going to be dumb enough to point out Len’s oversight, he was happy to take advantage of it. “I’m well aware. The marker’s not for the rescue,” he lied smoothly. “It’s for not arresting me after.”

The puppy vanished, replaced by a fierce terrier. Barry scowled at him. “You planning to kill someone?”

Len barked a short, mirthless laugh. “They’re HYDRA, Barry. Last I checked, killing them was the hero’s job.”

“Even now, most people don’t know if they’re working for HYDRA,” Barry argued. “That’s kind of the whole point of the way they buried themselves.”

“Which is why I’m not going to freeze the entire building and call it a day.” Len smirked, and there was a dangerously cold edge in his voice. “Anyone who tries to stop me from rescuing the man they’ve kidnapped to be brainwashed and tortured, however, is fair game. Or are you going to claim that’s innocent behaviour as long as they don’t know who they’re working for?”

The mention of torture made Barry go pale, and he swallowed. “No. Just… try not to actually kill anyone? Please?”

Len snorted. “It’s cute how you think permanently maiming someone by freezing their limbs off is a better option.”

“Your gun is capable of freezing someone without permanent damage. You did it to Dante.” Barry crossed his arms, stubborn to the core.

“Leaving someone behind who’s potentially able to get up again and shoot us in the back is stupid.” Len’s lip curled in a snarl. “This isn’t the kind of fight you’re used to, Barry. This is a war, against a much larger, arguably better armed force. I will do whatever it takes to get James out of that hellhole.”

Tilting his head, Barry gave Len a very odd look, his determined anger melting into bemused confusion. Then he smiled, amusement and something like affection blooming in his expression. “Wow. You really care about him, don’t you?”

The echo of Mick’s accusation made Len twitch, and he looked away. “Don’t get sappy. He’s a Rogue, and that means he’s one of mine. I live by a code, and part of that code is that I never leave someone behind.”

Not the way his father had left him behind, abandoned him to take the fall on a botched job when Len was only fourteen years old. Lewis’ reasoning was that as a young teen with no prior felonies, his son would get a slap on the wrist compared to what Lewis himself would be in for if he’d been caught as well.

Len could agree with the logic. But he would never forgive the man for the betrayal.

As long as his crew kept faith with him, Len would back them one hundred percent. He would never be the rat bastard his father was. It was that simple. Of course, if they turned on him, as everyone inevitably did, all bets were off.

But Barry was shaking his head, his grin spreading. “I know your weakness now, Snart. You care about people. At least, about certain specific people, though I’m betting the list is pretty small. It’s good to know you can add someone to it.”

The reflection of Len’s words to the Flash on the train wasn’t lost on him, and he was pretty sure Barry had done it on purpose to rub his nose in it. He’d told the hero then that caring was a weakness, and now Barry knew Len had the same weakness as well. Though not, thank god, to nearly to the extent Barry did.

The rest of the world could go hang, for all of him, innocent or not. The only people that mattered to Len were his family, and it was true that he’d go farther for them than he would for his the rest of his crew. He’d fight for his people, but he’d die for his family. His saving grace was that the list was miniscule.

It consisted of Lisa, Mick… and now James.

Fuck. Fuck.

Mick and Barry were both right.

Horrified by the revelation, Len cast about for something to change the subject. Thankfully, Ramon did it for him.

“Bingo! There’s a supposedly defunct military base a few hundred miles from here.” A map flashed up on another screen. “They arrived a little over two hours ago. It’s possible they’ve left again, but that’s definitely where they took him.”

Len blinked, and suddenly Barry’s cowl was up and he was extending a gloved hand. Barry grinned. “You might want to take a deep breath. And hold on tight.”

“I’ve travelled with you before,” Len reminded him, wrapping his arm around Barry’s shoulders and letting the younger man get a grip on his waist in turn. “I remem…”

Everything was moving. Everything was moving, they were going so fast Len’s eyes simply refused to process anything, and it felt like they would surely run fast enough to leave that pesky gravity behind at any moment.

This was nothing like the last time Barry had carried Len. He didn’t know if the kid had gotten faster or had been holding back for some reason last year, but the ‘why’ didn’t matter. He clung with everything he had, terrified he’d end up a smear of atoms on the road if he slipped free of Barry’s grasp.

Fuck keeping his cool. Right now, survival was the first and only thing on Len’s mind.

It went on forever, and eventually Len couldn’t hold his breath any longer, but somehow there was air to breathe in. It felt wrong, somehow, thick and soupy but it was air and he was breathing and that was all that mattered.

Finally, finally it was over. They came to a stop that should have been abrupt enough to turn him into that smear. Len had no idea why it didn’t, and frankly didn’t care as long as it didn’t suddenly catch up to him.

He staggered over to the nearest tree, propping himself against on it because otherwise his legs were going to give out. His gut was churning and not quite convinced it hadn’t been left behind somewhere, but Len refused to let the queasiness show.

“Well. That was… different.” Len winced at the hoarseness in his voice, and cleared his throat. “Do I want to know how fast we just went?”

“I did warn you.” Barry’s cheerful retort sounded forced, and his brow was furrowed as he peered through the trees. Up ahead, Len could make out the start of an overgrown field that might have once been a lawn, and the bulk of squat buildings looming in the darkness. There was no sign of activity, but Ramon said this was where James had been taken and the kid had no reason to lie.

“You ready for this?” Len drew the cold gun from its holster on his thigh, checking to make sure it was still in one piece after the ride.

“No killing.” Barry gave Len a stern look, frown visible even though the cowl masked most of his face.

“No promises,” Len retorted. He charged the gun, savouring the sweet sound. “A lot depends on how badly James is hurt. Now. Let’s go rescue the Winter Soldier.”

Chapter Text

Despite the seriousness of the situation, there was a part of Len that couldn’t help a few wistful fantasies of what an incredible Rogue the Flash would make, if only he were so inclined. The metahuman would go down in history as one of the all-time greatest thieves, Len had no doubt about it.

Barry scouted the entire perimeter in the time it took Len to walk two steps, attempted to brute-force the entry code on the keypad as fast as a computer and, when that didn’t work, vibrated himself straight through the wall to open the door from the other side.

For that last trick alone, Len would have paid any amount to have the kid in his crew. Fuck, the treasures they could steal.

As they moved carefully through a vehicle bay not nearly as empty as the ‘abandoned’ exterior would have suggested, Len shook his head. “If you ever decide to stray from the straight and narrow, I call first dibs.”

“What, you mean if I turn to a life of crime?” Barry glanced over his shoulder, lips twitching like he was trying not to smile. “Yeah, I don’t see that happening any time soon.”

“I can always dream.” Len smirked, though his attention was on scanning the shadows for any lurking HYDRA agents. “Hell, you could play Robin Hood, if it makes you feel better. Give your share away to the poor and suffering. Think of all the good you could do.”

“And you think the rest of the Rogues would put up with me joining them? Considering our past history?”

“Ah, but what better revenge could they truly have, than toppling you from your high and mighty pedestal? Dragging you down into the gutter with the rest of us trash?” Len winked at him.

Barry frowned, and Len thought it was in response until the kid reached up to tap at his earpiece. “That’s weird. I just lost Cisco on comms. This place must be really heavily shielded. I don’t...”

Something impacted Len, hard, like a battering ram out of nowhere. Everything spun, and when Len forced the world into focus again he found himself sprawled next to Barry, behind one of the Jeeps. Explosions shattered the air in the enclosed space, and chips of shrapnel ricocheted from the vehicles and concrete surface around them.

It took Len’s beleaguered brain a moment to catch up to reality and understand that they were being shot at. Flash had likely saved his life by moving him out of the line of fire.

“Where the hell did they come from?” There had been nobody else in the garage, he was sure of it. He and Barry had kept their voices low enough not to carry, so why… Damn. “You must have set off an internal alarm when you tried to crack the keypad.”

Len kicked himself for not thinking of the possibility earlier. He’d been distracted by Barry’s impressive abilities. Not that he could have done anything to stop it from happening, as fast as the kid had done it.

“It always works in the movies!” Barry wrinkled his nose in an adorably put-out expression, then vanished.

A moment later startled cries sounded from the right and above, followed by a warning shout. “Enhanced in the field!”

Enhanced - James had called himself that, more than once. Usually when protesting that he wasn’t a metahuman. So the goons either didn’t know about or didn’t recognize the Flash for what he was?

Most of the gunfire was gone, but a few bullets still pinged off the left side of the vehicle. Len swung his cold gun around, already firing before he cleared the corner of the Jeep, and heard at least one scream. Another burst of lightning too fast to follow, and the last of the guns ceased firing.

Barry reappeared in front of Len, reaching down to offer him a hand up. He looked distinctly pleased with himself. “You know, with all the hype, I kinda thought taking down a HYDRA base would be tougher than this.”

Accepting the hand, Len let Barry help pull him to his feet, then punched the kid on the shoulder. “Don’t you know better than to say things like that?”

“Ow!” Barry rubbed the spot, but looked chagrined. “Yeah, sorry. Cisco would’ve jumped on me too. But seriously, these guys took down James?”

“It does beg the question, and the answer is likely that these aren’t the guys who took him down. So keep your eyes peeled.” Len checked the charge on his gun, happy to see it was still high. “We clear?”

Thankfully, Barry seemed to take his warning to heart. He nodded, but he looked wary. “For now. They’re all tied up and gagged, they won’t be going anywhere any time soon.”

Len would have felt much better knowing they were all injured or dead, so he could be sure the supposedly ‘downed’ enemy wouldn’t pop up and ambush them from behind. At this point, however, he wasn’t going to push his luck. He needed Barry to remain cooperative. “Let’s go.”

The inside corridors were narrow and dingy, painted in drab shades of green and tan that screamed Army. They were also built like a maze, with frequent branches and closed doors everywhere. If he’d had time to study the building plans, it would have been a thief’s dream, with lots of ways to evade being caught by patrols.

With no time to prepare, however, it meant the enemy could come up on them from any side at any time, with little to no warning. The tension in Len’s shoulders was so tight it felt like the muscles would cramp at any moment, and he kept his finger riding the trigger for his cold gun as they moved deeper into the complex.

The heavy beat of booted footsteps running through the halls came from somewhere ahead of them. Barry grinned. “I got this.”

He blurred out of sight - and the grating whoop of an alarm went off. Barry reappeared as abruptly as he’d vanished, stumbling a few steps and hitting his knees hard, a stunned look on his face. At the same moment the oncoming troop of goons appeared around the corner, guns coming up as they shouted at Len and Barry to surrender.

Cursing, Len fired wildly, strafing the corridor with ice as he dove forward. Snatching Barry by the upper arm, he urged the kid up and out of the middle of the hall. They ducked around a corner, then another.

If Len was correct about the hall layout, there would likely be another cross corridor ahead that would bring him and Barry around behind the soldiers, who sounded like they were still trying to help the people the cold gun had hit.

“What happened?” he hissed, keeping it as quiet as possible.

Barry was still wide-eyed and pale, and looked like he was thinking about being sick. “It’s some kind of anti-metahuman field, to suppress powers,” he muttered back. “I heard ARGUS was developing something along those lines. I guess SHIELD was, as well.”

“Peachy. Stay behind me.”

Again, Len checked the charge on his gun. It was an action that had become obsessive since he’d first picked up the weapon. So far it had never been a problem, but the one time he didn’t check, he’d be out of juice when he needed it most.

Seventy-eight percent. It sounded like plenty, but who knew how much farther they still had to go, and he’d just become their main offensive weapon. He dialled the strength of the beam down as far as he dared - to conserve power, not because he was worried about hurting the goons.

Frankly, as far as he was concerned, the no-kill rule had just flown straight out the window. Without Barry’s speed, they’d lost the advantage that would have let them get away with doing this the nice way.

Slipping around the last corner, he blasted the corridor where the goons had been with a wave of ice. Too late, he registered that only the three who’d already been hit were still there. They died, frozen to death before they could scream, but where the hell were the rest of them?

“Snart!” Barry shouted, grabbing him and pushing him back around the corner as more gunfire broke out. The rest of the squad had pulled Len’s intended trick right back on him, circling around from yet another cross corridor.

They’d ruthlessly sacrificed their buddies, leaving them behind to make noise so Len and Barry would think the whole squad was still there. That was cold, and not the good kind, even by his standards.

When Len ducked back around long enough to strafe the hall again, he got a good look at them. Six men, all of them lean, muscled, and hard in a way that screamed ‘military’ - and ‘killer’. They were calm and collected, showing no fear of Len’s cold gun, even as he tagged another and the man went down clutching at his frozen leg.

These were probably the people who’d captured James. The thought left an icy burn searing Len’s gut, and he snarled.

A bullet pinged off the wall right above Len’s head, and he pulled back again. Sixty-nine percent charge on his gun, and still five opponents standing. This was not going well.

“Keep them occupied,” Barry ordered. “I’m gonna try to get around behind them again.”

“And we all keep going in circles forever.” Len rolled his eyes, but it wasn’t as if he had any better ideas.

Taking a chance, he lunged across the corridor, grateful it was so narrow. He fired blindly to the side as he went, and was rewarded with a grunt of pain from someone. No screams, not from these assholes. He’d be impressed if he weren’t so furious.

Barry was gone, and Len put the kid out of his mind for the moment. Either he’d get himself killed, or he’d pull off his intended ambush. There was nothing Len could do about it now.

God, he wished he had Mick and Lisa with him. With their guns added to his, they could have handled this, no problem. Split up and pin the bastards between them, and the assholes would never know what hit them.

No point wishing for the moon. Silently Len slipped along the corridor to the next corner. If he were the HYDRA team, he’d send at least some of the squad to try to flank him in his new position. Cautiously he peered around the corner, keeping his head low.

Sure enough, a moment later two enemies stepped into view, doing the classic pose where they came around the corner guns first, back to back so they were covering both directions.

It didn’t save either of them. Len opened fire the moment he saw the muzzle, charging down the hall toward them. The nearest gun froze, preventing the goon from getting a shot off, followed by the man’s hand and arm. Then his head, as Len raised the beam, trapping him in an icy shell with a look of shocked dismay on his face.

The second man was turning, but not fast enough. Len’s ice beam caught him in the shoulder and head, throwing him back against the wall and freezing him to it. His gun clattered to the ground as nerveless fingers refused to hold on.

Two down, three to go. Around the next corner, back in the direction he’d started, Len heard a startled shout and guns firing. He ran down the hall and dropped to his knees as he neared the crossway, sliding the last few feet so he’d be below the point where anyone would be aiming as he came into view.

Sure enough bullets whistled over his head the moment he cleared the corner. The eerie whine of his cold gun answered them, and unlike the HYDRA assholes, Len didn’t miss. His beam hit their legs, toppling them to the ground, where they were low enough for their heads to get frozen as well.

On the other side of the cluster Barry leapt back with a startled noise as the beam nearly clipped him. “Hey! Watch where you’re aiming!”

Easing off the trigger, Len shrugged an apology. The Flash had already proved he could heal from a hit by the cold gun - though probably not with his powers suppressed, so maybe the kid did have some reason to bitch him out. “Sorry. You looked like you were handling yourself well enough.”

“I learned a few tricks from the Arrow. He insisted I should know how to fight, not just rely on my speed.” Barry bit his lip and glanced down at the bodies, obviously conflicted.

Clambering to his feet, Len raised an eyebrow, silently daring the kid to protest the dead soldiers. In the end, Barry only sighed and shook his head. “Hopefully this is the last of them.”

“Hopefully this didn’t delay us long enough that the first lot got themselves loose,” Len countered. The charge on his gun was down to fifteen percent. “We need to move fast.”

“Then let’s move.” With one last grimace at the bodies, Barry turned and trotted down the hall, heading deeper into the base.

Pausing by the guy Len had pegged as the leader, he bent and rummaged through the man’s pockets and utility belt. It didn’t take him long to find a key card, and he grunted in satisfaction as he followed the kid.

Either they’d taken care of all the base security, or nobody else wanted to face the intruders who’d defeated an elite squad, because they encountered no further resistance. A few times Len thought he head running footsteps ahead, but they were all headed away.

The key card got them through the remaining locked doors, until finally they reached a hall where one wall was made of thick glass. Inside was a room that looked like someone had taken Cisco’s workshop from STAR Labs and turned it into a Hallowe’en display. The equipment had lots of sharp edges and jagged spikes, the various chairs and tables had incredibly heavy restraints all over them, and in pride of place at the centre of the room…

James. Locked inside some kind of clear, oversized tube, strapped so tightly to the supports at the back Len couldn’t see how he had room to breathe.

Then he realized the other man wasn’t breathing, and it felt like Len’s heart stopped too.

“Is that what I think it is?” Barry stepped up to stare through the glass, wide-eyed but not as dismayed as Len would have expected at finding James apparently dead.

“Why, what do you think it is?” Len tried not to let himself get his hopes up, but surely Barry would be showing more distress if he believed they’d arrived too late to save James.

“A cryostasis chamber. You know, keeping him frozen in…”

“I know what that means.” Now that Barry had pointed out the obvious, the tightness in Len’s chest finally eased. Of course it was a stasis pod or whatever. He already knew that was how HYDRA stored their ‘weapon’ when not in use.

It didn’t look like the one in the pictures on the forum - that one had been heavy metal with only a tiny window, but it was probably from decades ago. Len had expected more actual ice, but now that he looked closer he could see the delicate patterns of frost on the glass.

Stasis meant James was alive, though he probably wouldn’t be very happy when he was woken up. Len would prefer grumpiness to a funeral any day.

Searching along the wall, he found the door into the lab and waved his stolen keycard at the sensor. A harsh beep followed by a red light indicated either the security squad weren’t permitted in the lab, or some bright bunny had already changed the codes.

He glanced at Barry, but the kid shook his head with a grimace. Still no powers, so he couldn’t walk through the wall. Len tried kicking the ‘glass’ wall, but as he’d expected the damn thing was hard as a rock. Probably bullet-proof.

With a grim smirk, he hefted his gun and dialled the temperature all the way down. Nothing was truly cold-proof.

It took almost all of the remaining charge, but he finally froze the door enough that a swift kick shattered it. Stepping carefully over the jagged edge of the hole, he surveyed the control room.

Two scientists in lab coats were plastered up against the other side of the room, as far from the spreading ice as they could get. One of them, a hard-eyed woman, held a gun aimed straight at Len.

He brandished the cold gun at her in turn. There was only two percent charge left, but it was enough for one more shot. “Maybe you can shoot me before I hit you, but you can’t shoot me before I fire,” he pointed out. “Which means at least one of you will be frozen. So what’s it gonna be, doc?”

The woman evaluated the situation, and he could see her reach the conclusion that he was correct. Reluctantly she lowered the gun, though she didn’t drop it. “We won’t cooperate. If you’re going to kill us, get it over with.”

The other scientist, a younger man who was probably an assistant, seemed much less certain of his willingness to die for HYDRA. He swallowed hard, turning so pale that it was visible even with his dusky brown skin.

Zeroing in on the weakness, Len gave the man a dark smile, though he didn’t move his aim from the woman. “The first one of you who gets my friend over there out of that fucking tube, gets to live. I’d do it myself, but I assume shattering it probably isn’t the healthiest way to remove him.”

“You’ll kill him,” the male confirmed, rubbing his shaking hands together. “His core temperature has to...”

“One more word and I shoot you,” the woman snapped. “They’re not going to kill us. That’s the Flash, he thinks he’s a hero.” She said the word like most people would say ‘cockroach’. “That type is never willing to get their hands dirty or do what’s needed.”

“He might be a hero, but I’m not.” Len was hanging on to his temper by the thinnest thread, and only the knowledge that he needed at least one of these geeks to get James out safely kept him from losing it. “I killed quite a few of your little goon squad out there.”

“That was in a battle where they were actively trying to hurt you.” The woman smiled, as grimly determined as he was. “We’re being unthreatening. I’m using my weapon for protection, not aggression. He won’t let you hurt us.”

She was probably right. Too bad for her, the sight of James in that fucking tube had Len far past the point of caring about Barry’s delicate sensibilities. He stepped forward until the barrel of the cold gun was pressed against her chest, meeting her glare for glare, neither of them flinching.

“You’ve got some kind of field keeping Flash from using his powers,” he pointed out, his tone a low, menacing purr he’d spent hours perfecting as a young man. It worked quite well for intimidation. “He’s not fast enough right now to stop me before I can pull the trigger.”

“He’ll do it,” Barry chimed in, apparently deciding to make a pathetic attempt at playing bad cop, worse cop with Len. “He’s right, I can’t stop him. You probably want to cooperate.”

“Look into my eyes and tell me you think I’m bluffing.” Len stared her down. “James is one of my crew, and I will get him out of here. Whatever it takes.”

Her mouth twisted when he said James’ name, as if it offended her. “The asset has already been wiped clean. Whoever you think you are to him, he won’t remember. He will kill you without hesitation.”

Her expression said she wasn’t bluffing any more than Len was. “You’re a fucking bitch,” he told her, and pulled the trigger.

The wave of intense cold struck her chest, freezing her lungs almost instantly and stopping the scream she’d barely started. Her heart was now an unbeating lump, no more useful to her body than a rock. The charge ran out before the ice reached any further, but it was more than enough to kill her.

Mouth gaping like a beached fish, her eyes wide with terror and bulging in agony, she clawed at her chest as if she could pry the ice off. When he stepped back she slumped against the wall, sinking slowly to her knees, then toppling over as the rest of her body finally accepted the inevitable and shut down permanently.

It would have been a terrible, painful death, and Len only regretted that it hadn’t been slower.

“Snart!” Barry sounded horrified. “You didn’t need to do that!”

“Yes, I did.” It was far less than the woman deserved. Once again James had been reduced to a thing, an object for HYDRA’s use, and this woman had taken sick pleasure in doing that to him. He’d seen it in her eyes when she talked about the mind wipe.

Swinging the gun around, he aimed at the one remaining scientist. The cold gun was out of charge, but the geek didn’t know that.

“You gonna cooperate now? Or end up like your friend, there?”

“You don’t understand.” The tech shot a terrified glance at the dead woman, then looked back at Len with a pleading expression. “She was telling the truth, he’s already been wiped. Nobody here has his activation codes. Without them, if we wake him up he’ll be completely unstable, out of control. He’ll lash out at anyone he sees, and he hasn’t been in cryo long enough to be weakened or dazed by it.”

“Don’t care.” Len jerked his head at the panel full of dials and buttons that he assumed controlled the stasis chamber. “Get him out. Now.”

“Can you turn off the anti-power field?” Barry asked. “If I had my powers, I could stop James from hurting anyone until we can talk some sense into him.”

Possibly true, though as far as Len was aware the Flash didn’t have super-strength. James was good enough in a fight that Len was willing to lay odds on him winning, especially since Barry would be trying not to hurt him and James wouldn’t be pulling his punches.

Plus, Len had a suspicion that James would be humiliated to know Barry had seen him in that state, reacting like a wounded animal, possibly with no thought or reason at all. Not to mention if James badly hurt the kid, he’d almost certainly blame himself for it later.

He weighed that against the chance that James really would kill Len without ever recognizing him, and decided he owed his lover the dignity. “Turn off the anti-power field and the stasis chamber, and I’ll let Flash carry you out of here before James wakes enough to be a threat to you. You’ll end up in jail, I don’t doubt, but that will be better than the alternative.”

“Snart…”

Len cut Barry off with a sharp gesture. “I appreciate the assist, Flash, but you’ve done what you promised and helped me get him out. This is a Rogues matter, now. I can handle it.”

Something in his expression must have convinced Barry that he wasn’t budging on this, because the kid nodded. He didn’t look happy about conceding, but all Len cared about was that he wasn’t arguing further. “All right. If you’re sure. Snart, I’m letting this go, but if I hear later that everyone in this base was found dead...”

The tech had been poking at buttons as they spoke, and Barry broke off with a gasp like it was his first full breath in hours. He blurred briefly before he got control of himself again. “Wow, I really don’t like whatever that field is.”

“I won’t kill anyone who doesn’t try to prevent us from leaving, but I won’t promise to stop James from doing whatever he feels is necessary to protect himself.” Len gave him a sardonic look. “Frankly I wouldn’t blame him if he wants to blow the whole thing sky high. I remind you yet again that killing HYDRA agents is supposed to be the good guy’s job.”

Barry gave Len one last unsettled look, and sighed. “I guess if I’m not going to blame Cap and Falcon for killing HYDRA agents, I can’t really blame you and James either. Just… please. Self-defence only. No shooting people who are still tied up and helpless.”

“Scout’s honour.” Len lifted his hand with three fingers raised, the words as solemn as he could make them.

Barry snorted. “That’s the wrong hand. Not that I’d have believed you were ever a Boy Scout, regardless.”

“And of course, you were.” Len turned his attention back to the scientist, who was still working the panels. “How’s it coming? You’d better not be trying to screw us over.”

“I’m not!” The fear in the man’s voice was convincing. “All right, look, he’s coming out now.”

With a hiss the cylinder lifted into the ceiling, releasing clouds of condensed vapour to roll along the floor as the icy air inside hit the warmth of the rest of the room. James hung limply from the restraints, still not moving.

Len shot a hard look at the tech, who raised his hands as if he could stop the beam of the cold gun from hitting him. The man shook his head frantically. “Give it a minute!”

Abruptly James drew in a huge breath, then coughed as if the air got stuck in his throat. He thrashed in the restraints, movements sluggish and uncoordinated, but alive.

Eyes only for James, heart pounding in his chest, Len gestured at Barry. “Get the tech out of here. Don’t come back.”

“Let me know when you get him back to the city safely. Please.” Barry glanced at James, his expression worried, then blurred out of sight. The scientist vanished with him, leaving Len alone with James.

Warily, Len approached his lover. “James? Can you hear me? Do you know who I am?”

The sound of his voice brought James’ head up, but the other man was snarling. There was no sign of recognition in his eyes as he stared at Len with the ice-cold gaze of a killer. Of the Winter Soldier.

“James…”

The Soldier lunged against his restraints, already much stronger than before. The straps and metal cuffs creaked alarmingly, and it was clear they wouldn’t hold for long. He was furious, beyond reason, and looking for blood.

Everything in Len was screaming at him to turn and run, to flee for his life. James would fight his way free quickly enough. With the base’s best fighters out of commission, he’d have no trouble escaping. Maybe he’d remember enough to return to Len and maybe he wouldn’t, but HYDRA wouldn’t have him and that was the important thing.

Swallowing hard, Len took a step forward instead, dropping the cold gun and spreading his hands to show he was unarmed. He would not leave James behind. Could not, any more than he could have left Lisa in the same situation.

Not even if it killed him.

Chapter Text

There was no sense of time passing while he was in the ice - thank God - but there were signs he could use as he came out of it to judge how long it had been. He always felt weak and uncoordinated at first, and the severity of the effect was a good indicator.

He wondered sometimes if they’d designed it that way, or if it was a coincidence they took advantage of. Coming out of the not-quite-dreams he suffered in stasis was the closest he came to remembering, and the moments after he emerged were the clearest his mind got.

If he could have, he’d have fought then. They used the disorientation of emergence to drag him off to be programmed without a struggle. By the time he could move, it was too late and he was the Winter Soldier again, properly obedient to HYDRA’s will.

Except this time, it felt like he’d hardly been in the ice at all. He was still strong and connected to his body, still self-aware and in control. He couldn’t remember the details of his previous mission, which meant they’d wiped his memories before freezing him, but the urge to be free had never been so powerful.

Snarling, he lunged against his restraints, but they held. Belatedly it occurred to him that it would have been smarter to play possum, pretend to be weak until they’d unstrapped him. Too late now.

“James?”

The sound of the name was like acid dripped into his brain, the pain as sharp as if the HYDRA techs were actually applying the punishment. At the same time the voice itself seemed to call to him, making him want to hear it again despite the pain.

“Can you hear me? Do you know who I am?”

He raised his head and focused his eyes with an effort, to see a strange man standing before him. Strange in the sense that he was unfamiliar, but also strange because he was nothing like the HYDRA techs or STRIKE teams the Soldier was accustomed to seeing when he woke.

The man was dressed in a parka, of all fucking things, dark goggles hiding his eyes and holding the most bizarre gun the Soldier had ever encountered. There was no proper barrel, the muzzle instead holding some kind of flashing lights that might produce a laser or might be something else.

Fuck, how long had it been? How far in the future was he now?

It didn’t matter. The man was HYDRA, and that meant he was the enemy. At least for the few minutes until they put him in the machine again, and wiped him of the knowledge that they were enemies. They could never quite destroy it completely, not without also destroying things like his ability to understand language and use weapons. But they were amazingly good at making him forget.

This was his only chance.

“James…”

Again with the name. It had to be a test. He’d take their test and cram it down their fucking throats.

He threw himself against the restraints again, and this time had the satisfaction of feeling them give, ever so slightly. They were designed to hold him while he was compliant, still dazed, not when he was at full strength and fighting.

The stranger’s response was possibly the most bizarre thing the Soldier had ever encountered. He dropped his weapon and stepped forward with his hands spread, as if to show he was unarmed and unaggressive.

“If you stop fighting and convince me you’re not going to kill me, I’ll let you out of there. I’m not HYDRA. This is a rescue, James.”

His voice was low and smooth. It took a moment for the Soldier to identify the tone, because he couldn’t remember the last time he’d heard it. Soothing. The man was trying to be soothing.

Then the words actually penetrated.

Rescue?

Panting, the Soldier stilled, eyes flicking wildly around the room to assess the situation. Everything looked normal - except for the body of the tech sprawled in the corner, her chest covered in… was that ice? Why ice?

She was dead. There was no mistaking the blank, lifeless glaze in her eyes as she stared sightlessly in his direction. The Soldier had seen that look in his victims, over and over and over.

Rescue. Not HYDRA.

Was it possible?

No, God damn it. This was a fucking trap. It had to be. A test of his willingness and cooperation. They did that sometimes, and the punishments when he failed made enough impression that he remembered even through the mind wipes.

But what if it wasn’t? What if it was real?

It was an effort to speak, his voice rough with the after-effects of stasis. “Who the fuck are you?”

The man’s face twisted in the strangest expression, as if the Soldier had hurt him with no weapon except his words. He yanked his goggles down to hang around his neck, revealing resignation lurking in his blue eyes. “My name is Leonard Snart. People call me Captain Cold. But you call me Len.”

“I don’t know you.” The rejection was automatic, but even as he spoke something tugged vaguely at the back of his mind. A memory? Something just out of reach…

The harder he strained for it, the faster it slipped away. But the man, Snart, was talking again.

“Yes, you do. You came to Central City months ago. You were running from HYDRA, and hoping to hide among the metahumans there. You joined my crew, the Rogues. We’re thieves, good ones, and you fit right in.”

Thieves? Running from HYDRA? None of this made any sense. “You’re lying.”

“I’m not.” Determination blazed in Snart’s expression. “But it doesn’t really matter whether you believe me at the moment. Right here and now, what’s important is that we get you the hell out of here, before any more HYDRA goons come pounding in to try to stop me.”

Out. Out. Fuck, he’d never wanted anything so bad in his life. “Then let me loose.”

That drew a crooked smile from Snart. “You’re… important to me, James, but I’m not suicidal. We’re gonna need a few ground rules, first.”

Important to him?

The Soldier was important to lots of people, all of them HYDRA. He was a useful tool in their arsenal, one of their greatest weapons. Pierce had told him many times over the years that the Soldier was imperative to HYDRA’s quest to give the world the freedom it deserved.

Even in his own mind, the words had never sounded so hollow.

But the way this man said he was important implied it wasn’t a matter of usefulness. Snart… cared, that was the word. He cared.

About the Soldier.

About ‘James’.

About him?

It was a struggle not to show how badly the words and his own thoughts affected him. If he let Snart know the idea mattered to him, it could be used against him later. “I’m listening.”

“The way I see it, you’ve got a couple of options, here.” Snart shrugged, hooking his thumbs over his waistband and cocking a hip out. It was a casual pose, meant to suggest he was calm and at ease, but the Soldier could see the tension in his body. “You can refuse to cooperate, in which case I’ll loosen half of those restraints or so, and you’ll be able to break the rest of the way out before they come in to sedate you again. Probably. I’ll be long gone by then, either way.”

He moved closer, until he was within arm’s reach. Dangerous, and stupid. The Soldier was tied down but Snart could be wrong about how long it would take the Soldier to break free, so being in range was a dumb move. But Snart’s wary expression said he was well aware of the risk, and had chosen to approach anyway.

None of this many any sense. His brain hurt, and the Soldier struggled to think through it. “Second option?”

“You agree not to kill me, to come with me at least as far as Central. You get backup on the way out, as well as access to money, weapons and ammo, and other resources once we get home. I’m not going to stop you from leaving then, if you choose to. Frankly, I don’t think there’s anything I could do to try.”

That certainly sounded like the better choice. So much better that there had to be a catch. “What’s in it for you?”

“The chance to talk you into staying. The chance to get my partner back.” Snart’s eyes blazed with something the Soldier couldn’t read, something fiery. He reached out, and the Soldier strained away from him, but couldn’t stop the man from making contact with a hand against his jaw.

It wasn’t the attack he expected. The touch was… not gentle, exactly. He didn’t sense there was a whole lot of gentleness in this man. But it was good, pleasurable, in a way that made him want to turn his head and rub against the hand for more.

What the fuck.

“Let me go.”

Snart withdrew his touch immediately, and the Soldier frowned. That wasn’t quite what he’d meant, though in the back of his mind he made note of the fact that Snart had obeyed. Growling, he corrected himself. “Let me out.”

“You going to behave?”

That drew another snarl from the Soldier. “You say you’re my partner, but you’re going to leave me tied up until I agree to a decision you want? How does that make you any different from them?”

Snart’s teasing smirk turned to a frown, but his anger and upset seemed to be self-directed. After a moment he gave a sharp nod. “Fair point.”

To the Soldier’s surprise, he then closed the rest of the distance and reached down to fumble with the mechanism for the first arm restraint. The Soldier told himself he was holding still to ensure the man didn’t change his mind, but he was pretty sure the actual reason was shock.

Snart flicked a grim smile up at him. “Just so you know, if you do kill or hurt me now, you’ll regret it later when you get your memories back.” His voice dropped to a mutter, and the Soldier was fairly certain he hadn’t been meant to hear the next two words. “I hope.”

Quivering with the need to fight his way free, the Soldier forced himself to wait until the last restraint had been released. He surged up and out of the chair, putting as much distance as possible between him and the cryo chamber before spinning on his heel, settling into a defensive position.

Snart stayed right where he had been, hands up to show he was still unarmed. “Easy, James. I’m not going to attack you.”

Slowly, the Soldier convinced himself that it wasn’t some kind of trick or trap. He eased out of his defensive stance, then stalked toward Snart, deliberately intimidating.

Snart didn’t give ground, his chin coming up and smirk firmly in place, even as his eyes gleamed with a defiant expression. Despite that, the Soldier could see the way his muscles bunched, ready to dodge if he had to. The man wasn’t anywhere near the Soldier’s level, of course, but he wasn’t a stranger to a fight.

He crowded Snart against the wall behind the chamber, close enough their bodies brushed together. Then he lifted his hand and copied the gesture Snart had made with him earlier, curious if that would help him understand why the man had done it.

Snart made a startled noise, then his eyes went half-lidded. He did nuzzle into the Soldier’s touch, and when he spoke his voice was a low rumble like a smug cat. “Oh, I see how it is. Clearly you haven’t forgotten everything.”

The sound of that purr seemed to shiver down the Soldier’s spine, ending with a lick of heat in his groin that left him breathless. He didn’t understand what was happening, but he didn’t want to stop, either.

The other man shifted, and at first the Soldier thought he was trying to get away. Instead Snart opened his stance, bringing them into alignment from hips to chests. He slid one leg between the Soldier’s, not a threat to trip him but to get closer still. It wasn’t submission, it was…

Welcome. Snart was subtly welcoming his presence, his nearness. And the way he looked at the Soldier was an invitation, though for what, the Soldier wasn’t sure.

He really wanted to find out, though.

Apparently it showed in his expression, because Snart’s smirk widened. “Your move, James. Your instincts know what to do next, even if you don’t. I have to admit, teaching you about pleasure may be even more fun the second time.”

It felt like a fever swept over him, heat radiating from his groin through his whole body. As the Soldier was contemplating what that ‘next move’ might be, however, the distant sound of shouting and pounding footsteps reached him.

Frustrated by the interruption, he pushed away from Snart and spun to face the entrance. “They’re coming.”

He didn’t even register that the move had put his back to the other man, a huge tactical error, until he’d already done it. The Soldier didn’t truly trust anybody, not even his STRIKE teams or handlers. That was why he was still alive. So why didn’t he hesitate to give this man an easy target?

No time to analyze it now. The approaching STRIKE team was pissed off and likely heavily armed. He jerked his head at the strange weapon on the ground, indicating the other man could pick it up.

“Then I guess we’re fighting our way out.” Snart scooped up the gun with the air of a man cradling a precious item. To the Soldier’s surprise, he then strapped it into a thigh holster instead of bringing it to the ready.

Seeing the look the Soldier gave him, Snart shrugged. “It’s out of charge. I’ll have to do it the old fashioned way, but I sure as hell didn’t want to leave it here.”

Then he turned and grabbed the pistol the lab tech had dropped. With calm competence, Snart checked the chamber, ejected and checked the magazine, then slid it back into place. “I’m ready.”

Satisfied the man knew how to handle a weapon and wasn’t likely to shoot him by accident, the Soldier moved toward the door. He didn’t have a gun, but that would change the moment he confronted the first enemy. Besides, he was a deadly weapon in his own right.

The team heading towards them wasn’t STRIKE, only a regular security detail. The two in the front took one look at the Soldier and skidded to a halt, causing their buddies to plough into them from behind. One went down face-first, but the other only hit his knees.

The kid couldn’t be more than nineteen, wide-eyed and pale with terror. “Holy fuck it’s the Soldier! He’s loose!”

The commander, a grizzled man of the type who might be assigned as the Soldier’s handler, seemed unfazed. “Soldier, kill that man.” He barked the command in the tone of one used to giving orders, and used to having those orders instantly followed.

Despite everything, the urge to obey hit him hard. The Soldier froze in place, trembling as he struggled with himself. He drew in a sharp breath as a hand came to rest between his shoulders, kneading at the tense muscles at the base of his neck.

Snart leaned in close to murmur directly into the Soldier’s ear. “You’ve got this, James. Nobody controls your actions but you. Give ‘em hell.”

Nobody controlled his actions but him.

It was a lie and he knew it - HYDRA had been controlling him for decades - but when Snart said it like that, it felt like the truth.

It felt like he could make it the truth.

So he did.

The guy on his knees shouted and fired wildly as the Soldier stalked grimly toward them, joined a moment later by all of his buddies. Conscious of the more vulnerable man behind him, the Soldier dodged as little as possible, using his left arm to deflect instead. Thankfully they were lousy shots, or maybe fear made their hands shake.

The commander kept shouting at him, trying to order him to stand down, but it was too late for that. The Soldier advanced, merciless and unstoppable.

Gunfire exploded behind him as well as in front, and Snart’s shots were better placed. By the time the Soldier reached the squad, four were already down, dead or injured. He snatched the first gun that came in range and turned it on its owner, shooting him between the eyes. Two more troops followed their fellows down, before another closed in and tried to grapple with him.

The Soldier shrugged him off, knocked him to his knees, and snapped his neck. Two more shots, three more dead bodies - Snart must have gotten another. The back ranks broke and ran. Including the commander, he noted with contempt.

Then again, the ones who fled before him were the smart ones. They would survive.

The rest didn’t.

Chapter Text

The Soldier had operated out of a remote Siberian facility for more than a decade, so he was no stranger to ice. Seeing it all over the interior hallways was strange, however. Finding people whose limbs or whole bodies had been frozen was weirder still.

“What the fuck is with the ice?” he demanded, moving past someone who had apparently shattered his own leg trying to free himself, and bled out in the hallway when it melted.

“They don’t call me Captain Cold for nothing.” Snart smirked and patted at the weapon still strapped to his thigh. “I know you don’t like ice, but you have to admit it’s effective.”

It certainly was, but it wasn’t the weapon’s usefulness that the Soldier kept turning over in his mind. Snart knew the Soldier didn’t like ice. How did he know? Liking or not liking something was irrelevant to the Soldier’s missions, and he was never permitted to express that kind of opinion.

Snart could only have found out by observation, and that implied he was telling the truth about having been close to the Soldier in the past.

As they entered the vehicle bay, gunfire erupted from walkways above. Snart snarled and ducked behind a Jeep. “Damn it, I told Flash that leaving anyone alive and tied up behind us would come back to bite us on the ass.”

The Soldier grunted agreement, wondering who and where Flash was. “Keep them occupied.” Crouching low, he darted from one vehicle to the next, staying under cover as much as possible and deflecting with his left arm when he had to. Behind him he heard Snart firing at random intervals, and more than one pained cry from above, but even so the enemy was keeping most of their attention on the Soldier.

"I'm out," Snart called to warn him, but he raised his voice too loud and the men above heard him as well. The Soldier swore silently at the man's incompetence as one of the STRIKE team leaned over the balcony to get a better angle on him, now safe from covering fire.

A shot rang out, and a dark hole appeared squarely between the STRIKE operative's eyes as blood sprayed behind him from the exit wound. Snart laughed and fired again, taking down one more STRIKE who hadn't gotten back under cover quickly enough.

This time the Soldier heard the click of the empty magazine. He revised his opinion of Snart sharply upward as he realized the man had deliberately been 'too loud' to lure the STRIKE force out from under cover.

The ploy had worked, and left the remnants of the STRIKE team too wary to trust that their enemy was actually out of ammo this time. The Soldier made it to the wall directly below the balcony without any further interference from above. He leapt up onto the roof of the nearest transport truck, then launched himself with a powerful jump and caught the railing of the balcony in his left hand. From there it was an easy swing up and over, and he landed in the middle of the suddenly panicked team.

Shouting and crying out, they fell all over themselves trying to pile on him. A few fired wildly, smart enough to realize that taking him down with crossfire casualties was still better for their side than not taking him down and all of them dying.

With contemptuous ease the Soldier dodged or deflected the shots. He grabbed the nearest man by the bulletproof vest and lifted him right off the floor, then flung him into a group of his teammates and sent the whole knot tumbling to the ground. Spinning, he grabbed another and hurled him off the balcony, hearing the man's scream ended by a sickening crunch of metal and glass that said he'd landed on a car.

Two more went down from punches to the head - one on his right, who might wake up with only a bad concussion, and the other on his left, who was never going to wake up at all. They shouldn’t have been stupid enough to try to take him on without helmets.

The pile on the ground were scrambling up now, and he picked up the first guy he'd thrown and tossed him off the side as well, knocking two more over the railing with him.

That left three on the balcony, all of them firing at him. At such close range, it was easy to block with his hand, and he snatched the gun from one and turned it on them. Three shots in quick succession, and they dropped.

"Freeze, or he dies!"

Spinning, the Soldier looked down to find that two of the men he'd tossed over the edge had gotten up. One held Snart in front of him like a shield, hiding most of his body behind the captive man and aiming a gun at his head. The other stood some distance away, also aiming at Snart.

The Soldier paused, considering the situation. He owed Snart for getting him out of here - and he was starting to believe that he really did have some tie to the man. But was it worth the risk of getting captured again?

Seeing his hesitation, the one holding Snart smirked up at him. "You can't shoot us both before one of us kills him."

Snart laughed, surprising the Soldier as much as the STRIKE operatives. "You want to bet? He's the Winter fucking Soldier. I’ll put a thousand bucks on James."

Warmth spread in his chest, and after an astonished moment the Soldier realized it was a reaction to Snart's confidence in him. The man wasn't worried in the least, his body relaxed in the STRIKE asshole's grip, though the rueful slump to his shoulders suggested shame for having been caught.

Exhaling, the Soldier waited for the moment when his breath was gone and his body was stillest. Then he shot the man holding Snart in his gunhand, forcing him to drop the weapon. Predictably, the second man wasted a precious second staring in shock, allowing the Soldier to shoot him in the head before he could fire.

The first asshole was howling in pain, but still hanging on to Snart with his good hand. Grinning like a maniac, Snart whipped around and elbowed the man in the throat, then kneed him in the groin. He snatched the gun out of the goon's backup holster as the man fell, turned, and shot straight at the Soldier.

The unexpected betrayal held the Soldier still for the same damned wasted second as the STRIKE man below. He cursed himself for an idiot - and realized he shouldn't have had time to complete the thought.

Turning, he found one last STRIKE member collapsing to the ground, a hypodermic needle falling from nerveless fingers as he died. Snart had returned the favour of his rescue and shot the man over the Soldier's shoulder.

Disproportionately pleased that his trust hadn't been misplaced after all, the Soldier jumped down from the balcony. He headed for the nearest intact vehicle, and Snart did the same from the other direction.

Snart reached the Jeep first, and he shook his head in awe and admiration as the Soldier approached. “No wonder you keep referring to yourself as a weapon. You’re a machine. I’ve never seen anything like it, and this was penny ante stuff for you. No, don't rip the door off,” he added hastily as the Soldier reached out to do just that. "It's a long drive back to Central, and I don't like the cold that much. I can pick it."

Stepping back, the Soldier turned to scan the garage for further threats as Snart went to work on the lock. “You say that like you’ve never seen me fight before.” He slid a quick sideways glance at the other man. “Isn’t that what I did for you?”

“If all I needed was muscle, I had plenty of that already.” Snart made a triumphant sound as the lock clicked and he popped the door open and slid inside. “I’ve got several metahumans on tap for the Rogues, including a couple of serious powerhouses. Not that I’m maligning the fact that I hardly need them with you on board, but the reason I kept you around is far more than that.”

The Soldier briefly considered whether it was worth fighting about who was driving, then realized Snart was the better choice because the Soldier would be best utilized in the shotgun position. He trotted around the truck to the other side without argument and swung up into the cabin. It meant he would have no control over their destination, but Snart was the one who knew where the promised weapons and resources were, anyway.

So far, the rewards for trusting Snart had been worth it. The Soldier hoped it would stay that way. The memory of the nearly physical pain he'd felt on the balcony, thinking Snart had betrayed him, kept playing through his mind.

It made no sense. He expected betrayal as a matter of course, never trusted anyone. How could he, when he was surrounded at all times by enemies who viewed him as nothing more than a tool to be manipulated.

Why did he trust this man so easily, and why did it hurt so much every time he reminded himself it was a stupid thing to do?

The engine turned over as Snart demonstrated his own expertise, having hotwired the ignition in even less time that it had taken him to pick the lock. Throwing it in gear, Snart floored the pedal and the vehicle lurched toward the nearest garage door, rapidly gaining speed.

The fact that said door was closed didn't matter, because this Jeep was built like a light tank. The Soldier braced himself as they struck the door, but they ploughed through with hardly a jolt.

Snart laughed, patting the dash like he was petting the vehicle. "Shame this baby will be too hot to keep when we get back. I can think of a few good uses for an armoured car like this."

Turning, the Soldier watched the base as it receded rapidly behind them. He couldn't hear any alarms, and there was no sign of other vehicles emerging to chase them. Either everyone capable of fighting had been taken out, or they'd made the wise decision to cut their losses and stop throwing more men after him to die.

"Why did you keep me around, then?" The need to know was clawing at him, even as it felt like he ought to know the answer already.

“You’re an expert. You can get into places even I’d hesitate to crack, and you do it with panache." Snart grinned at him and made a gesture that conveyed respect and admiration all in one. "Balls of solid steel and the skills to match. You've got the brains to help me plan, the smarts to stick to that plan and follow orders in the moment, and the cleverness to improvise and get the job done when the plan goes to hell. I do so enjoy working with competent people."

"So you want me because I'm good at breaking into places?" That didn't seem like reason enough to justify the lengths Snart had gone to in order to get the Soldier out of HYDRA's hands.

"That's why I kept you initially. Now..." Snart blew out a hard breath. "Let's just say, you got under my skin. You get me - and that's despite the fact that your social skills are shockingly lacking in general. Not many people with your abilities would be willing to agree to a 'no kill' rule, let alone understand why I see it as an exciting challenge..."

"You don't kill?" The Soldier stared at him in surprise. "Pretty sure you took down nearly as many of those bastards as I did."

"That's different. They're HYDRA. Even the Flash was willing to agree that taking them out was distasteful, but not necessarily wrong." Snart grinned again. "Though I note the goody two-shoes didn't kill any himself. On a job, though, that's something else. I've got a deal with the Flash - my crew doesn't kill on heists, I don't tell the city's villains and criminals his real identity, and he doesn't hunt the Rogues down."

Flash must be some sort of authority, then. The Soldier made a mental note to find exactly who and why, but that could wait. "So you keep me because I don't kill." It was a baffling thought, the idea hardly able to register in his mind. Killing was all that HYDRA had thought he was good for, though he could certainly see how his skills might be as useful for thievery as for assassination.

"Again, it's why I picked you up in the first place." Snart's grin turned crooked, and that heated look crept into his expression again. "Since then, I've... gotten attached. For one thing, you're fucking dynamite in bed, and I can't wait to re-teach you how much fun that metal hand of yours can be."

In bed. The words sent a shiver down the Soldier's spine that ended with a lick of fire in his groin, and he shifted to ease a sudden pressure against his fly. He vaguely understood that this was arousal, that the nearly overwhelming urge to lunge over there and pin Snart against the door had nothing to do with aggression or anger. His next breath came hard, and he could feel his pulse kick into a higher gear.

Snart was smirking at him. "Easy, James. There's plenty of time for that when we get home. It's been a long damn night, we've both been through a lot. And I want to be sure you're sticking around, first."

"Why?"

The question seemed to startle Snart, and he frowned for a moment in thought. Then he sighed, and rubbed his face with one hand. "Because you've been a bad influence on me, apparently. You wanted more than a string of one-offs, and I agreed to your terms. Now... I don't think I could go back to it not meaning anything."

It was clear the admission bothered Snart, but the Soldier couldn't understand why. He didn't really understand any of it, and the feeling that he should left him frustrated and upset. Something deep inside told him this was bigger and more important than he could grasp at the moment.

"Then take me home." The word felt foreign in his mouth. How long had it been since the Soldier had a home? The concept tugged at his heart, but he couldn't actually put a memory to the idea.

They made the rest of the long journey mostly in silence. Snart tried several times to draw him into further conversation, but the Soldier simply grunted or gave one word answers, too preoccupied with his own thoughts and disinterested in small talk. He already had far too much information to be able to process easily, and he didn't think he could handle any more startling revelations or disturbing realizations right now.

Finally they pulled into a tight alley between rows of run-down apartment buildings. Wary of the tight quarters and potential for an ambush, the Soldier pulled his stolen pistol and shifted into the best position to see out the window. Snart seemed amused but didn't object, and the Soldier took that to mean he thought the precaution was unnecessary but saw the wisdom of doing it anyway. A man after his own heart.

Where the hell had that thought come from?

And why did it bother him so much to think it?

Once again unsettled and frustrated, the Soldier waited as Snart parked the Jeep and gestured him out. "I'll call in a favour and get someone to ditch the vehicle far away from here. I'm too damn tired to do the run-around routine myself, and there's something you need to see sooner rather than later."

"Oh?"

"Some stuff of yours that you left with me for safekeeping, in case of exactly this situation.

The Soldier frowned as he followed Snart toward one of the buildings. "I don't have 'stuff'."

"No, the Winter Soldier wasn't allowed to have stuff," Snart corrected him with another of those too-knowing looks. "James does, and not just weapons and gear. These are personal. Important to you. You'll understand when you see them."

He had stuff. Personal items. Things that meant something to him, that he'd entrusted to this man to hold for him. In case he forgot them. In case HYDRA made him forget.

Again.

Wrenching his thoughts away, the Soldier forced himself to pay attention to his surroundings. They weren't in a secure location yet. Weirdly, as he scanned first the outside and then the inside of the building, it felt less like recon and more like he was checking on items he already had on a subconscious mental list.

He knew where the entry and exit points were, his eyes drawn straight to them. He knew where the security cameras were, kept his face turned away without needing to find them first. He knew where the potential ambush spots were, and spotted a couple of warning triggers near the worst ones - things that most people wouldn't know to look for, that would be disturbed if someone was lying in wait for him. He wasn't the only one out there who would think to place such traps, and Snart did seem like the type to be cautious about that sort of thing, but still.

The sense of deja vu was so strong that he could taste the memory hanging just out of reach. He had been here before, he was sure of it now. Been here often enough that the checks were automatic, ingrained. His chest felt tight as Snart unlocked an apartment door and he followed the other man inside.

The lights flipped on, dim at first and rising quickly, rather than a blinding instant change from dark to bright. The Soldier glanced at Snart, curious.

Snart shrugged, the movement casual but an odd wariness lurking in his expression. "I realized after the first few times you wouldn't follow me in immediately that it was the lights causing the problem. Should have figured it out from how good your night sight is, actually. You didn't want to be vulnerable for the moment it took your eyes to adjust, even though you make that adjustment faster than I do."

It was such a minor detail, a tiny thing that most people wouldn't have noticed and the rest wouldn't care about. So what if he hesitated for a second before crossing a threshold? But Snart had noticed, and he had changed his lights for the Soldier's comfort.

"Don't make a federal case out of it," Snart added, his tone almost cross. "The Rogues have a powerful enemy out there right now, someone who is stalking and spying on us. As far as I can tell they haven't found my home yet, but it's only a matter of time. Frankly, I'd rather have you able to detect any possible danger or intrusion that split second faster. You're more likely to spot trouble than I am."

That made more sense, but why did the man sound cross that the Soldier might think it was more than practicality that led to the adjustment? Why did it feel like it was more than practicality, even still?

"In here." Snart gestured him forward, and led him into a bedroom. It was messy, clothes strewn about and an overflowing laundry hamper, the bed unmade and covers rumpled. Used to living in quarters that could pass a harsh military inspection at any moment, the Soldier should have felt out of place and uncomfortable.

Instead, he relaxed, some of the tension he always held in his body releasing in a subconscious reaction. This was 'home', and he finally grasped the edges of what that meant. "I live here? With you?"

"Most of the time, now. You've still got someplace you go once in a while, when you say your nightmares are likely to be bad and you don't want to hurt me by accident." Snart shrugged. "I don't know where, sorry. Unless you can find it again, I suppose whatever you kept there is lost. But it seems like most of your things are here - including these."

He waved his hand at a dresser, and the Soldier frowned in confusion. Why would a dresser be an important personal item to him?

Rolling his eyes, Snart gestured again, and this time the Soldier understood that he was pointing beneath the heavy piece of furniture. Leaning down, he snagged the bottom corner with his left hand and lifted, and even for him it took some effort.

There was no way Snart would be able to lift it, which meant the bag full of lumpy objects revealed beneath couldn’t have been put there by anyone but the Soldier. More evidence of his presence here.

Not that he needed it at this point. He'd accepted that this place, this man, were part of his life in a way he couldn't remember, but still affected him.

Now he pulled the bag out, set the dresser down, and dumped the contents onto the floor. Half a dozen notebooks tumbled out, the pages crammed with writing and plastered with sticky notes and flags. He looked up at Snart curiously, who jerked his chin at the books in a gesture of encouragement.

Picking one up at random, the Soldier rifled through it, skimming the contents. The entries were disconnected, not progressing in a logical fashion, and rambled in a train of thought sort of way. They were descriptions of memories and dreams, each one tugging at the Soldier's mind but not quite producing a related image or thought.

Not until he got to the front, and read the words emblazoned there, the only large writing in the book. I'm with you to the end of the line.

The memory struck him like a punch to the gut. A man, battered and bleeding, wearing a uniform that looked like a US flag made into a man. The Soldier could hear the man's deep voice saying the words, so injured he was slurring them, but the impact was no less.

It led to a second memory, of him saying the words, to a younger and much smaller version of the same man. They'd been words of comfort, a promise of eternal brothership.

They'd been the words that woke him up from HYDRA's icy grasp, just enough to stop him from doing the one thing he would never be able to forgive himself for. Killing his best friend.

"Steve." The name burst out of him with painful intensity, and his right hand trembled as he traced his fingers over the shape of the words.

An odd sound drew his attention back to Snart, and the man looked like he'd bitten into something sour. Seeing the Soldier's attention on him, he quickly smoothed his face out, and there was no clue what had caused the reaction.

He smiled at the Soldier. "You hoped that what you'd written in there would help you get your memories back faster if HYDRA ever did erase you again, and it looks like it's working. I'll leave you to it, shall I? When you're ready, I'll be in the kitchen. I'll make us some breakfast. Don't know about you, but I'm starving."

Absently the Soldier nodded, returning his attention to the books. He could figure out later why Snart seemed hurt, and why the man was rambling in reaction. Right now, he needed to read these books.

But not here. Even though Snart had retreated into the other room, the Soldier was still painfully aware of his presence. His instinctive trust of the man only went so far, and he sensed he was going to be thoroughly absorbed in these books in a way that would leave him far too vulnerable. He needed to be in a safe space before he buried himself in them.

The bedroom window looked like it ought to be rusted or painted shut, but when he tested it, the frame moved with silent ease. Frequently oiled, either by him or Snart, probably in case they needed a quiet escape exactly like the one he was making now.

He stuffed the books back into the pack, growled when he realized the clasp was broken, and tied the top together before slinging it out of his shoulder. Slipping out the window, he ignored the fire escape and jumped off it to one side, grabbing at crumbling brick for a handhold and scrambling up the wall to the roof.

From there it was an easy jump across to the next building, which was abandoned. He didn't want to go too far, felt the need to stay close and keep an eye on Snart, so he broke in and made his way down a couple of floors, finding the apartment that directly faced Snart's. Jimmying the door open was easy enough, but the moment he stepped inside, he knew he'd made a mistake.

Someone else had beaten him here.

Going tense, the Soldier threw himself against a wall to get what cover he could, and drew his gun. There was nobody visible in the room at that moment, but the signs of occupation were everywhere. A sleeping bag rolled up in one corner, a stack of MREs in another, a portable chemical toilet since the building's water probably wasn't working.

All of that might have belonged to a squatter, but the long case propped up against one wall could hold nothing but a sniper rifle, a very high end one. There were pistols and boxes of ammo, even a fully automatic sub-machine gun, and knives everywhere. A black go-bag in one corner was open, letting him see more weapons, cash, passports, and other essential gear if the occupant had to run for it fast.

Most damning of all, a pair of high-tech binoculars sat on the sill of the window that would provide the best vantage into Snart's apartment. Someone had been here, watching the man. Watching both of them.

HYDRA. It had to be.

Infuriated by the violation, the Soldier stalked forward and cleared the apartment room by room. There was nobody hiding there, and signs indicated it had been a few days since the place was last used, but that didn't mean the observer wouldn't be back at any moment.

Movement across the way caught his attention. Stepping up to peer through the slit in the blinds, he watched as Snart looked around the bedroom and realized that James was gone, snarled an inaudible curse, and threw something at the wall. Whatever it was, it broke into pieces on impact, and left a noticeable dent in the plaster.

How much of their private lives had the secret observer seen? The Soldier would have insisted on drawing the curtains when they were sleeping - or doing other things - but he recognized the binoculars as advanced HYDRA tech that would allow them to see through a limited amount of obstruction.

He had to warn Snart. Actually, first he had to steal as much of this weaponry and ammo as he could, and trash the rest so it would be unusable. He snatched up the go-bag, then paused as he turned and another object caught his attention, tucked almost out of sight beneath the sleeping bag.

A notebook, just like the ones he was already carrying.

HYDRA or some other spy hadn't set up camp in this place. This was his spot, chosen to allow him to watch over Snart when he couldn't stay near for whatever reason. He'd done plenty of that, surveilling targets to learn their habits and routines, but this wasn't about determining a good time and place to perform an assassination.

It was about protecting the man who was important to him. Keeping him close, and safe, even when they were apart.

Slowly he set the go-bag down, and even more slowly made his way over to kneel and pull the book from its place. He flipped it open, and as he'd suspected the handwriting inside was the same. But the words on the first page were subtly different.

We ride this train together as long and far as it goes.

Similar. The same meaning, even. But the voice he heard echoing the words in his head was Snart's, and the not-quite-remembered image it tried to tug into his mind made his heart race in a way the memory of Steve hadn't.

"We ride this train together as long and far as it goes," he repeated softly, fingers once again tracing the words.

All the other books had Steve's words at the front, the most important phrase because it was the one that would start the process of reminding him who he was.

But these words had been important enough for their own place of honour, the memory one he'd wanted to be sure he could get back. He repeated them again, and again, until finally an image bloomed in response. Snart, standing in a seedy-looking kitchen with his hands raised as if to show he was unarmed but for a rag clutched in his fingers.

The scent of something astringent drifted through his mind, attached to the image. He could feel a phantom pain on his face and back - wounds Snart had been tending to? Yes. And Snart, looking nervous and awkward and eager all at the same time, saying those words.

He remembered. He remembered the way his chest had gone tight, heart warming and breath catching in his throat. He remembered the happiness and anticipation that had bubbled up inside him, how much it had meant to him when Snart said it.

He almost remembered the person he'd been at that time. Why it mattered so much, why it made him so happy, why he now ached to hear it again. Maybe the rest of this book would help fill in those last blanks. And the other books might give him everything else.

Kicking the sleeping bag open, James settled in and turned the page.

Chapter Text

The world had a hazy quality to it, sharp edges blunted by enough alcohol to probably drown in. Everything felt numb, nothing hurt, and that was exactly the way Len preferred it.

He wasn't thinking about how long it had been since James left (days), or how he felt about the man choosing to abandon his life in Central (it hurt so much), or how the pain he was running from meant Mick and Barry really were right about his feelings for James (the bastards), or even how furious Len was that he'd been right not to want to form that attachment, that vulnerability in the first place (fuck him, fuck James, fuck all of them).

Actually, his rambling contemplation about how he wasn't thinking about it meant he was thinking about it again. Which in turn meant it was time for another shot or three. Rolling onto his side, Len reached for the bottle on the coffee table. Vodka, whiskey, tequila - he wasn't sure and it didn't matter. So long as it had alcohol.

A series of sharp raps on the front door made his head start to pound in response, and Len swore as his hand jerked and he knocked the alcohol over. Forcing himself upright, he fumbled with the bottle, trying to right it and only succeeding in making it roll away and lose more of its precious contents.

The door slammed open, startling him. In his dogged pursuit of the booze, Len hadn't quite put it together that knocking meant someone was out there, and might come in. Frantically he tried to remember where he'd dropped his cold gun, or any gun.

Then the figure silhouetted by the flickering hallway lights moved forward, and he recognized his sister. Groaning, Len sank back into the couch, though he stayed upright. "Oh, it's you. Go away, Lisa."

"Yes, it's me," Lisa agreed, in that overly sweet tone that meant she was infuriated and had her eyes on a target. "Your sister. Who nearly died, and who you left at a backdoor medical clinic, and never came to pick up."

Blinking, Len processed that, then cursed again and rubbed at his face. He'd known Lisa was safe and would be okay, and he'd been so focused on rescuing James, and then on being pissed off that James had left... he hadn't forgotten her, exactly. He'd just forgotten there was something he was supposed to be doing for her. "Shit, I'm sorry, Lis."

"I thought, fuck, James must be in serious trouble after all, and you’re going all in rescuing him," she said, as if he hadn't spoken. She moved toward him, favouring one leg and picking gingerly through the maze of bottles, cans, and glasses littering the floor of his living room. "So I got myself home, and since I was still too injured to be able to do anything to help, I decided to stay out of your way. I tried calling you repeatedly, but it never went through."

His phone. He vaguely remembered throwing it at the wall when he'd gone to check on James and found the window open and bedroom empty. He'd thrown quite a lot of things, until he'd grabbed a bottle of vodka and decided the contents would be put to better use in his stomach than splashed over the wall. "I..."

"That's when I got worried," she continued, right over top of him. "I came by a couple of times and knocked, but there was no answer and no lights, so I didn't think you were in here. There was no sign of you at the hideout. I tracked down Mick, and he hadn't seen you since your fight. I got desperate enough that I reached out to Cisco and the Flash for help."

The sweet tone was rapidly disappearing, replaced by sharp-edged steel, and she had her hands planted on her hips as she glared down at him. Len winced, but didn't bother trying to interrupt this time. Clearly, she wasn't going to let him get a word in until she’d said her piece.

"I begged them, Lenny. For you. And for James, but mostly for you." She jabbed a finger at him, barely missing putting out his eye. "That's when Flash told me he'd already helped you rescue James, days ago. That Cisco had tracked your cold gun back here, to make sure you got home safely after Flash left you. That there had been no further signs of Death Metal or HYDRA in the area, and to the best of his knowledge you were safe and sound in here. Can you imagine my humiliation?"

He could, and it was painful. Lisa didn't beg for anything or anyone. Not since she'd been a little girl, and learned that all the crying and pleading in the world wouldn't stop their father on a rampage, so there was no point in trying.

Oh, she could fake it with the best of them for a con, but doing it when she actually needed the help meant exposing a vulnerability that would leave her raw. Finding out that she hadn't needed to do it at all would only rub salt on the wound, then pour some lemon juice over it for good measure.

Much like Len had felt, forcing himself to open up to James, to admit that he needed the man in his life, only to have the asshole throw it back in his face and leave without so much as a 'thanks for the rescue'.

"The funny part is, I was still willing to forgive you. After some shouting and torture, of course." Lisa tapped the fingers of one hand, drumming against her hip. "I figured you were in here with him, reassuring yourself he was alive, reaffirming whatever it is you have between you. I was pissed that you didn't bother to let me know the two of you were okay, but he's been so damn good for you, I'm happy to see you happy. Instead I find you in here on a bender?"

"Because I'm not happy, Lisa," Len hissed, lurching to his feet to loom over her, glaring. "There is nothing 'between us', I don't give a shit if he's alive, and 'the two of us' is the worst fucking decision I've ever made."

She didn't give ground - she never did. Like him, she'd learned long ago that backing down got you nothing but more grief. But her expression softened, anger turning to worry. "Did you two have a fight? What the hell happened, Lenny?"

"What happened is that he fucking left." Needing to punch something, Len turned away and slammed his fist into the nearest wall, anger once again overcoming apathy as his rage burned away some of the alcoholic haze. "HYDRA made him forget me, forget everything, and he wasn't willing to stick around for five fucking minutes to find out if maybe something he'd forgotten was worth staying for. He went out the fucking window while my back was turned."

"He did what?" Now she was angry, too. The flush on her cheeks made the angry red lines of the still-healing glass cuts stand out, drawing his attention to them and making him feel bad again for not going to take care of her. "That son of a bitch. I'll kill him myself! Nobody breaks my brother's heart."

"Don't be melodramatic," Len grumbled. "He didn't break anything. I just hate being betrayed."

She glanced at the scattered alcohol containers in a pointed fashion, and he grimaced. Betrayal provoked cold anger from him, followed by swift, decisive payback. This... this was heartbreak, and they both knew it.

In an unusual show of mercy, she didn't call him on the lie. "I warned James I'd make him pay if he hurt you." She reached out and gathered Len into a tight hug, and he allowed the contact, even wrapped one arm around her waist in return. “There has to be a way to find him.”

"Good luck with that. He's probably on another continent by now." Len rubbed a hand over his eyes, telling himself the burning sensation there was nothing more than the hangover and lack of proper sleep.

"Why would I be on another continent?"

Len and Lisa both spun, shocked by the addition of a third voice to their supposedly private argument. It felt like the air was snatched from his chest when Len realized James was standing in a shadowed corner of the room, and he found himself gaping in dumbstruck astonishment.

"Where... what..." Lisa didn't seem to be any better off, the way she was stammering. "How the hell did you get in here?"

"Have you been here the whole time?" Len could almost believe it, the man was so fucking good at being a ghost, but surely Len hadn't missed his presence in the small space for the better part of a week.

"I saw her coming in, so I came over to check things out," James simultaneously dodged Lisa's question and answered Len's in a sideways fashion. "Then I heard you shouting, and I thought you were in trouble. Only, you hugged her, so I guess it wasn't a fight after all?"

The uncertain way he said the last part was painfully familiar, one of many indicators Len had learned for when James knew he was missing important social cues and was frustrated that he didn't understand the situation.

Part of Len wanted to help smooth things over, but he was still too angry to act on the impulse. James had hurt him, badly, and Len had no interest in making the bastard feel better now.

Neither did Lisa, judging by the way she marched over to James, jabbing finger now aimed at him. "You! How dare you..."

"Lisa, no!" Len shouted, but the warning came too late as James reacted predictably, grabbing Lisa's wrist and spinning her around into a joint-twisting hold that looked agonizing.

Lisa gasped and squirmed, and a pained noise escaped her as James tightened his grip in response. Len swore under his breath. At least it wasn't a choke-hold, this time. "Let her go."

"She attacked me." James was so tense Len could see it from across the room, and he sounded as betrayed as Len had felt mere minutes ago.

"As if I could hurt you," Lisa snorted. "I could have punched you full force and you wouldn't even feel it. I still might."

"That ain't exactly incentive to let you go." James glared down at her a moment longer, but there was confusion mixed in with his anger. He finally released her, and Lisa took a step back, rubbing her wrist and glaring right back.

She huffed and tossed her hair out of her eyes, but thankfully didn't make any further attempt to accost the man. "You've got a lotta nerve, waltzing in here after leaving Lenny hanging for a week. After you promised me that you wouldn't let him push you away, let alone abandon him!"

"I did?" James frowned, the crease between his brows so deep they almost touched. "I didn’t write that down. You’re... Lisa. Right?"

The unexpected question made her frown. "What... yes, obviously."

He nodded, as if his question had been entirely reasonable and her answer a simple courtesy. "You match the description. I wrote about you - said you were bossy, but I don't think I quite understood what that meant until now."

"I match the description?" Lisa stared first at James, then at Len. "You said they made him forget everything... you meant that literally?"

"Yes." Len's answer was brusque, and he wanted to convince himself it was because he was still mad at James, but the truth was that there was a lump in his throat that made it hard to get the word out.

Knowing intellectually that James had lost his memories was one thing. Seeing that James had forgotten about him, about them, had pierced him deep through the heart, but apparently Len still hadn't quite registered what it meant.

James had come to adore Lisa as a surrogate little sister, in his own awkward way. Len wasn't sure the man had understood what his feelings meant, but Lisa had him wrapped around her little finger, and he'd grown fiercely protective of her.

Only now, seeing James look at Lisa with utter lack of recognition even after reading his journals, did Len truly understand how deeply HYDRA had damaged their weapon.

Lisa was apparently coming to the same realization, her anger melting into distress and concern. She lifted her hands to frame James' face, only to freeze when James jerked away, eyeing her warily.

A trace of tears made her eyes shine in the dim light. "Oh, Jamie. What have they done to you?"

"Jamie?"

Len and James repeated the nickname on the same breath, Len incredulous, James bewildered. Lisa looked from James to Len and back again, then shrugged. "What? He's family."

"I am?" James cocked his head, his expression painful for Len to look at. There was longing there, the kind of soul-deep yearning that could cause physical pain, mixed with wary hope and an agonized certainty that none of this was real.

Len knew exactly how he felt, and hated himself for daring to hope a second time. When the fuck was he going to learn his lesson?

"Yes, you are." Lisa was firm on that point. "And the Snart siblings look after their own. Which does not make it okay for you to run off and break my brother's heart, mister. Exactly the opposite. Understand?"

"No." James shook his head. "I don't think I understand anything."

"Well, then, hold still." Lisa's tone left no doubt that disobedience would lead to Consequences.

James went utterly motionless in that inhuman way he sometimes had. Len wasn't sure if it was a sniper thing, or part of whatever experiments had been done to turn the man into a supersoldier. Lisa moved forward, all the way into his personal space, and he tensed.

Then she wrapped her arms around his waist and hugged him tight. "Welcome home. Don't you dare run off again or I'll shoot you myself. Got it?"

Eyes wide, James stood there, hands held out from his sides as if he wasn't sure what to do with them. Slowly he brought them up, resting them on her shoulders, his touch light. He squeezed, so gentle and hesitant that it was clear he was afraid of breaking her, and not sure if he was doing it right.

Len's chest hurt, and he realized he'd been holding his breath since Lisa got into James' space. He let the air out, but for some reason it didn't ease the ache at all.

In fact, it only got worse when James caught Lisa's chin and tipped her face toward the light, frowning as his eyes flicked over the signs of damage. "Did I do that?"

"Of course not!" Lisa stared at him again. "You would never hurt me."

His expression darkening, James released her and stepped back. "I would if HYDRA ordered me to. I wouldn't have a choice."

Finally Len couldn't take it any longer. "Which is why we're never going to give them a chance to do that again. Now, where the hell did you run off to, and why come back now?"

"I never left."

Len snorted in disbelief at the patently untrue statement, and James elaborated. "I mean, I didn't go far. Across the street. I needed space to think, but I couldn't leave you unprotected, in case HYDRA traced me back. And... I didn't want to be away from you, even though I needed to."

'I never left'. The words kept echoing in Len's head, making the ache in his chest worse. Growling, he turned away, unable to look James in the eyes. "Goddamn it, James. How the hell do you keep doing things I'd fucking freeze and shatter anyone else for, and not only make me forgive you, but make it endearing?"

Lisa laughed, her eyes merry over a smile wicked as sin. "Oh, Lenny. You are so far gone, it's adorable. All right, Jamie. This is your one free pass. I'll get out of your hair and let you boys... reconnect. But you are both still in trouble, and you’re not getting off the hook for being sickeningly cute."

The air quotes around 'reconnect' were audible, and Len rolled his eyes. He might have somewhat forgiven James for letting Len think he'd left, but they were not going to be falling straight into bed. "I'll call you, Lis."

"You'd better." She came around the coffee table to kiss his cheek, then punched him in the ribs hard enough to sting. Len allowed both gestures without protest, knowing he'd earned them. "See you later."

She blew out the door much the same way she'd blown in, and Len and James were left awkwardly staring at each other across the small space. James was frowning again, that familiar perplexed and frustrated expression. "Why are we in trouble?"

"I'm in trouble because I forgot to tell her I'd rescued you and we were all right." Len raised an eyebrow at him. "You're in trouble for the same reason I'm still pissed off at you. I don't care how far you went, you still left. Without a fucking word, James."

"I didn't realize it would matter to you." James sighed, and rubbed at his face with his gloved right hand. He was back in all his layers, t-shirt and hoodie and jacket, hiding himself in a way he hadn't bothered to do with Len in quite a while. "I never meant to hurt you, but I needed privacy to read the books and absorb it all."

"I'm going to have to teach you this shit all over again, aren't I." Len sighed. Re-educating James about pleasure had been an attractive concept, but he hadn't considered what else his lover might have lost that wouldn't be so fun to have to go through a second time. "Just when I finally had you almost trained."

Something he'd said had been the wrong thing. James' eyes went dark and his expression twisted, his hands clenching into fists so tight, Len could hear the leather gloves squeak in protest. "Don't you mean 'conditioned'?"

Shit. All right, talking about training the man like a dog had probably not been the smartest comment he'd ever made, all things considered. "No, I meant exactly what I said. Teach. I'm in charge of the Rogues and I damn well expect you to follow my orders on a job, but I have no interest in controlling you. I'm not like HYDRA, James. I don't want a weapon. I want a partner."

Apparently mollified, James eased out of his aggressive stance. "I'm sorry. About all of it. Leaving you, hurting you, forgetting you... I'm sorry."

Generally speaking, Len considered apologies to be worth exactly as much as he could pawn them for - absolutely nothing. People tossed the word around like a get out of jail free card, as if saying it made it okay for them to have been assholes in the first place.

Lewis had apologized a lot, in his rare sober moments, back in the beginning when he'd still given a shit what his wife and kids thought of him. Len had believed him for years, believed the promises that the father he'd loved would mend his ways. Promises that their family could return to the way things had been before the arrest, before the jail time. Not that Lewis had ever been a great dad, but in a child's eyes their father could do no wrong.

Those promises had come to exactly nothing, just like the apologies. Eventually Lewis no longer bothered to make them, but by then Len had long since stopped believing in the fairy tale anyway.

Yet now, when James said it, Len found himself believing again. The difference was that past experience indicated that James actually would learn from his mistake, would alter his behaviour to avoid hurting Len in the same way a second time. He'd find other ways, other mistakes to make, but he genuinely meant the apology and was just as genuinely trying.

"Forgetting me isn't your fault," Len muttered. "The rest of it, you're damn well going to make up for."

"Whatever you want." James looked at him squarely, expression open and sincere. "We'll ride this train together for as long and far as it goes."

The words hit Len with an impact he couldn't quite understand, until the memory made its way up to his conscious mind. It was what he'd said to James at the hideout, just before Mick had come bursting in, when he'd agreed to a relationship beyond straight up sex. "You remember that?"

"Sort of. I wrote it in your book. At the front, because it was the most important thing. There were a lot of other things about you and about us in there, too. Some bits I remember, some bits I almost remember, and some bits I only know because I read it - but it's a hell of a lot better than starting from scratch. More comes back every day. I didn't want to come see you until I understood why it mattered so much to me that you said those words. That you came for me, risked your life to rescue me, even though you knew I might not remember and might leave."

"Fuck you, stop doing that," Len growled. James gave him a blank look, and Len slashed his hand through the air as if he could cut away the emotions plaguing him. "Stop saying things that make me want to comfort you for hurting me."

He remembered James telling him that one of the books was about Len, when he'd first revealed what was in his backpack. At the time Len had thought it was sappy and ridiculous, and been secretly touched by it. He hadn't realized it was truly different from all the other books, that what they had together was as important to James to remember as the memory of Steve Rogers.

Shit, he couldn't think about that right now. Couldn't absorb the impact of it. Couldn't accept the balm that the knowledge smoothed over the bleeding hole in his heart.

Well, there was one thing that was guaranteed to distract them both from any further sappy emotional shit. Len had promised himself that he wouldn't give in so easily, wouldn't let himself be led by his dick, but who the hell was he kidding? He'd been aching for James' touch all fucking week, in a way that not all the alcohol in the world could truly numb.

"So what else did my book say about me?" He let his lips curve in something that was too sensual to be a smirk, and too wicked to be a smile. "Anything interesting?"

"That you're a good leader, that you plan really well, that you can..." James stopped, and tilted his head. Heat flared in his eyes. "That's not what you're asking about, is it."

"Nope." Len prowled toward him, kicking cans and bottles out of the way.

James stood his ground, but every step closer made him tense up more, in a way that had nothing to do with battle. "You wanna know if I wrote about how much I enjoyed having your mouth on my dick? Or that I like the noises you make when I get my metal hand on you?"

He peeled his gloves off, one finger at a time, each tug making Len's dick swell more as he remembered those hands pulling on him.

"Mmm, that's a pretty good start." Len stopped, inches away, spreading his hands. "Still your move, James."

Eagerly James reached for him, but paused just before they connected. He looked uncertain, almost wary. "The book says I hurt you, the first time. I was too rough. I don't want to do that again."

Another emotional kick in the gut. James hadn't only adjusted his behaviour when Len protested the hurt, he'd tried to make sure he'd never make the mistake again even if he didn't remember the first time. How was it possible that the world's deadliest killer was also the sweetest, most earnest man Len had ever met? "You wrote that down?"

"I wrote everything down. All of it." Finally James made contact, fingers trailing soft as a feather over Len's cheeks on both sides, then with stronger pressure as James grew bolder. He hadn't chilled the metal, but it was still cooler than his flesh hand, creating a delicious contrast.

"Tell me." Len's voice came out husky, and his eyes slipped shut despite his best efforts, the better to revel in the sensation of skin and metal against skin. His hands came up to hold James' hips, clutching tight for both anchor and support.

"I know you like both of my hands on you." James firmed his touch, gripping Len's jaw and angling his face for a kiss, then leaned in and murmured against Len's lips, "I know you like my tongue in your mouth, and yours in mine. Not quite clear why on that one, sounds kinda weird."

"Let me show you, then." Closing the distance, Len kissed him hungrily. The hot, liquid slide of mouth against mouth was intoxicating. He nibbled at James' lower lip, making the other man inhale sharply, then bit down harder. James gave a startled moan, and Len slipped his tongue inside to taste and tease.

James pressed back, tentative at first and then with more confidence, until they were dueling for supremacy in the best possible way. Len drank in the taste of him, dark spice and the bite of steel. When he finally had to pull away for air, James caught Len's lower lip between his teeth and nipped him back.

"Yes. Just like that." Len shivered, panting. "Get it now?"

"I think I'm catching on." The pleased rumble in James' voice ran straight down Len's spine, ending in a spike of heat that made his cock surge.

"What else do you know?" Len was genuinely curious how much James had retained, and what his new perspective on all of it would be.

"That you love it when I rip your clothes off." James fisted his left hand in Len's sweater and tugged. Before Len could object to being stripped yet, James continued, "And that you have this weird fucking idea that scars make you less attractive. I don't get that one, either."

Blowing out a hard breath, Len forced himself to set aside his damn hangup. It was easier the second time, remembering how James had reacted with nothing but admiration and respect. "That one, you can stay confused about. I like your version better." James tugged again, harder, and Len hissed. "Yes, do it!"

As always, the raw power demonstrated when James casually tore the thick wool sweater off him sent Len into something embarrassingly close to a swoon. Even better when James dropped his hands and did the same to Len's jeans, and the heavy denim shredded like tissue before the sheer strength of the supersoldier.

Biting back a groan, Len kicked free of the ruined jeans. James finished the job by yanking Len's boxers off, exposing his aching cock. He was half hard and rising fast. The sudden gust of cold air against the sensitive organ made him shudder and cling to James.

It occurred to Len that he was standing there, utterly naked, while James was still fully dressed. It should have made him feel vulnerable and exposed - at a disadvantage.

Instead he felt powerful in a way he never had before. James would do anything he asked, right now. He'd proved again and again that he was at least as interested in Len's pleasure as his own, if not more. That had been true from the very first time, when James had no idea what he was doing, so it would still be true now that he'd forgotten.

And the heated look in James' eyes as he ran his gaze up and down Len's body made him feel attractive and desirable, instead of scarred and damaged. This incredible man wanted him, Leonard Snart, badly enough that he'd gone to great lengths to make sure he would remember it if HYDRA took his memories again.

Licking his lips, he met that look with one of his own, heavy-lidded with need. Dropping his hand, he cupped his fingers around his cock, stroking slowly. "Well? Keep going."

James' eyes darted to Len's cock, a startled and contemplative expression crossing his face. Had it not occurred to the man that you could get off without a partner?

Possibly not. Which meant he'd been reading those journals, presumably getting himself hot and bothered, and had no relief from it. Len's lips curved in a wicked smirk. "Did you enjoy going through those entries, James? Get hard? Hot under the collar?"

Swallowing, James nodded. His breathing was heavy, his pupils blown with arousal. "Had to keep switching to the other journals."

Chuckling under his breath, Len reached out with his free hand and ran his fingers over James' chest. "Get those damn clothes off. I sure as hell can't tear them, and I want to see you."

Obediently James reached down and caught the hem of his shirts with both hands, then yanked the whole set over his head in one smooth motion. The move highlighted the chiseled glory of his abs as they rippled, then his pecs as they flexed. Groaning, Len ran his hands over the taut, perfect flesh.

James shivered, then moaned when Len flicked a finger over his nipple. Leaning in, Len licked his way down from James' neck to his chest, then fastened his teeth on that nipple and worried it. With a startled noise James clutched at him, one hand at Len's shoulder and the other cupped behind his head, holding him in place.

"Pants," Len insisted, and pushed away.

Growling, James let him go and reached for his belt. Instead of unbuckling it he simply snapped the leather, then shoved his pants down over his hips and let them fall to the floor. He wore nothing beneath them, and Len paused for a moment, drinking in the sight of him.

"Yeah, the journal said you like to look, too." James stood, unbothered by his nudity, head tilted and sporting a little smirk of his own. "Know what else it said?"

"Do tell."

Moving far too fast for Len to have any chance to dodge, James crowded him up against the wall, leaning into him and pinning him there with casual ease. Len thrashed once out of startled instinct, then subsided, tense and wary. "James..."

Lifting his metal hand, James ran it across Len's jaw again, and this time it was chilled to the point of frost. Shuddering, Len leaned into the touch, and gave a muffled cry as the deliciously cold fingers drifted down the side of his neck.

"It said that I was pretty sure you got off on knowing I could kill you, any second, without warning." James kept his eyes locked on Len's, unblinking, as his hand reached Len's shoulder and started back up again. "That's why you like me ripping your clothes off so much. It reminds you how strong I am. How deadly."

"You're... not wrong..." Len's breath caught as that fantastically dangerous hand wrapped around his throat. Not squeezing, but gripping firmly enough that his adam's apple pressed against the palm, and he could feel each cold finger digging into his flesh, ever so slightly.

He shuddered again, a mixture of nerves and desire this time, meeting James' intense, burning gaze with his own. This wasn't exactly the man he'd been sharing a bed with for the past few weeks. That man had earned Len's trust. This one barely remembered their relationship. Could Len stand to let himself be this vulnerable?

When James smiled, it was startling both for the rarity of the expression, and the edge of heated darkness it held. "You like knowing that I could do that, but that I won't, because right now the only thing I care about is making you feel as good as possible."

"Do you?" Len demanded, breathless. James wasn't restricting his breathing, not yet, but somehow he still couldn't get enough air. "Is that what you care about?"

For a long moment James considered him, and the question. "Well, I also wanna find out what it means that you 'get off on it'. But, yeah. And I’d written down an idea to test my theory that I’m dying to try."

Then he curled his free hand around Len’s cock, dropped to his knees with his arm stretched up to keep his grip on Len's throat, and wrapped those perfect lips around the head.

Len shouted as James sucked him. He was flustered to realize that, far from flagging due to nerves, he was as hard as he could ever remember being in his life. James' tongue flicked over the slit, lapping up the liquid leaking from the tip, and a strange whining noise escaped Len in response.

His knees tried to buckle, and he found his air cut off after all when James didn't move his hand to follow him down. Gasping, Len forced himself straight, shivering in reaction. The cold metal burned against his skin, numbing and tingling all at the same time. James continued to suck, alternating that with licks and even nibbles over the tip and along the length, his hand pumping slowly over the base of the shaft.

"Christ, James," he ground out, his whole body shaking with the effort it took not to sag. "If you don't want me blowing my whole fucking load in the next thirty seconds, you need to get back up here."

James rolled his eyes up to meet Len's, and there was a hint of shit-eating humour in the blue that Len had come to recognize and be wary of. James' sense of humour was sly and snarky, if somewhat intermittent. While he was happy to see his lover recovering that side of himself, at the moment it might be dangerous to Len's sanity.

Sure enough, instead of pulling away James swallowed him whole, taking the full length of Len's cock into his mouth and throat. Shouting, Len couldn't stop himself from thrusting into that tight, wet heat. James didn't try to stop him, in fact he seemed to encourage it by dropping his right hand to fondle Len's balls.

And slowly, inexorably, his left hand tightened.

Tangling his fists in his lover's long hair, Len clung tight and tried to ride out the storm of sensation. The shorter his breath got, the dizzier he became, and the sharper the pleasure of James' mouth grew. Len squirmed and bucked his hips, cries turning to gasps turning to strangled, incoherent pleas.

When the explosion hit, it was so intense Len swore he actually saw bursts of light. His body shook with the force of it, and it seemed to go on and on, wringing him dry. He couldn't get any air at all now, and the burning in his chest seemed to mesh with the searing rush of pleasure, fanning the flames higher still.

Just before Len would have surrendered to the need for air and tapped out, James released him of his own accord. Gasping, Len collapsed, and James caught him on the way down, swinging him effortlessly up to hold him like a damned bride.

For long moments all Len could focus on was breathing, his head swimming with both the sudden rush of oxygen and the aftermath of orgasm. James carried him into the bedroom, laying him gently on the bed and climbing in after him, then wrapping around him like a living blanket of solid muscle.

When Len could trust himself to speak, he coughed to clear his throat. "I thought I was supposed to be the crazy bastard in this relationship."

"You didn't say stop. That’s pretty crazy," James pointed out, stroking his metal hand slowly up and down Len's chest. "Besides, I'm supposed to be the psychotic assassin. How else am I supposed to demonstrate that?"

"You wrote that down, too?"

This time James' small smile was pleased and almost shy. "I did, but I remembered it when you said that. Reading helps, but other reminders are even better." His hand paused its meandering journey, and his expression turned hesitant. "You know I woulda let go if you'd tapped out, right?"

"I know. That's why I didn't need to." Still lightheaded, from the adrenaline rush more than lack of oxygen now, Len raised his own hand and covered James'. "But you're right, it does make me a crazy bastard. You make me crazy."

"Pretty sure that goes both ways." There was a note of resignation in James' voice, and Len chuckled.

"What about you, though?" Len rubbed his fingers over the back of James' hand, wondering if the other man could feel it. "This has been all about me."

"I wanted it to be. I was supposed to be making it up to you, right? I like touching you, making you squirm and shout. Think that might be what I 'get off on', if I got that one figured out right."

"Seems like you probably do." Len stretched beneath that petting hand... and shivered as James travelled downward with more purpose.

"Thought I'd give you a minute to recover before I started trying out the rest of the stuff in the journal." James cupped Len's flaccid cock loosely, not yet attempting to rouse it, but letting him feel the chill of the metal. "The book said you like this hand on you here. And even more in your ass. Said we both like having my dick inside you. It said a lot of things."

"You're not planning to try them all tonight, are you?" Len was both titillated and terrified by the thought. "I'm not a supersoldier, I can't get off over and over like you can."

"Guess that gives me a chance to see how much it'll take to raise your flag again, and how many times I’ll trip my trigger from trying." James' eyes gleamed with amusement and arousal. "Should be a fun challenge. Unless you're gonna cry uncle?"

Len reflected on the odds that he would die of a heart attack, or go crazy from over-stimulation, long before James was willing to give up. Then he considered that of all the ways he might go, it wouldn't be such a bad option. "Cry uncle? Not a chance in hell."

Chapter Text

Most people believed that Mick was stupid. Some thought he was so dumb, they wondered how he'd managed to survive this long. He liked it that way, encouraged the idea at every opportunity. He was smart enough to have figured out what an advantage it was to be so badly underestimated.

Besides, it was easier. People didn't expect anything from him if they thought he was an idiot. He was lazy by nature, so low expectations suited him just fine. Though, it did annoy him when Snart sometimes forgot and bought into the act along with everyone else.

So when Lisa came to him, looking for her brother, and told him that Snart might be in serious trouble because of that asshole James, Mick took notice. When she said she was going to the Flash next, the implication didn't slip by him.

Lisa was frantic. Desperate. Worse, she'd been injured - pretty bad, judging by the wounds - and yet Leonard had left her to go after James. Even if Mick had been as stupid as people thought he was, he'd still have known that was a huge fucking red flag.

The confirmation that his partner had lost his goddamn mind over the brooding pretty boy didn't sit well with Mick, but the rest of it was worse.

Flash might help, or might not. Probably would, bleeding heart goody-goody that the brat was, but he would be all soft about it. Refusing to get his hands dirty, not willing to do what might be needed. If Death Metal had Snart, then there might not be time for the hero to pussyfoot around and find a way to stop the metahuman bastard without killing him.

Mick decided to take matters into his own hands. He might be pissed as hell at his partner right now, but it was hardly the first time and likely wouldn't be the last. That was between the two of them.

Anyone else who thought they could take the opportunity to fuck Snart over without incurring Mick's wrath was in for a painful surprise.

Hunting down Death Metal himself was a waste of time. They’d already tried that, through Snart’s street contacts, and gotten nowhere. Thing was, the asshole seemed like a braggart, and he definitely had a grudge against Snart, personally.

Mick started putting out feelers, looking for rumours about people who were badmouthing the Rogues in general, and Snart in particular. They had plenty of enemies, but he knew who the usual suspects were and could rule them out, because Death Metal wasn’t using the usual tactics.

It took him a while, hanging out at the seediest dive bars and drinking enough piss-tasting beer to leave even Mick tipsy, but he finally hit paydirt. A drinking buddy told him about a back alley watering hole where some guy had been ranting about Snart and his crew.

The place in question was such a dive it was even beneath Mick’s far from exacting standards. But that was where the suspect had been seen, so that was where Mick went. Unnoticed in a dark corner, Mick sat and drank and watched, and his patience was rewarded in less than an hour.

"Everyone thinks Snart and his stupid 'Rogues Gallery' is the be-all and end-all of crime in this city," the man who’d come in bitched at the bartender as he settled onto a stool. "Oooh, such an honour to work with him. The guy lost his fucking mind when the Flash came on the scene. Did I ever tell you he shot my best friend because we were smart enough not to want to try to take on a superhero?"

"No, Gary. Never heard that one before." The sarcasm in the bartender's voice was as thick as the pint of Guinness he was drawing from the tap.

This wasn’t Death Metal himself, Mick was pretty sure. Gary was a beanpole, and Death Metal was short and stocky under all that armour. But there was still the possibility that the meta was running a crew, and they’d likely all have some kind of grudge against Snart.

"Well, he did," Gary continued, apparently not noticing or caring about the bartender's disdain. "He's got hooks in some of the most powerful metas in the city, and doesn't use them. Why? Suddenly every job he runs, nobody's allowed to kill nobody. Why? I heard tell the heist that earned him all those favours from the metas included a chance for him to take the Flash down once and for all, and Snart saved him instead. Why? I'll tell you why. The asshole has gone soft. He's sucking the Flash's dick, and it's all a big conspiracy. Probably narking to the cops, too."

A low growl rumbled through Mick's chest. Those were fighting words. Under any other circumstances Mick would have slammed the guy’s head into the bar to teach him some respect. But he was here because he was hunting for Death Metal, and this was the most promising lead he'd had so far.

And if this didn't turn out to be connected to the metahuman who'd been stalking the Rogues, well, Mick would still get to beat the shit out of him for the disrespect.

Oblivious to the fact that he'd already earned a broken nose or worse, Gary kept digging himself deeper. "I know for a fact he's got a sweetheart deal with the Flash. That's why he won't kill any more. It's not his smarts keeping the Rogues from getting captured, it's because Snart's lost his balls."

Interesting. Mick knew about Snart's deal with the Flash, as did Lisa, but as far as he was aware, his partner had kept the knowledge close to the vest otherwise. Lisa sure as hell wouldn't blab, and Mick knew he hadn't.

The one other person who probably knew by now was James. As far as Mick was concerned, this was as good as proof that the overpowered asshole had wormed his way into Snart’s pants in order to betray him.

Also proof that this Gary guy was probably connected to Death Metal somehow. Grunting in satisfaction, Mick signalled a waitress for another drink. Once Gary left, Mick would chase him down and get any information the asshole had.

Despite his unsympathetic audience, Gary never seemed to tire of whining. At last call, Mick dropped some bills on the table and slipped out the back, knowing his prey would have to leave soon.

Hidden in an alley nearby, Mick took a piss as he waited and watched the bar. He’d half thought about pissing on the asshole as part of the punishment, but it would make the guy harder to light on fire. Mick wasn’t planning on setting the fucker alight, but it was always a preferred option.

Finally he saw the idiot stumbling down the sidewalk, three sheets to the wind and still ranting to himself. The moment he came even with the mouth of the alley, Mick lunged out and grabbed him by the scruff of the neck, swung him around, and shoved him face-first into the nearest brick wall.

"What the hell!" Gary protested, the words slurred and muffled. He struggled wildly, but Mick leaned his full weight on the little prick and twisted his arm up behind his back, right on the verge of breaking it.

"Seems like you've got a bone to pick with my partner," Mick growled, as threatening and intimidating as he knew how to be. "Snart ain't here, so what say you 'n' me have it out, instead?"

"Oh, shit." Gary finally got his head turned enough to see behind him, and even in the crappy alley light, Mick could see the way the man turned pale. "Heat Wave!"

Mick wasn't anywhere near as attached to his 'villain name' as Snart was to Captain Cold, but it still tickled his fancy to hear it now. "That's right. The biggest, baddest, fieriest asshole in Central City. You and I have a date with a nice, hot fire, and you're going to tell me everything you know about Death Metal."

"I don't know what you're talking about," Gary protested. "You're crazy!"

"Well, yeah." Mick snorted with amusement. "Thought everyone knew that. Now, lemme see. Where should I start first?"

Making sure he had his captive secure with one hand, he reached the other one back and pulled his heat gun out from under his heavy jacket. Flipping the switch to power it on, he savoured the sweet sound it made as it charged up the heat core. "Maybe your feet?"

He aimed the gun at the ground between them, and let a tiny blast of fire loose. Not enough to ignite anything, but definitely enough to feel the heat licking at his toes. If he could feel it through his heavy boots, Gary's girly shriek as the flame scorched his shitty tennis shoes was probably somewhat justified.

"I'm telling you, I don't know anything!" Gary pressed himself against the wall, a futile attempt to get out of range of the next blast. "Yeah, I hate Snart, so what?"

"Ooh, I know." Mick raised the gun higher. "How 'bout your ass? Be funny to watch you running around trying to put it out, like a fucking cartoon."

"No!"

Gary fell forward through the wall and Mick went down on top of him. The world turned itself inside out, and Mick's stomach lurched, clawing for his throat.

He fumbled the heat gun and barely kept his grip on it, but lost his hold on the little weasel. Gary scrambled out from under him, apparently less affected by whatever the fuck had just happened, and Mick rolled onto his back with the heat gun aimed up to protect him.

"Flint!" Gary darted behind a heavy filing cabinet, blocking Mick's shot at him. "Goddamn it, Flint, help!" He swore as Mick fired at him anyway, and the metal of the cabinet glowed red hot under the blast.

"What the hell is going on?" a new voice demanded, as a door slammed open.

It sounded vaguely familiar, but it wasn't until metal cables suddenly whipped around him that Mick realized it belonged to Death Metal, undistorted by his mask for the first time.

Snarling a protest, he tried to fight back, but the cables were too strong. In seconds they had his arms pinned securely to his body, heat gun pressed tight against his side and aimed uselessly at the ground. He felt himself lifted up, suspended a foot off the floor by cables attached to nothing.

Finally Mick got a look at Death Metal's face as the asshole drew closer, but it didn't do him any good. He didn't recognize the guy, and from this position Mick had no way to rearrange that smug face into something more aesthetically pleasing. Covered in burns, by preference, but he'd settle for smashing all the bones in.

"Well, well." Death Metal sounded delighted. "Gary, my birthday's not for a month. You didn't have to get me a present."

"It's not a present, asshole." Gary slunk out from behind the cabinet, glaring at Mick. "He hauled me into an alley, was asking questions about you. He hurt me!"

"So why didn't you drop him into an ocean, instead of in here? Or better yet, a volcano. He'd probably like that, the pyro."

Mick opened his mouth to snarl at them, and another cable wrapped itself around his throat, then stuffed its end into his mouth. Barely able to breathe, he growled and struggled, but the metal wasn't budging.

"He was on top of me, I couldn't send him anywhere without getting pulled through, too." Gary kicked at Mick's ribs between the cables, hard enough to drive what little air he had out of his lungs. "Are you listening to me? He knew I was working with you."

"And how did he know that, hmm?" Flint's voice was decidedly mocking. "You're supposed to be the all-seeing, all-knowing one."

"It’s exhausting to keep tabs on people, so when he and Snart had a fight and split up over the fag's boytoy, I stopped spying on Rory." Gary's lip curled in a sneer.

Mick roared around the metal, outraged. It wasn't the first time someone had been stupid enough to call Leonard that word in front of Mick, but it was the first time it had happened when Mick wasn't able to punch the teeth out of the offending mouth.

Gary flinched away at the sound, but Flint seemed unimpressed. He flicked his fingers, and the cables tightened further, until it felt like they were trying to squeeze Mick in two. "The question is, can we use him somehow? He and Snart may be on the outs right now, but everyone knows Snart doesn't let go of what's 'his'. Snart won't give in to a hostage negotiation, but Rory might be useful as bait for a trap."

"Yeah, maybe." Gary inched closer again, eyeing Mick like a scientist with a prize specimen. "Maybe it’ll draw him out. Seems like Snart's finally getting over his pity-fest now that the Soldier came back to him, but he still hasn't been making any plans for a next move. Hard to kill him in a grandstanding show if he's never leaving his house. I told you that you should have done it last time."

"Letting the cops have him seemed like a worse fate, and therefore a better revenge." Flint shrugged, then paused. His eyes narrowed. “There’s a chance this is a trap. If they found you, maybe they know what you can do, and sent Rory to distract you. When’s the last time you looked in on everyone?”

Gary touched his palms together in front of him, then made a sweeping gesture to both sides. The world seemed to split, the hole spreading along with the motion of his hands. A picture formed, a wavering window into somewhere that couldn’t be there.

Mick recognized the room at STAR Labs that Flash’s friends referred to as the Cortex, now dark and silent. The image flickered and changed. Some dark-haired young white guy lay sprawled over a bed, fast asleep and drooling. Mick had no idea who he was.

Again it changed. This room was even darker, but there was enough light to show two figures lying together in a rumpled bed. Mick growled again as he realized it was James and Snart.

Leonard had the most godawful expression, something he’d be horrified and embarrassed by if he could see himself. It was fucking sappy as hell, as he leaned half-propped on one arm, looking down at the sleeping James with tender passion and a sort of disbelieving awe.

Only once before had Mick seen a look like that on his partner’s face. Snart had just gotten out of his first stint in Juvie. Mick had been released the month before, so he’d taken his dad’s car and swung by to pick the kid up. Snart insisted they drive straight to his baby sister’s school, which was just getting out for the day. When the little girl had seen her big brother for the first time in a year, she’d run shrieking toward him and leapt into his arms for a hug.

And as Leonard had swung her around, he’d smiled down at her much the way he was doing now. More heat now than with his sister, but the same open affection.

By the end of his second stint, Snart had grown older, harder. So had Lisa, and their next reunion had been far more muted. Mick had never seen his partner truly smile again, not like that. Not until now.

Goddamn it, he’d been right. Snart was completely gone on the bastard. Granted, based on what he’d just discovered about Death Metal and his little pet, James probably wasn’t a spy and a traitor after all. That didn’t mean Mick liked him any better.

As Mick watched, Snart reached out as if to touch James’ face, but his wrist was caught in a literally steely grip long before he could make contact. James’ eyes snapped open. “What the hell are you doing?”

The sigh Snart gave was full of exaggerated annoyance. “I’m really never going to have a chance to wake you up with a blowjob, am I?”

James’ expression shifted from defensive wariness to heated interest. “Oh, yeah? You could...”

The window shattered into nothing as Gary slammed his hands together, a repulsed look on his face. “Perverts. That’s exactly why I haven’t bothered to look. That’s all they’ve been up to for days.”

“Homophobic ass. If one of them was a woman, you’d have been watching the whole time and jerking off, so who’s the pervert?” Flint shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. They’re not up to anything, they don’t even know Rory’s in trouble yet.”

“So what are we gonna do?”

"Siccing HYDRA on the Soldier when you realized his identity was inspired, but unfortunately didn't take him out of the equation like we'd hoped. He could shoot me from outside my range, so we need something to counter him." Flint grinned, and twisted the cables tighter just to make Mick grunt. “This is perfect.”

"He can’t shoot you. I'll see them planning it, just like last time."

"You're not infallible. What if they make a secret plan as part of their pillow talk?" Flint shook his head. "Don't you see? The best way to get revenge on Snart for killing your best friend is to take his best friend away from him. Let him suffer for a while, knowing he couldn't do anything to save Rory, By then we’ll have found another HYDRA branch to go after the Soldier, and Snart can suffer over that, too, before we put him out of his misery for good."

Fuck that shit. Mick had heard more than enough. There was no way in hell he was letting these assholes use him to get an advantage over Snart. They'd both come to stand right next to him, secure in the knowledge that he was bound tight and his heat gun was pointed away from them.

Well, they hadn't counted on how powerful Mick's weapon could really be. He could shoot the floor and the blowback would still hit the two of them. Hurt them, maybe even kill them.

It would burn Mick, too, caught in the centre of the blast by the immovable grip of the metal, but that wasn’t so bad. He'd always known he would die in a fire. Looked forward to it. His one hope was that it would be a fire he'd created, and now he could get that wish.

Straining, he managed to get his hand back on the gun properly. He held his breath and pulled the trigger, and the beautiful flames exploded into being all around him.

Gary cried out and stumbled away, arms up to protect his face. His shirt was on fire and his hair was singed, though it sadly hadn't killed him. But it was Flint's reaction that gave Mick the deepest satisfaction.

Death Metal screamed, an inhuman sound of agony, and collapsed. All the cables collapsed as well, suddenly loose around Mick as he tumbled to the super-heated floor.

Groaning with the pain of his burns, Mick rolled free of the red hot metal and onto a cooler spot on the concrete. Death Metal was still screaming, thrashing around like a fish on the beach. The cables flopped with him, writhing like they were in agony as well.

Mick lay on the floor, gasping for air, too fascinated to look away. The bastard had been farther from the blast than Gary, so why was he hurt so much worse? His clothes weren't on fire, and his skin wasn't red enough to indicate he'd gotten a deep burn.

"Flint! Let go of the damn metal! Flint, let it go!" Gary shouted, frantically stripping out of his smouldering shirt.

The cables dropped to the floor, lifeless, and Death Metal stopped screaming. He was still in no shape to fight, shuddering on the ground and sobbing like a baby, but it was clear he was no longer in pain.

Gary snatched a pistol off a nearby table. Despite the burns that screamed agony with every movement, Mick got his gun up first. He sent another wave of flame in Gary’s direction, forcing him to duck behind cover once more.

Flint was pushing himself to his hands and knees, slowly recovering. As soon as the metahuman gathered his scrambled wits, he was going to crush the metal in Mick's gun, and then he was going to crush Mick as well.

Somehow Mick made it to his feet, and he staggered for the doorway. He blasted everything in sight as he went, setting the whole place ablaze and blocking Flint and Gary from coming after him.

When he hit the cold air outside the building, he barely choked down a scream. The burns flared in agony, and he wasn’t sure what was worse - the places where the fire had scorched him directly, or the places where superheated metal had seared into him.

He had to get out of there. He had to find Snart, and warn him. Mick knew how they were being spied on, and more importantly, he finally knew how to take down Death Metal. All they had to do was ‘kill’ the metal first. The only problem was going to be surviving long enough to tell anybody.

One hand braced on the wall to keep him upright, Mick forced himself to put one foot in front of the next, all of his fiery rage focused on getting him to his partner.

Chapter Text

James was used to being constantly watched and observed. HYDRA kept him under supervision except for missions when a team or handler would have slowed him down, and then only briefly. Now he knew it was because they'd rightly feared that he might somehow regain knowledge of himself and go AWOL on them, but at the time he'd taken it as a matter of course.

Knowing that Death Metal could be spying on them anytime, anywhere, was different. Now it was an intrusion, a violation. James' paranoia was dialled up to maximum, leaving him unable to sit still or sleep for any real length of time.

His ‘experiments’ with Len were the only thing that could distract him and let him relax at all, but even then the knowledge of possible observation lurked in the back of his mind, picking away at him like acid dripping in his brain.

As a result, he'd started running more patrols, slipping out of bed while Len slept. He prowled the neighbourhood, in and out of the surrounding buildings, looking for any sign of a watcher. He learned the typical movement patterns and sleeping places of the local vagrants and criminals - Len's building was in decent shape and between the two of them they’d made the apartment halfway to a fort, but the rundown buildings around them were a haven for the denizens of the city's underbelly.

What James was looking for was something out of place. Something new, something that didn't follow the patterns of the world around it. Something that would trigger that paranoid instinct of his, telling him there was a threat he hadn't consciously recognized yet.

On the fourth night, he found it.

Two buildings down the street from Len's, a man had collapsed on the sidewalk. Not entirely unheard of in the area, but unusual enough that James swung by to get a better look. As he closed in, the scents that reached him weren't of alcohol, drugs, or freshly spilled blood from a simple wound.

No, what he caught was the heavy smell of smoke and the acrid stench of burned flesh. Not normal for the area. But scent could be a connection to memory, and images rose up in James' mind in response to these ones.

A big man, powerful and angry, always angry. He wore a dirty fireman's jacket and carried a gun similar to Len's, but at the opposite end of the spectrum. Mick Rory, a.k.a. Heat Wave.

The journals said that James and Rory were decidedly at odds, and their last encounter had ended in a knock-down, drag-out fight. Len had gotten hurt in that fight, by James' hand. Then Len and Rory had gotten into their own fight the next day, and Len had returned in a foul mood with the news that Heat Wave was no longer a member of the Rogues.

James hadn't expected to encounter the man again, or if he did, he'd thought it would be on the other side of a fight. Not like this, burned and vulnerable, unconscious on the pavement in the darkest hours of the night.

The only explanation was that Rory had been trying to reach Len for help. For one moment James stood frozen, weighing his options. It would be so easy to take care of Rory once and for all, end any possible threat the man posed to James' life and happiness with Len. Everything in his training screamed at him to do just that. Leaving enemies alive was stupid.

The Soldier would have killed Rory without a second thought.

That made it all the more important that James make a different choice.

Sighing, he stowed his pistol and crouched down, just out of arm's reach. "Rory. Rory. Are you conscious?" There was no response, and James eased cautiously closer.

Still nothing, until he got a grip on the least-burned spot on Rory's arm. The big man snorted and thrashed weakly, trying to bat him away.

"Hey, idiot." James's voice was flat, uncaring. He felt little empathy for Rory, had no interest in coddling the man. "I'm trying to help you. Do you want to get to Len, or not?"

"Len?" Rory slurred, blinking a couple of times like he was stunned and having trouble focusing. When he recognized James, he scowled. "I gotta talk to Snart. Gotta tell him. Move."

Rory was deep in shock, his body trying to shut down to protect him from the agony of his wounds and conserve as much energy as possible for the healing process. James had to admire him for pushing through it. Not many people would have been able to.

"I'm not in your way. I'm trying to get you there." James looked down at him, impatient. "You aren’t going to make it on your own. I'm not the spy," he added, recalling what their last fight had been about. Maybe that was why Rory wouldn't let him help.

Except, to his surprise, Rory grunted and shook his head. "I know that. Fine, whatever. Get me to Snart. I'll deal with you later."

"I'm sure you will." James was unimpressed by the threat, but this wasn't the time or place to get into it. The back of his neck was itching, the knowledge that he'd been unmoving and exposed for too long crawling at his skin. He examined Rory as best he could in the flickering streetlights, taking note of all the burns and scorch marks. "This is gonna hurt."

"Fuck you, I can take it." Mick glared at him.

Shrugging, James leaned down and slung Rory's arm over his shoulder, then hauled the man to his feet. From there he let Rory wobble on his own for a moment, ducked lower and put his shoulder in the man's gut, then hefted him like a sack of potatoes. Rory was a big guy, but his weight was no match for the Winter Soldier's enhancements.

Rory grunted in agony as the move jarred his injuries, but it was the best hold James could find. A bridal or fireman's carry would have aggravated too many of the burns. This way there was as little contact as possible.

As quickly as he could, James made his way back to Len's apartment. After a few more involuntary grunts, Rory passed out again. James was able to get in the back and up the stairs in silence, hopefully without drawing any further attention to them.

He opened the door one-handed and slipped inside, not bothering with the lights. "Len!" An indistinct mumble came from the bedroom. James raised his voice. "Get dressed and get the hell out here, we need you."

"We?" That seemed to get the man's attention, and a moment later Len stumbled out, wrapped up tight in a fluffy bathrobe. He flipped the lights on, and stared at James and Rory. "What the fuck - is that Mick?"

"Found him a block away." Moving to the couch, James lowered his burden onto it with gentle care. He might not like the guy, but he wasn't petty enough to deliberately hurt him while he was in a state like this. "Trying to get to you, I think. He's burned bad. Real bad."

"Not the first time. Probably not the last." Len ducked into the bathroom, and James heard him rummaging through cupboards. "Get his clothes off. Rip them, don't jar him if you can help it."

"Got it." James took hold of the heavy jacket's sleeve in both hands, then pulled in opposite directions. The firefighter's gear had been designed to resist high temperatures, and that meant it was heavy and dense, but the burned sections of fabric were weakened and gave way easily. The rest of the jacket followed, and he was able to make short work of the shirt and pants beneath.

The injuries revealed were extensive. James had seen worse, sometimes inflicted by him, but that didn't stop him from wincing in sympathy now. "How the fuck was he walking?"

Judging by the resigned look on Len's face as he approached with an armload of what looked like blankets, it wasn't the first time he'd seen burns like this, either. Probably on Rory, if the existing scars beneath the new burns were anything to go by. "Hell if I know, but those burns are from his gun. Looks like his back is worse than his front. Did someone take his weapon and shoot him from behind?"

James frowned as he studied the patterns seared into Rory's body. There were two distinct textures, in irregular stripes and chunks across Rory's body. "He was wrapped in something. Around and around him."

"Something like metal cables?"

They stared at each other, equally grim. James nodded. "Death Metal. Has to be. Maybe Rory tried to pull a heist by himself and the meta showed up?"

"We won't know unless we can get him awake, and that's not going to happen here." Len's mouth was pressed tight, lips flat and thin. "I don't think the back alley doctors I know will be able to do much for him, either. Last time he was this bad, he was caught by the cops and taken to a real hospital. We might have to dump him at an ER, and break him out later."

That would probably mean days until they could get any information, potentially longer. James gnawed on his lower lip, a nervous habit he'd found himself developing - or maybe rediscovering - since Len had rescued him.

"What about STAR Labs?" He tilted his head at Len. "That lady there seemed pretty competent, and they've got all kinds of toys. Not just mechanical - I saw a hospital bed in one of the rooms as we went by."

"Dr. Snow?" Len looked surprised, then thoughtful. "You know, that might just work. If this is Death Metal's handiwork, we might even be able to guilt Team Flash into helping without threatening to turn us in." He held up his armful. "Help me spread this out and get him on it."

James kicked the coffee table out of the way, and grabbed the offered blanket edge. They spread the thick wool over the floor, then Len ripped open a large foil bag and revealed a second blanket, soaked in some kind of gel. He laid that out too, then he and James carefully lifted Rory down from the couch.

In short order they had the burned man bundled up securely in the slick material. With James holding the dry blanket at one end and Len at the other, they were able to use it as a makeshift sling to pick Rory up with as little pressure as possible.

It made James tense to have both of them with their hands occupied and unable to dodge or fight back, moving at a snail's pace to avoid jarring Rory. If someone attacked, he would drop his burden, go for his gun, and apologize to Len later, but it would still slow him down enough for an enemy to potentially get a shot off.

No shots came, even when they reached the alley and had to pause for Len to break into a beat-up station wagon. James hefted Rory into the back, then came around to ride shotgun.

Len drove like he had a supersoldier's reflexes, uncaring of traffic or laws. It seemed he knew the police patrol routes well enough to be able to avoid them, though twice James heard sirens attempting to chase them from a distance as other cars squealed and crashed behind them.

Lightning raced toward them, and James didn't even have time to open his mouth in warning before the blast hit them. Except there was no blast, no impact from any weapon.

What there was, was a pissed-looking Flash now sitting in the back seat. "Snart, what the hell do you think you're doing? You've nearly killed three people already."

Without a word Len gestured over his shoulder, and the Flash turned to look. His eyes went wide as he saw Rory sprawled in the cargo space. "Oh, crap! Is that Heat Wave? What happened?"

"Death Metal happened." They didn't know that for sure, but James felt no compunctions about lying if it meant the hero would be more likely to help them. Besides, it was extremely likely. "We can't take him to a hospital, so we thought your doctor dame could do something."

"Can you carry him ahead to STAR Labs?" Len asked, his voice tight. "And don't tell me you're not able to help, because I know damn well Snow can probably do more for him than any hospital."

"Of course we'll help." Flash's voice was gentle, like he thought he might spook Len by being too loud. It was possible - James could see the tension in his lover, knew Snart wasn't handling the near-death of his partner as well as the man was trying to pretend. "I can't get Mick there without hurting him, my speed creates friction and that might make his burns worse. But I can go get Caitlin and bring her there to meet you."

"You mean she doesn't actually live at the Labs?" The corner of Len's mouth quirked like he was trying for a teasing smile, but failed.

Flash snorted. "None of us live there. It's nearly dawn, we'd all gone home hours ago. Joe called to tell me there was a maniac crashing his way through the city. Slow down. If you cause an accident it will take a lot longer to get there."

Then he was gone as abruptly as he'd come, and James was able to draw a full breath again. "It really bothers me that he can do that," he muttered.

Len barked a short laugh that didn't hold nearly enough mirth. "What, appear and disappear out of thin air? Come at you with no warning? That's the pot calling the kettle black. I'll pull up to the entrance to the Labs, you get Mick inside. I'll dump the car somewhere and meet you back there."

Even with James' admittedly abysmal ability to read social cues, he could tell it was killing Len to have to let his badly injured partner out of his sight and protection. James reached out and put his hand on Len's shoulder, squeezing gently. "I'll keep him safe, and I won't let them take him captive."

Taking his eyes off the road for just a moment, Len gave him a fleeting smile. "I know.”

At the STAR Labs front door, the trio James had met last time were waiting just inside with a wheeled gurney that they rushed over to the car the moment Len came to a stop. Getting Mick onto it was easy enough, and then Len peeled off to dispose of the car.

James was left trailing along behind as Snow and Ramon headed to an elevator across the lobby. Flash kept pace with him rather than speeding ahead, watching him with an expression of concern, presumably wary of the potential threat the James posed to his team.

At least, so he assumed until the kid blurted out, "Are you doing okay? Lisa came looking for you and Snart, I was worried maybe HYDRA had hurt you worse than we realized. I never should have left the two of you to get out alone."

It finally got through to James that the hero's concern was for him, not about him. He blinked, startled enough that it took him a moment to find an answer. "You were right to leave. It was hard enough to bring myself to trust Len. If you'd been there, I'd have bolted rather than be outnumbered by people I didn't know."

"You really forgot everything?" Ramon asked, turning as they crammed into the elevator. His dark eyes were bright with curiosity, as heedlessly enthusiastic as the last time he'd foolishly questioned James. "Controlled induced amnesia. And a fully functional cryostasis chamber! Man, I wish I could have been there, I'd give my left arm for a shot at the equipment in that lab..."

Catching his gaze, James slowly and deliberately flexed his left hand in and out of a fist. The metal was hidden by gloves and sleeves, but the gesture made his point regardless.

Ramon paled noticeably, and his voice was higher when he spoke again. "Right. Sorry. That was insensitive. Wow, on quite a few levels, wasn't it?"

The elevator dinged as it arrived at its destination, and Snow broke into Ramon's babbling. "Flash, can you get the deep floatation bed set up?"

"You got it." The words hadn't even registered before the metahuman streaked off down the hall, out of sight.

"Did you apply any treatments?" Snow asked James as they moved more slowly after Flash. "This is a specialized burn blanket. Please tell me you didn't rob an ambulance."

Some imp of the perverse reared up within James, and he gave her a deadpan look. "Not an ambulance. A fire truck."

Pained resignation spread over her face. "I knew I shouldn't have asked."

Relenting, he shook his head. "Actually, Len had it with the rest of the first aid supplies. Seemed like he knew what he was doing, so I followed his lead."

"Makes sense." Cisco snorted in amusement. "If you're gonna be best friends with a pyromaniac, you probably want to know something about burn treatment. Here we go!"

They paused in the doorway of a room that was filled by lightning, the Flash moving so fast that it hung everywhere in the air. When he stopped, the hospital bed had been stretched out flat and what looked like a half-filled waterbed had been arranged on top of it.

Cautiously, Snow unwrapped Rory. Ramon and Flash both winced at the extent of the burns, but her expression remained detached and professional. If the big man's nudity bothered her, she didn't show that, either. "Lift him into the bed as gently as you can," she instructed.

Once again James got his hands under Rory's shoulders, and this time Flash took the legs as they swung the man over into the pan. Rory sank down, but the water sac was full enough to keep him suspended and not touching the bottom.

Snow leaned over with a stethoscope to his chest, and nodded in satisfaction. "His breathing seems fine, I don't think he inhaled any fire or smoke. That's good, I can concentrate on the dermal injuries. All of you need to leave."

James stiffened. "I'm not leaving him alone with you."

"Those burns are open wounds, and the biggest danger at the moment is infection," Snow insisted. “We need to minimize his exposure to any potential contaminants. Please, I need you to leave so I can begin treatment.”

"You can watch from in there," Flash said, gesturing at a window on one side of the room. James considered it, and decided it was an acceptable compromise.

For the next long while, he watched Snow struggle to keep Rory alive. Flash and Ramon wandered in and out to check on them, and sometimes to assist Snow. At some point Len came to join him, Lisa trailing after her brother. His lover appeared stoic, refusing to show any weakness before Team Flash, but James knew him well enough to read the worry in his eyes.

Finally, Dr. Snow stepped back from the bed and wiped her brow with the back of her hand. "I've done as much as I can. He'll live, but the scarring will be extensive. I don't know if he'll regain full motion."

Len made an unhappy sound, a cross between a grunt and a whine. Lisa hugged herself tight, then leaned into her brother's side. Len slipped an arm around her shoulders, and James understood she'd done it as much so that Len would have the excuse to reach out as for her own comfort.

Frowning, James ran through what little he knew of medical care. He vaguely remembered being burned once on a mission, maybe ten years ago. It had been bad enough that he should have lost some mobility, too. What had they done to prevent it? Yes, he had super-healing, but that only went so far, as shown by the scarred ravage of his shoulder.

"HYDRA has some kind of gel they use on burns," he said, dragging the memory out of the darkness of his mind. "He'd be fine in a week, but it has to be applied as soon as possible after the burn. It might already be too late."

"Then why didn't you say anything earlier?" Len demanded, scowling at him.

"Because I just remembered,” James answered flatly. “Be grateful I thought of it at all. Problem is, the nearest actual base I know of is the one you took me out of. We'll never get there and back in time to make a difference."

"Oh, yes we can," Len said, eyes bright at the possibility of a solution. "Flash, will you..."

The speedster was already gone, papers blowing about the room from the backwash of his departure. James cocked his head. "They'll have brought in reinforcements to replace the troops we took out. He's going to run into trouble."

"Last time he had to go slow because I needed to be along for the ride." Len shrugged, a great deal of the tension falling away as he squeezed a grinning Lisa to him. "He'll be in and out before they ever realize he was there, let alone get that anti-meta field turned on."

Before James could come up with a reply, the papers went flying again as Flash skidded to a halt in the middle of the room. He sported an armload of gelpacks and a triumphant grin. "This the stuff?"

Impressed, James nodded. "That's it. Get it on him as thick as..."

Another draft, and when James blinked and looked through the window he saw Rory was now covered head to toe in the green goop. "Huh. Useful."

"He really is." Ramon chuckled and leaned back far enough to make his chair protest. "Run out of snacks in the middle of gaming night and I don't even have to hit pause."

"That's fascinating, but maybe we can get back to the larger issue?" Len's tone was very dry, and Ramon flushed. "Can we wake Mick up? Get him coherent?"

"What? Absolutely not." Snow stared at him, aghast. "I've got him sedated, and I'll keep him that way as long as is safe. He'll be in agony, the kind that can cause further medical problems from the stress it puts on the body."

"As far as I can tell, he crawled for God knows how far through the city to get to us," James told her. "He woke up just long enough to tell me there was something he had to tell Len, then passed out again. Whatever it is, we need to know it now, not days from now."

"We have no idea where or how he encountered Death Metal," Len added. His fist clenched, and his other arm hugged Lisa tighter to his side. "This asshole has now hurt every person important to me. Lisa, James, Mick... I can't let him keep going."

"Obviously Mick fought him," Lisa put in. "Maybe even hurt the bastard. This might be our best chance to take Death Metal down, but we won't know unless we can ask."

Flash turned to Snow. "Caitlin, is there a way to wake him?"

The doctor bit her lip. "I can, for a few minutes. But you have to understand, we're taking a huge risk. His heart could stop."

"Do it." Len's tone left no room for argument.

Clearly reluctant, Dr. Snow went back into the treatment room. She pulled a syringe and bottle out of a drawer, prepped a dose, then inserted it into the IV she had running to Rory's arm.

For a long moment, nothing happened. Then Rory groaned and stirred, and the heart monitor hooked up to him started beeping more frantically. "Wha th'fuck," he slurred, eyes slowly opening.

"Mick, stay calm," Len said, but the big man showed no signs of hearing him. Ramon handed Len a mic, and he tried again. "Mick, it's me. You're not in a hospital and you're not going to be arrested. Understand? Dr. Snow, you might want to come out of there."

Spooked, Snow moved to the far side of the room, but didn't leave. "I want to be ready to put him under again as soon as you have what you need."

"Lenrd?" Rory shook his head, the movement ponderous and almost in slow motion. Then he grunted as the motion aggravated some of the burns. "Th'fuck's goin' on?"

"I was hoping you could tell me, buddy." Len’s voice softened, both coaxing and intimate. “What happened?”

“Not sure.” Scowling, Rory tried to sit up, only to grunt in pain and collapse again. A different monitor started beeping. “How’d I get here?”

“His blood pressure is rising,” Snow warned them, but her frown was more baffled than concerned now. “Not as badly as I’d have expected, and he’s reasonably coherent. Whatever’s in that gel is working miracles. I need to analyze a sample of it.”

Len leaned toward the window, as if getting closer would help him get the information they needed faster. "You came looking for me. James found you, and you told him there was something you had to tell me. Do you remember what it was?"

"Shit, yeah." Rory’s words continued to clear as he spoke. "Found some pissant in a dive bar, whining about you. Said you killed his best friend and he was gonna get revenge. Thought he might be connected to Death Metal, so I cornered him. Gary something-or-other."

"Gary McDonald?" Len's focus sharpened, and he glanced at James. "That's the guy who held a gun on me, the night we met. Do you remember?"

With effort, James brought the memory to mind. "He was complaining about you then, too. Saying you were in bed with the Flash. That's why I got interested."

"I'll have to remember to thank him for introducing us, before I wring his neck." Len's smile was not friendly.

Flash frowned. "Snart..."

"Figure of speech, Scarlet." Len waved the hero off and turned back to the mic. "What did he tell you, Mick?"

"Didn't tell me nothin'. Opened some kinda hole in the wall, dumped us both into a warehouse, 'n' Death Metal was there." Mick's voice dropped to a dangerous rumble. "Name's Flint, apparently. He was bitching about getting revenge, too."

"Flint Anderson. Must be." Len tapped one finger against the base of the mic. "Richard Anderson's brother."

"The demo 'expert' James stopped from blowing us all to pieces?" Lisa looked speculative. "That makes sense. Death Metal targeted us for the first time not long after we, er, fired Richard." Flash gave her a pained look, and she returned it with an expression that had just the right mixture of innocence and exasperation to be convincing. "Not literally."

James had written about the event in question, and he was quite certain the firing had been literal. But Anderson had nearly blown up an entire city block, and with that sort of incompetence he might have killed far too many innocent people in the future. James was okay with being involved in the man’s death.

Flash apparently decided to drop the subject for now. "So Death Metal is working with someone who can create portals between locations. That explains a lot."

"More than that. The fucker can make windows, not just doors." Mick grunted, a sound of profound disgust and annoyance. "Like invisible fucking one-way glass. Saw him check on this place, and on Snart and Jimbo... only reason he closed it again was they started gettin' friendly and he's a homogenous asshole."

James growled, fists tightening. Suspecting that someone could be watching at any time, including intimate moments, was one thing. Knowing it had happened, that very night, and he'd been completely oblivious was another thing entirely.

"I think you mean homophobic. At least we know it means he hasn't been taking advantage of the peep show." Len's voice held a sharp note that matched the anger James felt, and promised dire retribution. "That explains how Gary dearest found me that day in the park, and how Death Metal has been spying on us. Hell, Gary probably sussed out Death Metal as an ally after he realized he couldn't take me down by himself."

"That means there's no way to make a plan that Death Metal won't find out about." Lisa was no less angry than the rest of them, stepping away from her brother as she tensed up, eyes flashing. "How the hell are we going to beat this guy?"

Rory laughed, a horrible rasping sound that set him coughing, and Snow scurried over in concern. He waved her off. "I fried his metal, and the fucker screamed. He feels anything that happens to metal he's controlling."

"Yes, that's it!" Ramon crowed, punching a fist in the air. "Finally, that's the break we needed! Now we just have to take advantage of it."

"Without him seeing that we're coming, and exactly how we're planning to do it." Flash rubbed at his face, then grimaced as the mask prevented the motion from accomplishing anything. "He's probably watching right now."

The seed of an idea was kicking around in the back of James' mind, but he couldn't quite make it grow into a plan. Presumably this metahuman asshole had a range limit of some kind. Could they get outside it? Without knowing what it was, they'd have a hard time being sure they were clear even if they went to the other side of the world.

"Said they were planning to hurt everyone Snart cares about, make him suffer before they kill him," Rory rumbled. "They were gonna use me as bait, lure you in. Said they sicced HYDRA on Jimbo, were looking for another bunch of 'em to do it again. What's HYDRA got to do with anything? Ain't they Nazis?"

So that was how HYDRA had captured him. It all made sense, now. Knowing that they could find him anytime, anywhere, and were planning to do it again soon, made James feel ill. Next time, Len might not be in a position to rescue him. "More or less Nazis, yeah. I escaped from them, they'd do anything to get me back."

Rory grunted. "I fucking hate Nazis."

Despite himself, James snorted in amusement. "What do you know. We actually agree on something."

That seed of a plan was finally sprouting. There was one way to get Death Metal to stop watching him - convince the metahuman that there was no point in wasting his time doing it. James could do it, had the perfect excuse laid out right there in Rory's words. But it would mean making everyone, including Len, believe that he was abandoning them.

Len had warned him that James wouldn't be forgiven a second time for hurting him that way. Doing this might cause James to lose everything good in this new life he was carving for himself.

Not doing it might still cause him to lose everything, but in a far more horrible and permanent way. At least with James' plan, even if Len ended up hating him, the Rogues would still be alive.

Reaching into the deepest, darkest part of himself where HYDRA's manipulation still lived, James buried himself in the Winter Soldier. He felt his body go still, his face falling into a neutral, uncaring expression, and when he spoke, his voice was flat and emotionless. "If they're going to keep sending HYDRA after me, then I can't stay here. I'm leaving. Tonight."

"What?" Len spun to look at him, eyes wide and betrayed. "There's no reason to run. We'll figure this out, find a way to take these assholes down."

"We need you," Lisa added, staring at him as well. "With Mick down and me injured, we're going to need all the firepower we can get."

"And what if they've found another, better-equipped branch of HYDRA to send after me in the meantime?" James stared back at them, implacable. "They could contact every branch. There'd be a war as they converged on me, and then Captain America and his buddies would get involved. Central would be torn apart."

"That's true," Flash murmured, frowning. "That's why I agreed to hide your presence here in the first place. And now that you've said that out loud, Death Metal probably knows it's the perfect way to get rid of you and tie me up trying to deal with the fallout."

"Don't you dare," Len hissed, his expression going hard as the shutters slammed down, covering any vulnerability that might otherwise be exposed by the emotional pain James was causing. "HYDRA taking you away is one thing. It's not your fault you took off without realizing what it meant to the rest of us. But if you walk out that door of your own free will, knowing what it means… don't you dare ever show your face in my city again."

"Coward," Lisa spat at him. "I thought you were better than this. I warned you." She brought her gun up and charged it, though they all knew Flash would never let her kill him.

As much as it hurt to have Len look at him like that, James couldn't do anything to warn his lover that he was planning to come back. "All it would take is one HYDRA leader who knows my activation code, and you wouldn't need to worry about Death Metal. You'd be too busy dying at my hands. I told you, I won't let them take me again. No matter the cost."

With an ache in his chest so sharp he finally understood why they called it ‘heartbreak’, James turned and walked out of the room.

Chapter Text

Somehow, Len managed to bury the complicated roil of emotions that kept threatening to crack his icy facade. Between him and Lisa they dropped enough broad hints that Team Flash reluctantly agreed to leave them alone with Mick.

"I'll be in to check on him frequently, to make sure he's as comfortable as he can be," Caitlin Snow assured them, her expression sincere enough that Len could almost believe that care for her patient would be her only reason for dropping by.

Cisco Ramon was more transparent when he declared, "There's security cameras everywhere so, you know, if you need anything, you can wave and I'll see you."

Len managed to dredge up a smirk, though his heart wasn't in it. "You do know I've waltzed into STAR Labs and gone without notice even when I wasn't trying to? If we wanted to rob you, we wouldn't need to engineer a medical emergency to do it. I'm sure you all have plenty to do. We'll stay out of your hair in here."

Finally they were gone, leaving Len and Lisa alone in the room with the once-again sedated Mick. Len perched with one hip on the edge of his partner's bed, watching as the motion caused gentle waves in the half-filled waterbed holding the man suspended.

Lisa took a seat nearby, crossing her legs and studying him with a baffled expression. "I expected you to be a lot more pissed off about James ditching us again."

"Trust me, I'm plenty angry.” Len didn’t have to fake the icy rage he allowed to fill his voice. “I'm entertaining myself thinking of all the ways I'll make him suffer if he's stupid enough to try to come back."

Meeting her eyes, Len waited to be sure she was watching, then flicked his gaze to one side and back again. It was an old, silent signal they'd developed to warn each other when their father was lurking nearby and they had to be careful of what they said. They hadn't needed it in so long he honestly wasn't sure she'd recognize it, but she blinked twice in acknowledgement.

Like the talented grifter that she was, Lisa didn't miss a beat. "Oh, I see how it is. It's going to be that way, is it? You’re a lot scarier when your rage is cold instead of hot. I suppose I can't blame you, considering everything he's put you through. Can I be the one to shatter the ice statue? Pretty please? Or at least take a swing at him."

"You can take a swing, but I think I've earned the shattering." Len gave her a twisted, feral smile that promised dire retribution, playing it up for the unseen audience they undoubtedly had.

In all honesty, he almost wished he could be wallowing in simple anger, however bitter the betrayal might be. Instead he was fluctuating wildly between painful hope that this was all a ploy of James' to shake Gary McDonald's observation, and resigned disgust at himself for continuing to cling to hope in the face of all evidence.

He needed to believe it was part of a plan, that James was coming back and they'd get their revenge together. There had been zero indication of that, not so much as a parting glance or regretful flicker of emotion, but that was the point. They were being watched, and anything that might have reassured Len would also tip off Death Metal that the whole thing was fake.

Or else he was fooling himself like a lovesick idiot. Acting like a naive schoolboy whose boyfriend told him that they should 'take a break and date other people', leaving him hanging on a string made of false hope and fading dreams.

Len didn't think he could stand to go through that soul-rending heartbreak a second time. Everything he'd ever learned about people, every lesson his father had taught him, argued that he was setting himself up for inevitable disappointment. Yet he couldn't stop clinging to that one slender possibility.

One way or the other, this was Len's last shot at something resembling happiness in his life. Either James would come back and prove his loyalty once and for all, or he wouldn't, and Len would never make the mistake of opening himself up again.

"We should go," he declared, absently twisting the ring he wore on his pinkie finger. "Dr. Snow said Mick won't be awake again for a good long while. Flash has one of my burner numbers, he can reach me when Mick's waking up, and we've got preparations to make."

"How can we plan anything when we know Death Metal is going to see it, and use it against us?" Lisa cocked her head.

"I said preparations, not plans." This time Len's smirk was more genuine, but held a dark, dangerous edge. "Sooner or later, our chance to catch the bastard by surprise will come. Either Flash's team will figure out a way around his surveillance, or we will. That chance might be a split second opportunity, so we need to be ready to take it when it comes."

"Well, then." Lisa’s answering smile was no less sharp. "We'd better see if we can figure out where James was getting those plastic weapons from. Didn't he say he was going to see if he could get some non-metal guns, too?"

"If something exists, it’s on the black market somewhere." Len pushed himself off the bed and headed for the door. "If we ask the right questions of the right people, we'll find what we need without James. Let's make sure Mick didn't suffer to get this intel to us in vain."

They slipped out unnoticed. Mostly because Lisa thought it would be hilarious when Cisco realized they'd disappeared from the monitors, assumed they'd gone 'shopping', and spent the rest of the day trying to find them. Too bad there was no way to watch the reaction, because Len could seriously use a pick-me-up at the moment.

As he and Lisa split up to head for their respective homes, Len told himself he wasn't going to check under the dresser. There was nothing to be gained by doing so. Either James had left for real, in which case he'd taken the books with him, or he'd pretended to leave for real, in which case he'd taken the books with him.

Of course, as soon as he got home, he headed straight for the bedroom and ducked down to look. He couldn't stop himself. If James had taken the risk and left the books, that would be the reassurance Len needed.

And Death Metal might see him looking, and would remember it was the presence of the books that had told Len last time that James was in trouble. So it was no surprise to find the space beneath the dresser empty.

Len swore and kicked the heavy piece of furniture anyway. Because Death Metal would expect him to, but also because he damn well needed to hit something.

As bad as the day had started, it only went downhill from there. Len was a planner, by nature and by hard-learned lessons. When he saw an obstacle, he planned to find a way around it. When he felt distressed about something, he planned to prepare himself for the worst.

Now, he couldn't plan. Not only was there no point, since Death Metal would find out about it, but Len simply didn't have the information he needed. Without knowing for certain if James would return, he couldn't even start the planning process in the safety of his own mind.

The inability left him restless and fidgety, playing constantly with his ring as his gut continued to warn him that everything was going to hell.

It was far worse on the second day. Len kept remembering how badly HYDRA had hurt James. Kept thinking about how desperate James must be to stay out of their hands, about what lengths Len would go to in order to avoid that fate if it was his life and soul on the line.

Could Len blame James if the man had run? Nobody wanted to see Central City go the way of New York or D.C. If HYDRA had been hot on their heels as they escaped the base, if it had been a question of James almost certainly being recaptured if he stayed in the city, Len would have ordered his lover to go. Was this really any different?

The third day, he swung back to despondence. It was probably a good thing there was no alcohol left in his apartment, and he was too damn busy setting up deals for the non-metal weapons to go out and get more. Even if it was all a ploy, how long was Len supposed to wait for James to return? How would any of them know when it had been 'long enough'? They were no closer to a way to shake their invisible observer.

By the fourth day, Len was so twisted up inside he hardly knew whether he was coming or going. It felt like if he gave in, if he accepted that James was most likely gone, that would make it real. Real in a way that couldn't be taken back, even if it turned out not to be real. If Len let himself grieve and rage a second time over James' betrayal, if he let himself feel that pain, he wasn't sure he could forgive the man even if James did return eventually.

As he tossed and turned in his cold, lonely bed that night, unable to sleep because he missed the warm, solid presence beside him, Len hung balanced on a razor-thin tightrope between hope and despair. He wasn't sure he could make it through a fifth day, let alone however many more were to come.

He'd almost drifted off from sheer exhaustion when a blast of air and light sent him bolting to his feet. He snatched his cold gun off the bedside table and charged it. The flickering light of the muzzle revealed a figure standing in the shadows by his window, hands raised as if to stave off the icy blast.

For a wild moment his heart squeezed as he thought it was James, and then reason reasserted itself. There were metahumans in the city who could generate wind and lightning, but James wasn’t among them. Of the two Len knew personally, only one would be crashing in on him at home. "Barry, what the hell do you think you're doing?"

Reaching out, Barry flipped on the light and revealed that he was in his Flash suit. His conspiratorial grin turned to a flustered yelp as he realized the only thing Len was wearing was his cold gun. "Snart! Uh, crap. Sorry. Could you, y'know, maybe put some clothes on?"

"Why?" Taking his finger off the trigger - but not powering it down - Len lifted the gun to rest against his shoulder. He was tense and unhappy about the Flash seeing him in all his scarred glory, but he refused to shuffle around after his clothes like he'd been caught in bed with another man's wife. “You invited yourself into my bedroom, I don’t see why I should be worried about whether you’re comfortable in the process."

"Says the guy who broke into my house and made himself hot chocolate while he waited for me to get home," Barry grumbled.

With a reluctant smile, Len tilted his head to concede the point. "I still can't believe you didn't have any marshmallows. Were you raised in a barn?"

"Listen, we don't have much time," Barry said, shoving his cowl off and giving Len an impatient look. "We're assuming that Lookout is sleeping at the same time as the rest of us, since there's no point in him watching at four in the morning, but we don't know how early he might get up and we have to be back where he expects us to be by then. So get dressed already!"

"Lookout? Really? That's the best you could come up with?" Len gave him a pained look, but he reached hastily for his clothes.

It was a clever idea, he'd give the kid that. It was a measure of how far Len had been put off his game that it hadn't occurred to him that McDonald needed to sleep, and likely did so in a predictable fashion.

As he shrugged on his parka, he raised an eyebrow at Flash. "I'm surprised you're including me in this. You must realize I have no intention of handing him over to your idea of 'justice' without a fight."

Barry's answering laugh held a high overtone of nervousness. "Yeah, well, maybe you're willing to argue with the Winter Soldier when you wake up to find him standing over your bed, but I'm not."

Before Len could register the full impact of that statement, Barry grabbed him and zipped off. Once again Len's breath was stolen by the impossible speed, but this time it lasted only a few seconds. When Barry let him go, he was able to get his feet under him and regain his poise without looking ruffled.

They were in the same location outside the city where Flash had taken him the first time he'd run with Len. It was where they'd made their fateful deal, that Len would stop killing people or hurting the Flash's friends, and the Flash wouldn't hunt down the Rogues in return.

And there, leaning against a tree by the side of the road, was the Winter Soldier. Arms crossed over his chest, wearing a one-sleeved jacket that left his metal arm bared for the world to see, gleaming in the moonlight. He was fully equipped, decked out with multiple guns and knives, and had greasepaint smeared across his eyes to help fool facial recognition software.

"James." Len was proud of how steady his voice was as he greeted the man he'd been vindicated for believing in. He would not give Flash the satisfaction of going all sappy about his lover's return.

James, apparently, had no such compunctions. Len was totally unprepared for the man to push away from the tree, cross the distance between them, and pull them together for a passionate kiss.

Despite himself, Len melted into the embrace. It was hot and hard and everything he'd come to expect from his lover, everything he'd come to need. He kissed back, just as hard, just as frantic, and when they had to come up for air he bit down sharply on James' lip for punishment.

"That's for pulling a stunt like that," Len told him, when James grunted in protest more than pain. "I know you couldn't warn me, but I ought to freeze your ass on principle."

"But you like my ass so much," James replied, a gleam of sly humour in his eyes. "Wouldn't be nearly as much fun to play with if it's frozen."

The sound of a throat being cleared jerked Len back to awareness of his surroundings, and heat flooded his cheeks as he realized he'd lost track of everything but James. That was sloppy, unprofessional, and they couldn't afford carelessness right now.

Still, he didn't bother to pull away from James, simply turning in the man's embrace to face Barry. James did the same, separating them further but leaving one arm slung around Len's waist.

Of course Barry was smiling at them, halfway between scandalized and delighted. "I really wish I'd caught that on camera," he laughed. "I'd never have to worry about you blackmailing me with my identity again. Which, by the way, I am not okay with you telling James, regardless of how cute you two are."

The description made him scowl, but Len raised his hands in a gesture of surrender. "I didn't say a thing, Scarlet. You know I've never let it slip to Lisa, and she'd kill me if I let anyone else in on the secret first."

"Wasn't exactly hard to figure out." James shrugged. "One of the first things I did when I came to Central was figure out the best ways to stay off the Flash's radar, and that meant knowing your habits. I watched the city from above for a few nights until I realized you always went to STAR Labs, then watched there to track who came and went on a regular basis. You were the only one who was the right height and build. I couldn't follow you, but one day you told the cop you'd meet him at home, so I followed him instead."

Barry stared at him, pained and horrified. "Was it really that simple?"

Len laughed, thoroughly tickled by the whole thing. "Makes my plan to find out your identity seem elaborate and unwieldy, doesn't it? Though I did also need Cisco to make the new cold gun, so really I was hitting two birds with one stone."

The reminder of exactly how Captain Cold had learned the identity of his nemesis made Barry give him a sour look, and Len chuckled again.

"Can we get back to the actual subject?" James demanded. "I didn't risk my relationship and go around the world twice so we could stand here talking about how bad Team Flash are at handling security. Len, where are the Rogues at?"

Suddenly Len was very grateful he'd forced himself to work through the distraction of his doubts, and insisted to Lisa that they be ready. "We found your ex-HYDRA contact who was supplying the plasteel weapons. We've got plenty of knives and two pistols with enough accompanying ammo for three magazines each. He said there was no way to get a sniper rifle in time, unfortunately."

James nodded, all business - except for his right arm still cinched around Len's waist, holding him close. "Anderson’s probably not gonna let us draw him out into the open, anyway. I can't risk getting close to him, there's no way to strip me of metal. I'm also the only one McDonald isn't watching, so I'm the logical choice to go after him while Death Metal is chasing you."

"Can I trust you not to hurt him?" Flash met James' eyes, dead serious.

"I'll bring him in alive and in one piece." James' smile was full of grim promise. "He's not the real threat, just a complication. I do have a few words I wanna say to him about siccing HYDRA on me."

"Barry, I told you. You're dreaming if you think I'm going to let Death Metal waltz off scott free after what he's done to the Rogues." Len gave Flash a hard look.

"He's not going to 'waltz off'," Barry protested. "He'll be going to the metahuman wing in Iron Heights, where he belongs. I know you're mad, but..."

"But nothing." Len growled, finally pulling away from James to close the distance between him and Barry, jabbing a finger at the young hero. "He hurt my sister, he nearly killed my partner, and he sent a nightmare chasing after my..."

He stumbled, once again brought up short by his inability to find a word he was willing to apply to James. He'd been using 'partner' while he and Mick were on the outs, but they'd mended that fence and his true partner would always be Mick. 'Lover' was too sappy, 'boyfriend' was too juvenile, and 'fuckbuddy' was too demeaning for what they had.

"Best guy?" James suggested. When Len glanced at him, there was a small, soft smile curling his lips that seemed out of place when he was geared up as the Winter Soldier. "That's what I woulda called you, before."

Before HYDRA had taken him, before his life had been ripped apart and put back together inside out. Back in the forties, an anachronistic term to match his anachronistic lover. Len smiled. "My best guy. I like it."

Returning his attention to Barry - who was doing a very poor job of hiding another sappy grin - Len forced the smile back into a scowl. "You get the idea. Death Metal is not getting out of this without learning a very pointed lesson."

"Well, the only way we know of to weaken him is to 'hurt' his metal, and from what Heat Wave has been saying, that's pretty much torture." Barry definitely wasn't happy about the fact, but apparently also wasn't stupid enough to refuse to do what was needed. "I'm still not entirely sure how we're going to do that. Plastic knives and guns won't help."

"No, but they'll be useful to take him down once he's distracted by the pain." James pointed at Len's gun, stowed securely in the holster on his thigh. "If we freeze them, that will hurt him and probably slow him down."

"He'll crush the gun," Len objected, scowling. "That's the whole reason I haven't used it against him yet. I'm lucky he didn't destroy it the first time we fought."

"No, he won't, because you won't be the one firing it." James smirked at him. "Flash will. Too fast for Death Metal to stop him."

"Of course!" Barry lit up like Christmas, even as Len nodded grudgingly. "Snart pulls a heist to draw him out - Cold, you should act like you think you've found some way around him, so he doesn't get suspicious of why you're doing a job despite knowing he's going to interrupt. Death Metal won't wonder why you don't have the cold gun with you, for exactly the reason you don't want to bring it. Once he's in and Lookout's been dealt with, he won't have any way to escape. That's when I come in and freeze any metal he's controlling."

"Then I can stab him a few times, maybe shoot out a knee or something. To make sure he stays down after he lets the metal go." Len smiled like he was joking, but he held Barry's gaze with his own. Flash sighed and rubbed his face, but didn't argue. "How are we going to find McDonald, though? Mick burned down the warehouse they were using, and he won't be stupid enough to go bragging at bars again."

"Now that we know how Death Metal is getting in and out, Cisco is certain he can track the energy signal of the portal opening and trace it back to its origin." Barry grinned in triumph. "That's when James comes out of nowhere and takes him down, removing Death Metal's escape route."

"How do we coordinate?" James frowned. "I can't keep breaking into your rooms for an update. Sooner or later our luck will run out and McDonald will be watching."

Especially since Len was absolutely certain that if James slipped into his room in the middle of the night, they'd end up forgetting all about any potential deadline. He'd missed his lover, and had a few plans of his own for their reunion, this time.

"I'm too fast for McDonald to be able to see my surroundings when I'm running, we're certain of that." Barry shrugged. "I'll drop notes off where I know you'll find them immediately. Heat Wave confirmed that Lookout's 'window' is from the outside looking in, not eavesdropping from our perspective. As long as you keep the note close to your chest as you read it, and destroy it right after, he'll never see it. That's how my team's been discussing all this."

"Smart." Len nodded in satisfaction. Finally he had a plan again, something he could analyze and tweak and rely on. It would go to hell, as all plans inevitably did in this new age of unpredictable metahumans, but at least he had one. "That's it, then. I'll set the heist for a week from now - I'd have to bring outside crew in if I do it before Mick and Lisa are back on their feet."

Outside crew would mean more variables, people they couldn't trust to follow the plan. Besides, Mick and Lisa had been involved in this mess with Death Metal from the start. They deserved to see the end of it, too.

"Rory should come with me," James put in unexpectedly. "If Snow plays up his injuries, doesn't let on how fast the gel is healing him, there's no way McDonald would be looking for him, either. That spreads our resources better, and gives me some backup."

"All right, but I'm holding you responsible for any injuries to Lookout." Flash frowned at him. Then his expression softened, and he glanced between James and Len. "I'm, uh, gonna go run a quick patrol. To, er, make sure nobody's around who might see us and start a rumour that the Soldier's back in town."

He was gone before either of them could say anything. James looked baffled. "What the hell is he talking about? There's nobody out here, and how would they even know who I was?"

Turning, Len closed the distance between them again, stepping right up close into the incredible heat James always emitted. Despite his distaste for being too warm, he'd found he could make an exception for his lover. Much like James made an exception for his dislike of ice where Len was concerned, actually.

They shouldn’t work together, but somehow they did. And it was the best thing that had ever happened to Len.

"It's an excuse, James. He's letting us have a moment alone, because he knows we won't see each other again until this is over." Len smirked at him. "He can't risk giving us long, so I suggest we make the most of it."

Between one breath and the next Len found himself pinned against a tree that had been several feet away, James pressed against the length of him. It wasn't the sort of speed Flash could do without trying, but it was inhuman enough to still take Len's breath away.

There was no chance for him to catch it again, either. Not when James slanted his mouth over Len's, kissing him with everything he had. Len slipped a leg between his and rocked up, grinding their hips together, teasing both of them with what they knew they couldn't have.

"Christ, Len." James groaned and pulled away, dropping his head to Len's shoulder as he struggled to even out his breathing. "Didja have to wear the damn parka?"

Len wasn't doing much better, his heart racing, distinctly overheated in the jacket. "I didn't know I was coming to see you. Though it might be just as well, or Flash would come back to find us with our hands in each other's pants."

"What makes you think he won't, anyway?" James growled, dropping his left hand to cup Len's rapidly swelling cock. Through his pants, sadly, but despite what he'd said, Len knew they couldn't go any farther.

"Did you ever figure out that you don't actually need me to get off?" he asked, thrusting against the unyielding metal. "I sure as hell know what I'm going to be doing for what's left of the night."

"Yeah, but it's a lot better with you than my own hand." James leaned in to kiss him again.

Just when Len was starting to wonder if Flash was planning to give them enough time - and feverishly thinking it be worth getting caught in flagrante delicto regardless - a rush of wind and light warned that the hero had returned.

Reluctantly, Len pushed at James' chest to get him to back up. Pulling away from the tree, he straightened his parka as casually as he could, though he didn't bother trying to hide the bulge in his pants. He grinned at Flash, struggling not to let it cross the line from 'smug' to 'sappy'. "Shall we, then?"

"Only if he backs up and stops looking like he's considering where best to bury one of those knives in my body," Flash chuckled, gesturing at James.

Glancing at his lover, Len thought that Flash probably shouldn't be laughing off the threat. That was exactly what James' expression conveyed, and he had a tendency to be literal-minded. "James, play nice. He didn't have to give us any time at all."

Finally James stepped back to put more distance between them, though he muttered a Russian curse word Len recognized from a deal he'd run with the Bratva. It was a very nasty word. "Yeah, all right. Go. I'll see you again when this is all over."

At least this time, Len would know his faith wan't misplaced. James had come back to him. James had never truly been gone in the first place, in fact.

"I never left."

For the first time in a very, very long time, Len was able to believe wholeheartedly.

Now he just had to make absolutely certain that Gary McDonald and Flint Anderson would never have the chance to take it from him again.

Chapter Text

A week after the clandestine meeting in the forest, Len slammed his way into the Rogues' hideout. Lisa jumped to her feet and swung her gold gun around. She looked startled and wary, and relaxed only marginally when she saw it was him.

"What the hell, Lenny? Are you trying to give me a heart attack?" Pouting, she flipped her hair over her shoulder with a toss of her head.

"Sorry." He didn't even try to make the apology sound sincere, and she rolled her eyes. "Suit up, Lis. We've got a five-finger discount sale to hit."

She perked up immediately. "Really? What about..." She pointed upward and circled her finger in the air, to indicate their potential unseen observers.

"Screw 'em," Len declared firmly. "I'm sick and tired of tiptoeing around, hiding from this bastard. Let Death Metal come. We've got the plasteel weapons, what the hell is he going to do?"

"I don't know. Wrap us in metal cables and squeeze us to death? Trap us in a steel box?" She tapped long fingernails against the stock of her gun. "He's still got plenty of options."

"Which is why I've laid a very careful trap, planned only in my own mind." Len let loose with his most smug, satisfied smile. "He can't read thoughts, so as long as you do exactly what I tell you to, everything's going to be fine. Just like always."

"Well, hell. Not like I'm gonna say no to a little payback." She touched one of the glass cuts across her cheek. It was healing incredibly well, thanks to some goop Caitlin Snow had made up for her during one of their visits to Mick, but it was still visible. "Let's lock and load."

"Good job, alpha Rogues," James declared. The tiny earbuds Flash had slipped them the night before were all but invisible, and designed to make sure the sound would go no further than the person who wore it. "You're right on script."

The tight fit of the comm unit made it feel like James had leaned close and was murmuring directly into his ear. Len had to fight a shiver, and wished he dared say something in response. Wished Lisa and Team Flash weren't also in the circuit, so James would at least stop being all business.

Actually, having James dirty talk him some time when he couldn't respond and nobody else could tell would be damn hot. Len tucked the thought away for future use - first, he'd have to teach his lover how to talk dirty at all.

Snatching up one of the plasteel pistols, Len checked that it was fully loaded, then flipped the safety on and slid it into a shoulder holster. Lisa did the same, tucking hers at the small of her back, beneath her leather jacket.

Exchanging gleeful grins, they hit their bikes and headed out. Even though their plan still had far too many gaping holes made up of more wishful thinking than actual planning, it felt incredibly good to be doing something proactive instead of reactive.

Death Metal had been calling the shots for far too long. Now he was going to get a taste of his own medicine.

The Callaway Gallery of Fine Arts was one of the smallest art collections in the city, but it had a few truly talented artists who showed there regularly. Paintings and sculptures by modern artists didn't usually net the kind of cash that famous classics did, but they also tended to have a lot less security. If you had the right buyers lined up, good modern art could still be worth the effort of stealing.

The Rogues had hit this particular gallery less than a year ago, which meant Len already had all the blueprints and information he needed. They hadn't changed their security measures much since the previous heist, probably figuring that it was unlikely lightning would strike twice, so to speak.

"You're right on schedule," James told them as they pulled up behind the museum. "Bravo Rogues and Team Flash standing by. Now we just need the target to show up."

Death Metal would show, Len had no doubt of that. The way Mick had laid the pain on Anderson and McDonald, the assholes’ egos were undoubtedly smarting. Len's one worry had been that Death Metal would decide not to wait for another chance to grandstand and go after them directly, which was part of why he'd pushed to do this job as quickly as he could.

"Alarm disabled," Lisa whispered, flipping the cover of the electrical system back into place.

Smirking, Len crouched by the back door with a set of lockpicks. Seconds later, he heard the satisfying click of the last tumbler falling into place. "We're in. Keep your head down and your eyes peeled."

As they crept into the quiet, darkened gallery, Len found himself straining his ears for any sign that Death Metal had arrived. There was no dedicated night guard here, just a rent-a-cop who patrolled the area by car, so any sounds not made by him and Lisa would be warnings.

So far, nothing, but that wasn't surprising. Death Metal seemed to like to stage his entrance just when Len was making the actual score. He and Lisa wound their way through the back rooms to the show floor, where the best paintings were kept on display. There was minimal lightning, but enough to see their path - and to read the price tags on the art to figure out what would be best to steal.

The irony was that they probably weren't going to make a cent off this job. Even if they did get out with some paintings, he didn't have a buyer lined up. They'd get pennies on the dollar if they were lucky. But this wasn't a heist, not really.

This was straight up payback.

Still, they had to make it look good. Len stopped next to the biggest, gaudiest painting of the lot. The far more tasteful plaque beneath it spouted a bunch of bullshit about the theme of the painting, but it was the number in the corner that interested him. $650k.

"Perfect." Smirking, he gestured for Lisa to join him. She carefully lifted a corner of the frame, allowing him to slip behind to get at the alarm wiring.

A few quick, practiced motions stripped the wires and twisted them together, creating a bypass that would prevent the connection from breaking when they took the painting down. Then he caught the other corner and helped Lisa pull the frame off the wall, lowering it carefully to the floor.

And that, of course, was when light flared and Death Metal stepped literally out of nowhere, appearing in the middle of the showroom floor.

In the time it took Len to release the painting and get his hand on his gun, Lisa had already pulled hers and was firing one-handed. James had warned them that the range and accuracy on the plasteel bullets was pretty much shit, but at this distance, it didn't matter.

Death Metal raised a hand, and thick metal plates spiraled through the air around him, deflecting the bullets. He laughed. "Did you really think your little toys would be enough to stop me? I saw you getting them, you idiot. Just because I can't affect them doesn't mean you can hit me."

"Oh, we'll see about that." Len fired, then ducked behind a large statue. A metal cable whipped through the air where he'd been a moment before, then curved around to try to catch him.

While he was dodging, Lisa opened fire again, moving to one side to try to catch Death Metal between them. Her smile was decidedly unfriendly. "You're going to pay for these little scratches, Anderson. And for hurting Mick, and for chasing James off... so many things, I hardly know where to start."

Death Metal launched one of his thick plates towards her, and she barely got out of the way in time. The plate smashed into the wall, destroying a painting. Len immediately ducked out and fired again, aiming low this time. Very low.

As he'd hoped, Death Metal's whirling shields didn't quite go all the way to the ground. Nor did the heavy armour cover the joints of Anderson's body - such as the delicate ankle. Len's shot hit home, and Death Metal screamed as he collapsed down onto his knee.

"Nice shot," James praised, sounding genuinely impressed. He must have been watching through a link to the security cameras, because Len knew he was nowhere nearby. "Ramon, any time you feel like running that location algorithm would be great."

A faint growl came over the line, probably Cisco's attempt to protest that he was already working, without giving himself away to McDonald. Len chuckled under his breath, and dove out of the way of a couple of cables snapping towards him.

They missed him, but a plate he hadn't seen rose up off the floor and smashed into his chest. Len flew across the narrow gallery and landed against one of the walls. His legs refused to hold him, and he slid down into a heap as he struggled to get his breath back.

"You son of a bitch," Death Metal growled. "I'm going to tear you to pieces. I'll take everything and everyone you love away from you, just like you've done to Gary and me. When you..."

"Monologue, much?" Lisa interrupted, dashing behind Death Metal and firing as she went. "God, don't you ever get tired of the sound of your own voice?"

Roaring, he whirled around, still on one knee, and sent cables snaking after her. She changed direction abruptly and ran back the other way, once again ending up behind him. He spun, but she skipped merrily over the cables and kept circling, too quick for him to follow.

"Oh, I'm sorry," she apologized with a sugary-sweet tone. "Is that mask restricting your vision? Bet all that armour makes it hard to move fast too, huh?"

Crouched by the wall, Len waited until she had Anderson turned away from him. He fired twice, cursing when the bullets pinged off more plates, then holstered the pistol and threw himself across the space between them.

The plates were heavy, but slow enough that he was able to shoulder his way through them without getting knocked aside. Death Metal had partially turned to face him, but Len was on him before he could take any action. Using one of the plasteel knives, he stabbed for the same chink in Death Metal's armour that he'd struck the last time they'd tangled up close and personal.

Anderson howled again in pain as the blade pierced his defenses. Len laughed. "I'm starting to think we don't even need the rest of this plan," he taunted.

"Oh, you think so, do you?" Anderson snarled. "You think you've seen all my tricks?"

Two cables came at him from opposite sides. Len was forced to let go so he could dodge. A plate tried to trip him up, but he managed to get his foot on it and used it to push off, tumbling to the side. Something snaked around his wrist and bit sharply into the flesh. Len hissed and glanced down to see a strand of barbed wire wrapping itself around his arm, piercing his thick jacket.

Heart pounding, he grabbed the end and struggled to unwrap it, careful not to slice his hand open. The wire fought him as if it had a mind of its own - which it did, at the moment. "Lis! Distract him!"

"I'm working on it!" she shouted back, firing three more shots before her gun clicked empty. She ejected the magazine, but before she could grab her extra clip, a bronze statue flew off a nearby pedestal, knocking the gun out of her hand. "Hey!"

Death Metal swung his attention quickly back to Len, and more strands of barbed wire flew around him. Len barely got his hand up in time to prevent a loop of wire from closing completely around his throat. The barbs dug in hard as Death Metal tightened his grip, and Len grunted in pain.

"Almost there," Ramon exclaimed, breaking radio silence. "C'mon, c'mon..."

"Damn it, Ramon, shut your mouth," James snapped. "If McDonald realizes you're tracking his energy trail, he'll pull Death Metal and close the window, and we'll lose them both!"

Lisa cried out as the biggest plate yet dropped down from above her, knocking her sprawling. She tried to scramble to her knees, but it swooped back around and landed squarely on top of her, pushing her flat. Immediately another half dozen plates piled on top of the first, and Len heard her gasp for breath as the weight slowly crushed her.

The distraction allowed him to get the wire off his throat, but then Death Metal turned back to him and the coils tightened again. It felt like they were going to cut right into him, slice him to pieces. "Any... time..." he ground out, struggling against the tight strands.

"Ramon!" James roared, frantic in Len's ear. "Get your fucking ass in gear!"

"Got it!" Ramon declared, and Len could picture him throwing his arms up in victory.

"Flash, time for that pickup!" James' voice was the most terrifying combination of the Winter Soldier's deadly threat and James' furious passion.

"This isn’t over yet," Len hissed at Anderson, fierce satisfaction boiling through him and countering some of the pain. Phase 1 of the plan was complete.

Now all he and Lisa had to do was survive through Phase 2.


James paced the rooftop where he’d set up a connection to let him watch the gallery, counting the seconds until the Flash's arrival. He could tell Len was in pain, recognized the wheezing sounds of suppressed agony far too well. Lisa sounded like the breath was being squeezed right out of her, little whimpers and gasps.

He should be there. Protecting his team. Watching Len's back. Punishing the fucking asshole who thought he could steal away everything good James had managed to build out of the wreckage HYDRA had made of his life.

Grimly, he reminded himself that McDonald was equally responsible, and taking him out was a necessary step in protecting the Rogues. Until they got him out of the picture, Death Metal would always be able to escape.

In the distance a streak of light caught his eyes, zipping along the city streets toward him. James braced himself for the impact. Flash ran up the side of the building, picked James up from sheer momentum, and travelled down the other side.

Being carried by the speedster was one of the most bizarre experiences of James' life. This was the second time, but he didn't think he'd ever get used to the sensation. The worst part was knowing that he had no control, no way of getting away from Flash without hurting himself badly. But it was necessary, so he forced himself to stay relaxed and not fight the hero's hold.

In the space of a single heartbeat, they skidded to a stop outside a derelict gas station in a seedy suburb. Not what James had been expecting as Death Metal's new hideout, but maybe that was the point. Flash streaked off without a word. James had taken two steps toward the building before the hero was back, this time depositing Mick Rory at James' side, and then he was gone again, in case McDonald was keeping an eye on him.

"Gonna be sick," Rory muttered, and he did look rather green.

"Save it," James ordered. "We've got a job to do, and Flash can't move in to help Len and Lisa until we do it. Let's go."

"Don't gotta tell me twice." Rory lifted his heat gun and charged it. "Should I go around the back to cut him off?"

"No point. If he decides to run, he doesn't need to use an exit." James ghosted cautiously up to the building, looking for a good entry point for the two of them. "We need to hit him hard, fast, and silent. Catch him by surprise."

Rory grunted, powering his gun down again, scowling. "What the hell am I even here for, then?"

Flicking a glance at him over his shoulder, James gave the other man a dark smile. "I figured you'd want to deliver your own message of 'thanks' in person. I know I'd sure as hell be pissed off if you guys had taken him down and left me out of it."

"Huh. Whaddya know. You ain't all bad, Jimmy." Rory grinned back at him, and caressed the barrel of the heat gun. "Let's do this."

The front of the store was all boarded up windows, no way to see inside and do a visual recon. The front likely wouldn't be the best route in, regardless. James slipped around to the back, and found the heavy metal door that had been used by employees. There was a keycard access pad, which took him less than a minute to bypass, and the latch clicked as it disengaged.

He eased the door open, listening hard to see if anything was stirring inside because of the sound. Somewhere to the left he could hear McDonald apparently talking to himself, oblivious to the intrusion. "... running his usual rounds - he just stopped an accident on South Fraser. Looks like he has no idea anything’s going on."

"Pride goeth before a fall, Snart." That was Death Metal, his voice full of smug superiority. "So sure of your own smarts, you didn't bother to involve the Flash this time?"
"Make up your damn mind." Len's pained voice came to him in stereo, over the earpiece but also from inside, and James realized he was hearing Death Metal from McDonald's 'window'. "First you taunt me for getting a hero involved, and now for not involving him?"

Gesturing for Rory to follow him, James crept through the doorway. The room beyond was full of empty, rusting shelves - a storage room for the convenience store out front, presumably. It would all be ammo for Death Metal in the event their hideout was compromised again. Probably another reason Anderson had chosen this place.

Peering around a corner, he saw that McDonald was in what had probably been the manager's office, sitting in a battered chair and munching on chips as he watched three windows he'd created. One showed the inside of STAR Labs, where Snow and Ramon were doing their thing. Another was a blur of light that was presumably the Flash running through the city.

And the third showed Death Metal standing triumphantly over his captive Rogues.

Lisa was trapped beneath a big sheet of metal, with more pieces slowly drifting over to stack themselves on top of her, one at a time, gradually smothering her. Len was wrapped up in what looked like barbed wire, and James could see several freely bleeding wounds where the sharp prongs dug into his flesh.

Gritting his teeth, James fiercely suppressed the growl that wanted to burst free. The element of surprise was everything. He might only get one shot to use the power-suppressing handcuffs Team Flash had given him. It took every bit of control he'd learned as the Winter Soldier, but he stayed still, scanning the room for the best approach to sneak up on McDonald.

Then Death Metal smashed a cable into Len, hard enough to make him choke and gasp for air. The blow knocked Len over, sending him hard to the ground on his back, doubtless driving several of the barbs in deep. Len gave a pained cry that sounded like it had been wrenched forcibly from him.

With an angry roar that would put a lion to shame, Rory charged past James and into the room. Cursing, James instinctively tried to grab at him. He missed, but it didn’t matter - the damage was done. McDonald jumped out of his chair, chips spilling everywhere as the bowl hit the floor, his eyes wide.

Rory's fist met McDonald's face in a textbook perfect right hook. James couldn't help but feel a certain satisfaction as the metahuman went flying across the room, slamming into one of the rusted shelves hard enough to knock it over. Lookout's windows flickered and vanished.

"Goddamn it, Rory," James snarled as he came into the room. "That wasn't the plan."

"Fuck your plan," Rory grunted. "You were taking too long. What difference does it make? He's down and out, he ain't going anywhere while he's unconscious."

"It was a beautiful punch," James allowed. "Too bad you knocked him out, there's no point in me getting any licks in to teach him his lesson. Move, I need to get these cuffs on him so we can tell Flash to go in and rescue Len and Lisa."

With one last kick at McDonald's side, Rory reluctantly backed out of the way. James heaved the shelving off McDonald, then leaned down to grab his wrist and pull his arm around to his back.

Just before he snapped the cuff around the meta's wrist, the world suddenly lurched and tilted sideways. James was thrown off balance, landing hard on one knee, but he managed to keep his grip on McDonald. "What the..."

"Shit, he's awake!" Rory exclaimed. He threw himself at McDonald, landing hard on the man's back and driving the breath out of him with an agonized 'oof'. "He's doing that door thing again!"

Snarling, James wrenched McDonald's arm hard enough to break it, and the man screamed. The ground seemed to drop out from under them, and they tumbled down onto a different, marble-tiled floor. James snapped the cuff onto McDonald's injured wrist, but it was too late. They'd already been transported somewhere. And he had a sick feeling he knew where.

Sure enough, he looked up to see a long hall full of paintings, the same view he'd seen through Lookout's window. Death Metal smirked at the three of them, cables writhing at his feet and metal plates whirling around him.

"Well, well." The metal face mask hid Anderson's expression, but there was no mistaking the smug glee in his tone. "Look who decided to join the party after all."

Chapter Text

James swore and rolled off McDonald an instant before Death Metal sent cables snapping toward him. He dodged, barely, and scrambled to take cover behind a statue. Death Metal must have realized they'd been communicating somehow, because the earbud crackled and screamed in his ear as the meta destroyed it. With no way to let Flash know Phase 3 was ready to start, the Rogues were very much on their own.

And the Rogues were in deep, deep shit.

Both James and Rory were wearing and carrying metal, since the whole fucking point had been that they wouldn't be facing Death Metal. James couldn't rid himself of it if he'd wanted to.

"Burn the shield plates!" he shouted at Rory. Hurting Death Metal as quickly as possible was their one chance of getting out of this.

"With pleasure," Rory snarled, and turned the heat gun on full blast, aimed at Death Metal.

"Oh, I think not." Death Metal made a yanking gesture, and the heat gun flew out of Rory's hand to clatter onto the ground somewhere at the far end of the gallery. "I've had quite enough of that, thank you."

Another gesture, and Rory's fireman's jacket jerked sideways by the heavy-duty metal zipper, sweeping the big man off his feet. He crashed into a large modern art sculpture made of what looked like rebar. The statue came to life and wrapped itself around Rory, trapping him in a cage as effective as any jail cell. One bar curled around his throat, cutting off his outraged bellow.

Ducking out from behind his statue, James fired rapidly. Unfortunately, even his legendary aim wasn't good enough to get the shots through the slender gaps in the whirling shields and find the weak points in Death Metal's armour. With a grating laugh, the metahuman wrenched the pistol from James' grasp and tossed it after Rory’s.

James dove for Lisa's plasteel gun, lying on the floor near her. Halfway across the distance, his metal arm jerked in the socket, and agony tore through his shoulder. Death Metal's power yanked him up to the ceiling, leaving him dangling from his useless arm. Then it compressed, squeezing around the metal like a giant hand, once again crushing the mechanisms inside.

James screamed as the circuits connecting to his nerves shorted out, sending flaring pain signals firing on all frequencies. It was even worse than the last time the bastard had done this, as bad as anything HYDRA had ever done to him.

Now all four Rogues were trapped and helpless. Rory was grunting and kicking at the bars of his cage, but the sculpture wasn't budging. Lisa's breaths were faint and wheezing, and she’d stopped scrabbling at the ground to try to get free. Len's hands were tangled in the wire, bleeding freely as he struggled to keep it away from his face and throat. James was the only one of them at all mobile, and he could barely think through the pain.

He had no way of contacting Flash, and no fucking clue what to do next. His one, single job was to protect Len, protect his team, and James was failing utterly.

"He broke my arm!" McDonald whined, staggering out from behind a pedestal where he'd taken cover from the gunfire. "Again, the freaky bastard. And I can't get this damn cuff off, it's blocking my powers."

"Yeah, well, they shot me in the fucking ankle, so join the club," Anderson snapped. He was upright now, balanced on one leg and holding the other gingerly off the ground. He looked around, and his scowl changed to a smirk. "But we finally have them exactly where we wanted them."

"We're killing them this time, right? Not leaving them for the cops and having them escape?" McDonald cradled his injured arm, glaring poison up at James.

Closing his eyes, James made himself forget about the smug gloating and clumsy threats. Forced himself to ignore the sounds of Len and the others in pain. Buried himself as deep in the Winter Soldier as he dared, and reached desperately for the clarity of thought that came with an utter lack of emotional attachment.

He had a single plasteel knife, having loaned all the others to Len and Lisa. One shot, and no way to take it. If he couldn't breach the shields and armour with a bullet, he sure as hell wouldn't be able to with a knife. There was no straight shot.

So what about a shot that wasn't straight?

Captain America bounced his shield around the battlefield like a ping pong ball, his Enhancements letting him calculate angles and trajectories almost as fast as a computer. James' serum hadn't been nearly as powerful as Steve's, but he did have some of the same tactical ability.

Opening his eyes, James watched the shifting metal plates, searching for the pattern in the movement. Len was shouting in agony as Death Metal tightened the wire, and ignoring it was the single most difficult thing James had ever done.

But the Winter Soldier did not waver, and he did not fail.

Pulling the knife from its sheath, James flung it with everything he had. It flew arrow-straight to the first shield, where it ricocheted off the solid surface into the second. That deflected it up at just the right angle to pass beneath the next plate, and into Death Metal's space.

It had lost a lot of momentum, but it didn't need to pierce the armour. It went straight through an eyehole, and buried itself in Death Metal's eye.

Death Metal screamed and clawed at his face, jarring the knife free and doing more damage as it came out. Blood oozed over the mask like macabre tears, and all the metal in the air collapsed to the marble floor with a resounding clang.

Including James' arm. He tumbled to the ground in a heap, gears grinding as they attempted to respond to his instinctive effort to catch himself. That caused more flares of agony, like acid rushing through his shoulder and up his spine into his skull. James shuddered and groaned, trying and failing to rise despite the weight of the damaged arm.

"You son of a bitch!" Death Metal screamed, sounding crazed. "I'm going to rip that arm to pieces, and listen to you scream the whole time!"

"Over my dead body," Len snarled, and rose from the tangle of barbed wire with his pistol up. He fired twice, pumping both bullets into Death Metal's throat.

The metahuman gurgled horribly, trying to scream through a shredded larynx as blood poured over his chestplate. He collapsed, the motion ponderous and ungainly in the heavy armour, and the boom as he struck the ground made the whole building shake.

In the corner, forgotten by Len in his focus on the bigger threat, McDonald had grabbed Lisa's pistol and was bringing it to bear. James tried to shout a warning, but all that came out was "Len!" and that only drew his lover's attention to him.

He saw McDonald's finger tighten on the trigger, knew the aim was true, and screamed in denial of what he was about to lose.

Lighting blasted into the room, almost too fast to register. McDonald cried out as the gun was ripped from his hands. The other half of the power-suppressing cuffs was suddenly in place, chaining his arms behind his back. He went sprawling to the floor, feet tied as well.

The streak resolved itself into the Flash, standing in the middle of the room looking around in horror. He held the cold gun, ready to do his part of the plan, but it was entirely redundant now. Death Metal had stopped moving, and McDonald was no longer a threat.

"What the hell happened here?" Flash demanded, eyes wide and accusatory as he turned to Len. "You promised you weren't going to kill him, Snart."

"Don't give me that self-righteous look," Len snarled, limping toward Lisa as fast as he could. "There was no other choice. Was I supposed to stand there and let him kill my crew? My family?"

Somehow James found the energy to push himself to his hands and knees, and he crawled the short distance to Lisa as well. His left arm was beyond repair, let alone use, but he still had his own Enhanced strength. He threw aside the first plate, then Len and Flash started working together to help him move the rest. When they were down to the last, giant sheet of metal, James heaved it off Lisa with an effort that made his whole body scream a protest.

She gasped desperately for air, then moaned. James collapsed again next to her, trembling and unable to go any further. "I can't get Rory," he admitted, his voice hoarse.

"I got it," Flash assured them. He handed the cold gun back to Len, then zipped over to Rory's cage and started vibrating the metal to break it.

Clutching the weapon to his chest like a security blanket, Len sank to his knees next to James and Lisa. He was breathing hard too, and the look in his eyes was wild with worry and pain. "Lis? Talk to me."

"I'll live," she croaked, waving a hand vaguely. "I think I might be permanently flattened, but I'll live. Not a treatment I'd recommend for getting thinner, gotta say."

Len laughed, shoulders slumping as some of the tension left him. He reached out and caught James' right hand in his, thumb stroking over his knuckles. "How's my best guy?"

Tickled by the fact that Len had actually used the term, James dredged up a thin smile from somewhere. "Guess Ramon's gonna have a chance to do those alterations on my arm after all." This time, he thought he might actually trust the STAR Labs engineer and doctor enough to let them do it without being on a hair trigger.

"All right, you're off the hook," Flash declared as he came to stand near them. Rory was stomping off to the far end of the gallery, searching for his heat gun. Flash looked resigned. "Cisco tapped into the security videos, and they back up your story. You didn't have any choice but to kill Death Metal. It's my fault for not realizing sooner that your comms had cut out and that meant you were in trouble. As for Lookout..."

They all turned to McDonald. The sleazebag was trying to inch his way to the door, as if he thought he could somehow escape while they weren't paying attention to him. When he saw they were looking, he started whining instead. "That asshole broke my arm. Twice!"

"You and your pal broke his arm," Len pointed out, his voice hard. "Twice. Not to mention handing him over to HYDRA for torture."

"Yeah, I'm having a hard time feeling sorry for you, Gary." Flash shook his head. "Be grateful you didn't force them to put you down, too. You're going straight to the police. There's a very nice cell ready for you in the metahuman wing of Iron Heights."

"Speaking of the cops, why aren't they here?" Len asked, brow furrowed. "The alarm would have gone off when Death Metal destroyed the first painting. The cops should have arrived no more than five minutes later."

"Cisco diverted the alarm so it never reached the police," Flash said. "The last thing this situation needed was a bunch of cops wearing all kinds of metal gear and weapons. As soon as you four are out of here, we'll trigger the alarm again."

"Nice of you to let us go." Len's voice was very dry. "Don't think we owe you anything for that." He let go of James and shifted to get an arm around Lisa, helping her to carefully sit up, mindful of the broken ribs she undoubtedly had.

Rory had found his gun and returned. To James' surprise, the big man immediately grabbed James' metal arm and helped haul him to his feet, then slung the arm over his shoulder. When he saw James looking sideways at him, he grunted. "You made sure I got in on hunting McDonald."

"You know, some people don't count every action in terms of debts and favours owed," Flash said, rolling his eyes. "If you head for STAR Labs, Caitlin can treat you all while Cisco works on James' arm. And no, you don't owe us for that, either."

"Damn straight, we don't," Lisa wheezed as she shuffled to her feet with Len's assistance. "None of us would be injured in the first place if you'd done your hero job and put Death metal away weeks ago."

"Somehow, I don't quite see it that way." Flash had a wry tilt to his lips that he didn't quite stop from being a smile. "Considering the two of them were specifically hunting the Rogues because of your own actions."

"Less talk, more moving," Rory grumbled. "This asshole is heavy."

Closing his eyes, James let Rory lead him and concentrated on not letting the agony overwhelm him, putting one foot in front of the other. He wasn't sure he would ever like the man, but after all this, he did trust Rory not to stab him in the back while he was vulnerable.

Trust. Once again, it all came down to trust.

None of the Rogues were people that Bucky Barnes would ever have willingly associated with, let alone come to care for, but that didn't matter to James. They were his family. Not by blood in the usual sense, but in the sense that they'd spilled blood together and for each other, and would do so again without hesitation. Even Rory.

They were alive, they were safe, and they were his.

James counted that as a definitive victory.

Chapter Text

The soft, constant hum of computers and electronics in STAR Labs had become familiar to Len in the week since the final battle with Death Metal. He and James had been in and out every day for various tests and fittings on the new arm Cisco was building for James. The damage this time had been so great that Cisco had simply removed the entire arm and rebuilt it from scratch, using the old one as a template. It was taking a lot longer than the first repair job had.

Len had come along every time. James insisted that he was comfortable enough with Team Flash now that he didn't necessarily need backup, but Len ignored him.

The truth was, it wasn't James' hair-trigger paranoia that Len was there to ease - it was his own. Len damn well wanted to see exactly what Cisco was putting in there. He might not understand everything the engineer was doing, but he could follow the basics well enough to get an idea.

"Okay, try it out," Cisco said, frowning fiercely at the screen as he typed a command into the interface.

James lifted his left arm and flexed the hand a few times, an equally intense look of concentration on his face. "Better. Feels smoother, and faster. Did you add more tactile sensors?"

"A few, but mostly I just recalibrated the ones already built in there." Cisco gave him a triumphant, if somewhat weary, grin. "Caitlin and I were up all night perfecting the algorithm. It should be about as good as the real thing, at least in the fingers."

"You're leaning to the right," Len noted, curious. "I mean, you have been all week, compensating for the weight that's not there, but I thought if anything you'd be listing left once the arm was back."

"This version isn't nearly as heavy," Cisco confirmed. "Dunno when the last time they did a full refit was, but there's been quite a few lightweight alloys invented recently, mostly thanks to Stark's Iron Man advancements."

"It's going to throw me off until I get adjusted to the change in balance," James protested, frowning at Cisco. "That's why HYDRA never updated it much."

"Yeah, but lighter means less hydraulics inside that could get gummed up or damaged," Cisco pointed out. "Plus, if it is damaged, you should be strong enough to carry this one yourself, not need someone to help you move."

James appeared to weigh the pros and cons in his mind, and finally nodded. "Okay, that's worth it. I’ll just have to stay on the DL until I rebalance."

"I think the Rogues have earned a little vacation, anyway," Len put in. "Lisa's ribs are going to take a while to heal, and that HYDRA goop got Mick functional in record time, but he's not 100%. Besides, I'm damn well sick of being forced to jump into jobs with little or no planning at all."

"Or you could take a permanent vacation and, you know, stop breaking the law," Cisco muttered, probably not intended to be loud enough for Len to hear it.

To Len's surprise, it was James who replied, "Where would be the fun in that?"

It was the first real confirmation that the former HYDRA assassin wasn't simply going along with the crimes because it was what the Rogues were doing and he wanted to belong, but because he actually wanted to be doing it with them. Len's chest felt tight, and he grinned at James. "Now you're getting the idea."

"I think you're about good to go." Cisco pushed his chair away from the computer, locked his hands together, and stretched them up above his head. Len could hear the crackle as his spine realigned. "Feel free to come back for adjustments any time you need them. I think I've learned more from working on that arm than a year at MIT could teach me. Sure you don't want the star back? It looks kinda bare."

It was definitely odd to see the expanse of gleaming metal without the indelible red star on the shoulder, but Len understood why his lover had requested it be omitted from the new version. HYDRA had stamped that star on him as a brand of ownership, and it was a symbol of everything they'd done to him.

"These days, having a metal arm is noteworthy, but not unique. A metal arm with a star on it is another story,” James said, giving Cisco a less personal explanation. “Central may actually be the safest place for me right now - all my training says staying in a location where I was already identified once is a damn stupid thing to do, which means it's the last thing HYDRA will expect from me. The longer I can keep from being spotted again, the better."

That was something Len had worried about, that HYDRA would scour the city to find their missing asset and James would be forced to leave after all. Len had already privately decided he would go with his lover if that happened, loath though he was to leave the home base he'd set up here. But James’ logic was sound, and knowing the man was as safe as he could be took a huge weight off Len's shoulders.

"If we ever come up with a symbol for the Rogues, you can always put that there, instead." Len smirked and pushed off the wall he'd been leaning against, sauntering over to sling an arm around James' waist.

"I ain't putting a snowflake there, so get that idea right outta your head." James rolled his eyes, but slipped his arm around Len in turn as he stood from the table.

Len chuckled, because that had indeed been his next suggestion. "Well, hickies don't stay more than a few seconds, so how else am I supposed to make sure the world knows you’re taken?"

"Waaaay TMI." Cisco clapped his hands over his ears and gave them a scandalized look. "Get out of here before you start discussing things that are going to require me to bleach my brain."

"Barry thinks we're cute." Len arched an eyebrow at him in an over-the-top disapproving look. "Don't tell me you're gaybashing, Cisco?"

"What? No!" Cisco looked horrified by the mock-accusation. "I just have no interest in the intimate details of the sex lives of the Rogues!"

"Not even Lisa's?" James succeeded in sounding so bland, Len could almost believe it was an innocent question and not deliberate teasing. Except for the hint of shit-eating humour in his lover's eyes, that Len had come to know so well.

Cisco sputtered, apparently beyond words. Len laughed outright, and tugged for James to follow him to the exit. James was chuckling as well as they made their way to the elevator, and it was clear his mood had been much improved by finally having his arm back.

He smirked at Len as the elevator made its way through the building to the lobby. "So, if we're not running any heists for a while, you got plans for this evening?"

The heat in his eyes promised James had some plans of his own, and Len shivered in response. Between Len's injuries from the barbed wire and James sulking over the loss of his arm, 'sleeping together' had been a literal rather than figurative term lately. There'd been a few blowjobs and jerking off here and there, but nothing serious. It looked like that was about to change.

Finally. Len had been dying for his lover's touch since Flash had interrupted them that night in the glade. And yes, especially for the chilled caress of those metal fingers. Cisco had damn well better not have removed James' ability to trick the coolant system into activating.

"Oh, I have a few thoughts for how to spend the time," he replied, lowering his voice to the husky purr that James had once admitted drove him crazy. Sure enough, the banked fire in the other man's eyes flared, and if the elevator hadn't dinged to a stop right then, Len thought he might have found himself pinned against the wall in the next second.

Not that he'd have complained, if that were the case.

In fact, they still could, if they wanted to. Len's lips curved in a wicked smirk, as he saw the same thoughts running through James' head. "Are we going to give Team Flash a show?"

"Maybe some other time. I got a few ideas saved up I can't do here."

If Len's purr was a turn-on for James, that low, husky growl was an absolute destroyer for Len. James only sounded like that when he was two seconds from ripping Len's clothes off and pounding him into the nearest surface, and it utterly wrecked Len every time.

To his disappointment, this time James kept control of his impulses, and simply grabbed his hand to tow him to the parking lot. They piled onto Len's bike, and James wrapped his arms securely around Len's waist instead of holding his hips the way he'd done before they became lovers.

A little too securely. Len groaned as James deliberately dropped his hand to cup Len's cock through his jeans. He pressed the heel of his hand against the package, making Len squirm at the delicious pressure as his cock started to swell. "Did those other ideas involve the bike, then?"

"Nah." James sounded smug, and gave a little extra squeeze. "This is just me enjoying having a free hand again. My plans are at home."

With a promise like that, Len very much wished he was able to borrow McDonald's teleportation ability. The best he could do was kick the engine over and peel out of the lot, tearing up the streets as fast as he dared.

Len loved riding with James, having the man's solid, muscular body pressed against his back, hips grinding together. He was glad James hadn't yet asked for a bike of his own, and suspected it might be because James enjoyed riding double as much as Len did.

He was certainly taking great advantage of the position now, the bastard. James stroked and squeezed, encouraging Len's cock to full, aching hardness. Arousal made him hyper aware of the powerful vibration of the engine between his thighs, and of the equally powerful potential of the man who would shortly be fucking Len into some surface or another.

At least, that had better feature in James' plans for the night, or Len would pitch a fit that would do a diva proud.

They made it home in record time, and Len's breathing was fast as he turned off the bike. He ditched his helmet, twisted around, and caught James in a fierce kiss. "The parking lot is pretty secluded at this time of day," he murmured against his lover's mouth, working his hand between them to cup James' dick in turn.

James was gratifyingly hard, a solid bar of iron tenting his fly, no less affected by the playful teasing than Len had been. Even so, the man simply bit Len on the lip and pulled away, off the bike and out of reach. "Nuh-uh. Upstairs."

Now thoroughly curious what the hell James was planning, Len slid off the bike as well and followed him up. The three flights to his apartment had never felt so long, though he at least had a nice view of James' taut ass ahead of him while he climbed.

The moment they were inside, James had him pressed up against the door, moulded together from chest to hips as James kissed him breathless. Len responded just as eagerly, arching up against the body pinning him down, grinding their cocks together. "Fuck, yes, James. Do it now! I need you."

In answer James ripped Len's t-shirt off him, thin cotton tearing like tissue. Another thing Len had missed, which James wouldn't have been able to do with only the one hand. Len closed his eyes, tipping his head back as shivers ran down his spine. "Yesss."

As he'd hoped, the posture made James shift his mouth down to nip and suck at the curve of Len's neck. A particularly hard bite made Len groan, and he tangled the fingers of one hand tight in James' hair to hold him in place.

To his surprise, James then fumbled with Len's fly, opening it the usual way instead of destroying the denim. Len couldn't stop himself from making a disappointed sound. "Not going to tear those, too?"

"They're your last pair of pants," James muttered against his throat. "Unless you're planning to go to the store as Captain Cold to get more."

Amused by the fact that his lover was tracking his wardrobe, Len chuckled. It turned into a groan as James got his fly open at last and shoved his metal hand inside.

The fingers were chilled, reassuring Len that Cisco hadn't mistaken that feature for a bug. He cried out and writhed as the cold metal digits stroked him, slow and loose, teasing more than pleasuring. "Harder, damn it."

"Quit trying to provoke me into going too fast," James growled, nipping harder at Len's shoulder in punishment. "I been dreaming about this all fucking week, and now I've finally got my arm so we can do it right."

"Is that what was holding you back?" Len had thought James wasn't initiating anything further because he hadn't been in the mood, not because he believed he was incapable. "You do realize there are other positions, that wouldn't require you to have both arms for support?"

"Now you tell me this?" James groaned, and bit him again. Len laughed, even as he cursed himself for forgetting how little James knew about this sort of thing. Not to mention how unaccustomed he was to being allowed to think for himself, outside the box of his stated parameters and objectives.

If the man hadn't even figured out masturbation without a hint from Len, of course he wouldn't have considered the idea of alternate positions.

To his immense disappointment, James withdrew his hand and backed away, putting distance between them. Those dark blue eyes were burning with need and arousal as he regarded Len. "Go strip down and lie on the bed, and close your eyes," he ordered. "Don't open them until I tell you."

"Oh, really? Do we need a safe word?" Len teased. James gave him a blank look, and he winced. Two seconds after reminding himself not to make assumptions where James and sex were concerned, and here he was doing it again. "Verbal equivalent of tapping out, a pre-arranged word that means the other person stops whatever they're doing."

"Why would we need that?" James' brow furrowed in that adorably confused way he had when he was totally out of his depth.

Len smirked at him. "Well, for example, if one of us was tied to the bed, so the other could ravish him at their leisure."

The suggestion drew an interested and thoughtful expression from James, and Len reconsidered what he'd expected to be a boundary. Given what HYDRA had done to the man, Len had figured the thought of being tied up and helpless wouldn’t appealing.

Then again, there was pretty much nothing Len could use that would hold James captive if he really wanted to get free. And, with this man and only this man, Len thought he might even enjoy being the one who was restrained. God knew he'd loved the breathplay, and being pinned by James' solid weight might as well be the same as being tied up.

"Something to explore another time, maybe." Len ran his hands up James' chest, enjoying the shape of it. "Since you said you already had plans."

"Another night," James agreed, though there was a hint of reluctance in the words. "Now go. I meant it about not opening your eyes."

Thoroughly intrigued, Len headed for the bedroom. He finished shucking out of his clothes, and sprawled himself over the bed, face up. As much as he loved having James fist him in that metal hand as the man fucked him from behind, tonight Len wanted to be able to see his lover's face.

Though he strained to hear footsteps, James was simply too much a ghost for Len to be able to pinpoint him by sound. When he spoke from the doorway, Len barely managed not to jump. "Good man. Keep 'em closed. You’ll know when you can look."

"How is it you can come up with whatever this is, and the breath control thing, but not think about alternative positions?"

The bed dipped as James settled onto it at Len's side, and there was a soft click of an object being set on the nightstand. "This is something you suggested once, that I recorded in the book but we never did. I think, when I wrote down the idea about grabbing your throat, I'd made a lot more progress in shaking free of HYDRA's constraints on my mind. Had more practice in bed with you, too. It's only been a few weeks since they wiped me."

"So you'll get more inventive as time goes by? Good to know." Len shivered at the thought.

Then he shivered for real, and yelped in the bargain, as something cold and wet trailed over his chest. It wasn't James' hand, too solid and smooth for that, and his fingers wouldn't leave a trail of damp cold in their wake.

Despite himself, Len's eyes flew open, and he stared in disbelief. James held an ice cube in his right hand, and there was a bowl with more by the side of the bed. "Ice?" he exclaimed, shocked. Of all the things he'd never thought his lover would want to do or try, this topped the list.

James hesitated, and his expression turned from heated to worried. "Should I not have?" He sounded uncertain. "The book said you wanted to, the first night."

"And you nearly tore my throat out for suggesting it," Len pointed out, his voice shaky with nerves as much as lust. "You hate ice."

"This is different." James met his gaze squarely, and the depth of devotion in his eyes took Len's breath away. "You'd never use it to hurt me. I trust you. And maybe now when I see it, I'll think of you, of this, and it won't bother me anymore."

The spot where James had paused with the cube was prickling with cold, and icy melt water ran down Len's side. He groaned and arched up, more than willing to surrender to his lover's frozen caress. "Just on me?" he asked, the words coming out on a gasp as James moved the cube to circle his nipple. "Or can I touch you with it?"

"You can use it on me." The speed of the answer was incredibly gratifying, and backed up James' assertion that he trusted Len completely. "I wanna understand what you get out of it, if I can."

"Well, then." Much as he didn't want to abandon that icy touch, Len pushed himself up to sit and reached for his own cube from the bowl. "Why don't you lay back, and I'll show you?"

Obligingly James settled onto his back, half reclined against the pillows so he could watch what Len was doing. When Len threw a leg over his and straddled his lover's hips, James groaned and thumped his head against the wall a few times. "This is what you meant, about not needing my arm, isn't it? Christ, why didn’t I think of this?"

Smirking, Len rubbed his ass over the solid heat of James' erection, teasing both of them. "I suppose there's an upside. I do so enjoy showing you new ways to find pleasure."

With the intent of doing just that, Len touched his ice cube to James’ neck, travelling down across his collarbone. The ice had been in Len's hand long enough to start to melt, leaving the same chilly trail behind that James had teased Len with. James' breath caught, and his hands tightened on Len's hips. It was impossible to tell if the reaction was positive or negative. Probably both.

"Relax," Len purred, tweaking a nipple with his free hand. "It's all about the intensity of the sensation. How your body reacts. Heart pumping, adrenaline racing, hyper-aware of every touch. Do you feel it?"

"Yes." James' voice was unsteady, and it was clear he was struggling with himself. "Keep talking to me."

Len had already planned to, figuring it was a good idea to keep James as grounded as possible, but the request was encouraging. "Let yourself be aware of it. Of how warm it makes other things feel in comparison." Leaning over, he followed the path of the cube with his mouth, lapping up the chill trail and allowing the heat of his breath to warm the skin again.

James shuddered and made a noise too guttural to be called a groan, but too full of pleasure to qualify as a growl. His hands rose from Len's hips to run up and down his back, the cool metal of one and ice cube in the other raising goosebumps everywhere they passed.

"Fuck, you are sexy as hell like this," Len declared, raking his gaze over every inch he could see with possessive, passionate appreciation. "I want to lick you up and swallow you down. Make you scream, make you writhe, make you beg for more."

"Y'mean the way I do to you?" The response was breathless, and the heat in James' eyes said Len's filthy promises were having the intended effect.

"Yes, exactly the way you do to me." James had made a liar out of Len’s declaration that he didn't scream, several times. He was pretty sure he'd pleaded for more at least once, too. This time, Len was damn well going to focus on wringing a reaction out of him, for a change.

With that in mind he slid down on the bed, straddling James' legs instead of his hips and giving himself access to that gorgeous cock. James' erection hung heavy against his belly, rock solid and dark with trapped blood, a testament to Len's power over this incredible man. He slid the ice cube down across James' pelvis, skirting just to one side of his cock.

The move made James hiss, body jerking as he instinctively tried to avoid the cold touch in sensitive places. Len didn't let him escape, curling his hand around the shaft with the ice pressed between his palm and the heated flesh.

"Shit that's freezing," James exclaimed, his cock twitching in Len's hand. It started to soften, losing some of the tense rigidity. "That's supposed to feel good?"

"It's all about the contrast," Len reminded him, grinning as he glanced up to meet James' gaze. "It focuses your attention, slows things down and makes the buildup more powerful. You'll see."

With a wicked smirk, he released James' cock and popped the remainder of the ice cube into his mouth. Then he leaned down and ran his cool tongue across the glans, reveling in the hint of bitter salt from the droplet at the slit. As James was still gasping in reaction to that, Len sucked that beautiful cock into his mouth, taking it as deep as he could, using his tongue to rub the cube over the head and sides.

Shouting, James’ back arched up off the bed, not quite hard enough to dislodge Len. His hands were fisted in the sheets now, clinging for dear life as he rode out the frigid stimulation.

The more his cock softened in response to the cold, the more Len was able to take inside, until his lips met the root where it joined James' body. Normally he couldn't get anywhere near this close to swallowing James whole - his lover was easily aroused, so it was difficult to catch him in a half-hard state, and it didn't tend to last long.

He licked and sucked and even nibbled, all the while continuing to swirl the ice around in his mouth. He dropped his right hand, still chilled from holding the cube, to tug and tease at James' balls. All the while James was moaning, caught between conflicting sensations and unable to decide what his reaction should be.

Inevitably the cube melted, and Len allowed the icy trickle of water to escape to drip over James' balls. Once it was gone, Len's mouth began to gradually warm up again, heated breath countering the chill.

Slowly James' cock rose to full hardness again, flushing hot with blood as it stiffened in Len's mouth. He was forced to let more and more of it slip from between his lips, but kept up the assault with his tongue on the head. Soon James was panting, desperate for air as he shuddered beneath the rush of pleasure.

As Len knew from experience, his lover would be reeling, the heat feeling even better than usual against cooled skin. His own cock throbbed in response at the thought, still achingly hard from James' earlier teasing. With great enjoyment, Len started to bob his head, sucking hard all the while, giving as much as he could to this man who had brought so much impossible pleasure into his life.

Just when he felt James' balls start to draw up in preparation for the explosion, James caught Len by the shoulders and pulled him away. Len groaned a protest as he was forced to release that lovely dick, the head escaping his lips with a soft pop. "Why?" he demanded, scowling up at James.

The other man was half wild with lust, his eyes heavy-lidded and burning with need as he pulled Len back up over him, so their bodies aligned once again. "As fucking amazing as that was, I've been dreaming about coming inside you all goddamn week. I told you, I'm not letting you rush me into ending things too fast."

Since Len had been dreaming about pretty much the same thing, he decided he wasn't going to argue any further. "Like this?" he asked, wriggling his hips to rub their cocks together. "Me on top?"

"Might as well try it out, since we're here." James grinned at him, an expression no longer so rare in the bedroom, and stretched an arm out to the bed table to grab the lube.

Since James had started sleeping at his place, Len had taken to leaving the bottle right out in the open, so they wouldn't have to fumble around for it. He was grateful for it now, because he couldn't remember ever being so impatient to have a man's cock inside him.

Except when James brought his hand around to tease at Len's ass, it wasn't the slickness of lube that slid his metal fingers between the cheeks. Len bit back a yelp as icy water eased the friction instead, and James trailed another ice cube over the sensitive flesh. He shivered and moaned as the hard cube pressed against his taint, then lost his breath entirely as James brushed it over his balls.

"Yeah, I thought you might like that." James sounded entirely too smug, and there was that shit-eating gleam in his eyes again. "Gotta say, I'm starting to see the appeal. At least, I sure as hell enjoy that look on your face."

"There's no... look..." Len tried to defend his dignity, but the way his voice shook rendered the protest pretty much invalid. He was utterly wrecked and they both knew it.

And James was only getting started. He brought the cube back to Len's hole and pushed, gently but insistently, against the tight ring of muscle. The heat of Len's body had melted it enough to round off the edges and slick the sides, and it slipped in without much effort.

He could feel it inside him, a spot of cold where no cold should ever reach. With James in his bed it had been a long time since Len had bothered to do any solo play, and as glorious as his lover's chilled fingers were, they weren't quite the same.

Ice had been the first object he'd ever tried putting inside himself - no evidence for his father to potentially find - and he'd been hooked from the start. Thirty years later, it still brought back the same rush of naughty pleasure and fierce defiance of what was 'normal'.

Even better when James’ fingers chased it inside, chill metal pushing the ice deeper and thrusting slowly in and out, working him open. Len was vaguely aware that he had collapsed against the other man’s chest, his focus entirely on the delicious things happening to his ass. He hissed a protest when James pulled his hand away, then groaned as a hard, thick cock pushed at his entrance instead.

Gripping Len's hips, James nudged him back to awareness. "Pretty sure you've gotta do at least some of the work in this position. Or don't you want me in there?"

"Fuck yes, I do." With great effort Len pushed himself up, hands braced on James' chiseled chest. James must have added actual lube to the mix at some point, because when Len eased himself back it wasn't too difficult to take James inside him.

The sting of the stretch felt good, but not half as good as when the head of James' cock met the cube and pushed it higher still. James shuddered, his hands tightening on Len's hips, and his cock twitched hard. "Shit, that's still really cold."

With a breathless laugh, Len dropped down until their groins were pressed together, James inside him as deep as he could go. It was different from this angle, felt sharper and fuller. He lifted himself a few inches, then let himself fall. Then he did it again, and again, each motion easier and smoother, picking up speed until he was driving himself onto James' dick in a frantic rhythm.

Every few thrusts the ice would shift, drawing his awareness back to it, and he'd shiver. Sometimes James would shiver, too, his head thrown back with an expression that was almost transcendent.

Reaching out, Len scooped up another piece of ice, then slipped it between his lips as he leaned over to kiss James. His lover opened eagerly into the embrace, letting Len push the cube into his mouth instead, and chase after it with his chilled tongue. They passed the ice back and forth a few times, dueling over possession as it melted away, until finally their tongues met and tangled properly.

Len had forgotten how much effort this position required from the person on top. Far too soon his thighs were trembling from the strain rather than the cold, and he swore as his pace started to slow despite himself.

Just as he was about to reluctantly suggest they flip over, James appeared to realize what the problem was. He shifted his hands so he was half cupping Len's ass, and raised him up before letting him slam back down. Laughing again in delight, Len relaxed and let the work fall to his best guy, who continued to move him with no apparent effort.

Now that he controlled the pace, James thrust his hips up each time he dropped Len, driving into him with focused intensity. The ice inside was gone now, melted into nothing, and the heat that built between them was inescapable. Trapped between their bodies, Len's cock rubbed across James' washboard abs with every thrust, drawing him higher and higher into ecstasy.

Until finally it all shattered around him, orgasm hitting him hard as he fell apart in James' arms. The rush was intense, and he shuddered and moaned as his cock throbbed and it felt like he was losing his mind from pleasure.

James wasn't there yet, so Len draped himself across that incredible chest and enjoyed the rest of the ride. The pace became rougher and less steady as James neared the peak, and when he hit it, he shouted loud enough to wake the neighbours. His cock pulsed inside Len, semen hot enough to feel against his chilled inner walls.

Gasping, James rolled them over so they were on their sides, arms wrapped around each other. They clung for a long moment, letting themselves coast down from the high of orgasm in the safe space they created between them.

Remembering the first time, when they'd barely touched after and Len had thought he didn’t enjoy continuing contact after sex, he had to laugh at himself. Of course he'd had no interest in cuddling up to the strangers he'd fucked before James, people he'd chosen for exactly the reason that they meant nothing to him beyond the release of the moment.

With James, it was different. Somehow the man's heat had crept into Len, settled into his bones until he felt bereft when he didn't have James wrapped around him. James had stolen his heart as skillfully as any heist Len had ever pulled off, and the man hadn't even been trying.

Sighing, Len let his head rest against James' right shoulder, listening to the rapid, steady thump of his heartbeat. "You've spoiled me, you know."

"Oh? How so?" James stroked his metal hand up and down Len's back, the movement lazy and aimless, soothing rather than arousing.

"If you ever do leave, I'm never going to be satisfied doing this with anyone else again." The words were a painful admission of how addicted he'd become to this man's touch, how much he needed James in his life.

"Good thing I ain't ever going anywhere, then." James caught Len's chin and tipped his head back, meeting his gaze. There was fire and fierce promise in James' eyes, and his voice dropped to a possessive growl. "And you'd fucking better not be doing this with anyone else. You're mine."

"And you're mine," Len agreed, giving him a smug smile in response. "Just so we're clear, I'll freeze anyone you look twice at, too. There's no one for me but you."

"Same." Satisfied with the promise, James sighed and pulled him closer still. "How the hell did we get so lucky?"

"Fuck if I know." He really didn't. There were so many steps they'd had to take to get this far, many that he hadn't even wanted at the time, and so many missteps they'd had to overcome. It shouldn't have been possible for them to come to this point, together.

But they had, and together was how they'd move forward in the future. For the first time in his life, Len was depending on someone and totally okay with that.

'I never left.'

'I ain't ever going anywhere.'

And neither would Len.