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I Love You and That's a Promise

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Bucky Barnes' ma once told him that he was a glutton for the sickbed the way he didn't hesitate to get himself exposed whenever Steve came down with anything. He prided himself on being in very good health, he never caught any of the colds or flus that kept his best friend down so many months out of the year. So in late August of 1929 when Steve started complaining of a horrible sore throat and headache, Bucky didn't think anything of grabbing his collection of comic books and plopping himself at Steve's side to keep him as entertained as possible in his misery.

They didn't have school anyway and home was always a hectic thing for Bucky to face, with three younger sisters, a ma that ran herself ragged, and a pa that was meaner than the whole Irish mob when he was sober and he always came home drunk. So using Steve as an excuse to stay away for a few days was something he jumped on at every possible opportunity. And anyway, Steve seemed to get better a lot faster when Bucky was around if he did say so himself.

So whenever his friend got sick, he settled happily on his pallet in Steve's room because they weren't allowed to share and they played round after round of poker, using Mrs. Rogers' collection of buttons as their betting pool (Steve insisted he had the best ones, six thin abalones with four holes, shiny on one side and tan on the other, but Bucky got the collection of brass buttons that had come off Steve's dads old army coats and those were definitely better than any old button made from a seashell). They passed Steve's sketchbook back and forth, each of them adding a line to the picture until it looked like a bunch of scribbles but it was fun. When Steve would cough, Bucky would help him sit up better, patting between his shoulder blades and whispering encouragements.

This time, Steve had been laid up with a bad cold for almost a week which meant he was surely getting close to the mending end and might be well enough to get down on the floor and play a couple of rounds of marbles. Bucky had won three cats eye's from Frankie Darwin and he was just itching to show them off, 'cause they shot real well. He was awake as soon as the sun started coming up, shifting restlessly as Steve's breaths rattled and wheezed. It was the asthma that caused that, not a sickness you could catch, but it still worried Bucky all the same. Bucky had been around Steve when he was sick for years, enough to know that when he placed a hand on Steve's rips, he could feel vibrations from everything shaking around in his chest, but he'd never been able to hear the bones rattling from two feet away before. This was probably bad. When Steve started to stir, he let out a sigh of relief.

"How ya feelin', Stevie?" Bucky yawned, sitting up on his couch cushion pallet that he'd made on the floor next to Steve's mattress. Mrs. Rogers wouldn't let them share like normal, said that Bucky might have exposed himself but there was no reason for them to sleep all up in each other's faces, with Steve breathin' germs right on his face, never mind that Bucky insisted he didn't care about none of that. The sun was shining in best it could through the ragged lace curtains that were on the window in a desperate attempt to spruce the place up, casting a golden light across Steve's flushed face. One look his friend and all hopes for marbles were dashed.

Steve blinked hard, his chin wobbling as his pained blue eyes met Bucky's. He lifted a hand to his throat and hoarsely whispered, "Hurts. Kinda wanna throw up."

Bucky scooted the trash bin a little closer to the bed. If Steve did throw up and Bucky was caught in the crossfire, it definitely wouldn't be the first time, but still. He'd rather not get puked on if he could help it. He pushed a strand of floppy hair out of his eyes as he surveyed his friend. Normally pale cheeks were flushed, his eyes fever bright. Splotchy red marks were covering his neck and bare chest. "Pal, you got one hell of a rash there." He frowned.

"Ma'll wash your mouth out with soap if she catches you swearing." Steve pulled his eyebrows down, giving Bucky that look that never failed to make him feel guilty even if he hadn't done nothin'. "It's just a cold, Buck."

"S'not a cold. It's more. I'm getting your ma." Bucky got to his feet and hurried for the other room. He'd heard whispers about the fever around the streets and under the voices of the customers who shopped at the O'Reilley store he sometimes worked at to earn a dime or two for an ice cream or a movie. He knew it was bad and the weak ones didn't survive it and the ones that did never came out on the other side quite the same as they were before. He knew it always came with a rash.

Mrs. Rogers was asleep on the couch, still in her nurse's uniform. Dark circles under her eyes belied just how exhausted she was. There was a plate on the kitchen table, cleared of food but dirty, like she hadn't the energy to wash it. Bucky hated to wake her while she was resting. But he hated the thought of something bad happening to Steve even worse. "Mrs. Rogers," he whispered, shaking her shoulder gently. "Mrs. Rogers, you gotta wake up."

She let out a low noise, her lashes fluttering open to lock on Bucky. "W...what is it, Bucky? Is everything alright?"

Bucky's throat tightened. He shook his head. "I think Steve's real sick, ma'am." He gulped, twisting his hands together. "He's got a rash. And he was havin' trouble breathing."

She sucked in a breath and stood quickly, pressing the wrinkles out of her dress with her hands. "Stay in here, honey. I'm gonna go check him."

Bucky flopped glumly onto the couch, propping his chin in his hand and staring at the bare wall across from him. He wanted to go back to Steve, sit close and hold his hand- throwing up be damned. He hated seeing his friend so miserable. So sick. The August heat was stifling, causing sweat to drip down his temple and his shorts and undershirt to stick to his skin horribly. Normally he'd be complaining up one wall and down the other about how it didn't really matter if you sinned because Brooklyn in summer was hot enough that the devil himself would run away and hide in the shade. But with the worry that Steve might have the fever, he barely even noticed.

When the bedroom door opened and Sarah Rogers stepped out with a grim expression, his heart plummeted. She hurried over to the stove and took down the tin where the spare money was kept, shaking every coin and bill into her purse. "Bucky, I have to go out and get Steve medicine. You stay here, don't answer the door for anybody, ya hear?"

"Does he have the fever?" Bucky whispered, looking down at the battered floorboards. He needed to know.

"Yes, honey. He's got scarlet fever. We're under quarantine now. You can't go home until Steve is all better, can't risk spreading the sickness to your sisters. I'll send a message to your parents while I'm out."

"I don't care about that." Bucky frowned hard. "Do they got medicine to fix Steve up?"

"There's some medicine but there's no guarantee it'll work. We just have to hope and pray." Mrs. Rogers smiled kindly at him. "I'm sure he'll pull through, he always does." She headed towards the door.

"Wait!" Bucky scrambled to his feet, digging in the pockets of his shorts until he found the four coins he'd been guarding for weeks. A quarter, two dimes, and a nickel. He was saving up to buy himself a real nice bicycle. They were sixteen dollars, but if he worked real hard, he could manage it in a year probably. This was more important. He held the coins out toward Mrs. Rogers. "Take this. Get Steve the best medicine they have."

Mrs. Rogers blinked hard, bending down so her height was even with his. She closed his fingers back over the money and shook her head with a smile. "You're something else, Bucky Barnes. Thank you, but I have enough to get what he needs. Keep your money and then when Steve gets well, maybe you two can go out and see a movie." She stood and hesitated, placing a hand on his shoulder. "I know how you like to be close to Steve when he's sick, but this time I need you to stay in here. I'll be back soon. But we need you to stay healthy." And she was gone.

***

Bucky paced around the single room for three days, badgering Mrs. Rogers about Steve's health every time she emerged from the sick room. The news was never good and it seemed the sicker Steve got, the more horrible Bucky himself started feeling. His muscles felt too weak to hold his body up, his head hurt, everything hurt. Especially the aching hole in his chest that screamed he needed Steve. When Mrs. Rogers emerged from the bedroom on the morning of the fourth day, she found Bucky curled on his side on the couch, shivering and staring listlessly at the ceiling.

"Bucky, are you alright?" She knelt beside him, eyes studying him with a calculating expression.

"It hurts." He shuddered, his eyes drifting over to the closed bedroom door. "I want to see Steve." He would be okay if only he got to see Steve was okay.

"Bucky, honey, I know you're worried about him, but I'm not gonna let you in there even if you pretend to be sick."

"Not...pretending." He shifted restlessly, pushing down the urge to whine at just how horrible he felt. He didn't get sick. He was Bucky Barnes and he had the constitution of an immortal ox. "Really does hurt. My throat and my head. Want...Steve."

A cool hand pressed against his forehead and she clucked her tongue softly. "You're burning up, sweetheart. Alright. Let's get you in the other room." She helped him upright, holding most of his weight as his head spun and his knees almost gave out under him. The only thing he could focus on was Steve, staring miserably, but hopefully at him as Mrs. Rogers led him into the bedroom. "Steve, scoot over, you're going to have to share. Bucky's sick too."

Steve nodded and scooted over toward the wall so Bucky could settle into the mattress next to him. His hand reached out, making grabby motions until he made contact with Steve, fisting the other boy's undershirt in his hand as if it were an anchor to reassure him his best friend was still there. "Steve." His eyelids fluttered shut. "Missed ya, Stevie." He mumbled, sleep overtaking him.

***

Scarlet fever was a fucking shitshow and Bucky didn't care if he got his mouth washed out with soap for saying that. He was mostly out of it from fever for over two weeks, his memories of the time consisting of how horribly painful his tongue, throat, and ears had gotten (bad enough he'd cried but don't tell anyone at school about that), nasty medicine being given to him and him protesting that it should be given to Steve because Steve was more important. And Steve. Steve who didn't complain when Bucky plastered himself to him like a koala, Steve who pushed aside his own misery to pet Bucky's hair and whisper comforts to him when he was crying in agony from the pain in his ear drums. Steve who told him stories whenever he was lucid enough to listen.

When Bucky's fever finally broke and he woke up on the mending end of things, Steve was sitting up in bed with his drawing pad and a few pencils, his brow furrowed as he sketched. He didn't seem to mind that Bucky's arm was wrapped tightly over his waist, looking over with a wane smile when he noticed Bucky was awake. He flipped his sketchbook shut before Bucky could get a glimpse of what he was drawing. "Finally decided to join the land of the living again, you dummy?" He rasped, his voice still hoarse.

"Shut yer trap." Bucky groused, pushing himself into a sitting position slowly. "I wasn't even really sick. Was just tryin' it out to see how it is for you all the damn time. I was never in any danger."

Steve just looked at him solemnly, not affected by his ribbing. "You almost died, Bucky. You were lots sicker than me. Ma said." His lower lip trembled a little. "I'm supposed to be the one that's gonna die first. You're the strong one. You're not allowed to die. I'm making it a rule."

"Ah, Stevie. You know I wouldn't go and die on you. Not ever. You and me, we're gonna live forever." He sighed, lowering himself back down to his pillow. His fever might have broken but that didn't mean he wasn't still weak and sick. He was just past the worst of it. "Couldn't leave you, not ever. No matter how many sicknesses your dumbass makes me catch." He yawned, his eyelids closing against his wheel. "Love you, asshole. That's a promise."

Paper rustled before the steady scritching of pencil started up again. Steve didn't complain when Bucky reached for his hand and clasped their fingers together. "Get some rest, Buck. Forever's a long time to live."

***

Bucky wasn't too optimistic that his whole 'we're gonna live forever, Stevie' promise wasn't about to be broken. As soon as the Commandoes had split off to take watch or curl into their bedrolls despite the frigid temperatures in hopes for a little rest before the mission in a few hours, Bucky grabbed Steve by the arm and forcefully dragged him far enough away from the camp that he could yell to his heart's content. He'd scouted around earlier and found a small dell in the trees, and under other circumstances he might have appreciated the beauty of the snow on every surface, the icicles hanging from the branches, glittering in the evening light. Instead he shoved Steve against a sturdy oak and paced. Eventually he whirled around on Steve, his eyes burning into the other man. "Jumping onto a speeding train, Steve! Are you insane?! We'll all get killed and you fucking know without us, Hydra will win."

Steve huffed out a breath that formed a cloud in the sub zero air. "Hydra will win if we don't do it, Buck. We have to get this information. I know it's risky but-"

"Risky?" Bucky's voice was high, shrill almost. He didn't care. "It's fucking suicidal, Steve!" He didn't care so much for his own life being at risk, he'd already brushed with death so many times they were practically best friends. What he did care about were the lives of the other men, especially Steve. He would throw himself into the flames a million times over if it meant keeping Steve safe.

He hadn't really realized what was going on until he'd had his first wet dream at the age of fifteen. Waking up with Steve's name on his lips and a sticky mess in his shorts was nothing short of terrifying and he'd denied it to himself for years, picking up girl after girl, loving and leaving them before it could get any further than making out and grinding because even though they made him feel good, they just weren't right. So he'd finally gotten a pair of balls and went to one of the queer bars in the part of Brooklyn that no one dared mention. He'd kissed a few fellas, but there was nothing there to keep him interested.

It still wasn't right.

The only one he actually wanted was standing right in front of him. And he might not could have but at least he could do his best to protect. He ran his hands through his hair, wanting to reach out and touch, maybe shake a bit until Steve saw reason. "Why are you so reckless, Stevie? Why? You may have the fancy serum that makes you superhuman, but you're still human. You picked the fights when you were small that you knew were impossible to win. And now that you're big? You're still going after the unreasonable things. Only now they're bigger than ever. I don't have a good feeling about this one, Steve. We can't do it. You gotta call it off."

Steve visibly bristled and Bucky winced. That was possibly the worst wording he could have used. Tell Steve he couldn't do something, and he would do anything to prove he could, even if he died in the process. Bucky loved him, but the guy was kind of an egomaniac in the worst ways possible while still being humble at the same time. Somehow he turned meek respectfulness into the most arrogant thing ever without anyone the wiser. "I'm not changing the mission, Buck. I can't and you know it. I might be a captain but I still have orders and I have to follow them no matter the personal cost."

"You sure about that, Sweetheart?" Bucky spat the endearment out, knowing Steve hated it. The implication that he was anything less than in charge of himself. "A zip line over a frozen mountain gorge? Ain't no way we're all making it out, Steve, I feel it. Someone's gonna die on this mission and I'd prefer if it wasn't you. You sure you're ready for that kind of personal cost?"

"You don't wanna be on the team that goes after the train? Fine. You can stay on the lookout, I'll have Dugan take your place watching my back." Steve glared, his hands clasped behind his back.

"I didn't say that." Bucky groaned, frustrated. That was the last thing he wanted, to be replaced. He dusted the snow off a large rock and slowly sat down on it, pulling his knees to his chest and resting his chin on them. "You know I'll follow you, have your back. Wherever you go, Steve, I'll find a way to go with you. I've always done it, I don't know how not to. If you fell into that gorge, I'd jump in after you. But this mission...something's gonna go wrong. It's been going too well for too long. I don't want anything to happen to you. That's the personal cost."

"You don't have to protect me anymore." A branch cracked under Steve's boot when he shifted his weight. "I'm not five foot four anymore. Whatever happens to me, I can handle it." He huffed, walking over to Bucky and pulling him upright. "I'm not weak anymore. You don't have to hold me up, I know what I'm facing and you don't have to do something you don't wanna do just because you're worried I still can't handle myself."

"I don't do it because I'm worried!" Bucky shoved at Steve's shoulders, forcing him to let go and step back. "You honestly don't get it do you? God, you're so fucking dumb." He ran his palms over his face, pacing away.

"Then why? Why are you making such a big deal over this? It's really not any more dangerous than any other mission. Why do you care so much?"

"Because I'm in love with you, Asshole!" Bucky yelled, spinning around and grabbing the straps on Steve's uniform, staring hard at him. His chest heaved up and down with a heavy breath. "Because you're my entire world and if you died, I would die. I don't know how to live without you. And I have a horrible feeling about this mission. I know something's gonna go wrong but you won't fucking trust me on that. I don't think you're fucking weak, I think this is bigger than all of us and we have to pick our battles. And you know what? I'd rather Hydra won the goddamned war if it meant I get to keep you."

He froze, the weight of what he'd just revealed crashing on him like the weight of a tank. He lifted his gaze to Steve's, both of them wide eyed in shock. Oh God, what have I done?

Steve hadn't even tried to say a word, his lips parted, face ashy in the darkening light. His hands lifted and settled over Bucky's, forcing him to release his hold on the uniform. A tiny tremor ran through his bones. He dropped his hold on Bucky like it was burning him to touch him and stumbled backwards.

Bucky wanted to throw up.

"You-"

"I-"

He was going to throw up. His entire body shook, even though he wrapped his arms right around his middle.

"You can't love me." Steve stuttered, shaking his head. "It's wrong, Bucky."

"Oh God." Being captured by Hydra and becoming their personal experiment hasn't hurt this bad. His whole being was shattering from the inside out. "Steve...I- I didn't mean to say that. Didn't want to tell you like that."

"Y-You're not joking, are you?"

The whisper was almost snatched away on the icy wind. Bucky swallowed hard. "No."

"Bucky, I'm sorry. But-"

"I know, Steve." He leaned against the nearest tree, sinking down to the ground and pulling his knees hard against his chest, regardless of the way the snow soaked through his trousers. "You don't have to say it. Please don't say it." It felt like his throat had been stuffed with cotton. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't do anything but stare up at Steve, who was staring back with terrified, but hard eyes, lips pressed in a thin line. He couldn't do anything about the way his eyes welled with tears and how the liquid froze on his cheeks.

"I don't love you. Not like that." Steve pressed on. "That's sinful, Bucky. You've got to stop. They'll blue ticket you for that."

"You think I don't know that?"

"Bucky, don't be upset at this please, but...uh...do you want me to talk to the Colonel about transferring you to a different unit. So I don't, um, distract you?"

He rested his face in his hands. It was like Steve had reached deep in his chest with an icy claw and ripped apart every last shred of hope he had. He'd known that Steve didn't return his feelings but knowing they bothered him enough that he wanted Bucky to leave...that hurt worse than anything. He choked down a sob. "If you want me to leave, I'll leave. But you don't distract me. Not much. I've still got your back."

"I'll talk to the Colonel."

Bucky shuddered when Steve's boots started crunching in the snow, waited until the footsteps faded away, before letting himself cry.

***

Bucky didn't return to camp that night and he didn't sleep. When he forced himself to get up and trudge back to the rest of the team, his limbs were numb and so was his heart. His eyes were swollen and burning from crying half the night and he probably had hypothermia or frostbite but he didn't care. He had already lost Steve emotionally, he was going to lose him physically just as soon as Steve transferred him off the team. What did it matter if he died from the elements now?

When he joined the others, Steve didn't look at him and the other men, noticing the obvious tension between their two commanding officers, didn't say a thing. They broke down camp and trekked to the ledge where they'd zip line to the train in a few hours. Bucky pressed himself against the rock wall, trying to fold in on himself as best as possible. Falsworth moved to stand next to him.

"You okay there, Sarge?" He asked quietly, low enough that only Bucky could hear. When Bucky didn't answer, he sighed. "You told the Cap how you feel about him, didn't you?"

Bucky looked at him sharply. "How do you know about that?" He hissed.

"You're not as subtle as you think. And I know what love looks like." He inclined his head toward Steve who was pacing the edge of the ledge (Bucky wanted to yank him back, warn him to be careful of falling) and decidedly ignoring Bucky. "I take it he didn't take it well."

Bucky choked softly. "I'm- he's getting the Colonel to transfer me to another unit."

Falsworth sucked in a hard breath and went silent. Bucky didn't initiate any further conversation. When the train was nearing, he moved to stand behind Steve, ready to follow him into danger for probably the last time. He held his chin high and kept his gaze on the mountains. He was scared to speak, but couldn't stand the tension between them either. "You remember when I made you ride the Cyclone at Coney Island?"

"Yeah, and I threw up?" There was the slightest waver in Steve's voice, enough that nobody would notice if they hadn't known him for a very long time.

"This isn't payback is it?"

"Now why would I do that?" Steve turned away from him as Gabe started talking about the train and Dr. Zola being on it. On instinct, Bucky mimicked his movement, steeling himself for the upcoming fight. He knew this wasn't going to end well, but he didn't have the strength to fight it either.

Steve attached the handhold to the zip line and shook his head. "We've only got about a ten second window. You miss that window...we're bugs on a windshield."

"Mind the gap." Falsworth warned.

"Better get moving, bugs!"

Bucky let himself retreat in his own mind as he followed Steve down the zip line. During fights his mind became a litany of follow Steve, protect Steve, make sure Steve is safe. It was easier that way. He didn't think about what he was doing, he just did it. The train was shaking violently under his feet as he forced himself to be steady and follow Steve into the compartment. Sliding the door shut, he pulled his rifle off his back and held it ready. The dark interior of the car was eerily silent, only the chugging of the engines making noise. He crept through the rows of storage behind Steve.

Steve hesitated at the door, glancing around the compartment before heading to the next car. Before Bucky could reach the door, it slid shut with the thud of a lock clicking into place. He whipped around as Hydra soldiers entered the other end of the car. His mouth went dry. Get rid of them. Get to Steve. He fired at the closest soldier, rolling for cover. He managed to take down two more before a round of shots hit the car inches from where he was ducking behind crates of ammo. His ears rang. Smoke and gunpowder tainted the air.

More soldiers came and he shot at them until his rifle emptied, switching to his handgun. By his count there was one more to take down. Protect Steve. Taking a deep breath, he eyed the crates on the other side of the car, then went for it, firing off shots as he darted behind cover again. The soldier fired back, the billets ricocheting around him. Duck. Aim. Return fire. The other man had taken a good cover though and Bucky couldn't seem to hit him. There was an explosion from the other compartment. His gun ran out of bullets.

Cold sweat crawled over his skin as he sank down against the wall. He was gonna die here. He'd tried to tell Steve but that had been fruitless. And Steve- what had they sent after Steve? He swallowed hard.

The compartment door opened. Steve had his pistol cocked and ready to fire, nodding and tossing it to Bucky. Then he ran into the compartment, shoving at the cases of weapons so the Hydra soldier was forced to duck out of cover. Bucky took him down in one shot.

His hands shook as he lowered the gun, glancing up at Steve. "I had him on the ropes."

"I know you did." Steve sighed, the noise covered by the unmistakable sound of the Hydra blue weapon readying to shoot. "Get down!" His hand grabbed Bucky's shoulder, forcing him into a squat as Steve practically wrapped himself around him, protecting them both with the shield. When the impact hit, Steve was tossed aside as the beam ricocheted off the shield. There was a horrible screech of metal. The car filled with freezing air, half the side ripped away.

Bucky stumbled to his feet, grabbing the shield. It was heavy, really heavy. And he couldn't hold it for long, but maybe long enough to neutralize the threat. He fired at the armored soldier. A blue beam shot his direction. The shield went flying.

And so did he.

He scrambled to grab at something, his fingers closing around a beam. Beneath him, the mountain gorge rushed past. The beam creaked under his weight. His heart thundered in his ears. It wasn't going to hold. This was how it was going to end. Oh god.

"Bucky!" Steve screamed, appearing at the edge of the train car. He grabbed onto the other beam, inching himself out. And Bucky wanted to scream at him to get out of danger, but without Steve saving him he was going to die. "Hang on!"

Bucky tried to scoot towards Steve, but the beam wobbled dangerously. He held a hand out. Please. Please, Steve.

Steve's gloved hand extended.

The beam creaked.

"Grab my hand!"

It creaked louder, the metal ripping away. He reached. And then he fell. He could barely hear Steve shouting no over the rush of the wind in his ears.

He didn't want you around anyway.

He hit the ground.

***

Steve didn't know how they captured Zola and got back to the rest of the men. He didn't remember crawling back into the wrecked train car. Didn't realize Gabe had taken over, let him sit in a curled up ball in the corner, shaking, unable to see anything but Bucky falling.

It was his fault. It was his fault. It was his fault. Bucky was dead and it was his fault. Why had he been so cruel last night? What had made him say those things that had so obviously broken Bucky beyond anything else the world could ever throw at him? He'd been shocked, yeah. But it didn't bother him beyond the fact that it was unfair to Bucky that he couldn't love him that way. He'd thought it would be easier for Bucky to be away from him, but when he'd got back to his tent, he'd almost passed out at the thought of having to be without his best friend. He couldn't send Bucky away. He didn't even know if he didn't love Bucky the way Bucky had loved him because he'd never actually thought about it.

Bucky had died thinking Steve hated him.

He fell to his knees in the snow and vomited.

There was nothing in his stomach to actually throw up, so dry heaves shook his body. He should have listened. He should have fought harder with the Colonel when he'd radioed in and tried to cancel the mission. Bucky had warned him that something was going to go wrong. And he'd said he was going to go on the mission no matter the personal cost.

And oh god, the cost.

He shuddered, dragging his wrist across his mouth as he set back on his heels. The rest of the men, even Zola, were staring at him. His eyes narrowed on the little weasel of a man. "You. It's your fault." If not for his stupid little soldier minion that just couldn't seem to stay down, Bucky would have never fallen out of the car to begin with, no matter what Steve had said to him the night before. They could have worked everything out.

"You are the one who could not catch your friend, I do not see how I am to blame." Zola returned primly, raising his eyebrows.

"You ordered the shooter." Steve hissed, getting to his feet and stalking over to the handcuffed man. He fisted his hands in Zola's coat lapels and yanked him up until they were face to face, his hands shaking from how tightly his muscles were clenched. Zola yelped, his feet kicking uselessly, well over a foot above the ground. "I should throw you off this mountain pass right now and then you'll find out how Bucky felt. It's your fault!" His eyes filled with tears that angrily slipped down his cheeks. "He's g-gone. You did this."

"Cap, set him down." Dugan put a hand on his elbow. "Any other time I'd be glad to let you do whatever you want to get a little bit of retribution, but we need him alive."

Steve let go and Zola dropped to the ground with an undignified thud. "I'm going to my tent. Don't disturb me until it's time to head back to base." He turned and stalked away from the group, wiping at the liquid freezing on his cheeks. Ducking under the flaps, he barely got inside the tent before sobs overtook him. He stumbled to the bedroll he and Bucky had shared (they'd each been given one but they'd always shared a bed in Brooklyn because they only owned one. It seemed stupid to break habit and it was much warmer to share. Double the blankets and body heat), and collapsed onto it.

Even in the war, Bucky had still somehow managed to keep up his habit of smoking cigarettes before bed and chewing on mints. The blankets held the smell. Steve choked on the tears, breathing the scent in deeply. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry, Bucky. It should have been me. I'm supposed to die first, remember? It's the rule." Hard coughs wracked his body. "I didn't mean it. I was so mean to you. I'm sorry. I-I don't know how to live without you either. I can't do this without you." He was alone. Bucky was the only family he'd had, and now he was gone. His body seized up as Bucky's words from the night before echoed through him.

Wherever you go, Steve, I'll find a way to go with you.

If you fell into that gorge, I'd jump in after you.

Why hadn't he jumped after Bucky? If he could have curled his body around Bucky's and taken the brunt of the fall, maybe he could have saved him, even if it meant he was the one that died. He was supposed to die first anyway. That was the rule. It always had been.

Wherever you go, I'll find a way to go with you.

That he could do. He'd take down the Red Skull first, but he wanted no part of this life if he had to face it without Bucky. He couldn't do it alone.

I'll find a way to go with you.

***

He cried while he wrote the report. He didn't include the fact that he'd broken Bucky's heart right before it had happened.

He made it very clear that he hadn't tried hard enough to save him and that it was definitely his fault.

While the plane was careening towards the ice, and he was babbling randomly at Peggy to try and make it easier for her, his mind was a never ending reel of I'll go with you.

The impact came.

I'll go with you.

Everything hurt and icy water was rising around him, closing over his face.

I'll go with you.

It froze in his lungs, icing through his veins. He couldn't move. Couldn't breathe. His eyes closed.

I'll go with you.

***

"Do you remember riding back from Rockaway Beach in a freight truck?" Steve sat down on the cot next to Bucky. S.H.I.E.L.D hadn't let him see him until they were finished making sure he was mentally sound. This was the last test. If he passed, Steve got to take him home. He needed him to pass.

Bucky peered at him from behind long, greasy locks of hair. "We...used our train money for hot dogs." There was a furrow between his brow and Steve ached to reach out and smooth it away with his forefinger, to tease you'll get wrinkles if you keep frowning like that but he was scared. He didn't know how much Bucky remembered, was afraid to sabotage anything they might have left.

He couldn't lose him again. Not when he was just getting him back. He needed him. "Yeah, and our ma's would have tanned our hides if we'd done that as children."

"Your mother never laid a hand on you." Bucky straightened his shoulders. "You were too small. Too fragile. You had to be protected."

"Yeah, Buck." Steve whispered, blinking hard against the tears that wanted to come. "I did need you to protect me. Still do. I always have."

"I almost killed you."

"It's not your fault."

"I might revert." He clenched his fists. "You shouldn't be near me."

"You can't fully revert without the trigger words being said." Steve had been debriefed by the specialists. He knew what they were looking at. Bucky had night terrors that ended up with him waking up fighting, but he was still aware of himself enough that it wore off almost immediately. Without the brainwashing process, he couldn't go back to being the Soldier. "I need you near me, Bucky. I can't do this without you."

In the end, Bucky went with him willingly to the Avengers Tower. Steve had moved in to the floor Tony set up for him only after Hydra had tried to attack his Brooklyn apartment. The added security was a lot of what convinced Fury to hand Bucky over to him.

He curled his hand around Bucky's elbow and guided him toward the elevator when they got out of the car. "Jarvis, my floor, please."

"Of course, Captain Rogers."

Bucky startled at the voice coming from seemingly all around them. His muscles tensed, eyes darting around. "Who the fuck?"

"Sergeant Barnes, I am Jarvis, the resident AI." Jarvis spoke. "I bear no threat to you."

Bucky frowned, looking up at the ceiling. "They're supposed to play music, not talk."

Steve rubbed soothing circles against Bucky's skin with his thumb. Bucky jerked away, leveling him with a steely look that made him gulp. His entire demeanor screamed don't touch. Steve didn't want to ruin whatever they might have by violating that.

When the elevator doors opened, directly into his living room, Steve let Bucky roam around while he went to change into a pair of sweatpants. When he returned to the living room, Bucky was sitting stiffly on the couch, his hands clasped in his lap as he stared at the giant TV built into the wall.

"Never figured we'd have a movie theater of our own in our apartment." Bucky looked up at him, his face unreadable. "Do-" His gaze grew frustrated as his jaw worked, but no more words came.

"Would you like to watch a movie?" Steve offered, sitting next to him. Bucky's therapist had warned him that he had trouble asking for things. The Winter Soldier hadn't been allowed to want anything. "We could watch Snow White."

"Okay." The corner of Bucky's lips quirked up, nowhere near a smile, but not blank, thank god.

He glanced to the ceiling and Jarvis took the wordless clue, dimming the lights and displaying the movie. "I'll be right back. I'm gonna make some popcorn real quick and get some sodas." Standing, he let his hand brush Bucky's shoulder for just a moment before moving toward the kitchen. This time Bucky didn't pull away but he didn't lean into it the way he once would have.

"We got kicked out of the theater." Bucky said suddenly. "We were on a double date and you and I had already seen it enough times we were reciting the lines to each other. One of the girls got mad and threw some popcorn at us. We took that as the cue to start a full on popcorn fight. They kicked us out but the girls got to stay."

Steve smiled broadly. "That's right, Buck. You decided not to take any more girls to the theater after that. It was just our thing." That had been the first and last time Bucky had taken a girl to a movie. He wondered now, if Bucky had banned them because he felt like it was the closest thing to going on a date with Steve that he would ever get. Their bi-weekly movie trips where they spent half the time mockingly repeating the lines to each other, because honestly, the acting was just bad most of the time. Wizard of Oz had been good, they'd watched that one about six times, and ended up eating nothing but boiled potatoes for a month because they'd spent all their money on movie tickets.

He wouldn't have traded it for all the food in the world.

Jarvis didn't start the movie until Steve finished popping about six bags of popcorn, dumping them all in one giant bowl that he set on the coffee table before sitting next to Bucky. He left enough space between them that they weren't touching, but close enough that Bucky could reach out if he wanted to.

He didn't.

Steve desperately wanted to ask if Bucky remembered. Remembered loving him. Remembered how cruel Steve had been when the truth had come out. Remembered falling thinking Steve hated him. He wanted to beg for forgiveness, to promise him anything if he only stayed. He couldn't bear losing him again.

But Steve Rogers was apparently a coward.

And he said nothing.

***

The thing was, Bucky remembered everything.

Not only every happy and sad memory from growing up, but also everything from the war. And everything from his days as the Winter Soldier. Somehow the pain from remembering Steve's harsh reaction to his love confession paled in the aching guilt and trauma of everything Hydra had put him through. The memory wipes were hardly the worst of the torture, in fact, those were probably the mildest. Yeah, it hurt, but he was strapped down and he could just go away in his head and let it happen.

He'd seen the file that Steve had on him, had snuck it out from his desk drawer the first night he was at the tower, while the man had slept, completely unawares. He'd read it mechanically, already knowing everything that was in it, but shocked at how much was left out. This was only the past ten years or so of what had happened to him. Truthfully, the easiest stretch of time he'd been through in his sixty nine years of being a POW.

The worst had been at the beginning, the first six years, before Zola had arrived to carry out all of his plans, before any memories had been taken from him. And out of the torture that had been inflicted on him during that time, he'd turned around and used the some of exact same techniques while training Natalia in the Red Room. He felt sick at the thought. He hadn't seen her in the few days he had been at the tower, but he knew she was here. He wouldn't blame her if she wanted to stab him. God knows, he'd love to get his hands on the people who had done it to him and make their lives as miserable as his was.

He was awake, sitting cross legged in front of the giant window and watching the sun rise over the city when Steve emerged from his room, dressed in a sinfully right tshirt and track pants, his skin and hair still damp from the shower. He paused, glancing at Bucky as he made his way toward the kitchenette area (Because one full kitchen in the apartment wasn't enough, they apparently needed a mini one in the open living room area in case they were too lazy to walk to the other one). "Morning, Buck."

Bucky grunted, not taking his gaze from the outside. He could see Steve's reflection in the glass without having to turn around and make it obvious he was watching him.

Steve opened the mini fridge and pulled out a protein shake, taking a long drink from it. "'M going on a run with Sam. I'd let you come with, you know I would. But S.H.I.E.L.D.-"

"It's fine." Bucky stood, moving to stand in the other side of the counter from Steve. He grabbed one of the apples out of the bowl on the counter, turning it over and over in his hand. "Think I'll visit Natali....uh....I mean, Natasha. She goes by that now, right?"

"Yeah....you know each other?" Steve's brows furrowed. "She never said."

Bucky winced. "Our...past, as it is, isn't something she or I will probably ever want to dwell on. But I owe her an apology." He tossed the fruit up and caught it before biting into it, the sticky sweet juice dribbling down his chin. "And not just for shooting her."

"Oh." Steve seemed to flounder for a minute before nodding. "Yeah, that's fine. As long as you stay on the private, team only floors of the tower. 'Tasha usually spends all morning training in the gym. That's a few floors down. Jarvis will take you."

Bucky still hadn't gotten used to the AI but he was oddly comforting in a way. He'd spent most of his life programmed like a computer to do a certain set of tasks and in that way he could relate to the robotic building. "Yeah. I figured. Thanks." He took another bite of his apple. "Have a good run."

Steve nodded, hesitating, his hand reaching out as though he wanted to touch Bucky, maybe hug him, and wasn't that befuddling, considering that before his fall Steve hadn't even really wanted to look at him. But then again, he was Steve's only tie to the past, as far as he knew. Maybe they both needed the anchor. Maybe Steve wasn't bothered by Bucky's affections anymore. But he didn't touch, only turned and walked out.

Despite his super soldier metabolism, Bucky still had a hard time eating no matter how hungry he was. Hydra had fed him through pastes and tubes, and never enough to stop the gnawing ache, just enough to keep him going. So by the time he finished his apple, his mind dictated that he was full even if his body didn't. He washed his hands and mouth. "Jarvis, pal, is Nat in the gym?"

"Indeed, Sergeant Barnes. Miss Romanov is currently using the laser obstacle course."

"Thanks, buddy." And Bucky's muscles were aching to be used, so even if Natalia didn't want to talk to him, he planned to make use of the training facilities while he was on the floor. So he swapped out the oversized Stark Industries tshirt for one of Steve's more form fitting ones, traded the loose shorts for fucking muscle hugging leggings because they were the only ones in Steve's drawers that weren't too long. Steve had promised as soon as he was cleared to go out of the tower, they'd go shopping for decent clothes, but for now he was limited to whatever S.H.I.E.L.D. had provided, and Steve's.

When he entered the gym, it took a moment of shocked gazing- this place had fucking everything, even an advanced ropes course about three stories high- before he located Nat, who was bouncing easily over, under, and around lasers and shooting laser people with a laser gun. He cleared his throat. Her eyes cut to him and she stiffened almost imperceptibly, but quickly shot down the three remaining obstacles and rolled under the final laser to complete the course.

When she stood, she assessed him with a calculating gaze. "I was wondering when I'd be seeing you, Barnes." There was no malice in her tone, but no kindness either.

He ducked his chin, letting his hair fall in his face for a moment before raising his head again and meeting her eyes, desperately hoping she'd give him a chance. He loved Steve, sure, but Steve would never be able to understand. He needed someone who could. He hoped Natalia could be that person. "I'm sorry. For everything. The stuff I did to you in the Red Room, for shooting you. If I had- I never would have done any of it. I'm sorry, Natalia."

She shrugged, folding her arms over her chest. "Your training techniques were effective, if inhumane. And you weren't in possession of your own mind. I can't fault you for that. Matter of fact, neither was I. If they'd given the orders, I would have done the exact same thing to you. Let sleeping dogs lie, yeah?"

Surely it should be harder than that. She should want to bring him harm. He frowned. "How can you just...let go of it? I want very much to hurt the people that did to me what I did to you, except they're already long dead."

She laughed, but it was cold and harsh. A laugh he knew because he caused it, because his was the same. A laugh that spoke of a person who had been through far more than any human should have to face in a hundred lifetimes. "The past is in the past. It happened, but I'm trusting that it won't happen again, because if you so much as attempt anything-" She leveled a hard look at him, her eyes glittering like diamonds but deadlier than any gun, "I will kill you. Rogers be damned." She reached down and tossed a water bottle at him, before taking one for herself, her expression neutral again. "Now, come spar with me. I could use someone who can test my limits, because Steve won't."

He blinked, reeling slightly from the abrupt subject change, from her outright hostility to her almost amiable offer now. "Steve won't fight you?" He trailed after her to the padded floor like a lost puppy, not sure what to do but go along with it. He had wanted to train for a bit anyway, and they had always fought well together despite the horrors he put her through.

Natasha snorted. "Oh, he will. He just pulls every one of his punches and dances around the real fight because he's still got that aw shucks, ma'am personality engrained in him that makes him worry he's gonna hurt me." She rolled her weight from foot to foot, bending and flexing to stretch out her hamstrings and hip flexor so. "You, on the other hand, I know will be a challenge and that's exactly what I'm looking for."

Bucky hesitated before dropping the water bottle at the edge of the mat and sitting down to start warming up. Yeah, he could jump into a fight without spending thirty minutes prepping his muscles for the strain. That didn't mean he liked to, no matter how quickly the injuries might heal. "Thank you, Natalia." He cleared his throat gruffly, leaning his torso forward until his body was folded in half. "For not giving me what I deserve. For giving me a chance."

"не заставляй меня жалеть об этом," She muttered, slipping from one pose to another, making sure every muscle was stretched. "And call me Natasha. If we're starting over, we're making everything a clean slate. Which means you don't call me Natalia, and I won't refer to you as 'handler' because you actually do have a name, surprise surprise."

He stood at the same time she did, offering his right hand with a shy smile. "Nice to meet you, Natasha. I'm Bucky Barnes."

She slowly placed her palm in his, giving a single firm shake, before backing off and lifting her chin. "Now. Let's fight. And don't pull your punches....Bucky."

"Wouldn't dream of it....'Tasha."

***

Bucky found, over the next few weeks, that being around Natasha was a hell of a lot easier than being around Steve. She was a hard woman- he had made her that way- but there was no pressure with her. No I have to be the Bucky he remembers, but I can't be the Bucky he remembers from the fall or he won't want me anymore. He could just sit at her feet and be silent if he wanted to, she didn't give a shit. It was easier, it was better.

S.H.I.E.L.D. had assigned him several therapists after he'd turned himself in to Agent Hill. They'd had most of their technology destroyed, but what hadn't been corrupted by Hydra had gone underground. They still had resources and they still could control his life to a point, but at least the had his best interests in mind for the most part. He was fairly sure they wanted him as an agent once he was fully recovered (would he ever be?), but he was done being an asset for anyone. If he ever went into a fight again, it would be of his own choice. He would decide if the mission was worthy.

Steve didn't ask what happened at his therapy sessions, and he didn't offer, even though Steve was willing to listen if he wanted to talk. He'd made that very clear. But Bucky couldn't. Couldn't open up to him like that, because it would come out that he still felt as strongly as ever for him and then Steve wouldn't want him around anymore. Hell, he certainly didn't need him, here in his fancy tower with his fancy super friends ranging from billionaires to fucking gods. Bucky was more of a relic to Steve, he figured. A memento to remind him of what he once was, but he likely couldn't handle the war zone inside Bucky's mind and if he got a glimpse, he would surely go running.

So he kept his conversations with Steve short, mostly relating to an immediate, mundane topic at hand. He only ever dredged up an old, happy memory when he couldn't stand seeing his best friend wear that wounded puppy expression any longer. And then he'd escape to Natasha as soon as possible. His skin never crawled when she touched him, the way it sometimes did with Steve. Maybe it was the difference between her tiny, soft, well taken care of hands, rather than Steve's humongous, calloused ones that reminded him of things he'd rather have stayed wiped from his mind.

"Why does he have to look like that?" He grumbled to her, sitting on the floor in front of her while she ran a brush through his hair. He had a tendency to let it go without combing, a life skill he'd never had need to retain as the soldier, because as soon as it got too matted to be decent, his handlers had chopped it off again. Until 'Tasha, he hadn't had his hair brushed since he was a very young child. It was soothing in a way he hadn't known was possible. "I'm trying to make this as easy for him as possible, by keeping him oblivious to the bad stuff- I mean, all of it's bad, but the worst stuff- but he always has to look at me like I kicked a newborn baby in the head or something."

"You're avoiding him." She drew the brush across his scalp, pulling a satisfied sigh from him, his head tipping back slightly. "It hurts him."

"I have to avoid him." He whined, looking up at her. And yeah, they had a rough past but maybe that's what made it easier to open up to her. He hadn't bothered to acquaint himself with the rest of the Avengers enough to know if he'd get on with them. Right now he could barely handle the few people he was seeing. "You saw that file, 'Tasha. It was barely a chip off the iceberg and we both know it, but I don't think he does. He's so appalled by everything in that, what would he do if I opened up to him about everything else?"

"I think you underestimate him." She tapped the crown of his head with the brush, indicating he should hold upright of he wanted her to keep going. "He'd hurt for you, but it wouldn't jeopardize your friendship."

"I jeopardized our friendship a long time ago." He muttered, closing his eyes. "I love him, you know. Always have."

"I figured." She forked her fingers through his hair, nails scratching lightly at the roots. "Wouldn't the world love to know that. There's all kinds of theories about the two of you. A lot of people would be thrilled to find out Captain America is gay."

"No-" Bucky frowned, pulling away to twist around and face her. "He's not."

"Bi?" She tilted her head curiously. "You should tell me because I've got a lot running on the betting pool and I'd like to win."

"Quite by accident, I told Steve about my feelings the night before I fell from the train." Bucky clenched his hands tight, dropping his gaze to the floor. "He couldn't even look at me, 'Tasha. Told me he was gonna get the General to transfer me to a different unit so I wouldn't be distracted. I don't know what gave you the idea that Steve is anything but straight, but let me assure you, he was very much appalled at the idea of me loving him."

"Bucky," she frowned, seemingly speechless.

He felt oddly accomplished.

"I'm pretty sure he thinks I don't remember any of that and I'd rather keep it that way. For both of our sakes. I'm not really sure why he's so happy to have me back, when he certainly didn't want me before. But he's all I've got. I can't lose him again." He shuddered. If he lost Steve, there would be nothing left for him. No reason for him to exist. He'd always lived and breathed for Steve, everything he did was for Steve. Without Steve, there was no Bucky. Only an empty shell.

***

"Buck, are you joining in Game Night?" Steve settled on the couch next to Bucky, who was absorbed in a thick hard bound book. Honestly, he was surprised that his friend was even sitting in the common room. He'd been avoiding Steve since he got to the tower.

Every Wednesday evening was Game Night, wherein the team took turns choosing the game and the winner got to make the loser do something for their amusement. Tonight was Tony's turn to pick the game which likely meant it was something crude and rigged so that Steve would have to answer an uncomfortable question or tweet a picture of himself shirtless or something. He always lost when Tony chose the game. Bucky hadn't joined in before though.

"Mm...what game's it?" Bucky tucked a metal finger between the pages of the book and closed it, letting Steve see the cover. Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Clint had tried to get him to read that series after New York, but he had enough things that should be fantasy in real life, he didn't need to read about any others.

"Say no more, bicentennial man," Tony strolled into the room, holding up a black box. "Tonight, the game is the legendary Cards Against Humanity."

"Oh no." Steve whined, glaring at Tony. He'd been threatening the game for months, making sure Steve definitely knew what it was about. He had to pick tonight to finally break it out.

"Oh yes." Tony grinned, shaking the box. "The rest of the team are on their way now. Prepare for annihilation, Cap. You're so gonna lose."

"I guess I'll play." Bucky muttered, setting his book aside and moving to sit in the floor. "If Steve's gonna lose anyway, I might as well do my best to win. It'd be nice to get a chance to finally boss him around."

"Hey!" Steve poked Bucky in the shoulder, sitting next to him. "That's not nice."

"S'true though."

Tony shuffled the cards as the rest of the team trickled into the room and settled in a circle on the floor, their reactions to the night's choice varying from not this! (Bruce) to fuck yeah this is gonna be hilarious (Clint). Nat only raised an eyebrow, sitting between Bucky and Clint.

When everyone had drawn their mandatory ten white cards, Tony cleared his throat. "According to Wikipedia, the person who pooped most recently gets to play the first black card, so I took a shit like ten minutes ago."

"TMI," Sam wrinkled his nose.

Tony shrugged, reaching for a black card and smirking when he glanced at it. "When I am a billionaire, I shall erect a fifty foot statue to commemorate blank."

Steve made a face, looking at his cards. Being as Tony was already a billionaire, he was likely as not to actually erect the statue for his own amusement. For the sake of the children who might have to see it, Steve needed to keep this PG. He placed a card face down on the table.

When everyone had chosen their cards, Tony shuffled them up and read them. "So the offers are as follows: The Little Engine that Could, Tentacle Porn, The Miracle of Childbirth, Being rich, The Force, and... Dead Parents." His expression stilled before he let out a sigh. "Yeah, okay, normally I would go for humor but I'm gonna be realistic with this one. Dead Parents wins."

For a moment no one moved, then Bucky reached out to claim the card.

"Too soon." Tony sighed, shaking his head as everyone drew from the white stack. "Just....too soon."

There was a tense moment before Bucky drew a black card and paled slightly before clearing his throat and reading it. "How did I lose my virginity?"

Tony shrieked gleefully and slapped a card down on the table. Everyone else followed suit fairly quickly, save for Steve, who debated each of his cards carefully. From his best guess, Bucky had lost his virginity at fifteen, to Mary Anne Winston, who he'd been stepping out with for weeks. He could remember his friend dragging him aside after school one afternoon blabbering about how he'd gotten fresh behind the movie theater and his pa had whipped him good when he'd seen the marks on Bucky's neck and warned him if he knocked a girl up that he wasn't gonna be welcome in the Barnes home any longer. Biting his lower lip, Steve carefully added his chosen card to the pile.

Bucky frowned as he mixed up the cards before reading them out. "A sad handjob, goblins, wifely duties, the....nazis." Bucky's eyes widened and he shot Nat a glance, but she shook her head slightly, her lips tightening into a thin line. Shuddering almost imperceptibly, he looked back down at the cards. "A can of whoop-ass....seriously Steve?" Bucky rolled his eyes. "And whipping it out." He let out a long sigh, flipping through the cards again. "You're all terrible. Let's just go with a sad handjob."

Bruce claimed the card.

Steve frowned as Bucky scooted closer to Natasha, almost folding in on himself as she whispered in his ear. His brows pulled together and he muttered softly in Russian while her hand smoothed through his hair a few times. After a moment he nodded and pulled away.

Obviously something about the card choices had bothered him. More specifically the nazi card. And if it upset him because it had any correlation to the question card...Steve might be sick. "Buck-" Steve started, speaking quietly so that no one else could hear. "Are you-"

"I'm fine, Steve." Bucky gave him a hard, tight smile. "Just leave it."

He wanted to press the matter, fully intended to as soon as the game was over and they were alone. But Bruce was reading out the question card and Steve still hadn't drawn his white card and right now was not the time. So he forced his attention back to the game.

Surprisingly, he won the next round for answering In L.A. County jail, word is you can trade 200 cigarettes for blank with Justin Beiber. But it seemed like every round after that went to either Bucky or Tony or Natasha. Steve got in a few wins by playing up to Bucky's sense of humor. Giving the female orgasm in response to what's that smell? had Bucky staring in shock at him for a full thirty seconds before bursting into laughter so hard he fell over. And God, was he beautiful. Happy and carefree for a moment, eyes glistening with mirth and days past. Steve wanted to make him laugh like that all the time.

"Alright, what's so hilarious about that?" Clint huffed as Bucky wheezed, wiping his eyes.

"Yes, do share with the class." Tony deadpanned, eyeing them.

Bucky hiccuped, glancing at Steve before snickering. "Okay, so, there was this one dumbass that was always harassing Steve and beating him up, which mean also beating me up because I always stepped into the fights. After a couple of months we were both damn tired of it. Now we were about fourteen at the time and at that age, you brag about everything. So we both knew that Tommy O'Malley snuck his girlfriend to the bathroom during confession each week where they got up to all kinds of sinning. So we dropped a hint to the priest that he might want to watch out for mischief in there and that next Saturday night, the poor old man walks into the bathroom- me and Steve were hiding in the closet because we sure weren't going to miss anything- and he stops and yells 'what's that smell?'. I'm guessing it startled Tommy into jizzing, because he started moaning and groaning and the priest gets this horrified expression on his face. Meanwhile, the girlfriend, who was the daughter of one of the brothel women, walks out of the stall while Tommy's still shooting his load, and she looks the priest dead in the eye and says 'that's the female orgasm. I understand as a man of God how you might not be familiar with it, so I'll just leave you here because you're probably much more acquainted with the male one', and then walked out." He laughed again. "Man, I almost asked her to marry me right then and there."

Steve grinned when everyone laughed at the story, leaning over to rest his head on Bucky's shoulder. God, he'd missed this. Missed his Bucky. It was like he'd been suffocating since he lost him and now that he had him back again he could finally breathe. He just wished Bucky wasn't avoiding him so much. Wished he knew why. Did Bucky remember loving him, remember that last conversation? Or was there another reason? He'd tried to coerce Nat into telling him what Bucky was like around her, but she'd refused to say a word.

The game continued and eventually ended, with Bucky in first place and Steve in last. Tony huffed and threw his cards down. "Dammit, I was gonna dare Cap to kiss the hottest person in the room."

"No need." Natasha stacked her cards up, handing them across to Bruce who was putting them away. "Steve and I have already kissed."

"Hold up, I'm clearly the hottest person here." Tony sniffed, lifting his chin.

"You have a girlfriend, Tony." Steve yawned, rolling his eyes. "Besides, it would be my choice of person and I wouldn't pick you. And it doesn't matter who I might have picked, because you didn't win so you can't make me do it."

"I could though." Bucky smirked at him. "But I'm a mostly nice person and I won't."

"Oh please make him do something that will embarrass him horribly." Tony pleaded, scratching his goatee. "Please, I promise I'll add repulsors to your arm if you'll embarrass him."

"I don't want repulsors in my arm." Bucky shook his head. "Sorry, Tony." He turned to Steve with a rakish grin. "Stevie."

"Buck." He would rather do anything Bucky said than anything Tony might throw at him so this couldn't be that bad.

"Stevie....you're gonna get a tattoo of my name." Bucky leaned toward him and poked his left side. "On your ribs, 'cause goodness knows without me you'd've died of asthma before you reached fifteen."

"I can't physically get tattoos." He'd do it. He would've gotten one as soon as he'd gotten out of the ice if it was possible. Hell, he would've had Bucky's face inked right over his heart if it was possible. But it wasn't. Damn the serum.

"Actually." Tony piped up. "You can. I've developed a new technology that will get the ink into your skin before it can scar over. This is way better than what I would have had you do. High five, Barnes," he held his hand toward Bucky, who obliged him.

"How do you know it'll work?" Steve tilted his head to the side.

"'Cause we already tried it." Bucky tugged his tshirt off, revealing the tattoo on his right collarbone. It was an extremely detailed piece of a shattered pocket watch. Kind of obvious in the meaning...they were both men out of time. "Worked on me so it should work on you."

Steve squinted, leaning closer. "That's incredible, Buck." He shrugged. "I don't mind getting one. Just, tomorrow morning, not tonight, 'kay?"

"Come down to the lab anytime." Tony stretched as he stood. The rest of the team had already disappeared. "See you boys tomorrow."

When Bucky and Steve made their way to the elevator, Bucky tugging his shirt back on, Steve hesitated before opening his mouth to ask about the thing with the cards, not at all sure he was ready to hear the answer. Bucky cut him off before he could say a word.

"I don't want to talk about it. It's not a big deal. It doesn't matter."

"It does matter." Steve looked down at his feet. Whatever it was, it mattered. "But I won't press. When did you get the tattoo?"

"Last week." Bucky rubbed his hand absently over the spot. "Natasha thought it might be a good idea, kinda therapeutic. I like it."

"I wanted one since I got out of the ice," he shifted, running a hand through his hair. "Just didn't know it was possible."

"What'd you wanna get?" The slight curiosity on Bucky's face was the most emotion he had shown to Steve in the time he'd been at the tower other than the story tonight. It made him want to talk forever about every tattoo idea he'd ever had, if it would just keep Bucky interested in conversing with him.

"Dunno. Probably something for the Commandoes, maybe 'I'll show you how' for Peggy- it was the last thing she said to me, right before the plane crashed." Peggy had been one hell of a woman. He would've married her, maybe. After the war was over. If Bucky had lived. Then again, maybe he wouldn't have, because it would have hurt Bucky so badly at the time and he could never do that to him. "The old SSR wings. Woulda got something for you, too, but I never could figure out what it would be. There were so many things, shared jokes, bonds, everything. Might've ended up getting it all, if it had been possible." He quirked a smile. "Guess you decided for me."

Bucky purses his lips, nodding. "Guess so."

***

He was tied down; thick bindings holding his remaining arm, his chest, his legs. He was exposed, dammit. And he couldn't do anything but lie there and take it. Close his eyes and wait for it to be over, to wish for death that should have been granted to him when he fell. This life wasn't worth living and yet they tortured him into begging them to kill him and then laughed in his face and let his body heal. He couldn't breathe, hard tremors wracking through him. Steve was dead now, or so they had told him, the news confirmed with a stack of newspapers and the radio footage from when the plane crashed. There was no one left to rescue him and he wanted to die.

"Bucky."

A handler walked into the room, grinning at him. He swallowed hard, biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood.

"Bucky...."

The guy wrapped a hand around his neck

"Bucky!"

He screamed as he came to, flipping out of the firm grasp on his shoulders. "No! Not again. Won't let it happen again!" His chest heaved up and down, tears pricking his eyes.

"Bucky, you're okay. It's just me. It's Steve." The lamp flicked on, the soft light illuminating Steve's pale features. "You're okay." He held his hands up, slowly reaching toward Bucky.

He'd tucked himself into a tiny ball against the headboard and when Steve carefully ran his hands up his arms, Bucky crumbled, letting out a soft sob as he fell forward against Steve. The memory fresh in his mind had his whole body shaking. He gulped in a lungful of air. "I- sorry. I didn't mean to wake you. I'm sorry."

"Wasn't sleeping." Steve whispered, stroking a hand over his hair. "And I wouldn't care if I was. You needed me. I'll always be there when you need me if it's at all possible."

Bucky tightened his flesh fingers into a fist at Steve's lower back, gripping the material of his tshirt tightly, needing to ground himself. His skin crawled and he wanted to push away from all contact but at the same time the only thing he wanted was to be close. To feel safe and let his guard down. He shuddered. The therapist he'd been assigned hadn't pried into traumatic memories, but had advised that it might be cathartic for him to open up to someone he was close to. Natasha already knew all this and neither one of them wished to talk about it. Steve, however...maybe it would help if he talked to Steve. "When I fell...I still hadn't gone any further than second base with anyone." He swallowed hard.

"Bucky...." Steve's voice was low and pained. "You don't have to tell me this if you don't want to. I told you I'm not gonna press."

"No, I- I need to talk about it with someone. 'Tasha won't." He took a few calming breaths. "There's a lot that's not in my file, Steve, you've gotta know that. When I fell, that was when you captured Zola. I didn't get wiped or get my metal arm until he was brought back in on the project. I was still me for around six years, where the Germans and eventually the Russians could do whatever they wanted with me. They wanted to break me and I wasn't cooperating."

"Bucky,"

"There was a lot of torture. I already had the serum and they wanted to understand it. Especially it's healing properties." He gave a bitter laugh. "My skin was peeled off one layer at a time and tested on how long it took to grow back. There were operations, without any anesthetics, where I was tied down so I couldn't move while dug around in my guts and took stuff out for the sole purpose of watching my body grow it back. I was injected with venom of deadly snakes and spiders where the poison came within a hair of killing me but it didn't. God, I wished it would have."

"Oh god, Bucky." Steve sounded horrified, his arms gripping tighter. "I'm sorry. I'm so so sorry. If I'd known you were alive I'd have done anything to get you back." He let out a small sob, burying his face against Bucky's neck. "I should have jumped after you when you fell. I'm sorry."

"They made sure I knew you were dead," Bucky spoke softly, not sure if he should continue to the part of the story he had really wanted to talk about, based on Steve's reaction so far, but unable to stop the words. "Rubbed it in my face, gloated that you weren't ever coming to rescue me even as they came up with more and more ways to try and beat the fight out of me. I still wasn't having it. I might have wanted to die but I sure wasn't going to give up and do what they wanted without a fight. They couldn't break me. Then Zola came back." The images from his nightmare flashed through him and suddenly he wanted to throw up, wanted to hide, definitely wanted to get out of the tight hold that Steve had him in. He scrambled backwards, hot tears pricking his eyes. His nails dug into the palm of his flesh hand, drawing blood. Steve let out a noise and reached for him again but he shook his head.

"They had me strapped down. I couldn't move. Couldn't do anything but lay there and watch as it happened." Salty liquid trailed down his cheeks, stinging when it touched his lips. He'd bitten them hard enough to break the skin. "Couldn't even talk, they'd shoved a mouth guard between my teeth. Seemed like half the facility had taken their turn with me by the time Zola came back to move me to an operating room. I couldn't walk, I was bleeding, felt like I'd been ripped apart from the inside out. Turns out, when you're nothing to someone but a...a toy, an object to use for your own pleasure, slick doesn't really matter and neither does making sure the other person's body is properly ready for it." He looked up at the ceiling and let out shuddering breath, refusing to watch Steve's reaction. "When Zola was strapping me down to the operating table to attach my arm, he smiled, and it was such a cold, evil smile. And then he said, 'Sergeant Barnes, now you are a broken man.' He was right, too. God, he was right. Feels a little like they took my soul with my body and I couldn't fight anymore." He looked back to Steve who was staring at him, agony written all over his face, tears tracking down his pale cheeks. "I'm so tired, Stevie. So tired of fighting. I never wanted any of this."

"I know you didn't, Bucky. I know." Steve whispered. "Is it okay- can I...." He held his hands out. "I won't do anything you don't want me to."

But the horror of skin on skin had passed and all Bucky wanted at the moment was to let himself forget that Steve didn't really want him for him, but more for the link to his own past. He wanted to be touched gently and pretend that maybe there was someone in the world who loved him. Just for tonight. Just until he was strong again. "It's okay. I don't mind."

Steve let out a breath and crawled next to him, slowly, carefully sliding one hand across Bucky's stomach to lightly wrap his arm around him. Leaving space for him to escape if needed. But when he didn't move away from the hold, Steve wiggled them both down so they were laying flat and tugged the sheet over them. When Bucky looked at him quizzically, he shrugged. "Don't like sleeping by myself. Never have. Missed you so much, Buck."

"I don't deserve this." He whispered, closing his eyes tightly. "I'm- I've done so much. Everything that I just said happened to me- when they sent me to train the elite Red Room students... I did the exact same thing to them. I gave the order for it to be done and I let it happen. I didn't actually participate, but still. If I hadn't told them- why don't you hate me, Steve? Why doesn't 'Tasha hate me?"

"I'll never hate you, Bucky. You're the most important person in the entire world to me. Whatever you did, it wasn't your fault. It wasn't you. Natasha has obviously forgiven you. You've got to forgive yourself."

"I don't know if I can ever do that."

Steve pressed a soft kiss to his temple, sighing against his skin. "However long it takes, Buck, I'm with you every step of the way."

***

When Steve woke at dawn, Bucky was literally draped across him, his face pressed against Steve's neck, clinging to him. It was reminiscent of days past- Bucky had always craved touch. Knowing that Hydra had almost ruined that, had made him where he flinched away from it sometimes....Steve wanted to cry again. He should have gone after Bucky. This was all his fault. He breathed in slowly, shifting just enough to look down at his best friend's sleeping form. Mine. He wanted to take every bad memory Bucky had and replace it with good ones. Wanted to be the strength Bucky could rely on when he had none of his own left. Mine to protect.

Normally he'd be up and getting ready to go on a run by now, but missing one morning wasn't a big deal. He'd much rather stay in bed, holding Bucky. He fumbled for his phone that he'd left on the nightstand the evening before. He'd been watching a documentary about space when Bucky'd started screaming from his nightmare and he hadn't bothered to put the thing away before going to him. When he unlocked it, he shot off a quick text to Sam, letting him know he wouldn't be meeting him this morning, before opening the camera. Since his defrosting and people finding out he very much wasn't dead, he was used to taking selfies with men and women of all ages every time he went out. He hadn't ever taken one on his own though, hadn't felt the need to. But Bucky looked so young and soft and innocent in his sleep, the wrinkles in his forehead and around his eyes smoothed out. Lashes resting against his cheekbones, lips parted just enough to breathe. He was honestly beautiful. There was no other word to describe it. Steve tucked his face against Bucky's messy, almost curly hair, staring sleepily up at the camera as he tapped the shutter button. The picture came out perfect, blurred slightly around the edges, softened by morning light. He set it as his background.

Maybe later he'd pull out his drawing pad and pencils that he rarely touched anymore and draw the image. Maybe later he'd question just exactly what it was that Bucky was doing to him. Right now though, he was gonna put his phone away and tuck himself against Bucky and doze a little longer. Even Captain America liked to sleep in.

He pulled himself fully awake again when Bucky started to stir, loosening his hold in case Bucky needed to get away from the skin on skin. He hadn't explicitly said that touch made him uncomfortable, but Steve could look back over the time since he'd had his friend back, pinpointing the moments when he flinched away from touch- Steve's touch- seemingly horrified and disgusted by it. It had hurt at the time, but now he understood. He could also see that Bucky still craved contact the way he always had, like a moth to flame, following it like his life depended on it. But Bucky didn't pull away when he woke, he just stretched, catlike, yawning, before settling more fully against Steve, nudging at the hollow of his shoulder with his nose.

"Mornin' Steve," he mumbled, pushing his toes against Steve's ankles. "Warm my feet."

An honest to god giggle escaped Steve at that. It was every bit Bucky from the 40s, refusing to sleep with socks on and letting his feet stick out from under the blankets because he didn't like the way the scratchy wool felt against them, only to wake Steve up by shoving his icy toes against his own warm, socked ones, demanding him to warm them sleepily. He shifted his legs to trap Bucky's feet between his own. "Better?"

"Mmm." Bucky sighed, nodding, his eyes falling closed again. After a few minutes he groaned and rolled away, pushing himself into a sitting position and rubbing his eyes. He blinked sleepily then promptly fell over against the mattress again. Steve poked him lightly in the bicep. "Slow riser."

"Shut up."

"'S true." Steve smiled, shaking his head. Bucky never took less than thirty minutes to fully wake up and only if he was forced. Steve had no intention of forcing anything. "I'm gonna take a quick shower and make breakfast. What do you want to eat?"

"Pizza." Bucky mumbled against the mattress. "Pizza is my favorite."

"I'll see what I can do." Steve laughed, crawling over Bucky to get off the bed. He stretched, the bones in his lower back cracking pleasantly, before grabbing his phone and trooping to his own room. Luckily for Bucky, he'd spent a lot of time watching cooking shows. He had a few ideas on how to make a pizza appropriate for breakfast. His shower was a swift fifteen minutes, and he pulled on a pair of briefs and some sweatpants before moving to the kitchen. By the time Bucky wandered into the room, wearing a loose tshirt and shorts, his hair wet from his own shower, Steve was sliding twelve egg, bacon, sausage, and pepper flatbread pizzas into the preheated oven.

"You're actually making pizza?" Bucky grinned at him, delighted. He accepted the mug of coffee that was offered, sitting down at the table and propping his freshly shaven chin in his metal palm.

"Told you I would, didn't I?" Steve's attention was firmly locked on the happy smile that was still painted across Bucky's features. Yesterday, the most he had gotten was a tight laugh that felt forced and didn't reach his eyes. And yet now, this morning, he was so soft, so Bucky. Smiling at him. Steve wanted to hug him and never let go and babble things about how much he had missed him and to beg him to never leave him again. But he didn't want to push anything. He'd take what Bucky offered, would ask for nothing more. He let out a slow breath when he realized they were both staring, turning his attention to the cup of coffee in his hands. "I mean, it's not exactly like the pizza we've ordered in, definitely not the kind we had in Italy back in the war. But it should be good all the same."

"You always were a good cook, Stevie. Better than my ma."

"I try." He offered a crooked smile, sitting down opposite from Bucky. He took a sip of his coffee. "Do you remember Italy?"

"Ehhh...." Bucky tilted his metal hand back and forth, the plates making soft whirrs as they shifted. "It's hazy. Wasn't that right after I had typhus?"

"Yeah, that's right." Steve winced. Bucky had been the only one of the Commandoes to pick the virus up and luckily the serum running through his veins had kept it mild, but he'd been half out of it with fever and delirium, his body covered in rash. It had been too like the scarlet fever scare from their childhood and Steve had panicked and refused to leave his bedside until he was on the mending end. That had been only a couple months before Bucky fell. "We went to the bar and played about six rounds of poker until we won a sizable jackpot and then we spent all of it on pizza."

"And we ate it all and didn't share with the others." Bucky snickered. "You were so smug over that you little shit."

"That was my favorite part of Italy was seeing all their faces."

"Mine was seeing your face when you watched their faces." A faraway smile drifted across his features. "They'd been with you for some time and they still were shocked when Captain America wasn't the picture of honor. I wanted to hop on a soapbox and tell them that that was my Steve Rogers. They all think that the best parts of you are what makes you Cap, but they just don't see-" He cut himself off, looking down at his coffee abruptly.

"They don't see what, Buck?" Steve's heart rate remained as steady as ever, he knew that logically. Yet still, it fluttered slightly at the thought that Bucky remembered. Even if Hydra had wiped out all the love he'd held for Steve, if he remembered Steve's reaction to the confession... he couldn't lose him again. He couldn't.

"They don't see you." Bucky said simply. "They'll never see you. Not like I always have."

Fuck.

He dug the nails of one hand into his thigh. What was that supposed to mean? Did Bucky still love him? He blinked, taking in a slow breath. "Um, Bucky?"

"Yeah, Stevie?" The oven beeped and Bucky hopped off his seat, going over to it and pulling the pizzas out.

Steve gulped, not at all sure he wanted to broach the topic yet. "Do you remember the night before you fell?"

Bucky stilled, looking down at the pizzas he had been transferring onto plates. Oh god, he did remember. He didn't say anything for several long moments before turning to face Steve with furrowed brows. "Yeah, we sat around planning the train attack and then Dugan and I played cards and then we all went to sleep."

What?

Steve squinted, studying Bucky's expression, which was the picture of confusion. "Bucky-"

"Shit, it's not right?" Bucky pressed his fingers to his temple, frowning. "I thought I had... Steve, when Hydra messed with my mind, they didn't just take my memories, they changed some. I can usually tell, because they seem kinda holographic around the edges and then I can unravel them if I focus really hard. That one just seemed real." He sighed, bringing the pizzas to the table, setting one of the plates in front of Steve. "So, what's the real story? It helps me if the memory is prompted."

"Uh." Steve traced his finger around the mug of his coffee, shrugging. Maybe they were all better off if Bucky didn't remember it the way it was. "You got mad at me because you had a bad feeling about the train and I wouldn't change the mission so we fought about it. And we didn't get a chance to talk it through before you fell. I never really forgave myself."

"Ah, Stevie." Bucky clucked his tongue, picking up a pizza and blowing on it. "I never blamed you. Don't do that to yourself." He bit into his food, speaking around it. "D'you know if SHIELD has cleared me to leave the building yet?"

"I don't have a clue. They don't really like me that much these days." Steve turned his attention to his own plate, eating even though his appetite was long gone.

***

"You know, if someone had told me I would be tattooing Captain America, I'd have laughed in their face." Tony tapped at a machine with a screwdriver as Steve eyed it warily. Bucky knew he wasn't scared, but they'd both seen how some of Stark's inventions had worked. Steve had said as much, warily, as they'd rode the elevator down to Tony's labs. He'd nodded decisively when Bucky had reminded him it had worked just fine on himself.

"Actually, Sir," Jarvis spoke up as the machine whirred and rolled away from Tony, toward a padded dentist style chair. "I'm doing the tattooing. You won't be operating it."

"That's....actually more reassuring than if Tony was manning it." Steve let out a breath and settled on the chair, tugging his tshirt over his head. Bucky gulped, looking away abruptly. After the incident at breakfast, he couldn't allow himself anything that might give him away.

"I'm wounded." Tony huffed, motioning to Bucky. "RoboCop, get over here, I'll need you to put the tattoo design down on this tablet so that Jarvis can transfer it over." He shoved a stylus into Bucky's hand and jerked a drawer open, digging through a bunch of random wires and tools before pulling out a tin. "Right, Cap, so because of your super healing, this machine isn't your typical tattoo gun. There's no ink or needles, it's a laser. Your boyfriend here had no problems with the pain it caused, but I know you get all whiny, so here." He tossed a red lollipop at Steve. "Super pain killer disguised as candy. Everyone wins."

"We aren't boyfriends." Bucky muttered, frowning at the tablet. For a moment he considered writing his name out carefully in his best, Hydra taught handwriting. But then it wouldn't be his. So he wrinkled his nose and scrawled off the sloppy signature that his ma and teachers had always fussed over because his handwriting was barely even legible, let alone neat. His letters overlapped and looped but it was his. "Okay, done." It was true that the laser machine hadn't been comfortable, but it was far from the kind of pain he was used to. And Steve would be able to handle it just fine, but if he didn't have to, that was a bonus. Plus Steve had stuck the candy in his mouth as soon as he'd unwrapped it.

Steve pulled the sucker from his lips with an obscene pop. Apparently the stuff set in fast, because his eyes were already droopy and dilated. "I like this." He waved the lollipop around. "What is it?"

"Ah...." Tony pulled up a holographic screen, Bucky's signature appearing on it. "Just something I doctored up a while ago, just in case. Alright, Cap, lay back and we'll get this started."

Steve hummed, tucking the candy back in his mouth. "Bucky." He mumbled around it, one hand flailing at his side. "Come hold my hand. I need moral support. Bucky."

"Is he high?" Bucky raised his eyebrows at Stark, moving to sit on the stool next to the chair, offering his hand to Steve, who grasped it happily, smiling wide.

"Eh, that's debatable." Tony shrugged, a hologram of the tattoo design appearing on Steve's ribs. "Move that to where you want the placement to be. It's made with an Asgardian medicinal herb for pain, but by earth terms? Yeah, he's high as fuck right now."

Bucky tentatively nudged Steve so he scooted to lay on his right side, moving the hologram so it aligned on his ribs.

Steve shivered under his light touch, blinking up at him. He pulled the candy from his mouth, pressing it against Bucky's lips. "You gotta try this, Buck, it's great."

And this was all really unfair to Bucky. He glanced pleadingly at Stark. The sooner this was over and he could escape to the gym to release his frustration on the punching bags, the better.

Stark held his hands up in front of himself, smirking. "Hey, be my guest. You're free to get erotically high together all you want, I'm only here to oversee the machines."

"Try it, Bucky." Steve whined, dragging the sucker against Bucky's lower lip. Bucky rolled his eyes and huffed out a breath before wrapping his lips around the candy. It was an explosion of cherry and something else fruity and it both sharpened and dulled his senses the moment it touched his tongue. Steve smiled languidly as the machine began to whirr. "Imagine if they'd had that when we were kids."

Tony barked out a laugh in the background. "Probably woulda killed you in a second, Cap."

Steve reached up, dragging the candy slowly out of Bucky's mouth, watching his lips intently. And Bucky couldn't breathe and this wasn't fair, especially not after last night and this morning and he just wanted to kiss Steve so bad but he couldn't have that. He would never have that. He whined when Steve placed the candy back in his own mouth.

Tilting his head up to study the ceiling tiles, he let out a huff. "Start the tattooing already, Tony."

"But I was enjoying the show-"

"Stark, I'm not fucking dealing with you right now." Bucky glared at him. Steve was currently reaching out and tracing shapes into his hipbone where his shirt was rucked up and the drugs weren't doing anything but amplifying the sensations and he was very hard inside his thankfully tight jeans.

"Alright, alright, jeez." Tony rolled his eyes. "Hold still, Cap, this might sting." He tapped the screen.

The laser gave off a high pitched whine as it traced back and forth over Steve's skin with precision. Steve sucked in a breath, furrowing his brows. "Ah....that's...I can feel that."

Bucky squeezed his hand a couple times. "You're okay, Stevie." Because of the enhanced healing, the laser would have to trace over the tattoo for several minutes to be sure it set well. For Bucky's tattoo, it had meant a full afternoon of sitting still for it. Steve's was much smaller and simpler, however, so it wouldn't take near as long. "It'll be over in a minute."

Steve nodded, pulling the sucker from his mouth and offering it to Bucky again, smiling when he took the candy. He shifted their hands so he could press Bucky's over his heart. It was thumping hard beneath the warm, taut skin. "Feel that?" He whispered, eyes wide, darting around like it was some sacred secret he was scared of someone overhearing. "It hasn't done that since before the serum."

Bucky could feel his eyes drooping from the effect of the candy. He scraped his nails across Steve's pec, watching in fascination as the muscle jumped under his touch. And Steve whimpered at that. Bucky was so close to just saying fuck it and leaning in and kissing him, mouthing and biting at his jaw, seeing how many sounds he could wring out of him. He'd never wanted anything more. And their morning might have ended tensely, but there was enough there that it had left him confused. Maybe Steve would be more open to it this time around. He'd seemed almost disappointed when Bucky had lied about remembering loving him.

"Bucky." Steve's eyes were dark, his cheeks flushed. His Adam's apple bobbed as he swallowed. He lifted a hand and pressed his thumb against Bucky's lower lip. "I wanna lick the lollipop."

Tony let out a shriek of laughter.

Bucky shoved the candy in Steve's mouth as the laser cut off. He stood so abruptly the stool clattered to the floor.

"You're done, Cap." Tony gasped out, still cackling. "Signed, sealed, and delivered. Property of Barnes."

Bucky scowled, trying very hard to ignore the wet sounds Steve was making as he sucked at the lollipop, and how he was tugging at Bucky's belt loops. "The only thing he's being delivered to is his floor. See that he gets there, Stark, I have business to attend to."

"I bet you do." Tony smirked at him, raising an eyebrow. When Bucky glared harder in return, he huffed out a breath and tilted his head toward the door, "Go on, Gramps. I'll see that your buddy gets all bandaged up and tucked into bed with his sippy cup and comfort blanket."

"Bucky is my comfort blanket." Steve stood, wobbling and draping himself against Bucky's side. "Bucky, are you sure you don't remember when you said the thing? 'Cause I wanna talk about that. I'm really sorry I was mean to you."

Bucky swallowed hard. "Steve, you need to sleep this off."

"No. 'M not sleepy." Steve dragged Bucky toward the door. "We have to go talk about the thing. Thanks for the tattoo, Tony."

"I'll tattoo you any time if it gets me episode two of the BuckRogers soap opera."

Bucky lifted a metal middle finger in Stark's direction, reluctantly following Steve toward the elevator. As soon as the doors closed behind them, Steve whirled him around and slammed him against the wall. His face hovered inches in front of Bucky's, eyes glassy and unfocused. "You...you gotta remember. Please. It's important."

"Remember what, Steve?" Bucky's skin was flushed hot everywhere, his heart pounding in his ears. Whatever was going on, he wasn't so far gone on the pain killer that he wasn't aware of it. But he also wasn't gonna let it go very far, not with Steve all strung out. He'd never shown any kind of interest in Bucky that way, which meant this was only the drugs talking.

"Remember... Remember this." He surged forward, his lips slamming against Bucky's. Somewhere he'd lost the lollipop, but his mouth was still sticky with the taste. He kissed hard, like a fight he had to win. He licked into Bucky's mouth and shoved his hands into his hair. Sloppy and inexperienced, but everything in the world. And Bucky's entire body convulsed, his hands clutching at Steve like he was dying. He wanted it so bad. Yet even as he had it right in his grasp, it was still something he would never have.

He closed his eyes tight, breathing deeply through his nose before planting his metal hand against Steve's shoulder and shoving him so hard he slammed against the wall on the other side of the elevator. Licking his lips, Bucky fixed Steve with a hard look, summoning up every bit of the Winter Soldier's ability to disconnect from emotions. "Hydra may have messed with my mind, Steve, but I know for damn sure that we've never kissed before in our lives. There's absolutely nothing to remember there."

The doors opened onto Steve's floor and Bucky took a deep breath, grabbing Steve's elbow. "This is the pain killers in your system. That's some strong alien shit, pal. You're going to sleep it off."

"You gotta remember." Steve mumbled, stumbling after him as he practically dragged him to his bedroom.

"I'm sure I will someday." Bucky ruffled Steve's hair before shoving him onto his bed and high tailing it out of the room. He locked himself in the ensuite bathroom of his own room and shed his clothing in record time. He turned the shower on the hottest temperature, standing under the flow and leaning against the wall with a deep groan as he gripped himself with his flesh hand. It only took a few hard strokes before he was coming all over his fist, biting into his bottom lip (which still tasted like Steve and fuck if that didn't make him come even harder) to muffle his moans.

God, he was so fucking fucked.

***

When Steve woke, it was seven in the evening and he could hear Keeping Up With The Kardashians on tv in the living room. He groaned lifting his hand to his throbbing head. His mouth was dry enough it would have passed for a desert and he couldn't remember a fucking thing about getting the tattoo. No way was he taking those pain killers again. He groaned, standing up and walking to the door.

When he walked in the living room, his brows lifted. Bucky was curled under Natasha's arm, letting her spoon ice cream into his mouth while Kim cried over something. And. What the fuck? Natasha did not cuddle people. Bucky did not let people feed him food and he certainly didn't watch the Kardashians. Steve had met Kendall once. It had been a traumatic experience for him. He still didn't know what half the stuff she'd rattled at him about meant. "Um."

Bucky visibly flinched at his voice, his face a twisted mask of panic when he looked up and locked eyes with Steve. Natasha started petting his hair. Bucky didn't say anything, watching Steve warily.

And fuck, they had been making such good progress this morning and now Bucky was looking at him like he was terrified he'd hit him or something. He wanted to collapse on the couch and start crying. He hated seeing that look on his friend's face. "Buck? Are you alright?"

"Are you?" Bucky raised his eyebrows, burrowing back into Natasha almost imperceptibly. "The pain killers had a....interesting effect on you."

"Shit." Steve gasped, sitting down hard in the nearest chair. "Oh god, Bucky, what did I do? I can't remember a thing from a few minutes past when I first stuck the sucker in my mouth. I'm never taking that shit again."

"You don't remember?" Bucky sat up abruptly.

"Uhhhhh....," Steve tilted his head back, trying to call up any memory. "Nope. My shoulder feels bruised though. What happened, Bucky?"

Natasha muttered something in Russian before slipping from the room. Bucky cast him an unreadable look. "You got kinda handsy with me and started babbling about how I needed to remember something. What was that about?"

"Uh." This was bad. He'd gotten handsy? Just how handsy were they talking here? Stark would never let him live this down. And fuck, if his apparent handsy-ness hadn't made Bucky remember loving him, probably nothing would. He didn't even know why he was so desperate to make him remember, it would likely only complicate things. "Define handsy?"

"I dunno, Steve." Bucky turned his attention to the tv, decidedly not looking at him. "You found it amusing to shove my shirt up and draw on my hip bones with your fingers, which was actually rather ticklish. You grabbed at my belt loops a few times. And- uh. You shoved me against the wall in the elevator and demanded that I remembered the thing right before kissing me."

"Oh god." Steve threw his hands over his face with a groan. "I am so sorry." That was the worst possible thing he could have done. He'd fucked everything up. Bucky obviously didn't love him anymore and couldn't remember having ever had. He was going to lose him again. The only real thing he had left in the world, the one he would give up everything for. And.

Fuck

Bucky didn't love Steve.

But Steve loved Bucky.

He fucking loved Bucky. He was pretty sure he always had. And if he hadn't been so fucking blind and cruel and horrible then maybe he could have had. Bucky would have never fallen. They'd have both made it home to Brooklyn again.

"Hey, don't sweat it, punk. I know it was just the freaky alien drugs messing with your head." Bucky chucked a throw pillow at him. His teasing manner completely a odds with the way he still seemed kinda scared and wild around the edges. "I kinda startled and pushed you off me- sorry about your shoulder. But what, exactly, were you trying to get me to remember when you planted one on me though?"

There was no easy out of this situation. The best he could do was damage control. "I don't know." He whined miserably, pressing his face into the pillow. "I'm so sorry, Buck. After last night....and then some freaky alien drugs made me temporarily insane. I'm sorry for betraying your trust."

"Hey, no, Stevie. You didn't betray anything." The pillow was pulled away from from his face, Bucky rolling his eyes fondly at the blush that Steve was sporting. "Look- it never happened. We'll just forget it completely. Okay?"

Steve actually wanted to remember because he did want to kiss Bucky. He did. He wanted to a lot. But the time when that would have been okay was too long past and their chance had ended. "Okay."

***

Bucky couldn't do this. He had to get out of the tower, out of the environment that was just sending him into a downward spiral of emotion. He needed the release of a mission, or a target. Something for him to focus on besides Steve and the way Steve always looked like a kicked puppy, and the way Steve clutched desperately at him whenever he let him close.

In the end, it was Natasha who got him cleared with SHIELD. She called in Maria Hill and let them use her floor for the psych eval, then sparred with him until the agent was assured he was in full control of himself. Turns out, after the DC incident, the agency was in desperate need of skilled agents and there were missions aplenty. She offered him one the second he had passed the tests.

"It's a Hydra cell up in Canada." She held her tablet out for him to look, the screen showing a bunker marked for a random shoe company, but he knew better. "Our intel suggests that it's still operative and they do a lot of experiments on prisoners there."

"Yeah, that's definitely true." He slid his finger across the screen, flicking to the schematic of the building interior. "I was kept there in the 70s. They have some pretty...creative...torture devices stored down there." It would be his genuine pleasure to bomb the place. "How soon can I go?"

She raised an eyebrow at him. "How soon can you suit up and get to the quinjet on the roof?"

He grinned at her.

***

"James Buchanan Barnes!"

Bucky winced at Steve's shrill voice, continuing to look through weapons, picking and choosing the ones he wanted. He grinned at the tiny knife he uncovered, sliding it into a pocket on the glove that covered his metal hand. "What is it, Steve?" He slid several more regular knives into sheaths at his lower back and a serrated machete into his hip sheath.

Steve skidded to a halt in front of him, his eyes darting frantically at the weapons and the waiting jet just outside the doors to their right. "What are you doing?"

"Maria Hill cleared me for missions." Bucky let out the tiniest squeal of delight when he found a flamethrower that would attach to his metal wrist. He loved those. "I'm gonna go kill some hydra fuckwads. I'll be back by sundown." He held up a pair of sunglasses and read the attached tags. "Look an enemy in the eye while wearing and activate the lasers so you can burn their eyes out." A grin crossed his lips. "That is fuckin' awesome!" He put them on.

"You can't!" Steve reached for his arm, tugging hard. "What if they say your trigger words?"

Bucky held up a mini torpedo gun. "I'll shoot them with this and explode them before they can finish saying them." He tucked it in his thigh holster. Man, he could not wait to get his hands on those bastards.

Payback's a bitch, motherfuckers.

Steve gulped, eyeing the weapons he was still layering every possible inch of his body with. "I can't let you go, Bucky. It's too dangerous."

Bucky snorted, moving to the next shelf of weaponry. "Like you could stop me. Hey-" he held up a spiked axe that looked like it came straight from one of those zombie movies that Natasha loved. "How long do you think it would take me to behead someone with this?"

"Bucky, you can't behead people. Even if they are Hydra. They've gotta be brought in alive for questioning."

"Boy, watch me." Bucky attached the axe to his back.

"Well, you aren't going alone. You need backup. Let me get my shield and uniform-"

"Steve." Bucky sighed, turning around and clasping his friend's shoulder. Part of the reason he was so desperate to go on the mission was to get away from Steve for a little while. "Hill will be nearby with some other backup, but I'm storming the base by myself. I'll be fine. I was in far more danger as the Asset, this is nothing. Just some target practice."

"You can't." And Steve was so pale, his eyes wide and desperate. "You can't know that you'll be fine. And Bucky, I can't- I...can't lose you again. I won't." He gulped, swallowing hard. "Let me go with you."

"I appreciate that you're worried about me, but I can't let you do that." He smiled tightly, tucking a few more guns and some explosives onto his person. He needed perspective and he couldn't get that by being around Steve so much. And yet, maybe Steve had just offered him the best way to clear away some of his confusion. "You don't have to protect me anymore, Steve. I'm not the fragile person I once was anymore. Whatever happens to me, I can handle it." Words from the past twisted back to the very person they'd come from.

And Steve sucked in a hard breath, his eyes widening.

"I'm not weak anymore. You don't have to be there to protect me, because I know what I'm facing. And you don't have to keep me around for old times' sake just because you're worried I'm not in my right mind and you want the last relic from your past."

"Oh god, Bucky." Steve gasped, his hands reaching out, but Bucky turned away. "That's not it at all, you don't understand. Please, just let me go with you. I can't lose you. I can't."

Bucky looked over his shoulder as he grasped the door handle, giving Steve a wry smile. "Oh yeah, Stevie? Why don't you tell me? Why do you care so much."

They were both silent for several long moments, staring, unblinking, at one another. Steve's chest lifted and fell in a deep breath. Bucky raised an eyebrow.

And then.

"Because I'm in love with you, Asshole." Steve whispered, desperate, pleading.

Lifetimes ago, Bucky believed in happy endings. That was long destroyed. He choked out a humorless laugh, opening the door onto the roof. "Don't fucking patronize me, Steve."

And he walked to the waiting jet without looking back.

***

I love you asshole

Bucky nodded along as Agent Hill briefed him on the mission, his mind anywhere but on the topic at hand. God, how had Steve thought that was even remotely the right answer to his question? And yet, he wondered if it was. Thinking back on the past weeks since the alien drug incident, he couldn't help but wonder.

Did Steve actually love him?

Or was he just saying that to try and keep Bucky locked inside the tower like an antique in a glass case?

"We're gonna drop you here." Hill pointed at a spot on the map. "And we'll be ready to send in backup when you call for it."

"Won't need it." Bucky stalked over to the parachutes, pulling one on and moving to wait near the door. They were approaching the drop zone. "Whenever you're ready."

The agent nodded and the doors opened. He tossed her a wink, reminiscent of his old self. "See you on the flip side, doll." And then he jumped. The airbrushed around him as he counted off the seconds until he opened his chute.

He was a ways out from the facility, but there was a motorbike waiting for him on the ground. It's engines were silent, thankfully, so he could ride it right up to the edge of cover around the bunker. There were six guards at the door. "Ugh, always making things difficult." He muttered, stalking to the nearest tree and shimmying up it. Once he was settled in the branches, he selected a gun that would lock on each of the men and shoot them all at once. The future was great that way.

When they were down, he moved to the door, using a scanning device to tell him the code and letting himself into the cool, dark interior. And fuck. Just by stepping inside he could smell electricity burned flesh and acid and hear the screaming and this was a disaster. His breathing shallowed. Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

He could do this. He would do this.

Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes for a moment, allowing himself to settle into the skin of the Asset. And then he fought. With each shot or stab or lasered eyeball, he was the Asset. And when he reached the center of the madness, the room where several people were currently being tortured, and set eyes on the man behind it all, he clicked back into himself.

The man smirked at him from across the room, where he was operating a machine that was slowly stretching it's victim. It was a horrible device and Bucky knew if it was left long enough, the persons limbs would eventually be ripped off or worse. He'd been in it before, though they had other forms of horror that they preferred to use on him. "The Asset. I have been expecting you. I assume you have disposed of all my men?"

"Would you like a bullet, a knife, or an axe?" Bucky folded his arms, staring the man down.

He laughed. "I do not think that will be necessary. I'm not the one dying today." He reached for a switch on a nearby machine. Bucky grabbed for his gun but before he could aim, the world around him exploded and he was trapped. It hurt like nothing he'd ever been through. He could hear screaming and he was pretty sure it was coming from himself. It felt like every electric shock he'd ever had, all around him, within him. He was tearing apart from the inside out. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't see.

There was only pain.

He had lost again.

***

Steve was trying to follow the trail of dead and injured bodies to Bucky when an all too familiar scream echoed through the otherwise silent facility. He almost fell over. It was a scream he had heard, but not heard. It was tortured. He took off, running in the direction of the noise. Instead of taking the stairs carefully, he leaped down them. "Bucky!"

The screams were coming from behind a very locked door. He choked on a sob, slamming his shield against the lock. "Not again. Not again. Please not again." He couldn't lose him again. When the door gave under the abuse and crashed inward, he was the one screaming. Bucky was in the middle of the room, trapped in an electric force field. He was curled on his side on the floor, his arms over his head, screaming with so much pain that it would be imprinted in Steve's mind.

"You are too late, Captain America. He will soon be dead."

"Not on my watch." Steve flung his shield at the guy's head, rushing forward and fumbling with the machines. He needed to stop the force field but he was scared of making it worse or turning something else on. He winced and tapped a large blue one. A saw descended from the ceiling, aimed to cut some poor restrained guy in half. He shrieked and Steve gasped, tapping the button again. The saw turned off. "Which one turns it off?" He screamed at the guy.

"It's the green lever," the guy couldn't point but Steve could see which one he was referring to.

He flipped it, barely giving the electricity time to cut off before running to Bucky's side. He collapsed next to him, eyes burning as Bucky writhed on the ground, still screaming. His metal arm was shooting sparks. "Oh god. Fuck. Bucky, oh Bucky."

"It hurts!" Bucky cried out, his eyes remaining shut. He convulsed on the stone floor, wretching.

"Fuck, fuck, fuck." Steve slid his arms under Bucky's shoulders, lifting him slightly but that only ripped more tortured screams from him. "Bucky, please. You can't leave me again." He was sobbing, deep choking gasps in his chest. "I need you. I'm supposed to die first. It's the fucking rule, you asshole."

Maria was on her way with the backup. They needed to get Bucky to the jet and they needed to get him to medical care and Tony. He stroked his hand over Bucky's half scorched hair, fumbling with his comm mic. "Hill, get the h-hell in here. Bucky's down. We need immediate medical care. There's also captives strapped into torture devices.

"On my way." Her voice was tight.

When they arrived, Steve helped carry Bucky to the jet, only moving away from his side to let the field medics assess his state as they flew towards New York. He grabbed Hill by the elbow staring hard at her. "What the fuck made you think it was a good idea to send him alone into a Hydra base that large?"

"He's the Winter Soldier. He told me he could handle it." She shrugged. "Evidently there were unexpected complications."

"From now on, he doesn't go on a mission unless I'm also going. We work together or not at all." Steve dropped his hold moving back to sink down at Bucky's bedside. He folded Bucky's hand gently between both of his own. "I'm not losing you again." He whispered. "I love you. I love you so much. You have to stay with me. I know you remember."

But Bucky didn't wake.

Bucky didn't wake for a long time. Not after they got to the tower and a team of doctors and specialists were ready and waiting for him. Not when Tony removed the fried metal arm and replaced it with one that was much stronger and lighter. They said that because the original arm was fried and his nerves were attached to it, that it had possibly destroyed his system beyond repair. All they could do was wait and see.

Bucky didn't wake and Steve didn't leave his side.

***

He came to slowly, his eyes refusing to open. Somewhere to his right, Steve was grasping his hand, talking in a weary but desperate voice. "You've gotta come back to me, Bucky. It's been two months and they all say you won't. That you're stuck like this, in this in between of life and death. But I know better. You're coming back. You have to, because I'm fucking dying first. It's the rule." There was a choked sniffle. "You know, you're real stupid, Buck. I've told you that a million times. Never ever go on a mission alone. I may have done the same thing a bunch of times but that doesn't mean you have permission to do it."

Dumb punk. His logic had never made sense. Bucky wanted to smile, but his face wouldn't respond.

"And I know I've said this a million times, and I'll probably say it a million more, but.... You gotta believe me. The only thing I've ever hated myself more over than letting you fall, is how I reacted when you told me you loved me that night. I was horrible and I would deserve it if you wanted nothing to do with me. It surprised me and scared me but that was still no excuse." A soft kiss was placed on his knuckles. "I was never gonna get you transferred off the team. I can't function without you and I knew it even as I said it. God, I hate myself. But I do love you, I do. I know you don't believe it and I don't blame you. But it's the truest thing I've ever said." A broken sob sounded. "I don't even know if you still love me, but you've gotta come back to me. We lost our chance once, I won't let us lose it again. I love you so much."

And hell. That was worth any amount of pain to wake up to. It was the only thing he'd ever wanted to hear, all he'd ever want to hear again. He slowly blinked his eyes open, the late afternoon light harsh on his unused eyes. His mouth was dry, and when he spoke his voice cracked, but it didn't matter. Nothing mattered but Steve. "Say it again. Please."

Steve tensed, his lips parting in a silent gasp, red rimmed eyes locking on Bucky like he was the greatest thing he'd ever seen. "Bucky. Oh god, Bucky. I love you."

Bucky slowly tilted the corner of his mouth up in a crooked smile. "Promise?"

"I love you and that's a promise." Steve returned with the most breathtaking smile. Bucky summoned what little strength he had to fist his hand in Steve's shirt and tug him close.

"I love you too and that's a promise." And this time when they kissed, it was right.