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Even As A Dream

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It’s like a scene from a horror flick, Steve thinks, and then: fuck. His thoughts are sluggish; the left side of his face is cool and wet, lying in a puddle of spilled milk. He watches a blurry green apple roll across his field of view, which is narrow, narrowing—

A dull ache radiating from a sharp point of pain in the meat of his back—

Heavy footsteps that he can’t see—two people, no, three, no—one—

And then nothing.

-

Under his back, his bed is vibrating. Steve shifts, trying to get comfortable. Metal rattles against metal between his wrists. There are voices—why are there men in his bedroom?—he struggles to open his eyes, gets them a hair open and goes dizzy at the haze of motion above him, rolling to one side and vomiting. Something hard connects with his belly and he grunts, pukes a little more.

Something stabs into his arm and he goes cold again, and slides off into the emptiness at the edge of his vision.

-

The next time Steve comes to, his hands are chained above him, the weight of his body dragging at his shoulders. His feet just barely brush the ground, and after a moment he is able to push his weight into his toes. The motion floods his arms with relief so heady that he seems to spin, but there’s nothing left in his body to vomit, so he only drools a bit.

Finally, he manages to pick his head up; the relief in his arms makes the rest of his body hurt all the more, pain lancing through his skull and down his neck. What had they dosed him with? This is about the worst hangover he’s ever had, which is saying something, because he’d gone drink for drink with Bucky more times than he can count when they’d been young, and most of those nights had ended with Bucky carrying him home.

Wherever he is—he’s not ready to open his eyes yet—it’s cold, and despite himself he begins to shiver. Hearing no human sounds, he thinks he must be alone; whether he feels safer or less safe because of this, he’s not sure.

Swallowing against the dryness of his mouth, Steve eventually opens his eyes, shifting his weight to one foot to give the other a rest. After a second his vision clears. He’s in a warehouse, big and cold and empty. There’s a metallic scent in the air. He rolls his head back and finds that he’s attached to the ceiling by a short chain and a pair of the same handcuffs he’d been forced to wear after meeting the Winter Soldier for the first time. He swallows again and wonders—for the thousandth time, the millionth—where Bucky is now, if he’s alright.

In the time after SHIELD’s demise, Steve had heard rumors that Bucky—the Soldier—who knew, exactly, at this point—had vanished. If a person was looking—and Steve was, and Natasha was, and Sam was, and Maria was—there were things to be seen: the deaths of certain Hydra operatives, most notably, but everywhere traces of the man who had once been James Buchanan Barnes. A bottle of engine grease in a bathroom, of all places; a leather belt tied to the leg of a table, its underside marked as though it had been used to sharpen a knife; the scent of burnt gunpowder; and, once, a toothpick in a trash can when there was no sign of any others in the entire apartment.

That last gave Steve more hope than anything. How many times he’d drawn his best friend’s sharp predatory grin, the straight pointed line of the toothpick between his teeth—he ached to think of it, ached then and ached now.

Belatedly, he thinks of Sam. Dear Sam, who had been out for a run while Steve had gone for groceries. Is he here? Did they bother to take him? Why is Steve here, for that matter? He spins a bit on his toes, but the rest of the room is just as bare as the first angle. Sun shines in through the windows, slanting along the stained concrete floor in big long amber stripes.

How long has he been here?

And—God—why?                                                                

And how is he going to get free?

Clenching his jaw, Steve softens his knees, letting his sore shoulders take the majority of his weight once more. He breathes hard through gritted teeth and bounces, testing the cuffs, but they don’t budge. Fine. He bounces again, testing the chain, but before he can make it move, pain blooms across his right shoulder as it pops from its socket.

Cursing, sweating, his stomach rebelling, Steve gets his toes under him again. Although the pain has excised the last of the fog in his brain, it’s replaced by the utter distraction of trying not to move his arm, the dizziness as adrenaline kicks in, the exhaustion as his body burns off the last of the sedative. He lets his head fall forward again.

He doesn’t know how much time passes before a noise rouses him. As he straightens up, trying to prepare himself for what might come, his calves cramp from holding him for so long, and he releases a moaning sob.

The door is opening. Steve catches his tongue between his teeth and bites hard enough to draw blood, trying to clear his mind as a dark-haired woman with a square jaw and bright blue eyes steps in. She’s carrying a brown leather briefcase in one hand. If Steve had met her on the street, he might have thought she looked sweet. In these circumstances he’s not so sure.

“Hello, Mr Rogers,” she says. Even her voice is sweet, a little quiet, like she’s purposely trained it to sound girlish.

Steve considers spitting at her, only his mouth is so dry it actually hurts. “What do you want from me?” he croaks instead. Now that he’s seen her, he’s happy to admit to himself that some tiny part of him had been afraid that it had been the Winter Soldier to take him. But from what he knows of the Soldier since the fall of SHIELD, he works alone.

“Well, Mr Rogers, we’ve been running some tests, but we’ve run low on your DNA,” she says, pleasant as anything. “We decided it might be easier to just—you know—keep you around. Get it from the source, as it were.”

What the hell does that even mean? Smacking his lips, Steve tries to think past the pain and the desert in his mouth. “Fuck you,” is what he comes up with.

The woman tuts, crouching a few feet from him so she can pop open her briefcase. “Unfortunately, Mr Rogers, we’re going to have to move you again before we begin with our tests.” She straightens up, holding a syringe filled with a strange reddish-amber liquid. “Which means that I’m going to have to sedate you again.”

The click of his dry throat as he swallows again is audible in the cold empty room. He watches as she walks closer, waiting, waiting—and lashes out, kicking at her. But she’s quicker than she looks, dodging him and kicking back, her toes connecting with his kidney. Luckily she’s wearing soft shoes, so it doesn’t hurt so bad, but it’s enough of a warning. Steve glares as she comes close again, but doesn’t try anything. There will be a time to escape, he’s sure of it, but it’s not right now.

She’s bringing the syringe close to his arm when something makes them both jump. Gunshots outside the door, scuffling, a yell of pain. Something closes on her face, and she shakes her head, her mouth a harsh snarl. “Guess we’ll have to do this the fast way,” she says, and suddenly the syringe is pressing into the thick vein in his neck, stinging, and his blood goes icy as night falls over his eyes. The pain washes from his shoulders, and he sags.

 “Steve. Steve. Wake up, you fuckin’ punk.”

How long he’s been out, he doesn’t know; but he’s freezing and the daylight’s almost gone and oh, is that Bucky’s voice, Bucky’s hands on his face?

Steve doesn’t like this dream. He’s achy all over, and his mouth is full of cotton. He itches, too, top to bottom, and struggles to wake himself, to claw away the cobwebs in his mind. It’s cruel but unsurprising that his mind has conjured Bucky to wake him. “B’ckee,” he mutters. “G’way. Yer not…real.”

“Y’always were a grumpy drunk,” says Bucky’s voice. “You need to wake up, Steve.”

Something flares in him; anger, maybe. He’s tired, alright, tired of hunting. Tired of seeing Bucky in dreams and nowhere else. Just…tired. “No,” he snarls, and tries to pull away.

Something hard and unyielding clamps on the thin skin inside his bicep, and twists. He yelps in pain, but it’s successful—the cobwebs are burned away and he picks his head up. “I’m not leaving without you, asshole,” Bucky says. His face is just inches from Steve’s, and he squints, trying to get him into focus. It doesn’t really work. “Jesus, what did they use on you?” Steve tries to say something, but his vowels are garbled, and his mouth can’t seem to figure out the difference between a p sound and an r sound. Can this possibly be real?

Bucky shakes his head and steps back so he can examine the cuffs and chain above them. “We’ve gotta get out of here, Steve. Think you can pull that chain out of the ceiling?”

Steve gives it a valiant effort, but he cries out and fades left as his right shoulder shrieks. “Okay, no,” Bucky says. “Stay right here—I’ll be back.” Like Steve could go anywhere even if he wanted to.

And then Bucky leaves.

And Steve fades into and out of consciousness.

And Bucky returns, slamming a chair—where did he get a chair?—down in front of Steve. “Get up there,” he says, and Steve goes, wobbling, standing on the seat so his elbows can finally bend, his shoulders relieved of all strain, finally. He swallows back the pain and watches fuzzily as Bucky gets up on the chair too, one foot between Steve’s two.

His right arm wraps strong around Steve’s waist, pulling him close, and Steve imagines putting his head down again, pressing his face into Bucky’s neck. He smells—like he’s supposed to: like hair cream and aftershave, like the damp spring earth, like…

Bucky reaches up with his left arm and yanks the chain free of its mooring. Cement dust rains down upon them, and he helps Steve lower his arms. Steve practically swoons, his vision blackening for a moment as his shoulder protests motion.

“Dislocated,” Bucky says.

“I know,” Steve replies. Bucky seems to stifle a laugh as he gets down off the chair and helps Steve down. He stumbles, and Bucky catches him, and for a second all Steve can think about is kissing him, his savior, his—his Bucky.

But then Bucky shakes him. “I’ll fix your arm, but not now. Last thing I need is for you to pass out like the fairy princess you are, Rogers. I don’t think I can carry you all the way out of here.”

“’M not a—”

“Yeah, you are,” Bucky says, manhandling him into a quick walk. It’s more like a stumble for Steve, his arms thrown around Bucky’s shoulders, the sedative still jangling through him, stomping on all his nerve endings. He’s still cuffed, too, and he wonders vaguely how they’re going to deal with that. “You got those dainty little feet, and you pretty much sparkle in the sun. Although these days I guess that means you’re probably a vampire.” He laughs to himself, again, and Steve flops his head back.

“Huh?”

“Nothing, nothing. I’ll explain another time. When I’m not busy staging a daring rescue of a fairy princess.”

“But fairies’re mean,” Steve says, or thinks he says, or something. Fairies are mean; they’ll claw your eyes out if you disturb them, gnaw their way through your bones if you wander into their territory. He’s not like that…is he?

Steve’s pretty sure there’s no hallway to turn down when Bucky suddenly pulls him left. They don’t go very far, though, maybe only a few steps before Bucky tips him onto the floor next to a motionless man. He feels like a puddle down there, a cloudy murky puddle, looking up at his best friend, scruff darkening his jaw, sleeves rolled up like he’s not cold. But it’s cold. “B’ckee iss cold,” he says, frowning, his mouth not wanting to move much.

Somehow, though, Bucky seems to understand him, looking up from where he’s doing—whatever it is. “I’m alright, Rogers,” he murmurs. “Cool your beans.”

“Don’…have beans,” Steve points out.

Bucky snorts. “I know you don’t.” There’s a loud metallic shuk-ticka-tack like when Steve takes apart his gun to clean it. The pressure around his wrists falls away, and Bucky takes his left arm—Steve’s body rearticulates into a vaguely humanoid shape—and hauls him to his feet, taking most of his body weight across his shoulders.

It feels like a year before they push out a door into a gritty narrow alley that smells like piss, like every alley Steve’s ever fought in, before Bucky stops beside an old green minivan. He leans Steve against the passenger door and stands to his right. “If you’re planning on puking, do it thataway,” he says, pushing Steve’s face until he’s looking away from him. Then he takes hold of Steve’s elbow and begins to pull.

Steve does vomit, though it’s mostly bile that burns its way up his throat. The pain slips away and he goes dizzy with it, bending forward at the waist until he’s staring straight down at the ground. “Yeah, that’s it,” Bucky murmurs, rubbing his back, “feel better?”

Gulping, Steve nods. The world is spinning again; now that the pain has been cut apart, the clouds are returning, and he shakes his head, trying to clear it, as Bucky hauls open the back sliding door. Bucky hustles him in, throwing him across the bench seat, and climbs in too, pulling the door closed after him.

The rim of a bottle touches Steve’s lips, and he drinks. There’s a hand sliding through his hair, and even though he’s sore everywhere, the sleep that he’s slipping into is gentle, numbing, and he lets a contented sigh fall from between his lips.

“That’s right,” says Bucky’s soft voice. “That’s right, you’re safe now.”

-

He’d felt nice when he’d gone to sleep; but waking up is like being dragged along a spiked road. Everything hurts, most notably his shoulder and his skull. Thankfully he’s warm, lying horizontal rather than being stretched up in to a parenthetical curve. A couch, he thinks, rolling onto his left side and pressing into the sofa back. He cradles his right arm against his chest and debates whether or not to open his eyes.

But he can hear quiet voices as if from the next room.

Still, it takes Steve several minutes to manage it. Between the hangover and how cozy he is, he has to talk himself into it; but when he finally does peel his eyelids back, he finds that he’s in Sam’s darkened living room, that there’s a bottle of ibuprofen and a big glass of water on the coffee table, that night has fallen and that the voices are coming from the kitchen.

Moving slowly, he sits up, drinks back some ibuprofen and the whole glass of water, and gets to his feet. Taking the glass with him, he heads for the voices, the fingers of his right hand hooked into his collar so that he doesn’t move his arm too much.

As he goes to turn into the kitchen, though, Bucky appears in the lit doorway. “You’re supposed to be resting,” he says, but still he walks forward, gets an arm around Steve’s waist and takes the cup.

“But the party’s still going, Mom,” Steve protests as Bucky guides him into the kitchen. Sam’s sitting at the table, a noodle on the end of his fork, eyebrows raised at Steve. “They didn’t take you?”

Sam shakes his head as Steve sits. Bucky fills the water glass and pushes it into Steve’s hand as he takes the third seat. “Didn’t want me,” Sam explains. “Barnes thinks it was a trap.”

“A trap?” Steve asks. The tranquilizer must still be in his system, because his brain won’t work to figure it out.

“For me,” Bucky says, stabbing a noodle of his own and holding it out toward Steve’s face. “You should eat.” Steve’s stomach rolls and he stares at the noodle, trying not to make a face, but Bucky must notice anyway, because he pulls the fork back and drops it on his plate. “Jesus, you picky bastard. Would crackers be more suited to your refined tastes?”

“No,” Steve says as Bucky starts to get up again. “I’m not hungry.” He really does feel pretty terrible. Turning sideways in his seat, he puts his arm over the back of the chair and rests his head on his wrist. “But you’re—you’re alright?”

Bucky eats the noodle and sits back in his seat. “‘Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil,’” he quotes.

Steve swallows. How many times during the war had he looked in the direction of Bucky’s vantage point and thought the same thing? “‘For thou art with me,’” he finishes.

But Bucky snorts, shrugs a shoulder. The motion sucker-punches Steve right in the chest, so similar is it to the Bucky he remembers. “‘I will fear no evil, for I am the baddest motherfucker in the goddamn valley.’”

These words ring so true that something breaks in Steve, and he rubs his face against his arm. He’s trembling, suddenly, trying not to break into tiny pieces all over Sam’s kitchen floor.

Bucky’s foot nudges against his, pulls back, and then Bucky’s on his feet again, poking at Steve. “Get up,” he says, “Come on, Rogers. If you’re going weepy on us then I think you need to be horizontal again.” When he doesn’t get up fast enough, Bucky pokes him again and claps his hands, once, right next to Steve’s ear. “C’mon, soldier, let’s go. Hop to.”

Steve lumbers to his feet again and lets Bucky lead him toward the hall. “Goodnight, Sam,” he remembers to call over his shoulder.

In the guest bedroom that Steve’s been living in for months now, Bucky pulls back the covers on the bed and points. Steve goes, lets Bucky tuck the blankets up around his chin, but as Bucky turns to go he grabs at him. “Wait,” Steve mumbles, sleep already plucking at his mind.

Bucky turns and takes a seat on the edge of the bed. He rubs a hand through Steve’s hair. “What is it?” he asks, his voice soft.

Christ, Steve misses him, misses sitting in their kitchen drawing while Bucky shines his shoes and hums. He twists his hand into Bucky’s soft grey shirt. “Sing to me.”

He looks up into Bucky’s grey-brown eyes, expecting that he won’t do it, preparing to curl up and sleep away his anguish; but then Bucky takes a sip from Steve’s water glass and shifts a bit closer. Hand still in Steve’s hair, he starts to hum.

Steve drifts off just as Bucky leans down, lips brushing his temple, to sing into his ear. The last thing he thinks is that maybe he should release Bucky’s shirt, but he can’t bring himself to unclench his fingers.

-

The sun wakes Steve, hot across his back. He hugs his pillow and thinks about his dream. Sure, he’d been kidnapped…but Bucky had been home. Bucky had saved him. Bucky…had sung to him.

He rolls over and scrubs a hand through his hair. His shoulder twinges, just a bit, and he swings his arm in a circle. It hurts again and in two breaths he’s out of bed and in the hall.

Bucky’s sitting on the counter in the kitchen, looking out the big bay window and sharpening a short knife. In the sun he looks almost like Steve remembers, toothpick poking out of the corner of his mouth. His hair is still long, though from Steve’s understanding that’s kind of in style right now. He looks up, and Steve remembers how hard it is to find the right color of paint to match his eyes, amber in the sun, dark grey under artificial lights. His chest hurts with longing; he clutches the doorjamb to keep himself from flinging his body into Bucky’s arms.

He might not appreciate it as he once did.

“How are you feeling?” Bucky asks, just as Steve manages to breathe, “You’re here.” He smiles around the toothpick and gives a short nod. “Thought I was a dream, did you?”

Jerkily, Steve nods. “I wasn’t—sure. If it was a dream. If you’d still be here. If…” he breaks off, clears his throat. “If you’d ever come—” he’d almost said home— “back to me.”

“Don’t be dumb,” Bucky says, and he’s flat out grinning now, and it’s both the same and different as Steve remembers. Bucky’s smile had always had a bit of a predatory edge, at least when it was turned on Steve; and that’s still there. But there’s also something else, something almost tentative. There are so many questions Steve wants to ask, but doesn’t. “You’ll never get rid of me.”

Steve wants to laugh and cry. “Good. Bucky, that’s—that’s good.”

Then Bucky hops down from the counter, pads toward him. He chews on that toothpick for a moment, looking into Steve’s face. “Are you feeling better?” he asks again.

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Steve says, resisting the urge to reach out and take Bucky’s tapping hand. The look that Bucky’s giving him is making him restless. Something’s wrong. “Are you—what is it?”

“I need your help.” Bucky turns and walks back to the counter, sheathing his knife and bringing it back with him. “Wilson’s already in.”

As if Steve needed Sam to convince him to help. As if Steve wouldn’t move Heaven and Hell and all the realms in between if it meant being near Bucky. “Anything, Bucky. You know that.”

-

“You should have told me last night,” Steve says, staring down at the file on the table in front of him. His throat hurts and he’s fighting nausea again; but it’s no drug this time. Six photos. Numbers, and names in quotation marks like nobody ever uses them. Blonde. Blonde. Blonde. Brunette. Brunette. Brunette.

“Right, because you were so ready to go stampeding off to save a bunch of kids,” Bucky replies. He shifts a little, and suddenly the arch of his foot is pressed against the outside of Steve’s, their calves parallel. Steve wants to lean over and kiss him, a little. A lot.

Steve flips closed the file. He can’t keep looking at the tiny faces, so like his own, Bucky’s own. “What would Hydra need with a bunch of—” he can’t even bring himself to say it. Children, some young enough and small enough to still sleep in cribs. Is that why they’d taken him? For more DNA, more tests, more—babies?

“You already know the answer to that.” Nat, standing by the coffeemaker, has been mostly quiet up to now. Swallowing, Steve nods, but he doesn’t—can’t—look at her. “No more speculating. We need to find them.”

“How?” Steve asks. “Where do we start?”

Bucky pokes forward one of the ID cards he’d placed next to the file. Dr Thérèse Beauforte, it reads; the woman is blonde, hard-faced, maybe mid-forties. “She was the lead scientist,” he says. Steve doesn’t ask about the use of past tense. “All we need to do is find out where she’s been traveling.”

“Then what?”

“Then we burn them to the ground.”

Steve looks over at Natasha. She’s looking down at her phone, typing rapidly with as serene an expression as he’s ever seen on her face. “I’ll have her flight information in five,” she says, not looking up. “And Barton’s on his way in with the Quinjet.”

And suddenly it’s a flurry of preparation; Steve pulls on his uniform in his guest room, wishing it weren’t so flashy but owning no other tac gear, not now that SHIELD has fallen, and hooks his shield onto his back. He picks up his helmet, but doesn’t put it on, poking two fingers through the eyeholes and bringing it with him back to the kitchen. There, Bucky is tucking knives into all sorts of improbable places: the insides of his biceps; behind his back; a spot high on his thighs that’s way too close to his crotch for Steve’s liking; the back of his neck.

He turns, and Steve doesn’t even try to pretend he wasn’t staring. He’s still wearing that soft grey shirt under his unzipped tac jacket, and Steve wants to bury his face into his chest and leave it there until the end of time. In a way he’s not sure he ever really expected to see Bucky again, at least not in this life.

There’s a black loop sticking out of Bucky’s mouth; a hair tie, he realizes as Bucky begins to scoop his hair up off his neck. They watch each other as Bucky knots the elastic into his hair; then he pulls a black bandana from his pocket and ties it over his mouth. Hooking a finger into the makeshift mask, he pulls it down so that it’s sitting ready around his neck. They’re still looking at one another. There are words hovering inside Steve’s teeth, preparing to spill from his lips.

Then the tension is broken by a door slamming. Sam walks into the kitchen, carrying his wing pack under one arm, goggles loose around his neck. “Romanoff says four minutes,” he says, then, for a moment, his eyes stray between them, calculating. “You two ready?”

Steve nods; Bucky nods; together they all head to the back door.

Bucky tying his hair up

-

It’s a six-hour flight in the Quinjet to Sydney, where it’s pissing rain and cold, near ten at night. Bucky looks out the window, his nose wrinkled, and points out a nondescript apartment building near the edge of the central business district.

“Really?” Sam asks as they begin their descent. “That one?”

Bucky shrugs, pulling his mask up while Steve clips on his helmet. “Right, because you’ve never discovered Hydra hiding in plain sight before,” he replies. Sam looks at him for a long moment, then turns away, fiddling with the strap of his wings. Fidgeting for a second, Bucky calls after him: “You may not get much opportunity to use those in there.”

“Didn’t need ‘em to kick your ass,” comes Sam’s answer, and Bucky breaks into a laugh.

Steve takes a deep shuddering breath in as the Quinjet touches down. Each of them takes one last moment to prepare themselves before Barton releases the door latch; and then the five of them step out.

If Steve had been hesitant before, stepping out of the jet is like physically stepping away from that pause. On the roof there’s a small playground, fenced in on all sides and the top. It’s the most foreboding sight he’s ever seen; and it steels him. Either they’re in the right place, or this is another trap.

Maybe both.

He lets Clint lead them to the stairwell door, watches as the archer crouches to pick the lock. They’re inside with little more than a click.

“You’d think they’d make more of an effort to keep people out,” Steve mutters.

There’s a snort from Natasha in his comm. “How many people do you think have access to the roof from above?” she reminds him. “Care to take point, Cap?”

Steve looks over at Bucky, but he waves him on. “I’ll give you directions.”

-

They’ve snuck down three flights of stairs before Bucky’s soft touch on the back of Steve’s neck signals a stop. Shield up, he turns his head halfway so he can watch as Bucky points at the door to Steve’s left. The 21st floor sign is cheery yellow, bright in the well-lit stair. He squeezes against the wall so Bucky can slip past him; in his wake Sam draws up on Steve’s six. Clint’s bowstring audibly tightens as he draws it back, a few steps up.

For a moment Bucky’s eyes study them all, up the stairs, as if he’s judging how prepared they are. Then, motionless but for his wrist, he turns the doorhandle and pulls.

Immediately an alarm goes off; it shrieks as Steve steps into the hall, and he almost smiles at Clint swearing in his comm, muttering about having to turn down his hearing aids.

People begin to poke their heads out of doors; then, half-clothed, wholly unprepared, they begin to head for Steve and the big spangled target he carries. A tranq arrow whizzes past him, notable for its yellow and purple fletching, and catches a man square in his bare chest. A woman at the end of the hall, wearing green polka-dotted boxer shorts, has had the foresightedness to leave a gun somewhere easily accessible; a bullet pings off the shield and lodges itself in the ceiling.

Holding a hand out to stop any of his companions stepping into the line of fire, Steve runs at her, neatly leaping over the downed man, his head tucked behind his shield as she continues to fire at him. He grits his teeth as he feels a bullet rip through his sleeve and lodge in the meaty part of his forearm, tucks his elbow in tighter behind the shield. There’s a sharp click as she runs out of bullets, but she’s smart here too, and instead of freezing she ducks low, kicks out at his knees. He hops almost straight up to avoid her, and—cringing—comes down right on her leg, which fractures under his weight. She screams; he swings the shield into her temple and she crumples entirely, unconscious.

Better this way, out of the reach of her pain.

“Nat—got a rope?” Steve calls down the hallway. He can hear movement in the apartment that the woman came from, and he can bet someone in there is coming to her aid.

In less than a second, Natasha is beside him; as he pulls the apartment door shut, she loops a thick wire around the knob, knotting it. Zigzagging back down the hall, they tie each door to its neighbors, trapping those left inside. At the other end of the hall, Steve can see Sam breaking a man’s arm as he tries to knife him; and at the place where it makes a T, the top of which their entry point, Bucky is dropping agents one by one, lethal and stoic, his grey eyes steady over his mask. Arrows continue to zip out of the stairwell and down the T.

“They almost look like civilians,” Nat comments as they make their way back toward the intersection. While Steve steps over the man lying prone in the hall, she makes sure to walk across his face, leaving a smudge of dirt. She doesn’t weigh enough to leave any damage.

“Yeah, except for those—” Sam huffs—“damned guns.” The man he’s grappling with suddenly slips, and Sam gets a hand under his chin, slamming his head back against the wall once—twice—the man slides to the floor.

Tasha sidles past him, tying off those doors too, and they’re left in an eerie quiet, sort of. All that’s left is the screech of the alarm, some muffled thuds as people continue to try to leave their units, their heavy breathing as the five of them regroup at the top of the T.

“Is this it?” Clint asks as he swings the stairwell door shut behind him. “I mean—this can’t be it, can it?”

Bucky and Natasha exchange a look and then several short bursts of rapid Russian. Steve’s Russian is rusty, so he waits until they’re done speaking before raising his eyebrows at them both. “We’ll face more on the way out,” Natasha says, signing along for Clint’s benefit. “No way they don’t know we’re here.”

“You don’t think we’ll see anyone else before we get there?”

“Oh, we probably will.” Her voice is light, like they’re talking about the rain. “But they won’t be keeping the really scary ones close to the assets.”

“Don’t call them that,” Bucky says, sharp, and Natasha glances at him, just barely, and licks over the outside of her teeth. “But—you’re right. They’ll be waiting for us.” He gestures for Steve to get ahead of him again. “Fairy princesses first, Rogers.”

Giving him a mild glare, Steve takes point once more, tucking his shield up under his chin. Silently, dodging lifeless bodies scattered over the floor, they advance on the apartment at the end of the hall, the only one whose door hadn’t opened at the alarm.

As they reach the end of the corridor, Steve steps left; behind him, Bucky, Sam, and Natasha all step aside as Clint walks forward and crouches. Steve squats next to him, holding the shield in front of his body in case anyone’s waiting for them on the other side. His heart bangs wildly along his ribcage: what is he going to see on the other side of this door?

The lock clatters and Hawkeye twists it, and the door pops open. Together, Steve and Clint stand once more, and Steve steps in first.

The place is bare, utterly, a scratchy-looking grey sofa in the corner, no carpet on the floor and no photos or art on the walls. A quarter of a second of looking is all Steve gets; then something barrels into his unshielded side.

Hydra’s last barrier is a small woman, even smaller than Natasha, and maybe even more skilled. There’s a knife at Steve’s pulse, another pressing between two ribs before he even realizes he’s on the floor. He could throw her off, only there’s already the muzzle of a handgun pressed to the back of her head.

“Let the good captain go, there’s a good girl,” Bucky murmurs, his voice like cool water, “Otherwise his face is about to get painted with your brains. And that wouldn’t be very nice for him, now, would it?” When she doesn’t move, he tips his head so that Steve can see those dark eyes. “Steve, close your mouth.”

A snarl appears on the woman’s face, but after a moment, she lets up, her knives falling to the floor. She lets herself be dragged up, handcuffed to the radiator nearby. When Bucky knocks her out with the butt of the gun, Steve makes an indignant noise, but he’s already shaking his head. “Easier this way,” Bucky says. “She’ll be fine, probably.”

Steve rolls to his feet and moves further into the apartment. Past the small bare kitchen there are only two rooms. Sam is already walking out of the bathroom, leaving just one door. This time it’s Natasha who turns the knob for Steve’s entrance.

The bedroom beyond is empty but for the single twin bed. There’s a pair of handcuffs attached to the bedframe; from the corner of his eye, Steve watches Natasha’s eyes catch on them and linger for a moment before she turns and leaves the room once more.

“They’re not here,” Steve says, unable to keep the disappointment from his voice.

Bucky’s hand comes down on his shoulder and squeezes. “Come on. We need to get out of here.”

In the hall, the alarm is loud as ever. Briefly Steve tilts his head as they walk down the hall back toward the stairs, straining to hear anything else—but it’s useless, even with his super-hearing. He even presses his ear flat to the stairwell door, but the alarm is echoing in there too. They’ll be going in blind, then.

A hand touches his shoulder; he turns to find Natasha holding out a small metal ball. Taking it, he taps the button, and as it begins to blink red he pushes open the door just enough to roll the ball into the stairwell. A spit of gunfire breaks out as he yanks the door shut again—a breath—and then an explosion that Steve feels in the soles of his feet.

He glances back, receiving a nod from Natasha, and pushes into the stairwell, shield raised. The landing is scattered with bodies, but there are heavy footsteps making their way up toward them.

Time to move.

Up—up—up—stop. The door out to the roof is locked—Steve turns as the others crowd up onto the landing with him.

The footsteps are getting louder.

“Clint,” Steve says, but before Hawkeye has time to turn, Natasha’s muttering in Russian and pushing past all of them, pulling out her Taser stick and lighting it. Sparks crawl up and down the rod as she rams it into the keypad next to the door.

A STRIKE team turns onto the landing below. In the span of a blink, three drop, heads snapping back; but there are more stepping over them, their own guns up. A dart shatters on the shield. Another person drops, halfway up the stairs. “Nat!” Steve shouts.

“I know, I know!” she yells back, stabbing again and again at the keypad. It fizzles and growls, but the door stays locked.

“Fuck—Jesus, get out of the way!” Bucky snaps, turning and pulling out a sidearm. He fires three shots between the doorknob and the jamb, then plants the flat of his foot and shoves the door open.

Just as they turn and flee, Sam swears and stumbles. “What the—shit,” he exclaims, slurring already. Barely breaking stride, Steve grabs him, hoisting him up onto his shoulders. Then he starts running.

It’s barely moments before they’re in the jet and off, and Steve heads directly for the med room to lay Sam out on a cot. The tranq dart is still stuck in his belly, empty but for the last shiny maple-colored dregs of the sedative. Pulling off his helmet and tossing it into a corner with his shield, Steve tugs the dart from Sam’s side and drops it in the sharps disposal bin.

“He gonna make it?”

Bucky’s standing in the doorway, mask down around his throat, pulling off his gloves. “Yeah, just—he’ll have a hell of a hangover,” Steve says. “But he’ll be fine.”

For a moment, Bucky keeps looking at Sam; finally he nods and turns dark eyes on Steve. “And you?”

“I’m good.”

Bucky looks pointedly at Steve’s elbow and raises an eyebrow.

“Um, I’ll be fine. I just—gotta—you know. I’ll be okay,” Steve tries, but Bucky’s already advancing on him, pushing him in the chest until he backs onto another cot. “Bucky, I can—”

“Bullet still in there?” Bucky asks, already digging around in one of the drawers nearby.

Steve watches as he assembles a tray of utensils. “Um, I think so, yeah. But I can—” He breaks off when Bucky picks up Steve’s wrist, his fingers pressed to his pulse. “Uh.”

“Just let me clean you up, alright?” Bucky mutters, popping open the cuff button and shoving the sleeve up to his elbow. Steve almost wants this to last longer—or does up until Bucky pours rubbing alcohol all over his arm.

He jerks back. “Jesus, Bucky!” he yelps. Sweat breaks out on his scalp. He tries not to cry, averting his eyes as Bucky picks up a giant pair of tweezers.

“Ready?” he asks.

“No.”

Snorting, Bucky cocks a fist. “You want me to knock you out?”

“Kinda, a little,” Steve admits.

“Too bad.” Grabbing Steve’s wrist, Bucky twists until he’s standing between Steve’s knees, back to him, squeezing his arm between his elbow and his side so Steve can’t see. “If you bite me, I’m gonna be real unhappy,” he says over his shoulder; and while Steve starts laughing he performs minor surgery.

Steve’s laugh dies into a squeak and then a pained sob, his free hand twisting so hard in Bucky’s shirt that it tears. Bucky ignores him, pouring more rubbing alcohol all over his arm so Steve thumps his head hard against his metal shoulder.

Fuck—fucking Christ,” he mutters through gritted teeth.

“Yeah, I know, princess, I know,” Bucky agrees, pinching Steve’s bullethole shut with two metal fingers as he grabs a threaded, hooked needle from the tray. “Almost through, pal.”

Steve groans and rolls his forehead against the back of Bucky’s neck.

-

“So if it wasn’t Sydney—?” Sam asks, curling up a little tighter on the bench in the Quinjet’s galley and rubbing two fingers over his left eyebrow. “Also—what the shit was in that sedative?”

It’s been seven hours since they’d left Australia. Sam’s only just woken up. “They formulated that tranq for super-metabolisms,” Bucky reminds him. “And we’re heading for the lovely Isle of Wight.” Clint snorts from the cockpit. “Yeah, I know. Weather’s probably as bad as Sydney was.”

“We’ll be landing in half an hour,” Steve says. “How are you feeling? You need some aspirin?”

“God, yes, please. And a Gatorade,” Sam groans, pulling the scratchy thin blanket up to his chin. “Wake me up five minutes before we land, would you?”

-

Cages. There’s no better way to describe where they’re holding the children, five boxes held several feet off the floor by stilts, just large enough for them to stand up or lie down. Each one is dressed with a cushion and a blanket and nothing else; and Steve shakes with the desire to burn the place down.

Behind him Bucky breathes a curse. It’s not English. Steve doesn’t know which language it is, but he doesn’t have to. The five of them crowd into the room, toward the cage doors. Each door has a label taped to the top of it, a number written in black pen. One of the doors has two labels.

Bucky gets there first, his mask already hanging loose around his neck, and with his metal hand he yanks the padlocks off each one. With hands more gentle than Steve had thought anyone could be, he reaches into a cage and lifts out a tiny girl, floppy with sleep. She’s blonde and filthy and no more than four, her candy-floss hair tangled, and she stirs in Bucky’s hands. “Hi, kiddo,” Bucky says, cradling her to his chest, and Steve hovers a few feet away, transfixed, ignoring the others as they open other cages.

“Doc?” she asks, struggling a little as she tries to look around.

Bucky bounces her, his voice soothing. “No, sweet thing, I’m not a doctor. I’m here to take you home.”

Motion to Steve’s right makes him fade left and lift the shield. It’s one of the other children, a boy even smaller than the girl, his dark curls sticking up on one side, sitting up and scrubbing at an eye with one little fist. Steve stares at him and he stares at Steve, and his lip starts to wobble. But when he whimpers, the girl in Bucky’s arms struggles upright.

“No crying,” she says, and her voice is nearly as gentle as Bucky’s had been. “No crying, no crying, no crying.”

Slowly the boy’s lip firms up again and Steve watches him swallow hard. “No crying,” he repeats, his tiny mouth struggling around the words.

Steve scrambles to get the cage open, reaches in and hesitates. “We’re going to take you out of here,” he tells the boy, who’s watching him with big dark eyes that are so familiar that he aches with it. “Are you ready?”

The boy looks at him for a second longer, then crawls forward between his hands and reaches up. Steve takes the hint and picks him up, tucking him between the shield and his chest and swinging the cage door shut again.

“Cap.”

Sam’s got another dark-haired child—maybe three, maybe—against his hip; under his other arm, still standing in the cage, is another, a copy, a parallel. A twin. “How do we play this?” Sam asks. “Six of them, five of us. I can’t carry two and fight at the same time. I don’t think I can carry one and fight at the same time.”

“I’ll fight,” Clint volunteers; the child he’s holding can’t even be a year old, but Clint looks like he’s holding a live grenade. Steve walks over, shifting his boy into his right arm and holding his left arm, shield included, in a cradle position.

“Put her there, behind the shield,” he says as the boy wraps his arms around his neck. The girl is tiny like a doll against his belly, her hair soft and fine and gold as cornsilk against the crook of his elbow. He manages to hold her and get the shield most of the way over the boy’s body at the same time. “I can take one more on my back. Bucky?”

Gently disengaging his girl’s hand from the strap of his uniform, Bucky kisses her fingertips. “I should fight,” he says, still looking at her. “Think you can be brave for me, sweet thing? Steve will take care of you. I promise.”

Steve swallows around the yearning in his throat, watching the girl nod and look from Bucky to himself. “You’ll have to hold yourself, okay?” he says, turning and letting her arms snake around his neck. Her knees clamp against his sides, her ankles hooking over his belly button, and then her weight settles.

“I can get these two,” Sam says. “Nat, if you get my wings, I can get three.”

A bit more shuffling and Sam is weighted like Steve, a boy the size of a toddler perched on his back, the twins curved against his front like a pair of parentheses. Steve can’t tell if it’s just his super-hearing that’s picking up the bootsteps, or if they’re close. “You three,” Steve points to Bucky, Natasha, and Clint, “Clear the hall. We’ll stay in here until we get the all-clear. Think there’s any chance we can call the elevator? Or will they have shut it down already?”

In the dim hall of the apartment, Steve and Sam wait, the quick cadence of child-breath against their ears. The two agents cuffed to the fridge are still out, but Steve keeps his shield facing them, Sam behind him, just in case.

Pop—pop—pop—thud—thud—thud. The baby behind the shield begins to wake, screwing her little face up in anger. Steve’s not had much experience with babies beyond kissing them for photos, but he bounces a little, trying to soothe her. The others, at least, seem to know to keep quiet. Outside the apartment the elevator dings twice, and Steve can hear its doors opening. Boots. Struggle.

“All clear,” comes Bucky’s hushed voice in his ear.

They make it into the hall and then the elevator, stepping over bodies crumpled along the floor. An entire STRIKE team, it looks like. Steve doesn’t ask if they’re unconscious or dead. He doesn’t much care, actually.

“Is this whole building Hydra?” Sam asks as the elevator doors slide shut.

“There’s retail on the ground floor,” Bucky says, his eyes on the digital counter that’s steadily ticking upward along with them. “A restaurant—sushi, I think—and a lingerie store.”

It takes a moment for the ridiculousness of that to sink in; then Steve laughs under his breath. “Hydra undies?” Clint asks, but it’s too late for an answer; the elevator slows. Steve and Sam move to the back while the other three block the entrance, weapons raised.

The elevator’s cheery ding is out of place in this moment; Steve is unspeakably, breathlessly glad for their body armor as bullets fly in seemingly all directions. He curls close around the children against his chest, moving to stand in front of Sam and shield those kids too. Something white-hot whips across his calf and he grits his teeth, hoping that’s the worst of it.

“Time to go,” Natasha says. “Hawkeye—keep ‘em off our tails.”

It’s one flight of stairs up to the rooftop, and they gather by the door for a moment. “Can you see what’s out there?” Clint asks. He’s barely breaking a sweat, his arm making a smooth oval shape as he fires off arrow after arrow, no longer discriminating between the tranqs and the lethals.

“No window,” Bucky growls. “We’ll have to just put our heads down and run. And pray.”

Squeezing his eyes shut for a beat, Steve does just that. Let the children be spared. Let them be saved. Let the rest of us make it out in one fucking piece. Or—some fucking pieces. But alive. He turns his head and speaks to the girl on his back: “Hold on tight, as tight as you can, okay?”

Her arms and legs coil closer around his body.

“Now.”

It’s not, all things considered, all that far to the Quinjet; but the full-tilt sprint to it is the longest Steve’s ever run, Nazi Germany included. The baby he’s carrying begins to scream, and it’s just like and so different from the alarm in Sydney. Every step he takes, every bounce of the girl on his back, he punctuates with a two-word chant: Please. God. Please. God. Please. God.

Up the ramp, he lets the girl on his back and the boy he’s holding slide down from his body, pointing them further into the jet. Clint sprints past him and clambers into the cockpit, followed by Natasha, and Sam jogs in, hustling the young ones into the cargo hold. Gunfire still follows them, but Steve turns back to find Bucky, bringing up the rear, hesitating near the jet’s entrance. He waves him in, but Bucky shakes his head. Steve’s heart drops, sinks like a stone in cold water, and he heads back down the ramp.

“What the fuck—get out of here,” Bucky says.

“Not without you,” Steve protests, grabbing Bucky’s hand and pulling. How is he supposed to leave him behind without a fight? How is he supposed to leave him behind at all?

But Bucky doesn’t move. Steve gets close enough that the shield presses against Bucky’s stomach. “I can’t. I have to—I’ve got to clean this mess up. Or they’ll just keep—making—” His eyes drift down to the baby Steve’s still holding, shrieking in his arms.

“But—”

“Rogers, don’t you fucking—”

“—I need you, Buck—you’ll need my—”

“They need you a lot fucking more,” Bucky says, loud over Steve’s protests. He grabs the back of Steve’s head, bruises his mouth with a kiss. Steve’s dizzy with it, dizzy with the knowledge that Bucky remembers, dizzy with the taste of him and the smell of him and—Christ—the adrenaline. Then his hand slides down from behind Steve’s neck and pushes, hard, at his chest. He stumbles back a step, willing his eyes not to fill with tears, watches as Bucky glances down at the baby. “Go. I’ll be home soon.”

And then Bucky’s gone.

-

Dawn is just rising when Steve opens his eyes. The baby monitor next to his bed is squalling. He yawns and rolls over, stuffing his face into the pillow for a second before sitting up.

Rubbing an eye with his knuckle, he heads into the nursery and reaches into the crib to collect a screaming hungry Sophie into his arms. Her blonde hair is just long enough to curl into one tiny ringlet behind her ear.

It’s been a week since they’d brought the children back to Stark Tower, the safest place they’d been able to think of. In that time they’ve learned that the children are from two sources. How they’d gotten Steve’s DNA isn’t clear, although given the amount of blood he’s left on battlefields, it can’t have been that hard. It’s not such a question how they’d gotten Bucky’s.

He leaves the lights off as he heats milk for Sophie’s bottle, stands by the window rocking her and watches the sun come up. As he feeds her he walks, making circuits of the two-storey penthouse that Tony’d given him. There are four bedrooms—two upstairs and two downstairs. Sophie’s alone in the bedroom next to his, alone so she doesn’t wake the others in the night; the other five rotate in and out of the other two bedrooms. So far Steve’s found them all in one bed most mornings, as if they’re too used to one another’s breathing to be separated.

Pausing near the east-facing window, he hums under his breath and watches the river turn to liquid gold as the sun hits it. In his arms Sophie is toasty warm, her tiny fingers wrapped around his pinky where he’s holding the bottle to her mouth.

Three mornings ago he’d fallen asleep on the sofa, feeding her; he’s still not sure if he’d dreamed what happened next. Had he dreamed a person unmelting from the shadows, Bucky walking on silent feet to the couch and petting back Steve’s hair? Had he dreamed him taking the baby to finish feeding her, burping her against his shoulder and tucking her back into Steve’s arms? Had Bucky truly leaned in and kissed Steve’s eyebrow?

And if he had, what had he whispered into Steve’s ear before sliding back through the shadows and into the night?

Because there is one single word that Steve hasn’t been able to get out of his head since they’d left the Isle of Wight. Home. He has no doubt that Bucky will find him—if his dream had been more than that, he clearly already has—but that word. It catches in his brain like the ragged edge of a fingernail. But that’s what it is, isn’t it, a chapped lip that Steve can’t stop worrying at, a scab he can’t stop picking. Home. Bucky’s going to come home to him.

His phone alarm goes off in his pocket as he’s putting the empty bottle in the sink. 6:30. The other kids will be up soon, and in about five minutes Sam will be letting himself in, probably with some new report on a Hydra base gone up in flames.

Thing is, it’s been a week, and Steve hasn’t heard a whisper from Bucky. He knows, at least, that he’s still alive—if by no other indication than the fourteen Hydra facilities that have been destroyed—but it would be nice, he thinks, for more.

Tossing a spitrag over his shoulder, Steve props Sophie there and begins to burp her. Soon she’s babbling in his ear, content just to be held now, so he throws the rag in the laundry and sets about putting coffee on, her cheek warm against his neck.

Sam arrives as Steve’s preparing his mug, and so he goes back to the cupboard and gets another out for him. In companionable silence they move about the kitchen, Steve one-handedly pouring the milk and then the coffee, Sam getting started on two dozen scrambled eggs. Between the kids and Steve and whoever else might drop by, they’ll need them.

“Any news?” Steve eventually asks, pouring some raspberries into a strainer so he can rinse them.

Sam shakes his head. “Not since the warehouse in the Falklands I told you about yesterday.” For a minute, they putter in silence. Then: “You’re sure he’ll come back?”

Gritting his teeth, Steve counts to ten before answering. His missing Bucky isn’t helped by Sam’s hesitant scepticism. Sophie baby-talks against his shoulder, one little hand curled into his collar. “Yes,” he finally says. “He said he would, so I—I believe him.”

They look at one another for a long moment; then the patter of little bare feet on the stairs makes them turn.

It’s heartbreaking, really, how quiet these children are. Even sickly, Steve remembers being loud in his games, he and Bucky talking over one another until they were nearly yelling, clamoring to be heard over the other.

The children appear at the doorway to the kitchen, led by Ella, the oldest, the blonde who’d taken so quickly to Bucky. Steve can’t bring himself to be surprised by that. She takes after her father that way.

“Everybody to the table,” Sam orders, and while the kids do as they’re told he wets a hand towel and adds some soap, bringing it over to wipe everyone’s hands before they eat. Steve brings a stack of plates to the table and lets Sam wipe his hands too, shifting Sophie from one arm to the other so he can get both.

“Eggs for everyone?” Steve asks, smiling at Sam in thanks as he puts the big bowl of eggs down and sticks a serving spoon in.

As Steve begins to serve, still holding Sophie to his shoulder, the boy twin Michael speaks up: “I want waffles.”

Steve looks to Sam to see if it’s going to be possible. “Thanks for speaking up, kiddo,” Sam says, walking over so he can ruffle Michael’s curls. “Anyone else for waffles?”

“Me,” says a voice from the doorway.

On his feet before he really thinks about it, Steve launches himself at Bucky, who grins and opens his arms for him. They get barely a moment to kiss before a small body runs hard into their knees.

It’s Ella, standing at their feet holding her arms up to Bucky, looking at him with the biggest bluest eyes. “Hey there, sweet thing,” Bucky murmurs, leaning down and picking her up, “You miss me?”

“Uh huh,” she says. “Steve too.”

Bucky gives him a wide grin, halfway hidden behind Ella’s head. “He missed me too, did he?” Steve nods, blushing, bouncing a little at the knees as Sophie begins to talk again. Into his expression he tries to pour every little bit of missing Bucky’s he’s felt in the past several years. It must work, partially at least, because Bucky leans over and rests his forehead against Steve’s. “I said I’d come home, didn’t I?”

“I didn’t know if you’d know where that was,” Steve admits, curling one hand into Bucky’s. His whole face is red.

“C’mon, princess, gimme some credit, will you?” Bucky rubs one finger against Steve’s palm. “I just had to find you.”

Probably, Steve thinks, he should be a bit more bothered by the nickname than he is. But instead it makes his stomach curl in on itself, squirm around at how cute it is, how much delight is forcing its way into every tiny piece of his body. He can feel the blush dripping its way down, staining his collarbones. “I didn’t know if you’d be able to find me.”

Still grinning, Bucky slides his mouth around so he can kiss at the hinge of Steve’s jaw. He brings their joined hands up and taps their knuckles against his own chest. “I got a homing beacon right here,” he says. Steve’s ears burn and he tries not to literally coo at him. He can’t supress the giggle that slips out, though. Bucky gives him the smuggest expression he’s maybe ever seen, his cheek propped against Ella’s little blonde head. “He’s really cute, isn’t he, sweet thing?”

The girl twists around in Bucky’s arms so she can look at Steve. “No,” she says after a moment. “I’m cute. He’s too big to be cute.”

Laughing, Steve shifts Sophie in his arms. He’d never in his wildest dreams considered the possibility of a family with Bucky. Families, yes, for both of them—but separately. Never together. Never like this. It makes his heart pound that it might now happen.

“Well,” says Bucky, leaning in again and placing a big smacking kiss to Steve’s cheek. “I think you’re cute, at least.” He rocks back on his heels, cocking his head to give Steve a speculative look; hooks a finger in the hem of Steve’s shirt and tugs it up to get a peek at his tummy. A self-satisfied smirk crosses his mouth. “Yeah, I knew it. Blushin’ all the way down, like always.”

Unable to help himself any longer—not when Bucky talks like that, smiles at him, remembers—Steve slings his free arm around Bucky’s neck and hauls him in, kisses him breathless. “God,” he mumbles, eyes closed so no tears fall out. “I missed you so much.”

“Yeah, princess, yeah,” Bucky replies, thumb rubbing over Steve’s hip. “I missed you too.”

“Okay, alright, lovebirds,” calls Sam over the metallic sound of the whisk he’s using to mix waffle batter. “Come and help out. You’ll have time for all that yucky smooching stuff later.”