The plan is ridiculous, and it makes him feel a fool, but all of SHIELD and apparently most of the law enforcement branches in New York are in a complete uproar over rumors that there’s a Russian assassin in town. There’s been one Russian businessman found with his brains smeared across the hotel room wall, the poisoned CEO of an American firm competing with Russian interests to supply engine parts, and a suspiciously unsuspicious accident involving a visiting Saudi scientist.
People talk about a man who might be a myth, who is at least a legend – impossibly old, impossibly elusive, impossibly good. Maybe just plain impossible. From what he can tell, the Winter Soldier is little more than a ghost story, but Sitwell and Fury seem to be taking it seriously.
Even Natasha seems antsy, and it was probably that as much as anything that persuaded him, even if he’s regretting it now.
They cut his hair and made him stop shaving for a couple of days, and his head is cold and weirdly sticky with whatever they used to make it stick up like that and his face is itchy. He is wearing denims that are far too tight over his butt and cling to his crotch. His jacket has entirely too many zippers that don’t actually do anything.
The entire team was, naturally, waiting for him when he came out of the office where he was being put into his costume, because apparently humiliation is part of the team bonding experience in the twenty first century. Tony had wolf whistled and waggled his eyebrows in a manner that was probably intended to be lecherous, but really only managed to be comical. Clint and even Bruce had gotten a little raucous.
Natasha had ignored them all and walked around him frowning. “Don’t stand so straight. You should have a little slouch, a little swagger.”
And, OK, he’d never done it, but he knew what she meant. It was the way Bucky had always held himself, shoulders down a little, walking from the hips. He took a deep breath and pictured Bucky grinning like a cocky punk, tried not to let it hurt, and let himself settle into it.
Natasha smiled in approval. Tony announced to everyone that he would ‘hit that’. Thor smiled and assured him that he looked very fine.
“I still don’t understand why it has to be me,” he complained again, even though they’d been through it a dozen times before.
Natasha, in her infinite patience, didn’t even roll her eyes. “Because the Winter Soldier usually sets himself up with a boyfriend when he’s establishing his cover. We’d send in Jasper, but he has a type. Or rather, two types.”
“Wait.” He hadn’t heard this part before. “Sitwell?” The man was pleasant enough, and smart as a whip, but he didn’t seem the honeytrap type.
“Don’t let the mild-mannered paper-pusher act fool you. It’s a clever disguise, and beneath it lurks a smoking hottie.”
Even Tony looked a little boggled by this.
“But since there is no one here who is blond, short and slight, and also in any way qualified to deal with someone as dangerous as the Winter Soldier,” she continued, “we’re going for tall and stacked. And—“ she continued over the interjection she knew was coming, “Thor is even more poorly suited to undercover work than you are. Which you knew before you suggested it the first time, so stop trying to wiggle out of it. Steve,” she’d said seriously, holding him by the arms, “he’s dangerous and he needs to be stopped. This is the closest we’ve ever got to him, and you’re our best shot at this.”
At least the bike they gave him is a beauty.
So he parks the bike outside and swaggers into the fancy bar they’ve identified as a possible location for this Winter Soldier fella, as dramatic an entrance as he can manage, which is fairly impressive if he says so himself. The USO girls had taught him all sorts of things about stagecraft that he’d never thought would be useful again, but were turning out real handy in this new world where everything was about image and appearance.
And of course there’s only one person in the bar who could possibly the man he’s looking for. Impossible, it turns out, is the word. Their eyes catch for the barest of moments and then he heads straight to the bar where he orders a triple bourbon with no ice. It won’t do anything for him after it hits his belly, but he’s hoping that the smooth burn of it going down his throat will help him focus, because for all he wants to shout and hit things, he has a job to do.
”Make him come to you,” he hears Natasha’s voice repeat from the briefing. He orders another drink, takes this one slower, savors the warmth of it against the wash of ice that’s settling around his spine. Bucky.
“You look like a man having a bad day,” Bucky’s voice says, just like he remembers it, the drawl pure Brooklyn.
The hell with his cover story. He’ll never remember it anyway and this — well, the best lies are always founded in the truth, aren’t they. “My friend died. Only then it turned out he didn’t die at all, and I just thought he did.” He doesn’t look up.
“Man,” says the man who isn’t Bucky, “that’s harsh.”
“So you’re here drinking to forget?”
He turns his head, meets the familiar blue-grey eyes that are empty of recognition. “I don’t want to have to think about it for a while.” And he’s quite proud of that one – a classic misdirect. An absolutely true statement that seems to answer the question but doesn’t actually. He feels a little sick.
The man with Bucky’s face smiles at him, and it’s a familiar smile, although not one that’s ever been turned on him before. “I might be able to help you out with that.”
“You want to get out of here?” he asks, and he has no idea what he’s asking, who he’s asking it of, and something red and angry sparks inside Steve’s head.
He tosses back the last of his drink. “Sure.”
He pays and they leave without saying anything further. Outside, Bucky clocks the bike and whistles, walks backwards to give it a proper look over. “That is a sweet ride.”
“Thanks,” Steve says, and Bucky’s attention snaps to him.
“Yours?” he asks, cocking his head a little. His eyes flick back to the bike, then give Steve the same covetous once over he gave the bike. He bites his lip. “Walk faster.”
The comm piece in Steve’s ear is buzzing furiously with voices now that they’re out of the bar and the street noise will mask the sounds.
“What are you doing, Captain?” someone, probably Sitwell, demands. “You are not, repeat, are not supposed to go anywhere with him!”
He ignores it. What’s he going to say? He knows he’s not supposed to leave the bar with- with the suspect. He’s doing it anyway.
“Steve,” and that’s Natasha, using his name deliberately, trying to snap him out of whatever this is. “This is not a good idea.” It’s not enough.
“I know,” he murmurs to her as he takes it out of his ear. He switches it off and sticks it in the pocket of his jeans. He switches his phone off too. He’s picked up enough about current technology to know they could probably use it to track him, and he doesn’t want to be tracked, doesn’t want to be pulled out of what he knows is a headlong rush into madness.
The apartment is only a couple of blocks away. The ceilings are high and the apartment is filled with light; the furnishings are minimalist but welcoming. Steve can’t help but wonder whether it’s been rented, or whether the Winter Soldier has simply killed the owner and hidden the body somewhere.
Then there’s no more time to think. He is shoved against a wall with surprising strength; there is a tongue in his mouth and a thigh pressing between his legs, urging them apart.
This is wrong in all sorts of ways, never mind how stupid and reckless it is. This man is not Bucky, not in the ways that count. He’s not sure which of them is taking advantage, but it feels like one of them must be. Teeth graze down the side of his neck, and he finds that he just can’t care. He slips his hands under the leather jacket, tugs the shirt loose and runs his hands up the bare skin of Bucky’s back. It is warm and smooth, and the muscles beneath are sinuous. He moves his hips a little, pressing against Bucky’s thigh, and groans quietly at the friction. It feels nothing like anything he’s ever done to himself.
Bucky runs his hands down Steve’s chest, over the chiseled muscles of his pecs, his abs. He doesn’t care who Steve is, only that his lab-made body is attractive, like a pretty toy.
A wave of loss washes over Steve. One of the few things he had been able to hold on to through the USO days and all the Captain America palaver was that Bucky knew who he was. Knew and cared. Bucky, Peggy, and Erskine had been the only people in the world who’d thought skinny, sickly little Steve Rogers had been worth a damn. But now Peggy and Erskine are dead, and Bucky was, but now he isn’t or something, and it’s almost worse, to look into Bucky’s eyes and see nothing that matters.
The spark of anger that drove him out of the bar with this man ignites again and sets fire to the loss. All the grief that he’s bottled up since Bucky fell out of that God damned train - grief for Bucky, for Peggy, for the life he’d never got to have, for the lives they’d never gotten to have, for an entire world dead and gone, and himself stranded on the shores of a strange future – flares in his chest, roars in his ears.
He grabs Bucky by the throat, spins them around, pushes Bucky against the wall with a thump, high up on his toes, and now it’s Steve’s leg between Bucky’s thighs, and Bucky is hard against his hip and his pupils are blown black.
Bucky has clutched Steve’s shoulders in the turn, and his fingers dig in sharply. He grins brightly, wildly. “Oh, I knew you’d be fun,” he says and lunges forward against the hold Steve has on his throat, bites Steve’s lip hard.
Steve moves his hand from Bucky’s throat to the wall behind his head. He can’t— he can’t hurt him, no matter how angry he is. Bucky doesn’t know him, doesn’t think him anything but a mark, but it’s not his fault. If anything it’s Steve’s, and he can’t, he won’t—
“Aw, come on, don’t be shy,” Bucky says and licks Steve’s lip, an apology. “I promise I’ll play nice, if that’s what you want.”
Steve has no idea what he’s doing here. This is stupid, and wrong, and breaking his heart, and Bucky’s dick is pressed up against his hip, and he’s never been this hard in his life.
Bucky twists his hips somehow, pressing forward, and Steve can’t help but let out a groan, which deepens when Bucky runs his teeth gently down his neck. He turns his hand from the wall to tangle his fingers Bucky’s hair and tugs his head back. Bucky goes easily, with a quiet sound of approval that tightens Steve’s stomach. He presses his open mouth to Bucky’s. When he tentatively licks into Bucky’s mouth and touches his tongue, Bucky lifts his thigh to curl it over Steve’s hip.
It feels intimate, and Steve doesn’t care anymore that it’s a lie. When Bucky’s hands run down to his hips, he lets himself be pulled in. It’s a little slower now, just leaning against the wall, pressing together, kissing and sneaking warm hands beneath clothes.
He never really got what all the noise was about kissing before. Most of his kisses had been snuck by brassy fans on tour or sometimes by one of the USO girls, and that Private Lorraine. Peggy had been different, but it was still snatched in the briefest moment, and he’d barely had time to realize that she was kissing him before he’d had to get on Schmidt’s plane. He’s never had the chance to spend time just exploring someone’s mouth, enjoying the feeling of it, the warmth. He feels like he could do this all day.
Bucky has other ideas. He pulls back – a neat trick for someone pressed up against a wall – and grins when Steve makes a noise of protest. He shoves Steve’s ridiculous jacket off his shoulders and twists his hand in the plain black tee he’s wearing beneath. “Come on,” he says and drags Steve toward the stairs that lead up to a mezzanine floor, still kissing Steve as they go. Bucky walks backwards, is first up the stairs, and the difference in height, the familiarity of looking up at Bucky combined with the entirely new sensation of his mouth on his own, is enough to make him stumble.
Bucky just laughs into his mouth, keeps pulling, and, when they reach the top of the stairs, spins Steve by his grip on the tee and throws him back against the bed. Steve lets himself fall. He’s gone too far already to save himself from anything.
He’s not sure what to do with himself, so he lies there with his legs dangling over the side of the bed and watches Bucky strip his shirt off. There’s something off about his left arm, but he’s too distracted to focus on it. He’s seen Bucky without his shirt a thousand times before; they grew up together, shared an apartment, shared a war, and Bucky’d never been shy, but this is entirely different. This is personal in a way it’s never been before.
He’s a little surprised to find his mouth going dry at the sight of that chest, pale but tight with muscle, a little dark hair between the brown nipples. Bucky opens his belt and shucks out of his denims quickly, leaving his shorts on. They’re the same kind they both used to wear. For a mad second Steve almost asks him where he got them – he hates the weird boxer brief things he was given, but hasn’t been able to find anything he likes better – and then Bucky puts his hands on his hips, and gives him a fondly exasperated look. “You’re wearing too many clothes,” he says, and all Steve can do is grin back and say, “I was distracted.”
Next minute he has a lapful of Bucky, straddling his hips and pushing at the hem of his tee. “Well, get with the program, pal.”
Steve pulls the shirt off, yanks it over his head in time to see Bucky licking his lips. He shivers at the slick pink of them.
“Oh yeah?” Bucky says, and bites his lip. Steve’s not even quite sure what he means, but his hips jerk a little anyway. Bucky’s lips curl up in a smirk around the teeth set into his lip. “Oh yeah, I think so.”
He’s already forming the beginning of a ‘What?’ when Bucky presses his face right into his crotch and he just ends up making a strangled noise instead. Bucky grins up at him, then opens his mouth wide, and sort of lightly bites at Steve’s dick through his zipper.
Bucky laughs, not meanly, just enjoying it, doesn’t stop until he’s got Steve’s zipper open and his dick – oh dear Lord – Steve’s dick in his mouth.
Steve stares. Bucky stares right back, with his mouth wrapped around him, hot and wet and— and he’s doing something with his tongue that is just— Steve’s hips thrust a little, he can’t help it, even though he’s trying so hard not to, he doesn’t want to choke him, but it just feels so—
He can’t stop the embarrassing whine he lets out when Bucky pulls off. Bucky holds him down by the hips, presses a little kiss to the tip, and says, “It’s OK, I promise I’ll make it better. But I have plans for this.”
“’Kay,” he manages as he reaches down to tug Bucky back up for a kiss. His brain maybe goes blank for a moment as Bucky sort of slides up against him, and he can’t really think about anything but pressing back against all that warm skin. At some point the boxers have been disposed of, and Bucky is pressed against him, entirely naked.
Bucky kisses him, tongue thrusting into his mouth, and it tastes of— oh hell, it tastes like Steve, like his dick, and he’s still pretty sure this is wrong, but he can’t for the life of him remember why as he strokes his hands up and down the soft warm skin of Bucky’s back.
He chokes a little, nearly swallows his tongue when Bucky grinds his hips down, and there’s pressure and friction, and God. Everything feels too hot, like his skin is too small for him. He wants— he wants to touch, but he doesn’t really know what’s allowed. Bucky’s had Steve’s dick in his mouth, so ‘too fast’ probably isn’t an issue, but he doesn’t know if there are things he’s not supposed to do.
Then again, Bucky is hard as anything, so he would probably have to go pretty badly wrong to wreck it, so he rolls over, putting himself on top. He thrusts his hips a little, and Bucky arches into it, lets out a moan that zips down Steve’s spine like lightning and he thrusts again, this time without really meaning to. Bucky laughs, and wraps his legs around Steve’s waist.
“That’s the ticket,” he says, and Steve can’t help kissing his grinning mouth.
He ventures to put a hand on one of Bucky’s thighs where it’s wrapped around him. The soft hairs scrape against his palm. It earns him an encouraging noise.
Something of his uncertainty, his awkwardness must show, though. Bucky stops and asks him, “You ever done this with a man before?”
Steve shakes his head. He’s never done this with anyone before. If this was really Bucky, he’d say so, but he just can’t have that conversation with this man with Bucky’s face but none of his memories, none of his heart.
“OK,” Bucky says. “OK, no problem.” He reaches an arm out to the bedside table, and Steve is entranced by the stretch of skin and muscle against his own.
Bucky opens a little plastic bottle, then pulls Steve in with one hand for a kiss. He goes entirely willingly, his hand cupping Bucky’s neck, slipping down his body. He opens his eyes when he realizes that Bucky is twisting oddly at the waist. Then he realizes why.
“Oh,” he says, as he watches Bucky push two slick, glistening fingers into himself. Bucky tries to pull him back up, but he resists. There’s something fascinating about the movement, and about watching Bucky touch himself like this. He looks up and catches a wary look in Bucky’s eye that almost puts him off asking, but…
Bucky frowns. “What?”
Steve reaches for the little bottle. “Can I, um. Help?”
His stomach sinks a little as Bucky just stares at him, and he thinks he’s said something terribly wrong.
“You don’t have to,” Bucky says.
He’s confused – why would he ask, if he didn’t want to? And he does want to, but what if he’s not supposed to? – and he must look it.
“Some guys prefer to pretend they’re with a woman. A hole’s a hole, right?” Bucky rolls his eyes and smirks, but his tone is tense.
Steve looks at Bucky’s lithe, strong body spread out naked beneath him and cannot imagine anyone wanting him to be anything other than himself. “I don’t think you’re a woman,” he says. “I don’t want you to be a woman.” He hopes his eyes are doing that sincere thing people tell him they do, because he doesn’t know how else to convince Bucky that he absolutely means it.
A minute later Steve’s fingers are slicked up, and Bucky is guiding two inside him.
Bucky’s body is hot and tight around his fingers, and it twists his insides so tight that after a minute he can hardly stand to watch. He presses his face against Bucky’s stomach, mouthing kisses against the tight muscle and faint trail of hair there, as he keeps up a steady rhythm with his hand.
He feels like he’s being swept away - bundled up in a blanket of heat, and pleased moans, andsex, and kept somewhere safe from the rest of the world. He never wants to leave.
When Bucky says, “Another,” he opens his eyes and finds himself staring at Bucky’s dick, inches from his face, hard and flushed and leaking from the tip. He’s never thought about putting his mouth on another man’s dick, but it’s sure occurring to him now.
“Hey,” Bucky says, and tugs on his hair a little. He gasps quietly at the pull and looks up. He doesn’t know what his face looks like, but Bucky closes his eyes and says, “Jesus Christ, you are wasted on women. Look at you. Look at how much you love this.”
Steve really doesn’t want to think about it, doesn’t want to think about anything, so he slowly pushes another finger in next to the other one.
“Fuck, that’s good. You’re so good,” Bucky rambles. His hips twist a little, back and forth, and Steve tries not to imagine how that might feel around his dick. “Hey.” Bucky strokes Steve’s hair, heavy-handed. “Hey, do me a favor; just bend your fingers down a little. Just—”
Down. He twists his fingers around in a move that has Bucky writhing and laughing and moaning all at once. It’s a little strange, but he likes it. He pushes his fingers in, pressing down against the smooth flesh until there’s a fleshy lump under the pads of his fingers, and Bucky is arching his back off the bed.
“Yes,” Bucky hisses, “fuck yes, Jesus, fuck.”
It’s gorgeous, and Steve is torn between wanting to do this forever, and wanting his sketchbook right now. Bucky is drawn into a tight arch, all clean lines, strong muscles, and pleasure.
The long stretch of his throat is irresistible, and Steve slides up to nip at it lightly. It’s awkward, especially with his hand still between Bucky’s legs, but entirely worth it for the noise Bucky makes. He nips again at his adam’s apple, and the fragile skin over his collarbone, runs his tongue up the line of Bucky’s throat and savors the taste of his skin in his mouth.
“Oh fuck,” Bucky pants, his breath warm against Steve’s temple. “It’s fine, I’m good. Christ, come on.” He tugs at Steve’s arm, digs his fingers into his shoulder.
There’s a brief pause to wrestle with the condom wrapper and some laughter bordering on the hysterical as their slippery fingers fail to grip, but then he is inside, inside Bucky, and he can’t keep his hips still, but it’s just little rolls, barely moving, as he tries to wrap his head around the heat and the pressure, the feeling of Bucky wrapped around him, around his dick, arms and legs around Steve’s body, like he’ll never let go.
Bucky somehow squeezes around him and he chokes a little, bites his pec in retaliation, and earns a little pleading sound that sends a shiver of satisfaction down his spine. He pulls back a little, just enough to feel the pull and glide of their bodies together.
“Come on,” Bucky demands, smacking his heel against Steve’s butt, “I’m not gonna break, go harder.”
Steve reaches back to grab Bucky’s ankle, holds it to one side just to stop him kicking – he should have known Bucky would be difficult, even in bed. Bucky huffs a little laugh that’s warm against Steve’s face. Steve looks down to see what’s funny, and realizes it’s not funny at all. It wasn’t— he didn’t mean to, but he is holding Bucky spread wide, and he can see where he is pressed into Bucky, see Bucky’s dick, hard and leaking onto his belly.
He looks up at Bucky’s face – his eyes are dark, his expression challenging, and Steve has never been able to resist a challenge, least of all from this man. He pushes his hips forward, and Bucky bites his lip around a sharp inhale. He pulls back and pushes in again, harder this time, and Bucky pushes back, his whole body rolling with it, and somehow it all just happens. One movement flows into the next, as simple and natural as the first time he’d picked up the shield.
He tries to be quiet, to stifle the sounds he can feel forcing their way out his throat; bites his lip to keep them in. Bucky feels no such compunction. He moans, swears, and grunts with abandon, and all Steve wants is more of those sounds, more of the way Bucky grips his shoulders and hips, more of his tongue in his mouth.
His breath is coming in desperate pants, in a way that feels frighteningly familiar and completely new all at once. He’s going to come soon, he can feel it gathering in the small of his back, in his balls. He has no idea how close Bucky is though. He gathers together enough breath to ask, “Are you—“
“Yeah,” Bucky answers, and grabs Steve’s wrist. Steve braces himself to not fall onto Bucky, then nearly does it anyway when Bucky licks his hand. A wordless sound of protest makes its way out of his throat, because dammit, that’s just not fair. It’s not a neat little cat-lick, either – it’s wet and sloppy and hot. Bucky’s tongue darts between his fingers and it’s nearly enough to set him off right there.
Bucky pushes Steve’s hand down, muttering, “Just—“ and Steve finally gets it, pushes his hand in between their bodies and grasps Bucky’s dick. The angle’s awkward, but it hardly matters at this point. Bucky thrusts into his hand a few times, and then he comes shouting, wet on Steve’s hand and tight on his dick, and there’s lightning up Steve’s spine and behind his eyelids as his hips judder out his own orgasm.
He lies there for a moment, his face against Bucky’s chest, just breathing in and out. He hadn’t realized he knew the smell of Bucky’s sweat, but it turns out that he does, and he takes a minute to pretend that the sense of comfort and familiarity is warranted. Bucky is running his fingers through the short spikes of his hair.
He twists his hips away from Bucky so he can get the condom off. He ties it off and drops it over the side of the bed. He’ll deal with it later.
He runs his hand across the warm smooth muscles of Bucky’s stomach, savoring the slight tickle of hair against his palm.
“Wouldn’t have picked you for a cuddler,” the man who really isn’t Bucky says, lazy, teasing.
Steve huffs a little. It probably comes off as a laugh, but it’s more like resignation. If Bucky is in there anywhere, Steve can’t find him, and the Winter Soldier can’t be allowed to go free. Steve’s gone off the plan, but he hasn’t forgotten the mission.
He drops a kiss over Bucky’s heart and rolls to the edge of the bed, reaching for his underwear. As he bends to pull them up he feels Bucky’s hand trail up the back of his thigh. He suddenly, desperately wishes everything were different. That this really was Bucky, that they really did this, that he could pull his pants back off, get back on the bed, curl up around Bucky and spend the rest of the day napping and touching and kissing.
He doesn’t look back, just finds his denims and pulls them on.
He slips his hand into the pocket with the comm unit, hits the mute button and switches it on. He can only imagine the uproar at the other end.
Bucky stretches on the bed, the muscles all along his body flexing, the bite marks Steve has left all over him red, and obscene, and tantalizing.
Steve throws his shorts at him. “You might want to put some pants on,” he says. He doesn’t want to give the Winter Soldier any warning, but neither can he bear to leave Bucky exposed like this when SHIELD arrive.
“Oh yeah,” he says, even as he starts to pull them on. “Why’s that?”
The windows of the bedroom shatter in a rain of falling glass, and Black Widow rolls out of a crouch, knife in each hand.
Bucky is off the bed in the blink of an eye. He lunges toward Steve, aiming a left-hand punch at the side of his head. Steve dodges just enough that the blow glances off, but it’s still enough to make his ears ring. If he wasn’t… what he was, he’d be lucky to still be conscious.
Bucky grabs his arm and tries to spin him. Steve allows the movement, follows it around, and powers a punch into Bucky’s stomach. It knocks him back against a wall, where he grabs the picture hanging there and smashes it over Steve’s head, then tries to kick him in the groin.
Steve blocks the kick and feels the impact all the way up his arm. A single opponent hasn’t been able to hurt him like this since before the serum.
The Winter Soldier isn’t winning, but even with Natasha in play, he isn’t exactly losing either. A roundhouse to the head does little more than ring his bell, even though Steve knows that she isn’t pulling her punches like he can’t help doing.
She is thrown into a wall, and Steve gets his act together. There can’t be any escape from this for the Winter Soldier – assassinations aside, Steve can’t just let him go – and the longer Steve dithers, the more damage Natasha takes, which is unacceptable. He rushes the other man from behind. He catches a foot to the ribs for his trouble, but he doesn’t let it throw him off, despite the unpleasant feeling that a couple of them may have cracked.
Natasha rolls up off the floor looking distinctly displeased, though her expression eases a bit when she seems them grappling in earnest. Steve flinches back from an elbow to the face that catches his nose and finds himself on his back, staring into Bucky’s face, empty of anything but fury. Blood trickles down the back of his throat from his nose, thick and familiar, and he grunts as Natasha throws herself onto the Winter Soldier’s back to wrap her arm around his throat. He throws his head back, attempting a headbutt, but she is quicker by far than Steve and avoids the blow.
It’s down to some seriously undignified wrestling, which Steve ought to be able to win with one hand tied behind his back, and he is surprised by how much more difficult it is than it should be. A blow to his healing but still tender nose knocks him back enough for the Winter Soldier to get back on his feet, and a kick to the ribcage on the same side as the cracked ones prevents Steve from following for a moment or two.
It’s hard to see how to intervene in the fight once he’s back up. They’re each landing blows so fast he can barely track them. The Winter Soldier blocks a blow and the skin up his arm splits. Steve lunges in, not even sure if he’s trying to stop the man or protect him, but he gets a solid kick to the knee for his trouble. As he stumbles back – he hasn’t lost a fight this badly since before the serum, and he’d be grateful for Natasha if he wasn’t certain that she would be having strong words with him later – he realizes the wound isn’t bleeding at all. Beneath the split, the arm has a dull metallic sheen.
He doesn’t have time to think about what it means before that fist is powering towards his face again. He’s quick enough this time to catch it, and use the momentum to twist and throw his opponent. Except that that seems to be part of the plan, and he ends up with a leg wrapped around his neck, choking him. It’s not as much fun to be between his thighs as it was before, he thinks, the lack of oxygen maybe making him a little giddy.
“Well, there’s something you don’t see every day,” a familiar voice says. Of course Tony would arrive now, as if humiliating himself in front of Natasha wasn’t bad enough.
Tony’s arrival serves, as it so often does, as a distraction, and Bu— the Winter Soldier is pulled off Steve. Something happens while Steve breathes through the rush of blood back to his head, and when he next looks up, the Soldier is cornered. It looks like he’s about to try something desperate, and Steve doesn’t like his chances of surviving it, given the look on Natasha’s face.
“Don’t hurt him!” he yells, and almost laughs at the matching expressions of baffled disbelief he gets from the Winter Soldier and Black Widow. He’s pretty sure Iron Man would look exactly the same if he could see his face behind the mask. Either way, it’s another distraction, and for all that the Winter Soldier can shrug off blows from both Steve and Natasha, a direct punch to the side of the head from Iron Man is a show-stopper.
Natasha is breathing heavily. Her face is bruised, and she holds herself a little carefully. She looks like she’s seriously contemplating kicking the Soldier when he’s down.
“Widow,” Steve says, from his position on the floor.
She snarls at him, actually snarls, then snaps at Iron Man, “Get him back to SHIELD before he comes to. You do not want to deal with him in mid-air.”
“I see that,” Tony says, and then, “Cap, you’ll want to get those ribs looked at.” Steve will never get used to the fact that Iron Man can do all sorts of medical scans just by looking at him. Then Iron Man is bundling the Winter Soldier up in a blanket, putting him over his shoulder and flying back out the shattered window.
Steve looks around the room. It was beautiful before – light and airy, and it felt spacious despite not being that large. It’s a wreck now. The furniture is cracked and smashed, and there are person-sized dents in the walls, not to mention the window. There is broken glass on the bed, and the sheets are torn. Life imitates art.
He clambers to his feet. His ribs really do not feel good, and he’s not looking forward to the part where they pop back into place. He just hopes it happens before they get back to SHIELD and he has to put up with people fussing when they must know there’s no point.
He has to brace himself against the dresser to bend down to retrieve the condom. He can feel Natasha’s eyes on him, though she doesn’t say anything, and he tries and fails not to blush as he takes it into the small bathroom to get rid of it.
When he comes back out she hasn’t moved. Her feet are braced and her arms are folded. She just watches him as he looks through the cupboard for bag.
He shakes the worst of the glass away from part of the bed and puts the bag down. He starts yanking drawers from the ruined dresser, pulls out socks and shorts and puts them on top of the bag. The set of knives he tries to set on top of the dresser, but they start sliding off where the top is smashed in, so he puts them on the floor.
Denims, belt, a couple of tees. He checks the seams, buttons and buckles for any concealed weaponry. There’s soon a pile of small, easily hidden weapons on top of the knives.
He can actually feel the weight of Natasha’s gaze between his shoulder blades.
“Do you want to tell me what that was all about?” she eventually asks.
He pauses with his back to her as he checks the collar of a sweatshirt. He knows she isn’t going to like it, and that he owes her more than this, but he just can’t-
She’s so precise. Everything about the Black Widow is Natasha Romanov – elegant, sophisticated, deadly. He’s not sure how to start explaining how Steve Rogers messed up Captain America.
“No, ma’am,” he says.
She goes very still. “Excuse me?” It’s polite, almost casual. He’s been around long enough now to know that’s when he’s most likely to get the rest of his stuffing beaten out of him.
He takes a deep breath that hurts his ribs then turns around to face her. Be brave.
“I don’t mean any disrespect, ma’am. I just can’t—“ He breaks off. “I mean, I can explain it. Kind of. It’s not an excuse, I just— But I don’t—“
“You slept with an assassin, Steve. You are packing a bag to take to him in incarceration. You must realize that you look like a very bad risk right now.”
He can’t help the little laugh that escapes him at that, and it doesn’t do him any favors with her. “I’ve been a bad risk most of my life, ma’am. People just keep telling themselves I’m something else.” He steps back from the bag, falls into parade rest.
She raises an eyebrow at him.
“I’m not trying to smuggle anything in,” he says. “You can check it.”
The eyebrow goes higher. He has no idea how she does it. “You want me to check the bag you packed to take to your assassin lover.”
Steve winces and stares at her feet. “It’s not—“ Except he can’t say it’s not like that, not after today. “I’ll report to Fury straight after and explain, I promise. But just, please Natasha.”
She stares at him, weighing him up. “I’ll be making my report immediately,” she says.
She goes through the bag. There are some thin patches tucked in the waistband of a pair of shorts, a garrote wire sewn into the seam of a shirtsleeve, tiny capsules in the straps of the bag itself. He tries to let it all wash over him, but it settles into the knot of grief and despair somewhere in his chest.
Natasha sets the boots away from the bag. “No shoes.”
“But—“ he begins, and is silenced with a look.
She pries at the heel of one of the boots, and a stiletto dagger emerges, almost as long as the sole of the boot. She uses it to prise the heel off the other boot, which contains what looks like some kind of putty. She delicately slices open the boot’s tongue to reveal what he thinks might be a detonator cap. “No shoes,” she repeats.
She shoves the bag into his arms as a group of SHIELD agents arrives to go over the apartment for evidence. They don’t look very impressed with the mess, or the fact that Steve and Natasha have clearly been tampering with things, but there aren’t many people who are prepared to challenge Natasha when she looks as angry as she does right now, and none of them are here.
“Get in the car,” she instructs, and he meekly obeys. She walks close behind him, and he’s pretty sure she’s making sure he doesn’t pull any tricks. The lack of trust hurts a little, but he knows he’s earned it.
It’s a long quiet drive back to HQ. She doesn’t take her eyes off him.
He hopes someone remembers to collect the bike.
When they arrive, she asks that two agents show him to where the prisoner is being kept. They look a little confused, but Steve understands that what she’s really doing is putting him under an armed escort. He doesn’t protest, just thanks her as she leaves to report to Fury.
He’s taken to the observation room first. In the cell, the Winter Soldier is already awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, face expressionless.
The agents on watch make him sign something to say that he and Natasha have both checked the bag before allowing the prisoner access to it, then let him through the door to the cell, which is actually two doors, set about three feet apart. The first door locks behind him before he hears the second door unlock. There are thin vents high in the wall, and Steve guesses the agents in the observation room can gas whoever’s in the tiny passage.
The Winter Soldier is standing by the time he enters the cell.
It’s immediately clear what was off about his arm. Steve can’t believe he didn’t notice. Someone’s given him a SHIELD t-shirt and, with the torn up cover removed, it’s clear that his entire arm, up to somewhere under the sleeve, is made of metal. Steve can’t even imagine how it works. Mostly he’s stuck on what might have happened to the original, and trying not to picture Bucky falling from the train, desperately clutching the railing that had given way just seconds too soon.
He tries to cover up the fact that he’s staring by gesturing with the bag. “I brought some of your things.”
The Winter Soldier smirks at that, and oh, it’s definitely the Winter Soldier now, although there are hints of Bucky in the challenging expression.
“I checked everything for weapons.” The smirk widens. “And so did the Black Widow.”
The smirk falls off his face, and he spits. Steve wonders where he picked that up from. Bucky had gone through a phase when they were about 14, but never did it much since then.
“That treacherous bitch. She betrayed her country.”
“I’m pretty sure her country betrayed her first.”
“You don’t get to judge that.”
“No, she does. And she came here, so I guess that says enough.”
Steve’s never seen so many ugly expressions on Bucky’s face before.
“So, what, you’re supposed to be the good cop? I gotta tell you, fucking the suspect before you arrest him isn’t that great a way to get on side with him.” The Winter Soldier slouches back against the wall, and it looks casual, metal arm crossing flesh, but it’s clear that he’s keeping Steve and the door in sight, while keeping as much out of sight of the window to the observation room as he can. Steve’s pretty sure he’s positioned to minimize exposure to any cameras as well, at least as much as he can.
“I know. That shouldn’t have happened, and I’m sorry.”
“Oh, the sympathy angle. That’s cute. ‘I’m a bad boy, too, bond with me.’ That it?”
Something resembling a smile pulls across Steve’s face, but there’s nothing happy about it. “No, it’s really not.”
“So what the hell’s this all about? What are you playing at, huh?”
“It’s—“ He probably really shouldn’t say anything. He should advise his CO, and he should absolutely not give the enemy assassin information. “Because I know you,” he says anyway.
“The fact that we fucked doesn’t mean you know me, asshole. You don’t know anything about me.”
“Winter Soldier?” he asks, stepping forward, getting into his space. And maybe putting himself between Bucky and their observers, and oh, this is such a dangerous game. “I’ve got a fair idea. But I didn’t mean that. I mean before. I know your name, your birthday, where you got this scar.” Without looking down, he drags his fingers over where he knows Bucky has a three-inch scar on his stomach from having his appendix out when he was twelve. “I can tell you where you got all your scars. I also have a pretty good idea why you don’t have more.”
The Winter Soldier’s face is blank, but Steve can tell it’s put on, that keeping it up is a strain. “Your whole history, who you were, where you came from. I’ve got it all. You decide you want it, you want to know? You call me. Any time.”
Grey eyes flick briefly to the wide observation window. “I’ll make sure they know.”
“What makes you so sure they’ll listen to you, pretty boy?”
Steve smiles a little, but it’s cold. They will, or they’ll learn the lesson about Steve Rogers that Colonel Phillips learned at Azzano – you don’t get between him and Bucky Barnes. “You think I can’t possibly know you. You’ve been with the Red Room since at least the early Fifties, right? But definitely not before the mid-Forties.” He says it with confidence, and the cold grey eyes flicker with discomfort. “I know you,” he repeats.
He takes a slow, deep breath. He’s got one last card to play, and it’s probably the worst thing he’s ever done to Bucky, including the time he accidentally got him a whipping from the matron at the orphanage because she wouldn’t believe that the fight had been Steve’s fault. Steve leans forward and presses his lips against his ear. There’ll likely be screaming nightmares for them both over this, the least he can do is make sure SHIELD don’t know why. “I bet you dream about falling.”
When he pulls back, the Winter Soldier is stiff, his head cocked defiantly, but his eyes are dark with what might almost be fear.
“Think about it,” Steve says, and walks out. He gives the guards on the door his cell phone number, and emphatic instructions that the Winter Soldier is allowed to call it, any time of day or night. Then it’s time to face the music and report to Fury. He takes a deep breath and steps out into the hall, where he nearly trips over Tony, who is back in his civvies and a pair of horrible, ostentatious, yellow-lensed sunglasses. Tony’s eyebrow shoot up as he takes in Steve’s split lip and the blood drying around his nose.
He’s really not in the mood to deal with Tony’s ribbing, but he can’t say so without being rude, and he owes everyone better than that after today, so he bites his tongue, and just nods as Tony falls into step beside him.
“You know,” Tony says, “anyone else would take advantage of the chance to bunk off and deal with Fury tomorrow, but you are actually going to walk of shame yourself on up to his office right now, aren’t you?”
It lacks the malicious edge that often accompany Tony’s jibes, and when Steve looks at Tony to check his expression, Tony throws his hands wide and says, “No, hey, don’t look at me like that. I’m totally here for immoral support!”
Steve opens his mouth to reply, but he really doesn’t actually know what he’d say. He’s so tired; it’s easier to just let Tony do whatever Tony’s going to do than to fight him on it. And actually, even if Tony wouldn’t be his first, or even second, choice, it’s nice not to be alone right now.
They’re waved straight into Fury’s office with a sympathetic look from his PA.
Fury is at parade rest, staring out the window, his back to the room. “Captain. Do you have some kind of explanation for that little debacle?” He turns and his expression when he realizes Tony is there too is sort of priceless. It’s possible Steve is a little punchy right now. Next to him, Tony is all but bouncing on the balls of his feet. “Stark, what the fuck are you doing here?”
Tony smiles his widest, most infuriating smile, and spreads his hands wide. “I am here to defe— no, to vehemently defend Cap’s God-given right to be just as big a fuck-up as the rest of us!” Tony declares. It probably speaks volumes to how bizarre Steve’s life has become that it’s a little heart-warming. “Up to and including sleeping with the enemy. I mean, that kind of thing can happen to anyone, am I right?”
“I would mostly expect it to happen to you, Stark,” Fury retorts, probably happy enough to avoid having to discuss what happened this afternoon for a little longer by riling up Tony. Steve’s begun to think it might even be a little affectionate, the way Fury and Tony wind each other up.
“It’s Bucky,” Steve says over the two of them getting warmed up for a good insult session.
“Uh.” Tony gapes for a moment, before looking genuinely concerned. It’s a toss up which expression looks stranger on him. “Bucky as in…”
“As in my best friend, Bucky Barnes. That man in the cell is him.”
“Captain,” Fury begins, in the voice he reserves for when he’s trying to sound like he’s being sensitive, but which is actually just kind of patronizing.
“Don’t start,” Steve interrupts. “I know it’s insane and impossible, but frankly those are two words which have stopped meaning much in my life. I’m struggling to think of anything in the last year or so that don’t fall into those categories. So yes, no matter how impossible or ridiculous it is, the Winter Soldier is Bucky Barnes, and I—“
“You are going home,” Tony overrides him. “Like, right now. We are not having this conversation right now. You are coming back to the Tower with me, where you will have a shower, and put on your own clothes and get a good night’s rest, and tomorrow we will come back and talk about how we’re going to handle the fact that a Most Wanted international assassin is also a missing American war hero.” He takes the sunglasses off and stares at Fury, and Steve’s only seen him look fierce like this once or twice, and never over him. “And when we get back tomorrow, Barnes is going to be right where we left him. Isn’t he, Nick?”
“Jesus, Stark, who do you think we are?” Fury retorts.
“Part of a shady governmental organization with more than enough resources to make someone inconvenient disappear, Sparkles,” Tony says, making a stabbing motion at Fury with the glasses. “You going to deny it? No?” he barrels on without giving Fury a chance to respond. “Thought not. So how about we all play nice, and Steve-o here will come in in the morning for a—“ He stumbles a little over a snigger, because he’s Tony, and he can’t help himself, “—debrief, and you can share your thoughts on how we solve a problem like Sergeant Barnes. OK? OK!”
They’re out the door and in the lift before Steve can even get his head around what’s going on. He opens his mouth to say something, but he still doesn’t know what, so he closes it again. Tony is doing something on his phone, and doesn’t seem to be bothered by the silence, so Steve just lets it go on.
When they’re in Stark’s car he asks, “Why are you doing this?” He and Tony get on well enough these days, but they aren’t friends and, while it’s usually not malicious, Tony never misses an opportunity to take a shot at Steve. But this, this looks an awful lot like straight out kindness, if in an overbearing, Stark-ish sort of way.
Tony looks over the rims of his sunglasses at him. “I am, like, the king of poor decisions in the heat of the emotional moment.” He turns away and pours two generous glasses of scotch, completely steady despite the movement of the car. Years of practice, Steve guesses, and takes the glass offered to him. “What can I say, I was getting worried about the competition.”
“Competition,” Steve repeats back, dubious. He’s made some spectacularly bad decisions today, but he sincerely hopes he will never be able to rank himself up there with the kind of disasters Tony seems to revel in.
“Your boy packs quite a punch,” Tony says, and knocks back his drink, already moving to refill his glass. “Anyway, you’re right. Have you ever made a totally reckless decision before in your life?”
Steve glances down at his chest, broad and sturdy and still sometimes startlingly unfamiliar, then looks out the window and tries not to think about how close he came to being court martialed at best, and at worst executed for desertion, for going AWOL in Italy to get Bucky back the first time. “Me?” he asks his reflection in the window, and let Tony make of it what he will.
“How old even are you?” Tony asks, like he couldn’t work it out for himself in half a second. “Ice-time not counting.”
“Depends how you slice it, really,” he answers, “but my next birthday would have been my 27th.”
“27. Jesus, way to make me feel old. I think I felt my knees creak just thinking about it,” Tony rambles.
Steve isn’t sure whether he’s got a point, or just filling the silence.
“I kind of get it,” Tony says. “I got… lost once.”
Lost. One way of putting it.
“You should have seen Rhodey when I got back. He barely let me out of his sight for a month. We probably would have ended up in bed if we hadn’t gotten it out of our systems back in the day.”
That gets Steve’s attention. “You and Colonel Rhodes.” They just seem so… unlikely, although their friendship clearly works somehow.
“Colonel Rhodes,” Tony mimics. “Yeah, I totally hit that. As it happens, it turned out not to be his thing, but he can now state with complete confidence,” the scotch in Tony’s glass sloshes as he points at Steve with the hand holding the glass, like the glass is an extension of his hand, “that he prefers women.”
Steve holds his own glass as far from his nose as he can. It smells like the good stuff, of course, but it also smells like sitting in a bombed-out pub, desperately trying not to think about Bucky’s face as the railing gave way, or what he was supposed to do now.
“So anyway— are you going to drink that?” Tony snatches the glass away from him without waiting for a response. “Anyway, my point is— I don’t know. Did I have a point?”
The car pulls into the entrance for the underground car park at Stark Tower, and stops while the driver passes through security. “Probably,” Tony continues, “something really fucking deep and profound about sex and friendship and how they’re not mutually exclusive. But anyway, here we are.” He all but leaps out of the car almost before it’s stopped moving, then sticks his head back in and peers over his sunglasses.
“Anyway, word to the wise, go shower and sleep before throwing yourself back into the lion’s den, and if you need anything—“ he breaks off, looking worried. Steve just waits, because he knows Tony reasonably well by now, and he’s pretty sure that listening to people pour their hearts out is not something he’s comfortable with. Then Tony brightens. Solution found. “Ask JARVIS!” Then he looks a little excited – better solution found. “Or Pepper!” He stabs his finger at Steve. “You should totally talk to Pepper! She gives amazing advice, and it would be such a nice change for her to give it to someone who might actually follow it. Ciao for now!” And then he’s gone.
Steve follows more slowly, takes the stairs up to the rooms Tony keeps for him here. The pull in his thighs and lower back makes him blush a bit, and he focuses instead on the dull ache and occasional stab of pain in his ribs. He still doesn’t regret not waiting for the private lift to come back down. It feels good to stretch his legs.
When he reaches his room, he skips the shower and crawls into the bed fully dressed. He doesn’t expect to sleep, not really, but he startles awake just before 0600 when his ribs pop back into place to find he’s slept for at least twelve hours solid. He doesn’t remember dreaming, but the state of his morning wood suggests that he sure did, and doesn’t leave too much to the imagination as to what he was dreaming about. He takes care of it in the shower, and if he closes his eyes and pretends that it’s Bucky touching him instead of his own hand, that’s between him and his conscience.
After he’s finished he keeps the rest of his shower quick. His hand skims quickly over what’s left of his hair. It feels strange, both the texture, and how little it takes to scrub the soap through. It doesn’t feel like it should be clean, but he can’t feel any of the product left, so it must be.
He checks the fridge with his stomach actually growling. He can’t miss meals anymore, not with the way his metabolism races these days, and especially not when he’s healing from damage like he took the day before. He profusely thanks JARVIS and the housekeeping staff when he finds it well stocked with bread and eggs and bacon, all well within date, even though he hasn’t been here in several weeks. JARVIS has assured him that the food is donated to a homeless shelter before it goes bad when he isn’t there.
Steve would hesitate to use a phrase as dangerous as ‘Tony was right,’ but his debriefing with Fury goes rather differently than he thinks it would have otherwise. A shower and his own clothes have left him feeling like himself again. He points out that ultimately, whatever unorthodox actions may have been taken, SHIELD has the Winter Soldier in custody, as well as having the opportunity to rehabilitate a lost war hero.
“You’re on suspension for at least a month till your shrink clears you for active duty. Get the fuck out of my office, Rogers,” is the absolute best result Steve could have hoped for, all things considered.
He goes down to the observation room to Bucky’s cell, and watches the Winter Soldier going through an exercise routine. The agents on duty ask, without actually asking, whether he wants to go in. He shakes his head. He’s made his offer. All he can do now is wait to see if Bucky will take it.
He doesn’t sleep so well that second night. His dreams are full of Bucky strangling him with his metal hand in an alley in Brooklyn, the Winter Soldier sneering at him from the table in Zola’s lab, Bucky begging him to help him while he cuts his arm off with a knife, Bucky falling, Bucky falling, Bucky falling.
He’d been destroying fewer punching bags lately, but as he spends hours every night in the gym just trying to wear himself out enough to sleep without dreams, the number of ruined bags soars again. He burns out three running machines before Stark steps in and designs one that can keep up with him.
The weeks go by. His therapist clears him for duty after the month is up, but says that he will be strongly recommending Steve not be put forward for undercover work. Steve thinks it’s probably a relief all around.
There are a couple of milk run missions – Fury testing him, which is annoying because it was a pretty unusual set of circumstances that had him… doing what he did, and Bucky is in custody, so it’s not like it’s going to come up again.
The worst of it is trying to fix things with Natasha, who is slow to forgive, though it gets better once she works it out.
“James Buchanan Barnes,” she snaps, from behind him in the SHIELD gym. He freezes. “Sergeant in the 107th Regiment, and then the Howling Commandos. Rumored to have been very close with Captain America, reported missing in action after one of the Commandos’ final missions.”
She pauses, and he guesses he’s supposed to respond, although he doesn’t really know what to say. “Yes,” is the best he’s got.
“Did you know?” she demands.
He can’t help the laugh that escapes him as he stands up and turns to face her. “That Bucky was alive, and a brainwashed Soviet super-assassin? No. I’d have gotten him out a lot sooner if I had known.”
“Is that what happened?” she asks, her eyebrow as arched as her tone. “Because it looks like you fucked your best friend who didn’t recognize you, and then threw him in prison.”
He winces, wants to protest that it wasn’t like that, because it wasn’t. Except in the way that it was. And two months later he still doesn’t know how to explain, even to himself, how it all got so messed up.
“I shouldn’t have done it,” he says. “I know I shouldn’t have. I just, I thought he was dead. I thought he was really gone forever, and then suddenly he was right there and—“ It’s not till he waves his hand in a helpless gesture that he realizes his shoulders are hunched down and his arms curled around his body, like he’s trying to make himself small.
He doesn’t know how to talk about the warmth in his chest just from having Bucky there, or the cold sick twist in his stomach at the smiling blankness in his eyes; how, when he was with Bucky and it was just them, he felt warm all the way through for the first time in what felt like forever; how, when the chill creeps into his bones again, he thinks of it even though he knows he shouldn’t, and it helps.
He can only ever tell what she’s thinking when she lets him, or not him specifically, but unless she chooses to be open her face is like a beautiful mask that Steve can’t see past.
She isn’t being open now.
“When we were kids, he used to get us into all sorts of trouble. Nothing big, that was always me. But ridiculous pranks, plain bad ideas, that was all Bucky. He made me ride the Cyclone on Coney Island till I was sick. I wasn’t even a kid then really, about nineteen.” He always tries not to think too hard about memories like this, because if he does, he can almost smell the sea air, and the sharp chemical smells from the boats coming into the port, the cheap lye soap that was all they could afford.
“He gets— got— gets, I guess, this look in his eye, like he’s daring me. I’ve been doing things I knew better than to do because he looked at me like that since 1925. I guess that hasn’t changed any.” He realizes he’s smiling a little.
“Do you think that lets you off the hook?” she asks, and her voice is completely neutral. It’s kind of unnerving.
“I think it’s safe to say that I am, and pretty much always have been, firmly on the hook.” He doesn’t know what else to say to her. He doesn’t think he’s done right, and he won’t try to argue that he did. He shouldn’t have, but he did, and there’s a tiny, rebellious part of him that doesn’t regret it.
She’s silent for a moment, then, “You haven’t been to see him.”
“No.” He starts unwrapping his hands and hopes she’ll fill the silence before he has to.
“If he wants to know about Bucky, about before, he’ll ask. I can’t— I can’t just sit there and talk to him. Even assuming he doesn’t just punch me in the face, what would we even talk about? Motorcycles, maybe? The good old days that he doesn’t remember?” He shakes his head. “No, I’ll just have to wait and see if… if he’s ever coming back. Maybe he never will.”
He doesn’t know what else she wants him to say.
“I see,” she says eventually.
He’s not sure he wants to know what it is that she sees. He doesn’t seem to know much of anything these days.
“Do you know what happened to his arm?” he asks. It’s been bothering him the whole time. Was it the fall, a mission gone wrong, what?
She blinks quickly and he thinks he’s surprised her, though she’s not sure how.
“I don’t know. I’ve never heard anything to suggest he hasn’t always had it.” She cocks her hip, posture relaxed. “I take it that’s not the case.”
Steve shakes his head. “I think maybe it was, you know. When he fell.” He finds he can’t look her in the eye when he talks about it. Probably can’t look anyone in the eye. He doesn’t know what they’d see, but he doesn’t want them to.
She is silent a moment, and then, “It wasn’t your fault.”
He turns away at that. Starts fiddling with the weights, leaving them ready for someone else to use. “You don’t know that.”
“These things happen, Steve,” she says in a tone more gentle than anything he’s heard from her in weeks. It’s sort of a relief, or it would be if they were talking about anything but this. “It was a—“
“I am well aware it was a war, and not some back alley scrap. I’m not stupid, and I’m not blind.” The bar in his hands creaks a little, and he realizes he’s holding it too tightly. “I was down, OK? All of this,” he gestures at his chest, he’s sure she gets what he means, “And the one time it really counted, I was down.” The bar falls into its groove with a resounding clang. “He picked up the shield. Did you know that? Does it say that in the reports? I was down, and he picked up the shield, and he defended me just like he did every damn time. And he got blown out the side of a train car doing a hundred miles an hour across the top of a mountain. And do you know what?” He stalks towards her, even as some part of his brain yells that it’s a very stupid thing to do. She’s still as a statue, eyes on his face. “He held on. He was right there, Natasha. He was right there, and I still couldn’t save him.” He stops, right in her space, looming over her. He always forgets how small she is, she seems so much larger than life. She hasn’t moved, except to look up at him. “It was entirely my fault.”
“Captain America and the Red Menace!” Tony pronounces as he walks into the gym, a towel draped over his neck. “It sounds like a penny dreadful, or possibly cheesy patriotic porn.” He heads towards the running machine. “Hoooweee, there is some atmosphere going on in here! What did I miss?”
“Nothing.” Steve steps back. “Sorry,” he says over his shoulder to Natasha as he heads towards the showers. He’s breathing hard by the time he gets there and he stands in the shower, the water hot as he can stand. He stays in it for the longest time.
When he feels like he can breathe again he gets out, gets dressed.
He’ll go up and check on Bucky. He doesn’t go in. He never goes in. And he won’t, not till he’s asked.
He just needs to be sure that he’s still there, that he’s OK. At least as much as he can be, what with everything.
He stands in the observation room. Bucky has his back to the window, the closest he can get to privacy, and precious little of that, given the cameras watching him from every other angle. He’s hunched over a steaming mug. He looks tired, but still gloriously real. Alive.
He heads for the desk he’s been allocated, to write up some details from his last assignment, and wait to be forgiven.
Steve’s phone rings at 4am on a Tuesday. It’s not the first time he’s gotten a call at such an appalling time, but he never quite gets used to it. He’s rolling out of bed even as he answers, “Rogers.”
“Captain Rogers, sir, this is Agent Gupta,” a female voice says, just slightly hesitant. “I’m on guard in the containment facility at SHIELD.”
He stills. “Yes,” he prompts.
“Sir, the prisoner has asked to speak to you, and you said…”
“I said any time. Thank you, Agent Gupta.” He sits back down on the edge of the bed and very quietly takes a deep breath. “Can you please put him on?”
He waits through the rustling sounds of the phone being passed over, and closes his eyes as Bucky’s voice comes over the line.
“I’m not— I’m not taking up your offer. I wanna put that out there right now.”
“I have a question, and I don’t want any explanations, I just want a yes or no answer. Got it?”
Steve takes a deep breath and braces himself. “I got it,” he confirms. There’s a pause, and he almost thinks there’s a hint of nerves in it.
“Are you Steve?”
He doesn’t know what he was expecting, but it wasn’t this. “I—“ he starts, before he catches himself. Yes or no answer. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Shit,” Bucky snaps out, and disconnects the line.
Anyone who didn’t know Bucky better might be worried. Steve puts his phone back on the bedside table, crawls back into his still-warm bed, and goes back to sleep with a smile on his face.