Two weeks in Maputo was more than long enough. Not that there was anything wrong with the city, or in escaping the frozen, slushy streets of DC for a sunny January along Mozambique's coast. Nothing wrong at all, except that Steve was supposed to be on vacation in Puerto Rico, drinking rum and lounging on the beach.
Fury had rolled his good eye and suggested that Rogers bring his swimsuit to Maputo, if he was so determined to get a tan. Steve had ground his teeth and taken the file. He wasn't going to tell his boss that it wasn't San Juan's daylight hours that interested him.
The longer he worked for SHIELD, the more convinced Steve became that he was never going to have sex again. He'd signed up to be a human intelligence expert, not a monk.
He'd suggested that Fury send Barton, but the director said Clint was busy offering “law enforcement support” in the Ukraine. Wetwork, then. Sam couldn't do it; his specialties were all in imagery intelligence. Put him in front of a mark and Wilson would probably toss them off a building. Sharon was HUMINT, same as Steve, but he had coordinated with her in São Paolo, and her lack of Portuguese slang had nearly gotten them both killed.
At this point, his balls weren't any bluer than the rest of him. The weather outside was warm and dry, a refreshing breeze coming off the water. The weather inside the luxurious hotel bar had been manufactured with an excess of air conditioning, and Steve was freezing.
Thankfully, tracking the courier had finally led Steve to the source, and cost SHIELD a room in a very expensive hotel. No one assumed Steve Rogers could work human intelligence — everyone took one look at his Irish blush and his averted eyes and declared him a terrible liar — but Steve's quiet sincerity and honest warmth made him the best counter intelligence agent in SHIELD's history. Almost as good as Romanova.
So he smiled at the courier for a long, tedious week of stalking and pleasant redirection. Then he rented an overpriced room, put on the suit his tailor had practically groped him to measure, and bought a martini for the attaché. Two hours later, she was snoring in her room after several cocktails and a subtle round of polite interrogation and misinformation, and Steve was back down at the bar attempting to bankrupt SHIELD's discretionary funds. Maybe the alcohol would warm him up, since Maputo didn’t allow the sort of nightclubs where Steve could find a lindo to do the job.
Except. There was a man — um homem muito lindo — slouched in the corner of the bar, limbs loose and head tilted back against the wall as though he had sat there for hours. But Steve would have seen him, if the man had been there moments before; not because he had noted every customer in the bar, but because the man was impossible not to notice. Chestnut hair fell across his forehead and into glacial eyes, paler in contrast to the dark shading of stubble on his jaw, the black of his leather jacket. The plain white t-shirt he wore pulled tight across his chest. Sunglasses hooked into the collar tugged it low enough for Steve to catch a glimpse of chest hair. The man's jeans were no more ornate than his shirt, a deep blue that hugged his legs and disappeared into heavy black boots at the ankle. He had kicked his feet out past the table he sat next to, knees open in what was probably a display of aggressive masculinity, but which looked more like an invitation to Steve’s addled brain.
The part of Steve's brain left untouched by exhaustion and lust — the part that had spent the last three years as a spy, and the five before that in countries censored out of his record — registered the man as something more than a playboy unwinding with a few beers before heading out for the clubs. There was something disquieting in the man's gaze, something . . . Steve might have figured it out, if the man hadn't lifted his head and caught Steve staring.
The man smiled, let it curl across his lips, the grin of a shark scenting blood. Steve blushed, then choked on his drink as the man came to his feet with a sensuous roll of his spine. He'd almost stopped coughing when a pair of unfamiliar hands slid under his suit jacket, settling possessively on his hips.
“Tell me you have a room,” a low, melodic voice whispered, blowing the words against the shell of Steve's ear. Steve shivered, gasping at the warm, damp breath sliding over his ear, and immediately started coughing again. “Or I could just take you against the bar,” the velvet voice continued, sounding amused, and Steve could hear the creak of the man's leather jacket when he leaned in far enough to brush the rough stubble on his cheek into Steve's neck.
Steve had missed dinner, and possibly had too much to drink. Those were reasonable explanations for why he suddenly felt light-headed, hands shaking when he reached into his jacket for his room key. The thought of a dark-haired stranger pressing him into the bar, of a leather jacket rubbing against his bare skin while his moans shocked the other patrons into silence — that was just Steve's overactive imagination and his sadly neglected libido at work.
Nimble fingers danced up his chest and tugged the key card out of Steve’s jacket, pinching briefly at nipples already peaked from the cold before the man straightened up and moved away.
He paused halfway across the lobby, twisted around to see Steve still gaping at him from his bar stool. The stranger raised his eyebrows and waved Steve's key card at him, then turned around and headed for the elevators. Steve nearly tripped over two tables and a potted plant in his haste to follow.
The man crowded Steve against the mirrored wall of the elevator as soon as the doors slid shut, knocking him off balance and putting his face at the perfect height to drag into a heated, open-mouthed kiss that Steve was only too happy to reciprocate. The man tasted like vodka and cinnamon, his tongue curling wickedly around Steve's in what his Ma surely would have labeled an invitation to sin. At least, Steve hoped it was an invitation to sin.
“What's your name?” Steve panted, when the elevator dinged and they were forced to come up for air and stumble into the corridor.
“Why?” Steve could feel the man’s smirk, when Steve gasped at the rasp of teeth over the sensitive skin on the back of his neck. “Because you want something to scream, or because you want to see if it matches the passport you stole out of my pocket?”
Steve blushed, and tugged the stranger's passport back out of his suit jacket. Normally his sources didn't notice when he lightened their pockets or purses. Normally he wasn't being kissed senseless while he worked.
“Go ahead,” the man offered, coming up to walk beside Steve as they headed for his room. His hand slid down the smooth fabric of the suit, coming to rest comfortably on Steve's ass. Steve focused on the deep red of the passport, and did not squeak when the man gave Steve’s left ass cheek a firm squeeze.
“Alexeyev,” he read, bypassing the Cyrillic. “Sergei. Russian federation?” he asked, because the man — Sergei — had no trace of an accent, unless one counted the global accent of the well-educated elite.
“Seryozhka, if you'd rather,” the man supplied, giving a ridiculous bow as he tugged the passport back out of Steve's hands, sliding it into his exquisitely fitted jeans, swapping it for the passport Steve hadn’t realized Sergei had stolen out of the hidden pocket in his suit. “And that would make you -” He raised an eyebrow at the UK passport, but said nothing about Steve’s American twang. “- Grant Josephs. Really?”
“Are you insulting my parents' baby-naming skills?” Steve wondered, snatching back his passport and the room key for good measure. Of course, Sergei would only be insulting Banner, who could forge an identity for anyone in SHIELD, but the other man didn't know that.
“I wouldn't dare,” Sergei responded, boxing Steve in when he turned to open his door, pushing him into the wood and sucking on Steve's earlobe. “Grant.” He let the name rumble through his chest and hum through Steve's ear. Steve was relieved that no one stuck their heads into the hall to hear him moan, or to watch him fumble with the doorknob.
Sergei twisted the handle and shoved them both through the entryway, closing the door and flipping the deadbolt without letting Steve go. “In your bed, or bent over your balcony?” Sergei growled the question into the sensitive skin of Steve’s throat, the vibration followed by the rasp of dark stubble and the wet nips of tongue and teeth. Steve shivered.
“What makes you think I’m that easy?” he panted, trying to hold on to his composure despite nearly a year of grudging celibacy. Sergei laughed, probably because Steve’s hands were fondling his ass, thumbs sliding along the waistband of his jeans. “Or that I’d bend over,” he added, because even before he’d started working at SHIELD Steve had learned never to turn your back on someone you didn’t trust.
Sergei lifted his head and raised one thin, dark eyebrow, pupils blown wide and eyes nearly black with desire. “What made you think I wasn’t offering?” he replied, gaze flickering down to Steve’s reddened lips.
Steve broke his own rule, turning his back to Sergei in his haste to reach the hotel bed and the lube and condoms still packed for his canceled Caribbean vacation. When he spun back around, his mouth went dry, lips parted but unable to do more than gape wordlessly and stare.
When Steve had been a Green Beret, he and the Commandos had run a mission down in the Darien Gap, dripping with sweat and surrounded by a jungle lusher and louder than they could have imagined after years in the deserts of the Middle East. Steve had wandered off one evening to take a piss and felt eyes on the back of his neck. Had turned around and watched the dappled twilight of the jungle blink and come to its feet as the lithe body of a black jaguar resting on a thick vine.
It had followed him all the way back to camp, leaping gracefully from branch to ground, ambling as though it had all the time in the world, a hungry glint in unblinking yellow eyes. Sergei looked more like that jaguar than a man, prowling toward Steve without a stitch of clothing on and a dangerous light in his eyes.
Sergei was beautiful, dark hair sticking up at odd angles from where Steve had run his fingers through it, lips red from dragging them over the shadow of a beard on Steve’s jaw. He was more muscular than Steve normally went for, not because Steve didn’t want to be pinned down and taken but because he knew better than to bed anyone whose neck he couldn’t snap, if it became necessary. For the first time in a decade, Steve was considering sex with someone he wasn’t sure he could kill with his bare hands.
... God, he really should have become an accountant, like his Great-Aunt Agnes had wanted. He’d definitely be having more sex.
“You’re thinking too much,” Sergei told him, then pounced. The bed frame squeaked loudly when several hundred pounds slammed onto it, but didn’t crack. Steve thought he might have whiplash. Of course, whiplash didn’t stop him from grinding his hips up against Sergei’s, the front of his boxers already damp. “And you’re wearing too many clothes.”
It was over far too quickly. Steve was still wearing all his clothes, though Sergei had untucked his shirt with a harsh tug that popped several buttons free and tore loose the rest. His slacks and underwear had been carelessly shoved down past his knees, trapping his legs together but saving him from trying to explain why he had a gun and two knives strapped to his ankles.
Sergei had fingered himself open, slapping Steve’s hand away when he’d tried to help, so Steve had laid back and enjoyed the view. Though when he’d bracketed Steve’s hips with his calves, Sergei had rocked backward just over Steve’s straining erection and raised both eyebrows at Steve’s groan. “You’re not going to make me do all the work, are you, Josephs?” Sergei had whispered, and Steve had nearly tackled him off the bed.
He was half-dozing the next morning — mapping out his strategy for removing his shoes and convincing Sergei to stick around for morning sex — when he felt a fleeting kiss on his cheek and a light slap to his bare ass. When he woke up hours later, to the shrill demands of his phone and Fury shouting in his ear, Sergei was gone, with only the ruined sheets and the thrum under Steve’s skin to show he’d been there at all.
Steve couldn’t even manage to be angry when Fury told him the attaché had been killed shortly after leaving the hotel, two weeks of work and a lost vacation down the drain. “Where were you?” Fury demanded, living up to his name.
“Training,” Steve answered, toeing off his shoes and stripping for the long, hot shower he planned to take.
“Training for what?” Nick shouted, reverberating through the phone Steve had tossed on the unmade bed.
“My new job,” Steve declared, walking into the bathroom with the pleasant ache of muscles well used for the first time in a year, flipping the expensive rainforest shower on. “I’m becoming an accountant.”
The head of SHIELD might have kept shouting, but Steve couldn’t hear him over the spray.
* * *
The second time was in Johannesburg, because it had been the next flight out of Victoria Falls, and because Clint wouldn’t stop cursing and Steve needed a stiff drink or three if he was going to make it back to DC without committing homicide.
He hadn’t been running point on this operation, but that didn’t help wash the sour taste of failure from his mouth. The government had expected them to keep Herr Fleischmann safe, and Herr Fleischmann expected to add a Nile buffalo to his trophy collection. Presumably, the only person who had gone away satisfied was the person who had expected to put a bullet in Fleischmann’s head.
In the wild spaces of the Zambezi River Valley, the shooter could have been anyone, close enough to touch or hunkered down more than a mile away.
“Sniper,” Clint had cursed, kicking at some scrub and stalking off to radio Fury without heeding Steve’s warning to stay down. Of course it was a sniper. A big game hunter misfiring couldn’t possibly have hit a man crouched in the long grass, dressed in camo surrounded by two paranoid bodyguards.
This was why Steve preferred counterintelligence. People still died, but at least they weren’t people under his protection, or under his command.
Clint had taken two full bottles of vodka and vanished, probably headed for a rooftop or a quiet place to phone Natasha. Steve had headed for Newtown and a club. He wouldn’t throw himself into the crowd and dance; couldn’t do that, still riding high on hyper-vigilance and the feeling of being in someone’s crosshairs, but he could lean against a wall and appreciate the view.
The view included some of the longest legs Steve had ever seen, painted into black leather trousers, and a flash of pale skin where the man’s thin shirt had ridden up along the bumps of his spine. He traced the line up to the back of the man’s head, where his hair was shaved close on both sides and gilded blond in the center, the mohawk edgy and understated all at once.
If he wasn’t so paranoid about being shot point-blank in the back of his head, Steve would have plastered himself against the stranger’s back and buried his nose in the gelled spikes of his hair.
Then the stranger arched into his partner and dropped his head back, gazing at Steve with familiar ice-blue eyes.
“Sergei?” Steve mouthed, feeling as though he’d been bulldozed with a punching bag. The man must live somewhere on the continent, despite his Russian passport, or perhaps do business that brought him all over Africa looking good enough to eat.
Steve tossed back the rest of his drink, and didn’t jump when sweaty fingers tugged the cup out of his hand. “Grant,” Sergei murmured, smirking as if he knew that Steve’s passport this time said Etienne, and made him out to be French Canadian. “Come back to my place.”
“You don’t want to keep dancing?” Steve asked, leaning forward to lick the sweat glistening on Sergei’s neck, ducking down to run teeth along his collarbone and pull a shudder from the other man.
“I intend to,” Sergei answered, maneuvering Steve away from the wall and draping himself along the taut line of Steve’s shoulders before Steve could flinch at being pulled out of his safe space, sliding both hands into the front pockets of Steve’s jeans and distracting him from the press of the crowd. Steve chose not to think too hard about why it felt easier with Sergei at his back, why he let the other man nudge him out of the club and into the dangerously unguarded spaces of the streets beyond.
It was probably, he decided — tilting his head back for a messy, open-mouthed kiss, pushing back against Sergei’s erection and gasping as the man’s fingers slid beneath the waistband of his jeans — probably, because, if Sergei had wanted to kill him, he’d already had his chance.
* * *
Steve didn’t have the good sense to be suspicious until the third time, two weeks after Johannesburg and halfway across the world in California, acting as a federal engineer willing to talk trade secrets with Western lobbyists. Western lobbyists with connections to radical groups planning to blow up a dam.
He’d figured on catching up with Morita, who’d been his radio operator in the Special Forces, possibly crashing on his sofa for a night if they got to reminiscing over beers.
Though when he knocked on the Moritas’ door it wasn’t Jim who answered. Steve had never met Amy Morita — had missed the wedding, called back into work just as he had packed his suit and the obligatory gift — but that didn’t stop the woman from ushering him in. Amy Morita couldn’t have been more than five feet tall; Steve could have picked her up with one hand, even with the added weight of the dark-haired baby in her arms.
“You’d better not track dirt on my wood floors, Captain Rogers,” Amy called over her shoulder, slinging the baby onto her hip and walking back into the house without waiting for Steve to close the door. “Jimmy’s out back in his laboratory,” she added, enunciating each syllable of the last word while rolling her eyes, then winking at Steve. “He’s working, apparently, but I’m sure he’d be happy to work on polishing off whatever you’ve brought.” She nodded her head at the case of beer in Steve’s hands.
“Um. Thank you,” Steve said, and debated the etiquette of introducing himself to a woman who already seemed to know his name. “How did you know –”
“You look just like your pictures,” Amy answered. She gestured at the walls, and Steve could see himself in several of them, smile bright against the deep tan of his face, his fatigues and his hair both thick with pale sand. He had the solid metal of a gun truck at his back, his arms around a grinning Jones and a scowling, sunburnt Dugan. Morita squatted on the ground with his favorite radio, Falsworth sprawled in the dust beside him and pulling a face at the camera; no doubt intended for Dernier, who must have taken the shot.
Steve’s team, a month before Dernier pulled Steve aside late one night, worried that someone on base was trafficking guns. Six weeks before Jackie was killed, too smart to be fooled by corrupt math, too honest to take a cut. Fifty days before Steve did his own calculations, realized that more was at stake than guns, and threw himself on the back of unmanned warhead, an enormous airborne grenade with Rumlow holding the pin.
Amy coughed loudly, and Steve jumped. “Are you going outside?” she drawled, staring through Steve with the eyes of a soldier’s wife. “Or did you want to stay in here and watch me breastfeed Junior?”
“I’ll, um. Just get out of your way, ma’am,” Steve stuttered, offering a sharp salute and hurrying toward the backyard. Laughter followed him out the door.
The only things in the yard were a brand-new playscape and rickety shed, so Steve assumed the latter was Jim’s laboratory. He heard the hum of low voices inside, but didn’t bother to knock: Amy hadn’t mentioned any other guests, and Jim had always listened to the radio at decibels that made normal humans cringe.
He should have knocked. He realized his mistake when he swung the door open and promptly found himself on his knees and gasping for air. The forearm clamped down on his windpipe disappeared before Steve could catch hold of his attacker, and Steve was left alone in a shed with Morita gazing guiltily out the open door.
“What. The Hell. Was that?” Steve forced out, gulping down oxygen between each word. Morita winced, and wrinkled his nose when he realized that he didn’t have a convincing lie to tell.
“A visit from an old friend, Rogers,” he finally said, shrugging one shoulder and collecting the ‘friend’s’ half-finished beer. “You want one?” he offered, and Steve gave a reluctant nod. There was no arguing with Jim, not when it came to his friends.
“Your friend is pretty jumpy,” he said, instead, following Morita into the backyard and sprawling out in the chairs next to the barbeque.
Jim rolled his eyes — Steve might be HUMINT, but none of his subtle interrogation techniques worked with his old team. “You’d be pretty jumpy, too, if you’d been Delta Force,” he answered, draining his bottle before turning and staring hard at Steve. “In fact, Cap, you are pretty jumpy, so maybe it’s the contract work that’s bad for all you vets.”
There was no defense for that, really, since Steve had slept better as a soldier than he ever did as a spy, so he tossed Morita a fresh beer and changed the subject to playscapes and civilian life.
Three hours later, Steve shattered the glass in his hand when it became clear that the lobbyists had been a front, and whoever was really funding the radicals had played SHIELD like a fiddle. He’d realized this halfway through a friendly drink, when one of the men’s assistants had burst into the bar shouting about the hydroelectric dam, a split second before the power had died.
The whole region would be in chaos, until the government stepped in and figured out how to restore the electricity. Steve cursed loudly in French and strode out of the bar, phoning Jim to make sure that he and his wife were safe, and had barred the doors against looters or vandals. Jim made a rude noise, and Steve smiled at the memory of Morita’s voice over their radios, mocking them all home to safety after a fight. “It’s not me I’m worried about,” Morita said, the murmur of his wife and several neighbors a calm hum over the phones. “Watch your back, Cap. Someone has plans for this.”
Jim was smart, could maybe have guessed that someone was after Steve, but the surety in his voice didn’t sound like speculation, and Steve could still feel the ache in his throat after running into Jim’s friend. His radioman knew something. “Morita, what do you –”
“He knows you should watch your back,” a familiar voice rumbled, millimeters from Steve’s other ear. Steve jumped. No one crept up behind him, ever, and even at his most optimistic, he knew Sergei didn’t belong in the western United States. Undaunted by the tension running up Steve’s spine, Sergei hooked his chin over Steve’s shoulder and turned his face toward the phone. “He’s fine, Fresno,” he declared, ignoring the space Steve attempted to put between their heads. “I’ve got him.”
“Sarge!” Jim replied, sounding unforgivably pleased. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“What the hell is –”
“Guess you’re fine, Cap,” Morita interrupted, shoving all his words into one exhale. “And now that you’ve got Sarge I’ll just be going hope you’re well stay safe Amy says goodnight.”
Proving that he’d never really grown out of his temper, Steve threw the phone hard against the sidewalk, barely satisfied by the crunch of plastic and glass. He twisted around to face Sergei, and probably would have thrown him, too, except that something popped in the distance and he found himself rolled onto the street and pinned beneath the other man, both of them twitching hands down to their belts.
Then fireworks lit up the sky — no bombs, no death stalking the streets, just kids with Roman candles and too many hormones pumping through their blood — and Sergei sagged against him, forehead coming to rest on Steve’s.
“So,” Steve said, desperate to break the silence hovering in the inch between their lips, so that he could stop thinking about licking his way into the other man’s mouth, or the erection pressing uncomfortably into the zipper on his suit. “Not your first car bomb?”
Sergei huffed, the moist air of his breath and the faint smell of cigarettes brushing Steve’s face. “Only matters if it’s my last car bomb,” he retorted, a refrain Steve had teased the Commandos with plenty of times.
“Iraq?” Steve wondered, and the other man hummed in response, tilted his head left then right again.
“You could say that,” he finally said, a distance in his gaze that Steve knew intimately from looking in the mirror during his last tour. Sergei had been to Iraq, certainly, but not through the normal paths that soldiers took. Steve’s memories of Iraq were of muddy rivers seen through the goggles of his diving suit, scrub flattened in the breeze of helicopter blades, the sandy brick of a bombed out building and the night sky seen through his rifle’s scope. They had sent him there for a few weeks, a mission or two, and the flat blue of Sergei’s eyes as he tried to separate one mission from a thousand more was something that Steve understood.
The sky sparkled red, white and blue, and Steve raised an eyebrow at the man still pinning him to the street, their faces patterned in bursts of light. “What is it that you do, Seryozhka?” he demanded, rolling the dark-haired man off of him and hauling them both to their feet.
“Can’t be that different from what you do, Grant,” Sergei responded, dusting gravel and broken glass off his jeans. Steve ran soldier’s eyes down the length of him, searching for bulges that could be weapons, loose clothing that could conceal knives.
“I work for the government,” Steve stated baldly, hands going behind his back in a parade rest he hadn’t held for years. He gripped onto his fist, willing himself not to reach out and brush the smear of blood from Sergei’s temple, where he must have hit his head trying to protect them from fireworks and a calm sky.
Sergei bared his teeth in a grin, and sidled right into Steve’s space, undeterred by the steel in Capt. Rogers’s jaw or the strain in his squared shoulders. “Is that what you tell yourself?” he whispered, slouching so that he could nuzzle his way up the veins corded down Steve’s neck. “Does that help you sleep at night?”
“I sleep like a baby,” Steve lied through gritted teeth, and the other man flicked the sensitive skin under his ribs in retaliation. “But you –”
“Haven’t slept in years,” Sergei announced, pulling himself up to his full height, coming nearly nose to nose with Steve. In the dark — without the hydroelectric power of the dam — all Steve could see was the glint of Sergei’s eyes, the touch of moonlight on his tongue when he licked his darkened lips. “Aren’t there better things to do in bed, Steven Grant Rogers, than to sleep?”
And for the first time since the drone plane in Afghanistan, Steve wrapped his arms around something dangerous and thought that, well, there were worse ways to die.
Sergei was Bucky. Steve smirked into his pillow: Bucky might be deadly, might even have been Special Forces, once, but Steve’s interrogation tactics were unrivaled. He just didn’t normally extract confessions with his mouth.
“Stop smirking,” Bucky groaned, coherent for the first time in several minutes. “You promised to make me scream your real name, Steven, and so far the only name I’ve screamed is my own.”
Steve laughed out loud — the first time he could remember laughing in bed since the one disastrous time with Monty, the first time he could recall laughing at all in far too long — and Bucky took advantage of his distraction, moving faster than he should have been able to, swinging his leg across Steve’s stomach and levering himself up above Steve’s aching erection, hovering just out of reach.
“Bucky,” Steve begged, digging his fingers into the solid muscles of Bucky’s thighs, pinned between them despite his best efforts to arch his hips off the bed and find some relief. “Buck, god, come on, just –” Bucky pinched Steve’s nipple, fingers as hard as a clamp, and Steve keened.
“I’m not sure you can keep up, Rogers,” Bucky declared, running his left hand down the skin between Steve’s hipbones. Steve shivered, and nearly bucked both of them off the bed. “Must be too many years working for the government.”
“Oh, that’s it,” Steve announced, stretching down to tickle the soles of Bucky’s feet. “This is war.”
Bucky was long gone the next morning, but Steve hadn’t expected any less. He sunk a little deeper into the sheets, reveling in the fact that Fury couldn’t scream at him through a broken phone. Then he opened his eyes, and found Natasha sitting on the back of the hotel chair, her hair in an elaborate twist and her boots dirtying the fine upholstery below her feet.
“Romanova,” he croaked, the knife he kept under his pillow already in hand, still blinking the sleep from his eyes. “What a pleasure. Did you bring breakfast?”
“His name is –”
“His name is Bucky,” Steve cut her off, surprising himself. He knew the value of information, and he knew that there were secrets Bucky would keep no matter how many blow jobs Steve gave. He should have been soaking up Natasha’s every word, not . . . Not being so stupid as to surrender an advantage because he wanted to hold on to a foolish thing like trust.
Natasha didn’t say anything, but Steve thought the curl of her lip hid a smile. “It’s not the name on any of his passports,” she said, looking at Steve with something that might have been pride. “But Sugar –” Steve rolled his eyes, resigned to the old code name that wouldn’t die. ‘Sugar’ had sprung out of Steve’s initials, SGR, the result of too much youth and far too much tequila, and the way things were going, it would probably be what they carved to mark his grave. “– you don’t know what you’re signing up for.”
Steve rolled his eyes, and used the knife to clean under his nails. “I know he works as a security consultant,” he told her, unfazed. “Wetwork, I’d imagine, same as Clint. Besides –” Steve stopped fiddling with the knife, lifted his head to meet Natasha’s unflinching gaze. “– why would it matter to you?” he asked, and Romanova blinked.
“He saved my life,” she told him levelly. Natasha was better than any of them at human intelligence, too good to let her voice falter or her pursed lips give her away.
“I’ve saved your life,” Steve pointed out, glancing at her hands and learning nothing from the small fingers splayed serenely over her knees. “Hell, I’m pretty sure Stark has saved your life, but I won’t tell him if you don’t.”
Nat’s lip pulled into a polite sneer. “Not like that,” she said, shaking her head. “Before. Before Barton. I had a plan, an escape plan.” She paused, and calmly folded her hands. “A way to close my ledgers for good.” Her hazel eyes focused steadily on Steve’s blue, but Steve knew what it meant to be weighed down by the numbers in your ledger, what it meant to keep count. He’d started counting years before the war, when he was still just a pile of rotten bones with a little boy’s face, numbering each empty bed in the children’s ward. “He had a different plan.”
“Okay.” Steve nodded. “But in that case, shouldn’t you be warning him about me? SHIELD isn’t exactly the ASPCA.”
“He doesn’t need a warning.” Natasha’s hands curled into small fists, the edges of her nails biting into the skin. “Banner makes your passports, Steve. Rumlow makes his.”
“Wait!” Natasha was already halfway out the balcony. Steve hurried after her, disregarding his own nudity and the knife in his hand. “Natasha, Rumlow is Hydra. Do you mean that Bucky –”
“Ask Nick about the soldier,” she called over her shoulder, not bothering to say goodbye before vaulting off the balcony and somersaulting gracefully to the floor below.
Natasha had always made her own rules. Even Clint couldn’t say where she stood, day to day. But she wouldn’t come to Steve if Bucky wasn’t important. And if Bucky was important to Brock Rumlow, of all the murderous scumbags in the world, then this time Steve had grabbed onto something a hell of a lot more explosive than one rogue plane.
The fourth time was in DC, because eventually every spy and mercenary came home to roost. It was gala season in the capital. Steve was decked out in what Sam called his “Bond suit,” the traditional wide lapels hiding one of Stark’s cameras while the high collar concealed a microphone wire twisted into the fabric of his white bow tie. Even his cufflinks glinted, because Tony was a show off with too much money and no fashion sense, and if Steve twisted the one on his left wrist he could listen in on what the rest of the team was saying.
Pepper, thankfully, had drawn the line at dusting Steve’s hair with diamond chips that improved transmission quality. Last year Steve Rogers had been Sander Rasmussen, skin milk white and hair a brittle, winter-wheat blond. This year he was Cyril Bakhoum, an important man from some unspecified country that required Steve to spend far too long in a salon for his deep tan and black hair. It was Tony who’d insisted they add a smattering of early gray along the temples, which did nothing for radio reception or espionage, but made Stark laugh like a hyena when he saw Steve.
“Mr. Bakhoum?” His SHIELD-appointed aide for the evening tapped Steve on the shoulder and repeated the unfamiliar name. “Dr. Marschall would like a dance, she says, since her husband is occupied with diplomacy once again.”
Dr. Adèle Marschall, renowned biophysicist and wife to the German ambassador, interrupted Steve’s aide with a sparkling grin and a toss of her hair. “Cyril,” she trilled, holding out one slender hand so that the light caught on the gold of her wedding ring. Steve smiled at the gesture, and obediently lifted her hand to his lips, pressing a dry kiss to her knuckles. “You look like a man who can dance. I have been telling my husband that he will not lure me from my lab without at least a waltz, but there, you see him? He waltzes only with his words, stepping forward and back, spinning in circles and no notice at all that there are far more sophisticated ways to dance.”
Steve’s smile broadened. Adèle had given Sander Rasmussen the exact same speech last year, and he had a distinct feeling it wasn’t because she would turn eighty in a month and dementia was setting in.
Dr. Marschall knew all about “dancing.” She was twice as clever as anyone else in the ballroom, possibly the city, and yet she had taken one look at Steve years ago and foolishly decided to take him under her wing. Adèle Marschall loved her husband and she loved her lab, and she was willing to teach a young spy how to foxtrot if it helped maintain the international cooperation that both husband and science required.
They were on their second turn around the dance floor when Steve saw him. Or thought he saw him. Bucky looked four inches shorter and ten years younger, his shoulders hunched into a waiter’s vest and starched shirt, his face so smooth it must have been waxed clean, once dark hair an unassuming shade of dirty blond and shellacked against his head. When Steve spun Adèle around to get another look at the staircase, the waiter was gone.
He would have put it down as another mirage — hardly the first time in the past two months that he had shoved through a crowd only to realize that the broad-shouldered man was no one that he knew. He would have ignored it, except that he looked across the room and found a petite woman with elegantly braided red hair and a lioness’s eyes.
Steve stopped dancing. “Merde,” he muttered, and Dr. Marschall raised one delicate eyebrow at him, just like Sarah Rogers would have done. She dug the wedge of her low heels into his foot and started dancing him across the floor before they could attract any attention — as long as no one looked closely enough to notice that Cyril Bakhoum was no longer leading the waltz.
“Something is wrong, no?” she inquired, her tone pleasantly even, fire in her blue eyes. “You look as though you have seen a ghost.”
“Worse,” Steve murmured, sweeping them behind a pillar and resting his head against the polished marble. Nick hadn’t wanted to tell Steve anything about the Winter Soldier, but Steve was a spy, and he’d learned enough to know that Bucky wasn’t the sort of employee who clocked out without a body count. “Doctor, is there anyone unusual here? Anyone important?”
She frowned, catching his meaning immediately, and Steve knew his question had been picked up by the wire around his neck. He fiddled with his gaudy cufflinks and ran one hand through his hair, close enough to his ear to catch Wilson’s, “Sugar, what? What do you mean, anyone important? Hawkeye, get back down here and tell me what the hell is going on in this room that I’m missing, because something’s got Sugar’s panties in a twist.”
Steve closed his eyes and pictured the guest list he’d glanced at an hour before, scrolling past the usual suspects: the President, her spouse, the Vice President. Contrary to popular belief, there were far easier times and places to assassinate the heads of state than in a heavily guarded building with very few exits and a large contingent of top military personnel.
Adèle cursed, and that was enough to catch Steve’s attention, even over Sam and Clint babbling in his ear. She pursed her lips, highlighting the wrinkles in her face. “The council,” she whispered, suddenly looking every day of her eighty years. “Bosnia-Herzegovina elected their new presidents this year, and the Serbian member is here to accept the President’s congratulations on the lasting peace.”
“Of course,” Steve muttered, not bothering to check and see if Wilson had heard. The deafening silence over the cufflinks proved that he had. Peace was fragile, in the Balkans, and there was no telling how either the states or their populations would react if the Serbian third of the presidency was killed.
He and Adèle stared at each other for a long moment, her blue eyes dismayed and his equally bleak behind the dark contacts he wore. Then she quirked the corners of her mouth up into a smile, and patted Steve brusquely on the arm. “I will alert the security,” she told him, straightening his bow tie with bony fingers that didn’t shake. “And tell my Klaus that it is time to pick up the pace, as you say.” She pinched his cheek, then lit up with a grin, glittering with the mischief that must have swept a sedate German politician off his feet fifty years before. “You, my dear Cyril, must go save the world.” With that, Dr. Adèle Marschall gave him one last shove, then twirled away from him and was gone.
“I like her,” Tony announced through the cufflink, apparently having chosen to join the fun. “Have you read her papers on –”
“Less science,” Sam snapped, “More saving the world. Sugar, cameras show Koljević on the dancefloor, northeast corner next to the windows.”
“The Soldier could make the shot through the window,” Barton inserted, probably crouched over Wilson’s chair, scanning the building from his perch.
“It’ll come from inside,” Steve disagreed, already moving around the edge of the dance floor. “He’s in the building. Who’s the target dancing with?”
“I can’t get a good look at her face,” Sam replied, and Steve didn’t have to be in the control room to know that Sam was glaring at Tony for not hacking into higher quality cameras.
“You don’t need to,” Clint said, and the lack of emotion in his voice made Steve’s stomach drop. “It’s Natasha.”
“Well, fuck,” Sam said, summing up the whole situation nicely.
“All right,” Steve proclaimed to his bow tie, moving his wrist away from his ear and shrugging out of his suit jacket. “Cover me while I save the world.”
He started calculating angles before he maneuvered onto the floor, trying to stay low so that the sniper didn’t startle and take the shot before Steve could intervene. He popped up directly behind Koljević, and he could have sworn Natasha saw him and smiled, too pleased for a woman whose covert operation had just been made.
“Hi!” Steve announced, as cheery as a clown at a children’s fair. Koljević looked nonplussed, no doubt jarred by the interruption from Romanova’s irresistible siren song. “I’m afraid there’s been a bit of a mishap, and we’re going to need you to –”
Years of experimental treatment had given Steve ears like a bat, and a sixth sense that told him the rifle would go off even before he heard the shot.
“Run!” he finished abruptly, wrapping one arm around Koljević and the other around Romanova, zagging left and hoping like hell that Bucky had shot to the right.
The bullet grazed Steve’s arm, but he didn’t notice that until later, when Sam bemoaned the state of his bloodied shirt. He lurched farther to the left, then hurled himself and his impromptu hostages onto the marble floor behind the staircase. Five seconds later the gala was over, Secret Service agents escorting everyone to the door, checking every corner for an assassin that Steve knew they wouldn’t find. The gala was over, and President Koljević was still alive.
“I do not need rescuing,” Natasha informed him, hiking up her gown to adjust the knife she had tucked into a garter on her thigh. Steve was glad Koljević had already been escorted out by the Service, and equally glad that he had lost his suit jacket so that Tony wouldn’t be ogling Natasha’s legs from the lapel camera.
“No,” Steve agreed, though sometimes he wondered what contracts Natasha had out there that kept her loyalties stretched so thin. “But I imagine it looks better to your employers if I didn’t give you time to stab him yourself.”
Natasha smiled, the blood-red gloss on her lips just as terrifying as the chill of her hazel eyes. “Why would I have stabbed him?” she inquired. Steve chuckled nervously and prayed she was making a joke.
Her gaze went over his shoulder, and Steve realized for the first time that Natasha had a tell, just as the rest of them did. She stood a little taller, for a moment, rubbed her palms against the silk of her dress, rubbed the evening’s failed operation from her hands. Steve didn’t need to turn around to know that Clint would be loping up behind him, flashing the newly minted badge of a U.S. Marshal and looking bored with the whole affair.
Barton came around his left, and Wilson tutted his way over to Steve’s right, plucking the blood-dampened shirt away from Steve’s skin. “Costuming is going to kill you, man,” Sam warned, face open and friendly despite the smirk, proof that Sam Wilson could never make it as a spy. “Come on, Captain, I’ve had a long night. If you’re good, I’ll let you drive me home on your bike and buy me a beer.”
Steve left Cyril Bakhoum in Costuming and gave Sam a lift home to Sherwood Forest, the housing development where SHIELD kept a close eye on their most important assets. Sam invited himself into Steve’s house for a drink, raiding the fridge with the ease of a man who had spent years mooching off his friends.
“You’ve got a story for me,” Wilson declared, because Steve might have recruited him out of the VA, but Sam was still a counselor at heart. “What’s going on, Rogers?”
Steve checked the thin layer of Vaseline he’d smeared over the bottle cap of the beer, and — finding it untampered with — popped the cap and took a long swig before answering. He liked Sam. Trusted Sam, even, the way that Steve trusted only a few people to keep him from getting killed in the field. But there was a difference between trusting Sam with his life and trusting him with the man Steve had seen for a moment in a crowded ballroom.
“It’s not easy to get laid, when you’re a spy,” Steve said mildly, tilting the recliner back and resting his bare feet on the coffee table filled with home decorating magazines he would never read.
Sam nearly spat out his beer. “And here I thought Fury had hired you to be the next Mata Hari,” he bit out archly, as soon as he’d recovered. Then, because he was Sam, he leaned forward off the couch and stared a little too hard into Steve’s insouciant mask. “You’ve never had a problem getting laid,” he told Steve, and Steve looked down, tearing at the damp label on his beer. Sam was right about that, at least after he’d come out of the Maria Stark Memorial Hospital, healthy for the first time in eighteen years of living. Healthy, and desperately alone. “You have a problem trusting people, whether or not they’re in your bed.”
“I trust you, don’t I?” Steve deflected, deepening his boneless sprawl and keeping his shoulders loose. “And you liaised with the Commandos; you know I trust them.”
Sam narrowed his eyes, unfortunately just as good at reading people as he was at reading aerial maps. “The Commandos worship you, Rogers, we all know that. I’ve heard from Gabe that you like your coffee scorched and your scotch iced, from Dum Dum that you have the aura of Mother Teresa and the patience of a rampaging wildebeest. But none of those guys could tell me what you do on a day off besides sleep, or who you would invite to bed besides that it wouldn’t be Monty.”
“I spent my last day off with you,” Steve pointed out. “We played paintball.”
“Paintball is a day off from the Army like hang-gliding is a vacation from my wings,” Sam snorted, and Steve surrendered the point with a half-smile and a shrug. “Hell, I only know you took art in high school because Fury made us memorize your file. I have no idea how you felt about English or math.”
Steve had never gone to high school, unless they counted classes in the children’s wing, surrounded by kids with scarves wrapped around their heads and nurses watching their every move. He had escaped into artwork, into books, desperate to live a hundred lives before he died at seventeen, a sickly kid with an unknown autoimmune disorder who had barely existed at all.
His mother had dragged him all over the Northeast for treatment, chasing the wind from one hospital to the next, swearing to Steve that this time there was a new doctor, or a new drug, or a study that would make all their problems float away. Then, in Dr. Bobbi Brown’s lab at Stark Memorial, she had finally been right — and had died weeks too soon to see the healthy son she had always wanted.
“I like books,” Steve offered, glancing around the mahogany bookcases lining the room. “I have lots of books here, don’t I? You break in often enough, you must have read some.”
“I water your plants!” Sam protested, then bent forward and snagged a magazine from the glass surface of the coffee table and waved it at Steve. “Besides, Rogers, SHIELD stocks you up on Good Housekeeping, so don’t tell me you’ve even read half the books on these shelves.”
Steve tried to adopt a personality that would read Good Housekeeping and failed, making eye contact with Sam and snickering at the idea of having the time and energy to make Halloween spider cupcakes after weeks in the field.
Then the two-legged table Steve kept propped up next to his bedroom window thudded to the ground, and he and Sam leaped to their feet.
“You invite someone else over here to drink your beer?” Sam hissed, gun in his hands and held straight out like a cop, proof that Wilson spent way too much time with Maria Hill.
“Stay down here,” Steve mouthed, edging toward the stairs. “Shoot them if they make it down the stairs.” He crept up the solid wood of the stairs, skipping the two steps that creaked. SHIELD might have its Stark-patented security, but clearly Steve’s old-fashioned alarm system was keeping him alive just fine.
“Not the gun I was hoping to see,” a low, whiskey-warm voice declared from the shadows of Steve’s bedroom. Without waiting for Steve to lower his favorite Browning, Bucky stepped out of the closet doorway and sidled right up to the cold metal of the barrel. “Gonna shoot?” he drawled, the timbre of his voice enough to send shivers down Steve’s spine, to set his pulse racing.
“I’m a spy,” Steve stated, already lowering his weapon, tucking the gun against the small of his back. “Not a soldier.” It was a distinction he often didn’t bother to make, a distinction he’d never been as grateful for as he was right then. It wasn’t Steve’s job to kill Bucky, and what Tony’s cameras failed to report was none of Fury’s business. “Buck, what are you doing h–”
Bucky kissed like he was going to war, nipping at Steve’s chin before turning his attention to Steve’s bottom lip, running cold hands underneath the SHIELD t-shirt Steve wore, up the sides of his ribcage and over skin that Steve had never known was sensitive enough to make him shiver. Clearly, Bucky could wreck Steve as easily as he’d wrecked a hydroelectric dam.
When Bucky pushed him away, his reddened lips were curled into a smirk, and Steve was gasping for air and leaning in for more. Bucky shook his head, chuffing out a breath that Steve knew was his version of a laugh. “You’d better tell your guard dog to stand down, Steve, unless you want to give him a show.”
Right. Sam. Steve was tempted just to holler down to Wilson, but he knew that would just make him even more suspicious. Of course, swollen lips and an awkward gait wouldn’t be a hell of a lot easier to explain.
“If you kick him out,” Bucky breathed into Steve’s ear, one hand sliding inside the front of Steve’s sweatpants, “we could test your sofa. Looked pretty sturdy to me.”
“Stalking people – Nngh. Isn’t polite,” Steve managed to say, burying his face into Bucky’s neck and humping forward into the hand wrapped around his cock.
“It really isn’t,” Bucky concurred, at a startlingly robust volume, his hand still working slowly over the head of Steve’s cock.
“I’d ask you to introduce us,” a wry voice from behind Steve said, “But I don’t want to shake his hand until he’s used an entire bottle of Purell.”
Steve pressed his face into Bucky’s shoulder, his face ten degrees hotter and no doubt bright red.
“You’re Sam Wilson,” Bucky averred, in some odd parody of an introduction, sounding perfectly calm while also rubbing his thumb just below the slit on Steve’s dick. “It’s too bad you can’t stay, I’d love to hear more about the Falcon program.”
“I’m sure you would,” Sam said, dripping with sarcasm. “But you know, I think I forgot to feed my pet rock, so I’ll just be leaving you two alone for the evening.”
His speech was followed shortly after by the thump of his feet on Steve’s stairs, headed for the front door (with a stop by the fridge, Steve knew, to steal more beer). “Have a good night!” Bucky called pleasantly, then turned his head to lick the shell of Steve’s ear and breathe, “I know I will,” in a visceral tone that nearly brought Steve to his knees on his own bedroom floor.
Bucky steadied him, then maneuvered them through the doorway and into the hall, leading the best waltz that Steve had danced all night. “C’mon, Rogers,” he prodded, aiming them toward the stairs. “I’ve been waiting an hour for you to bend me over that couch.”
“Fuck-Steve-fuck,” Bucky exhaled, going perfectly still, then tensing in orgasm while Steve bit into his shoulder and whimpered at the sensation of Bucky’s ass clamped tight around his cock.
Steve wasn’t sure which of them collapsed first, toppling onto the defaced leather of his couch. “Goddammit Buck,” he hissed, voice strained from the ache in his balls, erection dark red even under the opaque layer of the condom.
“Wanna try the kitchen counter next?” Bucky offered, curling his hand around Steve’s cock, kind enough to keep the touch firm and not to tease. Though staring at Bucky’s mouth — red and abraded from kissing, bottom lip still indented where he’d bitten it when he’d come — wasn’t helping Steve’s situation at all.
“No,” Steve groaned. Bucky had wanted it hard, and Steve’s stamina might be superhuman but Bucky’s was nearly as good; Steve’s thighs burned with the exertion of pounding an assassin into the couch, and he wasn’t entirely sure he could catch his breath for a second round, no matter how badly he wanted to come.
Bucky rolled his eyes and hauled them both to their feet with disturbing ease for a man who’d just gasped out an orgasm into Steve’s couch. “Wimp,” he announced, then dropped Steve into his recliner and climbed into his lap.
“God you’re –” beautiful, Steve meant to say, but it turned into a moan when Bucky slid down onto his throbbing cock, legs spread wide over the arms of the chair, thigh muscles rippling under Steve’s sweaty hands. “God,” Steve gasped, watching Bucky use nothing but his thighs to lift himself up, watching his cock slide back into Bucky and so turned on he couldn’t breathe.
“I love it when you scream my name,” Bucky said, smirking at Steve’s gaping mouth, the way his head arched back and his eyes squeezed shut when Bucky rose up and bore back down. “It’s better with your eyes open, Rogers,” he added, mouth tilted up in a smug smile that Steve couldn’t begrudge. Because, oh, Bucky was right — it was far, far better when he opened his eyes.
They’d stumbled up to bed, eventually, because Steve was too tired to clean the sofa and they were too big to sleep in one chair, even if it did recline. Bucky promptly commandeered Steve’s spot near the wall and fell asleep, left leg thrown over both of Steve’s, left arm across Steve’s chest and fingers pressed against the curve of his upper arm. To anyone else, they would be two men cuddling and nothing more. Steve — who had leaned a broken table up under a window, who counted his squeaky stairs and kept his bottled water in a false cabinet under the sink — knew it for the alarm system that it was. Bucky would know if Steve so much as bent his leg, or reached under his pillow for a knife.
Yet, despite his precautions or because of them, Bucky was snoring contentedly into Steve’s armpit, his hair bleached and gelled and poking into Steve’s arm. He looked unnaturally young without the tension lines around his pale eyes, sleeping peacefully without his hands anywhere near a gun.
Steve didn’t sleep at all. He stared at Bucky’s face and the rise of his chest and felt like he was hurtling over the Mediterranean, fingers slipping down the smooth steel of a drone, plummeting to his death in an attempt to save civilian lives.
He knew it couldn’t last, but Steve still felt the thud of his heart cracking against his ribs when Bucky’s phone chimed before dawn, pulling the tightness back onto his face and sending him out the window without even a kiss goodbye, his shirt unbuttoned and Steve’s bed left empty and too cold.
* * *
The fifth time didn’t really count, though Steve still penciled it in, sketched the lines of Bucky’s throat and the shadows on his face in a notebook that not even Nick Fury could find.
Steve was finally on vacation. Sort of. At least he wasn’t on company time.
“This is a terrible idea,” Sam complained, sprawled out beside him in a pair of swimming trunks and sunglasses, a pineapple with a little umbrella in his left hand. Several women in bikinis sauntered by, and Sam promptly forgot all about castigating Steve.
Sam abandoned the aerial map he’d pulled up on his tablet in favor of taking off down the beach after the bikinis, but Steve didn’t bother to pick it up. Instead, he closed his eyes and scrolled through what little information he had from the file Nick thought was still in his office.
The Soldier does exercise and training support on an as-needed basis for Hydra Security. They are also rumored to perform counter surveillance. The “Soldier” is a codename assigned to a range of operatives over the past five years.
Below that, in Nick’s sharp scrawl, was written, “AR says S is one person. Shit.”
Steve still wasn’t sure if Nick’s “shit” meant that he didn’t believe his source, or was worried because he did. Steve believed Nick’s source; he knew better than to doubt her. “AR” might be Fury’s personal code, but Steve wasn’t SHIELD’s best spy just because he was charming. AR: Anastasia Romanova, the lost princess. Anastasia, the reborn, the woman who could become anyone, given a moment to settle into her new skin.
He was relieved that Natasha hadn’t told Fury who the Soldier was, or Clint would have been dispatched for what Barton called “quality control” years ago.
Steve shook his head, and set his mental perusal of the SHIELD file aside. They already knew that Bucky did wetwork for Hydra. They knew that he was good at his job. Steve knew that it all had something to do with Brock Rumlow, who Steve hadn’t come face to face with since Rumlow’s attempt to rig an army drone to suit his own ends, and Steve’s subsequent if temporary demise.
He knew that Bucky’s face when he was summoned — lit by the screen of his phone, his cheek still creased from drooling on Steve’s sheets — bore too close a resemblance to that of an undersized blond boy dragged to the hospital for another round of treatments, another dose of miracle drugs that would leave him shivering and nauseous on the bathroom floor.
The SHIELD file wasn’t helping, and Natasha wasn’t giving them — maybe couldn’t give them — anything else. Steve blinked his eyes open and caught sight of Sam walking with the women to the beach bar, snorted and closed them again to focus on more important things than Wilson finally getting laid.
Natasha wasn’t the only one who knew Bucky. Morita knew Bucky. Trusted Bucky, the way Steve’s Commandos trusted almost no one but each other.
Delta Force, Jim had said. He had called Bucky “Sarge.”
So they knew something, though Steve doubted that “Bucky” was a name in any file, either the military’s or Hydra’s. And it wasn’t surprising that Bucky was former Special Ops; almost all of them were, from Steve’s stint in the Green Berets to Sam’s Falcon program to Clint’s years in something he only referred to as “the circus.” Even Rumlow had his share of medals, though he’d never served anyone but himself.
None of this explained why Bucky was working for Hydra.
None of it explained why Steve was trying so hard to track him down, why he’d taken his first leave in years or why he’d brought SHIELD’s radar and aerial analysis expert along for the ride.
Steve opened his eyes and decided to look over the intelligence Sam had gathered while he waited for his friend to come swaggering back across the sand. He was far more comfortable analyzing radar than he was analyzing why the curve of Bucky’s faint smile was printed like a sunspot on the backs of his eyes.
“Ran into an old Army buddy of yours,” Sam declared, dropping back onto his beach chair and handing Steve a beer still dripping with ice water. “Says he’ll catch up with you later, if we’re around.” He nodded over to the tiki bar where a man stood watching them, indistinguishable from the masses in his garish shirt and black trunks.
Indistinguishable but for his predator’s stance, and the fact that Steve had cut that scar into a man’s jaw years ago, trying to save the world.
“That’s Brock Rumlow,” he ground out, hand too tight around the neck of his beer.
Sam spat his drink into the sand. “What?” He scowled at the bar, though Rumlow was already gone. “You mean I just gave the world’s biggest bastard the number for our hotel room?”
Steve groaned, and pressed the cold beer against his temples where he could feel the headache coming on. “I’m putting our new rooms on the company’s tab,” he told Sam, and thought that if Rumlow didn’t kill them, Fury probably would.
Of course, Sam’s intel was right and Bucky was there. It worried Steve more, thinking that Rumlow might be in Mexico for reasons that had nothing to do with Steve and everything to do running his empire. Steve didn’t appreciate being the focus of Rumlow’s beady-eyed stare, but he preferred it to the alternative, which was that the man had come to check up on Hydra’s asset and make sure everyone was doing their job.
He had seen Natasha’s eyes, when she thought Rumlow was following her almost half a decade before. For the only time he had known her, Romanova had looked afraid, had vanished out from under Clint’s arm and refused to come near either of them for a year.
It was the memory of the fear in Nat’s eyes that kept Steve in his seat when he desperately wanted to race for the hotel roof to make sure Brock was leaving Bucky alive. They had all killed, but only Rumlow smiled when he drove in the knife.
Brock lifted his head and stared straight at Steve across the hotel dining room, both eyebrows raised, just as Steve’s phone informed him that the heavily jeweled woman two tables away was the wife of Mexico’s Defense Secretary. The same secretary who had just armed several hundred vigilantes to fight very lucrative drug cartels.
Steve cursed and slouched a little lower in his chair. He rested his arm on the back of the chair beside him, leaned in toward the tanned woman in little more than a sarong who had been trying to catch his attention all evening and ran his hand over her bare arm. He took a long swig of the water he poured into a beer bottle and tried to look as though he were settling in for the night, alcohol and women and a vacation on the beach. Rumlow shook his head, disappointed, and really, Steve should have known that wouldn’t work.
So he left his arm where it was and kicked his leg out under the table, hooking his foot under Sam’s ankle where no one could see. Where Rumlow would be looking, because he knew Steve’s file well enough not to believe that Capt. Rogers would be interested in any woman, no matter how much beer he’d consumed.
“You are killing my game,” Sam muttered out of the corner of his mouth, smiling around his straw at his date, but sensible enough to leave his leg entwined with Steve’s.
“Tell her to meet you at the bar later,” Steve whispered back. “We need to get to Doña Figueroa. Now. Make it look like you’re taking me to bed.”
“I did not sign up for this,” Sam grumbled, but he easily charmed the woman at his side with a promise to return after he’d shown his recently discharged buddy how to work the hotel TV. Sam was wasted in aerial intelligence, but Steve had known that for years.
Sam even put up with Steve leaning a little too close as they stood, bumping elbows and accidentally brushing hands. “I’ve told you that you’re too busty for me, right?” Sam hissed, keeping his head down so that no one could see him struggle not to laugh at Steve’s awkward seduction. “You have a plan, Cap? Something better than ‘piss off the very large bodyguards next to the important woman’?”
“Hilarious,” Steve grunted, focused on playing a tipsy tourist headed for an illicit tryst. “He’s watching, and I don’t want him to think –”
Then Rumlow checked his watch, and Steve realized they were out of time. “Everybody down!” he shouted, using Sam as a launch pad to somersault over one table and into Figueroa’s, flipping it sideways just as her bodyguard stepped in front of her, completely enveloping the woman with his bulk.
Not that it mattered. Sam was busy trying to clear out panicking diners and Steve was trying to roll to his feet, far slower than the bullet that slammed through the bodyguard’s chest and into Soledad Figueroa Bello’s head.
They had known from the SHIELD file that the Soldier was impossibly good. They had known he never missed. Steve cursed, and hammered his fist hard into the bottom of the table that hadn’t offered any protection at all. He cursed again, and dropped his head back to the floor.
This hadn’t been Steve’s op. But that didn’t make it feel any less like he had lost.
Sam pulled him to his feet seconds later, suggesting that they both get the fuck out of there before the police started asking too many questions. Rumlow was watching them from the edge of the dining room; he gave a triumphant bow when he caught Steve’s eye. Sam tackled Steve before he could charge across the room and add to the night’s body count.
“Not a good idea,” Sam gritted out, forcibly hauling Steve toward the stairs. “You managed to convince him you were here for the op and not for your man, at least.” They made it up the first flight and Sam finally relaxed slightly, loosening his chokehold around Steve’s neck. “But hell, Steve, you just painted a target on your back.”
“Figueroa Bello’s dead,” Steve spat, blood still pounding fast through his temples and his fists, angry, desperate to start a fight he could win. “Hydra got what it wanted.”
“Koljević isn’t,” Sam retorted, scowling deeply. “That’s one op you ruined, and one you nearly did. You think Rumlow isn’t going to notice that?”
Rumlow had noticed Steve years ago, had no doubt kept a file on the exploits of Captain America turned SHIELD spy, reading them with a shark’s grin and a drink purchased with innocent blood. In seven years, Brock had never considered Steve much of a threat, and Steve didn’t see how failing to save the Secretary’s wife would change anything at all.
“I’m going out,” Steve answered, fumbling for the old-fashioned key and twisting into the lock for their room. “Wait half an hour and he probably won’t be watching the door, but you might want to go back to her room just the same.” Sam nodded, and they both reached for the handguns tucked into their clothes as Steve swung open the door.
The hotel room was empty. Steve wasn’t surprised — wasn’t disappointed, no matter the hollow feeling under his ribs — though the curtains billowed in the sea breeze when he knew they had left the windows closed.
“Are you going up or down?” Sam queried, bent over his suitcase and hauling out a vest, slacks, and what appeared to be a bell hop’s hat. “I dropped by the laundry room when we checked in,” Sam clarified, holding out the staff uniform with a grin that had knocked better women right off their feet.
“Down,” Steve declared, stripping to his waist and trying not to flex his arms and tear right out of the new shirt’s sleeves. At least the SHIELD-issued clothes came in Steve’s size.
“You’re welcome,” Sam told him drily, arching an eyebrow at the buttons threatening to pop off Steve’s chest. “I know I’m the best friend a man could have.”
The trousers fit, at least, and the waistcoat helped hide the ill-fitting shirt. Steve grabbed Sam by both shoulders and dragged him in for a sloppy kiss. “You’re worth the hourly fee,” Steve agreed, and leaped backward before Sam could knee him in the balls. He grinned, then tugged the hat onto his head and went grim. “Spend the night at hers,” he warned Sam again, because he could practically see the damage Rumlow’s goons would wreak on their rooms, and he didn’t want either of them there.
“Go,” Sam said, unflappable. “I’m not leaving with a guy who looks like he’s auditioning for the role of the sailor on amateur porn night.”
“I’m no amateur,” Steve grumbled, and Sam laughed and pinched his ass as he slipped out the door. No one shot him on the way to the service elevators, and Steve took that as a good sign.
Steve followed the route he imagined Clint would have taken out of the hotel, over rooftops and into alleys redolent with the stench of garbage and the scrabbling of beggars or rats.
He found Bucky ten blocks away, rifle broken down into its bag and slung across his back, face pale under the false tan and black hair. He wore deep brown contacts, but even under the unfamiliar color there was no mistaking the wild look in his eyes.
“You can’t be here,” Bucky insisted, shoving at Steve’s chest as though he could push two hundred pounds of muscle away with one hand. Steve could feel Bucky’s fingers tremble where they pressed against the thin cotton of his shirt. “Jesus Christ, Steve, what the hell were you thinking!” he snapped, keeping his voice to a near-silent exhale, glancing down the alley, flinching though no one was there.
If Steve hadn’t already wanted Rumlow dead — and he had, ever since Jackie had died, wore the scars down his spine as a memorial to the damage Rumlow had done — the carefully blank expression on Bucky’s face would have convinced him, jaw tight and eyes wide.
“It’s okay,” Steve said quietly, and didn’t need Bucky’s disbelieving snort to know that they were both in the wrong line of work for platitudes. “We’ve got at least five minutes,” he revised, because that much was true. “Come here.”
“You came to Mexico to foil an op and hug it out?” Bucky huffed, though he let Steve propel them into the relative safety of a stucco wall hidden by piles of trash, breathing shallowly through their noses to alleviate the smell.
“Among other things,” Steve whispered, sucking on the pulse in Bucky’s neck. He knew how it felt after a mission, adrenaline thudding down your veins and every sense on high alert, skin sensitive to the slightest touch.
Then he dropped to his knees, resolutely not thinking about what had made that squishy sound under his right kneecap, or how many rats were in his immediate area.
“Steve,” Bucky gasped, dragging strong fingers through Steve’s hair and knocking the bellhop cap right off his head. “God, you idiot.”
“Probably,” Steve agreed, then undid the buttons on Bucky’s fly. He had been honest about having five minutes, but there was always the chance that someone might show up sooner to debrief the Soldier or physically persuade Steve Rogers to retire, so Steve didn’t waste time with pleasantries.
Bucky wouldn’t have lasted long anyway, skin prickling from the danger, moaning high in the back of his throat just from the feel of Steve’s hand tugging his cock out of his briefs. When Steve slid his mouth over the head and pressed his tongue along the vein at the bottom, Bucky’s skull thumped sharply against the wall. Steve hummed, grinning, and then loosened his jaw and swallowed until the head of Bucky’s cock pushed against the back of his throat, until the smell of trash was drowned out by the scent of sweat and cheap soap and Bucky.
“Jesus fuck,” Bucky groaned, looking down at Steve, his mouth open and his pupils blown. Steve curved his hands over Bucky’s ass in an invitation that Bucky immediately took, thrusting lightly into Steve’s mouth, tracing the stretch of Steve’s lips with his eyes, the saliva glistening as it ran down Steve’s chin.
Steve choked a little when Bucky came, but Bucky didn’t give him time to contemplate his rusty blow job skills, pulling him back up to his feet and into a punishing kiss, dragging his tongue across the mess of spit and come on Steve’s chin, licking himself out of Steve’s mouth. Steve whined, pushed his erection against Bucky’s hip, and wished that they had more time.
“You have to go,” he whispered, gulping down fetid air, his fingers hooked into the edges of Bucky’s combat suit.
Bucky closed his eyes, leaning his forehead against Steve’s, his expression that of Philippides, who had run from Marathon to Sparta, and now had to run back into the war. He dropped his hands to his fly, tucking himself in and buttoning up in a silence drawn out like an unraveling thread.
“There are better jobs, Buck,” Steve said without thinking, the same opening he’d failed to persuade Natasha with years before. There are jobs where Rumlow isn’t waiting for you to fail.
Bucky shook his head. He pulled away from Steve and shut down the last bit of light in his brown eyes, as though Steve had ordered him back to work and not suggested that he resign. “No other job offers benefits like these,” Bucky told him harshly. Steve had hoped for a last kiss — perhaps a few moments to linger before they heard someone coming and both had to run — but Bucky slipped out of Steve’s hands and into the night, left only Steve’s softening erection and the ache in his jaw.
He had known that Bucky was Hydra for months, now. Steve left his cap in the alley and the rest of the clothes on the beach, stripping down for a much-needed rinse and a midnight swim. Nothing had changed. There had never been a choice to make. (And yet, Bucky hadn’t chosen him.)
There was no sixth time, because Bucky was avoiding Steve, even though Steve had been sent specifically to do reconnaissance in Yangon because there were rumors someone wanted the opposition “stopped.” Which obviously meant that someone had hired Hydra, and Hydra had sent Bucky.
“He’s right,” Natasha said, when Steve explained this line of reasoning to her. “You are an idiot.”
There was no point in asking why Natasha had shown up out of thin air, barefoot and wearing a sari as though she had grown up folded into yards of vivid silk. There was certainly no point in asking where she had come from, or what had possessed her to follow Steve as if she had him on an invisible leash.
“Are you telling me he isn’t here?” Steve shot back, and Natasha’s face flattened into enigmatic lines.
Steve had already done his job. He had slipped into the ranks of the incumbency and bought favors; he had found out who was selling them and who saw him as competition, who was selling intelligence and who was building bombs. Steve might not be good at trust — Sam was usually right about these things — but he was damn good at gathering, and countering, intelligence.
Of course, none of that really made him the kind of man someone would want to come home to at night.
But now Steve’s side of the operation was done and SHIELD had flown Hill and Wilson in to “oversee” local law enforcement until the opposition was safely in power. Fury wanted him back by tomorrow afternoon, and instead of going to the airport, Steve was standing in the High Court checking pagoda roofs for the glint of a sniper’s scope.
“Hydra had plans here,” Natasha murmured quietly, tucking her arm through Steve’s as if they were out for a romantic stroll. “He will not thank you, for destroying what it took time and money to build.”
“You mean Rumlow?” Steve checked, raising his eyebrows. Blond eyebrows, for once — this time he was from Johannesburg, though he was screwed if someone decided to test that by speaking in rapid-fire Afrikaans.
Natasha shook her head hard, frowning at the pristine tile beneath their feet. She turned the fierce glare up at Steve, and he shifted uneasily on his feet. “You overestimate Brock,” she warned him, biting the inside of her cheek.
Steve’s brain had already started making connections, forming questions to ask that might ferret out information Romanova would not — could not? — freely share. He was so engrossed in his thoughts that he almost missed the man pushing past him. Behind him. In five years of spying, only one man had ever gotten close enough to brush Steve’s back without him knowing they were there.
“Bucky!” Steve spun to his left, but the man behind him had disappeared into the crowd. Natasha shushed him and used the grip on his arm to pull him in the opposite direction from where Bucky must have been.
“You think he can afford to be seen with you?” she hissed, bare feet stomping soundlessly along the tiled ground, the material of her sari brushing the tops of her feet. “Do you think Hydra isn’t watching, you fool?”
Steve ignored her, squinting into the crowd where Bucky had vanished, searching for broad shoulders and a sniper’s stillness that even Hydra’s Costuming department couldn’t disguise. He thought he caught a glimpse — black hair and a thin jacket, exactly like the hundreds of other men and boys in the High Court — but when he blinked it was gone.
Then her words caught up to him, and he bent his head to see her, lines in his forehead and around his eyes. “Watching me?” he questioned, the lines deepening at the concern bright in Natasha’s chameleon eyes. “Or watching him?”
She tugged her arm free. Straightened the edge of her sari, where it had slipped off her shoulder in a cascade of small mirrors and gauzy pink. Natasha’s matching pink toenails peeked out from under the hem of her sari, unprotected and easy to crush. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, Sugar,” she said, tucking a loose strand of hair behind her ear and avoiding Steve’s eyes. “But this isn’t the sort of job you can quit.”
Steve caught his flight. He waited until they reached cruising altitude to pull the crumpled paper napkin from his pocket, obviously the remnant of his lunch earlier that day. (He had eaten in a restaurant. Had used SHIELD discretionary funds to treat Romanova, who had dabbed at the corners of her mouth with the crisp cloth napkins, a killer with the manners of a queen.)
KEEP YOUR HEAD DOWN!! Bucky had torn the napkin with the second exclamation mark, gouging through every folded layer. Steve wondered when he had written it — what Bucky’s assignment had been, in Yangon, what it was that Steve had ruined when he came. What had Bucky so worried that he would shred a napkin in his haste to warn Steve, and too spooked to do more than brush past him in a crowded square. Then he unfolded the napkin, and in even smaller print, found I LIKE IT THERE and a poorly drawn but graphic image of two stick figures, one of them on his knees. Steve blushed a deep red and stuffed the napkin hurriedly back into his jacket before his curious seatmate could see.
He called Barton as soon as they hit the runway. Steve had questions, and he was ready to bet that Hawkeye had spent some time digging for answers of his own, if Romanova’s loyalties were stretched as taut as Steve suspected they were.
This isn’t the sort of job you can quit.
No other job offers benefits like these.
There was a mystery here, and Steve hated mysteries. Soldiers didn’t solve mysteries. But that was all right. Steve wasn’t a soldier, anymore — he was a spy.
Clint stuck his face in the pint Steve brought him and guzzled down half the beer, then glanced up at Steve and winced. Admittedly, Steve had gone straight from the plane to the SHIELD debrief to the bar, and his hair was flattened to his cheek where it wasn’t sticking straight up from the bike ride over. He’d also thrown his leather jacket over a light linen jacket and tan shirt, which didn’t really fit with the loafers that had been fine in Yangon, but were in no way appropriate for early winter in DC.
“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Barton wondered, sounding genuinely curious. Despite more years in the field than any of them — and a kill count he refused to document anywhere Steve could find — Clint’s gruff honesty made him a terrible spy, and a good friend.
“You’ve been played, Captain,” a voice interrupted from the booth behind Barton. Clint immediately tugged a dart out of his vest pocket and tossed it almost straight up, his unerring aim sending it just far enough behind him that —
Fury swung out of his seat, and Clint’s dart thunked harmlessly into the wooden booth and not into their boss’s head. “Barton, stop trying to kill me.”
“Will it help my Hanukkah bonus?” Clint replied, lifting one eyebrow and staring blankly at Fury’s thunderous expression. After a moment, Barton shrugged and shifted farther into their corner booth so that Nick could sit down, biceps flexing as he reached for his beer.
“The Soldier is a myth,” Nick said, as soon as he’d settled into the booth, glowering at them both from one eye. “Whoever you’ve been talking to, Rogers, is just one of several operatives with a similar skill set.”
Barton snorted. “There are only two operatives with the Soldier’s ‘skill set’,” he informed Fury, draining the rest of his beer. “And one of them works for you, and could use another beer.” Steve waved two fingers at the waitress, and dunked Bruce’s patented ‘drug testing tissue paper’ strips into each glass when the drinks came.
“The Soldier’s not a bad guy,” Clint added, once he’d been handed a fresh beer. He tilted his head back, nostalgia sweeping across his distant gaze. “We spent a great day in Atacama, once, seeing who could hit the other first.” Steve and Fury gaped, blinking incredulously at Barton’s fond expression. “What?” Clint said, folding his arms and jutting out his lower lip. “It was windy. There was nothing else to do!”
Fury appeared ready to launch into a lecture about wasting ammunition and passing the afternoon with the enemy, so Steve cut him off with a wave. “The Soldier is real, Nick. That’s not what I’m here for.” Fury pursed his lips and glared through his good eye while Steve tried not to recall in explicit detail just how real Bucky was. “What do you know about Hydra?” Steve demanded, the same question he’d sprung on Clint as soon as the agent had come into the bar.
“You set up a clandestine meeting in a dive bar specifically outside any agency’s video feed to talk about rival contractors?” The director’s eyebrow lifted clear of his eye patch, staring down his nose at Steve despite the fact that they were both sitting and Steve was taller by almost half a foot. Nick waited a moment for the punchline, then realized that both Clint and Steve were, in fact, sitting in a dive bar waiting to hear about a rival contractor.
“Did you check their website?” Fury muttered, scrubbing a hand over his face and flagging down the waitress for another drink. “Hydra’s a security services contractor, same as SHIELD. The U.S. government contracts with both agencies for security and logistical training, and for risk-management consulting.”
“Don’t forget law-enforcement fusion,” Clint threw in, slouching lower in his seat. They all knew what it meant when SHIELD handed Barton an assignment on local law enforcement support and a suggestion that he bring his best guns. “And does Sugar here deal in logistics, or risk?”
“Who makes the contracts?” Steve asked, because that was far more relevant than classifying what, exactly, SHIELD put down on Steve’s employment forms. “I thought it was Rumlow –” Barton pulled his lips back in a snarl. He had nearly lost his shooting arm to Rumlow, in the Gulf. “- but Princess says that’s not true.”
“Princess,” Clint drawled, lingering on the second syllable, then grinned. “She’ll like that one. It’s much nicer than the first two years, when you called her the Red Tide.”
“I’m so glad you’re making friends,” Fury deadpanned, tossing back his full tumbler without a wince. “Hydra’s a business, boys, same as any other. It’s not a monster hiding under your beds.”
“Bull shit.” Steve forgot his own strength, sometimes, and nearly flipped the table when he slammed his hand down on the oiled wood. “You’ve known Princess longer than I have — I know you’ve wondered why she doesn’t leave, Nick. You can’t tell me you haven’t done some digging of your own.”
“Oh, you are involved,” Fury hissed, sounding smug and displeased all at once. Steve stared at him, stone faced, until Nick gave in with a shrug. “Jasper Sitwell is the name on all the contracts. He’s founder and chief investor.”
“You don’t buy it,” Clint prompted, because the curl of Fury’s lip made that clear.
“Sitwell couldn’t scare a lollipop away from a baby,” Fury told them, shaking his head. “He doesn’t have the balls to run a company like that. Hydra is ten times as aggressive as SHIELD is when it comes to security consulting. They tell their agents to shoot first and bury everything if necessary — you remember that scandal with the civilian deaths, three years ago?”
Clint and Steve nodded grimly. That had been a lot of carnage with no cause; bad enough if it had come from local law enforcement, worse because it came from seasoned veterans with résumés almost as good as Hill’s. Maria would have blown herself up before she caused that much damage on an op.
“Rumor has it,” Nick continued, “that they’re branching out into innovative tactical gear and military technology.”
“Bombs,” Steve translated.
“Guns,” Clint guessed.
Nick shrugged. “Both, maybe. The war hawks in Congress are all for them. They’ve been debating for months in the State Department over how to use congressional funds, for military support or for new, more aggressive innovation. We’ve got Senator Pierce moderating on the hill, and SHIELD is the obvious choice for the expected contracts — as long as we don’t get sucked into another war.” Fury sighed, and gazed out into the decades of war he’d seen since his first miserable days in the Marines. “If we get another attack too close to home, there’s no hope.”
“For SHIELD?” Steve finished, and Fury gave him a bleak smile.
“Sure, son. For SHIELD.”
“Why would Pierce help us?” Clint chimed in, looking suspicious. Though, they were a bunch of ex-military mercenaries who spied on and shot at people for a living — looking suspicious just meant they were awake.
“He’s got some pull, in the State Department, and on the World Security Council. And he’s an old friend. He’s on our side.”
“He’s a politician.” Clint spat the word like it had curdled in his mouth, and washed the aftertaste out with the remainder of his beer. “He’s not on anyone’s side but his own.”
Steve rested a hand on Clint’s forearm, shook his head when Barton met his gaze and lifted one eyebrow in lazy inquiry. Too many pieces were still missing, but they wouldn’t get anything more out of Fury by insulting his friends. If they wanted to find out just what it took to terminate an employee agreement with Hydra, they needed to cast a wider net.
Then Steve’s phone buzzed. Which was strange, because he’d picked it up from an old contact outside Yangon, and planned to throw it away now that he’d contacted Clint.
He pressed the old, rubbery buttons to unlock the screen, then frowned at the unknown number. Maybe someone in Myanmar had misdialed their friend.
Or, maybe . . .
“I’ve gotta go,” Steve announced, pocketing his phone and tumbling out of the booth and onto his feet. “Thanks for the drinks, Nick. Next round’s on me.” He smirked at Fury’s blank stare, and then ran for the door before his boss figured out that he’d been left with the bill.
If that hadn’t been a wrong number — well, then Steve had a phone call to make, and he wanted to be naked when he did.
“It’s you, right?” Steve burst out, as soon as someone picked up on the other line. He’d made it home in record time, accelerated through some curves that would have given Sam palpitations, and stripped as he was going through his front door, before he’d even checked the upstairs for assassins. Now he was sprawled out on his bed, threading the fingers of his free hand absently through his chest hair and resolutely not touching his cock, and his question might have come out a little lower and breathier than he’d intended it to.
“You talk to everyone like that?” a staticky voice replied, tinny and distant and still clearly, brilliantly Bucky. “Jesus, Grant, I could have been your grandmother.”
“If that’s what you’re into, sonny,” Steve rasped, sending his voice up a few octaves and letting it crack between the words.
Apparently all it took was Steve’s grandmother impression to startle Bucky into laughter. Steve’s chest cracked. Bucky was laughing, and here he was thousands of miles away with only a cheap phone to commit the sound to memory.
“You’re already naked, aren’t you?” Bucky said, once he’d stopped snorting at Steve’s impersonations.
“You aren’t?” Steve replied, dragging his fingers in a line across his abs and shivering. “What in god’s name are you waiting for, an invitation?”
There was a pause, and the faint snap of something that might have been Bucky’s combat vest, then the clank of something heavy and metallic and possibly semi-automatic echoed down the line.
“Bucky?” Steve’s hands stopped moving. “Are you armed?”
The phone connection wasn’t very good, but Steve was intimately familiar with the sound a sheathed Gerber knife made when he dropped it on a nightstand, and the velcro sound when he tugged the extra holster off his leg.
“This is the least sexy strip tease ever,” Steve declared into the phone resting by his ear. He didn’t say that the image of Bucky stripped bare except for weapons — a gun holstered on his thigh, the black metal contrasting with Bucky’s pale skin, a knife strapped around his upper arm like a menacing tattoo, a rifle slung across his back with the strap cutting a line down his chest, rubbing over one dusky pink nipple and over the ridged muscles beneath his ribs — had Steve breathing a little quicker, and sent something zinging below his skin.
“At least I’m only stripping now,” Bucky muttered, words garbled as if he was tugging yet another weapon free with his teeth. “What, did you lose your clothes at airport security?”
“I would’ve lost them in Yangon,” Steve said, harsher than he’d meant it to be, “if I’d had the chance.” The line went quiet. Either Bucky had finished struggling out of his personal arsenal, or he had stopped trying. “Buck –” Steve sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. “I’m thinking about the last time you were in this bed,” he finally said, because there was no point in wasting time on the small, choking hurt lurking under Steve’s ribs. “When you woke up with my fingers already inside you, and came just from me fucking you, folded in half and begging for it.”
“I was begging to be fucked by someone a little less geriatric,” Bucky revised, though the soft gasp over the line suggested that he hadn’t hated Steve’s leisurely pace, the long, slow strokes dragging over Bucky’s prostate until he’d been shaking and incoherent and so loud that Sam had thrown a shoe through Steve’s window for waking the neighborhood.
“Yeah?” Steve challenged. “What were you hoping for, then?”
“Mmm,” Bucky hummed, considering, and the sound vibrating through Steve’s balls, the memory of Bucky’s ridiculous tendency to hum Sinatra tunes while pressing his tongue flat against the head of Steve’s cock and sucking hard. “I guess slow isn’t so bad, to start,” he drawled, curling his tongue around the ‘o’s. Steve groaned, knowing exactly how nimble that tongue was, and he could almost see Bucky grin. “I watched you sleeping, in Yangon,” he said, clearly aiming to sound irresistible and a little smug. But Bucky wasn’t a spy, and Steve could hear the hesitation thrumming through his words.
“Watch me doing anything more interesting?” Steve prompted, shoving away the part of him that wanted to hear more about Bucky stalking him, and not spending his nights wrapped up in someone else.
“Oh, yeah.” Bucky drew out the word, licking his lips, the worry in his voice draining away. “Thought about climbing through the window and giving you a hand.”
“That –” Steve’s breath caught, scratching blunt nails absentmindedly down his chest and imagining Bucky’s cool hands sliding over his skin. “- would’ve been all right,” he said dismissively, swallowing off the beginnings of a moan. “I mean, I had it under control,” he added. Bucky snorted loudly, and Steve laughed at the sound.
“You want me to hang up and leave you to it, Rogers,” Bucky asked, his acerbic tone clear even through the static, “or do you want to get some lube on your hand and pretend I’m jerking you off?”
“In this scenario,” Steve shot back, feeling under his pillow for the lube and wrapping his hand around his spare knife instead, “what are you doing outside my window and already naked?”
“Praying for bug repellant,” answered Bucky drily, then dropped his voice into the low rumble that made Steve want to fuck him through walls. “You were too wrapped up in your fantasy to hear me climb in. I left my clothes in a pile on your floor. You’re not even under the sheet,” he added, and Steve’s chest expanded at the mix of chastisement and desire in Bucky’s voice.
“I run hot, when I sleep,” he explained, though Bucky had experienced that firsthand.
“I know,” Bucky said, and the poor phone connection made him sound almost fond. “The bed dips, when I sit down. That’s when you realize someone’s there.”
I’d know it was you, Steve didn’t say, because no one needed to know that only Bucky could make it so close to Steve without his unconscious mind registering a threat. “That would probably throw me off,” he murmured, eyes closed and focused on Bucky’s voice, on the feel of his hand around his cock, lazy strokes that twisted up at the sensitive skin of the head, just enough pressure to leave him wanting more.
“That’s okay,” Bucky said softly. “I could take over from there.” He paused, made a sound that the phone didn’t quite catch. “You’d be so hard, already, your hips lifting off the bed like they do when you’re desperate for touch.”
Steve whimpered, and closed his hand a little tighter around the head of his cock for the next thrust, hips arching into the air. “If you’d turn around,” he said roughly, rolling onto his side, “then I could get your cock in my mouth.”
He’d startled Bucky with that request, if the gasping curse was any indication. “Fuck, Steve, your mouth.”
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, hand moving faster over his cock. “Love the way you taste,” he continued. “The feel of your cock pushing against my tongue, your hand around my dick.”
Bucky groaned. “I’d keep my fist tight, the way you like it, watch the head of your cock slide against my thumb, red as your face when you’re about to come.”
“I’m not the only one,” Steve said, panting, the head of his cock slick and his awareness dropping quickly to the tingling running under his ribs and toward his balls. “My hand still has lube on it. If you bend your leg, push a little farther into my mouth, I can — reach just behind your balls, press — God, Bucky — in, and –”
Steve didn’t have any more words, couldn’t think beyond the weight of Bucky’s cock in his mouth and the pressure of his muscles around Steve’s finger, the way Bucky’s eyes looked, pupils wide and hand moving expertly over Steve’s —
There was silence over the line, for a minute, while both men caught their breaths. Steve’s legs jerked with the aftershocks of his orgasm, his mind a pleasantly languid haze.
“That would have been much better than waking up alone to my alarm,” he said, and then kicked himself for missing the chance to murmur sweet nothings that might have kept Bucky on the phone.
The timer on the call kept counting, which was the only way that Steve knew the other man was still on the line.
“I mean, the alarm clock was horrible,” Steve babbled, his sated lethargy draining rapidly away. “I think Nick must have rigged it to play songs from marching bands.”
Bucky exhaled, and Steve bit his lip to prevent himself from saying anything conceivably even more stupid. “Be careful, Steve,” he finally said, a worried variant of the message he’d left crumpled in Steve’s jacket twenty hours and two continents ago. Steve opened his mouth to say that he was always careful — he was a spy, after all, and a damned good one — but Bucky spoke before he could. “My boss — he doesn’t like to lose.”
“Who is your boss?” Steve replied, because this was important, this was a chance to unravel some of Hydra’s heads ... but the call timer had stopped counting, leaving Steve alone with dirty sheets and no answers at all.
* * *
Seven had really never been Steve’s lucky number. He’d been seven, the first time his mother promised money they didn’t have to a doctor that didn’t have the promised cure. Seventeen, when all those years in OR waiting rooms caught up to Sarah Rogers and left her in a DC morgue. Seven years in the Army, when they folded up a flag and a Medal of Honor and then realized that Capt. Rogers had no one to receive it, when they scoured the Mediterranean for his remains and realized that he wasn’t dead.
It wasn’t exactly as if everything had gone to plan the first six times, Steve admitted, hunching his shoulders and trying desperately to blend into the weekend crowds, feeling like he still had the red point of a laser bobbing over his chest. Still, three weeks ago he’d thought that Rio de Janeiro would involve some heavy flirting, a few late nights of samba or capoeira if he was lucky, and a lot of official secrets leaked into eager ears.
Counter intelligence involved every ounce of Steve’s talents at culling information and strategizing ways to replace it, making it the perfect Christmas gift from SHIELD. He’d flown into Brazil as Ulisses César Rios, a businessman with a nose for American secrets and a gambler with a need for ready cash.
Rio de Janeiro wasn’t exactly one of the world’s hotspots. Nick had dispatched Barton and Hill to Saudi Arabia, and Steve had assumed that Bucky was likely to be in the same place, and that Hydra’s attention would be on more volatile regions than the Brazilian coast.
It had all sounded perfect — Christmas south of the equator, a chance to exercise both his long-forgotten capoeira and the skills that had made him captain of the Army’s best squad. He and Bucky would meet back in DC, hopefully, or Steve would call in a favor and have Sharon hack Hydra’s files to see where the Soldier had gone.
He had planned the whole thing out, down to exactly how many seconds it would take to get Bucky naked and begging on Steve’s bed. He had not planned on almost getting stabbed in a club the night before, and he certainly hadn’t planned on seeing Bucky in Rio de Janeiro, disappearing off a rooftop after shooting whoever the rifleman was that had just tried to kill Steve.
And now Steve was trying to slouch down to the height of all the other Christmas shoppers, blood racing and trying to figure out how he’d wound up with a giant target on his back, and whose phone he needed to steal so that he could hash out an emergency plan B with Bruce.
It didn’t help that it was a hundred degrees in the shade, and Steve’s t-shirt was nearly transparent with sweat and advertising every vulnerable inch of his spine.
“Come on,” someone muttered in English, bare arm brushing Steve’s as they shoved past. Steve blinked. “Dammit Grant, follow me,” the voice demanded, just in time for Steve to catch sight of a dark shirt and a white baseball cap that made the speaker almost indistinguishable from the hundreds of men wearing the exact same clothes.
But Steve knew the set of those shoulders, had bitten his orgasm into the pale skin of that neck. Bucky didn’t turn around to see if Steve could keep up, and Steve didn’t reach out to make sure the other man was really there. They both kept their hands jammed into their pockets and at least three people between them, moving at a leisurely pace through the mass of shoppers until not even Barton’s eagle eyes could have found them in the crowd.
Then Bucky reappeared at Steve’s shoulder and shoved him hard down a flight of crumbling concrete steps and into the basement floor of some poorly kept up building, filled with aging cement pillars and rusty water dripping from the ceiling into oil-sheened puddles near their feet.
They stayed silent, darting down alleys and through buildings and occasionally through people’s apartments with an apologetic wave from Steve and a deadly stare from Bucky. Eventually, Steve realized that Bucky didn’t have a destination other than away, and so he took the lead, herding them toward a safe house that Monty had set up almost eight years back. J.M. Falsworth never discarded a perfectly good bolt hole, and if Steve couldn’t trust the Commandos then he was already dead.
Of course, Falsworth might kill him when Steve confessed to showing Hydra’s top assassin the coziest getaway flat on this side of the Atlantic.
“You shouldn’t have brought me here,” Bucky pointed out, echoing Steve’s thoughts.
Steve ignored him in favor of stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt and turning the blessedly modern air conditioner on high. He pulled a somewhat musty towel out of the linen closet and scrubbed it over his head, unsticking the hair that clung to his forehead and trying to get at the sweat dripping into his ears. He wanted to shuck off his slacks and spend ten minutes in a cold shower, but there would be time for that after someone had clued him into what the hell was going on.
“Who was that guy?” Steve demanded, shaking the sweat from his hair, eyes tracking the other man in the room. Bucky had his P226 out, moving through the apartment like a shadow, clearing the rooms. “You know, the one who had a rifle aimed at my head?”
“He was aiming at your chest,” Bucky called from the kitchen, apparently convinced that they were alone and it was safe enough to lower his gun. He came back around the corner with two beers — Steve owed Monty a Christmas card thanking him for this inadvertent hospitality — and Steve dunked Bruce’s drug-testing strips into the bottles and took one for himself when the results were clear. “And his name was Heinz Kruger.”
“What, I wasn’t buying all fifty-seven kinds of ketchup?” Steve retorted, slumping into the chair closest to the AC. Bucky had taken off his baseball cap, revealing short dark hair that might have been his own, since it matched the few days of stubble on his cheeks. “This wasn’t supposed to be the kind of mission where someone ends up dead!” he added, because it seemed important that Bucky know Steve had switched from soldiering to spying for a lot of reasons, but the biggest had been putting down his gun. “Especially when that someone is me!”
“You compromised Soares,” Bucky told him, throat working as he guzzled down half the beer. Steve swallowed and stared at the patterned carpeting instead. “There were plans in place, for her.”
Admittedly, Steve’s plan did involve discrediting Ana Paula Soares, but since it had been Soares who had outed and nearly killed the CIA agent sent to Rio de Janeiro last year, Steve was hardly drowning in guilt. “She’s corrupt,” he said, shrugging, picking at the label on his beer. “Besides, you’re telling me that discrediting one deputy in the local assembly is enough to set a hitman on my trail?”
Bucky paced to the thick curtains at the window, facing away from Steve, his shoulders as taut as steel cables under strain. “Kruger didn’t give a shit about Soares,” he informed the lined curtains. “He was after the bounty.”
If Bucky had expected Steve to be surprised that there was a bounty on his head, he was going to be disappointed. Steve rolled to his feet, shifting away from the sudden chill of the air conditioner and heading to the kitchen for a glass of water and the fresh drink that Bucky seemed to need. “There’s been a bounty on my head since I made Captain,” he stated calmly, standing behind Bucky until the man turned and accepted the beer held loosely in Steve’s hand. “It’s never been enough to tempt anyone but Brock.”
Bucky flinched at the sound of Rumlow’s name, a millimeter of movement that anyone but a first-rate spy would doubt they’d really seen.
“It is now,” he said tonelessly, pale eyes scanning Steve’s sunburned face. “Sitwell’s advertising it at a solid five mil.”
Steve choked on his water. “Five mil?” he croaked, feeling the tips of his fingers start to tingle and go numb. Bucky managed to get them both to the sofa before Steve toppled over, though it was a near thing. Five million dollars. Steve was a dead man. “He wanted Koljević dead that badly?” he queried, almost wishing he’d let Bucky shoot the Serbian, if it would keep the price on his head below ten grand.
Bucky pursed his lips and stared fiercely at the ugly artwork on the living room wall. He’d curled his torso around Steve’s, absentmindedly rubbing circles onto the exposed skin of Steve’s back, though Steve wasn’t sure Bucky had realized what his hands were doing.
“Koljević,” he agreed. “Soares. The opposition in Yangon. Even Figueroa Bello — she was supposed to bring Figueroa into line, not act as a rallying cry for Mexico.” He frowned, no doubt replaying all of the trouble Steve had caused in the past few months. “I told you to keep your head down,” he admonished Steve, sounding mournful.
“Nick owes me the biggest Christmas bonus ever,” Steve said, because Bucky looked even more upset than he did. It didn’t win him a smile, but at least it distracted Bucky from whatever gory future was playing out behind his eyes.
“You can’t keep working!” Bucky snapped, sounding like Maria Hill whenever Clint suggested he just walk in and start shooting.
“Of course I can,” Steve countered, running a hand through his hair. “Right after I get this bounty off my head.”
“And how do you plan to do that?” Bucky inquired caustically, leaning back to fold his arms across his chest. “You’re going to switch from discrediting provincial congresswomen to infiltrating U.S. military contractors? If I hadn’t rushed the op in Yemen, Kruger would have shot you.”
Steve bristled a little, at Bucky’s disdain. This “provincial” job was a plum assignment, and he was two years overdue for most of his vacation time, and — Bucky wasn’t actually trying to insult his skills as a spy, Steve reminded himself, practicing the deep breathing exercises that Bruce swore made it possible to survive Tony Stark.
“Bucky.” Steve reached out and cupped Bucky’s elbow, sliding his hand up the bunched muscles of Bucky’s arm and behind his neck. “I’ll deal with it. SHIELD will deal with it. I’m sure Monty left burn phones here, and Nick’s back-up plans have back-up plans.”
Bucky kept his arms folded, but he let Steve draw him forward until their foreheads touched. His breath gusted out in a sigh, and Steve could smell the hops in the beer and the sour taste of something that might have been fear. Bucky had come a long way, running from Yemen to save Steve’s life on a rooftop in Brazil.
“It’ll be fine,” Steve promised, shoving down the churning in his gut when he thought of the five million dollar price on his head.
“You’re full of shit,” Bucky informed him hoarsely, and then pinned Steve to the sofa with a kiss, knocking their noses into each other and then catching his tooth on Steve’s lip. He uncrossed his arms and used them to bracket Steve’s face, holding him in place while he licked his way into Steve’s mouth, mapping Steve’s gums and his teeth and the roof of his mouth in a way that spoke more of possession than desire. Bucky’s damp shirt pressed against Steve’s bare chest, and if Steve slid his hands underneath it he could feel the muscles of Bucky’s back tensed beneath his palms.
“He was going to shoot you in the chest,” Bucky panted, his fingers still tight as steel bands against Steve’s scalp, pressing his mouth into Steve’s cheek, his temples, his chin without making it either a bite or a kiss. “What kind of moronic hitman needs to aim for the chest?”
Steve chuckled, but Bucky didn’t seem inclined to laugh at his own joke. He moved his painfully tight grip to Steve’s shoulders, pressing his face into Steve’s neck and mouthing at his pulse, mixing the scrape of his teeth with the edge of his tongue until Steve dragged Bucky on top of him so that he could grind his burgeoning erection into Bucky’s ass.
“Pants off,” Bucky demanded, the words vibrating into the sensitive skin of Steve’s throat, and Steve nearly caught himself in his zipper as he hurried to oblige. Bucky didn’t shift off of Steve’s lap, which left Steve to do some awkward contortions to push both his underwear and slacks below his hips and then attempt to kick off his shoes and tug everything off with his toes.
He accomplished this superhuman feat in part because Bucky had crouched down to focus on Steve’s chest, running his hands down Steve’s sides as though he were checking for broken ribs, the touch dry and firm and so good that Steve’s abs clenched and his cock bobbed up to hit the underside of Bucky’s thigh.
“Sex?” Steve pleaded, because Bucky was right there and Steve had just run for his life and he was a marked man and none of that was really conducive to foreplay and Bucky smelled like sweat and gunpowder, smells that woke Steve up in the mornings with one hand already wrapped around his dick.
“Shut up,” Bucky growled. He rolled Steve’s nipple threateningly between his thumb and forefinger, lowering his head and sucking hard on the other nipple, darting his tongue over it and biting down lightly with his teeth. Steve arched completely off the couch, hands clamped over Bucky’s hips and rubbing his erection frantically into the cloth of Bucky’s pants, head thrown back and begging in an inarticulate whine.
“Bucky fuck please god,” he moaned, unable to do much more than thread his fingers through the belt loops in Bucky’s slacks and hang on.
“Just stay put,” Bucky commanded, nuzzling Steve’s chest, digging his fingers too hard into the muscles of Steve’s thighs, pleasure riding on the edge of pain. “And don’t be so stupid.”
With that pronouncement, he dropped to his knees. Bucky’s face was still stormy, skin ashen but for the flush high on his cheeks, and Steve was momentarily concerned about having all that fury directed at his leaking dick.
Then Bucky wrapped his hand around the base, steadying Steve’s erection so that he could curl his spit-damp lips over the head of Steve’s cock, sliding down in slow torture until his lips hit the top of his fist.
Steve was so transfixed by Bucky’s mouth that he hadn’t paid any attention to his other hand, which had apparently fished a foil packet of lube out of his slacks and torn it open, because suddenly the slick, blunt tip of Bucky’s finger was running over the crease in Steve’s ass, forward to just behind his balls and sliding back to press up against his tensed pucker.
Steve’s whole body tightened, including his throat, leaving him dizzy from lack of air. No one’s fingers had ventured down there but Steve’s since he was nineteen, when he’d decided that it was always, always safer to top.
Bucky kept up the light suction on Steve’s cock, his fist moving in a breathtaking counterpoint to his mouth. But he must have felt Steve’s urge to slam his thighs together and shove Bucky away, because he lifted his gaze to meet Steve’s. Bucky’s eyes were the turbulent, swirling indigo of a storm, angry at Steve or for him, Steve couldn’t tell — these were the eyes behind the rifle, when Bucky had raced across three oceans to save his life.
Steve pushed his hips closer to the edge of the sofa, and let his knees fall open to give Bucky more room.
He could feel the cold air blowing from the air conditioner over the damp spots Bucky had left on his chest. He could feel Bucky’s finger push slowly inside of him, right thumb rubbing gently over the clench of Steve’s hole around Bucky’s fingertip. He could feel his erection bump against the ridges in the roof of Bucky’s mouth, and the way Bucky’s tongue traced along the underside of Steve’s cock.
Bucky didn’t take his eyes off Steve, even as he wiggled his finger farther up inside of him, pressing it forward and backward, making slow circles until Steve relaxed enough for him to slide it out, and then back in. Bucky watched Steve carefully as he wedged a second finger next to the first, splitting Steve wide and leaving him exposed as cool air brushed over the sweat on Steve’s balls, and then back down below them to where Bucky’s fingers were buried inside him. He hadn’t realized how close he was, but Bucky must have. His eyes were on Steve, his mouth curving up just a little, crooking his fingers and looking almost gentle as he broke Steve open and made the world go dim.
“Be careful,” Bucky warned, hours later, stretched out like a marble sculpture tangled in the sheets on the safe house bed. Steve nearly dropped the expired crackers he had found in the kitchen in order to get his hands back on Bucky’s skin, mottled with old scars and fresh marks from Steve’s mouth and hands.
“With your beer?” Steve asked, eyebrows raised, setting the cold drink down on Bucky’s chest, laughing when the other man yelped and rolled away. They had hours to go, still, before Steve needed to get to the edge of town and the helicopter Tony was sending, before Bucky needed to pretend he’d never come.
Steve dropped back into bed, propping himself up with the pillows and tugging Bucky to his chest, until they were both sitting at an angle and getting cracker crumbs all over the sheets. Bucky tilted his head, pressing the back of his skull into Steve’s collarbone, lips curled in a satiated smile but eyes dark.
“Right now it’s a bounty,” Bucky whispered, as though he wished they weren’t saying these things aloud. Steve stopped staring at the swollen pink of Bucky’s lips, and frowned. “Be careful, Steve,” Bucky said again, staring fixedly at the hickey he’d left on Steve’s neck, “that he doesn’t make it a job.”
“You’re terrible at seduction,” Steve told him, when the silence had gone on too long, grown eyes and teeth and threatened to settle in. He set his beer on the nightstand, tossed the box of crackers onto the floor. “Come here,” he demanded, swallowing the roughness out of his voice, and that was the last word on the subject that either of them said.
Sherwood Forest was burning. Steve flipped the Stark-patented “stupid fast” switch on his bike and accelerated into a blind turn on the winding road to the SHIELD housing development, glad that Sam wasn’t there to scream at him for driving like a maniac. He pulled through the gates just behind a firetruck, its sirens screaming and the fire chief coming to meet it, ash on her cheek and a grim look on her face.
“Soak the roofs next door,” she ordered, speaking simultaneously to the truck driver and to the radio in her hand. “Trucks four and five are already on the fire, and keeping it contained. Pray for rain,” she added, glancing up at the stars twinkling merrily in the cloudless sky. “We’ll figure out tomorrow if it was a gas leak or a firebug.” The driver nodded, and the truck shifted off Archer’s Ridge Road onto Victory Lane. Steve’s street.
“No civilians,” she barked, when Steve tried to keep following the truck.
Steve had been on his way home from yet another tedious meeting with Fury, urging action against Hydra and getting nowhere with the SHIELD director, and was not in the mood to be called a civilian by anyone. He opened his mouth, ready to shout over the sirens and drive over the fire chief, if need be, but Sam appeared out of nowhere and clapped the harried woman on the shoulder. “I’ve got this, ma’am,” he told her, even as he looked past her at Steve, gaze sympathetic, his mien every bit the counselor that the former-Captain Rogers hadn’t wanted after he was fished out of his own grave. Sam’s eyes always gave everything away, like they were doing now, kind and compassionate and trying to share Steve’s pain. Steve’s pain. Steve’s street. Steve’s house.
It wasn’t even as if Steve had chosen the house, or picked out the magazine subscriptions, or bought the mailbox that played the national anthem whenever he opened it. It was just the place he lived between assignments, where Tony kept sneaking in new electronics that beeped at odd hours, the place Bruce would visit to stock Steve’s empty shelves with loose-leaf specialty teas. It was where Sam bought plants to brighten up the windows, and then had to break in and water them because Steve always forgot. Where Barton had fallen off the roof and into the bushes one night, drunk and determined to save a pigeon that didn’t require his help. Natasha had helped him inside, then, dumping him onto the sofa and biting her lips. Steve thought it had been to hold back tears until she had started snickering, the first time Steve had learned that she could smile. The bedroom, where Bucky had climbed through the window as himself, the first time they’d come together with their own names and through their own choices, Bucky and Steve.
That’s my house, Steve thought, still sitting on his bike, staring above the other houses at the thick, churning smoke that had once been walls and furniture and all of his things. That’s my house.
“I know, man,” Sam said, a friendly hand resting on the shoulder of Steve’s leather coat. Steve must have spoken, at some point; his lips were numb, and he couldn’t feel whether the air brushing his face still held the ice of winter, or if the fire had brought an early spring.
“Steve. Steve!” Sam shook him, bending down so that his face lined up with Steve’s. “We need to get back to SHIELD,” he said, once he was sure that he had Steve’s attention. “ASAP.” Steve frowned, but trying to process Sam’s words was like walking through a tar pit. There was shouting, from the firemen, and then a cracking sound that might have come from inside Steve’s chest.
Sam gave up on formality and just swung onto the bike in front of Steve, bodily shoving himself into the driver’s seat and forcing Steve to rearrange his arms and legs. “That’s my house,” he said again, craning his torso around to stare at the orange glow of the flames and the billowing, insidious haze of smoke blotting out the stars.
“I know,” Sam agreed, muttering under his breath about helmets and safety violations as he walked the bike in a circle and aimed them back at the front gate. “But whoever blew it up wants you dead, which means we need to get the hell out of here, stat.”
Then someone shot at Steve, and nearly dinged the chrome on his bike. “Go!” Barton shouted, pulling up next to them in a red corvette that had Ride a Stark painted down its side, Bruce sitting in the passenger seat with a gun and his glasses askew. “We’re right behind you!”
Sam revved the engine and took off, weaving either to avoid the shooter or because he had never driven Steve’s bike. Steve looked behind them, through the trees and the houses to the smoldering rubble, the scorched piece of land between Sam’s birdhouses and Sharon’s vegetable garden where his home had been.
“You’re getting ash on the table,” Tony complained, strolling into the conference room and wrinkling his nose at the smell of burned plastic and insulation that clung to their clothes.
Clint and Sam had been eating dinner in Sam’s house next door, Sam had told him, and then Steve’s house exploded and they ran out with SHIELD-issued fire extinguishers (placed in every operative’s kitchen and by their front door, anticipating their agents’ tendency to come home in flames) and ended up scorched for their efforts. Bruce had come running from his house in yoga pants, dragging a portable generator that he had adapted into a high-capacity fire extinguisher. Sharon had taken pictures — they could go on Steve’s wall, she suggested, hang in the stairwell of his next home.
Sharon’s hair was white with ash from the wood siding, darker specks of debris dotting her head. Sam had a gray smudge under one eye and first-degree burns on both arms.
Clint waited until Tony sat down next to him at the table, and then leaned over and scrubbed both hands through his short hair, dumping ash and cinders into Tony’s lap. “You’re late to the housewarming party,” he said, and Sharon and Sam groaned.
Steve stared blankly at his work phone, pushing at one corner and watching it spin in place. He’d hated the color scheme in the house, utilitarian beige and dark brown, with furniture to match. The windows had hideous lace curtains, either because every house did or because SHIELD’s interior decorator had it out for Steve Rogers. The kitchen light had buzzed like a fly trapped on the ceiling, and the bathroom fan had sounded like a jet turbine.
“Definitely arson,” Sharon confirmed, tapping away on a pocket computer Tony had designed for her. “It’s only a preliminary report, but I sent it to our experts and they say you’d need an incendiary device to cause heat like this.” She turned to Steve and raised her eyebrows, soot smeared across her forehead where she’d wiped away the sweat. “Unless you were building bombs in your free time?”
“He wasn’t,” Sam spoke up, when it became clear that Steve had nothing to say. “And does anyone else remember being shot at?”
“Don’t worry about her,” Tony replied, lifting a hand and waving Sam’s words away. “Bruce took out her knee cap; probably by accident, considering he’s failed basic firearm proficiency three times. Your arsonist and would-be murderer is Ophelia Sarkissian, wanted in at least six countries for murder or conspiracy to commit.” Tony leaned over and slapped Steve on the shoulder, jostling him forward. Steve watched his phone spin, the black screen against the table’s polished wood. “The price on her head isn’t bad,” Stark declared, “but it’s nowhere near yours, Rogers.”
“Not helping,” Sam informed him through gritted teeth.
“This is it, right?” Barton rubbed the back of his head, then looked straight at Fury and shrugged, his jaw tight. “You’ve kept us here for weeks, with your analysts, doing risk assessments on Hydra that won’t solve anything for anyone.” Fury sat back in his chair, arms folded, gazing coolly down the table with his single, penetrating eye. Clint gazed back, and didn’t blink. “They’re trying to kill us at home, now. I think that’s enough risk.”
“You’re right, Barton.” Tony’s mouth dropped open. Sam nearly fell out of his chair, he sat up so fast. Even Clint looked surprised, when Steve bothered to lift his head and check. Fury rolled his eye. “This may come as a shock to all of you, but I don’t particular enjoying hearing that our security systems have been breached –” Everyone took a moment to glare at Tony, who held up his hands and shrugged. “- or that you’re being shot at.” Clint raised his eyebrows. “Outside of work, Mr. Barton,” Fury specified, and Clint gave a small, toothy grin.
“However,” Fury continued, straightening in his chair, “you hooligans aren’t the only ones being shot at in DC.” He reached out and spun his tablet around, the screen playing something with an explosion far larger than the one that had caused the smoldering remnants of Steve’s home. “There’s been an attack on the Pentagon. Pierce called an hour ago — he’s been in touch with the committee.” Carter cursed, and Fury inclined his head, agreeing with her rage. “The security contract went to Hydra in an emergency vote,” he told them, “with another contract already in the works, focusing on military technology and weapons development.”
“I wonder who their designer is,” Tony mused, rubbing at his goatee with one hand.
“Are you looking for a new job, Stark?” Fury barked, and Tony jumped to attention in his office chair.
“Uh, no, sir,” he declared, before regaining his usual nonchalance and adding, “Though at the moment, it sounds like they’d pay better.”
Nick ignored him, pressing the tips of his fingers together and scanning the room with his good eye. “This has become priority number one,” he informed them, as Pepper strode in with informational tablets and new burn phones for them all. “I’m not so sure it was foreigners who just attacked the Pentagon,” he said, the implication clear. “And we’re going to do something about it before Hydra sets the whole damn world aflame.”
“Like Steve’s house,” Tony piped up, and Sam buried his head in both hands. Pepper walked calmly around the table, jammed a tootsie roll pop in Tony’s mouth, and continued handing out what information they had on Hydra’s venomous heads.
Steve watched his phone, waiting — waiting for a word, or a picture of Sarkissian dead from an expert shot, or anything at all from an unknown number and an untraceable call — but no matter how long he stared, the screen stayed dark.
* * *
It had taken Steve and Clint three hours to decide which of them would take point on the op. While they were flipping coins and arm wrestling and throwing knives at a dartboard, Bruce, Tony and Sharon were eating popcorn and debating how to name their newest job.
“Operation Hercules?” Bruce suggested, absently doodling a many-headed beast with his stylus, probably drawing over some important point on Sitwell’s early career.
“Too obvious,” Sharon vetoed, bouncing a piece of popcorn off the ceiling and into her mouth. “Operation Iolaus?”
“Because that’s so much more subtle,” Sam chimed in, coming through the door after a thirty-minute shower where he scrubbed off pieces of Steve’s home, ash still smeared behind his left ear. “Do we have anything a little less directly related to Hydra slayers?”
“This isn’t about playing Telephone,” Clint finally barked at Steve, sharper than Steve had ever heard him, loud enough to drown out the rest of the room. Clint did not lose gracefully at arm wrestling. “It’s about problem solving my way.”
Steve didn’t disagree. His hands itched for the grip of a pistol against his palms, and he was thinking more like Capt. Rogers than he had in five years. But — “We can’t just start shooting people,” Steve finally announced to the whole room, since everyone else had turned to stare at them. “If we want to win, we have to cut off the right head.”
Tony leaned back in his chair, shifted his lollipop to the other side of his mouth and studied Steve’s blank face and Clint’s scowl. “Should either of you be running this?” he inquired, tilting his head. “Since you’re both — how would my therapist put it? — emotionally compromised?”
“Shut up, Tony,” Maria Hill commanded, striding through the door in form-fitting black, layered with her black combat vest and the guards over her knees. She cracked her neck, spared the others a glance and then focused in on Steve and Clint’s tense silence in the farthest corner of the room. “You figure out who has the bigger dick yet?” she asked them, rolling her eyes.
“Me,” Clint declared.
“Steve,” Sharon announced, and everyone smirked at Steve’s blush.
“Me,” Maria corrected, and leaned forward, hands pressed flat against the conference table. “You want to save Romanova?” she asked, raising an eyebrow at Barton. “Or — God help us — the Soldier?” she added, including Steve in her gaze. “Great. You can do that right after you help me take down all the assholes now in Hydra that I trained, because we are not letting my good work screw over the goddamn world.” Tony had snapped to attention; Sam looked ready to write sonnets about the fire in Hill’s eyes. “Everybody on board?” she declared, and it was clear that she wasn’t asking.
Steve looked at Clint and cocked his head, questioning. Clint shrugged and reached out to shake Steve’s hand.
“Let’s go kick some ass,” Barton seconded drolly.
“Where do we start?” Sharon wondered, scrolling through the scant information they had on how Hydra truly ran.
Maria grinned, a shark who had scented blood. “You want to find a monster?” she said, pulling up a picture on her phone. “You start with the scavengers living off his prey.” She flipped the phone around so they could see Sitwell’s face stretched too wide across the screen, bald head gleaming and simpering smile in place. “Come on, team,” she said, slapping the table with her free hand. “Let’s go catch a rat.”
* * *
Capturing the head of a security firm really should have taken more than a phone call from Sam, Steve thought, blocking one of the exits and attempting to look menacing in a suit. They had spent three days monitoring Sitwell’s schedule, Sharon hacking his phone while Sam violated his privacy with cameras on space satellites.
They slept at headquarters. Tony ordered sleeping bags and body pillows, marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars, fluffy robes and scented bath soaps, though Nick banned the soap after he came out of the company showers wrapped in a cashmere robe and reeking of violets. Tony also printed out an entire album of surveillance photos taken in Steve’s house, poorly lit pictures of his staircase, a crooked snapshot of his kitchen, a menacing angle on the potted plants Sam had scattered through the living room.
“Thanks,” Steve managed, paging slowly through the grainy, darkened record of his home.
Tony shrugged and jammed his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. “It was an ugly house,” he finally stated, nodding at a picture of the upstairs bathroom, wallpapered with pictures of iridescent seashells in a painfully bright shade of robin’s egg blue.
“Yeah,” Steve agreed, smiling a little as he remembered Bucky’s bleached hair poking out beyond the teal stripes of the shower curtain, inviting Steve in. “It really was.”
“C’mon, Rogers,” Tony said, nudging at Steve with his hip. “Bruce found his old lighter, we can stick the marshmallows on Hill’s stylus and make s’mores.”
Steve couldn’t remember when, exactly, they had made the decision to capture Sitwell in a public place; he was just relieved not to be running point. The back of his head itched, out in the open and waiting for someone to take a five million dollar shot. This plan was filled with holes, and Steve hated it. Hated all of them in the open, where anyone could see them.
Hated that Sitwell had no bodyguards at all — and it was worse than that, because the rat thought that he had bodyguards, taking Sam’s call and scanning the area for protection that wasn’t there. The man’s eyes widened, then, a nerve twitching in his cheek. Sitwell thought SHIELD had killed his bodyguards, only there hadn’t been anyone around for them to kill.
Something was wrong.
“Something’s wrong,” Steve said, once he was settled in the passenger seat of a compact car with fake license plates, Sam driving and Barton in the backseat cuffing their prize with very little finesse and a crack that might have been Sitwell’s wrist, all of them on their way back to SHIELD and Hill’s interrogation room.
“You’re damn right it is!” Sitwell screeched, leaning forward into Steve’s gun, his chest puffed out in a poor show of bravado. Steve could see the whites of the other man’s eyes, the sweat beading on his upper lip. “You’re going to regret this, you son of a bitch!”
Steve ignored him. “This was too easy,” he told Sam, certain that Hill and the others could pick him up on the comms.
“We planned it that way,” Sam pointed out, signaling a lane change and waving at the car behind them as though he weren’t kidnapping a man in broad daylight in downtown DC.
“You’re just paranoid,” Tony concurred, his voice blasting in through the car’s speakers. “Besides, I thought you wanted to save your boyfriend?”
Steve glanced unwillingly at his phone, on for three days and not a single word from a man everyone else believed to be a ghost.
“No, he’s right,” Barton hissed, jerking Sitwell’s wrists farther up his back, silencing his litany of threats. “Something’s — fuck! Wilson!”
Sam swerved, because that’s what sane people did when ghosts appeared in the middle of the road and aimed guns at their heads. Steve braced himself against the door and watched Bucky line up the shot, unfazed by Sam’s zigzagging over three lanes of traffic, his pale eyes hidden behind his gun, black from his hair to the soles of his boots.
“Fuck,” Clint said again, and the Soldier put a bullet in Sitwell’s head.
By the time they managed to stop the car and climbed out the damaged window, Bucky was gone and Sitwell was dead. Sam was rubbing his chest where the seatbelt had kept him from hitting the steering wheel, and Clint was covered in Sitwell’s blood. They looked like they had three days ago, running from Sarkissian and the burning planks of Steve’s home. Disheveled. Defeated.
They had played right into someone’s hands by taking Sitwell, and they still didn’t know whose. Maria was already shouting through Barton’s phone, and Sam was distracting emergency services with a fake injury until SHIELD’s EMS arrived and cleaned up the mess.
Steve’s phone rang, and he swiped it open automatically, expecting to hear Tony whining about the loss of yet another company car.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” a familiar voice said, reverberating harshly down what might have been a city tunnel and through the phone.
“Hey,” Steve whispered, the phone gripped too tightly in his hand, staring at the place in the road where Bucky had been.
It was definitely a drainage tunnel, the reception poor and Bucky’s feet splashing into water with every other step, moving fast. “You really, really shouldn’t have done that,” Bucky told him, breathing hard from the exertion it had taken to complete the op and then vanish into thin air. As if he had heard Steve thinking, Bucky said, “Sitwell wasn’t my op. At least, not all of it.” There was a pause, only the pounding of Bucky’s feet and static on the line. “You promised to be careful,” he ground out, though they both knew that Steve had done no such thing.
Right now it’s a bounty. Be careful, Steve, that he doesn’t make it a job.
“Sitwell’s not giving any more orders,” Steve said, glancing over at the blood-spattered rear windshield of the car. “So who wants me dead?” SHIELD had aimed at the wrong man and put Steve in the firing line again, but even a monster could only have so many heads.
“Orders are orders,” Bucky responded, sounding grim. “You should go home, now. Get out of sight.”
Steve coughed, clenching his left hand into a fist and wondering if Bucky didn’t know about the fire, or if he was actually that cruel. “I don’t have –” he began, hoarse, but Bucky cut him off.
“I know,” he said, breath coming in short bursts as he picked up speed, clearly at home in the maze of tunnels below DC. “But — trust me, Sugar?” And it was the first time he’d ever said Steve’s code name, quiet and filled with echoes and running out of time. “Just go home.”
Steve stared at the phone for a long moment, watching the screen blink and go dark. When SHIELD’s emergency clean up offered them a fresh car, Steve took the keys and folded himself into the driver’s seat, shifting into gear before Sam and Clint had closed their doors.
“You’re in a hurry to go to the office,” Sam declared, lifting his eyebrows in mild surprise. In the backseat, Clint had switched his phone to his left ear and was rubbing his right, trying to soothe away Hill’s vocal displeasure. “You really want the ass reaming we’re about to get?”
“We’re not going to the office,” Steve stated calmly, twisting the wheel and wishing for the hum of his bike between his legs. Trust me? “We’re going home.”
The fire department had only left the day before, once they were certain that nothing would flare up and blow Steve’s neighbors out of Sherwood Forest. Steve wasn’t expecting anything but black scorch marks across his yard and some charcoal on the footprint of his old home. He knew there was nothing left — he knew Bucky wouldn’t be waiting, busy running from SHIELD and an employer whose assignment he had failed to complete, but Steve’s brain couldn’t seem to convince his heart.
He pulled up Victory Lane just as the flatbed truck turned past them, on its way out of the Forest. Stopped the car in front of his burned, soaked, and frozen front lawn, and gaped at the small, rectangular house sitting in his back lawn, at the pansies wilting in its flower boxes and the pink lace curtains in the windows.
His heart sank a little when the front door opened to reveal red hair and coveralls, and not dark hair and combat gear. Natasha was wearing a tool belt, watching their car as she tilted her head and stripped the casing off of a wire with her teeth, twirling a wrench in her hand like a baton.
“Are you boys coming in?” she asked, spitting the casing into the icicles of Steve’s lawn. “You’ll want to see the bathroom,” she added, grinning at Steve’s shock. “He ordered it special, for you. Seashells and electric blue.”
“What are you doing here?” Steve squeaked, after he’d tumbled out of the car and ducked into a home barely big enough for one adult, much less four. The bathroom was somehow even brighter and uglier than the one that he’d lost, but he’d smiled when Natasha had pulled the shower curtain out of a plastic bag, clear with teal stripes.
She swallowed but didn’t blink. “A friend cleared my schedule,” she told him, eyes bright.
Clint swore, but it sounded like gratitude, and Steve realized what she had really said. Whatever Hydra had on Natasha Romanova was gone; she’d been erased, her ledger wiped clean, and since she’d chosen to show up in Steve’s backyard with a wrench he had a good idea just which “friend” she had meant.
He felt guilty, for immediately wishing Bucky there in her stead.
“And so you decided to build me a house?” Steve asked, knocking on the thin walls and hoping that she couldn’t hear the resentment lingering in his voice, that Bucky had been able to save her but couldn’t free himself.
“No,” Natasha replied, wrinkling her nose at the flowered wallpaper in the hall and the shag carpet on the floors. “I decided to help out a friend.”
“Well, we could use the help,” Sam chimed in, but Natasha’s hazel eyes were fierce, and Steve smiled, because he knew that she hadn’t meant them.
* * *
“You have something,” Steve said, sprawled out over the recliner wedged into his nutshell of a living room, while Natasha sipped her wine and curled delicately around Clint’s snoring form on the loveseat. Sam had gone home, claiming that trying to stand upright in Steve’s new house gave him a crick in his neck.
They had spent the afternoon setting up Steve’s temporary hobbit hole, siphoning off Sharon’s hot water and Sam’s cable, Clint outside creating a series of snares for bounty hunters and Sam somehow blocking the house from aerial maps.
But Natasha hadn’t come all this way to shove a squat house off a truck and drink Sharon’s best wine. “Something I want,” he specified, when Romanova arched her back like a cat, showing off exactly what she did have, under those coveralls.
She smirked, lips red behind her glass. “From what I’ve heard, I don’t have anything you’re interested in.” Steve rolled his eyes and flinched when she tossed something into his lap. Paranoia was hard to shake, with a five million dollar price on your head. “Except maybe that,” she amended, nodding at the flash drive resting in his hand.
“What is it?” Steve held the drive up between his thumb and forefinger, but there was nothing to see besides the matte black of the plastic and the snubbed metal of the port.
Natasha shrugged one shoulder, staring into the garnet depths of her glass. “I don’t know,” she admitted, sounding sincere. Of course, sounding sincere was what had made Steve such a good spy. “I pulled it from your Bucky’s computer while he was clearing my name. It looked like an order.”
Probably an order to shoot Steve in the head.
“You haven’t opened it?” he asked, flipping the flash drive into the air and catching it, tucking it into his pocket when Natasha held out her hand for its return. Steve wasn’t turning over his own kill orders. He wasn’t giving away anything that could compromise Bucky’s safety.
Natasha raised her gaze to the off-white ceiling, as though praying for patience. “Rogers, it’s encrypted,” she bit out, her nonchalance slipping away to reveal a woman who had spent the day on the run and years wary of her own shadow. “And even if it weren’t, you know it will alert Hydra as soon as we open it. We’ll need SHIELD to scramble the signal for as long as they can.”
Steve had already known all these things. He’d also known Natasha for years, playing the other side of his ops. Something kept her working for Hydra, something more powerful than whatever she owed Bucky or however much she cared for Clint, something that could conceivably bring her to Steve’s door with orders to infiltrate SHIELD and bring it to its knees.
“I haven’t killed you yet,” Natasha murmured, reading the mistrust in Steve’s eyes, but they both knew that only assassins killed from a distance, while spies waited with a dagger for someone to trust them, to turn their back. She set her glass down on the card table they’d used to hold dinner, leaned back against the sofa and rubbed her hands along the blue material covering her thighs.
“I was an orphan,” she said eventually, folding her hands together to keep them still. “Orphans are easier.” Easier for what, she didn’t say, but Steve had gone into the Army with his mother barely in her grave. Had fought for his country, had fought to keep his men alive. He had never fought for the chance to come home. Orphans were easier. “I began in Russia. The Red Room, not Hydra. I took orders.” Her voice caught, and her knuckles were white where she squeezed her fingers together. “I was very good at my job,” she said, lifting her gaze to meet Steve’s and refusing to look away. He raised an eyebrow, unimpressed. “They called me their tsarina — their Romanova, their jewel in the rough.
“I ran away.” Natasha was still startlingly small, a tiger disguised as a house cat; Steve could only imagine how tiny she must have been, frightened and young and running for her life. “I wanted to leave it behind.” She shook her head, offered Steve a smile at the foolishness of a young girl’s dreams. “Hydra had heard of the Red Room’s Romanova, though. They found me before the year was out. I could go to work for them, or they would turn over a list of my crimes to the government — any government.”
She paused, glancing to her left where Barton was mumbling in his sleep, head draped at a painful angle on top of the loveseat, mouth hanging wide open to catch flies. “And then you met Barton,” Steve filled in, because Natasha was too cunning for the mere threat of exposure to keep her bound. If this was a story, then it was the story that had conned Clint for years.
“Mmm,” she hummed, inclining her head and reaching for her glass, toasting Steve’s intuition. “I see you’ve heard about Hydra’s benefit plan. Do your job, and we won’t kill the people you lo — the people you want to keep alive.”
“That’s why Bucky stays,” Steve whispered, almost to himself. “He has someone to lose.”
Natasha pursed her wine-stained lips, leaned back and tugged Clint’s phone free from his trousers. She spent a moment swiping across the screen, typing things out with her thumb and then scrolling down before handing the phone to Steve.
It was a terrible black and white photograph of a woman in her late fifties with nicotine stains on her teeth, an article from a newspaper Steve had never heard of, the Podunk, Indiana gazette.
Winifred “Winnie” Barnes, 53, passed away Saturday in a tragic accident. ... She is survived by her son, James Buchanan Barnes, and by her loving former husband, Col. George W. Barnes. In lieu of flowers, the family requests that contributions be made to Mothers against Drunk Driving, in hopes that future accidents may be prevented.
James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky. This was the name that Natasha had tried to give Steve months ago, the one that he hadn’t wanted to take. It wouldn’t have made any difference, Steve recognized. He would still be where he was now, in too deep with a price on his head.
“That’s what happened the last time James turned down a job,” Natasha disclosed, tapping one crimson nail against the screen.
“Who’s left?” Steve wondered, inspecting the portrait of Winifred Barnes, searching for her son’s dimpled chin, for his pale eyes in her face. “His father?”
Natasha made an unladylike noise and frowned in distaste. “Col. Barnes creates more business for Hydra than the President,” she hissed. “They certainly don’t want to kill him. He has a daughter from his first marriage, though. Rebecca Barnes. James didn’t even know that she existed, until Hydra gave him the file.” Steve found Becky Barnes Gutierrez’s Facebook profile easily, proof that this was a woman who didn’t know she needed to hide. “She has two kids,” Natasha said unnecessarily, since the profile picture had a woman with pale blue eyes and a wide smile, her arms around a little girl with big, brown eyes and a gangly boy with a dimpled chin.
“We need to move them,” Steve announced, flipping through other pictures of the niece and nephew that Bucky had never met, birthdays and carnivals, children who didn’t know that someone had sighted them through something far more deadly than a camera lens.
Natasha offered a wordless sound of agreement, then cocked her head and waited for Steve to put everything else he knew about Bucky into play. Mother already dead. Father not in danger. Half-sister. Steve thought of his own past, the people who could be used against him — mother dead, current colleagues difficult to kill, everyone else ... “Morita, damn it!” he barked. Bucky knew Morita. The only liabilities Steve had were men like Jim Morita, Army buddies who’d come home and built families and stupidly, courageously put down their guns. Bucky had been Delta Force, which meant there was a whole, top-secret unit scattered around the globe that Steve needed to protect.
He took a moment to envy Natasha, who had only a list of her sins and a lover that could generally protect himself.
On the other hand, Morita had fitted out his house to stand against a zombie apocalypse, and Steve was pretty sure that if they could find Bucky’s old unit, the men could take care of themselves without SHIELD’s help.
“If we take away their leverage,” Steve queried, biting his lip, “he won’t shoot me, right?”
Bucky hadn’t shot Steve that afternoon, but the car had been moving and the Soldier really couldn’t stay too long in full view — those were excuses, of course, since Steve had no doubt that Bucky could have shot him, but whoever his boss was might be satisfied that at least Sitwell was dead. Temporarily satisfied, however, didn’t mean that Bucky got sent away with a pat on the head and an ice cream cone, or that Steve got to live.
Natasha’s lips twisted with all the words she didn’t want to say, and Steve thought he saw pity before she averted her eyes. “He might not,” she tried to reassure him, but both of them had experienced enough — were jaded enough — to know that it wasn’t any reassurance at all.
Steve was relieved that it was winter. He hopped off his bike, ears red and face numb and sweating from the body armor that Fury had insisted he wear. If it had been summer, Steve would be dead of heat exhaustion and Nick would have won the five million dollar prize.
He had left the rest of them at SHIELD, Hill still fuming about Sitwell, Sharon and Tony running interference on the flash drive’s signal, Bruce on decryption. He kept protesting that SHIELD had techies for things like this, code breakers even, but someone had known every detail of their plan to pick up Sitwell, and none of them were risking that happening again.
Sam, utilizing all his skill as a VA counselor, was calling up a lot of former special ops soldiers and politely suggesting that they drive their daughters to ballet practice in a tank and keep an eye out for drone strikes. He had been cursed at six times, hung up on twice, and had a little boy eavesdropping on his father’s conversation burst into tears. If the kid could learn to stop crying, he might make a good spy.
Steve had gotten ahold of Morita around dawn, and Jim’s cranky, sardonic voice on the line still sounded like the promise of a ride home after a dangerous op, the Commandos on high alert and Steve’s muscles tensed to catch any hint of a hostile patrol.
“Guess you made a friend, huh Cap?” Morita mumbled after Steve had explained in coded language what was going on. Steve could hear Amy’s sleepy tone, the kiss Jim pressed to his wife’s forehead before padding out of their bedroom. He would be heading to the nursery, a former Green Beret checking his perimeter, a father checking on his little girl.
“Guess I did,” Steve said, thinking of Bucky’s mouth on his, Bucky’s face when he’d killed Kruger and saved Steve.
“I’m glad,” Jim told him, voice thick with sleep, yawning through the second word. “You could both use a friend.” Steve’s mouth turned up at the corners, listening to Morita coo nonsense at a dozing baby girl that Steve couldn’t see. “Now go save the fucking world, Cap, and let me go back to bed.”
Steve’s phone calls had gone far more smoothly than Sam’s; Dum Dum had still cursed at him and hung up, but he’d at least waited for Steve to ask him to stay safe. Monty had declared that he was safer on a fucking full night’s sleep, and Gabe was somewhere deep in the field and unreachable, but probably safer being shot at in a warzone than he would have been at home. And the last of them was the safest of all, buried in Arlington despite being born French, the first casualty to Hydra’s war on Steve.
After that, Steve had phoned up a few more old acquaintance who didn’t work for SHIELD and were therefore probably working for Hydra and called in enough favors to hopefully keep the Barnes Gutierrez family safe. But there wasn’t anything he could do to help with the flash drive, and so he’d thrown on the body armor and decided to go back to his diminutive home, where maybe Bucky had left them some clues.
Everyone else thought that going home was a horrible idea and that Steve was going to die — or that’s what Tony had predicted, and no one had disagreed.
They were probably right, Steve realized, when he opened his front door and saw a shadow, the silhouette of a contract killer and a gun. The shadow moved towards him, pulled away from the dark corners of his living room and took on edges, pale skin and arctic eyes and dark hair.
Steve reminded himself to breathe, forced the air out of his lungs and straightened his shoulders. Then Bucky lifted his arm and Steve recoiled, threw himself backward and waited for the report of a gunshot fired point blank into his chest.
There was nothing but silence, and the rapid-fire pounding of Steve’s heart. The air crystallized around them, Steve frozen on the floor, his arms crossed helplessly in front of his face. Bucky a few feet away, arm raised, empty hand outstretched toward Steve.
“Get up,” Bucky demanded, when the silence had settled like a rock slide on Steve’s chest. He sounded brusque, tapping at Steve’s hip with his boot, but Steve could hear the catch in his voice, the roughness that Bucky hadn’t managed to swallow away. Steve saw him flinch, when he pulled his hands away from his face and reached for Bucky’s hand.
“I’m sorry,” Steve whispered, scrambling to his feet and pressing his cold hands to Bucky’s cheeks. “I didn’t know it was you,” he wanted to say, but they both knew that wasn’t true.
Bucky dug the toe of his boot into the carpet and wouldn’t meet Steve’s eyes. “It’s fine.” He shrugged. “I am here to kill you, after all.”
Years as a spy, and the smile Steve dragged onto his face wouldn’t have fooled a baby. Bucky doesn’t want to hurt you, Steve chastised himself; and he believed that, but — well, Steve’s mother had killed herself with her desperation to find Steve a cure, left him alone in the world, and it had been years since Steve had trusted anyone at all.
“You can kill me after,” Steve proposed, and used his grip on Bucky’s jaw to haul him into a kiss.
Bucky didn’t smile and mock Steve’s one-track mind, like he generally did, or smirk at how easily he could knock Steve off balance, like he had the first time they’d met. Steve pushed Bucky toward the bedroom just as Bucky moved to sit on the loveseat, mouths dragged apart by the misstep. Bucky watched Steve from the middle of the living room, lips swollen from Steve’s forceful kisses, his eyes tracking Steve’s every move.
“Come on,” Steve choked out, wrapping his hands around Bucky’s arms and pulling, desperate to fill the space between them, the sudden ache in Steve’s chest. “Come here. Let’s go christen the bedroom, Buck,” he pleaded, not quite managing the wink and grin that should have accompanied his words.
They walked single-file to the bedroom, which was fine, which made sense, even, since Steve’s shoulders brushed the hallway walls, since his new dollhouse wasn’t built to survive two grown men tearing into each other’s pants.
He stretched out one hand behind him, reaching for something, grabbing at air until Bucky’s cold fingers tangled in his own. Steve held on too tightly, but Bucky gripped his hand just as hard in return.
And it wasn’t bad — sex with Bucky was never bad, was explosively good even in an alley in Mexico, or under false pretenses in Mozambique.
Steve had layers of sweltering body armor to peel off, and Bucky had his own combat gear, and when Steve went to help Bucky was trying to unstrap a knife and nearly bludgeoned Steve in the eye. They undressed separately, after that, Steve watching Bucky and Bucky surveying the intricate pattern on Steve’s new quilt.
Bucky was still wearing his ankle holster and wool socks when Steve moved carefully — slowly, because he wouldn’t be able to take it if Bucky flinched — into Bucky’s space, wrapping his arms around a muscular chest and burying his face in dark hair, trying to force out the tightness under his ribs. Bucky stiffened for a heartbeat, two, then pressed his face into Steve’s neck. His hands stayed loose at his sides, though, and after a minute he lifted his head and retreated a step.
“Thought you were taking me to bed?” Bucky drawled, though he still wouldn’t meet Steve’s gaze.
“Guess so,” Steve retorted, but they didn’t tumble into bed, weren’t a mess of limbs and spit and desire burning through overheated skin.
And it wasn’t bad, licking his way down Bucky’s chest, the room so quiet that he could hear every stifled gasp. It was never bad when Steve had his mouth around Bucky’s cock, two fingers slicked up and pumping slowly in and out of Bucky’s ass.
Finally, finally, when Steve’s jaw was starting to ache, Bucky whimpered, threaded his fingers into Steve’s hair and tugged. “Steve,” he begged, voice thin, “God, Steve, c’mere.”
Steve grabbed one of the flat pillows with the daffodils on the case and slid it under Bucky’s arched hips, hooking his elbows under Bucky’s knees and bringing them up to Bucky’s chest.
“Ready?” he grunted, settling onto his knees, dragging the head of his cock over Bucky’s balls, gasping when it caught on the lube-slick edge of Bucky’s hole.
Bucky nodded. Steve frowned and shifted Bucky’s calf onto his shoulder where the ankle holster dug into his back, leaving his hand free to curl around Bucky’s lowered chin. “Buck?” he asked, hating the way his voice cracked on the word.
“Yes, damn it, I’m ready,” Bucky snapped, tilting his face up to meet Steve’s, pushing his fingers back into Steve’s hair and folding himself into a pretzel to pull Steve into a sloppy kiss, Steve unable to help pushing his cock past the ring of muscle and deep into the tight heat of Bucky’s ass. They both groaned, mouths still sealed together, breathing each other’s air.
Steve opened his eyes and found Bucky already watching him, eyes inky black in the gloom. “Steve,” Bucky exhaled, his fingers tugging too hard on Steve’s hair, clenching his muscles around Steve’s cock and oh, he wasn’t going to last, not like that.
Bucky wedged a hand between them to stroke his own cock, and Steve wanted to lean back and watch his hand move, but he wanted Bucky’s tongue inside his mouth and icy blue eyes only inches from his own. He thrust shallowly into Bucky, unwilling to tear himself away to get a better angle or a better fuck, not when he finally had Bucky’s eyes on his, the damp heat of Bucky’s breaths on his skin.
“God you’re beautiful,” Steve panted, unable to coordinate his mouth for a kiss, mashing their lips together and licking into Bucky’s mouth, catching the backs of his teeth.
“Steve,” Bucky moaned, and Steve could feel Bucky’s hand speed up on his cock, his knuckles brushing Steve’s stomach and Bucky’s face tensing in pleasure, already close to the edge. “Steve, I — Steve,” he cried, back bowing up off the bed, mouth wide open and muscles clamped so tight around Steve’s cock that he could scream, that he toppled into Bucky’s chest and into his own orgasm without the air to protest that he needed more time.
It was over all too soon. Bucky let Steve trace patterns through his chest hair, but he was already reaching for Steve’s undershirt to wipe them clean, face still flushed but eyes peering out of the blind and planning his next shot.
And they both knew the next shot was headed right between Steve’s eyes.
“I can protect them,” Steve swore, sitting up to keep Bucky in his sights as the other man rolled to his feet.
Bucky snorted, raised his eyebrows somewhere in Steve’s direction without looking him in the eye. He shimmied into the combat slacks he’d worn the day before, unforgiving black fabric and bracing at his knees, and didn’t bother asking how Steve had discovered there was anyone to save. Bucky might be a ghost, but Steve was a spy with Natasha on his side.
“I can,” Steve repeated solemnly. “I am.”
Bucky looked at him, then, took in every freckle on Steve’s face, the scar through his eyebrow and the lines at the corners of his eyes from squinting at a thousand desert suns. His mouth turned up in a fond smile that didn’t touch the grief in Bucky’s eyes; perhaps remembering his mother, whom no one had saved.
“You’ll protect them?” Bucky said softly, his blue eyes tracking the way Steve’s fingers brushed the back of his wrist. “The same way her bodyguards protected Figueroa Bello from the rifle in my hands?”
“Bucky,” Steve said, but Bucky shook his head, shook away Steve’s oath. They’d spent too long in their jobs to trust in those sorts of promises, when they had seen how impossible it was to save someone, and how easy it was to destroy.
“You’re not going to kill me,” Steve stated, glancing down and realizing that his fingers were bloodless where he was gripping Bucky’s hand.
“I’m not going to kill them,” Bucky told him, his voice steady, and Steve’s checkered life was nothing compared to a brown-eyed little girl with her mother’s smile, or a boy who didn’t know that he had his uncle’s chin. “Good bye, Steve,” he whispered, pressing a kiss to the backs of Steve’s numb fingers, and then he wrenched his hand free and was gone.
Steve put the body armor back on, before he sprinted into Sam’s house and hid behind the kitchen island to use Sam’s phone and call SHIELD, requesting a bulletproof ride back to base. It was time to stop acting like a fool in love. It was time to start acting like a man with a five million dollar price on his head and a ghost lining up to take the shot.
* * *
“There’s been a change of plans!” Sam shouted, driving the SHIELD car onto the lawn while Clint threw open the rear door and Steve dove into the backseat, Natasha half out the passenger window and firing a submachine gun behind them like she worked for the mob.
“What the hell?” Steve yelled, though he took the grenades Clint handed him and tossed one nonchalantly toward the black SUV on their tail, catching a glimpse of a familiar, swarthy face behind the wheel. “Is that Rumlow?”
Sam cut right, through someone’s flowerbeds, and Steve had to hook his hand around Clint’s belt to keep him from falling out of the car.
“He followed us from headquarters!” Sam explained, bellowing over the deafening sound of gunfire thudding through the car. “They must have figured out we had the flash drive!”
“Or they just want you dead,” Natasha suggested, ducking back into the car for more ammunition, glowering at Steve when he drew his gun from his hip and moved to take her place. “So stay down, damn it!” she ordered, then took out the tire of a sedan that had pulled around the SUV and was gaining on them.
It swerved back into the road and nearly flipped — sadly too late to block Rumlow in, but it did stop Sherwood Forest’s security patrol in their tracks.
“Anybody bring a grenade launcher?” Steve asked loudly, because none of them could hear over the ringing in their ears. When Clint blinked at him and tapped his ear, Steve mimed hoisting a weapon onto his shoulder and blowing things up.
“Check under the seat!” Barton suggested, diving back out his window with the handgun he generally kept strapped on his back.
“If you fire an RPG inside this car, Rogers,” Sam shouted, cutting off a police car that had tried to stop them at an intersection, “I will come back from the dead just to collect the bounty on your damn head!”
Another bullet slammed into the bulletproof rear windshield, and Steve took a moment to appreciate SHIELD insisting that all of its agents live in a housing complex only five minutes from the office.
Fortunately for Sam, the only grenade launcher in the car was far more modest than an RPG, and far less likely to kill them all with the back blast when Steve fired it.
“Stay in the left lane!” Steve ordered, and Sam blinked incredulously at him in the rearview mirror.
“But then they’ll –”
“Pull up on our right,” Steve finished, checking his weapon. “I know! I’m counting on it.” He turned to Clint, who was tugging a fresh pistol out of yet another holster somewhere on his leg. “Barton! Can you hit the driver, if he rolls his window down?”
Clint nodded, tossed off an irreverent salute, and wedged himself back out the window so that he could steady his aim across the roof.
“You got a job for me, boss?” Natasha asked, dropping into her seat and peering over the headrest at Steve.
Steve raised his eyebrows. “Think you could blow out their tire?” he replied, ducking a little lower when their rear windshield finally shattered, sending dull shards of glass across his shoulders and into his hair.
Natasha scowled. “If they’re right next to us?” she scoffed. “Of course I can.”
A burst of gunfire drowned out Steve’s next attempt to speak, but Rumlow’s SUV was in the right lane and pulling ahead, just like he had planned.
“Not the left tire!” He shook his head. “The right tire!”
Natasha lit up, tugging the Glock free from its place against her thigh, her smile feral. “Now that’s more like it,” she declared. “Cover me, Rogers!” She swung around so that her knees pointed toward Sam, then arched backward out of the passenger window. “Wilson! Grab my belt!”
“Goddammit, Natasha!” Sam squawked, but managed to catch hold of Natasha’s belt when she braced her knees over their heads and hung upside down out of the car window, head dangerously close to the road spinning past below them, waiting for her window of opportunity.
Steve fired the grenade launcher at the helicopter coming in too low over their heads, then threw the weapon down and fired his handgun into the goon aiming at Natasha from the backseat of Rumlow’s car. Rumlow was shouting something from the passenger seat, but Steve couldn’t make out the words. Steve felt for the second grenade Clint had given him, palming it in his left hand and waiting for the SUV to go a little faster, to get a little closer —
“On my call, Clint!” Steve shouted, sticking his head out of the car, the price on his head too good for Rumlow’s man to refuse. The driver rolled down his window, no doubt thinking of the five million he’d earn from one shot.
Clint hit him right below the ear, timed to Steve’s silent gesture, and Rumlow was forced to drop his gun and grab for the wheel. “Now, Nat!” Steve commanded, and she aimed underneath the SUV and fired, Sam hauling her back into the car with a huff of relief.
Not even Rumlow could control a car with a dead man’s foot on the gas and a blown tire, and the SUV veered right and twisted into a flip, almost too fast to see. But not so fast that Steve couldn’t pull the pin on his grenade and lob it through the back window, watch it arc gracefully into Rumlow’s car and disappear from view.
“Go!” all three of them hollered at Sam, who flipped them off but accelerated through the next red light, just in time to be thrown forward by the detonation of Rumlow’s SUV, a wave of heat and thunderous sound.
Sam hung a sharp right toward SHIELD, and Steve could see the car from his window, a cloud of oily smoke and orange flame. He wondered if Brock had known he was dying, the way Steve had when Rumlow had engineered his death five years ago. He wondered if Brock had also thought about all the people who wouldn’t be at his funeral — Steve had crashed a drone plane in the Mediterranean, had watched the deep blue waves come nearer and known that, outside of the Commandos, there would be no one who mourned his loss.
“What,” Fury asked, surveying their powder burns and the debris in Natasha’s hair and the blood where a bullet had grazed Clint’s scalp, “Did Steve’s house burn down again?”
“No,” Sam said, rolling his eyes and collapsing into the nearest chair. “We stopped for ice cream.” He stripped out of his sweater and shook the pieces of windshield out of it. Natasha’s face was still red from so long upside down. Clint pulled some gauze out of one of his pockets, sniffed it, then shrugged and held it to the wound on his head.
“The flash drive,” Steve redirected, because their detour into Brock Rumlow’s fiery death was barely a footnote in the disaster of the last few days. “Did you get anything?”
Fury’s face, impassive on his most cheerful days, would have sent dogs scurrying home, their tails between their legs. “Oh, yes,” he said coldly. “We got exactly what we needed to know.”
Whatever had been on that flash drive had made this personal for Fury, Steve saw, the way it was already personal for Romanova, for Barton and Hill and Steve. Bucky might shoot him before they finished this, Steve thought with grim triumph, but they would finish it. Whatever else happened, they were bringing Hydra down.
* * *
The tenth time that Steve saw Bucky, he had his P226 pointed at Steve’s head.
Of all the elements of their plan, the cold metal of a gun pressed to his neck was the one that Steve liked the least.
The plan had started with Barton offering to pick up his rifle and point it at Senator Pierce’s head.
“What?” he said, when everyone frowned at him. “Pierce is a problem. I’m solving the problem!” He crossed his arms and scowled at Fury. “This is what you hired me for.”
Fury rubbed his temples and sighed. “We can’t kill Pierce,” he said, “and if we could, Barton, then I would be the one doing it.”
“Why can’t we?” Maria asked, leaning across the table to steal one of Tony’s chocolate bars. “It would solve the problem, like Barton said.”
Nick turned on the television in the corner, and they watched the footage of their own firefight with Rumlow explode over the screen for the millionth time, “Are Terrorists in DC?” scrolling past in bright red under the black smoke.
“We kill Pierce and he’s won,” Nick told them, slamming his fist into the table’s dark wood. “He goes down as a martyr, Congress convenes, and everyone’s running scared — running straight to Hydra. We need him alive.”
“Not to sound as bloodthirsty as the assassins in the room,” Tony piped in, exchanging some sort of coded glance with Bruce. “But how do we stop him – and if we do, do we still have to leave him alive?”
Sharon cocked her head, blinking at the new TV story on exposés by presidential aides. Her blond hair was twisted up in a bun, a few strands loose and falling into her eyes. She brushed them away and sat up straight. “He’s a politician, isn’t he?” she declared, catching everyone’s attention. “How do you stop a politician?”
Tony’s forehead wrinkled. “Uh, bribery?” the heir to the Stark fortune suggested, and Sharon made a face.
“Sign a petition?” Bruce offered. Sharon dropped her head into her hands and groaned.
“Expose him,” she asserted, and Bruce pinched Tony hard in the ribs to prevent him from saying a word. “He’s been corrupt for decades, he’s made deals and blackmailed people and betrayed the American people,” she stressed, and Sam clapped. “He’s not a martyr if we can show everyone who he really is.”
Natasha nodded, slowly, staring off into a distance that none of them could see. “I can help with that,” she said, and then slipped out the door and didn’t reappear for five days.
Everyone but Barton turned to stare expectantly at the door, waiting for her to walk back in; Clint, Steve knew, could have told them that she was long gone.
“Great,” he announced, once their focus was back on the plan. “So we publish his unedited memoirs, and then kill him? It’s not like we need Pierce’s help ruining his good name.”
It was too easy, Steve thought. Natasha and Bucky had lived under Pierce’s thumb for years and not even known it; it couldn’t be as simple as posting a few incriminating files and rolling the man into the Potomac River with cement shoes.
“It’s not that easy,” Fury said, echoing Steve’s doubts. “I worked with Alexander for over a decade, when we were in the Corps. He had a plane waiting to get us out of a shit storm in Bolivia when we weren’t even supposed to be in Bolivia. His contingency plans have contingencies.” He gazed at all of them, stony faced. “You really believe that he doesn’t have fail safes built right in? That his death won’t ricochet into everyone you’ve ever met?”
Clint groaned, and rolled out of his chair and onto his feet. “This is work for spies,” he complained, stalking over to the coffee pot and topping up his mug. “C’mon, Hill. We’ve got a protection detail to run.”
“Protecting who?” Sharon asked, eyebrows arched and palms spread.
“Everyone you’ve ever met,” Clint replied, and loped out the door.
“So,” Sam joined in, sipping at his coffee and grimacing at the taste. “Let me get this straight. We need to clean out the skeletons in Pierce’s closet without him killing us, convince him to, what, not give the order to kill all our friends — also without him killing us — and do this without killing him?”
“We could invite him to lunch?” Tony offered optimistically. “I’m very persuasive, especially over a good cabernet.”
“He’s gone to ground,” Nick said, shaking his head. “The kill order on the flash drive points us right to him, and he knows it. We need to know where to find him.”
“On it,” Sharon and Bruce cried simultaneously, then fist-bumped while still scrolling through their tablet feeds.
“Hydra hires interns,” Sharon explained to the rest of them, smirking. Interns were faceless employees, temporary additions that no one looked at twice: the perfect cover for a spy. “Banner is setting me up to get in. There’s got to be some information on the inside about how to find Pierce.”
She and Banner disappeared into their own conversation, setting up an identity that would give Sharon access and anonymity at the same time. Tony had pulled what appeared to be Hydra’s blueprints up on the far wall, scanning them for what, Steve didn’t know.
“Okay,” Sam murmured, drawing out the word. “So we dig up all Pierce’s dirty secrets. We hunt him down and put him at the end of Clint’s gun.” Sam leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers together behind his head, no different from the VA counselor he had been when he was telling former-Captain Rogers truths he didn’t want to hear. “But how do we make a man like that surrender everything he has, all of the weapons he has aimed at our families and friends?”
Nick gazed at them, the black of his eyepatch a mirror to the dark look in his good eye. “Oh, that’s not so hard,” he promised, flashing them a smile sharp enough to draw blood. “Alexander Pierce is the kind of man who wants to live.”
* * *
Natasha wandered in and out of headquarters, amassing documentation and witnesses to Alexander Pierce’s many crimes. At some point she took Sam with her, either because she needed his expertise on aerial reconnaissance or because he begged her, desperate to get out of the bunker their offices in SHIELD had become.
Bruce and Tony had vanished into Tony’s lab, though they occasionally surfaced and had esoteric conversations about identity and face projections that were way above Steve’s clearance level, and which he gladly ignored.
Hill had sent the Barnes Gutierrez family to Disneyland, which seemed like a terrible idea to Steve, but apparently she had contacts in California, and — if Rebecca Barnes’s Facebook photos were true — Hill was trailing the family without their knowledge, disguised as Anna from Frozen, scowling at hordes of grabby children with sticky hands.
Barton had dropped by to check on Bucky’s old unit, but most of those men didn’t need a protection detail: they had thanked him for the warning and sent him politely on his way. So he’d gone to Fresno, and Steve was starting to worry that putting Barton and Morita in the same house might kill them all. He’d gotten three emails in one day from Amy, threatening to hang her husband and Clint in their own damned booby traps.
Steve paced. He paced down the halls in the basement, where there were no windows to aim through; he spent nights on the treadmill in the company gym, when he couldn’t sleep and there were no corrupt employees lurking who might want to earn five million dollars by bringing Pierce his head. He didn’t go back to Sherwood Forest, because he didn’t want to die in a house built for dwarves. Because he didn’t want Bucky to kill him in bed, not when the pillows and quilt were still in disarray from their rendezvous a week before.
He paced and he ran nowhere and he processed the information that Sharon fed them, Tony’s bugs pressed to every surface in Hydra that she could touch.
And slowly — through hushed telephone calls and reports from empty-handed bounty hunters, from Tony’s update that someone had hacked Sherwood Forest’s security feed and was watching Victory Lane — it all began to come together.
“Wherever Pierce is now,” Steve told Nick, just the two of them in the conference room, the midnight shadings of beards on both their faces, the smell of burned coffee permeating the air. “He’ll be here next week when the Senate committee meets.”
“And what?” Nick asked, scrubbing at his face with one hand. “We airlift him off Capitol Hill? There’s a way to keep people calm.”
Steve threw the sheaf of papers in his hand onto the table between them, everything he’d compiled from Sharon’s work and his own digging, conversations and emails and information from Hydra’s aerial searches that all came down to one thing. “We don’t need to hunt him down,” he stated, folding his arms across his chest. “We need to lure him out. Give him what he wants more than anything else.”
Fury looked down at the papers scattered across the table and back up at Steve, unruffled by the display. “And what’s that?” he prompted, leaning back until his chair creaked.
“Well.” Fury raised his eyebrows, feigning incredulity. “You think highly of yourself, Rogers. Pierce has no reason to think that you’re even alive.”
“He knows I’m not dead,” Steve countered, sifting through his printouts and tugging loose the aerial photos of Sherwood Forest. Someone had been interested enough in Steve’s current whereabouts to send satellites searching for him. “And he hates it. Everything I’ve pulled up, everything Sharon’s brought in — he blames me for the Soldier’s failed ops. He blames me for Romanova’s defection. He blames me for Sitwell, for Rumlow, for catching him at his own game.”
Nick stared hard at Steve’s hands, peered at his clenched jaw, searching for a tremble that would give him away. Every spy had a tell, but Steve’s hands didn’t shake. “You know he won’t come out just to shoot you,” Fury finally said, flipping through a stack of papers with his thumb. “He’s got the Soldier for that.”
Steve didn’t flinch. He had been running nowhere long enough. “I know Pierce won’t shoot me,” he agreed, swallowing down the feeling of Bucky’s lips pressing a dry kiss to his fingers, the cold that set in as he left. “But we both know that he’ll want to watch.”
It had all gone according to plan. Tony combed through SHIELD records until he identified the tech who had hacked into Sherwood Forest’s security, and then brought her in and asked for her help setting up Steve Rogers’s disguise. She ran straight to Hydra with the information, as they had hoped, and so everyone knew that Steven Grant Rogers would show up in Hydra the day before the Senate meeting to break into Hydra’s classified files, searching for a way to bring Pierce down.
Steve strolled through the front doors, caught up in a flood of Hydra technicians and agents and bureaucrats with their coffees and their name tags clipped onto their suits, feeling like he had a target painted onto his back, forcing his head down so that he didn’t look up at the balconies, hoping to catch a last glimpse of Bucky behind his gun.
He broke off as soon as he was sure that someone had recognized him despite the dark hair, fake beard, and fitted suit. The suit jacket he left in the bathroom, draped over a stall. The beard and mustache he stuck to the mirror, smiling at whoever might come in.
According to Sharon, if Pierce was in the building he would be near the top floor, where it would be easy to get him alone. According to the service elevator Steve ducked into, the top of the building was over thirty floors away.
He made it ten floors without a problem. Then the car slowed to a stop on eleven, and Steve went for the ceiling panel, not waiting to see who would come in. He paused for a moment on top of the elevator car, catching his balance and tugging the grappling hook from his belt.
Nobody said anything, in the elevator, but Steve recognized the dull ring of combat boots against a steel floor. Recognized the way that Bucky breathed, in a nightclub or a hotel bar, in his bed or on the run in Brazil.
By the time Bucky fired up through the open ceiling panel, up into the elevator shaft, Steve was prying open the doors to the twentieth floor and safely out of range. He still jerked forward at the sound, pressing his face into the metal doors and gasping for breath as if his lungs had punctured — as if he’d been hit square in the chest.
Steve was running by the twenty-third floor, sprinting through Hydra cubicles and doing a forward flip over someone who’d come around the corner at the wrong time, his pulse racing in the hollow of his throat, his fingers numb.
Bucky wasn’t even moving quickly, but he was coming closer all the same, the thud of his boots cutting inexorably through the office noise, keeping a steadier tempo than Steve’s heart. Maybe it was meant to be a kindness, this slow march to Steve’s death, but part of Steve wished that Bucky would just hurry up and shoot out the ache in Steve’s chest.
By the twenty-fifth floor, Steve knew he wasn’t going to make it any higher. He had taken to the air vents, moving too quickly to be quiet, Bucky easily tracking him as Steve scrambled from room to room. He fired straight through the ceiling, the bullet tearing through Steve’s trousers, grazing the hair on his leg.
Steve dove out of the vent in the air duct, somersaulted through the cramped space between the floors, and crashed through the ceiling tiles into the next room. There was no point in running any farther — the plan hadn’t worked. Pierce wasn’t there, and if Bucky was going to kill him then Steve wanted to meet death standing on his own two feet, wanted to look it in its familiar blue eyes.
From somewhere behind him, Steve heard applause.
He craned his head, edging sideways until the wall of windows was at his back, staring across expensive beige carpet to find Senator Alexander Pierce sitting in a leather chair, clapping as though Steve had just performed in a matinee.
Steve’s chest heaved, his throat too tight and his lungs desperate for air.
“Well done, Captain Rogers,” Pierce commended him, dusting the pristine lapel of his suit and turning to check the security feed on the computer behind him, pulling up a picture of the whites of Steve’s eyes when Bucky had fired and nearly hit Steve’s leg. “Though a little later than I’d expected you, given your reputation.” Steve glanced at the doorway, wondering — and Pierce laughed. “Oh, yes. Of course, we wouldn’t want to keep you waiting. Come in, Sergeant Barnes,” he called, and Bucky stepped through the door, his gun pointed implacably at Steve’s head.
Steve lifted his chin, and saw the dizzying blue of the Mediterranean in Bucky’s pale eyes.
“What happened to all your Army heroics?” Pierce lamented, when Steve kept his hands by his sides. “I’ve read your file — you’re a crack shot, at close enough range. You’ve even brought your gun.”
Steve had nearly died on an operating table, days from his eighteenth birthday and a week from his mother’s grave. He had died alone, once, the frozen metal of a plane beneath his fingers, his lungs filled with the sea.
He shook his head, moved slowly enough for Bucky to track as he pulled out his gun, released the magazine, and dropped both pieces to the floor. Bucky’s hand stayed steady, though the skin tightened around his eyes. “I’m not a soldier,” he informed Pierce, but he kept his gaze on Bucky’s ashen face. “I’m a spy.” He would die as who he was, on his feet and less alone than he had been every time before.
“You’re going to regret that,” Pierce snapped, perhaps angry that he hadn’t goaded Steve into the shot. He pressed a buzzer on his desk and two more people came through, Sharon cuffed and struggling against a petite Hydra agent with mousy brown hair and a narrow face.
“Thank you, Hawley,” Pierce said politely, leaning back and waiting for Steve’s anguish, at having lost his gun and the chance to save Sharon.
“Oh, no problem, asshole,” Hawley replied, then let go of Sharon’s wrists to tap the button on her collar, dispersing the face projection and resolving into the spy Pierce hadn’t been able to keep. Natasha raised her eyebrows at Pierce’s shock. “What?” she asked. “Did you think I’d be taller?”
“The building’s on lockdown,” Sharon told the room, unhooking her cuffs and hiking up her pencil skirt to tug her pistol free. She wavered, then, unsure whether to aim at Pierce or at the man holding a gun to Steve’s head. “The guys are running interference. No one’s going anywhere.”
Bucky didn’t even glance at the newest intruders. Bucky took his orders from Pierce, Steve knew; he was just waiting for the command to shift his finger to the trigger and shatter Steve’s skull.
“My old friend,” Pierce declared sweetly, when Fury swept through the doorway a moment later, leather coat on and pistol in his hands. “I wondered if you would make it.” He stretched out and nonchalantly crossed his ankles, looking unconcerned by the sudden influx of SHIELD agents into the room.
“Didn’t you hear Carter?” Nick responded, leveling a gun at his old friend’s chest. “No one’s coming to save you, Alex. You’ve lost.”
“Have I?” Pierce inquired cheerfully, waving one hand to encompass the room. “None of you have killed me yet, after all. And if you consider it, please remember that Mr. Barnes won’t hesitate to shoot your best spy in the face.”
“Won’t he?” Natasha whispered, and Bucky bit down hard enough on his lip to draw blood, tightened his white-knuckled grip around his gun. He stared at Steve the way that Steve was staring at him, memorizing the bump on Bucky’s nose and the faint scar at his hairline, determined to keep his eyes open to the last.
“So, if you don’t mind,” Pierce declared, shifting unhurriedly to his feet, “I’ll just be going. Try to stop me,” he added, suddenly menacing, “and your friend dies.”
“It’s too late,” Natasha blurted out, moving to block the door. “Everything’s out there: everything you’ve done, every shady deal you’ve made, every little girl’s life that you destroyed — it’s out in the open now, exposing you for who you really are.”
“Natasha.” Pierce tsked at her, waggling his finger. “You have been busy since you went away. I wonder if it will be worth it, when your little errands make you a Widow in more than name.”
Natasha’s face went white, her lipstick a crimson slash across her face. “Fuck you,” she said, anger papered over the cracks in her voice. “Touch Clint and you’ll wish you died.”
“Get out of my way,” Pierce demanded, his pleasant facade stripped bare to reveal something far more malevolent at the core. “And maybe I won’t tell your lover what you were doing to survive in Kiev, when we offered you a job.”
Natasha sucked her lips against her teeth, set her jaw, and didn’t move.
“Fine,” Pierce said, damning, and looked at Steve. “Barnes, kill him.”
Bucky exhaled, his eyes boring into Steve’s — and the sight of him was better than the cloying taste of anesthesia as doctors settled the mask over a boy’s thin face, better than the lonely expanse of a sea and the unforgiving metal of a plane. He exhaled, and didn’t shoot.
“They’re safe,” Steve babbled, because he probably only had a few seconds left to live, and he wanted Bucky to know that. “They’re safe, everyone’s safe, we can keep them safe,” the same promise he had made weeks before, the one that Bucky couldn’t believe. Bucky shook his head, and his left hand uncurled, fingers stretched unconsciously toward Steve.
“It doesn’t matter,” Bucky told him softly, his eyes bright with tears.
Then he spun around, and leveled his gun at the pulse suddenly jumping in Pierce’s throat. “It doesn’t matter,” he said louder, voice hoarse, “because this has to end, even if it kills them.” Pierce’s mouth fell open, faced for the first time with a contingency that had no plan. “It has to end now.”
Bucky exhaled, and only Steve’s hyper awareness of Bucky’s body gave him time to act, leaping forward and tackling Bucky from the right so that the shot went wide, into the wall and not into Pierce’s brain.
“Bucky, no!” he cried, letting his full weight sag onto Bucky’s shoulders, dropping his head into Bucky’s hair and reveling in the fact that he was still breathing. That he could smell Bucky’s sweat and soap and the acrid scent of his fear. “We need him alive, Buck.”
Bucky shuddered in Steve’s exhausted embrace, and both men sank to their knees.
Pierce ground his teeth, and glared at Steve as though he might reach for his gun and shoot Steve himself, no matter that he would be dead before he fired. But he raised his hands, instead, surrendering to Nick’s betrayal and Natasha’s intractable anger — because no matter the hell that awaited, in the end Pierce was the sort of man who wanted to live.
* * *
Bucky didn’t say much, after that. Though no one had said much for the past two days, besides the tech experts and the legal experts and the cryptographers — and Tony Stark, but that was only because it was impossible to shut him up. On the first day of the debrief Steve had collapsed forward onto the conference table and slept soundly through the next four hours of meetings. Tony and Sam drew a few gross travesties against human anatomy on Steve’s face, but nobody had thought he was important enough to jostle awake. Bucky had stayed quiet, but he’d stayed, smirking at the photos of Hill as Anna, laughing out loud at the picture Monty had taken directly behind the man aiming a rifle at his window. Monty had always been very good at stealth.
Steve’s phone vibrated, but the front of the room didn’t seem to notice, and their corner of the room was more focused on the Tetris tournament they’d started around one am. “We caught one! :)” the text said, under a picture of Morita and Barton posing next to a sedated contract killer tangled in a net above Morita’s shed. Steve wasn’t sure if he was more worried by the fact that Clint was holding Jim’s baby a few feet away from an assassin, or that Jim’s wife Amy had gotten them to strike the pose.
He passed it to Bucky, who snorted. Maria Hill glowered at them from down the table, all of them trapped in the longest SHIELD meeting of Steve’s life. She still had some Disney princess make up caked above her left eyebrow, but Steve wasn’t about to say anything, since Princess Anna had successfully taken out three Hydra assassins with nothing but Prince Charming’s sword and her princess wig.
Some of Pierce’s fail safes had gone off anyway, but that was what a protection detail was for, and Nick knew the man well enough to catch the disarmament patterns and send Tony hunting for any loose ends or contracts that Pierce hadn’t cleared.
“We can kill him now, right?” Natasha demanded, interrupting the man who had been droning on about her legal representation for an hour, waving her phone where Clint was asking the same question over Skype. “Arsenic? A prison fight?”
Steve leaned over, nosing into the skin below Bucky’s ear. “Want to get out of here?” he hissed, and Sam kicked him in the shin.
“God, yes,” Bucky breathed, burying his head behind a tablet with some incomprehensible legal language to keep them out of Fury’s view.
“Stop nuzzling your boyfriend,” Wilson muttered, slouching so that Maria couldn’t see him. “We all know he’s real, everyone believes you now, so save the spit swapping until you’re at home!”
“Good plan,” Steve concurred, bussing Sam noisily on the cheek. “We’re leaving,” he announced, lacing his fingers through Bucky’s, tightening his grip when Bucky didn’t pull away. He stood up, which startled everyone into silence, something his pronouncement hadn’t done.
Silence, finally, for the first time in two days of endless debriefs and damage control. Steve was ready to go home.
“Are you waiting for us to throw rice?” Tony wondered, while everyone else continued to stare, and Steve took that as their cue to leave.
There were tin cans tied to the back of Steve’s bike, and someone had spray painted “Congratulations!” in blue on the back tire. Bucky cut the tin cans free and slid on behind Steve, his chest pressed to Steve’s back, his hands splayed flat against the leather of Steve’s coat.
By the time they got back to Sherwood Forest, Steve’s face was numb, his nose was running, and the backs of his hands were bright red where they’d been chafed by the freezing wind. Bucky’s face had fared a little better, since after the first frigid seconds he’d gotten smart and buried it against Steve’s neck. He kept it there, even after they’d rolled to a stop in front of Steve’s own Barbie dream house.
“C’mon,” Steve mumbled, trying to unbend his fingers from the handlebars and work his unwieldy lips. “Inside.”
He clambered off the bike, regretting the rush of winter air against his neck where Bucky’s face had been keeping it warm. Took two steps onto the charred remnants of his front lawn. Stopped. Twisted to look over his shoulder when he didn’t hear Bucky follow.
“Buck?” Bucky lifted his gaze to meet Steve’s, and Steve cocked his head. “You coming?” he wondered, his voice firm and his hands loose at his sides. Steve was a spy, after all, and knew how to swallow down fear that shook into stuttering, that tasted like bile at the back of his throat.
Then Bucky slid gracefully off the bike, and Steve let himself exhale. “You offering?” he murmured, the barest hint of a smile in his pale eyes, and Steve’s numb lips stretched into an involuntary grin.
“Why don’t you get inside and find out?” he retorted, knocking his shoulder into Bucky’s, shoving them both across the wreckage of Steve’s lawn and toward the diminutive front door.
Once they’d ducked into the house without cracking their skulls, Steve leaned back against the door for a moment to enjoy the sudden rush of warm air from the vents — someone at SHIELD must have cranked the heat up, probably the same person who was trying to redirect the security cameras to see what was going on. He gave a slow blink, kept his eyelids lowered and peered through his lashes at the man in his entryway, trying to gauge from Bucky’s twitching fingers and lip-bitten silences what they were supposed to do next.
“Do you, uh, want something to drink?” Steve offered, because sitcoms in the children’s ward had taught him it was important to be a good host. Bucky lifted his head and raised an eyebrow at the question, though he refrained from snorting. Steve blushed, and scratched the back of his neck. “Um. Okay. Dinner? I think I have, well, two bottles of Sharon’s wine. Sam might have left some of his pad thai? They’re probably both fermented by now.” Bucky opened his mouth to respond, but Steve caught him looking at the door and started talking before Bucky could tell him that he wanted to leave. “Or bed,” he interjected quickly, taking a step forward. “We could just go to bed.”
In months of illicit meetings and the occasional bloody showdown, Steve had seen Bucky look lascivious, serious, concerned, sated, furious, and frequently fatal. He had only seen him look uncertain once, when he’d aimed a gun at Steve’s head and hesitated to shoot. It was not an expression Steve ever wanted to see again.
“You want me in your bed?” Bucky asked, his head tilted down so that he was staring up at Steve, his trigger fingers curled tight against his palms where they couldn’t possibly be of use.
Steve shrugged. “We could use the loveseat, I guess,” he said, gazing skeptically at the floral-patterned furniture in the middle of the room. “But I don’t think we’d fit.”
The scowl on Bucky’s face was far more familiar, and Steve welcomed it with a smile. “Steve, I nearly killed you yesterday!” he snapped, pale eyes flashing. “You should still be running for your life!”
“Two days ago,” Steve corrected, just to watch the vein pulse at Bucky’s temple. “And you didn’t do a very good job.”
“Are you trying to get killed?” Bucky snarled, stalking forward to pin Steve’s body between his and the door. “You can’t just go around letting anybody in!”
Steve almost laughed at that, a huff of air across Bucky’s angry face that he couldn’t contain. Sam had the keys to Steve’s house, the Commandos had the numbers to at least three of his phones; all of them knew how he took his coffee and his missions, and none of them knew what kept him awake in the middle of the night, what got him out of bed every day. Bucky had read the file Hydra kept on Steve, and from the soft, rueful look in his blue eyes, he’d read enough of it to know that Steve didn’t let anybody in.
“Steve –” he started, his hands wrapping gently around Steve’s biceps instead of going for his throat.
“Let’s go to bed,” Steve interrupted, and half a decade as a spy wasn’t enough to swallow down the tremor in his voice.
Bucky leaned into him for a moment, left his hands where they were and pressed his face into Steve’s neck, let Steve push his cold nose into Bucky’s dark hair, their chests so close that he could feel Bucky inhale, closer than he’d been in far too long. Then he took a step backward, and Steve couldn’t help but follow. “All right,” Bucky said, sliding his hands down Steve’s arms, tangling their fingers and drawing Steve toward the hall. “Let’s go to bed.”
The bed was still a rumpled mess of stained sheets, the wreckage from the explosion of their last meeting there. Steve busied himself hunting for the linen closet while Bucky stripped the bed, and it was the most domestic thing they’d ever done besides raiding Monty’s safe house for beer.
“I still think you’re an idiot,” Bucky declared, once they had tucked the corners of all the sheets and tossed on the quilt for good measure. “Just so we’re clear.” He didn’t give Steve time to respond before shrugging out of his dark jacket, peeling off the SHIELD t-shirt he’d found in the company showers, hidden under a fluffy robe and a bar of Stark’s banned lavender soap. He was going for his buckle by the time Steve’s managed to do anything but gape at Bucky’s bare chest, tracing the familiar pattern of scars at his shoulder, the curl of dark hair across his chest, the burn just under his ribs. Until it happened, Steve hadn’t truly believed that he would see Bucky this vulnerable ever again.
“Enjoying the show?” Bucky drawled, toeing off his boots, and Steve hid his blush by bending over to untie his own.
Seconds later they were both naked, but neither of them made a move toward the bed. Bucky leaned forward and back, as though he was debating diving into bed or out the window, and Steve shuffled his feet and stared at the floor. Finally, he sighed and dropped down on the end of the bed, resting his elbows on his thighs and watching Bucky’s legs shift closer out of the corner of his eye.
“I didn’t think you would want this,” he admitted, digging his toes into the weave of the carpet.
Bucky snorted. “You didn’t think I would want this?” he echoed, leaning back against the wall. “You shouldn’t want this. Do I need to remind you which one of us nearly put a bullet in your head?”
Steve came to his feet without meaning to, crowded Bucky against the wall and met downcast blue eyes with his own. “You weren’t going to,” Steve said firmly; and it was true, Steve believed it was true. “I do want this. I ran an op against an entire security firm and a senator because I want this,” he stressed, his hands tight around Bucky’s hips. Technically, he’d run the op to keep Bucky safe, not to get him into bed, but Bucky didn’t need to know that this was the first time Steve had ever marched into a fight to protect someone that he – to keep someone safe just because Steve needed them to be safe, not because his supervisors thought they mattered to the world.
“How can you be so sure?” Bucky wondered, his hands sliding up Steve’s back, fingertips slipping into the hair at his neck. He peered at Steve with light blue eyes, his gaze filled with bemusement but not a single doubt. Steve said that he was sure, and Bucky trusted him. Trusted Steve.
“Fuck me,” Steve breathed, which wasn’t the reply either of them had expected, but it was an answer all the same. Bucky inhaled sharply, tried to swallow and choked, his hand clenched tight around the back of Steve’s neck. Steve pressed his face into Bucky’s until he could feel Bucky’s nose jabbing into his cheek, until they were both pale, blue-eyed blurs. “I want you to fuck me,” he repeated, articulating each word in weighted puffs of air against Bucky’s lips, feeling years of tension uncoiling along his shoulders and down his spine.
“God,” Bucky exhaled, licking his lips as though he might catch the words out of the air. “Steve.”
They both stood there for a moment, perfectly still, noses digging into cheeks, fingers pressed hard enough to bruise. Then Bucky growled, and shoved Steve onto the bed, leaping after in time to catch Steve as he bounced off the mattress and pin him back down.
Bucky pressed his full weight onto Steve, who hesitated only a second before spreading his legs, bending his knees to cant his hips up, feeling Bucky slide against the sensitive skin of his inner thighs, the press of Bucky’s thickening erection alongside his own. But Bucky caught the hesitation, and stilled. “Steve –” he started, but Steve shook his head, lifted his hips to grind against Bucky’s to make them both gasp.
“It’s fine,” he groaned, licking at the hinge of Bucky’s jaw, mouthing the spot on his neck that always made Bucky whine. “It’s just been awhile.”
“Define.” Bucky bit down lightly on Steve’s jugular, and Steve shivered at the threat. “Awhile.” He nipped his way down Steve’s chest, suckled up bruises that would last for days, Bucky’s prints in red and violet on Steve’s milk-white skin.
“Unh, decade or so,” Steve confessed, dragging his fingernails up Bucky’s back, leaving marks of his own. Bucky paused, pulled his tongue out of Steve’s navel and laid his head down, stubble scratching against Steve’s ticklish ribs. “What?” he demanded, fidgeting when Bucky was quiet for too long, his blue eyes too wide, and he used his grip on Bucky’s hair to haul him back up for a kiss. “You having second thoughts, Seryozhka?”
Bucky’s smirk was every bit as smug as it had been, that first night at a Mozambican bar months ago, even if his gaze brightened with something more than arrogance and lust. “A decade, huh, Grant?” he mumbled, busy twining his tongue around Steve’s, the kiss sloppy and biting and all of it zipping straight down Steve’s spine to his dick. “You must be awfully picky.”
“Yeah.” Steve pulled back, dragging Bucky’s bottom lip with him, made sure that Bucky could see his eyes. “I am.”
“God dammit, Steve,” Bucky groaned, his mouth red from Steve’s stubble, lips swollen from kissing. Then he dove back down and somehow went everywhere at once, his mouth on Steve’s neck, his teeth dragging over Steve’s nipples, his tongue cresting over the head of Steve’s cock. Bucky’s hands were wrapped around Steve’s wrists, scratching down his sides to make him shiver, splayed proprietarily over the muscles of Steve’s ass, one long index finger brushing tantalizingly close to Steve’s hole.
“Bu – uh – Bucky,” Steve moaned, slamming the top of his head into the headboard when Bucky swallowed Steve to the root, the head of his cock brushing against the back of Bucky’s throat. “Fuck me.”
“Okay.” Bucky pulled off, panting, saliva trailing from the corner of his mouth down to his chin. His hands clenched tighter, inadvertently tugging Steve’s ass cheeks apart and making him gasp at the exposure, cool air and Bucky’s fingertips enough to make him shudder. “Okay.”
One or both of them successfully fumbled the lube and condoms out of the nightstand, and Steve’s frenzied demands subsided at the first cool, slick press of a fingertip dragging behind his balls and over his hole. He couldn’t help the clench, tightening all his muscles and pushing away.
Bucky stopped, his chin on Steve’s bent thigh, his hand shifting up to safer territory, twisting a leisurely rhythm up and down Steve’s leaking erection. “Steve?” Bucky called softly, and Steve realized his eyes had been clenched as tightly shut as the rest of him. He opened them, and took in the curve of Bucky’s pursed lips, the curl of his long fingers around Steve’s cock, the abrasively gentle look in his pale eyes. “Trust me?” he asked, his gaze as steady as his hand. They were the same eyes that had watched him from behind the trigger of a gun, when Steve had trusted that Bucky wouldn’t shoot.
“This better be good, Buck,” Steve said, propping himself up on his elbows so that he could stare down his nose at Bucky’s head tucked against his groin. And if his voice was a little hoarse, well, he was going to start screaming pretty soon, and who could tell.
It was a blur of sensation after that, Bucky’s tongue and his fingers crooking forward until Steve was begging to come, preparation that Bucky insisted on doing so thoroughly that Steve was shaking when he used his foot to shove Bucky down the bed — fingers pulling out of Steve with a wet squelch that left him clenching on air and demanding that Bucky fuck him “right the fuck now.”
It was Bucky sliding slowly into him until Steve could feel his balls snug against Steve’s ass, the skin of his hips pressed to the lube-slick skin around Steve’s stretched hole. It was the sweat on the back of his knee where it was bent over Bucky’s shoulder, the way his heel dug into Bucky’s back to urge him closer, the kisses he licked into Steve’s slack mouth. It started with Bucky fucking into him, deep, sharp strokes that sparked up his spine and through his buzzing head, down to his twitching fingers and toes; and it ended with the press of Steve’s cock against Bucky’s tightened abs, with him arching off the bed and howling Bucky’s name while the world sparkled and fizzed, with blue eyes blown black and teeth in his shoulder when his trembling body pushed Bucky over the edge.
“It doesn’t fit.”
Sam rolled his eyes, and stopped trying to help Steve shove a full-sized sofa through the door. “Of course it doesn’t fit, Rogers, this house was built for gnomes. Did you try shopping at the gardening store? Maybe they have a toadstool you could use.”
“This house is stupid!” Bucky shouted, trying to pull the mini-fridge out of the window while Tony forgot that he was supposed to be helping and started raiding the new fridge for beer instead. “Why aren’t we just building you a new house?”
“This house was a gift!” Steve yelled back, and Sharon took a picture of his red face to commemorate their “spring cleaning party.” “I happen to like it!”
Sam tried to shove the sofa back out the door, but it didn’t budge, so he scowled over the top of it instead. “Could you like it as a guest cottage, maybe?” he queried, wiping sweat off his forehead. “Or a place to put the in-laws, when they visit?”
“Whose in-laws?” Bucky retorted, coming around the house dragging a mini-fridge and holding a beer, his hair the dark brown it was meant to be, dressed in one of Steve’s old thermals and a pair of paint-splattered jeans, faded Sharpie drawings still on his face from a surveillance meeting that had run long, where he’d had the misfortune to fall asleep next to Stark. “Are you having Hill’s dad the General over for brunch?”
Sam looked a little green at the idea, but recovered quickly. “I should have gone with Clint and Natasha for the food,” he muttered. Then lifted his voice and said: “I was thinking about Steve’s in-laws. Isn’t your sister bringing the kids to DC next month?”
Bucky went perfectly still, at the reminder, a gnawing worry about meeting his sister’s family that Steve couldn’t soothe, mostly because if Bucky was worried, Steve was downright terrified. After the battle at Disneyland, Maria had thought it might be less traumatizing if the Barnes Gutierrez family knew why there were people trying to kill them, and Becky had been Facebook-planning the trip to meet her little brother — “Uncle James,” Steve kept teasing Bucky, whenever they wrote, which only worked until Bucky reminded him that he’d become “Uncle Steve” — ever since. Sam and Bruce kept promising that it would go well, because they were the only optimists that Steve knew, and Clint had more pragmatically suggested that if it didn’t go well, they could all dress up like Disney characters, since it had worked for Hill.
Maybe it would be a good idea, to have a second house. Or a house where there wasn’t a sofa wedged diagonally through the front door.
“Can’t we do this tomorrow?” Steve begged. Bucky glared at him, a look which spoke eloquently about how redecorating had been Steve’s idea, something to do with nice weather and an early spring and finally buying a bed big enough for two large men.
“You have a mission that starts tomorrow,” he pointed out, but offered Steve his beer. That had been part of the lure for spring cleaning today — break in the new bed before spending a few weeks in the field, where Steve Rogers would become a man who didn’t have a boyfriend at his side.
Said boyfriend would be working aerial intelligence with Sam for the same mission, the job he’d been doing since Nick Fury had stomped in a few weeks after Pierce’s takedown and informed Steve that it was time to get out of the bedroom and back to work, if he still wanted his job. Then he’d turned his single, probing eye on Bucky and snapped, “And what the hell do you want to do, Barnes? Tend the roses?”
Bucky had considered gardening, but only for a few seconds before choosing to work aerial intelligence instead. Sam preened and said that was because it was better than all their other lame-ass jobs. Nat said it was just so that Bucky could keep stalking Steve. Clint had scowled — he’d been hoping for a little competition — but shrugged and admitted it was a lot like peering through a scope. Steve hadn’t said anything. He hadn’t needed to; he knew what it meant, to be a soldier. He knew why he’d become a spy.
“What if we just push really hard?” Bucky wondered, prodding the splinters of door frame the sofa had already broken off.
“Is that your usual tactic, Barnes?” Tony responded, coming around from the back of the house and fiddling with something that might have once been Steve’s toaster. “Might be why Rogers keeps walking funny, these days.”
Steve blushed, because he was learning not to be a spy in his house, or in his front yard. He was learning to scowl when he was angry, to curl his fists or let his voice shake, to stare across the living room at Bucky in a way that made Sharon ask when he would propose. Bucky smirked, and kissed Steve on one reddened cheek.
“Can’t hurt to try,” Steve agreed, and Sam volunteered to get out of the way, and went through the back to help Bruce plant vegetables that Sam would wind up tending to, when Steve and Bucky spent weeks away from home. “Ready?” Steve took one corner, Bucky took the other. Tony sat on the mini-fridge and drank his beer. “One. Two. Three!”
The sofa flew through the doorway and into the far wall, denting the wall and ripping the flimsy wooden door frame free of the house. Bucky picked up a piece of it with one hand and raised an eyebrow at Steve.
Steve shrugged. “It’s just a house,” he said, wincing a little when the pieces of shattered wood tumbled out of Bucky’s hand and back to the floor. “And it’s doing better than the last house, so far.”
Bucky grinned, then looked at the fresh dent in the wall and the tan streaks from their failed attempt to paint over the floral wallpaper and the new fridge that blocked half the backdoor, and he started laughing, his blue eyes dancing and the lines around them from amusement and not strain. Steve kissed him, then, because Bucky was laughing and he was there and neither of them had anywhere — anyone — else to be.
It was just a house: just a dwarvish building with a broken door frame and a vegetable garden that wouldn’t last the spring, a house hauled over on a trailer by a red-headed double agent acting as a friend. The new, larger bed meant they couldn’t open the closet door, and the TV only worked when it was above freezing; the pipes squealed like stuck pigs and something had burned in the stove earlier that smelled worse than all the hospital food Steve had choked down as a kid. It was the place where they slept, where they made breakfast and Steve brewed the strange bark Bruce kept insisting was tea, where they tumbled into bed and got so loud that Sharon had started firing paintballs from her window at their bedroom walls. It was where Steve blushed and Bucky laughed, where Steve thought one day he might propose. It was just a house; and it was good to be home.