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James Buchanan Barnes, formerly the Winter Soldier, formerly Captain America’s right hand man, formerly a sergeant, formerly a dock worker, formerly Stevie’s best friend, currently a glorified prisoner of Prince T’Challa, had trouble wrapping his head around all those former selves. It didn’t really matter how many times Steve said that he was still all them. All of them, the good and the bad. The kid from Brooklyn and an international assassin. Steve said it was okay to be that mess of people all swept up into one.

Because.

“I’m not expecting you to go backwards, Buck.”

Because.

“I’ve changed too, ya jerk.”

Because.

“I can’t ask you to change who you are.”

James Buchanan Barnes spent too much time thinking about all the bits of himself that he kept gluing back together to pretend he was a person anyone would want to keep. He spent even more time picking at the cracks, pointing the flaws out to himself. Only thing he did more than that was make sure no one else noticed how far he was from human.

Wanting to be better didn't make it true.

Wanting to go back to the time when Steve was his and he was Steve’s didn’t make it possible.

Wanting didn’t help for crap.

So, James Buchanan Barnes, who didn’t know what to call himself, who didn’t know how to go forwards, agreed, and moved back into the tower where his best friend lived with a husband orphaned by the Winter Soldier.

 


 

He made his choice standing in the entrance to a sewer, seventy four days after the Triskellion fell, every scrap he owned crammed in a backpack on his shoulder, with a memory assaulting him. They hit him like that. Nothing for days, then a flood of them, sometimes in cacophony, sometimes in symphony, revealing new pieces of the people he once was.

That day above the sewer, the day he made his choice, the memory that came back was Steve, as so many were. Not the big Steve that found him in the place where he learned to scream. Not the Steve leaning out the side of a train with snow and fear in his face. Not the Steve with sorrow in his eyes on the ship where the Winter Soldier chose to fail in his mission.

The small Steve returned to him in another memory, and told him about the right thing to do.

Anyone else would have sounded like a punk rattling on all righteous and proud. Out of Steve, it just sounded like God’s honest truth, delivered by an angel.

“Every man has to make that choice Buck. Every one of us has to draw a line in the dirt and declare that they ain’t ever gonna cross it. We each gotta know where that is for ourselves. It’s why I always gotta do something when I hear a bully -- That’s where my line is Buck, and I can’t cross that. We all got one. You got one, and I know you Buck, you’re a good man, if you ever get forced to cross it, you ain’t gonna run, same as me. You ain’t gonna pretend you didn’t. Cause you’re a good man Bucky, and you always will be.”

James didn’t think that was true. That he was good. He didn’t think he was Bucky now. He didn’t know where that line was anymore, so he didn’t know if he’d crossed it and done something he’d never make right. But that memory came back to him in a rush that felt important in a way the others didn't, and he decided to find someone that could help him find out.

 


 

Everyone knew that Wakandan justice was tenacious about truth.

They’d know how he deserved to be punished.

They’d do to him whatever was right.

He would accept it, because he wanted to live up to the man his memories told him about.

 


 

They told James he deserved help, and it felt false in his mind. They said that James could not be held accountable for his actions and that Prince T’Challa, and his father the King would help ensure that the rest of the world saw that was true.

 


 

Moving into the Tower was a terrible plan. He knew a terrible plan when he saw one. This was one. He had navigated them to successful conclusions, under Steve’s encouragement, and under threat of punishment.

The Tower, the Avengers and Tony Stark were high on the list of bad plans.

Steve’s husband did not speak to him.

Neither did the other Avengers.

Steve, a spitfire lawyer, and her multitude of assistants spoke to him at length for weeks.

The six months he spent in voluntary custody of the Wakandan government had been -- thanks to their renowned justice system -- enough proof to world authorities that he was not fully responsible for his actions. His lawyers were still busy, they would be busy for years, but he was no longer labelled a threat.

James was legally separate from the Winter Soldier.

The inside of his head didn’t get that memo.


 

They started calling him James when he was in Wakanda. It didn’t sound right, but neither did anything else, so he kept it.

 


 

“I told him everything, Bucky, I had to. He’s my husband. He has a right to know what happened to his parents. He doesn’t hate you. He’s hurt, he’s upset, but he doesn’t hate you.”

“Because it would upset you if he said he did.”

“No, because he is a good man, and once he calms down you and he are gonna team up and take decades off my life with the stunts you pull. You’re pretty similar you know.”

Steve talked and James listened and eventually he made enough of the right sounds to convince Steve he believed him.

 


 

Steve brought James a box wrapped up in newspaper, grinning hugely.

“Tony finally got the newest StarkPad to respond to prosthetics.”

“This is a phone.”

“I know that, Buck, I asked him to make you one with the same electro - something pressure response touching system.”

“I don’t think that’s what the tech is called, Steve. You not paying attention to your husband? And I already have a phone.”

“You have a burner. This is better.”

“If you say so.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: Why did you send me photo of a cat in a potted plant? Did you get a cat?

[SGR]: Looked like you

[JBB]: It is eating a leaf.

[SGR]: Sure is

[JBB]: It looks angry.

[SGR]: Like I said Buck it looked like you

 


 

Sometimes the memories that came back weren’t of real events. They were of dreams he’d had as a kid. Echoes of the things he’d hoped to do. They were confusing as hell.

As he thawed out from being the Soldier, from being a weapon and nothing more, he remembered more of the false events. One of the therapists said it was to do with him accepting the man he was then and the things that man wanted.

James wanted it to stop. They hurt worse than remembering the punishments he had borne, the people he had killed, or the nightmare of his life.

The flicker of an imagined life told him that he knew what Steve’s mouth tasted like.

The evidence said otherwise.

 


 

Steve’s husband let go of his anger eventually.

It took three months, but it happened.

James spent the same three months with therapists and lawyers, learning how to act like a person. That proved useful when Tony started including him in a series of endless texts and pictures, throwing out jokes and sarcasm so fast it took both James and Steve on a group message to keep up.

Tony was whip smart, funny, intense, and as good at masking his feelings as James was.

He’d look over with eyes like a fawn that were the first non-Steve related thing in the tower to make James smile.

There was also pained guilt in Tony’s eyes he couldn’t always hide.

 


 

 

 

[SGR]: Tony if you don’t come up for the briefing I’m sending Nat after you.

[AES]: You wouldn’t dare

[JBB]: He would.

[SGR]: Listen to him Tony

[AES]: Doing SI stuff. And Pep is scarier than Nat

[AES]: Few more hours. I’ll have J record it and watch then.

[AES]: Or I can bring up the feed now.

[JBB]: Will you be paying attention?

[AES]: Ha

[JBB]: Steve just snapped a laser pointer in half.

[AES]: Why is he using a laser pointer? The cameras in the briefing room can detect where he’s pointing and dim out the rest of the presentation.

[SGR]: Tony. I’ll send Nat

[JBB]: He likes the laser pointer.

[JBB]: **liked

[AES]: :-P

[SGR]: I’ll send Bucky.

[AES]: Can’t threaten me with things I want

[JBB]: I’ll hide all the coffee

[AES]: You wouldn’t.

[JBB]: I would

[SGR]: He’s on his way down.

[AES]: Be there in two minutes.

 


 

The memories of his time as the Winter Soldier came back first. They were easier to find in the mess of his head. They were bloody and brutal and he hated them, but having them was better than not knowing. For the first few months after the programming began to break down, it was all he knew about himself: he had done terrible things, and they made him sick to remember them.

The things before Hydra was slower.

Probably because those were memories that had been purposefully scrubbed from his head. He wasn’t supposed to remember the Howlies and the war and dancing in bars and everything else. They came back slowly.

They dripped into his head, flickers of things he had to examine and rexamine, looking for sense and order, and trying to place them in a timeline. If there was a way to speed it up, to let him look through them all at once, James hadn’t found it. He took notes on them, scrawled in the same notebook he’d stolen two days after the Triskellion, and hardly noticed the progress he made.

He was too busy picking at the holes, and the gaps between.

 


 

Tony Stark announced his arrival to the kitchen by clapping his hand on James’ metal arm, and asking him to finally come down to the shop for a tune up. James could separate the the words he heard from the ones his handlers would use. He could separate Tony from Hydra. What he couldn’t stop was the tension that overtook him.

The therapists called it a touch aversion, and after hearing the definition, James couldn’t deny it. He didn’t like anyone getting close him. Standing near enough to Sam to feel his body heat for a few minutes had James shaking in the corner of his room that night. Proximity was almost as bad as physical contact.

Steve was the only person in the tower who touched him -- casual brushes against his arm or back -- but every one of them set James off. Not that he was going to tell Steve about it. When they sparred, and they did every day, it wasn’t an issue. He didn’t go tense and scared when his best -- his only -- friend was attacking him.

No one else in the tower touched him but Steve.

Steve had known him all his life, and couldn’t see how much James hated it.

Tony touched him once, and saw it instantly.

 


 

“No touching?”

“No touching.”

“Done.”

He didn’t do it again.

 


 

 

 

[AES]: Steve. My darling husband. Tell your bff to share.

[SGR]: Tony what are you talking about?

[JBB]: Shut up Stark.

[AES]: He’s being cruel.

[JBB]: Don’t tell lies to your husband.

[AES]: Malicious and Cruel Steve.

[SGR]: Use nouns please Tony.

[AES]: He knows the code to disable the signal that’s jamming J’s scanners and he won’t tell me what it is.

[SGR]: Were those nouns?

[SGR]: Is this about his arm?

[JBB]: It’s about my arm.

[SGR]: Tony.

[AES]: You bring tech into my house - MY HOUSE - and tell me I’m not even allowed to scan it? I’m betrayed. Ruined. This is a catastrophe. Clearly you don’t know me at all. How are you going to make this up to me?

[JBB]: I’ll think of something.

[SGR]: I’ll think of something.

[AES]: ….Just for you, I’m going to exercise my rarely used self control over that opportunity.

 


 

For the next week, James picked at Tony’s easy acceptance about the touching. The new and ongoing banter about disabling the jamming signal so Jarvis could scan the arm was an extension of that. He wouldn’t touch the arm; that didn’t stop him wanting to know how it worked. It wasn’t that part that kept James awake. Even when he could have more easily tapped James’ shoulder and moved him aside, Tony would quip something instead. The casual physicality between the rest of the team began to spill over onto James, but never from Tony.

 


 

It was pride that was the problem.

If James had anything left to hold onto but his pride, he would have let the others see how he really was inside.

Instead they got smiles and jokes and wit and banter, and he added more the longer he was in the tower with them. Even the therapists remarked on how well he was doing. Decades of faking responses to avoid being beaten had a few advantages. Smiling wasn’t any more of a lie than what the Avengers called his Winter Soldier face.

They called it an astonishing recovery when he had been in the tower six months.

They held a party.

They hugged him.  

The Widow did not because she refused.

Tony did not because he understood.

 


 

He spent the night running laps in the gym, berating himself for the way he shook, for his weakness, for not preventing that much contact, and for his stubborn pride. He didn’t call it a panic attack, as if labelling it would make it worse.

Tony brought him coffee at four am, then let him take out his frustration on an Iron Man suit.

 


 

 

 

[SGR]: {IMG 437} {IMG 439} Bucky, which one looks better?

[JBB]: The green.

[SGR]: Shouldn’t I go with the blue? In case Tony wears red?

[JBB]: Green goes better with your eyes

[JBB]: We did this yesterday. Green Steve.

[SGR]: Tony and I haven’t gone out in months and you know he’s better at this than me. There will be photographers. There will be tweets. He won’t say anything but it matters to him

[SGR]: {IMG 438} What about the grey?

[JBB]: Green.

[JBB]: Four hours of this yesterday Steve. Four hours of my life you stole from me as you tried every shirt you owned without telling me that you had Jarvis buy out a store.  

[JBB]: Put on the green and stop thinking or I will find a way to trigger the avengers alarm before you get past appetizers.

[SGR]: It looks ok?

[JBB]: You always look gorgeous punk. The green just makes it better.

 


 

 

 

[AES]: Jarvis refuses to tell me what color Steve is wearing tonight. You’re up, super spy.

[JBB]: He’s wearing dark green and a charcoal suit.

[JBB]: You’re wearing the french grey with the navy.

[JBB]: You’ll look great together.

[JBB]: We went over this two days ago. And again yesterday.

[JBB]: You’re both gorgeous bastards and everyone knows it but the pair of you.

[AES]: Excuse you, Steve is some kind of greek god carved from marble and given to the people of earth as an apology for past sins. Steve is flawless. I know this. Everyone knows this.

[JBB]: So are you.

[AES]: ….

[JBB]: Stop stalling. Get dressed. Don’t make your husband wait.

 


 

Anxiety meds didn’t do jack crap for a super solider.

 


 

The other problem was Steve.

Because even though it made his stomach roil, even if he drowned in anxiety, James kept seeking out Steve. There was nothing he could deny Stevie, never had been, and every memory he regained confirmed that. If what Steve needed in the future was to sit and call him Bucky and talk about baseball games and the date he was planning for Tony, then that was what they’d do. If he needed to sling an arm around James’ shoulder, that was what they did. If he needed to complain when Tony spent four straight days in the lab and came out a bit singed from a minor explosion while reinventing Romanov’s weapons, that was what they did.

If Steve needed to see nothing but the charming fella from Brooklyn, cracking jokes and flirting with everything in sight, that’s what James would do.

It was Steve.

James clawed out of seventy years of torture for Steve. He surrendered to Wakandan justice for Steve. Painful as it was, he was never going to tell Steve to stop.

 


 

They were America’s golden couple. Strange as it was for James to think about, the most popular couple in the country was queer. Saving the world had something to do with that. They went to parades and memorials and visited hospitals and kept the image of the Avengers as beloved as it could be.

They went to charity galas.

They always fussed about their clothes and hair. Tony fussed about which car to take, which watch to wear. Steve would write and edit and throw out and rewrite love notes to slip in Tony’s hand during the night. They’d ask for James’ opinion on all of it.

They danced with each other in suits that coordinated, but didn't match, two puzzle pieces slotted together, both of them gorgeous under soft spot lights. They moved gracefully, an extension of their teamwork on the field, whether it was a big band and a swing step or a viennese waltz. They alternated who got to lead and who got to dip, and there was always a set of videos online after an event for their fans to coo over.

It was easy for Bucky to find them.

It was harder to watch them.

 


 

Watching Steve and Tony happy together was a special type of hell.

 


 

Boredom left his head free to pick at the holes in his chest. So, James picked up skills like it was his job. Baking, cooking, knitting - just because it made Tony smile when he made a scarf for Dum-E. Then he learned to make beer and cider. Then started constructing a distillery on a quest to make something that could get Steve tipsy without having to import it from a god.

It became a joke among the Avengers once they noticed.

If they went on a mission for more than a few days, by the time they got back, James would have a new talent. At the least, he’d have a new recipe.

He kept track of what meals would pull from Tony from his lab, and perfected them. Then he willfully ignored how important it was to him that Tony did not touch him, and gave him opportunities to escape when it was a hard day. Tony texted, privately, when Steve was in a hugging mood, so James could brace or hide.

Jarvis learned to ask if James was satisfied with his creation before alerting Tony since any creation less than perfect was couriered to the nearest VA center while James started again.

Tony learned to move fast if he didn’t want to miss out.

Both James and Steve always made sure to set some aside for him.

 


 

Between anyone else, the conversations would have been flirting.

But Steve and him had never talked any other way. It had always been a stream of teasing and insults and genuine compliments rolled up in a pile.

“How’s a guy supposed to feel good about himself standing next to something like you when you’re all dolled up, Steve?”

“Probably same as everyone else feels looking at you, ya jerk. Even when we crawled through that ravine you still turned every head in the village.”

“Pretty sure that was the hole ripped in the seat of your uniform they were looking at.”

“And nothing to do with you using your shirt and jacket to keep your gun out of the mud.”

Tony slipped in like it was as natural as breathing.

“If you want to reenact I volunteer to be the judge.”

 


 

 

 

[AES]: You should wear blue tonight.

[JBB]: Why?

[AES]: Air Force ball. You should come with us.

[JBB]: I don’t own blue and I can’t go.

[AES]: Did someone tell you that you aren’t allowed to leave the tower? Because you’re allowed to leave the tower. You can drive to Canada for a cup of coffee if you want. You can take a road trip to New Mexico to get some good green chile. Seriously. Borrow a car anytime. Maybe the Aston. Or the Bugatti. Not the point. You should come with us tonight. It’s great. Rhodey is there. Rhodey adores you. Total hero worship.

[JBB]: Tony.

[AES]: If you’re worried about the blue, which you should definitely wear, Jarvis has your sizes, and Julian can have something ready in an hour. It’s only three. Plenty of time. Easy. Done. We’re leaving at 6:30

[JBB]: Tony

[AES]: Please?

 


 

Watching them in person was worse than the videos.

 


 

The Avengers were gone for a week dealing with a literal public relations mess after a dam exploded and an entire valley flooded in California. Since it was caused by a minor villain, they went to help with cleanup.

James taught himself to use Clint’s spare bow and forbid himself from initiating contact with either of them. He could answer, but he couldn’t send the first message. He couldn’t propel the conversation. He waited ten minutes after they sent him a text or a picture before he answered, and brushed off the comments they made about how they wished he was there.

The damage was extensive, extra hands would have helped. He would have been helpful. That was all they meant.

 


 

As much as it being around Steve made him ache, James couldn’t give it up. It was like staring at the sun.

Steve pulled honest smiles out of him. Got him to laugh. Got him interested in projects and helped where he could. Brought him silly things from missions and left thank-you notes and back-soon notes and more-of-the-ginger-cookies-please notes. Steve could make him feel like he was Bucky again, and it was too sweet a sensation to ever give it up.

The ache didn’t stop, but being around him got better as more memories came together, and as he learned to play the part so well he would forget it was an act while he was there.

He crashed that much harder afterwards, but the next time Steve smiled, any promise of pulling back faded.

 


 

James found a note in a Shield file about Aldrich Killian, and texted Tony. Texted, because both of them were more honest if they weren’t talking in person.

He got a novel length reply, and a set of private files.

Jarvis agreed to order replacements for the punching bags James destroyed, and James agreed not to bring it up with Steve. Tony was already well aware that without his husband, the fight would have ended differently.

 


 

When Tony climbed out of the suit and winced, James’ hand twitched. He had pulled a muscle across his back and shoulder in a fight with Doom, and James watched him try and fail to stretch it out. Steve would be in the debrief with Hill for the rest of the day.

After a full movie of watching Tony grimace, James finally snapped.

“I can help. With that.” Charm and wit evaporated as he heard what he was offering.

“Don’t need to, klondike.”

“I’m offering.”

“You don’t touch people.”

James’ hand twitched again. “I’m offering.”

Tony being in pain was worse than his own discomfort. He believed that, even as he panicked internally and Tony turned into a pile of pudding on the ground between his legs. He had always been good at it, and the fractured memories agreed, overlaying Tony with a picture of Steve. Tony hurt himself when part of the suit fried and he had to haul himself up without the aid of hydraulics. Steve just hurt all the time.

But he could help, so he did.

By the time he was done and Tony was relaxed, his hands were shaking. Even the metal one, which wasn’t supposed to respond to stimuli that way. Tony noticed. Tony always noticed when James was having trouble.

“You didn't have to.”

“I wanted to.”

And because it was Tony, not Steve, he didn’t push.

“Your arm shouldn’t be doing that. When was the last time you checked the mechanics of that thing? Oil change, tire rotation, all that? Have you ever? Have you just been letting this tech slowly fall apart? You wound me, how can you do this to me. Lab? Give me the code to get past the scrambling. We’ll scan it, we’ll fix it, and everything will be rainbows and sunshine. There will be tools, but no actual touching.”

“Not right now.”

“But I --”

“Not right now.”

“Fine, then we’re going to go re-rank all of the ice cream in my freezer, and eat all of the praline because that’s Clint’s favorite and he finished off the cinnamon roll one yesterday and I haven’t forgiven him.”

Things would have been easier if James had the will to turn and walk away.

Steve joined them later, chasing the last bite of strawberry cheesecake swirl as he kissed Tony hello.

James made a crack about how if Steve had taken much longer, he’d lose out on what he wanted.

 


 

James got mission clearance after eight months of increasingly positive reports.

It was just in time to help when rumors of enhanced humans started coming out of Sokovia.

 


 

The kid didn’t take it well when James and Clint shrugged off her attempts to control them.

Her brother didn’t take it well when James knocked her unconscious and carried her onto the quinjet.

Three days later, as Steve and Tony did clean up and press control in Sokovia, as Strucker sat in the Hague, James helped settle the twins into the tower with Jarvis’ help, and realized he had competition for the most damaged headspace.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: You need a new project?

[AES]: Always. Gimme.

[JBB]: Pietro broke the track in the gym.

[AES]: Dammit. Think he’d tolerate a hamster wheel? New energy source at the same time. Great press. Like those charity runs, but just him.

[JBB]: Oh. And Wanda can temporarily disable Jarvis.

[JBB]: She wants you to develop something that prevents that. I agree.

[SGR]: Oh, that’s why Tony just told off the head of the UN forces.

[SGR]: I agree too. I need you to be safe Tony.

[JBB]: We need you to be safe.

 


 

Tony got captured two months later when Strucker escaped.

James spent a night holding Steve while his best friend shook and Jarvis processed face recognition scans around the globe.

Steve couldn’t sleep, so James didn’t either, just held on, and let him talk about his husband.

He already knew most of the stories, but he let Steve tell them all again. Their first meeting. The Battle of Manhattan. All the pain that Tony had overcome already. How proud he was of his husband for making the hard choices. For standing up when there was no one else. Steve talked about knowing how scary it was to carry the world, and knowing how much it cost Tony in those first years, when he was Iron Man, and alone.

Steve talked and he sobbed and it was painfully clear how different they were to each other. Steve and James, or, when they were still Stevie and Buck, had been close, had mattered to each other. James thought they were everything to each other, no room for anyone else. Maybe it was the passage of time, or maybe James had been lying to himself. What they had was nothing compared to Steve and Tony.

Months of flirting, of slowly allowing himself to get closer to Tony and showing tiny shards of his problems to Steve had given him hope. He denied it was there, even to himself, but listening to how much Steve loved Tony, whatever James had been holding to died. For once, he didn’t mind the physical contact, preoccupied with thinking that he would never get to have it for real.

It took four days to find a lead.

According to the mission report, Natasha and James benched Steve for the rescue, citing emotional compromise, and sent a small team instead.

In actuality, James, Wanda and Pietro stole the quinjet.

 


 

Six hours later the three followed the screaming to Tony in the lowest levels of an underground barracks.

Pietro knocked the guards unconscious.

James killed the men hurting Tony.

Strucker crashed through the wall with red glimmering around his head, and Wanda following behind.

When they got back to the jet, all three were silent. They had a mission. They completed the mission. Personal or not, they had done it with brutal efficiency. They were a solid team.

Strucker babbled in his restraints from whatever Wanda put in his head.

Once the plane was into autopilot, James traded with Pietro, and held Tony’s uninjured hand while Wanda laid a ground work of healing in his mind, overwriting pain and fear with a confidence of his safety. She eventually fell asleep, and James kept going, talking about protection and security, and a promise to never let Steve and Tony lose each other.  

Tony clung to James’ hand as he limped off the jet, wearing a tentative smile, and what remained of a very expensive suit. It was nice, right up until Steve scooped his husband into a bridal carry, and escorted him to medical.

But, that was why James had gone.

It was only right.

 


 

 

 

[AES]: Bored. Bored. Bored.

[SGR]: I am in a press conference, Tony.

[AES]: And I am in a bed. Still bored. Bruce won’t let me go to the lab.

[JBB]: If you set foot in that lab before Bruce clears you, I will fly you to Sokovia and hand you back to Hydra myself.

[AES]: And ten minutes later you’d save me again Prince Charming.

[SGR]: If he managed to wait that long.

[AES]: Thought you were in a press conference.

[SGR]: It’s a boring one. They don’t want to talk about you.

[AES]: They think you’ll lose your super soldier temper? You haven’t done that since Fox asked if you wanted to apologize to your mother for living in sin. And when we found out about VP Rodriguez.

[JBB]: You are supposed to be recovering.

[AES]: I am recovering. You aren’t.

[JBB]: I’m fine.

[AES]: Your arm isn’t supposed to make that noise.

[SGR]: What’s wrong with your arm?

[JBB]: Nothing.

[AES]: Lots of things. He’s being stubborn. Serum doesn’t fix metal sweetheart. That’s why you have me.

[JBB]: Not gonna happen doll face. And I don’t have you, Steve does.

[SGR]: Bucky. I can make it an order.

[JBB]: Since when did I listen to those?

[JBB]: Pepper is glaring at you, get off your phone.

[AES]: You can come by anytime, not like I get to go anywhere. Come by now or I’ll get so bored I’ll actually start listening to the morning news. You wouldn’t subject me to that.

[JBB]: I’ll be there in ten. You don’t get to play with the arm.

[AES]: Rude.

[AES]: Bring cookies to make up for it.

 


 

TIME did a spread when the bandages came off, the arc reactor and the shield framed like acts of rebellion against the evil of the world.

Everyone adored them together.

Even James.

 


 

Wanda pointed it out to him, without warning, while they were making cardamom cookies.

“You tell yourself that Bucky is gone, but I have been inside your head. You carry all of the people you have been made to be. Whichever of them you choose, is who you think you are. But you are trying to choose none of them, and you cannot continue that way. You do not want to be Bucky because you know that man deserves to be happy, and you believe that you do not deserve such a thing.”

She placed the next batch in the oven and looked at him, “The rest will not cease to be, they are all a part of you, but you cannot continue this way. It is who you are, all of the people you have been, all of them in one, that is who Bucky is. He deserves to be happy. All of the people you have been deserve to be happy, Bucky.”

She called him by that name, not James as he was introduced. She always had a glint in her eye of a deeper understanding.

“May I show you?”

It was good progress for her to ask first. James shook his head. Knowing his limits was one of the few things he retained from his therapists that did him good.

Wanda looked at him gently, “Maria Hill has brought an offer to Pietro and I. If you asked, it would be brought to you as well.”

 


 

 

 

[AES]: You ever coming to the lab so I can fix your arm? It’s really not supposed to make that crunching noise. It’s been six weeks since it started on the latest bad noise. It’s not going to spontaneously repair itself but I suppose I can do it for you. But you owe me.

[AES]: Come on down, you’re the next contestant! Wait, have you seen that show? Did it traumatize you when things cost more than a nickel?

[AES]: Buckaroo, Dum-e and You are fighting over the scarf you made and you aren’t here to see it.

[AES]: Where are you? Something going on? Something wrong? Wondertwins ok?

[AES]: James?

[AES]: J says you left the tower.

[AES]: Bucky?

 


 

A year after he moved into the tower, James stood by his first assessment; it was a very bad idea. He had known before arriving that Steve and Tony were married. It would have been hard to miss. There were movie length documentaries on the subject. James expected it would be hard to look at Steve and know that he had to share the only person he had left in life.

He hadn’t thought he’d be attached to Tony too.

 


 

Maria Hill sent the Winter Soldier, Quicksilver, and the Scarlet Witch to infiltrate an organization intel believed was a Hydra front. James did less infiltrating, and more supervision of the kids. He was too well known among Hydra to do anything subtly. The twins wore comms and James kept them out of trouble.

It cleared his head. They’d gone into communication blackout with the outside world the moment they got off the jet in Mauripol, and started the drive to the border with Moldova. So long as he was on the op, he couldn’t message Steve and Tony. He couldn’t think about them. He had to stay focused because the twins were powerful, but green. He had to keep a step ahead of them, weapons ready in case he was needed. He had to be present in the moment because anything less put their lives at risk.

He hadn’t done this kind of work since the late nineties. Until he started, he didn’t know he missed it. It was still and calm because the job ate up all the free space in his mind.

Wanda pulled the passcode out of the general’s head, and the pair of them exfiltrated a duplicate of the existing Hydra web. It was encoded and protected and beyond his ability to decipher, but Hill grinned when they reported to her on the helicarrier.

“If this has what we think it has --”

“We volunteer.” Wanda drawled her answer. Pietro shrugged, there was never a possibility about them operating separately.

All three looked to James. He remembered the calm of the op, and the endless twisting pain of the tower, and nodded.

 


 

Hill had their phones during the two week mission.

There were two hundred seventy one messages from Tony. There were sixteen from Steve.

Nineteen phone calls with voicemails from his best friend.

Four phone calls without voicemails from his best friend’s husband.

Ninety percent of it was from the first two days.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: Mission complete and successful. Eta @ tower 84 minutes

[JBB]: If there’s burgers waiting when we get in I’ll cook you anything you want tomorrow.

[JBB]: Even if it will be 0300

[JBB]: Tony?

[JBB]: I know you’re awake.

[JBB]: You’re texting Wanda.

[JBB]: And Steve you’re texting Pietro.

[JBB]: Fine.

[JBB]: Update: Winter Soldier Eta @ tower 116 minutes. 0430

 


 

Natahsa and James never fully warmed to each other. They had a healthy respect for the other’s skill. They understood some of what the other had survived. They could be civil. They sparred when they wanted to practice fighting dirty. He learned how to make a few russian meals for her. She brought him new weapons when something fit his style.

They weren’t friends.

She dropped into the opposite side of the booth as he started on his second burger. There were onion straws and barbeque sauce and it was doing wonders for improving his mood.

“The twins tell you where I was?”

“Only all night diner with a decent burger on the way to the tower. Their fries are excellent with a chocolate shake.”

He gestured to the waiter and waited in silence until her not-so-subtle hint arrived.

“Why are you here Romanov?”

“I know what Hill sent you after. I pulled the intel that got you there. I know what she’ll want to do if it pays out.”

“And?”

“Don’t ever leave without telling them again.”

She waited, her training obvious, until he agreed.

“Finish up. We’re going back to the tower to spar until I forgive you. You’re going to need a lot of calories.”

 


 

The problem was that James knew he was making a mistake when he left the first time.

He knew both of them would be angry with him. They’d want the chance to offer back up. They’d want the chance to make a few more jokes about missing him. He knew they were going to be furious for not leaving so much as a word with Jarvis.

He was ready for that when he returned to the common floor, sweaty and exhausted after Natasha put him through the wringer. They were both at the table, having breakfast.

He expected them to be angry.

He didn’t know how to respond when they looked hurt.

So he left.

 


 

It was four days of terse greetings and silent meals.

It was broken by Doombots.

Much like a large part of MIT.

 


 

“Falcon, swing north, there’s a pack headed towards the church. Widow, there’s a pair breaking through the police cordon on Prospect. Iron Man, Soldier, Quicksilver, status?”

“Thirty percent evacuated from the campus.”

“Pick up the pace.”

It was nice, aside from the potential student casualties. He missed hearing from them, even if it was curt orders and replies.

It was dumb luck he saw the doombot crawl beneath the bridge.

Students ran when ordered. Quicksilver carried the ones that couldn’t move fast enough. James scrambled over the side to stop whatever the bot was attempting. Which put him beneath a few tons of concrete when it self destructed.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: I told you. I’m not injured.

[SGR]: I can hear your arm whirring from the other side of the building.

[JBB]: You have super hearing.

[AES]: I can hear it too Bucky.

[JBB]: You have an AI wired into the security for the building.

[AES]: You put this off too long.

[SGR]: I’ll give you a choice Buck, you can come down to the lab, or Tony can come to you. Either way you are going to let him repair your arm.

 


 

He threw up twice on his way to the lab.

 


 

It was worse than he expected it to be. James sat in Tony’s lab, and fixated on the blue scarf Dum-E was wearing. He would need to make more so the bots wouldn’t have to fight over it. Knitting hadn’t been an option with his arm like it was. Not broken, but not fully functional.

He fixated because the progress he had made in two years was dissolving.

He’d had bad days before.

This went beyond that.

He was in a lab. The panels on his arm were stripped away. He had shut down the jammer so Jarvis could see inside. It was supposed to accelerate the process. Same reason he was in the lab at all. Tony would have all of his tools ready, and Jarvis would be helping, and it would be a few minutes of work.

James could maintain a calm expression for a few minutes. For Steve’s sake if nothing else.

Tony frowned at the hologram, tightened his jaw, and asked James to confirm the scan was accurate. It was. From the joints in the fingers to the attachment points and added structure along his ribs and spine. Whatever he had noticed, Tony only touched the arm, and then, only with tools. Steve reached out to rub his neck and shoulder, and Tony saw how fast James went tense.

He knew Tony thought he was helping, but telling Steve to back away was unforgivable.

It pointed a spotlight at the particular way he his his anxiety, and James was never going to forgive Tony for showing that to Steve.

He heard the strangled noise in his best friend’s throat when it fell together, and cursed them both harder for it.

Steve didn’t touch him again, but he didn't leave either.

So James sat with one secret laid bare, while Tony looked through the workings of the arm and found out all the others. The men were too smart not to understand what they were seeing. They didn't have to be experts in a field to grasp the way the wiring attached to his nerves, and even if they were idiots, an hour of repairs on his arm would have given it away.

He was shocky by the time Tony closed the last panel. The acute pain was gone, but it echoed through his system. He hid in the cold indifference of the Soldier, and willed his body to stand.

“Why didn’t you tell me, Buck? This whole time I’ve thought that it was helping.”

“He didn’t want you to know, Steve. Same reason he didn’t want me to look at his arm.”

“You didn’t trust me enough to say I was hurting you.”

“You weren’t hurting me.” Bucky managed.

“Not physically, maybe.” Tony cut in, “But hurting all the same, and you should have told him. You told me.”

“It didn’t matter if you knew,” he bit out.

“Thanks for that, Ice pop. Your arm though. That was physical pain. How long has that been going on?”

“Wait, Tony, what do you mean?”

“You want to tell him, Bucky, or gonna have me do it?”

He was cornered, and ignored the rising panic. Answering wasn’t an option.

“Fine. Steve: Bucky’s arm has been busted for what I’d guess was two years. Probably since he attacked you since I doubt anything less would be enough to damage it the way it was. I took care of that, also the worn parts and frayed wires that he’d been pretending weren’t hurting him.”

“But it’s better now Tony?”

“That part is. I fixed the damage. I fixed the things that were blatantly broken. Except. Hydra didn’t really take the time they should have with it in the first place. Or they didn’t care. Either way, I’d lay out every penny I have -- and I have a lot of them; Billionaire. I’d bet the suits on this, I’d bet my life. Steve, I’d bet your life on the fact that that fucking arm has caused him pain every single second of every day, and he didn’t trust me enough to come ask for help. Not because something is broken but because that’s how they designed it. I could have fixed it, but he doesn’t trust us enough to admit it was happening.”

Steve turned to Tony, catching his husband as he started to crumble.

Bucky took the advantage, and fled.

 


 

He spent a week walking out of the room when they brought it up, usually within a few seconds of seeing him.

He stuck a note on the stove above the lasagna baking, asked Jarvis to let them know a few minutes before the timer went off, and called Maria Hill, who had a car in front of the tower ten minutes later.

 


 

Barnes -- and he turned on a dime to call himself that instead, James was the man that had hurt the two of them like that and it hurt to hear it echo in his head -- Barnes accepted the four day agent-retrieval mission in Siberia without reading the briefing, dropped his phone on the desk, and climbed on the jet.

There was only the op, there was only the target, and the only thought he allowed himself about them was a faint reminder that he should expect nothing on his return. There wouldn’t be any messages. There wouldn’t be any calls. There wouldn’t be any worry or fear from them.

He tore the sleeve off a coat so his arm would be visible as he entered, and left an empty base behind him three hours later. He brought the two agents he was sent to retrieve, and a third that had been missing long enough to be assumed dead. She was confused about being rescued by a famed Hydra assassin.

There was a single voicemail on his phone.

 


 

“Buck, I know you don’t want to talk to us about this, so we decided --”

“You mean I convinced you, Steve.”

“-- to respect that. And, I guess, I’m sorry it took me this long to come to that. I should have respected your decisions from the beginning, I shouldn’t have to decide to do that. It’s your decision, and you’ve had too many taken away from you. If you don’t want Tony to try and help your arm, that’s fine. If you don’t want me to touch you, you just have to say. And, again, I’m sorry I didn’t notice. I should have noticed, you’re my best friend, I should have seen it before Tony pointed it out and if there’s anything I can do just tell me.”

“Steve, we said we weren’t going to get all maudlin on him.”

“Right. Bucky. Your call. On all of it. Let us know, and that’s what we’ll do.”

“Including if you want pizza or burgers or tex mex or french or ethiopian or armenian or whatever when you get back. Just message us with an ETA, and we’ll be waiting up for you with it. Talk to you soon. Stay safe.”

“Stay safe.”

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: I don’t know what ethiopian food tastes like.

[AES]: Then I’ll get one of everything.

 


 

Five days later it was still uncomfortable and awkward, so he went with the twins to follow a lead in Chile.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: Do Brazilian restaurants deliver?

[AES]: Let’s find out!

[SGR]: Apparently when Tony Stark calls and asks that the answer is yes.

[SGR]: Welcome back. I missed you.

[JBB]: ETA 65 minutes

 


 

They made it two weeks in relatively normal conversation and company.  Then Tony spent an entire night soldering tiny wires in a fit of engineering brilliance, and ruined his back again. He looked pathetic with a heating pad on his neck. It had been a good day. Bucky offered to help.

Tony groaned as he started, and leaned into Barnes’ thigh.

It was the most physical contact he’d had since Steve found out, and his brain blared alarms, while his fingers kept kneading over the tension in Tony’s neck.

“Can we keep him honey?” Tony mumbled to when his husband entered. “I promise I’ll feed him and take him on walks and pay for repairs when he knocks down bridges.”

“That was the doombot.”

“Whatever you say, just don’t stop, I can lift my head for the first time since last night. Your hands are amazing. You’re amazing. Never leave us.”

He sent them off to bed an hour later, and chased down the twins.

They were leaving on a deep covert mission in the morning.

He recorded a perfunctory message with Jarvis, and didn’t think about their reaction to the five week estimate.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: Ice cream.

[AES]: I keep our top ten in stock. Want anything else?

[JBB]: You two

[SGR]: Bucky?

[JBB]: **You two better not eat all the strawberry cheesecake swirl again.

[JBB]: Sorry. Tired.

[SGR]: Right. Wouldn’t dream of it.

[AES]: I might

 


 

Three days, and Steve pulled him into a hug, drunk on asgardian alcohol, rambling about how they had been blind for so long.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: Corned Beef.

[SGR]: Do I have time to cook it myself?

[JBB]: Yes.

[SGR]: If I make ma’s cabbage and whiskey cake to go with it will you stop taking month long missions?

[SGR]: Sorry.

[SGR]: We’ll see you soon.

 


 

Tony fell asleep on his shoulder.

Barnes gently rubbed his thumb over the constant knots in his shoulders.

He was going to crash either way, he could at least help the madcap genius first.

 


 

Hill had a point. Not about fuel economy and expenses, but about efficiency. It would be easier, faster, and more responsible to permanently keep a part of the Avengers team stationed on the opposite side of the planet.

Not all attacks happened in Europe and New England. And those regions would appreciate a break from being the center of attention.

The United Arab Emirates were willing to partly bankroll the Avengers in exchange for a base of operations nearer to them. Ideally, inside their territory, but outside of a major city. They had an island they were offering. It would make it simpler to unravel Hydra bases. It would let them reach villains quicker. It would serve as a clear sign of the globalization of the Avengers. It would hopefully quell some of the terror groups that popped up in the area.

It would mean moving out of the tower. Fully.

They already had a facility built, and Hill was working to staff it with agents she trusted.

It was the best possible choice to make, but his heart stuttered when he thought about it.

Steve and Tony were trying, they really were. They let him run away when he was overwhelmed and welcomed him back when he wanted to return. The fear that drove him off each time they reached out was no longer the physical contact, but the implication of it. They were open and honest without pushing, even when he could see they wanted to.

Tony still asked for permission before touching him.

Steve did the same.

They had been important to him before. They were a hell of a lot more than that now.

It would hurt like hell to leave, but he was pretty sure it was going to hurt more to tell them.

 


 

He snuck into the tower without sending notice, asked Jarvis not to wake them, and packed his things for Hill’s team to take in a few hours. He wrapped the scarves he’d done on the plane, and added a tag addressing them to You and Butterfingers.

At four he made a pot of coffee, and slowly drank it at the table, looking for a phrase to minimize the impact of his leaving. If his life was a movie, he’d sit them down and talk about how deep they were wrapped around his heart. How much they mattered to him. He’d tell them that he loved them in every definition of the word, and he respected them too much to keep going like he was.

Wanting to be more, wishing he was capable of being more, didn’t make it possible.

He was too broken to ever really consider it.

He could never manage to say it to them.

Happily Ever After belonged to people that didn’t have chasms in their chest and lingering gaps in their memories. That belonged to people like Steve and Tony who had taken their faults and patched them over with bravery like it was a precious metal, turning trauma into beauty and failures into future motivation. That wasn’t the path he was walking as he tried to break even with the world for all the wrongs he had committed. He didn’t get to have happy. He didn’t get to tell them that at some point his center of gravity had become to a point between the two of them. Didn't get to say that they were the only people to make him want to work through the touch aversion. He would never get to have that with them because he was never going to be stable.

Not because they wouldn’t let him close. They might even be interested.

That wasn’t what kept him at arm’s length; constantly pushing them away.

He knew what they deserved and it was far better than what he had to give. He wasn’t the kind of person anyone would want to keep.

He proved his own point when he placed the folder for the Al Bazm base beside the coffee, and added a short note.

 

 

“Swung through to pick up a few things. I’ll message if I’m in the area again. Take care of each other. And in advance: you both look gorgeous, whatever it is you’re wearing that you’re worrying about, it looks great on you. --James Buchanan Barnes”

 


 

 

 

 

[SGR]: My phone says you have your phone turned on again.

[SGR]: What’s it gonna be this time?

[SGR]: Found a french patisserie that Tony’s in love with. But that can wait if you want.

[SGR]: Not long though, he’s obsessed. Something about imported French butter.

[AES]: Did you send presents for my Bots?

[AES]: Of course you did. Have I mentioned how adorable your love of my bots is?

[AES]: Wait, you didn’t send these. You delivered these.

[AES]: You’re back????

[SGR]: Bucky, you’re back!? Why didn’t you wake us?

[AES]: Where are you?

[AES]: You aren’t in the Tower.

[SGR]: No. Please Buck.

[AES]: This says permanent assignment.

[AES]: Have you left? Can you come back? Just a few minutes.

[AES]: At least let us say goodbye to you.

[AES]: Please.

 


 

Barnes cleared the message cache so he wouldn’t have to see it anymore.

 


 

The Arab League adored them. The UN was beside themselves since it broke up the complaints about American Imperialism. The wealthy in the area didn’t want to be outdone by Tony Stark, and organized charity functions to create funds for disaster relief. Barnes and the Maximoffs were honored guests before they ran their first official mission. After they were celebrities.

Two dour, serious heros, and Pietro, who had enough charm for all three of them.

 


 

 

 

[AES]: I told you blue was a great color on you.

[SGR]: I think people are trying to duel charities. We just scheduled another event.

[AES]: Next time tell your tailor to use a higher strength fabric for Pietro.

[AES]: He looked a bit ragged by the end of the night.

[SGR]: Next gala is going to be in London.

[JBB]: You both look great.

[AES]: You don’t know what we’re wearing yet.

[JBB]: Doesn’t matter.

 


 

He rarely had a phone on him for more than two days in a row before being sent back in the field. The twins did better press. He did better recon.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: Tony. I’m watching you on the news.

[JBB]: You have three cracked ribs don’t you?

[SGR]: Yes, yes he does.

[JBB]: What stupid thing did he do this time?

[SGR]: Same as ever

[JBB]: Trusted the suit to survive something he hadn’t tested

[SGR]: Yes

[AES]: You know I can read these, right husband?

[JBB]: Do you have three cracked ribs?

[AES]: Yes.

[JBB]: Then shush doll face. Let him fuss over you.

[SGR]: Listen to him Tony.

 


 

He never thought that the distance would lessen how much he loved them, just that it might lessen the temptation.

 


 

 

 

[JBB]: I’m Not Dead

[AES]: That is not an encouraging opening statement sweetheart.

[SGR]: What did you do?

[JBB]: You should have newsreels in about fifteen minutes

[AES]: No. I’m me. I have them now.

[AES]: James Buchanan Barnes.

[SGR]: Bucky.

[AES]: What were you thinking?

[AES]: You have a mechanical arm.

[AES]: You cannot trigger EMPs

[AES]: Not now. Not ever No. Listen. You cannot ever trigger EMPs

[SGR]: Are you okay?

[AES]: Do you even have someone there that can fix this? Do you need me to fly out? Do you know how to reset it? Did it fry the interior? Please tell me that you have a jamming signal for EMPs. Don’t tell me you finished this fight with one working arm.

[AES]: You did. Oh My God You did. What is wrong with you?

[AES]: I am never forgiving you for this

[SGR]: Bucky?

[JBB]: Yeah?

[SGR]: Wait for backup next time?

[JBB]: Whenever I can. Promise.

 


 

 

 

 

[AES]: Bucky

[JBB]: Yeah? Why the private msg Tony?

[AES]: You didn’t see him today.

[AES]: He won’t survive watching you die again.

[AES]: Don’t make him.

[JBB]: I’ll try to die off camera then

[AES]: You know what I meant.

[AES]: Don’t get killed because you don’t have backup.

[AES]: Don’t get killed because we aren’t there to save you.

 


 

 

It turned out Steve and Tony could make him crash from the other side of the planet.

The techs got his arm working, and having to go through that did him no favors, but that wasn’t the thing that got into his head and tore him apart.

He needed to be working.

If he worked hard enough, long enough, fast enough; if he did enough good, he could balance out the Winter Soldier in his head. He could be Bucky without recoiling from himself. He could feel like he deserved the name. Like he deserved to be the man that Stevie told him about, that Tony and Steve thought he was now.

If did enough good, he might put himself back together enough to deserve them.

 


 

With only three of them permanently stationed at Al Bazm, Winter Soldier was the leader, Scarlet Witch was the muscle, and Quicksilver was the first strike.

It endlessly amused Wanda that she was the big gun.

It endlessly frustrated Pietro that he had a standing order to get out of the area if things went wrong. Unless he was on the brink of death, he could move fast enough to get back to command, and report anything that went wrong. It would do more to save their lives than anything else. Barnes didn’t bother with an order about waiting for backup before returning to his sister. It would never have been followed.

 


 

Barnes watched the footage from Buenos Aries while rolling a knife between his fingers.

His team couldn’t get there in time to help.

They knew that, and they clustered around the screens to watch their friends fight in spite of that. As if observation could bring better luck against the sea monster attempting to reach the city. Barnes wasn’t alone in his stress. Wanda’s fingers were glowing. Pietro didn’t seem to move, but the movement of the air told another story.

Their alarm blared, they hesitated, then they ran, and touched down in Mabij two hours later.

Bad intel.

Ten terrorists with outdated guns was fifty terrorists with bombs and advanced weaponry.

Wanda gave the signal as the jet exploded.

Pietro vanished in gunfire.

Scarlet Witch brought down half a dozen.

The Winter Soldier brought down twice that.

Then there was the darkness.

 


 

 

 

[SGR]: Buck I think I just fought a Kraken. Like in Amazing Stories.

[AES]: You have to pull up the videos. It’s amazing. Hulk had so much fun.

[AES]: Guess he likes swimming!

[AES]: You’re in field aren’t you?

[AES]: This better not be another four week mission Bucky. You need to hear about the sea monster.

[SGR]: It was pretty amazing. And there were some injuries, but no reported casualties.

[SGR]: Can’t wait to tell you about it.

[AES]: Stay safe. Wherever you are.

 


 

They were no longer in Mabij when he woke.

It was fairly obvious.

Whoever had them took the lessons of their predecessors. He could see Wanda in an opposing cell, bound, with a blinking collar around her neck. Barnes was kept the same way; his arms were attached to a thick steel beam at the center of the cell. It was breakable, but wouldn’t happen quietly. It kept them on their knees on raw, rocky ground. Neither had weapons or armor, and her gifts were handicapped by the cameras trained on them both. The best scenario for the collars they both wore was electrical shock. The worst was explosive charges. If their captors knew what they were doing, it was both.

The bullet hole in his leg was no longer bleeding, so it had been a minimum twelve hours.

Twelve hours held captive without a rescue attempt wasn’t good. Quicksilver could have come and gone in less than an hour, unless he was injured. It was his sister, so it would take hospitalization to stop him. Twelve hours exponentially increased the search radius. There would be a search, but neither of them were Tony Stark. Neither were valued for their coherent mind, only their lethality.

When Tony was captured, they wanted him to create things.

It was naive to believe he wasn’t being sold back to Hydra. Worse than naive to believe that all of the chairs had been destroyed.

He wasn’t in Hydra’s hand yet. Hydra operatives would never leave him conscious, or trust in his self preservation. There were too many incidents in flickered memories in his head for them to trust him with the possibility. He couldn’t decide if he had understood the finality of his choice at the time, but he could recall trying to deny them the chance to punish him.

Hydra would never forgive any faction that hurt their prize.

His life was safe, his mind was not.

 


 

They came in a group. Heavily armed, and the leader carried a device like a remote.

“You, or her?” They asked, and something shattered in his chest.

That was a question he recalled from the Russians, from the first time they turned him into dust and built the Winter Soldier from the pieces.

He would break faster this time. Everyone broke faster the second time.

He hoped she would forgive him when he did.

“Me.”

Bucky heard the click before his world exploded with the electric pulses of the collar.

 


 

“Bucky. We know you’ve been captured, and we’re coming, I promise. We’ll find you. We won’t let Hydra use you again. And... I know you aren’t going to get this now. I know you can’t hear me, and it seems silly to say it, but you need to know. Or, I need to say it aloud. I need… I promised I wouldn’t miss this chance again. I did before. I wasn’t sure before the war, or I would have said something. Buck, I can’t say I remember falling in love with you. I loved you before I understood what love was. I wasn’t sure you’d still speak to me if I told you then, so I kept my mouth shut. I don’t know if you’ll want to hear it now. Maybe it’s not welcome. Maybe I don’t deserve you after everything I’ve asked you for, but I needed to say it. And, when you’re listening to this, after we find you. Cause we’re gonna find you. You need to know that Tony knows. He’s standing right next to me. And Tony, he --”

“I can say it myself Steve, you don’t have to. I… ah… yeah. That. Loving. You know. You. I get why he does, or how he does, because I, yeah, also that. I love you. For what it’s worth, since I do remember, I fell in love with you when you made a scarf for Dum-E. I’ll tell you all about why when I see you next. We’ll understand if this all shakes out and you don’t want anything to do with us, or if you just want to be friends, and we get it if this freaks you out, the gay part still gets us yelled at by Fox news, poly isn’t really socially cool yet. So we get it, and we aren’t trying to pressure you. This is just --”

“It’s a promise Bucky. We are going to find you and no matter what, we are going to love you.”

“We know it’s kinda dumb that we’re saying this to your voicemail when we could have said it to you a long time ago, but we wanted to say it. So this is us, promising. Just, hold on until we can find you, sweetheart.”

“Just hold on.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

“Are you certain?”

“Me.”


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

Everyone had a line they wouldn’t cross, and unlike most, Bucky knew what happened when he was driven past it. He knew what he would become when the pain was too much, and he let himself fall into the easier path. By the time he was willing to hurt her to save himself, he’d also be willing to kill her. Once he was crossed that line, he would be the Winter Soldier.

The chair would be nothing but a formality.

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

He was never as good a man as Stevie.

That tiny punk would stand up to an army all alone, and never tremble.

Bucky always hoped to, on his best day, be as good a man as Steve was on his worst.

The only way to become that good was to keep standing up, no matter how much he wanted to lie down.

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

He wanted to be as beautiful as Tony. Not on the outside, but the way Tony had been broken down to nothing by people that hated him, then remade himself from the fragments, hiding nothing he had done or been. Tony took the crimes he had committed, and one by one, he overwrote them with something good. The arc reactor was the most obvious, but beneath it was a map of grief that he transformed into apology and unbridled, unrestrained, exquisite hope.

He wanted to be that beautiful inside.

As he screamed, and hid deeper inside the Winter Soldier, he saw the chasms in his chest: the gaps in his soul that he would never repay, and never turn to something admirable.

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”


 

“You, or her?”

He panted. “P...Pl….”

“Bucky, don’t I can--”

“Me.”

 


 

When they left that night, and he found his way to consciousness, he saw the fleck of red beside her hand before anything else. Her knees were bloody, her arms scraped raw from a struggle he had not witnessed, and her eyes were fierce in a gaunt face. Both of them were soaking wet, so they must have been given water. Hydra was taking their time collecting him. Or they were struggling to find a buyer.

The fleck of red on her hand grew, and even silent, she was commanding him to make eye contact.

He obeyed, and got a flash from her mind. The furious gratitude was painful as she cursed him for making her watch and blessed him for saving her from new torments. The fear came next; she was smart enough to know that Hydra would do its best drain her mind away so she could serve them.

Bucky flailed in his own mind, trying to present something like strength, and finding nothing to show her. He needed to show her that he would not fail, that he could keep her alive until her brother found them, but all there was in his chest, the only thing he had to show to her was his crumbling hope of becoming a better man.

She felt it, right as her collar clicked and she screamed.

 


 

“You can make this stop anytime. You know this.”

“No.”

“Hmm….You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

It was warm and solid and sweet, and he knew it was coming from Wanda. It tasted, if a thought could have a taste, like Steve. Like penny candy. Echoing against the taste of his mouth that had only ever been an invention, it rang true. It was some memory pulled from his mind and given to Bucky. It was what filled Steve’s chest when he saw Bucky’s smile.

It coiled around him like a shield.

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or Her?”

“Please.”

“Well марионетка?”

“....Me.”

 


 

Tony felt like a handful of sparklers. Eager and energetic. Sun-bright and excessive and a taste like rich, bitter coffee. The impression came tied to the image of him and Steve, taunting each other over nothing, sweat soaked from exercise, and hiding broad smiles behind meaningless insults.

It twined with the feeling of Steve and turned into armor as he screamed himself hoarse.

 


 

“Your handler comes for you tomorrow марионетка. Perhaps you will break when it is him who give the orders.”

No sound left his mouth as he sobbed.

 


 

She was tapping codes to him on the post, and his mind was too full of screaming and candy and sparklers for him to comprehend. His arms were bound to the post he was slumped against. The flesh of his arm wept trails of blood where he tried to wrench away.

He was adrift in it, lost in his head and confused when she acted.

She did not ask, simply showed him every warm thought she possessed for him. Every time she and Pietro had found him protecting them when he had no cause. Every time he had advocated for them. How he had removed them from Strucker and been proof of recovery. How he had shown them trust where they expected to find none. The times he struggled to learn to cook a dish from Sokovia. The times he would sit with her, unafraid of her power, late in the night when she thought to end herself. His patience with Pietro’s terror of his life.

Their confidence in what was to come because he fought beside them.

She pulled him into visions of the way the others saw him; kind and concerned and generous, protecting others even when injured. She painted over his doubts, and the gaps between the myriad people he considered himself to be. She daubed them with a thousand shades of love, building something that repeated with each beat of his heart.

“You are a good man.”

 


 

“Hey Bucky. It’s Tony. Steve is trying to sleep. Probably not going well, but he knows he needs it, so he’s trying. I just made more coffee. I slept yesterday. I’ll sleep again after…. No. I’ll sleep after we get you back. So. Rumlow surfaced, he’s -- we think he’s headed towards you. We’re following. Tracking him. Please be there. You have to be there. We have to find you. I haven’t found you and I’m so sorry. Bucky, sweetheart, I’d have done anything to keep you away from them. They have you and Wanda, and -- even Pietro says -- we all know you’re protecting her, anyway you can. He’s a kid and he’s so scared for her, but he knows you’ll do anything you can. It makes him feel better, but it scares the shit out of me. His leg is still healing, or he’d have scoured the world by now. If you weren’t with her, he’d have gone anyway. Bucky. I promise. We are bringing you both back tomorrow. We are. I promise. I know you can’t hear this, but, ugh Steve’s right, don’t tell him I said that, but this helps. We love you. We’ll be there soon.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“Me.”

 


 

“You, or her?”

“M-m-me.”

 


 

Bucky gasped as he hit the ground between the cells, and choked. They had shut off the collar the same moment they released the bolts holding him upright. He saw the holes through his forearms. Wiring exposed on one side and bright white bone on the other. It filled the gap in his head that had begged to rip himself free. He wouldn’t have survived the loss of his other arm without assistance. The holes would heal. Her arms had been bound, not bolted. She had seen, and would have stopped him had he tried. She wanted him to live. She didn’t understand what that condemned him to.

He snarled, lashing out a half formed metal fist to catch the gate of her cell.

The liquid fire of the collar restarted, sharper than before, blinding in its intensity, wiping away more of who he was with the onslaught as he thrashed, grinding stones into his skin, and wrenching the bars off their frame.

He was dragged in his pain-addled stupor through the cave, and into the dazzling light of day.

“The asset doesn’t feel pain.”

That was Rumlow. Handler. His commander.

“We can put you back like that. You won’t have to feel anything again. Just do what you’re told. Wasn’t it nicer like that, soldier? Wasn’t it nice to not hurt?”

“We can bring her out, марионетка, and give you another chance.” One of the technicians. He remembered technicians.

There was movement nearby, and they dragged him to standing. The blood oozing from injuries didn’t matter. He learned not to know pain, not to care about it. The Winter Soldier didn’t fear because he could not be broken further. Sensation was absorbed, withstood, ignored. It didn’t touch him. The Winter Soldier was already broken.

He could retreat, hide in the hollow expanse of the Winter Soldier and escape.

He wanted to stop hurting.

They put her on the ground, and he tried to remember her name.

“You, or her?”

The guard kept her looking at the ground.

“Which oneмилое дитя?”

“Me.”

He jolted and dropped to his knees in front of her.

They brought her head up to look at him.

There were two clicks as guns were readied. The first was in the hand of her guard, pressing against her neck. The second was held by Rumlow, pointing at the Winter Soldier. The distance was under three feet. Rumlow would not miss.

“You or her?”

He had heard this before. Like this. He had sat on his knees opposite someone he wanted to protect. Then, he had asked to be killed, and was denied. The Asset was too valuable to Hydra. She would be killed, or not, at their pleasure. He had no control. If he asked them to kill her, there was a chance to save her from his fate. It would save her from being destroyed, and made into a person who would consider such a thing as kindness.

“Hm, марионетка?”

She, whoever she was, tried to nod in her captor’s grip.

She was asking, as he had, and she deserved what mercy he could give her.

He knew the other choice was crueler.

He knew she was asking.

He couldn’t do it. Shook his head.

And she vanished in a blur.

He looked for the spray of blood, he looked for the death his mind was trying to keep him from remembering, and found nothing. A screeching whirr sounded above them, and he tried to move closer to it.

A weapon’s blast.

A burst of energy.

A whirl of chaotic pain as his arm’s circuitry tried to process the sensation of a hole blown through it.

An echoing panic as he collapsed, dimly aware of an injury on his side to match his arm.

Light flashed on red and gold while gunfire erupted above him.

Something that sounded like his name chased him while his vision blurred into nothing.

 


 

“I sent them away when I felt you start to waken.”

“Who? Why?”

“I needed to be sure of this after what we have survived. What is your name?”

He frowned, waiting for the answer to come to him.

“Bucky.... I’m Bucky.”

Her smile was ecstatic, and a match to the man beside her. But he didn’t know why; it was who he was. She brushed a hand over his face, and he gladly returned to sleep.

 


 

They were there when he woke up again. Them, and no one else, leaning into each other in relief as they watched him open his eyes. He twitched his hand, forcing it to move beneath the bandages, and dropped it onto their joined ones. There wasn’t much strength to it, but he squeezed, just to watch them get teary.  

He’d tease them for it later.

They returned the gesture tentatively, rubbing over his fingers softly, careful of the IV.

“You gonna tell me what happened to m’other arm?”

He hadn’t turned to look, but it wasn’t sending information.

“Rumlow happened. I think you heard me incoming after Pietro got his sister out of there. You tried to stand up right as Rumlow fired. He wasn’t looking, he was distracted by me. Sorry about that, or you’re welcome depending on how you take this next part. Ended up firing through your bicep-ish-region. Punched a hole through it. Also through part of your side.”

“You were in surgery at the Al Bazm base,” Steve added, “While you were under, I had them remove the rest. I’m sorry to make that decision without you, Buck, but we knew you were in pain and they couldn’t do anything to repair it and Tony didn’t have anyway to build --”

“S’alright Stevie. Trust you.” Steve buried his face in Tony’s chest.

Tony filled the silence.

“I should have found you sooner.”

“Not your fault. Bad intel.”

“It took me eleven days.”

“I’m not dead.”

“No. And, God, you’re so very brave, sweetheart. Wanda told us how brave you were.”

Tony had the hollow look he got when he was on an engineering binge. Steve seemed to be restraining tears. They needed a distraction.

“Tell me about the kraken?”

“Sure, Buck”

 


 

“We recorded a voice mail for you, when, uh, when Hill contacted us. Tony was going to erase it, but, we decided that it’s as honest as it gets. You deserve that. You should know what we wanted to say when we scared we were never going to get you back. It’s… here. It’s on your phone. We’ll be right outside if you want to talk to us, or, if you want us to go.”

 


 

He listened to them three times, then threw a mug at the door.

 


 

“Scared the hell out of us Buck.”

“I didn’t have anything else to throw and I needed you to get in here. It worked didn’t it?”

“It’s not like he threw the phone, Steve.”

“You still… the both of you still… what you said on this?”

“Yes.”

“Yes.”

“And… if I ---

“There’s no pressure.”

“--- feel the same?”

“Then we can figure out the rest.”

 


 

Bucky liked to watch Tony work.

He did everything faster, louder, and, most of the time, categorically better than anyone else. He also liked blowing things up. He was drama and flare even as he did troubleshooting on new trackers that couldn’t be blocked.

He was curled against Steve on a ratty couch doing exposure therapy to a location that made him uncomfortable using his new, mobile safe space: Steve. His alternate mobile safe space, Tony, wasn’t great at being stationary unless there was a soldering iron involved.

Not always then.

He still didn’t really know what Steve tasted like, not in the real world; he couldn’t handle that yet, with either of them.

But the idea no longer made him panic.

Bucky slipped his fingers between Steve’s without warning, interrupting the sketch, and knowing it wasn’t a problem. Or, that it wouldn’t be once he managed to talk. He didn’t have the will to preface and ask the question, and the latter mattered more.

“Tony?” The stress in Bucky’s voice caught their attention. “Still think you can make a better arm than Hydra?”

 


 

It was strange, after seventy years, not to be in pain.

He no longer felt the weight of his arm dragging on screws and plates attached to his skeleton. He didn’t need to ignore the errors in circuitry, or the jolt as wires pinched. There wasn’t a low thrum of agony winding through his head, and making every touch a potential for greater suffering.

He breathed, he lived, and some days, he sat, examining the cracks that had marred him with memories of torture and failure. They weren’t gone. He was still all of the people that he had ever been. That couldn’t be undone. But the rifts that used to destabilize his future were different. He prodded at them, and found them filled with accomplishments, with lives saved and disasters averted. Overflowing with memories and aspirations. They were painted in a thousand colors and left a kiss of candy and sparklers in his mind.

There were unknowns, and risks. There were battles to fight, with villains and his own mind. There was the fear that Steve and Tony would rebalance his time as the Soldier with his attempts to make amends and him find him wanting. There was the fear of losing them in a fight.

But beneath that, there was an echo of Wanda’s reminder.

He was Bucky, and he was a good man.