Buffy’s relationship history looks a little like a major city after a carpet bombing.
That is a fact.
There is rubble, there are bodies, there are tears and broken things and somewhere in the middle, she stands, barefoot and bloody in a torn dress and shattered heart.
There’s also a list at the back of her mind, of all the men she’s loved and all the things that broke them.
One. Ford and his desperate, all too human fear of dying.
Two. Angel with his soul, Angel without his soul, Angel, Angel, Angel.
Three. Scott, who deserved better.
Four. Riley and the ways he needed her weak so he could feel strong.
Five. Spike, hating her, loving her, hurting her, saving her.
Number six, that’s a brief, Russian summer with a man who calls himself Winter.
Six, that’s something that ends before it even bleeds properly, a wound that never quite washes out.
She meets him on a crusade through Russian bureaucracy, trying to set up a new training centre for the ICW. She’s out slaying to let off steam after a long business meeting and there he is, black from head to toe, beating the shit out of a gang of demons.
He moves the way Spike did, spinning on his toes, rocking forward and back, never quite where you expect him to be. But there are a dozen of them and only one of him, so she calls out something snappy that no-one understands and moves in.
He twists out of a kick, lands in a crouch and gives her a brief, searching look before doing something no-one’s ever done before.
Reaching back with one arm, he grabs the demon going for his jugular and flings it forward, straight at her. Between punches, Buffy can just make out his smirk, thin and dark on his face.
The demon is a gift, a test, a challenge. She kills it with a clean swipe of her blade and ducks behind another one and then it’s a dance, her and him against the demons.
“So,” she asks, breathing hard in the aftermath, “You got a name, stranger?”
He disappears into the night.
It takes her three more fights to coax his name out of him, five after that to get him to agree to coffee.
He speaks Russian with a heavy accent but claims to have been born in Moscow. His English sounds like something out of an old movie, black and white and so suave. He has scars all over his body and a prosthetic arm with a faded red star on it, like the last remains of the Soviet Union.
He knows neither the day of the week nor the year, can’t remember his friends, his family, his childhood.
Sometimes, he talks about things older than her, speaks about the Union like it still exists. He says “Mother Russia” without a trace of irony.
He’s stronger than a human, than Initiative-Riley ever was, and he fights with a mixture of absolute, feral violence and perfectly controlled martial arts.
Some days, he looks at his reflection in windows and rear view mirrors like he has no idea who’s staring back at him, dark-eyed and with a perpetual curl to his lips, like he’s in on the world’s ugliest joke.
She’s almost positive that he’s older than he looks and he never, ever tells her what he’s doing in this city, or why he’s out every night, hunting monsters.
She asks him that once, straight out, and all he does is laugh and ask, in his strangely smooth English, “Sweetheart, why do you think I’m not one of them?”
By the time they tumble into her hotel bed, she knows full well that it’s doomed to fail, but she doesn’t rightly care.
She’s twenty-five and has been hurt, broken and abandoned too many times to still be afraid of unhappy endings. He’ll leave her. Chances are, he’ll try to do it with her head in a box and her secrets in his pocket.
But until then he’s fascinating in ways few things are anymore and when he looks into her eyes, she believes every word he says.
They spar in the empty training rooms of the old villa she buys, without mats and without weapons, just them and their bodies and he looks strangely naked, dressed from head to toe in black, but his feet bare and pale.
She strips off her shoes, too, stuffs her socks into them, wriggles berry-coloured nails in the cool air.
He laughs until she kicks him across the room with those bare feet and shiny toenails.
They have sex right there, in the middle of the dusty, empty room. On the way out, he steals her boots, making her walk barefoot all the way back to the hotel, something secret in his smile.
By the time she’s set the villa up for someone to come in and take over, he’s still there.
It’s weird, but she’s almost gotten used to him dropping in through her window in the small hours, either to take her slaying or to strip with a soldier’s ruthless efficiency and climb into her bed.
They fight and they fuck and it’s… it’s good.
She has no idea who he is, where he’s from or what he does for a living, but it’s good.
She’s in denial and knows it, but he wraps his flesh arm around her at night and breathes into her hair like he feels it too, so she makes do.
She finds reasons to stick around.
He calls her Anoushka and stares at her in the darkness like he’s trying to figure something out.
For four months, they play at meaning something to each other and someone once told Buffy fake it till you make it, but she doesn’t think it’s supposed to apply to relationships.
At the end of it, she almost believes her own lies about how this might work, how this one might not break her heart.
And then he’s gone.
No goodbye, no phone number, not even a real name. Summer ends and Winter disappears into thin air.
She packs her bags, passes control of the centre over to one of the minis and keeps moving.
She knows better by now.
Almost a year after that, she’s in New York, playing liaison between the ICW and SHIELD and the guy across the table gives her a cute grin and calls her a gorgeous dame.
She goes out with him because his English sounds like something out of an old movie, black and white and so suave. His arms are both flesh and his eyes are clear. Even when he tells her about sleeping in the ice for seventy years and losing everything he knew, he knows who he is.
The only time he ever seems heavy, the only time he ever truly reminds her of Winter, is when he talks about Bucky, his best friend, his first loss.
Outside of those few, dark nights, he’s the best man she’s ever known and she waits and waits and waits, but nothing goes wrong.
She fakes it until she doesn’t have to anymore and when he buys her flowers in Central Park and whispers in her ear that he loves her, she cries.
Not because it’s so romantic. Let’s face it, Heath Ledger did it better. She cries because it’s the first time in her life a man’s said those three words to her without any strings attached, without a price or a demand or a confession of death and doom.
Steve tells her he loves her and hordes of demons do not break out of the shrubbery, intent on ending the world.
It’s amazing enough that her crying jag turns into hysterical laughter and the paps are having a field day with them making a spectacle, but she doesn’t care.
“So?” Steve asks, hesitantly, after she’s repaired her make-up, “Can you explain to me what that was about?”
She shrugs, ducks her head, steals some of his ice-cream. “I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop,” she confesses, “except, I might not anymore.”
From the look on his face, he doesn’t really get it. The beauty of it is that he nods anyway and lets her be weird.
“No,” she says, “look. My relationships… they never go well. Not ever. Except this time… I think everything might not end with you trying to murder all my friends and chain me to a wall.”
“Is that a pop-culture joke I don’t get?”
She laughs. “No, that’s my first serious relationship in a nutshell. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t terrify you with my tales of woe.”
He shakes his head. “No. I… no. I think I might understand what you mean. It’s easy to start believing that nothing will go right, after a while.”
Head cocked to one side, she puts down her ice-cream. “Peggy,right?” And then, after a moment’s hesitation, she adds, “And Bucky?”
Ducking his head and turning scarlet, Steve nods, shyly. Afraid. She pulls him closer by his hand, presses her lips to his and closes her eyes until he stops being ashamed.
Three weeks later, it all goes to hell.
Of course it does.
The alert goes up while she’s sitting pretty in a business suit and high heels across from Fury, who’s muttering about budgets and slayers causing more damage than the damn Iron Man.
And then, suddenly, he’s up and running because, apparently, someone’s beating the shit out of Steve somewhere in Manhattan.
Buffy slides into the quinjet a half second before it takes off.
Five minutes later she stands next to Natasha at the edge of a random square, watching Steve fight for his life, rooted to the spot.
No, that’s not true. She’s not watching Steve.
She’s watching the man in black, twisting and bending like he’s dancing, never once where Steve expects him to be, landing hits with too much strength for a human.
Because she knows him, knows the way he steps, the way he hits, knows the dark curl of his lips, even hidden under a mask.
She knows this man.
She almost let herself love him once.
And now he’s trying to kill Steve.
Trying, and making headway.
Steve spins out of the way of a fist but can’t avoid the kick that follows it because Captain America is strong and fast, but he’s too big to be truly agile. It’s the only advantage Buffy has over him in their spars – that and his chivalry.
The attacker – Winter, that’s Winter, damn it – uses Steve’s weakness against him.
Buffy knows how the fight will end, has fought with – and against – both men enough to know that Steve doesn’t stand a chance, not against fast and dirty Winter. She looks to Natasha for help, but finds the redhead as transfixed as she is.
Of course the only two Russian supe rhumans Buffy has ever met know each other, too.
She wants to laugh hysterically.
Instead, she slips off her heels, remembering with something like regret how much Winter liked to spar with her barefoot and unarmed, how dangerous and liquid his expression got at the amount of damage she can do, even like this.
Then she pulls one of the stiletto daggers from her bun and sharply calls his name, firing the blade straight at him.
He catches it, just like she expects him to, but the second’s distraction costs him. By the time he drops the dagger, she’s already on him, using his thigh as a springboard to gain leverage and punch him in the face. He goes flying backward, she goes the opposite way.
“Anoushka,” he greets, almost calmly, as they both get back to their feet, braced for round two.
“You should have called,” she tells him, as flippant as she can make herself sound.
He cocks his head to one side, curiously.
Then Steve slams into him, shield first, and they both land hard, Winter on his back, Captain on top. Steve punches him until he goes slack and then rips of his mask off.
In the silence after the battle, he stutters a single word that breaks Buffy’s heart twice over.
He says, “Bucky.”
Her former Russian lover with the old eyes is her current boyfriend’s dead best friend.
Who was frozen and then brainwashed by a covert Soviet organization trying to recreate said current boyfriend’s enhancements.
Who used to sleep curled around her like she was precious until the day he disappeared to go back to his Hydra handlers.
After the Wall fell, the Winter Soldier, legend and weapon and deadly asset, disappeared. With his handlers dead, no-one knew where he’d gone until a bunch of Hydra goons came across his old files by accident.
They found him, found all his hidden triggers and switches and set him on Steve.
His best friend.
Who he can’t remember.
At least, that’s what Natasha says at the debriefing. Buffy might miss a few things. Her ears are ringing.
He remembers Buffy, though. He said her name, even though his voice sounded flat and robotic when he did.
The slayer closes her eyes and leans her head back against the comfy leather chair in Fury’s office, letting Natasha’s voice drone on.
“You know him,” Steve says, leaning tiredly against the observation window showing a comatose Win- Bucky. The doctors have removed whatever hardware the Soviets stuffed into his skull and all the modifications Hydra did.
Tony has already been by to pick everything up and analyze it.
God knows what damage thirty-plus-year-old experimental tech does when implanted into the brain of a half-dead man.
Now they’re just waiting for him to wake up, to see if the hardware was all there was to it, or if he’s been brainwashed in the classical sense, too. Waiting to see what, if anything, there’s left of James Barnes after decades of experimentation and psychological torture.
Buffy wonders if Bucky will even know her. She wonders if he’ll know his best friend, his… whatever those two boys used to be to each other. She knows Steve loved him and from his stories, it always sounded like Bucky returned the sentiment.
“I met him in Russia,” she answers, arms wrapped around herself, remembering how his metal arm – taken away for safety reasons – felt tracing the contours of her body with perpetually cold finger tips. “You always reminded me of him.” She quirks a grin. “Now I know why.”
“Did he ever…”
“He didn’t know. I… anything I asked, he didn’t know.”
“Did you love him?”
No name, no past, no stories to tell her. How much was there really for her to love?
“I would have.”
She doesn’t really expect it when he puts his arm around her and pulls her in. Nor does she expect to silently cry into his shoulder while they wait for the stranger on the other side of the glass to wake up.
Both things happen anyway.
Bucky wakes on a Sunday.
Steve, who has been camped out on the Helicarrier for the past two weeks, is there the moment it happens and giving the doctors hell for trying to keep him away.
The lab coats call Fury, who calls Buffy and tells her to reign in her boy toy.
By the time she makes it to the infirmary, Steve has already won. He’s sitting at the edge of Wi-Bucky’s bed, staring at him silently.
Bucky is staring right back.
“2012?” he asks.
Steve nods, grinning wryly. “It takes some getting used to.”
“Some things, yeah. But mostly, no. It’s very different. There’s… less hiding.”
They exchange more heavy glances, then Bucky suddenly reaches out with his good arm and hauls Steve in by his neck, pressing their foreheads together.
They’re both grinning like idiots.
Buffy silently steps backward, letting the automatic door hiss shut.
It takes a full month for the psych division to declare Bucky – and he’s Bucky now, always – safe. No hidden triggers, no code phrases to make him go all River Tam.
It takes another week for Steve to argue for his prosthesis back and thirty seconds in Avengers Tower for Tony to take the arm away again, declaring that he can do better.
He does. In less than thirty-six hours.
In all that time, Buffy sees Steve on official business and when they bump into each other on the ‘carrier or at the Tower, where Tony has insisted on giving her a room.
They kiss twice and don’t have sex at all.
It’s easier that way.
Steve, who’s busy teaching Bucky all about the twenty-first century, showing him around, taking him to old and new haunts, doesn’t even seems to notice she’s gone.
It’s three in the morning when she comes stumbling home, heels in hand, blood caked under her nails, hair ruined by a particularly nasty Chaos demon. She’s never seen one with antlers this big before.
She drops her shoes and slogs to the kitchen for a post-slaying snack. She’s almost by the freezer when she notices a glint of metal by the windows.
Bucky sits on a kitchen chair dragged up against the wall, balancing on two legs, beer in his new hand.
She gives him a brief nod and goes for the extra large tub of ice-cream Pepper hides behind the fish fingers Clint is addicted to. Maybe he’ll just let her slink back to her room so she can binge on double-choc-chip and bind her cracked ribs. Not necessarily in that order.
“Steve misses you.”
No such luck.
She lets the freezer fall shut and leans against it. “I wasn’t sure he noticed.”
The chair clicks on the tiles as Bucky rights it and stands. Even without the super assassin programming, he still moves too smoothly. “Right,” he drawls, putting his bottle down on the island and standing too close to her.
Not close enough to crowd her, never that, but still too close. His eyes seem lighter these days.
“Steve told me about the Ballad of Buffy Summers. All the ways everyone keeps breaking your heart.”
The humour is new.
“In my defence,” she tells him with a shrug that makes her ribs burn. “the last guy has forgotten I exist and the one before that disappeared without a trace in the middle of the night.”
“In my defence,” he mocks, smiling wryly, “I was remote controlled by a bunch of Nazis when I left.”
Her heart stops, just for a second.
Six weeks since he woke and he’s never once given her so much as a hint that he remembers. She never dared to ask, because, really, how do you ask a guy if he remembers the four months he spent having a torrid, doomed affair with you while he was being controlled by evil forces?
And, god, this is a little like Angel all over again, except this time, she fell for the soulless version and now here he is, all souled up, and she can’t really tell him that she misses the broken version of him. Actually, it’s more Spike than Angel.
To cover for the stabbing in her chest – just her ribs, really – she asks, “So?”
A step closer. She can feel his body heat, except for the coolness of his arm, metal all over. She misses the faded red star that used to peek out from under his t-shirts.
“I know Steve isn’t the best at expressing his feelings, but I didn’t think you’re the type to take things lying down.”
She drops her arms from where they crossed over her chest without permission. “What am I supposed to do, Bucky?” she asks, using his name as a reminder for both of them. “Fight you for him? Or maybe fight him for you?”
Snorting at the inanity of her own words, she adds, “You two have been… whatever you are for longer than I’ve been alive. I’m not going to mess with that.”
She doesn’t think she can.
The metal arm thunks against the freezer above her shoulder and Bucky leans in too close, just for a second. She doesn’t do him the favour of jumping. “Pity,” he drawls, in a way that is so unlike his heavy, sharp-edged Russian.
Then he backs away just as fast as he came closer. “You know why I like you best barefoot?” he asks, nudging her stocking feet with his own bare toes. “Because you don’t need weapons to be powerful, Anoushka.”
He leaves, soundlessly padding down the hall to wherever he sleeps – his room or Steve’s.
Buffy lets her head slam back into the freezer and listens to her ribs throb.
They kidnap her three days later.
It’s not quite as sinister as it sounds, but Buffy is pretty sure the car she climbs into is supposed to take her back to the Tower. Instead it plunges into Manhattan traffic in the wrong direction and when she protests, Steve gives her his most apple-pie smile from the driver’s seat.
“Do we need to handcuff you?” Bucky asks from where he’s riding shot gun. There’s a pair of cuffs dangling from his metal fingers.
Buffy considers answering, “Kinky,” which is her standard reaction to people trying to tie her up – happens far too often – but then doesn’t. It doesn’t seem like a good idea, talking about sex with her two exes, who are probably screwing each other.
Instead she just raises her arms, palms out, look ma, no knives. Bucky smirks at her and she’s reminded, once again, of the way he told her that he likes her best without weapons. Still dangerous.
They take her to dinner at her favourite restaurant and tell her stories of runty Steve and his knight in soldiering armour. Then they take her to a hotel – “Far away from Stark’s creepy voice in the ceiling, thanks a lot.” – and lead her to the biggest suite the place offers.
Both of them drop their jackets over the back of the sofa and Bucky goes to rob the minibar blind.
Buffy perches on the edge of the bed and watches them sit next to each other, no hesitation. They don’t even look at each other, just move like one of those couples that have been together forever. Like they always know where the other is.
Bucky passes Steve a tiny bottle of rum that he looks at sceptically and then puts aside. When Bucky struggles with the tiny bottle cap and his new arm, Steve takes the mini-whiskey from him and unscrews it before passing it back.
Bucky gives him a look. Steve looks back, ducking his head sheepishly.
Bucky grins, hooks his arm around his friend’s neck and pulls him in. Steve yowls indignantly, twists away. They end up tussling on the sofa like school boys before crashing onto the floor.
Once there, they stop to stare at each other. It’s hot-cold-sweet-hot and if this were a movie, there’d be violins now, followed by a montage showing too much skin and none of the interesting bits.
Buffy stands to let herself out, unwilling to watch.
The boys weren’t polite enough to leave the path to the door clear, though, so she passes within a few feet of them. She doesn’t expect them to even notice, but suddenly Bucky, who’s on the bottom of their little pile, grabs her ankle and holds on tight.
Her choices are stopping or tripping.
“Anoushka,” he says. When she refuses to look down, he squeezes. His metal fingers bite into her ankle joint.
Both Steve and Bucky are staring back at her, eyes wide and blue and hot-cold-sweet.
They’re looking at her the same way they looked at each other a minute ago.
“I’m sorry I let you run away,” Steve tells her, solemn and serious, the way she likes him least because he looks so much better when he smiles
“I’m sorry I ran,” Bucky echoes, a twist to his lip that says, even though I was being remote controlled by a bunch of evil Nazis.
And then, because Bucky or Winter, he’ll always go for the jugular, he adds, “I’m sorry you think this is all you deserve.”
She stops straining against his hold.
“Take off your shoes, Anoushka.”