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Safe with me

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[…] and while Stern is the last of the accused Senators to be indicted, there appears no end in sight to the ensuing media circus. Political players and pundits from around the globe will be watching carefully, analysing evidence and public sentiment surrounding the trial, eager for the opportunity to scrutinise the US government’s handling of –

Article cont’d on Page A10; “Former Pennsylvania Senator Stern to stand trial for Hydra crimes”    

 

Bright morning sunlight splashes across the streets of Manhattan, a clear sunrise illuminating the press of early morning traffic. The paper rustles as Riz flips from the front page of his New York Times, searching for the rest of the article. When he finds the headline, he folds the paper in a neat rectangle and leans out the front of his newspaper kiosk while he reads, taking a deep breath of cool morning air, the scents of roasting coffee and fresh bagels flooding his lungs.

“These. I want them.”

The man appears out of nowhere, his voice quietly rasping, words bleeding together in a subtle slur. Riz jerks back in surprise as a massive stack of newspapers lands on the counter. The man peers up at him from under a mop of sandy brown hair, shoulders hunched forward under a threadbare black jacket. Riz takes stock of the paper pile, made up of every single copy of the New York Times in his kiosk.

“Big fan of the Times, huh? You write an article in there or something?” He tries for small talk as he counts the papers, his fingers tapping an old calculator to tally up the price.

The man either doesn’t hear the question or chooses not to answer – he simply stares at the stack of paper, eyes fixed hungrily on the front page. His tongue darts out to swipe over dry, chapped lips that move ceaselessly, a silent conversation with himself. When he glances up, he bares his teeth in a mocking impression of a smile and slaps a fistful of crumpled bills on the counter; his eyes bounce rapidly between the paper and the street, clearly anticipating someone swooping in to steal his prize. The strange smile remains frozen on his face, while Riz picks up the cash, smoothing the bills flat and offering a handful of change in return.

“Uh, here you go man. Enjoy.” Riz pushes the bundle forward, and the man gathers them quickly, hugging the precious cargo to his chest. Spinning on his heel, his getaway is stopped when he slams face first into the wall of muscle and metal waiting patiently behind him.

“Hey, sorry, you okay?” The deep voice is friendly, the words coloured with the faintest hint of an old-school Brooklyn accent. Stumbling back, the man twitches his head irritably and then visibly flinches when he recognises the face shaded under the black baseball cap. Without a word he quickly backpedals, throwing a look of panic over his shoulder as he scurries away.

The man in the hat watches in bemusement; it’s not the first time someone’s run after recognising him. A predictable consequence of his history and current profession. He turns to the kiosk.

“Morning Riz. Got any copies of the Times left?”

The cashier shakes his head, but offers up the folded copy he was reading. “I’ll give you this one, my friend. Half price, and I left the crossword blank. Even though I know how much you need the help.”

Bucky Barnes laughs. “Your confidence in me is heartwarming. Probably gonna frame the damn thing when I finally finish one.”

“If it ever happens, I’ll buy you a frame myself. Pretty sure my money’s safe though.”

Bucky snorts and drops his change on the counter. “You’re goddamn hilarious buddy.”

The sound of laughter follows him when he tucks the paper under his arm, turning to stroll back home and tipping his face to the morning sunshine with a grin. His step falters for the briefest moment, as something vaguely familiar scratches at the edge of his brain, just out of reach. It’s strange, the feel of saliva flooding his mouth, because a second ago he could have sworn he smelled the bitter tang of lemons.

How…odd?

But as Bucky shakes his head, the memory is gone as quickly as it came. The encounter with the twitchy, nervous man has already been forgotten.

 

*****


“Motherfucker,” you mumble under your breath. Dropping your face into your hands, you take a deep steadying breath. You need sleep. You need coffee. You need to finish this article and meet this deadline and the words just will not come right now.

Reaching blindly for one of the many cups of half-drunk coffee littering your desk, your hand finds one that feels relatively full, and you flip it to your lips. It’s icy cold, which is unsurprising considering it’s been sitting here for – you peek through your fingers at your phone – at least 18 hours now.

Screw it, you think, chugging it anyway. Maybe the caffeine will have condensed and morphed into the useful shot of brilliance you need to finish this god damn story.

You gag at the taste. Or, maybe it’ll just taste like dirty wet cardboard.

For fuck’s sake. You had a by-line on the front page of today’s paper. It’s absolute bullshit that you can’t take a break and enjoy that fact.

“This is a stupid fucking career, writing is hard,” you whine under your breath.  

There’s a quiet buzz at your elbow, and your heart sinks when you see the green text bubble appear.

JACK B: MEETING. MY OFFICE. 10AM. NO EXCUSES. 

Squinting at the words, you rub your bleary eyes. Jack Bernstein has been your editor for three years, and in those three years you’ve learned a few things. One, he is an unapologetic history nerd who will eagerly debate military manoeuvres and tactical strategies at anyone who feigns the slightest interest. Two, never ever take his dry ass British humour seriously. And three, when he sends anything in all caps, chances are you’re in deep shit.

You have fifteen minutes.

Grumbling to yourself, you hunch over your keyboard, fingers fumbling as you try to smash out at least a few coherent sentences before the meeting. 

 

*****



Jack Bernstein is feeling intimidated.

Objectively, he knows Captain Steve Rogers and Sergeant James Barnes are perfectly nice people.

Well, maybe nice is the wrong description. Rogers is nice. Barnes is fucking scary.

Jack has met them both before, albeit during a press junket with a hundred other reporters. However, now that he’s face to face with six plus feet each of tense super soldier, his previously large office is feeling shoebox tiny and he’s starting to sweat.

He covertly observes the pair. Barnes walks slowly around the office, his fingers outstretched and trailing lightly over everything, brows drawn together in concentration, while Rogers stands in front of the desk, sifting through the letters. Jack plucks up his courage and clears his throat, annoyed when his voice comes out slightly shaky.

“There’ve been three letters so far, all similar in content and structure. It was a mistake I even opened the first one. It – it was mixed in my mail by accident.”

“You’ve had them analysed?” Steve asks, eyes flicking over the pages, skimming the language for patterns and clues.

“Yes. No prints, nothing traceable. The supplies he used could be bought at any office supply store in the country.”

Steve nods, and picks up the second letter, examining the perfectly even cuts on each fragment of newspaper. Every word on the page is comprised of single cut out letters, pasted in perfectly symmetrical lines. Whoever this guy is, he’s meticulous. “They’re always made like this?”

“They’re all pieced together this way, yes. Appears he only likes to cut from the Times, no other paper was used. That’s the only pattern we’ve established.” Jack admits.

Humming unconsciously, Steve’s eyes fall to the final paragraph.

WHY WOULD YOU DO THIS? HYDRA WANT TO PROTECT YOU, AND THIS IS HOW YOU REPAY THEM? YOU ARE A SELFISH FUCKING BITCH FOR DOING THIS, AND YOU NEED TO BE PUNISHED. I DON’T WANT TO HURT YOU, I LOVE YOU SO MUCH, BUT LOOK WHAT YOU ARE MAKING ME DO, THIS IS YOUR FAULT. I BOUGHT A KNIFE, I BOUGHT IT JUST FOR YOU, I KNOW IT WILL LOOK SO PRETTY ON YOUR SKIN. I HAVE TO DO THIS, YOU NEED TO UNDERSTAND. HOW ELSE WILL YOU LEARN?


“You’re sure it only started after her investigations? There was nothing before?” Steve feels his stomach twist at the language, the passionate declaration of love, the rage-fuelled threat. Textbook typical stalker behaviour.

“The first letter arrived the day Stern was indicted.”

Steve grunts at that. Stern was an arrogant prick and all around terrible human being, and his trial was one Steve was looking forward to watching. He already likes this woman immensely; anyone knocking Hydra to their knees is someone he will actively support. He sets the letters down, and looks back to Jack, eyes thoughtful as he considers him.

“How long have you known Fury?”

“Nineteen years.” Jack muses, slightly uncomfortable under the intense spotlight of Steve Rogers’ blue gaze. “Nick was deputy director of international ops when I was on the SHIELD press corp. Interviewed him on a number of occasions, worked with him deciphering intel for two projects. Got as close as you do in those situations. Threw me his support to land the editor role here at the Times when I wanted to leave the press corp. I called him after the third letter. No one else I’d trust.”

As the two men speak, Bucky listens to the conversation, absorbing the details and filing them away for future review, while he paces methodically through the room. Eyes sweeping up and down the walls, he takes stock of everything he sees, mentally cataloguing the office layout, the height of the windows, locations of electrical outlets, entry and exit points. It’s the first thing Bucky does the moment he enters any space, aggressively interrogating the surroundings to establish control. It is an innate force of habit, something he will never ever lose. Doesn’t matter if it’s an office building in New York, a Hydra base in Pakistan, or a Starbucks in Milwaukee.

The lesson has come at great personal cost, but Bucky Barnes has learned that control, in all its many variations, means everything. And there is no way in hell he will willingly give it up again.

“Nick says you’re the best.” The comment breaks through his scouting exercise, and Bucky turns to find Jack watching him intently.

He inclines his head, acknowledging the truth of the statement. “I am.”

“She’s not going to, uh, go easy on you.” Jack looks almost apologetic.

Bucky assesses him coolly. “Well, I’ve worked with the US Secret Service, ran security detail for Hydra through a nuclear arms race, and fought in the second world war. So I think I’m good.”

Jack appraises him right back, with a trace of scepticism. “I’m sure you are Sergeant, I’m just warning you. She’s smart as hell, but has zero sense of self-preservation, tends to get mouthy at inappropriate times, and she swears like a sailor. I don’t even know how she comes up with half her vocabulary.”

At the description, Bucky slowly turns a pointed stare to Steve, who averts his gaze and noisily rifles through today’s paper. “I already look out for someone with identical shitty behaviours, so like I said. I think I’m good.

There’s a smart rap on the door, and before anyone can answer, you’re stomping into the office, holding both hands up in a gesture of surrender and talking a mile a minute.

“Look Jack, it’s not ready, I’m sorry. The words are there, I swear to God, they’re just stuck in my stupid fucking brain. I need another few hours, or a bottle of vodka, I don’t even know at this point, but something will shake them loose, I just need you to be patient.”

Skidding to an abrupt halt, you find yourself staring at two very familiar faces.

Captain America, Steve Rogers, stands before you, folding up a newspaper and striding forward. He’s dressed casually, black jeans hanging from narrow hips, a navy sweater accentuating broad shoulders, blonde hair trimmed military short. His posture is relaxed when he offers a friendly smile and extends his hand.

“Hello mam. Steve Rogers.” Hesitating only slightly, you grip his warm fingers, returning his smile as you respond.

“Um, yes, I know. It’s very nice to meet you Captain.”

Releasing his hand, you glance over his shoulder at the man standing to his left. Dark hair brushing the collar of a black leather jacket, Sergeant James Barnes looks younger in person, less like the robotic murder machine the press seems to favour, and more like the kind of guy who’s probably going to sweet talk you into screwing in a dirty bar bathroom, give you a slap on the ass, and never call again. His face is covered in dark stubble, his posture a direct contradiction to Steve’s - tense and ramrod straight, he is a tightly coiled spring, ready to snap at the slightest provocation.

Meeting those famously icy blue eyes, you give him a once over and watch his lip curl into an amused smirk in response.

Sergeant Barnes. The Winter Soldier. Bucky Barnes. Whatever the hell he’s going by these days, he’s earned an interesting reputation. While Steve Rogers remains a media darling, James Barnes is moody and uncontrollable, an uncooperative bucket of sarcasm in desperate need of a media personality makeover.

You realise what this is. And you sure as hell don’t have time for it. Turning back to Jack, you huff an irritated sigh.

“I’ve told you a million times Jack. I don’t do soft human-interest stories.”

There’s a derisive snort, and you turn back to see Barnes staring down from his impressive height, arms folded casually across his chest, that mocking smile still fixed on his lips.

“Can I ask what exactly you’re laughing at, Sergeant?” It’s almost comical how fast you react, immediately firing up at the mere sound of his voice. He cocks an eyebrow in surprise at the sharp tone, before narrowing his eyes in response.

Buck.” Rogers’ voice is low, and he murmurs something under his breath.

Barnes watches you carefully, schooling his face into a blank mask, biting his tongue before answering. “Not laughing at anything, mam. Just the first time I’ve heard Steve and I described as ‘soft human-interest’ that’s all.”

“That’s not why they’re here.” Jack interrupts, his voice stern.

Rubbing the heel of your palm into your eye, you take a deep breath and try to focus. If they didn’t want a features piece, then why the hell are you in a meeting with your editor, Captain America, and the Winter Fucking Soldier?

“I don’t usually respond to ‘fucking’ as my middle name, but we can work with it, if that’s what you prefer.” Barnes responds slyly.

You feel the blood drain from your face. Jesus Christ, you didn’t think the words, you said them out-loud. See? This is what happens when we haven’t slept in 24 hours, your brain shouts.

Resisting the urge to stamp your foot like a toddler, you shove down the embarrassment and close your eyes instead. “Fucking whatever. Then what’s going on?” Turning back to Jack, you open your eyes to see his grim expression. “Jack. What’s wrong?”

He looks at you for a moment, before nodding his head toward the desk, where you see a neat stack of paper. Stepping closer, you feel an eerie shiver trickle down your spine – they look strange, not handwritten, not typed. Even from a distance, the cut and paste letters look vaguely sinister.

“There have been – threats again you.”

You exhale in relief. This was nothing new. “Christ Jack, you had me worried. There’re always weirdo threats coming in. It’s kinda part of the job.”

“Not like this.” Jack’s mouth is drawn in a tight line. “They’re in response to your Hydra work.”

You should have expected this. It was your investigative work that exposed three high ranking US senators as part of Hydra’s inner circle. No one knew, no one expected it, and shit hit the fan when you broke the story.

Another reporter once asked you if it was worth it - the blistering emails from their wives and multiple mistresses, thinly veiled threats and muttered obscenities as you walked down the street. You wanted to respond with a thoughtful, articulate response on the destruction Hydra have brought to the world over the decades, all the families and lives torn apart, how it’s justifiably appropriate they receive due punishment.

Instead, you simply laughed. Was it worth it to destroy the people who shattered your heart and ruined your life?

Of course, you answered sweetly. To be honest, there’s no corner of hell hot enough to burn them. A slowbloody death would have been preferable, but I guess this works too.

“Those assholes deserve everything they get.” The words are hissed before you can hold them back. Fists clenched at your sides, you can feel the righteous rage electrify every nerve of your body.

“I’m not disagreeing with you.” Jack replies calmly. “But the point is, this could be more dangerous than you realise.”

“I can take care of myself.”

There’s a quiet cough behind you, followed by a muffled curse. Whipping your head around, you find Rogers glaring at Barnes, who is rubbing his right arm, and staring resolutely at the floor.

Jack is shaking his head as you open your mouth furiously to ask what the hell they’re playing at, and he cuts you off. “There are three letters there, three viable threats, all delivered to the office. This office. In the third one, he talks about your apartment, mentions the coffee shop across the street. He quotes your fucking address. Whoever this is – he knows exactly where you live.”

Rendered momentarily speechless, your brain scrambles frantically to keep pace with the information.

“Alright, well, that’s – unexpected. Okay. Look, Stern’s trial starts in two weeks, just let me finish this and then – “

Jack cuts you off before you can get any further, slapping his hands down on the desk. “Can you please, just for once in your life, be a little more god damn cautious? These people do not play games, they don’t fight fair, and they will not think twice about shooting you in the fucking face at the slightest provocation. I talked to SHIELD, someone is being assigned to tail you until this is over.”

“What the actual fuck? Absolutely not. I don’t need a god damn bodyguard Jack, this is completely unnecessary – “

“Jesus Christ. I’m not asking you. As your editor, I’m telling you. Here’s how it’s going to go. You will be more careful. You will not take unnecessary risks. And you will graciously accept the security detail SHIELD are offering until we determine if this threat is credible. End of story.”

When he gets a bug in his ear like this, he is unmovable. Gritting your teeth, you straighten your shoulders and lift your chin, in what you hope is a thoroughly defiant manner.

“Fine. If it gets you the hell off my case, I’ll do it.”

“Good.” Jack responds.

“Good.” You fling back, unable to resist getting in the last word. “So, what, are SHIELD sticking me with some fresh-faced little intern who’s never shot a fucking gun before?”

Bucky Barnes clears his throat.

Turning slowly, you face the two soldiers. Rogers looks uneasy. Barnes looks amused.

“Hello. Winter Fucking Soldier at your service. Mam.” His voice dripping with sarcasm, the smirking sneer back on his face, Bucky watches your reaction with interest.

Godfuckingdammitalltohell.

Chapter Text

Before Bucky and Steve depart, you’re given instructions to come to the Avengers tower at 16:00, to collect a tracking ID and closed channel comms device. It’s an order, not a request, and you chafe at the directive. With a rush of indignation, you begin to comprehend what this means, as the strings steering your life are suddenly handed to the man in front of you.

Bucky is unrelenting, briskly efficient as he fires directions.

“The driver will meet you in front of this building at exactly 15:45. His name’s Harold Hogan, goes by Happy. He’s 6’0, dark hair and eyes, and he’ll be wearing a black suit, white button up, and black tie. Assume he’ll have sunglasses on. When he introduces himself, you need to request that he remove the glasses so you can see his face clearly, and make sure you ask for two forms of ID. Forcing people to prove who they are is a habit you need to learn. Any questions?”

Everything is moving too fast, and your brain fizzles into buzzy white noise, until you realise he’s waiting for an answer. The lack of sleep is hitting your nervous system hard, and it’s impossible to hide the weariness in your voice.

“No. No. No questions.”

After a length and silent inspection, Bucky appears satisfied. He gives Steve a look, taps his wrist, and jerks his head toward the door. “We need to go.”

Okay. Apparently he’s finished with you.

Steve has the effortlessly polished manners of a man who has spent a majority of his life in the spotlight, and he gives you an encouraging smile, extending his hand one final time.

“Thank you, Captain Rogers.”

“Please, call me Steve. Expect we’ll be seeing more of each other. Less formal is better, long as you don’t mind.” When he clasps your hand in both of his, you choke back a hysterical laugh, the size of his giant paws dwarfing your fingers.

“Thanks Steve. Less formal is great.”

Releasing his hand, you look to Bucky and brave an attempt at civilised conversation. “And you? Barnes? Sergeant? What do you prefer?”

“I prefer things extremely formal.” He answers solemnly, already walking out the door. “Call me Sir, or maybe Fucking Sir, or I ain’t answering.”

Steve blows out a long breath. “Jesus. Just call him Bucky, but if he pisses you off, he’ll answer to ‘hey asshole’ as well. He hears it all the time.”

You can hear Bucky laughing all the way down the hall. 

 

*****



At 15:45 on the dot, you step into the plaza in front of your office, blinking owlishly in the bright afternoon sun.  After being chained to your desk for the past 24 hours, with nothing but a dingy fluorescent light and the stale forced air of the office, the gentle breeze and warm light feels like heaven. Tilting your face to the clear blue sky, you let the sunshine soak into your skin.

“Excuse me, Miss? Afternoon, name’s Hogan – Sergeant Barnes asked me to bring you to the tower.”

Happy Hogan mirrors Bucky’s description perfectly, an oddly charming teddy bear, rumpled around the edges. Catching your reflection in the shiny lenses of his wide black sunglasses, you’re momentarily abashed at your dishevelled appearance. However, the feeling is fleeting; you’re so damn tired, you really can’t be fucked to care.

Trying your best to retain some level of professional dignity, you offer a hand in greeting, digging deep for a confident smile. Happy shoots you a grin and gives you a slightly sweaty handshake in return, before guiding you to the black Mercedes parked at the curb.

The feel of the soft leather seats surrounds you comfortingly when you collapse with a soft groan. Immensely grateful for the reprieve, your eyes drift shut, as the outside traffic muffles to a dull hum.

God, the silence is beautiful.

Until it shatters.

The backdoor of the Mercedes flies open, and a broad-shouldered man clambers in next to you, tucking dark hair behind his ears and slamming the door behind him with a terrific bang.

Screaming seems the most logical reaction, and so you do. Loudly.

Bucky shakes his head as he gets situated, yanking the seat-belt over his shoulder. He glares at you in complete disapproval.

“You failed the first fucking test I gave you. I told you to make him take the glasses off and to ask for two forms of ID. You did none of those things. Congratulations, you’ve been kidnapped.”

When your heartrate kicks into overdrive, you have to stuff your hands under your thighs to stop yourself from taking a swing at him.

This man is infuriating.

“Jesus H Christ Bucky, what the actual fuck. I knew it was him.”

“You did? Really? How did you know?”

“Because you fucking told me exactly what he looked like and where he would be!”

“Great, so your ears do work and you are capable of listening, good to know. Want to explain why you ignored the rest of my directions?”

“Because – god dammit. I’m fucking tired, okay?”

“That’s not an excuse,” Bucky replies, sliding on his sunglasses and turning away from you. “I’m not joking about this. You have to get in the habit of questioning everything. It needs to become second nature. You cannot trust anyone. Ever.”

“Someone’s a little paranoid,” you mumble, looking out the tinted window as the car glides into the endless Manhattan traffic.

Bucky’s voice is sharp when he responds. “Paranoia is a good way not to die. Don’t ever forget that.”

 

*****



Despite the tired fog threatening to knock you unconscious, you don’t miss the wide berth everyone gives him as Bucky stalks through the lobby of the Avengers tower. The man parts a crowd like no one you’ve ever seen; it’s almost amusing to watch people avert their eyes and shy away. 

You suppose him constantly exuding that ‘hello I’m here to murder you’ vibe is pretty good for business, because if this is his normal demeanour, no one is coming near you.

Guiding you to a private elevator bank, he pauses to enter a string of complex code and patiently holds for a retinal scan. When the doors crack open, he ushers you through with a curt little bow. As the doors begin to close, the soft lilt of an Irish accent falls from the ceiling.

“Good afternoon Sergeant Barnes.”

“Hey FRIDAY. We’re here to see Stark, can you take us to the mechanics lab?” Bucky has his phone out and is texting rapidly, unperturbed that he’s conversing with thin air.

“Of course.” The voice responds pleasantly.

Feeling your stomach swoop uncomfortably, the elevator takes off at an alarming speed. Bucky remains silent, ignoring your presence in favour of his phone, punching out text after text and pausing to grimace at the responses, before resuming his furious typing. 

When the elevator stops abruptly, you swallow hard at the queasy feeling it leaves. Bucky tucks his phone into the back of his jeans, catching the look on your face and shooting you a smirk. “Don’t worry, you get used to it.”

A heavy, pounding bass beat greets you as soon as the doors open, vibrating the floor beneath your feet and raising the hair on your arms. Bucky seems completely unfazed by the death metal screeching through the corridor, simply motioning you to follow as he walks forward.

Reaching the glass walls of his lab, you come face-to-face with the chaos that is Tony Stark. Hovering a good three feet off the ground, he’s dressed in ripped up jeans and a Black Sabbath t-shirt, a pair of tinted glasses perched on his nose. A bright blue toaster is tucked under his arm, as he digs into it with a screwdriver, his toes tapping in the air while he bobs his head along to the music.

“Stark. STARK!” Bucky yells into the void, his voice immediately lost in the deafening thunder of music. “God fucking dammit. TONY!”

Either Stark chooses to ignore him or he’s genuinely not heard your arrival, too engrossed in his toaster modifications. Bucky’s lack of patience is on full display, when he snatches the Glock from the holster strapped under his jacket and fires a single shot across the room. The bullet hits Tony’s phone dead centre, shattering the screen and silencing the music instantly.

“You trigger happy sonofabitch,” Tony sighs, not bothering to turn around. “That’s the third god damn phone this month. You keep this shit up, I’ll put ricochet glass on the next one so that bullet comes back and bites you in your impatient ass.”

“Ricochet glass isn’t a thing.”

“Fuck you, I’ll make it a thing.” Tony spins around mid-air and notices you standing behind Bucky, wide-eyed at the combination of heavy metal, floating billionaires, and indoor gunshots. Flinging the toaster at Bucky, he cuts the power in his boots and drops to the floor with a thump.

Bucky catches the toaster easily, holding it arm’s length and staring at it suspiciously. You can see a cartoony version of Steve’s shield painted on the side in shiny red, white, and blue.

“The fuck were you doing to Steve’s toaster?” Bucky flips it around and chucks it back at Tony, who ducks instead, letting the appliance hit the wall.

“Way to go, he loves that thing. I’m telling him you broke it.” Tony accuses, before flashing you a brilliant smile. “Hi I’m Tony Stark and I’m very busy and important. What can I help you with today?”

Bucky jumps in before you can open your mouth. “She needs the tracking device I requested, and I want her cell replaced with a StarkPhone. Completely restricted access, only open to the list I sent you.”

Tony gives him a sarcastic salute. “No problem Terminator. I live to serve.”

Bucky ignores him. “I have to drop something off with forensics, I’ll be back soon.” He quirks an eyebrow at you in question. “You’re fine, right?”

Isn’t that the million-dollar question. Were you fine? No, not really. Everything was fucked up and overwhelming and you wanted to crawl under Tony Stark’s massive metal desk and take a nap. This probably isn’t the answer he wants though.

“Sure. Yep. I’m really just so fine.”

Bucky gives you a crisp nod and strides out of the lab.

Rubbing your temples, you turn back to Tony. He’s watching you with interest, head cocked to the side as he looks you up and down. “Have you slept recently? You look really tired.”

You grimace at the observation. “You know Tony Stark, ‘you look tired’ is on the top of that list called “shit you should never say to a woman unless you want kicked in the balls.”

His jaw drops at your response, and suddenly he’s laughing, great wheezing breaths as he bends forward, hands on his knees. “Touché. Shit, I think I love you already. Barnes is going to get his ass handed to him.”

You feel your lips lift into an exhausted grin at his laughter. “Very plausible. I guess we’ll see.”

Tony’s still chuckling to himself as he ambles to his desk, digging into the bottom drawer and coming up with two slim cans of Red Bull. Tossing you one, he snaps the tab on the other and raises it to cheers. “Nectar of the gods. Drink up buttercup, you’re gonna need it.”

The smell transports you briefly back to college and Saturday nights filled with one too many jager bombs. Wrinkling your nose, you tip it back anyway and drain the the contents in a couple swift gulps. And it still tastes like shit. Good to know some things never change.

You really, really need this caffeine buzz to hit ASAP.

Clapping his hands together, Tony points to the rolling chair next to his desk. “Right, you mouthy little shit. Have a seat, let’s get you set up.”

Sitting gingerly on the edge of the seat, you watch him pull a small metal case from the cavernous depths of the desk. Pressing his thumb and ring finger to the smooth lid, the scanner registers his fingerprint pattern and hisses as it breaks open. Leaning forward, you peer curiously into the box, finding a simple silver bracelet and what appears to be a clear rectangle of plexiglass, lying on a bed of soft black velvet.

Tony picks up the bracelet and splits it open, gesturing for you to lift your arm. Raising your left hand, he snaps it around your wrist, and it immediately begins to vibrate, the cool metal warming instantly to match your body temperature. Startled, you glance up to see Tony grinning.

“New trackers, just out of research. It’s made of vibranium, has locator sensors built into the band. It’s calibrated to you, it reacts to your skin and your heartbeat. Keep it on all the time, it’ll pinpoint your exact location, down to the closest inch. The locator is mapped into Barnes’ phone, so he can find you at any point.”

Jiggling your wrist, you make a face. “Because that’s not creepy at all.”

He waggles his eyebrows, gives a suggestive wink. “I’m very good at creepy. If for some reason you have to take it off, press the clasp with your thumb – it’s only going to recognise your fingerprints, no one else can remove it.”

When he picks up the StarkPhone, you feel a flutter of excitement. The clear, smooth, impossibly thin rectangle blows away every version of the iPhone you’ve ever seen. Very tentatively, you lift it from his outstretched hand.

Fuck, you’re going to break this in no time.

“Your phone has a retinal scanner, it’s the only way it can open for use – it’s already set up, FRIDAY scanned you when you walked in.” He watches your overly cautious movements. And then he reaches out and slaps the phone out of your hand.

Squealing in panic, you watch the phone hit the ground with a hard bounce, looking back to him in shock. The asshole’s laughing again. “Don’t worry about being careful, it won’t break. Unless Barnes puts a bullet through it, I guess. Which he might do. Because he’s a dick.”

The phone is exceptionally intuitive, and after a quick tutorial, you’re set. Tucking it into your purse, you crack your knuckles nervously, focusing on the sad blue toaster, until Tony clears his throat quietly. Peeking up at him, you find a surprisingly sympathetic expression.

“Look, I got the debrief. It’s messed up, this crazy fucker sending you this shit. You’re in good hands with Barnes though. He’s a huge asshole sometimes, but he’s great at what he does. No one’s coming near you if he’s around.”

“I don’t think he’s thrilled with the job,” you note impassively. “Although neither am I.”

Tony shrugs. “Annoyed and combative is pretty much his M-O. You’ll get used to him.”

As if Tony’s assessment has conjured him from thin air, Bucky suddenly strides back through the doors of the lab, folding a sheaf of papers into his jacket.

“Are you good with everything?” He asks brusquely, and the frustration bubbles up, white-hot in your chest. Everything is flipping upside down for you, and he’s acting like you’re some kind of burden, like you fucking want to be here.

Well that’s just fine. He wants to be a jerk? You can play that game.

“Sure Bucky, all good. Here’s my new phone that only lets me talk to your approved list of people. Because that’s awesome. And here’s my new creepy ass bracelet, so you can apparently track my every god damn move. Heads up, this is fucking weird and I’m not wearing it in my apartment. You don’t need to know when I’m taking a shower or going to the bathroom. I’m keeping some semblance of privacy, even if it’s a bullshit illusion.”

There’s a dangerous edge to his voice when he responds. “Wrong. It stays on at all times.”

“Yeah, that’s a solid nope. Not happening.”

Bucky’s jaw clenches, nostrils flaring at the belligerent challenge.

“Stark, give us a minute,” he demands flatly.

Tony sighs theatrically, pulling off his glasses and tossing them on his desk with a dramatic flourish. “Sure Barnes, no problem. It’s not like I was busy geniusing or anything.”

Bucky doesn’t spare him a glance as Tony strolls out of the lab, muttering about super soldiers with attitude problems who take him for granted. His eyes remain locked on you, narrowing imperceptibly when he hears the lab doors snap shut.

“Let’s just get this out in the open, shall we?”

“Oh yes, let’s do that.” The sarcasm drips like vial of liquid rage you long to throw at him and this whole messed up, utterly insane situation. Bucky grits his teeth, clearly biting back a furious response.

“I don’t play games, let’s get that straight. There are three rules for this, and you’re gonna follow them at all times. They’re non-negotiable, so don’t you even fucking try to screw with me. If you break them, I will break your ass.”

Planting your hands on your hips, you grace him with a mocking smile. “I would so love to see you try.”

He ignores you.

“One, I am here for your safety, nothing more. I will not pick up your groceries or change your lightbulbs or load your dishwasher. I am not your fucking assistant and I do not do errands. If you need something done in your personal life, you can get off your ass and do it yourself.”

“Like you would even know how to load a dishwasher, you fucking cockmuppet,” you mutter.

He ignores you.

“Two. You will wear that bracelet 24/7 and I will know where you are at all times. I will take you to work and I will pick you up from work. No extra stops are permitted unless you can convince me it’s necessary. If you absolutely need to go somewhere else, I’m going with you. If you take a business lunch, I’m at the table next to you. If you feel the need to go on a date, I’m your chaperone. If you go out for ice cream, you can buy me one too. I only eat Rocky Road.”

“Rocky Road sucks so much ass,” you mumble.

He ignores you.

“Three, if at any point in time I order you to do something, you will do it without question. There is zero fucking flexibility here. If I tell you to run, you start sprinting. If I tell you to hide, you make yourself invisible. If I tell you to stay silent, you shut your mouth. Whatever I ask, I expect you to do it immediately. Do you understand?”

“I’ll give you fucking flexibility, you cracked out wanker,” you breathe quietly.

He takes a step closer, his voice a clear warning. “I’m sorry, I didn’t catch that. You want to try again there sweetheart? I asked if you fucking understand.”

His blue eyes are absolutely frigid as he glares at you, daring you to argue, and…

He called you sweetheart.

Well that just won’t fucking work.

“Alright, here’s my question Bucky. Have you ever worked for people who have, you know, a fucking life? I’m not upending everything because of this, it’s not happening. If you’re as good as you say, you can work on my terms.”

“The people I’ve guarded have been interested in staying alive, so they fucking listen to what I tell them. I can’t protect you if you’re not going to take this seriously.” With two long strides, Bucky is suddenly toe-to-toe with you, the faint scent of his jacket floating up to you, a mix of leather and spicy cologne that makes your stomach clench for the briefest moment. He towers above you, brown hair brushing over cheekbones sharp enough to cut glass. Crowding your personal space, he looks down with a remarkably pissed off sneer twisting his lips.

That look alone would be enough to send anyone else running for cover, however, the Red Bull is charging through your veins and you have a metric shit ton of pent up anger at this situation, so caution is thrown to the wind. Instead, you flash a bright smile, poke your finger angrily into his chest, and reply in a sugary sweet voice.

“I’ll do what I want Barnes. When I want. How I want. You’re welcome to join me, but best of luck trying to stop me. So let me just ask you - do you fucking understand?”

The shock on Bucky’s face is priceless. Watching the emotions dance across his face, his brain shifting and resetting, you can see him calculating how best to respond. The waves of anger are tangible, rolling off his body as he fights to keep his temper in check.

You don’t bother to wait for him to figure out his next move. Snatching up your bag, you push past him and toss one last comment over your shoulder.

“By the way, if you ever call me sweetheart again, I’ll throat punch you. Winter Fucking Soldier or no.”

Bucky starts to grab for your arm, but pulls back as he reconsiders. He’s tempted to drag you back to the lab, tie you to the chair, and leave you there until you come to grips with the situation, but the fact is, he’s no stranger to this response – in all his years doing this job, he’s learned that people with the biggest attitudes are usually the ones masking the greatest fear.

So, he takes a deep breath and counts to ten, calming his strung-out nerves before he follows. 

It’s possible he underestimated this challenge. He can’t fight fire with fire, he needs to find another way to get through. But the truth is, underneath his irritation with you, Bucky feels the beginning of something else.

A grudging flicker of respect. He rolls his eyes at himself, grunting under his breath.

“Well, isn’t that just fucking annoying.”

Chapter Text

Bucky snaps the cap on a fresh bottle of Jack Daniels, and pours a tumbler full of whiskey. Draining the glass, he lets the liquid slosh in his mouth, savouring both the sharp taste and the burn that follows. He won’t get drunk, hasn’t actually been drunk since 1943, but the idea of it still relaxes him. Sometimes that’s enough.

He fills another glass and settles in for a long night.

Laptop balanced on his knees, he sits on the floor of the tower’s dark common room and leans against the sofa. The empty silence surrounds him, broken periodically by the soft clicks of the keypad as he moves through article after article, reading every single thing you’ve ever written.

Blistering character summarisations of the Hydra Senators indicted. An analysis of the last G8 summit. Interviews conducted during the height of the 2010 Arab Spring. Projections on the long-term economic impacts of the 2008 market crash.

The scope of your writing is hugely varied, the passion behind everything clearly articulated in every carefully chosen word and turn of phrase. He has no problem admitting he’s impressed.

He makes notes as he reads, and hours pass before he sets the laptop aside and picks up the case study SHIELD compiled, flicks it open. Bucky had it memorised after the first review, but he goes through it again, searching for anything that may spark a new clue. He skims your profile sheet, copies of the letters, the empty lab analysis Bernstein completed, profiles on the three Senators you unmasked.

The detailed summary of your history.

Bucky slows and reads that summary again, feels a tug in his chest. Winces at the images he sees. He fiddles with the paperclip stuck to the back of the folder, unwinds it and curls it back again, buried deep in his thoughts.

Finally, there in the middle of the night, he reaches a conclusion.

He’ll have to approach this differently. This isn’t a battle he wins with a stubborn attitude and loud voice. Now he’s seen you in action, he knows how to hit the verbal battlefield and hold his own. Find those commonalities and connections between you to enable trust. Practice the patience he preaches.

Bucky scratches his chin absently, flips back to the front of the file, and he starts reading again. He swallows another glassful of whiskey.

And if his gaze lingers on your photograph longer than necessary, he chooses to ignore that fact.

 

-----



7:14: First day. Morning pick-up. On route to office.

You are so late. Tearing through your apartment, you throw things at random into a brown leather tote: phone, keys, gum, Snickers, laptop, last night’s edited notes. Hopping on one foot as you slide on a pair of worn black flats, you tumble headfirst into the front door, growling furiously as you give it a frustrated kick.

When the elevator reaches the lobby, you bolt from the doors as they slide open. Waving a distracted hello to the elderly woman sitting at the front desk, you sprint into the sidewalk.

Where you smash headlong into the tall man blocking the front entrance.

“Excuse you,” you mutter angrily, trying to side-step him.

“Good morning to you too.” Bucky turns around with a smile, a travel mug of coffee in hand.

“Shitballs. Why the hell are you here?” you huff.

“I realise you were in quite the mood yesterday, but I explained this. I walk you to work, I pick you up from work,” he answers patiently.

“You were being serious? You’re really meeting me here every god damn morning?”

“Is it possible for you to get through a sentence without swearing?”

“Probably fucking not.”

“Alright. Guess I’ll learn to fucking live with it then.”

The comment startles a laugh from you, which you cut off immediately. Validating him is not on your list of things to do today. Gesturing to the coffee shop across from your apartment, you start walking instead. “If you want to walk with me that’s fine, but I need coffee first.”

Bucky snags your arm as you try to blow past him. “No, you’re not getting coffee there. This guy mentioned that coffee shop in the letters. If he’s keeping tabs on your routine, he knows where and when to expect you. We’re changing things up, I want him confused.”

“Real talk Bucky. If you’re telling me I can’t have coffee, I will meltdown. In public. It will be very dramatic and you will have to deal with it.”

Gripping your elbow, he steers you in the opposite direction from your office. “You can have coffee, but we’re going somewhere new. Out of the way.”

Digging your heels into the pavement is useless, and he easily pulls you forward. “I’ll be late. I don’t have time to go out of my way.”

“Then you’ll be late. Maybe tomorrow you can wake up earlier, so we’re not rushing,” he says in a maddeningly condescending tone.

“I will murder you,” you whisper. 

 

-----



12:22: Lunch. Food truck in the park down the street.

Stomach rumbling, you step from the revolving door outside your office and head hopefully toward the line of food trucks jammed into the park.

“Where are you buying me lunch?” The husky voice asks, directly in your ear.

“Sonofabitch!”

Spinning in alarm, you bump into Bucky, who stands immediately behind you. Fumbling fingers lose the grip on your bag as you trip backward, and his silver hand shoots out, catching the strap before it spills on the ground.

“Nah, just me,” he replies lightly, handing back your bag while he looks over your shoulder at the crush of people swarming the plaza. The crossword from today’s paper is folded in his back pocket, a pen tucked behind his ear.

“Don’t you have somewhere else you need to be?” Snatching the bag from his outstretched hand, you clutch it tight to your chest.

“Nope.” He smiles brightly.

“Sure. Because that would be too easy. Fine. My favourite food truck’s in the park, so I’m getting tacos. Is that okay?”

“Do you go there often?” Bucky questions, clearly signalling the possibility of dragging you elsewhere if this is a habitual destination.

“I used to go often, but I haven’t visited in a couple months. Don’t take this away from me.” You’re ready to grovel. You really need those tacos.

“I don’t feel like tacos.”

“Well that’s too fucking bad Bucky, I was being polite and I don’t actually care what you feel like. I’m getting tacos.”

He shrugs companionably. “Okay. Tacos it is then.”

Striding quickly away from him, you head toward the small stretch of green space around the corner. Bucky follows a step behind, his long legs easily keeping pace.

When you reach the taco queue, he stays close by your side, his right hand tucked in his jacket, the left hanging loose at his side. From the corner of your eye, you see those shiny metal fingers tapping together as he scans the park.

“There she is! Haven’t seen you in forever gorgeous, where you been? Can’t keep avoiding me you know, we ever going on that date? You just gotta say the word.”

The man running the truck leans over the counter, running a hand through messy brown hair, giving you a lecherous smile and a flirty wink. For fuck’s sake. You have said the word. That word is no, an answer you’ve supplied on five separate occasions, but it appears he still hasn’t added the word to his vocabulary.

Frankly if the tacos weren’t so fucking delicious, you wouldn’t be here. Plastering on a fake smile, you open your mouth to answer this jackass yet again, but with a casual gesture, Bucky beats you to the punch.

Abandoning his perusal of the park, he clears his throat and shifts closer to you, removing his sunglasses to hang them carefully from the neck of his black t-shirt. Straightening up to his full height, he calmly raises a metal hand to adjust the collar of his jacket, his eyes trained squarely on the guy. A purely lethal smile slowly curves his mouth.

Catching sight of those metal fingers and suddenly recognising their owner, taco guy visibly blanches. His eyes move rapidly between the two of you, and he leans back into the truck, stuttering nervously.

“Uh sorry, sorry. Sorry. What, um, what can I get you?”

Keeping the fake smile in place, you bite your cheek, trying not to laugh. Apparently, Bucky Barnes can come in handy.

“Can I get two of the fajita chicken tacos, and two of the barbacoa. Everything on them.”

Bucky makes a small noise of dissent. “Two tacos? They’re ridiculously tiny.”

“And you’re ridiculously large. I can’t feed a super soldier on my salary, alright? If you want another taco, buy it yourself.”

He snorts, leaning an elbow on the counter to casually invade the taco guy’s space, and orders three more tacos. When you pull out your wallet to pay, he pushes your hand away, shaking his head as he drops a black credit card on the counter. You look up at him in disbelief.

“Were you seriously going to make me buy your tacos when you have a credit card limit that could buy a house?”

Bucky shrugs. “I just wanted to see if you would. It’s nice to know you care.”

“Yes, well clearly I don’t care, since I’d rather see you starve than buy your extra tacos.”

He grins in response and reaches over the counter to grab a fistful of napkins. Taco guy tries valiantly to speak again.

“Um, just one napkin per customer.”

Bucky lifts an eyebrow.

“Sorry, uh, sorry sir, take as many as you need, totally fine, no problem.”

Gathering up the food, you locate an empty park bench and plop down. Bucky remains standing, holding four tacos in one hand as he unwraps the fifth with his teeth. From your lower vantage point, you watch his eyes track steadily across the small park. He pivots slowly on the spot, seeming to review each direction individually – north, south, east, west – placing mental markers down as he moves.

“Why do you do that?”

He glances down to you, teeth still tugging on the parchment paper folded around his food. He looks confused.

“Why do I do what?”

“You look like you’re – memorising or counting or something.”

He doesn’t answer right away. Returns to his task, sweeps his gaze across the park. Water fountains near the main entrance, one newspaper kiosk in the centre, sidewalk cracked and uneven in multiple areas, two men with Yankees hats buying magazines, three exits available with a fourth still chained shut. Cataloguing the items, filing them away.

Just in case.

Dropping to the bench, he angles his body so he’s facing you. He finally gets the wrapping off the taco, and takes a huge bite, chewing slowly while he considers the question.

“Let me ask you something. Right now, how do you feel about everything that’s happening – not knowing who this person is, having me question all your decisions and tell you what to do?”

“I fucking hate it,” you answer honestly. No hesitation.

Bucky gives you a small smile. “Exactly. Not being in control sucks – and it’s dangerous. If I know everything about my surroundings, down to the smallest details, I’m at a huge advantage. I can put contingency plans in place, and deal with problems faster. I spent seventy years unable to control what was happening to me, what I was doing.” He states it so blatantly, it takes a moment to register to weight of his words. Looking at the pile of food in his lap, he picks another taco and begins to unwrap it. “Having control over what’s around me keeps me sane.”

Grudgingly, you begin to accept the idea that maybe, just maybe, Bucky knows what the hell he’s doing.

He lets you absorb the comment, allows you to quietly lose yourself in the swirl of thoughts swimming through your head. Bucky is equally silent, remaining on high alert the entire time, eyes roving across the park until he swallows his last bite – all five tacos are gone before you finish two. When you finish, you look up to find him watching you, an unreadable look on his face.

“I’m ready when you are,” you offer, balling up the dirty parchment paper.

He’s still regarding you with that odd expression, when he suddenly leans forward, his thumb catching a dab of salsa from your cheek, wiping it away. The warmth of his finger against your skin is disconcerting, and you can’t stop the quick hitch of breath.

He seems utterly shocked by his action, jerking his hand away quickly. “Sorry, I’m sorry.”

Reaching into his jacket, he pulls out the stack of napkins he pilfered from the taco stand, wordlessly handing you one. He makes sure not to touch your skin again. 

 

-----


15:56: Walking to coffee house across the street.

He’s standing next to the revolving doors again when you venture into the sunny afternoon. Considering this was a spur of the moment trip, you want to be surprised, but you’re learning not to question it.

“Have you been awkwardly loitering since lunch? Aren’t you bored?”

Bucky waves the partially completed crossword he had earlier. “Don’t worry, I’m entertained.”

“I didn’t know you could read, thought you were just here for the muscle.”

“You wound me,” he replies loftily. “So, where are we headed?”

“Starbucks. It’s literally across the street. Do you still need to come, or will you trust me to go by myself?”

“I trust you fine, however I’m highly suspicious of everyone else. I’ll join you,” he answers promptly, falling in step beside you.

The smell of coffee is genuinely the one aroma that never fails to raise your spirits, so when the warm scent hits, your mood perks instantly. The barista behind the counter recognises that look, automatically picking up a large coffee cup and giving you a grin. Reaching the counter, you smile in relief.

“Coffee please, with an extra shot. No, wait.” You pause. “Actually, make it three extra shots. And a blueberry muffin. And can I get two of those vanilla cake pops?” Pointing a finger over your shoulder, you indicate Bucky standing behind you. “He’s buying, thanks.”

His sigh is clearly audible over the sound of the coffee grinder.

 

-----



20:48: Leaving the office. On route to apartment.

Darkness has fallen when you finally leave the office, feet dragging as you make your way to his side. The blue glow from his phone illuminates Bucky’s face when he glances up.

“And…he’s still here.”

“I’m still here.”

“Have we confirmed you’re not my stalker? Because everywhere I go – there you are.”

“Definitely not me. I can barely read, remember? Never could have made those letters.” Bucky declares.

“Hardy har har,” you sass back. 

 

-----



Bucky follows you into the elevator of your apartment building, and walks you to your front door, waiting while you fish the keys from the bottom of your bag. Finding them with a jingle, you wave them in front of his face.

“Well, we made it through one day and nothing happened. I had such a great time, so excited to do it again tomorrow.”

“It was a great time, I’m glad you agree. We’re not done though. I need to do a sweep of your apartment,” he reminds you.

For some reason, this small little thing flips the switch and you balk at the front door. “No. You don’t need to come into my apartment.”

“Yes, I do.”

“No, you don’t.”

Fixing you with that icy stare, he simply waits, clearly ready to shove a foot through the door the moment it opens. Grumbling under your breath, you unlock the top lock and start to push the door open, when Bucky snakes his hand around to grab the handle and yank it shut in your face.

“Bucky, what the hell?”

“Did you lock the deadbolt this morning?” His voice is deadly serious, all trace of earlier congeniality gone.

Wracking your brain for a moment, you think back to the whirlwind rush out the door. Groaning internally, you give the wrong answer. “No, I guess I forgot. I was in a hurry.”

He remains silent, waiting for you to acknowledge the mistake.

“Bucky, can you just – not? I’m so fucking tired, I barely slept againlast night, which makes a grand total of five hours in the last two days. My apartment’s a mess, I’m a mess, and I just want a bottle of wine and my bed. I’m sorry I didn’t lock the door all the way, you’ve made your point, I won’t do it again. Now can we please just do this another night?” 

He rakes both hands through his dark hair, tugging the ends in exasperation. “Goddammit, I’m trying here, I really, really am. Can you please make an effort and meet me halfway on things?”

“Oh my god, fine. Come in for five minutes and then you’re gone.” You open the door, then hip-check him before he can move inside. “On one condition. You come in now, but I walk myself to work in the morning. I’ll go to your stupid new coffee shop with the garbage coffee, but I’ll meet you at the office instead.”

Bucky blows out a frustrated breath and shoves past you. “Jesus Christ. Can you just stop being difficult? I’m meeting you here in the morning, I will take you to work. End of discussion.” 

Dropping your bag on the kitchen counter, you take a steadying breath before responding. “Look Bucky, I appreciate what you’re trying to do here. Really, I do. But this has been blown completely out of proportion. I get weird shit from people all the time – hell, one time a guy sent me a bag of his beard hair. I know weird. I can handle weird. So I’d be extremely grateful if you would back off and give me fucking space.”

Scrubbing his flesh hand over his face, the anger is obvious as his voice begins to rise. “I can’t keep having this conversation with you. I’m trying to figure out who the fuck this guy is, but I don’t believe it’s some weirdo with a crush. If Hydra’s involved, you are in real danger and you need to accept that right now and start taking this fucking seriously!”

“I am taking this seriously! I’m not a god damn idiot Bucky, I fucking get it, but I can’t handle all of you treating me like a fucking child!” You don’t realise you’re yelling until you stop speaking.

“Then why don’t you stop acting like a child and listen to me?” Bucky shouts back.

“Because I can take care of myself! I’ve been doing it since I was 12-years-old, I don’t need help!”

At your words, he reigns himself in. Takes a step back, shoulders slumping as the anger melts away. Pinching the bridge of his nose, he observes you for a full minute, before reaching a decision.

“Okay, I get it. I really do. How about we make a deal. Let me tell you a story. After you hear it, if you still think you’re happy without my help, I’ll stay out of your way. You can do your thing, I’ll follow your lead and stay in the background. But, if you hear the story and decide you want my help, we start fresh. You’ll follow my rules and I’ll do my best to make this partnership work for us both.”

Squinting up at him, you weigh the proposal. Really, what could he say?

“Alright. Let me hear your story.”

Bucky motions to the couch, a silent request. Collapsing with an unceremonious flop, you drag a blanket into your lap and get cosy. An unusual stillness settles over the room, thick and uncomfortable, while he collects his thoughts. He seems resigned when he finally speaks.

“Two years ago, I was doing recon outside an old Hydra base in northern Kazakhstan. Intel said the location had been abandoned for decades, but there was a string of unexplained disappearances in the area, so I went to scout as a precaution. It only sparked on our radar because the disappearances had a commonality – they were all kids, none of them older than ten, stolen from their beds in the middle of the night. Over five weeks, seven children went missing in the same way.”

Bucky pauses, biting his lip uneasily. He hates this story, struggles every time he thinks about it. Gazing into the distance, he eventually summons the courage to continue, his voice an octave lower, clipped and controlled.

“When I got within a mile of the base, it was pitch black, middle of the night – but heat sensors picked up life forms inside. It was pouring rain, so it was easy to get through the perimeter undetected. I found a side entrance off the south end, picked the lock and got inside, but the place was barren. Until I reached the lower level. Found seven concrete cells, that was when they kept them. There were dead kids in four of them, all sprawled on their backs, dried blood in streaks down their faces. I wanted to take them out, but then I heard screaming, so I – left them. I had to leave them. I followed the screams down a muddy hallway.”

He stops again, fighting to keep the emotion from his voice. With every fibre of your being, you’re regretting this conversation, because you know this story will not have a happy ending.

“When I found the lab, they had three kids strapped down on metal tables. Two little boys, eight and six, and a little girl of ten. They were all crying, trying to kick free. There were two men slicing open their little arms, pushing needles full of green liquid under their skin. The bastards didn’t hear me come in, but I made fucking sure they each saw my face before I slit their throats.”

The answer seems obvious, from the way Bucky hesitates, but you whisper the question anyway.

“What were they trying to do?”

Bucky glances at the ceiling, lips twisting in a bitter smile. “What else? They were trying to replicate the serum – either mine or Steve’s – and they decided to test it on the kids. I got the last three out of the base, ran as fast as I could. They were so small. Thought if I could get them back here, maybe something could be done, but it didn’t matter. All three were dead within ten minutes. They died screaming, bleeding from their eyes and ears, before the seizures hit and they stopped breathing. I tried CPR on all of them, but it was useless. Even if the formula was correct, it was never intended for kids. It burned them from the inside, turned their organs to ash. I couldn’t save them.”

You can’t speak, your imagination briefly tricking your senses into believing you’re there, side by side with him in the dark night. The bone-rattling crash of thunder, the feel of rain pelting skin. Bucky kneeling in the cold mud trying desperately to save three little kids. He looks down, meets your horrified face.

“I’m telling you this story for a reason, and I want to be very clear about that reason. You’re shocked and disgusted, and you should be. So am I – I still dream about those kids. But I’m telling you this, because I need you to know that what they did? It was nothing unique. Just your average, every day horror story, because this is who they are all the time. All the time.” The last words are stressed with heated urgency; he is desperate to make you understand. “This is the Hydra I know. In seventy years, I’ve seen things that could fuel your worst nightmares for the rest of your life. I need you to understand the depth of fucking depravity that sits in this organisation. I need you to realise why I’m taking these precautions.”

He bows his head when he finishes, hands clenched in tight fists as his side.

The incongruity of a terribly loud silence settles over you, buzzing in your ears. Stomach bile begins to crawl up your throat, burning acid that takes several attempts to choke back.

All of a sudden, the truth of this situation hits home and the dam breaks. It’s too much. It’s all too much. Exhausted and overwhelmed and scared, the anxiety attack slams into you with the force of a hurricane. Panic seeps under your skin, a river of ice washing away every trace of warmth, and you stumble to your feet as your entire body begins to shake, teeth chattering so hard your jaw aches. Curving forward, sweaty hands clutch your knees, the ragged breaths torn roughly from your lungs.

Bucky looks up in alarm, and he diagnoses the situation in a heartbeat. In one swift move, he is suddenly beside you, curling an arm around your waist and gently lifting you upright.

“Stand up straight, raise your arms. Breathe slow, deep breaths. There you go.” He murmurs low and soothing, turning you to face him, forcing you to focus on him. He nods reassuringly, blue eyes softening when he sees the fear in your face. “Hey now, what’s this? Where’d that raging attitude go? You’re okay, I promise.”

Linking your fingers on top of your head, you squeeze your eyes shut, trying to match your harsh, broken panting to his calm, even breaths.

“This is not okay. It’s not okay Bucky, it’s not.”

“I know. You’re right, nothing about this is okay.”” Bucky answers softly, his arm wrapped firmly around you. Metal fingers are pressed cool on your heated skin, when he cups your chin and tips your face up. “Open your eyes for me, there you go. Listen to me. I promise you right nowI’m gonna protect you with everything I got in me, alright? To the very last breath, whatever it takes, however you need. You call my name, and I’ll run to you. I’ll always come for you. Do you understand? You’re safe with me.”

Chapter Text

He pulls on latex gloves, selects a small scalpel. Opening the newspaper, he skims the headlines, searching for what he needs. He hums under his breath as he works, carefully slicing out letters, words, small phrases. Each piece he cuts is delicately collected with a shiny pair of tweezers, before it’s placed gently on a small silver tray.

He loves her. He loves her so much. He would do anything for her, be anything for her. He would kill for her, he would die for her. My god, he was so alone before, but then he found her and she is everything.

He found her first.

But then they found him.

They said they would help, if he just followed their instructions, did exactly what they said. So he did what they asked and it was working, he knows it was working. She was starting to love him back.

But now HE is there. He’s everywhere all the time, and it’s wrong, wrong, wrong. Everything is wrong.

He can’t lose her.

He won’t lose her.

Not to the Soldier.

He hisses a shuddering breath, and the scalpel slips and nicks his finger. Piercing the latex glove, he watches curiously as a drop of blood wells up, rising through his skin. It hangs precariously before it spills over, dripping to the paper and soaking in, like red ink spidering into tiny lines across the page.

 

-----

 

When the office goes quiet, you hit your stride. The words flow fast and furious, pouring from your fingers as the article takes shape. Headphones are nestled snugly in your ears, blocking out the world as the office powers down for the night, and the hours tick by as you lose yourself in the story.

It’s late when you put the finishing touches on the final paragraph, and if your last two texts are anything to go by, Bucky will be pacing anxiously downstairs. They reduce building security after 23:00 and you know he’s uncomfortable with you alone on the floor.

Over the past week and a half, you’ve finally started to figure him out.

The morning after your meltdown, he appeared in front of your apartment with a quiet ‘good morning,’ clearly relieved when you managed a hesitant smile in return. He didn’t mention the night before, but when he fell in step at your side, he spoke lightly of random topics, making a conscious effort to put you at ease.

With that effort, an unspoken truce was established. Tentative at first, as you cautiously circled each other, but the glue appears to be holding.

That truce hasn’t precluded you from still bitching at each other when the opportunity arises. Somehow, the man can get under your skin in just the right way, leaving you spoiling for a fight. But the more you learn about him, the more time you spend peeling away that stoic mask, the more you find yourself annoyingly intrigued.

He does crossword puzzles to keep his brain sharp. There are at least four knives strapped to his body at all times. He likes his coffee harshly, bitterly black. He speaks at least eight different languages and he knows the lyrics to every single Beatles song.

Bucky Barnes is refreshingly, unnervingly, unexpected.

Hitting save, you submit the final version to your proofreader, and slouch in your chair with relief. Rubbing blurry eyes and stretching your arms with a soft groan, you can feel the stress evaporate as you stand. Keeping your headphones in place, you pause to let the song finish, allowing your mind to wander into a blissfully relaxing dead space.

The pressure of a warm hand suddenly presses down on your shoulder, freezing you in place. Panic washes over you, sliding icy cold down your back. This floor should be empty by now.

No one else should be here.

Without missing a beat, you spin on your heel, pulling your arm back and throwing your fist forward with every ounce of strength you possess.

Bucky easily catches the punch, the sound of your knuckles a dull smack against the skin of his palm. He briefly contemplates your pitiful attempt at violence, before nodding decisively.

“We’re starting self-defence training tomorrow.”

 

-----


The tower wasn’t quite as intimidating this visit. Following Bucky into the elevator, you steel your stomach for the jet fuelled ride up to the gym level.

Training for superheroes and super assassins and all kinds of super people was obviously something they prioritised, but you’re still astounded when you see the facility. The entire floor is beautifully constructed, floor to ceiling windows letting sunlight flood into the space, illuminating the high-tech equipment scattered throughout the room. It’s nothing like the dank, cramped little gym you currently pay far too much in monthly fees to never attend.

Winding through rows of machines and free weights, Bucky leads you toward a dedicated sparring area, when you suddenly hear your name.

“Look who it is!” There’s a clank of weights smashing together, and you turn to find Steve grinning at you. Sweat rolls down his face, his broad chest stretching the seams of his size SMedium shirt.

“Hey Steve, how are you?” His grin is infectiously sunny, and you find yourself smiling in return.

“I’m good! How are you, everything going well? You guys getting along okay?” He tosses a mischievous glance at Bucky, who responds with an impressive scowl.

“We called a truce.” Bucky warns. “Don’t give her any ideas to fuck it up for me Rogers.”

Steve barks out a laugh when he catches the little smirk you can’t hide.

“Now why would I do that? You know I hate making your life difficult Buck,” he says, an evil twinkle in his sky-blue eyes.

“Yes, we’d hate for Bucky to have a difficult time, that would be tragic,” you agree drily.

Steve points to the tall man resting on the bench next to him. “You meet Sam yet?”

Sam Wilson, with his dreamy brown eyes and that little gap between his front teeth and those biceps, hops up to greet you with a sweaty handshake and an adorable grin, and you feel your cheeks getting warm.

“It’s nice to meet you,” you answer shyly. “I saw you a few months ago, when you were on that mission in Tanzania. It was amazing, watching you with your wings.”

“Always good to meet a fan,” Sam responds with a flirty wink. He digs a playful elbow into Bucky’s side. “Barnes, you listening to this? She thinks I’m amazing.”

“Seriously?” You hear Bucky mutter under his breath. He rocks back and forth on the balls of his feet, clearly impatient as he watches the two of you. “Yeah okay, enough fucking chit chat, we need to go.”

Sam gives you a cheeky little wave as Bucky drags you away, and you laugh. Still grumbling at your side, he gives you a pointed look. “You’re here to learn, please be serious.”

You zip your lips, and switch on your serious face. “Don’t worry Bucky, I’m totally in the zone.”

He grunts an annoyed huff.

Weaving your way through the rest of the machines, you finally reach the black mats. Sprawled in the centre, her fiery red hair pulled into a sleek ponytail, is your instructor.

Bucky asked Natasha to give you lessons, assuring you she was the best person for the job. When you questioned why he couldn’t just teach you, his rationale was simple. “Natasha’s spent most of her life having people underestimate her. She can teach you how to use that to your advantage.”

Hearing your approach, she jumps to her feet, strolling over with a friendly smile. Bucky introduces the two of you, giving you an encouraging nod when he notices you fidgeting nervously.

“There’s no pressure, all you need to do is listen, ask questions, and give it a try. Nat’s giving you the basics, enough so you can put up a fight if something happens and I’m not there. Don’t rush, practice as long as you like, I’m heading down to – ”

In the moment right before it happens, you see realisation and resignation flash in Bucky’s eyes. There’s a blur of moving limbs and Natasha is suddenly riding on his shoulders, her thighs locked around his throat, choking off his air supply. His hand scrabbles briefly at her leg, before she throws her body back and flips him onto the map. He lands with a hard thump, and his breath leaves his lungs with a whoosh.

Natasha is perfectly calm about the entire incident, unlocking her legs and rolling to her feet. She grins at you.

“Lesson number one, even super soldiers will go down if you find an opening.”

Fact. Natasha Romanoff is your new hero.

Bucky is rubbing his neck, glaring at her. You think you hear him mumble something about ‘why the hell I’m friends with you people,’ but you’re not sure.

Anyway. I’m headed down to the shooting range, come down when you’re finished.” Throwing Natasha a dirty look, Bucky stomps back to the entrance.

Staring in awe you can only find one thing to say. “I need to learn how to do that.”

 

-----

 

Sweat drips down your temples, and you drag your forearm across your face, trying to

keep the salty beads of water from stinging your eyes. Natasha has been pushing you for hours, and even though your muscles are screeching in protest, you keep going.

After assessing your experience, she decided to focus on three specific moves. For each, she talks you through the mechanics, gives examples of when to use it, and demonstrates the move in slow motion. She is infinitely patient, immediately dismissing your apologies when you fumble a move or stumble with a step.

“The only thing I’m pissed about,” she replies to your initial apology, “is the fact that you have to do this. We’ll keep going until you’re comfortable, it’s no problem at all.”

Listening intently as she speaks, you try hard to commit everything to memory, praying you never need to use any of the knowledge, but knowing you sure as shit want to be perfect if the day comes.

 

“First one is called an ‘open hand strike’ and it does exactly what it says. Use the heel of your hand to go after vulnerable areas around your attacker’s face, but I’d focus on the eyes and nose. It’s a real punch, just without closing your fist.”

She re-positions you when needed and lets you practice the footwork, watching intently as you slide through the movements, slow and cautious as your brain pivots awkwardly around each individual step.


 

“This is called a ‘ground attack.’ If you fall or get knocked down, take advantage of the position by kicking. From a pure strength standpoint, you’ll get more bang for your buck from your feet, so it’s a good strategy. If they’re standing above you, kick with both heels, and rock your hips up to get more leverage.

You can feel when things begin to click into place, the moves coming faster, smoother, more naturally. Muscle memory emerges, stretching and expanding as it links everything together.

 

“Your best option will always be a ‘groin kick’. I heard you already threatened Tony with this one, so it won’t need much explanation. If you’re in a position where your brain freezes and you don’t know what to do, always go for the groin. It takes very little technique, and statistically, most people find it an automatic reaction anyway. Make sure you understand how close your attacker is, so you know whether to use your foot or a knee instead.”

Midway through the session, Sam and Steve wander over, and Steve willingly offers himself up for practice. He’s sweetly helpful, advising blocking strategies and sharing tips from back in his younger, smaller days. Good-natured about the entire thing, he lets you swing and punch and kick at him until your hearts content, easily stopping everything you throw.

Until the end anyway, when you hit the ground at his feet, and automatically fling your arm up, swinging for his knee. Overestimating your reach, you slam a fist into his groin.

“OH MY GOD! Steve, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” Steve drops like a rag doll, curling into himself while he gasps for breath. “Oh god, oh shit, I dick punched Captain America! Fuck! That has to be treason, right?”

“No, no, it was a great hit!” he wheezes. “I’m just – I’m gonna need a minute.”

Sam is crouching on the mats with his phone extended, gleefully filming as Steve rolls on the floor moaning, his hands tucked between his legs. When he sees Sam, Steve manages to release one hand long enough to flip him off.

Thank you. This is the best day of my life,” Sam says seriously, looking up from his camera with a happy smile.

Natasha hums approvingly and pats your arm. “Nice. Make sure you remember this, it’s important. Anyone can go down, you just need to find your opening.” 

 

-----


There’s a certain satisfaction following a good workout, and the endorphins are pumping through your veins as you bound down the short staircase off the elevator and into the shooting range.

You feel strong, powerful. Ready to start a fight just so you can prove you know what the fuck you’re doing.

Skidding to a stop, the view takes your breath away. The shooting range is massive, an underground facility spanning multiple city blocks, offering practice options for every possible scenario. Row upon row of guns, knives, and bows in every shape and size imaginable, some with technology that probably shouldn’t exist, line the wall in the common area.

Walking slowly along the bulletproof glass enclosing the shooting lanes, you find Bucky in the only occupied stall at the far end. He stands in front of a ledge facing a myriad of targets, breaking down a pile of guns, methodically wiping each piece before putting them in storage cases. Strands of dark hair have fallen loose from the knot at his neck, and there’s a deep line cut into his forehead, where his brows come together as he concentrates.

Tapping lightly on the glass door, he glances up. The frown fades away, replaced with a soft smile. He waves his hand, motioning you to come into the stall.

“How was it?” he asks, his voice interested, posture unusually relaxed. You study him for a moment, startled to realise you have never, ever seen him this calm. Only within the confines of the tower, where he feels perfectly at ease, does he seem to loosen up.

“It was great, we practised Krav Maga. I need to find someone to fight, I think I’ll be fucking awesome at it.”

Bucky grimaces. “Jesus, that sounds familiar. Just know, I’ll forbid you from talking to Steve Rogers if I need to.”

“Nah, don’t worry. I accidentally punched Steve in the balls,” you admit sheepishly. “I don’t think he wants to talk to me anyway.”

He bursts into laughter at the confession, the sound of his warm voice echoing comfortably in the small space. “Well, it’s good he get’s his ass handed to him now and then. Keeps him humble.”

Still running on adrenaline, you gesture to the empty gun range. “Can you show me how to shoot?”

Clearly surprised, he’s caught off guard by the request, but you can tell he’s pleased by your interest. Looking down at the array of guns in front of him, he hesitates only slightly before answering. “Sure, if you want to try, I can show you. Let me get a smaller gun though, you can’t shoot these.”

Pointing to the gun still in his hand, you bristle immediately at his implication that you can’t do something. “Why? I can shoot that one, what’s the big deal?”

Clipping the pieces back together, Bucky shakes his head. “The big deal is that this is the highest calibre handgun I own and the recoil will knock you on your ass. I don’t want you to get hurt.”

“That’s very sweet and probably a little sexist, but completely fucking unnecessary. I’ll be fine, let’s just use this one.”

He looks at you sceptically. He has enough experience with your attitude to know when trying to talk you out of something is a colossal waste of time. He can see this is one of those times.

“Alright, up to you. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

When you reach for the gun, Bucky moves it away. Rather than simply hand it over, he insists on a brief tutorial, explaining the mechanics of the weapon, describing how each component works, walking through proper shooting technique, and pointing out over and over where the safety mechanism is located.

His expertise is obvious and strangely compelling. For once, you appreciate his excessive attention to detail, and make a point to listen closely. Fleetingly, an internal voice taps on your brain to whisper how nice it might be to sit and listen to him explain other things, before you swiftly crush that thought.

When he finally finishes his demonstration, he picks up a pair of noise cancelling headphones and settles them carefully over your ears, flicking a switch on the side so you can still hear him speak. Picking a pair of transparent safety glasses from a hook on the wall, he slips them on your face as well, shielding your eyes.

Satisfied all the protocols are in place, he loads a single bullet into the magazine, snaps it shut and cocks the hammer, before placing the gun in your hand.

“The safety’s off, so it’s live. Be careful,” he warns, moving to stand behind you.

Finding the closest target in the lane, you raise your arm, twisting your wrist to turn the gun sideways as you aim.

“Wait, what the hell are you doing?” Bucky interrupts, reaching around you to turn your wrist straight.

“This is how they do it on TV,” you insist.

“Are you in a fucking street gang? No. Turn it the right way and use both hands or you’ll break your goddamn wrist.”

Growling at him, you grip the gun with both hands and he steps back again.

“Remember, squeeze, don’t jerk the trigger.”

“I know, Bucky.”

“And keep both eyes open.”

“For fuck’s sake, I know.”

“And be ready for the recoil.”

“Bucky, you’re being a real fucking twatwaffle. I know.”

“Okay, okay, I’m just helping. Go on.”

He flips the switch on your headphones, effectively silencing everything around you. Lining up your shot, you take a deep breath before squeezing the trigger gently.

Did he say the gun had a kick? That was a bald-faced lie. The recoil is akin to punching a fucking brick wall and it sends you flying backward with a yelp, but you don’t get far. Fully anticipating the result, Bucky stands immediately at your back, and his arms quickly fold around you, catching your body before you topple over.

“Jesus H Christ, you could’ve warned me,” you say, as he sets you back on your feet. Unable to hear his response, you pull off the headphones and spin around to face him, before realising you’re actually shouting in his face. “Oh. Sorry. Did I at least hit the target?”

Bucky rubs a hand over his jaw, trying very unsuccessfully to scrub the smile from his face. “Yeah, um you did. Just not yours.” Pointing to the next lane over, you see a target moving slightly.

“Well fuck a nut.”

He snorts at the response, eyes shining with suppressed laughter.

“I expect you think you’re better.”

Raising an eyebrow, he stares at you with amusement. “Just so I’m clear, you’re asking a military trained sniper if he can hit the target he’s aiming for?”

“Well when you put it that way, it sounds stupid,” you answer irritably. Suddenly, inspiration strikes. “Actually, you know what? Yes, I amasking if you can hit a target, but since I know how much you like making deals, I have a proposition. The gun holds seven bullets, right?”

“If you were paying attention to me earlier, you wouldn’t need to ask that question.”

“The gun holds SEVEN BULLETS, so here’s the deal. I pick the target, and if you put all seven through the bullseye, I’ll stop complaining about the crap coffee shops and trash lunch spots you keep choosing. I’ll be perfectly pleasant and agreeable. But – if you put less than all seven bullets through the bullseye, I get to pick all our coffee and food places from now on, and you let me go in peace. No bitching.”

Pursing his lips, Bucky considers the offer. “First of all, I don’t bitch, I share my opinions because they are valid. There’s a difference. Second, you have never in your life been pleasant and agreeable about anything, so that sounds fake. Third, I have a counter proposal. If I miss any of the shots, I’ll let you go wherever the hell you want and I won’t say a word. But – if I put all seven bulletsthrough that bullseye without looking, you have to start saying something nice to me. One thing, every single day.”

“What, like a compliment?” you ask in alarm.

“Like a compliment.”

You pause, thinking through the details. “Clarifying point. Even if you make the shot, can I still bitch at you about your shitty food choices?”

“You can still complain about my food choices. I actually get an irrational joy out of your bitching.”

Peering down the length of the lane, you can see the furthest target a good 400m away, the black circles making up the rings completely invisible at this distance. Sizing him up, you think.

He’s an excellent shot, you’re well aware of that fact. He was the best sniper the US Army ever had, and decades of training only made him more spectacular. But hitting it seven times in a row, with a handgun, at that distance, without looking? Not even he could make that shot. It’s impossible.

Giving him a shrug, you agree. “Why not. All seven bullets in the bullseye of that target at the very end, without looking, and I’ll find something nice to say about your dumb ass every day.”

“Don’t try to distract me with sweet talk, it won’t work.” He shakes out seven bullets from a small case clipped to his belt, and loads them into the magazine. “Put your headphones back on, this is gonna be loud.”

Rolling your eyes, you clamp the ear protection back in place. Still facing you, his back to the target, he rolls his shoulders and lets both arms hang loose at his side. Closing his eyes, he takes three deep breaths, inhaling through the nose, exhaling slowly through the mouth. On the third breath, he inhales and waits.

Suddenly his eyes pop open, bright blue locking you in place.

Raising an arm behind him, Bucky aims the gun and fires seven shots in quick succession, never once breaking eye contact. The acrid bite of gunsmoke hangs in the air, when he drops the weapon on the ledge and smacks a button to reel in the target.

He never looks away, lips twitching with an effort to hold back the smirk threatening to bloom across his face.

When the target arrives, you step forward to find one single bullet hole, dead centre. Upon closer inspection – you still see only one bullet hole, but notice six small half-moons ringing the hole, evidence of all seven bullets. All through the black bullseye. All through the same god damn bullet hole in that black bullseye.

“Did you want to start with the compliments tonight, or is tomorrow better for you?” Bucky asks, quickly disassembling the gun and tucking each piece into a black case. Snapping the lid shut, he looks up at you expectantly.

Well that plan backfired.

“Tomorrow would be better. I need to practice saying shit without gagging,” you sigh resignedly.

“Tomorrow works for me. Don’t know how I’m gonna sleep, I’m so excited.” His hand is firm on your elbow as he directs you out of the cubicle, chuckling to himself. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”

As you walk together, he automatically shortens his stride to match yours, rather than forcing you to keep up his faster pace.

That’s a new behaviour.

Hazarding a glance up at him, he catches you looking and gives you a lopsided grin.

There are little lines around his eyes that crinkle when he smiles.

Are you supposed to notice that?

Fuck. Too late.

 

-----


Shaky hands flip open a little blue bottle, and he pulls out a small yellow pill. Setting it on the tip of his tongue, he closes his eyes as it dissolves. His body reacts quickly to the drug, a feeling of melting wax dripped across his skin, splotches of burning heat followed by velvety ice. The ‘oblivion’ is a tangible object as it pours over him, rushing from the tips of his fingers to his ends of his toes.

Ready, ready, ready. Ready to comply.

He opens his eyes and picks up the paper, folding it into a perfect rectangle.

He has a letter to deliver.

Chapter Text

Lost in thought, you stare out the window, contemplating the steady fall of rain. The city was a watercolour painting against the night sky, a canvas smeared with blurry oranges and yellows, the sharp angles of skyscrapers reduced to soft black smudges. Lightning flashed and flickered, illuminating the dark apartment, and the crash of thunder follows instantaneously. It reverberates through the bones of Manhattan, steel and metal and concrete, rattling your thoughts. Your brain nudges you again, remembering yesterday’s conversation.

 

Jack is waiting next to your desk when you return from lunch, an expectant look on his face. Wordlessly, he hands over three thick files.

“All the back-up was emailed as well, but I know you like hard copies. I want short summaries posted to the ‘Political Fast Facts’ section every evening, and a feature-length story for the Sunday edition. Send everything direct to me for edit and review.”

Pinching your bottom lip, you nod briskly. He notices the dismal expression.

“Did you try talking to him?”

“I did.”

“Then I take it he won’t budge?”

“No. He won’t.”

“It’s his decision, you know that. He’s a professional. He won’t let his personal feelings get in the way.”

 

Hugging the steaming cup of pre-dawn coffee close to your chest, the heat of the ceramic mug seeps through the thin fabric of your shirt, warming your skin. Taking a small sip, you glance back to the red notebook sitting open on the coffee table, the creamy white sheets blank. Yesterday’s lunch conversation with him replays again, vividly fresh.

 

Bucky digs two sodas from a paper bag, handing you a diet Coke, setting his Dr. Pepper on the bench.

“I don’t understand why you drink diet Coke, it’s shit.”

“Because I like the fucking taste, asshat.”

“It’s gross.”

“Your face is gross.”

He grins and snaps the tab on his soda, continuing an ongoing stream of instructions. “Fair enough. Anyway, I’ll pick you up at 6:30, I want to miss the morning rush. Make sure you’re ready.”

Tracing your finger along the edge of the soda can, you stay quiet. Knowing Bucky for several weeks now, there’s hasn’t been a single thing you’ve been afraid to say. Until now. You hesitate to respond, unwilling to bring it up, and he realises there’s something, waiting patiently for you to speak. Lifting nervous eyes to his face, you force the words out in a rush.

“Hey, so listen.”

Bucky tenses immediately, setting down the soda can and shaking his head. “No.”

“Bucky stop, just listen for a minute.”

“No.”

“You stubborn fucking dick, can you just let me get this out? Let me do the trial alone. It’s beyond ridiculous for you to sit in that courtroom and re-live all this shit,” you argue heatedly. “It’s okay, alright? I’ll be okay. You can wait right outside the door, less than 20 feet away. Just because you’re not sitting with me, doesn’t mean you’re not doing your job. It’s okay Bucky, really. I don’t mind.”

“No.”

At the defiant clench of his jaw, you want to stamp your feet. Nothing about this response is shocking, but you try one final time. “For the first time in my life, I’m not trying to be a pain in your ass Bucky, I swear. I just don’t want to make you uncomfortable. That’s all I’m saying.”

Calm, unwavering determination burns bright in his eyes. “I knew this was part of the deal before I signed up, and I did it anyway. I appreciate your concern, I really do. But you don’t need to protect me, that’s my job. I’m coming. Where you go, I go.”

 

Former Senator Garrison Stern’s trial begins this morning, and the arrival is heralded by a startling awareness. Bucky is the most solid, reliable, comforting presence you’ve allowed in your life for years, and while the verbal battles that make up your daily exchange are entertaining, you would never, ever willingly hurt him.

It was bad enough that you were there, listening and re-living.

That he disagreed was no surprise. Bucky Barnes would take that crushing sense of duty and sacrifice to the grave. 

-----


The rain mercifully ends at daybreak, sunlight filtering through the clouds in streaks of gold to chase away the gloom. Bucky texts his arrival at 6:25, so you gather your bag, zip your boots, and head down to face the day. 

Walking into the clean morning air, you find him facing east, hands in his pockets as he watches the rising sun creep through the streets. When he turns to greet you, the sight momentarily stuns. Gone is the beat-up leather jacket and jeans, replaced with an impeccably tailored dark blue suit, French cuffs crisply white, a grey silk tie in a thick Windsor knot at his neck.

He looks completely, totally, and utterly unfair.

When you speak, the greeting comes out a squeak that sounds irritatingly breathless. “Good morning. You – clean up okay.”

“Good morning,” he responds, a smile curving his lips. “Was that my compliment for today?”

Precariously off balance, you slip into defensive mode while you recalibrate. “Yes. Did you need something more? Is that not good enough?”

“No, I don’t think so. You’re a writer, you have a big vocabulary. You can do better,” he says seriously. Opening the backdoor to the black Mercedes parked at the curb, he motions you inside. You slide into the backseat with a huff, but not before pinching his arm in retaliation.

He shuts the door and laughs. 

-----


The crowd is only beginning to gather when you arrive at the courthouse, allowing you to reach the top of the steep stairs with ease. Leaning against the white marble pillars, you dig through your bag for the envelope containing your two ID badges. Handing Bucky his plastic pass, you slip a white lanyard over your neck, adjusting the nametag carefully. After all this time, it still gives you a little thrill seeing your name with ‘New York Times, Journalist’ printed below.

Bucky drops his around his neck without another thought and returns to scanning the bodies loitering on the steps. Giving his sleeve a small tug, he looks down and you point at the badge with raised eyebrows. “I had that one printed special for you, least you can do is say thanks.”

He looks at you in confusion, before squinting down at the tag. It takes him a moment, but then he snorts.

 

Sergeant James Barnes  
SHIELD, Winter Fucking Soldier

 

“You’re an idiot,” he chuckles.

“Um, you’re fucking welcome,” you answer in mock outrage.

His grin slowly fades into one of genuine sincerity. “Thank you. I mean it. Just what I needed today.”

Giving him an encouraging smile, you turn to go inside. Squaring his shoulders, Bucky lifts his eyes to the sky, hesitating for the briefest pause. Collecting himself, he fixes his lips into his trademark sneer, adds a little ‘murder strut pep’ into his step, and follows you in.

Winter Fucking Soldier indeed. 

-----


WEDNESDAY, DAY 1 
Former Pennsylvania Senator Garrison Stern’s trial began today, the last in a series of revolutionary court cases accusing three of the most influential and popular members of Congress with terrorism. Mr. Stern, who was exposed in the aftermath of SHIELD’s global data release, faces an impressive number of crimes, the extravagance and cruelty of which was previously seen on the infamous list of crimes posthumously linked to Secretary Alexander Pierce. Pierce, who was shot dead during –

NYTimes Online; “Political Fast Facts: Garrison Stern’s trial kicks off”

 

Access to the trial was granted to only a handful of journalists, and you’re pleased with the invite. Bucky follows you into the courtroom, giving a grunt of disapproval when he finds the seating assignments. Ignoring the two allocated for you, he swaps the name cards with two seats near the exit and waits while you get settled, his eyes sweeping slowly through the courtroom.

You don’t even need to ask anymore.

Door to the Judge’s chambers directly behind the bench, prisoner holding cells to the right. Heavy wood tables for the Prosecution and Defence teams holding three people each, one exit at the rear. No windows.

Just in case.

Long minutes tick by as you let him think, spinning your pen anxiously between your fingers, before clearing your throat quietly. Bucky recognises the request for attention and glances down inquiringly. Your eyes stay glued to the floor.

“The trial should be fast. Less than a week. There’s so much evidence, this is really a formality.”

He doesn’t reply. When you finally meet his gaze, he gives a short nod, his face calm. With one final look around the room, he moves to sit carefully next to you, folding his hands in his lap and settling into an unnerving stillness.

Here is a fact. Stern was never involved with the Winter Soldier in the same way as Alexander Pierce. He was a tertiary commander, never given direct access to, or command of, the Soldier.

Here is another fact. Nuance is unimportant. Even in a limited capacity, he held control over the Soldier’s fate, and with that simple fact, Bucky knows a fierce desire to see this end. Alexander Pierce’s death came far too easily, so watching Garrison Stern slowly crack and crumble and bleed out his last bit of sanity? Well. That somewhat assuages the blinding desire for revenge.

When the teams file in, Bucky’s fingers begin to twitch.

Stern looks like hell, and my god, does that make you happy. His suit hangs loose, curly brown hair thin and streaked with grey. Before he collapses in his assigned chair, he chances a glance to the gallery and you watch his eyes skip past you, before snapping back in surprise. When he spots Bucky at your side, he seems bemused by the connection, until the strangest look takes over his face.

And then his lawyer is whispering in his ear, forcing him into a chair, and he turns forward, hands clasped loosely on the wide table. A hush falls over the room, broken only by the sounds of terse whispers and rustling papers.

“All rise,” the Bailiff’s voice rings through the courtroom and your legs are moving automatically, lifting you to your feet as the Judge enters, Bucky rising stiffly at your side.

And so, it begins. 

There’s a clean white sheet of paper in front of the Judge, the neat rows of black print perfectly identical to the one in your hand. When she reads down the list of charges, you follow along, heart hammering when she hits two in particular.

The Defendant is being charged with the following crimes: contempt of court; treason against the United States government; crimes against humanity, including the use of Weapons of Mass Destruction, forced disappearances of federal officials, torture, and unethical human experimentation; War Crimes including strategic bombing of civilian populations, and the capture and murder of hostages.

Absolute silence follows the Judge’s statement, letting the audience absorb the drama of the words, and in mirror movements, you and Bucky look to each other. The heaviness of the days to come presses down already. 

-----


THURSDAY, DAY 2 
Every single member of the jury turned away in disgust when the photographs landed in their hands. Images of broken children, innocence in the face of Hydra’s bloodlust and fanaticism, stood in stark relief to the look of utter boredom locked on Garrison Stern’s face.

NYTimes Online; “Political Fast Facts: Kazakhstan and the lost seven”

 

The Prosecutor selects a collection of photographs, sifting through objectively as he walks deliberately to the jury box. Placing them into random hands, he waits to speak and is rewarded with a series of quiet gasps, as the men and women view the pictures.

“Two doctors were recruited at Mr. Stern’s request, for research into the properties of Abraham Erskine’s ‘Super-Soldier Serum’, most commonly known as serum successfully implemented in partnership with Captain Steven G. Rogers in 1943. Decrypted email correspondence shows Mr. Stern authorised the kidnapping of children in northern Kazakhstan for human experimentation and approved the wire-transfer of funds to the doctors hired to perform the procedure. The photographs in your hands show what was done to the children at Mr. Stern’s request.”

He stops again, lets the photos move through the jury’s hands, before continuing.

“Statements were given by Sergeant James Barnes, who discovered the base and attempted to rescue the children, and by Dr. Bruce Banner, who later performed the autopsies. I’d like to read a summary of Sergeant Barnes’ mission report as you look at these.”

There’s a twist in your stomach when he begins the familiar story. Each individual in the courtroom shifts in their seat, stealing a covert look at Bucky, who stares straight ahead, his expression blank. You only realise the impact when you see the light sheen of sweat on his forehead.

 

MISSION REPORT: Recon and extraction, former Hydra base in northern Kazakhstan 
Written by Sgt J.B. Barnes at request of N.J. Fury
 
“After infiltrating the base, I found seven concrete cells on the lowest level. Inside were four dead bodies, each lying on their back, faces covered in dried blood, indicating they had been there for some time. Further in the base, I found an occupied laboratory, where three remaining children, two males and one female, were strapped to metal tables. Doctors were performing tests on them, specifically cutting open their arms and injecting green fluid under their skin.

After neutralising the threat, I carried the remaining three children from the base, but none survived. All three collapsed within ten minutes of leaving the facility; I attempted CPR, but was unable to revive any of them. Speaking later with Dr. Banner, he concluded the children died from a combination of asphyxiation and internal burns.”

 

Bucky still sits unmoving next to you, betraying nothing.

Jesus Christ, if you live to be a hundred, you’ll never forget this story. His mission report is a simple set of facts, devoid of the heart-breaking colour and emotion that filled his original words and you realise with a pang that he shared that version with you and you alone.

Intensive debates and discussions follow. Questions are posed, answers reluctantly given. Nerves are stretched taut when the Judge finally orders a midday recess. Notebooks pop when they snap shut, chairs squeak as occupants move, and the hum of muted voices rises.

This situation is so ridiculous. You hate that he has to sit here and listen to this garbage. Licking your lips, you search for something to say, but the words that come feel overcooked and inauthentic, and you cringe when they leave your lips.

“I’m so sorry Bucky, I know that must have been hard, I really don’t mind if you wait outside – ”

“No,” Bucky mutters, stopping you with a frustrated shake of his head. “Don’t, please. I mean it. I like it much better when you’re fired up at me, I don’t want pity.”

“Fine,” you scowl, anger at his obstinacy flaring white-hot. “Well how’s this? You’re being a stupid, pig-headed, god damn chucklefuck, and I’d really like to punch you in your stubborn teeth. Does that work?”

“Yeah,” he sighs with relief, leaning back against the seat. “Yeah, that’s perfect.” 

 

-----


Dusk is falling when you leave the courthouse. A group of reporters are congregating at the bottom of the steps, when they spy Bucky behind you. There’s a sudden burst of shouting, and the group swarms around you both, questions flying from every direction.

 

“Sergeant Barnes, will you take the stand as a witness?” 
“Do you remember meeting with Mr. Stern while you were with Hydra?” 
“How do you respond to those people saying you should be locked up as well?” 

 

After everything he sat through today, everything he heard, everything he’s dealt with, the last question goes too far. Feeling fighty as fuck, you whirl toward the voice in fury, but a hand locks tight on your arm.

“Don’t,” comes Bucky’s voice, sharp and low in your ear. Looking up in disbelief, you want to demand why the hell not, when he answers in a flat voice. “It’s never worth it.”  

You simply stare at him, wondering how he can let this shit roll off, because it’s so fucking unfair, you can barely see straight. But he doesn’t say a word. Instead, he wraps his right arm protectively around your shoulders, holds his silver hand ahead to clear a path, and pulls you along. His mouth is set in a grim line, ignoring every question flung his way.

You let yourself be pulled against the stream, moving swiftly. Until Bucky strangely stumbles.

He seems confused when he looks over his shoulder, eyes flickering across the mass of shouting voices. There are too many people, too loud, too close and the strange scent comes from nowhere. Bucky feels his lips pucker automatically when the tart, tangy flavour of lemons assails his senses.

He peers down, but you look back questioningly. The smell is so strong he can feel it in his chest, achingly familiar, there’s something about it, something important? The idea dances through his brain, refusing to settle and let him consider it further. He rubs his forehead, trying to concentrate, but the scent and desire to investigate further are suddenly gone.

 

-----


FRIDAY, DAY 3
Apparently, adherence to the Geneva Convention falls outside the scope of Mr. Stern’s conscience. During a heated discussion of the catastrophic Algerian Embassy attack that left seven American hostages dead, Mr. Stern’s legal defence decided to chase the idea that those individuals murdered in cold-blood were captured as enemies of the state and, wait for it: had it coming.

NYTimes Online; “Political Fast Facts: Murderer is a five-letter word”

 

More photographs are pulled from the Prosecutor’s stack. The images elicit the same disgusted reaction from the jury, which he lets rumble on for a minute before he speaks.

“In August of that year, the US embassy in El Biar, Algeria, was raided and seven Americans taken hostage. Several terror organisations initially took credit for the work, before it was later revealed that Hydra masterminded the takeover to remove prominent US diplomats from power. All seven officials were marched into the streets and summarily executed in broad daylight.”

You can feel yourself begin to shiver, an unconscious tremble triggered by nerves and shitty memories that begin to build. Bucky doesn’t say a word, but he slides his arm from his side and lays it across the back of the bench. He doesn’t try to wrap an arm around you, doesn’t try to give you his jacket, doesn’t treat you like glass. He just leaves the option there.

And you take it. His body radiates heat, enough to eventually stem the wash of cold running through your veins, and with a small shift and a tilt of your knees, you feel his warmth envelop you.

He tries not to notice. Shifts his attention elsewhere, keeps his eyes trained intently on the arguments up front. He can feel you next to him, scribbling your unintelligible short-hand notes, rolling your shoulders now and again to fix your slouching posture. He finds himself tiptoeing closer to distraction, eagerly awaiting those tiny snippets of sound, ones that suddenly seem to fill the empty spaces in his head.

Quick, quiet, catches of breath. The scratch of a ballpoint pen. A gentle click of teeth tapping together. Sounds that are so much nicer than the horrors spilling at the front of the room.

In the next second, he chides himself harshly.

Distraction is the opposite of control. Bucky Barnes does not lose control.

 

-----


The courthouse empties quickly on Friday afternoon, and when you and Bucky leave the room, the main hallway is vacant.

“Can you wait here while I make a quick call?”

“No problem,” you mumble, so engrossed in skimming your notes you barely hear him. Footsteps fade behind you as Bucky walks a short distance away, and you’re left alone. You took pages and pages of notes, and ideas for how to shape the story are already buzzing in your head.

“Good evening,” the greeting comes in front of you, a perfectly pleasant voice.

“Good ev –” you reply, glancing up from your notebook, the words dying on your tongue when you see the flushed red cheeks of the heavy-set man. Hatred shines bright in his eyes, rage curling his mouth into a thin-lipped sneer.

Meeting the furious eyes of Garrison Stern’s son, you feel your heart skip. Summoning an equal measure of rage, you glare back in defiance. “Whatever it is, I’m not interested.”

“Too bad little girl, I’m speaking and you’ll fucking listen.”

“I’m sorry, did you not understand? Let’s try again. You can fuck right off, you arrogant prick.”

“You mouthy little bitch, you really think they’re letting you get away with any of this? They’ll find you soon enough, you stupid fucking whore –” he’s spitting the words in your face, so close you can smell the wet heat of his breath, when all of a sudden, he’s backpedalling in panic, stumbling over his own feet.

“What the fuck did you just say?” Bucky breathes, tugging you behind him and shoving in close, his nose an inch from the man’s suddenly pale face.

“N-nothing, it was nothing.”

“Yeah. Yeah, that’s what I thought.” Bucky’s voice drops, so soft the man strains to hear the words, but there’s no mistaking the tone. Sheer fury vibrates clearly in each syllable. “It was nothing because that’s exactly what you are, you piece of shit. Here’s what happens next. You walk away right now and I won’t break your fucking face. But, if you ever come near her again, if you try to touch her or speak to her or even look in her direction, I’ll personally remove your spine through your throat, tie it around your neck, and choke the fucking life out of you. Are we god damn motherfucking clear?”

The man nearly swallows his tongue, blanching at the look on Bucky’s face. “Sure, whatever you say.”

“Apologise to her.”

“Fuck you man – ”

The smooth sound of whirring machinery hits your ears when Bucky’s fist shoots forward, silver plated fingers tangling in the man’s tie. He twists the striped silk tight, digging the fabric into his throat, cutting his air supply.

“Try again.”

“Bucky,” you murmur warningly. “It’s okay, just let it go.”

He ignores the request, his hand squeezing tighter and tighter, until the man coughs out a response. “Sorry, I’m sorry.”

“Good,” Bucky hisses, shoving him viciously. Without another glance, he places a steady hand at the small of your back and escorts you down the hallway, opening the front doors with a bang.

The ride back to your apartment is silent. Bucky falls completely still as he stares out the window, but his right hand rests on the seat between you, clenched in a fist so tight his knuckles shine brilliantly white against the black leather. Closing the small space, you brush your thumb over the ridges, a feather-light touch, until his fingers release and relax.

Staring out your own window, you miss the fleeting spark of longing when he glances to your profile.

 

-----


When the car rolls to a stop in front of your home, you don’t leave straight away. Picking at your fingernails, you struggle to articulate your thoughts, an odd experience, given your usual ease, and it feels slightly stilted when you speak.

“Bucky. Thank you, for this week. It was – nice to have someone there, someone with me. It would have been fucking miserable to be alone the entire time.” 

“You don’t have to thank me. I told you, it’s my job.”

“No,” you say clearly, tilting your chin up to meet those cool blue eyes. “No, it’s not just your job. You didn’t have to come and you did. I’m saying thanks because I mean it.”

He gives you a small smile. “Okay. You’re welcome then.”

Wrinkling your nose, you wave your hand, dismissing him. “Anyway, it’s been a long few days and I’m emotionally exhausted and it feels weird to be so nice. Don’t get used to it.”

Bucky nods solemnly, curbing a grin when he hears the snappy sass return. “Understood.”

 

-----


One of the best places to work in your apartment is the floor in front of your couch. Pulling on a threadbare Georgetown sweatshirt, you perch the laptop on the coffee table, spread the notes in a neat semi-circle, and place a bottle of wine close to hand. In a few short hours, you have a solid first draft completed, and email it to Jack with a flourish, adding multiple winky faces as the sign-off.

Despite the strain of the week, you feel strangely wired. The crash will come soon, you have enough experience to know that, but for now you take advantage of the extra energy and move through the apartment, folding laundry, wiping kitchen counters, straightening bookshelves. Once the place is acceptably clean, you wander back into the kitchen and pour the remaining contents of the wine bottle into a pint glass. Gathering the week-old pile of work and personal mail that’s been steadily growing, you plop onto the couch and start sorting.

Magazine, bill, bill, magazine, letter, credit card application, dental reminder, bill, magazine.

Piling the bills into a thick stack, you toss the magazines onto the coffee table and pick up the letter. Flipping it over, you don’t find a postmark, it looks hand-delivered. Assuming it’s another reminder from your building about their ‘singles mixer’ events (which are just the absolute fucking worst), you slip a thumb under the flap and peel it open.

Unfolding a heavy sheet of paper, the strange images are confusing at first, perplexingly disjointed and incomprehensible.

When the realisation hits, a choked sob rips from your throat.  

 

I SAW YOU TODAY. I WAS WATCHING YOU BUT YOU WERE WATCHING HIM. WHY? THEY TOLD ME WHAT HE’S DOING AND WHAT HE WANTS FROM YOU AND IT’S WRONG. YOU NEED TO SEE IT. I WILL MAKE YOU SEE IT. I WILL MAKE YOU FUCKING SEE IT. HE CAN’T HAVE YOU, HE CAN NEVER HAVE YOU. YOU’RE MINE. YOU’RE MINE. YOU’RE MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE. MINE.

 

 

There is no signature, only a dark red splatter at the bottom. The paper falls from your fingers, drifting quietly to the floor.

Chapter Text

It’s Saturday morning, but Bucky still rises before dawn.

He opens the tracking app on his phone and checks in on you. Feels the familiar spark of relief when he finds the blinking white dot in your bedroom, presumably still fast asleep.

He takes a cold shower, rinsing away the sticky feel on his skin, the kind that clings after a night of restless sleep. The icy water shocks him awake, makes his blood scream in protest, chases away the memories that seem to bloom fresh following the nightmares.

He pulls on black gym shorts and a faded blue t-shirt, pads barefoot into the kitchen. He makes coffee, drinks half the pot in a few scalding swallows, fills a huge mug with the rest, and sets a second pot to brew.

He sits on the floor in front of the sofa, reads through outstanding mission reports and emails an update to Nick Fury and Jack Bernstein.

When 7:00 arrives, he texts you.

“Good morning. Call me if you need to go anywhere.”

He heads down to the gym, flips on the treadmill, and knocks out 15 miles. Follows that with push-ups, sit-ups, lunges. Cycles through five sets of a hundred each before he checks his phone again.

Nothing.

Mildly surprised at the lack of response, he texts again, grinning to himself when he imagines the snarky response his words will elicit.

“Elementary level manners suggest responding when someone wishes you a good morning.”

He goes to the heavy duty punching bags, the ones Stark bought especially for him and Steve, and lets his mind go blank for an hour, punching and kicking until sweat pours off his body. He drops to the floor with a groan, chest heaving as he catches his breath. He reaches behind him, plucks his phone from the mats.

Nothing.

He opens the tracking app again and discovers you in the same place as before, a blinking white dot still in your bedroom.

He dials your number and it goes straight to voicemail. He rolls his eyes and hangs up when he hears the recorded voice.

“No one uses voicemail. Don’t leave a message, I won’t listen to it. Text me.”

He texts again. “Are we in a mood today? Respond please.”

He takes a second shower and dresses for the day, old black jeans and a white t-shirt. He makes breakfast, using Steve’s bright blue Captain America toaster, which mysteriously reappeared two days ago. It now imprints an Ironman logo on every slice of bread it toasts and Steve is pissed.

Slathering peanut butter over Tony’s face, he takes a huge bite and looks at the phone again.

Nothing.

He narrows his eyes, feels the first flicker of fear pulse in his chest. The blinking white dot is still there, hasn’t moved an inch, but this is so completely out of character. He calls again, growling in frustration when the voicemail picks up, so he texts again and waits.

“Respond in the next 60 seconds or I’m coming over. Not a joke.”

Nothing.

“Fuck,” he mutters, feeling his skin begin to crawl. He dumps his food in the sink and snags his leather jacket from the common room, tugs on a pair of heavy black boots. Walks quickly to his room to grab his gun, slides a knife into each boot and hurries to the elevator. When he reaches the garage, he breaks into a jog, winding through rows of expensive cars, until he reaches his bike parked near the exit. The engine roars when he flips the switch, and he checks his phone one final time.

Nothing.

Shit,” he shouts, the words immediately swallowed by the thundering rumble.

He guides the bike into early weekend traffic and smashes the throttle, heading for your apartment, ignoring every red light along the way.

When he arrives, he wedges the bike into a spot that may or may not be an actual parking space, and sprints to the front door, wrenching it open. Ignoring the woman waving hello at the front desk, he skids into an open elevator, punching the button repeatedly until it creaks closed. When it finally reaches your floor, he nearly rips the doors apart when they slowly crack open.

And then he’s pounding on your door, six sharp raps. “It’s me, open up.”

Nothing.

“Dammit, this isn’t funny, open the door right fucking now or I’m using my key.”

Nothing.

Something has to be wrong. Even if you were furious with him, you wouldn’t do this, you would always answer. Feeling a bead of sweat roll between his shoulder blades, he slides his gun from the holster strapped to his lower back, and cocks the hammer, the click deafening in the still hallway. His mind is shaking, but his hands are steady when they pull out a key, the one you grudgingly handed over after he promised to never, ever use it, except in an absolute emergency.

Slipping it into the lock, the tumblers turn easily, and he nudges the door open. There’s movement in front of him, a shadow in the dim hallway and in the blink of an eye, he has the gun sighted, finger hovering over the trigger.

You freeze, staring down the barrel pointed between your eyes.

Bucky’s eyes go wide. He gives a choked gasp and immediately raises both arms, hands in the air signalling he means no harm. Still raised above his head, his fingers uncock the gun and he tucks it back under his jacket.

And in the next breath, he finds himself shouting, blindingly, overwhelmingly furious.

“Jesus god damn Christ, why the fuck didn’t you answer me?! We agreed, rule number two, you fucking promised me, you can’t just – ” He stops abruptly, really truly sees you. Panicked eyes, wild hair, fingers in a death grip on the tattered patchwork quilt wrapped around you.

His silence asks the wordless question.

“I got another letter,” you whisper.

 

 *****

 

Bucky is beyond livid. Watching him pace an agitated path through your living room, Steve thinks he can’t recall seeing this level of pure rage in years. Looking down at the letter, his lip curls in disgust at the splatter of blood soaked dark into the paper.

“What happened?” he asks quietly.

“I have no fucking idea,” Bucky hisses. Rubbing his hands over his face, he clips a leash on his anger and tries to compose himself, to make sense of the situation. “I check her mail every fucking day, here and at work. It wasn’t there when I looked, I know it wasn’t, I would have fucking seen it.”

He sounds desperate to convince Steve, to convince himself, that he didn’t fuck up, that he didn’t miss something important, something that could have put your life in danger.

“If you didn’t see it, it wasn’t there,” Steve agrees firmly. “So, think – alternatives, what are they?”

Bucky takes a deep breath and closes his eyes, rifling through the possibilities, considering and rejecting one idea after another. He grimaces when he reaches the conclusion.

“Three scenarios. Someone in the office delivered it after I’d checked, he was close enough to slip it in her bag, or he was in this apartment.”

Bucky’s logic sobers them both, and they stare hard at each other. He feels a sick swoop in his gut. Fuck, fuck, fuck, this can’t happen. He has to get back in control, he has to figure this out, he has to fix this immediately.

“What do you want to do?” Steve asks, and his even voice is enough. In an instant, Bucky rebounds, and begins outlining a plan.

“Alright. SHIELD ran background checks on everyone who works in that office building, I’ll put them to FRIDAY and see if she can find any patterns they missed. You take that fucking letter to forensics, see if they can find a match on the blood. I’ll get Stark to put a new security system in here, and tell Fury to put an agent downstairs around the clock.”

“Would she move into the Tower?” Steve asks.

“She won’t, and I’m not forcing her.” Bucky thinks. “Besides, the Tower’s too high profile, too obvious. He would know to look for her there.”

Both soldiers look toward the bathroom when they hear the sound of plastic bottles crashing in the shower, followed by a string of colourful swears. Bucky stares contemplatively at the door, before the idea comes like a flash.

“I’m going to show her to the other place.”

Steve whips around, disbelief covering every inch of his face. “Are you serious? I know you want – look, I know this is important, I get it, but – Bucky, really?

“Why not?”

Steve thinks of the words in the letter, of the anger at you, now turned toward Bucky. His voice is full of caution when he responds.

“Don’t rip my head off here, but I’m gonna go ahead and ask the obvious question. Are you sure you’re not too emotionally involved in this situation?”

Bucky stares incredulously. “What the fuck do you mean? I’m not being emotional, I’m being practical. It could be a good solution, if she needs it.”

“Bucky, come on.”

“Come on what? Help me out here Steve, what exactly are you trying to say?”

“I’m saying, would you do it for anyone else? Or just her?”

“That’s not the point.”

“That’s exactly the point.”

“Alright, stop. This isn’t about emotion, I don’t get emotionally attached, I’m not a fucking idiot. I’m just – I’m exhausting all the options, okay?”

Steve simply looks at him, at the rigid posture, at the defensive expression. He chooses his words extremely carefully.

“Up to you Buck.”

 

*****  

 

Standing under the fall of water, you close your eyes, letting the steady stream heat your skin. You heard Steve arrive when you were stepping into the shower, could just make-out the rough cut of Bucky’s voice greeting him, before the rush of water muted the world. It feels rude to hide, but you’re not interested in talking to anyone else right now, so you linger, unwilling to tap out until the hot water is gone.

Well, you mentally amend, no one else but him. Bucky is the only person you trust right now, and his response in the face of your fear this morning was just one more reason why.

 

The second he hears your confession, he has an arm around your shoulders, steering you to the sofa and pushing you gently down. He kneels at your feet, tucks in the edges of your blanket, and looks up into your eyes.

“Okay, it’s okay. I’m here, you’re safe. I’ll fix it,” he promises, resolve echoing in the timbre of his husky voice. “I’m gonna fix it.”

You didn’t know how much you needed the words until you hear his voice. Relief crashes down, fast and heavy, leaving you dizzy.

“Can you show me the letter?”

Feeling slightly embarrassed at the overreaction, you point a hesitant finger back to the kitchen. “I, um, kind of put it in the oven. I have no fucking idea why, I just panicked. Wanted it out of sight.”

It’s a testament to his professionalism that he doesn’t laugh. When he goes into the kitchen and opens the oven door, you see his shoulders tense as he picks up the letter, a low growl leaving his throat while he reads. It takes him a moment before he can turn to face you with a calm expression.

“Okay, how about this. So first, I’m gonna make you some coffee, because you get scary when you don’t have caffeine.” You burst into surprised laughter at the assessment, a smile tugging at your lips while you flip him off. He gives you that lopsided grin of his, and continues. “Then I need to make some phone calls, you can go take a shower, and we’ll start this day again. Sound good?”

 

Sometimes a hot shower does wonders for resetting perspective.

Steve is gone when you finally come stomping out of the bathroom in a cloud of steam. Bucky sits on the sofa, lost in thought, but at the sound of your footsteps, he shakes himself from the reverie, eyeing you suspiciously when he catches the look on your face.

“I’ve made a decision,” you announce, tossing a wet towel over the kitchen chair.

“Of course you have,” he sighs, leaning back into the sofa cushions.

“I refuse to let this crazy fucker scare me into hiding, I’m not sitting in this apartment all day just because some jumped up asshole has a crush and a pair of scissors. I texted Jack, he doesn’t want any major edits on my story for tomorrow, the weather is gorgeous, and I’m going out to enjoy the shit out of this beautiful god damn day.”

To your utter amazement, Bucky nods along. “Good idea, you shouldn’t sit here and think about it.”

“Back up. I feel like I heard you agree with me. Have you been drinking? Or have I?”

He laughs, happy to hear the ever-present sass return. “Before you go traipsing around the city though, can I suggest a location?”

 

*****  

 

Shaking your head vehemently, you glare daggers at the black bike.

“Nope. That’s a solid nope.”

“I bought an extra helmet, because I thought you might like to try it,” he says mournfully, giving you a kicked-puppy face before innocently adding, “but it’s okay, if you’re too scared, we can get a cab.”

Narrowing your eyes at the taunt, you snatch the shiny black helmet with a snort. “I understand how reverse psychology works, you jerk. If you kill us, I swear on everything holy, I will I murder you so slow.”

He seems far too entertained by the threat. Jamming on the helmet, he watches you fumble repeatedly with the chin strap, growing progressively sweaty and sweary, until brushing your hands away and clicking the lock in place.

Giving a nod of satisfaction, he moves to swing a leg over the bike, but you quickly catch a fistful of leather and yank him back.

“Wrong. Where’s your fucking helmet? I’m not washing brains out of my shirt if you crash this thing.”

“I don’t need one.” He taps his head with exaggerated patience. “Super soldier, remember?”

“Super stupid, more like.” Scowling fiercely, you cross your arms and wait. He sighs loudly.

“Christ, okay, okay. I promise I’ll get one for next time.”

Appeased with the promise, you watch him settle on the bike, before he extends an arm and motions you to get behind him. Gripping his forearm tight, you climb gingerly up, propping your feet on the pegs and searching for handholds. When he starts the engine, the rough sound vibrates down to your teeth.

“Hang on!” he calls, and before you can find your composure, he takes off like a shot. Immediately panicking, your hands fly off the seat, closing around him in a death grip. Burying your face in his back, you call him every curse word you’ve ever learned, praying to god he hears you and takes offence.

You feel his chest vibrating under your fingers, and you know the asshole is laughing.

As he zips through the side streets, twisting and turning and backtracking, leaving what you eventually realise is a false trail, you begin to relax. You have no idea where he’s taking you, until you see the ramp in front of you and the bridge looms ahead, ropes of silver steel and smooth grey stone and black iron railings.

Brooklyn.

 

*****  

 

Guiding the bike into a narrow, hidden alleyway in Brooklyn Heights, you coast to a stop at the back of a nondescript brownstone.

“I kind of hate you,” you huff, pulling the helmet off and rubbing the pressure from your temples.

Dropping the kickstand, he slides off and offers you a hand. “Come on, that was fun. Admit it.”

“No, it was terrifying,” you insist, taking his hand for balance. Smoothing your hair back, you look up at the wall of brown bricks in front of you. “So, where did you bring me then?”

Bucky is suddenly second-guessing himself. He hesitates, his mind struggling to untangle the threads of rationale that earlier seemed so clear. Maybe this was a bad idea. Maybe it’s too much.

But then he sees the look of trust on your face, and his hesitation evaporates.

“Few years ago, I, um, I bought this building. Ripped out the bottom couple floors, and converted the top into an apartment. I come here a few times a week, just to be alone, try to clear my head. It’s completely secure, has the same security systems as the Tower, but there are only three other people who know it exists.” He gives you a small smile. “Well, now four I guess. I just thought you might like to know you have somewhere to go, somewhere safe, if you ever need it.”

Whatever you may have anticipated, this certainly wasn’t it.

Following him to the back door, you find a security system that looks deceptively out of date, but then he punches a long string of code into a grimy plastic box, holds for a retinal scan from a dirty camera lens, and you recognise Stark technology at work.

Opening the door, he heads up the dark staircase, feels his heart beat faster at the sound of your footsteps behind him. For some reason he is unwilling to examine closer, it matters what you think, of this place and what he’s done. This is actually him, something only a handful of people have seen.

When he eases open the front door, he steps aside and lets you pass. Walking into the small apartment, you stop in stunned surprise.

The west wall of the apartment is made entirely of glass. Early afternoon sunlight floods the open layout, and when Bucky pushes a button next to the door, the wall begins to silently ripple, moving and shifting, until it retracts completely. With the barrier is gone, only a wall of open air separates you from the small balcony overlooking the Manhattan skyline.

Pivoting slowly, you see a small kitchen, filled with dark wood cabinets and stainless-steel appliances, glossy white tiles gleaming as a backsplash. Wide wooden beams span the length of the high ceilings, and opposite the kitchen, sits a massive cream coloured sofa with throw pillows piled across it, shades of grey and blue and brown. A dark leather armchair rests near the open wall of windows, and shelving brackets the limestone fireplace, soaring 15 feet in the air and crammed full of books, a rainbow of colourful spines marked with spiky black letters.

Dozens of frames decorate the walls, full of artwork and photographs, and when you step closer, it takes your breath away.

Small initials are etched on the edges of canvas, pencilled into old sketches, the faint letters spelling SGR. Peeling black and white photos are carefully encased in glass, and you recognise Bucky when he was young. His little sister sticking her tongue out at the camera. His parents on their wedding day. A tiny blond kid with a cheeky smirk and messy hair, who looks remarkably like Steve Rogers.

“Steve drew up blueprints for the space and convinced the Smithsonian to return all our original photos. Tony bitched the entire time, but he put in the glass wall. It’s completely bulletproof, could even handle a few grenades if anyone gave it a try. He linked FRIDAY to the security system, and has a holographic block on the place, so from the outside all visual cues indicate the building’s empty, even if you’re standing on the balcony waving. I installed the kitchen, remodelled the bathroom, laid in the hardwood floors. Made it all a project, part of the therapy I had to do…” he trails off, tracing his fingers over the back of the sofa, as if reliving the days spent measuring and sanding and painting.

Turning around, you see him standing tense behind the sofa, anxiously gripping the edge tight. In a flash, you understand. This is his home, his real home, filled with all the things he remembers and loves. It’s akin to baring his soul, showing who he is on the inside, and he has willingly brought you here, somewhere strictly off limits to the rest of the world.

The gesture is confusingly intimate, and you feel an ache stirring behind your heart. The compliment rises easily to your lips, spilling into the quiet room.

“It’s beautiful, Bucky. Completely, amazingly beautiful.”

As his face breaks into a look of pure happiness, the ache expands.

 

*****  

 

In five minutes, you have nine books piled next to you. Curling into the giant leather chair, you pull a throw blanket over your shoulders and settle in with “The Book Thief.” Bright afternoon sun floods into the apartment, drenching everything in warmth.

Bucky settles onto the sofa, props his feet on the coffee table and unfolds today’s crossword puzzle from the paper, digging a pen out of his pocket.

“Someone’s a bit arrogant,” you comment drily, indicating the ink.

“It’s not arrogance, it’s confidence. There’s a difference.”

“When was the last time you finished one?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be reading?”

 

*****  

 

“Bucky?”

“Hmm?”

“Why don’t you just live here?”

He looks up from his crossword, and finds you facing the balcony, eyes closed in bliss as a wide beam of sunlight envelops your chair.

“If it was possible, I would. Doesn’t make sense with work, being in the Tower is easier. Besides, I like this place being off the radar. I’m too paranoid to – “

“Wait, what? You’re paranoid? This is brand new information.”

He gives you a mock glare. “I’m very understandably paranoid with people knowing about this place, I like that it’s mine alone. Well, and sometimes Steve’s, if he needs a break and asks nicely.”

 

*****  

 

“Can I ask you a question?” It takes a moment to register his voice, you’re so engrossed in the beauty of Liesel’s story.

“Sure, hit me,” you respond easily, marking your page with a finger and closing the cover.

He seems to think for a moment, finding the right words. “Why was this letter worse? I don’t blame you at all, but why didn’t the other three have the same effect?”

“I think it was the surprise? It was completely unexpected. The other ones, I knew there was something wrong, Jack said there were threats, you and Steve were both there.” You pause, searching for a way to encapsulate the feeling that letter left. “Because it was in my home, it made me feel vulnerable. I hated that.”

He nods. He understands.

 

***** 

 

Bucky looks up from the paper, starts to ask another question, and stops when he sees you. Fast asleep, lips parted slightly, your face tipped up to soak in the light.

He bends back to the crossword, an unconscious smile playing on his lips.

 

*****  

 

“I’m hungry.”

“Didn’t you just eat my last Snickers?”

“I’m wasting away.”

Bucky tosses the crossword on the table with a dramatic finality that indicates he’s not going to finish it.

“I’ll be back.”

 

*****  


When the sun sinks below the waves of the East River, streaks of subdued colour paint the clear sky, cool oranges and soft pinks and hazy purples, a perfect mirror to the calm quiet of your afternoon together.

Wrapped in one of Bucky’s enormous fuzzy blankets, you rest against the balcony wall, looking back into the cosy little apartment, two empty pizza boxes at your feet. Bucky leans next to you, his long legs stretched out comfortably, head titled back to catch the last vestiges of warmth tangled in the cool evening air.

Somehow the light conversation has tripped into more personal territory, and he’s asking if you want to talk about what happened all those years ago.

“You know what happened. I’m sure I have a file, right?” You give him a wry smile.

“I know what I read. That doesn’t mean I know what happened. Sometimes talking about it helps.” He gives a dry laugh. “Least that’s what all the therapists always tell me.”

The last time you had a real, honest to God conversation about what happened that day, was in your therapist’s office the day before high school graduation. After that, it seemed easier to stop rehashing the past and start living toward the future. So, you put that part of your life in a box and stored it safely away, deep in the back of your head.

But his voice makes you want to open that mental box and rummage through the contents, so with a deep breath, you begin.

“When I was 11, we moved to Algeria. My Dad was asked to take the Ambassador post, and there was serious pressure to accept. Before he agreed, we sat down and made a pro/con list together. It was just me and him, long as I can remember. He was the greatest man I’ve ever known. He loved reading old comic-books, he told terrible Dad jokes, and he always carried peppermints in his pocket. He was the one who encouraged me to write, and he’d read every silly story and school essay with the same seriousness he gave embassy cables and economic reports. He’s the reason I became a journalist.”

You pause here, take a drink of water and shuffle through the box, reordering the contents.

“The day it happened, school ended early. I was walking with a group of girlfriends back to the embassy, and all of a sudden we heard screaming and shouting, and masked men were running out onto the front steps. I watched them dragging out two of Dad’s colleagues, kicking them to their knees in the street, and then I saw him. The whole side of his face was bloody and his eye was swollen shut. I started shoving through the crowd of people, trying to run to him. Dad saw me coming, I could see the fear in his face, but I couldn’t get there in time. They shot him in the head, and I caught him before he hit the ground.”

Fingers unconsciously picking at a loose thread on his blanket, Bucky reaches over and covers your hand, thick calloused fingers pressing hot on your skin. He doesn’t speak, just brushes his thumb back and forth.

“The gunman trained the gun on me for a moment, but then he laughed and said ليس اليوم.

His Arabic is rusty, and it takes him a moment to puzzle it out. “Not today?”

“Yes. He turned the gun away, and just strolled off, like he didn’t have a care in the whole fucking world. Like he hadn’t just ruined mine.”

“When did you realise it was Hydra?”

Meeting his gaze, you give a ghost of a smile. “When he spoke, he pulled down the mask covering his face. On his neck was a red tattoo, an octopus with a skull for the face. I didn’t know what it was then, but I came across it years later and then I knew.”

Bucky thinks back to the background history he read in your file. Like the mission report he gave on Kazakhstan, it contained the barest facts, enough for a black and white sketch of the story. With your words, the colours are splashed in place, the tragedy brought to life in brilliant swathes of ivory pillars and black cloth and blue skies and a ring of red. He remembers the pictures the file contained, a frightened little girl clinging tight to her father’s body, her white school uniform stained red with blood, her small hands cradling her father’s head, and he feels his heart jerk in response.

“I’m sorry,” he says softly, squeezing your hand. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

 

*****  


The ride back to Manhattan is smooth as Bucky weaves effortlessly through the thick traffic, and you feel a sting of disappointment when the apartment comes into view. Cruising to a stop, he turns off the engine and twists around, looking back expectantly.

“Hey, I didn’t get my compliment yet today.”

“Don’t I get a free pass due to extenuating circumstances? I’m very fragile right now.”

“No, it’s good to do things that make you uncomfortable, it helps you grow as a person.”

Fine.” Considering him for a minute, you can almost taste the sassy statement you normally throw, but something stops you, and the words that arrive are laced with uncommon sincerity. “I like how you’re so calm in every situation. Nothing ruffles you, and that’s always reassuring.”

Bucky remembers nearly flying out of his skin with panic this morning and is extraordinarily thankful you didn’t witness that moment of weakness. This is what he wants you to see.

“Not bad, I’ll take it.”

***** 


Arriving at your front door, you find the new security system Tony installed, the technology now allowing only you and Bucky access into the apartment. He still insists on coming inside to do a quick walk through, and for the first time, you let it go. When he finishes, he lingers by the front door.

“Sure you’re okay? You don’t need anything else?”

Smiling at his concern, you shake your head. “Nope, all good. Thanks again for today, for getting me out of my head.”

He smiles in return. “Anytime.”

Standing in the dark hallway, the shadows strip away your inhibitions and you impulsively throw your arms around him, giving him a quick squeeze. He responds immediately, arms folding around you, pulling you in tight.

It feels nice. You don’t remember the last time you hugged someone.

Bucky lets go first, stepping back quickly and clearing his throat awkwardly. He turns to the door, his hand hesitating on the knob for a beat, before he’s stepping into the hall.

“Good night.”

“Good night, Bucky.”

The door closes with a gentle click, and he waits. Doesn’t hear anything. Knocks on the door.

You open it immediately.

“Did you forget something?”

He looks like he wants to say something, but decides against it.

“You didn’t deadbolt the door. And you didn’t ask who was there. We talked about this.”

Blowing out an irritated breath, you glare at him. “Did you do that just so you could be a gigantic pain in my ass?”

“Well yeah, that is my job.”

“For fuck’s sake. Goodnight Bucky.” You slam the door, deadbolt it, flip on the security system and say loud enough for him to hear. “Jesus that guy is such an asshole.”

Bucky chuckles to himself, stuffs his hands in his pockets, and does a quick sweep around the hall, checking, checking, checking. Heading downstairs, he walks past the new SHIELD agent posted at the front door, a tall man with spikey blond hair who meets his eyes briefly in acknowledgement, before returning his stare to the street.

Velvety night air dances around him when he perches on the bike and digs deep into a hidden jacket pocket for a battered pack of Marlboros and a rusty metal lighter. He slips a cigarette between his teeth, and cocks his head forward, touching the end to the flame, inhaling deep.

He remains on the black leather seat waiting. One eye on your window, the other tracking movement up and down the block.

He stays still until he sees your light go off.

Dropping the smoke, he grinds it under the heel of his boot and heads home.

Chapter Text

MONDAY, DAY 4
There’s a grey area on the topic of moral complacency. Even if you know an illegal action is taking place, you’re not legally bound to report the activity. Common decency tends to prevail in most individuals though, and moral compasses spin to point due humanity. Mr. Stern, however, appears to be a glaring exception.

NYTimes Online; “Political Fast Facts: Complacency, decency, and the morality paradigm”

 

“Objection. Discussions on the topic of unethical human experimentation have been closed since the Kazakhstan debate.”

“This statement isn’t regarding Kazakhstan, it’s in reference to the Winter Soldier project. While Mr. Stern may not have had direct contact or oversight of the Soldier, by his admission he was aware of the project, which means technically he holds a level of complicity in the torture and subjugation of Sergeant James Barnes, alongside Alexander Pierce and a number of still unnamed individuals, and that should be taken into consideration – ”

“Counsellor, you’ve made your point. The Winter Soldier project is not on the docket, and Mr. Stern is not being charged with any crimes related to that case. Strike it from the record, and the jury will disregard anything related to this topic. Now get on with it.”

Striking from the record is all well and good, but in reality, they all know it doesn’t matter.

The Prosecutor puts a checkmark on his mental scorecard, knowing there’s no way in hell the jury will unhear anything. He watches several pairs of interested eyes flick toward James Barnes, who sits stoic in the back row. Faking frustration, the Prosecutor bows his head in deference, fighting back a smile.

“Yes, your Honour.”

Beside you, Bucky sits calmly.

 

*****

 

TUESDAY, DAY 5
Everyone remembers the entertaining C-SPAN footage of the day Tony Stark stood in front of the Senate Armed Services committee, led by then Senator Stern, and refused to release the Ironman technology to the government. Stern responded with a sarcastic “f*ck you Mr. Stark” and later attempted to have Mr. Stark tried for treason. The sheer irony is laughable.

NYTimes Online; “Political Fast Facts: Treason by any other name”

 

“You’re grasping at every comment and innuendo, real and unsubstantiated, and twisting it to fit your definition for ‘treason.’ I wasn’t aware McCarthyism was back in style, this is completely unacceptable.”

“Do I need to remind everyone that Treason is literally defined in the US Constitution as ‘aiding enemies of this country?’ So, based on that description, can you explain how developing plans and funding technology that could murder millions of United States citizens is not treason? Or how about approving terrorist cells dragging American citizens from home soil and executing them in foreign streets? Maybe I’m missing something here, but I think that’s pretty unacceptable.”

Beside Bucky, you sit calmly.

 

*****

 

WEDNESDAY, DAY 6
As Garrison Stern’s trial comes to its expected conclusion, the outstanding question remains – does Hydra still have a foothold in the world, and if so, is the government making good on their promise to eradicate the threat?

NYTimes Online; “Political Fast Facts: Garrison Stern: Case Closed”

 

“We the jury, find the defendant, Garrison Stern, guilty on all charges.”

There’s a sound like whistling wind, the collective breath of the room released in a low rush. Although the words were expected, they’re no less savoured because of that fact.

Guilty on all charges. Three Hydra officials up, three down.

Knuckles knock together when you and Bucky both reach for the other’s hand in the same moment, fingers awkwardly entwining in a triumphant knot of clammy skin. Bursts of adrenaline pump through your veins, so thick you can taste the metallic tang on your tongue, and Bucky scrubs a hand over his neatly trimmed beard, fighting back a huge smile. He keeps an unconsciously tight grip on your fingers as the Judge outlines next steps for sentencing, not letting go until it’s time to rise and leave.

Over. Really, truly, finally over.

Leaving the stuffy air of the courthouse, you walk into warm afternoon sun, and the urge to stretch out your arms and spin happy circles is nearly overpowering. It feels as though you can stand up straight again, the heavy burden, the oppressive weight of the unknown, evaporating in the bright light.

Bucky texts Happy to meet you several streets over, giving you a few blocks of decompression time, so you stroll together, enjoying the crashing melody of the Manhattan traffic, wrapped in the easy silence that comes with being comfortable in the others presence.

When you see the tiny shopfront two blocks later, you don’t hesitate.

Tapping on the sliding glass window, you give the young woman a cheery smile, squinting up at the sign above her, thick block letters stencilled in purple and green chalk.

“Can I get two ice cream cones please? One Chocolate Swirl, one Rocky Road. Two scoops on both.”

There’s surprised delight in his face when Bucky hears your request. He reaches for his wallet, but you firmly push his hand away.

“No, I think I might owe you one.”

 

*****

 

When the elevator doors ping open, spilling you both into the main office, he’s still arguing. 

“But, that’s not how you eat ice cream, you can’t do it that way.”

“Says who?”

“Says common sense!”

“I’ve always been a maverick, Bucky.”

“But you bit the ice cream,” Bucky repeats again, thoroughly scandalised. “You’re supposed to lick an ice cream cone, not fucking bite it.”

He follows close behind, opening the top button of his dress shirt and loosening his tie as he debates the point. Winding through the chattering groups of people on your floor, you head for your cubicle, laughing at his baffled stream of commentary on proper ice cream protocols.

Reaching your desk, the view stops you in your tracks. Icy sweat immediately prickles at your neck when you see it lying there, so eerily innocuous.

A white envelope, your name scrawled across the front in messy cursive.

Bucky immediately tenses, a whispered curse hissing through his teeth before he jerks you behind him. He whips around, searching faces across the rows of desks, looking for anything out of the ordinary, but finds nothing unusual. Steeling himself, he picks up the envelope, unfolds the metal prongs sealing it shut, and slowly lifts the flap.

There’s a long pause.

Bucky sighs loudly.

When he pulls out a large colour photograph, you see Garrison Stern’s mug shot, big round glasses and a large, villainous moustache drawn across his face in black marker. There’s a slip of white cardstock paper-clipped to the photo, and from over Bucky’s shoulder, you read the script.

 

Ding dong the witch is dead!
(or probably life in prison, whatever, close enough)
Pull out your party pants and prep your liver, it’s time to celebrate.
‘Black Tie’ isn’t optional, don’t fucking disappoint me.
STARK TOWER, Friday at 8pm

 

Bucky stifles a groan, waves of hot irritation drowning every cell in his body.

Of course, Tony would have a party to celebrate the verdict.

Of course, he’d make it massive and completely over the top.

Of course, he’d probably invite most of New York.

And of fucking course, he had to invite you, opening the door for a thousand drunk assholes to swarm around, getting up in his space and pressing too close, which is the exact opposite of what Bucky needs.  

Turning warily, he sees the excited grin on your face, and his heart sinks. He knows you’ll fight the moment he utters the next sentence, but he tries anyway.

“Hey, so – listen, I’m not sure I want you going to this. I’ve been to these before, there’ll be so fucking many people there, and the whole thing can get out of control. Given everything happening, maybe we just skip this, okay? Tony does this literally every month, I promise when things are less crazy, I’ll take you to one.”

Midway through his speech, you’re unsurprisingly shaking your head.

“Bucky, come on. After sitting in that dreary courtroom for the last week, we’ve fucking earned a night out. It’s in the Tower, that should make things better, easier to control, right? Unless you had something else to do or someone you…”

Trailing off, it occurs to you in that instant that you’ve commandeered every single moment of his time over the past few weeks. Morning, noon, and night, he’s been at your beck and call, and while he’s never mentioned anything, you belatedly wonder if you’re keeping him from anyone else who has a more personal claim on his time.

That particular thought causes a sting of jealousy, pricking needle sharp across your skin, leaving you oddly flustered.

Bucky catches the strange look, misinterpreting the fluster for anger, and hastens to reassure. While he’d prefer to keep you at home, away from the mad crush of gossipy people and uncomfortable social interactions, he knows you have a point.

It’s in the Tower. It’s safe.

“I’m definitely not – no, there’s no one else, I mean there’s nothing else.” He licks suddenly dry lips, and feeds the internal debate in his head, before he gives the green light. “Yeah. Okay. We can go. But you need to stay with me the entire night, alright?” 

His words promptly buoy your mood, and you’re now willing to agree to damn near anything.

“Deal. Except when I’m tearing up the dance floor with my mad skills. Obviously.”

“Obviously,” Bucky repeats drily.

Moving back to your desk, you start separating case folders, setting aside notes for your next story, and stacking old drafts in a pile. Glancing over your shoulder, you toss the question carelessly, crossing your fingers he won’t fire up.

“I do need to buy a dress though, I don’t have anything. Can we go at lunch tomorrow?”

This particular obligation hadn’t occurred to him. His answer is immediate.

“No. I really don’t have time for that. You have to have something you can wear.”

“In what world do I have a supply of designer dresses? Calm your fucking tits Bucky, you don’t have to hold my purse or anything, I just need you to stand there and do your intimidating thing, alright?” Turning to face him, you raise your eyebrows.

He looks pained by the request, scuffing his feet back and forth, before he grudgingly wavers. “Fine. You better make it quick though. And I’m telling you right now, I will not give advice or opinions,” he warns. “So, don’t ask.”

“Okay,” you agree, giving him your mock serious face.

“Okay,” he agrees, gruffly. He pauses in confusion, watching you open a desk drawer to collect a notebook, before he tentatively asks.

“Did you tell me to ‘calm my tits’? What – what does that even mean?”

 

*****

 

Lunch the next day seems loaded with anxiety, more than Bucky’s usual layer of tension. He seems particularly uneasy when you reach the department store, navigating through the fog of perfume in front, and stalking down the narrow rows, the constant swirl of people setting his nerves on edge.

“I fucking hate department stores,” he says tightly, dodging a baby stroller.

“Because you have something against consumerism?”

“Because they’re complicated.”

“Well, I know things have changed since the forties, but it’s not that hard. See, this floor has clothes. You try them on. If you like them, you give them money, and they let you take them home.”

He gives you a sarcastic smile. “Thanks, smartass.”

Nudging him gently with an elbow, you give him a small grin.  “Sorry, you just make it easy. So, what exactly about department stores bothers you?”

You’re walking down the middle of the aisle when Bucky comes to an abrupt halt, catching your elbow and pulling you close. People keep pushing past, cell phones fixed to their ears, never slowing. He tilts his head down, speaks directly in your ear.

“Look around you right now, and be serious. Tell me what you see.”

By the tone of voice, you know he’s making a point. Blowing out a breath, you look around, considering the world through his paranoid gaze for a moment, looking for anything that might trip his trigger.

“I guess, maybe – everyone’s in a rush? They’re moving so fast, no one’s paying attention to anyone else. They wouldn’t notice a problem until it happened.”

He nods slowly, pleased with your assessment.

“Good, that’s really good. Here’s what else I see. Too many people, spread across too many floors, makes it’s hard to track anyone. No easy escape routes or exits. Clothing racks are high enough for someone to hide behind, and cover enough floor space for someone to hide under. Very few windows with outside access. No security cameras pointed toward the dressing rooms because of privacy, so it’s a dead space. If you need to run, there’s only one clear route down this main aisle, and every single person on the floor will take it. Think about that, and look again. Tell me what you find,” he urges.

Now you see it.

“Limited control,” you admit.

“Limited control,” he murmurs. “And you know how I feel about that.”

 

*****

 

Bucky stations himself at the edge of the dressing area, his back to the row of mirrors while his eyes trace methodical patterns across the floor.

“Good afternoon, what are we shopping for today?”

The saleswoman in the formals department looks you up and down with a mildly pleasant expression, before her glance flits over to Bucky. You don’t miss the slow perusal she gives him, a warmly interested expression lighting up her face, and for some reason, it pisses you off. He appears oblivious to the ogling, still standing at attention, his hands folded behind his back.

Clearing your throat loudly, you paste on the biggest fake smile you can muster.

“I need something for a black-tie event, jewel tones or dark colours, mid-range price point, and for you to pay attention to me while I search. Thanks.”

She startles at the comment, a blush staining her pale skin. Forcing her eyes away from Bucky’s sharp profile, she stutters a reply.

“Yes, yes, um, yes of course.”

When you see his shoulders shaking slightly, you realise he may not have been as oblivious as he seemed. 

 

*****

 

The first dress is a brilliant shade of emerald green, with a plunging neckline that makes you silently screech and clutch the fabric close. Smooth satin ripples and flows like water, a mimicry of gentle waves lapping at your body, and when you walk into the softly lit viewing space, the colour seems to glow.

Stepping onto a platform, you find your image reflected in a tunnel of mirrors. Twisting back and forth, eyeing every angle critically, you think might like it. Catching Bucky’s reflection in the mirror, and against your better judgement, you call his name.

“I know I promised not to ask, but I’m a liar and I need an opinion. Please?”

“I already told you, I’m not giving opinions. That’s a no-win situation,” he replies, not even bothering to look back.

“Don’t be an ass, Bucky. I promise I won’t bitch at you. Even if your opinions are garbage.”

He shakes his head and glances back with a long-suffering sigh. At the sight, he does a comical double-take, before snapping back to attention. Seconds later comes the brusque question.

“Isn’t that a bit revealing?”

Choking back a laugh, you try to see how far he can dig himself in.

“What do you mean? What’s revealing about it?” you ask innocently.

“It’s just, there’s – you know – the cleavage.”

“What’s wrong with cleavage?”

“Nothing, nothing’s wrong with cleavage, cleavage is fine, I have zero issues with cleavage.”

“Stop saying cleavage, you’re making things weird. So, what’s the problem then?”

His hands clench in awkward fists behind him, and he clears his throat. “I just mean, you’ll need – you’ll have trouble with – the front is gonna – Jesus Christ, see, this is why I said no opinions.”

A fit of laughter overtakes you at the rising panic in his voice. His hands still behind his back, he flips you off, and you laugh harder still when you hike up the skirt and head back to the dressing room.

 

*****

 

The third dress is a velvety black, with a large poufy skirt. And feathers. Walking out, Bucky takes one look and turns forward again.

“You look like a bird.”

“And?”

“It wasn’t a compliment.”

Grumbling under your breath, you turn and stomp back in the dressing room.

 

*****

 

The fifth dress, you know, is the one.

Stepping lightly onto the platform, you turn back and forth, searching for flaws, and while you find the usual ones with yourself, the dress itself is stunning.

Deep, cobalt blue, the delicate lace bodice covers your shoulders and extends down to your elbows, while the back dips into a deep V, showing just enough skin. The skirt falls into layers of tiered fabric, cupcake ruffles that swish gently when you move.

Spinning away from the mirrors, you clear your throat theatrically and strike a dramatic pose.

“I think this is it.”

“Great,” he answers, not turning around.

“Any chance you’ll do me a solid and actually look?”

He tosses that long-suffering glance behind him, sighing heavily.

And he freezes.

His eyes move down, taking in the elaborate lace, the way the dress seems to move, even though you’re standing still. The achingly familiar colour. He swallows hard before carefully responding.

“Yeah, it’s fine.”

“Well thanks Bucky. I’m fucking overwhelmed.”

There’s a long pause that follows your statement, and you notice his teeth worrying at his bottom lip, as though he’s debating how to answer. His eyes seem to soften the longer he looks, his voice quiet when he speaks.

“I used to have an overcoat that colour blue, back during the war. I wore it everywhere, loved the damn thing. You look really nice. Get the dress.”

 

*****

 
Back at the Tower that evening, Bucky runs into Steve as he’s leaving the forensics lab, and is reminded yet again about the beautiful power of brevity between best friends.

“What?” Steve asks.

“Banner,” Bucky grunts.

“Coming,” Steve responds.

Shoulder to shoulder in an empty elevator, Bucky leans his head against the cool white tiles and closes his eyes, mentally rummaging through his closet. Normally, he gives less than zero fucks about this kind of shit, he never makes an effort with Stark’s parties, but after seeing you today, he decides he may reconsider.

Steve’s voice is nonchalant, breaking his reverie. “How was work?”

The comment is innocent, but Bucky hears the implication behind it.

“Don’t fucking start with me, Steve.”

 

*****

 

Bruce Banner is wearing green today, and Tony refuses to let it go.

He’s perched cross-legged on a table in Bruce’s lab, lamenting the abysmal fashion sense pervading the scientific community, a bag of fresh blueberries dangling from his fingertips. Each time he pauses to take a breath, he tosses a blueberry high in the air, weaving below as he tries to catch it in his mouth. His success rate is low, if the mess of tiny blue failures on the floor is any indication, but he remains undeterred, because Tony Stark is not a quitter.

“I’m just saying, you look good in green, it works with your skin tone, brings out those dazzling little flecks of gold in your eyes, and if I’m being really serious? It just reminds me how super fun you are when you go all mean and green.” His teeth are tinted a pale blue when he gives Bruce a wide, toothy smile. “I’ll even buy your new wardrobe, your official uniform doesn’t always have to be wrinkled Dad button-ups and high-water khakis.”

Bruce merely hums, engrossed in the view below his microscope lens. Tony takes this as unconditional agreement.

“Awesome, I’ll start ordering, you’re gonna be one dapper fucking rage machine,” he mutters to himself, throwing the bag of blueberries gleefully over his shoulder and pulling out his phone.

The sounds of a heated argument precede their arrival, and Tony glances up to see Bucky and Steve walking through the door, clearly at odds over something. Bucky’s shaking his head in disgust and Steve’s shaking his head in that dismayed Captain way he has.

Bucky appears to end the discussion when he waves a dismissive hand in Steve’s face, and makes a beeline for Banner’s desk.

“Forensics sent me up here to see you, said they couldn’t get a clean read on the blood. Is the sample bad?”

Bruce finally leans back from the microscope, taking off his glasses and pinching the bridge of his nose. “No, the sample isn’t bad, it was something else. It looks like there’s some kind of chemical mixture in his bloodstream, and it’s behaving like – some kind of parasite. It’s tangled up in his DNA, so tight I can’t strip it out and get a read.”

Science,” Tony confirms.

“Shut up,” Steve sighs.

“Can you tell what kind of chemicals?” Bucky ignores them both.

“I’m still deciphering the molecular structure, but the parasite combines chemicals in a way I haven’t seen. I extracted two of the major components, and they look like the primary building blocks for LSD and Heroin, diethylamide and diacetylmorphine, but I can’t understand why –

Bruce is still talking, Bucky can see his lips moving, but the sound has been sucked from the room.

The words are a jumble, nonsensical science terms no average person would know, but the syllables rock him in an unexpected way, and suddenly he’s thinking, he’s remembering.

 

 

“Open your mouth, Soldat.”

The Soldier obeys instantly, dropping his jaw without question. Rough fingers shove a small yellow pill inside, and he feels it dissolving, the chalky bitter flavour absorbing into the meat of his tongue. He can feel splotches of burning heat spread across his skin, followed by that familiar cold numbness as the drug slices through his body.

“We changed the formula, increased the levels of diacetylmorphine, it should help stabilise his erratic behaviour.”

He rolls his shoulders, loosening the tight muscle, feeling the stinging tug of metal on skin. Looking up to his handler, the Soldier wordlessly extends a hand for the file containing his mission parameters, blank composure carved in every line of his face.

Behind the rusty iron bars of his subconscious, a dark-haired man with clear blue eyes and a soft Brooklyn drawl begins to cry.

 

Clarity shines down, the answer tantalisingly obvious in the harsh flood of memory. Bucky hears a quiet whimper, and he’s confused for a second, until he realises the sound came from him. Gritting his teeth at the show of weakness, he sees three pairs of eyes swivel toward him in surprise. 

“It’s – fucking hell, I know what it is. Back in the early fifties, Hydra started manufacturing this new drug, something they called ‘The Bitter Oblivion.’ Took them years to get the formula correct, they OD’d hundreds of prisoners during their test phases.” Bucky pauses, a dead expression wiping the life from his eyes. “Someone finally pointed out that it wouldn’t kill me, so I ended up as their favourite subject.”

The sound of screeching metal fills the room, the eyes now swivelling to where Steve has left deep fingerprints buried in the edge of a metal table. His face is scrunched up with that unique blend of rage and sadness, the one he reserves for those times when Bucky talks about his life with Hydra.

“What did it do?” he asks roughly.

Bucky doesn’t answer. He closes his eyes instead.

 

 

“Steve? Stevie! Where have you been, why didn’t you come sooner? Don’t leave me here again, please please please, I don’t wanna stay, I wanna go home, please Stevie, please!”

Steve simply smiles, lips stretching wider and wider, until his sweet face begins to melt, skin pouring from his skull like streams of wax from a candle. It turns hard and red, skin stretched taut over high cheekbones, and he tips his head back and laughs.

“No no no no no,” Bucky sobs, digging the heels of his hands into his eyes, curling into himself, shaking, shaking, shaking.

 

“When they were first testing, it did everything. Manic episodes, severe depression. Extremely realistic hallucinations,” he looks to Steve with a guarded expression. “All followed by the shittiest side effects that come with drug withdrawal. Chronic insomnia, burning fevers, constant fucking vomiting. It even paralysed the entire right side of my body once. Really thought they’d shoot me after that, put me out of my misery, but they fucking fixed it.” Bucky sighs at the strangled little noise Steve makes. “They got it right eventually. Took ten years of testing, but – they got there in the end.”

The room is quiet, until Bruce’s gentle voice asks. “What was the drug’s purpose?”

Therein lies the issue. If the drug still works the way it was conceived, then Bucky knows finding this guy won’t be easy.

“The simplest answer, is that it makes you forgettable. There’s an odourless vapour that comes off your skin, so if anyone near you inhales it, it royally fucks with their memories. You could have an entire conversation with the person, learn everything in the world about them, and 30 seconds after they leave, you won’t remember a god damn thing – and the worst fucking part, is that you don’t know you can’t remember, it’s like they were never there. It was an added security measure they used on me, to make sure people forgot.”

It seems so ironic, in a way. Bucky taking a pill that would make people forget him, while he was stuck in his head, screaming to remember himself.

Bruce is still clinical in his questioning. “Did it have lasting effects? Anything you noticed?”

Bucky shakes his head. “Not for me. Metabolism was too high, I’d burn it out after a few hours, so it never did any long-term damage. But for a normal person, yeah. It would amplify exactly what it suppresses – it’d make you desperate to be recognised, to feel a connection with someone. I don’t know if he’s Hydra already, or if they’re using him, but if he was already fixated on her before he took the drug, this would make it ten times worse.”

Exhaling heavily, Steve narrows his eyes. “So, the drug has no smell, makes people forget shit, and won’t let us get a DNA match. How the hell do we find this guy?”

Bucky perks up. “Normal humans can’t detect the scent, but anyone with heightened senses could pick it up, if he comes close enough.”

And there it is.

He goes completely still, shocking awareness punching the air from his lungs so hard he sways, gripping the table for balance. MotherfuckerJesus H Christ fucking motherfucking hell.

The trial last week, the smell in the air. He was there, he was right fucking there, under his nose and Bucky never even realised.

“Oh my god,” he breathes, eyes going wide. “Oh my fucking god, that sonofabitch was there. Last week, outside the courthouse. I remember it now, remember smelling it.”

All three pairs of eyes are boring into him at the admission, and it’s Bruce who asks the question, curiosity creeping into his voice.

“What does it smell like?”

Bucky feels his mouth flood with saliva at the mere memory, his lips curling in an automatic pucker.

Lemons.”

 

*****

 

On the south corner of the Tower, there’s a cheerful little area filled with noisy colour, a riotous contradiction to the black and silver building façade. Shiny helium balloons and cartoon stickers are tacked along the wall circling a wide slice in the stone, a flag above it reading ‘FANMAIL.’

Excited children come from all around the world to deliver shakily written letters and handmade cards, crayon pictures and photos of themselves dressed as their favourite heroes. Occasionally, love letters find their way into the mix as well, and those end up posted on a giant corkboard frame in the common room, with the recipient enthusiastically roasted for the next few days.

Mail piles up quickly, dropping from the open slot into a white plastic bin, and every other day, one lucky intern sorts the letters into piles, and slips them into silver trays marked with the team’s initials. Between Tony and Steve, there’s an ongoing battle for who receives the most mail, although it’s been months now and Steve is still unaware the battle is taking place.

It’s a rare occurrence when Bucky gets mail, but he understands. He hasn’t exactly cultivated a child-friendly image over the years, although now and again, he’s pleasantly surprised. So, it’s definitely unusual when he comes upstairs that evening to find two letters waiting in the tray marked JBB.

Filling a glass full of Scotch, he tosses the envelopes on the small island in the kitchen and slumps against the counter, tipping his head back to drain the smoky liquid in a single swallow. He stares unseeing into the empty glass, too keyed up to think straight.

It was inevitable, really. He knew Hydra would show up again, in some form or fashion. Eventually they’d find a way to drag him back into this shit show. The low growl rumbles low in his chest when he thinks about you, about the letters, about the fear in your eyes when he came to your apartment. About the tender way you held your father when he died.

God fucking help them if they try to come for you.

Bucky sets the glass down with a sharp click, and rubs his forehead. He wants to stop thinking about it, if only for a minute.

Picking up the first of his letters, he sees his name written in large block print, and a cautious smile tugs at the corner of his mouth. Tearing it open, he bursts into excited laughter when he finds a picture drawn with marker, large childish letters captioning a drawing of him, dressed head to toe in pink and holding the hand of a little girl with dark pigtails. She signed the bottom with her name and age, ‘Gracie I am 5 years old’ and a message for him saying ‘I love pink and I hope you like it too.’

Bucky wishes with all his heart that he could meet Gracie and tell her that pink is, in fact, his favourite colour. Setting the picture carefully aside, the silly grin still fixed on his lips, he decides to buy a frame and find a place on the wall in the Brooklyn apartment.

When he picks up the second letter, a small manila envelope, he hears a rustling sound, and his smile fades. Flipping it over, he finds the front reads simply ‘BARNES’ and for a brief moment, the strangest feeling skitters over his skin. Ripping open the top, he turns it upside down, dumping the contents onto the counter.

One folded sheet of paper.

Two photographs.

Three seconds to realise what he holds.

The cut-out letters appear to glow bright red, before Bucky understands the red is nothing more than the raging fire burning behind his eyes.

 

 

SHE LOOKS SO PRETTY IN BLUE, SERGEANT. I’M HAPPY SHE PICKED THIS ONE, I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE HER IN IT.

YOU REALLY SHOULD PAY MORE ATTENTION.

 

Bucky picks up the two photographs, his hands now shaking so hard the images seem blurry.

You, in a blue dress, looking down at your hands.

You, in a blue dress, laughing.

No. He can’t breathe.

Plaster rains down on the floor when he spins around with a snarl, and slams a metal fist through the wall.

Chapter Text

Standing at your open closet, you eye the blue dress with a small smile. Fingering the delicate fabric, tracing the soft ruffles of the skirt, loving the way the silky fabric slides through your fingers. Peeling it off the hanger, you step carefully into it, manoeuvring your arms into the intricate lace sleeves, easily connecting the tiny hook and eye clasp at the waist, below the deep open back.

Adding a small pair of pearl drop earrings, you stand in front of the full-length mirror attached to your closet door, examining the effect. The rhythmic beat of your heart flutters a skip at the thought of the night to come, of lavish decorations and dancing, of champagne and caviar, of smoky laughter and bright blue eyes.

Padding barefoot into the kitchen, you drop your heels on the sofa, and pull a half-empty bottle of wine from the refrigerator, tipping a healthy pour into a crystal glass. Wandering to the window, you contemplate the fading light, waiting patiently for Bucky to arrive.

 

*****

 

Bucky stands in front of his bedroom mirror, normally deft fingers fumbling at his neck, before he rips apart the bowtie with a vicious swear. Clenching the slippery fabric in his fist, he closes his eyes and goes completely still, inhaling slow breaths through his nose, fighting for composure. When he looks again, the anxiety has bled away, leaving his features smooth and clear. With steady hands, he drapes the cloth around his neck, and whips through the motions one more time, a perfect bow appearing in a flash.

Moving into autopilot, he drops to the edge of his bed, picks up two skin-tight, neoprene knife sheaths and straps one to each ankle. Sliding a blade into each, he tugs to make sure they’re secure, before standing to let the trousers fall. Buckling his black leather belt, he attaches two gun holsters to the side, positioning one on each hip. Picking up the Glock from his dresser, he checks the chamber, slides it into the holster, selects a second gun and does the same.

Lifting the tuxedo jacket from his bed, he shrugs into it, and stands in front of his mirror. His mind drifts, and Bucky focuses on wiping it clean, allowing only his one single task for the night - keeping you safe - to dominate his thoughts. 

 

*****

 

The man stands at his window, watching the shadows lengthen, creeping and crawling into the city. Lifting a glass to his lips, he hears the gentle clink of ice and takes a savouring breath, appreciating the sharp, piney scent of vodka.

He’s dressed formally, a crisp white button-up tucked into the silk band of perfectly tailored trousers. The black bow-tie hangs loose around his neck, one hand tucked casually into his pocket, while he gazes into the coming darkness. When the sun is finally gone, he notices his reflection staring back from the window, sees an unopened blue pill bottle sitting on the kitchen counter behind him.

He smiles, and takes another sip.

 

*****

 

NEW YORK POST 
Sightings | Page Six

“Accompanied by his date, New York’s favourite broody brunette, Sergeant Bucky Barnes, attends Tony Stark’s ‘Stern verdict celebration party’

 

*****

 

“I genuinely, sincerely, with all my heart and soul hate paparazzi,” Bucky mutters under his breath, as flashbulbs click and snap around you. He spares them one lethal look of pure and total loathing, before facing forward and ignoring everything, his hand tight on your elbow as he steers you past the shouting voices.

There are certainly perks to attending this event on the arm of an Avenger, and walking straight through security and into their private elevator bank is one of them. Bucky seems unusually sombre tonight, his posture tense and his eyes locked on his shoes, as the elevator doors close and you begin to rise.

“Everything okay?” Reaching over, you give his sleeve a tug to get his attention and he looks up at the request, giving you a brief smile.

“All good. Long week I guess,” the smile fades a little, turns tight.

“We don’t have to stay long,” you promise. “Couple drinks, a few hellos, and whenever you want to leave, just say. Okay?”

The tightness around his mouth loosens, a genuine smile blossoming across his lips, and he nods, looking back to his feet. He lets a beat go by, before he clears his throat quietly, and looks up at you.

“You look – really nice tonight. I, uh, I didn’t mention it earlier.”

His words are spoken with such simple sincerity, it sends pleasant surprise flushing warm across your skin.

“Um, thank you. You look pretty dashing yourself, not everyone can pull off a black on black tuxedo, it’s a good look. Keeps that dark and angry image of yours well intact.”

Bucky finally laughs for the first time that day, when you give him a cheeky wink, the ball of anxiety in his chest melting just a little.

“Well, I do have a reputation to maintain.”

 

*****

 

The first time you met Tony Stark, you realised immediately he was the type who would never half-ass any task he put his mind to. He later confirmed he was a “full ass or no ass” kind of guy, which you could probably take to mean a variety of things, but ultimately you got the drift.

It’s crystal clear that when Tony Stark puts on a party, he goes “full ass.”

Exiting the elevator, the brilliant lights and brassy bang of trumpets immediately smash into you. The party’s in full-swing, a 12-piece band stationed in front of the massive floor-to-ceiling windows on one side, a dazzling backlit bar taking up the entirety of the wall opposite. Chandeliers line the ceiling, throwing streams of fragmented light flickering through the room. TV screens line the walls, playing a loop of breaking news headlines announcing the verdict, interspersed with snippets of Tony’s session with the SAS committee, his laughing face blowing kisses at Stern before strolling away.

Even the servers are dressed for the occasion, wearing black and white striped tuxedos, while the bartenders are dressed in form fitting orange jumpsuits.

Yes, full ass indeed

The sea of faces blends together, but Bucky searches out the familiar blond head, finally finding him near the bar. Nudging you, he points toward Steve, and steers you forward, the crowd parting easily before his hard expression.

“Hello!” Steve booms out, giving you a gigantic hug, nearly lifting you off your feet. You’re surprised by the boisterous reception, he always plays the serious Captain in all your interactions, but then you catch a whiff of the thick amber liquid sloshing in his glass, and nearly gag.

“Steve Rogers, you fucking lightweight. I thought you couldn’t get drunk?”

Steve graces you with a massive smile, while Bucky peers into his glass, before giving a heavy sigh. “Asgardian? You remember what happened last time Steve, don’t be that guy. Nobody likes that guy.”

“I’m fine,” Steve insists. “Just a little lubrication before I hit the dance floor.”

He laughs loudly, slapping his knee and you can’t stop the laughter that follows. The sight of Captain America roaring at his own dirty innuendo may be the best thing you’ve seen all week.

Bucky fights back a grin as he turns to the bar, waving the bartender over to request champagne for you, water for him. When he returns, he finds Steve’s transformed into his crotchety old-man phase, and Bucky rolls his eyes, silently handing you a champagne flute.

“I just don’t know why the music has to be so damn loud,” Steve complains, gesturing toward the dance floor.

“Steve, calm your tits, it’s fine,” his poker face perfectly intact, Bucky raises his glass to cheers you, taking a long drink. Smacking his lips, he looks so intensely smug with himself for using your line, you choke on the champagne, snorting bubbles up your nose.

“What does that even – alright, whatever. You guys are hilarious,” Steve says wryly.

Bucky’s still grinning when the scent hits.

It floods his nostrils, a sweetly acidic tang, immediately sucking the smile from his face. His heart gives an enormous leap in his chest, before resuming in double-time, the rest of his body going completely still, bracing for attack.

Steve feels the imperceptible shift in mannerisms, and turns his head slightly, the silly smile fading from his face when he sees Bucky, notices the tense set of his jaw, and he’s instantly at attention. Wordless communication is their speciality, so when Bucky gives a tiny jerk of his head toward the bar, it dawns on Steve and he turns nonchalantly, causally searching the bodies behind the counter.

The smell ebbs and flows, puffs of lemon bursting in the air again and again, and Bucky zeroes in on a tall man at the far end of the bar, his light brown hair falling into his eyes. He prods Steve’s foot, motioning with his eyes. When Steve turns, both men notice it at the same time.

Pouring liquid from a metal shaker into a crystal tumbler, the man reaches below the counter, glancing up to the crowd in front of him, hands scrabbling under the counter…

…before he returns with two thick slices of lemon, garnishing the drink with a flourish and delivering it to a woman in a dazzling red gown. She gives him a sultry wink and saunters away, a seductive sway in her hips.

Bucky lets out a silent, shaky breath.

Still sipping your glass of champagne as you look into the crowd of people, their interaction goes completely unnoticed.

 

*****

 

“It’s my boss,” you stage whisper later that evening. “Everybody run, he never shuts up.”

Jack shakes his head good naturedly at the ribbing, but there’s a tense edge to his expression.

“Everything good?” you ask curiously, quickly leaving the joking behind.

“All good,” he affirms, giving your arm a quick squeeze. “Barnes, could I get a word?”

There’s a loaded silence following the request, and Steve scrambles to fill it, turning to you with a hang-dog face, and asking for a dance. You hesitate, looking to Bucky to make sure he’s okay, and he gives you a brief smile.

“Better get him now, before the liquor sets in. I’ve seen his moves, they’re already terrible when he’s sober.”

Steve huffs in mock outrage, promptly outlining a defence for himself, while he guides you toward the dance floor.

Jack’s expression remains pleasant as you walk away, but the moment you’re out of earshot, the smile turns cold and he glares at Bucky.

“What the fucking hell happened yesterday,” he hammers roughly, all trace of friendliness gone. “I brought you in to fucking find this guy, and you let him get so god damn close he took photos of her? Are you even fucking trying to find him? Or are you too busy flirting with her to figure it out?”

He should have expected this, Bucky thinks to himself. Half of him wants to knock Jack flat on his ass for even questioning Bucky’s commitment to you, but the other half figures he deserves the verbal flogging, and much, much more.

There’s literally no one more pissed at Bucky Barnes, than Bucky Barnes.

“Yeah, I fucked up, I’m well aware. But you saw the report, now I know what I’m looking for, it sure as god damn hell won’t happen again. He comes near her, I’ll get him.”

Jack scowls fiercely, biting his tongue to stem the flow of angry words he clearly wants to throw in Bucky’s direction, before finally settling for a sharp response.

“You fucking better, Barnes. I see the way you look at her, I shouldn’t have to remind you to keep your god damn emotions out of this, I thought you were better than that. I want daily updates, I want to know where you’re at and what you’re doing at all fucking times. And it better god damn be what I hired you to do. And nothing more.”

 

*****

 

Steve isn’t much of a dancer. His best move consists of swaying back and forth, more than a little off-beat, and it’s almost disconcerting in its awkwardness, given how effortlessly graceful he moves during combat.

“How have things been going? With you and Bucky, I mean?” He asks the question lightly, nothing more than mild interest.

“Well, I’m sure he’s given you his interpretation of everything,” you answer with a grin. “But if you’re wanting me to tell tales, you’re barking up the wrong tree. He’ll take away my taco truck privileges if I say anything bad.”

Steve chuckles, moving you in a slow circle. “Nah, I’m just digging for a little colour, that’s all. Buck responds to every damn question with a grunt or an eye roll, he doesn’t give me much.”

“Well you saw us in the beginning, I was well on my way to murdering him in the first five minutes,” you muse, thinking back to the conversation in Tony’s lab, when Bucky laid down his three golden rules and you laughed in his face. It seems ages ago now. “But we figured out how to make it work.”

Steve hums. “So, now you’ve cracked that famous asshole exterior, what do you think? Of him, I mean?”

“Are you fishing for something Steve?” you question, puzzled at the direction of the conversation, and wondering if he’s trying to trick you into saying something. His look of ‘surprise’ solidifies your assertion that Steve Rogers has no future in the world of espionage, because it may be the most obviously fake thing you’ve ever encountered.

“No, no, not at all. Just making conversation.”

“Right,” you say slowly, narrowing your eyes. “Well, if you’re looking for an honest assessment here, how about this – I think he’s a cocky, stubborn, overprotective control freak, with an insane streak of paranoia and terrible taste in ice cream. He drives his motorcycle like a fucking idiot, gets weirdly insane pleasure from me making fun of him, and he sucks ass at sharing pizza.”

“Those things are all extremely true,” Steve confirms.

Dropping your gaze, you focus on the crooked tilt of Steve’s bowtie, hesitating before continuing. He doesn’t speak, waiting patiently to hear what else you have to profess.

It goes in a new direction.

“He’s also infinitely calm, and always reassuring, no matter the situation. He lets me be a sarcastic jerk whenever I want, and never gets mad, just dishes it right back. He makes weird faces when he’s concentrating on those damn crossword puzzles and he always indulges my terrible coffee habits.” The words spill quickly, fast and thick now, with only a small stumble. “He’s kind and he’s brave, and he’s – he makes me feel safe.”

Steve is silent at the admission, still bobbing gently to the music, and his silence makes your nerves itch. Defiantly raising your eyes, you expect to see him sneering at the sentimental declaration, but he merely smiles, a twinkle sparking in those sky-blue eyes. He opens his mouth to reply, but you interrupt.

“And if you tell him I said any of that Steve, and I mean one single word, please rest assured that I will find you and I will dick punch you again. So hard.”

Pressing his lips together, he smothers a grin and simply pulls you closer, searching desperately for some semblance of rhythm, clipping your toes with every other step.

 

*****

 

Arms crossed, Bucky stares daggers at the door to the women’s restroom, waiting for you to reappear. Still seething from the argument with Jack, he replays the words again and again, grinding his teeth irritably.

“Keep your fucking emotions out of this.”

What the fucking hell was that supposed to mean? Bucky always keeps emotions at bay, he’s perfectly professional, never once had a problem. He doesn’t understand where the hell this is coming from, first Steve, now Jack, and it’s seriously pissing him off.

The sound of quiet rustling reaches his ears as he stands and stews, and from the corner of his eye, he observes a man shuffling down the hall, his head bowed forward. Sandy brown hair swings forward, and he keeps twitching his head to shift it from his eyes. He’s dressed formally, a full tuxedo complemented with white gloves, and he holds tightly to a black cloth bag.

Bucky takes in the hunched posture, the slightly awkward, uneasy mannerisms, cycling through a mental list of traits, before deeming him a non-threat, and returning his gaze to the bathroom door.

But then the smell hits him light a freight train, overpoweringly sweet and strangely medicinal, clamping down on his brain and Bucky staggers. In the next instant he strides forward with a low growl, shoving the man roughly backward, before slamming him into the wall.

“What the fuck are you doing here? Who are you?” he hisses, taking in the wild eyes, filled with dawning recognition that is quickly replaced with sheer terror. The metal arm whirrs supportively, shifting, clicking, re-calibrating, when Bucky digs his forearm into the man’s neck, watching with relish as his face turns red, his throat struggling for oxygen. “Answer me right fucking now you piece of shit, or I swear to god –“

“Bucky, what the fuck are you doing?”

Steve is suddenly at his elbow, wrapping an arm around his chest, pushing him hard, breaking his hold. Bucky snarls at the intrusion, and rams forward again, before Steve steps in front of the man, catching Bucky before he lands a punch.

“Stop! Bucky, stop, stop! It’s not him – you’re not – fucking look!”

Fists wrapped in Bucky’s jacket, Steve shakes him harshly, forcing him to pay attention. Bucky’s entire body is lit with rage, until he looks down at the man’s feet, to see a shiny yellow and white plastic bottle spilling from the black bag.

Clorox bathroom disinfectant. Lemon-scented.

Disappointment and relief flood his chest in a crashing wave, a potent combination of emotion in equal measure, and he’s suddenly reeling backward.

“I’m sorry,” he rasps. “Jesus Christ, fuck, I’m sorry.”

The man is trembling so hard his teeth are chattering, and Steve speaks quietly to him, bending to pick up the bottle and hand it back, his voice friendly and non-threatening. The man focuses panicked eyes on Steve’s face and nods shakily, accepting the apology Steve makes on Bucky’s behalf, and with one last terrified look, he rushes away.

There’s a brief moment of silence, before Steve is rounding on him.

“What in the fucking hell were you doing?”

Bucky rubs his hands down his face, shaking his head in disbelief. “Goddammit Steve, shit. I’m going – I’m going fucking insane here,” he croaks. “I thought – I smelled it, and I fucking flipped. I thought it was him.”

Steve’s anger quickly fades when he sees the anxiety in Bucky’s face, the clench of his fists, the tight pull of his mouth. “Yeah. Yeah, I kind of got that,” he sighs heavily.

“Is everything okay?”

The worry in your simple question breaks through Bucky’s panic, instantly easing his nerves. Closing his eyes, he takes a deep breath, grounding himself in the moment. Straightening his shoulders, he pastes a pleasant expression on his face, before he turns to face you.

“Of course, everything’s fine.”

 

*****

 

It’s late in the evening when Sam Wilson sweeps into a low bow and dramatically petitions you for a dance. Responding with equal flair, you give him a mocking curtsy, and accept the proffered arm with much batting of the eyelashes and the most ridiculous, breathy giggle you can muster.

Sam’s an enthusiastic dancer, preferring to whirl you across the floor in wide, crazy circles, ignoring everyone else and occasionally attempting to throw your back out with his overly theatrical dips.

He’s also quite the little chatterbox.

“You’re looking excessively spectacular tonight darlin, blue is definitely your colour.” He throws you away from him and catches your hand to reel you back in.

“And you’re looking excessively dapper tonight Mr. Wilson. If James Bond were here, he’d fling himself from the roof in shame.”

“You’re amazing, I love praise, like man, it’s so good for me, and I really deserve it, you know?” Sam replies happily. He stops speaking long enough to push you into a quick double spin, leaving you breathlessly dizzy. “So, we’ve established you look great and I look great, and we’re pretty much owning this dance floor.”

“Pretty much,” you echo.

“And you know what, I’m willing to spread the love, so I’ll throw it out there. You know who else looks okay? Barnes. He cleans up alright, all things considered.”

“Bit out of your league, isn’t he? You need me to put in a good word for you?”

He lets out a loud guffaw at the sass, and dips you so far back, your head nearly touches the floor.

“I’ll have you know, if I were batting for that team, I could totally pull Barnes if I wanted to,” Sam announces. “Really, I’m the total package and that bastard’d be lucky to have me. But no, I can get my own dates, thanks. I’m just sourcing opinions, sizing up the competition, you know. Always good to hear what the ladies think.”

Blowing an exasperated breath, you eye him suspiciously. “What the hell is with you and Steve tonight? Is there a point to all these questions?”

Sam just shrugs as he spins you away, holding tight to your fingers. “No point, just making conversation. I’m sure he’d like to know.”

Twirling back into his arms, you lay your hand back to his shoulder and squeeze hard, trying to pinch him through the thick fabric of his jacket. “I realise we don’t know each that well Sam, but I’ll be perfectly honest with you right now. I’m not adverse to punching you in the dick either.”

His laughter booms across the dance floor when he spins you again.

 

*****

 

Tony watches you bouncing with Sam, a strangely thoughtful look on his face. Taking a slug of whiskey, he debates whether to start this conversation, then decides fuck it.

“So, Toy Soldier, I’m actually surprised you brought her tonight. Assumed you’d have her under lock and key somewhere, banned from interacting with the rest of us mere mortals.”

“She really wanted to come.” Bucky doesn’t even spare him a glance, his eyes fixed where you’re clasping Sam’s hand as he twirls you in circles. He gives a twitch of annoyance as he watches Sam wrap his arms around you.

“What’d she say when you told her about the drug?”

Bucky takes a long drink, his eyes never leaving you.

“I didn’t tell her.”

Tony stares at him incredulously, the words razor sharp when he responds. “So, what? She doesn’t deserve to know what’s going on?”

“Not that I need to explain myself to you, but I don’t think she needs that hanging over her head, when she can’t do a fucking thing about it. That’s why I’m here.”

“I think you’re underestimating her.”

“Is it any of your fucking business?” Bucky finally turns to look at him, levelling him with an icy glare.

“None at all Barnes, I’m just wondering why the hell you brought her tonight when you couldn’t give her the courtesy of sharing the full story.”

“Well I sure as fuck can’t find this guy if I keep her locked up somewhere.”

“So, you decide to trot her out in front of a crowd, so you could what? Use her as fucking bait?” All trace of sarcasm is gone, and outrage flattens Tony’s voice.

Bucky takes a step closer, defensive fury in every syllable when he speaks.

Of course, I didn’t want to fucking bring her here tonight, I’d rather lock her away until I wipe this fucker off the face of the earth, but I can’t find him, so what would you suggest I do?” He lifts his chin, and his voice drops low, turning breathtakingly cold. “Besides, this party was your god damn idea and this is your god damn place Tony, so if anything happens, I know who I’m coming for.”

“You motherfucking candy ass son of a bitch –“

“Enough, both of you.” Steve hisses, putting a stern hand on each, cutting them off before the conversation escalates further. Both men eye each other with loathing, Bucky only breaking the stare to look back at the dance floor when he hears Sam’s laughter ringing through the room.

 

*****

 

There’s a confident tap on your shoulder, and a smooth, honeyed voice speaks close to your ear.

“Excuse me, miss.”

Swinging at the sound, you find yourself facing a dark-haired man, his green eyes alight with interest as he looks you up and down. He starts to speak, swaggering confidence oozing from every pore, until he catches sight of the man next to you.

Bucky turns from the bar, plucking the straw from his drink and slipping it between his lips. He cocks an eyebrow as he looks at the man, baring his teeth in a wide smile, clearly daring him to ask the question.

“Never mind,” the guy says hastily, backing away.

Turning to Bucky with a huff, you set your glass on the bar with a sharp click.

“Are you done marking your territory there asshat? You’ve managed to scare the shit out of every guy who’s even considered asking me to dance.”

“You’ve been dancing all night!” He argues, removing the straw and tossing it behind him.

“Um no. I danced once with Steve, who is an adorably graceless buffalo, and once with Sam, who seemed to be auditioning for a role in ‘West Side Story’.” 

“That guy was a douche, you didn’t want to dance with him anyway.”

“Well Bucky, that’s not exactly the point. I like to dance, and everyone here thinks you’ll punch them in the face if they ask.”

“That’s just ridiculous. I always go for the throat, everyone knows that,” he deadpans.

Sometimes he makes it impossible to be annoyed, so you roll your eyes dramatically instead, and lean against the bar. He stays quiet, scuffing the toe of his shoe against the floor as he surveys the crowd.

“Are you sure you’re okay tonight? You seem more weirdly tense than usual. And we both know that’s saying something.”

He swallows hard, you can see his throat working, while he appears to debate how best to answer. You can tell something’s wrong, and the only thing you can do now is wait him out, he won’t share unless he wants to. You know the moment he comes to a decision, when he sinks his teeth into his bottom lip and takes a deep breath.

“Since I scared everyone else away, do you want to dance with me?”

He freezes, looking completely stunned the moment the words leave his mouth. It was clearly not what he meant to say, but now the words are there, hanging in the air, and you don’t want to turn them down.

“Well, yes. I’d love to dance with you.”

He looks thoroughly baffled by your response, but ever the gentleman, he recovers quickly. Crooking his elbow and offering his arm, you reach for him and he catches your hand, smoothly laying it over his forearm, and pulling you forward.

The lights are beginning to dim as you walk toward the dance floor, and you see a young woman stepping up to the microphone, dark hair flowing in loose waves at her shoulders, her black evening gown glittering under the chandeliers. There’s a pregnant pause as she closes her eyes, letting the delicate piano chords fill the room, before her throaty voice begins, dark smoke floating through the air.

 

The city sky’s feeling dark tonight 
We’re back to back with our heads down 
Just look at me, give me more tonight 
Just give me more of your love now

 

Bucky stops in the centre of the floor, and steps back slightly. Glancing to the metal fingers tapping nervously at his side, he blanches when he considers them, and his voice is apologetic, barely above a whisper when he raises his hand cautiously.

“If it bothers you, I have a glove I can –“

Without another word, you reach for him, folding your hands together, unbreakable metal and fragile skin. Palm to palm, his eyes close briefly at the contact.

Sliding your hand up his arm, your fingers grasp his shoulder, and there’s the silky feel of his dark hair brushing lightly against your knuckles. He curves his other hand slowly around you, wordlessly requesting permission, before letting his warm fingers splay across the bare skin of your back.

 

Let’s set fire to the lonely night 
You’re beautiful when you look at me 
Let’s give love another life

 

All the appropriate actions have been taken, the standard requirements to engage in a slow dance. The final step is simple, gently swaying back and forth, leaving the space between you open, a friendly distance between two bodies. Internally warring with himself on what to do next, you see the confusion running rampant across his features, before he just – lets go.

His eyes darken, and he tugs you in close, closing the distance and locking his arm tight, moulding your body to him, from knee to hip to chest. Leaning his head down, he presses his temple against yours, and you tuck your face into his neck, feeling the rough scratch of stubble against your cheek.

And you begin to dance.

There are no crazy, spinning circles. There are no awkward apologies as your toes are trampled.

There’s only Bucky, his breath trailing down your neck, his cool fingers laced with yours, his unconscious hum of contentment in your ear. He moves smoothly, rocking you back and forth, never breaking the tight hold, making sure you stay pressed flush against him, and you know without a doubt, you’ve never in your life felt safer than you do in this moment. His presence is a morphine drip straight into your veins, soothing and intimate in the security it brings.

You feel your heartbeat thrumming in your chest, so hard you know he must be able to hear it, to feel it through the thin lace, but you can’t find it in yourself to be embarrassed. He rubs the tip of his nose against your skin, and your breath shakes in response.

You remember the words he offered that first night, his promise of protection, a solemn vow you knew he would fight to the death to keep. “You call my name, and I’ll run to you. I’ll always come for you.”

And there you hear it again, words echoing through the room, his promise set to music.

 

Cause you’ll be safe in these arms of mine 
Just call my name on the edge of the night 
And I’ll run to you, I’ll run to you

 

Bucky thinks of you spitting mad that first day, indignant rage as you shoved him fiercely away, fighting desperately to keep your independence. He remembers you arguing with him, trying so hard to spare him the hostile environment of the trial and the way you flew to his defence, ready to tackle anyone who may hurt him. He remembers the feel of you burrowing into his back, arms locked around him as he drove through the city streets. The way you quietly tap your teeth when you’re deep in thought.

The determination blazing in your eyes when you picked up his gun.

The sharp nudge of your elbow, trying to convince him to smile.

The sight of you warm and soft, curled fast asleep in his chair.

And it rocks him to his core, cracking the carefully constructed façade down to the foundation of his being, the startling revelation of what everyone around him seemed to see, everyone but him.

 

Let’s let go, let it be the start 
You know I’m feeling the same thing 
Let’s let go of our broken hearts

 

You remember Bucky sitting next to you in the courtroom, the slick slide of his sweaty hand gripping yours. The feel of his arm around you, encouraging you to breath, to fight through a panic attack. You think about the way he orients himself so carefully around you, so he can always see your face, even when his eyes are roving everywhere. You remember the raw emotion in his voice when he admitted he couldn’t save those little kids, and the pure happiness in his eyes when you declared how much you loved his home.

The lazy way he licks ice cream from his lips.

The look in his eyes when he saw you in the blue dress.

The heat of his skin, fingers burning like fire pressing into your back.

And there it is, the realisation arriving with heart-stopping clarity. After so many years alone, so many years fighting to save yourself, the hard steel of the man in front of you, fills the puzzle piece you never knew was missing.

 

Cause you’ll be safe in these arms of mine 
Just call my name on the edge of the night 
And I’ll run to you, I’ll run to you

 

It was never one single action, but rather a multitude of subtle things layered together. The shift is seismic, all-consuming and overpowering, and suddenly the world tilts. When it resettles, there’s no one else, every voice is silenced, the dance floor empty. The only thing that remains, is the iron grip of Bucky’s arm around you, the thick muscles of his shoulder under your palm, the intense blue of his eyes, and the shock in them as he looks at you.

 

Even if it’s gonna break me, love 
I run to you

 

The final note hangs in the air, time suspended as you stare at each other. The truth is, neither of you saw this coming. Perhaps in its own way, that’s what made it all the more devastating.

When the lights go up, applause fills the room, and it’s enough to break the spell. Bucky drops your hand quickly and steps away.

 

***** 

 

From across the room, the man watches the interaction with interest, eyes blazing as he drinks it in.

 

*****

 

The evening air is cool when you leave, and you rub your arms automatically, letting the light friction heat your skin. Bucky catches the gesture, and feels slightly abashed that he’s unable to meet the proper gentlemanly obligation of giving you his jacket, but the array of weaponry hidden under that jacket is not well suited for the public eye.

Instead, he lays a tentative hand at your back, and weaves a path through the clusters of people lingering out front, guiding you toward the waiting car. His sharp profile is utterly serious as he scans the crowd, searching intently, committing everything he sees to memory. He feels you lean a little closer, and looks down to find you watching him, a hopeful little smile beginning to curve your lips, and he feels his mouth move in response, before he suddenly snaps his head up, meeting a pair of nervous hazel eyes.

And for the third time that evening, Bucky Barnes smells the bitter tang of lemons, right before the bomb explodes.

 

Chapter Text

Memory is a strange thing, the way it links and connect words and sensations and emotions.

When you were little, one of your favourite things to do each summer, was visit the local swimming pool. Finding a quiet corner to yourself, you would flip onto your back and float, letting your mind drift away, finding that perfectly relaxing feeling of blank nothingness. Eyes closed, ears dipped below the surface of the water, it was the oddest contrast of sensations, the fiery orange sunlight burning behind your eyelids, tempered by the coolly muted silence of the blue waves.

Memory is a strange thing, and it’s so hard to understand the triggers that bring it rushing back.

You haven’t thought about those lazy summer days in years. Suddenly the remembrance arrives with the force of a hurricane, orange light tattooing designs behind your eyelids, the feel of water dripping down your face, the world around you bizarrely muffled.

Memory is a strange thing, and opening your eyes right now requires an impossibly inhuman effort.

Open, open, open.

There are a thousand needle pricks digging into your face, a thousand pounds pressing on your eyes, and your brain fights to obey this one small command.

Open, open, open.

Nothing is working, nothing is happening. Your body feels like lead and the terror begins to set in.

Open, open, open. Come on, OPEN.

Air pours into your lungs as you jolt awake with a gasp, searching wildly for anything to hold onto.

Bucky is crouched on his hands and knees above you, the breadth of his body sheltering you from the debris as it rains down. He has you pinned beneath him, one arm curled around your shoulders holding you down, while his metal arm bends awkwardly behind him, shielding his head from the chunks of stone falling around you.

The world is crumbling into chaos, but all you hear is the steady thump of your heartbeat, curiously wet and slow as you stare up at him. He’s covered in concrete dust, the thick powder accomplishing in ten seconds what seventy years of slave labour couldn’t, and Bucky Barnes finally looks his age. Dust settles in the tight lines around his eyes, his dark hair a shock of white hanging forward.

Blinking dully, you watch his mouth move, recognising the way his lips twist around the sounds of your name, but the silence remains. His eyes glow fever bright, a sizzling electric blue against the pale dust on his skin, and the desperation you see in them is unnerving.

He ducks his head again, his mouth touching the shell of your ear. You feel his hot breath puffing against your skin, but still, you hear nothing.

What a curiously peaceful sensation, this silence.

But it doesn’t last.

There’s a faint, metallic ringing in the distance, the sound like marbles on tin as it pings, louder and louder and louder until the world suddenly roars back to life, exploding in a deafening burst of sound. Overwhelmed, you cling to Bucky’s jacket in panic, while your ears pop and crackle, readjusting to the madness around you.

Sirens pierce the air, shrill wails echoing through the night, swirling blue and red lights flashing, and the only sound louder than the arrival of help, are the shrieks of people around you.

“Bucky?”

You can barely hear yourself say his name, but he must catch it, because his face sags in relief. He removes his arm from your shoulders and simply points to his face, wordlessly telling you to focus on him. When he pushes his hair back, you notice a small, clear device tucked into his ear, which lights up at the touch of his finger. When he speaks, his voice is loud and fast.

“I’m here, she’s okay. I need confirmation, what the hell is this?”

Bucky listens intently, his eyes never straying from your face, as you grip his jacket so hard your fingers begin to ache. His expression transforms before your eyes, growing progressively darker, filled with tense fury, before he suddenly snarls. Slapping the comms device in frustration, he jerks himself upright and slides an arm behind your back, another behind your knees, rising effortlessly with you in his arms. Keeping you tight against his chest, he spins in a desperate circle, trying to orient himself in the fog of dust and smoke, searching for the black sedan that provides the ticket away from this disaster. As the haze begins to shift and clear, he finally sees Happy parked on the opposite side of the street, frantically waving both arms. Bucky pushes forward, shoving his way through the crush of people bumping and bouncing against him, panicked screams coming from every direction.

Curving an arm around his neck, you curl into him. He is perfectly steady, strong bands of flesh and metal wrapped securely around you, so you close your eyes, bury your face in his chest, and inhale the scent of clean laundry and cologne, of safety.

The backdoor is open when Bucky reaches the car, and he barrels inside still holding you tight, while Happy slams the door and sprints to the driver’s seat. The engine revs when he turns the key and throws it into drive, and Bucky is shouting directions.

“Route three, use the back entrance, go, go, go!”

He looks over his shoulder, searching out the rear window for the familiar man among the sea of bodies, but he sees nothing, and then the tires are squealing and Happy hits the pedal, spinning the car around and throwing you both against the door.

There’s a steady stream of curses under his breath, as Bucky regains his balance, grudgingly releasing his grip, as he cautiously places you on the seat next to him. Ripping off his jacket, he drapes it over your shoulders, the silky lining warm and slick against your skin, and you sink gratefully into the sweet heat.

Pausing to assess the damage, his rough scan confirms no life-threatening injuries exist, so he taps the device at his ear once more, reconnecting to the scene.

“I had him Steve, I saw him,” Bucky reveals hoarsely, eyes still locked on you. “He looked right at us. White male, about 6’0, mid-forties, hazel eyes, light brown hair, long over his forehead. Wearing black jeans and a dark blue hooded sweatshirt.”

Everything seems to move in slow motion, and you stare at Bucky in confusion.

He saw him? How did he know?

“No, I’m sure it was him,” Bucky is saying, still watching you closely, and he flinches at the last admission. “Could smell him a mile away.”

 

*****

 

Between the maze of shortcuts and miraculous openings in traffic, Happy reaches your apartment in record time, but he doesn’t pull up front. There’s an alley in the middle of the block, and he turns here instead, navigating the narrow opening to reach the freight entrance behind the building.

“Stay here, I’ll come around,” Bucky orders brusquely, jumping from the car.

Upon his exit, the only sound left is the harsh panting of your breath, still coming in disjointed rushes. Staring at your hands, you try to modulate your breathing, going for those slow, deep breaths, just like he taught you.

The door is quiet when it snicks opens, and Bucky silently crouches to his knees, looking up at you. His entire body is coiled tight, but he doesn’t say a word. He simply waits, letting you find the necessary composure, before he reaches for you.

“Ready?” he murmurs, slipping his arm behind your back.

“I can walk, you know,” you whisper peevishly, finally finding your voice.

“Indulge me,” he says quietly, the hint of a smile dancing on his lips. Gathering you in his arms for the second time that evening, he lifts you carefully from the car, kicking the door shut and striding to the back entrance.

The heavy metal door screeches when it swings open, and you see a tall woman in dark jeans and a green turtleneck, her blonde hair pulled into a messy ponytail. She steps aside to let Bucky pass, clearly waiting for instructions.

“Get back to the front, there’s another agent coming. Lock down all traffic into the building, no one gets by unless they prove they live here. Two forms of ID, I don’t give a shit if they complain.” Looking back to Happy, he indicates the metal door. “Same here. No one comes in.”

They both nod and move into position without another word. Bucky glances to the elevator bank in front of him.

Jesus, he hates the elevators in this building with a fucking passion.

Fuck it.”

Turning to the stairwell, he begins the dizzying ascent up. Floor numbers tick by, higher and higher, but he never slows, three stairs covered with every leap. He moves so gracefully, you barely feel the movement, his smooth gait lulling you into a daze.

Warm in his arms, it’s almost like being rocked to sleep.

 

*****

 

Bucky bypasses your security system with practiced ease, heading straight to the bathroom, placing you gently on the toilet seat. He moves methodically, the accustomed motions of clean-up and recovery that follow every mission, an automatic response.

Cranking the sink faucet, he lets the water heat to near boiling before removing his cufflinks, dropping them with a clatter in the soap dish, and quickly rolling back his shirt sleeves. With surgeon-level precision, he scrubs hard at his hands, until every last trace of grime is washed clean, leaving the metal sparkling, the skin rosy pink.

Throwing a fresh washcloth under the water, he starts digging in the sink cabinets, knocking over bottles of hairspray and body wash, stacks of towels and bags of cotton balls.

“I don’t have a first aid kit Bucky. I don’t even have band-aids,” you mumble, rubbing your eyes blearily. When you open them, you’re surprised to find him unzipping a black case, pulling out a handful of bandages and antibacterial ointment.

“I left one here the first time I came, just – in case you ever needed it.”

Snatching up the cloth, he wrings it out and drops to his knees before you, lost for a moment as his eyes roam, debating where to begin.

Clasping your hands in your lap to stem the trembling, you follow the path of his gaze, moving from your hair, down your arms, resting on your hands. That feeling of warm water appears again, sliding down the side of your face. When you reach to rub it dry, you start in surprise when your knuckles come away, sticky red with blood.

Bucky clenches his teeth at your shocked expression, and snatches up his phone, tapping in a long string of code. Looking intently to the silver tracking bracelet on your wrist, you feel the thin vibranium band heating your skin, before it emits three silent pulses. A wave of tingling warmth spreads through your nervous system, and a flood of data is instantly transmitted to his phone, checking your vital signs and scanning for internal injuries.

When the screen turns bright green, signifying an ‘all clear’ result, he visibly relaxes, releasing a low sigh.

“You’re okay, you’re okay,” he repeats under his breath, as much to you as to himself.

Stark technology apparently isn’t enough to allay his fears though, and he insists on checking further, reaching gentle fingers to your scalp, searching for bumps, pressing lightly here and there.

“Does it hurt? Here? What about here?”

His soft questions elicit the same answer each time, a sluggish shake of the head, a quiet no.

When he lays his hand on top of the blood-caked fingers tangled in your lap, you latch onto them gratefully, the temperature a soothing balm that cools the throbbing ache in your palm. Bucky folds the washcloth and wipes it over your face, cleaning dust from your cheeks, dabbing gently at the blood still oozing from the gash in your forehead. The only sound in the bathroom is the slow drip of the faucet, the absurdly loud tick of the clock on your wall, and the occasional hitches in your breath.

I’m sorry,” he breathes, wincing at every sound of pain. The thin trickle of blood won’t stop leaking from the cut, and Bucky huffs in frustration. “Motherfucking head wounds. They never fucking stop.”

Gripping his metal fingers harder, a shaky laugh escapes at his irritation. The black humour of the situation forces a bleak ghost of a grin to appear, and he gives your hands a comforting press in return.

“If it hurts, squeeze my hand as hard as you need. Hell, kick my ass if you want, won’t bother me.”

“Probably gonna rain check the ass kicking, if that’s okay. Wait until I’m back in prime form,” you joke softly.

“Duly noted,” he says, his mouth quirking up into that lopsided grin of his.

Several minutes later the bleeding has stopped, and Bucky reluctantly removes his hand from yours to apply a smear of ointment and a clean white bandage. His fingers trail down your cheek, his thumb resting briefly on the bump below your eye, where the skin is beginning to swell.

Jesus,” he whispers to himself. “I knocked you to the ground, that’s my fault.”

No,” you breathe fiercely. “Don’t be a fucking idiot Bucky, I mean it. You did everything right. I’m here and I’m safe. Because of you.”

His anguished expression melts at your words, his face lighting up at your unexpected defence. 

“You’re always safe with me,” his voice cracks faintly on the declaration, but his eyes are steady, burning into you with an intensity that steals your breath.

“I know,” you promise.

Dropping his hands to your lap, he drags his fingers delicately over your palms, until he’s pressing his fingertips to yours. Curling your fingers inward, you lock your hands together and look up at him.

“You’re okay,” he confirms, one last time.

You’re okay,” you reply softly.

You see the rapid rise and fall of his chest as you stare at each other, both standing so precariously close to the edge, daring the other to speak.

Bucky clears his throat, and your heart leaps.

And then he looks down, gently releasing your fingers, rising quickly to his feet.

“I’ll – I can leave you alone for a bit. Take your time, take a shower, whatever you want. I just need to make some calls.”

Willing him to look again, you watch him for a moment longer, but he stares resolutely at his feet, and you slowly lower your eyes.

 

*****

 

The lock catches with a slow click, and Bucky pauses outside the bathroom, leaning his head against the door. When the shower turns on, the sound of rushing water muffles the shaky sigh he’s been desperately concealing. Doubling over, he rests his hands on his knees and let’s his control off leash for a brief moment, the wild panic racing through his body, lighting his nerves on fire.

How the fuck, how the fuck, how the fuck? The internal voice howls repeatedly.

He wants to punch someone, kick something, slam his fist through the god damn wall, he’s so fucking wound up he can barely contain the furious scream threatening to erupt any second.

Shoving away from the door, he strides into the living room, pacing back and forth, running anxious hands through dirty hair. He stops short when he catches a grim view of himself in the living room mirror, still covered in a coat of concrete dust. Toeing off his shoes, he quickly unbuttons the black dress shirt, peeling it carefully away and folding it inside out to trap the dirt.

The pang of self-doubt cuts through him as he considers the sleeveless black undershirt he’s left with. It does nothing to conceal the thick ropes of scarring lining the seam of his metal arm, the skin a dull, angry red, but before he can tip too far into a pit of self-loathing, he feels his phone vibrate.

“Any update?” He foregoes the niceties with Steve, moving toward the front window and dropping the blinds as he speaks, plunging the room into darkness. Cracking one of the slats, he peers into the street, eyes sweeping back and forth.

“We’re going through camera footage, focus is on your description. Nothing yet.”

“Injuries?”

Steve pauses, and the deliberate silence makes Bucky’s heart plummet.

“Twelve injured. Three critical. One dead.”

“God dammit,” Bucky swears, his voice breaking. “It’s on me. That’s on me.”

“No,” Steve says sharply. “Stop. This is not on you.”

“He was right there, I should’ve figured it out sooner –”

“It wouldn’t have stopped him, the explosive was rigged to a separate device, he probably had the trigger in his pocket. Tony thinks it was PETN.”

“PETN?” Bucky repeats slowly. The letters feel familiar, something from a past life. “Why do I know what that is?”

Steve sighs heavily. “Same shit we had in the war, takes an electric current to detonate. We used it to blow those Hydra bases in Austria.”

His words prompt an old memory to resurface. Steve laughing hysterically, goggles strapped to his head as he jumps on a motorcycle, the building behind him erupting in white flames while Bucky roars at him to hurry the fuck up, you stupid fucking dumbass.

Both men go quiet, swimming in their own thoughts for a moment.

Something feels – wrong.

It’s a niggling feeling, picking at the edge of his brain, and Bucky rubs the back of his neck, trying to make sense of it before he speaks.

“This whole thing, doesn’t it – doesn’t something seem off?” he asks. “Nothing in his letters gave a single fucking clue he’d do this Steve. Nothing.”

“Sure, but – he’s crazy, right? Isn’t this the kind of shit crazy people do?”

“He might be crazy, but he loves her – or he thinks he does,” Bucky amends. “What would this accomplish?”

Steve is silent, the lack of response positively loaded with innuendo, and Bucky grips the phone tighter.

“Just say it Steve,” he grinds out.

“He’s jealous. It was a way of getting you out of the picture,” Steve replies instantly.

Bucky doesn’t respond, but goes perfectly still. A full minute passes, before Steve’s quiet voice comes through the speaker.

“Do you want to talk - ”

“No,” Bucky interrupts. “No, I do not.”

“Buck –“

He hears the sound of the shower turning off, and glances behind him. “Nope. I need to go. Send through pictures as soon as you get them. I have his face burned into my fucking brain right now, but I’m not confident that shit won’t disappear.”

 

*****

 

Sometimes a hot shower does wonders for resetting perspective.

Dressed in sweatpants and your ratty blue Georgetown sweatshirt, you bend slowly, collecting the pile of dirty clothes and dropping them in the sink.

The dress is completely destroyed. The soft ruffles down the skirt are shredded along the side, where you slammed into the ground; the elegant lace sleeves are ripped and torn in pieces; the beautiful blue is a mix of rusty red and powdery grey, blood and dust now the most noticeable features.

It’s a dress, nothing more, and it makes absolutely no sense, but suddenly the world is blurry, your eyes are burning with unshed tears, and great heaving sobs rip from your throat as they spill over. 

“Are you okay?” Bucky’s voice comes through the door immediately, as though he was standing guard the entire time.

Wrenching the door open, you launch yourself at him, and he stumbles back, catching you in surprise.

“What happened? Does something hurt?”

“No, I’m not – it doesn’t – nothing is – Jesus C-Christ, it’s a f-fucking dress, what the h-hell is wrong with me?” You stutter angrily, pointing in frustration at the sink, trying to speak through the tears.

“Alright, hey. Look at me,” he says calmly, leaning back and tapping your chin. “Look up. It’s not the dress. It’s too much champagne and the whole bleeding from the head thing, and the fact that someone set off a bomb in front of you tonight. You’re allowed to freak out, so go for it.”

Dropping your forehead to his chest, you curl your arms around your stomach and let go, a steady stream of tears punctuated with the occasional shuddering sniffle. Bucky’s arms wrap hesitantly around you, his hands rubbing slow strokes up and down your back, until the well appears to run dry. Vaguely, you realise he’s removed his dress shirt, and you’ve now drenched his undershirt in an unattractive mess of tears and snot.

“For fuck’s sake, I’m sorry,” you mutter, pulling away and wiping a runny nose on your sleeve. “I’m a god damn disaster.”

“No, you’re not,” he chuckles softly. “Come over here, sit down.”

Guiding you to the sofa, he bundles you in your old patchwork quilt, hands lingering on your arms as he stares down. Sudden awareness of him, of his bare arms and cautious expression, takes over everything. When your eyes drift to the joint of his shoulder, you see the jagged scars puckering his skin, and he shifts slightly at the scrutiny.

What the hell happened earlier?

Before bombs and blood morphed the evening into a waking nightmare, you were spiralling into a realisation that was frighteningly unexpected, one with the potential to change your entire world. You want to say something, you want Bucky to say something, to figure out together what the hell is happening between you, but you can already feel yourself beginning to retreat.

This is real and terrifying and something, but you’re just not ready to say it.

“Can you just – stay for a little while?”

Looking down, so the vulnerability in his face won’t confuse your emotions, you tense at the long silence that follows. Bucky’s voice is barely audible when he answers.

“Of course, I’ll stay. I’m not leaving you.”

Nodding sluggishly, you rub puffy eyes with the soft fabric of your sleeve, trying to stifle a massive yawn.

Apparently overreacting is exhausting.

Without another word, Bucky falls to the sofa, tugging you down with him, and you curl into a ball next to him. The adrenaline is dissipating at an alarming rate, and you feel your body tingling, a heavy lethargy as it fights to shut down. Burrowing deeper into his side, your eyes begin to flutter.

The question surfaces, almost as an afterthought.

“Bucky? How did you know?”

“How did I know what?”

“Tonight, you told Steve you recognised him. How did you know?”

He doesn’t answer. Instead, he tucks the quilt snuggly under your chin and pulls you closer.

“It’s nothing to worry about, I’ll tell you later.”

Right before sleep pulls you under, you feel him slowly link his fingers with yours.

 

*****

 

Propping his feet on the coffee table, Bucky crosses his ankles, turns on the TV, and waits.

Flipping idly through the channels, a black and white picture catches his attention, and he grins when he sees cursive writing dashing across the screen. When he first came home, Bucky spent a week huddled in a blanket fort, binge watching every season of ‘I Love Lucy’, mesmerised by the exaggerated acting and the happy simplicity. It was a world that seemed easy and carefree, an innocently poignant reminder of everything he lost the day he left Brooklyn.

Keeping the volume low, he settles into the episode, slouching down comfortably. He watches Lucy trotting circles around a giant wooden vat, smashing grapes with her feet, and with you nestled securely at his side, he begins to think.

Memory is a strange thing.

Bucky does remember. Not everything. But more than anyone knows.

In the months after he came home, he spent the dark hours of every night with a towel stuffed in his mouth, muffling screams of agony as memories of his old life cracked his skull open. Hours of horrific life footage fast forwarding through his head, until he passed out in his bathroom, covered in sticky sweat and salty tears, clinging to the cold tile floor.

Sparks of old memories are re-surfacing tonight, charred remnants of his past suddenly vibrant and alive, something no amount of time or alcohol can ever bleach from his brain. Gripping your fingers tight, he shuts his eyes and lets the vicious riptide pull him under.

 

*****

 

LATE 1940s

The Soldier sits on the damp floor of the locked cell, his harsh panting echoing in the small space. He is cold, so god damn cold, but the room contains nothing more than a ragged blanket and a metal bucket.

For three straight days, they kept him strapped to a chair, his shiny new arm hanging disconnected and useless, while doctors shot icy liquid in his veins, pressed chalky pills under his tongue. Every possible variation of medicine was pumped into him, sending him flying to inconceivable heights and crashing him into the terrifying depths of bone-weary depression.

Now the drugs have worn off, but the effects linger, and the sickening feel of withdrawal begins to ravage his body.

On the first day, the Soldier is crouched in the corner of his room, sweat running rivers down his chest, hot flashes rippling across his skin in suffocating waves. He yanks the rough wool shirt over his head, moaning in relief when he feels cold stone against his bare back. He tries desperately to breath, to force his body to relax, but the effects come harder and faster.

Muscle spasms begin to skate through him, the entire right side of his body jerking and flailing, his legs kicking out, his head twitching so hard he slams his cheek into the wall.

Frustration courses through him at the helplessness, and he sinks his teeth into his tongue, hard enough for blood to fill his mouth. He holds onto the pain, relishes the metallic taste, because it’s the one thing in this world he can control.

It continues non-stop, for the next two days. Flashes of heat, wracking chills. At one point, he loses complete control of his muscles, unable to do more than lie on the floor and writhe.

On the third day, the hallucinations start.

 

“Steve? Stevie! Where have you been, why didn’t you come sooner? Don’t leave me here again, please please please, I don’t wanna stay, I wanna go home, please Stevie, please!”

 

“Should we try to help?” There’s no sympathy in the voice, only a hint of curiosity, as the two men peer through the iron bars on the door to the soldier’s room.

“No,” another voice dismisses, bored with the discussion. “Let him ride it out, he can take it.”

On the morning of the fourth day, his body is his own again, and he crawls weakly to the bucket in the corner of his room and pukes his guts out. The sour taste of acid and bile stays stuck in his mouth all day, until they come to collect him.

And it begins all over again.

 

Bucky remembers this. The first ‘oblivion’ is a nightmare from which he never thought to wake.

 

*****

 

EARLY 1970s

"Open your mouth, Soldat.”

The Soldier obeys instantly, dropping his jaw without question. Rough fingers shove a small yellow pill inside, and he feels it dissolving, the chalky bitter flavour absorbing into the meat of his tongue. He can feel splotches of burning heat spread across his skin, followed by that familiar cold numbness as the drug slices through his body.

 

That night, when the bomb detonates, the resulting boom rattles the foundation of the building, sending colourful orange flames licking up the clean grey exterior. Screams tear through the night air, crowds of people fleeing the scene in a desperate bid for safety.

Framed in a dark window high above the street, stands a man dressed in a wrinkled brown leisure suit. Watching the chaos below, sweat covers his forehead, plastering shaggy blond hair to his skin, itching as it beads beneath his unkempt moustache.

He knows what this is.

He knows what they’re doing.

He knows who’s coming for him.

From the corner of his eye, the man sees a shadow detach itself from behind his door, and his trembling hands are still scrabbling for the gun under his desk, when the knife whistles through the air. The blade slices through his skin like butter, embedding to the hilt in his windpipe, the worn handle wobbling lazily as his throat works against it. He tries to scream, but the only thing that comes is a gurgle of frothy pink blood staining his lips.

There’s no pity in his face when the Soldier stalks forward, raising his arm mechanically and firing two bullets between his eyes. The body slumps forward, splashing the neatly organised desk with slick smears of blood, and the Soldier’s nostrils flare as the warm smell of raw iron invades his senses.

Mission accomplished, he eases from the office, closing the door and turning down the hallway. He passes a woman holding a pile of folders to her chest, her steps heavy and exhausted. She glances at him, but her eyes never pause, sliding smoothly past him.

That night, the police question her for five straight hours – who did you see, what did he look like, what was he wearing, why can’t you remember anything?

“I don’t know, I can’t remember! There’s was someone, but I can’t remember!” she sobs, again and again.

In the morning papers, the black ink blares the headline to the world:

 

“Former Hydra operative, turned Federal agent, found murdered in his office”

 

Bucky remembers this. Hydra is a life sentence. Once you’re in, they will never, ever let you go.

 

*****

 

MID 1990s

The room is clean, nicer than most Hydra offsites, but Alexander Pierce is still annoyed.

Sitting at a large wooden desk, he rubs his chin while he reads the latest mission report, the neat, block-letters as simple and concise as they’ve been since 1950.

The Asset stands silently before him, legs slightly spread, hands folded behind his back. His pose is automatic, classic parade rest for any soldier, even one who has no idea he was ever more than the machine he is today.

When Pierce finally glances up, his glasses have slid down his nose, and his light blue eyes are pure ice as he looks over the rims.

“New Head arrives today. He wants to meet you.”

The Asset nods once, demonstrating he understands. He’s been here before, decades of service meant plenty of change in leadership. Sometimes it was frictionless, others harsh and chaotic, but a glimmering thread of consistency has always remained.

The Asset obeys.

“Procedure will change, you’ll be blindfolded for all meetings. Only top-level personnel are face to face.”

The Asset nods again.

Pierce returns to his paperwork, summarily ignoring him, and the Asset returns to waiting, frozen and unmoving.

He hears the sound first, a rustle at his back, and he shifts imperceptibly, lifting blank eyes to Pierce.

At the quiet cough, Pierce looks up, immediately jumping to his feet when he sees the silhouette outlined in the doorframe. Walking past the Asset, he gives a low welcome to the visitor.

A long silence follows, before a firm hand presses between his shoulder blades and a heavy cloth bag is draped unceremoniously over his head. The Asset fights his natural urge to lash out, instead keeping his eyes wide open, his ears straining for sound, but his world has turned pitch black and muted behind the thick fabric. Laying his tongue flat against the fabric, he tries to orient himself with the lack of other senses, and tastes the dirty flavour of dust and wool. 

The door behind him creaks shut, and the Asset is alone with the new Head. Although his senses are dulled through the rough cloth, he hears the quick breaths, smells the hint of expensive vodka. Silence reigns for several minutes, and the Asset knows he’s being scrutinised as the man circles him.

Look at you,” the voice finally says quietly, quivering with excitement. “All these years, and still perfect. Strong. Beautiful. You’re all mine.” He runs his hand possessively down the silver arm, and it takes every ounce of the Asset’s restraint to stop his fist from swinging forward.

As the man speaks, there’s a flicker of recognition, not for the voice, but rather the cadence of his speech. For some reason it dredges up a staticky image of a woman in a bright red dress, something ancient and achingly familiar. The thought snags tantalizingly in the Asset’s brain, before it recedes into the dark abyss.

The voice hums delightedly when he hears the arm whir to life, and the Asset feels him back away. When he speaks again, amusement colours the muffled words.

“We can fix that soon enough. I really am looking forward to breaking you in.”

There’s a knock behind him, and Pierce opens the door.

“Team are assembling for the Algeria mission. Did you want to send him?” 

The voice is dismissive when it responds. “No, it’s an easy job, don’t waste him. Put him back on ice.”

The Asset doesn’t even flinch. The cold is infinitely preferable to his time spent awake anyway.

“Let’s go,” Pierce says, and the Asset turns obediently, his head still covered with the thick cloth.

The crackle of electricity warns him a second before it happens, and the taser bites into his neck, his body crumpling to the ground with a scream.

The voice gives an ugly laugh.

“You should pay more attention, Soldier. Don’t ever turn your back on me again.” The voice drops lower, close behind him, and the Asset falls motionless. “I own you now, don’t you ever fucking forget that. You were made to suffer for me, and I’ll make certain you do.”

 

Bucky remembers this. In all his years, above everything else, the voice was the one thing he ever truly feared.

 

*****

 

Yes, memory is a strange thing.

Bucky hasn’t spent time with these particular memories in years, but each one elbows forward tonight, clamouring for his attention.

Drugs. Murder. Torture. Pieces of memory begin to click together, an unconscious response to the evening’s events.

He ruminates on the voice, the wizard behind the curtain. Bucky never knew his name, never saw his face. He was a vague shadow, who poured pain over the Asset with boundless enthusiasm, always whispering in his ear of the greater horrors to come. The voice went silent after Washington DC, and SHIELD assumed he was dead.

There’s something, something, something there. He knows there’s something, it blisters like acid in his brain, this idea, this realisation, this – something.

And then a sick swoop sets his stomach churning, the impossible thought knocking him sideways, as he remembers the words, remembers the letters.

 

“All these years, and still perfect. Strong. Beautiful. You’re all mine.”

HE CAN’T HAVE YOU, HE CAN NEVER HAVE YOU. YOU’RE MINE.

 

“You should pay more attention, Soldier.”

YOU REALLY SHOULD PAY MORE ATTENTION.

 

Bucky feels his heart stop.

It wasn’t possible.

It couldn’t be possible.

It was a coincidence.

It has to be a coincidence.

Terror whites out his vision as the idea lands.

 

*****

 

When the phone vibrates quietly, Bucky stirs from his self-induced trance, his heart pounding with the sheer insanity of his thoughts. Without looking, he knows the sky is still dark, settled into that brief interlude of night when the moon has fallen and the sun still sleeps, a soft transition before dawn.

Steve’s text is short and to the point.

“Bike, back entrance. Go now.”

Bucky looks down to where you lean against him. Wrapped in your patchwork quilt, your arm is wrapped tightly around his, your face buried against his shoulder. He feels your slow, even breaths heating his skin, feels his fingers still tangled in yours, and it takes every last drop of willpower to let go of that comfort.

Rousing you gently, his stomach lurches when you blink slowly, contentment in your eyes when you recognise him.

“I need you to wake up, quickly. We’re leaving,” his voice is low and urgent, but perfectly calm.

Still half asleep, you struggle to follow. “Where are we going?”

“Somewhere safe.”

 

Chapter Text

The night is still a deep velvety black, when you slip like shadows from the back of your apartment.

Bucky’s bike seems quieter than before, and you huddle against his back, locking your fingers around his broad chest when he takes off. He heads north first, tilting and turning through the tree-lined streets of the Upper West side, turning east to cross through Harlem, where a flickering neon orange bar sign spelling out LUKE’S briefly catches your eye.

When he hits the FDR, he slams on the gas, flying south. The Bridge looms ahead, white lights illuminating the smooth curve of cables, and you feel a heady rush of safety at the landmark, knowing what will follow.

Steps heavy, you walk slowly into Bucky’s apartment, unclipping your backpack, dropping it with a soft thump.

Nothing has changed since the last time you were here.

His copy of the ‘The Book Thief’ is still sitting in the leather chair where you left it, your page marked with a battered Metro card. Bucky’s half-finished crossword lays on the coffee table, still waiting for him to puzzle out the remaining clues, and two half full glasses of water sit on the bar counter.

Everything has changed since the last time you were here.

Lightly touching the bandage on your forehead, you sigh. Even with your overactive imagination, you never expected this, and it makes you sick to your stomach.

“You’re welcome to everything,” Bucky says quietly. “I don’t exactly get visitors, so if you need anything, just ask.”

The world feels blurry, and you feel yourself sway. Right now, the only thought in your head, is that you can feel your heartbeat through the cut on your forehead, and it feels so fucking weird.

Opening your mouth to speak, nothing comes. Shrugging in confusion, you look to Bucky helplessly.

“Come here,” he says, gently steering you toward an oak door at the far end of the apartment. Cracking it open, he stands aside to let you pass and you wander in slowly, stopping with an appreciative sigh.

The room is small, but his bed is massive, dominating most of the space. The bedframe looks handmade, boards slotted neatly together with reddish tints of cherry, dark streaks of walnut, and purplish swirls of rosewood. Cool grey sheets are topped with a puffy dark grey comforter, and there are no less than ten plush pillows piled at the headboard, shades of sky blue and stormy grey and inky cobalt.

It looks so comfortable, you could fall asleep just staring at it. Cocking an eyebrow at the pillow mountain, you give him a small grin.

He laughs wryly. “I might have a thing for pillows.”

“You really are a marshmallow, Barnes.”

Bucky chuckles, but it fades when he sees the light leave your eyes. Since the first day he met you, he’s been intrigued by the constant snarking, the quick jabs, the ever-present sass saturating every conversation.

And now, that unique bit of energy always simmering under your skin seems sapped, drained away by the night’s events, and Bucky feels strangely hollow.

“You should go back to sleep, it’s still early. The bedroom’s all yours.”

Rubbing the soft edge of the comforter, you feel a flicker of panic at the thought of being dumped and left alone for days, and the question comes quietly.

“Will you stay here too?”

He doesn’t respond, and after a moment’s awkward silence, you glance up to find him watching you closely.

“Yes, I’ll take the couch, as long as it doesn’t make you uncomfortable. I need to go back to the city this morning, but I’ll be back later.”

Relieved at his response, you nod. “Sure, that works.”

Bucky glances down at himself with a grimace, at his dirty tux and the feel of dust still heavy in his dark hair.

“I’m gonna take a quick shower, then we can talk if you want?”

“Okay,” you agree with a yawn. Plopping down on the edge of the bed, you feel the weight of fatigue settling in, the sparse hour of sleep not nearly.

Across the small apartment, you hear the shower turning on, the fall of water lulling you into a daze. Scooting into the mountain of pillows, you grab one at random, burying your face in the soft cotton, and closing your eyes.

The smell is comfortingly familiar, like sandalwood and soap.

With the lingering scent of Bucky in your nose, you drift back to sleep.

 

*****

 

In five minutes flat, Bucky’s showered and dressed, pulling on dark jeans, and a black t-shirt, damp hair gathered in a knot at the back of his neck.

Rifling in the kitchen, he pours a glass of water and snags a packet of Tylenol from one of the many first-aid kits he keeps stashed around the apartment, and pads back to the bedroom, pulling up short at the sight.

Curled in the middle of his bed, you’re already sound asleep, hugging one of his pillows tight.

Stepping silently in the room, he leaves the water and pain medicine on the nightstand, before picking up a fuzzy blue blanket and draping it over you.

He should leave, get back to the city, figure out what’s going on, maybe break someone’s ass, but instead he stands frozen, his brain working overtime to commit this particular image to memory.

Something nice to hold onto, he thinks, because those things are rare in his world. Closing the bedroom door quietly, he tugs on his boots and picks up his bike helmet, the one he grudgingly purchased at your insistence, before heading to the front door.

Hand on the doorknob, he speaks softly.

“FRIDAY?”

“Good morning, Sergeant Barnes,” the AI’s voice is strangely subdued.

“Keep her safe.”

“Yes sir.”

Bucky closes the apartment door with a gentle click.

 

*****

 

Outside the Tower, the crime scene is marked with yellow police tape, the plastic giving a crinkly rattle in the breeze. People walk by, some pausing to assess the damage, some taking photos. Several to leave flowers. There’s unfortunate acceptance of disasters like these, an obligatory numbness that allows people to continue on with life.

Bucky wants to stride right past without looking, but he can’t.

Carved in the sidewalk is a six-foot wide crater, where the bomb tore apart the concrete. Water pipes lay exposed in the pit, a jumbled heap of cracked iron, and Bucky sees speckles and smears, dark brown and rusty red marring the concrete slabs. He briefly tries to orient himself, to determine if any of those stains belong to you.

It doesn’t matter, he thinks sharply. She’s fine.

Avoiding the reporters milling out front, Bucky makes his way through heavily reinforced security teams, and ducks into an open elevator. When the doors close, he’s compelled to ask.

“FRIDAY?”

“She’s still asleep, Sergeant Barnes.”

“Thanks,” he replies faintly.

When Bucky walks into the lab, he finds an oddly sombre energy.

Steve sits with his head bowed, tapping his toes while he scrolls through a tablet. Bruce is drumming his fingers against the table, his eye attached to his microscope. Tony stands at his desk, elbow deep in a messy tangle of wires.

“Well?” Bucky asks brusquely, and all three look up.

“DNA’s a dead end,” Bruce answers immediately. “The drugs are too sticky, I can’t peel it apart, and even if I could, it’s likely changed him down to a molecular level. We won’t get a match.”

“So, we’re stuck with fucking pictures. How retro,” Tony grumbles, dropping the wires, and snatching his phone. Flicking his wrist, an entire gallery of images projects into the air, digital portraits of people from the night before.

“Here’s everyone who passed the Tower last night, with even a slight match to your description. Start looking.”

Bucky walks into the middle of the projection, heart sinking when he sees hundreds of photos. Reaching for images that catch his eye, he discards one after another, making his way through the wall of holograms. An hour passes, then two, his pile decreasing, his frustration increasing, with every passing minute.

Fuck, I couldn’t have forgotten it already, what the hell?” he growls under his breath. More images pop up, and he tosses them aside, his blood beginning to boil.

When he grabs one at random, he gives a cursory glance, and moves to fling it away.

His eyes snap back.

Brown hair. Hazel eyes.

“Fuck me, yes. This,” he breathes. “This is it, this is him.”

The image is not perfect, but suddenly the face bursts into vivid colour, the forgettable cracks filled with a memory mortar, cementing the detail into Bucky’s brain. In that instant, it all rushes back, the feel of saliva in his mouth, the pulsing silence before the detonation, the echoes of screams like smoke on the wind.

Tony and Steve are flanking him, and all three men stare in silence at the picture. Bucky watches his hand raise, fingers brushing the hologram, an unconscious squeeze of the man’s throat.

“FRIDAY, start running against every open database. If we can’t access, we hack.” Tony orders.

Bucky keeps his eyes on the image, drinking in the details. He wants it embedded in his brain, because the next time he sees this fucker, he doesn’t plan to leave his face intact.

He feels a curious sense of relief though, because this man is far too young to be the voice, Bucky knows that for certain. It almost puts a spring back in his step, the weight lifting off his shoulders.

Once he has the image locked, he turns crisply, heading for the door.

“Call me soon as there’s something.”

 

*****

 

Steve trots after him, easily keeping up with his long stride. It irritates Bucky just a little that when he wants to run away from Steve, it’s officially impossible, because the punk’s legs are longer than his.

“How is she?” Steve asks sincerely, and now Bucky feels a little bad about trying to run away.

“She’s okay. Sleeping when I left.”

“Good, good,” Steve says. “So, she’s staying there? For now?”

Yes. Is that a problem?”

“Of course not, I’m just asking. So, she’s staying there, and you’re staying – where?”

“On the street Steve. Thought I’d rough it up a bit, have some fun, go back to those glorious days when I was homeless and on the run. Good times.”

“I see, so we’re doing that thing where you’re an asshole when I ask questions. Awesome.”

“Well Jesus, what do you want me to say? Yeah, I’m staying there too, I can’t leave her alone.”

“Can’t? Or won’t?”

Bucky stops abruptly. “Seriously?”

“What are you doing, Buck?” Steve asks quietly. “Come on. You clearly feel something for her, and I know you know. Stop acting oblivious and answer the question.”

Bucky tries to blow past him, but Steve grabs his arm, and they wrestle for a minute, before Bucky gets him in a headlock. Gritting his teeth, he tries to explain himself, while Steve jams an elbow repeatedly into his ribs.

“Listen to me, you little shit. Something Hydra burned out pretty fucking fast, was any idea that feeling emotion and having a successful mission can co-exist. You know – don’t fucking bite meSteve – you know what happens when emotions get involved? You get really fucking dead. And if you’re not dead you’re distracted, and where the fucking hell do you think that leads?”

Letting go, he shoves Steve away. When he speaks again, it’s a whispered statement.

“This is work. She is my job.”

Steve’s face softens when he hears the words, and he shakes his head slowly, disagreement clear in his face. Bucky knows that look, realises a Steve Rogers ‘special talk’ is coming, where he pulls out his Captain America voice and dispenses with some worn out bullshit wisdom, and while Bucky normally plays along, his heart is in his throat and he just can’t. Not today, not about this.

Not about you.

“Don’t.” He puts up his hand the moment Steve opens his mouth, and he takes a deep breath. “Just – I’m only gonna say this once. I’m not oblivious, alright? Yes, I do feel something for her because she makes it god damn hard not to. No, I will not do anything about it. Look what happened last night. He was right fucking in front of me, and I was so caught up in her, I didn’t even notice. If I’m distracted, then she’s not safe. Full stop.”

Bucky punches the elevator call button, disappointment sitting solid in his gut, but it’s the right thing, he knows it’s the right thing, and Steve has to understand.

But, of course, Steve is Steve, and when has he ever listened to Bucky?

“Whatever jerk, I’m talking now. You’ve always been great at compartmentalising. The minute life gets messy, you start putting things in your little boxes, so you can keep it all orderly and controlled. You did it when we were kids and I’d get sick, you did it in the war every time a mission went south, and you did it through seventy fucking years of shit with Hydra. It made sense then, but it can’t be the answer to everything because you need to understand something.”

Here it comes, Bucky thinks tiredly.

“Your stupid fucking heart doesn’t fit in a box Bucky. Do not let a chance to be happy fall apart, because you think you can’t have both. Your head and your heart are always better together.”

Bucky wishes it were that easy, he really does.

But it’s not, and it never will be. Emotions are distractions, distractions make you lose control.

Bucky Barnes does not lose control.

The elevator arrives in that moment and Bucky steps inside. He turns to face Steve, and right as the doors close, he lobs his parting shot.

“No. They’re not.”

 

*****

 

When Bucky reaches his front door that night, he hesitates. He spent the entire drive home arguing with himself, but after an internal screaming match, he came to a conclusion. He owes you the truth, every last bit of it. It’s unfair and unsafe to keep things hidden.

But fuck, the thought of your disappointment makes him want to vomit.

The alarm gives a cheerful chirp when he comes in, dropping his keys and helmet on the worn oak console in the entryway. Walking slowly into the living room, he finds you wrapped in his fuzziest blue blanket, curled in his chair, reading one of his books, giving him a relaxed smile. You fit so naturally into this world, in his home, he nearly loses his nerve.

“Hey stranger,” you say with a grin, and he relishes the spark that’s back in your eyes.

Christ, he doesn’t want to do this.

“Hey. We need to talk,” he says quietly.

The smile slides slowly off your face, at his serious tone.

“Sounds ominous,” you say drily. “Are we breaking up?”

“What? No, no, I’m not – that’s not – we aren’t – ”

“I was joking,” you interrupt, giving him a small smile. “Sorry. What do we need to talk about?”

Bucky pulls out his phone, looking at the screen for a long minute. Tapping the screen, there’s a white flash, and suddenly an image is projected in front of you, a slightly grainy holographic photo of a man in a blue hoodie.

Staring at the picture for a minute, you wait for him to speak, but he remains silent.

“Um, I need more information. What is this?” you ask in confusion.

“This is the guy behind your letters. Do you recognise him?”

Oh.

You look again, taking in the mop of brown hair, the crooked bend of his nose, the way his lips are pulled tight, his nervous expression. A shiver ripples up your spine.

You’ve never seen this man in your life.

“No, I don’t. Should I?”

“You’re sure? Completely positive?”

Trying again, you search the man’s features, but no spark of recognition comes.

“I’m positive.”

He sighs, not sure if he’s disappointed or relieved at your response. “Fuck. Okay. We’re still looking for him, but we haven’t found anything yet.”

“Is this the guy you saw last night? The one you told Steve about when we were in the car?”

Bucky flinches at the reminder, and you catch the reaction instantly.

“Bucky, what’s going on? You’ve been acting fucking weird for a couple days.”  

He doesn’t answer right away. Instead, he flips a switch on the phone and the image disappears before he sinks to the sofa.

The silence in the room is thick and absolute, until suddenly his voice comes in a low rush.

“I need to tell you something else.”

“Okay,” you say encouragingly. “I’m listening.”

Breathing hard through his nose, he rolls the words on his tongue, shaking his head slightly, before he blurts it out.

“He was there. At the department store. He was there and he saw you, and I didn’t know, and he took a picture of you, and Jesus Christ, I fucked up so bad, I didn’t even know he was there.”

“Wait, what?” You raise your hands to slow him down. “He took pictures? How do you know?”

There’s miserable devastation written all over his face.

“He sent me two photos, left them in our fanmail box. Told me you looked pretty. Said I should pay more attention. I’m so god damn sorry.”

“But how could he even get past – ”

“There’s more.”

Everything feels off-kilter, too much information at once, and you feel your heart beating faster.

Hunching forward, Bucky drops his gaze again, resting his elbows on his knees and clasping his hands. With a deep, steadying breath, he begins to speak, laying everything on the table.

The moment in Bruce’s lab, when he realised what was happening, the smell of lemons still bitter in his lungs. His memories of the drugs and how they work. The experiments they did on him. What the drug withdrawal felt like. What he had to do, the people he killed after he took it. His fear of the voice, and his horrified idea this could somehow be connected. How he smelled the man last night, before he even saw him. Steve’s theory that the stalker is jealous, and Bucky’s fear that his involvement could make things worse.

He talks for an hour straight, his eyes glued to the floor. He pauses at certain points, groping for the right words, closing his eyes in hot shame. He talks and talks, until his voice is hoarse, but he can’t stop, because he knows when he does, you’ll tear into him for keeping this from you, and he’s not ready.

But he’s well aware that’s not how life works.

When he has nothing left to explain, he falls silent, waiting for the condemnation. You haven’t said a word, and Bucky resolutely refuses to lift his eyes. He’s never in his life been a coward, but this – he doesn’t want to face the disappointment he knows he’ll find, so he waits, and when you rise, his head hangs lower.

Stepping carefully over to him, you pause and he steels himself.

And then you’re dropping to the sofa next to him, wrapping your arms tight around him, pulling him into a fierce hug.

He’s so blindsided by your action, his response is automatic, winding his arms tight around you. There are familiar words coming from your lips, something Bucky remembers himself saying the night you told him about your father, and your forgiveness cuts him to the bone.

“Bucky, it’s okay, I get it. And I’m sorry,” you say softly. “I’m so sorry that happened to you.”

He has no clue what to say, so he doesn’t. Hugging you close, he feels the cool evening air as blows in from the river, dancing through the room.

 

*****

 

The next afternoon finds you sitting on the floor in front of Bucky’s coffee table, staring at a bright laptop screen, a blinking cursor, and absolutely no will to write.

Instead, after two hours working on the same sentence, you find yourself taking everything out of Bucky’s kitchen cabinets, searching for some form of chocolate to jumpstart the creativity.

“Yes,” you hiss happily when you find a sack full of candy hidden behind the rows of canned vegetables. Pulling out two bags of M&Ms, you dump the contents in a bowl and wander back to your laptop.

Slipping on headphones, you crank up the music, and wonder of wonders, the chocolate does the trick. The words begin to flow, one sentence turns into two paragraphs, and the story takes shape.

Fuck yes,” you mumble, tossing back another handful of M&Ms and cracking your knuckles, bobbing your head to the music, until the unexpected pressure of a hand suddenly taps your shoulder.

Sucking in a deep breath, you let out a bloodcurdling scream. Unable to turn, stuck between the sofa and coffee table, you grab the bowl of candy and throw it wildly behind you, sending colourful bits of chocolate skittering over the floor.

There’s no sound, no glass breaking, and suddenly Bucky moves in front of you, holding the empty candy bowl in one hand and a bag of food in the other. He looks completely confused by your reaction, until he sees the headphones tucked in your ears, and suddenly he’s laughing.

“Sorry, I’m sorry, I thought you heard me!” He’s still laughing at your annoyed face, when he holds up the Chinese takeout in offering, grinning down at you.

“You hungry?”

 

*****

 

Cartons of half-eaten food are spread across the coffee table, while both of you sit cross-legged around the edge.

“So, there’s still nothing?” Spooning more rice on your plate, you fiddle with your chopsticks, adjusting the grip.

Bucky huffs. “Nothing, it’s like the guy doesn’t even exist. Tony’s taken it as a personal insult that his technology hasn’t solved this, so you know. That should end well.”

The comment makes you laugh, and Bucky grins in response, spinning the chopsticks through his fingers, before he picks up a piece of soy drenched broccoli.

“Jack emailed earlier today, asking if I could still come in tomorrow and meet with the new Pennsylvania Senator, the one who replaced Stern.”

Bucky stops chewing. Still chasing a piece of chicken, you don’t see his eyes narrow.

“You told him no, right?”

“Well, no – I’ve had that interview lined up for months, I can’t cancel it.”

He sets the chopsticks down carefully.

“I’m sorry, but you need to. You’re not leaving.”

You glance up in surprise. “Seriously? Bucky, come on. It’s been two days, nothing else has happened. You know exactly what this guy looks – and smells – like. I really need to take this meeting, please. I promise it’ll be quick.”

He looks down, shaking his head.

“I’m sorry, the answer’s no.”

The words instantly grate on your nerves.

“Bucky, I’m here by my own volition, you understand that, right? I appreciate everything you do for me, but if I wanted to walk out this door right now, I could.”

“And I’d really appreciate if you didn’t try, because I’m not opposed to locking you in the bedroom.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

“You heard me. I’m the one in charge of keeping you safe, you’re not leaving. End of discussion.”

Completely baffled at how quickly this escalated, the next words leave your mouth before you can think twice.

“I’m not a fucking prisoner, Barnes. As someone who knows what it feels like to have other people pulling all the fucking strings in your life, I assumed you might have some sympathy here.”

It’s a low blow, you know that. You want to take the words back, but spiteful frustration blocks the apology.

Bucky’s face goes blank. He shrugs coolly.

“I do know. You’re still not going.”

Without another word, you leap up from the coffee table, walking straight to his bedroom, the door slamming behind you.

 

*****

 

Even with the river separating you from Manhattan, the city lights beam bright through the slit in the bedroom curtains, throwing patterns on the ceiling. If you were tired, this might be a problem, but no matter.

You’re wide awake and sleep is not coming tonight.

Padding into the living room, you find the couch empty. There’s a moment of brief alarm, before the gentle clink of glass alerts you to his presence, and you see his bulky shadow perched on the kitchen counter. A tumbler of whiskey dangles loose in his hand, filled to the brim.

“I thought you didn’t drink.”

“Never said that.”

“Fine then. I thought you couldn’t get drunk.”

“I can’t,” he says stonily, tipping the glass for another long swallow. “Doesn’t mean I don’t like it.”

He’s going to make it hard, you can already tell. Keeping your voice calm, you speak.

“Can we talk about earlier?”

“No,” he says flatly.

“Is that how this’ll be then? You just sitting here, being a dick and refusing to have a conversation?”

“That’s the plan,” he says, taking another sip.

“Can you please be a fucking adult and discuss this with me?”

He grunts at the comment and slides off the counter, the whiskey still cupped in his hand. Anger floods his voice as he spits the words at you.

“Fine, you want to talk about it? Let’s talk. Let’s start with the day we met, because I seem to remember there being a discussion about safety and me asking you to follow three rules. Any chance at all you remember what the fuck those were?”

“I remember a lot of things about that day, namely what a condescending asshole you were, so was that one of the three?”

“Three rules. Three fucking rules. There are only three and Jesus Christ, you’ve broken all of them! Every single one! I tell you I don’t do personal errands, yet somehow end up in a department store helping you dress shop. I tell you I need to know where you are at all times, and you spend an entire morning ignoring my phone calls. I tell you when I order you to do something, you will do it without question, and yet here we are, with you questioning this one simple fucking request. I can’t keep you safe if you don’t help me out, I swear to fucking god!”

“Are you done with the temper tantrum?” you ask coolly.

He throws back the last swallow and slams the glass on the counter, cracks immediately spidering from the bottom as the crystal breaks.

“No, I’m not. Can you just explain something for me because I’m confused as fuck right now – why the hell do you always insist on making this job so god damn hard?”

There’s a lump in your throat at his words. He has every right to be pissed, and you know that, but his comment hurts, and you respond before you can stop yourself.

“So, is that it then? This whole thing, it’s just work? I’m just a fucking job to you?”

Bucky goes completely still. He stares at you standing before him, dishevelled and fired up, wearing your anger like a coat of armour.

And suddenly, the emotion slams into him like a tidal wave.

Stepping around the bar, he comes at you fast, pushing you back until you bump into the living room wall. Laying his hands flat on the brick, one on each side of your face, trapping you in his space so you can’t look away.

The silence is so loaded, your skin tingles in anticipation.

But then his voice cracks as he whispers the words that change everything.

“No, you’re fucking not, and that’s the god damn problem,” and his mouth crashes down on yours.

Shaking hands leave the wall to frame your face in his wide palms, keeping you steady while his lips move against yours, pouring every ounce of desperation into the kiss, ripping your breath from your chest. Fingers tangling in the fabric of his shirt, you yank him closer and he groans into your mouth when he feels your body pressed against him.

His kiss is both oddly familiar and like nothing you’ve ever experienced, soul consuming on every single level, and you feel the heat begin to build before he breaks it with a gasp. Keeping his forehead pressed to yours and his eyes shut tight, his breath comes fast, harsh and broken.

“This isn’t – fuck, fuck, fuck, I’m sorry – ” but his words are silenced when you kiss him again, wrapping your hands around his waist to keep him close. He gives in instantly, his mouth slanting back over yours, as he presses you harder into the wall, and you feel every burning inch of his body.

Like the crystal of his glass, the deep resonance of the moment shatters you. Breaking away from him, the words fall before you can stop them.

And my god, you don’t want to stop them.

“I want you Bucky,” you whisper hoarsely, your lips still brushing his, and he swallows the confession with a shaky sigh. “I want you and I want this. I’m in, if you are.”

Bucky leans back, and you see the longing in his eyes, know it mirrors what he sees in yours. He doesn’t respond immediately, and you’re suddenly terrified of the possibility of rejection from this man, someone who’s burrowed so deep in your heart, you can’t remember when he didn’t exist as a fundamental part of you.

You see the conflict raging behind his eyes, but the switch flips, and like your dance the other night – he simply lets go.

His mouth lands back on yours with breath-taking ferocity, sending sparks of electricity snapping up your spine. Reaching behind your thighs, he lifts you easily and you wrap your legs around his waist, keeping him close.

Arms locked around you, he turns and begins a slow walk toward the bedroom. Breaking the kiss, you reach shaking hands to the hem of your shirt, tugging it over your head and throwing it behind him, before bringing his mouth back to yours. The taste of him is an addiction you had no idea you needed, warmth and whiskey, the barest hint of honey on his tongue when you breathe him in.

Bucky hugs you close, his hands trailing languidly up your bare back, hot and cold in turn, leaving goosebumps in their path. His light touch makes you shiver, a bone-deep shudder, as you curl further into him, your breasts rubbing against the worn cotton of his black shirt.

When his mouth drops to the base of your neck, he sucks at the delicate skin over your pulse, before licking a long stripe up until his lips reach the smooth skin behind your ear. Nuzzling against your skin, he leaves a light kiss, his tongue tracing the shell of your ear, before tugging gently with his teeth. Dimly, you realise he’s standing above the bed now, and with your arms and legs still tight around him, he lifts a knee and eases you both onto the soft blankets.

Rising to his knees, he fists his hands in the collar of his t-shirt and yanks it over his head, and for the second time in as many days, he crouches above you. Holding your breath, you reach up to lay your palm flat against his chest, feeling his skin like fire beneath your fingers, feeling the thundering hammer of his heartbeat.

He leans down and his voice is low and rough in your ear, full of dark promise.

“I want to taste every single inch of you. From here,” and he presses a firm kiss to your lips…

“to here,” a feather light kiss at your collarbone…

“and here,” he drags his beard lightly over your nipple and you hiss at the feel…

“then here,” a swipe of his tongue above your bellybutton, and his fingers are hooking in your sleep shorts, slowly pulling them down…

here,” brushing his lips at your hipbone, dragging his tongue lower, and he sits back on his knees, pulling off your shorts…

“maybe here,” he wraps a hand behind each of your knees, lifting them and pressing kisses on the inside of both, before pushing them down to the bed, holding you open. He stays on his knees, staring down at you splayed beneath him, and then he’s shifting his body further down the bed, and his words make your stomach clench…

“but mostly here,” and his thumbs stroke the soft skin inside your thighs before he ducks his head down and licks a long, slow stripe up your folds, letting the tip of his tongue rub against your clit. The breath is punched from your lungs, and your hands tangle in his hair, nails scratching his scalp.

He hums at the feel, leans into your touch, his tongue moving lazily against you, and fuck, the sight of his dark head buried between your legs is hands down, the most erotic thing you’ve seen in your life.

When he stretches cool metal fingers up, dragging over your rib cage, reaching your breast, the unforgiving metal gives your nipple a small pinch. Sucking in a sharp breath as he twists and tugs gently on the sensitive skin, you grasp his wrist with both hands, and pull his hand to your mouth, sucking in two of his fingers, the feel of the cold plates warmly quickly on your tongue.

He watches from his lower vantage point, groaning quietly at the sight, giving your clit a harsh flick in response. You feel his other hand leave your leg, and when you curl your tongue around his fingers and suck hard, he sinks two fingers deep into you.

Arching at the feel, you keep a tight grip on his metal hand, needing something to keep you grounded in the moment, while he pumps his fingers slowly, licking and sucking, his tongue still moving against you.

It’s entirely overwhelming, and his hand moves faster, fingers curling up on each stroke, and it feels so good, so fucking good, you feel the heat pooling in your belly, muscles tightening as your legs begin to shake.

Bucky,” you pant, pulling his fingers from your mouth. “Bucky, look up, look at me,” and he raises his eyes to you, blue nearly swallowed by lust filled black, and he gives a tiny growl and sucks your clit again, moves his fingers faster. The look on his face is a clear challenge to let go, and it pitches you over the edge, the cry breaking from your throat as you arch against him, keeping his hand clasped to your chest as you come.

He doesn’t stop, carries you through it, until your body stops shaking, the tension leaving through the ends of your fingers and the tips of your toes. He laughs softly at the sound of your blissful sigh, pressing a kiss to your thigh. Making good on his promise, he licks a slow, lazy path as he crawls back up your body.

Pausing to leave little marks below your ribcage, his thumbs rub slow circles around your nipples before his tongue curls around one, his mouth hot and wet. Combing your fingers through his hair, you hold him steady, while his teeth catch and pull, his beard scraping your skin. Over and over, he seems in no hurry to move, and you laugh breathlessly at his serious expression.

He grins up at you, giving your nipple one more gentle bite, before continuing up the column of your throat, sliding his tongue between your lips.

Nipping his lip, he gives a small grunt and pulls back.

“My turn,” you murmur, hooking your leg over his hip and pushing against him, trying to turn him onto his back. He’s a wall of stone, but goes pliable beneath you, and you find yourself straddling him. Bending forward, you kiss his lips again, before trailing them across his cheek, loving the rough feel of his scruff, sandpaper against your lips. When you drag you mouth down his neck, he turns his head with a contented sigh at the feel, warm and wet on his skin.

At the base of his neck, he sucks in a tense breath and holds it, when you press light kisses down the thick scars at his shoulder. The raised ropes of tissue feel strangely hot against your lips, the temperature difference shocking between the textures when your lips drift from his skin to brush the cool metal. The movement spurs a soft clicking sound, and you see the plates in his arm shifting.

“Sorry,” he murmurs, flexing his fingers to stop the movement.

“Don’t apologise,” you whisper sternly, before your lips go back to the seam of his arm, licking and kissing the red skin, until you feel him finally relax beneath you.

Scratching your nails down his chest, you slide further down, until you’re kneeling between his legs, tugging at his shorts. He quickly lifts his hips to help you, and when you get them off, you swallow a moan at the image.

Every single thing about him is rugged, thick, hard. From the heavy muscles lining his shoulders, to the faint scars sprinkled across his chest, down to the thick thighs bracketing you, and there’s only one word you can conjure to describe him.

Delicious.

Running your hands up his legs, gently massaging his skin, you lean forward to press an open-mouthed kiss to the flat planes of his stomach, before brushing your lips down. His breath catches, and he gives a strangled groan when you grip the base of his cock and take him in your mouth, so far down he feels the walls of your throat.

“Fucking motherfucker,” he squeezes his eyes shut, aware that if he watches, he’s going to embarrass himself way too fast, but when he hears you suck hard, feels you hollow your cheeks around him, he realises it’s too good to miss, and his eyes fly open. He lets himself take it in for a few seconds, before he feels you pressing your tongue flat against the underside of his cock, and suddenly it’s too much.

“No, stop,” he grits out, tugging at your arm and you raise your eyes in surprise. “You keep going, and this’ll be over real fast.”

Grinning up at him, you press another kiss to the tip of his cock before he’s hauling you up his body with a low curse. Hovering above him, you reach between your legs, gripping his cock loosely, giving him several slow strokes, before sinking slowly down him with a shuddering sigh.

“Jesus Christ, fuck, fuck,” you hear him whisper. Taking several deep breaths, you shift your hips, trying to adjust to the feel, before slowly beginning to move, keeping your hands on his chest for balance. Bucky stares up in fascination, mesmerised by the sight, the way you circle your hips trying to pull him deeper, the way your fingernails carve half-moon indents in his skin.

Rolling your hips faster, you grind into him, feeling the spark of pleasure each time your clit drags against his cock. He realises what you’re doing, and his fingers move between your legs to help, his thumb rubbing quickly and the heat begins to pool again.

When you’re close for the second time, so god damn close you can almost touch it, he pulls his hand away and grips your hips tight, holding you still.

With a smooth shift, he pulls away, and flips you onto your stomach. Nudging your legs further apart, he sinks back into you with a quiet groan and waits, loving the silky hot feel tight around him. Peppering light kisses up your spine, he licks away the light sheen of sweat prickling across your skin, until he reaches your neck. Balancing on his left hand, his mouth lingers at your ear, and slips his other hand beneath you, his fingers finding your clit again, stroking quickly while he breathes in your ear.

He moves faster, hips driving into you, and his fingers never slow. His mouth is at your ear, and you shiver at the sound of his harsh panting, at the feel of his teeth nipping your ear.

Curving your arm behind you, you grip the back of his neck, fingers sliding on his sweat-slicked skin, holding on dear life as his body rolls behind you, until you’re so close to the edge you can barely breathe.

“One more for me, come on,” his voice is husky in your ear, and he fucks you faster, and suddenly you’re shuddering again, nearly sobbing with relief when the orgasm hits, your fingers jerking at his hair, and he growls in response.

“Turn over, let me see your face,” he murmurs, his hips slowing their rough snap. There’s a broken note in his voice, something you’ve never heard from him before, and for some reason, it makes your heart ache.

When he eases out and rolls you over, there’s a long moment where nothing happens, you simply stare at each other, each memorising the moment in your own way.

Bucky’s hair is messy, swinging forward to tickle his cheeks, and you reach up to tuck it behind his ears, before pulling his face down for a soft kiss. His breath hitches at the gesture, at the sweetness behind it, and the moment your lips touch his again, he buries himself back into you with a hard thrust.

This is another kind of dance, an encore to the one you began that night under the chandeliers, and this time you know it will end a different way.

Resting his forehead against yours, he rocks his hips up, smooth and steady. His lips brush the cut on your forehead, pass gently over the bump beneath your eye, where the swelling has turned into a tender bruise, and leaves a light kiss on the tip of your nose, before tucking his face in your neck.

Your hands stroke mindlessly over the muscles bunched in his back, feel them playing and shifting beneath your fingers. Everything is tense, you can feel his entire body tightening as he snaps his hips harder, presses his face deeper into your skin.

“You can let go Bucky,” your lips tremble against his ear at the sound of his quick breaths. “I’ve got you.”

With your words, he has everything he needs, and his control breaks. You feel the tingling vibration of his moan against your skin, when he rocks into you one last time, and you close your eyes when you feel him come.

 

*****

 

The night is still a deep velvety black, the lights of Manhattan clear in the distance.

The apartment is silent. You lay sound asleep in a pile of soft blankets, behind the closed door to the bedroom, a smile on your face as you sleep.

Bucky stands on his balcony, staring wide-eyed at the skyline. Shaking hands grip the railing, his knuckles standing white against the black iron.

What did I just do?”

His terrified whisper is lost in the wind, as the briny scent of the East River swirls around him.

Chapter Text

Dreams are always sweeter, when they’re fed with beautiful thoughts in those hazy moments before sleep takes hold. The mind clings to those last traces of happiness, reshaping them into something new, something nice. Something to hold onto.

Sleep seldom comes easy, but this night is different. Blissful exhaustion and absolute safety are an effective combination, and they ease you into the deepest sleep you can remember. The dreams are full of muted colours and pleasant flickers of memory, bottomless blue eyes and the quirk of a lopsided grin. It seems a shame to wake, until you remember this dream is solid and real, in the shape of the extraordinary man sleeping beside you.

Drowsy fingers reach for him, searching across the massive bed, before meeting the disappointment of cool fabric and empty air. Humming to yourself, you keep your eyes closed, tucking your face to your shoulder, breathing deep. Bucky’s scent is soaked into your skin, the blazing heat of his touch branded across your body, the heavy feel of him a phantom ache between your legs. Every gentle nip of his teeth, every slick slide of his tongue, every delicate press of his lips, all of it is there.

The realisation blossoms in your chest, heart-stopping in the clarity is brings.

This is a man who has literally walked through smoke and fire for you. Opened his home and his heart, fought for your trust and earned it tenfold. He’s freely given you the most important pieces of who he is, and it seems only fitting that you hand him your heart in return.

The fact is simple. Inevitable, really. Bucky Barnes is tangled up in your soul, an impossible knot that you have no desire to everunravel.

For the first time in forever, the world finally makes a little more sense.

Rolling to the edge of the bed, you snag one his many pillows, hugging it tight. An errant thought pops into your head, as you bury you face in the soft feathers, stifling the laugh that bubbles up. It’s been two full days since you gave him one of your grudgingly agreed compliments, the first time you’ve missed payment since your original wager. After last night, you feel a playful desire to come up with the dirtiest, filthiest, most sinfully extravagant comment possible, because the thought of Bucky blushing, from his neck all the way down to his…well, let’s just say that image does things to you.

Well. No time like the present to start.

Crawling naked from the warm safety of the comforter, you pick up his fuzzy blue blanket and wrap it around your shoulders, the plush velvet rubbing invitingly against your skin. It’s so perfectly reminiscent of his soft lips mapping every contour of your body mere hours earlier, it sends a long shiver rippling down your spine.

Slowly cracking the bedroom door, you find the wall to the balcony wide open, early morning air whirling through the dark living room. Bucky stands outside, a silhouette facing the fading twinkle of city lights. Dressed in jeans and a black t-shirt, his head is bowed low, both hands resting heavily on the railing.

Goosebumps bloom up your legs when you step outside, the cold air licking at your toes. Tiptoeing up behind him, you curve an arm around him and lay a hand over his heart, resting your head against his broad back. He doesn’t turn, doesn’t say a word, but you feel him tense instantly at the touch.

Snuggling closer, your voice is muffled against the wrinkled t-shirt.

“Are you okay?”

He grips the railing tighter, and you hear a faint whine as the iron bends under the unforgiving pressure of bright silver fingers. A long minute passes, before you hear his hoarse voice.

“I’m fine,” he answers quietly, his body motionless beneath your hand. “It’s too early to be up, why don’t you go back to bed.”

Stroking your fingers down the hard plane of his chest, you press a kiss between his shoulder blades.

“Will you come with me?”

He remains perplexingly still, every muscle of his body locked in place. It drags a memory to the surface, of him the first day you met, his rigid posture, sharp and coiled, waiting to snap.

“No,” he says tightly. “I need to get back to the city.”

Beneath your palm, you feel the rapid beat of his heart, but something is missing. It takes you a moment to place it.

The rise and fall of his chest is disturbingly absent – because he’s holding his breath.

Falling still, you dig your nails into his chest.

“Hey. What’s the matter? Did something happen?”

The faintest hiss of a sigh reaches your ears, as he turns to meet your eyes.

He regards you for a moment, his face oddly expressionless, a blank canvas offering nothing for interpretation. Before you can ask again, he gently extricates himself from your arms, and walks back to the living room, leaving you alone on the balcony. Your stomach twists when you watch him drop to the furthest edge of the sofa, hurriedly yanking on his boots.

“Bucky, what the hell’s going on? We agreed, no more secrets. If something’s happened, then tell me. Now.”

But he remains silent, clearly avoiding your eyes while he moves mechanically through the apartment, slipping his phone in one pocket, his keys in the other. His leather jacket lays in a crumpled heap on the floor, and he carefully shakes it out, before shrugging into it, adjusting the collar, smoothing the sleeves. When he finally stops fidgeting, he stares down at the floor in front of you. It takes a full minute, before he slowly raises his eyes to meet your confused stare. Jaw clenched tight, his arms are rigid at his sides, fingers tapping lightly together.

When you take a single step forward, he takes a single step back.

“Look, about last night. I’m sorry I let things get out of control. That was my fault.”

There are hundreds of thousands of words in the English language and your career is based on your ability to string them together and tell stories. You understand metaphors and similes, context and subtext, the history behind hundreds of obsolete words. But when Bucky speaks, handing you seventeen of the most fundamental words in your vocabulary, his meaning seems so perfectly impossible, you can only find one response.

What?”

“I’m sorry,” he repeats, his voice clinical, detached. “It was beyond unprofessional. I never should have allowed that to happen.”

Less than three days ago, you stood on a darkened dance floor, feeling your entire world tilt in a new direction. Unexpectedly and abruptly, it shifts once more, and the floor gives way beneath your icy toes.

“Wait, I don’t – Bucky, I don’t understand. What do you mean allowed it to happen? I said – I told you, I said I was in, I was in this with you. I thought that – I thought you were too.”

He gives you nothing in response. His expression remains shuttered, fingers still tapping together.

“I should have been clear, that was unfair. I’m sorry. I was frustrated, I let things escalate, took advantage of the situation – ”

“What the fucking hell do you mean, you took advantage of the situation?”

“Just that you were upset, and I was frustrated that you wanted to leave, and I wasn’t trying – ”

“Was this part of your game plan for getting me to stay put then? Just fuck me into submission?”

Bitter betrayal fuels the question, and he stumbles back at the harsh words. The blank mask slips from his face, and you glimpse the wild panic in his eyes, before he repositions the mask once more.

No, Jesus Christ, that was never - ”

“Is this the strategy Fury approved when you signed up for the job? Whenever she gets too mouthy, just dick her down and she’ll fall in line?”

“I had no fucking idea – ”

“Christ, how lucky could you possibly get? Getting paid to keep a girl stashed at your place, an easy access fuck whenever you needed it. God damn, you’re such a fucking planner Bucky.”

Stop it, that’s not fair - ”

“Did you just say I’m not being fair?”

“I’m saying you know god damn well that’s not what I – ”

“Do I really? Help me out Bucky, what exactly is it that I’m supposed to know? Because I thought I knew you. I thought I could trust you, and right now that looks like the stupidest fucking decision I’ve ever made.”

“I’m sorry, but you need to understand that this compromises things, I can’t do my fucking job if we’re – ”

“Maybe you could have thought about that before I got on my knees and sucked your fucking dick, Bucky!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t – ”

“Stop fucking saying you’re sorry!”

“I never meant for this to happen - ”

And there it is.

You visibly flinch when the confession spills out. Each syllable is a metaphorical slap across your face, sending you reeling backward. The idea that you were something unintended, something he never wanted, something he regrets, is enough to make your vision fade to black around the edges.

Bucky blanches when he sees you curl into yourself at his words, and he pulls up short, swallowing the rest of his sentence. In the space of a few minutes, your entire world has exploded, and this time it hurts so much more than bombs and blood and bruises.

The lump in your throat is rising quickly, and you swallow hard, once, twice, three times, before it dissolves enough to let you speak.

You will not beg.

You will not plead.

You will not cry.

Your heart may be shattered at his feet, but your pride is still intact.

Tipping your chin up, you shout her name.

“FRIDAY!”

“I’m here,” comes the soft Irish lilt, a warm echo through the cold room.

“Can you please contact Captain Rogers and ask him to come get me?”

“No, FRIDAY, wait -“ Bucky interrupts, raising both hands in protest.

“I’m sorry Sergeant Barnes, but Captain Rogers is listed as her safety contact. If she wants him to collect her, I’m required to make the request.”

The room goes deathly silent once more. Bucky stands stiffly before you, his face bone white under the dark beard.

“Just go,” you say tonelessly. “You’re obviously desperate to get away from this mistake, so just fucking go. I’ll be gone when you get back.”

He chews on his lip, bites down so hard you see the skin split red between his teeth.

Bucky takes a single step forward. You take a single step back.

“I’m sorry,” he whispers one last time, his voice utterly wrecked. Perhaps he really does mean it.

But you just don’t fucking care.

Turning away from him, you stare through the open wall, into the coming morning. The sky is just beginning to change, the dawning sun revealing a wall of lead grey clouds on the horizon.

Perfect. How motherfucking ironically perfect.

When you hear the quiet click of the door closing behind him, shaking knees buckle as you sink to the floor in a mess of dark blue velvet. The lump in your throat returns, and this time?

You let yourself drown.

 

*****

 

Steve drives his motorcycle exactly like Bucky. Except he doesn’t wear a helmet. And he speeds like a demon. And for someone who films safety videos for school children, he doesn’t seem to obey any traffic laws.

He follows the same patterns, back-tracking through a complicated mix of side-streets, weaving through tight traffic lanes, cutting through deserted alleyways. His leather jacket is a deep chocolate brown and buttery soft beneath your hands, but wrapping your arms around Steve feels awkwardly intimate. Settling for a demure grip on his teeny tiny waist, you try your damndest to forget your last bike ride, the smell of Bucky’s jacket, the shift and play of muscle beneath your fingers.

Right. Like those memories are leaving anytime soon.

When he rumbles to a stop behind your apartment, Steve jumps from the bike and extends a helpful arm. He waits quietly while you struggle with the chin strap, before finally jerking the helmet free. Rubbing the pressure lines from your forehead, you glare at your feet for a moment, before shaking your head in frustration and moving to sidestep him.

He blocks your path, catching your elbow gently and forcing you to look up, waiting for you to speak. Staring resolutely at a point over his shoulder, you ignore the wordless request until he finally breaks the tension.

“Do you want to talk?”

Steve Rogers is a good man. You know he would be a patient, considerate listener, probably filled to the brim with thoughtful Captain-y wisdom. You think he’d probably even take your side in this whole thing. But you won’t ask. Steve is still Bucky’s best friend first, and putting him in the middle isn’t fair.

“Not even a little. But thank you.”

He seems to hesitate before his next move, but then he’s folding you into a giant bear hug. His embrace is warm and comforting, and it makes the misery feel a little more bearable when you squeeze him tight.

 

***** 

 

Has a lifetime passed, since the last time you walked through the front doors of your office?

Normally you’d shy away from such ridiculously melodramatic statements, but life feels so profoundly different, it must be true. The last time you were was a timeframe that can only be described as ‘before’. Before dances, before bombs. Before sex. Before love? Before everything got so damn complicated.

Steve stands silently beside you as the elevator rises, his eyes tracking the floor numbers as they flash by.

“Thank you, Steve.”

He glances down at your whisper, giving you a friendly smile and a quick hug. “It’s no problem.”

When the elevator dings open, you come face-to-face with Jack, who’s bouncing anxiously on the balls of his feet. He looks unsure if he should be annoyed or relieved, so he settles for a strange blend of the two.

“About bloody fucking time. Was traffic that bad from the Tower?”

It occurs to you in that moment, that Jack has no idea Bucky’s place in Brooklyn exists. He must have been told Bucky moved you into the Tower, rather than leaving you in your apartment. Heartbreak scratches at your brain, angrily suggesting you should let that secret go, but you dismiss it immediately. Bucky’s rejection was crushing, but it doesn’t change the way you feel.

His secret is important. You will keep it.

“Sorry, I got a late start this morning.”

“Obviously.” Jack’s eyes flit up to the bandage on your forehead, slightly abashed at his snappy tone. “Are you sure you’re okay? Did you go to the hospital?”

Giving him a patient smile, you shake your head. “Don’t nag, I’m fine. Just a small cut. Head wounds bleed like a motherfucker.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard they do that,” Jack says grimly. “Okay. If you’re absolutely sure you’re fine, take my office for the interview, Richardson’s in there.”

“Great, thanks.” Glancing over to Steve, you quietly clear your throat. “I’ll be done in an hour, we can go then.”

“Take your time, I’ll be here,” Steve promises.

Jack looks between the two of you, his eyes narrowing at the exchange. Giving him what you hope is a peppy smile, you turn away, heading toward his office.

The moment you’re out of earshot, he rounds on Steve.

“What the fuck’s going on? Where’s Barnes?”

Steve is no idiot. He knows Jack already warned Bucky to keep his emotions out of this. He’ll go nuclear if he discovers any trace of what’s happened, so Steve heads him off, bending his response into a story resembling a plausible half-truth.

“Well, so, you know we have images of the perp? Bucky asked to take point on investigating the lead. Thought it was best given his background. We’re bringing in new protection from SHIELD tomorrow, to trail her. Should be fine, may even work better. Besides, you know those two – they never really got along anyway.”

Steve recognises the accuracy of his lie the moment he utters the words. They will indeed need to find someone new to take Bucky’s place. He can just imagine how that conversation with Bucky will go.

Jack regards him with something close to suspicion. Steve was never a great liar, but he manages to keep his poker face in place.

“Fine, as long as he’s still involved to finish this. He’s the one who agreed to take the case, he doesn’t get to ghost out because he can’t get along with her. I warned him in the beginning. Unless there’s something else?”

Internally screaming at his idiot best friend, Steve gives him a bland smile and a tight promise.

“No, there’s nothing else. He’ll finish it.”

 

*****

 

Rolling your shoulders back, you settle into the chair opposite Senator Mark Richardson of Pennsylvania. He leans forward in his chair, a nervous smile lighting up his face, his dark eyes sparkling. With only a few years under his belt, he’s still a relative newcomer to national politics, but his enthusiasm is a refreshing change of pace from the self-important, arrogant asswipes you normally interview.

Responding with an encouraging smile, you set your phone to record, placing it carefully on the table. Flipping open your notebook, you skim through the pages until you find the right section. Taking a deep breath, you begin.

REPORTER: “Good morning Senator, thanks for sitting down with me.”

SENATOR: “Thanks for having me. Glad we could finally do this.”

REPORTER: “Me too. So, we’re talking today about the role you stepped into, with a focus on your views around past and present terrorist threats. Please also be aware, everything you say is on the record, unless you clarify in advance.”

SENATOR: “Understood, thank you. Fire away!”

REPORTER: “Alright, here we go. Before you were elected, you filled this role as an interim representative for the state of Pennsylvania, following former Senator Stern’s arrest. Talk to me about that first day on the job – what did you already know and what were you told?”  

SENATOR: “Well, there were stories making the rounds long before I arrived. At the time, it all seemed so speculative, gossip and whispers – 

– your skin whispers over the satiny smooth sheets when Bucky pulls your legs toward him. He drags his beard along your thigh, the sharp bristles scratching up the smooth skin, lips trailing a wet path –

What fresh fucking hell is this? One simple word triggers a burst of images. Blinking rapidly, you focus harder, forcing yourself to pay attention to the Senator’s voice, swallowing down the lump that seems to be rising yet again. 

 

REPORTER: “Did you have any reason to believe the conspiracy extended further than Stern?”

SENATOR: “It was a major concern. There were aggressively thorough investigations conducted into the background of every person who worked in the Pennsylvania State Senate for the last 30 years, from the Majority Leaders down to the janitorial staff, but it appears Stern really was working outside the lines. We’ve now instituted a massive list of warning triggers that can flag potential concerns for all new hires, so we can catch – “ 

– his breath catches when he pushes forward, his chest flush against your back. His skin is blisteringly hot, and you hear him panting in your ear, a soft grunt with every roll of his hips –

Gritting your teeth, you shift slightly in your chair. This is ridiculous. Absolutely fucking ridiculous.

 

REPORTER: “Experts theorise that the – that hidden cells could still exist, particularly in government or the upper echelons of global corporations. Based on everything you’ve learned, what’s your opinion on the current theory that Hydra are still active?”

SENATOR: “It’s probable. Sleeper cells are notoriously difficult to root out, but we know Hydra’s foothold was severely damaged after Washington DC. Support from partners like the Avengers have played a critical role in keeping the threat at bay, but Hydra were everywhere, they had a hand in everything –“ 

– curling your hand behind his neck, bringing his face closer. He nuzzles his nose against yours, and you rub your thumb over his soft lips, your breath hitching when he sucks it into his mouth, teeth biting gently. His eyes are open, pools of black staring into yours, and you hear a low hum rumbling deep in his chest –

The low whine slips from your throat, and you attempt to cover with a cough. Your internal voice sneers in disgust, a mental flogging you most certainly deserve. You’re a god damn professional, you are fucking better than this. Stop this shit, right fucking now.

 

REPORTER: “How have – um, sorry. What is – what would you say to your constituents, to alleviate lingering fears that we could ever have a repeat of Washington DC?”

SENATOR: “Well, first off, I’d say we need to stay vigilant. Keep our eyes open to every possibility, no matter what we may believe. Sometimes the truth is buried so deep –“

– he buries his face deeper into your neck, his breath coming hot and harsh against your skin, and with your lips touching his ear, you whisper for him –

Stop, stop, stop.

– You can let go Bucky, I’ve got you.

Godfuckingdammitalltohell.

Fuck you Bucky Barnes. Fuck you so much.

 

Scrubbing your hand over your eyes, you shake your head in frustration, willing the images to disappear. Reaching a trembling hand to your phone, you turn off the audio record.

“Senator, I need to apologise. These past few days have been – difficult. I think it’s affected me more than I realised.”

His eyes drift to the white bandage on your forehead, and his face softens. He pats your hand reassuringly.

“Please don’t apologise. I heard you were involved that night. I know they haven’t identified anyone yet, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t feel the late 1990s again. ‘Course Hydra didn’t want anything then, just enjoyed the chaos. Thankfully though, they don’t have the scale or the network or the assets they held before. Why don’t we reschedule when you’re feeling better?”

Nodding gratefully at his kindness, you give him a weak smile.

You don’t realise it then, but something about his comment will come back to haunt you, in the days that follow.

 

***** 

 

Steve doesn’t even try to conceal his footsteps. He’s in a mood, the same one that set his blood boiling when his phone rang at dawn.

Stupid god damn fucking idiot, he seethes internally, grinding his teeth as he pounds down the halls. Searching room after room, the stream of furious curses grows progressively louder and more colourful with every step.

Banging open the door to the library, he skids to a stop.

Bucky stands facing the clear wall of windows, hands stuffed in his pockets as he stares unseeingly across the miles of dreary city blocks. He must’ve heard Steve tearing through the Tower, but chose to ignore it, even though he knew god damn well exactly what was coming for him.

Righteous indignation surging through his veins, Steve stomps toward him, kicking a chair out of his way as he walks. Shoulders slumping at the sound, Bucky heaves a sigh before slowly turning to face him, defiance written in every line of his face.

Growling in fury, Steve cocks his arm back and smashes a patriotic fist right in Bucky’s face.

Skin splits beneath his knuckles, the warmth of blood instantly slicking his skin when Bucky’s lip busts open. Steve feels a mix of irritation and grudging respect for his stupid god damn fucking idiot best friend, because Bucky doesn’t even try to stop him, doesn’t try to block the hit. He takes it full on, and the force of Steve’s fist knocks him flat on his ass.

Breathing heavily Steve stares down, making sure Bucky fully appreciates his Captain America heartily fucking disapproves face.

“You’re a stupid god damn fucking idiot.”

Bucky just nods in agreement, rubbing his jaw ruefully as he looks up from the floor. He runs his tongue over his busted lip and licks away the blood, keeping his expression carefully composed, a blank slate Steve’s seen a thousand times before. Shaking his head in exasperation, he reaches down and grips Bucky’s hand, hauling him back to his feet.

“Move your ass. We gotta get her someone new.”

 

*****

 

Down a shadowy street on the northern edge of the Bronx, lies a dilapidated blue house.

The front yard is barren, littered with garbage cans and patches of scrubby grass. The screendoor’s been busted for months, but that’s fine, he rarely uses it. Instead, he squeezes through the narrow walkway alongside the house, slinking around the edge to his backdoor.

There’s a dingy lightbulb illuminating the back steps, it’s low, buzzy crackle an eerie soundtrack to the sounds from next door. The wild snapping and snarling of his neighbour’s dogs raises the hair on his neck, as they tear into whatever small creature found its unfortunate fate within the confines of their chain link fence.

Inside the small, stuffy kitchen, he sits at a battered dining table, smoothing his hands absentmindedly over the nicks and divots, years of little blemishes gouged into the worn wood.

Neat stacks of newspaper stand in front of him, three tall piles perfectly equal in height. A silver tray balances on the top of the middle stack, holding three unopened pairs of latex gloves, a razor-sharp scalpel, and a shiny pair of tweezers.  

His eyes are shut tight.

She stands before him, the beauty of her face crystal clear in his mind. Her lips are curving up, a secret smile tugging at the corners. Her deep blue dress clings so perfectly to every curve, so soft and lovely.

He takes a deep breath, exhaling slowly, calming his mind. His fantasies of her have become something more, something beyond the physical. Real life, he wants a real life with her. He wants to walk in the park with her, hold her in his arms, make her shiver under his hands –

The image flickers and fades. He’s trying, he’s trying so fucking hard, but he can’t keep it under control. Her smile was real, he saw it that night, but his fantasies are not strong enough to pretend he was the reason, and that fucking kills him.

His head twitches violently, muscle spasms rocking down both arms and he unconsciously rakes his fingers across the table with a desperate groan, embedding tiny splinters of wood under his fingernails. He chokes back a quiet sob when his vision expands, panoramic in the heartbreak it brings him. It doesn’t matter how many times he tries to imagine it away, he knows what he saw.

The way her eyes caressed the Soldier’s face. The way her hand lingered on his arm. The perfect smile she reserved just for him.

It’s all wrong, why can’t she see it?

Oh god, he’s losing her. He can’t live like this.

Helpless despair sparks hot, furious tears, rolling like drips of fire down his face.

Fuck him, this Soldier, the one who has everything. He has Hydra’s gifts, the world at his feet, the fear of men the world over, and the love of this woman, of his woman. Everything, everything, everything, the Soldier has it all, and he has nothing.

He takes a steadying breath, forcing himself to calm down, wiping away tears with the back of his hand.

Soon though, soon it can end. The Soldier’s days are numbered, they promised him, and then she’ll be free. Then she’ll be his.

Outside his backdoor, there comes the sudden tinkle of breaking glass.

His light goes black, the tiny backyard drenched in darkness. He hears two high yips, and the dogs fall blessedly silent as well. A suffocating silence blankets the kitchen, broken only by the wild thump of his heartbeat as it slams into his chest again and again and again.

His ears prick when he hears the soft scrape, expensive shoes tapping on broken pavement, and the sound hits – two sharp raps echoing like gunfire.

Sweat breaks in a line across his forehead, plastering the fine strands of brown hair to his skin. He swallows hard, once, twice, three times, before slowly pushing away from the table. Stepping carefully to his backdoor, he peers through the peephole, feeling a shudder skate across his skin when he sees what lies behind the flimsy plywood.

Shaking fingers fumble with the chain lock, the rusted metal links grating against the catch, until he finally pops it free and opens the door.

A tall man stands casually before him, dressed in a crisply tailored suit, hands folded behind his back. Without a word, he pushes his way into the small kitchen, his shoes clicking on the peeling linoleum floor. He observes the drab furnishings with contempt, his lip curling into a sneer when he turns to face the trembling man.

Digging into his jacket pocket, he pulls out a small blue pill bottle, the contents rattling softly when he sets it on the table. His voice is polished and refined, the cadence and accent an unexpected sound, here in this dirty, broken corner of the Bronx.

“Time for one last mission.”

Chapter Text

Deep in the bowels of the Tower, there’s a small room with four bare concrete walls and long strips of fluorescent lights stretching in a crooked line across the ceiling. A shabby metal table sits slightly askew, with four unbalanced chairs situated around the edges. The temperature is kept low, a chilly 55F, but even at that level most people still tend to sweat. Everything about the room is designed to keep its visitors on their toes, off-balance and unsettled.  

Along one side of the table, two super soldiers sit shoulder to shoulder.

Interviews. What a colossal fucking waste of time, we’re not gonna find someone good enough. Don’t understand why you can’t do it,” Bucky grumbles, flicking angrily through the short-listed agent profiles. Each candidate comes highly recommended, vouched for by top brass from Nick Fury to Phil Coulson to Melinda May.  

Bucky is still wildly unimpressed.

Steve is tipping back in his chair, balancing on two legs as he scrolls through his phone. Part of Bucky, the part who’s jaw still stings from the kiss of Steve’s fist, wants to kick the legs out from under him and watch him topple over. The other more rational part, reminds him that this is his best friend and he honestly deserved that punch.

Doesn’t matter. Bucky’s feeling salty.

“Don’t be stupid, you know I’m no good at this shit. She needs someone with experience, and someone a little less recognisable than Captain fucking America. Besides, if you hadn’t fucked this up, we wouldn’t even be here,” Steve reminds him.

If you hadn’t fucked this up, we wouldn’t even be here,” Bucky mimics under his breath.

“Excuse you, asshole,” Steve snaps, letting the chair drop with a bang. “You got something to say, let’s fucking hear it.”

Bucky bites into his cheek so hard, the taste of blood floods his mouth. He chews on the words, reluctant to offer them.

“Sorry,” he grinds out instead. Clearly not sorry at all.

“Are you gonna tell me what happened?” Steve demands.

“No,” Bucky responds shortly.

“Great. If you don’t talk, you don’t get to be pissed. Put your big boy pants on and figure out a better way to handle this, because if you just wanna act like a complete dick, we can head downstairs and go a few rounds.”

Bucky swallows hard. Normally he appreciates the frank honesty, especially when it’s aimed at other people, but fuck, it sucks when it’s directed at him. Scrubbing both hands down his face, he whines low in his throat, throwing a pleading glance at Steve.

“I slept with her,” he admits in a quiet rush, praying Steve won’t hear, but super serum means super hearing.

“Yeah, Buck. I kinda assumed. And?”

“And – nothing. I slept with her. That wasn’t supposed to happen. I jeopardised the entire fucking operation, because I couldn’t manage to fucking control myself.”

“Couldn’t control yourself?” Steve scoffs at the words. “Really Buck. That seriously the line you’re using?”

“Yeah, asshat, that’s seriously what this is about.”

“Okay, so let me just summarise. You’ve spent weeks with each other, she told you all about her past and you told her all about yours. The two of you constantly defend each other from other people, you seem to get off on her busting your balls, you showed her your secret apartment that only two other human beings on the planet know about, and you light up the moment she walks in a room. So then you sleep with her, and the next morning you tell her you didn’t mean to do it, and you let things get out of control?”

Bucky opens his mouth to refute it, but nothing comes.

“Do you regret it?”

“I regret letting things – ”

Bucky. Do you regret it?”

Steve, I’m saying I regret letting everything – ”

“Stop it, you’re not listening to the question. Sex was one small thing, in the grand scheme of your relationship. I’m asking – do you regret letting her in your life?”

Before he can respond, there’s a sharp rap on the metal door, and Bucky slams his hands on the table with an angry growl. He doesn’t know who he hates more right now, himself or Steve Rogers, but both are pissing him the fuck off.

Turning away from the triumphant smile on Steve’s stupid face, he shouts at the door.

Come in!

*****

INTERVIEW 1

“Agent Diaz, can you walk through the infiltration strategy used in Mission 47A?”

“Yes sir. There were three behind, two in front, and I wanted – ”

– “I want you Bucky.” Jesus Christ, her words light him on fire, he didn’t know how much he wanted them, how much he needed them, until they touched his ears –  

Bucky chokes on his water when it slips down the wrong pipe, coughing up a spray that splatters across Diaz’s face. From the corner of his eye, he sees Steve pinching the bridge of his nose and he apologises profusely.

Why the fucking hell is he dredging this up in the middle of an interview?

*****

INTERVIEW 2

“Agent Avery, can you describe how you discovered the weapons cache during Mission 92F?”

“Yes Captain. The corridors were filled with sulphur, it smelled like – ”

– she smells like vanilla, tastes like honey, and he drags his tongue across her skin with a low moan. Shaking hands push her legs apart and he’s so god damn hard it hurts –

He clears his throat, several times. Bucky Barnes’ brain is a god damn motherfucking turncoat.

*****

INTERVIEW 3

“Agent Thomas, what was the purpose of maintaining the hostage situation for Mission 23B?”

“Well sir, I feel – ”

– he feels a deep ache running along the seam of his arm. His scars always feel like ice, but her hot breath licks along the raised streaks of red, and for the first time in 70 god damn years, the ache begins to subside –

In his entire life, he’s honestly never felt anything that compared to the feel of your mouth on him. But that’s sort of beside the point right now.

 

*****

INTERVIEW 4

“Agent Korishnakova, explain your rationale for entering the hostile base during Mission 56J.”

“We chose to break through the retaining walls, since ripping the – ”

– he nearly rips the sheets when he grabs a fistful, fighting to stop himself from coming at the sight of her lips wrapped tight around him, the wicked gleam in her eye when she looks up from between his legs –

Bucky shifts in his chair, trying to subtly adjust the sudden rising situation. He’s gonna look like a real fucking creep if anyone realises what’s going on.

*****

 

INTERVIEW 5

“Agent Ford, how did the firefight during Mission 33W escalate so quickly?”

“Well sir, we were tired of trying to sweat them out – ”

– he tastes the sweat that’s beading on the end of her nose. She fits so perfectly in his arms, when he ducks his head down and hides his face against her neck. Christ, he can’t let her see how much this is affecting him –

Bucky wants to break his brain. Literally. It won’t stop screaming, determined to punish him for the mind-blowing level of idiocy he exhibited this morning.

– he can feel her hands rubbing his back, god dammit she feels so fucking good, so warm and safe –

Barnes you stupid cocksucker, don’t you fucking go there, don’t.

– You can let go Bucky, I’ve got you.

Would it be unprofessional to slam his head through the wall? Jesus H. Christ, Mary Mother of God. How did he let this happen?

He has no fucking idea, but here he is, with Steve’s words still rattling in his head.

Do you regret it?

“Stop. You’re hired,” Bucky interrupts, metal chair screeching when he stands abruptly, because he just can’t do this right now. Slapping your file on the table, it lands with a bang. “Memorise all of this by tomorrow morning – it’s an order, not a suggestion – and be ready to go by 0600. Captain Rogers will escort you over. I expect an update emailed to me by 0700 every morning.”

Briefing complete, he stalks toward the door, throwing one final comment over this shoulder.

“You fuck this up in any way, and I’ll tie you down and personally shatter your knees. Not a joke.”

“Y-Yes sir,” he hears Agent Ford stutter.

Bucky smiles grimly and slams the door behind him.

*****

Two days. Forty-eight hours. Two-thousand eight hundred and eighty minutes. Time moves like a snail through salt, slowly and painfully.

When he’s around other people, Bucky is his normal, surly self. He grunts at questions and rolls his eyes at Sam. Sneers at Tony and threatens wordless violence at Steve. No one questions him.

Behind closed doors, he’s a mess. He’s taken to opening the tracking app and sullenly watching your little white dot move around his phone. If someone caught him right now, he’d have a hard time rationalising this, because it’s weird. He knows that, he really does.

Fuck him, if he just doesn’t care.

Do you regret it

Shifting uncomfortably in a squeaky leather chair, he props his chin on his fist and stares morosely at the wall of screens in front of him.

After he identified the stalker’s image, it’s been cycling through every database across the globe. The photo has made the rounds within SHIELD, the FBI, the CIA, the NYPD. Every law enforcement official with a badge or a gun has seen his face, and it’s more than a little unnerving that they still haven’t located him.

He’s not actually being helpful, he knows that. FRIDAY can scan a thousand faces at a time, she has this covered, but he needs to do something. Something other than sit and stew in his usual bucket of self-loathing, anyway.

Do you regret it?

So here he is, hiding in the control room. Every time Bucky asks a question, FRIDAY responds immediately, but the answers are short and mechanical and he feels flustered at the clipped note in her voice. Licking his lips nervously, he asks a tentative question.

“Hey FRIDAY? Exactly how pissed at me are you right now?”

“I’m not mad, Sergeant Barnes.”

Bucky was unaware that an AI could actually lie, but yeah. She is very definitely mad.

“Okay…but if you’re not mad, why do you sound like Steve’s very angry, very Irish Ma right now?”

Long pause.

Her voice comes again, softer but still firm.

“I’m not mad, Sergeant Barnes. I’m disappointed.”

“Christ,” Bucky huffs, dropping his head to the table. “That’s fucking worse.”

He hears a sigh. Which is so strange, that the AI is sighing at him.

“Sir, I’d like you to listen for a minute. Mr. Stark programmed me to be perfectly functional. I’m able to decipher the things I observe and break them down to their fundamental parts. The most real-world application is solving mechanical queries or searching databases, as I’m doing now. But I also understand how to decipher language and, to some extent, emotion. Your most recent job – I’ve spent weeks watching the two of you interact. I’m disappointed Sergeant, because the two of you are very clearly in love, and you hurt her very badly when you rejected her feelings.”

Bucky lifts his head incredulously at the assessment.

“Wait, what? What do you mean, we’re clearly in love?”

FRIDAY remains silent.

“I care for her, yeah. I have feelings for her, sure. And I guess she liked me alright before I screwed all this up, but those aren’t – we’re not in love.”

FRIDAY remains silent.

And so, Bucky takes a step back. He thinks about the night you spent together, the one that’s been playing on repeat since the moment he slunk like a coward from your sleeping arms. It hurts to think, but he was always one for self-flagellation. He pulls it up again, and he remembers the look in your eyes when he kissed you, the feel of your body moving under his. He hears your voice whispering so soft in his ear, as clear as though you were sitting next to him, telling him you had him. That he could let go.

“I love her?”

FRIDAY is still silent, letting him work through his messy musings on his own.

And then he finally, finally, gets there.

“Holy shit. I love her. I love her.” Bucky breathes, testing the words on his tongue. “How did I not realise this? Fuck me. Fuck me sideways, I have to fix this.”

“Yes sir,” FRIDAY agrees, and her voice is much warmer.

“I can fix this,” he whispers to himself. He settles down to think. He needs to plan, he needs a strategy, he has to get this right.

He can fix this.

*****

“What’s going on with you?” Jack asks curiously. “You’re moping. Why?”

“Nothing,” you declare defensively, looking up from your notebook, where little stick figures with angry faces are doodled in the margins. “I’m not moping, I’m fine.”

Jack cocks a spectacularly sceptical eyebrow.

“Sure. Barnes have any updates on locating the guy?”

“I don’t know,” you answer, voice cold and clipped. “I suggest you ask him yourself.”

Jack’s eyes narrow at your terse response. “You plan on telling me what happened with you two?”

“Nothing happened, alright? He’s just a huge asshole and I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Let him run off and find this guy and then go piss off someone else.” Throwing your pen at the computer screen, you lean back in your chair. “Now, I’m bored and I need a new story. Give me something interesting or I’m quitting and going to work at The Washington Post.”

“Fine,” Jack says mildly. “I have something if you’re interested. Different than your recent assignments.”

“Bitchin. Hit me.”

“There’s a new drug dealer working the Upper East Side, seems to have connections into the eastern European network. He’s pushing a nasty version of Ecstasy, it’s cut with something else, no one knows what, but it’s been causing all kinds of strange hallucinations and general hysteria.”

“Alright. I assume he’s planning to show his face soon?”

“Yes. Rumour’s saying he’ll be at that club ‘Red Devil’ down in Hell’s Kitchen tonight. Think you could get in? See if you can get him to talk?”

It’s beyond fucking annoying, that the first thing to pop in your head, is whether or not Bucky would approve. After spending weeks with the man, his constant paranoia and unadulterated loathing of crowded spaces are two traits that have stuck. You know straight away, he’d put his foot down on this, would refuse to let you go. You can almost hear that deep, acerbic voice saying ‘don’t be stupid.’

The rational part of you agrees. The other part, who owns the heart he unceremoniously battered and bruised only a few days earlier, doesn’t give a shit, because Bucky Barnes gave up the right to tell you what to do, so he can fuck right off.

“Sure, I’m intrigued,” you say, motioning for the notes. “You know I thoroughly enjoy nailing assholes like this to the wall.”

Jack sighs patiently, dropping a thin sheaf of paper into your outstretched hands.

“Dial down the confidence please. Be civil, don’t scare him off. At least try to be nice.”

You want to be insulted at the insinuation, but there’s no point in arguing. He’s right. Your patience for douchebags is at an all-time low. The vision of Bucky’s face swims before you again, his mouth curved into a disappointed frown, and the image makes you want to throat punch him.

“Fine,” you say sweetly. “I’ll be so nice.”

“Yeah, I’m sure you will be,” Jack says cynically. He turns to walk away, throwing one last comment over his shoulder. “Text me through the night, let me know how it’s going. And be very careful. Keep your eyes open. Don’t trust anyone.”

*****

STARKPHONE MESSAGING APP

BARNES: why the fucking hell did you agree to take her to a club?

FORD: I tried to tell her no sir.

BARNES: How hard did you try?

FORD: I told her no, she laughed, said ‘that’s cute’ and told me to pick her up at 2100

BARNES: FFS I’ll be there before you arrive.

Bucky rubs his forehead. Just because he can admit he loves you, doesn’t make him any less irritated. A nightclub? Trying to cajole a drug dealer? Exactly why do you have such blatant disregard for his sanity?

Hand to heart, if you let him fix this, he’s dragging you back to his apartment and keeping you in his bed for a solid fucking week, because he needs a vacation.

*****

Dressed in black from head-to-toe, you give your reflection a critical once over. Sleeveless black top, black pants, black ankle boots. You really hope this is what the kids are wearing at clubs these days, because it’s been literal years since you set foot in one.

Rolling your shoulders, you take a deep breath. Storm clouds have been gathering all day, and the night feels oddly oppressive, heavy pressure pushing down from above. Like the whole of Manhattan is holding its collective breath before the storm lets loose. Anxiety prickles along your skin, a jittery unease crawling up and down. It makes you itch.

God damn woman, calm your tits, you chastise sternly. This isn’t a big deal. This isn’t even the hardest story you’ve worked. Get your shit together.

Uncapping a tube of lipstick, you add your only concession to colour, a pop of brilliant red. It soothes your nerves a little. Makes you feel powerful. Smart. A little badass.

Turning from the mirror, you snatch up a small black purse and start filling it with random items, wondering again why you agreed to do this. Right now, a bottle of wine, your sofa, and re-watching Stranger Things for the third time feels like a better decision. Maybe you should just cancel. Call the whole thing off and lay low.

But you know you won’t. You’re committed and how annoying is that.

Agent Ford was less than thrilled when you told him where he’d be spending the evening. You wonder if he has to report this little adventure back to SHIELD. Or rather, back to Bucky. Assuming he’s still floating around in the background.

Floating around, being a self-sacrificing asshole.

Whatever. It doesn’t matter. You don’t care. Because it doesn’t matter what Bucky Barnes thinks. At all.

Snapping the purse shut, you give your dresser a childish kick of frustration, before stomping out the door.

*****

Whether it’s stealth mode or club mode, Bucky really doesn’t care. Black is functional and he wears it because he likes it. Plus, he genuinely believes it makes him look scary and intimidating, and that always makes him happy.

Smoothing the collar of his black button-down, he wipes his palms reflexively down the front of his dark jeans. It’s an involuntary movement, a nervous tick he’s had since he was 12-years-old, and even though he’s had this metal monstrosity for most of his life, the behaviour is still ingrained.

He takes several deep breaths, filling his lungs over and over, sweeping away the mental cobwebs. He’s laser focused on the task ahead, a singular thought the guiding light to get him through the next few hours.

I can fix this.

All he wants is to make his peace with you. His stupid heart has dragged him kicking and screaming to the edge, and now that he’s allowed himself to accept what he wants, his brain refuses to shut the hell up until he takes the plunge.

I can fix this.

He’ll prostrate himself at your feet and beg forgiveness if he has to, because there’s no way in hell he’s going through one more day without you. Whatever it takes, whatever you ask of him, he’ll give it. Fucking grovel if he has to, he honestly doesn’t care.

I can fix this.

Sheets of lightening explode across the night sky, unending flickers of light dancing on a repetitive loop through the dark clouds.

I can fix this.

He can fix this.

He has to.

*****

From the moment he set the wheels in motion, it’s all been leading toward this night, in some form or fashion. Like the structured components of a play, the curtain falls tonight on Act 4. When the sun rises, Act 5 opens with new stage directions and a new cast of characters, complete with one bombshell reveal.

He’s been watching so closely for so long, waiting behind the curtain for his entrance, and he marvels at how perfectly it’s all come together. True, there were last minute adjustments. He planned for a host of different scenarios, but never in his wildest dreams, did he expect the Soldier to actually fall in love with her.

What an unexpected treat!

When the time comes to eliminate Bucky Barnes for good, he knows exactly how to do it, the perfect way to break him, to make the end infinitely sweeter.

He swirls his glass of vodka absently, listening to the soft clink as ice taps the glass. A brilliant flash of light illuminates the night sky and thunder immediately booms, echoes of low sound bouncing through the jungle of metal and concrete. His window rattles with the vibration, his reflection wavering in the clear glass.

Yes, he’s certainly been waiting for this for a very long time.

Raising the glass, he smiles and takes another sip.

*****

Rain is pouring down outside, and the air in the club feels steamy, a mix of damp clothes and heavy breathing and spilled drinks.

Never in your life, have you been a clubber. Music so loud you’ll go deaf before tomorrow? Shoes coated in urine because no one seems capable of peeing in the actual toilet? Drunk slobbering assholes pawing all over you?

No fucking thanks.

Yet here you are. Wondering how you always end up agreeing to things and then remembering with a jolt of annoyance that it’s your own fault, because you’re such a weak bitch for a byline.

Scoring a place at the dealer’s table turns out to be laughably easy. Sending over a bottle of Dom Perignon, you watch the waiter set it in front of him and point to where you stand by the bar. Raising a glass in acknowledgement, you shoot him a sultry smile, and turn away, praying it’s enough to pique his interest.

Less than a minute later, there’s a tap on your shoulder, and you turn to find a tall man in a tight purple sweater staring down at you. His sleeves are pushed back, revealing faded tattoos running up his forearms, and the lights reflect off his shaved head. He leans down to speak in your ear, and you hear a heavy, broken accent.

“You will please join us.”

It’s amazing how many doors a bit of flattery and a high credit card limit will open.

Without waiting for your answer, he places a possessive hand at your back and propels you forward, guiding you through a mass of dancing bodies toward a secluded booth in the back.

The man looks up when you arrive, detaching himself from the arms of the beautiful woman currently occupying his lap. Shoving her aside, he lays his arm over the back of the booth and smiles up at you. Taking a deep breath, you slide in next to him, the smells of expensive cologne and more expensive vodka burning your nose.

He leans over, and his refined accent sends shivers up your spine.

“Hello gorgeous. How about we get to know each other?”

*****

From across the bar, Bucky stands high up on a catwalk. He remains in the shadows, wraith-like in both appearance and mannerisms. Looking down over the crowd, he keeps your corner booth in his periphery, while his eyes track steadily through the packed club.

Before he arrived, he called up a blueprint of the building and committed it to memory, making sure he knew every last detail. Finding the necessary points, he cycles through those details, planting the customary mental markers in place.

Total building occupancy 583, single door entrance located on the east side of the building. Two bouncers manning the door, neither armed with anything but well-practised fists. Twenty-eight security cameras positioned through the club, with exactly none of those fucking cameras pointed at the secluded VIP booth where you were currently sitting. Single door exit point on the west wall, illuminated by a neon green sign; bathrooms on the north wall, accessed through a heavy velvet curtain.

No windows. He sighs irritably. He despises places like this.

Eyes sweeping through the crowd, he picks people at random, examining faces and movements, grumbling in frustration at the number of people wearing ridiculous cloth masks over the bottom half of their face. Some of the them are colourful, with funky geometric patterns and some have cartoon characters – Scooby Doo and SpongeBob are wildly popular. Some are modelled after real people, and he allows a small smile at the number of bright green Hulk faces.

The smile slides from his face when he sees one with his old Winter Soldier muzzle patterned across the front. His hand drifts to the knife at his side, fingers toying with the handle. What he wouldn’t give to shred that fucking mask into tiny pieces.

That might draw attention though.

“Ford, re-confirm your position,” Bucky speaks calmly, letting his eyes fall back on you.

“Still north of the entrance, ten feet from the bathroom. Clear visual, slightly obstructed path.” Ford’s voice comes clearly through the tiny comms tucked in Bucky’s ear.

Bucky feels his entire body twitch with rage, when he sees the dealer pulling you closer, ducking his head to speak against your ear. The urge to swing off this catwalk, stomp over to the booth, and shove this guy’s fist up his own ass is overwhelming.

Patience, he counsels internally. Just get through this. Then you can go buy her a bucket of coffee and a basket of tacos and sit outside her door until she forgives you.

Coffee and tacos. And dramatically throwing himself at your feet. You had to forgive him then, right?

But to get there, he still has to get through tonight without murdering the sleazy bastard sitting at your side. That task seems more impossible with every passing second, and he takes a few deep breaths to stay calm.

He watches the way you keep your hand tight around your glass, fingers casually covering the top, not letting anyone else near it.

Smart, he thinks proudly. All his harping and paranoia apparently got through in some way.

He huffs out a slow breath. He can do this.

*****

This story and this club both suck so fucking much.

There’s a fine sheen of moisture coating your skin, and it turns to ice when you feel his fingers grazing the back of your neck. Keeping the revulsion from your expression is getting harder, because this dickbag is handsy as fuck, and so far, completely uninterested in talking. Instead, he simply leers down at you every time you try to engage him in conversation. His hand is massaging your thigh, moving a little further north with every passing minute, and you realise you can only play the coy card for so long before he gets either suspicious or bored.

When one of his cronies leans over and catches his attention, you breathe a sigh of relief. Searching for another option for answers, you glance to the girl on your left, catching her surreptitiously slipping a small white pill under her tongue. Her eyes flit up to you, cocking an eyebrow in disdain.

“Can I help you?”

Pasting on a sugary sweet smile, you lean closer and try to get her talking.

“What’s with the masks everyone’s wearing?”

She gives you a sneering, condescending look.

“Are you fucking serious?”

There’s a moment of brief panic. Is this something you’re supposed to know? You know jack shit about club culture, you literally had a few hours to research this story, and her snotty comment throws you off.

“Sorry, I’m from out of town,” you apologise.

Her lip curls and she rolls her eyes.

“For the rush, obviously. Take a pill,” she holds up a small blue bottle, gives it a rattle. “Put Vicks on the cloth and pull it over your mouth. Inhaling while you’re rolling sends you flying.”

Jesus, the creativity used to get high is astounding. Why can’t people take that ingenuity and apply it to something worthwhile? They could probably solve world hunger and world peace, but no, they’re all here getting shitty drugs off a shitty dealer, who is a shitty human being with shitty motives, and you’re stuck investigating his shittiness.

Patience is running thin tonight.

There’s a tap at your shoulder, and you glance back to see the waiter holding a tray of drinks. He hands you a glass of liquid, one of the house specials you ordered earlier in the evening, when you went up to the bar and opened a tab for the night. Smiling gratefully, you take a swig of the cold water, and turn your attention back to the dance floor.

*****

Bucky has taken to pacing along the catwalk.

The atmosphere in the club is grating on his nerves. The smells of forced air and rank sweat and spilled liquor assail the senses, and he grimaces.

He hates this so much.

“Ford, update,” he barks in the comms, stopping to squint through the strange haze that seems to fill the room, unable to tear his eyes from you for more than a few minutes.

“Same position. All good.”

All good.

Bucky goes back to pacing.

*****

Impossibly, the music seems to be getting louder, the bass so low and heavy, you feel it reverberating in your bones. Strobe lights are dancing through the room, pulses of white that make the club feel like a bizarre stop-motion film. With every flash, the crowds are shifted, their stilted movements displaying new formations with each burst of light.

Something feels strange.

Lifting your water to your lips, you take a long drink, wondering why the hell you’re feeling so parched. Gulping it down, there’s a moment of respite, before your body starts to buzz.

Something feels off.

A wave of nausea smacks into you out of nowhere, twisting your stomach into a hard knot.

Looking at the glass again, realisation dawns. You set it down slowly.

Turning slightly, you find him watching you closely, a small smile playing on his lips.

“Something wrong, gorgeous?”

“Did you – my drink,” your lips are tingling, and your mouth feels weirdly full of cotton. He runs a finger down your arm, his blunt nail leaving a long scratch.

“It feels nice, doesn’t it? Just enjoy it.” The hand on your thigh moves higher, and he plays with the zipper of your pants. “Or we can go somewhere private, and I can show you how good it can make you feel.”

You realise in that instant, how out of your depth you really are. He must have gotten to your drink. How the hell did he get to your drink? From the moment the waiter set it in front of you, you’ve had your eyes on it. Shit, shit, shit.

It’s too much. Getting the story isn’t worth this. You’re calling it.

“No,” you say weakly, shoving his hand away. “No, stop. I feel – fuck, I feel like shit.”

“Ah, she can’t handle it,” he laughs, leaning back in the booth with a challenging grin. “Little girl is a big disappointment. I guess he was right.”

What?

You need to parse apart that comment and figure out what the hell he means, but it needs to wait, because right now your first priority is getting out of here.

“Move,” you mumble, shoving at the girl next to you. Limp as a rag doll, she doesn’t budge, looking up at you with glassy eyes.

So you scramble over her instead, stumbling to your feet, gripping the edge of the table to stop swaying. Stabbing bursts of white hot heat flash across your skin, and you drag a shaky arm across your forehead, feeling the slick sweat rubbing away your make-up.

Fuck, fuck, fuck!

Behind you, he’s still laughing.

The music grows even louder, working its way into your chest, until you feel your heartbeat pounding with the rhythm of the driving bass. Bright colours seem to swirl all around you, the entire world flipped to vivid technicolour, the experience so intense you nearly retch when the nausea sweeps through you again.

Trying frantically to clear your head, you locate the neon red sign pointing to the bathroom. Stumbling forward, you ricochet off the bodies surrounding you, fighting your way through the tightly packed crowd.

God dammit, what’s happening, are you even moving? Everything is sluggish, your legs feel like fucking lead, so heavy you can barely walk.

Bucky, where are you? Please, please, please, I need you! The traitorous little voice pops up out of nowhere, but Bucky isn’t here. He didn’t want you, so you pushed him away, and now you’re about to OD on what you can only assume is garbage Ecstasy at some trashy club in Midtown, and how the fuck did this happen?

From across the room, you see a tall man with panicked eyes shoving people aside as he fights through the crowd. Confusion muddles your brain when you see blond hair glinting in the flashing lights, because that doesn’t make sense, Bucky doesn’t have blond hair, what is he doing?

No, not Bucky, Ford. Agent Ford. Agent Ford is your bodyguard now, he’s coming to get you, he’ll save you. Disappointment wells up and you choke back a sob, because it’s not right, he’s not right. He’s not Bucky.

But none of it matters.

Shaking knees give way, your body slumping to the floor, and in the last moment, you’re caught by a firm arm curving protectively around your waist. You want to thank your saviour, but all you can see are hazy features, your vision transforming the world into a blur of random shapes and colours. Digging the heel of your palm into your eye, the image clears for a split second and you find yourself looking at a familiar face.

The waiter who’s been serving your table all night.

There’s an audible ping in your head when the puzzle piece clicks into place.

Light brown hair falls over his forehead, hazel eyes glowing feverishly. Reaching a shaking hand to his face, you tug down the black and red checked cloth covering his mouth, revealing an insane smile stretching his lips wide. He keens at your touch, his entire body shuddering when he feels your fingers on his skin. He leans closer, his voice gasping at your ear.

It’s okay, I’m here. You’re all mine now.”

Eyes roll back in your head as your body shuts down. The last coherent thought before your world goes black, is that you never told Bucky Barnes you loved him.

*****

Dread rises swiftly when Bucky sees you trying to claw your way out of the booth. When you hit your feet and immediately sway, he feels his stomach plummet. You weren’t drinking, he knows you weren’t.

If you’re not drunk, then what –

Blind panic hits him like a wrecking ball.

Ford! Get over there, now! He spiked her drink, god dammit, he spiked her fucking drink!” Bucky shouts into his comms.

Through the bursts of light, he sees Agent Ford shoving people as he fights his way toward you. There are too many people, too many fucking people everywhere. Sweat rolls down Bucky’s temples as he paces along the catwalk, trying to keep you in his line of sight. The mass of bodies is like a giant parasite, growing and shifting and spreading and suddenly you’re swallowed up in the swarm, hidden from view.

“Motherfucker, god dammit,” he swears viciously. “I lost visual! She was heading toward the bathroom, cut her off. Pull her out of this, get her out now, I don’t care what she says!”

“I can see her,” Ford’s voice comes confidently through the comms. “There’s someone with her, he’s hol – ”

Ford is cut off.

And Bucky can’t see why, because the entire club has gone pitch black.

The music drops to a slow tempo, the thudding bass so low, it rattles the bottles of liquor lined along the bar. Suddenly the room comes alive. Whirling ropes of neon glowsticks swirl above the dancers, pinks and greens and yellows spinning through the air, like toxic dayglow snakes.

“Ford! Answer!” Bucky yells into the comms.

Silence.

Without another thought, Bucky sprints to the edge of the catwalk and with a graceful leap, jumps over the railing.

Sparks fly from metal fingers when he catches the edge of a tall steel beam riveted against the wall, the friction slowing his descent to the floor below. The music slams into him the instant his feet touch the ground, the unrelenting beat raising the hair on his neck. Palms held in front of him, he roughly scoops people out of the way as he elbows toward the bright red glow marking the bathrooms.

“Ford! Fucking answer me!” He shouts again, but the music is loud, so much louder down here, he can’t even hear his own voice.

The musical snap of a whip slices through the air, and Bucky feels the breath punched out of him, the twirling lights and harsh sounds triggering some long-buried memories. The smothering darkness, the crack of leather on skin, unearthly howls of pain, the sweaty scent of adrenaline and fear, all of it floods back as he feels unwelcome hands all over him, his body pushed and pulled against the crowd.

Motherfucker, he hasn’t had a panic attack in forever, he doesn’t have time, he can’t afford one now.

Breathe, he shouts internally. Calm your ass down and breathe. You’re no fucking use to her if you’re not in control.

Sucking in a massive breath, he lets the dizzying feel of oxygen replenish his mind, forcing him to calm down. To breathe. To reign in the panic.

He finds the control. Clips it back in place.

You can do this Barnes.

He keeps staggering forward, moving through the wall of people, until it suddenly breaks open. Bucky gasps in relief as his hands grip the plush velvet curtain separating the bathrooms from the rest of the club, and cool air rushes at him when he jerks it aside and runs through.

The walls of the long hallway are splashed with nightmare inducing streaks of red and black, the lighting so ridiculously dim, Bucky forces his eyes open wide to navigate.

“Ford, god dammit answer me, where the fuck are you?” He can finally hear his own voice again, the hoarse sound of his vocal cords momentarily shocking him.

Silence.

“Sonofabitch,” he hisses furiously and then he pulls up short with the idea. He can find you. Easily. Trembling fingers dig for his phone, yanking it from his pocket and with a swipe of his finger, he opens the tracking app. He holds his breath, waiting for the little white dot to appear, and sure enough a little dot appears instantly – but it’s no longer white. It blinks rapidly, a horrifyingly bloody red, and Bucky staggers sideways, crashing into the wall.

There’s a moment of absolute silence that blankets him as he stares in stunned disbelief at his phone.

And in the next moment, he’s screaming your name at the top of his lungs.

Silence.

Barrelling toward the end of the hall, he follows the path toward the little red dot, his entire body vibrating with barely restrained fury. When he reaches the black door, the one housing the little red dot, the one containing his worst nightmare, he throws all his weight against it, expecting to meet resistance. It gives way instantly and Bucky falls into a dark hallway.

And trips over a warm, heavy body.

Dropping to his knees, Bucky feels for a pulse on the neck of Agent Ford, who lies facedown on the floor, the left side of his blond hair matted with the sticky red blood streaming down his face.

Bucky feels his vision go white, when he sees the source of the red dot.

Your tracking bracelet is clipped around Ford’s wrist.

The howl of pure rage spills from his throat, and Bucky is back on his feet, spinning circles like a caged animal. He reorients himself in an instant, remembering his mental markers, remembering the blueprints he memorised, and he turns to his left, sprinting down another long hallway toward an exit he knows will lead into a narrow back alley.

The metal door smacks against the brick wall with a resounding clang when Bucky bursts through, jumping down half a flight of steps, eyes sweeping frantically over grimy brick walls towering around him in the dark alley.

Rain is still pouring down, plastering his clothes to his skin, dripping hair lashing his cheeks when he whips around. In that moment, the smell slams into him and he begins to gag.

There’s a body leaning against the wall in front of him. A trickle of blood runs from the bullet hole drilled right between his lifeless hazel eyes, his mouth fixed in small ‘O’ of surprise. The bitter tang of lemons is so overpowering as it bleeds from his body, Bucky’s mouth puckers instantly at the tart scent. The sizzling odour of burning meat reaches his nose next, the two scents surrounding him like some sick version of a summer barbecue, before he sees the reason.

The image is there, the one that haunts him asleep and awake. One he will recognise until the day the good Lord sees fit to drag him from this world. Dripping bloody red and charred black, branded on the stalker’s neck, are eight tentacles curling below a skull, the skin blistered and bubbled.

Them.

Only a couple feet away, face up in a puddle of murky, garbage filled water, lies your phone. Bucky numbly reaches for the slim device, and it lights up at his touch, revealing a colourful picture as your wallpaper. You and him, a silly selfie he remembers you snapping the night of Stark’s party. You’re laughing breathlessly, nose scrunched up as you angle the camera down. Bucky’s leaning over your shoulder, grinning up at the phone.

Them.

Again.

Bucky’s spent most of his life on battlefields. He knows far too well the scent of coppery blood and fresh shit, gunpowder and rotting flesh, that sickeningly unique smell of adrenaline-laced sweat that covers the skin of every terrified soldier. He has an iron stomach, has had since his first week mucking through the trenches in 1943. Nothing phases him.

But tonight, he smells burning flesh mixed with lemons, he sees your laughing smile amid the horrors that have come home yet again, and in that dark, wet alleyway, he loses it. He crashes to his knees and he vomits, again and again and again, until the burning, acid taste of stomach bile is the only thing he can remember.

Chapter Text

Everything hurts.

It’s the first thought that comes to mind when consciousness rudely interrupts the solace of oblivion.

A heavy canvas bag covers your head, cinched tight around your neck. It blocks any possibility of light or fresh air, but it doesn’t dull the roaring sound surrounding you, the sound of speed, of rushing wind. Coarse fabric rubs harshly against the bare skin of your arms, and even through the thick fabric, the scents of dirt and motor oil and rusted iron prevail. Wrists bound behind you, every slight attempt at movement is cut short by blinding swoops of pain.

Dimly, fractured words appear. Car. Trunk. Highway. Cold.

Blood pounds in your head and nausea roils through your gut, triggering a migraine of epic proportions. Sucking in deep breaths, you try to breathe slowly through the pain, your entire body twitching with every excruciating pulse in your brain.

Everything hurts.

Staying awake is simply not worth it. You feel immensely relieved when the bliss of nothingness hugs you close.

*****

15 MINUTES AFTER ABDUCTION

Steve feels his bike losing control when he takes a turn on the edge of his wheels. Swearing at the top of his lungs, he fights to stay upright.

“Fucking move!” he shouts, to no one and everyone, his voice lost in the blare of Midtown traffic.

He can see the alley entrance from here, and with a panicked fuck itrunning through his head, he pops the curb and manoeuvres down the sidewalk instead, revving the engine to scatter the shouting crowd. When he reaches the entrance, he leaps off the bike as it crashes into an overflowing dumpster, and sprints toward the two figures standing at the end of the alley. He’s nearly upon the scene, when he skids to a halt.

All Steve had, was an agonised scream from Bucky telling him to get here immediately.

Now he sees why.

Soaked to the bone, Bucky is completely motionless, staring down at the body slumped against the dirty brick wall. In an icy, shaky human hand, he has a tight grip on your cell phone, and even from a distance, Steve can smell him.

Bucky reeks of sweat and vomit and fear.

Steve goes cold. He remembers this smell.

It was the same then, exactly identical. Azzano in 1943, when he was ripping apart the stiff clamps and buckles keeping Bucky strapped to that heavy metal slab.

Bucky reeks of sweat and vomit and fear and he is terrified.

Steve takes hold of Bucky’s arm, and he shakes him so hard he hears Bucky’s teeth clack together.

“What happened? Bucky, what happened?”

Heavy bass music bleeds from the walls of the warehouse, the sound so deep and low, Steve feels his heartbeat pick up the rapid tempo. But over the sound, a different kind of music now breaks through. Sirens are wailing in the distance, the piercing shriek of help coming too late, and it grows louder and louder until a white ambulance turns the corner and careens down the narrow path toward them. The sudden swirl of red and blue spins across everything, the flashing lights a macabre tribute to the strobe lights still dancing unaware inside.

Bucky slowly turns to face him, and Steve feels his heart plummet.

He is utterly shattered.

Streaks of red and blue still paint Bucky’s face as he stares back at Steve. Water drips down his face, but whether rain or tears, Steve isn’t sure. His mouth moves soundlessly, trembling lips shaping the sounds before his vocal cords can catch up, and suddenly the words are falling.

“Took – they took her,” Bucky whispers.

His voice is broken.

His heart is broken.

Bucky Barnes is broken.

*****

Fuck, everything hurts.

When the vehicle jerks to a stop, it jolts you awake with a soft groan. The world goes blessedly quiet, until you hear the opening of a car door, followed by the muffled crunch of boots on gravel. There’s a moment’s pause, before the grating whine of the trunk lid creaks, and air flows in the small space.

Cruel hands grip your upper arm, fingers digging into the soft skin. They drag you roughly forward, banging your body against the lip of the trunk with a frustrated huff. The cover over your head mutes the sound, but you hear a deep voice muttering, the words angry and unintelligible.

The desire to kick and scream rides you hard, but whatever drug they gave you won’t allow it. Heavy and lethargic, your body is complete deadweight, and the rough hands hoist you over his shoulder with no problem.

But your mind is still awake, even if it’s clouded and full of pain. Bucky’s calm voice suddenly runs through your head, urging you to focus on what’s around you, to listen and learn.

Okay. You can do that.

The man holding you stops and a faint beeping sound pricks your ears before the whooshing scrape of metal on metal breaks the silence. Stepping forward, he lets the door slam shut and pauses to adjust his grip, before plodding downward, tiny grunts escaping with every step. Dank air swirls, growing colder with every passing moment.

Nausea roils through your gut again, and you struggle for deep calming breaths in the stuffy confines of the canvas hood. Grimly, you realise if you puke right now, it has nowhere to go.

Around you, are the sounds of life. Occasional murmuring voices. The chirp of electronics. Apparently, the sight of a man carrying a dirty unconscious woman raises no alarms, which is a whole other issue.

When he finally stops, you hear another muffled string of beeps. Kicking open a door, he steps inside and with no preamble, tosses you to the floor.

No word is spoken the entire time.

With a numbing finality, the door bangs shut, and the world is quiet once more. And now, terror begins to rise, small trembles blooming into full body shudders, until your entire body is convulsing on the floor.

In the silence, you finally allow a gasping sob to break free.

Fuck, fuck, fuck.

Bucky, where are you?

*****

1.5 HOURS AFTER ABDUCTION

Outwardly, Bucky is quiet. Serene in a way, his expression betraying nothing as he stands in Tony’s lab, surrounded by hundreds of holographic pictures. He flips through them like a machine, absorbed in the task at hand.

Inwardly? Well. That’s a whole different ballgame.

Bucky’s internal voice has always been – unhelpful. It nags and berates and punishes, but tonight’s mental flogging reaches new heights. Years spent with his foul-mouthed Commandos, decades of verbal abuse from Hydra, a lifetime of sass from Steve Rogers, and the delightfully colourful vocabulary he’s learned from you, means Bucky has no shortage of insults to lay on his head.

And motherfucker, does his brain let loose.

You god damn fucking idiot, this is your fault, you fucking failed her! How did you miss this, you stupid cocksucking sonofabitch, what were you thinking? What the fuck were you thinking?! You let this happen, you’ve killed her, this is on you, all of this is on you!

The words come howling, raging at him, and he lets them. Accepts it. Relishes it. He deserves it.

No longer does he search for the hazel eyed man. Now he scans every picture and searches every single face he finds, willing his brain to make the impossible connection between a voice from his past and the face he never saw. Deep in his heart, he must know something, right? There’s no way he spent that many years bearing the brunt of the man’s anger, without learning something about him in return.

This is what he tells himself. This is what he’ll keep telling himself.

Steve stands silently in the doorway behind him, watching the stiff movements. At his nagging insistence, Bucky put on a clean t-shirt and jeans, but his hair is still damp, the faint scent of sweat still clinging. He knows Bucky’s innate instinct is to disregard any creature comforts when a mission goes south, so he fixes a stern face and walks toward the ring of photos.

“Here. Drink something,” Steve offers him a cup of coffee, the black, sludgy stuff he knows he loves.

Bucky ignores him, expression growing harder, fingers swiping faster through the pictures.

“Fine. Then eat something,” Steve insists, thrusting a Snickers in his face.

Bucky still ignores him, silver fingers a blur as they select images, expand them, throw them away.

“Come on man,” Steve insists.

Without breaking stride, Bucky reaches through the blinking graphics, snatches both items from Steve’s hands and flings them over his shoulder, where they smack the wall with a splash.

He goes back to the images.

Steve sighs.

“Yeah. Okay.”

*****

How much time has passed? Hours? Days? The concept of time ceases to exist in this universe, one where the world is a constant and unending pitch black. The last thing you remember, was the frantic obsession lighting up his face as he stared down at you. The idea of that, of him, being the final thing you’ll ever see turns your stomach into a ball of knots.

Who is he? Where are you? What the fuck does he want?

Bucky, where are you?

The truth hits home then, the harsh reality of the situation bringing a new kind of clarity. Bucky may have no idea you’re even gone, let alone where you might be. Eventually he’ll figure it out, but for now, you’re on your own. But even if he’s not with you, everything he taught you is burned in your brain.

Alright, concentrate, you tell yourself sternly. Questions are pointless, so think. What do you know?

Someone at the club knew you would be there. The drug dealer mentioned another name, there was someone else involved. There was a car ride, down a fast highway. There was no noise outside when you stopped. You must be outside the city? There was the sound of electronics and when he carried you, it felt like walking downhill. A lab maybe? Or an underground bunker? Rubbing your nose against the cloth, you can smell the scent of newness and through that, the sterile scent of disinfectant. Moving your wrists against the unforgiving plastic holding them together, you notice the familiar pressure of your tracking bracelet is gone, and a wave of sick panic washes over you.

Realisation begins to dawn. While you may not know where you are, you’re beginning to realise who you’re with.

The soft creak of a door sounds in that moment, turning your blood to ice. The heavy stomp of boots clicks across the concrete floor and the rough hands return. Lifting you up, he drags your body revoltingly close to his, giving a pleased little chuckle at the feel.

A sudden, vivid memory of Natasha Romanoff hits you, her thighs squeezed around Bucky’s throat before she flipped him to the ground, and her words ring clear as a bell.

Lesson number one, even super soldiers will go down if you find an opening.

No more fucking around. This time, you fight.

Jerking your leg up, you smash a knee into his balls as hard as you can.

The movement takes him by surprise and you feel a thrill of pleasure at his screaming howl of pain. Releasing you instantly, he collapses to the floor with a muffled thump. Strangled panting fills the air, punctuated by small little whimpers, so you kick your legs again. You can hear him grunting, trying to roll away and scramble back to his feet.

Success is invigorating, but short-lived.

“Stupid fucking whore,” comes the low hiss a minute later, before a heavy boot drives into your stomach. “Do that again and I’ll slit your fucking throat.”

The kick punches the air from your lungs and you gag soundlessly against the thick cloth. It’s panic inducing, that inability to draw a breath, and you curl into a ball begging your lungs to restart.  

This time, he doesn’t bother picking you up. Instead, he grips under your arm and drags you across the floor, purposely banging you into the doorframe on the way out. While he stalks through a corridor, you hear laughter and jeering comments from a mix of different voices, and the sheer number of people you hear blows you away.

Where are you?

Finally, he stops and jerks you upright, shoving you in a solid wooden chair. He relaxes his tight grip for a second, and you promptly start struggling again, kicking and wriggling.

Help me,” you hear him grunt in frustration, and a new voice sighs in response.

Once more, the wind is knocked out of you when a closed fist hits right below your chest. Muscles go lax and you slump forward. Rough hands push your knees apart and your ankles are secured to the chair. Long fingers wrap around your neck, squeezing tight and keeping you in place, while another pair of hands loop a plastic zip tie through the one around your wrists, hooking it to the chair. When you try to move, the only response is a stabbing pain running up your arms at the awkward position.

Everything is muffled, but you still hear the faint exchange.

“Thanks,” he snarls.

“Bloody useless,” you hear the other voice sneer. “Now get out.”

Footsteps shuffle away, you hear a door bang shut, and silence takes over.

Someone else remains in the room. You can feel his eyes watching, assessing.

Suddenly the cloth is ripped from your head and a beam of light shines directly in your eyes. After so long in the dark, the bright shock of white hurts, so you turn your face away with a groan. Breathing hard, you tuck your chin to your shoulder.

A voice speaks.

“I’m glad you could join me.”

And you think to yourself – this is impossible. The drugs must’ve damaged something fundamental in your brain because that spark of recognition, that flash of familiarity, it can’t be real.

Cracking your eyes and squinting at the silhouette outlined behind the harsh light, he moves the lamp away and his features are thrown into sharp relief.

The shock freezes you in place.

He swings a fist, and the world goes black once more.

*****

3 HOURS AFTER ABDUCTION

Screens are set across all the walls, running through streams of data and bouncing through security feeds from the club, populating perp profiles based on likely candidates.

Steve and Tony are in the corner, locked in a heated discussion about something, while Sam, Nat, and Bruce are congregated around different screens, digging deeper into the profiles FRIDAY flags.

The first person on the list was the drug dealer. None of them are sure how, but Natasha walked straight into the club and two minutes later, walked out with him in tow, his face ashen and sweaty.

Back at the Tower, Bucky spends ten minutes interrogating him, but the piece of shit knows nothing. He was contacted by an unknown source, who claimed he wanted revenge on his ex-girlfriend. He was paid via wire transfer and was promised he could have a turn with you before it was over. Bucky gets the intel in three minutes and spends the next seven carving bloody lines up the guy’s arms with his favourite knife, until the asshole’s blubbering incoherently. Then he knocks him out and breaks both his ankles for good measure.

Now, Bucky stands off to the side of the group, pacing a short path back and forth along the wall, buried in his thoughts. In his pocket, he holds your tracking bracelet, his fingers unconsciously stroking the smooth vibranium. This little piece of you, this small bit of unbreakable metal, is the only thing keeping him from spiralling out of control.

In the opposite corner of the room, Tony is verging on a full-scale meltdown. He teeters between furious and devastated, stunned disbelief that his technology failed you. Pounding angry fists on his desk, his voice scales up when he yells back in Steve’s face.

“Rogers, I’m saying it doesn’t make sense! The fucking bracelet requires her fingerprints to remove it! Besides her, literally the only people who know that are in this room!”

And at his words, Bucky stops mid-step.

The only people who know how to remove it are in this room.

Well – no.

That’s not entirely accurate.

*****

This can’t be happening. You must be hallucinating.

You know him. You know him.

This is not fucking possible, because you know him.

But no matter how many times you say it, no matter how many times you shake your head to drive the image away, the truth throbs like the bruise he planted on your jaw.

Jack Bernstein stands in front of you, a cold smile twisting his mouth.

“And she’s back.”

The pure shock steals your voice. Dragging a chair forward, Jack drops into a relaxed pose in front of you.

“Are you surprised?”

“You – why?” The question comes as a strangled gasp. “How did – when – why?

He leans forward and his expression morphs into someone familiar, friendly and patient, an amiable smile settling in place.

“Have you considered becoming a writer? You really have a way with words.”

While his expression remains perfectly genial, the words are sharp and scathing, and the sarcasm loosens your tongue.

“Fuck you so much,” you hiss.

“No, apparently you’d rather fuck super soldiers these days,” he says with a blithe smile. “You did fuck him, didn’t you? After I saw your little dance together at Stark’s party, I wondered if he’d let that happen. Christ, look how far he’s fallen. Broken down by some worthless little slut. I have so much work to do, to get him back in shape.”

Your heart is thrumming so fast, the adrenaline makes your entire body tingle.

“I don’t understand,” you say evenly. “What the hell is this about? Was any of it real? Was there really a stalker?”

“That was the best part,” Jack shakes his head with a grin. “Yes. It was definitely real. You absolutely had a stalker, I found the poor fucker outside the office one night. Homeless, been living on the street for decades. Scared the shit out of him, but before long he was talking. Telling me how wonderful you were. How much he loved you. How he wished you would notice him. The whole idea sort of snowballed from there. You were going after Hydra, so why wouldn’t they come after you? I went to Nick with my concerns because I knew exactly what he’d say. He’s reliable like that. And sure as shit, who does he recommend for the job, but Bucky fucking Barnes.”

“So, you found some random stranger on the street and he did it all on his own?”

“Of course not. Who do you think was orchestrating the entire thing in the background? Me. I put him up in an old Hydra safehouse in the Bronx. I gave him the tools and the drugs. I planted the letters in my office and the one in your mail. I’ve been pulling the strings the whole fucking time.”

“Who was he? What was his name?” Demanding an answer is pointless, but you need something

“Irrelevant,” Jack dismisses, with a wave of his hand. “He served his purpose.”

“You killed him?”

“Well you’re safe from him now, aren’t you? I think the word you’re looking for is thanks,” He raises his eyebrows.

“He was a human being, you sick bastard,” you breathe.

“I was really hoping Barnes would be able to curb your nasty little temper,” he replies mildly. “Can we try and have a civilised conversation please?”

Twisting your hands in frustration, you feel the bite from the zip tie digging into the delicate skin of your wrists.

“Probably not, because you’re a psychopathic asshole.”

Jack reaches forward and pinches your jaw, fingernails scratching your skin.

“Watch it,” he warns quietly. “If you can’t control that tongue, I’ll fucking cut it out and mail it back to Barnes.”

Jerking your head away, you grit your teeth and glare instead. He settles back in the chair, watching you thoughtfully.

“We have plenty of time, so let’s start at the beginning.”

“I really could not give a shit Jack,” you growl, trying to loosen the ankle straps.

He grins again. “Too bad, I’m in a chatty mood. So, once upon a time, there was a little boy whose mother was dead and whose father worked for Hydra. Every day, the father would clean the labs after the doctors were done experimenting. Great things happened in those labs, but the doctors were messy. The floors were always splattered with blood or brains or vomit.”

Remembering the story Bucky told, about the kids he found in Kazakhstan, your skin crawls at the portrait Jack paints.

“There in the lab, is where the father learned about the Soldier. The Soldier was perfect for experiments. Unbreakable. No matter what happened, he always recovered. He always obeyed. Through the years, the little boy’s father told stories about the Soldier, the legendary things he’d done. He was the little boy’s favourite bedtime story. But the years passed and the boy’s father grew weak. He could no longer stomach the greatness Hydra worked to achieve. He wanted to tell the world about the Soldier. The little boy was a young man now, and knew his father was a liability. One night, after arguing for hours, the young man gave up and just put a bullet in his head.”

Gaping at the bored tone of his admission, you shake your head slowly. “Jack. You murdered your own father?”

“Could you stop interrupting me? I’m trying to relive a childhood trauma here.”

Baffled, you simply stare, trying to reconcile this man with the one you thought you knew.

“Fine. Continue.”

“Thanks. The young man grew up. He was smart and charismatic, had a flair for writing, so they sent him to infiltrate the news circuit. Controlling the media is one of Hydra’s greatest weapons.”

Jack’s expression shifts then, becomes strangely soft. His eyes glaze over as he speaks, drunk on this new memory.

“But he never forgot the Soldier. One day, he left a debrief and happened upon an open door. He was a curious fellow, so he went inside. The room was dark and quiet, but there was a blue glow and there he was, his face laced with blue frost. The young man thought he’d gladly sell his soul if the Solider would open his eyes. He’d heard they were so blue, a perfect match to the ice around him.”

The fanaticism twists his features into something new, feral and hungry.

“Jack – “

“If you haven’t guessed yet, the little boy was me.”

“Yeah. I guessed.”

“That was the moment my life really began. The Soldier passed from Head to Head, it was the only way I could have him. So, I fought my way to the top, killed hundreds along the way, all for him. Once he was mine – the things I could do to him. I broke him and fixed him again and again. He was incandescent in pain. The sound of his screams, the way his body moved. It was mind-blowing.”

Tears prick your eyes, the distant sound of Bucky’s screams echoing in your heart.

“You unimaginable fucking bastard,” you whisper in horror. “You nearly destroyed him.”

“No, I loved him,” Jack snarls back. “He was mine and I loved him. Everything I ever did, it was always for him.”

Reason is gone now, that much is clear. The only thing left, is to keep him talking, until you can find a way to escape.

“Jack, cut to the chase, what’s your end game? You know Bucky won’t come back to you.”

“That’s not the point you stupid cunt. I don’t want Bucky Barnes. I wanthim. I want my Soldier back.”

“The Soldier doesn’t exist anymore, you know that.”

Jack gives an eerie smile.

“Doesn’t he? I think he does. With the right push, I can get him back. That’s where you come in.”

Laughing hollowly, you struggle against the bindings once again.

“You’re a delusional shit stain if you think I’ll help you.”

Jack merely chuckles.

“What do you you’re doing now? Whether you want it or no – you’re his mission is now. We both know, he won’t stop until he finds you, that perseverance is ingrained in his DNA. And to top it off, the idiot fell in love with you, so you’ve ruined him more than I ever could.”

“Sure, that’s exactly what love does, it ruins people. Good call. Asshole.”

“I admit, I was jealous when I realised,” Jack’s voice drops lower. “But then I realised what a beautiful opportunity this presents. He’s always so bloody in control, but you’ve thrown him off kilter. If his control is shaken, he’ll make mistakes.”

“Bucky’ll never come back to you. And if you kill me, you know there’s no place on earth you can hide. He’ll never stop hunting you. You know that.”

“Oh, I know. Don’t worry, I’m not going to kill you.” His expression is almost pitying. “I’m going to ask him to do it for me. And I’m very sorry sweetheart, but in the end – he will.”

Jack sighs contentedly.

“It feels good to get all that out. Cathartic, really. Except there’s one last thing I wanted to share with you, if you don’t mind.”

The offhand way he speaks instantly puts you on edge. There’s something else, something hurtful, and he cradles the verbal pause delicately, with the air of one who holds a bomb. Humming under his breath, he reaches forward and draws a finger down your cheek, giving you a small smile.

“I just want you to know, that I ordered the attack on the embassy.”

The words fall flat, they don’t register.

“What attack? What do you mean?”

“Don’t play dumb. You know exactly what I mean. I picked the team. I sent them to Algeria. Your poor Daddy? That was all me.”

The violence underpinning his words is worse, so much worse, than any physical assault. The scream of rage tears from your throat and you begin to struggle in earnest, the plastic binds around your wrists finally breaking the skin open with a slicing gush of blood.

“You god damn motherfucking piece of shit bastard!” Tears are clogging your throat, so full you can barely speak. “Why?

He leans back in the chair and crosses his legs. “Somehow, your worthless father intercepted a memo that included one very specific mention of the Winter Soldier project. He realised what he had, but he didn’t know who he could trust. He chose a few colleagues to inform first, and lucky for us one of the junior ambassadors was Hydra. We appreciated the heads up. I mean, we had to kill him too, loose ends and all, but still.”

“God dammit, Jack, why?” Bowing your head, the tears drip freely, choking sobs wracking your body.

“Honey, please. I killed my own father to keep my Soldier safe. Killing a few nameless faces to protect this secret wasn’t even a question. Of course the press made quite the little martyr out of you. The fucking headlines you made, Jesus Christ. The face of innocence, a little girl covered in her Daddy’s blood. Fucking hell, you were an annoying little bitch even then.

Jerking your head up, the tears still flow, but the anger in your eyes makes him laugh.

“And on that note, I have one last surprise. You know him already, and it sounds like you may have bruised his dick along with his ego, but he still wants to say hello.”

The door behind Jack opens, revealing a tall figure carrying a duffel bag. His hair is pushed away from his face and his shirt is open at the scruffy throat, revealing a faded red Hydra tattoo.

ليس اليوم

Not today.

Your heart skips a beat. Of course you know him. He’s held the starring role in all your nightmares since that horrifying day when your 12-year-old world was shattered.

He drops the bag at your feet and bends down, dark eyes full of hate, mouth curving into a sadistic grin.

“Looks like today finally arrived, little girl.”

*****

5 HOURS AFTER ABDUCTION

“Bernstein is fucking gone! His office has been completely cleared.”

The agent’s voice shouts through the overhead speakers of the lab. Bucky grips the edge of the table, the heavy wood whining before it splinters apart in his hands.

“FRIDAY, we need every camera in the city looking for him, go back the past 12 hours, pull everything into one file,” he says hoarsely.

Bucky hears the swirling ebb and flow of voices shouting around him, but it fades into the background. This is it then. The voice, it really was him all along. The word choices, the cadence of his speech. The memory of Peggy Carter in her red dress. Bucky feels a rippling wave of fear flow down his spine. He feels his nerves sparking on the surface like a live wire, frayed and open to the elements, so he reaches back into his pocket, and finds your tracking bracelet, soothing himself with the smooth feel.

Jesus Christ, how in the god damn hell did he miss this? How could the answer have been so close and he completely missed it?

“Excuse me, Sergeant Barnes. I have a request for a video transmission coming from an unknown source.”

At FRIDAYs statement, the room falls instantly silent.

Every eye turns to the huge video screen on the wall, where a blinking red light has suddenly appeared. It pulses slow and red, a bloody fingerprint imprinted on the clear HD screen.

There’s a hiss of static, before a blurry image slowly materialises, showing a bright room. Everything looks clean and new, an ordinary medical lab in any facility in the country.

He can’t stop the strangled cry when he realises what this is.

The video stream is focused on you, a slumping, unconscious figure tied to a chair. Bucky flies forward, closer to the screen to take it all in, his eyes roaming over you, assessing the visible damage.

When Jack steps into view, a chorus of yells fills the room, every single person leaping to their feet.

“Surprise! I’ll assume you’ve figured it out by now, you’re not complete morons. We’ve been having so much fun out here, it seemed a shame not to share with everyone.”

Waving his hands at the table next to you, Bucky feels the bile rising in his throat when he sees the vast array of knives and ropes and leather straps. His entire body tenses as Jack reaches to the table, but he selects the most innocuous item, a large glass of water. Raising the glass in a mocking toast to the camera, he takes a small sip, before throwing the rest in your face.

Coming awake with a spluttering gasp, your head jerks upright and now, Bucky can see everything.

Streaks of broken blood vessels have turned your eyes a dull red, matching the colour of blood caked along your hairline. Sticky streaks run slowly down your face, thick red dripping down your nose. He sees you swipe a tentative tongue across your swollen lip, finding blood pooling in the corner of your mouth. Thick lines of welts are raised along your arms, the width matching the leather strap lying on the table, a tool Bucky remembers in vivid detail. But the thing that tips him over the edge, is the rough line he spies around your neck, suspiciously reminiscent of rope burn.

He doesn’t realise the screaming howl is coming from him, until he feels Steve’s hand digging into his shoulder.

Another man steps into view, standing behind you and leaning over your shoulder. Wrapping both hands around your neck, he gives your throat a harsh squeeze, before running his hands down your chest and grinning up at the camera. At the intimate movement, you buck against the binds strapping you down, yelling furiously.

“Get your hands off me, you sick fuck!”

The man laughs, pushing your head to the side and licking a slow path up your neck, and Bucky sees your entire body shudder in disgust.

Jack shrugs and looks confidentially into the camera.  

“She keeps saying no, but we think she likes it. I don’t know Barnes, you’ll have to tell us. You’ve been there, right? You know what she likes.”

Bucky moves to smash his fist through Jack’s face, but Steve catches him before it makes contact.

“Listen, there’s a reason I’m calling. I expect the whole team’s watching this video, but right now I’m speaking directly to Barnes.” Jack moves closer, until his face is the only thing in the frame, and his voice drops low. “I know you Bucky Barnes, but I know him better. He’s still inside, already plotting how to find me, so I’ll make it easy. Think back, think hard, and remember the first day we met. I know your memories are shit, but if you can remember that, you’ll know where to find her.”

Bucky blanches, beginning to shake from head to toe. He doesn’t know, he doesn’t remember this. Oh god, fuck, how the fucking hell is he supposed to just remember?

“I’ve missed you, Soldier,” Jack whispers. “Come find me, come home.”

“Motherfucker,” Steve grits out harshly. “Fuck you.”

But at the words, the strangest thing happens. Clarity arrives like a hammer to the head and the curtain in his brain opens.

And just like that, Bucky knows. He remembers.

Answers and ideas are swarming in Bucky’s head, but now he watches Jack step back, letting the camera focus on you again. Walking to your side, he shoos the other man out of the way and bends down, pressing a gentle kiss to your temple. His mouth moves to your ear and his voice is soft, but Bucky hears the request plain as day.

“I want him to hear it from you. Look up at the camera and ask him to come get you.”

Ignoring him, you stare mutinously forward.

Jack’s knuckles make a popping sound when his backhand smacks your mouth.

Bucky kicks his foot through the wall in front of him.

“Ask him to come for you.”

Turning to him, you spit a mouthful of bloody saliva on his pristine loafers.

When the next hit comes, it snaps your jaw shut, rattling your head.

Steve wraps his arms around Bucky from behind, holding him up when his knees threaten to give.

“You stubborn bitch. Ask him to come for you.”

Shooting him a mocking smile, you give a small shrug.

This time it’s a fist to your side, and Bucky hears the sharp snap of a rib cracking, flinching at the moan it draws from you.

“Last chance, or I get the rope back out.”

Bucky watches you, praying you just give in and back down. But then he sees your face changing into a familiar expression. He knows that expression.

“Oh god, don’t,” he growls under his breath, reaching his hand toward your face.

Breathing short, hard breaths, you seem to be steeling your nerves. Looking directly into the camera, you think for a second longer, and then incline your head toward the man standing off to the side. Voice shredded from what he can only assume is constant screaming, Bucky nearly faints when he hears you croak out the request.

“Bucky, when you get here, shoot that cocksucker first.”

There’s a beat of silence and then Jack is laughing uproariously, while the other man stomps toward you, swearing viciously.

“Come and get her Sergeant,” Jack urges, beckoning Bucky in with an encouraging chuckle. “And bring my Soldier with you, I’m dying to see him again.”

Giving the camera a wink and a mocking salute, Jack theatrically presses the button on a small remote. The last thing Bucky hears before the screen goes black, is the sound of your broken voice trying desperately to scream.

The room is silent.

All eyes are on Bucky, who stands at the screen with his hand still raised. Steve releases him slowly, when he feels Bucky go completely still. From behind, a peculiar shapeshifting appears to take place. His posture changes, his neck flexes, his shoulders roll back.

Bucky stands up straight.

When he spins around, even Steve takes a step back at the sight.

Deadly rage burns like blue fire in the Soldier’s eyes.

Chapter Text

MID-1990s

Jack Bernstein pours a cup of coffee and parks himself behind the large wooden desk, propping his boots up on Pierce’s crisply folded suit coat. He takes a long drink, coughing when the scalding liquid scorches his throat. No matter. He relishes the pain, because he needs something simple to ground him before he buzzes out of his skin.

That was exhilarating.

Every fantasy he’s entertained about this day, about meeting the Soldier for the first time, all of it pales in comparison to the real thing. In life, everything about him was infinitely more than Jack ever imagined. Harder. So obedient. Beautiful and perfect. What a marvellous gift.

Scanning the white walls and bits of clutter adorning the small office, Jack memorises every detail. He knows he’ll remember this day for the rest of his life.

Sighing in contentment, he selects the top folder from a large pile, one appropriately stamped with the word “INDUCTION” in chunky red script. He begins to read.

 

BASIC HANDLING INSTRUCTIONS

The Asset requires minimal formal care, but it is biologically enhanced and dangerous if not handled properly. The following instructions will minimise risk to handlers. See related appendices for detailed information.

Removal from cryofreeze: Asset will be sluggish and non-responsive. Hosing down with cold water is recommended before wiping. Clothing is optional, but not preferred during removal phase.

Wiping process (see detailed instruction manual): Asset will tolerate wiping process as long as it is completed shortly after leaving cryofreeze.

Nutrient management: Asset does not eat standard food. Calories should be administered in the form of IV fluids.

Drug enhancement: Adrenaline may be given through injection but should be used sparingly as it enhances agitation levels. ‘Oblivion’ can be given in limited amounts. Technicians are recommended to hold Asset’s jaw shut until clear the drug has dissolved / been swallowed.

Weapons selection: Asset will select its own weapons. DO NOT try to remove weapons from the Asset’s body once they have been strapped in place, may result in loss of life or limb.

In the unlikely event of death due to mission failure, Asset has no personal affairs or effects to manage. If available, body should be cremated to reduce risk of knowledge transfer.

 

He moves slowly through the Asset’s files, absorbed in hundreds of pages exploring every detail of the disturbingly long life. Memorising lab reports and doctor’s notes, tracing wondering fingers over the blunt block letters of his mission reports, captivated by photos showing bullet holes and knife wounds littered across a broad chest.

Shivering with delight at the idea that all of this belongs to him.

He was disappointed to put him back on ice, but the Algeria mission was unnecessary and it’s best to be patient. He has years to learn him, to understand his Soldier inside and out. Every intricate nuance of his body, every sparking neuron in his brain. How to obliterate everything and how to piece him back together.

A perfectly indestructible toy.

Jack tips his head back and laughs, the sound bouncing around the small room.

And after all – toys are meant to be played with.

*****

 

5 HOURS AND 10 MINUTES AFTER ABDUCTION

To this day, Bucky marvels at the difference between a mission with Hydra and a mission for himself.

Now, Bucky takes blisteringly hot showers before every mission. He despises the cold, hated it during the war, hated it even more with Hydra. He doesn’t have time tonight, so instead he stuffs heat packets in the pockets of his tac pants. He loves the way they make him sweat, it’s soothing.

Now, Bucky doesn’t rely on IVs and pills and manufactured enthusiasm. Instead, he drinks a special cherry flavoured Gatorade Bruce had engineered especially for him and Steve, and he raids the Tower cabinets of every king-size Snickers he can find. Chocolate and peanuts make him happy and help him focus, and Bucky swears their tagline was written for him. He is definitely not himself when he’s hungry.

And now, perhaps the most stunning difference, are the personal affairs he puts in order. As the Soldier, Bucky had less than nothing. He remembers the vague feeling of wistfulness, of emptiness, that often intruded before a mission – he consistently took wildly unnecessary risks, because he had absolutely nothing to draw him home. When he joined the Avengers, he behaved the same way – until Steve sat him down and reminded him that he had his own real life with people and possessions he loved. So, Bucky sat down and wrote a will. He still doesn’t have much, but now the little things he cherishes all have a place to go when the inevitable end arrives.

On that note, Bucky digs out the sheet of paper from the bottom of his desk, finds a chewed-up Bic pen, and makes one small amendment.

Under the Brooklyn apartment, he adds your name next to Steve’s.

*****

 

5 HOURS AND 20 MINUTES AFTER ABDUCTION

Steve can actually feel his body thrumming when he reaches Bucky’s bedroom, tension skittering over his skin. Pausing outside the door, he steels himself for a full-scale brawl, because as he well knows, his best friend is a stupid god damn fucking idiot.

Throwing open the door he stomps inside, kicks it shut, and starts speaking.

Loudly.

“Look, I know you’re pissed as hell right now, but you need to take a beat and think about things. You can’t go barging in, shooting everything on sight with no back-up. It’s fucking suicide.”

Bucky hums in agreement, fishing through his loose change jar for the key to his bedside weapons cabinet.

“Seriously Bucky, we need a plan. This is very obviously a set-up.”

The small key snicks when the lock clicks open, revealing a cache of knives and guns, several old grenades and a handful of Widow’s Bites he won off Natasha in a poker game.

“They know you’ll come. They expect you’ll come. Traps, Buck. There’ll be so many traps.”

Bucky nods along with the tirade, but the absentminded move proves he’s not listening. Frustration bubbles over and Steve’s now yelling.

“James Buchanan fucking Barnes, why are you such a stubborn asshole all the time?”

At the words, Bucky looks up in startled surprise.

“What the hell Rogers? Why am I an asshole?”

“I don’t know Buck, why are you an asshole?”

Tossing an armful of knives on his bed, Bucky plunks his hands on his hips, head tilted in genuine confusion as he stares at Steve.

“What am I – ”

“You’re not fucking going alone Bucky.”

“Whoever – ”

“There’s no guarantee you’re not walking right into a god damn trap.”

“No sh – ”

“Why the hell can’t you ever let anyone help you?”

“Steve, I – ”

“Jesus Christ, you’re an insufferable prick!”

Bucky looks on the verge of laughing.

“Are you done? Can I talk?”

Steve grabs a bottle of cherry Gatorade off Bucky’s dresser and chucks it at him, growling when Bucky neatly dodges the missile.

“Yeah I’m done. Jerk.”

Bucky sighs patiently. “Steve. I’m not going in blind and obviously I need your help. Assumed the whole god damn team was coming, so I’m not sure why the hell you’re standing here. Stop being a little bitch and suit your self-righteous, spangled ass up.”

Steve opens his mouth to argue, but – yeah, he’s got nothing. Bucky raises his eyebrows and goes back to sorting knives, separating his favourites and setting them aside.

“Well,” Steve clears his throat, still spoiling for a fight, but struggling for a reason. “Well okay then. Long as we’re clear. About time you stopped acting like a self-sacrificing dumbass.”

Bucky snorts. “You’re a mouthy little shit. Meet me in the lab in 10, we leave in 40. Only got a few hours until the sun rises. I want this finished before then, I’m not leaving her there a minute longer.”

“Good,” Steve grunts, and turns to go. The door’s nearly closed when he hears the question.

“Steve?”

Spinning at the sound of Bucky’s low voice, Steve’s heart skips a beat when he sees the expression. The façade has come down, harsh emotion filtering through the cracks. In the entirety of their crazy fucked up lives, Steve’s never seen his best friend look so utterly desperate.

“If he kills her – I won’t stop. Not until every last one of them is dead.” Bucky narrows his eyes, a dark look settling in place. “I’m telling you right now, don’t get in my way. Don’t make me stop.”

Steve contemplates him for a long moment.

“I know you won’t. And I’ll help you do it.”

Thank god for Steve Rogers. Bucky gives him a brisk nod and goes back to his knives.

*****

 

5 HOURS AND 25 MINUTES AFTER ABDUCTION

Bucky storms into Tony’s lab, a wraith in head to toe black. The silver arm is emitting a constant whir, endlessly clicking and shifting, a physical representation of the anxiety pulsing through his veins.

“Stark, I need your help.”

Tony looks up at his arrival, blanching at the image. Mission ready, Barnes is just a little bit terrifying.

Black tac pants are tucked into a pair of comfortably worn combat boots, and each boot holds two long serrated blades, rough black handles within easy reach. Strapped around both thighs are matching holsters, the right side holding a Sig Sauer P320, the left side holding a Beretta M9. A black utility belt sits low at his waist, holding extra clips of ammo, a cylindrical tube with five round mini-grenades, and a pack of bandages. Flat against each hip, are two fixed blade combat knives, and tucked into a holster at his lower back, sits his Glock.

Strangely, the most striking feature about the whole ensemble isn’t the ridiculous amount of weaponry. It’s the ordinary black tank top he wears.

Normally refusing to let anyone see the thick red scars streaking down his shoulder, he always ignores the curious questions or dismisses the thoughtful comments with an icy glare. But tonight, for the first time Bucky appears oblivious to the furtive glances and open stares.

Well, he’s not actually oblivious. He’s just totally out of fucks to give.

Rubbing both hands down his face, Tony slaps them on the table, fingers splayed wide. Disappointment rolls off him in thick waves, and Bucky thinks he knows what’s coming.

“Stark, listen – ”

“I’m sorry,” Tony interrupts, curling his fingers into hard fists, rapping his knuckles restlessly against the table. “I fucked her tech up, that’s on me. I wasn’t – ”

“Stop,” Bucky holds his hands up. “Seriously. I’m sick and fucking tired of us taking the blame for the shit these assholes do. Forget it and help me fix it.”

Tony Stark and Bucky Barnes stare at each other for a long moment. Their relationship’s been disproportionately burdened by a shared history, but with this common purpose, each is relieved to find the other willing to wipe the slate clean.

“Done,” Tony says tightly. “What’d you need?”

“Remember the throwback outfits we had for that charity event? With Steve’s stupid USO outfit and my Commandos uniform?”

“Sure,” Tony says, jerking a thumb over his shoulder. “They’re in storage. Why?”

“I need the blue jacket.”

“You need it right now?”

“I need it right now,” Bucky confirms.

“Are we stopping by Fashion Week on the way? You’re not wearing it on this mission, are you?” Tony asks, bemused by the odd request.

“I most certainly am.”

Tony pursues his lips and chooses his words carefully.

“Uh, not that I don’t condone wearing whatever makes you feel comfortable with your bad self, I mean clearly I love red since it highlights my boyish good looks, but you’re supposed to be stealthy. That’s kinda your thing. The blue is bright, Barnes. No clue why Howard ever made that dumb ass design, they’ll see you a mile away.”

Bucky doesn’t reply. Instead, he offers a slow smile and there’s something so astoundingly sinister, it makes Tony’s teeth chatter. Bone-chilling and lethal, he sees the barely concealed rage simmering just below the surface, Bucky’s murder face on full display.

“Ah. Right. So. The colour was bright on purpose,” Tony guesses. “You wanted to be seen.”

“I did,” Bucky affirms, his tone easy and conversational. “And now I want every one of those fuckers who took her to shit their pants when they see me. I want them to know exactly what’s coming for them.”

*****

 

6 HOURS AND 5 MINUTES AFTER ABDUCTION

Down in the cargo hold of the Quinjet, Bucky’s screams grow louder and louder. Sitting quietly on the above level, the team remain stoic.

 

*****

 

6 HOURS AND 30 MINUTES AFTER ABDUCTION

The world around him is dark and blessedly quiet.

Alone now, Bucky leans a trembling forearm against the window, rests his aching forehead on the cold glass and takes a shallow breath. The beads of sweat dripping down his face finally begin to dry, so he shuts his eyes and lets his mind wander, searching for something sweet to calm the nightmare still wracking his body. Like a slideshow, the pictures in his brain flip at lightning speed, until they stop abruptly on his apartment in Brooklyn and zero in on the book you left tucked under a fuzzy velvet blanket.

The Book Thief.

When he watched you pick it up that day, Bucky fought back a smile. It’s one of his favourites, something he’s read a dozen times. When he feels anxious and fidgety, the story is soothing, the pages crinkled and bent, the poetic words smoothing the edges of his soul in a way he could never explain. Tonight though, Bucky begins to understand why the story holds so much appeal.

Through the horrors that made up the bulk of his life, first during his war, and later as the Soldier, a concept always played in the back of his mind.

Some people are born into this life with the desire to command, to play God. Some demand the role and some accept the burden when it’s given. That was never him. No, Bucky was always asked to play one role above all others, one that led him to find a kindred spirit in the narrator of his favourite book.

Death.

It’s been his calling card since the first day of Basic, when the US Army plucked him from obscurity and shoved a rifle in his peculiarly steady hands. From that day forward, he owned every life around him. Some he spared, some he protected. Some he reaped with a broken neck in the dead of night, some he bartered with a sharp blade and a sharper tongue. This has been the way of his life for so long, it boils down to a single truth.

Most of Bucky’s life – has always been death.

Now he stands silently, accepting once again the bleak mantle laid across his shoulders and he thinks of you curled in his leather chair, warm in a patch of afternoon sun, your finger unconsciously marking his favourite quote as you drift to sleep, not realising you equally loved the one line that always gave him pause.

“Even Death has a heart.”

Most of Bucky’s life has been death, but that’s okay. Because those words are a poignant reminder that he can be so much more than the hollow shell he was. In this life with you, he finally understands how his head and his heart really are better together.

So, he holds the words in his mouth, tests them on his tongue, accepting that if the inevitable happens, he has a reason to come home.

“Even Death has a heart.”

He certainly does, Bucky thinks wryly. He opens his eyes and gazes into the star strewn blackness, his heartbeat a steady rhythm driving him forward, back to you. And it’s all hers.

*****

All you can think right now, is that this compound is fucking freezingand you’ll aggressively rage kick anyone who comes near you.

Slouched in the chair from earlier, a constant throb of pain shoots up your awkwardly bent arms, still secured behind you with a plastic zip-tie. Earlier struggles had done a number on your wrists, the unforgiving plastic slicing open the delicate skin and even now, blood oozes from the lacerations. It offers a small amount of warmth though, the sticky liquid running down your fingertips and catching under your nails.

You’re a little disappointed when it cools.

Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck.

How did you not know?

You knew Jack. You knew him. He supported you, encouraged you. Offered helpful life advice even when you didn’t ask for it and bought you a bottle of champagne to celebrate your first by-line. How could you not realise that charming, amiable façade, hid a full-blown unhinged psychopath? How was it possible to be so utterly fucking wrong about someone?

You think you might fire yourself for being the world’s worst investigative journalist.

Huffing in frustration, pain flares anew when you shift, trying to find a comfortable position. The stripes on your arms burn, your ribs are bruised, your jaw aches.

Everything hurts.

Bucky, where are you?

Closing your eyes, you let your mind drift, reaching for the imaginary comfort of your favourite place. An apartment in Brooklyn filled with piles of fuzzy blankets and soft pillows. Shelves of books and bowls of peanut M&Ms. The fresh scent of the river and Bucky’s laughing blue eyes.

Did he see the video? Did he know where you were? Would he figure it out in time? The grim reality of this whole shitshow, was that you desperately wanted to leave, to be back in Brooklyn, warm and safe in his arms, but there was one glaring problem.

You wanted Bucky to find you.

You wanted Bucky to never face these people again.

Success was an impossible duality.

The faint sounds of movement outside your door grow suddenly louder, inaudible voices making you tense. Electronic beeps sound and the door whooshes open, revealing two men dressed in faded combat fatigues. One is tall and lanky, bald head shining under the fluorescent lights. He spares you a brief glance, before striding to the table and rifling through the knives and lengths of rope.

The other man is short and thin, with red hair buzzed military short. He gives you a little smirk as he ambles inside, making a show of locking the door and letting his eyes roam over you.

“Don’t worry sweetheart, we’re just here to tidy up,” he says.

Sauntering over, he stops beside you, cocking his head and staring down, waiting for you to acknowledge him. Fixing a bored expression on your face, you ignore him, keeping your eyes trained on the door handle straight ahead.

“I’d look up if I were you,” he advises. Heart pounding at the implied threat, you stare forward in silence. Suddenly his fingers are gripping your jaw, pressing into the bruises left by earlier knuckles, and the startled gasp melts into a groan as you try to pull away from the rough hand.

Tears prick your eyes when you look up, furiously meeting his mocking stare.

“There she is,” he croons, pinching your jaw tighter. The pain makes your vision swim and you blink rapidly, fighting to stay conscious.

“I gotta say, we’ve been running real low on women around here. Be nice if you could help some of the guys out,” he says casually. “Maybe later, once we get your man back under control. Hell, maybe he’ll even have a go. I hear he’ll do anything if you know the magic word.”

Releasing you, he drags the tips of his fingers over your face, tracing the bruises, swirling his fingers through the blood still leaking from the gash high on your cheek. The pads of his fingers come away stained red and he brushes them over your mouth, painting your lips with the taste of salt and copper.

“How about it sweetheart?”

Eye level with you, his thumb is still rubbing your lip, waiting for an answer.

You can almost hear Bucky’s voice begging you not to do it, but you’re so god damn pissed off.

The taste of copper appears again, when you snap your teeth, sinking them into his finger. He screams and jerks his hand away, hugging it to his chest as he stumbles backward.

Bitch,” he rasps furiously, raising his hand while you brace for the hit.

“Dude, would you get the fuck away from her? You’re not allowed to mark her up,” his partner cuts him off with a sharp rebuke. “Wait until the Asset’s finished and packed away, you’ll get a turn after. If there’s anything left.”

The nonchalant way they speak about you should make your skin crawl, and it does. It really does.

But the way they speak about him, about your Bucky, as if he’s nothing but a mindless animal and not the sweetest, snarkiest, most infuriatingly wonderful man in your life, makes you shake with anger.

“Makes your nervous, huh?” The redhead sneers, sucking petulantly on his damaged finger. “You should be. I hear he’s a fucking beastonce he gets going. Brain’s so fucking fried, he’ll probably get confused halfway through, won’t remember if he’s supposed to fuck you or kill you, but either way – sucks to be you.”

Nothing would be more enjoyable in this moment than stabbing this shithead in the eye with a rusty knife, but you’ll have to rain check. Taking a soul cleansing breath instead, you settle for giving him your best Bucky Barnes murder face impression, letting a grim smile slowly lift your lips, while you glare in absolute silence.

“The fuck is that shit?” he grunts, unnerved at the creepy expression.

A long-suffering sigh comes from the bald man. “Stop fucking talkingand help me.”

“Aw fuck off man, I’m just – ”

The sound of a low sonic boom suddenly vibrates the floor beneath your feet.

Both men freeze, turning wide-eyed to each other.

“What the hell was that?”

“Something in the upstairs lab?” the other guesses wildly.

A long pause follows, the world quiet.

The second boom knocks the wind from you, raising dust from the floor. Lifting your eyes, you watch a long crack appear in the plaster ceiling, stilted bursts of movement as it spiders outward.

Silence follows again.

Until the distant pop of gunfire reaches your ears.

“Motherfucker,” you hear one of the men behind you whisper in panic.

The surge of happiness floods through you, promptly tempered by the panic of knowing Bucky was here, surrounded by these bastards once again.

“How’d he get here so fast? Bernstein said it’d take a couple days for him to figure it out!”

“Fuck if I know! I wasn’t planning to be here when he – ”

There’s a high-pitched scream in the hallway that’s abruptly cut short.

Silence.

Suddenly the screeching whine of metal on metal rings through the room when something heavy slams against the locked door.

Once.

Twice.

“Fuck,” the bald man spits out, lifting his gun and taking aim at the shuddering door.

Three times.

Next to you, the redhead draws a pistol from the holster under his arm, and you close your eyes briefly when you feel the cold kiss of a metal barrel pressed against your temple.

Silence.

You can hear the ragged, panting of the man above you, deafening in the quiet room. He smells stale, like fear and cigarettes, the scents bleeding from his skin.

Silence stretches on, further and further, and you pray Bucky won’t pass, that he realises, that he comes back.

The respite forces a shift in the room. Weapons lower slightly, muscles soften. Perhaps the Soldier has moved on.

A rookie mistake.

catastrophic mistake.

With an ear-piercing metallic crunch, the door in front of you explodes open, ricocheting off the wall. A knife whistles through the air, cold steel whispering past your ear, before the wide blade lands in the man’s neck with a wet thunk. The force of the throw knocks him flat on his back, fingers scrabbling uselessly at the rough hilt, and you squeeze your eyes shut when the gush of hot blood splatters across your face.

Roaring gunfire sets your ears ringing as the bald man fires five hasty bullets at the hulking presence in the doorframe, but each one is swatted away with a lazy flick of a metal hand. There’s a sharp retaliatory crack, and the man wobbles for a second, before collapsing to the floor, a bullet drilled straight between his eyes.

Bucky steps into the room, gun raised while his eyes scan the corners, check the ceiling, sweep under the table. Swinging around, he catches the edge of the door and slams it shut, before grabbing a chair and jamming it beneath the busted handle.

When he stalks forward, a small fraction of your heart cowers in fear at the viciousness in his face. This is him, the unreal ghost story, the legend in the flesh.

“Don’t look,” he orders harshly, bending down to the twitching body beside you. Eyes closed, you turn away when you hear the cracking noise the knife makes as Bucky jerks it from the man’s throat. A brief bloody gurgle follows, before it’s effectively silenced, and you hear the sound of a body dragging across the concrete floor, landing with a soft thump.

Breathing fast, sharp little pants that make your chest ache, you keep your eyes closed and wait.

A moment later, you feel the soothing touch of cool metal on your swollen jaw. Opening your eyes, your heart leaps into your throat.

Leaning over you, he gently cups your face, patiently waiting for you to see him. And now, looking into those blue eyes, you wonder how on earth you could have ever been afraid, because this isn’t him, he’s not the Soldier. This is Bucky, through and through.

Reaching down to his boot, he pulls up a long knife, slipping it behind you to snap the plastic on your wrists. They feel like deadweight after being locked in that position, so he helps ease them forward, working out the aching kinks. Two quick flicks and your legs are free, and you see a minute tremble in his fingers when he tucks the knife back into his boot.

Kneeling before you, Bucky looks up, the penitent man with his heart on his sleeve. He swallows hard, throat working as he gathers his courage.

“Hi,” he finally whispers.

“Hey,” you whisper back, voice cracking.

He sees the cuts and bruises scattered over your face, the raised welts down your arms. He reaches a tentative hand to your neck, fingers brushing lightly over the thin line of rope burn, and when he feels the raw texture of your skin, a desperately broken sound rises from deep in his chest. That sound alone, is more painful than anything you’ve experienced, so you reach for him, cradling his face between your hands and at the feel, his eyes close, he leans into the touch, and he turns to press his lips to the palm of your hand.

“You came for me,” you murmur.

“I’ll always come for you,” he breathes, lifting blood-stained hands to cover yours, tangling your fingers together. “I love you. I love you so god damn much and I’m so fucking sorry for everything.”

Tears flood your throat at his declaration, at the heat behind his words.

“You’re such a pain in my ass Bucky Barnes, but I love you too. More than you can imagine,” your voice is painfully hoarse, but his response makes each word worth the strain.

Speckles of blood cover one side of his face, sweat plasters strands of hair to his forehead, and there’s white dust caught in the dark stubble covering his neck, but at your words, the grime and exhaustion fade away. Bucky’s face lights up and his excited smile steals your breath.  

“Really? Seriously?”

“Really seriously,” you confirm with a smile, voice still tender but growing stronger. “Take me home Bucky.”

“I will,” he promises. “I’ll get you out of here, I swear.”

Taking your hand, he curls a warm arm around your waist and stands, lifting you carefully to your feet. Swaying at the move, you lean heavily into him and he wraps his arms around you, folding you close to his heavily padded chest.

And sure, the world may be falling to pieces outside that door, and god knows what you’ll find when you leave, but in this moment, the only thing you need is the solid presence of the man surrounding you.

But nothing lasts forever, and you need to move. Reluctantly he lets go, stepping back and pulling his Glock from the holster at his back, cocking the hammer and flipping it around, pressing the grip in your palm.

“Listen to me. We get out there, and I want you to shoot first, ask questions later. If you feel threatened at any point, pull the trigger, okay?”

“Okay,” you agree.

“You remember everything I told you?”

It takes a moment, but you fish for the memory and reel it in, remembering the that day at the Tower gun range.

“Yes. Squeeze the trigger, don’t jerk. Both eyes stay open. Be ready for the recoil,” you repeat.

He looks surprised but pleased at the automatic recitation. “I honestly didn’t think you were paying attention that day. That was – kinda hot.”

“Your face is kinda hot,” you sass back instantly.

Pulling a fresh clip from his belt, Bucky snaps it into his Sig Sauer and grins. Watching his movement, you suddenly notice something new, something different.

Hey. The blue jacket – it really did match my dress. I like it, you look really handsome in blue,” you say softly, tugging his sleeve. “Sorry, I’ve been super behind on your compliments. Lots of catching up.”

There’s a blazing look on his face at your comment, and he wraps a gentle hand behind your neck and steps closer, leaning down to rest his forehead against yours. Closing your eyes, you breathe each other in, a swirl of blood and death, of safety and protection.

“I love you,” he murmurs the words again, revelling in the pleasure they bring.

“I love you,” you answer, pressing a light kiss to his chin.

He hums at the response, giving himself one more delicious second to enjoy, before he grudgingly steps away. Rolling his shoulders back, his voice shifts and he speaks quickly, sharing the basic intel necessary before leaving the room.

“There should be very few people left out there, I swept the majority of the lower level before I found you. There were a lot of people here, but it wasn’t heavily guarded. Which seems fucking strange. I don’t know exactly what this place is now, but it used to be a secondary research lab. This is –  it was here, where I met him. The first time.”

It’s clear who the him is in this scene. And while Bucky’s voice is calm, you notice a flicker of confusion cross his face, and that small waver makes you want to find Jack and cut his heart out. Gripping his hands, you give him a small shake, forcing him to meet your eyes.

“Listen to me. You got out, you won. You never ever have to go back,” he clings to your words, riveted by your conviction. “You came here to get me Bucky, but don’t forget – I’ve got you too.”

“I know,” he agrees heatedly, pressing his lips to your knuckles. Then he shifts the chair blocking the door and squares his shoulders. “Alright, you ready?”

“Ready,” you confirm. “Let’s go fuck shit up.”

Fingers pause on the handle and he sighs, equal parts exasperated and entertained. Glancing down, he looks like he wants to say something stern, but the serious expression melts and his shoulders shake with laughter.

“I really fucking missed you,” he nudges you.

“Same,” you whisper back, elbowing him in return.

Keeping one hand fisted in the smooth cloth of his jacket, you take a deep breath as he pulls open the door and steps outside.

Once in the hallway, his demeanour morphs back to the man who kicked your door down only a few minutes earlier. He’s overwhelming in this form, towering and tense, confidence in every move, so obviously capable it puts you at ease.

The corridors are eerily quiet, the tracks of fluorescent lights lining the ceiling giving off a steady buzz and the occasional flicker. The smell hits you in that moment, a strange burnt earth smell floating through halls, of gunpower and guts, and it makes your eyes water. People don’t seem to talk much about what it’s like on a battlefield, the visual horror and the stomach-churning smell. Now you see why.

Turning the corner, you see bodies scattered along the hall, the stench of blood a dense fog hanging heavy in the air. Bright red halos spill around surprised faces, and you see now that sometimes bullets leave very large holes. It draws your eyes with each body you pass, and your breath comes faster.

“Breathe through your mouth, not your nose,” Bucky urges, his voice a grounding force as he propels you forward. “Look at me or close your eyes, okay? I won’t let you fall.”

“Yeah,” you say weakly, turning your face toward soft blue. “Yeah, okay.”

Rounding the next corner, the hall is thankfully empty of human remains. Bucky keeps his gun raised, eyes sweeping along. All seems well, until the whisper of rolling wood, like a closet sliding open suddenly reaches your ears and you see part of the wall begin to shift. Bucky swings around, but your finger already hovers dangerously over the trigger, and without thinking, you squeeze.

The bullet makes a solid thwack when it hits, and the body crumples to the floor.

A sickeningly familiar body in fact. One with a faded red tattoo crawling up his neck.

He groans, curling around himself, gasping as blood pumps from his abdomen. In one quick stride, Bucky is standing over the writhing body, and he stomps down, grinding his boot into the man’s wrist. Screaming in pain as his bones are crushed, he drops his gun and Bucky kicks it away.

Walking slowly forward, with the smoking gun still raised, you stare down into the face of the man who’s haunted your dreams for the better part of your life. Who spent the last several hours smiling while he slapped your face. While he snapped a leather strap across your arms. While he tightened a thin rope around your neck.

Who smiled the day he shot your father and took away the only person you had in the world.

Bucky’s pistol feels perfect and right in your hand, as you point it at his face. Vengeance, retribution, revenge, whatever word fits, you’re feeling it right now, surging adrenaline making you light-headed. Finger brushing the trigger, you steel yourself for the final shot, for the chance to end this on your terms.

The moment drags on and on, the sounds of his wet gasping the only thing in your ears.

“Come on little girl, do it!” he manages to taunt, choking on the words.

Pull the trigger. Pull the trigger. Pull the motherfucking trigger.

This man killed your Dad. He tortured you. He destroyed your childhood.

Pull the fucking trigger!

Your arm begins to tremble, precious moments allotted for escape now lost as you stare down. A strangled sob suddenly breaks through and your heavy arm begins to lower. Tears fill your eyes, and you rub them furiously away, trying to raise your arm again.

And then Bucky reaches over, gently pushing the gun down. Looking up at him, the tears spill over, sliding down your cheeks, dripping from the tip of your nose.

“You’re not a killer,” he says quietly. “Once you pull the trigger, you can’t take it back. If you want to do it I’ll help you, but don’t become something you’re not, just because you think you should.”

Firm and compassionate, his familiar voice shakes you out of the haze. Sniffling, you hesitate for another moment, before letting the gun slowly relax at your side. With a deep breath, you turn away instead, snipping the strings tethering you to the survivor’s guilt that’s hung around your neck for so long.

Bucky nods encouragingly, and together you walk away from the gasping, bleeding man. Putting his arm around you, Bucky pulls you in tight. He covers your ear and presses your head against his shoulder, muffling the world.

Then he raises his arm behind him and fires one quick shot.

The hallway goes quiet once more.

*****

Moments later, you turn another corner, the relief palpable when you hear Bucky speak.

“We’re close, there’s an exit in two turns,” he mutters, his body still tense, eyes wary as he tugs you along. He taps the comms in his ear, letting it go to the loudspeaker so you can hear as well. “Steve, we’re near the north exit, where are you?”

Clear as a bell, Steve’s voice comes through sounding irritated. Gunfire sounds in the background and you hear the clatter of tin cans on concrete, followed by a slow hiss.

“We’re coming, just – finishing something up, apparently Nat decided this was the right time to test Stark’s new gas grenades.”

“Don’t be lame Rogers, these guys are assholes,” you hear Nat laughing in the background.

“No shit Nat, just wondering why – ouch, god dammit – why you couldn’t wait 10 fucking seconds. Buck, we’ll meet you at the rendezvous point in 10 minutes. Did you find Bernstein?”

“Negative, no sign, I think he ghosted from – ”

The comms crackles and goes silent. Bucky taps it impatiently, glancing down at you, but it stays quiet.

Stark technology will certainly not fail a second time and it takes a split second to realise that fact.

Something is happening.

Swearing fiercely, Bucky pushes you behind him, his arm keeping you pressed up against his back.

“Stay against me, do not move away,” he grits out, eyes scanning the empty corridor, searching, searching, searching.

Bucky hears the sound before he sees it happen. It raises the hair at his neck, prickles down his spine, and with sizzling burst of heat, a web of electricity blooms before you, a curtain of transparent white light. Spinning around, you find the same thing behind you, a crackling fence of fire trapping you together.

“Fucking hell,” Bucky hisses, eyes whipping back and forth, assessing the electric barriers. Hesitating slightly, he stretches a tentative metal finger toward it.

“Bucky, don’t – ” the warning is still leaving your lips when his hand makes contact, and the harsh zap flings his arm back.

“God dammit, I didn’t think these’d still be here,” he growls in frustration. His fingers curl into a hard fist, metal plates whirring as they reset after the electric shock.

Looking through the waves of energy, you can see beyond them, but there’s no possibility of passing. “What are they?”

“Fry zones. Barricades to trap people,” he mutters. “When a building was under attack, they were set up like alarms. Someone must have triggered them earlier, because I’ve killed everyone else in the fucking building.”

“Well that’s fucking awesome,” you press yourself closer to him. Bucky turns to face you and hugs you close.

“Okay, it’s alright. The team are coming this way, they’ll find us when we miss the rendezvous, so we just wait. Can you do that for me?”

“Yeah,” your voice is muffled against the thick fabric.

Bucky gives you a small smile and leans down to press a feather-light kiss to your forehead, the barest hint of a touch. For a second, you wonder if the sound of electricity is still the walls around you, or if it’s the feel of his mouth on your skin. Snuggling closer, you relax in his arms, while his hands rub long, soothing strokes up your back.

For a long, happy moment, all is well, the world is right.

It doesn’t last.

The measured, deliberate click of dress shoes on concrete rises above the steady hum of electricity, and Bucky’s entire body goes rigid. His arms tighten around you, but when you raise your head, his jaw is clenched and his face is white, sweat already slicking his forehead. His eyes are fixed on something above you, beyond you, and still clasped in his arms, you slowly turn.

Jack stands on the other side of the barrier, his face flooded with desperate, hungry longing as he gazes at Bucky. He licks his lips and comes closer to the cage, and even through the thick fabric of his jacket, you can feel Bucky’s heart racing.

“So, here we are then. After all this, there he is,” Jack breathes fervently, moving closer, unable to help himself. “I see him under there Barnes. Let him out to play. Let him come home.”

Bucky lets go of you, tugging you behind him and extending both arms, widening his stance.

“Drop the barricade and let us go,” he says calmly. “She has nothing to do with this.”

With a snort, Jack shakes his head.

“Wrong. She has everything to do with it. It’s because of her that you’re even here. She’s a weakness, she’s your weakness, you realise that? You value control so god damn much, but she stole that from you. Look at you, following her here like a fucking lovesick dog. Jesus Christ, what did you do to my Soldier, you’ve ruined him Barnes.”

“Seriously, eat a dick Jack, you overly dramatic piece of shit,” poking your head around Bucky, you try to move in front of him, but he holds you in place.

“Don’t, it’s not worth it,” he murmurs warningly.

Jack looks amused for a moment, but it fades as he considers an idea.

“She’s scrappy, I’ll give her that. We could make a deal you know – give me back my Soldier and I’ll let him keep her if that’s what he wants. She can be his pet, something soft and breakable to entertain him. Maybe that’s what was missing before.”

Bucky feels a sick swoop in his stomach as he stares at Jack. Hearing his voice now, he’s baffled how in seven hells he could have ever forgotten this man. It’s so obvious, so god damn obvious it makes him want to scream. But in the midst of that anger, Sam Wilson’s voice suddenly pops in his head, and Bucky remembers the closing remarks of his first group therapy session down at the VA.

"Some things you leave behind, some you carry home. It’s your decision what you need to let yourself heal.”

Bucky understands then, the choice he made. The only way he could let himself heal, to get better and move on, was to let go of the horrors in his past. Including this.

“No deal you sick fuck,” he says flatly. “Let us go or I swear to God, when I get out of here, I will rip you to pieces with my bare fucking hands.”

Fixing a sneer on his face, Jack shrugs at the response.

“Alright then, if that’s what you want,” he steps even closer to the barrier, so close you can see the gleaming whites of his eyes. “I gave you a chance, so – just know that what happens next is your fault Barnes, it’s all on you. I hope you remember that. In the end.”

Jack reaches behind him, grasping for something in his pocket, and Bucky crouches slightly, a snarl on his face as he settles into battle stance.

When his hand reappears, Jack’s holding a thick paperback book.

He smiles.

*****

Chapter Text

“Do you know my favourite novel?” Jack asks casually, giving the book a small shake.

Peering around Bucky, you see a faded red cover, a worn and cracked spine, pages fat from decades of moisture and grimy fingers. A familiar title is stamped across the front.

“George Orwell, 1984. In my day, it was required reading for new recruits. Hydra’s ideals, laid out in black and white. So easy, soobviously the right choice. Orwell understood perfectly. A shining example of how the world could prosper if you eliminate the temptation of choice.”

“That story was satire you complete fucking moron. It was taken literally by arrogant dicks who were looking for a reason to be assholes,” you scoff.

Bucky clears his throat quietly and firmly pushes you behind him.

“Uncultured swine,” you add, poking your head back around.

Bucky sighs and shoves you harder.

Grumbling under your breath, you press close to his back and he reaches behind him, capturing your fingers. Folding his thumb against your palm, he rubs small circles on your skin, his grip hot and reassuring.

“Let him talk, the team’ll be here soon,” he murmurs under his breath, squeezing your hand when he hears the annoyed huff.

Jack ignores the exchange, his attention still rabidly fixed on Bucky.

“You know when I took the Head job, they gave me instruction manuals for you? So logical and clinical, like a new appliance. Read them cover to cover, but I realised they missed some important context.”

Rifling through the paperback, he lands on a dog-eared page. Glancing down he finds the opening sentence and begins to recite, his voice as steady as the fanatic stare he levels at Bucky.

 

“How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?“

Winston thought. “By making him suffer,” he said.

“Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing.”

 

There’s silence when he finishes, still looking expectantly at Bucky.

“That was dramatic,” you pipe up sarcastically.

“Oh my god, shut the fuck up,” Jack finally explodes. “I swear to God, I’ll rip your fucking tongue out, you mouthy little whore – ”

“Stop talking right fucking now,” Bucky snarls. “You don’t touch her and you don’t touch me. I’m not playing this game, it won’t fucking happen. Sooner you realise that, the sooner we can stop pretending like I won’t tear your heart out the second this barrier comes down.”

Jack cocks his head. “No, you won’t. What I did all those years, it was right. My Soldier suffered because he was made to. I tore him apart and put him back together and he thanked me for it. He always thanked me. And he will again, because he needs it, he needs me.”

“Jesus Christ, you crazy god damn cocksucker. I’m telling you with absolute conviction – you’re extremely fucking wrong.”

“Guess we’ll see,” Jack shrugs and gives a sly smile. “I saw the look on your face though. Expecting a little red notebook?”

Bucky remains silent, but you feel his body tense.

“I was pissed when I heard Rogers destroyed it. Talk about great literature. But hey, doesn’t really matter, right? You and I both know, I had those words memorised the first moment I read them. Used to sing them to myself when I couldn’t sleep.”

“What the hell’s he talking about?” you murmur.

Bucky glances over his shoulder, meeting your confused stare. Jaw clenched, he swallows hard.

“Ah, you forget to tell her that little party trick?” Jack asks gleefully. He throws you a taunting smile when you peek around Bucky. “Ten little words. Barnes hears them and all hell breaks loose. Ten little words and you get to meet my Soldier. Trust me, he’s magnificent.”

“It won’t work,” Bucky warns. “I promise you it won’t. Your funeral if you try.”

“You know Barnes, the funny thing is, I just don’t believe you. So, let’s see what happens.”

This is it then.

In his heart of hearts, Bucky knew he’d end up here. For all his threats that it won’t work, the unfortunate truth is that it will. After all this time, the words still exist, an intrinsic part of his DNA that’s impossible to strip away. He’s tried, God fucking knows he’s tried, but every attempt was a spectacular failure.

But hopelessness is the lifeblood of creativity, and those failures gave him an idea. Steeling himself for the fall, he clings desperately to the hope that his untested and fragile safeguard will work, because he knows what Jack will ask when the Soldier arrives.

Clutching your hand, terror prickles down his spine and Bucky watches Jack’s lips part, sees the tip of his tongue touching his front teeth as he forms the first word –

*****

 

EARLIER (6 HOURS AND 5 MINUTES AFTER ABDUCTION)

Down in the cargo hold of the Quinjet, Bucky kneels in front of him.

No,” Steve breathes. “Absolutely fucking no.”

“It’s not a request Rogers.”

“I honestly don’t care. I’m not doing it.”

Gritting his teeth, Bucky looks up, heart aching when he sees the panic-stricken blue eyes, and his voice softens. “I’m sorry Steve, I really am. But you’re the only one who knows them and I need you to do this for me. Please.”

Scratching nervous fingers through his fine blond hair, Steve shakes his head in frustration. “You always said you’d never willingly lose control again. How are you comfortable with this?”

“Christ, I’m not comfortable, but if this is the price, I’ll pay it,” Bucky shrugs, looking beseechingly at Steve. “I gotta try, and she – she’s worth it.”

“What if you can’t get back Buck? What if I can’t get you back?”

Bucky considers him for a long moment before answering.

“The book – it didn’t explicitly say it. But there are eleven trigger words. Not ten.”

Steve looks taken aback. “The hell do you mean? What’s the eleventh?”

Dropping his gaze back to the floor in front of him, Bucky rubs his palms down his thighs and takes a steadying breath, but his voice still cracks when he replies.

“The first ten words force involuntary paralysis, but the whole thing depends on the final word, on the name you use,” Bucky’s throat is suddenly dry. “It’s the word Soldier that finally activates him. Use my name when you want to bring me back, because he won’t show up if you don’t complete the string.”

He hates this, he really does. Not just being triggered, although – sure, when someone says a list of code words that make your body go into shock so your murderous alter-ego can take over, yeah that does fucking suck. But what he hates more, is that Steve will see this, because Bucky knows without a doubt, it’ll give Steve nightmares for months.

But he’s running out of options.

“I – god fucking dammit, I just – fuck, fuck, fuck! You’re sure Buck, you’re absolutely sure?”

Bucky gives a humourless laugh and wipes away the bead of nervous sweat rolling down his temple, trembling fingers gathering his hair in a messy knot at his nape. “Yeah buddy. I’m sure. I just need you to get me in there, I’ll do the rest.”

Swearing under his breath, Steve scuffs his feet angrily, waging his internal battle while Bucky waits patiently, his head bowed. He knows when Steve runs out of steam, because he stops dancing around and stomps his foot.

And while he’s clearly pissed as hell, his voice is strong when he begins.

LONGING – ”

*****

Everything is muted.

Bucky opens his eyes.

The world around him is perfectly empty and filled with a soft grey fog. Looking down, he sees the blue coat and his worn boots, feels his knives and guns strapped comfortably across his body. His hands are clean white and shining silver, wiped clean of the blood and grime of battle. The grey mist swirls around his feet and it feels so tangible, he wonders if he could scoop a handful if he tried.

Has he been here before? It feels so familiar.

Everything is muted. And then it’s not.

He hears the soft creak of leather and he turns slowly.

Stepping from the mist, the Soldier stands before him, dressed in the last uniform Bucky remembers donning before that final day in Washington DC. Straps of thick black leather criss-cross his chest, plastic guards cover his knees. His dark hair swings forward, the edges framing the black mask covering the bottom half of his face.

He’s drenched in tragedy.

Streaks of dirt line his pale face, dark circles glow like bruises under his eyes. Rivers of blood run down his arms, vivid lines of red dripping soundlessly into the fog rising at his feet. Even from here, Bucky recognizes the scents of gunpowder and copper, feels the aura of despair surrounding him, can taste the flavors of stale sweat and heat forever trapped in the confines of that mask.

He’s drenched in tragedy and remains as he has always been. Death personified.

Bucky stares in silence, drinking in the image. He thanks whatever God will listen, that you’ve never seen him this way and he hopes you never will. But Bucky Barnes is a realist and Fate’s a bitch with a tendency to kick him in the balls, so he crushes that burgeoning hope and embraces the man before him.

“He’ll try and take you back. You know who I mean.”

Bucky’s voice sounds odd in his ears, the quiet statement filling the cavernous void of nothingness.

The Soldier merely watches him, blank eyes betraying nothing.

“I think I found a way. For you to stay in control – after.”

The Soldier tilts his head and even with the mask, Bucky sees the skepticism.

“You know how the triggers work. How they’re linked to my – to your – shittiest memories. I can’t change that. But I think if you could just connect them to something else, to something happy and not ridiculously fucking terrible, it might take away his power.”

A strange sound comes from behind the mask. Bucky hears the derisive snort clearly and thinks how unnerving and god damn weird it is to watch himself like this.

“Yeah I know. Your whole life’s been one giant trainwreck, but things are different now. I’ve got a life again, friends to help me and a girl to fight for, and I need this to fucking work. I’ll do everything I can to help you, and if this works, if you get hold of him - he’s all yours. Take your revenge however you want. Make it slow, make it painful, make it bloody. Do your worst.”

Something shifts beneath that flat, dead expression. A flash of interest.

Bucky holds up his hand.

“I’m asking for something in return. No matter what he says or what he orders you to do, you fucking ignore all of it and you – you protect my girl. You keep her safe. That’s the mission. That’s the only mission that matters.” Bucky extends his metal hand, offering it palm up. “Do we have a deal?”

The Soldier stares unblinkingly at Bucky, weighing the proposal. Truth be told, Bucky understands the risk better than anyone. He knows the Soldier inside and out, because as much as he hates this fact – at his core, he is indeed both men. And when the Soldier lets go, when that carefully controlled rage spills out, no one is safe.

But Bucky also knows this. If the man in his mirror has any emotion left, it’s this – an all-consuming lust for revenge. So, he’s unsurprised when the black-gloved hand reaches forward, pressing his fingers into Bucky’s outstretched palm, and giving a single nod.

Entwined in this grey world, identical blue eyes watch each other.

“I’m trusting you,” Bucky whispers.

From somewhere far beyond the tepid waters of his subconscious, he hears Steve calling his name.

The Soldier fades away.

*****

When they created him, when they added the triggers, the process was simple.

As each word lands a new part of his body shuts down, sparking a psychological pain that feels terrifyingly real. He gets three seconds between them, three excruciating seconds, to fight the nightmarish memories tying his brain to these stupid fucking words, but he loses every time.

Every time. Every single time. Bucky has never won this game, not once in seventy fucking years.

This time though, if luck can just for once in his god forsaken life be on his side, maybe his hail Mary can work –

“LONGING.”

The first word is always the worst. Scorching pain races up his right arm, the sensation of his fingernails ripped from the beds, of razor blades flaying open his skin and he takes quick, shallow breaths, and the first memory hits –

 

For three straight days, he’s strapped to a chair, his shiny new arm hanging disconnected and useless, while doctors shoot icy liquid in his veins, press chalky pills under his tongue. Every possible variation of medicine is pumped into him, sending him flying to inconceivable heights and crashing him into the terrifying depths of bone-weary depression. The Soldier remembers the desperate desire to die flooding through him, his heart longing for it to just fucking end –  

–  “I want you Bucky,” you whisper hoarsely, your lips still brushing his, and he swallows the confession with a shaky sigh. “I want you and I want this. I’m in, if you are.” Bucky feels the heavy swell of longingpumping through his veins at your words, at the promise behind them, and he’d give everything to stay here forever –  

 

His vision returns with a slap and Bucky feels a surge of courage when the sweet memory stays in place –

“RUSTED.”

His right leg crumples, an iron bar shattering his shin, and groans as he falls to one knee –

 

“Internal wiring’s rusted, I need to replace it. Don’t knock it out, keep it conscious.” The Soldier sits quietly in the chair while they disassemble the metal arm, dismissing the fact that each piece of the arm is connected to his central nervous system. It’s surgery without anaesthesia and with every jerk and tug, the pain blooms so fierce, he nearly blacks out. Without realising, he concedes to silent tears, unaware as they drip down his cheeks until one of the techs huffs in irritation. “Is it fucking crying? Jesus Christ.” The Soldier starts in surprise and then –  

–  “Question. If you get caught in a rainstorm, do you get all slow andrusted? Like the Tin Man in Wizard of Oz?” Bucky grins when you look up expectantly from the ice cream cone. “Also, follow-up question. Did you see the original run of Wizard of Oz in theatres?”

“No to the first question. Yes to the second.”

“God you’re old, I’m buying you a case of denture cream for your birthday,” you say, taking a huge bite from the ice cream cone, recoiling at Bucky’s outraged gasp.

“What the hell’s the matter with you, that’s not how you eat ice cream – ”

 

Bucky realizes you’re standing beside him, reaching a shaky hand toward him, and he snarls in panic.

“No, get back, get back, stay back – ”

“FURNACE.”

His command rolls into a high-pitched scream when the metal arm turns to fire, electricity jolting through it, shocking him over and over, until he can’t breathe, he can’t fucking breathe, he’s suffocating –  

 

Flames rise higher into the black night, transforming the world into eerie shades of orange and grey. Like waves of heat from a furnace, the flash burn singes his eyelashes and melts the tips of his boots, but the Soldier doesn’t flinch. He smells charred wood and gasoline and burning flesh, but he stands in place with his gun trained on the exit door, waiting for anyone still able to escape the roaring inferno –

– Bucky feels you stirring beside him. “Cold,” you sigh and at the words, Bucky pulls you closer, folding your patchwork quilt carefully around your neck. “You’re always so warm,” you yawn, words slurring together, and he realises you’re not quite awake. “Like a furnace. Giant asshole furnace.”

“Thanks,” he whispers, choking back a laugh –

 

Electricity still crackles up and down the arm, but the sharp edges blunt and Bucky draws a shaking breath –

“DAYBREAK.”

His left leg buckles and he slumps on his knees, dead arms dragging him down. His teeth go straight through his tongue when he moans, blood instantly filling his mouth.

“Bucky what can I do, what the hell do I do?”

Heart breaking when he hears you sobbing, he spits a mouthful of red saliva in front of him, trying like hell to focus on your voice –

 

Daybreak . Sunlight filters through the dirty windows high above him and the Soldier opens his eyes for the first time. He feels the steady drip of blood winding down his scalp, itching at the back of his neck. Vocabulary lost in the foggy chasms of his brain, the only words he can summon are a strange set of numbers, 3…2…5…5…7…0…3…8…, so he mumbles them until they arrive again, with dirty knives and syringes full of fiery green liquid that makes him scream –

– Sunlight is creeping over the horizon when Bucky pads into his bedroom and pulls up short at the sight. Curled in the middle of his bed, you’re sound asleep, hugging tight to his pillow. He leaves a glass of water and a packet of pain medicine on the night stand, shakes out his favourite blue blanket. Draping it gently over you, he allows this single moment of weakness – his quiet bedroom at daybreak, filled with the soft sounds of your breath and the whisper of fabric when you roll over. He stows the memory carefully away, something nice to hold onto –

 

Gritting his teeth, Bucky whispers the mantra under his breath, something nice, something nice, something nice –  

“SEVENTEEN.”

White hot pain licks up his spine, every nerve along the vertebrae igniting and the muscles in his back seize up, locking him in place –

 

Stalking through the quiet warehouse, the Soldier counts the bodies as he goes. One, two, three. There’s a hand still twitching, so he adds another bullet. Seven, eight, nine. He leaves sticky red footprints in his wake. Twelve, thirteen, fourteen. Harsh breaths are coming from the man crawling toward the red alarm button under his desk. The Soldier lands a bone crushing boot in his stomach and kicks him onto his back. Staring down into a defiant face, he steps on the man’s trachea and shoots. Seventeen

– Legs dangling through the railings, Bucky waits on his fire escape wearing a ragged green sweater. The March night is fresh and clear and cold, and he puffs out a frosty breath. Finally, he hears midnight church bells ringing and he swings his legs excitedly. Behind him, he hears shuffling footsteps and Steve is crawling out the open window, carrying a slice of banana bread with a stubby candle jammed in the middle. Settling next to Bucky, his skinny legs slide easily through the metal rails and he pulls out a shiny silver lighter, the flame dancing merrily in the still night. Lighting the candle, he wipes the sleep from his eyes and hands it to Bucky with a grin.

Seventeen, huh? Happy birthday pal.”

 

The tiny flame still flickers and he feels tears leaking from the corners of his eyes and he braces himself for what comes next –

“BENIGN.”

The metal plates buried in his shoulder twist violently and his left shoulder dislocates, his arm bending behind him with a sickening crunch and snapping in place –

 

“Your orders were to make those deaths as painful as fucking possible, why the fuck did you kill them quick? Useless piece of shit,” the Handler hisses and slaps the Soldier’s face. The Soldier says nothing, eyes cast to the floor. Turning to the technicians watching in amusement, the Handler narrows his eyes. “I’m tired of this shit. Zola promised me a cold-blooded killer, not some benign little pussy who can’t do a simple fucking job. Wipe everything this time, clean it out completely and don’t leave a god damn thing behind.” The Soldier is silent as the techs lead him toward the chair and he begins to shake –

– “Barnes, You’re a sweet, neurotic, perfectly benign human being. Don’t be nervous.” He doesn’t believe Pepper Potts, but here he is anyway, loitering in the back of a crowded hospital room, watching tiny humans wearing casts and breathing tubes bounce on Steve’s shield. Bucky begins to relax until he feels a tug on his sleeve and looks down to the serious face of a determined little girl, her dark braids framing wide brown eyes. She crooks her finger and he crouches awkwardly next to her with a hesitant smile. Reaching tentatively for his metal fingers, she offers her own arm for inspection and Bucky sees a new prosthetic. His entire soul melts when he hears her fragile voice say, “Hey Mr. Barnes, we match – ”

 

Nostrils flaring, Bucky breathes faster and faster, trying to stem the nausea coiling in his gut, and he looks up to where you stand, watching silently as tears slip down your cheeks and he tries to give you an encouraging smile –

“NINE.”

Like a gunshot, his right shoulder dislocates, the harsh crack ringing through the air –

 

This is familiar. The Soldier’s been shot dozens of times, but tonight the voice is in a mood and he asks to see how long the Soldier can go. “Count them for me,” the order comes dangerously soft in the Soldiers ear and he’s thankful his face is obscured so the voice can’t see his fear. He hears the click of the hammer, a pause, and the force of the bullet makes him jerk when it hits his arm.

“One,” he grunts breathlessly. Click, pause, boom. “Two.” Click, pause, boom. “Three.” Every time a bullet hits his body, the Soldier replies without fail. Four, Five, Six. It carries on, until Nine comes out as a broken sob and he begins to lose consciousness and the voice begin to laugh –  

– Bucky drops to his stomach on the floor of his apartment, and peers under the couch. “I found nine of your M&Ms, how many did you have in that bowl?”

“Umm,” you respond absently, opening containers of Chinese food. “Let’s say nine.”

Bucky sits back on his heels and shoots you an exasperated look. “They’ll melt on my nice wood floors you know.”

“Your face is a nice wood floor,” you mumble, and Bucky really wants to be annoyed but he sees your little smirk and then he’s laughing –

 

Harsh laughter echoes off the bare walls, cold and insane and Bucky shakes his head in confusion, because his mouth is open and he’s laughing but that can’t really be him –

“HOMECOMING.”

An invisible hand appears, wrapping around his neck, choking him as it slowly forces his head back –

 

The Soldier gags, trying to find fresh air under the hood of the thick canvas bag. He can taste the sour smell of his own breath coming back at him and he switches tactics, inhaling through his mouth. Wrists secured behind him, he’s balanced on one knee while waves of pain radiate from his crushed kneecap. This is always the preferredhomecoming reward. He hears the voice close behind him braces his nerves for what comes next.

“Welcome home Soldier,” pain rebounds through his body when the metal bar fractures his back –

– The smell of sawdust and fresh paint hangs in the air, the wind from the river coaxing the scents through the open wall. Snapping the caps on two bottles of beer, Bucky hands one to Steve and collapses next to him with an exhausted groan. Stretching out his legs, he laughs when he sees the smears of paint on his feet and he wiggles his grey speckled toes. Steve grins and clinks his bottle against Bucky’s.

“Not a bad homecoming.”

Bucky gazes into the nearly finished apartment, swimming in contentment. Shoulder to shoulder, they lean against his balcony wall and drink in silence, the comforting sounds of Brooklyn drifting up from the streets –

 

Bucky sees you shivering and his blue eyes are shiny as he pleads with you. “He won’t hurt you, trust me, fuck, please trust me, I have a way back, I’ll find my way back – ”

“ONE.”

His voice evaporates, as though his tongue was cut from his mouth. Lips moving soundlessly, he sneers at Jack through the barrier –

 

"You’re the one,” the voice whispers. “The one thing I’ll always want. The one thing I need.” The promise rings in his ears when the whip hits his back and the Soldier jolts against the restraints. The voice is in his ear again, with the same request that follows every session. “Thank me now, tell me you deserved it.” The Soldier complies, an automatic response, but then the voice asks something new. “I love you,” it breathes, fingers trailing down his neck. “Tell me you love me too.” But the Soldier doesn’t understand so he stays quiet and the voice is enraged and the lash falls again –

– “You’re such a pain in my ass Bucky Barnes, but I love you too. More than you can imagine.” Bucky feels his body turn weightless at the words. This was it, the one thing he needed, the one thing he wanted, and the one thing he never expected to have. The words are magic in his ears and he knows he has the silliest smile on his face, but he just doesn’t care –  

 

His tongue feels like cotton and he aches to say the words one more time, just in case –

“FREIGHT CAR.”

And then he hears Jack’s victorious voice, he sees you falling to your knees in front of him, but his head drops forward and his eyes slam shut –

 

After all this time, the Soldier still feels his heart race when the cold smoke of cryofreeze billows up around him. He has no real emotions, no anxiety, no desire, except when it comes to this one thing. When he goes under the nightmare kicks in, running on a perpetual loop until he wakes again. Sometimes he wonders if the dream is another memory he’s managed to forget, because it feels so fucking real. Blasts of blue light, holding tight to the fractured metal bar, the agonised wail of another voice, and his left hand strangely human and so cold and slipping, slipping, slipping, until he falls from the freight car into the icy ravine where sharp black rocks and pain are waiting –

– Bucky moves smoothly, rocking you back and forth and never breaking the tight hold, making sure you stay pressed flush against him. His breath trails down your neck, he laces his cool fingers with yours, and he hums in contentment. Bending closer, his nose brushes the shell of your ear and he closes his eyes at the scent of your skin. There in that dark ballroom, the music washing over him, he feels the realization come roaring in like freight car knocking him sideways. The world around him upends and when it rights itself, his entire life has changed –

 

Lost in the darkness, Bucky sees bright silver coming closer –

*****

His breathing stops abruptly, the ragged panting going quiet. His chest still rises and falls, but each breath comes slow and steady. Clutching the lapels of his jacket, you give him a rough shake.

“Bucky, hey, come on. Open your eyes. Please, Bucky, please. Open your eyes for me, wake up, wake up, please fucking wake up,” you beg, but his eyes remain closed, lips slightly parted.

The electric barriers are dissolving and Jack creeps forward. Leaping to your feet with a growl, you spin around and block his path to Bucky, but in a flash, you’re starring down the barrel of his gun.

“God you’re annoying, could you not ruin this for me? I’ve been waiting a long fucking time. Thanks.”

“Keep on waiting and fuck off, you absolute twat.”

Jack points the gun at your feet and fires a single shot, cracking the concrete floor. Tripping backward, you catch yourself against the wall with a furious shout.

Bucky doesn’t move a muscle, still on his knees, head bowed.

Jack reaches forward and places his hand under Bucky’s chin, yanking it up.

“Soldier?”

Blue eyes snap open. In one fluid move, he rises to his feet, towering above Jack. It takes a second before he replies.

“Ready to comply.”

Dark and shredded, his lifeless voice makes your skin crawl.

“What the fuck have you done?” you grit out.

Mesmerized by the sight, Jack strokes a long finger down the metal arm.

“I’ve fixed him,” he says blissfully. “Finally. Barnes is gone, my Soldier’s here to stay.”

Jack backs up, eyes running over Bucky’s stiff posture, assessing.

“You know,” he says conversationally. “This is the first time we’ve been face to face. You really are beautiful.”

He lifts the gun and pulls the trigger. 

The roar of the gun covers the sound of your terrified scream when you see the bullet slam into Bucky’s shoulder. It knocks him back with a grunt, but the vibrant blue fabric of his jacket is so thickly padded, so tightly woven, the bullet never finds flesh. 

Jack sighs happily and holsters his gun. “Fuck, that felt good. Just like old times.”

“You’re a fucking psychopath,” you spit, pushing away from the wall.

“I really am just so fucking tired of your mouth, so how about we get this show on the road. Soldier – turn and face her.”

There’s no hesitation when he spins crisply on his heel.

“Bucky, don’t,” you whisper.

“Left hand around her neck. God, I hope Barnes is awake in there, I really want him to see this.”

The fingers are a silver blur when they shoot forward, long digits curling around your throat.

Wrapping both hands around his wrist, he is utterly unmovable and you feel the hard plates shifting under your panicked touch.

“Bucky, god dammit, please,” you choke out, tears filling your eyes. “Please don’t, please, please!”

Behind the hard blue, a shadow moves.

And then you realise something. Yes, his touch is unbreakable – but oddly gentle. His fingers are curved around your neck, but there’s no pressure behind the grasp. Even stranger, his thumb is rubbing a small, soothing circle against your fluttering pulse.

“Squeeze until she’s nearly unconscious,” Jack orders. “And then let her breathe and focus on your face. And then break her neck.”

The fingers tighten briefly, an unconscious flex, but then he relaxes, his thumb still slowly massaging.

“Bucky?” He follows the path of tears sliding down your face, watching as they land on his wrist with a silent splash.

“Soldier!” Jack barks. “Now!”

Again, there’s a small spasm of his fingers, but nothing else happens. The grip remains loose.

“Are you fucking kidding me? What the fuck did I just say? Do it now!” Disbelief shakes Jack’s voice when he bellows the request.

The Soldier’s eyes narrow at the repeated instruction and then a small smile lifts his lips.

Very carefully, he releases you.

Turning to Jack, he moves you gently behind him and the small smile slowly transforms into something hideously vengeful.

Jack realizes his mistake a beat too late and he backpedals, scrambling furiously for the gun he mistakenly tucked away. The Soldier allows him to jerk it free and fire a wild shot, blocking it with a triumphant laugh. Stalking forward, he rips the gun from Jack’s hand, twisting his wrist so hard you can hear the bones snap in a long crackling rhythm.

Flipping the gun, the Soldier grips the barrel and swings his hand forward, whipping Jack across the face, the heavy handle caving in his cheekbone. Screeching in pain, he trips backward and the Soldier catches him by the throat, lifting him high in the air. Feet kicking uselessly, blood pouring down the Soldiers arm, you watch Jack’s face turn red, mouth gaping soundlessly as he slaps weakly at the metal arm crushing his windpipe. His eyes begin to bulge and roll back in his head and you want to feel sorry for him, but the bruises on your face and the sound of Bucky’s screams are too fresh, so you huddle against the wall, shivering at the sight.

You think this is the end.

But no.

The Soldier isn’t through.

Loosening his grip, he allows oxygen to pour into Jack’s lungs, gives him a momentary reprieve before crouching down and slamming the flailing body on the floor. The sickening crack of his skull bouncing on concrete is so loud, you clap a hand over your mouth to stifle the scream.

The Soldier pulls the M9 still strapped to his thigh and presses the barrel to Jack’s forehead, digging the metal cruelly into the skin.

“Beg,” the voice is shockingly guttural when he speaks, so different from Bucky’s even tone. “Beg me for your life.”

Gasping in pain, his body jerking and convulsing, Jack manages to lift a trembling hand to the Soldiers face, a solitary finger stroking down his cheek.

Please – ”

“Not good enough,” the Soldier growls and he moves the gun down and blows apart a kneecap. The responding scream makes you clap your hands to your ears. “Try again.”

Jack is sobbing now, coughing up spurts of blood and he tries again. “I love y – ”

With a savage snarl, the Soldier cuts the sentence short. He pushes the gun back to Jack’s forehead and pulls the trigger, blood and fragments of bone spraying his face, but he doesn’t move, watching with relish as the life beneath him bleeds away. 

The gunshot still reverberates off the walls, until it finally goes quiet, the only sound in your ears the frantic drumming of your heart.

Absorbed in his victory, the Soldier stays kneeling over the body.

“Bucky?”

With an effortless grace, he rises from his carnage and turns to look at you. There’s a strange look in his eyes at the question in your voice.

Stepping carelessly over Jack’s inert form, he walks cautiously toward you. Covered in blood, watching the slowly receding anger in his eyes, you can believe at this moment, that he really is a whole different person. But then he scrunches up his nose and you see the tiny wrinkles around his blue eyes and you realise – it’s all the same.

Bucky and the Soldier, two halves of a whole. You pity Jack in this instant, a monster in his inability to see the worth of each.

“Thank you,” he says gruffly and his voice is so stilted and full of gravel, you wonder how often in his past life, he was ever allowed to speak.

“You’re – welcome?”

You have no idea why he’s thanking you, but it seems the only polite response.

He watches you so seriously, you see the gears cranking in his head. He looks as though he wants to say more, but the slap of hurried footsteps breaks through the web around you, and with a low growl, he spins around, putting you safely at his back and raising his gun again.

Rounding the corner, Steve skids to a stop at the gruesome scene.  

“Bucky – ” the gunshot pings off his shield and Steve curses. “Fucking hell, stop!”

He tries to step forward and the Soldier narrows his eyes, lifting the gun again and aiming for his knees. Steve blocks the bullet with a frustrated shout.

“God dammit Buck!”

Bristling at the name, the Soldier evaluates the situation further and raises an eyebrow. “Your legs used to be skinny,” he says roughly.

Steve looks irritated at the comment. “Yeah, thanks for the reminder. Dick.”

“Drop the gun, please,” you say quietly, wrapping your hand around the Soldier’s forearm, trying to push his arm down. He looks down in surprise, perplexed at the insistent hand on his sleeve.

“I’m supposed to – protect you,” he says haltingly.

“You did,” you reply, his words carving path straight to your heart. “But it’s okay now, he’s your friend.”

The Soldier blinks, trying to unpick the word. A concept he knows, but one that is personally foreign.

“Okay,” he finally says. “Okay.”

Glancing at Steve, you see him inching slowly closer. He scowls as his eyes flick a curious path from the Soldier to his shield to you, and Bucky’s weak jokes about something the team called cognitive recalibration arrives with a thunderclap of clarity. Looking into the Soldier’s newly trusting eyes, it hurts your heart.

Keeping your hand tight on his bloody blue sleeve, you hold his intense stare.

“Thank you for protecting me. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry, but I – I need him back. I hope that’s okay.”

Disappointment clouds his features, but the Soldier lowers the gun. This was the mission, to keep you safe and take his revenge, and now the mission ends. Success. He knows it’s time to go, but he feels the hot pull of something deep inside at the soft touch of your hand. He doesn’t quite remember who the hell Bucky is, but he thinks he must be some lucky bastard to own the memories the Soldier saw today.

Resigned to his fate, he focuses on your face and reaches tentatively for your hand. Something nice to hold onto, the fleeting thought enters his mind. You feel his fingers tangle in yours and give them a comforting squeeze, right as Steve slams the shield into his head.

*****

The world is soft and cool.

Bucky feels the gentle pressure of fingers stroking his hair. It feels so damn good, he leans into the feel. It’s nice here in this meditative state, but he wants to thank whoever belongs to that soft touch, so he forces himself to swim up from the depths of unconsciousness, kicking hard through the black night surrounding him.

Cracking an eye open, he hisses when the dim light sends his pounding headache into overdrive. Every pulse of his brain makes his entire body flinch and he aches like he’s been hit by a truck, but other than those minor issues, he realizes he’s quite comfortable. Stretched out in one of the fluffy sleep pods on the Quinjet, his arm is curled tight around your waist, his head pillowed on your stomach.

He hums and nuzzles against you. Other than all the pesky murdering required, he thinks he could get used to this.

Brain still rattling loose in his skull, he turns himself carefully, trying not to vomit. Propping his chin on his fist, he squints up at you.

“Hi,” he whispers.

“Hey,” you whisper and the word unlocks a waterfall of tears. Bucky feels his headache evaporate at the look on your face, or maybe it doesn’t bother him that much, so he scoots up and pulls you into his arms.

“Hey now, you’re okay. Where’d that fuck ‘em up attitude go?” His voice is so calm, so soothing, so completely different, you cry harder. Tracing his fingers lightly down your arm, he makes soft shushing sounds while you sob.

God you hate ugly crying, but after everything that’s happened, you deserve it.

Tears are finite though, and once your head feels good and stuffy, the well runs dry. Nose running everywhere, you dry your eyes on his dirty jacket.

“Steve told me what you did. How did you know that would work?” Wrapping your arm around his broad chest, you burrow closer to his side.

“I didn’t,” Bucky admitted. “I was fucking terrified it wouldn’t, but I had to try.”

Running your hand up and down his chest, you think of the man you met. It takes several minutes of silence before you can find the right words.

“I thought that was it, that you were gone,” you whisper, so quietly Bucky strains to hear. “But when I looked in his eyes, it was still you. Underneath that, I could see it.”

Sorrow fills his voice when he responds. “I know.”

“No, don’t do that. He saved me,” you say fiercely, looking up at him. “You saved me.”

He lays gentle fingers under your chin and runs a finger over your lips. “You saved me too. Because of you, I had something worth fighting for.”

Reaching up, you tuck a stray piece of hair behind his ear. “You’re a real fucking sap, Barnes.”

He grins at your words, the light back in his eyes. “So true. You like it, don’t lie.”

“Stop talking you fuckwit, you have a concussion,” you murmur, snuggling back against him. The smell of blood and sweat surrounds you, but it doesn’t matter. It smells like safety. Like Bucky. You hug him tighter. “Just shut up and sleep. I’m here and I’ve got you. You’re safe with me.”

Chapter Text

NEW YORK TIMES SUNDAY EDITION
Features Section

The measure of a man
By Anonymous

James Buchanan Barnes sits primly before me, mismatched hands folded on the table. Pushing a cup of coffee toward him, he unlinks his fingers, clasping them gratefully around the steaming mug.

“I don’t really do interviews,” he confesses. “Not sure what to say.”

“That’s okay,” I tell him. “This isn’t about being perfect or saying the exact right thing. It’s just about being yourself.”

He makes a face at that. “I don’t think myself is something people want to hear about.”

Looking into his nervous blue eyes, I give him a reassuring smile. “They absolutely will. People want to know the man behind the mask.”

He doesn’t like talking about himself, has never been overly comfortable in the limelight. Rolling his shoulders back, he takes a deep breath and gives me a tentative nod.

Like any good story, context is important, so we begin down the familiar route.

“Let’s start at the beginning.”

 

******

 

Crisp morning air wafts through the small kiosk, fluttering the pages of colourful magazines and newspapers lining the shelves. Taking a long drink of coffee, Riz smacks his lips and leans over his front counter, watching Manhattan’s morning routine play out around him.

The giant stack of newspapers is hurled onto the counter and Riz tumbles back in surprise.

Bucky Barnes stands before him, wearing an old leather jacket and a delighted grin.

“Morning Riz, I need them all today. Oh, and by the way,” he digs into his back pocket and pulls out a crumpled sheet of paper, tossing it carelessly on the stack. “I got something else to show you.”

The black ink is smudged in places, but there it is, the numbered boxes filled with careful block letters.

Last Sunday’s New York Times crossword.

Completed.

Riz stares at the paper in astonishment. Looking up, he begins to laugh at the smug triumph on Bucky’s face.

“I fucking told you I’d finish one,” Bucky says, slapping his hand on the puzzle once more to reinforce his success.

Still chuckling, Riz reaches below the counter and produces a dusty rectangle wrapped in tissue paper. Peeling the layers away, Bucky reveals a black picture frame.

“My friend, I never doubted you.”

 

*****

 

He needs no real introduction.

Familiar to anyone who cracked a grade school history book in the last seventy years, James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes is a quiet enigma. The American public first met him in 1943 as Sergeant Barnes, Howling Commando and right-hand man to Captain America. His lopsided smile became so well-loved, the women on the home front declared it a national treasure. America swooned for him, cheered for him, prayed for him, and ultimately mourned him when the reports came home of his KIA status in 1945.

When he was resurrected in Washington DC, amid a whirlwind of gunfire and explosions, he was another figure entirely. Life ripped to pieces and commandeered for decades by Hydra’s hideous brutality, he bore only a faint resemblance to the grainy black and white pictures of America’s charming hero.

The history books lean into war, into combat, into the tragedy of his service; it’s where the facts are most prevalent, irrefutable and absolute. Barnes’ first war was for his country and his second was against it, but both lead to an unfortunate truth – most of his life, has been death.

But, beneath that iron exterior lies something else. Focused on consolidating facts and figures, history so often forgets that war was comprised of a much more important number – the beating hearts and terrified souls of those on the battlefield. Soldiers are the flesh and bone reflection of a generation’s ideals and Barnes is no different than the millions who came before and after him. Stretched across the burned-out fields and shattered cities of Europe, his first war was one who’s consequences still reverberate decades later.

That was his first taste of battle. It was harsh and unforgiving, but in the grand scheme of things – it was blessedly brief.

His next experience would last a lifetime. As his world careened out of control, his moral compass was broken and recalibrated, setting a man full of soft smiles and boisterous laughter, down a path of unimaginable pain and torment.

Through the course of both his lives, he’s been known by a million different names. James Buchanan Barnes. Bucky Barnes. Sergeant Barnes. The Asset. The Winter Soldier. Before we go any further, I want to make something crystal clear.

The man you will meet, is more than a number stamped on a paper-thin set of dog tags, clinking loose around his neck. He is more than the shadowy name in a ledger of Hydra weaponry, carefully and perfectly aimed. He is more than a salacious headline, blazoned across gossip sites for the world to read.

He is more. He is much, much more.

I want everyone to know him, because Bucky Barnes is worth knowing.

 

*****

 

Walking through the Tower, Bucky’s giant stack of papers grows smaller. Opening every page to the Features section, he leaves copies scattered in every room he visits.

The coffee table in the common room. One in Steve’s bedroom. One in Wilson’s bathroom. One in Natasha’s mailbox, because no fucking way would he try to sneak in her room. A copy in the library. One on each treadmill in the gym. One on Bruce’s desk. Pausing outside Tony’s lab, he sends the online link to Pepper and asks if she can post it to the official Avengers social handles. She responds with a winky face saying already been done.

“FRIDAY, did you see it?” he asks excitedly, waving his last copy as he plops down on the sofa.

“Yes, Sergeant Barnes,” comes the Irish lilt and Bucky wonders for the millionth time, how an AI can sound amused. “I found it to be an inspiring piece. She’s a lovely writer.”

“Yeah,” he agrees fervently. “She’s fucking awesome.” Rustling the pages, he finds the article and folds it open, swallowing the lump in his throat when he reads the headline. Even though he has your story memorised at this point, he sinks into the words one more time.

 

*****

 

“Talk to me about growing up with Steve,” I say, turning my phone to record and setting it between us.

Barnes looks to the ceiling and gives a low whistle. “Jesus Mary and Joseph,” he says, “that kid needed a leash. Stubborn ass little ball of piss and vinegar, always getting me in trouble.”

The pair met in a baseball field behind their apartment complex, when Barnes was seven-years-old, kick starting the most famous friendship in modern history.

“First time I met him, he was getting his ass handed to him. When I tried to pull him away, he was so wound up he took a swing at me. Got an arm around him and the little punk bit me. Still got the scar.” Barnes extends his right forearm with a grin, showing me a faint pair of half-moons on his skin. “I knocked him upside the head, and then he wipes his bloody nose on his shirt and apologises. Been best friends ever since.”

Rogers is well-known for diving head-first into any fray, a behaviour an exasperated Barnes maintains he hasn’t changed since that sweaty summer day in 1925.

“Look, he’s a reckless idiot,” Barnes states. “My best damn friend in the world and I’d do anything for him, but he’s still an idiot.”

Barnes is a colourful storyteller, spinning tales about their adventures through the streets and alleys of pre-war Brooklyn. While he talks, I find myself picking up on a theme, the word future cropping up several times. He doesn’t realise it until I ask.

“When you were growing up, what did you see in your future? How did you picture your life?”

Barnes raises his eyebrows at the question, falling silent as he thinks. He scratches his fingernail on the edge of the table for a few minutes, trying to articulate his thoughts. When it comes, I’m surprised.

“Not as a soldier. I never wanted to be a soldier.” He bites his lip and when he speaks again, his voice is soft. “Guess I wanted what everyone wanted then. Get a decent job, put food on the table, buy a house someday. Find a nice girl to settle down with, maybe raise a couple kids. Grow old together.” He gives me a wistful smile. “Always liked learning, would’ve loved to go to college.”

The simplicity of his response is all the more heart-breaking, considering the trajectory he would later be set upon.

“All I ever really wanted, was a quiet, ordinary life.”

 

******

 

The bruises littering your skin have mostly faded, the rope markings around your neck nothing more than a faint rash. Unconsciously rubbing the scabs on your wrists, you find the pain is gone, leaving behind a dull ache.

It’s been over a week since that night and the entire experience still seems like a bizarre dream. There will be plenty of time spent parsing apart the details of the nightmarish experience with a professional, and in fact Steve already booked you several months of weekly appointments with an experienced trauma therapist he knows through the VA. It’s a relief to have that on the horizon, someone to help you work through everything.

Behind the walls of your heart though, a strange feeling emerges, one that is deeply frustrating. After everything he did, it kills you to even think the traitorous thought, but your brain refuses to cooperate and there it is – there’s a tiny part of you mourning the loss of a man you thought you knew. Not the man he really was – Jack deserved his violently bloody ending and you would never take that from Bucky. But Jack was someone you trusted, a mentor and friend, and you’re bitterly disappointed in your inability to see the real man until it was nearly too late.

Nearly too late.

“But it wasn’t,” you say out loud, irrationally proud of the steadiness in your voice.

At Bucky’s insistence, you’ve been comfortably ensconced in the Brooklyn apartment since you came back. Away from the bustle of the city, it’s been heaven to hide away, resting and recovering.

Well, and of course – spending every possible minute with the moody, uncontrollable, uncooperative bucket of sarcasm that is none other than James Buchanan Barnes.

Waiting for him to come home, you wander through the bright apartment. Picking up his well-worn copy of The Book Thief, you tuck it carefully into the empty slot on the bookcase, tracing your fingers over the lettering down the spine, smiling to yourself.

Stepping back, you scan the familiar artwork on the walls, marvelling again at the cracked and peeling photos, at the beauty of Steve’s sketches. Right then, your eye pauses when you notice two new additions.  

In a shiny green frame, is an adorably childish marker drawing of a smiling Bucky holding the hand of a little girl with dark pigtails. Everyone is dressed head to toe in pink and the bottom is signed ‘Gracie’ in bright purple letters. The sweetness of the statement, of Bucky going to the trouble of framing and hanging artwork an adoring little kid drew for him, makes your heart flip.

Above the drawing, in a simple black frame, is the other second new addition. Peering closer, you find the selfie you took the night of Stark’s party. Swallowing hard, you reach to touch the frame, losing yourself in memories of that night. The smooth motion of Bucky swaying, the feel of sinking into his arms, and his quiet hums of pleasure sending shivers down your back.

“I had Stark get it off your phone for me,” the husky voice is unexpectedly in your ear and you let out a bloodcurdling shriek when strong arms wind around you. Bucky chuckles, holding you tight, mouthing at the soft skin behind your ear. “Sorry, thought you heard me. Least you didn’t attack me with M&Ms this time.”

“That’s only because we’re out of them,” you grumble, turning in his arms. Bucky grins, rubbing his nose to yours, before catching your lips with a sweet kiss. When he presses you against the wall, you feel every delicious inch of his heavy body and you shiver at the promise behind his hard grip. Smiling into the kiss, you slide your tongue against his, feeling the heat pool in your belly, before reluctantly pulling away. He gives a soft whine at the loss of contact, full lips dropping into a pout.

“Pathetic, Barnes,” you sigh and he pouts harder. “Fine, you giant fucking baby. Ravish me then.”

Hell yes,” he breathes, lifting you easily, tugging your legs tight around his waist. “Hell fucking yes.”

 

*****

 

Ordinary was a sweet word, but it wasn’t meant to be. Unknown to him, the darkest day of his life was drawing closer, one that would spin him in an entirely new direction.

Searching for more context around that horrifying day, I went straight to the man who saw it first-hand. He sheds the mantle when he talks about this memory, no longer Captain America – here, he is only Steve Rogers, a helpless young man watching his best friend fall to his death.

“I couldn’t do anything. Nothing. I just watched him slip away,” Rogers says. His guilt is palpable, the musings of a man shouldering far too much. “It pisses him off when I say it, but it’s the truth. Won’t ever forgive myself.”

Barnes shakes his head when I mention this, adamant in his refusal to assign a hint of blame.

“There was nothing he could have done,” he states emphatically. “Absolutely nothing.”

While Rogers can recount every horrifying detail of that day, in this small fact, Barnes is lucky. I ask him what he remembers.

“It’s funny. I remember wondering how the hell my hands could be so sweaty when it was so damn cold outside.” He flexes the fingers of his right hand, considering them. “I lost my grip on the bar and I heard Steve screaming. I don’t remember the fall itself though, must’ve passed out on the way down. Next thing I know, I open my eyes and I’m half-buried in snow. There was – the snow was red. All around me, bright red. My arm wouldn’t move and I couldn’t feel anything from the waist down.”

Most of Hydra’s files from the start of the Winter Soldier project have been lost, either as they changed hands over the years or through the natural decay of time, but those recovered allude to Barnes suffering catastrophic injuries in the fall that should have left him dead. His left arm was found hanging by no more than a few strips of muscle, his spine was shattered, his lungs nearly collapsed. There was no possible reason he should have survived.

But – running through his veins was something unexpected.

“Knock-off Nazi trash serum,” Barnes drily refers to it. During his weeks spent as a POW in Azzano (the Hydra work camp he was liberated from in 1943), Barnes was an unwilling participant in a number of experiments conducted by that same Arnim Zola he was chasing that day on the train.

Laying in the snow, Barnes admits he thought he’d reached the end of the line. Every soldier entertains the possibility they may never return home, and Barnes made peace with that fact.

“Here’s the thing. I had a family waiting for me in Brooklyn. A baby sister I promised to give away at her wedding. A best friend I left hanging on a busted train miles above me. I was 27-years-old, lost in another country, and I sure as hell didn’t want to die. I kept thinking I had so much damn living left in me, so much I wanted to do.”

His words are tragic in their familiarity, a prayer to be repeated by thousands of voices in the decades that followed, from Korea to Vietnam, from Iraq to Afghanistan. Generations of young men and women just like Sergeant Barnes, left broken and bleeding on foreign soil.

He cracks the knuckles on his right hand while he thinks.

“It seemed inevitable though, so I tried to get myself ready. Remember it being dead silent in that canyon, so I had plenty of time to think. Plenty of time to cry. There were definitely tears. But the longer I laid there, I started to feel warm and things didn’t hurt so much. So, I thought hell, if I gotta go, maybe this is better than taking a bullet and bleeding out in the middle of a firefight.” Barnes gives a hollow smile. “But right as it got dark, I heard dogs barking. Next thing I know, I’m surrounded by men shouting in Russian. Couldn’t move a damn finger, couldn’t do anything but lay there and panic. Took a boot to the head and passed out.”

Here, he gets a distant look in his eyes. “The next time I woke up, it was – I don’t understand it, I don’t know how, but I guess it was months later. I was strapped to a table and the whole left side of my body felt like I’d been hit by a train.” His lip curls. “And there was Zola, looking down at me again. Thought I was having a flashback.”

It wasn’t a flashback. On that surgery table, was the start of a waking nightmare that would continue unabated for the next seventy years.

 

******

 

The first night you spent together was marked with heat and urgency, a clear desperation to feel each other before the moment was lost. When Bucky pushed you away the morning after, it broke your heart, but the night itself, before all hell broke loose – it was beautiful and perfect and right. You wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Now, though.

Now.

Fuck.

All his tight control and fervent attention to detail is one thing when he shifts into work mode – but in bed, when he turns that intense focus directly on you, he is devastating. Every stroke of his fingers comes slow and purposeful, building the heat in your stomach. Every kiss drips with love against your sweaty skin, full of unspoken promise. Every move of his body in yours is deliberate, wringing every last drop of pleasure he can coax from your body.

He was the kind of lover you dreamed about, committed to pleasing you above all else, making you feel everything again and again and then once more for good measure.

Never breaking his steady rhythm, Bucky pulls you up to your knees, your back flush against his chest. Wrapping his arm tight across your breasts, his tongue drags a leisurely line up your neck, his other hand slipping between your legs.

Breathless little grunts fall from his lips, warm panting against your skin with each sharp snap of his hips. Closing your eyes, you mirror his movements, clinging to the cool metal at your chest, desire rippling up your spine when you reach down and feel his fingers rubbing quickly.

Murmuring filthy little comments in your ear as he pushes into you, his words spark some unknown part of you that apparently lives for the sound of Bucky Barnes telling you how good you make him feel, how much he loves fucking you. Breath suddenly punched from your lungs, you tumble headfirst over the edge with a low, satisfied moan.

“There you go, that’s it,” he whispers encouragingly, sucking the smooth skin on your shoulder as you tremble in his arms, spiralling further and further.

You hope you never stop falling.

 

*****

 

Memories are a strange thing.

Through his time with Hydra, Barnes had his brain repeatedly wiped, cleared and cleaned out again and again. Since his return to the land of the living, thanks to intensive therapy and a determined Captain Rogers, he has broad strokes and frames of reference back in his life, remembrances before the fall settled firmly in his brain. But vestiges of his past still linger, and his time with Hydra has resulted in a sort of shared mental capacity.

“There’s another guy in your life,” I begin hesitantly and I see Barnes’ lips twitch.

“That’s one way to put it,” he says.

When Barnes speaks of the Winter Soldier, his expression grows grim. The lines of his life are irrevocably tied to this legendary presence, a ghost sitting on the fringes of his mind, something more myth than reality. It is a heavy burden to bear.

“For the longest time, I tried to keep us separate. The Soldier was one thing. I was another. It was easier to blame all the terrible things that happened on him, rather than admit I played any part in it.” I remind him he didn’t – that’s the fundamental issue with brainwashing, and he gives me a patient smile. “In theory, I know. All those years, it wasn’t me. I know. But I still did it.”

On a personal level, I own a single memory of the Winter Soldier, one that is overwhelming in its complexity. He was everything you’ve imagined. Hard. Violent. Angry. But behind that mask, I found a man I never expected. Gentle. Confused. Protective. Kind. The Soldier was a kaleidoscope of emotions, neatly packaged in the mind of a man who spent his entire life at the mercy of others.

I will not condone his past and neither will Barnes, but I highlight this simply to signal the opportunity for redemption. Earning that redemption has been a long process, one Barnes started by first bringing back his memories of their shared past. He recalls the experience of remembering cautiously, the process itself a memory that makes him flinch.

“There were days when nothing would happen. Mind would just stay white, it wouldn’t show me anything. That was frustrating, but also kind of a relief. If I couldn’t remember, then I didn’t have to face up to the things I’d done.”

“But other days. God.” He blows out a huge breath and leans back in his chair, raking his hands through his dark hair. “They came back with a vengeance.”

Sometimes the memories were hazy, surreal fever dreams that felt confusing in their reality. Other times, they were shockingly vivid, nightmares from which he visibly shudders as he recalls.

Not everything was returned, which is both a blessing and a curse. Some things his brain refuses to allow in, a coping mechanism he doesn’t try too hard to unravel. He knows there are some things better left forgotten.

But where he can, as much as he can, he is adamant about making amends. He understands it won’t change the past. That’s not the point.

When he breaks it down for me, I ask a loaded question. Is there a measure of peace that comes with remembering? His nose wrinkles as he thinks, playing with the coffee mug still in his hands. One thing about Bucky Barnes, is that he never delivers a half-baked response. When he finally answers, his words have a philosophical bend.

“Yes. I’ve come to grips with the fact that all those years weren’t something I could control. I don’t like to remember, but I think I owe it to people.” He nods slowly while he speaks, as if convincing his own heart to get in line. “If remembering is my penance, if my suffering gives others peace, then I guess yeah – I’m happy to pay it.”

 

******

 

Sucking tiny hickeys down his neck, you laugh at the sound of his pleased little purrs. Leaving one last purpley-red bruise above his heart, you settle comfortably between his legs and fold your hands across his bare chest. Propping your chin on your knuckles, you study him.

“Do you know my first impression of you, the day we met?”

Bucky raises a lazy eyebrow and grins. “Shock at how devastatingly handsome I was?”

“Don’t get cocky Barnes, you’re not that good in bed.”

“Yes, I am,” he promptly replies.

Wiggling against him, you rub your cheek against the dark bristly hair on his chest. “Hmmm. True. Anyway, I remember that day, you were acting all pissy and annoyed, big shocker I know, and I was looking at your scruffy face – ”

“I didn’t have time to shave that morning,” he interrupts.

“And all your fluffy hair – ”

“I was having a great hair day,” he confirms.

“And that old leather jacket – ”

“It’s my favourite jacket, makes me look sexy and intimidating,” he says.

“Buck, I’m trying to tell a story here.”

“Right. Sorry babe.”

Anyway. You were standing there with your scruffy face and fluffy hair and that leather jacket, and I kept thinking you were the kind of guy who’d screw a girl in a bar bathroom, slap her ass, and never call.”

“That sounds very unsanitary,” he whispers, tapping your nose lightly. “But if you really want to try, I’ll give it a go.”

“What a saint.”

“I really am.”

 

*****

 

Just thinking about everything Barnes has experienced is enough to make my brain ache. Imagining what it must have been like for him, is baffling.

“All those years, through everything – how did you cope with it all?”

“I fought it for a long time, until they figured out how to wipe it all out – my memories, who I was. The longer I was out of cryofreeze, the more random thoughts would come back, but it was so confusing. I’d end up trying to compartmentalise it all. Separate it out, put parts of my life and my memories into little boxes in my head. It was the only way I could deal with it.

His ability to compartmentalise and separate himself from the situation at hand, would prove to be useful, a common coping method for trauma survivors. “I’d kind of retreat into myself. I got very good at finding safe spaces in my head.” He gives a nonchalant shrug. “Knew if I didn’t, there’d be hell to pay.”

He must have learned new things then, other ways of coping. What gets him through the days now?

“I guess – it’s like, you just put one foot in front of the other. Every day, you get up and do it and at some point, it becomes second nature.”

“What was it like in the beginning?”

Rubbing his jaw, he shakes his head. “It was terrible. There were weeks I didn’t want to get out of bed. Was terrified of what I might do, who I might see. And everything just felt – heavy, I guess? Not sure that’s the right word. It was like my brain wanted to give up, but my body wasn’t done yet. I hid from real life for a long time.”

Known during WW2 as Combat Stress Reaction, Barnes was familiar with his symptoms. It took no time at all to diagnose him with one of the most disturbingly common conditions affecting those in service: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

“It wasn’t something we talked about back then,” he says. “But we all knew what it was. People just tried to deal with it though, they didn’t look for help.”

The world has changed for the better and now discussions around this topic are no longer taboo. Even then, Barnes says he initially found it difficult, because the idea of it – of help – was such a foreign concept. Now though, he’s an enthusiastic supporter.

“We don’t talk about it enough,” he says firmly. “It’s better now, but we need to be more open and honest with each other, so we can figure out how to live.” Tipping his mug back, he drains the last dregs of coffee. “Humans are weird, you know? We make things hard sometimes and we shouldn’t. You can’t be afraid to ask for help. You’re not alone.”

 

*****

 

Bucky picks up his phone and gives a cursory glance at the list of notifications. The screen lights up with message after message, line after line, and he scrolls through nervously, before he realises what he’s seeing.

“Jesus H Christ.”

Feeling your heart lurch, you look at him in alarm. “What? What happened?”

Slowly, he turns his phone screen to face you, eyes comically wide, face bone white.

“I’m trending on Twitter.”

 

*****

 

Part of me expected Barnes to have a limited knowledge of culture and history. He likes to feign confusion at times (“honestly, screwing with Sam Wilson is a highlight in my life”), but in reality, he’s one of the sharpest people I’ve met. Spending so much of his life as an undercover operative, he was required to keep up to speed on the world, always assimilating into new environments.

Finding a work/life balance is key though, so what are the things he does for fun, just for himself?

“Netflix,” he declares. “is the greatest thing ever invented. You know Stranger Things, right? I love Eleven, that kid’s my hero.”

Agreeing wholeheartedly, I push him to expand. What else?

“Um, I like to eat? Tacos, pizza. Snickers. Breakfast cereal. Damn, yeah. Breakfast cereal. I could eat Captain Crunch every single day of my life. Captain Crunch kicks Captain America’s ass.”

On that note, he has a famous relationship with Steve Rogers, but what about the rest of the Avengers?

“Took me awhile to fall in with the team,” he says matter of fact. “Didn’t trust them and they sure as hell didn’t trust me. But now? I’d take a bullet for any of them. They’re – we’re family.”

Time for our interview is winding down, and Barnes is finally relaxed. With my final set of questions, I struggle to keep the smile off my face, but I just can’t help myself.

“You know you’ve got quite the status as a moody broody heartthrob, right?”

His eyes go wide at the question, a red flush instantly staining his cheeks. “What? No. No, that’s – no. No. I’m definitely not – no. God no.”

The look of horror on his face is entertaining and I wait for him to finish spluttering before I continue. “So, are you saying you’re single? A free agent?”

He looks taken aback for a moment, but when realisation arrives, along with a sparkle in his eye, he relaxes. He knows what I’m doing.

“I didn’t say that.”

“So – there’s a special someone then?”

Barnes gives me that trademark smile and ducks his head. “Well, there’s this girl.”

“Tell me about her.”

“She’s a real pistol,” he enthuses. “Smart. Funny. A real ball-breaker. Swears more than anyone I’ve ever met.”

“She sounds like fun.”

“She is,” he agrees. Tilting his head, he fixes me with an intense stare and his voice grows serious. “She’s got my whole damn heart, right in the palm of her hand. It’s all hers. I’ll spend every day if I need to, making sure she knows that.”

At his words, my heart leaps. When I try to respond, I hear my voice crack.

“She’s a lucky girl.”

“Nah,” he replies, bashful at the compliment. Reaching across the table, he picks up my hands and holds them tight. “I’m the lucky one. She makes me feel safe.”

 

*****

 

“We haven’t left this bed for a couple days. Should we go do something?” Drawing random little patterns across his skin, you pause at his nipple and give it a pinch.

“Nope, we’re staying put,” he says, shoving your fingers away and giving you a stern look. “That tickles.”

“Does it?” Tweaking his nipple again, he yelps.

“Woman, don’t you listen?”

“Sorry, couldn’t hear you over the sounds of someone being a whiny bitch.”

With an outraged growl, he rolls you over, using his knee to shove your legs open and pinning your arms above your head.

“Wanna try again?”

Batting your eyelashes at him, you mirror his earlier pout. “I was just saying how devilishly handsome you were and how much I love you.”

Bucky grunts his approval. “That’s what I thought.”

Stretching up, you leave a sloppy kiss on his chin. “So, are we leaving or what?”

“Hard no,” he shakes his head. “Made myself a promise, I’m not breaking it.”

“Did you now? And what was that?”

“That if I got you back, if I didn’t fuck it up again, I was keeping you in my bed for at least a week. Minimum.”

“Hmmm,” you say, trying to keep your face serious. “Sounds like a solid plan, except what if I want to shower?”

Excellent,” Bucky breathes, eyes lighting up at the question. “Then I’ll join you. Never know what kind of trouble you’ll find in the shower, when you’re all wet and slick and soapy – yep, that’s it. You’re a dirty, dirty girl. Shower time you hussy, move your ass.”

Scrambling off the bed, he tosses you over his shoulder and palms your bare ass, squeezing a handful. Giving you a playful smack, he stalks toward the bathroom, the sound of his happy laughter echoing through the apartment.

 

******

 

Recently, there was news coverage around the Avengers taking down a Hydra sleeper cell in upstate New York. The mission was led by Sergeant Barnes and was deemed a success, with the threat being fully eradicated.

That mission, was put in motion to save someone.

That someone, was me.

Here’s the thing. In journalism, you’re need to remain unbiased and when I’m reporting on news, I’ll always strive to report the unbiased facts. But if you haven’t guessed yet, I have a more personal stake in this story.

Combine everything you know about James Buchanan Barnes, from annals of history to the words I’ve shared today, and you have a fact-based portrait of this remarkable man.

But facts are not what make up the measure of any human being.

Here’s what else I know.

When he gets nervous, his palm sweats. He’s terrible at sharing food and shamelessly blames his super soldier metabolism for that fact. When he concentrates, his nose scrunches up and when he laughs you can find little wrinkles circling his eyes. Sometimes when he can’t sleep, he wanders down to the local rest home to visit with Alzheimer’s patients, because he knows what it’s like to not remember. He always keeps a crossword in his pocket because it keeps his brain sharp. He loves Rocky Road ice cream and fuzzy blankets and his favourite colour is actually pink. Bitter black coffee is his drug of choice and he could watch ‘I Love Lucy’ all day long.

Even now, as I hand you these snippets of his life and let you paint your own picture of the man so many still scathingly refer to as the Soldier, it’s only a rough sketch. Like every person on this planet, Bucky Barnes is comprised of more complex layers and subtle nuances than it is possible to describe, a man full of contrasts. Made of unbreakable metal and soft touches, at times frighteningly rough and astonishingly gentle, swathed in despair and brimming with light. He’s seen the blackest horrors lurking in the chaos of war and experienced first-hand the depravity of humanity, yet he remains one of the most compassionate people I’ve ever known.

The first day we met, I contemptuously declared “I don’t do soft human-interest stories.”

How times have changed.

Here I am, pen in hand and heart on my sleeve, so soft for this man I feel it in my bones. We live in a world where good does not always triumph over evil and where far too often, love is not enough. I am lucky beyond measure to have found Bucky Barnes. So here, at the end of my story, I leave these words, for him and him alone.

If Death sees fit to grant me his heart, I’ll offer my own in return. Unreservedly, now and always.

 

*****

 

Bucky watches the shadows lengthen through the apartment as the sun sets. Eventually he’ll get up and turn on a lamp to chase the dark away, but for now he’s content to lay here with you humming sleepily, twirling a finger around his damp hair.

Sprawled together on his bed, tangled up in each other, the word flits through his mind. Bucky understands what he has now, what you gave to him. What it means to be –

Safe.

 

*****