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Valkyrie

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‘Controlled chaos’ would have been a generous way to describe the state of the convention hall.

By the time Steve and Jack arrived on the scene, the local police had already herded the attendees outdoors and a small semi-circle of ambulances outside the main entrance bustled with paramedics and patients.

“What happened here?” Jack murmured, eyes wide and eyebrows furrowed as he scanned the crowd.  Bright costumes and props proved to be severely distracting, keeping both men on edge as they scanned for threats.

“FRIDAY said there was some sort of explosion and a flash of light before Mickey, Bucky, and Tripod all vanished.”  Steve looked over his shoulder for a moment, allowing Jack to see the desperation he felt, and motioned forward.  His shield was back in the jet - they’d opted to go in plainclothes - and he sincerely hoped he wouldn’t need it.  “Let’s get inside and see what’s what.”

As he headed toward the main doors, a familiar splash of red, white, and blue caught his eye; a plastic replica of his shield leaned up against the wheel of an ambulance as its owner sat huddled under a blanket, leg stretched out and blue pants pushed up to his knee.  The kid’s face was white as a paramedic closed a splint around his ankle.

Numb, Steve held up the yellow tape across the main doors to the hall, following Jack inside once he’d ducked underneath.

A large, charred black splotch spread across the smooth white tile.  In the center of it, surrounded by a thin corona of undamaged tile, was a nauseatingly familiar blue and silver disc.  It took several long seconds before either of them spoke.

“Cap.”  Jack shifted uncomfortably, adjusting his grip on the innocuous black handles of his retracted shock batons.  “Tell me that isn’t what I think it is.”

As Steve stared at the blast mark, his throat went dry, clamping down on the answer he’d been about to give.

“Excuse me, sir?”  They both turned to see one of the police officers walking toward them.  “You guys got authorization to be here?  I need to see some before I’m able to let you walk around an active crime scene.”

“We really should have brought Helena with us,” Jack muttered to Steve before stepping forward and holding his hand out to the cop.  “Officer… Taylor.  Agent Jack Rollins, I’m with Captain Rogers.  We’re here on behalf of SHIELD and the Avengers.”  He flipped open the understated badge that he’d worked so hard to re-earn and held it up.

Taylor’s posture relaxed slightly and he glanced over at the device.  “I’ll be honest, the guys are having some trouble with this one.  I want to get this cleaned up as quickly as possible without any further incidents; we’ve about hit our quota for weird shit today.”

Turning around, Jack was just about to ask Steve a question when he saw the other man slowly and gingerly picking his way over the burned tile.

“Rogers!  Hey!  Don’t walk toward the shiny metal object in the middle of a blast radius, dumbass!”  An inelegant short behind him told him that Taylor was trying hard not to laugh.

Steve turned at the waist, then gestured to the device.  “We need to get this back to the lab for Wells and Stark to look over.”

“That’s evidence, Cap, I can’t just let you take that.”  When Steve turned and kept walking toward the device, Taylor rolled his eyes to the ceiling and exhaled sharply.  “I guess I’ll go get the paperwork started.  Chief won’t like this.”

“Unless Chief wants to go head to head with the Captain America is Disappointed in You stare - patent pending - then I’d suggest he just go with it.”

“You think Cap would mind if we borrowed him to go all ‘Am Disappoint’ at our new K9s?” Taylor asked over his shoulder as he turned to leave.  “One of them peed on LT’s shoe yesterday.”

Jack couldn’t help but laugh.  “Provided we can find Barnes, he’s the one you’ll want for that.”

The groove between Steve’s eyebrows was deep and disturbed as he carried the lunch plate sized disc over to Jack.  “Take a look at this, Rollins.”  He held out the device and pointed to the readout with a gloved hand.  “They’re coordinates.”

“Doesn’t look like GPS or the Cassini Grid.  What’re you thinking?  Hexadecimals?”

“Too many letters.  I think it’s the German naval grid.  I saw this a few times on captured maps during the war.”  Steve pressed a finger to the comm in his ear.  “FRIDAY?  I need a coordinate conversion.”

Thirty seconds later, Jack’s stomach twisted as they realized where - and when - the device was aimed.

Three days earlier…

Running.

Running, not fast enough, he knew they were going to catch him just like they always did, but he had to try.

He had to.

He tripped and stumbled, careening sideways as his missing arm threw off his balance once again.  Before he could tuck and roll out of the fall, he slammed into the frozen earth with a strangled, pained cry.  Bare skin burned and ached as he lurched to his feet and staggered back into a run.

Looking over his shoulder was a luxury he simply couldn’t afford, even though he knew from the baying bloodhounds that he was losing his meager lead.  Right arm pumping awkwardly, he squinted against the cold headwind and growled wordlessly.

It took the soldiers less than an hour to catch up to him, and when they found him gasping and shuddering in a messy pile of limbs, the dogs paced around him in a circle.

He sat up, eyes wide and cold, hand covering himself to maintain the illusion of dignity, teeth chattering, and looked directly into the eyes of one of the snarling war dogs-

Bucky dragged himself out of the nightmare by sheer force of will; his heart pounded against his ribs and he could barely breathe as he curled into a ball and laced his fingers protectively over the back of his neck.  He pressed his arms over his ears, squeezed his eyes shut, and tried with little success to count off breaths in his head.

Nearly a half hour passed before he began to relax, and finally he was able to stretch out under the thick quilt as he let out a heavy sigh.  Rubbing his hands over his eyes, Bucky blinked tightly a few times and rolled over to make sure he hadn’t woken Mickey.  She lay on her side facing him, short black hair ruffled and unkempt as she slept with one arm wrapped around her head and her lips slightly parted.

A jolt of confusion shot through him when he didn’t recognize the nightstand or dresser behind Mickey; the closet was also on the wrong side of the bed.  He rolled his head to the other side and peered at the dull gray fog that pressed up against the large sliding-

They didn’t have a sliding door.

They also didn’t have two gigantic Pelican suitcases – whenever they traveled, they normally used the large, sturdy duffels that carried full combat gear as well as everything else.  Also, where was his dog?

Sitting up slowly, Bucky pressed the back of his metal hand to his forehead as the world swayed around him.  He waited a few seconds, exhaled sharply, and quickly swept the room with his eyes once it decided to stay upright for more than a few seconds.  Tripod’s bed and the dog herself were on the floor next to the suitcases.  From the looks of things, they were in a hotel room somewhere, but probably not one they’d planned to stay in since it didn’t have anything even resembling a kitchenette.  Regardless, the fact that Mickey had let them both fall asleep without a gun immediately within reach told him she’d been satisfied enough with the security.

Boarding passes sat on the small table next to what he assumed was the main door from the white plastic ‘DO NOT DISTURB’ tag hanging from the doorknob.  Quietly, he slid out of bed and padded over to the table, ignoring how the hair on his arm fluffed up against the chilly air.  His sweatpants scuffed quietly against the nubby carpet and he took a moment to rub his eyes as he scooped up the boarding passes with his other hand.

He glanced at his watch; the date on the boarding passes was yesterday’s, and the hotel’s address on the pad of paper next to the phone told him they weren’t in California like they were supposed to be.  Had they missed their flight?

Also, how in the world had they gotten to Minneapolis on a commercial flight?  He couldn’t remember anything past the morning of the previous day so there was no telling what had happened until Mickey woke.

If it hadn’t been oh-fuck-this-o’clock, he would’ve woken her up in a heartbeat.  Something had clearly gone wrong.  Tripod raised her head and gave him a few lazy blinks as he set the boarding passes down and shuffled back to bed.

“<Don’t suppose you know what happened?>” he mumbled to the dog, speaking in German to her out of habit.  “<It’d be nice to know why I have a massive goddamn headache and a missing day.>”

Mickey made a sleepy half-grunt, half-squeak noise as she stretched slightly, and then rolled onto her back and blearily peeled her eyes open to look up at Bucky.  “G’mornin, Sleepin’ Beauty.  Wha’ time issit?”

Well, so much for not waking her up.  “A little past three.”  Bucky slipped back under the covers and wrapped his arms around her as she wiggled over to him.  “Had a nightmare.  How’d we end up in Minneapolis?”

“You had an episode at the airport yesterday.  You weren’t responsive so I called us a Lyft and got a hotel room for the night.”  She yawned expansively and burrowed her face into his neck.  Her voice was low and a touch rumbly this early in the morning, rough with sleep.  “Airline’s on standby until I clear you to fly again.”

“…we flew commercial?”

A sleepy mmhm answered him as she tucked her hand under his arm.  “We’re on leave.  Your benzos wore off way before we expected them to so you were pretty jittery by the time we did the getting off the plane thing.  Some guy from economy class jumped the gun and bumped into you pretty hard, panic attack, claustrophobia, we couldn’t get you off the plane in time, and you dropped into a psychogenic seizure.  Already got it notated and sent a report off to your doctors.”

“Great.  That’s just great.”  Bucky scrubbed at his eyes again and sighed.  “What about taking another dose mid-flight on the next one since I’m apparently burning through them faster?  Getting to LA’s going to be a longer flight than the last one.  And please tell me no one posted about it on Twitter.”

Lifting her head up to look Bucky in the eye, Mickey gave him an apologetic smile.  “You started seizing in the middle of first class.  I got you up to the bulkhead so you were out of the way, but there was only so much I could do.  Tony’s doing his best to shut down and scrub anything that ended up on social media, but…”

“…for fuck’s sake.”

“Sweetheart, it’s nothing to be-”

“Right, because I totally want all the gossip rags to be talking about my mental health issues and seizures again.  It was bad enough the first time I fell down on the subway.  And that’s exactly what the Avengers need, an inquiry as to why an active duty combatant does the stop, drop, and roll on a regular basis.”

“Bucky-”

He growled into his hands in frustration.  “I’m so fuckin’ sick of bein’ sick.”  Taking a deep breath, he scrubbed his fingers over his hairline and dropped one hand to Mickey’s back, rubbing gentle circles between her shoulder blades with his thumb.  “I just want to be normal again.  I can’t do anything right, I can’t even stay on the non-combatant roster for longer than a goddamn month.”

The unamused, flat look he got from Mickey made his cheeks burn.  She absently scritched her nails through her short, black hair, itching at the long scar that arced over her scalp from her skating accident three months before.  Grumbling eloquently, Tripod plopped a paw over her head, and Bucky smirked and laughed quietly despite himself.

He lifted up his arm to check his watch – still around 03:30, and he mentally kicked himself for forgetting – and let his hand fall back down with a groan.  “Well, there goes getting a full night’s sleep.  I’m sorry.”

“‘s fine,” Mickey mumbled around another yawn.  “Was gonna get up at the asscrack o’ dawn anyway to see how pathetic the gym is here.”

“Mind if I join you?  Got some nervous energy I should probably burn off and I need to get my physiotherapy in at some point.”  Bucky held up his hands and frowned at the subtle tremors in his fingers.  “Starting to wonder if upgrading the nerve circuits when Stark had it open to lighten the motors was worth it.  Now both my hands shake.”

Taking both his hands in hers, Mickey gently pressed a kiss to cold metal knuckles.  Her lips were warm and soft against the plates, sensations he’d never thought he’d feel there again.  “It was worth it,” she whispered, giving him a soft smile.

He tried to smile back but it turned out watery and lopsided.  “Still dunno why you put up with me sometimes.”

“B’cause I love you, you big idiot.  Also it’s kinda awesome not having to shove my wheelchair through crowds when I’ve got you Murder Glaring a path for me.  It’s like I got my own personal Fezzik.”

“That bad, huh?”  Bucky scratched at the back of his neck and looked up at the ceiling.  “Any chance we can get one of the earlier flights?  Less people there and whatnot.  And a window seat.  Not so bad if I’m against the wall, then it doesn’t look as tiny inside.”

Mickey nodded again, her jaw popping quietly as she let out yet another yawn.  “I’ll give the airline rep a call after breakfast and see about getting something set up for tomorrow.”

“I’m sorry, Myshka,” he murmured.  “Probably wasn’t how I had this planned out.”

Wiggling slightly, Mickey settled back into his arms.  “We both knew flying commercial was a risk for multiple reasons.  At least we didn’t have anyone accuse me of faking it this time around when I got out of my wheelchair.”

A growl forced its way out of Bucky’s throat as yesterday morning came back to him in a flash.  “Can’t fuckin’ believe that lady.  As if you needed proof like a missing leg or something.”  He slid his hand down Mickey’s arm and absently fiddled with the sturdy steel bracelet and medical tag that sat at her wrist – they matched, now.  “Maybe you should’ve flown in uniform.  I doubt anyone would’ve argued with a Purple Heart.”

“That’s not what messed me up this time around and you know it,” Mickey told him sternly.  “Besides, that’s against Navy regulations in so many ways.”

Bucky turned his head to the side and closed his eyes, tucking his noise into the soft hair over her ear.  “I know, I know.  I just wish people would stop talkin’ about it behind your back on Twitter an’ shit.  Pisses me off, how they think just ‘cause you can walk a little ways, you can do it everywhere.  It ain’t a fuckin’ miracle when you stand up, it’s just… you standing up.”

“Pisses me off how even after worldwide coverage of your trial and public release of your medical records, people are still surprised when you get twitchy.”  Sighing expressively, Mickey stifled yet another yawn.  “People get anxiety about having to make phone calls, you’d think it wouldn’t be a surprise when Bucky Barnes, recovering POW, gets panic attacks when stressed.”

He didn’t respond, simply inhaling the crisp citrus scent of the shampoo she’d started using again recently.  They’d both lost so many things, and gained so many others… it was hard to keep track.  At least Steve and Hill had approved of the two weeks’ leave; ‘needing a vacation’ didn’t even begin to cover it.  Provided everything went according to what he remembered of the plan, they’d have two weeks of relaxing, stress-free time to celebrate Valentine’s Day and putter about a few ocean towns in California.

And if it didn’t go to plan, well… the world knew what the Winter Soldier could do, and even if Mickey wasn’t able to run and fight to the same degree she used to, she’d spent countless hours honing her skills with firearms of every type as well as her energy transfer abilities.  Bucky trusted her to have his back in a way that he’d only ever trusted one other person before.

Mickey grumbled wordlessly into her hands, scrubbing at her eyes for several seconds before letting her forehead hit Bucky’s chest with a quiet plop.  “What do you want to do, now that we’re here for the day?”

“Mm.”  Idly threading his fingers through Mickey’s hair, Bucky closed his eyes.  The short black strands were a little less than an inch in length, still soft and fine.  “This place got wifi?  Maybe we just stay in, order some food, watch Netflix.  I don’t feel like I’m up to peopleing or being in public right now.”

He felt Mickey nod and smiled slightly as he looked down at her.  Her breathing was already slowing as she drifted back to sleep, and Bucky traced his thumb back and forth over her shoulder.  “Get some more sleep, babydoll.  I’ll wake you up in a few hours.”

As tired and drained as he was, he knew that letting himself fall asleep again so soon after a bad nightmare would only make things worse.  He stared up at the lumpy popcorn ceiling, shadows and dimples barely visible; he couldn’t sleep, but at least he could keep watch while Mickey did.

Later that morning, the gym ended up a bit of a disappointment after all.  With only a pair of old treadmills and an incomplete set of free weights, Bucky resigned himself to an hour’s run and as much of his PT as he could complete without machines.  Mickey wasn’t in much of a better mood, alternating between walking slowly on the treadmill next to him, resting, and stretching out the muscles that still complained over a year after she’d been shot.

When Bucky walked out of their small bathroom after a lukewarm shower, one towel around his waist and the other in his hands as he scrubbed his hair dry, Mickey was sitting on the bed with Bucky’s phone pressed to her ear.

“I know, kiddo.  It’s- it’s okay.”  She glanced up and gave Bucky a sad smile.  “Buck just finished up in the shower, you still want to talk to him?”

After a moment, she offered him the phone.

“…hello?”

“Hi, it’s Kevin.  Hope you don’t mind that I called you.  Steve gave me your number.”  Kevin’s voice was soft and papery, and a twinge shot through Bucky as he remembered that cancer was eating away at the boy’s lungs now.  He heard Steve’s voice in the background, speaking quietly with what he assumed were the nurses.

“Is everything okay?  I thought Steve’s visit was scheduled for next week.”

“No, he’s, um… he’s here unofficially.”  The phone crackled as Kevin sighed.  “There’s no easy way to say this, but, um.  I’ve- I- my, um-”

“Easy, kid.  What’s wrong?”  Bucky sat on the bed next to Mickey and his stomach lurched when she gave his hand a comforting squeeze.  “Kevin, are you okay?”

“Well, you know how my cancer’s metastasized.  It’s spreading too fast for them to control anymore.  I turned eighteen last week, so… I decided to stop the chemo.  There’s other people that need the medicine more than I do.”

Bucky couldn’t stop the choked off noise he made.  Whuffling quietly, Tripod looked up at him and padded over to rest her head on his knee.

“Steve said you were going to be away on vacation for a while.  I’m- I’m sorry I had to ruin-”

“Don’t you dare,” Bucky whispered.  “Don’t you dare apologize.”  Pressing his fingers to his eyes and then pinching the bridge of his nose, he took in a deep breath.  “This- this is your choice.  I won’t take that away from you.  How long do you have?”

Kevin sniffed wetly on the other end of the phone.  “We’ve got no idea, honestly.  The doctors didn’t expect me to make it this far as it is.  Could be days, could be months.  I don’t think I’ll make it to Season Four of Sherlock, though.  Next January might be a bit of a stretch.”  He laughed half-heartedly and sniffed again.  “Bucky, I’m scared.”

“I know.  It’s okay to be scared.  Do you want me to fly back?”

“No… no.  I- I don’t think I want to- I want you to remember me when I was healthier, in case I- there isn’t much left of me, now.  If I don’t make it, I want you to remember me like I was.”

“Okay.”  Mickey’s arm slid around his waist and he leaned into the touch.  “You’re being really brave right now, kid.”

“Just like Frodo.”

Bucky’s voice cracked.  “Yeah.  Just like Frodo.”

“Thank you for reading to me.  You and Steve.  That’s- that’s, um, that’s the most time anyone’s spent with me this past year.  So, thank you.”

“My pleasure.”

The conversation lulled, faint static echoing through the call, and Bucky swallowed thickly.

“Kevin.”

“Yeah?”

“I know you like the truth straight, you hate it when people sugarcoat things, so…”  Mickey nodded against his arm – tell him.  “I won’t tell you there’s a heaven or a hell because I genuinely don’t know.  But there’s a sort of… I dunno.  Darkness.  Not a bad kind of darkness.  It wraps you up and holds you, it’s like being awake in bed when the blankets are all warm and you’ve still got your eyes closed.

“Time kind of… stops.  I dunno if you’re gonna wake up in a new life, I dunno what’s gonna happen for you but… it doesn’t hurt, after.  It’s… kinda peaceful.  Dark and warmish and quiet.”

Kevin didn’t respond for a while except for quiet sniffles.  Finally, he spoke up.  “Thanks.  I- that helps, I think.  Um… in case I don’t see you when you get back.  Goodbye.  I’m so glad I got to meet you, and thank you.”

“Smooth roads and fair winds,” Bucky murmured, an abbreviated form of an old travel blessing his father had used.  “You’re an amazing young man, Kevin Thomas, and I’m happy I met you, too.”

After a moment, Bucky lowered the phone and hung up, setting it gently into Mickey’s waiting hand.

“You going to be okay?” she asked softly.

He pulled his hands over his face and sucked in a deep breath through his nose.  “No, not really.”  When his voice cracked again, he cleared his throat.  “I mean, we, uh, we’ve known this was coming for a while.  He’s been terminal for six months or so.  Kind of got a head start on the grieving thing.  Don’t mean it don’t hurt, though.”

“He said he’s got Steve with him.”  Mickey leaned over and switched the charger from her phone to Bucky’s; it must not have been plugged in the night before.  “He’s being very brave.”

She stood and moved in front of Bucky, wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and gently tugged him forward to rest his head against her sternum.  He reached up and hugged her tightly, using the contact to ground himself.

After a few minutes, he pulled away slightly and dropped his hands to her hips.  “Definitely Netflix,” he said with a wry, watery smile.  “I really don’t feel like talking to anyone today, not after that.”

Mickey gave him another one of those small, sad smiles and leaned down to kiss him on the nose.  “I know.  We’re all going to miss him.”  She stroked a thumb over his cheek.  “I called downstairs to get wifi access while you were in the shower.  Go ahead and get everything set up while I get through, okay?”

He nodded and leaned over to rummage through the open suitcase for a change of clothes.  “Disney marathon?”

“Yeah, sure,” Mickey answered from the bathroom.  “Cute talking animals seems like a good pick-me-up right now, actually.”

Bucky grinned shamelessly.  “Bambi it is.”

“Oh, fuck off.”  Her voice was muffled by the sound of the shower starting up.  “Something that won’t have me crying my eyes out, please?  I can only take so much feels in one day.”

“Darlin’, that’s roughly two thirds of their cinematography.  Disney’s had the tear-jerker down to a science since I was a kid.”

Mickey poked her head out of the bathroom and stuck her tongue out.  “Fine.  Put on Once Upon a Time, then.  Been meaning to show you that one anyway.  You’ll get a good laugh out of the special effects.”

She cackled as he threw his towel at her.  “I swear, Myshka, if what-the-fuck’s-his-face is in this, too-”

“You’ll what?  Make me sleep on the nonexistent couch?” she shot back, her words almost lost in the spray of water.

Rolling his eyes as he stepped into sweatpants, Bucky sighed.  “I really don’t see the resemblance.  That self-absorbed asshat who lights on fire looks more like Steve than this kid looks like me.”

“Trust me, you’ll like this.”

“See this?” he asked the ceiling as he scooped up Mickey’s tablet.  “This is how much I love her.”

***

“I’m just saying, he really does look a lot like you.”  So far, Mickey wasn’t having any trouble as they navigated their way through the airport, her hands whizzing over the compact wheels on either side of her legs.  The sport chair barely came up past the middle of her back, significantly more maneuverable and easier to store than the standard one she’d been in before.

Besides, Tony had powdercoated it for her, covering all the metal components in bright, vibrant, green; the color was strangely appropriate.

Bucky scoffed and rolled his eyes as he walked next to Mickey, carry-on bag slung over his shoulder and Tripod’s leash looped over his arm.  “I’m two inches taller, over half a century older, and I’ve got to have at least fifty pounds on the guy, even if you don’t count the arm.  I don’t look anything like that twig.  And what the hell kind of a name is Sebastian, anyway?”  He couldn’t hide the disbelief in his voice; people were actually named that?

The fuzzy calm permeating his senses was a distracting but welcome change from the usual hypervigilance.  He’d need another dose of benzos halfway through the flight, but that should get them onto the ground and out of the airport without incident.

“Don’t sass the poor TSA guys this time, please,” Mickey warned him as they approached security.  “We’re already pushing our luck as it is, and technically speaking, you’re hopped up on a controlled substance.  I really don’t want the security screening to turn into a strip search.”

“What?  As if you don’t stare at this all day long.”  Giving her a wicked grin, Bucky dropped into a confident saunter.  Tripod’s metal foot clicked against the polished linoleum as she paced along next to him.

“Swear to God, Frosty, you’re insufferable when you’re on happy drugs now.”

His smirk faded.  “Sorry.  Little less control over the brain-to-mouth filter like this.”

“Really?  I couldn’t tell.”  After a few seconds, Mickey playfully swatted his leg.  “I’m teasing you, love.  You’re just a lot more reserved in public, normally.  Which way’s security?”

“On our nine at the next junction.”

Mickey coasted to a stop and adjusted the Velcro on the gloves she wore to protect her hands while using her wheelchair.  “You made sure to pack everything in checked baggage, right?”  She had to stifle a laugh when Bucky’s eyes widened fractionally and he quickly patted all the spots he normally hid knives and guns.

“Well, that’s a relief.”  They’d done a quick check before leaving the hotel, but Bucky was in the habit of carrying so many concealed weapons that it was entirely possible he’d forgotten one.  “They’ll have a field day with my arm, but at least I won’t get nabbed on a concealed weapons charge.  Again.”

“Bucky!”  Tripod looked up at Mickey, ears cocked, curious about the urgent, annoyed tone in her voice.

“What?”

“You know what.”

He chuckled as he turned and pointed in the direction they should head.  “Relax.  I’m not that stupid.”

“Debatable,” Mickey deadpanned.

Getting through security was an adventure in and of itself, just like it had been in New York.  When presented with their official, federally-issued Avengers IDs, the TSA agent simply cocked an eyebrow and said, “Yeah, sure, you’re Bucky Barnes and I’m Cary Grant.”

Bucky rolled his eyes, raised his left hand, and shut off the hard light hologram cloaking it.

The results were quite interesting to watch as the poor man froze with his hand halfway to his radio and blinked several times.  After a few tense seconds, the agent scrabbled awkwardly for his wallet and pulled out a dollar bill.

“Can you- can you sign this?  For my son.”

Frowning, Bucky took the proffered pen and bill, an automatic reflex at being handed something.  “You’re asking me to deface government property…?” he asked slowly.

The irony clearly wasn’t lost as Mickey watched the TSA agent turn a shocking shade of red.

“Ah hell, why not.”  With a flourish, Bucky scrawled his name across George Washington’s face, then passed it to Mickey rather than handing it back.  She smirked up at him, neatly signed her name and ‘Rescue’ in picture-perfect cursive along the bottom edge, then handed the bill and pen to the guard.

“We good?” Bucky asked the agent.  He had to repeat himself before he got a response.

“Y-yeah.  Yes, sir.  Um, have a good flight?”

Mickey groaned quietly as they stepped into one of the screening lines; the TSA agent they’d just left was mumbling into his radio about how you wouldn’t believe who just showed up and get your asses over here.  “Goddammit, not again,” she muttered to herself as several heads popped up and scanned the area before settling on Bucky.

Back in New York, seeing any of the Avengers was still a novelty, but at least they’d gotten through security there without a pack of rabid fans descending on them.  All in all, the worst that happened at JFK was a benzoed Bucky shamelessly flirting with anything that moved.

Bucky laughed awkwardly as uniformed agent after uniformed agent stepped forward to shake his hand and fawn over him.  Whispers of real live Avenger and Winter Soldier and Bucky Barnes snaked through the throng of agents.

Sighing, Mickey rubbed a hand over her forehead and scooped up their bag, dumping it on her lap before rolling out of the screening line.  The mood among the other travelers seemed to be an even split between awestruck and annoyed.

“You’d think they were teenyboppers instead of respectable professionals,” a voice drawled next to her in a thick Boston accent, and Mickey looked up to see the security director cross his arms and shake his head slightly with a wry look on his face.

Mickey shrugged and turned back to keep an eye on Bucky.  “It probably isn’t every day they get to meet a living legend.  I know I fangirled a bit when I first met him.”

“Living legend indeed.”  The director sighed softly and gave Mickey an apologetic smile before stepping forward.  “Okay, show’s over!  Back to your posts! Go on, get!   People here have planes to catch!”

The air pressure seemed to drop around Bucky as the security staff migrated back to their posts.  He closed his eyes, drew in a deep breath, and turned to look for Mickey.  She sat off to the side with a patient smile, just to the left of and behind the security director.

“Sergeant Barnes,” the man greeted him, holding out a hand for him to shake.  “Sorry about the dogpile.  Things get pretty dull around here and my agents jump all over anything that dispels the boredom.”

Bucky huffed out a laugh and quietly told Tripod to sit, stay, good girl.  “It’s fine.  I guess I’m still getting used to being a celebrity.  It’s… the hero worship still feels a little weird, if I’m honest.”  He scratched at the back of his neck, lips twisted in an embarrassed frown.  “I was under the impression most people would rather see me fuck off to Antarctica than thank me for my service.  Our PR team’s started referring to me as a walking dumpster fire.”

The director laughed raised his hands to usher them off to the side and around the security checkpoint.  “Some civilians might not like the Avengers, sure, but from what I can tell, most of them have lost loved ones in the crossfire or they’re involved in the political fallout after the fact.  Can’t say I agree with either party, but I see where they’re coming from.”  Turning to Bucky, he held out his hand again, and after a reassuring squeeze, stepped back.  “The sheepdogs like us, we all know what it’s like to lose a brother or sister.  And we all know what it’s like to see one come back missing a part of themselves.  Seeing you out there, fighting to recover, fighting the good fight?  It’s the kind of thing that makes jobs like this mean something to the people that do it.  Have a good flight, sir, ma’am.”

With a subtle salute, the security director turned and wove his way back through the checkpoint.

Bucky blinked after him for a few seconds, looked back at the screening line, then turned to look down at Mickey.  “Did he just…”

“Yeah.  Let’s get moving before the blonde at the body scanner decides to strip-search you anyway.  Which gate are we?”

Mickey ended up falling asleep against Bucky’s mildly squishier shoulder as they sat waiting for their flight with Tripod curled up at their feet.  He pulled out his phone, tapping away at that mindless business strategy game that Clint had gotten him addicted to, and together the three of them waited for the sun to peek through the thick clouds around Minneapolis.

Breakfast on the flight involved a side dish of more benzos and Bucky was the one that took a nap this time, cheek pressed against the wall of the plane and Tripod curled into a bulky, fuzzy ball in his lap.  Mickey did her best to avoid attracting any more attention than two known Avengers and a service dog would, quietly writing in crossword answers on her tablet after tucking Bucky’s jacket around her legs.  Thanks to Pepper, they’d ended up with the bulkhead seats, a small miracle in and of itself since it meant that Bucky and his long legs didn’t get pretzled again.

Bleary and gritty-eyed, Bucky yawned and held Mickey’s wheelchair steady while she settled back into it after their flight.  “Rental car should be all taken care of,” he mumbled as he dug out the eye boogers that had formed during the flight.  “Just gotta grab our bags.”

“We’re stopping to get you some coffee and food first.”  Mickey clipped Tripod’s leash to her wheelchair and started forward.  “Come on.  I’m not letting you drive us anywhere until you’re more awake.  Why are we even in LA anyway?”

Bucky yawned expansively, stretching his arms over his head; Tripod alerted and zeroed in on the tiny reflections cast over the walls as his left arm caught the light of the sunrise.  “S’prise.  You’ll know when we get there.  Benzos s’pos’to make me this drowsy?”

“They are when your doctor says to double the dose.  Should be wearing off soon anyway.”  Mickey led them over to one of the coffee booths.  “Starbucks good enough for now?”

“At this point, coffee’s coffee, just so long as no one makes a pun out of it.”  Shoved in the very back of their closet at the Compound was a shirt Tony had ordered as a gag gift: StarBucks Coffee, with a stylized portrait of Bucky and Steve instead of the mermaid.

“Go get yourself a seat somewhere, I’ll take care of it.”  She handed off Tripod and watched Bucky amble over to one of the small bistro tables.  Shaking her head and smiling fondly, she snagged a few of the premade parfaits and rolled up to the order counter.

“What can I get for you today?”

“A venti of the strongest stuff you got.  Tall, dark, and half-asleep over there needs to drive us somewhere and I’m not getting in a car with him behind the wheel until his eyes are pointing the same direction.”

The barista snorted and smirked, ringing up the purchases.  “And a name for the coffee?”

“Han Solo.”

“I think I got just the wake-up juice for him, should thaw pretty much any carbonite.  Comin’ right up.”

Mickey shoved one of the parfaits into Bucky’s hands, the cold plastic startling him back awake.  “Eat.”

“Arready had breakfast.”

“And you’re on a five thousand calorie diet.  Eat up.  Doctor’s orders.”  She cracked open her own parfait and dug in with gusto.  “We got anything planned later today, or…?”

Shaking his head, Bucky worked the lid off his parfait with the careful, deliberate motions of someone seeing double.  “Got tickets for somethin’ but we can use ‘em tomorrow.  Only thing scheduled is an event day after tomorrow, other than that we’re good.  Take today to rest an’ whatnot.”

“And I don’t suppose you’re going to tell me what event that is?”

Right then, the barista called out Bucky’s drink, and he leveled an unamused glare at Mickey.  “Not after that stunt, I ain’t.  Goddamn traitor, you are.”

“You enjoyed the new Star Wars movie as much as I did, don’t lie about it!”

“Would’a been better if I hadn’t walked out to piss when Han died,” Bucky grumbled as he sat back down.  “Oh, sweet caffeine, I’m in love.  Also, who the hell puts quillons on a lightsaber?  Just stupid, tactically.  More likely to cut himself with those plasma vents than actually get any benefit out of ‘em.”

“Nerd.”

“Geek.”

“Smartass.”

“Red shirt.”

“Oh, piss off.”

Bucky wagged his eyebrows at Mickey over his coffee as he took a long sip.  His shoulders straightened and relaxed as he finally started to shake off the drowsiness.  “You’ll enjoy this.  I promise.  We’ll bring your wheels regardless but I think you’ll be able to manage walking around if you want.  I checked with the organizers and we can leave the wheelchair at the info desk, retrieve it any time.”

“Sounds good.”  Scraping the last of her parfait out, Mickey licked her lips.  “We’re just going to bum around a hotel again today, then?”

“Today we’re going to relax and rest and enjoy some time off.”

She hummed quietly as she licked her spoon clean, setting aside the empty cup before reaching down to scratch at Tripod’s ears.  “Well, we should get down to baggage claim.  It’s been long enough that everything should be out on the carousels by now.”

Bucky was visibly more awake by the time he hauled the two large Pelican cases off the carousel and pulled up their handles.  He’d also finally shed the heavy coat he’d been wearing against the winter chill and cold plane air, a reluctant concession to the relatively balmy California weather.  By the time they got to the rental office, he was alert enough to realize that none of the cars available to him were what he’d wanted.

“Wait, you’re trying to tell me that nothing in this parking lot has a proper gearbox in it?”  Mickey stifled a laugh as Bucky stared incredulously at the employee.

“Um… no, sir,” the young man replied nervously.  “We don’t have much demand for stick shifts, and… most people can’t…”

Shaking his head, Bucky turned and walked down the row of nondescript hatchbacks.  “That one’ll do.  At least this way we’ll blend in.  Fuckin’ Hippiefornia.”

As he hefted their suitcases into the back of the Prius, he grumbled quietly to himself under his breath about the sorry state of the American auto industry.

“You know, you could’ve shipped Sandra out here.  She fits on a Quinjet.”

Bucky shrugged.  “Paint’s still curing.  Also, the last thing I want to do is park a beauty like her where we’re going.  It’s just asking to get her keyed or something.”  Once Mickey stood up, he quickly folded her wheelchair and set it in the back before closing the tailgate.  Tripod hopped into the backseat and lay down with a quiet sigh, closing her eyes for a short nap.

“Give me a big, cammy engine with a two-inch exhaust any day,” he muttered as they pulled out of the parking lot.  “It’s like driving a fuckin’ sewing machine.  You hear that whistle this thing’s making?”

Chuckling, Mickey settled into the seat, flicked on the butt-warmers, and tilted her head back.  “Gets three times the mileage that you do in the Mustang, though.”

“It sounds like a tea kettle and looks like a toaster.”  He frowned at the GPS when they pulled up to a stoplight.  “Also, fuck Toyota’s interface designers, I used computers in the 80s that made more sense than this.  Where the hell is the…”

Mickey reached out and tapped a few buttons for him.  “There you go.”

“Thanks.”  It took him three more stoplights to punch in the address.  “Finally.  Christ on sale, this is why I don’t like cars with computers in ‘em, at least not computers that aren’t FRIDAY-ified.”

Humming in agreement, Mickey leaned her head to the side to catch the warmth of the sun filtering through the car windows.  Bucky’s hand found hers and he brushed his thumb over her knuckles.

“Get comfy, we’re about forty minutes out.  I’ll wake you up when we get to the hotel.”

The receptionist thankfully barely gave them a second glance as Bucky checked in and got their room keys.  Mickey was still half-asleep during the short trip up to their floor in the elevator, and as soon as the room door closed behind them, she rolled over to the bed and flopped out of her chair and onto the plush mattress.

Chuckling, Bucky wheeled their suitcases into the corner.  “Still sleepy?”  He squatted down, snapped his fingers to get Tripod’s attention, and raised his hand up; she sat immediately and waited while he unbuckled her vest and harness.

“’m always sleepy,” she answered, voice muffled through the thick quilt.  “Doctors say it’s normal, considering.”  Given Mickey’s unique Inhuman biology, most of her recent medical history was based on guesswork and Bucky’s own research.  When he’d allowed her to siphon off almost every drop of energy keeping him alive while she lay comatose in a hospital bed, it healed nearly all of the physical damage to her brain.  Psychosomatic symptoms danced a duet with minor musculoskeletal issues, though, forcing a once vibrant and energetic young woman to ration her daily energy carefully.

“True.  Took me almost a year to get a normal sleep pattern, even with the help of more medications than I care to remember.”  After giving Tripod a liberal all-over scratch in return for several wet doggy kisses, he popped open Mickey’s suitcase and set up the dog bed.  The large plush cushion shuffed softly as Tripod settled into it with an expressive groan.  Mickey’s wheelchair found its place in the small space between the nightstand and table before Bucky sat on the bed and began gently rubbing her shoulders.

Mickey groaned softly when Bucky’s hands worked down and found a knot in her lower back.  “Your hip still bugging you?” he asked, rolling his thumb over the thick pad of muscle on the back of her pelvis.

“Planes are cold.”  She propped herself up on her arms and clumsily scrubbed at her eyes.  “Injury’s already healed so there’s nothing I can do except PT and exercise.”

Snaking his hand under her hip, Bucky chased the tension in the muscles until he felt them release.  Going with Mickey to her massage therapy sessions had proven to be immensely valuable many times over.  “Bet sitting down all morning didn’t help.  Want me to get a bath ready for you?”

“Think I want to just lay down for a bit and nap.”

“Let’s at least get you changed first.”  He helped Mickey wiggle further onto the bed, then shifted his focus to her right calf where the pale shrapnel scar bisected the muscle.  Pulling his fingers down the tendons and scar tissue like her physical therapist had demonstrated, Bucky gently worked at it until Mickey rolled over onto her back.

“Changed, or undressed?”

Bucky smirked and patted Mickey on the thigh as he stood up.  “I think you know the answer to that, but if you’re tired and need to rest, it’s fine.”

“We got all day to rest,” Mickey replied, raising an eyebrow.  “We can order lunch up, or something.”  She pushed herself upright and stood slowly, moving her way deliberately through the few steps between them.  Wrapping her arms around Bucky’s waist with a quiet sigh, Mickey closed her eyes and nuzzled against his collarbone.

“Something’s got you in a mood.”  Bucky didn’t mind, though; he gently carded his hands through Mickey’s short ebony hair, rubbing his thumbs over her temples.

“Your butt looks amazing in those pants.”

He’d have to thank Natasha for picking out the midnight blue skinny jeans and convincing him to wear them.  “Oh, is that all?”

“Well, they make the other side look pretty good, too.”  A playful smirk greeted him when he leaned back and looked Mickey in the eye.  “Bet you look even better without them.”

Bucky blinked at her for several seconds before saying, “Did… did you just use a line on me?  Seriously?”

Mickey just grinned at him.  Shaking his head, Bucky laughed and rested his forehead against hers.

“Shut up and help me get my clothes off.”

“You know, technically I outrank you.  I don’t have to follow your orders,” he muttered, rolling his eyes as he undid the buttons on Mickey’s shirt.

“Don’t see you complaining, sir.”

“Okay, that’s enough of that.”  Bucky tilted his head down to kiss her before she sassed him again, carefully walking her back toward the bed.

***

“Disneyland?  You hate amusement parks.”

“You don’t.”  Bucky grinned at Mickey as he helped her out of the car.  “Besides, you’ve been talking for a while about how you want to go to Disneyland, so…”

“Bucky…”

Once she was settled into her wheelchair, Bucky leaned down and kissed her on the cheek, then clipped Tripod’s leash to its carabiner on the wheelchair frame.  “Hush.  Ain’t about me.  This trip is me doin’ somethin’ nice for you.”

“And you’re still armed to the teeth,” Mickey murmured, poking him in the stomach.  Underneath the heavy motorcycle jacket, Bucky wore a strange-looking vest that could deploy into a lightweight version of his standard combat armor at a moment’s notice.  Tony and Bucky had been working on it for over a month, adapting the technology from the collapsible Iron Man suits into something more compact.

“They won’t find anything; all the blades are ceramic.”  Bucky tapped the handle on the passenger door and the car beeped at him, doors locked.  “Besides, kind of a requirement with me being active duty again.  I’ll just say I rode a bike in and they won’t look twice at the armor.”

“If you say so.  C’mon, let’s get in there before the lines get too long.”

The remainder of the morning found them tactically planning their route through the park with the same intensity as planning a mission.  Optimizing their path for time, enjoyment, and minimal distance, they’d also factored in breaks for food and water, mapped out and timed the parades, and circled a few of the shows.

“Think we’re overdoing this a bit?”  Tripod let out a quiet boof at one of the pigeons while Mickey scratched between her ears.  “Easy, girl.  Don’t antagonize the sky rats.”

Bucky chuckled, his shoulders uncharacteristically loose as he leaned over the map on Mickey’s knees.  A gaggle of laughing, excited children ran past where they sat on a bench off to the side.  “Nah, half the fun is in the planning, or so I’ve been told.  If you still want to hit that Jedi thing we’ll need to get going in the next few minutes.”

Adjusting the cheesy Mickey Mouse ears on her head, she bumped her shoulder against Bucky’s.  “You know, you didn’t have to do this.”

“Hm?”  Bucky frowned distractedly as he traced his finger along the map.  “Do what?”

She gestured to the park around them.  “This.  Spend two plane flights and a whole day on your benzos so that we could go to Disneyland.”

Folding the map, Bucky glanced up at Mickey before tucking it into the inside pocket of his jacket.  “No, I didn’t have to.  Doesn’t mean I don’t want to.  Besides, part of this…”  He gave her an embarrassed smile and looked down at his boots.  “Part of it is me provin’ to myself that I can do normal stuff.  Be out in public, deal with crowds, loud noises…”

“Flirt shamelessly with everything including the potted plants…”

The indignant squeak that he made sent Mickey into peals of laughter.  “That was- that was one time, and it was one of Tony’s parties!  You know what happens at those, even Helena was drunk!”

Mickey stretched out her legs in front of her, pointing her toes to relieve some of the tension that inevitably built up when she was in her wheelchair too long.  “C’mon, you hopeless, adorable thing.  Let’s go watch some kids be cute with tiny little lightsabers.”

They found the small stage just as the show was starting and actors were guiding robed children out in front of the audience.  Bucky stood behind Mickey the whole time, hands on her shoulders, an indulgent smile on his face.  Star Wars was definitely her thing, not his, but… this trip wasn’t about him.

When the kids ‘used the Force’ to raise up the platform in the middle of the stage, exposing a large, dark doorway, Bucky stifled a snicker as Darth Vader and another wannabe Sith lord strolled out onto the stage.  He’d been hoping to see a proper lightsaber duel; that would make this more than worth it.  Maybe there was still hope.

After a few minutes of ‘fighting’ the little munchkins in brown robes, the two black-clad characters withdrew to the other side of the stage.  When Darth Vader stopped mid-stride and turned his head ever so slightly, though, Bucky narrowed his eyes and zeroed in on the actor.  He could just barely hear the crackle of an in-ear comm unit - someone was giving new stage directions.  The other Sith stepped around Vader, twirling her lightsaber, while the Jedi worked on controlling the tiny bundles of chaos at the other end of the stage.

“There is one other that must face the trials,” Vader intoned, his deep voice resonating through the sound system.  Striding along the edge of the audience, Vader scanned the faces in front of him intently.  “One other that must prove himself… one of your… ‘Avengers.’”  His tone was almost mocking.

Bucky closed his eyes and muttered, “Ah, shit.”  Vader had his mind made up, however, and raised one gloved hand to point at Bucky.  Roughly a hundred pairs of eyes turned to stare at the two Avengers.

When Mickey failed to hide her giggles, Bucky dropped his head into his hands.  “You planned this, didn’t you?” he asked, projecting his voice automatically and allowing himself a white lie for the purposes of the performance.  “Let’s go to Disneyland, it’ll be fun, no one will recognize us.”

“The trials await.”  Vader turned on his heel and stepped to center stage, beckoning Bucky after him.

“See this?”  Leaning down, Bucky kissed Mickey on the forehead.  “This is how much I love you.  I’m doing a Star Wars thing for you.”

“Good luck.  You’re gonna need it.”  Mickey smirked at him and shooed him forward, holding Tripod back with a hand on her harness.

As much as he was putting on an air of reluctant indulgence, Bucky knew how to play an audience.  He shrugged out of his leather jacket, set it on Mickey’s lap, and swung his arms from side to side to loosen up his shoulders as he walked onto the stage.  The armor vest was fully visible over his thermal athletic shirt, matte black paneling and red power conduits covering his back and chest in a rough triangle.  Reaching up, he hooked his thumbs around the two small levers that triggered the deployment mechanism.  Panels whirred and slid over each other as the articulated plates spread over his legs and arms.  Once the armor was fully deployed, the Avengers A lit up in red on each shoulder panel, as well as a large star outlined in red on his chest.

“If you’re fighting a war,” he began as he took the offered prop lightsaber, “you gotta wear a uniform.”

The audience cheered as he flourished the saber, testing its balance and weight.  Vader raised his own saber and dropped into a ready stance.

“Y’know, I’m pretty sure the Borg never taught me how to use a sword.”

“That’s Star Trek, moron!” Mickey hollered from the audience, scattered laughter following her words.  Rolling his eyes, Bucky twirled the saber through a few basic swings as he replayed the various lightsaber battles from the movies in his head.  While it was longer and balanced closer to his hand than an escrima stick, the forms transferred easily.

Bucky just grinned and stepped into a loose stance, holding the lightsaber in a one-handed grip.  “Arright, big guy, show me what you got.”

One of Vader’s soundbites played.  “If only you knew the power of the dark side.”

“Meh.”  Adjusting his grip, Bucky shrugged.  “Been there, done that, got the t-shirt and tat.  Two out of five stars, would not repeat, only reason for the second star is my arms ain’t lopsided anymore.  Besides, there’s lots of bad Yelp reviews about the cookies.  Apparently, they’re either dry and wrinkly or burned to a crisp.”

Vader’s shoulders stiffened as if the actor was trying not to laugh.

The first few blows were simple, easy to block, the same basic stances that the children had been practicing earlier.  Showmanship could come into play later once Bucky got a bead on his opponent.

They circled each other for roughly a minute, exchanging blows back and forth, before Bucky bared his teeth in a wolfish grin and charged forward.  The stunt actor had definitely received some training, recovering well and blocking easily.  Spinning the humming red lightsaber through a full circle, Vader aimed an overhand slice at Bucky.

Dancing out of the way of the saber was almost too easy; Bucky flowed quickly through a one-handed backflip and dropped into a defensive crouch.  Knees bent, he slowly stepped to the side as they circled again, Vader holding his lightsaber loosely.

Various voices in the audience shouted encouragement at him, blending into the background noise that he tuned out as he read Vader’s movements.  The dull thwack of plastic was drowned out by the prop sabers’ sound effects, quick and crunchy as the duel sped up.

Bucky used the next few seconds to confirm a suspicion he’d had since the beginning of the duel, and after several quick, flashy slashes he twisted his saber mid-swing and knocked the lightsaber out of Vader’s hand.  The actor always left the same opening; he’d had some stunt training but no actual combat experience.

The children at the edge of the stage cheered, and Bucky turned and waved at them before tossing a cheeky salute at Mickey.

A dark blur rolled out onto the stage, red and black and-

“Son of a-”

He didn’t get to finish his sentence before Darth Maul launched himself forward, planting his boots in Bucky’s chest.

Rolling out of the fall and flipping upright, Bucky cracked his neck and stared down his new opponent.  “Well… that was unexpected.”

Maul made a face that was a mixture of a feral grin and a snarl, and activated his lightsaber.

“Hokay.”  He adjusted his grip, reminding himself not to hold the prop saber like a baseball bat.  “Let’s do this.”

The other end of Maul’s lightsaber flared to life, plastic blade segments snapping into place.

“Oh, motherffffffudgenuggets.”  Bucky barely managed to catch the expletive before he said it.  He’d forgotten about Maul’s unique lightsaber.  “There’s two of ‘em?  That just ain’t fair!”

The actor playing Maul was significantly more skilled, twirling his double-ended saber expertly as he advanced on Bucky.  Twin blades hummed as Maul flipped and spun the saber, advancing slowly on Bucky.

“Seriously, man?”  Bucky could barely keep track of both ends of the lightsaber at the same time, parrying awkwardly.  Resorting to dodging, he leaped back and turned it into a one-handed cartwheel onto the upper platform of the stage.  He used the opportunity to pick up Vader’s discarded saber; maybe dual wielding would give him a better chance of blocking.  Maul paced below him, idly looping his lightsaber through a sweeping figure eight.

Grumbling to himself quietly, Bucky narrowed his eyes and studied the way the stunt actor moved, looking for an opening the way he had with Vader.  Martial arts training was readily apparent in the man’s footwork and posture.  “Ah, fuck it,” Bucky muttered under his breath, and launched himself into an aerial somersault.

The lightsabers let out harsh electronic crackles as they collided and Bucky found himself giving ground again, hilariously outmatched with weapons he was less than familiar with.  The extra reach on the prop sabers kept catching him off guard as he struggled to keep up with the onslaught of red plastic.

A harsh growl caught his attention and a brown force of nature darted out of the audience.  Teeth latched onto one end of Maul’s saber, and the actor stared incredulously down at the dog.

Tripod growled and snarled around the plastic rod in her mouth, tugging back with all her might.

After several seconds of stunned silence, Bucky shifted both of his prop sabers to one hand and facepalmed.  “Tripod, aus Aus!”  She obeyed grudgingly, showing her canines to Maul as she backed up to stand next to Bucky.

“Sorry about that, pal.  Little fuzzball’s a bit overeager at times.”

Maul frowned as he lifted up his saber to inspect the end.  “No harm done.”  His voice was quiet, vaguely Midwestern.  “Can’t say I’ve encountered a dog quite so protective before.”

“Yeah, she’s a handful sometimes.  <Good girl.  Go back to Mickey.>”  Bucky waited for Tripod to trudge back into the audience, leash dragging behind her, and looked up to see Mickey with a hand pressed to her mouth and her shoulders shaking with silent laughter.

The male host of the show was the first to recover, striding out and prompting the audience for a round of applause.  Raising up his hand to wave, Bucky twirled the prop sabers a few more times before holding them out to the host.

Laughing, the man shook his head and pushed them back.  “Keep ‘em.  Least we can do for that show.”  As he thanked the host, Bucky set the sabers down on the ground and triggered the retraction mechanism in his armor.

He spent several minutes on one knee next to Mickey as they scribbled their names in autograph books, smiled for cameras, and laughing every time one of the bolder children decided to hug one of them.  When one of the young girls completely bypassed Bucky and wordleslly thrust her autograph book toward Mickey, the two Avengers practically melted; the girl was wearing velcro sneakers plastered with the stylized medical symbol that was Mickey’s unofficially official logo as Rescue.

The strain in Bucky’s eyes must have been noticeable to Mickey though, and eventually she cleared her throat and put a hand on his shoulder.

“So… I need to eat soon or my blood sugar’s going to get all sorts of dangerous.”  She looked at Bucky when she said it, but it was clear from her tone that the meet-and-greet was over.

Standing as gracefully as he could with a sore knee and tingling leg, Bucky gave everyone a sheepish smile and slung his leather jacket back on.  “Duty calls.  It was nice to meet all of you.”

Mickey waited until they were out of sight of the stage before tugging him over to a small alcove between two of the buildings.  “Okay.  Hands on your knees, lean over, breathe for me.”  As soon as he did so, Bucky was alarmed to realize that he’d been pushing down an anxiety attack.  He closed his eyes and let Mickey guide him through his breathing, trying to ignore the pounding of his heartbeat.

Tripod pressed her head up against his stomach while he leaned against the wall, giving him something tactile to ground himself against.  Eventually the rushing in his ears faded away and Bucky opened his eyes to see Mickey quietly talking with a park employee several yards away.

Sliding further down the wall, Bucky reached out his arms and tugged Tripod closer to him.  She pressed herself against his chest, gently licking at his jaw while he scrubbed his fingers through the thick, coarse fur on her shoulders.  You should know better, she almost seemed to be saying, punctuating her worrying with the occasional wet nose boop on his cheek.

“<I know, girl.  I know.  Good girl,>” Bucky mumbled into Tripod’s neck, inhaling her rich, thick scent.  He closed his eyes and sighed heavily, smiling a bit when Tripod’s metal leg popped up to rest on his shoulder.

“Bucky?”

Raising his head, he saw Mickey rolling back over to him.  “Hm?”

“Jake’s the host of the show, he just offered to let us hang out in the staging room for a bit if you need it.”

Out of costume and without his stage makeup, Jake looked small and friendly.  He raised a hand and wagged his fingers in a shy wave, causing the corners of Bucky’s mouth to twitch up into a tired smile.

“Ralph and Geoff - that’s Vader and Maul - they also kind of want to meet you two, if that’s okay.  Totally cool if you’re not up for it, though.”  Jake grinned at him and shrugged.  “Geoff has OCD so he knows how it is.  You won’t hurt any feelings if you say no.”

Bucky considered this for a few seconds, resting his cheek against Tripod’s neck, and shook his head.  “I don’t think I’ll be able to do much more socializing until I’ve had some food and meds.  The munchkin mob kind of caught me off guard earlier.”

“Yeah, they do that,” Jake laughed, and nodded.  “Thanks for humoring us, it means a lot to the cast and the audience.  There’s a sandwich shop that’s sort of out of the way about a hundred yards down the street, the back tables are in the corner and about fifteen feet back from the main walkway.  Good sightlines.”

“Thanks, pal.”  He watched Jake leave and gave Mickey a lopsided smile.  “Could’a been worse.  We should send some signed pictures or something when we get home, though.”

“Do you want to take the benzos now and wait for them to kick in before we go get food?”

“I think I’m okay.  Just give me another minute or so.”  Closing his eyes and taking another deep breath, Bucky ran his hand up and down Tripod’s back.

Mickey’s wheelchair creaked slightly as she got up, and he heard her quietly thump down next to him against the wall.  “You did good, out there on the stage.  Made me proud.”

“We’re keeping the lightsabers.”

Her laughter made him smile again.  “Do me ears deceive me or did you actually have fun doing a Star Wars thing?”

“Oh, shaddup.”  Bucky gently bumped her in the shoulder with his and grinned at her.  “Yeah, it was kinda fun.  Definitely worth it to see your smile.”

“Sap.”

“Cheeseball.”

She pressed her lips to his cheek and hooked a hand around his upper arm.  “Before you start freaking out about ruining today with getting twitchy, remember that you’ve been doing incredibly well with the crowds so far, you handled getting called out in front of an audience without any issues, and even put on a little show for the kids.  And those kids got to see a real-life superhero, give him a hug, get his autograph…”

“Mm.”  Bucky leaned his head over onto her shoulder.  “Still getting used to the fact that I’m a superhero.  Usually it was more of the other thing.”

A gentle hand combed through his hair, and Mickey’s fingers played with the strands curling over his jacket collar.  “You’ve been pushing yourself pretty hard today because you want me to enjoy this as much as possible.  I’d call that pretty heroic.  You still need to take care of yourself, though, so how about we grab some food from that shop Jake mentioned, find somewhere out of the way to eat at one of those back tables, and relax for a bit before we do anything else?”

“Sounds good.”  Bucky stretched his legs out in front of him and let Tripod sprawl across them while he waited for the last remnants of the anxiety attack to dissipate.  Eventually the lively sounds of the park faded from overstimulation into background noise, and he laced his fingers with Mickey’s while he enjoyed their small, peaceful corner for a few more minutes.

Chapter Text

The hidden elevator descended for a full ten seconds before they heard the first sounds from below.

Jack’s stomach turned when terrified, agonized screaming pierced through the elevator’s walls.  It took another fifteen seconds before the doors opened, and Pierce led them into the underground bank vault.

In the center of the vault was a strange looking chair with a man strapped into it, eyes rolled back into his head, jaw muscles pulsing as his teeth clamped down on a bite guard.  As he stared in confusion at what looked to be a prisoner, Jack’s hands tensed around his rifle. The man’s entire left arm was made up of segmented metal plates that clacked and hissed as they slid back and forth.  Shaggy brown hair partially obscured his face, and his bare chest was covered in sweat despite the January chill.

Electricity arced from the plates around the man’s head, and Brock swore under his breath.

“Gentlemen.”  Pierce stepped into the room and turned to the STRIKE men as if he was a tour guide in an art gallery.  “We obtained him from the Russians some time ago, but only activated him recently. Your job is to prep him for missions, be his backup and extraction team, and return him here to the processing facility without any complications.  Any questions?”

Awkward silence was broken only by the man’s rapid panting as the technicians retracted the headpiece and removed his bite guard.

Brock glanced over at Jack, then stepped forward.  “Sir… what sort of missions? Who is he?”

Pierce’s smile was devoid of any warmth or friendliness, causing a sharp chill to run down Jack’s spine.  He’d already started to piece together what he was looking at, but, it couldn’t be true. The Soviet assassin was a ghost story, a legend of the HYDRA underworld murmured between cadets at night to scare each other.  There was no way it was all one man, the same man, for seventy years…

“Commander Rumlow, allow me to introduce HYDRA’s most valuable Asset.  The weapon you see before you is none other than the Winter Soldier.”

***

Lips pressed together in a thin line, Jack swept a stinging blow across Evans’s shoulder – literally stinging, even though he’d set the Taser rod to the lowest level.  The rest of the cadets watched intently from a safe distance as Evans groaned, pressed a hand over the welt forming under his shirt, and turned to face Jack.

“All due respect, sir, but do we really have to train with live zappers?”

Jack just blinked at the lanky cadet, raised his eyebrows, and tilted his chin down slightly while maintaining contact.

The boy let out a quiet sigh as he raised up the pair of zappers in his hands and stepped into a defensive stance.

“When I went through the Ops Academy, they lined all of the trainees up in a row and tased us to prove a point.  Made us run a course with instructors firing simmies at us, too. Consider the live weapons your motivation to keep your ass covered.”

“Yessir.”  Evans swallowed and adjusted his grip on the rods.

Stepping forward, Jack raised up his own zappers.  “Let’s do this again. I’ll tell you when you leave me the opening this time, but it’s on you to correct it.”

Four hours, eight sore trainees and one equally sore lieutenant later, Jack deactivated his Taser rods and stuffed them through his belt.  He glanced up to look for Franklin and quickly spotted the lieutenant waiting at the gate to the training field after shooing the cadets off to the showers.

“You’re pretty tough on them,” the younger man observed calmly, picking dirt from under his nails with a tiny knife.  “Barnes won’t be happy if he comes back and hears about any of his students washing out.”

Grunting noncommittally, Jack slung his training duffel over his shoulder.  “He’s seemed happy with my results so far.”

“You sure that’s not just because your Mickey’s brother?”

Jack shrugged.  “They both know how to leave work at work and home at home.  Besides, I think the kids are just as scared of Mickey as they are of the big guy.”

“Hah!  That’s for sure,” Franklin agreed with a chuckle.  “To be fair, her qualifications are a bit intimidating.”

Jack smiled fondly and shook his head.  “Hey, Cap and I are heading to Training Room Two for one of Romanoff’s sessions.  You coming?”

“Nah, gotta take care of some paperwork.  I’ll see you around.” Waving over his shoulder, Franklin split off to the cadets’ barracks and left Jack to make his way back into the main compound.  Not bothering with a shower – it could wait until Romanoff was done with them – he pushed open the door to the training room and grinned at Steve.

“Hey, Cap.  No uniform today?”

The blond shook his head and picked at the wraps around his knuckles before turning back to the bag he was teaching a lesson to.  “Kinda want the world to start seeing me as, y’know, me.  So, whenever I guest star for Nat, she credits me as Steve Rogers.  It’s catching on slowly.”

“Makes sense.”  Jack tossed his bag against the wall and looked over at the DSLR and tripod that Romanoff used to film her self defense vlog episodes.  “Anything in particular she’s going to be looking at today? She didn’t say why she needed both of us.”

“Probably dealing with two people at once.”  Steve’s fists made dull thwacks as they hit the bag.

“Far cry from those Rappin’ with Cap videos they had you make back in 2012, isn’t it?”

The answering groan made Jack laugh.  “I’m never going to live those down, am I?”

“Nope!”  Romanoff’s cheerful voice cut in as she walked into the room.  She flashed a toothy grin at Jack and winked as she walked by. “Ready to get started, boys?  Today we’re teaching the ladies of YouTube about keeping track of multiple assailants.”

“Called it,” Steve muttered, and sighed in resignation.

Once Natasha felt like she had enough material for her episode, she sent the two men on their way back to the Avengers’ quarters.  “I’ll use the master bathroom,” Steve volunteered once they got in the door. “Just let me grab my stuff first, Buck’s gonna kill me if he finds out I used his shampoo.”

“What, the vanilla stuff?”

“It’s either that or the citrus one, I can’t remember who uses what.”  Shaking his head, Steve ducked into the hall bathroom and scooped up a few things.  “He’s got this thing for scents. I think it has to do with the sensory deprivation or something.”

An image sprang to mind, unbidden, of the Asset’s nostrils flaring and eyes narrowing as he zeroed in on Brock’s new cologne.  “Yeah… I don’t know. He’s always been that way, at least as long as I, um, knew him.” Jack gave Steve an awkward, lopsided smile.  “He knew we landed in Belgium one time just because of how it smelled.”

“Captain Rogers, Agent Rollins,” FRIDAY interrupted.  “We just found some more intel on Rumlow.  Boss has scheduled a briefing in twenty minutes to give you time to freshen up.”

Jack frowned and looked over at Steve.  “Why do you need me there? Do I even have the clearance for this?”

“You know Rumlow better than any of us.  We’ve been flying blind so far, and this is probably the first useful information we’ve got since you and Bucky came home.”  Shrugging one-shouldered, Steve turned and headed toward the master suite. “Maybe you’ll see something we’ve been missing.”

***

Steve went looking for Jack later that night when he didn’t come back to the apartment after the briefing.  Eventually, he found him at the ice rink; blades hissed and scuffed at the surface as Jack lined up a row of hockey pucks and neatly slotted each of them into the goal at the end of the rink.

Earbuds poked out of his ears, so Steve carefully stepped onto the ice and slid-walked over to him.  Once he was in view, he waved to catch Jack’s attention.

Jack gave Steve a tired half-smile as he tugged his headphones out, letting them dangle loosely from his jacket collar.  “Need something?”

“Just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”  Stepping forward, Steve nudged one of the pucks with his toe.  “You seemed a little agitated during the briefing.”

The hockey stick clacked against the ice as Jack lowered it and ran his free hand over his hair.  “Brock’s my- was my closest friend. It hurts a bit to see what he’s doing.” Reports of small-scale terrorism, raids, brutal assassinations… the pictures weren’t pretty.

“Hard to reconcile it?”

Jack laughed bitterly.  “You have no idea.” He swept sideways with a twist of his skates and slapped another puck into the goal with an angry grunt.  “That- that thing, that’s not who he is.  Who he was, I mean. That’s not the Brock Rumlow I- that’s not my commander.”

“Trauma changes people.”

“You think I don’t know that?” he said, defeat coloring his voice.  “Who do you think had to pick up the pieces when Mickey came home from Asscrackistan with shaking hands and glassy eyes?  Who do you think got to deal with the nightmares, the doctor’s visits, the medications? Who do you-” He cut himself off with noticeable effort, closed his eyes, and took a deep breath.  “Brock was there through everything, for the both of us. Took care of Mickey when I wasn’t able to, cashed in all his sick days and vacation, kissed Pierce’s ass to get more. Kept me from breaking like my baby sister did.”

“Jack…”

He dropped the hockey stick gently, pulling his hands over his face.  The scar on his jaw felt smooth and slippery under his fingers, a reminder of that day so many years ago when his whole life had changed, when he’d crashed his bicycle and a scruffy, black-haired stranger called an ambulance for him.  Squeezing his eyes shut for a second, Jack let out a quiet, resigned sigh and snaked his finger under the chain he kept around his neck. Might as well get this over with before it comes out another way, he told himself.  Cold silver slid against his jaw as he tugged the chain over his head, then he tossed it and its contents over to Steve.

Steve frowned down at the pool of metal in his palm before gently running a finger over one of the rings.  “Are these…”

“Yeah.”  Jack’s voice was hoarse and dry.  “Fifteen years. Was going to propose that May, on our anniversary, and then… well, you know what happened.”  His shoulders slumped forward and he braced his hands on his knees. “Didn’t even know Brock had survived until we ran into him at the shipping yard and he tried to kill Bucky.  He didn’t even- didn’t even look for me, try to contact me, no rescue…  Fifteen years, Steve, and then nothing.  And I don’t even know if I can ever- I don’t know if I can just get over that.”

Steve didn’t respond, simply watching Jack and waiting for him to continue.

“Just wanted you to understand why this isn’t easy for me,” Jack mumbled, scooping up his hockey stick and lining up for another slap-shot.  “Not saying he was the best boyfriend on the planet, but…”

“You loved him.  Still do.”

The smack of wood on ice bounced hollowly off the walls.  “Yeah. And he was good to Mickey through everything. Knew her since she was twelve, always had her back.  After me, he was the second person she came out to.” The next puck flew into the upper left corner and Jack narrowed his eyes in satisfaction.  When he finally ran out of pucks, he skated forward, collected them from the goal, and tapped them back into a line.

Scuffing forward slowly, Steve handed Jack the rings.  They fell back into place against his sternum, already chilled from their time in the open air.  “Mickey mentioned your step-dad was kind of an asshole. Did Rumlow…”

Jack nodded curtly.  “Helped us pack everything up and move into his condo when shit went south.  Mum died just a few days before Greg did, so we were both still pretty shaken up.  Cops said I killed him in self-defense, which is bullshit because he had a gun and I didn’t.  He tried to shoot Mickey and I just... lost it. Micks never knew our real dad, so she never had much of a good father figure.  I guess Brock kind of fit that role for her. Greg sure as hell didn’t.”

As he sent three more pucks into the net, Jack chewed his lip.  He didn’t entirely know why he was telling all of this to Steve, but it felt good to finally get it off his chest.

“Did the rest of your team know about you and Brock?”

“Nah.”  He shook his head and lined up his next shot.  “We kept it pretty quiet. Some of them might have suspected, but if they did, they kept it to themselves.  No one wanted to get on Brock’s bad side. He wasn’t always this… crazy, or- or, I dunno, evil, but he’s always had a nasty temper.  Besides, I think ‘breaking bylaws’ is an understatement there, even if we were together before I was his second-in-command.”

Steve was silent for several minutes, watching Jack score shot after shot, fetch the pucks, line them up again, and start over.  Finally, he stepped forward again. “Do you want me to take you off the search roster?”

The offer was tempting, and Jack paced back and forth over the ice as he considered it.  “I’m not sure. I don’t think so, not yet.”

“You know regulations prevent me from putting you on his interrogation team, if we ever do catch him.”

“Since when have you ever followed regulations, Cap?” Jack threw back.  “But yes, I know. I’ll still want to talk to him, but I won’t interfere with due process.  Mostly I just want to know what the hell happened to him. Brock wouldn’t do the shit we see Crossbones doing.  It’s not him.”

Nodding understandingly, Steve turned back toward the door to the rink.  “There’s leftovers in the common kitchen from dinner last night, if you’re hungry when you’re done.  I’ll leave you to it. And…” He stopped and turned to look over his shoulder. “Jack, you ever need to talk, I’m here.”

“Steve Rogers, resident mom.”  But Jack smiled and tossed the other man a lazy salute before turning back to the line of pucks.

Ten pucks in the net, gather, line up, repeat.

***

Well over two hours later, he finally shut the door to their quarters behind him with a quiet click.   A bright green post-it note on the door of the fridge caught his eye, and he opened it to find a saran-wrapped plate full of food for him.  The corner of his mouth twitched upward; they all had their coping mechanisms to deal with the bodies they left behind. Steve’s happened to be aggressively nurturing anything with a pulse.

A few seconds before the microwave would have beeped, Jack popped the door open and pulled out the plate.  He ate quickly before the food cooled, barely tasting the potatoes and chicken. The apartment felt… quiet, or maybe stagnant without Mickey and Bucky there, and soon Jack found himself curled into one of the window seats, staring out across the dimly lit Compound.

If he closed his eyes and concentrated enough, he could still picture Brock’s face before everything happened, before HYDRA had activated, before their world crumbled to pieces around them.  So many years had passed, carving deeper and deeper lines into his angular face, adding heavy worries to his dark eyes. Constant nightmares were a poorly kept secret among the STRIKE operatives.  Everyone had them, but no one would admit to them.

Brock had always taken on more than his fair share of the trauma, sparing the younger and greener agents from the more gruesome or terrifying missions.  He was always the first to breach when they infiltrate a base, always the first to enter a room when they’d had reports of an enhanced person going off the rails.  And he was always the first to wake up screaming, shuddering as his demons laughed at him, clutching at Jack’s shoulders as he struggled to breathe.

They’d kept their little condo in DC free of any alcohol for two reasons.  Mickey had done her dead level best, but there were still some nights where the trauma of watching one of her Marines die in her arms without any way to stop it sat heavily on her shoulders.  The other half of it was to keep Brock from falling into old habits and off of the wagon by drinking himself into a stupor every time his head got too noisy.

And for years, they hadn’t had any problems.  The three of them managed to scrape out a life, an oasis away from both SHIELD and HYDRA, a tiny little island of peace that only they could access.  Jack still kicked himself for not setting up a way for Mickey to have kept the condo if both he and Brock were gone, and he took the blame for the months she’d spent with Shelby firmly on his own shoulders.

For years, their little island of calm was a welcome refuge from the world, but Jack had known from the set of Brock’s shoulders as they left the vault that the older man felt every bit as sick as he did, watching the Asset get wiped yet again.  What made it so much worse than he’d ever thought possible is how with four simple words, the Asset confirmed everything the two STRIKE agents suspected about his identity.

But I knew him.

Jack had found Brock later that night sprawled unconscious on the floor of the living room, halfway into a bottle of something that smelled like death.

The last time they’d seen each other was the following morning, when Jack was so furious with Brock that he couldn’t even look him in the eye.  The last words he’d said to the man he was intending to pledge his life to… they would haunt him the rest of his life.

If you’re going to do this to yourself, then go do it somewhere else.  I want no part in watching you self-destruct again. I thought you were better than this.

Jack gritted his teeth and closed his eyes, leaning back against the wall of the window seat.  All those words… the ones he could never take back, the ones he’d left unsaid. It made sense, in a twisted sort of way, how Brock had never come back for him.  After all, he’d made things pretty clear when he’d pushed the man away without a second thought on the day they were both supposed to die.

But as much as he wanted to hope that there was still some fragment of Brock left in the ruthless, sadistic mercenary they chased, Jack couldn’t let himself go there.  All that was left was Crossbones. He couldn’t let himself fall into the trap of thinking that Brock - his Brock - was still in there somewhere, no matter how much it may hurt.

Jack clutched the rings through his shirt and curled up into a ball with his knees against his chest.  He sat like that for several minutes, focusing on his breathing just like he’d seen Bucky do. In and out, in and out.

He’d nearly succeeded in getting himself reeled back in when his phone buzzed in his pocket.  After jumping out of his skin, Jack scrambled for his phone, took a few deep breaths to ground himself, and answered the call.

“H- hey, Mickey Mouse.”  He kept his voice low in the hopes that he wouldn’t wake Steve.  “How was the Magic Kingdom?”

“Pretty damn cool, definitely a good surprise.  I’m guessing you helped him plan it, so, good job.”   Mickey laughed quietly.  “We just got home from dinner, there was this awesome restaurant that Bucky got us a table at.  He says the beer was kind of meh, but oh my god the food was amazing, and they even did a meal for Tripod.  Being an Avenger’s dog apparently has its perks.”

“What’s the place called?”  Last he’d known, Bucky was still deciding where to go.

Mickey’s voice was muffled as she repeated the question to Bucky.  “Napa Rose.  I can honestly say it’s the fanciest spot I’ve ever been to outside of one of Tony’s catered things.”

“Damn!”  Jack couldn’t help but smile.  “Well, that qualifies as treating my baby sister right.  He’s got good taste.”

“If he keeps taking me out to places like this as an excuse not to cook, I’m going to be a whale by the end of this vacation.  How’re things back home?”

He took a deep breath before answering.  “Training’s like it normally is. They’re still struggling with the zappers, but those take a while to master.  We got more intel on Crossbones and it, um, it just kind of threw me for a loop. Hard to…”

“Talk to me, what’s going on?”

“Just falling into my head a little bit.  I’m not having flashbacks yet, so I think I’m good for now, but it’s just hard to process everything that Crossbones has done.”

“I know.”  The phone crackled softly as Mickey exhaled.  “You going to be okay?”

“Do I have much of a choice?”

“Jack…”

He let out a quiet, mirthless laugh.  “If I get through the night without waking up screaming, then yeah, we’ll say I’m okay.  It’s just- some of the stuff he’s been doing to people, it’s the… I’ve- I’ve seen this before.”

“…what?”

“Micks, you know they-”  The words caught in his throat.  “You know what they did to me at the Raft.”

She didn’t answer, and Jack pressed his free hand against his eyes.  He still remembered the tight, angry set to her jaw during the first few weeks after his release, still remembered sitting in front of her on the exam table in Medical because she was the only person he trusted to touch him.  “They weren’t even trying to get information out of me after the first few weeks. Brock compartmentalized things so well that he was the only one who knew everything STRIKE had going on. Even as his second, I ran out of intel to give them pretty quick.  Then they just- all they wanted was revenge.”

Jack drew in a breath, held it for a beat, then exhaled slowly, as steadily as he could.  “I don’t think Brock’s looking for anything. Even as erratic as he’s being right now, there’s no pattern to anything he’s doing.  He’s just hurting people to hurt people and, well, you know.  That wasn’t him.  Not before.”

“The men at the Raft-”

“Ross’s.  They aren’t SHIELD, Steve already tried to pursue that and it’s a legal dead end.  There isn’t a thing we can do without evidence, even with Murdock on the case.”

“Evide- Jack, your whole damn body is evidence.”

“Scars could’ve come from anything.”  Jack’s voice cracked as he hunched over again, hugging his knees to his chest.  The angry welts around his wrists had long since faded, but the skin left behind was rougher and thicker than usual, and the needle scars on his arms had become a spattering of tiny brown freckles and bumps.  The thick ridges that striped his back pulled strangely as he dropped his head forward between his knees.

“No proof it’s from the imprisonment, since my medical records from before the Uprising got destroyed.  Besides, after the stunt Coulson pulled to keep me out of WITSEC once Buck an’ I got back to the Compound, we don’t have much of a case for an ex-HYDRA operative getting tortured by one of the good guys.”

“Ross is as far from ‘one of the good guys’ as possible, Jack.  You know what he tried to do to Bruce.”

“I know, I’m… I’m just saying that I don’t really have many options here.”

Mickey scoffed.  “What about seeing someone?  Or even just talking to Sam a few times?  You saw firsthand how much it’s helped basically everyone on the team.”

“I don’t get that.”  Glaring out at the blue-white lamps along the running path, Jack adjusted his grip on his phone.  “Different benefits package, not as good as yours. Brain doctors aren’t covered.”

“Well, fuck.”  Mickey paused when Bucky’s voice called to her in the background.  “I need to go if I’m going to get my hip to stop hurting before we go to bed.  Remember, you can wake Steve up if you need someone to sit with you, he won’t mind.  Also, I’m going to shoot off a text to Tony to see if we can finagle a way to get you on Avengers payroll.”

“Mickey…”

“Shut up and let me do something good for you, okay?  Love you.”

Jack smiled despite himself.  “Love you too, peanut. Miss you already.  Sleep well and give Moose a hug for me.” Just like old habits, catchy nicknames died hard, and the moniker that Shelley had assigned to the former Winter Soldier stuck like glue.

“Will do.  G’night.”

His phone beeped quietly at him after Mickey hung up, and he set it down on the seat cushion next to him before wrapping his arms around his knees again.  The more he thought about it, the more he became sure that there wasn’t an easy answer to this mess with Brock. Jack had managed to free himself from not only HYDRA but Ross’s forces as well, and had even worked his way back into SHIELD’s grudging favor.

What with the increased attention on the accountability and rights of powered and enhanced individuals and the Avengers’ constant fight to save as many people as they could with minimal casualties, the whole team stood to lose a lot if things didn’t play out their way.  Ross had been hinting at slapping the Avengers with some form of restrictions ever since Bucky went AWOL earlier in the year to wipe HYDRA and AIM off the map, and he hadn’t made much of an effort at all to hide his obsession with putting Bruce under both a microscope and crosshairs.

The only way Jack could see everything working out is if they found Crossbones, brought him to justice, and put him away where he couldn’t hurt anyone else.  And all that would have to be accomplished without losing any other lives in the process.

Tugging the chain out from under his shirt, Jack looked down at the two rings in the palm of his hand and traced over the smaller one with his thumb.  The pale, almost-white metal picked up the orange-tinted light from outside, highlighting the simple stepped profile of the band. Brock was allergic to silver and didn’t much care for the look of gold, so Jack saved for nearly a year to get him an understated, plain platinum ring.  His own was the same design, slightly larger, and pale white gold that shone with a faint yellow hue next to the pure cool white of platinum.

Eleven months’ discretionary income, and all down the drain.  It still baffled him that he’d gotten the rings back in the first place during his release from the Raft, and he hadn’t had the heart to sell them ever since.  As much as he knew his Brock was dead and gone, replaced with a monster that wore his face, Jack couldn’t bear to part with the last remnants of their life before.

“I heard voices, is everything okay?”

Steve’s scratchy, groggy voice made Jack jump slightly.  He turned to face the hall and saw the other man leaning against the wall there, rubbing a thumb into the corner of one eye.

“…yeah.”  Dropping the rings back under his shirt, he let his forehead fall onto his knees.  “Mickey called to check in and see how things were going.”

“Mm.”  Soft footsteps scuffed over to the living room and Steve flopped heavily onto the couch.

Grimacing at the flavor of thoughts bouncing around in his head, Jack chewed his lip as he stared out the window.  “You ever wonder… ever wonder if it’s the world that changed, or if it’s us?”

One blue eye cracked open, a tired eyebrow rising up above it.  “I ain’t awake enough for philosophizing.”

Jack laughed quietly and shook his head.  “It’s simpler than that, I promise.” He pushed up from the window seat and sank down on the other end of the couch.  “I know that being in the Raft changed me, and seeing Mickey take my bullet did it, too. I still can’t take kill shots even in practice, and I get nightmares about watching Mickey and the cadets bleed out through my scope.  And before you say anything, yes, I know I have PTSD. At least I have physical scars to go with it, though.

“I kind of wonder, how much did I change?  Was the world always this dark and hostile, and was Brock always this…”

“Butthurt angry vindictive asshole?” Steve deadpanned.

“Hah.  Yeah, I guess that’s one way to put it.”

Groaning softly, Steve leaned forward on his knees and rubbed his hands over his face.  His hair stuck out in every direction, still halfway damp from the shower he must have taken earlier.  “I don’t think we ever really change as people, not unless we go through unimaginable trauma like Bucky did.  There’s parts of us that get center stage and parts that are off in the wings, and which part is which changes over time.  Rumlow’s probably always had a bit of a sadistic streak, it just hasn’t shown its face until now.”

He glanced up at Jack, then flushed slightly as he realized what he’d just said.  “Wow… uh, sorry. That sounded a lot better in my head. I kind of fucked that up.”

Jack waved away the apology before Steve could beat himself up about it any more.  “Hearing Cap say ‘fuck,’ now that’s the same kind of mother’s milk as my drill sergeant from the academy.”

“Mother’s milk, huh?”  Steve gave him a lopsided grin.  “And military shrinks wonder why so many GIs end up with authority kinks.”

That earned a groan and an eye roll from Jack.  “Ugh, things I didn’t need to know about my childhood hero.  Put a cork in it, Rogers. Or, better yet, put a cock in it.”

Steve smirked at him.  “You offering?”

“Wha- no.   Jesus.  Don’t you have a thing going with that girl that nearly beat my range score?  Carter?”

Steve’s lips twisted and he looked off to the side.  “Not really, not anymore. I’m so busy leading the Avengers, she’s over in Berlin nine months out of the year.  I’m not even sure if we’ve qualified as a ‘thing’ for at least a month. Even when she was stateside, we barely saw each other.”

“Yeah, I guess at least I was on the same team as my partner.  Meant we had to keep a pretty tight lid on things at work, though.  Didn’t want to get caught, too much of a risk.”

“God, I know how that feels.”  Steve huffed quietly and stretched his arms out along the top of the couch.  “Back in the war, a lot of guys ended up basically as situational inverts. It was a hell of a lot safer than the brothels, even if you risked getting a blue discharge if you were caught.  There’s always been the bigots that targeted twinks and bottoms, but… the soldiers were a lot more open to that sort of stuff than you’d expect. Just couldn’t let the brass find out.”

“Did the Commandos ever know you’re bi?”

And there, that was the shit-eating grin Steve was so fond of.  “Yeah. They thought Buck and I were an item for pretty much the whole war.”

“Weren’t you?”  Jack frowned slightly, tapping absently at his knee.

“Hah, no.  But not for lack of trying.”  Chewing on the inside of his cheeks, Steve blushed slightly.  “Figured out early on that he don’t like guys the way I do, so that was that.  After I rescued him from the HYDRA factory, he’d been juiced up enough that he couldn’t get drunk anymore, and that was the only reason we ended up makin’ time in the first place before the war.”

“So he’s, what, a one or two on the Kinsey scale?”

Steve’s nose scrunched up as he made a sort of confused frown.  “Is that the sexuality spectrum thing? Yeah, he’s pretty much ninety percent straight but if you get him good an’ wasted then he’ll sleep with anything that breathes.”

“Good,” Jack laughed.  “It’d be a shame to deprive anyone of that glorious, glorious ass.”

“Jack… are you ogling your sister’s boyfriend?”

He turned his head to look back out the window.  “No. Shut up.”

“Hey, it is a glorious ass.”  Steve held up his hands defensively and grinned.  “Trust me, I should know. I’ve spent nearly thirty years staring at it and all the bits around it.”

“…what.”

“I’m an artist, Jack, and Bucky was nothing if not vain and shameless.  Who do you think modeled for me when I couldn’t afford or attend my art classes?”

“Oh my god I need to see your sketchbook.”

Half an hour after getting his hands on the nondescript black leather-bound books, Jack traced his fingers over sketch after sketch of a short-haired, cocky, significantly younger Bucky Barnes.

“Please don’t tell him that I showed you these…”

“My lips are sealed,” Jack muttered as he gently turned the page.  Every inch of paper was full of exquisite pencil and ink drawings, done with a light and delicate hand.  “Wow.”

He paused on one particular drawing that filled the whole page of the letter-sized book.  The thick, bold strokes Steve had used contrasted sharply with his normal style, but it worked well to define a war-hardened face turned partially away from the viewer and cast into harsh shadows.  Bucky’s thick winter coat bunched up around his biceps as he raised his hands to light a fresh cigarette. The deep, thick folds of the fabric were thrown into stark relief by the light of the campfire in the background.

His hair fell over his forehead in loose, carefree curls that looked out of place above eyes that seemed so alive, so full of stubborn determination and visions of far too many battlefields.  Eyebrows knitted together, Bucky stared moodily off to the left through long, dark eyelashes.

Bucky as drawn by Steve

“That was in Czechoslovakia, May of ‘44.  He’d get that look in his eyes whenever he thought I wasn’t paying attention,” Steve said quietly, eyes unfocusing as he slid through memories.  “As much as he tried hard to look like he was holding it together, the war really did change him. The last time I ever saw the Bucky I fell in love with was when I said goodbye to him outside the enlistment center at the Expo.”

Speechless, Jack continued flipping through the pages.  It’d be a lie to say he wasn’t initially looking for eye candy, but instead he found himself seeing Bucky Barnes through the eyes of his oldest friend.  It was a minor miracle that the SSR had preserved Steve’s sketchbooks, and now Jack felt like a voyeur, peeking in on the lives of the two boys from Brooklyn growing up in the ashes of a war-torn world.

From a gangly youngster to a lean, strong young man, Jack saw sketch after sketch of the most important person in Steve Rogers’s world.  Then the war hit, and the carefree dancer grew into a stern soldier with eyes of steel.

The next sketchbook was newer, with a heavier binding and thicker paper.  Better tools meant that Steve no longer had to scrounge for pencil stubs in the SSR office, but it also made it painfully obvious how jarring the transition to the future had been for Steve.

“That was when I spent several weeks at the Retreat.”  Steve laced his fingers together uncomfortably as he looked at the haunted drawings, fragments of Bucky’s face, sketch after sketch of him falling from the train.  “I wasn’t… wasn’t at my best.”

Jack’s eyebrows drew together as he glanced up at Steve.

“He kept screaming in my head.”

Objectively, everyone knew that Steve still carried guilt for when Bucky had fallen from the train.  Hearing it put into words, that was an entirely different matter. Before Jack could speak, though, Steve held up a hand.

“I know what you’re going to say, and I’m working on it with my shrink.”

“Hey, that’s your business.  I’m not Sam.” Jack buried himself back in the sketchbook.  Haunted, half-finished sketches of Bucky and the other Commandos gradually faded into images of the Chitauri, and then into quick sketches of his new teammates.

Finally, Jack realized what had been bugging him through the whole thing.  “You’ve got an eidetic memory.”

“Blessing and a curse,” Steve muttered.  “Putting it on paper helps get it out of my head.”

“Is that why Bucky’s always working in those notebooks of his?”

Nodding, Steve rubbed a thumb over his knuckles.  “We remember pretty much everything, but it’s easier if we can write or draw it somehow.  Makes it not so bad, almost like it gives us permission to forget.”

“But you don’t.”

“No.”  The blond soldier’s shoulders hunched slightly.  “Wish I could, sometimes. As much as I don’t miss all the health problems, sometimes I wish I was still… normal.”

Jack bumped his shoulder into Steve’s and picked up the next sketchbook.  “Don’t we all.”

What he saw next took his breath away.  He’d watched some of the footage after Bucky had surrendered to SHIELD, and he’d definitely flipped through some of the intake pictures, but seeing the broken man curled in a ball on a hospital bed, drawn by Steve’s hand… it put things into perspective.  The longing desperation was tangible in every line of every sketch of those empty, pained eyes.

As if he knew what Jack was about to ask, Steve sighed.  “I’d put them in a gallery, but it feels invasive somehow.  Besides, they’re a little…”

“Intense?”

“Personal.”  Steve grimaced slightly.  “That was the problem I had in art class.  My teachers always said I had more emotion than technique.”

“Well, fuck ‘em.  These are amazing.”  Sketches of children at the hospital Steve volunteered at started to sprinkle in with greater frequency.  Each child was full of life and personality, practically bouncing off the page despite the meticulously rendered IVs and medical equipment.

He chuckled, embarrassed, and blushed slightly.  “You think so?”

“Wouldn’t say it if I didn’t mean it.”  Jack thumbed through the remainder of the drawings until he ran into blank pages.  “Maybe you should do an exhibition, though.  New stuff. Show the world that there’s more to Steve Rogers than stars and stripes and a covered-up body count.  I’ve seen you paint, you’re just as good with a brush as you are with a pencil.”

“It’s… not the same with, um, pictures.”  Blushing deeper, Steve turned away and scratched at the back of his neck.  “Harder to get it to have the same amount of life and motion.”

“What about hiring some models?”

“Yeah, sure.  ‘Hey, kids, come and get naked with the Avengers!  Special session with Captain America!’ Yeah, that’d go great.”

Jack shut the sketchbook with a snap and tossed it gently onto the pile of the rest.  “You don’t know if you don’t try.”

“Rather draw people I know.  It’s less awkward.”

“Ask Bucky to model for you again.”

Rather than respond, Steve dropped his face into his hands and made a frustrated noise.  His ears turned bright red, and Jack couldn’t help but laugh.

“Wow.  Really?”

Steve nodded wordlessly.

“Well, at least I’m not the only one that’s jealous of Mickey.”  Jack grinned and shook his head. “I mean, I don’t have to tell you about his… physique… with-”

Steve threw up a hand.  “Stop. I’m finally at the point where he and I can spar again without me getting distracted.  Don’t ruin this for me.”

Holding up his hands, Jack leaned back into the couch.  “You’re right, I’m sorry. Just been a while since I got laid.”

“I can tell.”

He laughed awkwardly and picked up one of Steve’s war sketchbooks, thumbing it back open to the drawing of Bucky at the campfire.  “I never really understood the term ‘artistic nudity’ until tonight. It’s amazing, how you can draw people completely clothed and they’re still laid out naked and bare on the page.  And yet, when they’re completely nude, you manage to make it true art instead of just pencil-drawn porn.” Thumbing back through the pages, Jack stumbled on one page that felt thicker than normal, two sheets stuck together.  He carefully worked his index finger between them and loosened the paper without tearing it.

Steve shifted uncomfortably next to him as Jack let the new drawings fall open in his lap.  The thin, delicate lines were haunted and tortured, barely resolving into emaciated forms tumbling over one another.  Despite the vague shaping, the bodies were twisting and falling in such a way that Jack’s breath caught in his throat.

“This is…”

“One of the camps.”  Steve’s voice was hoarse; he practically croaked out the words.

“…Christ, Rogers.”

“Buck was the only one that didn’t break down.  It took him nearly three days to process everything before he started having shaking fits at night.”

Jack pressed his hand to his mouth and closed the sketchbook.  Even though he’d seen pictures both in black and white and artificial color, it hadn’t held the same raw horror that Steve’s drawings did.  “I’m… Jesus. Jesus Christ. I’m so glad I never fought in either of the World Wars.”

“Bucky said Vietnam was worse.”

“So the world has always been this dark and hostile.”

“Afraid so.”  A heavy, large hand rested on Jack’s shoulder.  “I spent seventy years sleeping in the Arctic and within a month of getting thawed out, they had me back in uniform again.”

Jack took several deep breaths and closed his eyes.  “We need to stop Brock and figure out who’s calling the shots before this starts happening on this large of a scale again.  With the weapons technology we have now, I- I can’t even imagine what would happen if the political climate gets bad enough that it goes the way of fascism again.”

“You don’t think Crossbones is in charge?”  Steve’s blue eyes narrowed as he frowned.

“The more I think about it, the more I’m starting to suspect he traded HYDRA for Leviathan, and I don’t think this new player is a lesser evil.”

“We don’t know anything about Leviathan yet.  All our intel is at least sixty years old, they’ve been off the grid since the beginning of the Cold War.”

Hesitantly, Jack asked, “How likely is it that they’re employing the same techniques HYDRA used?  Like the Faustus Method?”

“Fenhoff’s thing?  Given how involved he was in both Leviathan and HYDRA… I’d say pretty likely.”

“Well… shit.”  A glance at the oven clock told Jack it was well past three in the morning now, and he sighed heavily.  “Go back to bed, Rogers. There’s not much of a chance I’m going to be able to sleep tonight so I might as well take another look through our intel on Crossbones, see if we missed anything.”

Stubborn as always, Steve shook his head.  “Not gonna let you do that to yourself. At least, not without me here.  We’ll look at it together, and you can ping Franklin in the morning and have him run tomorrow’s drills.”

“…fine.”  Jack snapped his fingers and gestured to the air in front of him, and FRIDAY obligingly blinked the digital files into view.  “Let’s get started.”

 

Chapter Text

Mickey waited nervously at the door, fingers worrying at the handles of the canvas bag in her hands.  Did she have the right address? Was it even on the right day?

The door opened, and a proud, ancient woman stared back at Mickey.

“Um… hello.”  An awkward half-wave and nervous smile were all Mickey could manage.  She’d spent time with Dottie before, but never without Bucky there as well.

Dottie’s eyes flicked down to the SHIELD logo partially hidden under Mickey’s jacket.  “Michaela. Is everything all right?”

“No!  Yes. Um.  Everything’s fine.  Bucky sends his best wishes.”

Dottie’s eyes tightened as she ushered Mickey inside.  “How is he? Have you found him?” The younger woman found herself pulled into a surprisingly strong hug.

“Well, sort of.  He’s still AWOL, for now.”  She did her best to smile at Dottie.  “We’ve had contact with him, though, and he’s doing fine.  He actually asked me to stop by, check in on you, and if you’re feeling up for it, have dinner with you.  Said it was your birthday?”

Dottie gave Mickey an apologetic look and sighed quietly.  “As much as I’d love to go out somewhere, these old bones of mine just don’t move around like they used to.”

“I know.”  Holding up the canvas bag full of groceries, Mickey grinned.  “Figured we could cook something, put on some crappy TV, and share embarrassing stories about our favorite reformed assassin.”

It took a few seconds, but the delighted grin on Dottie’s face lit up the room.  “I knew there was a reason I liked you. Come right on in, dear, and let me tell you about Bucky Barnes and little Steve Rogers, and the day they had to ride home in a freezer truck…”

***

The unmistakable sound of someone putting on tactical gear drifted its way through the hotel suite as Mickey gently closed the door behind her.  Groaning quietly, she bent down to unlace her shoes and unclip Tripod’s leash. Her feet ached and she knew she had to sit down for a few minutes soon or risk falling over.  As Tripod trotted further into the suite, Mickey looked up to see a dark, blurry shape moving around the hotel room, thick panels of fabric swirling with the motion.

“…Bucky?”

He turned at the waist to look at her as he cinched down and buckled a strap on his forearm.  Mickey blinked a few more times to encourage her eyes to focus and tugged her shirt back down from where it rode up after she pulled her sweatshirt off.  Whining and whistling softly, Tripod nosed at Bucky’s strange clothing the same way she did every time he put on his combat uniform.

“G’mornin, sleepyhead.  Breakfast’s on the side table.”  Stooping down, Bucky picked up an ornate metal vambrace and slid it onto his left arm.

“Why are you…”  Something was familiar about the way he was dressed, and Mickey narrowed her eyes as she brushed the sleep gunk off her face with one hand.  She hadn’t had time to grab coffee or tea before Tripod needed to be taken outside for her morning rounds, and Bucky had still been dead to the world before they left.  “Your hair’s all funny.”

“Yep.  Getting into character.”  He grinned at her as he stepped around the bed and leaned down to kiss her forehead.  He’d swept his hair back and tied off a small tuft at the nape of his neck, giving it the illusion of a short ponytail.

“What happened to your lip?”

A wide, heavy belt of some sort jingled slightly as he picked it up and slung it around his waist.  “Just some liquid collodion, I’m fine.”

“Liquid… oh.  Oh.” Laughter bubbled up out of Mickey as she realized what was going on.  “You- you’re- wow. I thought you were kidding about putting together an Ezio costume.  So that’s why you haven’t been shaving.”

Bucky fluidly rattled off something sassy in Italian and leaned over to stuff his feet into heavy boots.

“Fine, be that way.  What’s the occasion?”  Stepping carefully around Tripod as the dog stuffed her face into the bowl Bucky had put down for her, Mickey slumped into the chair at the side table and started peeling the foil off of what turned out to be a breakfast burrito.

“One of those comic conventions you and your brother talk so much about.  Hope you don’t mind I took the liberty of making a costume for you, too.”

And indeed, her wheelchair had been decked out with strips of grayish wire connected to a battery pack under the seat.  Folded up next to the wheelchair was a black suit with more panels and lines in a similar gray, along with a large black disc with a hole in the center and a glossy black helmet.  How had she not noticed this before taking Tripod out?

Bucky scooped up the disc and tapped a hidden button, and bright green light filled the gray lines.

“Oh my god, you made me a TRON outfit.”

“Yep.”  He snaked his hand under the wheelchair’s frame, tongue just barely sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he fumbled for what turned out to be a switch.  The gray wiring illuminated with a similar green, and Mickey couldn’t help but grin as glowing rings flickered to life on the wheel rims.

Once she was done with breakfast, Bucky helped her into the fitted black suit, explaining as he went.  “The switch to turn on the glowy bits is on the back of your neck, right here. The disc bracket has some of Tony’s micro power cells in it that’ll give you a hundred or so hours of light.  The cuffs on your wrists have a few of Nat’s Widow’s Bites in them just in case.” He lifted up one of her wrists and tapped the three tubes that ran along the outside of her forearm.

“Bucky…”

“There’s armor panels built into it, some of that new composite that Tony an’ I have been working on.  They’ll stop pretty much any handgun and most smaller rifle rounds, as well as knives and other low-velocity projectiles.”

“Bucky.”

“What?”

Mickey gave him a wry smile.  “You went through the trouble of making a costume I’m going to wear for one day into a combat suit?  For a comic convention?”

“…yeah?”  He said it like it was the most logical thing in the world, and Mickey couldn’t help but laugh.  Resting her hands on his hips, she bounced up on her toes and kissed his nose.

“You’re adorable and it’s completely overkill and I love you.  Also, you look amazing in that costume.”

Blushing slightly, Bucky looked down and bit his lip to hide a bashful smile.  “Thanks.”

“So, did your outfit get the same treatment?”  Mickey curled her fingers and rapped a knuckle against his chest.  She wasn’t surprised by the quiet, hollow thok that answered her.

“Let’s just say that if anyone decides to start shit, we’ll be able to end it in about ten seconds.”

“Ten?”  She raised an eyebrow.  “You’re slipping.”

“Hush.”

Mickey watched him as he put on the finishing touches, tested the articulation of the hidden blades on each of his forearms, replaced the visible knives with orange polypropylene props, stowed the props’ counterparts in a hidden compartment under the wide belt, and methodically strapped real blades into place where they’d never be seen until they were drawn.

Frowning slightly, Mickey tilted her head to the side as Bucky slotted a long ceramic knife under his left vambrace.  “You do realize that if they find out you’re armed, it’s going to be bad news for us?”

“If they find out I’m armed, we got bigger problems to worry about.”

“No guns.”

His shoulders slumped and he reluctantly reached for the concealed holster at the small of his back.  “Not even the Beretta?”

Crossing her arms, Mickey just blinked at him a few times.

“Fine.”  It took him a minute to extract the holster and tiny pistol, promptly depositing them into the small locked case in their luggage.  “Throwing knives?”

“Nothing visible.  It’s a comic convention, not a protest.  What are- are those rainbow throwing knives?”

Bucky held out one of them with a sly smirk.  The knife was formed from a single piece of steel, perfectly balanced and weighted.  As Mickey tilted it back and forth, the rainbow anodizing caused vibrant colors to flow across the surface.

“Seriously?” she asked, rolling her eyes as she handed the knife back.  “Rainbow throwing knives.”

“Shut up, they’re stabulous.”

She dropped her face into her hands and groaned.  “You’re horrible.”

Laughing as he walked by her toward the bathroom, Bucky ruffled her hair.  “And yet, you still love me.” Something rustled quietly and Mickey strolled over to watch him tug the pauldron on his left shoulder into place.

“Sometimes I swear it’s against my better judgment.  How much does all of that weigh?”

“Hell of a lot less than my full combat suit, that’s for sure.”  Turning around, he flipped up his hood, held his hands out to each side, and with subtle flicks of each wrist, deployed the hidden blades.  “How do I look?”

The rich velvety black of the overtunic and sleeves made the red and white accents pop.  He’d used real leather and metal for the armor plates, buckles, and other details, and all in all…

“You look damn near perfect.  Looks like you walked right out of the game.”  Stepping forward, Mickey ran her fingers over the intricately detailed metalwork on his knife belt.  “How much time did you spend on these costumes?”

“About a month,” he admitted, trailing his hands over the glowing lines on Mickey’s arms.  “Marguerite did most of the sewing and Tony helped fabricate everything else. I just wanted to give you a proper Valentine’s Day this year, since last year it ended up going to shit as much as it did.”

“Well, I look forward to seeing what you’ve got planned, then.”  Mickey smiled up at him and leaned into his chest, hugging him tightly.  “So far, I’m having a lot of fun, and I’m definitely looking forward to showing you off all day today.”

With a devilish smirk, Bucky scooped her up in his arms and spun around in a circle.  One eyebrow quirked upward as he carried Mickey back into the main room. “We should get going, the doors open in about half an hour and I’d like to get in before there’s much more of a crowd.  Go ahead and brush your teeth and whatnot.”

Tripod grumbled and snorted at him when he tapped one of the panels on her prosthetic leg to switch on the same sort of holographic cloaking that he had on his own arm.

Bemused, Tripod blinked down at what looked like a real leg, nosed at it, and huffed groggily when she realized it still felt like metal.

Mickey did a last check to make sure they had everything they’d need tucked into the various storage pockets on her wheelchair.  “Did you take your…”

“Mmhm, same dose as yesterday.”  He held her wheelchair still for her as she sat, and patted the pouch on the outside of the chair’s short backrest.  “Pill pack’s in here, along with some protein bars and your triage kit. We’ll get water when we’re there.”

Smiling despite herself, Mickey rolled forward toward the door.  “Well, Ezio… andiamo.”

***

“Hey, what if we did that thing that the guy from Mythbusters does?”

Mickey turned in her seat to give Bucky an incredulous look.  “What, blow shit up?”

“Nah, we do enough of that as it is,” he laughed, shaking his head.  When another driver made moves like he was going to shove his way in front of their car, Bucky raised up his hands and glared.  “Bitch, I’m in a Volvo. Just fuckin’ try.”   Mickey couldn’t help but laugh as Brooklyn came out to bat with pride; his thick Noo Yawk drawl never got old.

He’d insisted on going back to swap the Prius for something more closely resembling a ‘real car’ the same day they’d rented it, and as much as Mickey teased him for it, she wasn’t complaining about the upgrade to heated seats.

“I meant that undercover thing.  You know, how he puts on a costume and wanders around until someone recognizes him?”

“Ooh, hashtag-Avengers-Incognito.  I like it.” Mickey pulled out her phone and tapped her way into Twitter.  “Can’t post a picture of either of us, though, that’ll ruin it. What should we tell people?”

Chewing his lip for a second, Bucky tapped his fingers along the steering wheel.  “First person to recognize one or both of us gets something signed?”

“Or we treat them to lunch or dinner or something.”

“Free swag?”

“What about those challenge coins Steve had made?” Mickey asked as she started typing.  “You’ve still got a few of those, right?”

Bucky grumbled to himself quietly as he dug into a hidden pocket.  “Just don’t ask for a repro of the original Invaders one, those cost a small fortune.  Here.” He handed her a small brass disk, one side with the Avengers logo and the other bearing the Invaders’ wing emblem.  Mickey quickly snapped a picture of each side and added it to the post.

Rescue - Official Avenger (@MickMickMickey): Time 4 #AvengersIncognito! 1st to find @Buckyball1917 or me gets this ltd Avgrs/Howling Commandos challenge coin. Good luck! #LongBeachComicExpo

Between the two of them, they’d have more than enough reach to get the word out.  Within seconds, a notification popped up informing Mickey that Darcy had both favorited and retweeted, followed quickly by the same from Tony and the official Avengers account.

“That was fast, they must have us on text alert.”  Bucky grinned as he slotted the Volvo into a parking spot and pulled his hood over his head.  As soon as he opened the back door, Tripod hopped out and sat calmly at his side. Reaching into the backseat, Bucky snagged Mickey’s helmet and helped her clip it into place.  “You got comms built into the helmet, and there’s a backup earpiece with the snacks. I know you said you want to keep your wheels today, but the info desk’ll keep a spot open for them if you wanna hoof it at all.”

“Covert combat armor and earwigs.  Are you sure we’re at a comic con and not running an undercover op?”

With a smirk, Bucky leaned over and kissed the visor on her helmet, leaving a faint smudge she had to wipe away.  “C’mon, let’s get inside.”

Getting through the weapon check was easier than expected, and once they had their badges, Bucky leaned down to give Mickey a quick hug.  “I’m gonna go get in character and have some fun screwing with the convention staff. You okay with taking Tripod?” When she nodded, he clipped Tripod’s leash onto the carabiner around the wheelchair’s frame, then cupped the dog’s head in his hands and planted a kiss on her nose.  “<Be good, girl.>”

Tripod woofed quietly as Bucky stood back up, her tail brushing across the smooth tile flooring.  “Don’t do anything stupid. Check comms.”

“Comms are live.”

After giving Mickey’s shoulder a gentle squeeze, he turned and disappeared into the crowd.  Several minutes later, as Mickey found her way over to the artists’ section, she saw a dark, hooded figure perched up on top of one of the large columns that extended partway up the side of the main convention hall.  Laughing softly to herself, she shook her head, rolled her eyes, clicked her tongue at Tripod, and wheeled her way into the crowd.

Getting to stretch his legs and do some basic free-running was definitely a highlight of the costume Bucky had chosen.  Within seconds he’d made his way up to the ideal perch, giving him a full view of nearly the whole hall. He lost Mickey fairly quickly, but the chatter filtering through his earpiece reassured him as she struck up conversations with a few of the artists and other con-goers.

“Hey!  Nice costume!”  Bucky could hear the smile in her words.  “Oh, this is Tripod.  She’s working right now, sorry, kiddo.  Maybe during lunch when she’s off-duty.”  And indeed, they’d trained Tripod to help Mickey avoid overexerting herself on top of warning Bucky about seizures.

He tuned out the rest of the conversation as he studied the ebb and flow of bodies through the building.  Occasionally, someone noticed him and turned around, pointing him out to their friends. Another young man dressed as one of the game franchise’s other assassins gave him a double thumbs-up and a wide grin; Bucky waved down at him.

Someone dressed as Kylo Ren stalked through the crowd followed by a few storm troopers, momentarily distracting Bucky from his regular sweep.  When a startled yelp and a crash crackled into his ear, he frantically scanned the convention hall and immediately narrowed in on a small patch of chaos at one of the artist booths.

Getting down to ground level in a hurry was going to be tricky; thankfully, a patch of the floor opened up just large enough for him to safely land in.  Rising to his toes, Bucky took a breath to steady himself before pushing off and diving forward. He tucked and rolled out of the fall, ignored the startled and alarmed voices around him, and quickly plotted his path through the crowd.

Jumping up and to the side, he ran along the wall at one point to get around a particularly dense group of teenagers, somersaulting in mid-air and rolling smoothly into a run on the other side.  The artist section had a railing around it to prevent people from walking off the small drop between the two levels, and Bucky cleanly vaulted over it. His foot slipped on the waxed tile as he rounded the corner and he barely managed to turn it into a sideways roll.  He came up on one knee just a few feet away from where Mickey was pushing herself up off the ground.

She’d already removed her helmet and was rubbing at her forehead with the heel of one hand.  Tripod whined nervously at her side, nosing against Mickey’s arm and pawing at her leg.

“What happened?”  Scooting forward, Bucky placed a hand between Mickey’s shoulder blades to steady her.  “Are you okay? <Tripod, easy. Sit. Good girl.>”

“’m fine,” she grumbled, working her right ankle around.  “Just had some klutz who wasn’t paying attention walk over me.”

Bucky’s head snapped up and his eyes darted from side to side until he noticed the young man sprawled out several feet away.  Blood was welling up on his forearm from a wide scratch torn straight through the sleeve of his Jedi costume. He sat up, blinked a few times, shook his head, then stared at the scratch on his arm as if he’d never seen one before.

Scoffing, Bucky rolled his eyes.  He turned back to Mickey and helped her stand up.  “You good to stand on your own for a few seconds?”

She nodded, and he turned away to pick up her wheelchair from where it had been knocked sideways.  Digging into the zippered compartment under the seat, he pulled out a small first aid kit before holding the chair steady while Mickey sat back down in it.  Tripod immediately put her front paws up on Mickey’s knees, sniffing her face and mumbling the way she did while she reassured herself that her other human was alright.

The young man with the lightsaber curled up into a ball and waved the plastic prop around wildly when Bucky stepped toward him.  “Pleasedon’tkillmeI’msosorry-”

Bucky huffed out a laugh and crouched down, then grabbed the saber with one hand to prevent it from swinging into someone else.  “Relax, kid, I just wanna take a look at your arm.” He wrapped the young man’s hand in a firm but gentle grip and turned his arm over to look at the cut.  His hood kept falling into his face so he shoved it back onto his shoulders and looked the kid in the eye. “Good news, you won’t need stitches. You get banged up anywhere else?”

“N- no…”  The kid winced as Bucky cleaned the cut, swabbed it with Neosporin, and taped a patch of gauze over it.  “…thanks.”

“So, you wanna tell me what happened?” Bucky asked as he clipped the first aid kit shut.

Instead of a response, he got a wide-eyed stare.  “You- you’re Bucky Barnes.”

He stood, reaching down a hand to help the other man up.  “Ding ding ding, we have a winner.” Handing off the first aid kit to Mickey, Bucky crossed his arms and ignored the strange smirk Mickey was giving him.  “I’d really like to know how you tripped over an entire person and a dog, because seriously, that takes some doing.”

Blushing, the kid brushed his hair back from his face and looked at his feet.  The movement was eerily familiar, and with a start, Bucky realized he did the exact same thing when he was unbearably embarrassed about something.

“I, um… there was a guy in a really good Deadpool costume?  And I turned around to look, and…”

“Oh, fuckin’ hell.”  Groaning, Bucky dropped his head into his hands.  “If Wade’s here, I’m going to cut him into so many pieces that it’ll take him months to regenerate.”

He looked up when the kid cleared his throat.  “Is there, um, is there any chance that coin thing is still…”

“You tripped over my girlfriend, bud,” Bucky told him flatly.  “I don’t think that counts as finding us.”

Mickey rolled forward, chuckling quietly.  “Relax, Frosty.” She reached around into the pocket on her backrest and pulled out the small coin, flicking it over to the kid.  Bucky winced when the kid fumbled with it, bouncing it from hand to hand before finally pinning it against his chest.

Pulling out her phone, Mickey opened up Twitter and motioned them both over.  “Selfie time. What’s your name?”

“Sebastian,” he replied as Mickey stood up, handed her phone to Bucky, and slung an arm around each of their shoulders.

It took a few seconds for that to sink in and Bucky was handing Mickey’s phone back when he blinked, turned to Sebastian, and laughed awkwardly.  “Wait, what?” Looking the younger man up and down, Bucky narrowed his eyes.

Sebastian fidgeted under the intense scrutiny.  “Um…”

“He doesn’t look anything like me!” Bucky grumbled at Mickey, gesturing to the actor.

“Y’know, I’d just been cast to play you in a movie about Captain America when the spooks found the man himself and thawed him out.  Chris and I were negotiating our contracts when they cancelled it. I have it on pretty good authority that I look a lot like you.”

“You’re, what, one-fifty soaking wet?  Six-foot-even? Please.” Bucky scoffed and shook his head, turning away.

Swatting him on the arm, Mickey glared at him, eyebrows drawn together.  “Boys, that’s enough. Sebastian-”

“Seb, please.”

“Seb.”  Mickey smiled at him and nodded toward the food court.  “I need to grab something to eat that isn’t a protein bar, and if Grumpy Cat here is willing to behave himself-”

“Grumpy Cat?  What the-”

“-then I’d like to invite you to have lunch with us.”  Her smile was sharp as she turned back to Bucky. “Sweetheart, can you find us a path over there that doesn’t involve impromptu parkour and con workers having coronaries?  I don’t want to have to defib anyone on my day off.”

Grumbling to himself, Bucky flipped his hood back up so he didn’t have to see the wide-eyed stare Sebastian fixed him with.  After seeing The Martian , he’d expected the actor to be… he didn’t know what.  Not dressed up in a homemade costume like any other convention attendee?  Something like that.

Finding his way through the crowd turned out to be less of a challenge than before; his annoyance must have hung over him like a raincloud, and people moved to the side without any effort on his part.

“What’s his deal?” he heard Sebastian ask Mickey.  “Is he always this…”

Mickey laughed.  “Prickly? Nah, he’s just an overprotective teddy bear.  Once we get some food into him, he’ll be friendlier.”

“So, he’s just hangry or somethin’?”

“Yeah, basically.”

“Man, he’s got some serious Murder Strut going on.”

Bucky couldn’t help but smirk slightly as Mickey giggled again.

“That’s just kind of how he walks.  The arm throws off his balance a bit so he moves a little differently to compensate unless he’s undercover.”  There was a short pause, and then she asked, “Is there anyone you’d like to meet up with? I’d feel bad if we took you away from your group.”

“Nah, just me.  Not a lot of my friends are as into this sort’a stuff as I am.”

“Dude, you’re hanging out with the wrong people.  Jedi fist-bump.”

“Pow.”

Turning the corner, Bucky had to step back out of the way of a toddler on a mission and the frantic mother that chased after her.

“Bucky up there, he’s a Star Trek guy.”

“That’s because the science makes goddamn sense!” he tossed back over his shoulder with a harmless glare.  “Hyperdrive in a fighter class? Come the fuck on.  Everyone knows hyperdrives are too big to fit in a ship that size.”

“Language, Buck.  There’s kids around.”

He waited for the other two to stop next to him.  “Well, we got your usual smorgasbord of grease, fat, and deep-fried.”  Taking a deep sniff, he pointed over to the stall selling pizza. “That place is probably our best bet.”

Sebastian shot him an incredulous look and hooked the carabiner on his lightsaber onto his belt.  “You can tell by how it smells?”

“Nah, I’m just screwin’ with ya.”  He flashed the actor a grin and clapped him on the shoulder, sending him stumbling a pace.  “General rule of thumb, when in doubt…”

“Order the pizza,” Mickey finished with him.  They’d eaten at enough bad restaurants on missions to build a small list of foods that were generally ‘safe,’ as opposed to ‘will probably kill you or at the very least give you food poisoning.’  Bucky wasn’t nearly as sensitive to it anymore and could eat nearly anything without issue, but he did his best to watch out for Mickey.

He drew the line at Hawaiian pizza, though.

“No.  No, no, and in case you didn’t hear it the first three times, no. ”  He and Sebastian were in a standoff at the ordering counter.  “Fruit does not belong on a pizza.   Meat and vegetables, sure, but fruit?  I’mma nopenopenope my way away from that like it’s poison.”

“Tomato’s a fruit,” Sebastian shot back.  “You sayin’ tomato sauce ain’t good enough?”

“Jesus Christ, what kind of New Yorker are you?”

Mickey cleared her throat, shoved her way between them, and gave the cashier a tired smile.  “Let’s do half-and-half.” She handed over the cash and dropped her change in the tip jar before herding the two men off to find someplace to sit.  After handing Tripod’s leash back over, she gave Bucky a piercing look. “You boys going to behave yourselves if I need to run to the bathroom?”

Rolling his eyes, Bucky slid onto the bench at an empty table.  “I’m pretty sure I can keep my hands away from my celebrity look-alike’s neck for one minute.  I’ll be good, I promise.”

As Mickey wheeled her way into the crowd, Sebastian leveled a wary look at Bucky from across the table.  “I dunno how comfortable I am with ‘pretty sure.’  Almost tempted to hire the Brute Squad, get myself some protection from…”  He waved a had vaguely. “Supersoldiers.”

Bucky grinned toothily.  “I’m on the Brute Squad, bud.”

“You are the Brute Squad.  Ugh, let’s talk about something else, please.”  Sebastian’s eyes wandered across Bucky’s hologram-masked arm and screen-accurate costume.  “Who made your costume?  It’s damn near perfect.  I’d know, the costume designers I’ve worked with would be green with envy right now.”

Bucky coughed quietly and leaned over to busy himself with the straps on Tripod’s harness, letting his hood fall over his face to hide his mild embarrassment.  “I… had some help with the stitching, but I designed the armor myself.  I know a guy who knows a guy, so… it works.  It’ll stop small-arms fire, at least.  NIJ Level IV compliant where it counts, and IIIA everywhere else.”  He patted Tripod on the shoulder as he sat back up.

“I have no idea what any of that means,” Sebastian said evenly.  A muscle in Bucky’s cheek twitched involuntarily; Sebastian let out a good-natured laugh and flapped a hand at Bucky’s frozen expression.  “Sorry.  We go over handling and some basic safety, but prop guns are props.  They usually aren’t even loaded with blanks, and the stunt guys keep a banker’s eye on the ones we do use.”

He scratched the back of his neck and winced slightly.  “That’s how Brandon Lee died, you know?  You’d be surprised how much of the action gets added in post.”

Bucky leaned back and laced his fingers behind his head, looking over the man in front of him.  He’d never admit it, but there was a resemblance… if Bucky never worked out, weighed significantly less, didn’t carry the weight of his past in his eyes, and was a little softer around the edges.  This man - more of a boy, really - he looked young and vulnerable as his eyes flicked around the crowd.

“You’re looking for something.”

Startled, Sebastian glanced back up at him, then down at the table with that embarrassed smile again.  He fiddled with the seam in the folding table with his fingernails. “Fangirls. Can’t imagine what my life would’a been like if that superhero franchise they were planning to do worked out.  Hard enough as it is, tryin’a live like a normal person. I mean, don’t get me wrong, my fans are awesome and I love ‘em to death, but...”

“You already finished your press tour for The Martian, right?”

“Yep.”

“Then you got nothin’ to worry about.”  He did his best to give the kid a reassuring smile, and thankfully, it seemed to work.  “Besides, people’re more likely to recognize me than you, my dog’s got a ‘No Petting’ vest, and almost everyone’s too scared of me to come up and say anything.”

“Gee, I can’t imagine why.”  After a pause, Sebastian cleared his throat quietly.  “You know… I really do feel bad about walking into her.  Mickey, I mean. I’m- I swear I’m not actually that much of an asshole, I just play a lot of roles like that.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow.  “Never said you were one.”

Please.  You’ve done nothing but glare at me since you hardcore parkoured across the convention hall.  I’ve already said I’m sorry.”

The kid had a point; Bucky sighed softly and rubbed at his eyes.  “You’re right.  I’m sorry.  It’s just been a rough couple’a days lately, and I’m still a little twitchy.  Bein’ in places like this gives me anxiety like nobody’s business, and seein’ Mickey on the floor like that…”  He looked down at Tripod and gave her a discreet hand signal to lay down under the table. “She hits her head a second time, gets another bad concussion, there’s no telling if she’ll bounce back from it again.  Even partially.”

He looked up when he heard a sharp intake of breath.

“Fuck, I didn’t think of that.”  Sebastian chewed on his lower lip.  “She gonna be okay?”

Giving the kid what he hoped was a smile, Bucky levered himself out of the picnic table when he heard Mickey’s name from the food counter.  “Far as I can tell, yeah.  Sorry for bein’ a dick about it, though.”

“Nah, it’s cool.  I’d be just as overprotective if I was in your shoes.  I’ll keep an eye on the puppy, don’t worry about her.” Sebastian waved Bucky away toward the food counter.

When he got back with the large, delicious-smelling cardboard box, Mickey was back at the table and checking over the cut on Sebastian’s arm.  “Doesn’t look too bad,” she was saying. “Keep it covered for a few days and make sure you get Neosporin or bacitracin on it every time you change the bandage.  Vaseline on the bandage will keep it from sticking.”

“Thanks.  Sorry again.”

Mickey smiled at him and reached over to open up the pizza box as Bucky sat back down.  “No worries. Just keep an eye out in the future, okay?”

“So.  Seb.” Bucky extracted a slice of pizza for himself and daintily picked off the stray piece of pineapple.  “They cancelled a movie about Steve and me?”

“Yep.  Captain America: Super Soldier.  Was supposed to compete with all those movies DC keeps pumping out, you know the ones.”

“What, the Batman series?”  Mickey folded a piece lengthwise and took a big bite out of the end before sneaking a piece of pepperoni to Tripod.  “Christian Bale or Ben Affleck?”

Distracted in an instant, Sebastian’s face lit up.  “Dude, have you seen the poster for Wonder Woman?  I can’t wait!”

“Yep,” Mickey agreed, eyes crinkling with a small smile.  “It’s about time we saw a proper female superhero. I’m interested to see how it turns out.  If Dawn of Justice was any indication, it’s going to be good.”

“You are a proper female superhero, Myshka.”

Sebastian giggled slightly and squinted at Bucky.  “Did- did you just call her ‘little mouse?’”

“Yep.”  Picking up a small ball of sausage from the pizza box, Bucky patted Tripod on the shoulder and held it out for her.  “I don’t really understand why everyone likes superhero movies so much, though. They’re… it’s…”

Mickey finished the thought for him.  “There’s a lot less bang bang shoot ‘em up and a lot more paperwork and putting out PR fires.  I just like them because, you know, action flick, but yeah, it’s a little hard to really get invested in the plot when you’re basically living in a superhero movie.”

“Hey, at least the costumes are getting better.  They’re a hell of a lot more fashionable than spandex onesies now.”

Bucky snorted and rolled his eyes.  “That’s sayin’ something, coming from the man who played a character that thinks the height of fashion is a damn top hat and a cravatte.”

The actor had been glancing over Bucky’s shoulder with increasing interest for almost a minute, and finally Bucky turned to see what was so captivating.  “Fangirls?”

“No, no-”  Huffing quietly, Sebastian leaned over the table toward them.  “There, the guy in that suit that looks like he’s from the 40s or 50s.  Something’s off about him. His body language is all over the place and he keeps checking his bag and looking around.  See how he’s got his hand hidden in it?”

Bucky tilted his head to the side and squinted slightly, scanning the man with a practiced eye.  “He’s got something concealed and isn’t used to carrying it. Wanna take bets on what it is?”

“Motherfucker ,” Mickey muttered.  “That better not be a damned handgun.”

It took Bucky less than ten seconds to subtly swap out all his prop knives with their metal counterparts.  Extending the hidden blades a few times to check alignment, he stood and put a hand on Mickey’s shoulder. “Just like Estonia.  We don’t want to scare him if it’s nothing to worry about.” He knelt down and unclipped Tripod’s leash from her harness, then dropped it on the table.

Mickey nodded and stood up from her wheelchair, leaning forward on the table to stretch out her legs for a few seconds.  She pushed her phone across the table toward Sebastian. “Activate protocol fifteen.” The screen flashed once and a red dot appeared in the center.  “If anything goes wrong, hit that.”

“What is this, a panic button?”  He picked up the phone and stared at it quizzically.  “It’s actually a big red button.”

“That’ll connect you to local emergency services as well as ping the Avengers.  Shit goes south and we need backup, you’re our best bet. Movie Fu doesn’t work in real life, so stay out of the way.”  Bucky kept his eyes trained on the target; the hair on the back of his neck prickled uncomfortably. With each passing second, the deep feeling of wrong in the pit of his stomach grew worse.  “Micks, he’s got a tattoo on his throat, and I’ve seen it before.”

“What’re we looking at?”  She slotted the backup comm unit into her ear as Bucky rapidly gave Tripod a set of commands in German - stay with Mickey, guard, alert.

People moved around Bucky easily, given his height, size, and costume.  He chose to circle through the food court rather than make a beeline for his target.  “Y-shaped mark over the larynx. Aesthetic callback to men that had to have laryngectomies after exposure to toxic gases during the war.”

“Sounds like a party.”

“If you call bein’ mostly mute for the rest of your life a party, then sure.”  He wove through a small group of teenage girls and slowly approached the man. “I got eyes on him.  The kid’s right, there’s somethin’ off here.”

Mickey moved into position on the man’s other side, preventing him from escaping the narrow walkway easily.  “Call it.”

“Moving in.  Hold position.”

Already rehearsing the Hey, I’m with convention security, would you mind coming with me, sir? that he planned to use, Bucky adjusted his stride and adopted the posture of an undercover cop.  When he was within ten feet, the man looked up and noticed him, immediately balking and turning toward Mickey and Tripod.  His hand slipped inside his bag again, and Bucky instinctively reached back for the Beretta before realizing he wasn’t carrying it.

“Damn.  Bag’s hot.  Headed your way.”

“I see him.”  Mickey dropped into a loose stance as she prepared to tackle the man.  “He’s pulling something out-”

Bucky’s blood ran cold when he caught the glint of silver on a device the size of a dinner plate.  “Oh no. Shit!” Abandoning all pretenses, he shoved forward through the throng of people and pushed them to the side.  “Everybody down!” he hollered. “Clear out! BOMB!”

He broke into a run just as then man frantically twisted the dials on the face of the device and punched one of the buttons.  Diving clear past both man and device, Bucky curled himself around Mickey protectively and used Tripod’s harness to haul her around in front of him, spinning so his back was to whatever it was.

The explosion rattled his bones; a loud crump rippled through the air around him, and the shock wave threw them bodily into the air.

Twisting as best he could, Bucky rolled Mickey around and took the brunt of the impact on his shoulders.  One of Tripod’s paws punched hard into his stomach and he gasped, his hood falling over his eyes as he tried to suck in air.

Something was wrong.  The smell of pine trees, freshly turned dirt, gunpowder, and blood filled his nose.

He clumsily shoved himself up on his hands and knees, unconsciously reaching out for Mickey and Tripod while he got his bearings.

Bodies lay strewn around them, uniforms and faces soaked in blood.

The air tasted heavy and oily on his tongue, stinging against where he’d bit his cheek in the fall.  Something wiggled in his memory, something familiar about the way the bodies lay, the-

Scrambling to his feet, he dragged Mickey upright and hooked his hand through Tripod’s harness.  “We gotta go.”

“Wha- where-” Mickey was groggy and shaking her head from side to side, blinking aggressively as if dazed.  “What’s going on?”

“Come on, we gotta- we gotta go.”  Fear invaded Bucky’s lungs, cutting off his breath and narrowing his vision.  He tried to speak again but his lungs tightened and his heartbeat pounded in his ears.

“Bucky, hey, breathe for me, come on- shit-”  One hand on his shoulder and the other cupping his jaw, Mickey looked around them frantically.  The heavy thud of a mortar sliced through the air, followed moments later by a deep boom that shook the ground under their feet.  “Where are we? What the fuck just happened?”

“Wasn’t a bomb,” he managed to gasp out in reply, desperately trying to suck air into lungs that refused to cooperate.  His knees collapsed under him and he surged forward, barely throwing his hands up in time to catch himself.

“Sweetheart, look at me.  Deep breaths. Focus on my voice.  I need you to be strong for a few more minutes so the three of us can get to cover.  Can you do that for me?”

The sharp ratatat of machine gun fire drowned out what she said next.  Nightmares flashed in front of Bucky’s eyes, blinding him to the frenzied combat around them.  Mickey shouted in words he couldn’t understand, eyes wide and panicked.

The man from the convention hall lurched to his feet behind Mickey, pistol waving about until he was finally upright.  His eyes were wild and wide as he leveled the pistol at Mickey; Bucky tried to say something, push her down, anything, but he was frozen and helpless as his lungs refused to fill with air.

He sensed more than heard something move behind him; Mickey stared over his shoulder with a mixture of shock and horror.  Her face was white as a sheet as her eyes tracked something moving around them.

A hollow thwack cut through his hearing, and the man collapsed with a neat, round bullet hole in his forehead.

Mickey’s lips moved silently as whatever she was watching came level with them.  Her head turned and rose up, disbelief written across her face.

As soon as Bucky saw the newcomer’s face, familiar deep-set gray eyes under a ragged mop of pomade-slick brown hair, his eyes rolled back in his head and he collapsed, unconscious.

Chapter Text

James glanced back at Mickey and gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile as he led them into the parish hall.  “Just through here.” Pushing the door open, he stepped into the cozy room and waved nervously at the occupants.

“James!  Good to see you.”  Father Saunders stood from his place at the large table set up in the center of the room and shook James’s hand before turning to Mickey.  “You must be Miss Draymond.”

She nodded and smiled at him.  “Mickey, please.”

“Andy.  Thank you both for coming.”

James sat tensely, fidgeting in his seat as he avoided meeting the eyes of the other people there.  His left hand was firmly shoved into his jacket pocket, hair loose and long around his face. Several sleepless nights earlier that week had given him sunken cheeks and purple-ringed eyes, and two days of stubble covered his face.

He hadn’t wanted to come, but Mickey did, and where she went, he usually followed.

“So, we were just going over some small victories since our last meeting.  How about you tell the group a bit about yourselves and then we’ll continue where we left off?”

Biting his lip, James looked down at the table in front of him.  He’d done just that not too long ago, laying himself at the mercy of a judge and jury.  It wasn’t exactly high up there on his list of things to repeat.

“Hi, I’m Mickey.  Um, I served in the Navy Hospital Corps, got attached to a unit of Marines.  Ended up in the Sandbox for a bit, came home after an IED took out a few of my boys and left me with some souvenirs.”

His heart rate steadily rose while she spoke, and his right hand unconsciously clenched into a fist on the table.

“Hey, buddy.”  Mickey’s voice cut through the noise in his head, and James flicked his eyes over to her.  “Breathe for me. Good deep breath. Come on, that’s it.” The rest of the veterans were respectfully silent as he tried to wrestle his anxiety back under control.

Reaching into his pocket, Mickey laced her fingers through his, cold metal intermingling with warm flesh and blood.  She gently pulled his hand out onto the table and rubbed her thumb over the panel on the back of his hand.

No one said a word, but the change in the air was palpable.

“James Barnes,” he finally croaked out.  “Chances are you know as much about me as I do.  Sorry I’m such a wreck.”

Father Saunders met his eyes and nodded subtly, calm approval showing in his gentle smile.

***

The farmhouse was empty, tidy as if the occupants had simply left for a long vacation.

“It’s the war,” Rogers quietly told Mickey when she asked.  “Germany is besieged from within; the first country the Nazis invaded were their own.  A lot of people packed up and fled when they saw the nightmares from the Great War resurface.”

Somehow, he looked older, wearier than after he’d been pulled out of the ice and revived.  Mickey finally understood what Steve had meant when he’d told her the War aged us, in a way nothing else will.

She watched the Invaders set up a rudimentary indoor camp, getting a small fire burning in the pot-bellied stove and bringing water in from the outdoor pump.  From her position on the floor in the corner, the men looked like giants as they strode purposefully around the farmhouse. Tripod growled every time Barnes came near them until the sergeant shot her a dirty look and started giving her a wide berth.

Bucky had regained consciousness quickly, though he simply stared blankly off into the distance with minimal reaction to the world around him.  He’d even let himself be handcuffed before the Invaders led them away. Eyes half-lidded and shadowed under his dark hood, he hadn’t responded to either Mickey or Tripod’s worrying for over an hour.

“Hey.”  Nudging him again with her shoulder, Mickey leaned forward as far as she could with her hands behind her back, trying to catch Bucky’s eye.  “<Talk to me.>”

He exhaled softly but didn’t move otherwise.

“Your friend alright?” Barnes asked, raising an eyebrow.  He sat at the rough dining table, field stripping and cleaning his rifle and sidearm.  Bucky’s knives - confiscated upon their capture - lay in a pile on the other side of the table.  “I know Russkies tend to be quiet when they’re sober, but he ain’t said a word.”

Mickey swallowed thickly and shook her head, ignoring the warning rumble Tripod let out when Barnes spoke.  “No, he’s just… He’s not Russian.” She sighed and hunched her shoulders forward uncomfortably. Her arms were starting to go numb.  “He’s still dealing with the ghosts of the last war he fought in.”

Snorting eloquently, Dugan pulled the cigar out of his mouth to smirk at Bucky.  “The hell kind of uniform is that? What’s he in, the Drag Queen Corps?”

“That’s enough, Corporal.”  Barnes’s voice was surprisingly sharp, drawing startled glances from the other Invaders.  “I don’t care what flag he marches under, you don’t fuckin’ josh about shell shock.” He glared at Dugan for several seconds before the other man put his hands up in surrender and shook his head.

“Didn’t mean any harm, Sarge.  Man just looks like he walked outta some Renaissance painting or something.”

Rogers stepped away from the window he’d been staring through and turned to scowl at Mickey.  “Actually, Dum Dum’s got a point. If I didn’t know better, I’d say that black suit of yours looks like a HYDRA uniform, but they glow blue if they glow anything.  Who are you?”

“I told you.  We’re on the same side.”

“And I told you, you’re going to need to give us more than that.”

“All due respect, Captain, you’ve got us tied up and held hostage in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with seven of the deadliest men in the Allied Forces.  If I tell you we’re working for the Axis, you’ll shoot us both without a second thought. If I tell you we’re birdwatchers working for the Allies, well, let’s just say that if I were in your position, I wouldn’t believe me either.”

Barnes chuckled quietly and quickly snapped his Colt back together, slapped in a magazine and chambered a round.  “She’s got you there, Cap.”

Dragging his hands over his face, Rogers sighed explosively.  The farmhouse fell silent as everyone watched him to see what would happen next.

Bucky’s shoulders shifted as he raised his head slightly.  “A wise old owl sat in an oak.” His voice was rough and low, face still hidden under his hood.  It took Mickey a few seconds to place the accent he was using as Texan; he flattened his vowels and dropped the pitch of his voice enough that he sounded like a completely different person.

Confused silence greeted his words until Falsworth slowly straightened from where he was leaning near the door.  “The more he saw, the less he spoke.”

“The less he spoke, the more he heard,” Bucky continued.  “Why can’t we all be like that wise old bird?”

Falsworth blinked a few times, swallowed thickly, and turned to Rogers.  “He’s one of ours.”

The crease between Rogers’s eyebrows deepened as he glanced over at Barnes, then jerked his head over.  “Uncuff him.”

“You mean these cuffs?”  Barely shifting, Bucky tossed a locked set of handcuffs into the center of the room.  A mirthless smirk danced over his lips at the guns suddenly pointed his way. “It’s adorable how you think-”

“<Not the time!>” Mickey hissed at him.  “<In case you forgot, they’re the ones with the guns, and I’m not bulletproof!>”

“<You damn near better be, with how much time I->”

“<Next time, could you please think before you decided to->”

“<If you’d just->”

Barnes cut him off midsentence by stepping forward and angling his gun toward Mickey.  When a vicious snarl ripped its way out of Tripod and the dog hunkered down, hackles raised, Barnes’s pistol swung over to her instead.

His first mistake was threatening Bucky’s girls.  His second was stepping within reach.

Before anyone could react, Bucky surged up off the floor, disarmed Barnes, spun him around, and shoved the Colt under the other man’s jaw.  “Put. The guns. Down.”

One by one, the Invaders lowered their weapons.

“You too, Rogers.  I know what that shield can do.”

Curling his lip in a silent growl, Steve slowly unhooked his arm from the shield’s straps and leaned it against the wall.

Barnes’s jaw pulsed as he gritted his teeth, hands up and palms out, eyes fixed on Rogers.

“Now, you’re all smart cookies, so I don’t need to tell you what I’m capable of.  One of you’s gonna uncuff my girl and untie my dog, and in return I’ll let your sergeant go and give you my word that I won’t kill anyone.”

“And why should we believe you?” Barnes demanded.  Mickey gave herself a second to be impressed; he was remarkably calm given the position he was in.

All that was visible under Bucky’s hood was the feral smile tugged slightly off-center by the latex scar makeup that crossed his lips.  “Because right now, buddy, you ain’t got no fuckin’ clue who the blue blazes I am, and the longer it stays that way, the safer you’re gonna be.  If I wanted to kill any of you, you’d already be dead.”

No one moved.

Lips pressed into a thin line, Rogers raised his pistol and leveled it at Mickey.  “Let him go or I shoot the dame.”

“Trust me, Rogers, you ain’t got it in you to do that.  I know you’re bluffing.”

“You got a gun to my sergeant’s head.  I got plenty’a motivation to keep that head from gettin’ a new hole put in it.”

“I want food and supplies for the three of us, enough to get us to London.”

“I still don’t know who the fuck you are, why do you think I’d let a potential enemy agent just waltz right into-”

Bucky’s shoulders stiffened and Barnes closed his eyes as the cold barrel of the pistol pressed more firmly into the soft flesh under his jaw.  “I’m not your enemy.”

“Prove it.”

“Captain, he knew the-”

“Prove it,” Rogers growled, interrupting Falsworth and narrowing his eyes.

Mickey’s heart thudded rapidly as she stared at the gun pointed her way and prayed that Bucky had a way to get them out of this that didn’t involve someone getting shot.

“He already has, Steve.”  Barnes’s voice was soft and strained as he spoke around the pressure of the gun.  “Think about it. He’s the one that’s bluffing. He won’t shoot me. Enemy agent, he’d’a put a bullet in my kop soon as he got his hands on me and you know it.”

Tilting his head, Bucky growled low in Barnes’s ear.  “Don’t test me, kid.”

Eyes shifted nervously between Rogers and Bucky as the Invaders waited for orders.

“Ghost.”

The slight shift in Bucky’s posture told Mickey he was listening.

“<We need their help to get the portal open again.>”   From everything she knew about World War II and what she’d begun to suspect about the device that had catapulted them through time, Howard Stark and the SSR were their best bet.  “<We need them to trust us. And for that to happen, you need to take the first step. We can’t do this alone, and it’s only a matter of time before they figure out who you are regardless.  We need their help.>”

After a minute that seemed to stretch for hours, Bucky shifted slightly again and raised his head just enough that Rogers caught a flash of steel in his eyes.  “Alright, fine. You want proof?” He gave Barnes a savage shove forward that sent him stumbling into Rogers’s arms, then reached up and tossed his hood back. The Texan drawl slid smoothly out of his words, replaced with the bittersweet cadence of Brooklyn.  “Here’s your goddamn proof.” He lowered the Colt to his side, turned his head to the left, and pulled his hair away to expose the spidery numbers tattooed behind his right ear.

Letting his hair fall back into place, Bucky squared his shoulders and fixed Rogers with a challenging glare.  Despite the streaks of gray just starting to thread their way through his hair and the faint lines creasing the corners of his eyes, he was unmistakably Bucky Barnes, albeit of a different flavor than the one currently pressed against the wall next to Rogers with a face as white as a sheet.

“Mother of God,” Morita breathed, eyes wide in shock.

After making a few soft, strangled noises, Rogers finally managed to string a few words together.  “What… what happened to you, Buck?”

“Seventy years of you don’t wanna fuckin’ know.”  Bucky set the pistol down on the table. “And I won’t tell you, so don’t ask.”

“Seventy years of forgetting that barbers exist?” Barnes demanded.  “The hell’re you thinkin’, wearin’ a dead animal on my face like that?  Also, what the hell are you wearing.”

Mickey snorted, biting her lip and turning to the side to hide her smirk.

“Is anyone going to ask about the ‘seventy years’ part?  And the Russian?” Jones muttered, side-eyeing Bucky like he’d grown a second head.

“Shut up, I’m plenty rugged for an old fart,” Barnes shot back as he stood back up and ran a hand through his hair.  “Seriously, though, what’s your secret? Skin cream? Cleansers? Hair tonic?”

The flat look Bucky shot his younger counterpart was scathing.  “The back-alley Benzedrine of super soldier serum. Are you done yet?”

“Not even remotely.”  Barnes stepped forward and examined Bucky like a lab specimen.  He reached out, patted Bucky’s arm, and poked him firmly in the chest.   “Damn.”

“What are you- stop that- for fuck’s sake-”  He shoved Barnes away with one hand and grabbed Tripod’s rope lead in the other to keep the growling dog from attempting to lunge at the sergeant.  “<Sit down and stay.  We’re safe.>”

Blinking in surprise, Barnes glanced at Rogers.  “And apparently, I speak German, too. Why the hell is your dog trained in German?”

“Because I found her in Austria and I wasn’t expecting to have to live through the war twice,” Bucky gritted out, pinching the bridge of his nose and closing his eyes.

“If you boys are done, I’d like to be able to feel my arms again.”  Mickey hissed and grimaced as pins and needles worked their way up through her muscles.  Her fingers were buried in Tripod’s scruff, and Bucky tried his best to be gentle as he rubbed the circulation back into her shoulders.  His own hands were shaking just enough to make undoing the clasps on each of their medical bracelets a significant challenge.

He caught Rogers giving them confused looks several times as the Invaders finished setting camp, but it wasn’t until the captain fixed him with a particularly baffled frown and then looked over at Barnes that he finally pieced it together.

“Yes, Steve, we fondue.”

Several beats of silence followed before Jones cracked up and dissolved into hysterical laughter.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Dugan shot back as he hoisted his pack and headed for the stairs.  “Last time I saw you that close to a woman, you was back to back with Peggy layin’ down the law in a pub.”

“I… what.”  Bucky looked up at Barnes.  “What.”

The younger man was beside himself, shoulders shaking and eyes streaming as he tried to stifle his giggles.  Finally, when he and Rogers were the last of the Invaders left in the large kitchen, Barnes took a deep breath and shook his head, chuckling a few more times.

“Looks like time isn’t all you slipped through, boychik.”

Bucky looked between the two men several times, back and forth, before he finally closed his eyes, let his forehead fall forward onto Mickey’s shoulder, and swore vividly in Russian.

“Someone want to tell me what’s going on?” Mickey asked blandly.

“You know how after the trial, everyone thought Steve and I were together during the war?”

“…huh.”

***

The following morning, Mickey took Rogers aside and handed him a slip of paper with writing on it.  “If it’s possible, we need these to be waiting for us at the first major base we hit. This one won’t be super critical for about a week or so, but he’ll need the anticonvulsants within thirty-six hours or he’ll start having problems.  The rest of these are as-needed or a low enough dosage that they’re not critical.”

“What sort of problems?”  Rogers squinted at the paper - a leftover habit from his poor eyesight before the serum infusion - and turned to hand it off to Morita.

“Convulsions, nausea, fainting spells, and if we’re lucky, hallucinations,” Bucky answered as he shrugged into the heavy work coat that Dugan found for him in one of the wardrobes.  “I had some pretty insightful conversations with a green kangaroo the last time I had to go off meds.” They’d decided his costume trousers and boots were enough like cavalry kit that they wouldn’t draw much more than a second glance, but his surcoat and armor as well as Mickey’s TRON suit were now stowed in a shapeless canvas duffel-like bag.  Bucky would miss the borrowed authority of his costume, but the lack of peripheral vision took some getting used to. He popped the coat’s collar up and brushed his hair back from his face as he buttoned the duffel shut.

The only women’s clothing that had been abandoned at the farmhouse was for a lady a foot shorter and several feet wider than Mickey.  She’d given the dress an amused smirk and turned to rifle through a chest of drawers that they guessed belonged to a teenaged son.

After a quick, cold breakfast, the Invaders broke camp with an efficiency born of repetition.  Barnes tapped Bucky on the shoulder and nodded off to a corner out of the way, his mouth pressed into a thoughtful line.

“We need a cover story for the three of you, and some way to keep you from being recognized.”  The younger man glanced down at Tripod, sitting calmly at Bucky’s feet. “And she’ll end up in the kennels unless we’ve got a damn good reason to keep her attached to our unit and with you at all times.”

“Let me take care of that.”  When Barnes frowned at him, Bucky sighed.  “I’m serious. Mickey and I have been on several undercover ops together.  We know what we’re doing.”

“What do you need?”

Bucky thought for a minute, biting the dry flakes on his lips as he ran down a list of supplies in his head, the vast majority of which they weren’t likely to find in a rural German farmhouse.  “Shoe polish and a comb, and if the lady left behind any makeup, that too. Soot and oil will work in a pinch if there’s no polish.” He snaked a finger under his collar and tugged out his dog tags, then quickly removed the two rings from the chain.  After catching Mickey’s eye, he flicked hers over and she slid it on without question. “To anyone else, we’re clandestine operatives you picked up just east of the border.”

“Who do I say you’re with?”

“OSS, if you have to say anything.  Let us spin our own backstories, don’t try to interject anything or we risk getting the story muddled up.”

“They’ll want bona fides.”

“Yeah, I’m hoping I can bluff my way out of that one, but anyone in Command that you’ve worked with is going to see through that straight away.”  He busied himself finding new spots to hide all his knives and was pleasantly surprised when the vambraces with the hidden blades fit under the coat’s sleeves.

“Carter won’t fall for-”

“Cross that bridge when we get there, kid.”

“Got it.”  Barnes watched as Bucky settled his own ring into place.  “You just happen to have rings that fit?”

“Well… yeah.  Built-in cover.”  He turned away to hide the heat rising in his face as the sergeant studied him intently.  “Things are a little… different.”

“Getting that feeling.  You two steady?”

This wasn’t a conversation he felt like having with himself.  “Yeah. Can we stop talking about this now, please?”

Barnes raised his hands placatingly and turned away to sling his pack up on his shoulders.

The Invaders took to the cover names easily, referring to Mickey as ‘Doc’ or ‘Ma’am’ and Bucky as ‘Ghost.’  He’d adopted the Texan accent again, and after some basic contouring and several bile-raising minutes of combing black shoe polish through his hair, he looked, moved, and sounded different enough from his younger self that he could pass as someone else.

Four miles into their march toward the rendezvous, Rogers called a halt.  Bucky knelt down carefully as he set their bag down, patting Mickey’s thigh with his hand to wake her up.  “C’mon, babydoll. Time to get down for a bit.”

She groaned, made some sleepy mumbling noises, and clumsily slid off his shoulders.  As Bucky led her over to a downed tree trunk so she could sit down, she pawed at her eyes and blearily looked around.

“Where are we?”

“Somewhere in Western France,” Dugan answered, tossing two canteens and a bowl for Tripod over to Bucky.  “Frenchie’s got the map, though, and the last time he navigated he mixed up Budapest and Bucharest, so…”

A rippling stream of angry French drifted across the temporary camp; Bucky snorted and rolled his eyes as he uncapped the canteens and handed one to Mickey.  When she raised an eyebrow, he shook his head. “You don’t wanna know. Drink up.” He poured a generous amount of water into the bowl and set it down, scratching the back of Tripod’s neck as she started lapping it up.

“Yes, Doctor.”

Smirking at her, Bucky brushed a thumb over her cheek before sitting down next to her.  “You fell asleep about half an hour after we left the farmhouse. Feeling any better?”

“Still a little wobbly.”  Mickey wiped her mouth dry on the back of her hand and grimaced.  “Blech. Iodine. Didn’t miss that taste.”

“Thought you used Chlor-Floc.”

She snorted softly and looked down at her hands.  “On deployment, sure, but training was a different story.”

“Hey, Doc, Ghost.”  Barnes was heading over to them, two ration packs in his hands.  “We’re still six miles out, provided Frenchie hasn’t got us hopelessly- oh fuck off, you crusty baguette-”  A delicate middle finger popped up from the group of men leaning over the map, and Barnes rolled his eyes. “Need one o’ the boys to carry Mickey for a bit?”

Bucky shook his head as he carefully peeled open the liner bags and extracted the rations.  “I can manage. You want the smokes?”

“Won’t turn ‘em down.  They ain’t Lucky Strikes, but…”

“Marlboros tasted better anyway.”

Barnes looked so heartbroken and offended that Bucky chuckled and waved his hands in submission.

Mickey didn’t comment as she ate what she could.  K rations weren’t nearly as bad as she’d been led to believe, but it made sense that eating the same three meals every day for weeks on end could make anything taste sour.  The log shifted slightly as Barnes sat on her other side, a respectable distance between them. The rhythmic pop-shuff-pop-shuff of the tiny can opener in Bucky’s hand was oddly comforting as he levered the curved blade through the lid of the can.

“So…”  Barnes tilted his head up slightly to give Mickey a sidelong, appraising glance, but addressed his question to Bucky.  “You and your Steve never…”

Bucky sniffed the canned meat-like-mash and pulled a face at it, then spooned it into Tripod’s bowl.  “Nope, not like you two. God, I didn’t miss this stuff. If I never have to eat ham that failed its physical again, I can die happy.”

After a thoughtful hum, Barnes dug into his pocket and handed Mickey a small paper packet.  “Well, you might as well take these. It isn’t like Steve’s able to get pregnant, anyway.”

Dry crackers lodged in Bucky’s throat, and the rest of the men turned to stare at him as he coughed loudly, pounding a fist against his chest.  Tripod was paws-up on his knee in an instant, snuffling around his face and whining worriedly.

“Last I checked, crackers weren’t a breathable gas,” Mickey commented dryly as she thumped Bucky on the back.  “Usually you want them to go down the other pipe.”

“Oh, fuck off.”  His voice was barely a croak, and he coughed a few more times as he took the canteen Mickey held out.

Smirking, Barnes pushed himself up and as he walked away, he turned to look over his shoulder.  “There’s a jar in there, too, by the way.”

“<Was I really this insufferable back then?>” Bucky muttered in Russian, eyes rolling up to the sky.

“<I’ll admit sex is kind of on the list of ‘we have more important shit to worry about than this.’>”

“<Yeah, same.>”  He took the packet from her and tucked it into the side pocket of the bag.  “<Maybe I can trade this for something more useful when we get to base.>”

“On your feet,” Rogers called over, the map rustling as he folded it back up.  “We’ve got a little under eleven miles to go because Dernier can’t navigate his way out of a paper bag and has officially lost his compass rights.”

Mickey shook her head slightly when Bucky knelt back down and patted his shoulders.  “I need to build my stamina back up. I trust Tripod to let me know if I push too hard.”

He didn’t look happy with it, but he stood and looped his free arm under her shoulders.  “Lean on me as much as you need to.” Their boots were sturdy and durable like the rest of the combat-ready costumes he’d put together, but he hadn’t exactly planned on hiking across Europe.  His feet would be aching by the end of the day and he could only imagine how Mickey would be feeling.

A little over seven miles out from their rendezvous point, Mickey caught a shift in the energy around her that prickled at the back of her neck.  She tapped Bucky’s arm to get his attention, then subtly pointed to a tree roughly a hundred yards in front of them and slightly to the right. “There’s someone there,” she murmured.

He gave her arm a gentle squeeze and quietly told Tripod to stay before holding out a hand to stop the Invaders and melting off into the forest.

Even the birds were silent as they stood there, tense and waiting; Barnes threw the occasional baffled glance toward where Bucky had ghosted away.  Mickey wagged her fingers, trying to keep the tension out as she probed around them for any more unfamiliar energy signatures.

Thirty-seven long seconds later, a pine tree swayed as Bucky launched himself horizontally through the air nearly twenty feet off the ground.  He collided with a lump of branches and lichen that let out a strangled scream, and they crashed heavily to the ground. Bucky’s left arm rose up, the hidden blade shot out of his sleeve with a dull snik, and the body under him stilled as he dealt a swift blow to its neck.

Slowly he tugged the blade out of the man’s throat with a wet squelch and rolled to his feet, studying the uniform and equipment for any clues.  A bead of blood rolled down the edge of the blade and fell silently to the dirt at his feet.

“German marksman,” he reported, his voice rumbling slightly.  “Good one, too. He had a better grasp of camouflage than I expected.”

The Invaders stared at him in impressed silence as he disconnected the blade from his wrist and knelt to clean it off with a clump of moss.  He held the blade up to the light to inspect it, then snapped it back into place and twitched his fingers to pull the loop that retracted the blade.

“How- how did you-”

Bucky fixed his younger counterpart with cold eyes.  “You think they’ll just let you disappear behind a white picket fence after the war’s over, kid?  There ain’t many uses for the skills you - we - have.”

“You sayin’ you’re some sort of assassin, cowboy?”  Dugan was the first to react while Barnes and Rogers still stared at the dead German, faces ashen.  The implications of the sniper’s positioning weren’t lost on them, especially since neither had noticed his presence.

“Yippie ki-yay, motherfucker,” Bucky deadpanned as he dropped to one knee and started rifling through the dead soldier’s pockets.  Within seconds he’d extracted a generous ammo pouch, two small magazines for the long rifle that lay several feet away, and a compact Luger pistol.  The pistol went into the back of his belt, ammo pouch at his waist, and magazines into a coat pocket.

He frowned at the rifle as he picked it up, running his hands over the barrel and stock.  “You shouldn’t be here,” he told it quietly as he raised it up and sighted off into the woods.  Barnes approached him as he studied the scope.

“Something wrong?”

“This rifle’s ahead of its time.”  His lips pressed into a thin line as he checked the magazine and threw the rifle’s strap over his shoulder.  “I’ll hang onto this until we can get it to Stark. Chances are it isn’t a coincidence it’s here.”

“Happy you got your hands on a rifle again?” Mickey asked as he walked back over to her.

“<They send me out into the field as a sniper again, I want something less useless than an American gun.>”

“I won’t tell them you said that.”

Morita scuffed his foot against the ground as he shifted his weight to the other leg, arm draped casually through the strap on his rifle.  “Said what?”

“He’s just being an ass in Russian.”

“He’s an ass in every language, Doc,” Rogers cut in.  “I should know.” He stood, brushed his hands off on his pants, and gave the corpse a very unhappy look.  “Fritz shouldn’t’a been anywhere near here. His unit’s supposed to be fifty miles north. How’d you even see him, Ghost?”

Bucky looked away, face unreadable.  “Perfect place for an ambush, and he picked the nest I would’ve used.  Kid wasn’t an amateur.”

Letting out a skeptical grunt and pulling his lips to the side in an I don’t believe you face, Barnes turned away and started down the path they’d been following.  “Let’s go.”

It was nightfall by the time they clambered into the back of a canvas-covered truck.  Shaking and clumsy from fatigue, Mickey caught her foot on the back board and would have sprawled out facefirst if Bucky and Jones hadn’t caught her.

“Get some rest,” Bucky murmured as he helped her sit down and pulled her close to his side.  He stretched his legs out and leaned back against the large hoop holding up the canvas with a quiet, uncomfortable sigh as Tripod laid down at his feet.

Pillowing her head against the inside of his shoulder, Mickey rubbed at her eyes and dug out the sleep grit with a fingernail.  “You should, too.”

He grumbled something along the lines of, “I’ll sleep when it’s safe,” and settled his arm around her shoulders.  “Get comfy. It’s a long way to the Channel crossing.”

***

Mickey never thought she would miss air travel, but… this was torture.  Genuine torture.

She slumped over the railing of the small boat and closed her eyes, gagging again on the sour taste of bile in her mouth.  Bucky’s hand, warm through her jacket, gently rubbed circles between her shoulder blades as he stood next to her.

“Think you can keep some crackers down?”

“Think you can keep your face down?” she shot back, ignoring how pathetic and grumpy it sounded.  The moonlight reflected forlornly off the choppy surface of the water, rippling and dancing over the crests and troughs.

Bucky sighed, the sound mostly lost in the noise of the ocean.  “The baking soda’s supposed to help.” He reached down and knuckled the fur at the back of Tripod’s head, soothing the nervous dog as best he could.

“I’ll be fine once my body remembers how to boat.”

“You were in the Navy, love,” he chuckled, rolling his eyes.  “That’s a little sad.”

“The boats were usually bigger and we called them ships, asshole.”  A wave slammed into the hull and sent Tripod skittering across the deck and Mickey’s stomach tumbling again.  All that came out were horrible gagging sounds, though; she’d long since lost everything she’d eaten earlier in the day.

“Seriously, though, what kind of sailor gets seasick?”

Taking a few deep breaths and fighting down another shudder, Mickey shot a glare up at him.  “Only the ones that don’t lie about it. We’d burn through half my stock of Dramamine in the first week each time we left port.”

“If you say so.”  His smirk was insufferable, but he still held out a damp cloth for Mickey to wipe her mouth, then a full canteen.  “We’ll be on dry land again in about an hour.”

Weak and shaking, Mickey turned and sank down to press her back against the sturdy wooden planking.  She’d done far more than overextend herself this time, and if past experience was any indicator, she’d spend the next few days paying for it.  Borrowing ‘spoons’ of energy against tomorrow never worked well in the end.

She drifted in and out of consciousness, burrowed up against Bucky’s side through the remainder of the short passage.  Half-asleep and mumbling something unintelligible, she stumbled slightly as Bucky led her down the gangway and into England.

A truck waited for them with its engine rumbling, several paces past the end of the gangway.  Bucky swept the dock with his eyes out of habit before handing Mickey up to Rogers and climbing into the truck after her.  He slung the rifle off his shoulder and set it next to him, leaning it against the bench with the muzzle in the air.

None of the Invaders spoke much during the short ride to base, exhausted and filthy and most likely dreaming about a hot shower and proper meal for the first time in what was apparently weeks.  They’d deployed just before Rogers’s birthday, the festivities lost in the mix amongst the grisly, disturbing reports of the massacre at Finow.

As the truck rumbled to a stop and finally fell silent, Rogers glanced up at Bucky.  Already several inches taller and significantly broader than the majority of the other men, Bucky was guaranteed to stick out unless he took pains not to.  “I think I already know the answer to this, but is there any way you could be… less conspicuous?”

“What, like walking around in that getup?”  Bucky gestured meaningfully to the eye-poppingly patriotic uniform.  “At least I ain’t carryin’ around a massive target on my arm.”

Barnes snorted and made a valiant effort to cover it with a cough.

“You got somethin’ in your throat, Sergeant?”

“No, sir, Cap.”  Hiding his smirk behind his hand, Barnes smoothly stood and jumped down to the ground, holding up his hands to help Mickey down.  His eyes softened as he made sure she was stable on her feet. “You gonna be okay, Doc? You look a little pale.”

“I get tired easily.  A good night’s sleep and some real food will do me wonders.”

Two sets of boots hit the ground next to her, one with a quiet thump and the other noticeably louder.  Tripod jumped out after them, shaking herself emphatically and grumbling to herself.

As soon as Bucky’s hand touched Mickey’s side, she raised up her arm and looped it over his shoulder.  “How much further?”

“See that cluster of buildings over there?” Barnes answered, pointing to the command compound.  “About five hundred yards. We’ll take it slow.”

One step at a time.  She could do this.

With Bucky at one side and Tripod at the other, Mickey lost herself in the steady rhythm of putting one foot in front of the other.  If she didn’t get someplace to rest and recharge, and soon, she’d need medical attention that contemporary doctors wouldn’t be able to provide.  She might be able to walk Bucky through kludging together something resembling the mixtures Medical had put in her banana bags when things got bad, but she knew for a fact that a few of the drugs hadn’t even been invented before the turn of the twenty-first century.

Barnes led them into one of the buildings and down a narrow hallway, glaring away anyone that looked askance at the newcomers.  They passed a large room, open to the hall and filled with home office agents milling about as the sleepless war machine did its work.  Bucky realized with a start that Colonel Phillips was staring right at him, meeting his eyes with a piercing, perceptive gaze.

Training allowed him to avoid flinching away for the five and a half seconds it took to be out of sight.

Stopping at an open door, Barnes gestured inside and stepped to the left to let them in.  “I’ll hang on to the rifle and your bag while you’re in here, and then once you’re done I’ll take you to the barracks.”  With a barely-masked concerned glance toward Mickey, Barnes settled the rifle into place on his shoulder and fell into a relaxed stance next to the door.

Four chairs and a table filled the windowless, mirrorless room.  A quick glance told Bucky that there wasn’t any surveillance equipment, and he couldn’t hear the tiny whine of the electronics they might have hidden in the furniture.  Placing a hand just below Mickey’s shoulder blades, he guided her into one of the chairs and sat down in his own with a sigh.

Tripod immediately shoved her head into Mickey’s lap and whuffled at her until she leaned forward and started scratching the dog’s head.  It took a concerted effort to close herself off to the two wells of energy within reach; nothing good would come of draining the man and dog that kept her safe.

“Hey,” Bucky murmured, leaning down to catch Mickey’s eye.  “If you need it…”

“I think a hot meal and a good night’s sleep will probably help more than anything else.”

Brushing his thumb over her cheek, Bucky gave her a soft smile and nodded.  “We’ll get through this.”

“So, what do we do now?”  Mickey’s voice was rough and fuzzy, and she was blinking harder than usual as she fought to keep her eyes from getting glassy.

“We’ll probably be questioned by someone from the SSR, likely Peggy.  I have no idea what Barnes Jr. has told them, so it’s up in the air what happens after that.”

“Are you going to-”

“I’m retired.”  After a moment, Bucky tugged his hands over his face and sighed.  “Sorry. That was rude.”

“It’s been a hell of a day,” Mickey deflected, and gave him a tired smile.

“Understatement of the century.”  They both chuckled quietly, and Bucky reached out to card his fingers through Tripod’s fur.  “I don’t want to fight in the war a second time, much less even be here a second time.  They’re going to have to work pretty hard to convince me if they want me in uniform again.”

Mickey gave him a sharp look and pursed her lips.  “And this has to do with whether you want to fight, and not whether you feel you deserve a flag on your shoulder again?”

Bucky’s eyes flicked downward, and he didn’t respond other than a one-shouldered shrug.

The door swung open with a tired creak, and Bucky turned to stare into the faces of Agent Carter and Colonel Phillips.  He swallowed thickly as they sat down, and each of them set a tray on the table with a bowl of something that smelled delicious.  One of the trays also had a large can with a colorful label and a cartoonish drawing of a pudgy Dalmatian on it.

Tense silence stretched on for several seconds before Phillips sighed, nudged the trays towards them, and crossed his arms.  “Eat.”

Neither of them made a move, and Carter sighed quietly, looking down at her hands.  “I hope you’ll believe me if I tell you that there’s nothing in there besides some beef, vegetables, soup stock, cream, and mild seasoning.  As much as our Sergeant Barnes assured me that they provided you with adequate rations, I know from experience that those boys set a punishing pace.  You must be starving.”

Mickey glanced at Bucky, down at the bowls, back up at Bucky, and shrugged.  “Doesn’t really make tactical sense to poison us, anyway.”

He frowned at the colonel for several more seconds before moving his bowl to the table, setting the tray on the floor, and emptying out the contents of the can so Tripod could eat.  “Thanks for bringing food for my dog.”

The soup turned out to be more of a chowder, thick and creamy, with chunks of meat and vegetables floating in it.  Slightly oversalted and just the right consistency to make him gag on memories of thick, tasteless nutrient slurries, it took concerted effort to choke down each bite.

“So,” Carter began as they worked on the food, rubbing at her forehead with the back of her wrist.  “I have just spent seventeen hours listening to pecker-wagging contests between generals and admirals who apparently never grew out of grammar school.  I hope I can be forgiven for having little patience in the way of fantastical stories about time travel.”

Bucky couldn’t help but snort softly as he scooped up a chunk of beef.  “Noted.”

“Now,” Phillips said, “you wanna tell me what the hell’s going on?”

Rather than answer, Bucky dug into the inside pocket of his coat and pulled out his phone.  He ignored the baffled glances he got from across the table, swiping through pictures until he pulled up a picture of Item 98.  The phone squeaked slightly as he set it down, spun it, and slid it across the table. He tapped his finger on the edge of the phone’s case, drawing attention to the glowing image of the silver and blue device.  “That, Colonel, is what the hell is going on.”

***

“Never thought I’d be happy to see this place again.”  Bucky hefted the bag over his shoulder and gave the squat building a bemused smile.  “Home, sweet home, I suppose. Still got both NCO rooms?”

Barnes pushed open the door and beckoned them inside.  “Cap an’ I are in the one on the left, the other one’s yours.”

“Ghost, Doctor,” Rogers greeted them, straightening from where he’d been hunched over a field report.  Bunks and lockers lined the left side of the barracks, and the other side was filled with a large table, a basic kitchen, and laundry equipment.  Two large rooms were walled off on the other end of the barracks, their doors opening into a small hallway between them. Another door at the end of the hallway stood ajar, the sound of running water and tired voices drifting through it.  After setting the Russian rifle against the table, Barnes tapped his temple in a lazy salute and headed off toward the showers.

Mickey sank down onto the bench opposite Rogers with a grateful sigh, leaning over and crossing her arms to pillow her head.  She groaned softly when Bucky rested a hand on her shoulder and sat next to her. Claws clicked and squeaked quietly as Tripod settled down on the floor next to the table.

“I took the liberty of requisitioning a larger bed for you, as well as full kits from the quartermaster.  Everything’s waiting for you in your quarters.” Rogers shuffled his papers together and tapped them against the table to line them up.  “If I got the sizes wrong, tell me and we’ll take care of it first thing in the morning. Morita’s already checked over your rifles and sidearms, but let me know if there’s anything he missed.”

“You seem to be under the impression that we’re going to be fighting for you.”

“You aren’t?”

“Rogers, I got no intention of getting involved in another war.  The first time around, it damn near killed me twice, and it’s only thanks to whatever Zola shot me up with in Kreischberg that I’m here to tell the tale.”

“I’ll do it.”

Bucky turned to Mickey, a mixture of alarm and annoyance spreading across his face.  “You what? You don’t-”

“I’m a fully trained combat medic, Buck.”  She lifted her head and stared him down. “If you think I’m going to sit idly by while everyone else risks life and limb, then you’re dead wrong.”

After several seconds, Bucky’s shoulders slumped and he closed his eyes.  “It’s dangerous.”

“So is every mission we go on with the team back home.  Personally, I’d rather keep myself busy saving lives and doing what I was trained to do than sit in the corner and twiddle my thumbs.  If I don’t keep busy, I’ll be letting my anxiety take over and we both know that’s a damn stupid thing to do.” She pushed herself up from the table and gave Bucky’s shoulder a gentle squeeze.  “Now if you’ll excuse me, I think there’s a few barracks bags I need to look through.”

Bucky watched her go, pride and worry warring for control.  Once the door to their quarters closed, he let out a quiet sigh, stood, and scooped up the bag full of armor and the rifle.  “Well, I guess that’s my decision made for me.” He gave Rogers a tired smile.

“She’s a hell of a woman.”  Rogers chuckled and shook his head.  “I can see why you like her.”

“That she is,” Bucky agreed before he whistled to get Tripod’s attention.  “<Come on, girl.>”

The room was just as he’d remembered it - sized for two NCOs to share, it ended up being just about the right size for one.  Two kit lockers identical to those in the main barracks were on either side of the door, and a double bed with Army-neat blankets covered most of the wall to the left.  The plain wooden desk and matching chair were tucked in the corner, and between the desk and the door were a square ceramic sink and a small mirror. A delicately curved glass bottle of nail polish remover waited on the shelf below the mirror, courtesy of Rogers.  Mickey sat in the chair, sorting through the contents of the bag at her feet stenciled with a bold black ‘ANC.’

The bare wood paneling and faint pine smell were oddly comforting as Bucky set the armor bag down on the bed.  A gun rack was wedged in the corner next to one of the lockers, already holding two Thompson rifles, a Sten, and a pair of Colt 1911s on a shelf above the rifles.  Several gray-green ammo boxes were lined up at the base of the gun rack.

The blankets rumpled slightly as he sat on the bed.  Tripod jumped up a moment later and flopped down next to him.  Bucky watched Mickey sort through the hygiene kit for several minutes before rubbing at his eyes and letting out a resigned sigh.  “You’re serious about this, aren’t you?”

“Mmhm.”

“Myshka, this isn’t your war to-”

“Yeah, actually, it kind of is, and you aren’t going to win that argument, so don’t try.”  She held up one of the safety razors from the hygiene kit. “Anything I need to know about shaving with this?”

“Don’t use it without cream or at least soap or you’re gonna be in a world’a hurt for a week.”  Hopping off the bed, Bucky undid the ties on his own barracks bag and fished out the men’s hygiene kit he’d been issued.  He held up the straight razor and a pair of tweezers and pointed to his cheek meaningfully.

Mickey wrinkled her lip and took the straight razor, opening it and turning it over in her hands.  “Haven’t used one of these in ages but I think I can figure it out before my face fuzz starts growing back in.  What about toothpaste and deodorant?”

“Shit, right.  Um…” He started opening up pouches in the hygiene kit.  “Out here at least, deodorant ain’t really a thing. Um, perfume and cologne is- where the hell is that stupid little…  When you’re living with a bunch of other soldiers, no one really cares about how you smell unless it gets super rancid or somethin’.”  Grimacing when he finally found the small tin of tooth powder, Bucky handed it to Mickey. “Toothbrushes are more or less the same, as you’ve probably noticed, but if you want actual toothpaste in a tube you’ll need to get it at the exchange.  It’s also more like the stuff I use, none of that super minty fresh green crap. Fair warning, though, there’s lead in the metal tubes. Not enough to really cause any issues, but enough that you might not want to use it.”

Mickey looked at the tin, half disgusted and half intrigued.  “Is this the stuff where you get your toothbrush wet and dump the powder on?”

“Yep.  Just as gross as it sounds.  You want to see about getting any makeup?”

“Nah, not a high priority.”  She leaned over to set the tooth powder on the sink.

“You sure?  Could mean you get misgendered.”

Smiling slightly, Mickey shrugged.  “I know what’s between my legs. What anyone else thinks doesn’t matter.  Might bug me a little bit, but we have more important things to worry about than that.  At least I don’t have to worry about stuff from the Pink Aisle.”

Bucky couldn’t help but laugh a bit, shaking his head slightly.  “True, very true. Might be able to trade what they issued you to one of the nurses or something.  Reusable supplies are a valued commodity in the WAC, mostly because the Army hasn’t quite figured out that if they issue prophylactics and condoms, they should be issuing ladies’ stuff as well.”  He froze and twitched his lips oddly as he realized something. “Um… medical dilators aren’t really a thing. I mean, toys exist… but you’re more likely to find something looking like a dental tool or torture device that buzzes real loud than you are an insertable with gradation markings.”

“I’m sure I can figure something out.”  Picking up the small brown paper prophylactic pack, Mickey smirked at him.  “This was one of the most awkward classes I ever went through in the Hospital Corps.  You should’ve seen the charts they did up on how fast STDs spread during the World Wars, and the list of nasties that pro-kits don’t get rid of.”

“Well, at least HIV and AIDS aren’t a thing yet, otherwise half the troops would have it.”

“Only half?”

Bucky shrugged and started pulling out clothing and uniforms.  “There were a surprising number of men that didn’t stick their dick in anything that moved.  Asexuals have always been around, and there were also the married ones that stayed faithful or the ones that were just plain scared of VD.  And a decent number of the queers paired up exclusively. Once you knew a guy or girl was clean, you’d usually end up going back to them as long as they stayed that way.”

“So, no one’s going to mess with either of us while we’re wearing these?”  Mickey held up her left hand, the narrow band glinting in the warm light from the bulb in the ceiling.

“Most of them won’t, but you should still be on your guard.  Unless they see you in a nurse or WAC or USO uniform, most of the soldiers will assume you’re male, and unless you start packing and walking like a dude again, you’ll look like a twink to them.”

“…fantastic.”

After hanging the coat they’d stolen from the farmhouse next to his new (unmarked) uniforms, Bucky knelt next to Mickey and pulled her into a hug.  “I got no issue showin’ the world that I love you, but you need to understand that this world’s dangerous for folk like you right now. There’s enough men that’d attack first and ask questions later if they thought you were an openly gay man or a transvestite, and even some that’d try to take advantage of you.  They see us holdin’ hands or somethin’, I’m not the one they’ll come after.”

“I know.”  She pressed her forehead against his neck.  “What do I need to do to stay safe?”

“Just…”  Closing his eyes, Bucky wrapped one arm around Mickey’s head and tucked his nose just behind her ear.  “Stick to period-correct women’s clothing while you’re on base; that’s gonna mean skirts and stockings, no pants.  In the field, it won’t be as much of an issue with how progressive the guys are, but while we’re in garrison you’ll need to put out more gender cues than you normally would.”

After a moment, Mickey nodded and sighed softly.  “Let’s see about getting some of that lipstick tomorrow, then, and maybe something to wrap my hair with.  Rosie the Riveter style, or something like that.”

“I think we can manage that.”  Bucky pulled away and brushed a thumb over her cheek, giving her a warm smile before leaning in to kiss her.  “Help me get this shit outta my hair, and then we can get some sleep.”

It took nearly the whole bottle of nail polish remover before the last of the shoe polish washed down the drain.  Eyes streaming, Bucky squeezed out his hair over the sink and buried his face in the towel Mickey handed him. “Let’s wait until tomorrow to put in the dye, because fucking hell I can’t see.  I hate chemicals.”  He leaned back in the chair and tilted his head back to look up at Mickey.  “If you ever decide to get into puttin’ color on your nails, you’re doin’ that shit outside where I can’t smell it.”

She chuckled and worked the towel over his hair.  “Fair enough. Can’t say I like the smell of acetone myself, and polish tends to chip like crazy in our line of work, so I wouldn’t worry about that too much.”

“Oh, one more thing for gender stuff.”  Bucky reached up and gently rubbed his thumb over one of her earlobes.  “If you’re okay with getting your ears pierced, that’ll help a lot.”

“I’ll think about it.”  Leaning over, she gave him an upside-down kiss and stepped away.  “Come on, let’s get ready for bed.”

 

Chapter Text

Mickey was already awake by the time the morning bugle call of Reveille rippled through the base.  Extracting herself from Bucky’s arms, she rubbed his shoulder as he groaned softly and curled inward on himself, reaching up to wrap his arms around his pillow.

“I know, sweetheart, but we need to eat breakfast before we report to Medical.”

He crankily mumbled something unintelligible and likely not in English.  Rolling her eyes fondly, Mickey crossed over to the lockers and started pulling on a white nurse’s uniform.  She grabbed a set of fatigues out of Bucky’s locker and tossed them onto the bed; the shirt flopped open over his head.

“Put that on.  You’re still wearing your normal hologram so the scars aren’t blended yet.”

Muffled Russian swearing greeted her words.

“Get your ass out of bed.  Come on.”

Three taps on their door interrupted Bucky before he could respond, and finally he pushed himself up to a sitting position and dragged the shirt on over his bare shoulders.  “Alright, alright, I’m up, I’m up.” He rubbed his face, pressing hard over his eyes. “Is it eight AM already?” he asked Mickey, blinking blearily at her.

The person - it had to have been Barnes - knocked again, this time more insistently.  “You two better not be shtupping in there!” he yelled, voice slightly muffled through the door.

“Cool yer tits, pal, give us a second!” Bucky shot back before standing up, tugged on his stiff Army-issue trousers, and shoved his feet into his boots.  He pulled the legs of the trousers down over the boots this time, masking the intricate array of buckles, straps, and knife sheaths. He rubbed at his eyes again before reaching out to adjust the collar on Mickey’s blouse.

Barnes didn’t look terribly amused when they finally opened the door, arms crossed and already dressed in his smart garrison uniform.  His cap was tucked under one arm, his collar neatly starched and tie perfectly done. “Rise and shine, bunk lizards. We don’t got all day.”

“Oh, I’ll rise, but I refuse to fuckin’ shine.”  Bucky scowled at the Ike jacket he pulled out of his locker.  He sat at the desk and scooped up Tripod’s harness, patting his leg to get her to come over.  “Go on, I’m right behind you.”

Smiling apologetically, Mickey finished securing her belt around her waist and she stepped out of the room.  “Good morning, Sergeant.”

Barnes returned her greeting with a polite, “Ma’am,” before nodding toward the table.  “Frenchie’s making breakfast.”

From where he stood at the stove, Dernier waved a spatula at her in greeting.  Falsworth’s eyes were still mostly swollen shut as he wrapped his hands around a generous mug of tea, and Morita set down two empty tin mugs on the table.  He brandished the large metal coffee carafe at them.

“Either of you want a cuppa joe?”

“Not for me, thanks, but go ahead and pour one for Ghost.  Today’s one of those days where his coffee needs a coffee.”

“I heard that!”

Rolling her eyes and smirking, Mickey settled herself into place on the end of one of the benches and looked over at Falsworth.  “May I have some of that tea?” The Englishman shook himself awake and picked up the teapot in front of him, filling Mickey’s mug with precision borne of grogginess.

Back in their quarters with the door closed, Bucky finished clipping together Tripod’s harness and took a few seconds to rub her shoulders and ears before putting on her service dog vest.  She yawned expansively and groaned through it, then licked her nose a few times before putting her paws up on Bucky’s knees and nosing her way around his neck. He tugged his left arm out of his shirt, exposing his arm up to the shoulder where the seam between metal and flesh was just barely hidden under his undershirt.

While he scrubbed the fingers of his left hand through her coarse scruff, he pulled out his phone with his other hand and powered it on.  He set it on the desk to finish booting up while he flicked off the hologram on his arm and carefully pried off the access panel on the outside of his bicep.  Tugging out the retractable cable that he’d finally convinced Tony to install, he plugged it into the port on the bottom of his phone and barely managed to not roll his eyes when he opened up the app named ‘Arm Yourself.’  Steve was to thank – or blame, depending – for that godawful pun.

Nonetheless, he couldn’t deny its usefulness as he opened the ‘Skins’ menu and scrolled through the various options until he found the one he was looking for.  The standard hard light hologram was all well and good until he actually needed to remove his shirt, and then the jarring transition between smooth, perfect ‘skin’ and knobbly, grayish-red scar tissue was all too apparent.

A status bar appeared as the new data uploaded, and he traced his eyes over the thin seams between the segmented plates that made up his forearm.  They shivered and slid down as he balled his hand into a fist, whirring so softly that even he could barely hear it. Tony did amazing work on all the upgrades and refinements; the last big overhaul had replaced many of the microservos and internals, bringing the arm’s total weight to roughly half of what it had been before he’d escaped from HYDRA.

His spine had slowly straightened as a result, correcting its curvature and healing the damage done over decades of minimal medical treatment, and his muscles no longer strained with the weight of the arm any more.  Bad days were still bad, but on good days, Bucky could genuinely say for the first time since before he was drafted into the Army, he had a chance of waking up in the morning without being in pain.

The hologram finished rebooting, pulsing a few times before settling into place.  It’d hold even if he lost consciousness now, powered off of his body’s electromechanical energy.  As long as his heart kept beating, he wouldn’t have to worry about losing the cloaking again - theoretically.

Ropes of scar tissue crisscrossed all over his shoulder and bicep, blending perfectly with the scars on his natural skin.  When setting up this hologram skin, they’d dressed his arm in a thin latex sleeve, given Steve the right tools to work with, and set him the task of creating a screen-worthy shoulder-to-elbow 3D painting.  The end result was simply stunning, and after a detailed scan and a few color tests, Bucky had spent nearly an hour staring dumbly at himself in the mirror. The scarring would still attract attention, no doubt, but among soldiers, among people who saw this sort of thing every day, no one would give him a second glance.

Hologram updated, he checked his phone’s battery level and grimaced when he saw a number significantly lower than he wanted.  Popping it into airplane mode before powering it down, he frowned as he tried to think of a way to reverse-engineer himself a charger with contemporary technology.

Maybe Stark would have some ideas.  Chances are the man would ask too many questions, though.

He buttoned his shirt up, neatly bloused it into his trousers, and studied his reflection for a few seconds, hoping against all hope that no one would recognize him as Barnes’s older, crazier, half-cyborg twin.

Dugan’s booming laughter echoed through the barracks, and Bucky looked down at Tripod where she sat with her head tilted, tongue lolling out and one ear flopped over to the side.  Smiling and shaking his head, he clicked his tongue at her and led the way into the main room.

“…and then he just went whizzing down the hill, couldn’t control where he was going, hit a rock or something.  Flew through the air-”

“That’s it,” Bucky grumbled as he slid onto the bench next to Mickey.  “I want a divorce.”

“You’ll have to actually marry me first.”  Smirking at him, Mickey handed him a mug of coffee before tilting her face up for a kiss.

Dugan sat sideways on the bench at the other end of the table, one burly arm resting next to his mess kit.  “Lookityou, living in sin.” He grinned shamelessly at them. “Did you really go sledding on Cap’s shield?”

“I was drunk, and it sounded like a good idea at the time.”  Dernier passed him a steel dish with what looked like a half-scrambled omelet, and followed it with another dish and a can of food for Tripod.  Turning to Barnes, Bucky held out the dog food. “Here. If you feed her she’ll probably hate you less.”

Morita snorted into his coffee.  “Can we get back to the part where you were drunk?  I thought that couldn’t happen anymore.”

“Depends on what he’s drinking,” Mickey said, wrapping her fingers around her mug.  “If it’s bright purple and smells like brake fluid-”

Popping back up from where he was emptying the can of dog food out, Barnes frowned at her.  “Purple?” Tripod boofed at him insistently, and he leaned down to finish scooping out the brown mush.  “Alright, alright, relax. Here. Eat.” He nudged the dish closer to her, meeting the dog’s narrowed eyes with a half-scowl of his own.  Finally, Tripod stepped forward and delicately shoved her face into the food.

“See?  Progress.  She didn’t growl at you.”

“Shut up, Barnes.”

“Make me, Junior.”

Mickey groaned and dropped her head forward.  “Oh god, now it’s in stereo.”

Even Falsworth laughed, slightly more awake after his third cup of tea.

Leaning forward onto the table, Rogers smiled at Mickey.  “So, Doc. You said last night you’re a fully trained combat medic.  It’s pretty clear you’ve seen action.” The question in his words was unmistakable.

Her eyes tightened, and she looked down at her tea.  “Just a few months after I turned eighteen, I was at skating practice before school - I, uh, I did figure skating as a kid - and one of the employees started panicking.  We all ran over to see what was happening, and- and there, on the news, two big passenger aircraft slammed into the Twin Towers. That was, um, they were two gigantic skyscrapers in Lower Manhattan that got built right next to each other; they were used for international trade and commerce.

“It’s a… it was horrible.  I hope that when you get there, your world’s different enough that you won’t have to watch the Towers fall.”

Pausing for a moment, Mickey looked up at Bucky.  She knew he’d been on a HYDRA mission in one of the Towers when they got hit; it was one of his regularly scheduled nightmares.  Seeing the plane slam into the tower Brock’s father worked in was one of her own. “I wanted to go enlist that day. I- I think it was my generation’s Pearl Harbor.  Biggest spike in enlistment since the World Wars. It was- no one knew how to explain it. None of us could even believe it. If you can’t even tell a child what happened, how can you understand it yourself?”

The stunned silence in the barracks was thick and pained; Rogers and Barnes exchanged a meaningful glance.

“My older brother Jack managed to convince me to wait a few years before joining up.  I had some health stuff that I needed to get taken care of before I could be active duty anyway.  Once I was good to go, I joined the Navy Hospital Corps. We, um, we ended up in a sort of unofficial war that’s still going on.  A lot of troops ended up getting deployed to Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, and the other countries near there. I got attached to a group of jarheads and spent a few tours hiking around the desert in Afghanistan.

“I got hit by an IED - um, a cobbled-together bomb - and got medically retired as a Senior Chief with a Purple Heart, some really attractive scars, and a messed up head.”  She pointed to the faint pockmarks across her right cheek and temple. “Spent a few years knocking around DC recovering from that, and then this big lunk and I became friends.”  Nudging Bucky playfully with her shoulder, she gave him a watery grin. “The SSR became an organization called SHIELD back in the 50s, and now I work for them. I’m the main medical support whenever our team gets deployed on a mission.”

“Well.”  Rogers gave her a piercing, appraising look and stood up.  “We’ve all got basic medical training, but having a field doctor on the team would be invaluable.  I’ll talk to Carter and see about getting the paperwork started.”

Bucky looked up in surprise.  “The paper- what? You’re what.”

“We talked about this last night,” Mickey told him slowly.  “Thought you were okay with it.”

“I thought you were going to help out in the hospital or something!  We never talked about you going into combat! This is-”

“This is my choice.  You don’t get to make it for me.”

“I don’t get to- I think I get a say, when it’s my job to keep you safe!”

Scoffing, Mickey shook her head.  “Sure, you get a say, but it’s still my decision.  And it isn’t your job to keep me safe. I don’t need you to protect me, Buck.”

“Yeah, you kind of do.”

“…wow.”  She turned to face him, eyebrows knitted together.  “I can’t believe you just said that.”

“Well, you’re clearly just as bad as that asshole when it comes to self-preservation!”  Jabbing a finger at Rogers, Bucky ignored Tripod’s warning growl.  “And I really don’t fancy hiking through the ass end of Europe tryin’ to keep you alive.  Myshka, you can’t do this, you’re a-”

Mickey stood suddenly, leaning over Bucky.  When she spoke, it was through tight lips and her voice was low and dangerous.  “If you say the word ‘cripple,’ I will make you regret that for the rest of your very, very long life.”

He blinked at her, silent for several seconds before saying, “I’m just- this- this isn’t your war to fight.”

“You said that last night, and you’re still wrong.  It’s my war to fight because I’m here and that’s all the reason I need.  All these men an’ women, they’re layin’ down their lives ‘cause it’s the right thing to do, and I got no fuckin’ right to do any less than them.  I got training, I got good aim, I got experience that can help them. You want me to sit on the sidelines and wait it out? Tough fuckin’ luck.”

“‘Cause you got nothin’ to prove.”

“I have everything to prove, apparently.  When did you stop trusting me to take care of myself?”

“When you fell and cracked open your skull and nearly died!  This isn’t a drawn-out guerilla war in a desert, Micks, this is-”

“What is it, then?  Trench warfare? Last I checked, this unit don’t go anywhere near the trenches.  The war I fought in was won by bullets and bombs just as much as this one.”

“You don’t understand!”  Pushing himself to his feet, he stepped away from the table and was about to say something else when Tripod barked, loud and sharp.  She had her legs splayed out, ears flattened back, and hackles raised as she glared up at Bucky, growling softly. “What, you too?”

Tripod barked again and curled her lips back, slowly circling between him and Mickey.

“<The fuck is wrong with you?>” he demanded, spreading out his hands.  “You know what? I’m done. I need to go for a run.” Turning on his heel, Bucky stripped off his shirt and tossed it inside their room as he went past it and out the back door in the showers.  He knew she was right. He knew that.  Gritting his teeth against the helplessness and frustration, Bucky stonily ignored the soldiers that turned to stare at the punishing pace he’d set for himself.

Back in the barracks, Mickey let out a heavy sigh and closed her eyes for a few seconds before sitting back down.  “That went well.”

“Y’know, you remind me of someone,” Barnes said, crossing his arms.  The ghost of a smile danced its way across his face. “About as tall as my chin, skinny as a twig, sandy blond hair.  Didn’t know when to back down from a fight, and he’d just as soon punch you for telling him to stop.”

“Yeah, no one’s ever made that comparison before.”  She drank the rest of her tea and scowled down at the mug.  “I wish he’d stop treating me like I’m made out of spun glass.”

Jones chuckled and rolled his eyes.  “This is Bucky Barnes we’re talking about.  That’s never going to happen, especially since it looks like he’s just gotten even more protective with age.”

“You’re just jealous ‘cause I aged like a fine wine.”

“I wouldn’t be so sure.  Looks like they popped open the bottle an’ got vinegar.”

“Fuck you, Jones.”

“You cheatin’ on me, Buck?” Rogers asked with a grin.

Mickey dropped her face into her hands.  “I’m getting the strange feeling that half the injuries I’ll be treating are from you fruitcakes messing around.”

Clapping her on the shoulder, Jones extracted himself from the table and gathered up his mess kit.  “You’ll fit right in, Doc.” He headed over to the large sink and started up the water to wash dishes.

The teapot swung into view as Falsworth offered Mickey another cup of tea.  She thanked him with a smile and watched the liquid swirl around in her mug.

“What’s his deal, though?  Why’s he so…” Barnes made a vague gesture and curled his lip.

“That isn’t my story to tell.”

“But you know it.”

“More than I’d like to, sometimes.”  She took a sip of tea and set the mug back down.  “I know the nightmares aren’t anything new, but there’s other things… he’s- he’s not fragile, really, just… we’ve had a lot of wars in our world, and he’s fought in nearly every one of them.  It stayed with him, the things he’s done and been made to do. Means he feels like it’s his job to keep everyone he cares about safe, and he takes it pretty seriously.”

“Little too seriously, if you ask me.”

“You’re one to talk,” Morita shot back at the sergeant.  “You’re like the unit mom, for fuck’s sake.”

“Yeah, but I never doubted whether any of you could take care of yourselves.”

Rogers snorted and coughed his way into laughter.

“Oh, fuck off, Steve.  You know what I meant.”  After a moment, Barnes sobered and looked up at Mickey.  “Seriously, though, whatever happened to him - happens to me - it’s left that guy shattered.  He’s still pickin’ up the pieces. I know that look in his eyes from seein’ it in my own.”

Weighing her options, Mickey opted for a fragment of the truth.  “Someone scrambled up his brain. It left pretty big scars.”

“But… why are you…”

“Why am I with him?”  When she looked up at Barnes, she knew she’d hit the nail on the head.  “Mental health treatment - depression, anxiety, shell-shock, even his epilepsy - it’s different in our world.  Better. People don’t shy away from that sort of stuff anymore. Having demons to fight doesn’t make you crazy and dangerous, it just means you might need a little help fighting them every once in a while.”

She took a deep breath and another sip of tea.  “You said he’s shattered, and you’re right. The people that hurt him, they broke him apart piece by piece and put him back together into what they wanted him to be.  Eventually, he fell apart again and yeah, like you said, he’s still picking up the pieces. But it’s like a stained-glass window, you know? It’s made up of so many pieces, broken apart and then welded back together, and if anything, it’s actually all the more beautiful for having been broken.”

From where he still stood at the head of the table, Rogers looked down at Mickey with a wistful smile.  “You really are dizzy with him.”

“Against my better judgment, sometimes.”  She laughed bitterly and leaned over to give Tripod a scratch.

“Welcome to the club, ma’am.”

“Don’t ‘ma’am’ me, Cap, you make me feel old.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Rogers smirked at her as he headed back to his quarters.

“So, Doc.”  Barnes tapped absently at the table.  “If you’re going to be our medic, what do you need from us?”

“Full medical files on all of you, and a complete inventory of any supplies you have.”

He nodded and turned to Morita for a moment.  “Jim-boy, get started on that inventory. We’ll need to go to the hospital to get our charts; they’ve got your medicine there as well.  Want to wait until Ghost gets back?”

Frowning slightly, Mickey thought about it.  “I think he needs some time to let off steam.  Let’s get this out of the way.”

***

“Fair warning,” Barnes muttered as they stepped out of the barracks.  “Most of the field surgeons are old-fashioned prigs.”

“I promise to behave myself.”  Once her eyes had adjusted to the bright light, she squinted up at the huge shape hovering above the base.  “Did I just not see that before, or is that new? Also, what the hell is that?”

“Barrage balloon.  It’s basically a minefield in the air, s’pos’to keep the bombers from doing runs over the city without taking heavy damage themselves.  Don’t work so well against ranged missiles, though. If you hear anyone yellin’ about doodlebugs, or the sirens start up, get to the nearest shelter as fast as you can.”

Mickey was quiet for a bit as they walked.  Tripod paced smoothly at her side, ears swiveling and nose twitching as she absorbed the new sounds and smells of the base.  “Just like Afghanistan, then.” Adjusting her nurse’s cap, Mickey looked up at Barnes. “How bad is the shelling, typically?”

“Bad enough.”

The base hospital was a small, low-slung building; it mostly functioned as a sick bay and medical facility for all the soldiers stationed there.  Any severely wounded soldiers usually ended up at Queen Alexandra’s just a few miles away. It made sense, in an odd sort of way; Bucky had told her that every unit on base was affiliated with the SSR in some capacity.  Having an isolated hospital in case anything particularly hinky - and therefore particularly classified - happened was a smart move.

Barnes opened the door and stepped to the side, motioning Mickey through.  “Janice is on duty today; she’s a real doll. Just let her know what you’re here for and she’ll help you out.  I’ll wait outside with the pup.”

“Any particular reason…”

“I walk in there without somethin’ bleeding, they’re gonna assume I got the clap.”

“…right.”  Blinking a few times, Mickey turned and stepped into the hospital.

Less than a minute later, Tripod’s ears perked up as raised voices filtered through the closed door.  She and Barnes rushed inside to find Mickey with one hand on a patient’s chest, gesturing with the other and issuing orders like she was born to it.

“Get me a vial of- sir, did I fucking stutter?  Get off your damn ass and get me epinephrine.”

Barnes’s eyebrows shot up as he tucked his cap under his arm and stepped off to the side.  Tripod followed him easily, sitting at his feet and watching the commotion with her head cocked to the side and one ear straight up, tongue lolling out.

The doctor Mickey had yelled at turned an interesting shade of red and didn’t move.  Lips pursed in annoyance, Mickey turned to one of the nurses but before she could open her mouth, the nurse held up a filled syringe.

She took the syringe and ordered the nurse to monitor the patient’s airway.  As she firmly stabbed the needle into the man’s leg, Barnes couldn’t help but wince in sympathy.

Gradually, the quiet, gasping noises the patient had been making died down and he relaxed back onto his cot, exhausted.

Letting out a small sigh, Mickey picked up something from the tray next to the man’s cot - another syringe - and turned to the red-faced doctor.  She slapped the syringe against the doctor’s chest, furious, and ignored the stunned silence through the rest of the hospital. “You fucking walked away before confirming that your patient didn’t go into anaphylaxis after his injection, and you risked his life because of a stupid-ass negligent mistake.  Your patient should be dead.”

Without waiting for a response, Mickey scooped up a set of small bottles and a stack of folders from where they’d been tossed haphazardly on the patient’s blankets and brushed past Barnes on her way out the door.  He thought he heard her mutter something about trying not to punch anyone as Tripod followed her out.

Barnes turned back to look at the scene in front of him while the nurses quietly went about their business of tidying up after the emergency.  The doctor still stood there, holding the small, empty syringe, torn between looking furious and cowed. Finally, he turned to Barnes and asked, “Sergeant, who the hell is that woman?”

“If I were you, sir, I wouldn’t be asking too many questions.  She just saved that soldier’s life.” After throwing the dumbstruck doctor a mocking salute, Barnes turned and left the hospital.

Mickey leaned against the wall outside, head hanging down, hands resting just under Tripod’s ears.  When Barnes opened the door and walked out, she looked up and tried her best to give him a tired smile.  “Sorry. Kid was going to die.”

Reaching out, Barnes rested a hand on her shoulder.  “You did good, ma’am. That soldier probably wouldn’t be alive if you hadn’t-”

“It’s not my place,” she said flatly, eyes falling to the ground.  “Women don’t get to be doctors, not here.”

Barnes gave her an inscrutable look, forehead wrinkling as his eyebrows knitted together.  After a moment, he shook his head. “Did you get what we came for?” She waved the folders at him in answer.

“Already stowed the drugs in Tripod’s vest.”

“It’s quite a list you gave us,” he prompted, leaving her an opening to change the subject.

Rather than shy away from it, Mickey shrugged and pushed off the wall.  “The most important one’s for his seizures, and I wanted to have meprobamate on hand in case he needs it.  Most of what we have him taking hasn’t been invented yet so I’ll need to do some research and talk to a pharmacologist before I can come up with good substitutes.  There’s a few more that’ll treat side effects from the anticonvulsants but hopefully he won’t have to use them.”

She stretched her arms out behind her, closed her eyes, and groaned softly.

“You okay, Doc?”

“Yeah, just worn out.  Yesterday took a lot out of me.”  When Barnes chewed his lip, unconvinced, Mickey shrugged.  “I get tired easily, ever since I hit my head a few months ago.  That’s why Ghost ended up carrying me around on our way to London.  I’ve usually got a wheelchair to fall back on if walking becomes a problem.”

Barnes nodded and laughed, offering her his arm as they started walking again.  “And suddenly that argument you two had makes a lot more sense.  Speaking of which, what the hell happened with your dog?  Why’d she start growlin’ at him?”

“Oh, Tripod?”  Fluffy ears pricked up at the mention of her name.  “He originally kept her as a companion when he went- when he was on a long solo mission.  Found out she could spot his seizures coming before any of the other early symptoms hit, and she also helps pull him out of his head when he gets lost in it.  Once he came home, we trained her to let me know if I’m getting too tired. She also doesn’t put up with bullshit from either of us, won’t let us get away with doing stupid stuff.”

A deep rumble answered Mickey’s words, and Tripod swiveled her ears around as she looked up, her lips drawing back in a pit bull smile.  She woofed quietly at Mickey and then turned back to the path in front of them.

“God, I wish I’d had a dog like that as a kid.”

“What about Scout?”

Confused, Barnes turned to her.  “Scout?”

“Yeah, my Bucky said his family had a dog…?”

The sergeant shook his head and sighed softly.  “Couldn’t afford one, not during the Depression.”  He gave Mickey a wistful smile and looked up at the barrage balloons.  “And then the war hit, so pets became a pretty low priority, all things considered.”

“That’s… I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”  Barnes looked down at his feet for a few paces.  “Them’s the breaks, at least for Steve an’ I.”

After a short pause, Mickey remembered something and looked up, scanning the buildings around here.  “How far is the exchange? I’d like to… shit.”

“I’d recommend the latrines for that, ma’am.”

She swatted his arm and rolled her eyes.  “Just remembered I don’t have any money.”

“Wha’d’you need?  I’ll spot you. The eagle shits tomorrow so don’t worry about me bein’ broke.”

“I wanted to pick up a notebook and some shampoo.  We keep a journal of Bucky’s symptoms so that it’s easier to see patterns and pick up on any warning signs.”

“Well, in that case…”  Barnes grinned at her. “It’s just over there, with the red canopy.  Notebook shouldn’t be more than a few cents, unless you want it leather bound.  You’ll have to look in the ladies’ section for hair stuff, though, most of the men just use soap.  Come on.”

***

“So, now that you’ve got all our medical… records…”  Barnes trailed off in mid-sentence, eyes narrowing as he watched the tall, lean figure slowly make its way across the training yard yet again.  Curious, Mickey turned to follow his gaze and shrugged off her jacket to toss it over one of the benches outside the Invaders’ barracks.

“Something catch your eye, Sarge?”

Letting out a short sigh, Barnes frowned at the loping, smooth run of the man he was watching and flicked the ash off the end of his cigarette.  “That’s the sixth time he’s lapped the base since I started counting.”

“Are you sure?  He might just be-”

“You need to talk to him, Doc.”  Barnes spoke softly despite the hard tone in his voice.  Tiny puffs of smoke escaped from between his lips as he spoke, carefully downwind of Mickey.  “None of us’ve said anything, but somebody’s gonna notice if he doesn’t dial it back a bit.”

She cleared her throat awkwardly.  “I’ll, uh, yeah. I’ll talk to him.”

Glancing over, Barnes turned to face her and his eyes softened.  “I’m just worried someone’s gonna see him and know what’s what, then spill the beans to the Nazis.  Last thing we need is them knowin’ we got another soldier with vitamin juice in his blood.”

“Understood.”  It was a small miracle that Phillips and Carter had agreed to attach them to the Invaders, and a larger one that they’d kept anyone from asking questions.  “Oh, Barnes, I’ll need Dernier to sit down and write out a medical history for me. I don’t have anything on him from before Cap rescued all of you from the factory.”

Barnes rubbed his eyes for a few seconds.  “Right. I’ll get on his ass about that. Anything in specific you need?”

“Any past or current known medical conditions, any conditions in direct relatives, injuries that may affect his field work… anything I might need to know to treat anything that might happen in the field.  Allergies, stuff like that. Same sort of thing that was on your induction form.”

Footsteps scuffed rapidly through the dust and Mickey looked up to see Bucky jogging toward them.  He’d taken the time to blouse his pants into his boots, and his sleeveless khaki undershirt was tucked in at the waist and soaked with sweat.  His shoulders and forearms were pink from the sun; Tony had worked some black magic in the code for Bucky’s arm to give him adaptive skin tones.

He gave them a half-wave in greeting as he slowed to a stop, leaning over and bracing his hands on his knees.  Breathing heavily, he looked up with an exhausted, apologetic smile. “I’m done being an ass, now. I promise.”  As he stood up be puffed out a breath, dragged both hands through his hair and slicked it back against his head with sweat.

Barnes gave Mickey a meaningful look and turned to head inside the barracks.  “I’ll go find Frenchie and see about that medical history for you, Doc.” He stubbed out the butt of his cigarette in the mess kit-turned-ashtray nailed to the window sill and nudged the door open with his foot.

As soon as the barracks door swung closed, Bucky gestured toward it.  “Was that about this morning? He ain’t usually that grumpy.”

“Pot, kettle,” Mickey muttered.  “He’s just worried one of the infantrymen is going to notice the fact that you can keep pace with Rogers.  Most of the men don’t pay much attention to the Invaders and give us a pretty wide berth, but there are a few that are observant enough to become a problem.”

“He’s worried about spies?”  Bucky grimaced and rested his hands on his hips, rolling his head around to loosen his neck.

“Something like that.  Until we get whatever paperwork Rogers keeps talking about taken care of, we need to be careful.”

Giving Mickey a smirk, he quickly twisted his shoulders from side to side, quiet cracks and pops ratcheting out of his spine.  “Have a little faith, darlin’.”

Mickey rolled her eyes fondly and nudged him with her shoulder.  “Go de-stink yourself, and make sure to run your knuckles down your IT bands while you’re in the shower.  We’ve been invited to join the guys when they go out tonight.”

Halfway through the barracks door, Bucky froze mid-stride and turned to look over his shoulder at Mickey.  His eyes were slightly widened, eyebrows furrowed, uncertain. “I’m… not sure that…”

“We’re part of the team.  Mandatory fun. Go get through the shower.”

Half an hour later, Bucky closed the door to their small room and rubbed the thin Army towel over his hair yet again.

“Sit up straight, Myshka, you’re slouching again.”  He stepped over to where she was leaning over the files spread across the desk and cupped her shoulders in his hands, gently lifting and pulling them back until she corrected her posture.  Groaning softly, Mickey stretched her arms up, tilted her head back, and gave him a wry smile.

“We’re still going to talk about what happened this morning.”

“I know.”  Bucky looked away and sighed softly, then headed over to the sink and picked up his comb from the narrow shelf at the base of the mirror.  “The shower didn’t help my anxiety, so I’d rather we just have it out before I get even twitchier.”

A low, gruff grumble from the bed made him turn around.  “You’ll get your turn to yell at me too, don’t worry.” Tripod flicked an ear dismissively at him and set her head down over her paws, closing her eyes against the afternoon sun filtering through the curtains.

“There’s not that much to say, really,” Mickey reassured him, closing Morita’s folder and setting it to the side.  She turned to face Bucky, sitting sideways in the chair, and draped one arm over the back of it. “Goes back to the talk we had within the first week of me living with you in DC.  This is my choice, and you don’t get to make it for me. If you don’t agree with it, then that’s fine, but you don’t get to tell me what I can and can’t do. I’m the only one that gets to decide what my limits are.”

Nodding, Bucky braced his hands against the sink for a moment, letting his head hang forward.  Stringy, wet clumps of dark hair swung in front of his eyes. “I’m really sorry that I said you couldn’t take care of yourself.  Honestly, I’m surprised you’re even talking to me right now. Wouldn’t have blamed you if you told me to grab a bunk with the rest of the men.”

“Because acting like hormonal sitcom characters solves things so well.”  That got a snort from him, and Mickey’s own lips twitched up in a small smile.  “The way we’ve made things work so far is by talking to each other like grown adults.”

“Don’t forget the clown noses.”  And indeed, keeping a straight face while trying to argue with a red foam ball stuck to each of their noses had proven nearly impossible; it was also hard to remember why something was worth getting angry over when they couldn’t stop laughing.

“Well, we don’t exactly have those here, so we’ll have to resort to being grown-ups.”

Mickey stood and crossed the small room, wrapping him in a sideways hug.  “I may have fatigue and coordination issues if I push myself too hard, but I can still heal away nearly any injury, and – theoretically – I can kill anyone that tries to hurt me without needing a weapon.”

“That- that doesn’t exactly make me feel any better, babydoll.”  He softened his words with an off-kilter smile and straightened, setting the comb down before running his hands down her arms.  Picking up her hands in his own, he pressed his lips to the knuckles. “I know you’re not as breakable and fragile as I seem to think sometimes.  And I know I’m overprotective to the point of being stifling and paranoid on my bad days. That’s… not exactly new, just ask Steve.” With a self-deprecating smile and laugh, he pulled her into his arms and tucked her head under his chin.

“When you were in the hospital after the trial, I promised your brother that I’d keep you safe.  I don’t intend to break that promise any time in the near future, so…” Taking a deep breath, he buried his face in Mickey’s hair and squeezed his eyes shut.  “If it means I get to end each day with you by my side, safe and sound, I’ll suit up and fight for you. You want to keep these men alive and healthy, and I’ll follow you wherever that takes us so that I can help you stay alive and healthy.  And yes, I know you don’t need my help for that, but…”

Pushing away just enough to look him in the eye, Mickey smiled at him.  “Sure as hell makes it easier when I know I’ve got you watching my six.”  She rose up on her toes and kissed him, then wrapped her arms tight around his neck and buried her face there for a few seconds.  “I know you don’t want to fight, and neither do I. I’ll do my best to make sure I don’t end up in combat, but I know I’ll feel better having you there with me.”

“Always, sweetheart.  Always.” Bucky curled his arm protectively around her head and held her close, relief easing its way into his shoulders.  “Just… if I can make one request? Well, two, actually.”

“That depends on what they are.”

He laughed and pressed a kiss just above her ear.  “First, any time we’re in the field, I’d like you to wear the armor from the TRON suit under your clothes.  I don’t exactly want you getting shot again and I’ll rest easier knowing you’ve got the armor on.”

“Of course.”

“And second, I’d like to start training together again like we used to.  It’s going to take a lot of work to get to the point you were at before you got hurt, and I want to make sure you can hold your own.  Jarhead-jitsu hasn’t been developed yet so you’ve still got a leg up on most folk when it comes to strategy and technique, but you’ve got some handicaps to work around now.”

Mickey thought about it for a few seconds before nodding.  “That’s reasonable.” She hugged him tightly for a few seconds before stepping away and sitting back down at the desk.  “Cap told me that they regularly head out for training exercises with the SAS guys. Sounds like it’d be a good idea for us to tag along.”

“They don’t pull punches, Micks.  It’s full contact, full speed, with simmies.  They won’t make any allowances for your fatigue.”  Bucky had mildly unpleasant memories of being dragged from his tent in the middle of the night and enduring weeks of brutal training designed to break even the strongest men.  That training - the direct result of his range scores and natural stealthiness - was the only reason he’d lasted as long as he had against HYDRA’s torture.

“Yeah, I know.  I need to learn to work around it anyway.”  She waved a hand at the medical files. “Apparently, these guys don’t know how to dodge.”

Bucky laughed quietly and ran his towel over his hair one last time before tossing it onto a peg next to the door.  He sat down on the bed next to Tripod and held out his hands; she sniffed them over delicately before giving him a dismissive grunt and laying her head back down.  “It’s much more intensive training than most units got during the war. See anything concerning?” Gently rubbing over Tripod’s ears, he worked his hands into the dense fur on her neck.

Pursing her lips, Mickey tapped her finger on the dull brown folder containing Rogers’s file.  “If he didn’t have the serum, he’d be dead a hundred times over by now.”

“He nearly was, even before,” Bucky said quietly.  “You saw his charts from induction. He was a dead man walking, likely wouldn’t’ve survived more than a few years after the war ended anyway.”

“Yeah, he definitely didn’t win the genetic lottery.  Did you work on your IT bands yet?”

He rolled his eyes and started digging his fingers into the outside of his thigh a few inches down from his hip, sliding his thumbs down to release the tension in his leg.  “Lotta folks would talk behind his back, say why couldn’t he just up an’ kick it already, stop usin’ up rations the rest of us needed. Sickly little fella like him, and an artist to boot, no one wanted anything to do with him.  Eugenics was still – ow, motherfucker – it was still pretty prevalent back then, right up until about the time the war hit.  Back when he was a kid, he got hit with scarlet fever pretty bad, crippled his immune system and stunted his growth somethin’ fierce.

“His asthma kept him inside whenever his immune system didn’t – asthma used to be deadly if the attack was bad enough, and no mother wanted to watch her child suffocate to death.  A lotta folk thought what he had was contagious – fuck, they’d think what I have is contagious, what with my epilepsy an’ shit.”

“…seriously?”

Mickey’s face was twisted in confused disgust when Bucky glanced up at her.  “Yeah. Mental health isn’t really talked about much right now, you know that.  You have to see a shrink, it’s ‘cause you’re so far gone that you might as well be completely bugnuts insane.  Lotta folk right now still think depression is somethin’ you can just muscle through an’ whatnot. PTSD isn’t a thing yet, it’s still battle fatigue and shell shock.”  He winced as he hit a particularly sore spot on his thigh. “Even though I’m fit and functional, they’d still focus on the fact that I’ve got a list as long as my leg of psychiatric diagnoses, and the epilepsy alone would have put me on the list for compulsory sterilization.”

“What the fuck?   That’s- that was a thing?  I thought my teachers were joking!”

“It’s still a thing.”  Bucky switched to his other side and bit back a curse when he started putting pressure on the muscle.  “The laws surrounding it are pretty vague and inconsistent, even in our modern era. Suffice to say, people are shitty, they always have been and always will be.”

She sighed raggedly, pressing her fingers against her eyes.

“Shit, I’m sorry.”  Bucky scrambled to his feet and knelt next to her, tugging her into a hug.  “That’s a lot to dump on you, especially with you-”

Her voice was thick and scratchy.  “It’s fine. Captain Hanfield kind of glossed over that unit and now I can see why.  Jesus Christ, man.”

“You gonna be okay?  I feel like an even bigger asshole now.”

“I’m not made of glass, Buck.”  She smacked his arm gently and gave him a tired smile.  “I just- I remember what it was like coming out and going through my transition.  It’s a lot of the same bigots and ideologies with transphobia. Still a bit of internalized angst there, sorry.”

“Hush, no need to apologize.  You okay?” Running a hand over her hair to smooth it down, Bucky hunched his shoulders to the side and tilted his head to catch her eye.

“Yeah, I just, I say I don’t care what other people think, it doesn’t bother me when I get misgendered, shit like that, but…”

“After a while, it just gets to be too much.”

“Mmhm.”  Taking a deep breath, Mickey laughed awkwardly.  “I’m fine with wearing men’s clothing, and makeup and jewelry’s got no place in combat, but I can’t promise it won’t occasionally get to me when I get called ‘he’ or someone’s racist or homophobic or shit.  I don’t know how Jones and Morita deal with it, especially since this is one of the only integrated units.”

“Stiff upper lip and a sneaky left hook.”

She pulled her lips back to stifle her smile, snorted, then let out a few giggles.  “Pretty sure decking the other soldiers is going to attract the sort of attention we don’t want, love.”

“Just sayin’.”  After a moment, Bucky retreated back to the bed and started scratching under Tripod’s chin.

“So, before we head out tonight, I’m going to need a crash course on 1940s social etiquette.  And no, this doesn’t mean you’re going to finally get me to dance, this just means I need to know what I can and can’t say, what I can and can’t do, what’s okay now that isn’t okay anymore back home.”

Bucky let out a disappointed huff, then shrugged.  “You do fine on skates, I don’t see how it’s that different, but fine.  Here’s the basics…”

 

Chapter Text

The dance hall was just the right amount of warm, humid, and buzzing with background noise for Mickey’s shoulders to finally relax for the first time in days.  Even so, she couldn’t help but frown slightly every time she looked to her left and saw Bucky grinning as he spun a new dance partner around to the lively swing music.

“Glare any harder and his hair’ll catch fire,” Barnes drawled, leaning back in his chair as he lifted his whiskey to gesture toward Bucky.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were getting jealous.”

“I’m not jealous.”  Barnes and Dugan smirked wider, if anything; Mickey sighed in exasperation and hung her head.  “I’m not, I swear. Doesn’t mean I have to like seeing him dance with other women, though.”

Jones snorted quietly.  “If you’re worried about him running out on you, don’t be.  We’ve all seen the way he looks at you.”

“I know, I know… it’s just, it’s stupid…”  She laughed uncomfortably and scrunched up her face as she idly spun the damp glass of dark cola around in front of her.  It was hard to pin down, but something kept her sipping at the ice-cold pop, trying to identify what exactly made it taste so different from what she was used to.

“What’s stupid?”  Rogers, always the image of sincerity, crossed his arms and leaned forward onto his elbows.  Piercingly blue eyes locked onto her in an eerie mirror of the Steve she knew back in her own world.

Sighing, Mickey scrubbed a hand through her hair.  “I’ve known him for a while now and we’ve been together for a good portion of it, but… I had one of my previous boyfriends go behind my back with a girl I thought I could trust.  I found out about it from her. I’ve…” She pursed her lips and looked down at her hands. “I have trust issues, sometimes.”

A solid hand squeezed her shoulder and she looked up to see Barnes giving her a reassuring smile.  “Like Gabe said, we’ve seen how he looks at you, and I think I have a little credibility when I say he thinks you hung the moon.  You don’t need to worry about him.”

Less than a month ago, the Avengers had hosted a charity ball where the men had bachelor-auctioned themselves off to the guests for the night.  Bucky’s dancing skills were legendary even before the war, so he’d pulled in quite a bit of money by the time the auction was done. Even if it was all above the table and clean-cut, the whole event had done nothing but feed Mickey’s insecurities for weeks after the fact.

One of the only things helping her stay present in the new here-and-now was the sea of crisp green Army garrison uniforms around her.

“How’d you two meet, anyway?” Morita asked, tilting his head slightly.  He lounged in his chair, idly tapping his fingers to the beat of the music against his drink.

“He started coming to my gym.  Never really talked to anyone, just set himself up on the heavy bag on the end and beat the everloving shit out of it on a daily basis, and when he wasn’t doing that he was lifting more weight than anyone else there.  Then one night when I was trying to have a quiet drink at the corner bar, he chased off some assholes who wouldn’t leave me alone and walked me out to make sure I got home safely. Chivalry isn’t dead, it just spent some time on ice, apparently.”

“Yeah, that sounds like something you’d do, Buck.”  Rogers leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms, a wistful smile on his face as he watched Bucky dance.

Bucky’s teeth flashed as he grinned at them and twirled his partner through complex steps in an open space cleared in the middle of the dance floor.  Couples watched and cheered him on, clapping and whooping excitedly.

“I’m tempted to say he’s a fair sight better than you are, old chap,” Falsworth observed, looking at Barnes.

“Oh hell no.  Nobody makes me look like a cement mixer.”  Never one to shy away from a challenge, Barnes pushed himself upright and stalked over to the group of WACs a few tables away.  He put his hands on the shoulders of a bright-eyed brunette, murmured something in her ear with a smile, and within seconds she was following him out to the dance floor.

Morita took a noisy sip of his drink and raised his eyebrows.  “Low blow, Monty. You know Sarge won’t let that stand.”

“Let me worry about his wounded pride,” Rogers said with a smirk, his voice rich and low.  Mickey couldn’t help but cough heavily as her soda burned her throat.

A concerned “Madame!” was accompanied by gentle pats on her back as Dernier shifted over into Barnes’s vacated seat.  “Are you alright, Madame?”

She shot Rogers a flat look and coughed a few more times.  “Just thought folk were a bit more… discreet about things like that in public.”

“Yeah, like they’re gonna threaten Captain America?”  Jones snorted eloquently. “They’re more likely to throw me out on my ass for goin’ steady with Carter than they are to give America’s golden boy a blue ticket home.”

Despite the ambient noise, Mickey was getting anxious; Bucky had made it abundantly clear what the risks were for people who didn’t fit the gender, sexuality, or racial norms.  “Should we even be talking about this right now?”

The conversation drifted back and forth over the course of the evening, and Mickey forced herself to relax as much as she could.  It definitely helped that the Invaders were enthralled by her war stories, and it wasn’t long before they were begging her for more about Thompson and the other Marines.

She was in the middle of describing a particularly raucous surprise birthday party when a scuffle and muffled swearing caught her ear.  Turning around, she saw Bucky stumbling back away from the busty blonde SSR agent he’d been dancing with, recoiling as if he’d been burned.  When she stepped toward him with an outstretched hand, head tilted in confusion, he tripped and fell back onto the floor, scrambled to his feet, and ran out of the dance hall.

“Shit.”  Mickey was on her feet in an instant, setting down her drink with a thunk.

“Doc?”

“Stay here.  Chances are more people will just make it worse,” she called over her shoulder as she wove through the throng of startled dances.  Barnes was peering after Bucky, eyebrows knitted together, one hand on the shoulder of his dancing partner and the other held up to stop the blonde from going anywhere.  Mickey heard him say something indistinct as she pushed her way through the door and out into the night.

It only took her a minute to find Bucky crouched behind the dance hall, arms wrapped around his head, breathing ragged and shoulders shaking.

“Hey, sweetheart.”  Keeping her voice soft, she knelt down a few feet away from him.  “Can you Tell me what happened.”

Shaking his head jerkily, Bucky tightened his fingers in his hair.  He tried and failed to take a deep breath, hands shaking as he stretched his fingers out straight and dragged them down his face.  As he leaned back into the wall, his shoulders hit the brick with a quiet thump and skritch as he slid down, lacing his fingers together behind his neck.

Barnes rounded the corner and skidded to a stop when Mickey held up her hand.

“Sergeant, I need you to go back inside.”

“Doc-”

“Now.”

“Okay, okay, Christ.”  His shoes scuffed quietly against the ground as he turned and left.  Mickey waited to hear the door open and close before she spoke again.

“Bucky.  Hey. Look at me?”

His eyes were red and frantic as he opened them and flicked them up to her face.

“Are you physically hurt?”

He shook his head.  No.

“Trauma trigger?”

Yes.

“She said or did something that reminded you of…”

Bucky hesitated, looked away, and nodded.  He closed his eyes, sighed quietly, wrapped his arms around his knees, and dropped his head forward onto them.

“Did she get handsy?”

Another pause before he nodded.

“Did she stop when you asked her to?”

No.

Mickey’s lip curled, and her hands balled into fists.  “I’m going to have words with-”

Cutting her off with an exasperated sigh, Bucky’s jaw pulsed as he gritted his teeth.  His features were pinched with the all-too-familiar frustration and helplessness Mickey knew he fought when his words stopped working.  He glared at the ground, scowl deepening.

“I know what you’re thinking and I’m going to stop you right there.”  Mickey scooted forward on her knees, reaching out a hand and withdrawing it immediately when he quickly shook his head.  “This isn’t your fault.”

He managed a mirthless bark of laughter at that.

“It’s not,” Mickey insisted, and rolled her eyes when Bucky gave her a look that said, Really?  “I mean it.  You’re not responsible for other people being oblivious, awful assholes.”  Taking a deep breath, she splayed her fingers out over her knees. “Okay, I’m going to go back inside, get our things, and let the men know we’re heading back to base.  Stay here and I’ll come back for you.”

As soon as Bucky nodded, she was on her feet and headed back indoors.

The woman Bucky had been dancing with was standing awkwardly near the Invaders’ table, blatantly ignoring Rogers’s annoyed glare.  It took every ounce of self-control Mickey had to keep her face blank.

“Is… is he okay?” the woman asked hesitantly, nervously working her fingers together.

Mickey didn’t answer at first, smoothing her hands over the shoulders of Bucky’s jacket where it still hung over the back of his chair.  All eyes at the table rested on her as she turned to face the woman. “You know, the next time you try to put the moves on a married man, you should at least ask yourself if there’s a chance his wife might be watching.”

The woman blanched, then her eyes narrowed.  “You look more like a husband than a wife to me.  What are you, some sort of invert?” She crossed her arms and tilted her head back, one eyebrow arched imperiously, looking at Mickey down her nose.  “And it isn’t my problem if you can’t make him keep his own hands to-”

“Git yer fuckin’ face outta my sight ‘fore I put a mothafuckin’ goddam fist in it, you piss-ant bitch.”

The dance hall went silent and Mickey felt heat rise to her face, her temper well and truly gone at this point.  Rogers slowly stood and stepped between the two women.

“Mickey, I think it’s best if you gather up your things and head back to the barracks.  As for you, Private Lorraine…”

She didn’t hear the rest of what Rogers said as she turned on her heel and strode out of the hall, Bucky’s jacket thrown over her shoulder and clamped tightly in her hand.

The Invaders found them some time later hunched together in front of a small campfire in the pit by the barracks door.  Bucky had his hands wrapped around a steel mug with cooling tea in it and a thick woolen blanket over his shoulders, eyes glinting as he stared unblinkingly at the flames.  Mikey made no effort to hide her mood as she brutally hacked away at a piece of wood from the small pile near her feet, having long since abandoned the pretense of whittling a shape into it.

I’ll give you such a good time, you’ll forget your own name.  The woman’s words - repeated to her by Bucky - echoed sickeningly in her head.  There was no way Lorraine could have known, but…

Barnes and Rogers stopped by the fire while the rest of the men filed past into the barracks.  Oblivious to the concerned and curious looks from the Invaders, Bucky slowly took another sip of his tea.

“What happened?” Rogers asked, his voice low.

Spurred into motion, Bucky dragged the back of his wrist under his nose and sniffed wetly.  He glanced up at each of the other men and readjusted his grip on the mug before speaking. There was no way he was going to tell them about the brainwashing, the torture, the mind control, but maybe he could deflect it with another truth.  “Y’know how when a man tries to get fresh with a dame an’ she says no, an’ he keeps pushin’ an’ not listening and does it all anyway? How she’s apparently just teasin’ him an’ wants it anyway? But if she really means no an’ didn’t want it, how she’s told it’s still her fault, even though it ain’t?  No matter how broken or fearful she is, it’s still her fault ‘less it’s a black man or a robbery gone wrong.”

The two Invaders looked at each other, confused, and the stick in Mickey’s hand snapped as she slammed the knife into it with far more force than necessary.  She hadn’t felt this level of unbridled anger since… since the first time her stepfather had hit her mother. Since before the hormones, before everything.

“If it’s the other way around… or if it was a man takin’ another man.”  Bucky closed his eyes and hunched forward slightly, his hair draping forward to hide his face.  “It ain’t just somethin’ what happens to unlucky dames. Sometimes, it happens to men, too, and the scars run just as deep.”

At that, Barnes sat down heavily on one of the vacant stools, the color draining from his face.  If he’d been through even a fraction of the same treatment during his imprisonment in the HYDRA factory, he was no stranger to that degree of trauma.

“If it helps at all,” Rogers growled, his tone bordering on dangerous, “I’ve had a word with Colonel Phillips about quietly transferring Private Lorraine to another company.  I try not to throw my weight around much, but I have the unique privilege of being able to tell a three-star general to go fuck himself and not end up drowning in demerits.” He took a steadying breath and closed his eyes for a moment.  “Also, you aren’t the only soldier Lorraine’s been… aggressive with. That’s over now, and Colonel Phillips will be selecting a new secretary in the morning.”

Bucky didn’t respond, staring moodily into his mug and taking the occasional sip.  The fire crackled as Mickey tossed the remains of the stick she’d broken into it and leaned down to pick up another.

Steel-gray eyes flicked over to the knife in her hands.  “You’re sharpening that in the morning, Micks.”

“I know.”  She began methodically stripping the bark off a branch the length and thickness of her forearm.  The edge of the knife caught on a knot hidden in the wood, skittering out of her hand and opening a long gash across her thumb.  Swearing vividly, Mickey dropped the stick and knife, pressed her other hand over the cut, and without thinking, sealed up the wound and knitted the muscle and skin back together in an instant.

Blood still covered where the cut had been, smeared across her hands, and she just had to pray that Barnes and Rogers hadn’t seen anything they shouldn’t have.

Bucky stuck a hand out and gently squeezed her shoulder, supporting her slightly as her energy waned.  “You okay?”

“Yeah,” she gritted out, mentally kicking herself.  “Just a scratch.” At least Bucky’s enhancements could be sort-of explained, but a fully-fledged Inhuman healer was something different.

After taking a deep breath, Mickey stood and turned toward the door.  “Going to clean this up and then head to bed so I don’t shoot someone when the misery pipe wakes us up in the morning.”

The barracks door clicked shut behind Mickey, and Bucky let out a quiet breath, rolling his shoulders back.

“She’s sure got her drawers in a twist.”  Barnes crossed his arms and peered at him over the fire.

“There’s not a lot that sets her off.  What happened at the dance hall, that was one of those things.”

“Jealousy, or…?”

“She hates seeing me like this.  Cuts and scrapes and blisters, she can fix, but… stuff up here.”  He tapped the side of his head. “You can’t put a bandage on a sick brain.  Usually I’m the overprotective one, but with stuff like this… she has her moments.”

A hollow chuckle drifted its way over as Barnes looked up at the star-studded sky.  “Y’know, I’m starting to wonder which one of you wears the pants.”

“If we’re doin’ it right, neither of us,” Bucky shot back with what he hoped was a smirk.  Warmth was finally returning to his limbs, the tea chasing away any shaking remnants of flashbacks.  When the other two men laughed quietly, he saluted Rogers with his mug. “I’ll be fine, just gotta spend a little longer chasin’ the demons away.  I’ll be in before Taps.”

Standing, Rogers nodded.  “See that you are. And… you can talk to us, if you need it.  Buck- well, you’re both- you know what I mean.” He scratched the back of his neck and looked away.  “The offer stands.”

“I know, Cap.  Thanks.”

Barnes followed a moment later, simply giving Bucky a look of silent empathy and a gentle pat on the shoulder before turning and heading into the barracks.

Alone with his thoughts, Bucky rubbed a hand over his face, tossed back the last of his tea, and set the mug down between his feet on the hard-packed dirt.  After several long minutes of staring up at the stars - oh, how he’d missed the clear skies of his youth - he put out the fire, gathered up his things, and made his way inside to his quarters.

***

“Peg said to take you two over to Stark’s lab at 0800,” Barnes said, sitting down across from Mickey and Bucky and sliding a mug of black coffee into Bucky’s hands.  “I feel like I should warn you about how he is, but… you probably already know.”

Knuckling at his eyes, Bucky propped his chin on his hand and blinked sleepily at his younger counterpart.  “I know how my Howard was. No telling if yours is the same.”

“Well, he’s usually too wrapped up in his experiments to notice that the rest of us exist.  Half the time it feels like he doesn’t even recognize any of us.”

Bucky’s eyebrows furrowed as he looked up at the sergeant.  “That doesn’t sound like him. I used to spend half my nights in the lab when I couldn’t sleep.”

“Wish I could escape my nightmares like that.”  Shaking his head, Barnes thanked Falsworth when he set a tin plate heaping with scones and bacon in the middle of the table.  “But he barely lets anyone into the lab as it is.”

“Thought you worked pretty closely with the guy,” Mickey said through a mouthful of scone.

“Oh, we do.  He’s just-” Barnes wince-frowned and ran a hand through his hair.  “Busy all the time. Or drinking. Or high. Or some combination of the three.”

Mickey sucked in her lips, recognizing the same harmful coping mechanisms she saw in Tony.  She gave Bucky’s hand a gentle squeeze before grabbing a piece of bacon. “Well, hopefully he’ll have time to see us.”

“Hopefully he’s not neck-deep in a bottle this time.”

The rest of breakfast passed in silence as Bucky mulled over what Barnes had said.  Something had happened to Howard, to turn an outgoing, suave young man into a damaged recluse.

As he tipped his coffee back just far enough to finish it off without sucking down the dregs, he mentally shrugged.  They’d find out soon enough.

The walk to the lab, or rather, the bunker above it, was short and somewhat cold.  A platoon of soldiers ran by, and a few of them acknowledged Barnes with subtle, polite nods.  The rifle Bucky had taken from the German soldier rested on his shoulder, covered in a lightweight cloth case.

They wove their way through a series of stairwells and hallways, down several levels until they finally reached a familiar dull tan door.  Barnes glanced back at them before stepping through the doorway into a world of barely contained chaos, motor oil, and machinery.

Stark - the Howard Stark that Bucky remembered - had prided himself on organization, documentation, keeping everything tidy and neat to avoid mishaps.  The lab had buzzed with activity all hours of the day and night, a small army of technicians and orderlies helping Howard with his efforts to keep the Allied forces two steps ahead.

This, however, was the exact opposite.  Half-disassembled HYDRA weapons lay haphazardly across tables set at odd angles across the expansive space.  The floor was coated in a thin layer of grit and oil and dirt. Walking through the mess of tables and workbenches would have been nearly impossible without a map.

At the sound of footsteps, a lank mop of black hair popped up from behind a partially dismantled Goliath mine.  The miniature tank-like machine sat strewn in pieces across a worktable, tools mixed in with the smaller components.

“Barnes.”  Stark’s voice was flat and rough, his eyes circled with bruised shadows and lines as he looked up at the three of them.  “Need something else reverse-engineered? A new toy to kill Nazis with? Another bomb big enough to-”

Barnes’s shoulders tightened and he set his jaw, carefully masking the pity that threatened to show.  “I’ll be in the hall.” With that, he turned on his heel and strode out of the lab.

Turning to look at the shadow of a man in front of him, Bucky blinked tightly and rubbed at his eyes to dispel the superimposed afterimages of his fist slamming into Howard’s aged, white-haired head.

Once he was fully back in the present, he stepped forward and tugged a stool out from under one of the tables for Mickey.  Tripod immediately sat at her feet, nose twitching. Bucky met Stark’s bloodshot, insomnia-bruised eyes and sighed quietly.  “Oh, Howard. What happened to you?” After a few moments, he shook his head slightly. “What has the world done to you? What have you done to yourself?”

Stark shot him a suspicious glance and turned back to the mine.  “Do I know you? Tell me I didn’t sleep with you.” His hands shook slightly and it took him several tries to line up the screwdriver with the bolt he was trying to remove.  When it slipped off the bolt again, he swore softly and dropped his forehead into his other hand.

“No- I-”  Bucky stepped forward, took the screwdriver, and quickly spun the bolt out before placing the tool gently on the table.  “I know you, but you don’t know me. At least, not this version of me.” The joy of seeing his friend again was deadened heavily with ghostly memories of Howard’s dead eyes staring up at him as Maria’s life faltered and stopped in his hands.

The smaller man’s eyes narrowed to slits as he looked between Mickey and Bucky.  “Okay, let’s pretend we do know each other. Where would I have met you?”

“Most recently?”  Bucky pointed back the way they came.  “My twin just walked out through that door.”

“Yeah, and I’m married to Katharine Hepburn.”  Turning back to the Goliath mine, Stark waved a hand dismissively.  “Go away.”

Looking up suddenly, Bucky scanned the dark lab.  “Where’s Jarvis?”

Stark stiffened and tried unsuccessfully to hide the pained expression that crossed his face.  “I don’t know who you’re-”

“Edwin Jarvis, your manservant.  He’s usually-”

“He’s dead.”  After a beat, all the annoyance drained out of him and he slumped forward, elbows on the workbench.  “He’s dead, shot down in a plane that I designed that was supposed to be bulletproof. And I really, really don’t feel like talking about it, so if you’re another one of those goddamn head shrinkers that Peggy keeps sending my way, you can go take your Freudian pseudoscience and shove it up your ass.”

Bucky frowned at him for nearly a minute before pulling a stool over for himself and sitting down across from Stark.  He reached a hand over the table and rested it against Stark’s elbow, keeping it steady when the younger man flinched away.  “Howard Anthony Walter Stark, born in 1917 just a few months after me. Your father was a Jewish fruit seller who changed his name in the hopes that it would give you a better chance at life, and your mother worked in a factory sewing shirtwaists.  You’re afraid of the dark because-”

“That’s enough.”

Undeterred, Bucky pressed onward.  “-your father would come home late, drunk and angry, and-”

“Enough!”  Stark jumped to his feet, recoiling away from Bucky, face twisted in pain and anger.  “Stop it, I- I don’t know how you- just- just stop-”

“I know because you told me,” Bucky said calmly.  “You already know who I am, but you won’t let yourself admit it’s possible.  The world’s hurt you far too much for you to let yourself believe it.”

Pale and shivering, Stark wrapped his arms around himself and looked away.  “With everything I’ve seen in the past year…”

“What do you know about SSR Items 97 and 98?”

When Stark looked back at him, there was a tiny flicker of the man he’d been, a faint gleam in his eye.  “That depends on why you’re asking.”

“It’s why we’re here,” Mickey told him, jumping into the conversation.  “More importantly, it’s how we’re here.”

“Are you high?”

She scoffed and shook her head.  “God, I wish I was. People in our world used the device to send us here.”

“We also found this.”  Bucky pulled the rifle out of its case and held it out to Stark.  “You’re an engineer. Take a look at this and tell me this isn’t years beyond your current weapons technology.  We found it in the hands of a German marksman that shouldn’t have been anywhere near his position.”

Thin fingers wrapped around the rifle as Stark swept a spot on the worktable clean and laid the gun down.  “Russian design.”

“It’s called a Dragunov.  This model won’t enter service until 1963, unless things are drastically different here.  Those optics shouldn’t hit the market until the mid-60s, either, and they’re German.”

“What’re you saying?” Stark asked, eyebrows furrowed as he inspected the gun.

“I’m saying we have a leak between our worlds.”

“How is that even possible?”

“The Door in the Air devices, they’re portal generators.”  Rifling through a pile of papers nearby, Bucky found a blank sheet.  “HYDRA designed them for two-way travel in three dimensions, but what they got was a five-dimensional catapult.  First dimension: a single point.” He tapped the corner of the sheet of paper.

“Second dimension contains infinite points; we get a line.”  Tracing his finger down the edge of the paper, Bucky waited until Stark looked up at him to continue.  “Infinite lines give us a plane.”

“And infinite planes give us an unbounded three-space.  Yes, I know dimension theory.”

“Add a fourth dimension and we get time - or, if you want to be really abstract, we get a tesseract.  So, basically, four-dimensional coordinates define one specific point in spacetime.”

Stark wagged his hand in a go on motion.

“The second dimension contains every possible instance of the first dimension.  The third contains every possible instance of the second, and so on. So, if we follow that theory, the fifth dimension-”

“Contains every possible instance of the other four.  You’re saying the Door devices can push you into an alternate reality?”

“The three of us are living proof of it.  What I want to know is why this rifle’s here, if there’s anything else from another world that shouldn’t be here, and how long it’ll take before we can go home.”

Frowning thoughtfully, Stark put on a set of magnifying glasses to get a closer look at the rifle’s action.  “The ‘why’ is pretty obvious. I can tell just by looking at it that it’s got a longer effective range and higher accuracy than anything we’ve produced so far.  Any marksman with this in his hands is going to have a considerable advantage. A squad of men with these could be a serious thorn in the enemy’s side”

“Then let’s hope that’s the only one out there,” Mickey muttered, looking around the lab.

“Give me a few days to reverse engineer this, and then you can have it back.”  Stark ejected the magazine and looked inside.

Bucky nodded toward the magazine.  “Same rounds as a Mosin-Nagant, but the Russians started using a steel-jacketed round with a non-corrosive primer in the 90s to improve accuracy.  Arguably one of the best DMRs ever produced.”

“…you mean the 1990s?”

“No, I mean that the fucking gun’s already fifty years old, Stark.  Use your goddamn eyes.”  Bucky levered himself up off his stool and walked back over to Mickey.  “So. This a good enough riddle to pull you outta your funk?”

Stark’s answer was distracted and half-mumbled as he headed off into the depths of the lab.  “Yes indeed, my displaced friend, yes indeed.” Raising the lid on a large crate, he poked his head out from behind the rack and flashed Bucky a somewhat manic grin.  “Keep in mind, I have no bloody idea what the hell I’m doing when it comes to HYDRA tech, so make no promises. Last time I dicked around with the glowy blue bits, I blew up half my lab.  What you’re talking about is so far beyond experimental physics that I can’t even tell you how far beyond it is.  Now shoo and do whatever it is you military pukes do while I do some science.”

Chuckling, Bucky helped Mickey off the stool and clicked his fingers at Tripod.  He led them out of the lab as Stark was muttering something along the lines of I’d better get a Nobel for this.   Once past the door and reunited with Barnes, he turned to the sergeant.  “Back to the barracks?”

“It’s my turn to hit the commissary, so I’ll be splitting off before we get there, but sure.  Also, Morita should be done with that inventory, whenever you wanted to look things over, Doc.”

“I think I need a nap first.”  Mickey chuckled and shook her head.  “I’m getting old, dammit.”

***

Mickey was carefully sorting through and inspecting their medical supplies with Morita’s help when Bucky came out of the showers muttering angrily to himself.  He had a towel wrapped around his head and was vigorously scrubbing his hair dry as he stopped next to the table.

“Fuck’s sake,” he grumbled as he lowered the towel and tried to smooth his hair down.  The shoe polish had stuck to his hair better than expected, and they still hadn’t managed get all of the greasy, sticky gunk out of it.

“You gonna go see the barber anytime soon, Ghost?  You’re starting to look a little shaggy.”

“Fuck off, Fresno.  Ain’t like you’re any better, when was the last time you weren’t out of regs?”

Morita held up his hands defensively and turned back to the medical supplies.

Tossing the towel over his shoulder and irritably swiping a clump of wet hair out of his eyes, Bucky disappeared into his quarters without another word.

“He’s grumpy today.”

Mickey snorted and rolled up the bandage she’d just checked over.  “He’s Bucky Barnes. He’s kind of always grumpy. But in all honesty, it’s a good day if he can even speak at all sometimes.”

She took the vials of morphine that Morita held out to her and carefully set them back into their padded khaki case along with a set of sterile syringes.  Morita fell silent, idly fiddling with a tourniquet as he frowned pensively at it.

“Whatever he went through, you know you got us in your corner.  None of us would ever abandon any version of Bucky Barnes.”

Before she could do much more than give Morita a thankful smile, Bucky came back out into the main barracks.  His hands were raised up behind his head as he tied a strip of olive drab fabric in place across his forehead like a bandana.  Tripod padded out after him, a matching neckerchief spreading over her chest.

Mickey snorted and leaned to the side, bracing a hand on her knee as she looked up at Bucky.  “Well, I can either start calling you Jack Sparrow or Eliot Spencer, your pick.”

“There should be a ‘Captain’ in there, somewhere.”  Bucky playfully bumped into her as he swung a leg over the bench.  “Sorry about earlier,” he continued, giving Morita an apologetic smile.  “Haven’t been sleeping too well these past few days so I’m a bit more irritable than usual.”

Morita raised an eyebrow and glanced at Mickey, but Bucky simply laughed quietly and shook his head.  “Just your usual Army-grade insomnia, nothing more.”

“If you say so.  You offered him any shutters, Doc?”

“Sleeping pills aren’t a good idea in this case.”  Snapping all the little brass buttons down on her medical pack, Mickey leaned forward and draped her arms over the big lumpy bag.  “Mixing anticonvulsants and sedatives is a great way to land yourself in a big mess very quickly. Also, I’m pretty sure I’d have to use horse tranquilizers to knock him out.”

“Mm, speaking of which.”  Falsworth looked up from where he’d been writing a letter, stretched out on his rack.  “Rogers apparently requisitioned us a few horses. Any idea what that might be about?”

Giving him a dubious, sidelong glance, Mickey pursed her lips.  “…horses.”

“It’s for the Doc, I need her mobile in the field and that’s the best way to do it.”  Rogers’s voice carried out of his quarters, slightly muffled.

“I- what- but I- I don’t-”

“Mickey.  Full sentences,” Bucky reminded her with a playful grin.  She rolled her eyes and sighed softly.

“I don’t know how to ride a horse, Cap!”

“Well!”  Closing up his small writing desk with a snap, Falsworth stood and strode over.  “Let’s fix that then, shall we?”

Half an hour later, Bucky leaned on the fence surrounding the training paddock, idly running a small whetstone down the edge of one of his throwing knives.  Morita and Falsworth were still arguing over which school of riding Mickey should learn while Mickey herself stood awkwardly patting the nose of a bored piebald gelding.  Roughly ten feet away, Tripod was sprawled out half-asleep under a nearby tree.

“She isn’t going to be entering any dressage competitions, you ponce!” Morita yelled, arms thrown wide open, his imitation of Falsworth’s accent surprisingly good.

The Brit’s response, dripping with an overdone American twang, made Bucky cringe.  “She ain’t gonna be ropin’ any cattle either, pardner.”

“Just get her in the saddle, you useless chucklefucks!”  When the two men both flipped him the bird without turning to look at him, Bucky laughed and shook his head.  Within minutes, though, Mickey was sitting astride the piebald while Morita swung easily into the saddle of a chestnut mare.

Footsteps in the dirt behind him made him turn and look over his shoulder; Rogers approached him wearing his field uniform with the shield on his back.  “Looks like she’s picking it up quickly.”

“She’s good enough with a motorbike that some if it’ll transfer over.”  Bucky slotted the knife back into the sheath under his arm and dropped the whetstone into a pocket.

“I figured you’d prefer this over strapping her to a WLA and hoping for the best.  Didn’t know she knows how to ride.”

He snorted and turned back to watch Falsworth lead Mickey’s horse in a circle while Morita rode next to her and called out instructions.  “There’s a lot about Mickey that even I don’t know yet. She doesn’t talk a whole lot about the couple of years after she got out of the service.”

“Navy, right?”  Rogers crossed his arms and pursed his lips, watching Mickey appraisingly.  “Makes sense, I suppose.”

“How’s that?”

“You - or at least my version of you – you’ve always had a way of finding the women that had more goin’ for them than just their looks.  I mean, he was just keepin’ up appearances so’s no one cottoned on to us, but whenever we’d end up on a double date, he’d do his best to find a brainy girl for me.”

“Must’ve had more luck than I did.  Sometimes it was all I could do to get my Steve to leave the house.”  Chewing on his lip, Bucky squinted up at the sky and studied the clouds.  “He was a grumpy little asshole that’d just as soon punch you as smile at you.  Didn’t help when we woke up naked together and I figured out exactly how much of an invert I’m not.”

Rogers laughed drily.  “Funny, that’s actually how things started for us, too.  And he’s not a queer – not really. Just- it’s just me, he says.  Not men, just me.”

“Well, no shit, Sherlock.”  Grinning at Rogers, Bucky reached up and ruffled the blond’s hair.  “Ain’t no secret Bucky Barnes loves Steve Rogers to bits. But I guess that’s one way that our worlds are different.  I said no, and yours said yes.” When Steve’s skinny, heartbroken face rose up in his memory, Bucky’s smile faded. “I know I hurt him, that day.  Wish I could’ve swallowed my guilt and let things be, but…”

“Guilt makes fools of us all.”

“Time.  It’s, ‘Time makes fools of us all,’ Rogers.  But yeah, I reckon you’re right either way.”

“So.”  Rogers clasped his hands over his belt buckle and straightened his shoulders.  “Your Steve, he’s still alive?”

“Well he ain’t dead yet, but that ain’t for a lack of tryin’.  Still reckless as he’s ever been.”

Letting out a chuckle, Rogers looked over at him.  “He still Captain Fuckin’ America?”

That was a slightly more complicated answer.  “He is when he needs to be.” Bucky fiddled absently with the holographic fingernails on his left hand, his right thumbnail buzzing slightly each time he moved it through the projection.  “Mostly he’s tryin’ to remember how to be Steve Rogers. It- the war changed him. Changed us both, but you know that already. It’s hard to go back. He uses the shield to protect others as much as he uses it to hide behind.”

Mickey had the reins in her hands now, steering her horse through a sweeping figure eight.  Her tongue stuck out the side of her mouth and she frowned in concentration as she listened to Falsworth’s directions.

“I’m…”  The captain frowned down at his feet.  “I know how he feels. Or at least, I know a bit of it.”  Reaching over his shoulder, he unhooked the large shield and hefted it on his arm.  “I hope he finds his peace - and you find yours, once we find a way to send you back home.”

Bucky tapped his temple in salute as Rogers turned to walk away.  A gruff woof grabbed his attention and he glanced over to see Tripod with her ears pricked after Rogers.  She looked back at Bucky, boof ed at him, and turned back to Rogers’s retreating back.

He sighed and snapped his fingers, calling her to his side.  “<Fine, fine. If you say so.> Hey, Cap!”

Rogers turned around and raised an eyebrow.

“When’s the last time you had proper hand-to-hand training?”

Shrugging, Rogers gave him a wry smile.  “Not a lot of men want to spar with me - for obvious reasons.  Can’t say I blame ‘em.”

“I’m a little less breakable than they are.  Wha’d’you say we head over to the training yard and see what you know?”

“Sounds like a plan.”  Rogers met Bucky’s wolfish grin with one of his own.  “Race you there.”

***

Wiping the wet strings of hair out of his face, Bucky bent over to pick up the glass bottle of shampoo and tipped a dollop of it into his hand.  The weird chemical smell made him wrinkle his nose, but… it was better than soap, and better than listening to another of Mickey’s lectures about caring properly for his hair.

“So that takedown you showed me,” Rogers began from the next spigot over, one arm hooked around his head as he rinsed the mud off his shoulders.

Bucky groaned softly.  “Rogers, I’m not going to talk about grappling in the shower where it’s steamy and wet and I might get whacked by a stray prick.  Shut up and wash your hair.”

As Rogers took the bar of soap he held out and proceeded to suds up his hair, Barnes poked his head into the showers.

“There’s a dame and the brass here – Peggy and Phillips.  Make sure you’re decent before you show your faces.” He tossed two sets of fatigues onto the bench by the door, one unmarked and the other displaying captain’s bars.

Snorting, Bucky stepped back under the spigot.  “So, what, Mickey doesn’t count as a dame?”

“Are you forgetting when she walked into the showers and startled Gabe so bad he slipped and fell flat on his ass?”

“Yeah, about that.”  One of Mickey’s hands popped out into the doorway and she waved to let them know she was there.  “I’d like to not smell like a horse soon, so hurry your pasty Irish asses up.”

“How was your riding lesson?” Bucky asked, raising his voice to be heard above the water.

“I’m sore in places I never thought I could be, and everything smells like horse.”

Rogers laughed, shaking his head fondly.  “Sounds about right.” Reaching up, he closed off the valve for his shower spigot, and crossed over to the bench to pick up his towel.  “They wanted to teach me how to ride, but I’m too big and heavy for most horses the cavalry had available.” With quick, practiced motions he was dressed in less than a minute, padding barefoot out of the showers to grab his shoes from his quarters.

A few seconds later, Mickey stepped in.  “Wanted to wait until he was out before I came in here.”

“Probably wise.”  The last of the suds were finally out of Bucky’s hair and he stood for a moment, letting the warm water stream over his face.  With a disappointed sigh, he stepped away from the spigot and headed over to grab his own towel. “Go ahead and get started, I need to show my face out there in the next few minutes or Phillips is going to come looking for us.”

He gave Mickey a kiss before burying his head in the towel.  Once he was dressed, rather than let his hair drip onto his shirt, he scrubbed out as much of the water as he could, secured it back in a bandana wrap, and draped the towel flat over his shoulders.

“I’ll be out in a few minutes,” Mickey told him as she stepped under the spray of the shower.  “Don’t wait up for me.”

The rest of the Invaders were already gathered around the tables in the barracks, having pushed them together end-to-end.  Carter and Phillips sat at the end closest to the showers, and Bucky slid onto the bench opposite them. Once he sat down, Tripod padded her way over and lay next to his feet, quiet and alert.

Slapping a stack of papers down in front of Bucky, Phillips leaned forward on his crossed arms.  “The Invaders are deploying in nineteen days, and you two portal jumpers are gonna need bona fides before that happens.”

“Where to?”  Bucky picked up the forms and started thumbing through them.

“Poland,” Rogers told him, hands flat on the table where he stood at the other end.  He didn’t look thrilled about the location. “The Soviets got word of a camp at-”

“Majdanek.”  Blood running cold, Bucky dropped the forms to the table and tried to swallow despite his suddenly dry throat.  “You found the camp at Lublin.”

The Invaders exchanged curious glances, and Carter pursed her lips.  “That’s the one. Is there anything you can tell us about it?”

“I- I don’t-”  Conscious of the eyes on him, Bucky rubbed his hands over his face.  “It’s a nightmare. A waking, living nightmare. One I’d rather not relive, to be honest.  Can we move on?”

“This is a matter of-”

“I don’t care what it’s a matter of, Pegs.  It’s been seventy fucking years and I still wake up screaming with the corpses from the gas chambers dancin’ in my head.  You want intel? Tell the men you’re sending to treat it like a horror picture, because that’s the only way they’ll be able to sleep at night afterwards.  Warn them that whatever they imagined, it’s a thousand times worse.” Taking a deep, shuddering breath, Bucky pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes until stars erupted on his eyelids.  “I’ll go with the team, and I’ll be there at base camp, but if you order me to set foot in that hellhole again…”

He couldn’t bring himself to finish, and tried to ignore the shocked silence in the barracks.  Finally, Carter cleared her throat.

“Understood.  You’ll be assigned to the field hospital with Doctor Draymond.”

Phillips hummed noncommittally.  “You got medical training, son?”

“More than he does,” Bucky answered, pointing at Barnes.  “Triage and emergency field medicine, basic surgery, administration of drugs.  Anything I don’t know how to do, Mickey can walk me through it.”

“Walk you through what?”  Dressed in a clean white nurse’s uniform, Mickey stepped out of the showers.

“They’re sending us to Majdanek,” Bucky told her quietly as she walked up to him and rested a hand on his shoulder.  “We’re on medical relief.”

“Oh.”  She leaned down and scooped up the forms, oddly unperturbed.  “What’re these?”

“Mickey…”

“It’s my job, sweetheart.  In the Navy I treated nearly every type of injury a person can have - from immediate trauma to starvation, tumors, and malnutrition.  I swore an oath to help, and that extends to this as well.”

With a sad, fond smile, Bucky reached up and gave her hand a squeeze.

“Well, I guess that settles it.”  Phillips gave Mickey an appraising look and nodded slightly.  “Now as far as who the hell we’re gonna say you are…”

“We can’t exactly keep calling you ‘Ghost’,” Rogers explained.  “Sooner or later, someone’s going to ask what your names are, so we’d damn well better have an answer for them.”

An idea sprang into Bucky’s head and he looked up at Mickey, grinning.

“No.  Nuh-uh.”  She shook her head vehemently.  “No, you are not going to-”

He stood, sweeping his arms out to either side in a slight bow.  “Sir Jacob Frye, at your service.” The smooth Estuary English accent rolled off his tongue like water - or rather, like the coffee that Barnes spat out in surprise.

Carter blinked a few times, then shrugged.  “Might as well. And you, Doctor?”

“Do I get a fake knighthood as well?”  Falsworth peered up at Bucky intently.

“I am going to make Sam rue the day he bought you those video games,” Mickey muttered under her breath.  Speaking up, she continued. “Frye’s as good a last name as any, and we can stick with my given name for the first.  I don’t know what credentials I need, so that’s the only sticking point.”

“We’ll take care of that.  Just have those forms filled out and on my secretary’s desk by 0800 tomorrow morning.”  Phillips stood up, indicating the short meeting was over. “And Doc…”

“I’m not doing an accent.  I’m not a fucking chameleon like Jacob is.”

“I like her,” Phillips told Carter with a quirked eyebrow as they left the barracks.

Bucky laughed, the last traces of the haunted look in his eyes disappearing before Jones spoke.

“So, the camp… it’s really that bad?”

When Bucky’s smile faded, Mickey caught his eye and answered for him.  “For context, I was born in 1983, well after both World Wars. Seventy years after the fact, people still hold up Nazi Germany as one of the worst things we ever let happen.  The word ‘Nazi’ itself is now used as a pretty harsh insult.” She looked at Jones and shook her head slightly. “So, yes. It’s really that bad. When I was in school, there were students that couldn’t even look at the old photographs of the victims of the gas chambers without getting sick.  Treating the survivors is the easy part. It’s dealing with the dead that’s going to haunt you for years to come.”

Dugan stood, walked over to his locker, opened it, grabbed a flask from the top shelf, and took a swig.  Turning back to Mickey, he wiped his mouth and grimaced at the taste of the liquor. “Tell me things get better.  Tell me we win the war and all this hellishness is worth it. Tell me that, and I’ll do whatever I have to do to make sure it happens in our world, too.”

She looked down at her feet for several seconds, thinking back on years of history classes in school that she’d partially slept through.  When she met Bucky’s eyes, though, his expression told her that he wouldn’t lie to Dugan - the history that he’d lived through had been the worst of it.

“In 1968,” she began, speaking softly as she turned to Morita, “The US government formally apologized to the Japanese-American population and paid out a lot of money to each survivor of the internment camps.  Our world’s version of you led the battle to make it happen.” Jones was next. “In 1964, after years of nationwide protests and marches, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination against people because of the color of their skin, their country of origin, their gender, and their religion.  In ‘63, you stood arm in arm with Martin Luther King, Jr. and led a peaceful march on Washington, DC.”

Turning to Dernier and Falsworth, she smiled and took a deep breath.  “Paris becomes as much of a cultural touchstone as she always was. The Eiffel Tower still stands, and there’s a massive museum called the Louvre that people come from all over the world to visit.  London is still a bursting metropolis full of life and energy. I know it may seem impossible now, but even though Europe’s still scarred from the wars decades later, you rebuild, and you come out of it stronger.

“And in June of 2015…”  Mickey looked over at Rogers and Barnes; the captain had his hands resting on Barnes’s shoulders as they listened to her.  “In June of 2015, the Supreme Court federally legalized same-sex marriage, and ruled that it’s unconstitutional to ban it on the state level.”  Pausing for a few moments, she glanced back over at Dernier, who had his hands folded in his lap and his head bowed as if in prayer. “We’ve come a really long way in seventy years.  That doesn’t mean we don’t have work left to do, because laws and rules don’t automatically make people better, but… yes. It’s worth it. We win - the Allies win. In the end, things get better, and people like-”

She almost said people like me, but cut herself off.  “People who’ve been sidelined and hurt and treated like they’re- like they’re less because of who or what they are… we’re working on it, and we take a few steps backwards sometimes, but overall, things get a hell of a lot better.”

Wordlessly, Dugan offered her the flask.  Mickey let the bitter liquid flow over her tongue, a mistake that triggered a round of uncontrollable coughing as her throat burned and ached.

“Jesus Christ on a popsicle stick what the hell is in this?  Old socks?  I’ve had pickled potato juice that tastes better than this.”

Bucky burst out laughing and buried his face in his hands while the rest of the Invaders chuckled and shook their heads.  Clapping Mickey on the shoulder, Dugan nudged her toward the table. “Congratulations, Doc, you’re one of us, now. So, how ‘bout these new identities you two gotta come up with?”

Dragging his hands over his face, Bucky sighed and smiled wistfully at Mickey, then turned to the Invaders.  “It’ll probably be best if we come up with them together, that way we all know the story.”

“Circus performers,” Dugan said, without missing a beat.  When everyone turned to him, confused, he shrugged. “Makes sense.  Gives us an easy way to explain why a Brit and an American are married, and why Ghost over here can do what he does.  Say he’s an acrobat, that he works the ropes or somethin’, and Doc’s the circus physician.”

Rogers was nodding slowly, a thoughtful crease between his eyebrows.  “And a travelling circus would need someone that speaks multiple languages.”  He looked up at Bucky and raised an eyebrow. “What languages do you speak?”

“Better question might be what languages I don’t speak,” Bucky answered, the silvery English accent still in place.  “Suffice to say, you can airdrop me almost anywhere in Europe, most of the Middle East and North Africa, and most developed areas in Asia and I won’t have any trouble making myself understood.”

“I’m pretty sure that if I write ‘yes’ on the Languages line, the Army’s going to make us redo this.”  Mickey pulled a set of black-rimmed glasses out of her breast pocket, a recent addition to her kit thanks to Rogers bullying the right officers into submission.  She perched them on her nose, took the fountain pen that Falsworth offered, and began filling in the form areas she could in blocky Navy-grade lettering.

Dernier side-eyed Bucky and asked him something that made him snort and sling a response back in rapid-fire, clear Parisian French.

“So you can speak French without a drawl,” Mickey commented with a smirk.

“I can, it just takes as much effort as putting on any other accent.  It’s easiest to speak it the way I learned it during the war.”

The Frenchman down the table scoffed and muttered something that sounded vaguely patronizing .

“<You’re the one that taught me how to speak French.  If you hadn’t been a lazy teacher, I wouldn’t have been a lazy student.>”

Rogers was biting his lip and trying not to smile as he listened to the exchange - it was clear from Barnes’s expression that he was only barely able to keep up.  Clearing his throat, the captain caught Bucky’s attention.

“I’ve got a good idea of what training Mickey’s had, and she’s assured me that there ain’t a whole lot she can’t treat with her modern medicine.  And I got a taste of what you know earlier today. At some point before we deploy, though, I want you to go through a full physical, and I’m going to put you through your paces to see what your limits are so I know how best to use you in the field.”

Grimacing at the way Rogers worded it, Bucky leaned forward and folded his arms over the table, resting on his elbows.  “Just don’t turn me into a lab rat. I’ve had enough of that to last me several lifetimes.”

“On my honor.”  Rogers raised his hands, understanding immediately.  “Mickey can write up the medical report.”

After she finished filling in what she could and passed the forms over to Bucky, Mickey looked up at Rogers.  “Short answer, Cap? He can do everything you can, likely more, thanks to his training and the bastardized serum injections he got.”

“Wait, injections?  Plural?” Barnes looked pale and slightly alarmed.  “I don’t remember all of what Zola did, but… I know it wasn’t enough to make me…”

“It wasn’t enough to make you like me, you’re right,” Bucky finished for him, not looking up from the forms.  “That’s part of the seventy years of stuff I’m not going to talk about.”

Silence stretched through the room for several long seconds, until Falsworth pursed his lips and scratched the nails of one hand over the back of the other.  Almost immediately afterward, Morita ran his fingers through his hair and itched absently at his scalp.

“HYDRA captured you again.”  It wasn’t a question. Falsworth looked up at Bucky, unhappy understanding in his eyes.

Bucky didn’t answer for a while, pausing in his writing and moving the pen away from the paper to avoid an accidental drip.  When he finally looked up, his eyes flicked over to Barnes for a second before settling on Falsworth. He gave the major a curt nod and turned back to the paperwork.

Following a swig of Dugan’s liquor with a quiet belch, Morita set the steel flask down with a thunk and leveled a defiant stare at Bucky.  “Well, then. Let’s go get those fuckers and burn ‘em down before they can do that to another Buck Rogers.”

“Oh, fuck you, Jim.”

“Well, if you insist.  Gotta wine, dine, an’ kiss me first, though.”  Morita pursed his lips comically and leaned over, closing his eyes and raising his eyebrows to his hairline.  As Barnes swatted him away, the Invaders dissolved into peals of laughter.

Bucky looked up to see Rogers watching him carefully with a mixture of sympathy, respect, and regret.  Quietly, so that only three sets of ears in the barracks could hear him, Rogers said, “We’ll make things, right, Buck.  I promise you, we’ll make things right.”

Chapter Text

“So, there’s somethin’ I’ve been thinkin’ about,” Bucky mused as he rubbed the knots out of Mickey’s back.  She’d spent an hour that day working up to a canter on the back of the stoic and patient Patches, and it showed.

Groaning, she pulled her elbows under her and propped up her torso, then turned to look at Bucky over her shoulder.  “That’s never a good way to start a conversation. I’m going to give you a chance to try that again.”

He laughed quietly and nudged her back down to lie flat on the mattress.  Anywhere outside of the barracks, he spoke with the English accent he’d adopted for his new identity, but in the privacy of their own room, his Brooklyn twang was comforting.  “Got a project for you, babydoll. Somethin’ I need your help with, ‘cause I got next to no idea what the hell I’m doing.”

“Mm.”  Mickey let out a quiet groan as he kneaded his knuckles into a stiff patch of muscle.  “That’s better. Less likely to give your girlfriend a panic attack. Go on.”

“You know those… the hippie sunburst shirts?  The rainbow ones?”

It took her a minute to figure that out.  “You mean tie dye?”

Snapping his fingers triumphantly, Bucky grinned.  “Yeah, that’s the one. Ever done that?”

“No, I haven’t- of course I have, you big idiot, I grew up in the 80s.”  Mickey rolled over onto her back and laced her fingers behind her head, crooking an eyebrow.  “Unless you’re planning to introduce the Invaders to psychedelic raves, though…”

As he lay down next to her on the bed, Bucky laughed and rolled onto his back to give Tripod some ear scratches.  Tail wagging, she leaned into his hand and closed her eyes as he got that sweet spot at the corner of her jaw. “I got bleach, string, and tan, green, and black dye.  Wanna see if we can turn my Ezio costume into cammies?”

“Um… sure, I guess.”  Frowning slightly, Mickey pulled her left knee to her chest to stretch out sore muscles.  “Going for something like the old woodland pattern?”

He mmhm ed at her and smiled as Tripod flopped over onto her side, resting her head on his chest.  “Figured I could get a bolt of fabric from the exchange, cut it up into pieces, make a sort of ghillie suit or something to help break up my outline better.”

“How much time do we have to spend on this?”

“Less than I’d like.”

“Well.”  Rolling over, Mickey eyed the bag containing both costumes and their armor.  “First thing in the morning, then.” She nuzzled her way under Bucky’s other arm, carding her hand through the fur on Tripod’s back.  “My back’s still sore.”

“Oh, really.”

Mumbling a sleepy mmmmhm into Bucky’s neck, she smiled.  “Needs more rubs.”

“Y’know, it’s a damn good thing your physiotherapists were willing to teach me everything.”

“You got magic fingers, what can I say?”

“Magic fi- seriously?”  Bucky laughed and pressed his hands to his face.  “Oh, my god.  I’ll show you ‘magic fingers.’”  Without warning, he jabbed and wiggled his hands into the ticklish spots on Mickey’s waist, grinning shamelessly.  She squeaked, giggling as she writhed and tried to free herself.

They ended up with Mickey pinned on the bed, her wrists trapped in one of Bucky’s hands while he mercilessly tickled her stomach with the other.  Tripod simply watched them with disinterest, one ear flopped to the side and the other half-pricked toward them.

Bucky froze when someone knocked on the door to their quarters, and Dugan’s rough voice filtered through a moment later.

“I don’t care what you two loonies get up to on your own time, but keep it down, we’re tryin’ to sleep.  Seriously, I’ll give you my entire ration of skins and slick if it means I don’t gotta listen to it.”

When Bucky’s face flushed deep red, Mickey burst out laughing again.  “Thanks, Dum Dum, but we- we’re good. Sorry.”

His indistinct grumbling faded as he walked away from their door.

Mickey pressed a hand over her mouth, trying and failing to stifle a snicker.

“Oh, shut up,” Bucky muttered, sliding to the side and flopping back down onto the bed.

“Didn’t say anything.”

“You were thinkin’ it.”

“Only because you’re so adorable when you’re embarrassed.”

He pushed her away and rolled his eyes.  “I’m the goddamn Winter Soldier, I am not adorable.”

“Yes, you are.”

Growling something along the lines of a Russian ‘fuck you,’ Bucky rolled over and wrapped an arm around Tripod.  “I’m just gonna be over here, with the one woman in my life who doesn’t embarrass me.”

Naturally, Tripod picked that moment to sneeze in his face, setting off a quiet but fervent string of curses.  Mickey used the distraction to wiggle her way under Bucky’s arm, curling up against his side. His hand automatically settled on her shoulder, the weight of his arm comforting and solid over her back.

As he let out a sigh that turned into an expansive yawn, Bucky tilted his head to press a kiss to Mickey’s hair.  “You know I love you.”

“Always, sweetheart.  Love you too.”

***

Dernier watched the two of them with baffled curiosity as Mickey walked Bucky through scrunching up the different pieces of his costume.  The Frenchman made his way back inside the barracks when they were about halfway done tying up the surcoat into tightly packed discs of cloth, and came back out with the rest of the Invaders in tow.

As Mickey mixed the tan dye powder into a thick sludge in the base of one of the galvanized washbasins, Rogers rubbed at his eyes and sighed.  “That’d better not stick to the metal, Doc. I don’t want my uniforms turning… whatever color that is.”

Bleach had turned the black and red fabrics from the costume a strange muddled grayish-orange, and they quickly sucked up the first dye.  “I’ll rinse it out, don’t worry.” Thick rubber gloves from Stark’s lab protected both of their hands as Mickey and Bucky pressed the dense pucks of fabric into the dye.

“The hell’re you even doing?” Dugan asked, arms crossed.  He reached up to tip the brim of his bowler hat down to block the early morning sun.

“You’ll see.”  Bucky glanced up at him and gave him a one-shouldered shrug, lifting out the tied-up wads of fabric and setting them into the next dye basin – forest green.  “If it works, that is.”

The final step was brushing black dye onto both sides, and Mickey warned him multiple times not to over-apply it or they’d have to start over and risk ruining the fabric.

While they soaked the finished pieces in cold water and vinegar, Bucky got to work slicing and tearing up the large square of fabric he’d gotten his hands on.  “Are you sure this will work?” he asked Mickey quietly after the rest of the men had wandered off. “I know it won’t be multicam, but…”

“I won several tie dye competitions as a kid,” she answered with a smug smile.  “Think I know my way around it by now.”

They divided the olive drab rags into three evenly-sized piles and then dropped them into the dye basins.  “I really do hope this works, because if I have to face Marguerite and tell her what happened to all her hard work…”  Bucky winced nervously and shook his head. “Well, you know. I’m not looking forward to that.”

“You better not give your monkey clothes the same treatment.”  Barnes threw a dubious look at the clumps of dark fabric as he walked out of the barracks.  “And I’m still not convinced that making your… coat… thing… look like a nudnik attacked it with bleach… well, it ain’t gonna make you invisible, pal.”

“Not invisible.  Just significantly harder to see.”

Once they had everything hanging on the clotheslines strung between the walls of the barracks and the showers, Bucky thoroughly inspected the sodden surcoat.  “Well, it does look like hunting camo, I’ll grant you that. Rather like the Urban Outfitters version, but… camo nonetheless.”

“Told you I know what I’m doing.”

“Any ideas for the leather?”  He held up the poofy sleeve of the shirt and spread the fabric out with his other hand.  “It’s simple enough to black out the metal bits, provided this Stark’s got the same anodizing equipment I remember mine having.”

Mickey hummed and looked over the trousers.  “Maybe grease paint? Black shoe polish? Ink?  I figured the leather would blend in well enough on its own.  What about your armor paneling? Are we going to need to paint it at all?”

“No, it’s all covered up.  May need to stain the underlayer in a few places, though.  I’d rather not go without it because it’s all I have to cover the gaps between the panels.  If anyone throws a pineapple at me, then I’ll be in quite the pickle, but small arms fire shouldn’t be much trouble.”

“What about sniper rounds?”

“.50 BMGs are only used in anti-materiel guns, right now.  No one’s mad enough to pick up one of those and use it as an anti-personnel rifle, yet.  Anything smaller, it may break a bone and leave a rather nasty bruise, but anywhere vital has enough armor to keep me alive.”  The different layers of the surcoat plopped back together when Bucky release them, the mottled patterning blurring the edges. “But if I am hit with a .50-cal, I’ll likely have larger problems to fret over.”

“If you get hit with a .50-cal, I’ll have larger problems to fret over.  I can’t heal that away without someone else to draw from.”

Giving Mickey a gentle smile, Bucky leaned over and kissed her on the cheek.  “Then I’ll do my best to avoid getting shot.”

“You’d better.”

“Come on, these’ll need some time to dry in this humidity.”  Bucky wrapped an arm around her shoulders as they walked back around the barracks.  “Shall we head to the field and get some training in?”

“Eh, why not.  Could be fun.”

“Well, don’t sound so excited.”

Mickey sighed and shook her head slightly.  “Just getting sick of having to ration my energy.”

“Hey, none of that.”  Just outside the door into the barracks, Bucky stopped them and cupped her face in his hands.  “You’ve gone from laying in a bed with a TBI to walking around on your own most days. Granted, you still had a wheelchair back home, but-”

“I know what you’re trying to say,” Mickey said, closing her eyes.  “I’m just frustrated.”

“We’ll get through this.”

“Together, I know.”  She tilted her head up to meet his kiss and smiled slightly when he pressed their foreheads together.

“Just some gentle cardio and no-contact drills?”

“Sounds good.”

***

“So, while our favorite reckless idiot was leaving the shower,” Mickey began, the words interspersed between motions as she worked through a set of abdominal crunches with Bucky holding her feet.  Her fatigues – basic trousers, boots, and an Army-issue t-shirt – were nearly soaked through with sweat from the humidity. Sweat slicked her black hair into spiky clumps that stuck up at odd angles whenever she ran a hand through it.  “I saw a ring on his dog tags. I’m guessing Junior has one, too.”

Not sure where Mickey was going with it, Bucky shrugged.  “He does. That’s something many people do out here if they don’t wish to have a target on their back.”  They had to be careful how they spoke, where anyone could be listening. Tripod – currently panting in the shade several yards away – would likely alert them if they had an eavesdropper, but it never hurt to play it safe.

She slumped back to the dirt and laid her arms above her head, resting between sets.  “Why not just wear them and talk about their girls back home?”

“Simple answer?  Very few are truly that gullible.  Not-so-simple answer?” Leaning forward, Bucky braced Mickey’s feet again as she started on her next set of crunches.  “Well… my mother was a Jewess. Raised in Romania until her family fled here to England during the Great War. She met my father and converted to Catholicism to marry him, then they emigrated to the States and, well, you know the rest of that story.”

Mickey stared at him incredulously.  “You’re… Your mom was Jewish, that makes you…”

“Technically, yes, even though I wasn’t raised in the religion.  But Barnes, on the other hand… It looks like his family took a different path.  Marriage to anyone outside of his religion is complicated for him.” He didn’t have to add the regardless of gender for Mickey to understand.

“He’s got an H on his tags – it’s on his medical forms, too.”  When Bucky’s point made itself clear to her, Mickey looked sick and propped herself up on her elbows, staring at her knees.  “Zola picked him because of what his dog tags said.”

Bucky didn’t answer her except for a small nod.

She ran a hand over her face and through her hair.  “This is… well, this is awful. I mean, they taught us all about this in school, but it- it’s different, seeing it firsthand.”

“Are you sure you want to go to Majdanek with us?” Bucky asked her gently.  He wouldn’t think any less of her if she stayed behind.

After a moment, Mickey nodded and wiped at her nose.  “I have the luxury of choice, which means I have a responsibility to make the right one.  And in this situation, it isn’t much of a choice at all.” She looked up and met Bucky’s eyes, sickened revulsion fading to stern resolve.  “They need help, and… if not me, then who?”

Bucky gave her a watery smile and reached out to brush his thumb over her cheek.  “And this is one of the reasons I love you as much as I do.”

She allowed herself a bit to lean into his touch, closing her eyes and reaching up to gently grasp his wrist.  The cool metal of his hand was strangely slippery and buzzy under the hologram, a sort of weird icy warmth that she’d begun to find comforting.

With a last gentle touch to her cheekbone, Bucky pulled his hand away and patted her ankle.  “One more set, and we’ll go for a jog. Did you want to do physicals for the men before we deploy, or is there enough information in their files?”

“I think we’re fine.”  She rolled her eyes and smirked slightly.  “They’re not going to enjoy being told they’ve got lice, though.”

“It’s 1944.  Everything alive has got lice.”

Shuddering slightly, Mickey curled upward and held it for a few seconds, then relaxed back down.  “My scalp’s already itching sympathetically.”

“Why can’t you just… you know.”

She froze in the middle of her next rep and blinked up at him, then laughed.  “Because I hadn’t even thought of that.” The prospect of sucking all the life energy out of the tiny little parasites was karmically satisfying in a way it probably shouldn’t have been.

Several sets of footsteps behind her caught Mickey’s attention, followed closely by a voice she didn’t recognize.  “Well, well, look who it is, boys, the newest members of the 107th Tactical.”

Bucky rose smoothly to his feet and reached down to help Mickey up as a group of five soldiers sauntered over to them.  When Tripod yawned and stood, he held her back with a hand signal, then motioned for her to sit and stay. “Can I help you, Private?”  He crossed his arms and straightened his shoulders.

The leader of the group stopped in front of Bucky, tilted his head back, and grinned around the toothpick he was chewing.  Curly golden-blond hair covered his head, and his chiseled jaw jutted out as he crooked an eyebrow at Bucky. “So, they really did assign another limey to Cap’s suicide squad.  You’re a big one, ain’tcha?”

“Indeed.”  Bucky kept his face carefully impassive and calm as he looked down at the man he knew had given Steve hell during boot camp.  He’d give him the benefit of the doubt, though – maybe Gilmore Hodge was different in this universe. Unlikely, but… maybe.

“A limey and a doctor,” Hodge mused, raking his eyes up and down Mickey’s body.  Turning to the other soldiers, he smirked shamelessly. “Their own personal lady doctor.”  His drawl was slow and thick, almost crass-sounding next to the lilting twang Bucky tended to slide into.

Mickey stepped forward and drew herself up, back straightening as she mentally wrapped herself in the skin of Senior Chief Draymond once more.  “Problem, soldier?”

“No, ma’am.”  One of the other soldiers sniggered quietly.  “No problem at all. I bet all them Invaders just love gettin’ their hands all over you, don’t they, nurse?”

Mickey simply raised an eyebrow and looked over at Bucky, who subtly rolled his eyes.

“What, y’ain’t got nothin’ to say in defense of your dame?” Hodge taunted, switching the toothpick to the other side of his mouth as he leered at Bucky.

Shrugging, Bucky shifted his weight to the side.  “She’s more than capable of kicking your arse without my help; she doesn’t need me to protect her.”

Before Hodge could respond, Mickey flicked out a pocket knife and began casually cleaning her nails with it.  “First things first, I’m not a nurse, I’m a doctor. Tell me, Private Hodge, did the scuttlebutt happen to mention what sort of doctor I am?”

“You the pecker checker?” Hodge shot back.  “‘cause I got one for you to look at.”

“I’m a Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman in the United States Navy, deployed twice in a theater of war as a battlefield medic for Marines.  I know what hurts, how much it hurts, and how long it can hurt until I need to move it to a new area.” She paused, flicked the gunk off the tip of her knife, and fixed Hodge with an icy stare.  “So that you don’t sprain that pathetic excuse for a brain that sits between your ears, I’m a fully trained Marine who happens to know how to stitch you up when your dumb ass catches a grenade with your ribcage.”

A short, awkward silence followed her words while Hodge and his cronies digested them, then one of the men muttered, “Bullshit.  Ain’t no Marine unit ever sent to combat with a dame as a blister mechanic.”

“Is that a bet you’re willing to lose?”  Not waiting for a response, Mickey turned and gradually loped her way into a slow jog around the perimeter of the training field.

Bucky tossed the other soldiers a mocking salute as he followed her a few seconds later.  Rapid shuffling behind him preceded Tripod falling into step at his side. “You know,” he began once he caught up to Mickey, voice pitched low, “it really shouldn’t surprise me anymore how you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Go from adorable to dishing out sick burns in seconds flat.”

She huffed out a quiet laugh.  “You can thank my Marines for that.”  Her breathing was growing heavier and she was starting to favor her left hip ever so slightly, so Bucky tapped her on the shoulder until she slowed down a bit.

“Don’t push yourself too hard, love.”

“Body’s not keeping up with my brain.”

“I know.  Give it time.”

Their path eventually led them back to the barracks, and Bucky pushed the door open to see Barnes carefully looking over the Dragunov rifle.  He’d spread a thick cloth over the rough wooden table, his gun cleaning kit neatly arrayed off to the side.

“Stark finally finished jerkin’ off to that thing?” Bucky asked the sergeant, gesturing to the rifle.

Raising his eyebrows at the crude expression, Barnes slowly worked the bolt and rubbed his thumb over the wood below it.  “That’s the most alive I’ve seen him in months. I suppose I should be thanking you.”

“You can thank me once we’ve figured out why the hell it’s even here.  Like I said, that rifle shouldn’t even exist yet.”

“Oh, Doctor Frye!”  Rogers poked his head out of his quarters and waved at Mickey.  “Just who I wanted to see. Preliminary aerial surveillance of the camp just came in.”  He walked into the barracks, holding out a stack of pictures and beckoned Mickey over.

While they talked, Bucky ran a hand down the stock of the Dragunov and lifted it up, setting it into his shoulder.  “Stark give you any ammo for it?”

Barnes held up a large bag and shook it in answer, the contents clinking sharply.  “Steel jacketed, though he was muttering about the primer when he gave me everything.”

“Standard primer should do fine, at least for now.”  Reaching around, Bucky fiddled with the knobs on the scope and threw it far out of alignment, then handed it back to Barnes.  “This is nothing like the Johnson, but the good news is that it’s not nearly as finicky. It’ll pack a bigger punch, so you can’t get lazy with your technique.  Let’s hit the range and I’ll give you some training.”

He knelt down and ran his thumbs over either side of Tripod’s muzzle.  “<Stay with Mickey. I’ll be okay.>” The dog whuffled, nosed at his chin, and wagged her tail a few times before turning to head over to Mickey.  Watching her leave, Barnes tilted his head to the side and chewed his lip.

“She’s well trained.”

“She’s also frighteningly smart.”  Bucky scooped up the ammo bag as Barnes slung the rifle over his shoulder, and together they headed out the door.  “I didn’t have to put as much effort into training her as I thought I would; she picks things up rather quickly, and understands simple sentences easily enough.”

The younger man nodded, thoughtful as he looked down at his feet.  “And she knows when you’re going to have a fainting spell?”

“Seizure,” he corrected.  “They’re two different things.  But yes, there’s something that happens up here that Tripod can sense.”  Bucky gestured to his head and shrugged. “She’s been surprisingly reliable.”

“Yeah, I’ve been meaning to ask… Tripod?”

“Hah, um…”  He scratched at his neck and grinned sheepishly.  “Her leg was injured when I found her, and I had to wrap it up while it healed, so she bounced around on three legs for a while.  I suppose I wasn’t all that creative when it came to naming her.”

“Nah, it’s fine, I like it.”  After a few scuffing, uncomfortable footsteps, Barnes glanced up at him and hummed quietly before speaking again.  “So… Doc’s really a sailor.”

“Indeed.”

“And she really served with Marines?”

“Yes, in a country called Afghanistan, northwest of India.  She went over there a few times, until her squad was hit.”

Barnes nodded again and tapped the side of his face where Mickey’s scars were.  “I remember.”

“When it comes to it…”  Squinting up at the vague silhouettes of the barrage balloons, Bucky sighed.  “We still have a long way to go, especially when it comes to caring for veterans after they retire or separate, but it’s much improved in the future.  There are VA offices everywhere that host group talk sessions, support groups, networking, job help, you name it. That’s actually how I met Mickey – we went to the same gym and I ran into her a few times after that at the group sessions.”

The incredulous look Barnes shot him made him laugh.  “So, grown men sit in a circle and… talk about their feelings or some shit?  How the hell does that help?”

“Believe it or not, it does.  I know for a fact you’ve spoken about what happened in Kreischberg with Steve – if you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be as functional as you are now.  I know I was a twitchy, panicky mess for well over a year because I refused to tell anyone about my nightmares or the torture.”

“Damn stubborn nutfuck wouldn’t stop nagging me,” Barnes grumbled.

“But it helped.”

Reluctantly, Barnes sighed and nodded.  “Yeah, s’pose it did. So, if kvetching like a nudnik fixes thousand-yard-stare, why won’t you talk about your past?”

“You really wish to know?”

He shrugged one-shouldered and tipped his head to the side.

Bucky sighed heavily and adjusted his grip on the ammo bag, then quietly said, “Then I’ll tell you.  But not now, not here. And not before I get Howard to make some of that screaming purple super-tequila.  Mickey knows the formula, but she refuses to tell me.”

“I’m guessin’ there’s a story behind that.”

“I did something debatably dangerous and stupid.  She was – understandably, mind you – rather upset.  We broke things off for a while and I might have gone out one night, had a bit too much to drink, and ended up in a barfight.  My then-ex-girlfriend had to leave an important briefing early to bail me and my second in command out of the drunk tank. She wasn’t terribly thrilled about that, if I’m honest.”

Blinking a few times, Barnes pursed his lips for a few seconds before chuckling quietly.  “Must’ve been weird, bein’ in Steve’s shoes for once.”

“You should’a seen the other guy,” Bucky drawled, temporarily sliding back into his thickest Brooklyn accent.  “But in all honesty, it’s not so much that she doesn’t trust me with the formula, is that she doesn’t want word getting out that chemicals exist that can intoxicate me.  There’s still people out there in our world that would love to get their hands on me.”

He scowled at the empty range as they set themselves up at one of the benches.  Grousing under his breath about poorly trained infantry being used as cannon fodder, Bucky stacked up some sandbags for Barnes to rest the rifle on.

“Yeah, I hear ya,” Barnes said quietly, sliding the rifle out of its cloth case.  “But in a war like this, you need boots on the ground and bodies in the trenches more than you need marksmanship and skill.  Put enough guns pointing the same direction and someone’s gonna hit something.”

Shaking his head, Bucky peered down the range at their target.  “It’s a terribly inefficient way to win a war. To be fair, war in itself is inefficient and downright costly, but…”

“Please tell me trench warfare isn’t a thing anymore.”

Bucky caught the small box that Barnes tossed to him and shook out the artillery earplugs.  “For the most part, no. As technology advanced, we had to find new rules and laws to govern conflict to prevent the same degree of bloodshed.  Europe is still recovering from losing two generations of young men.”

“…new rules?”  Barnes sat, set the Dragunov in place, and shouldered it with the ease of practice.  As soon as he tried to look down the scope, though, he leaned back and shot Bucky a dark glare.  “The hell did you do to this thing?”

“I Rubik’s Cubed that shit.”

When nothing answered him but a blank stare, Bucky shook his head dismissively and tapped the scope.  “I purposely buggered up the zero on your optics. You’ve never used one that adjusts like this before, so you must learn how it works.”  He slid onto the stool on the other side of the T-shaped concrete table. “And to answer your question about rules, Barrett developed a marksman’s rifle that fires .50 BMG rounds.  There was some rather intense debate at first as to the legality of using it as an anti-personnel weapon rather than the anti-materiel for which the round was intended.”

The younger man hummed quietly as he fiddled with the knobs on the scope.  “Must kick like a mule.”

“It’ll catch you unawares if you aren’t careful,” Bucky agreed, then leaned over and tapped the side of the rifle just under the rear of the scope.  “There’s a gas regulator in here. Leave it as-is for now, but you can close off the port if it ever fouls up and has trouble cycling, it’s below freezing, or you’re above the tree line.  She’s going to fire much more consistently than the Johnson even when the barrel’s hot, so don’t feel like you need to put twenty rounds through her to get the optics zeroed.”

Barnes nodded, then spent a few minutes adjusting himself around the rifle to get used to the new profile while Bucky loaded up the magazines.  He handed one over and watched Barnes seat it, eject it, and seat it one more time before the sergeant tugged back the release lever and folded himself around the rifle.

The artillery earplugs felt thick and rubbery in his ears after so many years of more advanced technology, but it was better than nothing.  Bucky tapped the younger man’s shoulders and arms in a few places, nudging him around and fixing his posture, before motioning to go ahead.

Several seconds passed as Barnes took in a deep breath, held it for a fraction of a heartbeat, and slowly let it out as his finger eased back on the trigger.  Just as his lungs finally emptied, the mechanism clicked and the crack of the rifle echoed through the range.

A second and a half later, a dull ping rang out and Barnes looked up.

“Good shot, how far off zero were you?”

He frowned at Bucky, then swore under his breath and peered through the scope again.  “I was aimin’ for the one to the left, you punk.”

After two long hours of training and teaching, Barnes was finally as confident and comfortable with the Dragunov as with his other rifle.  Sitting back on his stool, he brushed his hair out of his eyes and popped out his earplugs, then grinned at Bucky.

“She’s one hell of a gun, that’s for sure.”

“That she is.”  Bucky handed him the cloth gun case and bent over to start scooping up the casings.  “Are you going to name her?”

The younger man pursed his lips and looked thoughtfully down at the rifle in his hands as he slid the heavy canvas over the barrel.  “Rebecca.” He paused for a moment, then shrugged and handed Bucky the empty magazines. “It’s what Ma would’a called my sister if I’d had one.”

Bucky almost dropped the ammo bag in surprise.  “Wait… what? You’re an only child?”

“…yeah?  You’re not?”

“Two sisters and a brother,” he murmured, swallowing down the thick tightness in his throat.  “Becca, Johnny, and Lizzie. They’re- I- I outlived all of them, though.”

“Sounds like you outlived a lotta people, pal.”

“More than I care to acknowledge.”  After a pause, he asked quietly, “Mum and Dad?  Are they…”

Barnes shot him a quizzical look.  “Alive, at least they were when I went back on leave the last time.  You… lost yours?”

“Car crash in ’38.”

“You had a car?”

“Well… yes.”

Scoffing, Barnes shook his head and looked away.  “What, did the Depression not hit your family or something?”

“No, no, it did, it just…”  As he ran a hand over the bandana and his hair, Bucky hummed softly.  “We had the car before, and Dad paid it off right before the stock market crashed.  Meant he and I were able to take jobs further away from home than many of our neighbors.”

“How the hell did your olds raise four kids and have a car and a house, and-”

“Might we talk about something else, please?”

There was an awkward pause as Barnes raised his eyebrows and blinked incredulously a few times before sighing quietly and shrugging.  “Sure.”

They reached the barracks before either of them said another word.  Next to the nearly-dry dyed fabric hanging limply from the clothesline, Barnes stopped Bucky with a hand on his shoulder.

“Look.  I… can’t imagine what it’s like to lose my whole family, especially siblings I never had.  But I tell ya what, we live through this war and I’ll take you back to Brooklyn and introduce you to my folks.”

“I’m not sure that’s wise,” Bucky murmured, eyebrows knitting together as he looked down at his feet.  “Mum’s always had nervous fits, and-”

“Ma can handle it.  She’s a stubborn ol’ yenta.  If anything, she’ll probably try to mother hen you so much you’ll run the hell away.”

Giving him a hesitant smile before turning away, Bucky mulled it over as he checked over the surcoat.  He started pulling down the dry fabric scraps, then checked over the trousers, shirt, and surcoat thoroughly before unhooking them from the line as well.

“You sure that’s gonna work?”

“Not entirely, no.”  He balled everything up in the surcoat and turned to head indoors.  “It’s the next step that determines that.”

The Invaders were quietly playing cards at one of the tables, small wooden chips with KP duties and watch shifts piled in the center.  Jones glanced up and half-waved in greeting, then pointed toward the rooms in the back.

“Doc’s taking a nap,” he told them, his voice barely above a whisper.  “She ran out of gas right after you left and decided to go lie down for a bit.  Tripod’s with her.”

Nodding his thanks, Bucky handed off the ammo bag and clapped Barnes on the shoulder before heading back to his quarters.  The door squeaked quietly as he nudged it open and slipped inside, and the curtains over the window threw the room into a somewhat hazy twilight.  After setting the bundle of cloth on the chair, he threw the latch on the door and sat down to pull off his boots.

He then stripped to his underclothes and gently pulled the covers back and slid into bed behind Mickey.  Tripod raised her head and nosed at his hand when he reached out to greet her, eyes half-lidded but ears alert and perked as she kept watch over Mickey.

The woman herself stirred slightly when Bucky wrapped himself around her, mumbling something indistinct and nuzzling into his arm before relaxing with a soft sigh.  Her breathing evened out again moments later, and soon Bucky’s own eyelids started to droop as the warm darkness did its work.

***

Fabric swished softly as Bucky slid his left wrist into the vambrace and secured the straps and buckles in place.  The hidden blade shot out and retracted easily when he tested it, and he tucked a small pouch of throwing spikes against the back of his arm under the vambrace.  Throwing knives went into the scabbard-studded belt, and several blackened combat knives found their homes on his calves and thighs.

Mickey reached up and adjusted his collar, inspecting the stitching on the small tufts of fabric sewn onto the costume.  “Looks like you’re ready to go. You sure about this?”

“Running off into the woods to play cat and mouse with the Allies’ best commando team?”  With a cocky smirk, Bucky tugged his hood over his head. “What could possibly go wrong?”

“You get caught and lose my chocolate ration, we’re going to have a Talk.”

“Ugh, not the audible capitalization.  Mickey, you can be such a millennial sometimes.”

“Whine, whine, bitch, bitch.”  She nudged him around and gave him a gentle push in the direction of the trees.  “Get going, Jacob.”

He lazily saluted as he strode off, his modified costume blurring into the light-dappled undergrowth with ease.  Boots scuffed in the dirt behind Mickey and she turned to see Barnes watching Bucky with his arms crossed and eyebrows skeptically raised.

“I still think you’re both off yer heads.”

“Still willing to wager a week’s chocolate rations on that?”

Snorting out a quiet laugh, Barnes shook his head slightly.  “You drive a hard bargain, Doc. We’ll see what’s what when this is over.”

Several minutes later, Mickey settled into the folding canvas chair in the lee of the large transport truck they’d taken out to the forest.  Carter had her hands stuffed under her arms, bundled up in a large, bulky coat that had JONES sewn onto the left breast pocket. With an eloquent groan, Tripod settled down onto a thick blanket at Mickey’s feet.

Mickey’s surprised look must have been obvious, because Carter glanced down at the name tape and shrugged.  “Not to say that the Invaders are untouchable, but… no one’s willing to anger Captain Rogers, and they do deliver results, even if their methods are unorthodox.”

“That’s generous.  I was going to say fucking shitbrained reckless.”  A near-immediate flush spread across Mickey’s cheeks and she looked down at her hands, embarrassed.  “Um, sorry, ma’am. I just-”

“There’s no need to apologize, Doctor Frye.  I may be a woman, but don’t mistake me for a proper lady.”

She snorted and tried to stifle a guilty laugh.  “God, I told Bucky that myself shortly after we met.  He kept getting flustered and apologizing every time he swore, and he’d get so upset any time he’d see anything where women or queer people got targeted.  I told him that after the Marines and the Boy Sc-”

Cutting herself off mid-sentence and clamping her jaw shut so hard that it ached, Mickey swallowed thickly and turned away.

“Mickey?  Is everything alright?”

“I- it’s fine.. Nothing.  Just- your world’s… different.  Culture’s different in the past, too.  I just- I shouldn’t.”

Carter leaned forward, lips pursed.  “The Allies’ most effective strike team is led by a more-or-less married couple of the same sex.  I’m intending to propose to a negro as soon as the war’s over, and Dugan lost a daughter and gained a son not two years ago.  I think you’ll find us more open-minded than you might expect.”

It still took several long minutes and a hot cup of tea that magically appeared in Carter’s hands before Mickey spoke again.

“Is this tea thing a British superpower or something?  It’s like you and Falsworth can summon it out of thin air sometimes.”

Carter simply smiled enigmatically and nodded toward the speckled blue kettle sitting over a can of fuel with a STARK stencil on the side.  “We have our ways.”

Curling her fingers around the tin mug, Mickey hunched forward and sighed.  “I wasn’t born a woman.”

“Of course not.  You were born a child.  You became a woman.”

Mickey stared at her, pleasantly stunned.  When a fresh gust of wind swirled around the truck, Tripod perked up and sniffed intently, ears pricked and swiveling around.  She settled back down when Mickey quietly shushed her, though, closing her eyes after a few seconds.

“As I said, I think you’ll find us more open-minded than you expect.”  With a small smile, Carter raised her own mug to her lips. “May I ask a few questions?  I don’t mean to pry, but I’ll admit I’m curious.”

“Uh, yeah.  Yeah. Of course.”  Mickey’s voice was raspy, and she sucked down another mouthful of tea to soothe it.

“How did it feel?  Changing yourself, that is.  I’m assuming that surgical technology has advanced enough in your world to make nearly anything possible.”

“It felt good,” Mickey admitted quietly, giving Carter a hesitant smile.  “There was some pushback from some of the people I knew, but my older brother fought so hard for me.  And- finding Jacob, and then…” Self-consciously, she thumbed the ring on her left hand; it was starting to become a familiar pressure now that they’d used that cover so many times.  “It’s good. It’s nice to be able to be myself, and be loved for myself.”

“Gabe told me that in your world, there aren’t any… barriers, like there are in ours.”  Carter smiled sadly at Mickey’s ring. “If you yearn so much for it to be real, well, why not?”

Huffing out a laugh, Mickey dragged her hand through her hair until it stood up on end.  “That obvious, huh?”

The other woman shrugged apologetically.  “In both of you, if I’m honest.”

“Well, he… he’s nearly a hundred years old, at this point.  His ninety-ninth birthday would have been a month after we disappeared from our world.  And yes, I feel every bit as weirded out about that as you can imagine, but that’s not all of it.”  She paused and took a deep breath before continuing; she wouldn’t be telling Carter this anywhere close to the base, where someone could overhear them.

“He doesn’t age the same way we do - biologically, we’re the same age right now.  But in fifty years, my body’s going to be wearing out - and I’m likely looking at a whole host of medical issues to deal with well before then since my family’s got a history of, um… prostate cancer.”

There was a pause before Carter answered.  “Oh. I hadn’t thought of that.”

“I haven’t told him.  I don’t know how I’d even bring it up.  There’s a fifty-fifty chance I’ll end up with a malignant tumor there by the time I hit forty-five, and that’s not even accounting for the fact that we don’t really know what hormone replacement does to the risk factor.”

“Surely there’s some way to test for it.”

Mickey pulled a face and leaned back in her chair.  “Yeah, but it isn’t pleasant, and I can’t do it myself.”

“Well, cancer risk aside…”  Carter leaned over to the kettle and refilled her cup, then held the kettle out for Mickey to do the same.  “So, he’ll stay young for many years. One might argue that isn’t a bad thing.”

“What happens when I get old, though?” she asked softly.  “What’s to say he won’t move on and find someone else? Even if I live to be a hundred, he’ll still only look and feel half my age.  I- I don’t know if he…” Looking down at her hand again, Mickey slid the band off her finger and turned it so the engraving on the inside caught the light.   Always.  “He says, ‘Always and forever,’ but I won’t last that long.  I don’t know if he wants to be married to a wife he’s guaranteed to outlive, that can’t give him any children.”

On the other side of the truck, Bucky pressed a hand over his mouth to keep a pained noise from escaping.

Mickey and Carter’s voices blended together, lost in the dull roar that crept into his hearing.  Before the panic attack could truly take hold, he forced himself to take several long, shuddering breaths, flooding his brain with oxygen and breaking the loops his thoughts had fallen into.

Cradling his head in his arms for a few minutes, Bucky tried to push everything into the back of his mind, visualizing locking it up and setting it in a corner until he could unpack it and begin to solve the problems at hand.  Right now, though, he had a team of seven skeptical and mildly cocky soldiers looking for him.

He rose smoothly to his feet, squeezed the water out of his eyes with a hand he wished was steadier, and melted into the dense undergrowth of the English forest.

***

Morita stalked his way back to the transport truck fuming and skittish, white-knuckling his rifle.  “Jumped out of a fuckin’ tree,” he grumbled when Carter frowned at him.  “Outta the goddamn trunk, not the leafy part.  Just appeared outta nowhere and yelled BOO real loud.  I nearly shot him.”

“That’s why Stark gave you all nonlethal rounds.  And I seem to recall Frye saying something about bulletproof body armor?”

Mickey nodded and tapped her sternum.  “Yeah, it’d take a .45 from a rifle to get through the plating over his chest.  And even then, he’s as likely to walk it off with a massive bruise and broken ribs as he is to actually take the bullet.”

Muttering something indistinct about where ‘that goddamn poltergeist’ could put said rifle round, Morita walked over to his pack and pulled out a box of rations.

***

Muffled, inarticulate swearing preceded Falsworth’s reappearance.  Before saying anything, he set his simunition-loaded rifle down and made a beeline for the teapot – and only once he’d had an entire cup did he turn to Mickey.

“That royal arse of yours thought it would be funny to swing out of a tree and grab my hat.”

Mickey shrugged, trying not to laugh as Morita quietly choked on his lunch.  “Well, he obviously gave it back.”

Blinking at her a few times, Falsworth stared at her before sighing heavily and sitting next to Peggy.  He pulled off his hat and ran his hands through his short reddish-blond hair. “I must confess, he was damn near impossible to see.  I suppose this is yours, now.” He dug into his pocket and tossed Mickey a few small foil-wrapped bars. “Consider me thoroughly humbled.”

***

Jones – felled by a small rock between his shoulder blades – spent nearly half an hour calming down Dernier as the short Frenchman ranted angrily.  From what little Mickey was able to understand, he’d walked next to a large bush that had randomly sprouted hands and grabbed his legs.

The pile of ceded chocolate rations grew steadily larger.

***

Dugan looked almost pensive as he emerged from the forest; his cheek was scraped up and he had a beautiful bruise forming on his jaw, but he immediately walked over to Mickey and cleared his throat.

“So.  In this far-off future o’ yours, they got more advanced hand-to-hand techniques?”

“We do.”  Nodding, Mickey set her mug down on the ground and got to her feet.  “I’m actually certified as an instructor myself.”

The burly man chewed his lip for a minute, and his moustache twitched as he twisted his lips to the side.  “Can you teach me?” Bright blue eyes twinkled as he gave her a wry smile. “‘Cause I just got my ass kicked by a guy in a funny-lookin’ dress.”

“Only if you stop calling it a dress,” Mickey shot back, crossing her arms and grinning at him.  “I’ll train the whole team, if you’re interested.”

Carter smirked up at them.  “Well, it certainly can’t hurt.  I might even join you.”

***

Everyone looked up as a harsh, high-pitched, “Motherfucker!” drifted out of the trees.  Falsworth was already half out of his seat and Morita had a rifle raised and ready; no one breathed until Barnes skulked into the clearing with a furious scowl on his face.  The Englishman looked about ready to start lecturing Barnes on picking up Bucky’s appallingly foul language.

“He was hiding in a goddamned weeping willow,” he finally told them, then strode stiff-legged off to the side and dropped down to sit cross-legged on the dirt.  Within seconds he’d field-stripped his rifle down as far as he could and was going through the motions of assembling and disassembling each of the firearms he carried with a clinical, detached precision.

Mickey blinked in surprise as Tripod slowly trotted over to the sergeant and started nosing at his hands, whining softly.  When Barnes absently lifted a hand to scratch at her ears the same way Bucky did, Tripod gently nudged his other hand away from the gun and half-draped herself over his lap.

“…Doc?”  Dugan looked over at her, perplexed.

Shrugging, Mickey stuffed her hands deep in her pockets to warm her icy fingers.  “She’s a smart dog. Your Bucky’s got a lot of the same issues she helps my Bucky with.”

Barnes leaned forward and wrapped his arms around Tripod’s sturdy chest, burying his face in her scruff with a disgruntled groan.

Half a mile away, Rogers carefully paced through the underbrush with the shield on his arm and his eyes scanning the forest ahead of him.  The trees were deceptively silent, the sort of silence that pressed on his ears and made him wish on occasion to be able to turn off his enhanced hearing – and vision, and sensory input in general.  Sometimes it just became too much.

He’d never told anyone how every so often, he’d ask his husband to tie him to a chair, blindfold him, stuff artillery plugs in his ears, and watch over him carefully until the world stopped being too loud.  Usually the patient sergeant would pull out whatever science fiction or gothic horror novel he’d been able to get his hands on and relax nearby on the bed while Rogers disappeared into his head for a few hours.

The constant, dull pressure on his senses was starting to lull him into the same near-hypnotic state that he’d drop into when tied up, and Rogers rubbed his free hand vigorously over his face for a few seconds in an attempt to make himself more alert.

Something shifted on the edge of his awareness and he stopped dead in his tracks, froze, and listened to the forest around him.  His ears would tell him far more than his eyes in the dusky, loamy gloom.

“Use the Force, Steve.”

The voice came from above him and to the left, about ten feet off his left shoulder, unmistakably the rougher, deeper, Londoner-filtered cadences of his husband’s not-quite-twin.

“…the fuck?  What the hell- what force?  Where are you?”

This time from his right, a patient chuckle and the familiar, soothing rhythms of Brooklyn.  “Use your goddamn ears, Rogers, y’ain’t half deaf no more.”

Rogers spun in a tight circle, sweeping back and forth with his eyes as he searched for the source of the voice.  How did he move that fast?

“There’s no wind,” Frye said quietly from behind him.  “But that doesn’t mean you can’t feel the changes in air pressure.  You’ve got better hearing than I do, and I can do it. Close your eyes and listen.”

Dropping into a half-crouch, ready to spring in any direction at a moment’s notice, Rogers slowly slid his eyelids shut and concentrated on everything he could hear.  He started to frown in frustration after a few seconds, but – there.  That was it.

Something small, probably a squirrel, skittered up a tree trunk on his eleven o’clock.  The tiny thupthupthup of a bird taking flight caught his attention at four-thirty, and finally he managed to pick out a slow, rhythmic pulse, more of a physical feeling than a sound.  Frye could breathe quietly enough to fool any non-enhanced human’s ears, but Rogers was a different matter.

Frye circled around behind him slowly, his boots making near to no sound on the soft forest floor.  It took concerted effort not to telegraph his intentions as Rogers loosened his arm in the straps on his shield, but he managed to stay relaxed and calm up until the split second that he whirled in a tight circle and sent his shield flying like a discus toward the ghost from another world.

He was expecting Frye to have the reflexes to dodge, catch, or even deflect the shield.

He definitely wasn’t expecting a deafening CLANG to ring through the forest when the blurred, constantly shifting shape raised its left arm and blocked the blow with inhuman speed.

***

Mickey and the rest of the Invaders jumped to their feet when they heard the sound of the shield as it rang, and within seconds they’d all grabbed whatever firearms were at hand and were running back into the dimly lit trees.  No one questioned her when she beelined forward, Bucky’s Thompson rifle ready in her hands as she traced the two vibrant pulse signatures.

They found the two super soldiers locked in hand-to-hand combat in a large clearing; fists and feet were flying faster than the eye could easily track, and it took Mickey several seconds to realize that Bucky was holding back significantly.

This Rogers hadn’t had years of martial arts training from some of the world’s top masters like her Steve had, and while he was acrobatic and didn’t hesitate to throw himself around like a gymnast, he was blatantly outmatched.

Bucky’s teeth were bared and his breathing was ragged as he faced off against Rogers, blocking more often than he was attacking.  He was pushing Rogers to the man’s absolute limit and it was beginning to finally show in sloppy footwork, weaker blows, and the glistening sweat streaming down his face.

The Invaders fanned out in a small semi-circle at the edge of the clearing, watching the fight with interest but not speaking a word for fear of distracting either soldier at the wrong moment.  Before Tripod lunged into the mix and tried to set the record straight again, Mickey gathered up a fistful of her harness and practically sat on the agitated dog to keep her there.

Full contact was a polite term for the way the two men were grappling with and striking at each other.

Rogers managed to pull off a picture-perfect hip throw, sending Bucky sprawling across the ground as the air whooshed out of his lungs.  He recovered quickly, though, rolling to his feet and dancing to the side to avoid the powerful push kick that Rogers sent his way, easily dropping to one hand as he spun around and swept Rogers’s leg out from under him.

Before Mickey could blink, Bucky had Rogers pinned facedown in the dirt in a jiu jitsu hold, arms and legs immobilized.  The captain wasn’t going to give up without a fight, though, and he struggled for several long seconds before slumping down with an exhausted sigh.

“Uncle?” Rogers gasped out, and Bucky found himself startled into a tired laugh.  He rolled off the blond and sprawled out on his back, closed his eyes, and panted heavily.

“Yeah, sure, why not.”  Waving a hand vaguely toward the Invaders, Bucky rolled his head to the side to give them an open-mouthed grin.  “Everyone saw it, he yielded.”

Lurching to his knees, Rogers leaned forward and braced his hands against the ground.  “I know you were holding back, you jerk.”

“Didn’t want to hurt you, punk,” Bucky murmured, suddenly somber as he took Dugan’s proffered hand and stood.

“Buck-”

Bucky practically snarled at him, lifting his head as he leaned over to catch his breath.  “I ain’t gonna go all-out against you the day before a damn mission, Rogers.”

“Hey, Steve.”  Barnes caught the captain’s eye and tossed him the shield; he’d picked it up from where it had been leaning haphazardly against a bush.  “I’m gonna side with the Jolly Green Giant here. We don’t need you in a splint when you’re supposed to be combat ready.”

Clearing her throat, Mickey crossed her arms and stared down Rogers.  “Doctor’s orders, you’re both getting a full exam once we’re back on base.  Sarge is right, we can’t afford any injuries. Whose bright idea was this, anyway?”

“He threw his shield at me!”

“You were supposed to catch it!”

“It ain’t my fault that he jumped my bones like I’m his goddamn housewife-”

“Swear to God, if I hear one more word out of either of your mouths…”  Mickey didn’t have to quantify the threat; rolling his eyes, Bucky walked over to her and knelt down to let Tripod reassure herself that he was fine.  His knuckles were red and bleeding, and he moved with a stiffness that told Mickey she had at least half an hour of massage therapy to work him through that night.  The good news was, his armor had taken the brunt of it and he’d be no worse for the wear except for a few bruises and tender spots.

Rogers was already bouncing back; he slung an arm over Barnes’s shoulder and gave Mickey a sloppy, pink-tinted grin as they all turned to trudge back to the transport truck.

Bucky was the last to leave, spending a moment with his forehead pressed to Tripod’s and his fingers woven through the thick fur on her neck.  Finally, he stood, and in a few paces caught up with Mickey.

“The hell was that about?” she asked him softly.

“He started it.”

“I don’t care who started it, that was dangerous and-”

Stopping them dead in their tracks, Bucky gently grasped Mickey’s shoulders and leaned down slightly to her eye level.  “And I had it under control. I needed to evaluate him where he wasn’t nervous about someone seeing what he’s capable of.  As much as he needs to know what each of his soldiers can do, I need to know when I have to step in. I’m stronger, faster, and better trained than he is – I need to know where his limits are if I’m going to be watching his six.”

“Thought that was Junior’s job.”  She settled the rifle strap over her shoulder and scowled up at Bucky.

“Junior can’t keep up with him,” Bucky answered matter-of-factly, shrugging.  “He hasn’t had more than a few doses of the serum, there’s no way he’s keeping pace with Cap in a proper fight.  Rogers needs someone on his level to spar with, and now I know where I need to start.”

With a sigh, Mickey sucked in her lips and chewed on them for a few seconds before flicking her eyes back up to Bucky’s.  “We. Where we need to start.  We’re both trained, we’re both instructors.  We’ll do this together, and we’ll train the whole team.  Dugan’s already asked.”

Bucky smiled gratefully at her and leaned forward to press a soft kiss to her forehead.  “I’ll take Barnes and Rogers, then. C’mon, let’s get to the truck so we can go home.”

As Mickey turned and followed the Invaders back towards their transport, the smile slid off Bucky’s face.  The weight of what she’d said earlier to Carter dragged down on his shoulders in a way that nothing had since Steve’s worst bout with pneumonia in the winter of ’42.

If she noticed him being quieter than usual, not jumping into the playful banter between the men quite as much, she didn’t say anything.  Tripod simply pressed against his leg, sprawled out in the bed of the truck with him while they endured the hour-long ride back to base. Bucky traced lazy circles behind her ears, rolling the soft, downy fur between his fingers as he half-absently followed the conversation.

“Insurance,” was what he told the men when they asked what he planned to do with his chocolate winnings.  He then threw a suggestive glance at Mickey and grinned shamelessly. “Girlfriend insurance. Provided, of course, that you sorry excuses for soldiers didn’t give her Logan Bars instead of real chocolate.”  Mickey pulled a face - she’d taken a bite out of one of those disgusting emergency ration bars by accident once, and the shocking taste difference had been enough to make her gag on it.

It took until they were back in their quarters before Bucky finally emerged from his mild funk.  Mickey was struggling to raise her arms up enough to shrug her way out of her shirt, and wordlessly, he stepped behind her and gently worked it off her shoulders.

Her skin prickled and pebbled up into goosebumps at the unseasonably cold night air, and Bucky stepped forward to wrap her up in his arms.  Dropping his lips down to her shoulder, he pressed a kiss to the soft muscle at the base of her neck.

“Not that I’m complaining, but…”

Bucky closed his eyes and sighed quietly, then breathed deep and savored her rich, slightly sweet scent.  “Can’t a guy hold his girl close?”

“Bucky, sweetheart…”  Turning around, Mickey laced her fingers behind his neck and pressed their foreheads together.  “What’s going on?”

His heart sank and his throat closed up like it had before, when he’d overheard her conversation with Carter.  “Nothing. I’m fine, I promise.”

From her spot on the bed, Tripod let out a grumpy groan and flicked her ears towards Bucky.

“See, even the dog knows you’re lying.”

“It’s not something you need to worry about.”

Soft hands framed his face as Mickey gave him a gentle kiss.  “You’re upset about something.”

“Kinda have a lot to be upset about, right now.”  Leaning forward, he rested his forehead against hers and sighed heavily.  “I don’t want to fight another war.” I don’t want to lose you again.  I don’t want to watch you die while I can’t.

“And we deploy tomorrow.”

“Just- no.  Please.” Bucky ran his hands down Mickey’s sides and gave her a lingering kiss.  When he pulled away, he looked down at her with half-lidded eyes and gently brushed his thumbs over her ribs.  “I don’t wanna think about that tonight. I don’t wanna think about any of it tonight.”

He chased another deep kiss out of Mickey, then raised his hands to her jaw.  “Is this okay right now?” he asked, his voice low and rough. As much as he needed to remind himself that Mickey was still here – Mickey was still alive – he would stop dead in his tracks if she so much as shrugged.

“Yes.  Yes, definitely yes.”

As soon as Mickey started unbuttoning Bucky’s shirt, Tripod rose to her feet and jumped off the bed; she knew the drill by now.  She flicked her ears around a few times before tugging Bucky’s Ike jacket off its peg on the door, nosing it into a loose heap, and curling up on it with a sigh.

Later that night, Bucky stared tiredly at the wood plank ceiling; his fingers twitched with mild tremors and his skin simply ached.  He looked over at Mickey, sound asleep and sprawled out comfortably on her stomach, and stroked a hand down her shoulder and back before reaching out to scratch Tripod’s ears.

“<Come on, girl.  Let’s go outside for a bit, I need a smoke.>”

Barnes was already out there, sitting against the wall of the barracks with his legs stretched out straight in front of him.  He peered up at the stars and blew a thin stream of smoke out from between pursed lips, then turned to look up at Bucky. “Trouble sleeping?”

With a quiet groan, Bucky lowered himself down and settled into place next to his younger counterpart.  “Yeah, them’s the breaks.” The odd mix of an English accent and laid-back Brooklyn vernacular made the younger man scoff and shake his head slightly.  Bucky shook a cigarette into his hand and nodded his thanks as Barnes flicked a lighter to life and held it out.

They sat together in silence for several minutes, twin curls of smoke winding into the chilly night air.  Bucky rested his elbows on his knees and let his head hang forward, savoring the numbness that the cold brought to his bare chest and shoulders.  His hair was just barely starting to brush his shoulders and it curled loosely around his jaw and ears as he rolled his head from side to side.

He noticed the younger man discreetly glancing over at the knotted scars winding their way around his left shoulder and sighed quietly.  “Are your eyes stuck or something, kid?”

“Sorry, it’s just…”

Bucky’s eyes felt gritty and dry as he rubbed at them with his right hand; his left unconsciously balled into a loose fist with the cigarette poking out from between his fingers.  “Hurts like a bitch, if that’s what you wanted to know. Hurt when it happened, and it’s hurt basically every damn day since.”

“Can I…?”  Holding up a hand hesitantly, Barnes raised an eyebrow.

“I’d rather you not.  My skin feels like it’s on fire right now.”

“That’s not normal, is it?”

He laughed bitterly and flicked the ash off his cigarette.  “By the time you get to be my age, lad, you’re going to have one bloody cocked up definition of ‘normal.’”

“Do tell.”

“Well…”  Shrugging, Bucky decided to dive in headfirst.  “What I will say is, I’ve had my choices taken away from me for so many years that I didn’t even have to be drunk to look at a pecker piercing and think, ‘what the hell, that could be fun.’”

Barnes sputtered and coughed uncontrollably, thumping himself in the chest as he tried to remember how to breathe.

“What the fuck…” he finally managed to gasp out, looking over at Bucky with a mixture of revulsion, horror, and bafflement.

“Firmly vetoed by the missus.”  Bucky tilted his head back to look up at the star-studded sky.  “More on the grounds that my body would try to heal around it and bugger it up than anything else, though.  Same issues with tattoos, the ink doesn’t stick anymore. Gets metabolized and cleared out in less than a fortnight.  Only one I can’t get rid of is this damn thing.”  He gestured spitefully at the serial number hidden under his hair, a perfect match to the one on the man next to him.

The sergeant blinked at him for several seconds before tugging a hand over his face and laughing awkwardly.  “You future folk are fuckin’ weird.”

“Quite so.”

“So, tell me something about the future that won’t make me nauseous.”

“We don’t have flying cars yet, but the motorcycles are something to behold.  Transatlantic air travel is not only possible but a regular enough occurrence that international business is positively exploding.  Food is significantly higher quality, even the inexpensive stuff, and free of many of the chemicals and mystery ingredients you’re seeing now.  Nearly every illness Steve suffered from before the serum has been cured, and those that haven’t are completely treatable with modern medicine.”

Bucky looked down at his hands and his lips quirked up into a slight smile.  “In fact, there’s people who have it worse off than he ever did, and they lead healthy, normal lives through a combination of medicine, exercise, and diet.”

Barnes pulled a face and took a long drag off his cigarette.  He puffed out a smoke ring and leaned his head back against the barracks.  Lank brown hair, loose and clean after he’d washed out all the pomade in the shower, brushed over his forehead in the breeze.  “You’re havin’ me on, old man. Ain’t no way that’s true. Kids die from asthma and you know it.”

The cold weight of Bucky’s dog tags against his chest helped ground him as he traced the constellations above them with his eyes.  “I may refuse to tell you something, lad, but I promise you, I’ll never lie to you. You’ve had enough of that happening that you don’t need it from me, too.”

Barnes was quiet for a while after that, and lit up another cigarette when he finished the one he’d been working on.  Eventually he turned back to Bucky, eyebrows furrowed and eyes tight.

“What are we walking into, tomorrow?”

“The worst thing you’ve ever seen and will ever see.  The good news is, there isn’t much that’s more horrifying than the camps.  The rest of the war is rather standard-issue outside of the science labs.”

The younger man shuddered and rubbed his arms, looking away.  “Ugh, don’t remind me. I still have nightmares about the Screamers.”

So, they have the technology, then.  Bucky swallowed down the sick fear that was starting to settle in at the pit of his stomach.  “Yeah, that doesn’t go away. Sorry.”

“Fan-fuckin’-tastic.”

“Just-”  Drawing in a deep breath and exhaling it sharply, Bucky ran the fingers of his right hand through his hair a few times.  “You’ll need to be strong, in there. Steve will need you – the whole team will.”

“I think we could use you there, if you’re willing to change your mind.”

“Hah, hell no.  I’ve seen enough of this war to last me one lifetime, I don’t need to see it again.”

Barnes fixed him with a look that cut straight through him.  “From what it sounds like, you never left the war.”

He had to take another deep breath and leaned forward on his knees, wrapping his arms around them while the cigarette dangled from his fingers.  “Guess I didn’t.”

The conversation lulled again, and the dull stillness of the night was starting to press in on Bucky’s senses.  He rolled the cigarette around, took one last drag, and stubbed it out in the dirt.

Finally, Barnes pushed himself to his feet with a quiet grunt and offered Bucky a hand up.  Standing there facing each other, hands clasped, Barnes studied him carefully, a deep line working its way in between his eyebrows.

“Everything that happened to you…”

Bucky closed his eyes for a moment.

“Will it happen to me?”

When he opened his eyes, they were full of steel and fire.

“You will never be made into me.  I swear it to you on my life.”

Chapter Text

“Cap.”

Steve raised his head and looked over to see Jack walking toward him with a white plastic bag swinging from his hand.  Quiet murmurs filled the air around them as the field team of scientists finished setting up their equipment.

“You need to eat something.”  Jack sat down next to him on the bench and reached in to pull out a Subway sandwich, and when Steve scoffed and looked away, Jack gently whacked him in the shoulder with it.  “I am not going to put myself in a position to get yelled at by a pissed off, traumatized, off-med Winter Soldier if the three of them reappear and find out you’ve been starving yourself out of penance.”

“It ain’t penance,” Steve grumbled, but took the sandwich and peeled away the paper.

The other man snorted and began opening up his own sandwich.  “Like hell it isn’t. I’ve worked under your command long enough to know you got this habit of blaming yourself for everything, sir.”

“Put a cork in it, Rollins.”

Jack opened his jaw wide and stuffed the sandwich in his mouth in response.

After a helpful boost of calories, protein, and fluids, Steve reluctantly admitted to himself that Jack was right - he had needed to eat.  He balled up the deli paper and stuffed it back into the bag, then braced his elbows on his knees and leaned forward again.

“What if they don’t come back?”

“What if the sun explodes tomorrow?” was Jack’s flat response.

“Okay, jeez.  Point taken.”

Jack sighed and studied Steve, eyebrows furrowed and lips pursed thoughtfully.  “Realistically? If I’m understanding Helena’s multiverse theory correctly, there’s going to be some version of Howard Stark somewhere in that world, likely working with whatever version of the SSR they got.  They’re not alone and you know that none of them are helpless.”

“Mickey’s still using her wheelchair off and on.”

“I know, Cap.”  When Steve gently reached out and pulled Jack’s hands apart from where he’d been nervously picking at his cuticles, Jack gave him a rueful smile.  “There’s a lot of ‘what ifs’ right now. You let yourself get bogged down worrying about them, it isn’t going to do anyone here any good.”

“You sound like Buck right now.”

“Well, I’ve been living with the guy for four months.”

Rubbing a hand over his eyes, Steve sat back heavily and drew in a deep breath.  “We got anyone picking up their stuff from the hotel room yet?”

“Wilson’s on that, last I checked.  He’s supposed to drop off the rental car on the way there.”

“And the kid - the actor - is he still here?”

“Romanoff’s talking to him about the Leviathan agent over in the food court.”

“Right.”  Steve pushed himself to his feet and took a moment to draw himself up into the posture of Captain America.  “Maybe she’s found something for me to punch.”

***

“Oy vey iz mir, I’m gonna throw up,” Barnes groaned, limply rolling to his side and sticking his face out the back of the truck.

Rolling his eyes, Rogers crossed his arms and shifted slightly to lessen the discomfort in his intestines.  “Stop being so dramatic, we all ate the same shit last night.”

“Y’damn right, shit’s what it was.”  Morita flapped a hand in front of his face and grimaced.  “But good Lord, Cap, I thought your superjuice was supposed to stop this sort’a stuff.”

Another waft of flatulence spread through the transport truck and Bucky swore vividly, rose to his feet, and started hoisting up the canvas over the truck bed.  When the Invaders started to complain, he silenced them with a flat glare and continued tying up the rolls of wet fabric.

“Your choice, lads.  You either put up with Stinky-Arse Rogers over here, or you get a tad damp.  Anyone want me to unroll the tarps?”

Relieved silence answered him when they got their first whiff of fresh air in hours.

“You doing okay?” Bucky murmured, settling in next to Mickey.  She was practically wrapped around Tripod; the dog had balled herself up in Mickey’s lap like an overgrown housecat.

“Just fuckin’ peachy.”

He chuckled and shook his head slightly.  “We’ll be there soon.”

“Hey, Doc,” Dugan called over, tipping his bowler hat to let the rain run off the brim.  “Got any stories from the Future Navy you wanna share?”

“Depends.”

The burly man snorted.  “On what?”

“Most of them are about radiation sickness, mesothelioma, and swine flu.”

Nonplussed silence followed her words, until Falsworth chuffed a quiet, baffled laugh.  “Beg pardon?”

“I was a doctor, you adorable idiots.  Unless you want to hear about all the revolting ways a sailor can get sick…”

“I’m smellin’ all the revolting ways a soldier can get sick,” drifted up from the heap of unhappy, nauseous sergeant on the floor.  “Go fuck yerself, Rogers.”

“Thought that was your job.”

“It ain’t anymore, not with what’s been comin’ outta that-”

“Anyone want to hear the story of how five sailors came into my office after we left port in Cyprus, all of them with the same strain of the clap?”

Barnes stared at Mickey, blinking owlishly.

“What?  You asked.”

***

The jovial mood evaporated quickly as they jumped out of the transport truck and into a bustling sea of tents.  Bucky’s jaw pulsed as he protectively curled a hand over Mickey’s shoulder and tightened his fingers around Tripod’s lead; too many memories were swimming just below the surface with this much Russian rippling through the air.

The hood of Bucky’s heavy, dark leather overcoat kept his face half-shadowed as Carter flagged down a Soviet corporal.  The wiry Russian soldier eyed Bucky nervously; his armor bulked out his chest and shoulders, and the wide assassin’s belt and vambraces gleamed dully in the late afternoon light.

He followed the conversation with half an ear as he watched the troops mill about; the Invaders were already off to report to their temporary commanding officer.  Tripod shifted nervously next to him and he crouched down, stroking a gloved hand over her shoulders and murmuring quietly to soothe her.

The corporal caught Bucky’s eye and quickly motioned for them to follow him, leading them toward the set of Quonset huts with medical banners hanging over the doors.

“How long do we have until deployment?” Mickey asked Carter as she tried to rub the intermittent numbness out of her pinkie.  “More importantly, how long do we have until triage starts?”

Bucky didn’t hear the answer, distracted by the organized chaos they walked into.  Nurses moved quickly between the cots, chattering at each other in a mixture of Slavic languages.  Doctors and field surgeons looked over the primitive crash carts, taking inventory and verifying supplies.

Rather than shrugging off her jacket and getting to work, though, Mickey was frowning intently at a spot on the floor, a far off look in her eyes.

“Myshka?”

She startled slightly, then pulled Bucky and Tripod off to the side.  “How many survivors did you say there were supposed to be?”

“Several thousand, why?” he answered slowly.

Mickey glanced around before leaning close.  “My range isn’t that great for individuals or small groups, but… that many pulses that close together?  I should be able to sense it.”

“What’re you saying?”

“I’m saying something’s wrong.”  Chewing her lip, Mickey looked off to the side with that all-too-familiar expression she always got when probing the world around her.  “The coordinates where the camp’s supposed to be? There’s only one pulse there, and- and I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the fuck it belongs to.”

Bucky swallowed and blinked a few times before asking under his breath, “Is it human?”

She simply looked up at him, lips twisted in concern.

“Fuck.”  Without wasting another second, Bucky led them out of the hut and grabbed the first horse he could get his hands on.  “Mount up, we need to go.”

“What about-”

“I’ll run.”  He stooped slightly and laced his fingers into a stirrup to boost Mickey up.  “Get your arse on the horse.”

“What in the bloody hell do you think you’re doing?”

They turned to see Carter striding toward them, lips pressed into a thin line.  Bucky stepped closer to her and looked her firmly in the eye.

“You know the intel I gave the SSR on what to expect going into the camp?”

“I do.”

“I was wrong.”

The horse snorted and sidestepped slightly as Mickey settled into the saddle and leaned forward to pat its neck.  Bucky handed up their rifles and helped Mickey settle them into place across her back.

“And that’s your reason for gadding about without orders or a plan?”

“With all due respect, Agent Carter, this is one of those times you need to let me take charge.  Can I ask you to keep track of Tripod for us?”

Carter took Tripod’s lead without comment and stepped out of their way.

She must have radioed ahead for them, because the guards at the temporary camp’s entrance let them pass without comment.  Bucky loped smoothly alongside the sturdy gelding, following Mickey’s lead as she turned them toward Majdanek.

They caught up with the Invaders just as the team was preparing to breach the camp.

“Thought you were staying back at base,” Rogers commented as he re-checked the straps on his shield.

“Plans changed.”  Bucky helped Mickey dismount and quickly tied off the horse’s reins to a bracket on the transport truck.  “Everything I remember is no longer applicable here, and you’re walking in blind.” He closed his eyes for a moment, one hand on the horse’s shoulder, and sighed quietly.  “As much as I dread ever setting foot in this place again, you need someone with my… capabilities.”

“You think we’re in danger.”

“I think we’re walking into a potential HYDRA laboratory.”

Mickey stepped forward as she slotted a magazine into her rifle and smoothly chambered a round.  “Permission to take point, Captain?”

“I… Doc…”

“Let her, Cap,” Barnes said, and motioned her forward.  “We’ve seen them work together in drill.”

After several seconds of hesitation, Rogers nodded and directed the rest of the team into place with a series of quick, efficient hand motions.  He made eye contact with Bucky and Mickey, then nodded again. “This is your show. Call it.”

Mickey signaled over her shoulder as she paced forward.  When she crossed the threshold of the main gate, a strange, prickling chill settled into her skin, and it wasn’t until they opened the door to the first barracks that she understood.

The thousands of survivors Bucky had rescued in their own world so many decades ago were dead in this one.

She directed an Invader to each of the barracks, clearing them all in quick order.  Not a soul was left alive, with the exception of the tortured, flickering, sickly pulse in the northern branch of the camp.

The silence was thick and oppressive, exposing every tiny noise each Invader made and amplifying Mickey’s tinnitus to nearly deafening levels.  She raised her rifle and rotated through clearing another building, shaking her head when all she found were abandoned desks and file cabinets.

Bucky stepped up next to her and subtly nodded north.  “That’s where the showers and gas chambers are. Or, at least, where they should be.  I haven’t the foggiest what’s going on right now. The buildings aren’t even in the same places.”

“There’s something over there, regardless, and that’s where we need to head.”  With a bracing breath, Mickey waited for the rest of the Invaders to fall in behind her and led the way toward the single pulse left in the camp.

The twin buildings, set apart from everything else, weren’t anywhere near what Bucky was expecting to see.  Rather than windowless warehouse-like structures, they were large, cuboid, and concrete. Mickey silently called Rogers, Barnes, Jones, and Bucky over to her and sent the men on Bravo Team to the other building.

Her stomach churned as they approached the pulse.  It wavered and danced through her grasp, twisted and corrupted in such a way that she couldn’t tell if it was human or an animal.

The door gave way to a well-placed kick from Bucky, collapsing inward and landing on the concrete floor with an echoing thud.  A few seconds later, the door from Bravo Team’s building did the same.

Mickey’s blood ran cold as she saw the dissection tables, medical equipment, and racks upon racks of notebooks and jarred, preserved specimens and samples.  A gentle touch on her elbow made her jump slightly and she turned to look up at Bucky.

“Are you okay?” he asked her quietly.  His own face was pale and beads of sweat were starting to form along his hairline.

“I… yeah.”  Trying not to breathe the formaldehyde-stained air through her nose, Mickey shook herself.  “Just a bit of a shock, seeing it in person. Even without color the pictures are pretty upsetting, but laying eyes on it properly is…”

“What, pictures are in color in the future?” Barnes drawled as he swung his rifle over his shoulder and drew his Colt.  “Next you’ll be tellin’ me there’s a man on the moon.”

“Weeeeelllll…”

Bucky’s jaw clenched.  “Focus. Call it, Micks.”

“That door.”  She pointed to the steel door at the other end of the lab.  “It’s reinforced and opens outward – no chance of jimmying the bolt from the inside.  I’d wager a guess that there’s something behind it that the- that HYDRA didn’t want getting out.”

Bucky was already at the door, running his hands over the edge and inspecting the lock.  He glanced back at the rest of them, then turned back to the door. After sizing it up for a few seconds, he reached a hand back.  “Rogers, if I may?”

He caught the shield easily, spun it once in his hands, reared back, and slammed it into the top seam of the door.  With a sudden shove upward, he levered the door outward until it sheared off its hinges, dancing out of the way as it groaned, leaned, and fell.

“Well.”  Rogers smirked slightly as he slung the shield back on his arm.  “That’s one way to do it.”

When Mickey switched on the courtesy-of-Stark flashlight mounted on her rifle, she saw a set of steps leading down into some sort of underground basement – or maybe a prison.  With caution born of experience and training, she half-crouched as she slowly descended, giving Bucky a clear shot over her shoulder if need be.

The stairs stopped on a landing after roughly thirty steps, then turned to the left.  At the base of the second set was another door, this one with a small barred window at eye level.  Mickey approached it with her rifle at the ready, sliding into place on the left side of the door while Bucky pressed himself into the corner at the right.

She inched her way over until she could see through the window, and barely suppressed the pained gasp that threatened to escape.

Bucky glanced up at her in alarm, then flicked his eyes toward the window and stepped inward to get a better look.  The color drained from his face and he took a half-step back, visibly steeled himself, and held up a fist to stop the rest of the Invaders.

“The three of you need to leave.”

“What’s in there?” Rogers asked, raising his shield slightly.

“Cap, take your men and wait for us at the lorry.  That’s not a suggestion.”

“What’s in-”

“Steve.”

The pained tone in Bucky’s voice made Rogers stop dead in his tracks.  Barnes studied Bucky carefully for a few seconds, then reached out and gently pulled Rogers back.  “Let’s go check on Bravo Team.”

Once the sound of their footsteps had faded away, Bucky and Mickey looked at each other and she reached out to grasp his arm.

“Ready?”

“No.”  Bucky closed his eyes and swallowed down the sickening dread building in his gut.  “But we don’t have a choice.” He reached out with his left hand and crushed the lock mechanism, then slowly tugged the door open.

The smell of human filth and sweat was strong enough to make his eyes water as he stared down at the emaciated creature – a man – cowering in the far corner of the small cell.

A rudimentary prosthetic arm, nothing more than an attachment cuff and a metal endoskeleton covered in exposed wires and servomotors, replaced his left arm.  Mismatched hands curled protectively around his head as he flinched away from the lights in the ceiling that hummed to life when Mickey flicked the switch just outside the door.

The man’s skin was covered in raw lesions, and gangrene had been steadily eating away at his flesh extremities for some time.  The muscle on the inside of his right arm was distended and covered in flaking, scaled rashes. Red and purple veins stood out against the clammy gray of the rest of his body, and Mickey realized with a sickening lurch that the strange greasy spots on the walls weren’t mold – they were the results of the man’s fruitless attempts to scrape away the agony of his body eating itself alive from the inside out.

Bucky was frozen like a statue just inside the door to the cell, shock and horror written across his features.  “Mother of God,” he breathed. “What have they done to you?”

A blank face swung up at the sound of Bucky’s voice, and Mickey jerked backward when she saw the crusted, sunken remnants of the man’s eyes.  His noise had been carved away down to the bone, two gaping holes in his face surrounded by inflamed, discolored tissue.

She nearly puked when she saw the scars and fused skin indicating that the man’s lips had been sewn shut in the past.

A ragged, knotted ridge covered his throat in a diagonal slash, leaving an empty void in place of his Adam’s apple.  Underneath the grime, filth, and necrosis, Mickey saw countless surgical wounds and scars covering nearly every inch of his body.  A large horseshoe-shaped cut, still raw and pink, hovered over where his appendix should have been.

He was almost unrecognizable, but the broad cheekbones and gentle cleft in his chin sent Mickey to the corner next to the door to unceremoniously dump the contents of her stomach onto the floor.

“Micks-”

“I’m fine,” she croaked.  “Just… give me a second.” Spitting out the last traces of bile with the help of water from her canteen, Mickey wiped her mouth and turned back to face the barely-alive pulse she’d sensed from miles away.

Shuffling her feet as she approached, she slowly sank to her knees just out of arm’s reach.  “Hi there.” She kept her voice soft and gentle. “Can you understand me?”

The blank face turned toward her, and after a few tense moments, he nodded.

“My name’s Mickey.  I’m here to help you.”

What was left of his features twisted into a grimace.

For lack of a better option, Mickey reached out toward his face, hesitating for a brief second before pressing her palm to his cheek.

He flinched away at first, then turned toward her hand and slowly, so slowly, leaned into it.

Mickey channeled warm, healing energy into her hand and the putrid mess of lesions slowly faded from his face.  He gasped soundlessly and tilted his head back, pressing his ruined eyes shut before turning his head further into Mickey’s hand.

“It’s the first time it hasn’t hurt,” Bucky murmured.  “The first time he can remember being touched that hasn’t hurt.”

When Mickey pulled her hand away, though, the skin boiled and darkened almost immediately.  “What the-”

“Oh, fuck.”  Bucky quickly knelt next to Mickey and awkwardly pressed his palms against his thighs.  “I- I think I know what’s happening, but I need a medical opinion to confirm it.”

She closed her eyes tightly and took a moment to pull herself together, masking her horror with the clinical detachment of a doctor.

“Localized gangrene,” she began.  “And we’re looking at systemic shock and septicemia, most likely.  He’s got several severe infections he’s not really fighting off all that well, I can feel it in his pulse.  And the- the rash here…” Pointing to the harsh scaling on his arm and chest, Mickey chewed on her lip. “I think we’re looking at desomorphine toxicity, among other things.  I’ve never seen it personally, but I’ve read about it before.”

Bucky swore quietly and looked away.  “Why isn’t he regenerating?”

“Best guess is he either got a different serum or an incomplete one.  Either that, or the krokodil interferes with it somehow; maybe it’s a special formula.”  Letting her hand drop down, Mickey looked over at Bucky. “I think even you would have trouble fighting off something this bad, especially with prolonged exposure and no treatment.”

“Can you heal him?”

Before Mickey could answer, a skeletal metal hand reached out to grasp Bucky’s wrist.

Ragged lips parted, and the tormented, mutilated remnants of another world’s Bucky Barnes wheezed something barely audible.

Bucky squeezed his eyelids shut against the tears that threatened to leak out, and shook his head.  “I- I can’t... You know who I am?”

The man’s head bobbed slightly in something approximating a nod.  Metal fingers tightened around a metal wrist.

“…Mickey.”  With a wet sniff, Bucky looked up at her.  “I- I need you to…”

With a nod, Mickey stood and swung her rifle back into her hands.  “I’ll wait at the outside door,” she said softly before turning and leaving the cell.

She was nearly out of the lab when she felt the krokodil-ravaged pulse briefly surge, then fade away.

When Bucky finally emerged, his eyes were swollen and red-rimmed, and he gave Mickey a quick glance before tugging the deep hood of his coat over his head.  He fell into step a pace behind her as they made their way out of the camp, and when they finally reunited with the rest of the Invaders, he ignored any questions directed toward him.

Rogers turned to Mickey and held out his hands in a what the hell? gesture when Bucky simply brushed past him, untied the horse, and walked away from them with its reins in his hand.  “What happened in there?”

Mickey gave Rogers an apologetic frown, then shook her head and reached up toward Morita’s hand as she climbed into the bed of the truck.

“Doc?”

“I…”  Once she’d settled into her spot on the hard wooden bench, Mickey pulled off the bandana covering her hair and scraped her nails over her scalp.  The armor paneling under her uniform was beginning to pinch and weigh her down in ways she hadn’t expected. “I’m not really sure. Just… give Ghost some time.  He’s pretty shaken.” After a moment’s hesitation, she quietly added, “We both are.”

“Clearly,” Barnes commented, crossing his arms and leaning back as the truck’s engine roared to life.  “I’ve never seen anyone that verschimmelt before. What the hell was in there?”

“It’s not my…”  When Rogers sighed expressively, Mickey shook her head.  “It really isn’t. I have my suspicions, but I need to talk this through with Ghost before we take any action.”

“So this is something we might need to take action on.”  The shield clanked softly as Rogers shifted position.

“I don’t know, Cap.  I really don’t know right now.”

***

It wasn’t until the team reported for debrief with Phillips and Carter that they saw Bucky again.  He slipped into the room almost unseen and silently lowered himself into the empty chair next to Mickey.  Tripod immediately dropped her chin onto his lap and he stared blankly at the surface of the table as he idly worked his fingers through her fur.

Small wooden markers moved their way around the map as they adjusted their intel and plans based on what they’d found in the extermination camp.  Rogers kept throwing not-so-subtle glances Bucky’s way as he quickly laid out new strategies for the infantry to attack the research facilities they’d identified.

Carter called on Mickey for her medical opinion on the state of the corpses they’d found in the barracks, and somehow, she managed to get through it with clinical, impersonal detachment.  The face of the man they’d found in the basement cell was burned into her mind and the hollow emptiness of his sunken features haunted her.

Finally, the conversation lulled, and for the first time, Bucky stirred.  He raised his eyes to Phillips and took a breath, then softly asked, “Is this room secure?”

Phillips dismissed the Command staff with a few quick orders, then motioned to Bucky.  “Floor’s all yours, soldier.”

“I think it’s time you have more of the story.”  Bucky leaned forward on the table, arms crossed, and fixed his gaze on the marker over Moscow.  He dropped the English accent and spoke normally, albeit with a rough and ragged voice. “What I found in the lab – I know why I’m here, now.”

“You specifically, or the three of you?” Rogers asked.

Closing his eyes, Bucky shook his head.  “They’re just collateral damage. They’re not supposed to be here, just me.  I was – I am the target.”  He dragged the bandana off his head and buried his fingers in his hair.  “I… Technically, I never lived to see the end of the war, in my world. I got separated from the team – don’t look at me like that, Steve, it’s not your damn fault – and HYDRA captured me again.  You know that much already.

“Zola gave me the first few injections of serum while I was a prisoner in Kreischberg, just like Barnes.  They continued that work, perfecting it until they’d finally pumped me full of enough bastardized superjuice that I ended up stronger and faster than Steve, and I can heal anything short of a traumatic amputation.  Basically, I, um, I can’t die. Keep coming back. Lethal wounds sort of, um… aren’t.”

After another pause, Bucky looked over at Mickey and waited for her to nod before continuing.  “When you first found us, I told you I’d been through seventy years of hell. The serum stopped me from aging at the normal rate; biologically, I’m only in my early-to-mid-thirties.”

Rogers’s knuckles went white as he gripped the table hard enough to make the wood groan in protest, and Bucky gave him a sad smile.

“If you got the same serum that my Steve did, you’re in the same boat.  I’m sorry.”

When the captain raised a shaking hand to rake through his hair, Barnes captured it on its way back to the table and wrapped it in a strong grip.

“Anyway.”  Bucky rubbed at his forehead; his head was starting to ache.  “HYDRA spent seventy years zapping my brain with enough electrical current to kill anyone else, vivisected me enough times that I fucking lost count, used me as a practice dummy for their surgeons, and routinely removed various internal organs to see how quickly they’d grow back.”

“That’s- that’s not- why the hell would they…”  Rogers looked sick as he stared at Bucky.  “They pumped electricity through your brain.”

“It’s the only way they could keep me under control,” Bucky gritted out, his hands curling into fists.  “They kept targeting the bits for memory and emotion, burned them to a crisp again every time they’d start to heal.”

Mickey’s hand wrapped around his and she gave it a gentle squeeze.  “They turned him into the perfect weapon, the perfect killing machine.  He was a blank slate, utterly loyal for lack of any better options, and through training and enhancement, they made him into the most lethal assassin in human history.”

“Pointed me at a target and got the hell outta my way until I reported back.  I never failed. Not until-” He choked on the words, scrunched up his face, and swallowed down the lump in his throat.  “Not until they sent me to kill our Steve. Mission failed – and he broke my- my programming.   I got free.  I’m- I’m free, now, and I spent several months chasing HYDRA out of their ratholes and wiping them off the map.  Call it revenge, if you want.”

Dernier swore softly in French and shook his head.

“They wanted me,” Rogers said flatly.  “They settled for you, but they wanted me.”

Bucky couldn’t deny it.  He nodded reluctantly and put his other hand on top of Mickey’s.  “I spent seventy years as a ghost story, as the boogeyman of the world’s intelligence agencies.  They called me the Winter Soldier. Most of them didn’t think I existed, or if I did, that it was more than one man, that the Winter Soldier was a title passed down through the years.  I’ve got a- it’s a pretty impossible rap sheet, if I’m honest.”

Phillips still stood at the head of the table, arms crossed and eyebrows knitted together as he peered at Bucky.  He didn’t move or speak.

“And… what Mickey and I found in the lab, that’s- it’s directly related to that.  We’ve already pretty thoroughly proven the existence of the multiverse-”

Barnes snorted inelegantly and rolled his eyes.

“-and it’s probably safe to assume that there’s an inherent amount of bleeding through that happens between universes without any help.  It’s also safe to assume that if there’s bleed-through, there’s stories of me and possibly other Winter Soldiers filtering into alternate realities.”

Leaning forward onto the table, Morita scrubbed at his eyes.  “You’re saying that people in other- other worlds know that you exist.”

Bucky considered his words carefully for a moment.  “Why bother capturing, breaking, training, and maintaining your own Winter Soldier when you can steal one from another world that’s pre-cooked?”

“Bloody hell,” Carter whispered, then raised her voice to normal levels before continuing.  “It makes sense, I suppose. The resource requirement to train even a loyal soldier to your level would be astronomically high.”

“The basement was a cell.”  When her voice cracked, Mickey cleared her throat.  “They had a man in there. He’s- he was another- another Bucky.  Or… what was left of him, anyway.”

“‘Was.’  What happened to him?”  Falsworth was carefully studying the map, not looking up at anyone else in the room.

“He’s dead.  I killed him.”

The Invaders stared at Bucky in shock, stunned into silence.

“You what?” Barnes demanded.  “We could have brought him back, fixed him, given him-”

“He was too far gone, son.  You- you weren’t there.”

“That’s murder!”

“That’s mercy!” Bucky snarled back, baring his teeth at his younger counterpart.  “He knew it and I knew it. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned after a lifetime spent as a motherfuckin’ puppet to the men we all swore to end, it’s that sometimes, all you can do is pull the trigger and give ‘em the mercy of quick death.  You don’t got any goddamn right to think you know better.  When you’ve lived as long as I have and done the things I done…”

He trailed off and closed his eyes, swallowed thickly, then abruptly stood and strode out of the room.

“Well, that went well,” Phillips drawled.  After a moment, he looked down at the map and studied it intently before turning away.  “You have your orders. Go get some rest. Dismissed.”

***

The mood was somber as the Invaders made their way through the tent city to their quarters.  A small fire was already crackling inside the ring of stones in the center of their campsite, carefully built and arranged.

Mickey instinctively reached out for Bucky’s pulse, and it took her a moment to find the barely-there silhouette over fifty feet above her, nestled into the sturdy limbs of one of the conifers.  Satisfied that he was still safe, she ducked into their tent and dragged out her sewing kit to mend a tear in her jacket as best she could by firelight. She sat with a quiet groan and crossed her legs, settling in as comfortably as she could while Tripod sprawled out at her side.

Barnes moved through the camp quietly, checking in with each of the men and murmuring gentle words of encouragement as they went through the motions of finishing up their day.  After a few minutes he ducked into the officer’s pavilion that he and Rogers shared, emerging wrapped in his thick wool coat and in the process of tugging knitted gloves into place.

As he wagged his fingers around to shift the gloves into a more comfortable position, Mickey noticed the leather pads covering strategic spots on his palms and fingers.  She didn’t comment, but watched him curiously as he left the circle of firelight. Barely visible outside the campsite, Barnes raised his hands to rest them against the trunk of the tree Bucky was perched in, then quickly hauled himself up and began to climb.

Bucky considered launching himself into another tree and disappearing for the night, but a bone-deep fatigue rooted him to the spot until Barnes carefully levered himself onto the neighboring branch.  The young sergeant gave him a hard look before digging into his coat pocket and tugging out a small box.

“Here.  Figured you might need a smoke.”  He passed the box and a lighter over, gripping the branch with one hand to stay balanced.

Snorting quietly, Bucky tapped a cigarette into his hand and then gripped it with his lips.  “I was half joking when I said Marlboros tasted better, kid,” he mumbled around the cigarette as he cupped his hands around the tiny flame of the lighter.  Once a glowing ember greeted him, he passed the lighter back.

“Can we at least agree that Camels taste like the devil’s bunghole?”

Bucky coughed slightly and chuckled despite himself.  “Won’t get any argument from me on that one, though Dum Dum might take offense to that.”

“You’re joking, right?  Since when has Timothy Dugan been an example of good taste?  He wouldn’t know quality if it slapped him in the face.”

“Not unless it’s a dame, no.”

“I- wow.”  Barnes closed his eyes, eyebrows high on his forehead as he smiled and shook his head.  “Good one.”

“You’re not here to tease Dugan behind his back, though.”

The younger man’s face fell into shadow as he dropped his hands to his knees, cigarette clasped between two fingers.  He frowned off into the night and sighed quietly. “I’m here to sit vigil with you, if you’ll have me.”

“There’s little for you to-”

“He was one of us.”  Barnes took a long drag off the cigarette and tilted his head back before exhaling through his nose.  “I mean, yeah, the situation’s fercockt in so many ways, and the last thing we need is another Bucky Barnes roamin’ around, but…”

“If there’s me an’ him, there might be more.”

“And they might not be friendlies.”

“You really know how to cheer a guy up, slugger.”  Closing his eyes, Bucky leaned his head back against the trunk of the tree.  The face of the man in the cell – his face, twisted and maimed – he couldn’t shake it out of his head.

“Seriously, pal, you gonna be okay?”

“No.”

“I- uh- okay, then, points for honesty, I guess…”

“Ain’t no such thing as ‘okay’ anymore, and you know it.”

Barnes was silent for a minute before he replied with a quiet, “S’pose I do.”  After another long pause, he sighed explosively. “Your Steve still blames himself for what happened to you, doesn’t he?”

“His name is Steven Grant Rogers, isn’t it?”

“Fair point.  The day he stops takin’ the weight of the world on his shoulders-”

“Or falling on his sword.”

“-is the day that the world stops spinning.”

“God forbid,” Bucky said with a laugh.

“A bi gezunt.”  The sergeant shrugged and shifted around to rest against the trunk next to Bucky.  When all he got was a blank stare, he laughed quietly. “You were raised Catholic, weren’t you?”

“Yeah.”  He flicked the ash off his cigarette and looked over at the younger man.  “Ma converted because it was easier to hide that way. Changed her name, too.  I dunno about how things were over here, but a Romani Jewess didn’t have much of a place in Flatbush during the Depression.”

“Flatbush, huh?  At least it wasn’t Red Hook.  Thank you, redlining.”

“Amen to that.  Nearly a century later, and the scars are still there.  Damn shame, it is.”

The conversation lulled and Bucky stubbed out his cigarette on the branch between his knees before tucking the butt into his pocket.  He peered through the interwoven branches of the trees, tracing the patterns of the stars idly as he listened to the crickets chirping far below them.

“Doc’s worried about you,” Barnes told him quietly, breaking the semi-silence.  “She won’t say it to any of us, but she is. And she’s pretty shook up, too.”

“I know.  I asked her to leave before I… so she wouldn’t have to see it.”

“She’s been in combat, pal.”

“Yeah, but she’s done.  She did her time, did her service and got out.  She shouldn’t have to be here again, and she’s only here because’a me.”

“Mickey’s right where she wants to be.  You two kind of had a big fight about that.”

Bucky rolled his eyes and sighed.  “Thanks for reminding me.”

“Look… I know it’s not my place, but…”

He rolled his head to the side and raised an eyebrow, and Barnes scratched the back of his neck awkwardly.

“That dame?  She’s one in a million.  You oughta hold on tight to her.  I’m serious, I can see why you’re with her because I’d want to be if it weren’t for Steve.  Don’t let ‘er slip outta your hands, you hear me?”

“I’m not exactly planning on it.”

Barnes chuckled quietly and craned his neck back to stare up at the stars.  “Y’know, if your olds were anything like mine, it’s a right shame she never got to meet ‘em.  Ma would like her.”

“You think so?”

“Ma likes anyone that can keep me in line.  Says Steve lets me get away with too much as it is.”

“He does, you know.”

The shameless smirk Barnes shot him made him laugh despite himself.  “You and your Steve, you’re still friends?”

“Yeah.  He’s actually our roommate.”

“Well, it’s nice to see some things are the same.”

“Eh, more or less.  He and I both changed over the years.”

“Yeah…”  Barnes studied him intently, eyebrows furrowed and lips pressed into a thin line.  “I’m glad you found her. Mickey, I mean. She’s good for you.”

“I would hope I’m good for her as well.”

“You gonna marry her for real?”

Bucky’s fingernails suddenly became very interesting.  He picked at them for a bit before quietly admitting, “If she’ll have me.”

“Whaddyou mean, ‘if?’”

He shrugged and pulled out one of his throwing knives to carve the ever-present gunk out from under his nails.  “Does she really want to pledge her life to someone that’ll look half her age when she’s pushing ninety? And kids are… not really an option.”

“Not in our line of work, anyway.”

Sure, let’s go with that.  Bucky didn’t feel like telling his younger self about the fact that he’d been shooting blanks since the 50s.

Swinging his leg back over the branch, Barnes turned to look back at Bucky.  “I think she’d surprise you. Looks to me like she’s right where she wants to be.”

“Stuck with a torture victim who’s sick in the head?”

Brown eyebrows quirked up as Barnes lowered himself down to the next branch.  “Committed to a man who survived everything the world threw at him and came up swinging.  If she didn’t want to be here, or with you, well…” He shrugged. “She’s had plenty of opportunities to disappear into the ANC, if she wanted to.”

It took Bucky several more minutes before he followed Barnes down to the ground.  When he finally stepped back into the warm glow of the campfire, Rogers was leaning forward on his knees and rubbing at his eyes while Barnes stood behind him and kneaded his shoulders.  The rest of the men had already turned in for the night, and without a word, Barnes nodded meaningfully toward the tent that Bucky and Mickey shared.

“Are we setting a watch tonight?” he asked as he walked by, sliding easily back into his English accent.

“No need, the Russkies have a sentry rotation.”  Rogers shook his head and dragged his fingers over his face.  “Get some rest, Ghost.”

Looking up at Barnes, Bucky nodded slightly.  “Make sure he does as well?”

The younger man nodded and moved slightly to the side to work at the soft muscle to either side of Rogers’s neck.

Mickey had already settled in for the night, bundled up under the blankets spread out over their side-by-side cots.  She blinked sleepily up at Bucky as he ducked into the tent and retied the closures on the flap, and the huge lump of brindle fur next to her did the same a moment later.  “You done thinking and ready to come to bed?”

“Not really, but staying in a tree all night isn’t exactly a viable alternative.”

Pushing herself up on her elbows, she yawned expansively and blinked a few more times.  “Are you okay?”

Bucky scoffed and tugged his arms out of the sleeves of his coat, then sat to pull off his boots.  “You really wanna know?”

“Sweetheart…”

“I don’t even know how I’m functional right now.  I don’t even know how you’re not freaking out, come to think of it.  Every… every scar he had, ever mark on his body…”  His hands shook as he started undoing the buttons of his shirt, and Mickey quickly crawled over to help him.  Leaning his forehead against her shoulder, Bucky took a deep breath. “I should have them, too. I would, if I wasn’t such a fuckin’ freak o’ nature.  Everything they did to him, they did to me. The surgeries, the back-alley drugs, the mutilation, everything. That’s what I would’a looked like, if I didn’t heal like I do.”

Mickey’s fingers traced the faint line on the right side of his stomach from when he’d had his appendix removed – several times.  “You still have some of the marks.”

“Sometimes I feel like one of those stupid red and white drawing things – with the little white knobs.  You shake ‘em and the picture goes away, and… there’s nothing left of it, even if the container’s still the same.  I feel like there’s nothing left of me anymore.  That- that man we saw, in the camp… that’s what happened when they took every last piece of Bucky Barnes out of him.  There wasn’t anything left.”

“Yeah, there was.”

Bucky looked up at her, then closed his eyes as she put her hands on either side of his jaw.

“If there wasn’t anything left of him in there, he wouldn’t have reached out to you.”

He squeezed his eyelids tighter and shook his head gently.  “I asked him- I told him I couldn’t die. Asked him if he could.”  Mickey didn’t say anything, patiently waiting as she stroked her thumbs over his cheekbones.  “H- he told me how.”

“I’m gonna ask again, love.”  After a gentle kiss on his forehead, Mickey pulled him into a tight hug.  “Are you okay?”

Bucky curled his hands around Mickey’s shoulders from behind and buried his face against her neck.  When he tried to take another breath in, it shuddered and jolted in his lungs, knocking something loose that had been held in place by shock and stubbornness until then.  A single sob escaped him, followed by another, and soon Mickey was quietly murmuring to him as she stroked his hair, tucking loose strands behind his ears. Tripod whined and crawled over to them, worming her way in under one of Bucky’s arms.

“What if we never get home?” Bucky choked out.  “What if- what if we’re stuck here, and this is all we have?  I- I just- we’ll never see your brother again, or Steve, or- or- we’ll never get back to New York before Kevin-”

“James Buchanan Barnes, it is my job as your friend and your lover to tell you to shut the fuck up right now.”  Despite her words, Mickey’s tone was gentle. She took in a deep breath and shifted slightly to take some of the strain off her knees.  “We have to have faith that we’ll figure it out.”

Bucky sniffed and clumsily wiggled a hand between them to wipe at his nose.  “Never been much of one for faith.”

Turning to press a kiss just above his ear, Mickey sighed.  “I know, sweetheart. But right now, the only things we can let ourselves worry about are the things we have power over.”

“I think I used up all my spoons today.”

“I think you did,” Mickey agreed with a quiet laugh.  She pulled away as he reached into his pocket for his handkerchief.

“Jesus fuggin’ Christ,” Bucky muttered after he finished blowing his nose.  “Good thing tomorrow’s a day off.” He rubbed his hands vigorously over his face and grimaced slightly.  “God, my face hurts.  Why does my face hurt?”

“Your face hurts.”  Mickey stared at him, nonplussed.

“If I’m honest, everything does right now.  Skin’s all itchy and hot feeling and I keep having twitches and tremors.  If I didn’t know better, I’d say I caught some superbug from Krokodil Dundee.”

Mickey sucked her lips in and shook her head.  “He might have had some weird infections in the gangrenous tissue, but those wouldn’t transmit without contact against an open wound.”

Sniffing wetly, Bucky finished changing and laid himself out next to Mickey, automatically holding up an arm for Tripod to snuggle under.  “I got some weird spots in my mouth that might be cold sores, too. Thought I just bit my cheek in my sleep, but they haven’t gone away.”

She scrunched up her face and scratched absently at the ridged scar on her scalp.  “I’m almost tempted to say you’re having a reaction to the anticonvulsants. Let’s talk about this more in the morning when I’m more awake.”

“Not sure how much sleeping I’m gonna be doin’.”  Bucky knuckled at his eyes and groaned quietly. “Chances are I’ll just wake up screaming again.”

“Pretty sure you won’t be the only one.”

He gave Mickey a pained smile as he slid under the blankets.  “How on earth are you so…”

“Give me about a week and I’mma have the mother of all delayed reactions.”  Yawning, she snuggled in against his side and rested her head on his shoulder.  “I’m still kind of in combat mode right now.”

As he brushed his thumb gently over Mickey’s arm, Bucky stared up at the dull grayish-green canvas of their tent and tried to ignore the heavy, dry grittiness that seeped into his eyes every time he blinked.

His hand twitched involuntarily as he remembered the ice-cold touch of his counterpart’s metal fingers.  The wheezy, roughened voice echoed through his memory as his mind replayed the moment over and over again.

Dry, cracked, torn lips had parted and shaped one word.

Please…

Chapter Text

The mobile lab was a flurry of activity as Jane, Helena, and Tony all scurried around.  It was impressive, really, the speed with which their Research team had deployed; apparently the Iron Legion and FRIDAY were at least partially responsible for the logistics.

Steve paused at the edge of the food court and leaned against one of the large columns as he watched Natasha talk with the young actor.  He had to agree with Jack – this Sebastian really did look the spitting image of Bucky back when rent, pencils, asthma, and pot roasts were their biggest concerns.

After his interview with Sebastian, though, he had more questions than answers.  They had the device, they knew where it was aimed, and they knew who aimed it, but no one had any idea why.   Steve rubbed his hands over his face and sighed heavily; he was so damn tired of everyone just scratching their heads and giving him non-answers.

Not for the first time, he wished there was some tangible evil that he could run towards, shield on his arm and fists at the ready.  They might have run up against the occult, the magical, and the just fucking weird during the war, but at least Schmidt had been touchable.  Punchable. Oh, so punchable.

Steve itched to hit something, to run until his lungs ached, to lock himself in a sim room and hurl himself at glowing orange virtual enemies until he collapsed.  Bucky was gone, again, and this time Mickey and Tripod were caught in the crossfire.

At least there hadn’t been any civilian deaths.

They’d confirmed what Steve suspected after analyzing the air left behind - exchanged for his friends.  Cordite, pollen from trees and plants native to a specific region in Germany, smoke from artillery that hadn’t seen combat in nearly eighty years.

Footsteps pulled him back to the present moment, the squeak of sneakers on tile that told him Sam was approaching on his left.

“Rental car’s taken care of, got all their stuff packed up and loaded onto the jet.”  Sam propped up the column opposite Steve and mirrored his posture, crossing his arms and his ankles.  “Sebastian had Mickey’s phone with him, but we can’t find Bucky’s anywhere and Tony can’t access it remotely.  Probably safe to assume he still has it.”

“Won’t do him much good without the network, though.”

“No,” Sam admitted.  “But they both had their comms, as far as we can tell.  Downside is, even with fresh batteries, they’ll get maybe a month of use out of them before they die.  Phone, maybe a few days on airplane mode.”

Battery.

Power.

Steve blinked and pushed off the wall.  “Tony said the device still had a residual charge, right?”

“...yeah?”

“Come on.”  He took off toward the mobile lab at a jog.  “I’ve got an idea.”

***

The pre-dawn light cast muddy, indistinct shadows on the gently peaked roof of the Invaders’ barracks, and the smoke curling up from his cigarette was almost invisible.  With one leg bent at the knee and the side his boot braced against the narrow, flat ridge that ran the length of the roof, Bucky tipped his head back and pursed his lips, exhaling a thin stream of smoke into the air above him.  His notebook sat open in his lap, a Biro pen charmed off an RAF pilot resting in the crease between pages.

Both pages, much like the five pairs previous, were covered in shadowed, heavily lined sketches of a face that wouldn’t leave Bucky’s head.  The skeletal lines of the naked prosthetic hand of his tortured, ravaged twin covered nearly half of the page to the left. Sunken eyes, a nose that looked far too much like the Red Skull’s for Bucky’s liking, and torn, scarred lips leered at him from every angle as he tried desperately to give form to the figure haunting his thoughts.

Bucky picked up the pen and swept it through smooth arcs, laying down the structure for an upward tilted three-quarter view.  The line of the jaw was next, once he had the basic circle-and-cross of the head defined, and the sketch quickly took shape. His hand faltered when he’d finished enough of the basic forms to move on to the details, though, and he took a moment to flick the ash off the end of his cigarette before drawing in a deep breath and chewing on his lip.

Slowly, hesitantly, Bucky began filling in the shape of what the man should have looked like.

Even though he and Bucky shared the same bones, his twin was thinner, edging on gaunt.  His eyes were closed, his face turned up in calm acceptance, the beginnings of a smile curling up at the corners of his lips.  His hair was ragged and limp, clumping into thick wavy ropes as it curled around the hollow of his neck.

Bucky finished the drawing by carefully adding shadows all around him until his face glowed, the white of the paper lending an almost ethereal quality to the unshaded skin.

Please, he wrote under the drawing, then after a moment’s hesitation, drew a line under the single world.

A strange chill wiggled up his spine and he turned to squint at the sun as it crested the unusually clear horizon.

With a quiet scuff and a muted grunt, a hand appeared over the edge of the roof.  Rogers hauled himself up a moment later, then awkwardly crawled his way over toward Bucky.  “Thought I’d find you up here,” he said as he straddled the roof and settled into place.

“Am I truly so predictable?”  Bucky turned to the next page in the sketchbook and paused, pen hovering over the blank paper.  The hidden warning in his speech, filtered as it was by the English accent, thankfully wasn’t lost on Rogers.

“I’m a little surprised you’d silhouette yourself like this, but… yes.”  Rogers laughed self-consciously and scratched at the back of his neck. “Seems like you sharpshooters always love being up high.”

“It’s a rather good vantage point,” Bucky pointed out, shrugging one shoulder.  “And I daresay the middle of one of the Allied Forces’ most secure bases is quite safe from enemy marksmen.”  And there isn’t much anyone can hit me with that would leave more than a bruise, he added in his head.

Rogers nodded, looking away.  “Listen, I-” He pulled a hand through his hair, sweeping his bangs away from his forehead.  “What happened at the camp. I’ve been meaning to thank you.”

Bucky’s eyebrows shot up.  “Thank me?  Whatever for?”

“It can’t have been easy.  I… don’t know if I could have done it, in your place.”

“You could have done,” Bucky told him quietly, closing his notebook and clipping the pen to the cover.  “And… no. It wasn’t easy.”

Nodding again, Rogers swallowed, then shielded his eyes as day finally broke.  “Tell me about him. The other one, the one you found there. You said he spoke to you.”

“It was… strange,” Bucky admitted.  He stubbed out the remnants of his cigarette on the roof, tucked the butt into his pocket, and pulled out a fresh pack.  Offering Rogers one, he dug out his lighter and flicked the flame to life before holding it out. “Do you remember Gollum, from The Hobbit?”

“Yeah?”  Cheeks hollowing, Rogers took a drag and then exhaled twin streams of smoke through his nose.  “He didn’t challenge you to a game of riddles, did he?”

Bucky couldn’t help but chuckle and shake his head.  “No, but he did speak rather oddly. Always in the third person.  ‘He wants to know if he can die,’ he told me. ‘He wants to know if he can die, and you hold the key.’”

“Huh.  That is odd.”

“The more I think about it, the more puzzled I am.  I’ve a feeling there’s larger forces at play.”

Rogers snorted.  “What, like HYDRA?”

“Possibly.”  Closing his eyes, Bucky let the golden light of the sunrise dance over his face.  “Call it a-”

He felt more than heard the dull thump that shook the barracks under him.  Without a second thought, he shoved the notebook into the inside pocket of his overcoat and dove off the roof.  Rogers landed behind him a moment later, and together they ran around the building to the front.

Inside, the Invaders stood in a loose ring around the perimeter of the main room in various states of dress.  Every one of them had a gun drawn and leveled at something that Bucky couldn’t immediately see, and Tripod hunched warily at Mickey’s side as they stood in the hallway behind Barnes.

Making his way carefully into the barracks, Bucky finally got a look at the… box.

An unassuming corrugated cardboard box sat in the center of what looked like a small blast mark, barely ten feet in diameter.

With a sigh, Bucky crossed his arms and leaned against the nearby table.  “If it’s a bomb, lads, threatening it with a gun won’t do you any good.”

“Stand down,” Rogers said a moment later, closing his eyes and rubbing at his forehead.  “Someone read me in on what just happened.”

Morita let out a disgruntled noise; his cheek still had the imprint of his pillow traced across it.  He lowered his pistol and reflexively made to holster it, realizing belatedly that he was only in his underwear.  “Thing just…” Waving a hand vaguely at the box, he crouched and slid his gun into the holster lying on the floor where he’d dropped it.  “Appeared.”

“Looks kinda like how we found you three,” Barnes said thoughtfully.  “Just… smaller.” He pursed his lips and frowned at the box for a few seconds.  “Like it took less energy to put that thing here than it did for two people an’ a dog.”

Dugan rubbed at his face and sighed.  “You make way too much sense for havin’ been snoring less’n a minute ago.”  With a bleary-eyed glare directed at the box, Dugan sat down heavily on his cot, then flopped over onto his side.  “Wake me up when we got somethin’ to shoot.”

Mickey carefully shuffled forward, taking her time with every step.  She passed off her gun to Barnes, then made her way over to the bench closest to the box and sat down.  From the way her legs were positioned, her body still hadn’t completely woken up, yet.

“It’s got the Avengers logo on the tape,” she told Bucky, then dug the grit out of the corner of one eye.  Tripod padded over to her a moment later, and Mickey reflexively lifted her free hand to rest it on Tripod’s head.  “I didn’t know we had branded tape.”

“Would you put it past Tony?”  Bucky crouched next to the box, one knee resting on the cold floor of the barracks.  He flicked a knife out from the sheath up his sleeve and twirled it over his fingers before leaning forward to run his fingertips over the edge of the box.  “‘Attention: Heavy/Medic and Guard Dog.’ Huh. Didn’t take him for a Team Fortress 2 guy.”

Mickey snorted, then chuckled.  “That’d be Jack. He and Brock used to love that game before all the fucking hats showed up.”

“I’m gonna pretend that’s English,” Rogers muttered as he walked past them and headed for his quarters.  “Come get me if it’s anything mission-critical.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Bucky scooped up the box and set it on the table, then efficiently slit the tape sealing it shut and stowed his knife.  He glanced at Mickey and waited for her nod before peeling away the flaps.

The contents were hidden under a dense, almost buttery-feeling black tissue paper, and the single white card placed in the center caught Bucky’s eye.  He picked it up, raised his eyebrows at the unexpected weight of it, then had to stifle a strange lurch when he saw the sensor chip on the reverse side.  Turning it back over, he quickly read over the words printed on the front.

NFC with both prostheses.  This box will explode if you remove the black paper without confirming identity.

Swallowing, Bucky swiped the card over the plate covering the data port on his left arm, concealing the motion in a nervous scratch at the bicep.  He then sat down and ran a hand over Tripod’s head, then shoulders, and felt the card subtly buzz when it disarmed the explosive. He glanced at the face and allowed himself a small sigh of relief when a tiny green light winked up at him.

Bucky passed the card to Mickey by way of explanation, then, with an entirely reasonable degree of caution, reached for the black tissue paper.  “It’s like Christmas, five months early,” he muttered as he scooted his hands under the edges of the paper. When he saw the contents of the box, though, his jaw dropped.

Inside were Mickey’s phone and two wall chargers modified to be compatible with the outlets in the barracks, as well as the high-output solar charger that had been sitting on Bucky’s desk at home.  A bulk pack of fifty tiny batteries was rubber-banded to a small clear plastic box containing a dozen in-ear comms lined up on a thin gray foam sheet. The large plastic ziplock bag next to the electronics rattled as Bucky picked it up; it was stuffed full of every prescription bottle from their medicine cabinet at home.

Someone - probably Steve - had added a few bags of Tripod’s favorite treats, as well as the sleek black case holding Mickey’s reading glasses.  The familiar smooth black covers and multicolored tabs of Bucky’s symptom journals greeted him next, and he let out a breath he hadn’t realized he was holding.

With numb, stunned motions, Bucky lifted each item out and set it on the table in front of Mickey.  Under all the loose items was a bulky envelope large enough for letter size paper folded in half, the flap stuck down at just the point.  He passed the envelope to Mickey without a second thought, then picked up the heavy soft-cover booklet on the bottom of the box.

RIPPING HOLES IN THE FABRIC OF SPACETIME FOR DUMMIES

THAT’S YOU

YOU’RE THE DUMMIES

Underneath the title that Bucky couldn’t help but hear in Tony’s voice in his head was a drawing of Dum-E wearing a dunce cap.  Steve’s hand was instantly recognizable in the delicate hatching that shaded in the drawing.

“Whuzzat?” Mickey mumbled around the hand pressing into her cheek and propping her head up.  She’d worked the envelope open but hadn’t pulled out the paper inside yet.

“It’s…”  The words caught in his throat, and Bucky swallowed hard enough that he felt it click.  “It’s a user manual. Tony and… they sent us a user manual for the device. Seventy years of intel that this world hasn’t had the chance to gather.”

He slid his fingers under the cover and opened the manual.  In neat, looping cursive, Helena’s writing covered the corner of the first page.

I’m sorry this is all we can do.  The Warehouse is helping as much as they can.  Give this manual to that world’s Howard Stark. He should be able to help you.  -Helena

Quick notes of encouragement and care from the rest of their team filled up the rest of the page.  Bucky shifted the manual to one hand and wrapped his free arm around Mickey, pulling her into his side.  “Myshka, babydoll, look at this.”

Jesus fuck I hope this gamble paid off and the box didn’t end up exploded somewhere in Alaska.  You two come home. Just. Come home. -Jack

Mickey pressed her hands to her face and drew in a decidedly unsteady breath.  She squeezed her eyes shut, braced herself, then reached for her phone. It powered on a few seconds after she pressed the button on the side, and a knot of tension between Bucky’s shoulders slipped free when they were finally greeted with a picture of the three of them at Disneyland, the numbers of a now-inaccurate clock pasted over Mickey’s Mickey Mouse hat.

“Oh my god,” Mickey choked out, then turned and buried her face in Bucky’s chest.  Well, his armpit, really. He shifted around until he was hugging her tightly to him, the fingers of one hand carding through her hair.

A bubbling, off-balance sensation, a bit like standing up and realizing he was more tipsy than he thought, slowly filled Bucky.  He pulled back enough to catch Mickey’s eye, then gave her a smile that he hoped wasn’t too watery. “You know what this means, right?”

She blinked at him, eyes red and starting to get puffy, then turned her head to rest it against his collarbone and looked at the manual on the table.  “I… I really hope…”

“We can go home,” Bucky whispered, because he didn’t trust his voice not to crack.  “Mickey, this means we can go home.”

***

“I can’t send you home,” Howard said, not unkindly.  He flipped through a few more pages of the manual, then rubbed at the back of his neck.  “I mean, I can. This section here is about the two-part coordinate system, so I can figure out where and when to aim the device.  But…”

Bucky clenched his teeth so he wouldn’t say something stupid in front of Phillips and Carter.  He heard Barnes murmur something to Rogers from where they sat behind him, and Mickey dragged a hand over her face with a quiet groan.

“This here.  They say the device is powered by the… Tesseract.  Schmidt’s glowing blue cube of destiny. I’ve got schematics here that I can probably find a way to fabricate, looks like all the components exist, it’ll just take me time.”

“How long?”  Phillips scowled at the manual.

“Depends on sourcing.  Could be months, could be a year.  This here, this just got invented a few months ago and there’s only three prototypes in the world.  Even I can’t get my hands on one of those, and that’s with an inventor that doesn’t hate my guts.  I’d have to reverse engineer it.  We might be better served winning the war and capturing the Tesseract.”

“So you need the Tesseract?” Bucky asked, thankful that he managed to keep his voice level.

Nodding, Howard flipped through a few more pages.  “Easiest way to do it, yeah.”

“Well, then.”  Bucky could practically feel Rogers square his shoulders.  “Let’s go get that Tesseract.”

Peggy sighed and rubbed at her forehead.  “Steve, we’ve no idea where the blue blazes Schmidt is, let alone the Tesseract.  You can’t just go marching into enemy territory without-”

“Hate to interrupt you, Pegs, but I might be able to help with that.”  Howard frowned thoughtfully at the manual, then without warning slid off his stool and launched himself deeper into the lab.  “Where the hell did it go…”

Puzzled, Bucky leaned forward and spun the manual around until he could read it, then raised his eyebrows.  “Well, I’ll be damned.” At the top of the page was a color photo of a piece of radio equipment with the old Stark Industries logo, all horizontal lines and looping text etched into the wood casing.  A detailed list of instructions below it told him how to retrofit the sensor to pick up the energy signature emitted by the portal devices.

“Now, I should be able to go back and check all our transmission logs,” Howard said distractedly as he emerged from the shelves of equipment.  The object in his hands was identical to the one in the picture, albeit much less worn, and he turned it over to look at the underside. “Once I know what I’m looking for, I can probably isolate any anomalies our radio operators notated.  Might even be able to triangulate a location if enough stations picked ‘em up.”

“They keep track of stuff like that?” Mickey asked, peering over Bucky’s shoulder and scanning the list of directions.

“We’ve intercepted critical intelligence by doing just that.”  Peggy tapped her fingers on the steel workbench and tilted her head.  “And this device…?”

“This’ll serve as our Bat Signal.”  Shrugging, Howard set the thing down and ran a hand through his unkempt hair.  “Well, sort of. Actually, no. Not really. Other way around. Sort of. But this’ll tell us if there’s any more portals within its range.”

Crossing his arms and leaning back, Phillips harrumphed.  “Useful.”

Howard side-eyed Phillips.  “Yeah, actually, given that I can boost the range to cover the whole European continent.”

The colonel waved a hand to concede the point.  “How long until you have any actionable intel?”

“Give me five hours to work up an algorithm to identify the anomalies, then I’ll pass it to Bletchley and see if they can track anything down in the logs.”

“They owe me a few favors as it is,” Peggy added with a small smile.  “Howard, I’ll be in my office. Send someone for me when you’re ready and I’ll make the trip myself.”  With that, she politely excused herself.

Barnes shifted uncomfortably and leaned forward to catch Bucky’s eye.  “There might be more of… of us.  And they might not all be friendlies.”  Reminded of their conversation just days before in the trees above their field camp outside Lublin, Bucky nodded.

“In that case,” Phillips said gruffly, “Frye, Missus Frye, I want these anomalies tracked down.  Friendlies, bring ‘em in. Hostiles, you know what to do. Let Supply know if you need rations for the dog in the field.”

Looking down at the table, Bucky gave the colonel a slight nod.  “Yes, sir.”

“Stark, you need anything?”

Already engrossed in modifying the device in front of him, Stark glanced up at the colonel before shaking his head.  “Nope, I’m good. Gimme an hour to get this repurposed, and I’ll do my best to have the datasheets to you ASAP.”

***

If there was one thing that Bucky missed, it was supersoldier-proof punching bags.

That, and modern hand wraps and gloves that didn’t make him feel like the circus performer he was pretending to be.

He knew the other men in the gym side-eyed him for hitting the bag without anything more than basic knuckle wraps, but he was long past giving a shit what they thought about him.  A month stranded here, and he and Mickey still drew whispers and stares that the men of the 107th apparently thought were subtle. Bucky closed his eyes, ignored the way the back of his neck prickled, and whipped his arm through a powerful rib-height punch into the bag.

Tripod lay calmly against the wall to his left, ears swiveling to catch every sound around her and tongue poking out as she panted.  Her ear had twitched over every time Bucky’s fists connected with the heavy bag, but by now she was used to the sound and didn’t give it any more attention.

He spent a few minutes testing the strength of the bag under his fists, carefully watching every shudder that went through it.  When it seemed to hold up well enough, Bucky added in a few knee and elbow strikes, pulling the blows so he wasn’t hitting with much more force than a reasonably strong standard-issue human.

It didn’t take long for him to lose himself in the soothing rhythm of it, burning off the frustration, anxiety, and restlessness of the past few days’ ‘hurry up and wait.’  To his surprise, it also didn’t take long for him to work up a sweat. He wasn’t short of breath, far from it, but he could definitely feel the comforting burn of clean exertion starting to pull its way through his muscles.

A few more knee strikes, step to the side and one-two at the ribs and sternum, step back, rotate, and into a powerful reverse hook kick.  Bucky used the impact of his boot against the bag to rotate the rest of his body through the motion, following up with a second kick with his other foot that would topple anyone who survived the first.

He touched down lightly and was winding up for another punch when something snagged his elbow.

Whirling around, Bucky barely managed to pull and redirect the full-force swing of his left arm in time for his fist to fly harmlessly over Hodge’s head.

“Don’t do that,” Bucky growled, stepping away and resting his hand flat against the gently swinging punching bag.  “I could have killed you.”

Taking half a pace back, Hodge raised his hands placatingly.  “Sorry, big guy.” He eyed Bucky cautiously, and it was only when he relaxed that the rest of the men in the gym returned to what they’d been doing.

Huh.  Bucky hadn’t noticed that the men were staring.  He closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose, then let out a quiet sigh.  “Is there something you need, Private?”

Hodge looked at him for several seconds, chewing his lip, then finally stepped closer.  Quiet enough to avoid being overheard, he said, “You’re drawin’ eyes, champ. The other men are startin’ to think somethin’s up.  Either pull yourself together and get it under control, or stop hiding behind a cover identity. Y’can’t do both.”

A chill crept its way up Bucky’s spine.  “I beg your pardon?”

“We both know what I’m talkin’ about, Sarge.”  Hodge gave him a warning look when Bucky opened his mouth to deny it.  “I know who you are, and I know what you are.  Be more careful, or I ain’t gonna be the only one that does.”

Without waiting for a response, Hodge turned and left.

I know who you are.

Bucky leaned into the bag, his throat and mouth suddenly dry.  He swallowed thickly and turned away to avoid drawing attention to his panic.  He rubbed at his face with his fingertips and stepped away from the bag; planting his back against the wall next to Tripod, he sank to the floor and rested his elbows on his knees.

I know what you are.

“Oh, fuck me,” Bucky muttered, pressing his hands against his face.  He dragged his fingers over the bandana keeping his hair under control.

Something bumped into his leg and he looked down to see Tripod gently holding his canteen in her teeth.  “Always taking care of me,” he murmured and ran his hand over her head. Taking the canteen, he uncapped it and choked down a few mouthfuls of lukewarm water.

Bucky closed his eyes and let his head rest against the wall behind him; he counted off beats in his head while he ran through a simple breathing exercise.  However, even after several minutes of steady, deep breathing, the rapid flutter of his pulse refused to die down.

Tripod whuffled quietly at him, let out a concerned boof, and nosed at his hand.  Wary of speaking German with so many ears around, Bucky settled for scritching his fingers behind her ears and under her jaw.

She got to her feet, circled around him, and shoved her head up against his chest.  “What is it, girl?” Bucky murmured, cupping her head in his hands. “<Alert?>”

When she reached up and hooked a paw over his wrist, Bucky closed his eyes and let out another heavy sigh.  It was only a matter of time, he supposed. Gathering up his things, he ignored the mild tremor in his right hand as he slung his bag over his shoulder and made for the door.

He’d deal with Hodge and his warning or threat or whatever the hell it was later.

Focused as he was on getting to Mickey and their quarters, he didn’t notice the tall soldier with broad shoulders and wavy, dark hair split off from a small group of men and slip away toward the back door of the gym.  The man turned at the last minute, one hand on the door frame, and watched Bucky as he pushed through the main doors. Steel gray eyes narrowed thoughtfully, blinked, and slid away as the man disappeared into the harsh sunlight outside.

***

As soon as he entered the barracks, he caught Mickey’s eye where she was sitting at the table playing cards with Morita, Barnes, and Dugan.  “Seizure warning,” Bucky told her, beelining for their quarters.

“‘Scuse me, boys.”  Mickey followed him in and shut the door behind her.  She dropped to one knee and immediately slipped Tripod a few treats.  “<Good girl, such a good girl. Thank you.> How long since she alerted?”

“Five, six minutes.  I left the gym as soon as she did, came straight here.”  Sitting on the bed, Bucky quickly undid the boxing wraps on his hands, tossing them on the desk to clean and roll later.  His boots were next, and Mickey set them next to the door before nudging him down onto the bed.

She shuffled through the neat row of bottles in the desk drawer, then pulled one out and shook two pills into her hand.  “Sit up for a moment, pill time.” Grabbing Bucky’s canteen from his bag, Mickey handed it to him along with the pills. “Symptoms?”

Bucky lay back and started to work through the sequential muscle relaxation exercises that sometimes helped.  “Tremor in my right hand, minor sensitivity to light. No smells or sounds, yet.”

“Sounds like you have some time to relax before it sets in, then.”  Mickey smiled at him and perched on the edge of the mattress, then reached out to brush Bucky’s hair away from his face.  “Want me to read to you while we wait?”

“Sure.”  Turning his head to press against the hand Mickey had against his cheek, Bucky kissed her palm.  “Thanks.”

Mickey leaned over to give him a gentle kiss, then reached into his pocket and pulled out his phone.  She pulled herself further onto the bed, settled in place with her back against the wall, and nudged Bucky around until his head was in her lap.  Tripod jumped up a moment later, settling in against Bucky’s side with her head pillowed on his shoulder.

“Ranger’s Apprentice?” she asked, idly running a thumb back and forth over his collarbone.

“Yeah, I finished the one with the Viking on it before we left New York.  Next one should be downloaded already.”

Tapping her way through his Kindle library, Mickey opened up the book and swiped through to the first page.  She caught Bucky’s eye and gave him a quick smile, then started reading.

***

The barracks was quiet as Barnes made his way back inside; Dernier snored softly as he enthusiastically ran blanket drill, and Falsworth vaguely waved a hand in greeting without looking up from his book.  Barnes stepped into his quarters and set the Russian rifle in the rack next to the rest of their guns, dropping the bag of ammo onto the small shelf above the gun rack. With a groan, he rubbed at his firing shoulder and slowly rotated his arm around to work out the tension.

He tugged his shirt over his head and shoved it into his laundry bag, toed his way out of his boots, and grabbed a clean set of fatigues from his foot locker.  The towel hanging by the door was dry enough to be usable, and he slung it over his shoulder as he stepped back into the hallway.

Doc leaned over the small writing desk in her quarters, tiny colorful squares poking out from between the pages of a large notebook.  The one he’d bought for her at the exchange was open above the larger notebook. She looked up and smiled pleasantly at him when she heard him stop.

“Where’s Ghost?” Barnes asked, tilting his head to glance inside the small room.  “He doin’ better after his episode?”

Nodding, Doc picked up a small orange bottle and shook it, the pills inside rattling sharply.  “Got his meds in time to keep it pretty tame, thankfully.”

He didn’t try to hide the relief that loosened his shoulders.  “That’s good to hear. I’m glad.” Tossing Doc a casual salute, he turned and headed for the showers.

Just before he rounded the corner, a sharp shattering sound and a muffled “Motherfucker,” drifted out.  Curious, Barnes stepped into the large tiled room to see Frye with his hands pressed to his face and the contents of a now-broken bottle of shampoo leaking down the drain between his feet.

Frye sighed heavily and dragged his hands down his face, stretching out his features for a brief second.  He looked down at the fragments of glass, glared at them, then crouched and began picking them up as carefully as he could with his left hand.  The pieces he couldn’t pick up, he swept toward the drain and rinsed them away.

“There’s a reason we use plastic for stuff like this in the future,” he grumbled by way of greeting.  “You drop it and it rattles around in the tub and makes a loud noise and scares the bejeezus outta you, but at least it won’t shatter all over the place.”

Barnes snorted and set his clean clothes down on the bench along the dry way.  “Need to use some of mine?”

“That’d be great, thanks.”

He stripped quickly and grabbed a bottle from the shelf at eye level, twisting the cap off as he walked over to Frye.  “Here, hold out your hand.”

The old soldier gave him a grateful smile, then held up the ragged bottom half of the bottle he’d dropped, filled with glass shards.  “Could you…”

“Yeah, sure.”  Barnes took both bottles back to the shelf and exchanged them for his soap.  Leaving an empty spot between himself and Frye, Barnes reached up and opened the spigot over his head.  “Good to see you back on your feet.”

Frye hummed and nodded, the motion awkward with his fingers buried in his hair.  “It’ll take a few more hours for me to be back to a hundred per- oh fer fuck’s sake.”

He turned away before Barnes got a good look at him, and all he caught was an indistinct sliver of silver peeking out from Frye’s left shoulder.  Barnes blinked and squinted, but as soon as he did, Frye’s arm was back to normal, slightly pink from the warmth of the water.

“Did you… was your arm…”

Frye pulled in a deep, ragged breath and scrubbed at his eyes with two perfectly normal squishy human hands.  “The light’s playin’ tricks on you, slugger.”

“There aren’t any windows in here,” Barnes told him flatly.  “I saw something that looked like metal.”

After a long stretch of staring a hole in the wooden slats lining the floor, Frye finally raised his hands to swipe the last of the lather out of his hair.  “That’s a secret I’m not ready to tell you, yet.” His dog tags clinked against his chest as he raised an arm to shut off his shower spigot.

Barnes busied himself with his soap while Frye dried off and got dressed.  The other man paused at the door to the showers with a hand on the door frame, then turned to look over his shoulder.

“About Private Hodge…”

“Mm?  What about him?”  Barnes did his best to stifle a grimace at the texture of the too-smooth Army-issue soap and the nauseating wafts of lavender that made his sinuses itch.

“He’s… smarter than he looks.”

Giving Frye a sharp look, Barnes walked over to the dry wall and set his soap in the dish marked with his name.  “He’s a damn bully, but he ain’t stupid.” He shrugged as he did his best to make sure every trace of that godawful soap had rinsed off his skin.  “There’s a reason Pegs relies on him to sniff out moles. What’d he say to you?”

There was a brief pause, then, “I haven’t been doing as good a job of hiding as I thought I was, apparently.  He gave me a warning.” With that, Frye left.

Barnes frowned at the floor, chewed on his lip, then pressed his hands against his face.  “Oy ge valt.”

***

Once they had a useful scatter plot of coordinates, it hadn’t taken long to convince Phillips to authorize a reconnaissance flight over the cluster deep in German territory.

Bucky studied the glossy prints in his hands, looking between the two dots with red circles drawn around them.  The timestamp on each print placed them just a few minutes after the solar noon for that part of Germany. “We’re lucky we caught a shadow at all.  How do we know this isn’t an animal of some sort?”

“The pilot reported sunlight glinting off of a metal surface,” Carter answered, distracted as she added pins to the large map on the table.  She traced a finger down the long list of coordinates as she marked each anomaly with a tiny red pin.

Morita leaned over to look at the photographs in Bucky’s hand.  “Signal mirror?”

“It’s a possibility.”

Shifting uncomfortably in her seat, Mickey gave Bucky a meaningful look.  “So, what’s our actionable intel?”

“Twelve confirmed anomalies within a square mile, three of them large enough to be multiple bodies,” Rogers murmured, leaning forward to peer at the cluster of pins.  “Only one possible person sighted, though. If it is a human, I want to know where he’s going at night, what he’s eating…”

Bucky handed the photos off to Morita and leaned forward to grab a few more.  Something didn’t look quite right with the hills; the shadows fell in a way that he’d expect if the hill was twice as tall.

He blinked, turned the photo upside down, then blinked again.  “Huh.” Turning to Mickey, he tapped his finger over the hill that caught his eye.  “Tell me if that looks like something to you.”

Squinting for a few seconds before remembering she had her glasses tucked into her breast pocket, Mickey turned the picture a few more times.  “There’s something camouflaged there. Looks like modern netting.”

“Times like these, lidar would be damn useful,” Bucky muttered.  “I hate going in blind like this. If it is modern camo, chances are we’ve got bigger problems than just that.”

Rogers quickly cleared a spot on a nearby table, grabbed the photos, and started shuffling them around like a jigsaw puzzle.  Once he had everything positioned, he took the pins Peggy preemptively held out to him and secured each print in place. “Ghost, Doc, what’re we looking at?”

“Hard to say for sure,” Mickey answered as she stood up.  She stifled a wince, then waved Bucky away when he held out a hand to steady her.  Crossing over to the table, Mickey leaned heavily on it with one hand and wiggled the fingers of the other at Bucky.

He handed over the Biro pen and stepped up next to her, resting a hand at the small of her back.  “There’s one on that image, at the very least.”

Mickey circled the camouflaged building they’d spotted, then moved then pen back and forth for a few seconds before circling a few more oddly shadowed lumps.  Slowly, a pattern started to emerge and they found themselves looking at a neat square of buildings surrounding a large clearing.

“I dunno about you boys,” Mickey said as she capped Bucky’s pen and handed it back to him, “but that looks like a military compound to me.”

Falsworth pulled at his mustache as he peered at the pictures.  “How on earth…”

“Damn near invisible,” Dugan added, disgruntled.  “That ain’t fair.”

Nodding slowly, Rogers set his jaw.  “That’s too well hidden to be a civilian installation.  Doc, you mentioned some sort of netting?”

“Yeah, generally large enough to cover a building and covered in scraps like Ghost’s field uniform.  Makes it blend into the ground, from the air.”

“Let me take this to Colonel Phillips.  The rest of you, I think it’s safe to say we’ll be on the continent soon.  You know what to do. I’ll pass on marching orders as soon as I receive them.”

Chapter Text

“If you scowl harder, you might actually make the rain stop.”

Steve looked over his reflection’s shoulder as Sharon stepped into the large indoor balcony.  His hands tightened on the cold steel railing, and he looked back out at the storm-drenched Compound.  “Evening.”

Scoffing, Sharon walked up next to him and leaned back against the glass with her arms crossed.  “That’s all I get? ‘Evening.’ Did we have a bad breakup that I don’t know about?”

“No.  God, sorry.”  Steve let go of the railing – pointedly ignoring the dents he left behind – and scrubbed his hands over his face.  “Sorry, yeah, that was awful. How’re you doing? It’s good to see you.”

A soft, fond smile spread across her face and she looked down at her feet.  “I’m good. Training’s going well. I’m looking at a pretty decent leadership role soon, they’re talking about transferring me to the Joint Terrorism Task Force.”

“Hey, that’s awesome!”  Steve didn’t have to hide his enthusiasm, and he felt the heavy weight on his shoulders ease slightly.  “I’m proud of you. You’ve earned this.”

“I have friends in high places pulling the right strings,” she admonished him.  “But I have worked hard, and it feels like it’s paying off, now.”  Pausing, Sharon started picking at her nails. “So, um. Any word on…”

“Not yet.”  Steve leaned on the railing again, fitting his hands back into the divots and dents easily.  “Nothing’s been sent back from the other universe that we know of, and there’s been no answer from the Asgardians.  I mean, would it kill Heimdall to have a voicemail or something?”

“I’m pretty sure Einstein-Whatsit Bridges don’t work that way, honey.”

“Still.”

Gentle hands rubbed at his shoulders as Sharon stepped behind him and tried to ease out some of the tension.  “I meant it when I said you let yourself carry way too much of a burden.”

“It’s my-”

“Steve.”

“It is!  I’m Captain-”

“Steve.”

He sighed and let his forehead thump into the ice-cold glass.  “I know.”

“We’ll figure it out.”

“I know.”  Steve closed his eyes.  “We’ve done pretty much everything we can, here.  It’s up to them now.”

Grabbing his arm, Sharon tugged him away from the window.  “Bucky and Mickey are both very capable field agents.  They’re smart and resourceful.  They’ll be okay, especially if the box got through.  Come on.”

She had to pull a few times before Steve ended up next to her.  Tucking her hand around his elbow, Sharon looked up at him. “So.”

“Yes, dear?”

Her eyes twinkled.  “You promised me a nice, candlelit dinner next time I found myself stateside.  I already checked with Henry and he’s okay with it.”

“That’s good.”  Steve smiled and bit his lip, then glanced up at her.  “He sounds like a swell guy. I’m glad you found him. But you know, if he doesn’t treat you right…”

“Trust me, he knows.”

“Good.”

They stopped by Steve’s quarters to grab coats – he was sure Mickey wouldn’t mind Sharon borrowing something – and were heading out to the garage when Sharon hummed thoughtfully.

“Oh, boy.”

She swatted his arm and laughed.  “You have no idea what I was going to say.”

“That hum, there.  That’s never a good sign.”

“Fine.”  Sharon rolled her eyes fondly when Steve insisted on holding her door for her as they settled into a relatively understated Mercedes.  “So. Agent Rollins.”

“Jack?  What about him?” Steve asked distractedly as he stared blankly at the dashboard.   Where’s the damn ignition?  Is it a slot? A button? What the hell…

“When am I giving him the shovel talk?”

He froze and looked over at her, key fob halfway inserted into the tiny slot next to the steering wheel.  “What?”

Arching an eyebrow, Sharon tilted her head slightly.  “You’re living with him.”

“I’m also living with Bucky, but that doesn’t mean-”

“Steve, are you seriously telling me that you and Jack aren’t…”

He blinked a few times.  “…no?” Shaking his head, he sighed.  “He might be into men, but I don’t think he’s interested in me.  Pretty sure I’m not his type.”

“His type?”  Sharon huffed out a laugh.  “Fair point, I guess. Four years bumping elbows with STRIKE Alpha and I never saw him with anyone, even outside work.”

“Well, he was… kind of married, I guess.”

“Kind of?”

Shrugging, Steve started the car.  “Kept it on the down-low. He was gonna propose, but Insight Aught-One kind of squished his partner.”

“…oh.”

“Yeah.”  He twisted around in the seat and carefully backed them out of the parking spot.  “Keeps the rings on a chain around his neck. I’m not sure he’s ready to move on yet.”

There was a lull in the conversation as Steve pulled out of the garage and onto the service road, then Sharon shifted in her seat and glanced over at him.

“I’m sorry.”

Reaching over, Steve grasped one of her hands in his and gave it a gentle squeeze.  “You want to see me happy. Don’t apologize for that.”

***

Long after he’d brought the two of them back to the Compound and walked Sharon to her guest quarters, Steve sat staring blankly at the drawing he’d just finished.  His tea - surprisingly good for just grabbing the first bag that came to hand - sat forgotten on the coffee table.

“Hey, Cap.”  Steve jumped as the apartment door closed behind Jack with a quiet thud and flipped his sketchbook shut.  When the pages snapped together loudly, Jack glanced up from where he was unlacing his boots, but didn’t comment.  Boots, coat, gloves, scarf, all in their designated spots. He took a moment to straighten everything before shoving his feet into the hot pink fuzzy slippers Bucky had given him as a gag gift for Christmas.

As he walked down the short entryway hall, the former STRIKE agent automatically reached up to brush his fingers over the well-worn framed picture of his family before his parents had died.  “Heard Carter’s visiting.”

“Yeah, we went to try out that new bistro in town.”  Steve swallowed and looked down at the sketchbook in his white-knuckled hands.

“Any good?”

“Better than rations.”

Snorting, Jack opened the fridge and started rooting around for ingredients.  “And you walked there uphill, both ways, and in the snow, you old curmudgeon. Anything’s better than rations, even day-old KFC.”

Steve couldn’t help but laugh.  He extracted his pinkie from where he’d trapped it between two pages and set the sketchbook down next to his tea.  “It was actually pretty good, just… screaming babies.” He winced slightly. “That particularly shrill, high-pitched stuff that makes people with normal hearing cringe.”

The bottle of supersoldier-strength motrin rattled as Jack shook it enticingly.

“I’m good, but thanks.”

As Jack busied himself throwing together a simple dinner, Steve caught himself tracing the long, lean contours of Jack’s arms and back with his eyes.  It was purely artistic interest, a visual preference for good proportions and… purely artistic. The human form fascinated and captivated him. That’s what it was.

But when Jack turned and caught him staring and smirked before turning back to the chicken he was pan-searing, Steve wasn’t so sure anymore.

“Your eyes stuck or something, Rogers?”

“I, uh.”  He laughed awkwardly, higher pitched than usual.  The drawing in his sketchbook taunted him through the layers of paper hiding it.  “Sorry. Been a while since I’ve…”

“I’ll finish that sentence for you if you aren’t careful.”

“Oh, fuck you.”  Within half a second, Steve’s face flushed deep red, and Jack picked that moment to turn around and lean against the counter.

“You okay, Steve?”

Collarbones.

Oh, God, why the collarbones.

“Yeah.”  Steve did his best to nonchalantly pick up his cold tea and swirl it around in a vain attempt to mix the dregs back in.

“Steve…”

He sighed and closed his eyes.  “Just ran facefirst into something I don’t wanna deal with.”

A plate thunked onto the coffee table and Jack sat down in the armchair opposite him.  “That generally doesn’t end well, especially with you. Want to talk about it?”

“Not really.”

Jack shrugged.  “Suit yourself.”  He stuffed a forkful of vegetables into his mouth and then pointed his fork at the sketchbook.  “Still processing the memories of the trip to LA?”

“Something like that.”  The pencil rattled his fingers as Steve rolled the hexagonal stick back and forth.  “I think I need to go sit in on some classes at the community college in town, get some life drawing in, work this outta my system.”

“Work what out of your system?”

In for a penny, in for a pound.  Steve gave the other man a humorless smile.  “Drawing my teammates like they’re modeling for me.”

Jack blinked at him a few times.  “…what, did you draw Natasha like one of your French girls?”

“Not… really.”

“You’re being uncharacteristically cagey.  It can’t be that bad, can it?”

“Define ‘bad.’”

“Embarrassing or potentially useful as blackmail,” Jack responded around a mouthful of chicken.

“Then yes, it can be that bad.”

Frowning thoughtfully as he chewed, Jack studied the unassuming black cover of Steve’s sketchbook.  “Can I see?”

“I’d… rather not.”  Steve sighed, then scooted forward on the couch to stand up.  “I should…”

“Steve.  Sit your ass back down.”

He did.

“What the hell did you draw that’s so god-awful?  You make it sound like you opened a random orgy fanfic and drew them a splash cover.”

Steve groaned and dropped his face into his hands.  “Why did I ever go on Tumblr.  Oh God my eyes.”

“Steve, this is your art.  I’ve seen drawings of gas chambers, battlefields, chorus girls, aliens… what could you possibly add to it that’s…”  Trailing off mid-sentence as Steve flipped open the sketchbook, Jack sat back in his chair and studied the drawing long enough for Steve’s face to finish turning red.  “Well.”

“Yeah.”

“That’s, um.”

“Yeah.”

“Detailed.”

“Yeah.”  Steve twirled his pencil between his fingers, eyes fixed on the floor between his feet.  “Kind of just happened.”

“I didn’t know artists could go on autopilot.”  After a few more seconds, Jack leaned forward again and speared another chunk of chicken.

“You’re not mad?”

He gestured toward the two-page spread and shrugged.  “Well, yeah, you did kind of draw me sprawled naked in bed.  I’m a little weirded out that you even know what my dick looks like, personally, but… it’s pretty clear it’s not supposed to be porn.”

“The showers.”

“Sorry, what?”

Steve smiled tightly at his hands.  “The showers, with the STRIKE team. Eidetic memory and all that.”

“Right.”  Reaching out, Jack spun the sketchbook around so he could see the drawing right-side up.  “Well, it’s a good drawing, I’ll give you that.” As his eyebrows drew together, his chewing slowed and eventually stopped.  Shoving everything in his mouth into one cheek, Jack set down his fork and tapped the nightstand in the drawing. “Why’m I in your room?”

“And now we get to the crux of the problem,” Steve muttered, tilting his head back to glare at the ceiling.

“Steve, are you…”

“Apparently.”

“Appare… you don’t… how can you not…”  Jack swallowed, dragged his hands over his face, and laughed awkwardly.  “Fuckin’ hell, you’re dense sometimes.”

“I’ve had a lot on my mind in the past three weeks, okay?”

Mollified, Jack nodded.  “Yeah, fair enough.” He ran a hand through his hair, finally long enough to style the way he had before the Uprising.  “For the record, no, I’m not mad about it, so stop looking like a damned kicked puppy.”

“Blame Sharon, she’s the one that Inceptioned this into my subconscious.”

“And Cap just made a pop culture reference.  The world’s officially ending.” Jack grinned at him and gently closed the sketchbook, then slid it back toward Steve.  “What’d you tell her when she busybodied at you?”

“You’re being surprisingly calm about this.”

“I had a building dropped on my face, I spent roughly a year in an underwater prison that doesn’t exist, my mostly-asexual baby sister’s banging the ghost story to end all ghost stories on the regular, and my roommate is Captain America.  There’s not a hell of a lot that’ll faze me nowadays, bud.”

Steve laughed and held up his hands in surrender.  “I told her that you’re still working through the loss of a long-term partner and I didn’t want to make it harder for you.”

“Well… you’re right about the first.”  Jack gave Steve a sad smile, then looked back down at his mostly-empty plate.  “This Crossbones bullshit doesn’t help with that, either. But…” Pausing, he turned to peer out the dark window, lips twisted ruefully.  “I had a thing for you for the longest time when I was growing up, actually. Brock teased me about it mercilessly when he found out. Didn’t help when you ended up leading missions with STRIKE Alpha, either.”

“This is so many levels of awkward.”

“Doesn’t have to be.”  He looked back over at Steve and leaned forward, elbows braced on his knees.  “Mulligan’s runs a special on Friday nights on their local brews. Let’s go grab a beer or two and see what’s what.”

After a few seconds of charged silence, Steve’s lips twitched up into a shy smile and he nodded.  “I take it I’m driving, then.”

“Rogers, I had a poster of you in my bedroom since I was ten years old, and it’d be a bold-faced lie to say I didn’t whack off to it at least once.  We aren’t going anywhere near this conversation until I’m halfway through a pint.”

***

Steve had to admit that the quiet din filling the pub did wonders to drown out his anxiety and intrusive what-ifs.  He set down two large pint glasses filled with rich, thick beer so dark it was almost black and slid a glass over to Jack as he sat down.

“Cheers.”  The foam head on Steve’s beer wobbled as their glasses clinked.

He licked his lips appreciatively after a long sip and set his beer down.  “Ooh, that’s a good one. Too bad they don’t do growlers of the nitros, Sam would love this.”

“We’ll kidnap him next time he’s in town.  Guys’ night out.” Jack took another sip of his beer and leaned back, hooking an arm over the corner of the small booth they sat in.  “So.”

“Oh, boy.”

His eyes softened and one corner of his mouth rose up in a slight smirk.  “Relax. I already said I wasn’t mad.”

“Yeah, just-”  Steve forced himself to put down the napkin he hadn’t realized he was shredding.  “Brain gremlins. And I’ve only ever had two meaningful things-that-could-be-called-relationships.  I don’t have a lot of experience with this… whatever this is.”

Blinking a few times, Jack worked his way through a bit more of the beer before setting it down and idly tapping his fingers on the table next to it.  “Well, um.” He cleared his throat and glanced up at Steve. “First things first, if anything goes anywhere, we’re going to have a massive conflict of interest to deal with.”

Steve slumped forward onto the table and dropped his forehead onto his arms.  “Paperwork. I hate paperwork.  Is there any part of my life that isn’t governed by fucking paperwork.”

“I… meant more the whole ex-HYDRA thing, actually.”

His head tilted to the side and one blue eye peeked out to stare up at Jack.  “You didn’t have a choice.”

“But I did.”  It was Jack’s turn to fiddle with the edges of the cheap brown paper napkin in front of him.  “It wasn’t much of one, really. ‘Here, we’ll pay you enough to retire your student debt, afford all of your sister’s transitional care, rent that condo with your gay not-quite-husband who totally isn’t your superior officer, all for the reasonable price of your soul and moral compass.’  Alternative was, I left the room in a body bag and Mickey would meet her own untimely end within hours.”

“You didn’t have a choice, Jack.”

“Legally, yeah, I did.  Ross wasn’t breaking the law when he detained and…”  The words caught in his throat and Jack looked away, sucking in his lips as his eyes unfocused.

Steve reached out and wrapped a hand around Jack’s, brushing his thumb over the other man’s knuckles.  “Way I see it, you did what you had to do to keep your family safe.”

Jack shook his head, half to disagree and half to shake off whatever he’d been seeing.  “Yeah, but at what cost? Judge an’ jury won’t see it your way. I can’t plead not guilty by way of brainwashing.”

“They wanna get to you, they gotta go through me, first.  You’re on our team, so you’re under our protection.”

Jack smiled wetly and curled his thumb over Steve’s.  “Means a lot, you saying that.”

“Welcome to the ‘I make stupidly huge sacrifices for the people I love’ club.”  Before pulling his hand away, Steve gave Jack’s a gentle squeeze. “Why you did it is a hell of a lot more important than what you did.”

“Steve-”

“I worked black ops right next to STRIKE Alpha, and what we did back in the war was worse in a lot of ways.  I got no room to judge you based on your combat record.”

“You’re Captain America, you got any idea what the news is gonna say if they find out you’re dating…”

“So, this is dating?”  Steve gave him a sly smile and leaned forward on his elbows.  “Buy me dinner first, hotshot.”

“Fuck off, Rogers.  You drew me, you’re buyin’.  Consider it my modeling fee.”

The two of them laughed quietly, then Steve looked up through his eyelashes.  “I’m guessin’ you’d wanna keep things quiet for a while.”

“Never been much of one for sharing my private life with the public.”  Jack nodded vaguely toward the rest of the pub. “Nice thing about this place is no one looks at you twice as long as you aren’t makin’ a scene.  It’s about as anonymous as you’re going to get without a hidden lapel pin and a secret phrase about your cousin Francis.”

“If there’s one thing I didn’t miss, it’s Prohibition.”

“Amen to that.”  Raising his beer in salute, Jack took a long drink from it before setting it down, lined up neatly with the condensation ring that had already formed.

“So, this poster of yours…”

“Oh, Lord, can we pretend I didn’t say that?” Jack groaned as he buried his face in one hand.  “I can’t imagine how awkward that is for you.”

“I may have only had two actual relationships, but I lost count of the number of times I’d take someone home to find out they only wanted me for my body.”  Steve fixed Jack with a defiant look, undercurrents of anxiety and inadequacy making his skin crawl. The first girl who’d taken interest in him after the serum hadn’t wanted anything more than a quick fuck in a broom closet.

He’d never even learned her name.

Swallowing thickly, Jack studied his beer for several long seconds.  “I’m not like that. You know I’m not.”

“Not saying you were.”  The tension left Steve’s shoulders abruptly and he slumped back against the padded booth seat, all his energy suddenly gone.  “Sorry.” His hand nearly dwarfed the pint glass as he trailed his fingers through the condensation.

“I already got to know Captain America the soldier.”  Jack caught Steve’s eye and smiled. “I’m still in the process of getting to know Steve Rogers the artist.  But I gotta say, I like him so far.”

“Steve Rogers the artist, huh?  Haven’t been that guy in… fuck. Seventy-five years or so.”

“I haven’t been Johnny Rollins the hockey goalie in twenty-five, so there’s that.”

“Johnny?”

Jack shrugged.  “There were four Jonathans on the hockey team when we moved to Detroit, so everyone just started calling me Jack.”

“Wasn’t in your personnel file,” Steve mumbled, his cheeks heating up slightly in embarrassment.

“There’s a lot about me that never made it into my personnel file.”  Brown eyebrows arched up as Jack looked at Steve over his beer. He licked away the residue from his upper lip and set the glass down.  “And I also didn’t make much of an effort to put myself out there,” he admitted quietly a moment later.

“Still, I’m a shitty commander.  I never went to get drinks with you guys any of the times you offered.”

“You do know no one was actually expecting you to, right?  It was more of a courtesy than anything else.”

“Somehow, that doesn’t make me feel better.”  Steve rolled his eyes and sighed. “I really am sorry, though.  I should’ve gotten to know you guys as people, not just soldiers.”

Laughing quietly, Jack gave Steve a lopsided smile.  “Some of us, there wasn’t much there beside the soldier.”

“Tell me more about yourself.  You an’ Mickey, where you grew up.  Where’d you move to Detroit from?”

“Wales.  We both have dual citizenship.”

Steve blinked at Jack, surprised.  “Really?”

“You thought I was a Yankee?” Jack shot back, his voice rolling into an oddly endearing, lilting twang.

“I- what- what the fuck-”  Dissolving into quiet giggles, Steve braced one hand against the table and pressed the other against his eyes.  “What the fuck.”

“Not being funny, I can’t believe you never noticed my accent.  It’s not like I ever managed to get rid of it completely.” Jack eyeballed his near-empty pint and thankfully took pity on Steve, sliding back into his usual accent.

“Mum and Dad had the thickest brogues you’ve ever heard – Mum was Irish and Dad was Welsh.  We moved over here shortly after Mickey was born, I think I was nine or ten years old. She was just learning how to walk.  Got teased so fucking much in school for my accent.  Well, I mean, the other kids either loved or hated it, how I talked funny an’ all that, especially because I’d lapse back into it full force when I was talking to my parents even after I learned how to pass for American.

“Micks never picked up either of their accents, though.  She used to imitate all of us for shits an’ giggles, but you could always tell she’s a Motor City girl through and through.  There were a few years when she was in middle school where she - and she was this scrawny little white kid at the time, mind you - she’d come home from school and Mum would bemoan the ‘urban’ drawl she’d picked up from the other kids.  But Mickey just wanted to fit in, you know?

“Dad died about… six?  Seven years after we immigrated here?  God, I should know this.” He laughed and shook his head.  “Right around the time I met Brock, actually. Mickey barely remembers Dad, only really knows him from the pictures we have of him.  Mum married Greg three years after that, and for the first few years things weren’t all that bad. Then Mum got sick, and I stopped playing hockey and sold all my gear so we could afford her chemo.  Greg started to… I don’t know what, man, he just changed.  Mum fought the cancer for about three and a half, maybe four years.”

“And that’s when…”  Steve couldn’t bring himself to say it.   That’s when your stepfather attacked you and you killed him in self-defense.

“Yeah.”  Tilting his head back, Jack squinted up at the ceiling.  “That was, uh… he was the first.”

“The first… oh.”  Steve’s eyes fell to the table.

“Moved in with Brock, after we convinced our landlord to break the lease on the house we’d been living in.  Then we got transferred to DC about a year after that, Mickey enlisted in the Navy, and, well, you know the rest.”

“S’pose I do.”  After a quick, rueful smile, Steve flagged down one of the waiters and ordered two more beers.  “Want any food?” he asked, turning back to Jack.

“Some of those fried cheese curds.  Oh, and the garlic sauce for them.” When Steve rolled his eyes fondly, Jack laughed.  “The cadets actually made me break a sweat today, I think I deserve a little something nice after that.”

“You’re pushing them harder than Buck ever has.”

“They can take it.  Even when I threw a Kobayashi Maru at them earlier in the week, they surprised me with how much they learned from it.”

“Okay, I’ll admit I don’t know that one.”

“Right, it’s Buck that’s the Trekkie.”  They sipped their beers in companionable silence for a few beats; Jack thanked the waiter when he came by with their food and licked his lips as he reached for a cheese curd.  “It’s a training exercise that’s designed to fail. No-win scenario. We set up the cadets against Franklin and me, active shooter with hostages. And Franklin, that son of a bitch, he performed beautifully.  It’s a damn good thing he’s on our side.”

“Tell me more.”  With the prospect of sinking his teeth into a complex tactical situation, Steve’s eyes lit up.  He popped a cheese curd into his mouth and let out a surprised, happy hum. “Wow, these are good.”

“I have a feeling that Friday night dates at Mulligan’s is gonna be our thing.”

“Really?  What gave it away?”

Snickering, Jack shook his head, then continued his story.  “We had the cadets acting as a fast-response team like STRIKE does when we coordinate with the FBI or SWAT.  Set ourselves up in a sim-room with a small office building, two floors, total of two thousand square feet. Cubicles, walls, plants, low visibility and maneuverability.  Sim-dolls with AI personalities acting as the hostages, sound bytes to ramp up stress and make the kids feel the clock ticking. Oh, and we cut out their comms.”

“That’s diabolical, man.”  Steve winced appreciatively.  “How’d they handle that?”

“Better than I expected.  Looks like Buck taught them some of the hand signals you guys used to use back in the war – they’re a little different from modern military signs.”

Nodding, Steve bit down on a garlic-coated cheese curd.  “Makes sense.”

“They ended up getting me because – and I’ll freely admit I fucked up on this one – I popped up in silhouette in a window.  Nailed me in the side, bullet would’ve gone through my ribs and right into my heart. You’d think I would’ve learned after two concussions in two days during the Uprising that villainy isn’t my gig.”

“Evans must’ve taken that shot.”

“Kid’s got makings of one hell of a sniper.  There’s only three other people I’d trust to make that shot consistently, and in all humility, I’m one of them.”  Jack licked garlic sauce off his fingers and smirked when he caught Steve watching him. “But, yeah, they got me fair and square.  Franklin’s a sly fuckin’ fox, though, he pulled out a nine-banger – they shoot him in a real operation with live ordnance, he blows the building and the hostages.”

“Ugh, I hate those.  No good way out of that one unless you got a spare me ready to throw in through the window, or Wanda to contain the blast.”

“A few of the cadets panicked a bit, and they wasted two minutes arguing over whether to cap Franklin and hope the grenade’s a dud, send a few guys in, shoot the fucking grenade-”

“Yeah, because shooting an explosive works so well.”

He shrugged.  “They were working the problem.”

“So, how’d they get out of it?”

“They didn’t.”  Jack couldn’t help but laugh as he remembered the results.  “Though the idea to tase Franklin wasn’t one I was expecting.  It could’ve worked.”

“Force his muscles to lock up around the grenade and take him out at the same time.  Could work, yeah, but it’s risky.”

“And the risk didn’t pay off, that time.”

A line formed between Steve’s eyebrows as he frowned thoughtfully at the table.  He turned a cheese curd between his fingers, then popped it in his mouth and chewed a few times before stuffing it into a cheek.  “You talked to Hill, yet? She came up with most of the training scenarios for the mainstream cadets. Might have a few good ones you can use.”

“That lady terrifies me.  I’m pretty sure she wants me back behind bars.”

“…no, that’s just… how she is.  When she’s working, anyway.” He snorted softly and glanced up at Jack.  “She’s the one that bullied the hospital into letting Bucky stay with Mickey after the trial.”

“Rogers, you’ve never been interrogated by her.  I’d sooner face down a demon from the Ninth Circle of Hell than cross that woman again.”

“Just sayin’, she’s got a whole library of the best sims and scenarios SHIELD has to offer.  Can probably come up with a few more of those Koby- Kobra-”

“Kobayashi Maru.”

“That.  Yeah.” Laughing, Steve dragged his hands over his face.  “And apparently, I need to get off my ass and watch Star Trek.”

“Got plans tomorrow?”

He grinned at the other man.  “Only if they involve the couch, the TV, and some popcorn.”

***

Suggesting they ride the Harley to Mulligan’s was both the best and worst decision Jack had ever made.

He put a hand on Steve’s shoulder to steady himself as they walked out into the parking lot, slightly more tipsy than he thought he’d be with as much food as they’d ordered.

Steve chuckled and reached around to wrap an arm around Jack’s waist.  “You good to ride pillion without throwing us off?”

“Fuggoff,” Jack muttered, entirely without venom.  He squinted his eyes against the chilly wind that kicked up as they go to the bike.  “Not all of us had a mad scientist rejigger our DNA so that alcohol doesn’t work anymore.”

Huffing out a laugh, Steve handed Jack a helmet.  “As nice as it is to be able to get drunk again, that Shrinking Violet stuff tastes absolutely vile.  I don’t know how Bucky likes it.”

Jack hummed and stuffed his head into the helmet, then scrabbled around for the straps under his chin.  By the time he convinced his hands to cooperate long enough to get the straps cinched down and fastened in place, Steve was already helmeted up and astride the bike.

Once Steve held up his hand in an ‘OK’ sign, Jack settled into place behind him and quickly glanced to either side to make sure his feet were securely braced on each of the passenger pegs.  He hesitated for a moment, debating whether to go for Steve’s shoulders or the handles on either side of the passenger seat, but the decision was made for him when Steve reached back and pulled Jack’s arms around his waist.

Jack chuckled and pulled a hand back to flip his visor down before he scooted forward to press himself against Steve’s back.

“No funny business,” Steve warned him through their helmets’ built-in comms, but Jack could hear the smile in his voice.  The engine rumbled under them as the bike roared to life. “I don’t want to have to explain to Mickey why I pancaked us in a motorcycle crash.”

“You have my word, you’ll make it into the apartment with your virtue intact.”

Steve snorted and kicked off, swinging them out onto the street.   “I can’t believe I didn’t pick up on your accent before, though, especially at Christmas.”

“We were all pretty plastered,” Jack told him, brushing a thumb gently up and down over Steve’s jacket.  “I don’t remember much of that night after the collective decision to see exactly how much of a degenerate you were in your youth.”

The two-lane highway back to the Compound was quiet this time of night.   “Never have I ever made my passenger get off the bike halfway home and walk the rest of the damn way.”

“You wouldn’t.”  Jack grinned and leaned with Steve as they rounded a corner.  “That’s reckless endangerment, abandoning me in the middle of nowhere when I’m tipsy.”

“You’re the one that ordered two pints of porter.”

He couldn’t argue with that.

Jack kept his promise and waited until the apartment door clicked shut behind Steve before crowding the other man against it.  The ride home had done a lot to help Jack’s buzz fade into something more manageable, but one look at Steve’s blown-wide pupils and the subtle pink spreading across his cheeks and neck, and Jack was gone.

“Tell me if this is moving too fast,” he murmured, then leaned in and pressed himself flush against Steve before tilting his head up and brushing their lips together.

Steve let out a little sigh as his lips parted, and he brought one hand up to cup Jack’s cheek.  The kiss deepend and grew more heated, and soon Jack had to break away to catch his breath. Fighting down a shiver, Jack tugging at Steve’s bottom lip gently with his teeth, then nosed at the corner of Steve’s jaw and grazed his teeth over the nearby pulse point.

The breath left Steve’s lungs in a whoosh, and it took him a moment to inhale unsteadily.  “Oh my god.” The roughness of Steve’s voice sent a jolt straight through Jack, followed quickly by another one as they shifted slightly and one of Jack’s legs slipped between Steve’s.

Steve ran his hands up Jack’s sides, then down his arms to his wrists, and pulled Jack into a searing kiss.

“FRIDAY?” Steve murmured against Jack’s lips.  “Activate privacy mode.”

A quiet bip-boop answered him, and Jack grinned at Steve.  “Yours or mine?”

“Which one’s closer?”

***

The briefing room was silent as Jack lifted up several large plastic boxes and set one in front of each cadet. “Put these on.”  He handed one to Franklin as well, and grinned when the younger man gave him a questioning look.

“…sir?”  Peters lifted out something resembling a chest panel.

“Carbon fiber nanotubes suspended in a non-Newtonian gel.  Should let you take a full-force hit from someone Cap’s strength and walk it off.  It’ll hurt like nothing else, but it won’t kill you.”

“We’re not fighting Cap, are we?”  The apprehension in Evans’s voice was thick enough to cut with a knife.

Jack just gave the young man a mirthless, shark-like smile and leaned back against the desk behind him.  “Suit up. Today’s exercise has you working on threat evaluation, target identification, and close quarters combat.”

Groaning, Evans slid the stretchy vest over his head and started strapping on the lightweight paneling.  “We’re fighting Cap.”

“Give it a rest, ace.”  Hendricks smacked Evans in the back.  “We’ve sparred with him before.”

“Yeah, and I still have the bruises to show for it.”

“Whine, whine, bitch, bitch,” Carlton shot back as she finished putting her own armor on.  “Get your head in the game, boys.”

“Who’s the opfor in this one?”  Franklin glanced up at Jack, then back down at the glove he was tugging on.

“What, and spoil all the fun?”

Jack led the cadets to the simulation room and raised up the walls for the exercise.  He ushered them in, grinned at the baffled looks the kids gave him, and turned to motion their three potential targets – Steve, Natasha, and Sharon – into the box.

Shaking his head, Steve had to resist the urge to roll his eyes.  “Elevator, Jack? Really?”

“Aw, shit,” one of the trainees said as their targets settled into place.  The room was already crowded beforehand, and now everyone was bumping shoulders.

“Oh, and…”  Jack held up a stopwatch and pointedly clicked the button.  “You have twelve minutes. Have fun.”

The door sealed shut with a hiss and Jack walked back over to his desk, sat down behind it, picked up his coffee, and took a long sip.  He tapped the desk surface and gestured upward to project the feeds from the monitor cameras into the air in front of him, then leaned back and crossed his legs at the ankles on the desk surface.  This was going to be good.

In the end, it took the team two minutes to ID their target, four and a half minutes to figure out that Natasha wasn’t going down except under a dogpile, and another minute-fifty-six to finally force her to tap out.

Steve’s eyes were streaming and his face was red from laughing when Jack released the doors and let the cadets out.  Sharon wasn’t faring much better.

Reaching down a hand to help Natasha to her feet, Jack grinned at the grumbling redhead.

“Should’ve slammed your head harder into that table in Pierce’s office,” she muttered as she side-eyed him.

“You got shot in the shoulder the day before, don’t be too hard on yourself.”  Jack smirked shamelessly at her, then let it soften into a smile. “Thanks for helping out with this.  What’s your assessment?”

Pursing her lips, Natasha swept her eyes over the cadets as they stripped out of their gear.  She lingered for a moment on Franklin, and tilted her head back slightly with an almost-proud cant to her eyebrows.  “They’re good. You’ve trained them well.”

“Barnes gave me a good foundation to build from; so did you.”

Steve and Sharon stepped into place on his other side and the four of them studied the cadets.

“How’d they make you?”  Jack shot Natasha a curious look.

“They didn’t,” Steve answered for her.  “I may be the strongest of the three of us, but Natasha’s the biggest threat.  Franklin decided to take us out in order; that way if he gambled wrong, he could still react and issue new orders quickly enough to have a hope of salvaging the op.”

“I’ll debrief him later today.”  Hands on his hips, Jack rolled his neck from side to side.  “Honest answer, yes or no, are-”

“I’ve seen German security checkpoints run with less efficiency,” Nat cut in blithely.  After a brief pause, she flicked her eyes up to Jack and gave him a shy half-smile. “Franklin’s got a good team.  They’re cohesive, they work together instinctively, and they trust each other implicitly. I think they’re ready.”

Steve nodded.  “Agreed.”

Sharon met Jack’s eyes, studied him for a few seconds, then nodded as well.  “They’ll still need some polishing with honest field work, but… they’re as good as you can get them in controlled environments.”

A warm hand settled between Jack’s shoulder blades and he instinctively leaned into the touch, ignoring Natasha’s delighted grin as she looked between him and Steve.  “Barnes has to sign off on it since they’re still technically his command,” Steve reminded him.

Nodding, Jack stepped forward, whistled sharply, and clasped his hands behind his back.

It took less than two seconds for the cadets to turn around and stand at some semblance of attention.

“I know you’re tired, and I know from personal experience that getting the shit kicked out of you by a Black Widow isn’t a fun experience.”  A few of the cadets – Peters and Jackson – laughed. “I’d call today’s exercise a success. Pending final assessment by Barnes, I’m going to pass word up the chain of command that you’re ready to head into the field.”

Relieved smiles and sighs passed between the tired cadets.

“Congratulations… agents.”  Jack said the last word with a smile of his own.

“One question, sir.”

“Martin.”

“Any idea where we’re likely to be stationed?”

Jack glanced back at Steve, raising his eyebrows.   You didn’t tell them?  When he turned back to the cadets, Martin was watching him expectantly.  “I suppose I should say, ‘Congratulations, Avengers STRIKE Alpha.’ You’ll receive your new quarters assignments in the main barracks tomorrow morning.  And congratulations to your new superior officer. Level Four Agent Arthur Franklin, you’ll receive your official promotion to Level Five on Monday.”

Franklin seemed the most surprised out of all of them, blinking numbly with a startled smile on his face as the cadets – agents – celebrated around him.

“Alright, you sorry lot of stinksacks.  Go shower up, we’re hitting the pub in an hour.  First round’s on me.”

Sharon and Nat followed the excited, newly-minted STRIKE team out of the training room, and the echoes of laughter quickly died away.

“Hey.”

Turning around, Jack quickly found himself enveloped in the circle of Steve’s arms.

“You did good.”

“Thanks.”  He pulled away slightly and rested his hands over Steve’s hips.  “I… never thought I’d have this again.”

“Cadets to train?”

“A team.”  The words fell like lead between them, but Steve only smiled warmly and reached up to brush a thumb over Jack’s cheek.

“A family.”  He leaned forward and pressed a gentle kiss to Jack’s forehead.  “Welcome home.”

 

Chapter Text

Mickey’s cold, stiff fingers protested as she tried to cinch down one of the straps securing her medical bag shut.  Since they had trucks requisitioned to take them most of the way to their field camp, and they still had very little intel about their target, Rogers had ordered Mickey to pack an absurd amount of medical supplies.  She had the training, experience, and gear to do pretty much anything up to and including minor surgery at this point, and one of her three bags was stuffed full of pretty much every drug the SSR thought she might need in the field.

Bucky brushed a hand over her shoulders as he walked down the length of the barracks, turning to look back with a silent offer of help if she needed it.  Nodding, Mickey took one more try to secure the strap in place before stepping away and leaning forward with her palms flat against the table.

“It’s unseasonably cold,” Bucky murmured as he turned around and stepped in front of the bag.  He made quick work of the buckles, then gently pulled Mickey in against his chest and wrapped her up in his huge coat.  “I mean, London’s London, but this is cold even for here, especially in August.”

August.

Mickey drew in a deep breath and pressed her face against Bucky’s chest.  She snaked her arms around his back and squeezed tightly; a quiet chuckle answered her as Bucky pressed his cheek against the top of her head.

“Does it count as Jack’s birthday if it’s in the wrong universe?” Mickey asked.  Having her phone again, being able to see all the pictures from home, it had been a godsend.  She’d freely admit that they spent the whole night after the box arrived watching video snippets from back home.

Bucky rocked gently back and forth and rested his head against hers.  “It counts if you want it to, love.” He gave Mickey another squeeze before pulling away.  With an apologetic smile, he reached up and brushed his knuckles over her cheek, then leaned in and pressed his lips to hers.  “I need to go help Rogers load the ordnance crates.”

Mickey nodded and burrowed deeper into the scarf that had magically appeared outside the door to her quarters that morning.  The rows were a bit uneven and the stitches varied in size, but the yarn was soft and warm. And if Falsworth wasn’t going to mention the knitting needles poking out of his satchel, well… neither would Mickey.

Before Bucky reached the door, though, it swung open and Rogers strode in with Hodge on his heels.  Hodge pushed the door shut behind him and quickly threw the latch, then leaned against it and crossed his arms.

Mickey knew about the warning Hodge had given Bucky.  The whole team knew. Somehow, he’d gone from a smarmy womanizer to someone the Invaders trusted, but Mickey still wasn’t quite ready to let go of her first impression of the man.

“You need to hear this,” Rogers said, voice low.

“I saw him walkin’ around last night.”  Hodge waved a hand at Bucky. “But it wasn’t him.  Longer hair, but all braided up at his neck.  Walked different, too.”

Sitting carefully on the bench, Mickey braced a hand on either side of her legs.  “Different how?”

“Like a predator.”  Hodge looked away and shook his head.  “I don’t know any better way to describe it.  He walks like he’s gonna kill anyone that gets in his way.”

“Any defining features?” Bucky asked, a deep furrow between his eyebrows.

The other man shook his head again.  “Just hair a little longer than yours, closer to brown than black.  Same height, same build. Could probably pass for you easily enough.  A lotta the men prob’ly thought he was you.  His arm, though…”  Hodge scrunched up his face and frowned down at the floor.  “Somethin’s off about it. Dunno what, but… just doesn’t look right.”

“Which arm.”  Bucky’s voice was raspy and strained.

“Left one.  Moved a little strange, light didn’t hit it quite right.”

Bucky turned to the side and spat out a curse in Russian.

The rest of the Invaders watched Bucky carefully, and Barnes’s eyes narrowed.  The sergeant looked about ready to ask Bucky something before Hodge turned to Mickey and spoke.

“Doc, I got a warning for you, too.  Some of the men, they’re startin’ to talk a bit, and it ain’t good talk.  Don’t go anywhere alone.”

A chill ran through Mickey and she sucked her lips in, looking down at her hands.  Six months ago and she would’ve given Hodge a challenging look and said she could take care of herself.  “Do I want to know what they’re talking about?”

“No, ma’am.  You don’t.” A tense, uncomfortable silence followed, broken only when Hodge cleared his voice.  “Just… stay safe, all’a you. I’ll do what I can to root out any potential moles. I don’t like what I’m hearin’ in the barracks lately, and most of it comes back to the three of you that showed up last month.  I’ll report anything I find directly to Colonel Phillips.”

Without waiting for a dismissal, Hodge unlocked the barracks door and left.

Heavy silence filled the barracks, then Morita huffed and sat down on his cot.  “He’s still an asshole.”

“He’s still an asshole,” Rogers agreed.  “Trust me, I know. But he’s also one of our best informants when it comes to our own troops.  He’s never been wrong, and he’s never come to me with intel like that without a reason.”

“I know, Cap.  Doesn’t mean I gotta like it.”

Barnes paced across the barracks until he was standing next to Bucky.  “You okay, Ghost?”

Eyeing his still-masked left hand with something that almost looked like dread, Bucky swallowed, then nodded jerkily.  “Just… if we run into this new player. He… we’d better hope he’s a friendly. We won’t have much chance of taking him out without casualties if he’s not.”

A month ago, Barnes might’ve scoffed and called bullshit.  Now, he simply gave Bucky and Mickey a concerned look and nodded.

***

Once they’d made the short trip to the ferry for the Channel crossing and driven the trucks on board, Mickey wedged herself into the only corner on the boat that was out of the wind.  Tripod huddled up next to her and whined softly.

“I know, girl.”  Running a hand over Tripod’s head, Mickey crouched down.  “Shouldn’t be too long before we’re back on dry land again.”

She looked up when Bucky approached and knelt next to them.  Greeting Tripod quietly, Bucky wrapped an arm around Mickey’s shoulders and pulled her in close.  “Bummer we couldn’t bring Patches. Horses can keep you warm.”

“Patches is a grumpy old gelding long overdue for retirement,” Mickey grumbled.  “And he hates Tripod. Plus, I’ve only been riding a few weeks. I’m nowhere near good enough to handle a cavalry horse yet.”

Bucky hummed and rose to his feet.  “You did fine at Majdanek.” Holding his hands down to Mickey, he wiggled his fingers.  “C’mere.”

Once on her feet, Mickey slipped inside his huge overcoat and wrapped her arms around his midsection.  She squeezed her eyes shut and pressed her face against the thick wool sweater Bucky had on under his coat.  “What I would give for some Polartec right now. August isn’t supposed to be this fucking cold, I don’t care how far north we are.”

Bucky chuckled and bent down to nuzzle around her ear.

“Your nose is cold.”  Mickey glared half-heartedly at him and rubbed her hand over the tingling residual chill in her skin.

“Mm, at least it isn’t running.  Jones is going to have to wash all of his handkerchiefs as soon as we disembark.”

Mickey sniffed and wiped at her own nose, then wormed her hand back into the warm cocoon of Bucky’s coat.  “I’m sure Stark’s thermals are better than nothing, but…”

“Yeah.  Better than wool long johns, for sure.  Itchy in all the wrong places, and never fuckin’ warm enough.”

Tripod sneezed explosively, then blinked and licked her nose.

“Aw, hell.  The dog’s got a cold, now, too.”

“She might not.”

She sneezed again, whined unhappily, and plopped down on the deck before dropping her head onto her paws.

“I’d say she does.”  Bucky sighed and rested his chin on top of Mickey’s head.  “S’pose it’s only a matter of time before we all come down with something.”

“Even with your supercharged immune system?”

“Supercharged, not bulletproof.  So many of us got sick in the trenches in Italy.”  He paused for a moment, then held Mickey tighter. “That’s how I got pneumonia.  Fucked up as it is, I probably owe Zola my life.”

Mickey grimaced.  “Don’t say that.”

Humming quietly, Bucky hugged her tighter and turned slightly to lean back against the wall.  “Another half hour and we should be out of the worst of the wind. Fog’s starting to burn off, too, now that the sun’s up.”

“They’d better have coffee in France.”

The answering laugh rumbled deep in Bucky’s chest.  “They will, babydoll. Should be able to take a nap once we get in the truck, if you want.  Dugan and Morita are taking first shift for driving.”

***

Mickey jolted awake when the truck lurched over a rut in the road.  Her elbow smacked into the door to her right and she hissed as she wrapped her fingers around the stinging joint.

“Y’okay there, Doc?”

Swearing under her breath for a moment, Mickey squeezed her eyes shut and nodded tightly.  When her elbow stopped smarting, she finally leaned back in her seat and rolled her head back.  “Where are we?”

The sun had already gone down and the sky was the rich deep blue of early night.  In front of the truck, the dirt road stretched on for as far as the eye could see, dimly lit by the just-past-full moon.  Even in Allied territory, they didn’t dare use the trucks’ headlights to navigate. Mickey hoped they made it to their field camp before the new moon.

Barnes had one hand on the wheel and his other arm casually draped over the narrow ledge inside the door’s window.  He glanced at the side mirror, presumably to make sure their second truck was still with them. “We’re about halfway through France.  Makin’ better time than we expected, actually.”

Groaning, Mickey leaned forward and pressed her hands against the firewall of the truck, curling her back and shoulders to relieve some of the stiffness.  “This isn’t how I wanted to see Europe, gotta admit.”

“Yeah,” Barnes said with a bitter laugh.  “When the Army told me I’d see the world, they didn’t tell me it’d be through a windscreen or a scope.”  He reached under his seat and dug out a ration pack, then passed it over to Mickey. When she glanced up at him, he shrugged.  “You were still asleep when we stopped for dinner, and Ghost said not to wake you.”

Mickey immediately passed Barnes the gum and cigarettes from the ration pack, stowed the toilet paper and bouillon in a coat pocket, and set the crackers and chocolate in her lap while she pried open the can of something claiming to be ‘beef and pork loaf.’

She used the can opener key to break up the contents of the can enough to press it between the crackers and treated herself to an uninspiring dinner of SPAM-and-crackers sandwiches.  It took nearly her whole canteen to wash down the taste of the floury, flavorless crackers, and she grimaced and shuddered after the last swallow.

Out of habit, she broke off a segment of the chocolate bar and held it out to Barnes.  He gave her a lopsided smile and murmured his thanks before nibbling off one corner, savoring it.

“You know, you’re the only one that shares,” he said with a quiet laugh.

“Seriously?”

He bit off another tiny piece as he mmhmed.  “Dugan just scarfs his down.  I swear, he’s like a dog with a treat.  Doesn’t even stop to taste his food sometimes.  But yeah, the rest of the guys, chocolate’s as good as money to them.”

“Well.”  Mickey snapped off another segment and passed it over with a wink.  “Our little secret.”

Rolling his eyes, Barnes chuckled.  “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying to bribe me.”

“Drat, you foiled my evil plan.”

They shared a friendly, relaxed laugh, then Barnes switched which hand was on the steering wheel and reached back to scratch the back of his head.  “We got another four hours until the next shift change if you wanna catch a bit more shut-eye.”

“Mm.”  Mickey stretched, yawned, then rubbed at her eyes.  “Think I might, yeah. Wake me up when it happens?”

“Yes’m.  Sleep tight.”  Looking over at her briefly, Barnes gave her a warm smile, then turned back to the road.

***

“No fancy camouflage yet?” Rogers asked when they stopped to stretch their legs and rotate drivers in the middle of the night.

Shrugging, Bucky hopped out of the back of the transport truck and rocked up on his toes with a quiet groan.  “Being in a convoy sort of defeats the purpose of it.” He swung his arms around to loosen up his shoulders and back, then pressed his hands against the small of his back and rolled his shoulders.

Tripod hopped out of the truck next, yawning expansively as she sat down at Bucky’s feet.  She shifted her front paws around a few times, scratching at the ground with her masked prosthetic.  Looking up at Bucky, she gave him a doggy smile as her tongue lolled out to the side. Her lined vest would keep her torso warm, thankfully, but he couldn’t help but wish they had something for her feet during cold nights like this.

After giving Tripod a quick scratch behind the ears, Bucky checked over his weapons to make sure nothing had shifted around while he dozed in the back of the truck.  The matched pair of Colt .45s under Bucky’s arms were a surprisingly comforting weight, especially with a Stark-designed shoulder harness. He likely wouldn’t need either of the hidden blades soon, but he extended and retracted each with tiny twitches of his thumbs and pinkies.  Satisfied, Bucky moved around to the front of the truck and tapped on the passenger door.

Mickey’s head popped up a moment later, her hair mussed up from sleep with an impressive cowlick over her ear.  She had a pink line pressed into her cheek, presumably from a panel on the door. Blinking at him owlishly through the window a few times, it took Mickey a few seconds to get her eyes to focus properly.

She mumbled something indistinct and fiddled with the inside of the door.  As soon as the latch released, she shoved the door open and tumbled out into Bucky’s arms.

“Whoa, there,” he said, catching her and steadying her on her feet.  “Give your legs a minute to wake up, okay?”

Mickey grumbled something else and pressed her forehead against Bucky’s collarbone, hands balled up against her collarbone.  She nuzzled there for a bit, then let out a quiet groan. “Time’s it?”

“Half past one,” Bucky told her, running a hand through her hair and down to cup her cheek.  “Next shift is a six-hour and I’m on the supply truck. Up to you if you want to keep me and Tripod company or stay in the troop truck.”

She let out something resembling a mrflrghl and clung tightly to Bucky.

Laughing, Bucky caught Rogers’s eye, then looked down at Mickey and over at the supply truck.  The captain smirked, tapped his temple in salute, and headed around the back of the troop truck to rouse Jones for his shift.

Once they reached the front, they’d gather up everything they could carry themselves and set out for their field camp on foot; most of the excess materiel would be put to good use in the trenches.  The recon flights had found a homestead a little over five miles from their target, and Peggy regularly radioed in to confirm that there was still no sign of activity outside the homestead. Bucky just prayed their luck held out until after they’d completed their own on-site recon.

He helped Mickey into the cabin of the supply truck, lifted Tripod in, then swung himself into the driver’s seat.  As he started the truck, Mickey wiggled around in her seat until she ended up halfway on her side with a lapful of dog.

The truck lumbered reluctantly back onto the road, creaking and rattling and roaring as Bucky worked his way up through the gears.

“Downhill with a tailwind, flat-out in top gear, and forty-five is still the best we can manage,” Bucky grumbled to himself as he muscled the steering wheel around to straighten out on the road.  “Manual steering, carburetors, diesel, Jesus fuckin’ Christ but I didn’t miss this.”

“Not any worse than Sandra.”

He glanced over at Mickey; she was rubbing her eyes and itching at the scar on her scalp.  “Sandra’s got another thirty, forty years of engineering in her, and she doesn’t run on diesel.”  They bounced up in the air slightly and Tripod grumbled deep in her chest as they hit a bump in the road.  “Also, the suspension in the Mustang doesn’t suck donkey dick now that I’ve got coilovers and sway bars in there.”

Mickey chuckled and squeezed her eyes shut, finally giving in to a yawn.

“We’ve got another eight hours before we hit the front,” Bucky said gently.  “Get some sleep, love.”

For the first hour or so, he managed to stay reasonably well focused on driving, but after that his thoughts rapidly spiralled into what ifs and maybes.

He wants to know if he can die.

It had felt like a warning, at first, until Bucky realized what the prisoner in Majdanek was asking him to do.  But now, he wasn’t so sure he’d been wrong the first time.

You hold the key.

So, something about Bucky, specifically him, was important.  Now who was this mysterious ‘he?’ Bucky scrubbed his thumb and forefinger in the corners of his eyes, and let out a quiet sigh.  Going into a mission - any mission - without intel was a surefire way to have something go belly-up.

The man the prisoner had been referring to could have been anyone, but from the context, Bucky didn’t feel it was too far of a stretch to assume it was another multiverse twin.  Possibly even the one Hodge had seen around base, but more likely one that was at the mysterious camouflaged compound in the woods. He didn’t know whether to hope this new player was on their side or not; if they had another supersoldier on their side, that would help the war effort immensely.

If not, well, fighting himself would be a nightmare and a half, but it certainly simplified things.

He chewed on that for several hours, still mulling it over when the sky finally faded to a pale, watery blue.  The sun was just peeking over the horizon when Tripod stirred, mumbling and whuffling as she did her best to burrow deeper into Mickey’s arms.

Mickey blinked awake a few moments later, then groaned and rubbed at her forehead when her stomach gurgled.

“We’ll be stopping in a little over half an hour for breakfast.”  Bucky looked over and smiled at her. “Sleep well?”

She wobbled her hand back and forth in answer, then rubbed at her neck.  “I miss our bed. Memory foam an’ flannel an’ the weighted blanket.”

Bucky hummed in agreement and started bullying the truck through a downshift to help them crawl up the hill in front of them.  He ended up doing more fancy footwork than he wanted to when the transfer case kept popping out of low-range and stealing all of the engine’s torque.  Swearing under his breath, Bucky had to keep glancing between his feet, the shift pattern diagram on the firewall, and the shift levers as he messed with the controls until, finally, the truck lurched into submission.

“Of course they send the broken ones out to the front,” he griped.  “Scuttle the truck, use it as a barricade when it isn’t good for anything else anymore.  Cheaper and easier than replacing the fucking clutch.”

Mickey peered out the windshield with puffy eyes.  “Broken?”

“Drivetrain’s fucked six ways from Sunday.”  Right on cue, something ground harshly underneath them as they crested the hill, and Bucky gave the shift lever a practiced wiggle when he settled it into a higher gear.  “If this thing ever had synchros, which I doubt, it doesn’t anymore. Ah, the luxurious life of an Army vehicle.”

Bumps in the road made the steering wheel twitch this way and that; Bucky was careful to keep his thumbs on the outside of the wheel.  He’d seen firsthand what could happen if the steering wheel whipped around and had a disagreement with the driver’s hand.

“Dugan told me these things’ll go over eighty if you try hard enough,” Mickey commented, drowsiness still fuzzing her voice.

Bucky barked out a laugh.  “Sure, empty with miles of highway and a suicidal driver.  Even I’m not crazy enough to try that.”

Shifting around in her seat, Mickey rearranged Tripod so she could cradle her more easily.  Mickey rubbed at her eyes again, then squinted against the bright streak of light on the horizon.  “Should reach the front in a few more hours, right?”

Bucky nodded and pulled out his phone to check the time.  “I might take the next shift, too. Give the other guys a chance to get as much rest as they can.”

The roar of the engine faded a bit as they crested the next hill, and Bucky chewed on his lip as he turned over what little they knew about their target, the other Bucky, the Majdanek prisoner, everything.  No matter how he rearranged everything in his head, there was still at least one major piece missing from the puzzle.

Mickey asked him a question that he didn’t entirely register, and he took a moment to drag himself back into the present before looking over at her apologetically.  “Sorry, lost in my head. What’s up?”

She wrapped her arms around Tripod when the dog snuggled closer and rested her chin on top of Tripod’s head.  “What do we do if this other guy’s another Winter Soldier?”

Bucky should’ve expected Mickey to be thinking along the same lines, really.  He sighed, dragged a hand over his face, and frowned at the truck in front of them.  “I… I dunno. I’m the only one that has a chance of taking him down if that’s the case.”

“One-on-one, sure.”

He looked back over at Mickey briefly, but she was staring bleary-eyed out the windshield.  “You got an idea?”

“What if we train the men to fight you, as a team?  Back when I was training regularly, I could have incapacitated you with Steve and Nat, maybe a few of the other Avengers.  These guys aren’t enhanced, but they won’t need to be if they fight smart.”

Bucky bit at the chapped flakes on his lips.  “That… could work. Capture or kill?”

“Capture.”  Looking down at her hands, Mickey wiggled her fingers around, then cupped them around her mouth and blew on them.  Her breath fogged slightly before dissipating. “If they can keep him on the ground long enough for me to get in, I can drain him so he’s unconscious.”

A reflexive ache bloomed in Bucky’s chest and he rubbed at it through the dense, heavy layers of clothing.  He still remembered the frustrating itching as the skin on his chest healed from allowing Mickey to bleed him dry of energy.  “If he’s like me, do you think you could kill him?”

He trusted her to understand that he wasn’t just asking about the physical ability to take the man’s life.

Mickey didn’t answer for several seconds, and wouldn’t meet Bucky’s eye.  “Let’s hope we don’t have to find out.”

***

The Invaders stood huddled inside the large tent they’d been assigned to, taking what little shelter they could from the pouring rain while they rested.  Thankfully the groundcloth was still dry, and it hadn’t taken more than a few minutes before the men had covered it in packs and bedrolls. Tripod even had her own bed, a large down-filled cushion that packed surprisingly small.

Rogers knelt over a small canister, swearing under his breath as his wet hair kept flopping into his eyes.  He lit a match, opened a small door in the side of the canister, and fiddled with a knob next to the door. With a quiet fumph something inside the canister caught fire, and soon it was radiating a gentle heat.

“Get the flaps secured,” Rogers ordered Jones as he straightened.  “Let’s trap in as much heat as we can.”

Grumbling quietly, Mickey sat down on the ordnance crate they’d kept.  She pulled Bucky’s coat tighter around her shoulders and shoved her nose into her scarf.  “It’s August.  Why is it cold.”

“Welcome to Europe,” Falsworth answered from his bedroll.  He had his hat over his face, but wasn’t as asleep as he appeared.

Mickey just grunted unhappily and prayed to whatever God was still listening that the small, portable, Stark-designed heater did its job quickly.  The quiet noises of Bucky putting on his combat armor was an odd mixture of soothing and upsetting; this close to the front, they couldn’t afford to be taken unawares, but Mickey definitely didn’t need the reminder that she was back in a war zone.

The crate creaked softly when Bucky sat down next to Mickey.  He had a few pages of the manual from home in his hand, stapled at the top corner.  It took Mickey several seconds of peering at the lines of text across the page to realize it was code.

Pulling out his phone, Bucky quickly tapped into a command line and started entering in the text on the page.  “Would if have killed Tony to send this on a USB stick or something?” he grumbled under his breath, and Mickey laughed.

“And give up a chance to troll you?”

Bucky rolled his eyes.

“What’s the code for?”

“If this works…”  He set the packet down on his knees and started typing with both thumbs.  “If it works, then my phone should be able to function as a server for the comms.”  Lips moving silently as he transcribed the code, Bucky flipped through the next few pages in quick succession.

He scrolled back through his code to check it, then tapped a few more buttons.  “Aaaaand… done.” Bucky lifted a hand to his ear and tapped twice on the small comm unit.

When the two dull thumps came through into her own ear loud and clear, Mickey grinned.  “We’re online.” She tapped her own comm to test it, and Bucky nodded to confirm that it still worked.  “Can you see the battery life in the Bluetooth menu?”

He nodded.  “I think I can set low battery alerts, too, if I’m reading what Tony sent me correctly.”  Without waiting for a response, he stood and dug a hand into his pocket. He quickly circled through the tent, handing each of the other men a comm unit.

“What’re these?” Barnes asked, holding the earpiece between his thumb and forefinger.  “Earplugs?”

“Miniaturized two-way radios.”  Bucky sat back down next to Mickey and fiddled with his phone a bit more.  Quiet bips confirmed each device coming online.

“Look at the size of it…”  Morita stared wide-eyed at the tiny device, then looked up at Mickey.  “So, I just… stick this in my ear?”

“Make sure the feeler wire is poking out,” she told him, and pulled her own earpiece free.  She demonstrated how to insert it a few times until each of the Invaders had theirs in. “It’ll feel weird at first, but you’ll get used to it.”

“I’ll be impressed when it picks up Fibber McGee and Molly.”   Barnes scrunched up his nose as he fiddled with his ear.  “It’s smaller than the ones that Stark gave us for the mission at the castle.  He’s gonna flip his wig when he sees these.”

Bucky smirked at his younger counterpart and pulled up another app.  A few seconds later, the introductory music for the Captain America Adventure Program started playing through the comms.

Barnes guffawed and Jones threw his head back laughing as he slapped his leg.  Startled, Tripod looked up from where she was curled up on her cushion, then blinked a few times and lowered her head back onto her paws.

“Make it stop,” Rogers groaned as he dropped his head into his hands.  “Oh god make it stop.”  He was reacting almost exactly the way that their own Steve had when Tony somehow dug up the original reels from the radio show.

Giggling a bit herself, Mickey leaned against Bucky’s arm.  “I thought you’d love hearing about how you saved your defenseless sweetheart from the clutches of evil, Rogers.”

Barnes let out an inelegant snort and pressed a hand over his mouth to stifle his laughter.

“C’mon, Cap, tell us about Betty Carver’s victory rolls,” Dugan said with a grin from his bedroll.  He leaned back on one elbow and crossed his legs. “And how she-”

“Enough,” Rogers begged, shaking his head.  “Please, for the love of God turn it off.”

Bucky finally took pity on him and shut off the audio feed, tucking his phone away.  “You’re immortalized forever, Steve. Or, well. Some short dweeb in glasses got immortalized forever.  I’m pretty sure you never had a Transatlantic accent.”

“Not for lack of trying.  If I never see another speech coach again, it’ll be too soon.”  The last word trailed off into a yawn as Rogers stretched, and he blinked a few times before rubbing at his eyes.  “Okay, boys, ma’am, get as much rest as you can tonight. It’s our last night where we won’t need to set a watch, and our last hot dinner until we get to the homestead.”

Falsworth took his beret off his face and sat up, rubbing at his forehead.  “I’ll put the kettle on. Anyone for tea?”

***

Mickey shifted uncomfortably in the saddle as the steady plod of the donkey under her sent another jolt through her hip.  Patches might have been grumpy and nippy, but at least his gait was smooth. None of this jostling thud every time the donkey’s hips moved.

She leaned forward and braced her hands on the pommel of the saddle to take some of the weight off her sore ass.  Grimacing as she did, she let the reins hang loose because a black hole would open in the sky above them before the stoic beast under her strayed from the path.

And even if it did, Tripod would herd it back into line with a few well-placed nips at its ankles.

“I can carry you for a bit,” Bucky offered quietly.  He’d kept pace at her left for nearly five miles now, rifle held at the ready.  His hood pooled around his shoulders, and the tasseled scraps of fabric on his surcoat fluttered in the gentle breeze.

“Unless it’s a fireman’s carry, I’m still putting weight on my sit bones.”  Mickey squeezed her eyes shut and gingerly lowered herself back into the saddle.  “And you should keep your hands free in case we get attacked.”

Bucky raised an eyebrow.  “<You’d sense anyone before they got close enough,>” he said in Russian.

“Maybe.  Probably.  But we’re in an active war zone, love.  Don’t tempt fate.”

“Being here at all is tempting fate.”

Looking down at her hands, Mickey fiddled with the reins.  “Have you talked with Rogers yet about-”

“No.”

When Mickey looked up at him, he sighed.  “I don’t know how to bring it up. It’s… not a pleasant subject.”

“Don’t wait until it’s too late.”

Silence stretched between them, or as silent as it could get with the sounds of the forest and the dull cl-clop, cl-clop of the donkey’s hooves on the loamy dirt underfoot.

“How much charge do your Widow’s bites have left?” Bucky finally asked.

Thumbing the button inside each wrist, Mickey looked at each of the small rows of blue dots.  “Fifty percent or thereabouts. I don’t think they were intended to go this long without a recharge.”

Bucky seemed satisfied with that and nodded, adjusting his grip on his rifle.  He looked over at Mickey, down at his feet, then tilted his head back to stare off into the trees above them.  “Enough to take down someone like me, then.”

“What’re you thinking, Buck?”

His throat bobbed as he swallowed, and when he looked back over at Mickey, his eyes glistened.  “Contingency plans.”

Mickey reined the donkey to a stop and slid out of the saddle, teetering on numb legs for a moment before walking over to Bucky.  She gripped his arms tightly and looked up at him, searching his face. “Contingency plans for what?”

He dropped the hand holding his rifle to the side and reached up with the other to cup Mickey’s cheek as he pressed their foreheads together.  “If he’s another Winter Soldier, he’s going to have all of my skills, all of my training, all of my experience. All of my trauma. Possibly more.”  Bucky took a deep breath and closed his eyes. “But if he really is another Soldier, he’s… we’re not just assassins. We’re spies. He can pass as me, easily enough.  And you wouldn’t be able to-”

Mickey cut him off by pressing her lips to his until they stilled.  She tilted her head up to kiss the tip of his nose, then gave his arms a squeeze.  “I would. I’d know. I’d always know.”

“How?” Bucky asked, voice broken.  His eyes flicked back and forth between hers.

In answer, Mickey pressed her palm to his chest, right over his heart.  “This right here. Barnes, the prisoner, you… you all feel different. Same man, same name, different worlds, different pulses.  I’ll always know, because I’ll always know you.”

She kissed him again, just a quick press of lips, then leaned in and hugged him tightly.  It took a few seconds, but Bucky’s free arm came up around her shoulders and he clung to her, burying his face in the crook of her neck.

“Gunsmoke and Brylcreem and bitter black coffee thick enough to chew,” Mickey murmured into Bucky’s neck.  “And a little bit of metal and ice.”

Bucky huffed out a quiet laugh and tilted his head to press a kiss to the corner of Mickey’s jaw.  “I really don’t deserve you, sometimes.”

A grumpy boof made them break apart, laughing.  Tripod looked between them with narrow eyes, then took a few pointed steps further along the path.

“Fine, fine,” Bucky chuckled.  He scrubbed at his eyes with a gloved hand and slung his rifle over his shoulder so he could help Mickey back into the saddle.

Before they started forward again, Bucky reached up and brushed his thumb over Mickey’s cheek.  “You’d know?” he asked, anxiety worming its way through his voice.

Mickey nodded and rested her hand on his shoulder.  “Always.”

***

In the end, it took Bucky almost three days to work up the courage to say something to the other men.

They sat around a small fuel canister waiting for Falsworth’s trusty kettle to boil, and Bucky fiddled with the tin mug in his hands the whole time.  When he finally had a cup of tea steaming between his fingers, he waited for a lull in the idle conversation and cleared his throat.

“So.  It’s, uh.  It’s not unreasonable to expect that somewhere along the line, we’ll encounter another… another Bucky, one that’s like me.”

The rest of the men watched him expectantly, and Rogers slowly set his own mug down on the dirt next to his feet.

Bucky scratched at his beard with one hand and glanced around the circle of men before continuing.  “You need to be able to incapacitate and capture him, without my help. Mickey and I are going to train you in how to do that.”

“Without your help?” Barnes asked, eyebrows furrowed.  “Where are you gonna be, then?”

“The only way a hostile Winter Soldier is getting to the rest of you is if I’m compromised or otherwise not there.  If you have to fight him, then…” Swallowing thickly, Bucky nearly stumbled over his next words. “Then I’ll already be dead.”

Dull silence answered him.

Jones pulled his hat off and brushed his hand over the dark, dense curls just starting to grow in.  “I thought you said you couldn’t die.”

“It takes time for him to revive,” Mickey answered quietly.  “Several hours, from severe wounds. Sometimes half a day.”

Rubbing at his chest reflexively, Bucky winced.  He still remembered the disconnected, out-of-body ache of his chest cavity when he’d taken a spray of automatic fire to the lungs during what was supposed to be a routine mission with Shelley, Jack, and Helena.

Morita spoke next.  “So, what do we do?”

“You shoot him,” Bucky said.  “And then you keep shooting him until he stops getting up.”

Dernier muttered something incredulous and indistinct, and shook his head when Bucky looked over at him.  “Until he stops getting up. You mean he will get up?”

“I can take more damage than any of you, and I have an unreasonably high pain tolerance.  I can come back from nearly any injury.” Pausing for a moment, Bucky rubbed at his chest again.  The scars had long since faded, but the crushing panic of can’t breathe can’t breathe still weighed down on him at times like this.  “Still hurts just as much, though.”

Tripod pressed up against his leg and Bucky reflexively reached down to scratch at her shoulders.  With each successive pass of his hand over her coarse ruff, the ghost-like memories of having his lungs shot out faded into something more manageable.

“So, you want to teach us how to kill you,” Barnes said softly, something unreadable in his eyes as he studied Bucky.

Looking up at the man that was starting to feel like a younger brother, Bucky shook his head.  “I want to teach you how to stay alive long enough to survive the Winter Soldier.”

***

Bucky jolted awake, gasping for air with sweat chilling his skin.  Something cold and wet - Tripod’s nose , his brain helpfully supplied - slimed its way over his jaw and cheek.  He choked and gasped through several seconds of panic before he realized the reason he couldn’t see the stars was because he was staring at the wall of his tent.

“Sweetheart?” Mickey mumbled, lifting her head from where she was half sprawled on top of him.  She blinked blearily at him and rubbed at her forehead.

“Fuck,” he hissed, pressing the heels of his hands to his eyes.

“Nightmare?”

It was all he could do to nod.

Mickey pulled him onto his side and wrapped him up in her arms.  She gently dragged her fingers through his hair, teasing out the tangles and smoothing it down from where it had rumpled up during the night.  When she scratched lightly on Bucky’s scalp, he felt scraps of tension float away until, finally, he could relax against her.

“Almost time to start braiding it again,” Mickey murmured, then kissed his forehead.

“Would you…?”

“In the morning, if we have time.”

Bucky’s breath hitched in his lungs and he clutched at Mickey, pressing his forehead against her collarbone.  “I was- I was him, again,” he whispered.  “The Soldier. And I had Barnes at gunpoint, on his knees and tied up.”  His throat threatened to close up on him as Tripod whined unhappily. “He begged me not to…”

“It’s just a nightmare, love.”

Eyes burning, Bucky did his best to nod.  He knew. He opened his mouth to continue, bit back the words, then let out a choked sob.  “I wanna go home.”

“I know, love.  I do, too.”

He spent the remaining hours before dawn sandwiched tightly between Mickey and Tripod, shuddering his way through half-awake nightmares and over-imagined what-ifs.  When he finally stumbled out of their tent and into the watery early morning sunshine, he still had deep circles around his eyes.

Dernier wordlessly offered him a cup of black coffee, but Bucky waved it away with an apologetic smile.  The last thing he needed was caffeine making him more jittery.

After an unsatisfying breakfast that didn’t do much more than warm his stomach, Bucky grabbed his rifle and whistled Tripod to his side.  He nodded when Rogers asked him if he was scouting ahead; the captain frowned slightly, then his face softened. “Keep your radio on. Squawk if you find anything.”

Bucky nodded again, rolled his shoulders to help his armor settle back into place, and then he and Tripod melted away into the forest.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to that,” Dugan muttered as he peered after them.  He shook his head, then tossed the last bit of his coffee back like whiskey. “Ain’t natural.”

The mush in Mickey’s mess kit wasn’t much better than some of the MREs she’d choked down on deployment, but… a hot meal was a hot meal, and she still couldn’t feel her toes.

Falsworth took her mess kit as soon as it was done and immediately replaced it with a cup of steaming tea.  “Will he be alright?”

Sighing, Mickey rubbed the back of her hand over her forehead and nodded.  “It’ll take a few hours, but he’ll bounce back.” Rogers opened his mouth to ask her something, eyebrows knitted together, and Mickey held up a hand.  “If he wasn’t good to be in the field, he’d be here with us rather than scouting ahead. He knows his limits.”

Rogers considered her carefully for several long seconds, then finally nodded and looked back down at his coffee.

***

Mickey winced as she rested her weight on what she knew just had to be lovely bruises.  What she would give for some of that numbing cream back home.  She hissed slightly as she hit a particularly sore spot, then resigned herself to another long day of off-beat jostling.

“Good to go?” Morita asked as he stepped up to the donkey and rubbed a hand over its nose.

“I never thought I’d say this, but I miss Patches.”

Bucky snorted quietly through the comms.  “He bit you.”

“At least he had a personality.”  Swearing under her breath as the donkey stepped forward, Mickey did her best to relax.  “This thing’s just a transportation machine that eats and shits.”

They walked in companionable silence for several miles, the men rotating through the column at regular intervals.  Barnes had been at Mickey’s side for the better part of half a mile when she noticed him looking up at her as if trying to figure out a puzzle.

“Something bothering you, Sergeant?”

He chewed his lip, shook his head, and resettled his rifle over his shoulder.

“Then what, do I have a massive pimple on my chin or something?  You’re looking at me like I sprouted a third arm.”

“No, no.  It’s just…”

Giving him a patient smile, Mickey waited for him to make up his mind.

“Something eatin’ at me, is all.”  Barnes took a few more steps before continuing.  “You said you had some health stuff that kept you from enlisting after New York got bombed.”

“Plane crash, but yeah.  Couldn’t pass medical.”

“But your fatigue thing, that’s… that’s newer than that.”

Mickey nodded.  “That’s from my skating accident, yeah.”

“So… stuff like Steve had?  Rheumatism, or asthma, or…?”  When Mickey didn’t immediately respond, Barnes shook his head again and waved a hand dismissively.  “Sorry, I shouldn’t be asking. Tell me to go take a powd-”

“It was, uh… issues with my blood tests.  A few of the numbers came back a little wrong.”

Barnes gave her a baffled look, sniffed wetly, tugged his handkerchief out of his pocket, and blew his nose.  “Goddamn European forests, fuckin’ awful for my allergies…”  With another thick sniff, he wiped his nose dry and stowed the handkerchief.  “Blood tests? Like they do with Steve?”

“Sort of, yeah.”

“You have a crazy German doctor fix you up, too?”

Mickey laughed.  “She was French, actually, and I’m pretty sure she wasn’t crazy, but the jury’s out.”

The sergeant stopped dead in his tracks and turned to face Mickey; the donkey clopped to a halt out of reflex.  “I was joking.”

“Different medical problem.  Different fix.”

“So…”  Barnes chewed his lip for a moment and then peered up at Mickey.  “What was it, then?”

“Testosterone poisoning,” Mickey said blandly, and tapped her heels to the donkey’s side to get it moving again.

Behind her, Dugan snorted, coughed, then howled with laughter.  Mickey kept riding forward, Barnes’s confused voice and the others’ explanations fading away as she followed Jones down the trail.

***

Knowing Bucky as well as she did, Mickey should’ve expected Barnes to be just as curious… especially after his questions that morning.  He sat next to her later that night as the Invaders hunched over yet another cold dinner.

“I, uh… can I ask you something?”

“You just did,” Mickey told him with a grin, then chuckle when he rolled his eyes.  “Go ahead. Can’t promise I’ll answer it, but you’re always welcome to ask.”

“You said you got a Purple Heart.  What happened?”

Her smile slid away and she self-consciously rubbed at the subtle pockmarks on her cheek and temple.  She knew Barnes wouldn’t push if she didn’t answer him, but… something about the way Bucky carefully watched her with a soft, worried look in his eyes prompted her to speak.

“Medivac didn’t arrive in time.  We couldn’t radio in our location, so warheads-on-foreheads never arrived.  Took almost eight hours for MEDEVAC to find us the old-fashioned way.” She looked down at her hands and curled her fingers into her palms.  “One of my boys bled out in my arms. Another one, the shock killed him an hour before they finally got us loaded up.”

“...shit, Doc.”  Barnes pulled off his cap and tugged a hand through his hair, making it stand up in every direction.

“Why didn’t your radio work?” Morita asked, eyebrows drawn together.  “Sounds like supply didn’t do their job properly if you had defective equipment.”

“Oh, no, the radio itself was fine.  But supply can’t do their job if there’s no goddamn materiel to supply.”  Mickey tried to get rid of the sneer pulling at her lips, but she wasn’t entirely successful.  “Tony - Howard’s son - he had a sudden change of heart and yanked Stark Industries out of the war machine.  Left us with a massive hole in the supply chain, and the replacements were bad enough quality that they were basically useless.

“Our bomb detection systems broke down, the backup wouldn’t work if the stars weren’t aligned just right because fuck Hammertech with a fucking hose.   That’s how one of my Marines stepped on a bomb.  Didn’t even get to scream before he was gone.”

She pulled Bucky’s heavy overcoat tighter around her shoulders.  “When we got hit, we stayed there bleeding into the sand for eight goddamn hours because our radios were dead, the satellite phones - basically fancy radios that bounce off of antennas that we put up in space - our sat phones didn’t work either…”

Drawing a deep breath, Mickey tilted her head back to stare up at the stars.  “You see, for a radio to work, you need an antenna on both ends and sometimes a few more in between to relay the signal, right?  Satellite phones, with the antennas up in space, they work basically anywhere in the world. But for you to actually make a call…  When we tried to call in air support, the gunship, MEDEVAC, anything, we couldn’t, because the satellites were goddamn off.   It was nearly twenty-four hours before they finally got me into a hospital bed, and we lost another two Marines on the way there.”

Rogers opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, a single gunshot echoed through the forest.

Bucky’s comm crackled to life and filled their ears with angry German as he shouted at someone.

“Jones?” Rogers prompted as the men scrambled to their feet and armed themselves in a matter of seconds.

“‘Get- get on the ground,’ he’s saying.  ‘Hands behind your head, both of them.’” Jones slung his heavy machine gun into his hands and hefted it.  “Keeps repeating that. Can’t tell what the other guy’s saying, but-” Holding a hand to his ear, Jones frowned.  “He just told his dog to attack.”

Mickey didn’t wait for him to finish before she clambered up onto the donkey’s back, pointed its nose in the direction of Bucky’s pulse, and urged it to a bumpy gallop.  The bruises on her legs and butt smarted with each stride, but she gritted her teeth and rode through it. Rogers was hot on her heels, shield on his back, arms pumping as he easily kept pace with the donkey.

They found Bucky with his feet firmly planted and a confiscated Walther PPK on the ground between his feet, rifle leveled at a sobbing mess of a man lying facedown in the damp earth.  His arms stuck out at odd angles, fingers caked in dirt.

Tripod loomed over the man, the fur between her shoulders standing up in a tight ridge as she snarled at him.  When the man twitched under her, she barked sharply and leaned down so she was ready to bite if Bucky gave the command.

He didn’t, though, harshly demanding something of his captive.  Briefly glancing up as Mickey reined in several yards away, he turned back to the man on the ground.  Muffled, barely intelligible words drifted up, and Bucky’s scowl deepend.

“Report,” Rogers barked, shifting the shield to his arm.

“Fritz tried to fuckin’ shoot me.”

“Did he-”

“No.”  Bucky didn’t look up as he interrupted Rogers, but raised his left arm to show off a gleaming streak across the back of one vambrace.  “Kid’s got shit aim.”

When the man on the ground tried to raise his head, Tripod let out another vicious snarl and nipped him sharply.

“Ghost, that’s enough.  Stand down.”

“We have no idea-”

“Stand down.  That’s an order.”

Bucky bared his teeth in a snarl of his own but backed away, raised his hands, and took his finger off his rifle’s trigger.

“Tripod, aus,” Rogers said, but she didn’t respond outside of flicking an ear disdainfully at him.  When Bucky repeated the command, though, she slowly backed away until she was sitting directly in front of him.

The man on the ground didn’t move as Rogers walked toward him.  He violently flinched away when Rogers touched his shoulder, shooting Bucky a terrified look before scuttling backward until he bumped into a tree.  Tears cut through the muck covering his face and he hugged himself as he babbled pleadingly at them.

Rogers sighed and turned to Bucky.

“You’d have more luck understanding a three-year-old throwing a temper tantrum,” Bucky said flatly.  “Kid’s got the thickest Saxon accent I’ve heard this side of the border.”

Shaking his head, Rogers crouched down a few yards away from the scared German.  “Sprechen sie Englisch?” He had to repeat himself a few times before the kid finally shook his head.

Rogers held up a hand and clipped his shield into its harness, then reached into a pocket and pulled out a few handkerchiefs.  He mimed wiping his face with them before holding them toward the German.

The kid’s hand shook horribly as he tried to clean his face and wipe the dark earth from his shirt.  When he looked up at Rogers, gray eyes still streaming and chest heaving, the captain swore softly.

“Hey, Buck?”  Rogers reached up to touch his comm unit.

“We’re holding position.  What’s the status?”

“Tell me you, uh.”  He cleared his throat, and Bucky snorted when the back of Rogers’s neck turned red.  “Tell me you packed the handcuffs.”

A few quiet groans from the other men answered him, and Barnes chuckled.  “Supersoldier Special Strength, yep.  We got a prisoner?”

“Not… quite.”

The kid blinked at Rogers and looked over at Mickey, then at Bucky.

“Cap?  Say again.”

“We have another… you.  Another Bucky. Except this one’s apparently a kraut, and eighteen years old if he’s a day.”

Barnes was radio-silent for several long seconds before a heavy sigh crackled through and he swore quietly.  “I’ll dig out the cuffs.  Bring ‘im in.”

Chapter Text

The young German didn’t say a word as they cuffed him, hobbled his legs, and tied him to the gnarled roots of an ancient oak tree.  He kept his eyes averted, only glancing up every few minutes to stare wide-eyed at Bucky or Tripod before withdrawing back into his shell of sullen silence.

Bucky stood at the far side of the camp, elbow hooked through his rifle’s strap as he carefully observed the boy.

“Wonder if he speaks any English,” Rogers mumbled, lips pursed in a frown that only partially showed under his field helmet.

“If he doesn’t, he won’t know that we’re going to kill him and eat his eyes for jujubes.”  Rogers, Barnes, and Mickey all turned to stare at Bucky, who simply shrugged and gestured to the boy.  “No reaction. There’s your answer.”

“...when did you see Avatar?” Mickey asked, puzzled.

“The night I accidentally told Sam I like sci-fi and aliens.  ‘Round about two weeks after I moved out of the Tower down to DC.”

When Bucky looked back over at the boy, his lips were moving and his eyes were pressed tightly shut.  Faint murmurs of indistinct speech tickled at the edges of Bucky’s hearing.

Clearing his throat, Rogers caught Jones’s eye and nodded toward the boy.  “What’s he saying?”

Jones stepped closer and listened for a bit before shaking his head.  “Dunno, it’s not anything I recognize. Ghost might know it, though.”

“I told you, he was speaking German.”

“That’s not German,” Jones said, shaking his head again as he sat down next to Dernier.

Drawing in a deep breath, Rogers hooked his thumbs in his belt and tilted his head back to peer through the tree branches into the fading twilight.  “Okay, suggestions.”

“Well…”  Barnes crossed his arms and tilted his head to the side, studying their captive intently.  “If he were just any other kraut, I’d say we kill him and be done with it.”

“But he’s not,” Falsworth added quietly.

Scuffing his toe in the loose earth underfoot, Morita swore.  “He’s just a kid.”

“Sure,” Bucky said flatly.  “A kid that had a pistol and an itch to see me dead.  You know as well as I do that it don’t matter how old you are, if you can fire a gun, that’s good enough for the war machine.”

“He’s not a soldier, Buck.”  Mickey sank heavily to the ground at her donkey’s feet and pulled her knees into her chest.  “Look at him.”

“I am looking at him.  I haven’t stopped looking at him since he shot me!”  Lifting up his arm to show off the gleaming streak across his vambrace, Bucky narrowed his eyes.  “Have any of you stopped to think about why there’s a teenage Bucky Barnes runnin’ around in the middle of the Schwarzwald without provisions or anything more powerful than a pistol?  Or how he even got here in the first place? And once we know that, I want to know why he wanted me dead.”

“You scared him, he fired his gun,” Falsworth said tiredly.  “I’d say it’s a rather common reflex.”

Shaking his head, Barnes turned to look at their captive.  “Nah. Civilian like that, he’d scream and drop the gun unless he had a reason to fire.  He’s never fired one before, or he’d know how to hold it so he didn’t get one hell of a slide bite.”

The radio beeped a few times, and Morita snapped his fingers to get everyone’s attention.  “Fellas. Hush up a minute.” His brow furrowed as he scribbled down the message, then it deepend into a scowl as he read it over.  “Says Stark just recorded another anomaly. They triangulated it to the target’s coordinates. It’s a big one.”

“How big?” Rogers asked, voice low.

Morita tapped out a quick acknowledgment, then tugged his headphones down to rest around his ears.  He threw Rogers a worried glance over his shoulder. “Twice as big as the one that brought Ghost, Doc, an’ the dog here.  He’s estimating five human bodies, four if they’re your size.”

Heavy silence blew through the camp with the gentle breeze, until Barnes scuffed a foot in the dirt and cleared his throat.  “Well, we’re only another day’s march from the homestead, if we make camp for the night and push through the evening tomorrow.  Jones, see if you can get the kid to talk. Dum Dum, you’re with Frenchie on first watch. Cold supper tonight.”

***

“I dunno what you want me to do, Cap,” Jones muttered, arms crossed as he and Rogers conferred on the far side of the camp from their captive.  He glanced over his shoulder at the boy with a deeply unhappy crease between his eyebrows. “He says his name is Iacob, but he won’t give me a surname.  Won’t eat, either. Can’t force him to if he doesn’t want to, even if he might be a protected person.”

“Did he say how old he is?”

“Seventeen at most,” Bucky interjected, speaking around a wad of flavorless meat goop.  “That’s about what I looked like at that age.” He scooped another cracker through the can of protein paste and bit off another chunk.

Mickey pulled a face at the pack of cigarettes in her ration pack and blindly held them out for whichever Invader got there first.  “Seriously, y’all smoke like fucking chimneys here.”

Taking the cigarettes, Morita shrugged.  “There ain’t much of anything better to do, sometimes.”

“Haven’t you ever heard of cancer?”  Mickey turned back to her rations and shook her head.  “Emphysema’s nasty shit.”

“Sounds like VD,” Morita said blandly.  “Is that one spotting, shriveling, or oozing?”

Disgusted, Bucky set his ration can down in front of him and stared at the Ranger.  “...dude. Not when I’m eating.”

Mickey giggled a little, then covered her mouth with her hand.  She waved away Bucky’s confused look, then shook her head and picked up her rations.  A few seconds later, though, she set them back down and leaned forward on her knees. “He’s still talking to himself.”

Bucky followed her gaze over to Iacob.  He was still curled up in the roots of the tree where they’d left him, the unopened and untouched ration pack less than a foot away.  His lips moved subtly and he had his hands clasped together as if…

“He’s… praying?”  Bucky frowned and peered at the boy, trying to read his lips and make the vague mumbled sounds he heard match up.  “In Romanian. Something about… powers? Lord of powers. And mercy.”

“Lord of Powers have mercy on us,” Rogers said slowly.  “From the Great Compline.”

Eyebrows furrowed, Barnes looked at the captain.  “That’s not a Catholic thing, is it?”

Bucky answered him.  “Eastern Orthodox. He should be praying in Church Slavonic, unless…”  He shook his head. Now that he thought about it, his mother had prayed in Romanian, too, with the occasional Hebrew phrase thrown in when the priest wasn’t listening.  “It’s irrelevant. Fact is, he’s terrified of us.”

“And he won’t eat,” Jones agreed.  “Safe bet that he thinks the food is poisoned.  It’s not like the Germans don’t know who we are.”

“Most of Europe knows who we are from our unit patch at the very least.”  Bucky chewed his lip thoughtfully and tilted his head. “And I’m not so sure he’s German.”

“That’d explain his accent.  You wanna go talk to him, Ghost?  If anyone can understand him, it’s you.”

Bucky looked down at Tripod - she’d kept herself unsubtly between him and Iacob the entire time.  Glancing at the streak of bare metal on his vambrace, Bucky curled his lip and shook his head. “I think I’m good, thanks.  No need to give him a second chance to try an’ kill me; it’ll just embarrass us both.”

“He’s unarmed, you pillock,” Falsworth gritted out, glaring at his food as he sipped his fourth cup of watery, lukewarm tea.  “We searched him. Twice.”

“He shot me after he saw my face.  And based on how he keeps lookin’ at me an Sarge, he knows exactly who and what we are.”

The Englishman grunted noncommittally and took another sip of his tea.

Bucky sighed heavily and scooped up his canteen.  Tripod rose to her feet when he did, staying carefully in front of him as they approached Iacob.  Leaning down to rub the dog’s shoulder, Bucky crouched and held the canteen out to the wide-eyed boy.

“<Water,>” he offered, first in German, then in Romanian.

Iacob simply watched him with a healthy mix of terror and suspicion.  His eyes were red-rimmed and bruised from fatigue, and the teenage softness of his cheeks had disappeared at some point with, apparently, his food supply.  He’d only recently started eating enough to be anywhere close to a healthy weight, especially if the faint yellow tinge in his eyes and face was anything to go by.

His wrists were still thin with the delicate softness of youth, red lines and swelling showing Bucky where Iacob had pulled and twisted, testing the strength of the cuffs.  His fingers looked soft and pale, without calluses or stains from work or war.

There wasn’t any trace of spidery black numbers staining the skin over his ear on either side.

Clear blue eyes stared back at him, watching his every move and flicking down every time the breeze picked up one of the colored tassels on his coat.  Bucky let out another quiet sigh and uncapped the canteen. He visibly poured some of the water into his mouth, swished it audibly, swallowed, and opened his mouth again to breathe in.  He kept the cap in his other hand and made no move to touch the mouth of the canteen - no need to add any more variables.

After nearly a full minute had passed, Iacob awkwardly reached out for the canteen.

“<Private Jones told us your name, Iacob,>” Bucky said as gently as he could, pushing down the unsettling feeling of looking in a time-traveling mirror.  “<Where are you from?>”

He nearly sat back on his heels in surprise when Iacob answered.  “Dobrogea.”

“Constanța?”  

Iacob nodded reluctantly.

“<I’m from Brooklyn.  New York. Do you know where that is?>”

A sudden cold shrewdness flickered through Iacob’s face.  “<Which one? Mine, yours, or theirs?>”

“<So, you know where we are, then.>”

“<I know where we’re not.>”

Bucky took back the empty canteen, ignoring Tripod’s warning growl and Iacob’s answering flinch.  “<Why did you shoot at me, little brother?>”

“<I was scared.>”  Iacob’s eyes darted to the side when he answered.

Bucky closed his eyes for a moment and took a breath.  “<Iacob, I know you’re lying. I can’t help you if you lie to me.>”

The boy snorted and looked at Bucky defiantly, but the tremble in his lower lip gave him away.  “<Why would you possibly help me? They call you the omul negru for a reason.>”

“The hell?” Bucky exclaimed, startled enough that he defaulted to English.  When he noticed the men and Mickey staring at him, he waved dismissively and turned back to Iacob.  “<The boogeyman? Really?>”

Iacob looked away and swallowed thickly.  “<They say you are monsters. The omul negru and the moroaică, and the American gods-made-men.>”

Moroaică?   Bucky chewed his lip for a moment, rifling through what he knew of - oh.  His blood ran cold as he realized Iacob had just casually referred to Mickey as some form of vampire.  How could they possibly know about her powers?

Bucky kept his face impassive and decided to ignore what Iacob had called Mickey in favor of something more concrete.  “<They’re not gods; they never were. That kind of magic isn’t real.>”

“<It is.  I’ve seen it!  I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe!>”

“<Try me,>” Bucky shot back flatly.  “<I’ve seen a hell of a lot more than you think I have, boy.>”

“<You know nothing,>” Iacon hissed, eyes narrow and puffy as he looked up at Bucky.  “<You know nothing.>”

Raising his eyebrows slightly, Bucky simply looked at the boy for a few seconds before standing, turning on his heel, and heading back across the camp.  Tripod followed him close on his heel after baring her teeth warningly at Iacob.

Waiting until Bucky sat back down and picked his food up again, Rogers looked over at Iacob.  “What’s the verdict?”

“Crazy.  Or brainwashed.  Possibly both. Definitely not a friendly.”  Bucky used his last cracker to get as much of the protein goop out of the can as possible, then looked around for his second ration pack.

Mickey held it out to him with a small smile; she’d already peeled open the wrapper for him.  “Everything okay?”

He knows what you are.  “As okay as it can be, all things considered.”

“How about a tattoo?  Did you see one of those?”

“What’s our prisoner number got to do with anything?” Barnes asked, taking a few steps toward Iacob.

“If he had one, chances are he was brainwashed or otherwise coerced.”

“But he doesn’t,” Bucky added.  It wasn’t clear from Barnes’s scrunched-up face if he was happy about that or not.

“Maybe they have some sort of leverage over him,” Morita suggested.  “That’s an SS pistol he had. Even they don’t usually recruit that young.”

“Does it really matter?”

Everyone turned to look at Falsworth; he was hunched over with one arm around his stomach and the other hand white-knuckling his tea.  His eyes were narrow slits as he glowered blindly at the ground between his feet.

“Monty, are you feeling okay?” Mickey asked, starting to push herself to her feet.

“I believe something we ate in France has disagreed with me.”

Dugan glanced at him in confusion.  “That was a week ago.”

“Disagreed vehemently.”

With a small sigh, Mickey walked over to Falsworth.  She slipped a few fingers under his jaw and counted quietly as she took his pulse, then pressed a hand to his forehead.  “You’ve got a fever. I don’t think this is food poisoning.”

Mickey kept a hand on his shoulder for a few moments; Bucky knew she’d be feeling out Falsworth’s pulse to see if she could diagnose him from the inside out.  Heading over to her pack, Mickey dug out a small tin and opened it, offering it to Falsworth. “Dissolve a few of these in a cup of plain water as soon as you finish your tea.”

Bucky felt the familiar tug behind his sternum of energy simply leaving him before Mickey had even finished talking.  He rubbed idly at the itch over his heart that always popped up when she used him as a battery and began working the lid off the can of… beef loaf, this time.

At least it wasn’t Soviet rations.

“Stay on top of purifying your drinking water, boys,” Mickey said to the group at large as she tucked the tin back into her pack.

When she sat down next to Bucky again, he leaned close and murmured, “Cholera?”  She nodded. “What were the tablets, then?”

“Seltzer.”  She kept her voice low enough that no one could overhear them.  “I killed the infection, but that’ll help him be more comfortable while he heals.”

Bucky rubbed at the fading itch one more time before resting his arm around Mickey’s shoulders.  “Tell me about the kid.”

Sucking in her lips, Mickey studied the ground in front of her intently.  “He’s like you, just… less vibrant, bog-standard human. Similar pulse signature.  Healthy, aside from being scared shitless.”

“Born and raised in Romania, though.”

“And not from this world.”

They exchanged a glance that weighed heavily on Bucky’s shoulders.  “Any idea what our mystery collector wants with this one?”

Bucky shook his head.  “We’re still missing a lot of pieces to that puzzle.  God, I wish Nat were here, she’d have this wrapped up and tied with a bow on Fury’s desk before the weekend.”

Laughing, Mickey nodded in agreement.  She waved at Dugan and Dernier as they came back for the watch change, then started the straps securing her bedroll to her pack.  “We should get some sleep. When’s your shift?”

“Next one after this,” Bucky answered, stifling a yawn.  He glanced over at Iacob, then frowned.

The boy winced as he tried to settle into a more comfortable position, tied to the tree roots as he was.  He tugged on his handcuffs, trying to get the chain to slide over a large knot so he could lay down more easily, and closed his eyes with a short huff when it didn’t work.

Bucky pulled a spare blanket out of his pack and walked over to the boy.  He caught Iacob’s eye, pointed at the chain, and when the boy nodded, Bucky pulled it up and over the knot.

Once Iacob was laying down, curled on his side with his hands stretched toward the root, Bucky unfolded the blanket and settled it over the boy.  Just as he stood up, he heard a mumbled, “<thank you,>” drift up from the ground.

Bucky nodded, narrowly avoided tripping over Tripod when he turned, and made his way back over to where Mickey had their bedrolls ready.

“It’s a good thing it’s warm enough tonight that we have a spare blanket,” Mickey observed with a raised eyebrow.

“We’re holding him prisoner, but that doesn’t mean we need to be assholes about it.”

She looked up at him, drew in a breath, then sighed.  “I’m a little concerned with how Tripod’s acting toward him.”

Hearing her name, Tripod’s ears perked up.  When neither of her humans turned to her, though, she whuffled quietly and curled up in a ball at the foot of Bucky’s bedroll.

“She took some time to warm up to Barnes, too,” Bucky reminded Mickey.  “If she’s not better behaved in the morning, then we’ll deal with it then.”  He leaned over and kissed her goodnight before settling on his back and folding his hands over his stomach.

At least if he couldn’t fall asleep, he’d be able to stare up at the stars.

***

In the morning, Bucky had to take Tripod to the head of the column to keep her from growling at Iacob.

Mickey wasn’t sure if it was good or bad that her backside didn’t hurt anymore - either she was finally adjusting to being in the saddle, or she’d done enough damage to her nerves that she wouldn’t be able to properly feel her ass and legs for months.  Either way, at least she wasn’t wincing every time the donkey took a step.

Speaking of which.

“Hey, Jim-boy?” she called, and Morita slowed until he was walking next to her.

“What’s up, Doc?”

Mickey rolled her eyes and shook her head, smiling.  “The donkey. It, uh… what is it?”

Shooting Mickey a skeptical look, Morita laughed awkwardly.  “He’s a john. A- a boy donkey, one that’s been gelded. You really didn’t know?”

She shrugged, embarrassed.  “Never came up and it’s not like I know horse anatomy.”

“...you didn’t notice the dangly bits hangin’ there in plain view?”

“I don’t exactly make a habit of staring at animals’ genitalia!” she protested.  “I was raised around cars, not livestock.”

“God help her if she has to tell you which one’s a Ford and which one’s a Chevy, though,” Bucky said through the coms.

Mickey grumbled a few choice words under her breath, but couldn’t completely hide her smile.  “Someone’s sleeping on the couch tonight.”

One of the other men snorted, probably Dugan judging by the unsubtle cough into his hand.

Reaching down to shoo a fly away from the donkey’s shoulder, Mickey hummed quietly.  “Does he have a name? I mean, I didn’t see anything like a dog tag on his gear.”

“Tack,” Morita corrected her gently.  “And he’s got a serial number stamped on that metal disc on his bridle, but chances are nobody gave him a name.”

“Hey, Micks, what was the donkey’s name in Shrek?”

She squinted up at the vague shape of Bucky’s shoulders, nearly a hundred feet in front of her.  “...’Donkey.’”

“What, seriously?”

“Yep.”

Bucky harrumphed, then after a few moments said, “Lightning.  Call him Lighting.”

“Lightning?” Dugan asked, incredulous, and looked over his shoulder to give Mickey a baffled look when she burst out laughing.  “He’s a donkey.   He ain’t goin’ nowhere that fast.”

“What do you think of that, boy?”  Leaning forward, Mickey rubbed her hand over the donkey’s shoulders.  “You like that name?”

Lightning brayed loudly, much to the amusement of the rest of the men.

Behind them, Jones cried out; Mickey whipped around to see Iacob drop the large rock he’d managed to scoop up at some point as Jones crumpled to the ground.  The boy pelted past, running full tilt up the length of their column before any of the men could react.

Bucky spun around, his surcoat swirling around him as he brought his rifle up in one smooth motion.  Before he could fire, though, Tripod leapt forward and knocked the boy to the ground. She snarled at Iacob and Bucky cursed raggedly when he couldn’t shoot for risk of hurting Tripod.

Something glinted in Iacob’s hand, sunlight reflecting off of shining metal, swinging wide then arcing towards Tripod’s shoulder.

Oh god weapon-

Closing her eyes, Mickey latched onto Iacob’s now-familiar pulse signature and pulled.

The energy flooded through her and sparks exploded behind her eyelids.  She grabbed reflexively at the saddle horn and vaguely realized that the rough shout she heard was her own.  Ringing filled her ears, drowning out everything else and throwing off her balance.

When she opened her eyes again, she had to blink a few times before she recognized the gray blob above her as Lightning’s stomach.

Oh.  Yeah.  He’s definitely a boy donkey.

Mickey rolled her head to the side and drew in a few deep breaths while she waited for her eyes to focus; blurry brown and green shapes slowly resolved into the Invaders standing around her in a loose ring, guns trained on her head.

Bucky had one hand out toward the braying, bellowing donkey and the other held out warningly toward Rogers.  He was crouched slightly, half-shielding Mickey with his body as he looked between the other men.

Mickey couldn’t see Tripod or Iacob, Jones was sitting heavily on the ground, and Morita knelt in front of him with a canteen and a bloodstained white cloth.

When Mickey raised a hand to reassure Lightning she wasn’t dead, Barnes stepped forward and tightened his grip on his rifle.  His eyes were narrow as he kept his aim squarely between Mickey’s eyes.

“Stand down,” Bucky growled, his voice low.  “She ain’t a danger to you.”

“I think I’ll decide that for myself.”  Rogers’s pistol never wavered, hovering just above the edge of his shield.  “What the hell just happened?”

Squeezing her eyes shut for a moment, Mickey gritted her teeth against the pounding headache and the buzzy, over-caffeinated flutter under her skin.  “I could ask you the same thing, Cap.”

“Don’t get smart with me,” Rogers hissed.

Bucky’s shoulders tensed and the hand near Lightning’s neck balled into a fist.  “Steve, stand down.   So help me, God, I will kill every last fucking one of you before I let you hurt her.”

The wind whispered through the long stalks of grayish-green grass around them as no one moved.

Mickey’s fingertips started pulsing in time with her heartbeat and she bit back a groan as white-hot pain lanced through her head.  She curled her aching hands into fists and gritted her teeth, squeezing her eyes shut.

“Micks?”

“Took too much,” she managed.  “Doesn’t have anywhere to go.”

Fabric swished as Bucky moved, then Dugan’s voice rang out.  “Make one more move, cowboy, and we'll see how that fancy future armor of yours stands up to nine double-aught pellets of lead.”

“She’s in pain.”

“She’s a danger,” Barnes shot back.  “You saw what she did!”

What the-  Prying her eyes open, Mickey looked over at the sergeant.  “What did I do?”

“You don’t-”

“Tell me what I did,” she demanded.  “Where’s Iacob? Is he conscious yet?”

Rogers’s jaw dropped and he stared at her, dumbstruck.

“Doc…”  Morita turned to look over his shoulder, then gave Mickey a complicated, unhappy look.  “He ain’t ever gonna be conscious again. He’s dead.”

She clenched her jaw hard against another wave of overcharge.  “I just wanted to-”

“You pulled too hard, Micks,” Bucky said quietly.  His hood was loose around his shoulders, but he wouldn’t meet her eyes.  “There’s… there wasn’t anything left. You drained him.”

You drained him.

Mickey bit down on a reflexive cry as another spasm shot through her.

Tilting his head up to look at Rogers, Bucky clenched his fists in frustration.  “I have to help her! She’s burning up like this!”

“And what do you need to do to help her?”  The shield and pistol lowered slightly, but Rogers didn’t stand down.

Slowly, Bucky reached back for Mickey’s hand and clasped his fingers around hers.

The energy left her in an excruciating dump, leaving behind an aching hollow that almost didn’t feel any better.

Bucky hissed and his hand tightened; he coughed a few times to remind his lungs how to work and steadied himself by planting his free hand against the ground between his knees.  He took a few gulping breaths and tilted his head back, eyes screwed shut.

Utterly exhausted, Mickey rolled onto her side and curled against Bucky’s leg.  Her eyes prickled and she closed them, pressing her face into the crook of her elbow.

There wasn’t anything left.  You drained him.

“Myshka,” Bucky murmured, and the rough calluses on his hand brushed over her cheek.  “Sweetheart, are you okay?” The only sign of the overcharge was the ragged edge in his voice.

“No.”

He didn’t respond for a few seconds, stroking a finger over her temple.  “How long before you can ride again?”

She really, really didn’t want to move.  “Dunno.”

“We can’t stay here,” Falsworth said reluctantly from behind Mickey.  “We’re too exposed. Whatever just happened, we can discuss it and strategize when we’re at a more secure location.”

The short pause after his words felt heavy.

“Agreed.”  The quiet sounds of leather and metal moving and the quiet, relieved sigh from Bucky told Mickey that Barnes had lowered his rifle.  “Tie her legs to the saddle if you need to, Ghost. We need to move.”

“We’re a three hour march from the homestead,” Rogers added.  “Stay alert. I’m going to go deal with the… remains. When I get back, I want everyone ready.”

***

Bucky had given up scolding Tripod for snarling at the other Invaders.  He rubbed the back of his hand over his forehead in a fruitless attempt to chase away the lingering headache from letting Mickey overcharge him.  The coffee in his mug had long since gone cold, losing any vague hopes of palatability along with its heat.

The back door of the modest cabin squeaked open and heavy footsteps announced the presence of one of the other men.

Tripod lifted her head from where she’d been resting it on her paws and bared her teeth warningly at whoever was standing behind Bucky.

He closed his eyes and let his head hang forward.  “Need something?”

“Just wanna talk, big guy,” Morita answered.

“About what?”  Bucky took a sip of his coffee and immediately regretted it.  He grimaced and primly dumped it out on the ground just off the edge of the deck.  “I’m getting the distinct impression that none of you trust us any more.”

Stepping up next to Bucky, the Ranger shrugged and sat down.  “We don’t.”

“Don’t hold back,” Bucky muttered, fiddling with the empty mug in his hands.

“What I wanna know is why you haven’t told Doc about the syringe yet.”

“The fuck would I tell her?  Does it make a difference if Iacob had a knife or a vial of super-poison?”  Bucky dragged a hand over his face and sighed. “She’s upset enough as it is, I’m not gonna make it worse.”

“You don’t wanna tell her, don’t.”  Morita shrugged again. “But I think she needs to know what Iacob was trying to do.”

“Enlighten me.”

He shot Bucky a tired look.  “Doesn’t take a genius, Ghost.  Someone’s gunning for you.”

“That’s nothing new.”

“I’m not joking.”

“Neither am I.”  Bucky looked down at his hands; his fingers were still twitching slightly.  “Though I wish they hadn’t tried to get a teenage boy to kill me. Whoever it was, they had to have known they were sending him on a suicide mission.”

“Maybe that was the point.”

He looked over at Morita, eyebrows furrowed.  “What do you mean by that?”

“If seventy years of hell itself couldn’t kill you, nothing can,” the Ranger said blithely.  “You said it yourself: you’re effectively immortal. Chances are whoever told Iacob to kill you knows that.”

“So then why…”

“What do you do with a boat past its useful life?”

A chill spread through Bucky.  “Take it to sea and scuttle it.”

Morita spread his hands as if to say, well?

With a sigh, Bucky scrubbed at his eyes with his thumb and forefinger.  “You’re still a step ahead of me, Jim-boy.”

“The poor soul you found in Majdanek-” Bucky winced at Morita’s pronunciation but didn’t otherwise comment. “-well, it got me thinking after Doc, uh… after she made Iacob get all dust-like.”

His skin crawled as he remembered seeing Iacob literally crumble to ash in front of him.

“What if whoever did all those horrible things to the man in the cell also sent Iacob to his death?  It’s an effective way to get rid of unwanted lab experiments.”

The prisoner’s voice echoed in Bucky’s memory.   He thinks you hold the key.   “Mickey said Iacob was baseline, though.”

Morita made a confused noise and raised an eyebrow.

“Baseline human.  It’s what we call non-enhanced, non-powered individuals back home.”

“Might not be his body that got scienced up.”  Morita leaned back on his hands, legs stretched out in front of him and crossed at the ankle.  “Kid had soft hands; never worked a day in his life. Quality clothes like he had, little bit of baby fat left, someone’s making that possible.  He’s not a soldier like you an’ Sarge, so it’s gotta be his brain they’re after.”

Realization settled in like a heavy stone in the pit of Bucky’s stomach.  “And he didn’t have whatever they were looking for, so they made him disposable.”  He scratched at the back of his neck. “Jesus Christ.”

Morita didn’t say anything else for a few minutes, simply letting the quiet hum of the late evening insects wash over them.  When he finally stirred, Tripod raised her head and blinked blearily at him.

“Rogers is taking the team out for a surveillance run tomorrow first thing.  Wants you with them in case you all run into this new player. He’s ordered me to stay behind and man the radio.  These in-ear radios of yours, what’s the range?”

“Long enough.”  Bucky idly scratched at Tripod’s ears when she rested her head on his leg.  “And Mickey-”

“Is staying here with me,” Morita finished calmly.  “It’s obvious Rogers wants someone he trusts with her, but she actually made a good point, too.  She said she can sense people coming from a quarter mile away. We’ll keep each other safe that way.”

Bucky closed his eyes and nodded.  “Thank you.” He hoped those two simple words carried the gratitude he couldn’t easily express.

As he stood, Morita pressed a hand on Bucky’s shoulder.  “Talk to her about it, Ghost. She should know.”

The glass vial in his pocket suddenly felt heavier.  Bucky nodded and tapped his temple in salute as the other man walked away.

***

Mickey was already burrowed into a pile of scratchy blankets on a lumpy mattress when Bucky finally padded into the room they’d claimed for their temporary quarters, Tripod right behind him.  She rolled onto her back and peered up at the vague, dark shape of his shoulders. “Hey.”

Bucky hummed quietly in answer and made quick work of shrugging off his armor and the surcoat under it.  He sat down on the bed next to Mickey and drew in a deep breath before leaning over to unlace his boots. Tripod boof ed at Mickey, nosed at her hand, and beelined for the dog bed in the corner of the room.

“You okay, love?”  Sitting up, Mickey rubbed her hands over the back of his shoulders, then hugged him from behind.  Bucky’s warm hands settled over hers and she felt his chest expand as he breathed in.

“Neither of us is okay right now.”

Mickey closed her eyes and rested her forehead between his shoulder blades.  “True.”

“I should be here with you, tomorrow.”

“You should be keeping the rest of the men safe.”

“They don’t trust me anymore,” he said quietly, and gave Mickey’s hands a gentle squeeze before he shifted to set his boots next to their packs.  With a quiet groan, he lay down next to her and curled around her protectively. “If I’m going to keep them safe, I need them to trust me.”

Mickey shook her head.  “I’m the one they’re afraid of.”

“They’re afraid of both of us, now.”  He pulled her close and drew in a ragged breath.  “We should find a way to show them what you really do, though.  How you heal people. It’ll help.”

It wasn’t a bad idea; Mickey nodded and nosed around until she could kiss him gently.  “Mission comes first. We’ll just have to deal with it for the time being.”

When Bucky leaned in for another kiss, deeper than the last, Mickey didn’t hesitate to roll onto her back and pull him with her.  She held him tight, and helped him remember that he was alive.

***

Even in the middle of August, Germany apparently didn’t get much warmer than sweatshirt weather.  Mickey leaned back in her chair and tucked her hands into her armpits, squeezing her eyes shut as she did her best to absorb the warmth of the stove next to her.

Morita yawned expansively as he packed up his radio once more after the regular check-in with London - no movement to report from the surveillance flights.  He stretched his arms above his head and rotated his neck around to crack it, groaning softly. “You good over there, Doc?”

“Mm.”  Squeezing her eyes shut, Mickey rubbed at her face.  “I guess so. When did the rest of the guys say they’d be back?”

The Ranger checked his watch as he levered himself to his feet.  “About an hour. Hopefully they bagged some game on the move. Fresh meat sounds really good right about now.”

A faint cloud of dust poofed out of the cushion when he sat, and he coughed slightly as he settled into the chair.  His boots creaked as he stretched his legs out toward the stove.

The dull crackle of the tiny stove fire, muffled by the heavy glass door, soothed Mickey into something resembling relaxation for long enough that her shoulders finally slid down from up around her ears.  She rearranged the blanket around herself and leaned her head back against the chair, eyes idly tracing the rough grain of the boards above her.

“I, uh.”  Morita cleared his throat and gave Mickey a tight, awkward smile when she looked over.  “I got some questions, if it’s okay to ask ‘em.”

Half-shrugging, Mickey did her best to perk up a bit.  “What’s on your mind?”

He pursed his lips and frowned at the stove for several seconds before asking, “These… powers of yours, how do they work?”

Mickey immediately understood the direction of his thoughts.  “I transfer energy from one living thing into another. Also means I have a built-in radar of sorts for anything alive.  Sniper in a tree, I can sense him from fifty yards or so. Large mass of people concentrated in one area, a mile if it’s enough bodies.  Someone I’m familiar with, around a quarter mile.”

Nodding, Morita looked down at his hands.  He picked distractedly at the pilled fibers on his half-finger gloves.  “You couldn’t always do that, though, right?”

“Only for the past nine months, give or take.”

He nodded again and scratched at the salt-and-pepper scruff covering his jaw.

“It was really helpful when we did a disaster relief op about a month before Bucky and I got sent here,” Mickey said after a moment.  “I could locate trapped people faster and more reliably than any of the scanning equipment.”

“And… you pulled Iacob’s life into you.  Like a battery, right? You can absorb and release it, too?”

She held up her hands, turning them over to see the firelight play over her fingers.  “Energy has to come from somewhere. Mostly I just transfer it from one living thing to another.  I usually draw from Bucky or the Steve in my world when I need to heal someone.”

“Wish they’d had you in Jerome,” Morita said with a quiet sigh.  “My son’s only nine months old, and he’s spendin’ the first year of his life there.”

Biting down on the awkwardness, Mickey smiled apologetically.  “I… don’t know where Jerome is, sorry.”

“Internment camp out in Colorado.”  The Ranger looked tired and worn as he slumped in the armchair.  “They came to our farm out in Fresno just after I shipped back out to Europe the last time.  Said it was for her safety.”

“I- I’m so sorry…”

Morita shrugged.  “Least Catherine still gets to send me mail, an’ Cap an’ Stark made sure the kids got medicine when whooping cough went around.”

“Isn’t there a vaccine for that?”

Morita’s laugh was completely devoid of warmth.  “You think they’re gonna waste any of that shit on people like me?  Only reason I got one was because I joined the Army.” He shook his head and exhaled sharply.  “Only reason Catherine and Philip have their own house there is ‘cause of Cap.”

Leaning forward, Morita dug into a pocket and pulled out an envelope of waxed paper, translucent and oily from use.  He carefully pulled back the flap and slid a finger in for the contents; out came a few sheets of folded paper with V-MAIL stamped at the bottom, and a faded brown-toned photograph.  Morita held out the picture toward Mickey with a small, fond smile.

She took the thick paper gingerly, holding it by the edges as best she could.  The two figures, a black-haired woman and a sleeping baby, had the same dusty smoothness as some of the old pictures sitting in frames over Dottie’s mantelpiece back in DC.

“Is this them?” Mickey asked, even though the answer was obvious.

Nodding, Morita set the envelope and papers down next to his feet.  “We got married right out of high school. Took a few years of trying, but we finally have a baby boy.  I can’t wait to meet him.”

“You haven’t…”

“European theater,” Morita said wryly.  “We may be the Army’s best performing strike unit, but if Cap and Barnes can’t even get leave to go stateside, no one’s gonna be able to pull the right string for me to do that.  Senator Stern’s my best bet, and the man won’t be in the same room as me or Jones.”

Grimacing, Mickey shuddered.  “If I have to endure another smarmy come-on from that man, I can’t promise I won’t mummify him.  Would you believe that he tried to talk Rogers into transferring me to clerical work because of my constitution as a female?”

Morita snorted.  “Two words: donkey, saddle.  It ain’t brain surgery. You keep up just fine, and the added logistics is worth the benefit of a fully trained field medic.”

“Oh, speaking of, how’s Lightning doing?”  The Ranger had been the one to bed Lightning down in the small barn next to the house.

“Taking naps like the lazy ass that he is,” Morita answered with a shameless grin, chuckling as Mickey rolled her eyes.  “I think he’s enjoying the time off. They had him lugging gear before Cap requisitioned him.”

“Well, at least one of us gets some R-and-R.”  Mickey gave the photograph back to Morita and burrowed into her blankets.  Something tickled on the edge of Mickey’s range and she looked up, eyes unfocusing as she tried to identify the pulse.  “The men are back.”

“All of ‘em?”

She narrowed her eyes as she counted.  “Tripod’s with them, but…”

“Doc?”

There hadn’t been any radio chatter for nearly an hour.  In fact, the men were completely silent. “Cap, come in.”

No response.

Mickey pulled out her comm and checked the tiny status light - powered on but disconnected.  Maybe Bucky’s phone had broken?

The blob of overlapping pulses resolved into individuals, and Mickey felt the blood leave her face.  “Bucky’s not with them.”

Morita was on his feet in an instant.  “Which one?”

“Mine,” she said numbly.  “Ghost isn’t with them. He’s not with them.”

Chapter Text

Normally, Jack was a much better passenger on the bike.  Steve took his left hand off the handlebars and gave Jack’s hand a quick squeeze.  “Stop fidgeting, babe.”

A soft sigh crackled through the in-helmet comms.  “Sorry.”  Steve felt Jack’s helmet thunk gently against the back of his own.  “I just-”

“She’s going to like you just fine.  She adores Mickey.”

“Everyone adores Mickey.”   He didn’t sound jealous, though.  Not in the way that Bucky had when Becca was a precocious little five-year-old.

Steve signaled and quickly glanced over his shoulder before cruising onto the exit ramp.  “Can you tell me what you’re worried about?”

They were sitting at the stop light for several seconds before Jack finally responded.  “She’s one of the only connections you have left from before.  It’s like… I dunno. Meeting your parents, or something.”  He shifted uncomfortably and gave Steve’s ribs a bit of a squeeze.  “I feel like she’s going to be secretly judging whether or not I’m worthy of you.”

The light changed and Steve waited until he was done with the turn to speak.  “I’m afraid she already knows about HYDRA-”

“Fanfuckin’tastic.”

“-but she doesn’t care.”

“She should.”

He took a breath and stifled his knee-jerk, impatient reaction.  “I vouched for you. That’s all that matters to her.” The retirement community was approaching on the right, and the bike rumbled under him as he slowed down.

“What about Peggy, though?  Is she…”

“She might call you Monty,” Steve admitted reluctantly as he guided the bike into the parking lot.  “Her eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Neither is her memory.”

He waddled the bike into a parking spot and lowered the kickstand, then patted Jack’s leg when it was safe for him to dismount.  Undoing the straps on his helmet, Steve rolled his shoulders back to work out the knots from the long ride.

“Ugh, helmet hair,” Jack grimaced, eyeing his reflection in his helmet’s visor.  He smoothed his hair down with his free hand and gave Steve a tight smile. “I won’t freak out.  I promise.”

Steve took both helmets, locked them down, then stepped up to Jack and pulled him into a hug.  “It’s okay if you do. They’re both gonna love you, though.”

“Mm.”  Jack buried his face against Steve’s neck for a moment, then pulled away.  “Should we be affectionate like this in public here? I, uh. I don’t want to get yelled at or something.”  He glanced up at Steve, then looked down, nervously picking at the seams on his riding gloves.

Shrugging, Steve pulled off his own gloves and tossed them into one of the storage compartments.  “Anyone has a problem with it, they can say it to my face.”

Jack raised an eyebrow as he set his gloves in the compartment next to Steve’s and shrugged off his jacket.  “They take one look at your face and they’re going to be going ‘yes, sir, sorry, sir, may I have another, sir.’”

“Exactly.  Here, you get to carry this.”  Jack looked down in surprise at the insulated casserole dish bag Steve thrust at him; he’d apparently forgotten they’d brought it.  “Take it, it ain’t gonna bite ya.”

Steve pulled out two bottles of wine from the other saddlebag and closed everything up, then nodded his head toward their destination.  “Come on.”

When they got to the front door, Jack was practically hiding behind the bag in his hands.  Steve bit his tongue; saying anything would only make Jack’s anxiety worse.

The door opened seconds after Steve knocked, and Dot beamed up at them.  “Hello, boys. Come on in.” She looked down at the casserole bag. “Ooh, is that-”

“Ground beef casserole,” Jack blurted, then his cheeks pinked a bit.  He cleared his throat and tried for a smile. “It’s my mum’s recipe.”

“Well, I’m sure it tastes lovely.  Come in, come in.” Dot beckoned them in and closed the door behind them.  “Shoes off, please, we try to make life as easy for the cleaning staff as possible.  Mister Rollins-”

“Jack, please, ma’am.”

Dot nodded.  “Jack, then. Bring that into the kitchen for me, would you, dear?  Steve,” she continued with a smile, “Peggy’s in the sitting room. It’s a good day.”

Relief flooded through Steve as he lined his boot heels up with the baseboards.  He brushed a hand over Jack’s retreating shoulders and headed down the hall toward the quiet murmur of the latest BBC news broadcast.

Even reclining in an overstuffed chair that was an unfortunate shade of mauve and probably deserved a few crocheted doilies over the arms and back, Peggy looked every bit as dignified as she had in the SSR office so many decades ago.  Her hair was pinned back expertly, wispy white curls twisted and woven together. Despite the pleasant warmth of the gas-fed fireplace on the far side of the room, Peggy’s legs were covered in a thick knitted blanket with stitches the size of baseballs.  She had a delicate wool shawl wrapped around her shoulders, and the toes of fuzzy sky blue slippers peeked out from under the blanket.

Steve tapped his knuckles on the door frame to get Peggy’s attention.  When she turned, a brilliant smile spread across her face as her eyes lit up.  “Steve!”

“Hey, Pegs.”  He padded across the plush Oriental carpet and perched on the ottoman next to Peggy’s feet.  When she reached toward him, he covered her papery, thin hands in his own and gently rubbed some warmth into her fingers.  “How’s things today?”

“Oh, Dottie spoils me, as always,” Peggy told him with a fond smile.  “I must thank you again for arranging this. I daresay it’s worked out rather well for both of us.”

Nodding, Steve looked down at their hands.  His own lips curled in a smile to match Peggy’s.  “I’m glad. I always thought you two would have liked each other, before.”

“Well, it’s certainly worked out for the best.”  Peggy gently squeezed his hands, then looked over her shoulder towards the kitchen.  “Dottie, darling, stop interrogating Steve’s boyfriend! That’s my job.”

A high-pitched nervous laugh from Jack answered her, then Dottie came through the door pulling him along by the hand.

The poor guy looked absolutely terrified.  Steve managed to hide a smirk behind his hand and watched as Dot poked and prodded Jack into place for inspection.

Peggy crossed her arms primly and, with a distinct lack of subtlety, looked him up and down.  “Jonathan Andrew Rollins. Born August the 23rd, 1975. Formerly STRIKE Alpha’s second in command, serving under Commander Rumlow.  Older brother to one Michaela Draymond, auxiliary Avenger, callsign Rescue.”

Jack swallowed thickly and shot Steve a wide-eyed look before focusing back on Peggy.  He clasped his hands behind his back and fell into parade rest. “Yes, ma’am.”

Peggy’s eyes narrowed shrewdly.  “High-level HYDRA sleeper agent as well, if I’m not mistaken.”

He paled noticeably.  “...yes, ma’am.”

“And where do your loyalties lie now, young man?”

Jack opened his mouth, licked his lips, then sucked them in - Steve realized suddenly that Mickey must have picked up that nervous habit from her brother.  He glanced at Steve, his green eyes wandering as he blinked rapidly a few times. “I won’t pretend that I wasn’t responsible for the Uprising. I made my mistakes with open eyes, and I’ll pay the price for that for the rest of my life.”

Swallowing, Jack looked down at his shoes for a moment, then back up at Peggy.  “I’m not loyal to Captain America, either. Couldn’t care less about that asshole, actually.  Steve Rogers on the other hand…” He shrugged, a bit too affected to be as nonchalant as he wanted.  “The artist that stinks up the apartment with turpentine and helps me keep my baby sister’s garden alive while we’re trying to bring her home… I’m following him.”

Steve hid his sappy smile behind a hand and wasn’t able to resist the urge to look at Peggy.

She had one delicate eyebrow arched as she stared Jack down.  Finally, her lips twitched into a smile and she turned to Steve.  “You may have finally found one worth keeping, my dear.”

“Oh trust me, I intend to.”

Jack cleared his throat awkwardly.  “I, uh. Are we good, now? Because we spent an hour on the road getting here and I could really use a bathroom right about now.”

“Oh, good heavens!”  Dot seized his arm and tugged him away; Jack stumbled as she pulled him off balance.  “Where are my manners? Right this way. Sorry about that.”

Stifling a laugh, Steve shook his head and sighed.  He looked up at Peggy and smiled fondly at her. “Don’t be too hard on him, okay?  He’s got enough anxiety to deal with as it is.”

“Who?  This young man that you keep telling me about?”  Peggy reached up and cupped Steve’s cheek with a hand.  “You should bring him here sometime. I’d love to meet him.”

He only managed to keep a pleasant smile on his face by relying on years of practice.  “I will, Peg. You’ll love him, you’ll see.”

***

“It’s heavier than it looks.”

Steve tapped the the star in the center of the shield.  “Philosophical stuff aside, the metal’s nearly half an inch thick here.  Optical illusion, sort of. Our brains just assume the whole thing’s the same thickness as the edge.  The tapered cross-section is what lets it rebound as well as it does. Go on, put it on your arm.”

Jack’s reluctance must have shown, because Steve’s eyebrows furrowed.  “I just…” Pulling a hand through his hair, Jack shook his head. “You know who- what I was.  This isn’t for me.” He tried to hand the shield back, but Steve wouldn’t take it.

“Everyone, whether they’re on the auxiliary or primary team, learns how to use this.  If for some reason I get separated from the shield or incapacitated, everyone I’m in the field with needs to know how to throw and catch it properly.  It’s too valuable a weapon and tool to leave out of play.”

Running his fingers over one of the shallow grooves ringing the shield, Jack chewed on his lip.  “This represents everything I once fought against, you know.” The leather straps were worn and supple under his hands.

“And now, this represents everything you fight for.  I need to know that I can trust you with it in the field.”

Jack shook his head and held the shield out again.  “I don’t go into the field anymore. I’m a liability.  You know that.”

“What I know is that a highly trained senior agent, arguably one of the best baseline assets I have available to me, is actively refusing the chance to throw around Captain America’s shield and break shit with it.”

He stared at Steve, as stunned as if the other man had slapped him.  “I’m not one of the-”

“You’re also a self-effacing asshat, but I love you anyway.”

Jack snorted and sighed, closing his eyes to mask the uncomfortable lurch he felt when he couldn’t say those words back, not yet.

The shield shifted in his hands and he looked down to see Steve guiding the straps over his left arm.  He adjusted them with quick, practiced motions; shiny stripes were worn into the leather under the buckles where they fit around Steve’s larger forearm.

“First order of business is learning how to use a buckler the way it’s supposed to be used.”  Steve scooped up the dummy rifle he’d brought out onto the mats with them and held it ready in front of him.  “Every hit I score is a night you do the dishes.”

Shooting Steve a harmless glare, Jack dropped into a defensive stance with the shield held ready in front of him.  “Fighting dirty already, Rogers?”

Steve grinned wolfishly at him.  “Oh, I haven’t even started.”  And with that, he swing the rifle up and around and brought it whipping toward Jack’s face like a club.

***

Jack scrubbed at his eyes with one hand while he flipped through the press packet with the other.  “Shouldn’t Steve be here for this? I’m Mickey’s brother, yeah, but I’m pretty sure Buck’s got Steve listed as his next of kin.”

“I’m honestly not sure if I could convince him to do paperwork by chaining him to the desk,” Hill replied blithely.  “Mostly because we don’t have any chains strong enough.”

“Woman, you scare me sometimes.”

“Good.  That means she’s doing her job right.”  Natasha crossed over from the kitchen with several coffee mugs on a large tray.  She set it down in the center of the table and took one for herself before kicking her feet up and scooping up her own press packet.  “What’ve we got, Hill?”

“Couple of options for how we’re going to spin the disappearance of two Avengers.”

“Three,” Jack absently corrected her.

“Two.”

Rolling his eyes, Sam half-stood and leaned across the briefing table for his own coffee.  “Two and a half. I don’t think Tripod counts as a full Avenger. She’s really only useful for search an’ rescue.”

“Don’t let her hear you say that, flyboy.”

“Bite me, Rollins.”

“Kinky.”

“Back to the matter at hand…”  Natasha raised an eyebrow at Jack as she took a sip of her coffee.  "Rollins is right. Steve really should be here for this.”

“Captain Rogers is currently making the unfortunate occupants of a suspected Leviathan base piss and/or shit themselves.  I’m not picky which.” Hill shrugged. “We’ll give him the rundown when he gets back. For now, we need to figure out whether we tell the public the truth, pieces of the truth, or play politician and say we meant to do that.”

“I think the blast mark in the middle of a convention hall is a pretty big tell that we didn’t mean for it to happen.”  Frowning at one paragraph, Jack set his packet down, lined up the paper with the edge of the table, and tapped the black text.  “Regardless of what angle we take, there’s a bunch of trending posts about it, and it’s been over a month. Social media’s leaked enough pictures that people are asking questions and they won’t be satisfied with something that smells like a coverup.  LAPD’s doing the usual suspicious device routine, but it’s not fooling everyone, from what Taylor reported.”

“That’s why we’re going to-”

“Beg your pardon for the interruption, but Captain Rogers’s tracker just dropped offline.  His team is also nonresponsive.”

Stunned silence followed FRIDAY’s announcement, then Sam was on his feet in one quick movement.  “FRIDAY, load up a Quinjet with everything you’ve got and be ready for us in the hangar in twenty minutes.”

“You got it, boss.”

“Rollins, get STRIKE Alpha ready to go.”

“Wilco.”  He was out of his chair and on his way to the barracks before Sam finished giving the next order.

His hands didn’t start shaking until Evans grimly handed him a rifle loaded with lead.

***

“C’mon, man.”

The voice broke through the pre-mission white noise in Jack’s head and yanked him firmly back into the present.  He blinked a few times before the shape hovering in front of him resolved into Franklin’s face. The dull roar of the Quinjet engines numbed his brain and made it hard to focus on any of the murmuring voices around him.

The younger man had a hand on Jack’s shoulder and was peering at him, eyebrows pinched together.  “You okay?”

“No.”  Jack rubbed his hands over his face.  “Don’t have much of a choice, though.”

“If you’re compromi-”

“I’m not compromised,” he interrupted flatly.  “Not that way, at least.”

Franklin looked at him dubiously for a moment, then shook his head and headed back to the cockpit of the Quinjet.

The dull thump and shudder of turbulence made Jack squeeze his eyes shut and dig his fingers into his hair.  After a moment, he jerked back upright and mechanically cracked his knuckles by pressing the middle joint of each finger into the palm of the other hand.  Shortly after that, his fingers were tapping and drumming on his knees, random staccato rhythms doing little to soothe the burning itch under his skin.

The cadets - agents, they’re STRIKE agents now - kept glancing over to where he sat twitching and ticcing in the corner of the cargo bay.  He realized after a moment that none of them had even been on the radar as anything more than promising recruits before the Uprising.  Thankfully, that meant they thought they were looking at a pre-mission energy buzz rather than the twitching ball of nerves he damn well felt like at that moment.

The only thing he could do was ignore them, though.  If he let himself worry about the men and women in tac gear talking in hushed tones on the other side of the jet, he’d just spill himself into a deeper pit of anxiety, and then he’d be of even less use.

Rather than sit and twitch until he exploded, Jack gave up the fight he’d been mostly winning against his bad habits and started systematically shredding his cuticles.

“Sir?”

Training was the only thing that kept him from jumping when Gonzalez suddenly appeared in front of him.  She blinked a few times, then wordlessly held out a bottle of water.

“Thanks,” Jack croaked, and it wasn’t until he twisted the cap off that he realized how badly his fingers were bleeding.

“God damn.”   Gonzalez made a decidedly unhappy face when she noticed it.  “Sir, you really-”

“Not now.  Please.” The last word came out barely more than a whisper, an embarrassing half-whine that made him wince internally.

Gonzalez hesitated a moment, then nodded.  “Okay.” She stood there awkwardly for a few seconds, one hand wrapped around the other elbow, then nodded toward the jump seat next to Jack.  “Want some company?”

“Long ‘s I don’t hav’to talk a lot.”

Her face relaxed into sudden relief and she plopped down next to him almost immediately.  “No talking. Just someone to sit with.”

She held out a hand, palm up, fingers relaxed.  Jack stared at it for a moment before reaching out and clasping their hands together.  He gave her hand a gentle squeeze, then tilted his head back and closed his eyes.

“We’re with you, sir.  We won’t let anything happen to him.”

***

The icer rifle whined in Jack’s hands as he powered it up, and the blue charge indicator flashed a few times before settling.  He ran a fingertip over the row of blue dots and inwardly cursed the fact that he was still such a liability in the field.

Everyone else was carrying lethal rounds, but… he couldn’t.  Not anymore. Not after… not anymore.

The team moved as a fluid unit as they paced down the ramp of the jet.  A few agents hissed as the blast of cold, snow-laden air hit them in the face, but otherwise they stayed radio silent.

Jack scanned the tundra in front of them and felt something pinch uncomfortably in his gut when he saw the bunker’s blast doors.  He caught Franklin’s eye and gave the man a nod.

“Let’s move,” Franklin said quietly and adjusted his grip on his rifle as he led the team forward.  His voice was nearly swallowed by the oppressive silence, and the hollow squeak of boots on snow made Jack’s teeth itch.

Lined up in fire teams on either side of the door, the team waited for Peters to secure a charge to the door and confirm it was ready.  The burly agent stepped back into place next to Jack, then glanced at him.

Jack made eye contact with Franklin, held up his hand, then slowly lowered one finger, then two, then a third.  “Breach.”

The door shattered and sprayed out between the two fire teams, and they spun into the gaping maw created by the breach charge before the dust had even cleared.

It didn’t take them long to discover the base was abandoned.

Judging by the thin film of oily dust on every surface, it had been that way for years.

“No sign of disturbance anywhere other than the footprints, sir,” Peters reported, eyebrows furrowed as he manipulated the small projection map they’d brought with them.  It bobbed in the air above his hand as he walked next to Jack. “Charlie and Delta Teams are doubling back now that they’ve reached the end of their wings. Bravo is almost done with theirs, but aren’t getting any heat signatures or other life signs.”

Just as Jack opened his mouth to hail Bravo team, something crunched sharply under Carlton’s foot.

She froze in place, eyes flicking up to Jack.  “Sir?”

Crouching next to her foot, Jack shifted his rifle to one hand and peered at the remnants of the small device Carlton had stepped on.  “Doesn’t look like a trigger. Peters, run a scan?”

“Clean, sir.”

Carlton visibly relaxed and slumped against the nearby wall.

Scooping up the fragments of wire and plastic, Jack turned over what had once been Steve’s tracker.  “Well, he was here at some point in the past twelve hours.”

“How do you know it was him and not just the tracker?” Carlton asked as she tucked a stray wisp of hair back under her thick beanie.

Jack laid the tracker out on his palm and pointed to a small empty socket.  “No battery. There’s no reason to leave a nonfunctional homing beacon lying around.  If Leviathan or whoever the hell this is wanted to use the tracker as bait to pull us in, they would’ve left it transmitting.”

At least, that’s how I would have done it.

He carefully deposited it into a small pouch on his belt and snapped the closure shut.  “Bravo, report.”

There was a pause, then Franklin spoke in Jack’s ear. “We, uh.  We found a shielded room.  Jackson’s working on-”

“Done.”  Something clunked heavily through the comms, and Jackson grunted.  “Hell of a door.  We’re gonna need some extra bodies to get this one open, sir.”

“On our way.”  Jack didn’t need to wait for Peters and Carlton to fall into step behind him.  He took the route at a jog, following the trail of virtual beacons in his tactical glasses back to the branching point and then down Bravo Team’s hall.  Charlie and Delta’s pulse beacons were drawing closer as they made their way back to the hub room.

Jack had to resist the urge to whistle as he trotted up to a monolithically large vault door.  Dull gray steel reflected the pinpoint lights of their flashlights and headlamps, and a bar as thick around as Jack’s wrist ran along the far edge of the door.  “The hell is that doing here?”

“Looks important enough to guard,” Franklin commented with a shrug.  “We’ve scanned it for booby traps with everything Stark set us up with, and it’s clean as a whistle.  Whatever’s in there must be important.”

Humming noncommittally, Jack ran a hand over the slick steel of the door.  “Well, let’s get ‘er open.”

Carlton and Jackson took up guard positions facing whatever was behind the door, and Jack stepped up between Franklin and Peters.  They all got their hands wrapped around the bar, and Peters braced one leg against the wall next to the door for good measure.

It didn’t budge at first, but then it started to give way with a mournful groan.

“Must have a power-assist,” Franklin gritted out, his knuckles white against the steel bar.  “Damn shame it’s not working.”

A crowbar swung into view as Evans stepped up to them.  He waited until the outer lip of the door had pulled away from its frame, then snuck the edge of the crowbar under it and helped lever the door open.

The steel groaned and creaked as it rotated, popping several times as the hinges settled.

Evans was the first to get a glimpse inside the vault.  His head rocked back a bit as he squinted, confused. “There’s someone-”

A harsh, gasping breath echoed out of the vault, followed by a set of incoherent slurred sounds.

Jack would recognize that voice anywhere.

“Get it open!” he hollered, and more hands appeared around the bar.

As soon as the gap was wide enough for him to fit, he ducked out from under someone’s arms and started to slip through.

“Stop, don’t-” Steve choked out, just as a dense bluish-gray mist shot into the air around Jack with a thick hiss.

He got one glimpse of red-rimmed, panicked blue eyes under a mop of sweat-damp hair before black silence closed over him.

***

“Heart rate-”

Can’t breathe.

“-how long until-”

Cant.  Breathe.

“Gotta get him out of there.”

Move.  Move! Move, dammit, movemoveMOVE-

Whatever it was that held Jack in place splintered, cracked, then shattered around him.  His lungs stuttered and something smacked firmly into his right side.

He opened his eyes and it took a moment to realize he’d fallen over.

Blurred, duplicate shapes hovered around him.

He still couldn’t breathe.

He couldn’t breathe.

Jack tried to press a hand to his sternum, recited numbers in his head, tried to breathe, but his muscles wouldn’t cooperate.

Breathe!

“-having a panic attack-”

He tried desperately to inhale as a buzzy, frantic icy numbness spread through his body.

The trip home only registered in brief flashes of coherence, vivid details stamped into his memory surrounded by the fog of hyperfocus.  Jack barely felt the turbulence that jostled the Quinjet on the way back to the Compound. His brain kept stuttering every time he tried to look for Steve and couldn’t find him.

The steady bip bip bip of a heart monitor ran counterpoint to Jack’s own erratic pulse.

Pressure on his finger caught his attention regularly enough for him to yank off the offending thing, but every time he did, one of the STRIKE team came over and wordlessly replaced it.

When the jet finally touched down and the rear hatch opened, loud voices washed over him.  He craned his neck around Franklin and-

Doctors.

Doctors wearing green scrubs with masks over their faces and-

Jack didn’t hear the panicked shout that tore loose from his throat.  Something pricked into his neck, and then blinding cold washed over him.

***

Jack’s knuckles were as white as the clothes they’d dressed him in as he kept his fingers tightly laced together.  He couldn’t afford to give in to nervous habits, not while his cuticles were still showing the evidence of his last attack.  Squeezing his eyes shut, he leaned forward in his seat and pressed his crossed thumbs to his forehead.

The dull, barely-there hum of the ventilation system played havoc with his tinnitus, and if he didn’t go crazy from the isolation first, Jack had serious doubts about his ability to stay sane if he didn’t get something else to listen to.  His voice had long since gone hoarse from shouting and God help him, but he couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket.

A subtle shiver spread through his shoulders and upper back, and Jack drew in an unsteady breath.  Four days, he’d been in the containment room. Four days without news of Steve, four days without any human contact except a team of doctors that didn’t seem to care about a thing called personal space or privacy, fuck you very much.

He’d never liked doctors much to begin with, and it hadn’t gotten any better when his Mum got sick, or when they had to fight tooth and nail to get Mickey the treatment she needed.  Brock had quietly offered to take Mickey to all her appointments after Jack’s fourth panic attack in the parking lot of the clinic.

Of course, that hadn’t gotten any better after his tenure at the Raft.  His only human interaction had been an endless stream of silent, masked doctors following the orders of someone who really didn’t like Jack.

With an explosive exhale, he sat up and leaned back, flopping loosely onto the fluffy white blankets covering the bed.  He stared up at the featureless ceiling and, not for the first time, wished someone would just listen to him.

He didn’t have powers.

He didn’t have any goddamn powers.

Jack laced his fingers together under his head and closed his eyes, mentally working through the steps to break down and clean the Lapua rifle he’d used during his STRIKE days.

After a few minutes, the quiet boop of an entry alert caught his attention.  He opened his eyes slowly and pushed himself upright just as the inner airlock door slid open.

“Agent Johnson,” Jack greeted the woman that walked in, wincing at the roughness of his voice.

She looked down at the tablet in her hand.  “Daisy, please.” Glancing up at Jack, Daisy gave him a complicated look.  “You know, your little sister dealt with all of this a hell of a lot better than you have.”

“Mickey deals with a lot of shit better than I do.”  Jack slumped forward and braced his elbows against his knees.  The thick white cotton cloth of his… scrubs, for lack of a better word, bunched up around his elbows.  “Might be dealing with it better if you gobshites hadn’t locked me up in a cell just like Ross did.”

“I can’t let you out yet,” Daisy said apologetically, looking away; Jack knew the implications of his words hadn’t been lost on her.  “Containment protocols dictate anyone with newly formed pow-”

“I don’t have powers,” he insisted.

Raising an eyebrow, Daisy wiggled the tablet as if in explanation.  “You were exposed to Terrigen mist, successfully cocooned, and survived the process.  You have powers.”

“Unless my superpower is being perfectly fucking normal, I-”

“Not all of us show physical evidence of-”

“Stop saying us!”   Jack’s voice cracked and popped, betraying his fatigue.  He balled his hands into fists on his knees. “I’m not one of you.  I don’t have powers. I think I’d fucking know if I had powers.”

Humming, Daisy looked back down at her tablet and tapped the screen a few times.  “Yeah, that’s pretty much what I said. Tell you what. I want to do a simple test.  You do that for me, you’re free as a bird and I’ll take you up to see Cap right away.  Sound fair?”

It didn’t take long for him to weigh his options.  “What do I have to do?”

“Easy there, tiger.”  Daisy pulled out something palm-sized that Jack belatedly realized was a StarkTech blood glucose meter - likely modified.  “And before you ask, Cap’s fine. He’s resting up in your shared quarters as we speak.”

He didn’t bother hiding the relief that flooded through him as he took the meter from Daisy.  “So you need a blood sample? Surprised you don’t already have one.”

“There was a complication the last time we tried,” she responded vaguely.  “Just do the finger prick and the machine will tell me everything I need to know.”

Jack looked up at her suspiciously, then shrugged inwardly.  He lined up the side of his finger with the icon printed on the meter, pressed down, and waited for the tiny snap of the needle.

Something sharp popped up and pressed into his skin, but didn’t puncture it.

Frowning, Jack tried again with his ring finger, with the same result.  “You sure this needle’s good?”

In answer, Daisy took the meter from him and pressed her own finger to the tiny lancet.  The meter beeped and a string of numbers ran across the face before settling into a nice healthy 73.

Jack took the meter back, waited for the reading to clear, and tried again, this time with every finger on his right hand.  “I don’t understand.”

“The complication I mentioned?”  Daisy took the meter back and set it on the small table next to her.  “The nurse couldn’t draw blood to send to the lab because she couldn’t puncture your skin.”

Blinking, Jack stared at Daisy for a few seconds, then looked down at his prick-free fingers.  “...puncture my... skin.”

“Congratulations, Rollins.  You’re an Inhuman.”

***

How is he?

Jack stared at his phone, at the blinking cursor under Nat’s message, and finally typed, Sleeping, for the moment with one hand.  His other was curled around Steve’s as he waited for the other man to wake up.

It hadn’t taken long for Nat to track down the bastards responsible for this week’s clusterfuck.  She’d headed out on the trail before the STRIKE team’s jet had even left the runway at the Compound.  One terrifying interrogation later, and they’d deployed the STRIKE team once again to root out the remnants of that cell of Leviathan agents.

Clearly, Jack and the rest of Bucky’s team hadn’t done a good enough job burning the criminal underworld to the ground before they came home last year.

And while Jack sat on the bed next to a smaller, thinner, bonier Steve, the Avengers argued over what to do now that they’d been hit where it hurt more times than they could tolerate.

What little Jack understood of the medical jargon thrown at him told him that the effects of Erskine’s serum were separate from those of Howard Stark’s Vita-Rays.  They’d have to wait and see before they knew the full effects of the anti-serum on Steve’s body, though.

His spine was still straight, at least, and his lungs and heart were steady.

Closing his eyes, Jack slumped back against the headboard and focused on deep, even breaths.

He didn’t realize he’d fallen asleep until a sudden pressure on his hand jolted him back awake.

“Sorry,” Steve mumbled, and rolled his head to the side to give Jack a tired, apologetic smile.  “Didn’t mean to startle you.”

Sliding down to lay next to Steve, Jack shook his head.  “It’s fine. How’re you feeling?”

“Ugh.”  Steve squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his knuckles into them.

“That good, huh?”

Grumbling deep in his throat, Steve rolled over and pressed his face against Jack’s shoulder.  “Where’ve you been the past few days? All they’d tell me is that you were under observation.” He lifted his head up and gave Jack a tired, worried look.  “Are you okay?”

Jack looked up at the ceiling and swallowed thickly, bringing his arms up to wrap around Steve’s narrow shoulders.  He threaded a hand through Steve’s hair. “I, uh.” Clearing his throat, Jack cupped Steve’s jaw in his hand. “How much do you remember from when we got into the vault they threw you in?”

“Somethin’ happen?”

“Yeah.”  Jack looked down at his hand, curling his fingers into his palm.  Fingers that were still red and torn where he’d picked at his nails, but didn’t show any evidence of his increasingly frantic attempts to get a reading with the blood meter.  “Stark’s working on a way to scan for Terrigen matter, now.”

Steve slid a hand up to Jack’s and ran a thumb over Jack’s palm.  “So you’re like Mickey, then?”

All Jack could do was nod.  He was thankful that Daisy took the time to explain everything to him as patiently as she did, especially after his previous belligerence.  Still, it wasn’t a pleasant adjustment.

“So, uh.”  Lacing their fingers together, Steve propped his chin up on Jack’s chest.  “What’s the verdict, then? Flight? Laser beams?”

“Impenetrable skin.”  Jack looked back up at the ceiling so that he didn’t look back down at the red spots on his fingers.  “Only thing that can hurt me now is myself.”

“Jack…”

He shook his head.  “I know. I’ve already got an appointment to talk to someone.  I’m just… I didn’t want this. I’m glad you’re safe now and I’d do everything again in a heartbeat, but there’s a reason I didn’t take one of those contaminated fish oil pills Mickey and Bucky were running tests on.”

Lifting his free hand up, Steve scowled at it.  “Yeah, I know the feeling. I’d finally gotten used to being big, y’know.  Finally started recognizing the guy I saw in the mirror. And now I gotta work through all the dysmorphia all over again.”

“They only had you for twelve hours.  I don’t know how the hell they managed to-”

“Had everything ready to go.”  Steve closed his eyes and pressed his cheek against Jack’s chest.  “Took out my team, gassed me. Woke up cold and tired and small again in the vault.”

“Murphy and Levinson…?”

“Dead.  All of ‘em.”  Steve’s voice broke.

“Hey, don’t-”

“I know what you’re gonna say, Jack.”  Rolling to the side, Steve pinched the bridge of his nose.  “It is my fault.  If I wasn’t… me, then they wouldn’t have-”

“You don’t know that.”

“If I hadn’t taken them with me on that mission-”

“That’s what they signed up for!”

“They didn’t sign up for that!   None of you signed up for this.  You don’t even go into the field anymore.  Why were you there?”

Jack was too tired to let himself feel frustrated.  He dragged his hands down his face and let out a slow breath.  “Because when something puts the people I love in danger, it doesn’t matter what I did and didn’t sign up for.”  His throat tightened and his eyes prickled. “I can’t lose you, too. Don’t make me go through that again.”

Steve stared at him for several gut-wrenching seconds before he finally spoke.  “Are… are you sure you want to… I mean, I’m… I’m probably going to get sick all the time again.  And I can’t- I’m not-”

“I don’t fuckin’ care, okay?  I love you, you reckless, oblivious dipshit.”  It felt good to finally say it, and even better to finally mean it.

Letting out a broken, wet laugh, Steve hugged Jack tightly.  “Love you too, asshole.”

***

“Still at it?” Jack asked as he shoved his feet into his bunny slippers and scuffed into the kitchen.

Steve threw him a baleful look at turned back to the holograms projected in the air above the kitchen table.  “It’s all I’m good for, nowadays. Might as well make myself useful.” He tugged his overlarge sweatshirt back up onto his shoulder; even with the zipper pulled up to his neck, the Captain America-sized garment didn’t want to stay put on his now-thin frame.

“Yeah, by spending twelve straight hours staring at the same damn intel about Crossbones?  Do you want chicken or beef tonight?” As he walked past Steve, he took a moment to give the other man’s shoulders a gentle squeeze and plant a kiss on his cheek.

“Beef, we’re still waiting on my allergy tests.  And I dunno, maybe I’ll see something we missed.”

Setting the packet of meat down on the counter, Jack braced his knuckles against the granite and tipped his head back with a sigh.  “We’ve both been over that same data dump countless times. If there’s something to be seen there, we’ve already seen it.”

“I just feel like we’re missing something.”

“Steve.  Please.  Just put it down, you haven’t moved since I left for training this morning.”

There was a charged, tense pause, then the holograms winked out.  “So, I’m supposed to sit on my ass and play the invalid all day? Because it feels like that’s all I’m good for nowadays.”

“That’s a load of bollocks and you know it.”  Doing his best to keep his motions smooth and calm, Jack sliced the plastic off the beef and dumped it into a skillet for stir-fry.  “I just want a haven from all of that, okay? No intel, no missions, no reports, no briefings past the door, just us.”

Jack washed his hands, then held the refrigerator door open with a knee as he dug around in the vegetable bin.  After another long silence, Steve sighed quietly and stood up from the table. He poked his glasses back up his nose with one finger and brushed a hand over the back of Jack’s shoulders as he walked into the kitchen.  The rolled-up cuffs of his jeans scuffed over the smooth tile and wiggled slightly every time the inside seams caught on each other.

“Pass me the salad stuff, I’ll get started on that.”  He opened the cabinet where they kept the salad bowls, then swore under his breath.

“Everything okay?”

“Yeah, just kind of pissed off at this really tall guy that used to live here.  Kept putting all the dishes up too high, you know.”

“Barnes can be a real asshole sometimes.”

Steve rolled his eyes, but his lips twitched up in a fond smile.  “I see what you did there.” He pulled out a short step stool from under the sink, then stepped up onto it.  “He stopped doing that when Mickey got sick, though, at least for the stuff she used.”

Unable to stifle his own smile, Jack nodded as he nudged around the stir-fry.  “They did good, with each other. Never thought I’d say this about the Winter fucking Soldier, but… he’s a big softie.”

“Especially when it comes to Mickey,” Steve agreed.

The beef sizzled as it began to brown, and Jack added the vegetables.  “Got anything in mind for this evening?”

“Was thinking of going over the reports we’ve had of suspicious activity around the IFID in Lagos.”

Jack couldn’t help but roll his eyes and bump the smaller man with his hip.  “Good Lord, you really are oblivious. This is my subtle way of asking you if you want to put on the latest shitty Netflix serial and mack on the couch.”

Setting the tomato knife down, Steve turned to lean sideways on the counter and peered up at Jack.  “You still want to…?”

“Well… yeah.  It’s not like you’re a different person.”  Jack stared pointedly at the skillet as he dumped in the broccoli and garlic.  “We just fit together a bit differently now, is all.”

When Steve didn’t say anything, Jack started getting worried.  He looked up and almost laughed at the stunned, slackened expression on the blond’s face.  “It’s been a week, babe. I kind of miss you.”

Steve’s face pinched together and he gave Jack a wet smile.  “I know. I’m sorry.” He stepped forward into Jack’s arms and tilted his head up for a kiss, something Jack was only too happy to give him.

Halfway through dinner, Steve set down his fork and frowned down at his food, arms crossed on the table in front of him.

“You glare any harder, you’ll burn a hole in it.  Everything okay?”

Steve huffed out a laugh and pushed up his glasses to scrub at his eyes.  “Yeah, just…” He dragged a hand through his hair and pushed up his glasses to scrub at his eyes.  “Trying to figure out where I fit into the team, now.”

“Steve…”

“It’s important to me.  I wanna have a gameplan.”

Jack pointed at him with his own fork and raised an eyebrow.  “I’m humoring you because I love you, okay?” When Steve huffed out a laugh and nodded, Jack speared another bite of salad.  “You’re still by far the best tactician we have. You might not be able to supervise ops from the ground anymore, but that gives the team the benefit of eyes in the sky since you’ll see patterns you can’t when you’re on foot.  You’re also a decent enough field medic, so you could be Sam’s backup until we get Mickey, Bucky, and Tripod back.

“And I’m almost positive that all we need to do for martial arts is work you through relearning the body you’re in now, and you’ll be just as proficient as you were before.  Might end up working with Romanoff more than any of the guys, but either way we’ll have you back up to speed in no time.”

“But what about-”  Steve cut himself off, bit his cheeks, and shook his head.  “Okay. I’m going to trust you on this.”

“Hey.  We’ll figure it out.”  Reaching across the table, Jack threaded his fingers through Steve’s.  “We’ll get this figured out. Besides, I’ve already got a few ideas for helping you relearn your body.”

The faint pink that blotched into view on Steve’s cheeks made Jack chuckle, and the smaller man rolled his eyes.  “If you insist.”

“Gee, don’t sound so excited.  Could give a guy a complex.”

“Asshole.”

“Dork.”

The grin Steve gave Jack had a bit more life in it this time.

***

“Keep your wrist flat, like this.”  Steve demonstrated with his own hand, wrapping his fingers around the edge of the shield and holding it out straight.  “Gives you more leverage on the throw.”

“Also makes my wrist more likely to shatter on the catch.  Impenetrable, not indestructible, remember?” But Jack took the shield back and swung it through a few arcs, watching the positioning of his wrist and hand.

“Go ahead and toss it.”

Drawing his arm back, Jack swept it forward and sent the shield flying toward the far wall.  It bounced with a hollow clang and rocketed right back at him faster than he expected.  Crossing his arms in front of his face, Jack blocked the shield, then scooped it up from where it clattered to the ground at his feet.

“Physics schmysics,” he grumbled.

Steve smirked up at him, something Jack was still getting used to, and crossed his arms.  “Keep trying. When it comes back at you, step to the side and snag it as it flies past, not head-on.”

His arms smarted where the edge of the shield had slammed into the thick leather guards he wore, and Jack grimaced as he thought about the kind of bruises he’d have in the morning.  “Yeah, yeah. Be nice to have a robot arm like Barnes, sometimes.”

Eyes darkening, Steve looked away.  “You know what that cost him.”

“Kidding, Rogers.”  Setting himself back up for another throw, Jack took a shallow breath and then let the shield fly.  His fingers slipped over the smooth metal when he tried to catch it, though, and it ended up wobbling to the floor behind him.  “I’m starting to wonder if the armor in the tac suit is to protect you from the shield instead of bullets.”

“That, and glass shards from jumping out of an elevator while I’m still god knows how many stories up.”

“Ugh.”  Jack grimaced and waggled his fingers as he slid his arm into the straps on the backside of the shield.  “Don’t remind me. I got my ass handed to me in ten seconds flat in that thing.”

Giving Jack a curious glance, Steve stepped forward and tightened the strap around Jack’s wrist.  “Is that why you don’t do elevators anymore? I’m sorry, if it is.”

“No, it’s just…”  He sighed and rubbed at his eyes with his free hand.  “Small spaces. They, uh… At the Raft. You know.”

Steve gave his arm a gentle squeeze before stepping away.  “Just like I showed you,” he instructed, gesturing toward the shield.  “We’ll put the magnets back on it soon, but I want you to know how to use the straps if you need them.”

Two hours later, sore and stiff, Jack groaned as he kicked the bathroom door shut and tugged up the hem of his shirt.  There wasn’t a single bone in his body that hadn’t been hit by the shield at some point over the course of the training session, and he wasn’t looking forward to seeing his skin blooming in colors it shouldn’t-

Huh.

Jack raised his eyebrows when he caught sight of his chest in the mirror.  He knew for a fact that he’d taken a full-force impact to his sternum, and it hurt at the time.  By all rights, he should at least have a massive bruise forming there, possibly even a cracked rib or two, but all he saw was smooth, pale skin.

“What the hell…” he muttered, and quickly stripped the rest of the way.  He couldn’t find evidence of his repeated disagreements with a cantankerous vibranium frisbee anywhere.

“Jack?”  Steve’s voice drifted through the door, followed by a quiet knock.  “You okay in there?”

When he didn’t answer immediately, the door slowly opened.  Steve poked his head in and pushed his glasses back up his nose.  “Babe? What’s wrong?”

“I, uh…”  Jack twisted around to look at his back in the mirror.  “This is going to take some getting used to.”

“What?”

“I guess I took a level in Paladin and added Stoneskin to my list of spells.”

Steve just blinked at him a few times.

“It’s… Mickey and I used to play Dungeons and Dragons a lot,” Jack admitted as he leaned into the shower and turned on the water.  “Stoneskin is a spell you can cast, makes you resistant to nonmagical physical damage.”

After a moment, Steve chuckled and shook his head.  “You’re a dork and I love you.” He stepped forward and gave Jack a quick, chaste kiss.  “Grilled cheese sound good? I’ll get it started.”

“Cheddar for me.  I’m not eating anything referred to as ‘nut cheese.’  You may be lactose intolerant now, but I don't have to suffer for it, too.”

Steve flipped him off as he headed back down the hallway, but he was still laughing.

***

Jack knocked on the door to Hill’s office, then stepped back half a pace and fell into parade rest.  When the door opened, he nodded at her. “You asked to see me, ma’am?”

“I did.  Come in.”

He followed her inside, but stopped dead when he saw Steve, Fury, and Tony seated around Maria’s desk, clearly waiting for him.  “...did something happen?”

Fury gestured toward the empty seat.  “Agent Rollins, have a seat.”

Twenty years of training had Jack’s ass in that chair before he remembered that Fury was no longer his commanding officer.

“We’ve all been talking about this since Steve was released to his quarters last week,” Hill began as she sat down.  She crossed her arms on the desk in front of her.

“...talking about what?”

Steve shifted in his seat and gave Jack what was probably supposed to be a reassuring smile.  “I’m not able to fulfil my duties as Captain America anymore. We’re working on who’s going to take my place.”

“Wilson,” Jack said without needing to think about it.  “He’s the best man for the job.”

Fury and Hill nodded, and Tony and Steve gave each other a look that Jack couldn’t decipher.

“We considered that,” Fury said, and leaned forward on his knees with his hands clasped between them.  “And after a lot of discussion, we decided to move in a different direction.”

“...okay.”

Tony leaned back in his seat and crossed his legs.  “How do you feel about wearing the stars and stripes, Captain Rollins?”

Chapter Text

Bucky woke to the decidedly unpleasant feeling of his ear canal turning inside out.

His comm unit pulled free with a sticky pop, and he groaned reflexively as his eardrum crackled in protest.

“He’s waking up again,” an all-too-familiar voice said, broadened with a subtle Slavic burr.

Bucky’s eyes shot open and he stared sightlessly above him for several seconds until his eyes remembered how to focus.  Instead of the warm, soothing wood of their temporary lodgings or the rough canvas of a tent, he stared up at colorless, eggshell-finish concrete.

“...the hell,” Bucky croaked, his throat popping with the effort.  It felt like he’d swallowed a cotton ball. Repeatedly.

He tried to lift his hands to rub the grit out of his eyes, but neither of them moved.  His right arm pulled up about an inch before being stopped short by some sort of restraint, but his left… his left arm didn’t even move at all.

Bucky rolled his eyes down far enough that he could feel the strain in the muscles surrounding them, and his lungs stuttered when he saw tiny black insects positively swarming up his arm.

“No.”  A strap around his forehead meant that all he did was twist his neck when he desperately flinched away from whatever the fuck was on his arm.  “Nonono-”

“This is fascinating,” another voice said, clipped and quiet, tight with a Swiss accent, and Bucky’s panic turned into full-blown terror.  “This device, this communicator, this is similar to the one you use, correct?”

No matter how much he struggled, the restraints held him fast.  Bucky yanked again and again, trying to rip his arm away from the tiny creatures invading, crawling through him.  He couldn’t rip his eyes away from the gleaming, shimmering black surface of the swarm.

The other man - the other Bucky - scoffed.  “Don’t insult me, Zola. I haven’t used anything that primitive in four hundred years.”  A dull silver hand crossed over Bucky’s field of view and pressed against the side of his face.  “You need to rebalance his drip so he stays out. I can’t keep doing this to him, it’s hell on his epile-”

A brief cold jolt slipped through Bucky’s head before warm blankness swept him back into unconsciousness.

***

The second time Bucky woke, his cheek was firmly stuck to the smooth, cool surface underneath him.  He masked the hitch in his breathing as best he could, kept himself loose and relaxed as if he was still asleep, and quickly took stock of his environment.

He wasn’t restrained anymore, but judging by the chill settling into every piece of him in contact with the floor, he was lying on his side on stone or concrete.  His armor and costume-turned-uniform had been removed, and someone had dressed him in what felt like simple clothes made from…. Wool. Definitely wool. The thick, earthy, oily odor of lanolin seeped into his consciousness, and Bucky had to work hard to avoid wrinkling his nose as it picked up the scent of his own unwashed body as well.

The next smell he registered was faint, but the slight dampness and stale, recirculated texture of the air told him he was somewhere underground.  Not far underground, judging from the subtle thrums of military trucks passing overhead, but underground enough to mean he likely wouldn’t have any windows in what he suspected was a small cell.

Sorting through sounds and smells and dismissing them accordingly, Bucky strained to hear any heartbeats, breathing, involuntary movements, or any other cue that he wasn’t alone.  While he couldn’t hear a heartbeat or even the steady air movement of breathing, some base instinct told him there was someone else on the room.

“I know you’re awake, bratik.”

Little brother.  Little brother, said in the same Slavic-flavored version of Bucky’s own voice he’d heard earlier.

If this was the one Hodge had seen, even the one that had shown up on the aerial photos… it wasn’t likely that the man was a friendly.

The other man shifted slightly with a rustle of stiff, rough fabric.  “I have something for you.”

With a quiet sigh, Bucky resigned himself to facing what was likely the worst version of himself.  He slowly opened his eyes, blinking a few times while they remembered what depth perception was. The featureless gray wall across from him didn’t help any.

It took more effort than he expected to lever himself upright and pull his legs around so he was sitting with his knees pulled into his chest.  He closed his eyes for a moment and dropped his head onto his knees, then took a deep breath.

“You may feel exhausted after the repair,” his twin said from behind him.  “The nanites draw on your body’s own energy to create the materials needed.”

Bucky braced himself before he looked down at his left hand.  The fingers moved slowly and unsteadily as he rotated his hand around, studying the time-worn silver plates suspiciously.  “The swarm…”

“Those were the nanites.  There was a lot of damage from… my soldiers were overzealous in securing your safety.  You… screamed something about insects before passing out at one point. I apologize for scaring you.”

He clumsily shoved the khaki sleeve of the Wehrmacht-issue shirt up to his elbow.  When that still looked normal, he fumbled open the buttons down his chest, shoved the shirt off his shoulder, and yanked his arm out of the sleeve.

A large patch of the plates on his bicep were now black, gleaming with a dull, oily sheen and centered directly over the control unit that Bucky connected to his phone.  He swallowed against the dry anxiety clawing its way up his throat and ran the fingers of his right hand over the black plates. “The controller?”

“Destroyed, replaced with something of my own design.”

Bucky finally turned to look at his twin; the man sat on the narrow cot on the other side of the cell, elbows on his knees, studying Bucky intently.  His face was the same, even if his nose had been broken a few more times and not quite set right after each. Steel blue eyes calmly watched Bucky with mild interest, framed by a square face that was all too familiar.  The man’s hair was intricately braided and wound together, crisscrossing in an elaborate geometric pattern as they swept back to a half-bun at the base of his neck. Subtle glints of silver drew Bucky’s attention to the thin metal rings braided directly into the man’s hair and curling around the cartilage of each ear.

He was dressed in sleek, black tactical gear, subtly patterned with a texture that tickled at Bucky’s memory.  Discreet armor panels were set into the fabric at strategic points, and the textured, nubby soles of his split-toed boots told Bucky that this one was from a world more advanced than his own.  He had a large knife strapped to each boot, and judging by the harness winding around his chest and the holsters on his thighs, he normally carried several firearms of various sizes. A smooth silver cylinder roughly the length of his thigh and around an inch thick was clipped to the holster straps on the left.

His arm was, simply put, fascinating.  The gaps between panels were barely visible, dark silver plates lined with deep, rich gold.  The subtle whirr of servos and articulation ever present in Bucky’s own arm was absent when his twin gestured smoothly to the pile of fabric next to him.

“I did what I could to repair it,” he said, running a hand over the camouflaged-dyed fabric of Bucky’s costume-turned-uniform.  “You seemed rather attached to it, so…”

Bucky didn’t look away from his twin’s eyes.  He pulled the shirt back up on his shoulders, lifted his left arm slightly, and frowned.  “Why?”

His twin blinked at him a few times.  “It… it was a rescue. You weren’t supposed to get hurt.”

“A rescue from what?”

“From him.”

Bucky peered up at his twin skeptically.  “I don’t recall being in any danger from any of the men on my team.”

“You aren’t.  Not yet.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Rogers.  Steve- he-”  The man exhaled sharply and looked away.  A tiny silver ball set into his nose caught Bucky’s attention as it glinted in the harsh overhead light.  “He changes. Not in every world, but in some. In this one. And here, this base, is where it starts.”

Bucky hummed, unconvinced.  “What about Barnes? The one that’s actually from this world?  I’m in danger, but he’s not?”

“He’s still strong enough to fight it,” the other man said flatly.  “Your conditioning is still active. All Rogers needs to do is learn the right words, and it’s over for you.”

Ice spread through Bucky’s veins.  “The- the words are gone. I know they’re gone.  We tested it, we-”

“Those weren’t the only words.”  The roughness of his twin’s voice was concerning.  “Did you really think Fenhoff wouldn’t program in a failsafe that only he knew of?”

“No.  No, don’t- don’t say that-”  Bucky stared at the other man, wide-eyed.  “Please, don’t-”

“I wish I was lying, bratik, but the world I come from… it’s gone.  Burned and destroyed, in a war fought over those damned words.   And Rogers was the one who burned it down.  All I have left, all I can do, is protect the rest of us from him.”

“Steve wouldn’t do that.”

His twin’s eyebrows drew together.  “Not your Steve, no. He’s one of the good ones.  But here, in this world, in the sixties, the Russians will find him in the Arctic and bring him to the Red Room.  And then, after that… there’s not much left of the Steve you have.”

Bucky scrubbed his hands over his face and sighed heavily.  “So, Iacob. The man in Majdanek. What happened to them?”

A scowl settled onto the other man’s face.  “Unauthorized attempts to test the anti-serum Zola has been developing for me.  Those should have never happened.”

“He was a kid.”

“He was controlled,” the man spat.  “Iacob was raised in this war, in his world.  He hasn’t known anything different. He’s terrified of me because they told him to be, and it wasn’t too much of a stretch to make him terrified of you.  So when they hand him this-”  The man twirled his fingers and Iacob’s delicate glass syringe rolled into view.  “-and tell him to kill you, he doesn’t think twice about it. Even when he is-”

“Was.  He was.”  Bucky closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “Kid’s dead, now.” The nauseating sensation of seeing a man crumble to ash and dust before his eyes would stay with him for a very, very long time.

The other man hissed between his teeth and looked away.

“And the prisoner,” Bucky continued quietly.  “He asked me to kill him, told me how. Said something about someone wanting to know if he can die, and that I hold the key to that.  Safe bet he was talking about you, huh?”

“I’m tired,” the other man said simply.  “I’m tired. This, this is the last world.  The last one to save. And after that… I’m done.  I want to rest, finally. It’s been…” His face crumpled and he squeezed his eyes shut.  “So long.”

Bucky thought back to the snatches of conversation he’d heard strapped to the table.  Four hundred years.  When he remembered the other voice though, his throat closed up again.  “But why Zola?”

“He created the serum that made us immortal.  He’s the only one who can un-create it. Also, he helped me fix your arm.”

Heavy silence spread between them like a chasm for nearly a minute before the other man spoke again.

“He’s a despicable monster that doesn’t deserve to call himself human.  But he’s also the only one capable of reversing what ours did to us. I need him alive.”

“Zola is the only reason HYDRA still existed after the war,” Bucky shot back bitterly.  “Leviathan would have died out without him, and HYDRA never would have infiltrated SHIELD.”

“Infiltrated?”  His twin laughed, mirthless and low.  “Oh, no. SHIELD was never infiltrated.  SHIELD was HYDRA, they were just too blind to see it.”  He wove his fingers together and looked down at the concrete between his boots.  “Yes, without Zola, HYDRA will never resurface in the same way. Without Zola, the Russians will not be able to brainwash and control Rogers the way they did with us.  Without Zola, we would never have become living weapons torn from our humanity.”

“So why work with him?” Bucky demanded, wincing at how his voice cracked.

“Because as soon as the anti-serum is complete, I’m going to kill both him and the Skull.”

“What about the others?  Who’s going to send them home?”  The broken, ravaged face of the prisoner rose up in Bucky’s head, followed by the harsh bite of bile in his throat.  “And the ones that died…”

“The cost of war.”

“Bull shit.”  Bucky was on his feet before he knew it.  He stabbed a finger into the other man’s chest as he leaned over him.  “Don’t pretend the human cost of your… your suicidal obsession is meaningless.  We know about the anomalies from the Door devices.  We know how many times you’ve hopped worlds.  We know-”

“You know nothing,” his twin hissed, rising smoothly to his feet.  Barefoot as Bucky was, the other man had an inch in height on him and took full advantage of it.  “My world, my home, it was destroyed, burned, massacred by the man who once vowed to me to have and hold for better or worse.  And then he left, he found those fucking things, the gateway devices, and left for another world.  I got there too late to stop him.”

The man’s vowels rounded and blurred, his accent becoming more pronounced the more agitated he became.  “Four hundred years, I follow him, four hundred years I follow the trail of bodies he leaves behind. There are millions, billions of realities, billions of us like sheep to the slaughter.  You think you know my hell? You have never seen Hell.  You have never looked the man you loved in his eye and seen nothing but hate, hate, hate.   You have never seen him snap a child’s neck like a toothpick, seen your own eyes go dead in his hands.”

He closed his eyes, drew in a long, unstead breath, and jerked his head to the left.  Lips pressed together in a thin line, the man ignored Bucky for several breaths before sitting back down heavily.  When he spoke next, his words were deliberate, more controlled. “At first, I tried to rescue our brothers. I tried to give them a home, give them safety.  But many of them, they were just as… just as wrong as Rogers.  So those, I gave to Zola, to use in his lab.  The ones who weren’t… corrupted, I sent back to their world once it was safe.”

Bucky stared at the man dumbly long enough that he started shifting under the weight of Bucky’s gaze.  Finally, Bucky cleared his throat and swallowed. “So. What about me? Why me?” He turned away to stare at something, anything that wasn’t his twin.  Colorless walls stared right back at him, and the only thing of visual interest was the primitive latrine shoved in an alcove, nestled behind a narrow wall for the illusion of privacy.

“You are the only one immortal like me.”

He turned and gave his twin a sharp look.  “So, what? I’m your new lab rat?”

The other man’s lip curled.  “No! Nothing of- no.” He looked down at where Bucky’s uniform was neatly folded on the cot and picked at one of the scraps of fabric sewn onto the surcoat.  “I… need you.”

“I’m still waiting for you to give me a good reason for why you yanked my girlfriend, my dog, and me out of our fucking vacation and into a war zone.”

He winced and shook his head.  “They were not… it was only supposed to be you.  I should not have trusted Leviathan to-”

“You what.”

“I make use of the assets available to me,” the man said bitterly, “no matter how much I may detest them.”

“You wanna tell that to Mickey?  Explain to her why the fuck-”

“She’s going to die.  They all will.”

He looked sidelong at the other man; it took him several seconds to stop bristling at the perceived threat and realize it was simply a statement of fact.  “Yeah, I know. People tend to do that, eventually.”

“She will die,” his twin repeated, as if Bucky hadn’t understood him.  “She will die, and you will be alone. They will all die.  All of them.  Every last one you love, they will die and leave you alone.”

“Pal-”

The man stood and reached for Bucky, then awkwardly aborted the movement and crossed his arms.  “You don’t want to die yet. I… I wish I felt the same way. But I can give you a way, when you’re ready.”

Bucky didn’t answer him at first, mulling over everything the other man had told him, trying to fit the pieces of the puzzle together.  “Four hundred years is a long time,” he finally observed quietly.

“Four hundred fifty-six,” the other man corrected him.  “Most of which I spent following the trail of carnage through the multiverse that Rogers left behind him.”

“And where is he now?”

He looked down at his mismatched hands, pink flesh against silver and gold.  “Dead.” His fingers curled into his palms and he looked away, face pinched in pain.  “Dead by my own hands.” Then, as an afterthought he probably hadn’t meant for Bucky to hear, “Love is for children.”

Bucky looked down at his own hands, dull silver and dirt-stained skin.  He tried to flick on the hard light hologram that cloaked his arm, but nothing happened.  After one more attempt, he glanced up at his twin, and the man shook his head. Bucky sighed and looked over at the pile of his armor and uniform on the cot.

Coming to a decision, he started shucking the wool clothes he’d been dressed in.  He pulled the heavy black underlayer out from under the surcoat and armor panels and stepped into it, tugging it into place as he did up the straps and buttons.  “Why did I wake up in a cell?”

“For your protection.”

“From what?”

The other man snorted and took Bucky’s surcoat from him, holding it out so Bucky could slide his arms into the sleeves.  The left was expertly patched and restitched, moving just as freely as it had before. “Zola is too curious for his own good, and I still remember everything he did to me.  To us. I didn’t want you to wake up to that. I still need that slimy weasel alive.”

Bucky hummed as he twitched the surcoat into place and ran his hands under it to make sure the layers below were laying flat.  “He’s smart enough to know you’re using him, and he’s probably figured out your endgame.” When he got his vambraces into place, he tested each hidden blade and retracted them quickly.  “Don’t be surprised if crossing him off is harder than you expect, and that’s before Schmidt even enters the picture.”

“That’s the other reason why you’re here.”  When Bucky turned around, his twin was holding out a pair of familiar Colts, Bucky’s guns.  “We stand a better chance of killing them together.”

After a moment’s hesitation, Bucky took the pistols and twirled them around by the trigger guards before slotting them into the holsters under each arm.  “What should I call you?”

The other man gave Bucky the ghost of a smile and pulled Bucky’s phone out of his pocket.  He held it out and nodded after Bucky took it. “Nikolai, bratik. Call me Kolya.”

He turned toward the door to the cell and pressed his left palm flat against it for a moment.  The bolt released with a dull thunk, then Kolya pulled his hand - and the door - back toward him.

“Vibranium electromagnets,” he said with a glance at Bucky.  “They come in handy, pardon the pun. Pull your hood up, Ezio.”

Bucky did as he was told, settling the heavy fabric over his head as he stepped through the doorway.

The hallway beyond the door terminated in a staircase a little over twenty yards away.  Two guards in HYDRA uniforms stood at attention on either side of the cell door; they eyed Bucky warily as he followed Kolya out into the hallway.

“<Stand down, he’s a friendly.>”  Kolya raised a hand and flicked two fingers forward to beckon Bucky to follow him.  “This way.”

Murmuring a quiet greeting to the guards, Bucky ignored the way the hair on the back of his neck stood up the further he got from his cell.  He hadn’t picked up on anything that told him Kolya was lying to him, but… a niggling, sneaking suspicion was starting to form that the cell he’d just left might well have been the only truly safe place in this pit of many-headed snakes.

Once out of earshot of the guards, Bucky sped up a bit to walk directly next to Kolya.  “We do need to talk about the Invaders,” he said in an undertone. “I’d bet my Mustang they’re already on their way and planning a violent rescue.”

Kolya hummed noncommittally, only stopping when Bucky grabbed his arm and forced him to.  He tilted his head to the side and frowned. “They care about you that much?”

“Well, yeah,” Bucky said, confused.  “They’re my team. And Mickey’s not just going to-”

“We have more important things to do than wait for a squadron of baseline humans who will only get in the way.”

“They’re my team.”

“They’re baseline.”   Kolya narrowed his eyes.  “Why is this so important to you?  You’ll outlive every one of them, you know that.  Leave them behind.”

Bucky stared at his twin, nonplussed.  After a moment, he shook his head and sighed.  “Man, the past hundred years must’ve messed with your head or something, because- Jesus Christ, did you seriously just tell me to leave the Invaders behind?  Dugan and Falsworth and-”

“I may be old, but I’m not senile,” Kolya growled.  “I remember who they are. I remember digging their graves in so many worlds that I lost count.  We have more important things to do , bratik.”

“No.”  Crossing his arms, Bucky planted his feet and drew himself up to his full height.  “I don’t care what your mission is, I’m not helping until I make contact with my team.”

“We don’t have time for this!  We need to be going.”

“Going where?”

Kolya gestured angrily down the hall.  “We are rapidly losing our chance to-”

A dull explosion rumbled through the compound.  Bucky lunged forward and hooked his left arm around Kolya’s neck, drawing a pistol in the same motion.  He pressed the barrel to the other man’s temple and braced himself in case Kolya tried to throw him.

“We both know that won’t actually kill me,” Kolya said mildly, voice strained from the pressure on his throat.  He had his hands held up and out casually, looking remarkably unconcerned given the position he was in.

“Sure.”  Bucky shrugged as much as he could.  “But it ain’t gonna fuckin’ tickle, either, and I’ll bet even you’re gonna need some time to piece yourself back together after I paint the wall with your brain matter.  So, here’s how it’s gonna go down. We make contact with my team, get them to stand down, and then we can go harin’ off into the wild blue yonder on this mission you’re so hellbent on carrying out.  Got it?”

Kolya was quiet for a few seconds, then shifted his head around slightly to take some pressure off his airway.  “Zola has your earbud.”

“You haven’t used something that primitive in four hundred years.  Figure it the fuck out.”

“<I swear I wasn’t this rash when I was your age,>” Kolya muttered under his breath in thick, rippling Russian.  He reached around and tapped his left cheekbone a few times, then slid his finger up the bone toward his ear.

A moment later, he twitched slightly and snorted, then pulled his finger away.  “A donkey?”

Bucky just pressed the barrel of the Colt more firmly into Kolya’s temple.

“Fine, fine.”  Twisting around a bit, Kolya pressed his fingertip to the swell of bone just in front of Bucky’s left ear.

“-ance to back out, Doc,” Barnes said with startling clarity in Bucky’s head.  “You wanna play this another way, say the word, just do it in the next ten seconds before you lose your overwatch.”

“Stick to the plan, boys.”

“And what plan is that?” Bucky demanded before he realized he’d spoken.  “Fuck’s sake, don’t tell me you’re gonna blow up the compound while I’m still in it.”

Dull, heavy radio silence followed his words.

“...the hell?”

“Hello to you too, Junior.  Now, someone want to fill me in on this plan of yours so I can exfil before you start dropping warheads on foreheads?”

“What I’d give for some close air support right now,” Mickey muttered darkly.  “Ghost-”

Dugan cut in before Mickey could finish.  “Hey, boys, I got Schmidt’s car leaving the south side of the compound like a bat outta hell.  Zola’s riding shotgun.  Jesus, does Schmidt have an airplane engine in that thing or something?”

Kolya cursed colorfully enough that Bucky winced.  “Let go,” he demanded, slapping at Bucky’s arm. “We need to move.”

“Bucky, who-”   Mickey’s voice cut out mid-sentence as Kolya’s finger left Bucky’s cheekbone.

“Move where?” Bucky growled, his arm curling tighter.  “You have five seconds to-”

“The book.  They have the book.”

Ice shot through Bucky’s veins and his arms reflexively loosened.  Kolya took advantage of that to slip free, then turned to face Bucky.

“I’m sorry,” was all he said before reaching out and cupping Bucky’s jaw with his left hand.

Sparks flew through Bucky’s head, his eyes rolled back, and the world went dark.

***

“Hey.”

A hand gently patted Bucky’s face, warm flesh against his cheek.

“Hey, pal, you with us?”

Bucky groaned, the noise popping and crackling in his throat.  He grimaced and squeezed his eyes shut, rolling his head away from those insistent, annoying pats.  Gravity changed directions rapidly as his body revolted against whatever Kolya had done to him.

Pat pat.

“C’mon, man.”

Pat pat-

“For fuck’s sake, Steve,” a tired voice cut in, exasperation thick in the words.

Bucky frowned slightly - was that Barnes?  He cracked an eye open and took a moment to realize that his hood covered most of his field of view.

“Well, he’s conscious, at least.”

“Get him on his side.  Recovery position.” A third voice, this one heavily accented with something Bucky vaguely identified as South African.  Hands latched onto Bucky’s arm and he couldn’t clamp down on the whine of protest before it slipped out. “We can handle this here, Captain.  Go.”

“But-”

“Steve, the hell d’you think I was doing in Romania for two years?  The hokey pokey? Go. We got this.”

Bucky’s stomach flipped over as unseen hands rolled him onto his side.  He jerked his elbow under him and propped himself up in time to retch hollowly onto the dirt-smeared concrete.  Not much came up other than some cloudy, yellowish bile - it had to have been more than a day since he’d last scarfed down a ration pack before that clusterfuck of a recon mission.

“Easy, friend.”  The lilting accent of the third voice was as soothing as the hand running back and forth over his shoulders.  “Do you know where you are?”

Gagging on the acidic residue coating his teeth, Bucky unsteadily pushed himself up so he was leaning forward on locked elbows.  “The ass end of Bumfuck Nowhere, Germany?”

Barnes snorted in response.  “Yeah, he’ll be fine.”

“Kolya,” Bucky gritted out as he squeezed his eyes shut against another fluctuation in gravity.  “Nikolai, where-”

“Not far enough away, I’ll tell you that much.  Hey, you gonna pass out again? You don’t look so good.”

Awkwardly dragging his knees around so he was properly sitting, Bucky groaned.  “What happened?”

“Seizure,” Barnes said flatly.  “Found you doin’ the Harlem Shake about fifteen minutes ago.”

Bucky blinked tightly a few times, shook his head aggressively to clear the cobwebs, and scraped his hood back from his head.  He looked over his shoulder toward Barnes, and-

Well.

Barnes apparently had a week’s stubble, chin-length hair, an orbital bone fracture, and a missing left arm.

The man was sitting with his knees pulled up to his chest and his back against the hallway wall.  He gave Bucky an awkward little half-wave, then curled his right arm in against his chest. His eyes were tight with pain, and he looked unhealthily pale.

Movement to Bucky’s left drew his eye as the third man held a finger up to his ear.  Bucky couldn’t help but stare at the sleek, black neck-to-toe armor he wore, strangely similar to Kolya’s.  The man frowned, then his eyes flicked over to Bucky. “The Captain thinks he has located your friends. He will make contact shortly.”

“Good, great.  Awesome. Let’s go.”  Bucky tried to lurch to his feet, but only ended up back on his side with the room spinning again.

“You’re still postictal, pal,” Not-Barnes said tiredly, and leaned his head back against the wall behind him.  “And I’m unarmed. Neither of us is goin’ anywhere fast.”

Hissing in frustration, Bucky flopped onto his back and tried to rub out the twitch in his lower eyelid.  “So how’d you end up here?”

Not-Barnes growled deep in his throat.  “Long story that I’ll tell you later.” He dug into a pocket on his right leg, then tossed a pair of thin black thermal glove liners at Bucky.  “Put these on. Not like I need ‘em anymore.”

“You should rest,” the man in the black armor said once Bucky had done as directed.  “Your friends will be here soon. Get some rest.”

Suddenly, that sounded like a really good idea.  Bucky would close his eyes, definitely.  Just for a minute, though. Only for a minute…

***

“Doc, you still topside?” Barnes asked, his voice oddly strained.  He, Morita, and Dernier had headed into the tunnels less than five minutes ago to search for any survivors or prisoners, then set charges.

Mickey finished tying off the bandage on Jones’s upper arm and gave his shoulder a pat.  “Affirmative. Need me to head in?”

“...yeah.  You might wanna come and see this.”

When Mickey glanced back at Jones, he shook his head and shooed her away.  “Go on. It sounds important. I’ll be fine.”

“If you’d let me heal it-”

His lips pressed tightly together, and he shook his head again.  “Save it for something life-threatening. A bullet graze isn’t going to kill me.  Go see what Sarge found, Doc. I’ll call you back up if we need anything when the rest of the team gets back.”  Hefting his gun, Jones settled back into position guarding the entrance to the tunnels.

Tripod was at Mickey’s side before she finished calling her over, tongue lolling out and ears perked up.  “Ready to go find Bucky?” Mickey asked, and Tripod’s tail wagged a few times in answer. “Come on, girl.”

She settled her rifle into the crook of her shoulder and cleared the stairwell before carefully descending.  While she couldn’t sense anyone nearby, it wasn’t a reason to let her guard down. “What’s your location, Barnes?”

It took him a moment to respond.  “Section 18.  Left at the first junction, follow the signs.”

“Give me a rundown so I’m not going in blind.”

“It’s…”  The comms crackled slightly as Barnes sighed.  “...complicated.  Probably best if… well.  We found more of, uh. Of people like you.”

Somehow, Mickey wasn’t surprised.  “Who, specifically?”

“I got a one-armed vagrant with a bad case of sarcasm and a black man-”

A rush of hope filled Mickey - if Sam was there, Sam in any form-

“-in a cat suit.  Plus your other half.”

She stopped dead in her tracks.  “A… cat suit,” she repeated slowly.

Guffaws of laughter from the other men echoed through the comms, and Barnes sighed.  “Don’t- you noodges, come on, grow up.  It’s a literal cat suit. Got claws an’ everything.”

Mickey took a left to follow the arrow pointing to Abschnitt 18.  Her fingers tightened on her rifle as she sensed someone approaching her from a perpendicular hallway, and fast.  “Do we have any known hostiles currently loose in the base?”

Barnes repeated her question to the other men he was with, then came back with, “Well, they say there’s a-”

A flash of blue at the edge of Mickey’s vision had her reacting by instinct; she whirled, set the rifle against her shoulder, and was just about ready to spray the bastard with bullets when she finally registered the soot-covered silver star in the middle of the man’s chest.

Her whole body stuttered for a moment as she forcibly clamped down on the reflex to treat any moving thing as a hostile.  Slowly lowering the rifle, Mickey stared wide-eyed at Steve.

He stared right back, his face white with shock.  His hands were level with his shoulders, palms held outward in surrender.  Steve’s lips moved a few times, forming the beginnings of words as he worked through processing whatever the hell was happening.

Mickey took a half-step back and subtly motioned for Tripod to stand down; she shifted her rifle to one hand but still kept her finger indexed by the trigger… just in case.

Steve’s eyebrows finally drew together, and he let out a broken sound that could have been a laugh.  “Kayla?”

***

‘Crowded’ was the first word that came to mind once they got everyone in the same room.

Bucky lurked in the corner, arms crossed and hood pulled low over his face, doing his best to ignore the mounting tension and the residual postictal vertigo.  The newest Bucky had distractedly agreed to go by James for simplicity’s sake, and while the only reaction from Cap was a clenched jaw and fist, it was obvious the man wasn’t happy about it.

To be fair, Bucky had always hated that name as a kid.

Mickey used the same soothing, calming tones to speak to James that she used when Bucky woke up all out of sorts and twitchy.  She gently cleaned the blood from his face, working at it with a damp cloth and an empathetic hand, thumb rubbing away the bruising and fractures as she drew energy from Bucky.  The old soldier just sat in the armchair and stared off into space, though, glassy-eyed and half-conscious in a way that Bucky wasn’t entirely sure was due to blood loss.

James’s right hand clenched and unclenched, curling around the arm of the chair he sat in.  When Bucky saw a bead of sweat roll down the other man’s cheek, though, he pushed away from the wall.  Tripod tried to follow him, but he held her back with a quick hand sign.

The room fell silent as Bucky cut through two conversations on his way to James.  He crouched down next to Mickey and put a hand on her shoulder. “Take a break, love.”  After a brief, searching glance, Mickey nodded and stood.

“Ghost, what are you-”

Bucky ignored Cap completely and caught James’s eye.  “<Are you in pain?>” he asked quietly in Romanian. There was a chance Barnes might understand them, but out of any of them, the sergeant was most likely to respect James’s need for privacy.

“<Left arm, or what’s left of it>” James said, his voice rough.  “<Stark and I had a disagreement.>”

Tony did this?  Hell of a disagreement.  Bucky closed his eyes for a moment, then carefully shelved that question for later.  “<May I?>” He waited for James to nod before moving around to look at the charred, twisted stump of the prosthesis.  Tracing his fingers over the smooth, round shoulder, Bucky could just barely see the remnants of the upper point of the red star that matched the one on his own arm.

After another quiet question and another nod from James, Bucky leaned over to snag Dernier’s toolkit and rolled it open on the floor next to Mickey’s medical kit.

Barnes cleared his throat awkwardly, looking everywhere but the mangled remains of James’s arm.  “Okay, boys, you’ve got jobs to do. This ain’t a zoo exhibit. Get a move on.”

As the Invaders and their guests made their exits, Bucky carefully worked damaged plates and melted wiring loose.  “<How long ago?>”

James scrunched up his face and pressed his white-knuckled fist to his mouth.  He hummed the same way Bucky did when fighting down nausea. “<An hour or so before Zemo started thinking with portals and zapped us over here.>”  He took a deep breath and swallowed tightly. “<Spent a few days locked up underground after Nikolai’s team retrieved us.>”

It took a quick twist and click to separate one of the largest remaining plates from James’s stump.  “<I’m guessing there’s a good reason for why you two are palling around with the crown prince of Wakanda.>”

“<King, now,>” James corrected as he suppressed a wince.

“<Sorry.>”  Bucky gently disconnected another scrap of misbehaving sensor.  “<So, King T’chaka…?>”

He fluttered his fingers dismissively and pinched the bridge of his nose.  “<Dead. T’challa’s dad was killed in the blast when Zemo bombed the UN.>”

As Bucky removed a ruined servomotor, James’s upper body spasmed and he bit down on a surprised grunt.

“<Sorry about that,>” Bucky said again.  “<If you still had an accessible data port, we might have been able to turn everything off with my phone.>”

“<Never had a port.>”  James tilted his head back against the chair and took a shaky breath.  “<You did?>”

“<USB 3.0, got upgraded a few years before the bullshit with Project Insight.  Could’ve used it as an iPod, if I wanted to. I think I had a good thirty-two gigs in that thing.>”

James chuckled quietly and pulled his hand over his face.  “<How much more until…>” He gestured vaguely at his left shoulder.

“<If you heal like I do, the internal burns and bleeding will resolve within a week if you’re gentle with yourself.>”  Sticking out his tongue in concentration, Bucky squeezed a pair of Mickey’s forceps into the innards of James’s shoulder and finally snagged the main wiring socket he’d been tunneling toward.  “<There. That should do it.>”

James slumped forward and choked out a cry of relief.  His right hand flew up to cup his shoulder, and he doubled over on top of his knees.  “Jesus fuggin’ Christ,” he slurred, dropping his forehead onto one knee. “Oh god…”

“<That’d be the endorphin rush.  Give it a minute.>” Tidying up the tools, Bucky set everything back the way he’d found it and stowed Dernier’s toolkit.  He gathered up the stuff from Mickey’s kit he used and quickly swabbed it down with an alcohol-soaked cotton ball before setting it all back in place and in Mickey’s pack.

When he knelt next to James again, the other man’s shoulders shook with silent sobs.  Bucky scooted around in front of him and put a hand on his flesh shoulder. “<Come here.>”

Shaking his head, James worked his hand into his hair.

“<I’m not asking you to bleed on me, brother.  Just let me hug you for a bit.>”

Hesitation tightened James’s shoulders until finally, he sat up partially and reached for Bucky.  Bucky wrapped his arms around the other man, gentle and careful with his injuries. Slowly, James reached up behind him until he was clutching the straps of Bucky’s armor, clinging tightly as if his life depended on it.

***

Exhaustion dragged at Cap’s bones as he left the small room he’d been given to share with his Bucky and T’challa.  The two Buckys were still in the main room, talking softly as they worked to disconnect and dismantle what was left of the Soviet weapon masquerading as an arm.

The rest of the men were either on watch, on patrol, or sleeping the sleep of active duty soldiers.

After an hour of staring up at the rough wood planks of the ceiling, Cap gave up on that front.

He stopped in front of the back door, took a deep breath, and used exaggerated care to open the door so he didn’t underestimate himself again and rip it clean off its hinges this time.

Pausing with one foot outside, Cap glanced at Ghost’s wife, then turned to head back inside.  It didn’t take long for him to bundle up the bedding he’d been loaned and head back down the hall.  He greeted the dog - Tri...pod? - with a scratch between her ears, then offered the blankets to Not-Kayla.  “Here. Thought you might be cold.”

“Thanks.”  She gave him a half-smile that didn’t reach her eyes and quickly wrapped herself up.  Clicking her tongue at the dog, she held the blankets open long enough for the dog to settle between her feet.

Cap leaned against the deck railing next to her, fingers curling around the dew-damp wood.  He glanced over at Not-Kayla and couldn’t help but catalog all the tiny little similarities and differences, the ways their worlds and lives had shaped them into different people.

Loose black hair fell in waves around her ears and curled at the nape of her neck, framing an angular face with a narrow jaw and a long, straight nose.  The dusky shadows of evening hid the pockmarked scars on the right side of her face that Cap had seen indoors, and her dark brown eyes looked like inkwells when she turned to face him.

“So.”  The blanket shifted as she crossed her arms under it.  “You called me Kayla, back at the HYDRA compound.”

“Two more fuckin’ heads,” Cap couldn’t help but mutter as he shook his head.  He let out a sigh, then squinted up at the brilliant smattering of stars above them.  The only thing he’d ever missed from wartime Europe was the stars. “I thought you were someone else, ma’am.  Sorry for the mix-up.”

She looked at him skeptically for a few seconds, then wormed a hand out of her blanket cocoon.  “Mickey Draymond. Retired Senior Chief Hospital Corpsman, sir. Ghost and I use Jacob and Michaela Frye as aliases.”

“...Jacob Frye.”  Cap frowned and blinked a few times as he shook her hand.  “Like the bisexual guy with the sideburns and top hat in that assassin video game that Sam likes so much?  I thought he had a different costume.”

“Well, he was going for Ezio, originally, but… once we were here, it made more sense to have him pose as a Brit than an Italian.”

“I have to ask…”

Mickey laughed quietly.  “We were on leave in LA at a comic con.  I think he wanted to spend a few weeks driving the Pacific Coast Highway.”

“Bucky’s always been a romantic,” Cap said with a small, fond smile.

“That he has.  Hell, my older brother even likes him.”

Static hissed into Cap’s hears and the wood railing creaked under his hands.  Flashes of memory had him squeezing his eyes shut against a riptide of missions, mandatory team bonding over beer that didn’t affect him, training that properly exhausted him for the first time in years, and the brittle feel of a fractured hyoid bone against his hand.

“Cap?  You alright?”

“I just-”  He rubbed the heel of his hand against his forehead.  “You’re alive.”

Mickey side-eyed him.  “Of course I’m alive. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“You, uh.”  Taking a deep breath, Cap tried to focus on the trees he could just barely see at the edge of the cleared ground around the house.  “At the Triskelion, you… Kayla didn’t make it out. Search and Rescue found her… she’d died defending her patients from HYDRA. She worked in Medical, one of the GPs.  We met when I had to get my annual physical. Rollins- Jack Rollins, her brother, he got her a job there after she left the Navy.”

He swallowed thickly and closed his eyes.  “Natasha set us up on a date. I was supposed to take Kayla to dinner the night after - but then everything happened.”

Mickey reached out and gave his elbow a gentle squeeze.

“She was really excited.  We were gonna go see Muppets Most Wanted and then hit her favorite pizza joint.  This place called Pizzelli, or… I dunno.”

“Pizzoli’s,” Mickey corrected him softly.  She gave Cap a watery smile. “Sam took Thursday Group there a few times after particularly rough sessions.”

Cap covered her hand with his own and tried to smile.

When Mickey chuckled softly, he looked up and raised an eyebrow.  “I dragged Bucky to go see Box Trolls with me,” she explained.  “In return I had to go see John Wick with him when that came out.  Don’t tell him I said this, but he enjoyed my movie a lot more than he admits.”

They shared a quiet laugh, and Cap tentatively raised his arm to wrap it around Mickey’s shoulders.  “Is… this okay?”

Mickey gave him a lopsided smile, then shuffled sideways and leaned heavily into him.  “You’re warm. Right now, that’s good enough for me.”

The tension in Cap’s shoulders gradually melted away, and companionable silence settled between the two of them and… definitely Tripod, right? as the stars slowly rotated across the sky.

***

Bucky gave up on trying to sleep at roughly four in the morning.  He carefully extracted himself from under Mickey and tugged on enough layers to keep himself warm while he started up the woodstove.  Tripod padded after him as he headed down the hall, then made her way over to her pile of blankets next to the stove and laid down with a huff.

It didn’t take long to get the fire back up, once he tossed enough kindling in over the still-glowing embers.  Brushing the wood dust off his hands, Bucky stood and groaned softly as he stretched. His joints popped and cracked as he rotated them around.

On his way into the kitchen for something hot to drink, he found Cap with swollen eyes and pale cheeks and a mug of tea in his hands that was no longer steaming.  Wordlessly, Bucky nudged him toward the small, rough-hewn dining table and pointedly watched him until he sat down.

Bucky grabbed the kettle, set it on the woodstove to heat for a minute, then sat down opposite Cap.  “Talk to me, Steve.”

Cap blinked a few times, then rubbed at his eyes.  “Not much to talk about.” He took a sip of his tea, stifled a grimace, and set it down on the table.  “We’re stranded here, same as you. Can’t even persuade Zemo to give us his portal device, since someone blew his brains out with a .50cal from over a mile away just after we arrived here.”

“What.”

“Someone here got their hands on Veronica,” Cap said quietly.

Growling under his breath, Bucky rubbed at his forehead.  “And James would know the report of that gun.” Chances were that it was Kolya.  Bucky would bet his Mustang and both of his bikes that Kolya had the Barrett rifle with him.

Cap nodded and groggily considered taking another sip of tea before he set the mug down and nudged it away from him slightly.  “God, I miss modern tea.” He folded his arms on the table and rested his forehead against them; his voice was muffled a bit when he spoke next.  “I really miss Sharon and her belief that the right tea will fix anything.”

“Well, you know where she got it from.”  The kettle started boiling, so Bucky grabbed it and brought it back into the kitchen before it whistled and woke up the whole house.  He topped off Cap’s mug and grabbed one for himself, then shook some Earl Grey from Falsworth’s kit directly into a clean tin mug.

Once he’d sat back down, pulled off his gloves, and wrapped his mismatched hands around his mug, Bucky sighed.  “Morita will radio back to Command and get in touch with Stark later this morning. I'm sure that between him and Carter, we can get it arranged so you’re out of the way and don't get suckered into the war effort again.”

“What, like you did?”

Bucky raised an eyebrow and lifted his mug to breathe in some of the steam.  He stuck a metal finger into the liquid and stirred it around a bit just to see Cap squirm.  “I'm here because when Mickey sees a situation pointed south, she can’t ignore it. Sound familiar?”

With a tight smile, Cap nodded.  “Fair enough. It’s just- if we do go back to London with you, can we get James taken care of without having him interact with Howard?”

“Sure,” Bucky said slowly, tilting his head.  “Should be manageable. Why?”

“Tony found out.”

Closing his eyes, Bucky said a quiet prayer for patience and exhaled slowly.  “Steve-”

“I know.”  Cap put his head in his hands.  “Trust me, I got yelled at by basically everyone I've been in contact with since Siberia, James included.  I fucked up. I know.”

“Yeah, you did,” Bucky agreed flatly.  “What’re you gonna do about it?”

Sighing heavily, Cap dragged his hands down his face and leaned back in his chair.  “I… dunno. I should apologize to Tony, if I can. We never should have fought in the first place, and when Rhodey got hurt-”

“Rhodes what.”

He cringed and looked away.  “Vision shot out his arc reactor mid-flight by accident.  Sam couldn’t catch him fast enough. He’s paralyzed from the waist down.”

Bucky closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose.  He counted to ten, then did it again, then three more times before he was finally calm enough to respond without shouting.  “You complete fucking idiots.”

“Pretty much.”

Taking another twenty seconds to breathe, Bucky set his flesh hand flat against the table and stared at the wood grain between his fingers.  “As soon as Howard finishes building a power source for the portal device, we’ll send you home. You made that mess, you get to go face the consequences and clean it up.”

“Buc- James is still a wanted man worldwi-”

“Face.  The. Consequences.”  Bucky pinned Cap in place with the steel in his voice.  “I went on trial for what I did under HYDRA’s contr-”

“That wasn’t you!”

“My hands committed those crimes,” he corrected the other man.  “Whatever the reason behind each action, my body was used to break the law.  I may have been the executioner, but I never deluded myself that I’m the judge or jury.  The law exists for a reason, even if you don’t agree with it.”

“And what if the law is wrong?”

Bucky shook his head.  “From what little you’ve told me about those Sokovia Accords, you sign or you retire.  You chose to retire, then you chose to reactivate without a supervising authority, and you chose to interfere in a high-stakes manhunt.  I know the situation was complicated-”

“That’s an understatement.”

“-but if you’re anything like the Steve I grew up with, your tactical mind took a fucking vacation the minute James got involved.  It doesn’t matter if you’re stealing a loaf of bread to feed starving children or storming a HYDRA munitions factory in the ass-fuckin’-end of Austria, you still committed a crime.  The system exists to be a dispassionate judge in the event that-”

“The system is wrong!” Cap hissed, hands balling into fists on the table.

Bucky blinked slowly at him and took a sip of his tea.  “So fix the damn system.”

Closing his eyes and shaking his head, Cap exhaled sharply.  “The system got Wanda locked up and thrown at Ross’s mercy because baselines don’t understand her powers.”

“She doesn’t understand her powers, you dingbat.  Also, did you ever make sure she’s even a legal immigrant?”  As many issues as Bucky had with the girl, he’d been the first to volunteer to sponsor her on her path to citizenship when the issue had come up.

Rather than respond, Cap planted one elbow against the tabletop and rested his forehead against his hand.  “I just… I mean, I’m… I don’t know if I want to go back to that. I know I should, but… I’m done fighting.  If I- if we go back, that’s all we’ll do.”

“So, what, you’re just going to ride off into the sunset with three arms and half a brain between the two of you and ignore the dumpster fire you left behind?”

“No, the world’s better off without us complicating things.  We’re two internationally wanted criminals, now.” The bags under Cap’s eyes grew deeper as he rubbed at his forehead.  “Honestly, it’s probably best if we’re removed from the equation. At least in this world, we can just… just be.   Change our names, go farm corn and dodge tornadoes out in rural Kansas or something.”

“Hell of a way to live, Rogers,” Bucky said quietly.

“Maybe.  Good way not to die, though.”

***

At this point, Bucky could tack up Lightning in his sleep.  He re-checked the girth strap and made sure the halter wasn’t chafing before scratching at that persistent itch that the donkey pretended he didn’t have.  Lightning’s eyes drifted shut for a few seconds as Bucky gently rubbed at the base of his ears, and Bucky couldn’t help but smile.

“You’re just a big cat with hooves, I swear,” he murmured, stroking his hand over the velvet of Lightning’s muzzle, then scratching his fingers through the coarse fur under his jaw.  “A big, overprotective cat with hooves.”

The donkey grunted at him and butted him gently with his head, then turned to look past him.

Footsteps approached, barely audible over the soft earth still damp from the morning dew.  Bucky turned and inclined his head respectfully when he saw T’challa approaching him. “Your highness.”

“Ghost.  Good morning.”

“I, uh.  I didn’t have a chance to say it earlier.”  Bucky looked up and gave the other man a tight smile.  “My condolences for your loss.”

T’challa nodded and stepped closer, holding a hand out for Lightning to sniff over.  “Thank you.”

Companionable silence dragged on long enough that Bucky had an inkling T’challa had something important to say, so he patted Lightning on the rump to send him along.  “Go see Mickey.” The donkey trotted away, ears relaxed and alert.

Bucky turned back to T’challa and stood loosely at parade rest.  “Did you have any luck hailing Wakanda?”

“The nearest of the War Dogs is already on their way here.”

“That simple?” Bucky asked, eyebrows rising.

T’challa gave him an enigmatic smile.  “I showed them my grandfather’s ring and negotiated asylum for my companions.  We are fortunate that the base of Wakandan technology is the same between our worlds.”

“Yeah, definitely.”

“Mm.  Speaking of which.”  T’challa crossed his arms and frowned off into the distance.  “This Kolya, Nikolai. The Russian one. He has Wakandan technology.”

“Stolen?”

“Unlikely.”  He shook his head briefly.  “The arm was my sister’s design.  I would recognize her work anywhere.  We can only hope that his loyalty to Wakanda wins out over whatever is pitting him against you.”

Bucky felt a bit like a parrot.  “Loyalty?”

“His braids,” T’challa said simply, motioning to the side of his head.  “He is a War Dog, and of high rank.” He looked Bucky in the eye, deep brown pools of premature wisdom.  “Something is wrong about him. I’m… not sure what. I don’t know if he is... fully human.”

Ignoring the odd flutter deep in his stomach, Bucky shrugged and gave T’challa a wry smile.  “Neither am I, pal. Not anymore, anyway.”

As the sleek, black jet descended into the clearing next to the house an hour later, Bucky couldn’t help but mull over T’challa’s words.  Something was strange about Kolya, but Bucky couldn’t put his finger on it.  The more he tried to puzzle it out, the more it slipped from his grasp, and the foggier his memory of the man became.

Eventually, rubbing his forehead and muttering under his breath, Bucky hoisted his pack first onto one shoulder, then the other.  Tripod pawed at his leg and gave him a worried look, furry eyebrows drawn together, and he leaned down to rub away that crease in her forehead.

“<I’ll be fine, girl,>” he murmured, running his thumb under her eye.  “<Just thinking.>”

“Alright, boys,” Rogers called, jogging down the steps from the front deck toward the rest of the Invaders.  “We have a confirmed rendezvous just outside Lyon. Let’s get moving.”

Chapter Text

It was far too easy to lose himself in the steady back-and-forth of skating laps around the underground rink at the Compound.  The ice was smooth and crisp, giving each stroke a good bite as Jack leaned into the motion.

A single hockey goal was set up at the end of the rink furthest from the main door, and a tidy line of pucks sat in front of, it ready for target practice.  Jack’s hockey stick lay across the top of the goal, untouched. Usually he didn’t need to wing pucks at a goal unless punching his frustrations out in the gym wasn’t an option.

Sighing heavily, Jack dragged his hands over his face and then through his hair.  He leaned into the turn that carried him around the back of the goal, inside knee bent to control the curve.

At least Steve seemed to understand when Jack had abruptly stood up, fled the ambush he’d walked into in Hill’s office, and ran to the rink.

Captain America.

He snorted softly and then drew in a crisp, deep breath.  Tony had to be joking. He had to be.  There was no fucking way he was serious about this.  It just- Jack couldn’t carry the shield. He was the exact wrong person to wear the stars and stripes and carry the shield.  Learning how to use it in case it got separated from Steve was one thing, but… wielding it as his primary weapon and carrying the weight of Captain America with it?  That was something completely different.

Realistically, the only real criteria for Steve’s replacement as Cap was a highly trained melee combatant with the upper body strength and physical capabilities to use the shield.  Any one of the newly minted STRIKE agents could have taken on the mantle of Captain America, especially Franklin. If Wilson wasn’t the team’s primary medic, he would have been perfect.   Anyone would be better than Jack.

Leaning into his next turn, Jack picked up speed.  He was halfway through his next lap when FRIDAY played the quiet chime she used to alert him that someone was coming to the door.  A few seconds later, the click of the latch echoed through the rink. Jack cut his turn short and headed straight across the rink toward the door just as Barton stepped through.

Jack flicked his skates out into a hockey stop, pulling up short just a few feet away from the edge of the ice.  A thin spray of ice shards scattered across the short wall surrounding the rink. “Need something?”

“Hello to you too,” Barton shot back, leaning casually against the door frame.  “Heard you got promoted.”

“I haven’t accepted it yet.”  Jack leaned forward against the rink wall and braced his knuckles against the wide, flat top surface.  The plastic was cold against his palms, grounding and soothing. He turned for a moment and looked out over the rink, out at the white lines carved into the mirror-smooth surface that Tony’s robotic Zamboni kept pristine.

Sliding over to the gap in the wall, Jack stepped out onto the thin rubber floor mats and walked over to a bench to take his skates off.  “Not that it isn’t nice to see you, but people don’t come down here unless they have a reason to.”

“Well, what’s your reason, then?” the archer asked, far too casually.

Jack side-eyed him as he shoved his feet into his sneakers.  He knotted the laces of his skates together and walked them over to the storage cubby.  “Trying to puzzle out why the fuck someone thought it’d be a good idea to lay the Captain America mantle on the shoulders of a middle-aged gay ex-terrorist.”

Frowning, Barton shook his head.  “You know it takes a unanimous vote from all active Avengers to bring a new one on board.  That has to count for something.”

“I’m not convinced the lot of you aren’t delusional or something,” Jack muttered as he sat back down, bracing his elbows against his knees.  “People like me don’t get stuff like this,” he added quietly.

Barton sat next to him and laced his fingers together between his knees.  His jaw pulsed for a moment as he clenched his teeth, then he looked over at Jack.  “What makes you different from me?”

It took Jack a few seconds to figure out what Barton meant.  “I did it willingly. You were… controlled. Brainwashed.” He waved a hand at his head.  “Someone got inside your head and made you-”

“What makes you different from me?” Barton asked again, more forcefully this time.  “Way I see it, you didn’t have much more free will than I did.”

Jack sighed heavily and shook his head.  “It’s just… different.”

Shrugging, Barton looked away.  “Suit yourself.” He glanced up at the ceiling and smiled wistfully as if he’d rather be up in the rafters.  “I gotta talk to you about something, though. Reason why I came down here and all that.”

Jack turned to face Barton and pulled his leg sideways across the bench, foot tucked under his other knee.  “Sounds important.”

The other man scratched at the back of his neck, then gave Jack a complicated, awkward look.  “This thing… between you and Steve…”

Jack couldn't help but chuckle quietly.  “I know you lot drew straws last week. What’d you get, ‘shovel talk?’”

“Yeah.  Nat got ‘hide the body,’ and Tony ended up with ‘ice cream and awkward hugs.’”

“Sounds like a certain red-haired someone messed with the straws.”  Jack caught himself picking at his nails again and curled his fingers into his palms, then spread his hands out flat on his leg.  “Steve know you’re doing this?”

“Does he need to?”

“Depends on whether you actually plan on carrying out any of your threats.  I’m on the SHIELD Index, now, you know. Could be considered an act of Inhuman racism.”

Barton flipped him off, and Jack just laughed.

“What actually happened, out of curiosity?” Barton asked.  “They didn’t say much, even in the official report.”

Jack’s lips twisted in a wry smile.  “Walked facefirst into a Terrigen mist booby trap.  Came out of the cocoon with a bonus in Constitution and the realization that I should have put more points in Wisdom out the gate.”  He looked down at his hands. “Official designation according to Doc Garner is Enhanced Durability. Got registered on the Index before they even let me out of containment.”

“Well, that… complicates things.”  The old archer shoved his hands deep into his jacket pockets.  “You know we’re all just trying to look out for Steve, right?”

“He’d be the first to tell you-”

“That he doesn’t need it, yeah.  Means he needs it all the more, y’know?”  Barton shrugged again. “I’m not gonna tell you to leave him alone, and I’m not gonna threaten you like Nat would.”

“Romanoff and Hill terrify me, and I’m man enough to admit that.”

“If they didn’t scare you, I’d be more concerned about your mental health.  Just… be careful with Steve. He’s had his heart broken enough times since he came out of the ice.”

Jack scoffed.  “We’re talking about the same Steve Rogers, right?  Twenty pounds of ‘fight me’ in a five pound sack?”

“Even shrunk down, he does everything dialed up to eleven.  He fights at eleven, he snarks at eleven, he laughs at eleven, he smiles at eleven, and he loves at eleven.  Hell, he burned down SHIELD to make a point two years ago, you know that better than most. What I’m asking you is, are you prepared to love him as much as we all know he loves you?”

Jack closed his eyes and swallowed.  He could say it, he could even say it and mean it, but...

“Figure it out, before life figures it out for you.”  Despite the warning, Barton’s words were gentle and he reached out and gave Jack’s arm a quick squeeze.  “He, uh… he told us. Steve, I mean. About Brock. Not a lot, just… enough. I’m sorry.”

All he could do was nod.

Barton bounced the toe of his shoe against the rubber floor mat.  “Look… we’re worried about Steve. We want to see him happy, especially with how upset he was when he and Sharon agreed it wasn’t working.  But we also care about you, you know? You’re one of us, now. You’re part of the team, and not just because of Mickey.”

“Don’t bullshit me, Barton.  I’m not part of the team, I’m a liability.”  Jack sucked in his lips and chewed on them, staring out at the rink.

The archer studied him pensively for a few minutes, then sighed.  “You know how long it took me to get back in the saddle after Loki?”

Jack shook his head.  Those files were above his clearance level.

“Two years.  Good part of the first one was spent self-medicating and avoiding my problems.  Nearly lost my marriage, kids, and house over it. Got my ass into therapy, picked up my bow again, and got my feet back under me in time to help mop up HYDRA.”

He hoped that his reflexive wince didn’t show as much as it felt like it did.

“You know how many agents I killed under Loki’s control?”

“I know what you’re trying to say, Barton.”  Jack bit the insides of his cheeks. “I damn near killed my sister.  Only family I got left. It’s a little different.”

“Not sayin’ it ain’t,” Barton said agreeably.  “Just sayin’ you’re not the only one who’s got demons to fight off.  Sure, you can’t take kill shots. You end up as Cap, you won’t have to.  Steve never carried a gun in the field, after he got defrosted.”

“Can we get back to the shovel talk?  I think I liked that better.”

Laughing quietly, Barton nodded.  “Just… don’t hurt him, if you can help it.  And don’t hurt yourself for him, either, you understand?”

“Now I’m not sure which one of us you’re giving the shovel talk to.”

The archer smirked up at him.  “I may not be all y’alls real dad, but God help me, I care about you kids.”  He threw Jack a lazy salute and stood up. “I’ll let you get back to it, Rollins.  Take care of yourself.”

“I’m only four years younger than you, I’m not a damn kid!” Jack yelled at Barton’s retreating back, answered by the other man’s laughter.

By the time Jack got back to the apartment, it was empty when he closed the door behind him.  He took a few seconds to lean against the solid oak of the door and breathe away the tension of the day.  Steve had been called into an urgent briefing that afternoon and, judging by the breakfast dishes still in the sink, hadn’t made it back home since he’d left that morning.

Speaking of which, Jack’s phone pinged at him.  He tugged it out of his pocket, smirking at the one-word message from Steve: Mulligans?

Jack sent back a beer mug, then went through the quick ritual of shoes off, tidy up, slippers on, and a quick brush of his fingers over the framed picture of his family.

Mickey was so young in that picture; it was one of the few from Before that she hadn’t had any trouble with back when her gender dysphoria was a daily struggle.  The blissful in-betweenness of children meant that the smiling, preteen-plump image of his little sister just looked like a tomboyish little girl.

Gangly and awkward, seventeen and invincible, Jack’s off-balance smile around his braces still made him grimace over twenty years later.  He snorted softly as he looked at the deep, still-healing gouge on his teenage self’s chin, the remnants of the bicycle crash less than a month before the picture was taken.

The crash that literally dumped him into Brock’s life.

Jack’s expression soured and he turned away to walk further into the large apartment.  He tugged his shirt over his head as he stepped into his room, then grabbed the jeans he knew Steve liked and a thin white undershirt on his way to the bathroom.  A quick glance in his closet confirmed that he had, in fact, remembered to do the ironing and therefore had his pick of crisp dress shirts.

The instant he stepped under the hot water in the shower, he slumped forward and leaned against the wall, hands pressed flat against the cold tile.  Clumps of hair hung down around his face, and runnels of water tracked their way down his torso. Closing his eyes, Jack tipped his head forward and let the hiss of the showerhead drown out the static in his brain.

He didn’t know how he missed the bathroom door opening, or the shower door sliding open, but he jumped and spun around when cold hands touched his waist.

Steve’s eyes were wide in surprise and he tilted his head back to give himself more room to breathe around the hand Jack had clamped on his throat.

“Oh, Christ-”  Stumbling back, Jack pressed himself against the wall under the showerhead and stared wild-eyed at Steve.

“Hey.  Hey, it’s okay.  I’m sorry I startled you.”  Steve reached forward slowly with both hands, but stopped and drew back when Jack quickly shook his head.  “You okay?”

Pressing the heel of his hand against his forehead, Jack barked out a hollow sound that could have been a laugh.  “Clearly not.” He mostly succeeded in drawing a full breath. “Didn’t even hear you come in.”

“Sorry, babe.  I’ll knock next time.”

“No, you’re fine, it’s fine, I just… it’s not a good day for me.  Obvious reasons.” Jack slumped down and sat in the bathtub with his knees pulled up to his chest.  “Is your neck okay?”

“Nothin’ that won’t heal by the morning.”  While Steve didn’t heal as fast as he used to, he wasn’t quite as breakable as a standard-issue human, either.  The red marks from Jack’s fingertips were already starting to fade.

Jack nodded and buried his face in his wet hands.

“Do… do you want me here, or should I go?”

“I don’t know.”

“Okay.”  Steve lowered himself down to sit in the other end of the tub and wrapped his arms around his knees.  “If you want me to leave, just let me know and I’ll get right out, okay?”

Nodding again, Jack exhaled explosively and laced his fingers together over the nape of his neck.  He stared blankly at the white ceramic between them and tried desperately to get back to the semblance of quiet calmness he’d found before Steve came in.  The water from the showerhead arced over his head, drops falling on his shoulders and neck as he sat there.

“Do you want to leave the shower running or do a bath instead?” Steve asked him.

“Can’t do baths.”  Baths were a hard no for him, and swimming was only a possibility on a really good day, especially after getting accidentally hip-checked into the patio fountain by Rhodes during their New Year’s Eve party.

“Right, sorry.”

Well, Jack came in there to shower and clean up after being at the rink.  Might as well try to get on with it, after all. He reached out for the bottle of shampoo and half-grabbed it, half-knocked it down into his hand.  The cap gave him a bit of trouble, and when he finally managed to get it open, he couldn’t force his shaking hands to squeeze enough to get much more than a sluggish dribble of the blue goop.

Steve wordlessly leaned forward and squeezed the bottle for him, then retreated back to the end of the tub without touching him.

Rather than try to put the bottle back, Jack just held it out toward Steve and waited for him to take it.  “Sorry I’m such a mess right now,” he mumbled as he shoved his hands in his hair and clumsily worked the shampoo into a lather.

Jack lurched to his feet and leaned against the tile again with his head under the shower spray.  He thoroughly rinsed out his hair, then stared at the bottle of body wash, debating whether he still had the energy to do more than just rinse himself clean.

“I can help, if it’s okay for me to touch you.”

Steve was standing again, arms crossed in front of his chest, and a worried but hopeful look on his face.

“Yeah, I- sorry.  God, sorry.” Sighing, Jack pulled the smaller man into a hug and pressed a distracted kiss against his temple, then his lips.  “Just feelin’ off after that meeting.”

“Stop apologizing, you big idiot.  I’m not mad at you,” Steve reminded him.  “None of us are.” He wiggled past Jack, took a moment to warm himself up under the showerhead, then squeezed a generous amount of body wash into his hands.

“Any news on Crossbones?”

“Don’t do that to yourself, sweetheart.”

“Steve, tell me.”  Jack’s fingers curled against the tile and he squeezed his eyes shut.  “I need to know.”

With an uncomfortable frown, Steve shook his head.  “I don’t want to talk about him. Not when it’s just the two of us.”  He wouldn’t meet Jack’s eye as he kneaded a spot of tension out of the taller man’s shoulder.

“Pander to my anxiety just once, please.  I can’t be on the dark on this.”

Steve’s hands stilled.  “Pander to my insecurity just once, please.”

Stunned, Jack stared at him, then reached a hand out and cupped his jaw.  “D’you really think that I’d-”

“I don’t know what to think, okay?  Everything’s gone upside down since- since I got back from… since you rescued me.”  He almost spat the last few words out, grimacing.  “Cut me some slack here. There ain’t exactly an instruction manual for how to deal with my boyfriend’s more-or-less ex-husband going after bioweapons and oh, God, I shouldn’t have just told you that.”

“What else would he be targeting the IFID for?” Jack asked tiredly.  He scrubbed the last of the suds off his skin and scooted out of the way so Steve could get under the warm water, but the blond simply blinked at him.

“How’d you know it’s Crossbones that’s going after the IFID?”

“I… didn’t.  Don’t. That isn’t him?”

“We don’t know it is.”  Steve’s surprise gave way to thoughtfulness.  “We also don’t know that it isn’t.”

“You can’t seriously be saying-”

“We’ll need to look into this more, either way.  The agents they caught two weeks ago didn’t have any identification on them.  And if a bioweapon gets loose…”

Jack’s shoulders slumped forward under the weight of everything that had happened since November.  “Then they’re going to call us in whether or not Crossbones is there.”

“If we get the chance to bring Rumlow in, we need to-”

“Don’t call him that,” Jack bit out.

“…babe?”

Taking a deep breath, Jack rubbed at his eyes with one hand.  “Brock Rumlow, the Brock Rumlow I knew, the one that… the one that I loved… he died the day the Triskelion fell.  That man that we’re chasing? That’s not Brock. Not anymore. Brock’s dead.”

His voice broke and his eyes burned as he finally said the words he’d needed to for two years.

“He’s dead.”

***

Jack fidgeted nervously in the wings of the stage, plucking at the thick layers of Kevlar and body armor on his arms.  He’d already picked his cuticles raw that morning, and thankfully no one had questioned his decision to wear full gloves.

Shifting the straps of the shield further up his arm, Jack closed his eyes and tried to calm himself down.

“Hey, man.”

He managed to catch himself before he jumped and turned with what he felt was impressive nonchalance to give Sam a thin smile.  “Wilson.”

“You ready?”  Sam stepped into place beside him and fell comfortably into parade rest.  He was wearing his Falcon uniform, red goggles pushed up onto his forehead.

“It’s funny, it’s a weird combination of ‘I was born ready’ and ‘what the fuck am I getting myself into.’”

“Word.”  The shorter man chuckled and shook his head.  “Steve has that effect on people.”

Shifting his weight to one leg, Jack suppressed a wince.  “Not the only effect he has,” he muttered under his breath.

“Man, I do not need to know that.”

“Sorry.”  He was suddenly thankful for the low lighting in the wings as his cheeks heated up with the memory of the night before.

Out in the press hall, the announcement of Steve’s retirement – and the cause – went over better than expected.  As Steve strode out onto the stage from the other side, he plastered on his USO smile and waved at the mob of reporters in front of them.

Jack sucked in his lips and adjusted the shield’s straps on his arm again.

“Seriously.  Are you okay?”  Sam stepped around him, between him and the stage.

“I used to daydream about this as a kid, you know.  Even though I wasn’t born in the States, I used to dream about dressing up as Cap, going on missions with Lord Falsworth and the rest of the Howling Commandos, carrying the shield… but now that I’m actually here…”

Smiling knowingly, Sam nodded.  Steve was at the microphone now, patiently answering questions about his health and his plans post-‘retirement.’

“I just…”  Jack lifted his free hand to brush it over his hair.  “This isn’t what I was trained to do,” he admitted. “I feel like a fraud.  I spent my whole SHIELD career in black ops, working in the dark to serve the light an’ all that Assassin’s Creed bullshit.  I worked for… well, you know. And now I’m supposed to walk out there and… and be Captain America?”

Sam raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms.  “You didn’t seem to have a problem with it yesterday when you accepted the promotion.”

“I didn’t think they’d be crazy enough to make me do a press conference!  I’m just an immigrant orphan who ended up running with the wrong crowd before I got thrown into a war I wanted no part in.  I’m the last person they want in front of a camera.”

The two men stared at each other for a few seconds before Sam quietly snickered.  “You two deserve each other.”

“Oh, shu’up.”

“Thank you for your questions, that’s all we have time for.”   Steve’s voice sounded off-pitch, amplified through the huge room.  “I’m a little surprised that none of you asked who’s going to be taking on the mantle of Captain America, though.  But that’s not a problem, because that’s actually item number two on our agenda.”

“That’s your cue.”  This time, Jack actually did jump as Natasha sidled up to him.  She rapped her knuckles on the shield and smirked up at him.

Rhodes and Tony were already out there, along with Vision and Wanda.

Jack took a deep breath, squared his shoulders, closed his eyes for a moment, then gave his teammates a subtle nod.  He tapped the comm in his ear to activate it. “Go for Rollins.”

“Now, you’re all familiar with Agent Draymond, callsign Rescue,” Steve said, smoothly jumping off of Jack’s check-in.  “Her older brother is also a SHIELD agent, and has served with us on one of our STRIKE teams for the majority of his career.  He’s also the training officer for our newest STRIKE team that’s stationed here at the Compound. If you’ll please-”

“Wait, STRIKE?” someone interrupted, barely audible without a microphone.  “Weren’t they HYDRA?”

There was a short pause before Steve answered.  “Most of them were.  We don’t deny that. Some chose their affiliation willingly, others were coerced, and others were backed into corners so that they had two options: join HYDRA or die.  Agent Rollins was presented with such a choice, and he has more than answered for his actions.”

“So, you’re saying Captain America’s now a HYDRA-”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all.”   A dull murmur echoed through the room as reporters turned to each other in confusion.

Jack decided he’d had enough.

He didn’t realize Natasha and Sam were still flanking him until he was halfway out onto the stage.

Steve stepped away from the microphone with a can you believe this look on his face as Jack slung the shield onto his back with the ease of practice.

Planting his gloved hands in exactly the same spot on either side of the lectern, Jack took a deep breath and waited for the noise to die down.  He wiggled his fingers subtly so that his hands were a perfect mirror image.

“My name,” he began, and cleared his voice when it cracked.  The bold colors and obvious tactical intent of his new combat uniform weren’t doing his confidence any favors.  “My name is Jonathan Andrew Rollins. Most people know me as Jack. I joined SHIELD in 1996, then accepted a promotion to Combat Specialist shortly after I earned my bachelor’s degree in 1998.”

Dull silence followed his words, and he kept his eyes moving around the room so he didn’t stare at any one person too long.

“Our health insurance denied us coverage for Mickey’s transitional care which… wasn’t uncommon back then, back in the late 90s and early aughts.  My, uh…” Swallowing thickly, Jack decided to take the plunge. “My boyfriend at the time told me about a program with better benefits, ones that would give my sister what she needed.  That’s when I unknowingly signed myself away to HYDRA. I didn’t find out until it was too late that it came with a high price. The alternative was the death of every one of the people I cared for.”

He looked up at the ceiling for a moment.  “I ended up on the wrong side of a war that most people didn’t know existed until it was too late.  Got taken in, served my time. When I got out, I started working towards earning my badge back. Honestly, I probably don’t deserve to be here at all, but… my team believes in second chances.”

The press blinked at him for several long seconds before hands shot up.  Jack pointed to a woman in the front row.

“Did you say, ‘boyfriend?’”

“Yes.  I’m gay.  Next?”

His casual admission and dismissal stunned the woman into silence.

The next question came from a blonde woman a few rows back that looked vaguely familiar.  “Correct me if I’m wrong, but… you joined HYDRA for the benefits package?” Skepticism colored her words.

Jack had to work to suppress a completely unwarranted grin.  “Tell me, miss…”

“Everhart.”

Of course.  Christine Everhart’s relationship with the Avengers could only be described as ‘complicated.’  “Miss Everhart, do you have any siblings?”

“Well… yes.  My brother. He’s four years younger.”

“Say your brother was suffering from something that threatened his life, and you had the power to fix it.  All you had to do was sign on the dotted line and make a deal with the devil, and your brother would want for nothing, for the rest of his life.”  He paused, then crossed his arms and leaned forward on the lectern. “Would you do it?”

She looked conflicted, but eventually nodded.  “I would.”

“I won’t say what I did was the right thing, joining HYDRA,” Jack continued, addressing the press room as a whole.  “And I hurt a lot of people because of that decision. I’m not even sure if I’d make the same decision, knowing what I know now.  I’m sure if we tried hard enough, we could have found another way to get my sister’s treatment.” He looked over at Natasha, and she gave him a faint smile.  “I will say this, though: I’ve got a lot of red in my ledger. A lot of things to make up for. I served for two decades as a black ops soldier. Now, I’m trading in my guns for a shield.  Protecting people… this is how I start to pay off the debts that I owe.”

He drew himself up and clasped his hands behind his back.  A thrill ran through him and it took all his years of training to suppress the giddy smile threatening to break loose on his face.  “Captain America reporting for duty.”

Jack Rollins as Captain America

As cameras flashed and reporters began yelling out more questions, a man with his face hidden in the hood of his dark sweatshirt slipped out unnoticed.  He kept his head down as he headed away from the press room, his wistful, proud, pained smile fading into shadow. Burn scars twisted around his jaw and neck.

The man loitered unseen outside the Avengers’ barracks for almost an hour until the press release finished.

When he saw Jack and Steve heading toward the building, he took a half step forward, caught himself, then closed his eyes and sighed.  Shaking his head slightly, the man turned away and left the Compound as discreetly as he’d arrived.

***

If there was one thing that Jack loved most about Mulligan’s, it was the pragmatism.  Settle your tabs, don’t start fights, and they didn’t care who or what you were.

That being said, it was also nice to be recognized as regulars without the added barrier of pseudonyms.

Clarice grinned broadly at Jack and the large group behind him.  “Right this way, ladies and gents.” Gathering up a thick stack of menus, she sashayed further into the pub and led them to a large room in the back.

As the Avengers and company filed in, Clarice grabbed Steve by the shoulders and frowned at him, looking him up and down.  “The hell happened to you, Brooklyn?”

“I lost weight.”

Jack hid his smirk behind his hand and did his best not to laugh.

“Clearly.”  Turning to Jack, Clarice fixed him with a stern look.  “Ain’t you feedin’ this boy, Jack?”

Sam coughed emphatically behind her and clapped a hand over Tony’s mouth before the man could say something crude.

“Ignore them, they’re children.”  Jack nudged his teammates into the room and stayed at the door to usher everyone else in behind them.

“This doesn’t mean I have to salute you and call you ‘sir’ now, does it?” Franklin asked as he leaned against the other side of the wide door.

“Only if you want to.  The ‘Captain’ bit is just part of the moniker.”  Jack shrugged. “Steve actually retired from the Army as a Colonel, and where SHIELD’s concerned, he’s-”

“Commander Rogers.  Yeah, I know.” The younger man gave Jack a lopsided smile.  “You’re officially in the big leagues now, Rollins.”

“Don’t remind me.  It’s still sinking in.”

Franklin slapped Jack on the shoulder and stepped into the room.  “We’ve got your back, Cap.”

It’d take some getting used to, his new callsign.  Jack headed for the empty seat next to Steve with a dazed smile on his face, took the drink someone handed him, lifted it in a toast that he only barely registered, and brought it to his lips to taste something that Mulligan’s definitely didn’t keep at the bar.

Tony caught his eye from across the large table, then gave Jack a small smile and nod.  Next to him, Wanda raised her glass in salute.

After a thoroughly filling meal of which only half the dishes were on the pub’s menu, Steve stood up and waited for the room to quiet down.

“Well, the press release is officially over, so now we just sit back and wait for the PR team to tell us which disaster abatement cue cards to use.”  He paused for the familiar chuckles that followed. “I’ll keep it short. You all know Rollins’s service record. You all know how hard he’s worked to get where he is.  You all know how valuable he is to us, when it comes to tactics, training, personnel management… and now, leadership.”

Steve dug into his pocket and pulled out a small, flat black box.  He turned to Jack. “Announcing your new role as an Avenger publicly is one thing, but this… this is what makes it official.”

The box barely weighed anything; the smooth, matte finish of the paper covering it lent an odd gravity to the whole thing.  Jack carefully slit the tape holding the lid down with his pocketknife, then opened the box.

He’d seen Mickey’s, Bucky’s, and Steve’s DOD-issued IDs before, but seeing one with his own face, and- and Captain America underneath it…

That’s what made it all real for him.

The bands and star of Captain America’s shield glimmered on the surface of the card, silkscreened in transparent holographic ink over the corner.  Bucky’s had a red-tinted star, and Mickey’s watermark was a pale gray Rod of Asclepius. Jack traced his thumb over the outermost ring of the shield and blinked numbly a few times.

“God, wait til Mickey sees this,” he said with a wet laugh.  Holding up the ID card for everyone to see, Jack pulled out his SHIELD badge and replaced his rank-and-file ID card that sat in the slot on the upper half.

After another round of drinks, Jack excused himself and headed through the pub to the bathrooms.  He continued past the large door, though, and ducked out the back of the building. Leaning up against the wall right next to the door, Jack tilted his head back against the rough brick and closed his eyes.

If he smoked, this would have been the perfect time to pull out a cigarette and flick open a lighter.

Instead, he just stared up at the bright stars, the thin sliver of moon visible just above the edge of the building across the way.  Could his sister see the stars where she was? Was she safe? Was Bucky still with her? Tripod?

He dragged his hands over his face and sighed heavily.  Mickey should have been there with him to celebrate the promotion.  She should have been there.

There wasn’t any telling whether she’d come home from wherever she was just as broken as she had at the end of her last deployment.

Distractedly, he pulled out his badge and traced his fingers over the edge of the cutout in the plastic sheet over his ID card.  The round medallion on the other half rested heavily in his hand; it was the weight of generations of spies, secret agents, combat specialists, idealists… everyone that had come before him, everyone that had served under the organization named for the very shield that Jack had somehow earned the right to carry.

“Captain Rollins,” a rough voice rasped suddenly.  “Gotta admit, it’s got a nice ring to it.”

Jack snapped his badge shut and had his hand on the sidearm he hadn’t wanted to carry before he’d even registered that he’d moved.

The shadows on the other end of the narrow alley shifted, and a ragged figure stepped out of them.  Dark boots, dark pants, black hoodie baggy enough to hide nearly any weapon. Short, precise steps, controlled as if to prevent reinjury or pain from movement.  Uncomfortable but upright posture, decades of training overriding the desire to hunch over.

As the man stepped closer, Jack smoothly slipped his Glock out of its holster.  Regulations were the only reason he carried lethal rounds at all, and right now, he hoped he had the strength to use them.

The man spread his hands and stopped.  “Jesus, I just wanted to say congrats.”  The light above the pub’s back door snuck its way under his hood, illuminating a gaunt, angular face covered in spiderwebbed burn scars.

A thick chill seeped into Jack’s bones; he took a half step back and calmly raised his gun.  “Get away from me, Brock.”

“Jack, please…”

“No.  No! You’re- you- no.  I can’t do this again.”  He noticed with a strange, observational clarity that his aim held steady; the first time he’d pointed a lethal round at anyone since he’d shot Mickey, and his aim held steady.  “Do you have any idea what I went through, these past two years?  No. No, you don’t, because you fuckin’ abandoned me to become a terrorist.”

Brock recoiled, stung.  “I- I didn’t-”

“Bold fuckin’ move, coming here when the whole damn team’s inside.  I turn my comms on, and they’ll be runnin’ out here before-”

“Jack, listen-”

“Hah, no.”  His hands still weren’t shaking.  Remarkable. “I’m done. We’re done.  I finally got over you, I finally let myself move on.  I’ve finally got a good thing goin’ now, and I ain’t gonna let you cock it up.”  Well, his hands were steady but his voice wasn’t. The thick lilt he’d been able to suppress for years – decades – was making a surprising number of unscheduled appearances lately.

Brock’s head tipped forward and he raised his hands slightly, fingers still relaxed and palms facing Jack.  “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t wanna hear it.”

“Still sorry.”  He drew in a ragged breath.  “I’m scared, okay? I’m- I’m tryin’ to ask for help, buddy.”

Jack ignored the unpleasant lurch in his gut – Brock never admitted he was scared, much less that he needed help.  “There’s these things called shrinks. Might’ve heard of ‘em.”

“There’s someone else in my body.”

Jack blinked, off balance and off guard.  “…what?”

“I- I’m losing time,” Brock answered, speaking quickly.  “I blink and I’m somewhere else. Sometimes I’m doin’ shit an’ I’m just a passenger in my own head.  I know what- what I’ve done, even though it- my hands weren’t on the wheel. Some… thing is usin’ my body for this and please, God, Jack, I’m so fuckin’ scared.”  His voice shook and broke.  “Please, I- I need- please help-”

His eyes glazed over and he almost… zoned out for a bit; something in Brock’s posture shifted.  It was like the pain from the burns didn’t affect him anymore. He stood taller, straighter, with a slight list to the side that could have become a swagger.

His teeth flashed in a grin and he took a few loose steps back.  “I can tell when I ain’t wanted no more. Be seein’ you, Jackie-boy.”

With that, Brock turned to the building behind him, leapt higher than any man should have been able to, shimmied up the fire escape and onto the roof, and vanished.

The pub door opened and Steve stepped out, casual concern morphing to alarm when he saw the gun in Jack’s hand.

“Jiminy Christmas-”  Stepping forward, Steve pulled the Glock out of Jack’s unresisting fingers and stuffed it back into its holster.  “Jack, are you okay? What the fuck’s going on?”

Jack blinked, opened his mouth and tried to form words several times before anything actually came out.  “I… think I just saw a ghost.”

After a moment, Steve turned and looked down the alley, scanned the nearby rooftops, then turned back to Jack.  He took Jack’s hand and laced their fingers together, brushing the pad of his thumb across the knuckles. “C’mon, let’s go back inside, okay?  People’re starting to worry.” It took a few nudges to get Jack to unstick his feet from the ground.

“Sorry,” Jack mumbled, bracing a hand against the door frame so Steve couldn’t push him through.  Rubbing at his eyes, he sighed. “It was Brock. He was here.”

He felt Steve stiffen behind him and he let go of Jack’s hand.  “What.”

“He said something’s wrong with him.  That he needs help.”

“Well, something’s definitely wrong with him,” Steve agreed bitterly, crossing his arms as he leaned against the other side of the door frame.  “What do you think about it?”

Jack frowned as he thought.  “He said he was scared. He’s… only admitted that to me twice before.  His dad died during the 9/11 attack, that was the first time. The second time was the night before the Uprising when he was drunk off his ass for the first time in years.”  He rubbed at his eyes again, trying to purge away the sight of Brock’s terrified eyes glinting under his hood. “If it’s bad enough for him to tell me that, well… it’s bad.”

“He’s still a terrorist.”

“Not disputing that.”  Someone else in my body.   Just a passenger.  Please help me.  “He needs help.  Treatment, maybe.  Whether or not he’s got Gollum Syndrome, he’s mad as a hatter.”

Steve groaned quietly and thunked his head against the wall a few times.  “I can change the HVT Removal order to HVT Retrieval, but you have to be absolutely sure.”

“I’m not.  I don’t know.”  Jack buried his face in his hands.  “Christ, why now?   I just came to terms with this.”  He flexed his fingers a few times as he forced himself to resist the urge to chew on his nails.

Steve didn’t respond for almost a minute, then reached out and cupped Jack’s cheek with one hand.  “Are you okay, sweetheart?”

The breath he drew in was shaky and shallow.  “No. Jesus fuck, no.  How could I possibly be okay with this?”

“C’mere.”  Steve tugged him into a hug and held him tight.  “We’ll get through this together, okay? No matter what happens with Cr- with Brock.  Either of them. I’m here for you, and I’ll back you up one hundred percent.”

Jack breathed in the mild tang of turpentine and paint that followed Steve around constantly and willed himself to release the knot of tension between his shoulders.  “Thank you.”

“I mean, I reserve the right to tell you that I think you’re being a moronic asshat when we’re in private, but-”

“Babe,” Jack protested weakly.

“-but to everyone else, I’m with you the whole way.  We’ll do this together.”

He sighed and shook his head.  “You’re really okay with helping me deal with my batshit crazy, murderous ex?”

“Nope.”  Steve pulled back, gave Jack a slightly sour smile, and leaned forward to kiss him gently.  “I’m not helping you ‘deal with’ Brock. I’m helping you make sure that the threat is neutralized.  I’ll do everything in my power to ensure he’s captured alive and treated properly, but I won’t risk your life – or any of my agents’ lives – for his.”

“I… okay.”  Slowly, Jack nodded against Steve’s neck.  “Okay. I can live with that.”

“You good to go back inside?  I can let everyone know we’re heading home, drop a few innuendos so they don’t ask questions.”

Jack couldn’t help but laugh quietly.  “And I’ll never live it down if you do.  Just… give me a second.” He stepped back, dragged his hands over his hair, then exhaled sharply and stared up at the stars one last time.

After giving Steve a smile that he hoped didn’t look too weak, Jack shouldered open the door and stepped back into the pub.

***

He hung limply from his wrists, the chains above him clanking quietly with every shudder that ran through him.  His skin was a patchwork mess of numbness and searing, burning pain.

Jack had a half-second’s warning as the Taser rod crackled and hissed before it contacted the base of his spine.

His entire body seized and his back arched; the chains thrummed as his arms yanked them taut.  Jaw clenched tightly, Jack couldn’t let out the scream building in his throat.

“Now, now, Jackie-boy, that’s no good.  Communication is key, y’know.”

Footsteps slowly circled around in front of him and Jack’s neck shook with the effort of raising his head.  His left eye had swollen shut long enough ago that he couldn’t remember when it had happened, and the guards had forcibly removed his contacts before he even made it to his cell.  It was with the blurry nearsightedness of his remaining working eye that he looked up to see Brock casually spinning a Taser rod by the strap.

But it wasn’t Brock, something was wrong.  His shoulders canted to the side, his military-straight posture gone in favor of a loose, predatory stance.  His face was gone, replaced by a grinning white skull-

Jack jolted awake with his hands balled into fists around clumps of the thick weighted blanket pressing down on his body.  He threw the bedding off with a strangled cry and shrank into a ball in the center of the bed, arms around his head.

It took him nearly ten seconds to realize he was alone.

“Steve,” he choked out, then louder, “Steve!”

Something – glass on granite – rattled in the apartment, followed immediately by the frantic sound of running feet.  Steve skidded into the door of their room, eyes wide.

“I’m here, I’m here,” he babbled, lunging for the bed and gathering Jack up in his arms.  “I’m here, I didn’t leave. I was in the kitchen grabbing some water. I’m sorry. I’m here.”

Jack clung to him until the iron bands of panic around his chest finally began to ease.  Something soft brushed across his shoulders, and Steve tugged them both around until they were huddled up against the headboard, swaddled in the heavy blanket Jack had thrown to the floor.

After a moment, Steve sighed quietly.  “FRIDAY, could you…”

“Of course, comin’ right up.”

Jack looked up as a quiet whirring approached them, and blinked at the compact little drone that flew in through the open door.  Two bottles of water dangled from little arms that latched on under the caps. The drone deposited the water next to them, waggled back and forth, then flew back out.

“…the hell…”  Jack’s voice was raspy and rough as he took the bottle Steve uncapped for him.

“All of our quarters have at least one drone in case… well.”  Pressing his lips together, Steve looked away. “In case one of us gets hurt and can’t call for help.”  He took a sip of water. “Ours carries doses of both Bucky and Mickey’s meds, just in case, and Tony added an epi-pen to the loadout once my allergy test results came in.”

“Peanuts, shellfish, mustard, an’ bees, right?”  Jack knew Steve’s medical history like the back of his hand, especially after a mishap at a restaurant that now had them both carrying an epi-pen and inhaler everywhere.  He wasn’t asking because he’d forgotten… it was something concrete to focus on. Something real.

“Mmhm.  And don’t forget the dairy.”  Humming quietly as he carded his fingers through Jack’s hair, Steve rubbed his thumb over the spot just behind Jack’s ear that he knew would relax the other man.  “Gotta admit, it’s a pleasant surprise, all the alternatives to peanut butter. Never even thought that sunflower seed butter was a thing, let alone actually tasty.”

Jack couldn’t help the gentle squeeze he gave Steve’s arm, a silent thank you for the grounding, inane conversation.  “Mum had Celiac’s… that was a nightmare, back then. Kind of wish she was still alive so I could take her into Whole Foods, show her how far we’ve come.”

“Huh.”  Shifting around slightly, Steve pulled Jack’s head to his shoulder.  “Is that why you make so much rice?”

“Force o’ habit.  It was easier if everyone ate the same food, at least until Mum got sick, then…”

“Yeah.”  Steve took the now-empty bottle out of Jack’s hand and set it on the nightstand.  “FRIDAY, I think it’s time for some Emergency Kittens.”

It took almost fifteen minutes of adorable cat videos before Jack’s breathing deepened and slowed and the tension in his muscles began to release.

Steve rested his head back against the headboard, motioned with his free hand to the wall opposite the bed, and flicked his fingers back and forth to scroll through the movie library.  The gesture controls had taken some getting used to, but now, almost six years in, he could operate most of Tony’s interfaces with ease.

He pulled up something mindless, one of the romance serials he’d seen when it first came out in theaters, black and white and campy as hell.  Even with the volume on mute, the soundtrack and dialogue still played in his head, drawn from memory.

Jack snuffled quietly, shifted his arm around, then settled back down as soon as Steve resumed carding his fingers through Jack’s hair.

Chapter Text

HYDRA Leutnant Leonard Holz frowned as his convoy slowly stuttered to a halt.  He glanced at the Kübelwagen to his right, the oily Italian scientist and his bookish, bony translator, and gently spurred his horse forward.  Confused Italian floated after him, fading away with the gentle breeze.

“<Report,>” Holz barked at his sergeant as he reached the head of the column.  The younger man simply raised a hand and gestured to the huge tree laying across the road.  Holz sighed; with a river on the right and an uneven, waterlogged almost-marsh on the left, they had no other option but to remove the tree.

His sergeant anticipated his next question.  “<Give me an hour, sir. I’ve already sent orders back for the draft horses to be brought forward.>”

Holz nodded his approval.  “<Good work, Essig.>” Something about il fango and scarpe di pelle drifted forward from the Kübelwagen, and Holz sighed softly.  “<Well. Duty calls.>”

“<Good luck, sir.>”  Essig gave him a sympathetic smile and turned to direct the big draft horses’ handlers as they approached.

The half-dried mud sucked at the hooves of Holz’s horse as they made their way back to the scientist’s Kübelwagen.  “<Herr Capozzi,>” Holz called, urging his horse to a trot. “<Please stay in the vehicle.>”

The black-haired man sat back down reluctantly and crossed his arms.  “Perché ci siamo fermati?”

Holz turned in the saddle as his horse danced to the side nervously; the translator repeated Capozzi’s question in German a moment later.  “<There is a tree down across the road. My men are already working to clear it. We will be on our way again shortly.>”

The translator’s sharp cheekbones stuck out further as he frowned.  “<Leutnant, Signore Capozzi’s mission is->”

“<Time sensitive.  I am very aware of that.>”  Holz glanced over his shoulder and watched Essig lead the draft team closer to the tree.  “<As I said, we will be->”

Essig’s horse reared and whinnied sharply, front hooves swinging as it shied sideways away from something.  Spurring his own horse to a trot, Holz quickly covered the ground between them. By the time he reached Essig, the sergeant had managed to get his horse back under control, but the big bay gelding still stamped restlessly and had its ears pinned back against its skull.

“<He won’t go any closer to the tree,>” Essig reported, nose wrinkling.  “<And the draft horses won’t be moved.>”

One of the big, heavy-boned cart horses shook its head emphatically and stamped a dinner plate-sized hoof into the sticky mud.

Holz frowned at the tree less than twenty paces away.  “<Is there a boar? I can’t hear any->”

In between blinks, the blurred, indistinct figure of a man appeared in the dense foliage of the tree.  Holz’s words stuck in his throat and his eyes widened.

The figure moved forward, flowing and shifting in the wind just like the tree it emerged from.  Worn, dark boots made no noise as it stepped across a section of coarse gravel that rose up out of the mud.

Holz squinted at the shape, hand straying toward his pistol.  “<Sergeant Essig->”

“<I’m seeing it too, sir,>” the younger man muttered.  “<Still working on believing, though.>”

“<Declare yourself!>” Holz barked as he drew his pistol and leveled it at the figure.  He repeated the command once more in German, then in passable French.

The hood covering its head and hiding its face shifted as it tilted its head to the side.  There was something vaguely catlike about its movements as it paced forward, closer to the horses.

“Halt!”

It didn’t stop.  Holz’s horse skipped sideways and snorted.

“<Final warning!>”

He could have sworn he saw a glint of unnaturally white teeth under the hood.

Holz’s heart hammered in his throat as he squeezed the trigger on his pistol once, twice.

The figure’s shoulders shifted as each shot connected with center mass, but it didn’t stop its slow, measured pace.

It extended its arms to either side, and glistening knives shot out of each hand.

It raised its head enough for Holz to see the animalistic, feral grin.  Its lips moved, speaking words that Holz had once laughed as a child but now made his blood run cold.

“Wer hat Angst vorm schwarzen Mann?”

Holz’s heart beat once, twice, then gunfire ripped through the convoy.

His horse spooked and bucked, and the world went dark the instant Holz hit the ground.

***

It took more effort than Bucky expected to tear his eyes away from the two disturbingly familiar Italians; they cowered in the back of the Kübelwagen and stared at him with wide, fearful eyes.

He shook his head slightly and turned toward Falsworth as the other man reached down to grab the German lieutenant by the shoulders.  “Leave him where he lies,” Bucky called as he finished cleaning the blood from one of his wrist blades. He snapped the blade back into its housing and retracted it with a sharp click, then returned the scrap of cloth he’d used to the dead HYDRA grunt whose uniform he’d borrowed it from.

Falsworth settled for rolling Holz over until the man was lying on his back.  Mud stuck to his face and the front of his uniform. “I was under the impression we were to bring any survivors back to Command.”

Ignoring the two Italians as he reached into the Kübelwagen, Bucky dragged out the pack with the brave but foolhardy HYDRA lieutenant’s name stenciled on it.  “Command wants to give the Germans their ghost story. We need a witness alive to spread it.”

Falsworth’s lip curled as he nudged the unconscious German with the toe of his boot.  “Superstitious bastards, the lot of them. Oh, he’s bleeding.”

“It’s a head wound, they tend to do that.”  Depositing the pack unceremoniously in the mud next to Holz, Bucky looked dispassionately at the shallow cut just below the man’s hairline.  “Probably best to go get Mickey and have her patch him up enough that he won’t bleed too much before he wakes up.”

The Englishman hummed noncommittally and gingerly stepped over the German soldier.  Raising an arm, he whistled to get Mickey’s attention, then pointed to Holz.

The rest of the Invaders picked their way through the carnage; Dernier set charges on the HYDRA materiel that they couldn’t bring with them to scuttle it beyond repair, and Jones rifled through every pack he could get his hands on for intel.  With steel in his hand and in his eyes, Barnes made his way among the HYDRA soldiers to confirm that there weren’t any unexpected or unwanted survivors. Rogers kept wiggling the fingers of his hand uncomfortably around the grip of his sidearm as he looked over the aftermath of their ambush.

The cringe-inducing sucking noise of hooves in mud drew Bucky’s attention, and he turned to see Mickey riding toward him on Lightning.  Tripod high-stepped through the blood-soaked mud to the donkey’s left.

“Head wound,” Bucky explained, gesturing to Holz.  “Just enough to keep him alive until he wakes up and can find his way back to civilization.”

She nodded and kicked her feet free of the stirrups, then stiffly dismounted.

“Need a source?”

Mickey snorted and pointedly looked around her.  “I think I can dust a few dead guys to get the energy for it.  Thanks, though.”

Bucky’s head snapped up when Dugan whistled sharply then belted out a harsh, “Hey!”  The burly soldier broke into a run as he lifted his shotgun, and Bucky quickly looked over his shoulder to sight off of the muzzle of Dugan’s gun..

The shorter Italian had jumped out of the Kübelwagen and quickly dragged himself into the saddle of one of the skittish German horses.  He shoved his fancy leather shoes into the stirrups and savagely kicked the horse’s sides to urge it onward.

The huge chestnut gelding hopped in protest and shied to the side, then whinnied sharply and bolted away.

Bucky cursed, pushed his hood back onto his shoulders, and drew one of his pistols.  Before he could sight, though, a spurt of blood erupted from the Italian’s chest and he tumbled from the saddle.  Seconds later, the deafening double-crack of a high-caliber rifle lanced through the air.

The horse continued onward, its hoofbeats fading into the distance.

Slowly lowering his rifle, Barnes shook his head, eyebrows furrowed.  “Wasn’t me.”

“Nobody in my range,” Mickey added.  She gave Bucky a pointed look. “That sounded like your Barrett, ‘round about a mile off.”

Bucky cursed under his breath.  “Cap said something about Veronica being in play.”

“Veronica?” Barnes asked, a knowing smirk pulling at his lips.

“Remember that rifle I told you about at the range?  The one that takes a .50 BMG.”

Barnes’s smirk faded and he muttered something indistinct in the lilting cadence of Yiddish curses.

Swinging the shield into place on his back, Rogers looked around at the ruined convoy.  “Whoever it is, he’s too far away for us to worry about right now, and if he wanted any of us dead, he’s more than had his chance.  Let’s get moving. I want supplies loaded in-”

It seemed like Mickey’s alarmed shout, Tripod’s harsh snarl, and the iron grip that clamped around Bucky’s wrist and pulled happened all at once.  The next thing he knew, he was on his back in the mud with an armful of writhing, wriggling, bleeding something as it snarled at him in German and brandished a dull gray, wickedly sharp bayonet knife.

Bucky frantically blocked each jab of the knife and tried to get a knee under the HYDRA soldier.  All he succeeded in doing was ripping open the man’s abdomen further. The inhuman shriek of pain that punctuated the nonsensical, slurred words made Bucky’s hair stand on end.  The blade slashed dangerously close to his face, clipping his temple once before the man’s aim slipped down, then the knife squeaked and sparked as it opened a jagged gash in the fabric across Bucky’s left bicep.

He swore as his hood flopped over his eyes, but he couldn’t take a precious second to clear his vision.  Cold fire ripped across his neck, and Bucky had a split second to think shit, that’s bad before instinct forced him to take advantage of an opportunity to throw off his attacker.

Rolling to his knees, Bucky lurched up to one foot, then the other, ignoring the way the world tilted under him and the way he could feel every beat of his heart through his whole body.  He smudged the blood out of his eye with his hand, swaying on his feet slightly as…

as...

Where…

The mud-splattered, bloodied face of his attacker suddenly loomed into view and Bucky just reacted, swinging his left arm through a lightning-fast haymaker with every ounce of his bodyweight behind it.

The man slammed into the ground with enough force that he left a small crater in the mud behind him as he slid.

Bucky had a brief second to wonder why he was seeing two identical corpses side-by-side, and who the hell was yelling at him?

He just… he was sleepy .

Distractedly, he pressed a hand to the itchy spot on his neck and blinked in confusion at the slippery torrent of…

The rust-colored goo under his feet rushed up to meet him very fast.

***

Watching Bucky’s face go ashen under her hands was one of the hardest things Mickey had ever done.  Watching his uniform turn black as he bled out was easily a contender for the second hardest.

His eyelids fluttered a few times before stilling.  Mickey slapped a hand over the jagged wound in his neck and scraped, dragged, and ripped life from everything around her that could afford to lose it.

Rogers’s knees buckled and he fell to the ground with a startled gasp.  Barnes staggered and barely caught himself against an overturned cannon.  The bodies of the dead shriveled and shrank.

What was left of the grasses and weeds around the road after the short, bloody skirmish withered and browned, wilting and flaking away.

Agonizing throbs of pain rolled through Mickey’s body in time with the sluggish, erratic heartbeat under her hands.  She squeezed her eyes shut, gritted her teeth, and growled low in her throat as she forced the tissue around the wound to fuse and knit back together.  Muscle, tendon, ligament, and skin.

The thick wall of the vein had just sealed itself shut when the flow of energy through Mickey’s body shut off like someone had turned the tap on the faucet.  She cried out in frustration and pain as her own feeble reserves tried to keep up with the demand.

Suddenly, hands pressed down on her shoulders, then on her arms and back.  “Do what you have to.”

“Criminy, someone grab the dog-”

The pulses around her flared and blazed as she drew from them.

Just a little more.

Muscle fibers wove themselves back together.  Skin regrew, the tacky pink of new growth.

Cutting off the flow of energy hurt nearly as much as channeling it, but she couldn’t- wouldn’t let herself pull too much.  Never again.

She curled over Bucky’s head protectively, shoulders hunched as she gasped for breath.  A gentle hand ran up and down her back, murmuring soothing words.

Footsteps staggered unevenly over to her.  “What happened?” Rogers demanded, his voice slurred.  “What the hell just happened?”

Mickey couldn’t get the words out past her exhausted gulps for air.  She pressed her forehead against Bucky’s, one hand covering the tender new skin on his neck and the other planted firmly over his heart.  His chest shuddered with the effort of drawing a breath, until finally his lungs filled.

A high-pitched yip and a muffed curse were all the warning Mickey got before a terrified bundle of wet fur shoved under her arm.  Tripod nosed frantically at Bucky’s chin, sliming up both of her humans’ faces in the process. She whined and whistled, licking at the coarse hair covering Bucky’s jaw.

He coughed shallowly a few times and his hand flopped around weakly for a few seconds before he finally managed to clamp his shaking, white fingers around one of the straps on Tripod’s harness.  A scratchy, reedy groan worked its way out from deep within his chest, and Mickey put a hand on his forehead before he tried to move.

“You just stay put for right now, okay?”  Her voice shook and jumped octaves as she pushed his hair back away from his face.  Bucky’s eyelids fluttered a few times before he thought better of spending the effort to open his eyes.  “Just… stay put.”

Low voices behind her told her the other men were talking.  Ignoring them for the moment, Mickey curled herself around Tripod and wrapped her free arm protectively around Bucky’s head.  She kissed his cold, pale blue lips and pressed their cheeks together.

“Don’t you ever make me do that again,” she choked out, squeezing her eyes shut against the wet heat pricking in her tear ducts.  “Ever. You hear me?”

Bucky mumbled something that sounded a bit like an agreement and pressed his cheek gently against hers.

The voices behind her lulled.  “Doc?” Barnes asked, tentative and quiet.

“Not now.  Please.”

There was a long, pregnant pause before someone sighed.

“Jones, Frenchie.  Round up all the viable supplies and munitions,” Rogers ordered the men quietly.  “Dugan and Buck, secure the skinny guy in the car and see if you can get it to start.  Make sure there’s room for Ghost. Morita, Falsworth, I want the cart horses loaded with supplies and anything else with four functional legs rideable.”

A chorus of yessirs answered him, and after a few seconds, unsteady footsteps squelched over to her.  Rogers sank to his knees at their side with a quiet thump and put a hand on Mickey’s shoulder.

“Is he…”

Bucky let out something that was halfway between a cough and a laugh and swatted halfheartedly at the other man.  “Ain’t the… the en’ o’... th’line,” he croaked unsteadily.

Catching Bucky’s hand with his own, Rogers dropped his shield into the mud at his side and choked out a wet laugh.  “Don’t let it get that close again, jerk.” The hand on Mickey’s shoulder moved back and forth soothingly.

She swallowed, cleared her throat, and scrubbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand.  “He’s, uh. He needs fluids. He lost a lot of blood.”

Rogers looked around them pointedly, then down at Bucky’s stained uniform.  “Yeah, no kidding.” He glanced over his shoulder for a moment. “We’ll take whatever water supplies we captured, and fill up any watertight containers with purified river water before we leave.  I’ll have one of the men mix up some lemonade-”

Bucky slurred something barely intelligible that sounded a bit like a protest.

“You need the electrolytes,” Mickey countered, and Bucky’s half-open eyes drifted shut.  “And the sugars.” Bucky grumbled brokenly but seemed to resign himself to his fate.

Looking up at Rogers, Mickey rolled her shoulders back and winced as something popped deep in her chest.  “I need to set him up so his feet are elevated, then I’ll need either Barnes or you in the car with him for a direct transfusion.  I have everything I need in my medical kit.”

“Understood.”

Moving automatically, Mickey reached behind her and dragged the remnants of a crate over and got it under Bucky’s knees.  “It’s a good thing he has the serum,” she told Rogers, fussing a bit too much over the positioning of Bucky’s feet. “Proper hydration and a transfusion to jumpstart it and he’ll have replaced everything he lost by this time tomorrow.”

“Doc.”

Mickey looked up at Rogers and blinked at the intensity of those startlingly blue eyes.

“The... energy.  What you took, for him.  How much-”

“I’m sorry,” she blurted, still staring at all that blue.   “I’m sorry, I should have asked, I usually do, I just-”

Rogers stopped her by squeezing her shoulder and shaking his head.  “How much do you need? Was that enough?”

“I…”

“We’ll talk about this,” he told her gently, smiling as much as he could with the cowl covering half his face.  His eyes flicked over to something just above Mickey’s shoulder, then back to her. “We’ll talk about it, but later.   When we’re all back on base and warm and clean and dry and fed and not staring Death in the eye.  Do you need more energy?”

Mickey blinked tightly a few times and had a few stutter steps before she got her brain to start moving along the right path again.  She looked down at the slowly healing tissue on Bucky’s neck, still pink and angry and vaguely shaped like the hand she’d slapped over the wound.

“No, I… I think he’s okay, now.  Past the worst of it. He just needs time.”

With a quiet, mirthless laugh, Rogers looked up and around.  His eyes jumped back to whatever he’d seen before, for just a brief moment.  “Well, we either have too much of that, or not enough. Soon as you think he’s ready to move, we’ll get the two of you into the car.”

Mickey caught his wrist as he stood, and Rogers tilted his head curiously as he looked down at her.

“Steve.  Thank you.”

He rotated his hand around to clasp hers and gave it a squeeze before turning and walking slowly over to the German cars.

The next ten minutes were a bit of a blur; somehow they’d managed to get Bucky upright, unsteady on his feet as he was, and walked him over to the idling car.  It hadn’t taken much convincing for him to strip off his bloodstained, muddy outer layer, though he’d started shivering almost immediately.

Dumping Bucky’s uniform on the ground at her feet, Mickey stood behind him and helped him balance as Dugan lifted him into the car.  The burly soldier reached down for Tripod next, then Mickey, and wordlessly helped her wrap Bucky’s legs in the compression bandages she pulled from her pack.

The sharp-boned bespectacled man in the front passenger seat watched their every movement with wide eyes.

When Dugan reached for Bucky’s left wrist, his eyes flicked up to the gaping rip in the fabric over Bucky’s bicep.

Gleaming silver and black metal winked in the afternoon sunlight.

“You, uh.”  Mickey licked her lips and swallowed convulsively.  “You won’t need to wrap that one.” Shit.  Shitshitshit.

Dugan blinked a few times, set the bandage down on Bucky’s stomach, and sighed as he rubbed at his face.  “It just keeps getting better with you two, dunnit?” After a moment, he stood and hopped out of the car without another word.

Mickey knelt at Bucky’s side, brushing a thumb soothingly over his cheek.  “Okay, love. Just gotta do the pokey bit and get that set up.”

“...cold.”

“I know.”  Her hands were surprisingly steady as she sterilized the catheter needle and pushed Bucky’s loose sleeve up past his elbow.  “Okay. Three, two, one.” Bucky barely flinched as she set the needle and taped it in place. “You know the drill, don’t move that arm.”

“Won’ be a prob’m,” he mumbled, squeezing his eyes tightly shut.  “Ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Mickey set up the thick rubber tubing for the transfusion, coiled it carefully, and clamped it until Barnes was ready.  She reached up and scratched behind Tripod’s ears as the dog settled down on top of Bucky’s legs and let out a heavy doggy sigh.  “I know, girl. We’ll get you a good warm bath as soon as we’re back on base.”

The sergeant clambered his way into the car just as Mickey was tucking the third blanket around Bucky’s shoulders.  He glanced at their prisoner, expression unreadable, then perched on the rear seat next to Bucky’s legs “Ready, Doc?”

“If you are.”  She quickly sterilized a second needle.  “Whichever arm you won’t need for your sidearm.”

Barnes shrugged out of the right sleeve of his blue coat and quickly rolled up his shirtsleeve.  He looked up at the sky, then off to the side. “Make it quick. Can’t look at it or I’ll throw up.”

The remaining steps of setting up the transfusion were automatic, drilled into her by countless hours of practice.  Mickey got Barnes seated comfortably on the floor next to Bucky, then handed him two canteens.

“One of these is for you, the other is for him.  I want them both empty by the time I get back. Make sure he drinks it, or you get to drink them both.  I’ll be checking outside the car for puddles.”

Barnes grimaced at her and shuddered.  “Yes, ma’am.”

Her feet hit the mud outside the car with a quiet squish, and she was already at the river’s edge before she realized she must have picked up Bucky’s clothes and walked there.  She looked down at the heap of stained cloth in her hands and clumsily sank to her knees in the sandy riverbank.

First things first, she dunked everything in the clear, cold water and swished it around.  Swirls of pink, brown, and tan drifted away in the current; the dried blood on Mickey’s hands and arms, caked in the creases of her knuckles and under her nails, finally began to flake away.

The palm of her right hand itched and stung as she scrubbed it over the wet pea gravel underwater.  Blood on her fingers, blood up her wrist, up to her elbows-

She closed her eyes and clenched her fists for a few seconds, then let out a heavy breath.

With deliberate care, Mickey pulled apart the different garments and started methodically rinsing out as much of the blood as she could before her fingers went numb.

There had been so much of it.

The fabric bulged and rippled as Mickey worked it back and forth, teasing the stain out of the densely woven fibers.

The warm, slippery material under her fingers felt far too much like the life pulsing out of Bucky’s veins.

Out of Granger’s veins.

Mickey gritted her teeth and bit down on the stutter in her breathing.  She blinked rapidly to clear away the tears that weren’t forming, dammit, and renewed her attack on the stains on Bucky’s uniform.

The indistinct voices behind her felt muffled and blended in amongst the sounds of the animals around them finally daring to come back out in the open after the skirmish.

She decided the glob of wet cloth in her hands was as clean as it would get without a washbasin and set it on a nearby rock with a heavy plop.

Blindly reaching for the next garment, Mickey scooped up a handful of river pebbles and started to scrub them through the stain, scouring away dried-on mud.

The blood just wouldn’t wash away, it was moving up her hands and up her arms and-

She took another deep breath and ignored the throb in her hip, the completely irrational feeling of warm, wet fluid draining down from an injury long since healed.

Another handful of sandy pebbles.  Another scrub. Another garment.

If she could just get the blood out then-

“Doc?  Sarge wants to know if he can take out… the… Doc- hey- Mickey.  Mickey!  C’mon.  C’mere.”

Huge brown hands wrapped around her own and gently disentangled the tassels of Bucky’s surcoat from her fingers.  Jones clucked unhappily and covered her rubbed-raw, cold-bitten fingers with his to warm them. Strong arms wrapped around her shoulders and pulled her into a gentle, firm hug.

It wasn’t until Mickey noticed the slow, steady in-out of Jones’s breathing that she realized she was hyperventilating and biting out gasping breaths.  Sticky wet tear tracks pulled at her cheeks and something felt vaguely like snot running down her lip.

“Hey.  Hey, it’s okay,” Jones murmured, and started gently rocking her back and forth.  “It’s okay. It’s okay to be upset. Let it out.”

Mickey closed her eyes and leaned back into him.  She tried to take a deep breath but it caught in her throat.  Something stung behind her eyes, she hiccuped a few times, and then Jones was gently turning her around and pulling her into his chest.

He shushed her soothingly, one hand running up and down her back.  Mickey struggled with another full breath, then just… gave up.

She didn’t know how long they sat there, waiting for her to cry herself out.  Eventually, Jones loosened his arms and leaned forward a bit, then pressed a cold wet handkerchief into her hand.

“I’m pretty sure you still have enough dignity left that you don’t want me wiping your face for you,” he said teasingly, tilting his head so he could catch Mickey’s eye with a smile.

She let out a wet laugh and dragged the soft cotton over her face, then blew her nose… and rinsed out the handkerchief and blew her nose a second time.  Then did it again for good measure.

Jones produced a clean, dry handkerchief in the same dull Army green as the first, and settled back to sit next to Mickey.

“Thanks,” she croaked, and winced at how deep her voice was.

“I have three sisters,” Jones said with a shrug.  “Figured I could help rinse the blood out and whatnot.  Looks like you got it mostly under control, though.”

Mickey snorted, then immediately regretted it when she had to blow her nose again.  “Sure.” Pulling her knees into her chest, Mickey wrapped her arms around her legs. “Sorry I’m such a mess right now.  This isn’t what you need from me in a combat zone.”

“I think you have one hell of a good reason to be a mess, if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“It’s not an excuse.”

Jones fixed her with a piercing gaze and raised an eyebrow.  “If I watched Peggy bleed out like that, I’d be pretty upset myself.”

Biting her lip, Mickey stared at the pebbles between her boots.  “It… it’s taking longer for him to come back each time he, uh.”

“Each time he dies.”

She nodded and pressed her forehead against her knees.

“And you’re not convinced he’s really immortal,” Jones said slowly.

Mickey shook her head.  After a moment, she sighed and hugged herself tighter.  “I know he’ll come back. I know he’ll survive it.  I know he will.  So why...”

Jones’s hand settled on her shoulder and squeezed gently.  “Doesn’t make it hurt any less, though.”

“He doesn’t even have to leave me to break my heart,” she blurted, then clenched her teeth and tried to fight off a fresh wave of tears.  “It happens every damn time, and- and I jus’...”

Pebbles and sand crunched as Jones shifted to sit next to her and wrap an arm around her shoulders.  “Well… maybe he keeps coming back because there’s someone worth coming back for.”

It took another half hour before both the uniform and Mickey’s face were clean enough for her to consider walking back to the rest of the Invaders.

Falsworth helped her clamber back into the car with Bucky and Barnes, then gracefully mounted a lanky chestnut horse and laid his rifle at the ready across the pommel of the saddle next to the tied end of Lightning’s lead rope.  The barrel of the rifle pointed unsubtly toward their prisoner, and judging by the way the man’s shoulders stiffened, he didn’t miss the implied threat.

Somewhere along the way, Bucky’s phone had made its way into Barnes’s hands, and the sergeant was staring wide-eyed at the screen.

“Did you know he has books inside this thing?” he asked, glancing up at Mickey.  His right arm was still stretched out toward Bucky, tucked under a spare corner of one of the blankets.  “Hundreds an’ hundreds of ‘em.”

She couldn’t help but chuckle.  Reaching out for the phone, she took it from him and scrolled down to one of Bucky’s favorite books, then switched it over to the e-ink display.  “Here. You’ll like this one.”

Barnes traded her two empty canteens for the phone, and then handed Mickey an empty glass bottle.  When she gave him a quizzical look, he shrugged and slouched into his seat, eyes back on Bucky’s phone.  “I ain’t helpin’ him piss in it.”

Mickey closed her eyes and sighed with a slightly smile.  She made a small nest for herself out of the packs and bags next to Bucky’s bench, and curled up next to his shoulder as he dozed.

The car rumbled as Morita kicked the engine to life, and with a few gentle lurches, they were on their way.

Mickey wormed her arm under the blanket and carefully avoided jostling the transfusion line as she found Bucky’s hand, lacing their fingers together.  After a few seconds he sighed softly, turned his head toward her, and gave her hand a gentle squeeze. Resting her head against his, Mickey sniffed and wiped her nose, then closed her eyes and tried to settle in for the long ride back to base.

***

The trip back through France was a disorienting swirl of half-wakefulness, choking down revolting ‘lemonade’ that would have turned Bucky’s stomach if he hadn’t already been nauseous, and swallowing his pride whenever he realized he was too weak to do much more than hold the bottle steady as he relieved himself.

Mickey had given up pleading with him to eat something, anything, after he’d had to crawl halfway over the side of the Kübelwagen and suffer through his insides deciding to be his outsides for a few minutes.  Shaking and sweating, he’d slumped back onto the narrow bench and hadn’t even had the strength to pull the blankets back around himself.

Somewhere between the last time he’d fallen asleep and when he’d drifted awake again, Tripod had wormed her way under his blankets and he was now spooning with a furry, dusty furnace with stinky breath.

As Bucky floated in that hazy state just shy of being fully awake, he heard the rumble of Dugan’s deep voice asking Mickey an indistinct question.  There wasn’t a response for a few seconds, and Bucky laboriously dragged his eyes open to realize that not only had night fallen, all he could see was the vague silhouettes of Mickey and Dugan in the front seats of the car.  A quick glance to his left told him that the bookish Italian lay slumped uncomfortably behind Dugan’s seat, twitching restlessly in his sleep.

Mickey’s shoulders fell and she sighed.  “Healing the way I do it takes just as much energy as healing the normal way, just all at once.  If I’d taken enough to fully heal him, patch up the bleeds and force his body to fill itself back full with blood, I’d have killed everything in a hundred-foot radius.  All of you included.” After a pause, she added, “I can’t- I won’t make that choice. I’m not a killer. Not even for him.”

“You were in Germany.”  Dugan’s tone was mild, conversational even, but Bucky knew him well enough to hear the steel behind it.

“What happened in Germany was-”

“Don’t care.”

Mickey drew in an unsteady breath and looked out to her right.

“What I do care about is why the two chose to hide your… powers from us.  We’re a team, Doc. Or, well. I guess I thought we were.”

“Could you stop being butthurt and peevish for five damn seconds and look at it from our perspective?” Mickey snapped, head whipping back to Dugan.  “We got dumped into an unfamiliar world, in the past, mind you, and the first thing you boys think of is, ‘Oh, her clothes are glowing.  She must be HYDRA.’ Why the hell would I trust you?”

Bucky curled his arm more tightly around Tripod and let out a breath as quietly as he could.

“More importantly,” Mickey continued, “don’t think for a second that I don’t know all the tests the SSR forced Steve to go through, and what they did to Bucky when they found out Zola had experimented on him.  They don’t have a terribly good track record for treating people who aren’t baseline human like fuckin’ humans.  You may be fighting against the Nazis, but don’t for one moment think your government and commanding ranks aren’t filled with xenophobic shitbags.”

Dugan was quiet for several long minutes, only muttering a quiet curse when the Kübelwagen lurched through a shallow rut.  Finally, he took off his hat and set it on the seat next to him, then ran his hand through his hair. “I’m not gonna apologize for bein’ paranoid, ‘cause that’s one of the only things that’s kept all seven of us alive for this long.  I am sorry for bein’ a jerk about it, though.”

After another scrub through his hair, he put his hat back on and twitched the brim back and forth a few times to settle it into place.  “That’s really the first time you…”

“Yeah.”  Mickey’s shoulders hunched inward a bit.  “At least, with my... powers. You know I saw combat while I was active duty.”

“But you’re a blister mechanic, did they really-”

She cut him off sharply.  “Yes.” After taking a deep breath, she shook her head.  “First priority was securing the area. After that, and only after that, I could assess casualties. Medic don’t do you any good if the medic got hisself shot, too.”

Neither of them spoke again after that, and Bucky gently slipped back into a deep, exhausted doze as they lumbered northwest.

***

Bucky woke with a jolt, the slippery sensation of dust running through his fingers lingering for several long seconds as the dream dissolved.  He stared blindly up at the cloudless blue sky, breathing shallowly, and barely managed to keep from flinching away when something touched his arm.

“Easy,” Rogers told him, quiet and calm, and Bucky rolled his head to the side to look up at the other man.  “We’re still in France, about half a day’s travel out from the field base. Mickey’s with Lightning right now and I’m on blood bag duty while Barnes takes a rotation on point.”

Bucky let his eyes slide closed, nodding his thanks.  The needle in his arm was a gentle, solid pressure, pulling oddly every time the car jostled over the road.  “Tripod?”

A low boof answered him, and he lifted his head up fractionally to see the dog sprawled out across his legs.

“She won’t leave your side.”  Rogers’s smile was fond with an edge of wistfulness.

“That’s my girl.”  Bucky wormed his free hand out from under the blankets to reach for Tripod, but froze when the sunlight glinted off of metal fingers.  He flicked his eyes over to Rogers only to see the captain watching him tiredly with something uncomfortably close to pity.

“We know,” he said softly.  “Doc didn’t tell us much about how you got it, but she said it had some sort of… screen, or something, like the one on your little devices.  The thing that my Bucky was reading off of.”

Bucky closed his eyes and sighed heavily.  “Something like that.”

“She said it stopped working when you got shot at the-”

Bucky winced and pressed a hand to the side of his head in the vague hopes that it might soothe the sudden lance of pain ripping through his skull.

“Ghost?”

Gritting his teeth, Bucky took a deep breath.  “Something happened during our recon mission.” There was a minefield of a void in his memory between leaving the homestead and waking up to a one-armed sass machine and a bulletproof furry.

“They… said you had a seizure.”

Bucky finally cracked his eyes open and drew in another breath.  “That’d explain why it feels like Lightning took a dislike to my forehead.”  He rubbed his fingertips over the crease between his eyebrows. “There was a… another one.  The one we… he’s Russian.”

A hand on his face.  Ice blue eyes. Another voice that-

No.

No.

Round glasses and forceps.

No!

“Doc?”  Rogers’s voice was distant and muffled.  “You know how you said to tell you if he starts…”

Bucky closed his eyes and let the piercing throbs in his head wash over him.

***

Carter was waiting for them when they finally reached the sprawling tent city.  Four MPs stood behind her, eyeing the Invaders warily.

“Gentlemen,” she said crisply, then looked over at Bucky as he stiffly hopped out of the Kübelwagen.  “I… thought you said he was in need of urgent medical attention.”

Bucky gripped the rolled edge of the Kübelwagen’s siding tightly enough that he was thankful for the thin gloves covering his white knuckles.  The world swayed slightly and he took a deep breath to steady himself. “It’s sorted,” he said bluntly, barely remembering to speak in his put-on Estuary English accent.   He squeezed his eyes shut against a fresh wave of nausea and grimaced. “A warm, dry bunk would not go amiss, however.”

One of the MP’s stepped forward and snapped to attention.  “Right this way, sir.”

Grumbling under his breath about the honorific, Bucky leaned down to grab his pack.  A thick-knuckled hand gently nudged his away, though, and Dugan nodded toward the MP.  “Go get yourself in your bunk before you faint. You’re as white as a ghost.”

“Everyone’s a comedian.”  But Bucky couldn’t help the small twitch of a smile as he slowly made his way over to Mickey.  Resting a hand on Lightning’s withers, he let himself be led through the camp to a set of tents pitched a ways apart from the rest.

Mickey immediately herded him into one of the tents, then dragged her pack off Lightning’s back and dropped it on the groundcloth with a solid thump.   “Bed.  Now. Boots on, stay dressed.”

“That is so close to the perfect sentence,” Bucky shot back as he sat down heavily.  He shrugged off his leather overcoat and loosely folded it, then set it on the wooden crate serving as a communal nightstand.  Rubbing his hands over his face, he sighed. “Fuck’s sake, I wanna go home.”

Mickey reached out and rubbed his shoulder.  “Me too, love. Let’s check in with Howard when we get back to London and see if there’s anything we can do to help.  Drink this, then I want you laying down.”

He pulled a face at the fresh canteen of liquid pretending to be lemonade, then pinched his nose and did as he was told.  Mickey took the canteen back before he could screw the cap back on, gently nudging him until he was laying flat on his back.

“I don’t gotta piss in a bottle anymore, right?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest as he stared up at the dull gray-green canvas of their tent.

“No, you’re probably good to walk to the latrines at this point if you take it slow.”  Mickey busied herself unpacking just the bare essentials for one night’s stay, casually avoiding Bucky’s eye.  “Don’t push yourself, though. I’m sure one of the guys will be willing to walk there with you.”

The cot groaned as Tripod jumped up onto it; she lay down between Bucky’s legs with her head resting on his thigh, then let out a tired, deep groan.

“Me too, girl.”  Reaching down, Bucky scratched at her head.  “Micks?”

She didn’t look up from where she was unfolding a startlingly crisp white nurse’s uniform from her pack.  “Hm?”

“Thank you.”

After a brief pause, Mickey set down her uniform, then sat next to Bucky on his cot.  She cupped his cheek with one and and smiled tiredly down at him. “Try not to do that again.”

“What, get stabbed?”

“You know what I mean.”

Sobering, Bucky nodded.  “Like I said. Thank you.”

Mickey leaned down and kissed his forehead.  “Always.”

***

The Invaders stood hunched in the cramped Command tent sheltering from the rain as Falsworth gripped the chunky receiver for the field phone far too tightly.

“You’re quite sure you’re alright?” he asked quietly, eyebrows knitted together and shoulders curled inward.  “And the- yes, Mum. Alright.” Letting out a short breath, he rubbed at his forehead and closed his eyes. “Keep the shelter stoc- I know it won’t help if- I know, Mum.  But you’ll feel better if you do.”

The rain-soaked flap of the tent slopped back into place after Carter as she darted in.  She pushed her hood back from her head and pulled a dull khaki folder out from under her raincoat.  “Latest reports,” she murmured as she passed them to Rogers. “We’re up to an average of eight confirmed strikes a day across the country.”

Rogers’s eyes tightened as he scanned the papers in his hands.  “Still no way to see them coming?”

“Howard’s working on something, but there’s no telling if and when it’ll be ready.”

“I know, Mum,” Falsworth said, his voice cracking.  “I know. Stay safe. Love you, too.” He slowly set the receiver back into its cradle, then wrapped his arms around himself and let his chin drop to his chest.

Mickey wormed her way between a few of the other men, stepped in front of Falsworth, and held her arms open in a wordless invitation.  After a few seconds, the Englishman shuffled forward and leaned into the hug with an urgency that made Bucky blink.

“Christ,” he muttered, looking down at his boots.  “I keep forgetting how young you all are.”

Morita pulled an overgrown lock of salt-and-pepper black hair in front of his face and snorted.  “You’re not the one going prematurely gray. This damned war’s making old codgers of all of us.”

Handing the papers back to Carter, Rogers stepped around Dugan and put a hand on Falsworth’s shoulder.  “You okay, Monty?”

With a heavy sigh, Falsworth straightened.  He gave Mickey a tight smile, then turned to Rogers.  “The rocket landed in the fields and gave my great-aunt quite the fright, but otherwise, they’re all as well as can be expected.”

“That’s good to hear,” Rogers said, smiling and squeezing Falsworth’s shoulder.  “But that didn’t answer my question.”

After a moment, Falsworth nodded and looked down.  “I will be.” He glanced up at Carter. “Thank you for arranging that.”

She gave him an empathetic smile.  “You’re most welcome.” Straightening her shoulders, she set the folder down on the nearest empty spot on the narrow table.

“Now.  It appears our mission to give the Germans a boogeyman was more successful than initially expected.”  Looking up at Bucky, she raised an eyebrow. “Apparently, our good friend Leutnant Holz saw you go down… or that’s our best guess, seeing as how there are suddenly rumors of the Headless Horseman himself and a werewolf tearing their way through Europe.”

Bucky scoffed and shook his head.  “Seriously?”

“It’s curious, though,” Carter continued, frowning.  “We’re assuming the werewolf comes from Ghost’s dog, but… Most stories report the wolf as white.”

Looking up quickly, eyes tight, Barnes took half a step toward Carter.  “Say that again.”

She gave him a quizzical look.  “Most of the reports of a werewolf say it’s a man in black clothes that changes into a white wolf.”

The words resonated strangely in Bucky’s head.  He winced as flashes of harsh light reflecting off of silver burst through his memory.  Tripod’s head swiveled around and she let out a low whine.

- shining metal, cold metal, black metal -

“Is the color of the wolf important?” Rogers asked slowly.  He had a hand tilted around Barnes’s elbow and his head tilted to catch the sergeant’s eye.

Bucky barely felt the paw Tripod dragged down his leg.

“It’s… probably nothing.”  Barnes frowned thoughtfully and shook his head, looking down at his feet.  “Just some old fairy tale my bubbe used to tell me.”

- a War Dog -

Pressure started building behind Bucky’s eyes and he leaned heavily against the table behind him.  Scrubbing at his forehead with the heel of a gloved hand, he squeezed his eyes shut and hissed soundlessly between his teeth.

“Ghost?”  Jones’s voice and Tripod’s alert-whines echoed inside Bucky’s head.  “You okay?”

- electromagnets, they -

Barnes was still speaking, his voice fading and stretching through the filter of Bucky’s headache.  He only caught every third or fourth word, snatches of the story of the omul negru and the wolf in the night.

- four hundred -

Hands pressed against Bucky’s arm as he tried to shake off the pulsating throb inside his skull.  His neck twitched and jerked his head to the side once, then twice.

- bratik -

Bucky barely registered the voices around him as the world swayed.

- bratik -

He turned and staggered out of the tent and into the rain.  His knees locked up three paces away as fleeting impressions of shapes - geometric, why does it look tribal - slammed into his head with the force of a storm.

“-stopwatch, my mark-”

- bratik -

“-some room-”

Stars.

“-epile-”

Black.

***

Bucky came to with a jolt; it took several seconds for his eyes to focus on the barely-visible canvas above him.

He blinked a few times, then lifted his hands to his face with a groan.  Rubbing over his eyes and cheeks, he drew in a deep breath.

Something cold and wet nudged against his jaw and Bucky turned to get the traditional post-episode faceful of sloppy dog kisses.  Screwing his eyes shut, he awkwardly patted Tripod until she finished making sure his face was well and truly clean.

“<Love you, too, girl,>” he mumbled, wiping the slobber off his face with a sleeve.

“Hey.”  The cot shifted slightly as Mickey sat down next to his hip.  A cool hand pressed against his forehead and Bucky opened his eyes again.  She was silhouetted against the dim lantern on their shared bedside milk crate.  “How’re you feeling?”

He ran his tongue over his teeth and curled his lip at the two days’ worth of food fuzz.  Taking quick stock of everything that hurt and didn’t, Bucky lifted a hand and waggled it back and forth.  “Iffy.”

Mickey hummed and brushed his hair back from his forehead.  “Well, you had a fever for a bit, but it looks like it’s calmed down, now.  Dehydration’s mostly under control, and you probably don’t remember it, but Rogers and Dernier helped carry you back to quarters.”

Nodding, Bucky closed his eyes and rolled his head to the side.  “That wasn’t a normal seizure.”

“Nope.  Definitely wasn’t.”  Mickey’s fingertips pressed into his temples and began massaging gently.  “Looked a lot like the ones you had back when your hippocampus was still healing.”

Bucky leaned into Mickey’s hands and sighed softly.  “What was the trigger this time?”

“Sarge started talking about a folk tale from his…”

“Bubbe.  Grandma.”

“Thanks.  Something about a vampire or werewolf or something.  Said it was called a strigoi?” She stumbled a bit over the unfamiliar word, repeating carefully when Bucky corrected her pronunciation.  “You started mumbling about silver and blue and patterns in black before you collapsed.”

Sifting through his memory, Bucky couldn’t help but growl softly in frustration.  “Why am I having trouble with this?  The fuck happened in that damn base?”

“Don’t push it too-”

The tent flap swished open and Bucky lifted his head off the pillow just enough to see Rogers poke his head in.

“I’m sorry for barging in like this,” the captain said, lips twisted apologetically.  “But, uh.” He held up a folded sheet of paper, the embossed Army letterhead visible even in the low light.  “Orders.”

Bucky held out a hand and took the paper.  “We movin’ out in the morning?”

Eyebrows furrowing, Rogers looked down at his feet.  “I… yeah. Sort of.”

“I don’t…”  As he unfolded the sheet, the words dried up in Bucky’s throat.  Mickey peeked over his shoulder.

Not fit for duty.

Report for evaluation and examination.

“That’s bullshit,” Mickey said flatly.  “Rogers, that’s bullshit.”

Rogers closed his eyes.  “He… had a seizure where the whole camp could see him.  Phillips kept it off your record the first time because it didn’t happen in public, but…”

It took Bucky a moment to realize that the reason he couldn’t read the rest of his orders were because his hands were shaking.

“This comes from way above me.”  The captain swallowed uncomfortably and shook his head.  “I’m sorry. I tried to argue it, but-”

“Not your fault,” Bucky finally managed to say.  He handed the orders to Mickey, then lay back down on his cot.  “So, just me, or…?”

Shaking his head, Rogers sighed.  “All three of you. I’m down a marksman, a medic, and a scout, now.  I really hope they know how much they’re crippling the unit.”

He turned and rested his hand against the pole holding up the front of the tent.  “We’re all hopping on the convoy back to London tomorrow. It’s not much, but I convinced them to let us escort you to outprocessing.”  His broad shoulders rose and sank with a heavy sigh. “0800 hours. Trucks depart at 0830.”

Then, quietly, so quiet that Bucky almost couldn’t hear him, “I’m sorry, Buck.”

***

The lab was full of the energetic buzz of promising work as the final pieces of the portal’s power supply were fitted into place.  Stark felt a bit like the conductor of a great symphony; the schematics he’d been sent were certainly complex enough. A mind-boggling maze of couplings, cables and components surrounded a barren circle with a diameter of exactly twelve meters.

He ran a last check over the components in front of him, signed off on the schematics sheet, and passed it to an aide.  “Well!” Clapping his hands together, Stark grinned at the complex device taking up nearly a quarter of his lab. “Let’s see what all the fuss is about, shall we?”

Moving carefully, technicians placed a small payload - harmless cinderblocks - in the center of the circle.

“We’ve inputted the coordinates specified here,” one of Stark’s aides said in a light Irish lilt, appearing at his elbow.  The willowy man towered over Stark as he tapped at the clipboard in his hand. “Shouldn’t need more than a few jigga-”

“Giga, Monaghan.  Hard G.”

Monaghan glanced at Stark.  “ Giga watts, and what sort’a gowl you take me for?  We can’t supply enough-”

“We can’t, Mister Monaghan,” Stark interrupted, gesturing to the power supply.  “But that can.”

Frowning, Monaghan shook his head and muttered something indistinct under his breath.  He turned and stepped forward, head buried in his notes.

“Beginning test sequence,” a technician called, and the coils on the top of the machine slowly glowed to life.

Stark looked down at the instrument panel to his right, scanning the readouts carefully.  “Give me twenty percent more power.”

Another aide rounded the corner with a large, heavy cart; Monaghan, with his head buried in his datasheets, plowed directly into the cart.  The Irishman yelped, teetered and wheeled his arms, then tripped over the thick cabling running around the perimeter of the designated blast radius.

“Power levels at seventy percent,” the technician reported.  The air thrummed with the staticky throb of machinery as the power supply cycled up.  Blue and amber glows cast eerie false shadows against the lab walls.

Monaghan landed inside the blast zone, and Stark’s blood ran cold.  “Shut it down!” he roared, launching himself forward. “Shut it down!”

“Ninety percent!”

Monaghan seemed to realize where he was sitting just as the power supply reached full capacity.  He looked up at Stark and his eyes went wide with alarm. Pulling back his arm, he threw his clipboard clear of the blast radius.

The ear-splitting shriek-bang of reality cleaving in two ripped through the air of the lab.

Stark saw but didn’t hear Monaghan’s clipboard rattle to the floor at his feet.  He listed to the side and leaned heavily against a portion of the power supply. It whirred silently under his hands as it cycled down.

One of his aides appeared next to him, mouth moving soundlessly.

Stark blinked tightly, then shook his head when he read doctor on the woman’s lips.  “F- fine,” he muttered.  “I’m fine. Write that- write that down.”

Write that down while I figure out how to tell Phillips I lost a physicist.