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Secrets

Chapter Text

2011

Bucky slowly pulled the mask down over his face.

The black goggles were designed to hide his eyes without impeding his vision, and the rest of the mask fitted snugly over his lower face, nose and mouth. The mask distorted his speech but that, he supposed, was all part of Fury's plan.

Bucky did not know a great deal about the plan. All he knew was that this morning, upon arriving at work, he had found an email waiting for him. It had been from the big boss, the Director of SHIELD himself: Nick Fury.

Curious, he had opened it, and as his eyes had roved over line after line of succinctly typed text, they had become wider and wider.

Half-convinced he had hallucinated the whole thing, he pulled his mobile phone out of his pocket to read the email once more.

 

To: Barnes, James B

From: Fury, Nicholas J

Subject: 10am meeting

 

Report to my office at 10am.

Wear the clothes that I have left in your locker, including the mask.

Get changed in one of the disabled restrooms. Make sure no one sees you enter and leave.

You are not permitted to share details of this email, your ownership of the outfit, or the 10am meeting with anyone, including your line manager.

The meeting itself will also be classified as top secret.

Nick.

 

Bucky had almost brushed the whole thing off as a joke. As if the Director of SHIELD would personally email him. Moreover, as if the Director of SHIELD would personally send him such a bizarre email.

Still, he had gone to his locker – as he was going to go there anyway – and upon opening it, he had found a large, bulky package. Reeling with disbelief, he had grabbed the package and, after some amount of dithering, snuck into the nearest disabled toilet and locked the door behind him.

What he had found inside the package was in equal parts impressive and disturbing: a black and grey leather uniform, clearly designed for missions where there was to be a high degree of physical exertion and danger involved.

There had also been a metal prosthetic arm, which used the same advanced locking mechanism to attach to his shoulder as his own flesh-coloured prosthesis. It had obviously been custom-made specifically for him, with the intricate wiring fitting perfectly with the interface that HYDRA had built into his shoulder when he had been their prisoner.

It was at this stage when had Bucky realised that this was no joke. Only the SHIELD medical team knew the details of his arm and how it attached to his body. Unsettled, he had pressed the small button to detach his flesh-coloured arm and slotted the metal prosthesis in its place. After several seconds of disconcerting numbness, the new arm had twitched to life. It was immediately apparent that this metal arm had far superior strength than his usual one.

The situation was becoming more and more curious.

Strangest of all though, was the mask. It reminded him of the mask HYDRA had made him wear when he had been under their control. There was one key difference though: whilst HYDRA's mask had been closed, meaning he could not be heard if he spoke, this new mask had slots and a microphone system installed that allowed him to speak loudly, although his voice was distorted by an electronic speaker.

Now, he stared at himself in the mirror, transfixed. He was unrecognisable. He looked like someone ripped straight from the pages of a vintage comic book, the leather fitting him snugly, metal arm glinting in the artificial light.

Taking a deep breath, he stuffed his normal clothes into his bag and carefully unlocked the door. He listened intently for a moment and then, after hearing no footsteps in the corridor, stepped outside. He shoved his bag into his locker and walked to the nearest lift. Fury's office was on the top floor; he was not going to walk.

The lift doors opened.

The man inside the lift screamed.

Momentarily forgetting his appearance, Bucky looked around wildly, seeking the cause of the man's distress. It was only after a couple of seconds that Bucky belatedly remembered what he looked like. He turned to the man, who looked frozen with fear, and held up his hands – the universal gesture for look, I'm not carrying a big murderous weapon, don't be scared.

"Everything's fine," said Bucky.

His The voice came out of the speakers distorted, the pitch altered. The sound spurred the man in the lift into action. With a burst of speed, he pushed past Bucky and sprinted down the corridor.

Bucky hurriedly stepped into the lift before anyone else could see him and pressed the button for the top floor. He breathed deeply, trying to shake the unsettling feeling of being dressed so strangely and of having frightened his colleague.

By the time he reached the top floor, his heart rate was slightly steadier. The lift doors dinged as they opened. Bucky stepped out and headed in the direction of Fury's office. He had been there once before, when his team had been called in to explain an intelligence report they had put together on a terrorist calling himself the Mandarin.

He knocked on Fury's door, his mind whirling with possibilities about what this could be about. Perhaps it was some kind of test of obedience. Perhaps it was some kind of role-play team-building exercise. Perhaps it was a dumb practical joke.

"Come in," called Fury.

Desperately hoping it was not a practical joke played by someone in the IT department messing around with his emails, Bucky entered the room. What he saw caused him to stop dead in his tracks.

Assembled in the office with Director Nick Fury were five other costumed, masked individuals.

He recognised Steve immediately, dressed in his red, white and blue Captain America uniform, complete with cowl. The identities of the other four people, however, were a mystery.

Fury gestured for Bucky to join them. His mind numb with shock, he joined the group, his legs carrying him there on auto-pilot.

"Good morning," said Fury. "Thank you for coming, and following my request for you to wear the... outfits."

At this, the assembled group openly stared at one another's strange costumes.

"I'm sorry for having to get you dressed up like this, but for this idea to work there needs to be anonymity," said Fury. "I thought masks and nicknames were the best way to achieve that."

"Nicknames?" asked a woman, who was standing to Bucky's left.

Fury nodded and pointed to each of them in turn. He started with Steve.

"Captain America," said Fury. "Everyone knows your real identity, so you're the exception to this rule, but during missions you'll use this nickname only."

Steve nodded.

"Winter Soldier," said Fury, pointing at Bucky.

Bucky tried not to look uncomfortable as everyone turned to stare at him. He could see their gazes zero in on his metal arm, so he casually put his hands behind his back, trying to hide it from view.

"Black Widow," continued Fury, pointing at the woman who had spoken earlier.

Black Widow was wearing a black leather outfit that was similar to Bucky's. Around her waist was a belt that looked as though it could hold any array of weaponry. It was held in place with a sturdy, dark red clasp shaped like a pointy hourglass. Her face was obscured by a black mask and curly red hair tumbled to her shoulders.

"Iron Man," said Fury, gesturing to a man dressed in a sophisticated metal suit of red and gold, with a glowing circle in the centre of the chest.

Iron Man nodded as Fury introduced him, giving the others a cheeky salute. The suit whirred smoothly as it moved.

"Hawkeye," said Fury, pointing a man standing next to Black Widow.

Hawkeye nodded to the rest of the group. He was wearing a black and purple leather outfit with a purple mask over his face. On his back, bizarrely, was what looked like a bow and a bag of arrows.

"And finally, Hulk," said Fury.

Bucky stared at Hulk. He looked... incredibly average, save for the paper bag with two holes cut into it on his head. If you ignored that, he was simply a man in a lab coat over a normal set of clothes. Bucky was sure he was wearing spectacles under the bag. Hulk ducked his head when Fury called out his name, apparently awkward with receiving attention.

"Hulk's got a real special party trick," smirked Fury. "If you sign up to this initiative, you'll find out what it is."

"What is this initiative?" asked Hawkeye. "All I know is that I got a weird ass email this morning, telling me to dress up and come here."

The others nodded and Bucky nodded along with them, relieved that he was not the only one to have been kept in the dark.

One notable exception was Iron Man, who touched the hands of his metal suit together almost fondly. He alone seemed comfortable in what he was wearing. Bucky wondered if that meant he had seen his suit before today.

Once they settled down, Fury spoke. His voice was quiet but commanding, and Bucky found himself transfixed.

"You're being invited to form the Avengers Initiative," said Fury. "You all work for SHIELD in some capacity. The Avengers will be SHIELD's most elite squad. You've been chosen because you've been identified as the very best in your respective fields: espionage, strategy, science, engineering, linguistics and generally being the most kick-ass agents on our payroll.

"The Avengers will be called to assemble in the most dire of situations, when regular SHIELD units can't cope. You're to be our last line of defence. When things are at their worst, you'll be called upon to save the day. We need you to fight the battles that the rest of us never could."

Bucky stared at Fury helplessly. There must have been some kind of mix up. There was no way he could have been chosen to be part of this team of saviours. Not when his past held so much darkness, so much pain, so much regret.

Looking down, his eyes caught on a map sitting atop Fury's desk. Even looking at it upside down, Bucky recognised it as a detailed map of France.

Unbidden, a memory from when he had been under HYDRA's control crept up, wrapping him in its icy tendrils. France. He remembered the mission in Paris: the crunch of bone, the feeling of hot blood gushing over his fingers. The target had begged for his life, but he had not stood a chance.

Bucky bit the inside of his cheek, resisting the urge to throw up inside his mask. The phantom smell of blood filled his nose, making him gag. Guilt and bitter shame swept through him.

"Why do our identities need to be kept a secret?" asked Hulk.

Hulk had a calm, nasally voice. Bucky latched onto it, feeling his heart rate slow as he anchored himself in the present. The smell of blood faded into nothingness. Bucky exhaled, long and slow, as the memory slipped away.

"Security reasons," said Fury. "If you don't know one another's real identities, then you can't leak information about one another. The Avengers are going to be a highly visible squad. You'll be targets. One of you might be captured and tortured for information. One of you could even be a double agent working for another organisation. The less you know about one another, the safer you'll all be. It's for your own good.

"Like I said, though, you all have other jobs within SHIELD. You might meet coincidentally. If you suspect you've met another Avenger, you don't ask and you don't tell. Now I know everyone knows Captain America's real identity, but you're not to go up to him and introduce yourself. I know you'll be curious, but anonymity is essential to keep you all safe. Understood?"

They all nodded and murmured their assent. Anonymity equalled safety. It made sense, even though Bucky was burning with curiosity to know the identities of the others.

Fury picked up 6 batches of paper from his desk and passed one to each of them. Bucky looked down and skimmed the two sheets of paper. One was a contract to join the Avengers Initiative. The other was a rejection of the invitation and a non-disclosure agreement.

"If you want to join, sign the contract," said Fury. "If you want out, then sign the non-disclosure agreement and leave. Either way, you're never to speak about this meeting to anyone."

Bucky stared down at the two sheets of paper. He had a choice to make: join or leave. He was torn.

He wanted nothing more than to join. He wanted to protect civilians from the very worst threats. He wanted to serve his country and make it a better, safer place.

But he also felt, in his gut, that he did not deserve to be part of the team. His past was monstrous. When he had joined SHIELD after they had rescued him from HYDRA's mind control, he had told them everything he had done over the last 70 years. The look of horror on the face of the agent who had debriefed him was something Bucky would never forget.

Perhaps, though, joining the Avengers could be his way of undoing the wrongs he had been forced to commit. Perhaps it could help him redress the balance of good and evil acts he had done throughout his life. Perhaps this could be his atonement.

Taking a deep breath, Bucky picked up a pen and signed the contract to join the Avengers Initiative.

 


 

Present day

A CD of greatest hits from the 1930s played through the car's speakers as Steve and Bucky drove through the evening traffic.

They were heading towards The Grand Hotel, which had been booked for the SHIELD Christmas party. Both of them were looking forward to a night of food, drink and partying. It had been far too long since either of them had had a proper night out.

"The Grand Hotel," said Steve, his eyes flicking to their invitations that were sitting on the car's dashboard. "Why does that sound familiar?"

Bucky relaxed in the passenger seat, letting his mind mull over the question. Now that Steve mentioned it, the name of the hotel did sound eerily familiar. When the answer finally came to him, he snorted.

"The Grand Hotel, 1936," said Bucky. "You broke your nose in a fight round the back. Some guy was hassling this girl. You stepped in to save the day."

Steve blushed as he remembered.

"Was the girl alright?" he asked. "My memory's kind of hazy."

Probably from getting repeatedly punched in the head, thought Bucky.

"She was fine," said Bucky. "Probably dead now though."

They lapsed into silence as they both contemplated the strangeness of their situation. Steve was Bucky's best friend from childhood. In a strange twist of fate, they had both been frozen in the mid-1940s – Steve in the Arctic ice, Bucky in a HYDRA cryo-chamber.

The result was that they were both alive in the present day, biologically in their early 30s, chronologically around 100 years old. But whilst everyone knew Steve's story, Bucky's past had been hidden from the public.

As far as anyone knew, Bucky was a regular SHIELD employee born in the 1980s. His past as HYDRA's fist had been classified as top secret and, to Bucky's knowledge, only a handful of SHIELD personnel knew the full details of his past.

It was exhausting, sometimes, to have to pretend to be this ordinary modern-day man. He could not talk about a great many things with his friends, such as his life when he was young, and the fact he was a member of the Avengers.

With Steve, though, he could be himself. Steve enjoyed talking about when they had been boys and young men before the war. Plus, Steve had recognised Bucky instantly when Fury had first assembled the Avengers. They had received special permission from Fury to talk to one another about missions, seeing as they both already knew one another's identities. They were the only two Avengers with that privilege. Despite going on dozens of missions together, Bucky still did not know who his teammates were under their masks. It was a relief to have Steve. Steve was the one person he could be completely open and honest around.

"Do you remember that party we went to when we were like 25?" asked Bucky, smiling. "I had to sneak you in underneath a massive coat because the door staff would never have believed you were old enough. You were so fucking small."

Steve kept his eyes on the road as he replied, in a completely serious, deadpan tone: "I've got bigger arms than you now, asshole."

Bucky huffed, pretending to be offended.

"I could get the SHIELD medics to make me a bigger prosthetic," he shot back.

Steve laughed, light and carefree.

"That's cheating!" he said. "How's the new arm, anyway?"

Recently, Bucky had been forced to upgrade his prosthetic after accidentally burning his old one while cooking. Some flammable material or cream must have been smeared on it, and all it had taken was one flame from the stove to set the whole thing alight. Bucky had been able to detach the arm before the flames reached his torso, but the prosthetic itself had been ruined.

Thankfully, a team of SHIELD tech geniuses had been able to produce a replacement in double quick time, and Bucky now had a new arm that worked and looked just as realistic as the previous one. His regular arm was different from his metal Winter Soldier arm, of course, and he was pleased with how natural it looked – complete with fake arm hair and all.

"It's good," said Bucky. "Works just as well as the old one and looks just like a normal arm. I doubt anyone can even tell it's a prosthetic, unless I take my shirt off and show them where it joins my shoulder."

Steve shot him a sly smirk.

"Are you planning on getting naked with anyone tonight?" he teased.

Bucky laughed as he flicked his gaze out of the window. They were getting closer to The Grand Hotel. He could recognise some of the landmarks. He remembered the last time they had been here, when Steve had got his nose broken, and found himself relieved that Steve was now better able to defend himself.

"I'm not really into hook-ups," said Bucky. "I must be mellowing in my old age. I want a steady guy, not some fling or a one-night stand."

"Maybe you'll meet him tonight," said Steve.

Bucky smiled. He was incredibly thankful that Steve was accepting of his sexuality. Bucky had come out as gay several years prior and he had been afraid that Steve might react badly to the news. However, Steve had been absolutely wonderful. He had accepted the news with no drama, and they had even gone to pride together the following summer, Steve painting their cheeks the colours of the rainbow flag.

He was brought out of his thoughts by Steve turning into the hotel's parking garage. He killed the engine and then threw the invitations into Bucky's face, a habit that should have been annoying but instead was incredibly endearing.

"Party time," said Steve, grinning as he clambered out of the car.

Bucky snorted and followed suit, slamming the car door shut and walking with Steve towards the entrance of the hotel. They showed their invitations to the security woman and were welcomed inside.

They heard the party before they saw it, following the sound of chatter into a large restaurant and bar area full of SHIELD employees from various departments. There were some people who Bucky knew and many others who he did not. Within minutes, he found himself being called over by some friends from his department. Steve followed, much to the delight of Bucky's colleagues who were excited to meet Captain America himself.

Bucky relaxed into the party. He mingled with various people, talking to whoever seemed interesting and regularly replenishing his drinks at the bar. Over the next couple of hours, he became firm friends with a man who introduced himself as Sam Wilson. Sam had a sense of humour as sharp as a knife and a smile so genuine that Bucky could not help returning it. He tactfully moved aside when one of his friends from his department, Sharon Carter, began to show a flirtatious interest in Sam, giving him a pat on the back as he slunk away.

Bucky found himself leaning against the bar, stifling his laughter as he watched a crowd of people challenge Steve to a drinking contest. A vast quantity of shots were brought to the table and, before Bucky's eyes, they began knocking them back. Steve drank slowly but steadily, putting back seven shots without blinking. His challengers, on the other hand, began struggling after four. By the time one brave individual swallowed down shot number six, it was clear that everyone at the table, excluding Steve, was absolutely steaming drunk.

Steve looked up, met Bucky's eyes, and winked. Bucky laughed. He half-wanted to point out to everyone that Steve's serum meant that he could not get drunk, but there was something hilarious about the situation, so he kept silent. Eventually, the challengers forgot about Steve and began singing Christmas carols in surprisingly good harmony.

With Silent Night in the background, Bucky's gaze wandered across the bar. His eyes swept across the various patrons, before he did a double-take. At the other end of the bar was a stunningly handsome man, sipping a glass of wine and staring at Bucky. Bucky quickly checked behind himself, in case the mystery man was ogling someone else, but to his delight (and slight terror – fuck, did he even remember how to flirt?), there was no one else there.

The mystery man smirked and hopped off his stool, walking confidently towards Bucky. Bucky watched him approach, unable to look away. He felt magnetically attracted to this man, whose movements were so smooth and who was getting closer and who was now standing right in front of him and fuck fuck fuck

"Hey," said mystery man. "I'm Tony."

Tony looked to be in his mid-40s, with intelligent brown eyes and dark brown hair. He had a goatee that would have looked ridiculous on anyone else, but somehow Tony managed to pull it off. He was wearing a dark crimson suit and a black tie that should have looked garish but instead just looked eccentric. He gave off an air of fun, energy and warmth. He was also incredibly sexy.

"Hi," said Bucky, trying and failing to sound as cool as possible. "I'm Bucky."

Tony's eyebrows shot up.

"Bucky?" he echoed. "As in a bucking bronco?"

Ha, that was kind of funny. He should laugh. He should definitely laugh and make a joke out of it. Definitely.

"No, as in Buchanan," said his traitorous mouth. "My parents really liked US Presidents. In fact, I'm named after two of them."

Fuck, what was he saying? He was boring himself and he had only been speaking for 5 seconds. He took a long swallow of his drink, hoping the burn of the alcohol would knock some sense into him.

Tony, it seemed, was not put off by his nervous rambling. He smiled, resting a hand casually on Bucky's arm as though it was no big deal.

"What do you think of the party?" said Tony. "It's pretty good, right? I saw some people trying to out-drink Captain America. Big mistake. I bet his serum massively slows down the effects of alcohol."

Bucky smiled. So, Tony was smart too, as well as stupendously hot. Bucky took a step closer. It was not just his intelligence – there was something else, too. There was something intensely familiar about the way Tony spoke.

He wracked his memory for any recollection of having met Tony before and drew a blank. He did not remember seeing Tony at work, or the gym, or the supermarket, or in the neighbourhood where he lived. He had never seen Tony before in his life – there was no way he would forget a face as gorgeous as his.

Then why did his mannerisms and way of speaking seem so familiar?

"Have we met before?" Bucky blurted out, unable to stop himself. "I... feel like we have."

Tony stared at him for several long moments, before shrugging.

"Maybe we've seen one another in the cafeteria or something," said Tony. "I eat there sometimes, when I remember to."

It did not seem like the right explanation – Bucky would remember seeing someone that handsome in the cafeteria – but he shrugged it off, trying to shake the sense of nagging familiarity.

"When you remember to eat?" he replied, smiling.

Tony laughed ruefully, looking abashed in a way that suggested he had been told off about his eating schedule multiple times before.

"I just get really absorbed in my work," said Tony. "Comes with having the best job in the world."

Bucky reached out and rested a hand gently on Tony's elbow. When Tony did not pull away, he began stroking Tony's arm. Tony smirked.

"What's your job?" asked Bucky.

"I work in the R&D division of the Tech department," said Tony, before cocking his head to the side and looking Bucky up and down. "If I had to guess you, I'd say... the Field department?"

Bucky laughed, nodding.

"The Reconnaissance division of the Field department," he said. "Good guess."

Tony laughed, reaching out and squeezing Bucky's bicep flirtatiously.

"Wasn't a random guess," said Tony. "You're kind of built for it."

Bucky swallowed thickly. That was sexy. He wanted to reply with something equally sexy, like you look pretty well-built yourself, for a tech guy, or just, are you gay? Please be gay. Or bi, bi is cool too.

Instead, he stammered a quick "thanks", which caused Tony's grin to widen.

There was a commotion behind him, and Bucky turned instinctively, finding a new set of people marching up to Steve and demanding a drinking game. In turning, his back was angled towards Tony, who stepped forwards to fill the gap between them and casually wrapped an arm around Bucky's waist.

Bucky froze, his heart hammering hard in his chest as his blood rushed towards his groin. He quickly put a hand in his pocket, trying to hide his burgeoning arousal. Tony's arm was gentle around his waist, the touch light enough for Bucky to pull away if he wanted to but solid enough for Bucky to be able to feel every single centimetre where their bodies were touching.

His mind and body thrummed with excitement, giddy with the knowledge that Tony – this astonishingly good-looking and pleasant man – was flirting and getting handsy with him.

"They're going to get wasted," said Tony, his breath tickling Bucky's ear.

Bucky tipped his head back slightly, wanting to be closer to that velvety voice.

"Do you want a drink?"

The question caught him off guard. It took him a few moments for Bucky's brain to realise that a response was necessary. Feeling slightly foolish for being caught perving on Tony's voice, Bucky nodded.

"What's your favourite drink?" asked Tony.

"Vodka and cranberry juice," said Bucky.

Tony let out a small exclamation of surprise.

"Me too!" he said, before letting go of Bucky's waist and turning his attention to the nearest bartender. "Two double vodkas in cranberry juice, please."

Bucky turned back around, missing Tony's arm around his waist but feeling too self-conscious to ask for him to put it back. He contented himself with standing close enough to Tony to feel his body heat, something that Tony seemed to appreciate too, if the smile curving his lips was anything to go by.

Within minutes, their drinks were prepared. Despite Bucky's protests, Tony paid for them both.

"I almost certainly earn more than you," said Tony stubbornly. "I'm getting this."

Bucky reluctantly accepted, taking his drink.

"Thanks," he said, taking a sip.

The vodka hit him immediately. He raised his eyebrows, surprised at how strong it tasted. Hmm. Considering how much he had already drank tonight, perhaps getting a double vodka and cranberry had been a bad idea. He was definitely crossing the border from tipsy to drunk.

Confidence buoyed by the alcohol, he leaned in and whispered in Tony's ear.

"I'm not going to put out tonight just because you bought me a drink."

Tony looked surprised at the suggestion.

"That's not why I bought it," he said, before a curious expression crossed his face. His brown eyes darkened as his pupils expanded, the tip of his tongue darting out to wet his lips. "Although as we're on the topic, what would make you want to put out?"

He should stop talking now, Bucky thought to himself. He should get up and walk away because he really was not into one-night stands and random hook-ups, even if the guy was drop-dead gorgeous.

Something about Tony made him stay, though. For some reason, he felt safe and familiar and right.

Feeling unusually confident, Bucky leaned into Tony's personal space, so their legs were almost touching. He licked his lips, enjoying the way Tony's eyes darkened with desire as they darted down to look at them.

Bucky could feel his cock hardening in his pants, thickening and rising as Tony exhaled more heavily than before.

"You'd have to take me out on a date first," said Bucky. "Probably multiple dates. And I wouldn't want to just jump straight into sex when we eventually got to that stage either. I'd want to kiss first, make out, that kind of thing. Got to have a test drive before even thinking about buying the car."

Tony leaned in so quickly that, later, when Bucky replayed the moment in his mind, he could not even recall if he had fully finished speaking before Tony was kissing him. The kiss was hot, messy and passionate. Tony's stubble scratched at Bucky's skin in the most glorious way. His tongue was wet and commanding as it plunged into Bucky's mouth. He tasted like vodka and cranberries and something else that Bucky could not quite place. Mint, perhaps. They kissed until they ran out of air, pulling apart with their faces flushed and their lips red and slick.

"Did I pass the test drive?" asked Tony.

Bucky stared at him, his brain refusing to come up with any kind of coherent response. It was no wonder – all the blood had been diverted from his brain straight down to his crotch. He had just enough presence of mind to move his hands to adjust himself, not wanting the entire Christmas party to see his raging erection.

Tony smirked and whipped out a pen, writing his number down in a messy scrawl on a beer mat and handing it to Bucky.

"Text me when you want to go on that date," he said, before winking and striding off into the crowd.

Chapter Text

Bucky looked down at the sleeping woman beside him.

The mission was complete. The woman had provided all the information that HYDRA had required, most notably the passcode to a USB drive that contained a wealth of top secret information, which she had entered in full view of the hidden camera that Bucky had planted near her computer.

It had been a surprisingly easy mission to complete. Bucky had played his part perfectly: befriending her, seducing her and gaining her trust. Once he had wormed his way into her life, it had been simple for him to extract the information. She had not even realised what he was doing, misinterpreting his calculated questioning for friendly interest.

With the mission completed, HYDRA had ordered him to clean up and tie up all the loose ends. So, that evening, he had gone to her flat for a "date" and discreetly slipped the hidden camera into his bag when she had gone to the toilet.

There was just one final thing to do.

He reached down and brushed the soft hair from her neck. The woman stirred in her sleep, eyes blinking open as she snuggled closer to him. Her naked breast brushed against his arm. Bucky smiled and rolled them over so that he was on top, covering her body with his. She moaned softly, one hand reaching down to touch his flaccid penis.

He wrapped a hand firmly around the back of her neck, snapping it in one clean, swift movement. Death, of course, was instantaneous. Mission complete.

Bucky jolted from the dream with a yell.

He sat bolt upright in bed, his heart hammering in his chest, bile rising in his throat. He looked around his flat wildly, finding himself alone in his bedroom, light from the street outside filtering through his curtains.

Biting his lip, he forced himself not to throw up as the memory of the dead woman's face lingered in front of his eyes like an afterimage.

 


 

When Bucky woke up the next morning, he was tired and had a throbbing headache.

Thanks to the amount he had drunk at the Christmas party, he had gone to bed still tipsy, and he never slept well when he was inebriated.

Then there had been the nightmare. The memory of the woman's dead eyes had kept him awake for hours, before he had finally fallen back into a fitful sleep.

Presently, he was sitting at the kitchen table, draining a cup of strong black coffee in the hope that it would make him feel slightly more human. A stack of toast sat in front of him, but he just picked at it, not feeling particularly hungry.

Seeking distraction, he pulled out his phone, flicking through his recent apps before coming across a contact he had inputted the previous night: Tony.

His heart rate increased as his mind latched onto the memory of Tony, desperate to think about anything other than the nightmare that had awoken him.

He opened up Tony's contact, his thumb hovering over the call icon as his stomach churned in a way that had nothing to do with his hangover. His mind replayed their kiss. He could feel himself getting hot and flushed as he remembered the intensity of it, the passion, the way Tony's stubble had scratched at his skin.

He wanted nothing more than to call him and arrange a time and place for that date that Tony had offered, but even as his heart fluttered with excitement at the idea, something dark and heavy settled over his mind.

Was it fair to pursue a relationship with this man? Tony seemed like a decent guy. He deserved to be with someone who could be open and honest. Bucky was not such a person, thanks to his particular circumstances.

Tony deserved someone better than Bucky. To pursue Tony felt selfish, wrong even. And yet, a small voice nagged at the back of his mind: had Bucky not earned the right to be a little selfish? Throughout his life, he had been dragged through shit, forced to be HYDRA's slave, frozen against his will. He had lost 70 years and, along with it, all of his friends and family – everyone except Steve. Did he not deserve a break?

Bucky threw down his phone in frustration, unsure of what to do. To take his mind off it, he wolfed down his toast and set about his daily routine. He brushed his teeth, took a long shower and threw himself into cleaning his flat. The physicality of it took up a good proportion of his mental energy, but the presence of Tony's number on his phone lingered constantly in the back of his mind.

He to-ed and fro-ed between wanting to call Tony and experiencing deep self-doubt over whether he had any right to do so. He paced around the flat anxiously, mentally tying himself in knots before throwing himself down on the sofa and pulling out his phone.

Tired of his own indecision, Bucky pulled up Tony's contact and clicked the compose message button. Before he could talk himself out of it, he typed out a message and pressed send.

 

From: me

To: Tony

Hi, it's Bucky. Fancy meeting for coffee?

 

Bucky stared at the message, his stomach flipping with nerves as the grey tick that indicated it had been sent appeared. He jumped when, less than twenty seconds later, his phone vibrated in his hand with a new text message. Opening it, a smile spread over his face as he read the reply.

 

From: Tony

To: me

Coffee sounds great. Do you know The Coffee Bean café? Meet me there at noon? T.

 

The Coffee Bean café was about a ten-minute walk from Bucky's flat. Tapping out a message replying in the affirmative, Bucky sauntered back to his bedroom to get changed into some smarter clothes. By the time he had got changed and was looking acceptable, it was 11:40am.

He exited his block of flats and started off in the direction of the bus stop, before changing his mind and heading straight for the café instead. Perhaps it would be better to walk, he thought; it might help calm his nerves.

He was not sure why he felt so nervous. Perhaps it was because of the memory that had visited him in his nightmare. Perhaps it was simply because he had not been on a date for such a long time.

It did not take him long to walk to the café. He entered The Coffee Bean just as his watch turned twelve, the warmth hitting him as the door swung shut behind him. He scanned the tables, his stomach flipping anxiously, looking for a mop of dark brown hair and a goatee.

He spotted Tony at the back of the café, where he had secured a cosy-looking booth. Tony waved as he noticed Bucky, gesturing him over. Bucky weaved through various tables to Tony's booth, smiling nervously as he plopped himself down on the opposite side of the booth.

"Hey," said Bucky.

"Hi," said Tony, his face lighting up with a grin. "I'm really glad you weren't an alcohol-induced dream."

Bucky laughed, amused by the unusual compliment. He suspected that Tony was not afraid of being a bit socially odd and this pleased him greatly.

At that moment, a waitress came to their table to take their orders.

"What'll it be for you guys?" she asked, flashing them both a smile.

"I'll have a caffè mocha, please," said Bucky.

"Make that two," added Tony.

The waitress gave them a parting smile and departed, leaving silence in her wake. Bucky suddenly found himself growing anxious, his mind going stubbornly blank as he tried in vain to think of something interesting to say. He had not been on a date for so long, and his brain seemed determined to screw things up now that it had finally happened.

"Are you out?" asked Tony quietly.

Bucky nodded. He was comfortable with his sexuality. Vastly improved attitudes towards gay people were one of his favourite things about living in the modern age.

With a smile, Tony reached out and took Bucky's hand in his, stroking a thumb gently over his knuckles.

Bucky found himself relaxing. There was something incredibly calming about having his hand held by this man, who really should not feel so familiar, and yet did. Bucky found his anxiety lessening with each passing moment, his racing heart slowing with each stroke of Tony's thumb across his skin.

The waitress returned with their drinks, smiling when she saw their interlinked hands. As she walked away, Tony reached out to grab his caffè mocha with his free hand. Taking a swig of it, he sighed, before turning his attention to Bucky.

"You know, I don't really know anything about you other than the fact you work in the Reconnaissance division at SHIELD, you like vodka and cranberry juice, and you're an excellent kisser," said Tony, leaning forwards to look Bucky in the eye. His expression was deadly serious as he said the next, ridiculous words: "So, sugarplum, tell me something about you."

Bucky stared at Tony, not entirely sure he had heard him correctly. After several seconds of mutual staring, Tony smirked. That settled it: Bucky definitely had not misheard.

"Well, first things first, I don't like being called sugarplum," said Bucky. "You're not calling me that."

Tony pouted, pulling off an adorable expression that no middle-aged man had any business being able to pull off.

"But you look like the kind of guy who enjoys some nice plums!" protested Tony.

Unsure of whether this was some kind of euphemism or not, Bucky ploughed on, shaking his head.

"That's not the point," he said, pretending to be cross.

Tony laughed, eyes twinkling.

"OK, but really," he said, giving Bucky's hand a squeeze, "tell me something about yourself."

Bucky took a sip of his caffè mocha as he pondered what to say about himself that sounded interesting but stayed away from the topics that were labelled top secret.

"I like keeping fit and going for runs around Central Park," he said. "I like reading murder mysteries and dystopian classics. I like travelling. I've, uh, seen quite a lot of Europe."

Tony nodded along as Bucky spoke, looking keen and interested. He hummed slightly at Bucky's last point, as if it had reminded him of something.

"I kind of want to go to Russia at some point," said Tony. "Have you ever been?"

Bucky shivered involuntarily. He remembered the bunker in Siberia where he had been frozen by HYDRA between missions. He had nothing but awful memories of that place. It had been the place where they had forced him to transform from Bucky Barnes into their very own killing machine. He remembered the way it felt, to have his mind completely stripped away to become their perfectly blank slate.

"Yeah, I've been to Russia," said Bucky.

"What was it like?" asked Tony.

Imagine your worst nightmare, then multiply it by a hundred, he thought.

"It was cold," he said out loud.

Well, it was true. Omitting certain details was not the same as lying – at least, that was what he told himself.

Possibly sensing that it was not a topic that Bucky was keen to discuss, Tony smoothly changed the direction of the conversation.

"What kind of music are you into?" said Tony. "Do you have a favourite band or musician?"

Bucky smiled. God, did he ever. He had every single Glenn Miller song ever made on vinyl, alphabetised in a collection back at his flat. Steve teased him mercilessly about it whenever he came over, but Bucky refused to be embarrassed about having an excellent taste in music. Without thinking about the implications of his answer, Bucky replied.

"Glenn Miller," he said. "He's a legend."

Tony's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He let out a low whistle, impressed.

"Wow, old school," said Tony. "As in the 1930s jazz guy Glenn Miller?"

Bucky ducked his head, slightly unnerved that he had so easily revealed a potentially compromising piece of information about himself. Tony just made him feel so inexplicably comfortable.

"Yeah," he muttered.

Tony laughed.

"Hmm, you don't look anywhere near old enough to even know who Glenn Miller is," he said.

"I look deceptively youthful," Bucky replied drily.

"Yeah?" said Tony. "How old are you?"

Old enough to be your dad, thought Bucky.

"Thirty-five," he said out loud.

Tony smiled.

"I'm forty-eight," he said. "Is that OK? I'm not too old for you?"

Bucky grinned and shook his head. He had dated older.

"It's fine," he said. "Tell me about you."

Tony took another long sip of his drink before answering. When he replied, Bucky found himself listening with interest. Something about Tony's way of speaking was so fascinating, so eerily familiar, even though he was sure he had never spoken to the man before last night.

"I love rock music," said Tony. "Get AC/DC blasting out the speakers and I'll party all night. I like going out and being active. I'm pretty extroverted, but I like having quiet time as well – movie nights and stuff like that. I'm kind of addicted to inventing stuff but there are worse vices to have, right?"

The last part in particular caught his interest. He remembered that Tony had mentioned last night that he worked in SHIELD's Tech department.

"What kind of things have you invented?" he asked.

Tony grinned, obviously pleased that Bucky was taking such a keen interest.

"All kinds of things," said Tony. "Gadgets for the field agents, software for the tech guys, prosthetics for the medical team. You'd be surprised how many amputees there are at SHIELD – I guess it's a dangerous job. And I have three beautiful robot babies: Dummy, Butterfingers and You. They're like... big metal arms on wheels. They're idiots, but they're my idiots, and I love them."

It really should not have been so adorable to listen to a middle-aged man gush about three robotic arms, but the amount of love that Tony had for his "robot babies" was obvious, and Bucky found it incredibly endearing.

"Do you have any photos of them?" said Bucky.

Tony's eyes lit up with delight. He let go of Bucky's hand to grab his mobile phone from his pocket and placed it on the table between them. Flicking through his gallery, he pulled up a video and pressed play.

"They've got the approximate mental age of human seven-year-olds," explained Tony. "Watch this, they're fucking cute."

Bucky craned his neck to see the screen. The video had been shot in some kind of technician's workshop – presumably Tony's. There were tables piled with bits of wiring and what looked like junk but must have had some actual purpose.

In the middle of the room were three metal robots. As Tony had said, they were essentially large metal arms attached to a chassis on wheels. The arms had several joints allowing them a range of movement, and at the end of their arms they had large metal pincers, which Bucky supposed could also be thought of as their heads.

In the video, they were standing in a line facing the camera, bobbing their heads in excitement. Off-camera, Tony counted to four. On cue, cheesy pop music began blasting from the speakers. Dummy, Butterfingers and You began dancing, with each bot having its own unique style.

The bot on the left was head-banging violently, looking more like it was at a heavy metal concert than dancing to some cheesy pop song. The middle bot was swaying its head from side to side in time with the music, in a manner that was surprisingly quite graceful. The bot on the right was spinning around in delight, making excited chirping noises as it did so.

Bucky had expected that he would have to fake his enthusiasm about Tony's robot babies, but God, they actually were adorable. He grinned unashamedly when one of the bots trundled forwards towards the camera and wiggled its head right in front of it, its pincer filling the screen.

"Oh my God," he laughed. "They're fucking awesome."

Tony puffed out his chest, every inch the proud father. He was about to reply when his mobile phone began buzzing. Bucky glanced at the screen, where an icon had appeared notifying Tony that SHIELD was calling. Tony glared down at his phone as if it had personally offended him.

"Do you mind if I take this?" asked Tony, shooting Bucky an apologetic look. "It could be something important."

Bucky gestured for him to go ahead. Tony had not said it explicitly, but it had been implied that he held a high rank within the Tech department, perhaps even leading it. Bucky did not want to get in the way of any potentially urgent business.

"Hello?" said Tony. "What's up?"

Bucky drained the last of his caffè mocha as Tony conversed with the person on the other end of the phone. Tony's face grew more and more confused, before he finally hung up and turned to Bucky.

"I'm really sorry to cut this short, but I've got to go," said Tony. "There's been some kind of accident in the lab and now there's green goo leaking everywhere."

Bucky snorted out a laugh, feeling immensely thankful that his daily duties in the Reconnaissance department did not include cleaning up vast quantities of green goo.

"It's cool," said Bucky. "Don't worry about it."

Tony got to his feet, looking extremely apologetic as he hurriedly pulled on his coat.

"Let's do this again though, yeah?" said Tony. "Like, if you want to."

Bucky smiled, getting to his feet and pulling on his coat as well.

"I'd love that," he said.

Tony slipped out from his side of the booth and stepped directly in front of Bucky. For the second time in less than twenty-four hours, Bucky found his heart leaping in his chest as Tony's stubble scratched his skin, his tongue grazing gently against his own. The kiss was slow and sweet. By the time they broke apart, Tony's cheeks were pink and his lips were moist.

"It's a date," said Tony. "I'll text you."

With that promise ringing in Bucky's ears, Tony hurried from the café.

 


 

The next three months saw a lot of dates. Dates at the café diversified into dates at the cinema, dates going out to restaurants, dates at bars and clubs, and dates wandering around Central Park. Most weekends, they would stay over at one of their flats, enjoying spending an extended amount of time in one another's company.

That weekend, they were at Bucky's flat, curled up on the sofa together as they watched the end of Interstellar. Bucky was nestled against Tony's side, the older man's arm slung around his shoulders. As the final scene came to a close and the credits began to roll, they sat there in semi-darkness, too relaxed to be bothered to move.

Tony's fingers were gently stroking Bucky's side, but the touch was chaste rather than overly heated or sexual.

They had not gone very far in terms of sex. There had been kissing, along with some fairly frequent heavy petting. Bucky could tell that Tony was interested in going further, but Bucky was putting it off. It was not that he was not sexually attracted to Tony – fuck, Tony was hot, Bucky was seriously into him – but there was one thing that held him back from stripping off and jumping into bed with him: his prosthetic arm.

Bucky was not usually a shy person, but he did feel self-conscious about his arm. It was the one part of his body that he felt dysphoric about. Even though his prosthetic looked and felt almost completely natural, there was a visible line where the arm connected to his body. He hated it. He had not even told Tony he was an amputee yet – he had to feel completely secure with Tony before he would divulge that piece of information.

He felt, though, that he was nearing that stage. He and Tony had developed a strong relationship over the last three months. Tony had been completely respectful towards Bucky in all aspects of their interactions. Whenever things had got heated between them, with hands wandering between legs and slipping under clothes, Tony had never pushed Bucky into doing anything more, always checking that Bucky felt comfortable with whatever they were doing.

Tony had also mentioned, completely unprompted, his work creating prosthetics as part of his job. Bucky therefore knew, logically, that Tony was not grossed out by or prejudiced against amputees.

Still, it made him nervous.

Bucky was pondering how to work the topic of his arm into the conversation, when Tony spoke in the darkness.

"Do you have a secret?" he asked.

Bucky's heart began hammering in his chest. He pressed his palms against his jeans, not wanting Tony to realise how sweaty they had become.

"What?" he said.

Tony shifted, turning to face him in the semi-darkness. His hand stroked up and down Bucky's side, his fingertips brushing against his skin.

"We've been together for three months," said Tony. "I feel like I know you quite well, but I want to know more. Tell me something new about you – something that not everyone knows."

I'm an Avenger, thought Bucky. I go on these really crazy, dangerous missions with a bunch of anonymous, masked colleagues, and I'm not allowed to tell anyone for security reasons.

A pang of unease rolled in Bucky's stomach. Being an Avenger was a major part of his life. He did not like keeping the information from Tony, and felt very much that he was lying by omission. He thought about how Tony would feel if he ever found out that Bucky had been hiding such a massive part of his life. He would be hurt and pissed off, at the very least.

It was then that a second secret floated across his mind, unwanted and unbidden.

I was HYDRA's secret weapon for decades. I've murdered. I've tortured. I've done all kinds of evil things and I remember all of it.

He bit the inside of his cheek, suddenly nauseous with guilt. He was personally responsible for dozens of deaths. He had carried out HYDRA's orders with brutal and frightening efficiency. He had heard some of his victims beg for their lives and not felt an ounce of pity. Other victims had been killed so quickly that they had not had the opportunity to beg. HYDRA had called him a "perfect agent".

In the dim light of the lounge, Bucky's eyes filled with bitter tears. He was a monster. During these last three months, he had been actively ignoring this part of himself. He had tried to forget about his past, to dissociate HYDRA's perfect agent from himself. Whenever he had been with Tony, he had repressed those memories, and it had felt good.

It had been wonderful to pretend to be a normal boyfriend, to let his past fade into the background in the dazzling presence of Tony's energy and brilliance.

Now, though, the truth sat heavily on his shoulders, ugly and real and weighing down on him, unable to be ignored any longer. Hot, visceral shame blossomed in his chest. If Tony knew the truth, he would march straight out of the door and never come back. If Tony knew about Bucky's past, he would – rightly – be utterly appalled and disgusted.

Tony shifted again, catching sight of Bucky's haunted expression in the glow of the television and frowning with concern.

"What's up?" he said.

The truth sat on the tip of Bucky's tongue: I'm a monster. He thought of all the ways he could end their relationship right there and then, trying to work out which one would hurt Tony the least.

"I'm an amputee," blurted out his traitorous mouth.

Bucky sat glued to his seat, feeling as though he was watching himself on a screen, unable to stop himself as the words continued to spew from him in a desperate, nervous ramble.

"My entire left arm, it's a prosthetic," he said. "That's why I've been wanting to take it slow in the bedroom. I've been stressing out about how you'd react."

Fuck.

What was he doing? He should be ending their relationship so that Tony could find someone worthy of his affections, not jabbering on about his fucking arm. Panic started to build in his chest as he saw his opportunity slipping away.

Tony's eyebrows shot up, his gaze automatically zeroing in on Bucky's left arm.

"For real? Wow, I had no idea," said Tony. "The tech must be advanced. I've never noticed anything weird about it when we've held hands."

"It's a really good prosthetic," Bucky found himself saying. "I was half-wondering if maybe you'd worked on it."

Tony cocked his head to the side thoughtfully.

"I might have made the inner mechanisms," he said. "The outer casing gets done by another team though. Kudos to them for making it look so real. Do you have full sensation with it?"

Bucky nodded, his mood crashing down around him as he felt his courage slip away from him. He should end this now, before Tony found out the truth and got hurt. He was too much of a coward, though. The allure of being treated like a normal person was too strong, and he was too weak to resist it.

"Yeah," said Bucky. "I can feel everything with it. Like I said, it's really advanced."

Tony smiled.

"That's awesome!" he said brightly.

Bucky nodded, hating himself.

"Seeing as you've told me about your arm, I guess I owe you a secret, then," said Tony.

Bucky shook his head hurriedly. Tony owed him nothing. Bucky had not even revealed his true secret. He twisted his hands in his lap, feeling sick with guilt.

"You don't have to," said Bucky.

"I want to," insisted Tony. "I don't normally talk about my parents because it hurts too fucking much, but I want to tell you."

Even in the dim light of the television, Bucky could make out Tony's large brown eyes looking at him beseechingly. Feeling like a fraud, he reached out and held Tony's hand, letting the other man know he was there for him. Perhaps if he faked being a good boyfriend for long enough, he might become it.

"Your parents?" he prompted.

Tony let out a long, shuddering breath. His lips were tight, as if he were fighting back the urge to cry, and he moved closer to Bucky, seeking comfort. Bucky wrapped an arm around him, stroking his back gently. Seeing Tony in distress sparked some protective instinct within him. He wondered what had happened to Tony's parents to make him react like this.

"My parents died in a car crash when I was a teenager," said Tony. "I had this dumb argument with my dad right before they left and I didn't even look at him as he walked out of the door. And my mom – I can't even remember if I told her that I loved her. I was so mad at my dad that I wasn't really thinking about anything else. That's what haunts me – that the last conversation we ever had was an argument."

Bucky kissed Tony on the cheek as the other man wiped his face with a tissue. His heart ached for him. He could not imagine how it must have felt for Tony to lose both his parents at such a young age.

"I'm so sorry," he said. "I'm sure your folks knew you loved them."

Tony attempted to smile.

"Thanks," he said. "I hope so. I think about them a lot. Whenever I invent something awesome, I think about my dad. Whenever I do something nice like help an old woman cross the street, I think of my mom."

They lapsed into silence. Tony seemed happier when he was talking about his parents, Bucky noticed. He supposed that could be because he did not get the opportunity to talk about them very often. With that in mind, Bucky tentatively asked his next question.

"What were they like?"

Tony nestled his head against Bucky's shoulder, staring at the television that was now showing the menu of the DVD they had been watching. He smiled, his eyes glazing over as he re-lived some long-ago memory of his parents.

"My dad's name was Howard," said Tony. "He was a tech whiz and one of the founding members of SHIELD. I guess choosing to become an engineer at SHIELD was my way of honouring him and carrying on his legacy. He had a great mind, but he wasn't a great father. He was never abusive or anything like that, but I always felt like I came second place to his work, you know?"

Bucky listened, trying to mask his surprise. He had heard of Tony's father, back during World War II. Steve had known him and told Bucky various stories about him, although Bucky had never personally met the man, and he had not made the connection to Tony's surname. What a strange twist of fate that Bucky should now be sitting on a sofa with his son.

"My mom's name was Maria," continued Tony, his voice growing softer and gentler as he remembered his mother. "I know you're not supposed to have favourites when it comes to family, but I loved my mom more than anyone else in the world. She was everything my dad wasn't – attentive, patient, loving. I don't have that many memories of my dad when I was growing up, but my mom was always there. She looked after me. She raised me. She had this amazing ability to be kind to everyone and make people feel special.

"I remember one time, I'd been desperate to go to see this circus that had been travelling across the country. We'd booked tickets to go, but when the day finally came, I came down with measles and couldn't even get out of bed. So my mom got one of dad's assistants to go to the show and film the entire thing, and she used old bed sheets and blankets to build a big tent in my bedroom. The tent looked just like a circus tent, and when dad's assistant came back with the footage, we watched it on a television inside the tent. It was even better than being at the circus, because I knew my mom had done it just for me. That's the kind of person she was. She was incredible."

Bucky sat in silence, awed by the kindness and generosity of Maria Stark, and devastated that Tony had lost someone so dear to him. Both of Tony's parents sounded like remarkable people. It felt cruel that they had been taken from the world in something as mundane as a car crash.

"Your mom sounds like an amazing woman," said Bucky.

Tony sniffed, turning away from Bucky to dry his eyes. Bucky fished a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to Tony, who took it gratefully.

"She was the best," Tony said simply, and then his lips were on Bucky's, his tongue teasing at the seam of his lips.

The kiss took Bucky by surprise, and he opened his mouth on instinct. Tony's tongue slipped inside, stroking against his own, both needy and assertive at once. It was different from other times when they had kissed. There was an urgency there, a sense of heightened emotion that was unfamiliar.

After both sharing secrets – even if Bucky's was not the one he had been thinking about – they were both emotionally raw, and it was this visceral rawness that was communicated in their kiss. There was a sense that some boundary between them had been broken down; some invisible wall had been dismantled by the sharing of their secrets. It was as if they were now bonded on a deeper emotional level.

In the back of Bucky's mind, that small voice whispered to him to stop, to pull away, telling him that he did not deserve to be the recipient of Tony's affections. Much stronger, though, was a sense of deep connection with Tony. Bucky chose to focus on that, drowning out the voice, choosing instead to focus on giving Tony and himself the comfort that they both so desperately needed.

Tony's hand slipped beneath Bucky's shirt, stroking along his muscles and causing Bucky's skin to tingle at the contact. He shivered, his own hands fumbling to reach under Tony's clothing and touch his hot skin. Tony nipped at Bucky's lip. Bucky moaned at the unexpected flare of pain, his fingernails scratching slightly in retaliation.

Tony moved away from Bucky's mouth, choosing instead to trail a string of kisses down his neck, sucking and licking and biting gently at the sensitive skin there. It did not take long for Tony's kisses to become rougher, until he latched onto the base of Bucky's jugular and sucked hard. Bucky gasped, aware that he was being marked. The thought sent a rush of blood straight to his already-interested cock, taking him from partially to fully erect in a matter of seconds.

"Oh fuck," he moaned, before falling silent, shocked at how wrecked his voice sounded.

Tony rubbed his own erection against Bucky's thigh, grunting as he got the friction that he needed. When he pulled away to look Bucky in the eye, his pupils were blown wide with desire.

"Do you want to take this further?" asked Tony.

You don't deserve this, whispered the voice in the back of Bucky's mind. Bucky licked his lips, well aware that the voice – his conscience – was right. There was no way that he deserved Tony, but for some reason, Tony wanted to be with him, and that made a difference.

He remembered the pain in Tony's voice when he had talked about his mother. Tony was hurting. Perhaps, Bucky thought, they could help one another overcome their pasts. If Bucky could stop Tony from hurting, then it was one more thing he could do to atone for the sins he had committed as HYDRA's secret weapon.

He reached down and brought Tony's fingers to his lips, kissing his fingertips reverently.

"Yes," said Bucky.

Tony moaned deep in his throat, lurching forwards to pull Bucky into another lip-bruising kiss. Tony's tongue licked inside Bucky's mouth and lapped at his lips. They kissed until Bucky was beginning to feel light-headed from it, his lungs demanding oxygen.

As they pulled apart, Tony stood up from the sofa, pulling Bucky with him. Tony grabbed hold of his hand and led him towards the corridor that led to Bucky's bedroom. Bucky stumbled after him, his heart leaping in his chest when Tony pulled him in for another filthy kiss outside his bedroom door. Tony took him by surprise, pushing him backwards into his bedroom, where he fell back heavily on the bed.

Tony landed between his splayed legs, crawling up Bucky's body until they were face to face. Giving him a wicked grin, Tony resumed his attack on Bucky's neck, holding down Bucky's arms with his surprisingly strong hands. Bucky moaned, his cock throbbing between his legs as Tony kept him pinned down on the bed.

There was something wildly exciting and liberating about being restrained by Tony. Bucky felt as though he could let go of his thoughts and worries, safe in the knowledge that Tony would look after him. He trusted Tony, both implicitly and explicitly, and it was this trust that finally banished the voice in his head that had been telling him that he was not good enough.

He ground his crotch up against Tony's, the hard line of his erection rubbing against an equally hard bulge in Tony's jeans. Tony sat up, pulling his shirt off in one smooth movement, revealing his chest.

Bucky blinked in surprise. In the centre of Tony's chest was a flesh-coloured circle that looked to be made out of the same material as his own prosthetic arm. There was a metallic ring visible around it, keeping the circular prosthesis in place.

"I had, uh, heart surgery some years ago," said Tony, when he spotted Bucky's curious gaze. "I'm all good now, though."

Bucky reached up and touched the metallic ring around the circle. The size and shape of it reminded him of something, stirring something in his memory, but before he could place it, Tony was pulling Bucky up by the arms and slipping his fingers underneath the hem of his t-shirt.

Tony divested Bucky of his t-shirt in one easy movement, leaving Bucky feeling suddenly vulnerable as the seam of metal where his prosthetic arm connected to his body became visible. He began to tremble, his fingers curling around Tony's waist to pull him closer, seeking comfort.

Tony hushed him gently, lowering them both back down onto the bed and peppering kisses along Bucky's neck down to his chest. He licked a line along his collar bone, sucking and nipping lightly at the sensitive skin, causing Bucky to shiver.

Tony paused just before reaching Bucky's left nipple, his fingers brushing gently against the sensitive nub. Without warning, he placed his mouth over it, his tongue lapping gently, before sucking it into his mouth. Bucky gasped as Tony's teeth grazed lightly on his nipple, but any discomfort was replaced by a tingling sense of pleasure as Tony ran his tongue in little circles around the hardened nub.

Bucky sighed, lifting his chest up in an attempt to get even more attention from Tony's talented mouth. Tony smiled, moving away from Bucky's nipple to begin licking towards where Bucky's prosthesis joined his torso. Bucky tensed, bracing himself for the inevitable negative reaction as Tony inched closer to the ugly join.

He was three inches away. Two inches away. One inch... Tony did not change the pace or nature of his kisses as he moved over Bucky's metal seam. His tongue licked and nipped at the prosthesis as he began working his way down Bucky's arm.

"Beautiful," murmured Tony. "You're beautiful."

Bucky turned his face to the side, pressing his cheek into the duvet, fighting the urge to cry. It was stupid, he knew, to become so emotional over the fact that Tony had not reacted to his prosthetic arm. It meant a great deal to him, though. He had been so ashamed, had felt like such a freak. He hated the metal seam: every time he looked at it, it reminded him of what HYDRA had done. They had done that. They had owned him.

His thoughts snapped back to the present as Tony expertly unbuttoned Bucky's trousers, before pulling down the zipper.

"Lift your hips up," said Tony.

Bucky obeyed, his eyes wide as he watched Tony tug his trousers and boxers down, leaving him completely nude. Tony groaned, his eyes roving over Bucky's exposed cock and balls. He pushed Bucky's legs further apart with his hands, licking his lips as he stared. It took Bucky a moment to realise that Tony was staring hungrily at his asshole and, when he realised this, he blushed profusely, unused to such focused attention on such an intimate place.

"Can I suck you?" asked Tony, his voice husky with lust.

Bucky nodded jerkily, his hard cock oozing pre-come at the mere suggestion.

"Do whatever you want," he said.

Tony moaned, lowering himself between Bucky's legs and wrapping a warm hand around his cock. Bucky flung his head back against the bed, gritting his teeth as Tony enveloped the tip of his cock with his hot, wet mouth. He sucked hungrily, bobbing his head up and down, taking him deeper and deeper.

Bucky could feel himself leaking pre-come. If Tony kept this up, Bucky was going to come right there before Tony had even taken off all his clothes. He let out a gasp when Tony tongued at the slit of his cock, causing him to throb hard.

Tony smirked and pulled off from Bucky's cock, before hurriedly undoing his own trousers and kicking them off. Next, he shucked off his boxers, finally releasing his own throbbing erection. Bucky stared at Tony's cock, his mouth salivating. Tony's cock was shorter than Bucky's, maybe six inches long, but he was thicker. The shaft bulged in a way that had Bucky's hole twitching in nervous anticipation. It was a beautiful cock: dark and rock hard, leaking from the tip and framed with a thatch of thick, dark pubic hair.

Reaching out, Bucky swept a thumb across the head of Tony’s cock, spreading the pre-come over his shaft before starting to pump it in long, slow strokes. Tony grunted and closed his eyes, his legs splaying further apart as he concentrated on the sensation of Bucky's hand jerking him off. His breathing became deeper and slower, the tip of his cock dribbling a steady stream of pre-come as Bucky worked him over. Feeling daring, Bucky leaned down and wrapped his lips around the tip, sucking and tasting the salty taste of Tony's juices on his tongue.

Tony growled, grabbing a fistful of Bucky's hair and tugging him upright. He pushed him down onto his back, nudging his legs apart and throwing himself between them. Without hesitation, he spread Bucky's asscheeks with his hands and began licking at his hole, his tongue lapping over the tight furl of muscle. Bucky grunted, shocked at the change in position. He groaned, hardly able to think straight as Tony's hot, wet tongue went from flat to pointed and began probing at his entrance.

"Tony, God, fuck me."

The words were out of Bucky's mouth before he could stop himself. He no longer cared about sounding needy. He no longer even had the spare mental capacity to anguish over whether this was something he deserved or not. All he cared about was feeling Tony, feeling his boyfriend, inside him, joining them in the most intimate way possible.

"You sure?" asked Tony, his eyes wide but steady. At Bucky's wordless nod, Tony's cock gave a visible throb. "You got condoms? Lube?"

Another nod. Bucky pointed to his bedside table, where he had stocked up the week before. Tony pulled open the drawer and extricated the lube and a condom, placing them on the bed beside him. He leaned down and kissed Bucky gently, before sitting back up and clicking off the cap of the lube. He squirted out a glob onto his fingers, rubbing them together to warm the lube up to body temperature before settling between Bucky's legs.

"Tell me if it hurts or you want me to stop, OK?" said Tony.

Bucky nodded, his mouth dry as he looked down his body, his mind struggling to process the sight of Tony naked between his wide open legs, slick fingers just inches away from his hole. Tony kissed Bucky's thigh, giving him a small smile. Bucky closed his eyes, settling back against the pillows.

The first touch of Tony's finger brushing against his skin made him jump. Tony waited for him to relax before touching him again. His finger ran in gentle circles around his entrance, waiting for Bucky's muscles to lose some of their tension before he finally, slowly, began to push inside.

The initial penetration burned slightly, his muscles still slightly tense with nerves. Tony pushed in just a centimetre at a time, mindful of any change in Bucky's breathing. Once Tony's finger was finally fully seated inside of him, Bucky let out a slow exhale, forcing his muscles to relax against the intrusion.

Tony planted another gentle kiss against Bucky's thigh, slowly beginning to pump his finger in and out, getting Bucky used to the feeling of having something moving inside of him. Bucky arched his back, before letting out a sharp gasp when Tony crooked his finger and pressed directly against his sensitive prostate. His cock gave an involuntary twitch, a spurt of pre-come escaping at the unexpected stimulation.

He heard Tony chuckle, and then a second finger was gently working its way in alongside the first, stretching him wider and filling him even more completely. Tony rubbed deliberately against Bucky's prostate, his fingers curling to stimulate the sensitive bundle of nerves, causing Bucky to writhe against the bed with each wave of intense pleasure.

After what felt like an age, Tony finally removed his fingers from Bucky's ass, wiping the excess lube on the duvet. Leaning down, he gave Bucky a long, slow kiss, his tongue pressing gently against his own in a way that felt more loving than sexual.

Tony sat up, tearing the foil packet open and pulling out the condom. He carefully rolled it down his shaft, before squirting another glob of lube onto the tip and spreading it evenly over his sheathed cock.

Bucky watched with bated breath as Tony settled over him, his heavy weight pushing his thighs apart as they kissed.

"You're so special to me," whispered Tony, his breath ticking Bucky's nose.

Bucky's reply evaporated in his throat as Tony began to slowly push inside. His hole had to stretch to accommodate Tony's significant girth, a small cry of pain escaping him as Tony pushed past his tight sphincter. Tony took his time, thrusting in slow, shallow movements, pushing slightly deeper each time. Bucky moaned as he felt himself being filled, his breathing tight and heavy as Tony buried himself to the hilt.

Finally fully seated, Tony let out a long exhale and kissed Bucky's cheeks, keeping himself still long enough for Bucky to adjust to the sensation of being so utterly filled.

Bucky wrapped his legs around Tony's waist, urging him to move. When Tony # started thrusting inside of him, Bucky let out a low, guttural moan, throwing his head back and closing his eyes to better feel his boyfriend inside him.

Tony had angled himself in such a way that every thrust drove his thick cock against Bucky's prostate, each roll of his hips pushing Bucky further and further towards the dizzy heights of orgasm. Pleasure rippled through him with each punch, dragging him higher and higher towards that peak.

Between their bellies, Bucky's cock was thick and leaking. He reached between them and wrapped a hand around himself, jerking himself in time with Tony's quickening thrusts. He could feel sweat running down his sides, could feel pleasure building in his gut. His ass was sensitive from being pounded so hard, spasming whenever Tony rubbed against his prostate in a particularly delicious way.

Above him, Tony's breathing was becoming shorter and faster. His thrusts, too, were becoming increasingly urgent. His hard jabs against Bucky's prostate increased in speed and frequency, pushing Bucky closer and closer to release, the hot coil of tension winding tighter and tighter inside of him.

With a grunt, Tony thrust one final, violent time, freezing above Bucky as his cock spasmed, spilling his hot come into the condom. Bucky could feel Tony's cock jerking inside him and it was this that catapulted him into his own orgasm, shooting his load across his chest with a long, drawn-out cry, rope after rope of hot white come spraying out of him.

They came down from their high slowly, breathing deeply, stuck together with sweat and come. After several minutes, Tony slipped out, removing the condom from his softening cock and throwing it into the bin. He grabbed some tissues and wiped them clean, before turning off the light, draping a blanket over both of them and pulling Bucky into a hug.

"That was amazing," he murmured.

Bucky smiled, snuggling closer to Tony. He felt warm, fuzzy and content. A happy bubble formed in his chest, and Bucky wished he could stay in that moment forever, wrapped up with a man who made him feel both sane and safe.

"Mhmm," he agreed, his eyelids already starting to droop with exhaustion. "That was pretty spectacular."

Their breathing evened out as they lay there in the darkness, the dim light that managed to filter through Bucky's curtains the only illumination. Bucky could hear the familiar sound of Tony's breaths slowing down as he began to fall asleep and pressed a gentle kiss to his temple.

"I love you," murmured Tony.

Bucky froze.

His heart began to thump in his chest, a feeling of shock spreading through him. Love? Love was a strong statement. Love meant commitment and long-termness and honesty – and whilst Bucky was overjoyed to provide Tony with the first two, the third part was where he failed. He was not honest. He could not be honest. His secrets were too deep, too dark, to be divulged and end in anything other than disaster.

He bit his lip. Did he love Tony? He certainly wanted to be with Tony. He found him interesting and endearing and smart and fun. He wanted to make Tony happy and be a good partner to him. He felt incredibly, inexplicably comfortable with him, even though they had only known one another for three months. It felt longer.

Unbidden, the voice returned, whispering in his ear.

You don't deserve him.

Bucky curled in on himself miserably, trailing his fingertips along Tony's arm. Into the dark room, the truth slipped from his lips, quiet and fragile:

"I love you, too."

Tony did not reply.

He had already fallen asleep.

Chapter Text

The dream began in Sokovia.

It was just as he remembered it from 2015, fighting the Ultron robots as they attacked the small Sokovian town. He was running down a street, directing civilians towards safety whilst simultaneously battling against any of the metal bastards targeting the fleeing families.

The smell of smoke was thick in the air, the street a scene of panic and chaos. There was a soundtrack of running feet on concrete and frightened shouts in Eastern European voices. A family with two young children ran from their house, a little girl with pigtails clinging to her mother's hand, a little boy wearing a pale blue hoodie holding onto his father's.

So far, so familiar.

But then, suddenly, the dream began to change, diverging from his memories.

He stood frozen to the spot as he felt his mind warping and reshaping. He could feel his sense of self slipping away, his morals and principles shattering under the crushing weight of HYDRA's brainwashing. It was difficult to breathe, difficult to see, difficult to concentrate on anything at all as white noise built up louder and louder in his head.

When his mind solidified, his gaze swept over the Sokovian street, surveying it with fresh eyes.

Gone was Bucky Barnes, the masked Avenger. In his place stood HYDRA's perfect agent; the cold, lethal killing machine.

A man ran past him in panic, trying to escape from an Ultron robot that had set its sights on him. HYDRA's perfect agent's arm lashed out, grabbing the man by his neck and smashing him head-first into the concrete. Bucky watched in horror, paralysed within his own mind, as his body betrayed him, turning against the civilians he was supposed to protect, killing them indiscriminately.

He fought to regain control, but it was like trying to catch smoke. He was powerless, trapped screaming in his own head, as he killed civilian after civilian.

Terrified, the little boy in the pale blue hoodie broke free from the grip of his father's hand. He ran blindly into Bucky's path, his little legs stumbling over the uneven concrete. With chilling ease, Bucky reached out with his left arm, wrapping his metal fingers around the boy's tiny neck.

Bucky awoke with a jolt, terror pounding through him.

Hurling himself out of bed, he ran across his bedroom into the en-suite bathroom and collapsed in front of the toilet, vomiting violently into the bowl. He sat there for several long minutes, emptying his guts, before flushing with trembling fingers and getting to his feet.

He looked in the mirror, taking in his tired, red-rimmed eyes and heaving chest. A trickle of vomit ran down his chin. Turning away in disgust, he slipped off his boxers and turned on the shower. He closed his eyes, exhaling long and slow as he stood underneath the hot spray of water, reaching out blindly for the soap.

He showered for ninety long minutes, but no matter how hard he scrubbed his skin, the image of the little boy's pale blue hoodie lingered in his mind, and he could not feel clean.

 


 

The next day at work began strangely.

Bucky arrived and entered the lift as usual, pressing the button to go to his floor. He stood at the back to give people room to enter, thinking about the day's work ahead of him. He and his colleagues were going to trawl through a huge folder of intelligence that had been sent over, looking for anything that could be useful in compiling a case against a suspected arms smuggler. It was a typical job, nothing particularly challenging.

His mind was on the day ahead of him when a woman who he vaguely recognised from the canteen stepped into the lift and blinked at him in surprise. She stared at him for a long moment, visibly confused.

"How did you get here so quickly?" she demanded, looking at him strangely.

Bucky stared at the woman, before looking down at his watch. It was 8:55am. He started work at 9am, so although he was early, he did not think he was so early that it was worthy of comment. He shrugged, not bothered enough by her strange question to attempt to fathom what she was talking about. Pre-coffee, some things just were not worth the mental energy.

Thankfully, the woman did not comment any further, although she did shoot him another confused glance as she got off the lift at her floor. Bucky gave her a bemused smile, before the lift rose once more and arrived at his floor. Once the doors opened, he stepped out and headed towards the open-plan office where he and the other Reconnaissance agents worked.

As he strode into the office, one of his favourite colleagues, Sharon Carter, looked at him in surprise.

"What are you doing here?" she asked.

Bucky ground his teeth together in frustration, his gaze drifting longingly towards the coffee machine. Why was everyone acting so bizarrely this morning?

"I work here," he replied, dumping his bag under his desk and getting his mug out of his drawer.

"Yeah, but I saw you just a couple of minutes ago heading towards the Archives department," said Sharon. "You know: the department that's on the complete opposite side of the building."

Bucky raised his eyebrows and shook his head.

Do you not know what I look like? he thought. 

"It wasn't me," he said. "Must have been some other handsome guy."

Before the morning could get any weirder, he crossed over to the coffee machine and pressed the button, breathing a sigh of relief as the dark liquid spluttered out into his mug. He inhaled the aroma, closing his eyes to savour the smell. Mug filled, he returned to his desk and turned on his computer, ready to start his work.

Once he had drained his coffee, the day became considerably more normal. He threw himself into the task of going through the data, quickly getting absorbed in the task. By lunchtime, he had identified several pieces of intelligence that could be used to build a case against the suspected arms smuggler. Pleased with himself, he grabbed his packed lunch out of his bag and placed it on the table in front of him.

He was just about to take a large bite out of his amazing double bacon and salad sandwich when the chatter in the office fell silent. He looked up, confused, to see none other than Nick Fury storming through the door.

Everyone stared.

Director Fury never came down to talk to individual teams unless something was up. To Bucky's disbelief and horror, Fury marched through the office until he reached Bucky's desk, stopping right in front of him, his arms crossed and his expression fierce.

"Let's make this quick, Barnes," he snapped. "Why did you check out the personal files of the Avengers from the Archives department? No one is supposed to know the identities of the Avengers. How the hell did your ID card even give you access to the restricted section?"

Bucky sat frozen in his seat, growing sweaty and flustered under Fury's intense scrutiny. He knew that if he looked around, the entire office would be staring at him. Feeling extremely uncomfortable, he cleared his throat, trying to sound as non-suspicious as possible as he replied.

"I've got no idea what you're talking about, Director," he said. "I've not stepped foot in the Archives department for months."

As the words left his mouth, though, he remembered what Sharon had said that morning, about her thinking she had seen him heading towards the Archives department. He paled, his heart hammering against his ribs as he looked up at the Director.

"We might have a situation," Bucky said quietly.

Fury gave him a long, hard stare, scanning his face for any kind of trickery or dishonesty. Finding none, he nodded, his expression grim and serious.

"My office, Barnes, now," said Fury, before turning around and striding out of the office.

Bucky got to his feet, abandoning his double bacon and salad sandwich on his desk as he hurried after the Director. His colleagues stared at him as he left, their eyes following him as if magnetised. Sharon gave him a panicked look as he passed her, obviously disturbed by the sudden turn of events.

Everything's fine, he mouthed to her, before his feet carried him out of the office and into the corridor. He jogged to catch up with Fury, who was speeding towards the lift.

"Should I get my Winter Soldier outfit?" he whispered.

Fury checked that there was no-one within earshot before replying.

"Not yet," he said. "Let's find out what we're dealing with first."

He pressed the button to call the lift, folding his arms as he waited, the leather of his jacket squeaking slightly as he did so. Bucky cast him a sidelong glance. His own clothes were starting to stick to him as he sweated, his heart hammering with nerves.

Luckily, the lift came quickly, and they arrived at Fury's office without having to make any small talk. As the door swung shut behind them, Fury sat down behind his desk and gave Bucky a serious look.

"I have CCTV footage of you entering the Archives department this morning at 8:56am," said Fury. "You're in there for about half an hour, in the restricted section, which is supposed to only be accessible to certain members of staff which does not include you. Thirty minutes pass, then you walk out and leave the building. Explain to me what you did this morning. Do you remember anything strange? Do you have any gaps in your memory? Be as precise as possible."

Bucky stood in stunned silence, a sinking feeling settling in his stomach. Something bad was happening. It was not yet clear what that something was, or just how bad things were, but Bucky could sense that they were creeping on the edges of something dark. Riding beneath this ominous feeling was also an undercurrent of fear.

"Sir, you've got to believe me, that wasn't me down in the Archives department," said Bucky. "This morning I arrived in the lobby as usual, got in the elevator and went straight to my office. I was there until lunchtime when you arrived. I haven't been anywhere else since I arrived on premises."

It was then that he remembered the two strange conversations he had had that morning, first with the woman in the lift and then later with Sharon. His brow lowered in a frown, a feeling of unease settling in his stomach.

"Two things that happened this morning were kind of strange…" he said slowly. "When I got into the elevator, a woman looked surprised to see me and asked how I got there so quickly. I remember looking down at my watch and being confused because I wasn't particularly early."

"What time was this?" asked Fury. "This could be important."

Bucky closed his eyes, trying to remember. He cast his mind back to the lift, when he had glanced down at his watch.

"8:55am," he said. "I'm 90% certain."

Fury hummed to himself as he jotted down the time on a sheet of paper.

"Only one minute before you were captured on CCTV entering the Archives department..." muttered Fury. "OK, so the conversation in the elevator was the first strange occurrence you noticed this morning. What was the second?"

"Sharon Carter," said Bucky. "When I arrived in the office, she said she thought she'd seen me heading in the direction of the Archives department just a few minutes before."

A heavy silence settled over the office. Fury looked at Bucky gravely, his dark eyes wide and serious.

"So you're saying there were two people who seemed surprised to see you where you were this morning, as if they expected you to be elsewhere – in Sharon's case, specifically the Archives department?" said Fury.

Bucky nodded, his gut churning.

"But I swear, I didn't go to Archives," he said, beginning to feel desperate.

Fury scrutinised him closely.

"And you have no gaps in your memory?" he asked.

Bucky shook his head.

"No. I.... I don't think so."

He bit his lip, suddenly unsure. Would he know if he had any gaps in his memory? Icy fear gripped his heart. If someone who knew his HYDRA trigger words had got to him, then it was entirely possible that they had controlled his behaviour and then wiped his memory afterwards.

Fury reached for his desk phone, dialling a number and waiting impatiently for the other person to pick up. He drummed his fingers on the desk for several long moments before the person at the other end finally answered his call.

"Come upstairs," he snapped. "We have a situation on our hands. No, no, don't get changed. Come as you are, now please."

He slammed down the phone, before turning to glower at his computer screen. Bucky stood helplessly in front of his desk, unsure of what to do. He had no idea what was going on. Apparently, he had been caught on camera down in Archives, but that had not been him – had it? The possibility of having been brainwashed by a HYDRA agent persisted in his mind, making him queasy with fear.

"What's happening now, sir?" he asked. "Who did you ask to come up here?"

Fury glanced up at Bucky, his expression blank and unreadable.

"One of the guys from the Tech department," said Fury. "He's supposed to be in charge of making sure that security breaches like this don't happen."

Before he could say anything more, they were interrupted by a knock at the door.

"Come in!" called Fury.

Bucky turned around, his eyes widening as his gaze fell upon Tony striding into the office. Tony's eyebrows shot up, just as surprised to see Bucky as Bucky was to see him. Tony's gaze slid onto Fury, his forehead furrowing into a frown.

"What's going on?" said Tony.

"That's what we're trying to get to the bottom of," said Fury. "I want you to run a facial recognition algorithm on the building's security camera footage from this morning. Employee Barnes, James B."

Tony's eyes bulged. His gaze flicked from Fury to Bucky and back again. He folded his arms, not moving.

"Why?" he demanded.

Fury slammed a fist down on his desk, causing them both to jump. A vein throbbed in his temple, the first visible indication of how stressed he actually was.

"Just do it, God damn it!"

Wisely deciding to obey, Tony walked around Fury's desk and slid into a seat next to him. He pulled Fury's keyboard towards himself, his fingers flying across the keys as he began his task. Fury switched on a large screen on the wall, allowing them all to see what Tony was doing.

Tony pulled up Bucky's employee file, highlighting his staff photograph and tapping away at the keyboard until suddenly a web of lines appeared on his face, mapping all of Bucky's facial features in relation to one another. Next, he accessed the database of security camera footage from that morning, dozens of small windows all opening on top of one another.

"From what time do you want me to scan?" asked Tony.

"Go from 8am to 10am," said Fury.

Tony's fingers flew across the keyboard in a flurry of movement, before he pressed the enter key with a thump. On the screen, the security camera footage played at super-fast speed, certain frames flashing green as they got a hit on Bucky's face. Three minutes later, Tony was hunched over the keyboard, peering at the results.

"What have we got?" asked Fury.

Tony's fingers tapped at the keys, a string of code appearing at the bottom of the screen that made zero sense to Bucky but apparently helped Tony to follow what was going on over the dozens of open windows of security camera footage.

"OK," said Tony. "So Bucky arrived at work this morning at 8:42am. He came in through the West entrance and headed down to the Archives department, checking in at 8:56am."

Bucky opened his mouth to protest, but Fury silenced him with a fierce glare and a rigidly pointed finger. Fury nodded at Tony to continue.

"Oh... Oh, hang on a second. I think I've made a mistake..."

Tony frowned at the screen, his fingers tapping on the keyboard as he flicked through several of the windows. There was a long period of silence in which Tony stared at the screen, his fingers unmoving on the keyboard.

"OK... Um... Yeah. Bucky arrives at work at 8:42am at the West entrance and heads to the Archives department, checking in at 8:56am." Here Tony paused, glancing up to give Bucky a strange look. "Meanwhile, at 8:53am, Bucky, uh, arrives at work via the North entrance and heads to the elevator to go to his office on the 32nd floor, the Reconnaissance level."

Bucky stared at Tony, at once relieved that his memories of that morning were accurate and untampered-with, and simultaneously terrified at the implications of Tony's statement.

"Two Buckys... Bucky #1 went down to Archives and Bucky #2 went to his actual office in the Reconnaissance department," said Fury. "I think it's safe to assume that the Bucky with us right now is Bucky #2: the real one. Tell us exactly what Bucky #1 did – the fake one."

Tony's face was pale as he clicked through various windows of security camera footage.

"When he got to the Archives department, fake Bucky somehow fooled the biometric face scanner and ID card reader," said Tony. "Then he headed to the restricted section, where he stayed for thirty minutes, before putting several files into his bag and leaving. He left the building shortly after that, via the South entrance."

When Fury spoke, his voice was deceptively soft and quiet, a sure sign that underneath the facade he was actually ready to explode.

"What exactly happened here?" he asked.

Tony chewed on his lip, deep in thought. Bucky could see his dark eyes darting about as the gears turned in his mind.

"Someone managed to bypass the security protocols and break into the archive," said Tony, looking once again through the footage. "The only thing that I can think of that could fool the facial scanner would be a holo-mask programmed to display Bucky's face. As for the card, our thief was smart. It looks as though they cloned an ID card from a staff member who works in the Archives department. It's the only type of card that gives full access to the archive – including the restricted section – without triggering any additional security features. Fuck, whoever this person is, I'm kind of impressed."

Bucky did not feel particularly impressed with the thief.

"Why the fuck did they use my face to break in?" he snapped, deeply disturbed that whoever had broken in had stolen his identity to do so.

Director Fury was preoccupied by something more serious.

"How could anyone get their hands on a holo-mask?" he asked. "They've not even been released to field agents yet. The only people within SHIELD who even know about them are the people working on developing them. That's your team, Stark."

Tony fell silent, obviously shocked by the implication that the thief was either a member of his team or had managed to steal it from under his very nose. He opened and closed his mouth several times, at a loss for what to say, before drawing a sharp intake of breath.

"One of my team – Billy Halifax – wanted to run some tests on the holo-masks at the end of last week," said Tony. "He took a batch of holo-masks home with him on Friday evening. He didn't show up for work this morning."

Fury picked up his phone, dialling an internal number. This time, he only had to wait a couple of rings before someone picked up.

"I want you to check the welfare of one of our Tech guys ASAP," said Fury, his voice tight and urgent. "Billy Halifax. Send a unit to his apartment immediately."

He slammed down the phone, breathing hard. Tony spun around in his chair, looking alarmed.

"Do you think something's happened to Billy?" said Tony.

Fury turned on him, his nostrils flaring with anger. Bucky flinched out of sympathy for Tony, who was looking uncowed in the face of Fury's obvious rage.

"How the hell could this happen, Stark?" roared Fury. "Security technology was your responsibility. You told me the facial scanners were impossible to fool. How could someone just walk in here and steal classified information?"

Tony folded his arms, his cheeks flushing as he glared back at Fury.

"This wasn't your typical smash and grab!" he snapped. "Whoever this person was, they used extremely sophisticated tech. What was taken, anyway?"

Fury narrowed his eyes, his jaw twitching at Tony's impertinence. Bucky strongly suspected that if Tony were not the tech genius he was, Fury would fire him on the spot.

"The personal files of all the Avengers," replied Fury, his tone neutral.

Tony, for once, was stunned into silence. As Bucky watched, a series of emotions crossed his face: shock, disbelief and then, strangely, fear. Upon noticing Bucky watching him, Tony's face transitioned into one of blank neutrality.

Bucky frowned.

Tony's reaction was... odd.

He was trying to decipher exactly what Tony's facial expressions could mean when Fury's phone began to ring. Fury pressed a button, putting the caller on speaker.

"Fury speaking."

"Sir!" The agent on the other end of the line sounded stunned and out of breath. Fury, Bucky and Tony all leaned closer to the phone as the agent said his next words: "We've just forced entry into Billy Halifax's apartment. He's here, sir... He's dead."

 


 

Upon the discovery of Billy Halifax's body, Bucky and Tony were immediately dismissed from Fury's office, with strict instructions to return straight back to their respective departments.

They had taken a short, private moment to ask one another how they were and give one another a brief, tight hug, before following Fury's instructions and returning to their departments.

Bucky had barely sat down at his desk when his mobile phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, quickly reading the text message.

 

From: Nick Fury

To: me

Avengers assemble. My office, immediately.

 

Bucky got to his feet, slipping out of the office and heading straight to his locker. He grabbed a case from the back and jogged to the nearest bathroom, locking the door behind him.

Working quickly, he stripped off his regular clothes and stuffed them into a bag, before pulling on his Winter Soldier leather outfit. With his new clothes on, he pressed the tiny release button on his prosthetic that enabled it to be removed, wincing slightly when the strange feeling of numbness came over his left limb. Before the phantom tingles could escalate into phantom pain, he slid his metal Winter Soldier arm into place, breathing a sigh of relief when it clicked into place and sensation returned. Finally, he pulled the mask over his face, obscuring his identity.

Fully suited up, he exited the toilet and dumped his bag of normal clothes in his locker. He headed for the lift at a run, pressing the button for the top floor once inside. Less than a minute later, the lift doors opened on Fury's floor. Bucky ran the remaining distance to Fury's office, not bothering to knock before going in.

His masked comrades were already assembled: Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Hulk – the latter with his customary paper bag over his head. They were stood in a line in front of Fury's desk, awaiting their briefing. Bucky took his place in the line next to Iron Man, standing to attention.

"Avengers," said Fury, by way of greeting. His tone was sombre and serious. The other Avengers tensed. "You've been assembled because, this morning, someone broke into SHIELD's archives and stole classified personal files relating to each of you. This person broke in using advanced technology stolen from a SHIELD agent named Billy Halifax, who was found murdered in his apartment this morning. By the time we realised there had been a security breach, the culprit was long gone.

"We don't know who killed Billy Halifax and stole the files, or why they did it, but we've got multiple units working flat out to get to the bottom of it. Whoever's behind this, they're clearly a very dangerous, and very intelligent, individual. With that in mind, especially in light of the fact that the stolen files contain personal information relating to each of you, including your addresses, until the culprit is captured, you will all be given new emergency accommodation for your own safety."

Fury pulled out 6 envelopes from his desk, handing one to each of them. Bucky opened his envelope and peeked inside. Inside was a key for his new flat, as well as several documents relating to it, such as bills and details of the flat's security features.

"I want you all to be extremely vigilant of your surroundings," said Fury. "Agent Halifax is dead. Whoever this person is, we can safely conclude that they mean to do us harm.

"And they've taken a special interest in you six..."

Chapter Text

Before the breach at SHIELD had thrown Bucky's plans into chaos, the original plan for that evening had been for Bucky and Tony to have a date night at Bucky's flat.

Now, Bucky was settling into his emergency accommodation, unpacking a box of essentials that SHIELD had provided, when he received a text message from Tony. He fumbled his mobile phone out of his pocket, stuffing a pair of SHIELD-issued pyjamas into his new wardrobe, and pulled up the message.

 

From: Tony

To: me 

I'm at the store staring at pizza. What kind do you want? My treat! T x

 

Bucky bit his lip. With the events that had taken place that morning, he had completely forgotten about their date. Worse still, he had not thought about how he was going to explain to Tony why he had suddenly moved flat with no warning. He could not tell him the truth – that he was one of the Avengers whose personal files had been stolen – so he would have to make something up. He swallowed past the bitter taste of yet another secret, typing out a reply and pressing send.

 

From: me

To: Tony

Get a meat feast. Btw, have had to move apartment, found out this morning that my old building had a massive rat infestation. Don't know how long it'll be before I can move back in x

 

Within minutes, his phone buzzed again with Tony's reply.

 

From: Tony

To: me

Ha, meat feast for dinner, sausage fest for dessert? ;) wow, rats?? that's gross. OK, text me your new address x

 

Bucky snorted at Tony's cheesy seduction attempt, sending his new address, before returning his attention to his new flat. It was well-equipped but sparsely decorated, feeling more like a hotel or a safe house (which, he supposed, it was) than an actual home. 

Working quickly, he unboxed the rest of his SHIELD-issue items and started making a list of things he would have to buy. About twenty minutes later, he was just checking his kitchen cupboards to see how many plates SHIELD had provided when he heard a knock at the door.

He crossed the kitchen and entered the hallway, checking who was outside his front door by looking at a small screen that displayed a live feed from a CCTV camera that was positioned just above the doorway. It was just one of the additional security features that came with the flat. Given the threat against him, SHIELD had placed Bucky in one of their most secure safe houses.

The screen showed Tony standing outside his door with a bag of groceries, sticking his tongue out at the camera. Bucky smiled and pulled open the door, giving Tony a quick kiss as he shut the door behind him. Four separate locks automatically clicked into place.

Tony breezed in, sticking his head around various doorways before entering the kitchen. Bucky followed him, hopping onto a stool as Tony began unpacking two large meat feast pizzas and some salad. Tony turned on the oven to pre-heat and grabbed a bowl to dump the salad into, before sighing dramatically and flopping onto the stool next to Bucky's.

"So first someone steals your face to break into SHIELD, then your apartment gets declared uninhabitable because it turns out to be full of rats," said Tony. "What a day! Do you want a beer? I brought beers. I was thinking we could have a long bath together later too, to properly relax. I found one of those fancy bath bomb things."

Bucky paused, guilt blossoming in his gut. Tony was being so kind to him, yet Bucky was not telling him the entire truth. The omission of so many important details pressed down on his chest, feeling as tight and constrictive as a lie.

He hated lying to Tony.

As he looked miserably at his boyfriend, the truth sat on the tip of his tongue.

I'm an Avenger. The files that were taken today included files about me. My past was in those files: my past as HYDRA's perfect agent. My life is in danger, but when I think about everything I did under HYDRA's control, I can't escape the truth: I deserve it.

He could practically hear Director Fury's voice in his mind, reminding him of what all six Avengers had agreed on the day they had first assembled: maintaining their anonymity kept them all safe. More importantly, it kept their loved ones safe. If no one knew who they were, then no one could try to get to them by threatening to harm their families or friends. To keep Tony safe, Bucky had to keep the secret secret.

"Yeah," said Bucky miserably. "A beer sounds good. It's been a long day."

Tony smiled and pulled two beers from his bag, sliding one towards Bucky and twisting the top off his own bottle. Bucky did the same, before tapping his bottle against Tony's, then taking a long drink from it.

"Talk about whacky coincidences," said Tony, lounging on his stool, "but today I had to move out of my apartment too. It got flooded in a major way and I got told at lunchtime that I couldn't move back until it was fixed. Knowing the speed at which these people work, that might not be for, like, several months."

Bucky raised his eyebrows. That was indeed a big coincidence. The universe worked in mysterious ways, but there was something about Tony's manner that struck him as odd, a tension in his voice that did not fit with what he was saying. Perhaps Tony was feeling stressed because the person who had broken into SHIELD had bypassed systems that Tony himself had built.

"Are SHIELD any closer to tracking down who broke in?" asked Bucky.

Tony grimaced and shook his head, fiddling with his bottle top.

"Not yet," he said. "There's like ninety agents working on tracking this person down, but so far no luck. We don't even know why this person wanted the Avengers' files so badly, let alone who they are underneath that holo-mask."

Bucky sat in silence. Hearing Tony's words suddenly brought home the disturbing reality that somewhere out there, someone had his file.

His file contained details of everything he had done under HYDRA's control – every mission, every kill, every act of terrorism. When SHIELD had rescued and later recruited him, he had told them everything – every horrific detail – under conditions of absolute confidentiality.

And now, that file was in the hands of some unknown person.

It was terrifying.

Tony apparently picked up on Bucky's distress because he reached out and took hold of Bucky's hand, sweeping a thumb over his knuckles as he frowned with concern.

"What's up?"

Bucky bit his lip. The truth was trapped behind a wall in his mind, bursting to be released. He clenched his fists, reminding himself of what Fury had told him. He swallowed, as if that might make the act of lying to Tony easier.

"I feel sorry for Billy Halifax's family," said Bucky. "And the Avengers; they must be stressing out about this mystery psycho getting their hands on their files."

Tony gave him an odd look, cocking his head to the side. For a long while, he looked as though he was about to say something, his tongue darting out to wet his lips. Eventually, though, he decided against it, closing his mouth and glancing away, before getting up and moving to Bucky's side where he pulled him into a hug.

Bucky laid his head on Tony's shoulder, closing his eyes as Tony rubbed his back.

"Don't worry about the Avengers," said Tony. "They'll be OK. Billy Halifax's family though... That's some awful shit."

They fell into sombre silence, before Tony unexpectedly lunged forwards and tickled Bucky's sides. The action surprised a laugh out of Bucky. He squirmed in his seat, helpless against Tony's unexpected attack.

Tony smiled, pressing a kiss to Bucky's temple.

"That's what I like to see: you smiling," said Tony.

Bucky batted Tony's hands away, ducking his head so that Tony would not see his blush.

"You're a dork," declared Bucky.

Tony grinned, his smile softening as he took hold of Bucky's right hand and brought it to his mouth, kissing it absent-mindedly. It was something he did regularly and unconsciously; a simple action suffused with a great deal of tenderness. Every time, it made Bucky's heart leap in his chest.

 "When I was a kid, if there was something wrong, my mom would always come and sit with me," said Tony. "We'd talk, and once all the serious talk was over, she'd tickle me until I felt better. 

"One time, I lost my favourite toy dinosaur Rex. I was devastated. I couldn't stop crying. But mom reassured me that Rex was just going on an adventure exploring the world, and that when he came back he'd have a hell of a story to tell us.

"Then she tickled me until my sides hurt from laughing and my cheeks hurt from smiling. We never found Rex, but that didn't hurt anymore, because mom had convinced me that he was just going on an adventure exploring the world."

They sat in silence. Tony was opening up about his parents more and more these days. It was no longer uncommon for him to bring up some memory or anecdote about one or both of his parents – usually his mother. It made Bucky feel privileged, that Tony was willing to share these precious memories with him.

"Do you miss your mom a lot?" asked Bucky, giving Tony's hand a gentle squeeze.

Tony nodded, his eyes misty with years of grief.

"Always," he said.

 


 

The next day, Bucky received a video call.

He jogged over to his laptop and answered the call, carrying it to his bed and plopping down to lean against the headboard. On the screen, Steve gave him a smile, his pale skin glowing slightly blue as it reflected the light from his own screen.

Bucky breathed out a sigh of relief, instinctively smiling back at Steve.

Seeing Steve's face helped to calm him down, taking his anxiety levels from debilitating down to awful-but-bearable.

"Hey," said Bucky.

"Hey," said Steve. "How are you holding up?"

As the only friend who knew about Bucky's membership of the Avengers and his past under HYDRA's control, Steve was uniquely placed in understanding the disturbing nature of Bucky's current predicament regarding the stolen files. Presently, Steve was leaning forwards towards the screen, looking at Bucky with an expression of concern.

The words I'm fine came to mind automatically, but Bucky swallowed them back, forcing himself to tell the truth.

"Not well," he said bluntly. "I'm stressed as fuck about the fact someone out there knows all about my past with HYDRA."

Steve chewed on his lip, clearly worried about his friend.

"Try not to stress about it," said Steve. "We'll catch the person behind all this and lock up the son of a bitch before they get the chance to tell anyone else about your past. Then we'll be able to go back to our lives and all this crap will become a footnote."

Bucky fiddled restlessly with a hole in his sleeve. He dug his finger inside it, his thumbnail stretching the hole even wider.

He was not sure if Steve was saying what he was because he genuinely believed it, or if he was just trying to make Bucky feel better. Either way, Bucky did not share Steve's confidence that the person behind all this would be foolish enough to allow themselves to be captured so soon.

"Yeah," he mumbled, trying to force himself to see things from Steve's positive point of view.

On the screen, Steve was obviously not buying Bucky's half-hearted attempt at agreement.

"What?" said Steve.

Bucky picked at a loose piece of thread that had unravelled when he had jammed his thumb into the hole in his sleeve. He tugged on it uncertainly. Perhaps it might unravel the whole thing.

"What if you're wrong?" said Bucky miserably. "Even if we manage to capture this psychopath without being killed by them, what if they still manage to make my past public before we get to them? No one's going to understand. Everyone's going to hate me: friends, colleagues, Tony..."

Steve cut in before Bucky could continue any further down that particular rabbit hole. He fixed the webcam with a firm stare, his arms crossed in what Bucky liked to think of as his 'Captain America pose'.

"You weren't to blame for anything that HYDRA made you do," said Steve. "You were brainwashed. You had no choice."

Bucky lowered his head, not wanting Steve to see the shimmer in his eyes.

"People won't understand about brainwashing," said Bucky. "Come on, it sounds like science fiction. All everyone's going to care about is what I did. And I did things, Steve. I did all sorts of awful things for HYDRA. I murdered people. I tortured people. Those people aren't going to become un-murdered or un-tortured just because I was brainwashed. I carried out HYDRA's orders and that's all there is to it."

Steve was silent for a long while, visibly upset and struggling to compose himself. After several long minutes, he looked directly into the camera, his gaze locking onto Bucky.

"Do you honestly believe that?" asked Steve, his voice rough. "Do you really think that the fact you were brainwashed has no fucking impact on anything?" Then, without giving Bucky the opportunity to reply: "We've been over this. The person you were under HYDRA's control wasn't you. That person is a ghost now. I think it's time you let the ghost die."

Steve, as always, saw the world from the perspective of an idealist. He saw the world the way he wanted it to be, not the way it actually was. Bucky, on the other hand, was a realist. He knew that sometimes the truth was ugly, and this was one of those occasions.

Bucky thunked his head against the headboard, not bothering to hide his wet cheeks.

"Ghost stories never die."

 


 

That night, Bucky had another nightmare.

It was another memory, his mind replaying the scene in perfect, terrible detail.

The night air was cold around him, his muscles tense and the hair on the back of his neck standing on end. He clenched his jaw to stop his teeth from chattering, ignoring his discomfort in favour of concentrating on the mission. His comfort was irrelevant. The mission was what mattered.

Presently, he was sat astride his motorbike by the side of the road, hidden from view by a thicket of shrubs and trees. Rainwater dripped from the leaves onto him, causing his hair to stick to his head. Ice was beginning to form around the edges of his mask. Above him, the sky was an inky black, darkness further concealing him from the eyes of any passing vehicles.

Not that this particular road had much in the way of traffic. Bucky had been waiting patiently in his hiding place at the side of the road for three hours now, and during that time only seven cars had passed. The nearest civilian settlements were twenty miles south. Ten miles to the north, a SHIELD research facility, which did not appear on any map, housed something precious that his masters wanted him to acquire: super-soldier serum.

The serum was being moved tonight. It was Bucky's mission to obtain and return it to his masters in Siberia. Minimal mess. No witnesses. A simple mission, similar to many he had carried out before.

He flexed his fingers, not allowing them to go numb despite the December air. Warm fingers were important. He needed full dexterity for when the target vehicle passed by. He recited the number plate of the vehicle in his mind, visualising the execution and completion of the mission.

A faint sound reached his ears. It was a low rumble, getting louder with every second. Bucky squinted through the trees, recognising the sound as the growl of an approaching car engine. He watched as the car's headlights snaked along the twisting road, flashing in and out of sight as the trees alternately obscured and revealed the vehicle.

With a roar, the car drove past Bucky's hiding spot. It was a handsome car – expensive and well-maintained – but Bucky had no care for the vehicle's appearance. He cared about one thing only: the number plate. His eyes zeroed in on it, comparing the numbers against the ones his masters had given him.

It matched.

He leaned forwards and turned on the headlamp of his motorbike. He started the engine, swinging the motorbike out from his hiding place within the trees, over the frozen ground and out onto the road. Once on the tarmac, he was able to pick up speed, the icy air stinging his slivers of exposed skin as he rode off in pursuit of the car.

It did not take him long to catch up with the target. The number plate reflected the light from the motorbike's headlamp. His masters' instructions echoed in his mind.

With practiced ease, he put on a burst of speed and swerved the motorbike to the right, so that he was riding parallel to the car. He could make out two people in the front seats; a man and a woman.

The man was speaking, perhaps telling a joke. The woman was laughing. Bucky pulled a gun from his holster and took aim at the car's front right tyre. Blissfully unaware, the man and woman continued their conversation.

Bucky pulled the trigger.

He knew, as soon as his finger squeezed the mechanism, that he had found his mark. He applied the brakes as, behind him, he heard the screech of tyres and the crunch of metal as the car careered off the road and into a tree.

He swung the motorbike around, circling back to the scene of the crash. The front of the car was a crumpled wreck, the metal twisted where it had collided with the tree. Small flames were already starting to burn in the bonnet, crackling quietly.

Bucky brought the motorbike to a stop and climbed off in one fluid motion. In his mind, the mission was already complete: all he had to do was open the boot and retrieve the serum for his masters. It was a relief; when a mission went well, his masters did not hurt him.

The sound of something hitting the ground tore Bucky's attention from the boot to the driver's side of the car. Bucky stalked around the back of the car, revealing a man – the driver – crawling away from the vehicle.

The driver was a slim, white man with short white hair. He looked to be in his sixties or seventies, although it was difficult to tell with the blood leaking from his head wound covering a substantial part of his face. The man's movements were slow and jerky. He was obviously in pain, probably with multiple broken bones from the impact of the crash.

Bucky stared at the man, the orders of his masters echoing in his ears: no witnesses.

He did not know the identities of the occupants of the car. He did not know their names. All he knew was that they were witnesses, and witnesses were not acceptable.

His legs carried him forwards towards the man. His boots crunched over ice and gravel, making the man aware of Bucky for the first time. The man twisted himself around to look at Bucky, his eyes watering as the movement caused him pain. He looked up at Bucky with wide, pleading eyes.

"Help my wife," he begged. "Please, help."

Bucky closed the final few metres between himself and the man, looking down at him with detachment. Without hesitation, he grabbed him by the back of the neck and yanked him so that he was kneeling upright.

The man's eyes widened with fear for the first time, his gaze flicking between the mask on Bucky's face and his frightening, HYDRA-made metal arm. He tried to twist out of Bucky's grasp, but Bucky's grip was too strong, holding him firmly in place.

"Howard!"

It was the woman – the passenger who had been laughing. She was still slumped in her seat inside the car. She sounded in pain.

Bucky ignored her, concentrating on the man who was struggling in Bucky's tight grip. His name was Howard, apparently. Bucky punched Howard twice in the face, hard enough to hear the crunch of bone and to inevitably cause fatal bleeding on the brain. He let go of Howard. Howard immediately slumped face forwards to the ground, limp and unmoving.

"Howard!"

It was the woman again, Howard's wife presumably. Previously, she had simply sounded in pain. Now, she sounded frightened.

Bucky grabbed Howard by the back of the neck and hauled him roughly upright. He dragged Howard's body back to the car, before dumping him back into the driver's seat, arranging him so that he was slumped forwards with his head against the wheel. Bucky slammed the car door shut, before stalking around the car to the passenger's side.

The passenger-side door was hanging open from the force of the crash. Bucky could hear the woman gasping in a mixture of pain and fear. Without looking down, Bucky stepped up to the open door and reached for her, calmly wrapping his fingers around her delicate neck.

He strangled her until she stopped struggling, her pulse fading to nothing underneath his fingers. When he was sure she was dead, he released her, positioning her the same way he had her husband – head against the dashboard.

He did not revel in these killings. They were simply necessary. His masters had been clear that there should be no witnesses.

Problem dealt with, he walked to the boot of the car, finally opening it up. Inside was a silver metal case, secured with two small clasps. He flipped them open, lifting the lid to reveal the prize that his masters had been so keen to obtain: five blue packets containing the much sought-after serum.

Carefully, he closed the case and carried it to the motorbike, stowing it away in the motorbike's storage box. Turning around, he surveyed the scene, looking for anything that might look out of place when the police found the crashed car.

Metal glinted on the tarmac. Bucky jogged over and retrieved the bullet, shoving it into his pocket. He was just about to leave when he caught sight of a CCTV camera nestled at the side of the road. He walked towards it, plucking his gun from its holster. With perfect precision, he raised his arm, aimed it at the camera and fired once.

Shivering violently, Bucky woke.

His flat was warm, but the hairs on his arms and legs were standing on end.

It was as if he were still standing there in the cold, on that roadside beside the crashed car, just as he had on 16 December 1991.

Chapter Text

It was one week later that Bucky received an urgent text message from Director Fury.

He was sitting at his desk at work, going through some transcripts of intercepted phone calls, when his mobile phone buzzed in his pocket. He pulled it out, his heart rate skyrocketing when he saw who it was from.

The message contained just five words:

 

From: Nick Fury

To: me

Avengers assemble. My office, immediately.

 

Had SHIELD discovered who had murdered Billy Halifax and stolen the Avengers' files? Had the individual in question made the contents of those files public? Had they killed someone else? Had they got to one of the other Avengers? Bucky suddenly felt queasy, his stomach flipping as his mind ran through dozens of awful possibilities.

Trying not to let his terror show on his face, Bucky rose from his seat and exited the office. He changed into his Winter Soldier outfit in double quick time, running towards Fury's office the moment the lift doors opened and deposited him on the top floor.

He pushed open the door to Fury's office to find the other Avengers already there, standing in a line in front of Fury's desk. Some of them were still breathing heavily, having obviously just arrived there themselves.

Bucky counted them and breathed out a sigh of relief when he saw that they were all present. None of them had been killed, then; that was one possibility that could be crossed off the list. Bucky did not know how he would cope if one of his fellow Avengers were killed or injured. Even though he did not know any of their identities – with the exception of Steve – he still felt a strong sense of kinship and connection with them, having completed so many missions together.

They were a family. An anonymous, supremely unusual family, yes, but a family all the same.

"Avengers," said Fury. "Please sit."

Fury waited until the scraping of chairs on the floor and the rustling of clothing had died down before speaking to the now-seated Avengers. His tone was serious and, unless Bucky was imagining it, he seemed to be glancing at Bucky and Iron Man far more than he was looking at the others. Anxiety clawed at Bucky's gut.

"The person who broke in and stole your files last week has been identified," said Fury. "We received a video file from him last night. He dumped it directly into SHIELD's servers."

There was a flurry of questions, all of them talking at once in anxious voices. Fury held up a hand, silencing them, before turning on the wall screen and settling back down in his seat. He brought up the video file, expanding it to full size before pressing the play icon.

Bucky leaned forwards, his mouth dry and his heart hammering in his chest. On the screen, the video crackled to life, showing an empty chair in the middle of a dark room. There were shuffling sounds off-camera, as if the person was adjusting the camera's settings, followed by the sound of heavy boots walking across the floor.

The man walked into the pool of light illuminating the chair and turned around, sitting down. As he looked up at the camera, Bucky shivered. The man had medium length brown hair framing his pale face. He was of average build, although Bucky could tell that beneath his jacket he was leanly muscled. What struck Bucky most of all, however, were the man's eyes. They were brown and colder than a Siberian winter. There was no mercy in those eyes, only a hardness and a sense of determination, even obsession.

"My name is Helmut Zemo," said the man, without preamble. Bucky noted that he had an Eastern European accent. "Last week, I had an altercation with Agent Halifax and relieved you of several files from your archives."

At the mention of Agent Halifax, Iron Man stood up abruptly, his suit whirring. His fists were clenched, visibly shaking with anger. Hulk reached out a hand and gently pulled him back down.

"I'm currently located at the abandoned textiles factory near the docks," continued Zemo. "I'm unarmed. I want Iron Man and Winter Soldier to meet me, alone. I'm waiting."

The video came to an end, briefly turning to static before cutting out entirely. The Avengers sat in silence for several long moments, absorbing what they had just seen. Black Widow was the first person to return to her senses.

"Was that it?" she asked. "It was short."

"That's all there was," nodded Nick. "There were no other messages or demands: he just wants Winter Soldier and Iron Man to meet him."

They all turned to stare at Bucky and Iron Man, who both sat stunned and motionless in their seats. Bucky was speechless, his mind scrambling for possible explanations for Zemo's unusual demand and coming up blank.

"Do either of you know Helmut Zemo?" asked Fury, addressing Bucky and Iron Man directly. "Have you ever seen him or heard his name before?"

Bucky shook his head. He definitely did not know the man. He was certain he had not heard the name before either; it was unusual enough for him to remember it if he had. He wracked his memories, trying to remember if he had ever seen the man's face before but, again, he came up with nothing.

"No," said Bucky.

"Same," said Iron Man.

A frisson of anxiety went around the group. It would have been better if they had known Zemo in some capacity. At least then they would have had some idea of why he was so interested in them and what they were going up against. As it was, they were going in blind.

"We need to go to the location now and arrest him before he moves," urged Steve, his blue eyes determined behind his cowl. "He murdered Billy Halifax. He needs to be brought to justice."

Black Widow tapped her chin, her pale fingers a contrast to her dark mask.

"It's a trap," she said. "We'd be walking right into the dragon's den."

Hawkeye shook his head, fingering his bow agitatedly.

"Zemo is one guy," he said. "There are six of us. Even if he's a good fighter, we'd be able to take him down with our sheer numbers."

Fury nodded, getting to his feet and walking over to the window, gazing off in the direction of the abandoned textiles factory.

"I agree with Hawkeye and Captain America," said Fury. "We're a professional team. Zemo is one man and we know his location. This isn't an opportunity we can allow to pass us by."

Bucky's heart started beating faster, but he no longer felt so anxious. He could feel that Fury was concocting a plan. A plan was good. A plan was something he could work with.

"What are we going to do, sir?" asked Bucky.

Fury walked back to his desk, pulling up a floor plan of the abandoned factory on the screen. It was split into five large rooms, with smaller rooms branching off at the sides. There were plenty of places where Zemo could set traps, but as Fury said, this was too big an opportunity to miss. The risk of attack was a risk they would just have to take.

"Let's give Zemo what he wants," said Fury. "Iron Man and Winter Soldier will go in, alone. Maybe if they can get through to him and negotiate with him, they could convince him to surrender peacefully. Hulk, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Captain America, I want you to stay outside the factory. Stay hidden and keep the perimeter secure in case he escapes. One way or another, we're going to catch this bastard."

The Avengers nodded, a murmur of assent going around the group.

"What do we know about the building?" asked Hulk, his voice muffled by the paper bag over his head.

Fury tapped some keys on his keyboard, bringing up an aerial photograph of the building. It was a large, tired-looking warehouse, the grounds overgrown with weeds and rubbish from years of neglect.

"The factory was abandoned in the 1980s," said Fury. "It was a typical warehouse, nothing special. It should be easy enough to secure."

Iron Man stood up, walking up to the screen to examine the satellite image of the old building.

"Does this feel too easy to anyone else?" he asked. "Don't get me wrong, I'm game for going in, but I think Black Widow's right: it feels like a trap."

Fury nodded, his dark eyes wide and serious.

"I agree," he said. "But what choice do we have?"

 


 

The Avengers pulled up to the factory perimeter in an unmarked, armoured SHIELD van.

They were hidden from view from the factory by a particularly dense patch of shrubbery that had sprouted from the concrete, towering over them at about two metres high.

From this close, Bucky could practically smell the urban decay. The factory grounds were covered in litter, scrap metal and weeds that had planted themselves into the concrete. The factory itself looked to be structurally sound, though Bucky could see that many of the windows had been smashed or boarded up. Graffiti covered much of the walls at ground level.

"OK," said Steve. "Let's secure the perimeter."

Bucky watched as Hawkeye, Black Widow and Hulk followed Steve out of the van, fanning out as they ran quietly through the factory grounds. Bucky watched them disappear from view through the van's windows, sitting silently next to Iron Man.

The tension in the van was palpable. Although neither of them had said as much, both Bucky and Iron Man were uneasy about why Zemo had asked for them in particular. They did not know what Zemo's intentions for them were, but they could assume that it was nothing good.

Bucky's knee bounced anxiously as he stared out at the factory. The tall building was imposing, towering above them like a huge, silent predator. A gust of wind rustled the weeds in the factory grounds, providing the illusion of someone moving around amongst the shrubs.

"Perimeter secure," said Steve's voice, crackling over comms.

Iron Man got to his feet.

"Let's go," he said, his voice coming out artificial and metallic over the suit's speakers. "Keep an eye out for traps."

Bucky nodded, getting to his feet and pulling his night-night pistol from its holster. The night-night pistols had been designed by SHIELD to knock a target unconscious, rather than killing them. Instead of bullets, the night-night pistol delivered small cartridges of a chemical sedative which immediately incapacitated the target. They were an excellent, non-lethal alternative to traditional guns.

Iron Man stepped out of the back of the van, the metal feet of his suit clanking on the concrete as he began to walk across the grounds towards the factory entrance.

Bucky followed a short distance behind, keeping an eye out for movement from the windows, lest someone be aiming a weapon at them as they approached. Twigs and random pieces of rubbish crunched underfoot as they approached the factory, the building looming as they cautiously stalked towards the main entrance.

When they reached the large door, they split up, Bucky darting to the right-hand side of the door, Iron Man taking the left. Iron Man signalled for Bucky to take a step back. Stepping away, Bucky turned and covered his ears.

A whoosh followed by a small explosion caused Bucky to rock on his toes. He turned around to see that Iron Man had blasted the door from its hinges, the twisted metal frame now warped out of shape. They ran into the factory, splitting apart so as to make themselves a more difficult target to attack.

To Bucky's surprise, there was no hail of bullets to greet them, no whir of a bomb counting down to detonation, no Zemo coming at them with some kind of weapon. If anything, the factory was almost too quiet, an eerie silence permeating the decaying building.

"Running a thermal scan of the building now," muttered Iron Man. "If Zemo's got a welcome party waiting for us, I want to know about it before we walk in there."

Bucky nodded, waiting for the suit to finish its scan. He turned around, looking back at the door that they had blasted open. His attention was caught by something shiny amongst the grime of the wall. He approached it, recognising it as a strip of metal. Unlike everything else that was dirty and old, this long piece of metal was newly fitted. It ran from the ceiling to the floor, but Bucky could not fathom its purpose.

He was jerked from his thoughts by Iron Man speaking again, his tone a mixture of relief and caution.

"The scan shows only three life forms in the building," he said. "You, me and Zemo. He's in the central room."

Bucky nodded, mentally pulling up the floor plan that Fury had shown them earlier.

"The fastest way there is through the right-hand corridor that runs around the side of the factory," said Bucky. "It's the second exit on the left."

They cautiously made their way towards the corridor, pushing open an old, creaking door to enter. Bucky winced at the noise as it echoed down the dusty hallway. There went their element of surprise.

They made their way down the corridor, vigilant for any strange shape in the shadows.

Suddenly, there was a rustling noise to their right.

A rat burst from one of the side rooms and streaked across the corridor, its little claws scratching at the floor. Bucky shot it reflexively. The rat froze and flopped onto its side, unconscious, as the night-night pistol knocked it out in an instant. Bucky cursed under his breath, fighting to get his racing heart back under control.

"Sorry, little guy," he muttered, swallowing as he stepped over the rat. "Twitchy fingers."

It took them several more minutes of slow, careful progress before they finally reached the doorway that led to the central room. It was here, according to Iron Man's scan, that Zemo was waiting for them.

The door was open.

They approached it slowly, weapons drawn and breath held as they strained their ears for any sounds coming from inside. Iron Man took a step closer, visibly tense as he prepared himself to round the corner and cross the threshold.

It was then that Bucky noticed another thin, shiny strip of metal running from the ceiling to the floor, identical to the one he had spotted near the entrance. The metal was bright and new, a stark contrast to everything else surrounding it. Alarm bells began going off in his mind. He opened his mouth, about to alert Iron Man to the anomaly, when they were both shocked by a cheerful voice calling out to them from inside the room.

"Don't be shy, come in!" said the Eastern European voice. "I can hear you moving around out there..."

Bucky and Iron Man looked at one another in alarm. They had not expected Zemo to invite them inside so happily. The contrast between the starkness of the situation and the man's light tone sent a shiver down Bucky's spine. For Zemo to sound like that, one of two things had to be true: either he was mad, or he was desperate, with nothing left to lose.

Iron Man moved first, rounding the corner and walking inside. Bucky followed close behind, his night-night pistol raised to shoot Zemo if the other man was pointing a weapon at them.

To his immense surprise, Zemo was not armed. In fact, he looked completely nonplussed by the situation, sitting calmly on a chair in the middle of the large, cavernous room.

Sunlight streamed in through the broken factory windows, illuminating piles of scrap metal and other rubbish. There was a thick layer of dust on the floor and the pungent smell of something musty, like an old moth-eaten carpet. Sitting a few metres away from Zemo was an old television. Bucky noted that it was plugged in to a socket in the wall via a long cable. The strangeness of it made Bucky's stomach flip with nerves; it looked incredibly out of place.

He moved his attention to the man they were here to arrest. Zemo was sitting with his hands in his lap, his feet planted wide apart. He was dressed in black combat gear. His heavy boots looked dusty and worn. He was staring at Bucky and Iron Man with an almost hungry look on his face, his eyes shining with the same frightening intensity that Bucky had noticed in the video.

As they slowly approached, Zemo smiled.

"Thank you both for coming," he said. "I wasn't sure if you would."

His accent stirred something in Bucky's memory. He had heard that accent before, he was sure of it. Recently, even, though that in itself puzzled him, because he had not been to Europe for several years. Perhaps, he had heard it in a dream.

Without warning, Zemo flicked his wrist, dislodging a remote control from his sleeve and into his hand. The remote looked like something from a film: a sinister black box with a big red button in the centre of it. Bucky's eyes widened as they took in the sight, his brain belatedly sending the signal to his hand to shoot the night-night pistol, but it was too late – Zemo's finger was already pressing down on the button.

Instinctively, Bucky threw himself down on the floor. To his left, he heard Iron Man do the same, the metal of the suit clanging on the concrete floor. Bucky closed his eyes, praying that the imminent explosion would pass over them.

He flinched as a series of deafeningly loud slamming noises sounded around him. He felt as though his teeth were vibrating in his skull, his ears aching as the sound echoed round and round in the large, high-ceilinged room. Oddly though, there was no heat.

The slamming noises stopped. Bucky opened his eyes, amazed to find himself still alive and in one piece as the sound finally began to echo into silence. He looked around, noting the change in his surroundings and realising what had happened.

The room was, thankfully, not exploded. It was also significantly darker than it had been just moments ago.

Zemo had not detonated a bomb. He had put the factory into lockdown, bringing down heavy metal shutters that covered the walls from floor to ceiling.

Too late, Bucky understood the purpose of the metal strips he had stopped earlier – they were rails for the metal shutters, installed by Zemo for this very purpose: to imprison them.

The shutters looked strong. By the time the others managed to break in, or they managed to break out, Zemo would have had more than enough time to kill them. Bucky spun back around to face Zemo, fear crawling under his skin as he realised the man had well and truly sealed them off from the outside world.

They were trapped.

"Who are you?" demanded Iron Man. "Why are you doing this?"

For the first time, the smile slipped from Zemo's face, revealing the anger that had been simmering just beneath the surface the whole time. His eyes flashed dangerously, his expression dark as he clenched his jaw.

"You don't remember me?" hissed Zemo. "I remember you. I remember you flying past my house in your metal suit. I remember the day you came to my town; the day the Ultron robots came."

Ultron.

Suddenly, Bucky knew where he recognised Zemo's accent from. He had heard it in the panicked screams of civilians the day Ultron and his robot army had attacked a small Sokovian town. He had heard it more recently in one of his many nightmares, his metal hand wrapped around the throat of a little boy wearing a light blue hoodie.

"You're Sokovian," said Bucky. "Is that what this is about?"

Zemo turned to face him, his brown eyes hard with bitterness.

"Sokovia was a failed state long before you blew it to hell," he said. "No. I'm here because I made a promise."

There was something about his tone of voice, a tinge of grief and longing, that made Bucky pause in reaching for his night-night pistol. There was only one reason why Zemo would sound like that, and that was if he had lost someone close to him. If Zemo were operating out of a twisted mixture of love and grief, if he were not simply outright evil, then perhaps he could still be negotiated with.

"You lost someone?" Bucky asked, keeping his tone as non-confrontational as possible.

"I lost everyone," said Zemo, his voice cracking on the last word. His hands were clenched and shaking in his lap. "My father lived outside the city. I thought we would be safe there. My son was excited. He could see the Iron Man from the car window. I told my wife: Don't worry; they're fighting in the city. We're miles from harm."

Zemo drew in a deep, shuddering breath, closing his eyes. Bucky dared to sneak a look at Iron Man. The other Avenger's attention was fixed on Zemo. Like Bucky, he had adopted a non-confrontational stance, watching and waiting to see if Zemo would give them something they could use to build a peaceful negotiation around.

"When the dust cleared and the screaming stopped, it took me two days until I found their bodies," said Zemo. "My father was still holding my wife and son in his arms. And the Avengers? They went home."

Bucky bit his lip. Civilian casualties were something the Avengers always tried to keep to an absolute minimum but, sometimes, things went wrong. Sometimes, innocent people died, and the Avengers played a part in that.

Sitting alone in his chair in the middle of the room, Zemo sat with his head bowed. His previous statement had not been wrong: he really was a man who had lost everyone.

"Helmut..." began Bucky.

Zemo's head snapped back up, hatred flaring once more in his eyes. He stood up abruptly from his chair, his fists trembling by his sides. Bucky fought not to reach for his weapon. Peaceful negotiation was the preferred objective.

"The Avengers killed my family," spat Zemo. "I want justice. I was revenge. I am going to destroy the Avengers, the same way you destroyed my family, the same way you destroyed my life."

Iron Man held his hands up. When he spoke, it was with a gentler tone than Bucky could ever remember hearing coming from the suit's speakers.

"I'm sorry to hear about your family," he said. "No one deserves that. Every civilian death is a tragedy, but you can't keep going down this road. You have to let this go. You've already killed an innocent SHIELD agent. Stop now."

For a long moment, Zemo did not react. Slowly, he turned to face Iron Man, an obsessive kind of intensity building in his eyes. Bucky slowly reached for his night-night pistol, more unnerved by Zemo's silence than when he had been talking about destroying them. The stillness in the massive room was absolute.

"Would you be able to stop, if it was your family?" Zemo asked Iron Man. "If you could take revenge on the person who killed your parents, wouldn't you?"

Iron Man flinched. For the first time since entering the room, he raised his arm and pointed his palm at Zemo. A tranquilliser dart extended from inside the suit, ready to fire. 

"My parents died in a car accident," said Iron Man, his voice rough.

Zemo gave Iron Man a small, closed-lipped smile. Without a word, he walked towards the television that Bucky had noticed as looking so out of place when he had first entered the room. Zemo pressed a button, switching on the screen. A whirring noise sounded as it began playing a tape.

Bucky edged over so that he could see the screen, keeping half an eye on Zemo as well. Zemo, however, seemed content for the first time. He sat back down in his chair, smiling at Bucky and Iron Man in a way that made Bucky suppress a shiver.

On the screen, CCTV footage from the side of a woodland road appeared. It was night-time, and the lack of leaves on the trees indicated that it was winter. There was something about the trees that struck Bucky as disturbingly familiar, although he could not immediately place where he knew them from.

Beside him, Iron Man went unnaturally still, staring intently at the screen. Bucky could hear him breathing heavily through the suit's speakers.

"I know that road," said Iron Man. "What is this?"

Zemo's smile stretched into a grin. His eyes, however, remained cold.

"This," he said silkily, "is your parents' tragic car accident."

Bucky's gaze returned uneasily to the television screen. He should stop watching, he knew that, to give Iron Man and his parents the privacy and dignity that they deserved. Something about the familiarity of the trees held his attention, however, compelling him to continue watching. The scene prickled at his unconscious, stirring something in his memories. All of a sudden, he was certain that he had seen this road before too – somewhere, somehow.

On the screen, a car suddenly came into view, illuminated by an overhead streetlamp. The quality of the vehicle was immediately apparent but, just like the first time, Bucky did not pay attention to the beauty of the car. He stood frozen to the spot, horror and icy fear exploding in him as he realised what he was watching.

It was 16 December 1991: the mission to obtain the super-soldier serum from the SHIELD scientist, who had been driving with his wife.

No witnesses. That had been the order, and Bucky had obeyed it, killing the scientist and his wife before stealing the case containing the serum.

And now, he had to watch it all over again, with Iron Man by his side. Iron Man, his colleague and teammate, who was, apparently, the murdered couple's son.

Bucky stood motionless, fear and grief and guilt paralysing him as effectively as any drug. On the screen, the horrific scene began to play out from the CCTV camera's detached, sterile viewpoint. The car flew across the screen, crashing off the road and smashing into a tree. Immediately afterwards, a motorbike sped past and went out of frame, nothing more than a blur.

Beside him, Iron Man moaned, leaning forwards to the screen where flames were now beginning to lick at the car's front bonnet. Bucky shivered, the sound of crumpling metal and splintering wood echoing through his memory. He waited, his stomach sick with anticipation, for the inevitable return of the motorcyclist.

The motorbike slowly came back into frame, emerging from the shadows. Bucky watched, transfixed and helpless, as on-screen he clambered off the motorbike and stepped into the pool of light cast by the streetlamp. His heart thundered in his ears, his cheeks burning with shame as he felt Iron Man flinch with shock beside him.

The man on the screen was unmistakably him. The mask he was currently wearing was similar in colour and design to the one he was wearing on the screen. Even his metal arm, created by SHIELD, looked similar to the HYDRA-made one he had worn on that mission. He heard Iron Man's suit whir as he looked in disbelief between the Winter Soldier on-screen and the Winter Soldier standing next to him.

Bucky stood motionless, paralysed by dread. He knew what was going to happen next.

On the screen, the man began to crawl away from the wrecked car. Bucky watched, hating himself, as he walked towards the man, grabbing him by the neck. He smashed his fist into the man's skull, dropping his body to the floor and dragging it unceremoniously to the car. He could remember the exact weight of the man. He recalled the way his limp body had handled, what with his multiple broken bones.

He heard Iron Man's breath hitch as he crossed over to the other side of the car. He closed his eyes, overcome by guilt, horror and shame, as, on the screen, his hand closed around the woman's throat.

He stood frozen to the spot, his stomach flipping and his chest tight with self-loathing. He could remember every single victim he had killed whilst under HYDRA's control. He thought about the countless lives he had ruined. Each victim did not exist in isolation, but was surrounded by others – family, friends, lovers, colleagues. Like a ripple effect in a pond, each death caused a devastating circle of pain and loss.

He dreamt of these people – his victims, their loved ones – almost every night. Every day, he worked at SHIELD as if it were some kind of exercise in atonement, but now he had arrived at his journey's end, and at its end lay one unavoidable conclusion: he could not atone for what he had done.

The damage he had caused was too great. He could not give back the lives he had taken. There was no value that could be put on a human life. There was no way he could make up for what he had done.

He could feel, rather than perceive, that Iron Man was trembling. Iron Man – his colleague, his teammate – who now knew the terrible truth: that the person standing next to him was the person who had murdered his parents.

There had been no tragic car accident.

There had only been murder – done with cold and brutal efficiency.

Bucky took a deep breath, opening his mouth to speak. He was not sure what he was about to say, exactly. There were no words strong enough or meaningful enough to convey how truly, utterly sorry he was. As it was, it did not matter, because he did not get the opportunity to speak.

Iron Man moved so quickly that Bucky did not get the chance to react. The suit's metal fist smashed into Bucky's mask, knocking him to the floor with a hard thud. Pain exploded in Bucky's face. He could taste the slick coppery tang of blood in his mouth. He tried to sit up, disoriented by the blow, only to find himself punched again, this time in the gut.

Bucky doubled over, coughing up blood into his mask as Iron Man lunged at him and slammed him into the concrete floor. Bucky gasped, trying to break out of Iron Man's hold even as part of him whispered that, perhaps, this was exactly what he deserved.

Iron Man attacked him wildly, losing all control and finesse as his metal fists rained down on Bucky. He seemed to have forgotten that his suit contained weaponry that could literally blow Bucky to pieces, so lost was he in his rage.

Bucky did not fight back. He had no right to. What he had done to Iron Man's parents, to all of his victims, was indefensible. The idea of defending himself now did not feel right.

His head swam with the force of the blows, his vision blurring. Blood smeared across the inside of his mask, coating his goggles, making it even more difficult to see. He could barely hold his head up, his ears ringing and his breathing shallow.

It took him a moment to realise that the relentless assault had paused. He blinked slowly, looking up to see Iron Man's visor inches away from his face.

"Do you even remember them?" Iron Man's voice was tight and rough. His posture was riddled with tension. Bucky was sure, in that moment, that Iron Man was perfectly capable of killing him.

"I remember all of them," said Bucky.

With a broken yell, Iron Man backhanded him across the face, catching the release button that detached the mask. Cool air hit Bucky's face as his mask clattered to the ground. Bucky spat out a glob of blood, bringing up a shaking hand to wipe his mouth.

Iron Man froze, staring at his teammate's face for the first time. Bucky looked back miserably. Through the suit's speakers, Bucky could hear Iron Man's breathing quicken. With slow, pained movements, Iron Man raised his hand and pressed a button that released his own visor, revealing his face.

No.

No, no, no, no, NO!

It was Tony.

Bucky stared up at his boyfriend, unable to breathe as his mind struggled to comprehend the image of Tony's face inside the Iron Man suit.

Tony was Iron Man.

For all these months, he had been dating a man whom he had known for years, without realising it. That was why Tony had struck him as so familiar when they had first met, because they had met before, only without knowing it. The Iron Man suit had always hidden Tony's face and distorted his voice, but Bucky had unconsciously recognised his mannerisms, his way of speaking, and therefore his attraction to Tony had been amplified.

It felt as though all the oxygen had suddenly been sucked from his lungs as the truth of the situation hit him.

He had killed Tony's parents.

He had killed Howard Stark, the man who Tony idolised and yearned to make proud through his work as an engineer at SHIELD. Tony walked in his father's footsteps every day, carrying on the work his father had started.

He had killed Maria Stark, the woman, the human, who Tony had the fondest memories of in the whole entire world: Maria Stark, who had comforted Tony when he had lost his toy dinosaur; who had brought the circus to Tony when Tony had been too ill to attend.

Tony was Bucky's greatest love, and he had bestowed upon Tony his greatest pain: the loss of his parents.

Bucky began to sob, overwhelmed with the realisation of what he had done. He had always known that his victims had families, but he had never had to come face-to-face with a family member before. He had certainly never had to witness first-hand the grief that he had brought – until now.

Tony was staring at him, his mouth hanging open and his eyes wide with shock and pain. Tears spilled onto his cheeks, his throat working furiously as he fought to control himself. Bucky could see Tony's heart breaking all over again, as he grieved for his parents a second time, the added realisation that they were murdered adding to his already substantial loss.

"You killed my parents," said Tony, his voice raw. Then again, louder: "You killed my parents?"

From his chair, Zemo spoke. Bucky flinched; he had forgotten the Sokovian was there.

"Bucky Barnes killed many people under HYDRA's orders," he said. "He has been killing for HYDRA for the last 70 years. Brainwashing and cryofreeze – the perfect combination to create an obedient assassin on demand. HYDRA had a nickname for him: their perfect agent."

Bucky moaned, curling in on himself as all the times HYDRA had praised him with that hated nickname flooded back to him. He had been their perfect agent when he had tortured a Russian man to death, extracting all the relevant information from him. He had been their perfect agent when he had planted a bomb on a bus packed with students, to assassinate the lecturer. He had been their perfect agent when he had killed Tony's parents and delivered the super-soldier serum to his masters.

HYDRA had made him do many different things, and Bucky had almost always completed his missions perfectly.

Another sob slipped past his lips, the horrors of his past rushing up to meet him. Actions had consequences. He had been foolish to think he could outrun them forever. He bowed his head, self-hatred and misery warring inside him for dominance.

He yearned not to feel. He wished that he could turn back time and undo everything that he had done. If he could change places with his victims, he would. He clenched his hands into fists, his fingers cutting into his palms. It hurt, but not enough. There was only one punishment that someone like him deserved, and he could think of no one more justified in delivering it than Tony. After all, he had killed Tony's parents.

"I'm a monster," he said, tears cutting through the grime and blood that smeared his cheeks. "You can kill me, if you want to. I deserve it."

He looked up at Tony one more time, trying to remember the last time he had seen that beautiful face looking at him with love and happiness rather than revulsion and horror. He wished, more than anything, that he had crashed his motorbike into the trees that night, rather than Tony's parents' car.

He closed his eyes, not wanting to see the moment when Tony made his decision.

He heard Tony slowly get to his feet, his metal suit whirring and clinking as he moved. For a long moment, there was silence, and then Tony spoke, his words hard and deliberate.

"You're evil... I'm ending this today."

The sound of something being fired from the Iron Man suit echoed around the cavernous room; the sound of something ending.

Chapter Text

Bucky readied himself for death.

There was a whoosh as Tony fired something from the Iron Man suit, followed by the elongation of time that always seems to happen when waiting for something awful.

Bucky froze, telling himself that this was right, that he was ready to die. Still, a tendril of fear spiked through his system and shattered the lie. However much he might deserve it, death still frightened him. Millions of years of evolution had instilled in him an innate desire to survive.

He knelt on the cold, hard concrete, his heartbeat thundering in his ears, and conjured up the faces of all the people who had made his life worth living.

His parents, who had raised him and given him unconditional love, supporting him through his choices and giving him a roof over his head.

His sisters, who had provided him with grounding – never letting him get too cocky – whilst simultaneously being his most loyal peers during his youth.

Steve, the little guy from Brooklyn who had remained Bucky's best friend even after the serum gifted him with both strength and popularity.

Tony – not Iron Man, but his partner Tony – who loved days out and film nights and who called him sugarplum precisely because he knew just how much Bucky hated it. Tony, who had the most beautiful brown eyes Bucky had ever seen.

Bucky clung to the memories of his loved ones, attempting to draw strength from them, as he screwed his eyes shut, waiting for the end.

The seconds ticked by.

Bucky sat in a state of paralysis, his adrenaline-soaked mind muddling through a terrifying array of emotions before finally, incredulously, latching on to the fact that he was still breathing.

Moreover, he was not in any pain, nor had he felt the impact of whatever Tony had fired from his suit. Even if the projectile contained a numbing agent or an anaesthetic, Bucky would expect to have felt the initial prick as it penetrated his skin.

Slowly, hardly daring to believe it, he opened his eyes.

He was still inside the abandoned factory, the sturdy metal shutters trapping them within the four walls of the building. He looked down at his body, finding himself no more injured than when he had closed his eyes moments before.

He was not dead.

But how?

He had heard something fire from the Iron Man suit. He had felt the anger and hatred in Tony's voice when he had declared that he was ending it. He had not imagined either of those things.

Slowly, he got to his feet and turned around, his eyes falling upon Tony who was still standing with his arm outstretched.

He was facing away from Bucky.

His arm was pointed at the chair where Zemo was sitting.

Zemo was slumped unconscious, his head lolling on his shoulder. In his neck, Bucky could see a tranquilliser embedded in his artery. He stared at the scene in front of him, his mind scrambling to understand what had just happened.

Tony marched towards Zemo, his footfalls heavy. He reached the unconscious man and grabbed the remote control from Zemo's hands, pressing the small red button. The shutters began to trundle back up their rails, unlocking the factory and letting in sunlight.

Tony hauled Zemo out of his chair and slung him over his shoulder, staggering slightly as the suit took a moment to adjust his stance in order to carry the tranquillised man's weight without toppling sideways.

Bucky hurried over to help, reaching out to take some of Zemo's weight. Just before Bucky reached them, however, Tony quickly began marching towards the exit, his gaze fixed straight ahead.

Bucky stared after him, stunned by the way Tony had looked straight past him, as if he were invisible. Shaking himself, he jogged after Tony, catching up with him in the corridor that led back to the factory's main entrance. Instinctively, he almost grabbed hold of Tony's shoulder to get his attention, before thinking better of it.

"Tony–" he began, keeping his voice as quiet and contrite as possible.

Before he could get any further, Tony stopped so abruptly that Bucky almost walked into him. The back of Tony's neck was red. A vein was visibly throbbing in his left temple. Still without looking at Bucky, Tony took a deep breath and tightened his grip around Zemo's waist.

"Don't talk to me," he hissed.

Tony's words were so full of hurt and rage that Bucky instinctively took a step back, Tony's fury knocking him back just as viscerally as any physical impact.

He stood rooted to the spot, grief overtaking him as it hit him, all over again, just how much of an effect his parents' deaths had had on Tony. It had changed his life. It had been a cross he had had to carry his entire adult life. His childhood, his innocence, had ended on the night of 16 December 1991.

He stood motionless, floundering under the weight of the knowledge that he had caused Tony that suffering; that the scientist and his wife had been Howard and Maria Stark. He felt as though he was suffocating.

By the time Bucky regained control of his limbs, Tony was already at the end of the corridor. Bucky ran after him, trying and failing to come up with any words that could begin to describe to Tony the strength of his horror and regret. Self-loathing and disgust crawled underneath his skin, mixed with a strong sense of concern for Tony's well-being. He desperately wanted to help Tony, and the knowledge that he could not was heartbreaking.

They emerged from the factory into blazing sunlight, the brightness of it dazzling Bucky momentarily. His field of vision was immediately filled with the uniforms of the other Avengers as they crowded around them. They were all talking at once, obviously relieved that Zemo had been successfully arrested, but also deeply disturbed by the fact that Tony and Bucky's faces were, for the first time ever, exposed.

Steve stepped in front of him, concern filling his wide blue eyes. He was saying something, but it was all white noise to Bucky. He only had eyes for Tony – Tony, who was Iron Man, who had secretly been his Avengers teammate for years, who was his boyfriend, whose parents Bucky had murdered.

A bubble of hysteria formed in his chest. It was too much to take in. It was difficult to concentrate. It was difficult to breathe. Tony. He had killed Tony's parents. Somewhere nearby, sirens were getting louder. Tony was still refusing to look in Bucky's direction, focusing on manoeuvring Zemo's limp body to a more comfortable position. Steve was shaking Bucky's shoulders, still talking, but Bucky could not focus on what he was saying.

Ambulances screamed to their location, escorted by a fleet of SHIELD vans. Bucky watched, dazed, as they bounced over the uneven concrete of the factory grounds. Weeds were squashed under their wheels as they made their way towards the rabble of Avengers. Bucky could see Director Fury through the windows of one of the SHIELD vans, gesturing wildly for him to cover his face.

The vehicles came to a halt. Paramedics jumped out of the ambulances, hurrying towards them with medical packs slung over their shoulders and a wheeled stretcher trundling between them. They reached Tony and Zemo first, moving Zemo onto the stretcher and doing a rudimentary check of his breathing and pulse rate.

A paramedic began asking Tony what exactly had happened, eyeing the tranquilliser dart still sticking out of Zemo's neck. Bucky moved forwards, intent on helping, when a female paramedic stepped in front of him, blocking his way.

"Sir," she said, looking up at him in concern. "Please, come this way."

She began tugging him towards the nearest ambulance, exerting a surprising amount of force for someone so small. Bucky twisted around in confusion, trying to look back at where Tony was now reeling off the exact chemical composition of the sedative. A second paramedic, a male, joined his female colleague in pulling Bucky away from the scene, pressing something cold and wet against Bucky's forehead.

It was only when his forehead stung painfully at the contact that Bucky recalled Tony's attack. He looked down at himself, shocked to find himself covered in a substantial amount of his own blood. He reached out to wipe his mouth and winced at the pain. 

He wanted to say something to Tony. He twisted around, the word sorry on the tip of his tongue, but his throat was swollen shut with emotion, rendering him unable to speak.

The paramedics ushered him inside the ambulance, sitting him down on a stretcher. Bucky looked out of the back of the ambulance, watching miserably as Tony spoke to a SHIELD agent.

Without warning, Tony looked up, his gaze meeting Bucky's directly. His eyes were hard, his mouth clenched tight in an angry line.

Before Bucky could respond, the ambulance doors slammed shut.

At speed, the ambulance carried him away from the scene, away from Tony, towards the hospital.

 



Bucky stared up at the ceiling above his hospital bed.

It was evening, and the orange light of the setting sun was casting long shadows across the ward.

He was lying as still as possible, trying to minimise the depth of his breathing so that his chest moved as little as possible. The doctors had diagnosed him with a concussion, several cracked ribs and extensive bruising. Considering the ferocity of Tony's attack, it was astonishing that he had suffered nothing more serious. 

He was, however, in substantial pain. Whenever his chest moved, his cracked ribs flared with agony. He was pumped full of painkillers, but they only managed to take the edge off; they did not get rid of the sensation altogether.

Bucky did not care about the pain.

Lying alone in his hospital bed, the only thing he could do was think.

He thought about 16 December 1991 – about every single thing he had done differently between being woken from cryo-freeze and being put back inside once the Starks were dead. He thought about all the times Tony had talked about his parents – about his inspirational father, his loving mother. He thought about Tony – his sweet, wonderful Tony – who had done nothing to deserve such suffering.

He was overwhelmed by guilt. He was in a state of shock. He could not get his head around the fact that he had killed Tony's parents. He could not believe that the universe had been so cruel as to throw Bucky into Tony's life not just once, but twice.

He wished, more than anything, that he could go back in time and change things. He wished he could change everything. He wished his mind had been strong enough to withstand HYDRA's brainwashing. He wished he could take back every evil thing he had been forced to do under HYDRA's orders.

He was thinking about what he would do if he ever met one of his old HYDRA handlers again, when someone entered the ward, their footsteps heavy. Bucky turned his head towards the sound, immediately regretting it as pain shot through his body. As his eyes fell upon the person, he froze.

Tony looked beautiful in the dying orange sunlight. It bounced off his tan skin and dark brown hair perfectly, painting him in liquid copper, like some statue to be venerated.

Tony was staring at him. Bucky looked back, grief and misery weighing down on his chest. Now that he knew their familial bond, he could see the resemblance between Tony and his parents. He had his father's eyes – brown and large, framed with thick eyelashes. He had his mother's lips – an archer's bow.

Tony walked right up to Bucky's bed, his back ramrod straight and his eyes hard and shining with unshed tears. He flung a wad of papers onto Bucky's bedside table, his movements jerky and stilted.

Refusing to look at Bucky, he addressed the wall above Bucky's head.

"Post-mission report forms," he said, his voice flat and emotionless. "Fury wants you to complete them as soon as possible."

Tony turned to leave, his back rigid and his hands balled into fists by his sides. Bucky watched him, devastated at the vision of grief and rage Tony had become in the space of less than a day. Before Bucky's brain could intervene, the words he had been meaning to say all day tumbled out of his mouth.

"We need to talk."

Tony span back around, his face red and his eyes wild with anger as he jabbed a finger in Bucky's direction.

"No," said Tony. "You've got no right to demand anything from me. You're not my friend. You're not my boyfriend. You're nobody to me. The only reason I'm here at all is because Fury told me to give you the damn report forms."

Bucky lay motionless, stunned into silence. Every sentence hit him with more impact than Tony's fists ever could.

"Did you know it was them?" Tony asked quietly. "Have you been listening to me talk about my parents and just laughing at me this entire time?"

Bucky shook his head, ignoring the pain that the motion triggered. Whatever Tony might think of him, however much Tony might hate him, Bucky had to make sure that he understood this one important detail.

"I didn't know it was them, Tony," he said. "I promise, I didn't know their identities."

Tony stared at him for a long moment, as if trying to decipher whether Bucky was speaking the truth. His eyes roved over Bucky's face, both desperate and analytical.

Without a word, he turned on his heel and left the room.

Chapter Text

Bucky was discharged from hospital two days later, once the doctors were sure that he had fully recovered from his concussion.

He was discharged with several packets of pain medications and advice on how best to manage with his cracked ribs. The doctors had told him it would take between four to six weeks to heal, and they had left him with strict instructions to take time off work and minimise any strenuous activity.

Bucky clambered into the waiting taxi, settling into the backseat as carefully as he could to avoid jostling his ribs. He gave the driver his address and turned his head to gaze out of the window, watching the buildings go by as they wound their way through the busy New York traffic.

He was going back to his own flat, not the SHIELD safe house that he had been staying in before. With Zemo arrested and incarcerated, Director Fury was confident that the Avengers were safe to return to their own homes. Bucky tried to muster up some excitement at the prospect of returning home, but he felt nothing.

After the initial tidal wave of emotions that came with discovering the truth about Tony's parents, Bucky's emotions had gone curiously flat. He no longer felt that crushing sense of grief and pain, but he no longer felt anything else either. There were no highs. There were no lows. He felt as though he were an automaton, going through the motions of living on a mechanical level.

He rested his forehead against the taxi window, letting the cool glass soothe his aching head. Outside, it was drizzling, blurring his vision as he stared out at the hordes of people tramping along the pavements in dull, dark raincoats.

He wondered what it must be like to be one of those people – to have a simple, unremarkable life – and felt a stab of jealousy. None of them had ever had their minds controlled. None of them had ever been stripped of their free will and forced to commit acts of unspeakable evil. None of them had been made into a machine, to be used and tinkered with as a master saw fit.

They drove past Tony sitting on a bench.

For a moment, it did not register.

When it did, Bucky did a double take, twisting around in his seat to get a better look. His ribs screamed in protest, white hot pain shooting across his chest and causing his eyes to water. He ignored the pain, focusing on the man on the bench.

Disappointment crashed over him. It was not Tony. It did not even really look like him. It was just some other dark-haired man, his head bowed as he texted some other irrelevant person on his smartphone.

Bucky eased himself back around, gritting his teeth against the pain. The taxi driver met his eyes in the rear-view mirror, wincing in sympathy.

"Spot a friend?" asked the driver.

Bucky shrugged, a shard of hurt slicing through the emotional numbness. Tony was not his friend anymore. Tony had no desire for them to be anything to one another. Tony had been perfectly clear about that. He remembered the hatred on Tony's face as he had said those words to him in the hospital ward: you're nobody to me.

The rest of the drive took place in silence, the numbness slowly returning to soothe the hurt, blanketing his mind in a hazy, fuzzy nothingness. The taxi pulled up to Bucky's block, coming to a halt. Bucky paid the driver and clambered out of the taxi, bowing his head against the rain.

He hurried inside his block of flats, heading over to the lift and pressing the button for his floor when it arrived. His mind was curiously blank. He felt as if he were in a dream, drifting without conscious thought.

Before he knew it, he was unlocking the door of his flat and walking over the threshold, entering his own space for the first time since Zemo had stolen the files from SHIELD. He stopped just inside the doorway, looking around with a sense of despair. He supposed that he should feel some level of happiness at finally coming home, but he felt nothing.

His flat was as he had left it, but now with an added layer of dust and a stale smell in the air. He took a tentative step forward, feeling like an outsider in his own home.

His flat felt cold, empty and uninviting.

It did not feel like home anymore.

Bucky looked around, trying to pinpoint exactly what had changed.

It was only when his eyes fell on the calendar that it clicked.

Today was a Saturday.

Tony was usually here on Saturdays, making the place feel bright and full of energy. He would be singing in the kitchen, or playing with some gadget in the lounge, or pinning Bucky passionately to the mattress.

Over the last few months, Bucky had come to associate Tony with a feeling of home.

And now, of course, he was gone.

 


 

That night, Bucky had another nightmare.

He was standing next to the mangled wreck of Howard and Maria Stark's car, splintered bits of tree at his feet.

Howard was crawling away from the car, grunting with pain as he struggled to move with his broken bones. Bucky moved forward against his own volition, his hand reaching out and grabbing Howard by the neck.

Inside his head, Bucky screamed. He wrestled to gain control of his muscles and pull himself away from the innocent, injured man, but he was trapped; trapped inside his own mind and forced to watch.

He punched Howard hard in the face, before turning and dragging him back towards the car, dumping him in the driver's seat. Bucky's heart was racing in his chest, desperately trying to wake up, because he knew what was coming next. He was going to kill Maria Stark. He was going to kill Tony's mother, and the mere thought of it make him sick with horror.

He crossed over to the other side of the car, reaching Maria's passenger side door.

Suddenly, the dream diverged from his memories. Bucky found himself sitting inside the car, in the driver's seat next to Maria. Outside, he could see himself standing there, reaching in and grabbing hold of Maria's neck.

Bucky yelled, lunging forwards in an attempt to save her, but his hands passed through the scene like a ghost's. He tried again and again, his eyes prickling with hot, terrified tears as he desperately tried to intervene, without success. Each time, his hands passed through the scene, unable to interact with what he was seeing in front of him.

He felt like a shadow, brought there only to watch.

"Mommy?"

Bucky spun around, his eyes almost bugging out of his head as his gaze fell upon a small boy sat in the back seat of the car. The child looked to be about four years old, with dark brown hair and brown eyes. He was, unmistakably, Tony.

Fuck fuck fuck...

"Mommy!"

The little boy began to cry, his cheeks red as he watched his mother being strangled in the front seat.

"Don't look," begged Bucky. "Please, don't look."

Maria was struggling to breathe, making grotesque noises as she tried and failed to draw breath. Her face, just feet away from Bucky's own, was turning purple.

"Bucky!"

Bucky's head snapped back around towards the back seat, to find, to his horror, that Tony had transformed into his adult self.

Tony's face was pale with fear and shock. He watched as the Bucky standing outside the car strangled his mother, before lunging forwards.

"Stop it!" he screamed, pointing at Bucky. "Stop it!"

Bucky found himself paralysed, his ears filled with the sounds of Maria choking and Tony screaming, unable to move. Outside the car window, HYDRA's perfect agent began to speak in Russian, repeating the words that Bucky hoped he would never hear again in all his life.

Longing...

Rusted...

Seventeen...

He awoke violently, sitting bolt upright in bed, the screams that had been silenced in his dream finally escaping from his mouth at full volume.

 


 

The next day, Steve came to visit.

He barged in through the front door as soon as Bucky opened it, immediately pulling him into a gentle hug that was considerate of his cracked ribs. Bucky stood there, stunned into inaction as Steve held him with the gentleness of someone half his size.

He bit his lip, allowing himself to drop his head against Steve's shoulder. It was a mirror image of all the times Bucky had comforted Steve when they were growing up, when Steve had been overwhelmed with frustration about his failing body. It felt as though they had come full circle.

"How are you doing?" asked Steve.

Bucky opened his mouth to reply, the stock answer I'm fine on the tip of his tongue. Steve seemed to sniff out the lie before he had a chance to utter the words, however, because he fixed Bucky with a glare and continued speaking.

"If you say you're fine, I'll punch you in the face."

Bucky deflated, offering no resistance as Steve marched into his flat, poking his head into various rooms. He tutted and hummed as he looked around, reminding Bucky of a fussy mother hen.

Bucky cringed with embarrassment. His flat was a mess. He had not bothered to do any dusting or cleaning the previous day when he had returned from hospital, opting instead to simply order a takeaway and go straight to bed. If he had known that Steve would turn up this morning, he would have put in more of an effort.

Steve walked into the kitchen, Bucky trailing in his wake. Without hesitating or asking for permission, Steve crossed over to the fridge and pulled it open, visibly recoiling as he was hit by the smell of mouldy food.

Bucky cringed, remembering that all the food inside had long-since rotted. He had taken one look at it the previous day and turned his back on it, not having the mental energy required to deal with it.

Without hesitation, Steve began emptying the fridge, throwing the mouldy food into the bin.

"I was going to do that," mumbled Bucky.

"Sure you were," said Steve, keeping his face neutral as he tossed a stinking piece of rotten meat into the bin. "We're going to clean your apartment today. I'll vacuum and scrub, you can do the dusting."

Bucky stood there, floundering as he watched Steve methodically and non-judgmentally empty the contents of his fridge.

"You don't have to help," Bucky said weakly. "I'm fine."

Steve paused in his task to look at Bucky, his lips curling into a smirk.

"I was serious when I said I'd punch you in the face for saying that," said Steve. "Don't think 100 years of friendship is going to save you."

Bucky stared at him, trying to figure out if he was lying or not. His face was deadly serious, despite the sparkle in his eyes. In the end, Bucky caved. It was probably a good thing that Steve was here and offering to help clean his flat. Bucky was not sure if he could muster up the motivation if left to his own devices, and his cracked ribs would make things even more difficult.

Begrudgingly, he grabbed a duster and spray from under the sink and moved off into the living room to begin the arduous task of getting rid of the large build-up of dust. He quickly fell into the routine of it, going slowly and methodically through each room. Steve, meanwhile, threw out all the rotten food and moved onto hoovering duty, before finally giving the kitchen and bathroom a good scrub with disinfectant.

After several hours of hard work, Steve and Bucky collapsed onto the sofa in the lounge, Bucky immediately regretting it as he jostled his cracked ribs. He coughed violently, trying to minimise his movements. Steve let him finish coughing before gesturing around at the now spotless flat.

"Looks way less like a shithole now," he said.

Bucky laughed. He looked around, noting that the place did look entirely different – not just cleaner but also brighter and airier.

"It does," admitted Bucky. "Thanks. I appreciate it."

Steve shrugged, before turning to look at Bucky, his blue eyes scrutinising him.

"You don't look so great though," said Steve. "What's up? And don't you dare say you're fine."

Bucky bit his lip, pondering how much to tell Steve. He did not know what Director Fury had told the other Avengers about what had happened inside the abandoned textiles factory. From Bucky's injuries, Steve had no doubt worked out that Iron Man was the one who had attacked Bucky, but he did not know if Tony had told them the reason for it.

In the end, Bucky opted to go for the truth – or part of it.

"I had a nightmare last night," he said. "It was about one of my missions with HYDRA."

He did not say it was about killing Tony's parents. That particular detail was too shameful, too horrible to say out loud. As understanding as Steve was of his situation, he did not know how Steve would react if he realised that he personally knew one of Bucky's victims. Howard and Steve had been good friends back during the war.

Steve looked at him sympathetically.

"Do you want to talk about it?" he asked.

Bucky shrugged.

"It's no big deal," said Bucky. "I have nightmares like that all the time."

There was a second of silence, followed by another, and then another.

Steve stared at him, his eyebrows shooting upwards with shock. His face was somewhere between confusion and horror, his lips parting into a small "o". Bucky lowered his gaze, caught off guard by Steve's reaction.

"So... You have these nightmares regularly?" Steve asked finally.

Bucky shrugged. He was not used to being at the centre of such scrutiny. He did not understand why Steve was making such a big deal out of it. Everyone had nightmares. They simply did what Bucky did: struggling on through life and not talking about it. During the war, he had heard many men screaming during their sleep. When they woke in the morning, they never spoke about it.

"So, what?" said Bucky. "It's normal."

"It's not normal," snapped Steve, looking agitated. "For God's sake, why didn't you tell me?"

Bucky felt his face heat up. He clenched his fists. He did not understand why Steve was getting so upset. Bucky's nightmares were not something he had ever thought were unusual.

Steve sighed, his voice gentling into one of quiet sadness.

"Have you heard of post-traumatic stress disorder?" said Steve.

Bucky immediately bristled at the suggestion, a hot ball of anger churning in his gut. He did not have some disorder. There was nothing wrong with him. His time at HYDRA may have damaged him, but he was not broken.

"I'm fine," he snapped. "I'm not weak."

Steve did not react immediately, thinking carefully about what to say next so as not to agitate Bucky any further. Without a word, Steve fished a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and pressed it into Bucky's hand. Bucky looked down at it with confusion, before realising to his horror that his cheeks were wet. He turned away, blinking furiously as he tried to stop the flow of tears that he had not even realised he was shedding.

Steve crossed the room to tidy a perfectly straight pile of magazines, his back towards Bucky. Recognising the offer of privacy for what it was, Bucky dried his face. Steve did not make any comment on it when he returned to the sofa and sat back down.

"There are lots of very brave men and women who have PTSD," said Steve. "There's no shame in it. It's not a weakness."

He paused for a couple of moments to allow Bucky to speak. When Bucky remained silent, Steve continued.

"Do you remember the guy from the Christmas party? Sam Wilson?"

Bucky thought back to the Christmas party, refusing to dwell on the latter part of the evening when he had met Tony. Yes, he remembered Sam Wilson. For quite a long while, he had enjoyed an interesting conversation with the man. Sam had been upbeat, funny and quick-witted. Bucky did not understand, however, what Sam Wilson had to do with the current conversation.

"Yeah, I remember Sam," said Bucky. "He was a decent guy."

"Sam runs a support group for veterans with PTSD," said Steve. "Maybe you could talk to him."

Bucky shook his head, a mixture of fear and defiance flaring in his chest. He would not reach out to Sam Wilson. He could not – because if he did, then he would be admitting that he had a problem.

"No," said Bucky, his tone final.

Understanding that Bucky was not going to yield, Steve dropped the subject. The rest of the day was spent talking, cooking and watching a film. Steve did not attempt to bring up the topic of Bucky's nightmares again, and Bucky was thankful for it.

Hours later, though, when Steve had gone and Bucky was hidden away in the safety of his bedroom, Bucky pulled out his laptop. He browsed the news websites, played a couple of games of 2048, and checked his emails. Eventually, when he could procrastinate no more, he went to Google.

With a pounding heart and numb fingers, he typed in a question: what is PTSD?

 


 

Bucky did not hear from Tony for over two months.

Bucky had been taken off the Avengers initiative pending an internal investigation into whether there was any way he could be re-integrated into the team or if he would have to be removed altogether. Given that he had killed one of his teammates' parents, Bucky very much doubted he would ever be allowed to re-join. Tony had made it abundantly clear that he refused to work with Bucky ever again, and Bucky agreed that if one of them had to leave, it should be him.

He had, however, been allowed to return to his regular job as a SHIELD agent as soon as his ribs had healed. He had been welcomed back warmly, his colleagues glad to see him again after his sudden "mystery illness". Sharon had been particularly good to him, filling him in on all the gossip that had happened during his absence and helping him get back into the swing of things.

Several times, Bucky had been sorely tempted to venture down to the Tech department to see Tony. Once, he had found himself stepping into the lift and pressing the button down to the Tech levels, but he had stopped himself, pressing another button hurriedly and stepping out into the Accounts department instead, upset that his own selfish desires had momentarily won.

To keep his mind from cracking, Bucky had buried himself in his job, distracting himself with an endless routine of working, going to the gym and hanging out with Steve. Once, he had tried to go to one of Sam Wilson's drop-in sessions for former veterans with mental health issues, but when he had got to the door, he had frozen, his courage draining away and leaving him terrified. As soon as he had regained control, he had fled. 

He missed Tony desperately. He wanted to ask how he was getting on. He wanted to apologise, again and again, for what he had done on that cold winter's night in 1991. He wanted to see him, to see his face and hear his voice.

He wanted, more than anything, to reach out and find some way to talk to him. He had stood there with his mobile phone in his hand, his thumb hovering above the call icon on Tony's contact, more times than he could count. He never pressed call though. He respected Tony's privacy. If they were to ever see one another again, Tony had to be the one to initiate contact.

For 87 days, there was nothing.

On day 88, Bucky was lounging about in his flat, wondering how best he could spend his Saturday. He had already tidied and he was feeling restless. He looked out of the window. The weather was good. Perhaps he could go to the gym and then ask Steve if he fancied going out for a stroll in the park to enjoy the sunshine. Sharon had also suggested they should get together for a café crawl some time, and today looked like a perfect day for it.

He was pondering his options when his phone pinged, informing him that he had received a text message. He dug his phone out of his pocket, tapping the screen to wake it up. His gaze fell upon the name of the person who had sent the message, his world screeching to a halt as he stared at those four little letters.

 

From: Tony

 

His heart rate skyrocketed, his palms slick with sweat as his mouth went dry. With shaking hands, he unlocked his phone, almost mistyping his passcode in his anxiety.

His thumb hovered over the button to open the text, his mind racing with all the possibilities of what Tony could have sent: something angry, something cold, something sad.

Unable to withstand the torture of not knowing, he opened the message.

 

From: Tony

To: me

I need to see you.

 

Bucky stared at the five-word message. His mind exploded with dozens of questions. What did Tony want to talk about? How was he coping? Why did Tony want to talk now, after almost 3 months of complete silence?

He tried to focus his mind, his eyes roving over the message again and again. It was impossible to decipher Tony's mood from those words alone. There were no adjectives, no emotive punctuation, no extra words at all that might reveal the inner workings of Tony's brain. Feeling slightly sick, Bucky typed out a reply.

 

From: me

To: Tony

Where?

 

Bucky did not bother to move from his seat or begin any kind of task. Tony could type faster than anyone Bucky had ever met. Sure enough, less than 10 seconds later, his phone was buzzing once more in his hand.

 

From: Tony

To: me

Do you remember The Coffee Bean café?

 

Bucky's breath caught in his throat. The Coffee Bean café had been where they had gone on their first date. It was one of Bucky's favourite cafés in New York City, precisely because it reminded him of Tony. Lately though, of course, it had been tinged by a great sense of sadness and loss.

 

From: me

To: Tony

Yes. See you in 10 mins.

 

Bucky was out of his flat in record time, jogging most of the way to the café. He arrived with four minutes to spare, feeling foolish as he pushed open the café door out of breath and with his t-shirt sticking uncomfortably to his back.

He was wiping some of the excess sweat from his forehead, feeling exceptionally gross, when the voice he had been longing to hear for almost three months rang out from somewhere inside the café.

"Bucky?"

Bucky's head whipped around, his body freezing the moment his eyes fell upon Tony sitting alone in one of the booths.

He was wearing jeans and a Metallica t-shirt, his arms bare and hands clasped on the table in front of him. His expression was carefully neutral, but his eyes were locked onto Bucky's with a strange, quiet kind of intensity. Bucky stared back at him, his muscles and his voice deserting him.

Now that the moment was finally here, he found himself at a loss.

The decision was taken out of his hands when Tony gestured him over. Bucky's feet obeyed, carrying him through the clutter of tables and chairs towards the booth where Tony was seated. He sat down opposite Tony, feeling flustered as he knocked over a stack of condiments, before hurriedly gathering them all back up to put them back into their previous position.

He blushed, feeling like a fool as he sensed Tony staring at him. He kept his gaze downcast, not yet ready to look up and see the face of the man he had spent so much time thinking about. He wondered what expression was on Tony's face – annoyance, hatred, disgust? Unable to take it any longer, he took a deep breath and looked up.

Tony was staring at him with that same neutral expression he had worn when Bucky had first entered the café. It was a mask, a front, designed to keep Tony's inner thoughts and feelings from spilling out. For some reason, that only made Bucky feel more anxious. At least if Tony had been looking at him with hatred, Bucky would have known what to expect.

"How are you doing?" asked Bucky, his voice coming out dry and croaky.

Tony fiddled with one of the packets of sugar that Bucky had accidentally knocked over when he had arrived. The habit was so painfully familiar that Bucky had to look away.

"I've been busy," said Tony.

Bucky tried to decipher the emotions behind Tony's words. He did not sound angry. He did not even sound bitter. If anything, he sounded tired.

"Yeah?" asked Bucky, buoyed by the knowledge that Tony was at least willing to talk to him without killing him. "What have you been up to?"

Tony sighed, his shoulders drooping as he stared down at the packet of sugar in between his fingers.

"I went to Billy Halifax's funeral," said Tony. "We were friends. We worked in the same team in the Tech department. I was one of the people who interviewed him when he first applied to work for SHIELD, actually. Sometimes, I wonder where he'd be now, if we hadn't given him that job."

Bucky bit his lip. He understood all too well about feelings of guilt and self-blame. The key difference between them, however, was that Tony did not deserve to feel those emotions.

"What happened to Billy wasn't your fault," said Bucky. "Zemo wanted those holo-masks. If it hadn't been Billy, it would have been some other agent."

Tony sighed, finally looking up to give Bucky a sad smile.

"I know. Thanks," he said. "I've been going to therapy. You know, to deal with... stuff about my parents. I've been talking to Hawkeye too."

"Hawkeye?" echoed Bucky, confused about what the archer had to do with anything.

Tony nodded, clearing his throat and looking directly into Bucky's eyes for the first time. Now that they were getting into the swing of the conversation, Tony's neutral mask was slipping. He looked determined, but not in an aggressive way. If anything, Tony looked the same way he did when he talked about something he was passionate about.

"When Loki came to Earth in 2012 with the Chitauri, he brainwashed Hawkeye," said Tony. "We've been talking a lot about what that was like. He told me what it was like for him not to be in control of his own mind."

Bucky nodded, his mouth suddenly dry. His throat felt swollen, making it difficult to speak.

"I understand," said Tony, speaking each word slowly and deliberately. Every word carried weight; it was obvious by the amount of effort Tony was having to put into saying each one. "I understand that you didn't have any control over what you did under HYDRA's orders."

Bucky sat in stunned silence. A stray tear slipped down his cheek, his throat raw and his face hot. He did not deserve Tony's kindness and understanding – not after what he had done to Tony's parents. All the pain that he had been trying to hold back rose up inside him, making it hard to breathe.

"I'm so sorry," he blurted out. He took a deep breath and held it before exhaling shakily. "I'm sorry about your parents. I'm sorry about everyone. I remember all of them. When I wake up every morning, I think of them. They're my motivation to do good in the world. I want to atone for what I did... back then."

Tony stared back at him. This time, there was something mixed in with the pain – something like pity, or sadness, or a combination.

"You and HYDRA's perfect agent aren't the same person," said Tony quietly. "Those two people are completely different people. I don't hate you, Bucky. I did at first. Fuck, when I found out the truth about my parents, I almost killed you. I spent an entire month hating your guts and thinking of all the ways I could hurt you. I almost drove myself crazy wanting to get revenge. But then I started talking to Hawkeye, and a ton of different psychiatrists. They opened my eyes to what brainwashing actually means. The more I learned, the less I hated you. I realised that you didn't have a choice. They raped your mind. It... it wasn't your fault."

Tony had forgiven him.

Bucky felt as though all the oxygen had been sucked out of his lungs. Nausea and lightheadness competed inside him for victory. He stared at Tony. Relief mixed with joy rose in his chest, along with disbelief, fear and a great deal of sadness. Tony's forgiveness did not make Bucky's actions under HYDRA's command any less real. Bucky still could not forgive himself.

It took a while for Bucky's throat to loosen enough for him to speak. When he did, his voice came out quiet and hoarse.

"Where does this leave us?" he asked. "Are we... friends?"

Are we boyfriends?

The third question hung in the air between them, unspoken but understood.

Tony sighed sadly, his features softening as he looked at Bucky. His eyes did not hold any more anger. Instead, there was sadness there, and a liberal dose of regret.

"We can't go back to the way things were before," Tony said softly.

Bucky bit his lip, trying not to let the devastation show on his face.

Of course, he had never expected that things would go back to the way they had been before, but to actually hear the rejection, to actually have his imagined fears come true, hurt him more than he had thought possible.

He nodded, trying to give Tony an understanding smile. What came out was more of a pained grimace.

He was trying to think of something to say, some final, parting words that they could remember one another by. If this was to be their goodbye, then Bucky wanted to say something meaningful. He wanted to impart some final, tender words, maybe some wisdom, maybe another apology. He sat in silence instead, his mind drawing an utter blank.

Into the silence, Tony spoke.

"Things can't go back to the way they were, but can we start again? Just as friends to start off with, and we can see how things go? A fresh start. No secrets this time."

Bucky sat stock still, paralysed by shock. He could hardly dare to believe his ears, his stomach doing somersaults as his brain caught up with what his ears had heard. Slowly, as he began to process this most precious gift that Tony had given him – the gift of a second chance, a fresh start – a smile spread over his face, until his cheeks ached and his heart felt as though it might burst.

"I'd love that," he said, his voice cracking on the final syllable. "No more secrets."

Tony smiled, leaning back in his seat as he surveyed Bucky across the table, a smile quirking his lips. His eyes were bright, that familiar energy that Bucky had missed so much finally bleeding through. It felt like warmth and home and Tony. Bucky treasured the feel of it.

"So, sugarplum," said Tony, throwing out the dreaded nickname that Bucky so loved to despise. "Tell me something about you."

 


 

Several days later, Bucky was relaxing at his flat after work, when he received a text.

He dug it out of his pocket, expecting it to be from Tony. They had begun texting one another again, not to the frequency they had before, but a few times a day with a funny anecdote here and there.

This time, however, the message was from Steve.

Bucky frowned. Steve did not usually send texts, preferring instead to either call or visit in person. He unlocked his phone and opened the message, unsure what he was going to read.

 

From: Steve

To: me

Turn on the news.

 

Bucky stared at the ominous message, before grabbing the TV remote. He turned on the news, his stomach flipping when he saw the words Breaking News scrolling along the bottom of the screen.

The news anchor was a middle-aged woman wearing a grey suit and a serious expression. Bucky turned up the volume, his mouth dry.

"We can now report that a super-injunction has just been lifted regarding an incident that took place in New York City just over 3 months ago," said the news anchor. "A Sokovian national named Helmut Zemo has today been formally charged with the murder of SHIELD Agent Billy Halifax, the attempted murder of two further unidentified persons, and theft – believed to be sensitive data relating to the SHIELD agents known as the Avengers. Zemo's trial has been scheduled to take place later this year. Stay tuned for more on this breaking news story as we get it. SHIELD's Director Nicholas Fury is expected to give a press conference imminently."

Bucky turned off the TV.

He let his arm drop to his side, all his energy drained out of him. He exhaled, a powerful wave of relief washing over him. Zemo was going to stand trial for his crimes. Agent Billy Halifax's family would be able to get the justice they deserved. It was only now, when the burden had been lifted, that Bucky realised just how heavy a weight it had been to have to worry about what was going to happen to Zemo.

Bucky crossed over to the window and opened it wide, letting a cool breeze blow on his face. For a long while after his confrontation with Zemo, he had become a recluse, not wanting to go outside for fear that Zemo might have sent someone after him. It had taken him weeks following the incident in the abandoned textiles factory for Bucky to accept that Zemo had been one man, acting by himself and with his own personal agenda. Now, he relished being outdoors. Feeling the wind on his face gave him great joy, reminding him that he was not a prisoner.

Bucky gazed out of the window, letting his eyes wander across the city and his mind along with it. Zemo had been wrong to kill Agent Billy Halifax. He had been wrong, too, to try to turn the Avengers on each other and destroy them from the inside out. His core idea though – that Avengers did cause harm, even contributing to the deaths of innocent people – was valid.

Sometimes, however much they might try to avoid it, they made mistakes, and innocent people died. Innocent people like Helmut Zemo's family: his son and wife and father who had done nothing wrong, nothing at all to deserve the end that they had been dealt. Helmut Zemo's son had been excited to see Iron Man flying above him.

That was the core of it: try as they might to avoid doing so, sometimes, the Avengers did cause damage, both to people's lives and to their properties. And however easy it might have been to justify it or sweep it aside by saying that they were fighting for the greater good, at the end of the day a single civilian casualty was one too many.

Something needed to be done about it.

The Avengers needed to be more careful.

There needed to be greater accountability for their actions.

For those people unlucky enough to lose family or property due to their actions, there needed to be some kind of organisation in place to provide them with support.

Bucky closed his eyes, the sun warming his face as the beginnings of an idea began to form in his mind.

Chapter Text

One year later

Moving home was one of those extremely stressful experiences that Bucky would gladly go without.

Boxes of possessions were scattered haphazardly across the various rooms, pushed up against the walls to make room for the furniture and larger items that were still being unloaded from the vans parked outside. The thought of being able to collapse in his own bed in his new bedroom at the end of the day was the only thing keeping Bucky from going insane.

That, and the six other people who were helping him.

Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Sam Wilson, Natasha Romanoff, Clint Barton and Bruce Banner were all helping with the move-in. In Tony's case, it was expected, considering that the house belonged to both him and Bucky. The others were helping out of kindness, possibly aided by the promise of a go on one of Tony's newest inventions – some kind of hoverboard – at the end of the day.

Bucky put down a box of books in the corner of the living room, wiping his brow and straightening up to look around at the organised chaos that was going on around him. Bruce was shuffling along with a large house plant clutched in his hands. Sam was striding past with a box filled with kitchenware. Natasha and Clint were carrying a large box between them that contained the equipment necessary for Dummy, Butterfingers and You to be able to charge up with electricity.

The house – his and Tony's first home – was filled with the sound of laughter. Familiar voices floated around the various rooms as they coordinated with one another where to put the different boxes. Somewhere in the hallway, Steve and Sam were bickering about shelves. Sunlight streamed in through the wide, tall windows. Bucky smiled. Even though the house was a colossal mess, it already felt like home.

Bucky paused for a moment, reflecting on how much had changed over the last year.

Just twelve months ago, he had not even known the names of half of these people. That had changed after a large-scale internal investigation at SHIELD into the Avengers' anonymity policy. After several long months of meetings between the board of directors, Fury had admitted that the policy – however well-intentioned – had been flawed. It had produced unethical consequences, without any proven security benefits.

The policy had been scrapped, and Bucky had finally learnt the identities of his teammates. He had already known that Steve and Tony were Captain America and Iron Man, but now he knew that Black Widow was Natasha Romanoff, Hawkeye was Clint Barton and Hulk was Bruce Banner. Over the last year, he had got to know each of them as individuals – as the people behind the masks.

It had been a strange experience. Because of the fact they had worked together for years, it naturally felt as though he had known each of them for a very long time. Then, when they would be talking about something perfectly innocuous, they would learn something new about one another and be amazed. The team dynamic had been turned upside-down, but getting to know one another personally had brought them a lot closer.

They were more than a team, now. They were a family.

Steve had been Bucky's rock over the last year. He had helped immensely, providing emotional as well as practical support. He had been there for Bucky when he had been woken by HYDRA-related nightmares in the middle of the night, patiently talking to him on the phone and helping him to calm down. He had visited Bucky regularly – both to check that he was OK and simply to hang out. When the nightmares and flashbacks had left Bucky too tired to function, he had brought him food so that Bucky would not have to worry about cooking. The nightmares were less frequent now. Whereas before he had had them almost every night, now he experienced them around once a month.

Natasha had become a quiet but dependable source of support and friendship. She seemed to have a sixth sense for when he was in need of help. Often, when he had been struggling to cope, she had turned up at his front door and announced that they were going for a walk. They would head out to Central Park and walk and talk until Bucky's mind finally let go of its worries. Although Natasha had not talked much about her own past, Bucky sensed that she too struggled with dark secrets connected to her formative years. She certainly had a knack for helping Bucky to pull himself out of the dark spirals that he found himself going down sometimes. Natasha liked reading, too. In recent months, she and Bucky had formed a little, two-person book club, swapping books between themselves and discussing them after they had both finished.

Clint had been instrumental in helping him to come to terms with his HYDRA brainwashing and how he was not responsible for what he had done whilst under their control. Clint could relate to Bucky in a way that the others could not because he too had experienced brainwashing – not by HYDRA, but by Loki. Clint had helped Bucky to realise that he could not hold himself accountable for the actions he had taken, because like Clint's actions under the control of Loki's sceptre, they were entirely out of his control. Lately, the two of them had discovered that they shared a similar taste in films and TV programmes – anything action or sci-fi based got their seal of approval – and had begun having film and TV marathons on Friday nights.

Bruce, ironically, had helped Bucky with anger management. Surprisingly, considering the Hulk was an enormous green rage monster (as Tony affectionately liked to call him), Bruce himself was one of the calmest, most level-headed people Bucky had ever met. Sometimes, Bucky would be overcome by bitterness or anger towards HYDRA – hating that they had stolen his liberty, his morality, and his free will. Bruce had taught him techniques to control his anger and expel it in a healthy way – through writing, through exercise, and through yoga. Sometimes, if Bucky was having a bad day, they would go out to Central Park and meditate together, or have a sparring match, depending on their mood. More recently, Bruce had been teaching Bucky how to cook more healthily, something that Bucky was finding surprisingly fun.

Sam had also become an important part of Bucky's life over the past year. Although he was not an Avenger, he had become part of their friendship group; his easy, relaxed manner charming them all. When Bucky had finally plucked up the courage to attend one of Sam's drop-in sessions for veterans with mental health problems, Sam had welcomed him with open arms, quickly becoming a good friend as well as a person Bucky could turn to for confidential support. With Sam's help, he had sought out a counsellor specialising in PTSD and finally begun getting professional treatment and therapy for the illness. Bucky owed Sam a lot, but whenever he tried to thank him, Sam would brush it off with a smile, saying that was simply what friends did for one another.

As Bucky looked around at the oddball assortment of friends helping to carry his and Tony's belongings into their new home, Bucky's heart swelled with love. The Avengers, and Sam, were his family.

As Steve walked by, on his way back outside to collect another box, he snapped his fingers good-humouredly in front of Bucky's face.

"Wake up, Buck," he grinned. "This isn't one of the Sokovia Accords meetings."

Bucky laughed, following Steve outside to grab another box to carry into the house.

The Avengers – of which Bucky was finally a member once again – were currently in discussions with the United Nations about the so-called Sokovia Accords. The Sokovia Accords were legislation that sought to introduce more oversight into the actions of the Avengers and introduce legal accountability for when things went wrong on missions. They were so named in reference to the tragic fact that, in Sokovia, the number of civilian casualties had been unacceptably high. The legislation was about half-way through being completed, but Bucky hoped that, once they were done, they would help to prevent the kind of human tragedies that spawned the likes of Helmut Zemo.

Bucky picked up a box of his clothes from the van and headed back into the house. He headed to his new bedroom, walking in to find it already had an occupant.

Tony was sitting on the floor, staring at something rectangular in his hands. Bucky padded across the bedroom to sit down next to him, kissing his temple and nuzzling against his hair. Tony looped an arm around his waist, pulling him closer to give him a kiss on the lips.

"I'd forgotten about this photo," said Tony, looking down at the framed photograph in his hands. "It was taken on their wedding day."

Bucky's gaze dropped to the photograph, his breath catching at how happy and beautiful Howard and Maria Stark looked in their wedding outfits. They wore matching white roses – Howard's in the lapel of his suit, Maria's pinned in her hair – and were both as stunning as they were smart.

What really leapt out of the photograph, however, was how much love was on their faces as they gazed at one another. It was not a posed photograph. Maria was laughing at something her husband had just said, and Howard was gazing at her reverently, as if he had never seen a more beautiful sight in his life. The photographer had seemingly caught the joyful interaction by chance, snapping a quick photograph to immortalise the moment forever.

"They look wonderful," said Bucky, squeezing Tony's hand gently.

Over the last year, Tony had told Bucky many stories about his parents. Bucky had slowly been able to replace the memory of their deaths with happier imaginings of their lives. Now, when someone mentioned Howard or Maria Stark, he could think about the time they had accidentally gone to a nudist colony, or the time they had taken Tony to the beach only for them all to get stung by jellyfish, or the time Howard had attempted to bake a cake only to almost set the house on fire.

The last year had been a very difficult one for both Tony and Bucky, especially in regard to their relationship. They had both received a lot of counselling, both individually and as a couple. It had taken a huge amount of effort on both their parts, but they had slowly re-built their trust and developed a deep sense of love for one another.

Tony had been incredibly, stupendously understanding of the fact that Bucky and the person he had been whilst brainwashed by HYDRA were, for all intents and purposes, two completely different people. Just as he had promised that first day of their reunion in The Coffee Bean café, he did not blame Bucky for what he had done whilst brainwashed.

As such, their relationship had blossomed, growing stronger and stronger as they had both begun to heal from their respective scars.

With the help of his counsellor, and the love and support he had received from Tony and his friends, Bucky was finally beginning to recover from his PTSD. The nightmares and the flashbacks were dramatically less frequent; the mood swings practically non-existent; and most importantly, his sense of guilt was slowly but steadily diminishing.

Bucky was slowly beginning to forgive himself for what he had done whilst brainwashed by HYDRA. He was beginning to accept that he was not to blame – because he had had no control, no free will. As Tony had said, his mind had been raped.

Their new home was a physical manifestation of their fresh start.

It was a new chapter in their lives – and it was one that Bucky was very much looking forward to.

 


 

Bucky and Tony had been living together in their new home for just over one month.

The place had immediately felt like home. Bucky had got used to the sounds of laughter filling the rooms, music from the radio often blaring through the sound system that Tony had skilfully installed.

On this particular morning, however, there was no laughter, nor music playing from the discreetly-fitted speakers.

Bucky and Tony were sitting in the lounge, nestled together on the sofa with their hands clasped tightly together. It was Saturday morning, but they were both wide awake and dressed in their work clothes. Bucky was not entirely why they had both made the decision to dress up. Perhaps it was because the courtroom dress code demanded smartness.

"Are you ready?" asked Bucky, finally breaking the silence.

Taking a deep breath, Tony nodded.

Bucky reached for the TV remote, turning it to the news channel. On the screen, a man was standing outside a courtroom with a bank of other reporters, cameras jostling for position. Bucky felt Tony tense beside him. Bucky rubbed the back of Tony's hand, sweeping his thumb across the warm flesh in small, comforting strokes.

"We are minutes away from discovering the outcome of the trial of Helmut Zemo," said the reporter. "Zemo is charged with the first-degree murder of SHIELD agent Billy Halifax, inciting the murders of two further SHIELD agents who cannot be named for legal reasons, and the theft of confidential information from SHIELD's headquarters. This case has..."

The reporter continued to ramble on about the history of case and its potential repercussions, but Bucky stopped listening, switching his attention to his boyfriend, whom he could feel trembling beside him. The trial had hit Tony hard, not just because of the fact that the two of them were the people Zemo was accused of attempting to murder, but the fact that it dragged back up all the grief and hurt associated with Billy Halifax's death.

Tony and Billy had been good friends. They had shared the same brilliant mind for engineering, and had spent a great deal of their professional time in each other's company. Billy had been a quiet, funny man, according to Tony. He had been a proud geek, loving nothing more than cosplaying some of his favourite characters from various fantasy books and films.

More than anything, Bucky was desperate for Zemo to be found guilty of Billy's murder. Billy Halifax deserved justice, and his family and friends deserved the closure that a guilty verdict would bring. Tony's hand was sweaty in Bucky's own, his face pale.

A flurry of activity on the screen snapped Bucky's attention back to the TV. The news anchor was pressing his finger to his ear, straining to listen to the correspondent who was inside the courtroom. He listened intently for several long seconds, before straightening up and looking into the camera seriously.

"Zemo has been found guilty of all charges," said the news anchor. "He is expected to be sentenced to life imprisonment when the judge..."

Bucky reached out and turned off the television, turning his attention to Tony. Tony was motionless, his eyes wide and his body rigid. Bucky reached out and wrapped his arms around Tony, drawing him closer.

The contact seemed to wake Tony from his stupor. He buried his face in Bucky's shoulder, his body beginning to shake as he started to sob. All the tension, all the anxiety, bled out of him, grief mixing with relief that Billy Halifax finally had justice. Tony clung to Bucky, his chest heaving as he let out all the emotion that had been pent up for so long.

"Billy–" managed Tony, before dissolving once more into a fresh bout of tears.

"I know," said Bucky softly. "I know."

Bucky cradled him, stroking his hair as he let Tony cry. Grief was a long, difficult road, but Bucky would do everything that he could to help Tony journey along it. Tony had done so much to support Bucky with his struggles, and Bucky considered it a privilege to be able to do the same for Tony in his time of need.

Today was not about Bucky, though. It was not even about Tony.

Today, with Helmut Zemo found guilty, Billy Halifax could finally rest in peace.

 


 

Bucky had never been particularly confident when it came to being on stage.

Once, when he was a child, he had been cast as Joseph in the school nativity play. He had done brilliantly during rehearsals, remembering all his lines and where he was supposed to stand. But, when it came to the actual performance, he had felt the stares of the rows upon rows of parents watching him, and he had frozen. He had gone completely mute, his feet refusing to move. It was only when he heard the sniggers of some of the other children that he realised he had wet himself.

To make a long story short, Bucky was not a fan of public speaking.

Which was why, on this particular evening, despite the coolness of the air-conditioned room, Bucky was sweating profusely as he waited 'backstage' behind a makeshift curtain.

"Stop stressing," said Tony, wrapping his arms around Bucky's waist from behind.

Bucky jumped, his heart leaping in his chest at the contact. He closed his eyes and dropped his head back onto Tony's shoulder, feeling marginally less terrified with the firm, familiar line of Tony's body pressed against his own.

"How many people are out there?" asked Bucky, keeping his eyes closed.

There was a rustle as Tony peeked through a gap in the curtains. Bucky could hear the chatter of voices gradually building up as more and more people arrived. He tried not to think about wetting himself in front of them all, suddenly needing the bathroom for the fifth time that evening.

"About a million," said Tony.

Bucky's eyes snapped open. He turned around to give Tony a fierce glare, who simply laughed in response, taking Bucky's hand gently in his own.

"I'm kidding," said Tony. "There'll be a couple of hundred people max. Mostly SHIELD people, some press, that's it."

Bucky paled.

"Some press?" he echoed.

He took a moment to imagine the mortification that would come with photos of his wet crotch splashed all over tomorrow's newspapers. He would die of embarrassment, he just knew it.

"You're not going to die of embarrassment," said Tony firmly. "And you're not going to piss yourself either. I have full confidence in your bladder."

Bucky blushed, flustered that he had spoken aloud without meaning to. Tony took him by the arms and pulled him close, pressing a slow, gentle kiss to his lips. His tongue briefly slipped in to lick against Bucky's own, before withdrawing and pulling away.

"Everything's going to be fine," said Tony. "I'll be the one doing all the talking anyway."

Bucky swallowed his nerves and nodded, trying to muster up his courage and visualise what was going to happen. The actual location was familiar to him, although its set-up was not.

They were in the large atrium on the ground floor of SHIELD headquarters. The space had been transformed into an auditorium of sorts, with a large stage at one end and rows upon rows of seats taking up most of the rest of the room. After Tony had delivered his speech, the seats would be cleared away to make room for mingling with champagne and those fancy little snacks that were carried around on platters.

Tonight was the official launch of the Maria Stark Foundation, a SHIELD-funded organisation which would provide practical and financial assistance to all civilians injured or made homeless as a result of the actions of any SHIELD agent or Avenger carrying out a mission.

It was something that both Tony and Bucky had been working hard on over the last year, and they were both incredibly proud of it.

The only problem, of course, was that now Bucky was expected to go up on stage and launch the damn thing. Upon learning of Bucky's stage fright, Tony had announced that he would do all the talking, more than happy to take on the responsibility. Bucky was still irrationally anxious, though, recollections of the urine-soaked nativity play plaguing his imagination.

"Are you ready?" asked Tony.

Bucky's head whipped around to where Tony was now standing right next to the opening in the curtain, looking like he was about to step out onto the stage. Terror exploded in Bucky's chest, his legs feeling uncharacteristically wobbly as he stood there in silence.

It could not be time yet, surely? He glanced down at his watch, shocked to find that it was only one minute until the official start of the launch ceremony. He turned towards Tony in panic, grabbing hold of the older man's arm out of sheer instinct.

Tony's gaze softened. He gently prised Bucky hand from his arm and brought it to his lips, kissing his fingertips.

"Hey," he said gently. "I swear, it'll be over before you know it. Just stand there with me and smile. That's all you need to do. You can do it, I know you can."

Bucky took a deep breath, focusing on centring himself in the here and now, remembering to keep his breathing slow and even. Gradually, he began to calm down. He closed his eyes, sending off a quick prayer to whatever God might be listening, before opening them and squaring his jaw.

"OK," he said.

Tony smiled, leaning in to give him a quick peck on the lips.

"Let's do this," said Tony, before pulling back the curtain, stepping forwards and waving confidently to the cheering crowd.

Bucky hurried after him, trying to mirror his movements as he smiled and waved at the sea of faces. They reached the podium together, stepping up and finding themselves under the glare of the spotlight.

Bucky gripped the underside of the podium, irrationally thankful that no one could see him from the waist down – just in case of a repeat of the nativity accident. Feeling slightly more confident, he gazed out at the crowd, a smile coming to his face as he realised that he recognised quite a few of the faces smiling back at him.

Steve, Sam, Natasha, Clint and Bruce were all sitting together on the front row. They were beaming with pride, looking up at Bucky and Tony with obvious joy.

Director Fury himself was sitting on the front row as well, on the other side of the central aisle. When he noticed Bucky looking at him, he gave him a rare smile and nodded his head respectfully.

Sharon was sitting around five rows behind Fury, along with several other colleagues from the Reconnaissance department. She caught Bucky's eye and gave him a big thumbs-up, her blonde hair practically vibrating with excitement.

A series of excited chirps drew Bucky's attention to the side of the room. Tony's bots – Dummy, Butterfingers and You – were looking up at them excitedly, bobbing their heads up and down as they opened and closed their pincers. Bucky smiled and gave them a small wave. Over the last year, Bucky had fallen utterly in love with his step-children, finding joy in learning all about their idiosyncrasies, habits and hobbies.

Butterfingers gave a large flail in reply to Bucky's wave, almost knocking a hat off an unfortunate woman's head in the process. Bucky swallowed back a laugh, turning his attention back to the crowd directly in front of him.

"Thanks for coming," said Tony, leaning against the podium in way that managed to look effortless. "I guess the free food and drink afterwards makes it worth having to listen to me, right?"

The crowd laughed, the mood in the room instantly warming. Bucky smiled, finding himself slowly relaxing.

"Tonight, we're launching the Maria Stark Foundation," said Tony. "The Foundation is going to help civilians who lose their loved ones, lose their property or get injured during SHIELD missions. That's really important, because we have a responsibility to help those who suffer because of our actions."

There was a solemn murmur of assent throughout the room. There was a sense amongst everyone present that such a foundation was long overdue.

"You might be wondering about the name, Maria Stark," continued Tony. "Maria Stark was my mother. She was a remarkable woman. I remember when I was 6 years old, we went out to the park to play with my new soccer ball. There were some really aggressive-looking older teenagers who were picking on another kid, and I remember my mom walking calmly over to them and telling them to get moving. These teens were bigger and stronger than my mom. I remember being scared that they would hurt her, but they just ran off. I asked her later if she hadn't been intimidated by them, and she said to me: Tony, I did what I did because it was the right thing to do. To make the world a better place, you have to be the difference you want to see in the world.

"My mom loved helping people. She saved that kid who was getting bullied in the park. She volunteered her time to charities. She helped me more times than I can count. And now the Maria Stark Foundation is going to continue helping people. I can't think of a better legacy than that."

There was a quiet round of applause. Many of the audience members were visibly moved. In the front row, Steve's eyes were shimmering.

"As much as I'd love to, I can't take all the credit for setting up the Foundation," said Tony. "I've had a brilliant team of people helping me, but I want to thank one person in particular."

Tony turned towards Bucky, smiling as he clapped a hand on his shoulder. Bucky felt his face grow hot underneath the heat of both the literal and metaphorical spotlight.

"Bucky Barnes was the person who originally came up with the idea of the Maria Stark Foundation," said Tony. "He's been instrumental in setting all this up. I couldn't have done it without him."

Tony began to applaud Bucky, gesturing for the crowd to do the same. Bucky blushed under the attention, touched that Tony had thought him worthy of a special mention. Helping to set up the Maria Stark Foundation had not been a hardship – it had been an honour and a privilege.

"I know you're all desperate for the free food and drink, so let's hurry things along," said Tony. "On behalf of SHIELD, I now declare the Maria Stark Foundation officially launched!"

Confetti cannons exploded above them, showering them in glittering streamers and brightly coloured pieces of paper. The crowd got to their feet, whistling and cheering as they applauded.

Bucky's chest swelled with pride, love exploding for this man – this spectacular, remarkable man beside him – who had taken the memory of his mother and turned it into something fittingly beautiful. He pulled Tony in for a hug, joy filling his heart.

"Your mom would be so proud of you," he said, tears spilling down his cheeks.

Tony pulled back, reaching out to sweep his thumbs across Bucky's face. Bucky smiled. Tony smiled back, and Bucky could not think of anything more beautiful.

When Tony spoke, his voice was quiet but, somehow, he was still audible above the din of the cheering crowd.

"Sugarplum," said Tony. "She'd be proud of both of us."