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Always as Free

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                Bucky can tell, in one look, that the deputy is going to be a problem. The mutinous twist of his mouth is almost enough to make Bucky stay on the train. But there’s nothing for him any farther down the line.

                Whole damn galaxy full of reasonably terraformed planets, and he ends up here. It nearly makes him think his faithful service in the war wasn’t as fully appreciated as the bureaucrats made it out to be. He sighs, sets his shoulders, and steps off the train.

                “Yeah,” the deputy says, drawling it out so Bucky can feel every ounce of disrespect and derision in that one syllable, “figured it might be you. You’ve got that authoritarian look about you.”

                Bucky thinks about offering to shake his hand, but the man stays where he is, slouched and sullen, arms crossed unwelcomingly over his chest and eyes tracing the metal of Bucky’s arm. “I take it you’re Stark,” Bucky says, instead.

                “Well, shit,” he says, “and here I was, doubting your abilities. What an absolutely outstanding demonstration of deductive reasoning, Sheriff. Brain like that should set this town right in a month.”

                “Is the whole town as sweet as you?” Bucky asks, shifting the weight of his bag across his shoulders.

                Stark’s jaw tightens, and a look settles across his face that indicates the problems Bucky will have with him might, at some point, push a little beyond workplace annoyance. “Deputy Barton was the resident sweetheart,” he says. “Got picked up for questioning in the purges. Haven’t heard anything from him since.”

                Bucky sighs. No one ever tells you, when you join a revolution that’s supposed to lose, that someday you might have to deal with all the ugly fallout of winning. The anticorruption purges were a clusterfuck from the start.

                At least he’s not Steve, stuck playing figurehead. At least he got to wash his hands of the whole thing and leave.

                Of course, it would’ve been nice if Steve had left with him.

                “If he’s innocent,” Bucky says, dutifully, “he’ll be released once he’s cleared.”

                “Oh, sure,” Stark says. “I bet they’re already feeding him to the refugees.”

                “That was a rumor,” Bucky says. “And an ugly one.”

                He’d spent a couple months, post-conflict, setting up on a security team for one of the refugee stations orbiting Nesmo. He doesn’t like to think about it, but it wasn’t the worst place he’d ever been. There was food, always. Maybe not much of it, but enough to survive on. And none of it was ever made out of other people.

                “Yeah,” Stark says, eyes dark and serious, mouth pulled up into the kind of smile that means Bucky’s the joke, “butchering’s too quick for you people, right?”

                Bucky thinks it’s probably pretty easy to be a moral purist if you sat the whole damn war out, policing some backwater mining town. Easy to cling to ethical absolutes when the only death you’ve seen is sick miners and soldiers shipped home in boxes.

                “You wanna have some kind of fight?” Bucky asks, more curious than anything else. “Is that what it’s gonna take you get you to stop running your mouth like that?”

                Stark’s jaw works like he’s thinking about it. His fingers twitch toward his palms, and Bucky thinks he’s actually going to have to do it, going to have to announce his presence in town by dumping his only deputy into the dirt, but then Stark’s eyes dodge back to Bucky’s arm, and he straightens up, scowls down at the ground.

                “Okay,” Bucky says. “Then you wanna show me where I’m supposed to sleep?”

                Tony leads him over to his place in silence. It’s rundown and dirty, coated with reddish surface dust, just like the rest of the town. But the inside is clean, and, after Tony fusses with the security system for a bit, it seems reasonably safe.

                “Thanks,” Bucky says, as Tony starts for the door. “Guess I’ll see you in the morning.”

                “Well,” Tony says, cheerfully enough, “we can hope for a brain aneurysm.”

                Bucky sighs, but lets him go without comment. He doesn’t expect he’ll get a much warmer welcome from the rest of the town.

                He’s proud of the war he fought. On his good days, he still believes in the purity of their cause. Freedom, liberation, equality, peace.

                On his bad days, he thinks about all the things he’s seen, and heard about, and done. And he thinks maybe they were wrong, believing people deserved things like freedom in the first place.

 

- - -

 

                Stark shows him around town the next morning, introduces him to half the town as our new imperialist overlord and the other half as self-important space-trash. “You know,” Bucky says, after he’s met the bartender who is not in any way a madam and all six of her pretty employees who are definitely, certainly not prostitutes, “you’re starting to hurt my feelings a little.”

                “They let you keep those?” Stark says, eyes wide with fake-surprise. “Damn, you must’ve been some general’s favorite.”

                “For fuck’s sake,” Bucky says, struggling to decide between offense and admiration. “How do you have any teeth left in your mouth?”

                “Soft, pretty civilian,” Tony tells him, tapping against his own chest like he thinks he’s making a point Bucky hasn’t noticed a dozen times over. “People are gentle with me, on account of my protected status.”

                Civilian status wouldn’t have protected Tony if this rock had become strategically important. These people who’ve been sneering at Bucky all morning would’ve been laid out in their streets, executed before they could be used for information.

                It wouldn’t have been Bucky’s side. At least, it probably wouldn’t have been.

                There were revolutionists who did terrible things. There’s still a backlog of war crimes for the courts to work through.

                Maybe the only difference between Bucky’s side and the other side is that Bucky’s people are executing their war criminals and Hydra would’ve given them medals.

                Medal or execution, it probably doesn’t matter much to all the civilians and POWs who are already dead.

                “We have to work together,” Bucky says. He’s too tired to fight Stark about his attitude. Anyway, he doesn’t care. He doesn’t care if people hate him. They have the right to do that. He killed the people who would’ve told them that they didn’t, and so it’d be a little contradictory for him to get fussy about it now. But they do have to work together.

                “Too bad for you,” Stark says. “It’s just shit bad luck that they grabbed Barton instead of me.”

 

- - -

 

                Bucky calls Steve that night, and Steve looks like he hasn’t even thought about sleep since Bucky left. Bucky called to complain, to outline every single thing about this dusty shithole town that makes him wish he’d never left the capital planets, but one look at Steve’s worried frown and bloodshot eyes makes him into a liar.

                He sings the planet’s praises for a full ten minutes, until Steve finally starts to smile. It’d be shitty, making Steve worry. He’s the one who left and made Steve deal with the cleanup all on his own.

                He asks about Sam, and Dugan and Morita. He gets Steve to laugh, exactly twice, and he figures that’s probably better than anyone else has done since he left.

                At the end, almost as an afterthought, Steve asks if he’s met anyone yet, because Steve’s never going to realize that Bucky’s not quite the charmer he used to be, back before he lost his arm and most of his charisma.

                And Bucky shrugs, plays up a smirk, lets Steve think he’s still the brash, smooth-talking kid he used to be. And then he thinks of Tony, and, a second later, he thinks about the missing deputy.

                “Hey,” he says, “Stevie. I’ve got a deputy who got caught up in the purges. Can you look into him for me? Name’s Barton. Clint, I think. If he wasn’t a spy or an asshole, it’d be nice to have him back.”

                “Yeah,” Steve says, “sure, Buck. I’ll look into it.”

                “Thanks,” Bucky says, and doesn’t think about it again.

                Two weeks later, Clint Barton walks into the station, unannounced. He’s stocky, and blonde, and he has an earnest, honest face that nearly distracts from the muscles of his arms and the quick, professional assessment in his eyes.

                “Holy shit, Barton,” Tony says, rocketing to his feet so fast that he knocks his coffee over. “What the hell is this? Did you jailbreak yourself?” He pauses, jerks his thumb over his shoulder at Bucky. “That’s the new sheriff. If you’re a fugitive, we’re gonna have to kill him.”

                “Hey, Stark,” Barton says, grinning as he wraps him in a back-slapping, friendly hug.

                Bucky thinks maybe he should leave, let them reunite in peace, but then Barton saunters right over to him and offers his hand, easy as anything.

                Bucky scrambles to his feet, caught a bit off-guard, and reaches out to shake the first hand he’s been offered since he came into town. “Hey,” he says, “I’m Bucky Barnes.”

                “Yeah,” Clint says, laughing a little. “I know. Steve Rogers says hi.”

                Bucky smiles, patient and amused, because he knows the look on Clint’s face, knows exactly what it means when people say Steve’s name like that.

                Well, he can’t blame anyone for falling a little in love with Steve. In small doses, it’s probably pretty hard to puzzle out what an insufferable shithead he can be.

                “Steve Rogers?” Stark repeats, loud and incredulous, and Bucky thinks, if he had another cup of coffee in his hand, he’d drop it all over again. “You know Steve Rogers?”

                “Sure,” Bucky says, enjoying Stark’s skepticism more than is entirely appropriate. “Known him my whole life.”

                Stark falls into another one of his moody silences, although this one seems lighter than any of the others, almost playful. Maybe he’s just glad that his friend is back.

                Maybe his friend is more than his friend.

                “Glad to have you back, Barton,” Bucky says.

                “Thanks,” Barton says, with another one of his cheerful smiles. There’s a weight to that word, a gratitude Bucky doesn’t really deserve.

                Hell, Steve did all the work. All Bucky did was make a call.

 

- - -

 

                It’s not like the whole town falls in love with him overnight, but, suddenly, there are a lot fewer assholes making his life difficult everywhere he goes.

                “Well,” the bartender says, pushing another glass toward him, “no offense, Sheriff. But we had to be sure you weren’t an absolute prick before we started wasting manners on you.”

                “No, I get that,” Bucky says, because he does. “But what was your plan if I was a prick?”

                She shrugs and leans over, elbows resting on the bar, and Bucky doesn’t look down her shirt because he’s a gentleman. And also because he’s seen exactly what kind of weaponry she hides behind the bar, and he didn’t make it through a whole Goddamn intergalactic war just to get his brains rightfully blown out in a bar in a mining town on a forgotten outer planet.

                “We sent Tony out to greet you,” she says, like it was a whole plan, Stark being at the train station. Like it was some kind of trap. “We figured, if you could weather his gentle disposition, maybe you’d turn out alright. And if you couldn’t…”

                She shrugs, and Bucky thinks about how this town’s gone through two sheriffs in three years.

                He can’t tell if he’s flattered or terrified. “Huh,” he says, and takes a sip of his whiskey.

                “Hey, Nat,” Clint says, sliding behind the bar. “Mel wanted me to tell you that her latest needs some, uh. You know.” His eyes dart to Bucky and then away. “Gentle reminders of the rules of polite society.”

                “Right,” Natasha says. “And the latest is--”

                “Well,” Clint says. “It’s possible that he’s, ah. Indexing the supplies. In the storeroom.” He’s been holding his right hand behind his back this whole time, and Bucky honestly can’t tell if he’s being treated to this farce because Clint is catastrophically bad at lying or if it’s just another setup by the citizens to see if he’s an asshole or not.

                He’s a little charmed either way.

                “Theoretically,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes as he tosses back the rest of his drink, “if you stashed a guy in the basement because he was beating up his company, I wouldn’t have anything to say about it. Except maybe ‘congratulations’ and also ‘don’t make this my problem.’”

                “Theoretically,” Clint repeats, narrowing his eyes.

                “He knows this is a whorehouse, Clint,” Natasha says, patiently.

                “It’s a brothel,” Clint says, defensive. “It’s classy.”

                “Sure,” Bucky says, because it is, as far as these things go. “And classy places don’t dump bodies where the sheriff is obligated to do something about it.”

                “Yeah,” Clint says, nodding. He drops his hand, and Bucky finally catches a glimpse of the blood smeared across his knuckles. “That’s always how I judge class, too.”

                Bucky smiles, a little more thin-lipped than he’d like, and excuses himself.

                It’s not that he can’t stand the sight of blood. It’s not that it makes him sick. It’s just that he shouldn’t mix it with the booze he’s been drinking. It messes him up, makes him think about things he’s been working hard to forget.

                He goes home, and he’s fighting it off, trying not to call Steve, trying not to call Sam, and then there’s a knock on his door, and Tony shoulders his way in with a problem that could absolutely wait until the morning.

                “Heads up, sunshine,” he says. “You would not believe what the Vaughan boys got up to in the next town over. Let’s go fetch them back so they can tell us all the details.”

                “Stark,” Bucky says, “it’s late.”

                “C’mon,” Tony says, holding the screen up. There’s an image of all three of the Vaughan boys, joyriding in a modified excavator, barreling down half-empty streets, with smiles on their faces and what is very clearly moonshine in their hands.

                It reminds him of Steve, and the Howling Commandos, and being young and stupid, back when he could afford to be either.

                “Shit,” he says, staring at the huge, monumentally stupid grins on their faces. “How pissed is their ma?”

                “Oh,” Stark says, a little rueful, a little gleeful. “It’s not gonna be a mercy, bringing them home.”

                Bucky can think of a dozen kids, not much older than the three in the picture, who won’t ever be coming home to their mothers.

                “Yeah,” he says, reaching for his jacket. “Alright, Stark. Let’s go get them.”

 

- - -

 

                Steve comes to visit a few months in, probably because Sam makes him. He looks awfully worn down for someone who’s been modified never to get sick or need much in the way of nutrients or sleep. He shows up on the night train, having missed a grand total of three connections because he’d been swarmed by worshipful civilians, and Bucky dumps him into the spare bedroom and isn’t at all surprised that Steve doesn’t stir until sundown the next day.

                Everyone loves him immediately. Bucky does his best not to be a jealous asshole about it.

                “It’s just the face,” Natasha tells him, encouragingly.

                “And also the ass,” Clint says, craning his neck to stare.

                “Barton,” Stark says, openly ogling, “I know you’re not over there, objectifying a war hero.”

                “Sure as hell am,” Clint says. “I see why you do it so damn much. Nat, pour me something from the capital planets. I’m feeling patriotic.”

                “I hate every single one of you,” Bucky says, scowling. They’re all watching Steve through the windows of the bar. He’s crouched in the street, being mauled by kids, and he’s smiling so wide and so happy that Bucky’s thinking about sabotaging every single ship on this planet.

                Stark clears his throat and shoots a positively poisonous look Clint’s direction. Bucky thinks that’s interesting, but doesn’t have the processing power to pursue it right now.

                “Hey, Clint,” Bucky says, because he’s resigned himself to being a jealous asshole but sure as hell isn’t ready to give up on being a good friend. “Steve’s got a thing for trouble.”

                “No shit,” Clint says, voice gone soft like he’s awed by even the insinuation that Steve might someday glance his way. “Buck, that’s fucking perfect, because I’m in trouble all the damn time.”

                “Yeah,” Bucky says, rolling his eyes. “I noticed.”

 

- - -

 

                The funny thing is, when trouble shows up, Clint and Steve are nowhere to be found, no doubt off making daisy chains out of garrotes and smiling sweet and doe-stupid over their combined weapons cache. Or maybe just holding each other in their stupidly muscular arms.

                The point is that it’s him and Stark, pinned down in at the station, because some Hydra holdouts heard Steve was here and thought they’d lodge their grievances by storming the damn town.

                “This is such bullshit,” Bucky says. Or tries to say. He’s having a big of difficulty, maybe.

                “Shush,” Tony advises. He’s crouched behind the desk with Bucky, waiting out the latest burst of fire while he reloads, swapping battery packs on his carbonizer.

                “Bullshit,” Bucky repeats. He spits up a bit of blood this time, and then he has to take a deep breath to remind himself he’s not on some dead ship in the black, breathing through a failing mask, artificial gravity field flickering in and out, reasserting itself at the least opportune times.

                “Come on, Barnes,” Tony says, “don’t die. We just got you broken in.”

                It is just like a hysterical civilian to think a couple blasts and a malfunctioning arm is going to be enough to put Bucky down for good. Bucky’s modified, same as Steve, just a little more cheaply. They don’t die easy.

                “Sweet of you to worry,” Bucky says.

                They lit up his arm with something electric, something that overwrote the sensors, keeps flooding his brain with pain. It’s bad enough that it may’ve tripped something in the neural implant.

                “Keep tasting red,” Bucky mumbles. It’s not the best sign.

                Stark glances over at him. For a long second, he hesitates. “Yeah,” he says, finally, “fuck this.”

                Thirty seconds later, Bucky’s watching in disbelief as Iron Man, resurrected from the battlefield, lays beautiful waste to the dozen or so Hydra loyalists camped out in the town. Natasha steps out onto the porch of her establishment, some kind of modified repulsor rifle in hand, and melts the skulls of three of the idiots who try to run away. Steve and Clint, arriving back in town looking slightly disheveled and completely pissed off, pick off the rest.

                “Goddamn it,” Bucky says, as the red taste in his mouth picks up heat, sparks with a sound he can’t decipher. “Goddamn it,” he repeats, “this is supposed to be my peaceful retirement.”

                Iron Man drops beside him, faceplate shifting back. Tony stares down at him, face pinched and worried, a rueful grin tugging up one corner of his mouth. “Yeah,” he says, “sorry, Barnes. You picked the wrong town.”

 

- - -

 

                Everyone makes a fuss. Everyone. Bucky is mortified.

                “Can we focus on what’s important?” Bucky asks, as Banner does something nauseating with the burns on Bucky’s chest. “Did everyone in town know Stark was Iron Man?”

                Natasha and Clint exchange glances. Natasha looks blank and composed; Clint looks like a six-year-old caught stealing candy. Bucky sighs heavily.

                “Well,” Steve says, “guess it kind of makes sense. Didn’t Fury get you assigned out here?”

                “Fury,” Bucky says, grimly, “is a wily bastard.”

                “I’d appreciate it,” Tony says, voice soft with focus, “if none of you said anything about it. I’m retired, just like Barnes.”

                He’s been patching up Bucky’s arm since Bucky woke up. There’s something intimate about it, something that makes Bucky feel vulnerable, watching Tony, bent over the fried inner-workings of his arm, putting him to rights. 

                “Said what about what?” Steve says, because he’s a loyal son of a bitch, or maybe because he’s always ready to thumb his nose at anything even vaguely approximating an authority figure. “I’m on vacation. I didn’t see anything.”

                “I was staring at Steve’s ass the whole time,” Clint says, earnestly. “I was having a holy experience. I didn’t see anything either.”

                Steve grins, ducking his head, and Bucky makes a retching noise, just to reintroduce the idea of professionalism to the room.

                “I got a little shot,” Bucky says. Stark stares down at him, mouth pushed flat, eyes hesitant, almost worried. “I got shot,” Bucky repeats, “and, as I’m a civilian now, I was too busy getting hysterical about it to properly assess my surroundings.”

                Stark smiles at him, small and uneven, like he’s not sure if he should commit to it or not. Bucky feels something kick in his chest, and he’d like to blame in on the blast wounds or the tinkering Stark’s doing, but he recognizes the feeling, even if it’s been years, even if the last time he felt it was before the war, when he was still young and stupid and willing to get hurt.

 

- - -

 

                There’s a party. It is, technically, a going away party for Steve. The trouble with that is they planned the party before Bucky got hurt, and now Steve’s staying an extra week, ostensibly to keep an eye on Bucky. That’d be a lot more believable if Steve hadn’t packed up all his stuff and moved into Clint’s place two days ago.

                Anyway, the party’s planned, everyone’s here, and no one really cares that they’ve lost their excuse. It’s a harsh existence out here, dry and desiccated and lonely. It’s an effort, making anything light and frivolous. Bucky thinks it’s sweet, that these people are still willing to make the effort, willing to remind him how to do it.

                “I thought,” he says, to Stark, as he’s helping Bucky stumble home. “I thought you hated us. The war. The revolution. Figured you were a loyalist.”

                Stark snorts, rolls his eyes so theatrically that Bucky has to stop, plant his feet, admire the show. “Yeah,” he says, “I’m real shocked that your approach to the war was ‘with us, or against us.’”

                “Well,” Bucky says, magnanimously, “’s kinda hard to maintain an open mind, when people keep trying to kill you. Kinda narrows your thinking.”

                “Hydra killed my parents,” Stark says. They’re outside Bucky’s house now, and his security system is happily beeping Stark inside. That should be worrisome, but Bucky can’t for the life of him think of why he’d care that Stark can sneak in anytime he’d like.

                “Shit,” Bucky says. “Sorry.”

                “Dad was always---” Tony breaks off, makes a waving gesture with his hand. “Dad was a futurist. He said things, publicly, that he should’ve kept quiet. Mom was collateral damage. They were supposed to kill me too, but my aunt, she got me out.”

                Bucky swallows. He remembers, back before the war. The way people would just go missing, no word, no bodies, no nothing. He remembers the terror campaigns. He remembers the stories, about people coming home to find their children gone, their wives or husbands missing, every single one of their family photos turned backwards or upside down, faces marked out.

                They made a better life. They did. They bought it with the blood of people who were willing to fight for it, and fighting’s never a pure thing. Wars aren’t won by chivalry and fair play and noble ideas. They bought a beautiful galaxy by making themselves ugly. Someday, Bucky’s going to find his way to being alright with that.

                Iron Man never compromised. But then Iron Man was never a soldier.

                He remembers the stories, passed between hard-edged girls and desperate boys, soldiers who still wanted to believe in some kind of higher power. Iron Man, and Rescue, and War Machine, who’d swoop down on ships with no life support, trapped battalions, injured fighters stuck out on the battlefield. Heroes, who’d save the lives of doomed people, carry them to safety, buy them time, hand them their lives back like saints or angels saying, Here, try again.

                Bucky had seen Iron Man, once. Just the one time. Iron Man and Rescue, hovering on the edges of the very last battle, witnessing the moment when Hydra finally surrendered.

                By then, War Machine had been missing from the field for a very long time.

                “I’m sorry,” Bucky says, again. “About War Machine.”

                “Oh,” Stark says, blinking. “He’s not dead. Everyone always thinks--- he didn’t die. He’s doing better now.”

                “Oh,” Bucky says, and it’s a small thing, really. Just one life. But he feels it like a weight rolling off his shoulders. He can’t keep the stupid, happy smile from bubbling up on his face. “Good. That’s--- shit, Tony. That’s good to hear.”

                “Hey,” Stark says, with a sideways smile, “you know my first name. Look at you.”

                Bucky can’t help it. It’s been so long since he wanted any damn thing. He thought he’d lost the knack for it. He’s sure as hell lost the knack for controlling it. One second he’s thinking hey, I’d like to kiss him, and the next second he’s fitting his mouth right over Stark’s, like he’s got any kind of claim to it.

                There’s a long, stretched-out moment where nothing happens. And then Stark pushes him up against his own front door, wraps a hand around the back of Bucky’s neck, and kisses him stupid and breathless, leaves him gasping like some idiot kid, getting kissed for the very first time.

                “Try again in the morning, Sheriff,” Tony tells him, as he opens Bucky’s door and pushes him inside. “If you’re still interested.”

                Bucky runs his tongue over his lip, grins at Stark. He thinks, now that he remembers how, he’ll be interested every damn morning.

                “Sure,” he says, as Stark’s smirk falters, eyes following the movement of Bucky’s tongue. “Guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

                Stark salutes, a little sloppy, a little mocking, and Bucky, for the first time in living memory, doesn’t have to fight the reflex to salute back.

                Stupid, love-struck, hysterical civilian, Bucky thinks. It feels like a gift.