Actions

Work Header

The Fool in the Mirror

Chapter Text

The Fool in the Mirror

Chapter Track: Slow Disco – St. Vincent

 

The first time that the idea occurred to him, Steve stood surrounded by a technicolor, flashing version of Times Square. He’d made one attempt already, an attempt he believed would wipe him off the face of the earth forever. It didn’t, and he emerged from death to a world far more strange than he thought possible.

Everyone was gone. They told him Peggy remembered him only sometimes, though he’d never worked up the courage to visit her. That she might not recognize him frightened Steve, that the one person left from his past might not know him as the panel of people in the present did not know him, cut him to the quick.

And they all still wanted him to fight.

The army didn’t own Steve anymore. Now, apparently, he belonged to something called SHIELD. He didn’t protest, but only because Peggy had a hand in founding the organization.

Steve did what they asked of him. He threw himself wholeheartedly – recklessly, Natasha told him – into every fight that found its way onto his doorstep. He imagined one of these fights might eventually finish him, but they never did. Against the odds, and due to the stubborn loyalty of his new team, Steve scraped through every battle, bruised and bloody, but painfully alive.

After Thanos and the promise of the end of the world, Steve thought it might at last end. Everything. Maybe, if he made it through the end, he could stop fighting. But he lived, almost everyone lived – by some miracle – and the fighting paused only for the space of a breath. The moment his wounds healed, the call to blood came again. And so it went, over and over.

He didn’t think I want to die until after Thanos. The thoughts before were passing fancies, comforting fantasies of saying goodbye and never taking up the shield again. The goodbye would be so final, so unambiguous, that no one would see him again. He could die. He wanted to die. Dying might be the only way he could escape.

Steve stayed awake in the night, senses on overdrive, waiting for the next call to Assemble, for the next fight to come.

Sleepless nights morphed into agonizing days, and exhaustion wracked his body. He carried on for the sake of the others, but the idea crept in whenever he stood still. I want to die. The Avengers didn’t need him. He could pass the Captain America mantle onto Sam. So many heroes now filled this world that Steve was redundant.

And being redundant? More palpable relief could not be felt. His redundancy meant that nobody needed him anymore. More people could fight the planet’s fight than ever before. Steve was window dressing.

The final idea occurred to him on a starless night. Rain like bullets battered the windows of Steve’s apartment at Avengers Tower. The sound vibrated against empty walls. The opulent luxury of minimalism drowned the space in a chokehold of monotony.

Steve could survive many things. Steve had survived many things.

But a plummet from the top of Avengers Tower to a pool of unforgiving concrete? Unlikely.

With singular determination, Steve set aside the book he hadn’t been reading, one of many on his list. He stood up, barefoot and in his sweatpants, and slipped out of his apartment. Steve opted the less-monitored stairs to take him to the top of the tower. The cold cement pressed against the naked soles of his feet as he climbed, a harbinger of what he was about to do. Time hardly passed at all as he walked, somehow slow like honey and faster than a heartbeat all at once.

When Steve emerged atop the tower, metal door swinging outward, the water soaked through his clothes. His feet slid against the slick ground. The storm rendered the city strangely silent, as above the din of clobbered buildings the blaring of traffic disappeared.

Steve sliced through the onslaught to the edge of the tower, a safety rail that connected to an asymmetrical tilt of wall. His fists tightened around the rail as he gazed below him, where light echoed from every wet surface in a swimming mass of color and glass.

This would surely end him.

Steve gripped the wall and hauled his body over the freezing metal rail. His skin slipped and he lurched forward. With a gasp of surprise, he caught himself with his left hand, clutching the wall so hard that it scraped his palm raw. Only supersoldier strength held him back from the plummet down.

In his chest, Steve’s heart beat like wild drums. He swallowed the lump in his throat, and inhaled a shaking breath.

An odd, peaceful sensation warmed his body. At the bottom of the jump, there would be no more fighting. Maybe he would be among his old friends again, or maybe a comforting blanket of nothingness awaited his sleeping corpse. Whatever came next, there would be nothing else for him to do.

No more.

Steve lifted one foot, let his eyes shutter closed, and -

“Cap! Stop!”

Steve turned his head. “Goddamnit, JARVIS,” he muttered.

At the door to his roof in his Iron Man armor, Tony stood maskless, dark hair plastered to his forehead, one hand extended, palm flat. Through the rain and metal, Steve couldn’t scent the clean aroma he’d come to associate with Tony. Only petrichor and exhaust.

“You don’t want to do this,” Tony said, voice firm.

Steve shook his head, something melancholy stretching his face into a facsimile of a smile.

“You know,” Steve replied, “I can survive a lot of things – most things. But a fall from this height? To that ground? I’m like anyone else.” He made a bursting motion with his free hand. “Splat.”

“You – why –” stammered Tony, but he eventually settled upon, “Please don’t do this.”

“You don’t need me,” Steve reasoned, “The world is in good hands. I’m sure of it.” He tore his eyes from Tony and recentered them on the tangle of water and light below him.

“I don’t give a shit about that,” Tony said back, “I don’t care about what you do for the world or whatever. That’s not the point here. Is that what this is about? Some fucked up nineteen-forties concept of usefulness? You’re a person, Cap. That’s all the reason you need to be alive.”

“No, I’m not,” Steve said, “I’m a figurehead. I’m propaganda. I’m a concept. I’m a soldier. I’m not a person. Nobody thinks of me that way – not even you.”

Only then did the acrid scent of omega distress cut through the rain.

“Is this about what I said when we met? Because I didn’t – I didn’t mean any of that. I promise.”

“You did,” Steve disagreed mildly, “It’s okay, though. You were right.”

“I was? No! I wasn’t! I was very much not right and you know it physically pains me to admit when I bungled things. But I did, all right? I did. Listen to me. You get down from there, and we’ll help. You could talk to a therapist or something. I have one. She’s great. You don’t have – Jesus. Just, come on. What do I need to say to get you down from there?”

Steve reeled his attention to Tony again in time to see something of an idea cross his face with a crinkled brow and a thoughtful frown. “What if you didn’t have to be Cap anymore? What if you’re just Steve Rogers for a while? You can – I don’t know – go to Tahiti, or make a Tinder profile, or take up ultimate frisbee. Anything. The world is your oyster. All you need to do is step down from that rail and come back with me.”

Steve hesitated. The idea of being no one but himself wrapped around his heart in a seductive coil. Tony must have detected a hint of his uncertainty, because he latched onto his tangent like an excited leech. “You could do anything that you wanted. Pepper does zumba classes on Wednesdays. I bet she’d be thrilled to go with somebody that actually wants to be there, and you’re like, sincere and shit. You can put down the shield as long as you need. No more fighting.”

Those words shifted some nameless thing in Steve’s head. No more fighting. Was that really an option for him? He didn’t think so, but if Tony said it would happen, he’d make it happen. Tony seemed to always be able to get what he wanted.

Steve sighed. If Tony didn’t follow through, this railing still existed. The concrete below was sure as the rising sun. If he needed them, they would still exist.

Distress and desperation crowded his nose. At some point in Steve’s waffling, Tony edged closer. His armored hand hovered inches from Steve’s.

“No more fighting,” repeated Steve.

“Cross my heart, Cap – Steve. No more fighting.”

Steve spare a final look at the street beneath him, then met gaze for gaze.

He placed his hand in Tony’s grip.

No more fighting.

**

Contrary to popular belief, Steve did actually know how to google.

The morning following the roof incident, he googled harder than he ever had before. Previously, his searches amounted to the items on his list, or how to handle a machine he hadn’t yet learned how to work, or online shopping, so he didn’t have to face the outside of Avengers Tower to get something he needed. A beard, glasses, and a baseball cap only did so much – too many people recognized him anyway, asking for selfies or autographs, or a handshake, or a hug. Steve would return home reeking of the touch of a dozen strangers any time he tried to leave.

– So, online shopping.

With a cup of coffee beside his laptop, his fingers flew through the most honest searches he’d ever dared articulate.

 

Insomnia

Nightmares

Trouble breathing and sweating

Nothing feels real

I want to die

 

Thousands of search results bombarded him with paragraph after paragraph of potential diagnoses – post-traumatic stress disorder, major depression, generalized anxiety. The information suggested his symptoms could be many things, could be a hydra of a brain with too many heads to follow.

In the end, Steve pursued one likely result.

 

Post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

His eyes roamed over descriptions of familiar pain, of the nightmares and gasping panics, or the emptiness and yawning gap that sometimes opened between his mind and his physical form.

 

Treatments

 

Steve scrolled past the medication section. Any medications available to help people like him would need to be reformulated to take his supersoldier metabolism into account, which would mean countless hours of work wasted on his broken brain.

Listed next was therapy, but he balked at the idea of somebody with a clipboard analyzing his life, pulling points from his pain to match it with the points on paper. Maybe therapy worked for Tony, but Steve didn’t want to talk to a stranger about the blackest parts of his mind, the terrifying events of the past and the gut-deep fear of the future. After the ice, SHIELD assigned a therapist to him. She was kind, but she wasn’t equipped to parse out the unique traumas inherent in his existence.

 

Support Groups/Group Therapy

 

No.

 

Support Alpha/Beta/Omega

 

Steve paused. SHIELD never presented this – whatever it was – as an option to him. With a fortifying sip of coffee, he scanned the detailed blurb that followed.

“A support A/B/O is reserved for the most severe manifestations of trauma and mental illness. A support A/B/O is an individual volunteer paid by the federal government for their service, and therefore this service requires an intensive application process.

“Should one meet the qualifications to cohabit with a support A/B/O, the next steps are demanding. A support is chosen through the use of a scent book, or a series of scent samples that determine a basic initial compatibility. Once a patient selects a scent, the next step will be a face to face interview in with the patient and the potential support may ask each other further questions to determine personal compatibility in addition to the established scent compatibility. This interview occurs in neutral territory such as a doctor’s office, hospital, or therapist’s office, so as to eliminate as many outside stressors as possible.

“Following a successful interview, the patient and support then decide, often with a medical professional’s recommendation, whose territory they will cohabit during their time together. In cases of A/O support pairings, the alpha’s territory is chosen at a staggering 87% rate. For individuals paired with a beta, the choice of territory falls into a far more even split, with 51% of patients choosing their territory, while 49% move into their beta support’s residence.

“The benefits of cohabiting with a support are numerous. With a constant comforting scent to turn to, a patient’s anxiety levels plummet. The pair may choose to sleep in the same bedroom – or even in the same bed – both of which curb the frequency of nightmares, insomnia, and oversleeping. Prior to cohabitation, the support and patient determine their strategy for handling heat/rut (if applicable). Those that opt to share their heat/rut with their support see a marked decrease in irritability and stress.

“If you have experienced such traumas as sexual assault, military combat, or sustained physical or emotional abuse, you are likely to quality for a support A/B/O. Patients experiencing suicidal ideation, hallucinations, or thoughts of harming themselves or others are also strong candidates.

“In the United Kingdom and Canada, a support A/B/O is covered at no cost to the patient. In the United States, a six-month support for a patient with health insurance costs an average of $1,058.62, and for an uninsured patient costs an average of $13,120.85. This treatment is the most costly due to liability issues, but ranks the most successful treatment for patients suffering from trauma and/or mental illness.

“If you think you qualify for a support A/B/O and want to pursue this treatment, contact a medical professional to begin the application process. If you are unsure if you qualify or not, you can take our informal questionnaire here to give you a better idea of where you stand.”

Steve leaned back in his chair. He doubted he could waltz into any old doctor’s office and follow the standard procedure a civilian did for getting a support. In all likelihood, just as SHIELD had doctors and therapists and data flunkies and janitors vetted to handle the classified nature of their work, it followed that any supports would need to be vetted as well.

Steve being who he was, he probably needed to go straight to the top.

With a click of his laptop snapping closed, he rose. Steve drained what remained in the coffee mug and set it atop his precariously arranged dish tower, vowing to clean them later – a likely empty promise.

With a breath to steel himself, Steve said to the empty room, “JARVIS, put me through to Fury, please.”

“Certainly, Captain Rogers.”

After a mere ring and a half, the digital visage of Nick Fury flitted to life from Steve’s phone.

“Rogers. This is unexpected.”

Steve didn’t fuck around.

“I want a support,” he said.

The expression on Nick’s face marked the most surprised that Steve had ever seen him, subdued as it was. For a long moment, he didn’t speak. When he did, the words were concise. “Excuse me?”

“I want a support,” repeated Steve, “Alpha, beta, omega – doesn’t matter. I want a support. I know you can get me one.”

Bemused, Fury replied, “Rogers, a support is for serious conditions. If you’re asking me for a support, you are telling me that you are not fit for duty.”

“I’m not,” Steve deadpanned, “I almost threw myself off a building last night. The only reason I didn’t is because Tony’s AI told him what I was doing. I can’t sleep. I can’t sit still. There are nightmares, this thing that – I think...they’re panic attacks. Flashbacks, maybe. I tried to kill myself in 1945, but you brought me back. I want a support.”

Silence stretched between them. Nick tilted his head back, considering, and said, “An agent will bring you a scent book tomorrow afternoon. As of today, you are officially on leave. Unless you’ve changed your mind? This is a serious decision, Rogers.”

“I’m not changing my mind,” Steve assured him.

“Then tomorrow at one o’clock, you can expect us.”

Nick hung up the phone.

**

For the promise that it contained, the scent book was an innocuous thing – a thick, black binder with dozens of trading card sleeves, each filled with a single vial containing half a cotton swab. The vials weren’t labeled with names or designations, but numbers.

The SHIELD agent that arrived with the book was not, in fact, a small-potatoes baby agent, but Natasha Romanov herself. She didn’t comment on the task at hand when Steve opened his apartment door to her, but rather passed him the binder and invited herself in. While Steve unscrewed the cap on vial after vial and gave each a cursory sniff, Natasha nursed a cup of his coffee and stared at him over her crossed legs.

“There are so many,” Steve eventually said for the sole purpose of breaking the silence after twenty-four vials of noiseless existence.

Natasha hummed. “Compared to what’s offered to a civilian, this is very few. The only reason it’s so thick is because you told Nick you didn’t care about designation. There are maybe a hundred and twenty or so scents in there. A civilian would be picking from a database of around seventy thousand, and that’s just here in the US.”

“Huh,” was all that Steve managed. He set aside some “maybe” vials on his coffee table, all scents that were full and inviting. Nothing struck him as perfect, but he doubted very much that he was going to find something perfect.

That was until he uncapped scent #73.

The scent was sweet, clearly omega, but smoky, somehow. It was caramel and spice, so homey it cast Steve into his mother’s kitchen in 1928. Instead of capping it like he had the others, he pressed the vial closer to his nose to smell again. Though the scent was stale, a sample given long ago, Steve could live in it. Kitchen spice and oven fire and thick sweet sent his head swimming.

When Steve managed to tear his face back up, Natasha was smirking.

“Well, then,” Natasha remarked, “It looks like we have a winner.”

**

In the omega’s locker room at his gym, Bucky Barnes splashed cold water on his sweating face. His arms already ached with the satisfaction of a good workout. The quick beat of his workout playlist pulsed from the headphones around his neck. He liked when he could fit a workout in at this time of day, before folks ducked out of their nine-to-five gigs and alphas started hogging all the strength equipment.

If they weren’t alpha-splaining how to use the equipment, they’d ask about the prosthesis. At least the elderly people walking along the upstairs track and other daytime stragglers like him knew that most gym-goers wanted their workout zen uninterrupted.

As he pulled the elastic from his hair and shook it out, tugging fingers through sweaty tangles, the workout playlist stopped, and a ringtone he seldom heard and never expected beeped through.

SHIELD.

Bucky unhooked the headphones from his cell and slid his thumb across the screen to answer the call. Tersely, he said, “This is Barnes. I’m in a locker room right now, so you might want to hang on ‘til I can get outside.”

“I’ve got all day,” said the voice of Nick Fury.

Holy hell. If Nick Fury himself was on the phone for him, Bucky was in for something huge.

In lieu of his usual hot shower and fresh change of clothes, Bucky tossed his workout jacket over his damp t-shirt and shouldered his backpack. He hustled out of the locker room and past the front desk, managing a half-hearted wave at the staff.

Once outside in the safety of New York City, he said, “Okay, what’s going on? I just got out of the gym, but I can be ready to go in thirty if I need to.”

“While I appreciate the enthusiasm,” drawled Fury, “this mission involves your support scent.”

“My support scent?” Bucky echoed, “Then what the hell, Nick? Why are you calling me for that?”

“The agent that chose your scent is a high-ranked individual,” Nick replied, “He’s well-known to the public, and any involvement with him would be so classified it would make your head spin. I called you personally because I need to know if you’re prepared to take on a case of this magnitude. This is an important man, Barnes, and one in a lot of pain.”

Over the course of his involvement with SHIELD, Bucky’d stood as a support omega for a handful of agents. The relationships lasted their contracted time, none of the mating or love stories that plagued the Hallmark channel. Every one of them was SHIELD personnel with tragedies they couldn’t disclose to their loved ones – people that needed another human being to be there through the hardest work they had to do.

“What details can you give me?” he asked, at last.

“Male, alpha, thirty-three. Important. You’ll have to sign about fifty NDAs to even get to the face-to-face interview.”

Bucky walked in the direction of his apartment, brows drawn. Male alphas were the most challenging cases – the men’s men that were taught not to feel, to never cry, that their pain was an option and choosing to feel it meant that they were weak. The rhetoric fucked those guys up something hard. At last, he asked, “How bad is it?”

“Spectacularly,” Nick answered, “and he seems very intent on your scent specifically. Look, Barnes, this is one of my team. Without him – well, the world would be a shittier place than it already is. While I don’t want to pressure you into a situation you can’t handle, this seems like someplace SHIELD needs you. Badly.”

“Why in the hell couldn’t I handle this?” Bucky demanded. He was Bucky fucking Barnes. He could handle anything. Hell, he’d handled more than most people would ever have to, and he handled it like a champ. What was another alpha that needed a support omega?

“Classified.”

“You’re saying he’s more dangerous than your run-of-the-mill agent?”

“Classified.”

“Say I go to this interview,” Bucky said, “Say we don’t gel like he thought we would. Is my ma going to ever see me again or am I going to get whisked away in a black bag?”

Nick scoffed. “Cut the melodrama, Barnes. If the interview doesn’t go well, you’ll walk out like you’d do with any other support meeting that didn’t work out. You just won’t be able to talk about it. To anyone. Ever. Under any circumstances.”

“Understood,” Bucky said. He mulled the situation over for a moment. Whoever this man was, he needed help. Somebody that high up needing help meant he’d walked through hell just to get a scent book in his lap. Granted, somebody that important would have gotten a highly abridged scent book of vetted individuals with appropriate backgrounds (James Buchanan “Bucky” Barnes: retired marine, prisoner of war, brief SHIELD agent, omega rights activist) that could be trusted with important people hurting something fierce, whether they were publicly important or privately important.

“I have a dog,” ventured Bucky.

“He likes dogs.”

“There are some logistical issues we’ll need to talk out,” he hedged.

“Aren’t there always?” asked Nick.

Yeah, okay, that was fair.

“Anything else I need to know is gonna come from him, isn’t it?” Bucky sighed.

“I suppose you’ll have to ask him.”

Bucky groaned, but he knew what he was doing. The decision was made, maybe even before he’d answered the phone. Bucky had done many things in his life, would do many more, but he would never leave behind somebody that needed his help. That wasn’t the man that his parents raised, and wasn’t the person he ever wanted to be. If he had to give up some family dinners and slow down a little on Pokemon GO, it wouldn’t kill him.

And he’d be doing the right thing.

“Barnes? Are you with me?”

“Yeah. I’m with you,” Bucky said, “Tell me what I need to do.”

“Be at the New York office tomorrow at ten o’clock sharp. Do not come armed, because we will take it from you. Do not be late, because you will disappoint me. Am I understood?”

“Understood, sir. One more thing: may I bring coffee?”

“By all means. My order is a salted caramel mocha, grande, with an extra shot of espresso and light foam. He takes his black. See you tomorrow, Barnes.”

 

Chapter Text

Chapter Two

Chapter Track: Close Watch – Agnes Obel

In Your Hands

 

Bleary-eyed, Steve blinked when Natasha threw a manila folder down on the desk in front of him. He sat at a table in what could only be described as an interrogation room – possibly the most neutral territory that SHIELD could scare up in their New York division.

In spite of – or perhaps because of – the promise of the face-to-face interview with his mystery omega, Steve failed to sleep for even a moment. He survived longer than the average human without rest, but eventually, the lack of shut-eye wore on him same as anyone else. Last he slept, he managed to put himself down two hours two (maybe three?) days ago. Time blurred together. He’d had another nightmare and shot up from the couch in a cold sweat. After that, he stopped trying.

Steve prodded at the folder. “What’s this?” he asked.

“Your maybe-support,” answered Natasha, “You’re entitled by law to read his file before you meet him.”

“It’s a him?” Steve asked, pulling the file toward him with the tips of his fingers. He didn’t prefer any gender or designation, not really, despite what the history books said when they recounted his romance with Peggy, one of the western world’s most famous female omegas.

Steve opened the cover of the folder to a portrait of a young marine. An eagle, globe, and anchor gleamed gold on his white hat. His heart skipped a beat at the handsome face that looked up at him. If this truly was the face that belonged to the intoxicating scent that haunted his thoughts, the combination might kill him. Steely gray-blue eyes stared unblinkingly over a full, bowed mouth and a dimpled chin. Steve lingered long enough on the photo that when at last he managed to glance back up, Natasha cast an amused smile over him and cocked one plucked brow.

“What? He’s very attractive,” Steve defended.

Natasha laughed a little. “I didn’t say anything, Steve.”

The traitorous heat of a blush flooded his face and chest. Steve scowled, but flipped to the next page – the beginning of a detailed dossier.

 

Name: James Buchanan Barnes

Age: 31

Occupation: Retired Marine Corps – Sergeant, support omega, dog walker

 

The background chronicled his childhood, the oldest child and only boy born to George and Winifred Barnes. He graduated from a high school in Brooklyn (Brooklyn!) as an honor student, enlisted in the military shortly thereafter, whereupon he served two tours, the second of which ended in James’s capture by the same people that held Tony – The Ten Rings. He returned home one arm down, but didn’t let that stop him, apparently agreeing to SHIELD’s recruitment pitch. He counted among the first outsiders to be invited into Wakanda. There, the king’s teenage sister took a shine to him and built him a prosthesis like none the world had ever seen, all in sleek, black vibranium.

And according to the notes, James Buchanan Barnes served in the battles against Thanos during his stay in Wakanda. Steve may have stood yards away from James and never known.

For a millennial, James Barnes sure did seem to have a lot in common with Steve.

Steve might have continued to read had a knock on the door not interrupted him. Natasha unlatched the door, and Fury walked in, followed by the most beautiful man that Steve had ever seen – holding a Starbucks drink carrier.

“All right,” greeted James Barnes, “I’ve got a black coffee for the alpha I am going to assume is named Steve Rogers, a raspberry mocha for the Widow, a cold brew for me, and one Basic Bitch Deluxe for Fury.”

“If it’s deluxe, doesn’t that mean it’s inherently not basic?” inquired Steve.

James tilted his head. He raised his Starbucks cup in acknowledgment and said, “Fair play to Steve.”

Natasha took her drink with a look of tepid interest on her face. She asked, “How’d you know I’d be here?”

“Lucky guess,” replied James, and upon passing Nick his beverage, lowered his body to the chair across from Steve’s.

The man that faced him echoed the man in the folder. Smile lines creased the edges of his eyes where they did not in the picture, and his military-cropped hair now flowed in waves to his shoulders, one side braided back in a Thor-esque Viking style. A navy peacoat hugged broad shoulders. From under the cuff of the left sleeve, a metal hand glinted in the harsh fluorescent light.

And God, the scent. What in a vial sat stale and faded, James Barnes emanated the most incredible omega smell that Steve had the honor of putting his nose to. With an active force of will, he stomped down the urge to scent the air, to breathe in all the omega that could. Even several feet away, James’s scent caressed him in warm tendrils, wrapping him in the familiar, homey aromas of a place he thought he had forgotten. This close, the nuances met him – there was caramel and fire and spice, but also cut wood and clean skin, the topmost smells of the day-to-day.

Steve cleared his throat, grateful for the gift of coffee, even if caffeine didn’t register in his system the way that it used to.

“You don’t seem fazed to see me,” he decided upon saying. He didn’t know what to expect from this meeting, but he did prepare himself for at the very least surprise, if not shock. That Captain America would need a support would shake the foundations of what people expected, and here sat James Barnes, for all appearances, nonplussed.

“Oh, I’m fazed,” James answered, “but Fury told me you were important. Anyway, it’s nice to meet you. I’m Bucky.” He offered his hand in the middle of the table.

“Bucky? But your file...”

James – or Bucky – let his eyes dart down to the manila folder. He shrugged a shoulder and replied, “On paper, I’m James, but to my friends and family, I’m Bucky.”

Steve reached out and shook Bucky’s hand. Softly, he said, “Steve.”

Neither Natasha nor Nick made a move to leave the room, and Steve’s lips fell into a grim line. He should have known better than to expect a modicum of privacy from SHIELD.

Steve fidgeted with the edge of his coffee sleeve and said, “I guess...you have to be okay with staying at Avengers Tower. I’m not really allowed to live outside of it.”

Bucky stopped him with a wave of his metal hand. “Whoa,” he said, “Slow down. Logistics can wait. I want to know what you’re hoping to get out of having a support omega. Let’s start from there, okay?”

“Um,” Steve started, and what seemed such an easy confession to Fury and admission to Natasha transformed to ash on his tongue. He drank his coffee to give him a moment to piece together a sentence or two, but the circling thoughts in his head told him that this stranger couldn’t know what a failure of a human being Captain America was. A fraud, a trick, a broken man, and none of the things that the world said he was supposed to be.

“Hey,” Bucky said, voice gentling. He reached across the table and laid his hand on Steve’s forearm, his palm a steady, warm presence. “If I can’t reassure you with my scent, let me tell you – I signed so many fucking NDAs before they let me walk in here. Whatever you say, it doesn’t leave this room.”

The declaration startled a laugh from Steve, a short, surprised bark. He ran his fingers back through his hair with his free hand, but stubbornly kept the other under Bucky’s touch.

“I can’t sleep,” Steve finally told him, “I have nightmares. Bear with me, because I googled a lot of this, but I get sweaty and can’t breathe and I’m pretty sure it’s panic attacks. I tried to end my life in 1945. I’ve trying ever since, I think. Tony said I could stop being Captain America and get help, and this is the kind of help that I think I need. Does that answer your question?”

Bucky nodded, wordless. After an awkward stretch in which no one spoke, he went on, “Do you have any questions for me?”

Steve licked his lips and asked, “Do you vote?”

“Uh, duh,” Bucky said, and then flushed, “I mean. Wow. Sorry. Yes, I vote. If we go down, I wanna go down knowing I did what I could to stop it.”

Steve chuckled. “That’s all I wanted to know,” he said.

“Well, I got one more question,” Bucky admitted, “I got a dog. She’s a big ol’ mutt, and I wouldn’t feel right living without her. Can I bring her with me?”

“What’s her name?”

“Beans.”

“Yes, Bucky. You and Beans are both welcome,” Steve responded.

“Great,” Bucky said, and his smile was brilliant as the sun, “Now we can talk logistics.”

** 

Bucky always packed light for a support situation. This numbered the first and only time, however, that he had a dog with him. He adopted Beans several months ago as a puppy from a local shelter when he saw a Facebook post about unexpected pups needing new homes. Bucky always was a sucker for a pair of doleful blue eyes (she was probably part husky, and definitely at least a few other things), and so with the help of social media and his own conscience, he ended up bringing home a three-month-old puppy and what seemed an entire pet store’s worth of new things for her.

Last night, (to her confusion) he packed only her favorite toys and the necessities. He doubted Steve had the supplies to care for a dog, and further doubted that this case would be one of his shorter ones.

Steve Rogers’ despair had reeked in the interrogation room when he walked in. Bucky had never seen such a large man trying to make himself so small. Not much had been seen of Rogers after the fallout of Thanos on the world, and Bucky didn't blame him. People divided primarily into two sides: Thanos was the fault of the enhanced, or the enhanced saved them from Thanos.

Personally, Bucky fell into the latter. Thanos seemed like the kind of dude hellbent on taking everyone out, whether or not there a few remarkable individuals on one tiny planet.

Some time in between the press conferences after the matter (in which shadows lingered under and in Steve’s eyes, but his clean-cut figure lingered) and sitting across from him yesterday, Steve grew a beard. He let his hair grow long. Seeing Rogers out of his uniform or a tux threw Bucky for a loop. While a handsome son of a bitch, he’d seemed more human, closer to the other alphas that had needed Bucky’s help in the past.

Still remarkable.

Bucky enjoyed the scents of the people he’d been a support for in the past. One or two potential in-need people didn’t smell quite right at the in-person interview, at which point Bucky ended the process to seek out his help. The ones he moved on to help in earnest, though, smelled pleasant enough. Most people did. Most people didn’t repel others with their aroma alone.

But Steve.

Shit, now that was a scent. He smelled like a city boy in the best possible way, all rain and steel and smoke. Some coffee-like quality pushed to the surface. All of Bucky’s effort upon walking into that room went into keeping his cool in the face of the best scent he’d ever had the pleasure of putting his nose to. Holy hell, that was the kind of alpha he liked to scent.

Being polite, Bucky did his very best not to scent right away.

Scent aside, the defeat and shame that eked out of Steve screamed for the kind of help that Bucky could provide. Bucky wondered if Steve, since his reappearance in 2011, had shoved all those emotions down and down and down, never allowing them to bubble to the surface – until now. Something threw the switch, and he could bear the burden no longer.

This wouldn’t be a six-month contract. This likely wouldn’t even be a year-long contract. This could be the longest stint as a support that Bucky would ever pursue.

A sleek, black SUV arrived at Bucky’s apartment to take him to his new assignment. The driver was again no baby agent. Again, Natasha headed the effort to get Steve back to sorts. Maybe the guilt of not noticing Steve’s pain affected her too. If that were the case, he doubted she would admit it. A Widow seldom told her secrets, especially when they were secrets that were hers alone.

“Cute dog,” Natasha remarked. She clicked a button on her key fob to open the trunk of the SUV, into which Bucky loaded his two suitcases, all he would have of himself for as long as helping Steve Rogers would take.

Beans wagged her tail, which earned her a pat on the head from one small, manicured hand.

With the snap of the trunk, Bucky let Beans into the backseat and climbed into the front.

“Can you let down the windows in the back so she can stick her head out?” he requested.

“Sure,” Natasha answered, which was not what Bucky expected.

Over the symphony of New York traffic and the whip of the window through the open windows as they drove, Natasha cast one pointed look at Bucky, scraping her eyes over him the same way she had in the room at SHIELD’s New York headquarters. Perhaps then she thought Bucky wouldn’t pass muster, because this look set his teeth on edge.

While he never worked alongside Natasha Romanov during his stint at SHIELD, Bucky did see her in passing. And the stories. Agents loved to pass along the myth and legend surrounding the Black Widow. He doubted even half of those stories were true, but he’d heard enough of them to caution him against testing her skill.

“You know,” said Natasha, “Steve isn’t just important to SHIELD. He’s important to the Avengers, too.”

“He’s got some unique skills.”

“Don’t be obtuse,” she chided, “The others don’t know about this. It’s just me, and sort of Stark. Stark knows Steve is getting help, but he doesn’t know that he has a support omega. I know now that Steve doesn’t realize how much he matters to us, but I want you to rest assured knowing that we care. Deeply.”

Bucky eyed her. “This is a shovel talk, isn’t it?"

“Maybe,” she allowed.

Sometime later, Natasha drove the SUV past Avengers Tower. She passed two entire blocks before she turned down an innocuous street, into a plain parking garage. She did not, however, park. She pulled the SUV all the way down to the lowest sub-level, until at the furthest corner they came to a booth and a blocked tunnel, reading ‘AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY’ across a barred access gate. From a leather purse, Natasha pulled out a badge and scanned it.

“Welcome, Miss Romanov,” greeted a disjointed, robotic voice, and the access gate pulled into the concrete wall to allow them through.

A fluorescent-lit tunnel drew them down ages and ages. Bucky recalled roadtrips on which he and his sisters would hold their breath as long as the tunnels went. He’d probably pass out if he tried that now.

After a silent couple of minutes, the tunnel opened to a cavernous, well-lit garage. Luxury cars lined the walls on either side in every color of the rainbow, every shape and size.

“Is this Tony Stark’s personal garage?” Bucky asked, eyes roaming over every chassis, wonder uncontained as he marveled at the sheer amount of wealth pooled into the walls around him. Millions of dollars filled this room in chrome and sparkling paint.

Hell, what was he about to walk into?

Natasha pulled into a vacant space and answered, “Yeah, he likes to coordinate his car with his sunglasses.” She didn’t elaborate further, though such a statement left room for so many questions.

Together, Bucky and Beans followed Natasha Romanov between rows of roadsters and sports cars, out of the garage and into a hallway with the same vaulted ceiling as the room before it. She led them past a single door and to an elevator, which, rather than buttons, scanned her thumbprint. A polite, accented voice greeted, “Good morning, Miss Romanov. I presume you and your guest are visiting Captain Rogers’ quarters?”

“Yes,” Natasha replied, “and you’ll need to scan Bucky’s thumbprint. He’ll be staying with Steve for a while.”

“Certainly. Your thumb, sir?”

Bucky blinked. He supposed he should expect both nothing and everything from this point forward. Natasha gestured for him to put his hand on the small, rectangular scanner. He pressed his thumb to it. A blue glow burst for the space of a second, and when it died back down, the same voice said, “Welcome to Avengers Tower, Sergeant Barnes.”

“Uh, thanks...um.” Bucky paused. He didn’t know what to call the disembodied voice assisting him.

“JARVIS,” Natasha supplied.

“Thanks, JARVIS,” Bucky said.

“My pleasure,” replied JARVIS, and the elevator doors swung open.

“Steve lives on the eighty-second floor,” Natasha explained, “You’ll have to knock to be let in, but as soon as Steve lets JARVIS know that you’re allowed access to his apartment, you’ll scan your thumbprint to unlock his door. I won’t be getting off the elevator with you. What happens after here is between you and Steve. Do you understand?”

“Yeah, I got it,” Bucky told her.

“Good. Keep it that way.”

Traversing eighty-some floors in silence weighed on the atmosphere. Were he in the elevator with literally anyone else, Bucky might have opened his mouth and filled the space between them with cheerful small talk. To the Black Widow? He didn’t know if there was anything worth saying. Furthermore, Natasha seemed almost contemplative, and though she stared forward at the shining stainless steel doors, he felt her assessment of him like a hand on his shoulder.

The doors opened without comment from JARVIS.

Bucky wheeled his suitcases forward and Beans followed.

“Barnes,” called Natasha, as he stepped out, “I’m rooting for you. Don’t fuck this up.”

“Noted,” he replied.

With that, the elevator doors closed, abandoning Bucky and Beans to an elegant, modern hallway. Bucky turned his head from right to left. He hesitated over which direction to walk. When he frowned, JARVIS inserted a helpful, “Captain Rogers’ quarters can be found to your right, the first door on your left.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said absently, while Beans’ attention darted all over the place in hopes of finding the body to which the voice belonged. She wagged her tail.

At the proffered door, Bucky inhaled through his nostrils, allowing his eyes to fall closed for a moment. So much depended on what happened next. Steve Rogers needed the help of somebody like him, a support omega with a dubious background and some manageable issues of his own. He didn’t know how he was going to do this, but he did know that he could. With that in mind, he let his fist fall against the door.

Bucky’s hand hung mid-air as the door swung open with a whoosh. There stood Steve, hair askew as though he’d run his fingers through it too many times and eyes wilder than they’d been in the interrogation room at SHIELD. His sweat stunk of equal parts anxiety, hope, and despair. Bucky’s nose could parse out that much, though it wouldn’t lead him to what he should first address.

“Hey,” he decided upon saying.

“Hi,” Steve said, “Come in. I’ve been trying to get everything ready for you.”

The instant that Bucky stepped over the threshold, the pungent scent of bleach singed his nose hairs. Scent diffusers sat plugged in at least three visible outlets. The space smelled nothing of Steve, and everything like a realtor stripping a long-loved home of the earmarks of its former residents.

Beside Bucky, Steve wrung his hands.

“Um,” Bucky managed, and unclipped the leash attached to his dog, “Steve, this is Beans.”

Grateful, it seemed, to have something to turn his attention to, Steve fell to his knees. He stuck out his hand for Beans to sniff, which she did in her typical delicate fashion before deciding (as she did with literally every human she came across) that Steve was her new best friend. Her tail went wild and she propped her paws on Steve’s thighs to boost her to his face, licking merrily.

A whuff of surprise escaped Steve’s lips before he toppled onto his back. As Beans licked his face, Steve clutched her fur with his big hands, petting uncertainly.

“Hi, Beans,” he managed, and only stood again after Bucky offered a hand.

When Steve unfolded again to his full height, he asked, “What’s the first thing we do?”

Bucky considered his answer. At previous support gigs, he might have said that he’d like to put his things away or get a tour of the place, but the space around him was so wrong that he didn’t dare do it. Instead, he said, “We need to take the diffusers out.”

“What?” Steve said, face falling. “Why?”

“Because, Steve,” Bucky said, “This place doesn’t smell like you. This is your territory. It’s supposed to smell like you.”

Steve’s shoulders sagged. “I wanted to make it more...welcoming. I didn’t know how you felt about my scent.”

“Pal, if I didn’t like your scent at least a little bit, I wouldn’t be here,” Bucky told him, “You’re all worked up because you’re making yourself uncomfortable in your own home. An alpha’s territory is one of the most important things to take care of. This is your den, you know? If you’re uneasy here, you can’t get better. Let’s fix it, all right?”

All in all, they amassed an impressive collection of fifteen scent diffusers. Bucky tossed every last one into the trash, while guilt and shame were the first scents to eke back into the sterile, restless air.

Bucky stepped to Steve and rested his hand on one forearm. Gentle, he commanded, “Look at me. Let me get a good look at you.”

Steve obeyed, surprisingly pliant for an alpha being told what to do.

This man was a mess.

This man might be the biggest mess that Bucky had encountered as a support omega.

Other people in need in his past were weary, angry, agitated. Others were listless and subdued, in need of guidance. Steve managed to embody every one of these under heavier layers of something shattered. Something in this alpha was so thoroughly obliterated that he was salting the soil that Bucky was meant to plant in. From his uncombed hair to unkempt beard to the dark shadows under his blue eyes, he radiated distress so potent Bucky wondered how every person in Steve’s life had failed to notice it before now.

“When was the last time that you slept?” Bucky asked.

Steve rubbed his arm, casting his eyes back to floor. “I’m...uh. I’m not sure,” he said. Points for honesty, at the very least.

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, I’m thinking that’s the place that we wanna start. You need sleep.”

“I can’t,” Steve weakly protested, “I can’t relax. And if I get to sleep somehow, I have nightmares. I wake up. I just can’t.”

“That’s what I’m here for, punk,” Bucky said, letting his hand fall to Steve’s. He stroked the back of Steve’s hand with his knuckles, trying for contact without throwing Steve directly into the fire. At the confusion that crossed Steve’s face, he explained, “We are taking a nap, together.”

“I thought – I mean – I set up a room for you,” Steve stammered.

Bucky made a face. “You want me in a different room? That’s, uh, not what you said at SHIELD.”

“No, I – I do want you with me,” Steve jumped to say, “but I didn’t want to make you uncomfortable.”

“Okay,” Bucky slowly said, “Let’s get something straight. This arrangement? It’s not about me. If I don’t like something, I have no qualms about telling you, but I want you to know that you come first. You asked for me to stay with you while you sleep, so that’s what we’re gonna do. If jumping right in there makes you nervous – hm. C’mere.”

“What?”

“C’mere,” Bucky encouraged, and tugged Steve a little closer. He tilted his neck back, baring his throat, and ordered, “Scent me.”

What?”

“Scent me,” Bucky repeated, “It’ll help. I promise. You picked my scent out, remember?”

Steve nodded. He didn’t make an immediate move to follow Bucky’s command, instead dithering, eyes darting as he stood rooted to the spot. Bucky didn’t scold him or wrench Steve any further toward him. Instead, he waited for Steve to make his move, to make his own decision. He seemed, somehow, to struggle to choose himself.

Now was as good a time as any to practice changing that.

At least a solid minute passed before Steve as much as twitched, but when he moved, he did it with decision. He swung forward, coiling an arm around Bucky, palm open on the small of Bucky’s back, and pulled their bodies tight together. Before he scented, however, Steve searched Bucky’s face for an objection. Finding none, he tucked his nose right into the crook of Bucky’s neck and breathed deep.

Bucky didn’t know how long it had been since Steve had positive human contact, let alone the room to indulge in scenting a compatible omega. In instants he went pliant, muscles falling apart and limbs loosening. A whine bubbled up from Steve’s throat, and Bucky hummed a sympathetic noise. He stroked his prosthetic fingers through Steve’s unwashed hair and cradled the back of his head.

“This is so embarrassing,” Steve complained into Bucky’s throat.

“No, it’s not,” Bucky replied, “Humans need contact. They need scent. When you deny yourself those things, you hurt yourself. We can stay like this as long as you need. I’ve got nowhere to be but with you. You’re what’s important.”

Bucky rubbed Steve’s back and brushed his hand through his hair. Steve’s breath was hot and damp against his skin. This close, Steve’s unbelievable scent held Bucky in its arms, chasing away the barren, antiseptic air enclosed around them. Without thinking, Bucky swayed forward. He stuck his nose against Steve’s neck in turn, even though he hadn’t asked. After a noseful of wonderful he realized what he was doing and jerked back.

“Whoa, shit, I’m sorry,” Bucky said.

“For what?”

“Scenting you. I didn’t ask.”

A crooked not-smile turned up the corners of Steve’s mouth. He said, “That’s okay. It’s, uh, nice to know that you like my scent too.”

“Good,” Bucky said, “You need to scent me again? I kind of interrupted.”

“That’s okay. I feel...lighter now,” responded Steve, “and kind of tired? Maybe I really could sleep.”

“That’s what I like to hear,” said Bucky, “Let’s get you tucked in, and we’ll take it from there.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Three

Chapter Track: Down – Marian Hill

The Reason That You Came

 

Though Steve led the way to the bedroom, Bucky did the herding – without someone to shuffle this alpha along to take care of himself, Steve Rogers would put literally every other person he knew (and probably some he didn’t) before him. Bucky met the type before (hell, he’d been the support omega for the type before), but Steve brought martyrdom to a whole, new, unnecessary level.

Maybe the move was excessive, but Bucky pressed his palm to the small of Steve’s back and steered him into the bedroom.

Beans padded behind them. Her nails clicked against the sleek hardwood floors.

The impersonal nature of Steve’s apartment unnerved Bucky. Not a single photograph or piece of art adorned the crisp, white walls. Combined with the lingering absence of scent, the space seemed more for show than a home, something so untouched by humanity that Steve may as well have been a ghost floating through its halls.

The bedroom presented no difference than the space outside it. Steve had blown through this room – a room that should have been more intimate by nature – and wrecked it as he’d wrecked the rest of the apartment. A dark blue bedspread with military corners, the only color in the room, smelled of detergent and nothing else. No art, no belongings – exactly the same as the rest of Steve’s territory.

Though there was a roof over his head, Steve was effectively a homeless alpha. Bucky couldn’t fathom the impact a lack of territory had on the mind of an alpha. Hell, he’d never worked as a support omega for one. He’d met traditionally homeless alphas on the street. Everyone had. They shuffled listless and empty-eyed though any given city, shouting their anger at passersby, scent-marking alleys and knocking back liquor so that they might control some small thing in their lives.

Steve couldn’t get drunk. That was common knowledge. If he could, he might have turned to liquor already. The effects of wiping his territory clean of himself didn’t much differ from a street-alpha, brain-wise. That he retained this much of himself spoke, most likely, to the strength of the superserum as well as stubbornness.

Without asking, Bucky rolled the bedspread down. He gestured with a sweep of his hand for Steve to climb in, and Steve nodded, mouth tight with anxiety.

“You want Beans on the bed or on the floor?” Bucky asked.

Steve lowered his body to the edge of the mattress, muscles tensed. With what might have been a faint, shy smile, he answered, “On the bed is good. I like dogs. I’m happy she’s here.” Steve patted the mattress beside him. Eager as ever at the promise of a cuddle, Beans leapt up, shaggy tail thumping on the bed with enthusiasm. Steve rewarded her with a scratch behind her ears, one ear up, the other floppy.

“What now?” he asked, hand planted firmly in Beans’ long fur.

“This is gonna sound weird,” Bucky cautioned, then continued, “I need you to roll in your sheets.”

Steve’s brows hitched together. “You want me to what?”

“Roll in the sheets. Get your scent on ‘em. You’ll sleep better if you scent-mark something. How often do you wash the sheets?”

A blush crept high on Steve’s cheeks. “Every other day,” he answered.

“Okay, so there’s one of your biggest problems. Every week is fine for washing your sheets and shit, and after you wash them, you need to scent-mark them. Go ahead, Steve. This is a no-judgment zone.”

Steve let go of Beans and shifted so his head rested against one crisp, white pillow. He stared up at the ceiling and frowned. “This feels stupid.”

“I can do it with you, if that feels better,” Bucky offered, “My scent’s gonna help too.”

“That sounds good. Let’s do that.”

Bucky toed off his shoes before he clambered up onto the other side of the mattress. Without a lick of shame, he rocked from side to side on the bed, flipping over to his stomach and smearing his face onto a pillow case. After ten seconds, Steve followed suit with some reluctance, letting his beard scratch the linens, smudging scent into the fabric. The fact that Steve was the only unwashed thing in this apartment worked in their favor – this way, his scent would better stick to the bed.

“All right,” Bucky said, with a hand on one impressive bicep, “That should be good for now. How do you feel?”

“Kinda lightheaded,” admitted Steve.

“Good. That’s fine,” Bucky told him, “Now’s the part where we get under the covers.”

Steve reddened further, and Bucky couldn’t tell whether that had to do with an old-fashioned attitude toward sex or a complexion with an easy-tell. Maybe both. Either way, Bucky didn’t comment on it, instead dragging Steve under the comforter. He flipped Steve to face the wall and snuggled right on up to his back, setting his chin on one broad shoulder. “Come on,” he murmured into Steve’s ear, “let you eyes close.”

As if to reiterate her importance, Beans trotted across the bed and took Steve’s other side, plopping down against his front with a slurp to his face. Steve laughed a little, then threw his arms over Beans’ fluffy frame.

Sandwiched between a support omega and a blue-eyed mutt, Steve Rogers fell asleep.

**

Steve rubbed the crust from his eyes. Against his cheek, something soft shifted.

Two blue eyes blinked back at him and a pink tongue lolled out as Beans offered him a doggy smile. Steve patted her head and sat up. The cotton of too much dreamless sleep stuffed his skull, making him sway in place as he realized his support omega was not beside him in bed. He pressed his palm to the indent of a second body but found it cold. In spite of this, Bucky’s smell lingered, soaked into the sheets, hand in hand with Steve’s.

A tiny sliver of panic hooked behind his heart, but only until the scent of cooking food drifted into the bedroom. A soft, deep voice sang along among a faint beat of some music Steve had never heard before, and the terror of a missing omega melted away and pooled at his feet. He stood, pushing his greasy hair back from his face, and trekked out to the kitchen with Beans at his heels.

At the stove, Bucky stirred something spicy and fragrant in a cooking pot Steve didn’t know he owned. From the top-of-the-line sound system in the living room a gentle female sung over a piano, but when Steve stepped closer, an unexpected beat broke up the song. He paused, listening. This was the kind of music he couldn’t have dreamt up in his youth, something so fundamentally different than what he used to hear that its modernness set his teeth on edge.

But…when he glanced back to the kitchen, Bucky’s hips and shoulders swayed to the beat. He sung the along with the words and stirred to the piano’s melody.

Though this omega was new to this space, though his long hair and prosthetic arm struck an odd picture in this cage of an apartment, he danced like he had always belonged in it.

Maybe the music wasn’t so bad.

“Hi,” Steve said, unable to keep to the uncertainty from his voice.

None of this felt real, still. When Steve asked Fury for a support, he never imagined he’d have the most beautiful omega alive and his charming dog living in his apartment within a week and a half.

Bucky turned a crooked smile on him and Steve’s heart twinged, like it decided it needed to sit a little bit to the left.

“How d’you feel?” he asked.

Steve licked his chapped lips. He hadn’t taken the time to think about it. The only time he regarded his body came after missions, when he assessed the damage on his person and weighed what that would mean regarding his ability to perform in future incidents. Most wounds didn’t matter. Aches and pains didn’t register, not usually.

“My head’s heavy,” admitted Steve.

“I’m not surprised. You slept for...” Bucky nudged his phone across the counter to check the time. “...twenty-seven hours.”

Aghast, Steve stood motionless. He scanned his surroundings, abruptly hyperaware of new idiosyncrasies around him. Dishes sat in the sink. A throw blanket Steve never once unfolded lay draped over the arm of his uncomfortable couch, wrinkled. The television remotes weren’t in the drawer where he’d thrown them, but on the coffee table.

At some point during Steve’s sleep, Bucky found the dog supplies Steve painstakingly picked out, bowls and food and treats and toys, all the best available. Beside the garbage chute, the large patch of fake grass boasted the company of the only remaining scent diffuser, the roll of doggie bags unrolled at one end. Visible signs of Beans getting in the kibble and sticking her nose in the water dish splashed over the kitchen floor.

And she’d still come back to sleep in Steve’s arms.

All around him Bucky’s scent wafted in the air, places he sat or worked – or danced.

Then, Steve’s stomach gurgled.

Bucky chuckled at the sound and waved his spoon at the steaming pot. “Just finishing up some curry soup. How do you feel about spices?”

“Great,” Steve answered honestly, “I like it a lot, actually. Twenty-first century food beats the shit out of what I ate before.”

“Then I bet you’ll get a kick out of this,” Bucky replied.

And Steve did. He couldn’t remember the last time that he ate home-cooked food. He’d eaten at catered events, toured the most elite restaurants in New York, suffered through MREs on long quinjet rides, and ordered takeout from every joint local to Avengers Tower, but no one invited him for dinners. None of the Avengers appeared to enjoy cooking at all, or if they did, they hadn’t offered to share with Steve.

Steve slurped his way through three bowls of Bucky’s curry soup, sopping it up with bread that was not homemade, still good, but delivered by a grocery service. Bucky’s radiant smile warmed him from the inside out. He could smell the pride on his support omega’s skin, and in turn his body and mind reacted with alpha pleasure, hindbrain jumping up and down, cheering for him, because he’d made an omega proud.

“Thank you for thinking of Beans, by the way,” said Bucky, apropos of nothing. “You didn’t have to go all-out like that. She really likes that rope with the little tire on it.”

The alpha pleasure in him doubled, leaving Steve’s brain replete with happy chemicals he’d forgotten existed. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph – how could making one person happy make him feel so damn good? He couldn’t bite down a tentative smile as he replied, “I just wanted you to feel at home.”

“You did good, Steve,” hummed Bucky, then he shifted gears, face leveling to something serious. “Tell me more about what you do on a day to day basis.”

God, what did he do? Steve puzzled over the question. “I try to read stuff people tell me to, sometimes. Mostly I hit the gym. Tony has a Hulk-proof gym a couple floors down. It’s huge. Bet you Beans would have fun running around down there.”

“Wanna give that a try?” asked Bucky, “You and me can work out, and we’ll see how far that supersoldier arm can throw a tennis ball.”

More than happy to go along with the plans of his support omega, Steve swapped his clothes for a fresh set of athletic gear, a shirt that stretched across his muscles like a second skin, loose jogging pants, and custom sneakers that Tony made to withstand the workouts of an enhanced man. His reflection in the bathroom mirror looked passable, not his best, but better than he’d looked in a while, he suspected.

Bucky, on the other hand, looked downright indecent. His tank left little to the imagination, clinging to impressive pecs and a narrow waist while putting powerful arms on display. A splatter of scar tissue spiderwebbed out from the seam where prosthesis met skin, but Steve forced his eyes away. Rather than wear something loose around the legs, black athletic leggings hugged the thick muscle of Bucky’s legs and curve of his ass. He’d pulled his hair up into a sloppy updo.

And he was smirking.

“Uh,” Steve said, and tried to think of an excuse for blatantly drinking in every curve and hard line of muscle in Bucky’s body.

“You look good too,” Bucky told him, and patted his shoulder.

Bucky’s wonder at the lavish nature of the Hulk-proof gym encouraged a little more alpha satisfaction out of him, even if Steve hadn’t been the one to create the gym. He came to the gym more than he lived in his apartment, probably. Maybe this gym felt more like his territory than the place he was supposed to live.

“Wow,” Bucky breathed, “Every time I think I’ve seen it all, Tony Stark has gotta prove me wrong. This tower is insane.”

Bucky didn’t ask for a tour or require supervision. He found the strength equipment on his own and adjusted weights to his liking. He lifted and stretched while Steve ran and punched, and Beans ran between the two of them to play fetch. Steve grinned the first time that she dropped a slobbery tennis ball at his feet instead of Bucky’s and plopped into a sitting position, wagging her tail. He cast the ball all the way across the length of the gym, and Beans went off like a shot.

Behind him, Bucky whistled. “Hell of a throwing arm,” he remarked, and then, “She fucking loves you.”

As if to confirm, Beans yapped and dropped the ball again at Steve’s feet.

Steve knelt down to pet her and coo at her. He never had a dog before, though he’d always wanted one. Before the serum, he was allergic to pet dander. After, he was in the war. When Steve woke in the twenty-first century, his job demanded he leave at a moment’s notice at unexpected moments to faraway places. He thought about that old wish to keep a pet, but knew his lifestyle wouldn’t be fair to one.

Without being Captain America, he could spend as much time with Beans as he wanted.

While the idea of leaving the tower pulled the wrong strings inside him, a challenging voice told him he ought to take Beans out for walks and to the dog park to play. He knew of a close park, one he sometimes paused at to watch people having fun with their cheerful dogs. She couldn’t stay cooped up indoors, only ever playing and running at a gym. She deserved grass beneath her paws. Every dog did.

“What’s on your mind?” asked Bucky.

Steve glanced up from the attentive belly rub he’d been giving Beans, sheepish. “I was thinking maybe she deserves to go out to the park, but I’m, uh. I’m not ready for that yet. I don’t like leaving the tower.”

A pensive expression crossed Bucky’s handsome face. Sweat shone at his temples and soaked his tank from the exertion of his workout, putting that tempting omega scent on full blast. He nodded, wordless, and then shrugged a shoulder. “Sounds like something to think about,” before he turned back to the gym doors to return upstairs.

Back in the apartment, Steve showered for the first time in several days. He scrubbed grime away from every crevice and languished in the steam and hot water. Muscles he didn’t know had clenched up loosened, leaving his entire body sore in a pleasant, unexpected manner.

After an hour of luxuriating, he swept a critical eye over his appearance in the mirror. He liked the beard and his longish hair, he decided, though they could use trimming. He didn’t care for himself, really, but looking good for Bucky seemed important. The embarrassment of that knowledge brought pink to his face and the tips of his ears. He wanted to look good for an omega. That was it. The notion seemed stupid, silly. What was the point of looking good for Bucky? He was already here in Steve’s apartment, already willing to sleep in his bed.

Steve liked Bucky, though. He liked Bucky a whole lot. Bucky deserved to look at an alpha that looked at least half as nice as he looked, beautiful as his support omega was with his wavy hair and cocky smile.

In the living room, Steve discovered Bucky showered and in fresh pajamas, throw blanket around his shoulders like a bulky shawl. The television glowed with a Netflix screen. Steve indulged once or twice before in Netflix, but the sheer volume of choices tended to send terror bubbling up in his system. He didn’t like when people shouted what they thought he needed to watch or read or listen to at him, but choosing by himself didn’t appeal, either. Sam’s excitement in his own recommendations curbed Steve’s aversion to being told what to do, and so his were the only lines crossed off of Steve’s list.

“What do you like to watch?” asked Bucky.

“Don’t know,” Steve said. He braced himself for the disbelief, for the litany of pop culture references to spin out of Bucky’s mouth, each one a blow he was unprepared for.

Instead, Bucky made a contemplative noise in his throat. He asked, “Do you like watching TV? Or is that not your thing?”

“It’s not that,” Steve sighed, “It’s that there’s so much to look at. How do I even know where to start? People yell at me all the time about not seeing one thing or another. I don’t know what’s important.”

“Oh, yeah, see, it’s not about what’s important,” Bucky told him, “It’s about unwinding. TV isn’t a homework assignment; it’s supposed to be a thing you do at the end of the night with a cup of tea or a glass of wine. What one person thinks is required viewing is totally fuckin’ different than the next, but I see what you mean about so many choices. Even I get overwhelmed by it sometimes, and I’m a millennial. Netflix is supposed to be my language. What if I showed you one of my favorites? If you don’t like it, we can try something else. Deal?”

“Deal,” Steve agreed, and with a cautious scrape of his eyes over the too-modern couch, he sat curled around the opposite arm, two feet of space in between his body and Bucky’s. Oblivious to the awkward air between them, Beans hopped up and sprawled across the spot, back legs in Steve’s lap and head against Bucky’s thigh.

Bucky’s expert fingers flew over the remote control, navigating out of Netflix and to Amazon, which Steve had to admit was handy, even if he had his concerns about the morality of the man that ran the company.

“Okay, so,” Bucky started, unable to keep the light from his face as he spoke, “This is called Avatar: The Last Airbender. It’s a cartoon, but don’t let that stop you from giving it a shot. I could give you a laundry list of reasons that I like it, but I don’t wanna talk your ear off. And if you don’t like it? Just say the word. What we do in your home is your decision. You got me?”

“I got you,” Steve demurred.

Bucky let the first episode begin, and Steve found himself entranced. The conception of animation predated Steve – though few realized that – and fascinated him all his life. This television show was no exception to that rule. Bucky confirmed that, for the most part, Avatar was hand-drawn, the same way it had been done throughout his childhood onward, from toys older than he was, to flip-books, to the first cartoons that leapt to screen.

Cartoons came before Disney, but Steve had to hand it to them for perfecting the art.

As a child, Steve told his mother he would make moving pictures. Sarah Rogers spent every spare cent on buying Steve art supplies and taking him to museums and picture shows. She watered the seeds of his dream, and that he never grew into his dream was a damn shame. He doubted his mother would be proud of the choices he had made. Steve doodled here and there, but he hadn’t drawn since they pulled him out of the ice.

The image of Sarah Rogers imprinted in his brain folded her arms and frowned, shaking her head at him. She wasn’t even angry; she was disappointed, and that was what made his heart all the heavier.

“You wanna see the next one?” Bucky asked at the close of the first episode.

“Yeah,” Steve said, surprised to find that he did.

No more than a few minutes into the second episode, however, Steve’s front door swung open with a crack.

Steve vaulted over the back of the couch, body coiled tight as a spring. Bucky stood beside him, a knife clutched in his fist. Steve didn’t know where the knife came from or how he stashed it in his pajamas, but he recognized a man ready to fight at a moment’s notice. Beans skidded to a stop in front of them, ears pinned back.

“I know you’re in here, Rogers,” Tony’s voice said, but a moment before he appeared in a sharp suit, sunglasses pushed to rest on top of his head. He startled at Steve and Bucky side by side in defensive positions, and held up his hands. Beans growled.

Tony’s eyes darted from Steve to Bucky to Beans and back again. “What the hell is this?” he asked, but didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve been worried fucking sick, you know that? I haven’t heard a peep since you tried to throw yourself off of my tower. And now you’re here with an omega and a dog?”

Bucky glanced to Steve for direction, and Steve waved for him to put away the knife.

Beans took her cue from Bucky and Steve to stop growling, but she didn’t move from her place in front of them.

A silent conversation passed between Steve and Bucky, a question of whether or not Steve should tell Tony exactly what he was seeing, and a shrug from Bucky indicated, as with all things, that he was giving Steve a choice.

“He’s my support omega,” Steve finally said, lifting his chin, “I researched and I asked Fury to find me someone.”

“And the dog?” asked Tony.

“That’s Bucky’s dog,” answered Steve. “You can’t go running your mouth about this to the others, Tony. I want to introduce Bucky in my own time. He’s only been here for a couple of days. I need you to not freak out about this.”

“Freak out? Who’s freaking out? It’s not me. I’m fine. I just can’t believe you used the internet and found a viable solution for your fucky brain and got it done, all in like a week.”

“He’s the most renowned strategist of World War II and you’re surprised he brainstormed and executed a strategy?” Bucky asked.

Tony blinked.

Steve cast Bucky the most grateful look he could muster. Everyone, including his team, forgot sometimes what he could do. They underestimated his capability because that capability was forged in the fires of an old war. They thought a mind that grew in the past could not continue to grow in the future. They assumed his skill went unsharpened. Steve didn’t know what people thought he did with his time, but none of them seemed to conceptualize that being born in 1918 didn’t determine the learning ability of a human being.

And at that, a supersoldier brain was very good at learning.

“So,” Tony said, letting the syllable slip out slow and soft, “I’m guessing you’re benched for real-real.”

“No more fighting,” Steve said, “That’s what we agreed.”

“And I meant it,” said Tony. “I wish you’d said something to somebody, Steve. Anybody. I know you don’t trust me or whatever, but you seem to have a rapport with Femme Fatale. And Thor’s the friendliest person in the whole nine realms. I get not talking to me. I really do. But everybody else? There are people living next door to you that would kill for you.”

“There are a lot of people that would kill for me,” Steve said, “and I’m not interested in people killing for me.”

“It’s a turn of phrase! You’re not understanding what I’m saying –”

“Mr. Stark,” Bucky interrupted, “Why does this matter?”

“It matters because you have friends, Steve,” Tony said, and rather than address Bucky, stared Steve down, “Friends. Us. Right here. This tower. I’ve been losing my entire mind because I thought you were shut up here like a princess. The fact that you have a support omega? That’s awesome. Really awesome. You could have thrown me a text that you were okay, though.”

“I don’t owe you anything,” Steve said.

“‘Owe’ is a strong word,” replied Tony, “I thought we were friends. The Avengers? All of us? You’re our friend. So, sure, you don’t owe me an update about every little decision you make, but I sure as hell wish you’d think to clue us in on whether or not you feel like killing yourself. We didn’t notice you weren’t okay, and yeah, that’s on us. But I thought I was going to watch you plummet to your death and it scared the shit out of me, and I think that entitles me to a little ‘I’m okay’ every once in a while. Am I completely off base here?”

Friends.

That the Avengers might be his friends hadn’t occurred to Steve, and all at once in an astonishing wave, guilt wracked his body. He tore his eyes from Tony to stare at the ground, at his feet and his trembling hands. He thought of the Avengers as allies, as his team, as soldiers. They invited him to spend time with them, but he thought of the extensions of their hands as mere courtesy. They didn’t want to be with him, but they wanted to follow the appropriate social protocol to ensure he didn’t feel left out.

Bucky appeared at his side and cupped his elbow, hauling Steve close and pressing his head forward, into the crook of his neck. Steve heaved a breath inward, a breath of comforting omega. The pumping of his blood slowed and his thoughts faded from the pinwheel firework that Tony ignited.

“Mr. Stark,” Bucky said, voice vibrating against Steve’s face.

“Tony. If you live here, I’m Tony.”

“Tony,” Bucky restarted, “I got this under control, okay?”

“You tell him he has friends,” responded Tony.

Some small voice in the back of Steve’s mind told him he should care that he was being talked about in his presence, that they weren’t addressing him. The rest of his brain didn’t give a solitary shit, and kept him still with his nose on Bucky’s neck.

Bucky exhaled. “Listen. Steve’s got a lot of work to do. I think there’s a lot going on and he doesn’t know where to start. It’s good for me to know that – that he has friends – but he’ll come to you when he’s ready. I don’t think that’s gonna happen yet. Steve, c’mere.”

Bucky put the tips of his fingers under Steve’s chin and guided him back up to reality. He couldn’t read the expression on Tony’s face, but the fearsome look on Bucky’s could be nothing but protectiveness. His metal palm came to rest on the small of Steve’s back, rubbing. He said, “Be here with me. What do you do want to do now? Do you want Tony to go or do you want him to stay?”

Being spoken to like a child should have bothered him. It should have, but it didn’t. For so long now every word cast at Steve was an order. All Bucky offered were questions.

“Stay,” Steve said, surprising all of them, including himself. “We’re watching Avatar: The Last Airbender.”

Tony turned to look behind him, as though Steve might be addressing someone else, but looked Steve in the eye when he answered, resolute.

“Sure, Steve,” Tony said, then, “I’ll be wherever you want me.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

Chapter Track: Get Free – Major Lazer ft. Amber Coffman

What They’ve Done To Me

 

“Well, Aang, this has been an enlightening evening,” Tony mused at the front door. They’d made it through four entire episodes before Tony started getting antsy, shaking his leg up and down and drumming his fingers against the arm of the couch. At that point, Bucky called it quits, as the edgier Tony got, the tenser Steve became, shoulders creeping toward his ears and brow crumpling. Tony probably came best in small doses.

“Stop calling me that,” Steve complained, and added, “and don’t tell anyone. I want to talk to the team in my own time.”

“You got it, Avatar Steve,” Tony said.

Steve rolled his eyes. “Goodnight, Tony.”

“It’s only nine o’clock,” replied Tony, “My night’s only just starting.”

“Great. Can you start it elsewhere?” Steve shot back.

Tony held a hand to his chest in mock affront. “You wound me, Rogers,” then paused. “In the meantime, your secret’s safe with me. Far be it from me to expose a man when he wants some fuckin’ privacy for once. You do know that you’re gonna have to explain where you are after a while, right? We’ll get through three – maybe four – televised incidents before people start asking where you are. You have time to think about it – but you do have to think about it. Ta-ta for now.”

With that, Tony left, closing the door as he went.

“He’s right,” Steve said, “I’m gonna have to say something about where I am, otherwise the public’s going to assume the worst of me. Or maybe this is the worst of me. I don’t know.”

Bucky studied Steve, hoping to keep his face impassive as he did. In a few short hours, he uncovered a lot about this alpha he had yet to digest – Steve’s relationship with his team and with himself, to start. The Avengers may not have grasped Steve’s pain, but they did – if what Bucky gleaned from two parties shaded the personality of the rest of the Avengers – care about his wellbeing. They believed themselves to be his friends.

“Don’t go borrowing trouble,” Bucky decided upon saying, “If Tony says that you have time, then you have time. Let’s hit the small things for now. Big decisions can wait.”

Bucky placed his palm on the small of Steve’s back. The alpha leaned into the touch like a flower seeking sun. Before Bucky, when was the last time this alpha felt a caring touch?

Maybe no one thought to hold in their arms the man the world saw as invincible. This didn’t surprise Bucky. Sometimes the steeliest souls were the least appreciated, so strong in their appearance that no one thought to bring them close.

“They always seemed unbreakable,” their loved ones would say, people that loved their unbreakable ones but never remembered that sometimes, the deathless ones were not indestructible, but the best at hiding. They were not immortal, but invisible.

Steven Grant Rogers may have become Captain America, but he had been invisible his whole life.

Rather than share this overflowing bank of thoughts (it would not be professional, not at all), Bucky rubbed his palm up and down Steve’s spine. He ignored the solemn air between them and broke it with a, “I was thinking parmesan chicken for dinner. That cool with you?”

“You’re cooking again?” asked Steve. “You don’t have to do that.”

“I know I don’t have to. I like to cook, though. I like feeding people. Maybe it’s an omega thing. I dunno.”

“I never really learned how to cook,” Steve admitted, “I probably should, though. You mind if I watch?”

This was how they landed in the kitchen, Bucky talking through each of his moves step by step while Steve sat on the sleek granite countertop, legs dangling and bare feet sticking out of the bottoms of his fitted sweatpants. Overhead, Bucky’s music played, loud enough to hear but soft enough to speak over. Steve seemed intrigued by his eclectic five-thousand-something song collection, occasionally perking up not to listen to Bucky’s cooking play-by-play, but the background noise.

The endearing, pensive expression his face assumed at every new sound stirred something wonderful and terrible in Bucky’s gut.

Oh, he was in trouble.

The line of professional and personal often blurred in the realm of support A/B/Os. Everyone knew that. By nature, a support lent intimate contact, scent-marking their in-need’s space with their scent, offering sex in time of heat or rut or even outside of it, encouraging them to reenter the world in their own time. Most contracts ended in a mating.

Bucky excelled at maintaining his support gigs’ contracted time. Yes, he scented, scent-marked, and had sex with in-need A/B/Os, but he kept the touches and conversation in the court of his in-need. He didn’t let tiny pieces of himself slip out, little bits about liking to feed people and his heart growing three sizes because Steve bought a mountain of toys for his dog.

Two days. He was two days into a long-term support job with no established ending in his contract and already his professionalism wavered like a sapling in a hurricane. What the fuck.

Bucky shook his head and refocused his attention on the task at hand. Steve Rogers could save the world, but he could not feed himself. At least, charmingly, he expressed a desire to learn how to feed himself. Whenever Bucky’s time with Steve ended, the man should be able to stir-fry some vegetables and throw some cuts of meat in the oven.

Amazing what some sleep and vegetables could do, honestly.

**

Two weeks had gone by, and Bucky hadn’t managed to get Steve out of Avengers Tower. Steve occupied two spaces: his apartment, and the fancy gym several floors below the apartment. Miraculously, or perhaps as engineered by JARVIS, no one ever came to the gym when Bucky, Steve, and Beans were in it.

And to Steve's credit, while socialization was not on the docket, the apartment situation improved drastically. They minimized the use of cleaning products and emphasized the use of scent to establish safe territory, a place that belonged to Steve. Bleach lingered in the corners, an undercurrent in the air, but the primary scent belonged to Steve, his smooth, steel, city-boy aroma settling as it should have from the start into the furniture he seemed to hate.

(The pieces struck Bucky as impersonal in the way that waiting room furniture was impersonal – neutral furniture that offended no senses but also did not please them. He suspected Tony never intended for the furniture to become permanent fixtures, but rather placeholders until Steve replaced them with something to his own taste. Meanwhile, Steve floundered in a new century, unsure if his taste was his own or an old-fashioned thing born long ago and forgotten among the folds of time.)

But while Steve’s improvement gradually, steadily trekked along, Bucky struggled to find his footing, His usual rhythm lost in the face of supporting Steve Rogers. Was the fame what bungled his typical tactics, or was it the tempting scent of a highly compatible alpha?

Worse, could it be more? Could it be the shy smile he garnered from Steve when they discovered something that he liked together? Could it be the love he poured out to Bucky’s dog? The way his face lit up when he watched something he thought was beautiful?

All that, and his family would not leave him the fuck alone, no matter how many furious texting conversations he blazed through when Steve’s attention drifted.

 

The Barnes Family Meme Team

 

August 5, 2018

 

[8:17 PM] Bucky: I took on a new support gig jsyk. No end date. Extremely important. Can’t talk about it. Gonna miss Rosh Hashanah and no I haven’t figured out how to tell Mom.

 

[8:18 PM] Becca: Who could possibly be * that * important

 

[8:18 PM] Bucky: Classified

 

[8:18 PM] Rachel: You’re kidding

 

[8:19 PM] Bucky: Nope

[8:19 PM] Bucky: I signed so many NDAs I probably signed an NDA about how many NDAs I signed

 

[8:19 PM] Judy: No end date??? Why tf would you do that

 

[8:23 PM] Bucky: Real bad case

[8:24 PM] Bucky: Like real fuckin bad

[8:24 PM] Bucky: And being that it is CLASSIFIED, you can imagine how many supports my in-need had to choose from

 

[8:25 PM] Becca: So we what

[8:25 PM] Becca: Just like don’t get to see you

 

[8:28 PM] Bucky: Yeah. I’m allowed to check in and shit though. I made sure it got written into the contract.

 

August 7, 2018

 

[10:57 PM] Becca: Bucky you still alive

 

August 8, 2018

 

[3:44 PM] Rachel: Hey dick for brains this is a wellness check

 

[5:02 PM] Judy: Mom’s worrying

[5:02 PM] Judy: She thinks she has to call the police

 

[5:13 PM] Becca: Can the police do anything if it’s ~classified~

 

[5:16 PM] Rachel: Probably not but when has that stopped Mom from doing anything

 

[11:22 PM] Becca: Come on

[11:23 PM] Becca: I know you’re out saving the world or whatever but tbh I don’t care

[11:23 PM] Becca: At least call Mom you fucking gremlin

 

August 10, 2018

 

[8:30 AM] Becca: Bucky?

 

[8:32 AM] Judy: This is freaking me out

 

[8:41 AM] Rachel: First of all J aren’t you in Spanish class rn

[8:41 AM] Rachel: Second what if he got murdered by the government and we’re never gonna see him again

 

[8:50 AM] Becca: Okay Winifred Junior

 

[8:53 AM] Rachel: Wow

[8:53 AM] Rachel: I’m serious though

[8:54 AM] Rachel: What if he’s in trouble

[8:55 AM] Rachel: Calling the police won’t even do anything

[8:55 AM] Rachel: We just wouldn’t know

 

[8:57 AM] Judy: Fuck Spanish class my brother got kidnapped by a shady government organization

 

[9:24 AM] Bucky: Fuck’s sake. I’m fine you vultures

 

[9:24 AM] Judy: BUCKY!!!!

 

[9:24 AM] Rachel: You’re alive!!!

 

[9:25 AM] Becca: I swear my soul left my body just now

[9:25 AM] Becca: Are you just gonna keep disappearing like this

 

[9:36 AM] Bucky: Not sure. This is a full-time gig and I am * fine *

 

[9:37 AM] Judy: You have got to say something to Mom. She’s crying about you like every day and Dad’s mad you’re talking to us but not to them. Bucky please I am literally begging you to call our parents before I go like the whole way insane

 

[9:39 AM] Bucky: Ugh

[9:39 AM] Bucky: I’ll figure it out

 

“You’re frowning,” Steve remarked from beside Bucky, “Is everything okay?” On the television screen, another episode of Avatar played, one they’d seen before, because Bucky was distracted and Steve liked looping his favorite episodes over and over.

“My sisters are just being themselves,” Bucky sighed, “and I have to call my parents and tell ‘em family stuff’s off the table for a while, which sucks, because I know how upset my ma’s gonna be and I’m not ready to be cried at.”

Steve’s curious face faltered. “You’re not seeing your family?”

“No?” said Bucky, confused. “I’ve been right here, with you. Besides, where we go is at your discretion. It’s in the contract. I know what I signed. My folks – they’re just overprotective. And, well, after the whole Afghanistan thing, my mom takes it real hard if I’m not home for special occasions.”

“Special occasions?”

Bucky tilted his head from side to side, willing the kinks out of his neck. He didn’t typically bring any of his family stuff to an in-need, but every contract before this one came with a hard end date. The nebulousness of his contract with Steve reasonably put his family on edge. The Barneses were a nosy bunch; their worst nightmare was knowing nothing about one of their clan, and Bucky’d pulled a disappearing act before – though, that time hadn’t been on purpose.

“Rosh Hashanah,” Bucky clarified, “It’s a month away. They’re freaking out anyway.”

“You should go,” Steve said, mouth set in a hard line. “You don’t have to be with me one hundred percent of the time. That’s not fair to you.”

“Okay, well,” answered Bucky, “Yes, I do, because not only does the contract say I am to be with you one hundred percent of the time, but biology has us in sync. You need my scent and my touch, and I need yours. If we wanted to take time away from each other, we’d have to ease into it, the same way you do when you’re ending a contract.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“You separate an hour at a time until you can make a day without seeing each other. A day at a time until you can make a week. A week at a time until you can make a month. Just like that. We don’t have enough time to try that out, and even if we did, you are not in a position I’d feel comfortable leaving you in. Therefore, I am not going home for Rosh Hashanah.”

Steve’s frown ever-deepened. “But you want to go,” he reasoned.

“Look, Steve, I love my family, and yes, I like spending holidays with them. But you – you are my priority right now. I am here for you, not for me.”

If Bucky thought Steve’s frown could not possibly get frownier, he was sorely mistaken. Steve’s frown shifted into an outright pout-scowl double-whammy.

“You should go,” Steve said, in that obstinate way he had of saying things when he’d made up his mind.

“I told you –”

Steve held up a hand. “Let me finish. You should go. If we can’t be apart, then I should go with you. Would that be okay? Being together with your family?”

Bucky glanced to his phone, still flashing with frantic messages on the group chat that he shared with his sisters. His heart did ache at the idea of missing some unknown number of holidays with his family, missing Judy’s graduation from the fancy private science high school that she went to, and all the Wednesday Every-Barnes dinners where magic happened. But then, dragging Steve into all that seemed like a poor professional choice, and a poor personal choice. He’d be letting an in-need into his life in a way he’d never allowed an IN to be before.

Before he could weigh his options, his mouth spoke for him: “I guess if you’re okay with some Barnes family shenanigans, then it’s your funeral, pal.”

On Bucky’s lap, the group chat chugged along, his sisters demanding to know where he’d gone and when he would call their parents.

Steve inched across the couch so that his thigh pressed to Bucky’s. He didn’t pause to read the messages, but did watch the chat shift up and up with each new exclamation. Steve’s hand twitched, and then he asked, “May I have your phone?”

“Uh, sure,” Bucky said, and passed it over.

Steve thumbed through to the camera and thrust his hand out in front of them, snapping a selfie before Bucky could ask him what the hell he thought he was doing. The still of them on the screen encapsulated it all: Steve grinning, shit-eating shitty shitlord that he was, while Bucky gaped at him in profile, wide-eyed, with his elaborate hairstyle on full display.

“Steve, what th–”

Steve hit send.

“What have you done,” Bucky gasped, all drama. Fury would murder him, but that came second to what pain his sisters were about to unleash upon them both. He leapt to rip the phone out of Steve’s hand, but Steve held it just out of reach.

Steve shielded Bucky’s phone with his alpha bulk and fended Bucky off to read aloud, “Judy says ‘Nice manip you fucking tool’ and Becca says ‘You’re hilarious.’ Guess they don’t believe us, huh? Well, better take another for good measure.” Steve captured a second, much worse photo, blurry in-motion action of his awful grin and Bucky reaching over his stupid massive shoulder to grab the phone.

“Maybe I should say something,” Steve continued, “‘Hi, Bucky’s sisters. I’m sorry that he has been ignoring you. I’ll try to make sure he stays in touch. We will see you for Rosh Hashanah. Sincerely, Steve G. Rogers.’”

 

[9:50 AM] Bucky: Hi, Bucky’s sisters. I’m sorry that he has been ignoring you. I’ll try to make sure he stays in touch. We will see you for Rosh Hashanah. Sincerely, Steve G. Rogers

 

“You know you don’t sign texts with your whole-ass name, you fucking troll,” groaned Bucky.

Steve schooled his face into something innocent. “Golly gee, Buck, is that how it’s done? No one did ever help me figure out these new-fangled cellphones. See, in my day –”

Bucky snorted. “Has anyone ever told you that this is your day? Like, you grew up in a different time, sure, yeah, but you’re alive right the fuck now which inherently means that today is also your day. You don’t stop living when you turn twenty-five. Or, you know, if you crashed a plane into the ocean when you were twenty-six and woke up a kajillion years later to some shit.”

An odd little smile rose on Steve’s handsome, bearded mug. He nudged Bucky and said, “Nah, no, no one’s ever said that to me. It’s nice to hear.” He handed Bucky’s phone back to him and said, “You might be the only person that knows I figured out how to work this shit pretty damn quick. Fun to see how long I can string people along, though.”

Bucky let his forehead fall against Steve’s shoulder and exhaled into perfect scent beneath him. He dared a peek at his phone and at his sisters’ responses, exhaled again, harder.

 

[9:50 AM] Judy: UM

 

[9:50 AM] Rachel: Holy shit are we gonna get arrested for seeing this???

 

[9:50 AM] Becca: Don’t fuck with me, there’s no way that man signs his texts like that

 

Steve chuckled. “Guess the Barneses catch on fast.”

**

Of course, Fury invaded the apartment the following morning. A raucous banging rattled the front door, startling Bucky from his coffee. He snorted into it mid-sip and sputtered brew down the front of his shirt.

JARVIS, bless him, forbid access. He said, “Director Nicholas J. Fury is outside your door. Would you like to let him in?”

Bucky threw back his head and made the closest equivalent noise to fuck, already?

Steve, on his third plate of breakfast potatoes, pursed his lips. He rubbed his temples, assuming the look of a man about to confront a person you respect but also rarely would like to speak to. He waved as though JARVIS could see him and said, “That’s fine, JARVIS.”

Nick flew in with such resolve that his coattails flapped behind him. He kicked the door closed behind him, folded his arms across his chest, and narrowed his eyes at Barnes. He said, “You. You broke the terms of your contract.”

“Nick,” Steve started, but he went ignored.

“I should have you arrested. I could call my people right now and have you in front of a judge by Monday. Is that what you wanted?”

Nick,” Steve said again, “Bucky didn’t tell his sisters. I did. And I didn’t have to tell you that we told them, but I did. The contract states that it’s up to me to decide who we will or will not apprise of the situation. Right?”

“Not right,” replied Fury, “You are allowed to make people aware of the situation with SHIELD approval. That is what the contract states. You don’t know who will step out and tell the world that you have a support omega, and you don’t know what the public will do to you if they know. What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that only a selfish man would keep his support away from their family,” Steve said. “It’s not right to keep Bucky away from his family. We’re telling his parents, too.”

“No. Not until they sign the same paperwork that Sergeant Barnes did. My people have already contacted your sisters, Barnes. They will be getting the NDAs you did. If any of you messes this up, I will make sure that you never take another IN case in your life. Do you understand?”

“What part of ‘I told Bucky’s sisters’ was unclear?” Steve asked, now standing. His hands clenched into fists at his sides, and for the first time since Bucky came on board as Steve’s support omega, the sharp smell of aggressive alpha leaked into the room. He didn’t balk at the scent; the Marine Corps acclimated him to it, but he did lift one interested brow.

“You don’t have that right,” said Nick.

“What do you mean I don’t have that right? This is my support. This is my apartment. This is my choice.”

“This was SHIELD’s choice. SHIELD chose to let you have a support omega.”

“I am a person, Nick, not your fucking asset!” Steve snapped. “Rewrite the fucking contract.”

“No.”

“Rewrite. The. Contract,” Steve gritted out, “Or I will tell the entire world that I have a support omega. What are you going to do? Arrest Captain America for talking about his own shellshock or post-traumatic stress disorder or whatever the hell it is? That’ll go over well with the people. ‘Captain America indicted for being sick.’ Is that what you want?”

The ensuing silence could have cooled the coffee still clutched in Bucky’s prosthetic hand. In past cases, he might have intervened and used his scent to bring his IN’s aggression down to a stable level. He might have cooed that everything would be okay and that there was no need to worry. Everything would sort itself out.

But that was for unwarranted aggression, for outbursts at the grocery store or at family members or alone in their territory.

This felt necessary.

Also, Bucky had never heard anyone speak to Fury like this, and he wanted to see what would happen.

With each alpha in posturing positions, nothing was off the table. But then – Bucky realized. Steve stood not simply with anger in his rigid spine, but stood between Fury and Bucky. He was not posturing for himself, but for an omega he valued and wanted to protect. On an average day, a move like this might have pissed Bucky off. He didn’t need protection. He could, and would, fend for himself.

But Steve needed this.

Beans, from her spot at Bucky’s feet, growled, and the spell broke.

“Agent Romanov will escort both of you to SHIELD tomorrow morning to sign the revised paperwork. Be careful, Cap. What we laid out in the contract was for your protection,” Fury surrendered, his fingers twitched like he wanted to strangle the life out of Steve.

“I don’t need protection,” Steve said, “I need autonomy.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Five

Chapter Track: The Guns of Jericho – Flogging Molly

The Man I Used To Be

 

Natasha didn’t speak much on the drive to SHIELD’s New York division, but on the return trip, she remarked, “Never heard of Fury letting someone change his mind. Seems like you might be getting your groove back.”

Steve opened his mouth to tell her that wasn’t any of her business, but closed it when he recalled Tony’s concern, the hurt on his face when he explained he thought that he and Steve were friends. Natasha didn’t wear her heart on her sleeve the way Tony did sometimes, but who was to say what bubbled beneath the surface? Steve, as usual, couldn’t decipher her cryptic expression, although he did wonder if her eyes so intently trained on the road were her excuse not to look at him.

She’s asking because she’s your friend, he had to consciously tell himself, and worried his lower lip between his teeth.

In the backseat, Bucky remained silent. This was Steve’s battle to fight, then.

“I’m finding my footing,” Steve said, and feeling compelled to continue, added, “We’re working on finding things that I like. So far the list is Avatar: The Last Airbender and Flogging Molly. And on that subject, I’m kinda ticked off that I missed the conception of rock n’ roll. Must’ve been a hell of a time. Why are you smiling at me?”

“That’s the most you’ve ever said to me that wasn’t about work,” answered Natasha, “and my favorite character is Mai. I think she and I have a lot in common.”

“You watch Avatar?” Steve said, unsure why this surprised him.

“Sure do. There’s a lot you don’t know about me, Steve. But that’s okay – we’re working on it.”

Steve picked absently at the skin around his thumbnail. He offered, “You could come up to our place sometime, if you wanted. Watch a couple episodes. Or maybe you have another recommendation? I’m working on getting those from people I like, instead of strangers.”

“I have terrible taste,” Natasha replied, “Unless you want to criticize procedural crime shows over vodka sodas.”

“Maybe I will. I haven’t tried it yet,” Steve shrugged.

“They’re asking about you, you know,” Natasha said, “Clint’s come up from Bed-Stuy a couple times and wanted to know what you’re doing. Bruce won’t say it, of course, because he’s too polite, but you haven’t been down to raid the fridge for a while. They’re not worried about you in a work capacity. They’re worried about you because they’re your friends. We are your friends.”

Before the crushing weight of guilt could trample him, Bucky intervened. He leaned forward, poking his head in between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, and asked, “Ms. Romanov, do you really think guilt tactics are the best way to help your recovering friend?”

Natasha eyed Bucky as the car rolled to a stop at a red light.

“I suppose not,” she said.

The rest of the ride home passed with quiet between them, though somehow this quiet wasn’t awkward – more contemplative. Bucky’s interference gave all of them something to think about.

When they pulled into Tony’s garage and unloaded from it, Natasha put her hand on Steve’s arm. She asked, “May I give you a hug?”

Steve blinked. Natasha tended to mystify him, though he wasn’t stupid enough to think anything other than knowing she wanted him to feel that. Black Widow’s game bled into Natasha’s life, he supposed, much like Captain America’s everything bled into Steve.

When Natasha shed her suppressants for undercover missions, she smelled nice, light and floral, all omega. When she returned home, she turned to suppressants to make her comfortable again, and this was one of those times. The absence of scent suppressants lent folks put Steve off at first. He didn’t understand how somebody could smell like nothing, nothing at all. As part of his re-entry into the twenty first century, somebody threw a thick primer for important social, technological, and medical advances. Safe suppressants captured all three.

Now, the absence of scent didn’t faze him quite as much. You couldn’t get to know some people through the threads of scent rolling off their skin anymore, and that was good and bad. In the context of Steve’s team, it was simply Natasha, the blank spot in the smells of the people that he fought with side by side.

Natasha withdrew her hand at the lack of response, and Steve leapt to pull her back to him. He hugged her close to his chest. Maybe he hugged a little too hard, because Natasha laughed and smacked his arm. Close up, he smelled something on her, something different than omega. A hint of familiar, firewood alpha touched his nose.

Steve crinkled his nose. “You smell like Clint,” he said.

“I know,” replied Natasha, “He’s my mate.”

“But you don’t live together?” Steve said, confused.

“I know,” she repeated, “but that’s only sometimes. He comes up to the Tower for extended stays, remember?”

“Ruts?” Steve guessed, before his face heated with embarrassment. He scrambled to say, “I’m sorry. That’s personal. It’s none of my business.”

“Maybe not, but you’re my friend,” she told him, with a quirk of her lips on one side, “So, not that it’s your business, but Clint does stay at the Tower for ruts. He doesn’t like suppressants like I do.”

**

Later, Steve, Bucky, and Beans headed down to the team gym together. Bucky queued up his workout playlist as he’d begun to after Steve told him that the music wouldn’t bother him. Steve visited the punching bags and the strength equipment a little, but mostly, he watched Bucky and threw a tennis ball for Beans.

Across the gym, Bucky flipped his body up in the air on a set of bars and, with his feet straight above him, pushed his weight down, muscles straining with deadly grace beneath the skin.

Beans dropped a slobbery tennis ball at his feet. Steve threw it. When he turned back, Bucky met his eyes as he did another push-up on the bar.

“How’d you learn that?” Steve asked, “I don’t think they teach you that in the military, unless times have changed that much.”

“First of all, the marines’ll teach you a lot more than the army,” Bucky started, to which Steve rolled his eyes. They’d taken to teasing each other over their careers in opposing branches of the military, the same way Steve and his guys during the war would give each other shit for all the different places they came from, the same way Steve and Sam bickered over army and air force.

“Second of all,” Bucky went on, “I took gymnastics as a kid. I got real good at it, competed some as a teenager. I bet you could find Youtube videos of me somewhere in a sparkly leotard, circa 2002, if you wanted. Turns out when you mash up gymnastics with combat training, you get creative.”

“Clint was in the circus,” Steve told him.

“No shit,” Bucky remarked, “No wonder he’s got some tricks up his sleeve. I’ve always wondered how we’d do in a long-range shooting face-off. ‘Cause, you know, he’s famous for never missing a shot. I’m infamous for it, but only in select circles. Figure he wouldn’t know what hit him.” With that, Bucky swung his body around and dismounted, landing neatly on the padded floor.

“Ta-da,” he said, and winked.

Bucky always looked good when they went to the gym. His tight clothes and practical shoes and half-braided hair radiated confidence and strength and elegance all in one package. When the sweat rolled down the back of his neck and his scent clouded up in the gym, Steve’s head swam. The anger he took with him to the punching bags – reinforced, the fourth iteration of their kind so Steve would stop breaking them – seeped out of his limbs and his mind, leveling him to this neutral plane of existence he didn’t know was possible.

Bucky never seemed to mind that Steve liked to look at him, but that didn’t stop the shame from eating at his gut when he did. He knew as Bucky’s IN he was supposed to enjoy the scent and look of his support, but he also knew that this was not a romance. It was a working, therapeutic relationship. The contract laid down terms for sexual contact, but Steve blushed and muddled all the way through the conversation when they discussed it in the original interview at SHIELD. God knew that sex and romance were not the same thing, but Steve was damn certain his brain would tangle up the two.

A wet tennis ball slapped the padded floor beneath their feet. Steve broke his attention from Bucky, relieved to find an excuse to stop staring at the most beautiful omega he’d ever seen. Beans’ tongue lolled out of her mouth and she panted with the exertion of playing fetch with a supersoldier. Steve picked up the ball and pitched it across the length of the gym.

“Good girl, Beans,” Steve called as she went after it again.

“You look like you’ve got something on your mind,” Bucky said, and sidled to the leg press.

As Bucky sat, Steve knew that Bucky could not know of his line of thought on sex and romance. Fury made it crystal clear that if he heard one whisper of Steve abusing his position of power in his support relationship that he’d take Bucky away so fast Steve’s head would spin. Bucky had a whole life outside of Steve that he gave up to be here. He could go back to that any time. Having Bucky was a privilege, not a right.

Steve went for casual. “Just wondering what this song is,” he said.

Bucky cocked a brow. He answered, “Toxic. Britney Spears is one of the most influential omegas of our time, you know.”

Steve furrowed his brow.

“Don’t you go thinking you have to go research Britney Spears now,” Bucky went on, “You don’t need to google everything I like.”

The hitch and heave of the leg press echoed in the empty cavern that was the team gym. A wet plop sounded behind Steve and Beans’ tail thump-thump-thumped on the mats. Steve collected the ball, hurled it, and returned to his position of admiring Bucky’s thick thighs and muscled calves. His spicy-sweet smell soaked the space between them, flowing from every piece of equipment that Bucky touched.

“Can I ask you a question?” Steve blurted.

“Shoot,” Bucky replied.

“Fury said you’re on suppressants,” he said, “but people that go on suppressants don’t have scents.”

“Ah, yeah, suppressants is a misnomer for what I’m on,” Bucky answered, “Supports obviously need their scent, so we go on birth control. And I, in your case, am on super birth control, in case your super sperm penetrates my fertile womb and makes a super baby.”

“I, but,” Steve said, unable to form words. He regretted every word he’d asked.

He didn’t mind talking about sex – he didn’t, despite what every person on this planet believed (except Peggy, who was in a home in DC, but he was a coward and didn’t know how to face her as a woman that lived a whole life while he remained suspended in ice, out of his mind with shellshock and horror and unable to be the alpha that the world needed). In this respect, between Steve and Bucky and their contract, he didn’t know where sex fell. He understood sexual contact was expected in a relationship like theirs, that only special cases of support A/B/Os excluded sex, and that a contract always covered when there were no-sex rules.

“We don’t have to talk about sex, if it makes you uncomfortable,” Bucky said. He finished his set, heaved a breath, and dismounted from the press, bending to stretch.

“It’s not that. I don’t want to cross a line, is all.”

“Stevie,” Bucky said, “My wonderful, self-sacrificing, idiot alpha. If you cross a line, you’ll know.”

With that, Bucky pulled in close. He rubbed his hand on the small of Steve’s back as he did when he wanted to be soothing. Then, without warning, he reeled his palm back, and smacked Steve’s ass.

“Race you to the showers, punk,” he said, and ran.

“Hey!” Steve called, ass stinging, and chased after him.

**

As the steam cleared, Bucky’s silhouette appeared the mirrored doorway behind Steve. At first, when Bucky interrupted Steve when he had only a towel around his waist to cover him, Steve’s heart fluttered nervously, old worry about his body and a compatible omega shooting through him. Now, in a handful of weeks, he came to expect Bucky leaning against the door frame, drinking Steve in brazenly. Heat pooled low in his belly at the attention – it always did – and Steve was certain that Bucky could smell the hint of arousal that he couldn’t smush down into a box where it belonged. Mercifully, he never remarked on the fact that Steve smelled like a brothel sometimes.

Steve scratched his fingers through his beard. He looked like an island castaway, or a caveman, or something with equal lack of access to a barber.

“I could trim it, if you want,” Bucky said.

“What? You can?”

“Yeah. Did you know JARVIS has instructions to get me anything I need for you? I tried buying a shaving kit myself and JARVIS insisted that Tony ‘wants us taken care of.’”

“You know how to cut hair?”

“That too. My dad’s a barber. Owns his own shop in Crown Heights, right near where I grew up. I worked for him in the summers when I was a kid, all the way up through high school. Granted, I mostly worked the front desk and swept up hair, but he taught me a thing or two when he could.”

Dumbfounded, Steve craned his neck away from the condensation on the mirror and made a face at Bucky. He asked, “Is there anything you can’t do?”

“Sing, for starters,” responded Bucky, “I sound like somebody’s choking a crow. I’m a terrible actor. Come to think of it, I’m not great at the arts in general. I’m better at tactile stuff, things I can do with my hands or body. None of that conceptual shit quite computes for me. I’m pretty sure I only ever passed my art class in high school because my teacher felt bad for me. My sister Becca, she’s the same way. She’s in med school. Thought she wanted to be a nurse, ended up wanting to be a surgeon. Rachel, though, she’s got a hell of a voice. Always the lead in school plays. She went to Julliard and now, I shit you not, sings opera.”

“And Judy? What does she like?”

“She wants to go into forensic chemistry,” Bucky answered, “she goes to this private science school because she’s way fuckin’ smarter than me. She plays trumpet, too. Total band geek. Nerd within nerds.”

“Are they just as sure of themselves as you are?” asked Steve.

“We Barneses are a passionate bunch,” Bucky said. “Anyway, you want me to clean up your Karl Marx beard?”

“It is not that bad,” Steve argued, “and Karl Marx had some very good ideas.”

Several minutes later found Steve dressed and sitting on one of the kitchen chairs, one of his plain, white towels secured around his neck while Bucky threaded his fingers through Steve’s damp hair and scritching his nails through the beard, along the blade of Steve’s jaw. Steve couldn’t contain a helpless moan at the sensations of being massaged and pampered while Bucky got his bearings. Bucky hummed an approving sound back.

A shaving kit and some other supplies sat in a tidy line along the edge of the kitchen table. From it, Bucky took a pair of clippers in hand first. He asked, “How short do you want your hair? Circa 2012 Cap style? Or 1944 super hunk? Something new?”

“I think I like it a little longer,” Steve admitted. The long hair rejected the classic image the public had of Captain America, and in turn, of Steve Rogers. He didn’t look like the same man, and he liked it that way. He owned this haircut, not the United States military, or SHIELD. A small thing it may have been, but the idea of doing something small that he wanted settled pleasantly in his gut.

They didn’t speak while Bucky trimmed his hair, working with his fingers and a comb to take some of the length of negligence from it. He didn’t take too long, but even fifteen minutes of fingers brushing against his scalp in tender, measured touches allayed the chaos in Steve, the ever-thrumming anxiety that sung under his skin now muted.

“All right, lean your head back so I can get at this bad boy,” Bucky instructed, cradling the beard between his palms.

Bucky clipped and trimmed and combed, and when he finished, he held up a small brown bottle with a black stopper. He handed it to Steve and said, “This is beard oil. It keeps everything lookin’ all pretty.”

The Viking. Badass Beard Oil,” Steve read, and unscrewed the cap. “It smells like you.”

“That’s because I use it,” Bucky said, patting one side of his face.

“Why is it called The Viking?”

“I don’t know. Because Vikings are super cool? You may have observed I enjoy paying tribute to their hairstyles. Anyway, put a little bit of that on your hands and run ‘em through your beard.”

Steve obeyed, and after he set the beard oil aside, Bucky asked, “You wanna go see what you look like?”

Beans followed them to the bathroom, where someone new stared Steve in the face. Yes, his longer hair and beard remained, but now they looked to be on his head on purpose, rather than at the hands of lethargy. He ran his fingers through the beard and the hair pushed back over his head. This man did not resemble Captain America, and for that, he was grateful. This face did not blink at him from propaganda posters and political memes.

“Buck,” breathed Steve, “This is amazing,” and then turned to scoop Bucky into a hug. Bucky looped his arms around Steve’s waist and held him back, nose tucked into the crook of Steve’s throat. He didn’t seem to realize that he was scenting, but Steve meant it when he told Bucky he didn’t mind. He liked knowing that his scent entranced Bucky at least a little bit. Even a fraction of his affection for Bucky’s scent sent in the other direction put a smile on his lips.

After they slid out of the embrace, Steve let his hands rest on Bucky’s hips, while Bucky still held his waist. For a long while, they looked at each other. Happy, soothed, warm all the way up on the inside, Steve let a tentative grin break through. Before he could talk himself out of it, he ducked forward and pecked a chaste kiss to the top of Bucky’s head.

“Let’s go watch cartoons,” he said.

**

Three days later found Bucky and Steve tucked together on the couch, Steve reclined against the arm while Bucky nestled in the V of his legs. On the floor below them, Beans cheerfully chewed on her tire toy. They’d started Adventure Time, another one of Bucky’s downtime favorites. While Bucky’s head drooped against Steve’s shoulder, Steve flicked through some online shopping on his StarkPad. Bucky wore band t-shirts sometimes, and he didn’t see why he shouldn’t.

Before Steve could click through to his shopping cart to buy a Flogging Molly t-shirt, JARVIS announced, “Your new clothes will arrive tomorrow morning.”

“JARVIS,” Steve complained, “I can buy my own things.”

“Between you and me, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS answered, “I think Sir is taking care of you the only way that he knows how.”

And oddly, it was the t-shirt that did the trick.

True to JARVIS’s word, the Flogging Molly t-shirt arrived at his apartment at a little past eight o’clock in the morning the following day. Bucky, who’d been too sleepy to pay attention to what was in Steve’s hand, asked, “What is that?”

“Shirt,” Steve answered, and ripped the package open. He shook the black shirt out and held it up. The smell of new, manufactured clothing tickled his nose, and the shamrock and snakes on the front touched a little, tiny piece of Steve in the back of his mind, something that he’d forgotten. His mother was Irish, an immigrant to America, and the brogue of the lead singer reminded him of an old something, the lilt in his mother’s voice, the way she spoke of the place from which she came with such affection.

Funny how some twenty-first century music managed to pull his heritage nearer to him.

Without ceremony, Steve shed his sleep shirt and tugged the new one on. The fabric stretched across his pecs, snug, but a perfect fit.

“Looking good, Stevie,” Bucky told him, giving a metallic thumbs-up.

Steve ducked to look at himself, pleased at the blend of his new haircut and his new shirt. Surety flickered through him, something he’d only felt before in the face of battle.

Still, when he returned to Bucky, his own declaration took him by surprise. He said, “I want to talk to my friends. About you. Today.”

Bucky snorted coffee up his nose. He sputtered, wiping his mouth on the edge of his sleeve, and said, “Not that I’m not happy to hear that, but what brought this on?”

“I feel like myself.”

Bucky nodded, assessing. He asked, “So how to we do this?”

“It’s important. I’ll call them to assemble.”

“You’re going to assemble the whole-ass Avengers?”

“Why, nervous?” teased Steve.

Bucky flailed. “I mean, a little! Is Thor going to be there?”

“Bucky Barnes, are you a Thor fan?” Steve laughed.

The apples of Bucky’s cheeks colored. He ran his fingers through his hair and said, “He’s the actual god of thunder. It’s really cool, Steve. Not that you aren’t cool too! Supersolider is a good power, although if you ask me, your real super power is the fact that you’re a stubborn asshole.”

“The fact that you’re starstruck by Thor but not by me is kind of comforting, I have to say,” Steve said, “Don’t look at me like that. I’m not jerking you around. Not knowing whether someone is interested in me or my celebrity is – awful. I’m relieved to be pedestrian to somebody.”

Bucky puffed up his cheeks and made a sweeping gesture with his hand over his breakfast. He said, “All right. I guess if we’re gonna do this, it’s better to pull the band-aid off, right?”

“JARVIS, can you tell the Avengers we’re assembling on the communal floor in an hour?” Steve said, hands on either hip.

“Of course, Captain Rogers.”

**

This was as prepared as Steve could get: he wore his new shirt, his new haircut and dark jeans (“Your ass does not quit in those, Rogers,” Bucky had told him). At his side, Bucky fidgeted nervously with the braid on the side of his head, worried more about meeting Thor than telling the Avengers that Captain America was a mess of post-traumatic stress disorder. Steve hooked his hand around Bucky’s waist and drew him close enough that their sides pressed together.

On her leash, Beans wagged her tail, tennis ball in mouth. Once she saw they were headed toward the elevator, she assumed she would be going to the gym to play fetch. Bucky assured him that the Avengers would be, at worst, the same amount of exciting as a tennis ball.

“Shouldn’t I be the nervous one?” Steve asked, though he was, someplace inside him, writhing with anxiety.

“Shut up,” Bucky muttered, so Steve stroked his hair, carefully avoiding the styled parts that Bucky worked so hard on. Bucky caught his lip between his teeth and added, “I’m worried for you too, for the record. I know this isn’t easy.”

“I feel less afraid when I’m with you,” Steve told him.

The elevator doors whooshed open to the common area before Bucky could get another word in. Steve let Bucky go, bolstered by the scent of his support lingering on his side. His heart thunked against his ribcage, as though it were trying to get out. This was his team. His team knew him to be Captain America: a leader, a fighter, a tactician. They didn’t know Steve the man, although he’d begun to think that maybe the Avengers might like to know that part of him, too.

Every Avenger sat on the comfortable furniture in the common area dressed for battle, but for Bruce, who stood in the corner in a button-down and slacks.

Clint spoke first. “Uh, are we not assembling?”

“Not for a fight,” Steve said.

He had to say it. He had to do this, because now he’d brought Bucky to them, and they knew of his existence. Not just Tony and Natasha – both of whom cast interested glances in Bucky and Steve’s direction – but all of them. Steve worked side by side with these people for seven years. They should know.

But.

Not because he worked with them, but because they were his friends. He hadn’t known they were his friends, but he realized now – even if the nerves wracked his body, even if the words on the tip of his tongue urged him toward the precipice of potential rejection, these people cared. He should care in turn. This gesture of trust wouldn’t alleviate the distance he put between himself and the Avengers for the last several years, but it could start something.

What it would start, Steve couldn’t say. He wouldn’t know until the words stuck in his throat found their way out of it.

Steve placed his hand between Bucky’s shoulder blades and urged him forward, garnering an annoyed expression from his support omega. He licked his lips.

“For the foreseeable future, I’m benched,” Steve told him, “This is Bucky. He’s my support omega.”

The group burst into chaos, every single one of them with a question in their mouths. Thor, in his commanding manner, managed to get the upper hand. He didn’t ask Steve anything, but instead said, “He looks like a warrior, Steven.”

“He is. Tell them about yourself, Buck.”

Bucky stood rooted to the spot. Steve elbowed him in the side, earning another irritated glance.

“Hi,” Bucky said, “I’m Bucky. This is my dog, Beans,” and then someplace along the way seemed to find himself, “I’m helping Steve for a while. I’m a SHIELD-vetted support omega and a combat veteran. I was there when Thanos landed, fighting with Wakandan forces. Steve, you know, he’s been worried about talking to you all about this. Try not to make him regret it.”

“Uh,” Clint said again. He looked to Tony, perhaps baffled by the strange silence.

Tony held up his hands and said, “Don’t look at me. I already knew.”

“You knew?” Bruce said, “What – why did Tony know?”

“Wow! I take offense to that. First of all –” Tony started.

“Boys,” Natasha warned, and then, “I knew too.”

Clint waved her off. “You know everything.”

“I only pretend to know everything. I didn’t know that Steve was hurting.”

Clint shuffled in place. He opened and closed his mouth more than once. At last, when he spoke, he asked, “Are you, like, okay, Cap?”

Steve shook his head. His heart sunk a little at the moniker. He couldn’t be their captain anymore. He inhaled, willing steel into his bones, and lifted his chin. This wasn’t an inspirational speech before battle, but it was important – important to him. Even if he didn’t know how that importance fell in line with anyone else’s priorities, what mattered to Steve mattered to Bucky. He at least had one person on his side.

And with that person at his side, Steve elaborated, “I won’t pretend to know the intricacies, but I’m sick. Maybe I’ve been sick all my life. I’m not even sure.”

“But the serum?” Bruce said.

“I don’t mean sick like that,” responded Steve, “I mean my head ain’t all right. Tony – he saved my life. I was gonna jump. From the Tower. He talked me down. I got to thinking that I was sick, and I told Fury I wanted a support omega. Now he’s here. We’ve been kinda holed up in my apartment. I don’t think it’s right to stow Bucky away like that. I decided to tell the truth. You’re...my friends. I wanted you to know. I’m not your captain anymore. I’m just Steve Rogers.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Six

Chapter Track: It’s Happening Again – Agnes Obel

The Past Isn’t Dead

 

In the first two weeks to two months of a support/in-need contract, the parties involved experience a honeymoon period. Within that time, the individuals establish a repertoire and a routine, and begin implementing recovery strategies. For a first time support A/B/O, the end of the honeymoon period will feel like whiplash. The steps toward recovery fall back and the true nature of the mental illness is exposed, complicating symptoms that seemingly disappeared prior. New support A/B/Os are advised to prepare well for this new stage of their in-need’s recovery, known in the psychology world as the manifestation period. The following chapter details the most effective ways to anticipate the manifestation period.” – Support A/B/O Planning and Procedure: Methods for Superior In-Need Therapy by Dr. Elaine Ford

 

After Bucky’s stint in Afghanistan, he slept light. He did much better now – years after the fact – but any combat experience jacked a person’s situational awareness to a staggering high, even after you closed your eyes. The softest shuffle out of place roused him, but tonight, whimpers were what broke the barrier.

Bucky blinked awake, his face plastered to the back of Steve’s neck, where often he found it in the mornings.

This time, though, he woke in the dark. Somewhere at the end of the mattress, Beans snored peaceably, but against Bucky’s chest, Steve’s muscles jumped. From his throat a small, wounded noise tore out, loud enough to startle the dog from sleep. Beans growled, uncertain, and Bucky shushed her. He smoothed a hand over Steve’s arm. Steve quivered, and then twitched back, knocking his elbow into Bucky’s gut. He cried out.

“Stevie,” Bucky murmured, “Steve. Wake up.” He ran his fingers through Steve’s hair, but moved his palm down when Steve didn’t wake. He massaged the pad of his thumb against Steve’s throat and –

Steve gasped awake, leaping from bed and tumbling onto the floor. In short, quick movements, he threw the closet door open with such force it ripped off the track. He ducked beneath the rack of clothing, with only a glint of streetlight against metal to warn him, launched the Captain America shield at Bucky.

Bucky caught the shield with his prosthesis, releasing an unholy clang into the bedroom.

Rather than continue the assault, Steve jumped back, head cracking against the wall.

“Steve, baby,” Bucky said. He dropped the shield into the sheets and climbed up, crouching on the mattress.

Baby? Where did that come from? Shit. He’d have to dissect that later.

“Baby,” he repeated for good measure, “It’s August 19, 2018. We’re in your bedroom in Avengers Tower. You’re safe. No more fighting. You’re safe with me.”

Chest heaving, Steve’s eyes darted from wall to wall. The stink of fear and aggression inflated in the space, choking them like carbon monoxide as it billowed out from corner to corner. Sweat dripped from Steve’s forehead onto his chest. The unfocused, feral slack in his face didn’t tighten back to normal. Wherever Steve was, it wasn’t this room.

“You’re in New York, baby,” Bucky went on, “It’s 2018. Are you here with me?”

Frozen, Steve failed to answer.

Fortunately, Beans trotted to him. She stuck her wet nose in the palm of his hand. Steve startled, blinking several times. He glanced from Beans under his hand to Bucky balanced on the balls of his feet on the bed to the shield in the sheets.

“What happened?” rasped Steve.

“You had a nightmare,” Bucky said.

“Fuck,” Steve cursed, “Fuck! I thought this was over.”

Now was probably not the time to discuss the stages of in-need recovery, but damn, did this honeymoon period end in fireworks. Slow and careful, Bucky unfolded his body. He held his hands out, kept them visible and emphasized he was largely unarmed, and approached him. The untamed look in Steve’s eye kept Bucky at a distance. A frightened alpha could accomplish impressive feats, fear driving them to physicality unreachable without the push of adrenaline – and that didn’t even take the superserum into account.

“It’s okay to backslide a little,” Bucky told him.

“I don’t want to backslide. I thought I was getting better,” Steve said.

“It’s gonna happen,” replied Bucky, “I wish recovery were linear, but it doesn’t work that way. One month you’ll be on top of the world, and the next you’re gonna wonder if you did anything at all. That doesn’t mean the progress you made is wasted. It just means that you’re learning.”

Muscle by muscle, Steve unlocked, the fight oozing from his body in uneven, uncertain clumps. He ran one, big hand back through his sweat-damp hair, then pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. He said, “I don’t want to go back to sleep.”

“You don’t have to,” Bucky assured him, “What do you want to do?”

“I don’t know. Aren’t you the expert?”

“I’m an expert on being a support omega, but I’m not an expert on you. You’re the expert on you. I can help you – whatever you need. What do you need?”

A shuddering breath rattled Steve’s body. The defeat that etched itself into his person – in his face, his eyes, the slump of his shoulders, shaking hands – resounded through the room. He stroked the top of Beans’ head.

The hard part of asking an alpha what they needed were the repressed needs of the past, the emotions they couldn’t put a name to because they grew up in a world that told them to be fearless and that they were weak to feel anything but surefooted. The same world that taught Bucky he couldn’t function without an alpha, that told him he was hysterical and too emotional and needy on the basis of being an omega taught an alpha to be the antithesis of those things. Those were omega emotions, and being an omega was something to be ashamed of, somehow, when omegas spent centuries quietly making history, when omegas were the people that brought the most life into the world.

“I have a suggestion, if you wanna hear it,” Bucky ventured. He doubted in Steve’s self-hatred that he’d find the thread to unravel it.

Steve made a ‘go on’ gesture.

“I can make us some coffee,” Bucky said, “We can sit on the couch and you can put your head in my lap. We’ll watch something new, and when the sun comes up, we can figure out what we want to do next. What d’you say?”

“Sounds as good as anything, I guess.”

“What do you usually do when you have nightmares?” Bucky dared to ask.

Steve’s lips fell into a flat, tight line. He answered, “Beat the shit out of some punching bags. Try to work on my list.”

“No offense, or full offense, really, to those people that yell at you about what you need to be catching up on,” Bucky said, “but I think we might need to do a ceremonial burning of the list. It takes all the fun out of discovering new things because it makes them feel like homework.”

He also thought the punching bags might need to see their own ceremonial burning, but Bucky kept that to himself.

(“He used to punch them so hard and go through so many that the skin came off his hands,” Tony told him, when Clint and Steve were occupied with petting Beans and throwing her ball across the communal floor, “Sometimes I go down to the gym when I can’t sleep, too, except I run on the treadmill and lift a little. Steve and I, we never talked when we were down there. Guess I should have known something was wrong from the get-go. I thought punching shit until he bled was a little dramatic, but he’s a little dramatic in general, you know? We have that in common, unfortunately. Anyway – something to keep your eye on. I think maybe every Avenger had a piece of the fucked-up Steve puzzle and none of us knew about it. I made the bags safer for him and I thought that was good enough. Lesson learned.”)

“Let’s just go with your idea,” Steve muttered, and stalked out of the bedroom. Beans cocked her head at Bucky, then went to follow.

While Bucky started the coffee pot, Steve sat on the couch with his face in his hands. He didn’t budge until Bucky pressed a steaming mug into his hands, black as the night around them. With some maneuvering, he slid in against the arm of the couch and coaxed Steve to rest his head in his lap.

An omega’s scent was strongest in two places: the throat and between the legs. Most folks assumed scenting between the legs paved the way toward sex, but it didn’t have to. Sometimes, Bucky encouraged this – an alpha on his thigh, where Bucky could stroke their hair and soothe with his scent.

Beans stretched out on the floor beside the couch, sensing, perhaps, that Steve needed her within reach so that he could pet her.

“This show’s older,” Bucky told Steve, navigating to The Twilight Zone on Netflix, “but not as old as you.”

Steve didn’t respond to the jest, and a hot seed of anguish burned in Bucky’s heart.

**

Steve hadn’t dared to sleep for three days after his nightmare. He saw his friends, Morita turning his head toward Steve only for his eyes to be empty sockets, Dernier’s jaw rotting off before his eyes, flesh eaten away in a fast-forward, the bone thunking into the mud. The sound alerted the Hydra goons they’d been stalking for hours, and when they opened fire with their terrifying, blue-glowing guns, the Howlies disintegrated into nothing.

What killed his friends didn’t finish Steve; instead, the blast of tesseract technology propelled Steve into a different foxhole on a different battlefield. The Howlies were gone, but the Avengers were there, all dressed in uniform, all ready to crawl in the mud and face the formidable unknown on his behalf.

“What do we do now, Cap?” asked Tony, sans Iron Man suit, mud smeared across his face and down the front of an outdated battle uniform. He shifted, and dog tags clinked against the circular gleam of the arc reactor.

Hydra closed in on them, blue light filling the night and revealing their position. There was nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.

“Stevie?” said a voice.

Outside the foxhole, over enemy lines, stood some twisted iteration of Bucky, something terrifying his out-of-time mind conjured. His long hair was gone, hacked off and trimmed into the style of Steve’s youth. He held a rifle Steve recognized from the hands of marines he met over the course of his deployment, a M1941 sniper rifle, their own iteration of a 1903 Springfield. Bucky the marine of 2018 would never have held this gun, but if Bucky the marine fought by Steve’s side in 1944 – this was what he would have held.

“Steve, baby,” Bucky said, and his legs trembled.

Hydra advanced, a thick circle of black uniforms and radiant weaponry.

The tesseract guns made almost no noise when they obliterated someone.

That was the scariest part of them.

** 

When a hand landed on Steve’s shoulder, he startled. He jerked away from the couch, tucked his body into a ball and rolled back past the coffee table, leaping to his feet in a fighting stance. Several paces away, Bucky’s hand hovered mid-air, his eyebrows lifted but no other outward sign of his feelings on his face.

Steve waited to be babied but instead, Bucky raised his left hand. In it, he held a book.

“I bought something for you,” Bucky told him, “Or, I guess, Tony did. But I thought of it. I think this’ll help you understand what you’re going through, some.”

Steve didn’t lower his hands, so Bucky slid the book to him over the glass surface of the coffee table. The cover read Support A/B/O Planning and Procedure: Methods for Superior In-Need Therapy in bold, black letters across a cream-colored dust jacket.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“It’s a book,” Bucky replied.

“Ha-ha, very funny,” said Steve, “Why are you giving it to me?”

“This is one of the books I read to brush up my support skills. It’s geared toward me and other support A/B/Os, but I thought you’d like reading the strategy behind what you’re going through here with me rather than, like, Support A/B/Os for Dummies.”

Steve furrowed his brow. “Is that a real book?” he wanted to know.

“Yeah, it’s like a whole series of books for everything ever,” Bucky answered, “but that’s like the entry-level shit. This one gets into the guts of what’s gonna happen here. I don’t mean like, contract stipulations. This paints the whole picture, gives you all the data, you know? There’s a timeline in there called In-Need Stages of Recovery. I think you’ll wanna know some of that.”

“So, what, I’m like a project? Some data points?” Steve slid out of his defensive position, gut stirring with the pissed-off sensation of being analyzed, as he was always analyzed, by doctors and the US military and SHIELD and history books – but this time by Bucky, somebody he was supposed to be able to trust. Somebody he had trusted more than he allowed himself to trust before.

“No, you asshole,” responded Bucky, “The book’s so you understand you’re not alone. You’re not fuckin’ special in this respect, Stevie. I promise that. You’re not the only person in this world that’s tried to kill themselves, and you’re not the only person in this world that didn’t succeed. There are other people like you that went and got the same help you’re getting now, and people write books about it so that we’re equipped to help more people and do it better every time. I’m not saying the author’s gonna map you out like a constellation and tell you how to feel, she’s gonna map out a pattern across thousands of support cases. Sometimes you skip a stage in there, sometimes you fall back and repeat ‘em, sometimes you do it out of order, but there are things we know about mental health in the twenty first century that are a little more advanced than what you grew up with, full offense.”

Tired, Steve scraped a hand over his face. The faint buzz of exhaustion tingled behind his ears and at his temples.

“Look,” Bucky continued, “This shit you’re going through – it sucks, but it’s okay that you’re going through it. You get me?”

“Not really.”

Bucky sighed and shook his head. He drew nearer to Steve, that kitchen spice-home scent creeping around Steve’s senses, drawing him out of high alert and back to his baseline exhaustion. Bucky didn’t touch him, but stood so close that Steve could smell the cinnamon toothpaste on his breath.

“I’m gonna tell you something,” Bucky said, “but it does not leave this room. Under no circumstances are any Avengers allowed to know, and definitely not Fury. Fury cannot know.”

Knocked out of his frustration by curiosity, Steve straightened. He wet his lips and said, “Okay. No one knows.”

“You read my file, so you know some things,” Bucky said, “but you don’t know all of them. Some of it’s classified past your eyes, pal. But you’re trusting me with your damage, so I’m gonna trust you with some of mine.”

Post-serum, Steve forgot nothing. This crystal-clear recollection benefited battlefield strategy and thickened the files at SHIELD, but at night, the images haunted him. Aliens poured from a hole in the sky, Thanos snapped his fingers and people around him turned to dust, baby-faced eighteen-year-olds in 1944 cast one final terrfied look at him before they vanished into nothing at the barrel of a Hydra gun, not even their tags left behind for their families.

James Buchanan Barnes. Retired Marine Corps Sergeant. Two Tours. Captured by The Ten Rings. First foreign agent allowed to visit Wakanda. On the front lines against Thanos.

Bucky had seen pain, and for this reason, Steve accepted his help. A support that didn’t understand the fear and adrenaline and guilt and love for the fight wouldn’t understand Steve. War tore a man apart but his team sewed him back together. Under fire they were Frankenstein’s monster, horrified to find who they were in the mirror and desperate to love and protect one another. Violence warped the mind of a human being, and those that had not seen it could never comprehend the power of this past.

“I didn’t go to Wakanda for a diplomatic mission,” Bucky said, “I got sent there for help.”

“Help for what?”

“And that’s the sticky part, Steve. Somewhere out there, my boogeyman is still kicking, and we don’t know who they are. I was captured in Afghanistan, but Stark had long since wiped The Ten Rings off the face of the earth. The people who got to me? It’s a big fucking question mark, and that’s why Fury is such a helicopter-boss. When SHIELD found me, I’d been left for dead. They – they found me in this thing, this chair – and I didn’t know who I was. Look.”

Bucky lifted a lock of his hair just above his ear, parting it just enough to reveal gnarled but uniform, square scar tissue, something like an electrical burn. Bucky only for a moment let Steve see before the hair fell back in place.

“Got a matching one on the other side,” Bucky went on.

In light of the new information, Bucky’s braids took on new meaning.

“I get snatches of what happened sometimes,” Bucky told him, “I get my nightmares too, but nothing’s in focus. It’s all like looking through a kaleidoscope. Whatever they did to me there made SHIELD nervous, and that’s how I landed in Wakanda. Their tech surpasses anything we can make. Even Tony can’t create what they can. Princess Shuri – she helped fix my head, not just my arm. I remember most things now. The important things, I think. But not all of it.”

Steve reached out and cupped the back of Bucky’s skull in his palm. With his other hand, he stroked the electrical scar on the left side of Bucky’s head, small but raised, clear to anyone that knew where to find it. He nosed along Bucky’s hairline, then dropped a kiss to the old burn.

Shakily, Bucky breathed out. He said, “I don’t get the nightmares like I used to. If I did, they wouldn’t have cleared me to do what I do. But if I hadn’t seen all the shit I did? I wouldn’t be able to be the support omega that I am. I can’t pretend to know everything going on in your head. No one but you knows your head best. The fear, though, Steve? I know that, baby. I know that well. Give me some credit. You’re not an experiment to me. You and I? We share some things between us that other people ain’t gonna know. That’s true of all veterans, but I’m thinking we’ve got a few more things in common than all that.”

Steve nodded. What to say, he didn’t know.

The truth was that, as much as Steve wanted someone to understand the anguish, the white-hot pain a soldier shoved down and down until it disappeared into the darkest place inside them, he wished no one had to understand. He would endure ten times the pain to ensure that Bucky didn’t have to feel any, and the realization startled him.

A month into the support contract with Bucky, and he’d take on the world for him.

“I’d take ‘em out, if I knew who did it,” Steve told him.

“I know you would. That’s the thing, though. You don’t need to worry about taking care of my pain. You need to worry about taking care of yours,” said Bucky.

**

Barnes Family Meme Team

 

August 21, 2018

 

[12:13 PM] Becca:

[Image: Distracted Boyfriend Meme: Bucky is looking away from “Rosh Hashanah” to “Actual Steve Rogers”]

 

[12:35 PM] Rachel:

[Image: Two Buttons Meme: Bucky is sweating over choosing “Spend time with family” and “That alpha dick”]

 

[12:49 PM] Judy:

[Image: Left Exit 12 Off Ramp Meme: Bucky is exiting away from “His loving sisters” toward “Captain America but with a beard”]

 

 

[1:24 PM] Bucky: First off how are you making those so fast

[1:24 PM] Bucky: Second of all Steve and I are coming for Rosh Hashanah so eat my ass

[1:25 PM] Bucky: Thirdly not that it’s your business but we are not having sex yet

[1:25 PM] Bucky: He seems kinda stressed out when I talk about it actually

[1:26 PM] Bucky: Fourth I am actually kind of panicking about something and I need you all to be cool for like two entire seconds

[1:27 PM] Bucky: So this is my thing. I’m pretty good at being a support omega. I’ve done it enough times that I know a basic drill and I’ve got some shit down to a science. Steve’s whole case is throwing me for a loop. Like I should have known it would because this man has Seen Some Shit right? But it’s only been like a month and everything feels different. He smells like actually amazing and the other night I started calling him baby and now I can’t stop and what if I’m like catching feelings but only bc he’s famous? What if I’m taking advantage of him? Am I being a piece of shit? Idk, more at eleven

 

[1:43 PM] Becca: Wow uh there’s a lot to unpack there buddy

[1:43 PM] Becca: But I’m gonna try so here goes

[1:44 PM] Becca: You can’t make up somebody’s scent doing it for you, so let’s start there

[1:44 PM] Becca: And then you obviously care about the IN you get involved with, because duh, that’s what happens when you’re a support omega

 

[1:45 PM] Bucky: Yes thank you for alpha-splaining my own job to me Rebecca

[1:45 PM] Bucky: I’m saying this doesn’t feel like my other jobs

[1:46 PM] Bucky: I’m saying that being around him feels like the way it’s supposed to be. In a cosmic sense. Like here is this alpha, he smells amazing and when he smiles at you you’re gonna melt a little and it’s gonna be like you’re 16 and looking at Eric Pullman from trigonometry again except ten times harder. I am 31 years of age I should not be melting for anyone

 

[1:53 PM] Rachel: Do you seriously not know how feelings work

 

[1:59 PM] Judy: Yeah full offense I’m 17 and I know what’s going on there

 

[2:33 PM] Bucky: This can’t be happening.

[2:33 PM] Bucky: This cannot be happening.

[2:33 PM] Bucky: What do I do I’m losing my entire mind

 

[2:40 PM] Becca: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

 

[2:41 PM] Bucky: Oh no

Chapter Text

Chapter Seven

Chapter Track: Sea of Doubts – Azure Ray

How You Know You’re Alive

 

Steve smelled Bucky before he saw him, the crisp spice outdone only by the accompanying aroma of concern. Steve lowered his eyes to his phone – 3:06 AM. No wonder Bucky hovered over him thunderous and pitying all at once, his arms folded over his chest and feet spread apart in a stance that promised I will get my way.

Bucky asked, tone falsely light, “What are you doing up?”

Steve shrugged a shoulder. At his feet, from her spot sprawled over the end of the couch, Beans thwacked her tail against the cushions in a half-hearted wag.

“Steve.”

“I never went to sleep,” Steve said, “I got in bed and I closed my eyes, and nothing happened. Back to malfunctioning.”

He probably looked as crazy as he sounded, hair wild despite Bucky’s attention to it. Fatigue saddled him as it had pre-Bucky, and while Steve was an expert on keeping that fatigue out of his work and away from cameras, he never had mastered a round-the-clock disguise. Even if he had, he doubted he’d stop Bucky from seeing through him.

A growl rolled through Bucky’s chest, a sound almost alpha, but not quite.

“You’re not a car, Steve. You’re not a machine. You are not malfunctioning. You have PTSD. That’s part of your humanity; it’s not indicative of your usefulness. Which, while we’re on the subject, has no bearing on your value as a person. Now get up. We’re going back the fuck to sleep.”

“I don’t see what the point is. I’m not going to fall asleep. I can’t.”

Bucky seemed unmoved.

“Then don’t sleep,” he simpered, “But you’re gonna get in that bed, and you’re gonna close your eyes. You’re not sitting out here staring at nothing. Your body needs to rest. Up! We’re going.”

Steve groaned, but slid off the couch and followed Bucky to the bedroom.

Anyone else would have looked soft and touchable in their pajamas, but even as the plaid flannel stretched and hugged the generous curve of Bucky’s ass, he marched forward like a marine, every line of his body stretched taut and proud, muscles clenched, prosthesis glimmering in the dim light of the hallway. How deadly he looked in the shadows, Steve mused.

At the bedroom door, Bucky pointed Steve in, eyes glued to him as though Steve might run at any moment. He had half a mind to do just that – Bucky wasn’t enhanced. He wouldn’t be able to catch up if Steve made a break for it, but then, where would he run?

With nowhere to go but his nightmares, Steve obeyed. He perched on the edge of the mattress while Bucky flipped lightswitches, and picked at some of Beans’ fur left on the dark blue sheets. He still slept more with Bucky here, but since the nightmares returned with a vengeance...he spent a lot of hours staring at the ceiling or scrolling through nothing on his phone.

Wasps vibrated under his skin at the idea of falling asleep. He didn’t want to see any more ghosts or imagine any more corpses. He didn’t want to, but he still tried. Steve tried to sleep all in the name of pleasing his omega, but once he fell into that thick dark, Bucky would face him in battle dress, clutching that 1903 Springfield with Hydra’s impossible weapons surrounding him. Steve, baby, he’d say, and then the blue light ruptured, and where Bucky stood lay scorched earth, nothing left behind that Steve could bring home to his sisters.

“Steve? Look at me,” Bucky commanded, ripping open the fabric of Steve’s thoughts. He cupped Steve’s face with his metal hand and traced along Steve’s cheekbone with his thumb. “You’re going to get through this. You’re not gonna find a cure tonight, and it’s not gonna happen like magic, but we will get you through this. It’s okay to be afraid, but you’re still lying down with me. That’s final.”

The no-nonsense tone threw Steve back to freezing nights with the Howlies, to Morita, their put-upon medic who motherhenned them all into shuteye when they weren’t under fire.

“If you can’t do your job, then we’re all fucked,” Morita would say, “Now you get on the goddamn ground and you sleep, Cap. I’m keeping watch – don’t worry your pretty little head about it.”

And just like then, Steve listened now. He drew his legs up and dropped his head onto a pillow that smelled like him and the fear he’d sweated into it. He growled, yanked it out from under his head, and tossed the pillow across the room.

“Jeez, pal, you got something against pillows?”

“Smells like nightmares,” Steve muttered. He pulled one of Bucky’s pillows under his head instead.

“Let’s try sleepin’ a little different,” Bucky suggested, with a shooing motion, “Move to my side. I’m not gonna jetpack tonight.”

Steve allowed it, and to Bucky’s credit, the writhing blood in his veins settled to a simmer upon being bathed in the scent of his omega, on his side of what amounted to their shared nest. He still didn’t think he would be able to sleep, but maybe Bucky was onto something. Maybe he could rest.

There, Bucky crawled into Steve’s arms. He snuggled up, pressed their bodies chest to chest, and threw one leg over Steve’s waist. With the unyielding metal of his prosthetic fingers, he guided Steve’s head forward, into his neck. They did this part often. Tucking his nose against Bucky’s neck made some happy chemical in Steve’s brain, effective as a tranq dart straight to the gray matter. This close to the source, Bucky’s scent made him go noodly-armed and stupid.

“JARVIS, hit the lights,” Bucky rumbled beneath Steve’s nose.

When the room fell into darkness, Steve let his eyelids flutter closed. For a long while, he laid like that: eyes shut but mind reeling, cogs sticky with the biological calm of being cradled by an omega. Not just any omega, but Bucky. Bucky and his perfect scent and startling muscles and gravelly voice.

Then,

Against all odds,

Their rhythmic breathing lulled Steve to sleep.

 

He woke up in Germany. The jumbled battlefield of his mind coughed up Morita’s rotting face alongside Thor in a uniform streaked with mud, of Peter Parker beside him with the haunted look of a soldier too young pooling in his eyes. Across the sprawling field beyond their trench, under an ironclad sky, stood Peggy as Steve remembered her, wrapped in a red dress, arms at her sides. At her side, Natasha wore black, her hair done up in victory rolls, a widow’s veil shrouding half her face. They didn’t blink or move, faces impassive, doll-like.

This time, Hydra hid elsewhere, somewhere beyond the treeline, abandoning them all to the fraught, quiet hours of languishing in a foxhole for the fight to come to them.

A raindrop, ice cold, splashed against Steve’s cheek, a singular warning before the heavens opened up and screamed sleet over them all.

“This is the worst part, ain’t it, baby?”

Steve jerked to look behind him, heart thudding so hard he felt it in his teeth. There, on the edge of the trench, perched Bucky. He was decked out in the style of a male omega in 1944 – hair meticulously trimmed and gelled back, cheeks pinked with rouge and lips redder than an apple. A wide-shouldered, crimson blazer down to a trim waist, where one leg crossed over the other in wide-legged, creased slacks. As the rain beat down harder, Bucky’s makeup ran, black streaks streaming from those serious blue-gray eyes.

“What part?” Steve heard himself ask.

“The waiting,” Bucky answered.

 

Steve’s eyes burst open.

He kept silent and still, even as he frantically searched the room. Sunrise bathed the walls with a sickly yellowish glow. The furniture stood sentry in the shadows, and none of the ghosts of his nightmares crouched around him.Bucky snoozed on, his face to Steve’s neck. In most cases, these days, Steve’s heavy heart would have lifted at being scented by his omega, at the knowledge that his scent did for Bucky what Bucky’s scent did for him.

Not tonight, though. Tonight, worms crawled under his skin, up his throat and in his ears. Bugs fed on his nightmares, feasted on his panic, dined on his misery. Like the Howling Commandos in his terrors, he was rotting, maggots pulling him apart. Steve couldn’t lay here and let them eat. He had to do something to get the bugs out of his blood and brain.

So, so, careful, Steve extricated himself from the steel grip of Bucky’s embrace. His omega whined softly when Steve squeezed his neck out from under Bucky’s nose. The noise was almost enough to tempt him to stay, but no. He couldn’t be still when his dread roared through him with such force that he couldn’t hear or think or breathe.

Steve pulled the blanket over Bucky’s curled-up form.

He quietly swapped his pajamas for workout clothes.

Beans leapt from the bed with the light jingling of tags. She wagged her tail, tentative, head cocking. Steve nudged her back to keep her in the bedroom, and closed the door to seal her in. He didn’t want her to see him like this, rotting and rattled.

Once Steve made it outside the apartment and into the elevator, he released the breath burning in his lungs. Everything would be okay. He knew how to settle this kind of chaos, to bleed the rot from his wounds and drain his arteries of bugs.

“JARVIS, take me to the gym,” Steve instructed.

“Of course, Captain Rogers,” JARVIS answered. If Steve didn’t know better, he’d say the AI sounded disapproving. If he didn’t know better, he might say the ride down to the gym took a good thirty seconds longer than it might have with Bucky and Beans.

The equipment that greeted him used to represent a lonely, gaping space. He saw here a life so unlike what he lived before he didn’t recognize the path behind him. Now, though, bits and pieces of new memories overlapped the loneliness. He could see Bucky messing around on the bars or lifting on the benches, laughing as Beans shoved her cold nose onto Steve’s cheek and surprised him into dropping his weights.

But the punching bags – those were always a lonely place. A place to be angry. The small army of Tony’s reinforced sandbags lined one section of the wall, each identical to the last, each with a white star emblazoned across them, because Tony thought he was being funny.

As he dragged one bag out into the open, Steve considered wrapping his knuckles. He should wrap them. That’s what Bucky would tell him to do. During the midnight stress workouts that predated Bucky, Tony had told him to do it.

(“Are you seriously gonna go at those with your bare hands? Wrap it up, Rogers. I can’t believe you’re making me Team Mom you right now.”

Steve listened – until Tony wore his body down enough to disengage it from his brain, leaving Steve to unwind the wrapping from his fingers and spill out his fury the way he really wanted.)

The shoft shuck of his shoes on the padded floor reverberated in the yawning emptiness of the gym. He hadn’t come down here alone in weeks. Since Bucky’s arrival, Steve never walked alone. He never worked out in silence. Bucky always queued up a playlist of quick-paced, high-energy music. A new part of Steve became used to bass thumping against the walls and the sound of paws on padded floors and the aroma of a sweating, alluring omega. That part, though, retreated in favor of a more familiar routine: nightmares to punching to blood to exhaustion.

The first punch resounded. Had his fists flying on the sandbags always been so loud? Could everyone in the Tower hear him bleed out the barbed ball of energy bouncing in his insides?

But Steve found his rhythm, rediscovered it like reconnecting with his oldest, meanest friend.

His strength split his skin. Warm blood pooled to the surface and dripped down his forearms in a macabre lattice. Tiny rivulets seeped down the side of the punching bag. His knuckles slipped and stuck in the mess of it, and flames engulfed his hands, agony radiating in his arms. That crawling, squirming energy, that rot, began to leak out of him at last, unstopping his trachea, popping his ears.

And then above the bloody din: “Babybabybaby, cut it out!”

A firm body encircled him, palms coming around to cup Steve’s destroyed hands, heaving him away from the punching bag.

“Let me go,” Steve protested.

Bucky did.

A wave of guilt swept Steve up in its spiral in the next instant. His omega panted behind him, barefoot and in his pajamas, hair escaping the scrunchie he pulled it up with before bed. Sweat dotted his forehead – and Steve’s blood soaked his hands.

Steve flexed his fingers. The pain emanated through them, but at least it was fresh. No more rot. It was real. He knew how to fix this brand of pain. He knew it went away. Steve fractured something, maybe a few somethings, but he knew they would knit together. By afternoon, all that would remain of his shredded, stripped hands was a tingling sting.

“Baby,” Bucky breathed, “Stevie. What are you doing?”

“It’s – I feel wrong. My skin doesn’t fit. I need to – to feel right again.”

Bucky’s chest expanded with a long inhale. Steve braced himself for a lecture, but the lecture never came. Instead, Bucky shook his head, silent and sad.

“Come on,” he said, inclining his head at the exit, “Let’s get you cleaned up.”

**

“You don’t need to bandage me,” Steve mumbled, “I’m gonna be healed in a few hours.”

Bucky tried not to bite through his lip. The superserum was responsible for the saving of so many lives, but tonight, it was the destruction of the man who took it on. His strength and healing allowed Steve to hurt himself with more brutality and efficiency than Bucky had ever witnessed before. The hands in Bucky’s grip were falling apart, cracked and spitting blood all over both of them. With gentle touches he wiped away the gore with a soft washcloth, scrupulously avoiding the open wounds, but in the face of the carnage, his effort seemed trivial.

When Bucky pulled out some antibiotic cream from his first aid kit, Steve piped in again with, “I can’t get sick. You don’t need to put that on me.”

Bucky cast him a dark look. “This isn’t about what I do or don’t need to do. This is about taking care of you, not only because no one’s done it in so fucking long, but because I need it.”

(Oh, fuck, did he need to take care of this man. Bucky needed it more than anything)

Steve didn’t have anything to say to that, which was probably for the best.

“There’s a word for this, you know,” Bucky said, “It’s called self-harm. A lot of people do it for a lot of different reasons, and a lot of different ways. How long have you been doing this?”

Steve kept his eyes pointedly down at his hands as Bucky continued his painstaking attention to them. He said, “Since I woke up.”

“I know that, Steve, I mean –”

“I know what you mean. I don’t mean since I woke up this morning. I mean that it’s what I’ve done since I woke up in this century.”

Bucky couldn’t help it. A tiny, wounded noise escaped him. To imagine Steve at those bags night after night, destroying his hands so hard that blood dripped from the punching bags onto the floor rattled him harder than he had a word for. He’d attended to in-needs that practiced self-harm before, but they cut or peeled skin or burned. Those things were ugly reality and heartbreaking in their own right, but of course, of course, Steve would take something and blow it into something bigger and bolder than others were capable of. No one else could destroy themselves this way, so Steve would do it.

The start of tears needled his eyes, and what the fuck, that wasn’t supposed to happen. Bucky wasn’t supposed to feel such a keen pain at his in-need’s hurt. Desperate, Bucky tried to rein in the distress, to pull his scent back so Steve wouldn’t catch on to how the revelation stung.

The effort went wasted.

“Buck?” Steve murmured, searching his face, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you –”

“It doesn’t matter. My feelings on it don’t matter,” Bucky hurried to tell him, “What matters is where we go from here. What we do to help you get to place where you don’t feel like you need to self-harm. I have to – I might have to do some research. There’s more recent information about traditional self-harm alternatives that says they’re not all they’re cracked up to be. In the meantime, can you – ugh. Please wake me up when you feel like you need to do this. I’m a pretty light sleeper. I don’t mind.”

“Your feelings matter,” Steve replied, sharp as though offended.

“That is not the point, baby,” Bucky said, “You are the point.”

“I’m tired of you saying that,” Steve told him.

Bucky raked his hand through his sleep-tangled hair. His scrunchie landed on the ground. “I am here for you. Not for me.”

“I don’t care. I think you should care about the both of us.”

Bucky retrieved a roll of gauze from his kit and began to wrap Steve’s hands. Already, the ragged seams softened, blood clotting. He had half a mind to ask what fractures pulling back together again felt like in the serum’s fast-forward, but kept the question bitten down on the back of his tongue. Once the wounds disappeared under white and Bucky snipped the last of the gauze, he held Steve’s hands in his, then brought them to rest on his face.

As Steve supported Bucky’s cheeks with his hands, Bucky leaned in and pressed their foreheads together.

Keen feeling yanked at him inside. The fear that sliced through him at Steve’s empty space in their bed battled with the hot tenderness that held him by the heart. Steve Rogers made him feel so much all at once, too much.

As their breath mingled, yearning blazed through him.

Bucky wanted Steve Rogers so, so much.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eight

Chapter Track: Gold Rush (Trooko Remix) – Death Cab For Cutie

It Didn’t Used To Be This Way

 

The weeks that followed Steve’s sunrise meltdown jerked the pair of them to and fro like a sailboat too far out to sea. Steve didn’t return to the punching bags except to bleach away the evidence of what he’d done, the only time Bucky agreed with his use of bleach. The nightmares, while not a fixture of every night, persisted. He did as Bucky asked and woke him when the terror overflowed his cup.

Sometimes, Bucky held Steve in his arms and let him sweat it out with the aroma of kitchen spice in his nose. Other nights, they sat tangled together on the couch, watching something mind-numbing until sunlight kickstarted their day. Other times still, Steve didn’t want to be touched, the flames of his anxiety so hot and high that anyone too close would get burned.

“I’ve been reading about it,” Bucky said on a particularly bad night, “The self-harm thing. A lot of the alternatives seem kinda shit, but uh – you don’t have to talk about this if you don’t wanna, by the way – you used to draw, didn’t you?”

Steve frowned at Bucky, where he sat on the other end of the couch, his feet tucked under Steve’s because Bucky’s toes were always cold and Steve ran hot.

“Why wouldn’t I want to talk about that?” asked Steve.

“Because I, ah, didn’t hear it from you. I read it somewhere in a history book at some point in my life. I don’t wanna alienate you because I know something I wouldn’t if you weren’t famous.”

In that moment, Steve wanted nothing more than to take Bucky’s face in his hands and kiss him for all he was worth. His heart thudded out of step at the notion, at the fact that he didn’t yet know what Bucky’s lips tasted like but he wanted to, very badly. Would he taste as good as he smelled? Probably.

Then again, Steve didn’t know where kissing fell within the confines of their contract. The language covered his ruts and designated that sexual contact was at their discretion. There was no language woven into the legalese about kissing, which occurred to Steve as more intimate.

“Stevie?”

“Oh. Uh. Sorry. Yeah. I did draw. Went to school for it for a while, when I had the money. Haven’t drawn much since they woke me up, but I guess you probably knew that already.”

“How come?” asked Bucky.

Steve shook his head and lowered his eyes to where their feet tangled together. He said, “At first it was – I tried, but nothing came out. I knew I used to love it, but I couldn’t feel...anything. Anymore. Then, you know, aliens. After that, what was the point? No one cares that I liked to draw.”

“I do,” Bucky told him, “and I ordered some fancy markers for you that should be here tomorrow. My point in asking about all this, Steve, is that I think you should try drawing when you feel like you need to hurt. A lot of people say it’s effective to draw on the places where they hurt themselves.”

“How would that help?”

“Redirection, and to something that won’t amp you up harder. You feel like you’re going a mile a minute when you get to punching, right?” – at this, Steve nodded, and Bucky went on – “So this is supposed to sort of make your brain change directions and wind you back down. I can’t promise it’ll work, but it doesn’t hurt to try. You okay with giving it a shot?"

Steve certainly didn’t have any of his own ideas on what would stop him from feeling like he was full of maggots when his nightmares came. He supposed, though he doubted the effectiveness of some markers on the weight of his misery, he had nothing to lose, and much to gain. He had lost so much already, his old roots withering away seventy years behind him. Perhaps the first steps forward required that he grow new branches in the twenty-first century. He was here. As Bucky said, this was his day. He didn’t stop living in 1945, so he may as well start in 2018.

This was how Steve found himself sitting, shaking, in the cradle of Bucky’s legs the next night, a package of art markers strewn across the glass coffee table. The first line Steve drew across the back of his hand wobbled and veered with the tremor in his grip. A little growl of frustration tore from him, at least until Bucky replied with a soothing omega rumble. Bucky rubbed one palm along Steve’s bicep, nosed into the back of his neck, and pressed a feather-light kiss there.

“You got this, baby. You got this.”

Steve nodded, harried and rotting, and finished the first stroke. From that thick, black line, a vine wound up his arm, leaves sprouting, petals opening, until fauna and flora crept over his entire forearm, ink stark against his Irish coloring.

“Can you – I need –” stammered Steve, shaken, but no longer infested.

“What do you need, Stevie?”

“Green,” he said, finding his voice, “I need green.”

Bucky passed markers to Steve as he requested them: deep, bluish-green and apple green, red too bright to be bloody, orange like a sunset on the water. What began as one uneven line transformed into a masterpiece in colors Steve couldn’t have imagined in his youth. He never envisioned a garden on his arm, and never one so vibrant. So absorbed was he in his work that when he finished filling in the color up to the elbow, the end surprised him.

“Oh,” Steve said.

“What?”

“I’m finished,” Steve replied. He ran the tips of his fingers over the linework. He wasn’t ready to be finished. “Can I do your arm, too?”

“It’s all yours,” Bucky drawled, and stuck out his right arm.

On Bucky’s skin, Steve’s lines made less sense. He swirled color and teased at shapes, creating whorls and galaxies with dots and dashes and long, loving channels of reds and yellows, all the colors that Steve felt when he lay like this in Bucky’s arms. His muscles remembered making art, drowning out his conscious mind with their cleverness.

When dawn broke, the bugs were gone.

Steve’s brain hummed, drained and sated, and a rainbow of ink twisted up his left arm and down Bucky’s right. He capped his purple marker, cast it aside on the glass tabletop, and squinted at the light streaming in from the windows that wrapped around the apartment. The rays of the sun poked through between the buildings, casting long, geometric shadows across the hardwood floors.

At Steve’s back, Bucky had fallen asleep draped over the arm of the couch. He slept with his mouth open, hair loose and spread around his head like a crown. In the sunrise, he seemed to glow.

Maybe the drawing wouldn’t work next time, Steve thought, but it worked now.

Maybe that was what recovery looked like. Maybe it was like the rock climbing wall in Tony’s gym: every stone you gripped to climb was a different color, each foothold a different shape. What Steve could grab with his hand might not be the handhold on which to rest, but the hook he needed to propel himself to the next stop.

Steve turned his arm over, tracking the sunburst flowers and clusters of leaves.

Today, he made it through.

Tomorrow was a different shape, but he could do it again.

Art by  Deisderium

**

Despite his best effort, Bucky couldn’t contain his excitement at being entrusted to the keys to one of Tony’s cars, an Audi R8, of which there were multitudes. At his side, Beans’ tail whirred like a helicopter, her excitement equal to that of Bucky’s at the promise of driving in a fast car. Steve was more subdued, loading a duffel bag into the backseat without a word.

“Are you sure you wanna do this?” Bucky asked, “You can still change your mind.” He would be disappointed if they’d come this far and then didn’t come for Rosh Hashanah. And hell, he didn’t know what he’d tell his parents, who were delighted that not only was Bucky bringing an alpha along with him to enjoy the holiday, but that the alpha in question was Steve Rogers. The only thing better than that was if Bucky found some nice well-to-do alpha on JDate, which was not in the cards, thank you very much.

Steve lifted his chin, jaw working under his beard, and folded his arms. “I said we were going. So, we are going.”

“All right, all right,” Bucky said, waving him off, “Don’t get testy. Just remember, the only places we’re gonna be are my parents’ place, the synagogue, and Prospect Park to throw some breadcrumbs at some water. That’s it. You’ve got a beard. With a hat and some glasses, I doubt anyone is gonna recognize you. And, if you wanna tap out, we’ll tap out.”

“I don’t want to tap out,” Steve insisted.

Bucky nudged Steve in the side with his elbow, “Then stop clenching. Let’s get outta here. If we hit traffic and miss dinner my mom’s gonna whoop my ass, and probably yours, too. I promise you that being Captain America has no bearing on ass-whoopings in the Barnes household.”

This teased a small smile out of Steve, and propelled him into the passenger’s seat with a little less doubt than he carried before. Beans readily hopped into the back, happy to shed gold and white fur all over the pristine leather seats while she stuck her head out the window.

Bucky hadn’t driven himself since Natasha picked him up to take him to Avengers Tower, but the Audi drove smooth as butter, peeling out from in between two equally as expensive and shiny Audis to take to the tunnel that would bring them into Manhattan. Traversing from Avengers Tower to Bucky’s parents’ house in Crown Heights would take them damn near an hour at this time of day, and dawdling even five minutes could turn into another fifteen. New York liked to play it that way.

At least Tony’s sound system kicked ass.

“Fuck, I hate driving,” Bucky complained, as they rolled out of the secret tunnel, through the garage, and into the light of day.

“You could have let me drive,” Steve replied.

Bucky made a face at him. “Didn’t you say you learned to drive in Nazi Germany?”

“Yeah, so?”

“Then you can drive over my dead body, pal,” Bucky told him, “New York driving is a whole ‘nother battlefield, and you, my friend, are a private.”

“Wow,” said Steve drolly, “Fuck you too. I died for this country, you know.”

“You died because you’re a drama queen, Steve,” Bucky replied, then frowned at himself. He added, “And because you were in pain and nobody noticed. But also because you’re a drama queen. Don’t you ‘I died for this country’ me, you shithead. You can do it to my sisters, though, if you want.”

“They’re already onto me,” Steve said, “Should’ve saved my best material for meeting them in person, instead of dropping some selfies in the group chat.”

“Eh,” Bucky shrugged, “Don’t be too disappointed. You’ve still got my parents to mess with.”

Steve grinned, a promise of pranking-to-be.

For most of the drive, Bucky swore at other drivers and Beans pranced from side to side on the backseat, sticking her head out of either window, depending on her mood. Steve packed seven different toys for her, including three tennis balls, in his bag. Bucky tried very hard not to be endeared.

Steve snarked at Bucky for his music as much as he asked who sang the songs, but when they approached the Brooklyn Bridge, his face fell into something a little more pensive. Not sad, exactly – but close to it.

“I haven’t been back to Brooklyn since the ice,” Steve said.

“No shit? Why?” asked Bucky.

“I wasn’t ready,” he replied, “I didn’t want to see how everything changed. I have this picture of what it looked like in my head, all these memories, and I know it’s gonna be different."

“But you’re ready now?”

Steve scratched the fingers on his left hand through his beard and hummed. The art he’d drawn had stood strong against the shower he’d taken this morning, though some of the pieces faded more than others. After a beat, he answered, “I think so. I met this fella a while back; he’s been teaching me that new things don’t have to be bad.”

A lump of some unnameable emotion stopped up Bucky’s throat. He recovered before Steve could catch on, however, and said, “You’re a fucking sap, you know that?”

Steve flashed a smirk. “Can’t help it, when I’ve got such a handsome omega on my side.”

“Easy to be on your side when you’re such a charmer,” Bucky teased.

In spite of their back-and-forth, the nearer they drew to Brooklyn, the more Steve clammed up. He picked at the skin around his fingers and chewed on his lips, little tics that would never show on his body with his enhanced healing. Bucky reached across the divide and rested his hand on Steve’s knee. He nodded at him, once, and Steve nodded back.

“It’s about twenty minutes from here, if we’re lucky,” Bucky let him know. He watched Steve out of the corner of his eye. Bucky doubted that Steve would dive out of Tony’s Audi and make a break for it, but then, Steve also tended to make dramatic dives.

Along Atlantic Avenue and past Prospect Park, Steve wiggled his leg up and down. He ran his fingers through his hair and worried his t-shirt.

“Are you nervous about being in Brooklyn or nervous about meeting my family?” Bucky finally asked.

“I’m not nervous,” Steve snapped.

“Right,” Bucky replied, drawing out the syllable. He sighed. “Whatever you say, Steve.”

As they cruised through the neighborhood, Steve said, “I once googled places for sale out here. You know what they charge for a house out here?”

“Something hideous,” Bucky answered, “Don’t be too impressed that we humble Barneses have a place here. It’s been in our family for forever. You might even have lived near some ye olde Barnses back in the day, you know. It’s an old-ass, cranky brownstone with an attitude. I used to think it was haunted. Hell, it could be.”

As they chugged toward the Barnes ancestral home, Bucky kept an eye out for parking spaces to poach, and pulled into the first one that he saw, a healthily large spot that would give Tony’s ridiculous car a generous berth on either end.

With Beans’ leash in hand and their bags over their shoulders, they hiked the block between the car and home. The Barnes row house towered up, a 1920-something monument to the upper middle class in brownstone and wrought iron, thick concrete steps neatly stacked to a many-times-painted but currently blue front door. Bucky hooked his foot in the gate and swung it open for Steve, who stared up at the structure with the same expression of a child both fascinated with and terrified by meeting Mickey Mouse at Disneyland.

“This is,” Steve started, and swallowed, “fancy.”

“Don’t let it fool you,” Bucky said, “Mom’s a kindergarten teacher and dad’s a barber, like I told you. Grandpa Fischer – that’s my dad’s dad – he was some kinda lawyer before he kicked it. Technically Bubbe owns the house, but it’ll go to dad eventually. When I was little, some of the kids that knew our family made fun of me because dad’s an omega and my mom moved into his family home, instead of the other way around. Said shit about my mom not being a real alpha or whatever. He still took her last name, but he says it’s because he hated being George Fischer, not because he was supposed to.”

Then, Bucky paused. “Shit. I’m rambling.”

Steve grinned. “Now who’s nervous?”

“Eat my ass,” Bucky muttered.

“Maybe later, if you’re nice,” Steve shot back, only for a blush to appear high on his cheeks when he realized what he said. “I mean. Uh.”

A slow, smug smile rose up on Bucky’s face. He said, “Guess I’ll have to be nice,” and winked, leaving no room for Steve to react as he knocked on the door.

“BUCKY!”

Bucky’s teenage sister leapt from the doorstep into his arms. He caught her with an oof of air out of his lungs. He laughed, hugged her tight, and then set her back down on the ground. Judy most resembled their dad, with long, tight ringlets of hair, stern eyebrows, and glasses that slipped low to the tip of her nose. She pushed them up with her pointer finger and said, “I missed you. Family dinner is boring when you’re not here.”

From behind her, Rachel appeared, one hand on her hip. Of Bucky’s siblings, he and Rachel looked most alike, miniatures of their mom with her serious face and dimpled chin. She said, “Really feeling the love, Judy.”

“Whatever,” Judy shot back, “Bucky’s better at doing his hair than you are.”

“That’s true,” Bucky replied.

“What does that have to do with dinner?” asked Rachel.

“I’m tired of looking at your ponytails,” replied Judy, and gestured wildly to Bucky’s head, where he’d woven most of one side of his hair, “Look at this artistry. It’s like eating dinner with brunette Legolas.”

“Legolas didn’t even have fancy hair –”

“Fuck’s sake, guys,” Bucky said, “Can we come in already? And hi, assholes, this is Steve.”

Steve waved his decorated hand, but didn’t speak.

They trundled into the house, where, upon closing the door behind them, Bucky unclipped Beans’ leash and dumped his bag onto the couch in the front room. He stretched and cracked his neck with an exaggerated yawn. “The fuck is mom?” asked Bucky.

“In the kitchen, James Buchanan,” Winnie’s voice called, “and watch your fuckin’ mouth, for once.”

“Whoops,” Bucky said.

Winnie emerged from the kitchen in jeans, and a red t-shirt and patterned scarf streaked with flour. She said, “I’m making the challah. You and Steve can help. Let’s go.”

Steve glanced to Bucky, and Bucky shrugged. Far be it from him to disobey his mother, especially when she was balls-deep in making enough challah for everyone to go hog-wild on. He took Steve by the hand, slipping ink-covered fingers into ink-covered fingers, and tugged his alpha into the kitchen, where ingredients crowded every surface.

“I already have two loaves rising, but you said Steve eats a lot, so I’m making more this year,” Winnie said, “Steve, do you know how to use a mixer?”

Again, Steve glanced to Bucky. The question seemed to be: am I allowed to fuck with her?

With only his eyes, Bucky tried to communicate, to the best of his ability, please fuck with her.

Steve whipped out the doe-eyes in a snap, shuffling like a scolded schoolboy, and said, “No, ma’am, I can’t say I’ve ever seen a mixer. Would you mind teaching me?”

Winifred fluttered to answer his plea. She pulled Steve to the corner of the counter, where the Kitchen Aid stood proudly. In great detail, she explained the switches and what the parts did and how to use them, profoundly oblivious to her son behind her as Bucky tried not laugh. Steve may not have used mixers every day, but he sure as shit owned one. He knew how to use it long before Bucky landed in his life and gave him dinnertime play-by-plays of his cooking and baking.

“He already knows how to use the mixer, doesn’t he?”

Becca appeared on Bucky’s right and leaned against the countertop.

“Sure does,” Bucky answered, “I told him he could. I wanna see how long it takes ‘em to figure it out.”

**

Even as the afternoon crawled toward evening, Steve still had Winnie going, playing clueless at every new kitchen instrument she introduced.

“Well, gosh, ma’am, we might have had something like that, but I’ve never used one. Can you show me?” he’d say (a spatula), or perhaps, “Wow! What does this do? It looks like one of Tony’s robots!” (an espresso machine)

The scent of Bucky’s joy and his sisters’ amusement – combined with the warmth and welcome of the entire Barnes clan – egged Steve on. Reservations aside, this family inducted him into their ranks without as much as the bat of an eyelash, and where Stark’s charity galas and the Avengers’ press conferences strung Steve tight as Clint’s bowstring, he fell into step with the Barnses.

As George arrived home fifteen minutes after he and Bucky made it, he too joined them in the kitchen to teach Steve a thing or two about the equipment.

Bucky’s bubbe, though she only for a moment poked her head into the kitchen, saw through the ruse and caught Steve’s eye, winking at him before she wandered elsewhere.

With the challah cooling on the countertops, as the sun sunk lower, George arranged several candlesticks on several metal trays on a pop-up table they unfolded in the front room and covered in an elegant white tablecloth.

Steve, having grown up Irish Catholic, had no idea what was happening.

Bucky placed a hand on the small of Steve’s back. He leaned in to whisper, “Mom’s gonna light the candles. Then she’s gonna say the blessing, and then we get to eat. We light as many candles as we have family members, because, you know, family and shit.”

“But there are eight candles? And you have seven Barneses,” Steve said.

Bucky let his head fall against Steve’s shoulder, and Steve relished the weight of it. Bucky explained, “Six Barneses, one Fischer, and one Rogers. All family. Some people prefer just two candles, but we've always liked giving it our own flair. In any case, there's always a place for you.”

The twinge in his heart at Bucky’s touch amplified to a million at his words. Mismatched candlesticks held uniform candles, and one of them belonged to Steve. One of them was meant for him, because by some miracle, the Barnes family opened their arms without a second thought to him – to him, not Captain America. That he was technically Irish Catholic (even if he hadn’t set foot in a church since 1940-something) didn’t matter to Bucky’s family. As far as they were concerned, he was one of them.

The tiny voice in the back of his brain wanted to remind Steve that this was temporary, that someday, Bucky would go away and Steve would be alone again, but he shoved that thought aside. Tonight, it didn’t matter. Tonight, he was family.

Winifred pulled her her scarf up to cover her hair as she lit the candles one by one. When each flame burned steadily, she recited a blessing. Around her, the family stood silent, tucked into each other. Bucky didn’t move his head from Steve’s shoulder, but rather scooted closer in, his scent and body heat thrumming constants.

And then:

“Okay!” Winifred said, with a clap of her hands, jolting Steve from his omega-induced trance. “Let’s eat!”

The Barnes family was loud. Very loud. Louder than any table Steve could remember sitting at, and he included his time with the Howling Commandoes in that equation. Judy yelled over Becca to pass the challah, while George forked thick cuts of steak onto everyone’s plate. (“It’s kosher; it totally counts,” Bucky told Steve, when he questioned whether or not steak qualified as traditional. It did not, apparently, but it also wasn’t strictly against the rules.)

“So,” George said, when everyone’s plates were full and the forks had begun clinking against plates, “How’s Bucky been? Is he a hardass? I’ve never met one of his INs before, but I’ve always wanted to know. Give me the deets.”

“Seriously, Dad?” Judy said.

“You don’t have to answer him, Steve,” Bucky interjected, “Your recovery is between us. Isn’t that right, Dad.”

“Wha-aat?” George complained, “I want to know about my son. I want to know how he’s doing. Is that so much to ask?”

The pissed-off expression on Bucky’s face suggested he was considering leaping across the table to strangle his father, so Steve intervened. He put a hand on Bucky’s arm, rubbed over his shoulder fondly, and answered, “Bucky’s amazing, Mr. Barnes. And so is Beans, come to think of it.”

At the sound of her name, Beans wagged her tail. At a stern look from Bucky, however, she stayed sitting a safe distance away from the people food.

“Sooo...are you still Captain America?” asked Judy.

“Judith!” Winnie exclaimed.

“I second that ‘Judith’,” Bucky said, pointing his fork at his sister, “Not appropriate.”

“It’s fine,” Steve said, “And. Yes and no? I’m not sure. I’m not working with the Avengers while I’m trying to get better, but we don’t know how long that’ll be. Right now, I think I’m just Steve.”

“I’m glad you’re not keeping us from Bucky,” Winnie put in.

Bucky lowered his face into his hands.

“I’d never,” Steve told her, “I mean that. Growing up, it was just me and my mom. You probably knew that already. If anyone tried to keep me from her, I would’ve beat the shit out of them. Or tried, anyway. I wasn’t always so good at that part. I know I only had one person in my corner, but that was enough for me to know how important family is, whether that’s by blood or...or by choice,” he finished, thinking all at once of his friends, of how he hadn’t spoken to most of the Avengers since he told them he was benched.

Perhaps Steve should have vodka-sodas with Tasha and make fun of procedural crime shows, whatever those were.

As the night wore on, the interrogation wound down, and teasing Bucky ramped up. Becca mentioned something about Bucky having “frosted tips” a phrase which Steve was unfamiliar with until Becca delightedly fled the table to retrieve a framed picture of a thirteen-year-old Bucky at his bar mitzvah, the front of his dark hair spiked up with gel and topped with yellow-orange color.

Bucky pretended to grumble, but couldn’t hold back a smile. Steve’s heart ached a little at the sight. However nonchalant Bucky pretended to be, he missed his family. Steve could see it in every laugh and every jibe, in every pleased look on his face at bites of homecooked holiday food.

Once dinner finished and bedtime arrived, George showed Steve and Bucky to the bedroom that used to belong to Bucky. The rickety queen bed proved much smaller than Steve’s generous California king, and even though they fell asleep pressed together every night, in this space their bodies felt so much closer, enclosed in the cozy confines of one of George’s knitting projects, in the room where Bucky grew up.

**

The most humbling part of Steve’s morning at the synagogue was that no one, not one person, gave a shit that Steve Rogers was there. Before they left to attend, Bucky offered Steve a choice from what turned out to be an extensive yarmulke collection in the top dresser drawer in his childhood bedroom, although he snatched one that was half-red, half-white and said, “Dibs,” before Steve could as much as look at them.

“What’s special about that one?” asked Steve.

“It’s a pokeball,” answered Bucky.

“A pokeball.”

“It’s a game I played as a kid. And play now. As an adult man. It’s great. I’ll explain later. Anyway, dibs on the pokeball yarmulke.”

Steve poked around in the drawer for half a second before he extracted one in a familiar pattern.

“Oh, shit,” Bucky said.

“Is this my shield?” Steve asked, grinning.

Bucky ran his fingers through his hair and pursed his lips. “I thought you were super cool when I was a teenager.”

“Oh? Only as a teenager?”

“Well, since now I know you’re a total asshole, yes. I know now that you are not even remotely cool.”

Steve leaned into Bucky’s space, pressing their noses tip to tip. “Really?” he asked, “Not even a little bit?”

“Nope,” Bucky said, but he was breathless.

Steve pulled back and considered the yarmulke. He wiggled it in the air, cocked his head, and declared, “Dibs.”

“You will not,” Bucky accused him, “wear that to the synagogue.”

“How much you wanna bet?” asked Steve.

Suffice it to say that when Steve walked through the front doors of the synagogue with the shield yarmulke pinned to his hair, Bucky slipped him a begrudging twenty dollar bill. Then, they shuffled to their seats and settled in, waiting for the room to fill. Steve leaned back and looped one arm over Bucky’s shoulders, fascinated and still satisfied with his winning bet. Some heads turned, some eyes gleamed with recognition, but no one approached them. No one said a word.

“Do you usually go to church, when you’re not doing the support thing?” he found himself asking.

“Nah, not like I used to,” Bucky said, “When I was a teenager, we went pretty often. Crown Heights is pretty damn Jewish, so I think that probably influenced us, even though we’re not the same kinda Jewish, exactly. Folks around us, they’re mostly Orthodox. And we’re the weird liberal cousins, so we’re the odd family out, sometimes, in a way. Being with our congregation made us feel more at home. Now I’m not exactly a frequent flyer, but it’s the tradition – it’s, well, that’s what matters to me. It’s about being together. Rosh Hashanah’s one of my favorite holidays in particular, not just ‘cause of the food – although that helps – but because it’s about starting over, starting again. It has that in common with your run-of-the-mill New Year, but the rituals make it feel like something more for me, if that makes sense. Does that make sense?”

Any piece of Bucky that he gave to Steve meant the world. Each new bit of information he collected and hoarded like a dragon. Something so close to Bucky’s heart he lost the tight grip he kept on himself and let slip some of his heart to Steve? Precious, so precious. Steve might be a stranger here, but Rosh Hashanah mattered to Bucky, so it mattered to him.

And so they listened to prayers and to a horn Bucky explained in a whisper was called a shofar, but what Steve liked best was the next part. The Barnes family drove from the service to Prospect Park, where they met on a clunky wooden bridge over a miniature waterfall. There, Winifred shook a handful of Kroger breadcrumbs into their palms from a can.

“There's a service for this sometimes,” Bucky told him, “but we like to do it just us. You take your crumbs outta your pocket – we kinda just hold ‘em in our hand and stick our hand in a pocket and pull it back out – anyway. Not the point. The point is, traditionally, washing away your sins to get ready for Yom Kippur. I've always kinda liked to think it’s supposed to be like throwing out the old year? You toss the crumbs in running water and they wash away. Boom. New year, new you. Not as traditional, like I said, but still nice.”

Steve rolled the crumbs in the palm of his hand with his thumb. As the Barneses put their hands in their pockets and pulled them out, he did the same, tucking his fist into the front pocket of his jeans. The mild, brisk weather didn’t necessitate a coat for Steve, though the others had thrown jackets and sweaters over their church clothes. When he drew his hand back out, he opened his fingers and blinked at the crumbs again.

He wasn’t an idiot. Steve didn’t think that throwing crumbs into some water would cure him of his shellshocked, PTSD-riddled brain, and nor did he believe that it would rid him of his incessant attraction to everything Bucky Barnes. The ceremony did, however informal it was, mark a place that he could start. This was the first square in his board game, the first foothold on the rock climbing wall, the first seeds planted in his garden. He squared his shoulders, afforded the crumbs one final, assessing look, and tossed them into the waterfall.

“Don’t let the door hit you on the way out, old year,” Bucky said as the crumbs caught the breeze and dropped to the water below.

“James,” scolded George.

Bucky grinned a secret smile at Steve. “What? It’s true. Now we’re as good as new.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Nine

Chapter Track: We Are All Made of Stars – Moby

No One Can Stop Us Now

 

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

 

September 12, 2018

 

[10:28 AM] Bucky: new chat who dis

 

[10:28 AM] Steve: He wanted to include me

 

[10:29 AM] Judy: Steve! We like you better than Bucky anyway

 

[10:30 AM] Bucky: Wow

 

[10:36 AM] Becca: Really Bucky? Beastie Boys?

 

[10:38 AM] Bucky: Fight me, Rebecca

[10:39 AM] Bucky: I’d like to see you come up with a better meme pun

[10:39 AM] Bucky: Go ahead I’m waiting

[10:40 AM] Bucky: And besides, the Beastie Boys are a classic

 

[10:40 AM] Steve: I think they’re okay

 

[10:42 AM] Bucky: You’re wrong and this is the hill I will die on

 

[10:47 AM] Steve: Then perish

[Image: The Obama "then perish" eyes]

 

[10:47 AM] Bucky: ajhasdjahglk which one of you shitheads taught him that

 

[10:49 AM] Rachel: I think all of us had a hand in it

 

[10:52 AM] Steve: Because my super brain forgets literally nothing, I will now never forget a single meme. This is only the beginning

 

[10:55 AM] Bucky: I can’t believe you’ve done this

[10:56 AM] Bucky: You come into my home

[10:56 AM] Bucky: You take my sisters

[10:57 AM] Bucky: You troll my parents

 

[11:01 AM] Steve:

[Image: "It's Free Real Estate" Meme]

 

[11:03 AM] Bucky:

[Image: Sarcastically surprised Captain Kirk meme]

**

Smiling to himself, Steve set aside his phone next to the plastic package of markers on the coffee table. Beside the window, Beans stretched in an elongated rectangle of sunlight, basking in the warmth of the late afternoon. She’d thrived the past couple of days, being out and about in Crown Heights, sniffing at weeds and stone walls and stop signs – anything that she could put her nose to.

She deserved better than his fear of the outside.

While Bucky fiddled with his own phone on the couch, Steve shifted away to kneel next to Beans on the hardwood floor. She didn’t move from the floor – she was far too comfortable for that – but she did wag her tail, smacking it against the floor. Loving as she continued to be, she wasn’t as jovial as she’d been at the Barnes’ home.

Steve wasn’t an idiot. He knew Beans’ energy tanked the moment that they stepped out into Tony’s garage.

“She misses being outside,” Steve said.

Bucky hummed. He didn’t look up from the game on his phone. “Yeah, she does.”

“We should take her to the dog park.”

Bucky did tear his eyes from the screen at that. “Is this an observation or a suggestion?”

“A...suggestion,” Steve decided, “I can’t hide out up here forever. I don’t even like it in here that much, and Beans deserves to be out there having fun. Seems like a dick move to keep her cooped up in here because I can’t handle some selfies and some handshakes and some...hugs.” He couldn’t help the way that he fumbled with the last word.

“You know this is a big decision, right?” asked Bucky.

“I’m aware.”

“And you don’t have to give people hugs if you don’t want to, baby,” Bucky went on, “You can tell them no. You’re not public property.”

“But then I sound like an asshole,” said Steve, “It would be all over every gossip rag in the country. ‘Captain America was mean to me.’ Then the cycle starts all over again.”

“Well, do you mind handshakes?” Bucky wanted to know.

“No. They’re all right.”

“Then how about this: Try ‘may I give you a handshake instead?’” Bucky suggested. He slid off the couch and joined Steve in petting Beans, insinuating himself into Steve’s space by tugging Steve’s arm to loop around his shoulders. He nestled into Steve’s side, a reassuring weight that Steve had come to know and adore.

Steve ran his fingers along the curve of Bucky’s prosthetic muscles and considered the suggestion. “That – doesn’t sound so bad,” he admitted.

“Set a boundary. If they’re not okay with a handshake, if they insist on their hug, you’re allowed to say ‘I’m uncomfortable with hugs.’ Then it’s on them. Are they really gonna cross that line? Most folks know that it’s unacceptable. How would they look if they violated that trust? Not good. I can you that for sure.”

“I didn’t think of it like that,” Steve said. He knew in practice that interacting with the public wouldn’t be as simple as all that, but having a couple more tools under his belt might smooth the edges. No one ever did teach him the nuance of managing people.

He could lead a team headlong into a fight. He could map out battlefield strategy in his sleep.

Steve did not know how to be handed babies or be hugged by strangers.

Before Captain America, Steve fought alone. He walked alone. No one wanted to stand by the side of a sick, angry kid. Peggy and Erskine were the only people outside his own mother that treated him like he was worth a damn.

The serum projected Steve into a cosmos of unfamiliarity. People wanted him, wanted to watch him and touch him and be with him. They wanted to hear what he had to say, as long as it fell in line with what they thought he should say. Over the short course of time he spent before the crash of the Valkyrie as Captain America, he allowed three people to touch him willingly – two of the omega dancers he toured with, when his suppressants failed against the weight of the superserum and he went into rut on the road, and Peggy. He and Peggy found solace in each other in a world crumbling around them, stealing moments between Steve’s missions and Peggy’s covert ops to kiss and fuck and wrap around one another, their one warm place in a cold, dark time.

Having unfamiliar hands all over his body made Steve shrivel into himself. He hated being touched by people he didn’t know, people draping their body over his as though they were the best of friends. For children, he made an exception, but any other hands made him feel slimy, the smells lingering on him, having been passed from fan to fan.

He’d never tried a dog park, though.

“This is a big decision for you, too,” Steve warned Bucky, “No one bothered us when we were out for Rosh Hashanah, but that kind of luck won’t hold forever. As soon as people recognize me, they’re going to want to know who you are. You’re going to get more attention than you’ll know what to do with.”

Bucky drew back from Steve’s side and eyed him seriously. “I don’t have an issue with that,” he said, after a beat of silence.

“Are you sure? You had to think about it.”

“Of course I did. My job, next to being a support omega, was being a spy. If I’m all over the internet and the tabloids or wherever else they’d splash my ugly mug, that part of my life is over. I needed a second to parse that one out, but you’re more important. You’re so important to me, Steve, I just – I don’t know if it’s possible to express how much.”

And Steve wasn’t important to Bucky for gains. He wasn’t in this for social status – or even really money, government-paid position aside – he wanted to be here with Steve. He wanted to take care of him. A twisted voice in the back of Steve’s head reminded him that this was Bucky’s job, that his job was to care about Steve, but he pushed it away. He could examine the realities of their situation later.

“Steve? The other thing you’re gonna have to consider if pictures of me and you hit the internet is questions about what we are,” Bucky told him, “You’re gonna have to think about what you want to say.”

“The truth,” Steve replied, without blinking an eye.

“The truth?” echoed Bucky. He seemed surprised at the information, which, at Steve’s reclusiveness and general lack of transparency toward even the Avengers, perhaps wasn’t out of line.

Steve nodded. He scratched his fingers through Beans’ fur and she made a doggy-groan noise in her throat, stretching back and front legs in either direction before again melting into the floorboards. He patted her side, sighed, and refocused on Bucky, whose brows were drawn together now.

“I’m tired,” Steve said, “I’m tired of keeping this public face on and playing into the hands of people that think they know me. Being with you...I just – I’ve realized that I don’t have to be a puppet if I don’t want to be. I don’t have to let other people speak on behalf. I don’t have to accept that Steve Rogers goes hand in hand with Captain America. The image of Captain America wasn’t hijacked; it was propaganda from the beginning. And now Steve Rogers and Captain America are synonymous. I don’t want that anymore.”

“So what’s your plan?” asked Bucky.

“My plan? My plan is to take Beans outside where she deserves. We’re going to throw a ball around for an hour, and people are going to want pictures. When people start catching on to the fact that you and I are together in some capacity, I’ll just say it. Hell, I’ll set up a Twitter. There’s an official Captain America one that some SHIELD intern is in charge of, but no one told me I can’t have one of my own.”

Steve inhaled and rubbed at his temples. The surety of the situation should have obliterated his mental wellbeing, but somehow, approaching the inevitability of making headlines like he did a fight settled his anxiety. He knew how to make a plan of attack. This was just a different kind.

“I’m going to tell them that you’re my support omega. I’m going to tell them that I have PTSD. I’m going to tell them that Steve Rogers is no longer Captain America.”

**

Making a plan, however awry it went, always eased Steve’s conscience.

Steve and Bucky searched through the closest dog parks to Avengers Tower, settling on the nearest one: Madison Square Dog Run. Steve silently thanked God for Google, as he flipped through photos of the park and the surrounding area. He could do this. They would need to pay for street parking, but that was a small price to pay in the face of braving public transportation – which would also require them to wrestle Beans into a large bag to pass muster.

They decided upon late morning two days after their conversation about the game plan for revealing Captain America’s position in the team and the status of his mental health. In the meantime, Bucky, Steve, and Beans continued their usual regimen of working out in the Hulk-proof gym and throwing superserum-strength pitches across the padded floor for Beans to chase and tire herself out with.

Maybe Steve was imagining it, but Beans seemed less enthusiastic about being in the gym since being out and about around Rosh Hashanah. She’d enjoyed bopping around Bucky’s childhood neighborhood, bounding with energy Steve hadn’t seen since she and Bucky first moved into the Tower and explored its many amenities.

But then, luxury and lack of nothing aside, Avengers Tower remained the empty palace that Steve locked himself up in for fear of facing the outside. The terror didn’t used to gnaw at him as much as it did now. When first he arrived in the twenty-first century, he took his new position in the world in stride. He shoved his feelings about the war that followed only steps behind him in a box, the way that soldiers of his time were meant to. He recalled commanding officers throwing flasks in the faces of trembling young men in their encampments, spitting, “Drink it off, boy,” and, “We got no time for shellshock.”

Steve couldn’t drink it off, but he could stow it someplace no one would ever see, the box only to open at night in the privacy of his own apartment. No one would bear witness to his nightmares, and that would have to be enough.

Then the Chitauri came, and dark elves, and robots, and Thanos, and one evil after another, one battle after another, one long war to wear the lock on Steve’s box. The harder his nightmares became to contain, the longer he languished in Avengers Tower, the longer working up the ability to face the outside took. On and on it went, until finally, he never left.

And made Bucky and Beans stay with him, trapped in their own right.

Not anymore.

With Bucky and Beans to bolster him, Steve could try again. He tried to reconcile the fact that battle strategy only went so far, that reality often required improvisation and new routes, as he dressed in his Flogging Molly t-shirt and the jeans that Bucky liked. He laced new shoes over his feet – bright red, because he liked red – and fitted his baseball cap and fake glasses on.

Bucky meanwhile braided his hair on the side as he liked to, and Steve sat on the lip of his bathtub as he did, watching his omega’s fingers fly as he wove locks of hair into patterns. He wore a henley and fitted skinny jeans, a plaid flannel tied around his waist not in case he got cold, but because, “It’s for the aesthetic, Steve.”

God, he looked handsome. He smelled just as good: the perfect omega for Steve, muscle and curves and the greatest scent he’d ever known, all wrapped up in braids and clothing that he never could have envisioned in the century before. Unable to help himself, Steve swooped forward and scooped Bucky into a hug, lifting his feet straight off the ground.

“Stee-eeve,” Bucky laughed, swatting at his shoulder to get Steve to let him down. “What was that for?”

“For helping,” Steve told him, and pushed a soft kiss to the side of Bucky’s head, to the braid, to the place he knew Bucky’s scars to be.

With Beans happily slapping tennis balls with her paws in the backseat of one of Tony’s cars, Bucky drove them to the park. As they neared their destination, Steve found not that his anxiety jacked up, but his determination. He wouldn’t let a trip to the dog park get the best of him, not when his dog and his omega deserved so much more than that. Righteous fury built up like hot bricks in his abdomen, and he folded his arms over his chest.

“Are you gonna be okay?” Bucky asked, as he searched for a parking space, “’Cause you smell like you’re about to cut a bitch.”

Steve startled out of his angry slump and rubbed at the back of his neck. “Sorry. I just. I want this. I don’t want to fight anybody or anything.”

“You are fighting yourself, baby,” Bucky said, and that was that. Fighting himself, indeed.

Expertly, Bucky parked Tony’s expensive, canary-yellow car. Steve wouldn’t pretend to know what it was, just that it was sleek and fast and every showy thing that Tony enjoyed.

Steve unfolded from the passenger seat, and while Bucky gathered Beans’ tennis balls back into the grocery bag from whence they came, he drank in the city around them. Within the bustle of Manhattan, the park was peaceably green, and the dog run filled with barking and laughter.

As soon as Bucky and Steve shuffled through the gated entrance and unclipped Beans’ leash from her collar, she was off like a shot, greeting new friends with a tail like helicopter blades and a full-body wag. She ricocheted from place to place and put her nose to the ground, sprinting to explore.

“She’s so happy,” Steve said.

“She sure is,” Bucky agreed. He turned away from Beans to face Steve, and his amused smile gave way to something softer. “Thank you for this. You didn’t have to.”

“I really think I did.”

“And that’s why I like you so much,” Bucky replied, “You always do the right thing, even when it’s hard for you.” Bucky coiled his prosthetic arm around Steve’s waist and reeled him in for a side hug. For several long minutes, they stood pressed together, Bucky’s head tilted onto Steve’s shoulder as they watched their dog leap from tree to bench to dog.

“Hey, um,” somebody said, and tapped on Steve’s shoulder.

He inwardly sighed. So it began. Behind him, a bespectacled omega stood in corduroy pants and a jean jacket. He said, “Is that your dog?” and pointed to Beans.

Huh.

“She sure is,” answered Steve.

“She’s gorgeous,” the omega said, “Do you know what breed she is?”

“A mix,” Bucky told him, “Definitely husky and probably a golden retriever, with some other things thrown in there. I’m not sure. I saw her up for adoption on Facebook when she was a puppy and I couldn’t resist. Which one is yours?”

The omega indicated to a shaggy dog roaming around the outskirts of the park, content to meander at his own pace. “He’s getting a little old, but this is his favorite spot. We’re regulars. I haven’t seen you around here before. Are you new to area?”

“Sorta,” Bucky said.

“We’re from Brooklyn,” added Steve.

That, of all things, sparked the recognition. The omega’s eyes flickered and his nostrils flared. He glanced from Steve to Bucky and back again, then over to Beans. “You...” he said, “You’re Steve Rogers.”

Steve shifted in place. At his side, Bucky bristled. He adjusted his stance with feet apart, as though he might need to fight a scrawny hipster at a dog park. Steve rested a soothing hand on the small of Bucky’s back, trying to give off it’s okay vibes as best he could.

“That’s me,” Steve answered, “And you are?”

“Oh. Oh!” the omega answered, “Shit, that’s so rude of me. Uh, um, I mean. Shoot. My name’s Graham. It’s nice to meet you.”

He didn’t ask for signature or a hug or handshake, but rather blathered on about their dogs. While they made small talk, Beans at last returned to them and sat. Bucky grinned and extracted a tennis ball from the grocery bag, which he flung across the park at top speed.

Ten minutes or so into conversation, Graham checked his wristwatch and cursed under his breath. He called his dog – Appa, of all the names – and waved at them both, “It was great to talk to you,” he said as he attached Appa’s leash to his harness, “and, uh, thank you for your service.”

“My pleasure,” Steve said, which was his go-to response.

“That went surprisingly okay,” Bucky remarked.

Over the course of the next hour, as people filed in and out of the park, a few other keen observers recognized Steve for who he was. A girl with a shiny backpack and a small dog asked for his signature and a selfie. A beta woman identified herself as an army veteran and asked to shake his hand. An alpha in khaki pants and a button-up asked for a hug, but settled for the handshake that Steve offered instead. A handful of college-age kids asked for selfies one by one, which he gamely posed for.

None of it rankled him as much as it did prior to Bucky. The mere presence of his support omega at his side, the kitchen spice scent wafting in the air, abated Steve’s biggest worries. Without Bucky, he wouldn’t have known to divert hugs to handshakes, and without Bucky, he wouldn’t feel like he had his own personal guard-omega, poised to tackle anybody that bothered him straight to the ground. Bucky’s readiness to fight tempered Steve’s readiness to flee, and by the time that Beans tired of tennis balls and doggy friends, Steve was at the height of popularity at the Madison Square Dog Run, but somehow not at the height of his anxiety.

As soon as they peeled away, waving to new friends and fans of Captain America alike, the exhaustion set in. Steve slumped in the passenger seat of the car while Beans draped herself in the back, panting. He could relate.

“How’re you feeling?” asked Bucky.

“Tired,” Steve answered. Being around so many people always wrung him out. “But not bad. Dog park people are all right. I think I can do this dog park thing more often.”

“Once a week?” Bucky suggested.

“That’s doable,” Steve agreed, and added, “When we get home, I’m sleeping for a year. No, actually – I’m going to shower, and then I’m going to sleep for a year.” He didn’t smell nearly as much as he typically did of other people after an outing into the city, but some aromas did linger. He’d feel more at ease smelling of himself and of Bucky, and no one else. Maybe he’d even catch a couple of hours without nightmares.

He hoped.

A step in the right direction, Rogers, he reminded himself, some days, that’s all that you can do.

**

After a momentous morning, the day faded into Steve napping and waking intermittently until they ate, worked out, watched more television, and read. Despite the exciting addition to their day, the rest of it looked much the same. Beans was the primary difference, perkier and more good-humored than usual, which was a lot, as she was in general a good-humored dog.

Bucky wrestled Steve into bed that night with less resistance than usual, and they fell asleep in an uneventful dark. When Steve woke up panting and frightened, Bucky soothed him and brought him back down, and they managed to fall back again without the ceremony of drawing or restless, trembling Steve balled up on the couch.

The morning, however, was a different story.

Bucky sat up and scrubbed the sleep from his eyes, and before he could think his first thought, a powerful aroma backhanded him. He jerked his hand away from his face, scented the air for half a second, and then turned to Steve’s side of the bed.

There in the sheets, Steve lay red-faced and sweating, not moving, but stiff as a board with his hands folded together on top of the blankets. The stench of rut rolled out into the room like a great cloud, so robust that Bucky’s cock perked up and filled in his pajama pants with no physical prompting whatsoever, slick trickling between his cheeks. He gaped openly and demanded, “How the fuck long have you been sitting there like this?”

“Like what,” Steve said to the ceiling.

“In rut,” Bucky said, “I’m supposed to help you with this! Why didn’t you wake me up? Holy shit. You must be in so much pain. Why – you’re not even jacking it!”

“Didn’t wanna bother you,” responded Steve.

He looked like shit. Complete, roadkill, trashbag, hot garbage, shit. The sweat soaked his hair and the neck and underarms of his t-shirt, and even beneath the blanket and his clothing, the outline of his erection stood out, tenting the fabric. Red stained the apples of his cheeks and his dilated pupils were hazy and unfocused, searching the blank ceiling rather than looking Bucky in the face.

“What kind of martyr bullshit is this?” Bucky asked, “Do you even want help?”

“I,” started Steve, at last looking him in the eye, “Yes, but, you were sleeping.”

Bucky couldn’t withhold an eyeroll. He shucked the blanket off of both of them without an ounce of ceremony, kicking off his pajama pants and catapulting them into the wall. He swung up onto his knees, felt along his ass, and without a word pushed two fingers inside his body. Steve’s eyes went wide as saucers, and he licked his lips. Alpha instinct should have been destroying him now, but perhaps the serum roped Steve all the way back into his right mind – either that, or the iron grip on his control that Steve refused to let go of was well at work.

“What are you doing?” Steve asked.

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Bucky shot back, pumping his fingers in and out of his ass, willing the slick into flowing, “I’m helping. Or about to be, anyway. You want me to, right?”

“Well, y-yes,” Steve forced out, “but we didn’t talk about the details.”

“You’re in rut,” Bucky deadpanned, “Do we really need to talk about the details?”

“I guess not,” Steve said, and that was that.

Bucky shoved Steve’s sweatpants down to his knees, hoisted his body up and over him, grasped Steve’s cock in his hand, and sat back. As he sunk down on Steve’s cock, the sensation of being filled overwhelmed his senses. Steve was long and thick and all alpha, possibly the biggest thing that Bucky dared sit on in his life. The slick squelched as he slid down to the root, and a helpless, soft moan escaped his throat. Unexpected as sex may have been, he knew what to do.

“JARVIS,” Bucky said, “Play my winky face playlist.”

“What,” gasped Steve, as music began to play, “the hell,” – Bucky rolled his hips forward incrementally – “is a winky face playlist?”

“It’s a sex playlist, Steve,” Bucky supplied, “and plenty of people have them. Fuck, you are a big boy. Is this some kind of serum crap?”

“My dick?” asked Steve, “Only sort of. It’s mostly an alpha thing. Was the only big thing about me, back in the day. Can we go now?

The request came out so sweetly that Bucky couldn’t help but fulfill it, shifting up and falling back down, circling his hips. Sparks of pleasure danced through his veins and fired behind his eyes, syrupy warmth pooling low in his belly. Breathless and still fuzzy with the remnants of sleep, Bucky asked, “Any other requests?” He declined to mention that Steve’s cock surpassed the size of an ‘alpha thing’ and may have all along been a ‘Steve thing.’

Beneath him, Steve licked his lips. He hesitated, eyes flicking to where their bodies met, their bottom halves the only part of them unclothed, both of them still in their t-shirts, and Steve’s sweatpants twisted around his calves.

“Go on,” Bucky encouraged, stroking the top of Steve’s head.

“Can we – can we kiss?” asked Steve.

“Baby,” Bucky managed, heart flayed open under his ribs, “Of course we can.” Moving up and down, leveraging his weight on the balls of his feet, Bucky draped his torso over Steve’s body and drew him in for a long, luxurious kiss. Their morning breath might not have been the best basis for their first true kiss, but Bucky didn’t give a shit. Steve’s lips were soft and bitten from denying himself, and as their tongues slid together and explored, they both whimpered.

They kissed, and kissed, as Bucky rode back, and when Steve was finally satisfied, he reached forward and gripped Bucky by the hips, using his strength to its full potential to lift Bucky up and drive him back down in short, forceful thrusts. Bucky whined low in his throat as Steve fell into a punishing rhythm, at last at the rut-induced pace Bucky was familiar with.

“Fuck,” was about all that Bucky could get out, succumbing to a lack of control. He didn’t do this – lose himself – but how could he keep ahold of his sanity with the pleasure exploding through him, the cock pounding in and out of him, the tensile strength picking him up and shoving him down at though he weighed nothing at all? He bounced on Steve’s cock with none of his usual restraint, the professionalism that kept him observing his IN no matter how great the sex was.

Naturally, this had to be different.

Steve pumped his hips, brow furrowed in concentration. As their bodies slipped and slid together, Steve’s knot began to push out against the walls of Bucky’s ass, making him ever-fuller, overwhelming him. A noise that was all-omega ripped out of him as the knot locked their bodies together, Steve arched off of the mattress, and warm come filled his insides.

His alpha didn’t miss a beat before grasping Bucky’s cock and jerking him off. The pressure inside and outside crushed Bucky’s conscious mind. Instinct seized control and as he whimpered and rolled his hips onto Steve’s knot and then into his hand. Time passed uncertainly, but in the next waking moment, Bucky came and came hard, squeezing the knot in his ass and Steve’s body between his legs, sticky fluid flowing over Steve’s fist.

Bucky flopped over, catching his weight with his palms on either side of Steve’s head as he got his bearings.

“You okay?” Steve asked.

A smirk graced Steve’s lips, and alpha satisfaction billowed out around them, wrapping Steve and Bucky in its warm, smug scent.

Bucky exhaled, pushing his long hair back out of his face. “That was...” he floundered. “Really fucking good. And you were all shy about sex, too.”

“I wasn’t shy,” Steve protested, “I wanted to be respectful. Those are two different things. And furthermore, we still need to talk about it.”

Bucky snorted. “No time like present, since we’re stuck here and all. What do you wanna discuss?”

Steve sucked his lower lip in between his teeth. He carded both hands back through his hair before sighing and splaying out over the tops of the pillows. He said, “I dunno. I guess I envisioned something a little more slow. I thought we would work up to, uh...this.”

“Yeah, me too,” confessed Bucky. He shifted off the balls of his feet and settled a little more comfortably on Steve’s knot. Their breath stuttered together, and Steve’s hips jerked up, just a little, a twitch of motion. He cracked his neck, abruptly aware his hair remained a rat’s nest from sleep and that he was sticky and half-dressed. He asked, “Are you ruts always like this?”

“Sudden and horrible?” Steve replied, “Yes. Yes they are. I didn’t actually get ruts before the serum, you know? I was too sick hold a knot. I had no idea what this felt like until I was in a trailer in Milwaukee and all the Star Spangled Singers sniffed me out. They knew something was up before I did.”

“Is that how you lost your virginity?”

“Nah,” Steve said, “Believe it or not, Peg gave me the what-for the night before they turned me into this. I didn’t knot, ‘cause like I said, I couldn’t, but it was good. I wouldn’t trade that for the world. Richard and Minnie, though, they helped me out on the road while Peggy was off saving the world. I didn’t like being a dancing monkey, but sometimes I sure did miss the friends I made doing the USO tours. Still do. Anyway, I’m not the most experienced, but I’d like to think I know at least a thing or two.”

“I’d say,” Bucky said, and laughed a little. He tossed his head and rolled his shoulders. They’d be tied together for at least another fifteen minutes, but he had no idea what a super-rut entailed, so only time would tell. He did, somehow, find the conscious part of his brain long enough to ask, “What do you usually do for your ruts? Normally I’d ask that before one happened, but well, things haven’t exactly gone according to plan.”

“Nothing,” Steve answered.

“Nothing,” repeated Bucky, and then, “Nothing? You do nothing?”

Steve shook his head.

“You don’t masturbate?” Bucky asked, unable to contain the horror in his voice. What the actual flying fuck was going through this man’s head? “You’re not that Catholic, are you?”

“It’s not a Catholic thing,” Steve insisted, “It’s just – I’ve tried. I get this gross feeling, like I’m real nauseated, and I can’t do it. So I’d sit in bed for a few days and sweat it out. After a week or so, it tapers off.”

“Sweat it out. For a week. Until it tapers off,” whispered Bucky, who needed to get a grip on himself before he embarrassed both of them. “Steve, you absolute maniac, you’ve been hurting yourself. Again! With not jerking off even one time during your super-rut. Fuck that noise. This rut won’t look anything like that shit. No fucking sir.”

“This rut is definitely different than the others, yes,” Steve said, and gestured to their halfway naked bodies.

Bucky couldn’t find the will to answer. He tried to envision enduring a heat without touching himself, without toys or an alpha from a heat club or even the relief of his own hand, and what surfaced made him tighten his jaw. He imagined the agony, the cramping in his abdomen and slick that would make his thighs stick together, the erection that would go unhandled, the way his ass would clench around nothing, waiting to be filled. He didn’t want to ever find out what the reality of that would be. He didn’t know what the reality of Steve mistreating his body like that would be.

What it turned out to be was this:

An hour later, Steve and Bucky were still tied together. Bucky had long since draped his body over Steve’s to the best of his ability, but their position prohibited lying down the way that he wanted. Steve’s knot hadn’t budged as much as a millimeter, and it sucked. This sucked so bad.

“So let me get this straight,” Bucky grumbled into Steve’s shoulder, “You haven’t busted a nut in the twenty-first century, and now we’re stuck together for eternity because you refused to masturbate.”

“I guess,” Steve said mildly. This was so unfair. Steve got to lie down with an omega around his cock. Bucky had to sit up with an alpha in his ass.

“That’s it,” Bucky said, ripping his head up, “You have super-strength, so you’re gonna use it. Pick me up. We’re making coffee.”

Steve cocked a single brow but conceded, “If you say so,” and heaved them both up. The effortless jump from the mattress with Bucky’s muscle-bound body secured with a single arm both rattled him and turned him on. The slick began to seep again, the scent of aroused omega puffing up between them, and Steve’s brow jumped higher.

“Yes, I’m horny,” Bucky said, “Stop looking at me like that and carry me to the coffee.”

Steve took one step and tripped over the sweatpants tangled around his ankles.

He tried to correct the fall, but the weight of Bucky hanging onto his front like a pissed-off capuchin monkey threw them both, and they collapsed onto their sides, bodies protesting where they were locked together. Bucky smacked his head against the doorframe while Steve narrowly missed the open drawer at the bottom of their dresser. They groaned against the unforgiving hardwood floor.

“Fuck,” swore Steve, “That was my bad.”

“You’re damn straight it was your bad,” Bucky complained, wriggling impatiently.

“Stop doing that,” Steve snapped, “You’re making it worse. And in my defense, you’re the one that left my pants on. You could have taken them all the way off.”

Annoyed, Bucky contended, “You looked like you were dying of horny scarlet fever. I wasn’t about to waste time on a sensual striptease.”

Steve grunted as he pushed up onto his elbows. He shifted his hips, pulling Bucky back up to straddle him again, and said, “No one was asking for a striptease, Buck. Just some idiot-proof clothing removal.”

“I hope you’re the one that’s an idiot, because I know it’s not me.”

“Yes, it’s me. Stop squirming.”

With irritatingly minimal effort, Steve maneuvered onto his knees, gripping the doorknob to tug them off of the ground. He said, “Why are you letting your legs dangle like that? It feels like you’re ripping my dick off. Wrap your legs around my waist. Christ.”

That was fair. Bucky looped his arms around Steve’s neck and tightened his legs around his waist. This was possibly the most uncomfortable that he had ever been in his life, and he’d roasted in BDUs under a real asshole of a sun, and also he’d had a prosthetic arm attached, and also he’d been tortured by some unidentified villains in a creepy, high-tech electric chair.

Was he being dramatic? Perhaps.

But had he had his coffee? No.

Once they figured out the ideal position to walk in with their bodies still physically attached, Steve brought them to the kitchen without another incident. He balanced Bucky on the lip of the counter and reached for the coffee pot. Bucky smacked his hand. “Wash your hands, you heathen.”

“I haven’t touched anything but you,” Steve said.

“And I’m disgusting right now,” Bucky replied, “Wash your fucking hands, Steven Grant.”

Steve cast Bucky a dark look before coiling an arm around his waist and moving them to the sink. He obeyed, but it wasn’t without pouting like a child, and it wasn’t without flicking soapy water at Bucky’s face. Having somehow forgotten their precarious position, Bucky shoved Steve with a hand to the chest in retaliation, and sent them both stumbling backward into the kitchen island. Steve caught their combined weight with his hand on the granite countertop.

“Was that necessary?” Steve asked.

“Oh, yeah, you’re one to talk about necessary,” Bucky snarked back, “Was that necessary, he asked, the alpha who didn’t masturbate for literally seven years because he’s a moron.”

Begrudgingly, Steve ignored him, ground coffee beans, and tipped them into a filter, all while studiously keeping his hips still so he didn’t pull at their unfortunate tie.

“Can you carry me to the bathroom while it’s brewing?” requested Bucky, “I want to brush my hair. And my teeth.”

“Why do you need to brush your teeth if you’re just going to be drinking coffee?”

“Because basic hygiene, Steve,” Bucky answered, “And because I have morning breath. If you’re real nice to me, I might even have dick breath later, but that’s only if you take me to the bathroom so I can feel a little less foul. Is that okay with you?”

“Can I get a please?” said Steve.

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Please, Mr. Alpha, I can’t make it there on my own. If only I had a big, strong alpha to carry me to the fucking bathroom –”

“Very funny,” Steve said, but plucked Bucky off of the kitchen counter, which they would have to douse in Lysol the moment that Bucky was walking on his own again.

The bathroom counter sat lower than that in the kitchen, which proved to be a boon as they both brushed their teeth and combed the snarls out of their hair. Bucky gathered his up into a bun in preparation of the long days ahead of them both – helping an alpha through a rut was not a hair-down affair. It was balls-to-the-wall maximum effort, and he didn’t give a shit about looking pretty while he took dick like the champion he was.

With more finagling, they returned to the kitchen and prepared their coffee, which Steve carried in either hand while Bucky clung to him with all four limbs before they collapsed onto the couch. Neither of them spoke as Bucky made grabby hands for his mug or as Steve flicked on the television.

Sitting in Steve’s lap on the couch was much better than slumped in bed or jostling around on Steve’s dick for another hour while they waited for the knot from hell to retreat. Bucky let his forehead rest against Steve’s shoulder and scented him, unrepentant, because Steve owed him this. If Bucky had to sit here stuck on top of the world’s stupidest, most handsome alpha, the least Steve could do was let him bury his nose in that amazing scent.

From the television, the enthusiastic voice of a reporter wormed its way to Bucky’s ears: “...questions everyone wants to know: A beard on Captain America? Where has Captain America been? And who is the omega with him?

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” Bucky said. He didn’t bother to move.

“We knew it was gonna happen,” Steve rumbled under him, “Here. Look up.”

Bucky pried his nose out of Steve’s throat and narrowed his eyes at him. In Steve’s hand, he held his phone out, front-facing camera revealing two not-as-disheveled-as-they-could-be faces. “Smile,” Steve said.

“I will not. Why are you taking a selfie?” demanded Bucky.

“Because I made a Twitter last night,” answered Steve, “and I’m setting the record straight.”

Bucky did not smile, but this did not stop Steve from snapping a picture of them.

“We are literally knotted together,” Bucky protested, “You cannot post that.”

“We’re wearing shirts. No one’ll know but you and me,” Steve said. He pecked a gentle, reassuring kiss to Bucky’s forehead, then his nose, and then his lips, once, and light as a feather. He went on, “But if you don’t want me to post it, I won’t.”

Bucky pinched the bridge of his nose, then grabbed his coffee from its awkward place on the couch cushion beside them. He took a long, fortifying gulp, and said, “That’s a shitty selfie. If we’re gonna drop some truth bombs, I’d like to look nice.” He tugged the elastic out of his hair and shook it out, running his fingers through the waves to tame them the best he could. This time, when Steve held out the phone, Bucky worked his angles and pasted a sparkling, cocky grin onto his face. Steve was right – no one had to know that he and Bucky were stuck together. After several shots, Steve passed Bucky the StarkPhone and let him thumb through the pictures.

“This one,” Bucky said, “My hair looks good in it.”

“You got it, sweetheart,” Steve answered.

 

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now

He’s my support omega [attached: image of Bucky and Steve smiling at the camera. Bucky’s hair does, in fact, look fantastic]

Chapter Text

Chapter Ten

Chapter Track: I’m Not Done – Fever Ray

It Ain’t Over

 

When Steve’s knot went down, Bucky hobbled to the bathroom and spent a solid ten minutes on the can before he could brave the rest of the apartment again. He wiped his torso and back down with a washcloth, discarded it in the wicker laundry basket in the corner of the room, and at last shucked his soiled t-shirt, though for dignity’s sake he found some sweatpants to wear while he assembled some kind of breakfast, something with some substance to keep the momentum going through the next several days.

On the kitchen floor, Beans whined a soft complaint next to her mostly-empty food dish.

Shit. Bucky and Steve couldn't let her wander around while they defiled every imaginable surface in this place. Bucky texted the emergency number that Natasha gave him and prayed it wasn't a SHIELD-level situation number, since all he wanted was for her and Hawkeye to take Beans someplace calm for a few days.

Would Steve's rut be a few days?

Come to think of it, Bucky had no idea what Steve’s rut looked like through an accurate scope, since Steve claimed he “sweat it out” for a week, instead of handling the damn thing like a normal human being, and not World’s Biggest Martyr. Bucky should have a trophy made in honor of the title. Or, wait. No. He thought of something better.

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

 

September 13, 2018

 

[9:48 AM] Bucky: This is a callout post

[9:48 AM] Bucky: Guess what moron didn’t jack it for seven years

[9:52 AM] Bucky:

[Image: Trophy that says “World’s Biggest Martyr” and is labeled to Steve]

 

[10:00 AM] Steve: Bucky what the fuck

 

[10:01 AM] Bucky: They know what I do, they’re the only people I can complain to

[10:01 AM] Bucky: Bonus: I get to call you out in front of your face

[10:01 AM] Bucky: What else am I gonna do? Text the Avengers?

[10:02 AM] Bucky: Sup guys Steve doesn’t know how to handle a rut we’ll see y’all in like 5 days probably [peace sign emoji]

 

[10:04 AM] Becca: Bucky dear it’s time to put the phone down

 

[10:07 AM] Rachel: Also are you like. Texting in the same room

 

[10:09 AM] Bucky: Steve is in the shower

[10:10 AM] Bucky: His fancy StarkPhone is waterproof

 

[10:11 AM] Judy: Hey, my brother, my friend, my pal

[10:12 AM] Judy: I love you

[10:12 AM] Judy: and you know what? I love Steve

[10:13 AM] Judy: I don’t need to hear about his rut

 

[10:15 AM] Steve: Yeah, no offense, you’re underage, and I feel like you shouldn’t be seeing this

 

[10:15 AM] Bucky: Ay that’s fair gimme a sec

 

Everyone but Judy

 

September 13, 2018

 

[10:20 AM] Bucky: TMI chat 

 

[10:22 AM] Becca: Not to be all ~doctor~ on you but Steve are you okay

 

[10:23 AM] Steve: Other than a pain in my ass I’ve named Bucky, I am fine

 

[10:25 AM] Bucky: That’s funny, because the pain in MY ass is named Steve

[10:26 AM] Bucky: And that’s not hyperbole, tyvm

 

[10:31 AM] Rachel:

[Image: Captain Picard facepalm]

 

 

Bucky smelled Steve before he felt him, the city-boy, rain-steel scent wrapping him all up tight before a large, damp body pressed to his back. Thick, muscled arms coiled around his front, and lips applied kisses to the side of his neck – such an intimate thing to do, to kiss the place where one placed a mating bite. Terrycloth chafed just above the waistband of Bucky’s sweatpants, and through it, the hard ridge of Steve’s cock rubbed against him.

“Mm,” Bucky murmured, rolling his head back to loll on Steve’s shoulder. He kissed beneath the blade of Steve’s jaw and asked “Ready to go already?”

Breathily, Steve agreed, “I’d really, really like that, but I’m also starving. Whatever you’re making smells great.”

Protein shakes and omelets would have to do – when Bucky twisted in Steve’s arms to face him, the color returned to his face, all pink and red, his eyes dilated and dewy. The musky, intoxicating rut-smell flowed from him. He was the very picture of an alpha in rut: an enormous man wearing nothing but a short, white towel wrapped around his waist, tented by his erection. Big eyes, shortness of breath, all textbook rut. The control he maintained over himself, however, stood in stark contrast to every other rut that Bucky had been party to. Not that he hadn't enjoyed some manhandling and sex marathons, but a break to breathe made the whole ordeal a little easier.

“How are you feeling?” Bucky dared to ask.

“Better. I think.” Steve answered, with a sheepish card of his fingers through his hair. He shrugged a shoulder and went on to say, “That, uh, probably could have gone more smoothly, but...I’m glad you’re here with me. Everything feels better when you’re with me. Anyway, let’s eat, and then, let’s, uh –”

“Fuck?” suggested Bucky.

One side of Steve’s mouth tugged up in a crooked, boyish smile. His feverish eyes sparkled, and he said, “Something like that.”

While they scarfed down their food, Bucky's phone beeped a confirmation from Natasha that Clint would be braving the pheromone disaster that was their apartment to rescue Beans and give her sanctuary. He arrived not ten minutes later with a dopey, half-grossed-out look on his face and his golden retriever Lucky at his heels. Tails went flying as Beans bounded into the hallway to great her new friend. Lucky yapped a heartfelt reciprocation of enthusiasm. Good. She'd be in good hands.

"I just want you to know that reek," Clint said, saluted, and escorted Beans from the apartment with a bag of her favorite toys.

Beans liked Clint a lot, but then, Beans liked everyone.

With full bellies, Bucky and Steve fell into bed. Steve’s towel fluttered to the ground some time between Bucky standing up, declaring, “Beat you there!” and running down the hallway, and leaping onto the mattress. Bucky reached for the elastic band of the sweatpants to pry them off, but Steve beat him to it, tackling Bucky into the mostly-stripped bed and shucking the offending pants in one, shift movement.

“You’re so beautiful,” Steve told him, but Bucky didn’t have a chance to respond before Steve swallowed his mouth in a kiss. He sucked Bucky’s lower lip in between his teeth, nipping between kisses. When Steve’s tongue slipped along the seam of Bucky’s lips, he let him in, and their tongues moved together, slow and exploring. The kiss was somehow at once both lingering and promising, a kiss that paved the way for more but that they could stay in forever.

With big hands, Steve petted Bucky’s biceps, feeling over his pecs. He pressed the pad of one thumb into a nipple and Bucky gasped into Steve’s mouth.

“Good?” asked Steve.

Bucky nodded. “Yeah, keep doing that.”

Steve did, rolling Bucky’s nipples in his hands, teasing them to hard. The sensation darted right down between Bucky’s legs and he pushed up off of the bed, rubbing into Steve. A low growl vibrated in Steve’s throat, all pleased and all alpha. Still, heavy petting aside, Steve paused his impassioned exlploration of Bucky's body and sat back on his knees, legs thrown over either side of Bucky’s waist.

“What’s the easiest position for me to knot you in?” he asked. He panted. He was desperate, but somehow, he was still in control. 

Fuck, what a sweet man. Bucky scooted up to sitting and held Steve’s bearded jaw between his palms. He drew him in for a kiss, tender and open, less heady than before but no less sweet. With a gentle hand, Bucky detangled their limbs and pushed Steve to the end of the bed.

Then, he cracked his neck with a tilt of his head from side to side, and flipped to his belly. Bucky planted his hands in the mattress firm and far apart, leaned his forehead against the pillow, spread his legs wide and canted his ass in the air. Presenting.

“Nothing like the classics, baby,” Bucky told him.

Steve whined in his throat, curious and needy.

“Come on, baby, touch me,” Bucky encouraged.

Bucky expected to be manhandled, for Steve to pry his legs further apart and mount without question, but he didn’t. The tips of his fingers explored from the skin of Bucky’s throat, lingering at the pulse point, skating over his shoulder blades and along the curve of his spine. By the time that Steve’s palms came to rest on either side of Bucky’s ass, the slick leaked out over his taint and down the insides of his thighs. Between his legs, his cock hung heavy and untouched, almost frantic in its need to feel his alpha.

Steve kept stroking the small of Bucky’s back.

“Hey, Buck?” he asked.

“Mmhm?”

“Is it okay – I mean, can I eat you out?”

At that, Bucky reared his head back to look at him, to look at Steve, whose lips were bitten with kisses and eyes shone with the frenzy of rut. He also smelled hopeful, the timid kind of happy that reminded Bucky of first dates and new matings.

“Stevie, you’re my favorite,” is what he found himself saying.

“Is that a yes?”

“It’s a yes, you big dork,” Bucky said, and kicked at Steve with the inside of one ankle to egg him on.

First, the huff of breath on his skin made Bucky squirm. The scrape of Steve’s beard came next, rasping over sensitive skin as he scented and aimed kisses over his sacrum, teasing. The first wet lap of Steve’s tongue came as a shock, somehow, and Bucky jumped, pressing into the contract. Steve laughed low and breathless, just for a moment, before he licked again.

Bucky moaned into the pillows, gripping the bedsheets in two tight fists. His legs quivered and he scrunched his toes as Steve’s tongue explored in long laps and probing prods. The ecstasy of being paid such special attention to wrenched everything in Bucky up tight in the best way possible, the pull right before the release.

Steve surprised an orgasm out of him.

With a punch to sensation to the gut, Bucky came in the sheets, untouched and pulsing around Steve’s tongue.

“What the,” was about all that he could manage, before he whuffed out a soft, “Hell, baby.”

With limbs pliant and body wobbly, Bucky pushed into Steve’s face, unashamed. With a chuckle, Steve drew back. He spread Bucky’s cheeks apart and the tip of his thumb caught along the rim of his slick hole.

“I’m ready,” gasped Bucky, “Please. Come on. You can go.”

“Don’t want to hurt you,” Steve said back. He felt along the slick edges of Bucky’s licked-open hole with the tip of one finger before he pressed it inside. It was thick and lovely, but not at all what it could be. Still, Steve took his time. He didn’t shove a cursory hand up inside Bucky to start the flow of slick and get on with what he had to be frenzied for. But no, Steve wasn't the type to give way to rut-frenzy. No, he worked from one finger to two and then three, and by the time that Steve withdrew his hand, Bucky shivered into the bed, too fucked-out for words at the unexpected attention.

“You look so beautiful like this,” Steve told him, “I’ve never seen anyone as perfect as you, sweetheart, not once. Everything about you is just – perfect. So perfect for me.”

The plump head of Steve’s cock rested against Bucky’s entrance, but Steve didn’t yet push inside.

“Check in with me,” Steve commanded, and hoo boy, was the alpha in the orders.

“M’good,” Bucky slurred into the pillow, “Please. Alpha. I want you inside me.”

Bucky’s body welcomed Steve’s cock as it filled him, muscles drawing Steve in, slick fluid and sticky on their skin. The sheer girth of Steve’s cock startled him still, so big and so, so satisfying. When Steve’s pelvis pressed to Bucky’s ass, his erection buried deep as it could go, a long, desperate noise ripped from Bucky’s lungs. He wanted his alpha and he wanted him badly. How Steve could be so swept up in his rut and yet stay motionless with his hand rubbing Bucky’s spine – the mind boggled.

“Bucky,” Steve’s voice came out strangled, off-kilter, “I need to – I really need to fuck you.”

Unable to find a single word, Bucky lifted his prosthetic hand and gave a thumbs-up. That was as good as Steve was going to get.

And it was all he needed.

Steve withdrew and slammed back inside him with such force that the bed rocked beneath them. He gripped Bucky’s hips tight in his hands and slid back only to drive in again a moment later. This was the delirious rut-fucking Bucky expected from the moment that the aroma of Steve's rut hit his nose. The forceful thrusts and snapping pace pushed him further and further up the mattress, until Bucky had to pull up and brace his hands against the headboard.

Rather than leave him kneeling up with his hands desperately slipping around for purchase, Steve looped one powerful arm around Bucky’s middle and yanked him into his lap. The sweat from Steve’s chest slid across Bucky’s back, nipples prominent enough to press into Bucky's shoulder blades with a different sort of friction.

“So – goddamned – amazing,” Steve grunted, thrusting up into Bucky from his kneeling position, wrapping him up in those superserumed alpha arms and plowing into him like a ragdoll.

While one arm locked around Bucky’s middle, the other explored, plucking at Bucky’s nipples, reaching up to tug a little at his hair. Somewhere in the middle, Bucky’s cock again filled with blood, bouncing along as his alpha drove home, big and fast and strong. Steve reached between them, to where his burgeoning knot met the entrance of Bucky's body. He smeared his hand with slick and closed his fingers around Bucky’s oversensitive erection, rubbing counterpoint to the unrelenting rhythm up his hips.

The knot began to fill in earnest, to expand inside Bucky. Steve slowed his thrusts, grinding and circling more than pounding, but quickened the pace of his hand. Bucky thrashed and writhed at the onslaught of sensation, of the fireworks erupting in his gut while his muscles spasmed, and Steve held him in place, fucking into him without pause.

“Baby,” Bucky whimpered, desperately clutching at Steve’s arms. He came spectacularly, the clear fluid of his release flowing over Steve’s fist as he worked Bucky’s cock. Each wave of orgasm smashed into Bucky harder than the last.

As Steve’s knot set in place, he massaged Bucky’s cock. Tears sprang to Bucky’s eyes at the overstimulation, his body one singing, overheated nerve. Steve released his grasp and reached up, fitting his hand against the front of Bucky’s throat, clasping close but not too hard. As Steve emptied inside Bucky, he kissed his neck, scraping teeth over that sacred patch of skin where an alpha sunk their teeth into an omega to mate them. The weight of his hand held back the air from Bucky's lungs - not all the way, but just a little - for several seconds before Steve's hand loosened, propping Bucky up with his palm splayed over one side of his chest.

For a long, honey-thick moment, they knelt together on the mattress, panting, gulping for breath.

Steve eased Bucky down and shifted them onto their sides.

The moment Bucky’s two brain cells began communicating with one another again, Bucky murmured, “Fucking hell, Stevie.”

Steve didn’t move his face from Bucky’s neck, only snuffled contentedly before he let out a gravelly, “Good?”

“Incredible,” Bucky said emphatically, then ventured, “Good for you, too?”

“Mmm,” was the initial response, before Steve got his shit together enough to say, “You’re my favorite, too. You know that, right?”

**

In the interim, while Steve slept off his latest wave of rut, Bucky showered the worst of the rut-smell from his skin. As soon as Steve woke ready for another round, the scent would return full-force, but scrubbing away the crusted sweat and various body fluids and rinsing the oil from his hair sunk him right into his happy place.

As warm water flowed over him, Steve’s tenderness floated to the forefront of his mind. The gentleness as he smoothed his hands over every part of Bucky’s body unnerved him, and dislodged a few key bricks from the wall he’d built up around his heart, a wall necessary for combat, for going undercover, for being an effective support omega. Support, don’t feel. Some feelings were inevitable, but handle them like a logical human being. The statistics said differently. The statistics said that Bucky should have been mated four supports ago. Logic, logic, logic. 

Too bad he’d kissed logic goodbye already.

The dent in Bucky’s collected exterior both rattled and thrilled him. Every emotion stung more keenly than they had in years, in ways both magnificent and horrifying. Being in Steve’s arms and living in his scent uplifted Bucky to impossible heights, filled his chest with helium and made him an idiot blimp content to sail through the sky.

And the praise. Steve’s voice rumbling low, murmuring how beautiful and perfect he was made Bucky’s spine tingle, his cheeks heat, and slick wet him on the inside, threatening to trickle out as though in the grip of heat.

He sighed. Steve wasn’t the first alpha to sweet-talk him in bed, and Bucky couldn’t say for certain that Steve would be the last, no matter what the pesky hope in his compromised heart wanted to conjure up. Supporting Steve shouldn’t have been different than any of his other INs, but it was. Feelings should have been off the table, but here they were.

After he shut off the water, Bucky toweled dry and changed into his third pair of sweatpants of the day, easily removable and soft on the inside. Now that he was clean, the stink of rut in the apartment pinched his nose that much more. They couldn’t diffuse it yet, either – while Steve remained in the throes, maintaining the aroma and bounds of territory was key. Steve’s hindbrain, whether or not he was conscious of it, dictated that this was mating time, that Bucky was his mate and needed to be filled up as much as possible to make pups, all in a place that was his. He wasn't a mindless alpha, but biology was funny that way.

The hindbrain wants what the hindbrain wants, he mused, bothering only to give the leather couch cushions a cursory wipe down, cleaning-wise. There was maintaining an alpha’s territory, and then there was being gross.

With all in as much order as it could be, Bucky moved onto cooking dinner. He focused on high protein and nourishing foods, iron-rich spinach and crispy brussels sprouts, which Steve would complain about but eat anyway. Bucky doubled what he’d make for an average alpha in rut, crafting four burgers for Steve and one for himself, plus supersoldier-sized portions of veggies. Once Steve woke up, Bucky’d throw in a protein shake for good measure. 

As he pushed brussels sprouts around in olive oil and brown sugar in a pan, Bucky pulled up the social media he’d been neglecting for the past twenty-four hours.

And did a double-take.

Bucky went to bed with four hundred-something Instagram followers last night.

Now there were over fifty-thousand and climbing. The comments and likes bordered on insanity, rolling in so fast that he could hardly process one before another six popped up.

All he posted were pictures of his hair, his outfits, his dog, and sometimes the food he made, if it looked particularly picture-perfect. At a glimpse the chaos separated into two parties: people that loved Bucky, and people that wanted him to die in a fire.

(“He’s way too muscley for Cap,” contended tehzombiegurl94, “Cap should have a real omega – this guy has nothing on Peggy Carter,” versus altaria_rose_, who said, “Look at his hair!! Look at the jaw!!! How perfect is this guy?!?!?!!”)

“Fuck me,” Bucky muttered, and set the phone face down on the countertop, unwilling to deal with what could only be the tip of the iceberg at this juncture.

And as if nothing else could be going cock-eyed, the apartment door burst open and Tony strode in. His nose crinkled the minute that the rut-scent hit him, but rather than back out and close the door like any sane omega would do, he gesticulated wildly at Bucky and said, “I didn’t know Cap even knew how to use Twitter. He almost has more followers than I do. With one tweet! One! Christ, I wish I could have seen the look on Fury’s face. I did see Natasha's. Maybe hers was better. Yes. Natasha’s was better. She lifted a brow. A whole brow, Bucky-bear. What a power move, on Rogers’ part. I’m impressed.”

“Okay,” Bucky said slowly, “While I appreciate the vote of confidence, you can smell that he’s in rut, right?” Focusing on the food and not at gesticulating wildly right back took every ounce of his self-control. 

“Yeah, yeah, I can smell it,” Tony said, “Where is he? How’s he handling the media storm?”

“Not paying attention to it?” Bucky said, “Like, we’re pretty occupied.” 

Tony looked Bucky up and down and let out an impressed whistle. “I’ll say. Are those hickeys? Never woulda thought that Cap would be a goddamn hoover.”

Bucky glanced down at his chest, which, sure enough, boasted a view choice bruises on his neck and on his pecs in particular. A little thread of pride went tight at the sight, and damn it, he knew the instant that Tony smelled it: his face lit right the fuck up, a maniacal grin edging up on his face. He said, “Ha! You like his whole ‘me alpha you omega you mine’ rut thing, don’t you?”

Bucky shifted his brussels sprouts off the heat and refocused his attention on starting the burgers. Steve liked his with cheese, and in his valiant effort to keep kosher, Bucky fried his patty up first, cheese-free. He could eat while he cooked – being efficient while his alpha was in rut was a particular specialty of his. As he worked, he said, “You shouldn’t be in here, Tony. Like, I’m actually pretty confident Steve’ll want some pointers on handling this whole ordeal, being that you are the King of Ordeals, but not now. We have some more pressing matters on the table, as I’ve pointed out, you can already smell. Also, he’s not Cap, remember? He’s Steve.”

“Ah, my bad,” Tony said, though whether or not he meant it remained to be seen.

A growl rolled out of the dark part of the apartment, and Steve emerged from the unlit hall. He folded his arms over his chest and demanded, “What are you doing here, Tony?” apparently uncaring toward the fact that he didn’t have a stitch of clothing on him or that he smelled like a heat club in springtime. Tony’s brows soared. With some amusement, Bucky watched Tony desperately attempt to keep his eyes on Steve’s face, not the half-hard mega-dick between his legs or the dried semen on the ridges of his abdomen.

“Checking on you,” Tony answered. His eyes flicked down despite the pointed attempt at Not Doing That. 

“I’m busy,” snarled Steve.

“Right, yeah,” Tony nodded along, “I’ll, ah, let you get back to your – activities. But when you want some tips on the whole Twitter debacle, you know where to find me. Happy rutting!” And he disappeared as fast as he arrived, the door clicking behind him as he fled.

“What the hell was that,” Steve deadpanned, gaze glued to the door as though Tony might burst back in at any moment.

Bucky waved at his phone with his spatula. “Internet’s losing it.”

Steve rolled his eyes. “I don’t think I care,” he replied, “What’s all this?”

“Dinner, if you de-gross yourself,” answered Bucky, “You’re only allowed to eat if you wipe yourself down and put some pants on. You can get away with a lot of shit during your rut, but I draw the line at nudity at the dinner table.”

“That wasn’t an issue this morning,” Steve observed.

“Because we were stuck and I was bored,” Bucky shot back, “Wipedown. Pants. Then we’re eating, and then you’ll be ready to go again. Let’s go, chop chop. No time to waste, baby.” Bucky clapped his hands together and Steve turned to obey, although not without brandishing a middle finger. He was a sassy motherfucker while in rut, evidently, and the notion put a smile on Bucky’s face as he flipped Steve’s burgers on the pan.

Steve returned smelling a little less like sex and a little more like he spritzed some alpha cologne over his crotch before he slid into some jogging pants, which he wore tented by his erection without a lick of shame. As he had at breakfast time, Steve sidled up behind Bucky, fitting their bodies together. He peppered kisses over the side of his neck and buried his nose in the crux between Bucky’s jaw and throat. Steve sure did like that blank space of skin where a mating bite would be. 

“I like seeing my marks on you,” Steve told him.

Bucky leaned right into the touch. He let Steve nuzzle along the hickeys and accidentally blurted an honest answer in return, “I like having your marks on me.”

A pleased alpha purr vibrated through Steve’s body, loud and strong enough that Bucky could feel the reverberation in his spine. The noise hit all the right spots in Bucky’s hindbrain, pushing him as close into Steve’s orbit as he could possibly be. Nothing hit the spot like a good old-fashioned alpha purr, the core of an alpha’s pleasure, the most animal way they could tell you that you’d made them happy.

“You smell amazing,” Steve told him. He rubbed his erection over the cheeks of Bucky’s ass, up and down, all casual, like he couldn’t smell that Bucky was getting as riled up as he was.

“Down, boy,” Bucky said, “We can’t keep going at the rate we’re going without something to eat. You especially. Go set the table, will you? Let’s pretend we’ve got our shit together for like thirty minutes.”

“You got it, sweetheart,” Steve answered.

Bucky pretended he didn’t miss the warmth of his alpha plastered against him, scenting and purring and rubbing. He finished frying up his burgers and assembled them the way that Steve liked (lettuce, tomato, and “No onions, Buck, do you know how much onion broth my ma force fed me? Never again.”), arranging the burgers on their own individual plates with his sweet, crisp brussels sprouts, soy sauce broccoli stir-fry, and spinach salad on the side.

“Do I have to eat the spinach?” Steve groused.

Bucky narrowed his eyes. “Yes. Yes, you do.”

“Can I get something special if I eat it?”

“What, perchance, might that be?” Bucky asked, rather than answer in the affirmative.

“I’m thinking...” and then Steve blushed.

Bucky’s lips curled into a devious smile. “Of what are you thinking, Steven Grant?”

Steve stuffed a bite of spinach into his mouth, which was an answer unto itself. Bucky blended a protein shake on behalf of the alpha super-appetite while Steve chewed aggressively at the table, swallowing his spinach with what could only be described as irrational determination in his face.

“You can say no,” Steve said as Bucky slid the shake to him.

Bucky scooted his chair in toward the table and replied, “I know that.”

“Great. Good. I was thinking, maybe,” Steve exhaled, gulped his protein shake, and leveled his chin, “I want to fuck you up against the windows.”

Exhibitionism? Unexpected, but Bucky could work with that. He leaned in over their food, propped his face on his hand, and said, “Yeah, baby? You like the idea of showing me off to all of Manhattan? They could be lookin’ right up at the Tower, couldn’t they? They’d look at those windows and they wouldn’t even know that you’ve got me all laid out in front of them. You want to claim me, right in front of everyone?”

The longer Bucky spoke, the redder Steve turned, his blush creeping up around the tops of his ears and down his chest, filling his cheeks. “Yes,” he whispered, “I want that.”

Bucky sat back in his chair and pointed his fork at Steve’s pink face. “Good,” he said, “Then eat your spinach.”

From there, Steve was a man on the mission. Sure, he was motivated by a little bit of alpha exhibitionism, but as more food vanished from the plates, the super-rut-sized appetite reared its head. Steve polished off all three of his burgers and returned to the frying pan on the stove in search of more brussels sprouts, probably because they were drenched in oil and sugar.

When he finished, he pushed the empty plates to the middle of the table, appearing pleased with himself.

“You ready?” asked Bucky.

Steve nodded, eager. The stench of rut curled around them in great, musky tentacles, peppered with delighted, excited alpha. The scent went right to Bucky’s dick, but he had his limits. He held his palm out and said, “We brush our teeth first. That’s my second stipulation.”

“My teeth can’t even go bad,” complained Steve.

“The superserum doesn’t stop your breath from smelling like cheeseburger, Steve,” Bucky told him, ever-patient.

Preparing for sex in reality always struck Bucky as amusing. No movie ever depicted you side by side with your partner, furiously brushing your teeth so that your kisses wouldn’t taste like meat and cheese. Nor did rut-porn ever cover the realities of cleaning up after the biological disaster that was a rutting alpha – stripping sheets, spraying sharp lemon-scented cleaner over every suspect surface, realigning the territory to return it to rights.

No film would ever capture the hard look of alpha dedication as Steve made sure to get his back teeth at Bucky’s command. And no amount of run-and-chase pornography could ever encapsulate the sheer glee, the goofiness, of Bucky stripping his pants for the millionth time that day and barreling out of the bathroom, laughing as Steve smashed in the wall in an effort to catch him.

They ended up sliding across the floor, and smacked against the glass together, Bucky’s head clunking into it as Steve’s chest collided with his backside.

“Shit, Buck, are you all right?” Steve asked, cradling the side of Bucky’s head that conked the floor-to-ceiling window.

Bucky laughed. “I’m fine,” and wriggled, pushing his ass back against the erection that had now returned with a vengeance. He wet his lips with the tip of his tongue and invited, “You gonna show them I’m yours, alpha?”

Steve moaned into Bucky’s shoulder.

“Yeah,” he whined, “I wanna do that.”

With an unfortunate amount of effort, Steve stumbled out of his pants and kicked them across the hardwood floor. When he returned to rest behind Bucky, dick nestled so, so close to his slick hole, Steve covered the hands that Bucky braced on the window. His breath heated the back of Bucky’s neck. The blast of rut and the minute jerks of Steve’s hips into the swell of Bucky’s ass were all that betrayed Steve’s compromised state. The average alpha would have thrust inside of Bucky already, most likely.

There were, of course, alphas that didn’t buy into biological drive. Like Steve, they exercised control over the instinct screaming in their head to find a suitable mate, to bring that mate to their den and to make babies. A worthwhile alpha recognized their compromised state. While one could not always plan for a rut – as evidenced by one Steven G. Rogers – they could always improvise.

Steve kissed Bucky’s neck a little more, worked up to his jaw, then reached to tilt Bucky’s mouth to him, drawing them into a searing, searching kiss.

“You need me to open you up?” Steve asked, breath glancing across Bucky’s swollen lips.

“Mm, only a little,” Bucky said, “Still pretty loose.”

Steve’s fingers brushed the small of Bucky’s back before pushing between his cheeks. He smeared his thumb through a trickle of slick and Bucky’s sensitive hole ached. His cock twitched in anticipation of being filled up, and being filled up against the cool glass of a wide window. Below them, Manhattan trembled on, a mass of electric light and liquid dark. Tony’s tinted windows prevented any real chance of being spotted, but the thrill remained, Bucky’s heart thrumming harder as the city circulated underneath their feet.

Steve pushed his fingers in, now a consummate expert in Bucky’s body. Bucky gasped and rested his forehead against the glass. The smooth chill against his skin contrasted with the full, too-hot feeling of being opened by Steve’s fingers. He shivered, anticipant.

“You love this, don’t you?” Bucky encouraged, voice rasping and broken under the attention he was being paid. “You told everyone about me already, but this is different, isn’t it? You’re showing them. You like showing off your omega. You want the whole world to see.”

“Yes,” Steve agreed, “God, yes, Buck. You’re the most gorgeous omega on the planet. They should all know. You smell so fucking good I just want to – want to –”

“Want to what, baby? Fuck me? Claim me? Right here, for everyone to see? Do it.”

A long, desperate groan tore from Steve’s chest. He freed his fingers, and in the next moment, the blunt sensation of a cock behind pressed to Bucky’s ass spread through his body. The head of Steve’s erection breached him, but Steve was still careful, easing inside. Soft, noisy breaths escaped Bucky’s lungs – little ah ah ah sounds he couldn’t contain even if he tried. Steve was big and he was sensitive. Every nerve in his body cried out in relief and flared to life at that fullness.

Bucky might have chocked it up to his omega hindbrain being satisfied by alpha touch, but he knew that wasn’t it. Being fucked was great, but only Steve ever made him feel this way. Only Steve could make him feel like their bodies coming together somehow righted the crookedness of the world, tilting a wrong-ways axis to the right degree.

“Please,” Bucky begged.

Steve delivered. At first, he ground inside in short, dirty thrusts. Then, he shoved Bucky all the way up against the window. The chill of the glass against his nipples brought them to a throbbing point while his cock pulsed, untouched. With Bucky’s front flush to the glass, Steve drove his hips forward, fucking into Bucky with all the power that he knew him to be capable of. Bucky’s body dragged up and down against the window, all spread out and on display for the city around them. The disparity of the unforgiving, cold glass and the hot, pliant body behind him again tore his brain in a thousand directions, each more incredible than the last.

“I love you like this,” Steve growled, “I love you right in front of the city, where everyone can see. Everyone can see you, but no one can have you. Only me. You’re mine. You’re my omega.”

And no one could help Bucky now. No one could help him, because though he knew it was unwise, as Steve’s cock moved in and out of him, quick and authoritative, he agreed, “I’m your omega,” and came like a rocket on the window. He clenched around Steve and Steve let out a strangled sound. His knot swelled, and Bucky’s raw body spasmed.

He cried out as Steve kept his pace, whimpering into the window as the knot locked in and Steve came inside him, warm and liquid.

Jesus, Buck,” Steve swore.

“Something like that,” Bucky mumbled, having been fucked into another plane of existence.

For whatever amount of time passed between Bucky’s head swimming and realizing the discomfort of their position, they stood above Manhattan, shaking into each other’s bodies.

“Can you – let’s move to the couch,” Bucky decided, “I want you to spoon me, and I want to watch cartoons.”

“You got it, sweetheart,” said Steve. He plucked Bucky up as though he weighed nothing, and together, they arranged a throw blanket over the leather couch so that they wouldn’t stick to it, and found another to drape on top of them.

The sheer volume of energy expended throughout the day careened into Bucky as soon as his head flopped onto a throw pillow. “I like it when you call me that,” he slurred.

“Then I’ll keep doing it,” Steve promised, and brushed a tender kiss to the side of Bucky’s head – to one of the scars.

“We gotta figure out the internet thing,” Bucky said, face smashed against the pillow.

“Not today,” Steve assured him, “Today we can just be like this.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Track: Duet in B Minor – Pacific Air

Opening Up Both Eyes

 

That was not how Steve expected that to go.

He sat up, head clear for the first time in five days. Superserum aside, he chafed like a motherfucker – he couldn’t imagine what Bucky felt like right now. The omega in question snoozed peaceably beside him, hair fanned out on one pillow, another pillow clutched in his arms. Soft snores came up from parted pink lips.

He was beautiful.

Now Steve knew every inch of him, information his brain would never forget. He knew the scars along the seam of Bucky’s prosthetic. He knew the tempting curve of his spine. While Steve was already acquainted with the know-it-all smirk on Bucky’s face when he made Steve squirm, he could now replay the exact moment that Bucky came, the gobsmacked expression on his flushed face and the broken noises that he made, all so surprised. Steve knew the taste of him, of sweat and skin and come.

His heart ached at the sight of Bucky now. They could never return to the playful, platonic nature of their relationship before Steve’s rut. Maybe Bucky could do that, but Steve would never be able to put this past week in the back of his mind, the way he did so many times. Everything hurt and chorused inside of him, and how he was supposed to handle the onslaught of emotion with even a modicum of grace, he did not know.

Protectively, Steve didn’t want to leave Bucky alone in their bed, for fear he’d wake up without Steve there next to him. That Bucky might need him was laughable, of course – Steve’s alpha brain wilted a little at the thought – but instinct urged him to guard, to watch and protect what was his.

Steve hummed and tucked a lock of Bucky’s tangled hair behind his ear, then reached for his phone for the first time in days. A panel of texts greeted him, rangling in tone from amused and congratulatory (Sam, Natasha, Tony) to resigned and probably more pissed than a polite text could convey (Fury). Steve sent messages to everyone that checked in on him – assuming positive, as Bucky advised he do when it came to his friends, and even Nick.

(“He doesn’t always go about shit the right way, but he always does what he thinks is best. That might not be best for you or me or even him. I think the guy’s so big picture that sometimes it comes at a cost to others. Maybe you’re changing his mind, though. You’re good at that – changing people’s minds.”

and, “Look, Steve, I’m not recommending Fury’s methodology, but the dude is my boss. Well, was, I guess. Being kinda famous but the kibosh on my SHIELD career. No, I know, I said it was okay, and I meant that. My point is that I respect him. Even when I really, really disagree with him, I respect Fury. You weren’t the first fight me and Fury had, you know.”)

Against his better judgment, Steve opened Twitter. He knew by virtue of everyone’s reactions that what greeted him would be a maelstrom, but nothing could have prepared him for the disaster that was his notifications. Over one million people followed his account in his mere five days of absence, and hundreds of thousands of people replied and retweeted his single tweet.

Fifteen minutes of Twitter excavation revealed that the internet tracked down Bucky’s accounts on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. They’d already thrown around Bucky’s photos, and some of them even deigned to remark upon whether or not Bucky deserved to be Steve’s omega. The urge to protect surged into his throat as he scrolled. He liked a handful of tweets advocating for Bucky, and another several touting that the internet should be respecting Steve’s privacy.

People wanted to know where he was.

People wanted to know if he was still Captain America.

People posted articles about Bucky’s capture – heavily redacted as they were.

(American Hero Returns Home and other fluff headlines; anything else, SHIELD would have slashed immediately)

Steve swallowed back the alpha need to shield Bucky from this shitstorm. Bucky would chew him out something awful if he pulled any “alpha nonsense” in regards to a choice they both had made.

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now

Hi everyone, thank you to those that have repsected our privacy. I have been diagnosed with severe PTSD. When I found myself at my lowest, I requested a support. Talking about my mental health isn’t easy for me. Before I got defrosted, we didn’t talk about mental health. (1/?)

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now

We kept our mouths shut and drank it away. Sometimes that’s still what we do. Turns out that doesn’t work so great for me, but really, it doesn’t work so great for anybody. As many of you have surmised, I am stepping down from the Captain America mantle for the time being. (2/?)

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now 

I’m going to be focusing on finding a way to process what I have seen, what I have done, and I will be doing that alongside my support, James. I have seen that some of you have some opinions on James. Let me be clear: anyone that insults or smears my omega is not my friend. (3/?)

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now

James has helped me more than you can possibly understand, and anyone that stands against James stands against me and my recovery. In summation: I am not Captain America. I am Steve Rogers. I have PTSD, and I have a support omega. (4/?)

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now 

Please respect our privacy and my journey to a better place than the one that I am struggling with now. If you’d like to show your support in a more tangible way, I asked that you donate to the Wounded Warrior Project, which helps veterans struggling, as I am, with PTSD. (5/5)

At Steve’s side, Bucky shifted. He nuzzled into Steve’s flank without opening his eyes. Voice garbled from sleep, he murmured, “You smell determined this morning. Are you up to no good already, Rogers?”

“Twitter,” Steve answered, threading one hand through Bucky’s hair, stroking absently.

Bucky groaned. He still didn’t open his eyes, but he did untuck his prosthetic arm out from under him and curl it around Steve’s waist. He nosed at the edge of Steve’s pelvis and said, “That is definitely no good.”

“I may have gotten carried away,” Steve admitted, “but only a little.” He eyed his speech as the likes and replies flooded in.

“And yet, I still forgot something,” Steve added, and read as he typed out, “Don’t be an asshole. And, send tweet.”

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now 

Don’t be an asshole.

Bucky smiled and blinked up at him. He said, “You know, you’re really somethin’, baby.”

Steve’s heart fluttered all out of beat like he was twenty years old and sick again. God, those lips, pulled up in that genuine, bright grin as he rubbed the sleep from his eyes.

How could this happen to you in so little time, he threw at himself.

Steve had to pull away from Bucky lest he said something stupid, so he carded his fingers through Bucky’s hair one final time and edged off of the mattress. The sheets stunk of rut – changed them daily as they had – so Steve tugged on one edge and said, “Let’s get these in the wash. I don’t think we can tell Clint to bring Beans back until everything stinks a little less.”

“You’re right, but I hate you for making me get out of bed,” Bucky said, but rolled out of the tangle of sheets and blankets anyway. Neither of them had dressed after they fell asleep last night, freshly-showered and exhausted to the bone. Ruts with a partner were fun at first, Steve decided, but the shine wore off around round eight, when everything started to hurt a little more and hunger peaked harder than arousal.

Unable to resist, Steve curled a hand around Bucky’s hip and reeled him in for a quick kiss to the lips. Bucky melted under him, deepening the kiss back, then whacked him in the abs.

“Don’t distract me. We gotta make this place presentable.”

“Okay, okay,” Steve said, grinning.

While Steve stripped the bedsheets and threw them in the washer (exchanging them for the second set still in the dryer, wrinkled but soft and pleasantly clean-smelling), Bucky pulled comfy pajamas on and padded out into the kitchen. Steve mourned the loss of Bucky’s naked body in his line of sight, but hoped he’d see it again. Maybe soon, maybe when all the chapped skin and beard burn on Bucky’s skin healed. As it was, he hobbled toward the coffee machine, not-quite-right in his stride but determined enough to get breakfast that he didn’t care.

The cleaning began from the bedroom out, a fractal of lemon and lavender cleaners spreading veins of scent through what remained of Steve’s rut soaked into the apartment. Bucky, once caffeinated, attacked the windows with a spray bottle and roll of paper towels, while Steve focused on the kitchen counters and the corner of the floor they’d ended up in somewhere in the hazy mix of days.

“Hey, Buck,” Steve called, when he migrated to the living room to help reshelve a handful of fallen books.

“Hey, Steve,” Bucky said back.

“We should talk about sex,” Steve replied.

Bucky tilted his head at Steve. “Yeah, we should. What’s up?”

“Can we keep having it?” asked Steve.

Bucky laughed a little. He answered, “Yeah, if you give me a second to heal up. Might be a couple days.”

“I also...I wanted to ask,” Steve started out slowly, “I know the rut was focused on me, obviously, but – what do you, um. What do you like?”

That straightened Bucky’s spine. He unfolded to standing and said, “Okay, official conversation. Sit on the couch; we should be paying attention to each other.”

Steve obeyed his omega’s command, falling against the newly-clean leather. Bucky plopped down beside him and swung his legs over Steve’s, their bodies forming an X across the furniture.

“Okay, so,” Bucky said, “What I like. I like a lot of what we did. I liked that you asked me if you could do things. I liked that we checked in with each other. You should know this going forward – I’m queer. Gender, designation, all the stuff in between or outside, who gives a fuck? I like everyone. I can’t tell you the names of my past INs, but I can tell you I’ve supported two alphas, a beta, and an omega before. This better not be a problem, because if it is, I’m gonna pop you in the fuckin’ face.”

“It’s not – why would that be a problem,” Steve asked, exasperated, but he knew the answer. He was born in 1918. Historically speaking, the world had not been kind to anyone queer. He knew that, intimately and personally. Before Bucky could open his mouth and say what Steve knew he would say, Steve held up a hand. He said, “Remember how I didn’t care what gender or designation my support was? I’m queer too, you big idiot.”

“I – well,” Bucky sputtered, “Yeah, all right, that’s my bad.”

“I’ve only really had sex with omegas,” Steve admitted, fumbling with his hands in his lap. He didn’t look Bucky in the eye. God, he had never said any of this out loud, but here he went. If anyone should know, Bucky should. He breathed in deep, then continued, “and I guess a lot of people think that makes me straight. Or not queer enough. Or whatever. I had a fella though, back before the war, before the serum. His name was Arnie. He was an alpha too. We didn’t...you gotta understand, me n’ Arnie being together, that was scary. We knew if we got caught we could be arrested. We could get the stuffing beat out of us and – and I did. I’m surprised no one ever came forward about that. We went to a queer bar. It was fun. For once I felt like I was free, you know? And Arnie, he didn’t spend too much time with me outside of some special occasions. Didn’t want to be suspicious. But at the bar? With all the other alphas going with alphas around us? He laughed and he danced with me. We were drunk and we were happy, so he kissed me on the walk back home. We got spotted by a couple of guys that came ‘round the bend right at the wrong second.”

“Shit, Steve,” Bucky said, now at rapt attention.

Steve shrunk into himself. He hated that anything like this ever happened. That LGBTQIA folks could mate now legally made him happier than he could describe, with a history like his behind him, with being on the wrong end of the world’s hatred. When the news of mating for all hit, unparalleled relief unspooled some tightly wound piece of him. He knew nothing was perfect, that people would always spew hate, but knowing they were one step closer to treating each other better soothed old fears.

“I was just,” Steve made a vague gesture, “wrong to them. Bad enough that I’m an alpha that can’t knot ‘cause I’m too sick. Bad enough I’m small and I don’t look like they think alphas ought to. Then I was queer, too. I fought ‘em punch for punch. I yelled at Arnie to run. He did and I’m glad he did. They broke my nose and my wrist. I think Ma knew what happened, probably. Never take Sarah Rogers for a fool. And I never saw Arnie after that. He was too scared.”

Bucky shifted his legs off of Steve’s and leaned his head into him instead. He propped Steve’s arm around his waist.

“I think you know I been with lots of people,” Bucky said.

“I don’t care about that,” Steve interjected.

Bucky put a hand on his chest. “I know you don’t care. Chill out,” he assured him, “Anyway. I been with all kinds of people. And don’t get me wrong, I like being filled up and knotted, but I love giving. I love being on top. One of my alpha INs, she got assaulted by an omega, got drunk at a Halloween party and this omega guy got her hard and rode her. She was freaked out about being on the giving end after that. We got her through her rut with me on top. My omega IN, he liked being fucked but he didn’t like being knotted, only liked male omegas. So, that’s some of my history.”

Intrigued, Steve glanced up from his wringing hands. He drew his nose against Bucky’s, lips hovering over lips, but he didn’t kiss him. Instead, he shyly said, “We can try that, if you want. I’ve never done that before, but I – I’ve thought about it, sometimes.”

“Yeah, let’s try it sometime,” Bucky said, nudging Steve’s shoulder with his, “Only not when I feel like sandpaper.”

“Duly noted,” Steve replied.

“Guess it’s time for me to ask what you like,” Bucky said, “I know you like showing me off, and I know you liked when I presented. Got any other boxes you wanna tick?”

Steve made a face. His limited experience hampered his ability to be certain about his likes and dislikes. In the past five days, he’d tried more than he had in the entire rest of his life. He shrugged one shoulder and said, “Dunno. There’s a whole lot I haven’t done.”

“We can figure it out,” Bucky said, smiling at him, eyes crinkled at the corners, “All we gotta do is talk to each other.”

**

When Beans returned to the apartment, she greeted Bucky and Steve with a full body wag, howling out a strange, exuberantsound that had no business coming out of a dog. She did not keep her paws on the ground, but neither Bucky nor Steve scolded her, both more than happy to let her lick their faces and tackle them onto the floor.

Amused, from his place standing over Steve on the grounf, Clint said, “I think Beans and Lucky are besties, now, for the record.”

Through huffs of laughter as Beans continued to lick his face, Steve said, “We’ll make sure they get some playdates.”

“Oh, rock on,” Clint replied. He hesitated for a moment, worrying at his lower lip, and then asked, “How’s shit going? How are you holding up? The Twitter shit – look, I don’t know a lot of stuff about the internet except for the stupid memes Natasha and Kate send me, but I know people take their social media seriously.”

Bucky, with his hip propped against the wall and his arms folded over his chest, answered, “Steve’s starting shit, but what else is new? Also, half of the internet hates me, but I think they all universally like my hair, so that’s something.”

From his pocket, Clint’s phone beeped with a text alert. When he pulled it from his ripped jeans, it went clattering to the ground.


“Aw, phone,” Clint said. A large crack split the screen, but evidently unmoved, Clint swiped open his messages and sighed. “I gotta go, but text me and we can do a doggy-date sometime. I’d tell you not to do anything stupid, Steve, but I’m gathering that’s kind of your thing.”

Steve gave Clint a middle finger from the floor.

When finally Beans settled back into the apartment, sniffing at all the walls and corners, at the couch and the bed, Steve sat down on the couch and messed around on the internet and let himself be swept down a Wikipedia hole. Only when a knock sounded against his front door and Bucky startled from his paperback did Steve realize he’d forgotten to tell Bucky to expect company that afternoon.

Ha, whoops?

He conjured up a look of innocence and opened his mouth, but Bucky beat him to the punch.

“JARVIS, who is that?” Bucky asked.

“Corporal Samuel Wilson,” JARVIS replied, “Should I let him in?”

Bucky narrowed his eyes at Steve. “Did you invite Falcon over without telling me?”

“Oops,” Steve shrugged, “Do you think Falcon is as cool as Thor?”

“I mean, he’s Chair Force, but other than that,” Bucky waved a hand in the air.

Steve rolled his eyes. “Let him in, JARVIS.”

Steve met Sam shortly after the Chitauri invasion, when his existence went public and the Avengers were the talk of every tabloid, newspaper, and blog in the world. Back then, being outside didn’t rattle Steve, at least as far as running in the mornings went. He took to circling Bryant Park, where several mornings in a row, he lapped Sam. The more irritated Sam became, the more amused Steve was, the more he wanted to do it, working himself harder to tease a look of annoyance out of the then-mystery beta on his running route. When he at last worked up the courage to chat Sam up, they became fast friends.

Tragically, Steve’s awkward flirting ended with an: “Oh! Oh, uh, I’m into betas and omegas. Sorry about that, man.”

Sam lived across town now, but at the time was couch-surfing at his sister’s (she was a financial analyst of some means) place while he was in between jobs. When everything went to hell with Thanos, Sam offered his skills – with the caveat that he needed to steal his wings back.

The Avengers, in their own special ways, excelled at stealing things.

Today, he strode in and dropped his red backpack on the floor, grinning wide. “Steve! Shit, man, it is so good to see you.” He opened his arms to offer a hug, and Steve went, vaulting over the back of the couch to yank Sam tight against him.

“How’ve you been?” Steve asked when he let go, smiling so hard that his cheeks hurt.

God, Sam was the one friend that he made by himself in this century, and he had missed him like hell. Between Sam’s work at the VA and his side gig playing bass in a cover band (Sam favored Marvin Gaye) that jumped from dive bar to dive bar, he lead a busy life. After Thanos, Tony offered Sam a place in Avengers Tower, but Sam declined. He didn’t mix his work and his personal life, he’d said. Steve only wished he were so wise.

“Oh, you know,” Sam said, “Got a couple of quiet regulars to talk at group the other day, made a whopping fifteen dollars in tips last night, my fridge broke again and I’ve been blowing all my money on DoorDash. You know, same old. Can’t help but notice you’re not up to your old tricks.”

Steve clutched at the back of his neck and let out a nervous chuckle. He waved Bucky over and said, “Yeah, uh. I guess I shoulda told you before, but – this is Bucky. He’s my support omega.”

Bucky glared at Steve, apparently unnerved by meeting Falcon while he was wearing his cartoon pajamas. He offered a hand, which Sam shook, and said, “Nice to meet you, even if Steve didn’t bother to tell me that you were coming.”

“It’s about damn time you got your crap sorted out, for the record,” Sam said to Steve, then looked Bucky up and down, “Nice pajamas. You play Pokemon GO, or just the console games?”

“Any and all,” said Bucky.

“Nice. I play Pokemon GO with my niece on the weekends. What team you on?”

“Mystic, why?”

“Oh, so you suck,” Sam replied.

Bucky scowled, “You’re on Valor, aren’t you?”

“Got it in one,” Sam said, and winked.

“I’m lost,” said Steve, finally, “Is this the yarmulke game?”

Sam made a face at Steve. “What?”

“I have a pokeball yarmulke,” Bucky explained, and then crossed his arms over his chest, “Yeah, that’s the game that I was talking about. I’m delighted that Falcon and I have something to fight over.”

“That’s – actually, that’s a great segue,” Steve said, “I know I’m not supposed to always call you for the heavy stuff, but –”

“You lured me here with the promise of a homecooked meal, Rogers,” interrupted Sam, snapping from amused to I-am-so-done-with-your-shit in the span of one and a half seconds.

“And that’s still happening!” Steve said, cheeks heating as he turned a hopeful expression on his support omega, “Hey, sweetheart, can Sam join us for dinner?”

Bucky glared harder. “Some warning would be appreciated, you big asshole, but fine. Sam, we’re having veggie lasagna. Take it or leave it.”

“Sounds great,” Sam told Bucky with a needling smile, “And I guess I should be asking what the fuck you brought me here for under false pretenses?”

Steve inhaled, pulled his shoulders back, and leveled his chin.

“Oh, no,” Bucky muttered.

“I want to pass the shield on to you,” Steve said, reaching out and clasping Sam’s shoulder, “I want you to be Captain America.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Track: The Woods – Hollow Coves

A Place to Hide

 

For a long moment, Sam stared. He wet his lips, considering. When at last he spoke, he asked, “I’m sorry; can you repeat that? I think I just hallucinated.”

Heart thundering, Steve hesitated. He hadn’t expected a no, but then, he did lie to get to Sam here, because he knew Sam hated existential crisis conversations eight million times in a row. Well, lie-adjacent. There would still be home-cooked food, but there would also be an existential crisis.

Tucked under Steve’s arm, Bucky’s brows soared just as high as Sam’s. He puffed up his cheeks and blew the air from his lungs, a hiss too loud in the silence that stretched between them. For the space of an instant, Sam’s eyes flicked to Bucky.

Bucky must have noticed too, because he made a ‘hm’ noise, then offered, “Maybe I should get out of your hair for a while? This seems like it might be a private conversation.”

“Yes. That,” Sam agreed.

The familiar prickle of anxiety sliced up the back of Steve’s neck. He and Bucky hadn’t been apart since – well, since Bucky came to live at Avengers Tower. But – Bucky wouldn’t be leaving him forever. Only leaving to let Steve and Sam have what could perhaps be termed an overdue conversation.

Sam’s calming beta scent leaked out and wrapped around him, the cure-all to a screaming hindbrain.

“Yeah, all right,” Steve said, although not without reluctance.

“I’ll take Beans for a walk,” Bucky said. He slipped out from beneath Steve’s arm, pecked a kiss to his cheek, and retreated to the bedroom.

In his absence, Sam and Steve stood in stalwart silence. Sam chewed his lip. Steve picked at the skin around his fingernails. Bucky’s return gave them both something to focus on that wasn’t each other, as he emerged with his long hair pulled up in a haphazard pile atop his head and snug workout leggings hugging the ebb and flow of muscle and curves. Steve didn’t hide his admiration, content to watch the ripple of muscle in Bucky’s arms as he retrieved Beans’ leash and their dog burst into motion.

Before Bucky left, he nosed into Steve’s neck to kiss that place where a mating bite would go. With a sly, fond smile, he said, “Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone.”

“How could I?” Steve asked, “You’re takin’ all the stupid with you.”

“Very funny,” Bucky said. He studied Steve and Sam for a final moment, then Beans yapped, and the spell broke. He sketched a lazy salute at the pair of them. The apartment door closed with a quiet click that, like their nervous breath, resounded.

“So,” Sam said, “Mind if I ask what the hell is going through your head? You may be benched, but you’re still Captain America. You’ve been Captain America for seventy years. I don’t think that’s the kind of thing you up and change.”

Steve floundered. “You want coffee?” he asked, desperate for something to do with his hands.

“Sure, let’s do that. But you’re avoiding the question, and I don’t like that.”

Steve sighed. He whisked past Sam to the kitchen, where he busied himself with a bag on coffee beans to avoid Sam’s why are you like this gaze.

As Steve filled his coffee pot with water, he asked, “Why can’t it change? Lots of things change, and most of the time, it’s a damn good thing they did. We ain’t got the whole segregation thing anymore. Omegas can have any old job they want – although the pay disparity is just so typical, why is it that a whole century later, we...never mind. Anyway, you know. Alphas can go with alphas now. We used to put pups to work in factories, but that changed, didn’t it? So why can’t Captain America be Sam Wilson?”

Sam leaned back against the kitchen counter, one brow still lifted. His arms stayed folded, firm against his chest. He huffed, shook his head. “I don’t wanna give up the wings, Steve. They mean too much to me.”

“Who says you have to?” shrugged Steve, “Give ‘em to Tony. He’ll paint ‘em red, white, and blue and you’ll be golden. There’s no official Captain America handbook. No one says Captain America can’t fly.”

Sam nodded along. “All right. You got me there. But that’s not the only problem with your plan, Rogers. I know you know that.”

Another soundless moment unraveled, startled only by the musical beep of the coffee machine announcing that the pot was ready. Steve poured them each a cup, and doctored Sam’s with two spoonfuls of sugar, the way that he liked it.

“Thanks,” Sam said absently, thumbing the rim of the boring white mug – another sterile feature of pre-arranged apartment. Steve missed the hodgepodge of teacups his mother collected, all the shapes and sizes and colors of them. He wondered where they went once he enlisted, wondered what happened to all his sketches of them, of the sun filtering through colored glass and stretching the shadows of painted china across the tabletop.

“Listen,” Sam said, and Steve’s head shot back up, “I got a couple of folks that recognize me. Sometimes after I play somewhere, there’s a, ‘Hey, aren’t you that Falcon guy?’ but it’s pretty lowkey. It ain’t the shit that’s got you shut up in here because you don’t wanna deal with it. I don’t know what it looks like – being under that microscope.”

Steve propped his body on the kitchen island diagonal to Sam. “I’m working on that,” he admitted, “Anyway, you got way more charisma than I do.”

“That’s the understatement of the year,” muttered Sam.

“I can’t think of a more worthy guy,” Steve told him. He meant it, too. Captain America represented not a nation, but a people. Captain America stood for those that needed someone to stand for them. The image may have been distorted, misshapen over the decades and pulled like taffy to stretch into agendas, but the heart of Captain America was courage, conviction, and a belief in the good of humanity. He had to believe that.

Steve didn’t know if he embodied those things in the way that he had a twenty-four, but he knew that Sam was and always would be that man, a good man, one that had seen pain and suffered loss but still stood for something – the kind of man that Abraham Erskine would have been proud to know.

“I’m not a supersoldier,” Sam said, “You sure I can hold that shield?”

Steve grinned over his coffee. “You wanna try it out?”

Sam lifted his eyes to the ceiling and exhaled. “Guess I better see, huh?”

Steve set the mug aside and tripped over his own feet to the bedroom. He shoved away his and Bucky’s clothing and reached into the dark back corner of the closet. He closed his fingers around familiar, cold vibranium. The shield came easily – it always had. Steve hadn’t touched it since that night he woke from his nightmare and threw it at Bucky, a night he was ashamed to remember, and the feel of the shield in his hands was both alien and intimate.

Rather than carry it out, Steve tossed it to Sam – nothing like a smashing throw would be, but enough heft to send it across the apartment and to the kitchen.

“Whoa!” Sam yelled, but he caught it quick as anything. He blinked and brought the shield to rest in both his hands. The shield had seen many battles, many wars. The shield lay against Steve’s back in World War II, on his arm during the Chitauri attack, in his palm facing down Thanos. Every battle the shield fit him, snug against Steve like a glove. It didn’t so much anymore.

Steve Rogers liked red shoes and cartoons and music that reminded him of his mom. He hadn’t so much outgrown the shield as he had found something new – himself. Passing the shield to Sam would not be a hand-me-down, but a passing of the torch, handing over a treasure to someone that would value it as it deserved to be valued.

Again, Sam lifted his eyes skyward.

“All right,” he said, returning attention to Steve, “When do we start?”

**

This wasn’t unusual, Bucky reasoned with himself. Needing to have a serious conversation with friends and family went with the territory of being an IN. Finding a support lent an in-need the guts that speaking to loved ones took. The INs that Bucky took on in particular – the agents and soldiers and fighters of the world – they needed a different kind of fight in them for the emotional pieces of existence.

They could scratch and claw their way out of violence and combat, shove their bodies between a between a threat and the world.

An internal fight was a different battle.

Bucky knew that intimately.

His fight shaped him into a better support, the kind that knew when his IN stood on the brink of a new horizon. Handing the shield to Sam – well. What else was that but the set and rise of the sun, the crest of a new road? A physical thing the shield might have been, but it was heavy in more ways than one. Sometimes, the weight of an object was a weight in the mind.

Bucky noticed the shield half-hidden in the bottom of the closet, obscured by clothing and covered in a fine layer of dust. Steve kept it close, held it near to him. The corner of Bucky’s mouth ticked up at the obvious correlation between the physical shield and everything else Steve cast up around him.

Steve excelled at shields.

Rather than scooting out the back way through Tony’s garage, Bucky rode the elevator to the lobby. He pulled up Pokemon GO on his phone to spin the pokestop in the midst of all the marble and chrome, a gigantic, abstract metal sculpture whose bright, enameled panels twisted around each other to form the silhouette of Earth when the sun hit it head-on from the towering glass facade of the building.

As Bucky cut through the hubbub of business casual and curious visitors, eyes prickled over his skin. He swallowed, hyperaware now of the double-takes and turns of the head. He’d been eyed before by one or two people, but bodies shifted around him, opening up he’d ripped a seam.

Beans sensed his apprehension. She did not greet any of the strangers, but powered across the bright marble floor with her nails clacking.

When Bucky shouldered through the revolving door onto the sidewalk, he knew he made a mistake.

A small crowd of paparazzi clustered on the sidewalk, sitting on the curb and leaning against cars.

“There he is!” somebody shouted, and they leapt into action.

Bucky covered his eyes with his prosthetic against the onslaught of camera flashes. Voices shouted from every direction, all sides of him surrounded.

Mr. Barnes, can we get a comment on the state of Captain Rogers’ mental health?

Are you the same James Barnes that placed in second in the 2002 US Gymnastics Championship?

Mr. Barnes, doesn’t the public have a right to know what happened to you overseas? Why is there so little information on your capture?

Shoulders edging toward his ears, Bucky shoved through the throng of questions. He elbowed hands off of him, and Beans growled, bearing her teeth at one photographer that dared close his hand around Bucky’s wrist and yank him closer for a better shot. The photographer jerked back, but the click of his camera persisted.

What the fuck; was this what Steve faced every time he walked out of Avengers Tower?

Would this be the rest of Bucky’s life?

Bucky clenched his teeth and persevered for the sake of his dog, punching out of the crowd and to the gum-spotted concrete, striding with purpose away from the tower. As they sprinted further and further away, Beans relaxed a fraction, allowing a sniff here and there to the sides of buildings.

Despite his best efforts to escape, a handful of reporters, cameramen, and photographers pursued him. They yelled and called out, his name snapping out of their mouths in desperation. They were sharks with the scent of blood in their nose, all sharp teeth as they turned over every stone in Bucky’s past. They wanted to know what qualifications he had to help Steve. They wanted to know how he lost his arm. They wanted to know how an omega teenager in gymnastics transformed into a hardened marine.

As they walked with paparazzi trailing behind him, Bucky and Beans garnered the attention of passersby. New York commuters, as a whole, tended to ignore the ruckus in favor of arriving at their destination. But the tourists. Oh, the tourists. StarkPhones jumped from handbags and back pockets, shutters clicked, and the voices clamored. A cacophony of sound tangled around him like a thorny wreath.

The dread speared through Bucky, heart first, radiating out to sweating temples and one clammy hand clutching his dog’s leash.

Oh. Oh, fuck.

Bucky never put his back to a door. He hated facing away from a crowd. Crowds scratched at his insides. No matter how far he came away from what he’d seen overseas, from the boogeymen that held him and fried his brain, no matter how much he healed, he could overflow, and this was it. His limbs shook as he searched for an exit, a way out of the thicket of humanity. Any one of them could be the end. He could land back in that terrifying chair where SHIELD discovered him babbling and blank.

His throat sealed up. His breath came hard and fast from his nostrils.

GETOUTGETOUTGETOUT

Bucky ducked down and heaved Beans under his prosthesis. His Wakandan arm withstood far more strain than flesh.

He ran. He didn’t know who was behind him or if the hungry leeches endured his flight, razor teeth burrowing in him. Bucky veered into an alley way, sneakers sliding over dirt and grime. He jumped, and with his flesh hand, he launched his body over a chainlink fence, knees bent for his landing. His chest burned not with exertion but with the resuscitated dregs of an ancient fear, the shriveled pieces of a place he had believed he transcended.

Bucky wedged his body between two dumpsters, pulling Beans into his lap. He gripped her golden-brown fur and buried his face in her. She whined, lapping at his face. At the tears on his face. Oh no. He was – was he crying? Bucky swiped his right hand under one eye.

Sure enough, moisture glistened on his fingertips. Shit.

In the end, the sharp scent of garbage tugged him out of that thumping, anxious realm and to the present. He was squatting between two massive piles of trash, ass planted on soggy cardboard, sneaker stuck in a grease-stained burger box and an old pickle on the toe of his shoe. Across the alley, a homeless man sat tucked underneath a frayed blue tarp, nested in strained garbage bags of belongings – an alpha, by the smell of him. He gazed at Bucky with understanding. Age pressed into brown skin, and a shock of white hair puffed out from the top of his head and around his chin.

“Comes and goes, don’t it?” he said.

Exhausted, Bucky nodded. He tipped his head back to rest it on the wall behind him.

“Not in a long time, for me,” Bucky said. He sounded rough, even to his ears, voice shredded like he’d swallowed glass. The earmarks of this alpha’s scent – sea-salty, something close to patchouli – lingered in this alley, in all the corners of it. He groaned, letting his head flop onto Beans, and mumbled, “Shit, I’m real sorry for barging in on your territory, man.”

“S’all right,” the alpha said, “You served, right? You’re welcome here.”

A fraction of the tension in Bucky’s muscles released. A kind alpha welcomed him into unfamiliar territory. That was magnanimous in any situation, let alone when you’d vaulted directly into the territory without asking.

“You gotta name?” the alpha went on, “I’m Bill. Vietnam, army, you know.”

“Bucky,” he decided upon answering. Kindness begot trust. “Marines, Iraq, Afghanistan.”

“Ah, a Devil Dog,” Bill commented.

Bucky chuckled. “Yeah, that’s right.”

They didn’t speak, for a while. Bucky let his eyes fall closed and let go of Beans, who trotted across the alley to snuffle at Bill. Bill cooed at her, crooning praise. Bucky mopped the sweat from his forehead with the sleeve of his zip hoodie, and when he dared to open his eyes again he pulled his phone from the thigh pocket of his workout leggings and checked the time.

Fuck. He’d lost time. He’d been gone for forty-five minutes already. A text from Steve sat at the top of his notifications, a simple: You all good?

“I gotta call my alpha,” Bucky exhaled, “Would you be okay if he dropped by to get me outta here? I don’t wanna go back home by myself.”

Bill scratched between Beans’ ears and waved a hand. “He’s fine. Thanks for asking, man.”

“Thanks,” Bucky replied, genuine in his gratefulness. This man had next to nothing. The least that he could do was respect his meager territory, small as it was. Bucky offered a tight smile as he swiped Steve’s contact and let the phone ring.

“Buck, hey,” Steve answered.

“Hey Steve,” Bucky replied, and how exhausted he must sound, “I need you – I needya to come get me.”

He could practically see Steve’s face shift to the Serious Business expression, feel the whip-quick change in the air. “What happened?” he asked, all alpha authority and protectiveness. Bucky didn’t have the energy to tell him to stop being a mook, that Bucky could take care of himself, thank you very much.

“The fuckin’ paparazzi are hanging around outside. They wouldn’t leave me alone and then people started to notice me and I – fuckin’ freaked. I ran for it and I lost time. I’m in an alley, it’s –”

“Between 42nd and 43rd,” supplied Bill, “You’re behind a Five Guys.”

Bucky relayed the information to Steve, who replied, “I’ll be right there.”

Before he could hang up, Bucky said, “Hey, wait, Stevie. I’m hangin’ in another alpha’s territory. He’s letting me chill here and said it’s cool if you come, but be on your best behavior, you hear me?”

“Copy,” Steve responded, as though this were a mission, as though he was about to storm the hideout of a villain and not an alleyway behind a Five Guys.

As Bucky tucked his phone back into his pocket, Bill said, “So, paparazzi, huh? You somebody important?”

“Hardly,” Bucky said, “I just happen to be the interest du jour. Seriously, though, thanks for all this.”

Bill made a vague ‘eh’ gesture and answered, “No offense, kid, but the smell of a scared omega is a powerful thing. I’m just lucky we got all this trash to mask it, otherwise the cops would be on my ass in fucking second."

Steve arrived not ten minutes later, pulling one of Tony’s cars into the alley. Like Bucky, he vaulted over the chainlink, while Sam lingered at the open door on the passenger’s side, watching with a grave expression on his face. As Steve touched down, red shoes kicking up dirt under his weight, recognition gleamed in Bill’s brown-black eyes.

Steve dove past Bill to cradle Bucky’s face in between his palms, to pull him into a desperate kiss.

“Sweetheart, you, you –” Steve started, but cut off at Bucky’s sharp look, “-- smell like shit.”

A not-laugh escaped him. Bucky said, “Nice recovery. I’m sure I do.”

Steve offered a hand and heaved Bucky to his feet once he took it. He scented the air, unsubtle, and turned his attention on Bill.

“Thank you,” Steve said.

“Ain’t no thing, Captain Rogers,” Bill told him.

“You did a good thing,” Steve insisted, and plunged his hand into the back pocket of his jeans to retrieve his wallet. He slid out a few hundreds and held them out to Bill, whose eyes went wide and a little wild.

“Are you crazy?” Bill said, “That’s four hundred goddamned dollars.”

“It’s the least I can do,” Steve said, with that no-way-I’m-backing-down voice, “Please. Take it. He’s my omega. He’s worth a whole lot more than four hundred dollars to me, but this all I have. I have too much money as is. Please. Let me do this.”

Bill made a face, but accepted the bills, folding them into the front pocket of his battered jacket. “Whatever you say,” he muttered.

“I appreciate it,” Steve said again, and cocked his head at the chainlink fence. He pitched himself back to the other side where Sam waited alongside a cherry-red sports car, but Bucky lingered for another moment. He didn’t have four hundred dollars, but…

“Hey, Bill?” he said, “You ever find yourself in Crown Heights – stop by Barnes Family Barber Shop. Ask for George. Tell him Bucky sent you, and he’ll give you a shave and a haircut on the house.”

“What, you saying you don’t like my style?” Bill said, stroking his grizzled beard with a wide, gap-toothed grin.

“Something like that,” Bucky said, offering a tentative smile back.

Bill patted Beans one last time before Bucky took ahold of her leash and hefted her under his prosthesis again. He pitched them both over the fence, landing light in front of Sam, who crinkled his nose. Bucky couldn’t work up annoyance. He reeked.

The ride home was a fraught several minutes of beta pheromones working fiercely to combat omega distress, alpha concern, and rotting garbage. They’d need to plug in like three diffusers to get the stain of the incident out of the seats of Tony’s car. Hopefully he didn’t need it in the next week or two.

Into the garage, up the elevator, and into the apartment passed with stink hanging around them but no conversation. The words that broke the tension came from Bucky’s lips, a terse: “I’m gonna shower,” before he peeled away from Steve and Sam.

Bucky shed his clothing like a skin. He set the flow of water to scalding. He scrubbed not only the fragrance of garbage away, but the stench of fear and distress, a smell that plunged him back to his lowest, the first days spent in Wakanda. Whoever screwed him up screwed him into pure instinct. The first day he arrived, Bucky built a den out of pillows and cushions and blankets, in the dark corner of the closet in the room T’Challa nobly offered against all the reservations of his guard and his people. He ate, but he didn’t sleep. He remained ever-vigilant, a knife clutched in his hands and his eyes trained on the entrances.

Shuri’s beta scent eased some of that terror, long enough to coax him into her lab, though he cowered at the sight of one of her chairs. He crunched into a fetal position under one of her desks and lost time. He lost a lot of time, right at the beginning. But they helped him. They set his head to rights, mostly, and Bucky did the rest of the work. He conquered his own nightmares, put his own ghosts to rest.

This was his first relapse into panic in years. His control slipped from his hands. He went under quick and hard and he was furious. At himself, at Steve, at the people that made their living exploiting the well-known for tabloid sales and a catchy headline.

And Sam Wilson watched it all.

And Bucky still had dinner to make.

Back in their bedroom, Bucky toweled off. He slapped on a pair of jogging pants, but forewent his own clothing in favor of a long-sleeved shirt that smelled like Steve. Rainy, alpha scent cloaked him with comfort, and another fragment of tension drained from him.

Bucky swept past Steve and Sam to throw bags of fresh veggies onto the counter.

“Aw, Buck,” Steve protested, “You don’t gotta make dinner. You had a bad day, it’s –”

“Don’t you fucking baby me,” Bucky snapped, “I said I’d make dinner and I’m making it.”

He clanged around in the kitchen after that, chopping and grating with a vengeance, mouth set in a hard line.

Of course, dinner wasn’t pleasant. Sure, the food was good. Bucky’s cooking always was. But the three of them surrounded the kitchen table without talking, opening their mouths only to ask to pass the pepper grinder or another napkin.

Sam ruined it, of course.

“Barnes,” he said, “It happens. You’re a veteran.”

“I’m a support omega,” he icily shot back, “I’m supposed to have my shit together.”

“And you do. Doesn’t mean you have to be on all time,” said Sam. He reached across the table to rest his hand on Bucky’s arm and Bucky jerked back, wrenching out from under Sam’s touch.

“Don’t touch me,” he hissed, and stood. His chair screeched against the hardwood, but he didn’t care.

He couldn’t do this. Bucky delivered on the promise of veggie lasagna, and that was enough to fulfill his support omega duties for the day. He stormed away from the table, hands clenched into fists. Like an ornery teenager, he slammed the bedroom door, but it didn’t matter. He didn’t care! He did not care.

Stupidly, Bucky gathered the extra linens and yanked away what was on the bed. He weighed sheets down to form a den first, situating the armchair from beside the window to instead line up next to the dresser to support a fabric ceiling, then dragged blankets and pillows inside. He placed pillows around the perimeter and scooted blankets out to his liking. Perhaps he should have been ashamed of stealing a handful of Steve’s shirts to shove into the crevices between cushions, but fuck it. This was his nest and he could do what he wanted.

Bucky curled up on his side under the comforter from the bed, the one that smelled the most like his and Steve’s scents combined, the best blanket of them all. He didn’t know how long he lay there, only that the sun long since sunk and the bedroom went dark. From between the cracks in the sheets, he could see electric light pouring in from under the door. If he strained, he heard voices. Then the click of a closing door.

With a soft squeal of protest, the bedroom door opened.

“Buck?” Steve called, then said, “Ah.”

Steve’s silhouette knelt outside the den. He asked, all soft and tender and earnest, “May I come in?”

“It’s your apartment,” Bucky said.

“It’s your den,” retorted Steve.

Bucky frowned. He had left ample room for another body to curl up in the den, though he didn’t think he’d been conscious of the choice at the time. He let out a tiny breath, then said, “Yeah. Okay.”

Steve peeled back the opening to the den and shuffled inside on his knees. He watched his head, attentive to the bounds of the nest, and then draped his body next to Bucky’s so they stretched out nose to nose.

“Hey,” he said.

“Hey,” Bucky answered.

Steve didn’t ask if he was okay. He didn’t ask how Bucky was feeling. He didn’t remark upon his shirts balled up around the periphery of the nest. Instead, he wriggled in tight, chest to chest, and guided Bucky’s nose to rest against his throat.

While Bucky scented, Steve kissed the side of his face, each touch of lips a quiet sound in the dark of the den.

“I like those leggings you wore today,” Steve decided upon saying. He let his big hand roam over Bucky’s side, where it landed firm on his ass. Steve squeezed.

Steve,” Bucky laughed.

“Can I kiss you?” Steve asked, voice husky.

Bucky didn’t answer, instead moving his mouth to press to Steve’s. The beard tickled his chin as he leaned into the touch, as the kiss went from chaste and sweet to heady. Steve didn’t let it descend further, though. He let them part, stroked a hand over Bucky’s hair, and pecked a final kiss to his forehead. Bucky sunk to rest his ear between Steve’s pecs.

There, Steve’s heartbeat chased away the last of panic.

Art by the fabulous Deisderium

Chapter Text

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Track: Fall to Sleep – The Wild Reeds

Courage is a Gamble

 

The therapy of building a nest never failed to amaze Bucky, even if it wasn’t perfect. He woke cozy, plastered to Steve, with Beans on his feet. The anguish of the day before faded from an inferno to the ache of shame. Maybe that was worse, though. He couldn’t say.

Remembering how hard he struggled after Afghanistan, for all his preaching about self-acceptance and the validity of the mental illness grind, kicked up old humiliation. Bucky prided himself on the healing he had done, on the journey he labored through to regain his confidence and sense of self. What happened to him was not a simple beast to conquer.

His trauma was a unique trauma, a trauma that required a Wakandan genius to untie the knots of. A genius, and also several goats. He came to Wakanda snarling and feral, reduced to his basest instincts to cope with something that to this day Bucky didn’t quite remember.

When he wracked his mind, what surfaced of his captivity was pain. Blurred, distorted pain. He recalled a windowless box of a room, so small he could rest his head on one wall and prop the soles of his feet on the opposite side.

There was – a voice. A beta scent that somehow soothed and unsettled all at once. There was a hand in his hair.

Bucky shivered. His smell went acrid, even to his nose, and he extricated himself from Steve and Beans to avoid waking his alpha with the tang of omega distress. He stumbled to the kitchen and, in his haste, tripped into the room. Bucky caught his weight on the lip of the granite countertop, spitting out a curse under his breath.

He trembled as he prepared coffee, jittery not from a particular memory but as a continuation of yesterday’s panic, the emotional hangover that latched on at the end of a nightmare.

Bucky tried to remember how he handled these days before he got cleared to be a support omega.

He sat outside, a lot. In Wakanda, he took to lifting his head to the light like a starving sunflower, in the humid peace of the private gardens outside the Wakandan palace. Later, he waded into the shallow parts of the river when he lived on the outskirts of the country with the locals and his goats. After Thanos, Bucky stayed with his folks for a couple months to recuperate, and outside his childhood home, he napped on the porch in the sun, or read on the porch swing while it rained.

Avengers Tower had a roof, probably? But likely that wasn’t a garden getaway but a helicopter pad or Iron Man’s landing. Steve’s apartment, for all its luxury, didn’t boast a balcony.

Beans clicked out of the bedroom as Bucky poured his mug of coffee. She plopped onto the ground, relaxed, but watchful, as Bucky made do by dragging the couch toward the floor-to-ceiling windows. Clouds, as they often did in New York, obscured most of the sun and cast the room in dim, grayish morning light.

Bucky wedged his body in the corner of the cushions, blanket over his legs and coffee propped between his knees. Beans hopped up to the other end and eyed him, accusing.

When a hand landed in Bucky’s hair, he jumped hard enough to slosh hot coffee over his legs, the blanket, and the couch. Behind him, Steve held both hands palm-out, equally as startled.

“Fuck,” Bucky said emphatically.

“I’m sorry. I’ll help you clean it up.”

And he did – Bucky swapped clothes (stubbornly keeping Steve’s shirt he’d nicked last night, despite a splash of coffee on the hem), and returned to a clean couch, fresh blanket, new coffee, and an anxious alpha ringing his hands in the midst of it all.

Bucky’s soul-deep exhaustion aside, Steve was still his IN, and this was an alpha in search of approval for taking care of an omega. He conjured a brittle smile on Steve’s behalf, then pecked a kiss to the tip of his nose.

“Thanks, baby,” Bucky managed, and accepted his coffee. He huddled again into the couch, this time leaning into the touch when Steve stroked the top of his head.

Bucky winced when Steve’s fingers hit a snag. He muttered, “It’s tangled.”

“Want me to brush it?” asked Steve.

Actually – that sounded wonderful.

At Bucky’s nod, Steve fetched Bucky’s fancy boar-bristle brush. Gentle hands pulled yesterday’s elastic out of Bucky’s hair with as much care as possible, and he smoothed the snarled hair just enough to coax it to fall against Bucky’s shoulders. Then, one tentative stroke at a time, he brushed. The bristles scratched pleasantly against Bucky’s scalp. A contented moan pulled from deep in his throat.

“I’m starting to figure out what helps me when I’m like this,” Steve hummed, “but I don’t know what helps you.”

“Being outside,” Bucky answered, “My dog. My ma.” He ruffled a hand through Beans’ fur, where she’d again settled at his feet.

“Kinda muggy to be outside,” Steve remarked. He pushed a newly-brushed section of hair to Bucky’s other shoulder.

“I know,” Bucky sighed, “S’why I moved the couch here. Getting what sun I can.”

No other experience compared to being cared for by an alpha. Alphas were known to be brash and violent, protective and possessive. The world did not expect gentleness out of them, and so few gave it. Bucky was fortunate in that gentle alphas populated his life. An alpha mother that found no fear in crying, no shame in holding those she loved near, saturated his foremost childhood memories. Becca followed in their mother’s footsteps.

And Steve? Steve was a beautiful anomaly, the picture of alpha perfection to the outside world, but a man that in reality defied it all. He didn’t need to growl and gnash his teeth to prove his standing as an alpha. Steve could stand and brush his omega’s hair without as much as the bat of an eye.

So what was an alpha, then?

People loved to ask this question. What was it to be an alpha? To be a beta? An omega?

The answer was nothing. Conservative pundits would preach biology being what marked an individual’s designation, but truth was always more complex than the poetry of politician’s mouths. No one thing made an alpha, or a beta, or an omega. Bucky knew gentle alphas that asked before they entered his den. He knew violent betas that put their hands in his hair and fried his mind with a machine. He knew hateful omegas that met a world that demeaned them shot for shot in all the wrong ways.

A scent did not a designation make. Clothing had no bearing on the person inside. A world could not tell you the history of a human being, and nor could it sketch the future of one. Some people fell on these arbitrary markers – alpha, beta, and omega – and landed in the place that they expected. Others touched down at the in-betweens and unplanned harbors.

The word alpha could not tell you much – could not tell you the way they loved, the places they had seen, whether they preferred coffee or tea. The word omega spoke nothing of the kind of shoes one preferred to wear, whether they were a skeptic or a believer, or who they kissed at the end of the night.

So Steve was Bucky’s alpha, but that didn’t mean anything. And it could mean anything, and it meant everything. Biology was but a suggestion, and heats and ruts and scents aside, what constructed Steve and Bucky’s equilibrium was not a trick of biology but a foundation wrought in the content of their souls.

Bucky knew all at once that he and Steve belonged together, that across planes and realities, through universes and other worlds. Theirs were lived meant to be shared together. They were not two halves of a whole, but rather two wholes that struck one, harmonious chord. Their different frequencies blended to a beautiful shade.

We are brilliant colors, Bucky thought, I am red, and you are blue, and together we make purple. I love purple.

Oh.

Oh no.

Bucky loved Steve.

He did not merely admire Steve. This was no infatuation. This was not fleeting feeling that turned on a dime – this turned on an axis, a love with infinite sides.

In every world, I’d love you, Bucky thought, knowing to the marrow of his bones the truth of the notion. Through every wrinkle in the fabric of time and space, every globe on the other side of the veil, every mimic of every world. Every version of themselves tangled together, two celestial bodies composed of different elements, hurdling in circles, orbiting around one another.

This was the truth.

“All done,” Steve announced, then frowned at him, “You all good there?”

“Yeah,” Bucky murmured, “Just realized something.

I am so glad I met you, he didn’t say, not because without you that I am incomplete. Because I do not follow you, but walk beside you. You do not complete me, but complement.

At your side, I am the best version of myself. For you, I am kinder. For you, I am gentler. For you, I am more sure.

Bucky could only hope that in him, Steve found the same.

**

“Stevie, come on,” Bucky said, exasperated.

“I want to be respectful to your family,” Steve insisted.

Bucky threw his head back and whined. He rolled his eyes, pulling out every stop he could think of to express Steve’s dumbassery to him.

“The serum makes you need more calories, you asshole,” Bucky told him, “You are not fasting for Yom Kippur.”

“Yes, I am.”

“No, you are not.”

“Yes, I – fuck’s sake, Buck, the serum means I need more calories, but it also means I can stick out hunger longer than most folks,” said Steve, “So yes, I will be fasting for Yom Kippur, because that’s a respectful way to go about things and it’s what my mother would have expected out of me, and also you promised we get to eat your ma’s challah before we start. I really liked the challah.” Steve lifted his chin and leveled a stubborn stare at him from across the couch.

Bucky smeared his hand over his face. Once Steve did the chin thing, arguing was about as effective as busting through a brick wall with a handful of dollar store water balloons. He shook his head at the book in his lap, then conceded, “You’re committing, which means no whining.”

“Got it. No whining.”

“Steven. I mean it.”

“So do I,” responded Steve.

And so it went: Bucky and Steve tossed their belongings into the trunk of one of Tony’s cars around noon on the eighteenth of September and herded Beans into the backseat. They traveled across the Brooklyn Bridge to the familiar Barnes family brownstone. Before Bucky could as much as knock on his family’s door, it burst open. His dad yanked him into a spirited hug.

The embrace worked as a balm of sorts. Seeing his family eased the sharp edges of his panic as Bucky was passed from person to person, sisters rubbing their scents on him like the brats that they were, Bubbe clucking at him for who-knew-what, Ma tugging him along to help her in the kitchen to prepare their pre-fast supper, the meal they would eat before the observation of Yom Kippur began. He and Steve set to work without a hitch, flitting around each other while they barked over one another’s words and laughed at each other’s terrible jokes.

The clamor dulled down to a buzz, however, when George cleared his throat and remarked, “We saw you on the news, James. The other day. Those reporters...”

Bucky’s shoulders went right up to his ears.

“George,” Winifred warned.

“What? I want to know if my son is okay,” George defended, “It’s not right, Winnie. And don’t you think we didn’t realize you pulled the wool over our eyes about the kitchen shit, Steve. No one tweets like that and doesn’t know what a spatula is. You think you’re real clever, don’t you?”

Steve spread out his hands, any guilt he might have felt eclipsed by the smile of satisfaction on his smug face, the victory of knowing that he’d pulled a fast one on Bucky’s parents showing in his grin. For a brief, pleasant moment, Bucky thought the attention shifted off of him and his failure to keep it together, but then Becca leaned into the kitchen and asked, “But seriously, Bucky, are you okay? That one guy, like, grabbed you.”

“I am fine,” Bucky gritted out, “if everyone would stop badgering me about it.”

“They’re your family, Buck,” Steve said softly.

Getting it from all sides, then. Fine. Fine, whatever they wanted. He said, “Yeah, I got grabbed, and then I panicked, and then I sat next to some dumpsters and a nice guy named Bill and lost time. Steve had to come pick me up, because I didn’t want to walk back by myself. Now I’ve been all messed up for two days, despite my best efforts to keep it together like an adult human being. I was hoping spending a nice holiday with my family would take the edge off, but instead, we’re all making this the Bucky Mental Illness Hour. How about we focus on making the food and having some fuckin’ dinner before I ask you assholes for forgiveness for calling you assholes?”

At the tail end of his rant, Bucky realized how loud his voice became, how the shout of the word ‘assholes’ bounced off the walls and rang in all their ears.

Good. Great. The evening hadn’t even started yet, and now Bucky was ruining Yom Kippur.

Bucky ripped away from the pot he’d been standing over, boiling chicken and herbs and veggies for some chicken kreplach. They didn’t need him to finish it; the recipe belonged to Bubbe in any case. Beans chased after him as he strode out of the kitchen and through the front room. He slammed the front door behind him, then collapsed into the porch swing. Beans hopped up to curl up beside him, placing her head on his thigh.

He held his head in his hands.

“Beans, why I am like this,” he muttered. He didn’t know why he couldn’t get it together, and he especially wanted to know why he couldn’t get it together long enough to enjoy one of his favorite holidays with his favorite people – his favorite people that he’d just called assholes, no less.

When the front door opened and closed, Bucky expected to see Steve, here again to rescue his wilting-flower omega who couldn’t make it through preparations for a holy day without throwing a tantrum. Instead, Becca stepped out onto the porch, footsteps near-silent as she crossed over wooden slats and leaned against one column. She folded her arms over her chest, but didn’t speak.

“What,” Bucky managed, “do you want.”

“Just checking on you,” she answered.

“I don’t need an alpha to come to my rescue every time I’m overcome with emotion,” Bucky spat.

Beans thumped her tail, though the gesture felt more as though it were out of concern than affection.

Something exasperated bubbled in Becca’s throat – not a growl, but close. She said, “It’s not about alpha. It’s not about omega. It’s about the fact that some yahoo tried to assault you to get your picture and everyone saw it on national television.”

“Great, thanks, I needed to hear that.”

“You’re being obtuse,” Becca complained, “The guy got fired, in case you were wondering. People were pretty pissed on your behalf.”

“Awesome,” Bucky replied, but the word was bitter, withering.

“You’re so stubborn,” Becca sighed, “You’re allowed to have feelings, you walnut.”

“I have to keep it together.”

Becca shook her head. “Not all the time, you don’t. You’re a human being. Your job is not to be unshakable.”

“That’s exactly what my job is!” Bucky exclaimed.

“You know that’s not true,” Becca told him, “There are entire books on self-care for supports.”

“I’m not any old support anymore,” argued Bucky, “I am Steve Rogers’ support omega, and it turns out that comes with some watchful eyes. I thought I was prepared for this. I thought I knew what being in the public eye was going to turn out to be, but I didn’t. People are dragging out my whole history for the world to see. They fished up my gymnastics career, they want to know what happened to me in Afghanistan and – and I don’t even really know what happened to me, Bex. I can’t remember! But everyone’s sitting there digging up everything I’ve ever done, turning over every stone. Doesn’t matter what Steve said on Twitter. There’s nothing about me they’ll keep private. They’re sharks.”

“Yeah. Guess it gives you a whole new perspective on what being Steve must be like,” Becca remarked.

At that, Bucky sat back in the wicker swing, hands loose at his sides. He bent his knees, pushed the swing back a little, and let it rock forward. He recalled the sheen of sweat at Steve’s temples at the prospect of going to the dog park, the tension in his muscles and the way that his eyes jumped from person to person.

No stone unturned, indeed.

“Shit,” murmured Bucky.

“You don’t ever talk about Afghanistan,” Becca told him, “Never. Iraq, sometimes, but not all that stuff when you disappeared.”

“I’m not actually supposed to,” responded Bucky, “but I’m not blowing smoke when I say I don’t remember shit. What I do remember is...” He couldn’t think of an appropriate word to describe the itching, ominous sensation in his gut when the mismatched puzzle pieces swam to the forefront of his mind, out of order and all the wrong colors, but foreboding.

“I’m not gonna pretend to understand any of that,” Becca said, “but I can tell you that you shouldn’t bottle that up. I know that’s like, your favorite thing to do, but, I don’t know, don’t? You’re not a machine. You’re a human being.”

“Doesn’t feel that way sometimes.”

“Kinda feel like that’s your own fault.”

“Probably,” Bucky agreed, then paused, tongue going wet with an unspoken confession. He tore his eyes up from his open palms against his thighs, to the furrowed brow of his sister, to her thick hair sticking to her face from September heat, to the way she chewed her lower lip the same way that he did.

“Becca,” Bucky said, “I’m in love with him.”

“I know you are, buddy,” Becca said. She animated out of her slump to slug him once on his fake arm, a choice that resulted in a muttered curse, and clutching her hand close to her.

They went back inside, after that, where Bucky apologized to his family, including Steve, for losing his cool. Though Bucky was no longer a pup, his dad let him scent him. Sometimes one needed the scent of their omega parent, should they have one, no matter how much they aged or how much they had overcome. He muttered a sorry into his dad’s neck, and George patted him, assuring him that he would be okay. Rachel squeezed his arm, and Judy hugged Bucky tight to her. His ma fussed and tucked a stray lock of hair behind his ear. Smothering as they were sometimes, he knew that every action they took was borne of love, love for him. So, Bucky apologized. He may as well get the momentum going for the rest of Yom Kippur, suss out all the crap he should’ve done but then didn’t.

He did have to explain to Steve that Jewish sin was not synonymous with Catholic sin, not even remotely. Over a thick spread of food, Bucky said, “Okay, so it’s like this. Catholic is like, the sin is a bad thing you did, right?”

“Right,” Steve agreed, slow.

“For us, sin’s not about a bad thing,” Bucky told him, “It’s about having the opportunity to do a good thing and choosing not to do that. Kinda – reminds me of you, actually. Choosing to do the good thing, I mean.” Steve, for all his I-Am-Not-Captain-America, did, in some ways, embody what that Captain America image became in his absence. Steve believed in doing good, in doing right by people. In the last couple of months, he learned how to be good to himself, and that counted for something. Steve probably oughta ask for forgiveness from himself.

Maybe Bucky oughta do the same.

Before their last dinner before their fast, the way their family liked to kick-off Yom Kippur, Ma lit the candles and recited blessings, the family circled ‘round her. Bucky leaned into Steve, and Steve looped his arm around Bucky’s waist. The Barnes family did not miss the increased affection between Bucky and Steve. While Bucky’s parents may not have known that Bucky helped Steve through his rut, they recognized a couple of people getting cozy with one another, a little cozier than they’d been when they saw the two of them for Rosh Hashanah.

As Yom Kippur began, they wound down, from reading (Bucky, Becca, Steve) to a game of Solitaire on the coffee table (Judy) to journaling (Rachel, Winnie) quiet dozing (George), until Steve jostled Bucky and inclined his head at the stairs. They retreated to that cramped bed that teenage Bucky tossed and turned in, smushing their bodies together. Steve kissed Bucky but respected Bucky’s request to keep it PG for Yom Kippur, cuddling and nosing and snuffling with none of the expectation pushing at their boundaries.

They lay together there in the dark, two tangled people, looking for forgiveness for the wrongs they’d done.

The following day began the true work. Bucky and Steve dressed to go to temple for the early-afternoon family service in relative silence. This time, Steve forewent the Captain America yarmulke, in favor of an attractive patterned one that Bucky’s dad made for him when he was fresh into high school.

“I think maybe it’s better to be subtle,” Steve told Bucky, and Bucky fervently agreed. As auspicious as the congregation was on Rosh Hashanah, Bucky and Steve hadn’t yet garnered quite the amount of scrutiny as they were under now. They turned twice as many heads as they had on Rosh Hashanah as they fumbled to find a stretch of seats large enough to accommodate the entirety of the Barnes clan. Most folks took the appearance in stride, likely seventy percent due to the day being a holy day, ten percent on account of the fact that they’d seen them at the synagogue before, with the remaining twenty percent glancing back to their printed programs at Bucky’s murder glare.

Steve paid rapt attention to the prayers spoken by the rabbi, the same of which could not be said of Bucky’s father, who’d taken to making faces at the exuberant toddler in the row in front of theirs. He’d told Bucky before that he was a “bad Catholic”, but found meaning in much of religion. Bucky wondered if something about the observation of Yom Kippur, a holy day focused so wholly on forgiveness and on death, spoke to Steve’s experience. It certainly spoke to his own. As he did every year, Bucky hoped his baby steps in the right direction had him square.

After the service, as they strode out to Tony’s car to meet back at the Barnes’ home, Steve said, “I liked that. I think maybe I owe some apologies to my friends. Do they still count if I ask after Yom Kippur? We won’t be home until tomorrow.”

Bucky nudged Steve with his shoulder, unable to bite down his affectionate grin. “I think asking for forgiveness always counts, Steve.”

The moment that they broke their fast, Steve dumped three consecutive glasses of water down his throat, leading the charge as they all swarmed the kitchen and the dining table, loading plates with Bubbe’s brisket and the chai noodle kugel whose recipe Bucky couldn’t even pretend he didn’t nab from the internet. Winnie squeezed Bucky’s shoulder from her seat beside him and leaned in to murmur in his ear, “I’m sorry, honey, for yesterday. I worry about you sometimes. That’s all.”

“I know, Ma,” Bucky answered, “I forgive you, though. I don’t think you’re ever gonna stop worrying about me.”

“Love you,” Bucky told her.

“Eh, you’re okay,” joked Winnie, but laughed, “I love you too, kiddo.”

This was home. This was family. Somehow, even though Steve stumbled through every one of their traditions with all the grace of a grizzly bear in a tutu, his presence fell against the Barnes family in the right place. Their family had no missing spaces, no extra slots in which to shove new people, but Steve made them a bigger picture.

Bucky’s heart ached, too large for his ribcage as it beat out of step. Beside him, Steve passed Becca her second helping of brisket. He didn’t hear what Becca said, but her words startled a warm, full-bodied laugh out of Steve, powerful enough to shake his big body. He clutched at his chest as Becca began laughing too. Bucky didn’t know what they were laughing at, hadn’t heard, but the sheer amount of joy in the room knocked into his chest, pushing a laugh out. He knocked his fist against the table as he laughed.

Head abuzz with the spirit of the evening, head light from love and laughter, Bucky felt right. For the first time in days, his brain recalibrated, booted back to the place he was meant to be. Family had a funny way of doing that – throwing one off and on track all at once, all in the space of a handful of days. He may not have been in his groove, but that didn’t matter to his people, his family.

He wouldn’t trade them for the world.

**

Whether or not they wanted it, the truth was that Steve and Bucky would have to call a press conference sooner rather than later. Twitter set off all of the interest in their relationship without any of the damage control to temper at, and now Steve had to get a grip on things – if nothing else, for Bucky’s sake.

Not that Steve would ever admit that to Bucky out loud. In the two weeks since the paparazzi incident, beyond of the halcyon days of Yom Kippur they spent at Bucky’s folks’ place, they hadn’t ventured outside. They didn’t go to the dog park. They didn’t run out to pick up a pizza or coffee. If Steve suggested they could go out, Bucky’s hackles went right up.

Clint, ever a master of blending in, walked Beans for them in the meantime.

Overall, everything was a wreck. Neither Bucky nor Steve cared to cop to the disasters they were, but whether or not they spoke of it, they knew it. Steve’s nightmares reamed him; Bucky’s hyperawareness saturated the apartment with the electricity of fear. The bags under their eyes could carry ten pounds of weight, and no palatable solution reared its head.

(Tony, for all his sins, recommended they speak to the public in an official capacity. “You need to control the narrative, here,” he’d told them, having invited himself into the apartment for another evening of cartoons, “I know, I know. That’s rich coming from me. As much as I love me some Twitter, it’s a lawless wasteland. Something formal might do better to feed the sharks.”

Steve texted Natasha for her opinion on it, only to be told, I regret to inform you that I agree with Stark.

Sam, knowing he’d have to be directly involved in an eventual publicity nightmare, gave Steve a far more neutral, “I think this is kinda your call, man.”

“It involves you, too,” Steve pointed out.

“It involves a few of us, yeah,” Sam had replied, throwing a hand out at Bucky, who rewarded the gesture with a ruder one of his own, “but you’re the one dropping the biggest bombs.”)

So, a handful of days into October, Steve said, “We have to set up a press conference and make an official statement.”

Bucky, who’d been studiously reading the same paragraph over and over on his StarkPad, hung his head and groaned.

Outside, rain pattered at the windows, constant but quiet. A stream of umbrellas swirled on the sidewalks below in pinwheel blocks of color. The apartment, as always, remained ever-dull and sterile.

“I don’t want you to be right,” Bucky told him.

“But I am right,” Steve pointed out.

“But you’re right,” Bucky agreed, on the end of a sigh.

This concession led them to meet with the Avengers’ publicity manager, an iron-haired, no-nonsense woman named Marjorie Young. She peered at them over thick tortoise-shell glasses, perched on a beaked nose.

Steve’s eyes slid to the door to the closed conference room and checked the time on the wall clock above it. Sam should have been here seven minutes ago, but hadn’t arrived. Evidently, Ms. Young didn’t care to wait any longer to deal with the mess that Steve had made.

“You should have come to me from the start, Captain Rogers,” she scolded.

Steve bristled. By and large, he did not care to be told how he “should” do things. A rule did not a moral make, and he would stand by that for the rest of his life.

“With all due respect, ma’am,” he replied, strangled in his effort to remain polite, “We didn’t think the country was going to make a mountain out of a molehill.”

“This is a mountain,” Ms. Young told him, “You revealed that one of the world’s foremost, most well-known alphas suffers PTSD so severe he requires a support omega to stabilize him. You are Captain America. Captain America is a pillar of admirable traits, a paragon, and you unmasked yourself – you revealed that you’re just a man.”

“Isn’t that a good thing?” Bucky interjected. He’d put on his best face for their meeting with Ms. Young, weaving back his hair in one of his more elaborate braids and foregoing his usual athletic gear for fitted dark jeans and a plum-colored button-down.

“Not to everyone,” was Marjorie’s crisp reply. “To some, Captain Rogers shattered an illusion. He humanized a title that the country perceives as superhuman, not only in the sense of being enhanced, but in being above reproach.”

“That’s stupid,” muttered Bucky.

“Stupid it may be, but it’s also the truth. We can work with humanization, and we can work with requests for privacy. The footage of that photographer attempting to grab Sergeant Barnes is fairly damning, which works to our advantage.” Ms. Young heaved a sigh, tapped her pen on the edge of the conference table. She went on, “The other thing you’re going to need to consider is giving people a concrete timeline. When will you get back on the horse? They’ll want to know.”

Bucky protested, “That’s not how recovery works.”

“I know that,” she said, “but being in the public eye requires us to follow certain rules. I’m not being cruel; I’m being practical.”

Before anyone could answer her, the door slammed open, revealing a harried Sam Wilson. He hustled inside, dumping his backpack on the conference room table, and collapsed into one of the ergonomic rolling chairs. “Sorry I’m late,” he huffed, “The F got held up. Something about the signals? I don’t know, man.”

“Falcon. This is unexpected,” remarked Ms. Young.

“Here’s the other thing,” Steve said, “I’m giving up the shield. I’m passing it onto Sam. I want to announce my decision in an official capacity.”

Marjorie blinked. “Excuse me?” she managed.

Steve straightened out of his slump and leaned forward, folding his hands together on the gleaming dark wood between them. He reiterated, “I’m passing on the mantle. I won’t be coming back to it.”

“Are you saying –” Ms. Young cleared her throat, manicured nails fidgeting with the enamel Halloween broach pinned to her tweed suit jacket. “Are you saying, Captain Rogers, that you are stepping down from the Avengers as a whole? You’re retiring?”

Oh, Steve wished he’d thought more about that. “Not...necessarily,” he said. He swallowed against the lump in his throat. If he never fought again, how would he spend the rest of his life? Who was Steve Rogers without a fight? Did he even want to find that out? “No. No, I’m not saying goodbye to my team.” Steve decided, “But for now, I’m not – not fighting. Not until I get this ironed out some.” He made a popping motion at his head, spreading his fingers out like a firework.

For too long, Marjorie stared at him. Then, she moved her attention to Sam. “And how do you feel about this, Corporal Wilson? This is not a decision to be made lightly.”

“Trust me,” Sam said, “I did not make it lightly.”

“Are you aware of the gravity of this situation, gentlemen?” Ms. Young asked them.

“Yes,” Sam said, with all the surety and confidence the Captain America mantle required, “and I’m certain that this is our best option. I wasn’t at first – but I am now. I am sure.”

**

The day of the press conference dawned damp and gray, dappled intermittently with sprinkling rain and stiff breezes. Steve dressed to the nines in a fitted gray suit, though he stubbornly wore his favorite red shoes instead of one of the multitude of overpriced leather numbers that lined the bottom of his closet.

At his side, Bucky was resplendent in navy bespoke, his hair so carefully braided that not a strand flew out of place from his lion’s mane. He, unlike Steve, opted for sleek, square-toed, brown leather shoes. Steve didn’t bother to hide his hunger as he drank his omega in from tip to toe. He smelled of spice and Viking beard oil, and he looked like a present that Steve very much wanted to unwrap.

Caving in, Steve coiled an arm around his waist and reeled Bucky in for a brief, intense kiss.

“Doin’ all right, sweetheart?” he asked.

Bucky shrugged a shoulder. He replied, “All right as I can be, I guess. I’m not used to this. My job’s always been being discreet. Now it’s...I dunno. It’s being in the public eye? Is that even a job? I guess I’m pretty good at personas, though. You gotta be good at that if you’re gonna be working for SHIELD. Sometimes I’ve needed it to be a good support omega, too.” – he shook his head – “Not for you, though. Somehow, you’re always making me myself.”

“Is that a good thing?” asked Steve.

“I think so,” Bucky answered, “I’m not always used to it, though.”

"What about you, Sam?" asked Steve.

Sam, done up in a classy, standout burgundy suit, replied with a thumbs-up. "You know me, Steve. If I don't got it figured out now, I will in a second."

A round-faced PA ducked around the edge of the curtain with a clipboard in one hand. “You’re on in five. Just like we practiced – don’t forget.”

“Right. I go straight to the podiums. Bucky and Sam go to the chairs.”

The PA made a finger gun with her free hand and clicked her tongue. “Got it in one,” she said.

Ms. Young’s voice floated from the stage, even-keeled and unfazed as ever, despite her initial reaction to Steve’s announcement. This part, at least, was familiar to Steve. He and the Avengers waited backstage on many occasions, lingering behind while Ms. Young laid the groundwork for a positive spin on whatever pickle they managed to find themselves in.

“–and without further ado, I’ll welcome Captain Rogers to the podium.”

Steve marched out, blinded as always by the glare of stage lights. Beyond the stage, cameramen manned great beasts of equipment, while photographers and reporters clapped politely from neat rows of metal chairs.

Steve drew up to the podium, the centermost of three. He surveyed the crowd for a long moment, blinking against harsh light, before he remembered that everyone here was waiting for him to speak. He patted down his suit jacket, and extracted his notecards. He read them so many times, squinting at his tight, all-caps scrawl, that he doubted he would forget the words – but better to be prepared.

“Good afternoon,” he started, mouth too close to the mic. His voice resounded, and Steve jerked back, heat rushing to his cheeks. “Thank you for making the time in your schedules to join me here. I know that many of you have questions, which in part is why I’ve called this conference.”

Steve looked down, inhaled, and lifted his head back up, forcing his chin to level. “I’ve fought in a lot of wars. I’ve seen things that no one should. Post-traumatic stress disorder didn’t simply appear one day. It built, over the course of many battles, so slow that I didn’t know it was there until it was all I felt. When everything I’ve witnessed, everything that I have been party to, came to a head, I researched what was to be done. I looked into support A/B/Os, and after I read up on them, I requested to have one of my own.

“James Barnes is the individual that I chose to be my support. He’s a veteran of the United States Marines Corps, a man with a history of heroism, and a support omega with a storied past of helping in-need people. I understand one or two of those people have begun to speak out on social media, and I thank them for the kind things that they have said about James. In a few short months, he’s done more for me than I imagined possible.

“With that being said, I still have quite a lot of work to do in order to get myself into fighting shape – or so to speak. I’ve realized that I have a long road ahead in terms of recovery. Going forward, I want the Captain America mantle to belong to someone that has already done that work. I will be passing on the shield to my dear friend Corporal Sam Wilson, whom many of you know as Falcon.

“Sam, too, has survived the loss of friends and teammates. He’s stood by my side in many of the same battles. He has also faced PTSD and the hard work of recovery upon his return. We don’t ‘get over’ post-traumatic stress disorder, but I do believe we learn how to cope. In that respect, Sam is leaps and bounds ahead of me, and for that reason, and many others, he will be your new Captain America.

“Corporal Wilson is one of the bravest men I have ever had the honor of fighting alongside. He doesn’t back down from a challenge. And believe me, the Captain America mantle is a challenge. While I was in the ice, and even before then, Captain America grew to become an impossible being. Cap is strong. Cap is shrewd. Cap is a moral, ethical person. Captain America represents the best of our people. The person that best represents these pillars, in my opinion, is Sam Wilson. With that, I welcome Sergeant James Barnes and Corporal Sam Wilson to the podium, and we will take your questions.”

**

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

October 6, 2018

 

[2:23 PM] Judy: HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT HOLY SHIT

 

[2:25 PM] Rachel: Bro I know you’re answering questions but you look so slick rn

 

[2:25 PM] Becca: So uh

[2:26 PM] Becca: How’s mom taking this Judy

 

[2:28 PM] Judy: my SWEET BOY he’s so HANDSOME and BRAVE

[2:29 PM] Judy: those PIECES OF SHIT better treat him with RESPECT he is a VETERAN of the UNITED STATES MILITARY

[2:30 PM] Judy: you get the idea

 

[2:41 PM] Becca: l m a o can you believe the look Steve is giving the Everheart woman

[2:43 PM] Becca: asjdfhjahjhfkkhf “that’s my support omega you’re speaking about, m’am, and I don’t care for your tone”

[2:43 PM] Becca: GET WRECKED LADY

 

[2:50 PM] Rachel: Steve is out for blood, holy shit

[2:51 PM] Rachel: “are you suggesting NCOs are not qualified individuals” “I was handed my title and Sam worked for his”

[2:51 PM] Rachel: he is GOING OFF

 

[3:07 PM] Bucky: See baby you did gr8

 

[3:07 PM] Judy: BUCKY!!

 

[3:07 PM] Rachel: buCKY

 

[3:08 PM] Becca: b u c k y o m g

 

[3:10 PM] Steve: I appreciate the votes of confidence

[3:11 PM] Steve: And you did amazing too, Buck. He’s telling me he thinks he sucked up there

 

[3:12 PM] Becca: Aw dude you were so charming though

[3:13 PM] Becca: very unlike you, actually

[3:13 PM] Becca: usually you’re a moron

 

[3:15 PM] Bucky: Thanks, I’m probs still gonna treat myself to a bath bomb and an existential crisis

 

[3:16 PM] Steve: Mood

[3:17 PM] Steve: Am I using that right Rachel

 

[3:19 PM] Rachel: Yes and I’m so proud

 

[3:20 PM] Bucky: Hey baby wanna share a bath bomb and have our crises together [winking face]

 

[3:21 PM] Judy: Bucky we talked about this

 

[3:23 PM] Bucky: Fine

 

Everyone But Judy

October 6, 2018

 

[3:25 PM] Bucky: What do you say, Steve? Bath time? [winking face]

 

[3:25 PM] Steve: You are literally sitting next to me

 

[3:27 PM] Bucky: Yeah but it’s fun to make my sisters cringe

 

[3:28 PM] Steve: Understandable. Carry on.

 

[3:31 PM] Becca: Ugh

 

[3:34 PM] Rachel: Now there are two of them.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Track: If I Were Human – Bnny Rbbt

Every Day a New Man

 

At several minutes past three in the morning, Steve jolted awake awash in sweat. The dregs of his nightmare clung to the bottom of his brain. His breath came short and fast.

He’d left his markers out on the kitchen table, having found inspiration in Bucky’s face a mere handful of hours ago. Multicolored renderings of the slant of smirking lips and the blade of a defined jaw twisted through the first several pages of a fresh sketchbook, and beside them lay his pens. Steve snatched a handful of markers from the tabletop, then skulked to the black leather couch that now lived up against the windows, so Bucky could nap in the sun.

For an undefined stretch of time, Steve drew shaking, geometric shapes around his wrist. Underneath, he drew another bright portrait, this one not of his omega, but of Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, the saint whose image Sarah Rogers wore on a worn charm around her neck as long as she lived. He buried her in it, tucked against her collarbone beneath her Sunday best.

Lately, everything reminded Steve of his mother. He missed her – wondered what she would think of him now. No matter how many years passed since the death of Sarah Rogers, Steve found her in small things, in flowers growing out of place in would-be uniform gardens, in the scent of Bucky’s cooking unfurling from the stovetop, in stained glass windows in ancient buildings.

Beneath Saint Christopher’s feet, Steve drew a dandelion, tiny petals jutting out in gold and orange ink.

(“Don’t be crushing that dandelion, pet,” his mother chided in the back of his mind, as she held his tiny hand in hers, walking home from Sunday mass. He stumbled along in short pants and an itching suit jacket, while she strode forward with her head held high. “We could stand to learn a thing or two from dandelions. They grow where they want to – not where they’re told. Remember that.”)

The stiff cushions of the couch stuck to Steve’s back as his penstrokes fanned out against the crook of his elbow, the tip of the marker damp and cold against his too-hot, too-small skin.

“I hate this couch,” Steve told Beans, who’d come around the corner of the coffee table to peer at him with a tentative wag of her tail.

He blinked.

“I hate this couch,” he repeated to himself.

At once, Steve capped his marker and tossed it onto the coffee table with the others. He scooted Beans a couple feet to the side with a gentle nudge of his foot, and with one determined heft, lifted the couch in its entirety above his head. Steve marched across the apartment before he remembered he had to unlock the door to get the monstrosity out of his living space. With an almighty crash, Steve dropped it onto the floor.

The clamor alerted Bucky, who tread from their bedroom smothering a yawn into his metal hand, to find Steve trying to shove the loathed couch through their front door. Steve didn’t know where he wanted it to go, only that he needed it out of his territory.

What are you doing?” Bucky asked.

Steve exhaled through his nostrils. “I hate this couch,” he explained.

“Me too,” agreed Bucky, “but why are you shoving it out the door at four in the morning?”

“I don’t want it here. I want a new one.”

“Oh...kay,” Bucky said slowly, “Is this a territory thing?”

“Yes,” Steve replied, through gritted teeth. With one, final shove, the couch toppled out and into the hallway. Its absence felt like a victory. Sure, his living room was now a yawning cavern with one armchair and a coffee table, which –

“I hate those too,” he muttered.

“What,” was all that Bucky got out, before Steve crossed back to the living room. Markers skittered over the floorboards as he took up the coffee table in his hands. Being that it had a glass tabletop, he did not throw it out of the door like he wanted to, but set it down alongside the discarded couch, which rested upside-down against the wall opposite their front door. Then he chucked the armchair, and lastly, he picked up the pillar lamp he’d never once appreciated.

Satisfaction rolled through him at the end result. The entirety of the living room lay scattered across the hallway, blessedly out of his territory. A purr burst from Steve’s chest before he could stop it.

Bucky grinned. “Pleased with yourself, huh?” he asked.

“I feel good,” said Steve, running fingers back through his hair, “I needed that.”

“Got the alpha shit out of your system?”

Steve huffed and rolled his eyes. “If that’s what you wanna call it, I guess.”

“Yup,” said Bucky, “Anyway. Now that you’re done with your alpha shit at,” – he pulled his phone from the pocket of his sweatpants – “four twenty-eight in the morning, can we go back to bed?”

A blush heated the tips of Steve’s ears. He glanced from the furniture to Bucky and back again, now all-too-aware of the fact that he’d woken his omega with impromptu furniture hatred instead of his run-of-the-mill nightmare panic. Steve grabbed at the back of his neck, sheepish, and said, “Yeah. Guess I got a little carried away, huh?”

“I’m more surprised than anything.”

They retreated to the bedroom, which was lit only by the bedside lamp in a yellow halo of dim light. Steve sat on the edge of the mattress, and Beans hopped up to join him. He petted her head, paying special attention to the spot she liked between her ears, and asked, “How come you didn’t tell me you hated the couch?”

Bucky shrugged a shoulder, then flopped back onto the bed. “Your territory,” he said. “I don’t really get a say in what goes in it.”

Steve frowned. He could follow Bucky’s logic: this was Steve’s territory, and though his hindbrain was loath to admit it, Bucky was ultimately a guest here. As content as his inner alpha was to consider Bucky as his, Steve didn’t hold any sway over him. Their situation was not...permanent.

But you want it to be, the traitorous, instinct-driven voice at the back of his mind oh-so-helpfully chimed in.

Don’t think about that.

The point was that Bucky’s opinion on what went into the territory, in theory, had no bearing on what Steve ultimately decided belonged there. In theory. In practice, on the other hand – “What if you did have a say, though?” he asked.

Bucky raised one brow. “Baby,” he said, patient as ever, “This is your territory.”

“Sure,” Steve replied, “but aren’t you living in it?”

Bucky opened his mouth with some retort. Steve didn’t want to know what it would be – didn’t want to hear Bucky’s voice remind them that their situation and this arrangement had an expiration date. An indefinite one, perhaps, but a promised end nonetheless. To spare himself the reminder, Steve threw up a hand and went on, “I want you to be comfortable here, Buck. I’d feel better, y’know, if I knew you liked being here. Or, God – I didn’t mean it like that. What I mean is that I want to make you as happy as I can. Making you happy – that makes me happy.”

Bucky studied Steve for the space of a too-long silence. He conceded, “Okay. If you say so. You wanna go furniture shopping tomorrow?”

“You mean going outside?”

“Yeah, that’s what I mean.”

“And you’re okay with that?” Steve wanted to know.

“Well, we can’t stay in here forever. Nothing better than going out with a mission.”

Steve nodded along to that. A mission. That’s what this was. He wanted to fill his space with things he loved and things that made his omega happy. No more soulless belongings, no more sterile, gaping space. Like music, like shoes, Steve could find something that suit him.

“Tomorrow?” Steve questioned. Bucky made a noise in the affirmative, and Steve repeated, more quietly this time, “Tomorrow. Let’s do it.”

**

“What kinda places do you wanna look at?” Bucky asked, the following morning.

“I don’t really know where to start,” admitted Steve. “I know I technically have a lot of money, but could we look at stuff that’s...I don’t know, reasonable? I’m starting to get the impression that price only reflects quality to a point, and after that things cost exorbitant amounts of money for the sole purpose of showing people how much money you have. I’m not about that, Buck.”

“Noted. You wanna do secondhand? Shit don’t get more reasonable than that.”

Steve considered this. On one hand, he’d spent his entire life before the serum in secondhand clothes, from the moment that he was born to the day he left for basic training. He enjoyed owning new things, things that were his and his alone.

On the other hand, Steve appreciated pieces with history to them, something well-loved that needed to be rehomed to a place where it would be loved equally as much.

He chewed on his lower lip. He could always see what secondhand looked like in the twenty-first century, and then decide where he stood.

“Let’s try secondhand first,” Steve told Bucky, “I’d rather be economical.”

This was how they landed in a place called Cure Thrift Shop, all the way down off of 12th, but what Bucky swore was his favorite place to find “weird shit.” Steve didn’t so much think that looking for a couch was “weird shit,” but he went along anyway. Outside, an eclectic furniture display greeted him in the form of an acid-green, velvet armchair and powder blue couch, accented with a mirrored end table. He hated all of it, but...Bucky.

So, Steve followed.

The store swallowed him whole, and spat Steve into the zaniest, most diverse store he’d stood inside in this century. Bits and bobs crowded every inch of the bright walls, mirrors and prints and paintings and blankets, while furniture and clothing racks sprouted up from a scuffed black and white tiled floor. He knew upon entry that his mother would have loved this place, which was enough to propel him into the belly of the beast.

Both staff and patrons caught on to his and Bucky’s identities within moments. A handful of them snapped pictures, but for the most part, they left Steve and Bucky to their own devices. Steve sent out a silent thanks to people that minded their own business.

The selection of furniture, not concentrated to one spot but scattered throughout the store, overwhelmed Steve with shape and color. The artist in him twitched, hands yearning for his markers so that he could record the egg-shaped slope of an orange chair, or the long, flat plane of a couch eerily similar to the one he’d tossed into the hallway, only sunshine yellow.

The first couch Steve sat on came in overstuffed plaid. He patted the seat next to him, and Bucky slumped into it. He bounced on the cushion once, twice, then remarked, “Springy.”

“What do you think?” Steve asked.

“It’s kind of small,” Bucky said.

“Mm, yeah,” Steve agreed, “It’s also ugly.” They needed something they could put next to the window for Bucky, but that faced the television. Maybe, they could use something that would fit a few friends on it, too.

They found it near the back of the store: a garish red sectional that Steve physically had to restrain himself from leaping onto. He sat politely instead, next to a festive plastic skeleton that was arranged in the centermost position. The cushions dipped but held his weight.

“This couch,” Steve said, “it’s fucking Goldilocks.”

Bucky’s lips curved into a fond smile. He said, “I’ll find somebody who works here, see how much it costs.”

“You didn’t even sit on it yet,” Steve contended.

“But you like it.”

“It’s for you, too,” Steve said, “So you can sit in the sun.”

An indecipherable expression crossed Bucky’s face. He blinked several times, as though surprised, but in the end, settled upon a hesitant smile. He lowered his body to the end of the couch, the arm that Steve could imagine pressed against the window to make a perfect napping spot for Bucky. Bucky swung his legs up and wriggled down.

“What do you think?” asked Steve.

“I like it, too,” Bucky said, and when Steve leveled a stare at him, he continued, “I mean it. I promise! I’m not just saying that.” He peeled himself up, leaned over the plastic skeleton, and planted a kiss directly onto Steve’s lips, careless to the people that surrounded them. Steve opened his mouth to it, smiling into the kiss, smiling too hard.

Bucky nipped Steve’s bottom lip and said, “Seriously. I will nap on this fucker like nobody’s business. Okay?”

Steve dipped his nose and traced the tip along the column of Bucky’s throat. When he lifted his head, he pecked another kiss to Bucky’s lips and said, “Okay. Go grab somebody that works here. I’ll hold the fort.”

As Bucky left and Steve reclined further into his new favorite piece of furniture, a shelf of knickknacks caught his eye. Dishware littered the square compartments of it in a rainbow swath of color, plates and cups and pitchers stacked in artful piles. He straightened to standing and crossed the few feet to stand in front of it.

There were – teacups. Steve traced the rim of a translucent green one, all at once thirteen years old and studiously sketching the shapes of the pieces tucked away in Sarah Rogers’ china cabinet. He picked it up, the tiny thing cool in the palm of his hand, and turned it from side to side.

“It’s uranium glass,” he heard to his right.

A bearded beta, presumably an employee and flanked by Bucky, went on, “But you probably already knew that.”

“No,” Steve murmured, “I didn’t, actually. My ma had some like these. I just knew them as Ma’s green cups.”

In the end, Steve and Bucky returned home with a red couch strapped in stacked pieces in the bed of one of Tony’s souped-up trucks, and three teacups wrapped in paper that nestled in a bag in Steve’s lap. He didn’t unwrap them as Bucky drove, but cradled the puffy shape of them in crinkled newspaper. He’d bought the uranium glass cup and saucer, a yellow china cup with birds painted along the inside rim, and a purple and gold art deco piece.

His mom would have loved all of them. She also would have beat Steve’s ass red if she heard how much he paid to take them home with him, but she’d have torn her hair out hearing the price of anything Steve paid for. Five dollars and some change for a cup of coffee, indeed.

Steve entrusted Bucky to the bag of teacups when they arrived back at Avengers Tower, in Tony’s flamboyant car garage. He hauled the pieces of the red sectional one by one, over his head to avoid banging into any precious painted chassis. Bucky unlocked the apartment door for him, and placed the teacups on the kitchen counter to follow him back down. Beans came, too.

“Are you sure you don’t want help?” asked Bucky, as Steve hauled another piece of couch into his arms.

“You can bring the pillows,” he suggested.

Bucky, in his pained attempt not to be annoyed with Steve for taking the heaviest sections, looked constipated. He sighed, rolled his eyes, and gathered an armful of bright couch cushions to take upstairs, which Beans sniffed at.

The scent of secondhand furniture was strange, Steve thought. Like the furniture in hotels, retailers probably had to use special cleaner to pull out the old scents of other people, to dissipate any pheromones left behind by previous owners. Nonetheless, some scent residue always remained, and likely played a role in who bought which secondhand furniture, or stayed in which crappy motel room. He knew he’d asked for a change of suite based upon some sharp aroma, barely there, but unkind in his nose.

Not here, though. Something like citrus and cloves lingered along the edges of this couch, faint beneath the zip of the cleaner, but there, a reminder than somebody lived their lives around this dragon of a couch before they would.

Steve and Bucky assembled the new couch in a configuration similar to its predecessor, one side rested against the window, corner bowing around the empty space where a new coffee table would go, to face the TV. This couch, unlike the last, had a third part to it, a short and stubby bed-like addition that made the its shape a lopsided U.

As Bucky stuffed couch cushions into their appropriate places, Steve unwrapped the newspaper from his teacups. He placed each one on one of his empty shelves, and in doing so, Sarah Rogers drifted closer to him than she ever had before in this century. Look what I brought you, Ma, he thought to her. Ridiculously, he felt as though she was listening.

Steve wasn’t religious anymore, wasn’t a believer in his faith like his mother had been, as the Barnes family was. He didn’t think God wasn’t present, necessarily, but he didn’t know how present a God could truly be in this strange, violent world of theirs. Nonetheless, he knew with his whole heart that his mother went to heaven. Sarah Rogers spent the entirety of her life helping other people, gave more generously than anyone he had ever known, and kept only small things for herself. She had her teacups, her saints, and her son.

As Steve stared at the gleaming edge of a uranium glass saucer, Bucky tucked his body under his arm.

“She would have loved these,” Steve told his omega, coiling his arm tight around his waist, reeling him in to press a kiss to his temple, to nuzzle along half-braided hair. He added, more softly, “She would have loved you, too.”

**

Later into the evening, as Steve admired the flush of color in his living room, he admired his omega stretched out in his patch of yellow-orange setting sun reading a book on his StarkPad. The jeans he wore hugged the thick, muscular line of his thighs, and his hair flopped all to one side of his tilted head, baring the tempting slope of his throat.

Steve’s mouth watered at the idea of sinking his teeth into that skin, of putting his mark on Bucky, the one that meant they belonged to one another. He imagined limbs tangled together when he did it, sweat drying on their skin as they kissed, lips hovering millimeters from each other as Steve asked if he could do it, if he could keep Bucky with him forever, that what they had didn’t have to come to an end, after all.

Steve wanted to forever be able to run his fingers through Bucky’s hair, to forever live in a scent that whispered to him that he was home.

His cock thickened between his legs, trapped in the unfortunate cage of too-tight jeans.

“You smell horny,” Bucky remarked. He didn’t look up from his book, but rather swiped to turn to the next page.

Steve blushed. “I was just thinking...” he said, but stopped. He was think what, exactly? That he wanted to claim Bucky? Wanted his bite to shine red and scar over on Bucky’s neck? He ached for Bucky to bite him in return, but he knew the wound would heal. There would be no claim scarred over his throat, no matter how much he wanted it there.

“You wanna break in the new couch?” Bucky asked.

That riled up some distant alpha piece of his brain. Yes, they should rub their scent all over this new thing in his territory. They should mark it as theirs, a place that belonged to Steve and to Bucky both, mark it so that anyone that walked in would know it as theirs. Everyone should know.

A sly smile rose up on Bucky’s handsome face. He licked his lips, biting back the beginning of a grin, and said, “Oh, you like that, don’t you? You want everyone to know you got something new and it’s yours now, don’t you?”

“Yuh-yeah,” Steve stammered. He was probably red as a newborn – heat radiated from his ears to the too-obvious tent of his jeans, where his cock was making a desperate bid for freedom against the zipper. For the sake of some small relief, he undid the fly, and let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding when his cock tented his underwear, instead, unfettered in the cradle of the soft fabric.

Bucky slunk to standing, abandoning his StarkPad in the shrinking stretch of sunlight. He propped his hands on either side of Steve, torso splayed open, and angled into him.

“One request,” Bucky said, voice husky.

“Anything,” Steve swore.

Then, Bucky flicked Steve’s nose. “We’re putting a blanket down, because no one is jizzing on the couch we just bought.”

Steve laughed. He tipped forward into Bucky’s space, cupped his jaw, and tempted him into a thorough kiss. Their tongues undulated together, and Bucky gasped, a tiny sound that darted all the way down to Steve’s dick. A cloud of arousal puffed out around and between them, musky and heady. It would stick to the cushions, blanket or not. That knowledge revved Steve up even more, drove him to tug Bucky into his lap. He dipped his hands below the waistband at the back of Bucky’s jeans and cupped his – Jesus – his bare ass.

“No underwear?” Steve breathed.

“Pants too tight,” Bucky shrugged, then asked, “How do you wanna do it?”

Steve worried his lip between his teeth. After they discussed what Steve liked, how he wasn’t sure of most of it, he’d gotten to thinking about the promise of Bucky inside him. He touched himself in the shower, squeezing his knot and skating fingertips over his hole at the notion of his omega bending him over, taking him, filling him up.

“I want you to do the thing we talked about,” Steve blurted.

Bucky hummed a taunting note. “And what thing was that, baby?”

“You know, the thing.”

“I don’t think I do know,” Bucky replied, faux-ignorance in his face while mischief sparkled in his gray-blue eyes. “Why don’t you tell me more?”

“I want,” Steve started, panting, “I want you to – to fuck me.”

“Yeah?”

“I want you inside me,” he went on, more certain, then added for good measure: “Please.”

“Since you asked nicely,” Bucky said. Pecking a kiss to Steve’s lips, he slid off of him. “You grab a blanket, I’ll grab some slick.”

Steve leapt up while Bucky darted to the bedroom. They both laughed, hearts light and bodies wound up. Steve threw open the door to the linen closet and shoved his hands inside of it, casting blankets onto the floor until he found one he wouldn’t mind being fucked on, a soft, geometric-patterned throw. He brought it back to the wide, stubby end of the couch – which, come to think of it, was the perfect size for fucking on. He tucked the blanket around the edges to anchor it in place, as Bucky launched a heavy bottle of synthetic slick across the room.

Steve caught it, running his thumb over the label. For the enterprising alpha, the slogan read. He and Bucky bought it after their sex discussion, but this was the first time Steve held the bottle in his hand. It weighed against his hand, a pledge of what was to come.

“How does this work?” he asked Bucky.

Bucky jumped over the back of the couch and rolled up to pull Steve into him, into a new kiss.

“Depends. How do you think you want it?” Bucky kissed Steve’s throat, a possessive little act that sent Steve’s heart out of step.

“Uh.” He hadn’t thought that far. “I think I’d like – like to do it presenting.”

“Yeah?” said Bucky, “You wanna present for me? You wanna get on your knees and show me how pretty you are for me? Put your ass in the air, be mine for the taking?”

Oh. Steve wanted that very much. He gave a rapid nod of consent, and Bucky continued, “Good. Take off your shirt for me, now. I wanna see your tits.”

“They – they’re not,” managed Steve.

“They are,” Bucky told him, “Let me see ‘em, baby.”

Shivering under the weight of Bucky’s feverish stare, Steve obeyed. He pulled his t-shirt up over his head and let it drop to the floor. Bucky didn’t reach out to touch him, not right away. He drank Steve in, shameless in scraping his eyes over Steve’s chest, over the pecs he’d called tits and his pebbled nipples. When Bucky deigned to cover Steve’s pecs with his hands, a sigh of relief leaked out of him, only to stutter when Bucky scraped his nails over his sensitive areolas, pinching one nipple. He lowered his mouth to suck on the other, strumming tongue over flesh in a familiar beat.

“Fuck,” Steve whispered.

“I’m gonna make you come first,” Bucky said, scratching fingers through Steve’s beard, “You’ll be more relaxed; it’ll make it easier.”

“’Kay.”

“Get naked,” Bucky instructed.

“What about you?”

“This isn’t about me. Not yet,” Bucky said, “Right now, you’re getting naked, and I’m gonna make you come. Then you’re gonna present for me, and that’ll be just for me, won’t it?”

Every word struck Steve to the core of him, forcing his ever-harder erection up and out. Desperate for Bucky to again pay him attention, he snapped off his jeans and cast aside his underwear. He stood before Bucky without a stitch on him, while his omega remained fully clothed, the only signs of being turned on the bulge of flesh in his pants, the color in his face, and the sweet aroma of omega arousal, of slick wetting him while he stood and stared at Steve.

Then, Bucky dipped down, falling to his knees. He pushed a string of kisses to Steve’s thighs, mouth circling the area between Steve’s legs, but never landing where he wanted it to. Steve twitched into the touch, hips jerking forward, but Bucky held him in place with hands firm on the backs of Steve’s legs. The tip of Bucky’s nose traced along trimmed pubic hair. His hot breath ghosted against Steve’s erection.

A mewl tore out of Steve’s lungs.

“Poor baby,” Bucky said, rubbing his flesh hand up and down the back of Steve’s leg. “You want my mouth on you, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Steve exhaled, “Please. Yes.”

With a final, wet kiss to the skin below Steve’s navel, Bucky licked a scalding stripe down his erection. His warm tongue against the air conditioned apartment made Steve’s knees shake, an onslaught of sensation tugging at him in all directions. He wanted more, but Bucky only gave him attention in short, teasing laps around the head of his cock, years seeming to pass before at last he drew the tip of Steve’s erection into his mouth, suckling gently. Bucky’d done this for him before, sucked him off and teased him, but somehow, being fully naked while Bucky was not at all struck Steve as far more erotic.

Then, Bucky swallowed him whole.

Steve made a strangled sound. He thrust a hand into Bucky’s hair, not pulling or urging him in closer, but holding him near. He stroked Bucky’s hair and tried to be still while the tight heat of Bucky’s mouth sucked in around him, expert in his ministrations.

When Bucky drew back, Steve whined.

“You can pull my hair if you want,” Bucky said. He reached for the slick bottle, devious. The pop of the cap echoed in the apartment, the squelch of liquid being squeezed onto Bucky’s fingers making Steve’s toes curl into the floor with anticipation.

Bucky shifted his prosthetic hand up, resting it on the curve of Steve’s ass. He ducked back in and pulled Steve’s cock into his mouth again in one swoop, sheathing his erection in slippy suction. With his dry hand, his metal hand, Bucky pulled Steve’s asscheek out, exposing his hole to the cool air of the open room.

Steve got this far, touching himself, sometimes. Before the fall of the Valkyrie, but never in this century. He’d press a thick, spit-slick finger inside his body to see what it felt like, and he’d come with a finger in his ass and his hand vice-tight around his knot.

Bucky’s touchcould not have been more different than his own. The lubricant warmed on his omega’s fingers while he bobbed up and down in long, slow motions on Steve’s cock. He pushed in with little resistance and massaged, every move a luxurious consideration of alpha pleasure. Steve gasped and tightened his grip in Bucky’s hair. He worried for a moment that he’d yanked with too much strength, but Bucky moaned, vibrations rolling around Steve in delicious waves.

Ever attentive, Bucky eased another another finger inside Steve. This one didn’t slide with the same ease as the first, but worked into him in increments. He’d never been so full before – and before he could even get his bearings, Bucky circled his fingers over something inside Steve that forced a shocked, delirious groan from him. The pressure against that spot, constant and profound, in tandem with the mouth working him for all he was worth, spurredSteve’s knot into action, flesh expanding as pleasure crested.

Bucky let go of Steve’s asscheek and brought his metal hand to the front. With a tighter grip than at all possible with a human hand, he bore down on Steve’s growing knot with his fist, clenching like the inside of an omega would.

“M’close, sweetheart,” Steve gritted out, so full and so consumed, plagued at all sides by every kind of sensation possible.

When Bucky withdrew his fingers from Steve’s ass, only to push back in with a third, Steve peaked. His body spasmed, knot locking not into body of an omega, but the hand of one. Bucky swallowed down Steve’s come, as much as he could, before he pulled back. A second gush of Steve’s release painted the stubbled bottom half of his omega’s face, pearl-white and dripping.

A more erotic sight Steve had never seen.

“Like that, huh?” Bucky asked. He rotated his fingers over that spot inside Steve again and in turn, Steve keened. His overstimulated body begged to be let go but drew Bucky’s fingers further inside him, unrelenting in their attention to him.

“I – I want,” was all that Steve got out.

Bucky let go of his knot and patted his flank. “I know,” he soothed, freeing his slick fingers, and commanded, “Get up on the blanket, baby.”

Hazy with afterglow, Steve listened. He climbed onto the couch with jellied limbs. He hadn’t ever done this before – presented – and a rush of adrenaline roared through him as he held his body on all fours. He grew up knowing this was forbidden, and a thrill clenched his innards at the prospect of having it.

Trembling, Steve bent down, letting his forehead fall against the fuzz of the blanket, and canted his ass up in the air.

Presenting, for his omega.

“Shit,” Bucky swore.

The sound of a zipper coming undone made Steve’s heart beat faster. There was a rustle of clothing. Through the window between his legs, he could see Bucky peel his tight jeans off of his legs, kicking them underneath the suspended television. The reflection of sunlight winked in the slick sticking to the insides of Bucky’s thighs, and his cock hung heavy between them.

As though reading his mind, Bucky stood beside Steve’s head. He tilted Steve’s chin up with confident fingers. “See how wet you made me?” he asked. Steve nodded. Bucky pet his head, then said, “I want you to lick it up, Stevie. Can you do that for me?”

Steve made to straighten out of presenting, but Bucky pushed him back.

“No,” he said, “You can’t hold onto me. Just your mouth, no hands. Turn toward me.”

Steve shifted to face Bucky, crawling sideways to grip the edge of the couch cushion. In order to reach his omega, he had to crane his neck, stretching awkwardly from his position on the couch to where Bucky stood, thick, muscled legs spread apart, arms crossed over his chest. First, Steve dove in to lick away the slick that smeared over the root of Bucky’s erection.

Bucky gasped, and more slick leaking onto his thighs. “You’ll have to clean that up, too,” Bucky said, and pride streaked through Steve at the waver in his voice.

The flavor of Bucky’s slick compared to nothing else. He tasted intoxicating, salty-sweet and all-too-human. Steve’s breath came fast and hard out of his nostrils. His head swam at the lack of oxygen as he lapped away the sheen of omega slick, from hard, quivering ridges of muscle. He could hold his breath for a long, long time – and he did, nose buried in damp skin as he let his tongue graze over skin. He didn’t stop until Bucky gripped his hair and pried Steve’s head up, forcing him to face him.

Bucky’s pupils left little color in his eyes. Heavy breath escaped from red and bitten lips.

“Good, baby,” he encouraged, “You did good. I’m gonna fuck you now, okay? Present for me.”

Steve returned to the place he lay in before, forehead kissing the blanket, ass in the air. He watched as Bucky tossed the bottle of lube onto the blanket and climbed up behind him. His hands cupped Steve’s ass, pulled him apart.

“One of these days,” Bucky said, “I’m gonna eat you out like you did for me. Anyone ever do that for you before?”

Unable to conjure a single word, Steve shook his head, temples rubbing into soft fabric.

“That’s a shame,” hummed Bucky, “We gotta change that. Later, though. Right now, I – I gotta get inside you.”

In response, Steve pressed his ass out. Nerves tingled in his throat and hands, but he trusted Bucky. Bucky would take care of him, as Bucky always did.

His omega took up the bottle of slick and poured cool liquid over Steve’s stretched hole. He pushed the synthetic slick into Steve with careful, exploring fingers.

When the head of Bucky’s erection rested against Steve’s hole, he began to shake. Bucky petted a hand over his spine. He asked, “Hey, you okay?”

“Just nervous,” Steve said into the blanket.

“You tell me if you need to call it quits, okay?” Bucky replied, then assured him, “I’ll be real careful with you.”

“I trust you,” Steve said, and he meant it.

The first breach of Bucky’s cock stretched Steve more than he knew was possible. His hole tingled with pleasure-pain, at the unfamiliar feeling of something far thicker than fingers sliding slow and easy inside of him. Bucky rubbed Steve’s lower back with his free hand, massaging in circles as his cock made the gradual slide inside of him.

“How – how much is in me?” Steve asked, at the moment he wondered if he could take any more.

“’Bout half,” Bucky told him.

“Jesus.”

“Need me to pause for a second?” asked Bucky.

“Yeah, gimme a – let me get my bearings,” Steve said.

While they breathed together, Bucky leaned in a little, stroking Steve’s damp hair back from his forehead, petting it back into place. He poured attention onto him in loving, sweet touches, in his palm against Steve’s throat, in mollifying strokes along his spine.

“Okay, I’m ready,” Steve told him.

When Bucky slid home, Steve’s body sang. He didn’t know if this is what Bucky felt like all the time, if being knotted was this intense or somehow more intense. He loved it, the stinging and fullness and all-consuming pleasure, every nerve set ablaze. Bucky didn’t fuck into him with the power Steve had railed into Bucky, which was damned considerate. Even gentle rocking sent Steve tumbling to heights he didn’t know were possible to achieve.

As their bodies rolled along, Bucky’s breathing hitched. He made his sweet noises, the ones that Steve punched out of him when he got close.

Steve pushed his ass back to meet Bucky’s thrust forward. “You can go harder,” he said, “Come inside me, sweetheart.”

With quicker, harder slaps of their bodies together, Steve dug his toes into the blanket and leveraged his ass up to take more. He curled one fist around his lingering knot, sweat in his palm lubricating the hold. Bucky grunted, unhappy with Steve’s shift, and shoved his shoulder down into the cushions, pinning Steve with his vibranium arm. Steve tested the strength, pushing at Bucky’s hand, and found he couldn’t wrench his weight out from under the prosthesis.

Bucky pinned him for real.

Steve groaned. His cock burned and pleasure clawed at him, spiked but perfect. As the knot went down, his erection returned, encouraged to fullness by the steady, true rhythm of Bucky taking him. What a sight they must have made: an alpha with his face shoved down into the mattress, pinned at the shoulder by an unimaginably strong omega, perched on the balls of his feet so he could take it harder. He couldn’t see how Bucky looked fucking into him, but he knew without a shadow of a doubt that he was beautiful.

A small, near-painful orgasm ripped through Steve’s lower half. His cock dribbled come into the blanket, far less than an alpha typically made. This didn’t give Bucky pause; he continued the pulse of their bodies, even as Steve whined and keened at the avalanche of overstimulation. He loved and hated it all at once and – fuck. Bucky smacked into him in one final thrust that shook through Steve’s body in pleasured echoes. The heat of come painted his insides, an unfamiliar but welcome feeling. He groaned, pushing his ass into it even as Bucky kept him shoved down.

Bucky slumped over Steve’s back. The pressure of the prosthesis eased.

“Fuck,” said Bucky, “I bruised your shoulder.”

“You did?”

“Yeah, you got a big-ass handprint on you. Damn. I’m sorry, baby,” he said.

“S’okay. Maybe I like it there.” Steve finally turned his head, then rotated his whole body. He gasped when Bucky’s spent cock slid from him and moisture followed, but didn’t miss a beat, only held Bucky upright until Steve lay on his back in the mess they made. Then, he eased Bucky down to flop onto his chest.

“How are you feeling?” Bucky asked. He gazed up at Steve with his face smushed to his pecs. Realizing his position, he ran his tongue along the slope of muscle, then pulled a nipple into his mouth, scraping teeth over the nub.

“C-Christ,” stuttered Steve.

“You keep bringing him into this,” Bucky joked. “But seriously. How do you feel?”

“Good. Amazing,” Steve answered, “Wrung out. Open? Also sticky. I have slick in my beard.”

“I have your jizz in mine, so I think we’re even on that front, pal.” Bucky scooted up, straddled Steve’s middle. He nudged Steve’s cheek with his nose and said, “You looked gorgeous like that. Never seen anything like it before. You’re so pretty, baby, so good for me.”

Steve’s heart expanded like a helium balloon. He cupped the back of Bucky’s head and brought him in for a kiss. He tasted like Steve’s release, and it was marvelous. Steve could live here forever, taken care of by his omega, being told he’s gorgeous and good. When their mouths parted, Steve wrapped both arms around Bucky and held their naked bodies as close as possible.

He never wanted to let go.

Chapter Text

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Track: If I Be Wrong – Wolf Larsen

Not Lost, Not Found

 

Bucky’s life afforded him the luxury of many forms of travel. He’d been on crowded commercial planes, and stuffed into a car with the rest of his family for the ten hour drive to visit his aunt and uncle and cousins in Indiana. As a marine, he’d traveled by plane and by ship, enormous beasts that sliced through churning water without a thought. As prisoner of war, he recalled shards of a whole, of a dusty caravan and being thirstier than he had ever been before. Upon his rescue, he burrowed into the shadows of an unfamiliar aircraft, something silent and Wakandan. As an agent of SHIELD, he traveled by quinjet, tugged across thousands of miles in the most impressive technology the United States could afford.

But of all the ways he’d bounced across the globe, Bucky tipped his hat to the opulence of Tony Stark’s private jet.

“I love this,” he said upon boarding.

Steve smiled wryly. “Never been on one before?”

“I’ve never been rich as Tony Stark, so no,” Bucky replied.

A large bar bordered the back of the jet, and rather than plastic chairs with ugly upholstery, seating came in the form of couches and armchairs. Bucky ran his hand along the arm of one. The omega in him couldn’t help the delight at what amounted to a flying room of prime nesting spots – and he realized, that’s probably what Tony intended it to be. He was an omega too, after all.

“Do you have coffee?” Bucky asked one of the two flight attendants, both of whom wore matching red pantsuits, each with a gold Stark Industries pin gleaming against the fold of the collar.

“We have a fully-stocked espresso bar, sir,” answered the beta on the left. His nametag said Paul, “Would you like me to make you a beverage after takeoff?”

Nesting space and a fully stocked espresso bar? Sometimes, Tony really knew how to things right.

“Yes, please,” Bucky said, “Just a latte. Thank you. You’re great. This is so great.”

That the flight to DC only lasted an hour and a half was a shame, but knowing their time on the Stark Industries jet was limited only drove Bucky to enjoy it more. The jet boasted an entire linen closet’s worth of nesting material, which he arranged to his liking on the most promising-looking couch while they waited for the runway to be clear for them.

Bucky pulled Steve up from the place he took on an armchair, and pointed to the nest. “Sit,” he instructed, and Steve sat, unable to bite back an amused smile.

As Steve obeyed, Bucky settled into the spot he made for himself in the blankets, and rested his head on Steve’s thigh.

This would be, hands-down, the best travel of his life.

While the jet hurdled down the runway and into the air, Steve stroked Bucky’s hair. Later, Paul worked the espresso machine like a pro, and brought Bucky a latte almost too pretty to drink, and Steve a regular brew. (He drank it anyway, of course.) He’d never enjoyed travel more than he did then, curled up with his alpha and some caffeine.

They touched down in DC in the precise amount of time promised, a promise unkept by most commercial flights Bucky ever had the misfortune of being stuffed onto. He almost wished it lasted longer than it did, but reassured himself with the promise of getting back onto the jet tomorrow to return home.

A driver took them from the airport to their hotel, another lavish setting of marble and chrome, with real paintings in detailed faux-gold frames. At least, Bucky hoped they were faux-gold. With his rolling suitcase (some cheap thing he found at a yard sale that did not match his surroundings) in his hand skidding over marble, he asked, “Baby, you ever thought of staying at a Motel 6 and donating the difference to hungry children or something? This is batshit.”

“Tony has his people book these things,” Steve whispered back, “I don’t know what he means by ‘his people,’ but I assume they’re paid.”

The expectant eyes of the folks at the front desk burned on their faces.

“Next time, we do the booking?” suggested Bucky.

Steve leaned over to press a sweet kiss to Bucky’s forehead. “You’re the boss,” he said.

They didn’t linger in their room, despite its many amenities. Bucky eyed the hot tub, though, and wondered if Avengers Tower had one of those lurking somewhere in its walls. There had to be a hot tub, right? Tony Stark did nothing by halves, ever. Not even once.

At most, Steve and Bucky loitered in the room for fifteen minutes, stashing their suitcases and taking a moment to shake the wrinkles from their clothing and tuck stray hair back into place. Bucky made a pointed effort to as put-together as possible: his best braids, the custom-cut suit he wore to their press conference, shoes he shined the night before on the floor of their apartment in front of the TV, and a touch of mascara to liven things up a bit. He didn’t do the makeup thing, usually, but one wanted to look their best in the face of visiting one of the most influential omegas of their time, and his personal hero, to boot.

Bucky in mascara by mellomailbox on Twitter

Peggy Carter.

Bucky encouraged Steve to do this. The moment Steve admitted he wanted to see Peggy but didn’t know if he could, Bucky told Steve what he had to have already known someplace inside him – Steve had to. He had to see Peggy, because any day could be her very last. She lived a long and storied life, and of those involved in the Howling Commandos, was last one standing.

And so they loaded into their car again, stopping only to purchase a floral arrangement whose intricacy should typically be reserved for weddings and funerals exclusively, but Steve insisted upon having for Peggy.

Their driver dropped them at the gates of a modest retirement home, a decidedly middle-class structure, trim and resolute in its practicality. The staff greeted them with warm smiles, nonplussed – Steve, in a fit of anxiety, called ahead to ask Peggy herself for permission to visit.

(“It’s impolite to show up unannounced,” he said on the phone, and at the end of a smoky laugh, Bucky heard Peggy’s retort: “If you were so concerned about being polite, you would have come to see me sooner.” Steve went red in the face with embarrassment, admitted she was right, and finalized a time to visit the next day.)

In Bucky’s own anxiety, he texted Clint to ask him about Beans. Clint replied with a picture of Beans and Lucky playing tug-o-war with a frayed rope toy. He wished she could have come with them, but dragging his dog from place to place all within the space of twenty-four hours seemed like a little much, and so he left her in the hands of his number-one trusted Avenger.

A kind woman in scrubs guided them up a set of stairs and to a plain door. In a slot below the room number, the words Peggy Carter stood out in printed black ink. Times New Roman, no fuss. Steve knocked, and a voice responded to come in.

In the center of a hospital bed, Peggy Carter lay with gray hair splayed across the pillow. She smiled as Steve placed his expensive flowers on her bedside table.

“It’s about time,” Peggy said.

Abashed, Steve shuffled in place. He grabbed at the back of his neck and said, “I’m sorry, Peg.”

“I’m sure you are,” she replied. “Please, both of you, do sit down.”

In the doorway, Bucky went still. Peggy Carter noticed him, and he didn’t quite know what to do about that. “Yes, you too, Sergeant Barnes,” she said, “Steve seems to have met his match in you.”

Steve pulled them both chairs out from under the wide window and up to Peggy’s bedside. Bucky often knew what was the right thing to say, but as he lowered his body to a well-used chair, he found no words at the tip of his tongue. Fortunately, Peggy seemed to have words enough for all three of them, as she continued, “I’ve seen you in the news. That was quite a dramatic exit last week. I must say, I do like the look of Corporal Wilson, though. And you, Sergeant Barnes. Furniture shopping! That’s rather domestic, isn’t it?”

“Ain’t that – just in the gossip rags?” asked Bucky.

(Top Ten Reasons Steve Rogers and James Barnes are the Cutest Celebrity Couple, the Buzzfeed article had read. Celebrity couple, because Bucky was now a celebrity too.)

“I hope you wouldn’t deny an old woman her vices.” Peggy’s eyes twinkled.

“No, ma’am,” Bucky rushed to say.

Peggy extended a paper-skinned hand toward Steve, blue veins pushed out against the bone. Steve took it in both his own and squeezed. A fond expression took over her face, the kind of eyes reserved for old love, cherished love, but something more a memory than a reality. She said, “You’ve done well, Steve, in finding your mate.”

Bucky and Steve exchanged a glance. Steve stumbled over his words to say, “He’s – not my mate?” And it sounded like a question.

“Oh?” Peggy said, one brow cocked. “Well, you certainly smell like it. I suppose I must be losing my sense, in my old age.”

Steve let go of her hand to pick up a small, faded photograph. In it, Peggy stood with hair coiffed, smile wide, with two kids looped under her arms. Her children.

“I have lived a life,” she sighed, “My mate was among the alphas you freed at Azzano. Did you know that? Even after you were gone, you were still changing my life.”

“Aw, Peg,” Steve said.

Peggy waved her hand at him. “None of that,” she said. “Why don’t you turn on the news for me? I do like to know what we’ve mucked up this time. There’s always something.”

Bucky, nearest to the television remote, turned on the power to the overhead television mounted by a mechanical arm in the wall. On it, the Avengers filled the screen. Beside him, Steve tensed. Human-sized, human-shaped robots shone in the light of the sun. On the left side of the TV screen, Tony zapped a pair with either repulsor. The Hulk crushed one in the green palm of his hand. The situation must have been bad, if Bruce agreed to get involved.

And like a beacon of red, white, and blue, Sam Wilson swooped out of the sky. He chucked the shield from air, slicing through the neck of a robot. The shield ricocheted off the ground, and he caught it, thrusting his body into the air with newly-improved wings. Tony must have upgraded them, as Steve promised he would.

Steve’s scent went sour with distress.

“Baby,” Bucky said, turning away from the screen, “What’s wrong?”

“I should be out there,” Steve answered, wild-eyed, “I should be helping, but I’m not.”

“Steve,” Peggy gently said.

“I gotta, Peg,” Steve told her, “I gotta be out there with my team.”

“No, you don’t,” Bucky and Peggy said in stereo, and met eyes. Unspoken, an understanding passed between them, something in knowing the essential core of Steve. He had to fight, he always had to fight – he didn’t always want to fight. Someday, he might fight again, but that would not be now, and it might not be soon.

“That’s my team,” Steve emphasized, desperation in every line of his body. Concern bracketed his mouth and stitched between his brows as he watched the fight.

“Not every fight is your fight,” Bucky said, placing his palm on the back of Steve’s shoulder. He explained, “You don’t have to be fighting every time.”

Peggy coughed, then, drawing their attention away from the chaos on the TV screen. Steve dove to retrieve the glass of water next to Peggy’s picture with her children, and held it to her lips. She drank, eyes fluttering closed for half a beat. When she opened them, confusion clouded over brown irises. Dumbfounded, she said, “Steve? You’re – you’re alive!”

**

To Bucky’s surprise, the small staff of the Stark Industries private jet left Bucky’s nest as it was. He dismantled it anyway, but rebuilt it to his new inclination, lining different places with different blankets, all of which his and Steve’s scents infused faintly. He reasoned that his nest on the way to DC was a nest that he built for himself. This nest was a nest he built for his alpha, a separate affair, the shape of which catered to Steve, who hadn’t much spoken since the rocky end to their encounter with Peggy Carter.

“Her memory’s going,” one of her nurses explained, the same kind nurse that led them to the room when they’d arrived at the home. “Sometimes her kids drop by, and she can’t place them, even if she knows that they’re important. You caught her on one of the good days, actually.”

As they took off into the air with home in mind, Bucky pulled Steve down so that his head rested on Bucky’s thighs.

“I don’t know who I am without a fight,” Steve said, his first true sentence in over an hour. Up to that point, everything was “yes, ma’am,” and “all right, Buck,” and “thank you, sir.”

“You know it’s okay not to know, right?” asked Bucky.

“I’ve always known who I am,” Steve replied, “and I’m not sure when that stopped being true.”

“Fighting has a way of doing that. You get to a fight with a gun in your hands – or a shield, y’know – and you’re going and going, but you still don’t know if it’s where you should be. There’s always a fight. Somebody always needs help. For a long time, I thought my job was to be at the forefront of every one. If I didn’t fight, who was gonna? But it turns out that the world’s all right, sometimes. The world didn’t always need me, least not in that way. There are a lot of fighters, Steve. You’re one of them, and I’m one of them, but that still doesn’t mean that every fight is ours.”

Steve frowned up at him.

Bucky sighed and stroked his alpha’s head. “If you don’t know which fights are yours, you’re gonna run yourself ragged. That happened already, remember?”

“What if I don’t fight, and something terrible happens?” asked Steve, “What if I could have stopped something terrible from happening?”

“Terrible things will happen,” Bucky reasoned, “They’ve always happened, and they will always happen. You’re not responsible for all of them. You’re not responsible for the whole world. Sometimes the world needs help, but that doesn’t mean it’s helpless. The Battle of New York, for example – did everyone hightail it the fuck out of there?”

Steve shook his head.

“No, they did not. I saw a guy climb of a smashed bodega and bash an alien’s head in with a broken pipe. I saw ordinary people work together to take these guys down. There were way too many for a handful of fancy assholes in costumes to take on by themselves, and New Yorkers knew that. And as much as it pains me to say it, that’s not unique to New York. There are fighters everywhere. There are people everywhere that are willing to help each other. Sometimes things are pretty damn bleak; I’ll give you that. Thing is, humanity’s a pain in the ass. At the end of the day, we want to survive. We want to help each other survive. And we’ll do it, Steve. Not just you. Everyone.”

Steve didn’t respond to that, but instead closed his eyes and exhaled. His scent leveled out, anxiety and anger leaking away to a dull undertone.

The Avengers handled the robot incident, having neutralized the threat before Steve and Bucky made it to bed in their ritzy hotel room. Bucky couldn’t tell whether Steve was relieved or despairing about the news. Knowing the Avengers could carry on without him drove him to the top of the tower to throw himself off of it – not because he was empty for being unneeded, but because he was relieved. Now Steve was muddled again, seeing his absence filled, unsure of his purpose.

Watching reality unfold did funny things to a person.

The robot incident screwed commercial airports, but the Stark Industries private jet flew into New York without a care. To Bucky’s surprise, their driver back to the tower came in the form of one Natasha Romanov, dressed in black yoga pants, a suspiciously large purple t-shirt, and her hair up. A bruise nestled under one eye, purple and fresh, but clean.

“Tasha,” Steve breathed, “What are you doing here? Isn’t there cleanup?”

Natasha shrugged a shoulder. She replied, “Finished up the press shit a couple hours ago. Clint and I are watching dumb crime shows. You fellas up for some vodka-sodas? Figure you might need it.”

“I can’t get drunk,” Steve pointed out.

“Eh. Who cares? Say some stupid shit like the rest of us. No one’ll know any better.”

Which is how they landed in Natasha Romanov’s apartment, a space somehow more customized than Steve and Bucky’s. A framed poster for La Bayadere took up most of one wall, dog toys littered the floor, and the entire place smelled like coffee and cloying vanilla candles. An antique rug, worn but elaborate, covered almost the entire living room, and perched upon it sat a familiar, hideous plaid couch.

“Is that one of the couches from the thrift store?” Steve asked.

“Yeah,” Natasha answered, “I saw it in those Buzzfeed pictures. I liked it.”

As Natasha clanged around in the kitchen, louder than Bucky had ever heard her before, the apartment door opened, and excited yapping followed. Clint held both Beans and Lucky, leashes wrapped around his fist, and an exasperated expression plagued his face. It melted, however, into something genial at the sight of Bucky and Steve standing around Natasha’s suspect furniture.

“Hey! You actually came,” he said. The dogs tore out of his grip, sending Clint toppling onto the floor. Lucky and Beans greeted Steve and Bucky as though they were the water in a desert void of attention. Steve heaved Beans straight up in the air, into his muscled arms, and she didn’t bat a lash – she licked his face and thwacked her tail against his abdomen, entirely unfazed at being handled like a lap dog. Lucky, meanwhile, shoved his fuzzy face into Bucky’s hands, searching for food but finding none.

“All right, all right,” Clint said as he heaved his body off of the floor, “We get it, you bastards. Steve and Bucky are so much more exciting than Clint and Tasha. No respect around here, I swear.”

When Natasha handed out their drinks, Bucky crinkled his nose at it. “What is in this? Is this coconut La Croix?”

“It’s like delicious sunscreen,” Natasha said, which left no room for an argument.

Steve, who had never seen a procedural crime show, watched the proceedings from one end of the couch, riveted as he absently braided chunks of Bucky’s hair. (He was terrible at it, but they would work on that.) Watching an increasingly unbelievable episode of CSI seemed to have put the fight out of his mind, for the time being.

Clint contributed a hearty, “That’s not what jail looks like,” while Natasha ho-hummed the faulty science, both of them getting louder and louder as they drank variations on La Croix and expensive vodka. Knowing the Black Widow liked La Croix threw Bucky for a little bit of a loop – it was something so human, and something he would not pretend to understand.

(Despite this, he still drank her concoctions. It was only polite. Also, he wanted to be drunk.)

“Crime scene investigators don’t actually carry guns, do they?” Steve asked, furrowing his brow. Most of Bucky’s head was braided, now.

“No, they’re total nerds,” Clint replied, and at varied expressions of disbelief, he tacked on, “What? I know a guy.”

The night was, strangely, normal. Since August, Bucky’s life had been anything but normal. He trained in a gym with superheroes. He went from place to place in the most outrageous cars that money could buy. He met Peggy Carter yesterday, for fuck’s sake. He took former Captain America to his synagogue, the temple his family’d been going to since he wore tiny light-up sneakers in the 1990s.

Laughing around a television at questionable writing and impossible scenarios struck him as the most normal thing that he and Steve had done so far. That was good. It was great, in fact. Steve needed normal in his life. Since he stepped into Howard Stark’s hunk machine, nothing settled for him. Nothing became routine. Nothing was pedestrian to Steve beyond his own despair.

As Steve incredulously questioned a new plot line, Bucky turned his head. Even with a disbelieving scowl on his face, Steve was the handsomest man he had ever known. An alpha with a scent like none he’d ever put his nose to before. He loved Steve so much, and watching him unwind from the intensity of the past twenty-four hours twisted that knife in ever-deeper.

Bucky found, tragically, that he was not as drunk as he would have liked to be after four vodka-sodas and two episodes of CSI, but his blood buzzed, warm and pleasant.

And if he caught Natasha Romanov’s speculative glance in the flashing blue glow of the television?

Tonight, Bucky pretended not to see. He held onto Steve’s calf, leaned his head on Steve’s knee, and let his love take over. He ached for Steve to know, but he wouldn’t tell him.

Bucky would let Steve have his normal, for as long as he could.

** 

Somehow, some way, Bucky ended up tackling Clint to the floor. Steve didn’t understand the specifics, only that Beans’ honor seemed to be on the line. While they bickered, loudly, tangled on the antique carpet, Natasha uncoiled her body from the couch and retreated her kitchen.

Steve followed her. He hadn’t agreed to come to her apartment without motivations.

As Natasha pulled a bag of salt and vinegar chips from off of the top of her fridge, she said, “What’s up, Steve?” without turning to see him approach. He rolled his eyes, fond. She would always know when he wanted something, it seemed.

“I wanted – to talk to you,” he said haltingly.

Natasha unclipped the rolled-up top of her bag of chips, shook it, and held it out to him. “Chips?” she asked.

Steve stuck his hand in the bag and pulled out a healthy serving.

“What do you want to talk about?” asked Tasha.

Steve glared at her, chewed his mouthful of chips, and asked, “Did you wait for me to be disarmed to ask that?”

“Maybe,” she answered, voice light, “Or maybe you shoved chips into your face to avoid a serious conversation.”

“Touche,” murmured Steve. He tipped back what remained of the chips in his palm, then wiped his hand on the side of his jeans. He went on, “I’ve been thinking about some things. I went to a service at Bucky’s church – no, wait, he says it’s not called church. I went to this thing at Bucky’s synagogue, and there was lots of talk about asking for forgiveness. And it...occurred to me that I might...have been unfair to you.”

“Go on.”

Steve narrowed his eyes. “You’re not as drunk as you pretended to be.”

“I never am,” Natasha agreed, “and I had a feeling.”

“You’re my friend,” Steve stated. Why the fuck was that so hard? He knew that to be true.

But he’d also known that too late.

“Am I?”

“Yes,” Steve said, “and I didn’t give you – or any of the Avengers – enough credit. I think, in some ways, I got so far into my head that my self-hatred became selfish. It – it grew into something I didn’t know how to handle anymore. And that came down on you. I’ve trusted you time and time again in a fight. I knew you had my back. I should have known that extended beyond a battlefield. And I am...sorry.”

Natasha offered Steve the bag of chips. “Want the rest?” she asked, and he took it.

As Steve angled the bag to send the crumbs from the bottom into his mouth, Natasha folded her arms over her chest. In this state, in her exercise pants and her overlarge t-shirt, hair askew and face free of makeup, she looked vulnerable. Knowing Natasha, this was as calculated as any persona, as sure a mask as an evening gown and a fake giggle.

But she’d made the effort to put Steve at ease.

“I’m not the only one you should be apologizing to,” Natasha told him.

“I know that,” Steve said.

“Stop interrupting,” Natasha scolded, “and chew before you speak. For fuck’s sake, Steve.”

“Sorry.”

Natasha continued, “I thought you were reserved. That you were private. I also thought you were my friend. I don’t miscalculate a lot, but I did with you. You’re impulsive, but you’re not stupid. You’re hard to get a read on, and I am so angry at myself for not trying harder. But there are people that did try. Sam. Tony. They deserve your apologies more than I do.”

A bubble of anger burst in his gut. This was what it felt like, though, wasn’t it? To hear a friend blame herself for what was not her fault – Steve bristled like a porcupine. He said, “That’s not true. A friendship is at least two people, Tasha. Maybe you didn’t do your part, maybe I didn’t do mine. It doesn’t really matter to me. What matters is that I should have trusted you.”

“We all have our demons,” Natasha replied, “and I don’t think anyone should trust me, ever. But that’s my damage, isn’t it? The red in my ledger. I want you to trust me, but I don’t think you should.”

“I do,” Steve said, “trust you. I should have before, but I do now.”

“Dumbest thing you’re ever gonna do.”

“Well, they tell me I’m impulsive,” Steve replied, smirking.

Natasha laughed, then held out one hand. Steve went to shake, but she shook her head ‘no.’ “Clint taught me this,” she said, “Slide your palm against mine. Make a fist, and then bump.”

Clumsily, Steve followed her directions. Her hand was small and cool against his, and her fist strong when her knuckles touched to his.

“Forgive me?” Steve asked.

“Sure,” Natasha said back, “I forgive you. Also, you have crumbs in your beard.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Track: Wednesday Morning Atonement – Curtis Harding

A Chance to be a Better Man

 

As much as Steve wished that he could claim his and Natasha’s heart to heart inspired him to find Tony and reconcile, to call Sam for something that wasn’t a crisis, it didn’t. He procrastinated instead, and directed his attention to filling his territory with things that he liked.

He replaced the white coffee mugs with handmade pieces from craft fairs and interesting miscellany from various thrift shops. He bought antique frames and hung his art on the bedroom walls. He thrifted everything from pillows to new clothing, caught up in the torrent of dopamine that penetrated straight to the core of him every time he bought something new, something representative of him. No more sterile spaces in his territory.

The internet enjoyed every trip that Bucky and Steve took to thrift stores, snapping photos and yanking their faces across every platform known to man. Despite Bucky’s first foray into the public eye, he ultimately took the new renown in stride, playing it up for the camera with goofy smiles and increasingly ludicrous poses, the most popular of which came in a series of photos in which Bucky:

  1. Caught the eye of a guy with a camera

  2. Flipped into a handstand on a wooden shelf of ugly ceramic animal statues (“They’re vintage; it’s cool to have a demonic rabbit in your territory,” explained Bucky.)

  3. Buckled the shelf under his weight and crashed down onto the floor, taking every last statue with him

  4. Splayed dazed in a ruin of particle board and shattered ceramic animal corpses

  5. Sheepishly paid for everything he destroyed

  6. Got kicked out of the store and waited ass to sidewalk while Steve helped clean up inside

  7. Lit up when Steve returned with a small turquoise bookcase under his arm

Steve sent the pictures to Bucky’s sisters as soon as they arrived back home.

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

 

October 25, 2018

 

[3:13 PM] Judy: the best part about this whole thing

[3:13 PM] Judy: is that mom called the store to apologize for “her son’s behavior”

[3:14 PM] Judy: and she leaves, right? Just throws on a sweater and leaves

[3:15 PM] Judy: and she just came home with a new pitcher and this cross-stitched pillow that says “fuck it” with a bunch of fancy flowers. I love it. Dad’s already tried to throw it away twice and now she’s hitting him with it

[3:15 PM] Judy: “you’re the one that signed him up for gymnastics classes, g e o r g e, and now look what happened”

[3:16 PM] Judy: [Image attached: Winifred Barnes in motion, hitting George Barnes over the head with a throw pillow]

 

Second to the bevy of thrift store shopping photos to be had, pictures of them with Beans at the dog park exploded across Instagram and Twitter respectively, and Beans became a celebrity in her own right, spurring such tweets as “in this house, we stan Beans Barnes” and “dog goals.”

“You are goals,” Bucky told her one afternoon as she dropped a slobbery tennis ball at Steve’s feet. Steve pulled it out of the dirt and chucked it across the park. Bucky carried on, declaring, “I’m making Beans her own Instagram.”

“That seems like a good use of your time,” Steve said lightly.

“You’re making fun of me, and I don’t care,” Bucky told him, and fingers flew over his phone.

Rather than reply, Steve reached over to goose his omega, who let out an outraged noise and elbowed Steve in the gut.

As October slid into November, life settled into a sometimes-comfortable pattern. Some nights Steve still woke in cold sweats. Once, Bucky caught him rummaging through the closet, and Steve shouted, shouted at Bucky to accuse him of taking the shield. Only several minutes after he’d been talked down from his panic did Steve remember that he didn’t have the shield anymore at all. He gave it to Sam, and he wouldn’t be taking it back. Other times, Steve came down with gory drawings on his arm and blood on his tongue from chomping down on the sides of his mouth.

Twitter speculated, and asked Steve, what the drawings on his arm meant. The more time that he and Bucky spent out in public, the more his artwork saw the light of day. He found an Instagram dedicated to pictures of each piece, starting with the image of Saint Christopher and the dandelion at his feet.

“Maybe I should make an Instagram too,” Steve said. “People post art on there, don’t they?”

“All the time,” Bucky said.

So Steve did. He started his Instagram with what was already in his sketchbook: various portraits of Bucky (glowering, drinking coffee, braiding his hair, napping, playing with Beans), his friends (Sam in his new Captain America getup, Natasha with a vodka-soda, Clint grinning with his nose broken, Tony wiping a smudge of oil onto his favorite AC/DC t-shirt), and Beans. Before the twenty-first century, Steve used pencils to sketch, all plain graphite but for the single summer Sarah Rogers saved to buy him colored pencils for his birthday, which he used until they were tiny nubs that hurt his fingers to work with.

Now, Steve used bright markers and impossible colors, twisting them into vibrant light and shadow. His world burst into color with Bucky in it, and his art did, too. No more dancing monkey – but a man that saw the world wrought in turquoise and coral and gold.

By far, however, the pictures he drew on his arm garnered the most attention. The first image of his panic-art he posted on Instagram came at three AM on a late November morning, a great oak stamped into his mind. Thick branches twisted out and orange-yellow leaves erupted from it. At the base, he sketched a black cross tied together, made out of sticks.

“I draw on my arm when I wake up from nightmares,” Steve captioned the drawing, “In 1944, the Howlies and I found the body of a young American soldier, shot in German territory. We buried him under this tree before we took his tags back with us. Tags said he was protestant, so we made him a cross and said a prayer. He died alone, but I hope he found his people, wherever he went. I don’t speculate that much about life and death anymore, but I do like to think there’s something for us when we reach the end. #art #ptsd”

On the last day of November, Steve ponied up and texted Sam that he wanted to meet for lunch. Bucky graciously allowed Steve to take Beans with him. Despite the less-than-ideal temperature, Steve and Sam sat outside on the patio among heat lamps, bundled in their winter gear. The previous week boasted near sixty degree weather, which dropped ten degrees and some change, leaving them with a cloudy mess of a day.

Bucky told Steve he looked like a ‘rockabilly wannabe’ in his red gingham button-down and black leather jacket. Steve didn’t know what that meant, but he gathered his appearance echoed a subculture whose existence he was unaware of prior to this morning.

He stole one of Bucky’s cashmere scarves for the sole purpose of smelling his omega while they were apart.

“How’s being Cap?” Steve asked.

Sam made a face. “It’s interesting,” he said, “A lot of people want me to be you.”

“That’s stupid,” Steve simpered, “Even if we knew it would happen.”

“It’s kinda cool, too,” Sam said, and shrugged a shoulder. “All the people that expect me to be you – it extends to the bad guys, which is great, because they don’t expect me to fly, and they don’t expect me to shoot ‘em. Moving target is a lot harder to catch. You shoulda tried that one out yourself.”

“Ha-ha,” said Steve. Their waitress brought their food to the table, none-too-happy at the prospect of being out-of-doors to serve them, but wished them a good meal before she hightailed it inside. Steve used his roast beef sandwich as an excuse to think of how he was going to approach asking Sam to forgive him for being a putz (so said Bucky). He dribbled juice on the scarf, a needed distraction from the heaviness of his heart, because knowing he would meet Bucky’s exasperation when he returned home comforted him.

When Steve set down his sandwich, he leveled his chin. “Sam, I’m sorry,” he said.

Sam made a face at him. “For what?”

Steve waved a hand, “For things in general. You’re not my emotional packmule, but I got to treating you that way.”

Sam pursed his lips, raised his brows, and nodded along to that.

“You’re important to me,” Steve went on. His gaze drifted to his hands, fumbling at nothing in his lap. “And friends are supposed to be there for you, but...they’re not supposed to do the work for you.”

“So an old dog can learn new tricks,” mused Sam.

Steve laughed a gentle, quiet laugh. He didn’t like admitting he was wrong, that he was as fallible as anyone might be. Of all his friends he did Sam the dirtiest, expected more out of him. Sam was the first person to show him open, unfettered kindness in the twenty-first century, the only one of his friends whose baggage wasn’t so convoluted that he went about his friendship in subtle, unreadable cues (Natasha) or ham-handed, spectacular gift-giving and word-avalanches (Tony).

“I don’t know a lot about myself yet,” Steve admitted, “but I know that you helped me get here. And I know that I want to be on your side. So, thank you, is what I’m trying to say, I guess. More than sorry – it’s thank you.”

Sam nodded again, silent. He moved the potatoes on his plate around with his fork. When he looked back up to meet Steve in the eye, he asked, “You ever play Mario Kart?”

“No. Why?”

“Because after we pay, I’m gonna beat you at it. What do you say?”

“Game on, Wilson.”

**

Tony was another matter entirely. Out of the turbulent beginning of their relationship, they tumbled into being allies. What Steve meant to Tony didn’t occur to him until that rainy night on top of Avengers Tower, when the scent of omega distress and desperation clogged Steve’s nose despite the downpour. Until that moment, he’d been under the impression that Tony felt obligated to him, to take care of a wayward man that Nick Fury threw into the twenty-first century with a bang.

Fortunately, Steve didn’t have to worry about going to find Tony, because, as he often did, Tony found him. He knocked at the apartment door, didn’t bother to wait for a response, and marched into the apartment without a care. Steve, who was hunched over his sketchbook, topless and disheveled, blinked up in surprise.

“You have more Twitter followers than me,” Tony said, “How is that possible? You’re not even Captain America anymore. You just rant about politics and post lovey-dovey shit about Barnes! Which, speaking of, where is he?”

“Good morning to you, too, Tony,” Steve replied, voice light. “Bucky is out walking Beans.”

“So you’re not attached at the hip anymore then, huh?” Tony asked. He didn’t wait for an answer, instead turning toward the kitchen, where he felt the edge of the coffee pot before he banged around in the cabinets. He retrieved what was at one point a child’s hand-painted mug. In lopsided letters, it read “#1 Alpha.” Bucky gifted it to Steve as a joke, but Steve secretly loved it more than anything else in his apartment, other than the omega in question, and his dog.

Tony flopped onto the couch near to Steve, crinkled his nose, and scooted one cushion to his right. “Is that your fucking spot? Did I just sit in your fucking spot?”

“Mm,” was all that Steve deigned to say.

“Maybe I should talk about my PTSD on Twitter,” Tony went on, “Maybe then I’ll be back in the running for most popular Avenger.”

“Not an Avenger,” Steve reminded him.

“Once an Avenger, always an Avenger,” Tony clapped back, “Doesn’t matter if you retire; you’re still one of us. Anyway. Not my point. You talk about the whole PTSD situation more than anything else, so maybe that’s the key.”

“I think we all should talk about our PTSD, if you actually want my opinion,” Steve told him, “If the Avengers are open about what they’ve experienced, there won’t be as much of a stigma around mental illness.”

Tony narrowed his eyes. “When did you get so know-it-all?”

“Tony.”

“You’re right, you’re right,” Tony said, “You’ve always been that way. Wow. I can’t believe how fucky we all are.”

“Really? You fly around in a metal suit and your dad was – well, he was Howard. Natasha was brainwashed and abused. Bruce did a science experiment on himself and turns into a monster. Clint grew up in the circus and can’t hear on account of his crappy dad. I lived through World War II and about every globe-threatening crisis after 2011. Need I go on?”

“Oof, ouch,” Tony said, “but fair. Tough, but fair. Man, we are messed up. What are you working on?”

“Teacups,” Steve answered, with a gesture to the growing collection perched on the shelving unit he bought to apologize for Bucky’s behavior in that thrift store he destroyed.

“Cool, cool. I’m working on Sam’s wings again. They got a hole punched through ‘em by that dude with the plasma cannon last week. He needs something stronger than what he’s got, but they can’t be too heavy, because he’s not enhanced. If I could get my hands on some vibranium, we’d be golden, but that’s not in the cards for obvious reasons. I have to come up with something else in the meantime.”

Tony didn’t go on after that – in a rare moment of perceptiveness, he feel silent and stared at Steve. Apologizing to Tony wasn’t the same as apologizing to Sam or Natasha. Historically, Tony and Steve didn’t do emotion well. They beat around the bush and said what they meant without saying what they meant at all, a paradox that shouldn’t exist, but did, because Tony Stark dealt in the impossible.

“Tony, I,” Steve started, but the sentence meandered to parts unknown. He chewed his lip in consideration. Steve, unlike Tony, preferred to handle matters in one of two ways: 1. A straightforward discussion in which he said exactly what he thought, or 2. Saying none of what he thought and stuffing it down to the part of his heart that would never see the light of day, where it would remain until the day he died. Heretofore, they played the game as Tony preferred they play.

Perhaps they should give Steve’s way a shot, for once.

“I’ve made some mistakes,” Steve decided upon saying.

“Oh no,” Tony said, “Is this about to be some kind of heartfelt apology? Are we about to have a moment? Because you know I don’t do moments. Why don’t we go with this: Some shit happened, you and me are not prime examples of healthy adulthood, like, at all. As far as I can tell, though, we’re where we need to be. Right? Right. Anyway, you fucked up. I’m glad. I’m still the reigning Overlord of All Things Fucking Up, so it’s great to see someone else at it, for a change. Point being – don’t apologize. I don’t say this a lot, and I will not repeat this, but...I understand.”

For once, Tony’s brown eyes did not bounce with mirth or unbridled energy or pain, but rather, a leveled sobriety.

Steve set aside his sketchbook and scooted across the couch. He lifted his arm to pull Tony into a hug, but Tony threw up a hand.

“Absolutely not,” he said, “No tearful hugs. I came up here because I wanted to stop looking at those wings for a hot second and watch some Last Airbender. I like this couch, by the way. Not my taste, but then, I figured you wouldn’t care for my furniture choices. Throwing it in the hallway, though? Kinda dramatic,” – he waved his hands, then, at Steve and to the TV screen – “Are we watching the show or not? Get your shit together, Rogers. Sheesh.”

Steve blew out the breath he’d been holding in his lungs, then bent over the new coffee table to retrieve the remote. He and Bucky bought it shortly after the new couch, a heavy wooden thing with drawers that Steve used for loose markers and his growing sketchbook collection.

They only made it through about half an episode before Bucky arrived home with a brown paper bag in hand. Whistling, he unclipped Beans’ leash, and without looking, called as he moved into the kitchen, “Baby? Honey? Darling? Light of my life?”

Tony bounced his eyebrows, which Steve ignored. “Yeah, sweetheart?” he called back.

“Remember how you brought those abominations into my home?”

Steve rolled his eyes. “You’re not talking about the grocery store bagels, are you?”

“Those weren’t bagels, Steve. They were foul. What I have brought you – are real bagels,” he scolded, and turned with a flourish, shaking a bagel in either hand. “Ta-da,” he said, and then, “Oh, hey, Tony. Rhodes not around for you to annoy?”

“Something something I have a real job, Tony, something something. Anyway, I was in the mood for Steve’s charming company and cartoons.”

“He can’t figure out Sam’s wings,” Steve provided.

“Hey! That’s on a need-to-know basis, Bearded Wonder.” Tony stood, patted Beans on top of her head, and asked, “Are there enough of those babies for me? And did Steve really bring home grocery store bagels? You’re a New Yorker, Steve. That’s just poor form.”

Steve refrained from rolling his eyes a second time, but only barely.

(A guy hears his omega say he’s craving bagels and puts them on the grocery delivery list one time...and he never hears the end of it.)

So, the three of them broke bread in the kitchen together. Tony sat on the counter, socked feet drumming against the cabinets as he shifted them back and forth. Bucky didn’t let Steve arrange his own bagel, but rather toasted it for him, smeared it with cream cheese, artfully arranged lox, and topped it all with capers and red onion. “This,” he told Steve, as he passed his creation to him on a plate, “is the ideal bagel. Eat it and weep, baby.”

“Isn’t the saying ‘read ‘em and weep’?” asked Steve, though he took the proffered plate.

“I’m repurposing it in the name of bagels,” Bucky said loftily.

He crafted his own bagel identical to Steve’s, but before they could bite in, Tony lifted his bagel and declared, “A toast! Get it – ‘cause it’s toasted? C’mon, that deserves a laugh.”

It didn’t, but Bucky and Steve humored Tony anyway, raising their bagels up before digging in. Flavor exploded on Steve’s tongue the moment that he bit down, and he groaned into it. Bucky snorted, but, mouth full, could not comment on the nature of Steve’s love for his bagel.

His heart filled in that spot, leaning against the counter in the company of tentative friendship and whatever the hell he and Bucky were. Steve couldn’t speak to what they were to one another – he puzzled over it, and came to the conclusion that what was between them could not possibly be a mere contract, but didn’t dare say that aloud, for fear that Bucky still considered Steve a project, another job in a line of jobs.

No one had to know that in his head and in his heart he knew Bucky to be his omega.

No one had to know that Steve flourished under the attention of his omega bringing home food to feed and care for him, in his roundabout, sarcastic way.

No one had to know that Steve wanted this moment to be not a moment, but forever. He could keep this in his heart, could let it crystallize like amber.

And the bagel was really damn good, too.

Chapter Text

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Track: Tin Man – Saint Sister

Your Weight in Other Things

 

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

 

December 2, 2018

 

[6:34 AM] Becca: HAP HONK

 

[7:35 AM] Bucky: fuck beaten to the punch

[7:36 AM] Bucky: HAPPY HONKA sluts

 

[8:01 AM] Judy:

[Hanukkah-themed doge meme, says “very holiday, so shalom, much candle, much dreidel”]

 

[9:27 AM] Rachel: wtf are you all doing awake before 8 AM

 

[9:46 AM] Becca: work

 

[9:50 AM] Judy: I thought I had school and then I remembered it was Sunday

 

[10:02 AM] Steve: PTSD

 

[10:04 AM] Bucky: Steve’s PTSD

 

[10:12 AM] Rachel: oof tough crowd

 

[10:14 AM] Steve: We’ll see you tonight

[10:14 AM] Steve: Me and Buck are gonna work out though so see you later

 

[10:15 AM] Bucky: Honey you don’t have to say goodbye you can just ghost

 

[10:16 AM] Steve: I’m being polite, Bucky.

[10:16 AM] Steve: Anyway

[10:17 AM] Steve: I’ve been saving this for today

[10:17 AM] Steve: And considering how nice you look right now

[10:17 AM] Steve:

[Image: “You’re hotter than a menorah on the eighth night of Hanukkah”]

 

[10:18 AM] Bucky: Aw babe [eyes emoji]

 

[10:18 AM] Steve: [eyes emoji]

 

[10:20 AM] Judy: ew

 

[10:23 AM] Becca: ew

 

[10:24 AM] Rachel: ew

 

Though Steve never celebrated Hanukkah before, diligently, he googled when it was and what they would be doing before Bucky even got around to telling him that they were visiting his family for eight nights in a row, two of which would include going to their synagogue, but most of which would be a lot of loud people yelling at each other over gelt (no matter how old they got, this never stopped being true) and eating so many latkes they all felt like trash bags whose contents threatened to spew out with the slightest jostle.

Bucky loved Steve more for his attention to what mattered to Bucky, no matter how alien a concept or tradition or technology was to him. He liked every single picture of Beans on her new Instagram, no matter if he’d been present for the photograph or not. He changed his Twitter picture, in fact, to one that Bucky snapped of Steve with Beans wrestling in grass scattered with red-orange leaves. He bought the good coffee beans from down the street. He strove, with little result but plenty effort, to learn how to braid Bucky’s hair.

He couldn’t say to Steve how much he loved him for those small things, for the careful upkeep of Bucky’s napping spot to the quiet questions about how he should behave on the nights that they visited the Barnes family, so that he didn’t misstep. So, Bucky showed his love in the ways that he could. He brought Steve his coffees in the morning and showed him how to cook meals in the evening. He trimmed his beard and hair for him. He patiently sat still while Steve tried to sketch him in the exact position he wanted.

Sometimes, the thought that Steve might love Bucky back struck him like a baseball to the chest. When Steve smiled in the exact right way, or thrust inside him and kissed him so gently, rested their foreheads together while they moved in tandem, he thought that maybe – but no, Bucky concluded. His hopes clouded his judgment, and so he took what he could and gave what he could, and enjoyed Steve’s steady presence as they dove face-first into the arms of the Barnes family on the first night of Hanukkah.

Winnie scooped Bucky into her arms the moment that she saw him, as though she hadn’t seen a mere two weeks before for a cacophonous dinner on a night that Steve, Bucky, and all his sisters happened to be free at the same time. Becca leapt to hug him and Bucky hugged back. He ignored her pointed look, eyes darting from Bucky to Steve – who was greeting George with arms wrapped around his rounder, shorter frame – and back again. Bucky shook his head at her, and she narrowed her eyes, but they didn’t discuss it, not when there was celebration to be had.

As usual, the kitchen buzzed with activity as they banged around to make latkes enough to feed the veritable pack of them. George shooed most of them out to give him space while he worked, while the yearly argument over sour cream versus applesauce for dipping began, a hotly contested controversy that occurred every year at Hanukkah as long as Bucky remembered and even before that, as Winifred’s family leaned toward applesauce and George’s leaned toward sour cream.

Bucky was an applesauce man himself, but he caught Steve eyeing the sour cream and knew that the battle would continue as it always did, a time-honored tradition passed from generation to generation.

A vintage accent table rested beneath the front window of the Barnes’ home for the sole purpose of their menorah, a beloved antique brass menorah, intricately crafted with articulated arms outward and the shamash holder protruding outward above a Star of David. Bucky’s great-great grandmother was said to have brought it with her when she came to the United States from Poland, and the menorah passed from oldest omega to oldest omega.

Someday, this menorah would belong to Bucky. Tonight, two white candles protruded from their holders. Their family took turns lighting the candles each night, beginning with the eldest – Bubbe, for several years running – and cycling through to Judy, before Bubbe lit the final candle on the eighth night. Tonight, Bubbe recited the blessings, ending with the Shehecheyanu:

 

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech haolam, shehecheyanu, v'kiy'manu, v'higiyanu laz'man hazeh.

 

And then at Bubbe’s hand,the candle was lit, reflection flickering strong and sure in their front window, they went quiet for a soft moment, before they burst into sound once more, leaping and tripping over one another to get to the food first. George piled Steve’s plate with the most latkes, a fact which Steve lorded over them all smugly. And, the instant he discovered Bucky was an applesauce fan, he deigned to stare him straight in the eye while he smothered his latkes in sour cream.

“I should have known,” Bucky said, Very Much Losing at dreidel, while Steve was Very Much Winning, to universal Barnes family dismay. He smeared a hand over his face and said, “You’re so competitive. You’re the worst. I can’t believe I didn’t think you’d be this awful.”

Steve grinned, raking in his mountain of gelt with a gleam in his eye. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, sweetheart. I am winning fair and square.”

Bucky frowned and picked up the dreidel. “Is this thing weighted?” he muttered, and spun.

“If it were weighted, you might be winning too,” Steve said, and winked. The asshole winked.

The dreidel landed. Shin, again.

Bucky scowled and put his last remaining gelt into the pot.

The funny thing about the first night of Hanukkah was the combined riot of enthusiasm (Becca wore a velvet turtleneck dress patterned in menorahs. Where she had found it, Bucky could not say. He thought his new “Gelt Digger” sweater was far more tasteful, although tragically untrue at the moment), but seeing only two candles lit always made him a little more anticipant of the coming nights.

Nevertheless, Bucky and Steve returned to Avengers Tower full of latkes and light, giddy at the promise of returning the following evening. Of course, Bucky hadn’t thought ahead far enough to bring his collection of Hanukkah sweaters, so he and Steve traveled the both familiar and alien route to Bucky’s apartment, currently empty and paid for by SHIELD. Inside, his old routines and favorite spots surrounded him, his nest and most treasured things so lovingly arranged. They didn’t linger long, only enough to pack a duffel full of Bucky’s belongings, but Bucky did catch Steve staring at a painting that he had done of their family when he was six. The Crayola paints he used to make it long-since cracked and the butcher paper wrinkled and yellowed with age, but the cheap frame around it held it together.

“We should take this, too,” Steve said, and as intimate and unprecedented as it was, they did.

The ugly Hanukkah sweaters came as followed:

  • Night Two: “Let’s Get Shamashed”
  • Night Three: “Jewnicorn,” accompanied by unicorn on a shooting Star of David
  • Night Four: “Keep Your Friends Close and Your Family Kosher”
  • Night Five: “Challah at Your Girl”
  • Night Six: “Oy to the World”
  • Night Seven: “Let’s Get Lit,” complete with sequined flames on a menorah that he could brush from navy to yellow to “light” the knitted candlesticks
  • Night Eight: “We Last Eight Nights” (“James Buchanan!” George said at the sight of it, but Bucky simply smiled wide.)

By night five, they fell into the groove, torn between arguing and eating and loving and playing, even though after their First Night Spectacular they were meant to be a little more subdued. Most years, they visited Ma’s friends’ celebrations, but with Steve in tow, the Barnes decided to play it safe and keep their celebrations close to home.

When Bucky explained that on night six they focused on charitable gifts, Steve blustered in his typical all-or-nothing manner, donating an exorbitant amount of money to refugees, a number that made Winnie swear, George tear up, and every Barnes sibling raise brows and clap him on the back. This would be, no matter what happened after this, a Hanukkah to be remembered.

Night eight brought with it nerves. Bucky and his family were trying something that they never tried before on behalf of Steve, and though he tried not to let the anxiety bubble to the surface, Steve nonetheless sniffed it out. He nosed along Bucky’s hair, arm hooked around his waist, and pressed a gentle kiss to Bucky’s temple.

“What’s wrong?” Steve asked.

“Oh, uh,” Bucky fumbled with the right cover – something he tended to excel at, but naturally, Steve threw him out of his groove and into the stratosphere – “Ma wants me to help with the sufganiyot tonight and I’ve never done it? I don’t know; you know I hate screwing up food.”

Steve kissed Bucky again, this time on the mouth, and hugged him close. “You’ll do fine. Better than I can do, anyway.”

“That’s a low bar, baby.”

Steve elbowed him in the side.

And so, during the biting cold of the evening of December ninth,the lead-up to the final gifts rolled out in Barnes fashion. They yelled over one another and defensively ate the extensive spread of food, but when they sat in the living room, they settled. Winnie hid Steve’s gift behind the armchair in the corner, and while they opened the final tokens to one another, the promise of Steve’s present burned in the back of Bucky’s throat.

“There’s one last gift,” Bucky announced, when the unwrapped gifts sat cradled by their recipients and thethank yous quieted. “For you, Steve. From us. All of us.”

With Bucky’s muscle and prosthesis, he could dislodge the armchair out of place with the most ease. He stood, gripped it in both hands and pulled it up over his head, setting it aside in front of the fireplace.

There, in the space behind it, was a tiny Christmas tree. Bucky had never decorated one before in his entire life – nor had any of the family. They did their best, guessing at what Steve Rogers might like to have on his tree. They settled on white twinkle lights, silver tinsel, and quirky ornaments, from a miniature teacup to a replica of Steve’s shield to detailed glass baubles Becca scouted out for this occasion at one of those Christmas markets that cropped up everywhere.

“You said,” Bucky started, shuffling in place. He cleared his throat and began again, “You said that you hadn’t celebrated since your ma passed. I thought you might like to try celebrating again. It sounded like...like it was important to her. And I know you’ve been trying to honor her more. We’ve never really done this, like, ever – so, uh, I don’t know if it looks right. I’m kinda going off what I’ve seen in windows or like, movies.”

Steve’s eyes glistened. His mouth went slack, his brows puckered. He gazed up at Bucky as though flayed open.

“Is it...okay?” Bucky asked. The rest of his family sat tense and still.

Steve heaved his body off the floor and unrolled to his full height. He said, “It’s perfect,” and coiled his arm around Bucky’s waist, yanking him across the living room rug to kiss him for all he was worth. Bucky forgot, for a moment, that his entire family was watching him. He forgot, for a moment, he was supposed to be pretending that Steve was his IN and nothing more. He forgot, and in forgetting, he wrapped his arms ‘round Steve’s neck and drew him in closer, kissing him harder.

When Rachel wolf-whistled, they jerked apart.

Steve wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. The moisture in his eyes remained as he surveyed their audience. “Thank you. All of you. I can’t tell you how much this whole week has meant to me. Thank you for thinking of me.”

Though they hadn’t cycled through their neighborhood celebrations as they usually did, Bucky knew he wasn’t the only Barnes that counted this among the best Hanukkahs to date. Replacing some burnt-out light within Steve kindled flames not merely within Bucky, but within all of them. To see a broken man heal before their eyes, to see the way that he smiled when they explained the meaning in their tradition, to see the gleam of water in his eyes when he touched a branch of their hodgepodge attempt at Christmas tree, was a thing to behold. Being with Bucky and sharing Hanukkah meant as much to Steve as his new little tree. How Bucky knew this for certain, he couldn’t say, but he did. He knew it as surely as he loved Steve.

On the drive back into Manhattan late that night, Steve held the miniature Christmas tree in his lap, arms wrapped around its middle. The scent of sap stuck to the air, and the ornaments shifted and jangled with every bump in the road. Steve caught the three of those that fell and organized them on the free space in his lap, careful to keep them safe.

He refused help carrying the tree up to their apartment, and once there, Steve fussed over where to put it (it ended up on the stout turquoise bookcase in which they kept his teacups) and then babied the thing, pouring water into the stand and adjusting tinsel and repositioning ornaments.

“We only sometimes had a tree when I was growin’ up,” Steve said, “When I was littler, they sold them in wagons on the street. Depended on the year, if we had one. Ma always made sure I had something waiting for me, though. No matter how hard things were, we managed.”

“What’d you decorate with?” asked Bucky.

“Not lights,” Steve replied, “That was – expensive. I know I’m about to date myself here, but we put popcorn on a string and put together paper chains. We always made do, but this tree...I think it’s the nicest I’ve ever had. You and your folks, Buck. You – you’re somethin’ else.”

Then Steve’s face crumpled. He tore his eyes from the little tree, and his scent swooped to distress. Alpha distress smelled different than beta or omega distress. An alpha’s grief tended to be so cooped up in the tangled web of society’s dictation that they never let on their feelings. Steve didn’t suffer that as strongly as many alphas did, but he wasn’t immune.

“Baby?” Bucky softly said. He didn’t touch Steve, didn’t think that he wanted to be touched.

“I miss her so much,” Steve whispered.

Bucky did move in then, tucking himself under Steve’s arm. He nosed along the column of Steve’s throat, pecked a kiss to that mating-bite spot, the underside of Steve’s jaw, and at last, his lips. He said, “I know you miss her. I bet she’s proud of you, though.”

For the remainder of the month, Steve babied the Christmas tree. He watered it and checked its branches with the tenacity of a new parent tiptoeing into the nursery at night. They didn’t otherwise decorate for Christmas, plagued as they were by the constant noise of Christmas jingles, carolers, and a city draped in lights and pine boughs, and nor did Steve and Bucky wake early on Christmas morning, they shuffled awake and made coffee as per usual.

Being that they already showered one another in gifts during the stretch of Hanukkah, only two presents sat on the bookshelf beneath the tiny tree, one for each of them.

Steve opened his to find a new teacup to add to his collection. Bucky didn’t know much about it other than the internet described it as “early 20th century” and “Meissen porcelain,” and the truth was that Bucky bought the thing because the handle was cool and the shape was strange and Steve enjoyed drawing that kind of thing. Steve traced his thumbs over the rim of the cup. The corners of his eyes crinkled when he smiled at Bucky, a beat before he draped his arm over Bucky’s shoulder and reeled him in for a short kiss.

Bucky’s present was a soft package. He ripped green and red plaid paper away and unfolded a denim jacket. This was not simply a jacket, though – a lovingly painted mural splayed all across the back in an uproar of color. At first glance, the color formed no image, but abstract shapes. The longer that Bucky stared at it, however, the subjects jumped out at him: a candle, a treeline, a shaggy dog.

Bucky glanced from the jacket to Steve and back again. “Baby,” he said, “When did you have time to make this?”

Steve’s mouth quirked up on one side of his face. “I don’t know if you know this, sweetheart,” he said, “but you take a lot of naps.”

**

Riding the high of a successful holiday season put a skip in Bucky’s step. His body and brain were both drained and wonderful in that way that only time well-spent with family can be. The highlight of Bucky’s attempted, small-potatoes Christmas, by far, was the denim jacket. He’d done an expert job at a previously uncelebrated holiday, if you asked his opinion. Steve had yet to take down the tree, wilted and brittle as it had become, branches sagging under the weight of the ornaments.

That morning, Bucky caught Steve turning the teacup ornament over in his fingers, a fond smile touching the edges of his mouth. When he noticed Bucky looking, he tilted his head and said, “Hey, Buck. Just admiring your handiwork.”

“Still not ready to get rid of it, huh?”

“Not yet. Maybe after the new year.”

Bucky hummed to that, pocketed his keys, and said, “Gonna walk Beans. You wanna come?”

“Nah. I wanna finish this drawing,” he waved a hand at the sketchbook on the coffee table, where Bucky’s own face glowered back at him from under some serious bedhead. What an asshole. Hopefully, Steve added, “Bring me back some bagels?”

Bucky pointed a finger-gun at Steve and said, “You got it,” and called for Beans.

Unlike Steve and his tiny Christmas tree, the Avengers Tower monster tree had been packed away on the twenty-sixth of December and the marble and chrome lobby returned to its decadent minimalism. Bucky and Beans didn’t garner many sidelong glances as they passed through these days. The Stark Industries staff numbed to his presence after a combination of exposure, and Steve and Bucky losing their of-the-moment popularity to some to-do involving a sleazebag movie producer and a series of exposés. Some people looked; some people would always look. Their gazes prickled, but didn’t pierce, and that, Bucky supposed, was the most that he could ask for.

Outside, Beans plodded along, stopping to sniff at any and everything sticking out of the ground. Bucky traversed the handful of blocks from Avengers Tower to the nearest deli he felt was up to snuff, a family-owned place called Mittelman’s Deli. There, he tied Beans to a pole outside, where she pouted until interested passersby patted her head or scratched her ears.

Warmth encased Bucky the moment that he walked in. The aroma of baking bread and spices wafted through the air. Portraits of smiling people of all kinds and colors decked the olive green walls. As the proprietor of Mittelman’s Deli (Edith Mittelman, sixty-five years young, salt and pepper hair piled high on her head, turquoise glasses frames hanging from a beaded chain around her neck) would tell anyone that so much as glanced at one, her daughter (Lisa Mittelman, forty, occasionally spotted in paint-stained jeans hanging new art on the first of each month) painted each and every one.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” she’d say, “You know, they are for sale – except this one, of course.”

(The painting behind the cash register featured Lee Mittelman, lived 1946 to 2014, laughing as though the painter made some riotous joke, wearing his favorite wide-brimmed fedora.

“He bought that hat in 1966 and didn’t take it off for anything short of temple,” Edith told the customers that dared ask about it.)

Today, Edith brightened at the sight of Bucky. “Back again?” she asked. She knew better than to ask, really. The bagels had become a biweekly affair.

Bucky grinned. “Yeah, Steve sent me on a mission.”

“You still haven’t introduced me,” Edith scolded, “I’d like to meet him. Not because he’s famous. Because you’re a good boy and I want to make sure that alpha deserves you.”

Bucky made a face. “I’m his support omega, not his mate.”

Edith scraped her eyes up and down over Bucky’s person and said only, “Hmph,” which Bucky didn’t want to parse out the meaning of. Instead he handed over his money, and Edith charged him for his usual dozen.

Maybe Bucky should bring Steve to meet Edith. One’s bagel dealer, naturally, belonged to a special place in the heart.

One of the twenty-somethings behind the counter passed Bucky his paper bag of bagels and he thanked them. Rather than delve back into a conversation about where he and Steve stood (He got enough of that from Becca, thanks), he waved to Edith and headed back toward home without ceremony.

Only –

A block and a half later, Bucky noticed a man several yards behind him out of the corner of his eye, trekking along at a sedate but constant pace. Outwardly, nothing betrayed him as a suspect person, but then, suspect people never did look the way that one expected. Bucky paused to let Beans explore, and the guy behind him paused, too. He leaned against the side of a building and patted down his pockets, fishing out a pack of cigarettes.

He was just some guy, Bucky reasoned, but the side of his brain that had seen way too much weird shit for a man of a modest thirty-one years of age, dictated otherwise.

Experimentally, Bucky turned in the wrong direction and veered left into the narrow space between two tall buildings. He pulled Beans after him, and together, they shimmied through and out to the other side.

Shit. Maybe he was letting his paranoia get the best of him.

Bucky peeled out of the alley on the opposite side of the block. He glanced from left to right, and, finding nothing and no one unusual, let Beans continue to do her thing.

He ran his fingers through his hair.

He bit his lip.

This had to be residual PTSD making its way to the surface of his mind. He grit his teeth against it, that old familiar anxiety that told him everyone around him was watching and waiting, and tried to keep his shoulders from creeping toward his ears.

Bucky sighed and shook his head at himself. Rather than dwell, he forced his chin back up and his shoulders back.

“C’mon, girl,” he said to Beans, and they started back toward the tower, as unbothered by the passersby as he could force himself to be. Bucky still catalogued each one as he and Beans tread past. A group of tourists mugged for a phone perched on a selfie stick. A woman laden with plastic grocery bags hobbled down the far right of the sidewalk. A kid in a red hoodie whooshed down past them all on a spray-painted bike.

And then came the sticky-dry sensation of being watched.

Nearer than before was the same man.

Medium build, hands stuffed into the front pockets a black puffy coat, hood pulled up over his head.

From this angle, Bucky couldn’t see his face at all. Nondescript jeans fell down to beaten sneakers. There should have been nothing out of place, but that was the problem. Everything about this guy seemed designed to be as mundane as possible.

Everything except for the whole following business.

“Shit, girl,” Bucky breathed to Beans.

What did this guy want? That was question number one. Number two: did the swarm of human life around the two of them matter in the scheme of whatever this guy was after? He could be a paparazzo, but without a camera in sight, Bucky doubted it.

“Sergeant Barnes.”

Bucky leapt a foot in the air.

At his other side, a familiar face blinked back at him.

“Bill?” Bucky said, disbelieving.

What was an untamed mane of gray from head a chin sat trimmed neatly against his crown. The coat zipped over his middle smelled like new, and only the barest hint of brown scuffed the white soles of his shoes. Alcohol did not bog down his alpha scent, though a touch of cigarette smoke hung around him, as though he indulged an hour or two before.

Bill inclined his head toward Coat Guy. 

“He following you?” he asked.

Bucky pointedly did not look behind him. He said, “Yeah. Not sure why.”

“Want me to walk with you?” asked Bill.

Bucky bristled, at first, at the offer. He didn’t need an alpha to take care of him, and he never had. In this situation, though? Having an ally on his side wasn’t the worst idea. Attackers, unless armed to the teeth, hesitated to go after pairs and groups. Bucky drank in Bill’s earnest, serious expression, and nodded. He said, “That’s a good idea.”

“Took you up on that shave and haircut,” Bill told him, as they headed back toward the tower.

“Looks good,” Bucky replied, and he meant it.

Bill smiled, revealing a mouth of crooked, out-of-place teeth. He said, “I didn’t do it at first, you know. Wasn’t sure about you or Captain Rogers. Then, I get to seeing all the news about you two. There’s stuff I ain’t take care of since 1975. I started thinking, if some guy born in 1918 can get his ass to get help, then maybe I should too. I’m a work in progress, but you lit a fire under my ass, kid.”

“You saved the day first. Still living behind Five Guys?”

Bill shrugged. “On and off. I got a couple more people in my court tryin’ to get me a bed somewhere for alphas. It’s hard when you gotta bunk together, all that scent and shit. That place in the alley is mine.”

“I mean. Me and Steve could help. If you wanted.”

“Nah, I gotta do this by myself, but I appreciate it. Even if you are a coupla rich white guys.”

Bucky and Bill turned in the direction that Bucky came and meandered down a street blessedly less choked by the bustle of humanity. But, as they rounded the corner, something hit Bucky in the gut with brutal force. He managed one glimpse down. A stun baton pumped electricity into his body and pain that Bucky didn’t realize he already knew emanated through his body. His nerves exploded like cannons and he stumbled backward, dropping Beans’ leash.

Bagels went flying as he landed on his ass, dazed, but Bill burst into action. He flicked out a knife and dodged their assailant’s baton. He charged the guy – another innocuously dressed, unassuming figure. The attacker wore thick clothes, but beneath them, he moved with ruthless grace and military precision, the kind that came from extensive training and near-feral strength. Bill, though, fought dirty, like a man with many years on the street must be able to.

Then Coat Guy skidded around the lip of the building to attack from the other side. He dove to double-down on Bucky, but Beans leapt into the fray. With a ferocious growl, she sunk her teeth into Coat Guy’s leg, and her wiry, muscled body knocked Coat Guy to the ground and granted Bucky enough time to get his bearings back.

He unfolded from the ground, now not Bucky Barnes, support omega, but Sergeant Barnes, the seasoned-veteran of a hundred ugly battlefields. His arm whirred as he swerved on Coat Guy. He heaved him up by the collar of his coat, lifting him off the ground. When the coat’s hood fell back, nothing about the guy’s face rang a bell. He didn’t recognize him, or even get that sliver of discomfort in the back of his brain that said he should remember this face.

“Who are you?” Bucky growled.

“Fuck you,” Coat Guy spat.

“Yeah, fuck me,” Bucky snarked, “What do you want?”

Blood from Beans’ bite wound on his calf spread out and stained Coat Guy’s jeans in a macabre fractal, but he could probably walk it off. Bucky snapped his flesh fist into the attacker’s face, which hurt Bucky a hell of a lot more than using his Wakandan arm but did less damage, enough to wound and stun, but left brain enough to be questioned.

Coat Guy spat blood out, red-tinted saliva dribbling down his chin. He grinned toothily, and spittle sprayed out when he replied, “Hail HYDRA.”

Bucky hesitated, and paid for his fumble in the next moment. Coat Guy dislodged one of his teeth, like something out of an action movie or a mystery novel, and poison spread across his tongue. Life sapped from his eyes and the body went limp in Bucky’s grasp.

“Holy shit,” Bucky said, and let Coat Guy’s corpse topple onto the ground.

He didn’t have the luxury of wondering what the fuck was going on, as behind him, their other attacker went toe to toe with Bill. There was blood on the ground between the two of them, and Bucky couldn’t tell whose it was. What he could tell was that HYDRA Two was, without a shadow of a doubt, an alpha, as he and Bill fought with hindbrains kicked into gear. Fuck. Bill had held his own until now, but the guy was old, in his sixties at the earliest. Alpha instinct could only push a body so far.

Bucky prowled into the fray. He wound his fist back and landed a punch hard enough to send HYDRA Two careening backward. HYDRA Two stumbled several feet, but caught his balance. The blow may not have toppled him, but it did knock his knitted face mask out of place. 

Something about the severe lines of this man’s face, something about his dark hair and uneven skin, unnerved Bucky. His hair stood on end and his throat clogged, and in him, a wave of blood-red anger rose up and flickered behind his eyes. As he launched his body at the guy, he wondered if this was what it was like to go whole-hog alpha, to ditch consciousness for a rage so ingrained that he couldn’t help but fall its power. He tackled HYDRA Two to the ground and roared, using both fists to smash at his face.

By now, they’d garnered the attention of the few people around them, and more came to watch the events unfolding. Bucky didn’t remember being pulled away from HYDRA Two, but somehow, he ended up in the back of a cop car, head spinning and stomach churning. The handcuffs on his wrists wouldn’t hold the prosthesis, but he figured that cooperating, at this point, was the best way to be.

Across the street, HYDRA Two stared at him from the back of another police car. He cocked a brow, offering a bloody smile before he banged his fist – his uncuffed fist – against the divider between the back of the police car and the driver.

Bucky jerked his head to his own driver. He searched for Bill and for Beans, and found them not arrested but still on the sidewalk, huddled together with their backs to the building.

Fuck.

These weren’t real officers. Before Bucky could digest his realization, the car peeled away from the curb. He didn’t think, but worked on instinct, snapping out of his cuffs with the force granted to him by his Wakandan arm, and smashed his left fist through the window. Bucky wrenched open the door, heedless to the car picking up speed, and tucked his body into a roll to leap out of it.

The bruises would hurt like a motherfucker later, but for now, he needed to escape. He doubled back to Bill and Beans.

“How bad are you hurt?” Bucky demanded.

Bill wheezed, “Motherfucker broke my ribs. He’d a’ killed me if you didn’t step in. Never seen anything like that. Shit.”

“I’ll get you to a hospital,” Bucky said. He didn’t know how, but he’d do it.

“No, man,” Bill said, “You get your ass outta here. I don’t know what’s going on, but I got a feeling you’re in worse danger than me.”

“Okay. All right. Send me the bill?”

“I know where you live,” Bill replied, and Bucky hefted Beans into his arm without further conversation, and ran.

His feet pounded against the pavement, old fight kicking into full gear. He didn’t know how close his attackers might be, but Bucky was fast. He’d always been agile, but he stepped it up tenfold as Beans bounced against his chest. Fuck with Bucky, sure. But fuck with his dog? With his friends? Absolutely not.

Still, old terror kicked up, the wavy beginnings of a dust storm coating his innards in grit and fear. He had a name to put to people that wanted him.

That name was an old name.

Bucky had never been so relieved to see Avengers Tower in his life.

Chapter Text

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Track: Small Red Boy – AJJ

A Room of Only Mirrors

 

Bucky dashed through the revolving front doors of Avengers Tower, heedless to the stares as he skidded past the art installation. He could only imagine what he looked like – whether sweat or blood stuck to his clothes and hair, he couldn’t say. His gut sloshed, off-put by the jolt of electricity he’d taken to it, his face burned from a landed blow, and iron spread across his palate.

The elevator doors swung open the moment that Bucky slid in front of them, a testament to JARVIS’ quick-witted code.

(One couldn’t buy a beer for an AI, but boy, did Bucky which that he could)

As Bucky took the disjointed series of elevators that led from the lobby to the personal apartments at the top of the tower, he tried to catch his breath, and let Beans down onto the ground. The mirrored walls betrayed his bedraggled appearance to him: his hair slid out of its sloppy bun, a red beginnings of a bruise crept up the side of his face, and he’d gotten blood on the collar of his new jacket.

Bucky spread his hands out in front of him. He’d caught some of Coat Guy’s hair in between the plates of his left hand, while the skin of his knuckles on the right hand split and bled.

Below him, Beans whined. He hadn’t thought to check her over, and shit, was he a terrible owner. Bucky knelt, legs stinging from some injury he didn’t know he had, raked his fingers through her fur, and checked her teeth. She’d licked the blood from the enamel already, and didn’t protest his touching any one spot.

“You’re a good girl,” Bucky told her breathlessly, and the elevator landed.

JARVIS didn’t bother with credentials, merely opened the door to the apartment, and Beans and Bucky staggered in. Beans charged to Steve’s side, where he stood in the center of the open space, enraptured by a blurry video on his StarkPhone – a video of Bucky mid-combat with the alpha whose face he thought he should remember.

“SHIELD already wiped these videos from the internet,” Steve said.

He didn’t turn to look at Bucky. His muscled shoulders formed a tense line, but as Bucky drew nearer, Steve quivered in place. A nasty blend of emotional scents hung in the air, anger and fear the primary among them. Bucky placed his hand on Steve’s shoulder, drew close, and rested his cheek on the back of Steve’s neck. Through the rage, Steve’s true scent poked through, easing open the contorted strain of Bucky’s gut and the pounding ache of his heart.

After several seconds, Steve lifted his head from the screen of the phone. He twisted around in Bucky’s grip and wrapped his arms around him, swallowing Bucky’s frame. Bucky clung right back, relieved to be encircled by his alpha, enveloped in that perfect scent.

“Shoulda gone with you,” Steve mumbled, a broken sentence tucked into Bucky’s throat.

Bucky petted the back of Steve’s head. “It’s fine. I turned out fine,” he reassured him.

“What happened?” Steve wanted to know.

Bucky pulled out of the safe loop of his arms and blew all the air out of his lungs. He shook his head and tried to order the events in his mind. In a rush, he explained the man in the puffy coat, his attempt at evasion, the chance encounter with Bill, and the subsequent mess of flying fists and expert combat.

“That’s – that’s it?” asked Steve, “There was no hint at who these people are?”

Bucky hesitated. He thought, for a beat, he should tell his alpha about the sinking hot-stone feeling in his gut when the second assailant’s winter face mask pulled loose, about the uncanny surety that he knew this man. Even without his features slotting into a particular place in his mind, HYDRA Two’s bared teeth struck a dusty chord among the broken pieces of Bucky’s brain.

He admitted none of that. Instead, he said, “The one that collapsed – he died, Steve. He sucked out a false tooth and poisoned himself, and when he did it, he said...Hail HYDRA.”

The blood drained from Steve’s face, skin going milk-pale except for at the apples of his cheeks, where wrath stained red-pink. “Are you sure?” he asked.

“Yeah, Steve, I’m sure. You don’t exactly forget science nazis trying to kidnap you in a fake cop car. Fuck’s sake, man.”

“I’m sorry. I just – I thought...they were gone.”

“No shit. So the fuck did I. So the fuck did everyone.”

Steve opened his mouth to answer, but a resounding knock at the front door cut him off.

“I called SHIELD to help us with this one,” said Steve, “I don’t think there’s another choice. JARVIS, let ‘em in.”

And Nick Fury swept into the room, flanked by Natasha and Clint. No – not Natasha and Clint. Black Widow and Hawkeye. Body armor, carefully tailored leather and kevlar, clung to the shape of Natasha’s body. She wore her widow’s bites on her wrists and guns at her hips. This was not Natasha Romanoff; this was the Black Widow. Clint, meanwhile, stood with his bow on his back, his own own black-and-purple fitted close enough to his skin to display the surprising muscle of his body while leaving enough breathing room to move freely.

Unlike Natasha and Black Widow, Clint and Hawkeye went hand in hand, but nonetheless, seeing Clint prepared for a fight startled Bucky into staring.

“And what the hell was that, Barnes?” Fury demanded.

“I’m fine; thank you for asking, Nick,” Bucky petulantly replied, and folded his arms over his chest. His reality began to settle in as the blood crusted to his skin began to itch and flake away.

“It’s HYDRA,” Steve butted in.

“Excuse me?” Nick said.

“It’s HYDRA,” repeated Steve.

“Steve, are you sure?” asked Natasha.

“Yes.”

“And what, exactly, has brought you to this conclusion, Captain Rogers?” Fury asked.

“Could just be spitballing here,” drawled Bucky, “but the Hail HYDRA they threw at me was kind of a giveaway.”

Natasha hummed an interested note, and said, “Could be that they’re trying to throw us off the scent.”

“Then find out what the hell it is,” Steve snapped, “because my omega got attacked in the goddamned street, and whether or not it’s HYDRA after us, it’s still a problem. So what do we do? What’s our next move?”

“I took down the videos of the incident,” Natasha told them, “and we have people on taking down social media mentions and speculation.”

“As for our next move,” said Fury, “I think that’s largely up to you and Sergeant Barnes.”

“Obviously Bucky can’t go out by himself while there’s an active threat,” Steve responded.

Bucky jerked to attention. “Excuse me?” he demanded, “I can’t go out?”

“You’re in danger, sweetheart,” Steve answered, all earnestness and exasperation.

“Do you even hear yourself right now?” Bucky barked. He unfolded his arms and his hands clenched into fists. Steve made to retort, but Bucky cut him off. “No! Don’t you ‘sweetheart’ me, you backwards dickhead. I’m not sitting in this tower like a princess.”

“You could get hurt,” Steve insisted, “You could get killed! We don’t even know what they want, and you want to waltz out there like a honeytrap? You’re just asking them to come and get you.”

Excuse me?” Bucky repeated, voice mangled.

Clint seized the ensuing silence and said, “Guys, whether or not Bucky should go outside is kinda beside the point.”

“Thank you,” Bucky said, arm flopping out at Clint for emphasis.

“Here’s the thing,” Natasha cut in, “This doesn’t seem like your run-of-the-mill Avenger abduction attempt. These guys were armed to the teeth. They knew where to find you. They prepared for this. Holing up in Avengers Tower may help, or it may not. I’m already working on a few leads, but even if this isn’t truly HYDRA...it’s somebody imitating them, at least, and that’s not good either. Is there anything else we should know about the encounter? Anything at all.”

One of them scared me, Bucky didn’t say.

Instead, he raised his prosthetic fist and said, “I got some hair.”

So, Natasha sat Bucky down at the kitchen table and plucked the hair out from between the plates with a pair of tweezers, tucking each one into a small sample bag. As she did, she said, “Whatever you and Steve decide to do in the meantime is up to you – but we’d appreciate being kept abreast of it. The more we know, the more information we have to work with, the faster we can neutralize this threat.”

“Well-said,” Fury said, as Natasha finished pulling hairs and sealed the plastic sample bag, “Are we in agreement?”

“Unfortunately,” Bucky conceded.

The expression on Fury’s face, even charitably, could not be termed a smile, but it was possibly adjacent to one. On the tail of it, he said, “Great. We’ll be in touch.”

“Stay safe,” Clint offered at the doorway. “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.”

“Don’t give them that advice,” Natasha said, and slugged Clint on the arm. “Be careful. Being in this tower doesn’t make you any safer than being outside.”

With that, their company trundled out of the room. The slam of their apartment door left a chilling silence in its wake, as Bucky stared down Steve, who glowered back without an ounce of contrition.

“What –” Bucky started, as Steve began, “You can’t –”

They both paused.

“Go on,” Steve said.

“No, you,” Bucky replied, icy.

“Bucky, be reasonable.”

“Sure. What does being reasonable look like to you, exactly? Care to elaborate?”

“You have to stay here while we figure this out.”

“Yeahhh, so,” said Bucky, “I’m not doing that.”

“And why the hell not? I can’t let you throw yourself out there. You’re my omega! I’m supposed to be able to protect you, but I can’t when you’re reckless. You’re not letting me protect you!”

“I don’t need your fucking protection, that’s why,” Bucky snapped back, “If I weren’t capable of taking care of myself, I never would have been cleared to take care of a suicidal supersoldier. Think carefully before you fuck with me, Steve. I can hold my own.”

“I don’t care! You’re not going out there alone, and that’s final.”

Bucky’s stomach churned. The tips of his ears heated, and his lungs couldn’t quite keep the air that they needed inside them, breath stuttering and unfulfilling. His fists tightened at his sides. Across him, Steve seemed unbothered in that infuriating way that alphas had when they entered a fight without their own freedom on the line, the logical, oh-honey coolness that infuriating Bucky all the way to the core.

“Yeah? Is that an order, Captain?” Bucky jeered.

Steve’s lips contorted into an ugly frown. He said, “And if it is?”

“Then I’d say ‘fuck you’, because – and I don’t know if you remember this – we’re in a binding contract. That’s what this. And you know what our contract says? The contract says I’m my own damn autonomous being. I’m not your fucking omega, and you wanna know what? Even if I wanted to be, the fact that you think your alpha ass can dictate what I can and can’t do tells me that no omega should mate you at all. It’s the twenty-first century, Steve, and it’s about time you caught up. You have no power over me. You have no power here. And that’s final.”

Before Steve could respond, Bucky lurched back. He whirled on his heel and, fingernails digging into his flesh palm, fled the room. He threw open the bedroom door and slammed it behind him. The force shook the door in place and echoed across the room, over the mussed bedsheets he and Steve picked together. Bucky’s childhood portrait smacked against the wall and shivered in its frame.

Fuck Steve. Fuck Steve and his overbearing knothead bullshit. He put his back to the door, chest heaving with withheld breath. As he reeled he sunk down inch by inch until he sat on the floor. He hung his head and thunked his forehead against his knees.

You are your own autonomous being, Princess Shuri had told him, once upon a time, the people that held you against your will have no power here.

But Steve had more power over him than a contract could ever foretell.

**

Adrift, Steve stood stock-still in the middle of the apartment. He kept his eyes trained on the bedroom door, firmly shut, and hoped for a beat that it would open, that none of this day happened at all, that this counted among his many nightmares, but not reality.

The contract says

not your fucking omega

no omega should mate you at all

it’s time you caught up

you have no power

The superserum fixed Steve’s lungs, but as he lingered in that one place, he felt all of twenty years old again, five-foot-four, with a body that barely worked on a good day. Bucky’s anger felt like pneumonia, filling Steve up with sticky fluid in his lungs and throat. His skin crawled, and he didn’t realize how hard he’d been squeezing his phone in his hand until it cracked and shattered in his grip, glass screen cutting through his palm.

“Fuck!” Steve shouted, dropping the smashed handful of circuitry and plastic.

He ran his hand under water at the kitchen sink and watched blood swirl down the drain and disappear, gone at almost the exact moment the gash began to knit together again before his eyes. He wished his wounds stayed longer. He couldn’t have fathomed wanting such a thing when he scrapped in alleyways over movies or on behalf of people less bold than he was. Under duress, Steve could hurt. He’d been beaten to hell and back. He’d been hospitalized by SHIELD, immobile from his injuries – but they reminded him of what his fight cost.

As he towered, trembling, over the kitchen sink, Beans approached. She gave a tentative wag of her tail, and Steve fell to his knees on the hardwood to sink his hands into her fur. Her presence snipped away at his frayed edges, but only for the space of a second. In the next, Steve remembered that Beans didn’t belong to him. She belonged to Bucky. And just like Bucky, as soon as the contract was up and support obligation filled, she would be gone. No more my dog, no more my omega. No matter how much Steve wanted their relationship to be real, it was manufactured. No matter how much Bucky meant to Steve, Steve didn’t mean the same to Bucky.

And on top of it all, Steve couldn’t protect Bucky from the danger of being with someone like him.

Attacked in the street – because of Steve.

This was his lot in life. He would be alone, because being a part of someone’s (Bucky’s) mate put them in jeopardy.

Steve let go of Beans and uncoiled to his feet. The bugs crawled under his skin as though he’d had a nightmare, but this time, the nightmare was real. No amount of drawing would remove him from the truth.

Maybe if Steve could hurt again, he could put to rest the crawling of little legs in his veins.

Without access to the bedroom, Steve couldn’t swap his pajamas for athletic gear, and nor could he put on shoes, but did any of that matter? It didn’t. None of it mattered.

He left.

“Gym, JARVIS,” Steve said tersely, as the elevator doors whisked closed.

“Of course, Captain Rogers.”

Blessedly, the gym was free of life, and the lonely punching bags he hadn’t touched in months marched in a line against the wall. Steve dragged one onto the mats and wiped dust on his hands onto the sides of his sweatpants. His bare left indents in the padded floor, and the only noise that he could hear was the sound of his own heavy breath.

The first punch sang through his hand, a long-missed melody as his knuckles protested the strain.

Steve couldn’t protect the people he loved.

He loved Bucky.

Truth. Too much truth today, and all of it a morbid ratification of the terror that drove Steve to wake in the small hours of the morning, coated in sweat.

What he did now, he didn’t know.

So he gave in to his instinct to destroy.

The skin on his hands split. Knuckles crunched. Blood flowed down his forearms, and anger gave way to unparalleled despair, a pain so oppressive it stole the breath from him, shattering something so much more significant than bones.

Until hot liquid dribbled down into his beard, Steve didn’t realize tears had come unbidden. He reached inside and tried to stopper them, but what control he cultivated over all else in his life never did apply to Bucky. Bucky erased decades-old boundaries in him, incensed him and challenged him, held him and kissed him and smiled at him –

Steve ripped away from the punching bag. A wounded, animal noise erupted from him as he stumbled backward, and he tripped over his own weight, landing on his ass. He crawled backward to press his back against the wall and swiped furiously at his tears. His ravaged knuckles smeared blood onto his cheeks, and he shuddered as saltwater seeped into the open wounds.

Time passed slow-fast as it had the night that he climbed to the top of Avengers Tower to end it all. Steve sobbed into his hands until he had nothing left to cry out, until he was a hard shell whose middle was cut out, meat scraped out of him.

When Steve pulled his palms from his face, the blood slid slow and viscous over his arms. He traced the tip of one broken finger through the mess and drew a curl of red up over a stretch of blank skin. He drew on and on with blood as ink, until it dried on him, whorls of red-brown twisting over him in a gruesome imitation of a nightmare drawing.

He let his arms fall to his sides. How long he crouched there, he didn’t know. Some idiotic piece of him hoped that Bucky would come through the doors and take Steve into his arms, would bare his throat and reassure him that none of this was real.

But it was real, and Bucky never came.

Eventually, Steve found the wherewithal to pick himself off of the floor. He had no place to go but home, and so he did, finding the bedroom door still emphatically closed.

He scratched Beans behind the ears and stepped into bathroom.

In the mirror, his reflection was an animal. Salt tracks cut through the film of blood stuck on his cheeks. His hair fell wild and wet with sweat on either side of his head. Blood clotted in his beard in dark clumps. Behind it all, the shadows beneath his eyes spanned new boundaries.

How could he be so foolish?

Falling in love at all seemed foolish, but falling in love like this? When he was the calamity of a human being that he was? Steve truly brought idiocy to unprecedented highs.

His blood-saturated reflection told him all he needed to know. He was violence. He was fight. He was alone.

Scrubbing away the twisted lines of blood beneath the shower heads felt like shedding a skin. He mopped salt and iron away and watched rusty-brown suds funnel down the drain. He stood in this place so many times before. This morning, he watched his cut leak into the kitchen sink. Fight after fight, blow after blow, he washed blood from his body and went into every new battle with clean skin.

After he tore himself out from under the flow of the water, Steve didn’t redress in his t-shirt and sweatpants, stiff with bodily fluids as they were. Instead, he sat back on the couch with a towel around his waist.

The couch smelled of him and of Bucky, together. He’d have to throw this one into the hallway too, once Bucky left.

The bedroom door creaked open. Bucky emerged, less bruised than Steve remembered him hours before, the wound purple-bluish. The leavings of his own fight still decorated his person, in blood spatter and scrapes. His eyes flicked to Steve’s hands, and at the sight of them, Bucky deflated. The scabs had yet to shrink away, but beneath them, Steve’s bones knit back together shard by shard.

“You hurt yourself again,” Bucky murmured.

“Yeah,” Steve agreed, “Sorry.”

Bucky sighed. “You don’t have to be sorry for backsliding a little. It happens...happens to all of us.” He came to stand up against the back of the couch, to run his fingers through Steve’s damp hair. “Even if I wish you wouldn’t hurt yourself, I understand why.”

“It’s not that,” Steve rasped, “I’m not sorry for that. Or – I am, but it’s more than that. Bucky, I think we have to terminate the contract.”

Bucky flinched back as though struck. He said, “What? Why?” and then, “This isn’t some bullshit martyr crap, is it?”

“No, it’s –” Steve paused. Now, or never. “This is more than a contract to me. I don’t know when it happened, but you’re more important to me than anyone. Anyone at all. I know that’s not what you signed up for, so I think the contract has run its course.”

“You fucking moron.”

Steve cringed.

“No, that’s not the way I meant that,” Bucky rushed to say, “What I mean is that...you’re my most important person. To hell with the contract. Whatever this is,” – he gestured between them – “it’s more than what I put down on paper, because the truth is that the contract doesn’t mean shit to me. Hasn’t in months. You’re what matters. I didn’t realize you might feel the same.”

Steve shifted, perched on his knees on the cushions and rose to face Bucky. “You’re what matters to me, too,” he told him. “That’s why I’m so worried about you. You’re in danger, and it’s my fault.”

Bucky bristled. “Oh, please. You’re takin’ way too much credit. I’ve been in danger since the day that I signed up to be a marine. And you know what? If I hadn’t met you, I’d still be in danger. You know why? Because I was a fucking SHIELD agent, Steve. I’d still be an agent if I hadn’t chosen you. And that’s the kicker – I chose you. I chose you, and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

“But –”

Bucky put a finger against Steve’s lips. “But nothing,” he said, “Go get dressed. I’m gonna shower real quick, and then we can talk about this like adult human beings.”

For whatever reason, dropping the towel to shift into actual clothing felt like a death knell. Bucky’s reassurances hung like a new weight, a counterbalance to Steve’s anxiety that kept his pendulum swinging and time ticking. He lingered so long in their bedroom that Bucky joined him, slick with water and entirely nude but for a towel twisted in his hair. Bruises littered his chest, small and large, but all less than Steve would have expected out of the fight he witnessed on his phone screen.

That was...huh.

“You’re healing pretty fast, Buck,” Steve remarked.

Bucky glanced down at his chest. “Guess so,” he replied.

“You don’t think that’s weird?” asked Steve.

“Maybe, but that’s not the issue, right now,” Bucky told him.

Steve ground his teeth. “What if it is, though? You said you don’t remember what happened when you were captured, right? What if – they did something to you? What if...Christ on sale, what if that’s why they’re after you? HYDRA knows, somehow.”

“How the fuck would HYDRA know?”

“I can imagine a few ways.”

Bucky wiggled into a t-shirt – one of Steve’s, he couldn’t help but observe – and pulled fresh boxer-briefs over his hips. He stretched his arms over his head, pulled the towel off, and shook out his wet hair. “Why don’t we put a pin in that, and discuss why I’m so mad at you, instead?”

Steve flopped back onto the bed.

“I don’t want to do that,” he muttered.

“That sounds like a Steve problem, Steve,” Bucky said, “You can’t put me in a glass box and march me out when it’s convenient for you. You know that, right? I’m not fragile. I can hold my own. We fight together. That’s how this is going to work.”

We fight together.

Steve mused for a moment what his life might have been like had he a Bucky throughout his childhood. Had he had someone to fight alongside him, would he have isolated himself as he did? Would he have let his misery eat and eat and eat away at him like acid? But he didn’t have a Bucky in his youth. He had enemies and he had followers, but never a counterpart to stand by his side at every battle. The closest he came was Peggy, but she didn’t see the front lines – she worked in secrecy and crumbled the structure from within.

“Okay,” he surrendered, “We fight together.”

**

On December 31, 2018, Peggy Carter passed away in her sleep.

**

Peggy’s great niece asked Steve to be a pall bearer.

Bucky sat in the pews. An unfamiliar kind of church surrounded him. He’d never had the occasion to visit a Christian church, but the towering stained glass and elaborate pulpit impressed upon him a different kind of regard than that that came when he sat with his folks in temple. He took a spot in the back while people gathered – all kinds of people, people in elaborate dress and people in jeans and people that looked just as out of place as he felt – and several minutes into scuffing his shoes on the ground and tracing the lines of the chandeliers with his eyes, Natasha came to settle into the seat beside him.

Each and every Avenger took the spaces in the pew that Bucky selected. Even Bruce perched at the end, beside Thor, who tilted his head to take in the saints between the window panes.

By the time that the service began, people filled the church to the brim. Those that could not find a seat stood at the edges of the room and in the back. As music played. Steve walked primary among the pall bearers, alongside Peggy’s son and grandsons, all of whom echoed her in their soft brown eyes and determined, concrete tilt of their lips.

Peggy’s son welcomed the mourners to the service. He did not cry, but stood stalwart at the front of the church.

Peggy chose not to have scriptures read on her behalf, but poetry, recited by her grandchildren.

They sang music unfamiliar to Bucky.

Sharon Carter read a carefully crafted eulogy of her great aunt, a long-winded tale of the unique truths of Peggy Carter’s life, from her upbringing in rural England to becoming one of the foremost omegas to break social protocol, somebody that won a war in ways both extraordinary and quiet. She founded SHIELD, she held the world to a high standard, she made a life and created a legacy. Bucky, for only having met her once, still felt his heart clench as the service wound down.

The scents of distress and of love dueled over the pews, for the world was so much better for having her in it, and so changed without her. She lived a long life, but mortality having taken longer to catch up to her than most could not dampen the sting of loss.

The service ended with an opening to share stories of Peggy.

In 1967, Peggy Carter taught me I was braver than I ever thought I could be.

I met her at our book club in 1980, and she had capital-O Opinions about everything we read.

She taught me how to shoot a gun, and she also taught me how to dance.

And when it was over, people filed out. There was a reception in the hall outside the chapel, where people could share their most personal stories about a woman that changed history, that changed the course of the world, one exceptional move at a time.

In the large ways, in the small ways, Peggy Carter would be missed.

Bucky waited at the door to meet his alpha, but Steve lingered alone at the front of the empty church. Natasha dared first to disturb him, heels clicking down the center aisle as she approached. She pulled Steve into a hug, awkward with her small stature and his towering over her, but he went, folding into her arms like a tower of cards blown over by a huff of breath.

Like that, the rest of them followed. Sam slid his arm over Steve’s massive shoulders and pulled him into a side-hug. Tony didn’t hug, but he patted Steve’s back and said, “Aunt Peggy was something else, wasn’t she?” a surprisingly brief summation to hear from him. The Avengers surrounded him and Bucky pushed through to tuck his body up under Steve’s arm on his free side. Steve blinked back tears, but one slid out and into his beard.

Peggy only featured in Steve’s life for a handful of years, but given the right person, a matter of hours spent together could transform an entire world. Peggy transformed not only the world at large, but the people within it.

Bucky could only hope that he left half the legacy that she did, that when he left this plane, he left it better than having found it.

And that was ultimate goal, wasn’t it? Not to lead a perfect life, but to lead a good one. Not to solve each and every problem, but to tackle the ones that mattered. Not to befriend every person, but to care for those you had. Not every legacy would shift the world in its entirety, but a good legacy shifted someone’s world. Someone, somewhere, would remember you fondly, might ache without you there, but always know within their heart their world was better for having you in it.

Even in a short twenty minutes, Peggy Carter altered Bucky’s life for the better.

He gathered she had a habit of doing that.

**

The funny thing about being surrounded by Avengers was that Bucky should have been safe. But as they walked out of the church into a warmer-than-average DC January day, the team became comfortable. They dissipated: Tony into one of his remarkable, colorful cars with Bruce in the passenger seat, Thor into thin air, Natasha and Clint into an unmarked SUV. Only Sam, Steve, and Bucky walked toward the curb to wait for an Uber back to their hotel for a somber afternoon.

The car pulled up in front of them and a friendly-looking man leaned out of the front window.

“Uber?” he said.

“Yeah, that’s us,” replied Sam, and opened the back door with an, “After you,” at Bucky, while Steve looped around to take the front.

And that’s where they went wrong.

The second Bucky scooted inside, the car door swung closed of its own volition, locks slamming down in place. Sam and Steve both stood shocked in place for half a beat before they pounded on the outside of the car.

“What the hell is your problem, man?” demanded Sam, while Steve snapped, “I’ll break this window if you don’t let me in right now, son.”

The driver pulled a gun, cocked it, and aimed it at Bucky’s head.

“Think carefully, Captains,” he said, “Your omega may be strong, but that doesn’t make a difference with a bullet to the head.”

Bucky growled. He leapt forward in an attempt to disarm the driver, but the asshole pulled the trigger. White-hot pain spread through Bucky’s right leg, and he toppled back into the seat.

“Bucky!” Steve cried.

“Hope that doesn’t hurt too much,” the driver said, “because we’ve got a long ride ahead of us, Sergeant Barnes.”

“Fuck you,” Bucky spat back, but remained seated as the car jerked away onto the street. If he fought the guy, he might get shot again. Bucky Barnes was a hardy man, but he wouldn’t survive multiple gunshot wounds. He grit his teeth. Steve would find him. In the meantime: he was playing the long game.

In the rearview mirror, Steve ran after them in his suit.

“We’ve been waiting so long to get you back, you know,” the driver told him, “You’re going to change the world.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Track: World on Fire – Les Friction

Forces Beyond Salvation

 

“Shoulda taken a Lyft,” Bucky complained, as his head began to swim. Wherever they were taking him – it couldn’t be far. We’ve been waiting so long to get you back and letting him bleed out in the back of a souped-up Honda Civic didn’t exactly go hand in hand.

Bucky tried to keep track of their surroundings, to catalog landmarks, but he was both unfamiliar with DC sidestreets and distracted by the gunshot wound in his leg. The outside swam in and out, not within his vision, but his brain, as he blinked from the blood to window and back again.

“Hey, pal, you gonna let me bleed out back here, or what?”

HYDRA Asshole ignored him, like the fucker that he was.

Shakily, Bucky loosened the tie from around his neck. He wrapped it around his thigh, above the wound, and tightened a makeshift tourniquet to get him through the journey to...wherever they were going.

The driver, a few minutes later, pulled into the back parking lot of a bank, one of those massive fuckers with the columns in front and fancy stonework all along the outside. Bucky calculated his chances at making a successful run for it as soon as HYDRA Asshole opened the door, but the guy didn’t make a move to get out. Instead, he pressed some button on the too-fancy dash of the Civic and said, “The asset’s ready for his escort.”

And a whole group of dudes in kevlar, with massive guns, poured out of the back door.

“Is this necessary?” asked Bucky, “You already shot me, and you need,” – he counted – “Five other dudes to take me in?”

“You’re special, Sergeant Barnes,” grinned HYDRA Asshole, all teeth, “We want to make sure that you’re taken care of.”

“Full offense, dude,” Bucky said, “The supervillain routine is a little much. You ever take improv classes? I feel like your acting could use some work.”

The driver growled and reached around to whip Bucky with his gun, but Bucky snatched his wrist with his Wakandan arm. He hadn’t fought with it since Thanos and the snap (not counting his earlier scrape with these jokers), but the crunch of HYDRA Asshole’s bones under the pressure reassured him it was working as well as it ever had. HYDRA Asshole screamed, and the Kevlar Guys advanced faster. They ripped the door open and hauled Bucky out. The barrel of a gun pressed to Bucky’s temple, cold and unforgiving.

“Hey, gorgeous,” breathed the alpha whose arm locked around Bucky’s middle. Bucky turned his head to his assailant.

The man with the familiar face.

“Fuck off,” Bucky said, and spat in his eye. They wouldn’t shoot him. Not if he was as important as they told him he was. Rookie mistake, fellas, shouldn’t have let Bucky know they wanted him as badly as they did. He elbowed the mystery alpha in the gut with his prosthesis, enough to send him reeling back, and made several pain-radiating steps before three more guys stepped in to yank him back.

As strong and agile as Bucky was, he couldn’t take all five dickheads down in a compromised state.

They dragged him inside to a hallway decked in cream-colored marble, taupe walls, and boring nature photography. A locking mechanism scanned Familiar Face’s thumbprint and the door swung open to another hallway, at the end of which lay a thick vault door. This one took a retina scan to open, and Familiar Face heaved its wheel to coax it ajar, muscles straining beneath his black t-shirt.

Beyond it, cold air crept up Bucky’s arms under the thin fabric of his suit, putting his teeth on edge and his hair on end. Yellow artificial light guided them to a set of elevators, which required another retina scan to function.

What the fuck could possibly warrant this level of security?

The elevator let them off deep underground. They shoved him down another hallway and into a wide room. Lockers lined the walls, but the centerpiece came in the form of a chair, something like an evil-doer’s dentist chair, with a complicated apparatus jutting from the ceiling above it. At the sight, Bucky’s blood ran cold. Bile rose up in his throat. He knew this. He didn’t know how, but he knew this, and he knew that it was bad.

“Don’t worry,” sneered Familiar Face, “That’s a treat for later.”

“Thank you, Rumlow. That’s enough.”

Bucky’s head jerked. That voice. That voice. He froze in place, stopped fighting his captors, and laid eyes on a beta tucked behind a desk in the corner of the room. He unrolled to his full height and stepped around the furniture. Reddish-gray hair fell over an aging, pleasant face. A well-cut navy suit framed his trim body and a gentle smile lifted the corners of his mouth.

Secretary Pierce?” Bucky managed, “Fucking – what the hell?”

“It’s good to see you again, Sergeant Barnes,” he drawled, and took Bucky’s face in one palm, “Pity that SHIELD found us in Afghanistan. We’ve lost so many years with you.” His eyes flicked to Bucky’s thigh, and he added, “He’s bleeding. How did that happen?”

“Sampson, sir,” Rumlow replied.

“Get him to medical,” Pierce replied, “I want him at his best before we begin our procedures. Rollins, tell Sampson I want to speak with him.”

“Of course, sir,” both lackeys answered, and they hauled Bucky back out of the room, into the hallway, and to another set of doors. In it, several people in white coats milled around a tiled room lit by cheap fluorescent lights. Several medical beds sat lined against one wall, outfitted with with metal cuffs. The HYDRA dicks yanked him bodily onto one, paper crinkling beneath his weight, and strapped him in, pulling each limb into a reinforced shackle and fastening straps around Bucky’s torso. He tried to even his breath, but as doctors swarmed him, his mind whirred with panic.

Not now, not now, he begged himself. He needed to stay sharp. He could still get out of this. He had gotten out of worse.

And this time around, he had the Avengers on his side. If Bucky couldn’t escape this on his own, he had a whole team to back him up. He could, if nothing else, stall until somebody came to get him. At this rate, Steve would be on the warpath, an equally chilling and comforting notion.

The gears of his mind whizzed out of control as the white coats cut him out of his suit. They left his boxer briefs on, mercifully, but wrenched away every other inch of fabric with calculated snips. One doctor pushed the glasses up on the bridge of her nose and observed, “His body is already pushing out the bullet.”

“We should stitch it, just in case.”

They didn’t deign to give him painkillers. Instead, a doctor sanitized his leg, cut his flesh with a scalpel, and drew the wound open with forceps. Bucky refused to reward them with the scream that built in the back of his throat, but couldn’t help but whimper. Tears burned in the corners of his eyes as a surgeon removed the bullet from his leg and set it aside on the cart beside him.

“You’re lucky it was in one piece,” one of the assistants remarked, and petted his head, “With your enhancements, you might have healed over the fragments.”

“What the hell,” Bucky gritted out, “are you talking about.”

“The wipes seemed to have worked,” hummed the surgeon. He looped his needle through Bucky’s skin and pulled the thread tight in the first stitch. Bucky bit down on the sides of his mouth, muffling the moan of pain that escaped him.

Chair. Needles. Beta voice. Familiar face – Rumlow?

You’re going to change the world.

“So,” he said, sweat beading on his forehead, “What got you all into the villain business?”

“Somebody put something in his mouth,” the surgeon ordered, “I forgot how annoying he is.”

A surgical assistant produced a rubber bit. Bucky fought to keep his mouth closed, but more white coats forced his jaw open, and the assistant shoved the bit in.

Panic panic panic.

Stop. What do you remember? Document what you remember. Document what you know.

HYDRA had him. He knew some of them, but he didn’t know how. Secretary Pierce was involved, and his voice struck an unsettled chord within him. Pierce was, by all accounts, a good man. He refused a Nobel prize. He was an exemplary member of the World Security Council. He ran SHIELD, over Nick Fury.

He ran SHIELD.

HYDRA had him.

He ran SHIELD.

HYDRA was SHIELD?

Panic panic panic.

Don’t panic.

When the surgeon finished with him, they tied him into a medical gown and lugged him back down the hallway, even further into the belly of the beast. How many underground tunnels could one evil organization possibly have? He didn’t know, and Bucky didn’t like the look of the steel door they pulled to a stop in front of. Like the other doors, Rumlow scanned his eye.

This room did not bode well for him. Cells streaked from wall to wall on either side of the oblong space, locked by both barred doors and inch-thick glass. The HYDRA dicks tossed Bucky onto the floor of one toward the back of the room, and he grunted as his bare ass hit concrete. The door slammed closed in front of him, and Rumlow smiled a slick, greasy smile. “Rest up, gorgeous. You need to save your strength.”

“Eat me,” Bucky snarled, but Rumlow just laughed.

“Love it when you’re feisty,” he said, and left Bucky to take in his surroundings, alone.

The cell was not without amenities. A plain, narrow bed occupied one corner, a short toilet the other. Until Bucky stumbled to his feet and limped to press his nose against the glass, he did not realize he was not the only prisoner in the cell block. Beyond the bars across from him, a dark-haired girl stared back from the corner of her cell, a haunted look in her eye. In the cell beside hers, a boy with dark roots beneath bleached hair sat leaned against his wall at the foot of his bed. Like him, they wore medical gowns, and nothing else.

“What did HYDRA do to you?” asked the girl. He couldn’t place her accented voice. Something eastern European?

Bucky leaned his forehead against the cold, thick glass. “Not sure,” he admitted, “But there’s sure as shit something funny goin’ on.”

“The chair,” said the boy, knowingly. Same accent. Sokovian, maybe? Bucky hadn’t had reason to employ his ear for language recently, but he liked to think he knew a thing or two.

“Yeah, about that,” Bucky said, “What the fuck is that thing?”

“It takes your memories,” he answered.

Bucky blew all the air out of his lungs. The electrical burns on either side of his head, abruptly, made so much more sense than he wanted them to. He lifted his fingers to feel along the raised flesh behind one ear. “They told me I’m going to have a procedure,” he said, slowly, “They mean that chair, don’t they?”

“Yes,” answered the girl, “What is your name?”

“Bucky,” he told her, “Bucky Barnes.”

She nodded to that. “Ah. We’ve heard them talk about you,” and she extended her arm toward the boy’s cell, “This is my brother, Pietro. My name is Wanda.”

**

“Don’t call for SHIELD vehicle,” Natasha instructed, “I’m sending you a Lyft.”

Steve frowned at his phone. “What? Why? That doesn’t make any sense. We need to get to the Triskelion. We need to talk to Nick.”

“Steve,” Natasha said, and something about her tone gave him pause. “I’m sending a Lyft. You’re not going to the Triskelion. We’ll talk soon.” She hung up, leaving him to stare at a blank screen.

He couldn’t help but notice that Natasha conveniently did not tell them where, exactly, they were going, but as he turned to Sam, a modest Subaru drew up to the curb in front of them. Steve opened the passenger door, but didn’t get in – he wouldn’t make the same mistake as Bucky had. Instead he leaned just close enough inside to ask, “Who sent you?”

“Uh,” the driver managed, a Boston accent cutting through the car, “Natalie Rushman? Note says I’m picking up two big dudes in suits. You look like two big dudes in suits.”

Steve turned to Sam, and Sam nodded his assent. They clambered in, and after the doors shut, the conversation shuttered. An undercurrent of soft jazz ran beneath the silence, a bland sound that allowed Steve’s mind to reel. Over and over, the image of Bucky pressed to the back window of the Uber as it roared away down the road spun in his mind, a single, terrible frame. His omega. His omega.

“Steve, man,” Sam said. He rested his hand on Steve’s shoulder, and beta pheromones rolled out into the interior, overtaking the scent of – Steve’s aggression. Fuck. Beside them, the driver clutched the steering wheel hard enough to whiten his knuckles.

Steve forced the unbidden emotion down as far as he could. This was not a time to feel. This was a time to act. This feeling, at least, he knew. He slid into it as easily as sliding his feet into well-loved shoes. He’d worn this cowl and he’d worn it well. He didn’t need a red, white, and blue suit in order to remember the fight in him. And by God, he would fight for Bucky.

The driver, curiously, dropped them at the Library of Congress. Sam and Steve exchanged a glance before they unbuckled from their seats. Steve, whirring mind aside, threw a fifty at the Lyft driver and apologized, “Sorry for stinking up the car.”

Sam and Steve made for the lefthand staircase of the Jefferson building, where halfway through a solidly-built Asian woman sitting with a sketchbook on the stairs said, “Natalie says to meet her on the second floor, near the South Exhibition Gallery.”

The current exhibit, of all things, featured baseball, and among a section about the art and science of baseball, Nicholas Fury lurked not in a long, black coat, but a hooded sweatshirt. Natasha wore the black dress she’d worn not an hour before at the funeral, but somewhere along the way, Clint managed to wriggle back into jeans and a t-shirt that had seen better days.

“Heard some shit went down,” Fury greeted, without looking up at any of them.

“What’s with this cloak and dagger crap?” hissed Steve, “Shouldn’t we be at the Triskelion right now? Bucky is missing; this isn’t a fucking game. He has to be in DC. Our best people and best equipment are at SHIELD.”

Natasha laid a hand on Steve’s sleeve. She said, “Deep breaths, Steve,” and though her muted, suppressed omega scent had significantly less effect than Sam’s beta pheromones, her tone brought him down to a less rocky state of mind. She went on, “Tell us what happened.”

“It was our Uber,” Steve murmured, “They shot him in the leg. That means they have to be nearby, close enough that they’re not worried about him bleeding out.”

“I agree,” Nick put in, “but we’re still not sure who has him.”

“I told you already,” said Steve, impatient, “It’s HYDRA.”

Nick pursed his lips. “We don’t know that, but we do know that this goes beyond the scope of what we imagined. The DNA results came back on your omega’s attacker, from the hair stuck in his arm.”

“And?” Steve prompted.

“And I’ve got more questions than answers,” responded Fury, “because the DNA belongs to one of our own operatives, a junior field agent named Xander Fields, who, coincidentally, has not shown up for work since the day of Sergeant Barnes’ attempted abduction.”

“Whoa. What?” said Sam.

“My thoughts exactly, Wilson,” Nick said, “I don’t know what the hell is going on, but this problem is bigger than just you, Captain Rogers.”

“SHIELD is compromised,” Natasha summarized.

Fury nodded. “That’s what it looks like.” He brandished a jump drive, which he passed into Natasha’s hand. He said, “I did some digging, and the files on this drive are encrypted, somehow, past my authority – apparently, by my authority. Can you crack these, Romanov?”

“I’ll do what I can,” Natasha said, “but what are you doing? If this is as big as we think it is, then you’re in danger, too, Nick.”

“That’s why I have a feeling that I’d better lay low,” answered Fury, “I’ll be in and out. You know how to reach me.”

Steve bristled. “What the hell, Fury?” he demanded, “You’re going to leave? These people took my omega. They’re still at large, and you’re gonna – what? Turn tail and run?”

“Steve,” Clint said, “Keep it down.”

Sam put a hand on Steve’s shoulder.

Steve inhaled. Tried to be calm. His omega was missing, but he had a beta to bring him back down to earth, at least. He straightened and gave a cursory glance at their surroundings. A few people turned heads toward them, but most remained focused on the exhibit. But then – simply because they weren’t looking didn’t mean that they weren’t listening. Steve lowered his voice to ask, “Then what’s next? We need to get Bucky back. I need to get Bucky back.”

“Well, we can’t exactly go in guns blazing,” reasoned Clint, “Not when we don’t know where are guns are blazing to.”

“That sentence doesn’t make any sense,” Natasha muttered at him.

“You know what I meant, didn’t you? That means it makes sense.”

Natasha rolled her eyes, then returned her attention to Steve. “Next? Fury’s gonna lie low, like he said. Our job is to figure out what information these people are hiding from us.” She held up the jump drive, a sly smile tilting her lips. “Wanna go to the mall?”

**

These days, thanks to his presence on social media, Steve didn’t do so great at being incognito, but Natasha took charge and redressed him in something that he never would have picked for himself: fake glasses, a plain baseball cap, and an unassuming outfit any old civilian might wear – although Steve might keep the brown jacket, if they made it through this. Her hoodie and jeans might have startled him had he not already seen Natasha in sweatpants, and Clint looked like himself, but no one ever seemed to remember what Clint Barton the man looked like – even the bad guys. Sam, for all the attention he garnered as the new Captain America, could still scrape by in a baseball cap and a baggy set of clothes that disguised a muscled figure.

“By my estimation, we have nine minutes from the time I plug this into a computer to get the data. The drive has a level six homing program, so as soon as it’s in, SHIELD will know exactly where we are. So don’t forget, fellas – the first rule of being on the run is walk, don’t run,” Natasha said, as she led the charge into CityCenterDC.

A two-alpha pack wasn’t unheard of, but too unusual to masquerade as while under such tenuous circumstances, so while Natasha, Sam, and Clint sauntered to a display of laptops, Steve pretended to fidget with the latest Apple phone imitating Tony’s inventions while he played lookout.

Out of the corner of his eye, he watched Natasha slid the jump drive into the side of a razor-thin computer. Her fingers flew over the keyboard, and when an employee hovered to them them, she gripped Clint and Sam in either hand and turned on the charm, shifting into a new skin, a new shape.

And that’s when the STRIKE team appeared.

The STRIKE team that worked with Steve on countless small-time missions. The foremost STRIKE team within SHIELD’s ranks. Steve’s breath still at the sight on them, and his heart beat with such force that he could feel it in his ears. “Natasha,” Steve said into his comm, “They’re here.”

Natasha whipped the drive out of the port and slid into the pocket of her jeans. She placed either hand on Clint and Sam’s lower backs, grinned and thanked the hovering Apple employee, and guided them out to the crowded walkways. Steve followed, but kept a healthy distance.

When they broke out into the parking lot, they didn’t take the car they’d stolen from outside the Library of Congress. Instead, Steve hotwired the junkiest car that he could find – a powder blue VW Beetle.

Once they hit the highway, he dared to ask, “What did you find out? And get your feet off the dash.”

Natasha slid her shoes down onto the carpet. She replied, “Not as much as I wanted to. The encryption on these files – it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. I hate to say this, but I think that we need to call in Stark. I also hate to say this, but he’s better with computers than I am. We have to go back to New York. It’s the nearest place that he’ll have the equipment to deal with this.”

“We can’t leave DC!” protested Steve, “Bucky’s here. We can’t just abandon him.”

“We’re not abandoning him,” Sam piped up, “We’re doing what needs to be done.”

“We don’t know what they’re doing to him,” Steve said, “We have to stay. We can’t leave him. I can’t leave him. I just can’t.”

“Steve.” Natasha lifted one plucked brow, “Barnes isn’t some two-dimensional Joss Whedon jerkoff fantasy. He’s a trained operative. An experienced operative. He can hold his own. And if nothing else, he can stall until we get to him.”

She was right. Natasha was often right. Her rightness, however, did not stop the one-track alpha hindbrain that roared at him that his omega was missing and it was his fault for failing to protect his mate. Oh, God, if they got out of this, Steve would never be afraid of telling Bucky that he loved him ever again. No more fear – only truth.

They bought burner phones at a Walmart and ditched the ones that SHIELD had given Natasha and Clint, and Tony had given to Steve. He doubted anyone could wriggle their way into Stark’s software, but the risk of being found ran too high. On a flip phone, Steve dialed Tony’s private number, and waited ring after ring for him to pick up. After three attempted calls, finally –

“What the fuck do you want?” answered Tony.

“Tony, it’s Steve.”

A pause.

“Why are you calling me from this rando number?”

“We’ve got a problem.”

**

Rather than send his own jet, Tony directed them to Pepper’s jet at a nearby private airport in hopes that it would arouse less suspicion. When they boarded, they found Tony seated in one of the plush leather seats, a travel mug of coffee in hand and a grim set to his jaw. “Fill me in,” he said.

They relayed the calculated attack, the strike at a vulnerable time from an unexpected source. They ran through the DNA results, STRIKE’s appearance at the mall, all the way to the files so cleverly woven that Natasha couldn’t detangle the code. Tony asked for the drive and they gave it.

“So, they’ll know where we are when I stick this baby into my system,” Tony said, “but lucky for us, Avengers Tower is the safest place in New York. We have a Hulk. I’ll get a message to Pepper and tell her to evacuate the SI employees as a precaution. The fewer civilians involved in this kerfuffle, the better.”

When they touched down, Bruce met them in his utilitarian Nissan, which they piled into as best they could manage. Clint, ever the good sport, offered to ride the way to Avengers Tower in the trunk.

The quietude of the building cut an odd figure. Even in the sub-levels of Tony’s garage, the stiff air of not-quite-right crept along the back of Steve’s neck. He didn’t dwell, however, on the unbalanced wobble in the pit of his stomach. He stayed shifted into that familiar place – the fight. He squared his shoulders, tightened his jaw, and followed Tony into his seldom-seen laboratories. There, Tony shucked his suit jacket and collapsed into a swivel chair, whisking his body across the concrete floor to a set of hovering monitors.

As the jump drive booted, numbers flickered across the screen, green ones and zeroes so quick to move that Steve’s eyes burned. Tony flicked his fingers over the touch screen with his left hand, while the fingers of his right flew across a sleek keyboard that made no sound as he touched it.

After a minute and a half of bated breath, Tony broke away from the computer station. He whirled in his rolling chair to face them, put his hands out in a wide sweep, and announced, “I regret to inform you that this is not a one-day project. Something here is exceptionally fishy.”

“You’re kidding,” Steve groaned.

“Alas, this program seems to be able to rewrite itself,” Tony told them, “Whatever’s going on, whoever did this – or, I don’t know, is doing this – this is thousands of lines of code rewriting faster than I can read. They’re stalling. Now, why don’t you go do some spy stuff or something? I can’t do my best work with you people looking over my shoulder.”

“There’s no ‘spy stuff’ left to do,” protested Steve.

Tony shrugged. “I don’t know what to tell you. I’ll keep cracking at this, but I don’t have a time estimate for how long it’s going to take.”

And so they waited.

Untitled Group

January 4, 2019

 

[8:18 PM] Unknown: JBB missing. Will update when we know more.

 

[8:18 PM] Becca: What????

 

[8:19 PM] Unknown: Can’t talk. It’s dangerous. Stay safe.

[8:19 PM] Unknown: Give Beans love from me. Her favorite toy is the blue tire on the rope.

 

[8:19 PM] Becca: Steve???? Please tell me what’s going on????

 

[8:20 PM] Unknown: Can’t.

[8:20 PM] Unknown: Don’t tell others. Not safe.

[8:20 PM] Unknown: I love you all.

**

The gunshot wound healed in a mere five days to a small, puckered scar just to the left of Bucky’s femoral artery – a narrow miss.

Five days.

Five days of healing, of eating weird, mushy cafeteria food shoved into his cell on metal trays, of being strapped down on a medical table to be poked and prodded by doctors. On the third day, they injected something into his arm that burned inside his body. Bucky vomited there on the table, and when he woozily asked for a shower, they shoved him into a tiled room and sprayed him down with freezing water from a pressure hose.

Bucky wished he told Steve that he loved him.

Though he trained his eye on each and every room they dragged him to – through pain and shock and Rumlow’s greasy hands on his neck and in his hair – Bucky had yet to find a viable escape plan. He urged Wanda and Pietro to brainstorm something, anything to get them all out, but at the first mention of escape, they shut down, shuttering conversation.

And when he asked why HYDRA kept them prisoner, too, they told Bucky that they did not know.

They were lying, but for the life of him, he could not understand why.

On the sixth day, Alexander Pierce visited the cellblock. He didn’t speak to Wanda or Pietro. No, he turned his back to them and faced Bucky. “How do you like your accommodations, Sergeant Barnes?”

“Service is shit, but the company’s all right,” Bucky grunted.

At that, Pierce cast a sidelong glance at the siblings behind them. He sighed. “Ah, those. My failed experiments. We tried to replicate what we accomplished with you, but nothing seems to have taken as it did with you. Most of our subjects died, you know. The old notes on Captain Rogers’ serum wax poetic about the compound’s ability to amplify what already exists in a person. I suppose being deadly was already in your blood.”

Bucky rolled his eyes. “Why are you monologuing at me? There’s a reason you’re here. Why don’t you cut to the chase, and save us both some time?”

Pierce’s eyes glinted in the artificial light. A cruel smile curled the edges of his lips. “We’ll be burning that attitude out of you, Sergeant Barnes. Today is the day we remake you. You’re going to forget that any of this happened. You’re going to bend to my will. You’re going to become my little Soldier.”

“Buddy,” Bucky replied, “I’m a marine. Ain’t no soldiers here.”

“There will be,” Pierce lightly said, and licked his lips before announcing, “It’s time.”

Rumlow and his cronies filled the narrow passage between the cells. When Pierce scanned his credentials, they surrounded Bucky on all sides. He spat at them and fought tooth and nail as he did every time that they came to collect him, but when Rumlow slapped reinforced cuffs on his wrists, any leverage Bucky might have clawed his way into vanished. The HYDRA dicks yanked him step by stumbling step back to the bank vault.

The room with the chair.

Rumlow unlocked his cuffs, put shoved into the seat, where a new set of cuffs locked his arms to the rests, and his ankles to the bottom of the chair.

“You people think you’re special,” Bucky spat, “but no matter what you do to me, no matter who you hurt, you’re ineffective, empty, ugly human beings. You’re just another villain."

Rumlow shoved a rubber bit into Bucky’s mouth.

“That’s better,” he said.

Pierce patted Rumlow on the shoulder, an almost fatherly gesture, and leaned into Bucky’s space, so close that Bucky could smell the kung pao chicken on his breath. He ran his fingers through Bucky’s hair, tucked it behind his ear, and stroked the pad of his thumb over one of the scars on the side of his head.

“The world needs order,” Pierce said, “and you’re going to help us. You’re going to help us change everything for the better.”

He straightened, then, and waved to a skinny, balding man in a labcoat. “Fire her up. He’s ready.”

With the flick of a switch and the clack of a keyboard, the apparatus above the chair began to shift and move. Bucky’s heart beat so hard he could feel it in his throat. He struggled against the metal bounds, but as the contraption locked into place around his head, he slumped back into the chair. He squeezed his eyes closed and curled his hands into fists. Despite his best efforts, one, solitary tear tracked down over one cheek.

He didn’t want to forget.

“Now,” Pierce said.

Excruciating, lightning pain exploded in his mind and radiated throughout his body. Bucky screamed around the bit. Every thought in his head came to a screeching halt, nothing surfacing beyond the agony that wracked him.

Chair, Afghanistan

Hand in hair, beta voice

Unfamiliar faces

“You’re safe now”

Wakanda, trees and colors, a kind smile

Home

MaAlphaScentLove DadOmegaScentCare SistersArmsHugs

CandlelightSong

SteveSteveSteveSteveSteve

Barnes collapsed back in a chair.

“Do you know where you are?” a beta man in a suit asked.

Barnes thought on it. He didn’t know where he was, but he knew that something was missing. He frowned, tried to turn his hands to look at them but found himself to be bound in place.

“Where’s Steve?” he asked.

The beta sighed and shook his head. “Wipe him again.”

Barnes screamed.

He screamed.

Someone was screaming.

A smile, a soft voice: “Soldier?”

Somebody replied, “Ready to comply.”

Chapter Text

 

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Track: Glory and Gore – Lorde

We’re Coming For Blood

 

The Solider stood half-naked while scientists milled around him. The man in the suit, his handler, hooked his hands behind his back as he spoke quiet, evenly-voiced instructions to the people around him. The Soldier didn’t know what to do without instruction, so he stood at attention and waited for his orders. His dry mouth demanded water and his head ached, but he didn’t know why. His chest did not feel right, and he didn’t know why that might be, either.

“Fury already abandoned the safehouse,” one of the men in body armor told the Soldier’s handler.

The handler made a contemplative noise. “That’s irritating, but I suppose our little soldier hasn’t been primed. Somebody bring me Sampson. I’d like to test our subject.”

Minutes later, two of the men in body armor dragged a struggling man into the room and held him in place. His face echoed someplace in the Soldier’s mind. The thought made his throat close, made his skin itch. What if he knew him?

“Rollins,” the handler said, “Give the Soldier your handgun.”

One of the onlookers stepped forward, lips pressed into an uncomfortable line. He didn’t like being unarmed with the Soldier near.

Good, the Soldier thought, but he didn’t understand where the word surfaced from.

The Soldier turned a Beretta M9 in his hand. Boring, but reliable.

“Soldier,” the handler said, and the Soldier jerked to attention once more. “This man shot you several days ago. I’d like to you to repay him in kind. Shoot to kill.”

“No!” Sampson protested, kicking out. He tried to tug out of the grip of his captors, but one of his arms stuck out at an old angle, unusable. Compromised. The Soldier aimed the Beretta. With a single shot to the center of Sampson’s forehead, the man crumpled in the arms of his captors. They let go, and his weight sagged onto the floor. Blood leaked from the bullet wound onto the concrete floor. The Soldier flipped the barrel of the gun into his hand and held it out to its owner, grip out.

Rollins holstered the Beretta, but didn’t take his eyes from the Soldier’s face.

Meanwhile, the Soldier’s handler smiled. “Wonderful,” he said, “You’re almost ready, Soldier.” Then, to the operatives that surrounded them: “Put him back in his cell for now. Double down on locating Fury. As soon as we eliminate him, the tides will change. HYDRA is ready to be born again.”

The men in body armor led the Soldier to place he did not recognize. The cold air should have prickled along his bared skin, but something strange stirred in his gut, an uncomfortable tug that thrummed low in his insides. He did not know what this was, but hoped it would not stall this important mission. He lived to execute a mission, and somehow, he knew it had been a long time since he had.

“God, Rumlow, he reeks,” the one called Rollins complained.

Rumlow scented the air and crinkled his nose. He licked his lips and raked his hands through the Soldier’s hair. “Going into preheat, huh, gorgeous? Wish I got the time to use you, but we’re busy changing the world. Maybe some other time, though. I can take a rain check.” He shoved the Soldier into the cell and locked it. When they slammed the barred door behind them, abandoning the soldier to the quiet, an uncertain tangle of emotion released inside him. He should not feel. He knew this. He also knew, somehow, that no one could know of these feelings.

A crinkle of worry tickled the Soldier’s nose like static. He blinked, and found a wide-eyed, dark-haired omega gazing back at him from where she knelt at the front of the cell across from his.. In the cell to her left, a young man pressed his palm against thick glass.

“Bucky?” the dark-haired omega said. She wrung small hands together in her lap.

“Who the hell is Bucky?” the Soldier spat.

Pain crossed the omega’s face.

“Okay,” she said to herself, “I can fix this. No. I don’t know if I can fix it. Pietro, what do we do?”

“I think you have to try,” Pietro said, “Wanda. This could be our chance. But we have to act soon. I cannot help. Only you can.”

“I’ve never...on a stranger,” Wanda protested.

Try,” Pietro emphasized.

Wanda unfolded to standing. She flexed her hand, and in it, threads of red light wove in and out of her fingers, snaking down her wrist to writhe around her forearm. She pulled her hand back, palm facing toward the Solider, and the red substance traversed the width of the space between their cells, twisted between the bars and through the glass.

He stepped back, uncertain. His handler did not tell him to harm these people, so he remained still as the red encircled him like rope. It thrummed with energy. Tendrils crept up his limbs and licked at his face, and when the tip of one touched to his forehead, the Soldier’s mind stuttered. He stumbled and his back fell against the far wall of his cell, head cracking on brick.

Remember

AlphaAlphaAlpha

Steve?

Mom and Dad and Sisters

A porch in the sun

NightmareNightmareScreamingSAFE

A bag over his eyes, awake in a chair

The Chair

She-ma yisrael, adonai eloheinu, adonai echad –

 

“You’re Jewish?”

Bucky gasped.

“What – the fuck?” he managed, “What is –” but he paused. “They put me in that chair. How did you bring me back? Why does it matter that I’m Jewish? You got a problem with that?”

Irritation flooded him, dragging over his skin like barbed wire. His gut ached and a bead of sweat trickled down the side of his face. Bucky mopped it away and frowned at the moisture glittering on his flesh hand. It smelled...sweet.

“Oh, come on!” he cried, “Oh, that’s just the cherry on top of this shit sundae. Of all the places to go into heat – I’m hundreds of miles from home, nowhere near my alpha, in a prison run by science nazis. Well that’s just fantastic. Just – perfect.”

“Bucky,” Wanda interrupted.

Bucky wiped his forehead again. “What?” he gritted out.

“Be quiet, and I will answer your questions,” said Wanda, “HYDRA experimented on me and on Pietro, just like they did to you. They do not believe that what they did to us was successful, but it was. Pietro can run faster than time. I can manipulate reality, and sometimes that means minds. I took a chance and reached into your mind. I am only sorry that I couldn’t ask.”

She stopped then, and Bucky waved his hand in a ‘go on’ gesture.

“We are Jewish also,” Wanda said, “I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that we are the people that HYDRA is stealing away.”

Bucky sighed, and smeared a hand over his face. “Gross. I hate these guys.”

“This might be our chance to escape,” Pietro said.

“Yeah? How’s that?” Bucky asked. He’d do just about anything to escape, at this point. Preheat sucked, but not as much as heat on full-blast. He could handle aching and irritation and too-hot skin he wished he could shed like a lizard, but shit would get next-level uncomfortable the moment that the slick started flowing. Combat while horny – ugh.

Wanda cleared her throat. “As far as HYDRA knows, you’re under their command.”

Oh. Oh.

“They want to send you on a mission,” she continued.

“To kill the director of SHIELD,” Bucky agreed, “And they’re gonna give me access to weapons for it.”

“If you pretend to be brainwashed...” continued Wanda.

“...then I could take them out,” Bucky concluded.

“Exactly,” said Wanda, “and if you free us, we can help.”

She said the words as though pleading, and Bucky frowned. He put his palm to the glass and said gently, “Hey. I would never, ever leave you behind. We’ve been in this together since the second they locked me in here. And when they suit me up and give me that gun, I’ll be back here as fast as I can make it. That’s a promise. Until then, I guess we gotta play the waiting game.”

**

Steve doubted any of the team had slept.

Sam drifted from one thousand-yard stare to the next, arms crossed over his chest. He borrowed Steve’s clothes and complained that he reeked like alpha. He, too, texted his sister one cursory, cryptic message that he was okay but unreachable for the foreseeable future.

Natasha seemed never to change out of her body armor, never removed the guns from the holsters at either side of her hips.

Clint, uncharacteristically quiet, ensured that the rest of them ate. To avoid running the risk of inviting HYDRA into their home, he picked up pizzas and takeout himself. He brewed the coffee, and as the nights wore on, more and more whiskey came from the flask in the pocket of his jeans and into Clint’s coffee mug.

Tony, somewhere along the line losing his formal clothes and gaining sweatpants and a ratty t-shirt, subsisted solely on coffee after coffee as he dug his claws into HYDRA’s files.

Steve never dared go down to the gym, but dense drawings crawled all the way up both arms and one calf, the streaks and whorls of marker dark and unforgiving.

On day, four Steve toured his and Bucky’s apartment. Without Bucky dancing in the kitchen, or napping on the couch, or soaking in the tub, the emptiness of the space engulfed him. Heavy, indescribable weight pulled on his heart and lungs, stretching him like a prisoner on the rack. He lay, for a while, on Bucky’s side of the bed. His omega’s scent, though stale, lingered in Steve’s nose and pulled free too-taut strings within him.

Being unable to protect his mate (not your mate; don’t think that) was absolute agony. They didn’t, couldn’t know what was happening to Bucky, what would continue to happen to Bucky, what could happen to him if they didn’t reach him in time. He rolled to the other side of the bed. There, his old uniform stared him down from the dark edges of the closet, barely visible from beyond the clothing Steve collected for himself over the course of the last couple of months.

Steve shifted back to his feet. He pulled the suit down and felt the fabric under his fingers. Reinforced. Familiar red, white, and blue.

He wasn’t that alpha anymore. He wouldn’t ever be Captain America again.

But that didn’t mean that he couldn’t fight.

Fight might be a piece of him forever. Bucky may have taken Steve out of the fight, but the fight would never be gone from him. Since day one, Steve clawed his way into the world, slashing and tearing at everything around him to make a space for himself. He didn’t have to fight on his own behalf anymore. He hadn’t had to since he stepped out of Howard Stark’s machine in his new body. So he’d fought on the behalf of others, battle after battle, time after time, until he forgot what lay beyond the war.

He knew now his fight was not his entirety. He was an artist, a friend, a son – to more than one family, a man that loved the color red, an alpha to the most incredible omega on the face of the planet. Steve’s bite might not have been on Bucky’s neck, but Steve knew that it belonged there.

And by God, Steve would fight for Bucky.

Body buzzing, Steve took his old uniform to the guest room and laid it out on the bed. Originally, he intended this space to be for Bucky, should be uncomfortable with Steve in his bed. The issue never arose, and as time passed, new things gathered in clusters around the room – buckets of paint, a couple of easels, boxes of colored pencils and different tubes of different kinds of paint. Half-finished canvases leaned against the walls.

After Steve saw a spray-painted wall in Brooklyn, the lettering acid green and shadows blue, he ordered spray paints the next day – he wasn’t especially adept with them yet, but a whole rainbow of them sat stacked atop the same dresser the bedroom came with when Steve first moved into the tower.

He’d practiced on it a little.

The uniform on the bed sat in stark contrast to the art supplies that surrounded it. Two eras of his life, so unlike one another, but not so different in the battles within them.

Steve snatched a can of black spray paint from the top of the dresser and threw it on the bed beside his old uniform. Like him, the uniform had to change.

He wriggled one of Bucky’s gleaming knives under the stitching around the star and sliced. He ripped the piece free and cast it aside. Then, heedless to expensive bedspread, he shook up the can and began to spray. Stroke after stroke, red, white, and blue shifted beneath his hand. He tore off the front sections of the sleeves and sewed new edges. Now, a villain would see the drawings on his arms, the ever-shifting colors and patterns and images of his dreams and his nightmares.

In the end, a new-old uniform gazed up at him. Not wholly new, but changed.

It felt right.

On day five, Tony called them to the lab.

“I don’t know how this is possible,” Tony said, wild-eyed, “but the program seems to be rewriting itself. Just when I think I’ve got it, there’s – something new. This is. It. It should be impossible.” He dragged a hand over his face and then scratched it through unwashed hair. He exhaled and leaned back in his chair.

“I can’t believe I’m saying this,” Tony said, “but we need someone smarter than me. There’s only one person on the planet that fits the bill.”

Steve nodded. “I’ll tell them it’s for Bucky.”

On day six, Shuri and T’Challa touched down on the landing pad at Avengers Tower. Both wore casual clothes, but at the glint of T’Challa’s toothed necklace, Steve knew that they came armed. He greeted T’Challa with a tight hug and Shuri with a high five. Knowing she helped Bucky before, and that she agreed to help him again – it a small, thorny part of his anxiety.

“You look different,” T’Challa observed.

“I feel different,” Steve replied, “Thank you for coming.”

“You said it’s Sergeant Barnes,” Shuri rolled in, “and we would do anything for Sergeant Barnes. How long has he been missing?”

“Six days. We have a program, or files, or something, from the organization that has him,” Steve explained, “neither Natasha nor Tony could get through – Tony says the program is rewriting itself as it runs.”

Shuri waved a hand. “That should be easy. Show me where to go.”

Steve brought them to the lab. Tony hadn’t showered for days, though Pepper appeared from time to time to spray him with deodorant and PheroClear to diffuse the palpable omega frustration and distress. He wheeled around when the glass doors slid open and Steve rejoined him, flanked by T’Challa and Shuri on either side. Tony exhaled a long breath and ran his fingers through his hair. “Your majesties,” he said, “Shuri in particular. As much as I hate to say this, whoever put this together has me – not beat, but this is taking too long and we’re running on borrowed time.”

Shuri swept past Steve and her brother. She stood in the center of the monitors, watching the code glitter on the screens, a mess of brackets and symbols and lines and lines of a language that Steve could never hope to understand. She hummed. “How are they implementing cryptographic protocols?” Shuri asked.

“Just like everyone with a brain is, they’re using MatrixSLS,” Tony replied, “Or something very, very similar, which I could absolutely break given a team of hackers and oh, say, eight to ten months, at which point there’ll be a new version to break. Like I said, we don’t have that kind of time. Bucky-Bear is in danger and his alpha happens to be breathing down my neck.”

“Hey,” protested Steve, although he didn’t really have a defense beyond his haywire biology.

But as Tony spoke, a smile broke across Shuri’s face. She turned away from the monitors to face her onlookers, a happy buzz of beta vanilla scent rolling off of her.

“Why are you smiling like that? I’m finding it a little unsettling,” Tony said.

Shuri folded her arms and tilted her head up, grin shifting to a smirk. She responded, “Wakanda’s much better at keeping ahead of threats than you Americans are. I have a zero-day.”

“What? How? Actually, nevermind. Show me how to exploit it.”

Shuri beckoned Tony back to the keyboard and he scooted forward. As they worked, Steve turned to T’Challa. “I have no idea what’s going on,” he admitted.

“Neither do I, my friend,” answered T’Challa, “but I have complete faith in her abilities. In the meantime, I have a gift for you. Follow me; it’s on our Talon Fighter.”

Steve glanced over his shoulder at Tony and Princess Shuri, but followed. Somehow compact and spacious all at once, the interior of Wakanda’s autonomous aircrafts never failed to impress him. He never could have imagined this technology as a skinny kid in a tenement in Brooklyn with his mom, but now the speed at which new inventions emerged fazed him as much as any desensitized millennial. But Wakandan innovation towered to new heights, and Steve drank it in with awe, no matter how many times he stood among it.

T’Challa led him to a small room in the back of the Talon Fighter. Sonic spears lined the walls and vibranium woven blankets sat folded atop a set of shelves. In the corner, however, a pair of unfamiliar devices leaned, out of place in an otherwise uniform configuration of weaponry. T’Challa hefted one up and said, “Give me your arm.”

Steve did, and T’Challa slid the device onto Steve’s forearm.

“A shield,” he breathed, and turned his arm to drink it in.

T’Challa nodded, “Two, actually. Clench your fist and shift your arm back.”

The shield expanded, a sharp point extending from the end to cover the back of Steve’s hand like a gauntlet. The black and silver gleamed under the vibranium-powered light of the Talon Fighter, deadly, sharper than the rounded edges of the shield that now belonged to Sam.

“When I heard you passed the shield to Sam...” T’Challa shrugged a shoulder, “I thought you might need something new.”

“This is a generous gift,” Steve hedged.

“I trust you,” replied T’Challa, “and sometimes, you must fight. I understand.”

Steve slid the second shield onto his left hand and tested the mechanism, throwing a few punches. The gauntlets felt nothing like his shield had. Lightweight, they allowed for more maneuverability, and he wouldn’t have to wait for them to return to him with nothing but bare fists at his disposal.

“Thank you,” he at last said, and T’Challa nodded in acknowledgment.

Back in Tony’s lab, both he and Shuri whirled from screen to screen while Shuri’s fingers flew over the keyboard. Somewhere along the line, the others caught wind of the arrival of the Wakandan king and princess, and all stood looped around Stark and Shuri as they worked. Shuri bounced on the balls of her feet as she tap-tap-tapped, grin extending from ear to ear. With a final several punches of her fingers on the keyboard and swipes on the holographic screens, the code glittered, numbers peeling away like a curtain. In their place, a familiar face glowed blue across the screens.

“So,” drawled the image of Arnim Zola, “You found my hiding place.”

**

At some early hour of the sixth day of Bucky’s captivity, his heat began in earnest. He crunched into a fetal position on top of his cot, insides churning, as slick leaked out and soaked the thin mattress. His erection hadn’t abated in two agonizing hours, but he didn’t dare touch it with a couple of kids in full view of him. He quivered with the sensation of being empty, and the longing for Steve tripled. He loved him, and now he needed him more than ever, but instead, Bucky was stuck in a prison cell with no fucking privacy, all by himself.

But then the chance came.

The stupid HYDRA flunkies marched into the cellblock several hours into the ordeal. The moment that a hint of Bucky’s heat hit their noses, they scented the air. Some snarled, others sized up the alphas among them, but Rumlow barked, “Keep it in your pants, you idiots. Maybe Pierce’ll let us at him after he completes his mission, but HYDRA comes first, you hear me?”

The team did not look as chastised as Bucky wished they did, but they nonetheless straightened their spines and collected themselves.

Rumlow stuck his fist between the bars of Bucky’s cell and knocked against the glass.“Heya, gorgeous,” he said, “We’ve got a mission for you. How’s that sound?”

Bucky swallowed. He didn’t look Rumlow in the eye. Instead, he tilted back his head and bared his neck in a show of submission. He replied, “Ready to comply.”

“That’s my good little soldier,” Rumlow praised, “Now let’s get you out of here.” Bucky swallowed back the sensation of slime that wracked him. He ignored the slick, ignored the ache. The Soldier did not feel anything. Even the slightest microexpression could give him away.

After Rumlow scanned his eye to unlock the cell, they brought him to an arsenal. He didn’t twitch as they stripped the hospital gown from him. Rumlow eyed Bucky’s erection and the slick shining between his thighs. “Poor omega,” he crooned, “Maybe we can help you fix that once you’ve finished off Fury.”

Bucky willed away his disgust and anger as Rollins threw a set of clothing at him. He yanked on the tac pants first, then the undershirt and body armor, training his movements into economical, robotic motions. The slick would soak the tac pants in no time at all, which was going to be a damn shame, but at least the pants were better than the weird-ass bondage jacket he picked up next. Bucky Barnes wanted to know what on earth the tactical purpose of a leather jacket with a thousand buckles could possibly be, but the Soldier would not question his handlers. The Soldier would obey.

He knew this with such clarity that it startled him, but he didn’t have time to unpack whatever Wanda unlocked in him.

Only one sleeve extended from the jacket, the other left open to display his prosthesis.

Typically, Bucky lived for the drama of it all, but this was truly beyond his quota of extra.

Nonetheless, he managed not only to put the jacket on, but to do so in a smooth, calculating manner.

Shit, he was good.

Once dressed, Bucky stood at attention and waited for his orders.

Pierce joined them.

“God, he reeks,” Pierce remarked, “Soldier, what is your status?”

Bucky blinked, “Fit for duty. Uncompromised.”

“So he can work through a heat,” mused Pierce, “That’s good to know. Solider, we have coordinates to the whereabouts of SHIELD Director Nicholas J. Fury, a level seven target. He is currently located in upstate New York, in an isolated safehouse. I trust you know what weapons are ideal for this situation?”

“Long range,” replied Bucky, “Sidearms, contingency. It will only take one shot, but I must be prepared for every scenario.”

“Good answer,” Pierce said, “Boys, get him ready.”

Bucky patiently took each weapon passed to him, tucking away handguns, small grenades, knives for every crevice, and at last, an M4A1 that would be their undoing. He didn’t fire immediately, rather, checked the weapons over in a show of appraising functionality.

Was this armory amateur hour? These a-holes should not have given Bucky his weapons loaded.

“A car will take you to a private airport,” Pierce went on, “There, you’ll take a SHIELD plane to one of our locations. You will find your vehicle there, and the staff will give you further information on eliminating the target. Am I understood?”

“Yeah, I got ya,” Bucky said, and smiled, “Understand this, you nazi clown.”

He shot Pierce first, with only half a second to enjoy the alarm in his stone-cold eyes. Maybe not the most tactically sound decision, but certainly the most satisfying. The goons around him split between drawing their weapons and leaping for something better. Bucky let loose a spray of bullets. The bodies went down like dominoes, but not Rumlow, who yanked another agent in front of him to use as a shield.

In the aftermath of Wanda’s brain magic, Rumlow’s familiar face swam back in a thousand different images, in memories of snide, cooed remarks as he strapped Bucky down on tables and in the chair. He handled Bucky and his mutilated brain in Afghanistan, kept him under lock and key. He forced Bucky’s head underwater. He beat him within an inch of his life. He tested the limits of whatever they injected into him – Bucky’s best guess? A bastardized version of the serum that flowed through Steve Rogers’ veins. His cruelty revived Bucky’s basest instinct.

And that ended today.

Rumlow cast aside the bullet-riddled body in his hands and smiled. He charged at Bucky, grabbed the barrel of the M4 and ripped it out of Bucky’s hands. With the other hand, Rumlow drew his own boring Beretta from its holster, and in one smooth motion, pulled the trigger. A bullet slammed into Bucky’s gut, but the kevlar under the bondage jacket stopped it from piercing through.

“Nice try,” Bucky said. He knocked Rumlow’s gun out of his grip, and flipped a knife into his hand. He slashed at Rumlow, who managed to block his blow and sweep his leg at Bucky. Bucky staggered backward, but didn’t lose his balance.

This fucking guy.

Bucky growled low in his throat as he launched forward again.

One of the other guys – that Rollins fucker – managed to pick himself out of the bloody mess on the floor. Despite a gut wound, he charged at Bucky on his left side, but as he dove toward him, Bucky pulled his Skorpion off his back and shot him again. This time, the bullet did its duty and ripped through Rollins’ neck. Arterial spray showered over Bucky and Rumlow both in a gory, red fountain, and Bucky spat the taste of iron from his mouth.

He took advantage of the beat of time Rumlow took to wipe blood from his eyes: with a powerful punch downward, Bucky plunged his KA-BAR into the meat of Rumlow’s shoulder. The asshole sputtered in pain and swayed in place, but managed to stay on his feet.

“Fuck,” Rumlow cursed, and swooped forward at Bucky, “You fucking omega piece of –”

Bucky dodged.

He trained the Skorpion on Rumlow.

He pulled the trigger.

Rumlow went down.

“Who’s the piece of shit now, huh?” he muttered. Bucky pulled the KA-BAR free from Rumlow’s shoulder, wiped the blade on the side of his tac pants, and sheathed it. He didn’t know what he was going to need down here – better safe than sorry. Bucky had no idea how many operatives were in this building, nor did he know if anyone heard the commotion and called for backup. With a tired sigh, he switched the Skorpion to his right hand and heaved Rumlow’s body up with his left, dragging him down the way that they came. He hustled best he could back down the cellblock, where he used the barrel of his Skorpion to pull Rumlow’s eye open enough to be scanned.

With blood in his hair and on his face, with a body in one hand and a gun in the other, Bucky stalked down the narrow space between cells. He lifted Rumlow’s face up high enough to scan him again – once for Wanda, once for Pietro, and dumped Rumlow’s corpse onto the floor.

The twins didn’t look much better than him, in their hospital gowns and shadowed eyes, and Bucky swore if they got out of this that these kids would never need or want for anything again.

“We can grab that again once we know we’re good to get out of here,” Bucky said, with a vague wave of his Skorpion at Rumlow’s body, “Pietro, you said you’re fast – can you run out see what we’re up against?”

Pietro sketched a lazy salute and said, “Easy.”

And damned if he didn’t run. A blur of motion swept past Bucky and Wanda so fast that their hair whipped back from the breeze.

Bucky whistled. “Damn, dude. He was not kidding,” and heaved yet another sigh of resignation, “I’d offer you this jacket if I knew how the fuck to get it off.” Side by side, he and Wanda marched forward.

Before they approached the doorway, Pietro returned in spectacular fashion skidding in with the medical gown flapping around him, undone. He wasn’t panting, hadn’t broken a sweat. He said, “There are seven agents headed our way. Not sure about the scientists and the doctors, but I know there are a lot of them, and I don’t know if they’re armed.”

“That’s not so bad,” Bucky said, and cracked his neck. The heat radiated through his body, and his dick hurt from being trapped in tac pants stiff with blood, and he could not wait to get on his alpha. But he could do this. He only needed to drop a few more nazis. He pushed his hair back from his head with his left hand and shook his head.

“Let’s do this.”

**

The last time that Steve laid eyes on Arnim Zola’s face, they’d captured him in the Alps. He didn’t see the man after that, but he assumed that the SSR would handle it, or somebody would. Steve apprehended, disabled, and killed – when he had to. He didn’t interrogate, he didn’t infiltrate. He wasn’t like Natasha or Bucky.

He never considered what might have happened to Zola before they took him in.

“Rogers, Steven, born 1918,” said Zola, and then, “Romanov, Natalia Alianovna, born 1984. Stark, Anthony Edward –”

Natasha cocked a brow. “It’s some kind of recording.”

“I am not a recording, fraulein,” replied Zola, “I may not be the man I was when the captain took me prisoner in 1945, but I am.

Tony whirled in his chair to look at Steve and stuck his thumb out at the weasely visage glowing on the holographic screens. “You know this thing?” he asked.

“Arnim Zola was a German scientist who worked for the Red Skull,” explained Steve, “He’s been dead for years.”

“First correction: I am Swiss,” Zola said, “Second: I have never been more alive. In 1972, I received a terminal diagnosis. Science could not save my body. My mind, however, that was worth saving. Once, I lived in 2,000 feet of databanks.” As he spoke, Shuri’s hands flew over the keyboards. She glanced from screen to screen to keys and back again, working faster than Steve’s mind would ever.

Steve bristled. He needed to stall, needed to give Shuri long enough to extract the information that they needed. He didn’t know why Arnim Zola came with this jump drive, but he did need to know what he was guarding. “How did you get here?” he asked.

“As technology evolved, so did I,” Zola answered, pride in his voice.

“No, how are you here? How are you alive?” Steve demanded.

“I was invited,” said Zola.

Natasha’s eyelashes fluttered and a dent formed between her brows. She locked eyes with Steve, and explained to the room at large, “It was Operation Paperclip. After World War II, SHIELD recruited German scientists with...” she shrugged, “strategic value.”

“They thought I could help their cause,” Zola told them, “I also helped my own.”

Sam interjected, “I thought HYDRA died with the Red Skull.”

“Cut off one head,” Zola intoned, and doubled across the holographic screens, “Two more shall take it’s place.”

“Prove it,” said T’Challa, surprising them all. He held one hand against his mouth. Like the rest of then, he, too, furrowed his brow.

“Accessing archive,” said Zola, “HYDRA was founded on the belief that humanity could not be trusted with its own freedom. What we did not realize is that if you try to take that freedom, they resist. The war taught us much. Humanity needed to surrender its freedom willingly. After the war, SHIELD was founded, and I was recruited. The new HYDRA grew, a beautiful parasite...inside SHIELD. For seventy years, HYDRA has been growing, secretly feeding crisis, reaping war–”

“Man, shut the hell up,” Sam interjected.

“I have the files,” Shuri announced, “I got what we need.” All at once, Zola’s image began to flicker in and out.

“We will create a world so chaotic that – humanity will finally be sacrifice...freedom – gain security –”

And he blipped out of existence.

Clint whistled lowly. “Man, what a dick,” he commented.

In Zola’s place, files upon files opened on the screen. Shuri flicked through them on the touchscreens with one hand and typed with the other. She paused, hand hovering over the for a brief moment, and said, “These files mention Sergeant Barnes.”

“Pull them up,” Steve commanded.

“You might not wanna pull on that thread,” Natasha warned.

“Pull them up,” he repeated.

Shuri opened the file. What followed detailed medical torture and brainwashing, logs upon logs of scientific analysis of the destruction of a human being. Some files listed came in video format, labeled only test01, test02, over and over and over. Steve didn’t want to think what those could be, what they meant.

“Bast,” breathed Shuri, “No wonder he was feral by the time they brought him to us.”

Steve’s stomach flipped over in his gut. He wanted to vomit. He wanted to scream. He wanted to fly into a rage. The pungent aroma of alpha aggression rolled out in a massive wave, and he couldn’t stop it. Anger rattled through him in a way it had not ever before, even on the streets of Brooklyn as a tiny, queer alpha with a constant bank of barely-contained rage. He smashed his fist against the glass door and it shattered under his strength.

“Christ, Steve, can you, I don’t know, respect the space?” Tony snapped.

“We don’t have to look at these,” Shuri hurried to say, and pulled the files aside with a flick of her hand to the monitor. She moved on to continue her search for useful information while Steve slid out of his rage, disoriented and furious. No matter what it took, he would get to Bucky, and he would make sure that no one had the power to do what they did to him ever, ever again.

“Here!” exclaimed Shuri.

Steve raked both hands through his hair and paced back to the screens. “What am I looking at?” he asked.

“This is a database of HYDRA locations,” Natasha said, “May I take over for a moment?”

Shuri stepped aside with a ‘by all means’ sweep of her hand, and Natasha took to the keyboard. In a handful of minutes, she pulled up coordinates, cross-referenced a map of DC, and said, “There’s only one location within a thirty minute radius of the church where he was taken. It’s a bank, and if I’m reading this right, it’s got a whole treasure chest of fun underneath it. I’d bet anything that if they’re not holding him there now, that’s where they started.”

“Good,” Steve said, “Everyone get suited up. You have twenty minutes. T’Challa, one more favor?”

“I will give you a ride, Captain Rogers,” T’Challa responded, with a brief, fond roll of his eyes.

“Thank you,” Steve said, and he meant it. Then, to the rest of them: “Let’s go. Nineteen minutes.”

Steve was in his new suit and shields in eight. Sam pursed his lips at the sight. Natasha’s brow twitched. Clint let out a succinct ‘huh’, but Tony said, “Did you literally spray paint a million-dollar uniform? Nevermind, don’t answer that. I have two eyes and I can see. So, you’re really done being Cap, then?”

“Sam is Captain America,” Steve said, as the Talon Fighter lifted from the landing pad.

“You’ll need a new call sign,” reasoned Natasha.

“Well, he looks like a hobo,” Tony said, “Hobo? Vagrant?”

“See, I think with the whole claw shields thing, you’d be missing a real golden opportunity if you didn’t call yourself KittyCap,” Clint put in.

Sam groaned, T'Challa rolled his eyes, Natasha slugged Clint on the arm, Shuri high-fived him, and Tony steamrolled past it entirely. “Hitchhiker? Transient?”

“Thank you, Thesaurus Dot Com,” Sam said to him, “We get the picture.”

“Ooh! You could be Drifter!”

“No, thank you,” Steve replied.

“I know! Wanderer. Hm, no. Too Tolkien. Floater? Nomad?”

Steve straightened. “Actually...”

“C’mon, man,” Sam said, and looked between Tony and Steve, “You’ve gotta be kidding me.”

Steve lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I like Nomad.”

“Don’t you think that’s a little dramatic?” Sam asked.

Steve cast his eyes away from his friends. “Yeah,” he said, and felt an indulgent smile teasing the edges of his mouth, “but if what Bucky tells me is true, then I’m just a little dramatic.”

T’Challa’s Talon Fighter soared to DC, cloaked and faster than any other vehicle that the Avengers had on hand. Within twenty minutes of departure, they sailed over the city, a topographical sight Steve didn’t care to become accustomed to. The parking lot of the bank-base stood empty, an odd thing for a weekday afternoon, but convenient for their touch-down. The Talon Fighter afforded them a few minutes more surprise by virtue of its invisibility, but the moment that Tony blasted through the locks on the back door with his respulsors, they would be made.

“After Tony busts through the door, I’ll take point,” Steve told them, “Sam, you’re on my right. Natasha, left. T’Challa and Clint on our six. Shuri, if anything goes wrong while we’re in there – contact Bruce and Pepper. They’ll know what to do.”

“I could come,” Shuri offered again, rocking back and forth on her heels.

T’Challa turned a withering glance at her and said, “No, you cannot.”

She groaned, but collapsed in the front console chair and spun around once. “Fine. Contact Bruce and Pepper. I understand.”

As they disembarked, winter air nipped at them, but the sky shone clear and crisp.

The repulsors whined, the door blew off its hinges, and they stormed into an eerily average corridor. Nothing but an elaborate fingerprint-scanning lock stood out. Steve reached to punch it out, but T’Challa stopped him with a hand to the shoulder. He stepped forward in Steve’s place, produced a kimoyo bead, and pressed it to the device. The door whooshed open without a sound.

“Good thinking,” Steve said, and shifted to stand behind T’Challa as he silently opened door after door with his beads, guiding them through a veritable labyrinth of building.

When the elevator brought them to another hallway, screaming met their arrival. Steve went on alert immediately, pushing his way back to the front of the pack. He extended his shields, and dove into the fray. Around the corner, a balding man in a labcoat ran – ran away from something. He skidded to a stop in front of them.

“Don’t – don’t hurt me,” he begged.

“Then tell me,” Steve said, and he snatched the man up by the collar of his neatly ironed shirt, “where the fuck is my omega?”

The color drained out of the man’s face. He opened his mouth, but no words came out. Instead, he lifted his arm and pointed back from where he’d come. With a growl, Steve threw him backward. He bit out, “Somebody arrest him or something.”

And then the heat-smell hit him. Sweet, kitchen spice, heady and sensual, and God, Steve didn’t know it was possible to fall in love even more with a scent, but he stopped dead in his tracks to smell it. Heat rose at the apples of his cheeks, and his heartbeat sped up.

His omega was here. His omega was in heat. His omega needed him.

“Hoo, shit,” Sam said, lifting the shield as though to cover his nose, “That is, uh, a smell, all right.”

Steve didn’t care anymore about his plan. What did tactics matter when his omega was imprisoned and in heat? He charged forward, abandoned his team, only to meet more people running. Papers fluttered in the air, clipboards forgotten on the floor as scientists and doctors scrambled to get away from something. Something that Steve had yet to meet. Something that Bucky might need to get away from, too. Fuck fuck fuck. Steve shoved bodies out of his way, pounding them to walls and floor to clear his way.

The first operative unfortunate enough to cross Steve’s path got the sharp end of one of the shields and a kick to the gut. He slammed the beta up against the wall and shook him. “Tell me where Bucky is. Tell me where to find my omega!”

“He’s back there,” the HYDRA operative cried, feet scrambling for purchase against the wall. “Let me go. Please let me go.”

But before Steve could think, a bullet whizzed past his nose, meeting its mark in the center of the agent’s forehead. Steve dropped the body on the floor and lifted his shields to face the threat.

There, in the center of the gore, amidst bodies crumpled at his feet, stood Bucky, a gun in either hand. Blood spattered across his face and hair, and at his back, a pair of young people, one girl and a one boy, in medical gowns fought alongside him in flashes of red light and blurred color. The fight, it seemed, was largely handled.

And the moment Bucky met Steve’s eyes, he lifted his gun in a ‘come on’ motion, and snarked, “Well it’s about fuckin’ time, Steve. Apparently, a guy’s gotta do all his own saving these days.”

A long, relieved breath escaped Steve’s lungs. Too many feelings crashed into him all at once, but the foremost among them was love, love for his omega, for Bucky. Bucky, who rescued himself. Bucky, who stood bathed in blood and reeking of heat.

“Bucky,” he managed, and ran at him. He retracted the sharpest parts of the shields and scooped Bucky into his arms, tugging their chests tight together, as tightly as they could go. He tucked his nose into Bucky’s neck, indifferent to onlookers, desperate to gather as much of that perfect scent into him as he could, desperate to mark Bucky as his own. He released his omega only at a grunt of protest, and before Bucky could get a word in edgewise, Steve announced, “Bucky,” shaking his shoulders, “Bucky, I love you.”

For an instant, Bucky stared, slack-mouthed. Then, he huffed a soft breath, and nodded. Bucky lurched forward, pressed a single, heated, close-mouthed kiss on Steve’s mouth, and said, “I love you too, you absolute fucker. Now can we get this show on the road? I’m pissed off, and I am sticky, and I am horny. Take me home.”

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Track: Baby – Bishop Briggs

He’s Got A Few Scars

 

Bucky could have done without most of the Avengers (although not Thor, so at least the cold and unfeeling universe saw fit to grant him one act of mercy) bearing witness to his humiliating situation, but if nothing else, he wrangled the bondage jacket off. He didn’t sit, but rather paced the length of the Talon Fighter, arms folded across his chest while the slick gluing his tac pants to his ass and the backs of his thighs tugged and chafed.

“Sorry about – you know,” Bucky waved a hand, “the smell.”

“Happens to the best of us,” Tony replied, pointedly not removing the ventilated Iron Man mask, “At least you don’t have to ride it out alone.”

Bucky’s eyes flicked to Steve, who’d shifted from HYDRA Fighting to Concerned Alpha the moment that they stepped onto T’Challa’s ship. He didn’t blatantly stand over Bucky’s shoulder, but he did hover a respectable distance and stare down every unfortunate alpha among them, as though Clint or T’Challa had any interest in a blood-covered omega who hadn’t had the occasion to bathe in almost a week and probably smelled ready to punch anyone that came too close.

Somewhere along the line, somebody clothed Wanda and Pietro and took their hospital gowns, optimistically, to be burned. They perched quietly the furthest they could be from the rest of them, pressed side to side, unable to let another ago now that they didn’t have a wall between them.

If Bucky weren’t trapped in his current predicament, he’d offer to take them in. Instead, Tony granted them access to Clint’s untouched apartment, at least for the time being. It wouldn’t be a nest, or even close to one, but anything beat a HYDRA cell.

But if Bucky’s ma caught wind that he’d collected two orphaned twenty-year-olds with no place to go – and she would, somehow – they’d never worry about having a place to go ever again.

“I’ll check in on you once this is over,” Bucky nonetheless assured them, as they disembarked from the Talon Fighter onto the Avengers Tower landing pad. Even frigid winter couldn’t pierce through the writhing fever below the surface of Bucky’s skin, as visions of Steve danced through his head, one obscene image after another. He willed the train of thought away long enough to take Wanda by the shoulders and promise, “They’re not assholes, these guys. They’re just really, really annoying.”

Social niceties blew under the circumstances, but Bucky sucked it up long enough to do his overcomplicated handshake with Princess Shuri and tell her goodbye. This was the least that he could do when she’d saved his ass another time, yet again.

“We should probably stop meeting like this, Sergeant Barnes,” she told him.

Bucky blew a sticky piece of hair out of his face. “What, when I’m covered in blood and fighting for my life?”

Shuri grinned. “Something like that,” she said.

“I’ll make a note to stop by Wakanda for a cup of coffee sometime,” Bucky told her.

“See that you do,” T’Challa said, surprising both his sister and Bucky.

“Buck, come on,” Steve called, already halfway between the Talon Fighter and the door.

“Baby, I’m bein’ polite,” Bucky shouted back, and then, to T’Challa and Shuri, “Sorry, he has no manners. I’ll come see you sometime, when it’s not an emergency, for once.”

“The goats miss you,” Shuri told him.

Bucky brightened. “They do?” he said, and then, remembering his situation, “Text me. I wanna see how big Marigold is, but, uh, gotta, you know...yeah.” Bucky sputtered to the finish, sticking his thumb out at Steve.

Then, he jogged to join his alpha, who scooped Bucky up into his arms and kissed him, in full view of Wakandan royalty, most of the Avengers, and a pair of superpowered Sokovian orphans. He petted his hands over either side of Bucky’s head, applied a kiss to the center of Bucky’s head. “Have I mentioned that I love you?” he murmured, loud only enough for Bucky’s ears.

Bucky smirked. “Only about sixty times since I rescued myself and T’Challa came to give me a ride home,” he replied, and smacked his hand across Steve’s ass before he bounded to the door, giving Steve the opportunity to chase him, for the fun of run.

Bucky made it inside Avengers Tower and into the elevator before Steve caught up, caging him in with that massive body. He growled, a low and longing possessive sound, and then buried his nose in Bucky’s neck, snuffling along the length of his throat, before licking one, confident stripe over it, rubbing scent into Bucky.

“A for enthusiasm, pal, but as much as I wanna be fucked into next week, I refuse to do it this gross,” Bucky said. He did not, however, push Steve away. Instead, he wrapped one hand around the thick strap of the harness framing Steve’s pecs – they would have to revisit that as soon as Bucky’s brain came back online – and yanked him in close. Bucky kissed Steve, nipped down on his lower lip. With a playful tug of teeth, he breathily added, “but we can make out no matter how gross I am.”

Steve took to the invitation with hunger in every line of his body. He coiled one arm around Bucky’s waist to heft him up close, but braced his free hand flat against the wall of the elevator, keeping Bucky boxed into the corner, subject to his whim. He dove in, kissing with tongue and teeth and soft, needy noises. He babbled alpha bullshit about Bucky being his, about wanting him so bad, about how he couldn’t wait to get inside him. The talk didn’t help Bucky’s pants situation, and he curved into Steve’s touch at the words, closer and closer, desperate for pressure.

A gentle clearing of a throat broke the spell as JARVIS announced, “Sirs. This is your floor.”

Steve straightened and coughed. “Thank you, JARVIS,” he managed.

“My pleasure,” was JARVIS’ dry response, to which Bucky laughed.

As they strode into the apartment, Bucky stretched his arms over his head. He shed his undershirt, relieved to get the fabric off his heat-sensitive skin. He left a trail of clothing in his impatience to get to the bathroom, shucking boots and the tac pants stiff with too many bodily fluids until he stood nude before their gloriously massive bathtub. Steve stumbled after him, far less gross as he wriggled out of the suit and came to stand behind Bucky, nosing again along his throat, the alpha sap.

Steam curled from the pool of water as Bucky filled the tub. In an effort to be helpful, Steve retrieved the plastic container of bath bombs that Bucky kept beneath the sink. Bucky chose one of the peach-shaped ones with a wink at Steve, who, bless his heart, flushed pink all the way down his chest as Bucky tossed it into the bathwater. That Steve could blush when they’d done any and all manner of dirty things to one another tugged at Bucky’s heartstrings, even amid his desperation to be clean and to be filled.

With a test of his toes first, Bucky slid into the inviting blanket of hot water, submerging all the way in. He lingered below the surface for a heartbeat to loosen the dirt and oil from his hair, then broke back up.

Steve stood fidgeting, standing beside the tub, and Bucky rolled his eyes. He inclined his head to beckon him in and said, “Get in here, you big idiot.”

“You’re calling me a lot of names today,” Steve remarked, but obeyed. He stepped into the water and sat with his chest snug to Bucky, his erection stiff against the small of Bucky’s back. He didn’t make a move to rut against him as another alpha might, simply sat still, his breath not-quite-even as Bucky leaned against him and pillowed his head on Steve’s pecs.

“Mm,” Bucky said, “You smell nice. Like, really good. I love you.”

Steve petted his head. He rumbled, “I love you too. Want me to wash your hair?”

“Yes please.”

Steve poured Bucky’s nice shampoo over the top of his head in a generous dollop, then massaged the suds into his long, too-long-unwashed hair. He scritched his nails over Bucky’s scalp in tender little movements, all which felt wonderful until Steve’s nail scraped over one of his scars. Bucky jumped and tensed, hand smacking to the site. The skin stung there as it had not in years. He shriveled in on himself, but Steve steadied him with an arm slung around chest.

“You’re not there,” he said, “You’re not there and they’re never going to take you again. I promise.”

“I know that,” Bucky snapped, “I fucking know that. They put me in that chair and they made me forget again and it hurts, okay?”

“Okay,” Steve agreed, and wriggled back to sit straighter, the pressure of his erection now absent. He slid one hand down to lace his fingers with Bucky’s, then went on, “What do you need?”

“I don’t know,” Bucky answered, and that was the truth. He knew what his body needed. His body needed to be knotted and to come, but he didn’t know what he needed at all. He had only the blueprint of recovery from Wakanda, an entirely different place, an entirely different time, an entirely different version of himself that needed healing in a different way than he did now.

“Can I make a suggestion?” Steve asked.

Bucky lifted his free hand. “By all means,” he said.

“You’ll feel better after you’re clean,” said Steve, “So why don’t we do that first? Then when we’re dry, you can make a den in the bedroom, and you can lie in it for a little while? I can be there if you want me to. We don’t have to do anything if you don’t want to. Or we can take care of the heat together if that’s what you want. You’re driving this train, sweetheart.”

Sweetheart. He was Steve’s sweetheart. He knew now that Steve never meant that as a casual endearment, but said it out of love, and Bucky’s heart ached at the certainty of it. He leaned into Steve’s chest once more, and commanded, “Keep going. Just...don’t touch the scars.”

Steve kissed the top of his soapy head and demurred, “You got it.”

Bucky relaxed while Steve washed his hair. They paused to drain the bathtub of murky water, of dirt and blood and sweat, then refilled to finish bathing. In fresh, hot water, the throbbing of Bucky’s body dulled down from a roar to a steady beat, though the thick of the heat rose in him, his body unfulfilled. The circle of his alpha’s arms drew him into the sensation of safety, of home. While his conditioned hair sat in a pile atop his head, Bucky asked quietly, “Can you touch me? Please.”

A long alpha rumble vibrated in Steve’s chest. He asked, “Where do you want me?”

Bucky gripped Steve by the wrist and guided his hand to his neglected cock. He moved the other to his swollen entrance, where slick leaked steadily into the bathwater, clouding the bathroom with a heady scent of omega arousal, of imminent desperation. Steve didn’t comment, though his breath caught against Bucky’s ear as he closed his fist around Bucky’s erection.

A mewl bubbled up from Bucky’s throat. Steve didn’t give him the opportunity to adjust to the onslaught of sensitivity. Every stroke of Steve’s fist brought a shower of sparks with it, and when the tip of one finger breached him, Bucky moaned. He wanted to be knotted, to be full, but this was good. So good. He rubbed up against Steve, hitching into the touch at both ends, until an orgasm took him by storm and he spilled into the water with an aborted gasp, his ass clenching around the finger inside him, pleading for more.

Loose-limbed, Bucky let his body fall, calm and unconstrained, onto Steve.

“Good?” Steve asked.

“Mm.”

“I’m gonna pick you up, and we’ll rinse off in the shower, okay?”

That sounded good, but also not quite. Bucky wanted Steve to smell like him, to smell like his. Steve belonged to him.

“Yes, I do,” agreed Steve.

Had Bucky said that out loud?

“Yes, you did,” Steve told him, “and we’ll have plenty of time to make me smell like you, okay? How long do your heats usually last?”

“Four days,” Bucky mumbled, burying his face into the space between Steve’s pecs. He liked it there. He liked it there very, very much, but the bliss didn’t last. Steve maneuvered Bucky to standing with his hands tucked into Bucky’s armpits, then heaved him up in a fireman-carry to the shower. To Steve’s credit, the rinse was quick and cursory, on and off with military-precision.

Afterward, Steve passed him two soft towels – red, not white; somewhere along the line Steve got a bug up his ass about not having white towels. He asked, “Buck, you gonna be okay if I get some stuff ready for us?”

“Yeah – I’m fine,” Bucky answered, “Just horny. And kinda woozy.”

The towels grated against his sensitive skin, but Bucky forced himself to dry off enough to pad after Steve into the bedroom. There, on the bed, true nesting-grade material lay folded on the bedspread, blankets and pillows stacked in neat towers along the edge of the mattress. Bucky ran his fingers over them, relishing the softness. None of this would grind against his heat-addled skin. When he moved a stack to begin working, he found a handful of toys arranged in a neat row behind them.

“When did you get all of this?” asked Bucky.

Steve shrugged a shoulder, “A while ago. I thought you might need it sometime.”

His alpha was so thoughtful. His alpha was the best. Bucky let the pile of blankets in his arms fall to the floor, then rushed Steve, leaping into his arms with a running jump. He coiled his arms around Steve’s neck and hitched his legs around his waist. Bucky kissed him, hard, all-too-eager all at once to have his alpha inside him, filling up his body and his senses.

With some reluctance, he let Steve go and shifted around furniture and the nesting linens to craft his ideal heat den, no easy task when all he wanted was to be knotted, to come and be sated, to be held by his alpha. Still, Bucky didn’t skimp on comfort.With patient movements, he draped sheets over chairs to block out some of the sunlight, and padded the floor with pillows before tugging a soft blanket over them. When he finished, he stuck his head out from between the gap in two sheets and said, “You can come in now.”

Steve fell to his knees and crawled inside the den.

“How do you want me?” he asked.

All at once, Steve’s current state occurred to Bucky. His erection hung hard, heavy, and untouched in between thick legs. Need flushed his face and ears and chest. He hadn’t moved to touch his cock or to insinuate himself into Bucky’s space, but waited for instructions from his omega. For all Steve’s impatience in so much of his life, he extended so much restraint on Bucky’s behalf. Some people alleged that an alpha could not control himself around an omega in heat, but Steve did so with an iron grip. He ignored his discomfort in deference to Bucky.

Bucky loved him so much.

With an inhale, Bucky steeled himself, and flipped onto his belly. He pushed his ass into the air and Steve whined long and low – but still did not yet touch.

“Get in me. Please,” Bucky said.

Steve didn’t leap onto Bucky and hump into him as others might. He took his time, draping his body over Bucky’s to press kisses to his skin starting at the back of his neck and following the ridges of his spine, leaving a heated trail of need in their wake. At the end, he dipped his face between Bucky’s cheeks and lapped up slick. He pushed his tongue inside Bucky’s body and it was good, so good, but not what he wanted, not what he needed.

“Steve,” Bucky complained, “Stop teasing.”

An amused huff of breath ghosted across Bucky’s too-hot hole. Steve rolled back away, and Bucky whined his annoyance, only a second’s worth of protest before the head of Steve’s cock grazed against him. 

“I will literally kill you with my bare hands if you make me beg, Rogers,” Bucky grit out. He shoved his ass up, further into Steve’s grip, hoping his instruction was clear.

“I’m goin’, I’m goin’,” Steve answered, and at last, he pushed his cock inside Bucky.

Bucky’s body sang with satisfaction. This – he wanted. This was perfect. And then, bless him, Steve braced his palms on the fronts of Bucky’s thighs, holding them in a wicked grip, and manhandled him upward. He thrust, deep and certain, and Bucky groaned into the pillows. The noise encouraged Steve into another powerful push of his body, and forward he went, rhythm picking up into a hard tattoo. The slap of skin on skin echoed in the bedroom, and the sheets containing the heat den fluttered with the force of their undulating bodies.

Bucky didn’t know what he said, only that words tumbled out of his mouth unbidden, encouragement and praise. “You’re a good alpha,” he cried, “You’re such a good alpha. You’re my alpha.”

The declaration inspired Steve into fucking harder. Bucky could only scrabble at the blankets and pillows, clutching fabric in two clenched fists as he sought purchase. Steve growled, and the pressure of his knot growing outward tugged inside Bucky.

“Fuck,” Bucky cursed, “Harder. Knot me. Knot me.”

Steve obeyed. He doubled his efforts, driving inside him, knot thickening, delicious fullness swelling. “You’re my omega,” Steve told him, and at that, Bucky came into the blankets. His vision whited out, his body and brain disconnected from one another, and pleasure wracked him as Steve ground those last, few, solid thrusts before he grunted, and liquid warmth filled Bucky to the brim, his body finally satisfied.

Steve hitched them onto their sides and patted Bucky’s flank. “How’re you feelin’?” he mumbled into Bucky’s shoulder. He nosed up, then scraped his teeth over the place a mating bite would go. He prodded with his teeth, testing. Oh, Bucky wanted that more than anything. He wanted that so much.

“M’good,” Bucky replied, when he remembered that Steve wanted an answer.

Steve fussed nonetheless. Bucky allowed it, let Steve comb his fingers through Bucky’s damp hair, let him pet his sides and squeeze his biceps as though he couldn’t believe that Bucky were there, their bodies locked together and wet with sweat and peach-scented bathwater.

“I was so scared,” Steve admitted, “when they got you. I thought I might never see you again.”

Bucky swallowed the instinct to tell Steve that he was fine, that he could take care of himself. He hated to admit to being scared – his fear, like Steve’s, came out in fits of aggression – but the chair awoke long-settled nightmares, reviving them like a necromancer let loose in a cemetery. He wiggled back against Steve, grabbed his arm, and draped it across his waist, so his alpha’s body could cover his as wholly as possible.

Safe.

Though Bucky didn’t admit aloud to his own fear, he knew that Steve could smell it.

“I’m glad I’m home,” Bucky said instead.

Steve rumbled agreement and snuffled along Bucky’s throat. He nudged a handful of kisses onto his skin, then said, “I’m glad you are, too.”

**

After Steve’s knot went down, they shuffled into the kitchen, only to realize that their several-day absence left them very much in need of food. Steve sighed at the open mouth of their empty fridge and ordered groceries while Bucky cleaned himself up as much as made sense for being in heat. Typically between waves, Bucky futzed around with mobile games and prayed for an early death, but he realized, with a flash of irritation, that HYDRA took his cellphone with the rest of his shit, and on top of everything else, he’d need to get a new one.

And he needed to contact his family.

The last time he went this radio silent, he’d begun his contract with Steve.

And before that, his radio silence was a product of his capture.

Bucky tried to put that out of his mind. He tried not to think of the latent memories that Wanda dredged up, images and flashes of pain that weren’t new, but uncovered. Like finding the belongings of a missing body at the bottom of a ditch, recollections surfaced one after the other in a macabre trail. His only comfort came in knowing that though they promised to use him to kill, the only casualty that came at their command was that Sampson guy, and no one else. Even then, knowing someone used Bucky’s body as a conduit for murder against his own will – a shiver rolled down his spine.

Bile rose up in his throat. He wished his heat waited to come until after this crisis, but then, biology never did like to cooperate with outside universe.

In the meantime, Bucky stuffed everything into the back of his mind. He booted up his computer in the living room. “Baby, how much does everyone know about what happened?”

Steve collapsed, naked, onto the couch beside Bucky. He said, “Nothing’s public. Not yet. I told Becca something was going on, but I didn’t tell her what, and I told her not to tell your sisters.”

“It’s been days. They’re freaking out. And I need a new phone.”

“I’ll ask Tony,” Steve said. He rubbed a hand over the curve of Bucky’s back, “How’s the heat?”

“Okay for now,” Bucky said, but he knew that Steve could smell that Bucky was spiraling into another wave, would probably need help within the next half an hour. He reassured him with a pat to the thigh, and said, “We’ll go after I tell my sisters I’m not dead, okay?”

He pulled up the chat on desktop with a long, irritated sigh. Sure enough, his sisters expressed worry of varying severity over the course of the past week, though Becca remained suspiciously less intense than the other two – not that Rachel and Judy noticed as they escalated.

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

 

January 10, 2019

 

[4:49 PM] Bucky:

[Image: Knuckles the Echidna “I lived bitch” tweet]

 

[4:51 PM] Becca: oh thank fuck

 

[4:59 PM] Rachel: ??? what does this mean

 

[5:01 PM] Bucky: very long story but the tl;dr is that it sucked and I rescued myself from science nazis

 

[5:02 PM] Steve: I helped

 

[5:03 PM] Bucky: ugh barely

[5:04 PM] Bucky: anyway can’t talk for like four days i’m in heat

 

[5:06 PM] Judy: ew tmi

 

[5:08 PM] Bucky: IT’S A NATURAL BODILY FUNCTION I HAVE NOTHING TO BE ASHAMED OF

[5:09 PM] Bucky: talk later, slick mountain

 

“Anyway,” Bucky said, clicking the laptop closed and shoving it aside on the coffee table. His heart beat faster and his skin itched, neither of which the heat was responsible for – this time. He flopped back, setting his head in Steve’s lap, and gazed up at him. “You love me,” he said, tentative. 

Historically, Bucky didn’t do well at feelings. When it came to Steve, he knew them with one hundred percent certainty, but he nonetheless struggled with the right words. Poetry didn’t come to him naturally as it came to some, his sister Rachel among them.

Bucky relied upon instinct and logic, neither of which love deigned to cater to.

Steve stroked the pad of his thumb over Bucky’s cheekbone. He said, “And you love me.”

Bucky let his eyes flutter closed to a moment and enjoyed the soft touches of his alpha. Steve traced the rise and fall of each of his feature, leaving behind the barest hint of his scent. When Bucky opened his eyes again, he said, “I think we should get mated.”

Steve’s brows went up. “My omega,” he murmured, “Did you just propose to me?”

Bucky smiled a little. “Guess I did. You gonna do something about it?”

Steve growled. He hefted Bucky up into his arms and kissed him, hard. Bucky clung to Steve, let him take control. When they pulled apart, gasping, Steve said, “I’m gonna say yes. That’s what I’m gonna do.”

Bucky let himself be carried back to the den, where Steve set him down atop the soft materials, all of which now smelled like them, co-mingled, the way that Bucky had come to know home to smell. Steve hovered above him, big and perfect with Bucky’s legs hooked around his middle. He bent at the waist to apply a kiss to the center of his forehead, to each of his cheeks, to the underside of his jaw, and at last the blank stretch of skin where the bite would go.

“Here?” asked Steve, voice low, possessive.

Bucky’s voice broke as he answered, “Yeah,” and then, “but I wanna – wanna be tied together.”

“Heat hurtin’, sweetheart?”

Bucky nodded.

“I’ll take care of you,” Steve promised.

“I know you will,” replied Bucky, “My good alpha.”

Steve preened under the praise, and he didn’t dawdle. He touched Bucky everywhere that he could reach, feeling over slopes of muscle, of his ridged abdomen and through his hair, where it splayed loose over the pillowed floor. Bucky’s body responded in kind. Wracked with heat, he shivered into the soft nest, aching and sweating and ready to be filled. He let his legs fall open, a clear invitation, which elicited a pleased growl, alpha approval, a moment before Steve hitched Bucky close to him with one solid arm. With the other, he guided his cock forward, steady and certain.

The sharpest symptoms of heat retreated the moment that Steve sunk in to the hilt, relief overflowing. Bucky threw his head back in the pillows and blew all the air out of his lungs.

Steve chuckled. “Good?”

Bucky nodded. “Fuck, yeah.”

Sometimes smug alpha filled the nose and rankled the nerves. Steve’s self-satisfaction, however, made Bucky almost giddy – he laughed, not because anything in particular was funny, but because his joy had no place to go but out. Steve swallowed the laugh in a kiss. He grinned into it, eyes crinkling at the corners.

Nose to nose, they traded kisses while Steve ground into Bucky’s body, slow and dirty and sweet. They laughed, and when Steve teased him by stilling his body, Bucky used his legs to flip Steve onto his back and rode him at the pace he wanted it. He reveled in the sensation of using Steve for his pleasure, answering Steve’s happy, punched-out sounds with a few of his own. When Bucky climbed off of Steve, the emptiness shook through his body, a storm of need.

He tapped Steve’s side and urged him to sit up, then, Bucky lay belly-down in the nest and presented. He said, “I wanna do it like this. Bite me like this.”

Steve kneaded his knuckles into Bucky’s shoulder blades, then took Bucky’s ass in both hands and parted the cheeks. For a beat, he let Bucky sweat into the blankets, long enough for Bucky to release a needy mewl. That sound spurred Steve into action, alpha hindbrain too far gone to do anything but answer his omega.

He fucked into Bucky, solid and constant. When Steve’s slick, hot palm closed over Bucky’s erection, a bubble burst. Bucky lost his hold on reality, gave his control wholly to Steve. Steve would take care of him, would give him what he needed and what he wanted no matter what. Never once had he trusted an alpha to take the reins, but a final wall crumbled someplace in him. His eager body basked in the attention, in the tight enclosure of Steve’s hand around him, of the unyielding hardness pumping in and out and back again, thickness growing with each thrust.

Steve leaned over him and plastered his chest to Bucky’s back. He nipped at one of Bucky’s ears and scraped his teeth over his neck.

“Make me yours,” Bucky whispered.

An animal noise tore from Steve, and then searing pain clashed against the onslaught of Bucky’s orgasm, two polarized sensations that should not have worked together but struck something melodic inside him. Euphoria twisted through him with such force that his body seized up, breath knocked from his lungs. No one thing swam to Bucky’s consciousness as he ascended to some new plane, some other place that he never wanted to leave.

In the back of his mind, Steve’s knot locking into place occurred to him, but he didn’t dwell on it. Instead, Bucky drifted in the sea of pheromones and happy and mate.

He didn’t come to until Steve slipped out of his body. Bucky made an unhappy sound at the feeling of it, and Steve answered with a worried rumble.

“M’okay,” Bucky assured him, “Never had that...happen before.” Never trusted somebody enough to let it.

“C’mere,” Steve said back, and gathered Bucky back to him, turning their bodies so they lay on their sides, face to face and breath mingling.

“Hey,” Bucky said, grinning, lightheaded and dopey.

Steve grinned back. “Hey,” he answered, and pecked a kiss to the tip of Bucky’s nose. “I love you,” he murmured.

“Love you, too.”

“Can I ask you to do something?”

Bucky squinted at him. “What’s that?” he asked.

“I want you to bite me too,” Steve told him.

Bucky frowned. He put his hand against Steve’s throat. The pulse jumped against his palm, and Steve swallowed against the motion. Bucky said, “Baby, it’s – it’s gonna go away. You’re gonna heal.”

“I know,” Steve said, “but when I heal, you can keep claiming me.”

“Really? Over and over and over again? Just like that?”

Steve exhaled. “Just like that. As long as you keep choosing me. Over and over and over again.”

Bucky thought of the Steve that he arrived to. He thought of the man so terrified of taking up space that he erased his own existence as he lived, leaving no trace of Steve Rogers but embracing the mask of Captain America. He remembered his bleeding, broken hands. He remembered catching the shield as Steve threw it in the haze of a nightmare. He remembered waking to a stoic man ignoring all instinct in favor of Bucky’s comfort.

But Steve chose to let his scent drift in these rooms. He chose to put down a shield and take up new weapons. He chose not to break in the midst of nightmares, but to create. He chose to choose: to make decisions that revolved around his self, to let the burden of the world’s need fall onto new shoulders. Every day he would choose these all over again. Mental illness worked in that way: no cure whisked away gore and terror. No magic wave of a wand would drain a man of pain eternally. No, each day, one chose to keep going, to keep fighting, to keep choosing.

Steve chose.

And in those choices, he chose Bucky.

And Bucky? – “I’ll always choose you,” he whispered, and sunk his teeth into Steve’s throat to make his claim.

Chapter Text

Chapter Twenty-Two

Ending Credits: In Our Bedroom After the War – Stars

We Are Beginning

 

“Brain scans show minor localized damage to your hippocampus, but in comparison to the medical documents we have from Wakanda, the pieces that took a hit from the chair have regenerated, and are likely to continue to do so. Miss Maximoff’s ability to manipulate reality most likely took derailed memories and reset burnt-out neural pathways, but the real player in all this is the healing factor,” Dr. Cho explained, “The cases I’ve seen similar to this – only Captain Rogers and Dr. Banner compare in cellular regeneration. Whatever HYDRA experimented on you with, it’s close enough to the superserum to have made a difference, but not quite the formula – your healing factor isn’t as quick to the draw as Captain Rogers’, so recovery from injuries will be a longer process, and you’ll still scar. Nonetheless, your strength and healing are far above average human capability. It’s a knock-off, but a very good one.”

Bucky jiggled his leg. Dr. Cho hadn’t forced him into a medical gown, nor did she put him on a table or touch his head, but sitting in a medical setting – however upgraded to accommodate the medical needs of Avengers – put Bucky’s teeth on edge. Steve’s hand on his shoulder leveled him, but needling panic persisted.

Not knowing what was done to him, however, scared Bucky more than doctors.

“What does that mean for me?” he asked.

Dr. Cho met his eye, and did not falter as she said, “You are effectively a supersoldier. I’ve looked into the HYDRA files Princess Shuri retrieved, as well, and the information they recorded indicates that they were well aware that the experimentation on you was a success – and that there were many before you that were not.”

Bucky shivered, a lump in his throat at the notion of a trail of bodies behind his survival. Perhaps scenting his distress, Steve edged closer to him, stroking the pad of his thumb over the ridges of Bucky’s mating bite.

When Bucky could not find his words, Steve asked, “Where do we go from here?”

Dr. Cho replied, “That’s up to Sergeant Barnes. Medically?” – she returned her attention to Bucky – “Medically, I believe you will regain most, if not all, your memories, based upon the rate of healing we have observed thus far. As far as what may come with those...I expect you will experience some of what you did in Wakanda...nightmares, anxiety. I can recommend some therapists, if you’d like, but it’s a short list. Many of our SHIELD-vetted people have been named in the HYDRA files as double agents.”

“Uh,” Bucky managed, “then let’s skip that for now. At least until we’re sure who we can trust.”

“I understand,” replied Dr. Cho, “Unfortunately, we don’t have the tools to echo the care you received in Wakanda, but I hope you know that we’ll do our best to help you through this.”

Bucky muttered his thanks. He knew that there was little to be done. Due to the nature of his recent celebrity, anyone that had access to him, mind and body, would need to be heavily vetted. Who did so in light of HYRDA’s presence in SHIELD had yet to be determined. In the meantime, Bucky would tough it out at the side of his alpha. He wasn’t opposed to seeking medication for his fantastic dip back into generalized anxiety, but the superserum complicated anything he might be prescribed.

What a shitshow.

“Natasha wants us to meet her in her apartment,” Steve told him, as they left lab-turned-doctor’s office.

“Do we have to?” asked Bucky, “I kinda wanna go home and cuddle with my dog.”

“She says she wants to ask you something, specifically,” Steve replied.

Bucky sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose between his forefinger and thumb. “I guess, then.”

Quiet settled between them for a beat. Then, Steve said, “You never did tell me why Wakanda helped you. Even when Thanos came...they were reluctant to help. When they realized the threat truly came at the price of the entire world, that’s when T’Challa invited us. But – you were the first American that they allowed inside the country.”

“Wakanda’s espionage is the greatest in the world,” answered Bucky, “Like a lot of their stuff. When I was still a marine, I got stationed a couple different places for a little bit. Okinawa was one of them. You’d think that would be a quiet place, but we got some nutso scientist out there, roundabouts 2009. He built these little robot things that poisoned people, wanted to seize control, yadda yadda yadda, you know the drill. Anyway, these guys were quick as fuck. I took out as many as I could, and two of the ‘bots I took out were sneaking up behind these two dudes. They told me they’d never forget that I did that – and they didn’t. They were Wakandan war dogs, which I didn’t know at the time, but T’Challa took me in as a favor to them. Nick wasn’t happy to find out Wakanda had plants in SHIELD, but...with all this shit happening, I think they saved my life in more ways than one. Wakanda took me off a’ SHIELD’s hands –”

“And therefore out of HYDRA’s reach,” concluded Steve.

“Got it in one,” Bucky said.

Steve wrapped his arms around Bucky’s shoulders and pulled him in for a side hug, applying a kiss to the side of his head while carefully avoiding the scars. They didn’t hurt anymore – the healing took care of that – but Bucky jumped out of his skin at the hint of touch on the tissue nonetheless.

Fuck PTSD entirely, frankly, but here he was.

JARVIS let them out on Natasha’s floor. They didn’t even knock before the door swung open, where she stood in yoga pants and a loose, white tank top.

“Hello boys,” she greeted, “Vodka sodas?”

“It’s noon,” Bucky said.

“It’s never too early for vodka,” Natasha reasoned, “but suit yourself.”

Upon entry, they found Clint reclined on Natasha’s ugly couch, Lucky splayed out over his lap. He waved, then returned to whatever game he was playing on his phone. Natasha hefted her small body up to sit on the countertop, where she pulled her laptop onto her legs. She said, “I’ve been considering SHIELD’s precarious situation, and I wanted your opinion – mainly because this would affect you, Bucky.”

“Oh?”

“I want to dump the HYDRA files onto the internet,” she deadpanned.

“You want to what?”

“SHIELD is dead,” Natasha said, “We don’t know who we can trust. HYDRA’s records can only get us so far. Leaking them to public not only exposes them, but protects the people. Unfortunately, exposing HYDRA means exposing us, too. The files about what were done to you, and what were done to me, those will be leaked too.”

“You can’t withhold those?”

“I could,” Natasha said, “but as soon as I let a HYDRA leak go live, we’ll have hackers everywhere ready to find dig up as much information as they can. And as much as I hate to admit it, I am certain they would be able to get to us. We’re already compromised as is. But – I didn’t want to throw it out there without your permission.”

Well, fuck. On one hand, everyone that knew him, or knew of him, would see everything. He doubted Wakanda’s records would leak with the rest of it, and doubted hackers could get through to those, but no one needed Wakanda’s records to know what damage was done to him. The world at large would learn of the chair and of his memory loss, of HYDRA’s objective to create a supersoldier assassin wholly under their control. They might look upon him with pity, or they may consider him a danger to the public, another enhanced human being on the loose.

On the other hand, people deserved to know when a real threat, put into motion by powerful people, jeopardized the safety of their world. Alexander Pierce may have been dead (a missing person, according to the news cycle) but his legacy laid roots into a number of organizations. HYDRA existed in senators and scientists, in ambassadors and experts. A leak might not eliminate every rat, but it would take out enough of them to stall HYDRA’s growth.

Bucky glanced to Steve. He didn’t speak, but managed to communicate with a look and a shrug: it’s up to you.

“I think it’s better if everyone knows,” Bucky reluctantly said, “Maybe it’s not better for me, or better for you, but – it’s better for the world, I think, if it’s out there. If we don’t say anything, we’re letting bad people get away with bad shit, and who’s to say that that won’t come to bite us in the ass? Who’s to say they’re not gonna grow back some of those heads and try again? The best we can do is tell people what happened. What’s happening right now.”

Natasha nodded her assent. “That’s all I needed to know,” she told him, and let her fingers fly over the keyboard. From the side of her laptop, a jump drive stuck out accusingly. Bucky’s past and future, all in one place.

Ma would see what happened to him, he realized with a pang.

What a day this was shaping up to be. Bucky raked his fingers through his hair. Rather than watch Natasha work, he folded his body into the safety of Steve’s arms, out of shits to give about looking weak or compromised. He needed the warmth of Steve’s chest, the pressure of his arms around him, his alpha scent rolling over and around him.

Steve gripped him tight and kissed the top of Bucky’s head.

“It’s done,” Natasha announced.

From the couch, Clint lifted a coffee mug in a toast. He announced, “Here’s to blown covers,” and slurped audibly.

Bucky eased away from Steve’s chest. “I didn’t even think about that,” he said, “That’s your whole world, Natasha.”

“I know,” she replied mildly, “but it’s like you said. Something something greater good something something. I’ll make some new covers. I always do.”

A mere minute and a half after Natasha’s proclamation, Bucky’s new StarkPhone began to buzz. He drew it from his pocket to find notifications from Twitter and Instagram. Within the hour, articles would surface on every publication known to man, from the New York Times to Buzzfeed to the National Enquirer, some articles overblown bullshit with mere undertones of the truth, others intricate thinkpieces on what the HYDRA leak meant for the future of not only the United States, but of the entire world.

In the meantime, Bucky and Steve returned to their apartment, where among the eclectic furniture and Steve’s experimental art pieces and the teacup collection, Wanda and Pietro wrestled with Beans, both in socked feet and pajamas, despite the tilt of the afternoon sun spilling yellow light across the hardwood floor.

“How was doctor?” asked Pietro.

“Ugh,” answered Bucky, “and don’t look at the news. We’re gonna be all over it.”

“We know,” Wanda said, “Natasha asked us about leaking the files. Our faces are not as famous as yours. It will be harder for you.”

“What else is new?” Bucky asked, and slouchedinto his beloved couch. Beans abandoned the rope toy in Wanda’s hand in light of her favorite person making his lap available, and leapt onto the cushions to splay her shaggy body across his.

Despite his own advice, Bucky plucked his phone out of the side pocket of his athletic leggings and flicked through the onslaught of notifications. Multiple stories popped up on his news app from several different platforms, each one noting breaking and developing beneath headlines: “Senator Stern Implicated in HYDRA Leak” and “Black Widow Revealed to be Former Agent of KGB” and “Captain Rogers’ Omega: Darling or Dangerous?”

I Like My Sugar With Coffee and Meme

 

January 29, 2019

 

[2:55 PM] Becca: I have a feeling I shouldn’t read any of this shit

[2:55 PM] Becca: Am I correct in that assumption James

 

[2:56 PM] Bucky: Yeah I mean

[2:56 PM] Bucky: it was shit that was done TO me so if you want to go down that road, I’m not gonna stop you

 

[3:01 PM] Rachel: ngl I clicked on it when I saw your name and I’m just

[3:02 PM] Rachel: I’m really sorry

[3:04 PM] Rachel: I knew it was bad but I didn’t know it was that bad

 

[3:09 PM] Bucky: why don’t we all cleanse with a wholesome meme

[3:10 PM] Bucky:

[Image: Cheeseburger Oreos]

 

[3:12 PM] Judy: ugh fuck you

 

[3:14 PM] Becca:

[Image: Bird sipping “Unsee Juice”]

 

[3:16 PM] Rachel: I wish I could unsee what I saw today

 

[3:17 PM] Bucky: *sad trombone noise*

 

[3:19 PM] Steve: @Bucky

[3:20 PM] Steve:

[Image: A cat labeled “me” smiling at a waffle labeled “your beautiful ass”]

 

Bucky craned his neck to cock a brow at Steve, where he leaned against the kitchen island, half-on half-off a barstool with his phone in his hand.

“Thanks for lightening the mood, baby,” Bucky said, sincere. The last thing that he wanted was the sorrow of his sisters on his behalf. What happened to him happened to him, and it did not define him. His family worried, worried too much – he didn’t speak to them of what happened to him in Afghanistan for a reason. He didn’t want pity. Didn’t want sad eyes. Didn’t want the stench of his mother’s heartache for being an alpha unable to protect her children.

Steve tipped an imaginary hat. “You’re welcome, sweetheart,” he answered.

“You are gross people,” Pietro announced.

Bucky rolled his eyes as his phone pinged again in his hand.

 

[3:22 PM] Judy: f u c k y o u

 

[3:23 PM] Becca:

[Image: Bird sipping “Unsee Juice”]

 

Even with the soft weight of Beans in his lap and the happy scents of two young omegas and one wonderful alpha, the intensity of the day burrowed under Bucky’s skin like bamboo under the fingernails. He muttered a terse excuse and shifted Beans off of his lap, retreating to the safety of the bedroom. He and Steve hadn’t dismantled the heat den, though they washed the soft base of it after their four-day heat sex marathon. Without the pressure of light and noise all around him, protected in the sanctity of the nest Bucky built himself, he could recoup. He needed it almost as much as he’d needed his den in Wakanda, a place all his own, with all the right textures and all the right scents.

Wanda and Pietro meant well. They liked to come down from the apartment they’d made their own to play with Beans or Lucky, whichever dog happened to be available. Having animals near helped soothe them, which Bucky understood. He didn’t begrudge their presence here. If anyone could empathize with his experience, they could. They too fought against HYDRA. Scientists strapped them to tables and injected them with experimental substances as they had with Bucky. They needed help in whatever ways they could get it, though those ways overwhelmed the senses on Bucky’s bad days.

Today was not a good day.

Bucky tossed his phone onto the bed, out of his reach, and burrowed under the blankets lining his nest. He didn’t know how much time passed, but the scent of alpha came to him sometime later, concerned and protective, but as Steve always did, he waited outside the den. He waited for Bucky to invite him in.

Bucky wriggled out of his blanket nest and pushed aside one of the sheets. “We should probably stop meeting like this.”

“That mean I can come in?” asked Steve.

“Yeah, you big sap,” Bucky sighed.

Steve crawled in and spooned his body behind Bucky.

“I sent Wanda and Pietro home,” he said, “and they said they were sorry for stressing you out.”

“It wasn’t them,” Bucky said. “It was everything else. I used to be normal, you know?”

“So did I, pal. So did I.”

Bucky turned a face on Steve. “You liar. You were always something else.” Always extraordinary. Always different. Always a step above the rest. Bucky could give a speech on the exceptional human that was Steve Rogers, but Steve hated that kind of adulation, hated too many words saying too many kind things about him all at once.

Steve nuzzled along the back of Bucky’s neck. He applied a kiss to the spot between his shoulder blades, and, voice muffled by Bucky’s back, replied, “Same to you, sweetheart.”

“I think I might just be special to you,” Bucky told him, and rolled away to splay on his back.

Steve propped his body up on one elbow. With his free hand, he reached out to trace the curve of Bucky’s cheekbone. “Isn’t that enough?” he asked, “You’re strange and you’re wonderful. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure being special to even one person is special enough. Me, I’m just a kid from Brooklyn –”

“Bitch, me too,” Bucky said back.

“Okay,” said Steve, “So we’re a couple a’ kids from Brooklyn, and –”

“And we’re disasters,” Bucky muttered.

“We’re a couple a’ disasters from Brooklyn,” Steve went on, “and that’s nothing special. But you’re marvelous to me, and –”

“And you’re fucking fantastic to me.”

Steve poked Bucky in the side. “Stop interrupting me. So you’re marvelous to me, and I’m fantastic to you, and in the scheme of things, the universe is huge and we probably don’t matter all that much on a macro scale, but we matter to each other. Ergo, we are special.”

“That didn’t make any sense, but I love you anyway,” Bucky said, and leaned in kiss his alpha.

“None of anything makes sense,” Steve replied sagely. “Nothing but you. You make more sense to me than anything else in my entire life.”

And that was the kicker, wasn’t it? Nothing made sense, but being here, being holed up in the circle of his alpha’s arms in a den he made in a gigantic tower in New York, something that should have been absurd in the scheme of things, was a fixed point in time. Steve was a fixed point in the line of Bucky’s life. Whatever chaos befell them, whatever battles bracketed them in past and future, whatever rains fell and fires burned, Steve would be at Bucky’s side and Bucky would be at Steve’s, constant, unwavering, fixed.

To the end of the line.

** 

Moving Bucky’s belongings from his long-abandoned apartment (paid for by SHIELD for the duration of his stay with Steve, now paid until when his lease ended in two months) came bittersweet. Bucky alternated between boxing things up to take to Avengers Tower and tucking them into garbage bags to drop at donation centers. Mostly, he kept his books and keepsakes, the things he missed over the course of the past several months.

The things left in his drawers and on his walls and in his kitchen cabinets echoed a former life, not long passed, but nonetheless an earlier chapter. The Bucky that lived in this apartment closed off his past, taped it up in a box and labeled it irrelevant. Don’t think about it; it doesn’t exist. He prided himself on emotional distance from the people he helped and declared it professionalism. Maybe it had been. But maybe through all of it, he’d needed to feel.

The temptation to seal off the reawakened anxiety simmering in him hung over him in a great cloud, but this time around, Bucky shook his head and moved on. Like he told his INs, as he knew he’d told Steve – the work of recovery never ended. He needed to learn to take his own advice.

If Steve could hack it, so could he.

For a long moment, Bucky admired the curve of muscle on his mate as Steve hefted Bucky’s favorite armchair into the van, the sleeves of his red cotton shirt rolled up to the elbow, marker drawings spiraling out from the sleeves down to the tips of his fingers. He caught Bucky staring and smiled, grin stretching from ear to ear.

Bucky’s heart skipped a beat.

Fuck, his alpha was gorgeous.

As Bucky lugged a stack of boxes along, he caught a couple of paps lurkingout of the corner of his eye. They snapped pictures of he and Steve loading boxes into their dinky rental truck, and as they did, Bucky shook his head again. Since the release of the HYDRA files, the paparazzi took a renewed interest in his life, ostensibly in his well-being, but the truth was that they wanted a story and a crisis to exploit.

“You think they ever get bored?” asked Bucky.

Steve lifted his brows. “Not so far,” he answered. He leaned in for a kiss, but goosed Bucky on the way in – Bucky yelped, and smacked Steve’s arm.

By that afternoon, the pictures of Bucky sweating in the comfy clothes he slapped on for moving day roared across the internet. They focused not on his disheveled state or the hair unceremoniously piled atop his head, but on the clear outline of the mating bite on the side of his throat. Celebrity news outlets lost their minds, bouncing from “James Barnes is lucky to be Captain America’s mate” (“I’m not Captain America!” Steve complained from the bathroom, when Bucky read him the comment) and “Rogers better be appreciating that fine ass.”

The sound of the toilet flushing and the door smacking shut preceded Steve’s reentry into the living room, whereupon he flopped onto the couch and commanded, “Bite me.”

“Literally, or because somebody thinks you don’t appreciate my ass?” asked Bucky.

“Both, but mostly literally,” Steve answered, “I wanna take a selfie.”

“Ah, that explains everything,” Bucky said, though Steve explained nothing, and flipped up to straddle Steve’s lap. He leaned in for a kiss, laughed into it, and then licked a long stripe up Steve’s cheek. Steve protested with a Bucky, what – and then Bucky sank his teeth down into Steve’s neck. His breath hitched under Bucky’s ministrations as he lapped away gently leaking blood, a noise Bucky had come to expect upon the act of biting Steve. Steve didn’t ask for a bite every day, but he did when he questioned himself, when he needed the tingling sting of Bucky’s claim on him to dig into him and settle in his bones.

They kissed with Steve’s blood on Bucky’s tongue, and lingered with lips hovering over one another’s while their heartbeats thundered in their ears.

“Love you,” Steve told him, leaning in to nip at Bucky’s bottom lip. “Now smile for the camera.”

Bucky tilted his head to his ideal selfie angle as Steve thumbed his StarkPhone. Only moments later, the notification popped up on Bucky’s feed:

 

Steve Rogers ✓@thereal_sgr – now

The bite he gives me always heals, but I ask him for it anyway. [attached: image of Bucky and Steve mugging for the camera. Blood seeps around the edges of Steve’s fresh mating bite and stains the seam of Bucky’s lips. Bucky’s pretty sure it’s the smuggest either of them has ever looked in a photograph]

 

“You are the sappiest man alive,” Bucky said, but he couldn’t keep the fondness from his voice.

Before he could think to duck in to kiss Steve again (and hell, he was never gonna get tired of kissing Steve) Beans hopped onto the couch. She dropped a slimy tennis ball on their tangled laps, and, despite Bucky’s protest of, “Beans, we’re busy,” she wagged her tail.

“Ugh,” Bucky complained, “Wanna go down to the gym and throw the ball?”

Steve threw his head back and groaned. “Guess we got no choice,” he said, and then asked, “When’s Sam’s band playing again?”

Bucky checked his phone. “In a couple of hours. Why?”

“Just making sure we have time,” Steve said. He pointed a finger at Beans. “One hour,” he told her, “One.” Beans’ tongue lolled from her mouth in a hopeful smile. Her eyes flicked to the tennis ball still stuck between Bucky’s legs, and she wagged her tail again.

Light from the windows poured over the red sectional and Bucky’s leather armchair, beams broken by the bob of dust motes in the air. Multicolored dishes sat stacked in the sink. The uranium glass teacup cast a green shadow onto the hardwood floor. Steve’s sketchbook and several markers scattered over the kitchen table, while Bucky’s playlist hummed a gentle song over the apartment.

Slimy tennis ball aside, the aroma of alpha contentment curled around Bucky in loving shoots. Steve’s nightmares twisted down his arms in blues and greens and blacks, but his bite stood red against the pale skin of his throat, and a lazy grin lightened the shadows beneath his eyes. For a beat, Bucky let his eyes shutter closed and inhaled the scent around them, of Steve’s rainy, city-boy alpha scent, tempered with a flush of Bucky.

Then Beans howled a wookie noise of impatience, Bucky’s eyes shot open, and Steve laughed.

“We’re goin’, we’re goin’,” Steve said.

At three that very morning, Steve had shaken apart in Bucky’s arms. The strokes of his markers wavered and vibrated as he tried to slice through the choppy waves of a post-nightmare brain. Steve’s anxiety speared out and into Bucky’s, but he held tight to his alpha despite his own shades of fear. They didn’t leave to gather Bucky’s remaining belongings until a pot of coffee and a bag of bagels softened the edges of their sleepless night. Now, they lingered in the newly minted Rogers-Barnes homestead. Tonight, they would meet Natasha and Clint and Tony at the dive where Sam’s cover band would take them all by storm. Bucky might need to sit alone in a bathroom stall when the crowd overwhelmed him. Steve might glance down to find his omega gone from his side.

But Bucky would come back to him, to their friends, and they’d shout along to songs they barely knew but Sam could strum the bass line of in his sleep.

And at the end of the night, they would return to this place, to the living room with the teacups, to the bathroom laden with Bucky’s hair products, to the bedroom where Bucky’s den had yet to be broken down into its soft components. They would crawl into bed and fold into one another. Maybe they would stay up late talking nonsense, or maybe they would sleep and wake in a cold sweat, or maybe they would make it through the night without a hitch.

No matter the future, regardless of the past, against all odds and timelines: here stood Bucky and Steve, two separate humans, red and blue, who together, made purple.

There was always a fight, but no matter the battle, they would fight it together.

 

 The End