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darling heart, i loved you from the start (but that's no excuse for the state i'm in)

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It’s a testament to how exhausted his counterpart is that he doesn’t even notice Steve lounging on his couch until he has toed off his boots and is halfway into the living room.

Steve understands. It’s been over a decade, but the serum has left him with eerily perfect recall. He remembers only too well how exhausted he was after the Chitauri, the fight followed by search and rescue, a quick debrief, then more damage control. None of the accompanying feelings remain; they’re just images, flashing by his mind like someone else’s life.

This Steve must have got it even harder, what with Loki vanishing alongside the tesseract.

Steve’s not surprised when Younger Steve – he really needs a better name for the guy – has his shield up and ready to be flung a second after he becomes aware of the intruder in his home.

“I’m still not Loki,” Steve tells Younger Ste – Steve Junior? Fuck no. Captain? No way he’s calling himself that. Rogers then. Nice and simple.

“I don’t believe you,” Rogers tells him, perfectly composed except for the thinning of his lips. Lines of exhaustion are etched onto his face, and his body is held so rigid by sheer, damning willpower. If it comes to a fight between them, Steve can take him, but he would really rather not have this conversation with his younger self tied to a chair. That’s just mean, and Bucky would frown at him.

Speaking of Bucky – maybe he had the right idea.

“Our mother’s name was Sarah. We used to wear newspapers in our shoes. Our first kiss was Bucky Barnes. He was seventeen, we were sixteen, we told him we were curious, that it was practice. We fucked in the war, said it was soldiers letting out tension because it was easier than telling him we’ve been in love with him since we were ten. We should have. He felt the same.”

The shield drops to the ground with a metallic clang, and Rogers stares at Steve like he’s seeing a ghost.

“I told you Bucky was alive,” Steve continues, milking the shock factor before the inevitable barrage of questions. “It’s the truth.”

Rogers looks very much like he’d like to just collapse. He’s shaking a little, hands clenching and unclenching into fists. Steve’s tempted to go over and give himself a well-deserved hug, but he’s not sure it will be appreciated. He wouldn’t have, back then.

“I’m sorry for dumping it all on you like this,” Steve tells him gently. “But I need you to believe me. We don’t have much time. You’re being watched, but the battle has bought us some time. I’ve stripped this place of all surveillance tech for now.”

He nods at the small pile of bugs heaped on the table in front of the couch. There’s not many of them, likely because they thought Steve to be either trusting of them or incapable of rooting out modern spying devices. The truth was that he was too damn tired to care, but the end result was what S.H.I.E.L.D desired.

Rogers gapes at the devices, eyes wide for a moment before his jaw sets in that familiar way. Steve’s seen that stubborn jut in the mirror too many times to count, and it brings to mind how Bucky would react with fond exasperation, how Sam would sigh resignedly, how Nat would roll her eyes – except that she won’t, ever again.

He pushes that thought away before Rogers returns his attention to Steve.

“Who are you?”

“Steven Grant Rogers. I’m you, from 11 years in the future.” Steve stands up, and to his credit, Rogers neither backs up nor picks up the shield. “In 2023, the Avengers were forced to use time travel to save the universe. We weren’t supposed to change the past, but you know what they say about plans. Shit happens. This is one of the new timelines we accidentally created. And I figured, since things have changed anyway, I might as well fuck things up for the better.”

There’s a long silence.

“You curse a lot.”

Steve blinks, caught off guard in spite of himself.

“So do you, pal.”

“Captain America doesn’t,” Rogers says with a crooked smirk devoid of humor. “Or so I’ve been told.”

“This damned country’s idea of Captain America can crawl up a hole and shrivel,” Steve tells him because he’s full of perspective these days. “And Steve Rogers has never met a rule he hasn’t wanted to break.”

Rogers blinks, once, twice, and then he laughs, low and exhausted but genuine.

“Y’know, I think I’ll like this future you’re from.”

“Oh, no, you’ll hate it. But I’m here so it doesn’t happen, not here, not to you guys. Sit down. We gotta talk.”

Rogers hesitates, glancing between Steve and the shield. His eyes keep straying to the listening devices too, anger tightening his expression. In the end, he decides to sit next to Steve on the couch, but he brings the shield too, which is wise, all things considered.

“It was you on the bridge. Not Loki.” Rogers is looking sideways at Steve, his words a statement, not a question. “I’ve been thinking about it, trying to wrap my mind around the whole thing. It makes sense now. Your shield, the way you used it. Your strength. And – and Bucky.”

Steve puts a hand on Rogers’s knee and keeps it there even when his other self tenses at the touch. Rogers relaxes sooner than Steve expected. Maybe it’s the fact that it’s a version of himself who’s offering the comfort.

“Yeah. Shield’s gone now. Broke into pieces.” Rogers manages to convey incredulity and impatience at the same time without saying a single world. “Yeah, I know, but that’s not the story you want right now.”

“You said Bucky’s alive. He fell.”

“Zola’s experiments. He has the serum. Had it when he fell. Not quite as powerful as ours, but he’s enhanced. Considerably so. It helped him survive the fall, and it’s now helping him survive cryogenic suspension.”

“Cryogenic–” Rogers cuts himself off and closes his eyes, pressing thumb and index finger to his brow like he wants to dig through his skull and give his brain a good shake. “You – I believe you, I want to, but this, all of this, it’s like a dream, too good to be true. Something out of a story.”

“You watched aliens fall out of the sky this week. And how normal has your life been, really, since you came out of Howard’s machine looking you swallowed a couple of other Steves and watched Johann Schmidt peels his face off.”

Steve pauses, watching Rogers closely. He’s grimacing, reluctant agreement on his face, but there’s fear too. Steve knows what he’s afraid of, knows he won’t let it stop him. It is terrifying to have hope after being without it for so long. But it’s worth it.

“It’s not too good to be true, Steve,” he tells Rogers, gripping his knee tighter. “The things they’ve done to Bucky – you wouldn’t wish that on your worst enemy. But he’s here. And you can save him.”

“They,” Rogers asks, pale as a ghost but steady. Captaining on come hell or high water. “Who’s they?”

Steve shifts a little, twisting his torso so he’s facing Rogers. Ironically, the gesture has him tensing up, straightening like he’s bracing for a blow. Steve will try to soften it as much as he can, not that it will be appreciated.

“Remember when I said I’m here because our interference already, irrevocably changed this world?”

Rogers nods, sharp and expectant.

“Well, one of those changes is that Loki escaped with the space stone. The tesseract. Another is that, well.” Here goes. Like ripping off a bandaid. “Hydra thinks you’re one of them.”

Honestly, Steve expects a loud reaction. Disbelief yes, but the angry, incredulous kind.

What he gets is a long, considering stare.

“Hydra is gone,” Rogers says, but it sounds rote, like he’s saying it because he has to.

“That’s what I thought too. When I woke up. When I joined S.H.I.E.L.D. I didn’t like their methods, any more than I imagine you do, but I never suspected I was working for Hydra when I was trying to honor Peggy’s legacy.”

Rogers screws his eyes shut, breathing long and deep, again and again and again.

“S.H.I.E.L.D is Hydra.”

“Not all of them. Nat – Romanoff is trustworthy. So is Fury and Hill. Sitwell is Hydra. Rumlow and Rollins. The World Security Council are assholes, but they’re mostly not Hydra. Except Alexander Pierce, the–”

“Secretary of the World Security Council,” Rogers says very quietly. “He controls S.H.I.E.L.D.”

“Yes. Even Fury trusts him.”

Rogers just looks at Steve, something hopeless in his eyes. Steve wonders if he looked like that, when he first found out. He doesn’t think so. He didn’t have the luxury of despair, not even for a moment. There was work to do, and once S.H.I.E.L.D was in ruins, there was Bucky to find. Hydra to hunt.

Steve’s never thought of himself as father material, even when he had those abstract family fantasies back before he went into the ice. But now, when he cups Rogers’s face and pulls him close to rest their foreheads together, he wonders if what he’s feeling can be called paternal. It’s protective, certainly, but different from what rises in him when he looks at Bucky, or even Sam and Wanda and what’s left of his team.

“He’s dead,” Steve whispers, a shudder coursing through his own body at the words. It’s hard to believe, though he did it himself, felt Pierce’s final breath stutter, felt his heart stop. Stuck a knife in him for good measure, felt unsettled by that rush of vicious satisfaction. “I killed him myself. He won’t touch Bucky again.”

“W-what?” Rogers asks, the reaction almost identical to when Steve choked out that Bucky was alive.

“At least in America, Hydra will be in shambles after his death. They probably won’t find him until morning. There will be quite the uproar. I’m hoping we can take advantage of it.”

“But. How? A man like that – he should be near impossible to assassinate.”

“Near impossible, yes. Impossible, no. Some of my closest friends are assassins, guess it rubbed off. I appropriated some tech from the future. Fucked with the security feed. Not immediately noticeable, though they’ll figure it out after they find the body.”

Rogers is silent for a moment. Processing. When he finally speaks, Steve’s not surprised at what he asks.

“You said he wouldn’t touch Bucky again.”

“Pierce is the only one with the authority to–” activate the Winter Soldier, Steve would have said. But that title will mean nothing to this Steve, and the words taste like shit on his tongue. “–to take Bucky out of cryo. With him gone, they’ll be scrambling for leadership. Captain America can step in.”

Rogers jerks back like Steve stung him.

“You want me to pretend that I’m Hydra?” he forces out from gritted teeth.

Steve understands. He does. The wound is fresher for Rogers. Raw. Dripping. Steve has had time to reconcile himself to the fact that he died for nothing.

“No, I – fuck.”

They hear it at the same time. Footsteps approaching, three of them, armed, coming up the stairs to the apartment, trying to be silent. Would have succeeded if not for serum-enhanced hearing.

Rogers moves, making to stand, one hand reaching for the shield.

Steve grabs him by the neck and bodily pulls him on top of him, wrapping his legs around Rogers’s slim hips so that he’s effectively pinning Steve to the couch. Blue eyes stare at him in horrified surprise, and Steve uses that moment to flick the mask on. Shifting, synthetic skin settles over his face, slightly suffocating as it masks his features. Rogers makes a startled noise, taking in Steve’s floppy brown hair, softer features, and green eyes. It’s not the face he used when he killed Pierce. That would be a whole other disaster.

“Put your Captain face on,” Steve tells Rogers. “And call me Chris.”

Then he kisses him.

In literally any other situation, the way Rogers freezes with a quiet yelp would be hilarious. As it is, Steve just cups his face so that whoever bursts in through the door will not see that Rogers isn’t kissing back.

Steve grips Rogers by the hair with his other hand and flicks his tongue against the seam of his lips. Rogers parts them, probably out of sheer shock, and then tries to curse around the tongue in his mouth. Steve bites down in reprimand, a silent treaty to play the fuck along, and is unpleasantly surprised when Rogers’s hips jerk and he gasps.

Come to think of it, he only started hesitantly venturing into the dating and hook-up scene after the Chitauri mess. Rogers wouldn’t have had anyone touch him intimately since – well, since Bucky, the night before he fell.

Steve feels a little sorry for him and he gentles the movement of his mouth against himself – and god, Sam would boot him off to ten years of therapy if he hears of this – but he doesn’t stop, not until the fuckers outside finally break down the door.

Rogers breaks away with a sharp inhalation, turning to the door. Steve stays where he is, letting his legs unwrap from Rogers, and looks at the intruders with an expression that’s his best imitation of scared shock.

Big men with big guns, oh boy, oh no.

Probably not the best time to remember that Nat was never impressed with his acting ability.

He is impressed to see that Rogers does have his Captain face on. Sure, his cheeks are the color of tomatoes, but the goons on the other side will probably attribute that to him being caught necking another man. The truth isn’t exactly an easy leap.

“The hell do you think you’re doing?” Rogers asks, voice booming with anger and authority. Steve very carefully keeps a smile off his face and turns wide eyes on Rogers instead. It’s kind of cute that he hasn’t left the couch and is still spread over Steve.

As if he has just realized that, Rogers springs off him with more grace than he should possess. The goons at the door back up a step, demonstrating that they do have a few functioning brain cells. Steve takes a careful look, trying at the same time to seem as if he’s just a scared civilian. He doesn’t linger, but he’s seen Rumlow and Rollins in their STRIKE gear often enough to recognize them now. The third one is unfamiliar.

Could be coincidence, but Steve would bet the time stone that it’s not.

“I asked you a question, gentlemen.”

Rumlow is the one who finally answers Rogers.

“Sir. Sorry, sir. We detected an interference at your residence. We were concerned you were in danger.”

Rogers is visibly confused for a moment before his eyes flick to the bugs, neatly gathered on his table.

“Let me guess,” he says, voice hard and cold. “The interference was your surveillance going dark.”

The STRIKE goons have the sense to keep their mouths shut.

“I’ve put up with a lot since S.H.I.E.L.D thawed me,” Rogers continues, anger still reverberating in his voice. Steve has to wonder how much of it’s an act and how much genuine. He can make an educated guess, but either way, Rogers is playing his part beautifully. “I’m done doing that. Get the fuck out. And tell Fury I’ll be moving into Stark Tower until further notice.”

“But sir–" It’s the third person who speaks, her voice familiar but not enough for Steve to place a name. She flinches back a little when Rogers turns to her but rallies herself quickly. “Captain Rogers, the Tower is still undergoing repairs.”

“I’m aware. Anything else?”

There’s a loud, weighted silence.

“No, Cap. We just came to see if there was trouble,” Rumlow says, and Steve would say he sounds almost amused. Unsurprising, given what Steve remembers of Rumlow, which is a damn lot more than he strictly wants to. “I see it’s all good.”

“Stay, and I will give you trouble,” Rogers says calmly, no less threatening for it. Steve wonders if enjoying this makes him a narcissist. “Leave.”

They leave.

Steve and Rogers wait, hardly daring to breathe until they can no longer hear footsteps. Rogers wastes no time whirling on Steve, but a finger held to his lips silences him. He follows Steve deeper into the apartment, and it’s almost funny, the apprehensive look in his face when the bedroom door clicks shut.

“Your virtue’s safe,” Steve says, throwing Rogers a wink. Rogers sputters. “They might have planted another bug there. Not sure, probably not, but let’s not risk it. It was smart of you to mention the tower. Now you have an excuse for taking me there. Are the others still there?”

“Romanoff and Barton aren’t. But we’re all supposed to meet there tomorrow morning. And what excuse?”

“The shawarma was nice, wasn’t it? And well, you’re going to take this nice man somewhere you can fuck him in peace. It’s been, what, two days since the invasion? Tony will have fixed some of the residential floors already.”

Rogers doesn’t look like he heard anything past the second line.

Excuse me?

“It’s as good a cover as any. You saw how tickled Rumlow was at Captain America’s dirty secret.”

“My sexuality isn’t a secret, it’s just–”

“–no one else’s business. I know. Steve, I know.”

Rogers calms down a bit, seemingly remembering that Steve is well, Steve. He does rub a hand across his mouth, adorably dramatic, and wow, he is turning into a narcissist.

“Was the kiss really necessary?”

“It was a gamble,” Steve admits. “Would have done shit if they’d been there to harm us, maybe somehow followed me from Pierce’s place, unlikely as that is. But a small team like that, I figured they came because of a presumed perimeter breach. I made sure none of the cameras caught me before I disabled them. It’s good though. Gets you some credit among S.H.I.E.L.D. And more importantly, Hydra. It’s useful that they think there’s more to you than aw-shucks patriotism. Keeps them guessing.”

Rogers frowns at him, mouth all twisted up.

“Hey, it’s better than Nat – Natasha kissing you. She’d tease you for the next three years for being a shitty kisser.”

Rogers just closes his eyes.

“Romanoff – I’m not – you know what, I don’t wanna know. Let’s go back to Hydra. Specifically, how you want me to pretend to be Hydra.”

“Yeah, about that. It won’t be you. I’ll do the infiltration. We don’t have time to play the long game, so it’s gotta be quick and dirty.”

This time, Rogers’s expression is more of a scowl, very disapproving and Captain America-like.

“I can’t let you do that. And I’m not going to sit back and watch while Bucky’s suffering.”

“You won’t be,” Steve tells him seriously, catching Rogers’s gaze and holding it. “I won’t stay long after getting him out and giving you some information. I can’t. Bucky – my Buck – is waiting for me. And the one here, the Bucky’s we’re saving – he won’t be the man you knew.”

“I’d know Bucky anywhere,” says Rogers, and Steve is fiercely proud even as he wonders what Nat felt, watching all that optimism and pride shine through with such naivete. Wonders what she felt, after, when she saw all those get beaten down by the reality of Bucky running away from Steve.

He stayed, eventually. That’s what matters. After cryo, in Wakanda. He stayed.

“You would,” Steve admits. Smiles, as best as he can. “But he wouldn’t. Not himself and not you. He will, eventually. But it will take time. And it won’t be easy. My Bucky – he saved himself. I wanted to help. Would’ve done anything to. But he didn’t let me. It’s left its scars. On both of us. More me than him, I think. He’s got his own share though. And it’s not Captain America that he needs.”

Rogers opens his mouth, a protest already on his lips, but Steve hurries to cut him off.

“He needs Steve Rogers. The man who loves him. The man he doesn’t remember loving. And it won’t be easy. There’s nothing I can do or say that will make it easy. So don’t think you’re doing nothing. What I plan to do is the easy part. And I will be leaving before you get to the hard part.”

Rogers doesn’t look convinced. There’s something in his eyes that’s very much like the fear Steve remembers from the mirror.

“Trust me, Steve. It’s Bucky. No matter the timeline. I wouldn’t do him harm.”

Rogers looks at him for a long time. Steve endures the scrutiny silently, meeting bright blue eyes that are a little less darker, less sunken than his own. Rogers looks younger. Dressed in old-fashioned, ill-fitting clothes, hair in disarray, cheeks a little fuller. It’s not a bad look. Steve just wonders how long it’ll last.

“Alright,” Rogers says in the end. “I trust you. I still want to know why you’re so insistent you be the one to infiltrate Hydra.”

Steve considers, for a moment, not lying per se but obfuscating the truth. But if he can’t be honest with his own past self, who will he be honest with? Sam would be proud of him for communicating like a well-adjusted adult.

“Because I’ve had a long time to get used to the fact that I died for nothing.”

Rogers’s whole face tightens. There’s fury in his eyes, cold and impotent. It’s so fucking familiar.

“You can burn them to the ground,” Steve promises him, reaching out to grasp Rogers’s shoulder. “Hold tight to that anger and use it. But first, let me do this.”

Rogers nods once.

“Alright then. Pack sparingly.”

Rogers raises an eyebrow and walks out of the room. He returns with the shield all zipped up and a challenging smirk on his face. Steve just shrugs and pulls out a case from under the bed. He opens it, turning it so Rogers can see.

The mind stone glows gently, the other five slots empty.

Rogers frowns at the stone, raising his face to Steve when he snaps the case shut.

“We had to destroy the scepter to get it out. But I came here to return this too. Safer with you than Shieldra, wouldn’t you say?”

 

-

 

They ride to the tower on Rogers’s motorcycle, Steve clinging to him with his “Chris” face on. Something in him rankles at transporting an infinity stone on a bike weaving recklessly through New York traffic, but he figures it’s actually safer than travelling through time and god knows he did that way too much.

He's aching for home, for the man who is home, but first, he has to do this.

He told Tony, once, that he couldn’t ignore a situation pointed south. He’s not built that way. He’s a tired soldier now, his sense of duty giving way to a longing for rest, for the life he’s been sacrificing for so long. But he’s still the same little guy who couldn’t back down from a fight to save his life. Maybe he’ll stop looking for fights, after this, but there are things he’ll need to do. Things he wants to do.

Put a ring on Bucky Barnes, give the stars and stripes to someone else, use his mind instead of his body to save the world. It’s a nice list to start with.

‘We’re here,” Rogers says unnecessarily, pulling into the underground parking lot that seems to have survived the battle unscathed. There aren’t many vehicles parked and most of what is there, Steve identifies as belonging to Tony. “You plannin’ on wearing that face much longer?”

“Kinda have to. Once we’re safely in JARVIS’s capable hands, I’ll stop.”

“Who’s–”

“Tony’s Artificial Intelligence, and fifty percent of the reason he hasn’t driven his life off a cliff. Metaphorical or literal. The other fifty percent is Pepper Potts. You’ll meet them both, eventually.”

“Faster now than I would have otherwise, I’m assuming.”

Steve chuckles, shrugging a little. He’s in surprisingly good spirits. Maybe it’s the impending Nazi extermination, but he has a feeling it’s got more to do with Bucky. Then again, the two are kinda intertwined at this point.

“By changing things, I am robbing you of the future I lived through. But trust me, pal, it’s not great loss.”

“There must have been some good to it.”

Steve turns his head so he can catch Rogers’s eye, see the desperation kept carefully out of his voice.

“There was a lot. But that’s the people. And you’ll have them here too.”

Rogers nods, and something about it, the trust, the blind faith Rogers is placing in Steve, in himself, that lands heavy in his gut. It’s not unpleasant, but it is very present. Steve can’t afford to fuck this up.

The elevator is thankfully empty when they enter, and Rogers turns to Steve, an expectant eyebrow raised. Steve shrugs and pulls off his mask, nodding in commiseration to Rogers’s grimace.

“JARVIS,” Steve calls, “could you allot one of the functional guest rooms to us?”

There’s a long silence that somehow manages to be considering. Steve’s always wondered how JARVIS manages that.

He realizes, with a sudden pang, that JARVIS is as dead in his world as Tony or Natasha. Vision, his spiritual offspring of sorts, is gone too. In this world, well – Steve wants to stop Tony from creating Ultron. But he does hope Vision will be born. It’s not up to him, ultimately.

Finally, JARVIS speaks.

“Captain Rogers and Captain Rogers. The 46th residential floor has been freed for you.”

Rogers stares at the top of the elevator, mouth parted a bit. Steve remembers doing the same the first time he heard JARVIS. He had shittier luck, though, and had to put up with Tony’s ribbing afterward. At least that’s what he thought at the time. Now, he would welcome Tony and his big mouth with open arms.

“Thank you, JARVIS,” Steve says, trying to keep his voice warm and level. “Have you told Tony yet?”

“Sir is currently asleep. I believe Ms. Potts will be greatly displeased if I were to disturb either of them. I will wake him in time for your meeting with the Avengers tomorrow. Until then, Captains, allow me to keep an eye on you.”

It’s not really a suggestion, but JARVIS is nothing if not polite. Steve has heard him maintain that cool deference even when verbally stripping the skin off a sleep-deprived, half-crazed Tony.

“Please do, JARVIS. We’re safe in your hands.”

This time, the silence manages to be pleased.

Beside him, Rogers gives Steve a look that says he will have a lot to explain later. Steve just grins.

The floor, as JARVIS implied, is empty save for them. Steve heads to the bedroom and places the stone in its case in the back of the closet. Not the safest place, but if anyone manages to get past Stark security, JARVIS, and two Captains America, then they’re all fucked anyway. In a pinch, Steve can use the quantum suit and get the fuck out of dodge to save the stone. He’s got enough Pym Particles to last him a few more joyrides.

He's not surprised when Rogers follows him to the bedroom. It is quite a treat to see that determined expression falter when Steve summarily starts stripping.

“What the hell–”

“Relax, I just want to change into something more comfortable. You’re the one who barged in.”

Rogers scowls but doesn’t leave, only turning away so Steve’s got enough privacy to change into the free-size clothes in the closet. He finds a pair of sweats that fit well, but even the best T-shirt he finds stretches obscenely across his chest. He’s bought and worn similar stuff enough not to be fazed.

Rogers, when Steve calls out that he’s decent, turns and looks very pained. Wisely, he doesn’t say anything.

“I don’t think you’re here for the pleasure of my company, so you must want more information.”

“Yes. Every question you answer just makes me have ten more questions.”

Steve nods, conceding the point.

There are three pen drives stashed in a hidden compartment in the case. One on Hydra, one on Thanos, and one for other disasters Steve’s own timeline has weathered.

He came here to give them away, but he has to ask.

“Haven’t you had enough for the day? Even Captain America’s got a daily limit on world-altering shocks.”

Rogers just raises an eyebrow.

“And how many times have you listened to that logic?”

“Around zero,” Steve admits, grinning wryly.

“Thought so. ‘Sides, our bodies weren’t the only things the serum changed. I’ve discovered that mind can endure a lot.”

Boy, you don’t know the half of it, Steve wants to say. Instead, he grabs the case, ignores the pull of the mind stone, and takes the pen drive with information on Hydra.

Rogers frowns a little.

“I don’t have anything to stick that into.”

“Oh yeah, let’s see – JARVIS? Is it possible that you can find us a secure laptop or Starkpad, please?”

This time, JARVIS replies almost immediately.

“I’ll see what I can do, Captain Rogers.” And then, barely a minute later. “It will be delivered to your floor in around half an hour. And if I may, sirs, I suggest one of you keep out of sight when it arrives.”

“Will do,” he says, smiling in spite of himself and finding Rogers’s mouth also twitching.

“He’s here too?” Rogers asks Steve, tone uncertain like he doesn’t quite know what to feel about that.

“He’s everywhere in the Tower. In my future, Tony built floors for the Avengers and in them, we could restrict his audio and visual access to preserve privacy. For now though, I can understand why he’ll want to keep an eye on us.”

Rogers doesn’t look too happy at the prospect of being watched at all hours by an unseen computer program.

“Hey, it’s alright. He won’t violate our privacy unless he feels we’re a threat to Tony or Stark Industries. And it’s just for the night. Tomorrow, we’ll meet the others.”

Rogers nods, then turns a considering eye on Steve.

“You can sleep. Get some rest. I can figure out how to work a laptop, despite popular belief.”

“Pal, you’re literally talking to yourself. I’ve been where you are.”

Rogers has the grace to look sheepish.

“Alright, uh – you should still sleep.”

“I look that bad, huh.”

Rogers shrugs. It’s not a no.

“Well, you don’t look that peachy yourself. And I won’t be able to sleep any more than you can. Besides,” Steve pauses, contemplates gentling his voice and discards it because he doesn’t think Rogers will take what he perceives as coddling with any more grace than Steve usually does. “I have a feeling you’ll want to punch things long before you’re done, and well, I’ve proved I can take it. Though we should keep the property manage to a minimum this time.”

“Ominous,” is all Rogers says. Steve doesn’t tell him that it’s fucking well-deserved but from the way Rogers’s jaw sets, he thinks the sentiment came through anyway.

 

-

 

Meeting the Avengers – sans Bruce, who’s sleeping off the Hulk and studiously avoiding human company, and Thor, who has returned to Asgard in the wake of Loki’s escape – goes less disastrously than Steve anticipates. Sure, Tony, Nat, and Clint all aim an assortment of weapons at him the moment he emerges from the elevator with Rogers, but none of them actually attack him out of hand, though that’s probably helped by Rogers stepping in front of him with a placating gesture.

“Still not Loki,” Steve says, already tired of repeating that. “And I’m curious why you think I’m the imposter.”

Unsurprisingly, none of the Avengers answer. Rogers does.

“It’s the way you act. Posture. Walk. It’s all a little different from mine.”

Steve concedes the point, well aware of how he has changed since his early years of Avenging, but then he shoots a skeptical glance at the team.

“I can see Nat – Natasha and Clint spotting it. Tony, not so much.”

There’s a long silence, and then an offended squawk.

“Excuse the fuck me, fake America, but which one of us is a certified genius again? Me, that’s who.”

Huh, yeah, Steve wasn’t imagining it. Tony did get more tolerable with age. It doesn’t stop the warmth that rushes his chest, followed by the hollow ache of a loss that’s still fresh.

“Right, so it’s JARVIS who spotted it. Thanks, Tony.”

Tony sputters, Iron Man’s face plate receding so he can pelt Steve with the full brunt of his indignation. Steve ignores him with well-practiced ease that’s easy to tap into despite years of little to no contact with Tony. He steps out from behind Rogers, coming to stand beside him. The weapons follow him faithfully.

“Care to explain, Cap?” Clint asks, and he’s probably addressing Rogers but he’s looking right at Steve, so it’s hard to resist messing with him a little.

“Which one, Hawkeye?”

He gets an arrow sunk into the floor in front of his feet for his trouble.

“Hey!” Rogers snaps, drawing up to his full height. “Don’t. He’s telling the truth. This isn’t Loki. It’s, well, he’s–”

“I’m him,” Steve says, sparing Rogers a little from the surrealness of this whole situation. “Steve Rogers, except I’m from 2023.”

Everyone freezes, turning wide eyes on Steve.

“Time travel is impossible,” Tony says, and there’s something in his tone that reminds Steve of Tony in his lakeside home, a sort of dreadful hope. “It’s not – you don’t just–”

“You’re the one who figured it out, in my time. It wasn’t your idea, and you had help executing it, but you were the one who gave us the means to control how we travel through time. I don’t know if you’ll do the same here. I’m hoping you won’t need to.”

“How do we know we can believe you?” Natasha asks before Tony can say anything. She has lowered her gun, surprisingly, but it’s still in her grip and Steve has no doubts that she’s ready to put him down at a moment’s notice. He misses her.

“I don’t know. We can do the whole song and dance where I say things your future selves have told me about yourselves, but that’s a messy affair and I’m hoping we can avoid it.” Three expressions with varying levels of skepticism look back at him. “Okay, look, ask your Steve. He brought me here for a reason.”

Tony frowns at Rogers.

“Maybe we should speak in private, Cap.”

Rogers looks at Steve, displeasure lining the twist of his mouth. Steve speaks before he can say anything.

“It’s fine. Go.”

By unspoken agreement, Natasha stays behind while the other three move to another room. Steve can hear their voices murmur when they start speaking and can probably make out the words if he concentrates, but he doesn’t, mostly because there’s no way to do that discreetly with Natasha here. He tries not to stare at her but finds he can’t help it, gaze drawn again and again to a Natasha who looks so different from the one who gave him a sly smile and promised to see him in a minute and never did.

It's funny; most people saw Nat as the quintessential spy, her words forged into weapons, her promises made to be broken. But Nat always kept her promises so long as she meant them.

“You don’t look a decade older,” Natasha says, deceptively casual.

“Serum,” is all Steve says.

A few more minutes pass, each one stretching like an eternity as Steve continues to try and fail at not looking at Natasha. It doesn’t escape her notice, of course it doesn’t.

“We have a catfight in your time, Rogers?” she asks, painted lips twisting up in amusement. “You can’t seem to look right at me.”

Maybe it’s on purpose, because she’s studied Rogers enough that she can predict a bit of what Steve would do. Maybe it’s simple accident. Either way, it gets Steve to stop fighting himself and drink her in like he wants to.

“No, Nat – Natasha. No catfight.”

Sacrifice. A stone returned without the soul released. Nat’s body, cold on the rocks of Vormir, her expression closed and peaceful. Steve buried the body because he couldn’t bring it back. The whole time, he expected her to wake up. Grasp his hand and say ‘gotcha.’

She didn’t.

Natasha makes a humming sound, and Steve forces the memories away, focusing on this Natasha, younger and broken in different ways.

“There aren’t many people who can call me Nat without losing a limb,” she says.

Steve remembers, because she said the same to him before, sometime after D.C. It was as good as permission then. Now, it’s curiosity, gentle probing to gather intel.

“Yet here I am. All limbs intact.”

“I don’t know, with that serum of yours, maybe you grew one back like a starfish.”

Steve laughs in spite of himself.

“Let’s not test that theory, Natasha.”

“Oh, not Nat anymore?”

Steve licks his lips, buying himself a second of time as he figures out how to phrase his words in a way that won’t give too much away and won’t offend. In the end, he settles for brevity.

“You’re not my Nat. I haven’t earned right to call you that.”

Her eyes sharpen, zeroing in on him with familiar intensity, but before she can steer the conversation into dangerous waters, Rogers and the others return. They’re clearly wary as they settle before Steve, but there are no weapons pointed at him. Clint nods at Natasha and she puts away her gun. Tony even steps out of the suit.

“So, Capsicle 2.0, Cap here tells us you’re here to take down a Nazi organization that was supposed to have died back in the 40s.”

“Yes, well, so was I, and here I am.”

That earns him a few looks that seem somewhat concerned for his mental wellbeing. Rogers just grimaces.

“…right. Care to explain?”

“It’s why I’m here. But you might want to sit down first.”

 

-

 

Everyone’s in varying states of pensiveness once Steve finishes. He kept a lot of the details vague, such as why the Avengers in his time had to travel through time, and the price they had to pay in that final battle. He glosses over most of what’s not on Hydra – how they festered inside S.H.I.E.L.D and what they’re planning. Project Insight, all of them targets, elicits shock and bitter resignation. Alexander Pierce’s true allegiances and Steve’s murder of him earn him unreadable looks from Natasha and Clint, and an almost scandalized one from Tony. The account of Black Widow meeting the Winter Soldier in Odessa coming out of Steve’s mouth garners one of Natasha’s rare expressions of surprise. Even the brief description of how they made the Winter Soldier turns Tony green and causes Clint to adopt a careful non-expression that’s more telling than any amount of outrage. Natasha looks grim and Rogers–

Rogers looks like he wants to burn down the world, the expression no different from last night when Steve had to, predictably, hold him down before he rushed out and did something justified but stupid.

“The most terrifying ghost haunting the intelligence world is Captain America’s dead best friend,” Natasha murmurs in the end, frowning intently at nothing. “Didn’t see that coming.”

“No one’s supposed to. That was the point,” Steve says, exhausted in spite of himself. “There’s more. But I’m here for Bucky. You guys can handle the rest.”

“Pretty sure we can handle this too, Cap,” Clint says, not unkindly, head tilted as he focuses on Steve.

“I know you can. Just – let me, please.”

No one seems to know what to say to that.

“Is this safe?” Natasha asks in the end. The question seems to jolt Tony out of what looks like intense contemplation, though he doesn’t speak just yet. “Messing with time. Won’t it have consequences?”

“We already messed it up, in this world, when we came to get the scepter and the tesseract. Loki wasn’t supposed to escape. In my time, Thor took him to Asgard. He was imprisoned for a time. And I ran into myself after convincing some Hydra agents that I was one of them. Since we already meddled this much, I figured I might as well keep going.”

“Excellent logic, can’t see absolutely anything going wrong with that,” Tony says with a few slow claps.

“Fuck you too, Tony,” Steve says tiredly. “The Ancient One gave her blessings. Well, mostly, she glared at me a lot and judged all my life choices, but she did imply the multiverse wouldn’t collapse in on itself if I did this.”

Imply,” Tony starts, but Rogers cuts him off.

“You haven’t told us why you came for the tesseract and the scepter.” He nods at the case at Steve’s feet. “And why you have returned with the stone inside the scepter.”

“Another long story.” He puts the case on the table in front of him and retrieves the three pen drives from his pocket, placing them on top. “I’ve included most of the relevant events that happen in my time here. Enough that you should be able to avoid the worst of it. Doing so might bring others disasters on your head, but well. You’ll understand once you see. Hydra thinks I have the scepter, and with Pierce dead, they’ll be scrambling for leadership. We have to take advantage of that before they try to send Bucky after Pierce’s killer.”

“Can they?” Natasha asks, and there’s no visible indication of fear in her voice or expression, but Steve knows what the Winter Soldier represents to her. He remembers how long it took for her to warm up to Bucky Barnes though they got on like a house on fire after she did, an incongruous pair that warmed Steve’s heart in those few, precious months they had in between Bucky coming out of cryo and the Snap.

He remembers Bucky’s expression when Steve told him Natasha was gone.

“Yes. But they’ll be hesitant to, without Pierce. He was the only one who could – well. The Russians had a very different way of handling Bucky than the Americans. Hydra’s terrified of him even when they – even with what they’ve done to him. Pierce was the only one who would – the only one twisted enough to maintain some semblance of control over Bucky. They’ll be scared of him without anyone who can do that. But say, if Captain America, another supersoldier and apparent Hydra loyalist, steps in and tries to take over – it should work, at least long enough for us to get Bucky somewhere safe.”

He's greeted with weighted silence. Rogers is tense beside Steve, and he’s very glad that he already told him most of this yesterday and took the brunt of his rage in private. He lays a hand on Rogers’s knee. It does nothing to ease his tension, but he doesn’t shake it off either.

Natasha is the one who speaks first.

“You sure you have it in you, Rogers?”

Steve smirks, humorless.

“I tore them down once. I will be leaving here with the knowledge that you’ll do the same before they can cause as much damage as before. Two years may not seem like much when compared to seventy, but it’s not nothing. So yes, Natasha, I can say Hail Hydra a few times if it means saving Bucky.”

“You’re really fixated on your boyfriend there, Cap,” Tony says, raising an eyebrow.

“He’s suffered more than anyone should. I want him to be happy. Safe. In any reality, but I can’t go about jumping through time as I please, so this will have to do.”

“I see you didn’t deny that he’s your boyfriend.”

Steve looks at Rogers who looks back, expression placid. He nods, once. Steve turns back to Tony and doesn’t miss Natasha’s curious gaze and Clint perking up like a puppy.

“I’ve been sitting on a ring for five years, hoping I’ll get to put it on that man’s finger.” No need for them to know he spent those five years with that ring buried deep in his closet, unwilling to look it, and even less willing to throw it away. “Would be real stupid of me to deny what he means to me, Tony”

The pandemonium is predictable. Everyone starts speaking at once, Steve’s queer love life causing more chaos than Nazis and infinity stones. It’s par for the course, really, and there’s a pang in his heart for those days when they were all together, a team. It never lasted long before they all went their separate ways, but it was enough.

He wonders if there’s any reality where Ultron didn’t happen and the Accords didn’t tear them apart long before the Snap. He hopes so. He hopes this world will be one of them.

He tunes out the whole gang, leaving Rogers to verbally wrangle them into some semblance of sanity. He gets a glare at the end of it, but well, it’s fair enough. These are Rogers’s Avengers, not Steve’s. He’s practically a guest.

“Back to the matter at hand,” he says into the sudden, temporary calm. “We’ll have to act fast. They’ll know about Pierce soon. Probably already do, actually. But before that – Tony, I want you to go through the files on this. All of them. As soon as possible.”

He nudges the drive on Hydra at Tony - the one with all the mission reports of the Winter Soldier as well as what they had to do to get him to that point. He hates this, having to expose Bucky like this. A lot of them are files Nat released into the internet in his own time. Others, they found later. It feels like a breach of privacy, but Tony needs to understand.

Steve’s mistake, in his own time, was lying. Keeping it to himself and burying his head in the sand. Here, where he hopes Bucky won’t have to run until the world forces him to freeze, he wants a better, freer life for the man he loves.

Tony gives Steve a piercing look as he grabs the pen drive.

“I’ll do it right now. JARVIS–”

“Wait.” It’s Rogers who speaks. He looks at Steve for a moment. They discussed this last night. Came to a tentative agreement. “Somewhere private, Tony. I’ll come with you.”

Tony only looks more considering, which can be a very good or very bad thing, depending. But he allows Rogers to herd him to the elevator, leaving Steve alone with Natasha and Clint.

“Wanna tells us what that was all about, Cap?” Clint asks.

Steve considers deflecting, if only to save himself a headache. He should also probably get some rest. But–

“Bucky killed Tony’s parents.”

No one says anything for a long time.

What do you say, to something like that?

“Think he’ll take it well?” Natasha asks, sounding dubious about that possibility.

“Hell no. But it will be worse if he finds out later. I’m hoping – well. I’m hoping.”

Neither of them seems to know what to say to that. Steve changes the subject before they can figure it out.

“Natasha, Clint. I know you’ll want to bring Fury and Hill in on this. And you can, but I’d like it if you waited until I get Bucky out.”

“You don’t trust Fury?”

“I still have most of my brain cells, so no. I respect him, for the most part. But I don’t trust him to have Bucky’s best interests at heart. Fury tends to see the bigger picture, and I see where he’s coming from, but I’m not willing to let Bucky pay the price for it.”

“You really do know us, in this future of yours,” Natasha tells him, sounding oddly amused.

Steve just gives her a tired smile.

 

-

 

“You know, Cap, you never told us what you did with the scepter.”

Steve’s not surprised that it’s Rumlow who breaks the tense silence. Steve doesn’t know what it is with him and Hydra and fucking elevators, but unlike the last two times, he doesn’t feel like the centerpiece in a murder-tragedy in the making. It’s just him, Rumlow, Rollins, and two scientists looking deceptively harmless in their lab coats.

And they’re on their way to activate the Winter Soldier.

Steve had cornered Sitwell without waiting for the uproar over Pierce’s death to die down. Trying his best to make use of the chaos. The general population didn’t have much shock to spare over Pierce’s death, having used it all up on the aliens pouring out of the sky. It was a bigger deal within the intelligence community, S.H.I.E.L.D especially.

It was still nothing compared to the blow Hydra took.

“I need the asset,” he’d said, the words sitting sick and slimy on his tongue, worse even that leaning in to whisper ‘Hail Hydra’ in what he thought would be the first and last time.

It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t hard either. Hydra was a curious blend of cautious and desperate. All Steve had to do was be his own headstrong self, just an evil version. There was very little acting involved and a whole lot of lying, nothing Steve would lose sleep over, not when it got him here, descending to the depths of a bank vault in D.C. Rollins was skittish, Rumlow was cautious but in his element, and the two techs were a mix of excited and terrified. Steve wanted to throttle the whole lot of them.

“It’s safe,” Steve tells Rumlow shortly. “Safer than it would have been with Pierce, it seems.”

Rumlow slants him a sharp look, different from the usual way he side-eyes Steve, now and in the past. There are things he remembers very well that he often wishes he could forget.

“You think whoever killed the Secretary was after Loki’s scepter?”

“I know there’s a good reason he told me to get it to a secure location,” Steve says easily, making it up as he goes. He wonders what Natasha thinks of how he’s doing. The others are listening in, through a wire made microscopic enough that no one would spot it even if they dared to pat down Captain America. Tony’s work, during that sleepless night after he learned of both what Bucky did and what was done to him.

That wasn’t a fun day for anyone, but Tony came through anyway.

The elevator opens. Rollins and the techs go on ahead. Steve tries to follow, but Rumlow catches him by the elbow right outside the elevator. He’s quick to take his hand away when Steve looks sharply at the offending appendage, but the smirk he gives Steve is not very apologetic.

“What is it, Rumlow?”

“Chill, Cap. They’ll need half an hour at least to set it up so the Solider can be safely thawed. You’d think they’d have made the process more efficient in the last seventy years, but here we are.”

Steve’s not unaware of the way Rumlow’s staring at him keenly, stressing seventy years with a smile that would pass as boyishly mischievous to the unaware. Steve used to find it cute, but now he wants to punch it off Rumlow’s face, preferably along with half his teeth.

He doesn’t. He doesn’t even clench his fist and limits his reaction to a long, silent breath.

“From what they told me, it took S.H.I.E.L.D a week and a half to safely wake me up. Compared to that, this is already progress.”

“That’s different,” is all Rumlow says, but he doesn’t elaborate, and he doesn’t stop looking at Steve with a too-bright gaze. When he speaks again, Steve’s almost relieved. “You know what we’re all wondering, Cap?”

Call me Steve, he once told Rumlow, in another world, literally. Given that the man was bouncing on Steve’s dick at the time, he thought it was a reasonable request. In response, he got a devil’s smile and a denial dressed up in dirty talk.

Rumlow wasn’t the only one who wanted to fuck Steve because he was Captain America, but it wasn’t the glory of the name he was attracted to. It was the violence, the strength in Steve’s arms and blood caked under his fingernails.

Still is, he can tell, watching Rumlow watch him.

“I imagine you’re about to tell me,” is all Steve says.

“How the hell did Captain America end up as one of us?” He’s careful not to say the name, all of them are, except when it’s that two-word mantra whispered into ears, too close and too intimate. It’s barely been two days, and Steve’s already tired of it. Rumlow continues, staring at Steve like he wants to pry open his head and take a peek. Pal, the things you’d see. “You died stopping us. Everything from cheesy 90s movies to high school textbooks like to rave about that.”

“I died stopping Johan Schmidt,” Steve corrects, prepared for this. He already had similar conversations with Sitwell and a few others he barely knows except for the vague recollection that they did not survive the fall of Triskelion. He doesn’t have an air-tight story, but with Pierce dead, what he has is enough. “And you should know, by now, that history is rarely what they tell you it is.”

Rumlow cocks his head, obviously waiting for more. He’s curious and not hiding it, watching Steve like he’s expecting him to sprout tentacles to prove his loyalty. When it becomes clear that Steve’s not give him more than a steady stare and a placid smile, Rumlow shakes his head, laughing low in his throat.

It’s strange that Steve barely felt a thing when he fought Crossbones, except when he mentioned Bucky, but that seeing Rumlow like this, so similar to the way he was when Steve was oblivious and the two of them spent most nights post-mission tumbling into each other’s beds, keeps bringing back memories. They weren’t boyfriends, and they sure as hell weren’t in love, but Steve was fond of the man. Saw a fellow soldier in him, one with none of Natasha’s then-confounding tendency to transform into whatever she needs to be.

If only he knew then.

“I just don’t see it,” Rumlow says at the end, and his voice is a sigh, but his eyes are throwing a challenge, one Steve responds to before he can think better of it.

It’s child’s play to disarm Rumlow, especially when he doesn’t see it coming well enough to react beyond a widening of his eyes. Steve’s got him stripped of his gun and pressed face-first to the wall between one breath and the other, one hand keeping Rumlow’s arms trapped behind him and his knee digging pointedly into Rumlow’s back. It Steve were truly, genuinely making a point, he’d make this painless. But he’s playing a part, and he knows Rumlow, so he forces his arms up until his shoulders got to be feeling the strain and his breaths are coming in ragged huffs.

“Would you rather I be able to peel my face off?” Steve asks conversationally, lowering his head so he’s speaking right into Rumlow’s ear. He ignores the ping of familiarity at the position. “See my flesh marked with what I am?”

It takes a couple of tries for Rumlow to speak, and Steve knows that if he were to reach down, he’d find Rumlow hard between his legs.

“No, uh, no. Not necessary, Cap. I read you loud and clear.”

Steve knows he can just end it there, let Rumlow go and follow the others and try not to slaughter the whole lot as they take Bucky out of the tank like a price cut of meat and–

Rumlow gives a pained groan, and Steve notices that his hands have turned bruising on Rumlow’s skin. He’s pressing him hard against the wall as if trying to put him through it. The thought is tempting with unforgotten phrases flying through his mind. Your pal, your buddy, your Bucky. Rumlow makes a weak attempt at struggling free and almost gets kneed in the balls for his trouble. We put his brain back in a blender.

“Stay still,” Steve growls, and Rumlow, miraculously, obeys.

Steve winds a hand in his hair, the strands just long enough for him to get a good grip. Rumlow gasps when Steve pulls his head back. There’s sweat beading on his face, and Steve knows the cause is a toss-up between fear and desire.

It used to get him going too, once. Now, he feels nothing but a mild, pulsing urge to crush Rumlow’s throat with his bare hands.

There are footsteps and the sound of a gun cocking.

“Everything okay here?” Rollins’ voice rings out.

Steve doesn’t startle, doesn’t hurry, taking his sweet time letting Rumlow go. He’s quick to step away from the wall and pick his weapon back up, but there’s no hiding how fast he’s breathing or the flush on his neck. STRIKE gear all but strangles your dick, Steve knows. Otherwise, there would be a telltale bulge between Rumlow’s legs too.

Rollins looks between the two of them, expression turning from trigger-happy wariness to exasperated disbelief within seconds. He lowers his gun, and he doesn’t quite meet Steve’s eyes, but the look he gives Rumlow is hard enough to melt stone. Rumlow just grins back, unrepentant, and the look he shoots Steve afterwards is full of speculation, the fun kind, at least to Rumlow.

Steve walks calmly past the two, unsurprised when they fall in line behind him, flanking him the way they used to in missions, as if he really is their leader.

There’s a streak of vindictive pleasure curling inside Steve, and he almost forgets that Natasha, Clint, Tony, and Rogers all surely heard everything that transpired with Rumlow.

Almost.

 

-

 

Steve manages, just barely, to keep to a corner of the room as the two techs flutter around a contraption that looks like a cross between a coffin and a refrigerator, connecting and reconnecting wires. There’s a flashing bar on the side of the cryo chamber, currently blinking red and making tension coil inside Steve with each successive flash. Beside the bar, there’s a window, frosted over. Steve tried to catch a glimpse earlier, amidst Rumlow’s unsubtle attempts to herd him away from the chamber, but all he could make out was a brownish blur.

The half-hour Rumlow told him about is almost over, and Steve doesn’t even need his internal clock to tell him as much. The people with him telegraph it clearly enough, the techs almost vibrating as the cryo door gets closer to opening while Rumlow and Rollins get tenser and tenser. Steve’s no better; he’s barely breathing, every muscle in his body locked and straining. He wants to stride across the room, rip off the cryo door, and hold Bucky in his arms. He wants to kiss his brow and tell him he’s safe, that Steve will take care of him now.

He wants to put a bullet in the brains of everyone else in the room.

He doesn’t do any of those things. He waits.

Beside him, Rumlow’s well on the way to giving himself neck pain, shuffling his stare between Steve and Bucky so rapidly that it’s almost hilarious.

“Spit it out,” Steve says, and it doesn’t matter that his voice is too quiet to properly carry. Rumlow sucks in a sharp breath, his posture making it clear that it’s only rigorous training that stopped him from jumping out of his skin.

He doesn’t front, at least.

“See, Cap, you might wanna brace yourself for when that lid opens.”

“Oh? And why is that?”

Steve’s loath to take his eyes off the cryo chamber to pay attention to Rumlow, but he does, if only because he doesn’t want to have come this far to walk into a trap. He’s fairly sure he’s got Sitwell and the rest convinced that he’s Hydra, if only by virtue of knowing that they exist, but a dose of extra caution can’t hurt. He can’t bear to be stopped now. He doesn’t care if he has to take on this whole base by himself.

Rumlow shrugs, radiating nervous energy, all of his earlier composure gone. Maybe it’s Steve, maybe Bucky, maybe the imminent possibility of Captain America finding out that the Winter Soldier, Hydra’s pet assassin, is his supposedly dead best friend.

All of a sudden, Steve’s out of patience for games.

“I know who I’m going to see when it opens,” he says clipped. Rumlow whips his head to gape at him. “It’s why I’m here.”

There’s a long silence before Rumlow speaks. On the other side of the room, Rollins is paying more attention to the cryo chamber than to Steve and Rumlow’s hushed conversation.

“I thought you wanted to use the asset to take care of Fury,” Rumlow says finally, speaking very carefully.

“I do,” Steve lies, painfully casual. “Eventually. But first, I have an old friend to greet, wouldn’t you say?”

The flashing bar is still on red. The seconds creep by, slow as molasses.

“How long have you known?” Rumlow asks, and it’s stupid as fuck, the way he’s concentrating only on Steve, Bucky almost forgotten.

“Long enough.”

Another long pause. Those damned red flashes.

Of course, Rumlow doesn’t leave it there, and Steve can’t actually punch him out to put an end to the chit-chat. But by god, he wants to.

“Cap, you–”

“Things are going to change,” Steve cuts in, voice hard and utterly, terrifyingly sincere. “I’m loyal, but I’m not Alexander Pierce. Do you understand?”

Steve shoots Rumlow a glance, a demand in the narrowing of his eyes. Rumlow’s nod is more instinctive than anything, agreement forced out of him simply because Steve’s not giving him the illusion of a choice.

There’s a quiet beep, and when Steve jerks his head back to the cryo chamber, the light is green.

He’s across the room in an instant.

The first tech to see him throws out their hands in a motion that’s half-defensive, half-placating.

“Captain, stay back, please, the asset is–”

“I can handle him,” Steve says, not letting them finish. “Let him out.”

There’s a low thud, and all their heads swivel to the cryo chamber, where the second tech is fiddling with a panel. But Steve’s attention is caught by how there’s a hand pressed against the defrosting glass. Flesh, not metal, and for one, breathless moment, all Steve can do is stare at the soft pads of Bucky’s fingers flattened against the glass.

The hand disappears a moment later, returns as a fist, thudding against the glass. The sound of impact is louder, but the glass shows no sign of breaking.

“I said,” Steve says very quietly. “Let. Him. Out.”

“I’m trying,” the tech fiddling with the panel snaps, and her voice shakes but her hands don’t.

“He’s unpredictable when we take him out,” Rumlow whispers from behind Steve, just loud enough for him to hear. “Violent. The Secretary usually has to talk him down. Sure you can–”

“I can handle him,” Steve reiterates, clenching his fists. “Just stay back.”

Rollins, standing opposite Steve, shakes his head incredulously, but he does take a step back. He was the first to object when Steve adamantly refused to take more than two of Hydra-STRIKE with him to get Bucky and only folded after Steve made a sardonic reference to the serum in his veins and stated, with a confidence that would have curdled into shame in his chest had it been any other occasion, that he was enough to rival a full STRIKE team.

It’s true, certainly, but it’s not the kind of thing Steve says. But it shut Rollins up, drew one of Rumlow’s darkly admiring glances, and stunned Sitwell enough wrangle approval from him.

It felt too easy, still does, but as the tech steps back and the door to the cryo chamber starts lifting, Steve is fiercely certain that he can take whatever comes his way after this.

The door’s not even halfway up when there’s a flash of metal gripping the edge. Steve steps back the same time the techs do, and it’s pure luck that they’re the ones in position to bear the brunt of Bucky’s displeasure when he’s finally free.

A single sweep of the arm, and one tech goes flying. The other stumbles back and trips over their own feet, and it’s probably sheer fear that keeps them coordinated enough to scuttle away, putting as much as distance as possible between them and Bucky.

Bucky.

One glance, and it’s clear he’s more disoriented than actively malicious. That doesn’t stop his eyes from zeroing in on Steve and the two men flanking him. Steve can hear Rumlow and Rollins both ready their weapons, doesn’t need to look to know whom it’s aimed at.

Steve holds one hand out, protecting Bucky from the men but probably giving the impression of the inverse.

“Stand down,” he says, forcing deathly calm into his voice. It’s intended at both parties.

Bucky’s gaze flicks to him and stays.

Steve takes a tentative step forward. Rumlow and Rollins don’t follow.

Bucky’s sways on his feet suddenly, and his left hand flies up to clutch at the cryo chamber for balance. Steve takes advantage of that window to sneak closer until Bucky’s barely an armlength away.

He sees the punch coming, but Bucky, fresh out of cryo and using his weaker side, doesn’t have a prayer of a chance. Steve came here determined that he wouldn’t use more force than necessary to handle Bucky, and he sticks to it as he catches the punch and uses Bucky’s forward momentum to pull him hard against Steve’s body.

They collide with a harsh thud, and Steve hopes with a vehemence that borders on madness that no one can hear the sound Bucky makes when Steve grabs him by the nape and presses his face to Steve’s neck. It’s a small, confused thing, almost childlike in its vulnerability. This close, Steve has no choice but to feel the tremors wracking Bucky’s body.

“Rollins,” Steve calls, softly so as not to spook Bucky who’s letting Steve hold him in this mockery of an embrace, his hands stiff and clenched at his sides. “Take the techs, get ‘em checked out. And arrange an armored van for transport.”

There’s a quiet argument behind him. Steve listens with half an ear as Rollins protests leaving Rumlow and Steve alone here while Rumlow waves him on with a cocksure confidence that sounds only a little fake. Steve can’t fault him. Even with the personnel unaware of why Steve’s here, this is still a Hydra base. If something goes wrong, reinforcement is only an elevator ride away.

So is freedom.

Rollins concedes with a huff that’s almost relieved. Steve doesn’t pay attention as he goes about his task. He’s only glad to focus on Bucky pressed against him, his breaths falling warm and too damn fast on the sliver of bared skin on Steve’s throat.

He’s well-aware that if Bucky feels violent, he can rip out Steve’s throat with his teeth. There were reports upon reports, in that file from Kiev, about how animalistic the Soldier could be when pressed. Not in missions, those carefully planned and meticulously executed affairs. In training, where human limits and moral scruples were cast aside gleefully, not by Bucky but by those who held his reins.

Steve doesn’t move an inch, but he does stroke his hand through Bucky’s long, messy hair. It’s an inch or two longer than it was when Steve met Bucky in that past he’s ensuring will not become Rogers’s future. He lets his fingers catch in a knot at the end and wonders if Hydra cut Bucky’s hair between now and what would have been.

And there’s a thought, an image – the way Bucky wouldn’t let Steve cut his hair, not even to trim – the way he confessed once, almost absently, to hacking it off with a knife in Bucharest because he couldn’t stand the sound of scissors.

Steve told him long hair suited him. Walked his talk, too, learning how to do four different braids between one visit to Wakanda and the next, Natasha his long-suffering guinea pig.

“Cap?” Rumlow calls, caution suffusing his voice, and Steve realizes with a start that he has buried his face in Bucky’s hair and that Bucky isn’t the only one trembling now.

He takes a deep breath, nose still pressed to Bucky’s scalp. He smells like nothing much. His hair’s cold. Steve takes another drag, needy and shameless about it. He forces his body to stop shaking.

“You alright there?” Rumlow asks again.

“I’m fine,” Steve replies tightly.

“You should get him to the chair,” Rumlow says, and he’s not finished, but the word chair yanks Bucky out of his sudden docility.

He lurches away from Steve, or tries. Steve grabs him by the metal hand, right under where the plates burst to life with a mechanical whirr. Bucky’s eyes are wide and wild, staring at Steve and giving the impression that he’s not seeing much of anything.

Behind Steve, Rumlow swears up a blue streak.

“Shut up,” Steve barks harshly, regretting it the next moment when Bucky tenses. He lowers his voice immediately, trying to be soothing in a way that doesn’t quite come naturally to him. Of the two of them, Bucky was the caretaker. “It’s alright, Soldier. No one’s going to hurt you.”

The sound Rumlow makes is definitely a snort. Bucky doesn’t seem to hear him, blinking until those clouded blue eyes focus on Steve. He opens his mouth as if to say something, but no words come out.

“I’m your commanding officer for this mission,” Steve tells him, still in that low, soft tone that might not be what’s calming Bucky but sure as hell is keeping his attention. “You with me, Soldier?”

After a long, tense moment, he gets the first sign of conscious acknowledgment from Bucky – a nod.

When Steve tugs Bucky to try and lead him to the cot set up several feet away from the cryo chamber, he follows easily, if a little limply. He sits down when prompted, never looking away from Steve. As he watches, arrested by the blankly trusting expression on Bucky’s face, Steve feels his heart break a little more.

It's been fractured many times than he can count, and if hearts bore scars for the times it broke, over half of Steve’s would bear the name of Bucky Barnes.

Steve reaches out and cautiously cups Bucky’s face.

“Bucky. Do you remember me?”

And, for the first time, Bucky speaks.

The string of sounds takes a second to coalesce into coherence in Steve’s mind, if only because he’s not expecting to hear Russian. It’s stupid because he should have. Even after Shuri removed most of the programming from his brain, Bucky defaulted to Russian as often as he did to English. He used to joke it was the Soldier’s mother tongue, and Steve never found that funny, but then, Bucky didn’t expect him to.

Still, when what Bucky said registers, it’s all Steve can do to keep calm and not let his façade crack to let through an anguished howl.

Who is Bucky?

“You. Your name is Bucky Barnes,” Steve says, in English because Bucky clearly comprehends him just fine.

“I’m the Soldier,” Bucky says implacably, still in Russian. “I have no name.”

Steve almost bites through his own lip to strangle things he shouldn’t say with Rumlow still in the room. And the man chooses that exact moment to speak.

“What are you doing, Cap?”

He can take Rumlow. Kill him, even. It wouldn’t even be much of a struggle. But – no. Not yet. He got this far, and he’s not going to fuck this up now. Natasha would kill him, especially after he promised her he could do this, play his part.

“What I said I would do. No chair–” Bucky tenses again, and Steve strokes his cheek softly, resting his free hand on Bucky’s metal one in a move that’s both comfort and caution. “No wipes. He doesn’t need it.”

“With all due respect, Cap, the Winter Soldier–”

“He’s Bucky Barnes,” Steve says, his voice kept level by pure force of will, showing none of the rage churning inside. “He was Bucky Barnes before he was the Winter Soldier. And he will be Bucky Barnes while he’s the Winter Soldier.”

And after, he doesn’t say, but he thinks it, furiously proud of his Bucky, who rose out of Hydra’s ashes and put himself back together piece by piece, all alone.

Steve has to look at Rumlow then, if only to avoid a bullet in the back, but he doesn’t take his hands away from Bucky and keeps his body between him and Rumlow.

He’s half-surprised to see Rumlow has his gun lowered. The expression he’s giving Steve is more considering than outright suspicious.

“What’s your angle here, Cap?” he asks finally. “Because I can’t say I see it.”

And see, Steve could prepare a story and bullshit through the questions. He could pretend to be what he abhorred, and he could retain enough of himself in the charade that he wouldn’t have to spend every moment checking and second-guessing himself in a way that simply doesn’t come naturally to him.

But the problem with the truth is that it’s sometimes far too much, as brutal as any lie, perhaps more.

Steve knows this, but he says it anyway.

“Bucky Barnes is mine. He was mine before he was Hydra’s Soldier. There is no claim to him that’s stronger than mine.”

It’s fucked up. He knows it’s fucked up.

But these are things he told his Bucky, one time or the other, often in bed, pressing him down and filling him up, mouth running a mile a minute as Bucky writhed and clenched around him, egging him on with breathless pleas and fingers digging into Steve’s flesh.

These are things he whispered in Bucky’s ear as they sat on a porch watching the stars, the night before Steve was supposed to leave with the stones.

It’s been hours for him. Days. But for Bucky, it will be five seconds. He’s clinging to that even now, eager to fulfill the promise that he would return and terrified he can’t, that the universe will tear them apart again, the way it has so many times.

Steve brings himself back to the present, all too aware of the shocked look Rumlow is giving him. He holds his haze, even as the shock fades and Rumlow’s expression turns sickeningly pleased.

“Huh, so that’s how it is.”

“Yeah. That’s how it is.”

Reasonably sure that Rumlow won’t shoot him from the back, Steve turns back to Bucky who’s apparently been staring at him all this time. There’s a little more life in his expression now; his mouth’s slack, his brows furrowed, and he’s staring at Steve with burning intensely.

“I’m Steve Rogers. Your name is James Buchanan Barnes, and I’m your friend.”

Bucky takes a breath and shudders. Steve can feel the tremors under his fingertips and wants to gather Bucky into himself, tuck him sweetly between the bars of his ribs, warm and safe.

Bucky licks his lips, and when he speaks, the words are in English.

“I know you.”

 

-

 

“Are you sure it’s safe for him to be like that?” Rumlow asks, not for the first time.

Steve wants to strangle him, also not for the first time.

The subject of Rumlow’s query sits beside Steve, still as stone and unresponsive to anything not directly addressed at him. Steve’s got an arm around him because he can’t bear not to touch Bucky. Maybe he imagined the way Bucky leaned into it, after an initial moment of tension, but Steve doesn’t think so, and judging by the way Bucky hasn’t taken his eyes off Steve – except for the microsecond it takes him to blink – since before they got in the car, he’s going to go ahead and hope that the touch is not unwelcome.

What’s causing Rumlow strife isn’t Steve’s tactility or Bucky’s staring. It’s the fact that he’s unrestrained.

The only person here Steve wants to slap cuffs on is Rumlow, and not in the fun way of the past.

“He’s fine.”

“He’s dangerous,” Rumlow insists, thankfully without taking his eyes off the road. “Cap, you gotta understand how unorthodox all this is. No wipe, no chair – we never let him out on the field like this.”

He’s not a goddamn animal, Steve wants to snarl. Not some weapon you can point and aim and put away when you’re done.

But he knows damn well that to Rumlow and the rest of Hydra, that’s all Bucky is.

“I don’t need those to control him,” is all Steve allows himself to say, projecting cold confidence, a feat made only easy by the icy fury roiling in him. He doesn’t like the way he can feel Bucky’s focus intensify at the words, his gaze almost a physical weight on Steve’s face.

“So you keep saying,” Rumlow mutters, but it’s not quite a protest anymore. His eyes, when they meet Steve’s in the mirror, is shining with the sort of respect Steve never, ever wants to be worthy of.

He averts his eyes, turning to Bucky who’s still regarding Steve with serious, calm eyes.

Steve tentatively raises a hand and is surprised, again, when Bucky doesn’t flinch back. Maybe he doesn’t remember enough of the way Pierce used to handle him. Steve does. Bucky’s words, ringing in his ears and burning red-hot through his veins. Steve used that rage, in his days as Nomad. Had to, or it would have swallowed him up from the inside and set fire to Bucky too. Bucky, soft-eyed and warm in the outskirts of Wakanda, happy with his goats and the children who followed him around, who had no heart for violence. Never had, not like Steve, but those days were the first in a long damn time when Bucky could just be, and Steve would have rather died than take it away from him.

Not that it mattered, in the end. Not that even Steve could hold onto the rage, in the end.

It’s trickling back in now. Because Bucky’s staring up at him with eyes that are almost trusting, not because he remembers the years they spent acting like they were one heart split into two bodies, but because orders are all he knows, now, and Steve’s the most likely source.

Steve lets his palm touch Bucky’s cheek. Rests it there, for a moment, feeling the warmth of his skin and the slight scruff along the sides.

Bucky allows the touch without any change in expression, without leaning in or flinching away.

But when Steve pulls back, blue eyes flick to his retreating hand for half a second, so quick that Steve would have missed it if he weren’t watching so keenly. There’s a moment where he expects Bucky to say something, where it seems likely for all that Bucky’s face doesn’t even twitch.

He doesn’t. He hasn’t, since he said those three words that cut right through Steve.

I know you, and then nothing. Steve didn’t pester him much either, because Rumlow was there but mostly because Steve wasn’t the man Bucky knew, not really. That man was waiting for them at the Tower, listening to every word and bleeding in unseen places. Instead, they left Bucky with a pitiful amount of privacy to take care of biological imperatives. Rollins reported back soon after and seemed relieved to be told that he didn’t have to accompany them.

“We’re almost there,” Rumlow says unnecessarily, drawing Steve’s attention to him. “This place is secure, right?”

“As secure as it can be. S.H.I.E.L.D doesn’t know about it.”

“How’d you even manage that?”

“The Secretary helped,” Steve lies. He’s taken to inventing a hell of a bond between him and Pierce now that the fucker’s safely dead and not about to contradict him. Truth is that it’s one of Clint’s safe houses. Natasha also has one in D.C, but it was farther out and, most importantly, known to S.H.I.E.L.D and thus Hydra. “This wasn’t the original plan, but I didn’t expect what happened to Pierce.”

That shuts Rumlow up. There hasn’t been any luck on that front. Steve hasn’t pried much, but he’s pretty sure they don’t suspect him given that his alibi is airtight on account of having another version of him – the legitimate version as far as this world’s concerned – running around doing search and rescue and the occasional press conference before, during, and after Pierce’s murder.

Natasha was very pleased about that.

The house is a little out of the way, with two stories and a generous yard. Rumlow parks the van, surreptitiously surveying his surroundings as he hefts the bag containing the Soldier’s gear. Bucky, for now, is just dressed in sweats and an undershirt. Steve was glad to find out that Hydra was happy enough to let him dress on his own rather than manhandling him like a doll. The weapons are another story, but for now, the mini arsenal is in the bag with Rumlow.

Steve gets out of the car and waits for Bucky to join him, pleased when Bucky sticks close to his side. He’s tempted to reach out and take Bucky’s hand, but he holds back because he knows full well who’s watching them.

“Let’s go in,” Rumlow says. “Feels too open.”

Tall words given that Hydra sent Bucky out to kill Fury and Steve in broad daylight in the middle of a highly populated city. Then again, that was when they thought Insight was a sure success. No need for a ghost story, after that.

They don’t get very far, just enough to be within the walls of the house, before a small dart embeds itself on Rumlow’s neck. It’s testament to his training that the swat reflex is secondary to raising his gun in the direction it came from. Steve kicks his knees out before he can fire, and another dart flies out to sink into Rumlow's bicep.

Rumlow’s out before his head hits the floor.

Natasha melts out of the shadows, dressed in her Widow gear.

She doesn’t come very close, and Steve’s not to surprised to find her staring at something behind Steve.

“Really, Cap.” Her voice is carefully free of inflection. “You put your back to the Winter Soldier.”

“Guess I did,” Steve says mildly. He steps to the side, deliberate, and holds his breath until the invitation is answered. Bucky’s tense, eyes fixed on Rumlow’s crumpled form, but he’s not reaching for a weapon and hasn’t clobbered Steve in the back of his head, so he figures they’re doing alright.

He's about to speak when an unexpected voice cuts through the silence.

“Traitor?”

Bucky’s still looking at Rumlow, a furrow between his brows. He looks almost surprised, like he didn’t expect himself to speak. Steve thinks of the hoarseness of his voice the few times he spoke and wonders.

“Yes,” he says, reaching out to lay two fingers gently on Bucky’s wrist. The metal’s cool under his touch. Bucky’s only reaction is to look at Steve instead of Rumlow. “You alright, Buck? Soldier?”

Bucky blinks slowly, face the closest approximation human features can manage to a computer screen flashing 'Error!' repeatedly.

“Stupid question,” Steve says, mostly to himself, and turns back to Natasha. He doesn’t take his hand off Bucky’s, moving to encircle his wrist and idly wondering if he can get away with interlinking their fingers.

Natasha is staring intently at him rather than Bucky, which is telling in and of itself.

“How’s everything on your end?” Steve asks brusquely, because the others weren’t idly sitting by while he tried to work his way up Hydra’s asshole.

“Good,” she says shortly. “Fury knows. Hill too.”

Steve raises a brow. Natasha shrugs unrepentantly.

“You said to wait till you got Barnes out.”

“I see you took that very literally.”

Her grin has an alarming amount of teeth, more feral than anything. Steve understands, and he’s got what he wants right here at his fingertips, so he lets it go.

“Come on. Grab Rumlow. Clint’s waiting with our getaway car.”

“We driving to Manhattan?”

“Hell no. Tony lent us a jet. It’s got all the Quinjet’s good qualities and the added benefit of being untraceable by S.H.I.E.L.D. It’ll take us around half an hour to get to it. Chop chop, Cap.”

It takes Steve a hot second to realize Natasha wants him and Bucky to leave the house first because she doesn’t want to pass by Bucky. Steve tries to communicate this knowledge with his eyebrows. Hers, in turn, briefly defy physics to pummel him with the force of her skepticism and self-preservation instinct.

Fine, fair enough.

Steve slings Rumlow over his shoulder and turns away, Bucky in tow, missing his Nat with a sharp, tearing ache that threatens to cleave him in two.

 

-

 

The car ride is tense, silent. It’s not much better once they get to the jet. Clint excuses himself for the pilot’s seat with an uncertain glance between Steve and Natasha, the latter following him to take the co-pilot’s place. Steve takes the offered privacy gratefully.

Bucky’s been quiet and biddable the entire time. But it's very clear that he looks to Steve for orders.

Once they’re buckled up and set for take-off, sitting side by side because Steve still can’t bear to have Bucky out of reach, he risks a question.

“Earlier, you said you knew me. Can you tell me more?”

It would be impressive, if it weren’t heartbreaking, how Bucky can shut down so completely without changing his posture or even his expression. It’s the eyes, wide and open one moment, blank the next.

Steve’s reaching out before he can stop it, and this time, Bucky does flinch.

Steve stills with his hand in the air, feeling sucker-punched.

“I won’t hurt you,” he whispers fiercely. “I promise, Buck. You can – remembering won’t get you punishment.”

Bucky swallows, once, and slowly raises his gaze to meet Steve’s. It’s not as blank as before, but the wariness in them is no less devastating.

“I promise,” Steve reiterates. He lifts his hand another inch. Bucky’s eyes flick to it, but he doesn’t back away. Keeps still, visibly expectant. Steve wishes he knew whether he was readying himself for a blow, but there’s really only one way he can show Bucky he meant what he said. He cups his face again, hand hovering over the skin of his cheek, waiting.

Bucky watches Steve with those bruised blue eyes and doesn’t move for a long time. Steve matches him, not taking his hand away, not pressing forth the centimeter it would take to feel Bucky’s warmth on his palm. It feels like a test, that single moment stretched into infinity.

Steve doesn’t realize he was holding his breath until Bucky moves, tilting his face into Steve’s palm and punching the air out of his lungs.

“Jesus, Buck,” Steve gasps out. “Bucky.”

“I don’t remember being a Bucky,” Bucky says, voice pitched so low that Steve’s serum-enhanced hearing is all that allows him to pick it up. “But I know that name.”

Steve has to swallow twice before speaking.

“The way you know me?”

Bucky blinks. He looks so tired. Eyes sunken, face pallid.

“Less,” Bucky says after a while. “Less clear. I see your face in my dreams.”

Bucky tenses again. Steve strokes his thumb over his cheek and pretends not to notice.

“I see yours in mine.”

Bucky’s mouth parts, his face twisting into surprise. It’s the most he’s shown on his face so far, a spark of familiarity. It feels so wrong to see the same features that used to say more than Bucky’s words ever did be so subdued, so still. Even after Azzano, Bucky’s eyes couldn’t hide all the secrets his mouth tried to keep from Steve.

For the first time, Steve wonders if it was kinder, to himself, to lose Bucky after D.C and see him again in Bucharest, two years later and not the man who fell from Steve into a snowy ravine but the one who rose from the ashes of that soldier boy and the Winter Soldier. Recognizable, from how his eyes crinkled during a rare smile to the way he looked at Steve like he wanted to reach out and grab but didn’t think he was allowed to.

But it’s selfish to think that. As selfish as it is to be here, now, tearing a new world into existence because he wanted to burn the one that took Bucky from him.

He’s always selfish when it comes to Bucky.

Steve closes his eyes, breathing slow and even so as not to start sobbing. He feels Bucky move, leaning away from his hand, but the sudden warmth so close to his face is still startling.

Bucky presses his lips to Steve’s ears and whispers a secret.

“I’m not allowed to dream.”

Steve shudders, and Bucky pulls back suddenly, eyes wide and mouth trembling. Fear flickers in his expression and is smothered the next instant, replaced by a careful nothingness that Steve can’t

He doesn’t mean to be so aggressive but his hand shoots out to grab Bucky’s nape and pull him close. Bucky makes a small sound when Steve presses their foreheads close together. His breath falls unsteadily on Steve’s mouth. Steve forces his own to return to a steady rhythm. Closes his eyes.

He lets go of Bucky’s neck to hold his shoulder instead, but Bucky stays right where he is, face close to Steve’s, breathing in his breath.

It’s a long time before Steve can speak. Bucky’s words echo around his read.

He remembers Steve better than he remembers himself, his name. Thinks of Bucky, his Bucky, the one waiting for him beside that lake, who burst out of bed in the middle of the night, groping at Steve’s face, his hands, begging that he be real and sounding like he didn’t believe he could ever be. It didn’t always happen when Steve stayed with him in Wakanda, but it still happened. Bucky was always embarrassed, after, avoidant, and Steve gave him the space he seemed to need.

Now, he wonders–

He was always thinking, then, that they had time. He should have known better, should have learned that the world gave Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes anything but that.

“You are,” Steve manages once they’re both breathing calm and slow. “Of course you’re allowed to dream.”

Bucky sucks in a sharp breath, and when he speaks, there’s something hurried about his words.

“The chair takes them away.”

“Fuck that,” Steve says, only keeping himself from snapping because he doesn’t want to spook Bucky, make him think Steve’s mad at him, gonna hurt him. “No more chair. No more wipes. You’re – you’re safe, Bucky. I’ll keep you safe.”

Bucky pulls back. Steve’s surprised to find that he’s smiling, a small, tight-lipped thing that’s more pained than anything.

He certainly doesn’t look like he believes Steve. Before Steve can try to convince him, Bucky speaks.

“Okay, Steve,” he says sweetly, the same way he did when he was humoring Steve, playing along not because of malice but to avoid an argument, because Steve was always the loud-mouthed spitfire, even when it was just the two of them, and Bucky was the peacemaker, gentler and kinder than anyone ever gave him credit for.

Steve can’t swallow past the knot in his throat, let alone speak, when Bucky gives him another smile that sits uncertainly on his lips. He closes his eyes and leans back on the seat, and Steve lets him go, almost scared to disturb him.

He straightens in his seat and almost has a heart attack when he finds Natasha leaning several feet away, eyeing them both keenly. Her expression is unreadable, but she allows him to see the way her stare flicks from Steve to Bucky and back.

Steve frowns at her.

She taps her ear.

“You know he heard all that.”

Rogers, of course. Steve’s still wearing the wire.

Steve honestly hasn’t been thinking about that, about anyone or anything except Bucky. He has tunnel-vision when it comes to him, as Sam loved to keep reminding him. Loves, probably, not that there’s been much time for anything resembling banter since everyone returned.

“Yeah,” is all Steve says.

Natasha cocks her head and her mouth does that thing it does when she wants to laugh at him but feels it would be terribly inappropriate.

“You’re kind of a mess.”

Steve ducks his head and does laugh, even as it scrapes his throat raw.

“Oh, you have no idea.”

“I’m starting to get one,” Natasha says, moving closer.

Steve’s still got one hand resting on Bucky’s thigh, not that he remembers placing it there, and it lets him feel the way he tenses. He pats the muscle and hopes it’s reassuring. Natasha’s eyes narrow in on the gesture, but she says nothing.

“Hell of a show you put on,” she says, returning her gaze to Steve and allowing him the illusion that she’s not tracking every twitch and breath from Bucky. “I thought you’d make a terrible Nazi but turns out you’d make a terrifying one instead.”

“I contain multitudes,” Steve says, lightly mocking, the same way Nat did when she first threw those words at him, hair freshly bleached and happily preparing for a life on the run with Steve, Sam, and Wanda.

Natasha smiles, but it doesn’t reach her eyes. Steve sighs.

“It was all bullshit, Natasha. I gave them what they wanted to hear. That’s all.”

“I believe that. I just didn’t expect it. It was a gamble, what you did with Rumlow. What I assume you did with Rumlow.”

This time, Steve shoots her an annoyed look. He doesn’t really want to discuss this here. Now that she has reminded him that Rogers and probably Tony are listening to him, he can’t forget. But keeping his mouth shut won’t help, not with Natasha. Maybe Nat wouldn’t pry if he asked really nicely, but this Natasha, who barely knows Rogers and certainly doesn’t know Steve, will.

“It wasn’t a gamble,” Steve says flatly, letting her see just how unimpressed he is by the prodding. “I knew how he’d react to Captain goddamn America getting rough with him.”

Maybe he ran his mouth a bit too much there, but it’s worth it to see the flicker of surprise on Natasha’s face. It’s gone as he quickly as it came, but it was there. Steve grins a little, amused in spite of everything.

“Damn.” Natasha whistles. “Didn’t know you had it in you.”

“You don’t know me, Natasha,” Steve tells her patiently, irritation and amusement both fading into melancholy. “You haven’t even known Rogers – your Cap – that long. And he’s eleven years before my time. You know how a person can change.”

“Don’t think you’ll change that much,” she replies, smiling. It does reach her eyes, this time, their edges softening. “Something about you, Rogers. We rallied behind you for a reason. Does she know you?”

The non-sequitur disorients him, kills the automatic protests forming on his tongue. But it only takes him a moment to understand who she’s talking about.

The answer’s simple. He doesn’t have it in him to not be honest about it. How much honesty is needed, is the question. He’s already changed this world beyond measure. Thanos might never get as far as the Snap. No need for a time heist. No hasty burial in the bleak rocks of Vormir.

“She did.”

Natasha, in any incarnation, is no one’s fool. Realization is quick to brighten her eyes.

“Oh,” she breathes. “That happened, huh.”

“Nat. Natasha.”

“No catfight,” she says, a corner of her lips twisting up into a not-smile. It takes Steve a few seconds to catch the reference. She waits until he gets it. “Now I know why you can’t look right at me and can’t look away when you do. Gotta admit, thought for a while you were in love with your Natasha.”

Bucky shifts, tensing again. Steve digs his fingers into Bucky’s thigh, trying to convey that he’s holding on and never letting go. He doesn’t know if it’s the right thing to do, but it’s all he can think of. Bucky doesn’t react one way or the other, so Steve lets it be for the time being.

“No,” Steve tells Natasha. “I love her. She’s family. Always will be. But not like that.”

“Yeah, I can see that.” She nods at Bucky, pointedly eyeing Steve’s hand on his thigh. “Was it worth it?”

“You know what happened in my world won’t happen here. Not unless you guys fuck up that bad, which, please don’t.”

That gets him a smile, accompanied by a knowing look that says how badly he’s succeeding at changing the subject.

“We won’t. Answer the question.”

And Steve figures he owes this to her, no matter how much each word hurts leaving his throat.

“It wasn’t. It was never going to be, not to us. Not to me. But she thought so.”

Natasha doesn’t seem to know what to say to that. She watches him, picking him apart for lies, for a false strain in the emotion he knows is drenching his voice, his face. He doesn’t mind the scrutiny, but he doesn’t quite know what to do with all the words suddenly bubbling up in him, a shapeless mass of meaning.

“You’re a hero, Natasha.”

It feels woefully inadequate. Nat was a hero. She was a hell of a lot more. A friend, a voice of reason, a grounding point in a world that went to hell, a warm back pressed to his on nights they both couldn’t sleep.

In the end, she was a martyr.

Natasha gives Steve a veiled stare and marches back to the cockpit.

She flees. There’s really no other word for it. Steve can understand. It was a lot, what he said, even though she asked. Clearly not what she expected to hear, and that makes him wonder too.

Movement to his right makes him look over. Bucky’s no longer playing possum but staring at Steve, his eyes half-lidded and considering. Slowly, without ever breaking eye contact, he lays his hand atop the one Steve has on his thigh. The metal one, ungloved and slightly chilly on Steve’s perpetually hot skin.

It feels like another test.

Steve just does what he’s wanted to do for the last two hours and turns his hand palm-up, linking his fingers with Bucky’s.

They’re slack against his for a second, but then they grip tight, almost to the point of pain. Steve grips back just as hard, fiercely glad for the opportunity and feeling a little less like someone’s tearing at his seams.

Bucky doesn’t stop staring at him for the rest of the ride. He doesn’t take his hand away.

 

-

 

Natasha and Clint apparently won’t return to the Tower with them. They’ll drop off Steve and Bucky, quite literally, at the roof. They don’t tell him where they’re going, but Steve has a damn good idea. Rumlow will probably regret existing once Natasha’s done with him, and Hydra’s about to have a very bad week.

Steve doesn’t miss Natasha’s piercing glances at Bucky and the way they linger, deliberately, on the scant space between him and Steve. He can read her doubts and her concerns and is unbearably touched that she’s allowing him to see it even though they’re not friends and hardly even colleagues.

He nods at her, an attempt at reassurance. She just shakes her head and leaves them be. Steve knows full well that even letting the Winter Soldier out of her sight and into Avengers – Stark? – Tower is a concession from her. He wouldn’t call it trust because he knows she doesn’t trust him; it's nothing personal, just Natasha being Natasha. But it’s clear she’s got some faith in his ability to handle the situation, and Clint, in this, is happy enough to follow her lead.

Steve’s happy about this state of events, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t keenly aware of how badly things can go wrong.

Bucky, again, follows Steve’s lead without question. But when Steve glances at him in the elevator taking him to their designated floor, he finds clear confusion splashed across Bucky’s expression.

“Are you okay, Bucky?”

Blue eyes glance up at him and quickly flit away.

“Yes, sir.”

Oh. That’s new.

Dammit.

“Steve’s fine,” he says, keeping calm with effort. “You don’t seem okay. It’s alright to ask questions. I – you won’t be punished.”

Bucky’s lips thin, and he sneaks another glance at Steve, not so quick to look away this time.

“What is my mission, si – Captain?”

Well, fuck. But also–

“I never told you I was a Captain.”

Bucky blinks, brows furrowing delicately. There’s something oddly fragile about him, like this.

“I – I don’t–”

The elevator doors open, cutting Bucky off. And any thoughts Steve has of prompting him vanishes at the sight that greets him.

Rogers is back in his suit, shield set aside rather than strapped to his back. He’s also frozen in the middle of the room, staring straight at Bucky like he’s the only thing in this world.

Steve steps out of the elevator.

For once, Bucky doesn’t follow.

When Steve looks back, Bucky’s also staring at Rogers, arrested in shock. As Steve watches, he slowly drags his eyes from Rogers to Steve. He takes an automatic step back.

“Bucky,” Steve says soothingly, ignoring the strangled noise that comes from Rogers. “I can explain. Come out.”

Bucky stumbles out, none of his deadly grace or quiet composure visible as he almost trips over his own feet. Steve catches him and stays very still as Bucky forgoes straightening up in favor of staring at his face, eyes roving over his features like they’re trying to pick apart every detail. He turns to Rogers, and he doesn’t go to him, but he’s no less intense in his scrutiny.

Steve can only watch helplessly when Bucky’s flesh hand flies up to clutch at his face and a pained groan escapes him.

Rogers is there the next second, almost elbowing Steve as he reaches for Bucky. And Steve backs off, lets Rogers’s arms replace his on Bucky. He doesn’t know how good an idea it is, doesn’t know if Bucky will react badly, but he’s the last person who’s going to get between Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes.

It's a little bittersweet too, to watch Bucky’s hands fly up to clutch at Steve’s arms, not pushing him off so much as holding him in place while Bucky stares some more, blue eyes wide with confusion and maybe something else.

Steve’s barely prepared for it when those eyes turn on him. Rogers shoots him a brief look too, but he can’t seem to take his eyes off Bucky long enough for anything else. Steve can’t blame him.

“I don’t understand,” Bucky says, in a very small voice.

Steve can’t even begin to think what this might look like to a man who hasn’t been able to trust his mind for the last seventy years. Maybe they shouldn’t have let Bucky see both Steves at the same time, but–

It was hard enough keeping Rogers away until now. The only reason he’s not off Hydra-hunting with Natasha and Clint is the man currently shaking in his arms. Steve has done his part. It’s time to go.

But–

He takes a tentative step forward. Bucky tracks the motion religiously but doesn’t flee, and Rogers doesn’t stop him, so he keeps walking forward until he’s close enough to gather both men into an embrace. He doesn’t, but god, he wants to.

He lays a hand on Rogers instead and extends the other towards Bucky’s face. Something in him sparks in painful delight when Bucky allows the touch.

“This is real,” Steve murmurs, mostly to Bucky but to Rogers too. “This isn’t a dream. You’re here. It’s 2012, you’re in New York, with Steve Rogers.”

“Steven Grant Rogers. Captain America,” Bucky mumbles, eyes glazing over for a second. “I don’t know how I know that.”

“You’ll figure it out,” is all Steve says. All he can say.

He backs away again, but he lets his fingers linger on Bucky’s cheek until the last moment, the tips trailing down his jaw before separating. Steve curls them into a fist and tucks it against his side so he won’t reach out again.

Bucky blinks at him and then turns to Rogers who’s got the look of a man who has so much to say and is utterly unable to speak. Ironic, that Steve was quicker to call Bucky’s name in that smoking highway in the middle of a fight than Rogers is despite generous forewarning. Maybe that’s the difference. Easier to react, to roll with the punches.

Harder, like this, when all he’s wanted and all he thought was lost is standing so close, yet so far away.

“Buck,” Rogers finally chokes out. Bucky shudders, throwing Steve another wild look before looking back at Rogers as if drawn to him.

“Bucky, it’s me,” Rogers says again. A breath that’s closer to a sob, and Bucky’s hand reaching up, trembling as it holds Rogers’s cheek the way Steve held his before. “Oh, god, Buck, you’re really here.”

Steve takes that as his cue to leave.

Neither of them notices him slip into the elevator. He watches them, tentatively tangled in each other and already inextricable, until the doors close.

“JARVIS?”

“Yes, Captain Rogers?”

“They’re safe in there, right?”

“Sir has modified the security for that floor. No one can get to Sergeant Barnes. It can also contain Sergeant Barnes, if needed.”

Steve would like to say it won’t be, but they don’t know. Bucky’s probably mostly confused by now. They won’t know how he’ll react once it sinks in that he’s no longer with Hydra but rather their enemies. He doesn’t recognize Steve so much as know him, in some part deep in himself that’s been buried a hundred times over with programming and conditioning. It’s – it’s good, it’s a goddamn miracle, but they don’t know, can’t know, how his mind will react to any of this.

It’s not for Steve to handle, but–

He sucks in a deep breath.

“Tony did all that in a couple of days?” he asks JARVIS, desperate for a distraction.

“Yes,” JARVIS says, but he doesn’t sound very pleased about it.

“He hasn’t slept, has he?” The silence is telling. “Can you take me to him?”

“Certainly, Captain Rogers.”

Steve spends the short elevator ride trying not to think of the two men he just left. He fails. It’s hard not to dwell on how easily Bucky turned to Rogers, confused and maybe scared, but accepting his touch sweetly in spite of it. It’s like he knew, deep inside, that Rogers and not Steve was the right Steve Rogers.

He can’t put into words how he feels about that. Everything’s tangled up. He’s happy, undeniably, but–

But, but, but.

Tony’s a welcome sight but a damn sorry one, objectively speaking. Dark circles are waging war on his face and winning. His eyes are bloodshot enough to pass for a vampire's.

“Tony,” Steve despairs quietly, the way he hasn’t had an opportunity for in a damn long time.

The barely contained disaster in question straightens up from what looks like a deformed hunk of metal or possibly a Chitauri skeleton. He blinks twice before focusing on Steve.

“Capsicle, hey–” He stops, narrowing his eyes. “You’re the other one. Lookin’ good, old man. The all-black murderbot style suits you.”

“All credits to Hydra,” Steve says drily.

“Yeah, they sure knew what to do with you,” Tony says, with that distracted air that says he’s pursuing roughly three separate strains of thought and likely frying his sleep-deprived brain. “I heard your little performance. 10/10, would let you step on me wearing spiked boots.”

Steve blinks.

“If I were into that, which I’m not,” Tony adds unconvincingly.

“Sounds like something you should take up with Pepper. Anyway, listen, Tony, I’m here to–”

“Nope! Don’t wanna hear it.”

“I didn’t even–”

“I know what you’re gonna say, and trust me, this isn’t–”

Thank you, Tony,” Steve cuts in, loud enough to steamroll over Tony’s blabber.

The betrayed look he gets in response is as hilarious as it is sad.

“Thank you,” Steve repeats, holding out a hand when Tony open his mouth and pleasantly surprised when he listens. “When I decided I wanted to tell you everything before we got Bucky, it was more selfish than anything. I fucked it up, back in my world. I can’t atone for that. And to be honest, there’s only so much I will change about that. But this is better. You deserve to know.”

“Steve, seriously, let’s not – just don’t, alright?”

Steve shuts up, not very happy about it but unwilling to discard the somber weight in Tony’s voice. He’s aching to say that the most he expected from Tony was for the rage over his parents’ death to be mitigated by the horror of what Hydra did to Bucky. He hoped Tony wouldn’t hunt him once Steve got him out and Rogers took him somewhere safe.

He wasn’t expecting sanctuary, right here in the Tower.

He swallows another thank you and instead says, “Fine, but you realize he’ll want to have this same conversation with you.”

Tony waves it off, but not without a grimace.

“Yeah, yeah, once he untangles himself from Robocop, which seems unlikely to happen any time soon. I’ll make sure to be on my way to Malibu before that.”

Steve diplomatically doesn’t mention that a) Rogers is not going to forget it that easily or at all, and b) Tony and Rogers will both soon end up working in close quarters to blow up Hydra bases. His serene smile doesn’t seem to reassure Tony any and just earns him a suspicious squint.

“You should sleep,” Steve says mildly. “Before Pepper sits on you again.”

“That happened once–” He stops and narrows his eyes at Steve. “How do you know that? No one knows that. JARVIS, did you–”

“Leave him alone, Tony. You told me.”

“I would never.”

Steve smirks.

“Well, you’ll find out, won’t you?” He sobers up quickly. “Goodbye, Tony. I’ll miss you.”

Tony looks honestly spooked, and it makes Steve want to laugh and cry and maybe crush him into a hug. He does none of it, just activates the time-space GPS and relaxes into the familiar feeling of the quantum suit enveloping him.

“Wait, please, Captain Rogers.”

“JARVIS?” It’s Tony who speaks, eyeing Steve and the suit with undeniable curiosity and twitching hands.

“Captain Rogers and Sergeant Barnes would like to see Captain Rogers.”

“That’s not confusing at all,” Tony mutters.

It takes Steve a moment to speak.

“Bucky asked for me?”

“Yes.”

Steve doesn’t know why he looks at Tony. Being yanked back from the brink of leaving to see the people he mentally bid farewell to leaves him floundering for a second, and Tony’s the only available source of guidance. It works about as well as expected, with Tony shrugging at him and pointedly turning back to his heap of metal.

Steve walks back into the elevator.

Rogers is right there as the doors open, waiting. He barely waits for Steve to get out before walking inside.

“Tony’s up?”

“I – yes, but–”

The doors gently close on Rogers’s awkward smile.

Steve turns around and finds Bucky standing in the middle of the room, much like how Rogers did earlier. Steve approaches cautiously, but Bucky just stands there, calmly waiting.

“You wanted to talk, Buck?”

The answer’s yes, it’s there on his face, but it takes a while for Bucky to speak. Steve’s tempted beyond measure to take the two steps needed to get him close enough to touch Bucky, but he doesn’t.

“He says you two are the same person,” Bucky says at the end. “That you’re from the future. And you came to save me.”

Steve swallows, throat clicking audibly.

“It’s a little more complicated than that. But yes. It’s true.” He sees Bucky’s eyes narrow, skeptical, almost accusatory. “All of it, Buck.”

“You said you were my commanding officer.”

“I was, seventy years ago.”

“You’re not Hydra.”

“No.”

Steve’s braced for a fight. The Winter Soldier was never a true believer, especially once he got to the Americans who, without the trigger words, were left with only brute force to make him obey. Bucky told him that what he felt for Hydra wasn’t loyalty. Just inevitability. He was their weapon. He was to return, or they’d come for him, and it would hurt when they did.

And they rarely gave him the chance to be out in the field without a sizeable team anyway.

Still, Steve prepares for a fight, for a token effort, at least, to return. Bucky notices and his own posture goes tense, but he doesn’t attack.

“I don’t remember you,” is what Bucky says, in a tone that can only be called defiant.

Steve exhales and forces himself to relax. He lets his arms go limp against his side, hands open and unthreatening.

“But you know me.”

Bucky looks down, a very different kind of tension taking over his body.

“How do you know I’m him? Your Bucky.”

And well, there’s only one answer to that, isn’t there.

“I know you.” Bucky’s head snaps up, a scowl firmly in place, and Steve gives him the gentlest smile he can muster. “He knows you. Don’t you see it?”

Bucky doesn’t answer with words but his expression says enough.

Steve can’t take it anymore. Bucky’s stiff in his arms, at first, but when Steve presses his face into his hair and breathes deep, Bucky makes a low sound and clutches his back.

“I can’t stay,” Steve whispers, mouthing the words against Bucky’s temple. “I have to go. My Bucky’s waiting for me.”

Bucky makes another noise, one that spears right through Steve’s abused mess of a heart.

“You’ll have a life, Buck. You and him. You’ll build one.”

“I only take things away.” It takes Steve a moment to parse the words, Bucky’s voice so hushed and tight. “I’m a weapon.”

“You’re a person. Your own damn person. You’re important to him, to Steve. And to me.”

Bucky pulls back, tilts his head. Cutely puzzled, Steve thinks, a little horrified and a lot taken.

“You already have a Bucky.”

“’Course I do. But ain’t no Bucky Barnes anywhere in any world that I won’t care for.”

The look Bucky gives him isn’t understanding or even acceptance. But it’s something. It’s a start.

“I gotta go,” Steve murmurs. Bucky’s arms fall away from him, and he steps back. “Take care, alright, Buck? Don’t – just. God. Be safe.”

Bucky looks at him like Steve’s the wildest piece of crazy he’s ever seen and he likes it but can’t quite say why. When a tiny, almost shy smile quirks Bucky’s lips, Steve feels like he's been struck by lightning, electric currents singing at his fingertips.

He feels powerful, blessed, the luckiest bastard in all the goddamn galaxies.

He hopes Rogers appreciates this the same way, but knows full well that he will.

“Thank you,” Bucky says, mouth shaping the words clumsily, like he doesn’t quite know what to do with them. “For – for trying to save me.”

“Savin’ myself too, buddy.” Steve reaches in for one last hug, quick and crushing, and Bucky lets him. Holds him back. “It’s gonna be okay, Buck.”

Steve steps back, hand hovering over his GPS but hesitant to go through with it. The elevator doors open again, the timing too right to be coincidental. Rogers gets out and pauses at the sight of Steve.

He nods.

Steve nods back and doesn’t look at Bucky again before pressing the button.

 

-

 

He stumbles off the platform, right into familiar arms that wrap around him, tight enough to make his ribs creak.

He’s vaguely aware of Sam and Bruce in the background, indistinct chatter. All he can see is Bucky, blue eyes wide with worry. The sun makes his hair glow. Makes him glow. Like an angel, put on this earth for Steve’s sorry ass.

“The hell are you mutterin’ on about?” Bucky asks, slightly alarmed. “Did that machine fuck with your head?”

“I missed you, Buck.”

Bucky softens all at once, pulling Steve hard against him.

“I know. Longest five seconds of my life, sweetheart.”

Steve kisses the endearment right off his lips, and Bucky sighs against his mouth, pressing close like he wants to melt into Steve, and all Steve can do clutch him close and kiss him with all the love he’s got brimming inside of him, and there’s Sam in the background yelling at them to get a room and Bruce is laughing, and Steve’s got the most gorgeous guy in the world all tucked up against him.

He's home.